Skip to content
November 10, 2018 / lazerock

Red Kite shooting on Saddleworth Moor

All the time, we are learning more about the illegal persecution of birds of prey, with dedicated charities and campaigners doing sterling work in ensuring that cases are publicised as widely as possible.  There is, however, a depressing pattern to these incidents, which any seasoned raptor persecution watcher will recognise instantly.

Typically, the RSPB will put out a press release explaining that a raptor has been found dead and asking anybody with information to come forward.  The local constabulary will add a comment, echoing the call for information.  These appeals, however, are often issued many weeks or even months after the fact, making it vanishingly unlikely that anybody will come forward.

“Were you walking in the vicinity of X on a specific date three months ago?”

“Um… Possibly?”
“Did you see anything untoward?”
“Well, I didn’t see any raptors knocking around, that’s for sure…”
And then silence, as nothing further happens and the guilty party carries on regardless.
What has always been well understood too is that the cases which do come to light represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’.  Many more crimes which are never detected are being committed in remote locations, well away from the ‘prying eyes’ of the general public.
This summer though, just down the road from me, somebody got a bit too cocky for their own good and shot a Red Kite in the middle of the day.  Heaven knows what was going through this person’s mind, to think they could do such a thing with impunity.
But we do know for a fact that a Red Kite was shot on Saddleworth Moor on Thursday 7 June, because a man who climbing in the area saw it happen and reported it to Greater Manchester Police and the RSPB, who look after the local beauty spot of Dove Stone Reservoir.
On 20 September, the RSPB published an account of the crime, giving Adam’s description of events and including a supportive quote from Chief Inspector Dave Henthorne, GMP’s lead officer for wildlife crime.
Adam said: “I saw the kite slowly soaring up the valley, then again when we’d started our climb.  I heard two shots and the kite fell out of the sky – it was like a balloon bursting, crumpling so suddenly then falling.

“I was completely shocked by the brazenness of it.  You hear about this sort of thing happening and that the chances of seeing or recording something are so slim, so to see this in broad daylight when anyone could have witnessed it was incredible.  This is a popular valley for climbing and walking, plus there’s a busy A-road close by.

“I was literally tied to the crag when it happened so I couldn’t move to get a better view, but I rang the police as soon as I was able.”

In his supporting quote, CI Henthorne emphasised that the force would not hesitate to prosecute individuals where the evidence was available and that firearms certificates would also be reviewed in such cases.
Raptor persecution cases are so common these days that it is easy to become desensitised to the impact of them when they are publicised.  You can’t get livid every time, or you would exist in a constant state of rage that this is happening, that those responsible are never caught and that there is no end to it.  But this case felt more personal than most.
It was close to home, for one thing.  RSPB Dove Stone Reservoir is a place I visit with my wife (and recently with our infant son, for the first time).  Red Kite is a species I have only seen once in around five years living in my village, about ten miles away from where this crime happened.  One flew low over my head once, as I was walking home.  It was a special moment, but again – one in five years.
And so it angered me to understand that we were being directly denied the opportunity to see these birds.  I decided I needed to find out more about what had happened and contacted both Adam and CI Henthorne, for some more information about the case.
Adam was very happy to talk to me about what he saw.  The report issued by RSPB was vague about exactly where the shooting had happened, but Adam confirmed that he was tackling the crags of Upperwood Quarry when he witnessed this crime.  The quarry is just north of Dove Stone Reservoir, east of the bustling villages of Greenfield and Uppermill.  It’s close to the A635 (Holmfirth Road), making it very accessible for climbers – and is apparently a good challenge for those who like this kind of thing.
The bird was soaring in the vicinity of Upperwood House, Adam says, when the shooting took place.  This was in the middle of the day, with plenty of traffic passing by on the Holmfirth Road.

Adam’s first call was, naturally, to the police.  But having dialled 101, Adam ended up waiting on the line for more than an hour, without being able to get through to anybody.  Eventually, he gave up and contacted the RSPB instead.
This all happened on June 7.
I emailed CI Henthorne to see if I could find out more about this case from a police perspective.  He responded to my queries very quickly and was keen to provide some information about GMP’s approach in this matter.

“GMP received a report from the RSPB that a member of the public (who we believe was a very credible witness), heard a gunshot and then saw a red kite drop in the direction of a steep incline” said CI Henthorne.

However, the police had a problem in this case.  Because of where Adam was – up on the crags – he had seen the bird shot, but he had not seen the shooter.

“The witness was some distance away and the police officer that attended did speak to the landowners and, as in any investigation, based his decisions on the evidence available at the time.  The witness was updated after enquiries were made.
“In this case, there simply was not enough evidence to pursue a prosecution.  We did consider a search for the Red Kite, but as you will be aware the timing and location of the fire on the moor frustrated this.”

Frustrated is the right word.  We can only curse our luck that Adam was not in a position to see the person who pulled the trigger.  But he is confused by CI Henthorne’s statement that the bird dropped ‘in the direction of a steep incline’, because he is clear in his mind that the bird actually dropped onto farmland.

Adam was updated by the police, as the chief inspector told me, but says this happened ‘about a month’ after the actual crime.

The Saddleworth Moor fires, which CI Henthorne noted in his email, were of national significance and anyone living in or travelling through the area can see the blackened moors to this day – much of the burnt land is studded with the tell-tale ‘patchwork quilt’ effect which denotes management for grouse shooting.  In fact, the fires started and spread from a grouse moor just to the south of Dove Stone Reservoir, which is part of the Enville & Stalybridge estate.  Clearly, getting them under control took a heroic effort from police and the fire service, with support from a wide range of agencies and individual volunteers.
But the fires didn’t start until June 24 and as we know, the kite was killed on June 7.  So, if GMP were still only considering a search at that point, then the criminal who shot the raptor had at least 17 days to search for, retrieve and destroy evidence ahead of any search by law enforcement – a search which ultimately never happened in any case.

In the end, it would take more than three months for the RSPB to finally be in a position to publicise the case.  The charity confirmed for me that they are only able to put a release out on such cases on police say-so.

By contrast, a more recent case of Red Kite persecution in Herefordshire was publicised by Herefordshire Police less than a month after it took place and a close approximation of where the bird had been found was given.

When I made contact with him, Adam was still very frustrated about this case.  He questioned, with some justification, whether GMP had the resources in place to effectively investigate a case such as this.  And I have huge sympathy for the force, who cover a huge geographical area, taking in the city of Manchester and its nine outlying boroughs, including Stockport, Trafford, Rochdale, Bury and Oldham.
Recently, GMP chief Ian Hopkins gave an interview in which he spoke frankly about the debilitating impact of years of budget cuts on the difficult work of his force and the impossible competing demands for limited police resources.
men-gmp-cover.jpg
The Saddleworth area is technically part of Oldham, but many people there consider themselves to be Yorkshire folk.  Certainly, when you walk on the streets of Greenfield and Uppermill or in the surrounding countryside, you feel in a different world entirely from Manchester.
This was a case which involved the shooting of a bird in an accessible but still relatively remote area on the boundary of GMP’s jurisdiction.  Adam saw the crime happen, but he did not see who pulled the trigger.  So it seems that the only way the culprit could have been caught would have been an almost instantaneous search of the area to retrieve the body, which simply was not possible.

We do not know who killed this Red Kite and unfortunately, it seems clear that we never will.  However, this particularly blatant crime of persecution affirms that this is dangerous ground for any Red Kite to frequent – despite the presence of the RSPB and the many ramblers, climbers and birders who love this part of the world and would love to see these birds more frequently.

The most upsetting thing for Adam and for all of us who care is that we know these things go on all the time, we want the people responsible to be held accountable and yet it seems nigh-on impossible for that to ever happen – even when somebody actually sees a shooting take place.

It simply should not be possible for somebody to take out a gun in broad daylight, in the vicinity of a major A-road, illegally kill a bird of prey and get away with it, scot free.  But it is.
Advertisements
July 9, 2018 / lazerock

Complaint to BBC over erroneous Saddleworth Moor fire report

Unfortunately, I have been forced to complain to the BBC, after an inaccurate report appeared on their website in which an academic, Professor Rob Marrs, wagged his finger at the RSPB, claiming that their ‘failure’ to burn moorland rotationally was to blame for the spread of the devastating Saddleworth Moor fire.

The report was authored by an Ed Chadwick – interestingly, when googling Mr Chadwick, I could find nothing else in his name for the BBC, though an Ed Chadwick has previously written for the Bolton News.  A Twitter account I found for ‘Edward Chadwick, journalist’ has not tweeted since 2012.  That Edward Chadwick wrote for The People.

Here is Mr Chadwick’s article https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-44648348.

And here is my complaint to the BBC.  This was submitted on 30 June.  On  Sunday 8 July, I received an email telling me that the BBC needed more time to look at it.

Complaint Summary: Saddleworth Moor fire erroneously blamed on RSPB

Full Complaint: Mr Chadwick’s report leads on claims by Professor Rob Marrs that the Saddleworth Moor fire spread because the RSPB and United Utilities do not carry out rotational burning of heather on their land.

The report states that the RSPB ‘manages the moorland currently ablaze’.  However, it does not make it clear that the fire did not start on the RSPB’s Dove Stone estate.  The RSPB have confirmed that the fire started ‘on land managed by others’, but this is not reflected in Mr Chadwick’s report.

As I understand it, the fire actually began on the Stalybridge Estate – land which is managed for driven grouse shooting.  Jonathan Hughes, CEO, Scottish Wildlife Trust, has stated: “Moorlands and drained peat bogs managed for grouse shooting can unfortunately create tinderbox conditions for wildfires.”

Prof Marrs is the president of The Heather Trust, a lobby group which campaigns on moorland management and which is funded by the shooting industry.

Its board contains members of other shooting organisations, for example, Robert Benson (chair, Moorland Association) and Dr Adam Smith (director, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust).  Prof Marrs’ direct link to the grouse shooting industry is not referenced within Mr Chadwick’s report.

In summary, my complaints about this article are:-

1) It could mislead the reader into believing that the fire started and spread from land managed by the RSPB, when it did not.  The reporter should have made efforts to establish where the fire started and should – at the very least – have acknowledged the fact that it did not start on the Dove Stone estate.

2) Prof Marrs’ direct link to the grouse shooting industry, which is notoriously in dispute with the RSPB about moorland management issues, is not presented by the reporter.  This factual omission could be particularly serious if it is confirmed that the fire started and spread from land which is managed for driven grouse shooting.

As for part 2, it has now been confirmed by the RSPB that the fire did indeed start on the Stalybridge Estate, near Buckton Vale.  So the case for correcting the article is now made.

I’ve emailed Mr Chadwick – or at least ed.chadwick@bbc.co.uk – and will update this entry if and when he, or the BBC’s complaints team, respond.  I have also tweeted the Heather Trust to ask whether their president will apologise to the RSPB for his misleading comments.

***Update (15 July 2018)***

Recently, The Guardian’s George Monbiot posted a story in which he criticised the BBC for failing to sufficiently scrutinise the background of its interviewees.   He said: “There is no effort to establish their credentials, in order to avoid being hoaxed into promoting corporate lobbyists as independent thinkers.” In his article, he included a list of some of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, including: –

“3.4.7 We should make checks to establish the credentials of our contributors and to avoid being ‘hoaxed’.

“3.4.12 We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.

“4.4.14 We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics)… are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

May 28, 2018 / lazerock

Murcia, May 2018

A trip to southern Spain in May was always going to result in some interesting birds, but I decided not to leave anything to chance and booked a day with Birding Murcia for a guided tour of a few local hotspots. 

We were travelling with pals who are, it’s fair to say, not birders, so nature was not the principal focus of the trip.  However, it is present in abundance across the Murcia region and so any trip out was always likely to result in some sightings.

We stayed in a property owned by family of our friends, which was in an urbanización – an area built up for ex-pats and tourists.  A friendly neighbour told us that when he moved there in 2005, there was quite literally nothing but fields all around.  Now, there was nothing but functional concrete.  Across the road, a few dusty orange trees clung on in a cleared building site with a new-build house and the frame of an unfinished apartment block at its centre.

So far, so unpromising, but Pallid and Common Swifts were nesting in the buildings and to my delight, a Blue Rock Thrush frequented the roofs of the half-built structures around us.  Hoopoes could be heard constantly.  Spotless Starlings were always present and the odd Barn Swallow dashed across, with Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins also present in this built-up area.  Add all of these noises, from the melodious, echoing tones of the thrush, the monotonous ooo-poo-poos of the Hoopoes to the shrill whistle-blasts of the swifts, along with the sultry, still air and it was clear that we were a long way from Huddersfield.

This was our base from which to dash off on day trips.  First up was an excursion to the Calblanque national park, which was stunningly beautiful, but not terribly productive.  Larks (I think they were Thekla Larks) were present on the protected rocky areas on the walk down to the beaches, a Black-eared Wheatear posed nicely while the camera wasn’t to hand, a Sparrowhawk dashed across the hills and a Green Woodpecker yaffled somewhere, but that was about it for this day.

Much better was our trip to San Pedro del Pinatar, home of the famous mudbaths of the Mar Menor, where folks can share a huge saline lake with Greater Flamingos and get themselves caked from head to toe in famously exfoliating gloop.  I suggested to the chaps that the flamingos’ poo was the special ingredient that made it so good, which may or may not be true.  Anyway, these improbable wonders put on a good show, at times gliding right by us, their legs freewheeling manically as they made ungainly splash-landings.

Pink Flamingo preening HBWPink Flamingo HBW

Dotted around their feet were Slender-billed Gulls and scooting around the edge of the pool were Sanderlings and Kentish Plover.   Overhead were terns, constantly.

Little Tern hbw

Perhaps my birding highlight of the week were the Little Terns.  I’d never seen these magical sea-kestrel-swallows before, so to sit on the beach and watch them hover, dazzlingly white, delicate and agile, before sploshing down in search of their prey was a wonderful experience.

A Slender-billed Gull finally deigned to come close up to be photographed:

Slender-billed Gull HBW

Then another landed on the beach just behind us, or so I thought.  Reviewing the photo my wife grabbed before it flew off revealed it to be an Audouin’s Gull.

Audouin's Gull hbw

But the main event from a birding perspective was our day out with José Manuel from Birding Murcia.  José had been hugely patient and helpful in the build-up to the trip, helping me to choose an itinerary which would be interesting enough for my non-birding friends and long-suffering wife to join without being bored senseless, but which would still give us the chance of seeing some great birds.

We started the trip by visiting a colony of breeding Montagu’s Harriers.  From a viewing tower high over the reeds, we watched as male harriers constantly cruised around.  I repeatedly had more than one in binocular view and even in scope view.  I’m not sure how many there were in total – at least three males and one female, but that’s a conservative estimate.

Montagu's Harrier 1 HBWMontagu's Harrier HBW

A Cuckoo called, Gull-billed Terns flew over and Sarah cleverly snapped a Great Reed Warbler, while I was looking at a Monty’s in the other direction

Great Reed Warbler 1MB.jpg

Unfortunately, rainfall the previous day had rendered the clay underfoot pretty tough to navigate without slipping over, so only a short walk was possible, before we drove on to take a coffee at a local café (José very gallantly insisted on paying for the round, despite our strenuous objections), before the main event – El Hondo.

El Hondo (or El Fondo) is a terrific wetland reserve, which hosts all sorts of specialities – the remarkable Purple Swamphen prime among them.  What a funky beast ‘Swampy’ is, a beefed-up, steroidal, pre-historic moorhen, which looks like a double ‘ard bastard, but also intrisically comic:-

Purple Swamphen HBW

In the same pool (which was being excitedly scanned by a school field trip when we arrived) were Red-crested and Common Pochard, Marbled Duck, Common Coot and the unfortunately-named Red-knobbed Coot (come on, ornithology… must we?).  Some of the ‘Red-knobs’, as part of a reintroduction programme, bore a ‘breastplate’ to allow scientists to monitor them.  It heartened me to think that resources had been made available for the sake of a bird which is, at the end of the day, a slightly different Coot.  People can save species of all kinds, if they put their minds to it.

Black-winged Stilt were everywhere:-

Black-winged Stilts hbw

As were Glossy Ibis, which looked cormorant-like in the air to the uninitiated (e.g. me):-

Glossy Ibis hbw

Also winging around were Collared Pratincole, another of those species I’d been hankering after seeing ever since looking at photos of them in my bird book as a child and thinking how magical they looked.  I got to see them, but alas, they never came close enough for a really good look, or a photo.

Purple Heron flew over: –

Purple Heron WEB.jpg

Then we mooched to the other end of the reservoir, where a Whiskered Tern colony were at rest:-

Whiskered Tern hbw.jpg

As with all terns, I loved watching them fly around.  Avocets were also present here and I  managed to persuade everyone to have a look at them through José’s scope.  They are so graceful.

Avocet hbw.jpg

After a spot of lunch, the next and final part of the itinerary was a drive around the surrounding fields to see what we could see.  The first and most exciting part of this ‘safari’ was a search for that most flamboyant of European birds, the Roller.

José was constantly on the look-out and soon brought the car to a halt, as he’d located one in a tree opposite.  The bird stayed put briefly, giving my friends and wife in the back a superb view of “the blue bird” with the naked eye – but me being me, I didn’t spot it until it flew off.  We gave chase down a dirt track, but couldn’t keep up with it as it moved along in front of us from tree to tree – in the end though, I was more than happy with those flashes of blue and brown in flight and to be in the presence of such a creature, while palm trees waved in the background.  This was hands-down better than a weekend in Blackpool and no mistake.

José had a hunch we could catch up with Booted Eagle on this off-road jaunt and although we dipped on Little Owl (heard by José), we eventually did catch up with this tawny, buzzard-sized eagle, perched on an telegraph pole and allowing our vehicle to slowly creep to within scope range.  I managed to get a good look at it, but as I stepped aside to allow my pal Trev to catch a good look at his first ever eagle, the bloody thing finally decided it had seen enough of us and nonchalantly swooped off.  We tracked it with our binoculars and scope to a tree, but it was too distant by the time it landed to be well seen.  Still, José’s birding skills and unrivalled local knowledge had allowed us to catch up with yet another local speciality, well outside the confines of a formal nature reserve.

Next came two Stone-curlews in an agricultural field – such a common sight here that José asked me why English birders were always so interested to see them – before it was time to get our tiring crew back home to the urbanización.  A cracking half-day out in the field, very reasonably priced and guided by an absolute gentleman.  We couldn’t have asked for more.   José also told me about some of the other birding opportunities in the area – Bonelli’s Eagle, Eagle Owl, Azure-winged Magpie, off the top of my head – so I hope to be able to take advantage of his skills again in the future.

Murcia region list

Crested Lark
Spotless Starling
Common Swift
Pallid Swift
Collared Dove
Blue Rock Thrush
White Wagtail
House Sparrow
Hoopoe
Woodpigeon
Sardinian Warbler
Barn Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow
Rose-ringed Parakeet
(Thekla Lark?)
Great Cormorant
Audouin’s Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Black-eared Wheatear
Sparrowhawk
Greenfinch
Goldfinch
Blackbird
Shelduck
Common Buzzard
Mallard
Moorhen
Coot
House Martin
Grey Heron
(Iberian) Great Grey Shrike
Greater Flamingo
Sandwich Tern
*Little Tern
Turnstone
*Slender-billed Gull
Sanderling
*Kentish Plover
Avocet
Common Tern
Common Kestrel

Birding Murcia day (El Hondo and surrounding area)
Hoopoe
*Zitting Cisticola
Montagu’s Harrier (at least 3m, 1f)
*Gull-billed Tern
Bee-eater
Sardinian Warbler
Stonechat
Cuckoo
Cetti’s Warbler
*Glossy Ibis
Common Coot
*Red-knobbed Coot
Moorhen
Mallard
Red-crested Pochard
Common Pochard
*Marbled Duck
*Purple Swamphen
Great Crested Grebe
Greater Flamingo
Black-winged Stilt
Cattle Egret
Reed Warbler
Grey Heron
Little Egret
*Purple Heron
*Collared Pratincole
Avocet
Little Grebe
Redshank
Common Sandpiper
*Whiskered Tern
Shelduck
Collared Dove
Woodpigeon
Goldfinch
Barn Swallow
Common Swift
House Sparrow
Blackbird
Magpie
Jackdaw
Crested Lark
*Great Reed Warbler
*Woodchat Shrike
Common Kestrel
Roller
*Booted Eagle
*Stone-curlew

(* = a new bird for me)

October 1, 2017 / lazerock

California and Arizona, September 2017 (pt 4)

The final destination was San Francisco.  This was a good end to the trip, in the sense that it helped us to acclimatise to a more European climate.  We flew from scorching Palm Springs, where hummingbirds buzzed around in the outdoor departure lounge, with a Costa’s repeatedly favouring a perch almost directly above our heads.

Costa's Hummingbird WEB

Costa’s Hummingbird, Palm Springs Airport

On this final leg of the trip, the main ornithological opportunity came from an afternoon in Golden Gate Park.  We hired a pedalo and wombled around the boating lake for a while, where Sarah enjoyed watching a Double-crested Cormorant drying out its wings in that prehistoric way of theirs.  Next, we pedalled across the lake to look at some ginormous terrapins basking on branches, where Sarah caught a glimpse of a Black-crowned Night Heron, partially covered in the undergrowth.

Black-crowned Night Heron 1 web

Black-crowned Night Heron, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe and marvelled that I had once travelled all the way to RSPB Leighton Moss to see such an unassuming little bird (albeit one which had somehow crossed the Atlantic Ocean).  Around the lake were Red-winged Blackbirds, including the local ‘Bicolored’ subspecies, as well as the more typical form.

It was interesting to note non-native competition in action.  As a Red-winged Blackbird marched around, carrying a tidbit he had collected from the ground, he found himself all the while under remorseless, hounding pressure from a European Starling.  The birds were roughly the same size and very similar in habits, meaning that the invader was very much staking a claim to the native bird’s habitat and food.

And from a birding perspective, that was about all.  It was an unbelievable trip, with 75 species positively ID’d.  There’s no doubt that if my identification skills were more advanced, the total would have been much higher, as the possibilities in this part of the world, given the sheer range of habitats, are seemingly endless.

Trip list (September 2017)

Pied-billed Grebe
Brown Pelican
Brandt’s Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Canada Goose
Mallard
Turkey Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
American Kestrel
California Quail
Gambel’s Quail
Wild Turkey
American Coot
Black Oystercatcher
Long-billed Curlew
Western Gull
Heerman’s Gull
Feral Pigeon
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird
Costa’s Hummingbird
Acorn Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker
Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
White-headed Woodpecker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Black Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Steller’s Jay
Western Scrub Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Yellow-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Verdin
Bushtit
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Cactus Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Curve-billed Thrasher
California Thrasher
Phainopepla
European Starling
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Western Tanager
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee
Black-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Scott’s Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Mammals

Mule deer
California Ground Squirrel
White-tailed Antelope Squirrel
Western Gray Squirrel
Desert Cottontail
Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Gopher sp.
Coyote (deceased)

Butterflies

Numerous, diverse and sometimes spectacular, as in the case of the Monarch.  Also photographed were Hoary Comma and California Sister butterflies.

Monarch WEB

Monarch, Yosemite Valley

 

October 1, 2017 / lazerock

California and Arizona, September 2017 (part 3)

We had returned to Santa Barbara to catch a flight to Phoenix, AZ, from where, we would drive south to Tucson and visit friends over the weekend.  Before all that, there was time to spend a morning relaxing in Santa Barbara, where I added Ruby-crowned Kinglet to my original list of “garden birds“.

Arriving in Phoenix, the first thing to notice was the ferocious heat.  It had been pretty hot throughout our trip, but not fiery and dense, like this.  We drove through the desert, arriving in Tucson after dark.

Outside our Airbnb base were plenty of cacti, including mighty saguaros, all of which had nestholes excavated – presumably by the regularly-sighted Gila Woodpeckers, which helpfully announced their arrival on nearby palm trees with a triumphant, laughing cry.  All of the overhead wires seemed to be occupied by Zenaida doves, with both sharp-tailed Mourning Doves and White-winged Doves regularly seen.

Our first morning was spent with friends who live in the city – our astrophysicist pal works at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, so we went for a look at the giant Gamma-ray telescopes.  This was great fun, although there was no sign of the bright red cardinal which I was told often sat on Telescope 2.  Nor did we spot any Roadrunners, though our friend said he saw them all the time, on his drive to work.

In the surrounding Santa Rita mountains, a Northern Mockingbird and a Western Kingbird swooped around.  A fly-catching Say’s Phoebe posed nicely for pictures, albeit in the shade of one of the observatory buildings.  It remained in situ when a little flock of sparrows – I think Black-throated – unfortunately flushed before I clocked their presence on the ground.  This was particularly galling, as one lark-sized bird flew off with them before I could get a proper look at it.

Say's Phoebe web

Say’s Phoebe, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, Arizona

The next day, we drove to the Saguaro National Park, which is an incredible place.  We took a short walk along the Freeman Homestead Trail, but even by 11am, it was too hot to be out for long, so we quickly retreated to our air-conditioned bubble and took a drive around instead.  From the driving trail, we were able to photograph Curve-billed Thrasher.  The real stars here, however, were the awesome saguaros themselves.

Curve-billed Thrasher exp WEB

Curve-billed Thrashers, Saguaro National Park

I was disappointed not to see a Roadrunner, but Sarah twisted my arm to buy a t-shirt bearing the image of this supremely charismatic species nevertheless.  I felt a fraud, not having actually seen one, but it was a cool shirt.

Next up was a flight to LA and from there, what should have been a straightforward 120 mile drive to Morongo Valley.  Unfortunately, however, we set off at about 3pm – and the traffic was hell from the very start.  If you have to drive out of LA, either go early, or kiss your sanity goodbye.  Our “doddle” journey east lasted for a demoralising four and a half hours, factoring in a stop for groceries.

Frazzled and upset at the time wasted, we finally arrived at our ranch in Morongo Valley with the sun going down.  There was still enough light to enjoy a quite beautiful landscape, with perfect views of the majestic Mount San Jacinto from our front porch, while a huge-eared Black-tailed Jackrabbit roamed on a nearby hillside.

In the morning, a little look around the ranch turned up Western Scrub Jays, Black-throated Sparrows and California Towhees, plus a couple of local specialities – the pretty, yellow-headed little Verdin and the now familiar squabbling sounds of a covey of quail – this time Gambel’s Quail, not quite as obliging as the California Quail at Montaña de Oro, but still seen extremely well.

We left the ranch to head down to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, a site which I’d heard great things about – the literature at our ranch described it as “world-class” and the word I’d heard elsewhere, with the list of potential star birds headed by the brilliant Vermillion Flycatcher, was equally effusive.

On arrival, we enjoyed a few minutes sitting at the hummingbird feeders, Sarah snapping photos while I tried to separate out the different species.  The friendly docent told me there were four types on site.  Black-chinned Hummingbird was easiest to pick out from the Anna’s thanks to its longer bill, with the smaller Costa’s Hummingbird also present.

hummer feeder WEB.jpg

Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

Then we went for a walk around the reserve – but in birding terms, it was a relative bust. I hardly saw a bird.  A flock of Bushtits, a Northern Mockingbird, a Bewick’s Wren… there were a few more flitting birds I couldn’t ID, but overall, it was really quiet.  The best moments were the thrill of an accipiter launching itself into an attack flight close by, plus excellent views of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker – but overall, I’d had and would continue to have much more joy back at our ranch than on the nature reserve proper.  So it goes – and I’m sure that repeat visits, or going earlier in the morning, would likely have turned up wonders.

Our next trip was to the Joshua Tree National Park. Much as I’d been captivated by the amazing Saguaros in Arizona, Sarah really took to this deeply odd landscape, with its huge piles of rocks and the gaunt, giant yuccas regularly studding the ground.  We drove around in the fierce afternoon heat and there wasn’t much birding to be had, except for when we clocked a yellowish bird in a nearby dwarf tree – a first-year Scott’s Oriole.  We really enjoyed our drive around the park and my only gripe, as we drove away was that I still hadn’t had a good look at a Roadrunner.

Scott's Oriole 1 web

Scott’s Oriole, Joshua Tree National Park

We stopped off at the visitor centre so that Sarah could use the facilities, while I refilled our water bottles from the gallon tub we’d brought.  I tried not to spill any – water is a precious resource out here – and was concentrating on the task at hand, until motion close by made me glance up, to find a Greater Roadrunner standing directly in front of me, no more than a metre away.  It had strutted across the carpark and, after pausing to eye me up, continued on its way, disappearing behind the neighbouring car.  I saw a lady grab her phone to video the quirky creature, so I tiptoed out with the camera to get a few shots, as it strolled around the grounds of the visitor centre as if it owned the place.

Roadrunner web

Greater Roadrunner, Joshua Tree National Park visitor centre

Roadrunners are brilliantly bizarre birds.  Like an exclamation point made flesh and bone – or a spiky reptile crossed with a chicken on stilts and raised on a diet of punk rock, they stride across the desert and can be so speedy on foot that they barely bother to fly.  I saw at least three local businesses named after the Roadrunner, which speaks of the locals’ affection for these fearless roadside bandits.  Sarah bought a Joshua Tree National Park sticker – a reprint of a design made in 1936 – and on that image, the Roadrunner was given greater prominence than the Joshua Trees themselves.

joshuatree.png

Back in Morongo Valley, mooching around at the ranch continued to turn up good birds, the most interesting being the Cactus Wren – instantly recognisable as a wren species, but gigantic in comparison to its British cousin.   But all sorts of birds popped up and there was the potential, seemingly, for anything to happen at any time.

While sitting on the porch, a short-tailed hawk, hooded like an Osprey, suddenly glided straight past the ranch at head height.   A dozen Ravens soared together over the hillside.  There was also a typically exciting accipiter sighting, the bird soaring overhead, but of course vanishing before I was able to grab my camera.  I’m reasonably sure this was a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk, based on its size – my initial thought was “kestrel” – and shape.  Unlike the larger Cooper’s Hawk, there was no protruding head and the tail seemed relatively short, while the wings were rounded, giving the bird a compact, dumpy look.  The tail was light with strong dark bars and no obvious white edge – however, I didn’t remember to check for whether this was squared off or rounded, a feature which helps to differentiate between the two species.

What was clear though is that Accipiters, like Buteo “hawks” and Turkey Vultures, are relatively common in California. I spotted at least one in almost every different area we went to.  Most, I wasn’t able to definitively ID, but I’m happy that the big, long-tailed flying crucifix floating over the highway on our way to Morro Bay was a Cooper’s.  Elsewhere, there was a hawk which flew and landed on a distant telegraph pole in Tucson; another which dashed overhead as we picked up a rental car in Los Angeles and the one which launched an attack in the forest at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. It was brilliant to see so many accipiters, among all the other raptors encountered, in such a short space of time.

On the final morning in Morongo Valley, before we very reluctantly departed, there was time for one last mooch around the ranch, which turned up a tribe of Lesser Goldfinch, more Verdin, a magical close-range encounter with Anna’s and tiny Costa’s Hummingbirds and – slightly distantly, but unmistakably – a glossy male Phainopepla.  Morongo Valley was magic-land and I sincerely hope that we can return there one day.

Costa's Hummingbird WEB

Costa’s Hummingbird, Palm Springs Airport

October 1, 2017 / lazerock

California and Arizona, September 2017 (part 2)

The drive to Yosemite was long.  We headed north through the hot, flat agricultural belt of the Central Valley, where the only identifiable new bird was a strikingly clean white-fronted raptor atop a telegraph pole – Swainson’s Hawk.

Unfortunately, recent wildfires had closed Highway 41 just a few miles south of our destination, Wawona, which meant a two-hour plus detour through Yosemite.  Despite the beautiful scenery, this was a tiring delay and it was almost getting dark by the time we arrived at our campsite.  Still, there was light enough to get acquainted with our new friends, the local Brewer’s Blackbirds, whose jaunty curiosity was instantly endearing.

Common Ravens were also present and for Ravens to be as fearless as they are in Yosemite was a revelation.  Early on our first morning, a family party of three swaggered through our campsite as if they owned it, keeping an eye on us, but still walking unconcerned along the path within a few feet.  Getting such a good look at these birds, marginalised and maligned as they are in much of the UK, was a real treat.

Next was a raucous and rather glorious addition, the Steller’s Jay.  I saw my first one before it was fully light, but it was recognisable anyway from its punky crest.  And it wasn’t long until another one bugled to announce its arrival before landing on a nearby picnic table.  It hollered some more, then headed up to a nearby tree to feed, hopping restlessly and calling all the while.

Due to the wildfires, many of the local trails were closed, so we were left with the Wawona Meadow Trail to explore.  Flies buzzed us furiously throughout – without insect repellent, this walk would not have been viable – but it was awesome to experience a little of the magic forest.

Ol in Wawona web.jpg

Several exciting calls and exasperating flashes of wings disappearing into the trees resulted in nothing I could ID – I hate forest birding sometimes – but the first new bird pinned down was the diminutive Downy Woodpecker, which had the good grace to pose for photos out in the open.

Downy Woodpecker web

Downy Woodpecker, Wawona meadow trail (Yosemite NP)

Two other woodpeckers were later positively ID’d from photos taken in the same location – the larger Hairy Woodpecker and Red-bellied Sapsucker.

Next up was the American treecreeper, the Brown Creeper, plus a humbug-headed little fella with faint black streaks on its flanks – Black-throated Gray Warbler.

Eventually, the flies started to become a real nuisance, so it was a relief when the trail brought us back out onto the golf course, where I caught sight of a brown hawk flying into land on a nearby tree along the fairway.  It had broad white marks on the wings, almost like a gigantic Nightjar, with a tail barred thickly in grey and black.  Sarah grabbed some snaps, from which, alongside my flight observations, I ID’d it as a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk.

Hawk 2 web

Red-shouldered Hawk, Wawona (Yosemite National Park)

Back at the clubhouse, we stopped for coffee.  The guy from the shop pointed out the local Red-tailed Hawk, a permanent resident around the clubhouse.  The day before, he said, it had been sitting patiently, eyeing a gopher hole, while groups of tourists like ourselves stood gawping at it and taking photos, like these.

Red-tailed Hawk 2 WEB

Red-tailed Hawk, Wawona golf course (Yosemite NP)

Back at the campsite, the Ground Squirrels provided great entertainment, although you have to keep an eye on them.  While we ate at our table, one ran towards us, nostrils twitching like crazy – having circled around, he seemed to have worked up the nerve to charge us to steal some food, before Sarah checked him by banging on the table.

Cali Ground Squirrel web

Ground Squirrel, Wawona campground (Yosemite NP)

Here, we were also almost constantly accompanied by a little flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds.  I suppose these birds had become accustomed to handouts from obliging humans, or at least to hoovering up the crumbs dropped from tables.  They mooched around our campsite, keeping a lively eye on us, but eventually reverted to flipping up leaves and pinecones from the forest floor, in search of natural food.  Even when we wandered down to the river Merced, a pair of blackbirds followed and hopped around at the water’s edge alongside us, within a foot or so.  The female even took her own bath while Sarah paddled in the stream.

Brewer's Blackbird web

Brewer’s Blackbird, Wawona campground (Yosemite NP)

The blackbirds’ fearlessness was disarming, but a couple of the most confiding birds were clearly unwell – Sarah christened one female “Clumpy”, due to her deformed leg. Signs at Yosemite instruct people not to feed any birds or animals, in their best interests. Birds which get used to handouts from the picnic table and stop eating their natural food run the risk of becoming unhealthy, which is sad to see.

We were unfortunate to visit Wawona at a time when wildfires limited the possibilities for trekking, but it is a wondrous place and we hope to return one day.  Before we left, we finally became acquainted with American Robin and there was time for one final surprise as we packed away our tent.

American Robin web.jpg

American Robin, Yosemite Valley

I’d been detailed to hold one end of the tent while Sarah took the other and as I did so, two White-headed Woodpeckers alighted in a tree right in front of me.  They are so distinctive that they were instantly unmistakable without binoculars.  By the time we’d packed the tent away, they were apparently gone, but luckily, they reappeared a minute or so later, allowing me to get a decent look at woodpecker species number six – gradually homing in on John’s target of ten…

Next was a drive to Yosemite Valley, to see the world-famous peaks – Half Dome, El Capitan and all that.  This is a staggeringly beautiful landscape and hugely worth a visit.

As we walked through a meadow scattered with oak trees, we became acquainted with the noisy, sociable Acorn Woodpecker – a charismatic woody if ever there was one and, legend has it, the species responsible for the development of cartoon favourite Woody Woodpecker (a story recounted in Mark Cocker’s Birds and People).

On we went, into the village and along the trail to Yosemite Lower Falls – a relative trickle rather than a roaring torrent at this time of year, but a spectacular sight nevertheless.  A Steller’s Jay obliged for a photo on the trail, before two bright yellow Western Tanagers chased each other around the top of one of the bogglingly tall trees.

Steller's Jay web

Steller’s Jay, Lower Yosemite Falls

Next, we drove along to a viewpoint where we saw El Capitan in all its glory (and gawped at two crazy souls who were in the middle of climbing it).  Hopping around close at hand here was another Hairy Woodpecker – an unfortunately named but handsome Great Spotted to the Downy’s Lesser Spotted, if you will.

Hairy Woodpecker web

Hairy Woodpecker, Wawona meadow trail (Yosemite NP)

Now it was time to return to Santa Barbara, ahead of the next phase of the trip.  Due to the road closures, this was another arduous drive, but it was enlivened (for me at least) by a tick of a true local speciality – the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie, two of which flew along the highway.

September 24, 2017 / lazerock

California and Arizona, September 2017 (part 1)

We arrived at Los Angeles with the light fading and so other than American Crows swooping over the city roads, there was nothing to report until the first morning, in Santa Barbara.  I was awake before it got light anyway and soon heard a cacophony of exciting zapping sounds outside, so I headed for the back garden, which overlooked a little stand of trees.  As the sun rose, the source of the zapping was revealed – Western Scrub Jays bounding from tree to tree, saluting the morning.

Western Scrub Jay web

Western Scrub Jay, Montaña de Oro state park

The next bird was something special.  To my delight, Anna’s Hummingbirds were constantly darting around the nearby shrubs and trees, the males offering a brilliant flash of red whenever the sun caught their throat patch and set it aflame.

Anna's Hummingbird male web

Anna’s Hummingbird (male), Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

I’ll never forget seeing my first hummingbird, or observing these miraculous little sprites as they buzzed about their business.

When Sarah took a look at a perched female hummer, she said she was surprised to see her doing “normal bird things”, like preening, hopping, calling – and I know what she meant.  Hummingbirds are so ethereal and dazzling that to see one scratching behind its ear is almost disappointing.

Anna's Hummingbird web

Anna’s Hummingbird (female), Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

Hummer delight aside, there was a suite of suburban woodland birds to enjoy.  California Towhee; Dark-eyed Junco, of the ‘Oregon’ sub-species, which reminded me a little of our Bullfinch; Bushtits, an American answer to our Long-tailed Tit; and a Black Phoebe, which sallied forth from a neighbour’s roof to catch flies.  This felt like a great start, before we’d even set off for anywhere.

Our first excursion was up the coast to the Montaňa de Oro state park, near Morro Bay. On the drive, we got acquainted with the bulky, distinctive and (by British standards) amazingly abundant Turkey Vulture.  At times, the sky was full of them, teetering like tightrope walkers as they hung on their long wings.  When we saw them perched, Sarah remarked that they were much smaller than she expected, but they are imposing birds nevertheless.  With Red-tailed Hawks also wheeling around, plus a big accipiter with a long, rounded tail – Cooper’s Hawk – this drive was a real raptor fest.

Montaňa de Oro is a simply wonderful place.  As soon as we arrived, we were treated to droves of California Quail, happily scurrying around, the females outdone by the dandyish males, with their extravagant black plumes.  These characterful quails were our constant companions, along with California Towhees, which hopped around within feet of us. At one point, a Northern Flicker flew just over my head to alight in the nearest tree.  Also around our campsite were colourful Spotted Towhees and a Bewick’s Wren, easily identified by its striking white eye stripe.

California Quail, Montaña de Oro state park

Walking to the beach, we found more Anna’s Hummingbirds and a skulking California Thrasher, which bolted for cover as soon as it saw me, but quickly re-emerged.  These remarkable birds live up to their name, scything through matter on the ground with their long, down-curved bills to unearth bugs.

Cali Thrasher crop web

California Thrasher, Montaña de Oro state park

Down at Spooner’s Cove, we enjoyed a can of beer while seeing the sea.  Western Gulls patrolled the beach, while cormorants and pelicans cruised by, far from land.  A familiar, insistent “peep peep peep” heralded the arrival of a local speciality, the Black Oystercatcher, before a Long-billed Curlew flew across the cove, looking much more golden than its Eurasian cousin.

A family with young children set up their picnic near to us, but the mother made a fatal error – she led her kids off down the beach, leaving the food unattended.  It didn’t take long for the gulls to descend and take over the site completely – emptying out storage bags, ripping open packs of crisps, flying off with whatever they could carry and scrapping over the plunder.  This was comical to watch, but actually very sad.  It’s carelessness like this which gives gulls a bad name – they are depicted as villains for “stealing” human food, which in any case does them no good, while yet more plastic trash ends up in the sea.

The next morning, Savannah Sparrows joined the Towhees in investigating our campsite, before a little mooch around the campground turned up House Finch, House Wren and an old friend from back home, the European Starling.  This last bird served as a handy size comparison for a little woodpecker which I spotted ferreting around on branches close by.  It was a striking, pied bird with a red patch on the back of its head and white stripes across its back – Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  I’d been advised by John Walker, a Yorkshire birder with a deep knowledge of California, that I could realistically expect to see ten different species of woodpecker on our roadtrip and while this still felt completely outlandish, I was at least now up and running, with two.

We wandered back to the beach, where the gulls in charge had been joined by a smaller, duskier cousin, which Sarah dutifully snapped for me – Heermann’s Gull, a stylish, red-billed Pacific Coast species, far more delicate in construction than the piratical Westerns.

Heermann's Gull web

Heermann’s Gull, Spooner’s Cove, Montaña de Oro state park

As we drove out of the park, I spotted an American Kestrel perched on a wire, plus a group of Wild Turkeys foraging on the forest floor – we initially thought these looked like peacocks, having never encountered them before.

Next we stopped briefly at Morro Bay,  where we enjoyed watching the sea lions before a group of beautiful Brown Pelicans glided past.  In close-up pictures or guidebooks, pelicans have an almost ridiculous air, but in flight past the imposing Morro Rock, they were a graceful, impressive presence.

Brown Pelicans web

Brown Pelicans, Morro Bay

We couldn’t stop for long though, as our next stop was Yosemite.