Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Winter...or spring?

This post was going to be all about Hawfinches. Instead, it's only going to be a little bit about Hawfinches and a bit more about other...stuff. I mean, I guess I'm finding things a little less-than-inspiring at the moment. Winter (or spring) rumbles on and I've yet to see my first Wheatear of the will officially remain winter until then at least.

There's that old stereotype about how Brits love to talk about the weather and it's true; why not, weather is pretty interesting isn't it?! It's certainly relevant at the moment and while the media scaremongering is beyond tiresome, it is tuned into the fact that everybody is thinking 'what the ****?!' It's not that a cold March is that unusual, I'm sure I can recall it snowing in April before now, but the scale and ferocity of these wintry conditions are hard to ignore. The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday linking this weather to Arctic sea ice loss. It's worth reading - next time you're at the hairdresser's and find the conversation steered towards the weather, you'll be able to drop in some gems. I wonder if there's a positive side to all this, it's a general awakening to the idea of climate change in the mass public consciousness?

The weather seems to have added a particularly morose veneer to the political machine of late too. I shivered at this incredible exchange of words being battered about the blogosphere recently:

"The idea that the countryside should just hang out and hope for the best is wrong, and, as a result, we've got an imbalance. I haven't seen a peewit or a curlew around here for years. I'm clear that wildlife law should be built around management.' 
As if on cue, a sparrowhawk streaks past the kitchen window and scatters his doves, and he nearly spills his coffee in annoyance. Pity the RSPB employee who recently invited him to look through a telescope at a sparrowhawk-‘ The answer was no, I wouldn't like to, seeing as one had just eaten my last goldfinch. People are obsessed with raptors.'"

Who said that? You got it - it was Secretary of State for Defra, Owen Paterson. The weather's not so bad now is it? You can read the article in 'CountryLife' here, it's hilarious, really.

The bleak and icy conditions today may also be apt for what is the first anniversary of the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework. Greg Clark MP, former planning minister, has been singing its praises on his blog : "The NPPF has succeeded in combining development with conservation, national standards with local empowerment...prophecies of an environmental apocalypse have not come to pass. The green belt is still very much in place, containing sprawl and ensuring that England remains green and pleasant." Thinking about my last post, I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Only one year on, this is really just the beginning, there are tough, relentless challenges for the environment ahead. The weather will improve eventually, the spin will stay the same, I just hope that in the rush for the lotion and the bucket and spade, we don't forget everything else.

On a brighter note, I headed out last weekend to see some Hawfinches! If you're a birder living anywhere in the vicinity of London, you will have heard about Mickleham and the incredible flock of finches currently frequenting the area. For birds more typically encountered in small flocks, the 110+ individuals that have been recorded here for the last few weeks is a remarkable occurrence. Whilst resident in the UK, albeit very locally, it seems a flock of this size must be swelled with, if not entirely consist of, continental birds - perhaps pushed into seeking new food sources by the harsh winter?

I scraped the ice off my car and headed round the M25 to Surrey on Saturday to have a look. Arriving around 8am in murky conditions, I found the spot at Juniper Bottom, closely followed by two more birders. If there was an upside to the cold and the gently falling snow, it was the stillness and the silence. Snow hung on the trees where nothing moved save tiny hidden voices every now and then. A Tawny Owl shrieked somewhere and a Song Thrush did its admirable best to lift spirits. For an hour an half I walked up and down the track, more in an effort to keep warm than anything, without sign of the birds until eventually I began to pick up some calls in a nearby fir. Another group of birders timed their arrival perfectly because within minutes, a flock of 11 birds suddenly left the shelter of the tree and swirled over our heads, this was followed a moment later by another large flock of c30 birds. Looking up into the sky, in between mouthfuls of sleet, I got decent views of this monster finch and it made the long, cold wait worthwhile. After a burst of activity, the flock disappeared from view and I was left to contemplate the wintery landscape.

Haw frost: Juniper Bottom, Mickleham, Surrey, 23/3/13
Twitching? It's snow joke...classic

Monday, 18 March 2013

Can you hear the Nightingales sing?

In almost exactly a month from now, the first Nightingales to have returned to southern England from their wintering grounds in the lush forests of East Africa will be starting to fill the hawthorn thickets and rides around Lodge Hill and Chattenden Woods on the Hoo Peninsular with their astounding song. But they won’t be aware that the future of the site, one of the single most important locations in the country for a species which nationally declined 60% between 1995 and 2009, hangs in the balance.

For several years now, Lodge Hill has been the subject of a massive new 700ha development by Medway Council and Land Securities; a development amounting to 5000 new homes (the biggest single one in Europe) and countless other amenities being dumped slap bang in the middle of the Hoo Peninsular - a predominantly rural area, rich in wildlife, history and community values. It is a thorughly miserbale concept. But when plans for the development were scrutinised, local conservation groups reacted with the urgency you would expect, going to great lengths to point out the value of this site for nightingales and other wildlife. Their pleas were backed up by the results of the BTO’s 2012 Nightingale survey that showed the area to hold a fantastic 84 pairs of Nightingales, more than previously thought - with 69 inside the boundary directly affected by the development.

Yesterday (Thursday), after many months of hard work behind the scenes, an important decision was made by Natural England. They awarded Lodge Hill SSSI status on account of its important mosaic of habitats, specifically ancient, semi-natural woodland and tracts of neutral (unimproved) grassland and its importance for breeding nightingales. This decision extends the current SSSI boundary of Chattenden Woods, creating a new area of 222ha. This is a great result, it’s the right decision and while it the issue won’t go away overnight, it will now presumably make things much harder for the developers.
“It is an offence for any person intentionally or recklessly to destroy or damage the special features of the SSSI or to disturb any of the fauna”
What’s especially encouraging about this decision is that in October 2012, Natural England initially turned down the chance to notify the contested land as a SSSI “at this stage” on the grounds of “good but incomplete evidence”, referring to an issue with the 1999 national nightingale census. I think this shows a fair and diligent approach to the evidence since presented. If Land Securities and Medway Council were concerned by the open-ended nature of this initial statement (and they were) it would have been interesting to be in their offices yesterday don’t you think?!

On the BBC News last night Councillor Jane Chitty, overseeing Strategic Development and Economic Growth in Medway, lamented those pesky nightingales, moaning “is the priority to protect 80 nightingales or is it more important to provide housing?”. That may be a laughably cynical attempt at riling up public feeling ('it's only a few birds') but what she’s missing here is that this isn’t really about 80 nightingales at all, it’s about all those next year and the year after, securing the future of one the most important sites for the species in England. As the designation states, it’s about recognising important habitats, preserving those invertebrate-rich grasslands and so much more. It’s not a case of ‘Birds v Houses’ as the media wants to sell it, the right to provide homes is not being denied; it’s about respect for the environment, logic and protecting something that can't be replaced - a site we should be proud of. 

I don’t think there is any mitigation that can adequately account for Lodge Hill - despite a ‘biodiversity offsetting’ (shudder) scoping report in November 2012 suggesting it is ‘technically feasible’ to adequately offset expected losses to nightingale populations with habitat elsewhere. The amount of habitat required was cautiously suggested by BTO experts to amount to 300-400ha, assuming certain key habitat conditions were in place (!) That’s a lot of land for Kent - meaning lots of smaller sites scattered across the county, many requiring a lot of work (and time) to make them suitable. Do you think offsetting on this scale could work? Perhaps it might on a smaller scale in some situations, but surely the RISK here just too great to mess with? There is clearly something very important about this site to this particular species - what if it doesn't work? 

As I understand, Medway Council and Land Securities now have 4 months to challenge the decision and they will no doubt have been preparing for this outcome so I guess we shouldn’t pop the champagne corks just yet. Personally I'm sick of seeing our countryside filled in by lazy developments and the thought of seeing a whole new town of characterless, unsustainable and over-priced homes, makes me angry; but I’m not blind to the fact that we’re all living too long and we need new places to live. Of course there are other sites where you can build more houses in Medway if you must, without depriving future generations of an important, iconic part of their natural heritage. Lodge Hill may have looked like an easy option, brownfield, picturesque, commutable, but it’s time for a more constructive, sensitive plan B now – leave Lodge Hill to those ’80’ nightingales and all the other little wonders that call it home.

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
Andreas Eichler [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

India 2013: Going back to basics...

It seems fitting that I should be writing up my Indian trip as flurries of snow are settling on London’s clean, grey, boring streets. Back a week now and this icy blast has me clinging to the thread of holiday memories like a jumper snagged on a nail. In short, it was incredible; my first taste of Asia and India, a place where everyone (possibly) wants to fleece you and shake your hand, a place of smiles and sweat and noise, jeez the noise...gutters filled with trash on roads that go to some incredible wilderness and HEAT that has you permanently wiping sun lotion out of your eyes. It was also my first taste of birding outside Europe, something I was really looking forward to, with good reason.

In the short time I was there, I was knocked out by the diversity, of both birds as a whole and the variety within their forms. Even though I whiled away the hours in transfer at Delhi airport scanning my Helm field guide, it was exciting to be a total beginner again, mostly having to break down birds into families and go from there. Those kinds of lessons are important to remember I think. But birds were not what the whole trip was about as I was travelling with my sister and her boyfriend, for whom my interest is more a source of amusement and, possibly, concern. That said, a weird highlight of the trip for me came on the last day as I pointed out some birds calling over our heads and before I could say anything they both called out “Bee-eaters!” in unison! But we planned it so I could have a few days of indulgence at my chosen destination, Thattekad, in amongst our shared adventures. I’ll get to that, but it was inevitable from the moment I touched down in Chennai that birds would be on my radar most hours of the day, wherever we found ourselves. That explains why in literally every photo from the first few days I’m either holding my bins or squinting distractedly into the distance at some unknown avian beauty. It was brilliant.

Pondicherry, a few hours drive south of Chennai on India’s south east coast, was our first stop, or rather my first stop as Sal has been staying there recently while she conducts her PhD field research into normative somethings (far, far more impressive than I can coherently describe). As introductions to India go, Pondicherry was mercifully easy on my sleep-deprived body and I enjoyed that first afternoon walking round the oddly familiar French Quarter (it’s a former French-Indian enclave), it’s pretty streets largely free of crowds and traffic. In fact the only crowds I encountered were those of House Crows – hundreds of them swooping and squawking over the piles of rubbish strewn everywhere. On that point, I guess this was one of the hardest and strangest things my ‘western’ eyes came to terms with over the trip. Apart from our remotest excursions, litter was evident everywhere and although my visit was brief, there were few signs, that I could tell, of remorse. It was no wonder that crows and kites were the most abundant birds by far. I guess some things are just different and stuff we take for granted is a big deal elsewhere. 

House Crow (Corvus splendens) of the nominate Indian race and appearing much like an over-sized 'hooded' Jackdaw, or a slimmed down Carrion Crow
Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) from the roof of the homestay, Pondicherry, India

Sticking to urban birding, a walk along the scruffy, beach-less promenade brought my first views of a soon-to-be ubiquitous Brahminy Kite drifting by; it’s rich, chestnut-brown wings contrasting with its pale, white head even in the evening sun. Smart. The next morning I woke up to a text from Dave telling me there were 35 waxwings in Nunhead, but after much deliberating I decided against going for them and took an early walk back down the front. This took me to Government Square Park where I found distinctive Common Myna’s scurrying around and singing in the trees, their repetitive song almost Song Thrush-like. This was followed by my first close-up views of bulbuls, Red-vented and Red-whiskered, with both sporting enviable punkish crown feathers. The latter, I would learn, has an equally beautiful song. Later, a Rufous Treepie glimpsed through the trees in the botanical gardens put a colourful spin on our common Magpie. It was a nice few days in Pondicherry, getting a grip on the basics before we headed west... 

Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) looking much like a crime-fighter with its distinct yellow 'mask'
Brahminy Kite (haliastur indus)
A small, common  Kite- I got so used to seeing them soaring about, I instinctively looked for them when I got home!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Penduline Tit, Stodmarsh

It is a sign of how things have changed that even before the wheels of the plane had graced the tarmac at Heathrow last weekend, I was wondering what might have turned up in the few weeks I was away! While longing for a situation to transpire that would result in the plane turning around and heading back to India and wishing I could summon the strength to turn off the Ashton Kutcher movie that was playing, it was comforting to know that while I was leaving an exotic landscape for a much more familiar one, there was still plenty to look forward to at home. Thus, with my head still full of bulbuls and minivets and sunbirds and bee-eaters, I found myself heading down the A2 on Wednesday without a rickshaw in sight, to check out the showy Penduline Tit that has been present at Stodmarsh for a few weeks.

I've wanted to see this tricky species for a while and after a short wait it eventually emerged to give fantastic views in its favoured patch of bulrush, wobbling back and forth contentedly in the pleasant March sunshine. Although defined as one in name and indeed, tit-sized, penduline tits inhabit a realm of taxonomic uncertainty and are generally treated as a sub-family of the 'true' tits. Their name comes from the incredible bulbous, hanging nests they construct - currently confined in the most part to south and eastern mainland Europe, I wonder how long it is until we see these amazing structures appearing in UK reedbeds?

More on my Indian odyssey to come but for now enjoy an absolutely knock-out bird a bit closer to home...

Swing woah...Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus), Stodmarsh NNR, Kent 6/3/13