Highs and lows of 2016

Well we all have our best bits of a year and for me, finally getting the Yelkouan Shearwater accepted by BOURC/ BBRC, Mike Langman and I saw off Berry Head way back takes some beating. To be honest as nearly 8 years had past, I had all but written it off (due to perceived taxonomic issues). Then for the two of us to be asked by British Birds to write a 'New for Britain' was a great honour. For a seabirder (probably) a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this!
British Birds: 109: 448-459
In fact I seemed to be on a bit of a roll with British Birds as they also published my article on Balearic Shearwaters numbers through west Lyme Bay, Devon. Its great to see some use made of 10 years' (2172 hours) of seawatching observation, for this critically endangered seabird. I added in the 2016 data (not a good year), on this blog here. I hope to do some more analysis of seabird passage this year on this blog, perhaps looking at Arctic Skua, which is cause for concern!
British Birds: 109: 350-352
But.....my 2016 Devon seawatching year was not great and 2016 will not go down as notable. I did see two Cory's Shearwaters at separate headlands, and four Great Shearwaters (a two and two singles); and two Long-tailed Skuas. To think I was seawatching at Berry Head when a Black-browed Albatross went east past Prawle and I know where I should have been. No unusual raptors seen in 2016 and the fact a Lammergeier probably went over my house while I was away was bit off. I did find an unringed White Stork low over Exminster and a Dusky Warbler at Prawle (what a rare warbler for me was quite good!). Ending the year with three Siberian Chiffchaffs at my local sewage works was nice. Of course I saw lots of good birds, too many to list as rarities for me are not everything!
Unringed White Stork over the car, Exminster 10/05/2016
[Siberian] Chiffchaff one of three near home 29/12/16. 
One great project to be involved with was WildGuides new Britain's Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, which was published in 2016. It set a new standard for a photographic guide, even pushing more conventional greats like the Collins Bird Guide hard. In fact the two together are a great combination for all birdwatchers. Its a great privilege to know your photographs (mainly seabirds, but some raptors in my case) are being used to help others in Bird identification. I think I ended up with 60 or so photographs in there. However, the book is not perfect and a couple of my photos have wrong labeling, but I doubt most people would notice unless you really know your stuff! Its 99% perfect and I'm sure a 2nd edition will be spot on. In 2016 there was a lot of 'grumpy old men' talk of buy a book, in relation to some internet postings, too right and this is a good one to get. Yes, this is what books are for, to help us all with our bird identification, then if you're still unsure and need help (as we all sometimes do) consult an expert, but at least have go yourself first. Books help with our spelling of bird names too, a bugbear of mine on certain blogs! I need help too as I'm dyslexic!!

It was also a privilege to get some Fulmar (mainly dark phase birds but also variation in bill colour) shots in Bob Flood and Ashely Fisher's latest Albatrosses & Fulmarine Petrels multimedia guide, in their North Atlantic Seabird series. I've been a great fan of their book / video combinations. What was even better the excellent illustrations within were all done by friend and local artist John Gale.

One of the lows for me was the 2015 Devon Bird Report which came out in 2016, hence in this review. Having been heavily involved in the past (1994-2009), I was also co-editor 1996-1998 (what a dyslexic editor!!). But there's more to editing than just spelling and grammar!! We once had an amazing editor in Pete Reay et al. - the halcyon years from 1999–2009. The report won 'best' award a few years on the trot and it was a honour to have been part of a great team. It was always going to be a hard act to follow. I was coaxed back in for DBR2015, but certain aspects relating to the use of my own records, are to be frank embarrassing, I won't say anymore as this review is generally upbeat. But before moving on there were couple of interesting things I found in 2016 while researching for writing the raptor account. (1) 2015 was the first year since 1969 with no accepted Honey-buzzard records! (2) It was the best Red Kite year, with a 'super' influx. But when it came to writing Red Kite, on receiving the data I thought hey there's a lot of sightings missing here, including that of 28 I remember seeing on the blog! So I painstakingly went through the Devon Bird news blog and extracted all the Red Kite records into excel. I seem to remember it added c120 new records, almost doubling the database. Guess what, many people put their sighting on the blog but then don't send them in! Perhaps people think putting things on the blog means it automatically gets into the DBR database. Well it did for Red Kite for one year only (as I passed the extract on to the data manager) and I've moved on. One thing the report always contains is excellent WeBS data etc and photographs, just needs a dam good edit and more consistent approach. Surely my five counts of 60+ Mandarins on the river Dart near home are worth an individual mention, like 88 on 06/02/2015 (I'm not after initials its the big counts that are important). Hopefully Devon Bird's new recorder will influence this and I wish him well.

There was also the Devon Bird Atlas published in 2016 with much pomp and ceremony. I'm not a great fan of atlases but of course did my bit to help, bit of surveying, then validating at the data collection stage, and then writing etc. The problem with Atlases the day they are produced they are already out of date. One thing the Devon atlas showed me is how flawed some of Sitters data was (just look at Kestrel, massive observer bias and that applies to other species). At the end of the day we still see the trends of what we already know is happening. But as birds don't recognise county boundaries, for me the National BTO Atlas 2007-11 is far more meaningful. Mark Avery wrote a review of Devon's, a bit harsh but to the point here. Its OK Mark I certainly wasn't offended. In Mark's review he called Sitters Atlas excellent, but how can it be if the data is flawed?

But what about my other great passion, monitoring raptors? Well a mixed year. At my local site the Peregrines produced four young (well four were present just prior to fledging). So that was the first time in 28 years of my monitoring (and the site being occupied) they had produced a four! I was really looking forward to watching four young playing over the town. But we never speak too soon with this site as they can be targeted just post-fledging (poisoned by folk who do not like Peregrines, as they have been in a least four times in the past). Well the young seemed to fledge OK, but something was wrong, I was not seeing them playing around as they should. Subsequent visits located just two young females, not flying well and unable to get any height! I first suspected mild poisoning and monitored them intently over the next days, although I wasn't altogether convinced their symptoms matched poisoning. From previous experience, with the modern pesticide abuse (Aldicarb & Carbofuran as used in 2005 & 2011), which sadly I've seen here, death is usually pretty quick and you just find the corpse. Anyway, their condition was not improving, they would just sit around low down with no major flights or play. So I contacted some falconer friends for advice and asked if they could help me catch them and take them in, to assess their condition and possibly keep for treatment. This meant seeing whether suitable facilities were available, Dave Scott could do it and Leonard Hurrell at a pinch!
They look like two healthy juvenile females, full cropped because the adults are feeding them. But they're too thin! Time to call an expert.
So friend and raptor rehabilitation guru Dave Scott came over and we managed to catch one of the two. On examination, there was little pectoral muscle on her breast bone, hence her inability to fly well (we couldn't catch the other). Poor bird had a bad parasite infestation of worms, seen when looking down her throat. Despite the parents feeding them well, the worms were taking all the nutrition before it could be assimilated into muscle - no muscle and can't fly to build muscle either.  Two days later I managed to catch the 2nd female who had become weaker and took her over to Dave's. He ordered up the right treatment from consulting his contacts and the slow process of de-worming these fine girls began. If I (we) had not intervened they would have died, the presumed fate of their other two siblings. Sadly in all this they missed that vital window with the adults of being taught to hunt. Although it was hoped to get them back quickly it took too long for them to be de-wormed properly and regain their condition, so now Dave has taken on the role of parent and will teach them to hunt for release into the wild. An unsung hero largely financed by himself, though I was able to arrange a donation towards their upkeep and treatment.

So last but not least to my passion for Goshawks. Over many years I've built up very good working relations with many landowners and forestry organisations. Finding breeding sites, helping plan around the birds. E.g forestry operations to take place so they don't affect the birds breeding success; and where possible putting in retentions (safe mature stands to keep the birds nesting in). Its a good relationship and we've had much success to the point where the birds are doing OK. One particular valley though had a major setback a few years ago when the area was taken over by a massive pheasant rearing shoot and my single productive pair there, unsurprisingly disappeared!! Luckily the area was subsequently bought by a conservation friendly organisation. Great news and I located two new pairs there after two years, but..... also there was now much better public access. Move on to 2015 and unfortunately one path passing close by a nest had a bad effect as with increased public access the site failed and the other site raised just a single. So one from two pairs in 2015 was not good. So for 2016 with the kind cooperation of the landowners I asked if we could close the track for the breeding season, as the birds had built a new nest that was easily looked down into, to see if it made a difference. The outcome was very successful and this pair reared four and the other three. That's seven more young in that valley and they take many Grey Squirrels as this family portrait shows. I should say of course I'm licenced to work with Goshawk and Peregrines.
In all my years of monitoring I seldom find a nest that can be looked into by a track. Closure of the track meant four young fledged - a great success.

Lets see what 2017 brings! Happy New Year.


  1. Really enjoyed this post. Looking forward to reading more about the raptor work this year. Fantastic photos...

  2. Cheers Josh and thanks for your help from the policing side this year.

  3. A fascinating read Mark, especially the raptor insights - aspects of bird monitoring/conservation that I would imagine few know about (certainly not me anyway) and yet must be quietly going on behind the scenes all the time.

  4. Thanks Gavin, yes we do our best!!

  5. An interesting read Mark and good to see you blogging - Hope to see you in the field soon....

  6. Hi Chris, not sure how long the blogging will last!

  7. Fascinating Mark. Congrats on your (and Mike's) well-deserved 1st for Britain and admire your dedication re raptors. Interesting comments on the DBR - had some worrying issues re editng of my gull texts and inclusion of unsubmitted rarities. Seems there's a rush to publish to a timetable rather than get things right. All the best for 2017

  8. Hi Tim, thanks and all the best to you, especially with that 'Tubenose Handbook', can't wait!
    Yes I think the report is too rushed and needs better editing, its far too inconsistent. But there's a huge effort that goes in there, by everyone which is shame those little things aren't ironed out, the vast majority of it is good. These things build to a peak and then go down and I'm sure it will get back up there again one day with the right people. The editor / recorder are a pivatol roles in making it good. My big shears were pulled (yet Long-tails weren't!), perhaps more species need to move to 'B's as good records are being lost and take some of the burden off DBRC! IRBC have done that, you don't even need to do a description for a Fea's type Petrel there these days!! But the really embarrassing one in there for me, well I'm not mentioning, to draw attention it!

    1. Mark, I'm worried when you say 'my big shears were pulled'. Do you mean your 2015 records? As a member of DBRC I don't remember ever seeing them, or have I misunderstood you?

    2. Hi Tim, they were written in by Mike when he did the section as I'd sent records in [and saw his draft]. But in the published version moved to the back, as I assume no description received - if I'd forgotten to do one I wasn't asked (bit late now though). Same applies for Long-tailed Skua yet that wasn't pulled to the back, but should have been to be inconsistent. Mind you its only a couple of records so doesn't make much difference. I'm sure things will get better when Kev gets stuck in.

  9. Hi Mark, agree it's the inconsistency that bothers; as I said, 2 records of Kumlien's added after I'd signed off my texts, neither submitted/accepted by DBRC so shouldn't have been there. We have a procedure, if we don't stick to it, people will rightly complain. It's not my only issue with the report but it's one of the first things we need to sort out.