Monday, 30 November 2009

Warming The Cockles Of My Heart

With twins routine in the morning is essential to achieving anything from the rest of the day. Still in nappies so we have a chest high changing table next to one bedroom window overlooking the back garden and the scrub woodland to the north. Each morning the curtains are thrown open whilst I change nappies and dress them, on most occasions I'll see the odd bird, perhaps a gull banking it's way inland or a Collared Dove on a nearby roof or one of the many Tits that come to drink from the water in the corner of the conservatory guttering a few feet below.
I always point the birds out, hoping that some of it will stick. This morning it was my turn to be on the receiving end. As she stood having her trousers adjusted looking over my shoulder, my daughter of two years and sixty three days suddenly flung her left arm up to point, narrowly missing my left eye. At the same time she screeched "Dad" in a tone which most birders would reserve for say a sighting Of Zino's Petrel past their local headland or possibly a brief glimpse of Siberian Blue Robin on a foggy autumn morning. "Dad....AGPIE!" was the repeated excited perfect piece of ornithlogical identification.

So you'll excuse my pride and wish to record the start of her self found list.

Ella Tilmouth
30/11/09 Magpie 1, our apple tree.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Pre-dawn the flash water in the fields had a thin covering of ice reminding us of approaching winter as we headed north on a delightfully empty A1. First stop was forty minutes up the road at Mcdonalds a traditional Scottish restaurant on the outskirts of Berwick for a Mcmuffin traditional Scottish breakfast.
Fuelled with hot tea my son and I stepped back to the morning sun breaking on the horizon as we crossed the current border. Normally I bird alone and use Radio Four for company so having a reading from Paddington Bear was a break from the usual routine. Torness was as grey as ever and whilst my son's thoughts lingered in Peru we arrived at Musselburgh Lagoons courtesy of the Birdguides site guide and map links.
Bins on the main lake as we unpacked coats and cameras revealed an adult winter Med Gull loafing with the dozen Black-headed, still noteworthy in Lothian unlike so many locations further south.
Like it's more famous namesake from the Tom Hanks movie of several years back the phalarope had departed leaving us and the four birders we met to mention its name in each conversation as if the incantation might summon it back.
A chocolate stop and thirty minutes later we were at Aberlady Bay in the small parking area adjacent to the wooden footbridge crossing the Peffer Burn. We began to scour the banks and pick through the Redshank when a typically dour and bearded Scot crossed the bridge and gave the game away, that the long-staying Lesser Yellowlegs was playing hide & seek just below the near edge a mere 20metres away. As we parted company with him it obligingly decided to cross with us and lifted into the air dropping onto the intertidal mud at the other side.
Lesser Yellowlegs, Aberlady Bay.
I've gone commando (manual) on the camera in a bid to learn more so I had a bit of fun with the strong sun and reflected light but managed one or two record shots in which LY is recognisable and doesn't have green legs.
We made a few stops to view across the Forth as we headed to our lunch appointment with the gulls at Eyemouth but whilst we had huge amounts of common waders and duck, a couple of Long-tailed Duck were the only other notable sighting.
Bass Rock made for an impressive Gannet-free picture amid a calm sea and Joel and I agreed to head out there perhaps next year so he can experience Bass in all its guano filled glory.
Bass Rock.
A, sadly dead, roadside Barn Owl south of Grantstown will be despatched to the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme next week.
Despite getting to Eyemouth just as a boat pulled in about 200+ white headed gulls there was nothing of significance with 98% being Herring Gull. We had to content ourselves with watching Seals and taking more photographs of accommodating Eider as well as a few gulls. Two juveniles with completely unmoulted scapulars were likely to be of northern origin and therefore probably argentatus.
Herring Gull L.a.argenteus 1st-winter.
Eyemouth 28/11/09
One or two Shags plied their trade with the gulls and seals in the white wing free harbour.

Shag, Eyemouth Harbour

Last stop Stag Rocks for another attempt at this year's showy Black Guillemot which was again absent. Single Slavonian Grebe, another two Long-tailed Duck and a couple of Red-throated Diver the best we could manage.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Wil son It's Like This

I have a trip to Musselborough planned tomorrow for the Wilson's Phalarope that's been lingering though the news doesn't appear good as no reports have been made today. I am taking my seven year old son Joel on his first big twitch and had planned to come back via Aberlady's long staying Lesser Yellowlegs, a decent food stop in Eyemouth for a few gull pictures and then Stag Rocks to have another attempt at photographing Black Guillemot and Slavonian Grebe.
The weather looks reasonable so I think we'll go all the same and keep fingers crossed it's just been elusive.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Life In The Old Bones

Using Google Alerts I get all sorts of birding related material delivered to my inbox on a daily basis. Much of it is junk, I have found a few blogs and some good sites but about 80% of what comes in (there's that ratio again) is not worth reading or bothering with.
Don't know about you lot but I find Surfbirds a difficult site to navigate, it is not easy on the eye, almost like a moulting gull it sometimes feels it's neither one thing or the other, so I don't spend much of my online time there.
So when I ended up clicking on a link in a blog post that took me to the leader board of Surfbirds British non-motorised year list 2009 and found iconic Northumberland Birder Andy Mclevy sitting at the top, at number one, you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Having bumped into Andy en-cycle many times this year I had thought it was perhaps the start of a natural downshift toward a more sedentary form of birding in his Autumn years and all this time he's actually been pumping the pedals to maintain his competitive edge on a national, albeit obscure, listing challenge.
It may be slightly premature to congratulate him but he is 21 species ahead of his nearest rival and not likely to be caught. He may not thank me for it but I thought he deserved a little recognition for his achievement, 170 species by bike or on foot, no mean feat for a pensioner.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Eider Rather Found The Iceland Gull..

but during a short visit to Blyth South Harbour on Monday I didn't. As a result I was faced with a choice, Eider I take some more duck pictures or go home empty handed. Not wanting to let you down I took the duck pictures. If a joke's bad it's worth repeating but Eider feeling you knew that was coming, Eider way here's the pictures and Eider better get going.

Male sniffing for shellfish

1st-winter male checking for rain

1st-winter male doing cow impression

female not doing very much

male dribbling

Monday, 23 November 2009

Corn Bunting - A Description Species in Northumberland?

It would appear that my title is perhaps exactly where we are at in relation to Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra in my home county. 2009 has seen a single bird reported which hung around north of Linden Hall and presumably the same bird at Bywell in August. Even that individual was in the middle of an identity crisis singing like a Yellowhammer at times. You look at species requiring a description and take for example Balearic Shearwater and Sabine's Gull both of which have had in excess of ten individuals recorded this year and wonder why Corn Bunting shouldn't be amongst them.
Now for those of you wizened & grey tapping away with a single finger reading this it might seem ludicrous to think you couldn't identify a Corn Bunting but consider for a second what if you were sixteen again. OK consider if you were sixteen again and you managed to get out of bed. Now you don't have a car, foreign holidays are about to become a thing of the past due to increased Fuel Levys where are you going to connect with Corn Bunting?
Durham is the obvious answer and it would be great to think the mini-recovery that has happened there can continue and spread but that is going to take a great deal of hard work and changes in a number of farming practices which may or may not happen.
Obviously any change is the responsibility of the CRC but you have to wonder how much longer they can resist adding it to at least the list requiring brief notes. A sad reflection on our times.
The saddest thing for me is that it's happened on our watch and no one seems to have lifted a finger to try and prevent it from reaching this point (I'll stand corrected if I have missed an initiative). Look at the literature and you can chart the decline from Northumberland's Birds (1983) ' a well represented breeding resident' via Northumbrian Birds (2001) ' uncommon and declining breeding resident' to the situation today outlined above. Corn Bunting may still be abundant elsewhere in Europe particularly in the East in countries such as Romania and Croatia but for me the loss of it as a county bird is without parallel, I cannot think of another breeding species that has undergone such a catastrophic decline in my lifetime and summer will never be the same without those jangling keys.

Galloway, B. & Meek, E.R (1978-83) Northumberland's Birds. Trans, Nat History Soc. Northumbria 44 (1-3): 1-195
Kerr, I. (2001) Northumbrian Birds. NTBC 1-184

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A Brief Reflection

Having completed the last of my seven early timed tetrad visits for the BTO Atlas a couple of hours ago and just done uploading the data I thought I'd post a couple of random thoughts from the time I've spent.

Greenfinch - Where are they all? Several tetrads without any, none with more than three. Chaffinch numbers seem pretty poor too.

Footpaths - There should be a requirement on landowners to maintain visible footpath routes and way markers. If it already exists then there is a few folk around here doing their level best to ignore it.

Farming & Wildlife - It appears to me that, at least in the limited sample areas I've covered, that most of the farmers are doing almost nothing to maintain or encourage biodiversity. Leaving a few metres around field edges is all well and good but there is no huge benefit if what is growing there is of poor value. I see more effort going in to maintain Pheasant numbers than any native species, I wonder why? There is a some spin off benefit of the supplementary feeding that goes on and some of the planting specifically to help the Pheasant but it is not particularly intentional.
The last couple of weeks have reinforced my belief that expecting farmers to voluntarily look after biodiversity is ludicrous. If we want it to happen we have to make them do it and be prepared to pay them for doing it - period.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


I joined the Facebook generation several months back, many of you my readers whom I hold in the highest regard are on there too. I went in from the off to network, carefully and selectively hoping gradually to make contacts and friends that might help me achieve my aim of working in the birding field in some capacity. I avoided the scattergun approach of taking on every friend request that came along, I chose my requests carefully. It has been an interesting process from which I have learned a great deal and it provides a huge amount of interesting material to read.
As a middle aged man and a father I have kind of left hero worship on a time consuming scale way back. However, two names kept standing out amongst some of the 'friends' of 'friends' I was acquiring. Two names that are in my mind living legends of birding, Killian Mullarney & Klaus Malling Olsen.
That's KMO in the picture I've nicked from the Oriental Bird Club up there looking a little less eccentric than the one on his Facebook page.
Until a day or two ago I had avoided any attempt to kiss ass and get hooked up with either, despite being sorely tempted, not out of any sense of ego, more curiosity, I wanted to share in the words of wisdom that were being passed down from on high. The odd secret ID feature of 2nd calendar year Baltic Gull, or an occasional vignette from KM just for his Facebook friends.
Then that 1st-winter GWG (hybrid?) turned up and I began to wonder if there were threads of informed comment running on their pages, so I wrote a nice little note informing Mr Olsen that whilst I wasn't fit to shine his shoes I'd be eternally grateful to share in his wisdom. The following morning, I opened my Inbox and there it was, I was accepted, KMO was MY FRIEND, the joy. Almost trembling with excitement I logged in to Facebook and clicked on his name in my notfications, the screen hung momentarily as I waited for enlightenment. As the page opened it appeared odd, mixed up, I was too excited, "calm down", then it hit me with a huge thud between the eyes, square on

it was all in Danish.
The weather summary by the morning TV presenters suggested my time may have been better spent building an ark and training doves this morning but the rain seemed to be just edging past the coastal strip so I breezed through another two TTV's.
I expected the first Tetrad to be poor as it is mainly farmland with a hamlet and one 'acre' wood, overall bird numbers were low but the first Sparrowhawk of my Atlas visits was pleasing as was single Redwing, Mistle Thrush & Fieldfare. Apart from a decent flock of Linnet and a surprise Nuthatch it was all Jackdaws.

Fieldfare, one only.
I expected more from Tetrad two, with much more woodland and some riverside habitat although again overall numbers were depressingly low I managed Treecreeper, a couple of Siskin & best birds of the morning an eclipse male Goosander and his two consorts.

Goosander, eclipse male

Goosander, female/immature
The male Goosander was conveniently diving around the weir at Sheepwash bridge allowing me to wedge myself above it behind the crash barrier and despite the greyness manage a half decent shot or two.
An interesting response to an enquiry I made earlier in the week has given me some food for thought, hopefully it might lead to what would be a very ambitious ornithological project.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

More Scribbles

If you haven't caught up with my latest published scribbles you can do so now here. A serious subject worthy of attention in my view.

Introducing The Tetrad Twins

I like to think I can spot an opportunity and whilst I find myself increasingly railing against consumer culture and bored of plastic talent looking for five minutes of fame I can't help but sense the pre-pubescent excitement and love/hate relationship with the two Irish lads on Cowell's talent show. The untalented duo will probably make a healthy living from their flirt with fame and manufactured difficulty with Cowell. I can see you all drifting off now wondering what the hell this has to do with birding. Well this Christmas and (perhaps frighteningly) beyond it's all about twins, the marketing boys and girls up and down the land will be scratching their heads trying to get in on the act and no doubt a container load of Jedward dolls complete with spangly suits and spiky hair is already chugging it's way from Shanghai as we speak.
Why should big business have all the benefit of the latest trend? What about conservation getting in on the act so to speak.
So this morning in a blatant attempt to court publicity and nothing to do with filling up space on the blog I launched 'The Tetrad Twins', young, good looking, talented and doing their bit for the BTO Atlas.

The Tetrad Twins getting ready for the big launch.

Their first public appearance seemed to go fairly well, although the fame had gone to their heads a little by the end of the first hour as they were demanding dressing rooms and heated seats in order to continue. We kicked off in NZ28C which has a bit of up market urban, think David Lindo with a Jag, a tash and a pipe, a little farmland and a railway station for in-tetrad entertainment. It seemed to go well, we strolled past the local private nursery and you could see the other kids thinking "hey they've got OS maps and notebooks and look at the Leicas", no doubt some of the parents will get it tonight "Mum, can I get a pair of 8x42 from Santa?"

"27 in that flock Dad"

Should the BTO wish to get in touch contact details are on on the blog front page, obviously a signing on fee will be needed but a couple of bags of Cadbury Buttons and an Atlas notebook each should just about do it.
These things needs to be sustainable though, it's no good not having a long-term strategy so we have to look beyond The Tetrad Twins and think how we're going to stay with the market as it matures. One option would be a "Birders Got Talent' compered by none other than the Drunkbirder who could probably give Ant& Dec a run for their money(it's not hard). Filling the show would be easy as the Punkbirders seem to spend as much time making strange videos and perfecting odd talents as they do birding. It's got shit hit written all over it.
There we are an entertaining and interesting blog post without mention of the fact that Mistle Thrush and three Reed Bunting were the most exciting birds we managed in this morning's atlas tetrad, roll on Thursday.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

It's Snow Phase It's Morph.

Snow Goose, white & dark morphs
Texas April 2007, courtesy Roger Foster

The use of Latin names for species provides birders with a universal language that ensures no matter where you are in the world two observers should be able to establish a name for the bird you are looking at regardless of the other language barriers they have.
Despite this there are still areas where terms can be used to describe differences amongst the same species that can create confusion.
Let's take Snow Goose Anser caerulescens most birders know it occurs in three forms, phases morphs and they are white snow and dark blue and (phew) intermediate. Clear, mmm.
If we look at the history in recent birding literature we might get somewhere. In the old days before I was even a twinkle in an eye the non-white version was often referred to as "Blue Goose", Peterson, Mountfort & Hollom in their 'Field Guide to the Birds of Britain' referred to it thus but stated it was a 'colour phase of this species'. Moving on in time a little to 1977 and Cramp & Simmons in 'Birds of the Western Palearctic' used the terms 'white morph' and 'dark morph' throughout their definitive text, with two single bracketed references to 'Blue Snow Goose' also mentioned. By 1988 Madge & Burn in 'Wildfowl An Identification Guide..' had reverted to using the term phase and wrote 'occurs in two distinct colour-phases, a white or snow phase and a dark or blue phase' they then adopted the terms 'snow phase and blue phase' in the remainder of their text. Fast forward to 1999 and Svensson & Grant's treatment in 'Collins Bird Guide' probably the most widely used field guide in Britain and Europe since, refers to 'two morphs' a 'white morph' and a 'dark morph' For once however they shed some light on the term 'morph' in the terminology section defining it as 'variant of certain appearance within a species, not geographically defined (cf.subspecies). The same as formerly often used phase'
So why did 'morph' replace 'phase' and why do many in the UK now insist on using 'blue' rather than the more accurate 'dark'?
Phase has multiple meanings, one of which implies that the condition referred to is temporary and will move to another 'phase'. Other observers have speculated that during the 20th century as more amateurs came into ornithology (and it became birding) that these meanings were confused and that a new term was sought that didn't imply a time related change, hence the introduction of morph. So morph whilst the new kid on the block relatively speaking being the term used in BWP and by Svensson & Grant would seem to be the way forward.
Which leaves us with 'blue' or 'dark'. Blue in conjunction with morph appears to have been adopted fairly recently in the UK, I can find no reference in BB so it is probably the final legacy of the old 'Blue Goose' name. There are not many sources where I can find extensive use of the term 'blue morph'. One is in the, otherwise above criticism, electronic BWPi where the images have been labelled 'blue morph' in contradiction to the Handbook text that fails to use this term even once. Taking a glance over the pond where Snow Goose is actually a wild breeding and resident species the definitive 'Birds of North America Online' prepared jointly by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union make reference to both 'dark' and 'blue' morph and current US birding guru David Sibley uses the term 'dark' morph in his Field Guide to Birds of North America, simply including a passing reference to the old Blue Goose name. There are many other authors who use multiple terms within the same text without comment (Lewington, Alstrom et al) suggesting a degree of comfort with the interchangeability of the terms.
If we are content to use the new term 'morph' rather than the older 'phase', then is there any reason not to adopt the term 'dark' in preference to 'blue' it would at least ensure that we were in synch with the major texts currently available on the species. The more technically accurate description might be 'dark bodied morph' though this is unlikely to catch on in the sound byte era as it's less punchy.
You can wake up now, I blame the blue dark nights.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


The Cotoneaster hedge along the north side of our front garden has really come into its own this Autumn. In the dozen years we have lived here I have never seen as many Blackbirds feeding on the berries. Perhaps as a result of me moving my desk into our bedroom in order to achieve a semblance of peace whilst working I am noticing them for the first time as the desk is adjacent to the front window overlooking the hedge. All of these were taken through glass as they fed a few feet below the window. Up to six at any one time visible and probably more over the day as there are often a few in the back feeding on apples on the lawn.

Blackbird, 1st-winter male

Blackbird, 1st-winter male

Blackbird, 1st-winter male
Interesting also to note the individual variation I would speculate that this one is perhaps a locally bred bird as it seems more advanced than the other 1st-winter, almost adult like except for a few remnant dark marks on the bill.

Blackbird, female

Blackbird, 1st-winter male

Friday, 13 November 2009

At Las(t Some Birds)

Having had a fit of conscience about my lack of BTO Atlas activity recently I signed up for what seems every remaining available tetrad going last night. With November slipping by and nearly one quarter of the available time gone I thought I'd better get a shift on straight away.Glorious sunshine and 11degrees Celsius providing the perfect start.
Starting very local with the closest Tetrad to home with a Greggs Traditional Cornish in the backpack first bird was a Robin, I suspect this blog would begin to lose readership rapidly if I drone on about every tetrad and every sighting so I'll restrict myself to the odd highlight.
Bird of the day, a nice Willow Tit almost at the northern edge of the tetrad calling it's distinctive three note contact call full of zzzz's from a small mixed wood with a stream running through. Two Common Buzzard calling a few hundred yards from home were a close second.
Biggest miss of the day, a flyover duck that looked suspiciously like a drake Northern Pintail heading toward Bothal Pond. Strange flight action it kept moving it's head as if to look down like an inverse Red-throated Diver. 23 Species with another three roving on the way home and a decent pastie.
I didn't find the county's first Cetti's Warbler but someone is going to in the next few weeks and the smart money might just be on someone doing Winter Atlas work being the finder.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


I don't do the lottery, I have occasionally on the spur of the moment bought a ticket. It probably happened more often when I was a smoker and was buying my 20 woodbine from the local supermarket counter where the handily placed lottery machine catered for those with two addictions, modern convenience eh.
I don't often find myself thinking about what I'd do with large sums of money, I seem to be in amongst a small minority that thinks we're all pretty much affluent enough in the west and need to realise it. I guess this comes from spending a fair bit of time in countries with 'low labour costs' the term the industry I worked in used for paying what was often a pittance to people in Bangladesh, China, Romania, Morocco etc. Have a bit drive round the suburbs of Bangladesh and if you have any shred of intelligence and morality you'll soon stop whingeing about life over here.
However forty five million pounds is big dosh and I've found myself wondering what it might achieve in conservation terms. You could build 45 Saltholmes for a start, maybe even 46 if you didn't put Brabantia bins in them all. Perhaps buying up nine 7550 acre Northumbrian Estates in order to provide a safe haven for Hen Harriers would be more up your street?
You could find the last Slender-billed Curlew for 45m and have change to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. How many IBA's could be conserved, improved and perhaps expanded for 45,000,000? Makes you wonder.
Given the popularity of lotteries generally I also wonder why RSPB or Birdlife don't operate their own with the proceeds going to conservation, I might actually be tempted to buy the odd ticket if I felt the money was going to end up supporting things that matter as opposed to say a theatre in Stratford that is only ever going to be visited by a few thousand people most of whom are in the top 2% of the world's affluent anyway. It would be a fitting irony if a lottery could actually end the survival lottery that many of the planet's bird species are threatened with wouldn't it.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Brabantia (sp)

It's a long time since I had a Cetti's, the last being on foreign soil in Crete further back than I care to remember. The current advance north which seems to be happening increasingly rapidly makes it a candidate for next breeding species up here in Northumberland. News yesterday of one singing at Bowesfield Marsh near Stockton combined with a wet start up here sent me off south to try and sneak one onto this year's list.

I've not been to Bowesfield before and leaving the directions on the desk at home with my phone wasn't the best way of finding it but after a couple of false turns I arrived about 08:45. Unfortunately yesterday's performer was conspicuous by his absence. A few birders wandered around the Phragmites edged pools and banks of the River Tees but after a couple of hours without as much as a sniff I departed. A quick stop at the Tees Barrage to see if the regular Yellow-legged Gull was around provided my second dip of the morning.

I thought I'd use the facilities so helpfully provided by the RSPB at Saltholme on the way back, perhaps get jammy and bag a Jack Snipe. Once there I was lured by the food. The young girl serving who may have been Eastern European must have been fooled by the Northumbrian accent when I said I was 'Doon for the Cetti's'. They must have so many foreign visitors I guess, she thought I was from Crete, at least I assume that's what she meant by 'Cretin'.

I found the gents and settled for a while in the luxurious surroundings more in keeping with a country house hotel. Stainless steel flush panel with a 'big flush and little flush' button that caused a little consternation. "Should I try the little flush, obviously better for the environment?" thought I, quickly followed by "but what happens if the little isn't enough, then I'll have to use the big as well which is worse than just using the big flush in the first place." Climate change, creating metaphorical shit on top of the real stuff to have to deal with.

As I left the cubicle suddenly in the corner I caught sight of a Brabantia sp, I just hadn't expected to find one here in a charity lav. Luckily I still had my bins on so I was able to suss it out without disturbing it. I took some notes:

About 30" high it looked wider than the standard Brabantia touchbin 20L and slightly taller. Shining stainless steel it was still in full stunning livery even at this late date. I could see the 'soft touch' operating system around the lid, slightly darker than the bin itself although this could have been the viewing angle and the indoor lighting.

Brabantia sp Image courtesy T. E. Scodirect

I left overjoyed, my morning hadn't been a complete waste. The 15 Black-tailed Godwit and single Little Egret on 'Bottom Tank' were almost superfluous. Now at last I had a record worth sending to the Durham county recorder. After a little research online I now think that this was probably a Brabantia 40L, if anyone else has noted this particular individual and can confirm the ID please leave a comment.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Reasons To Like Birding #1

I thought I'd take advantage of the sun this morning. Not as happy as I would like with the range of Sabine's Gull images I took last week I decided to head back to North Shields Fish Quay and have another go. The only flaw in my plan was the absence of the Sab's Gull.
Not wishing to waste a nice, bright morning I wandered around looking for other targets all a little difficult with the sun low in the southern sky and me on the north side of the river.
There are many reasons why birders, bird, probably as many reasons as there are species. For some it's all about the birds, the unparalleled beauty, others enjoy the thrill of the chase, dare I say hunt. For some its names or ticks on a list or lists, others value the rare, still more are seduced by the competitive lure of the combination of lists and rares .
Maybe its a little of all those I just mentioned but I keep finding more reasons, so here's another one from this morning.

1. What other hobby allows a man to crouch for an hour on an upturned fish crate surrounded by 4 inches of water on an ebbing tide yards from a commercial fish quay without feeling the slightest embarrassment?

Lost it? Not quite, trying hard to capture some Turnstone images just east of the fish quay I was struggling. The strong sunlight was resulting in heavy shadows on one side of the birds masking the detail. I knew I had to get between the sun and the birds but they were feeding along the tide line and I didn't fancy getting my feet wet. An upturned fish crate gave me an idea. I dragged the fish crate into the surf, jumped on and sat down. Gradually the Turnstone grew in confidence and fed nearer and nearer eventually passing right through my shadow allowing me to get some images that were halfway to reasonable.

Ruddy Turnstone, North Shields Fish Quay
I'm not sure what the various folk passing by thought or the two fisherman that stopped for a few seconds to stare, but for whatever reason it seemed to cause the Turnstone to be more confiding and move closer, back and forth along the tide line. I would recomend however that this technique is only used on an ebbing tide, wouldn't want to be blamed for any of the less nimble of the local photographers getting their feet wet.
The only birds of any note this morning were eight Med Gull on Newbiggin Beach.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Not As Tystie As Hoped

With four county year ticks on offer, five if you include the Holy Island Bearded Tit, concentrated in the area around Budle Bay and Stag Rocks there was only one choice of destination this morning.
Nothing notable on the journey up, Common Buzzard on a haystack and several large areas of standing water including what seemed like whole fields in places suggested very heavy localised rainfall.
I breezed into Budle Bay at low tide just after 09:30 and quickly picked out the first of the target birds adult white morph Snow Goose chilling with the Pink-footed Geese along the northern edge. Three Pale-bellied Brent Goose were a little further east and the main body of Barnacle Geese arrived whilst I was there, I counted over 160 but I've seen bigger numbers published elsewhere so either I missed a few in the channel or there were some elsewhere.
Pushing on to Stag Rocks it was cold but dry. First birds up were a couple of Long-tailed Duck with at least seven counted as the morning went on, one or two just beyond the breaking waves showing well. Several Red-throated Diver lounged around again beyond the breaking waves and further out. Two Slavonian Grebe provided the second year tick of the morning showing intermittently between dives about 100m south of the rocks.
With no sign of either of the winter plumage Black Guillemot, (apparently there have been two different birds, one adult, one 1st-winter) I headed to the lighthouse and took a look north. Another birder/walker joined me and it was he who picked out three Velvet Scoter flying toward Holy island at some distance. Most of the Long-tailed Duck were over this side with a single group of five, three male two female, counted.
A magnificent almost fully summer plumage Great Northern Diver sat almost due east and washed and preened for several minutes showing very well about 250m off the rocks. Small numbers of Purple Sandpiper moved along the rocks and a skein of 30 Pink-footed Goose headed south.
Back to the car and another hour searching for something Tystie but without reward. Perhaps another day although three out of four ain't bad to misquote Meat Loaf.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lightning Strikes Twice

Last year 5/11/2008 Olive-backed Pipit at Flamborough Head

This lunchtime one year later John Mcloughlin finds....

Olive-backed Pipit on Flambourough Head.

Right place, right time.

And has anyone else noted the increase this year, I reckon possibly up to 18 individuals (assuming all the birds on Shetalnd were different individuals) as opposed to eight and nine in last two years. Reasons?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Full Of Bull

Particularly conspicuous today, with one in the garden feeding first on Honeysuckle, before moving briefly to a neighbour's ornamental Cotoneaster, one of those with thorns and orange berries and finally onto a Rowan back in our garden. Two more in the small wood at Linton Pond where the kids and I took our morning walk today feeding on seed heads in the glade.
They, along with Stewart and Stringer's comments have had me thinking about how it's almost impossible to keep abreast of everything when it comes to ID even for UK species. Both experienced birders, one lapsed and one current ringer and certainly with more experience of birds in the hand and bigger lists than me yet neither aware of Shirihai's text on Iris colour in relation to ageing Blackcap. Then again the only reason I had just read it was that Blackcap's have been often the only migrants I have seen on certain days this year and I dug the book out to check if there were any obscure races that I should perhaps be more aware of to add a bit of excitement and challenge to the "oh it's another Blackcap" moments.

Frankly if you started asking me about any of the other species/races accounts in the genus I'd seriously struggle hence the halitosis joke a few days ago in reference to halimodendri Lesser Whitethroat. So how do you keep up? For me I accept I can't possibly know as much as I'd like, I rely on remembering the species I'm familiar with. I find that once I've 'added' a new bird and spent a little time with it I feel more comfortable with ID in the future, although this has a 'Use By' (or lose by) date with me. I try and reinforce this by selective 'habitat' based reading so If I'm expecting a few weeks seawatching I'll go and re-read some of the key species or the ones that might just turn up, I've now lost count of the number of times I've re-read Little Shearwater without it ever been useful. Any of those Bullfinch today could have been 'northern' types, as the timing would be consistent with past invasions and I wouldn't have known as it's just not a race that has come across my radar in the past and therefore I've never seen or read anything about the ID. Anyone wishing to impart alternate strategies for dealing with information overload should head for the comments.

The most interesting sighting of the day was a dragonfly, four days into November, my first November dragon, which I think is a Common Hawker and I know was responsible for making me re-start counting Gadwall four times (there were 49)trying to get a half decent image of it as it shot around the reeds to the west of the hide at Linton.

And finally, for Stewart, the moon taken from his old home village.

More Nonsense

or maybe the RSPB put a spell on the lambs in question to ward off the evil Eagles.

In An Ideal World....

James Marchington editor of Sporting Shooter posed the question in an earlier post "In an ideal world what would I have shooters do?" So here is my, individual answer, personal only to me and not representative of any organisation that I may be a member of or have a link with.

1. The 'Shooting & Game' media should be consistently delivering the message that Illegal Persecution has no place in your sport. It should be a seen as a cancer that undermines the responsible and all particpants should be encouraged to root it out. If the number of column inches devoted to this message were equal to those criticising the conservation organisations such as RSPB and Natural England then people outside shooting may begin to believe their is a willingness to resolve the problem.

2. How about an industry accreditation/stewardship scheme that had Biodiversity Management Plans at it's core and was independantly scrutinised. The rewards for achieving different levels of accreditation could be directly linked to stewardship payments providing financial reward to those managing true biodiversity and achieving the highest standards. A combination of planned annual and random visits would verify the scheme. This could be used as a selling point in the same way as star ratings work for hotels and British Standards and ISO in other industries.

3. Committment ahead of the end of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project to its findings & if diversionary feeding is demonstrated to work (again)it should be universally adopted (and incorporated into 2). The Brood Management Scheme proposed by Prof Steve Redpath should also be given due credence and tested as to viability.

4. Better promotion of the CAIP (Campaign Against Illegal Poisoning) with free advertising space in shooting magazines. Regular poison 'amnestys' on banned substances such as Carbofuran to take stocks out of circulation and put them beyond use.

5. I'd like to see a rural schools education programme to counter the underlying culture that dictates all birds of prey are bad, one that teaches the principals of predator/prey relationships to help the next generation of farmers, landowners, gamekeepers & shooters avoid the misconceptions that are so prevalent today. Perhaps an urban scheme to enlighten townies on countryside management might also be appropriate.

6. A requirement by law to notify the relevant authorities of the discovery of an active Hen Harrier nest placed upon all individuals.

7. Removal of the pressure being placed upon the Scottish government to issue licences to control Sparrowhawks & Common Buzzard by the Scottish Gamekeeper's Association and other shooting interests in Scotland.

Not much to ask really is it?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Young & Black

A November garden tick yesterday was this 1st-winter female Blackcap that spent a little while late morning zapping around the Birch and Sycamore whilst I did dishes and other exciting things inside with the kids. No children were left alone (for long) in the capturing of these images.

Blackcap, 1st-winter female.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Harriers, Crime & Marchington

The last couple of days have seen an upsurge in the war of words about our birds of prey and particularly Hen Harriers coming from all directions. Different organisations and individuals trying to put across their agenda. The sad fact is that whatever the rights and wrongs this year has been a bloody awful one for English Hen Harriers and a solution still looks some way off.
A few days ago the voice of the shooting man James Marchington posted a provocatively titled piece on his blog 'So Where's The Illegal Persecution of Harriers?' highlighting that there were no 'confirmed' incidents of illegal persecution in 2008. Of course as James and those who carry out the destruction and nest disturbance are all too well aware, finding and providing evidence for these cases is extremely difficult. To be fair to him once we had finished with the handbags in the comments he did state his position as follows:

Let me state my position clearly. I know that illegal killing of raptors does happen. Although I've never witnessed it with my own eyes, I accept that people connected with shooting are sometimes responsible. I have never seen reliable statistics on the true extent of the problem, and can only speculate on how widespread it is. I am 100% against any illegal killing of raptors. Any gamekeeper or shooter who illegally kills a raptor is not worthy of the name, and I despise him. If I personally came across a case of this happening, I would not hesitate to report it to the authorities, and I would urge any gamekeeper or shooter to do the same. It is not only despicable it drags the reputation of shooting through the dirt.

Which is commendable and the only point I would take issue with is his comment about having 'never seen reliable statistics' as I'm not quite sure how he would suggest going about establishing that, a phone survey of every gamekeeper? "Have you shot any raptors lately?" or "Have you laid out any poison baits that could have inadvertently been consumed by raptors?"

A day or so later James goes off on one at the Independent for poor journalism in their front page story on wildlife crime, complaining "Is there a huge increase in actual crime, or is this an increase in the reporting of something that was already happening?" Slightly missing the point that regardless of whether there is more or less wildlife crime or whether it is simply being better reported it is still there and happening too often.

A case in point yesterday as I read about another raptor incident this time with a female Red Kite in Yorkshire. the bird died from illegal poisoning but the post mortem revealed "that the female kite had survived shotgun pellet wounds but had died from Carburofan and rat poisoning." This was the fourth such incident in the Washburn Valley in the last nine years (that have been found & reported). Oh and just so JM doesn't think I am being selective the shotgun pellets could have come from a black gay urban solicitor who likes to shoot at weekends or a Polish plumber who has brought his illegal shotgun into the country to catch what he can just like he did when he was at home or even a white gamekeeper who gets a knowing glance from his employer every time the 'hooky beaks' are mentioned. It should however be pointed out that no conclusion should be drawn from the coincidence that the area supports some of the 'finest English grouse Moors.'

To rub salt the national media reporting on Wildlife Crime figures (the same ones JM was disenchanted with) name 'Northumbria' as the wildlife crime capital "with 525 reported cases between February and July this year. The county is also responsible for the highest number of wildlife shootings." Aside from 'Northumbria' not existing, presumably they have mashed Northumberland & Durham's figures together to come up with this, it doesn't exactly
make you proud to live here does it?

Then today after nearly redeeming himself James, who obviously had a bad weekend, goes off on one again about the RSPB's press release. As Hen Harrier is not globally threatened JM reaches the conclusion that it's simply a case of "not as many as they'd (the RSPB) like breeding in Britain." You can read his post here and his 'cherry picking' of quotes from the BTO to support his belief that it ain't the shooters to blame. You will notice that he significantly makes no mention of the BASC's Chief Executive's comments in the same press release that "It is imperative that we find a solution to the conflict between grouse shooting and birds of prey and those who manage grouse moors must continue to be vigilant against persecution of harriers."

So up here in 'Northumbria' what really is the situation. Historically Selby (1831) described Hen Harrier as breeding regularly on many of the Northumberland Moors. By 1912 George Bolam blamed it's virtual disappearance on 'the advent of the gamekeeper with his traps and guns.' Subsequently numbers recovered slightly when planting of the Border Forests created additional suitable habitat. Sadly since the Nineties illegal persecution has played a significant role in keeping numbers low, 1993 saw a female and three young killed, 1995 four pairs persecuted, the same in 1996, 1999 saw Starlings laced with poison used at one site and so on.
At the same time numbers elsewhere, Scotland for example, away from grouse moors have grown.

We are where we are through a combination of factors, historical illegal persecution from a wide variety of sources as well as pesticide use have contributed to the near eradication of Hen Harrier as a breeding bird in England.
The last major studies in both England & Scotland (Etheridge et al 1997 & Hudson 1992)drew the same conclusions finding " Of territorial female Hen Harriers present on moorland in England in spring, only 28% breed successfully on commercially managed grouse moor compared with 70% on moors with special protection schemes." and in Scotland "only 20% of females successful on managed grouse moor compared with 60% on other moorland."
The conclusion of the English study is remarkably similar to that from Scotland: illegal persecution limits natural distribution and densities of Hen Harriers in the UK, a finding which has been acknowledged by game interests (e.g. Potts 1997).

Is there a solution? As managed game moors have unnaturally high numbers of Red Grouse they represent a good food source for the Hen Harrier. They are managed for profit and the reduction in available 'game' that can occur from Hen Harrier numbers allowed to breed freely will significantly reduce the profit. So either we ban game shooting removing the desire to control the Hen Harrier or we make it more profitable via stewardship schemes to manage game moors to include the Hen Harrier. The removal of chicks for a possible lowland re-introduction scheme could only ever be a short term measure and supplementary feeding whilst it may work needs to be paid for. It comes back to how much we care and whether we are prepared to see our taxes used to make rich landowners richer in exchange for abiding by the laws of the land.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Winter Beckons

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god”
Francis Bacon Sr 1561-1626
After October days of birders and hustle and bustle I chose to spend the last day of the month in solitude. With warm sunshine and a gentle southerly breeze I went to the emptiest place in Northumberland, Ross Back Sands. This three mile stretch of beach lies between Budle Bay and Holy Island and a half mile of dunes that are an SSSI.
I wasn't to be disappointed, from the moment I left the car pushing Blackbirds before me through the berry filled hedges leading to Ross Farm Cottages for the next two and a half hours I saw or heard not another single member of my own species.
Ross Back Sands, north to Holy Island
No roads, no engine sound, no overflying aircraft, no barking dogs. Curlews called in the grassy fields as I approached the dunes and a single Common Snipe flushed from one of the damp hollows. The constant crashing of the waves masked my tinnitus as I walked north feeling like Robinson Crusoe, my own shadow the only sign of human company.
On the sea Red-throated Diver was almost the commonest bird, six together my biggest group but there could have been 20 along the full stretch of the beach. Toward the north end a single Red-necked Grebe wasn't too far offshore and three Long-tailed Duck showed well in the late autumn sunshine, first in flight and then on the sea. Two males and a female.
As I headed toward the gap in the dunes where surges occasionally force their way through to Fenham Flats the noise of the waves slowly disappeared and was replaced by a yapping noise that increased as I approached the salt marsh of Lindisfarne NNR. It was of course the sound of thousands of Pale-bellied Brent Goose calling in unison as the incoming tide pushed them closer. Here I had up to 30 Skylark feeding in the salt marsh and the first of the morning's six Common Stonechat.
Common Earth Ball (?)
The walk back through the dunes was largely quiet, a single Common Buzzard as well as small numbers of winter thrush and the occasional Skylark overhead. There was lots of fungi in the dunes perhaps six or seven species in total including the one above which might be Common Earth Ball (?) Scleroderma aurantium. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was in the gardens around Ross Farm Cottages along with 20 or so Chaffinch.
A stop at Monk's House Pool on the way home yielded 11 Northern Shoveler and a huge 400 strong flock of Linnet in the stubble field just south of the pool. I spent a while searching for other species, Twite or Snow Bunting but it seemed to be a single species flock, perhaps the biggest I've seen for some years.
Linnet Flock, Monk's House Pool