Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Malta - some thoughts

A pretty amazing thing happened last Friday evening, for a couple of hours it seemed that half the world was talking about a pressing conservation issue. That issue was the annual spring slaughter of migrant birds (including many rare and declining species) arriving in Malta on their long, hazardous journeys to their breeding grounds in the north. It was a surreal thing to witness - a demonstration of unity and passion for a subject that is rightly close to many people's hearts. Of course, I'm referring to the 'tweet storm' (which is apparently quite similar to a 'thunder clap') promoted by the bird lover, naturalist and all-round top bloke, Chris Packham, to highlight the sad events surrounding his trip to Malta. I duly flicked on to twitter that evening, to be met with a solid stream of messages all supporting an end to the #MaltaMassacre. It was pretty cool and there was, in fact, nothing else happening on my timeline.

Skimming through some of the messages, one that particularly stood out for me came from Chris himself who tweeted this horrific statistic:

"Just picked up a book on Malta's breeding birds . 18 regular species . What a disgrace"

A disgrace indeed, and completely unbelievable when you consider that your local park probably has as many breeding species as a sizeable, sun-baked island in the middle of the Mediterranean. The reason for that low number is that the birds are all shot for fun.

There were many more humbling anecdotes shared along with some good banter and some pretty weird bits also (in my opinion). The trouble is, despite feeling encouraged by the response, I felt a little disconnected too. I think that is largely due to the medium used - twitter. I can't help but feel that when it comes to protest, twitter is not an efficient means of communication, it's like clapping with gloves on; it just feels too much like a blur of sentiment, all too quickly washed away.

But perhaps I should be more objective and look at what it achieved. It succeeded in helping Birdlife Malta raise 50,000 euros (and more) to help continue funding their crucial work and it did inevitably send a message to a wider audience - particularly in the UK where there was a considerable amount of newspaper coverage off the back of Chris Packham's quest, aided by his grim but essential improv video bulletins posted to YouTube. I'd like to think also, that it sent a message of support to those Maltese people who'll go to the polls soon to vote in a referendum on spring hunting amidst a climate of intimidation (watch episode 3 of Chris's diaries when the hunters use the police to move honest families of weekend campers off one of the island's few public spaces because it interferes with the hunting!)

I guess it's what happens next that's important now - the part which never inspires me about twitter. They say a tweet has a life span of 9 seconds but hopefully that won't be the case here.

One thing that struck me about the responses was the number of people claiming they would boycott visiting Malta as a direct result of the callous and unsound spring hunting season. Just like protesting via twitter, this is something that I just don't buy as a meaningful long-term solution to the problem. It is a response born out of anger and frustration - and rightly - but to me it misses the point somewhat. Surely, fewer keen and knowledgeable birdwatchers is exactly what the hunters on Malta want and what the long-suffering people want more of. It doesn't feel to me like the economic argument - that of money lost because of fewer tourists - carries much weight either when the protest is fought between nationalist pride and so called 'traditions', and conservation. And from what I can tell, the tourist board have done little more than criticise the efforts of conservationists anyway. Another thing I wondered is that if people are intent on boycotting Malta because of the illegal hunting, then shouldn't they also boycott Cyprus, Italy, France, Spain, Egypt...and for that matter, what about Scotland or Lancashire or...

Everyone's entitled to their opinions but a boycott doesn't work for me. Go there, take photos, get angry and then come home and tell everyone about it. Last autumn, I spent a week in Cyprus, volunteering some of my annual leave with the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS). I spent most of the week feeling tired, stressed and, at times, terrified...not everyone's idea of a holiday (!), but I'd still go back as a birder.

I think what Chris Packham and all those people achieved last week (and continue to do) is nothing less than inspiring, it was good to watch and feels important to be part of - but it will need more than twitter to work and that's down to us.

If you haven't seen any of the courageous and heartfelt videos posted by Chris Packham from Malta last week then you really, really should - here's the link for Episode 1, the rest will be then be listed.

Finally, I've written to my MEP, Peter Skinner, about it, why don't you write to yours on the issue (just don't bother with Farage though, he wouldn't listen...)

Link - 'Malta is a bird hell' 

 A Turtle Dove freed from a limestick trap in Cyprus, October 2013
(its wing was permanently damaged, it will never leave Cyprus)

Friday, 25 April 2014

A Redstart Serenade

Last weekend I fancied a change from the usual scenery and headed over to Thursley Common in Surrey, a site I became quite fond of during numerous mid-winter great grey shrike vigils. Thursley in the cooler months is a formidable place, a creeping Narnia where birds are relatively few - it's always winter but never Christmas. Thursley in spring however is very different, the sweet gorse blooms and the insects' hum portray a fine example of extensive lowland UK heathland.

Walking across the site, it was impossible to miss the fluid, descending songs of tree pipits and the scolding calls of Stonechats. Whitethroats, Willow warblers, Skylarks and more followed. But it was seeking out a strip of deciduous woodland that led my favourite encounter of the morning. It looked like a good spot for redstarts and so it proved, as not more than a minute had elapsed before a small spark of a bird flicked through the trees ahead of me. Glancing up I saw it was a male Common Redstart, a bird I don't see much in my corner of south eastern England. Of all our migrant birds, arriving in spring, I wonder if there are any that come close to matching this bird for beauty - a spritely mix of oranges, blues, blacks, with a smear of dusty white. I watched as it climbed higher into the canopy above me and paused for a moment, before uttering its impression of a forgetful Chaffinch. It's perhaps not a song that matches its visual appeal, but it was still rather lovely to hear nonetheless...

Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), Thursley Common, Surrey, 19/4/14

Friday, 18 April 2014

A very Good Friday

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), St Mary's Bay, 18/4/14

After a relatively quiet few weeks where bird-related anticipation has well out-flanked reality, the last few days it has finally felt like the cogs of spring migration are grinding into action.

This morning I headed out to St Mary's Bay to do the usual loop of one of my favourite birding locations. Parking at Northward Hill around 7.30am there was little activity around the farm or viewpoint save a few newly arrived common whitethroats, singing their scratchy song from bramble fortresses. Out by the orchard and along to the heronry, it was hard to pick out much above the din of the rooks and gurgling little egrets although both lesser whitethroat and nightingale gave it their all. Down the lane to Swigshole a couple of swallows flew through, otherwise the only other chatter came from the workers in the fields - migrants of an economic kind. Reaching the cottage and the track out north, I decided to do the loop anti-clockwise so as to have the sun and the surprisingly cool breeze behind me when I reached the sea wall. Before I reached the bay, I was pleased to find a nice flock of seven wheatears together in the corner of St Mary's marsh. Mediterranean gulls were also plentiful here, their calls swirling overhead, somewhere in the wide expanse of blue sky above me.

Heading out to the bay, I couldn't find any yellow wagtails with the cattle but I was surprised to find another birder out on the bay - but then I'm always surprised to see anyone else here! Unfortunately the chap had decided the best way to get a better view of the river was to climb over a fence and walk across the salt marsh - all for the sake of being about 20 metres closer - nevermind fieldcraft and the meadow pipits scattering from his path. Anyway...a distant flock of Brent geese were a nice reminder of migration's revolving door  - and those winter birds heading for the exit. A single Whimbrel pottered on the large expanse of mud in the bay, along with a single Avocet and smaller crowds of redshank and oystercatcher. Heading round towards Egpyt Bay were two more obliging wheatear and a Yellow Wagtail which flew over and landed briefly on the beach.

I took my time on the track back to Swigshole, admiring a pair of Marsh harriers and trying to coax something nice out of the bushes, a gropper maybe...but a couple of Cetti's was as much as I got. I did however spot perhaps the most unexpected bird of the day though - a single Fieldfare close in on one of the rspb fields! It is undoubtedly my latest record for the species...

Around this point I was starting to zone out a bit and muse on the fact that things still seemed pretty quiet when several blackbirds flushed off the path ahead of me. Their alarms stirred me slightly and I became aware of a much more nasal sounding call with them. Scanning the memory bank, I followed their flight and was chuffed to see a Ring Ouzel flying across one of the paddocks by the cottage. The bird perched on low bush first before dropping to the ground and foraging along the fence line, some 50m away, for a couple of minutes - showing off it's superb white crescent breast band. It's always great to see these birds and to find one here felt good. Incredibly, just a moment after the ouzel disappeared from view, I spotted a large, greyish bird moving along the adjacent hedgerow towards me, slightly obscured. My instinct was that it must be a female sparrowhawk cruising for some brunch but when I moved to get a better view I was stunned to see a ring-tail Hen Harrier fly right over me! Incredible! The bird quickly disappeared over some scrub and then presumably headed off over towards the Decoy fields.

Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) nr Egypt Bay, 18/4/14

After that unexpected burst of action, I was buzzing again and enjoyed a walk through the bluebells at Northward Hill before heading home. I hope it's not too cheesy to say today was a very Good Friday!

Sightings of note today:

Northward Hill:
Garganey (drake on res), 14 Avocet (Swigshole fields), 1 Buzzard, Cuckoo (1 heard), 5 Swallow, 1 House Martin, 2+ Whitethroat, 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 6+ Nightingale, Willow Warbler (singing), 5 Jay, 3 Stock Dove

St Mary's bay/Egypt Bay:
Ring Ouzel (1m by Swigshole Cottage), 29 Brent Goose, 6 Tufted Duck, 1 Whimbrel, 1 Avocet, 3 Marsh Harrier, 1 Hen Harrier (rt), 20+ Mediterranean Gull, 9 Wheatear, 1-2 Yellow Wagtail, 1 Sedge Warbler, 2 Cetti's Warbler

Spring is 'ear!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Can you hear the nightingales sing? (Part 2)

Last year I wrote a blog about Lodge Hill - a miraculous chunk of north Kent's rural landscape on the Hoo Peninsular that is home to the Nightingale, a rare breeding bird - and how it could all disappear.

A year on, some things have changed but one thing hasn't - the developers, Land Securities still want to build 5000 homes on the site. This will equate to a potentially catastrophic loss of wildlife on a local (and national) scale. Medway Council recognised it wasn't right and withdrew their plans, Land Securities on the other hand, simply went away and came back in March this year with revised plans which look remarkably like their first.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the current public consultation, so if you have time, please respond and object to this wholly damaging and inappropriate development.

Why is it important? See this post from 2013

Submitting your opinion is easy - it takes 2 mins (because I've written the answer below!)

- Click here to comment through the Medway planning page:

- Click the button saying you do not have a reference number

- fill in the deets and pick your fave bits from the following, or write your own:

I strongly object to the revised Lodge Hill planning application on the following grounds:

1. Lodge Hill has been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England, the government’s expert advisors on the natural environment. This is in recognition of the site’s critical importance for nightingales, a migrant bird greatly declining in the UK. The 2012 BTO survey showed the area to hold 84 pairs of Nightingale – with 69 inside the boundary directly affected by development. This total amounts to 1.3(+)% of the national nightingale population. As such it is likely the single most important breeding site for this bird in Britain.

2. The site has considerable biodiversity value: Bat roosts have been recorded present in 19 structures, with several species of bat foraging on site. The site is likely to be of at least county importance for bats. Populations of great crested newts, toads, lizards, slow worms, grass snakes and adders are present. The site is at least of county importance for reptiles.

3. The cumulative impact of the proposed development has still not been recognised in any form. The revised application hugely underplays the additional infrastructure features needed (roads, drainage, sewerage, power) which will, without question, contribute to further damage of habitats in the area. Likewise, it is entirely inevitable that an influx of people to the area on this scale will have a permanent negative impact on the ecology and rural character of the area as a whole.

I find it absurd and downright disturbing that a site proven to be of significant ecological value on a national scale is being treated in this way. When the plans were proposed initially, little was known about the value of this site. What has now been proven is that this is a unique site for nature in the UK. These plans set a tragic example for children today and the generations to come, on our relationship with the environment. Lodge Hill is a key part of the landscape of North Kent and should be preserved without hesitation for the future prosperity and enjoyment of local people, visitors and wildlife.

For these points and more I remain thoroughly opposed to these plans.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

How Yoda lost his head

All the ingredients were in place for a good few hours at Cliffe today: baking spring sunshine, a mild south westerly breeze, the promise of migrants filtering through. And yet, for all its splendour, there was a dark side lurking to spoil my mood.

It may have been that I was spoiled by last week's adventures in Spain, where the skies were buzzing with a never-ending parade of hirundines and every step promised something new. Or perhaps my mind was clouded by the inevitable rush anybody with a passion for birds and the natural world feels during April's earliest days. Ok, so I didn't really expect a carpet of exotic migrants waiting to be discovered upon my arrival but then I guess I didn't expect to be greeted by things like this either:

Or this:

Look at these two photos, how different are they?

The fly-tipping in the top photo makes me livid. Look at it. People have a stunning nature reserve of international importance on their doorstep and this is what they think of it. This lot was dumped around by the black barn pools, a heap of garden waste and plastic rubbish, I just hope there's no troublesome seeds or plant matter in there. In what reality do some people think this is a fair and decent thing to do?

Now the second photo. I haven't walked down the track between the reserve and Cliffe village for a while, maybe since the winter. So I was surprised and  disappointed to see the old Courtshole Farm complex being developed, particularly sited as it is, just several hundred metres from the reserve boundary. Admittedly, I'd heard something was happening to it and it was in disrepair and largely only used for holding cattle in winter (as far I could tell?) but still...a shame. OK, so maybe they're converting it into flats or affordable homes for the kids who are growing up here I thought...ha, wrong! That sign reads "14 Executive Homes within a Gated Development". My stomach turned when I read that. Just what is an 'executive home' exactly? And WHY does a small, rural community in North Kent need an exclusive 'gated development' just yards from a SSSI boundary and historic church? In what reality...

So you see, I guess I was a bit distracted and I haven't even told you about the dirt biker or the people traipsing through a private field, toddler in tow, frightening all the livestock. I said there was a dark side in this post didn't I?
"Patience you must have" 
This aside, it was actually a pretty nice couple of hours at Cliffe in the sunshine. A single sub-adult Spoonbill was still present on Flamingo, while a couple of swallows and a single House Martin passed through headed north. Shoveler and Black-tailed godwits were still present in good number and at least three Sedge warblers were back on territory around Black Barns. Best of all though, were three nightingales singing loudly along the Saxon Shore Way. Always hidden, even when standing seemingly yards from them, it's great to have them back again.

Sitting out on the wall by the concrete coffins for a bit, several Mediterranean gulls drifted up river close in, cawing softly all the way. I love hearing the calls of these birds - instantly conjuring up thoughts of warm hazy days, just like their name. There were no terns to be seen but a single Harbour Porpoise was a bonus as it surfaced several times a short way off and headed down river towards the estuary. Topping off an eventful afternoon was a Black Swan on the pool at coastguard's, I had to do a double-take (!):

Mega: a totally genuine Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) Cliffe Pools, 13/4/14

After a shaky start, I think you'd agree there's plenty of reasons here not to let the dark side win...