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 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, 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 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.


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