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News for January 2002

Bird On! News
3rd January 2002

David Tomlinson

Goodbye to 2001

There is no doubt that 2001 will not be a year looked back on with any fondness by those involved with wildlife conservation in the Britain. Foot and mouth disease had a huge impact on wildlife conservation throughout the UK. Management of many reserves depends on grazing by sheep or cattle and restrictions on the movement of stock made it impossible for much of this vital work to be undertaken.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Caerlaverock, for example, was in the heart of an area of Dumfriesshire that was devastated by the disease. This meant that the merses (grazing marshes) that provide favoured feeding grounds for up to 25,000 barnacle geese from Spitzbergen were not grazed by livestock during the summer for the first time in living memory. The geese cannot cope with rank, long grass so depend on the cross-cropped merses for much of their winter fodder. Unfortunately there was nothing the WWT's staff could do about this so, instead, they worked hard during the summer, cutting the reserve's fields for silage and hay and thus ensuring that there would be sufficient grazing for the wintering geese.

Similar stories of hardship and difficulty can be told about many other nature reserves throughout the British Isles. The Essex Wildlife Trust even had the misfortune to have its entire flock of sheep slaughtered due to foot and mouth: these animals were used for essential habitat management on the Trust's reserves.

It was not only habitat management that suffered as a result of the disease. So, too, did the normal day-to-day survey work of breeding bird populations, while certain special surveys, such as that planned by the British Trust for Ornithology to count the peregrine population throughout the British Isles, had to be abandoned altogether.

Normally, at the end of the breeding season, conservation bodies such as the RSPB and English Nature release statistics on the breeding success of our rarest raptors. Sadly, 2001 will go down as the year when no figures were available. However, the indications are that many species of birds enjoyed what proved to be a breeding season undisturbed by humans.

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Breeding Bird Survey results for 2000

Such is the time it takes to compile survey results, we have only just seen the figures for the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Breeding Bird Survey for the summer of 2000. This collected information on bird numbers from over 2,200 one-km squares throughout the UK, recording an impressive 215 species of birds. It showed that between 1994 and 2000 most species increased in numbers.

The survey monitors closely 100 species; of these, 45 have increased and 36 showed no statistically significant change in numbers. Birds on the increase included green woodpecker, robin, wren, dunnock, blackbird, greenfinch and long-tailed tit. There seems little doubt that many of them have benefited from the succession of mild winters, and this is certainly true for the stonechat and goldcrest which head the list of increasing species. Stonechats are up by 115%, while goldcrests have enjoyed an 87% increase.

Most members of the crow family are also increasing, though not the jay, while during the past few years there have been many signs of buzzards extending their range eastwards into counties such as Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Essex.

However, the BTO points out that there is also bad news: 18 species declined significantly during the same period, most of them farmland species. Birds doing particularly badly include corn bunting, grey partridge, skylark, bullfinch, turtle dove and spotted flycatcher. Intensive farming methods seem the most likely reason for the decline of these birds but no one knows for sure why two urban-nesting birds - the house sparrow and swift are also declining. So, too, are two woodland birds: the wood warbler and willow tit.

It is encouraging to report that several long-distance migrants are faring well at the moment for numbers of nesting swallows, house martins, whitethroats and sedge warblers have risen. However, there are significant decreases recorded for cuckoo and lesser whitethroat, as well as the turtle dove and wood warbler that have already been mentioned.

One interesting aspect of the BBS is that it highlights regional differences in population trends. For example, some species at the southern edge of their natural range have been contracting northwards - the willow warbler is a classic example. Intriguingly, other species show an east-west pattern. Song thrushes, blackbirds and swallows are generally increasing in the north and west of England, while declining or at best stable in the east.

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Snowy owls in Britain

One bird that doesn't feature in the BBS is the snowy owl, though thanks to Harry Potter this is now arguably our best-known species of owl. Thanks to its huge size and distinctive white plumage it is one owl that is instantly recognisable, though it is only the adult male that is pure white. The female is also white but her plumage is heavily barred above, more narrowly below.

Snowy owls have nested in Britain, for one of the most unexpected breeding records of the last century was a pair of snowies that nested annually on Fetlar, in the Shetlands, from 1967 to 1975, rearing a total of 20 young. Breeding stopped when the old male, nicknamed George, disappeared after the 1975 breeding season but one lonely female remained on the island until 1994.

Snowy owls are Arctic birds, their normal range extending from Iceland and Scandinavia east to Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Not surprisingly, these spectacular birds have always been rare visitors to Britain. Most records are of individuals in Scotland, for few venture south of the Border. Where these owls came from has long been a mystery, as they could equally easily originate from either side of the Atlantic. However, a Norwegian-ringed individual was found on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides in May 1992, and this is the most likely source of most of our vagrant snowy owls.

Snowy owls are powerful flyers, but they readily land on passing ships, and this past autumn there has been a small influx of ship-assisted birds to both Britain and Holland. In October, as many as 60 snowy owls boarded a ship near Deception Bay, North Quebec, during a severe gale, while a further three landed on another ship east of Newfoundland. Both vessels were heading for the port of Westerscheldt, on the Belgium/Netherlands border.

A number of these owls remained on board for the trans-Atlantic crossing. One was eventually found sitting on the roof of a shop in Felixstowe. A local RSPCA inspector tried to catch it without success, and since then it has been entertaining birdwatchers in south-east Suffolk. Whether it will ever manage to get back to the arctic is likely to remain a mystery. It probably needs to go back to Felixstowe in the spring and try and find a ship heading north!

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Scarce natural food

A scarcity of beech mast is likely to send many bramblings into gardens in the second half of this winter in search of food and well stocked feeders. This past autumn wasn't notable for its wild harvest so many more birds than usual are likely to be attracted to garden bird-feeding stations. Supplying suitable food for these visitors is easy - simply look through Jacobi Jayne's Wild Bird News and order your supplies.

However, the BTO has issued a timely warning that it is important to maintain hygiene standards when feeding garden birds: with so many individuals attracted to the same site there is a bound to be an accumulation of droppings and consequent risk of disease.

The BTO has issued its Top Ten Tips for those of who feed birds in the garden. Most are common sense, such as only putting out sufficient food for a couple of days, and cleaning off droppings before adding more food. Disinfecting birds tables and feeders is also recommended, as is keeping the areas under the feeders as clean as possible.

Safe siting of tables and feeders is also important. Never place a feeder close to cover that can hide a lurking cat but on the other hand a thick hedge nearby will give the feeding birds a safe sanctuary if a passing sparrowhawk comes by. It is a good idea to move feeders around the garden and not to feed continually at the same site. If ground feeding, never feed at the same spot every day.

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National Nest Box Week

As soon as the days start to lengthen many garden birds can be seen prospecting for nest sites. Though blue tits, for example, rarely start nesting before early May, it's quite normal to see pairs popping in and out of nest boxes in late January. This is why the BTO's National Nest Box Week is always in February, from the 14th to the 21st.

Jacobi Jayne is the founding sponsor of National Nest Box Week. Jacobi Jayne is the leading supplier of nest boxes in Britain so working together with the BTO on this annual event makes a great deal of sense. This year's NNBW will focus on the house sparrow for this is one bird that will readily adopt nest boxes and can even be persuaded to nest in terraces. House sparrow numbers have fallen by 43% since 1968 though no one knows why. Providing nest boxes is one practical way of helping this familiar but threatened bird.

If you enjoy woodwork, then making nest boxes can be great fun. Details of how to build virtually every type of nest box is included in the BTO's definitive guide Nestboxes which is available from the BTO Collection at 5.95. To order, phone 0800 072 0130.

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New books for birdwatchers

British birdwatchers are spoilt for choice when it comes to identification guides. There is now yet another book to choose from with the publication of The Complete Guide to the Birdlife of Britain & Europe. Written by Rob Hume and illustrated by Peter Hayman it is an impressive work as its large format allows plenty of space and several illustrations to be devoted to each species. Most species get at least half a dozen illustrations each while some get a dozen or more showing different plumages and postures. Peter Hayman's illustrations are excellent and even beginners should have little difficult identifying birds when armed with this book.

However, it does have its drawbacks. Its large format means that it is a book to keep in the sitting room, not in your rucksack (though a small and abridged pocket-sized version is promised by the publisher, Mitchell Beazley). There are no distribution maps - a surprising omission - while some of Europe's rarest breeding birds (such as red-flanked bluetail) fail to get a mention. However, it is a handsome and enjoyable volume to browse through and good value at 25.

Another recently published book that is strongly recommended is Ian Carter's monograph The Red Kite (published by Arlequin Press). Michael Warren's striking painting of a pair of red kites makes a suitably inviting cover and the book makes fascinating reading for anyone who has ever enjoyed watching this most beautiful of raptors.

Ian Carter has been professionally involved with the highly successful red kite reintroduction programme so he writes with genuine authority. The chapter on the re-introduction of the red kites to England and Scotland is particularly interesting. The project's success has surprised almost everyone: in 1994, there were 20 nesting pairs in the Chilterns, the original release site. Numbers had risen to 112 by 2000 though a lack of monitoring means that there is no definite figure for 2001. However, there is no doubt that there was a further increase for the red kite has now become one of the most familiar birds in the Chiltern triangle between the M40 and M4 motorways. If you want to find out why the project has been so successful read this book.


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