Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Is this the new reality? Can this now be the norm for raptor persecution cases?

Is this the real life
Is this just fantasy
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see.

Those immortal words, written and sung by Freddie Mercury in 1975, in that tremendous record by Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, represent what I both feel and hope for the future. As a life long Queen fan I knew one of their lyrics would fit in at some point!!!   I'm tempted after the final line to insert  RAPTORS  ( in brackets of course ) but that would be sacrilege!

And what sparks off this unprecedented declaration of my hitherto undeclared passion for Queen's music?
                                                     A court case no less !! 

First of all you need to read the entry on the Raptor Persecution Scotland website  ( Scottish gamekeeper convicted for poisoning Buzzard.) as I'm not going to steal any of their thunder by lifting line by line detail of their entry about the case and various other details. But I feel the need to celebrate in a personal context and ask the question, "Are things finally beginning to improve"?

The gamekeeper involved faced four charges and the case was examined at the Stranraer Sheriffs Court, SW Scotland following an incident in December, 2012.  Yes, less than six months ago, which is the major pleasant surprise which emerges first of all.  The defendant pleaded guilty  ( I hate that word "pled" , it offers too little of an emphasis on the fact somebody is usually trying to avoid the reality of the occasion!! ).

In all, the defendant was fined £4450 which had been reduced due to the guilty plea relating to killing the Buzzard and three charges of possessing poison.  Leaving aside all the mish-mash which contributes to such circumstances I think we need to look at the implications, and positive ones at that, which this case provides. It shows that, when all assembled details are available, that cases can be programmed far more quickly than certainly the Scottish judicial system has ably demonstrated in the past. Full marks for those concerned. 

Secondly it demonstrates that meaningful penalties can be handed down , that  such cases are being taken seriously and that the circumstances are being held up to others willing to "risk their arm" that, if caught, such will be the consequences if evidence is available. Well done that Sheriff!!

But beyond that, we now understand that the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has dismissed the gamekeeper concerned from their ranks and that the Scottish Land and Estates have similarly dismissed the estate concerned from their organization.  Now, rather than indulge in petty recriminations, such actions have to be respected. We may all have been disappointed in the prevarication of such organizations in the past but such actions provide a major positive action we can refer to in the future, PRECEDENCE !!   The court,  the membership organizations ( I'm not going to grace them with "professional" simply due to the circumstances ) have all set in place the template for the future. If similar cases arise with disappointing results , then questions can be asked.  Like it or not, such an outcome might eventually provide a platform upon which meaningful discussions can proceed on what constitutes the real perceived problems with raptor populations, what needs to change and what can be achieved.

A single result, but something that, in isolation, might yet represent hope. 

Close encounter at home.

After another fairly routine day I was relaxing back at home, pondering over some information about sea birds and feeding grounds, when I heard a commotion around the house. Now, in order to appreciate this entry, you require to know a little about the location I live in.  My neighbours lie quite a distance away in either direction and I suppose I'd qualify for being in a super-rural location!!

Now what you also need to know is that my garden is, well, overgrown!  Well overgrown it could be said!  It's quite deliberate and echoes my attempts to attract Corncrakes , somewhat unsuccessfully, into its tangle of vegetation. As you can see the garden isn't large and is confined by low walls tight to the house. Following all the commotion I looked out and saw around 90 Starlings going in all directions. Starlings were actually diving into the long vegetation in order to seek out cover!  Imagine my surprise when the next actor entering onto this stage of utter chaos was a male Hen Harrier!  It swooped over the garden at the Starlings, unsuccessfully, and tried several times more before moving off. I even ducked on one occasion given its close proximity to the house and I can truthfully say that being stared in the eye by the piercingly bright yellow of a Hen Harrier's targetting mechanism makes you feel every much a potential prey item as a Starling!!!

I expect it will return as long as the Starlings continue to feed nearby and perch out on the barn roof or on one of the two squat bushes in the garden. From experience I could even suggest that to keep a look out between 1600-1700 hours would be productive as hunting harriers do seem to keep to some form of schedule each day whilst feeding young.  Last year Hen Harriers were absent locally, i.e. close to the house, which was a great shame after enjoying a  relationship with a regular pair over several years.  I'd seen both these adults hunting locally on several recent occasions, but farther away from the house, so it was a nice surprise to realise they weren't that far away.  Not a bad reward for a harrier fanatic!!

Routine day with no surprises! 18.6.2013.

I suppose this part of June can be the quietest period of the year when it comes to birds. Not always, I hear you cry, watch out for Pacific Swifts given the recent record in Norfolk.  Nonetheless, that's perhaps how I felt at the end of yesterday after a day's survey work that wasn't the most edifying I've ever lived through in addition to the physical effort involved!

However, small mercies. The Cuckoo's outpourings at home have begun to reduce, although the "panic button" calling of Curlews starts at first light as the first Hooded Crows patrol the moor seeking out their young!   A couple of pairs of Grey lag Geese have appeared with their young out on the grass moor. The interesting aspect was to see that they were at least a month behind the well grown youngsters I'd seen in Norfolk some time ago. More birds are beginning to appear and it will be interesting to see what the breeding season has produced as far as passerines are concerned. Northern Wheatears seem to have disappeared, whilst other birds seem only just to have started.

And on a miscellaneous note!  Large Tortoiseshell butterflies have been found on the Isle of Wight again. I say again, as I think there's been odd records since they were considered extinct in the 1950's. Good news , particularly as two females were located within the specimens encountered. And amidst the doom and gloom of reports of our unceasingly abused wildlife across the globe, it's uplifting to learn of fifteen (15) new bird species being found in the Amazon.  I can't tell you what they are as they haven't yet been given names!!!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What we're really up against when it comes to the persecution of Hen Harriers and other raptors.

Reading recently various comments on Bird Forum about raptor persecution prompted me to have yet another good think about the issue.
Whilst the comments expressed are heartfelt and raise certain criticisms of the current Government for non-intervention based on vested self-interest by senior members, they are wrong in part of their analysis. The reasons are far more deep seated than that!  This is NOT a recent phenomenon, although its most recent manifestation has now seen the decimation of the English breeding population of Hen Harriers. And it's not exclusively about commercial interest either. It's about authority, power and choice!!

It seems to me that the Private Estates within the UK are acutely aware that their independence of yesteryear is increasingly being put under scrutiny and pressure. Whether it's Right to Roam, legislation protecting wildlife, the designation of areas under both national and European level and, therefore, their ability to do exactly as they please is being eroded away, albeit very gradually! They can no longer operate as they did previously behind fences and Keep Out notices and they resent it. At the same time we have to recognise that these areas do provide a natural haven for wildlife as well as for farming operations, forestry and, yes, for shooting too. The challenge, therefore, is to arrive at a solution that provides for all such "interests". Sadly there appears to be a significant proportion of upland grouse moor owners who see things differently and who are willing to ignore the requirements of law.

Raptor persecution in the cause of grouse management has gone on for a long time. Some of the carnage of the past is unbelievable, but it was done to secure the same ends as now, namely the removal of any potential  factors that work against shooting and its enjoyment by its minority following. Clearly there is a belief  by some that they can rise above the law in pursuit of self interest.  A "We know best position, we've always operated like this and have no damned intention of changing" attitude.  And that is key to the whole issue, an anachronistic position adopted to try and hang on to the halcyon days following the emergence of organized grouse shooting.  Any measures aimed at eroding such a position of independence are, therefore, vehemently condemned and opposed, or simply ignored.

Attitudes can take a long time to change which is why regulation is the only answer and the core reason why I registered the Epetition in the terms expressed. In my opinion such could result in a set of well framed regulations that hurt no one if they operate in a law abiding fashion. Of course, no Conservative Government , coalition partner or not, wishes to give overt support to measures that deliberately seek to embarrass its Establishment chums and such is the current situation. Such change will be a hard fought battle. Clearly the views of Natural England, the Government's advisor on countryside matters, are tempered by the requirements of political expediency. The large conservation organizations no longer appear to wield the influence they have had. In many cases they now appear to have had any fire in their bellies quenched by sweet words and access to the corridors of power, wherein their advice is amiably received and then politely ignored. Of course there will be the occasional concession, but only if it suits the cause!

It remains to be seen whether the recommendations anticipated from the Law Commission review of wildlife legislation are embraced with enthusiasm or are surrounded by prevarication. I suspect they might reside conveniently in the long grass until a time emerges wherein they will suffer from "debate exhaustion". Sad, but it seems that's the lack of relevance afforded to environmental matters nowadays. Someone asked me recently why I continue to campaign and argue for change. Such a need for change is something I believe in , but also I believe that our wildlife heritage is something we should all be able to enjoy without self serving and negative influences affecting the situation.  I'm reminded too of twenty years of being involved with Hen Harrier protection in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire and the succession of contract staff and volunteers who stoically gave of their utmost, in sometimes difficult circumstances, to try and bring about positive change. None have given more than my two old friends, Bill Murphy and Bill Hesketh, who similarly believe in a raptor presence to be enjoyed by all and have given forty years of effort in this regard.


So , you know what comes next ,folks!  Please sign the petition to add to a body of opinion that calls for a change in the fortunes of our UK raptors.  Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers.

Thank you.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

House Martin conundrum.

Several people have said to me within the last few weeks that House Martin numbers appear to be much reduced and what has happened to them.  Time will tell what the reality of that situation actually is this season.  But running in parallel to all of this is the fact that we don't really know where, precisely, House Martins go in the winter months. Yes, we know they appear to go to Africa, but precisely where?

I certainly have seen House Martins in a variety of places around the Mediterranean in the late winter, but not in mainland Africa in numbers.  Whilst large numbers have been ringed, few recoveries have been secured compared to Swallows. Whilst ringers in South Africa catch many Swallows at roost, no such terrestrial roosts of House Martins have been located, indeed sightings of birds are not that common. All in all an intriguing scenario in this day and age!! Occasional "wrecks" of House Martins have occurred in Zambia, where sightings of birds are not infrequent. It would seem that the birds can suffer from the the onset of cold and wet weather, gather in places to shelter and then be found dead in appreciable numbers.

To address this modern day mystery, the BTO are to attach several birds with small geolocators this summer in an attempt to discover what is involved. These devices are very small and weigh only about 1 gram. They measure daylight length and the location at the time can be determined from these results. Remarkable results are possible nowadays from the use of such miniature technology and the outcome of the research is already eagerly awaited!!

Some reflections on Islay raptor populations.

Yesterday was absolutely filthy in the sense that it rained throughout most of it and, contrasted against recent times, it wasn't very warm either. So, it was a day to catch up with paperwork and other tasks. Thankfully, the tedium of the afternoon was broken up by a visit from Gordon and Pauline Yates, who hail from Lancashire, but who have been coming to Islay for at least the last thirty years. Many in Northern England will already know of them from the films they make that are shown at a wide variety of venues. If I simply say that Gordon has a passion for Hen Harriers equal to mine, you'll immediately understand the common bonds that are present and the basis of our conversations.

I was pleased in a rather perverse way yesterday to hear that Gordon too felt that the harrier numbers were down on Islay. I'm firmly convinced that the widespread persecution on the mainland over the past two years or so has led to a reduction here. Various territories are vacant and filmed pairs show the adults previously present have now been "replaced" by younger birds. The Gruinart area, monitored closely on an annual basis  by RSPB, has also seen a reductions in the number of pairs present set against the usual  level. Whilst the proud claim of having 40+ pairs of harriers on Islay has oft been quoted, the mindless persecution elsewhere has obviously taken its toll along with losses noted in other parts of the mainland.

We both agreed that Golden Eagle numbers appear to be holding firm on Islay and Jura and that White-tailed Eagles continue to do well in NW Scotland. By contrast we both felt that the Peregrine population on Islay appears to have reduced in recent years, the reasons for which are perplexing at best. With the very buoyant population of Rock Doves present, persecution not being a problem and breeding sites being unaffected, the factors involved are somewhat of a concern.  Common Buzzards have certainly increased over the last decade, but the rapid increase noted previously now appears to have slowed, either temporarily or more permanently.

Our discussions ranged far and wide and then centred on a subject I know is dear to Pauline's heart and that she'd soundly clout me for for setting out here!  For many years Pauline, supported by Gordon as necessary, has trained guide dogs for the blind, an involvement from which she has only recently withdrawn. Over the years she has been involved in the training of 31 guide dogs.  What an absolutely wonderful contribution to make, to bring freedom and independence to other fellow humans in need of such support.  I reflected later, and felt genuinely and suitably humbled!  Raving on about rare birds pursued and seen is firmly put in its place set against such selfless contributions on behalf of others.   Well done Pauline.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

E-mail issued to Environment Minister, Scottish Government re current Leadhills Estate incident.

Dear Minister Wheelhouse, may I register my utter dismay and disgust at what comes over as a system of incompetence as far as the Police are concerned, the utter disregard on repeated occasions by the Leadhills Estate of the requirements of wildlife law, use of poisons in the countryside etc and the increasing inaction or complacency being exhibited by your Department. You will no doubt be aware of the details I refer to via the entry on the Raptor Persecution Scotland website.
These incidents are the very knub upon which focus should be directed, not attention diverted to wasteful "Citizen Science involvements" associated with the reporting of Hen Harriers when full results relating to the status of such are available either through the 2010 UK wide survey or the BTO Atlas results.
Despite promises to the contrary from your Department, evidence suggesting any meaningful initiatives aimed at change, as far as raptor persecution is concerned, are simply not forthcoming and render previous commitments and statements either empty rhetoric or hypocrisy at best. I am neither impressed nor feel the Government is in command of the situation. From the public viewpoint the only conclusion one can reach is that the estate owners are ignoring any necessary restrictions, the Government is powerless to influence such "independence" and the level of commitment and expertise exhibited by the Police is questionable. Isn't it about time some firm action was taken, not promised, and the very heritage that Scotland is proud of and tourists pay money to enjoy is given some measure of protection by your government?
John S. Armitage

John S. Armitage
Isle of Islay,
PA47 7SZ

Monday, June 10, 2013

Involvement by grouse moors in persecution is not a myth, but far too sad a reality!!

I'm a huge fan of the Raptor Persecution Scotland website

These guys are really on top of the job with statistical databases maintained and all entries thoroughly researched and professionally presented. The most recent entry says it all,  " Significant haul of poisoned baits found on Leadhills Estate". Please read it and follow the site regularly, comment and even send off E-mails if you can, as every effort is directed at a positive cause for change.

Now I know that I bang on about raptor persecution , Hen Harriers, and the Forest of Bowland (the previous stronghold for Hen Harriers in England that now has none) even to the extent, and very frequently , of not even recounting my birding exploits up here on Islay and so I apologise for my overbearing intensity. But I think after reading the following summary you'll realise what motivates me into securing change as the situation vis a vis some sporting estates and their attitude towards raptors is mediaeval and utterly arrogant, displaying no intention of accepting the laws of the land!!

The Leadhills Estate is in the Scottish borders. A sporting estate managed for grouse shooting and, it seems with a long history of persecution incidents being confirmed within its curtilage. The following statistics have been cribbed from the Raptor Persecution site but, in turn, are contained as confirmed incidents within formal reports issued by the RSPB and the Scottish Government. All figures refer to the period 2003-2012 inclusive.

In all, within that period, 43 incidents were confirmed, some multiple discoveries of baits.  

BIRDS SHOT                                               6

BIRDS POISONED                                     22    4 described as being "Near Leadhills" 

POISONED BAITS DISCOVERED           26   12 described as being "Near Leadhills"

EGGS DESTROYED                                     1

ILLEGALLY SET TRAP                               1 

DEAD BIRD DISCOVERED                       1

The bird species affected ranged from Buzzard to Magpie, Crow to Red Kite, Hen Harrier to Golden Eagle.

Now all this is just plain silly. In 2006 alone 14 incidents were confirmed. Besides the sheer persistent arrogance involved, the repeated application of technique not only shows a complete disregard for the law, but demonstrates the inadequacy of the law in presenting a sufficient level of preventative threat.

This approach is what persuaded me that a licencing system should apply to Estates. If they were proved to have carried out illegal persecution then their licence would be removed for a period and commercial activity would cease.  Goodness knows what  situation would result with persistent offenders!! Certainly the keepers involved would have their licences and gun licences removed and be without a job. Gradually one assumes , and hopes the penny would drop and illegal activities cease. Certainly the current situation in the UK appears to indicate that, unless some firm action is taken, such illegal activities will continue, which is clearly unacceptable in this day and age.  So, if you haven't signed the Epetition, now is the time to do so!!

Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers.

Many thanks.


Questions raised with Natural England.

Dear Mr Armitage
Access to information request – Acknowledgement – Request No RFI 2038
Thank you for your request for information about:
o Given that the Forest of Bowland, Lancs is designated as a Special Protection Area and given that key communities of raptors upon which that designation was first based have reduced significantly in recent times,
· what systems of monitoring and their frequency are in place by Natural England to address these matters,
· when was the last formal exercise undertaken and follow up discussions taken with the Shooting Estates,
· what was the precise nature of advice given to address the loss of these species,
· are liaison meetings held to agree burning regimes with respect to the heather moorland,
· which Estates are currently receiving subsidies to assist with moorland management.
I am referring here to routine liaison carried out by NE staff NOT contact work by the research worker associated with the Hen Harrier Recovery
o Recently a road has been put in place onto Blaze Moss, Forest of Bowland. May I enquire if
· Natural England are aware of this and granted permission for it to occur given it is sited within a designated area
· whether this is the precursor to exploratory drilling associated with the fracking for gas within the Bowland Shales
· if such is not the case what is the nature of the development upon which the application rested
· what consultations were held with interested parties
which we received on 8 June 2013. We are dealing with your request under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
Your request is being considered and we will send out our response within the legal deadline of 20 working days which is 5 July 2013, for any reason, we are unable to meet the deadline we will keep you fully informed of the reasons for this.
Yours sincerely

Customer Services Team
Natural England
Our Customer Services Team has been awarded the Customer Service Excellence Standard
We are here to secure a healthy environment for people to enjoy, where wildlife is protected and England's traditional landscapes are safeguarded for future generations.
In an effort to reduce Natural England's carbon footprint, I will, wherever possible, avoid travelling to meetings and attend via audio, video or web conferencing.

This email and any attachments is intended for the named recipient only. If
you have received it in error you have no authority to use, disclose, store or copy any of its contents and you should destroy it and inform the sender. Whilst this email and associated attachments will have been checked for known viruses whilst within the Natural England systems, we can accept no responsibility once it has left our systems. Communications on Natural England systems may be monitored and/or recorded to secure the effective operation of the system and for other lawful purposes.

Northern England Raptor Forum.

I've just read the third and most recent report of the Northern England Raptor Forum which summarises work undertaken in 2011. Copies of the reports are still available.......all are worth reading!!

The forum currently consists of  eleven raptor study groups operating across Northern England ( Bowland, Calderdale, Cumbria, Durham, Manchester, Northumbrian, North Yorks Moors, Peak District, South Peak,  South Ryedale and East Yorkshire and the Yorkshire Dales Group ). All are comprised of volunteers and undertake monitoring and ringing activities across their respective "patches", besides assisting the RSPB and the Police when and if persecution activities arise.

All the reports are produced to a very high standard and contain some excellent photographs of raptors. Against an exhaustive list of raptor species present within Northern England groups present a report of their activities during the year (if relevant ) and an overall Regional Summary is provided too. Accompanying all this is a National and Regional Threat Assessment.  Where relevant comparative data is presented within the species accounts  in a series of very clear histograms or graphs that are precisely labelled and easily understood. In the nature of all annual reports a Foreword is given by an invited contributor followed by a Chairman's Report , Secretary's Report and an Annual Review. The latter serves as a very convenient reference point for subsequent visits to the Reports in order to gain assurance or correction on particular points you're dealing with at the time. Now it would be foolish of me to try and summarise the treasure trove of information and data contained within the first three reports and I've no intention of doing so. These are very professionally produced reports, containing precise source information on population trends and threats of the various raptor species within Northern England.  They should be used, widely quoted and provide the very essence upon which efforts to improve those populations rest. Why?  Because this is current data, collected by dedicated enthusiasts who know their own area and are best placed to comment on the trends which are emerging. Oh, and there's usually three or four papers included in each  report on specific raptor study elsewhere,  problems or behaviour.  As examples of a template which others might follow then the report format is certainly in the forefront of what might be selected.  As such they deserve to be read and promoted widely. Such reports are not cheap to produce, not least in the time required for compilation and editing so you all know what is coming next!! It's no use the information sitting on a Forum member's shelf, they need to be purchased, read and re-read!!

I'm told the stocks of reports are held by Judith Smith ( 01942 861759 ) and enquiries about purchases should be directed to her. Additionally, if anyone has any general queries to raise then these should be directed to Northern England Raptor Forum, c/o 25 Pinewood Crescent, Heighington, Co. Durham, DL5 6RR.  Act now and don't miss out on getting your own copy and learning of the real status of and threats affecting raptors in Northern England.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Special Protection Areas, Freedom of Information requests and Hen Harriers !!!

Special Protection Areas, as the name suggests, are especially important sites for breeding birds judged in an international context. They are designated (take a deep breath) under the European Commission  Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds as being strictly protected sites classified under Article 4 with the aim of affording protection to rare and vulnerable bird species as listed on Annex 1. In other words they are the creme de la creme as far as our bird sites are concerned.  The Act came into force in April 1979 and the first sites began to be designated in the early-mid 1980's.

After we completed an intense period of data collection in Bowland the RSPB submitted details to JNCC for the area to be designated, which I recollect occurred in 1993.  Bowland Fells ( reference UK9005151 ) is now one of the UK's SPA's comprising 16,002 hectares of the most wonderful upland scenery in England and playing host then, to key populations of raptor species. Indeed the designation was based upon 8 pairs of Hen Harriers being present and 20 pairs of Merlin. {I can't recollect why Peregrine is not included in this schedule for the site and will have to research further}.

So, here we are, amidst much acclaim and self congratulation, we had secured SPA designation and for what must still be acknowledged is an important area.  But less so for birds than previously I have to admit given that there are no Hen Harriers present at all  within the past two years. As the Government's agency, Natural England under its parent Ministry, DeFRA, has the responsibility for overseeing such designated sites and being in liaison with owners and others.  Given the reduction in value one wonders what steps have been taken in recent times to address this issue. Such is my interest and concern on the issue that I have submitted a series of questions today under the Freedom of Information Act requesting feedback on the steps taken to rectify this reduction in value, the frequency of monitoring and so on.  And I have to give notice to those involved that such will be a regular feature until I gain what I feel are sincere and rational responses to my enquiries, particularly as I will be notifying Shadow Ministers of the outcome.

Why should I feel so bloody minded ( and no, it's not because I'm a Yorkshireman! )?  We are talking here of some of the best of our bird heritage  being allowed to go down the pan because of a deliberate lack of action on what is recognized as the prime cause, namely illegal persecution. Oh yes, there'll be wringing of hands and references to Hen Harrier Recovery Plans and a whole host of excuses, none of which include the words commitment and focus.  The area of Bowland is still there, is still managed for grouse shooting and no doubt in its guise as an SPA has, at intervals, been the subject of subsidy payments, the truth about which will hopefully be revealed in my FOI answers!!!  As an expression of value , and referring only to Bowland ( although it might be levelled at the North Pennine Moors SPA too ) , the SPA designation is now like recommending fake clothes made in a sweat shop. All designer labels and no quality. The populations upon which the designation was based are in decline or have disappeared!!  This is like allowing paintings in the National Gallery to deteriorate because of damp, so what are the custodians of these gems of our national wildlife heritage doing about it?   They could start by issuing the results from the satellite tagged harriers carried out under the Hen Harrier Recovery Plan, which will give an indication of the locations at which such birds mysteriously disappeared.  But let's exercise a little restraint ( me that is !) and see what answers emerge and what justifications are given.

So that readers realise the full implications surrounding this whole subject area, let me appraise you of the results and conclusions arising from the 2010 Hen Harrier survey for the UK and Isle of Man carried out by the RSPB and others.  COMPARED TO 2004 THERE HAD BEEN A 20% DECLINE.  Yes, in 2004 there had been 806 pairs counted which had reduced to 646 pairs in 2010.  The majority of these were in Scotland, BUT HERE THERE HAD BEEN A DECLINE FROM 633 PAIRS IN 2004 TO 500 PAIRS IN 2010.  It was widely accepted that the biggest single factor affecting the species was illegal killing and that they were particularly targeted on grouse moors. The saddest thing of all is that it has been calculated that, BASED ON THE PRESENCE OF SUITABLE HABITAT IN ENGLAND, THERE IS THE POTENTIAL FOR 323 BREEDING PAIRS.  


So , folks , you can appreciate why I'm more than a bit concerned and pledged to trying to improve matters.

Friday, June 7, 2013

What future lies in store for the Forest of Bowland and its value for Hen Harriers?

Sadly, nowadays, it would seem we can't take anything for granted. After being involved in Bowland for twenty years and overseeing Hen Harrier protection, and then following the area's fortunes for almost another fifteen years, I confess to having more than a passing interest. Regrettably the bird interest has deteriorated in recent times. No Hen Harriers, fewer Merlin, persecuted Peregrines still and, it would seem,in the opinion of some, the quality of the habitat reducing too.

Over the past few years the shooting estates appear to have become more "independent". Despite a permanent staff presence in the area, the RSPB it would seem has less direct liaison with them than previously, which is a great shame. Similarly, given the area is an SPA, Natural England also appears to have less influence in the sense that various new roads have progressively appeared, running into the very heart of the fells, initiatives which I believe intrude enormously into such an area of valuable wilderness.

Currently, RSPB's  presence in Bowland is largely confined to the United Utilities Estate wherein it monitors bird of prey communities, advises farmers on management techniques supportive of wading bird communities and carries out educational activities. The halcyon days of real partnership between everyone in Bowland have gone in my opinion, despite in past times the crowns of co-operation resting uneasily at times on the heads of the private estates,United Utilities and, indeed , the RSPB itself. Such was the essential ingredient of success that took the fortunes of harriers from a low ebb in the 1980's to a more regular and productive status thereafter. That situation has now altered dramatically with the demise of the species in its most regular stronghold due to deliberate and premeditated persecution outside the confines of Bowland itself.

But what of the future? What lies ahead given the absence of Hen Harriers since 2011 from what had been its English stronghold for at least thirty years?  What role can the RSPB now embrace and will United Utilities's willingness to fund the operation still be evident?  One might also throw in the possible eventuality of the Company being taken over (others have been! ) and the new owners having a different perspective on things!!

United Utilities, whilst undoubtedly acknowledging the presence of the RSPB as part of its green agenda, nonetheless seem to play a rather detached game when it comes to declared commitment and involvement, at least as seen from the outside. A firm resolve expressed through declared policies and a better declared recognition of the undoubted persecution that still exists in Bowland would be welcome.  At the moment the subject appears to be like a family secret, with the weird ways of Uncle Hubert never being mentioned!! Neither the RSPB nor United Utilities appear willing to address aggressively the fact that such persecution is part of the current problem.  Nor does the RSPB or Natural England publicly acknowledge the situation or pursue the reasons involved sufficiently in the fact that the whole of the Bowland massif is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) whose very status was determined upon an actual carrying capacity or presence of particular raptor populations. Sadly these have diminished significantly. It would be nice to see the content of the last assessment completed by Natural England and their conclusions, but , more importantly, their requirements for the future.

Running in parallel with all this is the ill-fated Hen Harrier Recovery Plan introduced by the Government and administered by Natural England. Within its time of application the species has reached the point of extinction as an English breeder and the Plan would be better described as  " The Hen Harrier Retrogressive Plan". The fact that the results of the accompanying research to the Plan are being withheld by DeFRA, one assumes because of the potential to embarrass upland grouse moor owners, is testament to the lack of any commitment to raptor protection policies by this Government  ( the Greenest Government ever don't forget ).

So, the situation is not rosy!  Our national conservation organizations appear to be unwilling or unable to indulge in direct public campaigning action on this appalling situation, the Government already have a poor record in countryside matters and no demonstrable commitment for change and the private estates just seem to be doing as they please!  Not a mixture for improvement or success I suggest.  As far as Bowland is concerned I can foresee the whole edifice falling around the RSPB's ears and the potential for future improvement being lost unless a change in direction is pursued. There is a necessity to work still with United Utilities, but also with each of the private estates, with an aim of securing the best possible outurn in habitat provision and also securing a joint commitment, across the board, to eliminate persecution activities, whatever their origin.  Claims by outside groups that they have " the solution",  and that things would improve with their involvement, are just sheer nonsense and conjecture as they carry nothing of useful consequence. The presence of the RSPB is essential to ensure some agency can act as a link and pursue a situation whereby, should Hen Harriers return , the building blocks of co-operation and liaison are in place, otherwise the organization's  absence would hasten the acceleration of each of the Estates acting wholly independently. May I offer up a prayer for common sense to prevail?

As far as Natural England's role is concerned then we await the outcome of the recent review. An amalgamation with the Environment Agency is unlikely to strengthen NE's position contrasted against a possible association with the Forestry Commission. Time will tell, but whatever happens the position needed from Natural England will need to be robust and transparent during a time demanding of change in order to secure improvement. All bodies need to be prepared to work for solutions in the "real" world, not rely on polite discussions around policy options in some far off location!

Buzzard control through the back door?

This is a rather belated entry into the debate, although it does seem to be trundling on under a variety of different aspects. For a detailed update I can do no better than refer you to the Raptor Persecution Scotland site ( ).

In summary it seems a pheasant rearing enterprise applied for a licence to remove the nests of local Buzzards, the adults from which were causing a predation problem, or at least that was the outcome of the application. Such a licence was issued by Natural England, but there seems to be an issue over whether the applicant had some sort of outstanding offence against his/her name. Apparently the requisite sections within the application were left blank, which one might have imagined Natural England should have insisted on being completed! Other equally confusing aspects also arise and the whole scenario seems to be a mess.

Now you'll all remember the Buzzard-gate fiasco of yesteryear when the DeFRA Minister, Richard Benyon, proposed controls to be applied on the species. Given the extent of public outcry the proposals were then withdrawn and an indication made that the issue would be researched more thoroughly ( isn't that supposed to happen at the beginning of a process anyway? ). Since then nothing has emerged until this little drama came to light via a Freedom of Information request from the RSPB.  One wonders why such an obvious hot potato wasn't at least discussed beforehand with the RSPB, but there!  En passant I also wonder if RSPB ought to wake up and realise that being a stakeholder, as it so often quotes, doesn't mean you're part of the gang ( hopefully they wouldn't want to be either! ), but simply roped in on certain matters when it suits the Government Department concerned. The days of being a valued advisor to Government are gone it seems to me. Stakeholder status is a courtesy to demonstrate Government is jumping through the correct hoops. It brings no commitment, or even honest recognition of the ideals of the participant organizations, who need to become a bit more street wise and combative.

The whole issue necessarily raises the point of whether Natural England is competent and fit for purpose if one begins to look at some of the aspects revealed by Raptor Persecution Scotland.  Given what appears to be a fairly robust population of Common Buzzard in the overall area, does it not occur to any of the officials involved that the removal of nests would simply serve to act as a "sink"?  In other words the same birds, or others, would simply come back in, occupy the territory and the whole merry go round starts again. What then would be the position of the licencing organization?  And what of the supposed threat by the National Gamekeepers Association, who apparently supported the application, threatening to take Natural England through a judicial review process if the licence wasn't granted. No further news has emerged on this since it was first mentioned on the above web site.

My immediate reaction was that all this could have been a consequence of the matter being delegated to a junior official and that key elements were innocently overlooked. Last evening I was assured by a colleague that the rumour is that such was not the case, but that the matter was handled by the Secretary of State himself. In a week when one imagines the responsibilities of state lay heavily on the shoulders of those involved, given the issues surrounding the badger cull,  that yet another annihilation issue was being dealt with at that level seems unlikely.  I'm beginning to be worried though about  this Administration and associated organizations.........Buzzards, Badgers, Muntjac, Wild Boar, Grey Squirrels........if they're a nuisance then get rid of them.  Go on, out you go, take them down!  Last year we discovered Natural England ( oh yes, them again ) didn't know how many badgers were in the proposed cull area. We don't seem to know how many Wild Boar or Muntjac we have either. So are we simply seeing a response being given to those who shout the loudest or are these decisions being taken on all the facts involved?

And as a final rant! Take note RSPB and others. The extent to which the advice and research was not taken on board within the badger cull debate is evidence of the real value attributed to stakeholders, even to the extent of advice and research from some of the most learned in the land. Listening to the comparative financial costs involved one imagines we might all have a case for complaint. The final decision, a sop to established interests or an expression of real concern?  The sooner our conservation organizations waken up to the fact that "the opposition" are already in Government when it comes to environmental and countryside matters, the better off we might be.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Eight steps to assist Hen Harrier conservation.

With the UK Hen Harrier population being much depressed, there is a case for decisive action to be taken to improve matters. Past evidence and research has demonstrated that persecution has played a crucial part in the recent reduction in numbers and there is a clear indication of the involvement of some upland shoots in this.

This piece is not a reiteration of these details, but a plea for help and a brief explanation of what YOU can do to help!  Please consider contributing in any way you can.

In addition to action taken in court for reported cases of persecution, I feel there is a clear cut need for the regulation of all upland grouse shoots and gamekeepers, allowing them to operate via a licencing system, the benefits of which would be withdrawn in the event of any offences being proven.

To pursue this I set up an E-petition in late February, 2013 ( it closes on 27.2.2014 ) which, in the three months following its inception, has attracted almost 5000 signatures of support.  Clearly this body of very welcome support needs extending further in order to provide a realistic indication of the feelings of those who so often in the past have raised concerns and expressed condemnation against the effects of persecution.

Here is the reference of the E-petition if you wish to replicate it within E-mails or other statements.      Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers.

Additionally it can be reached directly through this link        E-petition

Here are eight additional steps that anyone can take to assist further.

1. Sign the petition!
2.Draw the petition to the attention of friends, colleagues and fellow "birders" and ask them to  
   consider providing their support.  Copy out this Blog entry as necessary.
3.Circulate details to all entries within your computer Address Book.
4.Similarly, circulate details to all your Facebook contacts.
5.Tweet out details and a call for support.
6.Tweet out again each month until February, 2014!!
7. Raise the matter at a meeting of your local bird group or natural history society.
8.Write to your MP and raise the issue.

From time to time I put out details about Hen Harriers on my Blog ( )
and would ask that you circulate this reference generally so people can keep up to date. Additionally, if anyone feels they would like information about making contact with their MP, then please feel free to contact me via the Blog as I shall be pleased to help.

This is a problem we must continue to address in order to reach a lasting and sensible solution. I don't believe a licencing system would impinge on any enterprise or individual operating legitimately; the objective is to regulate through the potential of penalties limiting operation upon those who insist on pursuing actions outside the law.

At the present time I know of no active Hen Harrier nests in England. Last year there was one!  The traditional stronghold of the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire has had none for the past two years and, if we haven't already reached the point, we are very close to seeing the the species being extinct as a breeding bird in England.

This is an absolute travesty and something upon which we need to ACT. The steps above provide a route to that opportunity.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Repeat baptism. 29.5.2013.

Another early start after taking a decision that migrants arriving yesterday would have remained due to the bad weather. How wrong we were!

An early call to the North Cave Wetlands Reserve produced nothing exciting but, as always, was enjoyable. Various duck, breeding Avocets, and a variety of passerines all added to a period of good birding and general enjoyment. The "new" quite extensive area of shallow lagoons looks enticing and will surely prove to extend the value of this site even further.

On to Flamborough on the East Coast, birding mecca and haven of migrants and, it would seem, the location of cyclonic weather conditions whenever I visit!!  A wet hike out to Fall Plantation and the lure of various possibilities was not realised. We saw nothing other than a Chiffchaff with the rain, by now, really setting in causing us to find some shelter in the wood itself for respite. After quite a period, and being the last people present, we decided to route march back to the car after coming to the conclusion the interesting birds of yesterday had moved out. It was bad, not just ordinarily bad, but exceptionally bad!

Based on the theory ( since placed under revision ! ) that it can't be bad everywhere, we moved on to Scarborough given there'd been a variety of good birds recorded there yesterday in a couple of areas of coastal woodland. Arriving at the first site , south of the town, the conditions were bad here too, but then suddenly improved. On with the soaked gear ( I now know why babies cry when they've a wet nappy! ) and out onto the coastal path. Birds actually began to call and sing a little with Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Wren and Chiffchaff all tuning up. As we explored the whole area one  "presentation"  didn't quite hang together. It was phrases of songs, not necessarily in sequence and the more we listened the more we realised we were listening to the Marsh Warbler (2013,224 ) first reported yesterday. More scratchy phrases and varied mimicry emerged but, try as we might, we couldn't see the bird out in the open.

Shortly afterwards the abysmal conditions returned with a vengeance and forced us back to the car. I suspect both of us felt relieved the other had not put forward a convincing case for remaining and seeking out the other vagrants reported yesterday ( none were reported again as it happened ) and so we decided to pack in and return home. Meagre returns for a lot of effort and a great pity that Matthew's holiday week had been so badly affected. A long delay on the return journey due to a vehicle fire put the dampers on it all. And now I have to return to Islay.........

Even more of a washout. 28.5.2013

A slightly later start to normal, in fine but "threatening"weather, which finally established itself and resulted in prolonged periods of rain over most of the remaining part of the day. We got wet, very wet in fact. Best not to ask.

The first call was to Tyzack Dam, Abbeydale, Sheffield to see Mandarin Duck (2013, 222 ). A batchelor party of resplendent males huddled together on the branches of a secluded tree overhanging the water. This has become an almost "guaranteed site" for this species. They doubtless breed locally and appear to be doing quite well.

Onward to Padley Gorge, Derbyshire with the rain beginning to become serious. This is a wonderful wooded gorge of deciduous trees and odd pines surrounded by moorland ( by now obscured by mist and low cloud )  that plays host to a variety of woodland breeding species. This was going to be hard work as nothing stirred or was singing!  Onward and downward we finally heard, and then saw well, a single Wood Warbler singing and feeding away as if on a summer's day!  Aha,  this was a summers day  ( well very late Spring day ) which, by now, was throwing down drenching rain in copious quantities!

Nonetheless, we pressed on , saw three soaked birders, a Treecreeper  and,  finally, odd Pied Flycatchers ( 2013, 223 ) with one visiting a nestbox. It wasn't enjoyable and, whilst we heard them call, none were in song nor did we see the usual Spotted Flycatcher or Redstart which are usually present at the site. A long trudge back to the car, a return to the haven of central Sheffield and the creation of the bathroom into something resembling a drying room in a laundry! Meanwhile ,we watched a film whose plot took some understanding and debated the weather forecast and whether the key migrants present on the East Coast might remain.

A day of islands. 27.5.2013.

Up early and a journey across the causeway to Holy Island. The access times, ruled by the tides, were entirely convenient to our visit , although the weather was a little cool to say the least with a brisk southerly breeze in evidence.

An examination of a wide open area with stunted bushes showed no migrants to be present, although numbers of both Skylark and Meadow Pipits sang all around us. An Osprey steadily wheeled northwards and was finally lost to view. Moving towards the village we walked then towards the castle and had an appreciable variety of birds including Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Swallow and House Martin. Fulmars sailed around the castle, Sandwich Terns called from afar and a flock of Little Terns could be seen in the distance. Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Mallard and Shelduck showed well , following which we made the time honoured pilgrimage to oversee the Vicarage garden, which has played host to various notable avian visitors in past times (but not today). I'm not sure what St. Cuthbert would have made of the mobile sandwich bar, but the cup of tea and the cheeseburger were very welcome, after which we made our way south to Amble to connect with our boat for the trip around Coquet Island.

St.Cuthbert  ( born 634-died 687 ) is said to have visited Coquet in 684 AD. The island lies a mile and a half offshore and was purchased by the Duke of Northumberland in 1753, although there is a record of a lighthouse being present in the early 15 Century. the current lighthouse was built in 1841. The island has a long and varied history, but now serves to play host to an automated light and a variety of breeding seabirds.

The hour long cruise, well worth the £7 fee for adults ( £3 for children ) , takes you around the island as you are not permitted to land. You stop at intervals and the boat owner provides background information on the island and its birds. The RSPB has a seasonal warden in place who monitors the breeding seabirds present which include Puffins and Roseate Terns , besides Sandwich and Arctic Terns. Our expectations were perhaps a little high , but we did finally see Roseate Tern (2013,220 ) both in flight and on the ground, albeit briefly. It  was quite choppy at one stage and photography would have been difficult.

As can be seen from the above photograph ( taken from the above very informative booklet ) the island is surrounded by a reef which makes it difficult to draw in close in the shallow waters. Nonetheless we had good views of Eider, Fulmar, Razorbill, Guillemot, Puffins (2013, 221 ) galore, Black-headed Gull, Sandwich Tern, Arctic Tern, Roseate Tern and a passing Kittiwake,  all in a fine contextual setting. I suspect the best time to go to enjoy an even greater spectacle is when the birds are feeding young, although I imagine I imagine the overall atmosphere then is one of complete chaos and cacophony!!

Well worth the experience and highly recommended, ideally followed by fish and chips from the shop on the quayside. We didn't indulge, but they looked delicious and were obviously much appreciated by the Eiders in the harbour that were being fed morsels by visitors. All very superficial perhaps, but the subtle pastel colours within the male Eiders plumage would no doubt register with many of the general public and lead to a better appreciation of the beauty of birds if nothing else.

A longish journey back to Sheffield, via the motorways, wasn't too onerous and we both agreed it had been well worth the effort.

A northward quest. 26.5.2013.

Some time ago I'd set in motion arrangements I'd been promising myself to complete for a number of years, namely a cruise around Coquet Island , Northumberland in order to see Roseate Terns. Matthew had been able to join in so we extended the plan slightly. Before all that started I'd managed to have a morning birding on my own around a couple of former haunts.

I have to confess that birding at Worsborough Reservoir is no longer what it used to be. The reed bed, which previously nurtured a few pairs of Reed Warbler, has been stripped out in order to make way for an angling "station" used , I presume, on match days. And the tern rafts on the reservoir have disappeared too. In this sense Barnsley MBC appear to excel in the practice of "negative diversification" except,  it would seem , in the provision of angling facilities from which no doubt they raise revenue. I have heard it said that this defined policy was, in part, to balance out the presence of the conservation interest now established in the Dearne Valley ( see previous entry ).  I can understand the need for a site to be given over to angling, but not for accompanying natural cover, and hence its wildlife, to be removed for the sake of it. A planner's dream no doubt of  conveniently developing a discrete fishing facility and conservation "facility".  Utopian planning at its worst in my view, but I've never understood the ultra casual-garbed, squash at lunchtime brigade anyway.  In its heyday the presence of fishing and wildlife on site appeared to co-exist quite well until the "hand of man" made an appearance. At least they've made a good job of the circular footpath, but there's damn all to see.

Given that all that was on offer was a few Great Crested Grebe, Coot and Mallard I skipped the circular route in favour of a visit to some far less managed deciduous woodland near Silkstone Common. Here Kestrel, Green Woodpecker, Blackcap and Bullfinch and commoner species were present within the pleasant hour I spent there. Onward again towards the Langsett and Midhope Moors, where the mournful notes of a Mistle Thrush were held on the still crisp air, accompanied by the calls of Curlew and Lapwing from an area of nearby in-bye land. Finally I saw some Red Grouse (2013,218 ) before descending down into Sheffield to pick up Matthew.

Our journey north took us to Wykeham Forest west of Scarborough and to the watchpoint established by the Forestry Commission overlooking a wide vista of part wooded countryside over which, if you're lucky, you can see Honey Buzzards. We weren't (lucky ) and it seems likely that no birds had yet returned to the area. The best part of the afternoon was watching a Siskin in repeated display flight , singing all the while, and watching the strong overhead sun reflecting off and shining through the bright yellows of its plumage. An absolute gem!

Finally, on across the western part of the North Yorks Moors National Park to just north of Newcastle for the night with both of us looking forward to the following day.

Footprint on a past bit of homeland. 25.5.2013.

Left Norfolk early and arrived in Sheffield some time after 0900 hours. Met up with Matthew and, after collecting his car following a small repair, set off for the Dearne Valley.

It's always a pleasure to visit  Broomhill Flash, Wombwell Ings and the RSPB Old Moor Reserve as, alongside Worsborough Reservoir, Wintersett Reservoir and "the moors" , it's where I first started birdwatching.  The now renamed and expanded Old Moor area comprises the location formerly known as Wath Ings, which was very much the focal point in the late 1950's and 1960's for a group of birders from Barnsley, which included Dave Standring, Alan Archer, Mike Clegg, Colin Bower, David Ashurst and Malcolm Rhymer ( plus fledglings like me! ) and then , as now, produced some notable records. Since then several of Yorkshire's crack birders, who live locally, have ensured the area receives extensive cover with the result that a catalogue of valuable records has emerged. The value of the area doesn't stop there either. At more than a few foreign locations people have been reminded of the area's prominence via well located  " Wath Ings Rules!  OK? " statements.

Whilst today was rather quiet in some respects a good variety of birds was seen. Notable changes now include breeding Avocet, Bittern and Mediterranean Gull at Old Moor and the area goes from strength to strength. Developed initially by Barnsley MBC and designed by one of its Landscape Architects, Eric Bennett, it was intended to be part of a partnership initiative with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, but this fell through.  Previous to my own retirement discussions were held with RSPB with the intention of the Society taking over the site. However, due to the intervention of RSPB's Marketing Department the initiative stalled. Thankfully common sense has now prevailed and the true potential of the site is being realised.  RSPB has even enhanced the situation still further by purchasing various other small wetlands in the vicinity and consolidating the conservation value of the overall area. It's most recent initiative in this regard, but  further to the north in the Aire valley, is in securing a similar site at St.Aidans  near Leeds. This pursues the policy of gaining areas previously associated with industry that can be developed, or have already been partially developed, and improving them still further for conservation resulting in them becoming wildlife reserves nearby to high centres of population. Already known as a good birding spot I'm sure its future is even more assured and I shall look forward to making a visit at some point. Well done RSPB!

A complete washout. 24.5.2013.

I have to confess that I spent far too much time in the car today. I had to, as from 0900 hours,it rained almost continuously.

Forlornly looking out over a rain lashed landscape offered an opportunity to reflect on a whole host of subjects, including the obvious proliferation of offshore wind turbines so evident from Hunstanton, Norfolk. Whilst I acknowledge that survey appraisals are made of such sites and we appear to have a fairly robust system of considering such proposals, I still continue to be sceptical about the potential collision effects with birds. Random collisions, complete "disasters" within stochastic events when storms and poor visibility apply, are still major concerns in my book and I sincerely wonder what the accumulative effects might be in the fullness of time. With criticisms arising about efficacy, one also wonders whether this will actually address the problem of our needs for sustainable energy or simply be an expensive sop that damages even more the fabric and heritage within our countryside, makes fortunes for some but, in the end, produces very little.

As you can see the weather had begun to have a depressing effect on my thinking and well being, compounded by the obvious fact of an increasing flow of traffic into Norfolk throughout the day for the Bank Holiday weekend. Time to return to the David Attenborough book ...........

Uplifting encounter with harriers. 23.5.2013

The Choseley Barns site near Titchwell is always worth a visit and so an early start, followed by a "stake out breakfast" in the car, was accompanied by views of a host of birds in the immediate vicinity. Both Grey and Red-legged Partridges visited the small "dump" adjacent to the processing plant along with, eventually, Yellowhammer, Goldfinch, Chaffinch and Corn Bunting. A walk along the nearby hedgerow-enclosed path produced little, other than common species, but was pleasant nonetheless.

After yesterday's fruitless search for other Montagu's Harriers I travelled for a while to the informal watchpoint overlooking the area where a pair are preparing to nest.  (2013,216).  The female was repeatedly flying to a particular field edge to select lengths of dry vegetation before returning to the location of the nest site a couple of fields away. Excellent telescope views were had of the bird as it sailed around elegantly over the various fields. At one point a sub-adult female appeared and "towered" high above the area in effortless fashion. Almost simultaneously the male bird also appeared with food, which resulted in much gliding around with the adult female and presented a prolonged period of excellent birding.

Finally I moved off in the late morning following a period of rain when activity appeared to have died down and journeyed to the RSPB Titchwell Reserve where I stayed for the rest of the day. It was a day of delights with good views being obtained of a male Red-crested Pochard, a Spoonbill, several Little Egrets and a variety of waders. Prominent amongst those were some absolutely resplendent Grey Plover and Turnstone in full summer plumage. By contrast several Sanderling on the beach showed only partial signs of change. A period of seawatching was disappointing in that it produced almost nothing.

Eventually I moved on to the Holme NWT Reserve in the early evening and besides species I'd seen earlier, like Avocet and Marsh Harrier, I managed excellent views of a Short-eared Owl ( 2013, 217 ) that hunted for quite some time along the main track. It repeatedly returned to a nearby perch after each flight out over adjacent fields and provided prolonged views. A satisfying end to an excellent day.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Waders save the day. 22.5.2013.

The day began with an eye-level encounter with a male Sparrowhawk which glided past in fast, level flight 2m  from the Travelodge window!

Journeyed to Cley NWT Reserve where first of all I called in at the Centre to have a chat with Patrick Dwyer before setting out along the eastern part of the reserve. as ever my interest in Grey lag Geese was roused by the presence of several broods of already well grown young and thoughts of how this season might turn out on Islay!

A fine obliging Wood Sandpiper (2013,213 ) fed nearby to the bank and a single Black-tailed Godwit was similarly present across the field followed, shortly after, by a flock of around 40 flying over the main body of the reserve. a period of seawatching produced only a few Gannet and a couple of Brent Geese flying east.

I then decided to simply cast around suitable areas inland of the north coast and look for Montagu's Harriers as RSPB are currently requesting observations, a job that proved to be singularly unsuccessful!  But I saw a lot of rural Norfolk and realised there is rather a lot of it ( more than I realised previously! ). Late afternoon saw me visiting Titchwell RSPB Reserve, which is always a favourite, particularly once the crowds have subsided! Just beyond the Centre I spent a pleasant spell sitting in the warm sunshine watching a Spotted Flycatcher ( 2013, 214 ) making repeated foraging flights out from the bushes surrounding the pond. Wandering down the main track towards the coast  I soon located the two Temminck's Stints ( 2013, 214 )  feeding on one of the small islets within the freshwater marsh.. The return "leg" saw me enjoying prolonged views, with a couple of other people, of a feeding Reed Warbler just down from the path. It was entirely oblivious of our presence and provided one of those occasions when a simple intimate encounter with a common species proves to be so rewarding.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A day of supreme song! 21.5.2013.

A rather damp journey across the Fens from Ely to visit Little Paxton Gravel Pits Reserve. Whilst I've been there before, mainly in winter, I was looking forward to seeing what might be in store on a more leisurely visit in Spring despite the dismal conditions. I wasn't disappointed.

This is a gem of a reserve at any time of year, one of it's greatest attributes being that it's located conveniently next to the A1 and, therefore, presents the convenient possibility of a visit whilst you're on the way to somewhere else. There's a Visitor Centre, which is open within reasonable hours and serves the best cup of tea for 70p I've ever encountered!!

As can be seen from the above reserve map the area has viewing hides and a variety of habitats reached by well laid out walking routes.  At this time of year the attraction is the reserve's Nightingales, but in winter you're equally likely to see Smew as far as a seasonal attraction is concerned. The most unbelievable thing is that it is so close to the UK's main arterial highway and yet gives an abiding impression of being within the depths of the countryside. Tranquility ( well, there's a bit of traffic noise to be honest ) and beauty go hand in hand and it's a place that should be on everyone's radar and not for a one off visit either!!

My expectations were met almost as soon as I set off on my own journey of exploration with a Nightingale (2013, 211) in full song not very far from the car park.  I continued after a while and had a good variety of species without putting in much effort , including my first Garden Warbler ( 2013, 212 ) for the year. After a while I resolved to return and really take in the beauty of  "Spring songster", but I had no need as another one commenced to give full force to its song nearby to where I'd stopped. It's quite a time since I've had the opportunity to simply stand and listen to a Nightingale and I was absolutely captivated. It's not just the range, but the richness and depth to its notes that are so engaging. I stood for a long while and enjoyed, in solitude, what was a continuing presentation that it would have been easy to persuade oneself was being given solely for one's own benefit. An experience to savour and a memory to treasure, and I'm no romantic I have to admit! I returned to the Centre and had the good fortune to come across Veronica and Trevor Gunton. Trevor was a past colleague at RSPB, also now retired, and is involved with the administration of the reserve,  so it was good to see them both and have a "catch up".

Finally moving on I went up to Grafham Water, but there was very little on offer. The weather was beginning to deteriorate as I moved on to the Fen Drayton RSPB Reserve, which is not too far away. Unfortunately the heavy rain intensified, and proved to be unrelenting, so given it was late afternoon I returned to Ely and commenced to enjoy my purchase of "Life On Air" by David Attenborough which I'd purchased ( for £4 !! ) from the second hand book stall overseen by the Guntons at the Little Paxton Centre....another reason to go in for a cup of tea!!!      

Falcon overload at Lakenheath. 20.5.2013.

An early start yet again to get to the RSPB Lakenheath Reserve.  Sadly the weather had not continued and conditions were rather grey and cold, but at least things were dry!

A period of time spent at the new open hide overlooking what I call the "penultimate reedbed" produced little, other than a couple of Marsh Harrier. Neither did any encouraging song arise from the nearby plantation renowned for its Golden Orioles, despite claims of occasional calls being heard in preceding days. By now I'd met with Chris and John Hamilton  and we all moved on to take watch over the large, main reed bed.  Good fortune accompanied the decision with prolonged views of a Bittern  being gained as it flew above the reed bed, did a wide U-turn and then returned to its original patch. A nearby Cettis Warbler entertained everyone , not just with its loud bursts of song, but with its repeated flights across an open area between reeds. Numerous Marsh Harriers kept everyone entertained until a single Common Crane ( 2013, 206 ) silently left the marsh and flew across to a nearby feeding area. Shortly afterwards a single Common Tern ( 2013, 207 ) flew around in front of the hide before departing elsewhere.

Moving back to the original observation position, the number of people gathered along the footpath was an indication that our mutual objective was in view. The sight of two Hobbies (2013, 208 ) and the male Red-footed Falcon (2013, 209 ) swooping over the heads of the assembled throng was amazing in itself, that the birds were in such close proximity was bordering on the unbelievable!

Sadly, the conditions were a bit dark when I finally managed some photographs, but the experience of two Hobby leisurely swirling around overhead was enthralling in the extreme. ( Click on the above to enlarge the image and see the beautiful underwing patterning on the bird).    

A similar examination of the male Red-footed Falcon photograph shown above sees the feet sufficiently well enough to explain the derivation of its name, in addition to a glimpse of the vivid undertail coverts.

After spending most of the day at Lakenheath it was still difficult  to decide to leave these magnificent raptors behind, but the Hobbies suddenly moved off and the Red-footed Falcon "retired" to perch up in a nearby plantation, where it was still in view but had clearly completed feeding for a while. A great experience!

There was still enough time to call up to Weeting Heath NWT Reserve and watch the couple of Stone Curlew which were on view. Sadly, such has been the desperate Spring we've had this year,that a number of these birds had been found dead in East Anglia a few weeks ago when conditions were clearly too severe to ensure their survival.  Overall a pretty good day!! 

Norfolk spring time. 19.5.2013.

An early start saw me at Holme NWT Reserve before 1000 hours enjoying warm sunshine. What a change, a hats off day and, hopefully, a great introduction to a week of  uninterrupted birding.

I'd decided previously that I'd spend more time at certain individual reserves given I'd no schedules to consider or commitments to meet. This seemed like a good start!  I'd soon notched up a couple of year ticks in the form of Reed Warbler ( 2013, 201 ) and Turtle Dove ( 2013, 202 ), seeing two of the latter both in flight and perched in fir trees to the north of the reserve. Sadly, this is a species that increasingly has to be deliberately looked out for as each year goes by. Conservation projects in the UK aimed at improving productivity are under-way and will , hopefully, improve matters, but the fact remains that hunters around the Mediterranean still concentrate their activities on this species, which does little to assist more positive efforts elsewhere. Half hearted efforts by foreign national and regional governments, aimed at limiting such activities, have done little to bring about any improvement and efforts must continue to both reverse and condemn such traditional practices.

The afternoon progressed with Swift ( 2013, 203 ) and Lesser Whitethroat ( 2013, 204 ) being seen, birders from Yorkshire bumped into ( who I've always seen in Norfolk! ), and still the warm weather continued. Finally, the female Red-backed Shrike ( 2013, 205 ) that so many people present had come to see, hove into view and perched conveniently on a prominent branch for several minutes.  Great bird, great views and well worth the long wait.  A good start to a first day, supplemented by a host of other species from Cuckoo to Blackap, Marsh Harrier to Avocet.  

On the move! 18.5.2013.

Not a day for travelling given conditions at the start were poor and then got increasingly worse. Grey, misty, rain resulted in poor visibility at various times. Beyond Aviemore and the Cairngorms conditions improved somewhat and provided views of the surrounding hills. I couldn't help but focus on the sheer extent of available moorland I was travelling through and how this makes the reduced national population figures of raptors an even greater travesty and a challenge which we should all continue to pursue. The more the problem is contemplated the more depressing the situation becomes, which is precisely the mood I ended up in well previous to Perth!  Perversely, weather conditions deteriorated so much that all such deliberations had to be put aside as heavy rain and nil visibility caused everyone to proceed very slowly with headlights full on! It was like a late November afternoon plus pouring rain!  I must have driven through the whole weather front as it wasn't until Newcastle that things improved. Watching out for birds was out of the question!!

Finally I reached Doncaster and made an overnight stop, bringing to an end a day I'd prefer to forget! Previous ideas of having some relaxing birding somewhere locally were set aside in favour of sleep!!