Friday, 28 August 2015

Red-footed Falcon déjà vu

2cy male Red-footed Falcon, Willow Tree Fen, Lincs, 25 August 2015

Spending hours thumbing through my father's old field guides as a kid played a strong part in fuelling my early interest in birds and birding, and there were a handful of species that jumped out at me as 'must-see' birds in my lifetime. In particular there was a small bird of prey that never failed to catch my imagination, not only for its beauty but for its variability: the male was a pristine slate-grey with bright red highlights; the female, predominately orangey-buff with greyish upperparts, was so strikingly different that it might well have been another taxon altogether.

At the age of eight or nine, Red-footed Falcon seemed an exotic, distant and altogether unattainable species. I'd naively hope to bump in to one while on summer holidays in various corners of the Med - of course we never did - and it was only as my interest in British birding began to cement itself (when I was about 12) that I became truly aware that, with luck, it was possible to see the species over here.

By the time I reached my teens I had started to visit what would become my local patch and had also joined the local mailing list, Peterbirder. In June 2003 I remember seeing a message on there reporting that James Gilroy had found a male Red-footed Falcon as it flew over Baston & Langtoft Pits - yes, my patch! I couldn't believe it - my dream bird on my doorstep, and I hadn't seen it!

As it turned out that bird went on to spend the summer on the adjacent fen, and I saw it on a couple of occasions. The first viewing was courtesy of Nicholas Watts at Vine House Farm, whose land the bird was favouring. We headed out one evening in his Land Rover and had crippling views of the bird sat on small bushes and fence posts at point-blank range. Though not an adult, it was a pretty advanced first-summer and showed brilliantly well. Exactly how you want to see a lifer!

The reason for all this waffle is that I was back home in Lincs over the week, staying at my mum's while working at the Birdfair. Though six excellent Black Terns and a nice selection of waders were great to see on my old patch, the highlight for me was the Red-footed Falcon present at Willow Tree Fen. As the falcon flies, this bird is present little more than two or three miles from where the 2003 bird spent much of the summer. Everything about it is similar: the setting (favouring fence posts on open farmland), both were first-summer males, both were brilliantly showy, both were long-stayers ... local birder and photographer Phil Ackerman took some great shots of the 2003 bird, which are still online here.

It's a nice coincidence, and brought back some happy memories. It's also a stark reminder that it's now over 12 years since that warm summer's evening on which I celebrated seeing what was my most-wanted bird!

Friday, 14 August 2015

Tired of all the absurdity

Rather unfortunately, British wildlife seems to have become a fashionable topic in summer 2015's silly season. 'Fashionable' in an ironic sense of the word, for the British press appears hell-bent on sensationalising the entirely normal existence of the various species targeted.

First it was the 'seagull' problem: according to the tabloids, vicious flocks of murderous gulls have apparently been terrorising locals and tourists alike in our coastal towns in recent times. A handful of people, a few pathetically small dogs and a pet tortoise have been the subject of 'vicious' attacks from larids. The uproar even encouraged Prime Minister David Cameron to wade blindly in to the debate, declaring a "big conversation" was needed. Clever chap.

Those that know me will already be well aware that I quite like gulls. They're extremely intelligent, adaptable and charismatic birds, and are great to study – not just because of their personalities, but because of the fascinating identification challenges that they present at all ages and throughout the year. It's therefore extremely distressing to hear clueless chumps calling for something to be done – that something ideally involving culling.

What most don't appreciate is that Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) – the quintessential British 'seagull' – is in trouble. It's red-listed, and declining fast. All British-breeding gull species are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It's therefore illegal to kill or injure them.

I recently challenged the individual responsible for setting up the 'We Need A Seagull Cull' Facebook page (I don't know his/her name).  Below I present to you the eloquent page description from the page itself, unaltered:

"Seagulls might be a protected bird, but I strongly disagree with this. They are proving to be more like a pest everyday, especially following the terrible death of a beloved pet dog killed in broad day light just today by 2 seagulls. They dig the hell out of our weekly bin bags, and are causing disease, apart from randomly attacking people, especially when they have their young nesting on our roofs. They are known as rats in the sky, so it begs the question why are we protecting rats in the sky? Are we going to wait until we have a modern day plauge? Or a child is hurt or baby killed in its own pram? Lets get our message across to get a law passed to hunt these vermin down."

When I asked which species of seagull this individual proposed we cull, the response I received was: "I dont know cause they all look the same. Thats like saying how many species of rats are there."

So there you have it. That's the sort of dimwit we're up against. Someone who wants to cull gulls, but doesn't know which ones are which. That's a very dangerous attitude. There have also been various chumps posting photographs of gulls they've been killing themselves on Facebook – which unfortunately for them acts as evidence. Hopefully the local WCO will be paying them a visit and they'll be convicted.

Intelligent and adaptive birds, Herring Gulls cannot be blamed for taking advantage of a wasteful society

The reality is that we have decimated our oceans and coasts so extensively that gulls have been driven in to urban areas, where a wholly wasteful human population unwittingly provides them with a valuable food source. Gulls have adapted to a world shaped by us so why can't we adapt to live alongside them, and accept that the occasional territorial peck (always in the breeding season, when they have youngsters) and pasty-nicking episode may just be part of life that we have to get on with? 

Thankfully the gull issue has died down a little over the past couple of weeks, although that hasn't stopped the tabloids clutching at other straws. Last week we were treated to the 'invasion' of flying ants (see here). That's right, an invasion of a native species that happens also to be completely harmless and does the same thing every year (and has done so for millions of years).

Then, this week, we were treated to what is probably the most appalling piece of journalism that I can consciously remember reading …

The following article, courtesy of the Daily Express, is currently still online but is so astonishingly wayward of the truth and so detached from reality that I'm sure it will be removed once IPSO acts. For now, click on the headline and have a read:

Where to start?! Once again we have talk of an invasion (adder is a native species), of poisonous snakes (adders aren't poisonous, they're venomous), we've got talk of 'attacks' on dogs – adders don't attack, they (rarely) retaliate when threatened (though normally look to escape a potential threat), we've got a reference to adders being 4ft long (they almost never exceed 2-2.5ft), we've got an 'adder' on the loose in London (which is actually an escaped Carpet Python – i.e. someone's pet and also not a venomous species) and so on. Oh, and I nearly forgot this gem of a line:

"Unsuspecting Britons have already been the target of unprecedented attacks by vicious seagulls and flying ants this summer."


This really is a shambolic piece of journalism. It was written by Nick Gutteridge – if you want to explain to him how awful his piece of work is, you can hit him up on Twitter: @nick_gutteridge.

Examples such as the above only serve to drive our ever-increasing alienation from the natural world in which we live. The way the press (largely the tabloids) freely vilify, condemn and estrange our own fauna is something, as a nature-conscious individual, I really struggle to grasp. What's worse is that it is invariably written by individuals with absolutely no idea about the subject matter. It's pretty clear, for example, that Mr Gutteridge knows zilch about adders.

Adders are not invading - they are native, cautious and unfortunately declining reptiles

This appalling lack of knowledge only serves to highlight the detachment humans generally have from nature. You can bet your bottom dollar that most of the readership won't know much (anything) either, and so are quite likely to lap it up as truth. It's a vicious circle – the hysterical style in which this article (and others) is written will only further discourage and disconnect humans from any sort of involvement with nature. What's worse is that Gutteridge's adder story is absolutely riddled with factual inaccuracy, and the snake itself becomes a victim of a falsified scare-mongering. Not once does it mention that adder is a declining and protected species, and a timid and beautiful one at that.

This comes all before I've even mentioned the decision of The Telegraph to publish, without question, the extraordinary (and subsequently proven factually incorrect) claims made by shooting industry-backed organisation You Forgot The Birds (more here). This body is fronted by ex-England cricketer Ian Botham, who seems to be pursuing a career in being a complete moron while continuing in his other role as broadcaster for Sky Sports.

Our ecosystems are put under ever-greater strain by a burgeoning human population, and the wildlife they support is consequently under great pressure. As a species, we have the intelligence, knowledge and power to shape the world in which we live. Our national press have the potential to play a huge role in the conservation and understanding of our surroundings, but if they are to do so it will take a monumental shift from current attitudes. If we are to encourage and inspire humanity to look after the world we live in we must nurture and glorify nature, not paint it as the enemy. It's pretty simple.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Two recent articles

A couple of my recent travel pieces, originally published in Birdwatch magazine, are now available online. Please feel free to read, look, comment, ignore ... however you see fit!

Mountain HighBirdwatch 278: 63-66
Full article -

Rufous-crested Coquette, Lophornis delattrei

The Final Frontier Birdwatch 276: 61-64
Excerpts -

Ural scenery

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls

Three juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls at Greenwich were a nice reintroduction to gulling after a spring and summer off.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Moths chez Lowen

A few images from a morning spent investigating James Lowen's moth trap, the first two of which are a bit dudey but the third (kept in his fridge overnight for me to 'twitch'), was a little more exciting:

Eyed Hawkmoth 

Elephant Hawkmoth 

Red-necked Footman

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

A memorable June weekend

No time for words, so I've summed up my long weekend with in photographs.

male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Acres Down, Hampshire, 13 June

male Cretzschmar's Bunting, Bardsey Island, Gwynedd, 15 June

male Melodious Warbler, Hampton in Arden, West Midlands, 15 June

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Britain's 'National Bird'

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?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Homefield, 6 June

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.

 Military Orchid

The most impressive specimen

Common Spotted were beginning to flower while a nice carpet of Common Twayblade were approaching their peak.

Common Twayblade

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 ...

Heath Spotted Orchid - still a way off flowering

Friday, 5 June 2015

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson's Thrush, Skokholm, 4 June 2015

Not what I expected to be seeing in Pembrokeshire in early June, but I won't complain. Many thanks to Richard Brown and team on Skokholm for a) finding the bird and b) accommodating a twitch.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A day in North West England

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 ...