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 – (2) Wallabies gone walkabout!

One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to the Isle of Man is the opportunity to see wild wallabies without all the expensive and tedious nonsense that is inevitable when flying from the UK to Australia. Native to temperate areas of eastern Australia, the Red-necked Wallaby – a.k.a. the Bennett’s Wallaby – was a familiar sight when we visited Tasmania in 2016. Amazingly, it’s also thriving on Mann, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, around 15,000 km from its ancestral home.

Technically, the Manx wallabies aren’t wild but feral, being descended from captive animals which escaped from Curragh Wildlife Park on the north of Mann towards the end of the last century. The first escape happened in 1965:

“The first wallaby to escape from there was Wanda who escaped the first year the park opened. She wandered around the island for a year, true to her name, and returned apparently of her own accord a year later,”

Paige Havlin, quoted in Lucy Quaggin: Living In The Wild On The Isle Of Man, Huffington Post (Australian edition) 07/03/2017.

A pair of wallabies is reported to have escaped at some point in the 1970s, and in 1985 there was a mass breakout. In a daring exploit reminiscent of captured British servicemen escaping Nazi POW camps in World War 2, no fewer than eight animals are said to have dug their way under the fence, and disappeared into the swampy, wooded area surrounding the Park (curragh is Gaelic for willow scrub, the predominant vegetation type here.)

Seven were eventually recaptured, but the eighth remained at large. Maybe it joined up with 1970s escapees or their descendants, or perhaps with other intrepid adventurers that made successful but unreported bids for freedom? And in 1989 there appears to have been another sizeable escape, when storms brought down a tree that smashed part of the fence surrounding the wallabies’ enclosure.

I can only conclude that, in the Park’s early days, security was somewhat lax. Or to put it less charitably, the place leaked wallabies like water through a sieve.

The exact sequence of events will never be known for certain – and some of the accounts noted above definitely seem more fanciful than believable! – but clearly over the years sufficient animals escaped from the Park to establish a sustainable breeding population. In true Aussie style, the wallabies have gone walkabout!

The Isle of Man has few native terrestrial mammals: no deer to compete with wallabies for food, and no large predators that would threaten them. The climate is also agreeable, being quite similar to that of Tasmania where the species thrives. Conditions appear ideal, and the wallabies have taken full advantage of it.

Numbers at large on the island are difficult to determine. The animals are mainly active at dusk and during the hours of darkness, when they graze on grasses, willow and young shrubs. Counting them is therefore an exercise in educated guesswork. The best estimate is somewhere around 150 animals, but who really knows?

Although they have begun to move south through the island, the wallabies remain concentrated close to their original point of origin – Curragh Wildlife Park – particularly in and around the Close Sartfield Nature Reserve.

Joey!

The Reserve comprises hay meadows, grassland, willow scrub, woodland and bog habitats, and between May and July is graced with thousands of colourful orchids. It forms part of the Ballaugh Curraghs, a wetland of international importance and designated Ramsar site. Birds love it and so, apparently, do wallabies.

During our 2018 trip to Mann we made two evening visits to the Close Sartfield Reserve, and as the light began to fade we were pleased to see a number of wallabies going about their business. We thought we’d be lucky to see them at all, but in the event they proved impossible to miss.

Some wallabies were partially hidden in the long meadow grass, watching us curiously as they grazed. Others, including a mother with a large joey in her pouch, hopped happily through the woodland, stopping occasionally to peer at us through the undergrowth. My YouTube video offers a glimpse of the youngster, and captures some of the other action we witnessed.

As we made our way through the Reserve another wallaby bounded across the board walk directly in front of us, and then stopped to browse contentedly on gorse bushes. It seemed totally unperturbed by our presence. I guess the animals have become conditioned to camera-touting humans, and take us in their stride.

The Aussie ex-pats have become unlikely island celebrities, and any visitor with an interest in wildlife wants to see them. During our second visit we saw evidence of this in the form of a professional camera crew cruising the paths through the Reserve, hoping to get perfect footage of the Isle of Man’s most exotic residents.

At the end of our second visit to Close Sartfield, as we returned to our car in the gathering gloom, we spotted a wallaby chewing enthusiastically on the grass strip running down the middle of the unsealed track that leads back to the main road. It was a surreal experience: where else in the British Isles would drivers find their journey interrupted by a masticating marsupial?

I’m sure that any Aussies reading this will wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, wallabies are common and considered unremarkable Down Under, impossible to miss but easy to ignore. However, here in the British Isles they are other-worldly beings, improbable and exotic creatures one never expects to encounter outside zoos and wildlife parks.

And what Brit doesn’t want a glimpse of the exotic, to bring colour and excitement to his otherwise dreary existence?

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

Reflections on World Penguin Day

What is it about penguins? Everyone loves a penguin. Who can look at a penguin for more than a couple of seconds without chuckling, or shaking their head in admiration? I guess part of the reason could be that, walking upright, they remind us of ourselves, becoming avian caricatures of waddling human determination. Or is it their lifestyle that appeals, their battle with the elements, their ability to survive and thrive in huge, crashing seas and monstrous, crushing cold?

Penguins: cultural icons, and very tasty chocolate-covered biscuits! P..P..Pick up a Penguin!

Whatever the reason, penguins are deeply embedded within our culture, loved by wildlife enthusiasts, writers of children’s books, makers of animated movies, and marketing men the world over.

And, of course, biscuit-loving Brits. In the UK, Penguin biscuits, or cookies as our American cousins would describe them, are a popular, chocolatey treat. For decades the McVities marketing department has urged us to P..P..Pick up a Penguin, and we’ve obliged … in our millions!

So, given their status as cultural icons, it’s no surprise that penguins have been granted their own “World Day” on the 25th of April every year, to celebrate their lives and to raise awareness of their conservation needs.

The world is home to somewhere between 17 and 20 species of penguin today (typically, the scientists can’t make up their minds!), the majority of which are on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Over the years Mrs P and I have been lucky enough to see four penguin species in the wild. However we’ve never seen them against a background of ice and snow, an indication that the shared cultural image of penguins in a frozen landscape is too simplistic.

In fact, our very first sighting of a wild penguin was on the Galápagos Islands, within spitting distance of the equator. The Galápagos Penguin is one of the world’s rarest – the rarest according to Wikipedia, although other sources disagree – and the only one to venture into the northern hemisphere. It survives in tropical waters thanks only to the cooling Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and in an El Niño year – when the water warms up – the population comes under threat.

Galapagos Penguin: 48 cm tall, weight around 5.5lbs

During the 1982/83 El Niño numbers fell by around 77%, and although there has been some recovery since then, according to the WWF the total world population remains below 2,000 individuals. Mrs P and I were privileged to visit Galápagos in 1989, and had the extraordinary experience of swimming alongside penguins in a remote, beautiful bay.

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It would be 27 years before we’d see wild penguins again, this time in Tasmania. The Little Penguin goes by various other names, including Fairy Penguin in Australia and Little Blue Penguin in New Zealand. The names are a clue to the bird’s defining characteristics – at 33 cm in height it’s the smallest of all penguin species (the Galápagos Penguin is the second smallest), and its plumage is a distinctive slaty-blue colour.

Colonies of Little Blues exist along the southern coast of Australia, and all around the coast of New Zealand. By comparison with the Galápagos Penguin these birds are plentiful, with numbers estimated in 2011 at between 350,000 to 600,000. However they are in decline, and are particularly vulnerable in their mainland breeding grounds. On uninhabited offshore islands they fare better.

Our best penguin encounter in Tasmania was in the northern town of Stanley where we were, quite literally, almost tripping over and driving round them as they clambered out of the sea to return to their burrows under cover of darkness. You can read about this very special evening here, in my blog of our epic Tasmanian adventure.

On reflection, the behaviour of the Little Blues in Stanley highlights their vulnerability in areas settled or visited by humans. Many of their burrows are some way inland, sometimes in the gardens of local residents, and the daily journey to and from them is fraught with perils. These include marauding dogs, sneaky cats and speeding cars. All things considered, it’s a tough life, being a Little Blue and living on mainland Australia and New Zealand!

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Our 2019 trip to New Zealand was timed to maximise the chance of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which is endemic to the country and breeds in small colonies on inaccessible headlands and islets along the shores of south-western South Island, and all around Stewart Island. They nest in rock crevices or hollows beneath tree roots in coastal forests. Eggs are laid in late August, and hatch after a period of 32 – 35 days. Two eggs are laid, but typically only one per clutch will hatch.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin makes landfall!

Chicks are guarded by the male and fed by the female for the first three weeks, at which point they are left unattended and typically form small crèches. Both parents continue to feed the chick(s) until they fledge at around 75 days old in late November or early December.

Mrs P and I were pleased to see Fiordland Crested Penguins on several occasions, on land and occasionally swimming offshore. Our best view was courtesy of an experienced wildlife guide, who led us on a tortuous trek through the bush, fording a stream on several occasions, until we reached a secluded bay where we could watch the comings and goings of the parent birds.

A Fiordland Crested Penguin returns to the ocean, grubby from its overland journey

Upon making landfall the birds preened themselves carefully and checked their surroundings for potential predators, then set off on their journey, trudging stoically inland. Standing around 71 cm tall, they are more than twice the size of Little Blues. When walking their posture is stooped, like that of an old man hunched over his walking stick, but although they look ungainly and uncomfortable Fiordland Crested Penguins can make steady progress on land.

Pretty soon the penguins we’d been watching reached the spot where the beach ends, and the hillside begins. Then, like intrepid mountaineers, they began to climb the steep slope along a well-worn track. As they did so they passed other birds that were making their way back down from the crèche site to the sea after feeding their chicks. The constant coming-and-going was hypnotic, and we watched spell-bound for around 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave. You can read more about this, one of our best birding experiences ever, in this post from my New Zealand blog.

The Fiordland Crested Penguin walks with a distinctive stooped posture

The current population level is unclear; surveys in the 1990s counted 2,500 pairs of Fiordland Crested Penguins, though this was likely an underestimate. However numbers are believed to be declining due to human disturbance, predation by introduced mammals such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and fishing industry by-catch. The species is classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and New Zealand’s own Department of Conservation changed its status from vulnerable to endangered in 2013.

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New Zealand’s third, and rarest, penguin is the Yellow-eyed. In 2018/19 there were only 225 breeding pairs on mainland South Island, the lowest level since 1991 Most sources – although not Wikipedia – regard it as the world’s rarest penguin.

Perhaps in response to its plight, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has recently achieved celebrity status by being voted New Zealand’s 2019 Bird of the Year in a poll organised by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird. It’s the first time in the poll’s 14 year history that a seabird has emerged victorious, and the fact that a penguin is the first to break through the glass ceiling is further confirmation of the special appeal of these birds.

A Yellow-eyed Penguin emerges from the sea, dripping like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie

The Yellow-eyed Penguin is slightly taller than the Fiordland Crested, standing at around 76 cm. It nests in clumps of flax, scrub and forest close to the shore, often in a scrape lined with grasses, against a tree trunk or log. Nests are always hidden away from other nesting pairs, and the bird communicates with a high-pitched scream. They are not very sociable.

The BBC website’s report of the Bird of the Year poll result is headed “Rare anti-social penguin wins New Zealand poll.” I can’t help thinking that Yellow-eyed Penguins came up with the concept of social distancing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head!

Given its rarity and celebrity status we were very keen to become acquainted with the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and so were delighted to encounter them at a couple of locations on the south-east coast of South Island. Again our best views were achieved courtesy of experienced wildlife guides, and this time we were witnesses to a heart-in-mouth drama.

While the sealion is distracted, this Yellow-eyed Penguin follows a fence-line to return to its chick

At a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula we watched spellbound as a bird emerged from the waves, dripping seductively like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie, only to find its way blocked by a hungry sealion. It scuttled back to the waves, swam along the beach a little way, then made another landfall.

Again it stopped in its tracks, judging the sealion was too close and too ravenous for safety. Time and again it tried, only to slam quickly into reverse before the sealion gave chase; we watched intently, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. You can read all about it here. SPOILER ALERT: the penguin finally made it safely to the forest, and the sealion went hungry. Phew!

Meanwhile at the other end of the beach another Yellow-eyed Penguin, perhaps seeing that the sealion was distracted, waddled casually up the beach and along a fence-line before disappearing into the bush, giving us outstanding views as it passed. It was the last penguin we would see on our New Zealand odyssey, and a reminder of why these iconic, intrepid, flightless birds have been granted their very own “World Day.”

World Curlew Day

Yesterday – 21 April – was World Curlew Day! It probably passed you by: let’s face it, the news media are concentrating pretty much all their attention on one topic right now, understandably focussing on Coronavirus rather than curlews. Environmental issues aren’t perceived as a priority today, but while we follow the life and death struggle of fellow citizens coping with the COVID-19 virus, this magnificent bird is engaged in a battle of its own. Curlews are in big trouble.

The curlew is the largest of all European waders, an unmistakable bird with a brown body, long legs and a diagnostic downward-curving bill. And then there’s its liquid, evocative and haunting call.

Curlews overwinter on tidal mudflats and saltmarshes, and this is where Mrs P and I mostly see them, during our winter birding breaks. They used to breed widely both in upland and lowland Britain, but changes in farming practices have massively reduced lowland breeding success.

There are reckoned to be around 65,000 breeding pairs of Eurasian Curlews in Britain. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it, until you realise that this is a reduction of about 65% since 1970. And given that Britain accounts for around a quarter of the world breeding population of these birds, the decline here is bad news for the species as a whole.

In 2008, Eurasian Curlews were added to the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of birds deemed to be of global conservation concern, becoming officially classified as “Near Threatened.”

Ours is not the only species of curlew under threat. A century ago the world boasted eight species of these large, long-lived waders. Today there are only six, of which three are on the Red List. As a group, they are claimed to be among the most threatened migratory birds on Earth. In response to their plight the first World Curlew Day was announced in 2018.

World Curlew Day has been described as “a grassroots initiative supported by environmental organizations such as BirdLife International and Wetlands International. It is a one-day global event aiming to raise awareness about the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.” This blog post is my own modest contribution to the World Curlew Day initiative.

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The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) website summarises what is believed to be behind the decline of the Eurasian Curlew, noting that “the evidence to date suggests declines are largely due to poor breeding success alongside the loss of breeding grounds.” It continues:

“Like many wading birds, curlews lay their eggs in a nest on the ground – known as a ‘scrape’. The parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks, before the young leave the nest and roam around with their parents for a further four weeks, until fledging

Studies from across Europe have found that in most cases breeding pairs are failing to raise enough young to maintain stable populations.
 
Egg predation by mammals and birds has emerged as a key factor behind poor breeding success. However, this abundance of predation is in itself associated with changes in land-use and management.
 
Farming is essential to maintain the mosaic of grassland and wetland habitats curlews need, but large-scale grassland improvement ultimately leads to the degradation and eventual loss of breeding habitat. Changes in grazing pressure can also have a more direct impact in the form of nest trampling by livestock.”

SOURCE: RSPB WEBSITE, retrieved 18 April 2020

Having identified the problem, the RSPB is now urgently seeking a solution. Its Curlew Recovery Programme is undertaking research to better understand the management practices required to reverse the decline in Eurasian Curlew numbers. At the heart of the programme is a Trial Management Project.

The Trial Management Project is carrying out work at sites across the four countries of the UK, looking at a range of possible interventions including habitat management and targeted predator control. Baseline monitoring at the six sites in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland was undertaken during the 2015 breeding season, and research to identify and develop appropriate “curlew-friendly” land management strategies is continuing.

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In a separate project, the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) started work last year on a project to protect curlews in the Severn and Avon Vales.

“The plan is to throw everything we’ve got at the problem in the vale. Curlew protection will be driven by farmers, that’s the logical reality. If we can work with them to turn things around here, that’s a great start. But we also want the vale to be a test ground for ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere and, ultimately, incorporated into new government agri-environment policy, so that farmers can effectively be paid for curlew-friendly management.”

SOURCE: GEOFF HILTON, WWT’s Head of Conservation Evidence, quoted in Waterlife: The WWT Magazine, April/June 2020, page 36

When a curlew nest is located within the study area, the WWT researchers must weigh up carefully the risks and benefits of intervention. Approaching the nest may alert predators to its existence, or may disturb parent birds and cause them to abandon it. However if the risks of predation are high, the project team may decide that, on balance, the interest of the birds is best served by approaching to erect an electric fence around the nest in an effort to keep foxes and badgers at bay.

The scientists are also keen to collect data that will give them a better understanding of the challenges to be overcome in halting the decline in curlew numbers. To this end researchers may visit the nest briefly to weigh the eggs and deploy a temperature logging device; the data collected can provide valuable insights into laying and hatching dates, and incubation patterns. The nest may also be visited again, just before the chicks fledge, to ring and radio-tag the birds so that further information on their progress may be collected at a later date.

The WWT’s most drastic intervention of all is “headstarting,” where vulnerable eggs and chicks are removed from the wild to be raised in captivity, before being released in a more favourable location. The recent article in Waterlife magazine describes the removal of 50 curlew eggs from airfields in East Anglia, where they would have been destroyed to prevent airstrikes. After being hatched and raised by the WWT, the young birds were released in the safer surroundings of its Slimbridge Reserve. A good news story, if ever there was one!

In doing my research for this post I’ve been shocked at the plight of the curlew, which is worse than I’d realised. It’s a bird I love to watch, and the prospect of its becoming extinct is heart-breaking. However the levels of work currently underway to better understand the problems it faces, and to find appropriate solutions, give me cautious grounds for optimism. I wish the researchers every success in their endeavours.

The butterfly, symbol of hope in the darkest of days

February was foul. It was the wettest February the UK has ever seen, and the fifth wettest UK month, of any month on record, ever. Large areas of the country experienced unprecedented floods, and although Platypus Towers escaped this particular fate – living halfway up a hill helps! – it was pretty damned miserable. But as George Harrison famously reminded us, all things must pass, and around 6 March the sun finally shows up, giving it large in a dazzling, clear blue sky.

To celebrate our change in fortunes, I decide to treat Attila the Bun to an enormous carrot. I’m standing at the door to his hutch, fondling his ears while he tucks in greedily, and out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of my first butterfly of the year.

The symbolism isn’t lost on me. The transformation of caterpillar into butterfly is one of Nature’s most dazzling tricks. It speaks of redemption, the possibility of change, and the enormous potential that lies within the most unpromising of subjects. Nothing is so ugly that it cannot re-fashion itself into a thing of beauty, nothing is so damaged that it cannot be made whole again, nothing is so stained that metamorphosis cannot restore it to purity.

The butterfly in question is a Small Tortoiseshell. She sits atop some pure white heather blossom, sucking up the nectar, soaking up the rays. Intent upon her business, she allows me to approach and stand so close I could reach out and touch her. The predominant colour of her wings is a foxy reddish-orange, decorated with a scatter of black and yellow splodges and an edging of tiny, bright blue spots. She is so delicate, so beautiful.

My butterfly has overwintered as an adult, hunkered down somewhere sheltered, perhaps a garden shed or a farm outbuilding. For months her metabolism has barely ticked over, but today she’s awake and has a job to do. Now is her time, and with temperatures rising and the days growing longer she must find a mate, and a patch of stinging nettles on which to lay her eggs.

Her children will take to the wing in June and July, and they in turn will produce another generation in late summer. It is that generation, the grandkids of the butterfly before me, that will emulate her by seeking out a sheltered hiding place in which to hibernate through the winter.

As with pretty much every species of butterfly in the UK, Small Tortoiseshells have declined massively in recent decades. Growing up in suburban London half a century ago I used to see them in abundance, and although not rare these days I wouldn’t describe them as plentiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this early in the year so today’s sighting is definitely a bonus, as well as being a welcome indication that spring is waking from its slumber at last.

Eventually, my butterfly decides it’s time to share her ethereal beauty with another lucky soul. Sorrowfully I watch her leave, and wish her well on her journey. I will miss her. Butterflies are a symbol of hope, and god knows we need hope in these, the darkest of days.

Birds don’t come here any more

We stand at the window. Watching. Waiting. It’s been the same story for around 20 years, taking part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Every year, on the last weekend in January, faithfully recording the birds that visit our garden. Our findings, and the records of tens of thousands of other participants up and down the country, are combined by the boffins at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. They use the data to work out which species are doing well and which are doing badly, and then look for the reasons why. It’s said to be one of the largest “citizen science” exercises in the world, and it’s always been a pleasure to be part of it.

Robin: MISSING from our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

But this year it’s different. You see, birds don’t come here any more.

Of course, birds have never flocked to our garden in large numbers. We live on a suburban estate, several hundred metres from open country. Our garden is small, although a well-stocked bird table and a bird bath are provided to attract visitors, and several large bushes offer them security and shelter.

Despite the limitations of our garden, in the past we have logged a number of species during the allotted Birdwatch hour. They include house sparrow, dunnock, blackbird, robin, wren, starling, magpie, blue tit and woodpigeon. One year – our very own annus mirabilis – a grey wagtail dropped in to say hi.

Male blackbird: the ONLY BIRD SEEN in our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

This year, in two full days of monitoring the garden, we see just one bird! A solitary male blackbird comes to the bird table a couple of times, but doesn’t stay long. Other than him, our garden is an avian desert throughout the entire Birdwatch weekend.

I am reminded of the seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring, in which Rachel Carson wrote of the impact of the indiscriminate use of pesticides – in particular DDT – on bird numbers in the US. I don’t know what impact – if any – pesticides in the local environment may have had on the disappearance of birds from our garden. There are a number of other possible culprits also in the frame, including habitat loss, new agricultural practices, environmental pollution and human-generated climate change.

Woodpigeon: MISSING from our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

Yes, it’s complex, but there’s no excuse for inaction. Carson was writing nearly 50 years ago and society is now much better placed to understand the environmental impact of its actions. Yet the birds continue to disappear, from our back garden and from towns and countryside throughout the UK.

It cannot – must not – be allowed to continue.

The solutions will not be simple. That much is certain. Also certain is the fact that we – humans – are at the root of this. If we are the problem then we must also become the solution. The clock is ticking, the birds are dying.

Rachel Carson put it like this:

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring

In January 2021 the RSPB will doubtless run another Big Garden Birdwatch, but I don’t know if we’ll take part again. You see, birds don’t come here any more.

When will we see you again? Blue tit, MISSING from our garden during the 2020 Birdwatch

Why I’m not a twitcher

Recently I’ve posted several pieces about birds and birding, and I guess the casual reader might have concluded I’m a twitcher.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In day-to-day conversation most people use the words “twitcher” and “birdwatcher” interchangeably, but this is completely wrong.  To be absolutely clear: I’m not, never have been, and never will be a twitcher. Neither is Mrs P. Capiche?

Twitchers may enjoy seeing wild a Eurasian crane, which is bouncing back in the UK after a reintroduction programme

So just what is a twitcher? 

Twitching is … “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” …. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. … The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists.

SOURCE: Wikipedia, retrieved 25 August 2019

Twitching is anathema to me. It sounds like a sad and lonely activity undertaken primarily by sad and lonely men who really need to get their priorities in order. 

Sadly, no self-respecting twitcher would give this wood pigeon a second glance

Twitchers appear to care little for the bird itself, but are obsessed by the chase.  For them it’s all about the quarry. Once a particular species has been seen and ticked off in the appropriate book or list they quickly lose interest and move on to the next challenge.  It’s as if by seeing the bird it becomes their property, theirs to log and then ignore as they immediately consign it to history in favour of the next target.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a rarity, to get the chance to study in the flesh a bird that most birders have only read about.  But it gives me just as much pleasure to spend a quiet moment watching an everyday bird like a wood pigeon or a bullfinch as it does to glimpse a rarity. 

Sex and the City: peregrines mate on a ledge at a local disused cotton mill. Twitchers and peregrines in simultaneous ecstasy?

Even if it’s as common as muck, a bird is still a masterpiece of nature.  Birds are tangible evidence of evolution in action, sculpted from bones and flesh and feathers.  I love nothing more than to marvel at their very existence, to learn about their lives and to enjoy their antics as they go about the everyday business of living.

Twitchers, it seems to me, are doomed to a life of unhappiness: they have never seen enough birds, or the right birds, to bring them the satisfaction they crave.  Mrs P and I, however, live in the moment, enjoying the starling or the sea eagle or whatever else comes our way, taking simple pleasure in the wonder of nature. This to me is what birding should be about, not pursuing a quarry species to the ends of the Earth and then all but forgetting it once it is seen. 

Twitchers, please don’t dismiss the bullfinch just because it’s a common bird

There’s a book in here somewhere, Zen and the Art of Birding Contentment perhaps?  My next project, maybe?

Bempton Cliffs: a tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts

An earlier post described how the bird cliffs at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable trip to Shetland.  Getting to Shetland from our home at Platypus Towers was a bit of a pain. The journey involved a drive of over 400 miles, followed by an overnight ferry crossing of around 12 hours. 

When we finally got to Shetland the puffins were great to see, but I do wonder why we bothered given that we have some excellent bird cliffs much closer to home.

Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs are little more than 80 miles away from us, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This area of the Yorkshire coast hosts England’s largest seabird colony, and the Bempton RSPB reserve lies at its heart.  It’s always worth a visit, as we confirmed on our way back from Shetland in June. It was, to say the least, an eventful end to our long summer break.

So, for the record, here is our tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts:

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We’ve left Scotland and its miserable weather far behind us, and as we walk out from the RSPB visitor centre on a gloriously sunny day our ears are assaulted by the calls of a thousand birds, and our noses detect the unmistakable aroma of a bustling seabird city.  We watch, transfixed, as squadrons of gannets patrol the towering cliffs, swooping and soaring along the sheer rock face, escorted from time to time by their loyal wing-men, the fulmars.

Squadron leader?

The Bempton area boasts one of the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.  Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to lay their eggs and raise their young on towering chalk cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

Gannets bang their beaks together and point them skywards to reaffirm their pair-bond

Within minutes we spot some puffins going about their business.  There are not nearly as many as at Sumburgh Head, nor are the views as intimate.  This is, however, our most successful puffin encounter ever at Bempton, and bodes well for the rest of our visit. 

Solitary puffin watching as the gannets swoop and soar

Bempton boasts sizeable colonies of razorbills and guillemots.  Most cling to the cliff face and are best appreciated through binoculars, but a few come close enough to enjoy with the naked eye.  Some of the razorbills are still sitting on eggs, but others proudly show off their chicks.

Razorbill adult and chick, with kittiwake behind

However, Bempton’s main claim to fame is its gannets.  The cliffs have the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK, boasting some 28,000 birds.  Each gannet jealously guards its own patch of rock, which it has carefully selected so it can just avoid the angry pecks of its neighbours.  Squabbles break out when a bird oversteps the mark and trespasses on a neighbour’s territory.

Gannets on the nest, and a solitary puffin

Meanwhile, other gannets swoop and dive beside the cliffs, and ride the updrafts to hang in the air just feet away from the cliff-top paths.  These are big birds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet, and when seen in large numbers flying along the cliffs or wheeling over the ocean they’re a magnificent sight.  We watch them for a couple of hours, mesmerised by their grace and elegance, and Mrs P is in danger of wearing out the shutter on her camera.

Gannets fills the sky at Bempton Cliffs

A visit to Bempton’s bird cliffs during the breeding season is a life-affirming and restorative experience.  It’s been a great day, and we round it off with dinner at a modest hostelry close to where we are staying for the night. I wrap myself around a gammon steak, and Mrs P gets up close and personal with lasagne.

The following morning, however, I awake to a gurgling from Mrs P’s guts loud enough to suggest Cuadrilla has opened a new campaign in its fracking business.  Within minutes a vile dose of food poisoning has set in.

Mrs P turns a whiter shade of pale, and spends an anxious hour locked in the bathroom. Finally she announces she’s fit enough to travel, but she has her fingers crossed as she speaks so we both fear she’s not going to make it back home with her dignity intact.  However, checkout’s at 9:30am, so we have little choice.

The 80 miles drive back to Platypus Towers is, inevitably, a nightmare, and the patient takes about three days to recover from her ordeal.

Mrs P swears she will never eat lasagne again

An unlikely place for birdwatching

Washington, on the outskirts of Sunderland in the north-east of England, seems an unlikely place for a day’s birdwatching. Although Washington Old Hall, the greatly remodelled home of George Washington’s distant ancestor William de Wessyngton, is nearby, the area is best known for its heavy industry. The coal and chemical industries were both big business hereabouts, and although these are long-gone a variety of other industries have taken their place.

Goldfinch

Who on earth would choose to put a bird reserve here, in such an unnatural and unpromising landscape?

The answer is, of course, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), and good for them. It must have been a brave move at the time (the 1970s), but it was a stroke of genius.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Like other WWT sites, Washington Wetland Centre combines managed habitats for wild birds and displays of captive birds, most of which are part of conservation-driven breeding programmes. There is a strong emphasis on learning and education, with the Centre giving many local children their first close contact with the natural world.

There’s also a Field of Dreams element to this bird reserve: build it and they will come. However improbable it may seem that wildlife could thrive here amongst the industry and urban sprawl, the WWT took the risk and have been richly rewarded. Birds galore and other wildlife – including otters – now call this place home, or drop in for a while during their annual migrations.

Jay

The WWT is a massively important part of our conservation infrastructure. It was instrumental in saving the nene (Hawaiian Goose) from the brink of extinction, and remains at the heart of wetland-focussed conservation projects both in the UK and overseas. Its stated vision is:

We conserve, restore and create wetlands, save wetland wildlife, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands achieve for people and nature.

Source: WWT website, retrieved 7 October 2019

Mrs P and I are passionate supporters, and life members, of the WWT, so it was a pleasure to drop in at the Washington Wetland Centre on our way back from Scotland earlier this year.

For once the wetland birds were unremarkable as the autumn migration had not yet begun. However there were plenty of other treats to savour, including common terns bringing back beaks full of fish for their youngsters.

Common Tern

We were also thrilled to see a family of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, and a very confiding jay which jumped manicly between branch and feeder, then back again. Not at all what we’d expected would be the highlights of a visit to a wetland reserve, but great just the same.

Washington Wetland Centre may be an unlikely place for birdwatching, but it definitely delivers the goods. It’s a place we’ll happily continue to visit whenever we’re in the area.