Snipe drumming

Evidence of imminent breeding waders on my land in the past few days – a Curlew doing their towering territorial flight thing, plenty of squeaky balloon Lapwing calls, and this evening my first drumming Snipe of the year.

That’s a bit like the first Cuckoo of the year by our standards, and nice to get before April. A sign of the spring-like days we’ve been enjoying. It won’t last (he said gloomily, but not without good cause)…

Started digging the first few spades of the third veg patch this evening. It seems like better soil than the last one, but we’ll see if that stays good in coming evenings. That Firecrest couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’m feeling well-inspired now to press on with making this place more migrant attractive. Spoke to DO this afternoon, and he said the Firecrest was Shetland’s earliest ever spring record by some margin, and only the third spring record of the species altogether.

To put things in perspective, got an email from another friend, TC, who found a Ross’s Gull the other day. Bah! Am delighted for him, but really, who seawatches at this time of year?! Clearly him, and that’s why.

Trees, digging, and a patch tick

Spent the weekend engaged wholly in birding related activity. Yesterday was tree day, planting 20 lodgepoles and ribes flowering currants around the edges of the chicken area in sheltered spots, and then fencing them off so the beak-features can’t strip them of leaves before they’ve had a chance to get established.

 And then back to digging, starting on the second vegetable patch in the kale yard. Began at the end I knew would be stoniest, and today worked my way back into the good deep soil. Finished it just as it was getting dark, so am over halfway now – one more the same size to go, and a final triangular patch if I can be arsed after all that.

BM came up at lunch time with a welcome reminder of what this is all for – migrants. He’d just found a Firecrest in the plantation, texted me, and had the presence of mind to remember I rarely look at my mobile, so was unlikely to have noticed. Went down and after a frustrating 15 minutes of hearing but not seeing it, finally clinched this new bird for my patch. Haven’t seen a Firecrest since I moved up here, so it’s been at least 5 years – I’d forgotten how cool and funky they are. Really, if they were BB rares, they’d be drop-everything and book a charter flight jobs. It was skulking around the trees with 3 or 4 Goldcrests, but way too (er…) skulky to get a decent picture. Wretched autofocus kept hunting wildly, confused by so many twigs and branches. Also my first Song Thrush of the year dropped in briefly, before moving on towards the coast.

A good weekend.

I was a gay cowboy before it got trendy


 Meet the Ebayers #1 – an occasional series

Isn’t Ebay wonderful? The chance to pick up a bargain without all the trouble of hawking through a trestle table of tat at a car boot sale while a gimlet-eyed Del Boy works out if he’s going to budge on the £1.50 asking price. It’s not only great for browsing for stuff to buy from the comfort of home, but there’s also much fun to be had looking at what other people are buying. It’s got all the vicarious thrills of seeing the records of a bulimic’s Tesco clubcard.

Meet Genina1230 – I haven’t laughed so much in ages. Genina1230’s last four purchases on Ebay include two lots of pigeon rings, and a gin trap.

 Genina1230 last 4 purchases

A gin trap? Aren’t they illegal? Well, yes and no… certainly illegal to use in the UK, but it’s still legal to posess one as long as you don’t set it, and instead keep it as a collector’s item. That’s certainly the case with the tasty little number Genina1230 is currently bidding on – a rather fetching and desirable pole trap. Check this baby out:

Here, accipter accipter accipter…


Hot damn! What a beauty! The seller is careful to point out to prospective buyers that this is a “Collectors item only“, but in case you were worried your collection would be sullied by a substandard item, adds helpfully the information that it’s “in good working condition“.

Phew. What a relief. I’d hate to think Genina1230 might follow the succesful bid for pigeon rings by buying a broken pole trap. Imagine the disappointment.

Just as I was starting to be concerned about what sort of person would buy pigeon rings, gin traps, and maybe a nice pole trap (not to mention various shooting paraphernalia such as beating flags, a fox lure CD etc), I noticed a more reassuring purchase made earlier this year. What pigeon-fancying, trap-collecting home would be complete without a fridge magnet like this?

Blazing saddle

And to think I was worried…

Friends in high places

And so today we learn that the Queen, no less, has made a donation from her private income (via the Privy Purse Charitable Trust) to Songbird Survival.

The amount given remains undisclosed, but a spokeswoman for Buckingham Palace confirmed that the Queen gave £301,709 to 346 charities last year, qualifying this particular choice by saying,

“There is no significance in the donation”.

No significance? That’s a little disingenuous, as presumably the Queen gives all her donations to charity careful thought before metaphorically signing the cheque. I imagine she gives money to those organisations she feels are deserving, in much the same way that you and I make informed and conscious decisions prior to giving a donation to any given charity.

The irony here lies with the Queen’s high profile endorsement of the RSPB and all they stand for – she is, after all, their Patron. And yet she’s made a donation to an organisation that makes a point of openly criticising the RSPB in their own editorials online, and in many of the letters from their members they choose to publish:

The RSPB has been singularly successful in attracting over one million members. However, it cannot claim that its actions have in any way proved effective in preventing the decline in the songbird populations.”

The RSPB have educated and, some might say, hyped up the whole issue of avian raptors”, and on the subject of Langholm,

“Only the Game Conservancy sends out a loud clear message on how manipulative were the RSPB’s interpretation of the results of that experiment.” both

Sample letter from Winter 2008 Songbird Survival newsletter

I’m confused. Why would the Queen give money to an organisation that’s openly critical of another organisation she’s the Patron of? You either believe and support one approach, or the other, surely. Lending one’s support to both would be pretty inconsistent… 

On a brighter note*, I watched a hen Merlin take out a Twite this morning on the drive into town. A spectacular chase and kill. A Twite… they’re not awfully common, you know. And here’s a thing, I wasn’t seized by a compelling desire to “control” the nasty Merlin. Funny, that.

“Twite? I couldn’t eat a whole one… Actually, I could. And I will.”

*brighter, that is, unless you’re the finch in question. In which case it’d go down as a pretty poor start to the day.

Pimp my gibbet

It’s been a while since I last bothered to knock myself out reading Songbird Survival’s latest justifications for why the game-shooting community (sorry, I mean “the general public”) should be allowed to kill (oops, there I go again. That should be “control”) birds of prey. The chance discovery last week that the BTO had accepted Songbird Survival’s pieces of silver (hey, topical Easter reference. Good old Sunday School…) brought it all home again, and I’ve been doing a little online research.

A good starting point is Songbird Survival’s assertion that gamekeepers should be seen as the custodians of biodiversity in the British countryside. Gamekeepers, lest we forget, exist solely for the purpose of managing shooting estates. Nothing wrong with that of course, and it’s a perfectly legal occupation. It’s just that small minority who spoil the whole keepering thing for the rest of them… The weird thing is, and this must surely be a coincidence, that when you start looking up press reports of raptors being shot or poisoned or trapped, and you come across the convictions for those crimes (and crimes they are), it seems the guilty parties are invariably gamekeepers. The ones that get caught and convicted are, of course, a small minority and the mass of reputable keepers deplore their actions. Sometimes it’s one keeper on an estate who gets caught…

…and sometimes there’s evidence of a more organised policy at work amongst the team.

The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report (2006) makes for depressing reading. In 2006, there were 185 reported incidents of illegal shooting, trapping and nest destruction of birds of prey. (Of these, 29 were confirmed, and a further 40 were deemed “probable”). There were also 185 reported poisoning and pesticide-related offences, the highest ever recorded total. (95 confirmed, 34 probable).

These high numbers may or may not represent an actual increase in persecution of birds of prey. There’s the possibility that the police are getting better at detecting and prosecuting wildlife crime; the public are discovering and reporting more suspicious incidents; and the various environmental agencies are becoming more efficient in monitoring misdemeanours. What’s certain though is that these figures do not represent the sum total of persecution of raptors in the UK in any given year. The UK countryside is a big place, and those parts of it that might have a vested interest, real or imagined, in “controlling” birds of prey tend not to attract as much public footfall as the parts that don’t. Try exercising your right to roam through a shooting estate, and see what I mean. You tend not to be made warmly welcome. Undoubtedly all sorts of unsavoury and illegal things go on in the countryside that are unseen, and unreported. We’ve already heard about traps, but there’s also:

nest destruction:

and poisoning:

Still, as we’ve seen, sometimes the small minority of bad apples in the gamekeeping community do get caught. In 2000, Martin Joyce, a keeper at Holkham estate in Norfolk, was convicted for shooting and poisoning Kestrels. Holkham is nowadays run by Viscount Coke, who at the time was swift to condemn his keeper for being so naughty, saying,

“We were appalled by Martin Joyce’s actions when we found out what he had done. It was illegal, against the law of the land, and against the estate’s own rules. They were certainly actions the estate did not condone. This incident has tarnished the very good reputation we have as a model of good conservation practices.

“But Mr Joyce will be keeping his job. He has been punished with a heavy fine and we don’t see it is necessary to punish him a second time. He hadn’t put a foot wrong for four years and he is totally humbled by this experience.”

This is exactly the sort of condemnation one would hope for from an employer whose keeper had been caught being one of that small minority of keepers-gone-bad. Bravo!

Viscount Coke, incidentally, is a principle trustee of Songbird Survival.

That is, the organisation that campaigns to allow for the killing of raptors:

SongBird Survival believes that there must be sensitive control of selective predator populations to aid the recovery of songbirds while habitat improvements are taking place.”

And who better to help out than those “true custodians of bio-diversity(sic)”, gamekeepers? Don’t forget, Sparrowhawks need “particular attention” and “some careful culling”…

“Legislation currently leaves us in a straight jacket, and unless licenced control of some raptors is allowed, the position will get worse. There are only about 4,500 gamekeepers in the UK. Surely they should be re-badged as ‘wildlife wardens’. They are the true custodians of bio-diversity in the farmed environment. It is time that their role was appreciated far beyond their role as gamekeepers.”

So which is it? Is a gamekeeper killing raptors appalling, illegal, and uncondoneable? Or is it a necessary step to aid the recovery of songbirds?

You choose…

Strange bedfellows

Followed the link to the February 2008 BTO Atlas newsletter today ( )  – a heartening read, right up to the bit about individual species getting sponsors and thereby raising money to support Bird Atlas 2007-2011. The BTO blurb says:

“Our aim is to encourage a wide base of support from companies, organisations and individuals, in line with our desire to involve the whole of the birding and conservation community in this powerful project. One look at the list of sponsors below indicates that this aim is beginning to be realised. Each sponsor has had a different reason for choosing their species and these have been as diverse as the species themselves.”

All very commendable. Reading through the list,




it’s great to see some BTO Members have personally sponsored species. Then there are water boards, ornithological societies, and… Songbird Survival. Good old Songbird Survival! “Working Hard to Save Britain’s Songbirds”. ( )

Great! Or alternatively, Town and country people throughout Great Britain who are deeply concerned about the effects of increasing predation on songbird populations”. (as above)

Increasing predation? Is that why there’s been a more or less wholescale decline in the breeding populations of Britain’s bird species? I would never have thought. But how wrong I am! It’s all the fault of hawks, and in particular Big Evil Hungry Sparrowhawks. These people are seriously fixated on Sparrowhawks. They haunt their dreams, lurking in the hedgerows of their subconscious and killing Yellowhammers to sate their unholy appetites.

 Big Evil Hungry Sparrowhawk  

I exaggerate, but only a little. Their website is littered with selective and out-of-context quotes designed to promote their hypothesis that since we stopped controlling raptors, and Sparrowhawks in particular, (which would surely include historically tried and proven methods such as pole-trapping, shooting, nest-destroying, egg-collecting and spraying gallons of DDT in the countryside), their numbers have exploded, and that increase (with a token nod to intensive agriculture) is precisely why passerine populations have crashed. Meanwhile us starstruck birders worship at the altar of the mighty Sparrowhawk, misguided (by the RSPB, no less) fools that we are:  

“That raptors have captured the headlines in recent years is indisputable.  Many bird-watchers are in thrall to them.  Since their recovery from the days when DDT and other noxious chemicals were withdrawn from use, raptors have been at the receiving end of something approaching adulation.  The Wildlife and Countryside Acts have provided them with full protection.  Their population levels in the UK are now very healthy.  Sparrowhawks have more than doubled their numbers to 40,000 pairs plus another 20-30,000 unmated juveniles; 400 pairs of Golden Eagles in Scotland; 100 pairs of peregrines now reside in the Lake district alone – virtually the maximum number that area can support.  They even nest on the south coast oil refineries and cathedrals.  All in all the picture is of raptors (including most owl species) doing very well.  

The RSPB have educated and, some might say, hyped up the whole issue of avian raptors.  The bird-loving public have responded with enthusiasm, but without possibly thinking through the consequences.  Many people fail to appreciate these farther pressures exerted on prey species of songbirds, waders, game birds and some seabirds, and that an explosion of raptor numbers has coincided with a huge increase in  mammalian predators; grey squirrels (which raid nests), foxes, feral/domestic cats, rats, stoats, even badgers and pine-martens.  The well known crow family predators; magpies, jays, carrion crows, are multiplying in both the countryside and urban areas.  At the receiving end are much loved songbirds, both resident and summer breeding migrants, and other ground-nesting birds; the lesser redpoll down 91%, tree sparrow down 97%, songthrush down 51%, skylark down 59%, corn bunting down 84%, even the starling down 82%.  Wader chicks take a hammering on many wetland and moorland situations as is well documented.” ( )

It’s not just the RSPB who’re misinforming you. Another Songbird Survival quote from their website: 

A typically misleading comment from a BTO spokesman” ( )  

Nice. It’s a good job those clever chaps at Songbird Survival are on hand to tell us what’s really happening:

“Landowners, and especially gamekeepers and shooting people, know perfectly well what is going on.  But the weight of propaganda pushed out by organisations purportedly set up to enhance biodiversity continues to deny the undeniable.  Predation levels are often out of control.”  ( )

  Yikes! What can we do, Songbird Survival? Tell us, do!  

“So what about the future?  Legislation currently leaves us in a straight jacket, and unless licenced control of some raptors is allowed, the position will get worse.  There are only about 4,500 gamekeepers in the UK.  Surely they should be re-badged as ‘wildlife wardens’.  They are the true custodians of bio-diversity in the farmed environment.  It is time that their role was appreciated far beyond their role as gamekeepers.” ( )  

Oh goody. I imagine those Big Evil Hungry Sparrowhawks need some particular attention, yes?

“Sparrowhawk populations need particular attention and some careful culling under licence.” ( )

Excellent. That’ll do nicely.

Further unintentionally hilarious reading can be found in their newsletters (think Daily Mail, but even more right wing and polarised – god help us all if there’s a ringing recovery of a Polish-ringed Sparrowhawk in the Home Counties anytime soon). The letters pages are as you’d expect particularly choice for Double-barrelled Outraged of Tonbridge Wells to indulge in a spot of RSPB-bashing:


( )

Surely Yellowhammer deserves better?


After a frustrating week of trying repeatedly (and typically without success) to see the Kirkabister White-billed Diver, I gave up on birding over the weekend. There are only so many times you can count the number of Great Northern Divers up the east side of Shetland before going gibberingly mad. Thinking about it (not that I’m dwelling on it or anything), the last time I saw the wretched thing would probably have been the day I gave a couple of Brunnich’s Guillemot twitchers a whistle-stop tour of Shetland (including that nice Tom McKinney – he of skills-bills – read all about it in “Eco-twitching“, one down from “Fields of shit”…) – and that day it was uncharacteristically easy, doing the whole suite of raised wing flapping diverish behaviour in easy scoping range. I think Tom even took a photo of it on his phone. Never to be seen again, or at least not by me.

 Anyway. I didn’t go looking for birds this weekend. Instead, I dug. And finished the first of 3 large vegetable plots in my kale yard. Am splitting them up rather than doing one big patch to make it easier to work them in the autumn, and (ha! optimistic, this) make it easier for BM to set up a mistnet between them to catch the Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler that’s going to be skulking in them.

 That tempting of fate should ensure a crap autumn. 


More signs of spring being just round the corner this weekend – double figures of Oystercatcher now in my fields, and my first Skylark of the year on Saturday. Followed by either two birds, or two lots of two birds yesterday. (That’s confusing, isn’t it? Saw 2 together, and then later in a different place, 2 together again. Could have been the same birds, or not. They didn’t say, and I wasn’t asking).

 Made my weekly pilgrimage to the pier to check out the Eider flock – significantly fewer than last week, down by maybe 50%. Some of this dispersal might account for the all-time high count of 3 Eider on the sea below the house on Saturday. No sign of the borealis-type though.

Teal tale signs

Have given up counting how many times I’ve been to Loch of Tingwall trying to see the elusive Green-winged Teal in the past couple of weeks; it hasn’t quite got to the absurd double figure count it took last year to finally connect with the over-summering Killdeer, but it’s still not given itself up easily. Went out there yesterday yet again, and as usual saw absolutely everything else on or beside the water, but no Green-winged. All the usual suspects there – the single Coot, multiple Goldeneye, handful of Wigeon and Tufted Duck, double figures of Teal on the far shore… but not a hint of a Green-winged. I wasn’t surprised.

 This afternoon I gave it yet another shot on the way to catch the ferry home. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, with the added (but not unprecedented) twist of no Teal at all this time. Woe. One final scan, and hello… a Teal’s head was poking out of the grass some way along the shore. Little sneak dropped from sight the moment it sensed I’d seen it. Damn you and your teal sixth sense!

 Pegged it along the road, and got a little height towards Tingwall to look back down onto the shore with the scope. Disco! One mortified Green-winged Teal skulking at the water’s edge. Absolutely no other teal to be seen anywhere, bizarrely. Too distant and windswept to even attempt a photo, but now I’ve seen it there’ll be plenty of other opportunities for that. Jon’s Law #1 – longterm skulkers become easy just as soon as you finally clinch them.

On the subject of ducks – chatting to PVH this week about my borealis-type Eider – he says there are 2 or 3 similar candidates around Shetland this winter, and he at least is not dismissive of the general principle of borealis making it here. It seems one of the dead Eider washed up from the Braer was DNA tested, and proved good for borealis. So there. Wish I’d made an effort to get a record shot last weekend, and just know the bird won’t be lingering at my end of the island a week later. Can only hope to find it again in the main flock off the pier tomorrow. Or a King. (laughs hollowly).

Eider given it one

Now fully recovered from appalling cold, back to the delights of winter birding in Shetland. Took the cowards option yesterday of doing all my local patch birding from the comfort of the kitchen window. Advantages – central heating, out of the biting northerly wind, steady scope, mug of coffee, hot buttered toast, panoramic view of the sea. Disadvantages – er, none.

Gave the seawatch an hour, inspired by my first 3 Razorbills of the year, a Great Northern Diver showing a suspicion of summer plumage, and my second Eider of the year on my patch, this time a male. Joined at the end of the hour by a second male, a very influx by the standards of the north-east end of the isle.

The second male was interesting (I need to get out more…), insofar as it looked like a borealis Eider – bill a glowing orange in the sunlight, and even had noticeable scapular sails. This would be semi-exciting if it weren’t for reading last year that these borealis lookalikes seem to be just that – occasional locally bred anomalies, rather than genuinely farflung vagrants. It seems that a locally bred and ringed borealis-lookalike hangs out on the Ythan, with other good-looking borealis candidates also present thereabouts. (Read all about it on the excellent George Bristow’s Secret Freezer blog here – ). Which rather pisses on the whole finding-a-borealis-Eider parade.

Still, it was a good-looking beastie, and worth making some notes on. Which I did. And which reminds me I need to get my arse in gear to write British Birds a letter about cannibalism in Fulmars. Yum.