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News for February 2000

Bird On! News
14th February 2000

David Tomlinson

MILD winters are good for birds, but not so good for birdwatchers. The relatively mild weather of the past winter, with no prolonged periods of freezing weather, meant that that have been no major influxes of hard-weather migrants into the British Isles. Numbers of migrant smew, for example, have been low, with just a few at favoured sites. Many thousands of smew winter in the Netherlands, and freezing weather there tends to drive many of them farther south into the Continent, or across the North Sea to Britain.

At the end of 1999, there were forecasts of a major influx of waxwings into Britain. Waxwings are irruptive migrants from the boreal forests of northern Europe, and their mass movements south and west occur every few years when the rowan berry crop fails. As many as 1,7000 waxwings did reach eastern Britain by the end of last year, but no more have joined them. The last notable waxwing winter was in 1995, when as many as 15,000 birds were involved.

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Cetti's warblers enjoy the weather

Mild weather does suit many of our resident birds, especially those on the edge of their breeding range (like the Dartford warbler), and very small species unable to carry much in the way of body fat (like the wren). Really severe winters, with prolonged snow cover, may knock out as much as 80% of the population of such vulnerable species. During the 70s and early 80s, for example, a run of mild winters allowed the British population of Cetti's warblers to grow rapidly. The Cetti's warbler is a southern species that only established itself as a breeding bird in southern England in the early 70s. However, a couple of cold winters in the 80s (particularly the heavy snow of January 1987), killed many of the birds, and only now, 13 years later, are some of their old sites (such as Stodmarsh in Kent) being recolonised.

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Wandering eagles

Though there may not have been any major influxes of wildfowl, some exciting birds have put in an appearance in England this past winter. There were at least three different white-tailed eagles seen, including two long-stayers, one of which (an immature without a white tail) was in North Norfolk, the other a mature bird in Suffolk, at Benacre Broad. After years of decline, Europe's white-tailed eagles are now doing well, and these birds were probably visitors from Eastern Europe, rather than the re-introduced population in western Scotland.

Another eagle a booted was reported from Somerset in February. This is an intriguing record, as Britain's first booted eagle was only recorded last year. However, though booted eagles are highly migratory, most should be in tropical Africa in February, not in northern Europe, suggesting that this may have been an escaped falconer's bird.

The possibility of escapes from captivity always confuses records of rare wildfowl. Britain's first-ever canvasback a North American diving duck that looks like a pochard - was only recorded a couple of years ago, but this winter there have been two. One was on Abberton reservoir in Essex, the other at Lade Pits near Dungeness in Kent. Both stayed for long periods.

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Nest-box time again

Mild weather at the end of the winter leads to birds pairing up and establishing territories earlier than usual. Many pairs of tits are already prospecting for nest sites, so if you are planning to put up nest boxes this year, now is the time to do so. Jacobi Jayne & Co., the UK distributor of Schwegler 'woodcrete' nest boxes, has a wide variety of boxes available to suit most species, from blue tits to tawny owls. Request their catalogues at www.wildbirdnews.com or by telephoning 0800-072-0130 from the UK or +44-1227- 860388 from all other countries. Boxes can be erected any time from now until early April, or even later for summer migrants such as house martins and spotted flycatchers.

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The State of the UK's Birds

Birds like the spotted flycatcher need all the help they can get, as the recent publication of The State of the UK's Birds 1999 reveals. This important publication is the work of the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), is the first in a series of annual reports summarising the fortunes of the UK's birds. Though it will cover all species, this year it focuses on breeding birds of greatest conservation concern. Overall, woodland birds show a slow but steady drop in numbers since the mid- 1970s, while farmland birds have been in steep decline over the same period. The report adds "there is growing acceptance that the declines among farmland birds have been driven by agricultural intensification." Farmland species whose numbers have plummeted in the last 25 years include skylark, turtle dove and grey partridge.

The report goes on to say that reasons for the declines of some species, such as bullfinch and reed bunting, are unclear. Considerable effort have been put into increasing our bittern population, and in 1999 there was a modest rise to 19 booming males, but the 2010 target is 50, so there's still a long way to go.

It's not all bad news, though. Several species are increasing, including such attractive birds as long-tailed tit, green and great spotted woodpecker and blackcap. Buzzards are doing exceptionally well, and this is reflected in pairs rearing young in both Kent and Surrey last year, the first confirmed breeding in both counties for at least 150 years.

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Raptor report

Another important report published in February was that of the UK Raptor Working Group, whose members include representatives from British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Game Conservancy Trust and the Scottish Landowners' Federation, as well as the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage. The Group has been looking at the problem of hen harriers killing red grouse on sporting estates, but concluded that there was no case for changing the law and allowing birds of prey to be killed, even under licence.

The Report presents evidence that many species of raptors are still under major threat of decline, as populations haven't increased significantly during the past 10 years. It also recommends "enhanced legislation to seek to eliminate illegal killing of birds of prey".

Sir Angus Stirling, Chairman of the JNCC, believes that with this Report "we have moved from a position of stalemate, where neither side was prepared to accept the others point of views, to a position where the issues are clear, and a number of mutually beneficial aims have been identified". It is now up to the Government (and the Scottish parliament) to act on the Report's many recommendations.

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Nightingale Numbers

Publication is due soon of the results of the 1999 UK nightingale survey, the first since 1980. With almost all of the results of the survey now in, we know that Kent has retained its status as the county with most nightingales but Suffolk is gaining ground fast. Kent recorded just over 25% of the total singing nightingales recorded, but Suffolk has experienced a remarkable 135% increase since 1980 to almost 900 birds and now holds 20% of the total.

The provisional total for the national survey is about 4,400 singing nightingales. This is only a little lower than the 1980 total of 4,770 but a simple comparison of these two figures may be misleading. There have been some noteworthy changes despite the similarity between the previous survey totals. The 1999 survey was almost certainly more effective at finding nightingales than the previous ones in 1976 and 1980 and it seems that the real overall decline has been greater than the straightforward comparison of the totals suggests. It's difficult to say how big the decline in numbers has been, but in terms of range, about 20% of 10km squares occupied in 1980 no longer hold nightingales. It is especially in the west of England, for example in Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, that the declines have been most marked. In the east, even as far north as Lincolnshire and the species' northern limit in south Yorkshire, nightingales are hanging on. It is only in the southeast that no obvious declines have occurred. The effect of this is that the four counties from Suffolk to Sussex now hold over 70% of nightingales.

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Watch out for siskins

Late winter is always an interesting time in the garden, as this is when the first siskins start to come in search of food. By now they have usually exhausted the supplies of seeds they find on alders and birches, so hunger makes them look elsewhere. Peanuts provide a popular alternative, and for some unknown reasons they are particularly fond of peanuts hung in red plastic bags. They will, however, come to other feeders.

Siskins are small, pretty finches, the females mainly green and streaky, but the males are yellow, with smart black caps. They are one bird that has increased considerably in the last 50 years, as they breed in the coniferous plantations that now cover so many of our upland hills. In the autumn they leave these woods, and flocks can be found wherever alders grow.

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Chiffchaffs on their way

The arrival of the first summer visitors is now just a few weeks away. The last decade has witnessed such migrants as chiffchaffs and willow warblers arriving progressively earlier each year, an indication of warmer springs, and global warming. The first chiffchaffs can now be expected to appear in southern counties by the middle of March, their cheerful, simple song as much a sign of spring as the first primroses and wood anemones.


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