Wednesday, 16 March 2016

BirdLife project to prevent African vulture poisonings

BirdLife's Saving Africa’s Vultures, a new project to save the continent’s declining  vulture crisis, is now up and running, with pilot schemes in Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

The project aims to find out more about – and significantly reduce – the greatest threat facing African vultures: poisoning.

Eleven species of vulture occur in Africa, with 10 of these classified as Globally Threatened or Near Threatened by BirdLife and the IUCN. Four species are already classified as Critically Endangered, the highest level of extinction threat: Hooded, White-backed, White-headed and Rüppell's Vultures.

The €226,000 three-year project has received more €150,000 of funding from Fondation Segré, a Swiss organisation dedicated to the protection of the planet’s biodiversity through the active conservation of threatened species and their habitat, and the restoration of degraded ecosystems.

“Poisoning is the main threat our vultures face, and the majority of vulture deaths seem to be indiscriminate, a by-product of people trying to poison predators and inadvertently attracting vultures to the carcass,” says Masumi Gudka, BirdLife Africa's Vulture Conservation Manager. “With these pilot studies in key areas we aim to learn more about the dynamics of exactly how and why the poisoning is taking place, and to develop tools and mechanisms which will lead to stricter regulations relating to agro-chemicals and toxic compounds. By the end of the studies we aim to have raised awareness of this ongoing environmental catastrophe to local communities and governments, and to have reduced vulture mortality by at least 25 per cent.”

The initial Saving Africa’s Vultures research and activities will focus on three sites: the Chobe District of Botswana, Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, and the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Local BirdLife Partners BirdLife Botswana, Nature Kenya and BirdLife Zimbabwe will be working alongside a variety of other stakeholders including government and academic institutions, and other conservation organisations including The Peregrine Fund, IUCN, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

As well as poisoning, Africa’s vultures also face a deadly cocktail of other threats, including the illicit trade in the birds for traditional medicine, collisions with power cables and wind turbines, 'bushmeat', an increasing lack of suitable habitat and growing human disturbance. 

Hooded Vulture is now considered to be Critically Endangered having declined by 83 per cent over just three generations. Photo: BirdLife International.

Hooded Vulture is now considered to be Critically Endangered having declined by 83 per cent over just three generations. Photo: BirdLife International. 

Focus On Early Spring overshoots

The anticipation attached to early spring never withers as the unfaltering cycles of the seasons and bird migration push on from one year to the next. It can often feel as though autumn movement has not long passed yet, at once, few will argue that the homecoming of each of our summer migrants never comes a moment too soon as a spent winter takes its leave. The trailblazing Sand Martins and Northern Wheatears which make landfall early in March provide a sweet foretaste of what is to follow as the country is gradually revived by a swelling splash of sound and colour over the coming weeks. The fresh flow of migrants and the milder weather can serve to reignite any faded enthusiasm since the end of the New Year 'honeymoon period' and it suddenly becomes that bit easier to rise early and head out to the local patch or the coast in the hope of notching up further arrivals, enjoying the spectacle of spring migration and maybe even stumbling across something that bit more special. As the more familiar migrants flood in, there is always a possibility of encountering an overshoot, a burst of Mediterranean excitement in the form of one of a cast of classic early spring wanderers.
The term 'overshoot' is a familiar one and fairly self-explanatory. It refers to the event of a migratory bird ending up further than intended on its journey, and is usually associated with spring movement. The perfect recipe for a number of birds overshooting far enough to cross the English Channel involves a large area of high pressure lingering over the Mediterranean and stretching as far north as Britain; birds passing over their originally intended destination simply fail to shake the urge to continue as a clear sky, warm temperatures and a light tailwind make an extended journey comparatively light work. Sometimes, birds can end up hundreds of miles beyond their normal breeding grounds and this is often reflected in the inexperience of the birds involved, with many being in their second calendar-year. While normally the result of an apparent misjudgement on the part of the migrant, overshooting plays an important function in the potential expansion of a species' range as, if suitable habitat is available and a potential mate encountered once a bird does come to a stop, the best of the situation might be made with a breeding attempt and the flag is then planted for further generations.
Among the definitive overshoots of the early spring period is the Alpine Swift. One of the largest swifts in the world, it can even momentarily recall a falcon but once its true identity is realised and prolonged views are enjoyed, it can easily transport the observer to scenes of the Continent's mountain ranges. This aerial master is capable of travelling up to 600 miles in just one day and, once in the country, they can tour far and wide but they are most likely to be found on the south and east coasts, where late March and the first week or so of April represent the prime window of opportunity for finding your own. Large water bodies, hills and clifftops are great places to start looking but this is a scarcity which could plausibly be encountered just about anywhere, even around large historic buildings.
Alpine Swift
Alpine Swift, Lowestoft, Suffolk (Photo: Kevin Du Rose)
From late March, the frenzied masses of newly-arrived hirundines over lakes, marshes and sewage works are worth grilling for another aerial feeder, Red-rumped Swallow. A distinct and very attractive bird in terms of plumage, it can often actually be the flight action of this southern European swallow which draws the eye as it moves on stiff, straight wings. Some years are better than others but overall we seem to be seeing more of this popular bird, which is no bad thing. Overshooting Serins can also appear in the last few days of March and, with breeding populations just across the Channel, this diminutive finch has only to overstep a short distance to make landfall on the south coast and is easily located by its trilling call; Dorset, Kent and the Isles of Scilly claim the lion's share of records with Portland Bill and Dungeness being classic sites.
Red-rumped Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow, Farmoor Reservoir, Oxfordshire (Photo: Roger Wyatt)
Larger birds can also be susceptible to flying too far north on their spring migration and Night Heron is perhaps the best example of this in a British context. Small-scale arrivals are sometimes witnessed early each spring, often from the second week of March and these sometimes involve small groups. Purple Herons and White Storks can also materialise as soon as the tail end of March and are therefore worth bearing in mind when visiting southern wetlands in the case of the heron or, for the latter, when scanning the skies just about anywhere on warm days.
Night Heron
Night Heron, Polgigga, Cornwall (Photo: Ashley Hugo)
When it comes to proper rarities, Great Spotted Cuckoo arguably epitomises the early spring period and last year was a case in point, with a small handful shared between Pembrokeshire, Cornwall, Devon and Co Galway – a south-westerly distribution of records which hints at the breeding range to which the birds were 'meant' to have arrived, in Spain, Portugal or southern France. A look at the previous British records of Great Spotted Cuckoo reveals a strong disposition for the species to arrive in either March or the first half of April. While May lays claim to more records of Black-winged Stilt than any other month, as March hands over to April the right conditions can lead to this elegant wader pitching up on any suitable water body, inland or otherwise, and last year's influx began just a few days into April.
Great Spotted Cuckoo
Great Spotted Cuckoo, Giltar Point, Pembrokeshire (Photo: David Campbell)
A perpetual favourite for its offbeat character and dazzling colours which give it a distinctly exotic feel, Hoopoe can be relied upon to cross to our shores in small numbers each year and play to the cameras. They entice attention from birders and non-birders alike as they fly like butterflies in between bouts of shuffling low across short turf, occasionally flashing their extraordinary crest. The south-west, unsurprisingly, dominates in terms of reports of this species and often hosts the first each spring, involving birds originally headed for the near-Continent. The Isles of Scilly and the Cornish valleys are particularly good bets for finding one during late March or early April.
Hoopoe, Kessingland, Suffolk (Photo: Chris Mayne)
Although May is widely celebrated as the spring month to get out and find scarcities, hours spent in the field much earlier in spring can also reap serious dividends, with a set of strong finds in the running for birders both scouring a local patch and visiting the coast. One of the great things about spring overshoots is that, despite their propensity to turn up on the coast, these adventurous individuals can and do appear just about anywhere, even far inland. Even without striking gold, it is hard to go home disappointed on any spring day but it is also worth remembering that ideal conditions can put less routine overshoots on the table, as last year's Crag Martin in East Yorkshire demonstrated wonderfully.

RSPB Mass killing continues on British military base in Cyprus

Over 800,000 birds were trapped and killed illegally on a British military base in Cyprus last autumn, according to the latest research by the RSPB and BirdLife Cyprus.
The songbirds are illegally trapped to provide the main ingredient for the local and expensive delicacy of ambelopoulia, where a plate of songbirds is illegally served to restaurant diners.
Organised crime gangs are running this illegal practice on an 'industrial scale', which is estimated by the Cypriot authorities to earn criminals on the island 15 million Euros every year.
Survey data from BirdLife Cyprus and other organisations have recorded over 150 species of bird which have become trapped in nets or on lime-sticks. More than half of these species are of conservation concern.
On a positive note, the results from 2015 show that there’s been a stop to the annual increases of the last five years in numbers of birds killed on British Territory, thanks to various measures taken to tackle the problem by the Base authorities. The numbers however remain around record-breaking levels, with levels of illegal killing still far worse on British Territory than in the Republic of Cyprus.

Juvenile Masked Shrike trapped by limestick (Photo: RSPB images)
Jonathan Hall, Head of UK Overseas Territories at the RSPB, said: "The RSPB congratulates the British Sovereign Base Area for taking important steps in tackling the illegal killing occurring on MoD land. Approximately one third of the invasive acacia trees which were planted on the firing range to attract migrant birds have been removed and these efforts are to be congratulated.
"However, we are disappointed that the numbers of birds still being trapped for huge profit by organised gangs remains unacceptably high and the rest of this illegal-killing infrastructure needs to be removed in order to put an end to this barbaric practice."
The latest survey data confirmed the industrial scale of illegal bird trapping, both with mist nets and limesticks. The survey found that as much as 19 km of mist nets could have been active during the autumn of 2015 within the survey area across British Territory and the Republic of Cyprus. These trapping levels could have resulted in over 2 million birds killed across the island as a whole. More than 5,300 limesticks were also confiscated by enforcement agencies, mostly within the Republic.
Cyprus Warbler
The endemic Cyprus Warbler is among the species found illegally killed (Photo: David Moreton)
Dr Clairie Papazoglou, Executive Director of BirdLife Cyprus, said: "The scale of the trapping found within the survey area has to be seen to be believed. Long avenues of planted acacia trees that resemble vineyards with mounds of gravel at one side.
"The gravel is brought in by truck and is thrown to scare the birds into the nets. More needs to be done to reduce the trapping and prosecute restaurants serving up these birds in the Republic. A consistent zero tolerance must be adopted."
Although enforcement action took place on the trapping fields, enforcement against restaurants serving ambelopoulia has been very limited and much reduced in the last few years; these restaurants are exclusively found in the Republic. Small-scale trapping of songbirds for human consumption on Cyprus was practiced for many centuries, but it has been illegal on the island for 40 years, when it was outlawed in 1974.
Historically, trappers have relied on lime-sticks, where stems of pomegranate are coated in a locally-manufactured 'lime' and are then placed in trees and bushes. Passing birds become stuck on the lime-coated sticks where they fall easy prey to trappers. Lime-sticks are still used in many areas. Today, most trappers will use long lines of nearly invisible netting, known as mist nets.
Cyprus has two songbirds that breed nowhere else in the world: Cyprus Warbler and Cyprus Wheatear. Both of these songbirds have been found illegally trapped.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Highland Pegwell Bay

Few Pictures of my visit to Oradour-sur-Glane.On 10 June 1944, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in Haute-Vienne in then Nazi-occupied France was destroyed, when 642 of its inhabitants, including women and children, were massacred by a Nazi Waffen-SS company. A new village was built nearby after the war, but French president Charles de Gaulle ordered the original maintained as a permanent memorial and museum.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Record-breaking wintering numbers of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in China

Conservationists from the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (HKBWS), BirdLife International Partner in China, have discovered record numbers of Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers wintering in China.
On 30 December 2015, HKBWS volunteers Jonathan Martinez and John Allcock found at least 30 Spoon-billed Sandpipers near the Fucheng Estuary in south-west Guangdong Province, some of which is located within the Zhanjiang Mangrove National Nature Reserve. This was the highest number ever found in China during winter — though the record lasted less than a month.
At the end of January further coordinated counts in Guangdong Province, including members from the Zhanjiang Bird Watching Society and staff from the Zhanjiang Mangrove National Nature Reserve Management Bureau. Together they counted at least 45 individuals from four locations, with Fucheng Estuary having the highest count (38 individuals). This is an extremely significant tally, given that the world population numbers fewer than 400 adults.
Jonathan Martinez commented: "These numbers are a massive increase on just three individuals counted at Fucheng during our inaugural mid-winter survey in 2012. That year, we found long lines of mist-nets were found flanking shorebird roost sites. We counted hundreds of dead birds, and literally thousands of nets."
Since then the Zhanjiang Bird Watching Society, and government officials from the Zhanjiang Forestry Department, have taken sustained measures to clear the illegal mist nets. In addition, there were educational activities carried out by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and Zhanjiang Bird Watching Society to help raise awareness to the local communities.
Mr Martinez continued: "Our work has made Fucheng mudflats an attractive place for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and other waterbirds. The estuary in Fucheng is clearly of global importance for the species."
Seven of the Guangdong birds were marked with coloured flags or rings on their legs. One of these was tagged with white leg flag engraved "MA", identifying it as a bird spending its second winter at the site. The unique markings enable individual birds to be tracked as they travel along the East Asian — Australasian Flyway.
Dr Evgeny Syroechkovskiy, Chair of the SBS Task Force, explained: "As most of the individual birds found here are marked in Russia it also is becoming very important for development of cooperation conservation work along the lines of bilateral agreement on migratory birds signed by both the governments of China and Russia, for which SBS is the key model species.
"This newly discovered wintering location is the third known biggest one in the world. This again proves exceptional importance of China for the survival of the whole Critically Endangered species."

National Wildlife Crime Unit saved at the last minute

Despite fears among conservationists that it was about to be closed down, the National Wildlife Crime Unit has been funded by the government again for the next four years.

The beleaguered police unit was granted an eleventh-hour reprieve, as DEFRA – in the form of Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs – announced that future funding of the NWCU is secure, at least for this parliament.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit is a specialist unit dedicated to tackling wildlife crime, and plays an important role in wildlife law enforcement at home and internationally. It provides intelligence and direct assistance to individual police forces and other British law enforcement agencies, as well as providing specialist support that allows warranted Officers to investigate wildlife crime.
Following the Spending Review 2015, DEFRA and Home Office Ministers have been considering the level of government funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit beyond March 2016, which caused suspicions among many interested parties that the unit was about to be disbanded.
However, despite these fears, DEFRA and Home Office Ministers have agreed that their respective departments will each provide the unit with funding of £136,000 per year for the next four financial years – a grand total of £272,000. This will enable their vital work to continue until at least 2020. This relatively small amount of money will be stretched to its limit – it will cover the costs of investigating online crime, poaching deer and other game, illegal killing of birds of prey, thwarting the illegal importing and killingof endangered species and sometimes even the protection of livestock from marauding dogs.
The sums allocated by the government approximately match previous funding according to a DEFRA spokesperson, but they are put in cold perspective by the fact that the various costs of the Badger cull over the last four years are estimated to have exceeded £25 million, according to The Badger Trust.
The newly announced contributions will be in addition to the funding central Government provides to police forces in England and Wales to tackle all types of crime (including wildlife crime). DEFRA says that it will also provide the unit with up to an additional £29,000 a year over the next four years for specific work to tackle wildlife crime conducted online, as a developing area of global criminal activity. Government funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit jointly provided by DEFRA and the Home Office up to March 2020 will therefore total as much as £1.204 million.