The buzzard stands accused ...! [Photo: Peter Orchard]
This letter appeared in the Bournemouth Echo on the 27th May 2020 and I have to say it really saddened me that views such as this still persist. I have encountered the argument many times over the years, usually the poor magpie is the victim of the attack but sparrowhawks get a lot of flack too. This time it is the buzzard:
“I MUST agree with Douglas Mills when he writes about the lack of reptiles on many of the heaths in Dorset.
As a boy growing up in Wareham, we roamed many of the heaths and woodlands surrounding the town, in those days all species of snakes and lizards were in abundance much to the delight of us kids.
Whilst I agree with Douglas that mankind’s presence has played a part in the demise of the reptile population, I do however believe that the increase in the birds of prey population has also played a major part.
Years ago, one had to travel to the remote parts of Purbeck to spot a buzzard, now they are everywhere, indeed a few years back I counted 13 rising on a thermal above the centre of Wimborne.
Farmers and country folk are now no longer allowed or need to keep the birds of prey population in check by shooting etc.
As part of the birds of prey diet is snakes, lizards and small mammals, this in turn leads to a reduction in the number of reptiles.
Therefore, the end result is that the balance of nature has been disturbed, in favour of birds of prey.
Mr Moyes has absolutely no comprehension of what the ‘balance of nature is’. The ‘balance of nature’ is a natural process and not one dictated by human intervention. If birds of prey over predate reptiles then the obvious consequence is that there would be less food for the birds of prey and their numbers would fall. As the birds of prey numbers then go into decline so the reptiles would be subject to less predation and so increase. That is how natural systems ‘balance’ themselves.
The reasons for the decline in reptile populations on the Dorset heaths are far more complex than a recovery in buzzard populations in recent years. Sadly most of the reasons are due to human disturbance of the natural ecosystem with the fragmentation of the once large expanse of heathland in the Poole basin coupled with the increased human activity on the heaths for recreation and, of course, the devastating effects of wildfires carelessly or deliberately started.
The reasons go much deeper and are far more complex. One reason is that most reptiles are insectivorous and the dramatic fall in insect populations coupled to pesticide use means many species of reptile are suffering.
Killing birds of prey is NOT the answer to restoring reptile populations. The old fashioned human concept of killing to control has to cease and we have to try and restore the natural balance of nature and not attempt to exert ill thought out strategies based on outdated thinking.
Holstein dairy cattle on Wareham Common [Photo: Peter Orchard]
I have lived close to Wareham Common for fourteen years and so visit quite regularly and I have become increasingly concerned at the dearth of invertebrate species in recent years. There has, as is well known, been a general decline in insect populations linked primarily to neonicotinoid pesticides but on the common, and also at Stonehill Down recently where there are a significant number of cattle grazed, I have noticed a change in cattle excrement.
I am venturing into the realms of veterinary science here which I am reluctant to do with no background in this particular field but it seems that cattle are now fed a routine medication called ivermectin to combat certain gut infections. I found a little bit about Ivermectin on the 'net':
"Studies indicate that when ivermectin comes into contract with the soil it readily and tightly binds to the soil and becomes inactive over time. Free ivermectin may adversely affect fish and certain water-borne organisms on which they feed. Do not permit runoff from feedlots or production sites to enter streams, lakes or ponds."
Whilst this text is not directly related to invertebrate life on grassland this must surely have an effect on insect life where substantial cattle dung accumulates?
I have no idea if the cattle on the common are receiving this treatment but one thing I have noticed since this practice came into being around five years ago is that the good old fashioned ‘country pancake’ we were familiar with has all but gone. Cow excrement is now slimy and smeared across the grass and can be unpleasant to negotiate on foot.
That is not my main concern however. Once, when a new ‘pancake’ was deposited, an abundance of flies, yellow dung fly and greenbottle in particular, and species of scarab beetles would descend on it to lay eggs. Their eggs then hatched into larvae which ate the cow pat thus naturally biodegrading it. It seems nothing can deal with the new form of excrement partly because it contains this pesticide that kills the freshly laid eggs and/or larvae.
The flies that used cow pats had benefits to human beings and the environment in general other than just decomposing and freeing us from cow dung, they contributed to the pollination of some plants and are food for some other animals, mainly birds. Yellow dung flies were once abundant but are now very scarce on the common and so other species must surely be affected too?
Controlled burning of heathland in the New Forest (Photo: forestandwaterside.info)
The images of the horrendous wildfire just up the road in Wareham Forest this week got me thinking! Fire is something of a paradox on heathlands. Before I go on let me emphasise that I know that the fire was a natural ‘disaster’ in many ways so hear me out …
The heaths as we know them today and the unique array of animals and flora that thrive in this particular habitat came about through our ancient ancestors clearing the natural vegetation, especially birch trees, to try and make it suitable for their agricultural requirements. These early farmers did not have heavy plant and machinery to do this, they cleared by burning. They used fire effectively and created what we see today. Natural habitat succession means that left to nature heathland would quickly revert back to birch woodland, you can see this happening in places in Wareham Forest and on other local heaths.
As a child living on the edge of the New Forest I remember seeing groups of men setting fire to the heath and then using birch brooms to dappen down the flames and they would let the fire spread over a relatively small area to clear birch, gorse and heather to reduce its dominance. This practice goes on to this day in the New Forest as a vital part of its ecological management.
There is, of course, a vast difference between an area of controlled burning in late autumn or early winter and an uncontrolled blaze ravaging across the heath in strong winds at the height of the bird and reptile breeding season and I repeat, I am not saying the fire was a ‘natural’ and beneficial event. I am saying that fire created the heath but it can also destroy it. The damage caused by the Wareham Forest fire last week caused immense damage to the animals that live there, it will take a long time to recover but recover it will, that is natural.
Red kite over Wareham Common
Now that I do not get out as much as I used to I have taken to closely following the tweeted sightings of other nature enthusiasts in Dorset; indeed I am now in my fourth year of analysing what others see. Since I started the process in January 2017 I have never seen anything quite like yesterday's sightings! There were staggering 32 tweets reporting red kites over Dorset, almost all from coastal locations but, more significantly, these reports included 63 over Westbourne, Bournemouth, 79 over Bridport and an amazing 112 over West Bexington near Abbotsbury.
Some of the 32 reports will obviously be of the same birds seen by different observers but the three locations I have mentioned I chose not only because of the number of birds seen but because they are spaced out and not likely to be duplicated sightings. These will not be actual totals for the whole day from each of these three locations but totals for the period of time someone was watching so the real totals will be higher than the 254 that were counted. There were birds coming at other coastal locations too so one can only wonder just how many passed through the county in one day - possibly 300?
Whilst the numbers yesterday were truly exceptional this spring has seen a continual movement of incoming migrant birds that started back in week 12 in mid-March. Since then there have been 258 tweets reporting red kites, usually in small numbers of between 1 and 3 birds so if the average per tweet up until yesterday was 2 then that is potentially another 500 birds this spring on top of yesterdays guess of 300. This is only the birds seen and recorded, so is the real figure approaching a 1,000? We will never know for sure but one thing is certain, it is a lot! The RSPB estimate the UK population to be around 1,800 breeding pairs so if my guesstimate of about 1,000 passing over Dorset this spring is anywhere near corect that is a quarter of the UK population!
This raises many questions and I am sure the answers will become clearer when the BTO and the RSPB have access to data from across the country. I ask myself why is this year is so different to previous years I have monitored? Last year I detected 92 tweeted sightings between mid-March and the end of May and in 2018 103, possibly 'just' 150-200 birds each year. In 2017 there were only 47 tweets or less than 100 birds seen. The annual trend does seem to be upwards but then the UK population is increasing having been almost extinct some forty years ago.
One also has to ask why yesterday was so exceptional? There was a strong north-easterly wind yesterday and these birds were flying directly into it; there have been far better conditions to make a journey of this nature.
The most significant question in my mind is are these returning migrant birds or are they new birds moving northwards because of influences elsewhere on the continent? It may seem obvious at first glance that these are returning birds but it was a fairly mild winter across the UK compared to other years so why would so many more have decided to go south last winter? If many more did decide to migrate south then why was there no corresponding evidence of an outward movement during the autumn and winter? If they are new birds then what is the stimulus that has triggered this movement and where are they all going?
I hope we get the answers to these questions one day.
Photo: Adult starling leading a family feeding outing
What with the 'lockdown' in force coupled with a slight downturn in the weather we were confined to the house for much of the day and spent the time watching the birds in the garden. We do not have a special garden that normally attracts lots of birds, even in the depth of winter, as we are not near woodland or a particular habitat that would influence what we see here. This afternoon, though, we witnessed something we have never seen before.
Over the last few days we had already seen a fledgling robin in the garden, we think a pair nested in some shrubs at the bottom of the garden which they have never done before. Two pairs of our resident house sparrow colony have been out feeding young and we have had three fledgling blackbirds looking a bit bewildered as they find their way in the world. Add in a young dunnock and the numbers are almost complete.
This afternoon, however, a flock of around thirty starlings descended on the lawn and around the pond. We rarely get starlings in the garden let alone thirty! What was interesting though was that out of the total number, it was impossible to get an accurate figure as anyone who has seen a flock of starlings on the ground will understand, they were mostly juveniles. We think there were six adults meaning that we may have had three families each with six or so young. Some of the young were able to feed themselves, other were still following parents around demanding to be fed.
My point is that in most years we get very few fledgling birds but this year we seem to inundated with them. Does this mean the favourable spring weather so far has been kind to our breeding birds and we are witnessing a baby boom? I certainly hope so, goodness knows they need a few good years after recent population declines.
A video appeared recently (30th April 2020) of a pine marten in Sandbanks, between Poole and Bournemouth in Dorset. You can see the video here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-dorset-52472172/pine-marten-footage-is-thought-to-be-first-dorset-sighting
There were a number of strange things about this which make the sighting a real mystery. Why is this a mystery? Well, for a start, it is probably the first sighting of a pine marten in Dorset in living memory, they have long since disappeared from this part of the world. It is also a woodland species and whilst there are conifers around Sandbanks it could hardly be considered to be a woodland area! The pine marten is also primarily nocturnal and this one was seen in broad daylight and, add to that, they are very nervous creatures and this one was amongst houses. It is also strange that there was just this one sighting by one person who happened to have a video camera at the ready just at the right time.
There could be a number of ways a pine marten could be seen and recorded on video in Sandbanks but none seem really credible to me. One thing is pretty certain, this was not a wild animal that had strayed into town even if the roads are quiet during the coronavirus 'lockdown'. The nearest wild population I believe is a small colony from a reintroduction project somewhere in the New Forest; a pine marten somewhere around the north of Highcliffe could possibly be considered from this programme but in Sandbanks? No, it is just not a reasonable proposition.
Another possibility that it is a misidentification and was not a pine marten but a polecat or something similar can be discounted too as wildlife 'experts' (Chris Packham amongst them) have confirmed that it is certainly a pine marten. The video is pretty clear and well defined so misidentification can surely be ruled out. In a similar vein I think a hoax can be dismissed too; even with today's modern video editing tools superimposing a film of a pine marten in a woodland setting onto a fence in Sandbanks?
One has to conclude that this is a captive animal that escaped from someone's 'care' but who keeps pine martens in Sandbanks? No one has come forward to claim the animal as theirs. However, remember that it has only been seen the once and by one person who had a video camera ready and was eager to share the video with the BBC. I smell a rat, or should that be pine marten? It is certainly a mystery!
[Photo: A Scottish pine marten from the Nature Scotland website - https://www.nature.scot/plants-animals-and-fungi/mammals/land-mammals/pine-marten]
Long-billed Dowitcher at RSPB Lodmoor in Weymouth - January 2012 - the sort of vagrant from the USA that can arrive in Dorset in exceptional weather conditions
When I started ‘birding’ it did not take long to understand that the weather was an important factor in determining what one might see at each part of the year; some birds fly south for the winter whilst others come to us for the winter months from much further north. We call this ‘migration’!
What took some time to work out is that things are more complicated and that the weather is a major influence on the lives of all birds, not just swallows and Brent geese. Looking back I find it ridiculous that it took time to find this out! After all, birds can fly and birds need to eat so birds will constantly move to find available food supplies if the weather makes feeding impossible where they are. When the going gets tough all birds get going, not just those we associate with long distance migration.
This is clearly evident if you spend any time watching the birds in a garden, especially a garden with feeders. In autumn and early winter the number of birds and range of species visiting is likely to be higher than in the summer but far less than later in the winter. Whilst there are adequate food supplies in the countryside there is no incentive for them to move on but once the colder weather sets in and food supplies are short they search out alternatives and so come into our gardens. We always find siskin scarce before Christmas but in February to April they can be almost daily visitors. In cold weather the number of blackbirds can increase almost overnight as birds arrive from the north.
There is a tendency to think that, birdwise, all winters are the same but that is far from true. A look back over tweets collected over almost four winters shows this quite clearly. This winter is very different to the last two with few storms, hardly any frost and, so far at least, no ‘beast from the east’! The weather has been dull, dreary and whilst hardly warm it has certainly not been cold and this has resulted in a very different array of birdlife.
So far there have been no real rarities turn up which is unusual, we would expect a few vagrants in the course of a normal winter. There have been no irruptions of any species either with no waxwing and certainly no hint of the hawfinch irruption of a couple of years ago.
What it seems we have seen though is larger numbers of some species. Pintail, for example, are around in much larger numbers than usual and Brownsea has an enormous amount of black-tailed godwit with estimates exceeding 2,000 birds. Knot and sanderling, even common sandpiper, would not be expected much beyond the end of the autumn but this year there are still a few around even in February. Divers and grebes are being reported from our harbours and shores in good numbers compared to other years, so too, common scoter. Chiffchaff, blackcap and firecrest crop up frequently across Dorset with Sibernian chiffchaffs often reported as well. On the other hand, spoonbill numbers are down and there are less cattle egrets and great white egrets so they have, perhaps, stayed in other wintering areas and have not needed to venture this far south and west.
The reason for this is, I would venture, that for some species a similar number of birds have arrived here this winter but instead of some moving further south when the weather turns they have not needed to this year and have chosen to stay. If this is true here, then it means that other species that winter further north or on the east coast have not been encouraged to venture further south and west.
Obviously, this could all change in the next few days if the weather changes for the worse but the point I am trying to make to new bird watchers is simple, try and understand the effects the weather has on bird feeding and then you will have a better understanding of what you might see and where.