Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Who Forgot the Birds?

As most people who are reading this will know, a new website has popped up over the weekend. Its primary concern seems to be critiquing the RSPB and its work, and as many have already pointed out, is a fairly blatant bit of propaganda for those with shooting interests who have become increasingly agitated by the RSPB taking a harder line on wildlife crime and a more active role in political lobbying. 
It's not hard to spot the fact that the ideas floated on 'You Forgot the Birds' website are far from those of an enlightened, well-informed group of conservationists wishing the best from birds. Errors range from minor to the farcical, starting with one of the banner photos being of a Carolina Wren, native to, well, Carolina and far from the RSPB's remit, to suggestions that the RSPB, a charity for the conservation of wild birds and not an animal welfare organisation, doesn't do more for chickens, Muscovy Ducks and Eagle Owls as they aren't photogenic enough.

North American Carolina Wren as YFTB's cover star.
Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

These attacks on the RSPB are far from unusual; any organisation with the scale and reach that it has is likely to come under attack from time to time, and the RSPB is certainly no stranger to hostility from the shooting community, the NFU and Songbird Survival. Many of YFTB's criticisms appear to be merely repetitions of the same old disproved and barmy ideas that the RSPB has already dealt with (a photo of a Sparrowhawk sat on a House Sparrow, "raptors and garden birds can't co-exist", blah blah blah). What is perhaps more worrying is the media coverage it has received. Having the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph cover right-wing, shooting establishment agendas is nothing new, but somehow the Independent also got in on the act, describing YFTB as 'conservationists', and lending credibility to their criticisms. As a paper normally friendly towards environmentalism and the conservation movement, it is worrying that the knowledge level at the Independent is so low as to not be able to see the ulterior motive at work here. It is even more scary that the Independent will give credence to an argument, even when taken at face value, is environmentally nonsensical and logically faulty. The only explanation for this can be the media's indulgence of celebrity, and with Sir Ian Botham (who owns a shooting estate with his son near Harrogate) at the helm, it was clearly too easy a headline to miss out on.

YFTB lamenting the lack of Muscovy Ducks on the RSPB's website. Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

YFTB criticisms of the RSPB are convoluted, incoherent and frequently contradictory, but as far as it's possible to ascertain, they have two main bones of contention with the RSPB. Firstly that the RSPB has “recently relegated its 'protecting birds' mission, in favour of becoming a “giant fund-raising machine”, and secondly that it has taken its eye off the bigger picture of bird conservation in favour of specific pet projects, protecting raptors and cuter wildife in order to enhance its fundraising ability, over those species and habitats which truly need its help.
The suggestion is that, consequently, donors to the RSPB and “bird lovers” are being unfairly misled by the RSPB as to what they are donating money for. It argues that the RSPB should be spending more money on staff who get their hands dirty, and that insufficient money is spent on direct conservation, such as reserve management and purchases. It quotes a 'poll' with no link or reference given, suggesting that 'RSPB donors' (which ones? How many?) want 60% of RSPB spending to be directly on nature reserves, and poses the faintly ridiculous question: “how much money does the RSPB spend on bird food?”.

These stated aims are contradictory. From a conservation standpoint, increased spending on nature reserves can have an extremely beneficial effect in creating or preserving important habitat islands, which can be vital in saving individual endangered species, or isolated but extremely important areas that are necessary for migratory species. The RSPB has an extremely good record with this work; look at Bitterns, Avocets Ospreys and others that the RSPB has focused on. In fact, these are the cuddly, cute species that the RSPB stand accused of being overly focused on. So if they are overly focused on these species, why would they not spend more money on reserves and reserve management, that has a proven track record of working for these species?

Where have we heard this before? Oh yes, the shooting lobby. Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

The answer to this is also clear, and one that the RSPB is well aware of. The bigger picture is of this planet having lost half of all its wildlife in the last 40 years, and closer to home, Britain has lost 44 million pairs of breeding birds since 1966. Buying isolated areas of land, surrounded by barren wastelands dominated by industrial farmland and empty grouse moors in an environment irretrievably altered by climate change, is not going to make a big enough impact at population level to save birds that are declining at this alarming rate. What is required is a voice for nature that can speak to power, that can effect and alter government policy, that can rally public support in the face of short-sighted and misguided projects such as the airport at Cliffe, and that can lead on science, research and land-use in an authoritative manner. These things don't come cheap, and they don't come about by employing more people to dig ditches, buy land or plant reedbeds, as vital as that work may be.

The fact is that it is contradictory to simultaneously accuse the RSPB of losing sight of the bigger picture whilst also demanding it spends more money on localised, 'on the ground' projects that cannot have an effect at a population level. The RSPB does a fine, but not perfect, job of protecting our birdlife and our wildlife. It is worrying that an group such as 'You Forgot the Birds' who demonstrate such a high degree of ignorance of the issues at hand can garner such widespread publicity.

As 'You Forgot the Birds' aims to pose 'fair' questions to the RSPB, here are a few for them:

  • Do you think climate change is a major problem for birds in this country? How can it be tackled through having more nature reserves?

  • Do you think that the current government acts in the best interests of wildife?
  • How much land should the RSPB own? 
  • How have you determined that owning more reserves would have a better outcome for birds than campaigning for more environmentally sustainable farming?
  • And finally, how many pairs of hen harriers do you believe should breed in England?

Why not give YFTB some 'ideas'/piece of your mind. If you're an RSPB member, they ought to listen to what you have to say! ideas@youforgotthebirds.com
Screenshot from You Forgot The Birds website.

-Oliver Metcalf
Oliver is a freelance Ornithologist, a job that gets him out and about birding all over the North and East of England. He lives in York, so regularly goes birding in the Lower Derwent Valley and spends his winter birding time at Rufforth tip. His Spring and Autumns are spent trudging the cliff-top paths looking for migrants at Whitby. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Richard Crossley - My 'NGB years'

It looked bloody huge! Out in the Atlantic there was a dense pack of isobars and a massive, swirling mess. The weather had to be crazy out there and it was coming our way. I was 19 at the time and didn’t know that much, but this looked good. I made a couple of phone calls (no internet back then) and a prominent old-timer was predicting great things.

On Thursday September 1st, 1983, I packed my backpack, sleeping bag, coat and football kit (I had a game on Saturday) and hitch-hiked down to St Ives. I arrived in the evening and headed to my favourite barn and snuck in for a good night’s kip. Next day, was a horrendous gale with horizontal rain – I could stand behind the wall on St Ives’ island and the rain just went right over the top of me. I was a lot tougher - some may some more stupid - back then. I stuck it out there all day with my only reward being a distant, large shearwater and no other birders around. Clearly I had got it wrong! I went back to my lonely barn.

The next morning, I overslept and it was already light when I got up. I had to hitch-hike back to Okehampton for a 3pm kick-off, giving me a few hours to check if any birds had shown up. There were already about 60 birders there, the sun was out and the wind had dropped to a gentle 20mph. I was mortified – I’d already missed Sabine’s Gull, Great Shearwater and lots of skuas. But the disappointment soon turned to elation as, clearly this was going to be a day to remember.

Simply put, there were birds everywhere! The numbers never lie and even today, I don’t think there’s been another seawatch in Britain to touch it. Sabine’s Gulls were in flocks – 30 of them being fed bread by some of the birders. A passing Wilson’s Petrel soon showed up on the sewage outfall among the 5,000 Stormies now gathered there. Why would I want to look at the Pom that was called out while I was watching a Long-tailed? Then I realized that the Pom was just feet above our heads. Wherever you looked there were more birds – it became clear there wasn’t going to be any football match for me that day.

Not wanting to leave the rock, not even for food, I asked a couple of pals who were heading into town to call my parents and let the football manager know I couldn't make it. I asked them to make an excuse that I was sick. Somehow, the message got a bit skewed and my parents were dead worried that I was seriously ill in St Ives!

It was almost dark as most of us finally trudged away from the ocean. I clearly remember being absolutely knackered but, just like everybody else, having a smile like the cat that just got the cream. Sometimes, you just know that you were there – there was no doubt about this one. We all sat in the pub that night, very happy, writing field notes – some people writing up a South Polar Skua – something I don’t remember much about.

I feel very fortunate to have had many memorable days birding around the world and I've seen some of the most spectacular flights ever recorded, but September 3, 1983 will always be one of the highlights.
I’m looking forward to being back in England on a speaking tour in a few weeks – hopefully we’ll get another mega seawatch and I’ll see you there!

-Richard Crossley
Richard Crossley is an internationally acclaimed birder, photographer and award winning author of ‘The Crossley ID Guide’ series. Richard is also co-founder of the global birding initiative Pledge to Fledge (www.pledgetofledge.org), Race4Birds (www.race4birds.org) and The Cape May Young Birders Club. Richard is on the board of directors at the famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. He firmly believes that the time is right to popularize 
birding around the world.

Friday, 3 October 2014

This week in birding: 27th Sept - 3rd Oct

To see previous week's editions, visit https://twitter.com/NGBirders
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig, the music of Hall & Oates and being distracted by bugs. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

PatchChat: Liam Langley on Port Meadow, Oxfordshire

Patching, the process of concentrating the main thrust of your birding effort on a single local site, week in week out, is an absolute necessity for any keen young birder. The benefits of patching are many and include: honing your ability to accurately ID a range of regular bird species via both sight and sound, giving coverage to previously under-watched areas and the intrinsic joy of seeing first-hand the seasonal shifts in the bird populations of an area special to you. 
While I’m no slouch when it comes to twitching, the thrill of finding a rare patch-bird for me far outweighs the feeling of twitching other people’s birds and if you submit your patch records to Birdtrack you’re also actively contributing to ornithological research. 

Reading the previous few sentences, it may come as a surprise to you that I took up patching relatively late, only starting to watch Chorlton Water Park, a small gravel pit near my home in Manchester after meeting Dave Campbell (Something of a patching guru at Canons Farm and Banstead Woods) on Scilly in October 2011. Starting to regularly bird Chorlton WP during my afternoons off college opened up a completely new dimension to my birding and I felt my sharpness with calls and flight views noticeably improve in a matter of months. I never found anything earth-shattering at Chorlton (the Northwest is something of a birding desert), but Willow Tit, Woodcock and a couple of Spotted Flycatchers were good records for Manchester Borough. When I found out I would be heading to university in Oxford my excitement at the prospect of patching Port Meadow, a flooded field with records of Lesser Yellowlegs and White Stork amongst other things, was through the roof. Unfortunately the hectic nature of the first term meant that I made very few visits to the meadow although I did twitch a smart juvenile American Golden Plover in early November, to date still the rarest bird I’ve seen on patch.

At this juncture I feel it is important to take a step back from my personal narrative to describe the topography and regular birding highlights of this wonderful site. 
Port Meadow is essentially a floodplain of the river Thames lying just Northwest of Oxford city centre. The large grassy meadow is bordered on all sides by road, river, and rail track and contains a semi-permanent flood of standing water which provides the main focus for visiting birders. 
Winter is one of the best times for birding on the meadow with huge flocks of wildfowl including regular counts of 500+ Wigeon, 800+ Teal, 100+ Shoveler, 50+ Pintail and the awesome spectacle of up to 1000 Golden Plover. Moreover the almost constant presence of people means that unlike at most sites the birds have lost their natural wariness and regularly show incredibly well with no hides necessary. Despite the plethora of avian delights available I was tempted to start making regular visit by a species often shunned by a decent portion of the birding community, namely Caspian Gull. 

©Adam Hartley

Prior to visiting Port Meadow I had never ventured down the veritable wormhole that is watching and identifying gulls however the presence of several Caspos picked out by patch stalwart Adam Hartley tempted me to give it a shot. 
Port Meadow is a great site for gulls and depending on weather conditions up to 1000 of the “LWHGs” which feed at Didcot tip will either roost on the flood or stop in to bathe before heading off to Farmoor to roost. What’s more the geographic position of Port Meadow in England’s southeast means that good numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls as well as the odd Caspian, Glaucous and Iceland Gull can be unearthed among the throngs of commoner species. To date I’ve found 4 Caspain Gulls and a Glauc at Port Meadow and have had my ornithological knowledge expanded and my observation skills vastly improved by regularly studying the large congregations of the birds which, to some are merely dismissed as “flying rats”. Occasionally, after heavy rain, the flood extends across the entire northern half of the meadow to Wolvercote and becomes more akin to a large lake. This makes birding the site more difficult but is appreciated by the wildfowl including a regular winter roost of 12+ Goosander, a real scarcity in the county.

In spring the interest on the floods switches from gulls to migrant waders, always a treat for inland patchers! Although their presence is very much dependant on the water levels and observer effort, most regular species have been recorded and goodies such as Avocet, Little Stint and Grey Plover are near annual. Other spring treats multiple migrant Garganey per spring as well as good numbers of passage Yellow Wagtails (a relative novelty for a northener like me) and summering Common Terns. 
Another fantastic spring highlight for me was a migrating Hobby which I watched as it hawked the flocks of passage hirundines over the floods one memorable April afternoon. 

It is at this time of year that the other section of the patch comes into its own. The Burgess Field is an LNR adjacent to Port Meadow which consists of rough grassy fields bordered by thick Hawthorn hedges and interspersed with willow copses. For most of the year there are relatively few birds, leading to Adam renaming it “Birdless Field”, however in spring and summer the field comes to life and is positively buzzing with the songs of a suite of breeding migrant warblers including Grasshopper and Garden Warbler among the commoner species. 
Also nice in spring is the potential to find locally scarce migrant passerines such as Redstart, Whinchat and Tree Pipit moving through the hedges as they migrate north. The topography of the Burgess Field seems to concentrate these species in the northwest corner in an area called the Triangle Field which produced at least 5 Redstarts in April 2013. Outside of this exciting window the Burgess Field often lives up to its alternative name but in winter Short-eared Owl and Jack Snipe have been recorded and the extensive habitat looks ideal for a scarcity such as a Wryneck or shrike if the requisite effort as put in. The potential of the patch to produce such birds was highlighted in October 2013 when Adam found a Yellow-browed Warbler near the car park whilst I was unfortunately at home in Manchester.

As you can see Port Meadow is an incredibly rich site in terms of avian diversity and its location, 15 minutes from Oxford city centre makes it incredibly accessible as a local patch. One thing that works against Port Meadow is its relatively large size, especially in terms of turning up scarce passerines and with increased coverage I’m sure that more good birds would be found. 

Another underrated aspect of Port Meadow is its position on the north-south Thames flyway, surely if someone who wasn't a busy student put the time in, flyover Marsh Harriers, Honey Buzzards and who knows what else might be regularly encountered regularly. Port meadow has expanded my ornithological horizons and has been an absolute dream of a patch over the first two years of my degree. Hopefully this year I can find the biggie there because if not I’ll have to secure a PhD studentship so that I can stay in Oxford and keep patching it until I do! If any NGBs are ever in Oxford don’t hesitate to contact me as I’ll happily show you around this wonderful site.

-Liam Langley
Liam is a 20 year old Biology student who splits his time between his home in Stockport and university in Oxford. He has a broad spectrum of birding interests with a particular focus on twitching, seawatching in Cornwall and gulling at Port Meadow. He also loves watching migration in action and the 'anything can turn up' feeling of Spurn and hopes to become a regular visitor there over the next few years.

App review: The Bird Songs of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East - Sunbird

After using the CD version of The Bird Songs of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for the last year I was excited by the prospect of having the use of it in App format rather than a little MP3 player, although it’s a pretty hefty download; you've got to take into account it’s holding 2817 songs and calls, at least one picture of each species described (in most cases 2 photographs) and a sightings log to use on the move.

Once downloaded and installed you will be immediately struck by how quick and responsive the app is, there’s no waiting around for pages to load or songs/calls to start, you press the button and away you go. Navigating my way around was extremely simple, you've got three options of main screen and a search function, the default screen is split into taxonomic folders making it easy for you to search for that tacking Sylvia or whooeeting Phyllosc. The design is impressive too; it’s very easy on the eye and clear to see with white text on a green background. Each species has a description; a spectrogram (visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies in a sound) and sonogram are also included as is the option to loop the recording, which is a great function for those trying to memorise new calls.

Most species covered within the App have both a song and call attached, it was a little disappointing to find that some species such as Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Paddyfield Warbler didn’t have the calls attached and only the song was included, for the budding rarity finder that’s at least two classic autumn vagrant vocalizations missing. 

The wiki function doesn’t work unless you are connected to the internet in some way, it takes a while to load and being open content it’s possible for anyone to edit and include wrong information. In short this is a good App, condensing lots of CDs into one package and is great for anyone who doesn't own the set, however there is some very stiff completion out there now and at £54.99 it’s not the cheapest on offer either.

-Joe Stockwell
Joe is 23 and an ex Portland Bird Observatory Assistant Warden. He's a birder, ringer and now living by the sea but not in a lighthouse. He loves finding decent birds, and is currently looking more in depth at vocalisation and how to read bird sounds.

Mark Thomas - My 'NGB years'

I got off the train at Hull, the wind was cutting from the east, I quickly melted in to the crowd of commuters, I had a mission and it was the 10:20 train to Scarborough.
I made the connection; I sat tightly wedged in a corner, giving the best vantage point of everyone else on the train. The conductor came and checked my ticket, he stared at me but didn't say a word then walked away down the train. I was certain someone was going to discover what I was up to.

I should have been 100 miles away and most importantly at school!
There are certain days in your life that are momentous, days that you will never forget, days that make you what you are.

September 13th 1989 was THAT day for me. I had flirted with the Yorkshire East Coast for a few years, plaguing my dad to take me for the occasional day out birding, once in freezing conditions to see Little Auks off Barmston and another with some ‘grown up men’ from Sheffield when we saw a summer plumaged White-billed Diver off Flamborough (I remember the Peregrine directly over-head just as fondly).
However as a young birder these trips were too infrequent and the ‘coast’ was the holy grail, it taunted me when most of my time was spent birding a wood. Don’t get me wrong Anston Stones Wood was my classroom and hunting down Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers was every moment as tense as a September Locustella at Spurn. I learnt the basics and, most importantly, shared in those experiences with a small band of other young birders, we were ‘openly birders’ at school, we suffered the consequences but wore the badge with pride. School reports were full of rather negative comments from teachers, particularly about period 5-6 on a Friday, this coincided with Geography and all 6 birders in the same class together – this became our ‘cobra meeting’, where we planning the weekends birding adventure, in the wood!

So September 13th was the culmination of all of that, this was the biggest day of my birding life. Most of my ‘away from the wood’ activities had been at the hands of other people, today I was in control of my own destiny, and it felt just fabulous!

For several days a fall of epic proportions had been taking place on the coast, I had called Birdline each night, secretly from the upstairs telephone – remember that ? I had tried to quickly write everything down but had to call back to get the finer details, millionaires were being made on this habit!
I didn’t tell anyone, next I rang National Rail Enquiries and got all the train details. The adventure was on, I packed my bins and small spotting scope and set off the next morning in my school uniform. I kept telling myself it was a normal day, like hell! – it was Christmas and all my birthdays in one!

I got off the train at Filey and physically skipped along the cobbles at the bottom of Church Ravine. I headed in to the Country Park and sought out the single tall sycamore next to the housing estate, I then began meeting birders. I was at one, in the community, they didn't want to know where I had come from or what I was doing on a school day! I had reached THE tree, I breathed a massive sigh of relief, almost forgetting why I was even there. My daydream burst back to life with the shout ‘showing top right’, there was the most sought after Greenish Warbler ever! I watched it gleaning insects from the underside of the big sycamore leafs, it was calling, it was the field guide and much, much more. 
I remained with the bird for over an hour and then filtered my way along various hedges, taking in a confiding juvenile Red-backed Shrike. I retraced my steps and reached Church Ravine, here I joined another group of birders and enjoyed a Firecrest, Yellow-browed Warbler and a Wood Warbler all together! This really was my best ever day, thoughts turned to getting home and timing that with the finish of school.

Then suddenly the day took a massive turn for the un-expected, only 9 miles away down the coast birders had just found a Booted Warbler at Bempton. I caught the whispers and excitement. Suddenly a tall young birder offered me a lift to the bird, he was going now. I had come this far! I got in the car, he told me what he was expecting the bird to look like and the fact it was a new bird for him, he even asked if I had seen one before – I replied by saying that I was bunking school!

We pulled up and both jumped out of the car, little things like that made my day – I had finally met birders who were adults but acted just like kids! The bird was showing at about 30ft distance clinging to grass stems in a small hollow (dell) in the car park. It was milky tea colour (check the next cuppa you have!) and was rare, very rare! I had connected with this amazing bird because I had actively taken control of my own life - that was far more educational than anything I could have learnt at school that day. I quickly drew the bird in my notebook, the equivalent of the modern day DSLR! The drawing was poor but it didn't matter, it was my proof. I really could not have been any happier, nor could the other 50 people now present, such a positive scene, birds have the power to do that.
The finale was ‘calling in’ at Flamborough where I added Red-breasted Flycatcher and Barred Warred to the day, place and life list ! Both birds in the same garden opposite the lighthouse.

Time had slipped by and suddenly I panicked I was going to be late home from school, no fear this day was not going to let me down in any aspect, my secret driver (Chris Mills) was going back to Nottingham and was happy to drop me at the bus stop in my village on the outskirts of Sheffield on the way past.
I mentally locked myself in my bedroom at home and wrote up the day in my notebook, then promptly hid it! The next day at school, I was on a high!

At a very local level we had a new approach to birding, it took us ALL beyond the wood, on trips with the local RSPB group to Spurn were we all added Isabelline Shrike and thousands of Goldcrests, to being filmed on a TV programme about birding with the late Yorkshire celeb Michael Clegg, to actually being passionate career conservationists.

I am massively in support of NGB and AFON and encourage everyone to help in any small way.

-Mark Thomas
Mark is a Senior Investigations Officer at the RSPB, setting up protection schemes for rare breeding birds like Bee-eaters and also investigating wildlife crime and catching raptor killers. Away from work, Mark spends most weekends on the Yorkshire coast at his birding and ringing site at Buckton. Mark is fascinated by weather and migration.