Winter Bird Survey – Blakenhall Moss

A couple of days ago I did a second bird survey of the winter at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss reserve.  I have to do one survey for November/December and another for January/February but if I have the time, I plan to do one per month (and the same for the Trust’s Bagmere reserve).

I recorded 28 species on this visit, which brings the total for the winter surveys so far to 35.  The Marsh Tits were present, unlike the first survey, and a flock of around 30 teal was still at the site.  Following the removal of the majority of the trees from the site and the raising of the water levels, to return it to its former moss state, the recorded bird species has changed with wetland birds now adding to the woodland species still present on the site.

The cold, bright and frosty morning made for a very atmospheric walk through the remaining areas of woodland around the outside of the site.  The flooded woodland looks almost like a mangrove swamp.

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Falkland Islands – Pebble Island: The Falklands in Miniature

After a bit of a break from writing up my Falklands trip, I thought I would publish a few more blog posts over the coming weeks – the first one about Pebble Island.


Pebble was the first of the offshore islands I stayed on during my trip and it certainly has a bit of everything; scenery, history and wildlife. In fact, I would say, from what I have seen elsewhere, it is the Falklands in miniature. The island has mountains and long sandy beaches with turquoise seas, a human history made more vivid by the events of 1982 and wildlife in abundance.

Pebble is the eastern-most of the larger islands off the north coast of West Falkland. It’s a big island with an area of 88 square km, 30km long and just less than 10km across at its widest and you would struggle to walk it in a day. It has a very small population, mostly comprising the owner and staff of the tourist hotel (Pebble Island Lodge).

Like most of the Falkland Islands, Pebble is an odd shape with an indented coastline and some wide open bays, it has rocky cliffs and large swathes of open diddle-dee heath. The rugged and hilly west of the island is very different to the lower lying and marshy east and the two larger landmasses that make up the island are joined by a narrow isthmus on which sits the only settlement. The main landing strips sit just to the west of the settlement up a small rise towards the first of the three hills on the island, conveniently named First Mountain – the others being Middle Mountain and Marble Mountain. I visited the beach where there were once tonnes of semi-precious pebbles (after which the island is named) but after over-exploitation, there are very few left and I didn’t see a single one.


The population was once much bigger, with the settlement being larger than the current handful of residents need. It is a typical Falklands village with too many buildings for the present population, many appear semi-abandoned, but the buildings that are used are in good repair and cared for. The old farm buildings down by the jetties are particularly spectacular in their deteriorating stark and rustic charm and lit an interest in me to capture images of these places around the other islands I visited.


The war had a particular impact on Pebble as, unlike the majority of the offshore islands, it had a significant Argentine presence and it was used as a forward operating base for some of their aircraft. Within easy reach of San Carlos Water to the east, the location chosen for the British landings, Pebble and its aircraft were a serious threat to the amphibious task force. To remove this threat, the British special forces mounted a night-time raid which took out 11 aircraft and rendered the landing strip unusable (although it was the Argentines who blew up the strip).


There are also significant signs of the wider war on the island with the debris of two shot down Argentine Dagger aircraft strewn across the land and a memorial to mark the crash site of an Argentine Learjet. High up on First Mountain also stands a cross marking Pebble as the closest land to the final resting place of the British destroyer, HMS Coventry. After successfully taking down numerous Argentine bombers, with her frigate partner HMS Broadsword, she finally succumbed to one of the air raids she had been helping to protect the British bridgehead from.


And then there’s the wildlife! The Island has been designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International due to its abundance of avian residents. Pebble was the first place I saw penguins; a nice little group of Gentoos on Elephant Beach on my first afternoon. There are coastal Gentoo colonies but also an inland colony to which the penguins trudge over a kilometre from the coast, while a big Rockhopper colony spreads out above the cliffs where the diminutive birds bounce up and down the steep rock face. There are also a small number of macaronis amongst the Rockhoppers and colonies of Magellanics along the coast. To the east, there are good numbers of wetland birds and, as usual, plenty of geese everywhere and many of the smaller birds that can be found throughout the islands. I saw Commerson’s dolphins surfing the crashing waves coming into one of the wide bays and had a distant view of a sea lion on one of the smaller outlying islands.

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The weather while I was there was probably the most changeable of anywhere I stayed, with bright sunny bright blue skies, dark menacing clouds, strong winds, a hail storm and snow showers passing through, all in less than 48hrs.

Like most of the islands, Pebble has a soul all of its own, which is now made most vivid in my memory by the sunset on my first evening. I wandered down to the jetties near to the settlement and walked amongst the old farm buildings. As I moved out onto the beach, a flock of gulls rose into the blustery air against a backdrop of dark brooding clouds broken by the bright light of the setting sun. Out in the distance were many small islands with the mass of hills on the West Falkland mainland standing behind. The wind rushing past couldn’t drown out the angry cries of the birds as they called alarm at the presence of stranger amongst them. The breeze brought rattles, creaks and groans from the resisting buildings while the slowly setting sun picked out the details in the wood and metal walls, roofs and doors. A remoteness seemed to come over me – the emptiness of the view out to the far off islands and hills, the isolation of the once bustling but now quiet settlement and the wildness of the weather and the calls of the gulls – truly spectacular!


With all this to offer, Pebble has to be on my list for a return trip down south.

(My stay on Pebble Island was made all the more special by the people – Riki, Brad, Cat, Leigh and Walter. Pebble Island Lodge is a great place to stay with comfortable accommodation and lovely food! I particularly have to thank Brad for a great day-long tour of the west of the island – my TripAdvisor write-up can be found here)

Christmas Dram

My festive spirit this year is the fabulous Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition. It’s matured in Pedro Ximenez (PX) casks but still has the great smokey flavours of the classic Lagavulin. It’s a bit like the Bruichladdich PX I had last Christmas but much better (in my humble opinion!).


GUEST POST: Rallying for Nature by Jack Riggall

Earlier this week I went along to the second sitting of the Rally For Nature in London, an idea of Mark Avery taken up by the RSPB, League Against Cruel Sports and The Wildlife Trusts. If you’re following the plight of the natural world you probably already know that the State of Nature report published last year found 60% of species in the UK to be in decline, and that in 2013 in England no hen harrier chicks were raised at all as a result of intense persecution of raptors & terrestrial carnivores on grouse moors. You may also know that the natural world provides many physical & mental health benefits, and that a lack of it is linked to health inequalities in our society as shown by a report from this year – very important, since an estimated 1 in 4 of us suffer from mental health issues at some stage during our lives (myself included), thus ‘ecotherapy’ may do a lot for relieving the strain on the NHS.


For all these reasons and more, I sat amongst strangers and old friends alike whilst Martin Harper, director of conservation for the RSPB, spoke about the proposed weakening of the EU Directives for Birds & Habitats, cornerstones of UK wildlife protection in the UK, and we could contribute to their defense. Stephen Trotter, of The Wildlife Trusts, spoke about the Nature & Wellbeing Act, an Act to reconnect society with nature for our own sakes and bring about both the recovery of nature & a reversal of habitat fragmentation. Finally, the League Against Cruel Sports CEO Joe Duckworth spoke out against wildlife crime for which the vanishing hen harrier has become an icon. MPs from the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green & Conservative parties also offered words of encouragement throughout the day, but no word from UKIP, presumably because their party members were hatching another plan to farm elephants.


With all these briefings explained, everybody (including Bob the campaigning red squirrel, a fox and a badger) marched to Westminster and in to the St Stephen’s entrance to the House of Commons to ask for an audience with their representative MP; during this walk I kept trying to sneak into photos with the organisation heads, succeeding once, which I believe is called ‘photobombing’. I appear on Mark Avery’s blog, in the sixth photo down, result!

Disappointingly, my MP was absent from the House of Commons on the day, but I did see the impact that others were making when asking their MPs to defend the natural world, and it did indeed seem to be an effective way of campaigning for change. I’m feeling empowered by the process and I have arranged to meet my MP on the 9th of January. I’ll only have 15 minutes, but this should be enough time to outline the Nature & Wellbeing Act and its benefits to people, as well as the problem of rising wildlife crime – not just for hen harriers, though two of those that I protected this year have already been lost (likely destroyed), but also for increasing illegal badger persecution. The Badger Trust’s 2013 report on badger incidents shows that in 2012 there were 353 incidents, but 657 in 2013, 151 of which were badger baiting. An invite for a walk in the woods where I regularly film wildlife might be an idea, to explain why the priority species that live there need habitat connectivity.

If I get time, I’ll also see if he will put his name to the Marine Charter, already supported by 147 MPs, 44 organisations and 8 million people, which aims to fully implement a strong network of Marine Conservation Zones and Marine Protected Areas so our depleted oceans can properly recover. I may also ask him if he has changed his mind on his support of culling badgers following the 2014 shambles…

After the meeting I’ll post an update about whether he is supportive of these environmental efforts. In the mean time, why not get involved and arrange a meeting with your own MP to stand up for wildlife and our natural heritage? They work for you, after all.


Photos courtesy of Mark Avery, from his blog post on the event.