I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
It's great that a pair of red-backed shrikes nested successfully somewhere on Dartmoor this year.
This news adds to the distinctly 'southern' feel of 2010 - purple heron, little bittern and red-backed shrike! What's next?
But what is less good is that this pair was visited by known egg collectors during the summer. RSPB staff and volunteers (and others) were involved in guarding the nest - and it was certainly needed. What a shame that the first tentative steps at recolonisation (we hope) could have been snuffed out by illegal persecution of the first colonising birds.
It's 18 years since red-backed shrikes last nested successfully in England - and yet only a hundred years ago they were common across southern England.
Red-backed shrikes have declined across most of their European breeding range - probably through reductions in the availability of large juicy insects such as grasshoppers and beetles.
Last year in northern Spain I watched families of red-backed shrikes feeding in the meadows - such sights would have been common in southern England a century ago but many of today's birdwatchers have only seen these birds as east coast autumn migrants or abroad. Shifting baselines again.
It would be great if their successful breeding season this year meant that these shrikes will be back next year and perhaps in a couple of decades we can look back and celebrate the (climate change assisted?) return of the red-backed shrike. But let's not count our shrikes before they are back from Africa, and if they do come back then so, no doubt, will the egg collectors for another go.
PS Great coverage from Mike McCarthy in today's Independent.
Dave Kilbey - welcome! Yes it's great isn't it?
Sooty and Bob - yep, I think Bob has got it right. Imagine that a rare bird turns up in a field near you in spring. you may tell people about it and its presence may be known to many. You all expect it to move on after a day or two but maybe it stays and is then joined by another bird. The news was out before anyone knew there could be a problem. Not easy to see a solution to that one. The problem is not that the information is there - the problem is what a very small number of men do with it. In many ways I admire egg collectors - they have many field skills that I lack - but they use those admirable skills to do wicked things. That's the shame of it.
Yes Bob thought about it quite a lot today and I suppose they belong to groups with pagers and mingle in with twitchers and take advantage of the situation.
Like redkite add my congratulations to all who have protected this and lots of other nests.
Red-backed Shrikes, Little Bitterns, Purple Herons, Spoonbills..... the Independent article you flagged up is the best news I think I've seen in a newspaper. This is news that'll bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it. Keep up the great posts Mark - you're doing a grand job.
Egg collectors don't need inside information, in the way that I think you looking at it. There is a lot of information in the public domain that you or I won't pick up on but a serious birder will and if the person has an obsession with collecting he (and 99.9% of the time it will be a he) will know how to analyse that information. There are books that teach you how to find nests and books that teach you how to 'read' the hidden information behind public reporting.
If you take the Little Bittern as an example, it was reasonable easy to see that they were breeding from the odd entry on BirdGuides alone and yet I suspect BirdGuides tried to avoid any reference that pointed to breeding.
Anyway it is nice to see the shrike back. I grew up having seen this bird in the Forest of Dean and the odd sighting in the New Forest after that. As Mark says we won't know for a few years whether this is the start of something.
It is awful that we have these egg collectors and what worries me is maybe they are so well informed that they may be getting inside information,how I hope I am wrong but they seem to know as much or more than the official clubs of birds.With lots of new breeding species all bird enthusiasts need to be asked to look out for any suspicious movements.What a pity all this money needed for guarding these nests could not be used for other things but it is obviously the most important thing at the moment.
PS. many congratulations to all those who monitored and protected the nest.
That's brillant news Mark, they are stunning birds especially the colouring of the male. I recently saw many red-back shrikes in southern Sweden in habitat very similar to southern England so one would have thought they should be in this country. I think trying to raise the population of our larger insects will help. Of course wildlife friendly farming would assist this a lot, (-its that subject of HLS yet again!!). If and it is a big IF, this might be the start of a very mini return of this bird to the UK, bird loving people across the country will need to be "on their toes" next spring keeping an extra sharp eye open to ensure any shrikes are spotted and protected really early before the curse of those wretched egg collectors has any chance.