Tuesday, 17 September 2019


White crowned sparrow - migration slowdown

A FARM pesticide that was banned last year on fields in the UK and most of the rest of Europe was probably harming birds as well as insects. 

That's the conclusion of scientists at York and at Saskatchewan in Canada who carried out an experiment with white-crowned sparrows, then published their findings in this month's edition of Science magazine.

Birds that fed on seed sprayed with neonicotinoids  reduced both their further consumption  of food and their fat levels.

As a result, they delayed their migration by an average of 3.5 days while they sought to 'refuel' from other sources in order to build up their strength.

Although their exposure to the pesticide was sub-lethal, the migration delay is thought to have had carry-over effects that may have affected both reproduction and survival.

Neonicotinoids were banned after research indicated that they had a disorientating affect on bees which are important pollinators.

* Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikimedia Commons



Fixing 'broken farming system is a prerequisite'

 THE RSPB's head of conversation, Martin Harper, has hit out at the continuing lack of progress in tackling the  UK's "ecological emergency."

"There is intense frustration that inadequate progress has been made to put in place tangible measures," he says in his latest blog.

"What is more, it now seems efforts over the past 12 months in progressing important legislation may go unrewarded.  

"The  prorogation of Parliament and the possibility of a General Election being called means that any legislation that has not completed its passage through both Houses will fall. " 

That means  the  relatively friendly wildlife-friendly Agriculture Bill will probably be no more.

Mr Harper was writing after the RSPB's annual Westminster parliamentary reception held on  September 3 for MPs and peers.

His blog  continues: "We need politicians to be at their best to find a way safely through the Brexit impasse, especially avoiding a No Deal Brexit which would create extreme jeopardy for the environment. 

" We need them to use their political voices for nature.

According to the RSPB chief, " fixing our broken food and farming system is a prerequisite to addressing the climate and environment emergency".

He says : "The Agriculture Bill was a first tentative step in the right direction, promising to redirect funding for farmers toward ‘public goods’, such as the conservation of wildlife, natural flood risk management and public access.

"Introduced in September 2018, under normal circumstances the bill should have received Royal Assent by now. 

"We should be talking about how to enact its provisions and mapping out a just transition to a new system. 

"But these are not normal circumstances.

"We are now faced with acute uncertainty, with no clarity on when an Agriculture Bill Mark Two will make it back to Parliament. 

"At a time when we need to be sending clear signals to the farming community that nature-friendly, agro-ecological farming is the future, this current mess couldn’t be more damaging.

"We can only hope  that the demise of the Agriculture Bill is merely a ‘bump in the road’. 

"Defra must now come back with an improved, more ambitious bill that matches the scale of the climate and environment emergency that we face.

"Anything less will be a disaster for many progressive farmers and the wildlife that depends upon them."

Thursday, 12 September 2019


Will illuminated fake palm tree prove hazardous to migrating song birds?

PLANS are afoot for a  22-metre high plastic palm tree to be installed on the seafront at Cleethorpes in North-east Lincolnshire.

The proposal has upset some birders who believe it would be more environmentally sensitive to plant real trees.

Because the artificial tree will be illuminated after dark, there are fears that the light will disorientate migrating warblers and other songbirds, possibly causing them to crash into it - with fatal consequences.

Says the council's deputy leader, Coun John Fenty: "Art can be controversial.

"Did you know that the Angel of the North was strongly opposed, but now is a much loved landmark?

"The objective of the overall project is to drive footfall along the prom which will have a positive impact on businesses and health and wellbeing."

He continues: "Public art can be Marmite - love it or hate it, it’s a talking point. 

"If The White Palm lures you down the prom. don’t forget to buy a stick of rock, or an ice cream, then it’s job done!”

Wednesday, 11 September 2019


What could be more moving? But the beams confuse migrating warblers and other birds -  with potentially fatal consequences 

BIRDERS will be on special alert tonight - 9/11 - in New York's lower Manhattan district.

As part of the annual Tribute in Light commemoration of the terrorism attacks that brought down the Twin Towers, two blue beams will shine vertically into the sky.

Unfortunately, there has been a downside to the tribute which was established in 2002.

For unknown reasons, artificial light mesmerises many birds - especially fledgling seabirds and migrating songbirds - just as it does with moths.

Disoriented and exhausted birds are then at risk of crashing - with fatal consequences - into skyscrapers .

Birders, including members of New York Audubon Society, will be standing directly under the beams (which are visible from as far as 60 miles away). 

They have secured an agreement with the tribute organisers to turn off the lights (comprising dozens of 7,000-watt bulbs) for 20 minutes every time 1,000 or more birds are circling or one that is exhausted falls to the ground.

In artificial light, it is hard to identify birds, but, to help the process,  recordings will be made of their calls.

Species thought to be especially vulnerable include American  redstarts, ovenbirds, black-and-white warblers and northern parulas. 

The number of avian victims fluctuates from year to year according to the weather and phases of the moon.

In 2010, a new moon and cloudy skies yielded an estimated 10,000 birds caught through the night - the lights had to be shut down five times!

Photo credit:   Anthony Quintano/ Flickr via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

* For more on the phenomenon of migrating songbirds being mesmerised by artificial light, Lighthouse Birdwatcher is available, price £1, via Kindle Books.


Hen harrier - a bird that "inspires and brings joy to many"

AN upbeat note has been sounded on this year's breeding success of hen harriers in England.

According to today's statement from Natural England, 15 pairs produced a total of 47 chicks  - up one on the previous highpoint of 46 set in 2006.

The positive result means the last two years have produced 81 fledged chicks, surpassing the total for the previous five years put together (55). 
The chicks have also hatched in a wider variety of areas this year, including  Northumberland, the Yorkshire Dales, Nidderdale, Derbyshire and Lancashire - leading to hopes that a corner has been turned in the restoration of the hen harrier population.
Natural England chairman Tony Juniper has welcomed the progress - but also sounded a note of caution.
Says he: "I should like to thank all of the organisations, staff and volunteers who have  helped to make this a better breeding season for one of England’s most iconic birds.
"While it is very welcome to see this improvement, we must remember that the hen harrier is still very far from where it should be as a breeding species in England, not least due to illegal persecution.
"I shall be working with Natural England colleagues to pursue all options for the recovery of this wonderful bird, a creature that inspires and brings joy to  many people. 
"It would be a tragic loss for our country, children and grandchildren if this majestic bird were to remain so scarce, or even disappear, in the future."
A wide range of organisations are said to have "come together to work in partnership" to make sure that the hen harrier chicks are well looked after and protected for the future. 
This collective effort has helped improve the communication and liaison between land managers.
The organisations and individuals include: Natural England, RSPB, Forestry Commission, the Moorland Association, United Utilities, the National Trust, Hawk and Owl Trust, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Northumberland National Park Authority, Peak District National Park Authority, Nidderdale & Forest of Bowland Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, local police forces, individual Estates and their keepers, farmers and a large number of volunteer raptor enthusiasts.
A high proportion of this year’s chicks have been fitted with satellite tags, which will allow Natural England to monitor the progress of the birds as they move away from their nest areas.
In February, Natural England published a study paper which analysed the findings of satellite tagging data collected over 10 years. 
The study revealed that young hen harriers in England suffer abnormally high mortality and the most likely cause is illegal killing.
Police Supt Nick Lyall, chairman of the raptor persecution priority delivery group, said: "This is welcome news, and I hope that through Operation Owl we can help to keep this new generation of hen harriers safe from persecution.
"I would encourage the public to be our eyes and ears on wildlife crime and make sure it is properly reported to local police forces for investigation.
Ian McPherson, Member Champion for the Natural Environment for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said: "At long last, there are grounds for cautious optimism with hen harriers again breeding successfully in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. 
"These are magnificent birds, ideally suited to the Dales, and their long absence has shamed us all.
Dr Adam Smith, of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: "More hen harriers, better distributed, has been our conservation goal for many years. 
"So the trend toward more harriers breeding successfully in the English uplands over the last two years is very encouraging. 
"We hope successful grouse moors managing a co-existence with harriers will become a regular part of our moorland management scene.
Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, commented: "It has been a fantastic year for hen harriers with a year-on-year increase in both the geographical range of the nests and the type of land on which they have successfully fledged, most notably on privately owned grouse moors.
"The collaboration on the ground has been second to none. 
"There is a real commitment to restoring the population among those with rural and conservation interests at heart, and we believe that we are beginning to turn a corner.
According to the Natural England statement, 11 of the successful nests  on land managed for grouse shooting.
Six of the nests were " diversionary fed", the chicks being  offered supplementary food to the chicks after they  hatched.
This technique is said to have ensured both a better fledging rate and diverted the adult birds’ attention from taking grouse chicks.
Of three nests which failed  in Northumberland, two were lost to bad weather and the other was predated.
The Natural England statement continues: "The introduction of a trial brood management scheme in 2018 through which landowners volunteered to test new methods to help reduce parent bird predation on grouse chicks has been welcomed as a positive development in efforts to improve hen harrier numbers.
"Brood management is part of a scientific trial to find another mechanism to reduce predation of grouse chicks. 
"The hen harrier chicks have been released back into the locality from where they were collected once they were capable of fending for themselves."
* Photo credit: Isle of Man Government via Wikimedia Commons


Monday, 9 September 2019


The former Test cricketer's hard hitting article in The Daily Telegraph

IAN Botham may have retired from playing cricket, but that has not stopped him bowling bouncers on issues about which he feels strongly.

In a punchy article in last Friday's edition of The Daily  Telegraph, he hit out at the RSPB over its expensive project which aims to wipe out the stoat population in The Orkneys. 

The Sandy-based bird charity describes its initiative as the  'Orkney Native Wildlife Project' - in reality a controversial stoat eradication programme whereby the creatures are killed by lethal trap.

Stoats are not native to the Orkneys, but, since their arrival nine years ago, they have multiplied.

Because they are strong swimmers - at least over short distances - they are capable of moving from island to island.

The RSPB wants rid of them because they largely feed on ground-nesting moorland, grassland and coastal birds and their eggs, plus the unique Orkney vole.

However, culling creatures on a huge scale sits uncomfortably with many - including members of the charity which has not been particularly upfront about the project.

It is understood that it has engaged the services of a New Zealand company which has supplied both the traps - 20,000 of them  - and the expertise.

Some £7-million is said to have been earmarked for the project, with most of the monies coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£3.5-million), The European Union (£2.6-million) and the remainder from Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB itself.

The cull has the backing of the Orkney Islands Council, and also, so it is claimed, the majority of residents.

However, Botham is staggered by the scale - and cost - of the project.

"Is this the same charity that kills animals only as 'a last resort'?" he demands.

It remains to be seen whether the RSPB will correspond to the cricketer's article or whether, instead, it will hope the controversy blows itself out.

Friday, 30 August 2019


Common sandpiper - watched  by the Prime Minister in St James' Park, a short walk from 10 Downing Street

EVERYONE knows about Neville Chamberlain. 

He is the slightly-built man standing at an aerodrome, simultaneously waving a piece of paper in his hand and proclaiming something about peace in our time.

That is the image most people have of Chamberlain - surely one of the most ill-regarded prime ministers of the past 100 years.

Ever since 1939, his apparent readiness to 'appease' the territorial aggression of Hitler has been roundly condemned as spineless and shameful.

The extent to which that unkind perspective is justified is entirely another matter. 


In any case, a single episode in his political career should not be allowed to obliterate all other considerations of Chamberlain - a decent, shy and misunderstood man who, in his 71 years, made an enormous contribution across a wide spectrum of human activity.

Before entering politics, he was a sisal farmer in The Bahamas, then a successful businessman at an engineering works in his native Birmingham.

Less well known is that he was also a skilful angler, entomologist . . . and birdwatcher. 

 Chamberlain kept records of his sightings, including hawfinch 

He kept diligent records of the birds (including red-backed shrike and hawfinch) he saw in and around Birmingham, during his time as a pupil at Rugby School and on holidays, both home and overseas.

Up to February 6, 1917, these were the 55 species he had managed to record in the grounds of Highbury Hall where he grew up:

Barn owl
Red-backed shrike
Spotted flycatcher
Pied flycatcher
Mistle thrush
Song thrush
Hedge sparrow
Sedge warbler
Grasshopper warbler
Willow warbler
Great tit
Blue tit
Coal tit
Long-tailed tit
Pied wagtail
Yellow wagtail
Meadow pipit
House sparrow
Carrion crow
Green woodpecker
Lesser spotted woodpecker
House martin
Sand martin

Of these, the most notable is probably red-backed shrike, a bird now lost Britain as a breeding species but one he had also once spotted in the fields of nearby Kings Norton. 

In the Bahamas, he is credited with  having found a new species, the Bahama oriole.

Even as Prime Minister, he found time to ‘escape’ from 10 Downing Street in order to track the species (including scaup and common sandpiper) in nearby St James’ Park.

Scaup - unusual visitor to London park

He learnt the craft of taxidermy, and some of the birds he stuffed while in The Bahamas are held at the Natural History Museum's collection at Tring in Hertfordshire.

This study explores the life and enthusiasms - especially for ornithology - of a most intriguing man.

It is available, price £1, as an Kindle e-book from:


Photo of Hawfinch: Mikils/ Wikimedia Commons