Sunday, 27 January 2013

Cosmopolitan on the Crooked Lonnen

Apart from the odd Tundra Bean Goose and the occasional appearance of a Bittern or two there hasn't been a bird of real note in Northumberland in January. That all changed yesterday when an Egret that had been hanging around the floods north of the Crooked Lonnen for at least three days was finally seen by one of the island's regular birders and identified as a Cattle Egret. 

Only the second record for Northumberland, the first over a quarter of century ago back in 1986 was only seen by three observers, so there was plenty of interest from fashionistas and coonty listas. A breezy morning and a short hike up the Crooked Lonnen where it had been seen at first light to drop into the small hedged garden of the bungalow on the north side.

It was quickly picked out mooching around the back lawn and proceeded to perform magnificently over the next 30 minutes, moving at least twice and walking a circular route around the woodpile once, before settling into a characteristic hunched posture almost on full view at the back of the garden through wire fence in the gloom under several conifers.

To huge excitement it got up and flew about for half a minute before landing further away at the back of the adjacent sheep field. The crowd could hardly contain themselves as it stabbed the ground briefly in search of food. The excitement was such that when a roosting Long-eared Owl chose to put in an appearance several were near to fever pitch and raised their bins.

Such was the occasion that everyone seemed to have brought out their best winter hats, creating a an Ascot-like gathering worthy of the egret's reputation as the world's most cosmopolitan species.

 A small selection of the Hat Fest

Notable choir member and occasional birder Tom C used the occasion to field test the new 'Snow-Melt' hat. The innovative technology built into this is incredible, using solar reflectivity Snow-Melt melts snow on the path ahead at distances up to 10m ensuring that the wearer has a clear path through even the heaviest drifts. A hat for tough terrain the makers estimate that as a result of the embedded phosphorescent fibres it can be seen at a distance of 10 miles on a foggy day and you can tumble dry it. It did cause a few issues with some of the photographers who had to make some ISO adjustments to cope with the additional reflected light but several commented later that it helped bring out some of the subtler white plumage tones of the Cattle Egret.

Snow-Melt - Brighten Your Birding!

It was good to see the finder of Northumberland's first Cattle Egret, Roger Foster, making the effort to see the second,  though perhaps understandably with just a hint of sadness in the old eyes as he watched his blocker fall to all and sundry.

No Regrets Roger!

ADMc and I moved off to look over the Rocket Fields, harbour and onto The Heugh and picked up single Red-necked Grebe and Slavonian Grebe as well as c.10 Long-tailed Ducks. A Merlin perched up on the mudflats opposite The Snook was our last addition as we left the island.

As to the origins of the Cattle Egret, it is possible that it is the individual that has been in Donegal, Ireland between 14th December and 20th January. It will be interesting to see if the Donegal bird is reported again. A movement of 375miles as the egret flies would probably be a bit of a doddle.

Edit -1st Feb - The Donegal individual reported again today so it would appear this is a new/different individual and all my theories of regular latitudinal wintering were bollocks...

Friday, 25 January 2013

16 Species

 Have a look at the list of species below and see if you can guess what they all have in common. I'll come back and update this post in a while, leave your guess in the comments.

Red-breasted Merganser, Grey Heron, Herring Gull, Pine Marten, Jay, Buzzard, Raven, Cormorant, Goosander, Sparrowhawk, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Wild Boar, Rook, Jackdaw, Great Black-backed Gull, Carrion Crow.

Back in October last Year Scottish Natural Heritage began a consultation exercise on General Licences. These General Licences "permit 'authorised persons' to carry out actions that would otherwise be illegal. They cover certain types of activity relating to birds, such as preserving public health or air safety, and preventing the spread of disease. General licences cover situations that are regarded as relatively commonplace and where there is unlikely to be any great conservation impact." (description from SNH website).

Stuart Housden (RSPB) drew attention to the responses that have been published on the SNH website in recent days and I've spent a little time picking over them. I've added a few quotes below from a variety of the organisations consulted including the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and The Game and Wildlife 'Conservation' Trust. Personally I think many of these quotes once again add weight to the archaic and dated views of these organisations and their continued assault on much of our wildlife. Not least because every one of the 16 species listed above should be included on the General Licence if these organisations views were accepted. 16 species from organisations that claim to do widespread good for wildlife (or use the word conservation in their name). 
Just how many of these 16 species  really impact on public health or air safety, or spread disease? Isn't the reality that in the main this is a cover story, an excuse to continue a killing spree of those species whose only crime is doing what they've always done?

These problems need to be solved and to solve them lethal intervention may be required. We cannot have frustration building up and forcing people to take the law into their own hands...this will lead to non target species being involved. - SGA

My take - A repeat of the SGA call to allow legal killing otherwise they will simply ignore the law and kill any species that they perceive is a problem. 
Pine marten, badgers, buzzards, sparrow hawks [sic] and cormorants should be down graded in protection status ( create a new category level?) allowing easier granting of licences. - SGA

The over prescriptive need to present evidence on Raven predation to attain a licence for example should be scrapped. It should be accepted that flocks of immature ravens, between 5-30 for example, are there to feed, not exercising their wings. In such numbers, over a very short period, these birds will decimate the breeding attempts of local waders etc. -SGA

My take - No need for evidence just accept what we say. I'm beginning to wonder whether all this emphasis on waders is to ensure there are still enough Snipe and Woodcock to shoot, boosting the daily bags? Or am I being cynical?

As agriculture and protection of wild birds are closely connected, why do we not put all the gulls ( herring, black backed [sic] and lesser black back) plus all the corvids on licences 1,& 2, or combine the two. All big gulls eat small birds and all big gulls can present a problem to animal based agriculture. - SGA

Wild boar should be eradicated, European evidence shows that this animal is destructive and is a threat to wildlife.- SGA

My take - A threat to wildlife? Perhaps they refer to a study that found In some parts of Europe, wild boar predation is thought to have had an impact on Woodcock Scolopax rusticola, Capercaillie  and hazel grouse (Nyenhuis, 1991; Saniga, 2002).So when they say a threat to 'wildlife' they mean the ones they want to shoot.

Pine marten are now becoming wide spread, as is the damage they are inflicting both to private stock and to other wildlife. In areas where martens are known to be abundant and licence requests showing damage are received these licences should be given. _ SGA

 My take - Pine Martens were only given full protection 25 years ago and whilst it is true to say that they have partially recovered range in Scotland as a result the most recent figures from SNH are for 2600 to 3500 adults in Scotland. Hardly what most would term 'abundant'. Scotland has a total area of 78, 772km2. I know Alex at SGA has had a little trouble with numbers in the past so for his benefit that's roughly one Pine Marten every 22.5km2.

Mention is made of general licences being withdrawn for wildlife crime convictions. We do not feel it appropriate that a non-elected quango should decide on a person’s future employment by giving or not giving an essential licence to that employee. _SGA

My take - Of course the individual who committed the wildlife crimes bears no responsibility for the consequences in this situation. The innocent gamekeeper, allegedly in the majority,  according to the regular outpourings from these self-same organisations ought to have nothing to fear from this. So much so that it is difficult to draw anything other than an obvious conclusion to the reluctance of the representative body of Gamekeepers in Scotland to having the criminals excluded from their ranks.

Crow Traps -

We are opposed to any requirement to report on any trap use or sighting. These traps are not used covertly and any reporting is unnecessarily burdensome.
We are opposed to prescriptive sizing or design of cage traps other than a minimum size for welfare reasons- SGA

My take - Please don't ask us to give you any information about our activities, we just need to be able to carry on killing crows and anything else that gets in the traps unhindered and unfettered by any requirements and we'd like to do it with big traps, little traps, hidden traps, traps with perches next them in fact any kind of traps that do the job of catching and killing.

A provision should be introduced allowing the removal of eggs for hatching and rearing purposes for all game birds.- SGA 

My take - I just find this incredible, basically give us free reign to take eggs from  Grey Partridge, Black Grouse et al so we can rear them artificially to give us more to shoot at. Conservation my arse.

We believe there is a case for ravens to be included in the General Licence for the protection of livestock; and for buzzards and sparrowhawks to be included for the protection of gamebird poults (livestock); and for cormorants and sawbill ducks for the protection of fisheries.- GWCT

My take - True colours, as I said above conservation my arse.

Cormorants, Herons and goosanders should be added.- University of Stirling

My take - It would be interesting to know whether the respondent on behalf of the University of Stirling speaks for the whole university or indeed the connections that lie behind this response. Perhaps if any Stirling students are reading they could ask some questions?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hedgeful of Throaty Chuckles

There was no wind, so one of the cotoneasters that form a hedge of sorts along the northern boundary of the front garden shaking, as if gripped by some invisible hand caught my attention. Several more violent shakes along the length of the hedge were followed by a throaty chuckle from deep within before one of the owners revealed themselves.

Like many during the recent snow I've been lucky enough to have some Fieldfares drop in, variously feeding on apples and then yesterday morning embedding themselves into the cotoneasters to pluck from the remaining berries (hence the shaking bushes), occasionally appearing in the open puffed out and tail-fanning to display those fantastic chevron-marked white undertail coverts, all the while chuntering on as they went about their business.

Couldn't resist a picture or two, so I sat in the other half's snow covered car using it as a hide a few metres across the lawn and soaked them in for a while. There were four in all, the one to the left a 1st-winter I think and below an adult. With hindsight I should have recorded the 'conversation' too as the low contact calling that bubbled from the bushes as they fed provided a fantastic winter soundscape alongside the sublime beauty of these quintessential winter thrush.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Going the Extra Mile

With a forecast of snow I set out this morning with Bubo to try and pick up the last couple of species that I hoped I could get on foot from home. First one fell after just 15 minutes out with a single drake Pochard over the back of Bothal Pond.
Continuing east I dropped off the main road to follow a path through the big shelter belt hoping I might stumble on a roosting owl or perhaps a Woodock. I found neither though just a few minutes later 'Footing It' tick numero deux fell with a distant Lapwing in the fields east of Coopers Kennels.

 I pushed on into the outskirts of Ashington to the east end and my morning target of QEII County Park. By now I had heavy snow to accompany me but not heavy enough to prevent me picking out five Gadwall around the south end of the lake. I headed over to the 'feeding station' at the entrance following reports of both Marsh & Willow Tit. I drew a blank on that front but did manage a huge bonus with a single Treecreeper feeding on the ground and some of the pines running along the roadside. 
A full circuit of the lake added a fifth and final new bird with a drake Goosander on the west side of the south bay. I broke the long walk back with a brief rest at Mcdonalds where I think the young girl at the counter thought I was a tramp as I tried to order via the drive-thru window on foot.

With the On Foot List standing at 70 I think realistically there might only be one possibly two species at best that I can manage between now and the end of January. I covered a smidgen under 11 miles today and I can feel it tonight, despite traveling light with only bins and Iphone.

With falling snow continuing I grabbed a photo opportunity in Ashington, I guess you could call this 'Colliery Snow'.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Theory of Relativity

The first ten days of the year have served as a great reminder many things are relative in birding not least the perception of rarity value. Having a purpose to my birding, even one as trivial as the Foot-It competition has brought that back into sharp focus.

Birding at the 'micro-level' relatively common species can become a sought-after prize bringing on reactions usually reserved for the cripplingly rare. Three on foot finds in the space of a few minutes earlier in the week of Stock Dove, Tree Sparrow and then Fieldfare may on another day have prompted an entry in the notebook but would not have given me the spirit-lifting boost that put a bounce back into my stride after five muddy miles out with little to show.

Yesterday's first visit of the year to Newbiggin provided more evidence that the mundane can be (almost) mega if you have the right mindset. After a couple of hours picking off many of the expected species I had headed to the south end of town and was checking through some gulls at the end of the sewage outfall about 1.5km offshore when I heard a Grey Wagtail call. Pretty much all my records of this species at Newbiggin have been fly-overs so I began to search the sky hoping to pick it up as it moved through. I resumed the distant gull vigil after not picking it up, a minute or so later I caught some movement on the rocks below me and the GW far from being up in the air was foraging around the rocks at the outfall area. A good 'patch tick' on the first visit of the year of a species whilst resident county-wide is a scarce patch visitor.

Earlier in the week a discussion with a colleague surrounding the treatment of Ross's Geese provided me yet more food for thought on birding relativity. Two Ross's Geese reported c.150 miles apart, one in London with Greylags and the other at Cley with Dark-bellied Brents. I found it interesting that on one news outlet the London individual was labelled as a 'presumed escape' and an hour later the Norfolk individual was offered up without qualification. Norfolk-centrism gone mad?
Putting aside the apparent inconsistency of this treatment, during the subsequent discussion it struck me that a Ross's Goose in bird-starved London may well be a bigger attraction and relatively more important to local birders, at least those who care about more than just the tick, whatever its origins, (and lets face it probably hasn't been sipping Maple syrup anytime recently) than the same species in rarity-rich Norfolk. Does this relative importance make such individuals 'newsworthy', when most if not all will come and go with their origins remaining unknown and despite its absence from The British List (BOU)?

Friday, 4 January 2013

National Wildlife Crime Unit Funding

Frustrated by the lack of action on raptor persecution? Disappointed by the small number of prosecutions and the number of crimes that go unpunished? Well that situation could get a whole lot worse in the coming months as what little resources are available specifically to combat wildlife crime in the form of the National Wildlife Crime Unit may fall foul of government cuts.

Reported in The Independent today the Home Office are yet to sign off on the £136,000 of funding that is it's share of the overall unit's cost throwing its existence beyond 31 March into doubt. This amount of funding is a tiny, insignificant sum in the grand scheme of UK Plc but the existence of the NWCU does make a difference to the protection of our wildlife and to the chances of those responsible for crimes against it been brought to justice.

Failure to fund the unit will send a message to the criminal elements within the shooting and game industries that they almost have a free hand in bucking the law when it comes to their dealings with birds of prey. The consequences of this will be akin to the position on Hunting with Dogs where the police are largely ineffective and individual hunts operate almost with impunity. It may be too late to save English Hen Harriers but there are many other birds of prey that will suffer if these individuals think there is even less chance of getting caught than currently. Removal of this rather trivial sum of money will open the door to many more abuses of our birds of prey and wildlfe.

This government has shown however that faced with enough protest it will back down, events can be influenced and it is not too late to influence the Home Office decision on this funding. The nights are still dark, write some letters. Start with your MP, if he/she hasn't signed this Early Day Motion calling on the government to recognise the importance of the NWCU and commit to maintain at least its current level of funding. Next up write to Theresa May at the Home Office and let her know how important you consider this issue. You can send emails to - or the traditional route by writing to - Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF. If your desperately short of time the kind folks at IFAW have even done it for you, should take about 2 minutes of your time.

Feel free to share via Twitter, Facebook or over a coffee in the cafe....

Thursday, 3 January 2013

First Fifty on Foot

Having joined with many others in the 'Foot-It' January Challenge, a friendly on-foot from home 'patch' birding' challenge for the first month of the year my New Year birding has been low key. Working on New Year's Day I amassed 21 species from the desk with a Common Buzzard the highlight. A further four that evening including a flyover Cormorant Pegswood CP rounded the day off at 25.
Yesterday a brief foray with the dog added four more common species around the village so I set out this morning for the first real serious attempt towards the 65 species target I set myself on entering. A warm morning started well with three flyover 'ticks' including 25-30 Pink-feet not one of the species that I had included in my target. Six Grey Partridge in fields just beyond the village were in the T65 but can be tricky so getting them early was a positive.
Bothal village added a further five new species including a singing Mistle Thrush and a pleasant surprise with a Grey Wagtail back 'on territory' at the stepping stones below the village.
Two Redwings flew west as I topped the bank on the way to Bothal Pond. The pond itself produced no surprises though I was pleased a Redshank was still in residence, making up for the current absence of both Pochard and Gadwall.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker at the rookery at Coopers Kennels and a couple of Curlew in the fields added further ticks, a grand total of 21 new for the year bringing up fifty on foot in three days.