Sunday, 14 December 2008

Just a quick copy and paste this morning from The Independent newspaper.

Bearskin caps are no laughing matter, says Gervais

By Jonathan Owen
Sunday, 14 December 2008

The comedian Ricky Gervais has asked the Prime Minister to prod the Ministry of Defence with a stick over over the bearskin hats worn by the Guards regiments. The comedian says the MoD is dragging its feet over replacing the fur used to make the hats.

"Your MoD advisers claim that this can only happen when a 'suitable synthetic alternative' can be found. Please know that the MoD have sung this song for years," he wrote to Mr Brown last week.

In his letter Mr Gervais calls on the PM to intervene personally: "If killing bears for ceremonial caps is cruel, how can we justify allowing it to continue? As long as bears are shot for the caps, the MoD must surely be compelled to establish a timeline of some urgency within which they will phase [them] out. Would your office be so good as to prod them with a stick?"

The Prime Minister recently wrote to Mr Gervais, pledging his personal support over calls for a ban on bearskins. "I can completely understand your feelings. I was also very surprised when I first learned that these caps were still made using real fur, and I very much agree that this practice should be ended as soon as a suitable alternative can be found," he said.

Designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have offered their help to animal campaigners in the search for a replacement, but this has yet to be taken up by the Ministry of Defence. Up to 100 black bears are killed each year to provide fur for the hats, which have cost the MoD more than £321,000 over the past five years.

I would like to see this practice stopped right now. Or we go the whole hog and show the world that we kill wild bears and wear their skins on our soldiers heads with a new version of the hat - Going from this, the traditional....

to this....

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

When The Rains Stop, The Raptors Fly

We had another few days of rain and by winter standards (yesterday Tuesday) saw some unusually prolonged torrential downpours. Birds of prey, needless to say have an urgency and huge desire to get up into the clear sunny air, look for things to kill and eat is at its greatest after such long periods of fasting and sheltering.
Hunger motivates and drives all living creatures and you can be assured that aerial activity by raptors is no different and needs no explanation. It's always at its best after a few days rain has past and typically a high pressure system kicks in and sits over the Iberian peninsula.
During winter we have good numbers of Bonelli's Eagles hunting in SW Iberia. Most of these will be juvenile birds, 'learning by doing' throughout the vast agricultural areas like La Janda and beyond. This is my home patch and where I have managed to get some good photographs of such special eagles. Although persecuted for generations, there is now much more information and awareness about the role birds of prey play in an essential part of the food chain, even although they are at the top!

In helping to maintain the balance of nature, birds of prey play an essential part in this process and have been proven to be extremely sensitive to many forms of environmental change including chemical pollution, which can provide an early warning for humans. This makes them excellent subjects to study for understanding ecological processes and environmental health.

To take the Bonelli's Eagles as a bird that I have had a personal interest in for seven years, I see a slight increas in the wintering numbers. This could be due to various factors including climate change, less pesticides, and an acceptance from land owners, that losses of Red-legged Partidges
, various duck species and the odd Norther Blad Ibis are in fact inevitable and completely natural. The number of people actively out in the field birding has also increased, so blatant incidents of poisoning has reduced and the Guardia Civil's nature branch, called Seprona, have been much more active in the last few years in bringing prosecutions for such illegal incidents, especially with Eagles.
Smaller raptor or birds of prey like Buzzards, Harriers and Kestrels actually reduce the number of rodents or large insects that reduce crops yields. In central Europe Common Buzzards are greatly encouraged to feed amongst the fields in the countryside and local farmers erect 'T' shaped poles for them to sit on and watch for rodent activity - in fact the German name for the Common Buzzard is the Mouse Buzzard (Mäusebussard) and also the same in Spanish (Ratonero común).
The increase in Common Buzzards in the UK it testament to increased awareness by the bird-loving public and education of those previously from the old school of 'If it's as big as a crow, shoot it!" Certainly the principle reason for the Hen Harrier's continued absence from vast swathes of northern England is illegal killing. More people in the UK should be watching those who are blatently active in this wanton destruction. Photograph them and report incidents to the Police!
Awareness and understanding are great and probably the most powerful tools we can work with to change the way people in Mediterranean countries percieve bird of prey. If we cannot change the mentality of some, for example the ridiculous superstitious belief they have in Scicily, that if you don't manage to shoot your first eagle by Easter, then your wife or girlfriend will be unfaithful to you.
Perhaps if you didn't spend so much time out with the lads hunting and drinking, then there would be no reason for her to look for someone else.....

The inspiration that people get when they watch large birds of prey in the sky is quite magical and something that you remember. I never get tired of having such great opportunities on my very doorstepp and feel quite humbled by their beauty and agility. Approximately 390,000 people enjoy watching birds of prey at the RSPB’s Aren’t Birds Brilliant! sites each year.

The UK is still by far the Number One (pro capita) European - if not in the World, where individuals participating in birding is massive. The presence of UK birders does have an effect on the way peoples of southern European countries now think, particularly amongst hunters. The more of us out there with our binoculars and telescopes the better.
Legal awareness has certainly increased in the last ten years although you'll always have the 'cowboy' element playing with shotguns and taking pot-shots at anything that moves.
Stories appear regularly in the Spanish press about various re-introduction schemes here in Spain, such as the Iberian Lynx, Brown Bears and Wolves. Some are well recieved, others arrouse suspicion and ignorant comment.
Spanish TV is full of programmes about the richness and divesity of this wonderful and vast country. This interest flows over to reports of the success of Red Kite introductions in the UK and this
undoubtably inspires the peoples of Europe to think more about their part in conservation and maintaining environmental balance as well as the whole question of cause and effect.
Here's what Nature England have to say about Red Kites:

"Northern Kites is the project that has returned red kites to the northeast of England after an absence of 150 years. It is part of a UK programme of re-introductions. The initiative, centred on Gateshead’s Derwent Valley, claimed a world-first in re-introducing kites to an urban fringe location. The project is managed by the RSPB and Natural England, in partnership with Gateshead Council, Northumbrian Water, The National Trust and the Forestry Commission, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and SITA Trust. Between 2004 and 2006, 94 red kites were released less than six miles from Newcastle City Centre. Birds first bred in 2006 and a self-sustaining population is now established. In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have enjoyed the kites and they are supporting local tourism initiatives."

It's the local tourism part that makes people look up and take notice. Using phrases like "Eco-tourism" and "Sustainable Tourism" seem to be the ones to use.

I don't mind the use of such over-used phrases at all or even being hi-jacked by the unscrupulous, as long as the environmental education continues and is supported positively by local and national governments.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

I Must Tell You About Our Summer Holidays

People often ask Patty and I - ' You live in such a lovely area, but do you ever go away anywhere else for a holiday?'

Well before this year ends and I forget, I must tell you about this summer´s adventure to French-France.

Le Canal du Midi
This summer we took our annual family holiday in France during the early part of July. We normally go somewhere different and love exploring. Saying that though, I was pretty exhausted after working leading tours all over Spain and other destinations in Europe. I had just finished a tour to Hungary and Austria then flew directly from Budapest, spent the night near Gatwick then met another group early the next morning at the airport. From there we flew south to Toulouse and had a great birding and wildlife tour to the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenees, for eight days. We returned to Toulouse at the end of the tour where I said farewell to the group and co-leader from Limosa, Mike Crewe.
This was the point where I could unwind and I had arranged with Patty, my wife to meet up at Toulouse airport. She had flown up form Seville to Girona, hired a car with our two daughters and had driven the three hours across to Toulouse.
From here we all set off for the Lot region of South-west France to stay with friends who have a lovely house in a small hamlet overlooking the ruins of an 11thC Cistercian Abbey.

We spent five nights there and explored the area including trips to Cahors and Sarlat and the closest main town Gourdon.
Later in the week we drove down to the Canal du Midi to Le Somail, (Minervois), where we had rented a small apartment.
The canal is a great place to take a holiday. There are even super birds to watch like Golden Orioles, their wonderful, tropical sounding calls ringing out from on tops of the lines of leafy poplars that line the banks together with numerous brightly coloured Rollers, ‘croaking’ as they flew over the endless miles of vineyards.

There are some wonderful barges that move up and down the canal or can be seen more or less permanently berthed alongside some of the hamelts, villages or quiet restaurants that are dotted between Beziers and the Mediterranean Sea.
Looking at the history of the area and learning about all the different trades and good that relied on this transport system make you think why we don’t have more canals like this in Europe. Everything seems to hurried and people want goods yesterday!
The canal was built in the 17thC and was ripe for use with merchants wanting to move the two major crops from the area. These were wheat and wine. Textiles were another important of the local economy and the nearby town of Nimes, the home of denim produced this famous of heavy cloth as well as silk.
The best way to appreciate the area and be taken by it’s tranquility, great food and superb wines is to visit the area and absorb life on the canal in full. This is one area that I would go back to - next time renting a house-boat!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Cold and Sunny and Excellent Winter Birding

When I say it's cold, it's not exactly that kind of cold I tried to get used to when a young lad, walking down to the coast to do some birdwatching with pals. It's just that for this part of southern Europe the weather recently has been dominated by really cold air from the north.
It gets light around eight in the morning and dark around six in the evening.

My Mum and Dad were on the phone last night from Scotland and told me, what I new only so well, that the light was fading at half past three! I remember this only too well...
Enough about the weather.

Around my local patch between the massive plain of La Janda and The Strait there have been a few good birds turning up. Atlas Long-legged Buzzards are around with at least two different individuals showing up.

It's such a large area of course and not that many 'pairs of eyes' out looking for foreign birds.
Surprisingly good numbers of Black Storks are feeding at La Janda with hundreds of White Storks.
My good friend Cristi and I wanted to do the annual Black Stork count today but the recent wet weather has made the tracks from Sanlucar de barrameda northwards on the Río Guadalquivir basin impossible even for the Land Rover! We'll wait a few more days and hope the land dries out a bit before venturing through the rice-field zone.
Stone Curlews have been grouping in small and some larger flocks.
Most of the books describe these amazing nocturnal birds as more or less solitary but winter tme shows us the contrary with some flocks of over fifty birds.
Other birds that flock together and can be seen fairly easliy in winter are Little Bustards, Calandra Larks, Spanish Sparrows, Meadow Pipits, Golden Plovers, Northern Lapwings not forgetting the Common Cranes that come down from Denmark, the Baltic States and Germany and Poland. Glossy Ibis now make up huge numbers of birds too and the feeding around the freshly ploughed - or should I say 'mashed up' harvested rice-fields, add to the often frenzied feeding of Cattle Egrets, Black-headed Gulls and White Storks that follow the huge metal-wheeled tractors that pound the old stalks into the mud.
Great Egrets now regularly turn up here and right across to Portugal in the extreme south-west of Europe. Their progression across most of central Europe is almost complete with birds turning up now in Brittany.

More Redwings are around this year and we have had a few Ring Ouzels staying on the coast. One was seen by Eddy and Hazel, a lovely couple that spent a week at Hoopoe Cottage. We had two days birding together. One day was spent in and around La Janda and the other was across on the Guadalquivir river. Eddy saw lots of 'lifers' including Red-knobbed Coot, White-headed Duck, Black Stork, Northern Bald Ibis, Slender-billed Gull and Audouin's Gull.
Corry's Shearwaters and Arctic Skuas can be seen off the coast. Atlanterra lighthouse is a good sea-watch point as is Barbate harbour wall.

I found a dead Barn Owl the other day close to the large wind farm at Tahivilla and this one looked like another wind-turbine casualty.

I found a party of Penduline Tits today at La Janda and some Reed Buntings from the north were also there. Purple Swamphens seem to have declined in numbers this year caused by a virus that has taken many casualties. I suppose the rice farmers will be happy as they have in the past for 'culling' thousands of birds over in Brazo de Este, referring it to a plague that they had to do something about.