Thursday, 31 March 2011

Night patrol

Ecology is not all fluffy stuff. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be taken and the question of predator control falls into this category. Predation is a complex issue; killing is an action of last resort, when non-lethal options have been exhausted and there is clear evidence of a predation impact on the population of a declining species. The predation effect of foxes on the ‘honey-pot’ populations of waders on wet grassland nature reserves set in a wider degraded farmland is becoming better understood.

Last night I joined a fox patrol around a wet grassland nature reserve. The Landrover crept carefully around the reserve, lights dimmed, with the red light on top scanning left and right. When the tell-tale eye-shine of a fox is spotted, instant communication via lamp signals enable the vehicle to be quickly positioned to allow a shot to be taken. Four hours of creeping along banks and ditches, and slipping through near-invisible gateways, resulted in four brief contacts and one shot. This work takes skill, dedication and an intimate knowledge of the land, and is not at the top of the site managers list of favourite tasks. But if we are serious about having nature reserves that produce surplus birds to re-populate the wider countryside, this needs to be done where the case has been proven.

The up-side of the task is the joy of creeping near-silently around a moon-lit site. Redshank and Lapwing calling on all sides from somewhere amongst the shimmering pools. A flurry of ‘kluuting’ Avocets overhead, the regular ‘screep’ of Dunlin and the ‘puuu’ of a passing Golden Plover. Mind you, my ears were close to frozen-off when I finally stumbled off the back of the vehicle.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Hasta la victoria siempre. 17th March.

some birds....

.....and onward into Che Guevara country, past Santa Clara, and up to the northern Cays. Revolutionary fervour is stronger out in these rural areas. Here is where the real benefits were gained. Che is still revered in these parts, with the military train he toppled and defeated still in situ and lovingly rubbed down and touched up with paint. Revolutionary graffiti adorns every other wall - Hasta la victoria siempre!

The road out through the Cays provided plenty of waterbirds and dramatic scenery but little new in the way of birds. The scrubby Cays hosted a variety of warblers including plenty of Cape May's and Oriente.

That's it, Cuba, done. Nice people but too close to America for my liking. Must head east next time.

and some cocktails....

Friday, 25 March 2011

Prisoner 1803. 14th March

All-inclusive on the beach.

A few days at Varadero, in an all-inclusive, so 'er indoors' can get some sun initially seemed a good idea. Don't do it! Staggering between the all-day buffet and the incessant mojito bar (even I can have too many mojitos and I'm still confused with the idea of 'happy hour' in an all-inclusive), an escape plan was required. Luckily the noise and flurried action of the dawn aerobics session provided perfect cover to slip past the guards and out towards the adjacent shit-laden mangrove swamp they lovingly call 'the other Varadero' and we might know as a nature reserve.

The birds knew about this place though and moved through thick and fast; each day brought new arrivals to quickly move on. Dozens of Northern Waterthrush, Black and White Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Parula's, Black-throated Blue's and American Redstarts moved through the bushes. The unsavoury pool at the end of the hotel sewage outlet hosted Lesser Scaup, Blue and Green-winged Teals, Bahama Pintails, Black-necked Stilts, Killdeers, White Ibis, Clapper Rail, Belted Kingfishers and both Night Herons. A quick jog back and nobody knew I hadn't been in the aerobics session.

After breakfast (what fast?) prisoner 1803 shuffled to the beach with all the other incumbents. The ruse of taking arty beach photos allowed close study of the regular flow of Ring-billeds, American Herrings, Laughers, Pelicans, Royal Terns and Cormorants. Regular trips to the bar via the beach scrub added Cuban Green Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Warbler and White-eyed Vireos.

Finally, they made a fatal error. They left an attended car hire desk! A quick flash of the credit card while the mojito guards went for fresh mint and we were out of there......

The nasty pool and it's birds

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Zapata snap slap. 11th March.

Bee Hummingbird.  'It will sit on that branch'  Angelo in action with Grumpy.

Two things not to forget when visiting Zapata swamp are a camera and some mosquito repellent. I remembered the first but not the second. As the day progressed the crust of slapped mozzies rose and cracked as the underlying lumps swelled. But the day also brought a progression of birdy photographic opportunities as Angelo ('brother' of El Chino) took us to this tree and that tree, pointing out exactly where the bird would perch. Good birds fell routinely; Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Pee-wee, Antillean (Cuban) Nightjar, Cuban Screech Owl, Cuban Martin, Cuban Pigmy-owl, Yellow-headed Warbler, Fernandina's Flicker etc etc. The time came for Bee Hummingbird. "It will sit on that branch" said Angelo, and it did. Repeatedly. A second spot produced the same result, with a female as well. The doves followed one after another. Five Blue-headed Quail-doves, one giving a stunning view after Angelo called it out. Call me ungrateful, but this was more like shopping at Tesco's than birding.

Angelo concentrated on the endemics as he knew that's what birders want to see. Endemics, they're a bit like common birds you see elsewhere, but don't migrate, so eventually you can call them 'Cuban'. However, Angelo also called a long list of the sort of names you dreamed of hearing coming out of a crackly CB on Scilly; Black and White Warbler, Gray Catbird, Ovenbird, Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-throated Green and American Redstart.

Eventually Angelo ran out of birds to show us so we paid him off and got on with some slow birding. Zapata Wren, lobster lunch, mojito, Cuban Crab Hawk, mojito, that sort of thing.

Five Cubans (Trogon, Screech Owl, Nightjar, Pygmy-owl and Emerald) and an Ovenbird.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Havana, Cuba. 8th March 2011

Well, another one crossed off the 'bucket list'; cruising around Havana in an open top '56 Buick with a big cigar. Shame I don't smoke. This laid-back, run-down city has real character. 'La revolucion' seems a long way off as the aggressive US blockade has inflicted real hardship on the people. God bless America.

Sipping mojito's in the garden of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba gets the bird list off to a stuttering start; Mourning Dove, Palm Warbler, Peregrine, Cuban Blackbird and the ever-present Turkey Vulture. However, the coastal promenade, the Malacon, is more interesting. This is where young Cubans strut their stuff nightly, in front of the crumbling colonial buildings. By day, Laughing Gull, American Herring Gull, Royal Tern, Magnificent Frigate Birds and squadrons of Brown Pelicans zip past at close range.

An evening drinking daiquiri's at Hemingway's bar and then with the magnificent oldies of the Buena Vista Social Club growling out the tunes with double gusto. Fantastic. Up early, head south to Zapata.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Squelch index

Breeding waders will occupy a lot of work time over the coming couple of months. Pre-season reflection has involved reviewing the current state of our knowledge and updating species action plans, and the Snipe has received a lot of attention.

There has been a massive decline in numbers, with the Snipe now almost entirely restricted to nature reserves in middle England. 90% of Snipe now breed in just 3% of the available land. Take Hertfordshire as an example. Looking at ‘The Birds of Hertfordshire’ (Sage 1959), the opening line states “There is little doubt that the Snipe is a widespread breeding bird over the county as a whole”. Nowadays, there is not one single breeding pair, the last confirmed breeding was in 1998.

The problem is the ever drier countryside. Snipe require soft soil conditions where high water tables enable them to probe for worms, which form 90% of the diet. As the soil dries, worms go deeper into the soil and it becomes harder to probe. There is a link between Snipe success and late summer available worm biomass.

Snipe have a long breeding season - but only if habitat conditions remain favourable. Early nests have a higher predation rate, so a female Snipe that starts early and can get in at least two nesting attempts is more likely to raise young. An incubating female Snipe will feed for 10 minutes or so every hour or so. Ideally she will walk off the nest and feed in the near vicinity. If soils are hard, she may have to fly to feeding areas and ultimately it is the hardness of the soil that determines when she stops breeding. When the eggs hatch, the male will take the first two chicks, the female the second two. Unusually for waders, Snipe feed their chicks. If conditions are good, the adult will feed both, in poor years just one, or none, will survive. Enter here the Squelch Index. If you walk across the grass and your weight causes water to ooze up out of the ground, it is likely to be good for Snipe. The Squelch Index must remain high well into July or even August to allow Snipe to have a good breeding season. Most of the countryside is now rock hard.

Add to that the problems of grassland management - nest trampling by livestock (1+ cow per hectare results in >40% of nests being lost) and of grass mowing before August, and you will understand why the Snipe is between a rock (hard soil) and a hard place.