Sunday, 23 August 2015

Hen Harrier Day 2015

Sunday the 9th of August was Hen Harrier Day 2015. Events were held across the UK last weekend as a show of strength and solidarity against the illegal persecution of Hen Harriers, one of our most striking birds of prey. The bird is in danger of extinction in England, in no small part as a direct result of persecution on the moorland habitats where they attempt to nest. It was really encouraging to see several hundred people at the event closest to us which was held at Goytsclough quarry in the Peak district's Goyt valley. This is an environment of moorland which is also a local stronghold for Grouse shooting, and the area is accordingly intensively 'managed' to maximise the numbers of Grouse available to be shot at by individuals who pay not a small amount of money to do so.

Hen Harriers are Schedule 1 protected birds however despite this are still mercilessly persecuted because they will nest on moors, and will predate Grouse chicks (amongst other things). Their presence (and that of any other potential predators) is therefore not tolerated by owners and/or gamekeepers of the shooting estates (because of potential loss of revenue from fewer Grouse available to shoot presumably) leading to many mysterious 'disappearances' of Hen Harrier adults as well as their young. Prosecutions are few and far between, evidence vanishes and many landowners seem to consider themselves above the law. Perhaps unsurprisingly this goes right to the top of the 'establishment' here.

Goyt valley - the Peak district location for Hen Harrier Day 2015, set in the scarred, burnt setting of Grouse shooting moorland
The situation is particularly dire in England where in 2013, the species failed to raise a single chick for the first time since the 1960’s and there were only 4 known nests in 2014. Some of the resulting chicks were satellite tagged but within weeks of fledging two of the tags, fitted to Sky and Hope, stopped transmitting within days of each other, bodies were never found. An astonishingly coincidental failure of technology? I doubt it. In summer 2015, of 12 known nests, 5 of the adult males of the pairs vanished (i.e. were shot/poisoned/trapped) with the result that their nesting attempts were doomed to failure.
Dr Mike Clarke (centre), RSPB chief executive
The Hen Harrier Day event was a real who's who in British conservation, with speakers including Chris Packham, Dr Mark Avery (both needing no introduction and of course having made huge contributions in raising awareness of the plight of Hen Harriers in the UK), also Jeff Knott of the RSPB, and Jo Smith of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Dr Mike Clarke, chief executive of the RSPB was in the audience and has written an excellent post for the RSPB's blog about the weekend and the current situation with regards to Hen Harrier conservation and the RSPB's stance here

Dr Mark Avery (former RSPB conservation director) addresses the crowd
Naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham
It was inspiring to hear the talks, and the overall optimism of the speakers that despite the continued frustrations and setbacks (of tagged birds 'disappearing', of monitored nests failing because an adult has strayed into a shooting estate to hunt etc.), that eventually with considerable will and determination, the persecution of these birds will come to an end. I would urge anyone who hasn't already done so to consider signing Mark Avery's petition to ban driven grouse shooting. To quote the petition wording - "Grouse shooting for 'sport' depends on intensive habitat management which damages protected wildlife sites, increases water pollution, increases flood risk, increases greenhouse gas emissions and too often leads to the illegal killing of protected wildlife such as Hen Harriers."

A short clip of Chris Packham's impassioned speech at the event in the video below, referencing the 5 Hen Harriers which vanished this year, and also the risible 'You forgot the birds' organisation.

I hope that the event will continue each year and go from strength to strength until such a time as it is no longer needed. I live in hope that one day killing animals in the name of entertainment will be consigned to the history books where I firmly believe it should be.

Hen Harrier mascot (who happily posed for many a photo!)

Monday, 10 August 2015

Straying off the local patch - a visit to the Dyfi Osprey project

On a brief holiday to Machynlleth for a few days, one of the trips we made was to the nearby Dyfi Osprey project, a reserve managed by the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust. The site has been home this summer to adult Ospreys Monty and Glesni, and their three now successfully fledged chicks; Merin, Celyn and Brenig. 

We visited on the 3rd August, hedging our bets as to whether we would see the Ospreys at all, knowing that the chicks would have already fledged, and that they therefore may not be so easy to spot. When we arrived we went straight over to the main hide - a newly built and impressive structure with 360 degree views, from where the nest used this summer is only 200 metres away. Scopes are in place pointing towards the nest, and great views of the birds can be had... assuming they are there to see! The adult female Glesni hadn’t been seen that morning since the previous day, so we felt very fortunate that whilst we were there in the afternoon, she returned and could be seen perched close to the nest. One chick, (probably, we were informed, the middle chick Celyn) could be seen in the nest and heard begging for food. 
Adult female Glesni (on the perch) and one of her chicks, (probably Celyn) in the nest

Screen shot of live stream taken 10/8/15, youngest chick Brenig standing
The hide looks out over the nesting platform the birds have used this year as well as other nearby perches used by the birds and an additional nesting platform. There are also cameras trained on the nest and perches, and the visitor centre is equipped with a screen to show these images which are also live streamed - I have enjoyed watching (as well as listening) to the birds several times since our visit.  


Info board in main hide
It was interesting to read through the details recorded on the information board for example of the dates of the arrivals of the adults returning from Africa in early April, to the dates of the eggs being laid (commencing less than two weeks after their arrival at the site), and finally to the successful date of all three chicks fledging some two months later.

Although the Ospreys were undoubtedly the highlight of this visit, it was also a delight to see several young common lizards, only 6-7 cms long, lazing on the raised edges of the boardwalk in between rain showers. 

A beautiful animal, though perhaps a less welcome sight was that of a mink. Similar in shape to our native stoats and weasels, these animals typically have a much darker, almost black coat of fur, and are also considerably larger and bolder. The mink which reside in the UK are American mink which are natives (unsurprisingly) of North America. These animals have their ancestry in fur farming and have established themselves here as a result of escapes as well as releases from these farms. (Fur farms were abolished in the UK as recently as 2000.) They have had a very negative impact on populations of some native species, for example by their predation of [now uncommon] Water Voles. 
Young common lizard
Another young common lizard!
On our way towards the exit we briefly stopped in the hide closest to the visitor centre which offered great views of birds visiting the giant seed feeders there. Amongst the usual suspects of Great and Blue Tits, were good numbers of finches – as well as the familiar Greenfinches and Chaffinches, there were several smaller, less commonly seen finches such as Siskins and Lesser Redpolls.

Juvenile Siskin



A quick stop in the small coastal town of Aberdovey one evening offered the opportunity to watch some of the antics of the local gulls, the ones I saw mostly being Herring gulls of different ages with their wonderful calls (which to me epitomise the sound of the seaside), as well as Black-headed gulls with their distinctive shrieks and squawks. Newly fledged Herring Gull chicks begged incessantly for food, raising their heads to shout to their parents, then ducking back to hide behind flowers close to what I presume was their nest site, several metres up a cliff face and adjacent to the main road through the town. 

A juvenile Herring Gull 'hiding'
It saddens me to hear in the news the talk of potentially culling gulls in seaside resorts where they have been labelled a 'nuisance'. Whereas I have every sympathy with anyone who may have lost a pet as a result of an attack by gulls (if, indeed, there is any truth in these recently reported stories), surely, with a little more understanding and common sense (they are after all large and strong birds and can be [not unlike ourselves] protective of their vulnerable offspring) people could learn to respect and appreciate these masters of the skies, and thereby limit any negative encounters, rather than what seems to be the default setting of some to automatically call for a cull of any and all wildlife that may pose them the slightest inconvenience. 

Contrary to what the tabloid press might have us believe, Herring Gulls have in fact been subject to significant declines in their numbers over recent years, and as a result are in fact a Red listed species meaning that they have been designated the highest status of conservation priority. I previously lived by the sea for a number of years and the worst that ever happened in my relations with these birds was a poo landing on my shoulder. Once! What a sad visit to the seaside it would be if it was quiet of their classic cries and cheeky chip-stealing antics. 
Adult Herring Gull

Adult Herring Gull at sunset enjoying the convenient perch of a car roof

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Big Butterfly Count (and some more garden macro)

After several weeks when the sun itself seems to have gone on an extended holiday it has been quite a treat whenever it has made an appearance. And what a difference the sun makes! Many butterflies won't fly when it's overcast, let alone raining or cool. One fine morning, from nowhere, a handful of butterflies appeared and I was finally able to do the first count from our new garden for Big Butterfly Count 2015. Big Butterfly Count is run by Butterfly Conservation and is taking place currently and up until the 9th August. To get involved you simply need to watch for butterflies for 15 minutes in a garden, park or any other location (within the UK), preferably when it's sunny and make a note of the numbers and types of butterflies seen within this time. Records are then submitted easily noting date and location to Butterfly Conservation. Lots of information about getting involved and also useful ID charts can be found on their website here.  

Gatekeeper butterfly on St John's wort

Young and newly emerged insects have also been appearing in the garden. The garden has turned out to be popular with Green shieldbugs and I have found lots of youngsters on various garden plants. These insects have 5 stages of development known as instars, before they reach adulthood. The photos below are of all of young Green shieldbugs, instars 2 and 3 taken in the garden a couple of weeks apart on same Feverfew wildflowers.

Tiny adventures... Green Shieldbug, 2nd instar stage

Green Shieldbug, 3rd instar stage

Adult Ladybirds have been emerging from their pupae, shown below is the empty pupal case of a Harlequin ladybird, you can see the split at the front from where the young adult ladybird has emerged. We have found several of their spiky larvae, and more recently ladybird pupae stuck to the leaves of various garden plants. The pupa photographed was occupied for several days, but was found empty one morning when the weather was fine and sunny, the adult Harlequin on the right was found very close by, though of course I cannot be certain this is the individual that emerged from it.

Adult Harlequin ladybird (H. axyridis spectabilis)
Empty pupal case of Harlequin ladybird

Hoverflies have also been making the most of the fleeting sun, it was wonderful to see amongst the bumblebees a female Volucella bombylans. This large and beautiful hoverfly is one of the bumblebee mimics. The hoverfly has two main variants which mimic different types of bumblebee, this one being v plumata. A more common, but nonetheless beautiful hoverfly on the lavender flowers was a male 'Marmalade' hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus).

Female Volucella bombylans, var plumata

Female Volucella bombylans, var plumata (the same individual as above)

Marmalade hoverfly (male)

It has also been lovely to watch the damselflies which have visited this garden, the ones I had noticed until recently had all been been Blue-tailed damselflies, however the one photographed below was so pale I initially wondered if this was a White-legged damselfly (which would be a first for me), but looking more closely I'm sure this is instead a very pale female Common Blue. Another lovely visitor to find in the garden. If only the sun would make an appearance more often!

A very pale variant of Common Blue Damselfly