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News for June 2001

Bird On! News
12th June 2001

David Tomlinson


Almost 50 years since ospreys returned to Scotland, they have at last moved south of the border. This year, for the first time ever, a pair of these spectacular fish hawks is nesting at a secret location in northern England. Such a move is not unexpected. As the Scottish population has increased, so the number of young ospreys that have over-summered in England has grown. Surprisingly, there are no old records of ospreys nesting in England though it is suspected that they did so until the end of the 18th century.

Ospreys like to nest in loose colonies, with several pairs breeding in the same vicinity (though never in the same tree). This explains why the Scottish birds have increased their range so slowly, and until now there have been no successful nesting attempts such a long way from their core area. However, there are now over 100 breeding pairs in Scotland, so the need to find suitable new nesting habitat is evidently forcing the birds to expand south.

It's a great pity that the nest site of the English ospreys has to be kept secret but it reflects the fact that egg collectors are still a threat to these birds in Britain. The original Scottish population was diminished and eventually destroyed by the efforts of Victorian skin and egg collectors though a few birds remained until the last nesting attempt in 1916.

Then there was then an interval of 40 years until the first birds returned in the 1950s, slowly re-colonising their old haunts. Egg collectors remained a constant threat and slowed down the rate of recovery. In 1971 just seven pairs nested in Scotland. This year the figure will be well over 100.

Ospreys are not naturally shy birds and in many countries they happily live alongside man, as they do in the USA. Unfortunately they lay attractive, heavily marked eggs that are much coveted by egg collectors. Though egg collecting has been illegal in Britain for nearly half a century, the few remaining collectors remain a serious threat to the English birds. To own the first ospreys' eggs to be laid in England for at least two centuries would, for an avid collector, be a major prize.

According to the Atlas of European Breeding Birds by far the largest population of ospreys in Europe is to be found in Sweden with more than 3,000 pairs. Finland comes second with around 1,100, followed by Norway, Germany, Belarus, Latvia and then the UK. Historically ospreys are thought to have bred throughout Europe but the decline in Britain was echoed throughout much of the Continent. However, the last two decades have seen an encouraging growth in numbers with breeding pairs returning to sites where they have not nested for very many years.

Ospreys are one of the world's most widespread birds and they are to be found on every continent except Antarctica. All adult European ospreys, except the resident Mediterranean population, winter in Africa. Ringing has shown that British-bred ospreys go mainly to Senegal and the Gambia. Young ospreys spend the first two or three years of their life in Africa before returning to Europe to nest for the first time. Surprisingly ospreys rarely if ever nest in Africa, despite the fact that they spend a great deal of their lives there. Nor do they breed in South America, though many North American birds winter there. They do, however, breed in the southern hemisphere in Australia where they are relatively common around all the coast except Tasmania and the far south-east.

Accounts in popular newspapers and magazines not infrequently suggest that Britain's osprey population was re-introduced by man, which is of course wrong as the birds came back naturally. Re-introducing a bird into a habitat it once occupied is far from easy unless the habitat itself hasn't changed. Ospreys died out in Britain due to persecution, not due to a lack of suitable habitat, so conditions were ideal for them when they started to make a comeback. England's red kites were lost due to persecution and the re-introduced population is thriving here once again because there is still lots of suitable habitat for them.


Choughs make a Cornish come-back

Choughs appear on the coat of arms of the county of Cornwall but this distinctive red-beaked crow last nested in the county almost 50 years ago. Choughs are rare birds in Britain with our remaining population of about 250 pairs centred on west and north Wales, the Isle of Man and the island of Islay in the Hebrides. However, many Cornishmen have long wished to get choughs back in their home county so in recent years considerable effort has gone into creating suitable habitat for a reintroduction project. The RSPB, the National Trust, English Nature and Hayle Paradise Park have all been working on the project.

Choughs like close-cropped grassland, rich in invertebrates. Such habitat is best created by a mixture of rabbits, cattle and sheep, and it was a decline in traditional land management by grazing that led to the chough's demise. There is now sufficient restored habitat to support choughs once again.

With plans for the release of captive-bred choughs in Cornwall well advanced, conservationists have been delighted to have been beaten to it by the birds themselves. In May, a group of five wild birds mysteriously appeared on the coast of Cornwall and, according to reports, has settled down and might even be breeding. Quite where the birds came from is a puzzle: their source may well be Brittany, where a remnant population remains. As with the English ospreys, the exact location of the Cornish choughs has to remain a secret but the RSPB has announced that it hopes to set up a public viewpoint later this year.

The Cornish choughs are not, apparently, living on a nature reserve. However, according to the RSPB many of the UK's most threatened and rapidly declining birds are increasingly reliant on the Society's network of 168 nature reserves. A report recently published by the Society reveals that its reserves hold more than one in 20 breeding pairs of the 40 birds species particularly at risk in the UK. More than a third of all breeding bitterns, roseate terns and black-tailed godwits nest on RSPB land that is specially managed for them.

According to the RSPB's Gareth Thomas, head of conservation management, "Most species on our reserves are either stable or are significantly increasing their populations. For example, more redshank and lapwings nest on our land every year, which is in stark contrast to the dramatic national decline of these two species."

One of the reasons that RSPB reserves are so important is that they include some of our most endangered and restricted habitats. The Society holds 9% of the nation's reedbeds and a similar percentage of Caledonian pine forests, saltmarshes and seasonally flooded grasslands. Special habitats invariably hold special birds: bitterns, for example, are exclusively reedbed dwellers.

One point that the RSPB seldom makes clear is that some of the specially protected and very rare nesting birds in the UK have much larger populations elsewhere in their range. The diminutive and attractive red-necked phalarope, for example, is a summer visitor to Britain with a total breeding population of fewer than 30 pairs (of which 12 nest on RSPB reserves). Red-necked phalaropes nest throughout northern Europe, Asia and North America and their total population is measured in millions.

Similarly black-tailed godwits are one of our rarest breeding birds. The 35 pairs nesting on RSPB reserves represents 76% of the British nesting population. Yet you only have to travel to the Netherlands to discover that this handsome godwit is a very common breeding bird there with a population of close to 90,000 pairs.

Corncrakes, too, are widely distributed in Europe but declining fast everywhere where modern agriculture has taken over from old, traditional practices. Here in Britain the RSPB has done terrific work in not only stabilising our declining population but building up numbers. The RSPB boasts 60 breeding pairs of corncrakes on its reserves in the Western Isles of Scotland. This is 9% of the British population and indicates an upward trend of 140%.

June is the best month of the year to listen for corncrakes for they utter their rasping, monotonous call throughout the short summer nights. The corncrake's Latin name is Crex crex and this best describes the bird's song which can be imitated by pulling a credit card across a comb. Though corncrakes are easy to hear if you are in the right habitat, no bird is harder to see. On several occasions I have had corncrakes calling within a few feet of me but still not managed to see them. I have heard corncrakes in Finland, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, France and Scotland but only seen individual birds on the Isle of Man (a migrant), Jordan (another migrant) and one flushed by a dog in Poland.

When a corncrake flies it does so with its legs dangling and seldom stays airborne for long. You are left with the impression of a bird with only limited powers of flight. Yet corncrakes, remarkably, are long distance migrants with most of the European population wintering in East and Southern Africa. How they manage to migrate such a formidable distance must remain a mystery.

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