Heading up the coast to Embleton to collect Pete and Janet for their fourth day out with NEWT (plus a couple of days with their local natural history society on a Northumberland visit in 2009), I had a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. It’s always a pleasure to have them on a tour, but this time we were heading to an area that I know quite well myself, but haven’t covered in any great depth with clients…
We headed inland, skirting the edge of the Cheviot massif, passing through Kielder and across into the Scottish borders in ever-improving weather 🙂 Common Buzzards were soaring against the blue sky, Skylarks were singing as they ascended heavenwards, Meadow Pipits parachuted down at the end of their display flights, Red Grouse popped their heads up above the heather, Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock in the shallow streams, Whinchat were carrying food back to their nests, recently fledged Wheatears scolded us as we disturbed their afternoon nap, Wild Goats grazed steadily on the hillsides high above the valley bottom and then, in the warmth of the mid-afternoon, came one of those moments you dream of (well, I do – other naturalists may have other dreams!)…
Floating across the hillside on agile wings, passing over a Cuckoo perched on a small sapling, carrying food back to his mate and their hungry brood, the male Hen Harrier drifted by before depositing the prey at the nest. He quickly found more food for himself and settled on a prominent rock in the heather. As we watched him through the ‘scope, a familiar chattering call rattled down the fell. Something had disturbed the female harrier, and she had left the nest and was soaring above it. Then, the likely source of her displeasure appeared. Racing on swept back wings, a Merlin flew straight at the harrier. She twisted and turned to avoid the assault by the smallest of our falcons, and flew towards the ground. The Merlin wasn’t going to give up though, and the dogfight continued; the otherwise elegant harrier looking cumbersome as the annoying gadfly buzzed around her. Eventually the smaller bird broke off and settled in a nearby tree, as the male harrier left his perch and soared high over our heads against the blue sky. When I look back in years to come, this really will be an experience that’s fixed firmly in my memory 🙂
Earlier this year I blogged about a North Pennines trip on which we found a pair of Hen Harriers, a species that is very close to the hearts of both owners of NEWT as we spent a lot of time monitoring a nest site in North Tynedale from 2006-2008 (and since then, even though there hasn’t been a subsequent successful nesting attempt at the site). During the three years where we had successful nesting attempts, that one site and the surrounding area had an adult female shot, an incubating adult female ‘abandoned’ a nest overnight, a nest was robbed, unleashed dogs were allowed to run straight through a nest site, a number of empty nests were located. And that’s just the persecution/disturbance that we know about.
The sighting in the North Pennines was astonishing, as the area where the birds were is a heartland of illegal raptor persecution. First the female, and then the ghostly, sublimely beautiful, male dropped down into the heather close to a small burn. After a brief discussion with our clients on the day, a ‘phone call was made to alert a local raptor worker, with vast experience of monitoring harrier nests. He was astonished too, and couldn’t remember how long it was since a potential breeding pair had been recorded in that area. 24hrs later there was no sign of either bird at the site, and the breeding attempt had presumably gone the same way as so many others. Now we’re in a position where there is only one nesting pair in England, and the main contributory factor in that is illegal persecution.
Yet, with illegal persecution still rife and affecting many birds of prey, DEFRA commissioned, and has now thankfully scrapped, a study into the effect of Common Buzzard predation on Common Pheasant populations. Methods proposed included destroying nests and capturing Common Buzzards and taking them into captivity for falconry. That’s right, £375,000 of taxpayer’s money was going to be spent deliberately suppressing the population of a native species, that is still recovering after centuries of persecution, in order to protect a non-native, artificially reared and introduced gamebird. You couldn’t make it up, it’s so far-fetched and ridiculous. This would have just been the thin end of a very big wedge though. Sparrowhawks next? then Peregrines and all of our rarer raptors?
What’s really needed is the full force of the law to be brought to bear on those individuals, and estates, that persist in the barbaric, outdated, illegal practice of raptor persecution. Perhaps DEFRA could fund a study into what happens if raptor populations are left unhindered?
As I grow older I’m finding that, alongside the generalist birdwatching that we usually do with clients, my own birding interests are becoming increasingly specialised; seawatching (when I can find the time…) still excites me as much as the first time I sat on Flamborough Head, raptors have been an obsession since I was very young and, more recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about moult strategies and studying bird songs and calls. The Sound Approach books have all been incredibly inspirational and then, during the winter, I was on a survey trip for the Northeast Cetacean Project and Tim Sexton was mentioning how he’d added sound files to his blog posts. As we both use the same model of mp3 recorder, and the whole process sounded easy, I thought I’d give it a go. I’d got an external shotgun mic that was included when I last bought a camcorder, so I connected that up and started pointing it at anything that was singing. I added the relevant plugins to the blog…couldn’t make it work. Tim gave me some helpful advice…still couldn’t make it work. Finally, I tried another way of adding sound files and here’s the first (of many…)
This Blackbird was singing from the top of the Apple tree in our garden during a heavy shower in late April and, when he stopped singing and listened to the other Blackbirds (which can be heard faintly in the background), he tilted his head, depending on which other bird he was listening to. We even have a client who asked for a recording of a Blackbird for an arts project he’s involved in. Who can blame him, it really is a beautiful song.
Yesterday was the North of England Raptor Conference 2009. This year it was organised by the two study groups based in the Peak District, and was held at the Agricultural Business Centre in Bakewell. The distance from the northeast had clearly discouraged most of the Northumberland raptor workers who normally attend. For us it was less of a problem though; Sarah’s parents live in Derbyshire so we were able to combine attending the conference with visiting them. As an aspect of birdwatching raptors aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they can be a fascinating part of an overall approach to the hobby, and a number of species lend themselves well to amateur study.
The first speaker was Bill Heinrich, talking about the work done by The Peregrine Fund with Peregrine, California Condor, Aplomado Falcon and Gyrfalcon. Some novel approaches to dealing with conservation problems caused by hunting were described, and it did raise the question of why we can’t adopt a process of engagement to deal with some of the problems we face in Britain.
A description of a survey of Merlin numbers followed, and this is particularly pertinent to Northumberland as some detailed work on the species has been carried out in our home county.
Next came Ian Newton. As the author of ‘The Sparrowhawk’, one of the best monographs we’ve ever read, we were both looking forward to hearing him speak again. As he was talking about the subject of that monograph, and the species of raptor that breeds closer to our office than any other, it was all the more fascinating. It’s a real gift to make scientific study interesting and understandable, but Professor Newton does that very well. Lots of ideas for studying our local Sparrowhawks occured to both of us during the talk, so some of the long dark winter nights will be taken up with planning that study.
The morning’s proceedings were drawn to a close by the estate manager for the National Trust in the Peak District, outlining the challenges that our upland areas face.
After lunch came a talk that we were both eagerly anticipating; Steve Roberts describing how to find, identify and study Honey Buzzards. To describe it as entertaining doesn’t really do justice to Steve’s approach to public-speaking.
Then it was the turn of Terry Pickford, with a talk entitled ‘Ground-nesting Peregrines in the Forest of Bowland’. What we actually got was a talk that concentrated almost exclusively on Hen Harriers. We understand Terry’s passion for Hen Harriers completely, but giving an unpublicised presentation on the scheduled topic for the next speaker, we both found rather offensive and distasteful.
The scheduled speaker from the RSPB had been unable to attend so a last-minute stand-in had the unenviable task of talking about ‘The Hen Harrier in 2009’. It was refreshing to hear a level-headed summary of the events of this year and we applaud the speaker for his openness and honesty in the face of some self-important heckling from one or two members of the audience.
Anthony Messenger was the next speaker, describing nearly 20 years of studying Hobbies in South Derbyshire. This was another talk that stimulated many ideas, particularly as the species occurs in small numbers in Northumberland during the breeding season.
The final speaker was Andrew Dixon, talking about Saker Falcon conservation and sustainability in Mongolia. Martin had been looking forward to this one as he taught with Andy’s wife Nicola in the early part of this decade. Like Bill Heinrich’s talk, this was another description of a ‘different’ approach to raptor conservation. Food for thought…
The conference ended with a short Q&A session, but you could probably have an all-day Q&A on Hen Harriers alone.
As the conference closed and delegates departed, we were fortunate to have an opportunity to chat with Steve Roberts and Andy Dixon about our own Honey Buzzard studies in Northumberland. Proven breeding remains an elusive goal…but we’ll get there.
The National Trust carried out a survey recently, where they discovered that children were more likely to be able to identify a Dalek than a Magpie. Now, I’m not surprised at all by this, after all we’re always being told that the younger generation are tied to the PC/TV/Wii.
What was much more interesting than the survey though was the farce that ensued as it was reported. Sky News online (link) illustrated the findings of the survey with relevant images; unfortunately they had an image of a Magpie-Robin (something we’ll never record on a Northern Experience trip) instead of the good old Magpie that 20% of children in the North-east can’t identify, and a Great Tit instead of the Blue Tit that 25% of children are not able to recognise (they have at least corrected that one on the website).
Not to be outdone, The Independent ran a competition with several images, and 3 options for what each image showed. The options for one image were Tench, Loach and Barbel; this could have been a tricky one, particularly as the image showed a Woodlouse.
A few years ago there was some excitement, at least among people who didn’t realise that the birds were just on passage, when Avocets turned up at Cresswell Pond, between Amble and Newbiggin. The local press duly reported the suggestion that the birds were going to breed there, and illustrated the article with a picture of an American Avocet…
The recent shooting of a Red Kite (link) obviously had an impact as the number of friends and colleagues who contacted me to express their disgust at the incident was overwhelming.
The Northern Kites release project is a model of community involvement and connection to our threatened wildlife and, without it, it’s questionable whether the shooting would have created such a stir. Other birds of prey are persecuted to almost unbelievable levels but many, many incidents never make the news.
One of my own favourite birds, the Hen Harrier, may well be the most persecuted species in Britain, but community involvement with the birds that have nested in Northumberland this year (link) is raising the profile of this elegant species. After all, we can only appreciate what we know.