Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A Boxing Day Buzzard

Mum and Dad excelled with their Christmas card to me this year:

'Watching Waxwings' by Vanna Bartlett, Acrylic on Canvas.
Published via Green Pebble,

I love it. It seems they're now as equally obsessed with Waxwings as I am. Every time we've been out recently Mum asks if I think we'll see any...maybe we'll be lucky I say. We didn't see any today on a hopelessly muddy and, in the end, aborted walk across Allhallows marshes. We did see a Buzzard though, from the car on the way back. "What's that over there?!" Dad said, pointing and gesturing at a field we were passing...I craned my neck, expecting a pheasant, but sure enough, there was a large buzzard sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of a bare, muddy field. It was probably only 20m away - I rarely ever see buzzards so close.

We pulled over nearby as it stood motionless in it's chosen puddle for a moment before flying off with a beat of its powerful wings. It cruised past us and into the distance where I was intrigued to see it start hovering with surprising ease. I've never seen a buzzard carry this off so well before and I thought back to the two Rough-legged buzzards I was spoilt with in the same area last year. I wondered, out loud...but although I couldn't find my bins in the mess of coats and rucksacks strewn throughout the car, this was not one I was sure. There was little hint of a pale rump or notable flexing or colouration of the carpal joints, it was instead, our own, a Common Buzzard - that judging by the horde of gulls that took its precise place in the field, had probably been feeding on earthworms when we saw it. I guess it's funny to think of a majestic 'bird of prey' splashing around in puddles, behaving like a Blackbird, but then food is food.

I took a useless picture through the windscreen as it passed us...not a Waxwing but a handsome bird nonetheless.

Monday, 24 December 2012

In the bleak mid-winter: Cliffe Pools 24/12/12

With mum feverishly decking the halls to the accompaniment of dubious Christmas music, I decided to duck out and head to Cliffe Pools for a few hours today. Weather-wise it was a Cliffe kinda day, sultrily overcast, a light breeze and rain not too far away, but I went anyway.

There are a LOT of birds at Cliffe at the moment and while I found nothing that might be considered an early Christmas present, it's never a case of quantity over quality here. The sheer number of ducks and waders on the pools was quite something: tufteds, mallards, little grebes and coots gathered in the hundreds, with pintails, shovelers and gadwalls not far behind. Several handsome drake goldeneyes stood out too, one male jerking his head up and down before behaving in a rather unfestive-like manner with his female companion. But these were nothing compared to the lapwings and black-tailed godwits blanketing the causeways. Their true numbers were only given away when they were spooked by something unseen; there must have been comfortably 1500 of each, swooping and swirling in the dreary afternoon light. It was spectacular:

Heading up the track, the site was quieter; a Kingfisher zipped by and a Curlew called somewhere in the grey and sodden fields, Black-headed gulls and several distant scoters made slow progress in the headwind on the river, but otherwise it almost seemed that all through the site, nothing was stirring, not even a, well y'know...

Have a great Christmas everyone, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012


Well that was a weekend to remember. On Saturday, the first South London Birders Christmas shindig saw a few of us take a trip down to Sheppey for the day (bit on that to come) but working backwards, Sunday, I headed over to a certain reservoir just west of London to see a certain Pipit...

So you might know the deal by American Buff-bellied Pipit was found at the Queen Mother Reservoir in Berkshire in the middle of last week thus giving many hundreds of happy birders a valid excuse not to go Christmas shopping. Only around 20 of these birds have been recorded in the UK I think, with records top-heavy in the last few years. Of those, most are quite remote (Scillies etc) so one this far in land is quite special. Having it so close to London too meant it was one well-twitched bird (over 1000 punters in 4 days and counting) and on top of that, it  was clearly non-plussed by any attention and was giving unbelievable views.

Pitching up on Sunday lunchtime, I walked to the site with another birder I met on the train. En route, a sweet local couple came out to ask us what in the dickens was going on. As I explained the chap turned to his wife "Pipit...Buff-pipit?..remember that Pam, we'll look it up". They seemed thankful that we weren't terrorists at least and wished us good luck.

It wasn't hard to find the bird; a stationary mass of around 60-70 birders were variously stood, crouched, hunched and largely silent save for clicking cameras, gathered around one of the slipways of the sailing club, just a couple hundred yards from the entrance. And there it was, no more than 5 yards away, darting about at the water's edge, picking minuscule seeds (I assume) from the crevices and watery debris. After only 10 mins with it, it suddenly flew off across the reservoir, phew that was close I thought...but thankfully it was soon found again nearby. What more to say?! Go to another site if you want great photos (!) but here it is, the little star:

(American) Buff-bellied Pipit (Anthus rubescens rubescens),
Queen Mother Reservoir, 16/12/12

Despite the incredible views, it rarely ever stopped moving but I did least capture some useful ID pointers: its general 'buff' appearance, sturdy black legs, plain 'upper' parts (back-head), pale eye-ring and 'smudged' streaking to breast. Both it's tail feathers and remiges showed up nice and dark and gave it a 'neat' appearance (photos 3 & 5 above). For a bird that's been blown across the Atlantic and ended up on reservoir near Staines, it looked in good shape. As little brown jobs go, it takes some beating.

I was feeling pretty good after that and what with it being a beautiful crisp, wintery day and all...So I left the twitch and went for a walk around the vast reservoir run by Thames Water. I saw a Red Kite soaring in the distance and there was a Red-necked Grebe about (which eluded me) but I was pretty keen to find the Long-tailed Duck that was reported. It took a bit of time (too easy to be spoiled sometimes) but eventually I tracked it down along the south-western edge of the reservoir. Again, it showed brilliantly, coming down to 30-35ft, a lovely adult winter female. This was only my second Long-tail but I think they're great birds:

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis),
Queen Mother Reservoir, 16/12/12

After a while admiring all this I decided to head back via the cafe to warm up. It was a top day and the birds were really special; just to round it off a Waxwing shot over the station calling while I was waiting for the train back to Waterloo. Hard to beat.

Friday, 14 December 2012



There's not much I can add to what's been said already, other than how appalled I was to read earlier this week about the killing of another Hen Harrier on a UK grouse moor - a cowardly act driven by the greed and stubbornness of a small group of people pandering to the demands of a lucrative hobby (it's no wonder we're the destination of choice for Maltese hunters abroad). But this bird was perhaps not your average Hen Harrier, this bird was known as 'Bowland Betty' - a bird carrying a satellite transmitter as part of a Natural England project. She was in her second year and yet to breed when the tag failed in June this year. A few days later she was found, shot down with a fatal wound to her leg. Interestingly, this news was only just released because, for the first time, high-level tests were successfully completed to determine the details of her death. The story was covered brilliantly on various sites including here and here and perhaps most pertinently, here.

As has been said, I guess it's true that the death of one bird will ultimately count for little, it's fate no worse than any of the countless other raptors illegally killed in the UK each year. But with hen harriers in the final, tragic throes of extinction as a breeding species in England, acts like this are critical. Perhaps we should focus again on that e-word, Extinction, because it seems to have lost it's power to shock and shame mankind. It has flickered briefly in the conscience of the government, who identified hen harriers as one of six priority species in England. Their 2011 'Biodiversity 2020' strategy maintained too that "By 2020, we will see an overall improvement in the status of our wildlife and will have prevented further human-induced extinctions of known threatened species". Yet just a year on, it's clear where we stand again: no urgency, no leadership, no action. Natural England claim they are "deeply concerned" by this event, perhaps they'd like to start demonstrating it. We know a lot about hen harriers and their ecology, we know about diversionary feeding on grouse moors for example...we know the consequences of a failure to act. So how come we find ourselves here?

The RSPB is trying to raise £600,000 by 20th December in order to fund investigations into wildlife crime, including helping to safeguard hen harriers from persecution and supporting efforts to ensure that birds of prey are adequately protected. Good on them - with the season of goodwill upon us, I think this is a gift that could really make a difference.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


You know what this post is about don't you?!

Yep, like everyone else I've spent much of the last week obsessing over the arrival of that most striking of winter migrants - Waxwings. After the memorable irruption year of 2010/11 when London was seemingly overrun with the blighters and I duly missed all of them (truly the winter of my dipcontent) I uttered quiet assertions about how I wasn't going to twitch waxwings this year, that I'd let them find me. Bold words.

Turns out it was complete nonsense too, since as soon as the first few flocks arrived in London and were showing signs of settling a bit, I was making plans. I'm weak for Waxwings but who isn't.

So last Friday, with a day off and a hazy wintery sun casting perfect shadows, I acted on a tip and headed down to Shirley near Croydon for the flock numbering around 30 birds that had been visiting a favoured Rowan tree on a housing estate for a couple of days. And lo, mid-afternoon, as I rounded the corner, there they were - easy as that.

Of course, as soon as we got out the car, they bolted and sat teasingly in some tall trees behind the housing estate:

But thankfully, ten minutes later they returned...

Bohemian Rhapsody: Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) feeding on Rowan berries -
Myrtle Ave, South London, 1/12/12 

Tuck in: note gorgeous rufous 'vent' and yellow-tipped rectrices

...and flippin hell, down to 10ft! The views were amazing, showing up the unique plumage details of these punk-haired scandi wonders. Among the 30 or so birds were a handful making their first raid on our Isles - first winter birds lacking the fully matured colourful wing markings that give them their name. The birds were feverishly stripping the rowan berries down to the last lower branches, accompanied by a handful of starlings and a single Redwing. They were pretty flighty, while every now and then a confused resident would wander past or stop in their car and ask why a random group of people were hanging around their street corner looking at a tree...

Wings are looking up...

It was really great to finally track these stunning birds down, couldn't resist a couple more shots (thanks Lisa!)...

I call this one 'self-portrait with Waxwings' (2012)
Top: Waxwings, bottom: twat
A brilliant afternoon, should be a good winter...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Stuck on Red

A very interesting report came out today called 'Nature Check 2012'. The report, by Wildlife and Countryside Link, looks at the coalition government's progress on its environmental promises since 2010. Link are a small but important London-based 'umbrella' organisation that aims to tie together ideas and issues affecting a wide range of member NGOs from the UK environment sector with a view to forming coherent, well-supported policies. I was pleased to see this come out hot on the heels of last week's State of the UK Birds Report as their findings provide further weight to the notion that our natural environment is being wholly failed by the coalition government. I guess that may come as no surprise but hey, graphs are always welcome:

Nature Check 2012 - Summary of results.
Source: 27/11/12. 

The report assesses the government's progress on the commitments it made to the natural environment in 2010. To illustrate this it uses a 'traffic light' scoring method to rate progress on 20 key commitments. 'Green' means 'well-delivered' (good progress), 'Amber' means 'delayed or under-delivered' (moderate progress) and well, you can guess, 'Red' means 'Poorly or not delivered' (failing). The graph above shows a summary of the 2012 results - as clear as a car crash isn't it?

Two of those areas where the coalition are shown to be singularly failing are particularly relevant right now; point 6 refers to the Pitt Review and a promise to 'improve flood defences and prevent unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk', while point 9 details their blindly inept handling of Bovine TB. Point 14 highlights their continued failure to act on the Marine Coastal and Access Act (2009) which strives among other things to achieve "clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas, better protection for our marine environment and sustainable use of our marine resources" (Defra). If this report had come out later, would the handling of Ash Dieback have any bearing on the results?

To give them some credit, points 16 and 17 show the government to be fulfilling their promises on the issues of commercial whaling and ivory sales respectively (as they were in 2011). But however worthy they are, it is surely woeful that they have not managed to make significant progress on any of the issues addressed here that directly affect the UK's natural environment. Biodiversity and habitat loss is just one of several vital concerns currently stalling under 'amber'. Marginal progress may have been detected with regards planning frameworks but then I think we're still waiting for real proof there.

If he responds, what will Owen Paterson make of this I wonder? Will he heed the calls here for a change to the 'patchy' and 'inconsistent' approach witnessed so far? What will it look like this time next year? Let's hope that traffic is flowing smoothly because every year that passes without relevant, committed environmental leadership will yield a poorer future for all of us.    

It's a really interesting report, read it here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Gull trouble

Gulls Gulls Gulls, Rainham tip 22/11/12

Today I made one of the great London birder pilgrimages to the wildlife mecca that is Rainham tip in Essex for the first time. Well covered in the 'blogosphere' or whatever you want to call it, the tip has been a fabled haunt with local birders for years; a place where legends are born, Collin's guides are flicked through furiously and tears are shed. Although I've been round the marshes countless times, I'd never made it further than the cake counter in the RSPB cafe. But a glowing, blustery late-November day seemed like the right time to sort that.

Why would you possibly want to spend a day off looking at a tip some among you may ask (and rightly)? Well surprisingly, large, open landfill sites like Rainham are a pretty good place to spot wildlife, especially in winter; a curious glitch in the natural fabric, creating as they do a strange, shifting, ecological niche for many species. But there's only one reason anyone comes here and that's GULLS and who doesn't love them eh?

There's probably not another family of birds in the UK that divide people, or birders, as much as gulls. Some hate them, some are cagey, put off by the ID challenges they pose, others are totally obsessed, going on about windows and mirrors and trailing edges, and all the rest. For what it's worth I think they're bloody fantastic birds; alternately graceful and scrappy, easily recognisable and total ID headfucks, they're part of the lifeblood of our island. Rainham is a place where all this is evident, where numerous species of gulls, maybe seven or eight on a good day, jostle and bitch side by side, strutting about in muck and doing what gulls do. Aint it great?! When it comes to gulls I'm ok, not as sharp as many others but I'm always keen to improve. The tip regularly holds a few Yellow-legged gulls and Caspian gulls so today I thought I'd try and flex my head on them for a bit.

Unfortunately, despite the weather being fair, the one thing working against me was the wind - the kind of wind that rocks a stationary car back and forth and makes you wish you hadn't worn a hat. But parking up at the riverside car park by the equally famed Stone Barges, I headed along the path for a bit with the largely landscaped tip looming up on the left. It wasn't hard to find where the action was and I followed  the squalling clouds of gulls bombing about the sky to an open section of tip. It was instantly easy to see the attraction with probably 2000 gulls on this section in plain view. Some were huddled in ragged, stationary rows while others swooped around to avoid the giant crushing trucks that lumbered about. Flocks of starlings darted among them, along with dozens of crows. There was no shelter so I did what I could and started working that mother.

Ok, first impressions - daunting! Ha. It's funny how when walking by the river or down on the coast, I feel pretty happy with the commoner large gull species but here, when faced with hundreds of the same all camped together, it feels like starting from scratch! Doubt kicks in "Herring, Herring, Herring, hang on...THAT'S a Yellow-leg (but...)" followed by frustration. With perhaps three species of large gull represented more than others and within those, birds of around four different age groups (and their requisite subtle plumages) it's easy for the head to spin. I'm sure I'm not the first person to feel like that. I think the trick as ever is take a deep breath and go slowly, forget that tick you want, you'll get it eventually. Maybe. It feels more like bird WATCHING y'know? As it should be.

Anyway, great stuff but I got well beaten today. It didn't help that the wind shook the scope all over the place constantly and when it's trying to rip your glasses off your face too, it's probably time to call it a day. Still, well worth the trip, I'm putting this one down as a recce, round 2 it gets serious!

A wildlife spectacle. Seriously.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The state we're in

Waking up yesterday, getting my tea and crossword on, there was a moment or two when I blinked into the week ahead hopefully. That lasted as long as it took to hit the 'cheat' button a few times and switch over to the front page of the Guardian, where, about half way down, this headline loomed:

The article is in reference to a report that came out yesterday called 'The state of the UK's birds 2012', compiled by three NGO's (RSPB, BTO, WWT) and a number of governmental agencies. If you care at all about UK birds, those inhabiting our overseas territories and the wider environment you should probably read it.

It's a beautifully presented report, packed full of information. Did you know that two UK seaducks, velvet scoters and long-tailed ducks, are considered to be threatened with extinction globally? (Page 2) I didn't. Or that of all UK breeding bird species, Willow tits have declined the most since the Breeding Bird Survey started in 1994? (page 15). For a bird that I am particularly fond of, the Kittiwake, the last 25 years have been a struggle with the Seabird Monitoring Programme showing birds declining by 55% between 1986 and 2011 (Page 16). It was interesting to see the comparisons between breeding populations and biomass estimates. While native breeding birds amount to nearly 80.5million pairs, non natives contribute only around 3% of the total number at around 2.5m pairs. But as the report points out, with pheasants and some geese included in the non-natives number, when biomass is estimated, those lardy birds account for around 23% of the total UK avian biomass. This highlights the potential for these species to impact on the ecosystems to which they contribute (something that also cropped up with 'Buzzardgate' earlier this year).

Anyway, it's all these facts and figures and many many more that result in that headline above; the number of breeding pairs in the UK has fallen from approximately 105 million in 1966 to 83 million in 2008+, so a loss of 22 million pairs (or 44 million birds). Massive.

The report doesn't explain this loss but then that's not it's intention, it's value is in all that amazing hard-earned data. Without it we wouldn't know what we were missing until it was gone. I guess I wasn't that shocked by the article really, more provoking in a way was one by the ever-reliable George Monbiot in response. In his article he decries the loss of interest in nature by children or what he terms the "second environmental crisis - the removal of children from the natural world". I think he's right to link the two and when he says "most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it" he has a point.

Ultimately the report is a stark rallying cry to the changes taking place around us (and especially relevant given the CAP budget debate in Brussels this week). It shows how all the decisions we make really mean something and how important it is to get out there and make an interest count. Literally, if nothing else, get out and count something! With that in mind, it's worth noting another notable achievement of the SUKB in celebrating and promoting the role that volunteers have to play in UK bird conservation - you don't have to be a birder even! Thanks to things like this we know the facts, now we have to go out and act on them, however we can. Probably preaching to the converted here but why not check out the BTO, the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust to see what you can do. Oh and the Wildlife Trusts too, I probably shouldn't forget them ;).

Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) - first winter bird in Chatham docks, November 2011. 
The only one I've seen, I really hope it's not the last.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

EU - don't CUT the CAP budget

HLS funded field margin near Meopham, north Kent, June 2012

You'd be forgiven for thinking  that us humans don't really care much for the environment at the moment; that we've got it all figured out and have decided we can probably do without clean air, secure food supplies, healthy ecosystems and such like. The daily barrage of narrow-minded, destructive attempts at undermining our environment continued yesterday with the announcement that a vital part of the EU budget that funds and encourages wildlife-friendly farming across Europe is set to be slashed.

As part of the 'Pillar 2' funding stream of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), farmers are rewarded for employing sensitive, wildlife-friendly practices under such schemes as the Higher Level Stewardship. This scheme has evolved over recent years to advise farmers and landowners and ensure that money is spent on strictly observed and tailored practices, designed to enhance farming landscapes for biodiversity without compromising the needs of farmers to make a living. It has a massive role to play in the UK where farming landscapes have changed radically over the last hundred years, resulting in the loss or steep decline of countless species of flora and fauna. In the UK there are more than 58,000 agri-environment schemes, covering a total of over 6 million hectares of farmland! These schemes are an amazing achievement and vital to the continued conservation of our wildlife and the health of our environment as a whole. The announcement of a proposed 17-20% cut to this part of the EU agricultural budget therefore threatens to blow a hole through this and leave a vast shortfall that in current conditions will be nigh on impossible to make up.

Walking around the arable fields near my home town over the last few years, I have seen a number of positive changes to the environment. Several years ago, the local farmer installed a superb new hedgerow, several hundred metres long, filled with native plants and shrubs. A nice scrubby area has been allowed to regenerate in one corner of a field and this year, last time I looked, it appeared a sizeable weedy cover crop has been left to stand for the winter. As a result, this spring I saw and heard more corn buntings in the fields than ever before. I'm fairly sure several pairs of Linnet nested successfully and just a few weeks ago I spotted a pair of reed buntings in the area for the first time. In one corner of the field, mostly obscured by a tangled hedge, a little hand made sign makes reference to the fact that these changes have come about as a result of the HLS scheme. It's great to see this close to home and I hope the farmer is aware of these things. Cutting funds like this will see us take one step forward and two back. We stand to lose so much.

It was good to see the Wildlife Trust's statement today, as well as the many others. They suggest emailing David Cameron before next week's EU summit to make our voices heard. I know we're in financial dire straits at the moment but we can't afford to let this slip now. Worth it don't you think?

If you care about farmland birds or butterflies or bugs or sustainably produced food or just a nice walk in the countryside, email the Prime Minister through the RSPB campaign page - it only takes a minute! Or write your own. Don't cut the CAP budget!

Corn Bunting on telegraph wire, Isle of Sheppey, Kent, 2012

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The return of the little grey pigs

After a hectic few months at work came to a successful end on Friday evening, I decided I needed to get out with the bins for a bit. So despite weary limbs I hauled myself out of bed early on Saturday morning for a trip along to Cliffe Pools. A week of bright, sunny mornings had put in the mood for it but as I arrived to heavy, grey skies and patchy rain I wondered whether I should've just stayed in bed. Ah well, I stuck it through and I'm glad I did.

Heading out down the ash track first so as to avoid walking into the rain, it wasn't long before I spotted a horde of familiar shapes up ahead, noisily weighing down the hawthorn bushes along the track - Fieldfares are back! Horde is the right word as there was a large number of the distinctive scandi thrushes on show. They were flighty but I reckoned on over 250 birds at least, with a fair few starlings in among them, Blackbirds and a couple of Redwing too. According to the oracle of wikipedia: "the name 'Fieldfare' probably goes back to the 11th Century where the Anglo-Saxon word 'feldefare' perhaps meant traveller through the fields. Alternatively, it may be derived from Old English fealu fearh, literally - grey piglet". I can see how both those might have come to be - you choose. The hawthorn crop looked good so that'll no doubt keep the hungry arrivals happy for a bit.

Down the track chaffinches were everywhere, up to 60, while a Goldcrest called from a tatty clump of hawthorn. Coming out by Flamingo, there were a couple of Reed Buntings calling while several Redshanks titted about on the bank. There were good numbers of birds out on the pool, including 40+ Ringed Plover on  the beach and a few Golden Plover dotted among the greys - the beautiful plumage of these really stood out against their pale feathered companions. I started a vague block count of the Dunlin at their feet, getting to 400 before they grew restless and began shifting. As several hundred more appeared, some scattered and formed a graceful flock in the sky, passing by me in a rush of wings before swooping over the wall and heading for Essex. I love that sound. A quick scan on the water found a pair of Goldeneye keeping to themselves.

Around this time last year, I saw Snow Buntings up around the Thames viewpoint on a few occasions but no luck this time. Bar a flock of Avocet crossing from Higham Bight to Essex (and from my position, missing the bow of a tanker by metres) there wasn't much on the river or the jetty so I hugged the wall all the way round as far as Lower Hope Point. A pair of Stonechat flitted among some bramble and a female juvenile Marsh Harrier drifted over the fields on several occasions. On the river side several dozen Curlew roosted alongside more greys and dunlin. Down by the old munitions works what few trees there were were full of fieldfare again and quite a few goldfinches too, some lined up on the sea wall. Out across the marsh a Merlin zipped by. On the Black Barn pools a few Pintails, my first of autumn, mingled with Shoveler and Lapwing.

Making my way back round by Allen's Pond, the hawthorns again groaned under the number of fieldfares. I reckoned close to 200 birds and almost certainly a different flock from those before. Amazingly one bird stood out quite considerably from the others as it had a totally white head! I've never seen this part-albino-ism in a Fieldfare before. In with the piglets was a migrant Song Thrush and a few more Redwing.

In 4 hours at Cliffe I saw just one couple walking a dog, otherwise it was just me and the birds. Not a bad couple of hours.

The invading hordes...
Scrub plays havoc with autofocus - Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)
Cliffe Puddles, 10/11/12

RSPB Cliffe Pools, 10/11/12, 0815-1215, Overcast with intermittent drizzle/showers, <10deg, northerly breeze:

Robin, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Fieldfare (c500), Redwing (c10), Blackbird, Starling, Goldfinch, Chaffinch (100+), Greenfinch, Woodpigeon, Reed Bunting (6), Little Egret (3), Redshank, Cormorant, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Greenshank (2), Grey Plover (c150), Golden Plover (3), Ringed Plover (c50), Dunlin (c1800), Lapwing, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew (c20), Goldeneye (5), Shoveler (c60), Great Crested Grebe, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Avocet (c110), Marsh Harrier (1), Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Stonechat (2), Goldcrest (4), Corn Bunting (1 heard), Mute Swan (4 up river), Merlin (1), Mistle Thrush (1), Song Thrush (1), Collared Dove, Rook, Carrion Crow, Wigeon (5), Pochard (3), Little Grebe (c55), Coot, Grey Heron, Pied Wagtail.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Silent Slaughter

What they don't put on the postcards

I’ve followed the work of the German group Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) for a while now. I’ve been impressed by their relentless campaigning against the persecution of birds across Europe, often alongside groups such as Birdlife but often striking out on their own in areas less widely known as being certain black holes for birds. Without them I might never have read about the plight of Ortolan Buntings in the south of France or the efforts to conserve breeding pairs of Bonelli’s Eagle in Sicily. Through this I heard about the annual ‘camp’ in Brescia, Northern Italy, set up every year since 1984 to monitor, prevent and inform on the widespread illegal poaching that occurs in the region every autumn. The area is famed for its beautiful lakes: Garda, Como, Iseo - all desirable tourist spots, but you rarely hear about the birds silently disappearing in the hills and valleys all around. The chance to volunteer for a worthwhile cause, in an area I’d never been to was an exciting prospect, so the Saturday before last I flew to Bergamo for a week.

Upon arriving I had a message saying I would be met shortly by a “tall, nearly hairless German” who I couldn’t miss. This proved to be a more than adequate description and my hairless lift soon arrived to take me to meet the rest of the team. I had no idea what to expect from the week before I went, would I be shocked or angry or nervous? Or perhaps it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought? I guess all these feelings came to be at some point during the week, but I knew as I stood watching birds flit through the gardens of the hotel early on the first morning and the first cracks of gunshots rang out from the hills nearby, I was curiously looking forward to it all.

The laws pertaining to bird hunting in the Lombardy region seem like a tangled web. Shooting is permitted 5 days a week to licensed hunters and the legal quarry amounts to some 37 species – including ducks and waders but the majority small passerines. It was hard to accept that the shots I heard, sending birds like Song Thrush, Skylark, Blackbird and Redwing plummeting from the sky, I just had to reluctantly get used to. Apparently there are 40,000 registered hunters in the Brescia area alone, each with permission to harvest the skies of 30 birds a day for 60 days a year*. You can do the maths if you want. It’s appalling and I’m shocked how it gets past the EU Birds Directive. You can’t avoid seeing or hearing the hunters, from dawn to dusk every day bar Tuesday and Friday when hunting is not allowed (I don’t suppose birds have got anywhere to keep a pocket diary?) shots would ring out at intervals, the hillsides are pock marked with small capanos – private shooting ranges. Of course with so much legal shooting it’s likely that other birds are shot illegally too - we recovered a wounded Brambling, observed illegal Siskin decoys and observed a hunter we suspected tried to shoot a Nuthatch in frustration. Trapping of birds is even allowed at some installations called Rucculo where with a permit, live trapping for hunters’ decoy birds is allowed. Birds are lured in by decoys or food and then spooked into nets before being caged and presumably spending the rest of their lives unwittingly calling members of their same species to their deaths.

And then there’s the illegal killing – the trapping of birds, by numerous means, by and large for profit. Cruel bow or archetti traps, ‘snap traps’ (trappoli) and mist nets are illegal, yet as I found, still widely used in the area - the majority in remote villages, away from prying eyes. Birds caught in these, if live, may be sold as decoys for hundreds of euros (I was amazed by this), sold to restaurants where traditional ‘delicacies’ are still served despite being outlawed, or simply eaten by the poacher. I understand that in centuries past, birds may have represented a valuable, seasonal meal for rural people but times have changed. Illegal archetti, snap traps and mist nets are what we set out to find.

Following breakfast every day the group met for a briefing which laid out the plan for the day. CABS work closely with the Italian Forest Police, a dedicated team whose aim is to catch poachers in the act in order to prosecute. And our aims, in most cases, revolved around this – quietly checking the remote valleys between the lakes Iseo and Idro, a trapping hotspot, for traps and if present, informing the police. Leaving a trap or net standing might not be easy and birds may die, but nailing a poacher may ultimately end up saving more.

On the first day, in pairs, we were given an area to cover and I learned from an experienced volunteer what to look out for. As we hiked up through spectacular alpine scenery and skirted remote cabins, I checked for odd tracks and casual pathways in the grass, notches cut on young trees and clearings in woods – all things that might suggest a trapping site. There were some days when we found nothing and other days when we did. At our last stop on my first day, we checked an area that had been flagged as a possible trapping site. Close to a property and with dogs barking nearby, I admit I was uneasy. As we moved quietly through the scrub, my companion stopped and pointed at some bright red berries stuck to a notch cut into a tree. In the fading light they almost glowed and then I saw the archetti trap below. As I saw one, I turned and realised they were all around us, on metre high sticks set in the ground in rows. I lost count how many in the end, but more than 20. They were recently set and so we noted the location to the pass on the info. In one we found a Robin, hanging upside down, the cord wrapped tightly round its crushed legs. This we freed but it was too late.

The rest of the week took us to a number of different places, some remote and some not so. On one occasion we checked a site where a poacher had been caught with archetti traps set the previous year, it was pleasing to find this time there were none. At another spot in a small town in a valley we found a mist net and several snap traps just 50 metres from a school yard. In another valley we found four illegal mist nets - they were not big sites but each held birds: Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, some dead already. In this case we removed the nets and freed what we could. Unattended and unmanaged, fine, mesh ‘mist nets’ are death traps for birds. Even whilst looking out for them it was easy to go within several feet of one without realising it was there.

During the course of the week it was great to talk with the rest of the volunteers, who during my visit were all German or Italian. It was interesting to hear what motivated people to come, people from different backgrounds with different interests; during the week I met a lawyer, an electrician and a farmer among others. Not everyone shared my particular passion for birds but everyone recognised what was right and the chance to make a real change. Working with Alex, the camp organiser was a great experience. An energetic, passionate guy, top botanist and grasshopper geek, it was a lesson to watch him breathlessly traverse steep, scrubby slopes while giving instructions on his mobile! I was interested to find out how CABS had changed over the years and the changes he described showed a logical and I think effective, evolution. Occasionally regarded in the past as ‘militant’ in their approach due to not shying away from confrontation, there is now emphasis on working with police and local groups, networking and holding regular meetings with MEPs in Brussels. They’re still not afraid to “kick stones” or be pro-active on the ground and that’s good – from what I saw a combination of both seems to be an efficient way of working. Throughout the week I was told that the situation in Lombardy has improved considerably over 25 years. There may be lots of reasons for that – police presence, political lobbying, increased awareness and a shift in generational attitudes, I don’t know...but the work of CABS is undeniably a massive part of that. They are eyes on ears on the ground, working hard to make real changes and the best of a bad situation. Long may it continue.

But it’s not over yet.

Just before I left, I heard that the police had successfully caught the poacher from the site with the archetti I checked on the first day. He was catching birds to sell in his brother’s restaurant down the road. I don’t know what punishment was handed out although I was told that in most cases it amounts to a fine of several hundred euros although it can depend on other things such as the scale of the incident. I guess you could argue about the effectiveness of that but at least it’s a deterrent.

There were some low points across the week but ultimately it was a unique experience and I left feeling really positive about what the group and I personally had achieved. The days were long and hard and exhilarating but I loved every blistered moment hiking and climbing through the hills. There were few moments to really enjoy the scenery or the birds and other wildlife we came across (I’ll save that for another post) but that’s not why I went after all. This is just a small part of a much bigger problem. Throughout Europe, birds suffer horrific persecution year on year and that has to stop. 


Thanks to all the volunteers I met on the trip (and for all the translating help!) Thanks To Alex for the photo above. Thanks for reading as ever, spread the word.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Photoblog: CABS Camp Brescia, October 2012

Illegal poaching through trapping or shooting, although much improved, is rife in the foothills and Alps of the Brescia (Lombardy) region of Northern Italy. During the autumn hunting season hundreds of thousands of birds, many migrants, are killed in the area, shockingly a huge number by hunters with legal permits to do so. Although trapping through use of mist nets, snares and 'snap traps' is illegal, it still occurs across wide area. I thought I'd post a few photos from my trip to Italy last week with the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) for their annual bird protection 'camp'.

A Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) caught in an illegal mist net near Lake Iseo. Birds caught live may be caged and sold as lucrative hunters decoys which can fetch hundreds of euros. These birds (and many others) are kept in the dark for months and brought into the open the following season, upon being exposed to the daylight they sing as if it is spring and in doing so lure passing birds to their death. A cruel trick and the final insult. Song Thrush, a bird of conservation concern in the UK, is legally and widely hunted during autumn in Northern Italy when the population is bolstered by arrivals from N Europe. Other birds caught in nets are simply left to die slowly...
Female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) recovered dead from a poachers net near the hillside village of Zone - one of the worst areas we visited. 
CABS volunteer freeing a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) from a mist net in the Val Trompia area. Robins are highly prized by poachers as they are often sold to restaurants where they appear as expensive, so-called 'delicacies'. The sale of birds in butchers and restaurants is now forbidden but that doesn't stop some.
Trained CABS staff assisting an illegally shot, mortally wounded Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla). Despite regular attempts by hunters to allow it, the shooting of finches is illegal in Lombardy thanks to dedicated work by CABS and others.
A set bow or archetti trap found on my first day near the town of Iseo. Much of our work during the week focused on identifying illegal archetti trapping sites. This brutal trap lures birds in by the sight of berries fixed to a notch on a stick by the poacher. As the bird lands on the small 'branch' with the loop of cord beneath (left side of photo above) it instantly triggers the snare, becoming trapped and pinned to the stick where it is left, in most cases, with broken legs for hours or even days until the trapper returns. During the course of the week this poacher was caught red handed by the Italian forest police, the birds he was killing were being served at his brother's restaurant nearby.
Archetti traps hidden in a tree waiting to be used.
A poacher's snap trap or trapoli in the Val Sabbia valley. This trap lures birds, mostly robins, in a with a live bait placed on a hook attached to a tightly coiled spring, the slightest disturbance instantly clamps the trap shut, breaking the birds neck.
This photo doesn't look like much, but taken from a busy road it shows a hunter's back garden capano - essentially a small, well disguised hunting 'arena'. These are legal with permits in Northern Italy. The hunter typically plants fruiting shrubs and trees in a circle around a central camouflaged hide, adding makeshift 'branches' and perches with space for decoy cages. With decoys or the fruit on offer he is then free to sit comfortably with his friends and wait to shoot the birds as they come. We saw hundreds of these.
A caged decoy Song Thrush near Lake Idro. This is legally allowed.
Although it was a challenging week, both physically and mentally, there were a few great moments too. Watching three Golden Eagles soaring over sun-baked alpine crags after a long day takes some beating!
CABS volunteers take a break to admire the view. Upper Val Trompia, 25/10/12

Thanks for reading, a write up to follow...