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November 6, 2016 / lazerock

The Revenge of The Tweed Blob

Affluent middle-aged men are keen proponents of the status quo, it emerged in a shock development last week.

A debate over the future of driven grouse shooting was opened and dominated by supporters of the hobby, which is irrelevant and worse than useless to the vast majority of British people and leads to the wholesale illegal destruction of birds of prey.

Petitions Committee member Steve Double was chosen – by whom is unclear – to introduce Dr Mark Avery’s petition to the EFRA Committee, but there was a catch – the petition which triggered the debate by attracting more than 120,000 signatures was to be considered alongside a petition to defend driven grouse shooting – which had only received around 20,000 signatures.

Double began his address by confessing: “I do not claim to be an expert on the topic”, before delivering a lengthy address recommending that biodiversity minister Therese Coffey should ignore Avery’s petition and the signatures of those 120,000+ voters.

Double warned of the dangers of ‘ending moorland management’ – which is not what the petition was asking for – with Nick Herbert raising the spectre of commercial conifers and grazing sheep destroying heather moorland.  A figure of around £80m in total annual private investment was offered for England and Scotland and the question asked how this would be replaced.  Double said he “simply could not support” the idea of the taxpayer bring asked to pay for the conservation of SSSIs which are currently shot over – the vast majority of which are not in favourable conservation condition.

At this point, an enraptured Jonathan Djanogly could restrain himself no longer and jumped in to help Double’s ‘powerful case’ with a spot of magical thinking. “If we destroy grouse shooting, the raptors lose their food source”, he argued, apparently seriously, before adding that conservationists are hellbent on “destroying the countryside”, which is complete bollocks.

Double loved it though, adding that ‘hen harriers are better off on managed heather moorland’, a viewpoint we can presumably ascribe to the fact that he is not an expert on this topic.  He then invited the throng to sing along to an old favourite – the one about ‘a few bad apples’ – before rehearsing that other ludicrous old chestnut about ‘we don’t ban driving because of a few drunks’.

So far, so tedious and predictable.  A Conservative MP opens the debate by dismissing Avery’s petition out of hand, to the chummy delight of a chorus of equally Conservative supporters of shooting.  This was a salutary lesson in the effective lobbying and marshalling of influential people, a classic example of how the establishment – or ‘Tweed Blob’ – operates.

Kerry McCarthy – hang on, was that a woman? – intervened to ask Double why his opening speech was so staggeringly biased and was haughtily told: ‘I think I have presented arguments on both sides and I have not yet finished my speech, so perhaps she should wait until I have before jumping to a conclusion.’  Double then launched directly into a scrupulously fair-minded rehearsal of Countryside Alliance talking points on the one hand, before…  No hang on, that’s all he did, ending with a mind-warping insinuation that the government should plough even more public subsidy into grouse moors after Brexit.

At this point, we could conclude that his speech was staggeringly biased.

Angela Smith stood up to offer some detailed comments focused on the restoration of upland SSSIs to favourable condition and a demand for an end to the killing of raptors.  This sort of mildly critical, rational scrutiny of grouse shooting would never do, so it was time for a Big Gun to be rolled out.  No less a personage than Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Churchill and a ‘keen game shot’.

Soames fulminated on his upland of hope and glory bursting with waders, before thundering that an end to driven grouse shooting would usher in an ‘ornithological desert’.  The wartime feel of Soames’ stirring rhetoric – we shall fight them on the grouse moors – was reinforced by the utterances of another achingly modern man, Jim Shannon, who told the hall how he loved offering gamebirds from his annual Boxing Day shoot to ‘the girls in the office’.  Presumably these fine fillies still get Friday afternoons off to attend the latest moving picture show?

“I believe in the natural order of things”, Shannon blathered.  “I enjoy watching the nature channels with my wife when I get a chance and I understand that nature can seem cruel”.  This was a remark which he clearly believed to be in some way relevant.

Next, it was time for grouse moor-owning former Minister for Grouse Moors Richard Benyon to have a go.  He described Avery as the ‘perpetrator’ of the petition – perpetrator – and said that hen harriers are flourishing ‘in an area I know well’ – so that’s all right then (clearly, it wasn’t in England).  Benyon referred to a decline in Hen Harrier numbers of 50% at Berwyn in Wales after the cessation of driven grouse shooting – which sounds pretty bad, but is not half as bad as the situation in England, where the species has been almost completely wiped out as a breeder.  For some reason, he omitted to mention that the same study revealed a rise in Peregrine numbers over the same period of 700 per cent.  The infamous ‘study’ cited by Viscount Matthew Ridley in the Spectator, which claimed 400 pairs of Curlew for one unnamed grouse moor, was repeatedly referred to, despite the fact that it has been completely disowned by the BTO and its alleged data have never been scrutinised by anybody except for that paragon of reliability, You Forgot the sodding Birds.

On and on it went, shooter after shooter rising to their feet to condemn Avery’s petition as heresy and the tone of the ‘debate’ became increasingly intemperate and vitriolic, the atmosphere more nakedly about animosity bordering on hatred.  Charles Walker launched into an extraordinarily bitter rant, accusing Avery and Chris Packham of ‘cod science’, ‘wilful cynicism’, ‘premeditated malice’, ‘scientific dishonesty’, lies and even voyeurism.  His speech dripped with contempt and he is so proud of it, that he has posted the whole thing on his website, where it stands as a monument to the extreme bigotry that exists within the shooting lobby.

Elsewhere, critics were hounded like foxes, with the Green MP Caroline Lucas harangued for being ‘obsessed with climate change’ and Richard Arkless, who had the temerity to ask whether we might not consider morality alongside the economic case, told that this was ‘nonsensical’.  No wonder that Smith tweeted that it was the most ‘frustrating’ and ‘polarised’ debate she had ever witnessed.

It is of course true that a ban on driven grouse shooting would affect some people personally – about 1,500 full-time jobs would be impacted, if you believe the Moorland Association (which the government does).  Examples such as luxury shotgun manufacturers were given and fair enough, lobby for those people – but how on earth do you get from that position to sayin, as Rishi Sunak did: “We must be clear: a Britain without grouse shooting is not a Britain where the hen harrier would thrive”?  And this coming from a lobby who accuse their scientifically qualified opponents of distorting the facts.

This was a debate in which only one side was put with real force – but chiefly with bluster over substance.  For Amanda Anderson’s kitchen window, substitute an MP’s walk on a particular grouse moor he ‘knows well’.  These moors are never named, to prevent people from being able to scrutinise the data.

Had any of the Opposition parties been up for it, they could quite easily have driven a coach and horses through most of this hot air and refocused the debate on the reasons why so many people signed up to the idea of a ban in the first place, but sadly, not enough MPs from across the spectrum were prepared to challenge the Commons’ shooting fraternity.  Avery mobilised the signatures, but what this event demonstrated is that the shooting industry is deeply embedded within the Establishment, whereas conservation concerns are not.

Now we see the crucial importance of the RSPB, with its mass-membership and hence strong lobbying influence.  Several speakers pointed out that the charity does not support the ban at this stage – and there’s the rub.  If they did, a lot more people would have signed the petition, a lot more people would have been in touch with their MP and we would be in a very different place.  This is why several pro-shooting MPs criticised the RSPB for walking away from ‘partnership working’ with the grouse moor owners, who are now desperate to appoint the weird Hawk & Owl Trust as a sort of toothless ‘RSPB Lite’ in their stead.

The Tweed Blob will jump up and down declaring ‘victory’, but if we take the longer view, Avery’s petition has been a phenomenal success and an important milestone in the campaign for better conservation of the uplands.  Summing up for the Opposition, Rachael Maskell cited the excellent work of Dr Ruth Tingay on raptor persecution, refused to rule out a ban on driven grouse shooting and confirmed that she hasn’t forgotten about the issue of lead ammunition, which was heartening.

A hell of a lot more people than before are aware of the issues and there seems to be very little public sympathy for driven grouse shooting.  Why would there be?  It is nihilistic, elitist and ultimately senseless.

Public money is going into these areas.  That funding, linked to the support of NGOs and partner agencies like the water companies, volunteering from local communities – who knows, maybe even other sources of funding like sponsorship from companies looking to enhance their reputation for social responsibility, if we’re creative enough – could undoubtedly be used to manage the uplands much better, for the benefit of more people.  Gamekeepers are supposed to be great custodians of the land – in the event of a ban, couldn’t they be re-employed to do similar work, just with less emphasis on maximising grouse numbers and more on working to benefit a much wider range of species?

The argument put forward by a coterie of privileged parliamentarians – that driven grouse shooting is the only possible way to manage the uplands – does not stand up to rational scrutiny, which is it is made in such a ranty, cowardly way.  We are told of areas where Hen Harriers are ‘doing well’ – they are not named.   We are told of grouse moors dripping with Curlews and Lapwings – they are not named.  Naming these areas, publishing these alleged data, would open them to factchecking.  And we are told of rural communities who depend on and support driven grouse shooting – again, reading through the Hansard transcript, they are not named.  Why not?  Journalists could go there and talk to people and ask them what they think.  Only around 20,000 people have signed the pro-driven grouse shooting petition.  Why is that, if it is such a critical part of the rural economy?

Anyway, the status quo has been successfully defended, for now.  It’s doubles all round chez Bonner and château Benyon.  The debate will continue, as it has done for decades, the moors will burn, the raptors will die and the people who object will be sneered at and ignored, like the plebs we are.  Until a tipping point is finally reached.

October 30, 2016 / lazerock

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and Petitions Committee Tuesday 18 October 2016

At least Liam Stokes admitted it.  When it comes to the illegal killing of birds of prey on grouse moors, ‘there is a problem.’  Now it is for the government to decide how this problem will be solved.

On one hand, MPs are being asked to trust the very people who have effectively eradicated the Hen Harrier from England to put it – and other raptors, which are not being mentioned enough in this debate – back into the uplands.  On the other, they are being asked to enrage a small but incredibly influential lobby by calling time on a hobby which has been practised by the affluent for generations.

Evidence was taken by the EFRA Select Committee and Petitions Committee ahead of the parliamentary debate on 31 October, allowing Stokes (Head of Shooting, Countryside Alliance) and Amanda Anderson (PR consultant and director of the Moorland Association) to defend their members’ interests in the wake of Dr Mark Avery’s incredibly successful petition for driven grouse shooting to be banned.

Dr Avery was questioned alongside the RSPB’s Jeff Knott, who put the case for driven grouse shooting to be subject to a new licensing system.  One witness spoke in favour of a ban, one in favour of increased regulatory supervision and two in favour of maintaining the law as it stands – although both were prickly about any use of the term ‘status quo’.

Prominent among the panel of MPs examining the evidence was Simon Hart, who declared the astonishingly significant interest of being the chairman of the Countryside Alliance.  Unsurprisingly, Hart used his position on the panel to attack Avery and to feed helpful questions to Stokes and Anderson.  A particular doozy bears repeating in full:-

“…do both of you accept that, in order to justify a change in the legislation in which livelihoods are potentially put at risk, the onus lies on those advocating a total ban to come up with those answers [the economic impact of alternative forms of land use]?  The Government certainly have to weigh the evidence on both sides, before they make any moves, be that licensing or abolition.”

To which the clearly rattled witnesses could only reply:

Liam Stokes: Yes, 100%, absolutely.

Amanda Anderson: Yes.

The two England cricketers of the same name would have had a field day with ‘buffet bowling’ of this kind.  Anderson, in particular, was indulged to the point where she was uncritically allowed to make repeated anecdotal claims – ‘I have a picture in my mind’ – for grouse moors heaving with raptors, amid a rural idyll of local pubs full of cheery gamekeepers and ruddy-faced beaters, doffing their caps to community-champion landowners, who had just bought everyone a round.

It is a pity that nobody picked up on the situation of the three raptor species she claims to see from her ‘kitchen window’ – the Red Kite, which is mercilessly persecuted in areas like Yorkshire; the Merlin, which is Red Listed in the UK due to breeding population decline – even the Kestrel, which is lucky enough to be one of the few birds of prey that gamekeepers aren’t particularly bothered about.  Anderson was also permitted to state that hen harriers ‘do better when they nest on grouse moors’, a theoretical assertion rendered irrelevant even if it was true by the fact that no hen harriers successfully nested on an English grouse moor this year.

While Stokes and Anderson milked underarm bowling for all it was worth, Avery donned a grill to face bodyline deliveries from Hart and his fellow Countryside Alliance loyalist, Chris Davies MP.  The air of hostility generated by these partisan committee members was intensified by a strange and inappropriate moment of sledging from the committee chair, who intervened in what she wrongly perceived as ‘point-scoring’ by Avery against Knott.  Later, Rishi Sunak MP felt it appropriate to engage Hart in conversation while Avery was speaking, forcing the petitioner to question whether he had the committee’s full attention.

Knott put the RSPB’s case with clarity and professionalism, treading the delicate line between offering a critical perspective on the environmental harms associated with driven grouse shooting and stopping short of supporting a ban.  He was able to help Avery contradict the line that species such as Dunlin and Golden Plover depend on grouse moor management, citing the example of Dove Stone, which is managed by the RSPB and seeing upturns in those species’ fortunes, without any heather burning.

And at least one MP, Angela Smith, offered more challenging questions to the pro-DGS delegation.  Smith assured Stokes and Anderson that they did not have a ‘green light’ on the issue of burning and asked the witnesses to explain why it was that Peregrine Falcons are able to nest in Sheffield city centre successfully, but not in naturally suitable areas of her constituency.

Much was made, particularly by Hart, of future models for the uplands which do not involve driven grouse shooting.  Hart argued that these should be presented by those in favour of a ban.  The obvious alternative model of developing rural tourism – which as Stokes pointed out himself is currently worth £1.4billion to the Scottish economy – was rejected by the pro-DGS witnesses, with Stokes stating that expecting eco-tourism to replace the income created by DGS is a ‘colossal gamble’.

The problem with that statement is that it is the criminality associated with driven grouse shooting which has created the problem now being examined by MPs.  It can and should be argued that it is the people in those jobs who have colossally gambled their own futures by illegally removing birds of prey from the environment.

Stokes quoted Simon Lester, former head keeper at the Langholm Moor project, who reported that many people had come to see harriers in that area, but had not spent any money in doing so – ergo, you have to have grouse shooting.  But had any effort been made to monetise those non-shooting people’s interest in the area’s natural riches?   What about creating a suitably discreet photo hide and charging snappers to take photos of the birds?  How about offering guided walks of the area?  What about offering a cafe in the area?  How about engaging local schools to come and do educationally beneficial field-trips?  The kind of things that the RSPB do so well at their excellent nature reserves across the country, in other words.

Mark Cocker’s seminal book Birds and People is replete with examples of societies treasuring and benefitting from their natural assets – to give one case study, remote communities in India and Japan have managed to profit from their enlightened and impressively humane attitudes towards their local crane populations.  In other words, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Stokes was quite right to state: “If we covered the uplands with wind turbines, if we covered them with sheep, if we covered them with Sitka
spruce, we do not know what the economic result would be.”  But I don’t think that those are the outcomes that anybody has in mind.

Events may very well in any case upset the status quo which Anderson and Stokes believe does not exist.  When Davies asked Anderson whether the ‘door was open’ for the RSPB to come back to the Hen Harrier Action Plan – rather in the manner of an aged vicar encouraging a parent to show patience and forgiveness to a naughty child – Anderson’s haughty response was to say that they would happily get on with it with the support of the Hawk and Owl Trust instead.

Within days, HOT were reporting that Cumbria Police are now investigating the suspicious death of Rowan, a young Hen Harrier they had satellite tagged on Langholm Moor.

How many more such incidents will HOT tolerate before they too walk away?

Full transcript of the evidence session

October 10, 2016 / lazerock

Catalonia – September 2016

We arrived at Barcelona Airport and drove an hour north to the shared villa we’d rented, in the small town of Calonge.  The villa was situated close to a trail which led up through a seemingly endless forest into the Gavarres hills.

This was the off-season.   Our neighbours tended to their vegetables and chipped golfballs across serene back yards, over which towered high trees on both sides.  At the front of the villa was a fenced-off wooded area, seemingly a municipal park, judging from the bins and benches, but now with locked gates.  Barn Swallows and House Martins swooped endlessly, while a young Great Tit hopped into our yard daily to hoover up any crumbs.  Collared Doves were omnipresent on the wires and phalanxes of Starlings lurked in the trees, with House and Tree Sparrows a constant presence.  Jays and Magpies were conspicuous in their presence, but Carrion Crows were notably absent.

With everyone enjoying lounging by the pool, I put a bit of time into studying the Starlings out back, aiming to separate Spotless from Common.  This was rewarded when a bird suddenly detached itself from high in the canopy and flew directly overhead, towards the park – it was too big for Starling and showed green and yellow colours – green overall, but with a striking yellow rump.  My first thought was ‘Green Woodpecker’, but the flight was flat, not bouncing.  Only then did ‘Golden Oriole‘ dawn on me.

Further close scrutiny of the trees eventually came up trumps and another oriole was located – for a bird which such impressively vibrant plumage, it is amazing how well they blend into their habitat, but there it was – my first lifer of the trip.

On the next day, I took a walk up into the Gavarres.

gavarres-web

The views over Calonge were a reward, but it was eerily quiet in terms of birdlife.  Eventually, I was stopped by some high-pitched calls and located a Crested Tit, before spotting a Firecrest.  The walk was great, but the most interesting sighting was a butterfly – the stunning Two-tailed Pasha, or Foxy Emperor, which I had never seen before and raved about when I got back to the villa.  Unfortunately, I was unable to grab a picture, although they were flying around my head at times.

pasha

Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius) Image credit – macropoulos.com

Back at the villa and on the surrounding agricultural land, I was treated to regular fly-bys from Hoopoes, although these charismatic birds never stopped to allow me to get a close look.  In fact, having now been to Crete, Catalonia and Morocco, my best view of a Hoopoe remains the one that I twitched one bitterly cold spring day at Blackmoorfoot, near Huddersfield.

The other archetypal Mediterranean birds were on my mind, too – Roller and Bee-eater.  I’d been warned by Stephen via email that we may be a bit late for them, September being the end of their ‘window’ in the area.  However, with the weather so warm and summer-like, I held out hope.

Our next group excursion was to the Platja del Castell Palamos and en route, I learned something of the perils of twitching in the car – though not with any negative outcome, I hasten to add.  As we approached the carpark, I noticed a bird swoop, almost swallow-like, from a wire, then the sun caught its myriad colours and I shouted something like ‘f***ing hell, Bee-eater!’  This rather startled the vehicle’s other passengers, not least the driver, Andy – to whom I offer humble apologies.

There was no suitable place to stop and we were still some distance from our destination, so it wasn’t feasible for me to be dropped off to watch the birds – two, hunting over a field – but at least I had seen one, with a reasonable naked-eye view to boot.

European Bee-eater - surely the most magical of all the Mediterranean birds? Image credit - Raúl Baena Casado (via Wikimedia Commons)

European Bee-eater – surely the most glorious of all the Mediterranean birds? Image credit – Raúl Baena Casado

Once I had finished raving about Bee-eaters to anybody who would listen (including proudly showing them the cover of my copy of ‘Birds of the Mediterranean’), we wandered down to the beach.  Crested Larks were crooning away in the sandy car park, with a Short-toed Lark also present.

The area had nature trails stretching around the coastline on either side of the beach, so off I went on my travels while the chaps sunned themselves and swam in the Med.

This was a really pleasant walk, with Cetti’s Warbler exclaiming from the reeds and Firecrest, Hoopoe (brief fly-by, obviously) and Crested Tit all seen.  Stopping off to eat my lunch in the shade while watching myriad swallows swooping across a meadow and larks puttering about in the grass, was a memorably restful, bucolic, moment.

Next, I was followed along the trail for some distance by two little birds, which I initially thought must have been Long-tailed Tits, until a partial view through the branches of what appeared to be a miniature shrike made me realise that these were in fact Penduline Tits. Initially, I cursed the bird for turning its back on me, but the view of its tail and rump revealed its distinctive pattern and still clinched the ID.

A masked bandit! Penduline Tit (image credit - Marek Szczepanek)

A masked bandit! Penduline Tit (image credit – Marek Szczepanek)

Next up was a day out with Stephen from Catalan Bird Tours.  Over email, we’d worked out that probably the most feasible trip for us to take would be north of Calonge to the Aiguamolls de l’Empordà reserve, then north again to the Cap de Creus, where Stephen likes to go in search for Western Orphean Warbler, among other local specialities like Bonelli’s Eagle.

It was an early start to meet Stephen at 8am – and in blundering around half-asleep, I managed to pick up then put down my sunglasses and forget to pick them up again – an error I would later rue.  Still, two Hobbies perched together on a wire were an early reward, as we gradually woke up on the drive to the Aiguamolls.  Using the map Stephen had provided, it was easy enough to find his favoured entrance to this huge wetland reserve.

Instantly, we were among the birds – even as we said hello to each other, a White Stork cruised overhead.   Stephen provided Sarah with a pair of binoculars and we entered the reserve.

A flock of around 50 storks were the first main sighting and, as we walked towards them, another group flew in to join them.  Stephen watched them carefully as they landed and exclaimed “Crane!”  A Common Crane had arrived with the White Storks.

“Very nice”, said Stephen, quickly bringing the bird into scope view for us.  While the Aiguamolls is on the Crane’s migration route, he had not necessarily been expecting such a bonus on the day.  This was a brilliant lifer for me and a great start to the day.

Then Stephen located a Black Stork amongst the flock – this species, he had hoped for.

white-stork-web

Some of as many as 200 White Storks…

black-stork-web

…And the Black Stork of the family

Walking on, we found Northern Wheatear, Stonechat and then a young Red-backed Shrike perched in close proximity to each other, while a Marsh Harrier hunted above.

Next, it was time to try one of the hides.   Here we found Lapwings (a winter visitor, known as ‘bird of the cold’ in Spanish), Common Snipes, Ringed Plovers, Little Ringed Plovers and two Little Stints.

little-stint-web

At the next hide, Sarah spotted a Common Buzzard, which cruised in and perched atop a tree.  Closer by, a dazzling Common Kingfisher hunted over the pool.

Stephen got busy with his scope and located a very distant Short-toed Eagle, although unfortunately, the bird was heading the wrong way to get good views.  Bee-eaters were audible, bubbling overhead, but none dropped in for a good look, alas.  Sand Martins did come across, along with an Alpine Swift at thrilling close range.  A Little Egret flew right in front of the hide, while a Great Egret loped impressively through the skies further afield.

Back outside, I called ‘swift’ as a couple zoomed by and Stephen instantly clarified: ‘Pallid’.  Getting a good look at one, I noticed the obvious white throat patch, although Stephen explained that the surest way to separate Pallid from Common is to ‘look for the eye’.  On Pallid, the dark eye stands out much more clearly against the bird’s paler head.

Moving on, we saw a Black-winged Stilt stalking through a pool, before a damp field full of white ponies offered the classic site of a Cattle Egret hitching a ride on horseback.  A Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been reported at this location, but wasn’t around on the day – however, Stephen did locate both Wood and Green Sandpipers and gave me useful pointers on how to separate them in the field.

Next was the marvellous sight of a beautiful male Iberian Yellow Wagtail (motacilla flava iberiae), the scope view which I lingered over for some time. What a cracker.

We moved on and Stephen was just explaining that we were in prime breeding country for Bluethroats when a bird flew across and Stephen called it as just that.  Unfortunately, it instantly dropped down out of sight and although I waited for a while, hoping that it would show, we had no luck.  Such is life – you’re never going to get everything in one day and I was still finding the trip to be a rewarding experience.

Next was a detour to local agricultural land.  Stephen explained that he likes to get out of reserves and explore the surrounding area, for a bit of a ‘challenge’ – he was following a hunch by taking us on a drive and I was perfectly happy to follow his nose.  He pointed out fields that would be perfect habitat for Stone-curlew, although we would have been fortunate indeed to spot one and we didn’t.  This was a lovely drive, even just to be out in the Catalan countryside on a glorious day, but the reward came when we found a tractor ploughing a field, which had attracted the attention of some dozen kestrels.

The sight of so many kestrels together was something in itself, but as Stephen pointed out, it was possible that some could be Lesser Kestrels.  We scanned the hunting flock and Stephen eventually spotted a male in flight, which we watched as he pointed out the key features – tri-coloured upperparts and clean underparts.  Then we realised that a bird had perched right in front of the car – bang – male Lesser Kestrel.

We rolled the car up cautiously and although the bird clocked us all right, he was good enough to stay put for his close-up.

lesser-kestrel-web

This was my favourite part of the day out.  A combination of wonderful countryside, pearling views of a raptor which was new to me and learning new ID skills in the field was really memorable and exactly the sort of experience I’d hoped for.

We drove on, around to another part of the huge Aiguamolls reserve, Stephen pointing out fields which he had expected to be wet, but which were bone dry, due to the drought experienced in the region.  We looked over a (thankfully still wet) pool, where we were treated to yet another fly-by from Hoopoe, before Stephen suggested that we take a quick peer through the fence a bit further down – he had a look, nodded with satisfaction and called us over – “Flamingo”.

greater-flamingo-1-web

Two Greater Flamingoes, in fact – parent and juvenile.

greater-flamingo-web

greater-flamingos-web

We marvelled, as everyone must when they first see this special species in the wild, at their imperious size and stately grace, delighted by their constantly ‘moonwalking’ legs, which disturb the bed of the pool to flush out prey.  I still can’t quite believe that I’ve seen them – they’re such incredible looking creatures.  So familiar as exotic inhabitants of British bird collections – a flock is kept at WWT Martin Mere, for example – but to actually have the privilege to see them in their natural environment is something I’m very grateful for. We’d have been fortunate indeed to find them without Stephen, who knows the Aiguamolls reserve like the back of his hand.

On we went, towards the Cap de Creus.  We were cruising along a main road, when Stephen suddenly shouted: “Roller!”  He had spotted one perched on a wire running alongside the road and luckily, it was possible for us to pull off at a nearby petrol station and drive back down a sliproad towards the bird.

We pulled over at a relatively close distance, but unfortunately, the Roller took flight just before I was able to get my bins on it.  Still, this meant that I got a good view of the bird in flight.  And it did land in a bush – further away, but close enough for Stephen to bring it into scope view.

Stephen was deeply underwhelmed with the bird’s condition, apologetically describing it as ‘the scruffiest Roller I’ve ever seen” – nevertheless, he’d set out to find us one and succeeded – I was grateful for the sighting.

European Roller - a much smarter individual than the one we saw! Image credit - Arno Meintjes

European Roller – a much smarter individual than the one we saw! Image credit – Arno Meintjes

We headed north towards the Cap de Creus, which is in the extreme north-east corner of Spain, only just shy of the French border.  On the journey, Red-rumped Swallows flitted close by.  A break for lunch at a small stand of cork oak trees allowed Stephen to hear a Short-toed Treecreeper, although we couldn’t spot it, plus a Subalpine Warbler, which flew away before I was able to get my binoculars on it.  It must be said that Stephen managed to spot a fair few species on the day that I simply wasn’t quick-witted or experienced enough to connect with, due to my limited field skills.

Parking up at Cap de Creus, we were treated to unbelievable views over the headland.  Sarah took some snaps before we commenced a little wander around to see what birdlife we could find.

The sumptuous Cap de Creus

The sumptuous Cap de Creus

Once we’d admired the views, we were able to catch up with an interesting assemblage of passerines, any of which would have been a stunning sighting for me back home, but all of which are common birds in Spain.  Cirl Bunting, Sardinian Warbler and Woodlark all popped up in quick succession, before a walk along the path allowed us to find a Dartford Warbler skulking at almost point-blank range.  Finally, a Black Redstart flitted across the rocks and then it was time to head back home.

So, the long and very hot day was fruitful and although a few short hours can afford only the merest of glimpses into Catalonia’s immense natural heritage, it was definitely a trip out I’ll never forget.

After that, it was back to the villa in Calonge for more Orioles, more whizzing Hoopoes (they never stopped) and a couple more surprises.

First up, in the park in front of the villa, I saw creeping movement towards the top of a tree, which translated into the black back with white barring of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.  Next, my walk into the town of Calonge with Sarah and friends was delayed by a soaring Honey Buzzard over the hillside.

And then, on my last full day, a genuine ‘what the f**k was that?’ moment.  I was chatting with friends by the pool late in the evening, when my ear was taken by repeated raucous and wholly unfamiliar calls.  I turned round and looked up to be confronted by a big bird flying towards me.  Raptor?  No, not when it got closer.  This was a waterbird, with long legs, but no ‘neck’ to speak of.  Its cries were not the most beautiful, but its unhurried wingbeats and striking flight silhouette gave it an exotic grace nevertheless.  I’d never seen anything like it and was initially stumped – but having solicited Stephen’s thoughts via email, followed by some online research, I was able to nail it down as a Black-crowned Night Heron.

And that was that for the week, except for one last walk up into the foothills of the Gavarres on the final evening, for a final look around, to say goodbye.  The sparrows feasted in the fields in their hundreds, the orioles swooped in and out of the canopy of distant trees and finally, finally, a Hoopoe landed in sight!

Kind of…

hoopoe

Spot the Hoopoe…

 

 

May 27, 2016 / lazerock

Shooting the messenger – game fraternity target ‘divisive’ social media campaigners as the persecution continues

I live about 30 miles from the beautiful stately home Harewood House, in Yorkshire.  I visited with my fiancée once and we had a wonderful time, strolling around the capacious grounds.

Standing in front of the hall itself, we looked over Edwin Lascelles’ old vista, down to a woodland with a lake and saw dozens of Red Kites.  They were everywhere.  Perched in trees, cruising across my eyeline, wheeling in the skies right over our heads, enduring fearsome mobbing from the resident corvids if they dared to encroach upon Rook Acres.

Kites were reintroduced to Harewood in 1999, in a project involving the estate, English Nature, the RSPB and Yorkshire Water.  The birds do well in the grounds and have gradually spread out from this HQ into Yorkshire – but I have still never seen one in my local area, a few miles south-west.

And that’s unsurprising.  According to the Huddersfield Birdwatchers Club, total sightings of Red Kites in the recording area are as follows:-

2008 – 8
2009 – 10
2010 – 17
2011 – 10
2012 – 19
2013 – 12

In the past two months, the Yorkshire Post reports, eight Red Kites have been discovered dead or injured in North and West Yorkshire – the birds were either shot or poisoned.  PC Gareth Jones, commenting for North Yorkshire Police, told the Post:-

“I do wonder if a farmer has seen that perhaps it is lambing time, when the after-birth comes out of the lamb, but they are scavenging, that is what they do.  The farmer might think they are after the lambs and take a pot-shot.

“Or whether it is a gamekeeper who doesn’t like anything with a hooked beak.  It is impossible to say, short of catching them in the act.”

Today, a climate of increased access to information, as well as to the countryside itself, means that crimes which were historically ‘hidden’ are now slowly, slowly, becoming more visible.  We still don’t often learn the identity of the culprits, but people are finding out now, as a matter of documented fact, that many species of birds of prey are routinely killed in the British countryside.

It is much easier for news of such incidents to spread than it has ever been.  For a start, most people who exercise their right to roam  the countryside are ‘armed’ with a serviceable camera.  Police use Twitter or Facebook to publicise appeals for information and people who are upset by persecution incidents can use these channels to rally round – maybe with the help of a hashtag – sharing their thoughts, or getting active by launching an online petition.  People who didn’t spot the Red Kite persecution article buried within a print edition of the Post might well have seen it on social media days or even weeks later, as the newspaper or anybody else chose to re-post it.  

And when you don’t like the message, it must be tempting to criticise the medium.

Plenty of the (many thousands) of people who deplore raptor persecution do not have expert knowledge of the uplands – and I count myself in that.  Rewilding Britain recently pointed out that its aims are particularly popular with younger urban dwellers, for example.  And so people like the self-styled ‘rural commentator’ Rob Yorke, or the Countryside Alliance spokesman Liam Stokes argue that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Yorke says that social media campaigning, with its goal of instant reactions and clicks, encourages people to weigh in on a subject before they know much about it.  “Many audiences will only read a press release or the abstract on a piece of research, rather than digging deeper…  This can lead to misinterpretation, often influenced by the pre-existing beliefs of readers”, he told the Shooting Times.

Writing in the Plymouth Herald (strangely, as the south west has no grouse shooting), Stokes describes Mark Avery’s campaign to ban driven grouse shooting as ‘small but noisy’ and equivalent to ‘banning cars because some drive illegally’.  It is motivated, he alleges, not by concern for wildlife, but by the ‘perception that grouse shooting is the preserve of the wealthy’ (which it is).

While Avery, Chris Packham and others get traction for their arguments through social media, the other side of the argument have mixed results with their efforts to do the same.  Fingers were burned when a petition to have Packham sacked from his role at the BBC, strongly backed by the Countryside Alliance’s Tim Bonner, was rapidly and comprehensively swamped by a vastly more popular petition to keep him.

Fundamentally, this is because seeing wildlife is a lot more popular than killing wildlife in this country.  Which gives the shooting lobby something of a problem – and when 40,000 people sign a petition to ban driven grouse shooting, the problem starts to loom large.

However.  ‘Outgunned’ on social media as they may be, the shooting industry still has plenty of other ways of exerting political pressure.  Among its other lobbying activities, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust host and provide secretarial services to an all-party parliamentary group for ‘game and conservation’ matters.  This group was visited in November by Liz Truss, who praised the industry for its marvellous work in ‘developing practical solutions to reversing the decline of our native wildlife’.  More recently, the Yorkshire Labour MP Angela Smith, an officer on the group, complained to a APPG meeting about anti-shooting campaigners’ use of social media. Unpopular but science-based decisions, she said, are harder to reach when politicians are deluged by email or Twitter campaigns, which can become nasty and personal.

There’s something in this, of course.  Many scientific papers are unavailable to the public without a costly subscription, while social media has revealed more of everything, about everyone – the good, the funny, the sad, the stupid and yes, sometimes the downright horrible.

But is it really a good use of an MPs time to sit around with the GWCT, bellyaching about how people are being mean on Twitter?  As for Smith’s reference to ‘science-based decisions’ – this rings exceeding hollow when the government has ignored very clear scientific counsel on lead ammunition, the application of neonicotinoid pesticides (until this month) and the badger cull, to pick three recent examples.  As does the idea, espoused by Yorke, Stokes and others, that Avery and his ilk have caused the ‘them and us’ fault-line through their use of the web.

When it comes down to it, there could be no successful social media campaign against driven grouse shooting unless there were strong, rational and easily understood arguments against it.  Loads of people launch e-petitions, but the vast majority of them get nowhere.  Avery’s petition has developed strongly – and the numbers tick up each time another raptor persecution incident is publicised.

They won’t do it – not when, according to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation chairman Alan Jarrett, the government has committed to ‘batting away’ any ‘attacks on shooting’ – but the shooting lobby would be wiser to look, listen and learn.  Their unpopularity is not Avery’s fault and the fact that he is selling books on the back of it, a stick they routinely use to beat him with, should actually be telling them something.

It is their own fault.  And with every raptor found dead, the people who have already been convinced of the arguments against driven grouse shooting – the hated ‘antis’ – will harden in their stance and become more committed to spreading that inconvenient, evidence-based message of theirs.  Trying to insinuate that a legitimate campaign against you, widely recognised as being based on the fact that people within your industry are committing crimes, is based on misinformation or class envy, or that people don’t know what they’re talking about when they sign up to it, is not the way to win.

April 2, 2016 / lazerock

Crete, March 2016

Going to Crete in the high summer would be a very different experience.  You’d be looking at temperatures in the thirties, of course – if that’s your thing – and there would be a hell of a lot more people.  In March, we had the strange experience of having entire beaches virtually to ourselves – including a visit to one which is often listed among the best in the world, to find it almost deserted.  Bliss.

Avian feature number one of Chania in the spring is the Swifts. They must have just arrived when we did and I took a walk to a grassy hill that overlooks the Old Town to watch them wheeling around in their hundreds, fizzing past my head, twisting, gliding, turning, true masters of the air.  It was a joy to see so many of them, a little dizzying trying to track them.  But my plan was to search the flocks for Pallid Swifts and I think I found one, in the end.  Individuals were seen which looked markedly browner than a Common, or which had a clear white throat patch, but the one I am happy was a Pallid simply looked very plump compared to all the other Swifts I’d been doggedly following.

The first walk up the coast from Chania Old Town to Nea Hora was promising.  There was a Common Sandpiper on the rocks, a Little Egret close to the public baths and then, just behind Nea Hora beach itself, an area used by the locals at a motorbike track.  This designation has saved a patch which would doubtless otherwise have been developed and it hosted a range of species – Crested Larks, with their mellifluous, rich calls, Northern Wheatears, Meadow Pipits, Greenfinches and a raucously singing Sardinian Warbler.

Also here was a stream running down to the beach, fringed by tall reeds, from which emitted the explosive sounds of Cetti’s Warbler, while both Ringed and Little Ringed Plover were found lurking around the pebbly pool at the stream’s end, along with White Wagtails.

We then took a leisurely stroll to the Lighthouse, which is reached by walking along the remnant of the old fortifications.  Scanning every passing gull proved not to be pointless when one actually turned out to be a tern – a monster of a tern, a Caspian Tern.  I’d barely even heard of this species before, but there can be no mistaking it when it is encountered.

A second walk to the Nea Hora area, without the camera, turned up another lifer in the form of a group of about half-a-dozen Tawny Pipits. This came after we’d experienced our only unsettled weather of the week – a night of storm-force southerly winds (Beaufort 11, according to one local).  Perhaps these birds had been pushed north from Africa by those gales.

The next excursion was a trip to Lake Agia, a well-known wetland spot. Here, we were treated to my first Black-winged Stilt in Europe, feeding unconcernedly on the near bank of the lake, surrounded by feral Greylag Geese.

Black-winged Stilt mid res

Attempts to pick a Little Crake out of the resident Moorhens were unsuccessful – but while we were trying to take photographs of skulking birds in the reeds, they suddenly all went mad.  The Moorhen I was looking at did this extraordinary thing where it crouched down and raised its wings over its head – because a cream-crown Marsh Harrier was swooping low, directly over our heads!  Sarah did well to capture it in flight, before it did the decent thing and landed in close proximity. Stonking views, allowing great pics of a beautiful bird of prey.

Marsh Harrier closeup 4 mid.jpg

I’d heard there were wintering Ferruginous Ducks at Lake Agia, but couldn’t see any – all of the ducks were at the far side of the lake, which might have been accessible, but the route we took ended before you got there.  All I could spot through bins at that distance were Tufted Ducks and Gadwall and the float of gulls, also at the same range, all looked Yellow-legged.  Closer by were a Coot pair with young and several Little Grebes, plus a winter-plumaged Black-necked Grebe.

For our last day, we hired a car for a journey to Elafonisi, on the south-west coast of the island.  This meant a drive through the White Mountains, which I hoped would be something of a raptorfest.  And so it proved.

Springtime is Buzzardtime on Crete.  They move through in big numbers. They were everywhere on the drive along, soaring peacefully, or sitting on posts, or being chased by Hooded Crows, or chasing each other – once, memorably, a pair swooped through a bush directly in front of our car and then just over the top of it.  I checked every one as we rolled along (and it took a while for me to stop thinking that ‘Hoodies’ were raptors).  But it wasn’t until Topolia that we got anything definitely different.

This village is at the head of its own gorge (which was recommended to us by local hikers) and the steep-sided scenery looked superb.  Especially when an enormous, brown, square-winged slab of a raptor cruised just over the car.  That wasn’t a buzzard…  My first flabbergasted response was – it was eagle-sized – and it then dawned on me that it must have been my first ever Griffon Vulture.

But we couldn’t stop safely there.  A little further on at a passing point, we paused for a bite to eat and to soak in the views.  That’s when we started to see vultures wheeling high overhead and were able to gather a few record shots of these hulking great birds.

Griffon Vulture record shot mid res 1

Elafonisi is a famously beautiful spot and is protected for its precious and endemic plants.  The first thing to note here was the wonderful mixed swarm of swifts, swallows and martins, all zooming overhead as we parked the car.  Immediately obvious for their bigger size and white bellies were the Alpine Swifts, then came the Barn Swallows and the Common Swifts, House Martins and at least one Red-rumped Swallow.  It was wonderful to watch this mixed tribe, all swooping around together.

Then we walked to the actual beach, which is stunning.  Although one local told me he worried about it being overly exploited in the summer, when thousands plonk their umbrellas down on the beautiful, red-tinged sand, in March, there were only a few people there – one or two families, a couple of local men with metal detectors and us.  Sarah seemingly had the whole of the Libyan Sea to herself to paddle around in, while I focused on the birdlife.

First came a genuine ‘what the hell is that?’ moment – it’s always a joy to see something you truly have no clue about, especially when you’re then able to use the Collins bible to nail it down.  I had no idea that Squacco Herons exhibit white wings in flight, so when I saw one being furiously mobbed by gulls, I was completely dumbstruck.

Next was a brief view of a flying Hoopoe and then a spot of seawatching which turned up a flock of migrating herons.  I believe that they were Purple Herons, but they were distant and didn’t come in close enough to land for a really good look through binoculars.  Sarah grabbed some snaps and the best advice from those who know the local avifauna is ‘probably Purple, but hard to be 100%’.

Purple Herons 1 mid res

There was time for one last lifer.  As we made our way back to the car, I noticed a flock of small, brown birds in flight, landing on stony, sandy ground conveniently the other side of a bush to provide me with a bit of cover as I approached.  The first couple I clapped bins on were Goldfinches, but that was because they were darker and easier to pick out than the rest – sandy little larks, roughly the same size as their finch companions, with unmarked white underparts, apart from a little black patch on the side of the throat and strong bills – once I’d stopped panicking about not being able to ID them, I was able to ID them…  Greater Short-toed Larks.

We reluctantly got into the car and started the drive back to Chania Airport, a low male Marsh Harrier hunting over olive trees just in front of the car being the final main highlight of what had been a wonderful week.

We will definitely be heading back to Crete and, when we do, will take more advantage of some of the crazily beautiful countryside to be found in the rich and beautiful hinterland of this lovely island.

November 30, 2015 / lazerock

Morocco, October 2015

1
Northern Gannet
 Morus bassanus
2
Great Cormorant
Phalacrocorax carbo
3
Cattle Egret
Bubulcus ibis
4
Little Egret
Egretta garzetta
5
Grey Heron
Ardea cinerea
6
White Stork
Ciconia ciconia
7
Northern Bald Ibis
Geronticus eremita
8
Eurasian Spoonbill
Platalea leucorodia
9
Osprey
Pandion haliaetus
10
Short-toed Snake Eagle
Circaetus gallicus
11
Long-legged Buzzard
Buteo rufinus
12
Golden Eagle
Aquila chrysaetos homeyeri
13
Common Kestrel
Falco tinnunculus
14
Eleonora’s Falcon
Falco eleonorae
15
Eurasian Coot
Fulica atra
16
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Haematopus ostralegus
17
Black-winged Stilt
Himantopus himantopus
18
Cream-coloured Courser
Cursorius cursor
19
Common Ringed Plover
Charadrius hiaticula
20
Whimbrel
Numenius phaeopus
21
Common Greenshank
Tringa nebularia
22
Common Sandpiper
Actitis hypoleucos
23
Ruddy Turnstone
Arenaria interpres
24
Audouin’s Gull
Larus audouinii
25
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Larus fuscus
26
Yellow-legged Gull
Larus cachinnans
27
Spotted Sandgrouse
Pterocles senegallus
28
Common Wood Pigeon
Columba palumbus
29
Rock Dove / Feral Pigeon
Columba livia
30
Eurasian Collared Dove
Streptopelia decaocto
31
Little Swift
Apus affinis
32
Alpine Swift
Tachymarptis melba
33
Desert Lark
Ammomanes deserti
34
Crested Lark
Galerida cristata
35
Thekla Lark
Galerida theklae
36
Plain Martin
Riparia paludicola
37
Red-rumped Swallow
Cecropis daurica
38
Rock Martin
Ptyonoprogne fuligula
39
Eurasian Crag Martin
Ptyonoprogne rupestris
40
Barn Swallow
Hirundo rustica
41
Yellow Wagtail
Motacilla flava
42
Grey Wagtail
Motacilla cinerea
43
White Wagtail
Motacilla alba
44
Common Bulbul
Pycnonotus barbatus
45
White-crowned Black Wheatear
Oenanthe leucopyga
46
Black Wheatear
Oenanthe leucura
47
Northern Wheatear
Oenanthe oenanthe
48
Blue Rock Thrush
Monticola solitarius
49
Eurasian Blackbird
Turdus merula
50
Western Olivaceous Warbler
Hippolais opaca
51
Willow Warbler
Phylloscopus trochilus
52
Common Whitethroat
Sylvia communis
53
Subalpine Warbler
Sylvia cantillans
54
Southern Grey Shrike
Lanius meridionalis
55
Black-crowned Tchagra
Tchagra senegalus
56
Brown-necked Raven
Corvus ruficollis
57
Western Jackdaw
Corvus monedula
58
Eurasian Magpie
Pica pica
59
Spotless Starling
Sturnus unicolor
60
House Sparrow
Passer domesticus
61
Desert Sparrow
Passer simplex
62
House Bunting
Emberiza striolata

Morocco is patently an amazing country for birdwatchers.  This was by no means a birding holiday, but there just are birds everywhere – mountains, coasts, lush valleys, desert, in short, every kind of habitat, means an incredibly diverse range of species is available.

We spent two nights and one full day in Marrakech, followed by a four-day, three-night driving tour with the Wild Morocco agency – stopping overnight at Tamdakht, then in a Sahara camp and finally at Taroudant – before arriving in Essaouira, where we spent the rest of our holiday.

Marrakech

We arrived in Marrakech late at night, were escorted back to the riad and given mint tea to drink while we settled in.  In the open, balmy air of the courtyard, House Sparrows chirped and fluttered incessantly, home to roost.

The next morning, we got up (or more accurately, were woken up by the call-to-prayer).  Along with Collared Doves sitting on all the TV aerials and Little Swifts arcing through the skies, the endearing House Bunting was one of the first species we saw, from the terrace of our Marrakech riad.  

The cheeky House Bunting, thriving in Moroccan towns and cities (and indeed airports)

These little birds were present all over the place – and even make a living inside Terminal 1 of Marrakech Airport.  I thought the birdsong must have been piped in, until I noticed them hopping around, hoovering up crumbs alongside House Sparrows.

Back on our Marrakech roof terrace, the next avian sign that we were no longer in Kansas was the Common Bulbul, a handsome species which is evidently as widespread and successful in urban settings here as the House Bunting.

The Atlas Mountains

We were collected by Hicham of Wild Morocco and off we went, from the loosely organised chaos of Marrakech’s bewildering maze of markets and even further into the unknown.

First up, the ascent into the Atlas Mountains.  We took no long stops in the High Atlas, just a few quick breaks for photos – nevertheless, it was obvious that this was fertile ground for any birdwatcher.

Outside a roadside shop where we loaded up on more water, I saw my first ever Alpine Swift.   Later, a gunmetal blue falcon hawked thrillingly alongside the car for a moment, chasing fleeing passerines – it was probably a Peregrine, but who knows, it could have been a rare Lanner Falcon.

Then we lucked out when a Blue Rock Thrush swooped across the rocks and landed just in front of us, when we stopped off to take a picture of a Moroccan mountain settlement.  It posed for just long enough for Sarah to grab a record shot: –

One of my fave birds of the trip - Blue Rock Thrush

To the Sahara desert

White-crowned Wheatear is not resident anywhere in Europe, but seemed reasonably common in desert areas of Morocco.

I missed this White-crowned Wheatear, due to pressing eagle business, but was fortunate enough to see others.

But while Sarah was snapping this showy chap at a spectacular viewpoint looking over the marvellous start of the Draa Valley in Zagora, I was staring intently in the opposite direction.

Hicham was explaining some of the history of the area, which he hailed from, when I clocked a distant, soaring, huge and irrevocably urgent silhouette moving across the mountains on the horizon.  I must admit, I was well out of the car door before poor Hicham had finished his sentence.

Once I’d clapped bins on it and watched it for as long as I could, it became definite that this was a patrolling adult Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos homeyeri).  The first I’d seen since my father took me to see one of England’s last Golden Eagles in the Lake District, about 25 years ago.

On we went through the mountains, past ancient salt mines, finally stopping off at an amazing, restored kasbah which was once home to a local pasha enriched through his collaboration with the French colonists. On the roof, we enjoyed glorious views over the landscape, while little Crag Martins zoomed by.  Seeing them in their usual habitat here, in the glorious sun, made it even more bizarre to consider that a few weeks later, a Crag Martin would delight British birdwatchers by turning up in the much colder, wetter climes of Chesterfield.

I had hoped very much to see a White Stork somewhere and when we arrived at Tamdakht, where we were staying for the evening, it became immediately clear that the birds lived in the vicinity.  The ginormous nest on the roof of the village’s ruined kasbah was kind of a giveaway.  

It was scorching, nigh on 40 degrees.  We hunkered down on the balcony as it was too hot to go out and bird, or even spend much time venturing beyond the safety of the shade, although I was pleased to pick out several Red-rumped Swallows in among the Barn Swallows flying along the Ounila Valley.  

Once the blistering heat had finally receded with the sun, we took a little wander through the olive grove down to the river – where we were swiftly repelled by biting insects – and then back to the ancient kasbah, but there was nothing avian to note, except for a Kestrel.  

I had resigned myself to thinking I would only see the plastic storks found on some of the rooftops, either ‘to catch water’, or ‘for decoration’ (maybe also to discourage real storks from nesting, I wondered), but suddenly, I heard a ‘clack-clack-clack-clack-clack’, loud and strange enough for me to wheel and face it – and there it was.  “Sarah, look…”  It was one of the most beautiful and wonderful birds I’d ever seen. 

One of my favourite ever birds - the White Stork at Tamdakht

The White Stork, ‘la cigogne’, had finally come home to roost, just before sunset and I can confirm that it is best viewed from the terrace at neighbouring hotel Kasbah Ellouze, with a cold Casablanca, after a very, very hot day.  I liked that the hotel’s staff seemed to have a proprietorial pride in ‘their’ storks and hope they will continue to look after them and cherish them, perceiving them as the fantastic natural asset that they are.  

A non-birding highlight here was the dramatic arrival on our terrace, after dark, of a Praying Mantis, which charged headlong into Sarah, bounced off her, then buzzed off frantically to the wall and then back off for another sortie into the hapless moths who were whirring around an exposed light nearby, powerless to evade the various insect predators there to capitalise on their unfortunate obsession.

Sahara Desert

A single night followed by a morning drive through the Sahara produced Desert Sparrow, Brown-necked Raven, Short-toed Eagle, Cream-coloured Courser and Spotted Sandgrouse, among others.

Desert Sparrows are absolutely lovely.  I’m cross that I didn’t get a pic, but I only got one decent chance to have a look at a resplendent male, who was perched on the roof of the main building of our desert camp.
I really enjoyed watching the charismatic Brown-necked Ravens in the dunes.  They can be identified by their distinctive, relatively high-pitched, grouchy calls, but I also felt like they had an almost Accipiter hawk-like silhouette, standing on the sand.  Their constant grumbling punctuated the desert silence and was very endearing.
Brown-necked Raven and Camel HBWC
Part of being a desert specialist is being an opportunist and if there are insects on a camel’s head, maybe it will be mutually beneficial if you land there and peck them off!  The camel didn’t tolerate this behaviour for long, though.

One of my absolute highlights of the whole holiday, from a wildlife perspective, was the best view of an eagle I’ve ever had –  even better than the Golden Eagle (two eagle species in three days!)

 

WOW. Short-toed Eagle in the Sahara.

The reptile-eating Short-toed Eagle is a big and notably handsome species, even for this most regal of families.  If I get this close to any eagle again, I’ll be thrilled to bits.
Not long after we had pulled over to photograph the snake eagle, Hicham suddenly stopped the car because he’d seen something creeping along the side of the road.  It was a superb spot from our guide – three Cream-coloured Coursers.  They stuck around just long enough for me to get bins on them, flitting, alas, before Sarah could capture them on camera.
Then almost straight away, a covey of Spotted Sandgrouse forced another stop.  Eagle, coursers, sandgrouse, it was a quite amazing few minutes, to be rapidly introduced to a series of species I’d hoped remotely and vaguely to see, some day – here they were, in bewilderingly rapid succession.
Things calmed down somewhat after that remarkable burst of birding. However, Black Wheatears and White-crowned Wheatears were great to see and seemed fairly common in the area.  At least, they stand out a mile when you do come across one in their smart, monochrome plumage.

Tamri

A stop at the Oued Tinkert, or Tamri estuary, was the one major tweak to our Wild Morocco itinerary that I’d requested, in the hope of seeing the Critically Endangered and effectively endemic Northern Bald Ibis.
Once I’d waited patiently for a herd of camels to make their way past me, one by one, along a curve in the pathway, I arrived on site, immediately clocked a flock of Bald Ibis on the far bank and started moving towards them quite quickly – prepared, in my excitement, to disregard a flock of “Yellow-legs” right in front of me.

Before I suddenly stopped and thought it might be wise to check them…

 

A beauty! Audouin's Gull, which I almost overlooked due to Ibis excitement

Audouin’s Gull is an elegant, scarce gull around the Med and north African coast, which is also very distinctive in its appearance.  Helpful, as I’m hopeless when it comes to gulls.
A flock of ten Northern Bald Ibis represents something like 1.5 per cent of the estimated global wild population.  The only major colony in the world exists in this part of Morocco, numbering under 600 birds at the last count. As small as that number is, it’s a big positive, because the previous estimate was about 450.

Something like two per cent of the world's population of Northern Bald Ibis. Let's hope their recovery continues.

Encouragingly, I saw that somebody had graffitied an Ibis mural on the wall in the nearest town, so there is clearly some appreciation for them there.  I hope local people continue to look after them – and that the development of golf courses and other tourist facilities is carried out sensitively on that stretch of the coast.

My best efforts to capture this hunting Osprey were… not so good.  Mostly blurry pics of empty landscapes, unfortunately.  I at least managed to get it in frame once.

The best photograph of the hunting Osprey that I was able to manage. Next time!

Creeping along the riverbank almost to my feet came a White Wagtail – of the lovely ‘subpersonata‘ subspecies, which is only found in Morocco.

Moroccan White Wagtail HBWC

Eventually, Hicham had to be sent by Sarah to drag me back to the car (I was already making my way back along the bank, I swear).  It was the hottest part of the day and, much to my companions’ amusement, I was gabbling and slightly delirious when I got back to the car – but honestly, with excitement at the feast of birding that had been before me, rather than heat exhaustion.

A long drink of water was in order, though!

Essaouira

There were hundreds if not thousands of Yellow-legged Gulls around Essaouira, often sitting happily up on our terrace when we wandered up there, regarding us with a gimlet eye, but only budging on sufferance.

I’m still not quite clear on whether the ‘Southern Grey Shrike’ actually exists or not – according to the Bubo listing site, it does – but I can certainly say that it was a treat to see several Great Grey Shrikes, having only ever seen one before (tale to tell about that Yorkshire individual, involving a shocking lack of fieldcraft from a photographer…. but that’s for another post).

Southern Grey Shrike. It was a treat to see so many shrikes, having previously only ever seen one in my life.

The town is famous for its breeding colony of Eleonora’s Falcons, on the Ile de Mogador island nature reserve just off the coast.  I didn’t think we’d get a pic, but fortunately, two juveniles were making what must have been among their first flights since fledging, zooming around the trees on the main square (Place Moulay Hassan).

Eleonora's Falcon HBWC

A second Osprey was seen flying down the Essaouiran coastline too, in the process of being escorted out of the area by a Yellow-legged Gull.

Down at Oued Ksob, I found the Black-winged Stilts I’d been tipped off about through the excellent Moroccan Birds website and the invaluable ‘Moroccan coast and mountains’ pamphlet by Dave Gosney.

Black-winged Stilts HBWC

However, I was politely bollocked by a security guard shortly after taking this pic, as the pools in which they feed are allegedly ‘private’.  I played the ‘clueless tourist’ card, smiling broadly, nodding sympathetically and offering a smattering of sub-GCSE French – ‘je regard les oiseaux bien!  Ou est le Oued Ksob?‘  It was well worth the ticking off to finally see these extraordinary birds for the first time, but another little reminder that I wasn’t in the UK anymore.

Brown-throated (‘Plain’) Martins live in this area and overhead, hunting Eleonora’s Falcons filled the skies like clouds of giant swifts.  Another speciality of Oued Ksob is the Black-crowned Tchagra.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good sighting of one, but was at least treated to a burst of its mellifluous song.

The birds in the pics below took some figuring out, but with a bit of third-party consultation, I concluded that they are Isabelline Warblers (AKA Western Olivaceous Warblers).

Bush of birds Warblers HBWC

These birds and several other species of warbler were found in a tiny patch of scrub habitat next to a bar called ‘Beach and Friends’, at the Oued Ksob end of the beach.  I imagine that the tiny plot will be turned into another bar before I get to go back there, but for now, it is a small haven which I think provides a respite stop for migrating birds.  Certainly Willow Warblers and Common Whitethroats were also present in the bush pictured above (‘the bush of birds’) and I also managed to snap two Northern Wheatears who had landed in the same area.

Northern Wheatear web

A patch of land just across the road from Beach and Friends is earmarked for development into apartments, but currently provides foraging ground for Thekla Larks.  Wondering if I was going to be told off again for going where I shouldn’t, I had a nose around and was able to get a few photos:

Thekla Lark? HBWC

I can see why Morocco is such a favoured destination for serious birders, because in a ten-day, whirlwind and not birding-focused tour of the country, I saw several ‘lifers’ I will always cherish, but was left with the knowledge that I had barely even scratched the surface.  I’d done as much research as I could and some of my ‘ticks’ were planned for and got – but others can only be described as magical surprises.  My main regret is that I never managed to catch up with the country’s endemic and super-smart little chat, Moussier’s Redstart – but really, having had a taste of such riches, I can’t really complain.  Hopefully, next time, I’ll have better luck.

To sum up, we loved Morocco, it was ace.  If you get a chance, go!

September 7, 2015 / lazerock

Book review: Inglorious by Mark Avery

When I spoke to Lin Murray from the Hawk & Owl Trust recently, she was at pains to tell me how much she liked and got on with Mark Avery. She described him as a “great mate” and “very brave.  He will go into places and be vilified for what he believes.”

However, as much as she admires Avery, she also described him as a man “in the business of taking controversial stances and selling books.  He is bringing up a subject [Hen Harrier persecution] and thrusting it into the public arena.”

I am one of the members of the public who has been drawn into the Hen Harrier debate, partly by Avery’s work as chronicled in Inglorious.

I first became particularly interested in Hen Harriers in 2013, when I learned that not a single nest had been successful in the whole of England that year.  This seemed absolutely appalling, so I wrote to Defra and Natural England to find out what was being done.

I was told that a working group had been set up to find a way to boost Hen Harrier numbers.  Six organisations made up the group and I wrote to them all, to find out more about their attitude to the situation.  That was when I first made contact with the RSPB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (the National Parks Authority, the National Gamekeepers Organisation and the Moorland Association never responded to my emails).

I kept reading and trying to listen and learn.  I found myself reading a lot about grouse shooting, which I previously knew nothing about.  I’d just thought of it as a fusty, old-fashioned, eccentric pursuit which the aristocracy enjoyed and which had nothing to do with me.

Now all of a sudden, I was reading articles from magazines like The Field and Shooting Times, which previously, I wouldn’t even have glanced twice at in a dentist’s waiting room with no wifi.  I learned that the people who wrote for these journals were often full of real contempt for conservationists like the RSPB, whom they saw as ignorant meddlers in affairs they didn’t understand.

In 2013, I moved from, yes, the city to an upland village adjacent to an expanse of heather moorland.  I made contact with my local birdwatching club and learned that there was a list of birds not to be mentioned on the public online forum, because of ‘significant issues with gamekeepers in the recording area’.  When I went out walking, if anybody I didn’t know asked me if I had “seen anything interesting”, particularly birds of prey, I was to keep schtum.

I walked across moorland so rich with Meadow Pipits that you flushed them from under your feet.  Red Grouse chuckled away contentedly and occasionally raced past at high speed.  But with the exception of Kestrels, it was extremely rare to see a raptor.

I went to Hebden Bridge just after the floods and saw the state of the place.  I stared into sodden, ruined shop premises and read handwritten notes in the windows from the devastated owners, thanking everyone for their support and hoping to be back on their feet soon.

We drove by a place called Strines and saw a lovely landscape scarred by huge, black expanses of scorched earth.

I saw the following advertising material for a farm shop, not far from where I live:

Grouse

The more I looked around and spoke to people, the more photographs of mangled birds of prey I saw, the more I realised that the evidence demonstrated that persecution was linked specifically to areas managed for driven grouse shooting, the more I started to realise that actually, it had quite a lot to do with me.

I read about the George Mutch prosecution.  Mutch had been filmed killing a Goshawk, so it was an open and shut case.  Nevertheless, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust sent a defence witness to represent him in court.  I never forgot this when I was lectured on social media by representatives of the shooting fraternity about the importance of ‘partnership working’ and ‘compromise’.

I went to see my first ever Hen Harrier, at RSPB Parkgate.  It was a ringtail.  On site, I met Findlay Wilde, his brother and their proud parents.  They were lovely people and it was a great day.  I’ve still never seen a male Hen Harrier.

In March this year, I learned that a Peregrine Falcon which had been nesting on the roof of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s HQ in Belper had been shot.  I’m originally from Ripley, a couple of miles down the road from Belper.  My dad took me to see my first ever Peregrine at Willington Power Station in the 1980s, when they were still very rare.

I remembered the Belper case when Lin Murray told me that she suspected that the missing ‘Bowland Five’ male Hen Harriers, or at least some of them, had been “deliberately targeted to prove a point” (Philip Merricks, the HOT chair, said something similar during his interview for the Talking Naturally podcast).  I remembered that Derbyshire Wildlife Trust had supported Hen Harrier Day.

I reflected on Murray and Merricks talking about the Good Friday agreement and how peace had been brokered in Northern Ireland because people were prepared to sit down around the table and put aside their differences to find a solution.  I thought about how, in one case, you’re talking about a gang of armed men in balaclavas roaming around the country, prepared to kill to get their way and apparently completely beyond the control of the rule of law.  And how, in the other case, you’re talking about the IRA.

In Inglorious, Avery says: “Whenever anyone new comes onto the scene of the conflict between Hen Harriers and grouse shooting with high hopes of finding a solution by ‘getting people round the table’, I think back to many tables over many years. We tried, all of us – we really did.”

Then I recalled being sneered at and called a ‘monomaniac’ and a ‘townie’ on Twitter, after I dared to suggest that it might not be the case that Hen Harriers fail to nest right across the nation of England because they are all scared away by birdwatchers and recreational walkers.  I learned that the person pushing this drivel to BBC North West Tonight – and lashing out at me in the most childish way for putting a question to him – was a lawyer for the Countryside Alliance. He has been praised lavishly by the Western Morning News for the way he “relentlessly attacks all those he feels misrepresent or talk against the genuine concerns of countryfolk, from the RSPCA to the BBC” (so at least it wasn’t just me).

I thought about You Forgot the Birds and their embarassing, facile website.  About the outrageous slurs they pour into sympathetic ears in the national media.  How they briefed the Telegraph that Natural England was about to issue a report condemning the RSPB for failing to protect Hen Harriers – and how, the next day, the story was confirmed as complete bollocks.  How the Telegraph had not even contacted Natural England to discuss it before going to print.  How YFTB are ‘funded by the British grouse industry’.

I thought about the despair I felt at the announcement, on August 11, that another dead Hen Harrier, recovered from a grouse moor, had been confirmed shot.  And then watched as the shooting fraternity’s response unfolded on Twitter.  There were a couple of half-hearted condemnations of the criminal act – or at least of the idiot who hadn’t successfully disposed of the evidence – but much more concertedly, there was uncontrolled fury at the RSPB for releasing the news on the day before the grouse shooting season opened.  It was outrageous, they hissed.  How dare the RSPB spin doctors play these games?

I wondered how, if this was their attitude, things could ever change.

Nearly all of the words above have been about my own experiences and not much has been about Inglorious, but I think that’s the point.  A couple of years ago, by launching an e-petition to have driven grouse shooting banned, Avery set out to significantly raise public awareness about the very serious environmental charges that the grouse moor managers face.  He has succeeded in doing just that and through his campaign, has helped to change the way many people look at what are, after all, our uplands.

Inglorious serves as a very handy summary of Avery’s campaign to date and a fine introduction to the topic for anyone cares about British wildlife.  The campaign will, I think, will rumble on for many more years – but I still believe that things will ultimately change for the better as a result of his work.