Tuesday, 30 October 2012

29-30 October

Figuring that not all the wee beasties would have flapped their way out of the North Sea I took off for Newbiggin yesterday morning arriving just after 09:00. First bird through the scope was indeed a Little Auk followed by 300 more in the next twenty minutes. By 10:30 I had counted 542, all north, lots of small parties of 5-10 and a good few under 500m out offering decent views in splendid light. My count was dwarfed by the Farnes who recorded over 4000 yesterday!, talking to one of the team last night they noted that 95% passed to the east as opposed to flying through Staple Sound.

I only noted four other species in my notebook though I wasn't too disappointed given that one of them was a juvenile Sabine's Gull that flew south at 09:25. A single Tufted Duck, 3 Pale-bellied Brent Geese and 169 Common Scoters made up the remaining entries.

A quick dash home for a cuppa then back with the dog for round two on the golf course. You know it's quiet when a Purple Sandpiper is the highlight of the session. A 'tweet' from Martin Kitching alerted me to 'six Waxwings at Asda Filling Station, Ashington' and as I had to drive past I pulled in for a quick look around an hour or so after he had reported them. Sure enough in the rowans that have proved popular with the species in previous years there were not six but nine present early afternoon. Still there early morning today as I trudged into Asda for the weekly shop, subsequent reports have reached up to 16 today, presumably other arrivals.
 Purple Sandpiper playing chicken

Today I was planning to head to Warkworth Gut with the dog on completion of domestic duties but I veered off at Hadston and parked up at the boat compound and walked south to the top hide overlooking the north pool at East Chevington then back along the beach. Offshore a single Little Auk north through the bay and a single drake Velvet Scoter; two drake Scaup also ploughed north amongst a tight group of Common Scoters. On land little to show, 38 Sanderlings, single Knot and a Stonechat. I spent what was left of the time before work parked up with the Ellington Lane gull flock, trying hard to turn one of the assembled masses into something interesting. Lots of argentatus of various ages including a pale-headed 1st-winter that had me trying to string a mich.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Tystie Late Auk Show

Spent most of the weekend drowning under the weight of Little Auk reports from the length of the east coast, frustrating, with good numbers of other species mixed in. Even near-inland sites such as Seaton Sluice managed double digit counts.
The lost hour of light didn't help but I managed 30 minutes at Newbiggin late afternoon, I don't think I saw more than a dozen birds in flight but what the session lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality. A drake Velvet Scoter north was the first notable, followed by two single Little Auks, then with the light just beginning to make the high end of the scope unusable an adult Black Guillemot flew north about 800m out. Only my 2nd Newbiggin record of this species this was a moulting/winter adult.
On the sea c.6 Goldeneyes included a drake and a couple of Red-throated Divers were just offshore. Rather more unusual was a Fieldfare coming in off that ditched into the sea, after floating wings outstretched for a short while it attracted the attentions of a Herring Gull. I was surprised to see it take off and continue towards the shore, still a few hundred metres offshore it was harried by a second gull and pitched onto the sea. This time there was to be no escape, surrounded and outnumbered it became a meal for at least one of the local gulls, so close....

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Wildlife Crime

Regular readers will know I take a keen interest in wildlife crime and how it affects our birds. This week saw the publication of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report on Wildlife Crime. It has plenty to say about wildlife crime particularly in relation to birds of prey and some pretty good recommendations. I've quoted a few paragraphs below with some of the key points but you can download the pdf here, please consider taking a few minutes out to email your MP and ask that they support the implementation of these recommendations in full, particularly with reference to the proscribing the possession of poisons and the introduction of vicarious liability.

On poisons

After our predecessor Committee’s wildlife crime inquiry in 2004, Defra has acknowledged the environmental impact of illegal wildlife poisoning and the need to introduce controls by enacting new primary legislation. Section 43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 allowed the Secretary of State to proscribe the possession of banned pesticides in England and Wales, but no Order listing the proscribed substances has been made. Given that the power to proscribe possession already exists in primary legislation, this is an inexplicable omission and a failure to follow through
on the logic of the 2006 Act. There is a broad consensus on that point, because the RSPB, the Countryside Alliance, other NGOs and the police support the introduction of an Order under the 2006 Act making it an offence to possess named pesticides.

An offence of possession could drive culture change by sending a clear signal on bird of prey poisoning as well as directly helping to protect the environment by curtailing the activities of the most serious offenders through prosecution and conviction. Carbofuran is so toxic that even a lone poisoner who possesses a relatively small quantity of it has the capacity to cause irreparable environmental damage. An Order made under the 2006 Act would also allow magistrates to impose custodial sentences in the most serious cases.

When we raised the idea that it might be beneficial to proscribe possession of carbofuran in England and Wales with the Defra Minister Richard Benyon MP, he replied, “In view of the legislation already in place, an order under section 43 of the [Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006] will not be pursued at this time”.76 In subsequent correspondence, he set out two reasons why Defra was not minded to introduce an Order making it an offence to possess carbofuran.77 First, the Minister pointed out, “The intentional use of poisoned bait to kill any wild bird is already prohibited
under section 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981”.78 However, we took evidence that highlighted the difficulty of securing convictions under that legislation, which consequently lacked a deterrent effect
. Such crimes mostly took place in physically isolated locations, which made it difficult to ascertain who had set the poisoned bait and to gather other evidence. The case in Skibo in Scotland (paragraph 29) was investigated following the discovery of the carcasses of several golden eagles and other birds of prey poisoned by carbofuran. Although the manager of the estate was convicted of possession of carbofuran, no one was charged with poisoning offences under Section 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which illustrated the difficulty of obtaining convictions under that legislation and the value of an offence of possession.

Secondly, the Minister stressed the advantages of a voluntary approach and raised the issue of proportion:
We are carefully considering the laws surrounding possession of pesticides that are harmful to wildlife but so far conclude that an Order may not be a proportionate course of action and that there could be alternative ways to handle the issue. These might include voluntary codes of practice … or encouraging participation in amnesty initiatives such as that run for farmers through Project SOE (Security of the Operational Environment). Under the first phase of that project nearly 1,000 stores
were cleared of 40 metric tons of redundant and unapproved pesticides. It seems doubtful to us that those who are responsible for poisoning of birds of prey would voluntarily surrender their stocks of carbofuran, because, as far as they are concerned, carbofuran is not a redundant substance—indeed, it is highly effective for its purpose. Furthermore, the Scottish experience, where 10 convictions for possession have occurred in the past seven years82, does not suggest the disproportion that the Minister fears.

To discharge its obligations under the EC Birds Directive, to demonstrate its commitment to addressing raptor persecution and to send a clear signal that it regards poisoning birds of prey as wholly unacceptable, we recommend that the Government immediately introduces an Order under Section 43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 proscribing possession of carbofuran and other similar substances in England and Wales.

On vicarious liability:

Raptor persecution involves not only poisoning, but nest disturbance or destruction, egg theft, chick theft and unlicensed shooting.84 Species such as the hen harrier feed on live prey and are not vulnerable to poisoning by eating carrion laced with poison. Instead, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers found that the most common form of persecution of that species was deliberate nest disturbance.85 Given the isolated physical locations, often on private land, where offences are committed and the ease with which evidence such as carcasses could be disposed of, the precise extent of such persecution in the UK is unknowable, although an RSPB log of reported incidents indicates a consistent level of persecution over the past decade. In addition, scientific analyses of the total number of birds of prey in the UK, such as the
comprehensive Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers, have consistently found that persecution has a measurable impact on population size.

 An offence of vicarious liability would impose criminal liability on those whose employee or contractor committed an offence against a bird of prey, unless they could show that they were unaware of the offence and had exercised due diligence. It could make landowners take responsibility for the activities of gamekeepers and others who work on their land. The introduction of such an offence in England and Wales would, like tougher legislation on pesticide possession (paragraph 37), send a clear signal that the Government regarded the persecution of birds of prey as wholly unacceptable. In practical terms, vicarious liability would encourage responsible landowners to make it clear to their employees and contractors that raptor persecution was unacceptable and to check that such practices were not occurring on their land.

Addressing hen harrier persecution is especially necessary because it is on the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England with only four successful nests in 2011, and it is arguably the most vulnerable of all indigenous species.88 Persecution has been identified as a factor affecting the distribution, abundance and productivity of the hen harrier in five academic studies conducted over a number of years.89 The National Gamekeepers Organisation questioned this proposition in its oral evidence,90 but it did not adduce any factors not addressed in the modelling that underpinned the Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers.91 The persecution of birds of prey on moorlands used for shooting is not only illegal and highly damaging to biodiversity, but ineffective in terms of increasing the stock of game birds, because research indicates that only between 1% and 2% of pheasant
poults are taken by birds of prey. 

On 23 May 2012, Defra announced a £375,000 research scheme to explore management techniques to curb the supposed predation of pheasant poults by buzzards; it announced that the scheme had been dropped in the light of widespread public concern on 30 May 2012.98 Its total funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit was £136,000 in 2012, so £375,000 is a relatively large sum in the context of overall Government spending on wildlife crime. When we asked the Defra Minister Richard Benyon MP whether he would be interested in our suggestions on how that money might subsequently be allocated, he replied: Certainly, yes. None of us has a sum total of all the knowledge on these matters. I recognise the sensitivity of this, and I know the Committee does as well, but we want
to ensure that the recommendations that we take forward, as well as being mindful of that sensitivity, push Government to make the right decision for biodiversity.

Given the scale of ongoing persecution of birds of prey, the current law appears to carry insufficient deterrent weight.
 We recommend that the Government evaluates the effect of the introduction of an offence of vicarious liability in relation to raptor persecution in Scotland and considers introducing a similar offence in England and Wales in that light. We expect the Government to report to us, or otherwise publish, the results of that review within the next 12 months.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Tough Out There

Spent the school hours of the last two days fairly locally and at Newbiggin, tough going as there has been little of quality around. A decent sized flock of Pink-footed Geese have taken up residence in the 'two turbine' field south-west of Linton roundabout, mainly around the big pool in the south-west corner. scoped through the flock (c.12-1500) a few times but yet to find anything other then pink-feet.
Four Whooper Swans dropped in there yesterday, first of the autumn for me, though I had three more at Hemscott Hill later in the day. A couple of hundred large gulls, mainly Herring with the odd Great Black-backed also in the same field and the next field north. Difficult to do as they are at distance but I have noted two Mediterranean Gulls (adult winter and 2nd-winter) in there and yesterday a 1st-winter gull that I thought was looking good for Yellow-legged until they all flushed and dropped further away, at that point I was unable to relocate it. A few Skylarks and Lapwings too, so a field to keep an eye on.

I bumped into Alan Jack just south of Snab Point yesterday, a Great Spotted Woodpecker dropped into a bush not 5m away as we talked, nearby a sandy-coloured bird sat up on vegetation across the field briefly was either a Wheatear or Whinchat but despite searching we were unable to relocate it.

At Newbiggin the ash lagoon scrub has been quiet apart from a few Reed Buntings. Today there seemed to be several vocal Wrens around. Four Grey Partridges flushed from the rough grass and a single Song Thrush that may or may not have been a migrant.
The north end of the beach has a huge wreck of seaweed covering 40-50m and this has probably been the most productive area in the last two days, albeit the species range is a tad limited. Up to 10 Rock Pipits and two-three Meadow Pipits have been feeding actively but it is yet to attract anything less frequent. Whilst trying hard to turn one of the collected pipit-ensemble into something with a buff belly or red throat today a single Goldcrest came careering in off the sea and crashed into the docks and bank-side vegetation a few metres away. After a few minutes it was feeding along the bank, calling frequently it hung around for at least the next half hour.
Over at The Mound a single Chiffchaff put in an appearance almost as brief as the afternoon sun and a Lesser Redpoll flew over low calling all the while. Whilst stood at the back of The Mound a Short-eared Owl flew east along the ash lagoon, my first this autumn here.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Pied Wheatear

News of a 1st-winter male Pied Wheatear found (as I later discovered) by Steve Rippon on Holy Island appeared just as I was beginning to consider the post-work options, mostly involving sleep after a busy shift it has to be said. Initially reports on the pager suggested a 'male' which was enough to get the adrenalin pumping, so by the time the Tractor Boys suggested there was no access before dusk plans were already in place for an amphibious landing.

Somewhat fortuitously another Holy Island regular was at the front of the short traffic queue as we snorkelled up ready for the crossing. With the current low tides we timed it to perfection with not a minute or an inch of water to waste. Buoyed by up to the minute directions we yomped across Chare Ends to Snipe Point to the big log/branch that it had apparently been hanging out around. Empty beach stretched left and right, the Mars Rover seemed to have more chance of discovering life, we spilt in opposite directions to search and after several long minutes the finder was discovered a little to the east in the company of the tamest juvenile Gannet ever and the sweet wheat.

Still active almost up to dusk it flicked around the nearby rocks, occasionally dropping just a few metres away. I'd left the camera expecting poor light so the above are iphonescoped. Goes for all Wheatear sp. but full of character and great to watch. It looked likely to roost around the upturned roots of a washed up tree-trunk as we left.
Rolling Out The Barrel (literally)

Birds Through Irish Eyes

Whilst in Ireland even the hours of darkness were bird-filled. I was kindly loaned a copy of a new book just published by Irish Birder Anthony McGeehan Birds Through Irish Eyes. Oh boy what a joy. First glance and every page I opened contained a stunning image, one after another, they just kept coming till I hit the double page spread of Hen Harriers (images that aptly demonstrate the sheer beauty of this enigmatic raptor and drive home what we're missing in England as a result of the continued campaign against them by elements of the game & shooting fraternity).

This isn't a review as I didn't have enough time with the book to do it justice with a full review and I don't have a copy (but I will be buying one). If you are remotely interested in birds in Ireland though this is a must-buy book. It is one of the most beautiful bird books I've seen in a long while and McGeehan's prose are written in a passionate, authentic and character-capturing style that just bleeds experience and understanding and poetry and god I wish I could write as well as him...

A passionate, distinctive and evocative voice detailing not only the current status of the birds of Ireland but doing so with an eye for detail and language so descriptive it creates an indelible visual landscape for the reader.

I've been provided with a couple of the images from the book by Craig Nash just to whet some appetite. Enjoy.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Twelfth Day, Tenth Month

After leaving the bird club AGM around 10:30 last night in lashing rain and a bit of a sou'easterly there was only one place for me this morning post-school run. Suitably wellied and waterproofed I started with the willows and sea buckthorn beside the housing estate. First bird grubbing around on the ground was a smart blue-backed 'continental' Coal Tit. Nothing else of note along the length so I moved on and began to circumnavigate the floods on the golf course that were fairly extensive following the overnight rain. Bar-tailed Godwit still around, a single Turnstone and (on the way back) two 2nd-winter Mediterranean Gulls.

Another birder appeared coming south, presumably someone who hadn't had a school run. As ever I couldn't resist asking if he had seen anything and was fired up by news of Yellow-browed Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher. I failed to connect with the YBW but it was pretty gusty, however the RB Fly performed very well, providing much better views and photo opportunities than the individual 2 weeks ago.

 Supporting cast included a Ring Ouzel that came in over my head ( and left me oblivious until someone else who had seen it head on mentioned it), a Great Spotted Woodpecker, single Siskin, Blackcap & Chiffchaff, several tens of thrushes including a few Redwings,a few Goldcrests and a lone Swallow.

 A fortuitous conversation with another birder brought news of a Hume's Leaf Warbler around the old allotments at Cambois probably for it's 2nd day. After a quick (and vital) pastie stop I drove down early afternoon and along with 3 Durham birders duly picked up a Hume's/Yellow-browed- type working along the big green fence. Views were fleeting and whilst it was active it went missing for long periods. It did call several times and comparing the call to on-line recordings immediately appeared to confirm it was Hume's, though to be honest I would have like better and more prolonged views than I had. A small flock of c.25 Lesser Redpolls were also in evidence.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Dun na Ngall

Amazing views, huge amount of habitat, especially for waders, traffic-free roads and I didn't see another birder in three days. In a sentence just about sums up my weekend. Having said that I didn't find anything really out of the ordinary, a few Mediterranean Gulls which I'm reliably informed are still fairly scarce in that part of the world, a couple of Black-throated Divers (which are reasonably scarce at home) and a single Slavonian Grebe (on Inch Island Lake so off the sea) the highlights, though that doesn't really tell the whole story of a thoroughly enjoyable three days.

Perhaps I was a little late for the yank waders that I'm convinced must turn up with greater regularity than current records suggest as there is just a huge amount of inter-tidal mud and I probably only scraped the surface; sites such as Dunfanaghy, Carrickgart, Dunbeg, Ballyness Bay have form and it isn't hard to see why. Observer coverage is scant to non-existant, if you enjoy your birding quiet then Donegal is the place to go, I didn't set eyes on another birder in 3 days birding, in fact between 07:00 and 19:00 Saturday and Sunday I didn't speak to another living soul unless you count the check-out girl at Spar as I stocked up on Dairy Milk.


Stunning scenery abounds, no shortage of sites to visit and little by way of hides or 'structured birding' just big bays, huge cliffs and wall to wall sunshine. Other enjoyable sightings included Little Egrets at two sites, several Ravens, west coast  Meadow Pipits with the beautiful cinnamon-toned underparts, hods of common waders to work through looking for yanks, a few Scaup and close encounters with Ravens. Let's face it any time you get to spend with calling Ravens is time well spent.


Resisting the temptation to de-camp to Galway after the arrival of a drab yankee kingbird and a gaudy kingfisher I stuck to the task in hand though the sheer beauty of the place got to me and I found myself a few times just sat gazing at the views, not really caring if I wasn't turning up the monster rare.

 Looking from Melmore across to the Fanad penisular

Always next time.....