Saturday, 8 November 2014


The news that four pairs of hen harriers nested in England this summer has been very welcome. Nine chicks were reared from the pair of nests located in the Forest of Bowland (Lancashire), five from a nest in the Derwent Valley (Derbyshire) and an unreported number from a nest at an unspecified location in northern England. While the figure of four pairs is nowhere near the number that should breed in England, the situation is an improvement on last year; 2013 was the first year in nearly four decades with no hen harriers reported breeding in the country.

The lack of breeding hen harriers underlines the levels of persecution still impacting on this and other scarce birds of prey. Hen harriers breed on heather moorland and in the early stages of plantation forest; their breeding populations in these habitats are influenced by the availability of food and by deliberate human interference and illegal killing. The latter is a particular problem on driven grouse moors, where harriers are viewed as an unwanted predator of young grouse, destined to be shot.

That illegal persecution of our bird of prey populations still continues is revealed by the recent case in which a worker on Norfolk’s Stody Estate was found guilty of the illegal poisoning of 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk. Then there is the case of the disappearing Montagu’s harrier. Several of these rare birds have been fitted with satellite tags, allowing researchers the opportunity to follow their movements, and one of the birds – a three-year old female nicknamed ‘mo’ – disappeared shortly after leaving a roost site close to Great Bircham. The sudden loss of the tag signal is an exceedingly rare occurrence with this type of tag and the researchers suspect that she may have suffered illegal persecution.

The issue of illegal persecution is, at last, catching wider attention. There have been high profile campaigns against the persecution and, additionally, calls to ban driven grouse shooting. Back in August, the national Hen Harrier Day protest attracted much media interest and celebrity support. A growing number of people now recognise that we need to address the persecution taking place here; after all, how can we challenge the appalling illegal slaughter of birds in Malta when we allow persecution to continue here.

Friday, 7 November 2014

All change

I may have only been away for a week but the changes on my local patch reveal the shift from autumn to winter that happened in my absence. The storm that passed through while I was away stripped many of the local trees of their leaves, changing vistas and shifting horizons. The dry hues of autumn no longer adorn branches but instead crunch beneath my feet, the tapestry of autumn colour now a carpet to be sullied, swept away and broken down. The only saving grace has been the temperature, remaining unseasonably high; the now dark evenings lack the bite of what will inevitably arrive over the coming weeks.

The soft calls of redwings in the night sky provide a different signal of the changing season, a pleasing sign of migrants arriving from further north. There is plenty of fruit for them this year, although it may remain little used until the first frosts restrict access to the soil-dwelling invertebrates on which these and other thrushes feed. The clear skies will see temperatures fall overnight, perhaps bringing with them an end to the late flying migrant hawker dragonflies and the last of the season’s crickets and grasshoppers. The odd bumblebee and butterfly is still on the wing though, and a few warming rays of sunlight are enough to see them stir. I wonder how the large white caterpillars munching on bolted greens in the vegetable patch will fair?

This is the time of the year when the lure of home grows stronger and where a good book replaces time spent in the field. There’s still the opportunity for a walk, although this has become a weekend treat and not something to slot in before or after work. Still, the dark evenings provide opportunity for reflection and for the collation of notes made throughout the year. There are ringing and nest recording submissions to be made, data to be processed and delivered and observations to write up. It is the time of the year for repaying the pleasure that has come from spending time in the field. There is also the opportunity to start thinking about next year, to make plans and to think about what new delights the countryside will deliver.

Thursday, 6 November 2014


The low tide reveals a series of rock pools, rich in marine creatures cut off from their wider domain for a few brief hours. Such pools provided a happy hunting ground when I was child; armed with a net and a small, castle-shaped bucket I would push aside seaweed and turn over stones with keen anticipation. These days my rock-pooling is more measured and my knowledge of the creatures revealed better developed. I can now put names to the things that I find, extending identifications from beyond the simple childhood categories of ‘fish’, ’crab’ and ‘prawn’.

The pools here on Scilly are rich in marine life and more diverse than any I have seen on the mainland. Many of the pools are quite sizeable and provide the depth required to sustain larger creatures. Plate-sized crabs of several different species mix with young mullet and giant gobies, the latter providing a sizeable meal for the grey herons and little egrets that haunt the shoreline.

Beyond the rocks is a shallow sandy bay, exposed at low tide and transformed into a vast ‘puddle’ just a few centimetres deep. Walking through the water disturbs a blur of darting shapes – north Atlantic prawns and sand gobies – that scatter at my footfall. There are hundreds of the bright, orange-brown starfish Luidia ciliaris, each with its seven velvety-textured limbs and frill of long white spines extending along the uneven length arms. At first glance most of these starfish appear to be dead, resting inanimate on the sand, but this is not the case as a few minutes patient watching soon reveals. I do not spend long with the starfish, however, as I have so little time on these islands and there is so much more to discover, as the sense of childhood fascination returns.

The opportunities for rock-pooling have become fewer, not just because I now live an hour from the sea but also because the soft geology of East Anglia provides a less suitable substrate for the formation of these temporary tidal pools. Even so, there are places along the Norfolk coast where a particularly low tide will uncover some happy hunting grounds and the opportunity to seek out some of these fascinating marine creatures.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014


It is on these rocky western coasts that the peregrine seems most at home. Over the past few days, one or more different birds have become a totem for this wild landscape of granite and short, salt-sprayed turf. I have developed an eye for their presence; the distant sea stack with a telltale blip in an otherwise rounded profile that reveals a peregrine perched and scanning his domain.

The bird that I have spent the most time with is an adult male, whose favourite perch I pass on the way to my own favourite ‘perch’ from where I watch the sea for passing skuas, shearwaters and cetaceans. He seems tolerant of my presence, secure in the knowledge that his perch, located a few dozen metres off the cliff, is surrounded by an uncrossable sea that beats an ever present rhythm against the shore.

The particular perch provides a panoramic view of three fields that slope down towards the granite boulder beaches. Each of the fields delivers rough grazing for the small group of hardy cattle that supply the island with milk and butter. The cattle attract meadow and rock pipits, together with passing redwings and resident blackbirds, all potential prey for a hunting peregrine.

One afternoon I am treated to a hunt. The peregrine seems restless and more alert than usual, leaning forward as if to peer at something that has caught his eye in one of the fields. He bobs his head and lowers the foot that has been tucked within his belly feathers. The foot is retracted – a false alarm? Then more head bobbing and the foot is placed firmly down onto the rock. A ripple pulses through the bird as it shakes out its plumage; the male defecates and then he is airborne. A sweeping glide low over the sea brings him at speed into the field and out of my view behind a headland. Suddenly he appears above the headland in a vertical stall, wings outstretched, before turning and dropping back down into the field. He must have killed something. A few moments later and the kill is confirmed, the bulk of a female blackbird in his talons as he flies to another of his favoured perches with his prize.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

By the sea?

It is a strange sensation to be woken by the shrieking of seagulls – more so because I am a good hour’s drive from the coast. The sound of the gulls takes me back to childhood holidays in Cornwall and Devon, where the birds were part of the holiday experience and something that sat alongside fish and chips and ice cream in a cone. That the gulls have now become part of my inland soundscape has everything to do with a change in their behaviour.

We have seen a huge increase in the numbers of inland-breeding gulls and a good number of our cities now support breeding colonies of lesser black-backed and herring gulls. While numbers are increasing over much of the UK, there have been declines in the gull colonies of northern Britain and Ireland. The birds here in Thetford are lesser black-backed gulls and this is a species for which we have seen a significant increase in the use of man-made structures, particularly rooftops, for nesting. I suspect that some of the large, flat-roofed, industrial units on the edge of town are being used by these birds.

The numbers of gulls present inland during winter has also increased and mixed flocks, often in the company of black-headed gulls, can be seen on fields and around the many piggeries that have become a feature of the Breckland landscape. On occasion, there are even lesser black-backs in with the black-headed gulls on the river at Thetford.

It is thought that these increases, both in winter and during the breeding season, are linked to a change in the feeding opportunities available to the gulls, coupled with a reduction in the levels of persecution. Increasing quantities of food waste seem to litter our streets and our landfill sites now contain vast quantities of organic waste and kitchen discards, all of which provide access to food throughout the year for these opportunistic birds. During the winter months other gulls may join the local birds from further afield, with some arriving from elsewhere in Europe to winter here. At the same time, some of our birds leave Britain to winter elsewhere: a few lesser black-backed gulls winter as far south as West Africa, underlining just how mobile these birds can be.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Nordic nomads

The first wave of short-eared owl arrivals has already happened; the appearance of birds at various sites along Norfolk’s curving coastline heralds a welcome return. These nomadic wanderers have become a feature of the Norfolk winter, with individuals wintering on many of our coastal marshes and, further inland, along river floodplains and on smaller areas of rough grassland. Being active during daylight hours, these stunning owls always prove a delight for the county’s birdwatchers.

These winter visitors may have come from our own breeding population, found on the uplands and coastal marshes of northern England and Scotland, but others will have crossed the North Sea, arriving from Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe. Given the distribution of wintering short-eared owls within Britain, with a strong wintering population in northern England, it seems most likely that those wintering in East Anglia will have arrived from overseas, while our breeders winter locally within the northern half of the country. A recent review of the movements made by short-eared owls, undertaken using information collected from bird ringing, has revealed that these birds are now wintering further north than they did just a few decades ago. Since the species is highly nomadic, responding to the availability of its favoured small mammal prey, it may be that a changing climate is allowing them to remain further north than was formerly possible.

That the short-eared owl is now regarded as a winter visitor to Norfolk underlines its loss as a breeding species. Pairs were regularly found breeding around the Wash, on the east coast marshes and inland within the Brecks, all lost over the last 40 years. The individuals present during the winter months will be feeding predominantly on field voles and other small mammals, but small birds are also taken, sometimes from roost. Ringed plover, dunlin, skylark and snipe may all feature in a short-eared owl’s diet.

As winter progresses, many of these newly-arrived short-eared owls will settle on favoured sites and several individuals may be found hunting over the same patch of grazing marsh, often hunting alongside the local barn owls. It is quite a sight to see half a dozen of these enigmatic birds quartering a piece of ground and one well worth connecting with.