Monday, January 26, 2015

Further thoughts on the Visitor Centre at Spurn.

A week ago I wrote about the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's proposal for a visitor centre at Spurn. Given I live on an island off the NW coast of Scotland why should I be interested?  Well, as I pointed out in the first article, in addition to birding around Barnsley, most of my early birding was actually completed at Spurn. I'm sure I'll be able to visit again, but now is the time to " put something back in, set against all the wonderful memories of previous times", hence my concerns being expressed on this Blog.  It's a magical place and immensely important for migration studies and it's significance, for a whole variety of reasons, has resulted in it being designated as a National Nature Reserve which, as the landowner, is managed by the Trust.

In February, 2013 the peninsula suffered damage due to high tides and further damage followed in March of that year. Previously,in August , 2012 the lifeboat families had been moved from the Point as their means of access along the road down the Peninsula could no longer be assured. On the 5th December, 2013 a huge tidal surge caused a breach in the peninsula and adjoining areas and has since been the basis of a need to seriously reassess how a variety of matters can now operate and proceed.  As owner, the YWT has clearly been central to all this with there being a need to appraise management objectives, visitor facilities etc etc!!!  In part has come the conclusion to build a Visitor Centre.

Spurn is a unique place with limited options for any sort of development. The Trust has declared its preferred option for the location of the new Centre and has gained sponsorship from Eon relating to its costs. There is still a long way to go in terms of all this being finally determined......... and this is one of the central  reasons for my expressing my personal opinions at this stage.  This is the time when peoples' reactions should be made known be it in support or in opposition. Ideally alternatives can be put forward for consideration too.

I feel the currently promoted location is entirely inappropriate as it would bring an unnecessary concentration of people into an area that should not suffer such pressure or, indeed, is able to absorb such pressure. The management of people at key times around the proposed location , e.g. Bank Holidays, cannot fall back on any easily available alternatives and could lead to overspill conditions and habitat degradation.

But rather than look at nitty-gritty aspects of the location question let's take a wider view of the situation. That a Visitor Centre would be a benefit is in no doubt.  Given that Spurn and Kilnsea are a linear entity then the siting problem is perhaps a little more acute than if the area involved was a neat rounded or even square shape. What might be the ideal in such circumstances?  The role of a visitor centre is as a scene setter, a facility provider and a place where visitors can go in order to obtain information and plan their day. We can argue about all this until the cows come home but , at some point, the nettle must be grasped and suggestions made about where such a facility might be located.   YWT have made their pitch, now it should be your turn!!  It's pointless continually beefing about what you feel is wrong and leaving it to someone else to put forward alternative suggestions. If you feel something is wrong then you should also have similar feelings about what is right in my view, otherwise the whole consideration process is pointless.  So, after sounding off , what do I feel?

  • I believe the central Visitor Centre ought to be associated with Kilnsea Wetlands. All visitors pass by the area, footpaths to other key areas radiate from it and the wetland reserve is the very beginning of the wildlife "experience" to be gained from a visit to the area.
  • Several current or potential circular footpath routes exist or could be developed from this location which would reduce the concentration of visitors at a single point farther south. Views of the sea or the Humber are adequately provided for at several locations and wildlife viewing facilities are present and at the nearby Beacon Ponds as well .
  • I do not believe any built environment project should be allowed south of Cubley's Farm, in fact consideration needs to be given to a barrier at some suitable point which limits "exploratory " access and all the chaos that so often ensues.
  • I believe a car park should be built in the Well Field, which will compliment the facilities at the adjacent scrape where a hide is located.. With the existing facilities (including toilets ) at the Blue Bell Car Park the overall facility provision for cars in the area should be catered for at periods of peak usage.
  • the Blue Bell property can provide the base at which modest catering facilities are provided  ( as now ) along with the departure point ( as now ) for the vehicular tours that I suspect form a critical part of the Trust's thinking. Car parking is available immediately alongside these and various footpath routes radiate away from the location to the sea, south to the Warren along the shore and northwards up Beacon Lane.
  • the means to reach the Point by YWT vehicle is provided for and the Lighthouse they have under renovation can be a further focal point for both information giving and modest facility provision. Such can be reached on foot too, given obvious safeguards and advice are followed, with parking facilities being used at the Well Field facility.

In my opinion all this achieves similar outcomes to the current proposal with the minimum of habitat loss, a more than adequate spread of visitor presence and  no reduction in their "experience" on the day.  I'm sure there will be reasons why some people feel the above suggestions are unacceptable  (notably the YWT I would guess ),  indeed , there may be reasons why they couldn't happen,  BUT, in the process, the debate is open and active which is what we have to aim for.  I get the impression that some people feel the current process is little more than a fait accompli and that the Trust are hostile to opposition or new suggestions. Given planning procedures and the like it's not in their gift to consider such anyway and much can be gained by new ideas being submitted into the thinking process.  I would be surprised if they didn't welcome such an open approach as real benefit might be derived from it. We've to recognize too that the attraction of a brand new all singing, all dancing visitor centre can be a very persuasive venture. I'm not even sure I'm convinced either of the real necessity of such if I'm honest, but that's down to personal feelings of nostalgia I guess. Incidentally ,the contention that 70,000 visitors per annum have previously passed the entrance gate to the reserve and would now need to be "managed" more actively than previously requires critical examination too.

This is not something to be rushed through which, in part, is catered for by the petition raised by Gareth Picton (  Say No to YWT's Spurn Visitor Centre location. )  which you might care to consider signing.  It would be churlish to ignore the details provided of the YWT's proposal against which you should also consider your preferences and actions. This can be found at  (Spurn Development Project )

And, finally, this is what it's all about!   If you've ever been to Spurn,  please take a few moments to consider what you feel is the correct way forward and make your opinions known. Comments are welcomed on this Blog if you wish to use the facility.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Big Garden Bird Watch.

Well, I suppose with a birthday on one of the days and the survey having run for half my lifetime it was an inevitable  involvement for the weekend!!   Given that I already contribute to the regularly run, weekly in fact, survey of garden birds administered by the British Trust for Ornithology then this was little more than a form filling exercise after the obligatory hour this morning.

The results were more or less similar to those I've recorded during the week (  Blackbird 1, Song Thrush 1, Robin 1, Greenfinch 3, Chaffinch 4, Goldfinch 3, Reed Bunting 4 ). Not many I admit , but the house is a bit isolated and has only two "apologetic" bushes.

And, yes, to the hawk eyed, this was a photograph taken a couple of years ago, in April, when the daffodils are out!!

So, what were the highlights of this modest list. I can't but be amazed at the speed at which Reed Buntings can move through an area of  tussocks in a largely unkempt garden. Quite remarkable! The other welcome aspect this winter has been the renewed regular appearance of Greenfinches after a long absence given their numbers plummeted.

Whilst I avidly read the regular Blogs of Martin Harper (RSPB ) I thought the recent entry, underpinning the scientific integrity of the results of the BGBW, was a bit unnecessary. Incidentally, I think you need to think again on your conclusions re the increase in Blackcaps!!  Increasing presence in winter due to climate change and more people putting food out in winter....... really!   The evidence appears to show ours move off southwards, as has been the case perennially, and part of the Central European population moves westwards. It is these birds that appear in our gardens in winter, a fact ably demonstrated by ringing returns!!

Nonetheless, congratulate yourselves RSPB at involving so many people in the depths of winter in an exercise that

  • involves so many of the population on a single weekend,
  • undoubtedly benefits birds at the height of winter,
  • hopefully leads a proportion of participants to feed birds regularly, 
  • adds support for the conservation of birds generally.
This, in itself, is a great achievement. For a single day/weekend operation in any year the scientific aspects are somewhat secondary in my view. The BTO project  (see BTO Garden Bird Watch )  produces endless results in far more detail than ever a one day /weekend survey might achieve. Whilst the financial outlay will not have been inconsiderable, given TV adverts and so on,  the knowledge gleaned of new volunteers willing to support conservation will be a potential bonus. The additional possibility of them becoming active supporters must also be a primary objective.When endless pressures increasingly emerge that threaten to affect our wildlife, gaining participation in activities of this sort and increasing people's interest in birds is crucial as it will hopefully lead to an increasing body of people who "stand up for wildlife", which I guess is the primary objective of the whole exercise anyway. Well done and I wonder just how many different birds will have been recorded yesterday and today. Rather a lot of well fed happy birds of one kind or another I imagine!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Clustrmap restored!

Many thanks to the Clustrmap team for their guidance, advice and patience in assisting me to gain "my" Clustrmap gadget back on this site.  I continue to find the origin of visitors quite fascinating and can offer nothing but thanks to the above Team who took me through the necessary steps to put things right after I managed to foul things up!!   I can recommend them unreservedly.

The abiding message is....If something goes wrong, take their advice first, as opposed to attempting to put it right yourself !!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On the trail of the Greenland White-fronted Goose. 20.1.2015.

Over the years David Stroud, Malcolm Ogilvie and Ian Francis have spent many hours determining the status and distribution of Greenland White-fronted Geese on Jura. Whilst there never seems to have been a large population present on the island, there is much suitable habitat there and it would be easy for rather more than those recorded to be present. Certainly the current population there has reached a very low ebb if periodic counts are to be accepted as representing the true situation. With the concerns being expressed about the reduced population currently wintering in Ireland, on Islay and other outliers, charting the fortunes of even small groups is of importance.

And so yesterday ( Tuesday, 20th ) was dedicated to a search of areas where, in recent times, small numbers of birds have been recorded.  Malcolm Ogilvie and myself, and SNH staff too, have periodically done similar searches in past years with mixed success.  Along with Ed.Burrell ( Wildfowl and Wetland Trust ), who's on Islay for a second winter studying Greenland White-fronts, we all met at Port Askaig and took the ferry across to the island.  The first port of call was Loch a Chnuic Bric on the Inver Estate around which geese feed, but which are probably derived most usually from birds on Islay  immediately across the Sound.  Even this area was devoid of geese ! Oh dear, not a good beginning.  Our spirits were lifted by the presence of both a White-tailed Eagle and a Golden Eagle attracted to a swan carcase on the shore of the loch. We had phenomenal views, with the two birds gliding around and inter-acting, the WTE almost overhead and down on the ground close by. The comparative sizes were really obvious! I don't think we always realise how big WTE actually are......nearby Hooded Crows looked little more than Starlings!!

Moving on we looked at various areas north of Craighouse and then around Lowlandman's Bay, but all to no avail.  Hopes were raised, and speedily dashed,  as various small groups of Grey lag Geese were located and scrutinised! We all agreed that, given the amount of suitable habitat, we could actually be close to birds but unable to locate them ( at least that kept our spirits up! ). With the human population on Jura being very low, there isn't a lot of movement be it by cars or tractors and feeding geese don't seem to get too disturbed. The "bonus" of suddenly seeing a group of disturbed birds in flight is sadly not a common experience, yet another factor that adds to the frustration. So we eventually conceded,  taking comfort from the fact that the weather had deteriorated and it was raining quite badly.  There have been previous occasions when birds have "disappeared",  only to occur on a future visit.  Next time perhaps?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Out and about on "the Patch".

Finally a day that had some prospect!!  Fine throughout but very cold.  A day to take advantage of before things change, although it does appear the forecasts are half reasonable for several days. After all it is January!!

A quick look over the first few fields within the Patchwork Challenge area showed a nice mixed group of Lapwings and Golden Plover, the latter showing up very "spangly" in rather weak sunshine. Other than a group of Grey lag Geese in rough grassland beyond Claddach Loch nothing else was in evidence in that area, which wasn't surprising as it is a little exposed and a rising breeze was sweeping all before it!!  Little else was on offer so it was over to the sea for a period. Northern Ireland was in view, but only as a smudge on the horizon across an expanse of grey, restless sea. Few birds were on the move. Odd Shags moved around inshore and a few Auks  (probably Razorbill ) moved south well offshore, but nothing else could be located. The small numbers of Fulmar were well tucked back on perches out of the wind and, curiously, none were found offshore.

Buzzard, Hooded Crows, a few Herring Gull , a Rock Pipit and the odd Blackbird and Song Thrush was about it until I found a small group of Meadow Pipit feeding in the corner of a part flooded field. And that was it ! Perhaps typical of a bleak mid winter day leaving much still to be discovered!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Spurn the YWT's New Visitor Centre location at Spurn!

Well, OK I know the title's a bit corny, but it might just grab the attention of a few more readers!!

I first started birding in the 1950's in the Barnsley area along with Yorkshire stalwarts like Dave Standring, Alan Archer, Mike Clegg ( now deceased ) and others. It was they who took me on my first visit to Spurn and I was captivated by the place. I first stayed at the observatory in 1958 and met with the likes of John Cudworth, Charlie Winn and many others , all of whom, together with my "local mentors", were utterly generous in their advice and guidance to a young birder.  It's hardly surprising that I love the place as it began to generate so many memories. Work and other factors have meant I've spent far less time there in recent decades than I should, but that's life. A fortnight there last September was much overdue and produced Masked Shrike as well!

Moving on over fifty years Spurn has seen many changes and yet, in other respects, its quintessential aspects remain.  Sadly the peninsula has now been breached and even the land mass involved has diminished significantly by continuing erosion. However, the site remains one of the premier locations in the UK to witness bird migration. To stand atop a narrow strip of land, with the North Sea on one side and the mighty Humber Estuary on the other, is not an experience to forgo.  Magical!  

Way back the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust ( YWT ), to its credit, bought the land from the MOD and granted Spurn Bird Observatory tenancy rights to operate as previously. That situation has continued to this day and, hopefully, will remain in place for the future. The Friends of Spurn ( linked to the observatory ) has even bought land themselves near to Kilnsea village and developed cover and habitat for birds and intends to do more of the same. Other projects such as the Kilnsea Wetlands have been developed as a consequence of  coastal defence work and the Beacon Ponds area  ( I'll still call it that !! ) has been improved for birds too. So much that might be called "improvements" has taken place set against other areas which have sadly been lost to erosion given this whole area of the East Coast of Yorkshire is such a physically dynamic environment.

I'd remind everyone that much of the peninsula environment is a designated area and valued not just for birds but for botanical and entomological reasons, as well as a "living site" at which geomorphological processes can be demonstrated.  Sadly a situation has emerged recently that has split locals, birders, conservationists and many others as far as their reaction is concerned. As at many sites of natural history interest the YWT  ( as a conservation organization and landowner too in this case ) wishes to build a Visitor Centre.  Nothing wrong with that one might say as surely we want more people to appreciate our natural heritage, provide support for it, study it and so on.  OK so far!  The trouble is the location chosen is not felt to be the most appropriate, in fact, it's felt to be downright ludicrous.

Thanks to Gareth Picton for providing this image.

Now time is of the essence so I'm not going to indulge in a " he said, she said" analysis, although I suspect the situation warrants it.  The YWT don't appear to have covered themselves in glory in the way that the plans have been revealed, presented and so on and the situation has now reached the predictable outcome of people being very much divided. The Centre is being sponsored and does look somewhat larger than was anticipated. Setting aside the cries of habitat loss, visual intrusion and so on , the simple question must be " Is this the right location for the Centre".  My feelings are entirely negative.  Any Centre should be on the approach to the peninsula in my opinion, even north of Kilnsea village,, from which the various walking routes, birdwatching hides etc etc can be pointed out and explanations given on the intrinsic value and importance of the whole area.  Instead the proposed Centre is  south/central to the overall "site", people have passed some of the opportunities they might usefully explore and , instead, are concentrated at a point with more limited options. Not everyone will want to walk down the Peninsula,  so a majority of attendant visitors will be concentrated in an smaller catchment area. But enter what I feel is part of the current Masterplan by the YWT!  A recent purchase of a special lorry ( with seats ) enables them to offer tours to the Point, for a given price, where no doubt visitors will be encouraged to view the Lighthouse which is under renovation, see the abandoned houses used previously by the lifeboat crew and generally have a little tour down Spurn ( at a price! ).  A bit of an adventure , maybe, but is that the best that can be offered for Spurn given its value and unique significance.  I'm sure there'll be the accompanying commentary about wildlife, but I'm not sure the facility will  provide much other than a journey for the " been there,done that punters ".  All this will be done under the guise of expanding the horizons of visitors , of course, but I suspect the underlying objective is a commercial one!

Alright, accuse me of being cynical, but I genuinely feel the sense of wilderness is being eroded away as much as the resource itself. I sincerely feel the proposed location is wrong in many respects. And  I don't believe either that a sufficient time has elapsed within which the YWT has been able to determine the level of future visitor traffic. I suspect this has reduced markedly since the breach occurred.  Another white elephant development with accompanying intrusion into natural habitat which, in the final analysis, resulted in a nett loss, yet again, for wildlife??   Time will tell.

So, what to do?    First of all, sign this petition which might yet put a halt to this current lunacy.
Proposed Visitor Centre at Spurn      Simply click on this link to be taken to the petition site and then SIGN but also PROMOTE , please!

Passions are inflamed about this and views are clearly entrenched. Not the best environment in which to determine such an issue in my opinion. The YWT appear to be treating the issue as a campaign to achieve success for their project, which I'm not sure is right. If you're feeling a bit sensitive about voting/signing , then don't.   However, don't dally as time is of the essence and there is a need to ensure an adequate opportunity now emerges within which some sensible discussions and evaluations can take place.  I, for one, would like to see the analysis the YWT based its site choice on and all the accompanying factors and objectives involved, but I guess you all know what happens to wishes!!!  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Radio programmes week commencing 17th January, 2015.

Not too extensive an offering, but here goes!!

Saturday 17th January
Radio 4   0607 hours  Open Country
               0630 hours  Farming Today This Week

Sunday   18th January
Radio 4   0635 hours  On Your Farm.

Monday   19th January
Radio 4    2100 hours Shared Planet ( repeat ).

Tuesday   20th January
Radio 4    1100 hours Shared Planet
                1204 hours  A History of Ideas ( Linnaeus and Apes ).

Thursday  22nd January
Radio 4    1630 hours  BBC Inside Science.

And that's it I'm afraid. Happy listening!  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Weather........what a pain !

The last few days have been an absolute pain !!  Severe gale force winds at times with very strong winds throughout, rain, snow, thunder, lightening and variable visibility ( the least of the problems ).  Thankfully I'm immersed in something which has kept me at home so I've been able to avoid the worst effects! But once winds reach 60-70 mph the accompanying and incessant noise is another effect we can all do without!! Living close to the coast is also a disadvantage at such times. The wind can transport salt spray considerable distances and finding windows with a veneer of white across them is a common feature. It's like living in a bathroom!!  Last night's SW winds were bad, although it seems not to have reached a stage (force or direction ) where there has been resultant damage. Ferries are cancelled today as they have been at intervals over the past week.

My barometer differs with the entry on the XC Weather  (955MB ) with a reading of around 945 MB, but you get the general picture.

Birds have had a rough time of it too. Goldfinches abandoned using the feeders, ignored them and fed on seed and other food I'd spread on the ground, as did Chaffinch,Greenfinch, Reed Bunting and Blackbird.  The "local" Starlings which had taken up station on their favourite chimneys and even begun to tune up a little previous to the bad weather, have simply disappeared. Few birds are seen in conditions like this....the odd Raven, Hooded Crow and Buzzard forlornly try and explore the grass moor area opposite the house, but the strong winds convey them rapidly across the "site" and their attempts are largely in vain.This morning the winds are so strong the birds haven't even turned up!

However, after a final tantrum tomorrow the weather is set to improve. Sunny periods and wind speeds below 20mph over several days. A time to get out , see a few things and rejoice!!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Radio programmes week commencing 10th January, 2015.

Well I hope at least someone found last week's list of some use. Here's the one for the next seven days , starting tomorrow!! However, as an opener , here's something that is slightly different.  Saturday ( tomorrow ) and Sunday on Radio3  between 0700-0900 hours in the morning sees Tom McKinney introducing the Breakfast show. Now, you may not be a classical music enthusiast, but why not widen your interests?  The reason I'm raising this?  Well you need to know that Tom is a birder and I'd be very surprised if there wasn't something on one of the days that linked to our (and his) interests!  Give it a try.

Radio4   0607 hours  Open Country
              0630 hours   Farming Today. The week.

Radio 4  0635 hours   On Your Farm

Radio 4  1240 hours   A History of Ideas  ( How did everything begin? )
.             1345 hours   The Diary of Brett Westwood.
                                   How wildlife has changed over the last forty years. These programmes will also be                                        broadcast on Tuesday through to Friday at the same time and with a different topic                                        each day.

               2100 hours   Shared Planet  ( Corals ).

Radio 4   1100 hours   Shared Planet.  Group discussion on how we should accommodate our own and
                                    nature's interests on this planet.
                1530 hours   The Human Zoo

Radio 4    1204 hours   A History of Ideas  further discussion on the Big Bang.

Radio 4    1630 hours   BBC Inside Science

Radio 4    2100 hours   A History of Ideas.

Happy listening!!

Vicarious liability offence must now be accepted in law ! Hen Harrier debate ( Part 2 ).

In a previous Blog in early January I attempted to assess where we are currently within the Hen Harrier debate. Enhanced publicity, increased support for change, responses from the shooting industry in many senses are little more than "business as usual" nowadays given the debate has dragged on for so long. The conflict is deep rooted based on deliberately maintained prejudice within the shooting industry and, over the years,repeated attempts to improve the situation have failed.  The number of breeding pairs of Hen Harriers in England is now at a very low level and , I suspect, the situation in Scotland might not be as positive as we might believe.

Does all this signal that a new approach is necessary?

                                                         Via IOM Govt and A.Tilmouth.

Repeated calls have been made in the past for ideas that would result in this conflict being resolved. Nothing has emerged that has held sufficient attraction for all stakeholders and the situation trundles on.

It's not that long ago that only a very oblique confirmation was ever made of those who were held to be responsible for raptor persecution despite regular condemnation of the activities.  Let's face it, Hen Harrier deaths are not linked to inner cities, intensive agricultural areas or docklands!  Documented instances, prosecutions  and "disappearances " of birds in upland breeding areas or similar areas frequented in winter have all figured prominently in past times.  And what, might we ask, takes place in such areas ?   Grouse shooting!!   I suggest we put all previous reticence aside and unequivocally direct comments to the owners, managers, staff and clients of such enterprises. Not all will countenance raptor persecution, but I think it has to be recognized that little robust condemnation or actual initiatives for change has arisen from within the industry.  After all, successful prosecutions  show no connections with the local vicar, the postman or the midwife but almost exclusively with gamekeepers. So we know precisely where both the blame can be attributed and the change in direction must come from.  

Attempts to secure improvement within the UK parliament via legislative mechanisms have not succeeded.   The overt opposition by Tory Ministers and others to such possible regulation pays testimony to their absolute intention to maintain the status quo.

With a General Election in May,2015 might an opportunity arise afterwards for change?

A Tory majority Government   ( highly unlikely I believe! ) would certainly result in the status quo being maintained and be bad news generally for environmental and wildlife matters in my view.  The Labour Party shows little appetite for such matters, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to be a major force and so we might have to look to the minority Parties to push forward initiatives for change. Given that the Tory Party equates essentially with the Establishment, a reduction in the former's representative numbers in Parliament might be the weakened position that allows for progress. As grouse shooting interests are vested largely within the Establishment too, then the opportunity to pursue the adoption of the Vicarious Liability offence in law might now arise.

Why has an imperative to pursue such legislation arisen at this point?  Sadly I believe the likelihood of gaining progress on the licencing issue or the banning of driven grouse shooting is minimal.  The predicted chaos following the 2015 General Election is unlikely to provide the most apt opportunities to achieve the above objectives. By contrast, the offence of Vicarious Liability has been part of Scottish Law since 2012 and this ambiguity with English Law could be vigorously exploited, particularly with the continuing levels of persecution occurring, the very subject area the law is designed to reduce. In December the first successful prosecution was achieved in Scotland. What people may not realise is that, in addition to the successful prosecutions of those involved, if any Single Farm Subsidy payments are received by the Estate or farm these are then withdrawn. In the recent case this is reckoned to have "cost" the owner many thousands of pounds. Such is a very strong deterrent and lends further weight to the Vicarious Liability offence being adopted in law. Unfortunately the RSPB chose not to support the petitioning process for this law and instead laid reliance on the Law Commission review process, which then did little to really improve the situation. Possibly this is now a topic the Society could pursue more robustly, recruiting the help in Parliament of the Green Party whose representation I feel is set to improve. A challenge and prediction combined!!

I feel this should now assume some priority as an initiative linked to Westminster. However, I also feel there is much that the RSPB should be addressing and will consider such options in a later entry.


Monday, January 5, 2015

The first real birding day of 2015!!

This was really the first "free" day I'd had in 2015 without "other influences" attached so I set off with every intention of indulging every whim and idea that might result in good birds!!  First of all I toured the new Patchwork patch and pulled in a number of routine species for this time of year ( Barnacle Goose , Greenland White-fronted Goose, Great Northern Diver ). Whilst I spent some time watching over the sea little was in evidence.  Fulmars were back on territory, a few Shags offshore, but generally things were very quiet. A Sparrowhawk along the tip of the SW coast was unexpected.

Outer Loch Indaal produced a few more Great Northern Divers and a couple of pairs of Red-breasted Merganser. A couple of flocks of Grey lag Geese collectively numbered in excess of a hundred and, off Bruichladdich, a few Light -bellied Brent Geese picked at tide borne debris.  A mixed group of Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper scuttled rapidly amongst the rocks and a few Cormorant and Shag sat out on offshore rocks.

The head of Loch Indaal had the usual Greater Scaup flock offshore, now in numbers that are a minute reflection of those occurring a few years ago. Red-breasted Merganser, Great Northern Diver, Shelduck, Wigeon, all present in increasingly restless onshore waters. And at various locations around the Inner Loch Barnacle Geese sat out the day having fed throughout last night under the moon. In late afternoon some departed to intended feeding locations whilst others remained, sleeping, preening or simply sitting out until the time arrived for departure. It occurred to me that things must get a bit complicated when cloudy conditions  ( as then ) intervened the intended pattern of behaviour!

Despite checking out various hunches my return trip produced very little other than the satisfaction of having had a very good days birding.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Patchwork Challenge 2015.

At the onset of last year ( 2014) I had every intention in contributing to an ever growing trend in birding, that of systematically  "working a regular patch". This is increasing in popularity and I can do no better than refer you to the website which gives all the details about the project, how to join the rules and so on. See

As it was I got diverted, didn't even know whether I would be on Islay for any serious length of time so I set the idea aside. I've now resurrected it and have registered a "patch",    SW Islay.

Mainly because of fuel prices, at least until very recently, many people no longer travel around for birds as much as previous and, instead , have taken to intensively working their own patch of choice. This gave rise to the idea of the Patchwork Challenge.  Basically you submit details on  a monthly basis of the species seen within your favourite birdwatching patch, each particular species earns point and you end up with your name in lights or needing to try harder!!.

It's slightly more complicated than that , of course, but it provides an opportunity to make birding fun with an accompanying motivating factor built in. The size of your chosen area is limited to 3 km.squares in extent but the configuration of your area can be your choice.The whole idea is linked 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 too much of what is occurring.

There are lots  of nice little features to this project. Sponsorship has, for example, ensured that the overall combined total of species seen ( 340 in 2014 ) has resulted in a donation of the same amount to the BTO's House Martin tracking project.  Additionally, if you see a "new" species for the year it can be added to the Patchwork Challenge BuBo list.  

Take a look and have a try!

3rd January, 2015.

At last, calmer weather!  Thankfully, a complete change in fact, with calm conditions, an open sky and sun, at least at times. A welcome change!  Given the recent holiday, car problems ( now fully resolved ), and a variety of tasks to complete, the day wasn't exclusively my own but I managed to get out locally.  Periodically I like to check out what is around across the rising grass moor westwards to the coast and eastwards out towards the fringing ring of conifer woodland that circles the basin of rough grazing and juncus ridden areas that stretch out from the house.

The area can be devoid of bird life, apparently at least, at the height of winter, but it's not always quite the case. A reasonable period of observation at this time of year can show activity beginning to increase with  " larger birds " predominating".  Corvids are the most obvious with Hooded Crows and Ravens ranging over the open ground, joined by the odd Buzzard and GBBG's. This time of year, based on several occasions experience, sees the "local" Choughs ranging around not just examining feeding areas, but also suitable nesting sites. This occurred yesterday with a pair exploring the barn on a couple of occasions. They've never bred there to my knowledge, but they seem to go through the motions each year.   Whilst I kept an eye open for the "local" Golden Eagles no sightings were forthcoming, a result perhaps of hunting/feeding conditions being bad in recent days and them now having to range over a greater area.

Little is present usually on the open moorland at this time of year and yesterday was no exception.  It's necessary to cover a lot of ground for very small returns, the odd Wren or Robin, slightly more Blackbirds, all of which are likely to be "Continentals", and the odd Song Thrush.  Given the nature of the habitat mix it's easy to monitor what is present and to notice any changes. Yesterday wasn't terribly productive, which could be taken as a baseline against which the sudden appearance , possibly due to harsh weather conditions, of thrush species like Fieldfare and Redwings can easily be detected. There were a few absences too! No Pheasant, Woodcock, titmice, Reed Bunting or Meadow Pipit or, indeed, despite an evening vigil at roost time, any signs of passing Hen Harrier. My resident Barn Owl appears to have moved to other quarters too.

Whilst watching out for harriers I kept an eye on the three or four Chaffinches attending my feeders. These were most certainly the majority representatives of smaller birds I saw throughout the day!  I watched one bird for quite a period of time within which it pecked at and picked up, as far as I could tell, in excess of 70 Nyger seed items. Some of these pecks must surely have failed (?), although it didn't appear so. I was amazed at how much bulk a relatively small bird could take in, although I admit Nyger seed is pretty small. Setting aside that aspect it was clear that the bird was "stocking up" before what would be a long night of around fifteen hours!  With winter weather conditions sometimes seeing temperatures plummet the need of birds to withstand this is paramount. This draws attention to the importance of feeding birds in winter and on a regular basis too! Thankfully conditions aren't that severe at present.

So, not a terribly good day for birds, but very worthwhile at showing how little is around against which changes can then be documented as we gradually move through the depths of winter into Spring.

Friday, January 2, 2015

2nd January, 2015.

Last night was brutal!  The wind threw repeated heavy gusts at the house and rain also deluged at regular intervals during the night. I was reminded of those immortal words of the poet, Dylan Thomas

Do not go gently into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Well, given I'd no intention of passing into the hereafter, my raging was directed at the conditions and the way in which they prevented sleep!  Sure, I raged, but the night of turbulence carried on.  This morning a look in the bathroom mirror saw an apparition more resembling Father Jack than Father Ted ( you've got to have seen the series to appreciate this ) and I felt somewhat evil!!  The wind still blew, the bins were flung across the yard several times until I put them in the barn and news came of a plane blown off the runway on Stornaway.  Not a day that was going to produce much I thought.  In reality two occasions out locally were rewarded with nothing . Not a bird, how's that for a record!

So I wrote a couple of things for the Blog and am now signing off with conditions beginning to improve ( a bit! ).

Radio programmes week commencing 3rd January, 2015.

I had an idea the other day that might be useful and, there again , it might be quite useless!!  I habitually go through the Radio Times and "spot" both TV and radio programmes I'd like to take in during the following week. Very often I miss them. It occurred to me that a listing of radio programmes might be quite useful for those who are regularly out and about in the car or even tied to a desk throughout the week. Of course, most, if not all, can now be listened to after the event.  As an experiment I thought I'd just list them out and see how it goes.  I haven't included anything before 0600 hours in the morning ( Farming Today and Tweet of the Day ) as neither figure on my "must listen to" list,  not based on prejudice but on preference!!

All programmes this week are on Radio 4.   FM198.

Saturday 3rd January.
0607 hours    Open Country ( Suffolk Coast )
0630 hours    Farming Today.

Sunday   4th January.
0605 hours     Something Understood  ( Arctic Circle ).
0635 hours     On Your Farm  ( Animal Behaviour ).

Monday   5th January.
1100 hours     This Farming Life.
2100 hours     Shared Planet  (Lemurs )

Tuesday    6th January.
1100 hours      Shared Planet  (Corals ).
1530 hours      In search of the Holy Tail   ( Mull....Sea Eagles  and Basking Sharks ).

Thursday   8th January.
1500 hours      Open Country   ( Wiltshire Wellbeing Group )
1630 hours      Inside Science.

Hope it's a help.  I know there's the pre selection facility in some cars, ( for Environment ? ) but above might just capture the odd jem besides!    Happy listening .

Hen Harrier saga continues ( Part 1 ).

Two years ago I spent much of that Christmas thinking through the implications of the E-petition I was shortly to register proposing the licencing of grouse moors and gamekeepers. A year or so later the petition had gained over 10,000 signatures and, due to having reached this threshold, received a Government response.  In many ways the response was irrelevant as it sought to avoid the main issue relating to raptor persecution and, overall, could be judged to be pathetic. However, later events confirmed the response very much represented the Government's intended position and its arrogance at refusing to recognize more fairly the concerns of an appreciable body of electoral opinion.

But , since then , what has happened that might be deemed to represent progress?  Two years on from that point above I've spent yet another Christmas pondering over the subject;  what has improved and what tangible progress we might claim in the cause of reducing raptor persecution and an improvement to Hen Harrier breeding numbers?   This first Blog is a bit of a "scene setter" with Part Two laying out what I feel is at the real heart of the problem.

A few months ago a further E-petition from past colleague Mark Avery called for a ban on driven grouse shooting altogether. Following much promotion the petition has gained already in excess of 20,000 signatures. Whilst it is unlikely to reach the necessary threshold of 100,000 signatures that would secure its consideration for debate in Parliament, due mainly to being "truncated" in March this year due to the then imminence of the General Election, it pays testament to a growing body of opinion that calls the activities of the grouse shooting industry into question. Within this time too the RSPB, publicly, has more robustly embraced the licencing proposal, has written to key stakeholders but no longer appears to be pursuing the issue with any real campaigning zeal. However, the Society has gained significant funding from Europe to pursue initiatives aimed at improving the breeding status of Hen Harriers and addressing the raptor persecution problem and certainly can't claim to be bereft of resources for this particular task

The admirable Hen Harrier Day initiative in August, first proposed by Alan Tilmouth, resulted in good attendances despite abysmal weather and generated some good publicity. Since then a further rally at Parliament previous to Christmas certainly resulted in the topic of raptor persecution being raised with a number of MP's.  Sadly, the responses to various questions laid by an MP in Parliament make it abundantly clear that neither licencing nor the adoption of an offence of vicarious liability are within the Government's intentions, even for consideration.  The question of banning driven grouse shooting wasn't even responded to so I think we can confidently presume it's not sitting central to the Government's radar at present!!

In the meantime the shooting lobby has retaliated with a variety of statements and web site entries, none of which has assisted the situation in my view.  Such "tit for tat" exchanges are little more than an exercise in drawing teeth in my opinion. They achieve very little and divert effort  from possibly more profitable attempts to resolve the difficulties. This is not an opinion I've necessarily held previously, but I now believe the whole scenario is at a crucial stage in its development.  Certainly the "shooters versus conservation" divide is more clearly defined in some quarters than ever previously. In my view the RSPB, despite being accused of a variety of ill-conceived shortcomings, has treated such with disdain on most occasions and maintained its policy position , particularly when dealing with the Government's Hen Harrier Recovery Plan proposals.

Whilst much of the above suggests  "business as usual ", although with an accompanying platform of regular publicity being achieved on the subject, one small but crucial "positive" has happened in Scotland recently. Here the offence of vicarious liability had already been accepted into law and December saw the first successful prosecution being obtained. Whilst some people bridled at the alleged inadequacy of the fine involved, a serious first step has been achieved and will serve as a reference point that cannot be ignored.

Between now and the General Election in May, 2015 nothing is likely to change in my view. Progress of a kind has been made in terms of gaining the support of some Parties to include draft policies in their Manifestos. As we all know there's a long way to go before this can be viewed as real progress. It serves to show what a long drawn out process these type of issues can be and how difficult it can be to effect change.

2014 saw a very small improvement in harrier breeding numbers in England and young being produced, some of which, despite being tagged, promptly disappeared. So, the problem has not gone away. Increasing numbers of people are calling for change and that is very much a positive.  A reader might be led to conclude that much or all of the above is no more than platitudes arising from a basis of pessimism. They'd be so wrong!  Having become involved in this very conflict in the 1970's I've seen the situation ebb and flow more than a few times. We hit the bottom level two or three years ago, but things are beginning to improve and the subject is out in the open more, albeit with both sides expressing passionately opposing views at times. Such is not a problem in my view, but we have to be prepared to look critically and very openly at the fundamental factors involved, not all of which have necessarily been aired to the proper extent in the past.  At times it's as if shooting and conservation protagonists are permanently dancing around a Maypole, joshing each other as their respective circles pass. I'm sure I've been part of it at various intervals, but it's not the recipe for success.  We can do better than that, and must, which is what I'll consider next time.    

Quadrantids Meteor Shower.

This occurs annually each year between the 1st and 5th January and, at its peak, can see around 40 per hour of passage given optimum viewing conditions. The shower is thought to be derived from the debris left behind by the extinct comet, 2003 EH1  ( only discovered in 2003 ).  The phenomenon usually "peaks" on the 3rd or 4th night.

I'd rather looked forward to watching out for this first astronomical "event" in 2015 but , looking at the weather forecast for Islay, I doubt it's going to happen. Cloudy conditions, with rain on occasions, appears to be most likely and to have quashed the idea.  Still if you find your night sky clear after midnight over the next couple of nights I'm sure it's worth a look.  Unfortunately the full moon appears on Monday so developing bright conditions might also affect your ability to actually see any of the meteors. Make a note for next year too!!

Did you know......On Monday the full moon will be directly opposite the Earth from the Sun and, therefore, fully illuminated.  That's if the sky is nice and clear of clouds and viewing conditions good!!  This full moon was known by the North American Indian tribes as the Full Wolf Moon as it was at this time of year that the hungry wolf packs used to patrol around and howl outside their camps.  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year arrives with a blast! 1.1.2015

Setting events within the last two months aside, or even non-events, the New Year has now arrived and with it an imperative to get this Blog on an even keel again. So here goes!

Having looked at the weather forecast previously I'd already half decided today would not be much use for venturing out. And so it proved with rising winds overnight and rain, an interlude, but then with the same conditions returning in the afternoon and evening. Whilst many birders launch into New Year's Day with frenetic enthusiasm, mainly due to limited time off work I imagine, I decided on a different approach. Retirement provides a few bonuses from time to time! I decided to get all the phone calls and similar tasks out of the way and rely on the predicted improving forecast  ( except tomorrow's forecast is now not much better than today's! ) and then start the New Year in earnest.

So the upshot of all this is that I have seen two bird species today ( Blackbird and Robin ) and have read , somewhat enviously, of rare birds elsewhere and great weather in Norfolk. At the moment the wind is completing a concerto of its own making,  whistling, buffeting and roaring around the buildings, all combining to make for an unsettled night.

Having said all this I did take in the first in David Attenborough's new TV series, Conquest of the Skies. What a tour de force  and what a communicator !  Look for a repeat and don't miss the rest.  How anyone can set nature and the world's wonders aside is beyond me. Whilst everyone can't be obsessive aficionados the sheer beauty and background information surrounding its very existence dictate none of it should be ignored or discarded.  

So, may I wish everyone a happy and productive 2015, may you be in both good heart and health and may your hopes and resolutions become a reality.