Thursday, 24 July 2014

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

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

4th June - Grreat

I was in the cake aisle when I felt a stirring in my left trouser pocket. The brief message on the phone from 'Lucky' Andy cut short the weekly deliberations over Sticky Toffee or Lemon Drizzle and I hurried to the checkout.

Having ignored last year's county Great Reed Warbler until it was too late I was keen to do exactly the opposite this morning. Shopping dumped at home I pulled up at the farm entrance to find ADMc back at the car with news the bird had flown into the northeast corner of the phragmites. We spent the next half hour on the road and wall (unlisted) and had some brief views of a large looking acro and maybe even a fragment of song but nothing that was really conclusive.

I headed for the hide and set up camp in the hope it would repeat its early morning performance. Forty minutes later and a few folk had turned up and were watching from the road in fairly heavy rain including Andrew Kinghorn and Rob Stonehouse. We exchanged some polite text messages and they had apparently seen the bird fly back south into some nearer reeds. Not long after on the pool side of the reeds sure enough up popped the giant acro and spent the next hour showing extremely well along the reed edge 30-40m from the hide, mostly in heavy rain.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

30th May - Last Knockings?

All seemed relatively quiet yesterday with almost all the birds encountered common breeding species. No sign of the Greenish Warbler from yesterday morning, luckily I've had two before at Newbiggin as I wouldn't want it as a full fat tick on the one brief snatch of song I heard before it went forever quiet (not my find and other obs had views, song and call).

Another flycatcher today, much more co-operative than the last one, added Spotted Flycatcher to the patch year list. Aside from that it was all Whitethroats, Linnets and a single Mallard in the tipping marsh.

Monday, 26 May 2014

25th/26th May - The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.

The Bank Holiday weekend has been interesting, I've worked some of the last three days so birding has been slotted around that and family and with mixed luck it's been a real rollercoaster.

Last night I grabbed an hour to walk the dog and getting down to the first Ash Lagoon scrub almost immediately had a bird fly-catching silhouetted against the evening sky and through a tangle of branches. Any flycatcher species was going to be a patch year tick. It settled briefly, though still obscured, before pitching into the thick hawthorn/elder nearby and not re-appearing despite me hanging about for half an hour. I headed back this morning and had another hour on site but couldn't produce anything more interesting than a Chiffchaff. Have a look at the two heavily cropped images and make your own mind up as to what i let slip, do note the eye-ring in the first image though.

A little pissed at getting up really early for nothing more than a Chiffchaff I headed down to Castle Island to check for waders or big white herons. Walking down the path behind the houses built on the old miner's welfare site I was not a little surprised when first one then two Tree Sparrows appeared on the path, in front of me. Put into context I've birded here since 1989 (even in my wilderness years I'd visit a few times each year) and never had Tree Spug. They were collecting food so presumably are breeding fairly close, perhaps even in the mature trees that now form a garden for the houses built there.
The island itself was fairly quiet with little or no mud exposed, I noticed a bit of commotion on the south side, a brood of Shelducks scattering from a lone... Egyptian Goose. Presumably the individual that has been wandering the Northumberland coast in recent weeks and was last reported on the Aln Estuary a few days ago. Another new bird for the site and a tarty county tick to boot as I've never attempted to twitch any of the recent individuals.

Time to head home, I cut through the housing estate at Ashington to get onto the A1068 and check Cooper's Flash as I headed back.It was warm now and with two fleeces on I was feeling the heat so the window was down. Approaching Cooper's Flash I heard a Whitethroat singing and glanced across to a bird sat on the top of a hawthorn; thankfully no one was behind me as the car lurched across the road to a halt. The car was slammed into reverse and sure enough sat astride the hawthorn was a spanking male Red-backed Shrike that promptly flew over the car and pitched into a hedge on the other side of the road. Scope out it was working its way west along the hedge and by now was a little distant.

Within a couple of minutes it had disappeared over the brow of the rise. I headed around to the public footpath at the top of Bothal Bank and walked east trying to intercept it but as later reports suggest it obviously returned to original area as I had no further joy.

Home and late morning post-breakfast dog walk, Joel and I cut north to Longhirst and back in a loop to Pegswood. Singing Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler on the road home the highlights. Not 200m from home I glanced up to the east and noticed a pale-looking raptor thermalling. A quick dash to the car boot for the scope and we both enjoyed decent views of an Osprey as it drifted in lazy circles, skirting the village and moving off  northwest toward Longhirst Golf Course, a 'garden tick' and not a little pleasing after many hours spent watching the skies to the east of us for just such movements in Spring.