Monday, November 29, 2010

Certainly not weather for wimps!

With 26cm. of snow just down the road, plummeting temperatures destined to reach -12C tonight , this is certainly not weather for wimps! This is real winter stuff and I confess it will be a relief to get back to the wet and windy options on Islay, where I suspect, "it's cold today, isn't it", equates to what people say in Aberdeen in July!!I think that part of Scotland is suffering most of all at the moment.

The birds are having a hard time of it with every day-lit hour being made use of. Tracks in the garden showed Brown Hare, Rabbit and Red Fox had been through the area under the cover of darkness. Despite the low temperatures of the past few days it was surprising how mild it felt within the confines of the large poly tunnel, although all things are relative and the effects of a cutting easterly wind had been eliminated. I suspect this is how many birds and animals cope overnight, seeking out some sheltered position and minimising outside effects. Alternatively, I can't think of anywhere worse than a wind swept estuary or open loch on which to spend the night time hours!! Some birds, like Wrens, can even form communal roosts in places like nest boxes which, if you're at the bottom of the pile must be pretty cosy, albeit a bit claustrophobic!! Some years ago I can remember walking along a disused railway cutting, after the winter and somewhere close to Crianlarich, and finding many carcases of Redwing within and below large Hawthorn bushes in which they had roosted, but, presumably then , perished ,perhaps because of extreme and freak conditions. A couple of years ago too, when I was out in Poland in the Bialowieza Forest,I was fascinated to learn from one of the senior researchers how , sometimes, Black Woodpeckers will seek shelter in hollow trees which had fallen and were present on the forest floor. Intriguingly this whole area of bird roosting sites and strategies is something about which little popular material appears to be available, although there are obvious major constraints connected with its study!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How many rare birds do we miss?

Given I'm more than a bit housebound at the moment, besides not having time to go out birding, I thought I'd briefly explore the question above! This Buff-breasted Sandpiper turned up on Islay way back in September and was seen by quite a lot of folk, including some birders on holiday. It was on grazing land above Port Charlotte on Islay and was particularly faithful to a given part of the field concerned.

It was discovered by a birding colleague when he took a short cut across the field when coming off hill land. His more usual route would have missed it altogether. Given its situation neither would the field have been regularly "scrutinized" for this or other species, despite specific searches on occasions at appropriate times. This got me pondering about how much we must miss. On Islay the answer is simple.....with so few active and experienced birders, coupled with some areas receiving scant regular examination, there must be a lot that is missed. In this regard the contribution visitors make to what is found is immense.

Whilst there are hot spots up and down the UK, bird observatories and the like, not forgetting routinely worked "local patches", I suspect there is a very large volume of birds we miss. Some areas are better located than others it's true, but there's also large tracts of country that are never covered, and certainly not regularly. Whilst "fly throughs" add in another frustrating element, at least they are likely to pass differing points, be it over land or on the coast, which gives an added opportunity for them to be picked up. Conversely the east coast and SW England in autumn probably have a high "hit" rate, most certainly compared to the north west coast of Scotland where terrain and weather don't necessarily lend themselves to the quest!

So, if you ever feel depressed after an unproductive day, or an enforced
incarceration, contemplate this particular question. It soon restores motivation and a competitive edge, firms up resolve to make an even better use of time, plan journeys past suitable areas and so on. Now, what else can I cheer myself up with?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bird feeding bonanza!

Whilst the Inverness area didn't get as much of a deluge of snow as farther east, there was enough! Temperatures are very low and I'm reflecting on the wisdom of having a No.1 haircut two days ago!!

The feeders have been festooned with birds, with all the usual aggression and desperation on display. Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Blackbirds, a male Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Wren and Robin were all regularly present throughout the day, almost until darkness. Strangely enough the daily dawn and dusk flights of Pink-footed Geese, and some Grey lag Geese, to the stubble fields beyond Beauly appear to have temporarily ceased with the oncoming snow. A highly vocal, fast moving flock of 16 Long tailed Tits sped from the nearby woodland, over open fields towards dusk, doubtless heading for a regular roosting spot.

The nearby "Redpoll" flock appears to have moved on without there having been an opportunity to give it any real scrutiny given the high number ( 10% is one figure reported )of Common Redpoll around. As yet I've had no Siskin which suggests these local breeders have moved on already.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Changing trends in British birds.

With the International Year of Biodiversity drawing to a close the varying situation of species from across the planet has been much examined of late. The latest BTO Breeding Birds in the Wider Countryside Report adds to this debate at a national level and deals with many species with which we are familiar, some less frequently nowadays than previously!! The data is based on the efforts of volunteers and derived from the many surveys British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has administered over the years, some of them being very long standing constituents! The report advises on the contrasting fortunes of 117 British bird species, the full text of which can be accessed at

The figures show that numbers of 20% of these species have fallen by over half since the 1960's. Some of the declining species are also showing a reduction in breeding success, e.g. Spotted Flycatcher, Willow Warbler and Linnet and 39 species are shown to be laying their eggs earlier, which is thought to be the effect of climate change. Such a trend could have severe consequences for woodland insectivores like Pied Flycatcher, which,it is suggested, is likely to join the group above whose populations have reduced by more than half since the 1960's.

As has been pointed out many times previously some of these species are those we have taken for granted in past times, as their presence and abundance has given no cause for alarm. Now, even some of those which are household names are viewed with increasing concern.

However, not everything is disappointing news. 18 species have actually doubled their numbers! Great spotted Woodpecker and Woodpigeon are increasingly availing themselves of food provided in gardens and appear to be benefiting from warmer winters.

On Islay and Jura a number of species have declined noticeably through recent times, e.g. Tree Pipit and Whinchat, and possibly Wood Warbler. To these must be added Common Scoter whose regular presence may now be a thing of the past. On the credit side the recent appearance of several Tree Sparrows, very much a species eliciting concern in many other areas, and their subsequent successful breeding in two seasons, is a cause for celebration. And let's not forget the humble House Sparrow and Common Starling, species lost from some locations, but whose presence we still enjoy fairly generally.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"What future for England's Hen Harriers?" response.

The RSPB recently put out the above release dealing with the current status of Hen Harriers in England, which makes depressing reading. May I urge everyone to read it either at the RSPB's site or on the Raptor Politics website, where there are other articles too on the subject.

Such caused me to think deeply about where we are, or need to be, on this matter of raptor persecution. Much vaunted admittedly, but necessary until such time as birders and the general public rise up and declare that it has now to stop. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!

We've to have no doubts on the issue....there is no justification for such actions, which arise from prejudice, intolerance, commercial gain and a flagrant breaking of the law. Hen Harrier is included on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act ( as amended ) and any interference with its status attracts severe penalties, if proven. It's quite clear cut with no exemptions. Now, forget who owns the land, the pedigree of their employees, and so on, the fact of the matter is that such actions are against the law and an errant and arrogant minority are setting themselves above its provisions, not a luxury most responsible people exercise! It has to be said that there are many within the shooting fraternity who feel the situation has gone too far. These illegal actions are the bedrock of the depressed numbers and distribution in England and the virtual absence of the species from parts of Scotland, e.g. Angus, arising as a consequence of the actions of a few who are actively setting themselves above the law. This is why it is so important that the proposed legislation goes through in Scotland whereby landowners can face a fine, or imprisonment, if any of their staff are convicted of killing birds of prey. The official term is "vicarious liability" and Roseanna Cunningham ( Scotland's Environment Minister ) must be congratulated on progressing the matter.

Let's take an honest look at the "tools" available to combat such activities. The voluntary sector, notably RSPB to their credit, have spent endless sums and devoted an immense amount of time to the issue. But it is not producing the required results!
Keeping the issue alive is not an easy task and repeatedly finding a focal point for action is difficult. Extensive political activity is also regulated by Charity Commission regulation, so there are major constraints associated with any campaigning. Government agencies similarly suffer from constraints, given their formal position within the Administration, and unilateral action is difficult. The Police, whatever their commitment, are under immense permanent pressure and the cutting back imminently of services will not help in this regard.

Have things changed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years? Not really and, therefore, these time honoured approaches should be accepted as having failed and new ones adopted. So what might comprise these alternatives?

Doubtless talk of licencing and quotas will, and must, proceed, but I fear the road to adoption will be paved with frustration and I still have little confidence the erring minority will faithfully pledge and maintain support. It seems to me that, rather than endlessly pouring out depressing results about Hen Harrier productivity, we should turn our attention directly on those responsible for the situation and not only of their actions, but the position being adopted by them. Divert the concern relating to Hen Harriers and direct it at those who exhibit a repeated willingness to ignore the law. Whilst many members of the public don't give a damn about Hen Harriers they would bridle at the thought that people were operating an industry based on illegality and setting themselves above the law, and very often people who should know better too! The demographics and attitudes of many people have changed with increasing urbanisation and countryside sports don't automatically enjoy the respect they did in many quarters. I'm buoyed up by the thought that shooting itself could see a backlash of opposition if its arrogant minority fail to change their ways. I'm not against shooting, and feel it far better some form of balance should be struck, rather than the sport and tradition increasingly have to fight off sanction and regulation....but only if the practitioners recognize the right of others to enjoy the components of the countryside they attach value to. To galvanize support for targeted opposition and regulation should not prove difficult, on paper at least. However I'm not convinced many who voice off about these matters ever really get down to doing something about it and so they must carry some responsibility for allowing the status quo to continue and Hen Harriers to slide into gradual local extinction.

An extensive co-ordinated campaign is needed, not just a 210,000 petition from the RSPB, but a joint one from Wildlife Trusts, Ramblers Association, Natural History Societies, BTO members, in fact everyone who's affronted by the current abuse, plus members of the general public approached through Facebook and other facilities.
Fifty letters received by each and every elected member of our respective national and country governments on a given day would be a good start to get the onslaught under way. Other initiatives could follow. Similar efforts have been tried before, of course they have, but there is a need for a fresh beginning and an expression of sincere opposition ( not concern, things need to go up a gear! ) to ensure the subject is never far away from the attention of those who could effect the necessary changes. It's a numbers game, and the expression of what the public feels is right that are the key elements, coupled with comments on confidence and future support (or its withdrawal!) that indicate to government members people are fed up.

In the end, instead of persistently grumbling about things , it's down to us to do something about it or concede the loss. The rhetoric has not changed in thirty years! Then we believed various initiatives, compromises, legislation changes would do the trick. The truth is they haven't and a drastic change in approach is required.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Waxwing in local village.

Maybe absent , but not totally disconnected!!!

Here is a Waxwing photographed on the 19th November in the local village, Portnahaven on Islay, courtesy of Stuart Graham. So the influx is still producing birds roaming to the west! A look around Inverness this morning produced none, although birds can be extremely mobile or, of course, moved on altogether.

Eagle Owls gain reprieve.

A somewhat unanticipated announcement by Richard Benyon, MP ( Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries )has finally injected some sense into the debate and proposed cull associated with Eagle Owls. An E-mail sent on to the Raptor Politics web site by DEFRA yesterday advised that the Minister had issued a statement which said "After considering all the facts on the threat that Eagle Owls pose to native wildlife I have not been convinced that any immediate action is needed to control them. We will continue to monitor the effect they are having on other species, such as Hen Harriers,and will reassess the situation if necessary."

Thank goodness commonsense has shone through at last. It's been worth all the hard work and, in this context, thanks must go to a number of people. Tony Warburton, President of the World Owl Trust, Chrissie Harper whose sheer persistence must have weighed heavily on some and to the Raptor Politics website. Whilst I don't always agree with some of the comments made by contributors against articles on the site the fact that there is a facility where all such views can be expressed is a strength and allows things to be brought out into the open. Finally, a well deserved "thank you" to Dr. Mark Avery ( Director of Conservation, RSPB ) whose initial scepticism was amended eventually and an honest appraisal issued that the Ministers announcement closely mirrors in many respects. One might even suspect hands on tillers!

In these times of economic stringency a proposed cull would have incurred cost that might best be described as subscribing to lunacy given the paucity of evidence of actual harm. I suppose the task now is to ensure that the necessary monitoring research is put in hand to gain a once and for all up to date assessment of the situation. More cost that one might question, but undoubtedly a much cheaper outcome in the end and something that raptor workers should be prepared to assist with. But, of course, don't forget, the species is still included in the list of so-called Alien Species as no statement has been made to the contrary.

Whilst there will always be subjects over which there is dissention I feel this was a good day for conservation and democracy in action. That sounds a bit "plum" but I think the outcome should serve to encourage many people that sustained polite argument can win through in the end. Now, what about these Hen Harriers!!!!

Friday, November 19, 2010

19 th November,2010.

An early post! Whilst Islay enjoyed sightings of a number of flocks and small parties of Wawings recently, such was nothing compared to the numbers seen in NE Scotland. Various ringing groups have been busy previous to the main "thrust" of birds moving on and quite appreciable numbers have been caught and ringed, with some being fitted with colour rings too. Around 90 were caught in the Inverness area, with similar success in Orkney and Aberdeen. A bird ringed in Aberdeen was noted in Cumbria seven days later so the movement through was quite rapid. So,if any more find their way across to the Hebrides it's certainly worthwhile taking a close look at them if the occasion arises.

The other movement tipped as being underway ,or even intensifying, is that of Redpoll species with some interesting records arising already. Whilst there's a lot of nice habitat hereabouts to Kirkhill all birds I've managed to get close views of so far have been Lesser Redpoll. Clearly need to try harder!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

17th November,2010.

The day could have started off better! A near collision with a hearse, clearly on its way to a funeral, ( honestly not my fault), with my destination being the Nissan garage for my car's annual MOT inspection , generated a certain foreboding. Hitherto fully dormant pagan instincts emerged and I considered the possibility of this being a "sign" and the wrath of the Norse God of Death ( actually a Goddess named Hel who lives in the underworld of Niflheim ) being transmitted through the inspection results. All proved to be unfounded, but I think I would have preferred a black cat! Superstitious....not in the slightest!!

Due to this birding was a bit limited, so I did a bit of surfing whilst waiting for the MOT results. The recent report by RSPB Scotland on White-tailed Eagle (Sea Eagle) success in 2010 is extremely encouraging and shows the new Islay "colonists" to be part of an expanding vanguard. This season (2010) 46 young birds fledged, 10 more than in 2009, from 52 adult breeding pairs of birds, which, in itself, was 6 more than in 2009. All this , coupled with the previous results from a study in Wester Ross carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage, showing that the presence of such birds had a minimal impact on lamb stocks, augurs well for the future and the restoration of a species hunted to extinction in past times.

Less welcome was news of a successful prosecution from the Scottish Borders where an employee on the Leadhills Estate had been seen to lay out a dead Rabbit laced with carbufuran. This substance, on my understanding, was banned in 2001 and to discover its usage in the open environment is sheer lunacy given its toxicity to humans and animals alike. In many ways we have not progressed much beyond the attitudes which prevailed and brought the initial population of White-tailed Eagles to its knees!!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

16th November,2010.

A very cold dawn broke and the two sheepdogs acted more like Huskies as I was dragged down the icy lane. And I never thought I would appreciate Islay's weather!!

Bird wise I have to say the early morning and evening "overflights" of geese are
impressive and banish any feelings of homesickness. Grey-lag and Pink-footed Geese come in from the east in the morning to feed on the stubble fields around Beauly and beyond. In the still morning air Whooper Swans could be heard bugling on the nearby Firth adding further atmosphere to an emerging scene where the gleaming snow capped peaks to the north were now being picked out by the morning sun.

As ever passerines like Bullfich, Lesser Redpoll and Long-tailed Tit were a nice attraction compared to species seen around my home where Choughs and Ravens are more likely!

And finally, an apology ( and from a Yorkshire man too mind!) The piece I wrote about Eagle Owl predation on Hen harriers has an error within it!! The Eagle Owl alighted on the harriers nest in the dim light of dawn and disturbed the incubating female Hen Harrier ( not an Eagle Owl as I stated). Sadly the harrier never returned afterwards. Thanks to Tony Warburton ( World Owl Trust ) for spotting the error as the situation is complicated enough at present without me inserting doubt and confusion.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

15th November,2010.

An early start to catch the ferry and enjoy a perfect transfer across to the mainland, contrasting starkly with the experiences of recent days with ferries being disrupted because of the weather.

As previously the journey northwards, in the early stages, was glorious and uplifting with perfect light bathing the glens and their woodlands , bringing alive the autumn colours to maximum effect. Later, cloudy conditions and some rain brought a different contrast to the wide open landscape around Spean Bridge. Despite this the "Commando Monument" above that hamlet stood out proudly amidst that "wild" basin, its fresh scarlet and white wreaths from the Remembrance Services of yesterday gleaming in the failing light, a testament to sacrifice and courage. I was alone in my "pilgrimage" which somehow, in itself, brought a particular poignancy to the occasion. Previous to that the peaks of Ben Nevis and the surrounding hills had stood dark and foreboding above Fort William, clothed in cloud and , yes, I'm afraid to mention, copious amounts of snow at their highest extent. Later, views of Loch Ness were limited due to darkness descending quite quickly. Finally, arrival at Kirkhill, in the real darkness of an impending winter's night, with temperatures going down and frost already hanging in the air.

As is often the case on this journey, the amount of bird life in evidence was minimal. I'd perhaps expected an obvious presence of Redwing and Fieldfare, but there was none of either!

14th November,2010

A slightly delayed entry due to being in transit! Due to ferry changes my intended day on Jura was frustrated, but such allowed me to complete a series of WeBS Counts ( BTO Monthly Waterbird Counts )and also the first of the Low Tide Counts on Inner Loch Indaal. These determine the numbers and distribution of birds within given sectors. The ensuing information can then be used to "screen" any future proposed developments as it indicates where the most important feeding areas are.

Prior to that an opportunity arose to survey Outer Loch Indaal given there was virtually no wind which means divers,in particular,can be easily picked out. Good numbers of both Great Northern and Red throated Diver were present and a single Black-throated Diver. A few Red-throats had passed south off SW Islay earlier in the day and numbers of all these species may yet increase further. A gradual counting of birds around the Outer and Inner Loch provided a real selection of birds....Common Scoter, numbers of Northern Eider, Wigeon and Red-breasted Merganser, Pintail, Mallard, Teal, a Goosander, 6 Long-tailed Duck, Shelduck, Goldeneye, more divers, numbers of Slavonian Grebe, odd Razorbill and Black Guillemot ,both Mute and Whooper Swan and, of course, geese. As often happens, the Greater Scaup flock appeared to have moved offshore and weren't in evidence!! Waders species though were similarly well represented, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Knot,Redshank,Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatcher, a Greenshank, and, best of all, a 1st winter Grey Phalarope, doubtless driven in by the storms of recent days. An absolutely delightful bird with pristine markings characteristic of its age. Over the years I seem to have been very lucky at coming across this species, usually totally unexpectedly, as today ,but not a bad surprise!!

The lochs I visited for WeBS counts ( Gorm and nearby lochans, Skerrols, Tallant ) provided a similar array of waterbird species. Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, odd Greater Scaup, a few Pochard, Goldeneye, still good numbers of Tufted Duck at Loch Gorm, Little Grebe, geese again, Mute Swan and almost 80 Whooper Swan on Loch Skerrols. Various "family disputes" arose within the latter and their bugling on such a calm afternoon was intense and clear. Whilst some broods of three and four were present, a lot are of two only, which contrasts markedly with the broods of some local Mutes which are often of up to five. Of course, the numbers of Whoopers here currently are also swelled with non-breeders and,collectively, many may yet move further south. Last winter's severe weather cleared out virtually all wintering birds so conditions hereon are on interest!

And so ended a very rich and rewarding day's birdwatching on what was an enjoyable day in its own right!!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

13th November, 2010.

OK, return of the prodigal and all that! Truth is I've been inundated with work and blogging had to accept a back position. Whilst I could indulge in a litany of good birds seen since mid October I'll refrain as, at this point, I don't really think historical reiteration serves much purpose. There's been quite a few good birds on Islay, but now gone! In fact, I've always questioned the relevance of sites which simply regurgitate records, as being of any assistance given more immediate information is required by birders to assist them in catching up with things! Sites linking records to relevance I do think have a "place in nature" as the information serves to educate and give people a better understanding of what they're seeing when visiting an area. Anyway, that's the burst on the banjo over!!

Nationally, the finding of a dead Eagle Owl in coastal Norfolk may result in prejudiced views becoming more flexible, as is the Scandinavian research showing birds have made it across the "straits" between Sweden and Gotland. The "case" suggesting Eagle Owls are reticent about crossing over large tracts of water may yet be dis proven. In all honesty, all I would really wish is that, prior to any real consideration of the bird's status, and any reaction required against this in the UK, there is an open minded evaluation of the real facts and possibilities. Set aside the egos and bruised utterances, for once let's think of birds themselves! Mark Avery's ( Director, Conservation, RSPB ), detailed Blog providing results of pellet analysis, and a taste for Rabbit, has diverted the over zealous, "these birds are a threat to Hen Harriers" brigade particularly since Tony Warburton ( World Owl Trust ) was allowed sight of the acclaimed video claiming an Eagle Owl predated a Hen Harrier nest. It didn't, but possibly its presence nearby and on the nest caused such a disruption to an incubating female Eagle Owl prior to dawn that she deserted.

Recently I've had a few telephone calls from people on the much dealt with subject of Hen Harriers. Calls for new initiatives, quotas etc etc fill me with dread. Quotas.....c'mon, grow up , that would be the worst initiative coming from UK conservationists ever. It would herald similar calls in due course for "containment" of other birds of prey that the game bird lobby felt were a threat to their interests. Liberalism and compromise have their boundaries, now get real. Talk to the people involved for God's sake and come to an acceptable solution between all parties involved instead of trying to insert "grey suit solutions" from afar. They're real people, with real concerns, talk to them and respect them, but produce a solution arising from hard negotiation, not a product of some handkerchief up the sleeve Sir Humphrey origin !!

And finally! Well, I've been on Jura all day. Not a lot happening but the sight of two adult White-tailed Eagles ( Sea Eagles ) , doubtless the Islay breeding pair , circling over Port Askaig before descending into woodland south of that area to roost, was a real bonus.

I think I'll set aside the banjo for a gin and tonic! Cheers.