Thursday, 30 May 2013

Australia 2013 - Rugby; not a bird tour

The British and Irish Lions are about to tour Australia. For those of you not familiar with rugby the Lions are a team made up from players from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and they tour one of the big 3 rugby nations every 4 years (Either Australia, New Zealand and South Africa).  Since the Lions only visit an individual country once every 12 years the players in these countries only get a single chance to play the Lions and for the host nation it is up there with the world cup. Anyway this year it’s Australia’s year.
For the last couple of years Australian Rugby has not been at its best and a lot of people are anticipating an easy  tour victory. I fear they are wrong, not because I’m an Auz-o-phile (I’m not I love to see them beaten at anything and everything) but because a lot of the Lions the home are under estimating the strength of the Aus team and over estimating the strength of the Lions.
I not going to go through all the players on the team but I have serious doubts over several selections/ non-selections. Since I’m English I keep most of my comments to them otherwise the non English out there will think I’m too partisan.
Robshaw – He’s  really unlucky not to be going after performing heroically week in week out for nearly all the whole season for club and country, captained England to victory over NZ and only faded in the last couple of weeks of the season I think through exhaustion. He is also a tireless carrier of the ball something I think is lacking in the Lions squad.
Stevens - I have no idea what the selectors see in Steven all he’s good for is giving away penalties.
Croft - (this will be controversial in the Midlands) was out most of the season and only looks good when he hangs about on the wing scoring tries. As a blind side wing forward he’s normally absent without leave. His inclusion in a test team will leave the forwards under powered at the breakdown and if you can’t get the ball you won’t win.
Morgan - should have been in because the Lions are short of ball carriers, players who can make the “Hard Yards”. Many of the props don’t carry, the second rows are mobile but short of bulk and the same is true in the back row.
Wilkinson – I agree with him being left out. He’s too old and frail.
From the other countries O’Driscoll should not be on the plane, he’s past it, and O’Connell is exceedingly lucky having played only a couple of times this year due to injury.
I also worry about Warburton as captain – I’m not convinced he will get through a tour such as this uninjured.
Scotland must feel offended by only having 3 players in the squad especially as one of those has only been in the UK for 10 minutes.  I know they came bottom of the pile this year but they are not that far behind. Kelly brown is unlucky not to be going and Maitland should not have even been short listed.  Gatland (Tour Manager) being a New Zealander must be selecting him based on him being a fellow NZ-er.
I’m also disappointed because the squad selection has not been very brave. Historically the squad contained a new comer or two to international rugby who was given the chance to shine. There’s none of that with this squad. I would love to have seen Christian Wade given a run out and I’m sure there are possibilities in the other home nations.
I’m not going to go through the rest of the players because I don’t actually see them play that much however a lot of the talk is about how our forwards will dominate. Well I’ve watched a lot of Super 15 rugby this year and the Aussie packs and front rows in particular have been doing pretty well against the best NZ and SA can throw at them. I’m not expecting the Aussie front row to fold they way they have in recent years and they have a pretty decent back row.
At half back they could well have the edge with Genia  and Cooper (not in the squad at the moment but I’m sure he will be) getting back into form.
I think the Lions strength with be in the backs because the Lions have the ability to put a gigantic back line together but and it’s a big but, the Aussies tackle really well.
One final thought. A lot of the experts pick teams containing a very large proportion of Welshman. Well Wales have become experts at losing to the Aussies over the last year or two losing to them 6 times in 2011 and 2012, a time when Aussie rugby was at a very low ebb. In the last year the Aussies have got stronger, a lot stronger. I’m not convinced the Welsh have got better.
I would love the Lions to win and win handsomely but I think they will lose. In part because the Aussies are stronger than many on these shores give them credit for, in part because we are not as good as we think we are and in part because of some flawed selections.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Sand Eels and Puffins

What is the truth about Sea bird population declines and Climate change

In this week’s Country File program there was yet another article on sea bird declines and yet again the media skirted round the subject.
One expert they trolled out said the sea bird decline had to be caused climate change – this is the routine mantra for any and everything going on in the environment and one where no one (or everyone) is to blame. The second, from the RSPB, almost contradicted the first "expert"and actually came close to identifying the cause of sea bird decline in that they said what we need are marine reserves. However they didn’t say why. Still it was actually an improvement over a recent article in the RSPB mag which also failed to point the finger where it needs to be pointed – over fishing.

For what it’s worth here’s my thoughts.
For my analysis I will concentrate on Skomer (because I like it there and it has a thriving puffin population) and Scotland (Firth of Forth – Isle of May) where the Puffin population crashed.

Sea Temperatures:
For the last few decades the seas around our shores have been slowly getting warmer but this has only been by 1-2C and the increase is erratic. In fact it may have gone down in the last couple of years. The data is thin but 2011 was back to close to the long term average i.e. it reversed the recent increases and from talking to local fisherman I suspect 2013 is going to be another cold one.
What does this mean for my chosen puffin colonies.
At Skomer the average sea temperature gets down to around 8-10C in winter and the summer high is 14.5 to 16C. In 2007 and 2008 it actually got as high as 17.5 but 2011 was back to the average range.

I don’t have data for the Firth of Forth but I do for Scarborough which for a southerner is pretty close. Here the winter low is several degrees colder than Skomer - around 5-6.5C.and the summer highs at 13.5 – 15C are likewise colder.

So the temperatures in the North Sea are consistently lower than those off the west coast of Wales so it seems strange that the experts always want to explain the crash in North Sea sand eel and puffin numbers to changes in sea temperature.

The case against fishing

It seems fishing for sand eels in the North Sea didn’t start until the 1950’s then increased in popularity in the 70’s and came to a head around 2000. By this time the annual catch had increased to 1,000,000 tonnes – yes 1,000,000 tonnes. Most of the fish were ground up and used for fish oil and fish meal.
Continuing to point fingers – it was the Danes and Norwegians who were doing most of the fishing. Since little was known about sand eel populations and reproductive rates etc it was deemed ok to plunder the seas for everything they could catch.
It was only a matter of time but in the early 2000s  the sand eel population crashed as did the catch and by 2006 the catch was down to 200,000 tonnes.
Only an idiot would think you could take this volume of fish out of the North Sea food chain and not affect it.
I can’t relate these numbers to specific puffin colonies because the numbers are for the whole of the north sea I haven’t been able to break it down to specific areas of the north sea (i.e what was going on around the Isle of May) but someone out there should know. I’m sure I have read the sand eel population in that area crashed but I can’t locate the reference; you’ll have to take my word for it.
As far as I know sand eel fishing has not been significant off the Pembroke coast.


The temperatures of our seas do seem to be warming but there is no correlation between puffin breeding success and sea temperatures (in fact for the Isle of May Puffin numbers increased hugely between 1960 and 2000 in parallel with increased water temperatures). There is however a correlation between breeding success and sand eel numbers – when the sand eel population crashed due to over fishing so did the puffin’s not rocket science.

For anyone interested in reading a bit more on this try

The life of a Sand Eel:

As in all things the above is a simplification in that it only deals with 2 variables – sea temperature and fishing. A few years ago I did some research on sand eels in an attempt to understand what was going on. Here’s what I found:

Sand eel have a world-wide distribution. There are a number of different species/sub species and they exist in tropical, temperate and arctic waters. Whatever the water temperature there is a sand eel that likes it.
Most of the studies I found were on the North Sea species Ammodytes marinus. This is one of 5 species in the North Sea but it is the most prevalent and is the main one caught commercially. This species is at its southern limit so would/could be susceptible to temperature changes (though which part of the life cycle is the most sensitive to temperature change is unknown).
None of this makes disentangling what is going on easy in that conclusions from one area (i.e. the North Sea)  may not be actually be applicable to another ( i.e. Scomer) as the eel species could be different –I’ve found nothing useful on what species lives in southern and western waters.
Getting back to Marinus  it seems that the industrial fishing for sand eels (mainly marinus) really started in the 70’s and continued until 2003 when the catch suffered a major collapsed. At the peak the Danes/Norwegians were extracting around 800,000 - 1,000,000 tonnes per year!!!!!!!! is a pretty good article and has the catch numbers amongst other things.
At first claims were made that this level of extraction was ok because natural predation is far greater than commercial extraction and extraction continued at this level for a number of years until the population (and catch) crashed suddenly. Draw your own conclusion.
For many years the link between sand eel fishing and bird numbers was also questioned because during the initial period of industrial fishing (‘70’s – 80’s) bird numbers actually increased in many areas despite the increasing annual sand eel catch (and sea temperatures fr that matter). However at the same time the sand eels normal predators were decreasing so it could be sand eel numbers only held up because natural predators had been removed by over fishing.

Effect of temperature on Sand Eels.

I tried to look at the effect of sea temperatures on sand eel life but didn’t find much in the way of convincing evidence one way or another.
I did find a paper that suggests that sand eel spawning is unaffected by temperature (it is ok between 0-13C) but the life cycle is such that this could only be part of the story.
Sand eel eggs are laid in winter and are demersal (sink to the bottom) with the juvenile living off the yoke sack often for quite long periods. It looks like the eggs and larvae don’t drift too far so repopulation of a depleted area could take a long time.
I didn’t find much on the impact of temperature on the other phases of the life cycle though since sand eel larvae feed on plankton and water temperature affects the timing of  plankton blooms there must be a dependence on water temperature in there somewhere – though warmer waters may mean more food is available for the sand eels.
It also seems there is a lot of variability into how long it takes the young eels to progress through the larval stages to adulthood. This is regarded as an evolutionary protective measure to ensure the survival of the species under variable conditions – it should take care of any normal variations in the timing of planktonic blooms.
Once in the adult stage the eels feed during the day (hunting by sight) and this takes place mainly during the warmer months when prey is about. During the night and in the winter they remain in the sand where they are immune from some (not all) predators. Warmer waters should therefore mean more prey but I think there are studies that suggest the species of prey available may change with warmer temperatures.

If all of that is not enough it also seems that many sea birds need the young/smaller eels for their chicks especially when newly hatched so it’s possible that the timing and numbers of juvenile eels could be a problem even if the overall population is healthy.

So the impact of temperature change on sand eel populations is a difficult one. What’s not difficult to understand is that if there are no sand eels there due to over fishing then there will be none for the birds to feed on.

Hope you enjoyed this little rant.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Birding on Tobago - day 6 & 7

Day 6
Bon Accord before breakfast then after a morning on the beach at Pigeon Point we returned to the Adventure Farm early afternoon. We went at this time of day because the hummer feeders hang from the roof of the veranda and in the morning they would be completely in the shade. As it is after ~ 3.00pm the sun goes behind the trees putting the hummer feeders in the shade again so if you are visiting and want to take photographs plan the timing of your visit carefully.
Most of the session was spent trying to photograph the hummers ( 5 of the islands 6 species were present all the time). This presented 2 problems. Even at this time of day the light wasn’t brilliant and I had to use ISO 800 or so to get a decent shutter speed (1/1600th was typical) and my lens, a Canon 400 f5.6, has a minimum focusing distance of 3.5-4m and I couldn’t always get far enough away from the birds for it to focus (space is rather tight and getting the right angle to the sun was a problem especially with the ruby topaz). Something like the 300 f4 (or even a 200mm) would have been far more suitable. Distance from the birds is not a problem as they will still come to the feeders when you are only a few feet away.

Female and male White-necked Jacobin

Female and male black-throated mango
Copper rumped hummingbid

Rufous-breasted hermit

Ruby-topaz hummingbid
I actually spent too much time on the hummers (trying to get them in flight rather than sitting on a feeder) and I rather neglected the birds visiting the general feeding station – which most of the time I was standing alongside trying to get hummer pictures.  As it was I only got round to photographing the bird coming to the feeding station when the sun moving off it and the birds were in the shade. We didn’t get round to searching the grounds.
The most common  visitors to the feeders were: blue-grey, palm and white lined tanager, shiny cowbird, motmot, spectacled thrush and pale vented pigeon. Male and female antshrike put in several appearances and this was the only place where I saw ruddy ground dove.
If you are just after seeing the birds and getting the ticks then 2 or 3 minutes will get you all the hummers and an hour or so all the other regular visitors to the feeders. If pictures are your thing a few visits may be required.
Ruddy ground dove


Blue-grey tanager

Barred Antshrike - male

Barred Antshrike - female
Day 7 (Last day)
In the morning and despite my previous experience I revisited Grafton because it was the nearest accessible  lowland woodland and I thought it would be my best chance to get a woodpecker shot and this proved to be the case. All the time I was there a flock of short-tailed  swifts were wheeling overhead (characteristic wing shape), and a noisy flock of caracaras were around the Copra House.
New birds were restricted to a couple of antwrens  and a whiskered vireo but the pictures were too poor even for a blog. Throughout the session I could hear the woodpeckers calling and eventually I tracked one down, and while I waied a motmot put in an appearance:
Red-crowned Woodpecker

Motmot (this time with tail)
The car was returned at lunchtime and we departed early evening.
So how was it overall?
The hotel was very nice and fantastically convenient for the airport but the lack of good birding habitat in the grounds and nearby was a severe restriction which precluded casual birding during the days spent around the hotel/on the beach.
As already stated Grafton was a huge disappointment but the Adventure farm exceeded expectations – I just wish it had been closer to the hotel.
Tobago Plantation did provide a number of good sightings and photo-opportunities but overall was down on expectations. It was supposed to be good for herons but I only found cattle egret. Previous reports had suggested it was good for ducks but I found none and I mean NONE. In fact I didn’t see a duck anywhere on the island during the whole week. There was a lot of habitat around the golf course that would have been interesting to explore.
Bon Accord seems to be a shadow of its previous self with only one water hyacynith covered pond being accessible and where I saw the bulk of the heron species. The sewage farm looks abandoned so another source of ducks and herons has gone.
I went back to Tobago I’d like to stay somewhere a bit more birdy – Blue Waters, or Cuffie River for example. I’d revisit The Adventure Farm and Little Tobago and I’d like to spend more time on the road up to the Main Ridge Rain forest to photograph jacamas and the other forest species when they stray into the light.
My list for the week was not huge – around 75 – but I took several thousand pictures and managed  some pleasing images though as always I would have liked to have done better!
More pictures are on my Flickr site.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Birding on Tobago - Day 5

Pre-breakfast I searched out Bon Accord as I did on most mornings once I had the car – I’ve actually  grouped all the sighting in this one section of the report to save it getting too repetitious.
To get to Bon Accord from Coco Reef I turned off the Milford Road down Alfred Crescent then followed the road till the T junction where I turned right (east) this lead to a heavily overgrown swampy area on your right with what looked like a deserted (and hence dry) sewage works on the opposite side of the road (behind a chain linked fence). I also followed some of the tracks which had water filled ditches on either side but failed to find open water anywhere. The area had to be visited at first light because by 7.30 a work force would turn up clearing the ditches and scaring off most of the bird and the locals started walking the tracks.
Every visit yielded spotted sandpiper (on the road and alongside the ditches), cattle egret(~25), great white egret (1), little blue hereon(2) and green backed heron(lots). I also had single sightings of yellow crowned night heron, tricoloured heron, snowy egret and belted kingfisher (a fly past). House wrens were the most numerous scrub based bird and on my first visit I found a prothonatory warbler (the only warbler I saw all week) and on one visit 2 yellow headed caracara landed about 200 yards away.
Spotted Sandpiper
Prothonotary Warbler
Yellow-headed caracara
All in all Bon Accord was a disappointment – well the bits of it I found were a disappointment - and the only picture of merit I took was a spotted sandpiper. The herons were always too distant for anything other than record shots and I’d got better images of these on Antigua.
On day 5 I started at Bon Accord but quickly moved onto the Tobago Plantation (was the Hilton ponds) and paid my $20 TT (£2) for a permit to enter.   To get there from Coco Reef you drive east along the Milford Road towards Scarborough and the entrance is un-missable on the right. The first lake had southern lapwings roosting on the bank and on the lake were anhinga, least grebe, green backed heron and an osprey which came in to fish then sat in a tree on the far bank annoying an anhinga who was frequenting the same branch.
Southern Lapwing
Least Grebe
Green Heron

Across the golf course I found a couple of small hyacinth covered ponds with janacanas and the pond by the entrance to Magdalena Hote had spotted sandpiper, greater yellowlegs, moorhen and more jacanas.
Wattled jacana

Spotted Sandpiper
There was quite a lot of bushy vegetation around the golf course that would have been interesting to search out but I didn’t have the time though by pushing through some bushes to view another  pond I did see a purple gallinule and another anhinga.
Reading other reports on Tobago these ponds are supposed to be the place for herons and ducks. Well the only herons I saw were cattle egret (~15) on one of the fairways and I didn’t see a single duck; I thought they should have been around at this time of the year.
By 8.45 my time was up and it was back to the hotel for breakfast and a lazy morning in the sun.
In the afternoon we went “Swimming with Horses” at Bucco – an interesting experience where you effectively ride bare back along the beach  then on the return leg the horses go into the sea  wading and occasionally swimming. This was Angie’s idea and she loved it. Me ?  I’ve only ever ridden a horse once before so I hung on like grim death and avoided drowning –  a result given the circumstances.
Drowning with horses

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

One Reason To Photograph Birds

One of the pleasures of bird photography is that even when there’s little in the way of rarities around one can still have a brilliant day with the more common species (though you can have rubbish ones as well!).
My day started at Grove/Stodmarsh in the hope of seeing a nightingale or grasshopper warbler. As it was I saw neither and only heard a lone nightingale.
However photographically I got off to a reasonable start with distant shots of a turtle dove in the paddocks.
Turtle Dove

I found nothing to point the camera at along the river but near the Feast hide 2 greylags flew past and landed close by:

Greylag Goose

Up by Harrison’s I found a wood sandpiper:
Wood Sandpiper - honest

and back along Harrison’s drove a sedge warblers was singing deep in a bush and allowed a close approach.
Sedge Warbler

Along the river bank a chiff posed:
The rest of the circuit was uneventful both for sightings and photographs.
It still wasn’t midday so I headed for Reculver to try my luck with the sand martins. As normal I completely failed with my attempts at flight shots but the birds were collecting dried grass for their nests from the edge of the concrete path so I sat down and waited in hope. The martins never came close enough for a gallery shot (people stopping to chat didn’t help - why do they do that?) but it was a behaviour I hadn’t seen before – from the martins that is not the walkers.
Sand martins disputing a blade of grass 

After that I made my way home via Sandwich. First stop was the Elms where I immediately found a crest (calling) but while waiting for it to emerge a common whitethroat popped out of the bush 6 or 7 yards away and hopped around in front of me for several minutes.
Common Whitethroat

By the time the whitethroat flew off the crest had disappeared unseen so I cut my losses and went to Restharrow scrape.
For several days people had been reporting yellow wagtails coming in front of the hide but as I arrived I was told they hadn’t been there in the previous hour.
Anyway I went in and through the glass shutters I could see one by the waters edge. I quietly opened the window (it didn’t fly) and fired off a host of shots.
Yellow wagtail
The bird finally walked/hopped out of range then flew across to the island and I expected that to be the last of it but 10-15 minutes later it was back to repeat the exercise.
So there you have it – not a great days birding but it was a great day with the camera.
More pictures of the chiff, whitethroat and yellow wag are on my Flickr site.