Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Friday, 30 December 2011

My Birding Year

Year list (British): 164*
'Total' year list (inc abroad): 179
Lifers: 55
Number of times Woodpigeon mistaken for something else: 18

A brief glimpse of a Water Rail today, darting between reed beds, was a welcome late year tick on an otherwise overcast and dreary day at Rainham. It's been a frustratingly slow trawl through winter, but otherwise I've had an absolutely brilliant year watching birds.

So what is this 'year list' thing? Well, simply, it's a record of each species I saw this year. Not everyone keeps lists but like those that do, I had certain rules; I had to see the bird, not just hear it, they had to be wild too and on the official 'British list'. So, for example, the Black Swan that I spotted with a Mute flock on the marshes can't be counted. 164 in my first year of actually keeping a record seems like a good achievement. It helped that I travelled a bit; made short trips to far flung corners of the British Isles, including Wales, Ireland and Scotland. It also helped that since July I have found myself living on a stunning nature reserve in Kent. What a privilege it's's unreal sometimes. It's not about ticks really, it's about birds and there have been some great moments.

Ok, so there were some misses too. You'd think that I should have been able to rustle up a Bittern somewhere, given their widely reported and welcome return from near-extinction in the UK. I missed a sitter on Egyptian Goose and Wood Warbler proved elusive during a camping trip to Wales in June. I felt sure that Brambling and Woodcock would be sure bets this winter, but not near me apparently. The latter, I'm 99% sure I had one day - my only glimpse a small, dark, brown shape flushed from undergrowth in a thumping whirr of wingbeats. So a classic Woodcock encounter but an element of doubt and it don't cut the cheese - them's the rules. And then of course there is THAT bird. The one that got away. We don't talk about it here, we'll just refer to it as that punk-haired visitor from Scandinavia and beyond. I think I'm the only person in the UK who didn't see one last winter.

My 2011 list apparently started with a Jay seen from my bedroom window in Lewisham on Jan 1st. To the untrained eye, south east London probably looks like a never-ending parade of fried chicken places and Tesco metros' (and that's a fair assessment). But in amongst it there is green gold and my favourite spots (stand up Sydenham Hill Wood, Hilly Fields, Nunhead Cemetary, Brookmill Park) were good for nearly 60 species between January and April. College field trips were great for birding (less so for actually working) and nabbed me a fine male Smew at Amwell Lakes in Herts and a pair of Whoopers over Enfield. Spring was spring and I went everywhere, whenever I could. My first Blackcap arrived in Lewisham on March 29th, closely followed by Willow Warbler in Crystal Palace on April 5th. Swallows weren't far behind, arriving on my patch by the end of the month, shortly before the first Swift of the year on May 3rd.
Great Crested Grebe, Hatfield Forest
 The fantastic array of habitats on offer at Northward Hill and Cliffe Pools (wet grassland, grazing marsh, saline pools, woodland and scrub) meant I swapped the daily coo and shuffle of pigeons outside my window for yellow wagtails, bearded tits, barn owls and all manner of waders. An amazing run in September and October also saw the sites share 3 'not-quite-megas'', but still very scarce birds. A stunning juvenile Pallid Harrier, a rare passage migrant from the east, roosted at Cliffe Pools for several nights in late September. Dipping this gorgeous bird on the 2nd day, I was thrilled to get several views on the next - the last day it was seen. Cliffe also turned up a superb adult male Isabelline Shrike (17th-18th Oct), the day after a Red-flanked Bluetail was found at Northward Hill. I didn't include Bluetail on my list because the bird was recovered during a ringing session. Assisting the ringer, it's hard to describe the joyous disbelief I felt at seeing this bird, probably the rarest bird Northward Hill has ever had. Unfortunately the encounter showed me the best and worst of the birding 'community' and triggered a series of decisions that I don't entirely agree with. Some people are petty - just because you didn't see it, howabout you congratulate those who did and celebrate it's remarkable journey.
A stunning female Red-flanked Bluetail
Oustide the UK, a flying visit to Portugal in June was memorable for unforgettable close-up views of Black-winged Stilts, Bee-eaters and more. But it was watching nesting Avcoets, a bird I probably take for granted here, that really brought home what I love about birdwatching. It's not just watching; it's learning something new and respecting the small, feathery life that goes on around us. The life that doesn't  really have a voice but that will still shout the heavens down if you get too close to its young.

But if I had to choose one bird that summed up this year for me, it would be this one (sorry crap pic):
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) from my bedroom window, RSPB Northward Hill, 9.7.11
 I always read that Turtle doves' were the 'sound of summer' in rural areas - certainly there was little chance of hearing or seeing one in London. But since this was the first lifer I got in Kent, perhaps it's the bird that I'll always remember as symbolising this chapter in my life. It also symbolises the massive struggle we face in this country to protect our birds and their habitats. A report in November revealed that Turtle Dove is now the most threatened farmland bird in the UK - in danger of extinction as a breeding bird within years. For every 7 birds there were 10 years ago, there is now 1. That's mindblowing. Once it's got passed the hunters' guns in the Med it has to contend with epic, industrial-scale farming both here and in Europe. It is just one of many species we face losing if we don't take a look at what is happening around us. It aint easy being a bird but I hope this is one that I can tick off for years to come. Here's to more awesome birds in 2012!

So what was your highlight of 2011? What did you see and what did you miss? Got a birding story? Get in touch...

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Glad Tidings

A Heron at the top of the Christmas Tree?!
(Photo - parent's back garden, Dec 2011)
According to blogger analytics, this blog has had over 2200 hits this year. They can't all be mum checking up on me so I'm pleasantly surprised by it. I had no expectations when I started but it's amazing to see readers have checked in from as far afield as India, Alaska, Peru and Russia. Sorry if you were drawn in by the promise of poetry - if so, here's a suitably seasonal haiku for you:

Winter solitude--
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

(Matsuo Basho)

And in the spirit of the season let me take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy Christmas or if you're the reader in Latvia - laimīgs Ziemassvētku!

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Wo die Vögel sind?

Urban birding: Berlin, 16th - 18th December 2011

Why fly when you can take the bus? Hooded crows (Corvus cornix), Berlin 17.12.11
It was great to be back in Berlin for Rob's birthday this weekend. I'd forgotten how much I love the place; the way modern buildings sit alongside brutalist tenements and tree-lined avenues lead on to expansive soviet squares. Currywurst was a new thing for me, since my vegetarianism recently evolved into something not...quite...vegetarian. But hey, it was a holiday. And it tasted good. Anyway, birding didn't feature at all on my companions' agenda for Berlin, but between the bars and musuems I still managed to sneak in a bit.

One of the first things I noticed were the Hooded crows; flying over or poking about in the street. This close relative of the Carrion crow (Corvus corone -which is thought to have evolved from Hooded, rather than the other way round) is fairly uncommon in England, though can be found throughout Ireland and northern Europe. Those who think corvids are ugly might like to a take a closer look at this one.

Gulls were more of an attraction for me on a frozen walk along the East Side Gallery - a remnant of the old wall now tarnished with really crap art. Black-headed, Common, Herring and at least one Yellow-legged gull dipped in and out of car park puddles in an adjacent lot while others swirled over the nearby River Spree.

Berlin is a city full of green spaces, from small town squares to the majestic Tiergarten in the west. A supremely hungover walk through the beautiful Volkspark Friedrichshain in Prenzlauerberg on Sunday ticked numerous boxes - it was quiet, it had weird sculptures and I'd also heard it was a good area for Hawfinch. I didn't find any of the latter but I was totally smitten with a flock of (northern) Long-tails flitting between the impressive old poplars on bunker hill. The 'northern' race of Long-tailed tits (caudatus) have all white faces as opposed to the ones we see in the UK which have a dark-black nape/crown - the 'western' race or europaeus. They're generally resident birds, not migrating far so it's pretty rare to see caudatus ssp in the Britain.

All-white. Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus caudatus ssp)

At the top of the hill I froze for a moment as I thought heard the tell-tale whirring of a Waxwing overheard but whatever it was, it was lost in the wind and the pounding in my head. Blue tit, Great tit, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch were all active throughout the park, accompanied by the occasional Goldcrest. Out in the open, rooks hobbled about and the shrill alarm calls of blackbirds rang out. The ornamental lakes held Mallard and a large number of Mandarin (above). Say what you like about the latter, there's no doubt they bring a touch of colour to surroundings.

Ok, so a freezing northern city in the middle of winter isn't going be a birding goldmine but it sure beat a trawl around another godawful christmas market. Oh and my trip wasn't complete without a visit to the amazing Berlin Ramones Museum! Bird is the word:
Surfin' bird - Joey Ramone. The Greatest. Berlin Ramones Musuem, 18.12.11

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Photoblog: A lazy Sunday afternoon

A lazy Sunday afternoon and a lazy space-filling post! Ha. The last few weeks have been a headspin so it was kind of nice to have the place to myself today. I had a bunch of stuff to do but took a walk round the farm instead...

New neighbours. The grazier moved the first lot of livestock into their winter quarters this week. These are this years calves, spared the rigours of winter on the marshes.

These boots are made for wading. Some showers this week have helped, but in actual fact ground water levels are really low. The rain gauge shows that the rainfall in October (21mm) and November (42mm) was the lowest for several years. We need the rain water to increase levels in the ditches and reservoirs. When it reaches a certain level we can begin extracting and pumping water onto the fields - this will help wintering birds and prepare the ground for spring waders.
Windfall. I love walking through the orchard at the moment; rotten fruit squelching underfoot and all manner of birds flitting overhead. These bruised, sugary apples attract a lot of wildlife including foxes, badgers and field mice. Today I could barely take a step without a "chak chak chak" call signalling the fright of a nearby Fieldfare.
Walls come down. When the leaves drop it's like an open house event in the wood. All manner of nests are exposed, from the untidy, straggly efforts of a pigeon or corvid like this one, to the small, boutique efforts of a Wren, Robin or Whitethroat. 
Euonymus. Spindle berries provide a burst of colour.
Ash 'keys'. The dry clusters of fruits on Ash trees stand out a mile in winter. I always think they look like bunches of keys. The dark crevices of these heads provide shelter for insects and can attract birds like Bullfinch.

Perched like a ghost in a tree. The Barn Owl has been out hunting over the scrub by the barns most afternoons this week. If it's not too windy, chances are it'll be around somewhere. A glorious moment in the fading winter light. 
All wrapped up. Bales of silage lining the track. This will keep the livestock fed through the winter.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Art vs Extinction: Ghosts of Gone Birds

I guess I've never really considered that art and conservation might make a good pair; that art could lead to a real, radical change in the way conservation is approached (and the public's awareness of it) I've stood and admired the work of Constable, Cole, Adams et al and marvelled at the depth of their landscapes, their unique and powerful interpretations of nature. But I find there is little connection with the present. The amazing Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition was different and I was blown away when I made it along for the penultimate day last Monday.

Although Gone Birds, an art event inspired by BirdLife International's 'Preventing Extinctions' programme, primarily addressed bird species we have lost, it was undoubtedly about the here and now; the uncertain future faced by thousands of bird species. The works on display, submitted by a range of artists from across the world, using numerous forms of media, featured a bird that is now extinct. They were by turns colourful, odd, bleak and even amusing. But rather than dwell on nostalgia and what we've lost, each piece managed to establish a personal connection and a sense of something like...hope?

Combining art, music, design, debate and social media, the organisers have done an incredible job bringing this to life. Everything about the exhibition had been thought about carefully and I think it was a nice idea to allow photography throughout. They understand the need to share the mission and that pictures, paintings and photographs are a good way of doing that. Forget copyright, we've got bigger things to worry about. Here are some of my favourites:
Billy Childish - Reunion Owl, 2011

California Condor - amazing pencil sketch (apologies - I can't remember the artist)

Guadalupe Caracara - Edwyn Collins, 2011

Charming Baker - One day our past will be all there is to look forward to,  Oil on Canvas
One of my favourite pieces was one entitled 'Atitlan Grebe' by Chris Rose. It was a slightly stylised painting showing the grebe as glimpsed through a parting in the reeds. Alongside such bold and distinguished company it was perhaps easy to miss but something about it really struck me. He perfectly captured the uncertainty of this birds future. The grebe's head is cocked slightly towards the observer, it is cautious, weary...its fate resonating. The last Atitlan Grebe was seen in the wild in 1989, after suffering catastrophic declines due to use of gill nets, invasive fish species and habitat damage.

The final room in the makeshift gallery focused on a subject that is close to my heart - the tragic, senseless killing of migrating birds taking place in Malta every year. Spread out on the floor, marked in hazard tape was the shape of a bird. In the centre was a heap of spent bullet casings and surrounding this - dozens of photographs of shot birds. Wounded, dead; harriers, bee-eaters, wheatears, herons, storks, cuckoos and more. The photographs were taken 4 weeks ago when members of Gone Birds visited Malta.

As well as highlighting BirdLife's campaign there, this room was an example and a reminder - extinctions are not just a thing of the past, they are happening right now, across the world. Future extinctions. Out into the London cold several hours later I felt pretty drained, but in a way kind of energised. Gone Birds is a rallying cry to the horrors and injustices facing birds across our planet as estuarys are swallowed up, forests torn down, farmland raped and oceans plundered.

Although this exhibition has ended I hear there are plans for it to tour sometime. Perhaps opportunities to go international. Whatever, it's just the beginning. C'mon, get etching!

Ghosts of Gone Birds - @gonebirds - BirdLife International

"To generalise a species or abstact it, is to ignore the individual. Without seeing the individual the human struggles to find empathy, thus creating a seperation and a relationship of little or no consequence" - note on wall, author unknown - Ghosts of Gone Birds, Rochelle School, London, 2011 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Getting Lucky

"Psst Pete...I think there's a Ring Ouzel on the lawn!"

These were not the first words I expected to hear when I walked into the kitchen on Thursday morning but sometimes you're just in the right place at the right time.

My housemate Simon was when he spotted the Ring Ouzel hopping about on our front lawn as he made breakfast last week. It was brief, there and gone in a minute, but unmistakably an adult male. I managed a hurried photo from the smeary window, seconds before it flew off - you can just make out the distinctive white cresent across its breast:

Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) Bromhey farmhouse, Northward Hill 17/11/11
The appearance of this ‘upland Blackbird’ corresponded with similar appearances of migrants along the coast on Thursday – perhaps a result of steady southerlies holding up their migration south. Ring Ouzels are a spring visitor to the UK where they primarily breed in the steep, craggy valleys of northern England and Scotland. However, this late in November, this bird was likely a Scandinavian migrant. Although regularly recorded on passage in north Kent, Ring Ouzels are red-listed in the UK as a result of severe population declines.

I don't know whether it's THAT strange name, famously noted by Shakespeare who wrote of  an 'Ousel cock, so black of hue...' in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (he was referring to the more common Blackbird - the Ouzel's nearest relative), or the fact that Ring Ouzel's are by nature shy, secretive birds of upland areas - an environment that is itself mysterious and evocative. But it's a bird I've always wanted to see. I never thought I'd be able to do so from the comfort of my kitchen.

Nice one Simon!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Hott Birddz

Or a walk along the East Fife Coastal Path, 5-6th November 2011
Pink-footed geese over Anstruther, 5/11/11
It seems like a dream now but last weekend’s trip to Scotland for Hottloggz, the annual Fence Records shindig, had many highlights. Sure there was the music and the fireside sing-along’s, an unlikely quiz night victory and the afterhours church hall disco that got shut down by the local coppers; but I couldn’t go to Scotland and not squeeze in some birding. That would be plain foolish.
Before the festivities on the Saturday, Ben and I made the short walk from Anstruther to the neighbouring village of Pittenweem. The first bird we came across was also a first ever for me – a pair of Eider sheltering in one of the bays. These distinctive birds were conspicuous all along the coast, small numbers here and there and larger flocks moving off shore. Having ashamedly neglected Scotland for some time it was nice to finally see these striking birds. Who said ducks are boring?
Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) Male (l), female (r) Pittenweem harbour, 5/11/11.

Juvenile Eider
The rocky coves harboured a nice variety of coastal birds: Ringed Plover, Curlew, Dunlin and Redshank in varying numbers. Cormorants held court on exposed ledges and at one point were visible alongside a pair of their ‘northern cousins’ – the Shag. It was nice to see these two classic confusion species side by side; Shags showing an obvious forehead/crown and being the slightly smaller, more ‘wiry’ of the two. From the path, we had numerous passerines, with the outcrops of gorse and scrub holding Lesser Redpoll, Meadow Pipit and Linnet along with the usual tits and finches.
Arriving in Pittenweem we found the harbour alive with the sound of gulls and the throaty humming of Eider. But the real action was in the sky as hundreds of Pink-footed geese circled the village in ragged yet seemingly coordinated streams. It was a glorious spectacle, stopping people in their tracks and repeated throughout the weekend.
Divers were my mission on Sunday as we stumbled out of the B&B, blinkingly into the sun. We took the bus up the coast to Crail where we rejoined the path heading back to Anstruther. A distant low shape off Crail harbour looked possible for a Red-throated loon but I can’t be sure. Choppy waves and bright sun made the mission difficult. A bit further along though, we caught up with three guillemots in the water - always a nice spot in my book.  Rock pipits and Pied wagtails were frequently encountered along the path as we headed for Anstruther. Nearing a pig farm I spotted a raptor perched on a fence post. This turned out to be a Common Buzzard that was later joined by another. In the same area a Kestrel was hunting while a Mistle thrush and hundreds of starlings poked about in the mud. Leaving the path and heading into Cellardyke, a male Sparrowhawk was darting between the chimneys.
Hot Damn. It was a great weekend.
Isle of May - next boat leaves 01/04/12
Walk here - Stay here - Eat here

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Photoblog: Shellness 30/10/11

You can't beat a blustery coastal walk in October. Here are some photos from my latest trip to the Swale National Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. I really love that place.

A late migrating Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) sea wall, Shellness
Sandy Devotional: Turnstone (Arenia interpres) left, Sanderling (Calidris alba) right
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)
This Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) gave great views quartering over the marsh
Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra) Harty Ferry Road
Full list:

Turnstone, Sanderling, Wheatear, Meadow Pipit, Hen Harrier (F), Curlew, Brent Goose (c120), Redshank, Oystercatcher,Kestrel, Marsh Harrier, Mute Swan, Short-eared Owl, Rough-legged Buzzard, Great Crested Grebe, Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull,  Lesser Black-backed Gull, Magpie, Woodpigeon, Curlew (c175), Grey Plover (c1000), House Sparrow, Reed Bunting, Skylark, Little Egret, Avocet, Dunlin, Robin, Shelduck, Mallard, Coot, Starling, Pied Wagtail

Non-avian: Common Lizard, Brown Hare

Monday, 31 October 2011

Vespa crabro

Kingdom: Animalia
Phyllum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Suborder: Apocrita

The unseasonally warm October weather may have finally cooled of late but that wasn't stopping these hornets (Vespa crabro) up in the wood last week. They won't be around much longer but for the time being this balmy (barmy?) weather means there are still plenty of insects around to enjoy:

hornets attending a papery nest in an old willow

Hornets are social wasps, meaning they form colonies around a fertile queen. Within the colony, wasps undertake certain roles; that hornet at the entrance to the nest is most likely a 'guard' wasp - protecting the nest from intruders day in day out. How the colony or rather the insects themselves have evolved this level of coordination is remarkable.

You can tell a hornet from more common wasp species by its size and colouration - they're bigger with brown/yellow markings rather than black/yellow ones. Although this makes them appear fearsome they are actually relatively shy insects preferring quiet woodland glades rather than noisy back gardens. I was annoyed to hear of a recent case in a London park where a nest was reportedly ripped out on grounds of 'health and safety'. I suppose it's a grey area but education is undoubtedly the answer. Sure if you disturb a hornet's nest you're probably going to know about it, but generally their intentions are misunderstood. As top predators they'd much rather be hunting other insects such as wasps and flies. Watching these hornets at a respectful distance, they weren't remotely threatening, it was peaceful even. Something to look out for next spring.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

An eventful weekend

When my alarm beeped at 4.45am on Saturday morning and I stumbled out into the frosty darkness to help put up the nets for the ringing session, I had no idea the weekend was going to be such a memorable one.

It started well; there was a beautiful sunrise over the marsh and a nice variety of healthy birds in the nets. And then there was this one:

One more time...Red-flanked Blutail! Stunning.
What can I say...?! The excitement generated by this slight and subtely-coloured individual stems from the fact that Bluetails, though annual, are still an extremely rare autumn visitor to Britain. Their range is typically central and southeastern Asia; breeding across Siberia (and more recently into Finland) and wintering in China, Taiwan and surrounds. SO you might ask - what's it doing in north Kent?! Good question. Once little more than a myth here, Bluetails have become more frequent in recent years, presumably as their breeding range has expanded. Strong easterlies at the end of last week played a major part too- encouraging many bird species to make the flight over from Scandinavia and blowing others off course. It's often juveniles which are spotted here in autumn, first winter birds lacking experience and migrating to wintering grounds for the first time. This bird  however is an adult female Bluetail, told by its muted brown upper side (males are blue).

Finding the Red-flanked Bluetail was a surreal and wonderful moment but I was honestly just as thrilled to ring my first bird that day - an adult male Greenfinch.

After a late night on Saturday, I abandoned my plans for a sea watch off Sheppey in favour of a relaxing mooch about the farm. I was watching a pair of marsh harriers wheeling over the scrape when I got talking to a local birder just as his phone rang...

He gave me a look that said 'move!' and had word that a possible ISABELLINE SHRIKE (yeah in capitals!) had just been spotted at the pools that morning. Twenty minutes later we were scoping out a superb adult male bird, perched on brambles across one of the cattle fields adjacent to the ash track. Again this was a new one for me - more a curiosity that I've glanced at while leafing through the Collins guide, but what a cracking bird:
Isabelline Shrike (Lanius isabellinus sp.) , RSPB Cliffe Pools, 17/10/11
The obvious lack of 'barring' marked this out as an adult bird and since these are especially rare, it turned into a pretty big twitch for Cliffe. This was only the 6th record for Isabelline in Kent and while it obligingly held court to crowds of birders from its thorny perch, debate went on about its precise classification. Like the Bluetail the day before, Isabelline Shrikes are an eastern bird; they breed between southern Siberia/central - eastern Asia and winter in the tropics. But what makes ID more complex is the presence of several identified races of Isabelline Shrike. This is the best photo I could manage but I think it shows enough features to narrow it down.

There are principally two distinct sources of confusion - Turkestan Shrike (Lanius i. phoenicuroides) and Daurian Shrike (Lanius i. isabellinus), the latter breeding in China/Mongolia as opposed to central asia. Opinion on this individual seems to be favouring isabellinus or Daurian. However, reading this comprehensive review of Isabelline Shrike classification I am perhaps drawn slightly more towards phoenicuroides (but would gladly be proved wrong!) The 'peachy' flanks that this bird showed (better seen in the field rather than my photo above) hint at Daurian but otherwise I would agree with the study that this bird is "darker and more richly coloured above than isabellinus, with a rufous or rufous-tinged crown, white speculum, richer rufous rump, and paler under-parts". The pale under parts on the Cliffe shrike meant it could be seen by the naked eye at 200m and overall there seemed to be quite a lot of contrast between the upper and under parts. Google yr own pics - agree/disagree? One thing's for sure - it's a beautiful bird.

I got a bit of stick in the office on Monday morning for bagging these two ace eastern visitors, or in the words of Gordon the warden - having a "double Sibe weekend!". I wonder if these birds will find their way? And I wonder what else is out there...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Red-flanked Bluetail!

Pictures of the female Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus) ringed at RSPB Northward Hill, 15.10.11
 Photos: Peter Beckenham

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Malta: stopping the slaughter (Pt 1)

I've been meaning to write this for a while but the last few weeks have been quite busy. It got quite long and angry and confusing so I'll leave it here for now - with another part to follow. I also tried to show some reasoning but I guess I just ended up with lots of questions I don't know how to answer. It's not reinventing the wheel, I just wanted to put it out there. 

That was a helluva journey. You try flying 300 miles a day, all the while looking out for a meal and a place to rest. It’s going to be weeks ‘til I get home but I’m just taking a breather here, I have to; there’s nowhere else for miles around. It’s ok; I’ll be gone in the morning.

Huh, what’s that noise?
What are those lights?


Crimes perpetrated against wildlife are inexcusable and utterly abhorrent but sadly not uncommon. Numerous examples spring to mind; but right now, one is taking place that I feel particularly outraged by, one of such a sickening and callous nature that I feel compelled to write. It’s not much but it’s all I’ve got.

A slaughterhouse

Every year thousands of birds are illegally killed and trapped on Malta, simply shot down or caught as they flyover or stop to roost for the night. As it is an island located directly on the African-Eurasian flyway, Malta attracts hundreds of thousands of birds every year that use it as a ‘stepping stone’ on their journey. For this reason, incidents of avicide peak during the spring and autumn migration seasons and thus the crimes are all the more harrowing. Many of these birds are rare or scarce and are protected under the EU Birds Directive. Yet this means nothing to the inbred halfwits who indiscriminately shoot any bird that has the misfortune to pass overhead.

The statistics on the excellent Birdlife Malta website are appalling. Take this one for instance; between 2007-2009, 282 shot protected birds were received by the organisation (this does not include the remains of numerous protected birds that were found hidden in a woodland on the island – the infamous Mizieb bird cemetery) among the victims were Marsh and Pallid harriers, Lesser and Common kestrels, Honey Buzzards and Herons. Horrific - but that figure only represents a fraction of the problem. Other organisations received birds during that time and what of the ones that are never recovered – bodies that are retrieved by hunters, scavenged by predators or lost at sea? In reality the figure is MUCH higher.

The statistic that shocked me however, and one that illustrates the true scale of the problem is that Malta has 11,929 registered hunters and 4,616 licensed trappers. That equates to approximately 47 hunters PER SQUARE KILOMETER – the highest density in the EU. Note those are the licensed ones. Now clearly there are many good people in Malta: conservationists, volunteers, bird lovers etc. But that is a striking figure. What chance does a bird have?

It’s worth noting that hunting is not illegal in Malta – it is illegal to kill protected bird species but there are species for which the Maltese Government deems it legal to hunt. There are regulations for the hunters too; a register, details of locations where shooting is permitted, times and 'seasons', visible clothing etc. That’s fair enough, similar laws apply here. But what is shocking is that the derogation includes birds such as Turtle Dove, Quail, Lapwing and Song Thrush – birds that are subject to massive conservation efforts elsewhere in Europe. I don’t want to get sidetracked on this issue, as relevant as it may be, but I think that it is this double standard that is part of the problem with hunting in Malta. It is an inward-looking policy, that totally fails to recognise the wider picture. Birds that may be abundant in Malta are not so elsewhere.

So I keep asking WHY? Why is this happening? I can’t find anything that suggests this behaviour forms part of deep-set, cultural traditions. Hunting, yes, that plays a prominent role in the rural societies of many nations, but the mindless killing of birds? No. It would not be an excuse but it might provide some clue for what is happening. In fact apparently it seems to be a more recent development, a malicious wave of intent that has escalated. It isn’t sport and it isn’t for subsistence/profit (unlike the equally shocking trapping of birds in Cyprus which end up as ingredients in stomach churning, ‘traditional’ delicacies) It is simply mindless destruction. An act of defiance; they kill because they can.

a wounded Grey Heron
As an EU member the Maltese government must adhere to the EU Birds Directive which according to the European Commission website “includes a requirement to ensure that birds are not hunted during the periods of their greatest vulnerability, such as the return migration to the nesting areas, reproduction and the raising of chicks. It requires Member States to outlaw all forms of non-selective and large scale killing of birds”. The Maltese government is aware of this and takes action but with little thought given to the status of those birds which it's ok to hunt, what message does it send? It seems like a weak-willed attempt to appease the hunters and avoid the issue.

It’s undoubtedly a complex problem though. How much of the blame lies with the hunters? Presumably there are those who are aware of the restrictions, who adhere to the codes and seasons. They would not wish to see populations crash as a result of over-hunting. But then there are those who knowingly and blatantly break the law. A criminal element perhaps encouraged by the lack of resistance from a poor, stretched-thin police force and a complete ignorance of the natural world. So it falls to the government to lead by example, to set precedents, to educate efficiently, to toughen up; which they are struggling to do. And where does the EU stand in this? Isn’t it about time they stopped messing around and really got serious? Hmm, a lot of questions.

A rare Pallid Harrier recovered with fatal gunshot wounds
Watching the videos on youtube and reading the news, it all feels pretty bleak to me. However I think there are also glimmers of hope. In the next part I'll look at recent developments in Malta and Gozo and the role of the amazing BirdLife staff and volunteers.
Photo credits: BirdLifeMalta website

Monday, 26 September 2011

So near, yet so far...

Cliffe Pools gets 2 rarities in a day
I wrote this yesterday. See bottom for update.
Twitch! Cliffe Pools 25/9/11 Yours truly working hard! (to the right of chap in red shirt in centre)
Y’know how it is – one minute you’re kinda arsing around at home, pondering what sandwich to have for lunch, the next minute the phone rings and within seconds your legging it out the door, bins in one hand, scope in the other.
Such was yesterday at Northward Hill. It was just after midday when Jen casually sauntered over to me; “so yeah, I just had a call, reports of a Pallid Harrier at Cliffe this morning...”
“yeah...likely it roosted there last night too, could be moving east though”
I think I must’ve blacked out then. Next thing I remember is hurtling down the road (er, I mean driving carefully within the designated speed limit) and planning our move. ‘Course we knew chances were slim, it had hours on us...but still...if it came down for the night it must have been around Black Barns and might still be in the area. So after checking there wasn’t a twitch causing havoc in the car park (hey- we’re pro’s ;) we headed there.
A small crowd was already gathered; they’d heard the news but rightly assumed it was too late and were enjoying the other birds on offer. Still when someone murmured “Harrier...distant” I think a few hearts raced. Then “hmm, wings...Buzzard I think”. Sigh.
 Amazingly the day wasn’t over though. As we turned around someone pulled up and asked “where’s this Semipalmated Sandpiper then?”
“WHAT?!” oh, you get the picture...
We missed that too in the end, along with a small crowd that had turned up for it. It was reported as being mobile earlier that morning, so may well have snuck off out of sight. For a while, several Little Stint on the pools kept things interesting but with an obstructed view at 200metres, it was gonna take someone with balls to call it. I mean COME ON! (one of these is a Semipalmated Sandpiper, one is a Little Stint):
photo credit: L Spitalnik/Google Images

Photo credit: Nigel Blake (

Sandpiper top, Stint bottom - but you knew that didn't you?!. A good lesson and we weren’t far off either but hey, them’s the breaks. It’s just about being in the right place at the right time.

26/9/11 (update)******
And talking of the right place...tonight I got it! PALLID HARRIER back at Cliffe Pools. It was purely out of curiosity that I flicked on Birdguides this evening, just to see if anywhere in east Kent had picked up a Pallid during the day. Didn't expect the bird to be back this way, but there it was - it had been reported at Cliffe just half an hour before. After fortuitously coming by precise directions and an assurance it was there; for the second time in as many days Jen and I went into overdrive. 10 minutes later my punto was bumping down the track to Black Barn where we found a few birders on the second mound.

And maybe 10 minutes after arriving...there it was: a juvenile bird emerging out of some tall grass about 150 yards away. It came up briefly and flew a short distance along the edge a fence before going down. Repeating this a short while later. Being a juvenile, the colour was amazing, particularly its rufous, almost orange breast and the way the soft sunlight caught it will linger long in my memory. Our view was brief but in those few short moments I tried to take in and enjoy as many details as I could: the ring tail, the darker upperwings and the distinctly collared face. Chances are there won't be one back this way anytime soon.

Seems I wasn't the only one chasing a Pallid this weekend; check out some brilliant pics here

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Siskins greetings

Siskin ( Carduelis spinus)

The above are pictures from my first ringing session last week.

I hadn't expected to be given the opportunity to study birds up close but it was something I was interested in and one I gratefully took. After a chance encounter with my local ringing group one morning they agreed to teach me the basics of the strictly controlled process of bird ringing.

To begin, ringing involves placing lightweight, uniquely numbered, metal ring around a birds' tarsus (leg) The method we used and the most common for catching passerines, is a vertical 'mist net'. After flying into this extremely fine net, birds are held securely in pockets and removed soon after so as to avoid stress and chance of injury. Bird ringing has significant conservation value as it provides data relevant to the study of  bird populations, survival rates, distribution and genetic relationships.

I spent much of the day 'scribing' or recording each bird's details (ring number, age/sex, moult, wing length and weight) in the log. In doing so I got to observe the birds up close and discover things that I never would have just by watching in the field; the way the iris of a Dunnock changes from a dull brown to a fiery red as it ages, the appearance of feathers in different stages of moult or how little chiffchaffs weigh in comparison to other birds for example. The work is intimate and subtle and fascinating.

Being able to see birds this close is undoubtedly one of the perks of ringing. Just look at the dazzling plumage on the Siskin above, its distinctly forked tail and clearly defined primaries. Normally an encounter with these birds would see them chirruping away at the top of a tall Alder somewhere, identifiable but not so detailed. However I realised that the joy in ringing is not just in these brief, privileged close-ups, it's in the mapping and recording of data, discovering patterns and observing changes - the long term gain. The rewards of this are surely equal to any sighting. The Siskin above, was significant in that it was a very early record for the species on the site. It may have been missed in the field.

Although generally only a tiny percentage of ringed birds get recaptured, those that do can provide important information, particularly relating to the distribution and movement of species. During the course of the day, we caught over 40 blackcaps - evidence that the site is a clearly an important breeding ground and feeding station for the species. One of the birds had also been ringed before. Due to his knowledge and expertise the ringer was able to establish that this bird had been ringed on the same site the year before. This suggests that either the bird is resident and part of a growing population of UK wintering blackcaps or that following migration last autumn, it returned to the same site again. The latter theory (and perhaps the most likely in this case) is proof of the remarkable 'homing' instinct of migrating birds, something of which there is still a lot to learn.

Ringing also helps determine the health of individuals and perhaps, by association, local populations. The session revealed that the weight of blue tits caught was lower than might be expected. With winter coming these birds should be feeding and building up body fat, but the data suggested they were struggling. We felt this may be due to a lack of food put out for birds on feeders in summer.

What a great day, a privilege...there is so much to learn but I can't wait for the next one.

Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus) Everyone is familiar with these delighfully feisty garden birds but few get close enough to appreciate just how blue they are! This individual was aged as a 3 year old male, its striking colouring an important factor in determining this.
btw I should point out that this session was not directly related to my current placement and I was supervised by a fully licensed ringer at all times.