Saturday, 26 September 2015

Azores rares: read all about them

When I first visited the Azores back in September 1994, the only easily accessible birding ‘literature’ was a handful of random trip reports. They provided an exciting but inevitably incomplete taste of the rare and scarce species turning up in the islands. My own inaugural visit added a few more records of vagrant American waders and wildfowl, but also set in train an ongoing connection with this beautiful Atlantic archipelago. I’ve now made 14 visits (some the highlights of which are summarised in this BirdGuides article), and look forward to leading another group to the islands in a fortnight’s time.

The Azores birding scene is altogether more co-ordinated these days, with a small but active resident community of birders spread across the islands and a growing cohort of regular visitors. From this network the Azores Bird Club has emerged, and now, plugging that much-needed gap in archiving the growing volume of records, there is a bird report documenting the islands’ scarcer migrants and vagrants.

After last year’s first report, a more comprehensive edition for 2014 is about to be published. Compiled principally by Peter Alfrey, Richard Bonser, Josh Jones, Darryl Spittle, Vincent Legrand and Sofia Goulart, it includes a comprehensive review of the year, a 50-page systematic list, finders’ accounts for the first Northern Shrike and Barred Warbler for the islands (the former also being the first for the Western Palearctic), a rare regional record of South Polar Skua, and more than 50 mouth-watering photos of locally and regionally rare species, including a stellar cast of American waders and warblers.

I joined the editorial team in the latter stages of report production; naturally, my opinion is completely biased! But I do think that if you have ever visited the Azores or intend to do so, you may well want to obtain a copy; more than that, with details of many records of rare Western Palearctic species, it will serve as a key reference for keen birders elsewhere in the region.

The print run is limited, so any interest should be expressed now to guarantee a copy. You can order by emailing with your name, email and postal address. The price is £10 UK/€15 continental Europe, including p&p.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

October 2015 | Issue 280

You might think an organisation with a name like Raptor Alliance would be supporting Britain’s most persecuted group of wild birds. You’d be wrong: it lobbies on behalf of pigeon fanciers against Peregrine Falcons and Sparrowhawks, with potentially damaging consequences for these protected birds of prey. Raptor Alliance believes the law should be changed so that pigeon fanciers can apply to have ‘problem’ raptors relocated – an unworkable but also unnecessary idea, as only 14 per cent of domestic pigeons not returning to their lofts are thought to become prey items.

Of course, some collateral damage ought to be expected when a million pigeons bred domestically each year are destined for skies already occupied by natural predators. But what really struck me about this attitude was the implicit assumption that nature is an inconvenience to be controlled or tampered with whenever it suits. A similarly warped view of our natural heritage is also the hallmark of the Countryside Alliance, an organisation supporting the destruction of wildlife. The CA recently unleashed an ill-conceived tirade against BBC presenter Chris Packham – voted by readers of this magazine as Conservation Hero of the Year – for “blatant political propaganda” when he did little more than highlight serious wildlife crimes.

These latest attacks on the conservation movement and the welfare of wildlife follow another summer of illegal raptor killings, and an ongoing campaign by pro-game shooting You Forgot the Birds against the RSPB and its work. There is a co-ordinated feel to this sustained negative press about a conservation body cleared by the Charities Commission of charges made against it.

The RSPB may have its faults, but it’s no different in that respect from any other large organisation, and its work in the countryside deserves commendation. More than that, the society and others who speak out on behalf of our natural heritage need defending from partisan interests who are far more concerned with their own agendas than the sustainable management of our disfigured countryside and its fast-declining wildlife.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Spain's new bird fair

It is 29 years to the month since I last visited the Ebro Delta in north-east Spain, a fabulous expanse of wetlands and agriculture now home to its own major birding event, the Delta Birding Festival. I first met event organiser Francesc Kirchner on a trip to Sweden three years ago, and earlier this year we were able to showcase his new festival in Birdwatch. Francesc’s nature supplies shop in Barcelona, Oryx, stocked the magazine at the event, so I was pleased to travel out with copies to see the festival for myself.

Stars of the show: some of the many Greater Flamingos on view at Catalonia's Delta Birding Festival.
I was impressed. This was a well-organised event, thoughtfully planned by Francesc and his team, and full of attractions and activities, with an excellent line-up of speakers including Hadoram Shirihai, Dick Forsman, Carles Carboneras, Conor Jameson and Dani Lopez Velasco. It was also set in a superb location in the heart of an area of bird-rich lagoons and salt pans, and it’s the first trade show I’ve attended where visitors can watch glowing pink lines of Greater Flamingos, hawking Caspian and Whiskered Terns, and rafts of Red-crested Pochards while browsing books and testing optics.

The elegant Audouin's Gull, something of a speciality of the Catalan coast.
The schedule allowed for some birding before and after the event, and in company with Carles Oliver of Barcelona Birding Point, Conor and I had a good journey down from Barcelona on the first day, the varied species list including Griffon Vulture, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Little Bustard, Eurasian Crag Martin, Thekla Lark, Woodlark, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and Blue Rock Thrush, as well as Spanish Ibex.

Male Spanish Ibex on the lookout in the mountains of El Port, overlooking the Ebro Delta from the west.
Excursions in the Ebro Delta itself netted a good haul of waders and other mainly wetland species, from 'Mediterranean' Shag (the globally rare and declining subspecies desmarestii) and Red-necked Phalarope to the elegant Audouin’s Gull and a migrant Savi’s Warbler. Hadoram and I spent some time trying to photograph Purple Swamphens, now firmly re-established in this area since my previous visit; they proved too shy for good images, but we saw plenty. On the final morning, a pelagic on the flat-calm, sun-drenched Mediterranean brought Balearic Shearwater and more Audouin’s Gulls, as well as small numbers of European Honey-buzzards migrating overhead and – for a lucky few – glimpses of 'Mediterranean' Storm-petrel (the melitensis form of European).

A Little Bustard 'ups periscope' in a sea of alfalfa.
I was very impressed with the field skills and knowledge of the Spanish birders I met, and also by the fact that to a person every one of them could converse in fluent English (shame on most of us Brits for not being able to return the compliment). More generally, what also struck me about this short trip to Spain was that in the same amount of time it takes to drive to northern England from London, it is possible to get to Catalonia and enjoy an altogether more exotic avifauna. With numerous cheap flights to Barcelona from UK airports, I can see the Delta Birding Festival and its environs becoming increasingly popular with visiting British birders in future.

Thanks to Francesc Kirchner and colleagues, especially Ricard Gutiérrez and Miquel Rafa, for being such accommodating hosts.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

As good as it gets

Wryneck in Alexandra Park, north London, this morning. This nationally scarce migrant has now appeared in the same area of scrub at the site in four of the last five years. Coincidence? Maybe not ...
Having been away in Scotland last week when autumn migration kicked off in style on my north London local patch of Alexandra Park, the obvious assumption was that I had paid the price of being away from home and missed out big time. Wrong. In fact, having woken up early this morning and decided to give the patch a thrash anyway, I actually hit the big time. This morning's visit was probably my best-ever session in the park, a site I first birded as a teenager in the late Seventies.

Four Common Redstarts included this showy individual (above) and a first-winter male (below).
I'd assumed the Wryneck found by David Callahan last week had now gone, as it was unreported yesterday, so instead focused initially on the good numbers of warblers present. After a while I met fellow patcher Gareth Richards and another local birder, Tony Jakeman, who fairly quickly located the Wryneck in a hawthorn in the 'cricket scrub', just west of the pavilion - result! Gaz, Tony and I then birded the bushes extensively, eventually being joined by Alan Gibson, Paul Rawlins, Henry-Wyn-Jones and others, and between us we racked up a really respectable list for this one small area of the site: four Common Redstarts, single Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, 10+ Blackcaps, three each of Willow Warbler and Common Chiffchaff, two Reed Warblers, single Garden Warbler and Common and Lesser Whitethroats, and two Yellow Wagtails and a Peregrine Falcon overhead. In small urban parks with limited potential, such a list constitutes nothing less than a red-letter day.

The least colourful of today's three Willow Warblers.
From memory, Wryneck has now been recorded in Alexandra Park in the second half of August in four out of the last five years. After last year's bird I tentatively suggested that possibly only one individual was involved, an idea given short shrift by some of my birding friends. They may of course be right; I don't expect Wrynecks live for very long and in any case their appearances here will to some extent be influenced by weather conditions. But now it's happened again, I ask the question again - what's more likely, one Wryneck stopping off at the same regular location on its annual autumn migration (something we know happens in many other species), or up to four different Wrynecks randomly finding the exact same inland patch of scrub in north London at the same time of year in a five-year-period? Discuss.


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