Friday, April 29, 2016

The Year of the Moose.

If you missed the BBC 2 Natural World programme last evening at 8pm,   " There's a moose loose",  make every effort to try and pick it up on repeat or elsewhere. It was fabulous !

Moose numbers are reducing in Canada and there are clear concerns as to why this is happening, whether the causes can be rectified and so on.  The programme addresses many of these but, along the way, introduces its audience to much more in the way of wildlife in this part of wild Alberta.

I'll not spoil the main theme of the story by repeating it here, just try and watch it.  The standard of photography is excellent with some very creative shots along the way. It really is mind blowing and I'm certainly not the sort of person usually to be converted that easily. The backdrop of scenery is, of course, dramatic in the extreme and comprises areas that I suspect many of us will never venture in to.

Besides all this we're given a very informative, close up treatment, intimate even , of the life of the Moose. Like many things it seems to be an almost insurmountable dilemma when wildlife populations are reducing, not it would seem because of our actions, but of natural dynamics. What should actually be done, should we intervene or should things be left well alone?.  Whatever your feelings , watch this programme as you'll not regret it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Capercaillie in crisis again ?

Whilst I was in Scotland over the last week I learnt two things....Black Grouse aren't doing badly at all but Capercaillie appear to be up against it!! In fact, simply based on my own experiences the message began to emerge.

This is a rather poor shot of Black Grouse taken previously at a roadside lek site I know which, even though very wet this Spring , still held Black Grouse.  By contrast, despite attendances at the RSPB's Loch Garten Capercaillie Watch,  nothing was on offer.  A male had been seen a few days previous but that was it.  In conversation with the warden I learnt that, last year , no young birds had been reared in the immediate area and I got the impression the year previous had not been dis-similar. Things may have suddenly changed, of course, and I do hope so as I felt sorry for the guy having repeatedly to go through a repeated litany of all the negatives that are currently affecting the species.

So what is the problem?  Capercaillie can lay 5-8 eggs but it appears unlikely that more than one youngster survives. Weather, food, habitat fragmentation all play their part but , to me, only one major aspect is a part of the root cause of failure.

But first, a few word pictures ! Walking early one morning on the main footpath through woodlands near Grantown on Spey I eventually came into what is a very majestic part of this area of celebrated Caledonian Pine forest. There are discrete notices alongside this section advising that the core area for Capercaillie is nearby and, within the breeding season, i.e. April onwards, could people keep to the main footpath and, more importantly, keep their dogs on a lead. Imagine my surprise when a character emerged from the confines of this protected area with three dogs, two of which were loose. He even pushed his way past the sign ! A pleasant chap, but I thought "What the hell " as even I was surprised by his emergence.  As I returned I saw three other people with single loose dogs being given their morning exercise.  I'm sure the collective defence would be that their pooch would never harm a thing......but that's not the point, it's the perception and response of the birds that we have no control over. Surely abiding by the rules for four months in the year is not too much to ask.  My response would be to put contract wardens in the woodlands to promote the need, hand out leaflets  or take further action and to stop willying about!! I suspect the majority would be local , regular users but further suspect any casual tourist would be more than willing ( and interested ) to support the initiative.

As a corollary to this I took a pleasant walk in woodlands near to Boat of Garten and, much to my surprise, came across some rather drastic, but obviously required, management work undertaken by the Estate aimed at assisting Capercaillie, which I didn't even know were there!!  A buttress of lined out assembled tree roots and other detritus had been placed about twenty metres from the path within the woodland's edge to form a very effective visual barrier into the woodland.  Notices explained the logic, namely that attempts were being made to screen the footpath from the view of Capercaillie and any presence of dogs or walkers on it. Given this is Scotland I suppose footpath closure orders are not something which can be called upon, which makes things difficult. If visual disturbance is a determined problem it almost calls for such areas to be placed "off limits" but I guess that's impossible.  The problems being faced by RSPB, SNH and the various Estates began to take better shape and register as something both large and serious.  Again, a contract warden presence would somehow seem to be part of a solution. Expensive, of course, but so has been the amounts of money already invested in improving the situation , which is clearly not working.  I slunk away and felt guilty at my very presence!

The RSPB 's attempts to concentrate birdwatcher interest at Loch Garten has been admirable in both content and result until recently. Encroaching tree growth coupled with fewer birds have conspired to increase the difficulties being confronted. Not all birders want to see birds via a camera projecting its images to a hide ( me included if I'm honest ) but is this purism something which we'll have to swallow in support of the birds themselves?  Birdwatchers can set the standard by not indulging in cold searching for birds , but I think the wider , and probably greater problem of disturbance by dogs , is something which needs to be tackled head on and not merely alluded to.  We're informed nests are very often not that far from paths and, therefore, brooding females and young broods are open to disturbance by nothing more than the family pet gambolling around and enjoying itself. Nobody sets out to be the cause of such a problem and , therefore, that potential gap needs to be closed, explained and diplomatically managed. Such will not be achieved by authoritative direction , but by friendly contact and explanation. Pay heed please and all success with future endeavours!

Cetacean comfort !

Last week, whilst in the Cairngorms, I had an afternoon out on the Black Isle prior to meeting daughters two and three ( Rachael and Katherine ) in Inverness.  I went to an old favourite location, Chanonry Point, both in the hope of seeing a few birds and also the Bottle-nosed Dolphins.

I wasn't disappointed, in fact I was pleasantly surprised all round!  Even in these times of austerity the site has undergone a face-lift, even possibly a bit beyond necessity.

The entrance is formalised, with clear signs, and has an upbeat look which I found perhaps a tad unnecessary but appealing all the same.  The walk to the Point is now paved and has modern ramparts. Parking spaces are set out and all is rather proper it has to be said! 

There's a very good interpretative sign and even a further observation area around the corner.

Click on the image to enlarge and read the information.

The separate observation area can just be seen off to the right. All mod cons !

It was encouraging to see so many people there, even on a Tuesday afternoon !  Camera clout was much in evidence and I hate to think of the accumulated value that was being brandished about . But, whilst previously, many attendees had probably known diddly squat about dolphins , here they were and clearly enjoying the process. As a tourist location it's obviously now very well embedded in the "must have" location list and I guess late summer will see full attendances and no car park spaces available  Boat tours are available from Avoch village I'm told and clearly many supporters are on-side as far as marine life is concerned and that can only be good.  Well done Local Authority ....

The afternoon was hard work at the beginning I have to admit with no "swim pasts", aerial contortions and the like. And then, amidst cheers, a Bottle-nosed Dolphin began to feed just offshore. I was caught up in it all ( daft old bugger ! ) but I have to admit I enjoyed it immensely and that's what its all about, isn't it?

Cairngorms sojourn.

Last week I was in the Cairngorms with a few other personal commitments tied in too.  It was a brisk week you might say with weather at the beginning being better than at the end. By and large it was fine, although a few snow flurries here and there added variety and even culminated in a couple of inches early on the Sunday morning as I left. It all soon disappeared, but the northerly winds throughout the week made it cold and doubtless provided a barrier to summer migrants that nonetheless trickled in.

On the first day, as I travelled away from Rannoch Moor towards the A9,  I came across this fine boundary marker for the Cairngorms National Park, simple, effective and impactive, which also served to remind me how big this particular designated area actually is!!

I enjoyed the week, I always do, from the high tops to the marshes at Insh, the pinewoods of Abernethy and the different lochs and wild moorlands. I managed what I contend was the best ever views of Crested Tit (4m. ) I've had , had enduring views of Black-throated Diver, watched as a female Peregrine repeatedly hassled a Golden Eagle, discovered a new ( to me ) Black Grouse lek, and felt a great degree of sympathy as the female Osprey sat stoically on her nest at Loch Garten on the Sunday morning throughout a snow storm.  Endearing and lasting memories to treasure. My visit to Cairngorm was punctuated by views of the Reindeer herd wandering around the main car park.......what tranquil beasts they are!

So much can be written about this remarkable area, its beauty and uniqueness. There are problems, some more urgently in need of action and attention than others and I'll be putting out a couple more Blogs shortly. In the meantime I'll present what I feel is a measure of the areas abiding beauty, a shot taken one evening of Loch Pityoulish and areas beyond. Shortly afterwards a nice pair of Goosander swam into view!  Magic.

RSPB.........wherefore art thou?

I've been an enthusiastic reader of Shakespeare in the past and utterly apt phrases can often be found within his writings that pertain to a current situation. The choice of the above both pays tribute to the Bard and draws attention to what I feel is a crucial problem.  I hope, genuinely, that what I say below is accepted as sincere, heartfelt and rational.  Yes, I am "having a go" , but not out of any sense of retaliation,  but concern. It's something that bothers me enormously and, as a former RSPB employee of many years , I take no comfort from what I intend to say. I'm still a member and fully intend to remain so but, nonetheless , I have serious reservations about the Society's current "positionning"  and the way that this is undermining its reputation.  It may not be resulting in falling membership or resignations , mainly because members are loyal, somewhat blindly so, but grumbles and comments "on the street" all comprise of the same content.


The role of a campaigning organization, upon which the RSPB's very foundation rests, appears to have been set aside despite serious concerns being expressed about our birdlife within the Society's own literature.  Everything is so benign, so cosy and so polite.  As has always been the case the Society's track record in research and reserve acquisition and management is second to none but, nowadays, things appear to stop there unless you look at what appears to be its main preoccupation, being a parallel organization to the Wildlife Trust movement.  Now I agree with an holistic approach to conservation but the current situation borders on the obsessive in terms of the priority given to the promotion of that particular objective. It would serve the Society well to better explain what its current and future aspirations are in this respect

The RSPB is extremely good in its analysis of conservation problems, inadequacies within statements, policies and reports from outside bodies and always has been. I'm an avid reader of the Blogs put out by Martin Harper ( RSPB Director of Conservation)  which are precisely honed and informative. They very much grasp what is currently of concern and advise of what needs to be done. But there the Society machine appears to come to a halt !!  Is it that it believes it occupies a key position in its access to Government and others and that discussions behind closed doors can secure the necessary objectives ? That upsetting the apple cart occasionally is no longer needed?  I'm convinced the RSPB has held this view of itself for a long time, but I'm not convinced it secures enough set against the challenges in evidence.  More is needed than emphasizing points at various seminars and meetings, which appears to be the default approach. Many members are bewildered at this seemingly diluted solution to everything and also at the lack of what the Society is involved with. In this context communication with the membership is somewhat poor. At one time one, or even more, major aspects in which the Society was engaged was apparent in its literature, its approach, its press releases and within the appeals for action its membership was called upon to support.

Let me give you two examples which I believe underscore all this.  Both are associated with raptor persecution in a wide context which is very much an issue of the moment!

The Hen Harrier, a species radically affected by persecution, but hardly attracting more action than endless discussion.  When is a concerted response going to be forthcoming?

Vicarious liability....... a provision the Society has declared is both desirable  and that it supports. It already applies in Scotland and various initiatives have been pursued and come to nothing as far as its progression into law in England is concerned.  The Society placed its faith in the outcome of the Law Commission Review that included the matter, but precious little major change arose. Discussions behind closed doors that came to naught. Would an all out campaigning position have secured more ? Since then the issue appears to have been consigned to the back burner, even to the extent of really knowing what the Society's current position is on the matter never mind what it intends doing about it !

Licensing of upland grouse moors.  It has been disclosed in recent days that the Society is not going to openly enlist the support of its membership in connection with the E-petition advocating the banning of driven grouse shooting. When I registered the E-petition about the licencing of grouse moors a similar position was taken up by the Society, which I circumvented to some extent by contacting its members groups given their contact details are in the public domain ( BirdWatchers Yearbook ).   Nonetheless , through time, it has indicated, usually in a somewhat muted fashion, that licensing is a solution that it would hope to see adopted. So why not advocate this strongly, campaign for it and demonstrate the Society's resolve in this direction? This demonstration of action is an approach that many members desperately want to see happen as I believe many simply feel the Society has run out of steam. It may be the Society no longer feels campaigns are effective and are too expensive. Then say so and spell out the alternatives, as clearly the E-petition route doesn't find favour either in terms of drawing attention to an issue of concern regardless of what it secures as far as eventual action by the Government.

Criticisms are beginning to emerge elsewhere ( see Mark Avery's Blog and the recent anonymous contribution ) and clearly the Society needs to take stock of its position generally. I'm convinced the core membership of yesteryear still believes in "its " Society, and will continue to pledge its support, but under a cloud of disappointment and diminishing faith.

We live in a time when we have the most ineffective, unsympathetic national government ever, despite its self applied title of the "Greenest Government Ever". What a joke!  An organization which believes it has the ear of an ineffective administration like that could be said to be as culpable in terms of its efforts to secure the best for conservation. I don't want "my" Society to adopt that position, or even be accused of it as I believe in its expertise and skill,  but nonetheless lament its lame approach.  

On a brighter note let's rejoice in the words of the Bard as given in Oberon's speech in Midsummer Nights Dream and hope the very essence of the countryside it describes remains forever as a location where future Titanias can lay their heads!

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows
Where oxslips and the noddy violet grows
Quite over canopied with luscious woodbine
With sweet musk roses and with eglatine.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A day of little change ! 8.4.2016

Today was unproductive, unfulfilling, but quite reasonable as far as weather was concerned. You can't have it all !

I did a circuit of many of the sites I've mentioned previously coupled with a migration watch ( except there wasn't any ! ) from a vantage point overlooking the Little Don Valley, a search for Ring Ousel yet again, but all was in vain.  I had a Chiffchaff in a new location and that was about all . But the weather was nice which is not always the case.

Well, here's a view from a spot less than 5 minutes from my house looking SW/WSW over Langsett Moors and showing reclaimed in-bye land and the moors themselves. There's both a valley and a large reservoir "in between".  I've a feeling I shall use this as a vantage point in autumn given it's so convenient, but it does tend to catch the wind too!! We'll see.

And this is the reservoir in the bottom of the valley ( Langsett ). I felt quite clever at catching the cloud reflections in the water but self -reflection since then leaves me a bit confused, I don't know about you!!  A few Mallard, Canada and Grey lag Geese, but little else and certainly none of the Common Sandpipers that can usually be relied upon.


And finally, a small, partially flooded woodland behind a small dam which I used to visit quite frequently.  Sparrowhawk has bred here and Nuthatch now in residence; Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has bred in the distant past but were certainly not in evidence today. Nice spot though.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Migrants on the move! 6.4.2016.

Off early and whilst the weather was fine, bright, but somewhat blustery, looking westwards showed some rather heavy dark cloud in evidence. Nonetheless another attempt to locate Ring Ousel failed and around 0900 hours I parked up at Winscar Reservoir, had some breakfast and hoped for the odd raptor. It was very quiet so I eventually moved off to check Bowshaw Whams Reservoir.......and then things changed!! The wind picked up to F6, the car rocked and the sleet was horizontal. Visibility plummeted, the car was coated in snow on one side and I thought "this is not what was supposed to happen ! ". Eventually it cleared through and revealed a couple of Teal, Great crested Grebe and odd Mallard........Spring was obviously appearing only slowly hereabouts.

Gradually moving onto lower ground I toured around Whitley Common yet again. The last four days had produced very little so I wasn't hopeful. One field had a reasonable group of feeding Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails ( no "Whites" ). Lapwing numbers were certainly higher, good news in itself.  I moved on to overlook the model aircraft "flying facility"!!!   I objected to the location of this many years ago,  plumped as it was going to be in an area of extensive in-bye land , very wet in places , that carried breeding Common Snipe, Redshank and Mallard and in one autumn had a roost of Short-eared Owl.  It went ahead , of course, and now juncus ridden areas and in-bye are a scarce resource showing the predictive qualities of planners are next to useless.  For once I was caused to eat my prejudice ( am I mellowing ? ) as there were obviously birds feeding on the carefully cut grass square.  The Northern Wheatears I'd sought out over past days were certainly present,  possibly forced down by the winds which had developed overnight and which were now gusting at F5/6.  Several counts eventually produced a total of 21 , all of which appeared to be males. They were very mobile and, around 1130 hours, began to disperse into adjacent fields. Not a bad haul even for a model aircraft field !!!

On to Ingbirchworth Reservoir where I  decided to sit things out for a while and see if any hapless migrants were battling against the strong headwinds.  Other than a female Goldeneye little appeared to be new. However, the next hour saw almost 60 Swallow and 11 Sand Martin move NW , sometimes taking a short time out to feed as they crossed the water before moving on over higher ground. Things then subsided quite abruptly. I checked a couple of other sites but nothing appeared to have changed so I decided to concede and do a supermarket shop!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A varied introduction! 4.4.2016.

With the last few days being occupied with little more than reconnaissance visits to various areas I decided that I'd complete a round of visits to some of the areas nearby to home.  Typical Spring weather looked good to go too.

In time honoured fashion the first location was a sewage farm on the very eastern boundary of my "new area". I'd already been here in late March to try and see the Firecrest which had been around for some time, but today, as then, was unsuccessful signalling that perhaps the bird had finally moved on.  Several Chiffchaffs were in song, Green Woodpecker loudly moving about the area, Bullfinch and a Mallard pair with 13 young on a nearby flooded area were the highlights with even the sewage beds being devoid of wagtails. What was a real joy, for me, was the absolute body of song coming from the general locality......Song Thrush, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Robin, Great Tit and Wren contrasted to recent years where fewer such birds were around within Islay's woodlands and the wind generally swept away the effects anyway.

Visits to a couple more blocks of woodland provided a similar array of species with Chiffchaffs again being in evidence.  A local water body ( Gunthwaite Dam ) held Little Grebe, Coot and Canada Geese and a couple more Chiffchaff. On the approach, via Gadding Moor, a couple of Skylark sang,  a species I've already noticed appears to be in much reduced numbers to previously. Onwards to Scout Dike Reservoir with a fine circular footpath in evidence with accompanying walkers, infants and Labradors, a contrast to what used to be a muddy slog around the more western part of its boundary. Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, plenty of Coot, Tufted Duck and a single Common Sandpiper were of note, plus at least four more Chiffchaffs!.  The most amusing episode was a Willow Warbler entering into song, but occasionally not quite getting the cadence right.  I suspect it was an overnight arrival tuning up after its long journey!  

Ingbirchworth Reservoir had its own Chiffchaffs (2), Oystercatcher, Canada Geese, Tufted Duck, Mallard and Coot but little else. A small group of hirundines, 3 Swallows and possibly 2 Sand Martin, moved off as I arrived but no others followed in the time I spent having a sandwich and wishing for migrants!

A sweep through various adjacent areas produced no Northern Wheatear as I'd expected and, despite the sunny conditions, there was yet a reminder that this was still only early April.  A call to Royd Moor Reservoir completed the day and provided a fine pair of Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Yellowhammer, around thirty Fieldfare which moved off north east, and, of course, a couple of Chiffchaff and another Willow Warbler. Not a bad intro., and a day that brought back many fond memories too.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"The day" finally arrives. 23.3.2016

After a series of utterly exhausting days packing, lugging, visits to the tip, anxious choices applied to the retention or rejection of possessions, "the day" finally loomed large when my departure from Islay was imminent. The removal men duly arrived and then went off to the mainland on the last ferry with the vast majority of all my wordly goods leaving me to a final night surrounded by space and a somewhat strange silence !

Pre-dawn saw me up and completing the very final arrangements before departing for the first ferry.  A rather detached feeling in many respects. I spent the immediate time before and after dawn simply standing outside taking in the sounds and sights, the silence and atmosphere.  Would you believe that, after what I have felt to be a winter of absence, a series of bizarre noises only Barn Owls' can be responsible for came from the nest box within the barn !!  A farewell I shall treasure following the unique experiences of last summer when I could watch these resident birds repeatedly visiting the barn to feed their young.....and all from the comfort of an armchair in the lounge. All too soon, the light began to lift and Common Snipe, Skylark, Lapwing and Curlew added their calls to the pageant of goodbyes from the nearby fell.  A convenient experience not to be repeated in some senses and all the more valuable for that.

Soon I was on my way with Woodcock rising from the roadside, a large Red Deer cascading from the roadside in front of the car, and, at least for some time into the future, groups of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese arriving into their feeding grounds. Emotional, yes if I'm honest, but also testament to the privilege of being able to be so close to a resource of such simple value. But similar experiences lay ahead, undoubtedly different, but evidence in themselves that we should not take such things for granted as a fulfilment of our own vicarious pleasure, but to view such as a special privilege and fight for their retention and defence at all costs against the pressures of our increasingly complicated world. Whilst my return, at some point is in no doubt, I was also looking forward to what lies in front. Better contact with family, travel abroad, more varied birding and access to a whole plethora of other diverse benefits.

After a long and somewhat arduous journey ( try the M60 at 1700 hours ) I finally breasted the high point of the Pennines along the A628 that allowed me to look eastwards into Yorkshire ( Braveheart returns to Yorkshire I mused !  minus the kilt let it be said ) and descended towards my chosen base at Millhouse Green adjacent to the boundary of the Peak National Park.  The move was over !  The next few days saw a not dis-similar pattern to the period of preparation.....lugging boxes, choices of location re possessions and visits to the tip with the empty boxes ( I never want to see a cardboard box or parcel tape again!! ). Finally , and for a break, some form of compensation appeared with a visit to the East Coast and good views of the male Surf Scoter in Filey Bay.  The commencement of a new beginning!