The raptor nut (Part 1)

Juvenile peregrine. I got the impression this was a male.

There’s always been something special for me about birds of prey. In my “youth” (OK, I was about 30) I did several summer contracts for the RSPB which usually involved raptors and I seemed to identify with them. The peregrine was “my” species and I still seem to have a particular affinity with them. But I spent many weeks with white-tailed and golden eagles on Mull, and with various species in Wales, Scotland and England. Not to mention gyr falcons and peregrines in Greenland! So you could say that since then I’ve been a bit of a raptor nut. I’d rather spend four hours watching a peregrine eyrie – even if virtually nothing happens – than four hours counting waders on an estuary.

Over the last two springs and summers I’ve been keeping my eye on several raptor eyries – from a distance, of course. It started in early 2021, during lockdown, when I discovered a pair of peregrines on a cliff within cycling distance of my home. This was exciting for me because until then I was under the impression that inland peregrine eyries had long been abandoned in Ceredigion. I followed them through to mid-summer and saw at least one juvenile in the vicinity of the cliff. On an early visit this year I saw both adults visiting the same ledge together, which bade well for the current breeding season.

This year, following a tip-off, I found another pair nesting in an old raven nest on another cliff even closer to home. By that time the three youngsters were already well-developed and on my second visit it looked like two of them might jump and flap off the nest at any moment. One can only imagine the sense of excitement and trepidation that these young birds experience as they prepare to take their first flight. I had found a comfortable perch for myself on the opposite side of the gorge where my presence didn’t seem to worry their parents. On my third visit, a few days ago, as I approached the gorge on foot , I saw that two of the now fledged youngsters were actually using the my own perch for themselves! So I hung back and let events take their natural course. There was plenty of activity as the juveniles raced around after each other and their parents, screaming raucously. There’s nothing more stimulating to the senses than peregrines at full throttle!

I began to make plans to return to the site with my picnic chair and pop-up hide, but the truth is that I am getting very poor results from my current photographic equipment, and I don’t know why. (The image above is very much the exception.) I’ve ruled out my long lens (a Panasonic 100-400 zoom), so it looks like the problem lies with the body – an Olympus EM1 mk 2, which is now almost three years old. I’m wondering if the “in-body image stabilisation” (IBIS) is faulty or whether my settings have become corrupted in some way. Unfortunately I am a bit of a technophobe so all this is rather a challenge. But needless to say, and incredibly frustratingly, any attempt at long range bird photography is having to take a back seat for now.

In summer 2020 – again following a tip-off from a friend – I heard that merlins were nesting in a dramatic, cliff-enclosed cwm a little further away. I was not familiar with this species, so I visited the site, and was excited to see a female merlin flash by on the walk in. It all seemed very promising. Reaching the cwm I noticed several small raptors perched on erratic rocks on the grassy hillsides around the lake. I decided they were merlins but then noticed that, in the air, one of them seemed to be hovering like a kestrel. And then…….. oh….. that one’s hovering like a kestrel as well……….. Eventually the penny dropped. They were kestrels. It was all a bit puzzling. I read “The Merlins of the Welsh Marches” , by David Orton, and that whetted my appetite even more for merlin experiences.

Cliff-nesting merlins are unusual; merlins nesting anywhere in Ceredigion are unusual. In fact, merlins in Ceredigion are unusual, full stop! But last summer I managed to locate this pair’s nest on a heathery ledge part way up a low cliff above the lake. I visited the cwm several times with a few trusted friends and we all enjoyed some exciting raptor action. They are such lively, feisty little birds, especially the tiny, blue-grey male, that in a sense they almost put peregrines to shame. I visited the cwm again this spring and noticed that the merlin pair were present and showing an interest in a section of cliff high, high above the lake. Would they be nesting there this year?

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Peregrinations (part one).

Female dipper at Aberaeron

Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring parts of the Ceredigion coast with the aid of an excellent bus service. I leave my van in the out-of-town-supermarket car park in Aberystwyth and hop on the bus. It’s a relaxing way to arrive at your destination, and stepping out of the bus in New Quay or Aberaeron on a sunny morning can feel like being on holiday!

I’ve never had much success photographing dippers, but there is a pair on the river at Aberaeron which is semi-accustomed to the presence of walkers passing by. I spent one morning there recently where I was able to photograph both birds at close range. The male has an unpleasant growth on his right ankle but that doesn’t seem to have affected his ability to supply his mate (and possibly youngsters) with larvae from the river bed. The female is a very fine specimen indeed.

I wouldn’t like anyone to think that I come back from a visit like this with memory cards full of perfectly composed, focussed and exposed images of birds like this. Quite the contrary. I’m often frustrated at the results I manage to achieve and I really don’t understand why some appear so mushy – especially those taken with my long zoom lens. Is it equipment failure or user error? I’d love to know. But I usually manage something to be proud of.

Checking me out …… peregrine near Aberaeron

After one visit I walked along one stretch of coast to the north of Aberaeron before catching the bus back home. It was delightful on a warm spring afternoon to be out in the fresh air with birds singing and the first wild flowers in bloom. Walking above some sheer cliffs I suddenly saw what I had been hoping for – a dark shape appearing above the waves and very obviously checking me out as it flew past. A peregrine! It repeated the maneouvre several times before disappearing back out of sight. Photographing fast-moving birds birds in flight has never been my forte but I was as prepared as I could be for this eventuality. Following the bird as it flew back-and-forth a few times, I attempted to keep it in focus, and I largely succeeded. I think the main reason for my success on this occasion was that the birds stands out so clearly against the background. There is very little chance that the autofocus will be confused. But it was still an anxious time until I opened the files up on the PC!

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Carpets of knot (part two)

The following morning dawned clear. It was still dark when I set off but stars were visible overhead and there was no wind. This was promising. As the day began to dawn I began to see what a lovely morning it was – slightly misty and with low-lying fog in places. Birders and photographers were already gathering by the time I arrived at the wader watchpoint on the banks of the Wash. A golden glow was just beginning to appear to the east. I noticed another hide which faced eastwards across the lagoon.

What if?

The sun had not yet risen. I don’t want to sound too heroic about that – sunrise is quite late in October. But there was potential for exciting images if flocks of waders flew around above the still waters of the lagoon before settling at the southern end as they tend to do. I wouldn’t be able to see westwards as the birds gathered offshore but I had nothing to lose, really. The hide was almost empty but some strategically situated vapour trails made some wonderful geometric shapes in the sky. I sat and waited for some action.

At 7.30 the sun appeared as a crimson ball in the mist and the first small wader flocks arrived. I was able to reduce the camera’s ISO rating from a pre-sunrise 1000 to the Olympus-recommended 200, which helped no end in terms of image quality and processing. It was a slow start but as the sun rose higher more birds flew in. There was no-one else in the hide.

Fifteen minutes later the first big flocks had appeared and so began one of the most intense photographic sessions I have ever experienced. There was still no one else in the hide and I had free rein to capture different perspectives on the action from different angles.

By this time I was feeling very emotional. Partly by chance and partly through intuition I found myself able to experience and photograph an astonishing spectacle. The wide range of focal lengths on my 12 – 100 mm lens (effectively 24 – 200 mm) allowed me to continue shooting whether the action was close to the hide or a little further away. I was also able to include a little foreground in some images,

At some point there was a sudden influx of other birders and it became almost impossible to move. By that point I had managed to stick my arms and head out of one of the windows; I had a lump in my throat and tears were streaming down my face. I stayed where I was and kept my finger on the shutter. Thank goodness for automation………..

By about eight o’clock the intensity of the action had begun to wane and I regained my sense of composure. Over a period of half an hour an atmosphere of gentle tranquility quickly turned into one of frantic hyperactivity and back as the knot flocks flew in and gradually settled down to roost. And that was just how I felt!

I emerged from the hide and walked the short distance back to the shore. It was lined with birders, photographers, and other sightseers. What a gorgeous morning it was, and what a sight!

Part three will follow.

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Carpets of knot (part one).

A carpet of knot at Snettisham

It was still well before dawn. I had left my van and was searching for the footpath to the shoreline without a torch. Around me dark figures were emerging from vehicles, dimly lit car boots were open and people were hurriedly donning extra layers, rucksacks and waterproofs. The sensible ones had headtorches. I had a very dim memory of the carpark layout from my last visit, and realised I had walked past the exit. I turned round, pretended to know what I was doing and fell in behind a couple with a powerful torch.

I was on the west coast of Norfolk, at Snettisham, and had come to see one of the great wildlife spectacles in the UK. I visited twice in autumn 2013 whilst working on my Bird/land exhibition (see this link), and was last here in March 2016. Snettisham is on the eastern bank of The Wash, which is the winter home to many, many thousands of waders. At the highest of tides waders are pushed onshore and most gather at an old gravel pit, where the RSPB has constructed some hides. The rhythm of the tides is such that the highest waters are between 6am and 9am, or 6pm and 9pm, and in winter are without fail before dawn or after dusk. Therefore there’s a very limited number of “spectaculars” (as they are known) during daylight hours. It is well worth the effort to get there.

After half an hour’s walk a little grey light had begun to seep through the heavy cloud cover. Wader flocks were gathering offshore and beginning to fly into the gravel pits. It was a dazzling display as thousands of tiny birds flickered overhead in the gloom. I saw several photographers hurrying towards the hides at the southern end of the lagoon and decided I ought to follow them. The small wooden viewing “screen” has room on a bench for about eight people and it was standing room only by the time I squeezed in. At one point photographers were three deep!

It has to be said that conditions were not ideal. Thanks to their small sensor m43 cameras struggle at medium/high ISO’s and I don’t trust my Olympus kit at ISO’s higher than 1600. Even though many images at that ISO rating can be rescued by software such as Topaz Denoise, some just can’t. It was still very gloomy and shutter speeds were far longer than I had hoped for. In the case of the example above exposure was 1/60th at f8 – which, at an effective focal length of 500 mm, is really pushing it. However when this particular flock flew I kept my finger on the shutter button and made a series of images which – when fully processed – will be impressionistic and “interesting”; traditional bird photographers won’t like them at all.

Once the action was over I took a quick look at the new “observatory” – the word hide really doesn’t do it justice. It’s a huge, glass-fronted structure with stepped seating inside, rather like a theatre auditorium. And what a show! Low down to one side an area of the front wall has been reserved for photographers. Holes have been provided through which they can poke their lenses but they are very close to ground level; although mats have been provided it’s an uncomfortable position to work from. Has this been over-thought, I wonder? But full credit to the RSPB for providing such a facility which, to be honest, absolutely anyone can use, member or not.

Following high tide the birds return to the higher mud flats and roost until their feeding grounds become available. As I walked back to the car park I vowed to return the following day when better light was forecast.

NB : A timetable for next year’s “Whirling Wader Spectaculars” can be found here.

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Them’re chuffs, them are.

I’ve lived in Ceredigion for over fourty years, and worked on the Ceredigion coastal path in the 1980’s, but have never really spent much time at Mwnt. And yet, with its tiny, ancient church, sheltered beach and National Trust car park, it must be one of the most popular and attractive destinations in the county. I had heard that a large flock of chough gathered there early in the morning, and that it was also a great place to photograph bottlenose dolphins. So I decided to visit.

The first morning – having parked up overnight a couple of miles inland – I arrived early. Choughs were gathering on the short grass in front of the church, so I manouevred my van into a position where I could use it as a hide. The choughs were busily feeding on leatherjackets , which they were digging out of the turf with their strong red beaks. I counted a total of twenty-nine altogether. They were barely troubled by the occasional passer-by, flying a short distance away before quickly returning. One thing I noticed was that they both hop and walk, the latter giving them quite a pronounced waddle!

Them’re chuffs, them are…….

I overheard the following conversation between one couple as they walked through the flock –

Him : “Them’re chuffs, them are”

Her : “Warrar?”

Him : “Them, they’re chuffs”

Her : (louder) “Warrar???”

Examining the pictures on the camera’s screen, it looked like very few of them were perfectly sharp. I blamed myself. I thought I was out of practice. But then I had an idea: was the viewfinder’s dioptre adjustment wrongly set? I re-adjusted it and found that most of the pictures were in fact quite acceptable. I must have rotated the adjustment dial getting the camera in or out of my bag. This is an ongoing problem with digital cameras . They have so many buttons and dials it is virtually impossible NOT to change settings in normal day-to-day use. Typically the focus point moves from centre to somewhere near the edge and you wonder why it won’t focus properly. There should be a lock button somewhere which would prevent these accidental changes.

As more and more people arrived, so the choughs began to filter away. I returned the next morning for another session. Parking in the same spot I waited for the birds to arrive. And so they did. It was mostly good-natured, co-operative feeding, but not always. Twice there were short but vicious tussles between individuals, who very rapidly resumed feeding alongside each other shortly later. I’m told by Adrienne Stratford, an expert on chough behaviour, that these spats are mostly between two juveniles – possibly even nest-mates. Far more often, however, two birds could be seen nestled close to each other, gently preening each other’s plumage.

Having pretty much exhausted the possibilities of individuals and groups of chough digging into what looked like a lawn, I turned my attention elsewhere. Occasionally choughs would rest on the church tower or a gravestone, and I thought that could make a nice picture, even though the birds themselves would be small in the frame. It turned out be quite an easy task with such co-operative creatures, and the pictures work well for me.

O

When I first started bird photography (for the book Wales – at Waters’ Edge) it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would be able to photograph chough. They seemed so rare and elusive. But as I have got to know them better I’ve realised they’re actually one of the most approachable species in Wales. At the same time they have lost some of their mystique; but is still so nice to spend some time in the presence of one of my favourite birds.

As for the dolphins I spent some time scanning the sea , and one afternoon picked out a small group heading quickly westwards some distance offshore; the more I looked the more I found. They were scattered over a wide expanse of water covering perhaps 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile. There were probably dozens altogether, possibly as many as fifty. Presumably they were bottlenose but a large group of commons was seen off the Teifi estuary not far away at about the same time, so who knows? When conditions are right (and when the mood takes them) bottlenose dolphins come very close inshore at Mwnt, and some great photographs have been taken of them. So I shall keep my eyes and ears open and make another visit before too long.

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One good tern deserves another.

Arctic tern

One of my favourite places in Wales is Cemlyn Bay, on the north coast of Anglesey. It is a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a curving shingle spit. Within the lagoon are a couple of islands on which very large numbers of terns raise their young every year. Commonest is the sandwich tern, with large numbers of common and arctic terns as well; it has held roseate terns in the past and occasional birds are seen every year, although they do not now breed.

Several roseates were reported earlier this summer, which encouraged me to plan a visit for later in the year; I had never knowingly seen one before. Then in July an elegant tern took up residence within the colony; this is a very rare visitor to the UK and is normally found on the western coast of northern and central America. I decided to bring forward my visit to try to catch both species together.

Tern identification has never been my strongpoint. Sandwich terns are pretty unmistakeable but I tend to lump most arctic and commons (let alone roseates) – unless seen very well – as “comics”. However, Cemlyn Bay is one place in the UK where with a little bit of time and patience one can get to grips with this tricky ID problem. From the safety of the shingle ridge it is possible to get excellent views of the terns on the islands even without a telescope.

A sandwich tern on steroids……..

It wasn’t difficult to locate the elegant tern. It has a massive bill the colour of a banana and over a period of a couple of weeks it had established a “territory” centred on one of the unoccupied roseate tern nesting shelters. It would perch there and display to any passing sandwich tern. It is basically a sandwich tern on steroids and in my opinion has been badly mis-named. It is large and chunky, with a backward-pointing crest, but ‘elegant’? Sorry but no!

The roseate terns were another matter altogether. One of the Wildlife Trust wardens pointed one out and yes…… I could see it. But would I be able to pick one out in a crowd (of other terns)? Probably not. Every so often a “dread” would take place : the whole colony took flight and swirled around overhead for a couple of minutes before returning. On a couple of occasions the dread occurred when a hunting peregrine flew through the colony but often there was no apparent reason for it. On my first evening there it happened over and over again. I’m not sure if anybody knows why they do it but they do, and after one of them the roseate tern disappeared.

A dread…….

I was under no time constraints and particularly enjoyed the delightful approachability of the arctic terns. They would alight just a few yards away on the shingle without batting an eyelid, or fly from the colony past the observer to the sea at a similar distance. Fledglings lay prone on the ridge waiting to be fed and their parents would bring them sandeels no matter how close you were. It must be one of the best birding (and bird photography) experiences in the British Isles. Everybody should visit Cemlyn at least once!

Roseate tern (or is it…..?)
Spot the difference…….

During the afternoon, as the tide receded, more and more terns rested on the beach, sometimes no more than ten yards away. It gave me the chance to examine them in detail. I picked out one individual with a black bill, one of the most noticeable features of a roseate tern. The more I looked, the more black bills I found, perhaps half a dozen of them altogether. Were they ALL roseates? Another birder examined them with a telescope and confidently told me that they were; I wasn’t convinced. Another said they were, in fact, first-summer arctics – despite the fact that they normally spend their entire first year in the Antarctic and are scarce in the UK. The secret is in the colour of their legs – roseates have (relatively) long bright red legs while those of the arctics are very dark red or black and very short.

Examining the images at home I picked out one which looked good for a roseate, and sent it for confirmation to the tern wardens. They agreed. But there’s a snag; the tail streamers on a roseate are exceptionally long and this bird’s just aren’t. So there’s one final possibility. On the Skerries, an offshore tern colony just a few miles away, very occasionally a roseate tern has mated with a common and reared young. So could this be a hybrid? We will probably never know.

N.B. Apologies for the terrible pun in the post title, and to many of you whose interest in the minuteae of tern identification is………err………limited…..! But I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re stunning little birds.

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It’s not all bad news.

Hobby at Shapwick

In recent posts I’ve written about some of the exciting and fascinating wildlife encounters I had during my May travels. These included great bustard, lady’s slipper orchid, snakeshead fritillary, even the humble Duke of Burgundy butterfly; all four were either re-introductions and/or found specifically on National Nature Reserves. Without interventions from conservationists none of these four species would be found in the UK, or would be struggling to survive. The last post of this series involves a bird species which has, on the quiet, become very much more common over the last fifty years. At the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas (published in 1976) there was an estimated 100 pairs of hobbies in the UK. By the time of the 2013 edition, it was far more widespread, with a population of about 2,200 pairs.

The hobby is a small falcon related to the peregrine. It is fully migratory, arriving in the UK in April and leaving for Africa in September. It feeds on small birds and large insects caught on the wing. As a very fast, fluid and agile hunter it can catch even swallows and swifts in flight. On their arrival in the UK hobbies congregate at certain wetlands (where there is normally an abundance of dragonflies to feed on), before dispersing to their breeding areas. I had read of flocks or even “swarms” of hobbies at certain locations in early May and longed to see such a spectacle.

I have visited one of these locations – the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury – several times in recent years (see here), and it is one of my favourite UK birding destinations. Up to eight species of heron have bred there, which is extraordinary – given that just a few decades ago only the grey heron and the rare and elusive bittern were found in Britain. It was here that I headed after leaving Stonehenge.

My first evening and the following morning there were unspectacular. I was disappointed that the hides at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve were still closed following the Coronavirus lockdown, and birds seemed a little thin on the ground. After lunch I headed in the opposite direction along the disused railway line into Shapwick Heath NNR. Just a few minutes later I had seen my first hobbies, a dozen or more, hunting independently in a loose flock. Prey must have been small insects because there was also a very large dispersed flock of hirundines (swallows and martins) doing the same thing. Occasionally I caught sight of a bird transferring prey from its feet to beak in flight, a sure sign that these were hobbies. A few minutes later I heard loud bugling calls coming invisibly from Meare Heath to the north – surely they must have been cranes? *

Checking me out………

I hurried on towards a northward facing hide. From there it looked like the hobbies had disappeared. I then began to pick them out in the heat haze, perched singly or in small groups on stunted dead trees amongst the reeds. Gradually they resumed their hunting and I managed a reasonable count of thirty-three birds altogether. It occurred to me that these were truly African birds spending just a few months of every year in the UK. Although they were very active, the hobbies were really too far away to photograph, so I returned to the railway line. And guess what? Hobbies, lower and much closer. Part of the same flock, no doubt, but this was more like it! I returned to the van to eat and recharge my mental batteries.

Late that evening I returned to the same area. Still hobbies! They were hunting insects low over one of the lagoons until well after sunset. Close to darkness in the far distance I could see about twenty of them perched on the stark boughs of a dead tree, one-by-one disappearing to roost somewhere nearby. They had gone by the next morning; but great white egrets – ethereal and otherworldly – floated by just outside the hide window. There must have been a nest nearby.

These spectacular birds are a very welcome addition to the British avifauna; as are the little egrets that are now a familiar sight in many parts of the UK. The flocks of hobbies that are now seen in the UK every spring are another example of the continually changing nature of our bird populations. It is a mistake to believe that wildlife distributions and numbers are normally static. For the wildlife lover there is a relentless diet of bad news in the media, and there’s no doubt that we are still losing some species rapidly. The difficulty is in distinguishing between natural fluctuations of bird populations and those changes, like the loss of farmland birds (and other wildlife), that are entirely down to human destruction of wildlife habitats.

* Sightings at nearby RSPB Ham Wall that day included a flock of eight cranes flying over, and two returning.

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On manoeuvres: great bustards on Salisbury Plain.

A male great bustard in all his finery

Some wildlife photographers have attempted to boost their income in recent years by setting up a hide in a likely position, getting birds and mammals acclimatised to being fed there, and then renting it out to other photographers. Species involved include red squirrels and ospreys. Some of latter have learned that easy prey can be found at certain fish farms. To offset their losses the owners of these facilities have built a hide nearby, and who can blame them! But for me the satisfaction (and frustration) of wildlife photography begins with researching where a species might be found. It continues through the location of individuals  – “the thrill of the hunt”  – to the press of the shutter button. It is said that well-off but “time-poor” photographers were more likely to take advantage of hide set-ups such as this. I have always said that I would never do it.

Last year my plans to visit Mallorca in the spring were frustrated by Covid travel restrictions and then Plan B suffered the same fate. Part of Plan B was to visit the Great Bustard Group reintroduction site on Salisbury Plain, where volunteers take visitors out in a Land Rover to see the birds. Earlier this spring I discovered that while the Land Rover trips were not yet in operation, the GBG had set up a hide specifically for photographers and were renting it out. The cost was substantial but I had just sold the last remnant of my Canon system – a x1.4 converter which I found lurking at the back of a cupboard – for the same sum. Whatever the outcome, I felt that it was a donation to a cause that I was happy to support. So I clicked OK.

Male human in observation mode

I worried about the weather, of course, and checked the forecast at regular intervals. On the appointed day the first depression for weeks was due to cross the country, with heavy rain and gales. It felt like Sod’s Law was in operation here.  A meeting was arranged in a layby on one of the main roads crossing the Plain – at 5.30 in the morning. It was all a bit hush-hush. I was led to some farm buildings a couple of miles away where I met the guide, Nigel Cope, and was fitted up with my Great Bustard suit for the walk to the hide The weather was actually quite pleasant; light cloud overall but little wind. Conditions were actually very good for bird photography but as for the bustards – well, I could see several quite clearly but the nearest were at least a quarter of a mile away.

Great bustards are huge and extraordinary-looking birds, especially the males. They are more than three feet in height (females much smaller), and stride purposefully across the landscape. Their plumage is a mixture of white, black and shades of chestnut, with a grey head and dark blue bare patches on either side of the neck. On closer examination the blue patches are scattered with white spots, reminding me of a starlit night sky. In display, the males seem to turn themselves inside-out and became largely white.

A “semi-display” pose

Nigel left me in the hide. I knew good sightings of the bustards were not guaranteed but this was disappointing. I went outside, photographed myself in the bustard suit, and went back in. Then, two and half hours after arriving, I opened the rear flaps of the hide: I couldn’t believe my eyes! Three male bustards were right out in the open, perhaps fifty yards away! Now I had to keep calm.

They weren’t exactly difficult to photograph. One began displaying but at first – and frustratingly – he was behind some tall, straggly stems of dead vegetation. He then moved a short distance into a field of lucerne and went through the whole sequence in full view in the open. I probably giggled and danced a little jig myself. The male bustard seems to pick a spot, inflate his neck pouch and turn himself inside out, rotate, rinse and repeat. They are said to gather together and display at “leks” rather like black grouse do, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. They were more mobile than that; I saw one male in the distance furiously displaying at a single female.

On manoeuvres.

It is believed that at one time great bustards bred in about a dozen counties in the UK, but became extinct due to persecution and agricultural change. They last nested in 1832. Led by David Waters, the re-introduction project on Salisbury Plain began in 2004. Chicks were brought first from Russia and later from Spain. Breeding began in 2009 and there is now a self-sustaining population of about a hundred birds on Salisbury Plain. Strangely the project hasn’t received the support from mainstream conservation organisations that one might expect.

While a much unimproved grassland still exists on the Plain thanks to the extensive military ranges there, the bustards seem quite happy on the farmland around the perimeter. By mid-morning bustard activity had died down, and the promised inclement weather had begun to make itself felt. As I left the site a large group of GBG volunteers were beginning to comb the lucerne field, shortly to be mown for silage, for clutches of eggs which would be incubated artificially. Personally I was glad to retire to a warm hotel room that afternoon to catch up on some sleep.

For more information on the project, see this clip from Springwatch –

https://youtu.be/aL5LFGk_Qd8

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Homecoming – the Aberystwyth purple sandpipers

A couple of weeks ago I had a look for the purple sandpipers at Aberystwyth. There has been a wintering flock of these dumpy little waders here since at least 1927, and their high tide roost is always at the same place – on the sea wall, facing north, below the castle. This year a maximum of four birds has been seen, but the size of the flock has normally varied from five birds up to about twenty-five. Perhaps the current cold weather will bring some more in this winter.

I’d like to say that I found them after a couple of hours staggering about across treacherous rocks and seaweed, but it wasn’t like that at all. I parked my van near the right spot, walked over, looked down, and there they were! They were a little jittery at my presence above them and at the waves passing by below, but allowed me to take a nice series of photographs. Later, as the tide began to drop, I found them beginning to feed on the rocks.

What amazes me is how they return to the same spot every year. There must be plenty of suitable habitat for them around the coast. Could there be a suggestion of “culture” about it, rather than ecological necessity? Whatever, Aberystwyth must feel like home to them.

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(Still) shooting itself in the foot……..

The Upper Llyfnant valley (with newly bulldozed tracks)

Living in west Wales as I do the issue of gamebird shooting has rarely raised its unpleasant head. I knew there was a shoot on the Dyfi estuary but it didn’t really seem like a problem. That all changed in a big way over the summer.

Cwmrhaiadr had been farmed in a fairly wildlife-friendly way for decades, is much loved by local people, and is stunningly beautiful. It consists mainly of the Upper Llyfnant valley, which runs north-south along the Ceredigion / Powys boundary, a few miles from Machynlleth. The river then swings westwards and flows into the Dyfi estuary. It is short but sweet. At the head of the valley is Pistyll-y-llyn (“waterfall of the lake”), down which the infant Llyfnant plunges from the Cambrian Mountain plateau into the lowlands. The farm was purchased by a businessman from Essex (he paid cash…), who sold the shooting rights to a Shropshire-based company, and began turning the valley into a commercial game-bird shoot. New roads were bulldozed throughout. It was lockdown so few people knew what was going on.

The valley has been renamed “Dyfi Falls”. The cost of a day’s shooting? A staggering £2640 (+ VAT).

The moorland at the head of the valley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); this includes the cliffs and steep hillsides at the head and upper reaches of the valley. Another SSSI lies a few miles downstream. It is deciduous woodland, a remnant of the “temperate rainforest”; rich in lichens, bryophytes and invertebrates. It would be susceptible to changes in the quality of the water running through it, and the air surrounding it..

In their early publicity the shoot company (Cambrian Birds) boasted about releasing 40,000 birds or more (pheasants and red-legged partridges) into the valley. Imagine that! Although this figure seems to have disappeared from their website they have never denied it. Certainly if you walk there (or anywhere within a few miles) you are continually tripping over pheasants, and I saw flocks of partridges totalling at least fifteen hundred birds. The shooting industry itself has estimated that only 35% (on average) of released birds are actually shot. At Cwmyrhaiadr that leaves 26,000 to die of starvation, predation, disease, parasites or being run over by cars. And of the estimated 57 million released annually in the UK – yes, you did read that correctly – 37 million will die similarly unfortunate deaths. One may view the shooting of birds for pleasure as unpleasant but these figures show that in every way the industry has a callous disregard for living creatures.

Now, regarding the SSSI. It is quite clear to anyone visiting the valley that the gamekeeper has placed many of the feeding hoppers as close as possible to the SSSI boundary. A trail of feed has illegally been laid – inside the SSSI – along the footpath from the valley bottom to the top of the waterfall. Cambrian Birds’ publicity states –

“The steep sided valleys will allow us to present high-flying birds flying straight back to their home at the centre of the estate”

And on their social media pages they excitedly tell us –

“Can’t wait to see these [pheasants] flying off the tops of those hills!”

The trouble is, those hills are the SSSI and (supposedly) protected from the release of non-native birds. Cambrian Birds may be (largely) respecting the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. Or as one planning officer I spoke to put it:

They are very good at pushing the boundaries“.

For many years the RSPB has been equivocal about gamebird shooting. It accepted that in agricultural lowland Britain woodland was retained for the rearing and release of gamebirds. This provided habitat for many other species of wildlife and would otherwise probably have been felled to increase agricultural production. However the Society now recognises that the nature of gamebird shooting has changed, saying in a recent report –

there are substantial negative environmental consequences from the industrialised form of this shooting, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife. ” 

It has now told the industry that if it does not put its house in order within 18 months – reducing the quantity of birds released, for example – it will call for statutory regulation of gamebird shooting. The RSPB is a powerful organisation and this may bear some fruit. But we should also remember that the landowning class has its own political party which is currently in power with a very large majority.

Meanwhile the pressure group Wild Justice is pursuing a legal case against the government in the High Court, arguing that it is failing in its duty to protect native species in the UK from the excesses of the shooting industry. . The industrial quantities of non-native birds released into the countryside amount to “a very serious ecological assault” upon it, Wild Justice says. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released every year “exceeds that of all native UK birds put together“, it adds. The Court case will be heard in early November.

What of the shooting industry itself? The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) portrays itself as the voice of the reason in the debate. It has a series of “guidelines” for the industry, for example, and a “policy” of zero tolerance over the killing of birds of prey. As for the RSPB’s new position on gamebird shooting, the BASC says –

 if the RSPB really wants to regain some good will and positive influence with the shooting world, they would do well to start formally recognising and celebrating where and how things are going right.”

The problem is that this has been the RSPB’s position for many years already. Self-regulation has failed to keep the shooting fraternity in check. Raptors continue to be killed on shooting estates, for example, and many believe that the industry is completely out of control. Hence the RSPB’s change of heart. So will the shooting industry begin to mend their ways? If the example of Cwmrhaiadr is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding “no”.

POSTSCRIPT: On November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe and photograph the shoot that was taking place on that day. I kept a very low profile, carefully using public rights of way (where they weren’t blocked) and open access land. I left my van at the end of the public road adjacent to the entrance to Cwmrhaiadr. When I returned I found that two of my tyres had been slashed.

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