Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book review: Birdwatchers' Yearbook 2015 by Megan Shersby

I was very fortunate to receive a copy of the Birdwatchers’ Yearbook 2015, thanks to being a part of a fantastic group called Next Generation Birders. As a beginner birder, I’m already excited to use the book in 2015 to work out where to visit. After an initial flick through the yearbook, I was pleased to immediately stop at the beginning and read a feature on Next Generation Birders, followed by a great article highlighting the plight of Hen Harriers. As a side-note, I feel that it would've been nice to see a mention of the young birder, Findlay Wilde, who has done so much in 2014 to raise awareness of the troubles faced by Hen Harriers. 

Moving on a few pages, I delighted (albeit not surprised) to find the checklist of birds, which will make my aim of recording the wildlife I see much easier! I was pleasantly surprised to find checklists for both butterflies and dragonflies, although I did wonder why Scarce Tortoiseshell wasn't included. True enough, it is a rare migrant, but a number were seen across various counties during 2014 and thus it is not unreasonable to hope we will see them again during 2015. 

Browsing through the main bulk of the book, the nature reserves section, I stopped in a couple of counties that I was familiar with. I was astonished to see that Chesil Beach and the Fleet Nature Reserve were not mentioned, considering that huge numbers and varieties of bird species are seen there, including the recovering Little Tern colony.

My final thoughts on the Birdwatchers’ Yearbook 2015 is that it looks like it will be incredibly useful, there is a lot of information in there but it is logically laid out and easy to use. I look forward to using it for birding in the new year.

-Megan Shersby

Monday, 24 November 2014

Cameron Bespolka Memorial Birdrace

Cameron Bespolka
1997 - 2013

Cameron Bespolka was a lively young birder from Hampshire and joined Next Generation Birders in early 2013, where he quickly became well known for his patching prowess in his home of Winchester, as well as his ongoing quest to find a patch Yellow-browed Warbler.

Tragically, on 17th December 2013 Cameron was killed in an avalanche whilst skiing in Lech am Arlberg in the Austrian Alps. His father and their ski instructor were also buried in the snow, escaping with injuries. This was a truly harrowing event and one which devastated the NGB member base and the wider birding community.

It is therefore with pride that we announce The Cameron Bespolka Memorial Birdrace, a partnership between NGB and Patchwork Challenge, to be held this weekend 28th - 30th November, which marks Cameron's 17th birthday.
Previously, PWC have been very supportive of NGB and dedicated their NGB minileague in Cameron's memory, with the Cameron Bespolka Prize awarded to the winner of the minileague. It is hoped that the minileague will encourage all NGB members to visit their patch more regularly, hopefully resulting in improved ID skills, a more fulfilling birding experience and perhaps even a few nice self finds.

The birdrace is open to both NGB members and PWC participants and will use the score system that PWC have developed for their annual competitions (the score spreadsheet can be downloaded from their blog). The aim is to record as many species on your patch over the three days, whether you spend a couple of hours there one morning or live on patch for the full 72 hours is your choice! There will be two minileagues for the birdrace, one for NGB members and one for PWC participants, and a cumulative total number of species will be kept for each league to see which group comes out on top. More details on how to submit your scores will be posted later in the week. Cameron’s longing to find a Yellow-browed Warbler on his patch became well known within NGB and as such committee member Liam Curson has pledged to donate £100 if an NGB members finds one over the weekend, a very generous offer which several other members have offered to contribute towards, so good luck!

All money raised goes towards the Cameron Bespolka Trust, a charitable initiative set up by Cameron's family to support many different causes that were close to Cameron's heart. It is not compulsory for participants to donate to take part in the birdrace; however it would be greatly appreciated.

Taken from the Trust's website: "The Trust will aim to help teenagers pursue similar interests and passions, especially those who have less privileged backgrounds.
We will be creating opportunities for young birders to pursue their passion, both as an interest or a vocation. We will look to do this independently and together with various nature and birding organisations.  
We would also like to work with schools from the local area, helping young children appreciate and experience nature and the environment first hand. Our primary focus will be with schools with limited resources."

Thursday, 6 November 2014

NGB Bardsey Island Bird Observatory week

On the morning of the 27th September, NGB chairman; Matt Bruce drove along the north Wales coast, collecting NGB's as he went. First Josie Hewitt and Liam Curson, then myself (James Garside) and Susan Jones. We were travelling down the Lleyn peninsula by eight, bobbing over the sound by nine and hurrying up to the obs a short while later.
Steve Stansfield (the head warden) introduced us to the other obs staff; Steffan and Mark the assistant wardens; and the volunteers - 'Icky' Steve, Mike and of course, 'Bardsey' Ben Porter (also NGB).
After a few short introductory talks and a quick bit of unpacking, we headed into the obs garden in the hope of seeing the Barred Warbler which had been present there for a while. As we waited, we saw a large warbler fly into the heligoland trap, where it was soon caught by Steve. It was the Barred Warbler, and we all enjoyed seeing it in the hand - a lifer for some of us and a great start to the week!

Steve even allowed me to release the bird which was a great moment!

We had a quick bite to eat, before Steve and his wife Emma lead us on a walk around the north of the island. We saw some good species like Purple Sandpiper and Whimbrel (a lifer for Josie), and it was good to get to know each other a bit better.
We ate our evening meal watching jumping Risso's Dolphins against an impressive sunset!
After the evening log, Steve gave an excellent talk about island, and the birds that had been seen there in the past, which really got us fired up for the next days birding!
But the first day wasn't over yet! We headed out into the dark with Ben and Steve in the hope of ringing a few young Manx Shearwater. After a while we found a few and everybody was able to have a go at ringing one under Steve's supervision!

The second day of our visit started well, when Steve got onto a pair of Balearic Shearwaters, shortly after dawn, and myself and Liam were able to get onto them. A short while later the walky-talkies crackled into life. 'Icky' Steve had found a Hoopoe on the south of the island at Pen Cristin!
There was no sign of the others, so me and Liam hurried south with Mark. However, after a few hundred meters, news came through that the bird was flying over the mountain! Looking up, we could see the bird, but we could also make out three juvenile Peregrines close behind! We watched in awe as the bird evaded several close encounters with the powerful raptors, before disappearing into the clouds, high over the mountain! Not the way we had expected to see our first British Hoopoe!
Fortunately Matt, Josie, Susan and Ben had all headed north where Josie had relocated the bird and they had all had good views of it at Nant! Eventually everybody got good views of the bird there, although it was quite flighty and elusive throughout.

The day finished well, when Mark found a Firecrest in the Withies, and after a good evening meal,  we were able to see it in the fading light!
That evening, Steve gave another excellent talk, this time about the family holiday the Stansfields had had in Spain, and the birds they had seen there.
Monday the 29th September dawned clear and calm, and everybody was out birding or ringing around the island. Mike and myself headed down to the Withies to do some ringing, and had a very good morning. By  far the highlight, was when a Yellow-Browed Warbler dropped into one of the nets in Cristin Withy. We popped it in a bird bag and carried it up to the obs, where it was ringed by Josie! At the obs, they had already caught a Goldcrest and a Firecrest, and we were able to have all three birds in the hand together - a memorable moment!

Susan ringed the Firecrest too, which was a lifer for her! After they had been ringed we released the birds into the obs garden, where they were later seen feeding actively in a sycamore. We spent a quiet afternoon birding around the obs and up to Nant, where a Little Owl was the only notable bird.
That evening, Steve gave his third and final talk, this time about his time at Falsterbo, and the work of the Bird Observatories Council.
Tuesday and Wednesday were both a little quieter on the birding front, but we did have good views of a Merlin and several leucorhoa Wheatears on the south end. Me, Liam and Steffan saw a Balearic Shearwater very well from the south hide on Wednesday morning, followed by a Lesser Whitethroat and a Whinchat. The Hoopoe was seen on both days, though never well. We had a good time anyway relaxing in the obs, stuffing our faces with Conors amazing cookies and enjoying some casual seawatching. We also had a walk up the mountain and enjoyed some cracking views!
Ben gave an excellent talk in the evening, about his time ringing and birding in Kenya, and included some great photos of plenty of exotic species!
The male voice choir group 'Only Men Aloud' were also staying on the island, filming a piece for TV. They kindly cooked a meal for us, and performed a short concert in the chapel, which was appreciated by all.

Thursday the 2nd October was the day of the bird race! NGB's vs the obs Staff! As the visitors, we were the clear underdogs, but were determined to have a really good go at it. The rules were simple; a species could be counted as long as at least two members of the team had seen or heard it.
At dawn, Matt, Susan and Josie headed north along the mountainside towards Nant. Myself and Liam headed down through the lowlands and the wetlands to the withies. We picked up on good numbers of the commoner species straight away, and Liams keen ears picked out a group of Siskin amongst the abundant Grey Wagtails streaming over. We flushed a Snipe from the wetlands before heading  north past the reed bed where we heard a Reed Bunting. A Yellow Wagtail flew north calling and Skylarks were passing over in good numbers too. Around the north of the island we picked up some common seabirds and also had a Mediterranean Gull offshore. A couple of Peregrines were over the mountain, and a couple of Sandwich Terns passed by offshore. After breakfast we headed to the south end where we met the rest of the team.

We birded the area together, picking up some of the standard species in the narrows; Redshank, Turnstone and Oystercatcher. We also watched three Wheatear arriving on Solfach. Things started to slow up around lunchtime, and we learnt that the obs staff had had several species including the Hoopoe that we had yet to see. They did also, let slip that they had seen a Pied Flycatcher in Cristin Withy, so we headed down there to have a look. It showed well after a short wait, allowing for some decent photos.

Myself and Liam headed to Pen Cristin to try and find the Hoopoe, whilst Josie and Matt headed north, to see what else they could find before dinner. As we headed up the hill, Liam and I heard a Little Owl calling. We continued a few paces, when the Hoopoe flushed up from in front of us. We crawled up the hill to where the bird had landed, and eventually had stunning (though very brief) views of the bird! I managed a few shots which fortunately came out quite well!

We caught up with the others at the obs. They told us the good news that they had had a couple of new species for the day. We spent the evening seawatching from the obs, and added a Great Skua to the list to round things off.
Steve and Emma cooked chilli, and we spent a great evening with everybody on the island. After the log later, we discovered that we had lost the bird race by just a six species. We didn't mind too much, as we had had another great day anyway! Steve had put together a quiz, and we had fun competing against the obs staff once again!
That night, Ben managed to catch some Moorhen and we had a go at ringing them which was quite an experience!
Our last full day was spent seawatching in promising conditions, but with little reward. The total of five Arctic Skua for the day was the only notable count.
The journey home was quiet too, though Matt, Josie, Liam and Susan did have fantastic views of the Grey Phalarope at Morfa Madryn!

We'd all enjoyed a cracking week with some great people!

-James Garside
James is a 19 year old Zoology student at Swansea University. He enjoys regularly birding the University Birdwatch Challenge area (a competition the Swansea team won last year), and he occasionally twitches rares further afield. He's spent most of his life birding in Britain and hopes to do more birding abroad in the near future.

'The World’s Rarest Birds' book review by Oliver Simms

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfield, Andy Swash and Robert Still

Of the things that I did when I was in the committee, the thing that I’m most proud of is the partnership that I managed to set up with Princeton WildGuides, which has meant a discount of 35% for NGBS and a steady stream of books being sent to various NGBs for review. While discussing ways to develop the partnership at Birdfair, Caroline of Princeton suggested that I should review a book myself rather than use them simply as competition prizes. Seeing the stunning cover photo of a Red-crowned Crane, I immediately requested The World’s Rarest Birds.

With such a high expectations, my initial reaction on reading it was one of disappointment. The book, despite the stunning photos of some of near mythical bird species, is not a joy to read nor is it written with the sort of captivating authorial passion of many other conservation-related works. However, there lies the point of this book. It is not meant to be a celebration but an objective reminder of the stark realities facing numerous bird species on the planet.

The opening section of the book sets the tone with four pages devoted to recent extinctions. I found the two grainy photos of Poo-uli and Bachman’s Warbler particularly poignant as the photos brought home how recent these species were probably lost to the planet. The introduction moves on to look, in a formulaic manner, to look at the 15 threats faced by the world’s rarest birds. Throughout the whole introduction, the technical text is softened, or perhaps enhanced, by the omnipresent photographs, which really underline the authors’ intentions for the birds themselves to be at the centre of the book. A favourite of mine was Savio Bruno’s charming image of a Brazilian Merganser with 8 chicks, which seemed to symbolise a tiny chink of hope for these threatened species.

The main section of the book is sorted into continents and consists of species accounts for all of the birds classed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The book supplies distribution maps and population estimates but the focus of the accounts is very much on the threats facing each bird. As could be expected, the highlight is the often superb photos that accompany most accounts. Where photos for some species simply do not exist, they have been replaced by illustrations by Tomasz Cofta. While I found these drawings a bit childlike and unrealistic, the need for them really brought home quite how perilous the situation is for these species to the extent that no one seems to have been able to have ever taken a publishable photograph despite the recent advances in camera equipment. The species accounts are preceded by a description of the key conservation challenges in each continent and by a look at threatened bird hot spots. I found these particularly fascinating.

Overall, my abiding memory of this book is its photographs of some of the birds I most crave to see. A couple, from the once declared extinct Black-hooded Antwren, which I travelled two hours for in Brazil several years back, to the more familiar Red-breasted Goose, which I twitched in Hampshire, I have already been fortunate enough to see. I am not sure though how this reflects on me. This book was not meant to act as a wishlist but as a powerful reminder that we could lose such spectacular species. If you’re after a great read, this may not be the book for you but it is one that any world birder really should read. For this reason, I look forward to contributing this book to the newly created NGB book swap.

I would like to thank Caroline Priday of Princeton WILDGuides for inviting me to review this book and the company as a whole for the continued support for Next Generation Birders. To look at the great selection of books that they have available, please visit:

-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a recent Classics graduate from Durham University and, after spending his last free summer as a bird guide and hotel manager in Ecuador, now works as an auditor at the National Audit Office. He previously served as Trip Officer in the Next Generation Birders committee and is a trustee of Waderquest charity. When he is not staring at spreadsheets at work, he enjoys NGB trips to Spurn, hill walking and birding in the tropics.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Trip report: Costa Rica by Liam Curson

Country visited: Costa Rica
Locations: Rancho Naturalista, and other areas in the Central Valley
Dates: 18th June - 17th July

For this trip, I owe a lot to fellow NGB Oliver Simms. As you’ll see in the intro to his blogpost here, Ollie received three offers for free room and board from his numerous inquiries to nature reserves. Ollie took the offer of Cabanas San Isidro in Ecuador, meaning he had to turn down Rancho Naturalista. But rather than no-one getting to enjoy this fantastic offer, Ollie very kindly advertised the position on NGB, asking anyone who was up for it to get in touch with him. I most certainly was, and after Ollie gave me the e-mail address of Lisa Erb (Rancho’s owner), I set about persuading her I’d be up to filling his boots! Thankfully it all paid off, and I spent a most enjoyable and rewarding four weeks in the heart of Costa Rica. Here is the story, and some tips for anyone hoping to do similar!

Rainforest looking over Rancho
Now, this wasn't a classic “birding holiday”, unlike my previous trip report for the NGB blog (Fuerteventua in October 2013). I was largely restricted to birding the same patch of rainforest for a month, so it seems silly to write this as a classic report, where I detail all the locations and species in chronological order. I didn't see enough of Costa Rica for that to be representative of all its incredible birding opportunities. Instead, I’ll offer my perspectives on being a bird guide, and the general rules birding in rainforests, with some not-so brief notes on species seen to whet your appetites!

For starters, what’s being a bird guide like? Well, it’s an incredible opportunity to travel, see some wonderful birds and make your life list that bit more respectable! I didn't earn much money at Rancho, as they have very high standards for guides and I was effectively training, so charged no fee. It wasn't so much a job as a working holiday, where flights were my only expense. That being said, visitors who I showed around tipped me generously, so I did come back with $80 more than I departed England with! And once you’re an experienced guide, you can by all accounts make a decent living, especially if you’re young and not tied down! Even the local Costa Rican guides make enough in the high season to support young families, so while it’s a career you’ll choose for passion rather than pay, it is possible to get both.

However, you need a very particular set of skills to be a guide. Skills you have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make you a delight for people like Dave, Kathy, Matt, Nicole, Francis, Fritz, Spencer and others I guided. I think some people make excellent guides, and some people don’t. All the professional guides I met excelled with their expertise in finding and identifying the birds, their almost telepathic sense for knowing where they were going to appear and when, and eyes/ears that put most ordinary birders to shame. But above all, you need good people skills to make it as a guide. If you could put every guide I met in Costa Rica in one place and have a party, it’d be phenomenal, as they’re collectively one of the nicest, funniest, most intelligent groups of people I've ever met. To make it in this business, you’d have to be!

Don’t let my descriptions put you off, or make you think you’re unsuitable for it though. If you’re passionate about birds, confident with identification from birding in the UK, patient with less experienced birders and have good people skills, and get as much of a kick from sharing the beauty of a bird with others as you do from seeing it for yourself, you’ll do well. It’s just all about proving yourself capable once you’re out there, and if you contact enough reserves you should hopefully find one that’ll give you a chance. If you have experience volunteering, and leading any kind of wildlife walk for local societies in Britain, it’ll look even better. 

Moss Walking Stick
I’d wholly recommend it, as an intrinsically rewarding thing to do, a great way to test if you’re suited to a career in birding, and an incredible way to see other parts of the world and their vast, mind-boggling array of birdlife.

However, if you've never birded in the rainforest before, you’re in for quite an experience! Birding is full-on here. My best advice is to study what you’re likely to see in the area first, as while a bird guide for Costa Rica will list 800+ species, no more than 500 of them will have occurred at any one site, and no more than 200 of them are likely to occur in the immediate area you’ll be staying at in the season you’re staying there (I might be making some of those figures up!). I was lucky in having an excellent checklist to study for Rancho, which listed each bird, it’s frequency, and the seasons it was likely to occur in. It’s also the case that for many species, when you see them well, you can sometimes have no problem just flicking through the field guide til you find the right one, tropical birds can look pretty distinctive! Even infamously tough groups like the Woodcreepers are completely do-able with decent views, knowing what to look for (easy enough to do by reading up beforehand), and a knowledge of what occurs in your area. 

Long-tailed Skipper
What will strike you about rainforest birding though, particularly, if like me, the most tropical you've been is Cyprus, is the heat and humidity. This, combined with the altitude, meant that I went from being reasonably fit in the UK to knackered by a twenty-minute walk when I first arrived! Your body gradually accustoms to this, but birding in the rainforest always feels pretty intense. The levels of patience waiting for tiny birds to jump out of impossibly thick cover, the neck-craning to desperately try and get onto feeding flocks, the fact that the forest can often go completely dead, especially from about 10am to 3pm, can all be a bit soul-destroying at first. But the required early wake-ups are surprisingly easy, since it gets dark at six and you tend to be in bed by eight or nine. And given time in the forest, you learn the ebbs and flows of activity, and how to get the most out of your birding.

Do be careful for some of the more dangerous aspects of the forest too! I had one far-too-close encounter with a Jumping Pit Viper hiding in long rank grass (and with no herpetological expertise, I thought it could have been anything from a harmless Boa to the rather certain death associated with a Fer De Lance), and be especially cautious if going out at night. As fellow guide Stephen Easley quite bluntly put it, if you’re walking along a stream between 11am and 4pm (we were discussing looking for Costa Rica’s many rare and endemic amphibians with guests), you've got a death wish. All the staff at the lodge wore knee high wellies every time they ventured far into the forest, which protect you from most snake strikes, but they would have been pretty awkward for 4km birding hikes, so I was more cavalier.

While I’m at it, I may as well warn you of the insects too. I appear to have a miraculous ability not to get bitten TOO badly even without dabbing liberal amounts of bug spray, but some people would get absolutely savaged by mosquitoes if they forget so much as a single hard-to reach spot on their neck. My main issue was ants. Some of the smaller species could give a fairly nasty nip, while Fire Ants are well named. When I got bitten by an Army Ant, it’s a struggle to describe the pain. But it’s probably not that different to putting your fingertip under a stapler and slamming down on it. I had quite a strong painkiller gel in the first aid kit I tried never to go anywhere without, and I’d advise you to do the same. The pain wore down from cursing blue one minute after the bite, to a numb ache five minutes later, after half an hour it didn't hurt at all. Don’t let any of that put you off though, as long as you do actually escape with your life (as everyone I know so far has managed to do!), the rainforest encounters provide you with pretty excellent campfire stories!

Ah, and the birding itself, which I’m sure is all you’re really interested in. Well done for persevering all my waffle and trife, and I hope the next few paragraphs are at least a little bit worth it! 

My first day (June 19th), saw me studying Hummingbirds for most of the morning. I’d really recommend getting to grips with these as soon as you can (should you be in Central/South America!), as they’re by far the most obvious birds by far, show ridiculously well on the feeders and identifying them always impresses guests who've never visited the tropics before. Each part of the tropics will have a few very abundant species, a few regular species, a few less common species and a few which constitute genuine rarities. Only worry yourself with the first three categories until you’re accustomed well with all of them, a good rule for all families in the rainforest! My best Hummingbird that first day in terms of rarity was Stripe-throated Hermit, a common species but one I didn't see every day. Green Hermit and Violet Sabrewing were both pretty stunning no matter how regularly I saw them, though I must admit I was a bit blase towards Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, White-necked Jacobins, Brown Violet-ears and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds after the first few days. Other highlights from day one were the stunning Violaceous Trogon, Rufous Motmot and Keel-billed Toucan , all of which I’d go on to see regularly, but still incredible to see the first time! Montezuma Oropendolas, one of the most abundant and charismatic birds, made me smile every single time I saw them for the whole month I was out there. 
Grey-headed Chachalaca
Day two was characterised by my first Crested Guan, and what a bird that was! I've never seen something so utterly, beautifully prehistoric, nor seen such a large bird (Turkey sized or bigger) move so nimbly through the lower reaches of a canopy. Green Thorntail and Black-crested Coquette were both tiny little gems of hummingbirds, utterly adorable and showing well at one of the feeders. Masked Tityra was incredible, when perched on a tree with wings fanned out it looked for all the world like a black and white Wallcreeper. Speckled Tanager too, was a new bird and resplendently plumaged. The following day was much of the same, but I do remember being utterly bedazzled by a Collared Aracari, a Toucan with a velociraptor-like bill that made it look fierce indeed.
Collared Aracari
Over the coming days, as my knowledge grew and I went out birding with groups and other senior guides, more and more incredible species began flooding my senses. The immaculate Snowcap, perhaps THE most beautiful Hummingbird in the world, was quite something. Green-crowned Brilliant was another absolutely marvellous hummer. I even started identifying Woodcreepers, confidently picking out Wedge-billed, Streak-headed and Cocoa. I saw my first of both White-collared and White-ruffed Mannakins, had glimpses of the mega elusive Black-throated Wren and Dull-mantled Antbird, and eventually started seeing regular Tawny-chested Flycatchers, the bird that is a real attraction for the serious birders visiting Rancho, the one they’ll struggle to get anywhere else in the world. I visited a few other sites with groups and senior guides, but taking in a few varied habitats such as wetlands and rapids. At the former, Boat-billed Heron and Yellow-headed Caracara were highlights, the latter was almost indescribable with my first Sunbittern (WHAT A BIRD!), Torrent Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe, Buff-rumped Warbler, Bay Wren and Amazon and Green Kingfishers
White-necked Jacobin
As time wore on, I started scouring slightly different habitats around the lodge, and by improving my ability to bird, plus occasionally getting lucky and helping the professional guides and their groups, I started picking out more and more of the tricky species. Species like Yellow-billed Cacique and White-lined Tanager in the sugar fields on 1st July, Sulpur-winged Parakeet and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis the following day, a Black-headed Saltator on the 5th, and showing all those patient enough out of a large group some elusive White-ruffed Mannakins on the 6th. This was interspersed with heading back to the rapids and finding five resplendent Sunbitterns, and locating a Rancho rarity in the shape of a pair of Green Ibises. On the 7th I set myself the challenge of a bird race, being out from 3am til 6pm. I was pretty pleased with 63 species, though later when birding with Harry, and having his expertise at hand, we recorded 81 in a single morning! These 63 included a stunning lifer in a pair of Common Pauraque, gorgeous views of a Crested Guan at daybreak, refinding the Green Ibises, and as the day ended, being afforded views of Snowcaps and Purple-crowned Fairies bathing in riverside pools that would make the gods sing. 
Brown Violet-ear
The following four days or so gave biblical proportions in a different sense, namely rain! With Belgian guests staying, both I and pro guide Cali tried gallantly, taking umbrellas and returning with waterlogged shoes, and we did have some pretty good highlights; lekking White-collared Mannakins, stunning Slate-throated Redstarts, Lineated Woodpeckers, the enigmatic Rufous Mourner and a new Woodcreeper for me, a Plain Brown (which is quite pretty despite the moniker). We also located a small army ant swarm, which I did my best to find something good on as I tracked it round the forest for the next week or so, but which never seemed to hold more than Immaculate Antbirds, Checker-throated Antwrens and a few Rufous Motmots. All stunning birds though!

With Stephen Easley and two guests, AJ and Kim, I eventually got to Cerro De La Silencio, a mountain that had almost acquired mythical status in my mind, on 12 July. It’s barely four km from Rancho to the base of the mountain, but reaching the summit and its mythical birds (Resplendant Quetzal and Lovely Cotinga among others), is one hell of a challenge, and I’m afraid its one I’ll have to wait til my next visit to conquer. Even at the base though, I was introduced to totally different birdlife. Not so much due to the altitude, I suspect, as the fact that backing away to the north from this mountain is nearly 100 miles of pristine, completely protected forest. Costa Rica in fact has more of its land (¼) protected from development than any other country on the planet. This meant species less common at Rancho like Black Guan, Common Bush Tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager and Golden-bellied Flycatcher could be found, while other species like Tawny-capped Euphonia and Silver-throated Tanager I did eventually find at Rancho, while properly exploring some of the upper reaches of the forest here. The day finally ended on a high when, with newly arrived guests Fritz and Spencer from Florida, I successfully located a Mottled Owl on a night walk, a just reward after many near misses and hearing birds tantalisingly close. 

Violaceous Trogon
It’s rather a shame Harry Bernard, mentioned several times above, didn't arrive until the 15th, two days before I was prior to leave. He was doing much the same thing as me, getting free room and board in exchange for guiding services, the only difference being that Harry is a damn good guide who’s been visiting Costa Rica since he was 14, and is good enough by far to charge a fee. This also meant he completely outshone me, and as I said it’s a great shame that he didn't arrive sooner to help speed up my learning curve. It was his knowledge of calls and keener eyesight that really helped, alongside many years birding around here giving him an intuitive knack for knowing what was likely to pop out in front of you. A good days birding on the 15th saw us pick out by call Brown-throated Scythebill, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Thicket Antpitta and Eye-ringed Flatbill, and actually see other species I just hadn't encountered beforehand, like White-vented Euphonia, lekking White-crowned Mannakins, Ashy-throated Bush Tanager and Silver-throated Tanager. The following day was when we managed 81 species in just a single morning, including two lifers in Brown-hooded Parrot and Band-tailed Barbthroat. We then had a great, brutal and exhausting game of football with twenty or so locals in a park in the nearest village. 
Roadside Hawk
And then, by 07:00 on July 17th, Lisa was driving me back to San Jose airport, and by 13:00 that day the adventure was over, I was boarding a plane, tropical birding had ended and normal life could resume. But normal life would never quite be the same again, and I made a promise to myself, there and then, that I’d be back in the tropics whenever I could. I’d advise that you do the same too.

Postscript: I’d just like to thank Lisa Erb and Mario Cerdas, the husband and wife team running Rancho, for being so accomodating and patient as I learnt the birds and did my best to help out. Alongside John and Kathy Erb, and Wayne Easley and Kevin Easley (owner of company Costa Rican gateway, great if you’re planning a birding trip there) they give Rancho a distinctive family vibe, albeit a disproportionately Texan one! I also owe a great deal of gratitude to the guides who let a rank amateur come along and pretend he was helping, if you’re in need of a guide and visiting CR, take my word that Stephen Easley, Harry Bernard, Herman Venegas, Rick Taylor and Cali, Christian, Charlie and Chico (afraid I either don’t know or have forgotten the surnames of the last few), are all well worth the money to hire, they will blow you away with their knowledge, good humour and patience.

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

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!
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 (, Race4Birds ( 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
"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.