Sunday, April 20, 2014

More departures than arrivals. 19.4.2014

The weather promised to provide a good day again, although the SE wind was unlikely to provide the best conditions for seawatching, which soon proved to be the case.  However, well before then I had the experience of being woken by a "double alarm" clock without having set it!!

Just beyond the garden wall, on a small mound, a cock Pheasant has commenced to display each morning. It usually ensures I'm up by six am!!  The penetrating call, and whirring sound of its wings as it jumps in the air to advertise its presence, are extremely effective reminders of the time.  This morning proved to be worse! Immediately below the bedroom window is a bush, indeed "the garden bush", within which a Collared Dove was producing its most metronomic efforts.  Not the best start at a little past 0530 hours, but welcome in the sense that its not every Spring that this species is recorded at home. They're present around various villages on Islay, but from personal experience Spring is the time when the occasional bird can be found outside of these areas too.

A seawatch produced no evidence of birds "on the move" other than Gannets moving north and south on feeding movements and parties of Auks speeding northwards. Driving through the nearby village the sound of chirruping House Sparrows was redolent of what used to be another widespread sound which has ceased to be in many places in recent years. Atlantic Grey Seals were hauled out in the harbour and a small number of Eiders moved around calling quietly. On nearby Orsay island one, possibly two, Common Sandpipiers picked around, whilst Oystercatchers went through their noisy displays and flights, all the while with neighbouring seals stretched out on the rocks around seemingly unaffected by it all.

 Outer Loch Indaal unfortunately proved impossible to cover with morning light from the east producing an excessive amount of glare reflecting from the water surface.  Certainly the odd Great Northern Diver was present.  The various rocks offshore of Bruichladdich produced at least 36 Ringed Plover, Turnstone, a Purple Sandpiper, two Sandwich Terns and a couple of Cormorant.

On to the Loch Gorm area to complete various WeBS counts and give the site a good inspection. Firstly, though, the inner man and breakfast which, on this occasion, was accompanied by a curious Stoat appearing several times to check out what was happening.  Duck numbers were few and far between, but an overflying immature Golden Eagle provided excellent views, floating around in a clear blue sky and showing off its white tail with dark sub-terminal band and its wing markings to great effect.  Willow Warblers are now increasing and a single Grasshopper Warbler and several Reed Buntings added to the scene. A nearby lochan provided good views of a female Goldeneye and, as previously, two flocks of  Golden Plover totalling almost four hundred flew around to the east and again landed out of sight.

Later a male Peregrine replaced the Stoat at a late lunch stop and circled overhead for some time before slipping away northwards. Generally Northern Wheatears still appear in low numbers,  with only Willow Warblers arriving in strength so far.  The mainly clear overnight conditions have obviously allowed migrants to move through and the southerly wind conditions have supported a final clear out of geese. I saw none today ( other than Grey Lag Geese ) compared to a couple of days ago. A check at Loch Gruinart saw fewer Pintail and Wigeon present, the Black-tailed Godwits apparently gone with an altogether more tranquil scene in evidence.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spring passage ratchets up ! 16.4.2014

A Phylloscopus that flipped through the garden early on and a Northern Wheatear nearby suggested that there had been passage overnight.  A couple of hours seawatching was somewhat routine, although a succession of large groups of Auks zipped northwards that, in the end, totalled a few hundred. A quite stiff SW wind, accompanied by distant haze, persisted throughout with the sun making little impression.  It's these conditions at this time of year that give rise to worries in my mind when consideration is given to offshore wind turbines!!  This morning showed Red-throated Divers to be on the move northwards.  Whilst some move low over the sea surface , others move in loose parties, but with birds "staggered" at various heights, an appreciable proportion of which are at turbine height. Whilst conditions of good visibility would suggest the birds would miss the structures, I just wonder what the outcome might be when conditions are similar to today?

Beyond low numbers of Gannets moving north and south and the seemingly ever "sailing" Fulmars from nearby colonies, little else was in evidence so I moved northwards up the Rhinns to try and get a general feel of what was around, which is otherwise so difficult to determine from the more random observations usually recounted by visitors. Clearly Willow Warblers were now widespread, although not in the final numbers they'll hopefully achieve. Similarly Northern Wheatears were more obvious than previously, with two large, bright looking male birds at Foreland possibly being the vanguard of what will be the passage of " Greenland" birds. Finally numbers of both Pied and White Wagtails have improved set against what has been a low picture so far. Sand Martins were present in various places with the largest presence being at Gruinart where a few Swallows were in evidence too. Winter thrushes appear to have moved out but there are still some geese around with Barnacle Goose numbers in evidence around Loch Gruinart and at least 430 in the Coull Farm area.  A distant sighting of 400+ Golden Plover in flight in that latter area sadly afforded no further views.

The Loch Gruinart area was alive with birds with waterfowl and waders predominating, but with a pretty absorbing "supporting cast" too. Excellent views were had of Shelduck, Mallard, Wigeon, Pintail, Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal, Tufted Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, all of which were in splendid plumage. Three or four Moorhen were picking about, as were odd Mute Swan  with more Barnacle Geese and Grey lag Geese nearby, all the while being accompanied by an incessant aerial of hirundines. Amidst the constant calling of Redshank, Lapwing and Curlew, a group of almost fifty Black-tailed Godwits sought to find a resting place on one of the islands. The plumage of these ranged from post-winter to almost full breeding dress and provided a great sight! Common Snipe could be found quietly feeding together with a Dunlin in full breeding plumage. At intervals the whole scene was turned into nigh chaos by the appearance of a Hen Harrier quartering along the seawall within which adjacent area two Roe Deer fed in apparent oblivion of all the nearby activity.

Calling in to various other areas produced a couple of Great Northern Diver, Eiders and Red-breasted Merganser besides a reasonable Linnet flock approaching a hundred birds. At various points passing Goldfinch were heard calling, a passage certainly symptomatic of the season. All in all , a pretty good day with much promise for the future!!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The E-petition.........current thinking, future action.

I've now had sufficient opportunity to consider the Government's response to the E-petition, "Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers",  see here for link  . In both my own and many other peoples' opinions the response failed to address the core proposals within the petition, simply sought to trivialize and obfuscate the possible benefits that might arise from a system of regulation and , even worse, took the opportunity to promote the economic benefits of shooting and its management activities. No real appreciation of the effects of raptor persecution were acknowledged, quite the opposite in fact.

Recent  years have seen raptor persecution proceed unabated, despite the Government's preferred interpretation, has seen the Hen Harrier driven to extinction as a breeding species in England and, in recent days , has seen the worst poisoning incident ever in the Highlands of Scotland where 14 Red Kites and 4 Common Buzzards have been found in a single confined area.  And yet we are still asked to accept the Government's version of success in reducing the problem and the absence of a need to improve the situation plus, other than a small minority, its promotion of the reputation of the shooting industry!!

Little wonder then that my conclusion is to continue fighting the issue!!  But before raising the subject of raptor persecution yet again, I have decided to take the Government to task on what I believe was not only a tawdry response on their part, but one that failed to embrace the spirit of the democratic process provided by the E-petition system. The dismissive position adopted by the Government, not the tone or even the content of the response, which can be dealt with separately,  bears examination as 10,000 plus people had indicated that, given the prevailing levels of raptor persecution, some form of regulation was desirable. No opportunity was taken to justify why no further action against persecution was necessary, simply that the shooting industry was deemed to be a valuable economic asset ignoring completely the necessary and costly attention continually requiring to be exercised in combating persecution activities by Police Forces and the voluntary sector.

I can only imagine that the expenditure required in maintaining the E-petition system is not inconsiderable. As such its operation ought to reflect the best position possible within our democratic process, which, in some circumstances, might even result in potential legislation being debated. That the process can simply dismiss a proposal out of hand, without a recognition of the need for change in order to eliminate persecution, smacks of arrogance and the process simply being used to "pull teeth" of that part of the electorate passionately concerned about the issue.  In these days of concerns being raised about voter apathy, it might be suggested that the ready dismissal of proposals of this kind is hardly a positive expression of practice !!

Now, you might well consider ,"why dwell on the inadequacies of the E-petition system" when the real subject we're all concerned about is associated with raptor persecution and measures to secure its reduction.
It's my opinion , and I hope you agree with me, that long discussions or presentations about licencing are not, in the short term likely to result in change.  Raising concerns, as a parallel objective, about the handling of the petition is likely to bring to the attention of a wide spectrum of senior elected members and their officials the facts associated with raptor persecution and the likelihood of further action.  In this context I intend writing to  the following,

The Right Honourable, David Cameron, Prime Minister.

The Right Honourable, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister.

Owen Paterson, MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

The Right Honourable, Patricia Hodge, MP,  Chair, Public Accounts Committee.

Natascha Engels, MP, Chair, Backbench Business Committee.  (oversees the E-petition process ).

Maria Eagle, MP, Shadow Environment Minister.

Alan Reid, MP, Argyll and Bute  ( my own MP ).

Following all this the examination and comparison of any responses received can be completed and the necessary steps considered of pursuing the raptor persecution issue still further.

And, best of all, I can take the opportunity to inform the Government that the E-petition is now officially closed , contrary to the comments made in their response !!  Don't lose sight of the fact that , in thirteen months time, there is the General Election.  Now is the time to begin raising issues with MP's and to continue to do so!!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The E-petition......a little bit of background.

Over the last couple of days I've pondered time and again about the E-petition ( Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers )  see here,  which I registered in February, 2013 and what could have been different.  I decided, rightly or wrongly, that , based on my own thoughts and desires, the wording and implications more than adequately expressed what I wanted to achieve. I'd discussed the subject with a wide range of friends and colleagues and come to a view of what was required as far as my own opinion was concerned.  And I truly believed such regulation had, potentially, a part to play in reducing bird of prey persecution.  I'd never any illusions that the signature total would achieve the heady heights of 100,000 or above and lead to a consideration ( Note! ) of the subject being debated in Parliament. In any case, given the later arrogant dismissal by the Government of the support the  petition associated with the Badger cull received, which achieved in excess of 240,000 signatures, one begins to question the sincerity associated with the system anyway!!!. That the above petition then achieved a total of 10,426 was a moment dedicated to the loyal support provided by the people who signed it and them ensuring a Government response was required. To them all, simply , Thank you!!

So, what was the logic associated with the petition?  I've set this out below as, given the tawdry response by the Government, it seems almost necessary to provide an "idiots guide" to the thinking which led to its registration.

I have to say, quite simply , that I've been involved in combating raptor persecution for many, many years, both professionally with the RSPB , and latterly in an independent capacity. So no surprises as far as the origin of the principles involved. I find it reprehensible as an activity, unnecessary, and self serving in so many respects,and not usually very far from commercial benefit either. Given I condemn such activities, am I against shooting as a result?  Read this carefully, as it's not a statement from a position on a fence, but a realistic reaction to an activity accepted within our framework of law and as a result of a democratic process.!!  As long as shooting is carried out within the confines of the law governing such activities, its responsibilities and the law associated with the areas over which it is practised, then I will accept it. At least at present, although I'm beginning to be less tolerant as years go by!!  I don't understand the need and openly condemn the actions of the erring faction who openly abuse such a democratic privilege under the law. So, as I said to various people in Bowland in past times, if you cross the line  I shall smile at you across the Court!!  And the same goes for eggers, photographers, illegal nest examiners and the like. When it comes to raptor protection things have to be black and white, no fudging at the edges!

The petition referred to upland grouse shoots, not shooting in general, although there might be ideas to be gleaned in that direction!!  Given the endless number of incidents of raptor persecution reported on, and my own personal experience, it seemed to me that progress could only be made by some form of regulation. Why?  Because there has been endless discussions , prevarication, academic considerations, campaigns, publicity, tears and frustration, all of which have led to ....what ?  Diddly squat!! And if you believe what DEFRA might still wish to convince you about , such discussions continue. With what hope of success? C'mon, be realistic and stop wasting time and money on empty ideas against which there is no commitment other than from the conservationists lost in a maelstrom of hope and anxiety.  This was an initial attempt to insert an idea that might then be worked up into something more serious.

It wasn't an attempt to stop shooting, far from it.  It was an attempt to isolate those who insisted on following anachronistic methods of management resulting in birds of prey being killed in pursuit of commercial gain. So, licence all practitioners first of all. Any of these which were then prosecuted for any type of raptor persecution under the existing laws of the land had such a licence removed for a period of time as part of the
"prosecution penalty". Simple, straightforward and something which could be directed at the gamekeepers involved too. Those who acted responsibly had obviously nothing to worry about, indeed the length of tenure or duration of their licence might , in the fullness of time have been proudly proclaimed as some sort of kite mark ( even)!!  Reading the Government response and the endorsement of the economic contribution shooting offers, one might be led to assume they were willing to overlook the transitions against the law in favour of the economic returns being generated!!

But this is not a critique of the response, that can come later. This is an open explanation of the thinking behind the petition and a "platform" against which the whole exercise will be taken further. Clearly we are dealing with a government who needs to be taken, kicking and screaming, into any process that will potentially govern or limit its elite minority of supporters as far as this subject area is concerned. Well, .prepare for the battle as it's not going to end here. If the mutterings associated with Maria Miller's departure, and her potential to lose votes, is concerned, such is the front that will eventually bring this subject to the fore. Public opinion is mounting against shooting in general and it would be sensible to at least be seen to be sincerely tackling the subject of raptor persecution, as opposed to ignoring it, otherwise the outcome might most certainly not be as you would wish!!

Bird of prey persecution goes wild!

Anybody who keeps abreast of bird persecution incidents will be thoroughly sickened by the reports of numbers of dead Red Kites and Buzzards found in the Conon Bridge area in Ross-shire, Scotland for which details have been reported on by the  Raptor Persecution Scotland website. To date 14 Red kites and 5 Common Buzzards have been found, all of which are suspected of being poisoned. Apparently Police raids have been carried out on various premises in the area this morning, but no details are yet available.

Despite a plethora of raptor persecution incidents in recent months and years that have been  ostensibly linked to game shooting areas in Scotland, various official bodies linked to such operations, whether gamekeeping or landowning interests, have come out and denied any knowledge of this dreadful incident. Is it that, on this occasion, such obvious candidates are not guilty ?

I'm just a bit suspicious that , at a farm in the vicinity of Conon Bridge, a celebrated feeding facility for Red Kites is operated, much vaunted by RSPB and an obvious tourist facility that earns the operators some income. Envy can be a very vicious motivation and may be the rather heavy handed reason behind the incident. On the other hand the clear targeting of Hen Harrier winter roosts in England, involving Scottish as well as English birds, has led to a demonstrable and noticeable reduction in numbers of this species. The Hen Harrier has been lost as a breeding species in England as a result of such prejudicial action.

So are we looking at commercial envy or opportunity taking?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Back on home ground. 7.4.2014.

Having achieved a semblance of normality on various fronts, the opportunity finally appeared and I could be out for the day!!  After getting up quite early, I was castigating myself for not being out and about before 0730 hours when I looked through the window and there was an immature BLACK REDSTART  just sitting there on the "concrete apron" surrounding the house. I had great views before it moved off onto the surrounding wall and then disappeared. Efforts to relocate it proved a waste of time, which was a shame.  I've had one here before, in June would you believe, and there have been various reports from Islay over the years, usually in mid winter. A nice addition to the Year List and a justification for setting off late in future !!!   Was it a winterer or a routine spring migrant I wonder? I suspect the species is a fairly regular winterer, particularly if conditions are mild. The many secluded sheltered bays along the coast might well provide more than a share of suitable sites, areas that I suspect are often exploited by Stonechat too following their near abandonment of hill land.

The sea was somewhat flat and little was on the move other than Gannets , N and S, a few Kittiwakes flying south, all coupled with a noticeable absence of auks. The local Fulmars were mostly sitting on their chosen sites, epitomising domestic bliss, and appear to have moved slightly  around the cliff yet again so they are now even more sheltered. A White Wagtail was obviously new , but very little else appeared.

Further up the Rinns a small number of Sand Martins raced around over the Easter Ellister loch.  I then had a session scanning Outer Loch Indaal , although the viewing conditions weren't perfect. A few Great Northern Diver, a couple of Red-throated Diver, small groups of both Razorbill and Guillemot, and a couple of parties of Common Scoter provided most interest before a rather fierce squall spoilt things. Off Bruichladdich a single Sandwich Tern grating call loudly proclaimed its presence, two Purple Sandpiper fed close to the car and Eiders fed in the shallows. I spent some time at the head of Loch Indaal both looking and waiting for migrants , but to no avail.  By now it was well into the afternoon so I circled around past Loch Gruinart and was surprised to find appreciable numbers of Barnacle Geese still present at various places. I decided I'd leave having a "session" in that area until later in the week in favour of checking out a couple of raptor sites whilst wending my way home at the same time.  All in all , a pretty good Spring day!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The E-petition is still alive and well, believe me!

Like me I'm sure that you were appalled at the patronising response from the Government towards the E-petition with proposals, given the continuing levels of raptor persecution, to have the  Licencing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers considered. I've now had a few days within which I've been able to give the whole subject quiet consideration, as opposed to what my thoughts were at the very beginning!!  There were clear elements of incompetence associated with the response too, which makes one question the commitment to the process from the Government.

I'll repeat what I said before, and that is " thank you", to the ten thousand plus people who supported the proposals and who ensured a Government response was forthcoming. Given the response avoided addressing the central aspects of the proposals, indeed trivialised them, and was little more than a positive promotion for the shooting industry I feel a great sense of responsibility to try and repay in some way the support which you all made available previously. I have now spent a couple of days developing a strategy within which the Government response can be countered and this is what I am pledged to do.

I am not going to outline any details for obvious reasons at this stage, as I have no intention of being "wrong footed", but can confirm that action will be initiated within the next seven days.  The issue has certainly not been "put to bed" as a result of the tawdry Government response, indeed the latter's clear endorsement of the shooting industry is noted and might yet serve to be a cause of embarrassment for them.  I shall put out full details on the Blog of the initiatives that I have in mind, and the justifications for them, and it may be that, at that point, some of you are able to lend further support should you wish to.

Again, may I thank everyone for their support and I can assure you the fight is not over!!

Return leg! 31.3.2014.

After a bad night I set off northwards intent on trying to make something positive of the day. And then came the next difficulty! I received a call from Caledonian MacBrayne advising that the 1800 hours ferry had been cancelled, but a sailing had been arranged for 1530 hours.  This required arriving by 1500 hours which put serious pressure on my time budget.  Clearly the Snow Goose option had to be jettisoned!  So, with a deal of focussing and upping my average speed, I carried on and actually managed to complete a shop and not miss the ferry either!

It was interesting to see that numbers of both Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese remained on Islay, particularly after not encountering wintering geese in Norfolk. Little opportunity arose to see much else and so the usual domestic activity pattern locked in once I got home. It had been a good time away, but marred by the emergent news at the very end of the period.

I've now spent the last few days picking up on various events, dealing with E-mails and so on. Birding has been limited , but a couple of Northern Wheatears at home on the 3rd were new.  Not having had WiFi access whilst I was away I finally had the opportunity to look at the Government's response to the E-petition relating to Licensing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers, which had appeared on the Web site whilst I was away.  I'm appalled at the ineptitude surrounding the response and , after relaxed consideration at several points,  I've resolved to pursue the matter further. I'll be putting out a short definitive summary linked to this intention and then keeping people updated as things move forward. I'm trying to avoid banging on about the matter but, as you might imagine, I am less than pleased , impressed or satisfied with the response received, robustly which will be contested.

A bad, sad day! 30.3.2014

From the onset , this was never going to be a birding day. Having changed my plans I had more of a relaxed day travelling north and even had a proper lunch in the early afternoon and had time to go through the papers!!  I stayed over at Penrith where I intended to have an early start to both reach the 1800 hours ferry at Kennacraig, Argyll  following completion of the traditional large supermarket shop en-route. I'd also the intention of travelling a little further south of the ferry terminal and picking up on the Snow Geese I'd missed out on previously, which I understood were still there, so time was of the essence.

Having reached the Travelodge in good time I had the opportunity to oversee plans for the day after. It was then that I heard from Matthew that long-standing friend, John Wint , had died on the Friday.  This was gut wrenching news and threw rational thought askew. John had contested with cancer for several years in a stoical, dignified way and we all had admiration for the way in which he carried on despite a series of periods of serious  illness and operations. My last face to face conversation with him had been at the Birdfair in August when I actually thought he looked much better than I'd expected. He assured me that he took things day by day, as he clearly was doing,  involved, as he was with the BTO ringing demonstration as in years previously.

John had been involved in the "team" of us who developed the Wintersett Ringing Station in the early 70's, where his energies and good advice were essential ingredients to the success it enjoyed.  We also had a trip to Gambia in the early seventies from which a whole series of memories and experiences emerged. We took a boat trip up the river to Basse , which took four and a half days, within which time a fire broke out on board where villagers had been cooking on deck. Initially things were chaotic, as the Captain was asleep in his cabin, but eventually " fire fighting appliances" were employed ( buckets on ropes dipped in the river ) and the fire itself extinguished.  Quintessential memories experienced together!!

Latterly John had been much involved with the Yorkshire Naturalists Union, served as its President and was also Recorder for one of the Vice Counties, evidence that, even in the hard times, he carried on regardless. He'll be sorely missed and with each emerging memory comes a deep sadness, anger even, that he would have undoubtedly contributed much more had the opportunity being allowed. John was a good bloke, a gent, but always one of the lads as well. A bad, sad day!

Frustration and a bad mistake!! 29.3.2014.

And so it came to what, essentially, was the end of a three week birding break in the UK.  Productive, enjoyable and the weather had largely been kind too.  Given I'd still two nights in transit I packed the car such that most things could remain undisturbed until I got back.  I took my leave of Robert ( Sturgess) at Garganey House in Hunstanton, a great host , a birder and someone willing to advise and assist  (  01485 533269 ) and someone, as an ex chef, who turns in a pretty mean breakfast too.  Thanks, Robert, and for all the laughs along the way too.

I called in at Wolferton just for the hell of it, but I suspect Golden Pheasants are usually long gone by mid morning.  I also tried Fen Drayton again!!   C'mon RSPB get the signage problem sorted, this has all the ingredients of a mystery tour. The only benefits to this journey were various Brimstone butterflies that I saw at various places.  The Smew which had been reported earlier in the week appeared to have departed, but a good selection of commoner birds was in evidence. I bumped into a " friend of a friend"  and we had a good chat about the site and its management. He also told me there was a drake Baikal Teal at a nearby lagoon area , but that it had been there three weeks and that the local consensus was that it was an escape!! Not having seen any other information, I received the advice and opinion and decided to move on. I've an awful feeling this could have been a very poor decision given reports of the bird have repeatedly appeared on my Pager every day since.  OK, you're allowed to laugh for ten seconds , but then exercise some sympathy ( please! ).

I called in at Holme Fen again, but had no better success with the Great Grey Shrike. I didn't know it then , but this was turning into a disaster weekend!  Whilst I found a mere within the wood I could not find any wires which the shrike used regularly. Not sure even now that I'd reached the correct place despite casting around quite widely!!  Little else was active in what, by then , was a quite warm afternoon, but the various Peacock butterflies throughout the wood were entertaining.

I pressed on and reached my overnight stop a little earlier than anticipated. I'd had to re-arrange my plans to visit the Forest of Bowland the following day and meet up with my old pals, Bill Murphy and Bill Hesketh, but we resolved to make sure the "meet" happened at a later date.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Relaxing birding with star players!! 28.3.2014

Again, a great morning and one that just begged for a good exploratory walk around a given area. I decided to go to Holkham Hall Park first and then visit the NNR area opposite.

The park was at its best in some ways, full of bird song in calm conditions and pleasant weather. A slow walk through the woodlands produced numerous Nuthatch, and both Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker , but no sign of the desired Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Other birders were clearly listening out for birds, but with no success. Finally only a couple of us were left at which point we had a bird calling nearby. Try as we might we couldn't get a view of the bird, although we could track its movements. This was like trying to pin down the "elusive drummer" at Santon Downham!! It moved away from us at intervals , quite openly advertising its presence by calling , but disguising its actual location with very effectively. Whilst we followed it over quite a distance as it moved back towards the entrance avenue and main gates , we never did see it!  It seems the days when the park played host to around nine pairs are long gone in keeping with the reduction in numbers in many other areas. This demise seems to have closely paralleled the increase in numbers and range of Nuthatch and I wonder the extent to which there has been overt competition between them leading to Lesser Spotted Woodpecker "losing out".

Following that I walked over to the lake where various common duck and a lot of gulls were present along with the odd Egyptian Goose on the periphery. Retracing my route I also saw the large herd of Fallow Deer for which the Park is famed, which give good views providing you keep a reasonable distance away.

I made my way coastwards and commenced to walk through the coastal woodlands, acknowledging that it was early afternoon already!!  There was no sign of geese or duck in the nearby fields west of Wells as would be the case earlier in the winter, which made for rather a strange atmosphere. I guess I'm too used to the Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese on Islay hanging on well into April.

Chiffchaff was singing lustily alongside the path as I made my way onwards. Around the wetland area  Wigeon fed along with Grey lag Geese and good views were had of a close pair of Egyptian Geese too.  Cormorants, Grey Heron and Spoonbill were all present and showed to good effect , but the star of the show was a Bittern that has apparently been there all winter, but has been somewhat elusive. A cry from a lady in the hide that a Bittern had just emerged thankfully focussed us all on the individual concerned that then entertained us for a considerable period. Stalking quite openly between the clumps of waterside Juncus, the bird gave us an unprecedented view of it hunting behaviour. We've all seen Bitterns patiently standing on the periphery of a reedbed, but actively stalking potential prey is quite another matter. The controlled frozen stances whilst leaning forward at a 45 degree angle, the cat like stalking movement through the vegetation with its neck partially extended and close to the ground ,and then the abrupt pause as it sensed something was present. This was privileged birding at its best, not just seeing the bird and its beautiful plumage details , but its quite open and confident behaviour too. All too soon it simply slipped away into a patch of ditch side vegetation. What an experience !

And so, with the end of the afternoon rapidly appearing I made my way back to the car and onwards to Hunstanton, happy and not a little smug too!!

Quality birding played slowly! 27.3.2014

The weather looked  reasonable so I decided to complete a trip down into the heartland of west Norfolk.  I have an awful past record of getting lost in the area , mainly due to arrogantly continuing on when I didn't really know where I was, but convinced myself otherwise, and this trip was no exception.

The first part was the easiest and I easily located the area which I was going to patiently stake out and, hopefully, see Goshawk in display. As predicted, the weather was relatively calm , although a bit hazy, so it seemed the task was "on".  After sitting scanning for an interminable period I'd had not a suggestion of a Goshawk , never mind good views or display. Common Buzzards were doing their own stuff and raised hopes on each occasion as they emerged at a distance through the haze. Eventually, amidst a small "swirl" of three or four Buzzards at a lower level, I then found a Goshawk circling at a much greater height. But that was it! After a short period it somehow disappeared  and didn't return despite an intensely elongated period of scanning.  OK, I thought , you'll have to make do with that, although in reality I'd little option.

Having memorized the route to the next venue I confidently buzzed down lanes and byways, only to arrive at the considered location which looked nothing like that described.  Patient back-tracking then led to a combination of previous mistakes being identified that will forever ensure my admiration for SatNav gadgets!!!  I was on the look out for Stone Curlew! First of all I bumped into the birder who I'd seen at Waveney Forest previously, who confirmed I was in the right location, but that the birds were in a different field.  I felt sure I'd been told there were several around but, apparently , only two had been found.  Patient scanning then found one of them which gave pretty good views, so one up on the endeavours with Goshawk I also managed to get Lee Evans on my Year List given we found ourselves drawing up in unison at the same vantage point. After further reasonable views and a quick chat I set off again and quickly linked up with the correct route I needed to get back northwards.

By the time I got back on the caost the weather and visibility had deteriorated and what had been a nice away day ended up being truncated, which is the luck of the draw.

A very mixed day! 26.3.2014.

Well, I thought I had it all worked out! Start at Salthouse, go to Cley and then on to Kelling Heath.  It worked out , but only sort of!

Starting at Salthouse I managed to see the Richards Pipit which has been in residence for a little time.  Not particularly good views, but conclusive and better than some I've had in the past. Later the bird appeared to move into the centre of the field and was lost to view. It was then that the rain started!  Thank goodness for Radio 4!

With conditions improving slightly I called in at the Cley centre to say "Hello" to Patrick (Dwyer) and then returned to Salthouse to see if conditions might improve and closer views might be had of the pipit. It didn't work out so I sat it out and, eventually, things improved a little in that the rain stopped.  I moved on to Kelling with the intention of then calling back to Cley late in the afternoon. After a walk around the reserve I was considering my next move when I bumped into local resident, John Wagstaff, who is closely connected to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and spends a deal of his time on the heath. So commenced what was a fascinating afternoon with us discussing a wide range of natural history topics. John's knowledge is immense, no doubt based on what appears to be a couple of visits each day to the heath!  Whilst touring around the heath our discussions ranged over Adders and their movements and emergence times, Hen Harrier roosting  and site selection, Silver-studded Blue butterfly introductions and monitoring, Dartford Warblers and Woodlark and the habitat management work being undertaken on the heath.  I now feel guilty at the bombardment of questions I put John's way, but he didn't seem to mind. Given most of my own birding activities are on a solo basis on Islay meeting someone like this provided for an utterly fascinating and absorbing afternoon. I certainly went away having had various questions answered more than adequately and I hope we'll be able to meet up again when I'm in the area.

The idea of visiting Cley never reached fruition as we didn't part company until after 1800 hours, which meant most of my journey westwards was during the dusk or in darkness. The compensation was that I had sightings of four individual Barn Owls whilst travelling back to Hunstanton!

North Norfolk at its best! 25.3.2014

First of all went up to Chosely Barns where, sadly, the hedge which provided shelter for birds arriving to feed on grain spillage has been removed, with no evidence of discarded food being available either.  It seems close views of Corn Bunting and Yellowhammers are possibly a thing of the past. It would be useful to see the justification of what has prompted the action which, at face value, appears nothing short of prejudicial vandalism.  At least a nearby field provided views of around 750 Golden Plover, some of which showed signs of their summer plumage.

On to the RSPB Reserve at Titchwell where I spent most of the day. A quick call to see past colleague Lawrence Rose who is now based here overseeing visitor initiatives and then on to the reserve proper. With time available I did full justice to each of the hides or lookouts, but was disappointed the circular walk has been closed temporarily following the effects and damage from the winter storm surge. Thankfully the "new" sea wall constructed previously held the water levels back otherwise the effects could have been much worse. As ever the variety of waterfowl was good to say the least ( Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Shelduck, plus Coot and Moorhen, Great Crested Grebe , Grey lag Goose and Brent Goose ), which was supplemented by an equally good variety of waders (  Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe, Grey Plover, Avocet, Ruff, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Knot, Oystercatcher, Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit ). Some of the latter were roosting just off one of the hides and provided exceptionally good views.

Later they chose to fly past and provide a very artistic image against the backdrop of the lagoon.

At least 6 Red-crested Pochard were present on the main lagoon, but later moved, and the large rafts of Common Scoter offshore had, collectively, reached around two thousand compared to yesterday.  A single Red-breasted Merganser put in a brief appearance offshore before moving on.

Persistent watching eventually produced a single Bearded Tit, an observation that was surprisingly interrupted when this Grey lag Goose sought to gain attention in front of the hide.

I suspect this could be a feature of its regular avian groupie no less!

Much later I called in at the Holme NWT Reserve and, although there was nothing new, it was pleasant to have walk around.

Return to north Norfolk. 24.3.2014

Left Acle Travelodge and found my way north eastwards to the coast.  Sadly the Kingfisher Cafe at Walcott was closed on a Monday, a definite bad start to proceedings. Given the pattern is to grab a bacon butty and a cup of tea, and then seawatch from the roadside, this latter had to be completed without such benefits. As it was things were again very quiet and I eventually moved on.

Reaching the north coast I called in at Salthouse and was amazed at the effects the storm surge had had on the area. The former car park is no longer there, but covered in a deep layer of pebbles/gravel. Reaching the top of the bank to overlook the sea you find a more immediate drop than previously. Clearly clean up work had been completed previously, but evidence of continuing work occurred nearby at Cley where the East Bank was closed to allow the passage of large plant and other vehicles. The area had certainly taken a bashing and must be a real headache from the point of reserve management.

I soon moved on as I'd agreed to meet with Robert and Sue Cookson at the Titchwell RSPB Reserve. Given I had the whole week in the area I could obviously explore the coastal strip at leisure during ensuing days. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the reserve or overlooking the sea where a large raft of Common Scoter (1000+ ) was just offshore. Reports of four Velvet Scoter led to repeated scrutiny of the birds but with no luck, even when they took to flight.

And so with evening upon us we did what self respecting Yorkshire folk do whenever the excuse arises and that's repair to the pub!!! A nice meal , a relaxing pint and a good chat, accompanied by detailed instructions from Sue of where I should go to find various birds soon saw mid-evening arrive and the point at which we all needed to leave...... Robert and Sue to get ready for an early departure next day and myself to locate Garganey House in Hunstanton where I'd be looked after very ably by Robert Sturgess for the next few days.

Searching for a Rough-legged Buzzard 22/23. 3. 2014.

Necessarily I had to deal with some paperwork and other matters on the 21st March and so got no birdwatching done.  I did use the time to research details of where a Rough-legged Buzzard was occurring at Waveney Forest with the intention of looking for the bird later. Matthew finally identified a Web site  ( Danny's digiscoping) where detailed directions were given to a vantage point that I don't think would have been found so easily without the precise instructions!!

The Saturday morning saw me duly exploring back lanes and finding my way through the woodland to a wide vista lookout over Haddiscoe Marshes. It was somewhat hazy and cold too , so the vigil wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been. Marsh Harriers there were aplenty, odd Buzzards and Kestrel too, but of the Rough-legged Buzzard no sign.  I eventually left after a pleasant chat with a local birder about places and personalities we had some mutual acquaintance with. After exploring other possible vantage points around Burgh Castle ,and for what was left of the day, I then tried finding a suitable seawatching spot, but not without difficulty given developments of one kind or another. I eventually found a large car park not too far north of the Port Ness area and quite close to the Travelodge. Odd Mediterranean Gulls put in an appearance, odd Gannets moved north and a Grey Plover flew south ......and that was it. Not exactly a prolific afternoon, in fact a bit of a wasted day all round.

Sunday arrived and I was out very early, mainly given my inherent dread of Lowestoft's traffic system and with the objective of finding my way to Port Ness. A single Turnstone duly appeared , but no Purple Sandpipers, and a discrete examination of the industrial complex showed no migrant Black Redstarts to be in evidence. The sea was also very short on bird activity.........surely not another desperate day?

So I found my way again to Waveney Forest and commenced yet another long vigil, but in slightly warmer conditions and with less haze this time.  Staring out across an expanse of marsh providing not a lot of bird activity is sapping to the resolve to say the least. Scanning and examining every fence post yet again, but with no luck, begins to generate negative vibes, particularly on a second day of effort and so I eventually decided to abandon the quest. Not long after I set off on my return journey to the car the piercing call of Common Buzzard rang out and there, immediately above me were two circling birds which, almost immediately were joined by the Rough-legged Buzzard.  Bright sunlight, blue sky, perfect conditions and ever circling birds.....who could have asked for more. It was good to be able to compare both species and to get prolonged views. As so often occurs the activity cycle suddenly subsided and the birds disappeared, but not before two Sparrowhawks had also joined the circling throng, although at a higher level. And then there was nothing and neither could I locate the birds. My lucky break had come to an end , but left a very satisfying feeling too.  With no other plans decided on I went across to the Horsey area and did some general birding, the majority constituents of which were Marsh Harriers, which are everywhere!!  Certainly not volume, but a real quality day.  

RSPB's Flagship Reserve. 20.3.2014

I set off in beautiful weather to make the journey eastwards to the coast and to then spend the day at Minsmere.  It's many years since I was at Minsmere and I was certainly looking forward to it. The last part of the journey seems to go on forever and I was pleased I'd direct experience of driving on single track roads as the winding and twisting route was noticeably different to elsewhere in East Anglia where long direct roads are often the norm.

And I had a very pleasant breakfast in the on-site cafe, which certainly broke with tradition as far as visits to reserves are concerned. But it was good, enjoyable and pleasant and nicely set the tone for a trip that I was determined to enjoy.  Sadly, whilst the weather overall was good , the southerly wind was strong and challenging when making walking in less sheltered places. Certainly the potential precursor to migrants flooding in?

I concentrated on the wetland part of this large reserve, although, as it eventually transpired, I had no time spare for the woodland route. And I went in each and every hide too!

This was a very obliging Little Egret which retained my attention for ages. Whilst the reserve wasn't teeming with birds, other than Black-headed Gulls, there was a good selection of species to seek out. Whilst sitting in a hide looking westwards over the large lagoons littered with islands on which gulls and Avocets were vociferously staking out claims, these two adult Mediterranean Gulls turned up, one of which was ringed. Despite efforts enlarging the photograph, the ring number couldn't be read.

I spent quite a time at this particular hide and began to clock up an appreciable list of birds, nothing special , simply a good variety. I couldn't resist taking a photograph of this Common Teal given it's a species that we so often take for granted. An examination of its plumage details reveals a really attractive species that more often than not we don't give the attention it clearly deserves. Click the photograph to enlarge it and see it at its magnificent best!!

From there I eventually made my way to the Island Mere Hide, sadly filled with a rowdy, territorial bunch of photographers !! Whilst little was on offer ( and the regular Water Pipit of late had temporarily moved ) we were all then treated to some superb views of a Bittern which emerged from the reeds right in front of us. It remained for a while, extended fully its impressive neck, showed off its markings, shrank back into the reeds on occasions and then flew past the hide in full view. Great stuff!

I finally left the reserve well satisfied with my visit and vowing I'd return again in due course, perhaps in winter or autumn. It certainly deserves its reputation as one of the Society's flagship reserves and I guess anyone "trying" birdwatching for the first time would return home suitably impressed.

Friday, April 4, 2014

East Anglian bonanza! 19.3.2014

Central Norfolk ( as I describe it! ), Thetford Forest, heaths , fenland habitat has always had a fascination and one that never diminishes. I'm not sure I'd want to live there, but frequently visit, then ," Yes. please! ".
After a night based at Barton Mills Travelodge I travelled early to Lynford Arboretum. Despite the hour the visit was spoilt in some respects by an idiot with dogs, who successfully disturbed the whole area by casting some projectile far and wide, which caused the posse of dogs to complete a "seek and find" exercise amidst great excitement, noise and clamour. Good for the dogs ( they were lovely dogs! ), but not for birding, particularly as the projectile whizzed a bit close on a couple of occasions.  Equal usage of the countryside maybe, but we need to respect each others interests too!

Anyway, I managed four Hawfinch, a singing Firecrest, Marsh Tits, Nuthatch, Bullfinch and Chiffchaff, besides a wide variety of commoner species, so I wasn't too unhappy. I then moved on to Santon Downham ( still earlyish so had breakfast ) and commenced to birdwatch along the river. Whilst I heard Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming , could I find it!!  I gave up in the end, having been rewarded with Siskin, Brambling, a brilliant view of a single Common Redpoll ( although I suspect there were other redpolls present that I couldn't see and I  daren't move!), both other woodpecker species and commoner birds.

Late morning saw me moving on towards Lakenheath. As I approached the general area I decided to have a lunchtime break located at the Lakenheath Airfield Base observation area and, hopefully,  see some activity. I thoroughly enjoyed it!!  F15 aircraft successively rolled up and took off amidst noticeable vibration, a phenomenal roar of engines and the bright glow as afterburners were switched on. For any birders with young sons who are visiting the area I'd recommend it. It's certainly quintessential young lads stuff, but I think wives and young daughters might need persuading!  Strange then to contemplate the later announcement that the USA might be in the process of considering withdrawal from the base after many years of tenure. Incidentally I'm not sure I enjoyed the air manoeuvres as much later in the afternoon as the self same aircraft roared over Lakenheath Reserve!!

And so I made my way to the RSPB Lakenheath Reserve with the intention of remaining there for the rest of the day. Whenever I visit this reserve I marvel at what the area used to be rather than what the reserve looks like today. It epitomises, in my view, what can actually be created as a viable alternative to what previously was rather unproductive land as far as wildlife was concerned, as the photograph of the information board sets out. Click on the photograph to enlarge it.

I may be wrong in the following assessment, in a way I hope so, but it does seem that, in raising the water table, it has led to a destabilisation of part of the woodland on the reserve, as the photograph below shows.

Various ones of the mature trees appear to have keeled over which is a great shame.  Whether this is a retrievable situation is a challenge for the future for which every success is expressed.

Turning to birding , Cettis Warblers sounded off in a couple of places.Whilst I sat patiently in the hope of seeing Bittern , it wasn't to be. Various Marsh Harriers floated around over the reserve and I was reminded of how close to extinction these birds had been in past times. Now they are breeding widely in the UK and seem set to increase even further.

However, such success is not always the unmitigated improvement desired. It's suspected that , last year, Marsh Harriers on the Lakenheath Reserve possibly predated Common Crane young, which is a very cruel consequence of hosting rare species on a single reserve. Moving to Common Cranes, I have to admit sitting at the foremost hide until I was frozen and close to giving up any hope of seeing them suddenly appeared on the river bank way over to the right!!  And then two more flew across the whole reedbed and landed nearby to the first bird. A couple of minutes ensued within which good views of the three birds were obtained, but then two of them started to display and for several minutes too.  Tremendous, unexpected and way beyond what had been hoped for!! A mixed, but very successful day!

Fenland future! 18.3.2014.

Given the pleasure I always gain from visiting the RSPB Lakenheath reserve I'd promised myself a look at the newly emerged initiative aptly named the Great Fen Project ( follow this link for details  Great Fen Project ).  This is a very ambitious project aimed at linking the two last remaining remnant areas of true fenland, Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen, both of which are National Nature Reserves, in what will be a representative fenland area of 3700 ha. in extent, 60% of which has been acquired already. Commencing in outline as far back as 2001 evidence of its presence is now beginning to emerge.  I have to say that finding key locations in an essentially flat landscape is difficult, sign-age is not yet at its best, but eventually you get there.

It's fascinating, deserves success and I'll certainly visit again in the future. Click on the above picture to gain an enhanced view of this ambitious initiative. I'm told not everyone is supportive and I'm a bit intrigued as to how the purchase of high grade agricultural land has been so easy!! There is some in-built flood protection measures involved and perhaps that has helped. The detailed boards in the main car park facility were detailed and deserved to be pored over.

Certainly the depiction of times past show how immensely rich in wildlife this area once was and, undoubtedly, will be once again, although clearly much work remains to be done. Nonetheless this is the sort of broad brush, big canvas type thinking that conservation in the UK needs set against the patchwork quilt of small sites upon which our wildlife heritage so often relies that are so easily affected, even destroyed, as a consequence of  planning decisions at local level. I was fascinated by the collection of what I took to be fossilised trees retrieved from the bogs of yesteryear that provide a more than adequate boundary for the car park!!

And so more than satisfied with declared intent I too moved on to try and see the long staying Great Grey shrike at Holme Fen, one of the main constituent areas of the Project.  No, I didn't see it despite tramping around for ages, although I did have a magnificent Red Kite overhead, ca.150 Fieldfare, Chiffchaff, Buzzard and Green Woodpecker.

Moving on I went south and popped into what has become a bit of a favourite area when in transit,  Little Paxton Gravel Pits Reserve. A great place with a good variety of birds, particularly duck species and passerines.  Nothing special, at least today, but a great place and always worth a visit.  I then took on my locational challenge.....Fen Drayton. A fairly new RSPB reserve.  How the hell do you find this place? There's no Sat Nav reference in the BirdWatchers Yearbook, the road sign-age is pathetic and starts as you almost enter the reserve, .......a job to improve on I'd suggest!!  Visitors casting around, wasting fuel,  is not particularly "green", folks!  Having said all that, it's a great place and one I always try and visit, ( but with repeated difficulty when it comes to locating the damned place! ). On this occasion everything I saw was pretty routine , but it's just a very pleasant place to be in.

And so I launched myself across the Fens as I know them, flat, featureless ( I'm too used to using the Paps of Jura as reference point! ) and, today, with not a lot of birds. Contrasted to , say, January, when I usually visit, much of the area has already been tilled or is in the process of preparation for future crops. However, close to Welney I had around 250 Whooper Swans in a field near the reserve and, later, a group of at least 25 Little Egrets, plus a couple of Grey Heron, feeding around a lens of water. Perhaps not the day I'd intended , but rewarding nonetheless!

Little return for a great deal of effort! 16.3.2014. / 17.3.2014.

We set off directly to the Worsborough Reservoir area with the intention of looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker yet again!  Birds seen were much as on our previous visit with no success as far as the woodpecker was concerned.  Highlight of the trip was bumping into Tim Melling (RSPB) who I'd not actually seen for several years.  Besides the inevitable "bird conversations",  the occasion provided an opportunity to have a catch up on a whole variety of subjects. Sad to hear that a couple of past colleagues are facing health problems to whom best wishes are extended. Life's ingredients can be both bitter and sweet in so many respects! It all left me feeling more than a bit dejected in all honesty , but it was good to see Tim , who hasn't changed a bit.

Despite time spent exploring all past known areas for LSW we had no success and returned home earlier than intended.

The 17th , being a Monday, Matthew was back at work and I'd arranged a southward bound itinerary with the intention of spending a day, first of all, at Rutland Water. Well, plans didn't quite work out as I'd hoped, as I felt sick as a pig, and geared things up to arrive at the Travelodge I'd booked as early as possible, devoting the rest of the day to being in bed. The reason never manifested itself, led to a deal of frustration as I'm never ill, and, all in all, was a complete failure and loss of a day!!   Not pleased!

Areas to the east! 15.3.2014

A quick call past Tyzack's Dam, Sheffield to see Mandarin Duck provided some of the best views I've ever had of the species.  The males are an absolute riot of colour, distinctive as opposed to garish, with a lot of subtlety thrown in at close quarters for good measure. A single female, whilst comparatively drab, nonetheless carries, again, a subtlety of pattern and colour shades that is equally as absorbing and impressive.

On to Hatfield Moors, always a favourite venue, although not producing too much on this occasion.  A singing Chiffchaff heralding summer contrasted with frantically feeding Redwing and Fieldfare preparing for their migration northwards after their winter sojourn with us.  A loud Green Woodpecker nearby, Buzzard overhead, and both Grey lag Geese and Canada Geese on the "first" lagoon contrasted against the virtual absence of birds on the remaining part of our walk.

A transfer then to the RSPB's reserve at Blacktoft Sands on the nearby southern shore of the mighty River Humber and its confluence with the Trent.  A chat with the warden outlined the extent to which the recent floods had affected the reserve and the damage inflicted, particularly at the Visitor Centre where the flood level had come as high as the entrance door handle !!  Due to water levels being high species other than waterfowl were a bit thin on the ground.  Good views were had of Marsh Harrier at various points along with Pochard, Tufted Duck, and Little Grebe. A relatively quiet but, nonetheless, interesting day.