Thursday, 22 October 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

November 2015 | Issue 281

If any evidence were needed of just how detached from the environment some sections of society have become, it can be found in the recent furore over carrier bags. Vociferous debate over the new 5p charge for bags in England, stirred up by parts of the media, often misrepresented the purpose of the policy – not to make money (with the charges instead being passed on to charities, including the RSPB), but to encourage a change in behaviour which will ultimately benefit the environment. Current usage figures are shocking, having risen to 8.5 billion single-use carrier bags provided by major supermarkets alone in 2014 – that averages about 130 per person in Britain annually.

As someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time (literally) around rubbish tips watching gulls, I’ve seen the vast amounts of non-biodegradable waste that go daily into landfill, and the countless bags which get wind-blown across the surrounding countryside. I’ve also seen the directly harmful consequences, with bag handles frequently ensnaring birds, often preventing them from feeding and resting, and sometimes leading to the loss of limbs (something everyone can help avoid by routinely cutting the handles before discarding old bags). Introducing a charge has already been shown to work – in Wales it led to a 79 per cent decrease in use of carrier bags in the first three years, with clear environmental benefits which also included carbon savings.

If it was down to me, an initiative like this should be considered for an award. But it’s not – it’s down to you. Along with campaigns to preserve the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, end the illegal killing of migrating birds in the Mediterranean, stop drilling in the Arctic and eradicate rats on South Georgia, it’s on the shortlist in just one of the categories of our second annual Birders’ Choice Awards. This is your chance to have your say and acknowledge the initiatives, people and products that have made a real difference over the last 12 months – please take a few moments to cast your vote.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Dungeness's one-day wonder

It was surely a mistake. 'Empidonax sp., Kent, Dungeness.' Of all the species to turn up on a routine seawatch in the English Channel in September, you would not put money on an American flycatcher. But the message repeated, necessitating an immediate change of plans - better safe than sorry. By noon, we were on site but suspected it was already too late; observers were spread out over a large area of shingle near the fishing boats, scanning and walking in random directions. Clearly the bird was no longer on show, and not where it had first been seen and photographed so well.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, 22 September 2015 - the first for Britain and second for the Western Palearctic.
As we'd driven down to Dungeness, those much-tweeted images of what was indeed clearly an 'Empid' confirmed we'd made the right decision. Unless it had succumbed, there was every likelihood it remained in the immediate area, so we began searching. I opted to check gardens on the inland side of the road, starting at Derek Jarman's old house, and slowly worked in the direction of the lighthouse, then zig-zagged back across the road to check a patch of low cover. At that point a shout went up, someone sprinted along the road and it was suddenly game back on - the bird had been relocated in the garden of South View cottage, and before long we all converged to soak up views from a safe distance.

The crowd starts to build after the flycatcher is relocated in a chalet garden just inland from the road at Dungeness.
Despite worsening rain, the flycatcher periodically sallied out from cover, occasionally perching in the open to very appreciative noises from the crowd. The photos had shown a somewhat greeny-yellow bird, helping to eliminate initial options and leading to suggestions of the Western Palearctic's first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but during the few hours after its discovery the pendulum began to swing towards Acadian Flycatcher for a number of subtle reasons.

Intermittently good views were possible when the bird occasionally perched out in the open.
There's just one previous record of Acadian Flycatcher in the WP, involving a bird found dead in Iceland on 4 November 1967, so getting the ID satisfactorily nailed was crucial for this potentially first live example on this side of the Atlantic. That process took place in the field and online during the course of the day, through a mass collaborative effort which I won't repeat in this brief post - we've just finished putting together coverage of the find and the steps that clinched the identification for the next issue of Birdwatch (out on 17th October), so you can read the full story there.

On the day itself, with this ID looking increasingly strong as the afternoon wore on, understandably the bird's continued presence dominated the afternoon's news, as evidenced by this BirdGuides app screenshot. Unknown hundreds managed to get to Dungeness by dusk, some from as far as Bristol, Derbyshire, East Yorkshire and even northern France, but unfortunately for many others who arrived the next day, it proved too late - the flycatcher was not seen again.

The Acadian Flycatcher might look unwell here, but it is simply scratching an itch.
Britain's first Alder Flycatcher, in Cornwall in October 2008, had seemed like a one-off event at the time, but a second appeared within two years. Hopefully those who missed out on this extraordinary record will get another chance to see the species in Britain.
Acadian Flycatcher artwork by Steph' Thorpe.


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