Monday, 27 July 2015

Azores rarities past, present and future

Northern Parula on Flores, Azores, October 2012. Determining the number of some Nearctic vagrants is tricky.
I’ve been spending some time recently looking at Azores rarities records, partly for a new annotated checklist of Western Palearctic birds I’m working on (more on that another time), and partly through my personal interest in the islands’ birds which now extends to assessing records as a member of the Portuguese Rarities Committee (PRC).

It’s been some time since the committee’s last annual report was published, though two more recent editions are ready and now with SPEA, Portugal's BirdLife partner. The workload of the committee has increased significantly in recent years, in tandem with the growth in observer coverage and rarity-finding in the islands. The most high-profile rarities in this mid-Atlantic archipelago are, perhaps unsurprisingly, of Nearctic origin, and in the space of a decade – since the famous fall-out of Hurricane Wilma hit the islands in October 2005 – the Azores have far outpaced Scilly, south-west Ireland and Iceland to become easily the best location for ‘Yank’ vagrants on this side of the pond.

It may seem strange that precise figures for some species are hard to determine, but those involved in the Azores birding scene are attempting to formalise the process of documenting, assessing and publishing records. Until recently the comprehensive Birding Azores database was gospel, but with the huge volume of records since 2011 it is still undergoing the lengthy process of being updated. An interesting new initiative, the Azores Rare and Scarce Bird Report, got under way last year with the first instalment covering 2013 – my review of this publication will appear in September’s Birdwatch.

Five of the 16 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks recorded in the Azores prior to 2012 have not yet been officially accepted.
At some point, however, efforts will need to come together so that the nascent Azores Bird Club is energised and efforts crystallise with the updating and then ongoing upkeep of what must be an official record for the islands, ideally with PRC backing. This process has been started and progress is being made – the two PRC reports in the pipeline deal with many historical Azores records – but inevitably there’s a long way to go.

In the meantime, having recently worked through the long list of vagrant Nearctic landbirds recorded in the islands, something which struck me is the diversity of ‘Yanks’ recorded elsewhere in the Western Palearctic but not in the Azores. These include Eastern Phoebe, Acadian, Alder, Least and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Varied Thrush, Veery, Evening Grosbeak, Louisiana Waterthrush, Cape May, Cerulean, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Palm and Wilson’s Warblers, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Grackle, Song, Red Fox and Lark Sparrows, and Eastern Towhee. The islands may be excellent for Nearctic 'megas', but they can't claim full bragging rights just yet.

Such species are a reminder that there’s still plenty to aim for in discovering new birds for the islands, perhaps even the Western Palearctic. Actively searching for American rarities is a deliberate strategy for those visiting in autumn, and though often hard work it usually pays off. My own personal tally of Nearctic vagrants in the Azores reached 64 species after last year’s trip (read the tour report here*), and it is certainly not the highest in the islands. This October’s tour, my 15th visit and ninth leading a Birdwatch group, will hopefully add to that list; here's an illustrated retrospective on all those trips since the first in 1994.

*Azores tour reports: 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

August 2015 | Issue 278

Much attention has been focused on the illegal massacre of migrating birds in the eastern Mediterranean, and thankfully something is being done to combat the slaughter – not least by this year’s British Birdwatching Fair, which is raising funds for BirdLife’s work in the region. But what of the legalised massacre of birds? You don’t have to go as far as Malta or the Middle East to witness the killing of birds on a vast scale – just take a look at what’s happening on our own doorstep.

On 12 August, a barrage of guns will annihilate countless thousands of Red Grouse on moorlands around Britain. It’s a ‘sporting’ tradition celebrated with some glee by participants, to the point where it has become known entirely inappropriately as ‘the Glorious 12th’. The scale of the killing would be bad enough in itself, but that’s just one of the problems: such industrial-scale slaughter necessitates an infrastructure with serious spin-off issues of its own, from permanent alteration of upland habitats to ruthless predator control, both legal and illegal.

Inextricably caught up in this unholy mess is the Hen Harrier, now England’s rarest breeding raptor, with the last few pairs persecuted almost to the point of extinction. Where there are grouse moors, it seems harriers are unlikely to survive. All aspects of this conflict are now laid bare in Inglorious, the new book from our columnist Mark Avery – read this month’s exclusive extract to see why a permanent ban on driven grouse shooting has to be the best way to save the Hen Harrier.

In the short term, wider attention must be drawn to the species and its plight. A fine start has been made by Hen Harrier Day, and the second annual programme of events will take place on 9 August this year. As a magazine we’re proud to be supporting Hen Harrier Day, and urge all readers to do the same.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

July 2015 | Issue 277

After months of fanfare, media hype and plugging on social networks, the campaign to vote for a national bird has seen the long-standing de facto incumbent, Robin, unsurprisingly remain in office. It always was the likely result, despite support for other candidates (you can read what Bill Oddie made of the shortlist in this month's issue).

So was it a pointless exercise? The obvious answer might be yes, but there’s more to it than that. For a start, consider that more than 224,000 people voted for their favourite species. Perhaps that’s not surprising given the RSPB has well over a million members; it’s partly also a result of the publicity onslaught behind the promotion. You could take it as a positive sign that so many are motivated to cast a vote for their favourite bird, even if the result made no practical difference.

And therein lies the problem. If it’s worth investing time and money into motivating a quarter of a million people to vote for birds, wouldn’t it be more worthwhile if the outcome actually meant something? There are real campaigns and causes out there that would give anything for that kind of support, to be able to utilise the collective voice of so many people as a force for good or change; not even the combined efforts of 100 voluntary organisations – including the RSPB and BirdLife International – who are currently protesting against the EU’s review of the Birds and Habitats Directives have yet matched that level of support with their online petition.

Everyone’s entitled to vote for their favourite national bird, and I’m as fond of Robins as the next birder. But if all those who did so also gave their support where it actually counts – for the campaigning organisations who have made it their mission to protect and conserve birds – then they are capable of making a real difference.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

June 2015 | Issue 276

At a time when more people than ever are engaging with the conservation movement, the challenges and setbacks it faces also seem greater than before.

In April, despite a turning tide of local opinion against the killing of migrating birds in spring in Malta, a referendum on the issue handed victory to the hunters. Little comfort that a 0.3 per cent swing in the vote would have been enough to see the controversial practice banned: the slightest majority was all the hunters needed. Democracy can be a painful process.

The same could be said for the UK’s recent general election, in which almost no one outside the Green Party bothered to campaign on environmental issues. Our own democratic process has awarded the new government an outright majority for 37 per cent of the vote, and we now face the prospect of deregulated rural development, badger culling across the country, the return of fox hunting and, as Prime Minister David Cameron so famously put it, the cutting of “green crap”.

Threats to wildlife also come from the the European Union, where in its less than infinite wisdom Brussels has decided to conduct a euphemistically named ‘fitness check’ on the Birds and Habitats Directives, the cornerstones of nature conservation across the continent. The move is considered serious enough by the RSPB to be described as the “single biggest threat to UK and European nature and biodiversity in a generation”. It has also mobilised 100 voluntary groups from across the UK to join forces and defend laws which surely need strengthening, not weakening.

You can read more about this important story in this issue and find out about its potential impact on bird conservation at home and abroad. The EU has now started the public consultation process, and it’s important that we all make our voices heard – no one else will stick up for birds if we don’t. Please give your opinions at


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