Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Seeing something new.....the hard way!!

Now I suppose to hear of a  "new" bird species being discovered in the depths of the Amazon jungle comes as no surprise to anyone. To learn of a bird being found in the middle of nowhere on the bleak, inhospitable Tibetan Plateau is rather different.  The story......

Way back in 1929 , and whilst participating on an expedition to the Karakorum, the Dutch explorer Jerome Alexander Sillem collected a variety of finches at 5125 m, which then found their way back to the Zoological Museum in Amsterdam.  In 1991 Professor C.S.Roselaar noticed a couple of the specimens amongst this collection of Brandt's Mountain Finches were "different " and , after extensive checking, they were declared to be a separate species, Sillem's Mountain Finch. A nice story in itself and apt recognition for the efforts of the discover, Jerome Sillem.  But , until 2012, neither sight nor sound of the species had ever emerged!!

In June, 2012 Yann Muzika, a wildlife photographer,  was trekking in the Yemgov valley on the Tibetan Plateau and took various photographs of mountain finches he encountered. Believe or not, on the day he took the photographs , he'd called a halt to the trek as he was ill with food poisoning, but managed to have a wander around the camp site!! Incidentally, the location is around 1500 km away from the initial location that the species was collected in.

Take a look at his web site ( and book mark it for future!! ) and the accompanying story, (Sillem's Mountain Finch. ) and read the full story, but also see the reportage by the BBC ( BBC Science ).

I feel a sense of joy for Krys Kazmierczak, who Yann first contacted with the photographs, and who first suspected the re-discovery and also Professor Roselaar, whose own "discovery" had been confirmed , but in the best possible sense, by the species being found thriving still. Unfortunately, the overall area the bird is likely to be present in is somewhat sensitive in that the territory is scrutinized by India, Pakistan and Chinese Authorities and wandering around at will is not to be encouraged, nor finds enthusiastic support!! That a species with, one suspects, such a limited distribution and restricted population is still surviving is quite an uplifting story in my book. With so many "negative" reports coming to the fore nowadays, a good news story such as this, and earned in such a testing fashion, is more than motivating, and at the very least!!  

The RSPB.....what is its future?

Over the past few days I've read, and then re-read, the interview article in the most recent RSPB Birds magazine between its Chief Executive, Mike Clarke and Adrian Pitches, BBC journalist. Repeated readings don't bring any more clarity to my conclusions and endless questions seem to spring from the text.

I suppose such interview articles suffer from space restrictions, the selection of priority messages and even the style of presentation, all of which need to be taken into account. Additionally, in knowing Mike Clarke, who is someone for whom I've the utmost respect, everything within the details presented will have been sincerely expressed and the result of forensic considerations. However, even within the comfort of such knowledge, I still feel confused!!  Several of the issues portrayed are diffuse, even muddled!

From the outset I have to say that I would champion the RSPB as the  bird conservation organization in the UK and recognize its international contributions too. I've also to say that, other than to a gradually diminishing and past generation, I don't feel its Royal Charter, or the "Royal" prefix to its name, is of much relevance nowadays or confers much benefit. Additionally I've less personal interest in the name debate than in other aspects. What I do feel is necessary is to have confidence in the presence of a dynamic organization, with robust policies and actions, aimed at conserving the UK's birds. As time goes by I feel less convinced such is the case, partially by the fact the RSPB appears to be suffering from the "dilution syndrome" of trying to address everything. Proposals to extend such an approach further therefore worry me!!  Setting aside involvements with iconic global species , the RSPB's apparent pursuit of some issues "at home" bear scrutiny, particularly associated with farmland birds, upland waders and raptor persecution.  Assurances that "things are going on in the background" bring insufficient comfort when no appreciable change takes place on the ground!!

But what is new about "Stepping up for Nature"?  Reserve management has surely embraced it already , as has education, promotional literature and advocacy......the RSPB , and to its credit, can hardly claim, therefore, to have ignored the wider needs of bio-diversity. And it can hardly be claimed that the Society has not reached out to industry as its close ties with United Utilities, Crossrail and many others signify. Similarly , to signal it needs to reach out to the public, other than "traditional supporters" , is a nonsense given its wide dispersal of advertising,  promotional literature, television programmes and media output. "Stepping up" even more intensively within ones own operations I can understand, but suggesting there are hitherto ignored sectors is more difficult to accept.     Hmmm.....interesting.

The twice quoted reference to " saving nature is too big a job for any one organization" almost suggests a plea for collective working amongst the various conservation organizations in the UK, or even open season for take over bids!! Recognizing the truth in the statement, one is prompted towards the observation that no single organization has actually been claiming that responsibility or credit. The statement surely underlines the need for agreement, solidarity, collective working and the like.

Unless, of course, in terms of competition, the quest for prominence and market share, one wanted it to be seen that, in addressing the needs of all nature and widening the remit for birds in an international context,  that yours was the single organization shouldering the responsibility. It would be interesting to know how prominent a role "marketeers" had played in the considerations admitted to, as opposed to those concerned about bio-diversity.

And what of the current membership, and staff for that matter, caught up in this metamorphosis under consideration? At the moment the approach appears to be one of embracing a gradual, almost benign, introduction of the details relating to change. Clearly that process will end at some point when the first obvious steps need to be enacted. It would be nice to think that the various objectives and policies would be available or set out with some degree of precision , as opposed to simply being announced in a very informal and imprecise way.

However"soft" the current message, there appears to be a conclusion already arrived at that, as far as the UK's nature is concerned, "we know best and we'll be steering the ship".  I would hope the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation and many others take no exception to that view. Now, unless there are far reaching discussions going on with others, I could imagine such utterances might set certain teeth on edge and even alienate some people. Whilst I agree that, particularly in the current national climate, there is a strong need for advocacy set against a  lukewarm approach to anything environmental by the Government, it is not a time to offend ones own relatives!!!

I fear that, whilst the article in Birds magazine may have been an attempt to announce gently a few changes of focus and intensity in approach,  its imprecision will have done more harm than good and demand more details to be available in the future. It's certainly something that has grabbed my interest and curiosity.

Winter arrivals. 23.10.2012..

Nowadays, given the number of sites I cover, it can take me three separate days to visit all of them to complete the monthly BTO WeBS counts ( waterfowl counts ). This planning can be frustrated by weather conditions, particularly as far as Outer Loch Indaal is concerned. The "outer" part of this  large sea loch can so easily be adversely affected by sea conditions and even sunny weather!!  Two days ago , it was glorious weather, warm and sunny, but the sun-dappled sea and reflected light made it impossible to see much at all! By contrast today was perfect......grey, calm and good light conditions.

My interest at this time of year is heightened not just by the fact that our wintering duck numbers are arriving, but that numbers of Great Northern Divers begin to increase too, sometimes quite significantly. Yesterday was no exception with at least thirty seven (37)  in the outer loch, including one group of seventeen ( 17). Most are present in loose groups of three or four, some are single birds, but the occasional large group occurs too. Surprisingly, on a large extent of water, they can be easily overlooked and a need to exhaustively scan each sector is necessary. This is the best time to try and get a good count of birds either returning to winter or using the loch in transit. Undoubtedly some birds move off elsewhere and, as the winter moves on, birds remaining become more dispersed as they seek for food. Mixed age parties are regular at this time of year, with some adult birds still in resplendent summer plumage, but with immature birds present too, suggesting such groups travel together. Whilst seawatching provides ample experiences of single birds, duos or trios flying through on particular days, suggesting birds possibly congregate immediately on first arriving, their presence at this time of year is a salutary reminder that winter is around the corner and that we will now be playing host to this magnificent species until next Spring.

Other species present were Common Scoter (110 ), all of which were disturbed by a boat and showed no birds with white wing panels (!) and also that the majority of which were male birds too, Northern Eiders (30), several Red-throated Divers, Razorbill and Black Guillemot. The next task is to cover Inner Loch Indaal, which is generally much more sheltered anyway, carries a wider variety of species, in higher numbers, as well as more of the species already recorded. Altogether, good birding!

Later, whilst checking some small lochs I also went through a mixed flock of geese ( Barnacle, Greenland White-fronted, and Grey-lag ) and came across one of the Lesser Canada Geese which are around at present. Despite it being previous to the end of October, geese are already moving around the island more, away from their initial  "gathering grounds" at Loch Gruinart. The groups of Whooper Swans which stayed a short while, and conveniently fed on barley stubbles, appear now to have moved off.  October is by far the best month to see numbers of these birds moving through Islay, sometimes never even making a stop as they fly onwards to their wintering grounds in Ireland. Sometimes a particular October day can be magically enhanced by the arrival of several large groups of Whoopers arriving  at Loch Gorm in NW Islay within a given "time window", suggesting they left Iceland around the same time. After resting, preening and a little feeding , all accompanied by their wonderful quiet bugling notes, they can begin to leave in successive skeins. The calls increase in volume as if encouragement and  excitement passes down the line and they head off with unerring accuracy toward Ireland, sometimes visible in the far distance, sometimes not!  A great sight in any autumn!  From now on we might also "receive" the arrival of odd family groups of Whooper Swans, as they can sometimes arrive a little later than the main passage of birds and then remain with us on some favourite loch over the entire winter.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An island tour! 19.10.2012.

Stepped outside more routine survey work and joined Steve, Sarah and Sami Sankey for a day's birding around Islay. A family holiday from their normal base in Orkney was blessed, thankfully, with half reasonable weather and today was no exception. As might be expected a long and varied involvement as " conservation players" over the years meant there was a lot of information to exchange ( and a bit of gossip! ) resulting in a really great day out.

We headed out for the Oa, called in to see the Warden, walked the full path circuit, had great views across to Northern Ireland and had some good birding. Time invested in pinning down Golden Eagle finally paid off, with a flying bird east of The American Monument  and, then, success in our finding two adult birds perched on high rocks allowing then to survey a vast area of their territory. Hen Harrier and Peregrine also "fell" to our patience but, best of all, was the real contextual experience of seeing Whooper Swans migrating south, doubtless on their way to their wintering grounds in eastern Ireland or, perhaps, even further afield. They advertised their presence first of all through their soft, bugling calls, which nonetheless carry a great distance. Eventually we found them , a single line of thirty birds way out over the sea , gradually making their way southwards against the distant and somewhat misty outline of Ireland.  A nice memory to retain.  Whilst the Oa can appear to be devoid of birds, persistence can pay off. An examination of the "food crop" field at Kinnabus provided some tremendous views of Twite and, later, odd thrushes and Goldfinch were seen.

Out eastwards towards Claggain Bay with a whole variety of species on offer.....Kestrel, Merlin, 6 Great Northern Diver in a party, Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, all picked up despite the rather moderate visibility.  Finally, a stop up at Loch Indaal to pull in a few more species and bring to an end what had been a really enjoyable day!

And did you realise Islay to Orkney , or vice versa, can be done in a day!!! Leaving on the 0700 hours ferry from Islay to the mainland (2 hours ) , driving north east up the Great Glen and then up the A9 (7 hours ) and then another ferry to Orkney ( 1 hour ), plus a bit of relief here and there, makes it entirely feasible. Impressive, eh!!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sometimes "Common" is better quality!!

Morning spent covering a couple of BTO Winter Thrush Survey squares and also counting a WeBS site I had too little time to cover yesterday.  Certainly here on the west coast of Islay no migrant thrushes were in evidence and I suspect none from Iceland have actually come through this far as yet.  I'm still convinced the Redwings and Fieldfares we see on Jura and eastern Islay are Scandinavian birds that flood westwards , particularly down the Great Glen, as well as Icelandic birds eventually filtering eastwards. .

Whilst near the coast north of here a flock of around 30 Barnacle Geese came in hurriedly from out at sea, calling wildly, continued east over the Rinns until they reached Loch Indaal and then turned abruptly north towards Loch Gruinart, the traditional area where virtually all birds arrive and congregate at before gradually dispersing more generally. It's good to see such navigation by birds "in action", particularly when they've obviously overshot their initial arrival point!

Eventually returning home I was gazing out of the front window, cup of tea in hand, when I noticed a redpoll feeding in the garden. Carefully reaching for binoculars I managed brief,  but good , views of a Common Redpoll , which then flew off together with another bird I hadn't picked up. Textbook views and confirmation that we do get them coming through occasionally. Some people maintain they breed in Northern Scotland, in the Outer Hebrides and on Orkney, but certainly all breeding season birds both on Islay and Jura are Lesser Redpoll. Odd birds are seen in spring in west Scotland and may well be from a more northern population, who knows?

News has emerged today that the RSPB has lodged a complaint with the European Commission against the UK Government for what it feels has been an altogether questionable approach taken by Natural England / DeFRA in resolving issues relating to the mismanagement of Walshaw Moor in West Yorkshire, which operates as a grouse moor. Rather than go into details, may I encourage people to read the entries on Mark Avery's blog (Wuthering Heights 28 ) and today's entry from Martin Harper, Director Conservation, RSPB, (  Walshaw Moor. ).  It's fascinating reading and represents only the third time RSPB has ever done this!!  It won't endear the Society to this  supposed, and self-appointed, Greenest Government ever whose embracing of conservation matters is lukewarm at best.  Well done RSPB.  More importantly the final outcome from all this might have far reaching effects on how our uplands are managed in the future and the nature of the regulations such enterprises operate under.  Can't wait!!!  Other entries and comments are within the Raptor Persecution Scotland website and make interesting reading. I'm surprised , and heartened at how many people have come out and congratulated the RSPB, but also expressed relief that the Society has , finally, bared its teeth and taken such a positive stand on the subject. Have no doubt that the Society will not be flavour of the month with DeFRA or the Government generally, but I suspect that, privately or otherwise, there will be many in Natural England who will welcome the move. Given the inevitable "atmosphere",  it will be interesting to see how the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Environment and the long standing Minister, Richard Benyon , react to the matter, how the eventual results of the Law Commission Review will emerge once the consultation period is over and what the pending review of Natural England results in. With a Government relegating "the environment" to a position of little or no relevance, to pursuing a barely disguised policy of deregulation in favour of economic development, come what may, and one which has drastically slashed the budget of Natural England , one might imagine retaliation might figure within their response in some  "official context". We shall see!!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A hopeful dispassionate look at Vicarious Liability!

Over the past couple of years or so the subject of Vicarious Liability has figured large within the news, the outpourings on web sites and, in particular, the discussions taking place on the latter and similar Forums. Let's backtrack a little though!  The offence of Vicarious Liability had been embraced in legislation in Scotland and was done so as part of the WANE Bill ( Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill )  brought in under the aegis of , then Minister, Roseanna Cunningham.  Under the devolved process such legislation had no application, of course, in England or Wales.

Following that I seem to remember a few comments coming forward from the "conservation sector" as to it being unworkable!  However, a question was raised in the Houses of Parliament as to why it was not being embraced by Westminster and received a rebuff from DEFRA Minister, Richard Benyon, who said, in effect , that there was already sufficient wildlife laws in existence to do the job!

At some point in time around then , or following it, an independent E-petition was registered by a lady, Chrissie Harper,  last October calling for a debate in Parliament on the subject.  Chrissie runs an owl rescue centre in southern England and, therefore, has a direct association with raptor persecution issues. All this seems very logical and sensible and utilises aspects of the democratic process we are all now encouraged to utilise. At this point there seems to have been a slight error of judgement, indeed, I feel there may have been a bit of "firing from the Harper hip" that could be held slightly responsible for what then followed. I've made this point before and still feel it has relevance! However, it is a point , not a major criticism. Previous to the E-petition being registered I don't believe any discussions or approaches were made to the RSPB, amongst others, to call for their assistance in generating signatures for the petition. That was a mistake in my view. They certainly were made afterwards, with several E-mails appearing publicly. Many people signed the petition early on in the process, including me, and continued to promote it. However, the RSPB was lukewarm at best, although it got a mention in various Blogs and in their E-newsletter. That is not the same as an upbeat, outward expression of support and they should now be big enough to acknowledge the fact!!  A cynic might even conclude that, because they weren't in the driving seat, they'd decided to pursue a separate, independent , but clearly linked line of action attributed to them only.

The E-petition foundered.  The low level of signatures  is a bewilderingly pathetic expression of the disgust and opposition we so often see expressed on web sites, letters to the media etc., despite attempts to promote it widely. That's an aspect to investigate at a later date, as it involves a large section of our Society pledged , very actively, to a hobby they care passionately about and who express opinions on it frequently, but who somehow remain detached from the democratic process. However, when the RSPB ran a "signature campaign" related to raptor persecution,  it secured the interest of over 200,000 people, double the threshold required for an E-petition to be considered for debate in the House. Incidentally, achieving the 100,000 threshold of signatures does not automatically secure a debate;  all topics are scrutinized by a Committee first. However, in this case, a large number of signatures on a petition backed by the acknowledged national bird conservation organization in the UK would have assisted greatly. So , why has the RSPB dragged its heels or avoided the issue?

In recent times much has been made of the review of wildlife legislation in England  carried out by the Law Commission and which is currently out for consultation.  The RSPB are encouraging people to respond and, indeed, calling for them to draw attention to the , yes, you have it, details relating to Vicarious Liability! Now, at the time when their support was being called for the details emanating from the Law Commission weren't public. The RSPB may have suggested the topic to the Law Commission for consideration within their review, but one doubts if guarantees for inclusion would have been given by the latter. So why not offer support to a petition that exhibited the feelings of conservationists within the UK?  Perversely, the absence of support from the RSPB would suggest to some that they weren't in favour of it!!  We now have what might be seen, charitably,  as a somewhat hypocritical position being assumed by RSPB, who are openly promoting the need for Vicarious Liability to be adopted.

Whilst the RSPB, to its credit, has openly attempted to explain its position ( see the correspondence on the Raptor Politics website ) and has admitted the situation revolves around tactics, I think they continue to overlook the interpretation that will be attributed to their more recent position by most people, namely that they avoided an involvement.

So where does that leave the issue?  Consultation responses to the Law Commission review are being called for by the RSPB, and doubtless many people will assist. I doubt that, numerically, that number will equate to the number of signatures that might have emerged had the RSPB put its weight behind the E-petition. Can the current situation be improved upon? Of course it can!

In my view it will do no harm at all for the RSPB to be a late hour advocate of the E-petition. A call for action from its members to sign the petition, coupled with press releases promoting  its decision, will send an initial message to the Government, to DEFRA and to those administering the results from the Law Commission review, that underscores the value attributed to the Vicarious Liability clause. Note, this is a call for action,  not a call for an apology, nor an admittance that they "got it wrong".  I'm not a supporter of "hue and cry" politics, or retribution being awarded bruised egos, but what can be demonstrated here, via a single afternoon's effort, is solidarity with a whole host of people calling for an end to raptor persecution. What is needed now is for the RSPB to return to being a campaigning organization, taking pride in its policies and research results, promoting the needs of both, but not by fighting for change whilst being part of the Establishment, which is what appears to have happened.  Justified condemnation and criticism is not something to be reticent about, is something to be pursued with confidence whilst standing tall and independent.  The overall mission is surely to promote conservation policies with clarity and gain the widest support for change that is possible. Somehow a little bit of confusion has crept in on this issue that certainly needs to be sorted out. We'll see what happens!

 A month still remains within which action supporting the petition can be organized. Not to do so, whilst openly advocating that support should be expressed for Vicarious Liability within a consultation exercise, makes no sense. I sincerely hope that, if the RSPB turns its back on this opportunity, the support for Vicarious Liability within the above Law Commission process ultimately works out. If it doesn't then this potential use of the petition process is a wasted opportunity that might otherwise have resulted in a wide debate on a subject we are all concerned about........raptor persecution.  Is there a choice really?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Arrivals and departures!!

Well, in the spirit of a rejuvenated Blog, I'd hoped to have displayed at least one photograph of a Draconid meteor given a shower was predicted for yesterday evening and beyond nightfall. The forecast was for a "handful of languid" meteors suggesting it was never going to be that spectacular. By contrast, Draco has been known to produce many thousands of meteors within a given hour, but I'm not at all sure when. Anyway, cloud cover  ruined the potential of the whole episode, despite a couple of checks overnight.

A sunlit dawn was all too brief in extent, but provided a good backdrop to the roaring of Red Deer stags from the confines of the forestry beyond the grass moor looking east from the house. I suspect the newly arrived holiday makers at the cottage close to the plantations thought they'd somehow transferred to the African savannah such was the level of noise in the calm conditions.

Taking advantage of the good visibility and calm sea I spent the morning seawatching. Northern Ireland was clearly visible across the wide expanse of water moved only by a slight swell.  Gannets, a few auks and Kittiwakes were moving south together with a fine Great Northern Diver in seemingly full summer plumage and a dark phase Arctic Skua. A group of 23 Whooper Swans flew north along the coast having been heard in their approach for ages from somewhere south of Islay. Later, what I suspect was another group way over towards Ireland, followed a more normal route southwards towards their wintering grounds A little later a flock of Golden Plover came in off the sea from the south west and headed off  east, again birds undoubtedly gaining a " navigation fix " whilst on passage. We tend to presume birds move along very fixed lines of passage , but not always. At the height of the goose arrivals there's always some Barnacle Geese that seem to overshoot Islay and can then be seen excitedly moving north to gain their intended point of arrival at Gruinart to join up with the rest of the wintering population. Later on there are obvious exchanges with Northern Ireland, usually weather induced, which proceed on a much more leisurely and intended basis!!

In advance of any numbers of winter thrushes arriving, and by utter contrast, the presence of  wintering Robins is already noteworthy. Individuals seen alongside tracks, in isolated bramble patches and small tangles, pays testimony to the fact that the species is quite an early arrival in autumn to supplement what is not that high a breeding population.

Friday, October 5, 2012

RSPB's call for action! Stop Press!

It would be uncharitable to be too critical of the RSPB as far as action against raptor persecution is concerned as addressing the actual  problems on the ground forms part of its core activities via its Investigations Section.  However, periodically promoting the Society's concerns more generally on the subject , as opposed to mounting a full blown campaign against those responsible, which is what I believe is currently needed,  has been the approach taken. Whilst not being in agreement with it , I respect the decision taken!

Today, riding on the issue of the Society's Birdcrime 2011 report, (download it, read it! ) comes an altogether more robust clarion call from Martin Harper ( Director Conservation ) against which I would offer every ounce of support. Entitled "Birdcrime: it is time for action"  it lays out very fairly what the RSPB wishes supporters to pursue. Read the whole article on Martin Harpers Blog
( )

Sadly, I have to agree with the sentiments expressed about Hen Harriers, namely that this may well be the final opportunity to reverse the recent trends which have brought the English population so close to extinction. This is  now the time to act, your help is being called upon!  Don't leave it to others.

Bird Blog bonanza!

Have been "tied to home" for the past couple of days awaiting calls and contacts from afar!  Managed to get another Winter Thrush Survey completed, albeit a nil return, but had passage Hen Harrier and Merlin moving through south through the SW Rinns of Islay as a consolation.

I used some of the time to take a look at a whole series of Blogs and websites to do with birds. It could be a habit hard to break if you got hooked as there are a  LOT !!  Somewhat idly I began to critically appraise them on the one hand and  ( unashamedly ) look for approaches and techniques I might adopt myself!  One immediate lesson was discovering some are given over to 90% photographs and 10% text and make you want to throw your camera equipment away!!  The lesson is clear though, pictures are a bonus and certainly something to consider, even confirmation shots or landscapes.

Some Blogs are simply a jumbled mess of reportage, are badly written with no real story line and are of questionable value due to being addressed to known "members" covering a local area. Sadly they're also so uniform and repetitive they could be written in advance.  Others are enviously brilliant!!  Where do they get the time from?  Like all good reporters too, they always seem to be at the right place at the right time and even manage a couple of photographs of competition quality !! I suspect more than a little forward planning goes into some entries, which is perhaps a lesson in itself.

Some sites simply promote guiding services, or accommodation, with tour reports, local site details, suggested itineraries and so on. You could have a very pleasant "Virtual Reality" type tour of , say, Australia by looking at a whole succession of linked sites for a given area or country! But these sites play a vital role when planning a trip, either at home or abroad, when it's necessary to get up to date details. A mention must also be made of the major holiday bird tour companies whose websites often include access to endless reports of past visits to various countries but who, understandably , don't always reveal the precise details of areas visited for specialities. Closely allied to these are the major websites we all know about, which catalogue and make available trip reports, and which can be blamed for many a lost afternoon or evening when time itself moves into a vacuum, then filled with an enthralling array of information relating to visits you'd love to emulate.

Undoubtedly there are Blog sites and web sites that provide useful information, but are designed to serve the "reputation" of the author in one way or another and, very often, underpin an accompanying commercial activity.  Attractive, yes, but aren't egos boring and repetitive in nature?  There are sites and Blogs directed at campaigning ( I'm one of them at times! ),  from which the revelations  can be a clarion call for action and even shocking at times. However, some are little more than sites pursuing a self-serving process of recrimination and criticism of others, are lacking in balance, usually big on exaggeration and distortion and, despite their best efforts, result in producing something little better than pedantry. But we support free speech after all ( you don't have to read it of course ! )  and I'm convinced fringe views are often read for entertainment value, as opposed to securing any change from, or having influence on, the views of the reader.

Whilst I suspect all this has been little more than a scratching of the surface of what is available, it's certainly worth the effort. Notwithstanding the design and style elements , I've been transported into the delights of warbler passage in North America, raptor watching in Nepal and the results from pelagics. However, we've all surfed the web and enjoyed similar "discoveries" , but deliberately looking at the style and approach of other people  completing a similar activity to yourself is beneficial . There's also lots of advice around as well, for example, take a look at the list of recommendations Mark Avery includes in his book, " Blogging for Nature".

 Sadly, besides discovering new sites, some favourites "die" too, as time to maintain output is squeezed or removed altogether. Overall though, it's a fascinating exercise nonetheless and has resulted in my list of Bookmarked sites now being at an all time high!! From a personal perspective it's certainly an exercise that is well worth the effort, highlights a number of pitfalls and suggests many new ideas to follow. Armed with all this wisdom I suspect many of the Blogs I've put out in the past might carry a "comment" at the bottom saying, "Can do better". However, I was a bit unprepared for the immediate reaction which came from a colleague, quite spontaneously, when I discussed the topic with him last evening.  "You're putting out too much feature material", he said. " I know you feel writing up what you've seen during the day can seem similar to what you wrote about the week before, but people like reading the routine birding stuff as well. Don't give up on Hen Harriers , but let's hear what you're up to."  He did give some slightly more colourful instructions about not reporting  too frequently particular species he rarely encounters !!  On reflection, I think he's right and that it's healthy to be prepared to take a step back, and then embrace, a fresh approach to the routine.  So it looks like variety, photographs and a few other tweaks are necessary, and that the time spent delving into various Blogs and sites has not been wasted.       Anything to avoid the "Can do better"!!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hen Harriers.......satellite tracking and transparency

Now, I admit I've possibly an over-healthy interest in matters affecting Hen Harriers but, in my view, still too little appears  to be being done to address the appalling persecution of the species in the UK.

Until 2012 the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire had been the main English breeding stronghold of the species for over forty years. None bred in 2012 and it appears that only one pair did breed successfully elsewhere in England. This signifies that the battle against persecution of the species in England has virtually been lost. Similar depredations occur elsewhere in the UK so the situation, in reality , is much worse. Sadly birds moving south, following a breeding season in Scotland, are likely to be met with an onslaught of prejudice, illegal persecution and intolerance, with roosting birds being deliberately targeted. At the next national survey of harriers I think we can predict the results will be disastrous if the current situation is allowed to continue. At an earlier point in time than that survey I think we can also predict the results for Hen Harrier resulting from the  BTO Atlas Project, when they emerge in 2013, will be less than heartening. Today I've no intention of drawing attention yet again to the activities of that selfish,arrogant sector of our society who are responsible for such persecution.  Instead I'd like to reflect on what we see forthcoming from our conservation organizations and other agencies, both official and voluntary, in terms of pursuing change
and question whether we might expect more.

First of all, let me draw attention to what would assist greatly in identifying where such persecution is concentrated. It's generally accepted that satellite transmitters attached to birds are a tool that, nowadays, will extend our knowledge of bird movements beyond our wildest expectations. If we consider Hen Harriers then this information, and the ability to be absolutely fascinated by following such movements, has been more than adequately provided for by a variety of organizations. Setting aside specific research objectives, or even political ones (!), simply take a look at the plethora of results provided by the following, (Langholm Moors Project,  Highland Foundation for WildlifeHen Harriers in IrelandRaptor Track Project. ). Now one common theme that characterizes these projects and their websites is that the results arising from their tracked birds are openly available for all to scrutinize. Sadly a proportion of these celebrated birds are lost, some naturally,  but some meeting a less than dignified end, the final resting places of all being identified by their conveyed technology.

So why, in the light of this highly developed and most useful technology, has Natural England repeatedly rejected or ignored calls for the specific details of the journeys and losses of birds carry satellite transmitters under the aegis of the Hen Harrier Recovery Project to be made available publicly?  Clearly there are no limits placed on how these results might be represented as the above web sites show. Clearly the details arising from the dead birds  should assist in pinpointing the areas , even the individual landholdings , where the particular individual met its end. Notwithstanding the fact that it has been public money that has funded the project,  what justification might be behind this intransigence and secrecy? One imagines the non-disclosure results from the Tory Government, via its Minister at DEFRA, the Department under which Natural England operates, issuing specific instructions aimed at protecting the private shooting estates that would otherwise be identified and undue attention then being focussed on their "management activities"  Whilst there has been some tacit admittance by DEFRA that there is an association with the loss of these birds and heather moorland habitat they appear to maintain it is difficult to pinpoint precisely the location where a bird met its demise.  This response either smacks of a deliberate cover up or that a review needs to take place of the technology they employ given both the corpses and transmitters from other birds have been recovered in the most austere of circumstances, e.g a Black Stork lost in the mountains of Morocco!  Setting aside that DEFRA and officials within Natural England are obviously willing to subscribe to both a dereliction of duty and neglect if one examines their position against the very conservation project they sought to promote, i.e. the protection and improvement of the English Hen Harrier population,  the situation is actually worse if one then looks at the position of the voluntary sector.

Whilst the RSPB has spent an almost countless sum of money both promoting and pursuing the plight of the Hen Harrier it almost seems now as if they have admitted "enough is enough". Confronting the Establishment on the whole question of raptor persecution  appears to be something they have no stomach for and that the current circumstances will be dealt with under a PR policy, " Unfortunate extinctions we have had to accommodate!".As we are often assured via the statement, " there is much going on in the background" or similar, can we have any confidence in such given the apparent absence of direct initiatives.  If such declarations simply express more hope than intent, then the situation is wholly unacceptable in my view.  The RSPB is the organization many of us look to to fight such battles and capitulation is out of the question.

And what of the political Parties?  The position adopted by DEFRA/Natural England, and outlined above, links with the almost corporate abdication of responsibility  for the natural environment which is being pursued  by the current Government ( The Greenest Government Ever remember ). The Tory position appears to embody  "we know best" and "we'll protect our own"  policies, coupled with a condemnation of any regulation designed to protect our natural heritage. The LibDems are consumed with zero carbon matters and little else, which leaves the Labour Party.

Well,  in the belief that Shadow Ministers might be interested in a topic the  current Government is clearly avoiding I've forwarded on to them various details in the hope that the matter might be investigated, questions raised and action initiated. Similarly I've distributed the information widely in the hope that other people will pick up on the issue, perhaps some readers might elect to write to their MP's on the matter themselves. If such occurs please let me know the outcome and " good luck".

BTO Winter Thrushes Survey.

Over past weeks the British Trust for Ornithology ( BTO ) has been making arrangements and issuing instructions associated with its forthcoming and latest survey  (Wintering Thrushes Survey ). Whilst the recent Atlas Project will have very effectively determined the distribution of our wintering thrush species, not as much is known about the precise use made of different habitats and foods, movements and other associated questions. The survey will run over both the 2012-13  and 2013-14 winters.

Full details are on the website ( see the above link ). Essentially the survey is designed to be completed on-line if at all possible, which cuts out a lot of unnecessary administration and costs. Single km.squares can be "self selected" and then surveyed , ideally at monthly intervals over the period late September-early April of the years concerned. Additionally " Core Squares"  have been randomly selected by the BTO throughout the UK and these will be subjected to additional analysis based on observations made within the strictly defined period of 27th December-10th January. Regional Representatives are tasked with gaining coverage for as many of these as possible.

At first glance the setting up process for self selected squares looks a little daunting ( mapping your route on a map and inscribing a polygon around the area over which you can make observations ), but it's actually quite fun! And first time goofs (!) can easily be erased.

So take a look at the above website and see if you can help. One visit per month ( or two or three on the same day ) is not too demanding and the route you select only needs to be between 0.6 and 2.0 miles. A sure fire way after December to walk off the effects of too many Christmas calories and, remember, 0.6 miles is only walking across a single km.square in a straight line, so you're not letting yourself in for a marathon!! Currently I'm busy trying to recruit volunteers here on Islay, Jura and Colonsay from within the small number of residents who are interested in birds. Sadly, and understandably, there is no element of  casual observations built into the survey , but visitors here over Christmas and New Year  (a tradition with some! ) can still play a part by assisting with the coverage of Core Squares if they are able.

There are other aspects to the main survey too! If you've limited time the "Birds and Garden Berries Study" may be something you can contribute to and observations can be conveniently linked to your very own garden! The "main" survey relates to the berry bearing bushes, shrubs or trees in your garden, the availability of berries through the winter and the use made of these by birds throughout the same period. A further component is associated with berry depletion......pretty important when you think of the implications of large numbers of thrushes being forced to move off from an area due to harsh weather and the food they may, or may not find, in different areas farther afield.  Finally , you can indulge in some real basic, observational work by carrying out timed watches of feeding birds and how many berries they eat.

So, opportunities for everyone to assist with.  You can even hum " the Holly and the Ivy" carol to keep up your spirits as you trudge around your squares and find birds are in short supply.   Best of luck!!