Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Radio 4: Bird Wars on Malta

SOURCE: via GoogleImages 

Quick post but thought I'd flag this link to an interesting programme put out on Radio 4 earlier today about the ongoing illegal hunting of birds on Malta:

I gave it a listen in my lunch break and a couple of things stood out for me. It was interesting to hear the interviews with Joe Perici Calascione president of FKNK (Federation of Hunting and Conservation Malta), his "'hunting buddy', Frank" and the guy from the EU Commission (sorry I can't remember the name) As expected, the former make a pretty determined (pathetic) defence on the practice of bird slaughter that over 10,000 FKNK members are involved in. "A healthy walk in the morning, before a day in the office" was how one of them described their hunting exploits, while I don't think 'Frank' did himself (and the FKNK) any favours by claiming that the reason there were fewer Turtle Doves seen on Malta now than 50 years ago was because "they changed the (migration) routes". I'd like to believe it was as simple as that too. Someone then rattled off the party line about how hunting was a hobby that actually preserved species and by maintaining the natural landscape hunters helped enhance biodiversity. That old nugget. Perhaps there is an element of truth buried in this argument, although in this context I think it's hardly used with conviction.

Central to the program was the mention of breaches in the terms of Malta's EU hunting Derogation - highlighted by BirdLife Malta figures showing countless incidences of illegal spring hunting. For example on the first day of the spring 2011 season, apparently 4 birds were reported shot by FKNK (they are legally required to do so) yet BirdLife recorded something like 600+ shots fired that day. As the reporter says, where did the other 596 shots end up? Did they really all miss? It is for this reason that conservation groups like BirdLife Malta and CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) continue to send volunteers into the field to monitor the hunting. The presence of these groups clearly riles many hunters who mock and resent them for "playing policeman". The guy from FKNK, when shown the bodies of two illegally killed Cuckoos, inexplicably even claimed that he believed BirdLife Malta capable of shooting the birds themselves to 'frame' the hunters. It's a ludicrous statement but one that demonstrates the level of ill-feeling and distrust.

Bar a stern, defensive, bullet point emailed response to some questions posed by the reporter, the Maltese government were conspicuous by their absence on the program. And this seems to be the issue which defines the tragedy unfolding year on year. Some positive steps have been made but an otherwise softly softly approach, taken for fear of alienating a powerful lobby group, not to mention potential voters, surely just succeeds in drawing out an issue that desperately needs resolving. The presenter suggested that if there is hope, maybe it lies outside of government, with groups like FKNK, BirdLife and CABS working in partnership. It's a nice thought but one I can't imagine will be easily achieved. Anyway, good programme, worth a listen, feel free to put any thoughts below.

BirdLife Malta - web - twitter
CABS - web - twitter


Monday, 30 July 2012

Photoblog: Butterflies

I took these photos at Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex last week, during a quick visit to the south coast. I haven't been there for a long time although I have fond memories of going there regularly as a kid. It was great to see so many butterflies on the wing, in fact I've never seen so many in one place in the UK as on this occasion. The flower-rich chalk grasslands, sheltered by steep cliffs overlooking a floodplain created by the meandering River Cuckmere, were teeming with life - a welcome sight after weeks of jetstream induced misery. It is thought that 2012 could prove to be a devastating year for butterfly populations with several exceedingly wet months likely to affect breeding success. Finger's crossed things improve.

Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)
A pretty butterfly that is, teasingly, not a 'White' but a member of the 'Brown' family.
This was the first one I've seen this year. Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, 26/7/12. 

Dark Green Fritillary (Mesoacidalia aglaja)
This butterfly came beating past me and I instantly knew it was something a bit different. I followed it up and down a path, no doubt getting strange looks from the numerous dog walkers and tourists nearby, until it finally alighted on some Red Clover. I could see it was a Fritillary from the colour and pattern on the upperside of its wings and I had an inkling what it was. But it was only when I got home to check my book that I could be more certain that it was a Dark Green Fritillary. Fairly common in some areas but with some decline of its range, this is the first one of these I've seen. I saw a few more of them that afternoon. 

Essex Skipper? It's pretty hard to tell Small Skippers and Essex apart without a good view but I wonder if the lack of orange on the antenna here (seen when zoomed) would indicate that this is an Essex Skipper?

Chalkhill Blue (male) (Lysandra coridon) wings partially open (top) and closed (below)
Identifying blue butterflies can be a bit of a headache, especially since they are often to be found in the same habitats and locations, a good look often helps. Been a while since I saw one but I think the dark trim to the forewing and the frayed markings on the hindwing here, mark this out as a male Chalkhill Blue - a butterfly of calcareous grasslands in southern England.

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) on Field Scabious.
A common grassland butterfly around the country, I often see these in  parks and gardens around central London.

Six-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae)
An attractive, common day-flying moth with a quality latin taxonomic name. There were LOTS of these flying about, in a somewhat 'heavy' or lethargic fashion. This pair appear to be mating on top of an old Burnet moth cocoon (the pale yellow 'sack' attached to the grass stem). Interestingly the cocoon seems to contain the remains or shedded parts of a departed moth. Could it be that a male literally pounced on a female as she emerged?

Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa)

Got 15 minutes spare in the next week? Why not take part in this year's Big Butterfly Count here, only a few days left...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Portugal, part 3: Tagus Estuary (Lisbon)

White Storks grazing in a rice field, Tagus Esturay nr Lisbon, 12/6/12

On my last day in Portugal, I decided to push the (metaphorical) boat out and explore the bird-rich Tagus estuary surrounding Lisbon. It’s an area I’ve flown over several times and always wanted to see for myself. So around 8.30 on a beautiful, bright morning in central Lisbon I met up with Bernardo from Birds & Nature Tours and headed off to find some amazing birds

Heading out of Lisbon over the incredible Vasco da Gama Bridge was an adventure in itself (I think I am secretly a ‘bridge spotter’ too) -the longest road bridge in Europe gave fantastic views of the river as it narrows between Lisbon and Almada, before swelling into an expansive estuary on the other side. Once clear of the bridge our first stop was a private stud farm, situated down a rough track on the banks of a large, verdant floodplain criss-crossed with reedy ditches. Getting out of the car, I could see birds wherever I looked. A Stonechat ‘chatted’ from a patch of roadside thistles while Swallows swooped over a small channel and a Reed Bunting shot by. Looking out onto the bowling green fields we immediately spotted a group of 10+ Spoonbills maybe only 50m away - a great way to start the day! A scan of the fields revealed some distant Black-winged Stilts, numerous Cattle Egrets, White Storks and a smart Great White Egret that appeared out of one the ditches. A new UK breeder, this is a bird that I have somehow never actually managed to see here. Bernardo informed me that Squacco Herons were regularly seen at this site recently but unfortunately we missed them this time. They are later breeders apparently and had probably just departed for their nest site. Anyway, no time to dwell as I turned to scan the fields behind just in time to see a female Marsh Harrier appear out of a reedbed and effortlessly glide our way. A Glossy Ibis flew over the track in front, closely followed by a Purple Heron. Nearby, a Spotless Starling fluttered on an overhead telephone wire as Pallid Swifts arced across the blue sky above it.

Heading back the way we came in, we passed a dense reed bed where Cetti’s Warblers noisily announced themselves and Goldfinches tittered overhead. Despite it being calm, the reeds maximised what wind there was so we craned our ears to try and locate more of the well hidden residents; there was a Reed Warbler and then finally...a blast of Great Reed Warbler. It didn’t show but it was great to hear one for the first time. This small area of reeds also held a number of curious ‘exotics’, including the striking, red-masked Common Waxbill and several species of Weaver bird. Of the latter, bright yellow male Village Weavers were particularly conspicuous, with a number buzzing through the reeds, in fast, direct, almost Kingfisher-like flight. These birds appeared to be thriving in the area, with their distinctive grassy ball nests, skilfully hanging from reed stems here and there. Apparently the population stems from released or escaped cage birds that have adapted to the habitats amidst the rural fringes of southern Portugal. I haven’t managed to find a good ID point of reference for these birds yet but I’d be interested to.

Flock of Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia)
One of the 'exotic' species I saw in the area. I think this is a Village Weaver?  Answers welcome below.

Heading back out onto the main road we pulled off a few minutes later into a farmstead where Bernardo arranged a stop to check out one of the many cork groves in the area. I have to say I loved this site and was fascinated by the cork-oak harvesting that Bernardo explained. A traditional, sustainable farming practice, it also has huge habitat potential as we found. Walking through the shady grove we logged Hoopoe, Little Owl, Crested Lark, Zitting Cisticola, Melodious Warbler, a lovely Red-rumped Swallow and one species I was particularly looking forward to – Azure-winged Magpie. I missed that on my last trip to Portugal when, to my frustration, I popped out of the room for a second only to come back and have Mum and Dad say ‘oh , you just missed this funny looking Magpie that flew by’. Glimpsed as it moved between the trees, it really was a fine-looking bird (as all magpies are in my opinion) A bit smaller and more reserved than our magpies, its long bluish tail and wings give it a truly elegant air.

With that score settled we moved on and attention shifted to another bird - perhaps my ‘target bird’ for the day. Bernardo had thought he’d seen a flash of something promising overhead and  as we turned the corner, there it was perched atop a bare oak little more than 50m away...a cracking Black-winged Kite! Having only seen them in books and read about their small and localised European range, which includes this particular area of greater Lisbon and a small thread across south central Portugal and the Algarve, it was a bird I was really looking forward to seeing. Unlike other Kite species, I was surprised how small it was, more Kestrel-like in size and demeanour though distinctly ‘stockier’ – maybe vaguely owl-like even. What a stunning bird - pearly white uppers with clear black ‘shoulders’ (it’s also sometimes referred to as Black-shouldered Kite), yellow talons and a beady, blood red eye. We had a brilliant view as it perched on the tree and scanned the area, much like a Kestrel again. After a couple of minutes it took off and disappeared ghost-like through the trees, but not before a Bee-eater flew in and joined it on the same perch! It’s not often you get to see that! Awesome.

Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) A cropped, digi-scope effort. Really ace bird.
Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) Ok, rubbish pic but you can see that it's quite a big lark and just make out the distinct 'crest' on its crown. I was able to watch a pair of Crested Lark really close up and it was curious to see the behaviour of one bird (the female?) who kept her body really low to the ground and practically belly-crawled her way along a sandy rut and out of view. This bird on the other hand made no attempt to hide and showed really well.
One of the cork oaks that has been harvested. The figure '8' refers to the year 2008 which is when this tree had its lower bark removed. Trees are cut on a rotation of around 7-9 years which allows time for the cambium layer to regrow. That cork could be in the bottle of wine you're drinking now! But seriously, this is a good reason why we should support cork oak farmers. These trees are important for biodiversity and form an important part of this Mediterranean scrub habitat. Drink wine, save birds?!

We soon hit the road again, peeling off at a lay-by near some lagoons to check the birds. There were Black-winged Stilts wherever I looked, while on the shallow causeways Turnstone, superb summer plumaged Dunlin and a few Little Terns shifted nervously. One pool across the road was full of Coot and it was here that one of Bernardo’s colleagues had found six Red-knobbed Coots wintering earlier in the year. Although they had since moved on he explained that this was a local first. Over lunch on the shore of the estuary in a nearby nature reserve, we enjoyed views of half a dozen or so Kentish Plover and Ringed Plover skittering back and forth in the ebbing tide. An obliging Sardinian Warbler also appeared, periodically alighting atop some low salt marsh vegetation before ducking out of sight.

For the afternoon we left the shore and headed in land slightly, down a sandy track that meandered through a wonderful range of habitats. There were open arable fields, cork groves, dense thickets of scrub and rough, grassy pastures. And the birds followed: several Black Kites appeared above the trees with a few Common Buzzards for company. A pair of Red-legged Partridge lounged wearily on a shady bank and as we drove on, I could hear a few Quail calling from the grassy verges beside the track,a repetitive cllip-cllip-cllip. At one point we stopped just yards from one but they lived up to their reputation as being impossible to see. Easier to see was a Booted Eagle that Bernardo spotted drifting away from us, high up. Though distant, I was able to get some decent views of its nicely contrasting underwing pattern. Another lifer, not bad.

For our final stop we began skirting back towards Lisbon but first pulled off into staggering estate of rice fields bordering the north eastern end of the estuary. The flat, submerged fields teemed with birds, Cattle Egrets and storks the most abundant. I wondered how the farmers got on with the birds here but got the impression it wasn’t quite such an easy relationship. We’d only just pulled in the entrance when I spotted something shoot up out of a ditch about 100m or so away and then quickly disappear from view. Slender winged and fast, with a comparatively pale belly and flank, it had me stumped. I didn’t manage to set my bins on it for more than a second but a large swift or tern sprung to mind. From this description Bernardo suggested it was possibly a Collared Pratincole – one of the birds we’d come to find! 

Moving on, we scattered through what was possibly hundreds of Yellow Wagtails before reaching an area where a Montagu’s Harrier had been seen recently. Bang on cue a raptor appeared low on the horizon but turned out on this occasion to be a Black Kite. Our final stop was at the end of a long track, where the road gave way to the water and the glorious expanse of the Tagus Estuary lay before us. Apparently it was a favoured spot for local birders and I could see why. From this spot we had near enough a 360 view of the area, Lisbon lurked hazily on the horizon but otherwise the view was dominated by extensive mudflats, channels, low lying fields and hills beyond. A Lesser Yellowlegs was found here during the winter apparently but today we have gangly, pinkish Greater Flamingos to admire – well over a thousand of them huddled on the far bank. Several Glossy Ibis poked about among them too, the Mediterranean counterpart of our Curlew. It was a perfect spot to finish a pretty epic day.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) Weird photo but I like it because it illustrates how Cattle Egrets (presumably) got their name - from following the tracks of livestock and foraging for insects turned up in their hoof prints. 

It was great to spend the day birding around Lisbon and see so many fantastic birds. But I just as much enjoyed exploring the variety of habitats and getting a local’s view on conservation matters. Portugal is a magnificent country but gets a pretty bad rep for nature conservation as the potentially devastating Salgados wetlands affair currently shows. Hopefully if more people realise the incredible wildlife they've got on their doorstep, those with the power will make greater efforts to protect it and the network of ecosystems we all depend on.


SPEA (Birdlife International's Portuguese partner) - This is a great website with English translation for anyone interested in birds and nature conservation in Portugal
Sagres Bird Festival 2012 - this looks amazing!
Birds & Nature Tours - highly recommended, many thanks to my excellent guide, Bernardo.
Some good news

and finally please sign this petition to oppose the development of the vital Salgados wetland in the Algarve, southern Portugal.

Muito obrigado!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Portugal, part 2: Peneda-Geres

Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres, northern Portugal, June 2012

I had read that Peneda-Geres National Park was regarded as Portugal’s most important National Park before I went away, so I was really keen to visit it while I was in the area. Thankfully my amazing hosts, translators and providers of dry socks, Adam and Sarah, were up for it too, so on the Sunday morning we left Porto and drove north towards the mountains.

Situated in the far north of the country, straddling the border with Spain, the park covers around 700 km2 of craggy granite peaks, valleys and steep forested slopes. It is apparently a stronghold for many rare and threatened species of flora and fauna including, in its remotest reaches, wolves and otters as well as some endemic plant species.

After a roundabout tour of Braga and Guimares (a tour of roundabouts) we headed for the small but central village of Vila do Geres about 50km north. Situated in the middle of the park, it seemed like a good place to start and it wasn’t long before the hillsides closed in and lush vegetation flanked the narrow roads. Being a Sunday, the village was quiet, save only for the sound of the stream running through and a few Serins singing across the valley. There was little traffic - apparently vehicles are strictly monitored and banned in some areas save for locals only. This is a measure taken to prevent disturbance of the sensitive ecosystems.  We carried on north via an ever twisting road, through mixed coniferous and deciduous forests until it levelled out and the trees thinned to stands of pine, birch, juniper and hardy shrubs.


Parked up at one of the few designated stopping areas, I heard a number of small birds calling in the trees. Flitting through the pines were Long-tailed Tits and Coal Tits, with a Goldcrest busy feeding amongst them. It occurred to me that this might be the kind of habitat to see Crested Tits in but since I’d never seen one, I couldn’t be sure. I also wasn’t sure of their range, although someone told me they were often quite easy to find in mainland Europe. We followed a small path down to a rocky stream where a Grey Wagtail went zipping by, closely followed by another.

Climbing back up the path I became aware again of tiny calls in the canopy and small birds flicking about. There were Goldcrests again but something else too, a pretty non-descript call that I couldn’t place. Craning my neck, I eventually I found the tree where the activity was centred and there, slightly shadowed but on show were a party of Crested Tits! It seemed that one was even busy feeding two attentive youngsters. Brilliant. With time getting on, we made one final stop just up the road at Portela de Leonte. This was a stunning viewpoint from which to view some of the most restricted areas and also the base for some of the Park’s rangers. Peering down through the valley it was possible to make out hazy shapes of Spain in the distance. Peneda-Geres is also well-known for birds of prey so I couldn’t resist one final scan of the peaks. Although conditions were close and grey clouds were quickly descending down the valley sides I did manage to pick out a raptor perched on a distant rock. Its form suggested a Peregrine and a quick flash of pointed wings confirmed this. I realised that I’ve become more used to seeing this bird in urban areas of late; what great bird to see in its true element, perched high on a rocky ridge surveying the wilderness before it.

After that we hurtled back to Porto for the Jeff Mangum show at Casa di Musica – a glorious, modern sugarcube of a building and a pretty wonderful show to boot; the perfect end to a surreally awesome day. I didn’t see masses of birds but what I did see I enjoyed. However, it was the pure, ravaged beauty of Geres that I’ll remember most.

I could probably write another whole page about the drive south from Porto to Lisbon the next day but I think I gotta pick my battles. There were shed loads of raptors but here are some other photos instead:

About 45 minutes south from Porto, White Storks suddenly appeared everywhere. Their huge nests were visible on every chimney, crane and tall structure for miles around. Amazingly there were even nests on the motorway bridges - seemingly undisturbed by the traffic thundering by just metres below! 
That's how you build a nest

I like this photo. This stork was flying along side the car - just as I took the picture,
 trees obscured it giving that weird effect. I managed to hold a bit of focus despite the road.

This White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) flew over while we stopped for petrol on the A17.
A common bird but always amazing to see in flight.

Oh and it's not really a European festival trip without seeing Shellac at some point.
They were ok but Wolves in the Throne Room were better. And Chairlift were amazing too *hearts*

 Thanks for (still) reading...

"But for now we are young/Let us lay in the sun/and count every beautiful thing we can see..."