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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