Saturday, 18 October 2014

Portugal - Tagus Estuary and Castro Verde

A brief respite from desk-based work and the boys football this week with a couple of days in the field on a press trip based in Lisbon, Portugal and aimed at exploring areas to the south around the Tagus Estuary and Castro Verde. Both areas I have visited before but a great opportunity in the company of João Jara from Birds and Nature Tours Portugal to explore these great habitats in excellent company. With only one other participant Niall Hatch from Birdwatch Ireland we birded at a comfortable and relaxed pace and some great birds with stunning backdrops. This isn't a 'full' trip report but hopefully provides a flavour of what can be achieved in a couple of days from a city centre hotel with fairly minimum driving.

Day 1 Tagus Estuary

A mere twenty minutes from the hustle and bustle of Portugal's capital across the huge Vasco de Gama bridge  and you're into a different world of saltpans and big estuary landscapes. Huge numbers of Greater Flamingo peppered with small flocks of Spoonbills and the odd Great White Egret.  Highlights of the day included the Marsh Sandpiper that has been around a few days, several Black-winged Kites, distant views of two Bonelli's Eagles and a distant soaring Black Stork. Superb close-encounter with a Squacco Heron, two adult Night Herons and rather good views of two or three male Yellow-crowned Bishops. Thousands of commoner species, Cirl Bunting, Hen Harrier, Ospreys and Marsh Harriers in abundance, Hoopoe, Wood Sandpipers made up the quality end of close to 100 species of bird. Egyptian Mongoose was a bonus mammal tick!

Day 2 Castro Verde

First stop of the morning after the cloud of Corn Buntings had cleared produced 13 Great Bustards in a typically high vista, quickly followed by a couple of well-hidden Stone-curlews. A little further on we flushed a roadside Little Bustard that flew a short distance before pitching in and sitting tight for a while, amazingly while scanning for the Little Bustard I picked up three adult Dotterel  just 20m away well camouflaged against the stony steppe. As we enjoyed great views of the Dotterel, we were periodically entertained with Black-bellied Sandgrouse hurtling through the nearby skies. A few metres further on and our attention was grabbed by a 100+ flock of Calandra Larks filling the nearby hillside.
Further on up the road, not too far from one of Portugal's best Lesser Kestrel colonies, as the morning warmed we had a steady procession of impressive raptors kicked off with an Iberian Imperial Eagle on the deck, quickly followed by an approaching Black Vulture that was shadowed by three Griffon Vultures. By far the highlight of the day was an incredible sequence of hare-hunting Bonelli's Eagles.

After the obligatory 'Black Pig' lunch we headed for the Guadiana Valley and spent the afternoon relishing a further three Iberian Imperial Eagles and four Golden Eagles as well as another (juvenile) Bonelli's Eagle and a cracking kettle of over 50 Griffons. Close views of singing Thekla Larks and a couple of Ferruginous Ducks added variety to the day's haul.

Friday morning back on the Tagus was quiet by comparison with a couple of Garganey the best of the birds, though the sight of Lesser Black-backed Gulls lining the road to devour passing Louisiana Crayfish was a memory that will live long.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Collared Another Prat

Just a quick post more for posterity really, great find for Dave Dack at my old patch Castle Island today with Northumberland's 3rd Collared Pratincole and first since 1983, In amazing parallels the Russians shot down a passenger plane that year too.

As others have noted it's been a good year for pratincoles, especially for DD given he was in the thick of the Hauxley BWP too!

As I had just started work as the news broke I was grateful to JJ for taking over for an hour or so. On arrival I was the only birder on the north side and initially only took bins. I found it but facing away and distant and ended up trying to make doubly sure by phoning DD and the chaps in the cheap seats on the south side.

I nipped back to the car for a scope and managed better views, though none in flight and some ropey Iphone video that's about 50mb and crashing my broad band tonight so I'll try and upload it another time, so you'll have to make do with this instead.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

M&S Say Game Over in 2014

News broke late tonight that Marks and Spencer will not be stocking grouse on their shelves in 2014 while they test/develop a code of practice for suppliers. You may remember reading about this issue almost a year ago here
I would like to think that the emails sent at the time made a contribution to the decision announced today so well done to all those that joined me in calling for a review of their supply chain practices.

Hopefully any draft code of practice will be well-researched and include very clear guidance and penalties in relation to illegal persecution of birds of prey and encourage suppliers to work positively towards the restoration of the Hen Harrier to our moorlands.

It might only be a small win in the fight to change attitudes and the culture that views birds of prey as vermin to be disposed of but once again it shows that events can be shaped by enough people raising their voices and highlighting the issues.

Beyond Hen Harrier Day

Many will have noticed that game-shooting has suddenly gone soft on Hen Harriers in a big way. Led from the front by the increasingly vocal Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust they are now making daily appeals for DEFRA to publish the Hen Harrier Joint Action Plan and let them get on with saving the Hen Harrier from extinction.

That's it then I guess, a few tweets, the odd petition and we've changed the world, converted the killers into saviours. We can sit back and watch as Hen Harriers become as common as Buzzards and stop worrying about their fate as they're safe in the hands of gamekeepers everywhere.

Not quite.

While it is a positive move that GWCT and others have realised that their previous lack of action reflects badly on both them and the wider game shooting community, the current PR onslaught on social media and the industry press, mostly urging DEFRA to release the Joint Action Plan is the least that we should be expecting given the lack of action to date. It's disappointing that most haven't felt able to grasp the olive branch offered by Hen Harrier Day, a day to clearly call for an end to illegal persecution by all. Perhaps the distinctions between this awareness event and other more general anti-shooting sentiment have been blurred by some commentators to the extent the shooting industry hasn't felt able to support it?

Game-shooting, or more specifically driven grouse shooting, is facing a huge crisis and they know it. Public awareness and feeling towards any activity that willfully allows some to destroy parts of our natural heritage is growing. The campaign to raise awareness under the banner of #HenHarrierDay is proving a huge success. Add to that Mark Avery's attempts to bring about a total ban and national media attention will follow as we approach the 10 August and a strong display of support for the cause on the day itself will send a powerful message to the wildlife criminals that have removed Hen Harriers unchallenged for years that their time is running out.

Elements of the Joint Action Plan such as diversionary feeding may prove to be an important part of the recovery but the current rush to head off criticism and the worst of the media's attentions by waving JAP as 'the answer' is a poor and rather cynical attempt to avoid some of the real changes that are needed to ensure the culture of killing and illegality in some quarters is consigned to the history books.

I'd like to see a Joint Action Plan but one that included Licensing of Grouse Moors and included conditions on providing detailed records of all wildlife trapped and killed annually for instance. Penalties for both the perpetrators of these crimes and their employers who carry the responsibility for what happens on their land need to be strengthened to act as a real deterrent. However the biggest change needs to be in attitudes and culture, the current support to publish a JAP from GWCT et al needs to be followed up by a genuine, industry-led campaign to change the thinking and dogged reliance on killing predatory wildlife.

I'd like to see (and support) industry wide competitions seeking innovative mitigation techniques involving non-lethal methods. Trials of 'net-ceiling' poult pens for Pheasants that deter Buzzard predation in alleged trouble areas. Estates willing to not only implement diversionary feeding for Hen Harriers but open the estate up with hides to allow public viewing. Commitments to reduce the number of spring traps that pepper some upland estates killing not only target species such as Stoats and Weasels but often many moorland birds such as Ring Ouzels and Dippers.

There is so much more to do, this isn't near the end it's just the start of the change.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Pinch Punch First of the Month

I headed for the Church pool this morning to check for duck broods, I didn't stay long, clouds of pollen floating up from an ungrazed and overgrown path set off my hay fever. Nine Little Grebes indicated a successful breedng season.

At the coast a single summer-plumaged Turnstone was top bird but from my mid-bay perch I picked up a pod of cetaceans moving rapidly north that I was soon able to identify as Bottlenose Dolphins. Around 10-12 powered through about 400m offshore and carried on past Beacon Point. I decided to try and catch up with them again further north so walked back to the car and drove north to Snab Point.

As I arrived I quickly re-located the pod almost directly offshore about 600m and had excellent views as they continued north, surfacing regularly with the occasional small blow visible.


This evening a text from Tim Cleeves to say he had just had a Cattle Egret fly northeast over his house prompted a mad dash to Woodhorn and a hopeful vigil from the railway line. All in vain. Two Grey Herons and a brood of 10 Tufted Ducks on the South Pool and a rising of hirundines gave away the presence of a Sparrowhawk with prey that headed off over QEII.

I called in to Castle Island before heading home, Green Sandpiper still, first returning two Common Sandpipers this evening, four broods of Gadwall, a decent count of over 60 Tufted Ducks and a better count of the Shelduck young with at least four broods. Also a golden-legged juvenile Redshank that made me look twice.

Last stop Cooper's Flash to find the colour-ringed Avocet reported from Bothal Pond earlier in the evening was on the flash by the road. I nipped over to Shadfen to check the cattle field just in case but again without joy, a Tawny Owl by the roadside just after the saw mill provided consolation.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Last Week of June

This time last week I was sat in the sauna-like heat of the Pyle hide at Gosforth Park NR waiting for a second glimpse of the male Little Bittern that was making less frequent appearances than a Hen Harrier at the Game Fair. A juvenile Water Rail entertained as did the banter. To be honest I doubt that neither ADMc or I expected to connect as quickly as we did with the first flyby occurring within about 20-25 minutes of arriving within the hide.

A couple of short seawatches toward the end of the week produced little, a single 1st-summer Little Gull, some small movements of Manx Shearwaters and by the end of the week three returning adult Red-throated Divers on the sea off Church Point. Most notable was the continuous feeding movement of Herring Gulls that counts on one day suggested was at a rate of 600/hour north. The Ash Lagoon banks were quiet though a pair of Bullfinches were my first on the moor this year.

After a weekend at work with the usual liberal dose of kids activities, I quickly knocked off some food hopping this morning and spent a quick hour at Castle Island ahead of a lunchtime meeting with Blanaid Denman from the RSPB Skydancer Project to chat about Hen Harrier Day.

Plenty of birds though little by way of quality, a single Green Sandpiper the pick of the bunch, Lapwing post-breeding numbers already up to 60, 17 loafing Cormorants, 8 Grey Herons, a first brood of Tufted Ducks (9) boosted numbers with a 50+ count of adults. Shelduck appear to have had a decent breeding season with at least 30 young of varying sizes around the island. A single GreylagxCanada hybrid in the Canada Goose flock.

Tonight another hour at Church Point produced a single Great Skua north along with 15 Manx Shearwaters and a pale morph small skua sp. on the horizon.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

12th June - The Right Prat

Thursday I was working, things were slow as it's that summer doldrum time when half the birders are doing dragonflies, moths and butterflies and the other half aren't doing anything. When a call came in from Hector Galley who had already reported a Great White Egret and the feral Red-breasted Goose from Hauxley NR that morning saying 'we've got a pratincole from the Tern hide at Hauxley' I quickly weighed up that I could spend the next 10 or 15 minutes trying to help with the ID over the phone or alternatively I could jump in the car and try and help with the ID in the field it seemed like a no-brainer.

Arriving in the car park I bumped into a nonchalant-looking Dave Dack strolling back to his car, thinking he had the prat in the bag and was playing it cool I shouted over 'Well what the **** is it'?' To which DD replied something like 'Great White Egret' at which point the confusion became apparent. We both then did that very fast walk that you do when you're too old to run but there's a big tick waiting for you somewhere.

EditDave contacted me after I wrote the post and reminded me that when we met and I told him about the pratincole he told me that he had (independently) seen what he was certain was a pratincole from the hide directly opposite the Tern hide. Without a scope and very brief views he was unable to confirm the identification and had set-off back to the car at which point we met.

At the rather full hide first look at the pratincole, on a rock roosting and occasionally turning its head I was immediately struck by two features, how little red the bird had on its bill and the black lores and dark-looking forehead. My mouth ran away with me 'Dave this looks like a Black-winged'... I rattled off some phone-scoped images and watched as the bird got up, preened a little and got a bit of a kicking by a couple of Lapwings.

Back at the office the bird had flown south after I left, a holding message of 'either/or' Collared/Black-winged had gone out. Looking through the images all the features were pointing to Black-winged, DD was back on the phone he was sure it had been Black-winged too. Flight shots arrived on email from an obliging Tim Mason, no trace of a trailing white edge and an apparent all-black underwing, a quick circulation of images to others with more experience of the group and no dissent, Black-winged Pratincole it was. A great find by Helen Mearns, first record for Northumberland