The furore that greeted news that Defra was considering plans to destroy buzzard nests and imprison adult buzzards to remove them from pheasant shooting estates in England has been huge. And if you are one of the many people who have already written to your MP – thank you!
Robin Prytherch has been studying buzzards for over 30 years in an area of 75 sq. km. near Bristol. Territoral pairs and breeding results have been recorded. Special aspects of the study have been social behaviour and life histories of individual birds – we thought we would see what he has to say about the Defra idea – here’s his guest blog.
When I heard about the Defra proposals for controlling buzzards on a Northumberland pheasant shoot I was outraged! It sounded like plans for the protection of pheasants drawn up in 1712, 1812 or even 1912. But not for 2012, surely? Yes it is true, and time for me to get serious.
I have investigated many aspects of the lives of buzzards including their social behaviour and breeding biology over more than 30 years near Bristol. The idea of destroying nests and attempting to remove the adults to other areas is foolhardy and cruel in the extreme. This idea reveals that the authors of the proposal are woefully ignorant of how buzzards would behave in such a situation.
Adult pairs (usually three years or more old) defend a territory (which may vary from under 50 to over 300 hectares). They will not tolerate any other buzzards in the territory (apart from their own juveniles) and the intruders are escorted out – sometimes they are chased and attacked and even killed. Other young birds are wanderers until they find a mate and settle into a territory. If a pair is removed from their territory another pair will quickly replace them. The whole idea of capturing these birds and holding them in “prisons” is repugnant. It is probably not feasible anyway and who is going to pay for an endlessly increasing number of birds being held for a lifetime that could exceed 20 years. Removal of buzzards will achieve nothing but stress to the birds and be a waste of time and money. So, I would urge all involved in this sad idea to think carefully again and to look upon buzzards as friends and not as foe.
Buzzard in flight - illustration by Mike Langman
Consider this: I am often asked ‘why are buzzards chased by crows?’ My reply is: ‘because buzzards eat them’. The truth is that buzzards don’t just catch rabbits, voles and other small mammals but also birds. The favourites, amongst a great variety, are pigeons and corvids (crows) and of the latter it is mostly carrion crows and magpies that they catch. When I tell this to people – including many farmers - they are often amazed and they instantly become a friend of buzzards.
Perhaps the pheasant shooters in Northumberland should learn from this story and remember that we all live in the 21st Century and not in the 17th or 18th Century. It is for all of us to think and behave in as well-informed a manner as possible and not to hark back to old outmoded ideas about the countryside unless they have a proven value in our present age. My feeling is that Defra have let everyone down by not researching their plans more fully in the first place. The plans should be thrown out immediately.
If you would like to read more and perhaps drop your MP a line – here’s Conservation Director, Martin Harper on the subject.
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[Guy Anderson finishes telling us about the February expedition to train colleagues in Myanmar and survey spoon-billed sandpipers on their wintering grounds]
Leave only footprints (Viv Booth)
Up early on the next high tide just after dawn, and our flotilla motored the last few miles up the creek to Teng Mung where we embarked, several long days ago. We are greeted by a welcoming committee of most of the village, several dogs, pigs and a cow or two. Its very strange to be back in bustling streets, with short horizons and people everywhere, and this strange hard ground that your feet don’t sink into.
Cars are already waiting to whisk us back to Yangon. Three of our four trainees will stay in Teng Mung to continue working with the BANCA Livelihoods programme, and we say heartfelt goodbyes and thanks. The forth, Gideon, has to travel back with us to Yangon and then faces a 12hr bus journey back to his home town of Kalaw – an old ex-British hill station in north-central Myanmar. He’s a keen birder and well-known birding tour guide in Kalaw. This trip to the lowlands of Mottama was the first time for him too, but he swapped his familiar forest babblers for estuary waders with ease.
We take the new road to Yangon – a wide two lane highway, almost completely empty of traffic. The potential for vehicles to be speeding along here does not deter several families from walking down the inside, bicycles in both lanes including several cycling the wrong way along the outside edge. I have to question my sanity as we whizz past one such daredevil peddler, who is carrying what appears to be a live short-eared owl in one hand! A look out of the rear window confirms my identification. Owls are a symbol of good luck in Myanmar, so one can only hope this one had a lucky future ahead of it. Let's hope Myanmar, its people, its natural resources and its wildlife does too. I feel very privileged to have spent time here studying spoonies in the field, and its been an absolute pleasure working with local conservationists, knowing that their efforts are making a real difference to the fortunes of this bizarre and endearing little bird.
Oh … before I go, you probably want to know how many spoonies we saw in the end? Well, between us we recorded nearly 100 sightings in our four days in the Gulf of Mottama. We are bound to have recorded some individuals more than once, and no doubt missed others completely. This is why the technique of estimating proportions of spoonies within wader flocks is so important. Our data are now being crunched along with the results of other similar surveys in January – the more data the merrier when it comes to this type of population estimation. Some fairly heavy statistics need to be applied (‘hard sums’ in my head), and we’ll report back on this at a later date. What is already abundantly clear from our data is that the Gulf of Mottama remains a crucial non-breeding area for spoonies and hold a significant proportion of the world population. All future efforts to protect and monitor spoonies and the mudflats and saltmarshes of Mottama should therefore be encouraged.
Boats at sunset (Viv Booth)
[Guy Anderson continues telling us about the February expedition to train colleagues in Myanmar and survey spoon-billed sandpipers on their wintering grounds]
Woken up today by a snuffling snout - a local pig, undeterred by the knee-deep rising tide, is on the look-out for any discarded remains of last night’s dinner. The local people are at home with the constant ebb and flow of the water and their lives revolve around it.
We head for a new survey site today and we get it just right – an area where the first pioneering saltmarsh grass stems thin out into open mudflat. As soon at the first bit of young marsh is revealed by the falling tide, there are waders moving on to it from nearby high tide roosts on the shore. Bare patches of mud within the saltmarsh grass soon have lot of scampering pale dots in them, and as soon as we can, we get off the boats and head out in different directions to start surveying. Very quickly most survey teams start seeing spoonies in the flocks, one with at least 11 individuals in it. But the birds aren’t hanging about, and soon disperse as more and more mud becomes exposed further to the south.
As the day wears on and heats up, a few hundred small waders return to the mudflats within a kilometre of the boat, and there is at least one spoonie with them. I spend several hours creeping towards these birds trying to get some passable video footage. The birds flip from one side of the mudflat to the other with annoying frequency, and for no apparent reason, and I fear I am playing a loosing game with my little strange-beaked friend. But eventually I managed to record some footage that is at least identifiable. My admiration for professional wildlife cameramen grows with each metre closer I creep towards the birds, and with each bead of sweat that trickles down my neck.
Spoonie-eye view of the world (Viv Booth)
Being this close to the birds gives me new insights into their behaviour. The spoonies have several ways of feeding: they run and pick food items off the mud surface, like most small waders; they stick their beaks into the mud and probe, again like many other waders; but they also do something different - in tiny shallow pools left between ripples in the mud surface they dabble, just like a mallard on a village duck pond, sweeping their bill from side to side, and rapidly opening and closing the beak a fraction as they go! They must be filtering algae or some form of bacterial ‘biofilm’.
The Spoonie I am watching (and other waders) also spends quite a lot of time sitting still, hunkered down on the mud, occasionally tilting its head to one side and looking up. This is classic wader behaviour when there is an aerial threat present - we have seen peregrines, and harriers out here, but today I can see nothing. Either the waders are shamming, or their eyesight is much better than mine. Eventually I pick out a small flock of falcon-like birds circling high high up in the wincingly-bright midday sky. So high and distant and speck-like that when I take my binoculars off them for an instant, I am completely unable to find them again. They throw me for a bit. What falcons would hang around in flocks here? Then I realise they are not falcons at all, but Oriental pratincoles – graceful long-winged waders that spend no time wading and lots of time hawking insects. More like terns in shape than either waders or falcons really. But they seem to have fooled the stints, plovers and spoonie in front of me into thinking they are some kind of threat - if you happen to be a small wader out in the middle of a huge mudflat with nowhere to hide, then I guess taking a precautionary approach makes a lot of sense.
Back at the boat, the different survey teams compare notes. We’ve recorded another 37 sightings of spoonies between us. Steve and Rachel have made a noteable achievement – they found a spoonie dropping! They watched one bird closely, and carefully recorded where it, um, recycled some nutrients, and duly collected the ‘sample’ with the enthusiasm that only ecologists with an inordinate fondness for waders could muster. One of the main questions in understanding the ecology of spoon-billed sandpipers in Mottama is their diet and how this relates to different sediment types. This small dropping sample will not answer all the questions but it might provide some clues as to what that particular bird had been eating earlier that day.
Final scan of the mud (Viv Booth)
We wait for the tide to return for the last time. Team photos are taken while we stand in the mud by the boats. We collect the last few data from flock scans as waders return in advance of the tide. As dusk falls, the world turns to water again and we chug back to the village and on past it inland up a tidal creek as far as we can go before mooring by the bank for our last night afloat.
A very bizarre start to the day. Awoken at first light, around high tide, by sounds of splashing and excitement from our boat crews. I stick my head out of the canvass curtain separating our sleeping area from the outside world. As I peer out blearily, Hyen-Mo hands me a lanceolated warbler! A rather damp, but very much alive, lanceolated warbler. This is shortly followed by a slaty-breasted rail! Both species are found in SE Asian marshlands in winter, and several of the boat crew are wading around, up to their waists, fishing floundering birds out of the water - five more warblers, seven more rails and a Baillon’s crake. Another warbler flies in and lands on the boat a meter away from me, clearly looking for somewhere dry to perch.
Slaty-breasted rail (Guy Anderson)
This morning’s tide was particularly high, just after a full moon, and it looks like these birds have simply run out of marsh to hide in. Possibly as it was dark as the tide rose too? How bizarre that the birds haven’t escaped simply by flying the two or thee miles to the nearest permanent shoreline. The warblers have probably migrated here from eastern Siberia for heavens’ sake, surely they could makes it a few miles? But all three species we are now looking after are skulking, used to dealing with danger by hiding at the bottom of dense vegetation. This is not a good strategy in the face of an oncoming spring high tide. We suspect many birds drowned as we saw at least two floating dead warblers and a rail later - the local Pallas’s gulls must be used to this bonanza every year as flocks could be seen swooping down over the last few remaining bits of saltmarsh at high tide.
But what to do with these birds that have been rescued? Rucksacks are rummaged through, and a combination of zip-off trouser legs, various cloth bags, cotton leech-socks and a travel pillow case were commandeered and soon contained wriggling damp birds. A couple of hours later when the tide had fallen, they were all perfectly dry and we released them back on to dry saltmarsh, although not without a bit of heroic wading across an unanticipated channel from Steve – the nearest thing any of us will get to a full bath in our time out in the Gulf. We tell our less-than-grateful charges not to be so silly next time, and hope that the next high tide, being in full daylight, will not catch them out again.
Then the proper day’s work started, and rather hard it proved! Most of the directions away from the boat involved squelching through ankle-deep muddy young saltmarsh. This is OK at 9am when we’re fresh and the temperate is reasonable, but definitely not OK several miles later at 3pm, when the temperature must be in the mid 30s. As the tide drops, exposed open mud patches in the saltmarsh fill with waders but move on quickly, so we have to work fast. My group finds a spoon-billed sandpiper early in among maybe 500 small waders. The two trainees I have with me are starting to get to grips with identifying the different species now and are working their way through the flock, calling out numbers of stints, sandpipers and plovers. They are doing really well considering neither have much experience of using optical equipment or studying birds at all. This general capability and adaptability applies to pretty much everything they do with us, and I start to suspect it is a national trait. But the birds move on rapidly – clearly more feeding areas are becoming available further out and we can’t keep up with them. We trudge across the marsh for a couple of hours but find few birds. Wherever we stop, our shadows are instantly filled with mud-flies seeking some shade. We are all exhausted by the time we get back to the boats. Others have seen a few more spoonies in other directions. All have seen a lot of mud.
Gideon and yet more mud (Guy Anderson)
The world and moon turn, and the tide returns. Soon we are seaborne again and heading for the shoreline, to park up next to a local village overnight. It’s a chilly few miles boat journey across the choppy water. Hyen-Mo sits at the bow, and sings to keep the cold away. We reply with a sea-shanty, and a little competition develops - thankfully the only audience is the four of us on the boat. A splutter, a loud back-fire, and a cloud of black smoke from another boat’s outboard force a brief stop while a small fire is extinguished (mostly by swearing from the boatman, apparently), the engine kicked, and restarted. We pass a pair of swimming domestic water buffalo who clearly had chosen a distant bit of marsh to graze on before being forced to swim for it by the returning tide. They have at least another mile to go to the nearest shore and we pass another boat heading out to retrieve them, presumably by towing them in, as you would a couple of dinghies?!
Shoreline village (Viv Booth)
We reach the village by the shore and moor up close to their floating Buddhist temple, resplendent with gold roof, green carved dragons guarding the entrance and festooned with LED lights of every colour. We are invited over to one of the village houses - relatives of one of the boat’s husband-and-wife crew teams. All the houses here are on stilts – a wise precaution against annual floods from both land and sea no doubt. What seems like the entire village is here, watching fuzzy copies of foreign dvds on a huge TV - watching Yul Brynner in a 1960s epic about the Mayans makes the day’s end as bizarre as its beginning.
Awake to water lapping at the side of the boat shortly followed by the now familiar request to shift out of the way. Then we’re off – heading for a new survey area that looks promising from the satellite images. Its not easy working out where you are in a endless stretch of water at high tide, and our boatmen are rightly suspicious of following directions based on unfamiliar GPS. These guys have to use their instinct and years of experience to tell them where to go safely in the Gulf. If I was in their boat (ha ha) I’m not sure I’d trust a foreigner staring at a small screen in his hand and confidently proclaiming “its that way, 2 kilometers” either. But we get to where we intend and find a safe place to anchor.
As the tide drops it reveals some high saltmarsh to the north of us dropping rapidly into open sand flats and channels to the south. This is different to yesterday and we don’t have the more gentle gradual change from saltmarsh to mud. There are few small waders to be found around the boat. Two of us walk out a little way but soon come to the edge of a major channel (maybe a mile wide? maybe more?) still flowing strongly. The channel is eating into the side of the saltmarsh and there’s a small cliff, which must be moving every day as the tides roars in and batters away another few feet of marsh. Hundreds of mud-skippers line the steep mud bank along the channel, all charging off into the water in splashy synchrony when we get too close. They disappear completely for a few minutes then one by one, pairs of eyes appear above the water surface, and they watch us suspiciously. Five minutes after we pass and they are all basking on the bank again. Doing what, we have no idea.
At the edge of the channel (Guy Anderson)
Another team of surveyors heads north but finds only increasingly dry and dense saltmarsh, with an occasional long-toed stint hiding out. When the tide first drops, the saltmarsh grass is quite soft to walk though barefoot. But as the exposed marsh dries in the heat of the day, the grass leaves curl into tubes, and their tips become sharp and pointy, and much less pleasant to cross. A few cases of ‘marsh-rash’ develop on the feet and ankles!
Five of us regroup, look at the satellite images again and strike out south, heading towards the area our boatman initially thought we wanted to go to (a fact not lost on their sense of humour later in the day). We have to wade a channel first – lovely cooling water in growing heat of the day - and then march out across the mud, a soft 2-3 cm on top of a hard base. After 2 or 3 kilometres of this, we eventually find some small waders, in an area where very young saltmarsh – just a few sparse plants of saltmarsh grass per square metre – grades into open mud. And hey presto, we start finding spoon-billed sandpipers, at least 3 in a flock of about 200 Kentish plovers and red-necked stints. But time is running out – the tide way out in the lower Gulf is starting to turn, and after a frantic scan through all the available birds, some scribbled note-taking, and collection of a few mud samples, we march back towards the boat. A welcome second paddle in the channel before braving 200m of now spiky grass up to the boat. Water is drunk, and a late lunch gratefully received (how on earth do these guys produce such good food in these conditions? All hopes of weight loss out of the window. Not that the boats have windows). We compare notes and plan tomorrow’s survey. All are agreed on where we need to go this time.
A spoonie trying to hide (Guy Anderson)
We also dig out the hastily collected mud samples from earlier. One of our tasks on this survey is to start looking at the places where we found spoon-billed sandpipers feeding, and to try to work out whether or not there is anything special about them in terms of the sediment. Do spoonies select feeding sites that have particular characteristics? Softer mud? Or harder, more sandy sediments? And how does this relate to what they might be eating? All unknown at the moment, but we start by collecting mud samples from exact locations where SBS have been seen feeding and comparable samples from ‘control’ spots where they had not been observed. These will get analysed back in the UK. So as we were running short of time earlier, a quick jog around the mudflats was required to scoop some mud from the right spots, record GPS locations and photograph the sediment surface. What our boatmen must have thought of this apparent lunacy can only be imagined. “You want to walk exactly 100m that way and photograph the mud and collect a little pot-full, right? OK....”
The tide returns and we see and hear a modest bore, maybe a metre high, heading up the channel we had stood next to earlier. Passing Pallas’s gulls, Caspian terns, black-necked ibis and painted storks keep the birders among us entertained. The boats eventually float free and we motor off to the next overnight stopping point, with the sun low in the sky to the west, and the world once more turned from one of mud to one of water.