Sunday, June 26, 2011

Disaster in Africa averted? 26.6.2011

Whilst national governments in Africa are often criticised for inappropriate actions of various kinds, some positive recognition needs to be given to the Tanzanian Government for turning down a road proposal that would have bisected the Serengeti National Park. The proposal would have seen the construction of a tarmac road across the park the use of which, one imagines, would have interfered greatly with renowned natural rhythms and mass movements of the animals across the area. And all in the cause of convenience to tourism! I feel strongly that we should resist all such attempts to turn world value wilderness areas into places little better than theme parks. Well done Tanzania!

I have to admit that I have increasing reservations about the level of expectations visitors have relating to access to "natural areas", even in this country, demands that all too often are met with in the cause of facility provision, insurance considerations and income generation. Will there be a time when we've ruined everything? Well, perhaps not directly through facility provision, as a whole raft of major land use issues and resource extraction demands will ensure that happens! However with an increasing proportion of countryside users being town dwellers there needs to be some effective exchange of information, both at home and abroad, about the real needs of the natural environment that we all require to subscribe to. OK, some would say it happens already, if so then it's not enough! None of this is new, of course, but sadly repeated stories of habitat losses, near extinctions, pollution incidents and the like mean that, increasingly, we're moving towards a "common denominator" situation where the wonderful diversification present on this planet, constituent parts of which are dependent on specialist habitat types, will eventually disappear and we'll be left with the familiar only. Like the Tanzanian Government we too need to take the necessary , and repeated, steps to ensure respect for our environment is paramount in our approaches.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Squeaky clean birding. 25.6.2011

The weather forecast suggested conditions were likely to be less than optimum for some "formal" survey work I had planned so I fell back on Plan B and, as one might have guessed, the weather became better as time went on!!

Pursuing my continuing hunch of locating an elusive species on Islay I spent the very early morning ( up to 0800 hours ) tramping around suitable woodlands attempting to locate any crow's nests and, thereby, the outside possibility of hearing the squeaky "begging calls" from young Long-eared Owls. Well, whilst the phenomenon of such calling hungry owls might be a feature of this time of year, the survey "method" is not to be recommended. Better to let sheer serendipity, , good luck, coincidence, or whatever, take over!! The nearest I got was disturbing a couple of bewildered Hooded Crows, no mean feat in itself, and witnessing the crashing exit of what was undoubtedly Red Deer within the conifer woodland blocks I explored.

So I retired for a cooked breakfast (mega!) and a self-imposed "team talk" about the need for focus, directed attempts and such like. So, out I went for a few more hours but...nothing!! Perhaps said youngsters don't call within the day, and only in the evening, when they get really hungry? They're there, I'm convinced of it, but proving it is a different matter. However, as an illustration of owl enthusiasm, recent work in Turkey has resulted in the location of Brown Fish Owls to which some very regulated visits are now allowed ( see BirdFinders UK for details....this must be worth 5% Vaughan! ). Look at the Collins Field Guide for what is a very exciting status assessment. Always a species I've wanted to see , I've every intention of joining one of the trips in 2012 to experience what is an utterly iconic species within the family.

One aspect of interest is that I've recently come across locally three pairs of adult Stonechats chasing around and acting as if spring had just emerged. But no young from early breeding attempts in evidence. Does this suggest early breeding attempts have failed and that they're settling down for a second attempt? The encouraging element is that they are actually there, in residence and were not cleared out by the ferocious weather of last winter!!!

Disappointing outcome! 24/6/2011

For once a day simply devoted to birding!! An early look at the sea off Portnahaven showed repeated groups of Gannets plying back and forth and a few Manx Shearwater moving south offshore. The sea was quite calm and, despite a slightly hazy view across the azure waters to Northern Ireland, various features such as cut silage fields and white cottages could be picked out clearly. All this provided an opportunity to appreciate the extent to which Gannets move back and forth within the whole divide and the numbers which must be involved!!

Given the calm conditions an opportunity presented itself to count birds in the outer reaches of Loch Indaal. Predictably bird numbers were low, although odd Razorbill and Guillemot were feeding in the entrance to the loch. Further in, off Bruichladdich , a single Red-throated Diver fed offshore and 17 Arctic Terns were out over the loch or present on the exposed rocks north of the village. Good numbers of Common Gull are around at present, some breeding, but others gathered in groups.

A look over several lochs, and corresponding WeBS counts, produced little of significance except a reminder that Grey lag Geese and their growing broods are beginning to be in increasing evidence. It's that time of year again!! Following a call to see friends I continued around Loch Indaal , but things were very quiet.

Regrettably the Ring-necked Duck reported yesterday from Ballygrant Loch couldn't be located. Time was taken to carefully scrutinize a distant group of Tufted Duck, but without any luck. Most are now moving into eclipse and one sleeping individual raised hopes for a while, but to no avail. Whilst several of the male birds were beginning to show differential colouring to their "side panels", all had crests, were the wrong shape, and sadly exhibited a black tip to their bills as opposed to any white band either there or at the base!! As some form of slight compensation a Bullfinch called repeatedly nearby and a male Yellowhammer was seen later along the lane back to the village.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sounds of summer. 23/6/2011

Routine day mopping up on some survey work in what was extremely pleasant weather. More young birds are now begining to appear which allows for "solid" confirmations on breeding for the BTO Atlas.Despite some periods of bad weather, where one might have expected ground nesting birds to be washed out in places, some waders seem to have done alright if their agitated behaviour is anything to go by. Odd birds are still in song , but the prevailing sounds are of young birds uttering somewhat feeble contact calls or their parents going ballistic at some element of disturbance!!

Good news on the discovery of the breeding grounds of White-faced Plover in Southern China. A tribute to diligence and good hunches! This should now provide a discrete opportunity at last to sort out the taxonomy of a bird which may yet be a species in its own right as opposed to a very distinctive relative of Kentish Plover.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Early bonuses to a dismal day.

Basically the first part of the day was OK, the second half less so with showers and misty conditions in some places. Out and about early in the north east of Islay and on Jura I suspect I took benefit from the best part of the day.

The Sound of Islay showed a pair of feeding Red-throated Diver feeding, placidly, close to the shore and showing off their subtle summer plumage to good effect. Later a party of seven male Common Scoter flew south suggesting summer was already on the wane and some bird movements in place. However, an earlier observation of a Cuckoo being pursued by a Meadow Pipit confirmed that this early migrant hadn't yet departed and suggested we are on the cusp of such movements. With the weather moving in, some prolonged views of an adult male Golden Eagle sitting , somewhat disconsolately, close to its eyrie as things deteriorated, still showed its golden head standing out clearly within the dim conditions.

News that the EU are possibly considering cuts to the UK funding that supports farmland natural habitat diversification is worrying, given the obvious major conversion to a more monoculture approach in the last thirty years or so , which has seen a concomitant parallel reduction in farmland bird populations in a wide context. The various subsidised schemes have been successful and seen some notable successes in the improvement of hitherto reduced bird populations such as Grey Partridge and Skylark. I felt that the view of the National Farmers Union in recognising we should best attempt to achieve balance between food production and such measures was,at least , encouraging !! Such considerations perhaps reflect other major changes that might yet arise given the emergent and repeated crises surrounding the European "Single Currency" sparked by the national problems being experienced in Greece and elsewhere !! Whilst we might like to think otherwise, conservation is obviously not inured to such influences, what ever we'd like to apply!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Late hunting by Hen Harrier. 15.6.2011

Other than a single male Whinchat locally the day produced little that was of much significance despite a few hours involved in fieldwork. The weather was kind and will doubtless help those broods of youngsters coming through.

The most interesting observation arose at the very end of the day! As I said a few days ago, it gets light very early in the morning here at this time of year, pre 0400 hours, and, correspondingly is light in the late evening as well. Last evening was no exception, despite it being rather cloudy. Preparing for bed around 2200 hours, I looked out of the bedroom window and was a little surprised to see the "local" male Hen Harrier hunting out over the open grass moor opposite the house. He is a very distinctive pale, ghost of a bird and always catches attention.

Two or three things sprang to mind as I'd seen the bird hunting early on in the day and then, again, in the early evening. Contrary to the conclusion I'd come to previously, it seems likely the pair have bred successfully and are now beginning to feed young, which is good news. The other thought was "What on earth could the bird actually catch at that time"? Despite it still being light enough to see outside the level of general bird activity reduces quite significantly. Species like Meadow Pipit and Skylark have "given up" by then so , one imagines, effort was being put into surprising them out of roost, when they'd probably be slower off the mark too. And of course, I suppose there's always the possibility of coming across some young Pheasant or Snipe. Strangely enough it's almost as if an invisible boundary exists eastwards, perpendicular to the house, creating a line which the bird never crosses as , immediately beyond this "border", and on slightly higher ground, pairs of Lapwing and Curlew breed. At this time of year any incursion onto "Curlew ground" results in the most horrendous fuss and draws attention to the offender, usually Hooded Crows!! I guess the bird gets full marks for effort!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Is the shooting fraternity losing the plot? 14.6.2011

Reading through a variety of reported incidents on raptor persecution, and meeting up a couple of nights ago with two friends who made a critical contribution to Hen Harrier protection in the 1980's and 1990's, has caused me to reflect further on the situation we currently find ourselves in as far as raptors are concerned.

I know I bang on about raptor persecution! My contributions to various web sites and my own Blog have probably provided little that was absolutely new, or brought about change, other than keeping up a consistent condemnation of those responsible, but I suddenly feel optimistic.

It stems from the fact that the subject is remaining alive, gaining continuing media support and exposure and that the "defensive remonstrations" from the shooting fraternity are doing little other than make them look foolish. Surely they can do better?
First amongst equals is Alex Hogg, Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. I actually have some sympathy with his position, but not his views. How can somebody maintain that "its unfair to accuse gamekeepers of wildlife crime"! when it has been reported by the BBC, when it recently reported on the successful prosecution, on seven charges , of a keeper in Derbyshire, England, that he was the 100th gamekeeper to be convicted of crimes against birds of prey. In the light of such disclosure it's approaching the time when Nero might usefully hand over his fiddle to the SGA!

Would it not be better to acknowledge there is an unwilling minority of gamekeepers who are prepared to continue, deliberately and illegally, to persecute birds of prey. Forging an active "partnership of principles" between the SGA and the conservation lobby, however loose, would lend credibility to their position and publicly affirm that organization's wish to see persecution end ( otherwise do they ? ). To skirt around the subject, and attempt to deny obvious connections, when keepers employed within the shooting industry are being successfully prosecuted, is naive in the extreme. The public will undoubtedly absorb such ambiguity and come to a view that all shooting enterprises are "iffy". Is that really what the SGA and legitimate shooting enterprises want? I doubt it!

Town dwelling residents increasingly feel that they can legitimately offer opinion on the countryside from which they gain a recreational "return", either at weekends on when on holiday. It's not too much of a quantum leap for the great British public to then turn its opposition towards institutions and management practices which they find unacceptable in terms of their effects on the natural heritage. The next step is an outright condemnation of shooting. Remember foxhunting ......

That is not an outcome to consider and encourage, as the recent statements of Natural England on the value of our uplands outline,in terms of the unique aspects of the habitat and the biodiversity it supports. Much valued habitat is maintained by upland and lowland estates in all parts of the UK and it is difficult to determine who would maintain and manage such areas in the absence of shooting interests. However, rather than feeling comfortable with the implications of the previous observations, it is important to eliminate the elements of estate practices which the public find unacceptable in order to avoid the possibility of outright opposition and condemnation emanating from their interest.

I often conclude the shooting lobby is a victim of its own arrogance which, potentially, could be its undoing. Stop being blinkered, for Heaven's sake, take stock of the elements present upon a much wider canvas or, otherwise, pay the price. General opinion is not (yet) against shooting
per se, but against actions which arise from within its management practices, i.e. raptor persecution and persistent assertions from within the industry that it's nothing to do with them. Some positive and transparent attempt to clean up such practices and put things right, as opposed to continually appearing to be in denial, would assist enormously. At present, even an unconnected bystander would interpret the stance as being somewhat vacuous.

Having said all that I have little confidence that the protestations and denials will alter, a situation which actually does provide me with optimism.

Activity meltdown! 12.6.2011

I have to say that the most auspicious aspect of today was my eldest daughters birthday, important on its own account, but also because the day was so very quiet ( other than , I imagine, at the celebrations! ). I was again over at the Sound of Islay but, contrasted against yesterday, activity levels had simply been switched off! I don't think I have ever experienced things as quiet.

On that basis I've precious little to offer in terms of comment. However, by way of general interest, I can show you a picture of "our" new ferry boat coasting at noticeable increased speed northwards up the Sound.

It seems to have a blunter bow, and a corresponding larger bow wave that I scoured in vain for Bottle-nosed Dolphins making a run up the Sound, and its coastal "wash" seems stronger than before but, otherwise , an impressive boat indeed.

Later I met up with two past colleagues who are here on holiday. Both were involved in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire in the past and, therefore, we had shared many disappointments relating to breeding Hen Harriers and ,correspondingly, insufficient successes over the years. It was good to have a chat about old times, but also reflect on how, even thirty years on from the outset of our first meeting, the situation has changed so very little and the age old prejudices still remain. News of other colleagues was welcome as, over the past two decades of the last millennium , a whole host of friendships had been forged. Many are still involved in conservation; none, it seems , have suffered any diminution in character that was the mainstay of our focus and strength throughout those challenging times. Good days.

As I returned home with, by then , the rain pouring down, one of the Short-eared Owls I'd spoken to someone about as I left for Jura in the morning, flew parallel with the car for quite a distance. Doubtless hunting for its recently hatched young, its best efforts would be seriously put to the test in the circumstances......

Odd surprises and a few concerns! 11.6.2011.

A day on Jura in fine weather but a keen NNW wind through the Sound. Whilst presence and movement of birds was a bit "limited", the sight of an adult Great Northern Diver flying north at around 200 feet was quite exciting as it went the whole length of the Sound. The large feet "dangling" from the rear and its full summer plumage all showed to good effect, plus it carrying its bill open as it moved through in very determined fashion, provided an entertaining interlude. Later I found another bird, feeding in the Sound, but not quite as advanced in plumage. Black Guillemots were quite active and in evidence with birds feeding at various spots, sitting out on rock slabs or moving around with their whirring flight.

Later a pod of at least seven Bottle-nosed Dolphins moved southwards, fed for a while in the central Sound, and then continued on their way. All appeared to be full adults, with the exception of one which was slightly less in size and bulk.

Later on I had the opportunity of checking out a Golden Eagle territory and was a little concerned to see both adults sitting out close to one another for quite a period and then the female soaring around at a distance from where the traditional eyrie is located. Because observations have to be carried out from a distance it's easy to miss one of the birds, but little attention appeared to be forthcoming from either of them with regard to their nest area and I finally wondered if they'd failed. Certainly there appears to be fewer Hen Harriers in evidence this year but, I guess on both accounts, the next few weeks will provide proof positive of the actual situation.

Routine day but enjoyable! 10.6.2011.

A really nice day that begged to be made use of! Sadly things seemed to be rather quiet which allowed a relaxed approach and provided an opportunity to explore a few "corners" that otherwise get neglected. Certainly Loch Indaal held little, although an interesting aspect is the presence of a number of widely spread, small breeding groups of Arctic Terns, which might afford them a better chance of success. The "traditional" colony at the head of Loch Indaal has long suffered from the area being a popular dog walking stretch, leading to repeated disturbance, and being an area selected for camping. Ideally the area should have been roped off, and disturbance limited, but the distributed nature of those breeding this season might now have found its own solution.

Further on I was captivated by this "stand" of Cottongrass amidst a shallow area of marsh. The colour contrasts within the landscape were superb , but I also then noticed the extent to which the trees in the background showed the effects of the recent storm, an outcome several people have commented on.

One of the things which struck me, when looking across Inner Loch Indaal eastwards, is how shallow this part of the loch actually is. Obviously this provides the attraction for the hordes of waders and dabbling duck in the winter months. Whilst the deposition patterns appear to alter slightly from time to time, and provide different lenses of shallow water or more exposed banks of mud and sand, the area largely remains the same and provides a very convenient haven in which many species can be seen.

So, a very pleasant day , with not a great deal of exceptional interest (I always feel guilty at saying that when we're surrounded by so many iconic species we end up taking for granted in some respects!! we don't actually! ), but a reminder of what a beautiful place Islay can be.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rock Dove conundrum. 9.6.2011.

A half reasonable day which got even better towards evening. Some showers were a bit heavy but, thankfully, of short duration.

Things are somewhat quiet as birds are occupied with feeding or protecting young. The Flats at Bridgend looked somewhat desolate with only the odd Oystercatcher and Shelduck in evidence and occasional gulls overhead. The vast majority of high Arctic waders will now have gone through except for odd stragglers and non breeders.

I'm intrigued by Rock Dove behaviour at the moment. There's been an obvious lull within which odd birds or pairs could be seen zipping about to and from nesting sites in old buildings or coastal caves. Within the last few days I've had several small flocks of birds feeding at locations where they might more readily be seen in winter, e.g a foddering out site at Tormisdale Croft. Do they use communal feeding sites when raising young or are these accumulations of adults and young birds already? Seems a bit early! Rock Dove is a species that , sadly, seems to be somewhat neglected as far as attention goes, probably because of its close resemblance to feral pigeons elsewhere in and around our mainland towns that nobody gets enthusiastic about except, perhaps, the local Peregrines ! Reports of these latter birds being in residence on high rise buildings, cathedrals or other suitable buildings in several of the UK's towns and cities appears to grow by the year. Whilst away I saw birds in central Sheffield and watched the birds on Norwich Cathedral on a live video stream. How things change! By contrast, the situation here ( proper Peregrine country after all!! ) appears to have deteriorated with fewer occupied eyries than , say, ten years ago despite a plentiful food supply!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cuckoos on the move!

Given it was raining for most of yesterday , and it's raining this morning again, it suggests it might be another computer day if the electricity supply holds up ( that's another story! ).

Foremost amongst things of interest is reportage from the British Trust for Ornithology on some research it's conducting on Cuckoos. Basically the Cuckoo population has decreased by 65% in 25 years. Given we don't really know where they winter in Africa, efforts are being made to determine such information so that it can be established whether factors within the wintering areas are contributing to the decline or whether there are other reasons.

Birds have been trapped in Norfolk and Suffolk and tracking devices fitted to address this intriguing question. The devices weigh 4.5 to 5.5 grams and are only fitted to birds weighing over 115grams, so a very small amount of payload indeed given it's a question that's always asked. The devices cost £2500 each and there is a charge of £50 per month for tracking services.

Five birds are currently transmitting and they are proving to be extremely mobile to say the least. One bird has moved to Sussex and another has moved over to France!! Quite soon all adult Cuckoos will be departing the UK anyway so the journeys , routes and eventual wintering quarters of these birds are going to be extremely interesting. It's hoped the scheme proves to be a resounding success and finally unlocks the mystery of where these birds actually winter in Africa or whether they perhaps remain on the move during those months.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Wakey, wakey!!

This time of year sees bird activity "kicking off" in this part of the world very early indeed. 0403 hours proved to be the time at which a local Cuckoo commenced to call, which then continued intermittently over the next two hours. Only shortly after this bird first called a couple of Pheasant added their territorial efforts to the day!

Currently most local activity is directed at raising young with Curlew, Lapwing and Ringed Plover amongst others all having youngsters, although some early Mallard broods are now well grown. In many respects this is a quiet time of year for birding, but a time to enjoy more fully the birds in residence.
Locally, around the coastal strip, a variety of breeding birds can be seen. I was relieved to see that the recent major storm, which occurred whilst I was away, appeared not to have had any gross effects. Local Arctic Terns still graced the air and were in good voice, a species that can so easily be "spooked" and abandon its colonies. Fulmars, Shags and gull species were all in evidence, seemingly undeterred by the violent interruption of extremely strong winds and salt spray being carried across the island resulting in a loss of leaf vegetation or it turning brown. A local neighbour lost all his potato crop, the vegetation simply going black with the battering it received and from the ample dosing of salt spray.

At the opposite end of the day, dusk tends to be rather late too and conditions can still be quite good at 2200 hours depending on the type of day and cloud cover. Bird activity seems to gradually ebb away through the evening compared to the more frenetic activity in the hours after dawn.

And so to bed........and then a Grasshopper Warbler started singing!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Spoon-billed Sandpiper initiative.

Amongst many other iconic species in the world the Spoon-billed Sandpiper must surely rank within the highest echelon as a species deserving of our attention and support. Thankfully that support now appears to be emerging after a period given over to surveys establishing the pitiful state its population has regrettably reached in recent years.

In 2009 an assessment of its population suggested this to be between 120 and 200 pairs only. Now that figure is believed to be as low as 60 pairs! Breeding in the highest reaches of the Russian Arctic coast the species then winters in areas like Thailand, Vietnam and Bangladesh at inevitable low densities. It would seem to me that it is within such wintering areas that the problems begin. Trapping larger birds in nets apparently, inadvertently, sees this small bird caught up too which, gradually, is contributing to its demise. Loss of habitat, presumably in wintering areas, and the arduous 8000km flight to these wintering grounds are also being blamed as contributory factors.

International efforts are being made this summer to locate birds in the Arctic and to set up a captive breeding programme, aimed at boosting numbers, leading to such birds then being released to the wild. At present no details are available which suggests some attention will also be directed at the "social" aspects contributing to the birds demise, namely getting the trappers on-side and eliminating the devastating contribution such activities make in this sad scenario. Having seen some of the schemes in SE Asia wherein local communities are enlisted to maintain bird species they previously preyed on and, in turn, benefiting from the (birding) tourist income generated, this may well be a candidate for that approach in certain wintering areas. It would be nice to think so.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Raptor persecution still obviously endemic.

Catching up on various things which have happened over the past fortnight it seems I've missed a number of really crucial items that have emerged. The results of the Moy Estate prosecution and, similarly, the results from the Skibo Estate case, coupled with the reportage within the BBC 2 Scotland "Landward" programme on the vicarious liability clause within the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. All these and more are ably reported on within the Raptor Persecution Scotland website, which I would encourage everyone to read, not least because there are E-mail links to "key Establishment players" allowing one to raise queries about non action on cases or similar.

With successful prosecutions confirming persecution activities are happening, now is the time to keep up pressure on the various authorities involved. That Alex Hogg ( Scottish Gamekeepers Association) acknowledges there is a minority involved in such activities is a cockshy. They are an effective minority nonetheless , undertaking activities that must be brought to an end rather than the matter being swept under the carpet under some justification that there will always be "bad apples". The whole subject is being increasingly aired and it is important that such impetus is not lost.

In the piece I put out on the 12th May on another Blog site I run ( Conservation Concerns ..... see the link on this site) I argue that Scottish sporting estates should not be allowed to consider themselves as exceptional cases and that their call for licences to legally reduce raptor numbers should be nipped in the bud. That is now an imperative!

Return northwards. 29/5/2011.

An early start with an obvious long journey ahead. After such an intense and rewarding fortnight this day was something of an anticlimax. A mid morning message , as I passed northwards of Carlisle, that Long-tailed Skuas were again passing eastwards through the Solway Firth caused me to look skywards and muse that perhaps I was closer than I'd ever been previously and question how high they might be in their migration over land. I guess migration will always be one of the main motivating factors in my love of birds and birdwatching. Simply saying it's fascinating is a wholly inadequate description of such an absorbing, demanding , and still mystifying, activity taken by many of our bird species. Great stuff.

The journey proved uneventful, my arrival back at the house found no problems or surprises following the obvious battering the island had taken in the storms of the weekend before and I suppose now are two or three days ahead sorting out the inevitable jobs that arise following an absence and its constituent activities.

The final chapter ( at least on this occasion ). 28/5/2011.

Early morning saw us set off again into the Peak District in a quest to see Ring Ousel. The weather was not kind with low cloud, drizzle, poor visibility and the like. We parked up near to Stannage Edge where we could usefully keep a fairly extensive length of the gritsone outcrop under surveillance. When all seemed likely to end in frustration a male Ring Ousel saw fit to swoop down, across an expanse of emerging bracken on to an area of relatively open grassland below. Whilst we lost it, the flight views were more than satisfactory, particularly in the conditions. Patience had paid off with, to boot, another couple of Stonechat nearby suggesting this quite local population was more than holding its own.

An amusing interlude amongst all this was when a cat , clearly from the farm just down the road, emerged from the bracken after unsuccessfully stalking the Stonechat pair, only to be chased down the road by two sheep who put some serious effort into their pursuit!

More formal matters then overtook the day......collecting the car, whose problems were thankfully resolved and having a new tyre fitted. Whilst we did fit in a visit to a couple of sites within our return journey, and went through some of my old "stamping ground" locations within the northern part of the Peak Park, for the present time this particular adventure now had to close. Successful, enjoyable and very memorable with many thanks to the Controller in the first week.

The evening ended with a family dinner, Matthew and Rose, Ashley and Mike and myself with a good time being had by all. We didn't know the Man United v Barcelona result at that point........

A more routine day. 27/5/2011.

Flushed with the excitement of yesterday we had no great expectations for today, as little was likely to compare. Whilst there was nothing of especial interest on the east coast we decided to have a visit nonetheless.

Our first port of call en route was North Cave, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Reserve with an accompanying local community involvement. Always a pleasure to visit, I was interested in the presence of several Pochard, as I had been at some sites in East Anglia, wondering whether this is a species that is possibly increasing its breeding numbers?
We moved on to the Tophill Low Reserve, administered by Yorkshire Water. Again it was interesting to see Gadwall and Pochard numbers, species that, when first I started travelling around Yorkshire, weren't at all prevalent. As usual we had a wide variety of species given the various lagoons are surrounded by woodland and other cover. Finally , after walking the whole site , we had a single Turtle Dove overflying us and heading for cover. This is certainly a species not met up with as easily or frequently as in the past. Of accompanying interest was the presence of Marsh Frogs, and their cacophonous calling from one of the areas near the car park, and Grass Snakes, who appear to make their home deep within the piles of grass clippings which are stacked up on the site.

Our final visit was to Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve, the home of Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake Fulmar ,Gannets and , not least, Puffins. Excellent views can be had from the cliff top viewing platforms and it's always a fascinating experience to watch the behaviour of any of these species from such close vantage points. Of equal interest were tremendous views of a singing Grasshopper Warbler, in fact the best I've ever had. It persisted in sitting out atop vegetation and in full view, and singing for quite long intervals. Whilst we're all conversant with the species turning its head whilst singing in order to "distribute" its song more effectively I didn't realise that, whilst singing, its tail was visibly trembling or vibrating throughout. A great experience to bring a good day to a close.

Ornithological retribution. 26/5/2011.

One advantage of being based in South Yorkshire is that it is easy to reach a huge variety of nature reserves and other areas without travelling too far. Today we visited the Whisby Nature Park in Lincolnshire which, in relative terms, is not that far from Sheffield. I'd never been there before and , therefore, was eager to visit as I'm a sucker for taking in new areas and exploring. It's a reclaimed area of gravel pits whose various lagoons are regulated to support both recreation and conservation.

It's a really pleasant site to visit whose several claims to fame include the presence of a few pairs of Nightingale. In addition to hearing partial song ( given it was around 0800 hours by then ), we had a couple of birds buzzing around clearly feeding a nearby brood of young in woodland cover alongside the path. Given the recent reports of an ever reducing national population ( 90% in 40 years ) it was a pleasant relief to find birds in residence.

On various ones of the pools there are islands supporting breeding Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns.

A more recent aspect of interest at the site is the presence of visiting Yellow-legged Gulls, of which we recorded three. Sadly poor weather started to intervene , although it improved later, and interrupted our scrutiny of a number of other gulls present. All in all it was an interesting visit with a wide variety of species seen , be they duck, passerines, resident or summer visitors and somewhere I will certainly visit again.

With improving weather we moved on to Hatfield Moors where we had excellent views of Woodlark, Yellow Wagtail and Grey Partridge. This is a really enticing site , a National Nature Reserve and vast in extent but with huge potential and interest. Given the weather was holding up we went on to a site where 5 or 6 Black-necked Grebe are present. The site has little emergent vegetation, as far as we could ascertain from the point we viewed it, and one wonders whether these birds will suddenly move off and breed at a more suitable location in the nearby area despite the relatively late date. An intriguing species to say the least.

Moving on we called in at a well known site, which held our quarry, a male Ruddy Duck. I've never been truly comfortable with the policy being adopted by DEFRA towards the extermination of the species in the UK because of its alleged inter-breeding with White-headed Duck in Spain. Having travelled widely and regularly in Spain previously I've yet to see the species in that country and continue to have serious doubts on the subject. For that reason the location will remain undisclosed.

And so on to our final destination, Old Moor RSPB Reserve. Now , if I'm honest , we only really called in the main car park to see if Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the scrub nearby. But, at the very point of our departure, a pager message suggesting the presence of Temminck's Stint galvanised Matthew into remaining (given he's missed many of those occurring this spring.). Such was fortuitous in many other ways as I bumped into various friends I'd intended to visit , but hadn't due to not having transport. These latter suggested there was some debate ongoing about the ID of the bird and so we sped on to the hide with more than a little curiosity developing.

Such was no Temminck's Stint! The lack of any primary projection, the eye stripe , the back pattern , the rich colouration, the rusty ear coverts, the heavily streaked breast. It didn't look right for any number of considered alternatives and, eventually, all agreed it was a Least Sandpiper. The news was put out and people commenced to arrive in increasing numbers. After my exchanging greetings with a few more past friends we set off home feeling pleased and more than recompensed for the gut wrenching disappointment associated with the skua day! Given there's been less than 40 seen in Britain , and only about 4 in Yorkshire, this was a seriously worthwhile species to connect with. Sometimes there is justice in this world......

Return to the fray. 25/5/2011.

Despite the shattering disappointment of the day previous early morning saw us visiting Padley Gorge in the Peak District National Park on the Yorkshire-Derbyshire border. This mixed deciduous woodland abounds with birds and in improved weather we revelled in the songs of Wood Warbler, Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, and Pied Flycatcher. Pairs of the latter were attending nest sites and besides these we also had Lesser Redpoll, Nuthatch and Green Woodpecker as well as a supporting cast of titmice species.

Out on the nearby open moor we had Whinchat and at least one pair of Stonechat with young. Transferring across to the nearby Burbage area our attempts to locate Ring Ousel where we have previously found them met with no success but, again, we had Stonechats, which was very encouraging given widespread reports of various local populations having suffered due to the bad winter. Our journey back to the car around 1300 hours saw a Red Kite flying high to the SW after possibly moving over Sheffield itself.

Further walks in the Stannage Edge area brought no success with Ring Ousel but tantalising views of a Weasel moving its kits, its swift bounding gait across a wide path swinging the small offspring to and fro in what must have been a scary transfer! Further in to urban Sheffield we stopped at Tyzack's Dam where we had 5 male Mandarin Duck tucked along one of the small feed channels. This put the single bird we saw last year to shame and raises expectations of a thriving breeding nucleus begining to form. A single Grey Wagtail overflew the site as we took in the gaudy colours and patterns of the ducks' plumage.

An examination of Sheffield's General Cemetery, ostensibly for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, also generated the products of Matthew's humour with ribald references to prime viewing plots being available, good area to be in residence to start your year list and so on. I told him I'm much converted to the effects of haunting! Having survived all that (!) the area is actually good for birds. It's fully abandoned I believe, but maintained by volunteers with some Local Authority support, and presents some great swathes of dense cover out of which rise some magnificently mature trees, the canopy of which , for some , must be around 40 feet. Such areas must be a haven for birds in severe winters, to which the numbers of Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, Treecreeper and Wren lent some credibility separate from the attendant summer migrants which were present.

Long held dreams dashed. 24/5/2011.

I have long wished to visit the Solway Firth in spring, when there is an appropriate "big blow", to witness the passage of skuas eastwards along the Firth out of the Irish Sea, where they then rise abruptly in the farthest ,narrow confines and continue their journey overland to the North Sea and beyond. Matthew was similarly enthused by the prospect, given the right conditions appeared to be in play, and so we had decided to indulge in a very long day and , hopefully, witness the phenomenon.

An early start saw us call in first at the viewing point associated with the breeding OSPREY at Bassenthwaite. Unfortunately the birds have decided to choose a different nesting tree so views are a little distant and unsatisfactory. Things will improve once the pair are feeding young and more activity is in evidence.

Onward to the Solway where we stationed ourselves at the appointed spot and waited for the anticipated mixture of Arctic, Pomarine, Great and Long-tailed Skuas that must surely flood through given the previous and existing weather conditions. Reports of numbers of Long-tailed Skuas off the Ayr coast ensured our expectations and enthusiasm remained high. Seven hours later, and two ARCTIC SKUA, and we began to flag a little. Then a report of a Ross's Gull a couple of miles down the road came through which, given the lack of activity, obviously caught our interest. Arriving on site all that was to be seen were four LITTLE GULL, with no sign of the rather rarer relative! We fast concluded some mistake had arisen and returned to our previous spot only to discover a small party of Long-tailed Skua had gone through!! Mid evening saw us returning home, dreams and expectations dashed given the surrounding circumstances had been so perfect for not just a good day , but a truly exceptional day. Whether some future opportunity might arise when weather and convenience coincide is anybody's guess.........

The necessary palliative of an Indian take away did little to quell our disappointment, but it restored our energy levels after a rather long day.

Both Dipper and dipped. 23/5/2011.

Early morning showed the wind still to be somewhat fresh and blustery , even within the confines of urban Sheffield. Nonetheless we set off to look at some local areas. Whilst it was difficult to pick up any calls or song due to the breeze within the trees a local woodland near Wortley did produce a large party of Long tailed Tit and a Dipper along the stream. Examining other areas for known resident Little Owl brought no success and, in the time we had available ,we "dipped" on every initiative we took to locate birds. So, in the end, domestic needs took charge, and matters relating to cars ,the location of particular parts and so on took over, plus some necessary shopping. The day did allow time to catch up on things and to plot and plan for the rest of the week, taken by Matthew as holiday with the express intention of us intensively birding throughout.

Obvious change afoot. 22/5/2011.

Reports suggested it was worthwhile spending time at Cley given a couple of interesting birds had turned up. Our walk along the East Bank was wind blown to say the least with an ever increasing westerly impeding progress. None of the reported species could be found ( Little Gull and Little Stint )and so we left a very wind swept marsh behind.

Following this we spent quite some time attempting to see Montagu's Harrier, but without any success. Repeated glimpses of several Marsh Harriers at different places momentarily raised our hopes, but eventually we conceded defeat. The westerly wind was continuing to rise and we discovered that the interior of the car was beginning to gather a film of fine dust as opaque clouds of soil was lifted from the fields. Moving on to Titchwell and the safe confines of the various hides we did obtain good views of BITTERN, ,a pair of PINTAIL, and views of the female RED-CRESTED POCHARD who shortly afterwards flew off towards the reed bed and pool where the male had been loitering earlier in the week. Time and weather suggested we now start to head for home which we reached in the early evening after traversing a rather windy Fens!

End to end success! 21/5/2011

As had always been intended the day proved to be intense but extremely rewarding. Early morning saw us at the RSPB Lakenheath Reserve where we had exceptionally good views of a male GOLDEN ORIOLE, BITTERN, GARGANEY, HOBBY, CETTIS WARBLER, as well as of a Barn Owl repeatedly bringing back prey to its nesting site , including a Water Vole.

Moving on to Weeting Heath, a NWT reserve, we had reasonable views of a couple of STONE CURLEW and their youngster, all accompanied by information provided from an undoubted military gentleman complete with a spectacular moustache, "regulation" shorts, impeccable manners and a very useful commentary and background.

Calling in at Santon Downham we caught a party of 8 Common Crossbill in trees nearby to the bridge together with a Kingfisher, Green Woodpecker and Nuthatch. Farther north we scoured unsuccessfully a couple of areas for Montagu's Harrier before moving on to Burnham Norton so that Matthew could see the Red-necked Phalarope. Returning to the car , and after standing listening at various points , we encountered a single calling QUAIL at a point when we'd virtually abandoned hope! Later, near to Holkham, a single HOBBY floated through checked for a moment by a Kestrel risng from within its territory.

Moving on to Cley we managed to see one of the Shorelarks, and whilst looking, had a couple of adult MEDITERRANEAN GULL moving west above us. several sandwich Tern moved west along with a couple of Little Tern. Time then dictated that we report to our B and B accommodation, which we did before moving off to one of the nearby heaths located slightly inland. With the weather turning cool, and the wind rising, we soon came across one of the adult DARTFORD WARBLER which are present in the area. Surprisingly it was virtually the only bird we saw! In time honoured fashion we then returned to a nearby pub for a well earned meal and drink after a somewhat exhausting but very rewarding day.

One lost, one gained! 20/5/2011.

I spent the whole morning looking for Montagu's Harrier, unsuccessfully, and even took in a site where three birds had been seen displaying yesterday! Such is the variable pleasure of birdwatching and it's good to be confronted by the reality of things not always being handed across on a plate!

Having realised that time was creeping on and that it was already early afternoon, I decided to go to Burnham Norton where a RED-NECKED PHALAROPE had been seen yesterday and was being reported as still present. The pools concerned were located within what is the vast National Nature Reserve located along Norfolk's north coast and required a "walk in" towards the sea embankment. The area concerned in winter is wind swept and echoes to the call of geese , wildfowl and wading birds. By contrast was much quieter, although groups of Grey lag Geese ,odd Mallard and a few waders provided a fitting background to what was a sunny summer's day. The bird showed well and displayed its bright plumage to good effect. It was never still and either fed with frantic intensity or bathed and preened with equal verve and energy. Mallard, Gadwall, Shelduck, Tufted Duck, Avocet, Redshank also shared the pools and watching over the area in splendid weather was a real tonic.

A mistake on my part in missing the required footpath, and going out of my way along the sea wall by at least a couple of miles, produced little else of note other than excellent views of Stoat and a single Marsh Harrier! Given late afternoon had arrived I began to weave my way southwards towards Thetford where I was to rendezvous with Matthew at Ely railway station in the late evening. Checking in at the Travelodge, doing some shopping for "stores" we'd need over the weekend, 2200 hours soon came around and a successful meet up completed. On our way back we attempted to locate some Quail which had been reported, but were unsuccessful, if indeed we were ever at the right spot! Using a web based GPS system in Norfolk's agricultural countryside, or was it Cambridgeshire, is not without difficulty given the number of tracks, dead ends etc! Midnight soon arrived and we reminded ourselves that little time remained before we embarked on a busy weekend's birding!

Both pleasure and frustration. 19/5/2011.

On what was a really pleasant morning I set out to visit Sculthorpe Moor Reserve, a site run by the Hawk and Owl Trust ( ) and an area I'd never visited until a couple of winter's ago. It's one of those woodland/wetland areas that is just a joy to be within, even if you don't see very much. Justifiably it boasts the presence of both Marsh and Willow Tit complemented by a wide variety of other passerine species, breeding Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl and Golden Pheasant. Whatever the provenance of the latter the male bird is an absolute gem to behold, but very often proves elusive and demanding of a patient stake out at one of the hides. As previously I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

After lunch I moved on to Cley on Norfolk's north coast, a site run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
After calling in at the modern, self sustaining eco-friendly Centre to see a friend who works there, I set out along the East Bank adjacent to the vast reedbed.

A leisurely stroll provided views of a pair of BEARDED TITS and a further single male, always a species I enjoy catching up with. The paired birds were indulging in an energetic round of chasing, possibly a precursor to them settling down to breed.

Continuing on I reached the famed "North Bank", its shingle line extending as far as the eye can see in both directions.

An examination of the history of this area is spellbinding, indeed in the Three Swallows pub in the village there is a fascinating collection of old photographs of the area and its inhabitants. In the Middle Ages the Cley Marshes were covered by the sea at high tide and boats could navigate along channels into a harbour located near Cley Church. A series of banks were built in more recent times to protect the village from flooding, and to create more areas for grazing and such assisted in the establishment of what is now a premier reserve. Recent extreme weather events have seen the reserve flooded as the fury and force of the North Sea surged over and through the protective "North Bank". A simple visual assessment of how tenous is the permanence of the reserve can easily be arrived at by looking along the shingle embankment and imagining how circumstances must be in the midst of a winter storm.

Today, however, was pleasant, sunny and allowed full benefit to be taken by walking along the raised embankment, which I did all the way to Salthouse and back. My efforts were directed at seeing a couple of SHORELARK which have been in the area for some time. Usually a winter visitor these birds have hung on way beyond the usual time of departure. As can be seen from the photograph the landward side of the bank plays host to a variety of vegetation, squatting low as it does away from the force of the wind. Eventually the birds were pinned down within an area of this cover close to the access point from the East Bank showing that , somehow , I had initially walked past them! Whilst it had been a frustrating afternoon I suspect the bracing atmosphere had been of more than a little benefit and had acted as the prelude to the final reward.

Yet another good day!

Hectic, but successful, day. 18/5/2011.

A further visit to Titchwell RSPB Reserve provided much the same species but with markedly better views of 3 Temmincks Stints, the male Red-crested Pochard, several summer plumage Black-tailed Godwits and an absolutely resplendent Grey Plover in full summer plumage. The occasion also provided an opportunity to obtain photographs of the new, almost futuristic, Parrinder hide which has taken place alongside major habitat and flood protection work which was completed recently.

Very modern and poised , I suspect , to receive some recognition award from the architectural community. My only major gripe is that there is no longer a sill on which one might rest a telescope given the "big sky" viewing windows. It's now necessary to use a tripod ( not always easy in a packed hide ) or to have the piece of kit that clamps onto the shelf below the windows
( another bit of equipment to carry!).

Whilst there I received a call from my son, Matthew, advising a Gull-billed Tern had been picked up at Kelling flying in a westerly direction and that there was a good chance of it reaching Titchwell. Alerting other people I waited for well over an hour, but with no luck, only to find out later it had flown past ten minutes after my departure.

I'd moved elsewhere and had the benefit, somewhat deflated after receiving the news about the tern (!),of seeing several SPOONBILLS at a site where they were present last year too. A measure of compensation in some respects and an opportunity to have a chat with the warden as well. Other birds present were Little Egrets and Egyptian Goose, besides a variety of wetland and woodland species. On returning to the car I got a further call from my son, ably acting as Controller in far off Sheffield, that the tern had reappeared at Titchwell.

A somewhat focussed journey followed, together with a splendid response from the short, fat hairies as I negotiated the main footpath of the reserve at "retirement speed" and there it was, GULL-BILLED TERN, resting up on a small island and providing excellent views. The wholly black, stubby bill, shallow fork to the tail and stocky or robust appearance all came through well from a bird that was doubtless from one of the north European breeding colonies. And then , after only a few minutes, it flew off, disappeared , but then re-appeared and flew off to fields south of the reserve where it proceeded to systematically quarter the area. A narrow escape for me, as views were then somewhat distant and nothing approaching the magnificent lens filling images of the foregoing few minutes. Phew!

And so the return journey to "base" in the early evening was much more jubilant than had been that taken in the afternoon.

Perspectives on Frampton Marsh RSPB Reserve.

I was so taken with my visit to the above reserve that I thought it worth setting out a selection of photographic shots I took whilst I was there. It's certainly worth a visit!

This is just a general view across the site with the reserve Centre in the far background and an impression of the site's features.

Another general view of the site in a different part of the site which also shows the retining embankment giving prtection too from any incursion of the sea across this very flat and exposed landscape.

The site's drainage is managed by an intensive pattern of ditches, which also play host to species like Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler and doubtless many others too during migration times.

One of the interesting features on this reserve is this artificial "wall" which provides breeding sites for a very thriving colony of Sand Martin.

The reserve itself is located in a very open landscape and every effort has been made to provide nesting sites for bird species not directly associated with the wetland habitat. This nestbox "city" obviously serves such a process and assists in widening the species diversity of the reserve.

All in all an interesting site in a fascinating part of the English countryside.