Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

Issue 293 | November 2016

Has there been another autumn as good as this for rare birds in Britain? Probably not – at least not in recent memory – after the westerlies in September which brought the country’s first-ever Eastern Kingbird, and then October’s easterlies which were accompanied by unprecedented numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers and no fewer than two (at the time of writing) Siberian Accentors, another new British species. And that’s without mentioning the national ‘lifer’ which preceded these two, a splash-landing Red-footed Booby on the Sussex coast, or the Black-browed Albatross which gate-crashed an Eastern Crowned Warbler twitch.

Such extraordinary experiences will live long in the memories of those lucky enough to witness them. They also combine with other newsworthy events to make 2016 a stand-out birding year on many fronts. The hot-spot reserves seemingly never out of the news, from the record Curlew Sandpiper invasion at Frampton Marsh RSPB to Springwatch and ‘that’ swamphen at Minsmere RSPB; the scientific discoveries helping to rewrite our understanding of bird migration; the viral e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting which attracted 123,000 signatures and earned a parliamentary debate; the campaigners exposing the illegal persecution of raptors by elements of the shooting community; and the new technology, optics and books which have all helped advance our ornithological knowledge in so many different ways.

The best – and indeed the worst – in birding all feature in the third annual Birders’ Choice Awards, which we are again proud to launch. It’s your chance to vote for your favourites, or even nominate your own. Voting is quickest and easiest online but you can also do so by post (see the November issue for details), and we’re keen for every reader to take part and help us make these the most popular and democratic birding awards yet. The results will be announced in our January issue.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Ornithological journals, magazines and reports - new home needed

Like many birders I am an avid collector of books and periodicals, and over several decades have acquired a sizeable reference library. It's actually now outgrown the available space, so having offloaded some books a few years back I'm now reluctantly doing the same with some of my journals, magazines and reports.

There are hundreds that need a new home. including many issues of Ibis (British Ornithologists’ Union), Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club and Forktail (Oriental Bird Club), as well as Birding (American Birding Association), British Wildlife, Birding Scotland, Scottish Bird News (Scottish Ornithologists’ Club), Welsh Birds (Welsh Ornithological Society), Nos Oiseaux (Switzerland), Dansk Ornitologisk Forenings Tidsskrift (Denmark) and a few spare copies of British Birds, Birding World, Limicola, North American Birds and others. This collection would be ideal for an institution, bird club or even an individual with plenty of shelf space and a quest for ornithological knowledge.

Most important is that these treasured publications go to a good home, so they are available free to a registered charity, or alternatively in exchange for a charitable donation to my nominated charity, the World Land Trust (minimum £50, the highest received by 31 October 2016 secures). Whoever becomes the lucky new owner will need to collect them from north London - please email me on dominic [dot] mitchell [at] birdwatch [dot] co [uk] if you are interested.

Update: this collection of bird reports and ornithological periodicals now has a new home in Northumberland with Steve Holliday. Steve is an avid collector of such publications, and has also joined the BirdGuides team as a regular reviewer of bird reports (see a recent example of his reviews here).

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

Issue 292 | October 2016

What’s happening to our wildlife? Sometimes it seems that no matter what we do or how much we care, it will never be enough. Evidence from the latest State of Nature report, recently published jointly by 25 UK conservation and research organisations, shows that 56 per cent of UK species studied have declined over the last 50 years, and that more than one in 10 of almost 8,000 species assessed continues to be under threat from vanishing from the UK completely.

Birds always seem to feature among the bad news. We already know that the breeding farmland bird index has fallen by 54 per cent from its 1970 level, while the last Birds of Conservation Concern update saw a net increase of 15 species on the Red List. The latest report amplifies such concerns.

Sadly, if you think that the government might read the warning signs and act, think again. Government spending on biodiversity in the UK has fallen by a third over the last seven years, and as a percentage of GDP it amounts to a negligible 0.025 per cent. Tellingly, in the notes accompanying these dismal figures, the government’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee admits that “Spending is one way of assessing the priority that is given to biodiversity within the UK public sector”. Or not, as the case may be.

In contrast, non-governmental organisations continue to maintain their overall biodiversity spending, and in fact the RSPB has increased its expenditure on conservation in each of the last 10 years. In the last financial year alone that amounted to £97.3 million, with a further £6.9 million on nature reserves and visitor facilities.

Money isn’t the only answer, but it certainly helps, and one good news story from the report is that targeted funding and action can make a dramatic difference to species on the ground. That’s why our own individual support for such organisations, through membership and participation in surveys to gather data, is more important now than ever before.

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.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

An American in Kent - again

Adult Bonaparte's Gull at Oare Marshes. Note the black hood and bill, dark red gape and pinkish-red legs.
A change from large gulls: small gulls! I headed down to Kent today to catch up with the returning adult Bonaparte's Gull at Oare Marshes. This individual is now present for its fourth summer at the site; according to BirdGuides.com it was first seen there as a first-summer on 22 May 2013 (and previously nearby at Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey). In subsequent years it has usually appeared in June or July and departed late August. 

In this partial wing stretch, the Bonaparte's reveals the white undersides to its black-tipped outermost primaries, a key distinction from Black-headed Gull (which has dark grey bordering the white leading edge of its underwing).
Today it was present quite close to the road, so I took welcome advantage of the fact - all these images are taken with a Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1.4x EFIII extender and 7D MkII body, and manually exposed to take account of the difficult backlit lighting conditions. (Tip: if you are visiting Oare Marshes on a sunny day, whether for photography or just birding, afternoons and evenings are always best, with the light illuminating the East Flood from behind you).

Comparison shot of the Bonaparte's Gull with Black-headed Gulls (and islandica Black-tailed Godwits).
As might be expected, and shown in the above comparison shot, the Bonaparte's associates closely with the local Black-headed Gulls. When I saw it best it was close to the west edge of the East Flood, at times obvious and easy to pick out, at others tucked away out of view among its congeners and not easily visible. It particularly seemed to like a muddy patch just next to some tall rushes, and after going AWOL for a while in the high-tide throng would gravitate back towards this corner.

Clean those primaries! Another view of the strikingly white underside of the wing-tip.
I also had a juvenile Mediterranean Gull briefly on the East Flood which then joined a large group of Black-headed Gulls asleep on a small island on the north side of the flood. While watching it there another birder picked out a moulting second-summer Med, still sporting the remnants of a black hood. The Bonaparte's eventually flew to the same island, so it was a rare treat to have all three of these small hooded gulls together at once.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

It's official - Britain's first Slaty-backed Gull

Adult or near-adult Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011
(photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission)
While I was away in Canada last week, a congratulatory text message from a friend alerted me to some long-awaited news on the gull front (thank you Bob!). The Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus which I found at Rainham landfill, Greater London, on 13 January 2011, exactly five-and-a-half years ago today, had been accepted as the first-ever record for Britain. Here's the announcement from the website of the British Ornithologists' Union, whose Records Committee considers potential first records for Britain after they have been assessed and accepted by the Rarities Committee:

I expected this record would take a long time to pass through the two-stage acceptance procedure, especially as the bird's identity initially generated much discussion. This centred around the colour of the upperparts, with some (mainly those who had not seen it) claiming that the shade of grey was not sufficiently dark for the species. As I noted when submitting the record, opinion became much more settled in favour of Slaty-backed Gull once the bird was more widely seen (and also when refound and photographed at other sites to the east in Essex).

Adult or near-adult Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011
(photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission)
This becomes the second Western Palearctic record of this north-west Pacific Ocean species, after a bird present in Lithuania from 17-20 November 2008 which was then, remarkably, refound in Latvia, where it lingered from 13-21 April 2009 (photos of it in Latvia here). There have been no further British records but five more in Europe, as follows: Belarus (26 Dec 2012-4 Jan 2013 - video here); Finland (3-4 Nov 2012 - multiple pics here); Iceland (14 May 2012 - scroll down this account for an image); and Ireland (2: 8 Feb 2014 - read the account here; Jan 2015 - photos here).

Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus with Great Black-backed L marinus and European Herring L argentatus Gulls, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011 (photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission) 

Although confident of the identification from the outset, in view of the extreme rarity of this species in Europe I solicited feedback widely from the gulling community. One of the first to provide it, and to be extremely positive and supportive (as always), was the late Martin Garner. I think Martin would still have been sitting on the Rarities Committee when this record was assessed, and I'm sure he would have been pleased to see it make the final cut at the BOURC. At the same time as that committee announced this decision, it also accepted the first British record of Chinese Pond Heron, an identification which Martin really helped to clinch (see his Birding Frontiers website for more). So today is an opportunity not only for me to remember a friend and inspiring guller, but also to remind ourselves of his significant contribution to the birding scene in Britain and beyond.

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.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Centre of the action

One small part of Rutland Water Nature Reserve, arguably Britain's best inland birding site.
I had a meeting at the Birdwatch-BirdGuides head office in Lincolnshire this morning, so set out early through morning rush hour traffic in north London and then up the A1. It's never an eventful drive bird-wise, but if my luck's in the occasional Red Kite brightens the latter part of the journey. Nearing junction 16 south-west of Peterborough, I duly struck Milvus gold - not one Red Kite this time but a staggering 16 circling together! It's easily the highest number I've seen in this part of the country, and actually at exactly the same spot as last time - about quarter of a mile south of the junction and just east of the southbound carriageway (is there a refuse site nearby?).

Birdfair's Tim Appleton OBE, my host for the afternoon.
After the meeting, I took the opportunity to call in at nearby Rutland Water and catch up with organiser and co-founder of Birdfair, Tim Appleton. I've been at every Birdfair since 1991 with Birdwatch (latterly also with BirdGuides), and since 1998 the magazine has generated £229,000 of revenue for Birdfair's annual conservation appeals by publishing the official programme; just over £45,000 of this went to help conserve the endangered Azores Bullfinch, a species for which Birdwatch was proud to act as BirdLife International Species Champion. So Tim and I had plenty of Birdfair business to chat about, especially after the event notched up another fundraising record year.

The reserve's new Volunteer Training Centre, generously funded by Anglian Water.
It's easy to forget that the habitat in this vast wetland is entirely man-made and carefully managed for wildlife.
Our meeting took place while Tim gave me a tour of the reserve as I'd never seen it before - without giant marquees and 20,000 visitors in August! This showcase site now has a very impressive new Volunteer Training Centre, generously funded by Anglian Water, and some equally impressive birds - we saw Red-necked, Slavonian and three Black-necked Grebes (in fact all five grebe species), six Smew, two Whooper Swans, Red Kite, Peregrine, Water Rail and the local star of the show, a lingering Long-billed Dowitcher. A superb afternoon's haul which reinforces Rutland Water's reputation not just as home to the world's biggest birding event, but also as the single best inland birding site in Britain.

The Long-billed Dowitcher (left) was on show distantly from Shoveler Hide with Common Snipe and Northern Lapwings for an interesting size comparison; note that this species is barely bigger than a snipe.
The dowitcher is thought by some local birders to be different to the individual seen recently at Wanlip Meadows, just 20 miles or so to the west in Leicestershire.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Gulls on the patch: late winter update

First-cycle Yellow-legged Gull - numbers of this species are very low on the Thames in winter.
It's been a relatively quiet season for gulls on my study site in east London, with the winding down of food waste disposal into landfill (see here for more background to this). I'm continuing to survey the site, monitoring and counting gulls (and other species) each month, but overall numbers and diversity are a shadow of what they used to be.

Systematic counting does bring small rewards, however, and it's always good to see colour-marked birds and establish their history. Most of those on the Lower Thames site I watch have been ringed by the North Thames Gull Group, a long-standing and stalwart group of enthusiasts who use distinctive orangey-red rings with black four-digit codes (always ending in 'T') to mark their birds. Occasionally, however, gulls bearing the bling of other ringing projects pitch up, and so far this year, for example, I've had two European Herring Gulls from Havergate Island in Suffolk, red VTH (below) and red VKD.

Second-cycle European Herring Gull VTH, ringed as pullus in Suffolk on 29 June 2014 and resighted for the first time on 22 February 2016 on the Lower Thames, 112 km SW.
The map belies the real nature of this bird's movements, as 608 days elapsed between the two sightings at the endpoints of the line.
Occasional birds from continental Europe also appear, and this winter's somewhat meagre haul has included both European Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls from Norway (which also produced a rare colour-marked Iceland Gull last winter), but pleasingly also a banded Caspian Gull - seemingly not from the east European heartland of this species' breeding range in Poland and Ukraine, but probably from a Danish scheme using yellow rings. I've emailed the organiser with details, and will post an update here as soon as I hear anything.

Third-cycle Caspian Gull, the rarest plumage - and also a colour-ringed bird from the Continent!
The ring code is difficult to read but may be VD0G, which would probably tie the bird to a Danish scheme.


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