Friday, April 7, 2017

Where are we really going with Hen Harriers ?

It's quite a time since I offered up any views on the Hen Harrier issue. In the interim I've followed various initiatives which have been proposed, attended odd events and talks and discussed the issue with many friends and colleagues.  We could all be excused though, for thinking that the current situation is worse than a stalemate. The actions so far have largely  failed, despite immense efforts put into them by certain individuals. The translocation proposals, put forward under the aegis of the DEFRA working party, are so nonsensical as to warrant no consideration in my view.  In the meantime, the factions within the shooting community, which caused the decimation of the harrier population, continue with their utterly illegal actions with no apparent intention to desist. Indeed, with the number of reports on the persecution of other species of birds of prey, the actions appear to be increasing. All such is coupled with calls for licences to cull Common Buzzards in the cause of commercialism.  Against this we have calls from the RSPB for the shooting industry to clean up its act, crowdfunding of satellite tags resting upon an undertaking to publicise full details of any which are lost due to apparent persecution and a continuing reiteration of the need to ban grouse shooting.  So what next ?

For my part I still believe that a properly regulated licencing system could work and comprise a solution in the shorter term. In that sense I still adhere to the fundamental construct I put forward in the E-petition I launched some years ago.  I confess to having serious doubts about the applicability of an outright ban on grouse shooting,  not because I don't believe the industry deserves such an outcome given its current operational reliance on illegality and the environmental havoc arising from its management activities , but on two separate counts. Gaining a ban and closing down shoots is likely to take decades and what are the land use plans for the upland areas thereafter? In the former scenario, breeding harriers in Britain are likely to become a thing of legend unless we're very careful and , in the latter, solutions thus far have been rather airy and non-specific based on pipe dreams and preference. Hopes that either conservation agencies or the Government of the day would take such areas in hand is unrealistic and I suspect the time that would elapse in dealing with the various legal issues the Establishment ( owners ) would bring to bear is an issue in itself.

So who should take the lead and what might be the building blocks of progress?  Whilst I have the utmost regard for the RSPB I'm afraid, on this particular issue, I find its position vacillating and weak.  The recent article by Martin Harper ( RSPB Conservation Director ) raises the many problems associated with modern day upland management and of the renewed pressure being brought to bear on raptors. Sadly there is no declared resolve on what RSPB, as our premier bird conservation organization, intends itself to do. Instead a call on the shooting industry to improve its own act and bring about change is suggested coupled with the suggestion that a licensing system would "build trust" within the current situation. Additionally there is an expressed hope that " a maturation of political thinking and sustained public pressure " will bring about change.

Whilst I don't disagree with the general sentiments expressed,  the absence of any declaration of resolve or recognition of the need for someone to grasp the baton NOW, show leadership and attempt, at the very least , to move things forward, is disappointing. It seems everybody else is somehow seen as being able to be involved and responsible whilst RSPB sits on the by-lines.  What happened to the Society's declared support on Vicarious Liability ?  And how will a Licensing System be secured  and under whose initiative ?
On this subject, even acknowledging the many years of frustration and involvement the Society has endured with its attempts to change things , the RSPB is now failing in its mission if this seemingly back-seat approach aptly describes its position.  

There may be good reasons why the Society isn't organizing an outright campaign ( contract conditions associated with the large grant it received from the EU or pressure exerted by the Charity Commission relating to political activities for instance ). Surely the membership deserves to know ?  Then tell us , please, so that we can lend weight and independent support to a programme designed to get Vicarious Liability enshrined in law and to see a proposed Licensing System moving forward.  The (honest) alternative is to explain that the RSPB no longer believes it can effect any new changes to the situation beyond supporting positive initiatives by other agencies  ( I'd expect your annual income figure to be affected by such a declaration (!), but it does seem to be the position you're prepared to occupy at present ).

C'mon, RSPB. Bone up!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Local recording.

I've finally decided on an area within which I'll do my local birding when I'm at home. There'll be gaps in coverage throughout the year, for sure, but, hopefully, it will provide some reflection of what is happening in my immediate home area.  I admit that , as a "local patch", it's a bit big, but I wanted an area that reflected the transition of habitats on the slopes of the eastern Pennines to the actual moorland summits as well. In between these is a good mixture of farmland, both arable and pastoral, woodlands, reservoirs, marginal land and managed moorland with the odd formal bit of parkland too. As might be imagined, there's also a series of rivers and streams flowing off higher ground, often with interesting, sinuous lines of woodland accompanying the entire watercourse. Sadly the presence of in-bye land and juncus ridden wet pasture, so beloved of breeding waders, is almost a thing of the past. Modern farming methods has seen the transition to silage growing, which is prevalent in the area, and the traditional hay meadows and boggy areas of yesteryear are somewhat of a distant memory. I confess to having driven past some areas and thought " Look at it now, Redshank used to breed in there".  The sad fact is that, too often, that span of time is not actually all that long in duration. Change is often difficult to reverse, but hard data on the worth of areas is a way of defending them in the first place. Once sites are gone, such data is the stuff of anecdotes or summarized history, carrying no continuing benefit to our current or future biodiversity value.

Mindful of the changes which have taken place in the area since I last lived here I've decided to try and ensure all observations are submitted to the BTO's  BirdTrack system. Due to the ever fluctuating levels of Broadband provision on Islay  ( and absence of mobile phone coverage in many parts too ) I never contemplated contributing to this scheme, but now there's no excuse!!  Nick Moran ( BTO ) has been more than helpful in suggesting the best ways forward when generating observations from a variety of sites in an overall "fixed" area and I'm now embroiled in completing the necessary steps to set up the basics. If your havering over taking part, in much the same way as I was, then look at the BTO web site first of all and take any queries to them. I can guarantee any fears will be dispelled.

So, it's crouching over the computer time in order to set up the basics, and then on to the job of generating the data and ensuring it's submitted. Easy, peasy I hear you say........I do hope so, but if this ageing cyber-child can do it, so can anybody !

Monday, April 3, 2017

New Annotated Checklist for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

I like this book, I really do, not least because of its precision, its "crisp" appearance and the "no nonsense" presentation of its contents throughout ! Any birder with an abiding interest in the Western Palearctic will both welcome and treasure this book.  Written by Managing Editor of Birdwatch magazine , Dominic Mitchell, who is both an active birder,and  author of many articles and books on birds , but also  a passionate devotee of birds within the Western Palearctic.

I'm not going to follow the normally adopted parameters of book reviewers, but simply provide a personal account of why I feel this book achieves its intended objectives and how it will both attain, and retain, a  prominent position within those available for some considerable time.

Basically the book addresses the long running discussions about the boundaries of the Western Palearctic, whether the Arabian Peninsula and Iran ought to be included and where the borders of the northern Sahara ought to rest. It does so succinctly and with well presented justification. A photograph of the plate  in the book showing the specific area adopted is given below.

By courtesy of Dominic Mitchell/Lynx Edicions.

Some people, of course, might not agree with the position taken, but the case is put forward with convinced clarity and results in 1148 species being listed, an increase of 129 beyond those previously considered within the boundaries described by Cramp (1977 ) within "Birds of the Western Palearctic". 

Within the constraints of space, a section deals with each species individually and a Systematic List provides details of Other Names, Taxonomy and Distribution (215 pages ). Various appendices describe  Endemic Species, Extinct Species, Omitted Species ( with justifications), and National Lists. That for Britain, with 603 species, and compared to all European counterparts and neighbours,  I believe provides as fulsome a justification for Brexit as has yet been put forward !! Just look at the figures!

Following the appendices is a very clearly set out Checklist which I feel WP aficionados will treat with respect, repeated visits and sheer love ! I confess I turned, somewhat immediately,  to Mahgreb Lark, having returned from Morocco only recently and settled back with a certain contentment !

A great book, don't  miss out on a copy, get yours now and   ENJOY !

Memories from Morocco.

Since late February it seems I've forever been on the move.  A holiday in Morocco, a visit to Teesmouth and a visit down to Norfolk. I finally decided it was time I sorted my own "time budgets " out and devoted some time to getting this Blog up and running again.  Rather than try and give blow by blow " diary accounts" for each of the trips I've decided simply to provide some pictures from the Morocco trip and then to skip to the present time, with the intention of then producing regular, if not daily, entries.  I'm sure somebody will say, "well, you've said that before" . I probably have , and with good intent too, but life's realities sometimes get in the way of progress.    So, to Morocco.

A tremendous trip, flying into Marrakesh and then out from Agadir after completing a couple of  extensive circuits, taking in as many of the key habitats and sites as possible and seeing  many of the specialities in the process.

Our first real excursion was up to Oukmaiden, a ski resort where, on our first visit, conditions were as you might imagine, cold ,poor visibility and snow. The second morning was a complete contrast with blue skies and sun but more snow overnight preventing access to really high ground.

Odd Shorelark were around and occasionally posed sufficiently long enough for a photograph!

We were very lucky in that the poor weather had attracted over 100 Crimson-winged Finches into the car park area. Birds were feeding around the cars and then flying up and perching on nearby wires . Not a species everyone is fortunate enough to see without effort, but certainly well worth it.

Now this was something I'd particularly joined this trip to see.....African Marsh Owl. That rather ghostly face and consistent colouring produces a very haunting effect of its own!  Morocco is the only known current outpost for this species within the Western Palaearctic so it has a particular importance all of its own.  I'd not realised that there were around forty known pairs in the area, with another site holding a couple of additional pairs. Good news indeed and a splendid and confiding bird.

I really do love deserts and desert scenery. Don't be fooled into thinking it's all the same. It certainly isn't ! The bottom picture is of the Tagdilt Track ( so called ) traversing an area famed for its specialities.  Again, don't be fooled into thinking that it's a big expanse of "nothingness" with little on offer.......Cream-coloured Courser, Hoopoe Lark, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Thick-billed Lark and many more, none of which are at all obvious at the onset !!  It's cold in the mornings, hot for the rest of the day and tranquil and atmospheric as dusk begins to approach, perhaps marked by the fact that you've just visited a Lanner cliff or a site for Pharoah Eagle Owl, both of which provided stunning views.

And then, towards the end of the trip, a chance to see Bald Ibis, feeding in a quite unconcerned way in a dune area immediately adjacent to the road.

And now a little story !  Whilst moving between major sites our driver suddenly drew into a busy garage area and urged us to get out, which we did , bemused but anticipating something different.  Well, "different" was the sight of a number of Little Swift swirling around above us giving views superior to any we'd had before. And then , with a flourish, we were escorted into one of the repair bays and shown a nest up in the corner of the ceiling.  Birds flew in and out, tools were dropped, cars were washed and conversations continued. We weren't even asked why we were there !  It just struck me how bizarre the situation was contrasted against what would happen in the UK.......

There was more, of course, much more, and the above is but a mere taster of what comprised the complete menu of absolutely fabulous birds and scenery we engaged with.   Try it and I'm sure you'll come back with a great selection of tremendous memories.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Frank Gardner's quest for Birds of Paradise

When I returned from Norfolk at the weekend I learned, to my horror, that there was a two part documentary being shown on BBC 2 which had already started !.It covers an expedition to Papua New Guinea by Frank Gardner and Benedict Allen essentially to locate Birds of Paradise that the former so wished to see..  Well, perhaps not so different from many other documentaries which television provides until you learn that Frank Gardner is confined to a wheelchair and realise the terrain in which the birds are present in PNG is challenging at best ! For the various reasons I outline below I didn't want to miss the programmes and set to retrieving the first one I had missed through the bewilderingly easy system now available even for non-techos like me!

Like many I had heard vaguely of Frank Gardner and what had beset him in Saudi Arabia whilst on a filming assignment for the BBC which , basically , saw him targeted by terrorists, his cameraman being killed and himself being left for dead after being shot eleven times. He survived his injuries but, as a consequence, lost the use of his legs. Sometime later I was travelling to or from my then home on Islay and parked up in a Lochlomondside car park to have a rest and listen to the radio. I missed some of the programme which, essentially, was dealing with the outcome for people who had survived similar experiences and being left with some form of permanent disability. Frank Gardner was answering questions and I was overwhelmed by his outlook , his optimism, his totally positive and realistic view of matters and even came away myself, as an able bodied person, feeling utterly motivated into taking a more embracing view of life. Whilst I'm sure there had been dark times, his outlook was so reasoned, forward looking and lacking in self pity or rancour as to be extremely humbling. I became a fan.

And now if reportage on security matters is being made on television or radio in his capacity as the BBC's Security Correspondent I listen intently as the content is always reasoned , factual, informative and balanced. As a person he comes over as being very polite, tolerant and fair and someone whose views are very much worth listening to.

He's a birdwatcher too so there's a bit of a connection there!! One of his boyhood dreams was to see Birds of Paradise, perhaps some of the most extravagantly plumaged birds on Earth. This two part series deals with a trip he's made to PNG with Benedict Allen, the explorer and the inevitable challenges which needed to be faced.

By courtesy of Lynx Edicions , "Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World" Volume 2  Passerines

Now I'm not going to spoil anyone's enjoyment of the first programme  ( and, of course, I haven't seen the second one yet ! ) but there are a lot of accompanying issues and story lines interwoven into the programme's narrative and footage. It's much more than an expedition to see birds, believe me ! A typical FG comment , "there's much to be happy about" !

So, make sure you download the first programme from last Friday and watch tomorrow ( Friday)

2100 hours BBC2 Birds of Paradise : the ultimate quest.

And if you think it ends there I can also recommend a recent book written by Frank Garner, "Crisis" which has figured at the top of the Sunday Times Best Seller list. Next to birding, books in this genre are my next guilty pleasure. It's a gripping read !  OK folks, commercial break over !!!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The man who created Potteric Carr Nature Reserve. 7.2.2017.

Potteric Carr Nature Reserve lies on the SW outskirts of Doncaster, South Yorkshire and is a mosaic of open water areas, grazing fields and woodland. It is administered nowadays by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust but was initially the brainchild of a Doncaster resident who gradually brought together the 600 acres or so that comprises the reserve and managed it via an army of local volunteers.

It was a real pleasure on Tuesday to visit the reserve, to have a wander around and to swap reminiscences with the man who brought it all about, Roger Mitchell.  But the story is a little more convoluted than that ( aren't they always ! ).  I first met Roger in the early 1970's I guess when he brought together a "South Yorkshire Conservation Group". He was much involved with the County Wildlife Trust and this group acted out a watchdog role as far as planning proposals that might affect wildlife sites and interests.  We then worked together when, essentially, he was my boss within the newly formed South Yorkshire County  Environment Department within the Metropolitan County system which had come into being in 1974. Those were exciting years that, in many respects, saw conservation and environmental matters come of age and begin to achieve more recognition than previously. I eventually left in 1979 to join the RSPB.

During that period Roger effectively ran two jobs. The day job and the Potteric Carr job !!  His was a crystal clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and the potential that he saw associated with the reserve. His enthusiasm and drive never diminished and Potteric in some inevitable way found its way into many conversations such that we, as staff, often used to mutter amongst ourselves , " He's on about Potteric, again"!   But that is the real stuff of dreams and the substance of dreams realised.

The reserve nowadays is a tremendous place. Its species list is extensive and breeding species have included Bittern, Little Bittern and Black-necked Grebe. The pathway network is extensive and you need a good, full day to do the place justice. And remember, this is a reserve on the outskirts of a major town surrounded by road and rail networks, a veritable jewel and sanctuary of tranquility amidst the hubbub of modern day activities.

Given it's around twenty five years ago since we'd last met there was much to talk about.  I asked Roger when he'd first visited the site. " Oh, when I was about fourteen I suppose ". No doubt he and his cohorts had crossed a few active railway lines in the process to reach what was then colloquially referred to as  "the swamps".   But a vision of what the area might become emerged and a lifetime's efforts made available to achieve those ends resulting in what can be seen today.  Impressive stuff!  Well done, Roger !

And here's Roger standing next to the new Visitor Centre which the YWT have recently erected along with new car parking facilities. It's a great testament to what can be achieved through dedication, an ability to address the multifarious challenges that emerge with such projects and to absorb some of the  disappointments too. And I can recommend the roast pork and stuffing bread cake ( served with chips , of course, this IS Yorkshire after all ) and from past experience the bacon butty. So make space in your diary for a visit and marvel at what has been achieved!

High tide , high expectations. 3.2.2017.

News that the coastal road closure had been lifted coupled with the fact that the high tide at Titchwell was predicted to be around 1030 hours prompted a rapid change of plan.Whilst I got there early the opportunity had been espied by many other people too as the car park was filling quite quickly.

There was still enough time to make a leisurely examination of all areas alongside the footpath to the beach. Almost in a replay of previously the ditch near the Visitor Centre produced a nice surprise in the form of a Water Rail feeding out in the open in an entirely unconcerned way. The usual array of duck species was on the main lagoon together with a nice group of Avocet.  Finally I reached the coast and chose a quieter spot to the west away from the gathering at the very end of the path !.

  Now to a mere observer of the seascape there were few indicators of the delights that lay beyond !

A telescope scan showed duck to be everywhere. In addition to the large raft of Common Scoter other parties were scattered around,  many with accompanying Velvet Scoters which were easily segregated, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and, best of all, a seeming profusion of Long-tailed Duck were all obvious. I've never seen so many Long-tails off Titchwell, or of Velvet Scoter either.  I eventually found a single Slavonian Grebe amongst several Great crested Grebe dotted about and, then, quite fortuitously, came across a Red-necked Grebe which promptly dived and couldn't be found again. I'm not into counting fleeting views for year lists, but confess to a frantic casting around trying to locate the bird again, which I didn't !!

Odd Red-throated Diver appeared at distance and a single Razorbill, so there was much to search for. It was great, and so was the weather too. A slow return along the path produced nothing new compared to the day I'd spent here previously other than Brambling and Siskin visiting the feeders so it was time to move on. Choseley Barns was a disappointment with nothing there other than a few Woodpigeon  and a great mound of earth which blocks the view across much of the large adjacent field. Yet another deliberate intervention ?

On to Thornham and an exploration of the eastern end of the Thornham/Holme area. There was little to be seen so I travelled around and came into the NWT Holme Reserve just on the off chance of the Ferruginous Duck having returned  ( it hadn't ). Obviously the surfeit of riches from the morning wasn't going to be replicated ! Time was moving on so I thought I'd take a tilt at Golden Pheasant at Wolferton. I was there in good time, secured "the lay by spot" and waited.  At 1730 hours I finally conceded with a tally of a Grey Squirrel, 3 Muntjac and 2 Fallow Deer ! The day had obviously closed down ! It had been a good week nonetheless, so no grumbles, and there was still time for a roast dinner and a pint of Ghost Ship before thinking of the return journey tomorrow and the delights of the Five Nations Rugby.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A day at Cley. 2.2.2017

I'd promised myself a day spent nowhere else other than at Cley, mainly so that I could discover the pathways etc around the newly extended part of the reserve and , generally, have a good , relaxed days birding.  Firstly I went down the Beach Road and , finally, managed to see the immature Glaucous Gull.

A poor photograph , but a great bird that was certainly confident and provided nice views.

I spent some considerable time trying to catch up with the Siberian Chiffchaff which had been reported ( along with three other Chiffchaffs ) . Certainly the odd Chiffchaff was around but I saw none of them as they appeared to be very mobile. Despite the forecast the weather was nice and sunny , so I had a walk along the new trail out towards Salthouse and visited the new hide.  Not a lot in evidence but I guess this new scrape  is certainly going to "deliver" in future.  I spent the final part of the afternoon looking for the Smew which spent its time between the Serpentime and the seclusion of a nearby ditch. I did finally get some very poor views of an immobile bird hunkered down within some reeds at the far end of said ditch !

The sea was very quiet other than a lone Red-throated Diver and then I had the East Bank to myself as dusk began to fall. A Tawny Owl called from the woodland adjacent to the road and, then, yet another day was over !

North Norfolk challenge!. 1.2.2017

The day started well.  I went to Salthouse early and simply happened across a 3rd winter Caspian Gull that I couldn't even share with anyone  (as I imagine they were still engaged with toast and marmalade or whatever )!  At one point a 3rd winter Herring Gull pitched up alongside as a very useful comparison. Other than that the area was somewhat short of birds.

Ever onward I then discovered what might best be described as a bloody nightmare ! I do try not to use bad language ( it's entirely unnecessary ), but this scenario warranted worse, honestly. There were road diversions in place from Blakeney to the other side of Wells !!!  Signage was minimal, involved a detour around Fakenham and , as we all know, Norfolk's lanes, if you do try and use your initiative are , shall we say, confusing !!!  And so it was . I went through villages of name and description that would be contenders for locations in " Midsommer Murders " , I became lost , wasted time  and cast a pox on all road engineers !! Somehow I managed to find Stiffkey and had a lone time birding over the marshes.

Brent Geese and Little Egret were feeding close in to the car park due to the lack of activity, but little else was in evidence.

Attempts to catch up with previously reported species at both Choseley and Thormham Harbour came to nought, so on I went to the RSPB Titchwell Reserve , and I'm pleased I did as , in many senses, it saved the day.

The list of duck was impressive with Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Pintail, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Shelduck, Common Scoter ( at distance as the tide was out ) supplemented by Brent Geese , Grey lag Goose , overflying Pink footed Goose and an equally  impressive list of waders  including, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot , Dunlin , Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Avocet and, finally a very showy Jack Snipe in the ditch behind the Visitor Centre ( the one that usually delivers Water Rail, but didn't ).  And in addition I had great views of both a Chinese Water Deer and a Muntjac. What more can you ask for ?  There was the question of road diversions , which were still in place , as was the curse of a plague of frogs etc!!!!

Transfer to the coast. 31.1.2017.

Today marked my "transition" to Norfolk's north coast.  I'd planned a rough route which allowed me to call in at various places, but added to this by deciding to go through the centre of Great Yarmouth too. Why,you ask ?  Well, the seafront at Great Yarmouth is one of the easiest places in winter to see Mediterranean Gull, hence my detour.  However, such appeared not to be the case as very few gulls were around at all after my "drive thru" southwards so I resumed my journey northwards feeling a bit disgruntled. Eventually I saw a veritable cloud of Black-headed Gulls and the inevitable figure dispensing bread to the assembled throng ! And, as expected, there within the flock , was a single Mediterranean Gull ; a quite handsome individual with the black flecks of its emerging hood just begining to appear. But only one...interesting !

On, northwards, to near Horsey, in fact almost opposite the point at which we'd all been stationed last evening watching for Cranes and harriers!  Several fields carried pools of water around which were groups of Golden Plover and Lapwing together with low numbers of Common Snipe dispersed across the same areas. Several Skylarks put out phrases from , as yet, incomplete songs.

Onward to Walcott, where I called in at the Kingfisher Cafe ( closed Mondays ! ) for the habitual bacon butty and tea to accompany a sea watch from the adjacent promenade.  The sea was dull, grey and seemingly flat, but carried a restless, disguised swell  that saw birds disappearing for intervals within its advancing embrace.  A few Red-throated Divers, but little else other than scavenging Turnstone and Sanderling   "working the pavement" opposite the cafe, but nowhere else along its length.

And so , finally , to Salthouse , where I saw the results of the storm surge and devastation of less than a couple of weeks ago. As expected a few Mallard, Wigeon, Shelduck , various gulls, a Little Egret and a single Pied Wagtail was all that was on offer so I moved on to the NWT Centre at Cley where I met with people from last evening and picked up on news about a Bean Goose, possibly more, that was with a large Pink-footed Goose flock at Weybourne. So it was back along the road ( not that far ) , parking in the coastal  car park before walking eastwards over the hill to the Coastguards' Cottages to view the flock from the nearby access lane. It was rather a big flock spread over two fields at least , mainly due to being spooked by two idiots who entered the main field trying to get photographs !  I did manage to get a view of at least one of the Bean Geese before heading back to try and get the last couple of hours of daylight at Cley.

Walking along the East Bank at Cley it was immediately obvious where the tidal surge had moved through as some quite large areas of reeds were still flattened. This inundation had reached the coastal road and deposited large volumes of debris carried forward on what must have been a significant tidal surge of 10-15 feet high. Whilst there was plenty of duck and waders in evidence on Pope's Marsh, small birds were few and far between. Both the Local Authority and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust need to be congratulated on restoring normality to what had otherwise been an extreme event which, by now, had no effect on access along the road or within the reserve at all.   I simply enjoyed the raw, wildness of it all, promised myself a full day taking in the delights of the whole area and "retired" at dusk to a welcome pint of "Ghost Ship" and the promise of a good meal!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Quick notice !

Unfortunately, due to an absence of WiFi facilities where I'm to be based, I'm not going to be in a position to post entries until Sunday of this week. Get ready for a marathon read !   Sorry folks !

Monday, January 30, 2017

Hawfinches, harriers and Common Cranes.

Yesterday, Sunday 29th, I spent virtually all day at Lynford Arboretum. I don't know the site at all well and so had a good explore around the place. It's famed , of course, for its Hawfinch sightings ( of which more later ! ), but there's much more to enjoy. Birds include Firecrest, Marsh Tit and Crossbill and many more given the wide variety of habitats.

As with many places in the Brecks there's a fascinating history associated with the place and the wide open spaces can be enjoyed by all, as yesterday testified,with dog walkers, joggers, horseriders and photographers out in abundance due to the nice weather ( at least in the morning ).

I'd gone there from early morning until late afternoon in order totry and see Hawfinch. I didn't , but I gained a lot of advice and saw a good array of the other species on offer including Crossbill, lots of Siskin, which were also in good voice, some fine Brambling, and also Water Vole and Muntjac.  The weather turned completely in the late afternoon when rain moved in for a time. I resolved to come back again in the morning ( today! ) and try and catch the Hawfinch before they dispersed..

I've often thought that the Hawfinches roost in or nearby to "The Paddock" area and then disperse out to feeding areas. With this in mind I was there at first light and, following a worrying few minutes when nothing was in evidence, was rewarded with a single bird appearing as if by magic and perching atop a tree giving first class views.  Nine other birds then emerged and were in view before they all flew off, but in two differing directions.  It was great to get flight views and calls as they went away.  By sheer coincidence I then met with some people at Buckenham Marshes who advised that they never visit before the afternoon or towards roost time ! I guess many disappointed visitors simply get there a little too late !

And so, as you can guess, I moved off early and went across eastwards to Strumpshaw and Buckenham Marshes.


The "extent" that is Buckenham Marshes looking towards Cantley.

As ever Wigeon and Teal were in abundance and plagued periodically by a marauding Peregrine !  Mallard, Shoveler, Shelduck, Canada Goose, Grey lag Goose , Pink footed Goose and White-fronted Goose were all in evidence plus Water Pipit and Stonechat,  but sadly no Bean Geese of which six of the wintering flock remain. Unfortunately little men in orange vests working on the railway line close to their favourite "corner" had possibly moved them on for the day !

The day's finale involved moving on to the Norfolk Trust's Hickling Reserve for the harrier roost.  Contrasted against what has seen over 80 Marsh Harriers attend this roost the showing was modest by comparison with my count being of only 26 birds. Nonetheless it was exciting as ever to see them arriving  and then quickly disappearing into roost within the reeds and rough vegetation. Two Hen Harriers were also a part of the spectacle with an extremely pale male bird arriving from the south and a ring tail moving in very swiftly a little later.  A Tawny Owl provided some  very early calls to end the day well previous to around 25 Common Cranes coming into roost at the very fall of darkness.  Not a bad day at all and I even got a glimpse of a Chinese Water Deer !

Countryside management or convenience cutting !!

Comments please ! The devastation alongside a layby in the aftermath of "hedge trimming ".

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Fenland transit !

In many ways this was always going to be a transfer day involving a renewed acquaintance with Fenland.  I really like the never ending horizons and wide vistas , but I'm not sure I'd chose it as my favourite birding area. For one thing , the road systems are too complicated and badly signposted ( at least I find so ).

The weather had improved after overnight rain and eventually saw some sunny periods and balmy 9C temperatures! I eventually found my way to the Nene Washes, after some devilish self navigation, only to find that it was more or less dry. Other than the walks along the embankments from the RSPB's car park I'm not sure of any other areas you can gain access to. Nonetheless, after Marsh Harrier, Buzzard, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk as highlights I managed to pick up three Common Cranes in flight that eventually alighted to feed but at considerable distance.

I then went across Fenland to the  Welney area.. A good view of a family party of (6) Bewick's Swans was nice and , later, several other larger groups were encountered including some Whooper Swans as well.

Many were at a distance and difficult to see in the sense of an absence of a useful vantage point. Certainly the number of young birds appeared to be very low.

A trip alongside Ten Mile Bank through to Littleport produced a few passerines in the form of 30 Fieldfares, a Linnet flock and a mixed , loose party of Chaffinch and Greenfinch.  Blackbirds appear to be in quite good numbers generally and Lapwings were widely spread across the area, but basically that was it..

Friday, January 27, 2017

Spurn Visitor Centre proposal approved.

In a bewildering reversal of the decision taken previously to reject the proposal, the requisite Planning Committee of East Yorkshire Council on Thursday approved the new submission by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to build a new visitor centre at Spurn. Such was claimed to be revised and updated but, in all honesty, very little appeared to be in evidence in the details put forward.  This is to be funded by Eon via an alledged grant of  £900,000.

This is not the latest image of what the Centre will look like nor is the mast part of the application, but the general idea is authentic!!

The proposal has been controversial at best and attracted over 700 objections and less than a third of this figure from those in support. It has polarized the local community, the majority of whom were adamantly against the idea , not least based on the questionable management of the site by the Trust in the past and the dismissive relationship it offered the local residents. That very recent efforts have now been made by the Trust to address this situation in the form of creating a liaison group is most probably a step too late and it seems more likely that their every action will be closely and critically monitored.

I fully appreciate the reasons why the Trust might need to maximise visitor attendance and income from the site and the various management challenges which are now present associated with the site, but I remain unconvinced that this proposal is a viable option. Sadly there's a rock and a hard place dimension to this scenario.  Accepting the current level of attendance clearly generates insufficient income to cover the required routine management and increasing management tasks to do with safety any management body would critically examine other solutions. Extending the facilities puts inevitable pressure on a series of fragile habitats and, lets face it , on a diminishing land holding given the inevitable likelihood of further inundations by the sea and extensive erosion.  But beyond all these sort of issues that have concerned people, the projections of visitor attendance, I believe, are optimistic at best and will be the ultimate downfall of the whole initiative. Beyond the first couple of years, when curiosity and top heavy site promotion might see the figures suggested being realised , I honestly believe things will then deteriorate significantly resulting in the Centre operating part time and then closing altogether as the negative cost ratios will leave little alternative.

I admit to having objected to the proposal on that basis.  I don't envy the dilemma which otherwise would need to be addressed by the Trust and also admit that I have no sure fire alternative which might even be tried. But a decision has now been taken and it is necessary to abide by the outcome and see what happens.It's pointless being negative, aggressive or despondent on the one hand or unnecessarily promote the success of the proposal as a victory either. At the end of the day it is Spurn and its future which is important and I guess , whatever "side" you're on, there's some serious reflection to indulge in as far as what that future might entail.

White billed Diver quest !

The day didn't start well.   I overslept ( very rare for me ), it was foggy outside with sub zero temperatures and on the very day I was travelling down to East Anglia, at least eventually. So, overcoming all the obviously ensuing chaos I set off and decided to play safe and keep to main highway routes.  I'd decided to "call into Lincolnshire " and see the White-billed Diver on the River Whitam.  I eventually took the Sleaford road and cut northwards, although the visibility was improving . What nobody had mentioned is that there are some road closures and diversions in the vicinity of the bird's location which cost both time and patience.....but eventually I made it by early afternoon.

I was entertained by some Geordies , who'd been there all day and who had followed the bird northwards up the river and then back down again!  At least it seemed I was at the right end of the river stretch, although updated news that it was moving north again prompted the lyrics of that famous  Proclaimer's song, "I'm Gonna Be" , to play through my mind ( " But I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more"  ) . Absolutely nothing to do with divers or birdwatching of course, but it did seem apt, although it was so damned cold I'm not sure the pledge would have been carried out!!

Gaining the path on the eastern side of the river, it was a relief to see some birders watching the river intently a hundred metres or so along the path !  And, yes, there it was just swimming around mid river.

How about that for a bill?  Whow!  gradually the bird moved northwards, diving at intervals which, in some instances, saw it move quite a distance.  It seemed totally unfazed by the attention it was receiving  and simply moved around at its own pace. eventually I decided to return to the car, process the photographs  and gloat !!  One thing I did discover , which I confess I've not seen previously , at least not as clearly. The bird showed a very distinct "spectacle" appearance when seen head on.

So a bad start which ended well !!

Added note!   Various people have made comments about this bird/entry which, I confess, I've not really understood until today when I had a chat with a birder whilst at Lynford. Apparently around ten years ago there was a similar record in the same vicinity with the bird getting hooked up by a fisherman and, I think, dying eventually.  All is now clear.....I'm not into avian resurrection or time zone changes !  I'd be living on Islay at the time or away somewhere and clearly missed the sad news.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lucky love's labours ! 22.1.2017

Yesterday saw my son, Matthew, and I visit various places around Wakefield and Leeds. A cold day, in fact the temperature never reached more than 3C and , for quite a time , was on freezing.  It was misty too at times with even odd flurries of snow in the afternoon.  Very much a labour of love, but that's birding !.

Our first stop was in Ossett where a Black Redstart had been reported. This was present in the graveyard surrounding a rather imposing church. Now, it has to be said, creeping around in a graveyard in freezing temperatures immediately after dawn carries an atmosphere all of its own ! Thankfully the bird showed itself fairly soon and seemed quite oblivious to the attention it was receiving from us and a couple of other birdwatchers. It appeared in good condition, fed frequently , but also took time out to sit and preen showing its tail pattern and white wing edgings off to good effect.

Next we went on a Waxwing hunt ! Driving around Morley in poor weather is unlikely to lift your spirits I have to say, (  some would say otherwise I'm sure ) , but on drawing a blank  we followed a hunch of Matthew's and went to the White Rose Retail Park.  Being a birder gets you to some of the most edifying places !  And, yes, berry bearing bushes there were some,  but not with Waxwings. And then in what I suspect was one of the far flung corners we came across a party of 17 birds sitting atop a tree on the edge of a car park and occasionally diving down to feed.

We watched them for quite a time and listened to their muted calls. Surprisingly a Magpie which descended with a flourish into "their" tree didn't spook  them and they continued to preen and simply sit there.

Eventually we'd had our fill and moved on to more conventional birding at Swillington and Fairburn. Neither of us really know the former site, other than one location, but this provided us with a good selection of species ( Goosander, Sparrowhawk, Goldeneye, Pochard, Shoveler, Teal and a sizeable flock of Canada Geese across the river  ).  This was a day to keep on the move and so we eventually transferred to the RSPB Reserve at Fairburn. Lunch first and then a series of walks around the various trails. It was good to see so many people out and about on what was a penetratingly cold day and the car park was virtually full.

The locations where feeders were present presented a focus for many people and provided us with views of what is now begining to be a species you've really to seek out with a vengeance, Willow Tit. Other species entertained including good numbers of Tree Sparrows, Goldfinch, Blue, Great and Coal Tits , Greenfinch, Dunnock and a couple of Redpoll, which I heard , but missed. This generated talk between us of the recent decision by the BOU to "lump" Common (Mealy ) and Lesser Redpoll together and the inevitable discussion that will now continue revolving around the "Redpoll complex " !

A period spent watching along a favoured dyke for Kingfisher and Water Rail was unsuccessful , but provided tremendous views of a Little Egret feeding in the shallows which could be seen to contain hundreds of small fish. An attempt to see the Smew which is present on Village Bay was both futile and frustrating. Given much of the reserve runs adjacent to a busy main road the number of safe viewing locations is small and a long trek is required to cover this large section of the reserve. This must be a real frustration for the RSPB too and no obvious or immediate solution seems possible.Nonetheless we managed to find the Great White Egret and we both had what I suspect were the best views ever, both at home and abroad, and ones that will take some time to surpass.  It was mid-afternoon, the temperatures were not going to improve, mist was emerging and even odd snow flurries were developing,so we called it a day.  In reality not a bad one either, doing what you love best and being rewarded with a good return !

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Carlton Marsh LNR 14.1.2017

I'd been looking forward to this visit for some considerable time.  The fact of the matter is that I lived opposite the reserve for about ten years (  approx. 1959 -1969 ) and was dying to see how it had been developed. I haven't the precise dates or details but a distant relative had actually sold the low lying marshland known as Carlton Marsh to the Barnsley Council. At some point Eric Bennett ( Barnsley Planning Dept ).........yes, he who designed the Old Moor RSPB Reserve as well.....devised a plan for the area which, later, was designated as a Local Nature Reserve.  At that time a rather badly polluted stream meandered through the swampy valley-bottom area which , at times, became far worse as the Council determined a policy to locate a series of car breakers yards in the adjacent locality. Whilst the latter businesses remained,  things gradually formalised and became better, although the odd dispute remained in place. Essentially the area comprised a wet juncus ridden area with little open water and , vastly compared to the present, little or no tree cover, although scrub was present on the railway embankment. It was perfectly possible to see down the valley from Far Field Cottages where I lived with my parents. Whilst we are talking of a span of over forty years to the present it is to the credit of Barnsley MBC that the area has been retained and , when possible, has had money spent on it resulting in the marvellous place it is today !  One thing that I've repeatedley dwelt on in recent days is that I've potentially lived somewhere that has had Bittern within 300 yards, except the timing was awry!!  But enough of the old boy ramblings and onto the present day!

So, what does the reserve look like today?

Extending down the valley there has been a number of quite large water bodies created recently, whose potential has yet to be realised.  The biggest surprise is the sheer amount of tree cover which has been introduced, drawing in a wide variety of species ( they've even Common Buzzard in the area! ). It has a car park, a great hide, a pond for schools to utilise for dipping purposes and endless seats perched on the elevated railway embankment to the west allowing a series of views to be taken over large sections of the reserve.  In the past the duck species present would have been limited to Mallard and Teal.  Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Mallard , Teal, Little Grebe, Mute Swan, Grey lag Goose and various gull species were present on my visit even though most of the "lagoons" carried a thin coating of ice.  The overall species list that has been recorded is awesome and the number of breeding species is also impressive. At some point I'll review the latest Annual Report and reveal a little more of the treasures present or recorded!!

Throughout all of the reserve's emergent  "history" a local stalwart in the form of Cliff Gorman has been a permanent presence at the reserve  ( about 43 years....sorry Cliff ! ) and I suspect will remain so for some considerable time yet. At 70 years he's " nobbutt a lad" as they say in this part of the world and I suspect will turn in more than a few relevant records in the years to come!! Here he is yesterday in the early morning light doing a scrutiny of the main lagoon...

We walked the whole length of the reserve, discussed much ....and I learned a great deal... and saw quite a number of birds ( a great start to the occasion when I'd determined to commence a "Birds seen in Yorkshire List, something I've never done before ).  The future looks good for the reserve too. In recent times the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Ltd has agreed a five year contract with the Barnsley MBC  to oversee the management of various sites, which includes Carlton Marsh,  and it appears has already injected some expertise into the development of the area.

I could go on ...and on !! I thoroughly enjoyed the day, the Red Fox sightings, the emerging knowledge that Willow Tits were present on site and a whole host of other aspects. I shall be back and hopefully regularly too. Thanks to Cliff ( and to Eric Bennett and Keith Bannister who couldn't be there on the day ). And , oh, Bittern is currently resident ( there has been two ! ) and there is a very suitable reed bed........


The High Road south ! 8.1.2017

Departing fairly early the plan was to take advantage of travelling past the area and call in at various sites in Strathspey en route.  Thoughts of Crested Tit, Scottish Crossbill, even Black Grouse, were enticing but despite some intensive searching in three or four areas I got nothing!! Hardly surprising given time was of the essence and luck does come into things.

An eventual breakfast/lunch overlooking Insh Marshes provided a few birds to look at, but nothing new , so I pressed on. My objective was The Cuile, north of Pitlochry ( PH16 5QU ) which is north of Perth.  Last year , during January and February, a male Ring-necked Duck had been in residence  and, this winter, the bird had turned up even earlier well before Christmas.

The site is very pleasant, quite small, enclosed largely by trees and comprises a water body towards the bottom of a hillside which itself plays host to a golf course.  How on earth did a Ring-necked Duck locate such a small, quiet location I wondered.  Other birds were present ( Mallard, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan and Little Grebe ) but the whole scene portrayed the tranquility of a small local site that might have been overlooked !  The bird was easily located , appeared utterly at ease and provided great views.

After prolonged and relaxing views I made my way south to overnight at Kinross.  The next couple of days or so bear little or no mention. Poor weather, very strong winds plus snow and general mayhem was forecast which prompted me to head off south early after seeing precious little on the day when such conditions began to arise.  Thankfully I "escaped" the frustration of the Forth Bridge being closed, the blown down trees in Northumberland or the snow which followed  as , by then, I was approaching home!! Not quite the plan I'd had in mind but "positive luck" seemed to be on my side for this one!!!

Birding around Kirkhill, Beauly. 7.1.2017

Well the pre and post Christmas and early New Year sojourn at Kirkhill was now at an end and the time had arrived to travel southwards and home. The journey up had been mixed with snow across the Drumochter Pass and northwards, but with milder periods then developing interspersed with some pretty windy interludes!!  The forecast now appeared to be changing.

The very edge of Kirkhill village borders on farmland which itself then resides adjacent to the Beauly Firth. Various woodlands are in evidence so its a nice mixed  bag of habitats. The weather had been relatively good, contrasted against what this area can actually receive in winter, but this certainly didn't deter birds from visiting garden feeders. In fact, a wider variety of species was actually seen in a garden setting than without!!
Regular walks out with the dogs encountered both Grey lag and Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans could be heard trumpeting from down near the Firth. As ever titmice were in evidence ( Great, Blue, Coal, Long-tailed ) as were finches and buntings ( Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Brambling, Bullfinch, Siskin, Yellowhammer ) with numbers of House and Tree Sparrows as well.  A Great spotted Woodpecker dominated the feeders at times and the expected ground feeders were present ( Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock, Wren ). However no Starlings were seen in over two weeks ! Tawny Owl was encountered on a couple of occasions too. Together with corvids, gulls, Common Buzzard and the odd Woodpigeon and Pheasant quite a variety was recorded between periods of more earnest birding.  Doubtless things will alter as the intensity of the winter takes a more firm grip on things overall but, overall , I was pleased with what had occurred to form the "bedrock" of a Year List for 2017

Quest at Clachnaharry Bay, Inverness. 6.1. 2017

Encouraged by reports that the American Wigeon present around Clachnaharry Lock ( note the spelling ) was somewhat tame and easily viewed I called in to the area after being in town.  Late morning is not the most ideal time for some areas particularly when coupled, as on this occasion , with the tide being low in the Beauly Firth ! And so it proved ! The Clachnaharry circuit is much favoured as a  local walk, indeed, it more resembled an exercise area at Crufts as constant numbers of  our canine friends were given their morning constitutional around its boundary.

Clachnaharry Lock is at the end of the Caledonian Canal and essentially effects entry into the Beauly Firth. The bird had been recorded within the lock on a regular basis and even grazed on its well maintained embankments on occasion. But not on this particular morning !   A fine male Goldeneye, and small parties of Mallard and Tufted Duck were within the basin, but that was it.

  I walked the whole circuit and eventually found the bird sitting out on the open water of the Firth, which, relatively speaking,  was quite a distance away given low tide. My hopes of a picture or super close views were dashed, but that's birding!!  This is a very convenient site which juts out into the Firth, but has "enclosed" corners on each flank with exposed mud that attracts waders and gulls. Well worth a visit and, who knows, you might even see an American Wigeon !!

Two days on the Black Isle.( 3rd and 5th January ).

Finally a couple of days emerged when I could get out for complete days. Both were quite contrasted as far as weather conditions were concerned with the first being fine , but with a strong SW wind and the second day being almost calm. Sadly the incoming tide was late in the afternoon on the 3rd and into the evening on the 5th.

Munlochy Bay held few birds on either date due to the tide being fully out. A few Oystercatcher, Curlew, Wigeon, and Shelduck were in evidence and Red Kite swooped and floated above a distant hillside. Chanonry Point provided a brief view of a fine Bottle-nosed Dolphin quite close in and an immature Gannet, but little else. Across the "spine" of the Black Isle towards the Cromarty Firth,  still operating as a dismantling site, graveyard even, for several drilling rigs previously in the North Sea.

It was at this point the wind started to rise and viewing conditions over the Firth deteriorated. There were certainly birds around but difficult to see. As an example , I located the Greater Scaup flock, counted it five times and got five widely different figures! Cutting my losses I went straight on to the RSPB reserve at Udale Bay and spent the remainder of the afternoon there.

There was a lot of birds around.  Shelduck, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Curlew, Redshank, a Black-tailed Godwit, Little Grebe and distant Pink-footed Geese. I'd a memory of a Green-winged Teal being present previously so I optimistically spent some time going through the dispersed feeding Teal, without any luck, but in the process found the American Wigeon within the increasing numbers of Wigeon grazing at the head of the loch. Brief, but reasonable, views were obtained before it did a disappearing act amongst the large number of its relatives!

The second date was an altogether different situation. Other than Munlochy Bay I didn't bother covering any sites on the east of the Black Isle , but went straight to the "mouth" of the Cromarty Firth and worked my way westwards towards the head of the loch.  Good views of Slavonian Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, Eider, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and, finally, the Greater Scaup flock, which numbered between 350/400 birds.  I had my breakfast/lunch further westwards looking out over the , still, largely empty loch.

As the tide moved in very slowly good views were had of common waders , including again a single Black-tailed Godwit, small numbers of which are now a common feature of the area.  The locality , now a designated NNR, is not without its history as information boards outline ( click on the image and read the details. )

Moving on to Udale Bay again the tide was fully out, and even eventually , advanced very slowly. An obliging Peregrine sat on on what I understand is a regularly used perching post and provided a welcome diversion. The afternoon moved on with birds appearing very gradually with the still distant tide. A predicted low tide, calm conditions and a High Tide time of early evening meant opportunities were inevitably restricted so, with dusk approaching, I eventually called it a day after what , after all, had been two good days of birding.

Monday, January 2, 2017

High hopes for 2017 !

Here's to the future now
It's only just begun.

So, in the words of the song, the time of year has arrived again when , for birders, unfettered anticipation and a possible resolve to see more than in the immediate year previous arises. 2016 was, for me, a year of extremes, but not in a birding sense. I moved south from Islay back to my native Yorkshire, not an easy change but one which holds increasing possibilities. Now a year of  "can do better " ( much better in fact )  is certainly on the books.

Unfortunately, since last Spring, a number of things emerged which frustrated attempts at any "immediate birding" or systematic coverage locally. Thankfully all these are now sorted out and the future is bright with opportunity for wall to wall birding. It's the first time for decades that I've had few or no circumstances to tie me down.  Trips have been planned, including much more time being spent on the East Coast and I'm really looking forward to it all !!   I might even try a 2017 Year List !!

As a taster of what possibilities are present , news came on New Year's Eve that a new Yorkshire record had been set by Garry Taylor in 2016 when he saw 285 species within the year in the County.  Mega place !!  Whilst I shan't be chasing that figure I'm hoping 2017 holds promise to deliver a reasonable proportion of what clearly can be seen within the County. It is a big place after all !! 

I'm in Scotland at present and whilst I can't start much in earnest until the 3rd, local opportunities are certainly not barren or unexciting. With Pink-footed Geese occasionally feeding in the field next to the house, Whooper Swans calling from the Beauly Firth in the distance and a wide variety of passerines visiting the garden feeders from the surrounding farmland and woodlands I'm certainly not frustrated or disappointed. Positively encouraged you might say !

Whilst I've taken my foot off the pedal in recent times as far as Blogging is concerned, I can promise I'll now be returning to the fold and relating all that happens in the upcoming year. Ready to be bored ?  I'll even weave in a few aspects linked to conservation for respite......can unfettered anticipation be taken any further I ask?