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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.
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Brown Pelicans, Morro Bay

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

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 why 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 fact-checking.  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…