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News for March 2000

Bird On! News
15th March 2000

David Tomlinson

MARCH is an in-between month for birds in Britain – many of the winter visitors have already left, while few of the summer birds have arrived. Due to the mildness of the winter, many of the wintering wildfowl had departed long before the start of the month. The flock of bean geese that winters in Norfolk’s Yare valley, for example, left in early February.

The first of the returning migrants are invariably chiffchaffs, wheatears and sand martins, and a spell of spring-like weather in the second week of March saw good numbers of these birds arriving on the south coast. Swallows follow on rather later, but on March 10, I saw my first swallows back on their nesting grounds on farms in the Champagne area of France.


More wandering eagles

Last month’s bird news reported on the numbers of white-tailed eagles seen wintering in England this year. A further immature bird– the fourth for East Anglia this winter – was recorded at various sites in Suffolk during a 10-day stay in February.

Last year, the first-ever booted eagle to be seen in the British Isles was recorded in Ireland, then later in Cornwall. It was relocated in Somerset during January this year, and was seen there, at various locations, throughout much of February. Photographs show that it is the same individual bird that was seen last year as it has a slightly damaged primary tip to its left wing.

Many rare-bird enthusiasts travelled to Norfolk in February to see a meadow bunting, described “as a fine-looking bird in excellent plumage”. However, this species breeds no closer to Britain than eastern Asia and is not a noted migrant, so the chances are high that this individual had escaped from captivity. Escapes often confuse records of rare birds, making it difficult to tell genuine vagrants from escapees. Meadow buntings are common and inexpensive cage birds, making it even more likely that this bird had experienced an assisted passage to the British Isles.


Still time to put up nest-boxes

Though many of our resident garden birds, such as tits and robins, will have already been prospecting for suitable nest sites for some time, it is not too late to put up nest boxes for this coming breeding season. There is still a good chance that boxes erected in April will be adopted, while boxes for late- arriving summer visitors, such as house martins, spotted flycatchers and redstarts, need not be erected until late April or even early May. Jacobi Jayne & Company has a wide variety of nest boxes available to suit most species, from blue tits to tawny owls.


Signatures for conservation

On March 1st, Madame Nicole Fontaine, President of the European Parliament, was presented with a petition containing 2 million signatures calling for greater protection for wild birds from French hunters. The signatures came from all over Europe, with the greatest number from France itself (over 1.1 million), with the UK in second place (over 500,000).

In 1998, the French Government passed a law allowing French hunters to start shooting birds as early as mid-July, and continuing until the end of February, making France the only European country with a hunting season of 7½ months. The French law is incompatible with the European Union Birds Directive, which is designed to give birds protection during the breeding season and during migration to their breeding grounds. France also permits the hunting of 50 migratory species, ranging from song thrush and redwing to black-tailed godwit and greenshank. The last two species are among the UK’s rarest breeding birds, and are protected here by special penalties. French hunters are calling for the European Birds Directive to be weakened to allow their law to stand.

According to Alistair Gammel, the RSPB’s director of international affairs, “The size of the petition is a clear indication of the strength of feeling across Europe for the need for adequate bird protection. Any weakening of the Birds Directive is unacceptable and the present French laws must be brought in line with the rest of the EU. People in this country do not want their birds further threatened by hunting at the time they are returning to breed in the UK.”


Oil at sea

France was also in the news recently, following the disastrous sinking of the oil tanker Erika off the Brittany coast. More than 60,000 seabirds are known to have perished as a result of this spill. Ringing recoveries showed that many of these birds came from breeding colonies in western Britain. Every year, at the end of February, the RSPB organises a beached-bird survey. Some 350 volunteers survey the British coastline, looking for dead seabirds. In the last survey in 1999, over 1400 dead seabirds were found, of which one in eight showed signs of oil contamination. Much the highest ratio of oiled birds was found along the English Channel coast. According to the RSPB, the major disasters, like the Erika oil spill, hit the headlines but considerable numbers of birds are killed annually by oil, often as a result of tanker captains cleaning out their vessels’ fuel or storage tanks at sea. The RSPB is currently calling for tougher controls on the transportation of oil through UK waters, including the adoption of double-hulled vessels as standard. France has now signed a charter to exclude single-hulled tankers, like the Erika, from its waters from 2008, and the RSPB believes that all EU states, including the UK, should do the same.


Hope for Hope Farm

We are likely to be hearing a great deal about Hope Farm in the future. This 450-acre arable holding in Cambridgeshire is the subject of a major £750,000 fundraising appeal by the RSPB. At the moment it is a typical intensively run lowland farm, growing mostly oilseed rape and autumn-sown cereals, and its bird population is small. The RSPB wants to buy the farm to investigate and develop new wildlife- friendly farming methods. According to the RSPB’s president, Julian Pettifer, “purchase of Hope Farm will help us to influence government policy and demonstrate that farming can produce good yields of both crops and birds.” Donations can be made via the RSPB’s website at www.rspb.org.uk.


Watch out for siskins

Last month I explained why siskins are usually regular garden visitors at the end of the winter - they have usually exhausted the supplies of seeds they find on alders and birches, so hunger makes them look elsewhere. My local siskins have acted true to form by becoming daily visitors since the last week of February. They are attracted by the peanuts I supply for my garden birds, so are now competing with my usual mixed clientele. The latter includes greenfinches, blue, great and coal tits, and at least two great spotted woodpeckers.


Red kite survey

The reintroduction of the red kite to England and Scotland has been enormously successful, so much so that birds are now breeding in areas where they have never been seen before. This spring a full breeding survey of both the native Welsh and the reintroduced English and Scottish birds is planned. Sightings of pairs of birds in possible breeding habitat should be sent to the Welsh Kite Trust (welsh.kites@virgin.net), English Nature (ian.carter@english-nature.org.uk), and RSPB Scotland (tel Brian Etheridge on 01463-715000).

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