Friday, 1 May 2015

On bird racing in London

For a number of years in the Nineties, I took part in what used to be called simply the Bird Race - later, the Birdwatch UK Bird Race. At its height a nationwide event which raised significant funds each year for BirdLife International, it was a county-based contest every May where teams of up to four birders spent a day trying to see and/or hear as many species as possible. In London, any day total reaching 100 species was considered very respectable, and occasionally we just exceeded this figure. But on 7 May 2006, the last time the somewhat fluid line-up of the 'North London Old Boys' took part, Bob Watts, Roy Beddard, Andrew Self and I were fortunate in setting a new record for the capital: 113 species.

Eurasian Whimbrel on the Thames foreshore at Rainham today - a difficult 'big day' species.
Such was the exhausting pace of the event that, despite some good birds, it could rarely be called fun. It's essentially about local knowledge, logistics and listing as much as bird-finding, and there's precious little quality time to actually enjoy the birds you do see. That's the price of getting a good total. And having got the best total nine years ago, none of us has since felt any real inclination to have another go - until now.

My first of the year in Britain, this cracking male Whinchat was on the Rainham patch today.
Featuring a slightly tweaked line-up, with Paul Hawkins taking Roy's place, we are back this year to try again. Whether or not we get anywhere close to the 2006 record remains to be seen, but it's worth a shot. And that means preparing hard, which is why my alarm went off at 0300 hours this morning and I then spent 10 hours in the field checking sites between the Lea Valley and the Thames for our upcoming 'big day' on Monday 4th May, a Bank Holiday with a decent weather forecast (currently) of south-east winds and a mixture of sunny spells and rain showers.

A record shot of today's Pectoral Sandpiper, a genuinely rare species in national terms in spring.
Today's scouting trip produced many good birds, including this Pectoral Sandpiper at Rainham Marshes RPSB which was originally found two days ago by Andy Tweed. It took an hour to relocate today, and in fact probably came in with a flock of c20 Dunlin to the Target Pools at c1250. It was my first at the site and officially my 200th 'patch' species - a positive omen for the challenge ahead?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

May 2015 | Issue 275

“It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.” That famous quote may seem unduly defeatist, but when it comes to the environment there is more than a ring of truth about it. In the run-up to the general election, environmental issues have barely figured in TV debates and interviews with party leaders and candidates, and are clearly not considered a major battleground for votes. With the notable exception of the Greens, most parties have said little on the subject, and you could be forgiven for thinking that by and large politicians don’t devote much time to thinking about the environment or how to conserve biodiversity.

This is not just an issue in the UK, but a global problem, too. In 2010 the world’s governments undertook to protect 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of sea by 2020, but a new study has found progress well behind target, with one third of all key sites still lacking any form of protection. It seems that long-term preservation of the planet is not a priority for short-term governments and the prospect of re-election. Tax cuts win votes, protected areas don’t.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. In the UK, big issues like austerity and the NHS are bound to dominate the debate, and parties should be assessed on their policies on a range of issues, not just one. But the environment generally, and birds specifically, matter hugely to people like us, and if we don’t factor them into the voting process, who will? To try and redress this imbalance in coverage and help you make an informed voting decision on 2 May, we’ve put together a special election guidein the latest issue of Birdwatch to outline the views and policies of all parties on conservation and the environment. It makes interesting and sometimes surprising reading – use it to help you make the right decision on election day.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial


April 2015 | Issue 274

Ten years ago this month, the world woke to news that Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long thought extinct, had been rediscovered in the southern United States. Amid great fanfare, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology presented the findings from a year-long search by field teams in Arkansas. However, the initial excitement was soon followed by debate about the ‘evidence’ – largely difficult-to-interpret video clips and sound recordings captured by remote devices. For many, the euphoria was replaced by doubt, and ultimately – in the absence of any subsequent sightings – disbelief. Today, the evidence “remains highly controversial”, in the words of BirdLife International.

A decade on, another ‘rediscovery’ is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. But the saga of the Night Parrot in Australia is altogether different, revolving around claims from a controversial figure who has largely withheld evidence from public scrutiny on the grounds of a media tie-up – despite concerns that the species may persist only on unprotected land owned by commercial interests.

Perhaps the key point here is that, while there is an accepted peer-reviewed process for describing species new to science, rediscoveries lack the same procedural scrutiny. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker claims were central to more than $20 million being spent by federal and state governments on recovery efforts before the saga descended into the realm of cryptozoology. In Australia, the future of the Night Parrot appears closely linked to the motives of its ‘rediscoverer’, who reportedly took thousands of dollars in admission fees at his last ‘presentation’ event but continues to keep most of the facts private.

These episodes point to a need for some kind of ornithological ‘treasure trove’ agreement, applicable internationally, which ensures that evidence for claimed rediscoveries is assessed and verified independently, and through which plans to protect such species are developed and publicly embraced. That way, such iconic birds on the edge surely have their best chance of survival.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Double top

First-winter Caspian Gull today in east London - this individual is a little darker on the nape than most I see.
I had time for just a few hours on my Thames-side patch this morning, but after low numbers of gulls a week ago my hopes weren't high. Wrong! Within 10 minutes of getting within range of a few dozen loafing birds near the river, I glimpsed a first-winter Caspian Gull and then an all-white - and familiar-looking - individual settling down to sleep. It looked like a third-winter Iceland Gull, and plumage-wise seemed very like Norwegian-ringed JK0P I'd found here back in January. A closer approach only succeeded in flushing the group, and unfortunately the Iceland flew directly away, its legs not visible.

This third-winter Iceland Gull first visited the site back in January, and reappeared today after seven weeks.
After scouring the area I eventually relocated the Caspian at much closer range, and a while afterwards picked up the Iceland in flight closer to the river. Both birds eventually settled, the Iceland more distantly, and I was able to photograph its rings and confirm it as the same bird from seven weeks ago.

Record-shot confirmation that the Iceland Gull was the same Norwegian-ringed bird from January.
At one point both prize larids could be seen distantly keeping company with each other, before the Iceland headed off back to the river. I guess it's not so often that these two species encounter one another, but then again the Thames is one of Britain's top sites for Caspian Gulls, and regularly attracts one or two Icelands during the course of each winter. Having them in the same field of view feels like a privilege, but today it was sadly not for long enough to get anything better than the poor record shot below.


Here's some more pics of the Caspian, showing a nice pale underwing in the first image and also in comparison with a same-aged European Herring Gull.




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