My word, what a lot of starlings

How should you count birds in flight? I know what I’ve been told, but can never get it to work in practice. My best estimates use a scale that runs from one, through 10 to “a xxxx of a lot”; you’ll have to add the four-letter word of your choice because my mum reads this blog.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today I went kingfisher-spotting at Teifi Marshes, which went well. One kept me entertained by fishing just in front of the hide late into the afternoon, so I stayed put longer than planned.

When I finally left the hide (half frozen) the sun was close to setting – and the sky was full of starlings. There’s a fair-sized roost in the Teifi reedbeds and I’d managed to be in the right place at just the right time.

I know that in theory I should be counting a small group of five birds, or maybe 10. Then, it’s a question of guesstimating how many groups of the same size it would take to assemble the whole flock.

That sounds fine, but doesn’t seem so simple in the field. Especially when birds are moving as much as murmurating starlings do. It makes me doubt bird counts that I do sometimes come across that are suspiciously accurate.

Anyway, it was quite a spectacle for the small group of wildlife-watchers gathered on the old Crymych-Cardigan railway embankment that offers the best viewpoint. There were seven birders (I counted six, plus me), but I’ve no idea how many starlings, but it was definitely “****loads”.

How do you feel? Choughed thanks

Sorry about the clunky pun, but I couldn’t help myself. Congratualtions to Tony Cross and Adrienne Stratford whose work tracking Welsh choughs has been recognised with a Marsh Award for Local Ornithology (from the British Trust for Ornithology).

When I’ve been in touch with Tony it has been to talk about red kites, but he has other irons in the fire. He and Adrienne have been keeping tabs on the births, marriages and deaths of choughs since 1991. Since they started their mostly-voluntary project they have ringed more than 5,000 Welsh birds.

Using rings in colour combinations, they have been able to pull together what the BTO says is a ‘gold-standard’ dataset about the fortunes of individual birds. One result of following the lives of their choughs so closely is that they have found that a lack of nesting sites is an issue in some areas.

That has prompted an effort to put custom-made nest boxes on cliffs in the right sort of locations, which have gone down well with choughs. You could say that they’re chuffed with them, but shouldn’t.

Will anything stop the driven man?

Have you been following Mark Avery’s one-man campaign against driven grouse shooting? If you haven’t, visit his blog to catch up on latest developments.

Dr Mark (pictured below) has kept at his fight down the years and has refused to be fobbed off by nonsense like Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan. Against expectations he managed to get no fewer than 123,077 right-minded members of the public (actually that’s 123,076 right-minded people, and me) to back his petition to get driven grouse shooting debated he-manin Parliament.

That debate happened in Westminster Hall this week – you can read Hansard’s report here – and it sounds as though it was a bit of a disappointment. Few MPs bothered to turn up, and those that did were the sort of people you’d expect to support the rich man’s hobby, like south Carmarthenshire’s Simon Hart, who used to be the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.

By the way, if you are a voter in Mr Hart’s constituency you might like to ask him how much time and effort he puts into representing you. He always gives the impression that he is much more engaged with Countryside Alliance business.

Back to the debate; the tone of contribution from the pro-shooting MPs seems to have been the usual ‘we know best’. As ever, those who oppose blood sports are dismissed as townies who have no right to a say about what happens beyond the outer suburbs.

The shooting lobby definitely reckons it won on the night. But Mark Avery won’t have any truck with that – he’s planning for the next battle, saying the only way forward is ‘upwards and onwards’.

Secret life of the high-flying swift

Most years ‘our’ swifts turn up on cue. For a dozen years or so I’ve made a note of the date of the first sighting, and it’s usually around May 5.

One pair usually nests in the roof space over our bathroom, while two or three others use the neighbouring houses. It’s harder to say when they leave.

This summer a group of 10 or so were around each evening until early August, then they were gone. What happens next?

They just keep flying. For the youngsters, leaving the UK is possibly the start of years on the wing, until the time comes for them to raise young of their own.

For their parents, departure is the start of a 10-month flight. They won’t come to earth again until they come back to look for a nesting site the following May.

In the past the theory that the swift’s life is one of near-constant flight has been the best-guess about where they go, and what they get up to. Now a Swedish study has put flesh on the bones.

Seven swifts were tracked over two years. Three never stopped flying, while the others only landed for a night or two now and again.

Amazing. Ten months soaring free, then two listening to me singing in the shower.

Keta, Wikimedia


‘Petrel Station’ opens for business

When I last went to Skokholm Island I spent some time helping out with the job of checking which of the storm petrel nests were occupied. The birds nest underground, usually under big boulders, so to do the job properly involved a bit of trickery.

We had to play a recording of a petrel into each hole and crevice and then listen out for an answering call. Getting your head as close as possible to each potential entry hole took some doing.

Now Skokholm has some new, tailor-made nestboxes for petrels, which have been designed to make checking the chicks much easier. Take a look at the ‘Petrel Station’ at the Skokholm blog; it looks impressive.

Hopefully the petrels will think so, too.

Chris Packham and hare loss

The row over the impact driven grouse shoots have on the countryside seems to have become a celebrity story. For the tabloids its Chris Packham v. Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham.

Personally, I’ve never had much time for cricket. To add your name to the e-petition that calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting visit this page – as of today the total number of signatures was just over 119,200.

Have a look at Chris Packham’s latest Youtube video on the subject here.