Friday, 17 May 2019


Frank Gardner - keen birdwatcher

TV journalist Frank Gardner was today named as new president of the BTO.

Gardner (57), who is the BBC's security correspondent, succeeds another BBC broadcaster, Chris Packham, who has, after three years, stepped down by mutual agreement with the BTO because of pressure of other commitments.

An old boy of Marlborough College and  graduate of Exeter University with a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies, he spent between 1986 and 1995 as an investment banker with first  Saudi International Bank, then Robert Fleming Bank, before making the bold decision to quite the financial world in favour of journalism, working initially for BBC World TV.

Spotting a gap in coverage he moved himself and his heavily pregnant wife to Dubai in 1997 to set up as a freelance Gulf stringer covering all 6 Gulf state countries and Yemen.

In 1999, London-born Gardner was appointed BBC Middle East correspondent in charge of the bureau in Cairo, but travelling throughout the region.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York, Gardner focused on stories related to the so-called ‘War on Terror’, a phrase he always disliked, working to steer his audiences away from many of the prejudices and stereotypings that sprang up in the wake of those attacks.

Colleagues and viewers credit him for his excellent communication skills and his breadth of knowledge of Middle East affairs,

On 6 June 2004, while reporting from a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, disaster struck.

Gardner was shot six times and seriously injured in an attack by al-Qaeda sympathisers. His colleague Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers was shot dead. He was left partly paralysed in the legs and dependent on a wheelchair.

After 14 operations, seven months in hospital and months of rehabilitation he returned to reporting for the BBC in mid-2005, using a wheelchair or a frame.

A keen birdwatcher (he has made a TV documentary on birds of paradise), Gardner also enjoys scuba diving and winter sports

President of the Ski Club of Great Britain until 2017, Gardner is now a Patron of Disability Snowsports UK  with Pippa Middleton. 

After his injuries in 2004 he relearned how to ski using a bobski (also called a sit-ski), that allows disabled people to ski while seated. 

Awarded an OBE in 2005, the father-of-two is author of three books Blood and Sand, recounting his Middle East experiences,  Far Horizons, describing unusual journeys to unusual places, and Crisis, his debut spy thriller set in Colombia.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019


Taking the helm - Beccy Speight

THE RSPB has today  announced that Beccy Speight will become its new chief executive.
She will succeed Mike Clarke who revealed last September that he wanted to leave post by the end this summer
For the past six years, Ms Speight has been chief executive at the Woodland Trust  where she is credited not only with having increased income by more than  35 per cent but also with sharpening the focus of that charity and raising its profile.
She has also won plaudits for building new partnerships, refreshing the culture  and providing dynamic leadership.

It is possible she was encouraged to apply for the position by the chair of the Woodland Trust, Barbara Young - Baroness Young of Old Scone - who was herself the RSPB's first female chief executive.

Announcing the appointment, the RSPB's chairman, Kevin Cox, the charity's chair, said: “We are delighted to welcome someone of Beccy’s calibre.

“We are at a key point in history for nature conservation in the UK when the natural world is coming under increasing threat.

“At this crucial time of change, the RSPB must evolve to respond to these threats, ensuring that we are in the best possible shape to make a difference for nature.

“The organisation has undergone a period of significant change over the past year.
"Beccy’s outstanding track record, personal qualities and commitment to the cause of nature conservation will ensure the charity continues to move forward with confidence."
Mr Cox expressed his thanks to Mr Clarke who has served the RSPB in various capacities for the past 30 years.

Mike Clarke - bowing out after 30 years

He said: "Mike  has been instrumental in driving significant growth in membership, while modernising our mission to ensure we remain relevant in a changing world."
Ms Speight faces a formidable challenge - she will be responsible for operations and management at more than 200 RSPB nature reserves across the UK, visited by around 2.5 million people every year.
Said she: “I am really excited about joining the RSPB. The fight to save nature has never been more important and the RSPB is uniquely positioned to make a difference.
“This is an interesting and challenging time for the charity and I'm looking forward to getting started."
Ms Speight's start date at the RSPB has not yet been announced. 

Friday, 10 May 2019


Whitethroat - 'animation and vitality'

FIFTY years ago, catastrophe decimated the UK's population of whitethroats.

A drought in the species' wintering grounds in the western Sahel, just south of the Sahara Desert, caused as many as 70 per cent to perish. 

That was back in 1968 and 1969, and numbers were low throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

Since then, however, they have bounced back, and this enchanting, scratchy-songed summer migrant is now numerous and conspicuous along hedgerows in many parts of the UK.

In 2000, there were reckoned to be about 945,000 pairs, but, notwithstanding a dip last year, the number has probably comfortably passed the million mark over recent years.

In the book, The Bird Listener *, Lord Grey of Falloden - Foreign Secretary in the run-up to World War One - is quoted as describing the whitethroat's song as "fussy, as if the bird were always in a hurry or slightly provoked.

"Sometimes the tones and manner suggest scolding, but the prevailing impression it gives is that of excitement and happiness, and its animation and vitality area a pleasant feature in the places that it chooses to inhabit. 

* The Bird Listener: How birdsong brought joy to the life of a much-troubled British politician


Thursday, 9 May 2019


The swift - a species that has been in steady decline

A BRIGHTER future could beckon for the UK's swifts thanks to an ongoing initiative by housebuilder Barratt Developments.

The Daily Telegraph is today reporting that the company will be installing special swift-nesting bricks "in all the houses it builds in ten of Britain's largest towns and cities".

Today's Telegraph report

This should boost numbers for a fast-flying migrant species that has declined substantially over the past 30 years because of lost nesting habitat.

Barratts has already set a precedent by installing similar bricks in one of its developments in Oxfordshire.

The locations where swifts are set to benefit are: Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Ipswich, Manchester, Newcastle and Oxford.

Housebuilders have an unenviable reputation for taking much more out of nature than they put back, but could this be set to change/?

It is hoped that other large housebuilders such as Bellway, Bovis, Galliford, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey might be prompted to follow the example of Barratts.

Swifts - part of the summer skyscape


Wren - a species susceptible to the cold

HOW hard did the cold winds of March last year hit UK birds?

According to the BTO, the so-called Beast from the East may have had a significant impact on both resident and migrant birds.

In a report, compiled jointly with other partners, including the RSPB, it says the goldcrest saw a population decline of 38 per cent, while wren and long-tailed tit were down by 21 per cent and 22 per cent respectively in comparison with 2017 figures. 

As a group these birds are the real lightweights of the bird world, weighing in at between five and 10 g.

 As such they can be particularly vulnerable to cold weather, and even though the shock delivered by the Beast was relatively brief, it appears it was enough to hit these birds hard.

It looks as though the very cold spell also hit kingfishers, with the 2018 breeding population down by 38 per cent on the previous year.  

The sudden freezing of shallow water  prevented them from accessing the small fish they feed on.

While all this was unfolding in the UK, our summer visitors were safely ensconced in sub-Saharan Africa, thousands of miles from any snow and ice. 

However, when the time came to head back to the UK, the Sahara desert was experiencing strong northerly winds, seemingly hampering the northward return journey and many were late back or arrived in lower numbers. 

This appears to have had quite an impact on the number of returning birds. Last summer, house martin was down by 17 per cent, sand martin by 42 per cent and swift by 20 per cent

And, says the BTO, it was not just the aerial feeders that were affected.

The willow warbler, for instance, was down too, by 18 per cent.

While some of these birds may have been affected by the weather during migration, it is unknown what effect conditions in their over-wintering grounds might also have had on these year-to-year population changes.

It wasn’t all bad news and some birds apparently managed to either tough it out.

The grey heron's breeding population was stable, perhaps because its diet is flexible.

The cuckoo may have managed to time its migration flight across the Sahara to coincide with favourable winds. Not only did the species arrive back on cue, they bred in good numbers - up by 22 per cent on 2017. 

What a welcome break for a species suffering a long-term decline of 41per cent between 1995 and 2017.

Comments the RSPB's principal conservation scientist, Mark Eaton: Knowing how bird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to bird conservation.

"The long-term trends for population changes in this research are a very important indicator of the health of our countryside. "

Wednesday, 8 May 2019


Starlings - reasons for decline not fully understood

THE starling and the rook are both declining in Scotland, according to  research published earlier this month.

A BTO-backed survey indicates that the number of breeding starlings in Scotland fell by 28 per cent between 1995 and 2017.

Across the UK, they have declined by 52 per cent. 

Says the BTO: "When watching starling murmurations during the winter months it is easy to think that all is well with this familiar species, but a large percentage of the birds that make up these swirling flocks come from countries outside the UK, some from as far away as Russia.

"The reasons for this decline are not fully understood. 

"With breeding success increasing across the UK, falling survival rates, especially of first-year birds, appear to explain the decline. 

"The loss, or changing management of grasslands that provide starlings with invertebrate food could be the main ecological cause of these changes, but this needs further research."

The statement continues: "As we make our homes more energy- efficient, we tend to block the holes into roof spaces, reducing the number of nesting holes for species such as starlings. 

"By providing a nest box with a 45mm entrance hole, the householder could relieve some of the struggles these birds are facing."

In Scotland, the rook, has also seen its numbers fall long-term, down by 37 per cent during the same period. 

Loss of unimproved grassland might  be a driving factor in this decline.  

On the plus side, several species have seen their breeding populations doing well in Scotland.

These include the chiffchaff, great spotted woodpecker and blackcap - up by 780 per cent, 417 per cent and 451 per cent respectively between 1995 and 2017.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019


TV presenter and birder Chris Packham is on the front page of today's Daily Mirror newspaper after he revealed that that he has this week received a death threat letter.

The BBC TV Springwatch host  has been victim of  hate communications over his high-profile campaign - as a director of the Wild Justice lobby group - for tighter legal controls on the shooting of species such as carrion crows, magpies and woodpigeons which are reckoned to cause damage to livestock, crops and other birds.

His actions have outraged some landowners, farmers, field sport enthusiasts and gun-owners.

The letter says: "We know where you live Packham and we want you dead and we will get you some way or another."

The 57-year-old told the Mirror he has also received through the post other offensive material including human excrement.

However, though disgusted by the conduct of some of his critics, he insists he will not be intimidated.

He has vowed to continue campaigning for the wellbeing of the environment and causes he believes in.

In the meantime, police are investigating.