Saturday 29 January 2022

Birds are Disappearing from Our World 29th January 2022

Birds have been a major part of my entire life, bringing me great joy and are my salvation in times of woe and distress but they are now disappearing from our world and their ever decreasing numbers are a warning of the dire consequences if we continue to ignore the desperate plight our planet is now in.

Today I spent a pleasant morning wandering around Otmoor, my local RSPB Reserve here in Oxfordshire.I was overjoyed to see a Hen Harrier, a species I have not seen for many years and which is still disgracefully persecuted by those who manage grouse moors.Watching this thrilling bird go about its life I reflected on the current situation this bird and myself currently endure, both of us powerless really to do anything about changing matters for the better. It makes me sad and angry in equal measure. 

The article below appeared in the Opinion section of The Guardian on 28th January 2022. It was written by an American  journalist Kim Heacox  who lives in Alaska and what it says applies to Britain as much as it does to his native USA. A new report has estimated that 600 million breeding birds in the EU have been lost between 1980 and 2017, the highest losses being amongst farmland and grassland birds.


'This past autumn, wildlife officals announced that a bird, a male Bar tailed Godwit flew non stop across the Pacific Ocean, 8100 miles from Alaska to Australia in just under 10 days. Fitted with a small solar powered satellite tag, the godwit achieved "a land bird flight record." But of course godwits have been doing this for centuries. Come next April-May, all things being well, determined godwits will make the trip in reverse. Bound for Alaska to nest and raise their young.

Bar tailed Godwits on migration

They won't be alone

Northern Wheatears, songbirds less than six inches long, will arrive in Alaska from sub Saharan Africa. Arctic Terns will return from Antarctica, with each bird flying the equivalent of three trips to the Moon and back in a single lifetime. Bar headed Geese will fly over the Himalayas at altitudes exceeding 20,000 feet.

PT Barnum was wrong.The circus is not the greatest show on Earth. Nature is.

How diminished our world would be without birds, those dinosaurs with feathers and songsmiths with wings. Not that I was born John James Audubon. I used to ignore birds and was poorer for it. Once, in my teens, while out with my .22 rifle, I spotted a Red tailed Hawk riding a July thermal. I  aimed and fired and watched it drop from the sky. Stunned, I ran to it and found it thrashing in the dry summer grasses, dying. I walked away, fell to my knees and threw up.

Now, decades later, I love - birds - how they bring me joy and give me wings; how they enlarge my world, slow me down, make me listen. In every hawk I see a velociraptor. In every thrush I  hear exquisite music. In every swallow I witness an aerial dance as they snap insects in midair. In every epic migration I find myself redefining what's possible. And always the same question arises: Can we, the human race, in all our commerce and carbon-burning, somehow save our winged cousins?

In the past half century, North America has lost more than one fourth of its birds, nearly everywhere, they are in decline. Massive die offs of flycatchers, swallows, bluebirds, sparrows and warblers - described as thousands of birds "falling out of the sky" - have been recorded in recent years in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Nebraska. Smoke from intense Californian fires forced Tule Geese to reroute their migration and take twice as long. Elsewhere, as birds lay their eggs earlier, due to a warming climate, more chicks die from sudden inclement weather events.

This is where we find ourselves, trapped in a diminished world of our own making.Today only 30% of all birds are wild; the other 70% are mostly poultry chickens. In essence, Earth is now a coalmine and every wild bird is a canary - what ecologists call a bio-indicator - in that mine.

Their fate is ours

Soon after news broke of the flight of the godwit, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced newly extinct species including the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Bachman's Warbler. "When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more" the naturalist William Beebe once observed, "another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again"

The author and climate crisis activist Kathleen Dean Moore writes,"Unless the world acts to stop extinctions, I will write my last nature essay on a planet that is less than half as song graced and life drenched as the one where I  began to write."

Of all the species that have ever existed, more than 99% are now gone, most having winked away during five major extinction events, the last caused by an asteroid that struck earth some 66m years ago. Today, given global habitat loss (especially deforestation and prairies turned into cropland) and widespread persistent toxins, we - modern humans - are the asteroid.The sixth mass extinction is here, with about 600 speices of North American birds at risk from human caused climate change.

We must safeguard one of nature's greatest creations: wild birds. Build a better world for them, and we'll build one for ourselves.We must defend a liveable planet by electing politicians who have empathy and an ecological conscience.Vote blue, act green. Restore native habitats and environmental health.Keep domestic cats indoors, and affix silhouetted hawk decals to windows. In the US alone, an estimated three to four billion birds die each year from cat predations and window strikes.

Put a birdfeeder out the window of a nursing home and watch the patients inside brighten. Birds bring happiness and improved health. A European study suggests that a backyard full of birds creates greater human satisfaction than a modest pay rise. Our survival and mental wellbeing are intricately tied to that of healthy lands, waters and biodiversity: nothing proves it better than wild birds.

In August 2020, as the Trump  administration sought to weaken the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty  Act, a federal judge ruled in favour of the Act and quoted Harper Lee's famous novel, "It is not only a sin to kill a Mockingbird,it is also a crime. 

I celebrated the ruling

Later in 2021 when the Biden administration reinstated and strengthend the Act, I took a walk along the ocean near my home, binoculars (not a gun) in hand, and felt a deep sense of gratitude - even hope - knowing that more than tens of thousands of people around the world would volunteer in the annual Christmas Bird Count, a century-old tradition to pay attention, be astounded, and share stories about birds.

Godwits might come to mind, and Mary Oliver's poem 

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Kim Heacox ends his piece by saying his favourite bird is which ever one he's watching. 

And I ask which one of us can possibly demur from that?

Saturday 22 January 2022

7- Eleven Hawfinches 21st January 2022

On visits to the USA in what now seems, pre-covid, another life, I encountered a widespread chain of convenience stores called 7-Eleven, the name telling one and all, when the stores opened and when they closed. If you are wondering what on earth this has to do with Hawfinches I will explain the link at the end of this blog.

After my visit to the Forest of Dean last Monday I decided on a return visit to see if I could do better with the Hawfinches at Parkend, which is known as one of the best places in Britain to see Hawfinches, especially in winter. Mark (P) and myself  had got there a little late on Monday with the consequence we were not in the best position to see and photograph the Hawfinches, as two cars had already beaten us to the best spot, opposite the well known Yew that is situated on one corner of The Green. We did eventually see a couple of birds, male and female (see my previous post) but we gave in to the cold after a couple of hours and that was that.

This time I planned to go solo and sit it out for as long as it took, all day if necessary, to get good views and images of one of the shyest and most enigmatic of birds that make the forest their home. Whether all the Hawfinches here in winter are resident I honestly do not know but it is known the resident population in Britain is augmented every winter by visitors from overseas.

To ensure I got the prime position by the Yew I rose in the dark and was on the road by 5am. As usual I had misjudged the time it took me to get to the Forest of Dean and consequently had no competition for the hallowed spot as, at just after 6.30am, I was at least an hour early!

Still, nothing ventured nothing gained and I set about casting copious amounts of sunflower seed under the Yew and on top of various logs and large stones, placed there by other birders/photographers.It was bitingly cold, my car's temperature gauge registering minus 4.5 celsius. With rare foresight I had made myself a thermos of coffee before leaving home and after putting out the sunflower seeds rapidly retired to the warmth of the car and a welcome hot coffee. Radio Three played soothingly in the background as I sat looking at The Green and its guardian Yews, slowly coming into focus as dawn crept over Parkend Church, sat high on its hill above the village.

By 7.30am it was light enough to just about see small, dark shapes darting around under the Yew. They were Blackbirds, chasing each other around or, at least an adult male was chivvying two first winter males away from the food, until he was seen off in turn by an aggressive female.

I was surprised no one else had yet arrived but eventually another car parked behind me. A lens poked out of his window. Brave man. It remained bitterly cold outside and I had been putting off this moment until the very last but felt obliged to follow his example and opened my car  window to the elements. The raw cold clutched at my face but I had come prepared and the rest of my body was well insulated apart from my feet but that was a minor discomfort.

I would love to say the Hawfinches soon showed up but they didn't. 

Guy Mountfort author of the New Naturalist classic 'The Hawfinch', a book long since out of print, described them thus: 'To have succeeded in avoiding the limelight for so long, in a period of rapidly increasing human interest in birds, is a remarkable tribute to the habit of stealthy self effacement which the Hawfinch has brought to a perfection shared by very few species.'

He went on to describe them as 'staunchly individualistic' and 'an exceptionally difficult bird to observe closely throughout the year.' How true and the opportunity to come to The Forest of Dean and Parkend in particular, where one has the chance to see them very close, no matter if just for a few minutes is what brings me and many others back here every winter. It is still not guaranteed the Hawfinches will cooperate, even here, but that is the challenge and when it bears fruit there is no better sense of achievement.

Every other bird did of course make a beeline for The Yew. An easy meal was on offer and the birds have long since become accustomed to the constant replenishment of seed under the Yew, brought by a daily succession of birders and photographers, keen to get a close view of the local Hawfinches.

All the birds set about the food I had so diligently spread on the ground for the Hawfinches. Blackbirds were ever present as were Chaffinches, some sporting white lesions on their legs and feet which are a viral papilloma specific to Chaffinches. Also a pair of Nuthatches were to'ing and fro'ing, carrying nuts away to stash for a later day. Great, Blue and Coal Tits did the same as the Nuthatches, while two Song Thrushes hopped around in the longer grass, dodging a truculent Robin and clumsy Woodpigeons.  Even a gang of five wary Magpies arrived, chattering excitedly amongst themselves but soon departed.


Male Chaffinch showing the viral papilloma on its leg which infects via cuts and in some cases proves  fatal to the bird

Male Chaffinch

A Jay concentrated on the peanuts, picking up as many as it could and swallowing them into the pouch under its bill, much as they do with acorns. In fact it was so stuffed with nuts it could not close its bill but still persisted in trying to wedge yet one more into its bill, then finally gave in and flew off, its large white rump a beacon as it headed for the Yews on the other side of The Green. 

Jays are lovely birds and under normal circumstances I would relish this opportunity to see one so close but today, somehow the experience felt diminished due to the lack of any Hawfinches coming just as close.

Although no Hawfinches had come down under the Yew, frustratingly I could see them foraging not that many metres away amongst the dead leaves and grass beyond the Yew. They were too distant and too obscured to photograph but I could at least see them clearly in my bins. The males looked superb as they always do. Their pale orange forehead and almost white bill standing out against the grey bark of the beech trees they were foraging under or perching on branches that swept low to the ground. I counted at least eight feeding close to the road, both males and females, but had to be content with just watching them in my bins. Not such a disaster really, as to see Hawfinches at ease and unsuspecting was a rare treat and I made sure I watched them as much as I could. It was the next best thing to photographing them.

I also comforted myself in the fact the day, currently, was so dull that under the dark Yews the light would cause my camera to struggle and I would do well to get an acceptable image. In many spare moments I fiddled with my camera settings, testing each setting on the Chaffinches until I thought I had something that would do the trick. I would have to wait and see. It all depended on the Hawfinches.

By 1100am and five hours into my vigil I had only one or two tantalising chances at capturing a Hawfinch with my camera, as various males, for seconds only, perched on the far side of the Yew before flying down into the leaves and grass on the far side of the Yew. One did perch relatively nearer in the Yew and looked as if it would come closer but in the end it too flew off. Not really what I had wished for but it did serve to spice things up a bit and revive my flagging resolve. And so I sat and waited but still no close Hawfinch presence came to test my camera skills and I was beginning to feel just a little downcast.

Male Hawfinch

It seemed today that the Hawfinches much preferred to feed in the leaf litter on the far side of the Yew rather than come and avail themselves of all the lovely seed I had laid out for them.The person in the other car gave up and drove a short way down the lane to the far end of The Green to try his luck there but I remained where I was. Wracked with uncertainty as to whether he knew of a better place or not, my answer came ten minutes later when he drove back up the lane and headed off. 

The other not inconsiderable inconvenience about Parkend is the amount of disturbance. Not only is The Green by a busy road and opposite a huge timber yard from which issued regular loud bangs which sent every bird flying across to the far side of The Green but there are also dog walkers, trailbikers, joggers, cars, delivery vehicles, sundry walkers and occasional birders who are unaware that it is best to remain in your car. All this has to be contended with.

You either shrug and adopt a zen like state of mind or you give up and huff your way off to somewhere else.I am pleased to say that for whatever reason, be it stubborness or blind optimism, I felt compelled to remain, stay calm and not give in to whatever disturbance came along to frustrate my ambitions. Sooner, probably later, I would get my chance. Wouldn't I?

Although the Hawfinches kept their distance I regularly saw see them flying across The Green  when they fled from whatever had alarmed them, their white wing bars and especially the broad white band at the tip of their tail prominent. They are bigger than the Chaffinches, the other finch here with white wing bars that fled with them, and after a while they are easily distinguishable as they speed across The Green in an undulating flight before swooping up and disappearing into the dark fastnesses of the Yews. Many people are more than satisfied with such a view of a Hawfinch but I definitely wanted more.

Noon arrived and still no Hawfinches had come to feed under the Yew. They were all around but for some reason still shunned the Yew. Lingering thoughts of a pasty and coffee at the nearby Postage Stamp Cafe began to feature more and more. I was weary from my very early start and my determination was fading. I told myself I would give it one more hour then leave, feeling sure the birds would eventually come but who was I kidding, knowing full well that when the hour was up and if no Hawfinches had arrived, I would rationalise and give it yet another hour. 

I looked for a thousandth time at the ground below the Yew. A good number of Chaffinches were  currently feeding on the ground and then it happened. A superb male Hawfinch dropped out of the Yew and down onto one of the logs. At last! Perfect! I raised my camera. Then came crushing disappointment. It hopped down by the far side of the log and where I could not see it. Noooooo! Why? There was nothing that could be done but sit tight and hope it would come out into the open, but now at midday there was all sorts of disturbance around and the bird could flee at any moment Surely fate could not be so cruel? The Hawfinch, of course, was perfectly content where it was as its timid character meant it felt reassured by the concealing log.

Its head began to emerge from behind one end of the log just as a couple with a dog came up the lane. It immediately flew up into the Yew and that was that. Six hours of  waiting and when it all came together an innocent couple had confounded my hopes. 

I was philosophical, reasoning if the Hawfinch had dropped down once then it could do so again. It was after all still in the Yew as far as I knew and its appearance had certainly served to galvanise me and strengthen my resolve.

Fifteen minutes slipped away as I waited, anxious and on edge, and then the birding angels finally smiled on me as the male landed on top of another log and set about the seed I had placed there, posing perfectly in the process.

I suppose one can say it was a triumph of will over adversity and I just enjoyed the all too brief time the Hawfinch was on the log, which was no more than  two or three minutes, and watching as it adopted a pose of intense concentration, dexterously rolling a sunflower seed lengthwise in its mandibles, splitting the husk along its seam with the resultant split pieces sticking to its bill momentarily as it extracted the kernel with its tongue, swallowed it and bent its head to pick up another seed. The act of consuming each seed completed in a matter of seconds.

Of course it could not last before once more it took alarm and fled as a passing motorcycle backfired on the nearby road. Give me strength !

However, as if by some unknown signal, Hawfinches seemed to have suddenly decided that under the Yew was their favourite place after all and a female was next to appear, also favouring the log and a nearby rock to perch on, giving me another opportunity to take yet more frame fillers with my camera

Female Hawfinch

The male descended once more but not onto the log and was obscured to a certain extent in the grass and leaves beyond.Still he was nice to watch for the brief time he was present. I have yet to see a Hawfinch here that remains on the ground for more than a few minutes.There always seems to be something that alarms them, be it real or imagined.

Having finally achieved success it was inevitable that I would want more. Just one more encounter to send me on my way. I gave myself another half an hour but it did not happen and in the end  I conceded that I should be content with what I had got and really it was getting silly now. I was cold, hungry and tired, so I went home. Thawing out my chilled body on the way with the car heater turned to maximum.

Oh! I nearly forgot to explain 7-Eleven. Well, I spent seven hours sat in my car by the Yew and was rewarded with eleven minutes of watching Hawfinches under the Yew.


Tuesday 18 January 2022

In The Forest of Dean 17th January 2022

Mark (P) called me last night asking if I was up for a trip to the Forest of Dean as he was keen to see some Hawfinches and Crossbills to add to his year list.

Hawfinches in the Forest of Dean is one of my favourite winter outings so there was little hesitation in accepting his kind offer. Mark duly collected me from my home at 7am and in the still dark morning we set off for the forest. Negotiating the heavy rush hour traffic reminded me how grateful I am to no longer have to drive to work every day like the unfortunate souls rushing past us at high speed.It is only when you cease having to do this that you realise what madness it is.

Our first stop was at the traditional site in the forest to see Hawfinches, namely The Green at Parkend with its perimeter guarded by ancient yews, in which the Hawfinches love to secrete themselves before descending into the leaf litter below to feed on seed scattered by birders and photographers, hoping to lure them close.  The secret to see them is never under any circumstances leave your car. Do so and you will not see a Hawfinch or if you do it will either be flying away from you or be perched at the top of the most distant and tallest tree possible. Remain in your car and you have every chance of viewing Hawfinches only metres from your car, feeding below a particular Yew that you can park opposite.

We were relatively late in arriving and pulled in behind two birder's cars already stationed by the Yew. Mark opened the car windows and the soporific warmth of the car was instantly banished by freezing air rushing in and although  the sun was shining it brought not the slightest benefit to our chilled bodies and  frozen fingers.

For quite some time we sat, waited and scanned the ground below the adjacent Yew. Any number of Chaffinches were feeding below the ancient tree joined by busy Nuthatches and the occasional Great and Blue Tit. No sign of a Hawfinch though. This is how it always is, as the Hawfinches wait until they see other birds feeding on the ground, which gives them the confidence to descend.

I looked into the dark green depths of the Yew, my eye having being caught by a movement of a bird that looked plumper and heavier than the customary Chaffinch.

Hawfinch!  I whispered to Mark.

A male! In the Yew!

Mark could not see it from where he was sat and in a second the bird had disappeared but this set the juices flowing and we waited expectantly, but it was quite some time before a Hawfinch dropped to the ground and then was not the expected male in his rich pastel colours but a duller female. But no matter, this was a Hawfinch, always a thrilling encounter whatever the circumstances, so there were no complaints but we did think it would be special to see the male again.

Having made numerous visits to see the Hawfinches at Parkend I have come to expect that females are the more likely to be seen. They are less secretive and bolder for some reason than the shy males.

The female Hawfinch fed greedily on the sunflower seed that had been placed atop a bough deliberately laid on the ground by persons unknown. Perfection for a photographic pose! As before I admired this bulky, formidable, top heavy looking finch with its baselisk eye, huge bulbous head and bill that seems out of proportion to its body, which in turn looked too big for the delicate pink legs and feet that supported it. Their head and bill is disproportionate in order to enable the bird to exert a huge pressure on items such as cherry stones or the like, their cheeks bulging with muscle that closes the massive vice like mandibles with enormous force and enables them to crack whatever nut they are tackling. Their bill can exert a pressure equivalent to 150 pounds per square inch and one thousand times their own weight. Dealing with the sunflower seed scattered around today must be a doddle in comparison. I watched as the female Hawfinch manipulated a seed in her bill, splitting the outer casing to get at the kernel and even as she was doing this cocking her head to eye the next seed to take her fancy.

There is a marked contradiction between their fierce appearance, created by the lack of forehead and flat crown, below which stare eyes that suggest no compromise and the reality that they are meek birds with a shy demeanour. It is always something that strikes me each time I see them. 

Female Hawfinch

For a few minutes, maybe two, maybe three, she remained on the branch feeding but as always happens in this very public spot she was disturbed. Usually it is a passing car, trailbiker, dog walker or even a loud noise that can spook them and the other birds. Just about anything can cause these ultra shy, wary finches to flee. It is something you have to accept as it will never change. Occasionally you are lucky when the Hawfinches are on the ground feeding. There can, on all too rare occasions, be an extended period of viewing due to no disturbance but even so it is only minutes before they find cause to fly up into the Yew or away  across The Green to the trees on the other side.

The female we were watching was soon disturbed, this time by a car passing down the narrow track between us and the Yew. She was gone. Never to return although we were not to know that at the time.

Let's hang on Mark. Hopefully she or the male might return. 

Half  an hour later and a male Hawfinch dropped down out of the Yew, sadly not to perch on the branch on the ground but choosing to hop around behind it. What a beautiful amalgam of rich colours he presented, comprising a head of rust orange with a boa of dove grey around his neck, a broad slash of a white wing bar and a rich chocolate brown mantle. His underparts were a delicate woodpigeon pink and the curious ruffled feathers towards the wing tips, shining iridescent blue in the sunlight. A veritable stunner and his finery positively glowed in the sun as he glared impassively. Unfortunately he never came as close as the female and remained at a distance that caused my camera to struggle but I managed a few passable images.What one apologetically calls 'record shots' but they still bring a thrill each time I look at them. Hawfinches can do this to you.

Male Hawfinch

Two or three minutes, no more, was all that was granted us before he too was disturbed by a passing trailbiker and departed, flashing white on his wings and tip of his tail, as he flew fast, in swooping flight, across The Green.

We hung on for another forty five minutes but the disturbance had increased greatly and it was obvious there was unlikely to be any repeat visits from the Hawfinches.

We gave in to a combination of hunger and cold, retreating to Parkend Village and a welcoming cafe which had a large log burning stove, dispensing a radiating heat which did a fine job of thawing us out after our prolonged and very chilling vigil in Mark's Landrover.

Mark was keen to go to nearby Cannop Ponds but I suggested we first visited Parkend Church as here was a chance of crossbills coming down to drink in the puddles by the church which is a well known spot to wait for them. The morning, although bitterly cold was a wonderful combination of still air and bright sunshine, the blue sky appearing to be embraced by the mighty upreaching boughs of the venerable, and majestic oaks that towered above us.

There was to be no luck with the crossbills, not even the hint of a call from above as they passed over but a huge female Goshawk flew low across the sky above the gravestones in the cemetery to disappear behind a wooded ridge.

We drove to Cannop Pond with one bird in particular on our minds, Mandarin Ducks, which are almost a guaranteed presence there. At first the pond which is more akin to a small lake, looked to be devoid of them, which can happen. The pond was populated by Mallards,Tufted Ducks,some Wigeon and half a dozen Little Grebes.

Eventually Mark thought he could see a Mandarin drake, secreted as they often are, deep amongst the branches that hang down from the banks to touch the water. Some walkers disturbed them and not one but a pair of Mandarins flew out from their hiding place.

On the other side of the pond we found more Mandarins, concealed at the edge of a stand of dead reed stems.We walked around the pond to get closer and they slowly swam out from the reeds to linger just offshore, uncertain of our intentions.

Some birders are dismissive of Mandarin Ducks, arguing they are not native at all but they are accepted as such by most and whatever the rights or wrongs, let's forget the arguments and celebrate that the drakes are unbelieveably colourful and beautiful. It is as if  an artist has taken a pallet of as many colours as possible and daubed them haphazardly over the drake's head and body to create a vision of bright loveliness. The female cannot compete with her mate's impossibly complex colouring and form, being soft grey and dull brown overall, densely mottled on her breast and flanks with bold white  spots and 'spectacles' of white around her eyes.

There were nine Mandarins in all, five drakes and four females and they swam around the periphery of the pond, resting in and amongst the branches that hung down into the water, which seems to be their preferred habitat.

We did try looking for crossbills but  a long and latterly muddy walk around Woorgreens failed in this final mission, just a pair of stonechats and a female Siskin was all we could find but it had been a rewarding and immensely enjoyable day with two colourful and in their own way spectacular species of bird encountered. We could hardly complain.