Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Friday, 19 October 2012

Arrivederci...for a bit

No posts for a week or two as I'm heading to Italy tomorrow to join up with a team from Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) at their annual bird protection camp in Brescia.

This is my first time volunteering with CABS, a Germany-based campaigning/conservation organisation that tackles the widespread persecution of resident and migrant birds at key areas across Europe. Like many people, the appalling crimes that birds (particularly migrant ones) suffer across Europe sickens me, so I'm realistic but equally excited and grateful to have the opportunity to take part in this. I'm looking forward to going somewhere I've never been and experiencing it for myself. Conversely, I doubt very much I'm looking forward to seeing many birds, since there's a chance the ones I do will be hanging upside down with shattered legs or entangled in trapper's nets.

The Brescia camp in northern Italy has been running since the 1980s to tackle the widespread illegal poaching that occurs in the Lombardy region. Every autumn, as the last weary summer migrants pass through the Alps on their way south, with the first wintering birds on their heels, they begin funnelling through the food rich valleys in the area, where trappers wait with their nets and a range of crude, archaic traps and hunters ready their guns. And every autumn CABS volunteers are there, monitoring the situation, removing traps and working with the Italian Forest Police. Of the birds that are trapped indiscriminately, some are caught live to meet the demand for hunter's 'decoys' while others are destined for under the counter 'delicacies' in local restaurants. The proactive stance of groups like CABS and the continued pressure heaped on regional governments has seen successes of late in Italy but these still can't hide the sad, unjustifiable fate of millions of birds every year. It should be an interesting week, stay tuned...

Follow the CABS daily blog for updates.

An excerpt from Jonathan Franzen's essay, 'The Ugly Mediterranean':

Italy is a long, narrow gantlet for a winged migrant to run. Poachers in Brescia, in the north, trap a million songbirds annually for sale to restaurants offering pulenta e osei-polenta with little birds. The woods of Sardinia are full of wire snares, the Venetian wetlands are a slaughtering ground for wintering ducks, and Umbria, the home of St. Francis, has more registered hunters per capita than any other region. Hunters in Tuscany pursue their quotas of woodcock and wood pigeon and four legally shootable songbirds, including song thrush and skylark; but at dawn, in the mist, it’s hard to distinguish legal from illegal quarry, and who’s keeping track anyway? To the south, in Campania, much of which is controlled by the Camorra (the local mafia), the most inviting habitat for migratory waterfowl and waders is in fields flooded by the Camorra and rented to hunters for up to a thousand euros a day; songbird wholesalers from Brescia bring down refrigerated trucks to collect the take from small-time poachers; entire Campanian provinces are blanketed with traps for seven tuneful European finch species, and flush Camorristi pay handsomely for well-trained singers at the illegal bird markets there. Farther south, in Calabria and Sicily, the highly publicized springtime hunting of migrating honey buzzards has been reduced by intensive law enforcement and volunteer monitoring, but Calabria, especially, is still full of poachers who, if they can get away with it, will shoot anything that flies.
Reprinted from Telegraph article 8/11/10.  All copyright/respect to Jonathan Franzen. Thanks to Lisa A.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Birds on 45 (pt. 5)

Another entry in the series that combines two of my favourite pastimes - birdwatching and record hunting. Celebrating the birds that have made it on to 7" record sleeves, here are three more singles with three more birding cover stars...I've had fun digging these up:

Savages - Flying to Berlin b/w Husbands (2nd press) on Pop Noire Records, 2012

Once I'd set eyes on it, it was only a matter of seconds before this single from London quartet, Savages, was flying across the busy floor of Rough Trade and into my clammy mits. I mean look at it - it's got a beautiful sleeve illustration, it's on clear vinyl and it's a welcome entry for Buzzard into the Birds on 45 Hall of Obscurity. The sharply hooked bill, uniform plumage (with hints of more distinct feathering) and general jizz would I think make this good for a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo). I've seen a Buzzard take a snake before, flying off high with it dangling from its talons; it was an amazing sight, but instead these two appear to be sharing a deeper moment, both perhaps lamenting the degree of misunderstanding that often prevails upon their encounters with humans. The elegant and finely detailed pencil sketch is by Gemma Thompson who also plays guitar in the band. This isn't a music blog so I'll stick to what I know; as such I think this is a pretty good record and certainly one of the more memorable releases from a 'new band' type deal I've heard recently. It's dark and urgent and hard to ignore, if you like gothy/post punk stuff and you know who I mean, you should check them out. I hear they're great live too. Two quality tracks, a Buzzard - top marks.

Chapel Club - O Maybe I b/w Machine Music on East City Records, 2011

Here's another great 7" bird sleeve, this time courtesy of Chapel Club. The notes on the back identify this as a Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus), drawn by a John Cassin (1813-1869). I didn't know anything about this species but a quick check reveals it is a strictly marine member of the Cormorant family found fairly widely along the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska to the Gulf of California. The distinct blue and yellow facial markings are typical of an adult in breeding plumage (nice article here from Grrl Scientist). Brandt's are named after the 19th century German naturalist, Johann Friedrich von Brandt - hands up who knew that? Incidentally, John Cassin, who drew and painted this fine piece has also been remembered through the names of several North American birds. He was an American ornithologist and the country's first taxonomist. Interesting stuff, and unfortunately more so than the record itself, which had no impact on me whatsoever. Sorry chaps, good cover though.

Husker Du - Eight Miles High b/w Masochism World (live) on SST Records, 1984

Oh hell yes. It took me quite some time to clock that this scorching single from one of my favourite bands actually had birds on the cover. Maybe that's because, unlike the previous one, it's the least remarkable thing about this astonishing record. But on the bird front, here we have thousands of them. Given this record was born out of the freezing streets out of Minneapolis-St Paul, it's fitting that Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) should take the stage here. Unlike our feral population of bread-munching park geese, it's reasonable to think these are genuine 'Canada's'. They are largely migratory in the far north of their nearctic range - a fact that formed the basis for the unlikely Hollywood movie 'Fly Away Home'. In the film Anna Paquin takes to a micro-light dressed as a goose to guide some newly fledged geese on their first migration. There's a lot of cheering at the end, and hugging, and the evil property developers lose. Oh come on, you loved it (rumour has it that Vladimir Putin is a fan and is being lined up to star in the sequel). Anyway, it's uh, unlikley that any bird could fly Eight Miles High, although another species of geese does I think hold the record for the highest flight (nice one -ed). I read that Bar-headed Geese have  been recorded migrating over the Himalayas which surely takes some beating. Anyway, what more to say? On a good day I think this record just about renders 90% of my collection obsolete; the startlingly original cover of the Byrd's 'Eight Miles High' is something to behold and 'Masochism World' on the flip side is aggression of the best kind. I like Canada Geese a whole lot more now.

As ever, if you can think of a record cover I've missed, please feel free to get in touch below.

Previous posts in the series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Friday, 12 October 2012

A Swift half

Look what was on at the East Dulwich Tavern the other night:

I'm a predictable sort. A good ale, and another great effort from Truman's.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

People Power?

I had a nice letter from my MP Gareth Johnson (Dartford) the other day. Well it looked nice, all crisply folded with a fancy heading. Like a lot of other people I wrote to my MP to point out and explain my extreme disappointment at the government's decision to press on with a cull of badgers despite good science, conservation knowledge and an admirable public response going against it. I wasn't expecting a miracle but I thought he should know how at least one potential voter felt about it. At best, for what is rightfully proving to be a controversial issue, I think I was probably expecting a 'thanks, I'll pass that on' type response so I was surprised to receive what seemed like a more personal response on the subject.

Unfortunately that response was, in short - 'it's happening, deal with it'. Apparently, vaccination instead of culling is "not currently a viable option" and he fears that "if this action does not take place even more suffering will be inflicted upon both cattle and the badger population in the longer term". I'd like him to read this insightful article but anyway, we've been there. I suppose it's probably no surprise that these are the words of a Conservative party member and in keeping with the party line. With this said, despite his stance, I think I actually appreciate him being honest, it's good to know where we stand. At the end day, it's disappointing that he doesn't share my views but that's life, it probably won't be the last time! And it just makes me more determined to speak out for nature.

So far 150,000 people have signed the petition to stop the cull which is really encouraging I think and regardless of the outcome, significant. Petitions might seem dry and ineffective but they are an important means of reaching people who might otherwise have not been prompted to act. Aside from maintaining momentum, another challenge will now be encouraging those people to get behind other causes too. Why have 150,000 people signed a petition against a badger cull, but only 10,000 signed a petition to introduce tougher measures against those who actively encourage the barbaric persecution of raptors in England? I guess the same could be said for a lot of things. It's a challenge, but a good one.

To any readers who haven't already, please sign this petition to introduce the offence of vicarious liability for raptor persecution in England. This  holds landowners/employers accountable for actions of their employees and will help create further deterrents against this horrific wildlife crime. It seems all the more pertinent today:

Why not tell your MP about it and let them know what you think? Or quiz them on climate change or a local environmental issue? The question mark in the title was intended; we have a voice and we shouldn't take 'no' for answer.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Sheppey: SEO and LEO in a day

Noting a slight shift in the winds at the tail end of last week, back to Northerlies, I thought it might be time for another trip over to the Isle of Sheppey on Saturday. I hadn't been since spring so I was looking forward to it. I hatched a plan on the way over to start at the top and work my way down the eastern coast towards Shellness. Arriving at Warden Bay just after 9am, I was soon making my way up through the scrub at the top of the heavily eroded cliffs. Less than a minute from the car park I picked up the first of many Goldcrests in the dense Blackthorn - no doubt a fresh arrival from the continent, they've been very noticeable even in London this past week. Having heard that a Yellow-browed Warbler had been found here the weekend before I kept going up past the caravan park towards the point. Here Chiffchaffs occupied just about every available bush or tree, their incessant calls ringing out wherever I went. At the point I met another birder who turns out was the one who found the YB the previous weekend and he pointed out where (Good to meet you Gavin). There was a lot of activity in the scrub slumped down the cliff face but mostly Chiffs and assorted tits. We walked around the area for a bit, hoping that something nice might have come in but 3 swallows going north and a couple of Jays were about it. The latter is apparently a rare bird for Sheppey so these were no doubt a result of the staggering irruption for this species along the east coast currently.

For the next stop I had planned to park at Muswell Manor and take in the fields down to the hamlet. Last year the grazed fields regularly held Hen Harriers and quite a few waders so I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that since my last visit, the whole area has been ploughed up and converted to arable. A vast tract of land next to the Swale NNR now seems to be growing what looks like corn but might apparently be a biofuel crop. Interesting. As a result with nothing to see, we went to straight to Shellness to see what was about. Joining a few of the regular watchers there it wasn't long before a juvenile Gannet was picked up moving East. The mussel beds were teeming with Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew, among them a few Black-tailed Godwits and Grey Plover. It was nice to see a few small flocks of Brent Geese arriving back in their wintering quarters. After a while, all the oystercatchers went up and scanning to see what might have caused it I was absolutely chuffed to find a Short-eared Owl coming in off the sea right in front of us! The views couldn't have been better as it came in over our heads, perfectly clear in warm light against the blue sky. The bird then dipped out of view into the marsh behind the hamlet. An awesome sight.

Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) take flight as the tide rises, Shellness. 

The hamlet of Shellness from the old sea wall, Swale NNR.

At this point the wind had virtually ceased and after a little bit more watching I decided to take a walk around the area. A Wheatear popped up on the sea wall, a Kestrel hovered over the marsh and hordes of meadow pipits darted about on the beach. Watching a distant Buzzard being mobbed by crows I headed round to Capel Fleet to see what was about. It was only mid-afternoon but there were still a few Marsh Harriers on view, coming and going over the reedbeds. A Kingfisher gave good views as it perched on a broken stem over the fleet and a hundred or so Lapwing shifted in the field behind. At one point the birds were spooked into flight and I was able to find the reason - a Merlin drifting above them. Elsewhere, a sudden surge of swallows moved across the fields as I sat enjoying the surroundings and the warm autumn sun on my back.

Before heading off to watch the football I popped into Kingshill Farm on Elmley Marshes for a bit where a Long-eared Owl had been present for a while, showing well at roost in its usual patch of orchard. And so it was - brilliant views of a bird I've only ever seen at dusk before. Beautiful - not a bad way to finish an excellent day out.

There's a Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) in there somewhere. Kingshill Farm, Elmley 6/10/12

Tuesday, 2 October 2012


If you've looked up at all in the last few days, chances are you've seen some small, dark shapes tumbling along in the wind. There has been an impressive passage of House Martins and Swallows in the South East these last few days. On a mild but blustery walk over the North Downs at the weekend, I watched an endless parade of these birds pass by, 500 at least...maybe more. The martins largely preferred to stay higher up while the swallows came in low and silent over the fields, at times their wings almost touching the ground. Each and every bird shared the same determined goal - head south. These birds were headed west with the prevailing winds, but eventually they will turn southwards, out over the channel and onto Europe. I thought about a friend in central France looking off her balcony, these birds today may be hers tomorrow. During migration, swallows at least will cover 200 miles in  a day and may reach their destination in South Africa in around 6 weeks.

Thinking of swallows and martins migrating I'm naturally reminded of that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you know the one...

Coconuts or not, it's a feat that never fails to amaze me. What a privilege it is to witness.

House Martins (Delichon urbicum)

This post is for Sal - see you soon kid  x