Thursday, April 2, 2020

Book Review

I’m due for a couple of new books soon from Princeton University Press and their WildGuides series. With all that’s going on there could be delays to bring my readers new book reviews.  

For today’s post I raided the archive again with an earlier book review from 26 June 2014.  The book, A Sparrowhawk's Lament  is still available and remains highly recommended.

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Today there’s a review of A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring, a newly published book by David Cobham with Bruce Pearson.

There is a fascination with birds of prey which can propel them into headline news, not just rare bird bulletins, but very often the TV news and the popular press. Sometimes it is good news but very often there is controversy, disagreement or debate around birds of prey where the quarrels reach into politics and beyond, even the Royal Family.

Enquire of a bird watcher their favourite bird. More often than not the answer will be a bird of prey, even though in the course of everyday bird watching many British birds of prey are difficult to engage with as we glimpse them but briefly.  Such is the passion for raptors that on occasions, perhaps yearly, bird watchers travel long distances, making costly and time consuming special journeys to see birds of prey like Goshawk, Honey Buzzard, Golden Eagle or White-tailed Eagle.

When Princeton University Press sent a copy of A Sparrowhawk’s Lament for review on Another Bird Blog I admit to niggling thoughts about the need for yet another book about birds of prey. What might be added to current knowledge on the subject, and who might stump up £25 for a new one.?

With so many books devoted to raptors already out there it was hard to imagine where a new volume might begin and end.

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament - Princeton University Press 

So I got stuck into A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring, a book containing 15 chapters, one for each British Breeding Bird of Prey together with the obligatory Introduction and Conclusion. That translates to roughly 20 pages to each species, good sized chunks with which to digest the contents and consider a verdict.

From the beginning I was struck with the detail and sheer readability of the text and finished the first 40 pages of the Introduction, The Sparrowhawk and The Osprey without a break.

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament - Princeton University Press 

I live in the North West of England, just a flap and a glide from the infamous Bowland Hills, and where after 200 years of persecution the Hen Harrier has been wiped from the landscape. Therefore I took a particular interest in the chapter devoted to Circus cyaneus, the original Silver Ghost, the Hen Harrier.

These 20 pages make for illuminating, disturbing and often emotional reading, from the crucified Hen Harrier on a barn door, the introduction of the double-barrelled breech-loading shotgun, Famous Grouse whisky, on through quad-biked keepers kitted out with night-vision goggles. The chapter  ends with a moving poem about the predictable fate of Bowland Beth. Read it all, I think you may never buy Famous Grouse again and will in all probability have a tear in your eye.

Fortunately not all of the chapters make for reading as depressing as the saga of the Hen Harrier, the magnificent Golden Eagle or the elusive Goshawk, with chapters charting success stories like Buzzard, Hobby, Montagu’s Harrier, Red Kite and Honey Buzzard to redress the balance somewhat.


Red Kite from A Sparrowhawk’s Lament - Princeton University Press 

By the time I reached The Conclusion at page 269 my own thought was that the book’s sub-title rather undersells it. A Sparrowhawk’s Lament is much more than a summary of how British birds of prey are faring in 2014, more like an entertaining read about the historical, cultural and even literary background to British raptors. The chapters are peppered with anecdotes, experiences and observations from the author and conservationists engaged in the study, safeguard or re introductions of such species. This detail gives the whole book an instructive, authentic, expert, and above all a caring feel for our often maligned UK raptors.

David Cobham has spent a lifetime studying birds and is a vice president of the Hawk and Owl Trust. In addition he is a film and television producer and director, notable for such films as The Goshawk, The Vanishing Hedgerows, and Tarka the Otter. The author’s Acknowledgements for his interviewees reads as a who’s who of raptor expertise, including luminaries such as as Ian Newton, Roy Dennis, Robin Prytherch, Wilf Norman and the late Derek Ratcliffe.

The book is generously sprinkled with more than 90 black & white illustrations by Bruce Pearson. These vignettes add greatly to the accompanying text in providing a perfect fit to the overall feel of the book.

All in all A Sparrowhawk’s Lament is a desirable little volume which I thoroughly enjoyed, and one I can recommend to blog readers for the next rainy, non-birding day.

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring: David Cobham with Bruce Pearson. Princeton University Press - $35.00 / £24.95

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In 2014 this book cost $35.00 / £24.95.

The price in 2020 is now $45.00 / £38.00 - still a bargain and just the job for those locked in rainy days when the garden or a walk isn’t an option at Princeton Press.

If you don’t mind a nicely kept but used version there’s a range of prices at Abe Books.

Back to birding soon on Another Bird Blog.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Boxed In

We’re not so much boxed in. More like locked in and fastened down until the experts say it’s safe to go outdoors. I doubt we’ll get to check nest boxes in 2020.

Here’s a previous visit to nest boxes at Oakenclough at the foot of the Pennine Hills back in the early summer of 31 May 2015. 

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As promised, here is an update on a visit to Oakenclough on Saturday to check with Andy the progress of his nest boxes. 

The target bird for the nest box project is Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), a small passerine bird of the Old World flycatcher family and part of a group of insectivorous songbirds which feed by darting after insects. 

Pied Flycatcher

This flycatcher winters in tropical Africa, spending the summer in the northern hemisphere but as far south as the Iberian Peninsula where it is quite common. 

Pied Flycatcher  

Pied Flycatchers breed in upland broad-leaved woodland. This means that in Britain they are limited due to geography mainly to the North and West where they prefer mature oak woodland with natural tree holes, i.e. dead trees, or dead limbs on healthy trees. 

The species also takes readily to nest boxes with high horizontal visibility, in woodland where there is a low abundance of shrub and understorey, but a high proportion of moss and grass for their nests. 

Andy - checking a box 

As is usually the case,  a good number of the boxes checked were occupied by Great Tit or Blue Tit with the adults still brooding tiny youngsters or sitting on clutches as low as 4 eggs or as high as 14 eggs. Given that the weather in the month of May has been mostly poor, the progress so far has been better than expected. 

Pied Flycatcher 

We found one box contained Nuthatches and ringed 6 youngsters. Four boxes were occupied by Pied Flycatchers where we found females sitting on either 6 or 7 eggs and where by a week or so the youngsters will be large enough to be ringed. 

The eggs of the Pied Flycatcher are about 18 mm by 13 mm in size, pale blue, smooth and glossy. The female builds the nest of leaves, grass, moss and lichens, and then lines the cup with hair and wool. The duties of incubating the eggs are performed by the female with the newly-hatched young fed by both adults. 

Pied Flycatcher nest and eggs

Pied Flycatcher

The eggs of the Pied Flycatcher are about 18 mm by 13 mm in size, pale blue, smooth and glossy. The female builds the nest of leaves, grass, moss and lichens, and then lines the cup with hair and wool. The duties of incubating the eggs are performed by the female with the newly-hatched young fed by both adults. 

The Pied Flycatcher is a well-studied species, partly because of its willingness to use nest boxes provided by bird watchers and bird ringers. 

Detailed study has found that Pied Flycatchers practice polygyny, usually bigamy, with the male travelling large distances to acquire a second mate. The male will mate with the secondary female and then return to the primary female in order to help with aspects of child rearing, such as feeding. There are a number of theories around how this apparently poor system benefits the species, but no one knows for sure except that in practice it does work. 

In 2005 the European population of Pied Flycatcher was estimated at up to 12 million pairs, helped in part by the provision of nest boxes in parts of the species’ range. We checked our ringing site for Willow Warbler nests and found at one nest a brood of tiny youngsters, at another nest a female sat on 6 eggs. Dotted around the site a good number of males are in steady song with little sign of their mates, suggesting that most are still at the stage of incubating eggs. Willow Warblers are now a little late this year, no doubt as a result of the poor Spring weather to date. 

Willow Warbler

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Fast Forward to 2020. People aren’t perfect. Some slow to adjust while others appear to be in denial that coronavirus is something to be taken seriously.  The vast majority are trying to stick to the rules as best they can while doing the necessary to put food on the table and stay sane.

Back soon with Another Bird Blog.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

Home Birding

An extract from an email all ringers received this week.

“BTO SURVEYS IN THE WIDER COUNTRYSIDE”. 

“Following the Government statement on 23 March, our Senior Leadership Team has reviewed the BTO advice and is asking all volunteers to follow the guidelines presented by the Prime Minister. While the monitoring work undertaken by volunteers is extremely important, it must not compromise public health. 

To avoid this potential risk, we are requesting that all BTO surveyors, including ringers and nest recorders, refrain from undertaking survey work at sites to which they would need to travel by any means until this guidance is reviewed.” 

“All the best and stay safe”. 

Dave Leech, Head of Ringing & Nest Recording 
James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science” 

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Here's my contribution to "Home Birding", the newest buzz phrase for locked down birders with a post first published on Another Bird Blog on 31/12/2011 - New Year’s Eve 2011. Click the pictures for a close-up.

It’s time for recalling the past year’s highlights of birding, ringing and photography. Now is the moment when we choose to forget the low points, the empty pages in a sodden notebook, netting a handful of birds on a seemingly perfect spring morning, or discovering that you set the aperture wrong.

Here we go in rough chronological order with a selection of photos and personal highlights of 2011.

In the early part of the year we holidayed in Egypt at a time when the country was undergoing a revolution, but the confiding birds hadn’t joined in the turmoil and just behaved naturally for a visiting Brit.

Egypt proved to be a wonderful place for bird photography and so difficult to select just a few pictures, apart from the Kingfisher which is just about my favourite photo of the year, taken with a decent choice of aperture for once.

Kingfisher - Egypt

Cattle Egret - Egypt

I’d left Will counting Siskins building up by the hundreds in his garden, together with a dozen or two Brambling and Lesser Redpoll. Within days of returning from Egypt I joined him for some memorable ringing sessions and notable breakfasts.

Brambling

Lesser Redpoll 

Siskin 

Bacon Butty 

Spring and autumn were great for catching and photographing Northern Wheatears at Pilling. With the help of sacrificial meal worms I caught fourteen “Wheats” and clicked the shutter button a couple of hundred times on the beautiful chat, passing Meadow Pipits or the occasional Linnet.

Wheatear

Meadow Pipit

Linnet 

The annual ritual came along, May in Menorca, the island where birds are hard to find but fortunately more numerous than birders. This year a ringed Audouin’s Gull at the hotel pool gave me an excuse to search for that extreme rarity, a Menorcan ringer.

A Ringed Audouin’s Gull -

A Ringed Audouin's Gull

Summer was warm and wonderful, ringing Swallow chicks, finding Skylark nests and stumbling upon young Lapwings or breeding Redshank.

Skylark

Barn Swallow 

Redshank

Lapwing

Then at the end of summer came a chance to take photographs of a species rapidly becoming a rarity, the unfortunately named “Common” Cuckoo.

Cuckoo 

Autumn and early winter was given over to ringing pipits, buntings, finches and thrushes “on the moss”, the satisfaction of working a regular patch with a job well done.

Reed Bunting 

Tree Pipit

Yellowhammer

Don't forget to Spring forward tonight by changing all those clocks. Or not.




Back soon with Another Bird Blog.  Linking this post to Anni's Birding in Texas.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Goldfinch Gone

Three days of sunshine and all the Goldfinches suddenly vanished from my garden. There's been 15-20 most of the winter so bang goes my plan to do a little garden ringing while in lockdown.

Goldfinch

So here's a post first published at the end of 2013 to celebrate the year's pictures in a month by month sequence. It’s mostly the birds which stirred the senses with odd shots of the places where memories are made. 

January is time to escape from the grey, cold skies of a UK winter and grab some welcome sunshine, if only for a few weeks. We were stunned by the long, wide, sandy expanse of the beaches of Fuerteventura, some several miles long and just begging to be walked. When tired of the walking I sat on some quiet rocks near the shore and took pictures of a Whimbrel, a shy wader species I had longed to photograph. 

Fuerteventura

Whimbrel

February continued where I left off in the early part of the year in ringing birds out on the frozen mossland. Brambling winters don’t happen too often, 2012 and 2013 being the first for several years and a winter when I caught 66 of the striking finches. One bore a Norwegian ring, another one later captured in Norway. 

Brambling

March, and as the ice lingered on there were still Bramblings to be seen along with a good number of common Reed Buntings. Bird ringing is not about catching rare or scarce birds. Catching and ringing birds is about monitoring the populations of common birds, an important and vital job in these worrying days of wholesale declines.

Many a trainee ringer has fallen by the wayside when realising that rare birds appear in mist nets on equally rare days and that the humdrum of catching common birds is mostly unexciting hard graft. Imagine my surprise on 15th March to find a Little Bunting in the net, an agreeable but unimportant addition to the winter catch of 72 Reed Buntings. That Little Bunting was still around into April when I guess it felt the urge to migrate.

Little Bunting

April is Wheatear Time. The migrant chats appear along the coast on their way to the uplands of the UK or Scandinavia. A few are destined for Iceland or even distant Greenland. The birds are hungry following their journey from further south and can rarely resist a mealworm, so I send them on their way north bearing a ring which tells others that they arrived there via the UK. 

Wheatear

May usually involves Menorca. The island draws us back with its rugged and gentle landscape, quiet roads, friendly locals and spring sunshine. Birds are hard to find but rewarding when you do, unimpeded by crowds of target birders running here, there and everywhere. The Hoopoes use the same nest site and feeding locations every year. Creatures of habit also use the same café for a spot of lunch. 

Hoopoe

Menorcan lunch

June and it’s time to find and ring some wader chicks. The task is to find them in the literal sense but also find them before they disappear as a species from our diminishing wetlands and intensified farms. Redshanks aren’t the easiest to come across, in fact they are damned difficult to locate, sprint like Usain Bolt and have protective parents that shame many a human. The first I ringed for a good few years. 

Redshank chick

July is a time when birds and birders go quiet. There nothing much to do except feed the kids and stay around the house, least of all travel very far to discover new things when migration time is far away. Skylarks aren’t the easiest of nests to find but I daren’t go near this one as the size of those grubs says the chicks are big and possibly out of the nest. Skylark chicks often leave the nest long before they can fly, an evolutionary adaptation which increases their chance of survival. 

Skylark

August often sits on the fence between summer and autumn not knowing which way to jump. The cold, late spring of 2013 made late broods last into August and wader chicks about to fly. My personal favourite picture of 2013 just happens to be my favourite species the Lapwing. With luck the spikiy young Lapwing below will live 15/20 years. Let’s hope there are places for it to live 20 years from now. 

Lapwing

September produced an unexpected holiday in Greece when our daughter Joanne married on the island of Skiathos. Two weeks of unbroken sunshine with a few birds thrown in. A battered old Suzuki Jimny served as a passable hide to photograph the normally unapproachable Woodchat Shrike and a superb vehicle to reach Kastro where we enjoyed numerous Eleanor’s Falcons. So many reasons to return in 2014 to the tranquil haven of Hotel Ostria owned by the delightful Mathinou family.

Skiathos, Greece

Makis and aubergines at Hotel Ostria

Woodchat Shrike

October was quiet with subdued migration on our west facing coast. Red-breasted Mergansers eluded me for years, shy birds unwilling to have a portrait taken until after a couple of days of rough weather I came across a young bird at Pilling. I got my picture on a grey, cloudy day but wonder what happened to the bird and if there will be another chance to photograph a merganser so close. 

Red-breasted Merganser

November turned up a few Snow Buntings, scarce in recent years. So infrequent have they become in recent years that any discovered immediately become target birds for those less inclined to actually find any birds for themselves. I had a Snow Bunting to myself for a while at Pilling and spent time lying spread-eagled on the tideline to take a few portraits as the bird fed unconcerned at my presence. 

Snow Bunting

December 2013 is ending as it began in a raging storm and more to come. In between the birding was hard slog with not much to show for time spent in the field. I searched my archives for December to find the best picture of a month’s efforts, a mediocre shot of an above average bird. Things can only get better in 2014. 

Curlew

As a footnote to the above. we won't get to Skiathos in May 2020 and maybe not in September.  The people of Skiathos suffered a financial blow in 2019 at the time of the Thomas Cook debacle - car hires, holiday lets, hotels, cafes, shops and restaurants, many of them small family businesses. Now those lovely people will be hit again as the island is already in lock-down. 

Linking today to Eileen's Saturday.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Down But Not Out

Well that's it then. We are in lock down for a month or two with no birding or ringing. Life must go on and luckily I have an archive of pictures and experiences to draw upon. In the garden there are Goldfinches without rings so I can do some ringing in the days ahead when the wind drops. 

For now here’s a post with pictures from way back in 2009. 

It was in November 2009 that Sue and I spent two weeks in Cyprus. Black Redstarts were absolutely everywhere and it proved impossible not to take lots of photographs of these welcome migrants from Europe.  

Black Redstart 

For anyone who isn’t aware, the Black Redstart is a surprisingly scarce UK species and where the breeding population may be about 100 pairs only. Since about 1900 the UK population grew to include urban habitats that resembled their ancestral habitat of mountainous stony ground. Both during and after World War Two this included bombed areas, and then in subsequent years the species also colonised large industrial complexes that have the bare areas and cliff-like buildings it favours; in the UK, most of the small breeding population nowadays nests in industrialised areas. 

Black Redstart 

Black Redstarts appeared very numerous in Cyprus, not entirely surprising as the species is a common winter visitor from October through to February. These birds are mainly of the European race Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis which breeds in the bulk of Europe and east to Ukraine and Crimea. The area of the Mediterranean Sea is the main wintering area with a small number of birds as far south and east as Egypt and the Middle East. 

Black Redstart

During the latter part of November of the dozens of Black Redstarts I saw, all were of similar appearance: upperparts of grey-brown with brown, smoky/dusky washed underparts from the throat that merged gradually into a paler washed belly and a whitish vent area. It was often surprisingly difficult to see the orange-buff of the undertail, but easy to pick the actual birds out from way off due to their characteristic jizz, shimmering tail and sometimes surprisingly loud alarm calls. 

Black Redstart 

Black Redstart

Of course by November juveniles greatly outnumbered adults, and I thought that on most occasions I was watching a bird of the year. Additionally, from about August first year males have an almost identical appearance to the duller female, and the whitish wing panel of this western subspecies does not develop until the second year. In one or two photos there are the visible remains of a nestling’s yellow gape, and in the extended summers of parts of Europe this feature is perhaps to be expected in November. 

Black Redstart 

Black Redstart 

Unfortunately, with one exception, a confiding hotel garden bird seen above, the redstarts weren’t too easy to approach, like almost every other bird species on this over-hunted, infamous island. 

Back home in sunny Stalmine, this morning I went out to the shops for essentials, our local small shopkeepers, not the rip-off Co-op supermarket. Ten minutes from here at Knott End village is a wonderful array of shops; butcher, fishmonger, baker, cheese & delicatessen, fruit & veg. 

As we all cope with the current disruption to everyday life there is one thing that all of us can do that will help - shop local, shop UK, with YouK

Our society depends on farms, manufacturers, fishing boats, and UK businesses big and small. Without them there are no jobs, no income, no money for schools and hospitals. 

Home deliveries of household essentials from small companies will help support them, take pressure off supermarkets, and support delivery workers. Breakfast cereal, soap, tea, shampoo, jam, wine, hand cream, meat, cleaning products, face moisturisers, there are UK companies covering all of these everywhere. 

Pubs are closed - so let’s keep the brewing industry going so that things can start up quickly again with home delivery of UK craft beers - over 700 brewing companies across the UK. Most people will have many local options including ourselves with a local brewery, Farm Yard Ales along Gulf Lane, Cockerham - Farm Yard Ales.   

We are powerful together – help UK business, keep our jobs, and let’s get through this.



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