Where have all the sparrows gone?

Last Saturday, 20th March, was World Sparrow Day. Needless to say, no sparrows turned up in our garden to celebrate the occasion. When we moved in 35 years ago house sparrows were common here, squabbling noisily and boisterously on the bird table. Now, if we get half a dozen sightings over a 12 months period we class it as a good year for sparrows. Here, and throughout the UK, house sparrow numbers have been in serious decline for decades.

House sparrow

Growing up in West London half a century ago sparrows were the most familiar birds in our garden. Our name for them was spugs, or alternatively spadgers. They were very common, part of the wallpaper of our suburban lives, and we took them for granted. No one would have believed then that one day they would be “in trouble.”

The State of the UK’s Birds 2020 report published by the RSPB suggests that there were 5.3 million breeding pairs in the UK in 2018, making the house sparrow our third most common breeding bird behind the wren (11m) and the robin (7.3m), and marginally ahead of the woodpigeon (5.2m). It adds that “In the late 1960s there were 10 times more house sparrows than woodpigeons. We have lost around 10.7 million pairs of house sparrows in that time, a loss greater than for any other species, and gained 3.5 million pairs of woodpigeons.” No surprise, therefore, that the house sparrow is on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

The latest figures offer a glimmer of hope: numbers are now thought to be stable or increasing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However this is little consolation to those of us in England, where numbers continue to fall.

House sparrow

The cause of the rapid decline, particularly in urban and suburban environments, is unclear, although a lack of invertebrate prey for chicks – perhaps resulting from pollution or increased used of pesticides by gardeners – is believed to be a factor. Other proposed but as yet unproven reasons include reduced opportunities for nesting in the modern urban environment, and predation by domestic cats. Declines in rural house sparrow populations are thought to be linked to seasonal food shortages resulting from changes in agricultural practices, particularly the move to sowing cereal crops in the autumn.

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Although the decline of house sparrows in the UK has been dramatic, the declaration of the first World Sparrow Day wasn’t a British initiative. Instead it was the brainchild of Nature Forever (NFS), an Indian non-governmental, non-profit organization which aims to “involve citizens from all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country and the world” in conservation projects. Nature Forever’s championing of the house sparrow is a good indication of the bird’s global reach.

Ted Anderson, Emeritus Professor of Biology at McKendree College in Illinois has argued that the house sparrow is the most widely distributed wild bird on Earth. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East, but having developed a close association with humans, it extended its range across Eurasia in tandem with the spread of agriculture. More recently Europeans have deliberately introduced the house sparrow to other parts of the globe, either as a pest control initiative or to remind them of home, and accidentally taken them to other locations as stowaways on their ships.

In happier times. House sparrow at Platypus Towers

It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that, in recent years, Mrs P and I have seen many more house sparrows on our visits to North America, Australia and New Zealand than we ever manage to spot in our own backyard. If numbers here continue to fall the time may well come when we have to go cap in hand to our former colonies and beg to have some of our sparrows back. Oh, the humiliation!

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In folklore and literature sparrows have an enduring reputation for sexual promiscuity. Geoffrey Chaucer reflects this in the Canterbury Tales when he writes “As hot, he was, and lecherous as a sparrow . . .”  Two hundred years later, in 1604, William Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that Sparrows must not build in his house eaves, because they are lecherous . . .”

Tree sparrow. Note the diagnostic brown crown and black cheek spot

Amazingly, modern science shows that these seemingly outrageous accusations are not entirely inaccurate. DNA analysis has shown that 15% of the chicks produced by a settled pair of house sparrows are in fact the offspring of a third party, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

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The house sparrow is not the only species of sparrow found on these shores. Although the so-called hedge sparrow, also known as a dunnock, isn’t really a sparrow at all (it belongs to the family birds called accentors), the tree sparrow really is a sparrow.

While house sparrows are regularly seen in both urban and rural settings, the tree sparrow is very much a bird of the countryside, particularly hedgerows and woodland edges. Their distribution tends to be localised, and they are much less plentiful than house sparrows: the latest population estimate is 245,000 breeding pairs. We have not and would not expect to see tree sparrows in our suburban garden, but there is a nature reserve within a few miles of Platypus Towers where we can often spot them.

Tree sparrow

It’s always a pleasure to see tree sparrows since they, like house sparrows, have suffered a calamitous decline in numbers (around 90%) since 1970, although in the last few years that fall has slowed and may have started to reverse. Again, changes in agricultural practice are the likely cause, and with no prospect of these being reversed the tree sparrow remains on the UK’s Red List for birds of conservation concern.

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And finally, to conclude my little celebration of World Sparrow Day, I commend to you Dolly Parton singing “Little Sparrow.” The songs begins with these words

Little sparrow, little sparrow
Precious, fragile little thing
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Flies so high and feels no pain

Of course, the song isn’t really about sparrows at all. For Dolly, the sparrow is a simply a metaphor for gentle innocence, and anyway the North American sparrows about which she sings (Emberizidae) aren’t in the same family as Old Word sparrows (Passeridae). But whatever, that second line has always haunted me. In four words it captures perfectly the magic of birds both great and small, and encapsulates my feelings for them. Birds are precious and fragile, and even relatively common birds like the sparrow need our help if they are to continue to fly high and feel no pain.

Celebrating World Wetlands Day: return of the cranes

Yesterday was World Wetlands Day. Held on 2 February every year since 1997, the Day aims to celebrate and raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. To the casual observer wetlands may not seem vital at all, but instead an inconvenient and undesirable quagmire of mud, mosquitoes and misery. The truth, however, is very different.

Wetlands take many forms, including rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, fens, swamps, mangroves, estuaries, floodplains and lagoons. Why are they considered vital? To put it at its most basic, wetlands are all about water and so is life. The equation is very simple: no water equals no life. Whether we’re talking about drinking water, food production or storing carbon emissions, humankind needs healthy, thriving wetlands.

And so does the rest of life on Earth. Wetlands are vital for biodiversity: although freshwater wetlands cover less than 1% of the planet’s surface, 40% of all species rely on them.

But despite their importance, wetlands are in big trouble. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) estimates that 87% of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the last 300 years, with vast swathes being drained for housing, industry and agriculture. Those wetlands that remain often suffer from serious pollution, and are also threatened by climate change.

Monty

The Ramsar Convention, which dates from 1971, seeks to secure international agreement and co-operation to protect wetlands. And yet, despite no fewer than 171 countries signing up to this intergovernmental treaty, the loss of – and damage to – wetlands across the globe continues unabated, with an impact on biodiversity that’s difficult to overstate. In this context, World Wetlands Day and similar initiatives – both large and small – are to be welcomed as a means of raising awareness of the continuing wetlands crisis.

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Mrs P and I are big fans of wetlands, which offer superb opportunities for birdwatching. We are lifetime members of the WWT, a UK-based conservation trust which seeks to “conserve, restore and create wetlands, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands can do for us.”

Sadly we live around 90 miles (145km) from the nearest WWT reserve, so our visits aren’t as frequent as we’d wish. But every visit we’re able to manage is worth the effort, none more so than our 2014 trip to the Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire. Here we were able to witness first hand the positive impact of the Great Crane Project.

Eurasian cranes are unmistakeable birds, standing more than four feet (1.2m) high, with slate-grey plumage, a red crown and a bold white streak extending from the eye to the upper back. They were once common in British wetlands, and countless place names – like Cranford in West London, close to where I grew up – include the element ‘cran’ to signify a locality where these majestic birds were known to congregate.

But loss of habitat due to the drainage of wetlands led to a decline in numbers, and hunting made things even worse. For example, in 1251 King Henry III served 115 cranes at his Christmas dinner, while in 1465 a feast to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York involved the consumption of 204 cranes. I can only hope these medieval displays of unrestrained gluttony were followed by unrelieved bouts of chronic indigestion…serve the buggers right, I say!

Unsurprisingly, by around the year 1600 cranes had become extinct throughout Britain. They remained absent from the British landscape for nearly 400 years.

In 1979 a small number of cranes crossed the sea from continental Europe to settle in the Norfolk Broads. They began to breed three years later, but the location was kept secret to avoid the unwelcome attention of egg collectors. The population survives, and has crept into other parts of East Anglia and a few other isolated spots in eastern Britain. But cranes mature slowly and typically have poor breeding success, with the result that after around 40 years the descendants of the Norfolk population remain pitifully small in number.

Chris(tine)

With the prospect of cranes naturally recolonising other parts of their ancestral range being remote, conservationists needed an alternative strategy if the bird was to spread in reasonable numbers to wetlands in the west of Britain. And thus was born the Great Crane Project, with the aim of establishing a self-sustaining breeding population of 20 pairs on the Somerset Levels by 2025.

The project saw a coalition of conservation organisations (WWT, RSPB, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits) join forces to work on this highly ambitious, ground-breaking project. Each year between 2010 and 2014, around 20 Eurasian crane eggs were taken under licence from Brandenburg in Germany to be hatched in the UK. In all, 93 chicks were carefully raised in captivity. Dedicated “human parents” hand-reared the youngsters, educating them in the ways of the world at “crane school” before releasing them into the wild on the RSPB reserve at West Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels. Simultaneously, work was undertaken at some sites to restore and improve the habitat for cranes.

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When Mrs P and I visited Slimbridge WWT reserve in 2014, the prospect of seeing cranes never entered our heads. We’d previously enjoyed a couple of fleeting, distant views of cranes in East Anglia, but it seemed wildly improbable that any birds from the Great Crane Project would end up at Slimbridge, around 66 miles (106km) from where they were released.

And yet, amazingly, we were treated to fantastic views of a pair of cranes, strutting, preening and displaying just a few metres from where we were sitting. What a privilege, to spend an hour in such close proximity to majestic birds that once graced British wetlands in huge numbers, but which are now so scarce.

Monty

The coloured rings on the cranes’ legs make it possible to identify the individual birds we saw that day: the Great Crane Project website confirms them to be Monty and Chris(tine). Theirs was one of the first breeding attempts by any of the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project, but sadly they failed to raise any youngsters, either in 2014 or subsequent years.

The 2020 Annual Report, authored by Elizabeth Antliff-Clark and Damon Bridge from the RSPB, indicates that the cranes released between 2010 and 2014 have so far fledged 31 youngsters, of which 27 are still alive. Sadly 2020 was not a particularly good year for breeding success. The annual report tells us

“27 pairs of breeding age birds were observed in 2020 – two more than last year. Of these, all 27 pairs were thought to be holding territories. 15 pairs made confirmed or probable breeding attempts. Because monitoring activities were minimal on account of the Covid 19 restrictions, there were a higher proportion of pairs in the ‘possibly bred’ category than in previous years so it is likely that this confirmed/probable figure would have been higher in a ‘typical’ year. Nine of the 15 pairs successfully hatched chicks with four of these going on to fledge.

The 15 confirmed and probable nesting attempts this year were made on the Somerset Levels and Moors (7 prs); WWT Slimbridge Reserve Gloucestershire (5 prs); Oxfordshire (2 pr); Cambridgeshire (1 female).”


SOURCE: The Great Crane Project 2020 Report Public Version (section 4.1), published on Great Crane Project website, retrieved 28/01/21

The report goes on to suggest that the explanation for 2020’s poor success rate lies in the near-drought conditions experienced at the time, which led to the drying-out of nest-sites and an increase in predation. If this is correct then last year’s poor performance may be regarded as a blip, and improved breeding success can reasonably be anticipated in 2021.

Let’s hope so. Cranes are a welcome addition to the biodiversity of British wetlands. If the Great Crane Project succeeds in its ambitions the species will continue its slow recovery from nearly 400 years of local extinction, allowing many more birders – and ordinary members of the public – to marvel at the sight of these magnificent birds. Wouldn’t that be an achievement for wetlands conservation!

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STOP PRESS: Just as I was about schedule this post for publication I picked up a press release from the RSPB / Crane Working Group. It reports that “the latest common crane survey reveals a record-breaking 64 pairs of cranes in 2020, bringing the total population [across all of the UK] to over 200 birds.” This number includes the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project and their descendants, and the descendants of the birds that returned naturally to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. The 64 pairs produced a total of 23 chicks.

What brilliant, timely news! There are bound to be bumps along the road, such as the drought that coincided with the 2020 breeding season, but taken as a whole the prospects for cranes in the UK look better than at any time since the Middle Ages. Give Nature half a chance, and She WILL fight back.

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.

20193320190706

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 – (3) Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour

The Black Guillemot isn’t a rare bird. Many thousands breed in the British Isles – the RSPB estimates 19,000 pairs in the UK – scattered along the coast in pairs or small groups. And ours is just a small part of the world population, which is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs: these striking seabirds are also found around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, across Siberia to eastern Russia and Alaska. The species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

We’ve previously encountered Black Guillemots at various locations in Scotland, where they are relatively common, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. Here the bird is known as the Tystie, a name derived from Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled in the Scottish islands many centuries ago. A similar name is still applied to the bird in Iceland and Norway.

Black Guillemots are also found around much of Ireland, on the Anglesey coast in north Wales and at a few spots in northern England. Around 300 pairs breed on the Isle of Man, where you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to watch them than at Peel Harbour.

The hustle and bustle of fishing and recreational vessels at Mann’s busiest port makes Peel Harbour an unlikely place for these distinctive seabirds to thrive. But thrive they do. Away from human settlement they breed among rocks at the base of cliffs, or in the shelter of boulders on rocky islets, but at Peel, gaps in the harbour wall offer an attractive alternative. They appear completely at home here.

During our visit in June 2018, the Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour were displaying their distinctive breeding plumage: black all over, with a large, white oval patch on each wing. The bill matches the black plumage, but when the bird opens its mouth a bright red gape is revealed. The legs are also a vivid red. However, outside the breeding season the Black Guillemot loses its good looks, turning white, with black barring on its back, and black wings.

Peel Harbour gave us our best ever views of these splendid birds, and it was fascinating to watch them strutting their stuff, resting up and posing on the fishing boats in the harbour. They were clearly oblivious to the human activity all around them, not to mention the admiring looks of birders like us! You can enjoy a glimpse of their antics on my YouTube video:

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!

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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.

A Red Kite comes calling

One of the inevitable consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown is that we’ve spent pretty much every moment of the last three months at home. Planned visits to Cornwall (2 weeks), Norfolk (10 days) and Liverpool (5 days) have all been abandoned, while day trips we would have done to places closer to Platypus Towers have also been impossible. Our horizons have been severely limited by the crisis.

However, it’s not all bad news. Spending more time chez nous has enabled us to better appreciate the wildlife that visits our garden.

We live deep in a suburban housing estate, and our private outdoor space isn’t big – just 90 square metres. Nevertheless, ten species of butterfly have passed through in recent weeks, and despite the best efforts of visiting cats Milky Bar and Malteser to have them for dinner, various birds have also dropped in, tempted by a well-stocked birdtable. A few months ago I wrote in this blog that birds don’t come here anymore, so the return of our feathered friends has been very welcome.

But the very best garden wildlife encounter has been courtesy of a Red Kite, swooping so low over us that it almost seemed we could reach up and touch it. It didn’t stay long, probably no more than 30 seconds, so no chance for photos or video, but the encounter is etched indelibly into the memory. We have been in this house since the mid-1980s, and if anyone had suggested then that one day we’d experience a fly-past by a Red Kite we’d have assumed they were completely out to lunch.

Amongst our collection of books about birding we have a field guide published in the year we moved into this house. It describes the Red Kite as uncommon, with fewer than 45 breeding pairs in the country. The distribution map shows the species confined to the mountains of mid-Wales, around 150 miles (240 km) from Platypus Towers.

But fortune has looked kindly upon the Red Kite over the last 30 years, thanks primarily to a spectacularly successful reintroduction programme.

Red Kites were once found throughout England, Wales and Scotland, both in traditional countryside haunts and in urban settings. They were so common that William Shakespeare described London as a “city of kites and crows.” Kites were welcome visitors to towns, where they scavenged waste discarded by the inhabitants, and this avian garbage disposal service was so highly valued that the birds found themselves protected by an English Royal Charter in the 15th century!

But times changed, and these impressive raptors were transformed from heroes into villains, being seen as a threat to food supplies and to game shooting interests. Intense persecution followed, and around 150 to 200 years ago Red Kites became extinct in England and Scotland, clinging on only in remote, mountainous areas of mid-Wales. Remarkably, genetic fingerprinting tells us that the entire relict Welsh population were descendants of a single female, an indication of how close the bird came to extinction in Wales too.

Numbers of Red Kites stabilised in Wales, but although the bird was given legal protection and some nests were protected from egg collectors it seemed unlikely that the growth in numbers would ever be sufficient to allow successful recolonisation beyond its borders. Further intervention was required if England and Scotland were to re-establish their own populations, and eventually the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) stepped up to the plate.

Their ambitious reintroduction programme began in 1989, with birds taken from Sweden – and later, Spain – released at sites in southern England (Buckinghamshire) and northern Scotland (the Black Isle). Other release sites came on stream later in the project, which lasted more than two decades, creating extra hubs from which the rest of the country could be recolonised.

By any standard, the Red Kite reintroduction programme has been a spectacular success. Under the heading “a triumph for conservation,” the RSPB website reports that there are now around 46,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

The birds still face threats, in particular “illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables,” but the Red Kite’s situation has improved out of all recognition since the reintroduction programme began.

Although we were lucky to get good views of a Red Kite flying over Platypus Towers a few weeks ago, I imagine it will be some time before they become a regular sight here: recolonisation is a gradual process. However there are places in the UK where sightings are pretty much guaranteed, particularly in Wales, which is home to around 50% of the entire UK breeding population.

Indeed, Red Kites have become a tourist attraction in Wales, with one enterprising farmer turning them into a major business opportunity. Gigrin Farm’s website says:

We are a 200 acre family-run working farm, now famous for our Red Kite Feeding Centre. Hundreds of Red Kites feed here every day. It is a truly breathtaking spectacle which we hope you will come along and witness for yourself.

SOURCE: Gigrin Farm website, retrieved 12/06/2020

They do not exaggerate. I’m pleased to report that Gigrin Farm offers spectacular, close-up views of an extraordinary number of Red Kites, as well as a glimpse of the rare white-morph Red Kite and sundry other birds including buzzards, ravens and rooks. The photographs illustrating this post were taken by Mrs P when we spent an afternoon at Gigrin in November 2018.

Although the farm is currently closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions, the birds continue to be fed. When regulations allow I would happily recommend anyone with a passion for Red Kites to visit Gigrin Farm…you won’t be disappointed! Meanwhile, click on the link below to see the YouTube video I made during our visit.

My video of feeding time at the Gigrin Farm Red Kite Centre

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.

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

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