Thursday, 25 August 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial


Issue 291 | September 2016

Earlier this year, I visited a fascinating museum exhibition on extinction. As I stood reading the labels on mounted specimens of Great Auk, Ivory-billed Woodpecker (below right) and Passenger Pigeon, I realised I was alone. Other visitors breezed past the display cabinets showing off our lost natural history, probably without even realising the significance of the exhibits they contained.

Immortalised in historical art works but with no perceived connection to the 21st century, perhaps the Dodo and other ‘gone birds’ seem irrelevant. But as our new three-part series on extinct birds shows, this is not just a historical issue – one of the underlying themes in David Callahan’s look at the birds we have lost is that we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction. This time, it is not a result of climatic cycles or meteorological Armageddon – we are largely responsible for this mass extinction ourselves.

In some respects, in Europe we are grimly lucky in that very few bird species seem to be disappearing in recent years, whereas in the developing world some vanish every year. But we certainly can’t rest on our conservation laurels: the inclusion of Passenger Pigeon in the article stands as a stark reminder that European Turtle Dove’s population is nose-diving. We seem powerless to stop this, despite the mass deployment of publicity and protest to stop hunters in places like Malta and Cyprus from killing the species in spring, as it heads to its shrinking breeding grounds.

With human populations still increasing and needing to exploit the planet’s few remaining untapped resources and damaging already fragmented habitats, preventing any bird species from completely dying out is sometimes an insurmountable challenge, but conservation organisations rise to this and have managed to save many for the near-future at least.

No one expects billions of humans not to leave some kind of mark on the planet, but there must be a way we can do this without continually erasing the work of millions of years of evolution.




Thursday, 28 July 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

Issue 290 | August 2016

These are troubling times for birds and the environment. Following June’s unexpected EU referendum result, there is now the prospect of the legislative framework protecting Britain’s countryside being unpicked as part of the Brexit process. The benefits and safeguards bestowed by the Birds and Habitats Directives may no longer apply without the need for compliance with Brussels. The laws that protect Britain’s avifauna will in future become our sole responsibility – a worrying prospect indeed.

Why? Look no further than the new Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom. While it’s hard to think of anyone less suited to the role than ineffective former Environment Secretary Liz Truss, all the evidence points to Andrea Leadsom lacking the understanding for the tasks in her in-tray – she has previously voted against measures to prevent climate change, has a dubious record on fracking, wants to sell off England’s state-owned forests, reintroduce fox hunting and, like her predecessor, is pro-Badger cull. Is this really what we want from someone with ultimate responsibility for our environment?

There will now be even more pressure on us, the public, to press for change – we cannot expect the government to do the right thing. Look how news of its decision to reject a ban on lead shot – proven to be harmful to wildlife and humans through direct and indirect ingestion – was effectively buried on the afternoon Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister. Like the Badger cull, another bad decision which ignores the evidence.

If there is any glimmer of hope, we can at least petition the government for answers and, with enough support, for parliamentary debate. The growing movement to ban the harmful practice of driven grouse shooting could be the first test, with a petition now at more than 61,000 signatures, but 100,000 are needed by 20 September to trigger a debate in parliament. I’ve signed, and if every reader does the same we will be almost there – please visit https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/125003 and sign now.



Tuesday, 26 July 2016

White Stork - London list #295

White Stork with crow entourage. Rather than carrying a baby, this tip scavenger appears to have found an old nappy!
It's never easy to guess what your next new patch or county bird will be. But one species which I probably should have laid to rest in London previously is White Stork, several twitchable individuals having appeared within the capital's recording area over the years. Most, however, have turned up at inconvenient times, notably when I have been overseas, so when Peter Alfrey texted with news of a bird at Beddington Farmlands on my day off last Friday, it looked like game on. Itching to go after a family commitment, plans had to be aborted mid-afternoon when the bird bailed prematurely.

It actually did me a favour, as it turns out, with doubts over its origin and even identity surfacing subsequently. It's hard to tell from the distant phonescoped record shots, but the bill and legs appear blackish rather than red, somewhat suggestive of Oriental Stork (even if the dark-looking wings are not), while it also seems to be ringed, possibly indicative of a captive origin (ringed escapee White Storks are currently at large in Britain).

The second Beddington stork was clearly unringed, and not Oriental ...
Lightning can strike twice, however, and so it happened at Beddington today. Another White Stork alert from Peter saw me rapidly reschedule evening plans and undertake a rare rush-hour trans-London train twitch. I didn't get to this south London outpost until almost 19:30, but thankfully observers on site had seen the bird go down on the landfill so it was surely still present. It's amazing how well camouflaged a black-and-white bird the size of a teenager can be against a backdrop of black bin liners, white carrier bags and general household detritus, and an initial scan failed to locate it. As we slowly approached, however, the bird lumbered up into the air, drawing with it an entourage of Carrion Crows, and proceeded to circle the site before landing on the northern lake.

White Stork with a Grey Heron on the northern lake at Beddington.
Here we could watch it at a safe distance, and note its clean red bill and unringed red legs - surely a different bird from the one photographed last Friday? An even more remarkable occurrence if so. It will be interesting to see if any reports of a stork resembling that individual emerge subsequently. In the meantime, however, White Stork is a welcome addition to my personal London list - just five species to go to the big 300.

Species status | London: vagrant, occurring not quite annually but 1-3 records most years, with 18 individuals between 2000 and 2014 (during which there were four blank years). Most are fly-overs, with lingering or twitchable birds much rarer. | Britain: very scarce visitor, usually in spring and autumn and less so in summer, but several known escapes also at large. According to reports on BirdGuides.com, the latter are most frequent in Norfolk; other counties reporting escapes in the last five years include Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cleveland, Cumbria, Durham, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, West Yorkshire and Wiltshire.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Guiding: summer special - east London to north Kent

High tide on the North Kent Marshes - jumping with shorebirds and plenty more.
There aren't too many days in the field in Britain when a Bonaparte's Gull doesn't top the list of species seen. But today was one of them, because the list belongs to Mark Davis - a birder visiting from Florida. Unsurprisingly, Mark is already familiar with this small Nearctic larid, but not so with many of the other species we logged on our excellent day out in London and Kent, as part of his first trip to the UK.

Grey Heron with prey - through the viewfinder I took this to be probably a Grass Snake, but on closer inspection perhaps it is a European Eel?
Spotted Flycatcher isn't always easy in the breeding season in the South-East, but two obliging birds showed well.
It was a great pleasure to be able to guide Mark around some of my favourite birding areas, and by the time we headed home a healthy total somewhere approaching 80 species had been amassed. As well as that Bonaparte's Gull at Oare Marshes, highlights included six Mandarin Duck, several Eurasian Marsh Harriers, two Common Buzzards, large numbers of shorebirds including an early European Golden Plover, several Yellow-legged Gulls, a day-roosting Barn Owl and a very respectable range of passerines, including two Spotted Flycatchers and a Western Yellow Wagtail, The day ended on the North Kent Marshes, where Mark is pictured here with (just visible) some of the 700+ Black-tailed Godwits present - a life bird for him, unlike the Bonaparte's!

Mark Davis with (in the background) many hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits and other wetland species in Kent.

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