Otters once a near mythical sighting has become increasingly common in the last few years, in fact I heard someone recently describe them as “ubiquitous”.
The island is a classic example of this before August 2010 the total number of sightings on Havergate sat at zero. Admittedly, there has been some very strong evidence to support there presence on the island, scats on the sea wall and tracks in the mud. However, since August 2010 there have been 3 actual sightings on the island.
The sudden explosion in sightings on the island can most likely be attributed to a wandering juvenile. Once the young pups mature and are completely weaned, normally after a year the young venture out to find there own territory. Otters are fiercely territorial and will chase their own young away to defend there territory. Interestingly, Otters are not seasonal breeders so will reproduce at any time of the year.
It’s not just on Havergate that the sightings have gone through the roof. Both Boyton and Hollesley Marshes have recorded their first ever Otters in the last 2 months, surely, the same individual?
Let’s hope it is, it would be nice to have a territorial Otter around the island and the other reserves.
Otter at Boyton Marshes, courtesy of Chris Upson
The sad thing is that I haven’t seen one on the island yet, three sightings and the closest I have gotten is being on the island whilst it was being seen but the wrong end of the island and completely oblivious. The other two I wasn’t even there! If any one is out on Havergate and gets a glimpse of one, try and take a picture that’s the next great step.
However, despite the return of the Otter to the UK, it is still classed as near threatened by the IUCN red data list, meaning it is considered as a species that could be threatened with extinction in the future. We in the UK must remain protective of our Otters and hope that EU legislation protects rivers and watercourses across the whole of Europe.
Beyond Otters, we’ve had nothing as exciting as Rough Legged Buzzards or Bonxies but it’s still a tremendous time to come and see Havergate. Winter is probably the best time on the island for sheer number and diversity of birds. Teal and Wigeon are now in there thousands, Avocets are still present in force (Havergate is probably the best place to see Avocets in the East of England now), a Spotted Redshank maybe two look settled for the winter and a Kingfisher, Pintail, Dunlin, Lapwing, Curlew and Black tailed Godwits are all resident, with Marsh Harriers, Kestrels and Peregrines almost daily records. I don’t think there is a greater sight than 700 Avocets being spooked by a bird of prey before settling to land again.
One last thing lets hear it for a very brave juvenile Spoonbill. Which has smashed the latest ever record for Spoonbill on Havergate by a whole month!? For a bird that should be in West Africa or Southern Europe by now it’s a controversial choice.
It feels now that winter has truly arrived, the temperatures
are plunging and the nights are drawing in and the clocks are about to go back.
A chilling sentence for anyone who lives in the British Isles.
It was therefore nice to get an update on the movements of
the ringed gull chicks on Havergate this year. Those who have read previous
blogs will know that in July the landgard ringing group came out to ring the
young nestling Herring gulls, Lesser Black backed gulls, Great Black backed
gulls and Common gulls in early and mid July. The final totals are in, 245 Lesser Black
backed gulls where ringed including 5 adults, 81 Herring gulls, including 4
adults, 2 greater black backed gulls all juveniles and finally 3 Common gulls,
again all juvenile.
Giving a grand total of 335, more than three times what was
ringed last year. Largely due to the
team making two visits as opposed to the normal one.
Due to virtual collapse of the colony on Orfordness,
dropping from a peak of 25,000 in the late 80’s to less than 500 pairs this
year. Havergate is now a nationally significant gull colony, especially
noteworthy for its high population of Lesser Black backed gulls. It is
therefore important to be able to ring large totals on Havergate to continue
advancing the knowledge for the reasons in the decline of Herring gull numbers
and to advance the studies in the ecology of Lesser Black backed gulls.
So, now comes the exciting time when the results start
coming in. It is still early in the season but this year’s juvenile lesser black
backed gulls have been seen in Portugal (18), Spain (10) and France (1). Whilst
unusually a Herring gull has been seen in Belgium.
Picture courtesy of Michael Davies
Lesser Black backed gulls movements have gone through a
rather significant change in the last 50 years or so, revealed by observations
and ringing data. Previously the entire species was migratory, in winter it would be relatively unusual to
see a “British” Lesser Black backed gull as most would migrate to Spain or even as far
as Morocco. However, now the species can be best described as a partial
migrant. The juveniles still head south, wintering in Southern Europe, whilst
adults see out the winter on estuaries and rubbish dumps in England. This is quite a radical shift in ecology and
the reasons behind it are not fully understood.
Herring gulls are not migratory and can be found all year
round. However, despite being considered relatively common they are now a red
listed species, due to a 53% decline in their breeding population since 1969. Like the Lesser Black backed gull recent changes
are not fully understood but it is believed disturbance, predation, disease and
changes in availability of food from waste tips have had an impact. It could
even be that the numbers are returning to a more “natural” level. However,
these declines are masked by an incredible 570% increase in Herring gulls
nesting in urban areas. The RSPB is now involved in determining the reasons for
the decline and what can be done to aid previously healthy populations of Herring
So, if you see a colour ringed gull remember to report it in and think about all the migratory species when its snowing and freezing outside.
Of late the blog seems to have been dominated by articles on “issues”. As a change I thought it would be nice to update people about what has been going on, on the island.
Every day seems to bring a good species to the island and the island is jumping with birds. Most lagoons are full of wintering ducks, on the recent Webs count 1104 Teal and over 1300 Wigeon where counted. These are not far away from our winter peaks. Interestingly, and I’m not sure if this has been repeated elsewhere but the moult process seems to have been a long drawn out process, there are still a lot of scruffy looking ducks on the lagoons.
Pintail numbers are relatively low (29), however since I believe there are still is a decent sized flock at Minsmere that would seem to account for this. The first Brent geese have returned to the estuary, never more than a transitory visitor in the Alde – Ore estuary, the truly big numbers are found on the Stour estuary, the small skeins that fly over the island and occasionally land on the reserve are more than welcome.
In the past week, the island has played host to its 15th ever Bonxie (Great Skua), the first Kingfisher since 2003, the first Rough Legged Buzzard since 1994, the first Stonechat since 2008, the first Blackcap since 2005 and the first Redwings, Fieldfares and Goldcrests of the year. Two Spoonbills and a Spotted Redshank flew over on Thursday and three Marsh Harriers. A Hen Harrier and Two Short eared Owls have been around all week.
In recent years both Hen Harrier and Short eared Owls have reflected national trends on Havergate by becoming increasingly scarce. That both these species have been around for the past week raises hope that both may chose to winter on the island, as was always the case up to the late 1990’s.
The story of the discovery of the Rough Legged Buzzard is worthy of repeating. It owes quite a lot to chance. Initially, I was not intending upon visiting the island on Sunday, planning instead on taking that day off but due to the calm winds decided to take my chance and head out to the island to complete the saline monitoring. As I was walking down to Doveys lagoon, I noticed a disturbance in the crows and the Starling on the Saltmarsh, pondering that it had been a while since I had seen the Peregrine. As I got closer the crows where mobbing a specific spot. I decided to go and inspect closer, suspecting that I would flush one of the shorties. I must have got to within 5metres of the bird, when it exploded out from under my feet, immediately recognising it as an extremely pale Buzzard, the give away was the white upper tail feathers, found on Rough legged Buzzards but not on common Buzzards.
The Rough legged Buzzard is a rare bird of prey in this country. The ones we get are almost certainly from northern Scandinavia and between 10 and 150 winter in the country, seeing out the winter in the relatively mild conditions of the UK. It is much like our Common Buzzard but paler and with a different feather arrangement and a subtly different flight style. Given the numbers that have arrived in the country in the last few days, the potential for an invasion year is high. This is caused by a good breeding season and immediately followed by a collapse in the Buzzards food, in this case Lemmings. Therefore many juveniles and adults are forced to take flight to find more food.
Lately the island has been visited by a Great
Skua (Bonxie) these fearsome birds from the north have reminded me of a
cause important to me and important to the nation’s biodiversity, that of the
Whilst Bonxies have largely been spared the ravages of Sandeel
shortages and unpredictable weather during the summer months other seabirds
have not been so lucky.
Species that have suffered in the last few years include the
which has seen numbers fall by 40 per cent since 2000. The Arctic
skua population has dropped by 57 per cent and even the herring gull a
species familiar to all those that have visited Havergate island has dropped by
one third. Many people won’t believe this but there are now more Puffins in
the world then Herring
Whilst the exact causes of the seabird collapse seem
uncertain and the effects far from uniform with Northern Scotland and the
Shetlands particularly badly affected. One thing that seems to be agreed is that
the plankton systems that underpin the entire marine ecosystem are in a state
of flux. This seems to be caused by rising sea temperatures which are causing
the plankton to bloom early or even move into cooler parts of the sea; this in
turn seems to be having an effect on Sandeels which are either moving from
traditional spawning sites or spawning in vastly reduced numbers. So, that when
the top predator in this case birds come to feed and raise their young this
proves to be a onerous task, leading to increased nest and young failure.
This situation can be exacerbated by commercial overfishing,
which can drive down stocks of replacement food sources e.g. Sprats or whitetails.
However, the trouble in the marine environment is not just limited to food
sources for seabirds many of our household fishes have been badly reduced in
recent years; fishes such as cod are no longer the superabundant fish that they
were in previous years.
The troubles that effect the marine environment are not just
limited to Great Britain; a recent study suggests that if overfishing continues
at the same rate then global fish stocks will be all but depleted by 2050
and fishing has been identified as the most immediate agent of change on the
global marine environment. I often think
that if the scale of fishing was repeated on land then we would rightly be
The RSPB is campaigning for greater protection of our marine
environment both at a national and European level. Raising awareness of the
perils of overfishing
and the risk posed by climate change on our sea life. We
are also campaigning for the government to establish a coherent network of
marine protected areas in the UK by 2012, called Marine
protected areas. In these areas usage of the sea and its associated features
will put the needs of wildlife first and all other activity will be regulated.
If you wish to get further involved or seek more information
please visit our safeguard our seas website.
I hope Kieren and Aaron will excuse my intrusion on the Havergate blog - especially as I haven't managed to make it over to the island for a few years. Havergate has been on my mind for the last couple of days as I've just sent out a media release celebrating some of the successes from this year's breeding season Havergate - I won't dwell on these as Kieren's regular updates have told the unfolding story of the summer's ups and downs on this magnificent island.
However, I must relate another media story from recent weeks which relates to one of Havergate's star birds. Spoonbills have been visiting Havergate every summer in recent years, with increasing numbers present. Indeed, if you look carefully across the lagoons in summer you might even notice a couple of plastic spoonbills placed to try to tempt these wonderful birds to nest (as they did at Holkham in North Norfolk this year).
As autumn draws on, our spoonbills leave. Some may only travel to Spain to escape the coldest weather of NW Europe, but many travel much farther. Satellite tracking by Dutch ornithologists has revealed that some of their spoonbills (and by deduction presumably ours too) head as far as Mauritania or Senegal in W Africa. As with any migration, the journey is fraught with natural hazards - storms, sandstorms, sea crossings, starvation. There are also many man-made hazards - pollution, drainage of wetlands, poorly sited wind turbines in S Spain.
Sadly, another hazard has reared its ugly head this year, as birdwatchers in Malta discovered a flock of migrant spoonbills that had been shot. Shooting remains a major problem in Malta (and several other Mediterranean countires), despite their recent accession to the EU. They are now bound by the terms of the EU Birds Directive, but implemention of the long-sought no hunting legislation is very poor. Already this autumn, black storks, lesser spotted eagles and ospreys have been among the species targetted by Maltese hunters.
What can you do about it? Some people advocate boycotting Malta as a tourist destination, but that may prove counter productive. Better still, if you are visiting, take your binoculars and tell all the locals that you have come to watch their birds. Give the birds a value, thus encouraging more people to protect them. Support Birdlife Malta and our International Department's campaigning work.
Even if you are not visiting Malta, you can help by signing our Letter to the Future, helping to give nature a stronger voice.