Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

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