Thursday, 28 April 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

May 2016 | Issue 287

Earlier this spring, a combined Birdwatch-BirdGuides delegation was one of 16 overseas teams that took part in the Champions of the Flyway in Israel. It was the third consecutive annual appearance at this international bird race by the Roadrunners, who were captained by David Callahan and featured Optics Editor Mike Alibone, columnist Mark Avery and special guest Andy Clements, Director of the British Trust for Ornithology. The event raises funds for conservation causes around the East Mediterranean Flyway, this year specifically to help the BirdLife International partner in Greece prevent millions of birds being illegally slaughtered; it also provides a healthy dose of competitive birding in the process.

I would love to be able to say our team won the race, but that honour went to a top Finnish team – congratulations to the Arctic Redpolls on their big achievement. What many have said, however, is that the real winners were the birds, with a record £50,000 raised – a massive boost for this vital but under-funded work. The Roadrunners can at least claim a podium finish in the fundraising stakes, with total donations of more than £5,000 earning the team third place; for this our sincere thanks goes to all those who contributed so generously (in case you’d like to help, our fundraising page is still open to donations).

Initiatives such as Champions of the Flyway, started by birders to help birds, have succeeded in finding new ways to generate meaningful resources for conservation. May is traditionally the best month for bird races in Britain, so perhaps this will inspire some of you to do some sponsored birding of your own and raise funds for projects closer to home. If you do so on 14 May, consider also making it part of the Global Big Day which will attempt to set a new world record for the number of bird species seen in a single day. Good luck!





Thursday, 24 March 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

April 2016 | Issue 286

Any birder who keeps a list knows the law of diminishing returns – the more you bird, the harder it becomes to add ticks. For those who follow the British Ornithologists’ Union’s (BOU) list of British birds, the latest addition of Cackling Goose (or Lesser Canada Goose in BOU parlance) will therefore be welcome news. More confirmation than surprise, this decision documents the first unequivocal occurrence, as this vagrant has appeared in Britain on numerous occasions in recent decades, and will now find its way onto innumerable personal lists.

It is 11 years since the BOU ‘split’ Canada and Cackling Geese, and 40 years since the first example of the latter was identified. It’s only right that committees follow due process to ensure they make correct decisions about difficult records, so the BOU shouldn’t be criticised for what seems like a long delay (though many might take issue with the confusing and unnecessary attempt to rename this North American species). Rather than such birds remaining in limbo in terms of the national list, however, perhaps some kind of work-in-progress or ‘theoretical’ category is called for. A similar situation occurred previously with Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls, and could potentially happen again in future – for example with subspecies such as iberiae Spanish Wagtail and rubicola European Stonechat, both of which are thought to occur in Britain, even if neither is currently ‘officially’ recognised. A holding category would give these unresolved cases some kind of status, and also enhance the way the BOU communicates with the birding community.

Incidentally, Cackling Goose becomes the 601st species to be added to the BOU’s British list, hot on the heels of the recent announcement that Yelkouan Shearwater had become the milestone 600th bird. Britain is now first to break the 600-species barrier in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, a notable achievement in itself.


Thursday, 3 March 2016

Centre of the action

One small part of Rutland Water Nature Reserve, arguably Britain's best inland birding site.
I had a meeting at the Birdwatch-BirdGuides head office in Lincolnshire this morning, so set out early through morning rush hour traffic in north London and then up the A1. It's never an eventful drive bird-wise, but if my luck's in the occasional Red Kite brightens the latter part of the journey. Nearing junction 16 south-west of Peterborough, I duly struck Milvus gold - not one Red Kite this time but a staggering 16 circling together! It's easily the highest number I've seen in this part of the country, and actually at exactly the same spot as last time - about quarter of a mile south of the junction and just east of the southbound carriageway (is there a refuse site nearby?).

Birdfair's Tim Appleton OBE, my host for the afternoon.
After the meeting, I took the opportunity to call in at nearby Rutland Water and catch up with organiser and co-founder of Birdfair, Tim Appleton. I've been at every Birdfair since 1991 with Birdwatch (latterly also with BirdGuides), and since 1998 the magazine has generated £229,000 of revenue for Birdfair's annual conservation appeals by publishing the official programme; just over £45,000 of this went to help conserve the endangered Azores Bullfinch, a species for which Birdwatch was proud to act as BirdLife International Species Champion. So Tim and I had plenty of Birdfair business to chat about, especially after the event notched up another fundraising record year.

The reserve's new Volunteer Training Centre, generously funded by Anglian Water.
It's easy to forget that the habitat in this vast wetland is entirely man-made and carefully managed for wildlife.
Our meeting took place while Tim gave me a tour of the reserve as I'd never seen it before - without giant marquees and 20,000 visitors in August! This showcase site now has a very impressive new Volunteer Training Centre, generously funded by Anglian Water, and some equally impressive birds - we saw Red-necked, Slavonian and three Black-necked Grebes (in fact all five grebe species), six Smew, two Whooper Swans, Red Kite, Peregrine, Water Rail and the local star of the show, a lingering Long-billed Dowitcher. A superb afternoon's haul which reinforces Rutland Water's reputation not just as home to the world's biggest birding event, but also as the single best inland birding site in Britain.

The Long-billed Dowitcher (left) was on show distantly from Shoveler Hide with Common Snipe and Northern Lapwings for an interesting size comparison; note that this species is barely bigger than a snipe.
The dowitcher is thought by some local birders to be different to the individual seen recently at Wanlip Meadows, just 20 miles or so to the west in Leicestershire.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Gulls on the patch: late winter update

First-cycle Yellow-legged Gull - numbers of this species are very low on the Thames in winter.
It's been a relatively quiet season for gulls on my study site in east London, with the winding down of food waste disposal into landfill (see here for more background to this). I'm continuing to survey the site, monitoring and counting gulls (and other species) each month, but overall numbers and diversity are a shadow of what they used to be.

Systematic counting does bring small rewards, however, and it's always good to see colour-marked birds and establish their history. Most of those on the Lower Thames site I watch have been ringed by the North Thames Gull Group, a long-standing and stalwart group of enthusiasts who use distinctive orangey-red rings with black four-digit codes (always ending in 'T') to mark their birds. Occasionally, however, gulls bearing the bling of other ringing projects pitch up, and so far this year, for example, I've had two European Herring Gulls from Havergate Island in Suffolk, red VTH (below) and red VKD.

Second-cycle European Herring Gull VTH, ringed as pullus in Suffolk on 29 June 2014 and resighted for the first time on 22 February 2016 on the Lower Thames, 112 km SW.
The map belies the real nature of this bird's movements, as 608 days elapsed between the two sightings at the endpoints of the line.
Occasional birds from continental Europe also appear, and this winter's somewhat meagre haul has included both European Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls from Norway (which also produced a rare colour-marked Iceland Gull last winter), but pleasingly also a banded Caspian Gull - seemingly not from the east European heartland of this species' breeding range in Poland and Ukraine, but probably from a Danish scheme using yellow rings. I've emailed the organiser with details, and will post an update here as soon as I hear anything.

Third-cycle Caspian Gull, the rarest plumage - and also a colour-ringed bird from the Continent!
The ring code is difficult to read but may be VD0G, which would probably tie the bird to a Danish scheme.

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