Malta’s Shame

Each year, millions of birds make their Spring migration passage across the Mediterranean Sea.  We see and hear these birds at the end of their journeys as they arrive to breed during the British Summer. However, there is a major obstacle in their way; they don’t just have to contend with the long journey, with poor weather, with the sea crossing, with navigation, with finding food, they also have to contend with the hunters of Malta.

Each year, migrating birds are shot out of the sky for no other reason than the pitiful enjoyment of a few gunmen on a small Mediterranean island.  This activity is having a major effect on the populations of many birds, both rare and plentiful, and in many cases the activity is illegal – shooting birds protected by European law.

Chris Packham has gone out to Malta this Spring to highlight the fate of so many migrating birds.  He has made a series of short films about the issue and they can be seen on Youtube.

You can also support the work Chris is doing by donating to the Indiegogo Stop Spring Hunting on Malta campaign via this link.

Chris has now returned to the UK after being questioned by the Police in connection with complaints by hunters about defamation.

As you can see from my other blog posts, I spend some of my time protecting an osprey nest from egg collectors.  If some of these Maltese hunters get their way, I won’t need to do it next year as they will have shot the ospreys on their way past.



A quiet day with the ospreys

That winding track down through the hillside woodland grows more stunning with every Springtime visit. There is a freshness to the scene; the season of emergence and renewal bringing new life to the old trees. The leaves on the gnarled and moss-blanketed oaks are slowly coming out and the grass is turning a more vibrant shade of green each day. The birds are still singing for their territories but the voices change each time I arrive. This day has a backing of willow warblers and redstarts with an occasional cry of a buzzard circling above the rock studded valley sides. Out from under the canopy and into the open wet pastures, a cool breeze still cuts across the land, dismissing the stone wall barriers and taking the heat away from the Sun’s growing strength. There in the tall fir tree, they still sit patiently waiting for the first cracks to appear in the eggs and the small, ever-hungry mouths to appear. It’s time to rest, as the coming weeks will offer little.


Before my shift started, I took a brief wander amongst the trees, as the bluebells are now emerging and there’s a soft carpet of blue and green under the growing shade of the wooded canopy. There is a dell amongst the oaks and crags in the crown of the small hill behind the site; I could have spent the whole day sat up there but I had to relieve the previous tenant of the osprey protection spy cave and start my watch.


The title to this post may say ‘quiet’, but the diesel generator was on for much of the shift due to the lack of Sun. The equipment in the caravan is powered by solar panels but if the battery reserves fall too low, the generator is switched on. Whilst it does take the edge off the tranquility, it’s a lot quieter than the old generator that we used to have during night shifts – I’m sure even the Ospreys used to cover their ears!


It was an uneventful shift – just how we like them – the ospreys quietly waiting. The sun and rain took it in turns, alternating between warm and dry, and wet and chilly. The only disturbance came from the crows, more chasing and mobbing, the ospreys getting impatient and irritated by their presence so close to the nest.


At about 4 o’clock, the female started calling to the male; almost certainly telling him to get on with his job and fetch her a Saturday evening takeaway. Eventually he took the hint and hopped off down to ‘Port’ to see what he could wrap his talons around. After about an hour he returned, but to the naked eye he didn’t appear to have anything with him – no carrier bag, nothing wrapped in newspaper, no foil cartons, no nothing! However, after a little while, he popped down onto the nest and presented the female with the tail end of a very small fish. She grabbed it, hopped onto the nearby perch and wolfed it down in a couple of minutes – didn’t seem to care about the fish bones! I think he might be up early in the morning to get her breakfast – by the look of that meal, she’ll be hungry – and probably not in the best of moods! She has one of the most scary stares of any female I’ve seen; in fact, second only to my 6-year-old niece!

It’ll be a while until my next shift but by the time I return there should be chicks! Can’t wait!!!

The Yellow Land of Yellowbellies

Yesterday, I had a work trip to Lincolnshire – not an infrequent event – but the home of the yellowbellies was even more yellow than usual with numerous large fields of oil seed rape spread across the wide flat lands.  The bright luminous yellow fields were a contrast against the deep blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds and the sun brought out a blinding intensity to the colours.  it’s a pity I had to go to a meeting; I would have much preferred to have spent the day driving around the county taking photos.


The reason why people from Lincolnshire are called yellowbellies is debated and Wikipedia gives numerous explanations – it could be an insult but as I’m a quarter yellowbelly myself, I think I should be allowed to get away with it.  In fact, there are plenty of people driving around the county with bumper stickers claiming to be proud yellowbellies; when their county looks this stunning, there’s a very good reason to be!

Glaslyn Ospreys on TV!

The third episode of Iolo Williams’ Wild Wales was shown on BBC4 on Saturday night and included a few clips of (I think) the Glaslyn male osprey in the waters around Porthmadog.  The programme also had piece on whooper swans in the Glaslyn Valley and the location could easily have been just next to the viewing site for the Osprey Project.

It was a good programme anyway but made even better by seeing the ospreys and the Glaslyn valley.

For the time being, you can catch the programme on BBC iPlayer.


Breeding Bird Surveys

On Sunday last week and Friday and Saturday this week, I did the second round of four monthly Breeding Bird Surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust and my first Breeding Bird Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

The survey at the Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere reserve, on Sunday last weekend, picked up Willow Tits again, so they are probable breeders at the site, and there could be up to three territories.  However, I didn’t pick up any water rails this time, but there are two more surveys to do (in May and June) so hopefully I’ll note them again.

The Blakenhall survey was on Friday, which was a fabulously bright but chilly morning.  There was a low mist across the field as I walked to the reserve and Spring was in full swing with the bluebells now out, or at least on the sunnier slopes around the Moss.


Hearing the bird song was a little more difficult this time as there’s now a mixed flock of greylag and canada geese around the reserve and they were making a racket. The stars of the survey must have been the blackcaps, with eight seen around the site, including a group of three chasing each other around.

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Another highlight was seeing a pair of Marsh Tits, which I’d hoped to see last time but didn’t come across them.  Like the very similar looking Willow Tits, they are a red-listed species and have suffered 22% declines since the 1970s, although this is less severe than the decline in numbers of Willow Tits.  They are also a local rarity, so it was good to see them at Blakenhall as part of the survey – I’ve seen them before at the site when doing some conservation volunteering with the Wildlife Trust.

The BTO Breeding Bird Survey is more onerous than the Wildlife Trust version and takes twice as long.  On Saturday morning I did the first of the two surveys I’m doing in the grid square near the Cheshire sandstone ridge, centred around the Bickerton Poacher pub.  The survey requires two (roughly) parallel 1km transects to be walked making note of all the birds seen or heard.  Each 1km transect is divided into five 200m sections and the birds seen or heard are noted within 25m, 100m or over 100m.  Whether the birds were identified by song, call or sight is also noted as are signs and sightings of mammals.

The survey was done on another bright sunny morning and walking around the Cheshire countryside was a real pleasure.  There were no real species of note although the three buzzards circling above the hills were pretty special and I came across a couple of red-legged partridge.


A hidden gem…

I spent most of Sunday with the local group I volunteer with, Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). I almost didn’t go; after a long day Osprey sitting on Saturday and getting up early to do a bird survey, part of me just wanted to go home and relax. What a mistake that would have been!


Wybunbury Moss is a fairly regular haunt for CNCV and it’s always a good task each time we go there. However, this day was special. While I’ve been at plenty of tasks in the woodland and meadows around the outside of the Moss, I’ve never worked on the Moss itself and what a place it is!

The Moss is a schwingmoor or quaking bog – essentially, a glacial depression that has filled with water and then, over time, has been covered in a layer of moss, which in turn has become peat.  This has resulted in what appears to be a solid surface but in fact is just a three metre skin floating on a 13 metre deep lake.  The ‘solid’ surface does indeed quake and visibly wobbles if you jump on it.  It’s not a very safe place to be and is not open to the public but plenty of people in the group have experience of the Moss and know where to go, and more importantly, where not to.


I arrived late after doing the bird survey and struggled to find the group but I eventually came across them lying in the Sun drinking tea and scoffing biscuits (not an unusual sight). When we decided to get back on with the task (they had already done some work to be fair), we spent the rest of the day pulling pine saplings from the surface of the Moss. Carried on the wind, pine seeds scatter easily and far from their parent trees, growing well where they land. If not controlled every so often, the woodland would start to encroach further and further onto the Moss.



We spent a few hours in total, under bright blue skies, with a strengthening Sun and fluffy white clouds, pulling the saplings and eventually we cleared them all. We did a final walk around the site just to make sure and then headed home. I parked some distance away, so wandered around the rest of the reserve on the way back.

We recorded a great deal of wildlife while we went about our task, including 31 species of bird, 5 species of butterfly and common lizard. There were also signs of fox, badger and rabbit. However, the most special sighting was of the first swallows of Summer flying past.

The reserve is a truly lovely place to spend a day and standing in the centre I could easily imagine that I was in the middle of the Scandinavian wilderness, particularly when the ravens went ‘cronking’ past. I feel privileged that I could visit a place that not many people can. To be honest, it really was a joyful day – and I was absolutely buzzing (in fact I couldn’t shut up about it!).

So few people seem to know that this place is there – probably a good thing too, as a few visitors would start disappearing if they ventured out onto the Moss. It really is a hidden gem, somewhere special and somewhere worth working for and protecting – and just on my doorstep too!


Cyclist trouble in the Glaslyn Valley…

Back down the winding track through the old woodland, the rainfall rivers across the way have now dried, as has the protection site. While last week, the river was threatening to break its banks, this week it has a mellow calmness about its movement and it has dropped well below the field level. High up in the tree now sits a complete clutch of three precious speckled eggs.  It’s not all peace and quiet though – there’s a fair bit if mutual antagonism between the ospreys and their carrion crow neighbours with the ospreys giving chase or being mobbed over the course of each day.


On Saturday I retuned to the Glaslyn osprey protection site near Porthmadog in North Wales for another eight hour shift. This time I had company in the form of Jack, one of my fellow volunteers from my local conservation volunteering group. To break up the shift, Jack and I took it in turns to go for a walk in the woodland near to the site. It’s a lovely spot in amongst the old moss-covered oaks and the small craggy hills. Spring bird song was all around and no road noise to disturb the peace; in fact it was almost silent when we arrived at the site. The bluebells are starting to come through, a little later than at home, and the trees are just starting to burst their leaf buds.

It’s not just the ospreys that keep our interest while on shift; the valley is full of life. The birds are the most obvious with 38 different species seen or heard by me on my three visits so far this year but there are mammals too.  The bank voles scuttle on the drystone wall beside the caravan and often a weasel isn’t far behind. There are badgers in the vicinity of the protection site and a lucky few get a glimpse of otters in the river – but not me so far!

In my 30-odd shifts over this and the previous two springs, I have never had an incident to deal with but this changed on Saturday.  Part way into the shift, a cyclist came through the gate by the caravan and proceeded past and towards the bridge over the river.  I spoke to him and made him aware that while the footpath wasn’t closed,  there were nesting ospreys in the area and that if he continued across the bridge and into the field he risked disturbing them.  I told him that if he did indeed disturb them, he would be breaking the law (Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981) and if this was a serious disturbance I would call the Police.  This didn’t seem to bother him and he dismissed my warning with some mutterings about cycling on footpaths and off he went.  He said he would push his bike around the edge of the field but got back on to his bike and rode straight across once over the river.  When he approached the vicinity of the nest tree, the female flew off, circled above and then appeared to dive towards him before they both disappeared from sight.  However, the male stayed firmly on the nest, keeping the eggs warm and the female soon returned.

No harm was done in the end but it just shows how little care some people have for wildlife when their presence risks inconveniencing them.


Car v Cyclist Conflict

On my walk each morning from my parked car to the railway station, I frequently have to move aside while on the footway to avoid being knocked over by a cyclist.  When I say ‘frequently’, I mean this happens several times a week to me and I’m sure it happens on an hourly basis every day in that particular area.  Yes, the road isn’t that nice for cyclists; with cars having little room to pass, I’m sure it can be a quite intimidating stretch of road. However, out of concern for themselves, these cyclists show no concern for others, and this is the real issue I’ve been thinking about.

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Car versus cyclist conflict is rarely out of the media these days and most people can gripe about cyclists on footways.   I’m a driver, cyclist and pedestrian, and my views change whenever I change mode. Cyclists on footways annoy me but so do drivers passing too close to me when I’m cycling, while cyclists riding two abreast on narrow roads is just plain stupidity; so I can see arguments from all sides, but most people should be able to.  This leads to the over-riding issue, as it really is about thinking about the other person.

The big issue isn’t about cars versus cyclists, cyclists versus pedestrians, or cars versus pedestrians for that matter, the issue really is about an absolute lack of care and respect for each other.  The society we live in has led to people becoming so self-absorbed and blinkered towards their own well-being and comfort, that many, if not most, people show a complete disregard for their impact on others. If we all started to consider the impact we each individually have, instead of automatically putting ourselves first, these kinds of conflicts would reduce.  I think it likely that a change of attitude towards each other would have a bigger impact than spending millions of pounds of road safety engineering.

Unfortunately, changing behaviour is a lot more difficult than putting in speed humps.

Link – THINK! Road Safety