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!!