Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

June 2016 | Issue 288

This month voters in the UK get the chance to say whether or not the country should remain in the European Union. The environmental impact of a so-called ‘Brexit’ has received precious little attention in the mainstream media, but for wildlife and habitats in Britain it really is crunch time.

Why? For a start, the EU provides an essential counter-balance to a government whose leader is forever tainted by the words “We’ve got to get rid of all this green crap”. Environmental legislation is seen as a burden to business in the UK, not as a framework for the preservation of natural resources and for improving the quality of the countryside. It is the EU, not the Conservative government, whose directives now protect nature on more than 8,000 square miles of land in the UK – an area 13 times the size of Greater London. Through such initiatives our air is cleaner, too, and so are our beaches and seas.

When a consultation exercise was undertaken as part of a review which threatened such laws, a record 520,000 respondents in the EU took part, including more than 100,000 from Britain, and campaigning resulted in almost 80 per cent of MEPs voting to protect nature – that simply would not have happened in the House of Commons under the present government. There are also environmental policies with strict targets that can be legally enforced as a result of our membership of the EU – a far cry from the days when Britain was known as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’, recklessly producing more sulphur dioxide – the principal cause of acid rain – than any other country in the Continent.

Birds do not recognise political boundaries, and the environment is a concern common to us all. Legislation from Brussels is needed to protect wildlife and habitats right across Europe and especially in Britain, and continued membership of the EU is the only way to maintain this important protective framework and stop it from being dismantled. Voting for Britain to remain within the EU is the only option for birds and the environment.

Postscript This editorial outlines in very general terms the importance of EU membership from an environmental perspective. For an unequivocal understanding of what a Brexit will mean for trade and the economy, this lecture by Professor Michael Dougan, an independent academic expert from the University of Liverpool's Law School, makes sobering viewing (for follow-up comments on immigration see here):

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Biggest Week

A sizeable crowd gathers at Magee Marsh after news spreads of a Kirtland's Warbler found near the car park.
What. An. Experience. I'm just back from The Biggest Week In American Birding, the major bird migration festival in north-west Ohio. If it's possible to overdose on warblers and camaraderie, I may need treatment. For its combination of birds, people and purpose, The Biggest Week is like nothing I have seen before. Period. Keen birders and newbies sharing news, Amish families and bird photographers getting each other onto birds, large crowds of happy people watching masses of northbound migrant birds together at close range, all day, every day.

In the UK there's a distinct lack of festivals which focus directly on birding, with the fundraising flagship that is Birdfair being our primary event (indeed the biggest of its kind in the world). If anyone ever wanted to look at a model festival and do something a little different, they would do well to start at Magee Marsh in Ohio's Black Swamp region.
Organised by Black Swamp Bird Observatory, The Biggest Week is clearly a successful initiative on an impressively big scale. There are so many top-flight birding locations which can accommodate the large numbers of local and visiting birders, and as spring migration approaches its peak through the Great Lakes there are so many birds as well. It also raises important funds for conservation.

Yellow Warbler was the most numerous of almost 30 warbler species seen during The Biggest Week.
It's not just about warblers: plenty of other migrants included numerous Baltimore Orioles, like this male ...
... and also Indigo Buntings, at their bluest at this time of year.
I attended The Biggest Week on behalf of Birdwatch magazine, and will be writing about the experience in the September issue (on sale at Birdfair in August and from all good newsagents - or subscribe here). It's also likely that we'll be running a reader trip to the region in May next year, to give others a chance to experience this amazing event for themselves - more on that in the same issue. In the meantime, special thanks to Kim Kaufman and Rob Ripma for their help in Ohio, and it was also a pleasure to meet Kenn Kaufman and catch up with many old birding friends on the Magee Marsh boardwalk. See you all next time!

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.


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