Thursday, September 18, 2014

Birding Frontiers Challenge Series........ Autumn.

This is the first in a series that I hope just goes on and on!!   As the assertion on the rear cover of the book states

"We live in a new era of discovery"


I'm not going to indulge in a blow by blow account dealing with presentation style, detailed content and so forth and all the accompanying detail which usually comprises a "review".  Simply put, this is a very professionally produced publication with excellent illustrations by Ray Scally, wonderful photographs and clear accompanying text.  It's also, quite uniquely in many ways, a "team effort" as Martin Garner generously explains.  The 18 chapters deal with groups or pairs of species which can , in themselves, pose tricky ID challenges. The book addresses each in turn in a systematic, clear way using a combination of photographs, illustrations and descriptive text , all presented to a high level of quality.

Now, that's it!    I shall say no more other than that all birders should have a copy  ( see ). If you can't read through this at first and subsequent sittings and not learn something ( in fact, quite a lot ) I'd be very,very surprised. It's that good, order it today!!

Just to emphasize a point, two actually, as the following in no way detracts from the joy of reading this book , its quality or information.  It simply serves to show how much we are at the cutting edge of change, and in an era of discovery, and how things are, quite actively, open to interpretation.  Having absorbed the various details in Martin Garner's book about Cabot's Tern I then discovered that in the book I'd just written about previously

( HBW and BirdLife International's Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World Vol.1 Non-passerines ), the authors  ( or should I blame the Tobias criteria ?)  had lumped the two species!!  

An era of change and discovery indeed. 

HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World. Vol. 1 : Non-passerines

Within the last few days I've received my copy of the above new Checklist. What a tour de force !  But what a challenge too.

Devising a "new" checklist must be no mean undertaking. The authors need to determine their position on a whole range of taxonomic issues, explain the approach being taken and then present the results in a cogent and consistent form. All such is a painstaking process with a need to transport the reader ( and lister! ) through every step of the way, convince them and, in so doing, justify every new approach being taken. Well, this certainly appears to have been the case, and to have succeeded, as far as Volume 1 ( Non-passerines) of this new Checklist is concerned. A detailed and lengthy introduction addresses all the above before the "new" approach is revealed, "the Tobias criteria",  upon which the taxonomic approach selected and contents rest.  Simply put, these criteria employ five types of taxonomic character   ( biometrics, acoustics, plumage and bare parts, ecology and behaviour and geographical relationship )  against which a scoring system is applied. Any taxon scoring over a certain points total then qualifies for species status.

The approach does not, quite remarkably, given initiatives in recent years, include any DNA associated justifications for which the authors provide a well argued case. Some will find this absence of genetic analysis rather strange and it could well be that it represents the most " independent departure" and unique element in the approach the book takes and upon which its contents are based. The introductory, explanatory sections represent a worthwhile standpoint of their own in my view, given the exhaustive and incremental approach taken, whatever one's eventual and personal position results from their reading!

The main part of the book comprises double page format (text on the left and illustrations and incorporated distribution maps on the right ).

As we have come to expect , following the publication of HBW, the layout, quality of presentation and concise nature of the text are first class.  I certainly welcome the introduction of distribution maps and was completely bowled over by the key information being provided, so much so that I lost two hours above what was intended as a cursory examination!!

It is intended that there will be regular updates, an undertaking which has already been given by the authors, besides the publication of Volume 2 being in 2016.  There will be a link with "HBW Alive" and fieldworkers are encouraged to participate in a forum wherein the submission of new information and queries will be encouraged.  Altogether a new approach in so many ways associated with what may yet be described  as "the new definitive taxonomy".  A huge challenge indeed, but looking at my HBW volumes and thinking, "How on earth did they ever achieve all that", I have no doubt that , as before, such hurdles will be overcome.

Anyone who has a serious interest in birds should have a copy of this publication, whatever the cost (£159) and whatever your position might be relating to its contents!!  It is ground-breaking and different,  but worth it for the hours of reflection and enjoyment you'll gain from poring over its contents, in addition to the information you'll glean relating to the initial query you pursued. Well done Del Hoyo and Collar !!

Heralds of autumn. 17.9.2014.

Yet another day of high pressure, blue skies and warm sunshine. I've a feeling the next comments might just be about a need for rain though!!!  Sadly, the above conditions, linked with (still) an easterly wind meant that sea watching was somewhat unproductive. Adult Gannets plied back and forth but no other passage was in evidence despite a rather flat sea and good visibility.

Outer Loch Indaal was almost devoid of birds too, but the Inner Loch made up for things with a couple of groups of Red-breasted Merganser, Common Scoter, Eiders and a few auks.  The biggest change was the presence of almost 300 Wigeon at the very head of the loch, which is a sure indication autumn is upon us. Waders too are in better numbers with Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit  being prevalent amongst equally large numbers of gulls. A low tide, haze and distant views made identification of a tantalising group of godwits impossible. They might well have been islandica Black-tailed Godwits ( a little late? ) but remained an unresolved challenge and a distant, shimmering image in the warm afternoon air.

Grey lag Geese were much in evidence today at both Bridgend and Loch Gorm, but I'll feature these in a separate Blog at some point. Other than the geese almost 100 Tufted Duck were on Loch Gorm, a family of Mute Swan, but little else. The weather conditions must be assisting the passage of night migrants, both of departing birds and those arriving with us or even passing through. Circumstances change from day to day and provide the very essence of what birdwatching is about.  At three separate locations single Greenland Wheatears were present and a patient examination of the various alba wagtails around showed one or two good "Whites" to be present.

Whilst Swallows were seen at a number of locations, the numbers are now depleted, as are the mixed finch flocks which could be seen previously at a couple of places. Moved on the pastures new?  Certainly the autumn song of Robins is now in evidence, a good proportion of which will be incoming birds as we don't carry that high a population. With much of the harvest now gathered in our attention can turn to the stubble fields which remain. One of the real pleasures I hold for this time of year is to see the inevitable Skylarks, there's usually at least two together (!), indulging in that yo-yo flighting over the newly cut fields whilst calling all the while. So, change is at hand, the next major phase of which will be the arrival of the geese......

Monday, September 15, 2014

Migration between the islands.

One of the things which has intrigued me since moving to Scotland has been not only the sea passage past the west coast of Islay, which is both considerable and extremely interesting, but also the passage which takes place in the Sounds between islands , notably the Sound of Islay and the Sound of Jura.

Periodically I've stationed myself strategically at points overlooking the Sounds and been quite amazed at the amount of passage, and the variety of species, which are "on the move" between the islands. It's well worth more concerted attention, but sometimes it can be a little slow, tedious even , or even bordering on the non existent. Such was the situation today!!

A few Wigeon, a few auks and  a Red-breasted Merganser moving south ........ and that was it!!   It's not always been the case.  Terns, Kittiwakes, auks of various species, various waders,and Manx Shearwaters are all possible in a single season plus notable individual records. For me these have included Crossbill , Lapland Bunting, Little Auk, besides migrating duck, swans and geese, odd skuas,  raptors, hirundines, and Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, all of which provide an exciting mix of totally unexpected occurrences.  It's certainly something which deserves more attention, but can demand patience and the need to ignore particularly non-productive and depressing days!!!   A colleague had Great White Egret, but local Golden Eagle and White-tailed Eagle are always possible and raise the spirits. Try it!!

I had a great conversation with a visiting birder today who, on finding that I had an interest in the passage of Whimbrel, which can occur in Spring across Islay, regaled me with details of mixed flocks of Curlew and Whimbrel he'd had in recent days. Well, I have to say that the main passage of Whimbrel in autumn follows an easterly path past the UK, a total contra to Spring. Of course we can get the odd bird , but mixed flocks...   The Spring passage can also be moved westwards in times of strong easterly winds that sees Ireland receiving more birds.  More importantly ( I didn't tell him ) is that flocks of Curlew in autumn can include female birds ( longer bills than males ), male birds and also immature birds whose bills might still be even shorter and developing. Don't fall in to the short bill equals Whimbrel trap!!!  All fascinating stuff.  Take a look at the BTO Migration Atlas and end up wondering where the evening went as you move from species to species and embrace the wonderment of migration!!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reflections on a Barn Owl neighbour!

I've been away for some quite lengthy intervals this year. When I returned after being on the Uists this May I discovered that a Barn Owl had taken up residence in the barn across the yard from the house.  I've seen Barn Owls in the vicinity of the house before, but never had any, to my knowledge, remain for any length of time.

My first real knowledge of a bird being around was hearing screaming at night at the front of the house at 1 o'clock in the morning. It went on a bit and then receded. On a quite unrelated basis I went in the barn next day and, to my pleasant surprise,  found a number of pellets strewn around the floor. From then on, and on a regular basis, I was awoken quite regularly on following nights by a bird screaming outside, usually at some point between 0100 and 0300 hours.   You see Barn Owls very rarely in daylight on Islay and the activity suggested a possible late emergence and  return shortly before dawn.  I also worked out that the bird was very probably sitting atop an orb-like structure on the apex of the small porch at the front of the house, the relevance of this being that it's only about 7-8m from me lying in bed!!!!  No wonder the screaming sounded loud and intense.  Sometimes the calls receded gradually as the bird presumably flew off.   Last winter a regular breeding site in a ruined building across the other side of the valley partially blew down. I wondered if this was one of the displaced birds and whether it was attempting to attract a mate.

The barn provides an ideal place in which a pair might breed. When it was renovated several years ago nest boxes were installed inside in the hope of providing a facility for Chough. They have never done so.

A bit ornate I agree, but possibly great for Barn Owls, despite the entrance being less than auspicious!!

Sadly my new neighbour hasn't attracted a mate, but continues to use the barn. It often sits on one of the central spars and quickly retires to the confines of the nestbox if disturbed ( and usually scares you to death in the process). If it is "in residence" it sometimes calls within the barn previous to darkness falling ( and its early departure?).  The calls resonate around the barn and even outside it's all a pretty eerie experience!

I have to say, ladies, that I'm convinced the bird is a male given the untidy living conditions!!

But how many people have got a Barn Owl just across the yard?

Vultures face continuing crisis.

For those of you who keep in touch with the various press releases of international conservation organizations you'll no doubt have seen the concerns being expressed in recent times about the catastrophic crashes within the populations of vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal. These have crashed by a mind boggling 99%!!  Birdlife International is in the forefront of promoting these concerns and it is up to us to provide all the support we can to accompany their efforts.

At the present time the vulture family is one of the most threatened on our Planet!

So what is responsible for this unprecedented change?  A drug used for veterinary purposes in treating cattle has been shown to be the culprit. From memory I also seem to recollect that this same treatment has been used in Africa with the same accompanying results. Now this means that we are faced with the equivalent of a pandemic effect on our vulture species, at least as far as I am concerned, as the drug is now been shown to be available in at least two European countries.

Now, sadly, I'm old enough to recollect the effects of DDT and similar on our bird populations and, particularly, on birds of prey. That recollection spreads also to the first time around reading of the original "Silent Spring" ( with all due deference to Conor Jameson ! ) and the disclosures and warnings that the book contained. Ground breaking research on Peregrine productivity, egg shell thinning, behavioural changes in female birds and much else finally brought about the banning in the use of such chemicals in the UK  I can attest to the fact that, at that time,  Kestrels even became a rare bird to see locally such was the universal effects and usage of the chemicals concerned.  That must not happen again. Now is the time to act!

So, as well as lending support to the various petitions and other actions which are being raised, I must also draw attention to the following. The whole business of the seeming side effects of Diclofenac have been murmured about for some time and now find specific disclosure in various press releases and research findings.  Clearly, in the "open" environment, the dosage levels and retained traces within carcases fed upon by the birds are seemingly sufficient enough to cause eventual death after accumulation, a straight facsimile of the situation outlined in the above book.  But what of things closer to home?

By sheer chance I discovered that a treatment I had willingly adopted myself for pain I was/am experiencing within the tendons in my right wrist contained Diclofenac. In fact the very ingredient was mentioned in a TV advert. The gel is openly available at all the usual outlets and is effective, admittedly,  in relieving pain caused by inflammation, the very same condition being treated in cattle.

Now, I'm not suggesting human users are under any kind of threat, far from it. It just occurs to me, as a lay person, that if correct levels of dosage can be calculated such that humans can be treated with the drug safely, then surely similar levels can be calculated for cattle treatment that ensure , whatever circumstances then ensue, there are no threats to wildlife involved in the potential food chain thereafter. If there are, then surely the first action should be to suspend the availability of the treatment until such time as a finely balanced usage can emerge or that the treatment is withdrawn altogether if the side effects persist.

To avoid such action is folly given the lessons of the past. It's up to us to seek responsible usage of such chemicals if we feel there is a problem and to campaign accordingly.

Grouse moor licencing may still be an option to pursue.

A month ago the "Inglorious Twelfth" came and went amidst a welter of publicity surrounding the Hen Harrier Action Days.  Since then the Government's response to Mark Avery's E-petition, which promoted the banning of driven shooting on grouse moors,  has been issued. This response was both as pathetic and obtuse as was the previous one referring to the E-petition I had raised suggesting grouse moors ought to be licensed. This aimed at a provision whereby any departure securing prosecution from operating in an entirely lawful way would then result in the licence to operate being withdrawn by a court . It is now abundantly clear where the present Government's sentiments lie as far as the shooting industry is concerned. In  a variety of ways it now seems likely that imminent attempts to secure even some formal debate on a ban on driven grouse shooting will not succeed.  To that extent any future strategy aimed at altering the "status" of grouse moors needs to reflect that position. Whatever effort is put into bringing about change, it is not going to happen before next May, a mere seven months away.. We must now prepare to aim at achieving such change within the next session of Parliament. A different ruling Party perhaps, and different participants, all hold the potential for change and we have to use that opportunity.

There is, of course, a major weakness in the current Government's position.  Reports of raptor persecution still continue to come forward. While ever that situation continues the opportunity is present to hold the Government to task and point out that the status quo is just not working. Clearly current legislation is insufficiently effective enough to act as a deterrent and other means must be found to address the whole subject matter of raptor persecution, particularly to ensure that the deep seated prejudice against Hen Harriers must be countered.

I've read carefully the RSPB Chairman's statement on Mark Avery's Blog relating to the Society's position on raptor persecution, upland management and Hen Harrier protection and find there is much within it that I find acceptable. Similarly, Stuart Housden's excellent Guest Blog on Martin Harper's site ( see RSPB blog site ) addressed similar points, all of which are welcome after a rather bewildering period of public dormancy by the Society.  It is good to now see a framework of initiatives and policies that they are to  follow.

Whatever is being said elsewhere I don't believe that regulation of grouse moors, via licencing, should be written off completely. It's far too early to do that and to do so would be foolhardy in my view. I honestly believe that, as a first step in bringing about change, it has potential.  I do acknowledge the well made point that time is of the essence and that dramatic action is required, but feel some "intermediate step" now needs to be campaigned for. It's more than clear where Government's sympathies lie and the sort of proposal that would attract a salvo of outright and organized opposition, a political "thin red line" , is not going to succeed at this point !!

When first I considered the licencing issue, and registered the E-petition in early 2013, I viewed it as a single initiative operating within an official regulatory framework following the abysmal failure by the shooting industry to consider any form of self regulation. Indeed their collective silence on the matter might have been taken as tacit approval to the continuing levels of raptor persecution. An imperfect solution? Maybe, but aimed at bringing about a change that would only affect those who sought to break the law.  Suggestions by some that such a system and its application would result progressively in prolonged debate and legal opposition is wrong as far as I'm concerned. The undoubted organized opposition would arise at the parliamentary stages, as it would with any other similar proposals and, in my view, would be considerably less than the entrenched opposition that would result in the face of a call for a complete ban on driven grouse shooting.  I suspect that licencing might be seen by some politicians as assuaging the public's concerns and be far less of a hassle to promote.  Supposing support for licencing emerged, such accreditation would be issued to each operating grouse moor and it would only be in the case of a successful prosecution for raptor persecution that the license would be automatically withdrawn. For those operating within the law there would be no discernible change to current activities!  I believed it to be a "one off" potential solution and , for that matter, deliberately did not seek to include any mention of additional provisions aimed at habitat management or retention of water quality. I've an awful feeling that an attempt to build in too much to a proposal can be its downfall. Keep it simple in its focus, as opposed to it being a catch all !

Now we can all debate the pro's and cons of alternative suggestions until the cows come home. What is the most important aspect is that we all continue to fight together to achieve change, a cessation to raptor persecution and a dramatic improvement in the breeding status and distribution of the Hen Harrier in England. I no longer believe in the potential influence or strength of the E-petition system as far as this collective topic is concerned and feel we need to look to other solutions. Despite the admirable efforts of Charlie Moores, Mark Avery and others the "constituency" of politically active birders and supporters has not grown to immense proportions. That there are more people in sympathy is in no doubt, that there are people who are willing to make known their personal support for such issues publicly is equally without doubt, but the combined total of such support is still low compared to what is needed to secure change.  Doubtless this view this will offend some, which is unfortunate, but we have to face facts. We need , in the run up to the General Election in May, 2015,  to consider alternative initiatives.  Support for the RSPB's call for licencing is a small step everyone can take. Actively calling on Parliamentary candidates for support against raptor persecution, if they get elected, is another straight forward action.  But more is needed , far more!!  I somehow guess that the subject will occupy my thoughts and those of many others as much within the next few months, as has the situation in the past few weeks following the Government's latest partisan response to the E-petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.