Friday, April 7, 2017

Where are we really going with Hen Harriers ?

It's quite a time since I offered up any views on the Hen Harrier issue. In the interim I've followed various initiatives which have been proposed, attended odd events and talks and discussed the issue with many friends and colleagues.  We could all be excused though, for thinking that the current situation is worse than a stalemate. The actions so far have largely  failed, despite immense efforts put into them by certain individuals. The translocation proposals, put forward under the aegis of the DEFRA working party, are so nonsensical as to warrant no consideration in my view.  In the meantime, the factions within the shooting community, which caused the decimation of the harrier population, continue with their utterly illegal actions with no apparent intention to desist. Indeed, with the number of reports on the persecution of other species of birds of prey, the actions appear to be increasing. All such is coupled with calls for licences to cull Common Buzzards in the cause of commercialism.  Against this we have calls from the RSPB for the shooting industry to clean up its act, crowdfunding of satellite tags resting upon an undertaking to publicise full details of any which are lost due to apparent persecution and a continuing reiteration of the need to ban grouse shooting.  So what next ?

For my part I still believe that a properly regulated licencing system could work and comprise a solution in the shorter term. In that sense I still adhere to the fundamental construct I put forward in the E-petition I launched some years ago.  I confess to having serious doubts about the applicability of an outright ban on grouse shooting,  not because I don't believe the industry deserves such an outcome given its current operational reliance on illegality and the environmental havoc arising from its management activities , but on two separate counts. Gaining a ban and closing down shoots is likely to take decades and what are the land use plans for the upland areas thereafter? In the former scenario, breeding harriers in Britain are likely to become a thing of legend unless we're very careful and , in the latter, solutions thus far have been rather airy and non-specific based on pipe dreams and preference. Hopes that either conservation agencies or the Government of the day would take such areas in hand is unrealistic and I suspect the time that would elapse in dealing with the various legal issues the Establishment ( owners ) would bring to bear is an issue in itself.

So who should take the lead and what might be the building blocks of progress?  Whilst I have the utmost regard for the RSPB I'm afraid, on this particular issue, I find its position vacillating and weak.  The recent article by Martin Harper ( RSPB Conservation Director ) raises the many problems associated with modern day upland management and of the renewed pressure being brought to bear on raptors. Sadly there is no declared resolve on what RSPB, as our premier bird conservation organization, intends itself to do. Instead a call on the shooting industry to improve its own act and bring about change is suggested coupled with the suggestion that a licensing system would "build trust" within the current situation. Additionally there is an expressed hope that " a maturation of political thinking and sustained public pressure " will bring about change.

Whilst I don't disagree with the general sentiments expressed,  the absence of any declaration of resolve or recognition of the need for someone to grasp the baton NOW, show leadership and attempt, at the very least , to move things forward, is disappointing. It seems everybody else is somehow seen as being able to be involved and responsible whilst RSPB sits on the by-lines.  What happened to the Society's declared support on Vicarious Liability ?  And how will a Licensing System be secured  and under whose initiative ?
On this subject, even acknowledging the many years of frustration and involvement the Society has endured with its attempts to change things , the RSPB is now failing in its mission if this seemingly back-seat approach aptly describes its position.  

There may be good reasons why the Society isn't organizing an outright campaign ( contract conditions associated with the large grant it received from the EU or pressure exerted by the Charity Commission relating to political activities for instance ). Surely the membership deserves to know ?  Then tell us , please, so that we can lend weight and independent support to a programme designed to get Vicarious Liability enshrined in law and to see a proposed Licensing System moving forward.  The (honest) alternative is to explain that the RSPB no longer believes it can effect any new changes to the situation beyond supporting positive initiatives by other agencies  ( I'd expect your annual income figure to be affected by such a declaration (!), but it does seem to be the position you're prepared to occupy at present ).

C'mon, RSPB. Bone up!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Local recording.

I've finally decided on an area within which I'll do my local birding when I'm at home. There'll be gaps in coverage throughout the year, for sure, but, hopefully, it will provide some reflection of what is happening in my immediate home area.  I admit that , as a "local patch", it's a bit big, but I wanted an area that reflected the transition of habitats on the slopes of the eastern Pennines to the actual moorland summits as well. In between these is a good mixture of farmland, both arable and pastoral, woodlands, reservoirs, marginal land and managed moorland with the odd formal bit of parkland too. As might be imagined, there's also a series of rivers and streams flowing off higher ground, often with interesting, sinuous lines of woodland accompanying the entire watercourse. Sadly the presence of in-bye land and juncus ridden wet pasture, so beloved of breeding waders, is almost a thing of the past. Modern farming methods has seen the transition to silage growing, which is prevalent in the area, and the traditional hay meadows and boggy areas of yesteryear are somewhat of a distant memory. I confess to having driven past some areas and thought " Look at it now, Redshank used to breed in there".  The sad fact is that, too often, that span of time is not actually all that long in duration. Change is often difficult to reverse, but hard data on the worth of areas is a way of defending them in the first place. Once sites are gone, such data is the stuff of anecdotes or summarized history, carrying no continuing benefit to our current or future biodiversity value.

Mindful of the changes which have taken place in the area since I last lived here I've decided to try and ensure all observations are submitted to the BTO's  BirdTrack system. Due to the ever fluctuating levels of Broadband provision on Islay  ( and absence of mobile phone coverage in many parts too ) I never contemplated contributing to this scheme, but now there's no excuse!!  Nick Moran ( BTO ) has been more than helpful in suggesting the best ways forward when generating observations from a variety of sites in an overall "fixed" area and I'm now embroiled in completing the necessary steps to set up the basics. If your havering over taking part, in much the same way as I was, then look at the BTO web site first of all and take any queries to them. I can guarantee any fears will be dispelled.

So, it's crouching over the computer time in order to set up the basics, and then on to the job of generating the data and ensuring it's submitted. Easy, peasy I hear you say........I do hope so, but if this ageing cyber-child can do it, so can anybody !

Monday, April 3, 2017

New Annotated Checklist for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

I like this book, I really do, not least because of its precision, its "crisp" appearance and the "no nonsense" presentation of its contents throughout ! Any birder with an abiding interest in the Western Palearctic will both welcome and treasure this book.  Written by Managing Editor of Birdwatch magazine , Dominic Mitchell, who is both an active birder,and  author of many articles and books on birds , but also  a passionate devotee of birds within the Western Palearctic.

I'm not going to follow the normally adopted parameters of book reviewers, but simply provide a personal account of why I feel this book achieves its intended objectives and how it will both attain, and retain, a  prominent position within those available for some considerable time.

Basically the book addresses the long running discussions about the boundaries of the Western Palearctic, whether the Arabian Peninsula and Iran ought to be included and where the borders of the northern Sahara ought to rest. It does so succinctly and with well presented justification. A photograph of the plate  in the book showing the specific area adopted is given below.

By courtesy of Dominic Mitchell/Lynx Edicions.

Some people, of course, might not agree with the position taken, but the case is put forward with convinced clarity and results in 1148 species being listed, an increase of 129 beyond those previously considered within the boundaries described by Cramp (1977 ) within "Birds of the Western Palearctic". 

Within the constraints of space, a section deals with each species individually and a Systematic List provides details of Other Names, Taxonomy and Distribution (215 pages ). Various appendices describe  Endemic Species, Extinct Species, Omitted Species ( with justifications), and National Lists. That for Britain, with 603 species, and compared to all European counterparts and neighbours,  I believe provides as fulsome a justification for Brexit as has yet been put forward !! Just look at the figures!

Following the appendices is a very clearly set out Checklist which I feel WP aficionados will treat with respect, repeated visits and sheer love ! I confess I turned, somewhat immediately,  to Mahgreb Lark, having returned from Morocco only recently and settled back with a certain contentment !

A great book, don't  miss out on a copy, get yours now and   ENJOY !

Memories from Morocco.

Since late February it seems I've forever been on the move.  A holiday in Morocco, a visit to Teesmouth and a visit down to Norfolk. I finally decided it was time I sorted my own "time budgets " out and devoted some time to getting this Blog up and running again.  Rather than try and give blow by blow " diary accounts" for each of the trips I've decided simply to provide some pictures from the Morocco trip and then to skip to the present time, with the intention of then producing regular, if not daily, entries.  I'm sure somebody will say, "well, you've said that before" . I probably have , and with good intent too, but life's realities sometimes get in the way of progress.    So, to Morocco.

A tremendous trip, flying into Marrakesh and then out from Agadir after completing a couple of  extensive circuits, taking in as many of the key habitats and sites as possible and seeing  many of the specialities in the process.

Our first real excursion was up to Oukmaiden, a ski resort where, on our first visit, conditions were as you might imagine, cold ,poor visibility and snow. The second morning was a complete contrast with blue skies and sun but more snow overnight preventing access to really high ground.

Odd Shorelark were around and occasionally posed sufficiently long enough for a photograph!

We were very lucky in that the poor weather had attracted over 100 Crimson-winged Finches into the car park area. Birds were feeding around the cars and then flying up and perching on nearby wires . Not a species everyone is fortunate enough to see without effort, but certainly well worth it.

Now this was something I'd particularly joined this trip to see.....African Marsh Owl. That rather ghostly face and consistent colouring produces a very haunting effect of its own!  Morocco is the only known current outpost for this species within the Western Palaearctic so it has a particular importance all of its own.  I'd not realised that there were around forty known pairs in the area, with another site holding a couple of additional pairs. Good news indeed and a splendid and confiding bird.

I really do love deserts and desert scenery. Don't be fooled into thinking it's all the same. It certainly isn't ! The bottom picture is of the Tagdilt Track ( so called ) traversing an area famed for its specialities.  Again, don't be fooled into thinking that it's a big expanse of "nothingness" with little on offer.......Cream-coloured Courser, Hoopoe Lark, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Thick-billed Lark and many more, none of which are at all obvious at the onset !!  It's cold in the mornings, hot for the rest of the day and tranquil and atmospheric as dusk begins to approach, perhaps marked by the fact that you've just visited a Lanner cliff or a site for Pharoah Eagle Owl, both of which provided stunning views.

And then, towards the end of the trip, a chance to see Bald Ibis, feeding in a quite unconcerned way in a dune area immediately adjacent to the road.

And now a little story !  Whilst moving between major sites our driver suddenly drew into a busy garage area and urged us to get out, which we did , bemused but anticipating something different.  Well, "different" was the sight of a number of Little Swift swirling around above us giving views superior to any we'd had before. And then , with a flourish, we were escorted into one of the repair bays and shown a nest up in the corner of the ceiling.  Birds flew in and out, tools were dropped, cars were washed and conversations continued. We weren't even asked why we were there !  It just struck me how bizarre the situation was contrasted against what would happen in the UK.......

There was more, of course, much more, and the above is but a mere taster of what comprised the complete menu of absolutely fabulous birds and scenery we engaged with.   Try it and I'm sure you'll come back with a great selection of tremendous memories.