Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year!

Although work commitments meant I spent significantly less time in the field in 2014, the year still provided some opportunities to travel and memorable birding moments, not least this Brown Fish Owl (one of seven in one morning) near Antalya, southern Turkey. Other trips to the Dominican Republic, Israel, Italy, Azores (again!) and most recently Uganda were every bit as fulfilling in other ways - I'll add some belated highlights to this blog as time permits early in 2015, and hope to update more frequently in the months ahead. In the meantime, Happy New Year to everyone - thanks for following, and good birding in 2015.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Birdwatch - latest editorial

January 2015 | Issue 271

It is generally accepted that the key to preserving species diversity lies in protecting habitat hot-spots. At a national level in Britain, many such areas lie in rural countryside – think of the mosaic of habitats in Scotland’s Spey Valley, scenic Poole Harbour with its tidal creeks, bogs, heaths and forests, or the rambling coastal marshes of Norfolk and Suffolk (where the flagship RSPB reserve of Minsmere alone regularly boasts 90-100 breeding bird species).

At a local level, however, and especially in built-up areas, biodiversity is sustained through an alternative network of smaller wildlife oases and green corridors which are every bit as important. They may be less rich in species but, with more than 80 per cent of Britain’s population living in built-up areas, they are no less significant in other ways: from gardens and parks to reservoirs and former industrial sites returned by accident or design to nature, they provide not just local birding havens but an essential connection to the wildlife around us.

It is these ‘built-up birding’ sites that we celebrate in this special issue. Our towns, cities and conurbations offer far more than ‘urban birding’ alone – indeed true urban sites are generally poor in terms of biodiversity (albeit with a few notable exceptions such as Peregrine Falcon and Black Redstart, this month’s cover bird). Instead, what we highlight in this month’s choice of where-to-watch guides, featured local patch and major focus on man-made habitats is the wealth of opportunities to watch birds, maintain our link with the natural world and motivate our interest to preserve biodiversity, wherever we can. As much as we love to visit the Scottish Highlands, Suffolk or the south coast, it’s that direct doorstep connection to birds that constantly emphasises the intrinsic and aesthetic value of the wider natural world, and reinforces the need to protect it.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Birdwatch - latest editorial

December 2014 | Issue 270

Most crimes involving the persecution of birds of prey are never detected, and those that are can be notoriously hard to prosecute. So the recent conviction of a Norfolk gamekeeper for the worst recorded mass poisoning of raptors in England can be regarded as a success, even if tempered by a derisory sentence – Allen Lambert, from the Stody Estate in Norfolk, received just a 10-week suspended sentence and was ordered to pay £930 in costs for slaughtering 10 Common Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk. Such lenient treatment clearly will not, as Natural England said it hoped, “prove a deterrent for others”.

The low detection rate of such crimes is inevitable because many take place on vast ‘sporting’ estates where there is little chance of them being witnessed or documented. Yet we know they happen because, as one insider makes clear in the December issue of Birdwatch, raptors and other species have been steadily disappearing from Britain’s intensively managed grouse moors for many years; every now and again, the discovery of another poisoned Hen Harrier or Golden Eagle corpse serves to confirm our worst fears about what happens out of sight on private land.

After this latest case, at least it was heartening the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation stated emphatically that “we condemn these actions utterly”. No such condemnation was forthcoming from a different corner of the shooting world, however. ‘You Forgot the Birds’, fronted by ex-cricketer and keen shooter Ian Botham among others, instead set its sights firmly on trying to discredit the RSPB, despite pretending to care about birds. It even misused quotes from Birdwatch in a blatant attempt to borrow credibility from the birding community.

Let’s make it absolutely clear: we do not support this website or its spurious motives, to the point where we’ve actually referred the matter to our solicitors. All birders know that no organisation has campaigned harder on behalf of birds, their habitats and their welfare than the RSPB. By attacking the Society rather than condemning the criminal elements of its own industry, ‘You Forgot the Birds’ has shot itself in the foot. Let’s take its ill-conceived posturing as a positive sign of the success of initiatives such as Hen Harrier Day and the huge public support it engendered.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Birdwatch - latest editorial

November 2014 | Issue 269

For many years now, Birdwatch has been proud to honour the best in bird art through the Artist of the Year Award. We started this annual competition back in 1997, and it has since evolved into a major national award organised in association with the Society of Wildlife Artists and Swarovski Optik. In other initiatives during the last two decades we have also celebrated outstanding talent in bird photography, from film-based competitions back in the Nineties to publishing the mouth-watering calendar for Swarovski’s ongoing Digiscoper of the Year competitions.

But what of the other facets of birding that deserve recognition? Think back to this time last year, and a lot has happened in a remarkable 12 months. For me 2014 stands out more than anything as a year of action, a year in which birders were motivated to seize the initiative and try to bring about change for the better. Champions of the Flyway, spring hunting in Malta, Hen Harriers and grouse shooting – all now well-known campaigns putting bird protection and conservation firmly back on the map.

It was the idea of acknowledging the success of these headline-making campaigns, and the achievement of the people behind them, that helped inspire a new initiative we’re launching this month: the Birders’ Choice Awards. It’s high time we all recognised the best in birding (and the worst!), so in this first year of the awards we have devised 10 categories and a wide-ranging shortlist of contenders; voters can also nominate their own favourites. From conservation, campaigning and companies to products, people and even the birds themselves, we want birders everywhere to vote and make their opinion count. It’s quick and easy to do so (turn to pages 43-44 for details) – please cast your vote, and help us spread the word by encouraging your friends to take part, too.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Gull v rat

I just returned from another excellent trip to the Azores, spending most of the time leading a group on the western island of Flores. There'll be more on that trip and the excellent birds we had in due course, but for now I thought I'd share this sequence of photos of an atlantis Yellow-legged Gull (or Azores Gull if you will). This bird in Lajes harbour was aggressively defending a nice dinner it had lined up - a Black Rat. We were surprised at what short work it made of the rodent - here's how:

The gull aggressively defended its 'meal' from other gulls nearby ...
... before moving in to finish the job ...
... first, grab rat by neck ...
... then line it up carefully, because ...
... it's going down in one ...
... then swallow, tail and all

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Birdwatch - latest editorial

October 2014 | Issue 268

These are interesting times for the RSPB. Last year the society rebranded itself and ran an appeal-broadening TV advertising campaign, the results of which are now emerging. The good news is a record membership level of 1,114,938 (April 2014), up from 1,084,827 12 months previously. Less positive is the cost of this increase, some £3.2 million being spent in total. In crude terms, that’s more than £106 for every new member recruited.

In the longer term, the return should prove better value than it looks, as more membership renewals and increased campaign donations bring in further revenue – assuming the society doesn’t have to keep up the high spending just to maintain its existing membership level, a problem it has faced previously. But over £3 million more is being spent on TV advertising this year too, in what could prove an expensive gamble. Every organisation has to invest to grow, of course, but there will come a point at which the cost of trying to do so outweighs the return.

In the RSPB’s case, how much more could have been achieved by investing those same millions directly into front-line conservation? £6.2 million would restore significant amounts of habitat and buy major tracts of land for UK reserves, as well as expand the society’s high-priority investigations work; internationally, it could purchase more than 60,000 acres of tropical rainforest.

Latterly, the RSPB’s new mission to ‘Give nature a home’ has been followed by an even less bird-focused ‘Vote for Bob’ drive, featuring a Red Squirrel in what the society says is “an innovative, quirky campaign” to get nature back on the political agenda (right). I’m all for that, and all for Red Squirrels too, but can’t help thinking that the core focus on birds and conservation action is becoming diluted. Some expensive – and cringeworthy – press ads featuring ‘Bob’ don’t even mention the RSPB by name, let alone birds.

There are better ways of getting effective messages across, and of motivating the concerned public to support nature and lobby their MPs. I’m a huge supporter of the RSPB and its work, which is why I sincerely hope its bold – and expensive – new strategy pays off. At the same time, I’d like to keep in mind the foremost objective of the society’s charter: “To conserve wild birds and the wider environment on which wild birds depend, maintaining bird numbers, diversity and natural geographic distribution.”

Reproduced from the October issue of Birdwatch, on sale today

Monday, 15 September 2014

Another Scandinavian gull ...

Second-summer (third-calendar-year) Great Black-backed Gull with a Norwegian ring, in Suffolk.
... this time a colour-ringed Great Black-back, which I found while gulling at Walberswick, Suffolk, last month. JY097 was ringed as a chick on a small island off the northern tip of Denmark on 28 June 2012, and as a first-winter was sighted four times in the Boulogne area, northern France, in February and March 2013. Since then there had been no further reports until I spotted it lounging on the concrete jetties at Walberswick on 3 August. My guess is that it has probably remained well south of its natal area since it first left, and might not return there until three or four years old, by which time it will effectively be a young adult and approaching breeding condition. Another fascinating example of what colour-ringing can teach us about bird movements.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Close, but no cigar

Second-calendar-year presumed intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gull from Norway at my London study site.
During the course of many visits to my local gulling site on the Thames in east London, one of the assorted stragglers I've often hoped to find is so-called Baltic Gull, the nominate form of Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus. Identifying this dinky and declining north-east European larid is generally far from straightforward unless (a) you happen to be on its breeding grounds in far north-east Fennoscandia, or (b) you discover a colour-ringed bird which can be traced back to this core range.

Last Friday, 5th September, I got a little closer to fuscus, in spirit at least. J078K was ringed as a chick last year in Finnmark, north Norway, an area traditionally associated with Baltic Gull, but within which the other two forms of this species, intermedius and graellsii, now occur (read more about recent changes in the distribution of Lesser Black-backed subspecies here). On plumage and moult it is probably an intermedius (surely more likely than graellsii to be breeding in northernmost Norway anyway), and interestingly this bird is currently in London after spending the early winter in Portugal and then Spain.

According to the study linked above (for details of which thanks to Mars Muusse), juveniles of fuscus as well as intermedius may occur in western Europe on migration, unlike the more easterly-migrating adults. Returning youngsters in their first spring are now known to be identifiable through primary moult, so in the absence of a colour ring birds of this age are the best bet when searching for candidates. My own search goes on, but in the meantime here's the low-down on J078K. (Thanks also to Peter Rock, Ronald Klein, Frode Falkenberg and Detlef Gruber for contributing useful comments and information on this).

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Birding in the Azores, 20 years on

This time next month I'll be heading out to the Azores to lead this year's Birdwatch reader holiday. It'll be the 14th occasion on which I've been lucky enough to visit these fantastic islands on the European side of the Atlantic, and in fact this autumn marks the 20th anniversary of my first trip there. This archipelago never disappoints, and it is one of my all-time favourite birding destinations - take a look at this selection of birding highlights from my visits over the years and you'll appreciate why.

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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Birdwatch - latest editorial

September 2014 | Issue 267

Last summer I took my 13-year-old daughter on her first demonstration – not because I thought it was time she learned how to wave placards and hold up traffic, but because she wanted to protest. Like me, she could not believe that – against both common sense and scientific advice – the government was authorising large-scale culling of Badgers. Nor could the thousands of others on that march, nor those who have continued to oppose the policy through legal channels since then, and who have recently won a minor victory against DEFRA in the High Court.

Protesting doesn’t always lead to change; sometimes it scarcely makes a difference. But it’s important to make our voices heard. If we who care don’t stand up for wildlife, who will? Earlier this year this magazine was criticised for ‘political activism’ in publishing Bill Oddie’s attack on the government’s claim to be the ‘greenest’ administration yet, but we are far from alone in advocating better policies for wildlife, at home and abroad.

Does any birder really oppose the new on-the-ground initiatives this spring that helped put the illegal slaughter of millions of migrant birds in Malta firmly back on the agenda? Of course they don’t – we are all activists, in spirit if not in deed.

More recently, there has been the dynamic attempt to tackle the illegal persecution of Hen Harriers in Britain, initiated by concerned and motivated individuals who are actually beginning to make something happen. There’s a long way to go before this issue is resolved, but it’s been a great start. Maybe something will change this time: certainly, in the 22-year lifetime of this magazine, I cannot recall a cause that so rapidly drew support from the birding public or achieved such a huge reach.

As a magazine we’re proud to be at the centre of support for the Hen Harrier campaign, and to use our voice to highlight all such issues of conservation concern.

Reproduced from the September issue of Birdwatch, on sale today

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Birding the Azores - read all about it

The report on the Azores birding tour I led last autumn has been accessible on the Birdwatch website for some time now, but in case any blog followers have missed it and want to get an idea of what this annual vagrant-finding fest is all about, here it is to enjoy 'direct'. It's only two months to this year's trip, on which there are two last places remaining (you can also access the 2012 trip summary via that link). With all the talk this week of the post-tropical storm that was Hurricane Bertha passing across the Atlantic, I'm already wondering what American migrants have been deposited on unwatched European territory in the Atlantic.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Patch pit-stop

After gulling on the Thames this morning I took the opportunity to head east for a quick visit to my local patch at Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve. I timed it to arrive over high tide, and was duly rewarded with a few waders and other species of interest, the best being 2 Garganey (including the eclipse drake below), 10 Little Egrets, 5 Little Ringed Plovers, Common, Wood and 4 Green Sandpipers, 16 Black-tailed Godwit, 2 Eurasian Whimbrel, and single Eurasian Curlew, Water Rail and Hobby.

A record shot of today's eclipse drake Garganey (note the blue forewing just visible, and broad white upper wing-bar).
It wasn't great weather for flying insects, so I was particularly pleased to find a Jersey Tiger moth near the Cordite Store. The only other one I've seen at Rainham, a more ragged example, was in the same area. This shot was taken with my iPhone and has been cropped but not otherwise adjusted.

Yellow-legged Gull: juvenile plumage

I visited the Thames in east London today for a two-hour session with gulls at my regular site. Here are a few images of some of the 11+ Yellow-legged Gulls seen - my interest today was particularly in juveniles, of which there were at least six. I'll let the photos do the talking, but it's interesting to note the subtle variation in plumage (for example, how moult in the first individual is more advanced than in the second).

Monday, 4 August 2014

Two for the price of one ...

It's been a while since I've had time to post on the blog, largely because I've been working hard to finish a new book on Western Palearctic birds (more anon). As that nears completion and I have more opportunity to get out into the field and post about it, the plan is for birding news to appear here again more regularly. Let's start with a subject which is a personal favourite: gulls.

Note the tail pattern and also the greater coverts of this colour-ringed juvenile gull.
I spent a day birding on the Suffolk coast yesterday, a fair amount of it looking at and photographing gulls. I first picked up this interesting juvenile large gull distantly in flight over the mouth of the River Blyth at Walberswick, and thought it was probably going to be a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull when I got better looks. On closer inspection, however, the black tail band seemed rather broad and not typical for that species. Intriguingly, I also noticed the bird was colour-ringed (white on green XDEE), so I kept an eye on it and got a few images when it came within range.

The bird was colour-ringed XDEE white on green as a chick in a mixed Caspian x Herring colony in east Germany ...
Eventually the mystery gull landed not far away and perched shots were briefly possible. As I took them, the bird suddenly struck me as looking somewhat Caspian Gull-like in standing profile. If the tail pattern wasn’t right for Yellow-legged Gull, however, it certainly wasn’t typical for Caspian; yet at the same time I noticed it looked ‘leggy’, and it was also already moulting in some first-winter feathers on the upperparts, more or less ruling out later-breeding local species such as Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

... so it could be Caspian or Herring, or more likely a bit of both, as its mix of characters appears to indicate.
A better view of the upperside, showing the rather heavily marked tail and a wing pattern resembling michahellis.
My curiosity was well and truly piqued, and this morning I sent images to Peter Rock, who co-ordinates colour-ringed gull sightings in the UK, to request information on the scheme that marked this gull. He responded quickly to say: “This is a German bird … you and [Ronald Klein] will, I'm sure, have an interesting correspondence.” He wasn’t wrong. Ronald made contact shortly after and explained that “it is a gull from the mixed area (Caspians and Herrings) in East Germany”, and confirmed that the metal ring code (which I’d only been able partly to read) is Hiddensee EA-068143. “The problem is,” he continued, “the parents of all the ringed birds are unknown, because [they are] caught in ‘chicken-nurseries’.”

Note the bird's leggy jizz but somewhat 'truncated' rear-end profile, plus the tertial pattern and greater coverts.
Ronald believes this bird is a hybrid Caspian x Herring Gull, a view which helps explain my early impression of atypical and perhaps mixed characters. From looking more closely at the images, the slightly ‘truncated' look of the bird’s rear end, the speckled pattern on the tip of the second tertial and the more heavily chequered greater coverts are also suggestive of Herring Gull influence in a bird with some Caspian-like qualities. It will be interesting to see what it looks like if it returns in subsequent years, and I’d welcome news of any further sightings of this bird (and also other comments from observers with first-hand experience of juvenile Caspians and hybrids).

If this bird returns to Walberswick regularly to winter, it will be interesting to monitor its plumage progression.
It was one of several interesting larids in a day which also produced a second-winter Caspian Gull and a possible juvenile (too distant) in the pig fields at Walberswick, and which gave me a final Suffolk day total of a very respectable 10 gull species – the other nine being Black-headed, Little, Mediterranean, Common, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, Yellow-legged and Kittiwake. Autumn is definitely here …

Monday, 28 April 2014

First youngsters of the season

Ahead of the game: juvenile European Robin in the garden today.
I've been stuck indoors and feeling grim with a virus the last few days, so birding has been limited to the occasional glance out of the window in my small north London garden. Today I was rewarded with my first-of-season juveniles - single newly fledged Robin, Dunnock and Collared Dove.

Juvenile Dunnock - more streaky (and 'messy') on the underparts with distinct creamy tips to the greater coverts, as well as a pink bill. By midsummer youngsters are more like adults in appearance and much harder to age.
Adult Dunnock for comparison - dark billed with less streaking and only a hint of a wing-bar.
Based on BTO data, the average fledging dates for the first two species should be, respectively, 1-4 May and 9-12 May, so they are definitely ahead of the game this year. The same data is apparently unavailable for Collared Dove, but it strikes me as similarly early to be seeing a fully grown youngster in late April.

Juvenile Collared Dove: note the lack of neck ring.
All images were taken this afternoon with a Canon EOS 70D and Tamron SP 150-600mm zoom lens. I'm testing the lens for a review in the next issue of Birdwatch - more on how it performs then, but these results were pleasingly sharp and the contrast good for a relatively affordable lens of this spec.


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