It's not often that I write anything meaningful for this blog, so forgive me for the sudden stylistic shift. And, before I launch in to what I want to say, may I just point out that, for various reasons, I didn't actually watch the big reveal of Britain's National Bird last night on the BBC's Springwatch program.
For anyone who doesn't know by now, (European) Robin won the poll by what can only be described as a landslide. According to the BBC, 34% of the 200,000+ voters chose the species. In second was Barn Owl, with 12%; Blackbird came third with 11%.
This is utterly unsurprising. The United Kingdom (UK) already has a national bird - Robin. It's a very common species with a distinct plumage. Not only are they commonly found in gardens, parks and other urban/suburban environments, but they are a charismatic species with an iconic song. They can also be very confiding, and are sometimes even fearless of man. It is a symbol of Christmastime, when it pops up just about anywhere - cards, wrapping paper, mugs, decorations ... you name it, it's probably got a Robin on it.
Robin is therefore a familiar and instantly recognisable species to the vast majority of British public, unlike some of the final 'top 10' - such as Puffin, Red Kite ... and Hen Harrier.
As just about anyone with a sympathetic ear for nature or conversation will know, Hen Harrier is almost always having a hard time of things on our shores, not least in recent weeks following the 'mysterious' disappearances of breeding males in the north-west of England (see here and here). I won't delve in to this further as it is straying from my point somewhat.
Going on the counter-attack, birders and conservationists have rallied together to vote Hen Harrier in the aforementioned poll, the aim being to draw the species' miserable plight to the attention of the British public. Those that voted have done a fine job of propelling it to its position in the final top 10.
What I can't get my head around is some of the fallout on social media. People (by people I mean individuals involved in the birding/ornithological/conservation 'scene') who are disappointed/shocked/saddened/appalled that Hen Harrier did not figure further up in the list. Conservationists - and indeed birders - form such a tiny fraction of the British public that ninth place is surely an excellent result? There's a fair chance that most of the 200,000+ voters haven't even heard of Hen Harrier, let alone are aware of the appalling discrimination that it continuously suffers. At least Mark Avery seems a bit more realistic, describing it as 'A great victory for the Hen Harrier' - which it is.
Back to the vote itself. Apart from the successful 'hijack' (meant positively) that ensured Hen Harrier a finish in the top 10, the entire campaign seems something of a lost cause. It has established that Robin is our national bird - a status that it already possessed. Yes, it's great to get people talking and thinking about birds, but the furore and media coverage will die down very quickly - as it does with just about everything. People will move on, and the campaign forgotten by most.
So, after months of social media bombardment, are there any winners, Robin aside? Well, there does appear to be one. The face of the campaign - self-proclaimed naturalist, writer, broadcaster, speaker, photographer, wildlife tour leader and educationist David Lindo - has gotten his name banded about a bit, and he's been back on the telly. You can also buy a t-shirt to celebrate the inevitable re-establishment of Robin as our national bird from his website, alongside a whole assortment of other questionable memorabilia.
Without wanting to sound too much of a cynic, David and his team have evidently worked hard on this campaign, and that at least deserves some credit and recognition. However, now that it's all over, I can't help but wonder what could have been achieved if all that effort had been invested in something else.
These are uncertain times for the natural world - not just in Britain but across Europe, and indeed beyond. Wouldn't it be great if all of those votes translated to signatures on a valuable petition such as BirdLife's Nature Alert campaign?
So, before you buy a t-shirt to celebrate what was an inevitable victory, take a good, hard look at the above photo. Then I politely suggest that you reconsider how you might spend the £23 you would have shelled out for it. Why not invest it in something that would perhaps do some good somewhere, or at least contribute towards it?
On Saturday morning I visited Homefield Wood near Marlow. Military Orchids were just past their peak with some plants browning, although those in the shadier areas still looked pretty good. I've visited this site at least once for the past three years and my impression was that there were fewer plants this year, and most were smaller in size than I remember them being. Perhaps I was looking through rose-tinted spectacles in the past.
The most impressive specimen
Common Spotted were beginning to flower while a nice carpet of Common Twayblade were approaching their peak.
A few Greater Butterfly Orchids were looking spectacular, as they always do.
Greater Butterfly Orchid close-up
I also found this dopey Slow-worm under a tin, which was evidently still too cold to move and simply sat there looking a bit pissed off with life.
Slow-worm - always a treat
I then moved round to nearby Moorend Common, where the southern meadow was awash with Southern Marsh, Common Spotted and assorted hybrids, all beginning to flower and probably still a fortnight off looking their best. The northern meadow is supposed to contain hundreds of flowering Heath Spotted Orchids - a potential tick for me - so I headed there next. Plenty of Heath Spotted, yes, but none yet in flower ...
James Lowen and I had intended to visit Gait Barrows near Silverdale, Lancashire, last summer in order to see the reintroduced Lady's Slipper Orchids that can be found there. For many species - flowers, but also insects and others - summer 2014 was a particularly 'early' season following a very warm spring and, by the time we'd got round to thinking about going, we'd missed our chance with the LSO (although it's a great reserve for Dark Red Helleborine, High Brown Fritillary etc later on).
As a result, we'd had a late May trip pencilled in since the beginning of the year. This year has been a total contrast to the previous; a particularly cool and wet May has dictated a fairly late spring this year and as such we were a little hesitant on whether our quarry would be in peak condition ...
With a visit north-west planned, I'd seized the opportunity to hunt down gen for two other species that do not occur further south and east - Coralroot Orchid and Lesser Twayblade. Having spoken to Sean Cole and gleaned some valuable contacts and information, the news was positive - both were flowering and a plan was quickly formed.
I decided to drive through the night so that I was at Cliburn Moss for first thing. After an unsuccessful hour poking around the reserve's mossy floor and being eaten alive by some of the most persistent midges that I've ever come across, reserve warden Colin Auld became my proverbial knight in shining armour, pointing out several Lesser Twayblades almost immediately upon his arrival. I'd been searching just a few metres away and not seen one! The twayblades became an instant favourite - they're absolutely tiny yet unquestionably stunning, the rich pinkish-red stem and flowers blending in perfectly with their surroundings. As I'd spent so long searching and knowing that I had to be at Sandscale Moss for 10 am, my photo opportunities were limited and I left a little unsatisfied with my efforts.
Lesser Twayblade - not the easiest species to spot!
Next stop was Sandscale, where wardens Neil and Jamie showed us to the Coralroots. After a number of poor to average years the number of flowering plants has exploded this May, with over 1,700 counted. We were shown a good few hundred in slack 28 and then I was fortunate enough to join their ongoing survey, finding plenty more in other parts of the reserve. Again, it's an orchid that's remarkably small and very easily missed (trampled), so you really have to be careful where you're treading.
Coralroot Orchids are very easy to tread on - I'm speaking hypothetically, of course!
That's more like it ...
James was hoping to meet me at Sandscale early afternoon but appalling traffic had curtailed his efforts; I therefore met up with him at Gait Barrows where we half admired, half baulked at a number of Lady's Slipper Orchids in fine fettle. When you see them, it's certainly hard to accept that they're very much a British species as opposed to an out-of-place exotic, which they certainly resemble.
From the sublime to the ridiculous - Lady's Slipper Orchids
Very smart, but the presence of slug pellets and various copper tubes didn't exactly make for an authentic experience! I was as happy with my first Northern Marsh-orchids, just starting to open up ...
A first outing for me this season last weekend (23 & 24 May), Sword-leaved was a tick while the only Lady I had seen previously was a single plant at Hartslock that was some way past its best. Seeing thousands of both species was pretty eye-opening!
I spent the first two weeks of May in Azerbaijan, a nation lying on the Caspian Sea's west coast and scarcely visited by Western European birders. Aside the stress caused by absurd bureaucracy, paranoid army/police personnel, stubborn guides, tricky logistics, inconsistent roads and so on, it proved an overwhelmingly successful trip with 252 species recorded. Among those there were 15 ticks for me, the only miss being Caspian Snowcock (due to poor weather) - but the biggest personal disappointment connecting with only a female Great Rosefinch. Add to that some great other sightings (e.g. Jungle Cat and Wolf) and spectacular scenery on a daily basis, Azerbaijan is a brilliant destination which is still largely unspoilt and possesses an abundance of wildlife generally not encountered in Western Europe.
I've just uploaded a photo album on my Flickr page, while a trip report will follow in the coming weeks. Here are a few tasters:
Planning to visit family in South Lincs on Friday night and Saturday, I could resist calling in to Broom Gravel Pits near Biggleswade on my way up. A White-winged Black Tern had been found there earlier in the day and was still present on arrival, showing well over the pit - if a little distantly for photos. the bird was characteristically restless, rapid and unpredictable as it fed over the pit; occasionally it would head down to the south end of the pit and rest on the spit for up to ten minutes before recommencing feeding. I haven't had chance to check yet but I think this may be the first White-winged Black I've seen in Britain since 2006!
It was a pretty grey evening in Bedfordshire and photo opportunities were limited, this being the only half-decent shot I managed. There are a couple more on my Flickr page.
The pits at Gypsy Lane look great and it's no surprise to see that good birds are regularly reported there; best of the rest in the hour I spent on site was a Black-tailed Godwit plus the usual Little Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, Yellow Wags etc.
Saturday dawned bright and warm, and I was out early shovelling gravel on mum's drive. Needless to say I didn't go back inside and look at my phone until almost half past 8, by which time news of a Hudsonian Godwit in Somerset had been floating around the airwaves for an hour. Twitching never has been a sociable pastime and plans to meet family instantly went out the window. Four hours later and I was looking at this:
This meagre image hardly does the 'Hudwit' (to give its beautiful name an ugly abbreviation) any sort of justice. It really was excellent and although others had great flight views of the bird wheeling around with the Black-tailed Godwits, I was happy enough to see it wake up, walk around for a bit, kindly flap and then wing stretch to reveal the startling black underwings. There are loads of better shots here.
With news that it flew off a few hours later and didn't return, the decision to leave family behind was justified - in the mind of a twitcher, at least. Off to Azerbaijan on Sunday - hoping that's it for spring now, or at least until we return on May 17th.
Had a brilliant day trip to the Isles of Scilly on Friday. There were quite a few nervous souls during the morning Scillonian crossing - many of those on the boat had dipped either on Wednesday, Thursday or both, and they were understandably apprehensive about connecting. As it turned out the Great Blue Heron played ball on Bryher throughout the day, favouring Big Pool and giving excellent views from the Hell Bay Hotel.
This was my first visit to Bryher and I can only echo what everyone else says - it's a bloody picturesque island that still looked great despite the bouts of early afternoon drizzle. The heron, on the other hand, didn't look so thrilled about life but soon perked up as the rain abated. A typically imposing individual with long snaky neck, the neck and underparts were washed with a rustiness not normally seen in Grey Heron. The thighs were quite a bit paler but tinged rufous on close views, while the neck and upperparts were a mix of dark greys and blues, and the crown obviously dark. A couple of shots below, more on my Flickr pages:
After almost an hour in its company half-a-dozen of us decided to charter the Falcon over to nearby Tresco to try the wintering American Black Duck. Tresco is another island that I'd not previously visited before and, like Bryher, is really very pleasant. There were a bunch of hirundines over Great Pool and it really looked ripe for a Red-rumped Swallow, but alas it was not to be. A 15-minute yomp round to Abbey Pool produced the Black Duck right away, showing near to one of the close islands and loosely associating with a couple of Mallards. It soon powered off towards the centre of the lake at the sight of a group of over-excited NGBers (for some of whom it was a tick) and with time at a premium, we bid farewell to this most glorious of dabblers and headed back to the quay.
Rather than slog around St Mary's for the final 45 minutes we retreated to the Mermaid for a celebratory pint before boarding on the Scillonian. It always impresses me how much you can fit in to these day trips to Scilly, and indeed see with a slice of luck. The crossing back produced a Basking Shark off the Cornish coast between St Levan and Mousehole and, bar a stop to dip the Hayle Ring-billed Gull, our next port of call was fish and chips in Indian Queens.
I don't really see that many Lapland Buntings and this male at Weybourne, Norfolk, on 5 April was the first I've seen in anything approaching summer plumage. This cracker was characteristically confiding yet continuously on the move, shuffling around among the wheat and thus rarely staying still for a good shot. By the time I'd found it the sun was already low and time was against me - images aren't as good as they could be, but I'm still happy to have managed a few given that I hadn't seen any of these birds, present several weeks, published anywhere else.