Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Birdfair 2012

We’re just back from Rutland Water where we spent the weekend at the 24th annual British Birdwatching Fair.  As usual it was almost as exhausting as it was enjoyable!

After all the rain that had fallen on it in recent weeks there had been quite a lot of concern about the state of the Birdfair site and how it would stand up to thousands of visitors and their vehicles.  The reservoir was full to overflowing and the weather forecast for the weekend wasn’t that good.  It was a bit of a worry!  In the past there have been some fairly wet and muddy Birdfairs and everyone knows how unpleasant that can be. We still remember 2004!  As it turned out there was no problem, the ground had dried out well, there were just one or two showers during the weekend and in fact it was the heat and humidity that were the main features.

We arrived at Rutland Water at lunchtime on Thursday and spent the afternoon helping to erect the Avian Adventures stand in Marquee 3.  The exhibitors’ cocktail party followed but as it didn’t start until 7.00pm we had time for our own little party beforehand.

Marquee 3

Pre-party party

No, not the karaoke, Tim Appleton welcoming the exhibitors.

The cocktail party was sponsored by Extremadura.This is Elisa Cruz Parejo, Director General of Tourism for that part of Spain. 

Gerry Griffiths and Peter Scholes on the Avian Adventures stand.

The way they were:  Gerry Griffiths and Peter Scholes 
on the Avian Adventures stand in 1995!

Friday, Saturday and Sunday were mostly spent on the Avian Adventures stand where we did an awful lot of talking!  We were there to advertise the overseas tours that we are scheduled to lead for Avian and also, of course, to promote the Algarve but there was also time to talk about many other topics including Belvide Reservoir and breeding gulls in the West Midlands!

We talked to countless people who have been on past tours and lots whom we have met in Portugal.   Many of these we now count as friends.  They included a couple who were on the first tour that Peter led for Avian in 1994 and have been coming with us ever since.

As in previous years, we looked out from the stand, across the marquee to the BTO stand opposite.  We have been enthusiastic supporters of the BTO for many years but we still haven’t come to terms with the new logo.  From some of the comments we heard, it seems we aren’t the only ones who regret the passing of the Gannet.  We hear that the RSPB are planning to ditch their Avocet logo in the near future, which if true also seems like a very strange decision.

We were able to get away from the stand from time to time but there were so many people to stop and talk to that progress through the marquees was slow.  We had to try out the amazing new Swarovski telescopes and we always like to look at books.  Peter even managed to go and hear Frank McClintock give a talk about Lagoa dos Salgados and the efforts being made to prevent the planned tourist development that threatens it.

Mike Warren working on the Birdfair mural, an annual feature of the event - his new book, American Birding Sketchbook, was just one of our weekend purchases!

Steve Cale was another artist exhibiting his work.

Bill Oddie, Nick Baker, Chris Packham and Simon King were amongst the television ‘personalities’ in attendance.

The colourful stand of ProExport Colombia – 
a country that we are both scheduled to visit soon.

If you’ve never been to the Birdfair, you’re missing a treat.  Next year’s event will be the 25th and there are already plans afoot to make a few changes.  That will be on 15th, 16th and 17th August 2013 – put it in your diary.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Get the habitat right...

It was interesting to see in the August edition of British Birds magazine the report that a pair of Black-winged Stilts had attempted to breed this year in Somerset, news that had previously passed us by.  Of course, Black-winged Stilts are birds that we see every day around Tavira but breeding records in the UK have been very few.  Peter recalls seeing two juvenile birds at Belvide Reservoir in September 1987 that were almost certainly from a successful nest that year in Norfolk and the record books show that way back in 1945, three pairs laid eggs in Nottinghamshire and produced three young.  Sadly this year’s nest was deserted within just a few days of being found, reportedly falling victim to the weather.

Somerset seems to be the place these days for rare breeding birds to try their luck!  After an unsuccessful attempt in 2010, two pairs of Great White Egrets have managed this year to raise young there and it was also in Somerset that Cattle Egrets bred for the first time in Britain in 2008 and where there was the second proved breeding of Little Bitterns in 2010.

The numbers of Great White Egrets occurring in Britain has been increasing steadily in recent years at the same time as the species has been expanding its range elsewhere in Europe.  Breeding also took place for the first time in Germany this year while in Poland, where the first nest was found in 1997, there were reported to be more than 140 nests in 2011.  That the species should also begin colonising Britain is no surprise.  Interestingly, one of the Somerset breeding birds had been colour-ringed in France in 2009.

It was probably only a matter of time before Cattle Egrets also nested in Britain and perhaps surprising that there have been no reports of any further attempts since 2008.  The Cattle Egret has undergone one of the most rapid and wide reaching natural expansions of any bird species and seems able to flourish in the company of domesticated livestock as easily as it originally did with the herds of wild grazing mammals of Africa.  In the twentieth century they expanded to South Africa, Australasia, South America and North America as well as northwards within Europe.   They are birds that we see every day from our window in Tavira as they fly to and from their roost sites. 

The case of Little Bitterns is slightly different.  These are skulking birds that can easily be overlooked and although there is only one record of proved breeding in Britain prior to 2010 (in Yorkshire in 1984), they were strongly suspected of breeding in East Anglia in the nineteenth century and also in southern England in 1947.  Pairs are known to have summered in Surrey (1956), Somerset (1958), Huntingdonshire (1960) and possibly elsewhere.

To be fair, there have been similar breeding successes elsewhere than in Somerset.  After a pair of Purple Herons failed in their attempt to raise young in Suffolk in 2007, there was success for a pair in 2010 at the RSPB reserve at Dungeness in Kent.  Again, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of this species occurring in Britain since the 1970s, most of them turning up in the south east, suggesting that they originate from the Dutch population.

In one or two reports that we have seen of these events, it has been suggested that they have been brought about by climate change, presumably a change that is particularly affecting Somerset!  What is certain is that in Somerset the Avalon Marshes (Ham Wall RSPB reserve and Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve) now represent one of the most extensive wetlands in Europe and provide just the right habitat for these colonising birds.

An important feature of the Avalon Marshes project has been the creation of reedbeds to encourage Eurasian Bitterns to breed and two nests at Ham Wall in 2008 were the first in Somerset for 40 years.  This has been just a part of a major programme of reedbed restoration and creation over a period of 15 years or more which has brought about a significant increase in the British breeding population of Bitterns.  Once widespread and numerous, Bitterns were in danger of being lost as a breeding bird in Britain mainly as a result of habitat degradation.  Now, as well as in Somerset, they can be heard booming in more than 50 sites around the country with definite breeding in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Kent and Yorkshire.

So far the return of Bitterns is a remarkable success story and a demonstration of what targeted conservation action can achieve.  It has had the added benefit of providing conditions suitable not only for colonisers like the Great White Egrets but also for Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tits, Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers, not to mention mammals, amphibians, fish and a host of insects.

Get the habitat right and the birds will do the rest – it’s simple really!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Good timing...or bad?

The Algarve can be pretty warm at this time of the year which is one of the reasons why in August we can expect an influx of tourists and why Tavira becomes rather more crowded than we like it to be.  Fortunately, the Birdfair at Rutland Water gives us an excuse to get away for a while and already we are in the UK.

We congratulated ourselves on the timing of our departure – we left on what was the hottest day of the year so far and a sign of things to come.  Of course, we knew that the weather in the UK might not be to our liking either but in fairness it hasn’t so far been too bad, although only a poor imitation of summer! 

The day after we left Tavira serious fires broke out in the hills to the north of the town and around São Bras de Alportel.  For three days almost 1,000 local firefighters battled hard to get the situation under control but were hampered by the hot and breezy weather conditions.  As many as 165 vehicles were reported to have been involved and a specialist aircraft from Spain was brought in to help in the struggle by dumping large volumes of water from the air.  In the end something like 5,000 hectares have been burned including large areas of cork oak trees.  The effect on the local economy and environment will no doubt be severe and likely to be long term.

Although the fires were far enough away from Tavira not to affect us directly, again we thought that we had done well to time our departure so as to miss them.

Subsequently, we have had to reconsider!  Firstly came news of a Broad-billed Sandpiper at Castro Marim, only the third ever record for Portugal and the second in the Algarve.  We spend countless hours at Castro Marim and have seen lots of good birds there over the years but still it was a bit frustrating to miss this one.  It’s a species that we have long predicted would turn up there and one we have often talked about seeing in the Algarve.

At least we have both seen this species in the past, most recently at Drayton Bassett Pits in Staffordshire in June 2004. 

 Broad-billed Sandpiper - Drayton Bassett Pits, Staffs - June 2004

We were just getting over the Broad-billed Sandpiper when there was more news from Castro Marim.  In what was presumably a classic instance of the ‘Roadside Rest Effect’, a Marsh Sandpiper was found there by Pedro Ramalho.  Of course, we have seen lots of Marsh Sandpipers and in fact we found one ourselves at Castro Marim in September 2009 but we do love those Tringas and were sorry to not to see this one.   

 Marsh Sandpiper - Uganda, February 2007

Incidentally, the expression ‘Roadside Rest Effect’, refers to the situation in which the discovery of one rarity leads to more rarities being found in the same location, usually because of the arrival of more birders and it originates in Arizona where the Patagonia Roadside Rest has been the scene of several twitches that have resulted in the finding of additional rarities.

So, we escaped the heat and missed the fires but we also missed out on a couple of rare waders.  Maybe our timing wasn’t that good after all!