Hen Harriers

Northern_(Hen)_Harrier
Hen Harrier, see credits

The UK habitat will support hundreds of hen harriers. They were once a common sight. In reality there are now very few.

They have been protected by law since 1954. Numbers have not increased since then.

There are many instances of individual hen harriers simply disappearing, even when tracked electronically.

Despite this, the RSPB and many volunteers is making heroic efforts to increase numbers.

The hen harrier is emblematic of the problem in England for all raptors including eagles.

It is believed that gamekeepers on driven grouse shooting moors are responsible for killing the birds.

When evidence was gathered and individuals prosecuted the case was dismissed on a technicality.

Driven grouse shooting is a sport for the rich, or rich wannabees. It has support in high places in the UK establishment.

Essentially, driven grouse shooting is incompatible with healthy populations of raptors, or so gamekeepers appear to think.

If that is the attitude, then ultimately the only solution would appear to be another law – to ban driven grouse shooting. This would have other environmental benefits, such as reduced flooding after heavy rains in the north of England.

Note this is a problem that can be solved with the will to do so. See for example the success with red kite populations in Wales.

These are my impressions from the Hen Harrier Day at Parkgate on 12 August 2018. Hen Harrier Days are usually held on or around the so-called glorious twelfth when the carnage begins. Go to one, and support the RSPB and other organisations involved.

Feature image shows speaker Mark Avery at the event
Photo of hen harrier by Len Blumin, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Great Crested Grebe

Light is all in photography. We recently chose the time of day when the sun was getting low to walk with camera by the Moor Pool in Knutsford. Our unexpected reward was this pair of great crested grebes, one on the nest and one a little way away on the water – both well within range of my travel zoom.

What a magnificent head and neck (see featured image)! Which is why this bird was almost driven to extinction in the UK in the 19th century, for its head plumes. Fortunately, thanks to the formation of the RSPB (see history), the survival of these birds is no longer under threat.

Getting so close to grebes was unusual in my experience – they usually seem to ensure that they are some distance from humans, probably because of that history of persecution.

Avocet

I loved watching these beautiful avocets, with their upturned beaks, at WWT Slimbridge the other day. This group tended to move together, creating constantly changing striking patterns, such as that above.

Avocets represent another UK bird conservation success story. These waders were on the verge of extinction in 19th century UK, as the wetlands that formed their habitat had mostly been drained. Since WW2 they have recovered significantly, much helped by the conservation efforts of organisations such as RSPB and WWT. Indeed this attractive bird was adopted as an emblem by the RSPB.

Parkgate

One of the delights of living is Cheshire is the occasional visit to Parkgate, a pretty village facing onto the marshes of the estuary of the River Dee. I remember visiting in the 1960s and seeing the most spectacular of sunsets.

parkgate

Parkgate has an interesting history, and provides a pleasant walking promenade along by the marshes, which are an RSPB reserve. There are plenty of birds to be seen, albeit usually at some distance. The biggest high tides are always popular, as the birds are driven closer to the land, and the occasional rodent emerges from the marshes to escape the rising water.Read More »

Ruff

There are literally thousands of birds around at winter feeding time at WWT Martin Mere. On our recent visit, among the larger ducks, geese and swans there appeared a number of these much smaller waders – ruffs. They seemed rather diffident, as most waited on an island bank for the larger birds to feed before creeping in to find some leftover seeds. The odd one joined in the mêlée, disappearing in a sea of duck, goose and swan legs.

By the time they got close enough to photograph with my Panasonic Lumix TZ80 the light was not good, so my shots are not too sharp.

ruff

Surprisingly, the male ruff is a startlingly attractive bird in summer plumage, with a highly colourful ruff around the neck. I was once so surprised to come across one a few feet away from me at an RSPB reserve, that I simply forgot about the camera easily to hand.

These ruffs were probably winter visitors. The RSPB suggests that the UK’s summer breeding population is very small.

Murmuration

One of the UK’s spectacular natural sights is the autumn murmuration (gathering) of huge flocks of starlings preparing to roost as night begins to fall.

murmuration 1We received a treat at the end of October when we encountered one at WWT Martin Mere, while we were actually waiting to see the pink footed geese coming in at dusk. This was at a relatively early stage. More and more groups of starlings joined in, and the gathering went on for more than half an hour.Read More »

Greenfinch

This pair of greenfinches were part of what seemed a plentiful population during our visit to RSPB Fairburn Ings, attracted by the splendid feeders there.

But this is not the case everywhere. The British Trust for Ornithology reports that “Until 2005, greenfinches were one of the most common birds at our garden feeders. However, hit by the disease finch trichomonosis, they are now a rarity in many gardens and their population has declined by about 35 per cent.” BTO makes the point that trichomonosis “can be spread between birds at garden feeding stations so it is very important to regularly clean feeders and bird tables”. Self and others please note.

Goldfinch

This goldfinch was at RSPB Fairburn Ings, perfectly posed to show that red face and yellow wing feathers.

The pointed beak makes this bird expert at extracting seeds from thistles, and feeders with niger seeds – which is where we often see them in the back garden. They were once called thistle finches. It took me a long time to recognise goldfinches, because I was expecting something a bit more… gold!

Wikipedia reports that “In Britain during the 19th century many thousands of goldfinches were trapped each year to be sold as cage-birds.” Thank heaven this practice of caging wild birds is no longer acceptable in the UK; some other parts of the world have yet to catch up.

Apparently, many goldfinches are resident in the UK but some migrate further south in winter, as far as Spain – just like many retired Brits.

 

 

Chaffinch

Chaffinches are very common in the UK, a strikingly pretty bird – even the female, which is less brightly coloured than the male. This October example is probably a male after its autumn moult.

This one was near a bird feeder at  RSPB Fairburn Ings, but not actually on the feeder, just as it says in the RSPB book.

Interestingly, the name of this finch comes from its seed eating habit and the ‘chaff’ that is generated thereby.

Tree Sparrow

Tree sparrows are much scarcer in the UK than the more common house sparrow. The RSPB differentiates them by the “chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek spot”.

The RSPB reports that “the main populations are now found across the Midlands, southern and eastern England”, which explains why we never see these birds in Cheshire, and we did see this example at RSPB Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire.

Apparently, populations have very much declined in recent decades, no doubt significantly attributed to the reduction in the number of insects. Wake up, people, modern farming is slowly killing the natural world.

Dunnock

The dunnock, a rather undistinguished little brown job, is quite common in the UK, so little remarked upon.

In my youth it was called a hedge sparrow, and this term is still sometimes used.

This one conveniently posed on a post at the excellent RSPB Fairburn Ings, near Leeds. The variegated markings mean it is well worth a second look, and actually quite attractive.

For inexperienced spotters like me, they are easily confused with house sparrows and corn buntings.

Black necked stilt

Perhaps the most prolific area of wildlife we saw in Costa Rica was the Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, in the north of the country near the Nicaraguan border.

One of many highlights during our boat trip on the river was this large group of black necked stilts, apparently fairly common throughout the central Americas. Fairly obviously, the name comes from those long pink stilt-like legs and the black rear of the neck.

black_necked_stilt_pair
Black Necked Stilts

According to the RSPB, stilts are rarely seen in the UK, apart from avocets, which are of the same family but have an upward curved beak.

I may be paranoid, but along the river there were just small signs of creeping low level development – the odd landing stage, clearing, dwelling, fishermen – along the banks of this magnificent wildlife haven. For how long?

Shoveler

So we arrived at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands  by the Dee estuary. Before we even got through the entry door I saw this pair of magnificent looking ducks serenely sailing along in open water, and quite close by. The male had a black head and back and huge black beak. Otherwise a bit like a shelduck, but I didn’t know what they were.

Anyway, out came the binoculars for a closer look. Beautiful. Then the thought, how about a photograph, just as they began to move in to the bank. The camera was out and focusing as they drifted behind the reeds. Never mind.

A bit later there was a group of the same sort of bird in the middle distance, but they just seemed to be swimming round and round in circles with their heads in the water, with just the occasional glimpse of that large beak (see top featured image, which reflects the dull grey afternoon).

That’s why they have that large beak, for going round in circles shovelling mud around – and the name Shoveler.

shovelerSome people manage to get superb pics, see this one from Wikimedia Commons. I think the drake becomes iridescent during the breeding season.

Driven grouse shooting

Further to my post on the inglorious twelfth, I note that the petition to ban driven grouse shooting is to be presented to MPs on Tuesday 18 October at 2.15pm. MPs will hear from Mark Avery, the petition creator, and representatives from the RSPB, the Moorland Association and the Countryside Alliance.

Driven grouse shooting is a particularly obnoxious case of the gratuitous shooting of wildlife for ‘sport’, where the grouse are actually ‘driven’ by beaters towards the waiting guns. Peculiar to the UK, this ‘sport’ depends on intensive habitat management tailored to the raising of this one particular bird, reducing the natural habitat and said to increase the risk of floods and greenhouse gas emissions. It may be no accident that many recent floods have been in lowlands near to northern grouse moors, the sport of the rich leading to the misery of ordinary people.

Predators are eliminated in large numbers in order to protect the young grouse – foxes, stoats, and illegal killing of protected birds of prey including threatened hen harriers, eagles, buzzards… Mountain hares are killed because they carry ticks that can spread diseases to grouse.

hen_harrier
Hen Harrier

Particularly gruesome is the use of pole traps, which will smash a bird’s legs when it lands on them. See eg raptor persection UK.

Although many of these activities are illegal, there is no effective action to curtail them. It seems the landowners and their gamekeepers can do just what they like.

You can watch the parliamentary session on Parliament TV: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Guide. This appears to be a somewhat convoluted process as ‘the transcript of what is said will help inform MPs taking part in the House of Commons debate’. The parliamentary debate will be on 31st October.

Don’t hold your breath; the vested interests will be fighting hard to preserve their nasty little ‘sport’.

Featured image of landrovers in grouse shooting party by Peter Aikman,
and of hen harrier by Andreas Trepte, both via Wikimedia Commons

Feathered with love

When shall I see the white-thorn leaves agen,
And yellowhammers gathering the dry bents
By the dyke side, on stilly moor or fen,
Feathered with love and nature’s good intents?

John Clare

During my childhood in 1950s I often used to cycle around the country lanes to the south and east of Lincoln. I loved to see the many yellowhammers I came across, that flash of yellow swooping around the hedgerows or singing on top of the hedge. We recently revisited this area of Lincolnshire; much of looks unchanged, maybe a bit more intensively farmed, but we didn’t see a single yellowhammer. Read More »

The Last Seabird Summer?

I awoke thinking about birds again. The BBC makes some excellent programmes on the natural world and the 2-episode BBC4 series The Last Seabird Summer? , finished last night, was no exception.

Presenter Adam Nicolson has spent much of his life on the Shiant Islands in the Minch between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland, one of the most important bird places of Europe. First, Adam traced our long history of dependence on seabirds – puffins, guillemots and razorbills – thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers. More recently the emphasis has moved to conservation.

puffins
Puffins

But now there’s a crisis – in the last fifteen years, 40 per cent of Scotland’s sea birds have gone, graphically illustrated by relatively recent photographs of cliffs full of birds, but now empty. The Shiants are currently an exception, and the birds appear to have plenty of food. The excellent RSPB is helping for the future by exterminating rats from the islands (they arrived from shipwrecks) – rats eat eggs and young birds.

Adam travels to Iceland, home to over half the world’s puffins, to try and gain insight into what is going on. This is a story of two halves – to the north of Iceland, sea birds still prosper, puffins are still hunted and eaten – to the south, in the Westman islands, formerly prolific seabird colonies appear to be in terminal decline with no young birds. Crazily, some are still hunted and eaten for a few days a year, in the name of tradition.

After talking to ornithologists and marine scientists, Adam suggests that the root of the problem lies in the lack of suitable food for the birds. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable because they are essentially surface feeders. Puffins rely on sand eels, and where these are not present populations cannot survive.

Cyclic changes in the gulf stream and related water circulations in the atlantic appears to cause warmer then cooler water to appear around southern Iceland. With the warmer waters come huge populations of mackerel – good for fishermen, but these fish out-compete the birds for their food, so bird populations decline and then recover on a timescale of decades. This has happened since records began. However, global warming is increasing the baseline sea temperature. The result appears to be more severe decline in bird populations. The worry is that they may be driven beyond the point of no return. The Icelandic hunters are not helping.

It seems that, as global warming progresses, we must live with the spectre raised by these programmes of The Last Seabird Summer, in southern Iceland and a lot of Scotland at least – and notably for the iconic puffin.

But, as ever, there will be winners as well as losers. As Adam points out, some seabird populations, such as the gannet, which is very flexible in its food needs, are thriving – for example the huge colony on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth – and may well continue to do so.

Do watch these programmes, available for another three weeks if you have access to BBC catchup. But you’ll have to not be squeamish about watching puffins caught, cooked and eaten.

Puffin picture courtesy of Hanno and Wikimedia Commons

Blithe Spirit

skylarkI woke up thinking of the skylark, how common it had been in my youth, how rarely heard today – how missed that sublime sound when in the open fields that are obvious skylark land.

What is more sublime on a clear blue spring day than the trill of the skylark as it hovers and flutters up and down over its territory – the inspiration of poets, notably Percy Bysse Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark and George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. I give the first few lines of each:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert –
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art…

Shelley

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,

Meredith

Meredith’s poem was of course the inspiration for Vaughan Williams in producing one of England’s most popular classical music pieces The Lark Ascending, as described in Wikipedia.

The RSPB tells us that “skylark populations are declining in almost all countries of northern and western Europe. In the UK, the population halved during the 1990s, and is still declining. In the preferred habitat of farmland, skylarks declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996”.

The main cause of this decline is considered to be changing farming practices: “the widespread switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals”, “the absence of stubbles, which are favourite feeding places” and “increased use of insecticides and weedkillers… likely to remove an important part of the food source”.

In grassland habitats “increased stocking densities on grazing land have made the grass too short for skylarks, and increased the risk of nests being trampled” and “a switch from hay to silage has resulted in many nests being destroyed by the cutting machinery, since the period between cuts is often too short”.

Fortunately the RSPB has been on the job since the 1990s and has successfully piloted on its own farm ways of managing the crops in a skylark-friendly fashion, produces information on good farming practice, and government is helping with incentives for farmers to do the right thing. The story is told in Back from the Brink.

The skylark population has now stabilised in some areas, but continues to decline in some cereal-growing areas. There’s a long way to go before, if ever, it gets back to the level of my youth. Farming would have to recognise that the job of growing food cannot be prioritised over the complementary job of maintaining the natural environment that enables it to be sustainable and sustains the spirit of the rest of us.

Skylark picture from RSPB website