Monday, 27 March 2017



THE turtle dove may  become  "lost to Britain as a breeding species".

That was the sombre message from the director of the BTO, Dr Andy Clements, at the annual meeting of Lincolnshire Bird Club where he was guest speaker.

The decline of the species - by 93 per cent since 1994 - been attributed mostly  to loss of its preferred seed foraging habitats both here and in West Africa where it winters, with disease
(notably one caused by the 
trichomonosis parasite) and illegal  shooting on its migration routes in southern Europe also thought to be factors.

"It is really sad to see the demise of such a lovely bird," said Andy (pictured below). "It may be too late to save it as a native breeding species."


Although nowhere near as much so as the turtle dove, most of the traditional summer migrants to Britain are now in steady decline, with the South-east particularly hard hit.

This deteriorating situation is consistently confirmed every year both by observation and by Birdtrack software and other data-collection technology which now records not just distribution of species but also abundance.

On the plus side, the past 20 years has seen a spectacular increase almost everywhere in the population of buzzards.

Andy also made reference to bittern whose growing readiness to breed in newly-created inland reedbed sites should  help to compensate for the potential loss of traditional coastal haunts whose suitability is being increasingly threatened by saltwater incursion as a result of rising sea levels.

Of smaller species,  meadow pipit data has revealed the huge importance of the whole of Ireland to over-wintering birds.

Andy, a father-of-two, is a University of Bangor BSc graduate who subsequently did postgraduate research at Durham University, then  lectured in zoology at the University of Sussex where he also researched birdsong.

After leaving the academic world, he spent 24 years at the Nature Conservancy Council, an advisory agency to the Government, where his activities included fieldwork on upland birds, communications, liaising with European Union partners and helping to  secure National  Lottery funds for community wildlife projects.

Andy also had spells both with  the Department of the Environment and English Nature, and, in early 2006, he was one of those instrumental in setting up Natural England on whose board he still sits.

Since taking over the reins at the BTO 10 years ago, he has seen membership increase from 12,500 to about 20,000 and raised the profile of the organisation, not least in influencing Goverrnment policy.

During his presentation, at Horncastle's  Admiral Rodney Hotel, he described how most of Britain's songbird migrants are now arriving on our shores significantly earlier than in the past in order to take advantage of insects which are emerging earlier as a result of climate change.

Two notable exceptions, however, are the swift and the cuckoo where preliminary evidence suggests that they pause prior to the most perilous  part of their northward migration - over the Sahara - to fuel up  on flying insects and termites

However, they have to await these creatures' emergence which first needs to be triggered by heavy rainfall.

Andy could not emphasise enough the importance these African rains. If they do not occur, the impact can be severe for migrants - a notable example occurring in the 1970s when there was a "catastrophic collapse" in whitethroat numbers.

Much of the focus of Andy's talk fell on the cuckoo (pictured) which, as he pointed out, spends far more time in the African jungle - sometimes in the company of such exotic species as gorillas - than it does in Britain where its breeding sojourn is all to short.


Tagging adult males with satellite transmitters has come up with some fascinating information.

Individual birds tagged within 100 km of each other in East Anglia have been found to take highly divergent migration routes south - some through Italy and some through Spain.

Remarkably, they  all end their journey  with 100km miles of each other in Africa.

Why different routes should be chosen is not clear,  but the identity of the individual host species which rears them as chicks is apparently of no significance.

What routes do the female cuckoos take? As yet, the answer to this is also unknown. 

They are lighter than males - too light to allow satellite tagging which is only allowed if the weight  of the device attached is up to a maximum of three per cent of a bird's body weight.

In the past, the BTO tend to channel most of its communication activities towards Government agencies, but Andy is keen to broaden its outreach to the wider community. He is determined that the welfare of birds should be in the public eye - especially if there is a chance of co-operation between nations helping to ease political discord.

However, for this to effective, he said: "Society needs to care."

In his resolve to spread  the message about birds in the media, the organisation has had  some success in obtaining coverage both in national newspapers such as The Independent and  on social media such as Twitter.

With iconic species such as cuckoo and nightingale, the chances of stirring public response are favourable.

Much more of a challenge is posed by, say, the rapidly-declining spotted flycatcher - loved and cherished by all birders but whose unspectacular plumage and thin song is unlikely to be of wider appeal.

Does society care? If so, to what extent?

For the answers to these and other questions only time will tell.

Following his fascinating and infomative talk, Andy was warmly applauded  by members  and thanked by the chairman of the LBC, Phil Espin.

* The BTO is at:

* Lincolnshire Bird Club is at:

Turtle Dove: Photo by Yuvair via Wikimedia Commons

Cuckoo: Photo  by Chris Romeiks via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 21 March 2017


Craig Ralston (left) and other  delegates at the York conference

KEYNOTE speaker at the BTO conference in York was Craig Ralston, senior reserves manager for Natural England.

His hour-long presentation was on management of  the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve in East Yorkshire. He described it as “a jewel”. 

The reserve is a particularly strong habitat  for wildfowl, and Craig enthused  about the high numbers (up to 700 birds in winter) of one of his favourite species, pintail. 

Gadwall used to be infrequent visitors, but now they are widespread, second only to mallard when it comes to the reserve's breeding ducks. 
Shoveler - plentiful on the reserve, especially in winter
By contrast, the past 20 years has seen “a massive decline” in Bewick’s swans, not because of deficiencies in the reserve’s management but because birds that used to come to the UK are responding to climate change by wintering in Holland, Germany and Denmark.

Whooper swan - always a pleasure to see in winter
The reserve is also an important migration stopping off point for many waders, including whimbrel, which spend much of summer in Iceland and winter in Guinea.

Craig is keen to spread the word about Natural England’s successes as widely as possible in order to encourage people, adults and children alike, to enjoy wildlife.

“A job is only half done until you tell people about it,” he insisted.

To this end, he or colleagues regularly visit schools, and, from time to time, he has even donned a fancy dress whimbrel outfit to promote the cause at public events in town and city centres.

“To show that  we take health and safety seriously, there is always a cork on the tip of the whimbrel’s bill,” he joked.

The conference, held on March 18 at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub, also heard from Rich Burkmar, of the Field Studies Council, on latest QGIS computer mapping technology, and from the BTO’s  Andy Musgrove on how to make the most of the Birdtrack app for computers and smartphones.

Leeds-born Andy has been a birder ever since childhood when the bird that probably hooked him was a visit to the garden by a fieldfare, a bird he had never seen before.

He became an obsessive note-taker and has scores of diaries recording his finds.

But the onset of Birdtrack has made the process of recording a much slicker and more sophisticated process. What is more, the information is shared across the birding and scientific community.

The data overall has confirmed much, for instance, that, compared with yesteryear,  most of our summer birds are now arriving, on average 10 days earlier in spring  and leaving 10 days later in autumn.

Asked by a delegate to name the ever-elusive bird on the British list which he would most like to see, back came Andy's reply: Wilson’s petrel.

There were also excellent presentations from two of Andy’s BTO colleagues, Greg Conway and Dawn Balmer.

Greg described how efforts were being made - where landowners granted permission - to assess the importance of upland farmland (typically sloped sites between moorland and grass fields) for breeding waders such as snipe, oystercatcher, redshank, lapwing, curlew and golden plover.

The prospects do not look particularly rosy because chicks, if not nests, are vulnerable to intensive silage  management and many landowners refuse “point blank” to cooperate on conservation initiatives.

Dawn (originally from Shropshire but married to a Yorkshireman) is head of surveys at BTO and also a member of the Rare Bird Breeding Panel.

She observed that breeding of some species, such as teal, water rail and hobby, were not well recorded and more information was always welcome.

Perhaps controversially, she suggested that - in the case of water rail - the brief use of callback  was acceptable if done for scientific purposes rather than as a means to obtain a better photograph.

According to Dawn, there are about 80 species that fall in the category of rare breeders - that is to say, fewer than 2,000 pairs.

These are divided into: 

* Very rare (fewer than 30 pairs) such as wood sandpiper
* Rare (between 30 and 300 pairs) such as black-necked grebe
* Scarce (between 301 and 1,000 pairs) such as pochard- 302- 1000 pochard
* Less scarce (between 1001 and 2000 pairs) such as avocet 

There are also some species - such as little bittern, great reed warbler and scarlet rosefinch - which are classified as occasional breeders.

Some species, such as red kite (of which there estimated to be about 2,500 pairs) have now come off the panel’s list entirely. 


Mike Brown (left), introduces BTO regional  representatives

A stall selling secondhand books on birds provided additional interest

Monday, 20 March 2017


Jude Lane - from hen harriers to gannets

FASCINATING insights into the flight behaviour of gannets were a feature of the presentation to this month’s York BTO regional conference by Jude Lane.

Jude, who has a MSc in Biodversity and who has worked for the RSPB ( monitoring and protecting breeding hen harriers on upland estates), is now in her third year as a PhD student at Leeds University.

Her work on gannets is largely focusing on the colonies at Ailsa Cragg and Bass Rock, and she is using GPS tracking technology to build on observation from boats (which can only be conducted in favourable weather).
Nesting gannets - these birds are at Bempton in Yorkshire
Her particular interests are in the varying heights at which gannets fly and the behaviour of immature birds prior to breeding.

The commuting flights of gannets are typically “fast and straight” while their foraging flights are “short and twisting”.

When diving for fish, females favour a deep v-shaped plunge, while males are more likely to adopt a shallower u-shape. 

When they make outward foraging flights from nests, the height above water averages 19.8 metres while, on return (while carrying food), the height dips to 13.4 metres. 

Jude is particularly keen to discover the potential impact of existing and proposed wind farms on gannets - both collision risk and displacement from their preferred fishing waters.

Once completed and published, her research is likely to be of significant interest to wind energy developers and Government authorities as well as to environmentalists and groups such as the BTO and the RSPB.

The Ron Cooke hub at York University where Jude addressed the March 18 BTO regional conference 



THE spotlight fell on larger birds at this month’s BTO regional conference held at York University.

The first presentation came from former Harrogate man Phil Warren who has spent the past 18 years researching moorland species.

His special expertise is with black grouse, and he is now pioneering initiatives by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to expand its range in northern England.

The bird has been having a bad time of it for at least the past 25 years - probably much longer.

In 1990, the UK population was reckoned to number some 25,000 males, but, by the last count in 2005, this had fallen to 5,078.

“That’s a staggering and depressing decline,” said Phil.

In Northumberland’s Kielder Forest, the birds were once - in the years before the conifer saplings became established - so common as to be regarded by some as a “pest”.

But once the canopy formed, the habitat changed and the bird  has now almost been lost as a breeder.  

On the plus side - at least in parts of North Yorkshire - the species has held up.

Continued Phil: “If you’re driving through the Pennines, there is a good chance that any black dots you see are more likely to be black grouse than carrion crows.”

The species is famous for the springtime lekking displays of the males. Leks can consist of just a single bird up to 36, but the typical number is six.

In Scandinavia, leks sometimes occur on frozen lakes.

In the UK, the black grouse retains its status as a “game bird”, despite is fragile population, but there is voluntarily moratorium on shooting by estate owners.

In instances, where individual females (grey hens) - which are not dissimilar from their red grouse counterparts - are shot, a fine is imposed, with the money channelled into conservation work.

 A challenge for Phil and colleagues is that, though survival rates for young birds are “good”, breeding productivity overall is low, with an average of just 1.3 chicks per nest. 

The trust is keen to encourage the spread of scrubby woodland, a favoured habitat, not least because it provides a roosting habitat.   

There is also need to encourage sawflies because the larvae are an essential part of the chicks’ diet.

Because of unfavourable habitat or other pressures, there is little prospect of the species being able to extend its Pennine population to the immediate north, east or west, so Phil and colleagues have been focusing on potential areas in parts of the Yorkshire Dales.

“There are indications that translocation may be a useful tool,”continued Phil.

One problem is that, though females disperse after breeding, males are sedentary and return to the same lekking sites of their forebears.

The first translocation exercises failed because the males involved simply returned.

The lesson that has emerged is that project birds - they are caught, after dark, by lamping - need to be transferred  at least 15km away to discourage any attempts to return.

Sites north-west of Hawes and in Upper Nidderdale have been identified as potentially worthwhile as part of range extension efforts.

In response to a question about predator control, Phil said that stoats, weasels and rats were the principle targets.

What about harriers?

“Birds of prey are protected,” he replied.

More information about  the black grouse and efforts to extend its population are featured on the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s website: 

Delegates at the BTO regional conference held at York University on March 18
NEXT: Jude Lane on gannets

Thursday, 9 March 2017


Could Ministry of Defence do more to save migrants? 

Song Thrush caught in net in the Biritsh Base
Song thrush caught up in netting
THE Ministry of Defence is facing renewed flak  over the continuing killing of thousands of songbirds on British bases  in Cyprus.

The birds, including warblers now come to the UK, are being illegally trapped by poachers who use tape lures - recorded  calls - to attract  birds both  to  mist nets and to a glue-like lime  that makes their feet and  feathers stick to perches.

They are then killed  and sold to restaurants where their meat is used in a dish called ambelopoulia

Of the 155 species known to have been killed in this way, 78 are listed as threatened by the EU Birds Directive.

The trapping is non-selective and species caught even include long-eared owls and stone curlews.

Protectionists describe Cyprus' sovereign base areas as "probably the deadliest place for birds in the whole of Europe".

They estimate  that almost one million migratory and resident birds are being trapped and killed there each year.

Mist netting is on an almost industrial scale
A Bonn-based organisation, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, which monitors the situation, claims ineffective enforcement by military police has allowed  the trappers to  "pursue their illegal activities with impunity", and the situation has become "worse than ever".

Chairman Heinz Schwarze says : “We are well aware of the dangers involved in opposing criminal trappers, but these can never be a reason for reluctance to expose and enforce the law.”

The MoD says that, over the past two years, its  police have arrested 62 poachers and
conducted 55 major mist netting clearance operations, resulting in the seizure of 1,330 mist
nets and 857 lime sticks.

It continues: "Policing this area is very difficult, encompassing, as it does, more than 13,000 acres of open land with unrestricted access to the public. 

"Efforts are further complicated by continuing demand for illegally trapped birds elsewhere on the island and by those who see trapping and hunting as traditional ways of life.
"Within the sovereign base areas,  there are no restaurants selling ambelopoulia, but the demand appears to be significant elsewhere, and this is not something the administration can directly control."

Redstart on limestick
Happily this male redstart was rescued after having trapped by sticky lime

The MoD says enforcement actions have met with strong resistance from the local community and have resulted in protests from bird trappers in  summer and winter, 2016.

"Some 60 local residents came out in force one  night, blocked in military vehicles with their own cars and prevented officers' safe departure for a number of hours until the situation was resolved. 

" Police officers employed by the military base have also been attacked and threatened.

"Property nearby has  been damaged and graffiti sprayed on signs."
Bonelli’s Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli)
This  Bonelli's warbler also came to grief  on a limed perch
Below is the letter written by  the Ministry of Defence in response to protests sent to Prime Minister  Theresa May

 Ministry of Defence
Joint Forces Command
Main Building
London SW1A 2HB
United Kingdom


22 November 2016

From Her Majesty’s Government in response to representations on illegal bird trapping in the Sovereign Base Areas to the UK Prime Minister, Rt Hon Theresa May MP.

The Rt Hon Teresa May MP has asked me to respond to you, regarding the many postcards received from members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) on the subject of illegal bird trapping in the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) on the island of Cyprus. 

Your campaign correspondence called on the UK government to take action in response to bird poaching in the SBA and sought assurances that perpetrators are being brought to justice. 

The addresses of some of the many representations could not be easily identified; therefore, we have agreed with Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) they will place this letter on their website. 

Please accept this as a full reply to your correspondence from the UK government.

The practice of trapping birds in the SBA is an issue the SBA Administration has been taking very seriously. 

Whilst this problem is not unique to the SBA, they are aware of problems faced at Cape Pyla near Dhekelia, because it is one of the principal sites on the island for migrating birds. 

During the last two years the SBA Police have arrested 62 poachers and conducted 55 major mist netting clearance operations, resulting in the seizure of 1,330 mist-nets and 857 lime sticks. 

This has impacted on bird trapping activity and bird trapping intervention will continue.

In addition to this continuing enforcement activity the SBA Administration has also taken significant steps during the autumn migration of 2015, and again in 2016, to remove the invasive acacia bushes and associated irrigation used by the bird trappers. 

As you may know, acacia is planted and used by trappers to attract birds towards their mist nets. 

Since November 2014, the SBA has directly removed 61 acres of acacia from the range, at a cost in excess of €400K.

Notwithstanding the success and progress made over the last few years, policing this area is very difficult, encompassing as it does over 13,000 acres of open land with unrestricted access to the public. 

The SBA Administration’s efforts are further complicated by continuing demand for illegally trapped birds elsewhere on the island and by those who see trapping and hunting as traditional ways of life.

 Within the SBAs there are no restaurants selling ambelopoulia (a dish in Cyprus made from songbirds), but the demand appears to be significant elsewhere and this is not something the SBA Administration can directly control. 

However, where possible the Administration will continue to deploy robust enforcement measures and work with others to continue to prevent bird trapping in the SBA.

The SBA Administration’s enforcement and removal actions have met with strong resistance from the local community and have resulted in protests (from bird trappers) in the summer and winter of 2016. 

Most recently, during an acacia clearance operation on 19 October 2016 the cutting of the bushes was interrupted when 50-60 local residents came out in force during the night to disrupt the work.

 The protesters blocked in military vehicles with their own cars and prevented their safe departure for a number of hours until the situation was resolved. 

SBA property near the military base has also been damaged and protest graffiti sprayed on signs. SBA Police officers employed by the base have also been attacked and threatened. Nevertheless, the SBA Administration’s commitment to continuing their efforts to tackle bird-trapping within the SBA remains undiminished.

As part of their enforcement activity the SBA Police continues to work closely with the RSPB and BirdLife of Cyprus to tackle trapping including measures to boost cooperation by undertaking more joint patrols. 

The SBA Administration has also participated with Non-governmental organisations to endorse a Strategic Action Plan to counter illegal bird trapping, which brings various measures together to tackle the problem. 

The plan is currently being considered by the Republic of Cyprus. The offer of collaborative activities has also been extended to CABS.

One of the top priorities in 2015 for the NGOs was for the designation of Cape Pyla as a Special Area of Conservation. This was achieved by the SBA Administration in December 2015. 

As a result of the designation, the SBA Administration has taken on an obligation to maintain the site at a favourable conservation status. An Environmental Management Plan will be drawn up for the area, which will include a provision for the removal of all invasive acacia in the coming years so that natural habitats can be restored.

In addition to enforcement operations, the SBA Police also invest significant time in wider educational programmes in the areas around and in the SBA. 

They work in partnership with the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) Game Fund and BirdLife to promote the protection of wildlife and assist in changing the Cypriot culture towards wildlife in the local communities to reduce demand for songbirds and to educate communities about the effects of illegal bird and wildlife trapping. 

In 2014 the SBA Administration opened a new Environmental Education Centre in Akrotiri within the SBA. This centre offers educational programmes to school children on the importance of migratory birds and their protection.

I hope this correspondence assures you of the seriousness with which the SBA Administration takes this illegal activity, and of the efforts they are progressing to tackle it. 

This remains one of the SBA Administration’s highest priorities, and they remain committed to working with all relevant organisations to do all they can to further reduce bird trapping within the Sovereign Base Areas.

Yours sincerely,
Joint Forces Command

 Below is the response (December 3, 2016) of the Campaign Against Bird Slaughter to the letter from the Ministry of Defence.

 Dear Joint Forces Command

we are thankful for your kind reply to the many postcards received from our members, supporters and overall citizens concerned with the shameful bird slaughter perpetrated in Cyprus and mostly in the British Base Area.

Although we appreciate your statement that "bird trapping has been taken very seriously", we are forced to underline that your argumentation and analysis is not correctly portraying the situation in the ESBA, misleading the public opinion and all concerned birdwatchers and birdlovers in the UK and Europe. 

You may consider that 62 poachers arrested within two years is a satisfactory result. This means 31 trappers per year.

 The truth is that this is a very poor result. According to our monitoring in Autumn 2016, we have observed a minimum of 116 active trapping sites in the ESBA, and this is a conservative estimate, since we couldn't check the whole territory.

 Conservatively trappers are active in the ESBA from end of August until begin of March (some trap also in spring until mid May) for a total of 200 days a year. 

This makes some astounding 30,000 trapping days yearly. 31 arrests show that the police definitely missed lots of opportunities to catch trappers in flagranti.

Just to provide you with an example of good enforcement, the Anti-Poaching Unit of the Italian Forest Police in October 2016 managed to arrest 86 poachers in 23 operational days with three patrols, almost 4 poachers per day.

Even the Anti-Poaching Squad of the Cyprus police is achieving more significant results than the ESBA police: in Autumn 2016 within one month they had 22 people arrested in 18 operational days with one patrol. 

The ESBA is catching on average one poacher every 6 trapping days!

Therefore there is no surprise that also your following statement that seizures and arrests have "impacted on bird trapping activity" does not reflect the reality. 

The situation in the ESBA is worse than ever, with no control, police officers and even soldiers blackmailed, frighetened and subjugated by criminal trapping gangs. And in autumn 2016 we saw no improvement at all.

There was only one night when we could observe a significant lack of trapping activity in the core area with no tape lures calling: it was the night when the BBC crew was invited to join the anti-poaching operations of the ESBA police.

Another bad news is that "acacia salina" is still blossoming in the trapping sites of Cape Pyla. Despite our and Birdlife Cyprus's recommendations about where to eradicate the invasive plant, in order to destroy trapping sites, your Administration is not targeting these areas and the eradication has been taking place where there are no trapping sites or around them. 

So far according to your statement, you have spent 400K € for the eradication, but only 2 or 3 trapping sites out of the approx. one hundred have been affected. 

For sure, if you negotiate with the trapping communities where to eradicate the acacias, this will never give the expected results.

The last criticism we are forced to move towards your policy addresses the issue of the difficulty of policing the core trapping area, Cape Pyla, an "open land with unrestricted access to the public". 

Cape Pyla trapping area, with some one hundred of well marked and known trapping sites, is served by 5 roads which are used every morning by trappers from 4:00 a.m to 5:00 a.m. 

Every morning the same cars at the same time drive down and up this road, like going to work. 

In addition the activity of each trapping site is signaled by a tape lure, calling all the night from 10:00 p.m until after dawn. 

Trapping sites are few dozens of yards away from each other and in few hours by foot the police can visit and deactivate dozens of trapping sites. We honestly see no difficulty in policing this area.

 Much more, we have done it, collecting nets and destroying tape lures, because the responsible body is not doing it.

 We are aware of the dangers involved in opposing such a professional and criminal phenomenon, which nobody can call "traditional ways of life", and we understand your reluctance to expose agents and Administration against criminal gangs.

 But your policy of "laissez faire" in the past has created this sense of impunity within trappers communities and now it is up to you to carry the burden. 

And as long as you follow this soft policy, stepping back when they block roads, asking them where to eradicate acacias and let them police the territory with night patrols, guards, sentinels, abuses, shoutings, threats, they will always have the upper hand.

CABS is more than willing to logistically and strategically assist the ESBA Administration in tackling bird trapping, but we need to see that action follows your statement that "bird trapping is taken very seriously".

Otherwise we will have to act on our own, assuming all dangers and risks for our volunteers. We hope that the Ministry of Defence will not leave us alone in this hard battle.

Yours sincerely,
The CABS staff and volunteers