Poor old Gilbert is getting restless. Despite the fact that there is more interest in wildlife than ever before, it seems that most of the so-called conservation organisations are losing interest in species. Instead they prefer to babble on about landscape scale conservation and ecosystem services (whatever they are). Could this be because most of their staff don't have any knowledge about species if they don't have four legs?
This is my attempt to encourage an interest in good old-fashioned natural history.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Tagging Cuckoos

What an awesome day. A 3am alarm isn't my favourite way to start a day but I was meeting a researcher from the British Trust for Ornithology in the New Forest at four to try to catch Cuckoos as part of their satellite tracking project.

We had selected a location the evening before and set three nets in a triangle around an isolated small tree. The nets were furled for the night. Before first light we opened them, placed a stuffed Cuckoo within the triangle and turned on a tape lure. Shortly after dawn we heard a Cuckoo calling but by 5am all was quiet so we went to check the nets in case it had been caught. Much to my amazement, we had not one but three Cuckoos; one in each net!

This created a bit of a problem. Fitting satellite tags is a delicate and precise process and cannot be done quickly. Would keeping all three birds for tagging mean that the last bird was in captivity for too long? Problem solved though because tags can only be put on birds weighing 115 grams or more and one weighed in at 113g so it was just ringed and released.

It was a real education helping with the tag fitting. Great care has to be taken with ensuring that no feathers are trapped under the harness and the positioning and fit of the harness has to be remarkably accurate. When everything is done, checked and rechecked, he's ready to go.

We moved to a new site a couple of kilometres away and set the same pattern of nets with stuffed bird and tape. The wind had picked up by now and I wasn't sure whether we'd have any further success. The BTO researcher had allocated three days for catching the required four Cuckoos but with the forecast for the next couple of days being dodgy, we needed to make the most of a dry day. I needn't have worried as one bird of the required weight was quickly caught and after processing that bird we found another two in the nets with a further bird in a tree nearby. I would never have believed that there were so many birds in such a small area if I hadn't seen it for myself. One of these two birds was only 111 grams so we ended up with exactly what we needed and by mid-day we were done and packed up.

It was fascinating to hear about all the technological advances taking place and the potential projects on the horizon which will revolutionise our knowledge of, particularly, migrant birds. It's an exciting time to be involved in bird research, even if only as an enthusiastic (even after a 3am start!) amateur.

No doubt the four tagged New Forest Cuckoos will appear on the BTO web site in due course and we will all be able to follow their fortunes as they hopefully make it down to west Africa for the winter and back again next spring. You will not be surprised to hear that I have put the case for one of them to be named Gilbert!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Butterfly Conservation symposium

Last weekend I attended Butterfly Conservation's 7th International Symposium at Southampton University. I'm not a great fan of conferences. I find that most lectures are poorly presented or have little new to say (or both). BC's symposium has parallel sessions for most of the three days so you can pick and choose the presentations that mots interest you. Of those that I attended, a couple were dire (I'll resist the temptation to say which), most were ok - moderately interesting and one was outstanding.

The outstanding one was by Louise Mair of the University of York and was entitled 'Abundance changes and habitat availability drive species' responses to climate change'. I would normally avoid lectures about climate change like the plague, not because I don't believe it is happening but because all you ever hear is the bleedin' obvious! But there was a lecture on the effects of nitrogen deposition on the Wall Brown during the same session so I stuck it out.

Louise had used data from the various butterfly atlases to look at distribution changes and from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme to look at abundance changes, so if you have ever submitted records for one of the atlases or done a transect you have contributed to her work. She found that butterflies ability to extend their range northwards was related to habitat availability (bleedin' obvious you might say, but wait...) when the source populations were stable or increasing but when the source populations were in decline, as they were in most cases between the late '90's and late '00's, habitat availability was irrelevant. So, to quote the abstract from one of her papers 'This suggests that stable (or positive) abundance trends are a prerequisite for range expansion.' She pointed out that most climate change research focussed on the availability of suitable habitat for species to colonise and ignored the health or otherwise of the source populations. I understand that her papers have a very high citation index and have clearly had an impact within the scientific community but I suspect that her work remains entirely unknown within the conservation sector.

This is important because I think that her work has implications well beyond climate change. No-one can have failed to notice that these days nature reserves are out of favour. Everything is about 'landscape scale conservation' (LSC). Now I don't have a problem with LSC as a concept. Clearly it would be a good thing if you could increase the amount of suitable habitat for species to colonise but my problem is with the apparent attitude that it is the only thing that matters. When LSC was first being promoted, the main justification seemed to be 'we've been managing small nature reserves for x years and still species are declining so we need to do things on a much larger scale'. That would be all well and good if the nature reserves were being well managed. I remember a new Conservation Officer being appointed to a County Wildlife Trust (before everyone had pompous titles!) and saying that that Trusts' reserves were 'the worst managed pieces of land in [that county]'. What's changed? If anything, nature reserve management has got considerably worse in the intervening years. I'm sure you can all come up with numerous examples of mis-management of nature reserves. So what are the implications of Louise Mair's findings in this respect? If you don't manage your nature reserves properly and get strong, stable or increasing populations, you can do whatever you want in the surrounding landscape and species will still not colonise those areas. Bleedin' obvious? Maybe, but if it is, it seems to have by-passed the conservation movement in Britain at the moment.    
I hope that Louise will get funding to continue her research (she's welcome to have the data from my recording scheme to analyse) and that she will promote her work to the conservation movement as well as the scientific community. How about an article in British Wildlife Louise?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Drummin & buzzin

I've decided to adopt one of the reserves that I used to manage and carry out as much surveying there as I can find the time to do. It's nice to have something to focus on but as the owners are now planning to start grazing the site and have no resources (or inclination) to carry out baseline surveys, it will hopefully also be of some use.

I spent a few hours there on Saturday in gorgeous sunshine. The first hour or so was pleasant enough and produced a few inverts that will probably be new to the site when I get round to identifying them. I walked through the woodland alongside the stream and came across a patch of Moschatel which I'd not seen there before, although it is on the site list. I heard some distant drumming which sounded like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker so headed over to the area and after a while got good views. There have been a few records from the site over the years but always outside the breeding season. I spent some time watching it, wondering whether it had a mate when suddenly another starts drumming a short distance away. For the next few minutes they drummed and called at each other until the second bird seemed to move away.

The next day my brother went to see them and got this cracking photo and also saw the first male apparently excavating a nest hole about 45ft up in a willow.

I wanted to find some flowering sallow as it is always excellent for invertebrates. Although the sallow is flowering elsewhere, this site is always quite cool and it took quite a while before I found a couple of small trees in flower. Over the next hour I saw Peacocks, Commas, a Red Admiral, six species of hoverfly and a couple of solitary bees. Not quite as active as I'd expected but I expect it'll be better in a week or so.

Eristalis tenax
Wandering back I came across the impressive cranefly Tipula vittata which seems to be quite common this spring.

Further up the track I noticed a Nomada bee patrolling the path edge. I really like Nomadas although they can be quite tricky to identify. They are cleptoparasites of solitary bees which can help with identification if you can find the host.

This one keyed out as Nomada leucophthalma although there was one discrepancy with the supposed features. It was hanging about round the nest holes of Andrena clarkella which is a known host so I'm fairly confident of the ID.

Andrena clarkella
 Whilst trying to photograph the Nomada my attention was drawn to a small ant-like creature scurrying through the sparse vegetation. Closer examination revealed that it was actually a spider. I know nothing about spiders but I reckon this one is Steatoda phalerata which is apparently quite scarce. The habitat fits and it is said to be ant-like but I've sent the photo to a friend who knows what he's talking about when it comes to spiders, in case there are lookalikes.

Friday, 28 March 2014


Today I received details from the BTO of a ringed Guillemot that I found dead on the beach at Hayling seafront on 13th January.

The ring was in perfect condition and at the time I suspected that it was a rehabilitated bird that had been ringed a matter of days before it was found dead. Clearly the rings survive in sea water much better than I realised as it had been ringed as a nestling on the Isle of Canna on 20th July 2013, 785km NNW.

It had been particularly stormy in the lead up to my finding the corpse although at that stage there hadn't been a lot of dead auks found elsewhere.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Unknown origins and one-sided friendships

During the recent floods the Environment Agency opened the sluice on the Slipper Millpond in Emsworth to reduce the risk of flooding upstream. This turned what is normally a saline lagoon into mud with a river flowing through it and I thought I'd go and have a look at what the low water levels had revealed.

The only new species that I saw was the tubeworm Ficopomatus enigmatica. It is not a native species and Wikipedia says that it is from Australia and is a major threat to native wildlife. Unsurprisingly, this isn't correct. Whilst it is now found in areas with variable salinity in temperate waters throughout the world, it is not known where it originates from and it is considered non-native in Australia. It's requirement for variable salinity means that it does not compete with most native species and as it has beneficial effects on water quality by removing suspended solids and improving the oxygen and nutrient status of the water so it may actually benefit other benthic species. There are potential negative effects but it certainly isn't a clear-cut case of 'nightmare alien invader'.

It was noticeable that many of the colonies at Emsworth were attached to litter in the mud.

Whilst there I watched a female Red-breasted Merganser fishing in the river. The whole time she was followed around by a Little Egret - presumably hoping to pick off anything that the Merganser missed or disturbed. The merganser seemed fairly tolerant of the egrets attentions but I can't help feeling that it was a rather one-sided friendship.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Wanna see a BoP? The conclusion

The place that I was most looking forward to visiting came at the end of the trip; a rustic 'lodge' on a tributary of the Elevala River. This involved a two hour boat ride along the massive Fly River then up the Elevala.

 The lodge was certainly 'rustic'

But the view from the dining area was stunning

Bird of the trip for me displayed one morning on the tallest tree on the horizon in the above photo so needless to say there are no photos of Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise from this trip!

The down side of this area was supposed to be the extreme heat and humidity, combined with mozzies, leeches, chiggers, etc. but it was about 10C cooler than normal and my approach of shorts and sandals paid off, with no chiggers or leech bites and just a few mozzies, and it certainly made the exceptionally muddy trails easier to navigate.

Some of the best birds were seen from the boat on the way in.

Marbled Frogmouth on nest
Blyth's Hornbill
Southern Crowned Pigeon. The best pigeon in the world?
Palm Cockatoo
The dense forests made birding very difficult and almost every species had to be worked for really hard. Common Paradise Kingfisher took about an hour to pin down but eventually showed well.

But this was nothing on Hook-billed Kingfisher. Several different birds were heard each day but despite astonishing efforts by both the Rockjumper leaders and the local guides (who are amazingly sharp at picking things up) all remained invisible. I had given up all hope of seeing this species but on the last morning, another sterling effort finally pinned one down.

The river trip back to Kiunga produced a group of Channel-billed Cuckoos

The trip was pretty much over now. If only.............
We spent a final morning birding the Boys Town Road while one of the Rockjumper leaders went to Kiunga airport to check our bags in for the flight back to the capital. We saw a few bits and pieces but most of the effort went into trying to see Blue Jewel-Babbler which I'd already seen so I kept out of the way. The highlight for me was the extended views of Yellow-capped Pygmy-Parrot.

We returned to Kiunga to find out that the plane was cancelled because of a pot-hole on the runway. The only option was to overnight in Kiunga and then drive to Tabubil (oh no, not Tabubil) early the next morning to try to fly out from there. The only problem with this plan is that planes can only land at Tabubil when the visibility is clear because of the surrounding mountains, but it rains at Tabubil 365 days of the year.

So began a routine. We would get to Tabubil airport early in the morning. A plane would fly out from Port Moresby, circle over the airport, decide they couldn't land and we'd return to the hotel for crap food and crap satellite TV. If anything the weather was getting worse each day and the 'mis-information' (some might call it downright lies) from Air Nuigini didn't help matters. We couldn't even get a message home because the whole town is run by a mining company and they don't allow access to email or social media. The Rockjumper leaders were absolute stars but even guys who could get a plane to fly to the wrong place earlier in the trip couldn't do anything to resolve this one.

Finally, on the Friday morning, when the visibility was worse than on any previous day, a plane appeared on the runway. It had cost us a days birding at Varirata National Park and two rebooking fees for our onward flights to the UK (or in the case of those who were booked on the extension to New Britain, three-quarters of the extension). How they could land on that day and not on the previous ones when the visibility was better will remain a mystery for ever but at least we were on our way out.

So, to answer the question in the title. You want to see a Bird of Paradise, what should you do? My advice is that you have unlimited money and unlimited time, book a trip with Rockjumper. If you have restrictions upon either, buy the David Attenborough video and wait a few decades for the country (and especially its airline) to get its act together.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Wanna see a BoP? Part five

The far west of PNG beckoned and, amazingly, our flights back to Port Moresby and out to Kiunga were both pretty much on time. From Kiunga we had a two hour drive to the mining town of Tabubil. A friend who had been there wrote in his trip report something along the lines of 'get me out of this god-forsaken shit hole' so perhaps my judgement was somewhat coloured before I arrived but neither the town nor the hotel did little to change my mind. The service in the hotel restaurant was the worst I've experienced anywhere in the world and on one evening my meal just never arrived. One hotel notice did provide entertainment though.

The area did produce a number of really good birds including Salvadori's Teal and Papuan Eagle although neither showed for long enough to allow photography. It seemed that most of the birds that we were going to see showed on the first day and I'd have happily not stayed on any longer. The weather wasn't helping much either.

The insect life in the area provided many of the highlights.

There were several different species of these tortoise beetles (or helicopter beetle) as some called them, and an entomologist in our group took a few specimens to send to a world expert in this group.

Jumping spider
Praying Mantis stalking skipper butterfly
My only cockroach sighting of the trip was in our bathroom at the hotel in Tabubil but by the time I'd called my brother to come and see it, it was an ex-cockroach.

During our time in this part of PNG we were followed around by a group of birders from (I think) Taiwan. Their attire was sufficiently entertaining that I couldn't resist.

Their behaviour in leaving all their rubbish behind at the Greater BoP lek was somewhat less entertaining and I was sorely tempted to tell them exactly what I thought of them. Thankfully our group removed the rubbish.

Not before time, we left Tabubil and returned to Kiunga where the main attraction was a site poetically called Kilometre 17. This is the site where David Attenborough was hauled up into the canopy to see the Greater BoP's lek. But before we got to that there were some more good insects to see.

And even a cool spiders web.

But the birds took centre stage:

Rufous-bellied Kookaburra
King Bird of Paradise
Greater Bird of Paradise
Whilst watching the displaying Greater BoPs, a raucous commotion announced the arrival of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos

Friday, 7 March 2014

Wanna see a BoP? Part four

The next couple of days was spent at Kumul Lodge, situated at 2900m in montane forest. It was cold (as was the water in the taps, when there was any), it was wet (again) and the food wasn't great but they did have a great bird table.

This was regularly loaded with fruit and provided a constant procession of birds that could be photographed easily from the balcony. The range of species wasn't great when compared to feeding stations in South America for instance, but the ease of viewing compared with much of PNG meant that a lot of time was spent sitting on the balcony.

Brown Sicklebill (male)
Brown Sicklebill (female)
Brehm's Tiger Parrot
Common Smoky Honeyeaters are widespread in PNG but it was good to be able to observe a bizarre aspect of their behaviour. This is a normal one:

But when they get excited they look like this:

You could actually see the facial skin colour change as they got themselves wound up around the food.
Other birds seen around the garden included:

Papuan Lorikeet - great expression
Friendly Fantail
White-winged Robin
Island Thrush - apparently. Be serious, it's a Blackbird
Mountain Owlet-Nightjar
The trails around the lodge were generally quiet but a few highlights were

Crested Satinbird
Blue-capped Ifrita
Regent Whistler

Coconut Lorikeet
And my second favourite bird of the trip:

King of Saxony Bird of Paradise
Unfortunately my favourite bird of the trip (Twelve-wired BoP) was too distant to photograph. Not much closer was the Lesser Bird of Paradise lek but it was good to get any sort of views as the lek that used to be visited by birding groups was along a road that was impassable in wet weather and it seemed unlikely that we'd be able to get there. The new site was across a large river which apparently was crossed by walking along a tree trunk. I wasn't keen! We actually found that the villagers had constructed a new bridge but it wouldn't win any health and safety awards and I was quite happy that we could get distant views of the lek without crossing the river.

The only mammal we saw in the Kumul area was another Speckled Dasyure. It used to be a good area for mammals but a couple of years ago the two local villages decided to start killing each other. The police didn't intervene because they don't have to when something is classed as a tribal dispute! The losing villagers fled the area but left their dogs behind and these went feral and killed all the local mammals.