Society News from September 2013

Taw & Torridge Branch Indoor Meetings - updated

Posted September 2nd at 5:16 pm in Events by Mike Daniels

The Taw & Torridge Branch are restarting Indoor Meetings at the Castle Centre, Barnstaple. Start times are :7.30pm. Details for the remainder of 2022 and beginning of 2023 are:

8th November - John Walters, the Secret Life of the Long-tailed Tit

13th December - Philip Marlow, African Game Parks are not just the Big 5

10th January 2023 - Emma Scotney, An Introduction to Bats

14th February - James Fentom, Plovers of St Helena: A study

14th March - Stephen Powels, Tawny Owls

11th April - Ian Gaspar, Bird behaviour: an illustrated talk


We've done it again! Red-backed Shrikes- successful on Dartmoor

Posted September 25th, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Conservationists announce the fledging of two youngsters from England’s only nesting pair of red-backed shrike in 2013.

The birds, at a secret location on Dartmoor, have been under close watch to guarantee their safety in a project managed by the RSPB with support from Dartmoor Study Group, Devon Birds, Devon & Cornwall Police, Forestry Commission, Dartmoor National Park Authority and Natural England.

Kevin Rylands from the RSPB said; “This is now the fourth year they have returned to Dartmoor, but they failed to breed successfully last year, probably due to the awful weather. A lone male visited the previous breeding site in May this year but failed to find a mate. Fortunately though a pair was found at a new site in June and this bodes well for the future of the species on Dartmoor.”

Red-backed shrikes were driven to extinction in the UK at the end of the last century and egg collecting remains a major threat. 

“As in previous years we used a combination of volunteers, staff and sophisticated wildlife surveillance equipment as part of site protection and monitoring. Although it’s been hard work, the efforts have been rewarded with two youngsters fledged. We are particularly grateful to the volunteers involved and to Devon Birds for funding some of the cameras used on site as part of Devon & Cornwall Police’s Operation Wilderness.”

Wildlife Crime Officer, PC Josh Marshall, said “I deployed Operation Wilderness cameras to assist with the protection of the birds. Cameras were downloaded at regular intervals to ensure the security of the site”.

Red-backed shrikes are a migrant species who return from Africa in spring. They are also known as “butcher birds” due to their uncompromising eating habits, which involve catching small creatures and often impaling them on sharp thorns or barbed wire. These ‘larders’ can hold caterpillars, beetles, bees, lizards and even small mammals. Once a familiar breeding bird across the country, they declined to extinction, last breeding in England (East Anglia) in 1992, before their return to Dartmoor in 2010.

“The red-backed shrike is a beautiful bird with striking feeding habits,” explained George Harris, Chairman of Devon Birds. “Its loss from Devon last century was tragic, which is why we are so keen to support initiatives such as this, with necessarily wide-reaching partnership involvement, intended to see this bird’s recovery in Devon. It’s a big aspiration, but success will be worth the effort!”

Kevin Rylands concluded “We hope red-backed shrikes will continue to re-colonise Dartmoor but that is dependent upon birds returning next year, finding suitable habitat and not being disturbed. In addition to facing threats from egg-collectors, red-backed shrikes, along with many other migratory birds, are in great danger when travelling between the southwest and wintering grounds in Africa, with many trapped and killed en route.

The extent of habitat and amount of large insects and other available prey on Dartmoor has no doubt contributed to the recent success of this species.  Surveys have shown that Dartmoor (and other SW uplands) holds a wealth of species previously widespread in lowland areas such as cuckoo, meadow pipit and whinchat and the RSPB is working with conservation partners to ensure that this important upland and its fringes can provide the food and nesting sites that birds need.”

Devon Birds on Radio Devon today Friday 20th Sep

Posted September 19th, 2013 at 5:26 pm

You can hear our own County Recorder Steve Waite, discussing the Lesser Yellowlegs recently found at Trews Weir Exeter on Radio Devon this morning.

If you missed it, go to here and 23 minutes in... 
to hear more about this unusual visitor to Devon from Steve, parts of the interview are repeated again later in the programme.  Well done to Steve.

Our Birders and Bikers

Posted September 19th, 2013 at 5:20 pm

One of our members, Sue Murphy and her husband Simon have just returned from an tremendous 4000 mile bike ride taking them through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, across to Sweden and then cycling around the coast of Norway to Bergen in the north.  Not content with that they then flew to Scotland where they cycled the Shetland Isles and Highlands before travelling back down the East coast home - an amazing 14 week journey  Well done Sue and Simon. 

Sue, a keen East Devon birder ,admits to having her binoculars in her bar bag ready for use which helped get her another six "lifers".  Exmouth birder Sue's remarkable journey and adventures are written up on her Blog complete with stunning photos.

Although a much shorter journey another of our East Devon members, Gavin Haig, recently took part in the gruelling 112 mile Moor 2 Sea bike ride listed as "extreme" - knowing the Dartmoor hills I believe this is not an understatement.

The first 28 miles were fairly straight forward but then came the climb to Haytor. Stage 6 of the  Tour of Britain finishes at the summit on September 20th. The climb is 3.7 miles long and features in the book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, the Moor 2 Sea organisers were offering a prestigious 'King of the Mountain' badge to everyone who managed it in less than 26 minutes.  As we know the Dartmoor hills go on unrelentingly but Gavin managed to stay cycling and after 90 miles round about Postbridge he got his "second wind" and completed his epic ride in a very respectable 8hr:57mins 14 secs giving him a well earned Bronze medal - and yes he did also get his King of the Mountain badge too!

Well done to both our biking birders who also find time to help out as our volunteers.

"Avian Architecture" by Peter Goodfellow

Posted September 15th, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Long-term member and Devon Birds' Chairman from 1996-98, Peter Goodfellow, has just (Sept 2013) had his book  Avian Architecture published in the UK by Ivy Press. The original USA edition of 2011 was enthusiastically reviewed by the New York Times, and in other publications. Peter was interviewed by several radio stations about the book and birds' nests in general, and won the American Publishers Award for the Best Popular Science and Popular Mathmatics book of that year.  See also Devon Birds April 2012 where the book is reviewed by Mike Lock with the opening sentence "If you are interested in Birds' nests then this is a book for you.....".
Its UK details are: Published by Ivy Press, hardback, 160pp., £18.99, ISBN 978-1-908005-84-7

Dartmoor’s four cuckoos meet mixed fortunes

Posted September 6th, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Summer is coming to an end on Dartmoor, and bird migration is in full swing. The swallows are on the move, the swifts are gone, and so are the cuckoos. In fact, adult cuckoos leave the country a lot earlier than previously thought, with most of them gone by early July.

This is one of the discoveries that the cuckoo-tracking project, managed nationally by the British Trust for Ornithology, has made. Even though the cuckoo may be one of our most well-known birds, some of them only spend about 2 months of the year in this country. The rest of the time they are on their way to, or have arrived at, their wintering grounds south of the Sahara.

Earlier in the year, Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) teamed up with Devon Birds (DB) to take part in this national project, and funded the satellite tagging of four Dartmoor cuckoos, who were named Dart, Ryder, Tor and Whortle – good Dartmoor names!

All four cuckoos left the UK in the last week of June. It was at this early stage that their paths diverged: three of the cuckoos flew through western France and into Spain, whilst the remaining cuckoo, Tor, skirted along the French-German border, and then to Sardinia. Prior to the satellite tagging project, it was assumed that all British cuckoos migrated to Africa via Italy; and indeed, this is what the cuckoos tagged in Wales and western Scotland did. However, cuckoos that were tagged in East Anglia in previous years took an entirely unknown migration route via Spain. 

Naomi Barker, DNPA ecologist, said: ‘It appears that the Dartmoor’s cuckoos follow both migration strategies, which surprised us, as we had been expecting the Dartmoor birds to behave more like the cuckoos tagged in the west of the UK, rather than like those from the east of England.’

Previous years’ data also shows that the Spanish option is not necessarily a good choice, with none of the birds who chose that route last year completing their migration to Africa. Sadly, this fate also befell two of the Dartmoor cuckoos who chose to fly through Spain: Dart perished on Mallorca; there were reports of forest fires in the area round the time we lost contact, and it is possible he perished in the fire or didn’t find enough food in the dry conditions. Ryder quite simply ran out of fuel on the Sahara crossing, and plummeted into the sand 400km away from his destination.

On the positive side, Tor made a very swift trip to the wintering grounds in Nigeria, flying from near Strasbourg to Nigeria in the space of 5 days; whilst Whortle, a very English cuckoo, having spent 3 weeks between Benidorm and Alicante, made the desert crossing and safely arrived by the Niger on 2 September.

George Harris Chairman of Devon Birds said:”This collaborative project has already thrown up amazing insight into this much loved Devon bird's journey. Some of the findings are saddening, such as the loss of two of the tracked birds, but that is the reality of this mega migration. We are hopeful the two remaining birds in the project make it back to breed on the moor next spring, by which time we will have surely learnt even more about these fascinating birds”.

We are expecting things to be fairly quiet now during the winter, where the birds recover and rest until they gear up to their migration back to their wintering grounds early next year.

Cuckoo Update

Posted September 6th, 2013 at 11:53 pm


The outlook for Dart is looking fairly bleak with no further transmissions received by the BTO. They tell us that it is likely that he has perished in Mallorca they understand that just after Dart's arrival there was a huge wildfire on Mallorca. It's likely that conditions weren't good if the area was very dry so even if he wasn't in the area affected by the fire, he may have struggled to find food and didn’t survive.


The signals from Ryder show that he did not continue to complete his desert crossing on 14 August. He backtracked a short distance into central Mauritania, a location from which he has not continued onwards from. The signals received are still from the middle of the desert and we think it is likely that he did not have the fuel reserves needed to complete the journey, and was unable to feed up in the barren landscape in which he stopped. 


On 25 July Tor started his crossing of the Tibesti Mountain area in northern Chad and by 27 July he had finished his desert crossing and was in Nigeria 120 south of Lake Chad where he spent time feeding up.  Since 24 August he has been gradually moving westwards and signals received by the BTO a week ago showed that he is now 255 miles further west just 32 miles from the city of Kanos near the northern border of Nigeria.


He spent six weeks in Spain and towards the end of August he was still feeding up there.  Then on 30th he began to move on down towards Benidorm then due South and by the morning of 1 September he had travelled jut over one thousand miles and was in southern Algeria.  He then continued travelling and during the next 18 hours he covered another c482 miles before stopping early morning on 2nd close to the Niger river in central Mali, an area that should be green and a good feeding station.  However 48 hours later he had covered another 180 miles in a south-easterly direction and was in Mali but close to its borders with Burkina Faso and Niger.  An incredible journey and hopefully he can now refuel.

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