Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Wild,wild weather!!

Whilst I have to say that living on an island like Islay makes you somewhat immune to the drastic changes and extremes of  accompanying weather for the area. However, occasionally more noticeable events occur or are predicted. We're in the middle of one at the moment, although I don't believe it's going to be "extreme" in the more accepted sense.

I suppose it's easy to be cynical towards some of the more "simple", but nonetheless genuine, comments that arise in the media whenever extreme events occur. For some people who have usually avoided the "pleasure" of high winds, lashing rain, high seas and general disruption it may well be a very significant occurrence in their lives and one they don't want to see repeated either!  By contrast, it's a bit of a " you puts up with what you get" situation for us in many senses given island life regularly includes wild weather. However, I must, somewhat mischievously, repeat the  television report  I heard yesterday of someone ringing in to say his refuse bins had been blown across the yard. Well as a wild weather "indicator" I'm afraid that's way down on the scale of severity given I've had to retrieve bins from across an adjacent field on more than one occasion. Currently they're tucked away in the barn and have been for several days!

On a serious note I've just checked my barometer and it's reading 940 millibars, which is actually the end of the scale on the device. I'm told the lowest ever recorded pressure reading in the UK is 923 so we're not far away from that position. In 13/14 years of being here I recollect only two or three really fierce storms, i.e. wind speeds in excess of 110 mph. They're not a nice experience as damage to property etc is a given; they're actually quite scary too as the accompanying noise is horrific as very high winds have a roaring sound and, if your power supply is still retained, the volume control on the TV or radio usually needs hiking up. Doing anything outside is usually out of the question and a thought must be given in those circumstances to farmers needing to deal with stock and to the various emergency services whose personnel have to turn out to rectify matters. Thankfully, floods aren't the problem experienced in many other areas, although unbelievable quantities of water can descend upon us!!  It's the waters we're surrounded by that can so easily generate problems, which is precisely what is happening at present with the two earliest ferries today having been cancelled. It's rather traditional for Islay to see family get-togethers at Christmas/ New Year, a situation which can be severely affected by events such as those now affecting the Hebrides/ Western Isles. It has to be said that, in my opinion, Caledonian Macbrayne ferries do their damnedest to "deliver" in such difficult circumstances and if cancellations occur then they reflect the severity of the circumstances involved!!

As for wildlife then I have to say that I'm just about to put the kettle on and then rely on the delights contained within the latest BirdWatch magazine.  A review of Christmas arrangements and accompanying opportunities can be taken later when all the excitement dies down!!

Despite the best efforts of the weather may I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year and enjoyable birding during 2014.

Greenland White-fronted Goose census.

Last week ( 17th-18th ) saw the completion of the International Census of Greenland White-fronted Geese in which Islay plays a prominent part given its significant wintering population.  Such counts are completed at three distinct points over each winter, supplemented, on Islay, by the counts arising from within the formal counts regularly undertaken as part of the monitoring of geese associated with the subsidy system for farmers.

As has been said before the Greenland White-fronted Goose is actually a sub-species, but because of its distinct breeding distribution and wintering areas is treated as if it were a full species. Recent years has seen  growing concerns about its numbers which have reduced dramatically. For this reason its numbers are monitored over the whole of its regular wintering areas to gain an insight into its current status as clearly attempting to monitor the population in Greenland itself is nigh on impossible.

To achieve this on Islay the island is split into six distinct sectors and counted over each of two consecutive days recognizing that birds may be missed due to a variety of circumstances. The average figure is then used in the various summaries drawn together, although with keen attention being paid to the constituent totals for each individual day.  Last week that figure was 5869, which was remarkably "close" to the figure derived from the November counts, 5888.  Comparison of the figures associated with the individual days for each sector can show some changes as birds move around a little of their own volition or are disturbed and move onto ground in another of the designated sectors. Whilst it would be easy to conclude the totals are derived from a few large flocks within each sector such is certainly not the case and the totals very often arise from the accumulation of sightings of endless smaller groups. It makes for a long couple of days involving the exploration of all known favoured sites and other sheltered nooks and crannies, particularly if the weather is a bit iffy and the birds seek shelter which they're very adept at identifying.

At the same time all numbers of Barnacle Geese encountered are also logged on the recording sheets. Last week saw 36,244 birds "in residence", contrasted against the 46,931 birds logged in November suggesting perhaps that some birds had moved on.  One pleasing aspect this winter has been to note that there is a significant presence of young birds within the Greenland White-front flocks which is a very welcome sight. Previously the general rule was to note that, whilst Barnacle Goose numbers were increasing, those of Greenland White-fronts were moving in the other direction!! In that sense it seems, temporarily or otherwise, a corner may have been turned, which justifies the basis upon which the census work rests. Good news!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Catch up!

It's five weeks since I had an opportunity to contribute to my Blog due, in the main, to work, but also to my being away on the mainland. Besides work associated with goose monitoring, diversionary feeding studies and studies of Barnacle Goose roost sites in that period, I've been involved in a round of various meetings and discussions linked to conservation issues which , at the time , were absorbing and informative but which I didn't realise were taking as much time as they did!! Added to that has been a period spent in Inverness with my daughter, Katherine, previous to getting back here. Within that time, a freak gale occurred, we had snow, lost power and heating and, generally, had more than a few adventures, including my being yanked off my feet by the dogs and taking a hard tumble and, on another occasion, being pulled by them along an icy road as if on a sled. All absorbing stuff best enjoyed by later reflection!!

Having returned to Islay I've just realised how much has happened, or is happening, on the conservation front, mainly at Government level with funding proposals linked to farming being imminent, with important public statements being made recently relating to raptor persecution and a plethora of other issues arising too.

So, much to catch up on. The International Greenland White-fronted Goose counts are this week, although it looks as if the weather is unlikely to be "kind" with strong winds for several days. Ferries were disrupted yesterday  and I suspect conditions might be a bit challenging later too! Still, it is December and, perhaps more importantly, only a few days yet before we're past the worst and the days begin to gradually lengthen!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Support needed for Greenland White-fronted Goose.

Here on Islay we witness each winter the presence of large numbers of geese from the Arctic. Predominantly these are Barnacle Geese, but lesser numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese are present as well. There are acknowledged conflicts with the farming process, but the Scottish Government has acknowledged this situation and subsidy mechanisms are in place. Arguments sometimes reign over the extent of these and the Governments representative body, Scottish Natural Heritage, has been at the centre of such discussions and initiatives for many years. Clearly the challenge is one of balance in all respects, but currently the problem is made all the more difficult by seemingly increasing numbers of Barnacle Geese set against repeated reductions of Greenland White-fronted Geese!!

Many of you will know that the Greenland White-fronted Goose is actually a subspecies, but has been afforded  protective status within a variety of legislation due to its distinctiveness. Breeding in Greenland, separated from the "main" population of White-fronted Geese distributed across Russia, it winters in Scotland and Ireland with a small population in Wales. Over the fourteen years I have been on Islay the numbers have reduced very noticeably and similar concerns are being expressed from elsewhere too. As yet it's not entirely clear precisely why the population is reducing, which makes the task of tackling the decline so much harder. Nonetheless, various efforts have and are still being made to try and improve this situation, including initiatives on Islay, of which more in due course. Studies have shown that the birds are extremely sensitive to hunting pressure and shooting of birds is banned virtually everywhere, except in Wales!!

Wales plays host each winter to a small population centred on the Dyfi estuary. Whilst there is a voluntary ban on shooting by local wildfowlers, in theory at least it is still feasible to shoot birds in Wales and, of course, any voluntary undertaking is not enshrined in law.  Given the current concerns for the species and conservation efforts being implemented virtually everywhere else where the birds winter, it seems bizarre in the extreme that this situation should exist in Wales given it could be rectified so simply through Government process.

The Wales Ornithological Society has long drawn attention to this anomaly but now more direct action is being taken. A petition has been raised on the Welsh Assembly calling for the position to be regularised
Greenland White-fronted Goose petition


If I simply say that Wales is the only place where this bird is not protected within its range the scenario becomes even more of a nonsense.  Whilst I'm sure the Welsh Assembly has not set out to isolate the birds in question, the current situation does question why, in a devolved structure, there is not some element of "joined up thinking". But let's not go there and, instead, concentrate on putting right what is a simple element that requires action, little effort and at the very least demonstrates everyone is on side when it comes to protecting these magnificent birds.  My only personal apology ( on what is concerning a particular favourite of mine ) is that I can't for the life of me find a suitable photograph to accompany this!!  A call for an update to my file system I suspect.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Autumn glory!

Other than a few showers late morning it was a glorious day with a blue sky and cloud and sunny too. In a few secluded spots even insect swarms were on the wing!

Most of the morning was spent seawatching from a couple of locations. Although not a great deal was on the move, other than parties of auks and mostly distant ones at that, it was good to be out without getting soaked. A few Black Guillemots in winter plumage whirred about inshore and possibly the most unexpected species was a high flying Grey Heron moving south!

Given the wind was light, and water surface conditions on Outer Loch Indaal  fairly calm, I decided to do a routine survey of the outer loch "basin". Other than divers  ( Great Northern 11, Black-throated 2, Red-throated 10 ) not a lot was apparent, possibly a consequence of the poor recent weather having driven them into the Inner Loch.  This was the next stop but, by early afternoon, the glare reflecting off the water surface made counting impossible. Such was both tantalising and frustrating as various species could be picked out in isolation ( Long tailed Duck, Slavonian Grebe, Greater Scaup, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser ). Candidates for another occasion.

Large numbers of Barnacle Geese fed on open pastures nearby and occasionally rose in panic and confusion from some unknown cause.

Needing to go north I eventually went through to Bunnahabhain from where the view of the Paps of Jura across the Sound of Islay was tremendous. Despite weather warnings of snow for other areas of Scotland the Paps were as yet unadorned ( unless it had melted off early ! )

A period spent watching out over the Sound of Islay produced nothing other than a Great Northern Diver and then absolutely stunning views of a large dog Otter coming out onto a small island with prey. I suspected this to be a large crab, which the Otter had some difficulty in controlling, but which eventually succumbed within which time another Otter swam towards shore in the bay immediately to the north.  The dog Otter was the largest I've ever seen on  Islay with a very noticeable prominent head.

Eventually I set off on my return journey , only to encounter a Red Deer stag at close quarters!

                                               He knew I was there, but not quite where!! 

Unfortunately conditions overseeing Inner Loch Indaal were no better than previously with the glare from the now waning sunlight being quite strong. The tide was almost at its fullest extent, and quite a high one at that, which meant that the water was well into the inner saltmarsh areas. Surface feeding duck explored creeks normally relatively dry and groups of waders perched atop isolated islands of saltmarsh vegetation.

After simply watching the activities of birds moving around and a flock of 104 Greater Scaup, within whose ranks were a few Slavonian Grebes, mirrored a little farther out by a tight flock of almost 60 Eiders, the day was beginning to draw to a close. The light and colours were an ever changing tapestry of light and intense colour as I made my way homeward down the Rinns. A good day!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Back to normality, thankfully!!

I suspect you've heard many of these moans from me before, but I have to reiterate that living out on one of the Scottish islands is not the best location if you wish to avail yourself of up to date technology, in fact straight forward, usually taken for granted technology can be equally as elusive!  However, having got that rant off my chest I can announce that I have finally got a shining new telephone  ( BT of course, made in China ) and my cyber connection with the world is intact and working effectively again, even on Halloween. No longer will I have to make a fifteen mile round journey, yes 15 miles minimum, to make a mobile phone call!!  Other networks do better so enquiries are in hand!  Whatever the bland remarks of politicians the communication revolution has not yet reached here in its entirety.

Right, what's on the go on this eve of Halloween?  Well, the situation of the moment appears to be revolving around a report put out by Animal Aid which is giving the grouse shooting industry a lambasting.  I've accessed a copy , but not yet read it, so doubtless comments can be made later on what seems to be a very information packed report.

So, sign off time and an evening to be spent attempting to catch up on several days of news and views, a bewitching prospect you might say!!  

Monday, October 21, 2013

A good day secured against the odds!! 20.10.2013.

Sadly the day proved to be a bit less than co-operative with heavy showers, mixed visibility, but the odd clear period as well.  Met up with Chris and Tony Johnson from Bolton who, as previously the long serving leaders of the RSPB Bolton Members Group, I've known for quite a few years!  As can be imagined, almost as much discussion took place as birdwatching, and certainly the world should now be in a better state given the various solutions put forward to certain problems!!!

Most of our day was spent around the RSPB reserve at Gruinart, but we first of all sought out the juvenile Red-backed Shrike, which has apparently been there several days but wasn't  "pinned down" until Saturday. A rather fine bird, extremely active and which has adopted a well defined area as its own. Compared to what has been seen on the east coast of Britain in recent times this bird's appearance is a most welcome reflection of those arrivals!!!

                                                Courtesy of James How, via Ian Brooke.

After more than our fill of this very co-operative bird we then spent some time overlooking the lagoons on the reserve itself.  Teal numbers seem to have improved within the week and the flock was being repeatedly disturbed by a female Hen Harrier causing them to spend prolonged periods in flight. A single Black-tailed Godwit was also around as was a splendid showy pair of Gadwall that spent quite a period immediately in front of the hide. A few Wigeon and Shoveler were in evidence too.

As ever the spectacle provided by the geese was the main event of the morning, particularly when being spooked and rising en-masse over the nearby feeding fields along Gruinart Flats.

A trip along to Ardnave was accompanied throughout by quite heavy rain, but at least it was lunchtime.  Two adult Mute Swans and 4 well grown cygnets plus three Goldeneye was all that was on offer. We decided to spend time around Loch Gorm, but the weather was against us, little or nothing seen, so we retired to a well known nearby tea house where company and cakes were in profusion !  Predictably, the weather improved at the very end of the afternoon but, as I made my way homewards, the sight of a large mixed feeding flock of Grey lag Geese, gulls and eight Whooper Swans was some compensation for what had been a slightly testing day!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Raptor persecution and Vicarious Liability.

On the 15th October the Law Commission put out an Interim Statement relating to the review it had carried out on wildlife legislation,  Law Commission interim statement., which can be reached through this latter link. After extensive consultation with wildlife and countryside interests a summary of the exercise, findings and recommendations is now openly available for our scrutiny.

I must admit I always thought this much vaunted exercise might not deliver up to the expectations invested in it.  RSPB admitted way back in February that its own future tactics would revolve around the exercise held by the Commission and doubtless have worked hard in the period since its launch to gain acceptance of key elements of law where they felt revision or inclusion was necessary, including Vicarious Liability. Although such an offence had entered Scottish Law, repeated attempts to gain its early adoption for England and Wales were rebuffed, including a direct statement of "non-intention" by the then DEFRA Minister, Richard Benyon in Parliament.

The Law Commission too have now rejected a call for it to enter into law in the commonly accepted form in which it was so often described, details of which can be found under Section 1.74 in the above statement. Instead they have put forward an alternative that will put the burden of proof on the prosecution which, in my humble opinion, is likely to lead nowhere. So, where do we go from here?

I confess to a feeling of frustration and disappointment, particularly with the declared public position currently adopted by RSPB.  In the recent winter edition of its new magazine, Nature's Home, much is made of an article by Simon Barnes,a prominent journalist and writer, and his comments about raptor persecution. But it's all been said before! What's new given that similar strap lines were being pumped out thirty years ago and at regular intervals in between?  In the same magazine an article examining the future of our uplands includes diffuse comments at best on actions that might emerge at some point.  Now, I'm prepared to accept that the timing of the issue of this magazine and that of the Law Commission's statement didn't conveniently coincide. Indeed, one imagines that, in the light of the Commission's declared view about Vicarious Liability, there would have been different comments coming forward. But in the cold light of day, what is the Society now to do when it comes to raptor persecution and, in particular, addressing the loss of Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England brought about by intensive persecution in recent times?  Is this situation something that must now be accepted as lost?   Is there not an imperative, demanding of whatever financial resources are necessary, to ensure that the targeted activities which brought about the obvious reduction of  Hen Harriers continues to be combated. Whilst I'm sure the RSPB agree, I personally believe that its options should now include more direct confrontation with the factions responsible as the time for progress via commentary ( or clowns! )  is now gone!

Courtesy of the Isle of Man Government via Alan Tilmouth and Flikr.

It seems to me that the thing which shouldn't happen is for a void to be allowed to embrace the current situation, in other words there is a need for swift, decisive action on how things might now move forward. Repeated rhetoric, fine words and appeals for an adherence to the law are unlikely to achieve much given unproductive attempts in the past. Similarly further exhaustive examination and analysis of  "the problem", those held to be responsible  and so on is now little more than cataloguing disaster. Alongside all this the  grouse management industry itself, within which there is a constituency who are against persecution, has singularly failed to alter the activities of some of their members and , therefore, self regulation can also be consigned to the bin. The new recommendations by the Law Commission are unlikely to successfully act as a major deterrent  in my view, which means additional action is required.  I've no illusions that the RSPB will have more than a few ideas on this front about which it would be foolish to reveal details in public. However, from the many people I've spoken to I believe that a significant proportion of the membership would support more radical action than has been apparent in the immediate past. Indeed I suspect we would urge the Society to move forward in that respect, not as an element of a marathon, but in a full blown sprint,  if I can paraphrase the Chief Executive!!  This is a time to grasp the initiative to avoid others gaining confidence and developing ancillary topics around raptors that would assume the limelight and cause the issue of persecution of raptors to be sidelined.

The 15th October perhaps saw a campaign lost, but the battle is still to be resolved and none of us should lose heart in that respect. And remember, RSPB, indeed never forget, we're all behind you.

Whilst the Tory dominated Government currently appears to pay scant regard to E-petitions ( if that associated with the badger cull is anything to go by) , the number of signatures provides a measure of the amount of public concern that can be quoted subsequently and upon which questions can be raised.  If you haven't already done so PLEASE sign the E-petition relating to the licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers which can be found at the following link.
Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers

Thank you.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

And now for something different!

I spent last weekend in Glasgow with daughters 2 and 3!!  Kath  ( No.3 )  had been over on Islay for a week and Rachael ( No 2 )  is currently at Glasgow University studying Fashion Design and Management  ( satin and sequins, darling!   OMG , just wait for the grief! ) and we conspired to meet up before No 3 returned to Inverness and I returned to Islay.  OK so far?

On Saturday we hit the town. I don't really know Glasgow but what I've seen makes it a special place. Whilst daughters 2 and 3 made forays into River Island, TopShop etc etc I spent my time standing dutifully outside such establishments looking after the bags and listening to the buskers of which there were several in the Centre.  I loved it!!

Now , first amongst equals was the following!.  CLANADONIA

Clanadonia web site

These guys are fantastic!  Hairy Scots they might be, but they can appeal to the very depths of anyone's emotions through their music. Incidentally, this is the first time I've attempted/achieved an image transfer so excuse me if I've got the credits etc wrong.  The above is CLADONIA, folks, please listen as they're tremendous!!

I have to confess that I love "the pipes and drums", I really do.  This group takes the whole issue to another level.  Imagine being on a battlefield in long times past, ever seen Braveheart, the film, well you're there. Confronted by this lot across the battlefield I'm not sure where I'd be, south of Doncaster I imagine and looking over my shoulder at that!!  Those deep repetitive rhythms accompanied by the imperative strains of the pipes is not something you can ignore. Whilst I don't think the clip does them credit by all means listen to

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foltCs5fh9I   and look at

In addition to all this and fabulous music they've an association with Islay Peat, a blended whisky linked to , you know where!!  Peat has a particular association with me in a personal sense, a name of a sheep dog with whom my association was far too short. RIP my friend!

As you might imagine Saturday afternoon was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, but well worth it! Thanks Clanadonia!

RSPB's "Nature's Home" arrives !

Way back, indeed when I was still working with the RSPB and as part of a management training course, I remember attending a session entitled Managing Change. Not everyone accommodates change easily or readily, in fact some people oppose any alteration to what might be an established position, whatever its kind.  Such, I suspect, might be the situation that emerges with the RSPB's new magazine, "Nature's Home" replacing as it does its forebear, the much beloved Birds magazine.  Now I have to declare that I first became aware of the Society when it was still ensconced at Eccleston Square in London!!  I'm not saying I've been a member continuously since that time, but certainly for a significant proportion of it.

We all used to be all so dutiful and accepting in the old days ( sounds like an advert delivered by Alan Titchmarsh ), in fact I guess my only question in previous times would have been " Where is Sandy?".  But the truth is the change to a HQ site or much loved item of constancy can inflame passions in some beyond belief!  Now, admission time!  I don't particularly warm to the presentation of RSPB in lower case on the logo ( and shan't use it either ! ). If you really want to see what my views are on the issues surrounding what the RSPB has decided to change , then read my Blog entries on 4th August and 18th September.  As far as the new magazine title is concerned, then I worry a bit to be honest.  It seems to me that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds might logically choose to have a magazine title linked to its main raison d'etre. But the case has been put, and I accept it. The working objectives of the Society have widened ( considerably !)  and  a more broadly based wildlife magazine is the result.  OK, I'm being dutiful. A minor criticism though is that I feel the cover is too cluttered.

Now I'll simply present another example and leave you to draw your own conclusions!!

I'm not a designer but I suspect the above image somehow conveys all the necessary messages without too much accompanying text.

Of course what really delivers on any organization's objectives is the contents. When the magazine arrived ( my mail arrives late afternoon ) I put on the kettle and then settled down to a comfortable session taking in the contents of this presumed threatening and newly emerged item. I was engrossed and read it from cover to cover.......my tea went cold!  These are a few comments,

  • the Chief Executive's page needs beefing up. I expected more of a major announcement ( or even design emphasis ) on the direction the Society was going to take, but was disappointed. It's all a bit bland I'm afraid. 
  • I like the succession of  "multi-features " on various pages which grabbed my attention
  • I believe the wildlife crime section needs both more space and prominence. Not everyone reads or receives Legal Eagle and I believe this is a part of the Society's operation that a lot of people find fascinating.
  • I find Martin Harpers Blog extremely useful, but I suspect only a relatively limited number of people read it. Is there room for a more expanded treatment of various conservation issues affecting the UK like the CAP revisions, but presented in lay terms?. The recent Law Commission Review might qualify coupled with a "where do we go from here".
  • the Nature in Danger "The problem with Plastic" article was first class as was "The Wetland Wizard" in the RSPB People section.
  • Like comments from others, the presence of very brief book reviews in juxtaposition with bird food adverts didn't really gel for me I'm afraid.  
  • Brilliant photos throughout as we've come to expect.

So, all in all the "change" wasn't as painful as anticipated. In fact ( Mark Ward, Editor. ) I've to admit I liked it, so job well done.  There were a few issues relating to statements associated with uplands and raptors that I wasn't all that happy with, but I'll deal with those in a separate Blog.  What did we all fear?  A reduction in items to do with birds, I suppose, so there's no case to answer. The inclusion of items relating to other wildlife wasn't intrusive or cuckolded the main subject content we all look forward to. After all the huffing and puffing is over, what we've all to settle down to is, collectively, working towards making things better for wildlife which , as successive reports have outlined, is on its uppers and needs more and more support from us all.

Geese, yet again. 16.10.2013.

Compared to yesterday the weather had changed dramatically. A blustery SE wind, quite strong at times, cloudy conditions and temperatures decidedly colder than 24 hours previously!! Later it improved only to be followed by rain in late afternoon.

Another session at Gruinart saw much the same pattern occurring except that the White-tailed Eagle never turned up, at least during the morning. It was interesting to witness the fact that Barnacle Geese seem loathe to leave their roost early, in fact almost an hour after the first Grey lag Geese and Greenland White-fronted Geese had either left the area or moved to productive feeding spots locally. Quite a large roost locally of Jackdaw and Rook took to the air and towered above the reserve for a while before moving off to their preferred foraging areas. Again, as yesterday, a male Hen Harrier hunted over the grassland before effortlessly sailing off northwards towards Ardnave. Around that time a party of 15 Redwing "seeped" their way southwards, battling against the quite strong headwind.

Talking later to James How ( Senior Warden , RSPB Gruinart Reserve ) he made the point that the Barnacle Geese are not enjoying the presence of the various White-tailed Eagles visiting the head of the loch. Over the years, since protective wildlife legislation came into being and the reserve was first set up, disturbance from shooting has ceased and the geese have been used to a completely tranquil existent within their adopted winter quarters. Enter the new marauding upstarts that are not only big, but brutal too and quite capable of picking out some hapless individual, knocking it down in flight and treating it as prey. No wonder chaos ensues at the first sight of one of these more recent arrivals to the island!

Later, as I completed some slightly late WeBS counts ( sorry BTO! ) , various flocks of both Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese could be seen on stubble fields around Loch Gorm. Also there were four Whooper Swans previous to them moving off southwards.  I missed a view of a leucistic Barnacle Goose as I spoke to a colleague within which time the goose flock decided to fly off elsewhere. It will be interesting to confirm whether its the same bird that has been present in earlier winters.  Further round the "circuit" two Greenland White-fronted Geese carried orange neck collars but never assumed a sufficiently convenient position enough to read the requisite letters involved!  A Peregrine appeared out of nowhere and adroitly snapped up prey, one ( I believe ) of quite a number of Skylarks that were present in the stubble field.

As the weather closed in I called things to a stop having had yet another very rewarding day!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Geese, geese and more geese!

An absolutely glorious day spent mainly in the Loch Gruinart area. With obvious signs of autumn appearing from falling leaves, evenings drawing in , temperatures good but noticeably cooler at the extreme ends of the day too, today was nonetheless an example of the best the season can award. Early morning broke fine accompanied, even before first light , with the calls of countless Barnacle Geese at roost in the upper parts of the loch.

First to move out to their feeding grounds though were Grey lag Geese, departing with a cacophony of calling leaving others of their species feeding around the lagoons with lesser numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese.  Many thousands of Barnacle Geese were strung out down the loch with much "readjustment" to their massed distribution as they reacted to the presence of, firstly, a Common Buzzard and then an overflying Grey Heron. Gradually small numbers moved to nearby feeding areas, but the vast majority remained at roost , some until well past mid-morning.

I never tire of watching geese, even to the extent of looking at every passing skein despite having seen their departure point from the massed throngs out on the loch!!

There's something about a collection of flying geese that is simply irresistible.

Eventually the whole situation was thrown into complete  and deafening disarray by the arrival of an adult White-tailed Eagle that not only put the whole remaining roost of several thousand geese to flight , but flew through the middle of them as well. Confusion mixed with chaos!  It then saw fit to sit out at the edge of the Merse for the rest of the morning, no doubt providing a level of malevolence sufficient to keep anxiety levels at a high threshold.

Most of the geese that arrive in October spend quite a time at first in the Gruinart area before gradually moving out after three weeks or so to exploit other feeding areas.  With the arrival and presence of the eagle, large numbers of geese congregated on fields at the head of the loch , whilst others filtered back and remained on the exposed sands and mud of the loch itself.  Throughout the time following their arrival the birds are ultra nervous and "spook"  very easily but, with patience, it's possible to get close views of them.

Certainly a spectacle, an experience to place effort against and something not to be missed ! A great morning, oh , and the male and female Hen Harrier quartering the field below the viewing platform weren't bad either!!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

100's and then 1000's !

Some years ago I recollect a song with the title or first line  " The day that the rain came down ".  Well, the rain did come down at intervals with some pretty fierce showers sweeping through aided by the strong wind, but that was nothing compared to the arrival, as predicted, of our wintering geese.

Apparently birds had been heard on the move over Loch Indaal during the night of 8th/9th, but with strengthening northerly winds the real avian downpour began.  As mentioned previously, the birds appear to have an uncanny ability to predict how they might use positively developing weather conditions in order to make their migration passage easier. Faster, much less energy used and, simply put, better than battling away into a head wind.

Numbers at the head of Loch Indaal ranged variously between 4-5000, with a core element resting out on the exposed mud or on the Merse , but with other birds more mobile.  RSPB had counted over 31,000 on the Loch Gruinart Reserve, so at least 35,000 had arrived in a large advancing "cloud" from Iceland, which they use as a staging point. What a sight, what a noise!   As ever, odd skeins of birds could be seen flying north, having overshot Islay and then adjusted their trajectory.  The calls of these and other arriving birds are a great experience to take in , representing contact no doubt, but I suspect what could also be described as avian relief and joy, wind assisted or not.  A good day!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wintering goose arrival imminent!

Although my recent efforts have more centred on getting to grips with numbers and behaviour of Grey lag Geese in residence linked to wider enquiries over northern Scotland relating to their control, ensuing days will see the arrival of our main wintering numbers of Barnacle Geese and Greenland White-fronted Geese.

Already very low numbers of both have trickled in and have enjoyed the wide open expanse of RSPB's Gruinart Reserve to themselves. Soon this situation will alter dramatically with many thousand birds set to arrive.  The usual time is mid-October but weather can play its part in assisting their journey, a factor that they appear to be uncannily accurate in exploiting. Recently winds have been centred for several days in the east, although fairly light. On Thursday we are set to have moderate northerly winds, albeit for a day only, before the system turns into easterlies again. Whether or not this short window of opportunity will be used is anyone's guess, but an exciting prospect nonetheless.  Even a "short hop" from Iceland with a tail wind is something to take benefit from if its available!  Without going into the physics of it all, wind direction can change with altitude, so attempting to predict arrivals with what, in turn, is forecast at ground level is a bit of a lottery given that birds will take advantage of such conditions.

Seemingly undeterred by all this, groups and flocks of Light bellied Brent Geese have been moving through southwards to Ireland over the past days. Small fly through groups have been a regular feature and a flock of around 80-90 on the 6th ( Sunday )  at the head of Loch Indaal during early afternoon had left some three hours later. Similarly a slightly larger flock of around 120 was present there yesterday (7th) and no doubt have reached Ireland by now where the majority of them winter.  In some ways these could be judged to be the earliest of arrivals or passage birds given the numbers involved, but infrequently numbers of Pink footed Geese can pass through even slightly earlier. From past experience this can often happen at night and I remember lying in bed on one occasion and hearing a flock move through ( no jokes, it was pitch black at the time as opposed to mid morning!!! ).

With the big arrivals is the possibility of rare geese being within the ranks of the vociferous throng of birds and so hopes are high for the presence of a Snow Goose or Lesser Canada Goose. Lets not forget the equally exciting prospect of Whooper Swans on passage, with their trumpeting calls echoing over the landscape. The north west part of Islay is a favourite place to watch out for them with birds often taking time out to rest, preen or feed on Loch Gorm before carrying on their journey to Ireland. Some remain for a while and are a feature of local stubble fields, although numbers dwindle as winter progresses.

So a time of anticipation and enjoyment, which I'm sure is expressed as much by the geese themselves on their arrival at their traditional gathering ground at the head of Loch Gruinart where they congregate for a few weeks before dispersing over the islands. The cacophony of the assembled throng is something to witness and enjoy each and every autumn, indeed when the geese move off in Spring the island always feels to be beset by an uncanny silence as their regular flights and calls throughout the winter are put on hold for a period of months. Shortly, that silence is to be broken and an extremely welcome backcloth it will be to the forthcoming winter period. Can't wait!!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Environment, wildlife and power!

For the past three weeks I've been linked in with  the annual conferences of the three major political parties in the UK.  It's nice to be back to normality!!  There's much that could be written, commented on, condemned even, but this is not the location to pursue such tasks, with the exception of one and that is
" What appears to be the current stance of each Party on environmental and wildlife matters"

Well, you'd have to look pretty hard in those " policy store cupboards" to find much that would appease the concerns of the sort of people who I guess read this Blog.  Indeed, you'd have to work hard and listen very carefully to pick up any statements even relating to such matters. That our countryside is increasingly seen as a commodity towards which no real commitment or empathy is extended is a worry.  All parties seem hitched to the energy rail at present with references to "alternatives" being the order of the day and much pledging and in-fighting being apparent as to the most suitable way forward. I always worry when "environment" subsumes absolutely everything , including our natural heritage and its needs, as it always seems that such "surroundings" are taken for granted, are presumed to be somehow self-regulating whatever abuse we impose on them and that, preferably, all will be achieved without one iota of expenditure.  The forthcoming consultation on the Common Agricultural Policy  (CAP ) changes in England, the allocation of subsidies and the effect these will have on our countryside for decades to come are something to follow closely!!

Setting aside the energy debates and references to climate change and fracking we were told by Nick Clegg ( LibDem leader ) that Natural England had been "saved" by David Heath (LibDem), but without any context surrounding the statement or explanation of what NE even does. Sadly I suspect most of the overall electorate wouldn't have a clue what the organization attempts to achieve or the strictures it operates under even when in existence. Ed Miliband ( Labour leader ) had nothing really to say on the environment  ( other than linked to energy ! ) nor did any other Shadow Minister unless I missed something.  A major worry here is the mention, as a part solution to the current housing crisis, the possibility of  NEW TOWNS  being created. Where, what size, and with what accompanying disruption one might ask?

And then we have the Tories. Well, I have to say that, in part, and on this occasion only, I was pleasantly surprised. Last Monday morning the Rt.Hon. Owen Paterson ( Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs  ) made a presentation in which there was more than a sprinkling of words like "wildlife", "biodiversity", "habitats" and the like. Whether or not, in the absence of anything similar previously, this was an attempt to show that the Tory Party had an environmental heart and was staving off criticisms levelled before in this respect, is hard to judge. I'm not a fan of said Minister, he's far too glib and overconfident for my liking  and I'm never really convinced by his announcements. But on this occasion at least there had been an attempt to address issues about which many people have concerns. The downside is that he is firmly of the view that the environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive and that the solution to all ills in this scenario rests on the question of our adopting the practice of  biodiversity offsetting.  I can do no better than refer you to the excellent piece  ( Giving nature a helping hand )  that Martin Harper ( Director of Conservation, RSPB ) put out on this subject on the 12th September on the RSPB's Community site, links to which appear not to be working at present.  So, are we finally seeing some recognition of the needs of our natural heritage ( he pledged firmly to protect same ! ) or is it all window dressing? Time will tell, but I hope not, and have to say that said Minister's involvement at an RSPB Fringe Meeting was noteworthy. Whilst his convictions don't necessarily persuade me away from my current views, such have to be respected and continuing attempts made to achieve or ensure efforts to provide for our natural heritage are up to the mark. Suffice to say that, on this occasion, at least the subject had received a fair hearing.

Whilst I wouldn't normally stray into the following sort of territory, on this occasion I feel compelled to draw attention to a recent book that is controversial to say the least. Given it was raining for most of the day yesterday I spent my time ( and half of the night ! ) reading it.

Look at the reviews and , if you feel it's for you, then ensure you read it.  Having read Alistair Campbell's diaries this, by contrast, has a more refreshing style and is an easier read. You may not enjoy the revelations, indeed you may begin to question the very system that allows approaches such as those described to flourish.  Whilst a lot of the " Westminster family" work very, very hard for most of the time, it does leave you with a feeling that there's no wonder our natural heritage is not seen as a vote catcher. Power, exposure, profile, self achievement, all bubble to the surface alongside the very genuine efforts to make our world a better place to live in. But, is this the way to try and achieve it?  Damian McBride will long be branded as an outsider and an exception to the rule. Really!!  I think he's done a first class job of revealing how the system can operate and doubtless does operate more regularly than we suspect.  Enjoy!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Two reference works all birders should possess!

For many years I've been an avid reader of the various books written by Professor Ian Newton. It first stemmed from my reading his New Naturalist volume on " Finches", but rapidly moved on to successive volumes dealing with raptors.  Much of what he set out on Sparrowhawks ( and Goshawks too ) fuelled fieldwork by several people in the Peak Park, notably the late David Herringshaw.  My own interests then went the way of Merlin and Hen Harrier and there was much within Professor Newton's successive publications that enthused that commitment.  What is often under-emphasised is that the meticulously detailed reportage in  those books were the results of extensive fieldwork by the author himself.

Within all this time Professor Newton found opportunity to serve on many, if not most , of the ornithological or conservation bodies in the UK including the RSPB.  On the few occasions I met him we talked about....raptors!  Modest, enthusiastic, he is an absolute gentleman with a natural gift of being able to encourage and enthuse. So I'm an unashamed fan , not least based on his continued outpouring of books , the titles of which have diversified in recent years ( Speciation, Migration, Bird Populations ).              

The above two are both recent texts which should be read by all birders. Much will " fall into place" based on anyone's experiences in the field, much will be revealed that is new and much is revealed in the form of references which can then be followed up that will bring additional enjoyment and new levels of appreciation. I wouldn't have the audacity to review the contents of either, but am absolutely prepared to say that not to own them,  read and repeatedly refer to them is to deny full benefit being gained from your favourite hobby!! Both are part of the New Naturalist series and can be obtained in paperback editions.

A splendid day of contrasts! 23.9.2013.

On the southern part of the Rinns the day essentially fell into two distinct parts, misty at both ends, but with an absolutely gorgeous day in between. Sunshine and warmth that was a most welcome interlude. The middle part of the day was accompanied by SE winds that were quite blustery at times in given areas.

Although it wasn't my prime intention I spent a pleasant hour seawatching. Not a great deal on the move, but clearly divers were leaving more northern climes and moving south with three Black-throated Divers and five Red-throated Divers flying through. A few Kittiwakes and Fulmars, odd Manx Shearwater and a party of six Red-breasted Merganser made there way south with Gannets moving in both directions in what, by this time, was splendid weather.

Whilst I scanned the gleaming sea a "Greenland" Wheatear fed on the turf below, doubtless a migrant having journeyed southwards in the clear conditions of the previous night.

Moving on to complete the WeBS counts ( monthly national waterfowl count organized by the BTO ) on various lochs odd Swallows were present around a couple of villages and migrant Robins called from their newly claimed wintering territories. Examples of birds yet to depart or newly arrived! As yet duck numbers are still low set against what will be their full wintering  levels in a few weeks time. The day provided yet another opportunity to check on Grey lag Goose numbers, the majority of which were around Loch Indaal or Loch Gorm. Taking advantage of the window of good weather, and after a morning's final "drying off", a large field of barley was being harvested in the early afternoon adjacent to Loch Gorm and will be worth keeping an eye on for feeding birds.

Finally , as I returned home in the early evening, the mist returned and caused me to switch on my car headlights at one point, what a contrast to what had otherwise been an absolutely splendid day.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Routine wanderings on a local patch.

Whilst wandering about my local patch is something I do regularly, as its not demanding of any travel time and usually it produces some interesting birds, today more linked with limited time being available to even consider travelling elsewhere.

As I've said on previous occasions, as soon as the moorland waders and Skylarks finish breeding, the moorland adjacent to home goes quiet. It would be wrong to ignore it altogether, as although its bird diversity might be low from now until next Spring,  it can nonetheless provide some enjoyable birding. Things appear to change very little however, ( not quite true ) and what might be said one month can apply for periods beyond. Currently the most common species is Meadow Pipit with, I suspect, the vast majority being migrants. Compared to last autumn numbers are much better, whatever their provenance, and indicate a good breeding season. Soon, however, their numbers will dwindle and the moor will be much quieter!  Thankfully a local breeder, Stonechat, has appeared to do well with two groups of 7-8 birds around, replenishing numbers that were reduced quite markedly a few winters ago.

The usual passage of Lesser Redpoll, Goldfinch, Whinchat and Linnet has hardly occurred and Northern Wheatear cleared off very early after a disastrous breeding season locally.  Warblers too went through in low numbers and in a very restricted "window", making the autumn pretty uninspiring.  Odd Swallows are still flicking through and a few Starling flocks have taken up residence with 70 or so currently near the house. Currently the local Choughs make up for things and today saw a group of eight and a separate trio feeding on areas of impoverished turf out on the moor. These, together with the local Ravens and Hooded Crows, provide easy views of the more engaging members of our Corvid family.  Both Pied Wagtail and "White" Wagtails are still in evidence, the former a local breeder and the latter moving through as a migrant from Iceland. Most of each of these move on with a few of the former remaining in winter, their numbers again increasing when birds return in March after a winter further south.  As a precursor to what will soon be the arrival of autumn thrushes  ( Redwing and Fieldfare ), wintering Robins have arrived from the Continent. Birds calling from somewhat inappropriate places herald their arrival in early September with their preferred habitat being somewhat less associated with human habitations than our resident birds. Other than that odd Reed Bunting, Wren and Pheasant comprised the list for the whole outing. Not a lot, but a useful backcloth which both catalogues the various points of the season we've currently reached as far as departures and arrivals are concerned.

Hen Harrier Roost Surveys.

Within last week I've spent three occasions looking at sites that I feel, based on past experience, might be used as roost sites by hen harriers in winter on Islay.  I'd like to try and extend the work to Jura too , but that's another story.  Next month ( October ) the monthly counts begin in what will be the  31st season of the survey. Last winter I spent a whole series of late afternoons watching out for birds moving to roost at new sites, but without success ( so much for past experience!! ). There is a small roost on the RSPB Gruinart Reserve, which is monitored by the permanent staff, but any others on the island are largely an unknown quantity in all respects!!  I did come away with the conclusion that there appeared to be fewer harriers around in toto on Islay than I was used to seeing in the past and I also now feel the same about the current breeding population on Islay too.. The deliberate targeting of the species by certain factions of the shooting community in past winters at roosts on the mainland has diminished noticeably the overall numbers around in my opinion. No breeding pairs are now present in England and I suspect the Scottish population has been similarly reduced .

 I sometimes smile when I hear people say, here on Islay and outside of the breeding season , that they've had  six or eight harriers in the day. That's entirely possible, of course, but there's also a need for caution as harriers can cover a heck of a lot of ground during a single day as sat tagged birds have demonstrated.  That's one of the reasons why counts at roosts are held, not just to try and count the numbers but to avoid the possibility of duplication.

For England and Wales the survey is organized by the British Trust for Ornithology and Hawk and Owl Trust in partnership and, for Scotland, it's organized by the RSPB ( see contact details below ). By preference , the counts are held on the third Sunday in the month for the months of October through to March and all the necessary instructions can be obtained from the above contacts dependent on where you live. It's also important to submit Nil Returns. For obvious reasons the information is treated with strict confidentiality and should be treated as such by observers too.

From past experience in the Forest of Bowland , Lancashire I can admit to having spent many happy weekends involved in the above work along with colleagues Bill Hesketh, Bill Murphy and various contract wardens.  We proved that birds were sometimes returning to the high fells to roost, most often singly but not always, and were using isolated  juncus beds, even in excess of a 1000 feet. This was all new at the time, as was the fact that they didn't necessarily return to the same roost on consecutive days. Weather played a part too and roosts could be adopted or abandoned at will. An examination of a site during daylight would reveal a small platform of stems bent over to provide a flat surface on which the bird could rest. Sometimes the sites would be quite wet, a feature which didn't appear to put the birds off.  I often thought that being at altitude in a "Bowland winter" would be seriously challenging until I lay down one day in a  juncus bed ( a dry one! )  and realised that  the roosting  "chamber" was out of the wind, relatively cosy and that any disturbance could easily be detected.  Of course, all this chopping and changing meant that results were variable, inaccurate and could only be used to construct estimates, but the data had its uses nonetheless. Roosts at lower altitudes in the wider Bowland area never held more than two or three birds , if that, so there appeared to be no distinct preference for high or low sites even in the worst weather.  Good times!   Now, sadly, a thing of the past until such time as the current atmosphere of deliberate persecution is brought to heel and the population improves. Given that "the Bills" still visit Bowland at least twice a week, and have done for many years, it was infinitely sad to hear Bill Hesketh say a little time ago that it was several months since he'd seen a harrier in Bowland. A stark contrast to the halcyon days of the 70's when there was in excess of forty breeding pairs and where, as young men, they did so much sterling monitoring work.

It's recommended that the observations are carried out previous to dusk, although they can be conducted in the morning. I've never personally favoured the latter as birds seem to slip off in the early light and are difficult to detect.  Having said that I can also remember returning home from a roost watch in the Peak Park some years ago and having a male Hen Harrier speed through the car's headlights in the otherwise utter darkness!

Current circumstances dictate that we gather as much data as possible on this species and, therefore, if you have an opportunity to assist, please contact one of the organizers below dependant on where you're located.  Many thanks.

England and Wales   Anne Cotton (BTO )  e-mail    anne.cotton@bto.org

Scotland                   Chris Rollie (RSPB ) e-mail     Chris.Rollie@rspb.org.uk

I've identified six areas to investigate this winter so I hope past experience provides a better steer in the coming months than in 2012-13!!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

RSPB.......worthy , but arrogant?

Over the last two-three weeks I've had ample opportunity to discuss at leisure a whole host of topics with friends and colleagues. Many were touched on less comprehensively whilst I was at the BirdFair in August.
Most issues were bird or conservation related, some linked to politics, holidays, how friends were faring and so on. However, all conversations included a "What the hell is the RSPB up to" or similar comment. Oblique comments and questions have been raised elsewhere, but that's about as far as things have gone.

Setting aside logos, TV adverts, hedgehog houses and revised magazine titles, what is the RSPB up to? It's not very clear , although we're told all will be revealed in due course, perhaps at the AGM on the 12th October? Of more interest to me is what the Society is actively pursuing based on its core values. Rumours suggest changes are on the way, but why all the delay and confusion ?  I suspect that if a current member was asked what priorities the Society is pursuing they wouldn't be able to list any other than some general reference to climate change. Sadly the Society appears to have lost the faith and trust of many and its credibility is seriously under siege.  Thankfully, its membership still remains loyal out of a sense of duty as opposed to continuing satisfaction, but this may yet change.

Most people cite their dissatisfaction with the Society's inability to "stand up for things", it  "no longer having any teeth" and accepting too easily the views of those opposing conservation.  I'm not sure all of the above is entirely true, but I can easily identify with the sentiments. However, the Society has a lot of very capable staff within its ranks who, I am sure, are equally frustrated by the current lack of support by Government for conservation, all of which spills over and affects the positioning of the RSPB.  But shouldn't this be shared with the membership and act as a clarion call to action? And I mean a clarion call, not some effete request!! This lack of a relationship with its members is a worry. Unless demanded,  actions are not openly displayed or discussed, there is no longer a feeling of being part of an organization, simply a request for support and now "we'll do the rest".  Not the best recipe for all out allegiance in my view.  Despite endless RSPB Blogs, which usually outline emergent government policies or similar, as opposed to explaining why RSPB is acting as it does, there is clearly a significant proportion of the membership who feel disenfranchised and feel they are deserving of more open and honest explanation of what is happening. I can also understand an RSPB reaction that says " what else can we do?".

Uhm!  Well I know that the RSPB has always hugely valued its membership, so this is not a situation to be ignored. Clearly the problem lies with communication as opposed to the actual content of the Society's stance on various matters.  A simple remedy might be a more open declaration of policy objectives within its overall strategy ( sexed up a bit of course! ), a list of things to be focussed on during the year following and some form of review in terms of what was achieved or lost. Sharing the accompanying frustrations or celebrating the successes is what many people want from "their" organization, not some stuffy plastic update. Tell it as it is with all the forensic disclosures involved! It's certainly not always obvious what the Society feels its priorities to be, which should be an obvious thing to rectify. Within what I hope will be a burgeoning membership in response to the current advertising there will be some who will arrive with "expectations" of what they expect "their society" to address.  Not something that I suggest is all that obvious or easily accessed in the "we know best" approach accompanied, usually, by fine words but limited explanation.

In the 1980's it was customary for RSPB to hold an annual, internal conference for all staff directly associated with conservation planning activities.  Held over a couple of days or so lectures and discussions were organized dealing with the most important issues in hand at the time.  On one occasion an evening debate was held, following a similar format to those organized by the Oxford Union with the motion, " RSPB....worthy , but arrogant".  I seem to remember most of those present considered such to be true. Of course there was much to celebrate in those years, which undoubtedly underpinned the general feelings of confidence.  Research results, reserve acquisitions, site designation, repeated successes with policies being submitted for Local and National Plans and so on. But, sadly, I'm not sure the old culture has ameliorated and the current situation does seem to be somewhat redolent of the past at a time when greater transparency and collectivism is needed.

Nonetheless I don't believe there is anything sinister or of a deliberately exclusive nature in the current relationship, simply that the approach is wrong and needs revising in order to become more user friendly and more open.  Avoiding it will invite problems from within the community the RSPB is now so keen to attract.

Finally, I read with interest the report referred to by Martin Harper ( Director of Conservation, RSPB ) in a recent Blog (  Learning to talk....about nature. ).  The report, produced by the Green Alliance, sets out the views of various conservation organizations on how they feel politicians have performed over the past three years.  It occurs to me this is an approach which might usefully be turned on the conservation organizations themselves, except, in the RSPB's case it wouldn't be easy to determine precisely what

  • its overall strategy was for a given time period
  • its aims and objectives were for the year ahead
Following on from all this it would be difficult to decide how successful or otherwise the Society had been in its endeavours.  Is this an approach that should be considered for future, I wonder, by both us and the Society itself?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A bit later than intended!

Right, well the prognosis is " fit, more or less flexible" , so let's see how things progress!

After a couple of days of gales with strong NWesterlies birding logic suggested being out on the coast seawatching was the sensible option.  Surely Sabines Gulls and Leach's Petrels would be the very essence of such conditions?  Well, if such was the case, it certainly didn't apply between 0700 -0930 hours!! Within that time fierce squalls and associated heavy showers were the order of the day with, at times, the wind reaching at least F6/7.  It was a bit grim , and that was the bird passage!  A few Gannets, GBBG, Manx Shearwater and odd Fulmar,,,,,, and that was it!   Admittedly one of the Fulmars was a possible "Blue", but moved through at such speed it was almost lost before being seen. How strange after such a potentially supportive system of weather.   Ah well, such is life and there's always tomorrow.

Later I looked at Outer Loch Indaal and was again surprised at how few birds had come in to shelter. Odd Red-throated Diver and Guillemot ....and that was it. Unfortunately I hadn't an opportunity to look at the inner loch where more birds might have been present.

The last few days has seen few birds in evidence locally, which is hardly surprising given the conditions. However, as the wind died down and we were warmed by a weak late afternoon sun , birds began to appear. As I returned home late afternoon a loose party of 8/9 Stonechats were playing around on the fence line along the road and a small number of Meadow Pipits were in evidence.

Overall, a strange day but perhaps tomorrow will be different....and better!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Return to normality?

I'm conscious that it's almost a month since I put out a Blog on the site, for which apologies to those who, in between times, have checked for entries.  After being in Yorkshire looking at a couple of sites in mid August I then went to the BirdFair at Rutland.  Whilst I only had two days there I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and for the first time in many years actually managed to attend a couple of talks.  Independence in the extreme!!  It was great with time spent chatting to contacts from abroad , stallholders and indulging in dreams of visiting far off places based on the plethora of advice, information, talks which was available. Meeting up with friends, some of which I'd not seen for a couple of years, was particularly enjoyable and generated many a pleasant memory.

Returning back to Islay, time was immediately devoted to preparations for the annual census of Grey lag Geese, which I've organized for several years, and to the actual survey itself on the 27th August. The results were disappointing in the sense that birds were elusive on the day and further work was clearly required. Following that everything went downhill in that I injured my back and have been "laid up" ever since. Things are beginning to return to normal, but I have to register my sympathy with anyone who suffers from back trouble on a regular basis. What an all embracing condition it can turn out to be! Every small movement invites agony and a following period of staring at a fixed spot as if hit by a taser whilst tensed up waiting for the flood of pain to subside. Having spent the time semi immobilised in a chair supported by cushions like some historical potentate ( minus the scantily clad "assistants", the grapes and the punkhawallah....I had to make do with an open window for a welcoming draught ! ) things are finally returning to normal. First amongst several tasks in the next few days is to get further work done on the above Grey lags, so I hope with increasing optimism that things are returning to normal!!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Perhaps a future weapon of choice for Hen Harriers?

There are two Blogs which I read regularly and avidly, both for the same reasons. One is that of Martin Harper ( Director of Conservation, RSPB ), see link here Martin Harper's Blog,  who covers a wide variety of conservation matters he is involved with and, along the way, provides many critical insights and accompanying information.  His latest contribution is a more personal entry entitled " Big Wild Sleep Out" and is hilarious, and I guess something that many people will identify with, particularly after this weekend. Reading it raised my spirits after the less than edifying information that had emerged yesterday when it fell to Martin to reveal  the possible extinction of the Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England in the Press Release issued by the Society, see link here  Hen Harrier on the brink of extinction in England.

The second is that of Mark Avery ( previous Director of Conservation, RSPB, now independent campaigner and writer and a past colleague ) see link here  Mark Avery's Blog  Along the way Mark has lent immense support towards harrier conservation in a variety of respects. He's well equipped to do so, and one can well appreciate why harriers are resented by some, as his own brand of harrying shows no restrictions when it comes to revealing the inadequacies of those threatening or purporting to be associated with conservation.
It is from his Blog last week that the above theme emerges.

Within recent months, if not longer, a battle has raged relating to Catfield Fen and current efforts to renew water abstraction licences, which may affect the area and cause it to dry out. That issue still continues and was the subject of a Blog that Mark Avery put out last week , see link here and the accompanying Comments, Catfield (Abstraction Licences) .  Within those Comments are ones offered by Richard Wilson, who is an independent ecologist based in Leeds, see link here Richard Wilson's Blog .   Essentially there has been some European Case Law issued which might have implications for Hen Harrier conservation in future. The case concerned is being popularly referred to as the Sweetman Case and we may be hearing more of it in the fullness of time. The details are worth ploughing through  and the Comment Richard Wilson has submitted to Mark Avery's Blog sets out in fine detail the arguments that might be marshalled in this respect. In lay terms, put together by someone with no legal background whatsoever (me!), the issue revolves around site integrity. Given many of our grouse moors are designated sites based on their conservation value then the details upon which that designation rests could be viewed as sacrosanct under the  terms and conditions of the Habitats Directive. Under Article 6(3) of that Directive if, subsequently, the management of the site or changes brought about in other ways results in the diminution of its value in conservation terms, compared against those aspects upon which its designation rests, then such could be in breach of the Terms required under the Directive.  In other words if grouse moor owners, directly or via their staff, see fit to remove or deliberately prevent the presence of Hen Harriers on the site following its designation as an area of importance for such species, or refuse to restore the situation back to the original condition, then they would be in breach of the law. I hope all that's correct in a legal context!!  If I also read things correctly there is therefore a requirement for them to "make things right" in this context and restore matters back to their original state if a site is seen to fall below its original level of designated value. Presumably in advance of any legal proceedings they would be served some form of Notice advising such "work" should be undertaken.

Now I'm under no illusions that such provisions, laudable as they might be, can be wrangled over until the cows come home with professional prevarication, via the legal process, figuring prominently in the whole scenario. But is this a "weapon" we might now use and one that can be turned on those who first sought to eradicate this iconic species of our wildlife heritage?  I would sincerely hope so.

All this links with the point I was pursuing with Natural England recently in the Freedom of Information Request I submitted relating to Bowland  ( see 8th July this Blog ). That area, and the North Pennines SPA, have both shown a marked reduction in the raptor species numbers upon which the original designation was based. Is there just a glimmer here that this recent case law might come to the aid of a species on the brink of extinction? I'd like to think so and would urge Natural England in particular to heed the findings and review things accordingly. I'm sure the RSPB will be looking at the details with a certain amount of interest too and would encourage their pursuit of the issues it potentially influences.

And so the saga of an imminent extinction, a drying out Fen, European case law and a potential weapon of hope for the Hen Harrier all come together. Many thanks to all those associated with the story!!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Too little, too late for the Hen Harrier in England.

I'd intended having a relaxing few hours seawatching this morning, but was greeted by the press release from the RSPB relating to the Hen Harrier's likely extinction in England ,  see this link  Hen Harrier on brink of extinction in England.  Reading through the immediate responses I, like many, felt a sense of outrage, a sense of failure , but also an underlying feeling that, if more timely action had been taken, then the situation might have been different.

The RSPB does a good, but less than subtle, job within the Press Release of putting the Government, in the form of DEFRA, "in the frame", ranging from the commitment within the Government's  Biodiversity 2020  report that there should be no extinction of any English wild species at the hand of man  to expressing their eagerness to hear of proposals from DEFRA about how the Hen Harrier can be restored to its rightful place in the English uplands.  No problem with that as it constitutes the usual and predictable political manoeuvring one might expect. However, let's dip below the hypocrisy and cut to the chase!

The RSPB is part of a DEFRA group working towards producing an emergency recovery plan aimed at the Hen Harrier in England.  C'mon,chaps, let's stand firm together, not try and shift blame in the face of what inevitably will be a period of negative comments and the like !!  And let's not be pre-emptive either in calling for the plan to be properly resourced by the Government when the Group you are part of haven't yet, at least to my knowledge, published anything.  And as far as the offence of  Vicarious Liability is concerned, let's apply a bit of maturity and nous!  Recognizing that the Society has indeed called for it to be embraced within law, would it not have been sensible to lend support to the independent E-petition raised last year in order to put pressure on the Government.   DEFRA Minister ( Richard Benyon ) had rejected, within Parliament,  a call for its adoption and added that "the progression " of its inclusion within Scottish law would be monitored closely.  That the Scottish Government is still pondering over whether it can pursue the first case of its kind in Scotland hardly bodes well for its welcome embrace within England, even if  the imminent wildlife regulation review supports the idea. The anticipated appearance of the latter seems to be neutralising the RSPB's ability to actively pursue various matters upon which it could assume a prominent public position.  In a slightly altered version of the Peter, Paul and Mary song ( and Joan Baez too )

"Where has the conviction gone, long time passing."

The persecution of harriers is not new. The commitment of RSPB resources to the problem is not new either and, over many, many years it has actually devoted endless amounts of money and hours to tackling the problem. But in my view it took its eye off the ball at the most crucial time and with the current results. Of course it's not directly responsible in the normal sense, but it is culpable and should attempt to learn from the mistaken strategy it pursued. Whilst undoubtedly there will be the usual vacuous comments in certain quarters about how things could have been different, now is the time to stand tall, take the disappointing news on the chin and fight determinedly in what is now the aftermath. And that demands more than issuing a challenge to the shooting fraternity to adhere to the law!!  Matters that should have been pursued with more focus should now provide the backbone of intent. DEFRA should , actively and openly, be pursued to make available the results gathered from sat tagged harriers and the lessons emerging from such should be the basis of a much expanded investigations strategy. I am sure, in the absence of a search for funds previously, if the membership was called upon immediately to contribute to a "fighting fund" for investigations work then the initiative would meet with success.  Never mind waiting for the Law Commission Review, campaign now for Vicarious Liability!! The Tories are not going to alienate the Uncle Huberts of this world  20 months or so from an election by willingly embracing such legislation, they're going to have to be dragged there struggling and screaming!   And for God's sake, as used to be the case, routinely start talking anew to all shooting Estates and commence to try, at least, to create common ground. It happened in the 90's, it wasn't always a comfortable process, but it created opportunities for dialogue and the pursuit of small initiatives. The "reinstatement" of the English breeding population of Hen Harriers is going to be a long haul involving a lot of hard work. Relying on Government policies, advocating change at arm's length, will not work sufficiently. Getting in there at the active end of the process might, at least it will probably earn the RSPB more respect than it now generates amongst those it sees as the opposition.

Whilst I'm still looking round for something to kick ( and I'm afraid you, RSPB, were first in the frame this morning! ) the job of addressing what's needed starts today. Here and now!  So for all those birders who , as yet , have not signed the E-petition aimed at bringing regulation to upland grouse moors, here's your chance

Licencing upland grouse moors and gamekeepers.

And RSPB, given the comments above about Vicarious Liability , I don't believe it would do any harm at all to hedge your bets and advocate support by the Society's membership for the above petition. Time and history is not something we can arrest and exercise best preferences upon. We need to act for the future on as many fronts as are open to us or accept the inevitable failure.  At a time when you are calling for us all to "Make a Home for Nature", then we must do just that , actively, not view the prospect as some passive , academic exercise.  The challenge is to us as well !!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tigers are abroad!

How's that for an obvious statement?  And it must be said that the various races in different parts of the world aren't having too good a time of it either. But did you realise the same situation applies in the UK? Oh yes, our tigers are experiencing mixed fortunes as well and the sad thing is you're only likely to encounter them after dark.  Oh dear!

In the manner of old time practice I set my trap in a suitable place at the back of the house and can proudly claim to have caught several in one night!!  It looks as if things are looking good for the "official" UK wide survey on the 8th-10th August, 2013.  So, come on kids and Dads , let's have a bit of adventure on the next few evenings!!  And here's one of them I caught,

Isn't it a beauty?   Yes, it's a moth, whatever did you think otherwise?. Sadly it didn't opt to show its beautiful orange underwing with a dark band across its lower edge.

Now comes the serious bit. Over the 8th-10th August, 2013 Atropus and Butterfly Conservation in conjunction with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are encouraging people to trap or look out for Tiger Moths. In reality whatever you catch in that time can be reported on , but the objective this year is to try and get a better insight into our "tiger" populations.  The one seen above, Garden Tiger, is one everyone is worrying about as it appears to be in serious decline.  In southern England and the London area the Jersey Tiger is actually increasing its range and is the species which can be seen during the day. Another, the Ruby Tiger ( what a name! ) is also on the wing during August.

So, if this has caught your interest then simply look at www.mothnight.info where more information is available and is the site where you can submit your observations.  There is a very serious intent behind all this and your support is required so that we can gain a better idea of the distribution and numbers of this family of moths. Please try and help and I hope you enjoy it all.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Has the RSPB got things right or........?

I don't know about you but the various comments being made on Blogs and Facebook at present about the RSPB absolutely intrigue me!! Not everyone appears entirely happy with the various changes arising in which the Society is involved.  Martin Harper ( RSPB Director of Conservation ) has even acknowledged a couple of times that there appears to be plenty of  "noise" out there.  I would suggest the score, at least, is something the Society itself has been responsible for and the comments relate to the dissonance involved in some of the less than fluid passages!  So, what is all the fuss about?

Well, first it was the logo change, then the TV advert and now the proposed change to the title of BIRDS magazine, besides the Society's intention to embrace a much wider remit associated with all wildlife. Enough to ruffle the feathers of many well-preened aficionados it would seem.

Clearly many of these changes have been both contemplated and hinted at for some time and I confess to having had a few reservations about them myself, set out on this Blog previously.  It would be easy to conclude that all this change was exclusively a marketing ploy, and I'm sure there are hoped for returns in that context, but, in conservation terms, it surely makes sense?  Nonetheless I do feel the RSPB could do better at selling itself and its envisaged changes to its own membership. Whilst I don't feel the logo change is something to particularly get hot under the collar about, I don't feel it was necessary either. However, perhaps the Society has seen fit to retain its "Royal" association, but with a little less of an emphasis. The letters stand for the same thing, but with a reduced "blatancy" shall we say.

The advert!  Allegedly costing £2million, as a promotional initiative it's therefore extremely costly and a hell of a gamble even for an organization with a generated income as high as the RSPB. Whilst the Society has been losing members in recent times, it's hardly surprising given the current economic situation. Contrasted against all this are the viewing figures of programmes like BBC SpringWatch and BBC AutumnWatch, which suggest there is a lot of people out there who are interested in wildlife. Coupled with all this is the fact that conservation is receiving less and less recognition from Central Government and you have a self-evident opportunity whose potential  it would be irresponsible to ignore. Attempting to attract such newly emergent wildlife enthusiasts into supporting what is openly acknowledged as the UK's most effective conservation body therefore makes sense, very good sense. Not only would this generate increased support for conservation initiatives, but it would indicate to our "Greenest Government Never"  that there was emerging concerns within its electorate that it would do well to take account of.

So, all in all, I can see the time has arrived to move from simply dealing with birds and their habitats to embracing all that comprises our natural heritage. I then read a Blog that Mike Clarke ( Chief Executive, RSPB ) had put out a couple of weeks ago  Saving nature is a marathon, not a sprint.  Use this last Link and scroll down through the entries on Martin Harper's Blog where Mike Clarke was presenting a guest entry. The recent State of Nature report put together by the RSPB and over twenty other conservations in the UK presents a very chilling picture on the current circumstances of our native wildlife. Picking up on these and other available details convinced me that, whatever our collective gut reactions to change might be, something needs to be done and something drastic at that. Logos and adverts aside, what is needed is more, many more, supporters and activists, which is precisely what RSPB seems intent on achieving. Well done!!

But then the Autumn edition of BIRDS magazine arrives and spoils things!! Enter Page 85 and a rather feeble mention of the next vital steps coupled with an announcement that the title of BIRDS magazine will change to Nature's Home.  Surely with this conservation epiphany having occurred, with this decision to pursue an enlightened and bold change being taken, the accompanying PR pitch could have been stronger and included a real rallying call to the current membership in particular. I don't really like the new title, but I do understand and will support the need for change and all that might be involved.  It's the "ingredients"  the RSPB is renowned for, but on this occasion the packaging is poor in my opinion.  Announcing it all in a convincing
and enthusiastic way smacks of celebration and confidence......  and most importantly, firm intent!  This modesty, this civilised attempt at appeal and persuasion, is a sad understatement of what is the most  major change since the Society came into being and what one hopefully proves to be the saving grace of our wildlife heritage.  Undoubtedly the next edition of  Nature's Home will regale us with what is intended and I've every confidence the content will be impressive.  But now is the time to convince and carry forward, not allow three months for the dissonance and noise to grow further due to a drip feeding of information about intentions upon which either nothing should have been said or a full revelation of details provided.

Yes, I'm sure all of us will still be there to take that "vital step", but think about the existing membership a little more. Change can seem a threat to some, and engender unnecessary opposition.  Much could be avoided by more openness on the Society's behalf,  a facet I don't believe it has quite right so far. A hard shout I suppose, but the thing is, we actually believe you're capable of the best....at everything.      

Monday, July 29, 2013

A day partially in the hills.

Linked with some liaison work I'd to complete before commencing some work I then had a very relaxing day in the hills. Following my previous convictions Northern Wheatears appear to have had a pretty thin season and have all but moved on already. By contrast Meadow Pipits seem to have had a good season contrasted against the last couple of years.  These, alongside cronking Ravens, but little else amongst the high tops, set the scene for the day.

Pied Wagtails are much in evidence at the moment and one juvenile obligingly explored the recesses below the windscreen wipers of my car for insect remains whilst I had my lunch.  A reassuring confirmation that we can enjoy a close relationship with wildlife if we respect their needs!!  Everywhere there seemed to be Green-veined White butterflies, a few Ringlets and odd Small Tortoiseshell, the recent good weather for once supporting the needs of these attractive creatures.

The afternoon spoilt itself with a period of quite heavy rain, which admittedly freshened things up , but also brought things to a stop!! And so back home for an early bath as the honourable game would declare!!