News for March 2002
Bird On! News
4th March 2002
Migration time again
As the days lengthen and spring starts to approach, huge numbers of summer migrants are moving north through Africa, southern Europe and on to the British Isles. According to the BTO, an estimated 16 million migrants will have arrived in Britain before the end of June.
For over 40 years I have kept a careful note of arrival dates of summer migrants, noting down when and where I saw the first chiffchaff, willow warbler or swallow. My records have no scientific basis, but they do record a pattern of arrivals, and give me an accurate idea of when the first migrants appear locally. For example, I have never yet recorded a March swallow in my corner of Kent, and my earliest ever was April 2nd, way back in 1966. However, I have often seen March swallows just across the Channel in northern France; my earliest French date is March 9th, in Champagne.
Migrants fly north in a series of waves, and this year, for the first time, the British Trust for Ornithology is urging observers to log their first records of spring migrants by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each night the BTO's Migration Watch computer will be producing updated maps showing the arrival and spread of common migrants across the country, and these can be viewed at www.bto.org/migwatch. The more people who report their sightings, the more interesting the maps will be, so there is an added incentive this spring to watch out for those first migrants.
As far I am aware, this is the first co-ordinated attempt to record the spring migration as it takes place, and I have no doubt that the results will be fascinating. It gives an added incentive to get out and about birdwatching this spring, finding those early migrants, and sending the records in the same day to the BTO.
The BTO, by the way, suggests that the first spring migrant to appear in Britain is the wheatear. This may well be true, but the first migrant most of us are likely to encounter is the chiffchaff, that unobtrusive warbler that draws attention to itself with its cheerful, if monotonous, song. When the first chiffchaff appears depends on where you live -- the farther north you are, the later the arrival - but here in Kent I expect to have recorded my first by about March 18, with March 12th my earliest ever date for a migrant. (Over-wintering chiffchaffs are not unusual in southern England.)
The next migrant I except to see is the sand martin. Check out local gravel pits or lakes, and the chances of finding a March sand martin are good. Often two or three birds will be found, flying low over the water, searching for insects. Then, once March gives way to April, new migrants appear by the day. Yellow wagtails often arrive in the first week of April, along with blackcaps and perhaps the first willow warbler. Sedge warblers are also early arrivals, and are usually singing away busily for three weeks before the first reed warblers arrive.
The migrant that most of enjoy hearing the most is the cuckoo, for this distinctive sound is a sure sign that spring has really arrived. I've yet to record a cuckoo during the first 10 days of April in West Kent, though early migrants regularly appear in East Kent, at sites like Dungeness and Sandwich Bay. April 12th is my first date. I have a strong suspicion that the early cuckoos I hear are passing migrants, calling as they make their way farther north. In a warm spring, our local cuckoos are back by April 18th, but if the weather is poor (as it so often is in mid-April), then April 23rd is a more typical date.
The mysterious slender-billed curlewOne migrant that you would be extremely fortunate to see this spring is the slender-billed curlew, one of the rarest birds in the world, but one that was recorded (and photographed) at Druridge Bay, Northumberland, from May 4th to the 7th, 1998. This was the first-ever record of this species in Britain, and its official acceptance on to the British list has recently been announced by the records committee of the British Ornithologists' Union, the body that oversees and adjudicates all first records of new birds for Britain.
What made this record so surprising and unexpected is the extreme rarity of this attractive but little-known wader. Once a common wintering bird around the Mediterranean, numbers have declined so sharply that there are now no known-wintering areas for this species, and only one or two birds are recorded each year.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the breeding grounds of the slender-billed curlew have never been found, despite intensive searches in recent years. Western Siberia, or the steppe grasslands of Kazakhstan and southern Russia, are thought to be likely areas. The Northumberland bird was considered to be less than one year old, proving that at least in 1997, the bird was still nesting successfully somewhere on the planet.
The plight of the slender-billed curlew closely echoes that of the North American Eskimo curlew, the North American equivalent of the slender-bill. The Eskimo curlew is now thought to be extinct, though only 150 years ago it was an abundant migrant in North America. In the last few decades there have been a scattering of records, mostly in Texas, but there have been no confirmed sightings in recent years.
The elusive ivory-billed woodpeckerExtinct and endangered birds fascinate us, and it is this fascination that prompted the recent expedition into the swamplands of the southern USA to try and redisover the ivory-billed woodpecker. The expedition received plenty of coverage in the British press, but nobody was surprised to hear that it had been unsuccessful, for this stunning bird - one of the largest woodpeckers in the world - hasn't been seen in the USA for over 40 years.
However, ivory-bills survived in Cuba until at least the 1970s, possibly later, and in 1998 there was evidence that some still remained in the Sierra Maestra in south-east Cuba. It would make sense for any future expeditions in search of the ivory-bill to concentrate there, rather than in Louisiana or Texas, where the chances of finding surviving birds are virtually nil. The ivory-bill's size, and distinctive plumage with flaming red head, ensures that it is a bird that is not easily overlooked if it does still survive, but it is known to be a bird that requires large tracts of undisturbed and unlogged forests.
Farming for birdsLoss of habitat is one of the main reasons for birds declining, or even becoming extinct. Here in the UK, habitat management is essential for the survival of a number of species, while many others depend on the continuation of traditional farming practices. On the Hebridean island of Islay (one of the best places to go birdwatching in Britain), farmers Gavin and Amanda Doyle have launched the first wildlife-friendly farming initiative to market their own beef and lamb, endorsed by the RSPB. The pilot project will sell quality beef and lamb direct to the consumer through the Doyle's website, www.farmingforbirds.com. (Buyers can also order by calling Sunderland Farm on 01496 850483). The farm will be managed to benefit a wide range of rare and declining birds on Islay, while buyers are assured that the meat is produced to the highest standards of animal welfare.
In recent years there has been a growing trend for people to think they are helping both wildlife, and the environment, by becoming vegetarian. While there may be persuasive arguments for not eating meat (and in particular hamburgers produced from meat from cattle raised in non-sustainable ways in tropical America), if everyone stopped eating British beef and lamb, a conservation disaster would be the result. Many of our birds require grazing by livestock to create the habitats they need, but to make that grazing economical, there has to be a market for the meat produced. I hope that the Doyles' initiative is the success it deserves to be, and that other farmers follow their example.
A new bird guideHere in Europe, birdwatchers are spoilt for choice when it comes to field guides, with a wide variety of titles helping you identify the birds you see. The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Peter Grant, and illustrated by Dan Zetterström and Killian Mullarney, is my first choice. You can buy the Guide in two sizes: there is the standard field guide edition, which will fit in a large pocket, and what is best-described as the coffee-table version of the same thing. This is just the job for dipping into at the end of a day's birding, and its large format does justice to the exquisite illustrations.
The Collins Bird Guide is so good that it is difficult to argue the case for anything else, but I am impressed with a recently published competitor, The Complete Guide to the Birdlife of Britain & Europe, written by Rob Hume and illustrated by Peter Hayman (published by Mitchell Beazley). The format is different from the Collins guide in that each species is dealt with individually, while most benefit from anything from half a dozen to a dozen illustrations, showing the bird in a variety of postures. The text is also rather more beginner-friendly than The Collins Bird Guide.
Its coverage is almost as comprehensive, but I'm mystified why the mandarin duck, with a population of 5,000 birds in Britain, failed to qualify for proper coverage (there's scant mention along with the ruddy duck). The book's claim to cover "every species of bird that regularly breeds in or visits Europe" is a little misleading, too. There's not a mention, for example, of red-flanked bluetail, a regular breeding bird in eastern Arctic Finland. (I've seen the bluetails, so I know they are there!)
While The Complete Guide is almost the same size as the large edition of the Collins Bird Guide, there is also The New Birdwatcher's Pocket Guide, based on the Complete Guide, and using exactly the same illustrations (much reduced in size) and an abbreviated text. The word new is to differentiate from the previous Pocket Guide, which was very useful, but frustratingly unconventional because it placed the birds in a strange order.
The great advantage of the Pocket Guide is its compact size, for it really is small and light enough to fit in any pocket. In addition, the text provides the essentials needed for identifying birds, though I'm mystified why a bird's length is omitted, as this is often a considerable help in identification. However, this is my only serious criticism of an excellent little book that is sure to prove extremely popular and successful.
An unworthy winner?For the last 30 years I have had the privilege of reviewing bird books for a wide variety of publications. Like most birdwatchers, I eagerly awaited the Helm monograph, Sylvia Warblers, subtitled Identification, taxonomy and phylogeny of the genus Sylvia. When it arrived I was deeply disappointed. This was not so much a study of a fascinating and attractive family of birds but more of a PhD thesis, largely unreadable, and full of indigestible facts and figures that few of us can even pretend to have any interest in.
Yet this same book has recently been awarded the Birdwatch Book of the Year award, and the British Birds/BTO, Best Bird Book of the Year, 2001. True, a huge amount of work has gone into this hefty volume, but it remains indigestible, vastly over-detailed and, at £60, over-priced. I am attracted to birds because of their aesthetic beauty, their fascinating behaviour, their mysterious migrations. Sylvia Warblers, sadly, fails to stir any emotions for this superb family of birds. I believe that this hefty volume is not the great advance in bird monographs that has been suggested.
Goldfinch success storyIn January I awarded my garden birds a New Year's prize of a niger seed feeder, supplied (of course!) by Jacobi Jayne (a Droll Yankee JT-2). For two weeks it attracted no customers. Then, quite unexpectedly, two goldfinches appeared, and stayed for most of the day, feasting on the tiny niger seeds. Within days the number of feeding goldfinches started to increase, and now, only six weeks later, the flock is up to 20. I'm now going to put up a second feeder to see if I can boost numbers even more.