Friday, 30 January 2015

Everyone Needs A Harlequin In Their Life

This latest offering from the Sexton & Tilmouth stable sees two middle-aged birders make an epic journey across Scotland in search of a rare duck and lost youth. Capturing the zeitgeist of early 2015 their dialogue addresses many of the major issues of our time including where best to acquire Lasagne Pies in the oil capital of Britain, what to do in the event of an IS kidnap whilst birding and how best to age and sex Snow Buntings. This Oscar-nominated account culminates in a few dramatic minutes when the pair stumble (literally) across the mythical Harlequin in the warm afternoon sun and as time seems to stop finally find peace and make some sort of sense of the meaning of life.

The silence of the darkest hour is broken as a car slides into the car park and pulls up slowly aside the only other vehicle present. Two dark figures emerge, one from each car and begin to move objects from one vehicle to another. In a few seconds both drop sack-like into the black vehicle and it leaves, the car park once again still and silent under the neon Homebase sign....

The wind buffets the car as it motors through the imposing structure of the Forth Road bridge and on north to the badlands that lay beyond. Inside the two figures are deep in animated conversation that seems to swerve with the bends in the road, heading one way then back another, ebbing and flowing between shared laughter and angry conviction.

As our two central characters arrive at the 'old toilet block' they begin searching for a toilet only to find they no longer exist. In the background a Dipper sings and the sound of the rapids increases the urgency of the search. The two head off towards the urban jungle that lies upstream, hardened tower blocks gaze down at them unblinking and unmoved. An unshaven ginger-heeded local clutching a can of low quality lager lopes past eying the pair and their array of optical equipment warily.

After trudging through an eerily empty modern housing estate, the occasional window bedecked with the secret society sign of Stella Artois the pair found a break in the security fence that they were looking for and yomped the last few yards to the riverbank. Silently they stood as the young male that plunged through the racing water hauled himself out onto the far shore stretching and flaunting his sleek body at them in the full confidence of his youth before launching into the air and muscling upriver leaving our pair breathless and desiring more.

An hour later we find the duo searching through more Goldeneye than a Boxing Day afternoon on the BBC as a black minibus arrives on the scene and the black-clad occupants jump out, surround and begin interrogating our main characters. Inadvertently our pair had breezed in to a well planned operation called Operation Heatherslea also seeking the exhibitionist young male who had earlier held our pair in thrall.

Despite an extensive search the trail went as cold as a three day old Lasagne pie. As the sun began to drop and the day, like our unlikely heroes began to slowly fade, they summoned their remaining energy and made one last visit to where the boy had so audaciously revealed himself that morning. As they arrived a drake Goosander lounged lazily out beyond the rapids and there like a sleeping baby lay their quarry.

Spurred by their presence the boy slipped into the water, majestically riding the white water towards them as they stood breathless. The young male came close sensing there was no threat, mere metres from their touch he began to move, pushing himself across the copper dappled water again and again the water running down his muscular torso as he flung himself headlong into the torrent. In those few moments of golden light they saw themselves once again, young, free, beautiful (it's fictional license!) and the last 30 years slipped away downstream.

Renewed, rejuvenated the pair slipped away just as the foot soldiers of Operation Heatherslea surrounded the boy and he was lost to view behind a sea of green. Once again feeling good they stopped to help a sick local beggar in the car park and offered a few crumbs to help him make it through the hard winter still to come on the Deen.

An hour later inching through the grey city centre a flash of blue as bright as the tumbling water turned their heads and momentarily their eyes shone again only to realise this time the Adidas emblazoned tracksuit was not a reprise of their earlier quarry.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hen Harriers - HOT issue.

Like many I am following the Hen Harrier debate closely. The latest intervention by The Hawk and Owl Trust has been an interesting development that appears to have broken the stalemate over brood management (or at least re-ignited the debate) and may well now see DEFRA's Hen Harrier recovery Plan implemented irrespective of RSPB and other conservation opposition to that part of the their proposals.

The two 'immoveable conditions' in the Hawk and Owl Trust's argument for becoming involved in a brood management scheme are as follows:

1) All Hen Harriers fledged within a brood management scheme trial would be satellite tagged so that their movements could be tracked. And the knowledge that they were tagged (and the fear that other HHs might be) would prevent any gamekeepers from shooting them in the sky.
2) Should any Moorland Association, Game & Wildlife Trust, or National Gamekeepers Organisation member be proved to have illegally interfered with a Hen Harrier nest or to have persecuted a Hen Harrier on their grouse moors, the Hawk & Owl Trust would pull out its expertise from the brood management scheme trial. (source)

Reading Phillip Merrick's (Chairman of HOT) comments about this it is apparent that he has the best of intentions and sees their involvement as a way to break the impasse in what he believes is a human/human conflict. Do the above conditions stand up to scrutiny though?

Does satellite tagging prevent persecution? There is no evidence to suggest that this is true or false. However if a 'bad' gamekeeper is set on removing a Hen Harrier and ensuring that no evidence is left behind who is better equipped to do so both in terms of time, equipment and experience? Guns, dogs trained to recover shot birds and hours in the field. Add in remote locations with few witnesses it is perhaps reasonable to assume that some would not be put off by a satellite tag from pulling the trigger if the shot presented itself?

I don't have any statistics on membership of the three organisations listed in point 2 but it left me wondering what might happen if illegal interference of persecution came from outside the membership. Would this result in the HOT staying involved? However the key point here in my view is the definition of persecution. My belief is that most people assume that this means killing or as stated 'interfering with a nest' but I was reminded of Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association's comments in Patrick Barkham's recent long article on Hen Harriers in The Guardian in which she said “A landowner is not going to encourage them to settle,” added Anderson. She suggested that hen harriers could be easily scared off. “They are very flighty birds.”

One of the Moorland Association's members Stephen Mawle had this to say  “It’s one thing to let the lion prowl around your stock pen, it’s another to open the gate and let him in. You’ve got a huge financial incentive for hen harriers not to nest on your land.”

It is clear that a large part of the problem in England and Wales is the lack of nesting attempts, few successes but a startling lack of any number of failures too. If interference by preventing Hen Harriers from settling, moving them on in any number of ways, is widespread then the actual killing of Hen Harriers may well be taking place on a more limited basis than was once the case. Why take the risk of killing a bird that you can simply disturb daily. Unless you happen to be in one of a few well-watched recent breeding sites in Spring the chances of such disturbance ever coming to light or even being recognised as deliberate rather than just 'going about the daily business' are probably extremely remote.

Will the Hawk and Owl Trust move open the door to a recovery in those areas where the harriers might be tolerated or will it prove to be the thin end of a wedge driven into bird of prey protection by grouse moor owners? Only time will tell but I hope that all the good achieved in Kent by Phillip Merricks isn't overshadowed with a toxic legacy on raptors.

Friday, 28 November 2014


It has been a definite case of quality over quantity this month with not much time in the field but those hours I have put in have been very rewarding. With the ongoing influx of Rough-legged Buzzards into the country it was only a matter of time before more were found in Northumberland and on the back of two reports of a bird above the Harthope Valley ADMc and I noted a window in the weather on 13th and headed up.

Walking in up the Hawsen Burn was a damp affair, a Dipper flushed up the burn which we both expressed surprise at, previous experience suggesting they tend to be on the main river during the winter months. The occasional Red Grouse hurled itself across the valley and a single Common Buzzard hung above the south side briefly. By the time we reached the gate below Broad Hope Red Grouse numbers had increased dramatically with flocks of 20-30 birds flushing from the path side moor as we walked. We counted well over 100 on the walk south including a very nice leucistic individual.

A raggy piece of paper flapping from a lone rowan managed to do a passable Great Grey Shrike impression on bins views and then a few minutes later we picked up a distant buzzard sp. hovering some 2km away to the south. In flat light we kept glimpsing a huge white upper tail and rump contrasting with a narrow black tail band as it twisted in the air. Closing some of the distance we were left in no doubt that it was a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard.

With one of the local shepherds buzzing about nearby the RLB dropped below the ridge and was lost to view. Despite waiting for another hour it didn't reappear. We had plenty to occupy ourselves with at least one, probably two, Peregrines passing through, several Common Buzzards and a Stonechat for company.

A we headed back Andy picked up another individual with a white rump though this time the tail band was much thicker. The bird dropped onto the wall of a sheep circle so we started walking back to close the distance. On the deck it was very dark bellied but we couldn't really make too much of it. Eventually it got back up and we got some fantastic flight views confirming it as the second Rough-legged Buzzard of the day though the very wide tail band caused a bit of head-scratching and we managed to fluff the aging of this one until we got back and reviewed pictures.

After watching this individual hunting and resting for the best part of an hour we headed back at pace toward the car as I had to get back to pick the kids up. Approaching the gate above the Hawsen Burn we flushed another juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard from the moor not 15m from the path, it hung 20feet in the air for what seemed an age before drifting silently away up Broad Hope.

Fast forward to Monday and news of an Isabelline Wheatear in Cleveland, Yorkshire Durham had us heading down the A19 early doors still shaking the sleep from our eyes. We soon woke up as the acrid smell of the Zinc Works attacked our throats as we stumbled the couple of hundred metres onto the beach to join the 30-40 other early arrivals watching the bird. Confiding and curious, never more than 40m away it fed in a loop on the beach regularly approaching to within 5m of the short line. You couldn't want for a rare to perform better.

 " I could have picked anywhere and I ended up on Teeside!"
 John Malloy getting to grips...

We completed a decent day by dropping into Whitley Bay for a quick look at the Brier Dene Hume's Warbler that had been found over the weekend. Typically fast and furious around the last of the autum's sycamore leaves it proved difficult to capture anything decent with a 400mm lens without trampling vegetation.

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.