Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Condemnation of Hen Harrier persecution increases!

Way back in mid September an article in The Guardian revealed that consideration was being given by Scottish Ministers to tighter controls over grouse moor owners under a new wildlife bill. Such would make the owners legally responsible for the actions of their gamekeepers, which clearly would have repercussions should persecution of birds of prey then be proved to have occurred. Furthermore, mention was also made of a proposal to actually licence the "operation" of grouse moors and to transfer the investigation of persecution incidents from the police to one of Scotland's animal welfare charities. Whether or not such innovative changes will occur is to be awaited.

Understandably many of the 255 Scottish Estates have themselves condemned the persecution of birds of prey and raised objections to controls being collectively applied. What is clear is that self-regulation is simply not working and the recalcitrant minority are continuing to "muddy the pool" to such an extent that 2009 was one of the worst years on record when it came to the number of incidents involving birds of prey and persecution. And let's not fool ourselves , such statistics undoubtedly represent the very tip of the iceberg !!

Following on from this debate has come a report on work commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage on this self same subject. One of the report's main authors, Professor Steve Redpath, has stated that investigations between 2003-2007 of the 3696 square kilometres that comprise grouse moors across Britain should potentially hold 499 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers given the species favours the same upland heather moor habitat. The reality is that success resulting from breeding attempts on these estates is closer to 1%. Such is now the revealed truth that shatters, utterly, any consideration that self regulation can be a part of a future solution. The opportunity to proceed on trust has been, and is being, abused and must be abandoned completely. Thankfully there are some estates that abide by the requirements and resident birds of prey have been left alone. Their tolerance and acceptance of the legal situation is providing, quite literally, the lifeline to particular species. As ever the Game and Wildlife Trust has paraded its "PR mantra" around claiming licences should be issued to estates to limit the number of harriers present and thus bring about a more equitable spread of birds. At this point in time the emphasis needs to be directed at ensuring newly arrived birds on previously "unoccupied" estates are afforded protection!! Given the number of birds eliminated already, in sheer disregard of the law of the land, can anyone foresee a situation where such trust could be offered? The expression about burning boats springs to mind !!

Professor Des Thompson, another of the report's authors, has commented further that the evolving situation must be one where innovation is needed to address the needs of estates and the retention of our bird of prey populations alike. Whilst I agree entirely, the needs of such innovation demand, in some quarters, an immense change in a current culture embedded in prejudice as much as they do from any practical conditions which might be introduced. Peer pressure ( forgive the pun! ) has a part to play and the outward labelling of those who might continue to commit such crimes, and gain estate owners overall a bad name, has to be employed such that they are relegated to the position of being pariahs in their own community.

At some point in the near future Natural England will report on what has been a nine year long research project linked to harriers, their success ,distribution etc etc in England. Within the period the Government's organization has been resolute in its non participation in political debate, clearly awaiting the full body of evidence at its disposal. With the abysmal situation in England, as far as Hen Harriers' breeding success is concerned, one looks forward to their imminent revelations and presume there will be great accord with the report released above and with similar apportionment of responsibility. One hopes the conclusions will persuade the Government of the day to be as strong as their counterparts in Scotland and address the issue robustly!!

17th October,2010.

A day given over, in part, to surveying the Light-bellied Brent Geese present on Islay and Jura as a contribution to the much more wider monitoring activities which will have also been undertaken in Ireland where the majority of them are present in winter. Yesterday I checked the area on Jura where a group had taken up residence at the end of last winter. Unfortunately none were present, so it remains to be seen whether it was a one-off occurrence in 09/10 or whether some birds will turn up there.

After a plethora of records in recent times birds were quite hard to find on Islay ( always seems to happen on a survey day!!). In all I only pinned down 22 ( 21 on Loch Indaal and a single bird at Loch Gruinart ). Loch Indaal was again absolutely alive with birds and such a sheer joy to be part of that I spent the best part of two hours simply going through the vast numbers of different birds that were present. Some of the best were the "speckly" Grey Plover which were very confiding and provided extraordinarily good views. A rather restless flock of Golden Plover were also present with birds wheeling around and calling plaintively as if wishing to be moving on. Quite a number are around generally besides the ones which have been seen moving through direct, including over the sea.

A check to see if diver numbers had improved produced the same situation as previously so further checks can be made later. Sometimes a particular day can catch a movement offshore, which coupled with views of newly arrived groups , is quite exciting despite it heralding the onset of winter!!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

16th October,2010.

Across on Jura on what was an absolutely glorious day. Calm conditions, sunshine and the azure blue waters of the Sound contrived to persuade me of the possibility of being somewhere else other than NW Scotland!!

Early morning saw a couple of Lapland Bunting flying south and providing a perfect rendition of their flight calls. Whilst the overall day was again rather quiet a flock of Ringed Plover and two Dunlin flying up the Sound, and then alighting close, were of interest. Their immediate action, on landing, was to freeze for quite a while in a fairly tight knit group, only after a few minutes moving around slightly. Most went to sleep for a period, followed by a period of preening before beginning to feed. A classic sign of migrants. Years ago I remember being way out on the sand flats around Ainsdale (Merseyside) attempting to read ring numbers on terns which were being brought towards us on an incoming tide. A fierce thunderstorm arose ( not the best predicament to be in sitting on a tubular framed chair holding your tripod!! ) with the usual lightning and accompanying bangs, besides the rain! A large group ( 40-50 ) of Sanderling appeared and formed a very close packed group nearby, remaining motionless throughout the storm. as soon as it ceased they became active and moved off. Almost a reaction to a new environment until things became more familiar.

Calling at Inner Loch Indaal on the way home it was obvious a further large arrival of geese had taken place with 5000/6000 Barnacle Geese being present interspersed with a wide variety of other species. Many of the geese were asleep which suggested they'd not been there all that long. All until an idiot with a camper van rehearsed the inaugural presentation of the Car Door Closing Cacophony followed by a walk out on to the Merse. Suffice to say the air was alive with disturbed birds, a very impressive spectacle I have to admit, but bringing to a compelling close the counts I'd embarked on!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

15th October,2010.

A day necessarily given over to other work, read admin and domestic!!, but with a couple of intervals out and about. I'd expected diver numbers to be gradually increasing in Outer Loch Indaal but an examination in the morning proved otherwise. Incorporating this again at the weekend will probably be worthwhile.

A few parties of Barnacle Geese sped high northwards, calling all the while, evidence of them having overshot their intended arrival point at either Loch Gruinart or Loch Indaal. Their ability to adjust in this way is quite remarkable and makes our own minimal efforts in this regard seem more than a bit paltry unless bolstered by the usage of a GPS!!

14th October, 2010. Here at last!!

A wonderfully calm day with flat water and grey conditions of visibility!

A day on Jura which opened with the view of a White-tailed Eagle looming over the Port Askaig ferry terminal as it made its way down the coast. Despite being out for several hours afterwards I never saw it again, although a Golden Eagle sat, sentinel like, for a long time on an exposed crag on the Islay side of the Sound.

Despite the supportive conditions little was on the move, as previously. Sightings relieving the tedium included Hen Harrier, Sparrowhawk and close views of a Harrier jet (!), but few seabirds were in evidence.

Returning to Islay much later the few Barnacle Geese which had arrived yesterday had been supplemented by many more. At least 1500 were at the head of Loch Indaal, with small parties joining them at intervals and other groups peeling away and flying northwards across to Loch Gruinart. A flock of 21 Whooper Swans exchanged muted bugling calls, a sound I think is particularly evocative of this time of year when they're passing through. One carried a yellow leg ring which, as they gradually moved towards me, I'd visions of being able to read. Suddenly the volume and intensity increased and, as one, they rose and flew off SSW, doubtless on their way to an habitual wintering area in Ireland or on the Solway Firth.

Many of the geese were resting, often an immediate prerogative after an exhausting flight. Others busied themselves preening and simply taking time out, with others it would seem in the sheer nature of things ,moving around and calling out all the while, which made for a very dynamic throng. Their arrival like this is almost a spiritual event each year and with our landscape until next spring never being bereft now of their calls and presence. The Grey lag Geese, which have been utilising the merse over the past few weeks, appeared to accept this major intrusion and the whole area was one of pleasant confusion!! Amidst all this, a flock of over 50 Pink-footed Geese rested quietly on an exposed sandbar, presumably before contemplating the next leg of their journey further south.

13th October,2010.

Another change in the weather with a somewhat grey day and cooler too, although admittedly fine.

On the south Rinns things were very quiet as if the few newly arrived passerines of yesterday had taken advantage of the good weather and moved on. No further thrushes had arrived and the sea was again very quiet. The winds are changing into the north which heralds the arrival of some geese at least, particularly with birds having been recorded off Lewis .

I was saddened to learn that only seven nests of Hen Harrier had been successful in England this year with a total of 23 young raised. Regrettably at least five other nests had failed, whose success would have otherwise boosted the number of young produced significantly. Whilst there is always the possibility of other odd pairs going unrecorded, or undeclared, the population is still perilously low. Initiatives aimed at eliminating the persecution that still goes on are not receiving the breakthrough they deserve and the "battle" against prejudice and self serving interest will still need to go on despite it being 2010. Thankfully the population in Scotland is higher and more productive but there are still incidents of wanton destruction which, to their credit, the Scottish Government has condemned and pledged to change.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

12th October,2010.

Early morning saw conditions redolent of India or SE Asia with mist hanging over the landscape whilst the sun gradually bathed the overall background. A fine day resulted, but with more cloud than yesterday and cooler temperatures.

Thrushes had obviously been on the move overnight as a Blackbird was near the house, the first since last winter, and Redwing in the adjacent rough pasture. The Chiffchaff was still present in the early morning, but appeared to have left by evening. More generally things seemed to be rather quiet with nothing of interest being found. The anticipated arrival of wintering geese drags on, which I suspect is more impatience on my part rather than delay on theirs!!

The sea was virtually flat calm. As I've mentioned before, the absence of wind and the quietness it brings always creates a rather surreal atmosphere , particularly when the sea is quiet too. The lack of wave noise, even the lack of waves advancing up the beach, is strange and makes the whole view and experience appear as if strangely "frozen". As a consequence little was moving over the sea. A few Kittiwakes and also, notably , a few Common Gull given it's sometimes difficult to separate local birds from those on the move.

News from colleagues of "exotic" arrivals elsewhere, particularly County Durham!!!, provides the motivation to get out there keep and keep looking and recording!!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

11th October,2010.

After virtually no passerines being around locally during the last few days whilst we were experiencing repeated stormy conditions, the clear night and calm conditions of the emerging day saw Meadow Pipits, Starlings, Reed Buntings and a couple of Robins around the house. A little later a fine, erect "Greenland" Wheatear showed locally and a Sparrowhawk moved through in a determined fashion! Suddenly the finch flocks have really reduced as have the widely spread numbers of "alba" wagtails.

Whilst on Jura for the rest of the day the ambient conditions were tremendous with the waters of the Sound more Mediterranean in colour than might be expected and the surrounding landscapes shown off to best effect in the wonderful sunlit conditions. Little was on the move as it happens, the passage Gannets of a couple of weeks ago reduced to one individual, a nice flock of adult Kittiwakes and odd Razorbill being the only other notable contenders until an adult Black-throated Diver flew south down the Sound. Nor was it busy with boat traffic! An accident with the ferry last Friday has damaged the linkspan ( the mobile"jetty" allowing you to drive on or off the ferry boat) therefore none of the regular large ferries will be in evidence for a while.

Evening at home saw the appearance of a juvenile ChiffChaff, flycatching in the garden, sadly it had a damaged leg and I doubt has much of a future even if it makes its winter quarters.

Monday, October 11, 2010

10th October, 2010.

Finally a much better day with bright sunshine ( too bright at times! ) throughout, although the easterly wind still remained blustery and quite strong.

The main WeBS count date for the month which meant most of my day was spent around Inner Loch Indaal. Sun glare and wave action made counting difficult at times and inevitably some species would be under recorded, e.g Slavonian Grebe, of which I only saw two. Equally some expected species that are usually further off shore, like Common Scoter, weren't recorded at all due to visibility. Two flocks of Greater Scaup were in evidence, being tossed up and down in the inshore waters. Conversely the good light directed at the exposed sand and mud areas helped enormously when picking out waders.....you can't have everything!!

A good variety of species was around with good numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Wigeon, Grey lag Goose notably in evidence. Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Redshank, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Oystercatcher were all present and a good selection of duck. An absolutely magnificent Great Northern Diver, still in summer plumage, remained offshore at Blackrock and a number of Red-throated Divers were noted too.

Of almost 60 Light-bellied Brent Geese distributed in various feeding parties over the Flats at least six carried coloured leg rings. Whilst the colours could easily be seen the accompanying numbers or letters they carried were obscure because of distance so will have to try and catch them on a rising tide, hope they're still around and come closer!!

Friday, October 8, 2010

8th October, 2010.

A more routine but busy day providing evidence that many of the Light-bellied Brent Geese have moved on, as was expected. Duck numbers continue to improve and the major WeBS count on Sunday should be of interest!. Otherwise what I saw was as much as yesterday. The brisk, but warmer, SE winds continue much to the chagrin of the sea watcher!!!

News that the revised Risk Assessment relating to the Eagle Owl, viewed as an alien species by the UK Government, will be thoroughly considered by the Minister concerned, all aspects evaluated and no hurried decisions taken, is to be welcomed. Good sense at last!

Arctic Tern... a bird of this species re trapped on the Farne Islands this summer had been ringed there originally, as a chick, in 1980!! No mean feat of an achievement in itself for a bird! However, remember that this species winters in the waters of the Antarctic so it is estimated that it has travelled close to a million miles in its lifetime already!! Humbling thought isn't it, and the two I saw yesterday immediately earned more than respect and support in terms of what was in front of them! Stop off on the eastern coast of Brazil for heavens sake!!!

44,000 miles per year under your own steam and we're being asked to reduce our car usage in the cause of global warming. Worth reflecting on as co-inhabitants of this planet!

Time has allowed me to commence using the other Blogs again that I (imperfectly) maintain, take a look , with more to come on a regular basis! Links above.

A day of Light -bellied Brent Geese.

A necessary change of schedule led to my not being on Jura, produced a slightly disjointed day but, in the end, a very successful one. The wind was still pretty robust at times with the early sea showing high white-capped waves until it reduced in late morning , only to rise again later.

A sea watch showed various birds to be on the move. Several parties of Light-bellied Brent Geese went through south, as did Golden Plover. Good numbers of Auks were also finally on the move, a few Manx Shearwater, a steady stream of Kittiwakes and Gannets, a couple of late Arctic Tern and singletons of Red-throated and Great Northern Diver. Suddenly passage subsided over the sea so I turned to completing WeBS counts for the BTO , the national monthly survey of waterfowl numbers and other "water" birds.

Whilst counting Outer Loch Indaal, upon which there was only a few Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, a flock of around 70 Golden Plover swept through south at high speed and a flock of circa.50 Light-bellied Brent Geese vacated southwards. The variety of waterfowl on various lochs was high ( I never made it to Inner Loch Indaal which would have doubtless boosted things still further!!). Tufted Duck numbers had again risen at Loch Gorm to reach well over a hundred, good numbers of Mallard were present and the first three Goldeneye of the year. Whilst present there , Wigeon and Teal were difficult to count precisely due to them feeding and resting under the bank away from the ever rising south south easterly wind!! A journey past Loch Gruinart showed good numbers of Light-bellied Brent Geese there too, so a significant movement had obviously taken place over the last 24 hours with most of the birds making for their major wintering quarters in Ireland. The RSPB WeBS count will shed light on the numbers they'd received. It's not unusual for this sort of "stopping off" behaviour to occur in either spring or autumn, very often in response to prevailing weather conditions. It will be interesting to see whether the year on modest increases we've enjoyed on Islay continue to our small wintering population.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Eagle Owls......again!

On a day when the weather spoilt the first half and a decision to be inside dominated the second, the Eagle Owl issue suddenly emerged moving at full bore!!

Some rumour that Government authorities had already decided to do ahead and implement a proposed action for a cull of the above species, referred to in a recent Risk Assessment associated with alien species, brought proponents of its retention in the UK to its defence and an absolute avalanche of activity arose directed at any and every formal institution having some association with the process and debate. For full details do go to the Raptor Politics website.

Given there is now a clear cut statement from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds's Director of Conservation as to its public position on the matter ( it doesn't agree with a cull and feel there are more important aspects to address ) and a declaration from the senior Civil Servant involved that no decision had been taken, and that the matter will be looked at thoroughly, possibly means that the whole issue will now be looked at rationally and within a reasonable framework. All this seems strange given my understanding some couple of weeks ago that the decision had been arrived at........no smoke without fire one feels!!!

It is felt by many that, under the EU Birds Directive, the young of species naturally present within the overall EU area that are reared freely in the wild are,therefore , protected under the aegis of that provision. My advice, in discussion with colleagues, is that this needs to be tested and a definitive interpretation obtained, not from any UK institution, but from Brussels. Should that be positive it should mean that the influence of the EU can be brought to bear on any UK Government proposal that runs counter to the interpretation. UK policy advisers are basing their case on all birds within the UK being derived from captive stock, which is not a proven fact. Others, like myself, believe it is possible some Eagle Owls, admittedly a small number , might be derived from Continental populations, particularly given the species is undergoing a gradual range expansion.

Given the estimated population ( by some ) is said to be only 95 birds within the UK, the concern appears ill founded particularly as it appears to rest on some as yet never revealed film footage of an Eagle Owl supposedly predating a Hen Harrier nest. Given the resounding success of the latter species this season in the Forest of Bowland, the only real English stronghold and an area where Eagle Owls are known to be present , the whole analysis seems to be muddled and prejudiced. Most breeding Hen Harriers are in Scotland and one wonders the extent to which the Scottish Parliament are party to such deliberations!!

Given the emergent concerns about the UK's financial predicament one imagines both George Osborne and Danny Alexander might be interested in both the proposed costs which might be involved and evaluate the relative value of such from their respective geographical loci!!

To be continued......undoubtedly.

30th September,2010.

A reasonable day which, given the Northern Parula on Tiree, prompted me to have a long flog around isolated bits of cover on the southern Rinns to just see if our luck was in too. Such an activity is one birders indulge in regularly, mostly without a major reward, and so it was!!! We must be eternal optimists but, of course, there's always more than sufficient evidence from elsewhere in the country to where something has occurred to convince most people it could be their turn next!!! In Islay's case our "contribution" of an American Redstart in 1982 and the Brown-headed Cowbird in 1988 are woven in to a silently repeated mantra each autumn that this, again, could be our year. Islay is a big island in many respects, compared to some others, and also has a lot of cover, virtually no active birders and what could be a slavishly covered local patch month in month out might never produce a return. Oh to own a headland with just a few bushes, only a few! And so as I paid homage to the local American Redstart site, I also reflected that we're also exceptionally lucky to have the array of good resident species we enjoy and the regular influx each summer and winter of a wide variety of other species, not really much to grumble about in reality.

One thing that was apparent today though was that a lot of the recent abundant accumulations of Goldfinch, Lesser Redpoll, Linnet, Twite and Meadow Pipit appear to have moved on. Certainly there are still some parties about , but not to the same extent. Starling flocks and an apparent "second wave" of alba wagtails are now around on the Rinns. The usual influx of Robins has begun, with doubtless more to come, and an odd increase in Blackbirds here and there. As I write this, on the morning of the 1st, the rain is lashing down and the wind beating at the house, just the sort of conditions to bring in an unfortunate migrant!!