Thursday, January 30, 2014

Another day of geese galore! 29.1.2014

A routine day completing a goose count along with colleagues covering other sectors. Repeatedly seeing large groups of geese is always awe inspiring and I never lose the thrill of witnessing the lifting of a huge cloud of birds, the cacophony, the sheer control of individual groups of birds as they rise and manage to avoid one another, and the eventual symmetry as they depart in more organized skeins.  That happened with Barnacle Geese several times as they appeared very "skittish" and unsettled.

As I've said before, goose counting leaves little opportunity for "other birding en route" , but inevitably odd sightings crop up. Rather few, it must be said, as far as yesterday was concerned!   A covey of  17-20 Red-legged Partridge ( released birds ) were nonetheless a nice surprise, a close-by Sparrowhawk in  horizontal flight were the highlights, afraid so.  Redwings and Fieldfares appear to have cleared out, but numbers of Blackbirds in excess of our breeding numbers are around. Evidence of finch flocks is also somewhat minimal and centred  largely around stock yards.  One encouraging aspect was to see numbers of Reed Buntings amongst these.

Throughout the day my thoughts repeatedly turned to a past colleague, Jonathan Osborne, whose death was reported yesterday. Certainly the clouds of geese would have met with his approval!!!  His tenure at the RSPB,  his passion for the Isle of May and his visits to Cyprus, besides his cooking, particularly curries, will be remembered by many!!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Better late than never, RSPB !

Last week I received my copy of the RSPB's  BIRDCRIME report which sets out offences against wildbird legislation in 2012 and offers thoughts for further improvements in the future.

As is always the case the report presents a wide range of activities which affect  birdlife , both at home and abroad, in a very professional way, all of which is enhanced by an impactive selection of illustrations. The contents are also a sad  litany of activities which, in my direct experience, have been occurring over the past thirty years and continue still to affect, in particular, our raptor populations .  However, we need to remind ourselves that certain things HAVE changed and , in no little way, as a consequence of  RSPB's actions over the years.  Previous to the Wildlife and Countryside Act,1981 (as amended ) the pressure on certain raptors ( Peregrine, Goshawk and Merlin ) was immense due to an illegal demand for birds or their eggs for incubation, which were then often retained in captivity or used in falconry. In some cases birds were obtained for foreign interests. Active petitioning for change ( remember that phrase, folks ) by RSPB and others, coupled with investigative actions by the Society, including the Dept of Environment, confronted these practices and improvements gradually occurred.

On another front, egg collecting in the 1980's was far more endemic than today, with an estimated 500 collectors being active. Such activities are much reduced nowadays, although with occasional high profile cases appearing there is clearly no room for complacency.  In many senses the RSPB Investigations Section, both for years before and throughout that period, was operating alone, but petitioning for change ( remember that phrase, folks )  eventually brought other agencies on board and into being. The track record and consistent application of effort by the Investigations Section has been exemplary throughout a long period and involving many different staff through the years.  That effort is still apparent to this day.

Whereas, in days past, the RSPB ploughed a lone furrow in many senses and was seen to be the only "operator" within this particular field, things have now changed.. Nowadays, with the inauguration of the Partnership for Wildlife Crime (PAW ), there are many agencies involved ( the Police, HMRC, UK Border Agency and many smaller distinct groups ) and the sphere of influence has extended significantly with a wide range of involvements. Some of these activities are still supported or advised upon by the RSPB's  investigations staff.  No little amount of credit must accrue to the RSPB for advocating and campaigning for such involvements.

Now I'm not going to review the report in the usual way. It contains a wealth of information and demands to be read thoroughly. It can be accessed on-line or copies can be obtained from RSPB's HQ.  and I would recommend it to everyone.

As previously there is a section assessing what beneficial changes have occurred to legislation, or where there has been no progress against suggested proposals.  Clearly great stock was placed by the RSPB on the outcome of the recent Law Commission review of wildlife legislation., much of which has proved to be misplaced in my view. The final provisions have not yet been released by the Commission and one hopes that continuing efforts will be made to gain some improvements to what has initially been proposed. The RSPB's position on various matters does appear to oscillate somewhat in terms of the effort it is prepared to exercise at different times to secure the adoption of proposals it appears to support.  The Vicarious Liability scenario is a case in point.  RSPB openly advocated its adoption in Scotland, an effort that was successful. And then , an E-petition, raised by an individual on the self same subject, was acknowledged positively,  but not supported via being promoted to the RSPB membership. Vicarious Liability was no doubt actively promoted  by the RSPB within the internal consultancy process accompanying the Law Commission review, but failed to get accepted in a robust form, about which the Society is clearly disappointed.  One wonders if the petition had attracted a high number of signatures whether the outcome might have been different?  An opportunity lost to demonstrate the feelings of people "out there" who carry a concern for birds, whom the Society claims to represent via its membership process.  But why the imprecise positioning and the confusion  it generates?

When I registered the E-petition relating to the licencing of grouse moors ( see here  Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers  )  the RSPB kindly and openly explained that it was intending to put its efforts into an attempt to gain the adoption of the Vicarious Liability offence within the Law Commission review. I accepted that, and still do, as a choice made by the Society, although I personally felt they were wasting their time, and being naive in the process, given the adamant refusal by DeFRA to even consider the subject.  Their best efforts failed despite, I imagine, well researched and presented argument.

Whilst I never had any illusions that the above petition would result automatically in the adoption of licencing regulations I sincerely believed in two things. It would keep the subject of raptor persecution alive and that the signature total could be used further in demonstrating the depth and extent of feeling on the subject.  That expression could then be used repeatedly in raising the matter with Government and others, reminding ourselves that we are in the run up to an election in 15 months and such matters can be raised to test the sympathies of prospective candidates.

So, folks, I was a little surprised to find within the above report the following entry about which I can't find any other recent public statement by the RSPB promoting its position.


In fact if you need the full version, here it is!

Now I have no objections to what is being said, just an ever increasing amount of confusion over how the RSPB conducts its affairs.  Increasingly the RSPB appears to be placing the responsibility for improvements to conservation legislation and policy on others, via its comments,  as opposed also to it carrying the standard itself in the front ranks! The old approach of campaigning ( and petitioning for change, remember!! ) appears to have been consigned to yesteryear, only to be replaced by advocation from within the advancing ranks and in a somewhat  muted fashion too.

I actually care when people think badly of the RSPB and I feel guilty at criticising them.  But cracks are beginning to appear!  People see it as being a standard bearer for bird conservation, as being a leader, but its communication and positioning appear to be all too apologetic, as if a major objective is to be respectable and popular.  It would appear it no longer has the ear of Government to the extent it once enjoyed. Hardly surprising given present circumstances in Westminster!

Clearly it doesn't like supporting the efforts of individuals in terms of addressing policy or legislation change. In other words, it needs to be their idea in the first place.  Clearly too, despite it having secured many goals in the past by outright petitioning, it has lost faith in the current system.   Ok, not its fault perhaps, but more a response to the disingenuous arrogance within Government, e.g the Badger Cull E-petition at 300,000 signatures secured.  But those figures live on and can be used and quoted time and again.

So  " yours confused " in terms of which game the RSPB does want to play and how!  I leave a few thoughts. Remember the seminars within which there was  a brain storming session and key words for consideration and action were written up on a board?  Here are a few that might apply,

Focus, leadership, respect, communication, enthusiasm, clarity, ACTION,  conviction, consistency,openness

Feel free to add others via your comments!

 As of 1400 hours today the E-petition relating to the licencing regulation of grouse moors and gamekeepers has reached 8294 signatures, a more than apt representation of peoples' concerns about raptor persecution and what needs to be done to combat it.   Use it as you will,  RSPB,  but consider, you could perhaps make it into a far more telling response that, collectively , we could all use in our efforts to improve current circumstances for our birds of prey.    Actions speak louder than words!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch.

Well I have to confess at the start that I haven't a big garden , but that I'm surrounded by a veritable wilderness.  Plumped in the middle of bleak grass moor at around 60m above sea level, with the eastern Atlantic seabord just over a kilometre away, the area comes into its own in Spring , but from late summer onwards is a little devoid of life.

Now I also have to say that the above photograph wasn't taken this morning ( we didn't have snow/frost ) , but it adequately shows how bleak the situation is as dawn breaks.  This morning pre-dawn showers hurled themselves against the bedroom window and the wind was howling , all of which hardly suggested  the garden would be hooching with birds!!

And so it was!  But, in the spirit of Olympics, the objective is to take part, as opposed to get the highest total, ( thanks for that "get out" I have to say ).   This morning I had three Blackbirds and a Dunnock ( THE Robin appears to have disappeared ).   Not a great showing I have to admit, but it underscores quite well how valuable gardens can be in supporting our birdlife in winter. Life in the wider countryside can be pretty unproductive in many ways in winter,and unrelenting too, all of which can be exacerbated if really bad weather arrives. Nearby gardens, and treat this as relative as birds are known to travel extensively to "productive" feeding spots, can be a veritable life saver in such times. Obviously a lot of birds move southwards in winter and many garden visitors will be from distant far flung areas alongside more local , resident species.  Gardens are , therefore, important in a wide context. To offset the low number of birds in my own garden I reminded myself that my three Blackbirds might well be of Continental origin  and I could ,therefore, take pride in providing an "International facility" too!!

Once the numbers are put together by RSPB I think the role gardens play in terms of supporting bird life will be self evident. Long may it continue as, set against general habitat losses, gardens continue to play an important role in sustaining our winter bird populations.

E-petition: Licencing Upland Grouse Moors and Gamekeepers.

When I contacted almost two hundred different bird and natural history groups a couple of weeks ago, asking for their support with the above, I also elected to provide an occasional update on progress.

Well, since contacting you the total number of signatures has moved forward significantly and now is over 8100!   Thank you so much to those who have already taken time out to provide support. Whilst I've never suffered under the illusion that the petition would automatically result in my proposals for regulation to be embraced without a lot more persuasion and politicking, the objective of keeping the subject alive is being met and handsomely at that.

However, a new challenge is within our grasp to achieve with a little more effort. If the petition reaches 10,000 signatures it receives an official Government response from the Department concerned, in this case DEFRA.  I'm sure we can envisage already the likely content of such a reply,  BUT it is important to realise that such a statement can then be quoted back at Government  and used in a variety of ways to ensure the proposals are kept alive for an even longer period and remain within the "conservation debate".

Well I guess you know what's coming next!!  Signatures and more signatures, yes please!  But remember, this is not just a petition on which birdwatchers can express their support, it's for many other people as well, people who may not be active wildlife watchers, but who nonetheless have a heartfelt concern for our natural heritage not being put under assault as the continuing threat of raptor persecution threatens to do. This is a constituency which is not easy to reach ( unless your're rich and can afford a full page advert in a daily newspaper !! ). As conservationists and birders we're all busy and I'm sure take time to discuss our sightings with colleagues and like minded friends on a regular basis, after all that's part of the enjoyment of it all.  But we've also contact with others outside of that immediate circle of like-minded enthusiasts. People who we know have as great a love for wildlife as ourselves.  Within that constituency are many who I am sure would lend support to the above petition, particularly with a little help if the issues were explained.  We all know the problem, who is involved, who refuse to recognize that it is people within their own ranks who are responsible for the utter shameful scourge that is raptor persecution in this modern age, persecution that is pursued for commercial gain and self -interest.  I suppose the only thing left to say is, if the opportunity arises to recruit someone willing to sign, then give it a try and thank you so much for your support.  Much appreciated.

A bit of a washout! 24.1.2014.

Last week was busy in a variety of ways and for no good single reason.  And so I was looking forward to Friday, when I was to help with some goose monitoring work, plotting of flight lines etc , not least because I would also be celebrating my 72 nd birthday via a full day of field work.  Good planning I thought!

At 0600 hours it was raining!  It continued raining all day until 1700 hours without respite! Coupled with all this was a blustery F6 wind which swept said rain across the landscape in a veil of permanently swirling mist, which lowered the visibility significantly. Great !  It wasn't all disaster, as a mid morning lull to activities provided an opportunity to call in the local RSPB office at Gruinart, and, after a change of clothes, have a chat and a cup of tea and pick up some WeBS forms.  Another chat nearby with Martin Scott and Adam Cross, and  a catch up on gossip, before launching yet again into slightly improving weather that wasn't bad enough to call things off , but bad enough to frustrate things badly!!! Notice , folks, I'm not talking birds here, just the intent to look at them!!  Barnacle Geese stoically fed in exposed fields, occasionally raising their heads and leaning forward in a very streamlined pose to offset the wind.. I just cowered behind a wall, got wet (AGAIN) and swore (frequently! ).

Whilst interactions were at a minimum the day was not altogether lost.  Suddenly, at 1700 hours, there was a break in the cloud to the west and things improved quite markedly in a local context. A flock of Barnacle Geese I had in my sights which, up to now, had fed in the lee of a fence line to gain a little shelter, suddenly began to call, moved into the field a little and took off in unison.  What!!  They were flying in altogether the wrong direction to that I'd have anticipated, even put money on!  They moved to an area which I've   suspected they might use as a roost occasionally, so this was at least a partial confirmation that hunch might be correct, and something that can be checked later.  Not quite the birthday present I'd have best hoped for, but it lifted the spirits and proved that sometimes the pain and gain expression has some truth in it.  This was the only positive product from 6-7 hours of observation, but worth having!! As a 72 year baptism day, then I live in fear of what a Centenary celebration might bring!


Monday, January 20, 2014

Bird Atlas 2007-2011.

This absolute tour de force from the British Trust for Ornithology arrived late in 2013 and I guess has been absorbing reading for many ever since. This is not a review as such as I feel less than qualified to even consider such a task. However, such is the plethora of utterly absorbing information, page after page after page, that I'll simply say, if you haven't yet got a copy, shame on you and make amends, now!!!

This is a big book!!   I was always in awe of "big books" as a child, as I concluded that they automatically held something far more special than their smaller counterparts.  Certainly this qualifies on all fronts , is a book you can't put down, is a book you discover has lost you an afternoon and is a book that generates questions and provides a heck of a lot of answers.

Of course the quality of presentation is superb, the array and extent of data beyond reproach, but it also manages, even in summaries, to adequately answer queries or hunches of your own that apply to local areas. It really is "the biz" and the BTO team are to be congratulated on an absolutely magnificent outcome.

The Preface opens with the remark, " By now, everyone involved in Bird Atlas 2007-2011 must appreciate that their contributions and this book will set the agendas for conservation in Britain and Ireland for the next twenty years."   A big claim, but one that is more than adequately met and assisted by the Contents.  As an example of Citizen Science this is also a supreme example, not only of the level of participation, but of the administrative competence in dealing with such a volume of effort.

One hopes that in this era when we have lost, temporarily one hopes, the Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England, alongside similar examples of drastic reductions of other species as well, the imperative to address such challenges and effect change will be grasped enthusiastically by conservation bodies such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts. Indeed the Government's own agency, Natural England, should itself seriously address the losses within our natural heritage highlighted within this book and draw together some form of "national strategy" to bring about change and improvement.   Of course, it's not all about losses ! There are some encouraging aspects as well, some of which are obvious to many, some less so  ( which species you the book and find out!! ).

A proud addition to anyone's home library and one that will assure very many hours of contented reference.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A good day spoiled in some respects!

I must admit that I've got a bit "absorbed" of late by this Barnacle Goose question on Islay and so, previous to dawn, saw me travelling northwards up the Rinns  to check on a couple of hunches.  However, previous to leaving home I'd spent a time listening out to what might be happening on Lossit Farm to the north, where, if geese are present, their grumblings and anxieties carry quite far and bely their presence. No such cacophony emerged this morning! As I left, a Woodcock rose from the edge of the grass moor and headed off towards the forestry , its night-time feeding completed.

As I passed Bruichladdich Pier groups of Starlings were emerging from roost in the first of the real dawn light and moving off like groups of missiles in a variety of directions.  Arriving at Machir Bay I carefully approached a vantage point overlooking the beach. No obvious roosting birds, but soon a small flock of Barnacle Geese arrived ( to roost after feeding under the moon/dim light overnight?).

The recent rains have swollen streams and rivers and you can see the upgraded channel across the beach that has now developed and that the birds undoubtedly visit for drinking and bathing. This beach is quite popular and roosting birds inevitably get disturbed, which is what then happened.  Before then a flock of about 200 Barnacle Geese came around the coastal headland behind me from further south, very probably the farm I mentioned previously where the geese were stripping out a reseeded field, and then swung out towards nearby farms.

Given activity had completely dissipated I decided to complete some WeBS Counts  ( BTO Waterfowl counts ) on nearby lochs. Noticeably Loch Gorm  carried a large number of Teal ( almost 300 ) some of which had possibly been "displaced" from the obviously enlarged and flooded lochans in the vicinity.  Moving on to the RSPB Loch Gruinart  Reserve  I managed a couple of hours really enjoyable birding before the rain moved in.  Ducks abounded with some absolutely magnificent Pintail on show, Shoveler, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Red-breasted Merganser and Shelduck , plus a couple each of Whooper Swan and Mute Swan.  A journey around to the eastern side produced several waders ( Turnstone, Redshank, Greenshank, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher ) before conditions began to prove untenable.

As I journeyed back home the Iceland Gull near Uiskentuie showed well, Light-bellied Brent Geese fed both on the beach along Upper Loch Indaal, or bobbed unceremoniously in what were now rather choppy waters, and the rain lent further emphasis to its intent to spoil things. Typical!!

Hen Harrier E-petition.

I know that's not the actual title, but anyone who has received the circular letter I sent out this week then "thank you " for also accessing this site.  I elected to update people on its progress , and so I shall!

At this stage very many thanks indeed for expressing interest.  As I said in the letter, whilst I've no illusions about the petition automatically leading to the licencing arrangements I suggested, a high number of signatures allows the matter to be raised further with politicians and others and the matter kept alive.

The recent review by the Law Commission of wildlife legislation  didn't result, as some hoped, in firm proposals for the adoption of the offence of Vicarious Liability, as has been the case in Scotland. In fact , what has been suggested in this respect is decidedly lukewarm in my view and hardly any different, or practical, compared to legislation already in place.

We clearly still have a long hard battle ahead as far as raptor persecution is concerned and the worst thing possible is to capitulate following the idiotic denials from some quarters and the apathy exhibited by the current Coalition Government. The subject needs to be kept will be , believe me!

Finally , for those of you coming across this site and not understanding what all the above is about , please access

Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers

and, more importantly, please sign!!!!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fascinating goose count figures!

Mid afternoon saw the results of the last two days goose counting arriving from Scottish Natural Heritage ( Tracey Johnson, for which many thanks ).  It's fascinating to pore over them, well , that's if you're a goose nerd!!  For someone actually involved in the counts it is interesting to examine whether the count from the first day compares favourably with that from the second! Sometimes they are similar, at other times the figures suggest there has been some, shall we say, re-assemblage, less so with Greenland White-fronted Geese and Grey lag Geese, but it does seem to happen with Barnacle Geese.  OR, they've got some favoured spot that they simply temporarily disappear into. Sounds improbable....well consider the following!

Monday saw 46453 Barnacle Geese recorded overall on Islay.......Tuesday's total was 37450.  In December the first count produced 36291 Barnacle Geese, the second count was 36197.  Uhm......interesting you might say, was the first count in January a bit overstated?  Aha, but look at the November counts! On the first day the number of Barnacle Geese was  46931, and on the second day it was 37358!!

Now the natural conclusion is that they've disappeared off somewhere else, but , remember, Islay is an island and enquiries on the mainland has determined no influx has been noted. So, what might the solution be?  Well, the current situation it seems to me is extremely dynamic with birds being more mobile than previously, far more birds on the SW peninsula (the Rinns ) where I live than , say, five or six years ago. There now seems to be around two thousand Barnacle Geese present there more regularly than previously!!  I suspect also that even some of the large groups of geese have the propensity to lose themselves in what is a very rural, even wild landscape, and produce counts that are more widely variable than before.  On a large island it's obviously difficult to cover everywhere , however hard you try, so the challenges remain!  When it comes to roosts then the main roosts are at Loch Gruinart and at the head of Loch Indaal, and spectacular both are, be it as the birds arrive, or depart in the mornings.  But they also roost on some of the beaches ( Laggan and Machir ) as recent surveys have revealed and doubtless they have other sites too. On the period around the full moon they'll also feed all night and then spend their day resting, preening or sleeping at their favoured roosting site, sometimes bathed in sunlight. Not a bad life!

Now the above counts are those associated with the International Greenland White-fronted Goose census, but the more regular counts organized by Scottish Natural Heritage are associated with the subsidy scheme which operates.  Whilst payments nowadays aren't directly linked as closely with counts as previously within the subsidy scheme the information is still recorded on a consistent basis to before wherein all observations are recorded down to a specific field reference. Birds that spend an appreciable amount of time on a given area might then move off elsewhere, or are encouraged to do so!!  All in all , not as straightforward as might first be considered.  By the same token I saw some reseeded fields on Tuesday, that had attracted the attentions of Barnacle Geese, that were absolutely ravaged......bare black areas eaten out and seriously puddled!  So, wherever you come from in terms of sympathy or commercial interest, or indeed from carrying the responsibility of seeing fair play based on birds being supported for conservation purposes, but proving a threat to commercial farming, the role is not an easy one.  Whilst the birds we play host to may represent an appreciable proportion of an international population, which rightly demands our support, at the same time they can provide pressure on farming enterprises, hence the need for government support. Not the easiest circle to square!

Back to normal! 14.1.2014.

The second day of the International Count proved, as far as geese were concerned , to be much the same as yesterday, which is not surprising as the same route is followed. However, they seemed less "jumpy" which is a real bonus from a counting viewpoint, as geese incessantly on the move over an extensive area breeds confusion!!

What was missing today was the raptor sightings or, indeed, any sightings of less frequently met with species. With the weather calming down what was more obvious were the parties of smaller birds, most of which were associated with the various farmsteads.   Thrush species ( Blackbird, Song Thrush, Redwing and Robin ) were notable , as were odd flocks of Chaffinches, all of which had appreciable numbers of Reed Buntings mixed in with them.

Out on the open fields concentrations of  Common Gulls , and to a lesser extent Herring Gulls, scoured the saturated ground , along with Rooks, Jackdaws and not a few Hooded Crows in several places. Noticeable in the last couple of weeks have been the numerous large flocks of Starlings which are around too. An early signal that things will change was to see Collared Doves in display!

Thoughts of getting photographs of the Iceland and Glaucous Gulls on the return leg home were dashed when it started to rain heavily around 1400 hours without then abating!!  Back to normal!

Monday, January 13, 2014

A good day for birds!

Today ( Monday) was the first of two days devoted to goose counts aimed at establishing the number of Greenland White-fronted Geese within its wintering range. As I've explained previously these are organized , on Islay,by Scottish Natural Heritage with a view to monitoring out own local population.

The day was fine, colder, rather cloudy , but welcome after the spate of poor weather we've had recently!! The sector I was involved with was the Rinns, which produced a quite reasonable number of observations of geese. Quite coincidentally it also produced two male Peregrine, three Sparrowhawk and prolonged views of a male Golden Eagle closely associated with its territory and receiving some unwelcome attention from both Peregrine and Hooded Crow!!

Returning home I had great views of the recently arrived immature Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull, both  present at separate sites along the strand between Uiskentuie and Bruichladdich.  The Glaucous Gull is a typical "bully boy"  bird which simply stands its ground and threateningly stares back at you!!  In recent days much plant material and other debris has been thrown high up onto the beach line by strong tides.  This, in turn, has attracted various bird species and, besides the above two species, other gulls , Oystercatchers, Jackdaws, Grey lag Geese and Starlings  all rooted through this readily available food source. Immediately offshore Wigeon bounced up and down on the advancing tide and 56/57 Light-bellied Brent Geese bobbed up and down along with more Grey lag Geese and even a Red-throated Diver coasted around in the shallow inshore waters. Finally, on the rain swollen pond behind Port Charlotte two adult Whooper Swan and their single full grown youngster plus two Moorhen were in view. Contrary to what might be thought the latter species is not that commonly met up with on Islay and can be seen at only a small number of sites on the island.  All in all, a satisfying day!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Routine , but enjoyable day.

After a couple of hours or so of  necessary admin work I finally got out mid morning and decided to do some seawatching given opportunities had been restricted so far.  It wasn't particularly notable , but single adult Gannet and Kittiwake occurred, both of which I thought were particularly early in their appearance. Odd Red-throated Diver and Great Northern Diver offshore together with "cruising"  Fulmars and a couple of parties of auks flying south was about it!  A single Guillemot in the bay and a couple of Black Guillemots flying around further out provided a bit of variety.

Moving through the nearby village ( Portnahaven ) , where Rock Doves and Starlings fed side by side on food provided by locals whilst Herring Gulls glided overhead, I called in at the "recycling bins" to offload a few Christmas bottles (!), and looked out across to McKenzie Island.  Odd young seals dotted the rocks, but a small shape caught my eye within the Sound. Difficult to pin down at first it proved to be an adult Puffin, rather scruffy with its head colour and bill colour muted and still developing , it was feeding energetically quite close in to the shore line.  Occasionally dead birds are found in winter along strand lines usually after storms , for example at Machir Bay, but it certainly has not been proved to breed on Islay in recent years, although small numbers are seen off SW Islay in mid summer from colonies further north, when they are probably on feeding movements. Nonetheless, a nice confirmation!

Moving on I completed a WeBS count of Outer Loch Indaal, whose boundary finishes previous to Bruichladdich,  at which point the "InnerLoch" is deemed to commence. Given the weather conditions it was near perfect for a count. Sadly, very little was present in the absolute outermost parts of the loch , but 15 Great Northern Diver, 2 Red-throated Diver, a Red-breasted Merganser, a few Eider, 17 Common Scoter, odd Guillemot and Razorbill and several Shag  were present in what might be described as the " Outer Middle Loch".  Insufficient time was available to do a full survey of the whole loch so complete totals will be compiled later once the large section from Bruichladdich to the head of the loch can be completed

Returning towards home I placed an area I'd suspected as being suitable for a harrier roost under observation given I'd had odd birds in the area there in the past.  However, such was not to be and no birds were seen!!  you can't win them all!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Back on line!

After a period of not having internet access ( not an unusual situation here!! ) I can declare I'm "back on line"!!  It's frustrating when it happens and, on this occasion, I have to pass thanks to an Islay resident ( Liz Hathaway ) who put me right and advised the system generally was "down" after a period of my checking plugs, connections, wiring etc etc ,  phone calls and, generally, confusion and no success.

So, starting today as opposed to backtracking, I've been participating in the routine goose counting scheme operated by Scottish Natural Heritage.  I think I've said before that actual goose counting leaves little opportunity for other birding as you're forever scanning for geese!!  Still a fine Sparrowhawk,  a collection of Lapwings around a lens of floodwater, a single Whooper Swan  on an isolated stretch of water and simply being out in much improved weather looking at geese was a bit special, and  signalled things were on the up!

On the way home the outline of a female Hen Harrier caught in the diminishing light of dusk and, later, a Grey Heron sculpted in silhouette alongside Loch Indaal were indicators of the more artistic aspect of watching birds , as opposed to birdwatching!!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Challenging Patchwork!

Today appeared to be the first real opportunity to do some real birding. Well, that was the theory, in reality things turned out differently!
I'd intended carrying out the first intensive visit to "the Patch" and to hopefully get a few photographic shots of the best bits of habitat within it.  Well, forget the second bit as things proved to be dull and miserable, set against inevitable better opportunities that will arise in the future!  Generally conditions weren't ideal anyway as the F5/6 onshore wind was blustery, the sea somewhat angry and visibility impaired with mist.

Several flocks of geese were around with well over a hundred Greenland White-fronted Geese ( none carried collars unfortunately! ) and a few Barnacle Geese in a couple of sheltered fields. Later 4 Grey lag Geese flew around over the coast. Other than Herring Gulls and Fulmars nothing was on the move offshore. Several Shags were feeding in the relative shelter of various bays and still managing to lift themselves out of the huge breakers coming onshore before diving into the turbulent waters. Single Red-throated Diver and Eider were located momentarily before being lost to view. At this stage the forecast heavy seas weren't anywhere near there worst, although rocks emerging two metres above the surface were obscured with ease by swirling walls of cascading water.

Clearly conditions were set to get worse so it seemed sensible to try and cover the area as quickly as possible. Previous to arriving at the bay above I'd parked for a while in a convenient spot to watch over the sea to watch for birds on the move. A dead Brown Hare nearby attracted two Buzzards and a Hooded Crow which all "held station" in the onshore wind, doubtless keeping an eye on their booty in anticipation of my departure!  Across on McKenzie island Atlantic Grey Seals were hauled up on each of three small beaches well above the splash zone and, at the north end 11 pairs of Fulmar crouched blissfully on their selected territories.  Other than Starlings, no passerines were encountered, so I moved on to another bay, which is sheltered , and regularly attracts a few waders and other feeding birds.

Nothing was in the tiny bay, the whole beach area was piled high with kelp and the inflowing stream, swollen with recent rain, forced an energetic course through to the sea. An then it started to rain ( seriously rain, as we're used to "regular" rain hereabouts ) suggesting things might be coming to an end. Covering the rest of the "Patch area", I was surprised to see eight rather round brown bundles exposed towards the centre of a field. Eventually I determined they were all Brown Hares, tightly pulled in around themselves and occupying what must have been a relatively sheltered patch in an otherwise seemingly open field exposed to the wind.

And that was it, with nothing else new seen, and the weather deteriorating rapidly. Looking at past Blogs we have had things worse around this time of year ( snow on odd occasions,  four days without power on fact the location of "the torch" and  "the stove" are in a rehearsed position at home since then ). This recent weather is nonetheless beginning to be wearing and hopefully we'll get some respite soon. As for "the Patch" I guess the challenge still remains, and in major part too!!

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Early Bird Survey......something for all who feed birds!

If you feed birds in your garden , then this is a survey for you and one that is not very time demanding.

On Thursday, 9th January, 2014 the British Trust for Ornithology are organizing a survey to see which species begin visiting garden feeding stations the earliest and what other factors might be influencing their behaviour, essentially overnight temperatures and light pollution.  First of all the survey can be completed on any day surrounding the 9th ....... I'm going to complete mine on the 7th hoping that the feeders have not been blown away again!!

To gain a full insight into what is involved, visit this link and gain the full instructions  Early Bird Survey .
It's easy to overlook the fact that, in bad weather in mid-winter, birds are really up against it and the availability of food, and their capability to exploit such resources to the maximum, is a life or death matter. Some small passerine species rely, utterly, on their body fat to get them through each of  the long winter nights where sub-zero temperatures can be encountered.  Factors which enhance this capability are clearly positives and shorter nights , slightly higher temperatures and the opportunity to commence feeding early due to the influence of ambient light may make a difference.  Certainly, with my nearest neighbours' houses requiring binoculars to see them, the benefit of an incidental light source is minimal to non-existent in my case!!

So, the requirement is to be in place before dawn, (thankfully rather late at this time of year ), cup of tea to hand, A4 recording sheet ready to scribble your observations on and the task of recording the first ten species to visit.  Fill the feeders up the night before and, if you have a max/min thermometer, set it up in a suitable place  ( if you haven't got one it doesn't matter ).......and bascically that's it!!  Wogan's radio show is a personal option, why not try the Today programme, there may well be a piece on about the survey, you never know.

A first class motivator!

This is a book to be read as the wild winds of winter blow outside, rattle tiles on the roof and the rain incessantly  lashes down!   And so it was, and still is!    But enter  "Scilly Birding....joining the madding crowd" which will serve to strengthen anyone's determination and resolve, whatever the weather, to enter the New Year with renewed focus!!

It's an engaging book and in many different respects. For those who know little about birdwatching, and particularly twitching, it serves to explain much about the obsessive and disciplined efforts which can be applied to the hobby.  For those who are involved, it goes far in setting in print the emotional highs and lows, the sheer dedication required on some occasions in order to see something special and the planning which can accompany such efforts.


Whilst it's only just been published, the events describe a first visit of a fortnight to the Scillies in October in the mid-eighties.  Anticipation, angst, anxiety and sheer relief all flood from the pages. I've no intention of outlining the events portrayed, as that would spoil a good read, other than to say the style of narrative and detail is consistent throughout and certainly holds your attention.

Besides planning, fieldcraft, discipline and focussed determination, it also manages to highlight that success might be assisted by a regular intake of beer and pasties and beef stroganoff !  It's hilarious in places, serious and informative in others. I couldn't put it down and would recommend it to all.

Scilly Birding by Simon Davey.  ISBN 978-1-908241-17-7

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And so to 2014!

Happy New Year to everyone and a sincere wish that your birding in 2014 will be fulfilling and exciting!

Back in situ , back in harness and back to Blogging!!

Today was always going to be difficult in that promises had been made against that times many repeated old line, " Well, give me a ring on New Year's Day", and so it proved to be. Thankfully, the weather wasn't all that kind, with the best part being at the beginning of the day preceding the wind rising and showers appearing!

So a busy day of sorts, but one that also provided an opportunity to prepare for better things to come. Besides sorting out a new approach for recording details within the BuBo programme I also got myself registered ( I think! ) within the Patchwork Challenge scheme. Take a look at Patchwork Challenge 2014

Basically you submit details of the species seen within your favourite local birdwatching patch on a monthly basis, each particular species earns points and you end up with your name in lights or needing to try harder!!! More complicated than that, of course, but it provides an opportunity to make birdwatching fun and is a motivating factor too.  The size of your chosen area is limited to 3 km squares in extent and the whole idea links to having somewhere nearby to home where you can grab a period of time on a regular basis and hopefully ensure you're not missing much that's going on.

At some point soon I'm going to go around my selected patch ( so named SW Islay ) and take a few photographs of the various mini habitats/sites within it and set out details on the Blog.  And this being the day of resolutions, I also promise to declare the scores that I tot up throughout the year ( foolish boy!).