Thursday, 12 April 2018


Fielding the questions - Mike Clarke (left)  and Martin Harper
AN assurance has come from the RSPB that the controversial wind turbine at its HQ in Sandy, Bedfordshire, is not harming wildlife.

It came at the charity's annual members' weekend where there was an opportunity to quiz directors, including chief executive Mike Clarke and conservation director Martin Harper.

In response to a question about displacement and collision risk to birds and bats, Dr Clarke described the turbine as "probably the most monitored" turbine in the UK.

His colleague noted that, in May and October, the  turbine is switched off at sunrise and sunset in the interests of the noctule and pipistrelle bats that forage at the  site, especially when wind speeds are low.

Searches of the ground under the turbine for mortalities had given rise to no cause for concern.

Further asked if the turbine might be deterring nightjars from nesting on nearby heathland, Mr Harper said this was unlikely because this area was not located close to the turbine. 

The weekend, held at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham, was sponsored by the turbine's operator, Ecotricity, which has a long standing financial partnership with the charity.

One of the speakers at the event was the company's principal ecologist, Simon Pickering, whose theme was the significance of green energy in "helping to save nature". 

The directors also fielded a range of other questions - for instance, how it was seeking to recruit more involvement of  young people and the potential impacts on the societyand on the countryside  after Brexit.

One questioner was disappointed that, following a breakthrough with Barratt, more progress had not been made in encouraging more large housebuilders to incorporate swiftboxes and other wildlife-friendly initiatives into their development.

Dr Clarke was optimistic that progress would be made, but housebuilders would want to establish whether such initiatives would work to their advantage.  

"We're still at toe-in-the-water stage,"he observed.

There was also a query on why the RSPB was not at the forefront of the campaign to crack down on raptor persecution on grouse moors.

The chief executive agreed there were abuses which was why it favoured a licensing system for grouse moors.

But he cautioned that the society could only look at the subject "through a nature conservation prism" and it would be unwise to involve itself with the wider agenda adopted by some campaigners.

He added that there were also risks that the society could "undermine" legal processes if it spoke out too vociferously in advance of court cases. 

The event - the last of its kind - was attended by about 350 members who enjoyed the range of excellent presentations, the various stands and the high-quality food and accommodation.

Along  with other wildlife organisations, the RSPB is a key player in a campaign known as Back From The Brink.

In an entertaining presentation, its communications manager, James Harding-Morris, described how it was working to save 20 species from extinction and to improve habitat for another 92.

James Harding-Morris - saving endangered species

It is hoped the various initiatives will also have a positive spin-off for at least 112 others.

Included in the 19 are Cornish path moss, the pheasant's eye flower, the chequered skipper (which is due shortly to be introduced to Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire), the narrow-head ant, the  beetle fungus lichen and the grey long-eared bat.

In South Yorkshire, it has high hopes of  increasing numbers of the willow tit - an endemic sub-species found nowhere else outside the UK.

James' colleague from Buglife, Dr Sarah Henshall spoke on the importance of wood pastures - a form of habitat whose best known representatives include long-established deer parks such as Blenheim Park, Sherwood Forest and Windsor Park.

The hundreds of trees, many hundreds of years old, invariably contain much decaying wood which is precious for woodpeckers, some 200 species of insect and all 17 UK bat species.

"For an oak, life begins at 300 or 400 years' old," she said. "Decay is part of the ageing process  - like hair turning grey or middle-aged spread. But these trees often have plenty of life left in them."

Dr Henshall said decaying trees suffered from an image problem which often resulted in them being felled unnecessarily.

"Sometimes we are too keen to try to tidy up Nature."

Her observations struck a chord with the RSPB's chairman of council, Kevin Cox, who quoted Oliver Rackham's line about "the vandal hand of tidiness".

Earlier, Kendrew Colhoun, RSPB's only conservation scientist in Northern Ireland, amused his audience with a witty talk about how he was monitoring the foraging behaviour of  swifts through  use of a tiny tracking device attached to the backs of chosen individuals.

"It's a fiddly job,"he joked. "I wish I had surgeon's fingers, but mine are  short and stubby."

Some Belfast nesters make a daily 60-mile round trip to feed on black flies emerging from the waters of Lough Neagh.

But the research has also thrown up invaluable insights on the habitats favoured by the species in Africa.

Still with migration, Dr Martin Fowie focused on the precarious fate of the turtle dove whose UK population  plummeted by 94 per cent between 1995 and 2015 and continues to fall.

It is known to  be a target species for hunters in France, Spain and North Africa, but it has also been hit by loss of habitat - for instance, the sort of trees where it likes to perch, in its African wintering grounds.

The RSPB is doing its best to reverse the decline of this much-loved species.

In her talk on  women in conservation, Dr Jen Smart reminded her audience of the pioneering role of such figures as Eliza Phillips and Emily Williamson whose involvement with campaigning organisations such  as the Plumage League and the Fur and Feather League led to the founding of the RSPB.

Currently, 55 per cent of staff at the charity are women, but only 45 per cent hold management positions.

She noted that women who left work because of motherhood found themselves at a disadvantage to men when it came to resuming their career path, especially if they wanted it to  be upwards.

She also noted that research articles in scientific publications have overwhelmingly been written by men.

Jen, who is an expert on waders, specifically redshank, revealed that she started her own career  as a nurse, but it was a job which she seldom enjoyed.

However, her life changed when she enrolled in a course on countryside management and, for the past 11 years, she has worked for the RSPB, latterly as principal conservation scientist. 

A word, too, for  casework officer James Dawkins who led a tip-top interactive seminar on how to respond effectively to planning applications which threaten birds and Nature.

Others  who contributed to a great event included: Rory Crawford,, Mary Davies, Rob Farrington, Lesley Fletcher, Rebekah Flynn, Ashley Grover, Louise Hughes, Jo Judge, John Kelly, Kate Lewthwaite,  John Mallard,  Chris McKenna-ell, Cheryl Nicholson, Louise Parr-Morley, Jack Plumb, Adam Rowlands,Lee Schofield, David Sexton, Cleo Small, Giselle Sterry, Shaun Thomas, Nicky Thomas, Mark Ward, Rob Whyatt and many other RSPB staff who worked tirelessly over the three days.

Pictured below: More scenes from the well-attended event
The Orchard Hotel where many of the attendees stayed
Senior policy officer Simon Wightman who spoke on the RSPB's partnership working with water companies
Hands up if you're joining the birdwatching walk
Stand  staff were never less than friendly and helpful
Happy to help - one of the holiday trade stand representatives
Brisk trade at the  binoculars sales stand

Always eager to find a home for Nature
An endless stream of inquiries kept RSPB staff busy
Capturing the action was this RSPB photographer
A good time was evidently had by all - including these two members

This trio of students did a great job flying the flag for the RSPB in Northern Ireland

More reports from the members weekend at:


See also:

Tuesday, 10 April 2018


Nottingham venue for the conference

ABOUT 350 members attended the showcase annual members’ weekend at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham.

That’s well down on the days when the event would sometimes attract more than 800, plus a further 200 day visitors.

Even so, it proved to be a superb event with presentations from top communicators - many of them RSPB staff - plus sales stands featuring everything from bird feeders to Christmas gifts to binoculars and ‘scopes.

One of the most encouraging presentations came from Martin Lines, who farms south-west of Papworth in Cambridgeshire, and who, in January this year, was instrumental in setting up the Nature Friendly Farming Network (                                                            
Martin - farmer who speaks up for Nature

He recalled the time, not so many years ago, when food production was the sole imperative, resulting in dykes being filled in and hedgerows being ripped out - activities greatly to the detriment of many birds.

But he is in the vanguard of a movement that aims to restore lost habitat in order to encourage the return of traditional farmland species, such as skylarks and corn buntings, plus butterfies, bees and other wildlife.

The wildflower margins to his fields encourage pollinator insects which are invaluable on his crops, and the beetle banks he has created provide a habitat for creatures that prey on harmful slugs.

“The aim of the network is to help recreate a vibrant countryside,”he declared. “For so long, the voice of nature-friendly farmers were drowned out by others, but, with the backing of groups such as the RSPB, we are now being heard.

Martin ended with a call to members to write, expressing appreciation, to those farmers who were doing their bit for birds and wildlife.

Another star speaker was conservation scientist Ellie Owen whose life changed when, aged just 16, she went on a solo trip to Fair Isle and photographed a puffin with a single (rather than numerous) sandeel in its bill.
Ellie - authority on puffins

 It alerted her that all was not well, and she began her study, which continues, on the diet of this iconic marine species.

Now working for the RSPB, she is responsible for the hugely successful ‘puffin paparazzi’ project which encourages people to submit photographs of birds with food in their bills.

Last year, no fewer than 1,402 photographs were submitted by some 602 participants, providing valuable insights not only into the range of  different  fish favoured by puffin but also how the health of sandeels in being adversely affected by changes to plankton caused, apparently, by rising sea temperatures.

Among admirers of a collage, depicting a puffin (made from the individual photographs), was former US president Barack Obama who even  took to Twitter to express a favourable comment.

Among other inspirational speakers at the event was the RSPB’s project manager for reserves, Adrian Thomas who is helping to spearhead the campaign to save Lodge Hill in Kent - the UK’s top breeding habitat for nightingales - from being lost to development.

But it was with a presentation about wildlife gardens, both his own and those of others, that really enthused his audience.                                             
Adrian was happy to sign copies of his very impressive book
To his delight, kingfishers and bathing sparrowhawks are already being attracted to the pond which he recently created with the help of a friend. He also has a pair of stock doves in one of his nestboxes.

“Gardens provide one of the UK’s most diverse habitats,” he said. “I know they face no end of disturbance from cats, dogs and a lot else, but they are all different which is what makes them so valuable.”

In response to a question, Adrian expressed his concern at the growing extent to which mysterious chemicals are used on plants and bulbs in garden centre.

The effect of many of these was to confuse beneficial insects or disrupt their breeding behaviour.

He noted that one of the better firms was B&Q which has a policy of sustainability in how it sources supplies. 

The conference also heard an intriguing presentation from the RSPB’s recovery projects manager, Hannah Ward, about the ongoing initiative to boost the UK breeding population of black-tailed godwits.
Hannah Ward - godwit chicks look "ridiculously cute"

 As a UK breeder, the species became instinct in the 1800s because of hunting, egg-collecting and land drainage, but it returned in the 1930s.

However, it has failed to make much headway, and there are only a few nesting sites - the most notable being the Nene Washes which has about 90 per cent of the summer population in Britain.

Project Godwit has involved creating habitat, protecting nesting sites with fencing and culling predator such as foxes and carrion crows - a regrettable practice because these creatures are part of the ecosystem but necessary if the godwits are to succeed.

Under a technique known as ‘headstarting’, some eggs have been taken from nests and incubated in a controlled environment in Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust labs at Welney.

“As chicks, the birds look ridiculously cute,”said Hannah.

The scheme has worked well, and once capable of flying, the young birds, with colour rings on their legs, are released into the wild where they soon acclimatise.

Black-tailed godwit - helping hand from Hannah
A couple of the birds have been spotted in France and Portugal on their way to wintering grounds in Senegal and other parts of West Africa.

Reports of sightings are always welcome, and more information is available at

Monday, 9 April 2018


Understanding but unhappy - three of the event's attendees

TIME has been called on one  of the most popular events in the UK birding world calendar.

RSPB chiefs have decided to scrap the popular members' weekend that had been held annually for at least the past 40 years.

There were gasps of dismay from delegates when chief executive Mike Clarke dropped the bombshell at what proved to be  the final weekend held at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham on Friday, Saturday and Sunday..

Bearer of sad tidings - Mike Clarke
He attributed the decision to falling attendances and rising costs which had been depleting charity's  to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds at a time when the charity's finances are likely to come under increasing pressure - not least because it is likely to lose out on precious EU funding after Brexit.

"We have thought long and hard,"he said."We postponed the decision right up to the wire - specifically to the Tuesday before Easter.

"I recognise that, for many people, the event has become part of their lives. We really wanted to make it work.

"But it is not efficient  use of our resources. If we had continued, we risked being left exposed.

"I know it is a big adjustment. A sense of family has always been part of our ethos - it is  ingrained in our DNA."

The chief said the organisation would now explore staging a series of more localised events in various parts of the UK.

However, he cautioned that these would be on a smaller scale. "We won't be able to do all the things that we do now."

Mr Clarke is immensely  popular with staff and members, most of whom were understanding.

There were plaudits that he had been upfront with members and had not hidden behind a press release or a message on social media.

But there were also plenty of anger. Why was a membership organisation so seemingly ready to alienate its members?

Why had no  costings been provided? Why had the event not been better publicised? What alternatives, if any, had been explored?

Manchester attendee Heather Walker expressed the dismay of many when she attended a Q&A session with the chief.

"This has been devastating, "she said. "I am sure many here are very disappointed, not to say angry.

"There has been no consultation with members. Why was there no warning?

"This decision has come from out of  the blue."

Sense of dismay - RSPB members gasped as the announcement was made

Monday, 2 April 2018


Simon King - chief guest at the opening

THE controversial new Spurn visitor centre is now open.

The project sparked huge ill-feeling and aggro last year over fears that it would steal habitat and commercialise a site, long cherished for its wildness.

But Yorkshire Wildlife Trust decided the benefits would outweigh the disbenefits and pressed ahead.

Wildlife broadcaster  and  photographer Simon King did the opening honours on March 20 "to mark the completion of the new visitor gateway to Spurn National Nature Reserve".

Says the YWT: "The centre offers fantastic views of the reserve and estuary with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

"The facility includes a cafĂ©, a dedicated education space for school groups and displays offering an insight into Spurn’s rich heritage and the variety of wildlife and habitats to be found in the reserve."

Addressing the audience at the launch, Simon King said:  “I am  honoured to have been asked to take part in the official opening of the Spurn Discovery Centre.

"Having a resource like this in such a magnificent wildlife hotspot will serve to help engage a far broader cross-section of visiting public than has been seen to date.

"Only by forging a connection between ourselves and the wild world can we hope to foster a respect for and recognition of the true value of the very resources upon which our own survival ultimately depends.”

Funding for the new build has been provided by energy supplier E.on (through its Humber Gateway Offshore Wind Farm Community Fund) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government through the Coastal Communities Fund.

Spurn is a site for all seasons, but   highlights include the spectacle in spring and autumn  of bird migration.

Due to the exposed and recognisable coastal location, visible migration can be often be seen in action as birds head south along the peninsula, on some days you may see ‘falls’ of birds measured in their thousands.

Latest sightings (for Easter Sunday) include  firsts for spring of ring ouzel and swallow.

A long-eared owl was showing by Rose Cottage as was a little stint on Long Bank.

Two tawny owls have been present, in recent weeks, prompting hopes they may stay to breed.

For full information about visiting Spurn, including Spurn Lighthouse opening hours, Spurn Safaris, bike hire and more, click :

Note also the website for Spurn Bird Observatory:

Friday, 30 March 2018


Shoveler - a species  that might be attracted to the proposed reserve
THERE has been a setback to ambitious plans for a dedicated Special Protection Area
to be created for wader and wildfowl  on the outskirts of Grimsby.

National Grid has submitted  a holding objection to the Cress Marsh project because the proposed wetland is crossed by  both an underground  high-pressure gas pipeline and a high-voltage transmission overhead line.

This has created a potential hazard, particularly during all-important preliminary earthworks to  the application site which is adjacent to  Poplar Farm off South Marsh Road in Stallingborough.

The scheme has also been jeopardised by concerns expressed by neighbours that their property or land might be adversely affected by flooding  or drainage issues.

One of the objectors is the agent for  Sir Richard Sutton Ltd, a company whose substantial interests are understood to include not just adjacent  land but also part of the  site proposed for the reserve (which would also accommodate a hide for birds to be watched and recorded).

These glitches are not insurmountable, but they are likely both to delay the project and to add to its cost.

On the plus side, there has been no objection from Humberside Airport which is located at Kirmington.

The site falls just within its 13km airport “bird zone", and its aerodrome safeguarding officer  has requested to be consulted on wildlife-monitoring processes  to reduce the  birdstrike risk.

The applicants, North East Lincolnshire Council, are particularly anxious that the wetland scheme should progress because it represents the  wildlife mitigation required for proposed development of the wider area for industry.

More discussions will be held between NELC planners and objectors.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018



RSPB's 2018  Big Garden Birdwatch results have revealed a golden year for goldfinches (pictured above)..
Says the charity:
  • Favourable conditions lead to a surge in sightings of goldfinch, blue tit and coal tit, along with many other smaller garden birds.
  • The results revealed a dip in sightings of our more solitary species like blackbird and robin as the mild winter meant they spent more time foraging for food away from our gardens.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK spent an hour watching the birds that visit their garden or outdoor space as a part of the Big Garden Birdwatch.
  • An impressive 6.7 million birds were counted nationally.

The event held over the last weekend in January revealed an increase in sightings of smaller birds, such as goldfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit that can usually be seen visiting gardens and outside spaces in mixed flocks. 
In Lincolnshire, for instance, recorded sightings of goldies  rose by 14 per cent on 2017 and its bright red face was seen almost 40 per cent of the county’s gardens.
Other small birds that are thought to have benefited from the mild January weather include coal tit and blue tit.
It also proved to be a good year for the greenfinch which seems to be making a welcome recovery following its 60 per cent decline in UK sightings since the first survey in 1979.
The influx of these species to our gardens is thought to be linked to the favourable conditions during their successful breeding season in 2017. 
This, combined with the kind autumn and winter weather in the run up to the Birdwatch, will have contributed to the rise in sightings. 
Daniel Hayhow, RSPB Conservation Scientist, comments “Our garden birds are a part of our everyday life, whether it’s the robin perched on the garden fence or the flock of starlings you see on your way to work. 
"To have hundreds of thousands of people spend an hour watching the wildlife in their garden isn’t only great to see, but it also helps us build up a picture of how our garden birds are doing, which is really helpful.
“Last summer was a really good year for many breeding birds with warm weather creating great conditions for many smaller birds to raise their young to adulthood. 
"The rise in sightings of goldfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit, along with chaffinches and greenfinches, goes to show that in the absence of cold weather they can survive the winter months in good numbers.
"It is likely that the warmer temperatures during the autumn and winter will have made it easier for these birds to find food, like insects, in our gardens, which in previous colder winters would have been harder to come by because of frosts and snow.
A  dip in the number of recorded sightings of blackbirds, robins and wren may have been  because, with more food  available in the wider countryside, these species were less inclined to visit gardens.
However, unlike finches and tits, robins and wrens did not have a good breeding season in 2017 and data from other surveys indicate that their numbers may be down overall this year.

Just over 420,000 people are understood to have taken part in the Big Garden Birdwatch.
  • All photos courtesy of RSPB.




Long-tailed tit


House sparrow


Monday, 5 March 2018



LAST week's  blast of  cold weather from the east brought an influx of fieldfares (such as the one above) to many gardens - especially if there were any berries left on shrubs and bushes or, better still, if apples or pears lay on the snowy lawns. By the start of this week, the winds had become southerlies and many of these handsome members of the thrush family will have taken full advantage of the changed conditions to migrate overnight back to Iceland and other Nordic countries where they breed.