Missing the Birdfair, missing the birds

Last weekend should have been one of the highlights of our year, three whole days at the British Birdwatching Fair. Affectionately known as Birdfair, it’s an annual celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond. I blogged about it last year; you can read my post here. Birdfair is an important milestone in our calendar, marking the passing of another summer, and Mrs P and I were devastated – but not surprised – that Covid-19 played havoc with it in 2020.

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Instead, Birdfair went virtual, with a range of lectures, workshops and other stuff presented online. “Entry” was free, but we were pleased to make a significant donation to support this year’s BirdLife International conservation project, which is to protect Borneo’s spectacular Helmeted Hornbill from the ravages of the illegal wildlife trade.

The virtual Birdfair was a good try, but inevitably lacked some of the magic that happens when thousands of people passionate about wildlife and conservation are physically gathered together. And that vague sense of disappointment just about sums up our 2020 birding year, which – courtesy of Covid-19 – has been a bit short on excitement.

Middleton Hall

Inevitably, therefore, our thoughts have turned to happier, pre-Covid days. The RSPB’s Middleton Lakes reserve lies on the Staffordshire / Warwickshire border, just up the road from historic Middleton Hall, an impressive Grade II listed building dating – in part – from the medieval period.

The reserve is managed as a refuge for wintering wildfowl, breeding wetland birds and passage migrants. Formerly a flourishing hub of the gravel extraction industry, the site covers 160 hectares (395 acres). It was acquired by the RSPB in 2007, and the conservation charity has been working hard ever since to return the ravaged landscape to nature.

When we visited in May 2019 it was the common woodland birds that were most evident, attracted by strategically distributed piles of seeds, nuts and other goodies. Some of the adults were wearing their breeding finery, but others looked bedraggled, worn down by the rigours of parenthood.

Meanwhile scruffy juveniles were doing their best to blend into the background, and yet simultaneously demanding to be fed again and again. Typical fledgling behaviour, of course, and rather endearing unless you happen to be the poor, harassed parent of said fledgling!

At one point a sneaky Grey Squirrel, unobserved by the birds, slipped in and stole food that was intended just for them. He looked in peak condition, and not at all ashamed of his blatant thievery.

As well as the “usual suspects” we encountered a few surprises as we wandered the reserve. In particular we were delighted to hear a cuckoo – so rare these days – and to glimpse a Small Copper butterfly, which is a colourful species we rarely come across. They, and all the more familiar birds and animals we spotted, made the day memorable.

Small Copper

Reserves like Middleton Lakes raise the spirits, demonstrating that if it’s given a chance nature will fight back and reclaim land that has been wrecked by man. When the Covid-19 madness is finally done with we’ll certainly return to see what else it has to offer.

Hen Harrier Day – community action to combat the persecution of raptors

The Hen Harrier is probably the most persecuted bird in the UK. To draw attention to its plight and encourage its conservation, campaigners at the charitable organisation Hen Harrier Action have declared a date in early August to be Hen Harrier Day. The timing is significant: on 12 August each year – the so-called Glorious 12th – the grouse shooting season begins, and it is this so-called “sport” that’s been at the heart of the Hen Harrier’s dreadful decline.

IMAGE CREDIT: Isle of Man Government / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Hen Harriers are ground-nesting birds of upland moors. In winter they relocate further south to coastal areas, heathland and farmland. Males are blue-grey with a white rump, pale underside and black wing tips. Females are brown above and streaky below, with a white rump and a banded tail. The bird is almost identical to the Northern Harrier that’s found widely over the US and Canada – scientists are divided over whether they are essentially the same species, or just very close cousins.

To attract a mate the male Hen Harrier puts on a breath-taking display of aerial gymnastics, soaring, twisting, spiralling and plummeting above heather-clad moorland to catch the attention of the local ladies. It’s called sky-dancing, and is mesmerising to watch.

Later, after mating, the male will seek to strengthen the pair-bond and show off his spectacular agility by passing prey to his mate in mid-air, enabling the much less conspicuous female to return to the nest without attracting the attention of predators. The RSPB have posted a brilliant video on YouTube which perfectly captures both behaviours. It’s nearly five minutes long, but definitely worth a look:

From an international perspective, the Hen Harrier is not endangered: it’s spread very widely across northern Eurasia, and Birdlife International categorises it as a species of “Least Concern.” However, the picture is very different in the UK, where its classification is “Red.” Here, the species is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

The root cause of the Hen Harrier’s problems in the UK is its feeding preferences. Although its diet consists primarily of small mammals, it also takes some birds. It is this, and particularly its appetite for Red Grouse, that has brought it into conflict with gamekeepers.

The role of the gamekeeper is to serve his employers by ensuring that grouse shooters have sufficient quarry available to satisfy their vile blood-lust. Grouse moors are big business: a day spent blasting Red Grouse out of the sky can cost upwards of £1,500 (around $US 2,000), and fewer birds means reduced income for the moors’ owners. For this reason the pressure’s on gamekeepers – implicitly, if not explicitly – to eliminate any natural predators of the quarry species.

Lobbyists for the shooting industry protest their innocence: “it ain’t us guv’nor,” they plead, “we’d never hurt those cute harriers. We love the UK’s conservation laws. Honest!” But evidence to the contrary is overwhelming:

A 2019 government-commissioned study has shown that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed on or next to grouse moors. Hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or near a grouse moor than in any other habitat.

SOURCE: Hen Harrier Day website, retrieved 7 August 2020

The case for the prosecution is clear, and although the shooting lobby comes up with a wealth of arguments in its defence these arguments are – to quote the immortal words of the great Douglas Adams – a load of dingo’s kidneys. The Hen Harrier Day website provides more details of the disinformation spread by those seeking to defend the status quo: you can read them by clicking here and turning to the section headed “six myths about driven grouse shooting.”

It’s reckoned that the UK as a whole has habitat to support 2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers, but in the last national survey (2016) there were only 545 territorial pairs. These are mostly in Scotland, where Mrs P and I have enjoyed watching them on numerous occasions swooping over the moors of the Orkney Islands. The views have invariably been at a distance, making successful photography an almost impossible challenge, but it always feels like a privilege simply to watch this rare and spectacular bird going about its business.

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IMAGE CREDIT: “20193320190706” by richardrichard is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientists calculate that England alone has the potential to support over 300 pairs of breeding Hen Harriers. However in 2019 there were only 12 successful nests, and the fact that this is a record high for recent years reflects the seriousness of the situation. These dire numbers were the context in which annual Hen Harrier Days began in 2014:

Hen Harrier Days are community days of action, an opportunity for all of us to press for an end to wildlife crime and the wider abuse of our uplands…[They] are fun events for all the family and take many forms: in the countryside, in town, online, celebrity speakers, gigs, walks, picnics and more. Hen Harrier Days are normally organised locally by local people.

SOURCE: Hen Harrier Day website, retrieved 7 August 2020

Sadly, although unsurprisingly, this year Covid-19 rendered impossible the type of event that had previously taken place. So in 2020 Hen Harrier Day moved online, hosted by popular broadcaster and campaigning naturalist Chris Packham, and up-and-coming young presenter Megan McCubbin. It worked well; key species information and hard-hitting conservation messages being mixed in with a variety of relevant music, art and literature, and the promotion of some fund-raising initiatives that will support Hen Harriers.

To be honest, some of it was difficult to take, particularly when Mark Thomas, head of the RSPB’s Investigations Team, spoke about the persecution of raptors – including Hen Harriers – in the Peak District. It was shocking and heart-breaking to hear details of the carnage taking place there, and as we live just a few miles from the Peak District National Park it feels personal.

Having heard from Mark Thomas and others on the day, it would be easy to give up in despair, to conclude that this is a battle conservationists cannot win. But Mark’s not giving up, and neither should we.

Hen Harrier Day helps raise the profile of the bird, draws attention to the criminal activity perpetrated by those who see the harrier as an obstacle to driven grouse shooting, and builds momentum in the political arena. As the experts pointed out on the day, we can all do something to help the cause, even if it’s just giving a bit of cash to practising conservationists who are working hard on the ground to combat raptor persecution.

Speaking of which, one of the initiatives linked to Hen Harrier Day 2020 has been an art auction run in conjunction with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Derbyshire is our county, and as Mark Thomas has pointed out its Peak District moors are a hotbed of raptor persecution. The Peak District should be home to several pairs of Hen Harriers, but sadly Mrs P and I have never seen one here on our “home turf.”

We are life members of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, and Mrs P decided to do her bit by getting creative to support the auction. Using her favourite papercraft technique – iris folding – she designed an image of two Hen Harriers sky-dancing, and sent it off for auction. You can see her creation below:

At the time of writing the bid for Mrs P’s iris-fold picture stands at £60 (around $US 80). In all, total bids for the 73 lots stand at over £3,000 (around US$ 4,000). Isn’t it great to see so many people – both the artists who produced the images for sale, and the bidders who are prepared to stump up some cash for them – getting involved to support the conservation of a bird that needs all the help it can muster?

The battle to save the UK’s population of Hen Harriers is far from lost. Well done to Hen Harrier Action for leading the campaign to protect them, for spreading the message, and for inspiring me to hope that – one day – I may see a Hen Harrier here in Derbyshire.

Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

* * *

Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

Liebster Award for blogging (part 1)

This blog celebrates its first birthday at the end of May so it felt timely that a couple of weeks ago a fellow blogger, New Zealander Liz Cowburn from the Exploring Colour blog, nominated me for a Liebster Award. Our paths first crossed digitally late last year when she began reading and commenting on my earlier blog about a road trip around New Zealand. I was flattered by her interest, and I’m reet chuffed today that she feels my blogging is worthy of recognition. Thank you, Liz.

Memories of New Zealand: Mount Ngauruhoe

Given the title of her blog, it’s no surprise that Liz writes about colour, both in nature and in the human world. Her photos, and those of husband Nigel, complement her words perfectly. Through those words and pictures Liz presents a fascinating – and sometimes quirky – glimpse of life in New Zealand. She also touches on lots more interesting stuff, from the impact of last year’s Australian bushfires and Covid-19 on her homeland, to Irish pubs and the poetry of Rabbie Burns! If you haven’t already done so, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Liz’s excellent blog.

What’s a Liebster Blogger award?

So just what is the Liebster Award? Another of Liz’s nominees, Ann Mackay, summarised it perfectly, and rather than reinvent the wheel I’ll simply quote below what she has to say. Ann’s blog Inspired by Nature – Creative Explorations in Photography, Art and Writing, reflects her passion for gardening and the flowers she grows, and is definitely worth visiting.

Now you may be wondering just what the ‘Liebster’ (German for ‘favourite’ or ‘dearest’) Award is. It’s a means to allow readers to discover new blogs and by the recipients nominating more blogs, lots of bloggers have a chance to be found. (A sort of bloggers-helping-other-bloggers chain letter!)

SOURCE: Ann Mackay, Camassias: And Some Blog Love (1)

So, what do nominees have to do?

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions given to you
  3. Share 11 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
  5. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  6. Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post

Having explained what I’m up to I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to tackling Liz’s questions. Then, next week, I’ll move on to the “Big Reveal,” when I will declare 11 facts about the Platypus Man to an expectant blogosphere, before nominating a few folk to answer some cunning questions of my own devising!

Liz’s questions and my replies

1. What connection (if any) do you feel that you have with New Zealand? 🙂

Prior to our trip there in 2019 my knowledge of New Zealand was fairly limited, and could best be summarised thus: “a country that is a bloody long way from anywhere else, very good at rugby but not so clever at cricket, a home to flightless birds facing extinction and lots of sheep.”

Our visit opened my eyes, and allowed me to glimpse briefly a place far more interesting and beautiful than I had imagined. What a great country, what lovely people, albeit people whose vowel sounds – to English ears anyway – are seriously weird! In various ways NZ feels quite British, much more so than Oz or Canada, but the elements of Māori culture give it a unique Pacific spin. Definitely one of my favourite places.

The Māori church at Putiki, in the suburbs of Wanganui, North Island, New Zealand

2. What place in this world do you most love?

The Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, are remote, beautiful and scattered with relics and reminders of their Neolithic and Viking past. There are more sheep than people, and more birds than sheep, which makes it my kind of place! Without family commitments I think Mrs P and I would have made a life there, but instead we must make do with visits every couple of years. We were due to go again in September, but we’ve had to cancel due to Covid-19. Next year, maybe?

3. Your favourite colour(s) are what? –and what do you associate with the colour?

I guess these days I would single out the colour of autumn. You know what I mean, that distinctive but elusive golden amber hue suffused with shadowy hints of blood, rust and decay, that subtle tone which is a beautiful but poignant reminder of time’s passing. All things must pass.

The colours of autumn: Maine, USA, September 2012

4. What connection do you feel/experience with Nature?

Nature – wildlife, countryside, open spaces – makes life worth living. I’ve always been into it, but I find my interest grows with the passing of the years. All 5 of my blogs have focused heavily on aspects of nature. For example, I’ve enjoyed writing about close encounters with devils in Tasmania and whales in Newfoundland, with grizzlies in Yellowstone and penguins in New Zealand. We are part of Nature, not separate from it, and my life is made infinitely richer by time spent alongside creatures great and small.

Spotted shortly after midnight, a wild Tasmanian Devil dining on wallaby roadkill, November 2016

5. Your favourite ‘active’ recreational activity …?

I played cricket in my teenage years, but retired due to gross incompetence. These days “active recreation” equates to a gentle stroll around a nature reserve or bird sanctuary, binoculars and video camera slung from my neck. My bad back, knackered knees and passion for chocolate cake prohibit strenuous physical activity … well, anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

6. Your favourite ‘quiet’ hobby/interest?

Mrs P and I started taking a serious interest in birds during a visit to Scotland in the early 1990s, when we carelessly mistook buzzards for golden eagles! Since then our passion for birdwatching, and for watching other wildlife too, has just grown and grown. This shared activity is fundamental to who we are, individually and as a couple.

Puffin: Orkney, 2011

7. Is there something you enjoy ‘having a go at’ regardless of skill?

I was going to answer “no” on the basis that life’s too short to waste time on stuff one is bad at. But on reflection, I do enjoy singing in the bath, and Mrs P will tell you in no uncertain terms that I am the most tone-deaf person who ever walked on god’s green earth.

8. What was (or is) your favourite children’s book?

My parents told me that when I was young I used to love Alice in Wonderland. I still appreciate it now, not least because it contains one of my all time favourite literary quotes. I’ve had cause to trot out these wise words at various stressful moments over the years, for example when our rental car broke down on a remote gravel road in an out-of-the-way corner of a sparsely populated island off the coast of Tasmania, and we couldn’t get a signal on our cell phone! Lewis Carrol’s insight goes like this:

“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad,” [said the Cheshire Cat]

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

More recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an extraordinary work of literature. The movie and television adaptations completely fail to do justice to an outstanding piece of imaginative writing which, although notionally aimed at the teenage market, transcends all attempts at categorisation.

Other children’s volumes that grace the groaning bookshelves at Platypus Towers include Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame), Holes (Louis Sachar), The Machine Gunners (Robert Westall), The Milkman’s on His Way (David Rees), the Tripods trilogy (John Christopher), Goodnight Mr Tom (Michelle Margorian), The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (Gene Kemp) and Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman). The best writing for children is brilliant, and should never be dismissed as “childish” or “just for kids.” Some of the greatest writers out there are writing books aimed, in the first instance at least, at a young audience.

9. Your current or past ‘occupation’ ie. work / study / keeping busy is …what?

Before retiring at the end of March 2018 I spent the best part of 40 years working in the UK public library sector, the last 15 running a city library service serving a quarter of a million people. I made this career choice because I knew that libraries can change lives. My father left school at a young age and did menial jobs throughout his life, yet thanks to the local library he was one of the wisest, best educated people I’ve ever known. Libraries made him, and in a slightly different way they’ve made me too.

Library at the National Trust’s Lyme Park country estate, Cheshire, UK

10. What’s your favourite creative activity.. what do you have a passion for?

I enjoy cooking, particularly experimenting with Indian, Chinese and Thai-inspired dishes. I also relish writing, pulling together stuff that interests or amuses me, rather than the endless boring reports that my employers had me churning out for decades. I do it for my own amusement, and blogging is my outlet. If other people enjoy reading it that’s great, but the whole point is that I enjoy writing it!

11. Is there something you can share about a challenge you face, or have faced?

Interesting question. Like anyone of my age I’ve had my fair share of setbacks and heartache, but nothing out of the ordinary. I guess I’ve been very lucky. I found university challenging, not academically but in terms of my self-confidence and sense of belonging. If I had my time again I’d cope better and make more of the opportunity that uni offered me. I blogged about my experience of Cambridge University last year.

Kings College, Cambridge, viewed from “the backs”, August 2019