Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A world of birds, both near and far.

I have never been a “twitcher” – a birdwatcher whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds – however we all, I’m sure, like to come across something out of the ordinary or that we have never ever seen before. Quite a number of ornithologists will keep lists – I think it is largely a male trait (but I stand to be corrected!). Now there is a new number one “world lister” who rules the roost and can crow from the top of his tree!

American birder Noah Strycker has beaten the world year-listing record by notching up an unbelievable 4,342 species, and he still has over three months to go! I imagine this obsessive hobby is costing him an absolute fortune as he wanders the world. Mind you, I bet this quest of his is taking him to some amazing out of the way places. I only hope he is stopping to take it all in – not just the bird he is “ticking off”!

Back down to earth and a little closer to home, it must have been quite a shock for Kentish birder Martin Casemore (or is that a birder from Kent) to be pootling about on his Dungeness home patch last week, only to come across an exhausted Acadian flycatcher sitting on the beach!

The little bird eventually perked up and moved to nearby gardens, which offered it some habitat in which to shelter and find food. If the so called “experts” do indeed confirm that it is an Acadian flycatcher, then it will be the first British record of this North American species, and only the second on this side of the Atlantic after one was found dead in Iceland on 4 November 1967.

These diminutive flycatchers weigh less than half an ounce and yet amazingly, it has made its way across the Atlantic ocean, albeit probably blasted here by storm force winds. The poor little thing obviously got itself in a right old pickle as it should have been in either an eastern North American forest, where they breed, or in another woodland in northern South America where they over-winter.

Meanwhile, back on my own patch surrounding my house, I am being royally entertained each morning by the delightful song of a Woodlark; he is just a small dot flying high up in the blue sky, making the most of these still, windless mornings, brought about by the huge high pressure which currently sits over the UK. 

A woodlark singing away above my house - definitely a big enough treat for me! 

Monday, 21 September 2015

3B continues to shriek all day long!

3B in full "shriek"!! 

Back on the 2nd of September I wrote a blog about how noisy the countryside can be sometimes, mentioning one particularly loud Buzzard youngster that has become known as 3B (bloody baby buzzard!)

Well, 3B is still around and looking in good condition, but the trouble is that he/she shows no sign of quitting the monotonous shrieking call, presumably asking to be fed. The problem is that, not once in the last month have I seen a parent show any attention to the youngster at all, so I think that 3B now sees me as the best bet for a potential scoff - after all, the "other" animals around the house seem to be fed on a regular basis!

As a consequence, every time I go into the garden, 3B arrives and sits in one of the surrounding trees and watches me intently, all the time yelling at me to be given a square meal!

I imagine (and hope) that it will not be long before 3B gets kicked out of the area by other Buzzards, to find his/her own territory. My only worry is that all the other local Buzzards have also become so fed up with the constant begging, that they have cleared off, leaving 3B behind to continue this agonizing background noise for many a month to come!

On another note, you might notice in the photo that 3B is sitting in an Ash tree which is laden with "keys" - the name given to an Ash tree's seed. Lets hope that this abundance of keys is a response to the arrival of "Ash die-back disease" in the area, and some of this seed will produce saplings that are immune, so that this common tree still has a role to play in our future landscape.


Saturday, 19 September 2015

It was all happening in the South Downs National Park yesterday!

Clare Moriarty, third from left, visits the Duke of Norfolk's Arundel estate.  
My job as a “biodiversity adviser” for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust means that, to be honest, no two days are ever the same! Take yesterday for example.

In the morning I spoke at a conference in Midhurst, (My topic was working with farmers on a landscape scale to deliver conservation) organised for the South Downs National Park Rangers.

These are the guys who actually get their hands dirty and also have jobs that are often wide ranging in character too. They look after many different aspects within the Park, from managing nature reserves to working alongside landowners on various conservation matters, implementing grazing regimes and delivering a wide number of different projects.

I had one interesting conversation with a ranger over a coffee prior to the conference starting, who was overseeing the re-introduction of water voles onto the river Meon. Mink had in the past completely wiped out the species from most of the catchment, so following advice and help from GWCT adviser Mike Swan, she was now running a highly successful project using GWCT mink rafts to enable her to control Mink throughout the catchment, using many volunteers to check the rafts. 

If you would like to know more about these rafts – go to: http://www.gwct.org.uk/wildlife/research/mammals/american-mink/the-gwct-mink-raft/    

Having worked with landowners to ensure that the habitat alongside the river was also in good order, as well as controlling mink numbers, water voles were then introduced. She told me that there is now good evidence of breeding and that one particular individual was filmed some 7km up-stream from the release site! 

Following my talk, I then legged it down to the Duke of Norfolk’s estate at Arundel, to help show the new “Permanent Secretary for Defra”, Clare Moriarty, around the wonderful grey partridge restoration project there.

Full credit to Clare that she has only been in post for a few weeks and is already getting out onto farms to find out how DEFRA’s money is being spent and what it delivers. This estate is ideal to showcase what can be done using Stewardship scheme money, as the team here really do produce top quality habitats, coupled with excellent targeted predator control, to deliver tangible results.

I think (hope!) that Clare was really impressed by what she saw, which of course included a covey or two of Grey partridge! I know that she was also left in no doubt that it is not just money that delivers this sort of high quality conservation, but also enthusiastic team work coupled with good advice.

Peter Knight the estate manager, runs a wonderful team of dedicated people whose enthusiasm is infectious. Importantly too, he has surrounded himself with some really top advisers who are very much part of this team - crucial to delivering on the ground results.

Let’s hope these key messages become an integral part of DEFRA’s thinking among those who sit around the top table. 


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Cornwall, Betjeman and Herring gulls!

St. Enodoc church with its little bent spire, is situated in the heart of Betjeman country

I spent last week holidaying down in sun-soaked north Cornwall and for once this summer, I’m not joking as the weather was truly wonderful!

I always take the opportunity when I am in Cornwall to dig out some of John Betjeman’s writings, as I have always loved his take on life and of course his adoration of Cornwall means that I am often looking across the very landscape that he is describing. 

I was browsing through the pages of his best known book “Summoned by bells” when I came across a line that jumped out at me. “Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.”

I suspect the quote means that the way a child understands things is very basic, using just his or her senses. But Betjeman always seemed to be amazingly aware of these senses even into adult life, and I think maybe he was also suggesting that “most” folk, having been aware at a young age of these important little things in life, are far too busy being important and grown-up to notice them anymore.

Take the Herring gull for instance! Surely their raucous call throughout the day is one of the key essences of being at the seaside, even if many people find them rather annoying or frightening as they sit next to you eyeing up your ice-cream!

I had only been in Cornwall for half an hour or so when I started to realise that there were hardly any sea-gulls around. Normally they would be on every telegraph pole, chimney and any other vantage point, watching your every move in case an edible morsel might be discarded.

I eventually found some in Padstow and Port Isaac, but I estimate that there were only around 20% of the numbers that I observed just a year or so ago. Now, it might be that they had temporarily moved off to better feeding grounds, but as far back as I can remember into my very young childhood, chuck a piece of bread onto a Cornish lawn, and it would only be a matter of seconds before it was snatched up by a flock of squabbling gulls.

This year however, there were no gulls observing the front lawn from on high. In fact I hardly heard that magical seaside call at all. I spoke to a few locals, asking if they had noticed the decline and suggesting that perhaps they might have been quietly culled. But nobody had noticed any change – perhaps because “the dark hour of reason” now dominates their lives.

I visited John Betjeman’s grave at the delightful little St. Enodoc church – a church that was once buried beneath the sand dunes, but was eventually dug out and restored. He loved this place and spent many, many hours “pootling” around the locality, listening, observing and smelling things, so that he could return home to write about them.

I do hope that the common Herring gull (now “red listed” due to recent declines) continues to deliver its boisterous call over St. Enodoc church, because there is certainly one person in its graveyard that would not only notice its demise, but would also sorely miss that quintessential seaside sound. 

The Herring gull, not loved by everyone, but such a part of  any visit to the seaside.

Betjeman's final resting place is a stones throw from the sea

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The quiet mellowness of late summer

The tranquil, peaceful countryside of Hampshire

I am lucky enough to live up a single track lane in a relatively remote (for Hampshire!) location, my nearest neighbour being some three quarters of a mile away. In stark contrast to this, I have great friends who live three stories up in a flat within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament, indeed Big Ben is a constant reminder during the night of your whereabouts!

My friends really enjoy exiting the city to go on long walks, pick fruit from the hedgerows and “re-connect” with the countryside – their words not mine! In fact, as they have both recently retired, they are now thinking of leaving the smoke and settling down to enjoy their new found freedom in a village somewhere in the sticks.

Last weekend, they came to stay, arriving late-morning. The weather had improved greatly and so we sat out on our little terrace with a beer and started to catch up on our news.

Unfortunately, the air was heavy with the smell of I think, chicken shit (I’m quite good at identifying these rural smells!) which had recently been spread on a stubble field a short distance away. The gentle breeze brought great wafts of the pungent smell, which even for me, was not enhancing our chat.
Then the combine arrived. The field immediately adjacent to the house has spring barley in it, which has been ready to harvest for a few days now, so it certainly did not surprise me that today was the day! After the header was put onto the front of the combine, which involves lots of beeping (warning sound when reversing) and two or three tractors and trailers had clattered their way into the field ready to receive the grain, the big green beast started to harvest.

Within a couple of minutes, a fine mist of thinly shredded straw started to descend from the heavens onto the plates of cold meats, olives, salad and fresh bread we had prepared. We placed coasters on top of our drinks to stop the straw from floating on the surface of our beers. But we still persevered.

Then 3B arrived! This is the name we have given this year’s newly fledged Buzzard chick – “Bloody Baby Buzzard”! 

If you have never heard the call of a young buzzard that is hungry and wants feeding, then you are an extremely lucky person. It is one of the most persistent, monotonous, maddening calls, pitched at just the perfect level to cause maximum annoyance. 3B has recently taken to sitting on a dead branch in the big oak tree that towers over our little cottage and the arrival of the combine was obviously something to be shouted about!

The amalgamation of so much noise from the machinery, a truly disgusting stench, descending straw fragments and then the arrival of 3B, finally proved too much and we retreated back into the kitchen.

By the evening, all was quiet, save the pitter-patter of gentle rain on the patio – which continued for the rest of the weekend!

Following their weekend stay with the Thompsons, it will be interesting to see just how far out of London my friends do in fact move.