Thursday, January 23, 2020

An Unfunny Game

The release of non-native game birds and their impact upon the environment is in the news again this week. It is an issue mentioned several time on Another Bird Blog with the intention of alerting Joe Public to elements of the countryside that David Attenborough does not show. 

An estimated 40/50 million Common Pheasants and up to 10 million Red-legged Partridges are released into the countryside prior to the shooting season opening each 1 October.  

Red-legged Partridge 


The current pheasant and partridge shooting seasons draw to a close at the end of January 2020. The 2020 season opens on 1 October for Common Pheasant and 1 September for Red-legged Partridge. Releases of captive-bred birds occur prior to this, usually in July when trailer loads of pen-reared game-birds are transported to the shooting fields and released. Being pen-reared and regularly fed from leaving the egg the youngsters find most of their food from bins spaced at regular intervals throughout each shoot. 

Pen Rearing

 Off To The Shoot - Raptor Persecution Scotland

Feed Bin

The waste from transportation and feed bins provides rich pickings for predators of the crow family, mainly Carrion Crows. This easy availability of food throughout the winter months may have been a factor in the crows’ increased population since the 1960s, a trend associated with increases in nesting success/earlier laying. 

Carrion Crows take nestlings of small farmland birds and the eggs & chicks of waders, a fact of life easily witnessed by field workers. Some studies have found that crows along with their cousins the Magpie and the Raven have surprisingly little impact on the abundance of other bird species. I’m pretty certain those studies have not taken place in the Fylde Lancashire where it is not uncommon to see many hundreds of Carrion Crows on fields that are regularly shot and where lines of feed bins cross the landscape. 

A white Red-legged Partridge 

Carrion Crow 

Around 60% of game-birds released for shooting in the UK, an estimated 25/30 million birds, do not end up at their intended fate of being shot. This constitutes wastage, raising economic, environmental and ethical questions. There are four main reasons: predation, disease, starvation and dispersal into the wider countryside. Roadkill and agricultural operations contribute yet more often unquantifiable deaths. Early morning drives through areas of shoots will see many fresh corpses on carriageways where inexperienced and newly released game-birds meet the combustion engine. 

Pheasant Roadkill

The National Gamebag Census (NGC) records information provided by around 600 participating estates throughout Britain on shooting bags. There is no actual quantification of releasing as the NGC is a fraction of the actual shoots, many of which are on a small scale basis of individual and/or neighbouring farms. This I know because there are a number in this part of Lancashire and where gamekeepers are reluctant or evasive in revealing the number of game birds they “put down” (release). 

From "Birdwatch" magazine 21 January 2020. 

The non-profit legal entity Wild Justice revealed this week that it has sent a second letter to The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) about the effect of releasing millions of non-native game-birds into the British countryside. 

Last July Wild Justice challenged DEFRA's failure to assess the ecological impact on sites of conservation interest of releasing approximately 50 million game-birds into the countryside. The government department took two months to respond, but agreed that the Secretary of State would undertake a review of the release of such birds on or near protected sites. 

Since July 2019 DEFRA has failed to act. With zero progress, Wild Justice pursued the challenge and wrote again urging DEFRA to act quickly. 

In the letter, Wild Justice's lawyers Leigh Day stated that, with DEFRA having recognised the problem in September 2019, "it would be unlawful for those releases to take place in 2020 unless the possibility of them having detrimental impacts on the sites in question had been properly considered and specifically ruled out ahead of time".  As such, "the Secretary of State needs to initiate those processes now". The lawyers added: "To hold off doing that would lead to illegality later and so be unlawful now." 

Mark Avery, a co-director of Wild Justice columnist, commented: "We started this legal challenge last July, DEFRA took two months to respond (mid-September) and now we are past mid-January, only six months from the time when game-bird releasing might start again. DEFRA needs to get moving. This legal letter is designed to give them a very firm shove." 

It’s good news that Wild Justice should tackle this subject but I question their limiting the campaign to “sites of conservation interest”. The release of non-native game-birds is a problem that impacts the whole of the countryside, all of which is of conservation interest given the catastrophic decline of so many birds of farm and field during the last 40 years.

Linking this post to Eileen's Blogspot and Anni's Birding.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Having A Barney

It had been months since I’d seen a Barn Owl after something of a bonanza in 2019 when almost every outing had produced one. So what could be better than to start Saturday morning with a Barn Owl and a good one at that? 

A drive over Stalmine Moss on Saturday morning in the half-light of 0730 saw the owl as almost the earliest bird and the first to make me stop and then lift the camera. It was snap decision time - the light was poor. I clicked on F7.1 at ISO 1000 and crossed fingers. A few snaps and the owl detonated off the tree stump and out of sight. So it goes, all of fifteen seconds with the ghostly apparition. Barn Owls are not there for our human ephemeral delights but to simply grab a meal without worrying how long their pose lasts. 

Barn Owl 

Barn Owl

That’s all very well but how does one follow a splendid creature like a Barn Owl? Well how about a major rarity, a Corn Bunting? There were two along Union Lane that flew from a straggly bush and into the rough field beyond and where I struggled to see them again. It’s a location I have seen Corn Buntings in the past and where a couple of years ago one sang from the same roadside post for a week or two. 

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting 

Recent WhatsApp forums report more Corn Buntings, up to 100, not far away at Eagland Hill in recent weeks. These may be addition to these two on Saturday plus the five to ten I’ve seen on Rawcliffe Moss in the last ten days or so. 

It's likely that all of these Corn Buntings are of the same ilk, ones that at times congregate together at scattered feeding sites or form overnight roosts. This is very much a mystery invasion because no one knows where these Corn Buntings come from. They have not returned as a precursor to the breeding season but more a visitor who arrives in deepest winter and then departs very soon after. 

As discussed a number of times on Another Bird Blog, the Corn Bunting is more or less extinct as breeding species in this flat Fylde of Lancashire. For a number of years now it is a winter visitor only. 

As a species the Corn Buntings is known to be home loving with its movements and migration on a small scale. However both the 1998-91 Atlas and the Winter Atlas suggest that some breeding areas are abandoned in winter as birds move to coastal areas. My own theory is that the Corn Buntings we see in winter are part of the fragmented population of the most northerly and eastern parts of the UK, whereby some individuals move west during the coldest part of the year. 

The Bird Atlas of 2007-2011 shows the English population of Corn Buntings consists of small scattered populations along the South Coast from Dorset to Cambridgeshire and then Kent to Suffolk, plus arable farmland on the East coast from Norfolk and up towards Durham. Almost certainly, the larger population of England has declined again since 2011, just as in the Fylde. 

Meanwhile, the Corn Bunting is now probably extinct in Ireland and almost so in Scotland where a tiny relic population clings on in the Uists of the Hebrides. 

If only we could ring some of these winter birds, both BTO ring and colour ring, a relatively easy way of learning more about a species; unfortunately Corn Buntings are notoriously difficult to catch in both the breeding season and the winter during times of bare cover. A search of BTO data reveals the number of Corn Buntings ringed in recent years as:
34 in 2014 
90 in 2015 
36 in 2016 
52 in 2017 
56 in 2018 

These figures include nestlings ringed, just 53 for the five years above 

Corn Bunting 

In other words, a pretty poor data set from which to work to discover just what is happening to our Corn Buntings. I fear we may be past the point of no return for this most iconic species but I hope not. 

I managed to resist the lure of Eagland Hill on Saturday, the now long lost Purple Heron, the subject of millions of digital images. 

Purple Heron 

It seems the local farming community are fed up of countless tickers parking in their single track passing places. One such farmer, sick of the daily stream of ne'er-do-wells has decided to cut his field of heron-friendly long grass in mid-January. It’s a task normally left for the warmer, dryer days of March. But now in an effort to kill two birds with one stone, he fettled the field so as to encourage the heron to find another source of animal matter many miles away. That job might at the same time inspire selfish and inconsiderate tickers to follow suit.  Perhaps go birding instead? 

I think Plan B may be to shoot the heron and return Eagle Land to rural peace and quiet of Old Lancashire where eagles, kites, harriers and buzzards soared all day and the sheep knew the rules.

Sheep at Eagland Hill 

Another Bird Blog is back soon with more tales of birds and folk. Don't miss the news.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Menorca Love Story

I may not get out this week.  Storm Brendan is on the way from Canada. I think it's payback time because we sent them Harry and Sparkle.

My gout has returned with a resolve to keep me indoors this week. For now here is a tale of Menorca with lots of pictures. Click the pics for a panorama.
Once the kids finished living the good life and made their way into the big wide world, Sue and I took a few holidays. It’s fair to say we got around a bit; Caribbean, Malaysia, Mexico, The Golden Triangle, Thailand, Goa, Sri Lanka, et al. I also spent a couple of spring times undertaking voluntary ringing work at Long Point, Canada, helping locals get to grips with handling wild birds. 

Eventually the long hauls became tiring and wasteful for us both. Two days travelling at either end of each holiday was no longer a thrill to tick just another spot on the globe. We looked around for somewhere to spend a couple of weeks in Spring or Autumn - a decent sort of place without Brits in Union Jack shirts or bars that promised “Full English” and 50 inch sport until 2am; somewhere we might relax, explore and discover. We found Menorca, a two hour flight away and where a 15 year love affair began. 

The Menorcan landscape is like the Yorkshire Dales on steroids, but with wall-to-wall sunshine and clear blue skies 24/7. The smooth as glass and super fast roads are no-expense-spared, courtesy of the EU’s mammoth unverified budget and thanks to a hefty contribution from long-suffering British Taxpayers.  In spring wildflowers dominate the landscape in countless shades and voluminous hues. 



There is one main road in Menorca that links the capital Mahon in the east to the earlier capital but now second city of Ciutadella in the extreme west. Think of the island roads like the bones of a Dover Sole with the backbone down the centre and minor bones heading off north and south. 

The minor bones lead to the seasonal and coastal holiday resorts May to October because Menorca shuts up shop to sun seekers from November to April. A Menorcan winter in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea can be wet and windy, rather like a March day in in Blackpool or Brighton. 

We mostly based in the well-mannered south coast holiday resort of Sant Tomas where the sun shone hot and long, and from where we spent most days, or mornings at least until the afternoon sun beckoned. From here we explored the countryside and visited real Menorcan towns like Alaior, Es Migjorn, Es Mercadal or the fishing village of Fornells rather than sunshine resorts. Not for us the few plebby, honky-tonk resorts in the south west of the island that in part mimic the worst of both Ibiza and Majorca, Menorca’s sister Balearic islands. If we wanted that we could stay home and hit the M55 to Blackpool or Lytham St Annes. 

Es Migjorn 


Es Migjorn 


Es Mercadal

Often we’d drive into the second city, Ciutadella, a fine old city with an authentic vibe, a charming port, and an old quarter with good examples of Baroque and Gothic architecture. Ciutadella used to be the capital of culture and commerce in Menorca. It has supposedly been superseded by the official capital Mahon but any Menorca aficionado will tell you that Ciutadella or “Vella I Bella”, the Old and Beautiful, is the finer of the two. 


The Gothic cathedral of Ciutadella in Placa de la Catedral dates back to the 13th century. Although it’s impossible not to take photographs of its domineering presence, as an odd couple of lapsed Catholic and agnostic we never felt the need to enter, but rather to simply marvel at the awe-inspiring dimensions. 

Placa de la Catedral


The port of Ciutadella is both a fishing and leisure port with an abundance of waterside restaurants which line the quay. Early risers get to watch the fisherman bring in the local catch of the day. From here there’s a ferry over to Alcudia in Mallorca (Majorca), if you really have to. The Placa d’es Born is one of the most picturesque squares in Ciutadella, on what used to be a former Arab marching ground; an obelisk now stands to commemorate the Turkish invasion of 1558. 

Placa d’es Born 

In the old streets there’s a fish market and a row of butcher’s shops that sell free range chicken, pork and beef that once upon a time you could buy in any British town until out-of-town supermarkets destroyed them. And then there’s the serrano, air dried ham - choose your leg and gnaw away. 


We knew from previous visits that another day to Mahon (Mao) might coincide with a Med Cruise stop when spotless cruisers, released from captivity for the day, swarm along the lovely old streets looking for tat which local shops provide in abundance. After a couple of visits we gave it a miss just in case. 


In Menorca it’s impossible to buy a bad cup of cappuccino and where Costa Coffee is but a bad dream. We learned Spanish, or at least how to ask for “dos café con leche, por favour”. Y un ensaimada, Gracias”. We never did get the hang of Menorquí apart from “Bon Dia.” 

Ensaimada, Coffee, Bocadilla  

The two official languages of Menorca are Catalan and Spanish. Natives to the island speak the variety of Catalan called Menorquí, and they typically speak Spanish fluently as a second language. A 2014 survey carried out by the Government of the Balearic Islands found that 53.5% of participants identified themselves as Catalan speakers, 36.7% as Spanish speakers, and 7.7% as bilingual speakers. Quite where the islanders stand on the question of Catalan independence and that the EU insist Catalans are Europeans we don’t know. Suffice to say that in fifteen years we never discussed politics with a native, only with other British holidaymakers, more so since June 2016. 

Many Menorquins still practice traditional farming. Spring flowers and Mediterranean birds thrive, but even here this historic farming technique is on the decline in favour of agri-monoculture, the policy that has destroyed so much of Britain’s diversity of flora and fauna during the last forty years. Our fifteen years in Menorca saw perceptible declines in some species of flowers and native birds, although being on a migration path to and from Europe and Africa, the island still provides a stop-off point for birds on that journey in spring and autumn.  

Menorca in May

In 2014 I spent a morning with Javier helping with his local version of Constant Effort Ringing. In following years we always bumped into Javier on our travels as he led springtime birding and walking tours around the island  

 Sardinian Warbler

Mediterranean Flycatcher 


In spring the valles (valleys) and roadsides throb with the sounds of warblers, Bee Eaters, Hoopoes and Nightingales, so much so that I swear the Nightingale is the most common bird of the island. Trying to see this highly secretive bird, day or night is another matter.  Fortunately there are other special birds to enjoy, and even the resident Hermann's Tortoise to admire, very often at the risky roadside where cars and oblivious occupants speed by. Sue became my dependable spotter and camera minder when the promise of a later glass of rioja worked like magic. 

Woodchat Shrike 

 Black-winged Stilt

Audouin's Gull 

Cattle Egret 

Egyptian Vulture 

Purple Heron


Bee Eater

Mediterranean Flycatcher 

Corn Bunting

 Turtle Dove

Heerman's Tortoise 

Tawny Pipit 

Red-footed Falcon 

Scops' Owl 

Hoopoes - A Menorca Love Story

Menorca was quiet enough for us. From 2005 and all through the global financial downturn we found the peace and quiet we desired on an island we could discover with little help from brochures and tourist guides. A simple map and a hire car was all we required. We made friends of locals and tourists alike.  Hotel and shop staff greeted us like long lost pals and we to them. 


And then in 2017 came changes. The self-governing Balearics decided that tourism should increase and that the tourists themselves should contribute to the cost of the necessary infrastructure. In came a tourist tax that added another Euro 90 to our not inconsiderable bill for two weeks at a four star. In addition, every year the price of our room increased by 10%. 

In came “improvements” and extensions to the once small and user-friendly airport. In 2018 and 2019, we lined up outside the terminal like naughty schoolchildren then spent two hours and three hours at passport control where two Policia youths scrutinised our pale British faces for signs of terrorism. Once cleared of extremist preferences, the queues for hire cars snaked through the hall but luckily we had a local contact who met us outside away from the madding crowds to lead us to a waiting Panda. 

Our self-discovered noiseless spots became loud and overrun with boisterous, shouty people. And then came the bikes, hordes of them riding in impassable convoy along once quiet byways and tracks, yelling so that all could hear their inanities; throwing their water bottles onto the verge or stuffing them into ancient stone walls along once deserted roads. 

Punta Nati

Menorca had become not quite a hell-hole, but not the place we grew to love. The island was in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

Menorcan Donkeys

We may go back but for now have decamped to Greece where we found a new love.

Linking this post to Anni's Birding  and  Eileen's Saturday Critters.

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