Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Preserving our Hobby

Conservation in Cuddesdon. Who would have thought it? Back in April I was contacted by Barry Hudson, then chairperson of the Oxford Ornithological Society and one of the nicest men you may meet. He was aware of the pair of Hobbies that have bred locally and asked if I would be interested in helping put up an artifical nest platform.  I jumped at the chance, and after an early Spring visit to the nest site with Barry and Pat Wixey, we arranged that Andy, a member of the local raptor study group, would come around and position the artifical nest. 

The timing was perfect, for the old crow's nest that the Hobbies have bred in for at least the last three years was blown down in the gales at the beginning of this year. The nest platform is essentially a converted hanging basket:


In late April Andy climbed the nest tree and I guided him to where I thought the old nest had been. He secured the nest platform and within two weeks the Hobbies were back and immediately took up residence in their new, secure home. By late July three chicks were developing nicely. Andy returned to ring the chicks are collect discarded prey items for study. He took this fantastic picture of the chicks in the nest:

I have to admit to having some personal doubts about the effectiveness of ringing birds in these times of developing technologies such as satellite transmitters. According to the Migration Atlas, published by the BTO, there have been 1,179 Hobbies ringed in the UK, 95% of these ringed in the nest. Only 37 recoveries have been made of British ringed birds, a recovery rate of 3.2%. Only 8 of these were abroad, none further south than France. Even in the European context, there have been no ringing recoveries south of the Sahara. Ringing has failed to establish the wintering quarters of Hobbies in Africa. 

This situation is similar to our knowledge of Eleonora's Falcons. These migratory falcons breed on Mediterranean islands and migrate to Madagascar each winter, but the migration route was unknown. Satellite transmitters were then attached to birds and suddenly we discover the exact migration route and wintering areas, which surprisingly was not around the coast of Africa at all:

Full details here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2605830/
Perhaps it is time for a similar study to be carried out on UK Hobbies?  However, it was fabulous to see the Hobby chicks up close, ringing went smoothly and by mid-August all three young had fledged:

They then spent a month or so in the local fields and skies, developing their hunting skills and feasting on invertebrates in freshly ploughed fields. Here is one of the young birds, complete with ring, photographed in mid August:



By now they are (hopefully) somewhere south of the Sahara, feeding in African skies. A huge thank you to Barry Hudson, Pat Wixey and Andy for introducing wildlife conservation into Cuddesdon. We look forward to the return of these fabulous falcons next spring. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Our environment is being corrupted because the system is corrupt

Following my last post I began to wonder about the economic viability of spring sowing of cereal crops in order to allow farmland birds and wildlife to feed and overwinter in the stubble. The RSPB recommend it (1), but more importantly do the NFU regard this approach as viable? Then I came across this statement on their website:

"Farmers also have been reluctant to plant spring crops without neonicotinoids" (2

Ah, neonicotinoids. Is there a better example of the corruption of government and those that lobby it, in recent times? 



Neonicotinoids, like the chemically similar nicotine, have been very popular. They are registered in more than 120 countries and with a turnover of €1.5 billion, they represented 24% of the global market for insecticides in 2008. Unfortunately there is good evidence that neonicotinoids are damaging to insectivorous bird life (3). In addition, a recently published analysis of over 800 published papers concluded that:

"The present scale of use, combined with the properties of these compounds, has resulted in widespread contamination of agricultural soils, freshwater resources, wetlands, non-target vegetation and estuarine and coastal marine systems, which means that many organisms inhabiting these habitats are being repeatedly and chronically exposed to effective concentrations of these insecticides" (4

Last summer, with a Europe wide ban for neonicotinoids appearing imminent, in a staggeringly cynical and depressing move, the UK Government and one of the major producers of this insecticide, Syngenta (supported by the NFU and the then “Environment Secretary” Owen Patterson) applied for an exemption for the ban in the UK, arguing that there was insufficient proof of harm(5).

Fortunately, the European Union, unlike the UK government, does appear to place public and environmental health above the profits of farmers and the agro-chemical industry. Neonicotinoids were banned in Europe for 2 years, with the exception of use in greenhouses and outdoor use after the flowering season (6). 

But what does this have to do with Cuddesdon? DEFRA's own published figures on UK farmland bird populations show a 50% loss in the last 40 years (7): 


What will these numbers be like in another 40 years if nothing changes? With continued intensification of agriculture and insecticide use will there be any bird or insect life left in our “countryside”? And do the farmers and the government really believe that this will not affect public health or the cost and means of food production? 

Our environment is being corrupted and poisoned because those in power choose to prioritise the interests of agricultural chemical companies and the NFU over independent scientific advice. The system is completely corrupt. For this is not a problem restricted to birds on farmland. Those in positions of power are deliberately allowing the destruction of the very ecosystems in which we all live. We all need insects, in our fields, in our rivers and in our skies. Birds are just an obvious marker of insect populations. And farmland bird populations are plummeting. 

To date it appears that neonicotinoids have had a devastating effect on insectivorous wildlife across Europe and those in power have seen our ecosystems poisoned and biodiversity reduced to the brink of collapse on their watch. Will they only act when farmers to have to spend millions of pounds buying in insects to pollinate their own crops? And is there any hope of anything changing when UK environmental policy equates to the needs of the agro-chemical industry and the farming lobby? 


Still 89 species for the year. We are all doomed. DOOMED! 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

A sky full of Jays



Jays were very obvious on Sunday morning. It is always tempting to put the increase in visibility of this attractive species down to migrant birds passing over in autumn. However, the majority of the birds I saw had acorns in their gullets and were moving between feeding and acorn storage sites. Perhaps the behavioural changes stimulated by the acorn crop just bring this secretive woodland dweller out into the open more in autumn? 

However, some birds were migrating through in small flocks, like these three heading north:

Now only the very top fields remain unploughed and these areas of stubble are a haven for wildlife. This field, just north of the village, held over 200 Linnet, 50 Skylark, 10 Meadow Pipits, a Reed Bunting and probably much more:

The surrounding ploughed fields were devoid of life and this field will be turned over during the week. Of course, it doesn't have to be like this. A less intensive approach to agriculture, such as spring planting, has been shown to be economically viable and actually boosts farmland bird species. This method would leave these wildlife oases intact over the winter to provide food and cover for farmland species. Even the larger mammals, such as these Roe Deer, use the stubble for food:


It is still too warm for the traditional September misty mornings. Just a slight haze on Sunday:

But the leaves are changing nicely:

(Still) 89 species for the year.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Something is better than nothing

The hedgerows are bursting with promise and autumn has finally arrived:

A movement of gold caught my eye through the hedge. An exceptionally early Yellow-browed Warbler? Dream on. Examination of the other side of hedge proved otherwise. A helium balloon. A waste of precious helium and plastic dropped into the environment too. I love being a grumpy old man. There is so much to be angry about. 

The first migrant of the afternoon, was this splendid male Migrant Hawker dragonfly. There were quite a few around the hedgerows today:

In the fields, all too quickly, the stubble is gone. Bad news for the seed-eating finches and buntings, but a freshly ploughed field in mid-September? Surely there should be something out there?

It took a while, but then searching for small brown birds in a large brown field is not easy. Eventually something moved. And then perched. A Whinchat:

Which then flew and landed next to... 2 Wheatears. All three birds are pictured here, the Whinchat to the right, 2 Wheatears on the left:
At last some scarce migrant bird species, after a full month of regular coverage this autumn. Scarce is, of course, a relative term.  Next, something really good please. 

89 species for the year.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Autumn - apparently.

A rather frustrating start to autumn, as it has not really started yet. Last year in late August there were multiple records of Wheatear and even a Whinchat (see here). This year, absolutely nothing. So far. The habitat looks as good as it is going to get, with some nice ploughed areas ready for the Wheatears:

Despite night time temperatures barely dropping below about 15°, the early leaf dropping trees, such as Horse Chestnut, tell us autumn is here:

Recent records of note are very few and far between. A Swift on 30th August was the latest ever by nearly two weeks. It flew in from the east, attracting attention as it was mobbed by a Crow:


The local Red Kites are in full wing and tail feather moult. You can clearly see the newly growing central tail feathers on this bird:

The mild temperatures have helped ensure that butterflies are still with us. Red Admirals are common:


Yellow Brimstones, much less common out here, are building up their fat reserves to overwinter, one of the few butterflies to do so. This is a male, hiding his luminous yellow upperwings:
Locally breeding Yellow Wagtails, Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Swallows and House Martins are still present. Chiffchaffs are in most of the hedgerows, some of them autumn singing. There was even a Willow Warbler in with them this morning. All three young from the local Hobby pair are still feeding above the fields. The only other birds of note are the developing Linnet flocks, out to the east of the village. Now that harvest has taken place, but before the land is ploughed for autumn sowing, there is a brief window of opportunity for the seed eating birds to feast. There were over 200 Linnets and 30 Yellowhammers in the fields this morning. Before agriculture intensified and the autumn sowing of crops began on an industrial scale, these birds could have fed in the stubble all winter. Now they only have a few weeks before everything is ploughed in. This is one of a number of reasons why modern agricultural practices have decimated our wild bird populations. Here are some of the current Linnet flock:

At least 2 pairs of Green Woodpeckers have produced young in the village. One pair feed around the college gardens, the other in the local park. In late August the young were still quite immature, with much grey in their plumage:

By early September they are rapidly acquiring adult plumage:


Still 89 species for the year. Perhaps this will change next week? 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

One Hare

There is a nice play on words in Urdu based on the similarity in sound between the name "Iqbal" and the words "ek baal", which literally translated means "one hair". As a result, any man with serious hair loss issues can be referred to as Iqbal, for he is indeed a man with very few hairs left. Since discovering this piece of word play whenever I see a single Brown Hare I play my own version of the game and whisper his name to myself: Iqbal. One Hare. There was an example this morning:
Iqbal in North Field

Also in North Field were 2 Ravens and this pellet. At first I assumed it was an owl pellet, the undigestible regurgitated remains of the last few meals. However, a little research reveals that the size, colour and location mean it is more likely to be a Common Buzzard pellet:

A Treecreeper by the pond was a real surprise, the second of the year, but only the 4th in the last 6 years and the first ever summer record. They are rare birds out here in these arable lands. The local Hobby pair have fledged 2, possibly 3 young, but I was surprised to come across them on the ground, in a recently ploughed field. Searching for insects on foot perhaps? Below is a hastily thrown together montage of the juvenile birds in flight, with an adult, centre:
Within a few weeks these beautiful falcons will have left us for their sub-Saharan wintering grounds.

89 species for the year (no additions since April 21st!)

Dutch Birding


No publications for over 40 years and then three come along all at once. Dutch Birding, the European birding journal, went for my favourite image of the female Caucasian Grouse that I stumbled across in April: 





Thursday, 7 August 2014

Norway in July: Walking with Bluethroats, swimming with Goldeneye

We spent 10 days in mid July in Norway on a family holiday. Our first five nights were spent at 1000 meters altitude on the edge of the Rondane National Park at Brekkeseter in Høvringen. We were just above the treeline and sometimes just above the clouds:

Our cabin had a grass roof and Rondane National Park was our back garden:

Garden wildlife included Mountain Hares...

... the abundant Willow Warblers...

... the always shy Ring Ouzels...

... and big noisy Fieldfares. These birds are abundant around Cuddesdon in winter and it was a treat to see them on their Norwegian breeding grounds:

Further afield, out on the fjell, were proper mountain birds. Dotterel, Ptarmigan and Red-necked Phalaropes can all be found in these hills. But not if you are accompanied by a 2 year old and a 4 year old. We made do with the local Willow Grouse...

... and the ubiquitous Bluethroats. This fabulous species was common on the fjell and around Brekkeseter. We saw males:

Females:

... and lots of freshly fledged juveniles. Superficially similar to juvenile Robin, although they already have the orange tail bases of the adults:

The scenery was stunning, this is Tverrgjelet, a Great Snipe breeding area:

Grimsdalen:

Golden Plover were common local breeders:

The nearest hill held a breeding pair of Rough-legged Buzzards. I photographed this female bird at 10pm, it is illuminated by the orange tones of the setting sun:



Some other wildlife: These Lapland Ringlet butterflies were abundant around Brekkeseter:

Yes, it did survive.


One evening my wife came across a Norwegian Lemming standing it's ground on the path. Using her phone, she captured this brilliant video of it shrieking madly before it scuttled off: 




Guess which of these children is NOT Norwegian?

After a fabulous five days in the mountains we headed south. We stopped at this motorway service station on the E6 some 90 minutes south of Rondane:

Note the grass covered roof on the filling station, the perfectly clean lake for children to swim in. There are tennis courts just visible in the right of the picture and a beach volley ball court behind them. Clacket Lane Services it is not. Some 5 hours later we arrived our friend's place, on Lake Lyseren, 30 minutes south-east of Oslo. It was a picture:


On our first evening we sat on the balcony and watched the sun slide into the lake as the clouds turned pink. And then, in this scene of utter tranquility, something astounding happened. A fireball exploded low in the northern sky. A dazzlingly bright streak of white light, which appeared to explode before vanishing. Brighter and stronger than any meteor I have ever seen, even with the sun still on the horizon. It looked something like this:

Having recovered from the shock of witnessing a truly rare astronomical event, and one in such scenery, we settle into life by the lake. I indulge my inner Wild Swimmer and head out into the lake a few times every day:

And out in the lake I bump into more wildlife. The local breeding ducks are Goldeneye, which by mid July are in an unfamiliar (to me) eclipse plumage. You could be forgiven for thinking that these were two female Goldeneye:

But when they take flight the extra white patch on the secondary coverts of the left hand bird reveals that this is an eclipse male. Compare wing patterns with the female, on the right:

Juvenile Goldeneye are very plain brown birds:

If I swam up quietly I could approach Goldeneye to within 10 meters or so, but occasionally they would pop up next to me, as close as 5 meters, a fantastic experience. In the centre of the lake was a family of these beauties, Red-throated Divers:


The butterflies here were more familiar, this is a Peacock:

This a Silver-washed Fritillery:

Norway is a fabulous country with some very special wildlife, we had an idyllic time. My Bluethroat encounters in particular, will long remain with me: