July 2016–17 Archive from September 2016

Welcome to the September 2016 issue of The Harrier

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:21 pm in Welcome

Welcome to the third issue of the new monthly online edition of Devon Birds’ newsletter The Harrier!

August is traditionally a quiet month for birds but Black Hole Marsh at Seaton saw the arrival of at least one and possibly two Least Sandpipers. This issue of The Harrier also contains an update on this year’s Ring Ouzel survey on Dartmoor and a cracking review by Mike Langman of the new Wildguides book, Britain’s Birds. Find out what one of the UK’s top bird illustrators thinks of a new photographic ID guide.

If you have any comments or suggestions please email the Harrier team at harrier@devonbirds.org.

Photo of the Month September 2016

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:18 pm in Photo of the Month

Willow Warbler © Steve Hopper
Willow Warbler © Steve Hopper

It’s a Willow Warbler. Admittedly, not the rarest bird but Steve Hopper has captured such character and poise as it stretches to full height. A pin-sharp shot, taken at South Efford Marsh, of a bird that is sometimes dismissed as an LBJ – well not this one!

Bird of the Month September 2016 - Least Sandpiper

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:16 pm in Bird of the Month

Least Sandpiper © Dave Smallshire
Least Sandpiper © Dave Smallshire

Or possibly Birds of the Month. The Least Sandpiper at Black Hole Marsh at the beginning of August was joined by another bird just a couple of days later. Here’s Dave Smallshire’s photo of the first bird on 4 August.

Devon Birds writes to Natural England to express concern about the licence to 'control' up to 10 Buzzards to protect gamebirds

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:13 pm in Comments/Responses

Devon Birds letter to Natural England, page 1

Devon Birds letter to Natural England, page 2

We are still awaiting a reply from Mr Sells. We will post it on the website as soon as it comes. In the meantime, if you feel strongly about this issue, please write independently to Andrew Sells, Chairman of Natural England or your local MP to express your concern.

Latest update on Ring Ouzels breeding on Dartmoor

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:11 pm in Surveys

Ring Ouzel © Charlie Fleming
Ring Ouzel © Charlie Fleming

Fiona Freshney writes:

The 2016 'light touch' Dartmoor Ring Ouzel survey was undertaken by Fiona Freshney of the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre on behalf of the funder, Devon Birds and the South West Regional Office of the RSPB. Local bird enthusiasts have also contributed sightings and survey effort to ensure the survey is as comprehensive as possible. This is the seventh consecutive year that this threatened population of Dartmoor Ring Ouzel, a nationally declining species, has been surveyed. The initial three years of intensive survey provided a clearer picture of the size of the population, its breeding range, favoured breeding habitat and the breeding success rate. Surveys also collect data on the challenges the population faces in terms of predation, habitat suitability and human disturbance. A small-scale nestling ringing programme has been undertaken since 2012. The re-sighting of birds ringed on Dartmoor has shown that at least some of the birds do return to the Moor to breed and often to the same location.

Devon Birds and other funders have been keen to see the monitoring continue as it is hoped that from the research practical solutions such as habitat manipulation can be found to help maintain the local population and ultimately promote a larger more robust Dartmoor population. RSPB, Devon Birds and partners have subsequently initiated trial habitat management areas to determine whether improved nesting habitat can be created on the Moor.

During the initial years of the survey between 10 to 12 breeding pairs of Ring Ouzel were located, the majority based on the north moor. Since then numbers have dropped with only 7 or 8 definite breeding pairs found; in 2016 only 7 pairs were located. This worrying trend is counterbalanced by some positive findings. This year a pair of ouzel bred at an historic breeding site not used for several decades and a further pair were found at a brand new site where they successfully raised 4 chicks. Both sites contain ‘good’ ouzel habitat so it is hoped that maintaining and improving nesting habitat may well be key to their conservation. 

Late season records of Ring Ouzel are still welcome. Please send to Devon Birds at data.manager@devonbirds.org. Further information about the Project can be gained from Helen Booker at RSPB  or Devon Birds.

South Huish Marsh update

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:08 pm in Reserves

South Huish Marsh

All the hard work at South Huish has paid off. The digger has left the site, the vegetation has been cleared and the scrapes are already filling with water.

Vic Tucker writes: “Major groundword operations began as planned on 23 August and completed on 27 August. Such works can only be carried out using heavy machinery: an 8-ton excavator, tractor and trailer. Luckily for Devon Birds, an exceptionally skilful and knowledgeable young contractor, Rory Sanders, undertook the works, working on precarious boggy ground and at times removing less than 2 inches (50mm) of mud – no easy task.

Ground water levels are naturally at their lowest in late summer, combined with the complete draw-down of standing water over a two-month period in order to have any chance of working on the marsh with such machinery. Water drain-down was wholly unavoidable – easily understood and fully supported by virtually everyone who regularly birdwatches the reserve – despite the fact that migrant waders visit at this time. No major works on the scrapes have been carried out since their construction in 1995. Ingress of rushes not only threatened to enclose the entire second scrape in the near future but those species of wader prefering open aspects ceased using it. An opportunity also arose allowing significant scrape enlargements. About 40 per cent of the second scrape and 25 per cent of the first scrape were being lost to the rushes; along with rush removal some 200 tons of spoil was removed and spread over the areas of the reserve in unobtrusive positions. This is year three of a four year major groundworks programme throughout the reserve which includes reditching the four ditches that control all aspects of the reserve’s hydrological operations; all undertaken in accordance with the best-practice conservation principles.

In future we look forward to a return of those waders that in more recent years have not been visiting in the numbers and frequency as previously. Welcoming old favourites and, we hope, some new additions to the already very impresseive reserve bird list. This Devon Birds’ managed reserve has always punched well above its weight considering its small size, combined with its successful, careful well-planned management regime.”

Mike Passman in his Thurlestone Bay Birds blog wrote on 30 August: “The Marsh certainly looks different, should be able to see waders much easier now, there are also some extensions to the scrape areas. All we need now is some heavy rain to fill both pools up.”

It being Devon, we shouldn’t have long to wait for the rain and already the scrapes are filling up. Best of all, the birds are starting to return. Already the list includes, Curlew, Snipe, Teal, Ringed Plover and Little Ringed Plover as well as lots of Yellow Wagtails. And on Sunday 4 September, a well-attended Plymouth branch field trip saw a Black-tailed Godwit on the second scrape. We can expect much more over the coming months and, as Mike says, the birds should be much easier to see now much of the vegetation has been removed.

Devon Birds would like to thank everyone involved in the management works at South Huish Marsh, especially Vic Tucker, Nick Townsend and Alan Pomroy.

Britain’s Birds: an identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland

Posted September 9th, 2016 at 12:05 pm in Reviews

Extract from Britain’s Birds: an identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland

Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling.
Published by WildGuides/Princeton University Press.

ISBN: 9780691158891
560 pages, 3,200+ photographs
RRP £19.95

I have been disappointed with pretty much every photographic field guide I have seen – and there have been a lot. In the past, the rather limited supply of images available made comparisons between the photos difficult, if not impossible. ‘Comparable’ photographs were so often taken in very different field conditions, with just one or perhaps two images of a species’ plumages in sometimes very un-typical or individual plumage. For me, no published photographic guide could compete with the illustrated field guides.

My! How times have changed in recent years. First the innovative photographic Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland which was very good, but sometimes a little confusing, with the montages of photos sometimes a little too contrived. This brand-new Britain’s Birds, pubished by Wildguides, has taken the photo guide to a new level. In my opinion, this new guide suddenly challenges the traditional illustrated field guide, and this praise, coming from a professional illustrator, is worrying! For the first time the images used allow direct comparison with similar species. Both the selection of the photos and the backgrounds used have been very carefully considered by the team. Once upon a time, photos in bird books were almost all taken by professional photographers, but today many birders carry camera gear that can capture images as good as those of any professional. With so many ‘birders blogs’ available on-line, it is also relatively easy (albeit very time consuming) to find the best identification image of any bird species. Looking through this book you’d be hard pressed to pick out professional bird photographers images from those by  bird bloggers – of which many of which are used.

This guide shows, for the first time, an image of every British bird species (apart from extinct ones) recorded up until March 2016 and, unlike other previous incomplete attempts, shows them in almost every state of plumage that has been seen in Britain.

Inevitably there are a few (very few) errors in captioning and identification. It would be nit-picking to publish these here, and it could be fun to try andfind them (try shearwaters, skuas, terns and finches). 

There are, as always, individual photos that that cause confusion; take ‘waders in flight’ on page 205. The Jack snipe appears to show a striking white trailing edge to the wing, but the species page shows another flying Jack Snipe lacking this feature and has a caption stating ‘weaker trailing edge’. I was initially not entirely convinced by the side-on flying juvenile Pomarine Skua, but the exemplary photo credits at the back of the book allow you to check further, as many of the photographers have galleries and blog sites where the published photos and more of the same individual can be found. This dispelled my questioning of the Pomarine Skua as I found several more wonderful images to look at. This comment highlights the difficulty in making an identification based on one photo of an individual bird taken in a millisecond, and this is where a good illustrated field guide will be clearer, as the artist will illustrate a very average specimen with all of the prime plumage features shown in a flat light.

There is, of course, more to a guide than just the images used. The maps are clear and easy to understand and all include a very useful information box giving status and, frequently, British totals. When the map appears to show a widespread species, such as Brambling, the reader is offered more information that points to it actually being scarce but locally common in some years – something birders in Devon will relate to. Arrows on the maps show where migratory species arrive from, and give a good indication of where in Britain the reader is most likely to find the species.   

The text is rather short but, critically, to the point, with important or diagnostic features set in bold type to stand out from the rest of the text. Captions are used well around the photographs, highlighting the most important features to look for. Confusing groups are regularly given a page or double page spread of a particular plumage, excellent examples being those of juvenile gulls and skuas. For difficult species, boxes are used to compare key features of the pair or group; I particularly liked the plain brown Acrocephalus warbler box covering a group where identification is extremely difficult. Introductory sections to groups such as gulls and waders offer information on aging, moults, topography and family types.

The Authors have crammed so much into the guide that I sometimes found that the pages for trickier species took a little getting used to, with references to other pages for comparison. Some species were also very close to captions for other species, but – this has been recognised by the publishers and thin white lines linking the same species were enough to stop the reader from being confused.

There have been many reforms of bird classification in recent years, with entire family groups sometimes being moved from areas of a bird book where you are used  to finding them. I just wish books could stick to a given order, even if that is not strictly scientific. This book follows its own approach (as many bird books have in recent years); it is largely in a new(ish) scientific order but moves some groups away from the accepted taxonomic order to help the reader to compare similar families. Two examples are wagtails and pipits, which now precede finches) and raptors where the falcons now appear after the owls and nightjars. 

As someone that revels in bird identification, I can only congratulate all involved – authors, photographers and researchers – on a magnificent achievement. It does not herald the end of the illustrated field guide; I believe both photographic and illustrated guides should be used in conjunction. For me, you can never have enough resources, particularly images when it comes to bird identification. The combination of images, text and quality that this book offers make it a ‘must have’ on any British birder’s book shelf.

Mike Langman

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