My love of birds, bird watching and supporting the RSPB spans my 34 years on this earth. Every now and then, I encounter something that weaves a thread back to my youth and all the way forward to the present. One such thread is an Osprey called EJ…
My first stint as a volunteer warden for the RSPB was at the Loch Insh reserve up in the Highlands, adjacent to the A9 and between Kinggussie and Aviemore. I was there June to July of 2005, approaching thirteen years ago. Looking back, I realise this trip had a huge impact and was something of a watershed for me. I got to see the landscape-level management required for a reserve like Loch Insh, the resulting benefits to birds and other wildlife and also saw many ‘firsts’; my first Red Kite on the Black Isle, my first Crested Tits in Abernethy and my first Osprey nests.
During a Spring clean I found some surprisingly detailed notes - surprising given both my youth and penchant for Tennents on that trip. The notes include those for warden duties and also wider bird watching. They also include several Osprey sightings. I omit nest locations except for the known Loch Garten site:
Whilst I cannot say, categorically, that I saw EJ, the female Osprey currently on territory at Loch Garten, during my time at Loch Insh, there are sufficient Osprey sightings from the Spey Valley to make it possible - if not likely.
EJ returned to Loch Garten on Wednesday 21st March this year and is the reserve’s most successful Osprey, having bred there for 15 years and raising 25 chicks. I saw her on the 31st March. Our visit was timed well to see her fly in as we approached the Visitor Centre and then holding court on her nest. She was at that time, un-paired as her partner Odin ‘disappeared’ last year. It is not known if there was foul play involved, such as persecution, or more natural causes. I did hear, during our visit, that a rival male could have dispatched Odin last year. It was unfortunately timed mid-breeding season. As I type this, I see EJ has attracted a new male - so here’s hoping for a more successful breeding season in 2018.
EJ - Loch Garten, 31st March 2018
EJ - Loch Garten, 31st March 2018
Whilst Odin was not there during my visit this year, he was back in April, 2011. I have photographs of potentially both EJ and Odin, but certainly of one adult Osprey from that visit. Little did I know that I would be looking at the same individual seven years later. EJ was hatched in Cally, Perthshire back in 1997 and summered at Loch Garten in 2003 before commencing breeding there from 2004. She has a ‘darvic’ white ring with the initials EJ on her right leg and a standard BTO ring on the left leg which has allowed the RSPB to keep track of her.
EJ or Odin - Loch Garten, 11th April 2011
EJ or Odin - Loch Garten, 11th April 2011
Whilst I am fourteen years EJ’s senior, she has been alive for over twenty years of my life and a part of it, however small that part, for thirteen years. EJ, by my calculations has completed a conservative 80 000 migration-miles since 2003. Since I first saw her in 2005, I have graduated, worked nine years in the private sector and now two and half in the public, met my girlfriend now fiancée, devised and executed three Dove Step journeys and moved from Sheffield to Suffolk. It is gratifying that when the threads of our lives cross - I can trace all the way back to my younger self and the beginnings of EJ’s long rein at Loch Garten.
I love that her longevity and my love of the Highlands has allowed for repeated sightings and I hope to see her again later this year, ideally paired and with fledged chicks…
I have just returned from a trip to the Highlands with my good friend Malcom Fairley. Mal and I set off on the evening of Thursday 29th March, driving through the night to arrive at the Corran Ferry pre-dawn. Having crossed, we travelled with the moon hanging in the valley head and its silvery light reflecting off the snow-capped tops. We were at Strontian and searching for the fabled Black Duck before dawn. Whilst we did not locate this mystical beast, we did walk nine miles up and down the river and loch side in pursuit of our quarry. Beautiful surrounds with plenty of birds to look at, the unfamiliar Hooded Crows a pleasure beyond more expected birds. Post-Strontian, we looped to see the Acharacle Ring-necked Duck, a worthy consolation having missed one American duck. On the return ferry we had the Black Guillemots at Ardgour - frequenting metal work on a decaying platform. It is always a pleasure to see this west coast special, especially in breeding finery.
Hooded Crows - Strontian
Black Guillemot - Ardgour
Early morning on the 31st saw us walking into the darkness and Rothiemurchus Forest in pursuit of Capercaillie, our second and most sought after target of the trip. It is the huge grouse of the forest which can fan its tail like a black peacock, whilst wielding an ivory bill and blood red ‘roses’ above each eye. Despite the sheer bulk of the bird - wild males reach 5kg and 85cm in height - they are highly elusive, elusive to the point of the ridiculous given the size of the bird. In the absence of the RSPB’s ‘Caper Watch’ at Loch Garten, the only reasonable way to encounter one is to walk their Caledonian Forest via public routes in the hope of encountering one.
The native Scottish population, became extinct between 1770 and 1785 and remains vulnerable. Following extinction, the birds were re-introduced and bred again in 1837. Whilst there was a 1960’s high of up to 10000 pairs, this dropped to less than 1000 birds in 1999 - with predictions of extinction (in a UK context) by 2015. This extinction has not yet come and as of last year’s State of the UK Birds Report, there is an estimated 1114 individuals remaining - albeit spread across a huge swathe of the required Caledonian Forest habitat.
Mal has never seen a Capercaillie before, whilst I have had distant views from the RSPB Caper Watch back in 2011; this was within the contained environs of the Visitor Centre with video relay to screens and distant views. To see a bird in the ‘flesh’ and in its natural environment was a worthy pursuit and one I was keen pursue with Mal. Mal supported the last two weeks of Dove Step 3, a 704.5 mile crossing of Spain, completed in just 28 days. As such we share the same ability to persevere in pursuit of a goal. To this end, our three day trip included 35 miles of walking across the three days aside from the required car travel.
In the pre-dawn gloom, we did hear a ‘clicking’ male in an area of fresh pellets. During the winter, Capercaille can feed almost constantly, producing a pellet nearly every 10 minutes. To hear a Caper and so close, was tantalising. We then spent our remaining daytime in the Loch Garten area enjoying; Whooper Swan, Osprey, Crested Tit, Black and Red Grouse and even White-tailed Eagle amongst others.
Whooper Swan - Loch Pityoulish
Crested Tit - Loch Garten
White-tailed Eagle - Avielochan
Our focus, however, remained Capercaillie, ‘Capull Coille’, the Horse of the Woods. When in pursuit of such specialised and indeed special species, the objective must be absolute. To this end we reconnoitred viable habitat past sunset with friends Cathy and Lee Gregory. This, as is the case for us gentlemen birders, was followed by many ales and much merriment. This indulgence did not, however, compromise our target and the 05:00 a.m.alarm on the 01st April presented itself rudely and coldly. We walked into the night, with an icy full moon illuminating our steps across frozen ground. In the silvern pre-dawn, the moon presented itself variously through the lines of pines, dawn grew in the east and it seemed to get colder the deeper into the forest we marched. Condensation formed and froze on my beard; Mal’s un-bearded face chapped. We continued, deeper and deeper, into the forest in the hope of encountering our quarry. With the orange glow of the dawn meeting the cold air we had all but given up. We re-doubled our efforts and walked already trodden ground. With hope, time and enthusiasm waning we resorted to re-orientating towards breakfast. Upon a cross roads in the tracks I caught movement in my peripheral, a shape forming in the dawning light; a horse in the woods!
A male Capercaillie posed, Lemmy-like, with its ivory bill skyward on bare-ground amidst the pines.
I used Opticron Traveller ED binoculars, MM4ED60 travel scope and USM2 smart phone adapter on this trip. For more details on each - see the Opticron website.
All photographs © Jonny Rankin, 2018.
It has not been a typical birding year for me. The on-foot crossing of Spain that was Dove Step 3 was disruptive beyond the actual walking days. It took literally months to recover and settle back into a civilian routine. By the time some semblance of order was restored, it was mid-summer! Luckily, bird survey commitments meant I was out and about during Spring and caught up with most local breeders and some excellent migrants.
Oddly, despite a good year locally with some cracking West Suffolk birds, Spotted Flycatcher have totally evaded me! They breed within the Bury St Edmunds city limits and I have visited known sites - but to no avail. I have of course missed other, typically passage birds, but not any other known breeders of which I can think. My January efforts yielded a respectable 106 species; Spain then kept me entertained until the first days of March. The remainder of March played out in a very typical fashion. My first Chiffchaff, Oystercatcher and Red Kite of the year were back at Lackford Lakes on the 09th. Waders continued to trickle in throughout the month with Redshank at Micklemere by the 15th, followed by Little Ringed Plover at the same site on the 24th, then both the curlew, Eurasian and Stone back on Cavenham Heath by the 26th. The 26th also saw the first Tree Pipit back in the Kings Forest, really characterful birds and always a pleasure to encounter the first of the year, this one whilst surveying Woodlark. Other March specials were Garganey and Goshawk by the middle of the month and the second warbler of the year, Blackcap, just making it within March on the 31st. Looking back, I am amazed and delighted I managed to fit all that in within the fall-out of Dove Step 3, especially as lots of birding was done by bike - allowing the legs some recovery time from the repetition of walking!
April brought all the glory of migration! The floodgates definitely opened in West Suffolk during April! Looking back on my BirdTrack, I am also impressed with the sheer volume of birding I was able to indulge: Lakenheath appears as my second home! Wader passage continued unabated with Black-tailed Godwit at Lakenheath on the 04th, followed by Avocet the next day, Ruff were in at Micklemere by 07th and finally a Dunlin was on the Slough at Lackford on the 27th. Other water birds included Glossy Ibis at Lakenheath on 08th and my first views of the Cranes on the 29th. Rather like Great White Egret, Glossy Ibis are almost an expected and annual sight in West Suffolk now. I can still recall finding a Great White Egret at Micklemere back in 2009, when it was still a British Birds rarity and full description species! Glossy Ibis are now nigh-on annual also. I look forward to more of the herons joining them; Cattle Egret and Night Heron would be particularly welcome locally.
Warblers also continued to arrive, right on cue within April; Sedge Warbler at Lakenheath on the 05th, Whitethroat at Livermere on 09th and Willow Warbler back in the Kings Forest the same day. Another bird back in the Kings Forest on the 09th was Redstart. I am used to picking them up on song and call during survey visits, but little prepared me for binocular-filling views of a perched male in full breeding finery. They are astonishingly awesome birds. The 09th was equally productive for passage birds at Livermere, with the first Common Tern of the year in the company of some stunning Little Gulls. They are something of an expected passage bird at Livermere but easily missed as they do not always stick around. Also, at Livermere, on the 09th, was my first hirundine of the year; House Martin! Definitely the first time House Martin have pipped Sand Martin or indeed Swallow locally for me. Sand Martin and Swallow were in at Cavenham by the 17th – and - more importantly - so was a male Ring Ouzel looking resplendent on the heath. Ring Ouzel are generally annual and some years recorded in both Spring and Autumn passage - but easily missed if you are not in the right place at the right time. Another April addition for me was Water Pipit. Water Pipit are increasingly common during winter along the Little Ouse, and as such I am not sure why it took until April to connect with one - but I am glad I did.
More expected April arrivals swept in across the last 10 days of the month: Cuckoo, Wheatear, Reed Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler were all at Lakenheath, whilst Lesser Whitethroat, Nightingale, Garden Warbler, Swift and Hobby all arrived back at Lackford. April end saw me poised on 145 species for the year and eagerly awaiting all the promise of May - a month which has held some local mega rarities.
The month started well with my favourite bird, Turtle Dove, back on territory near Lackford. It is always an absolute thrill to see this species locally and all the more so when you get to watch a courting pair. The potential for breeding with a species in free-fall decline is a most welcome sign.
The wader invasion, or, more appropriately passage, continued with Common Sandpiper at Lackford on the 01st and Bar-tailed Godwit and Greenshank at Lakenheath on the same date. The 05th saw both Whimbrel and Spotted Redshank at Lakenheath too. Oddly, May provided further wildfowl additions to the list with a Barnacle Goose at Livermere and a Red-crested Pochard at Lackford. Goodness knows where the Barnacle Goose came from! The Red-crested Pochard had been present off and on for some months, it just efficiently evaded me during my visits! Finally, a lunchtime cycle-sprint safely secured views of a breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebe at Livermere and an unofficial work to Livermere land speed record!
Perhaps the biggest bird of the month and potentially the year, was a Great Reed Warbler which pitched up on the 10th at the BTO, Nunnery Lakes reserve. Nunnery Lakes straddles the Norfolk / Suffolk county boundary - or specifically the Watsonian county boundary, formed by the Little Ouse river, for biological recording purposes. I could have achieved heard-only Great Reed Warbler had I waded to the middle of the channel and carefully listened. This, however, seems a little desperate and not in the spirit off my gentlemanly bird watching - so I refrained. As such, Great Reed Warbler does not make it onto the list but remains a mega ‘could have been’ and ‘oh so close’!
Further to the wildfowl added earlier in the month, another May ‘oddity’ and somewhat unseasonal, was a Short-eared Owl hunting along the river at Lakenheath on the evening of the 20th May. This was followed with a chaser of Woodcock and Nightjar in the Kings Forest on our way to the pub. ‘Nightjarring’ is one of the absolute highlights of a West Suffolk birding year and despite the belated pub arrival time a must do!
Two very welcome additions, both warblers, came late in the month of May, with a singing Marsh Warbler at Lakenheath on the 23rd and a singing Wood Wood Warbler in Brandon on the 26th. Whilst I have seen two Marsh Warblers in West Suffolk previously, the Wood Warbler was a long overdue and hoped-for addition. The final new bird for May was Corn Bunting on the 31st in the hinterland Suffolk Fens - way, way out west in West Row.
June was the first blank month of the year for me - with no new birds added to the tally, July was marginally better with a Yellow Wagtail on my local patch, comprised of farmland adjacent to Bury St Edmunds itself. August was marginally better with a Little Stint at Livermere on the 10th - only my second ever recorded in West Suffolk.
I type this poised on 162 species for the year, with the remainder of September and the last quarter of the year to play with. In particular, the mighty month of October offers hope. Previously, October has delivered such diverse birds as Black Redstart and Curlew Sandpiper; seemingly anything is possible and I hope to connect when it is!
Thereafter, the second winter period also provides the opportunity for more ‘grey geese’ with Pink-footed and Bean both on the cards; rare ducks are similarly possible and there remains the chance to tidy up omissions such as; Jack Snipe, Goosander, Long-eared Owl and Crossbill from the first winter period. 38 species in the remaining three months of the year is at most optimistic and at best exciting! I look forward to seeing how much I can narrow the gap.
All images © Jonny Rankin. Take the #My200BirdYear Challenge; www.birdwatching.co.uk/my200/
With Dove Step I have three aims; endurance, awareness raising and fundraising.
Across these three objectives I consider that Dove Step 3 was the most successful in all respects. The endurance is obvious enough - the walk was completed, on schedule, in 28 consecutive days from the south to north coast. 704.5 hard won miles. The fundraising from Dove Step 3 is similarly easy to call a success; £5873.12 and £6857.90 when GiftAid is added. Adding to a overall total, across Dove Steps, of over £12000. For my former self back in 2013, before we executed the first journey, this figure is astonishing and a point of much pride. I certainly couldn't have donated that much myself and it is wholly gratifying that across the three journeys Dove Step has attracted such a total.
This leaves awareness raising, perhaps the most difficult to quantify, despite the fact that it is almost as time consuming as the training and endurance! So, here follows an effort to demonstrate the least visible side of Dove Step.
I realised early on with Dove Step that the actual endurance event was about 10% of the total output. What is the point of surpassing physical and mental limits, enduring what, at times feels impossible, if nobody knows about it?
As such my mantra when it comes to any medium of coverage is; always say yes. No matter how inconvenient, no matter how much other issues life is piling on at any one times; say yes.
If the resulting coverage attracts £10 then the effort is worth it.
This year alone the awareness raising side of Dove Step 3 has encompassed literally every medium possible.
In all honesty, fitting in filming around 25 mile walking days was sub-optimal. It was more than enough to eat, sleep and repeat. However, as I said at the outset of this blog; endurance is about 10% of the total output. If no one knows what you are doing - you may as well not be doing it!
So if you have a Dove Step itch you need to scratch there are a multitude of ways to scratch away. As well as the above episode of La Adventura del Saber you can listen to an interview I did for BBC Radio Suffolk at the below Soundcloud link. If you don't want to see my face for radio or hear my voice then you can also find some words I wrote at the back of the current, July 2017, edition of Bird Watching Magazine.
I can honestly say that aside from family and friends there is little in life I would push so hard for and work so hard towards as Dove Step.
The reasons for this are simple. Turtle Doves, for me, encompass the natural world. The Afro-European migrants presently with us, our farmland birds, the habitat pressures our bird species face, the illegal and legal hunting of our birds. Everything.
Dove Step encompasses my frustrations, it is a conduit for my emotions around all these issues, an output in the face of so many things which seem out of control and utterly opposed to our natural world. It is a big burden and a big blessing. It rationalises the irrational. This is my small fight-back against the immeasurable factors that are simply out of my control and indeed the control of anyone with a deep seated care for the natural world.
That reads as pretty melodramatic - but I am comfortable with it. Purely because it is true.
The July 2017, edition of Bird Watching Magazine is on sale now and the Dove Step 3 JustGiving page is still available to receive donations at the following link; https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/DoveStep3
This gave me a unique, straight-lined impression of the whole country, or, more accurately, a narrow corridor of the country. Bird-wise the first region, Andalusia, was one of the most fertile sections of the trip, with the most new species added as we encountered each new habitat.
This trip was the third in a series of big endurance efforts for Turtle Doves which I affectionately call Dove Step. The premise is that through endurance, with the help of friends, I can raise both funds and awareness for Operation Turtle Dove. Turtle Doves are in free-fall decline with a 93% reduction in breeding birds in the UK and a comparable 80% decline on the near continent. Dove Step 3 was our most successful effort yet and achieved the objectives of endurance, fundraising and awareness extremely efficiently. At the time of writing, the fundraising total stands at £5873.12 and £6857.90 when GiftAid is added. Our fundraising goes directly to the RSPB and is specifically for use by Operation Turtle Dove. Funds from the first journey allowed for nine hectares of Turtle Dove friendly habitat to be installed in the eastern region, providing food for Turtle Doves upon arrival from Africa and again when they have young to feed later in the season. Funds from the second Dove Step supported research into issues affecting Turtle Doves on the wintering grounds. Research across the last two wintering periods has started to fill knowledge gaps in habitat preference, changing land-use and favoured sites for Turtle Dove congregations. This is vital understanding given that Turtle Doves spend two-thirds of the year on the wintering grounds. Funds raised from this latest effort will similarly support the objectives of Operation Turtle Dove.
The walk itself was the most arduous of the journeys undertaken so far, even more so than walking 300 miles in 13 days as we did on Dove Step 1. It was more demanding than the 700 mile triathlon; 25 mile sea kayak, 570 mile cycle and 150 mile walk completed in 14 days on Dove Step 2. The sheer landscape level movement, across 28 consecutive days, walking at least 25 miles a day, takes a uniquely brutal toll on the body. Each day I would be out from just after dawn until late afternoon, or early evening depending on distance. I experienced a wealth of temperatures, weather and terrain in the process. Given the scale of the challenge, many issues cropped up that had to be overcome. Self-motivation and keeping mentally resolute were essential. The birds encountered were a big part of keeping me up-beat; I am after all a bird watcher, that is why I became interested in and wholly steeped in Turtle Dove conservation. Bird watching, for me, is something of a gateway drug, the stepping stone to everything else I have come to do: endurance, fundraising, public speaking and writing. Bird watching has a lot to answer for!
Andalusia was the most fertile section of the trip, with the most species and new habitats encountered across the first few days. Seeing a new bird or spectacular congregation of birds provided mental stimulus and kept the mind off any ailments or inclement weather throughout the trip. White Storks and Griffon Vulture, for example, were a near constant as we passed through Andalusia and beyond and I never grew tired of their presence; either bird appearing on a thermal ahead usually coincided with a warming of the day and the comfort of knowing I had covered 10 - 20km.
Black-shouldered Kite, Crested Lark, Kentish Plover and Spotless Starling were all lifers for me on the first day as we walked from Tarifa Beach to Venta de Retin. Audouin's Gull, Crag Martin and Sardinia Warbler were birds I had only seen once before, the latter two in particular, were frequently encountered across the first week. The second day’s walking took us straight through La Janda. This was not pre-planned, but a happy coincidence and the birding was immense; Bluethroat, Purple Swamphen, Sponnbill, Booted Eagle and masses of Cranes to name a few. This certainly was not the fastest walking of the trip, as Rob and I paused to take in as much of the action as possible. Calandra Lark en route and Lesser Kestrel at Alcala de los Gazules - where we finished for the day - were both lifers, as were the White-headed Duck on a reservoir near Arcos de la Frontera the next day.
Once clear of Seville, the centre of which was covered in Ring-necked Parakeet, the habitat changed and in the Sierra Norte National Park I started to encounter Azure-winged Magpies amongst the Holm and Cork Oaks. All-in I encountered around 90 species in Andalusia - not bad at all for the first region of the trip and in the context of a trip list of 125 species.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Andalusian leg of the epic walk and, fortunately, it was sufficiently early in the effort that I was fresh enough to enjoy the birds. From the 5th day of the trip and Seville, I walked solo until the 24th day of the trip; this gave the birds a newly heightened level of importance. With the onset of fatigue, injury, ever-increasing hunger and loneliness - at least within the walking hours - birds were a companion and a most welcome distraction. My favoured adage that ‘Only Nature Is Real’ took on a heightened meaning when your natural surroundings are your companion, enemy and saviour all at once and across multiple miles each day. The terrain and weather could be wholly conspiring against a day’s mileage - but an overflying Red or Black Kite would offer a welcome lift no matter how debilitated.
Extremadura, for me at least, meant one thing; the desire to see a bustard! Ideally a Great Bustard! This would not be a stretch at all if you were in-car and able to drive up on known areas and habitats. I wouldn't deviate from my pre-planned route and so had to rely more on luck. Days in Extremadura ticked over with plenty of new species for the trip, notably: Spanish Sparrow and Southern Grey Shrike. It wasn't until the day after Caceres that I would meet my quarry; having left the city limits pre-dawn, I dropped into more bustard-suitable, steppe habitat and immediately took out my Opticron Traveller binoculars. Miles passed and I dutifully scanned likely looking high points for bustards, to no avail. Then, in the rightmost limit of my peripheral vision, a large bird honed into view. I had already seen a perched Griffon Vulture and thought it may have been that taking flight. It wasn’t! It was another big Bertha, an iconic species – the Great Bustard. It gave prolonged flight views arcing across the whole landscape before dropping out of view behind an escarpment. I couldn't have been happier. I needed that lift because the day was to morph into an extremely gruelling slog, with the remaining 30km of the 45km day on rough ground and even involving cross-country navigation to avoid a route diversion.
The next day birding again came to the fore. It was really hot and carrying full pack as I remained solo for this section of the trip, I had yet again to cross a river. The crossing was fine and I was even assisted by a local who guided me through the most sensible sections and offered me a t-shirt by way of towel when I made it over! Delighted! However, after the rhythm of covering hard terrain, with full pack and the heat of the day, the cold water body-shocked me. I made it to the top of the next hill and took a moment to regain my composure. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes and the sky was full of vultures! I am sure this was pure coincidence and they hadn't mistaken my resting form for a cadaver; the assembled vulture mega-flock did have the benefit of gaining me Egyptian Vulture for the trip and I remain a big fan of both Black and Griffon Vultures, despite having encountered them already.
The section of the trip after Extremadura didn't hold the same volume of iconic species, but did manage to add a good number of ‘padders’ throughout Castilla y Leon, notably: Tree Sparrow, Dipper and Rook! Birds that would otherwise be wholly taken for granted.
On the border of Castilla y Leon and the very last region walked - Asturias - Rob rejoined me and we tackled the mighty Picos de Europa. A worthy mountain range if ever I’ve encountered one. The change of terrain gave us some real specials, including lifers for me, such as: Rock Bunting and Rock Sparrow. We may have failed to happen upon a Wallcreeper, but I was content with Rock Bunting in particular. What a superbly marked species.
During the tail end of the trip, largely in transit or waiting for the delayed ferry home, we encountered a good number of estuarine and seabird species. Whilst I don't count this as formally as the species encountered walking, they do take the trip tally up to a worthy 125 species. In re-visiting the birds seen along the way, the trip does read as very Andalusia heavy. This is a symptom of the freshness of the observers, Rob and myself, at that point and also the early stage of the trip. By the last two weeks and certainly by the last week, I was not routinely carrying my camera and not always taking my binoculars out of the pack. Whilst the trip was completed capably, I was seriously fatigued it the latter stages. It required all my output to simply keep going.
All images © Jonny Rankin. I used Opticron Traveller binoculars and Bridgedale socks exclusively throughout Dove Step 3. You can still support our fundraising at the following link; https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/DoveStep3
With my next big expedition, Dove Step 3 - a complete on-foot crossing of Spain looming, I was inexplicably attracted to the 200 Bird Year. This may seem counter intuitive as the Spanish trip took me away from the UK and my home county of Suffolk for over a month, albeit at a relatively quiet time of year in February and early March.
With such trips I have learnt that the post-expedition lull can be fierce and in my case not entirely healthy. I have previously tried to fill the endorphin and exertion void with intoxicants - largely alcohol - which has had the duel effect of emptying my wallet and limiting my birding time. This year I have latched onto the My 200 Bird Year challenge as a healthy focus for my return from Spain and to civilian life. As I do not own a car and aside from the occasions I use my girlfriend’s, I do a lot of birding on bike or on foot from my home and within West Suffolk. This forms the primary focus of my 200 Year - to see if I can rack up 200 bird species within the West Suffolk recording area. In all likelihood this is impossible - or improbable at best. For example, by mid January I had already missed a Little Bunting on Knettishall Heath and repeatedly dipped out on both white-winged gulls frequenting a recycling centre on the Suffolk side of Thetford. If I had my own car I could have easily mopped up both of these targets, at almost any time. That is the curse of such a challenge, it heightens the experience of missing and dipping birds - at times almost overshadowing the birds actually seen! Despite the infancy of the challenge, by mid January I had already accumulated a very healthy 87 species, with some real specials which could have easily evaded me for the whole year, namely: White-fronted Goose, Smew, Raven and Waxwing.
The White-fronted Goose was a juvenile and cause of some embarrassment, as without the white blaze and black striations across the breast, I took the orange legs to mean Bean Goose and tweeted as such! Regardless of the public mistake and any embarrassment, any wild ‘grey goose’ constitutes an excellent addition in land-locked West Suffolk. The Smew was a first winter drake, but still in all the finery the male of this species exhibits. What a bird and what a privilege to see it on the 2nd January! Smew are certainly not annual visitors to my corner of the County and I have largely recorded red-headed females in the past. It has to be said, however, that such is the nuanced Vice County recording system, that this bird was some distance from my home and closer to the coast and further south than seems feasible for the west of the County! Raven, on the other hand, are an increasing sight and more tellingly found in West Suffolk. Whilst records have increased over the last few years,I did not consider Raven a ‘banker’ in respect of my year list. Indeed, having seen a pair locally in the last quarter of 2015, 2016 was a blank year for me. As such, it was especially gratifying when one cronked away on the first Saturday of January as I walked in the King’s Forest.
As Waxwing reports increased, moving ever southwards across the festive period, I became more attentive to berry laden trees and bushes on my daily walk-commute, double-taking every time a distant Redwing flew in! I was understandably delighted when a flock of 10 Waxwing started frequenting the less than salubrious Bury St Edmund’s bus station. Little did I know they would then become a daily feature, with birds habituating the car park trees outside my office window! A flock of 11 on Monday 9th increased and by the third weekend of the month totalled 14 birds. Despite being on-hand for three full working weeks, I never grew tired of the birds. They cheered the dreariest of days and even when I could not see them, the ‘trill’ call was an absolute delight! Waxwing are another species which, due to their cyclical pattern of arrival and the relatively southern location of West Suffolk, could easily have evaded my 200 Bird Year.
The second half of the month saw me hit the mother lode! Smashing the 100 species and half way mark. The white-winged gulls which had evaded me on the first two attempts gave themselves up beautifully on a pre-work visit with good friend Mal. It is not often that I would use the descriptor ‘beautiful’ and gulls in the same sentence – particularly since they were on a household recycling centre in the middle of an industrial estate! However, when the Glaucous flew overhead, one of the very first gulls to do so, at 07:51 it was beautiful. The sun had barely marked a crimson line on the horizon and our breath hung in the crisp air: the gull was backgrounded by really cold blue winter light. As the sun rose along with the daily commotion of the recycling centre, so did the gull numbers, seemingly out of nowhere. The Iceland Gull was also present in the assembled throngs on the rooftops. An invigorating start to the working day with both white-wingers superb additions to achieve in the first wintering period.
I can think of little to rival a winter’s afternoon at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. It is a full-on sensory and landscape level experience. Yes, the individual birds are superb, but collectively the Starlings and Corvids can fill a significant percentage of the sky; visually and aurally. Once beyond the central plantations and receiving longer views, you will rarely be far away from a Marsh Harrier - and as the day wanes they gather in double figures. Close attention can, as with my visit, produce further raptors - drawn by both the reed bed roost site and also the abundance of prey. Amidst the circling Marsh Harrier, a more buoyant active flight drew our attention and through the optics views of a male Hen Harrier were achieved. I can count on my two hands the times I have seen the grey male of the species, having mainly encountered ring-tails: another bird which could have evaded My 200 Bird Year efforts safely encountered within January. At one point, whilst manoeuvring the scope to get better views of the Hen Harrier I received full frontal views of a Bittern, headed straight towards me and on its way to roost! A much hoped-for encounter beyond the raptor roost. Other, expected reed bed specialists were; Bearded Tit, Cetti’s Warbler and Water Rail. Another, now expected bird of Lakenheath is the Great White Egret - from a national rarity when I started birding in West Suffolk to essentially a resident in 10 years. Indeed, I encountered a minimum of three individuals during the walk and then again as they flew to roost. Given the fenland location of Lakenheath, the final winter spectacle is the swans. Hundreds of swans - from the herds of expected Mute Swans to the mixed flocks of Whooper and Bewick’s Swan. The adjacent fields, usually dark with peat, can be white-washed or at least dotted with swans. On this visit, there were at least 126 Whooper and 2 Bewick’s showing, the Whooper’s occasionally giving their namesake call along with trade mark up and down sky-pointing of the bills, one of my absolute favourite winter time experiences.
From fenland to forest and heathland, West Suffolk has a good variety of habitats. As such I decided upon a change of pace for the second day of my penultimate January weekend and a walk through a favoured haunt - the King’s Forest. This secured a Woodlark flock and also wintering Great Grey Shrike, both iconic Breck species, certainly in winter time. Between the fenland and Breckland glut, by the third full weekend of the month I had amassed 105 species, comfortably crossing the half way mark and with several more winter targets outstanding. Remaining additions were all on-the-fly and achieved around walking the dog and domestic or work duties. We still have a relic population of Golden Pheasant in Suffolk Breckland. While it is not clear to what extent these are self sustaining or augmented by gamekeepers, regardless of their origins they are an incredible treat for the eyes on a January lunchtime. Golden Pheasant saw me poised on 106 species and just a busy working week to go before heading out to Spain.
Ten months to chase down another 94 species. Possible? Unlikely? I look forward to finding out!
All images © Jonny Rankin. Take the #My200BirdYear Challenge; www.birdwatching.co.uk/my200/
From July 2015 - December 2016 I shared wildlife experiences with 23000 of my fellow West Suffolk kinsmen and women in the Bury Mercury. Whilst I don’t have a complete record of each Wildlife Wonders column, I do have a partial record. This is thanks in no small part to Lilian Fairley who kept copy and thereafter good friend Malcolm Fairley who collated them into a birthday gift. Thanks to their thoughtfulness - I know I delivered at least 50 columns with a crude subject breakdown as follows:
I say crude because some columns could be landscape level, whole sensory experiences, including perhaps a flock of birds or focusing on the sunset for example. Always at the core was an enthralling and usually delighting wildlife experience within a stone’s throw from my Bury St. Edmund’s home.
With the considerable effort required to get in shape and truly prepared for Dove Step 3, I stopped Wildlife Wonders without marking the occasion. So, firstly a big thanks to my editor Russell Cook, and my personal editor - Mum! Thanks too, to all the photographers and artists who furnished my words with exquisite illustrations, including, and by no means exhaustively; Stephen Rutt, Jon Evans, Mike Arreff, Mark Gash, Barry Woodhouse and the great Richard Thewlis.
Here is the very first Wildlife Wonders column from 22nd July, 2015…
Whilst I give myself the moniker of naturalist, I am always learning, I am currently most competent with birds, butterflies, moths and some of the more prominent insects. I would be overwhelmed if pressed to identify hedgerow vegetation or wild flowers. That is not to say I don’t very much enjoy them and the pollinators dutifully attending them. My daily appreciation of nature has developed organically - one year a dragonfly could cause a summer long obsession, the next a glimpsed Peregrine could initiate a vigil of this impressive raptor.
I have also morphed from a habitual nature reserve attendee to an observer of the wider countryside. Much of my nature worship is now undertaken to fit around the 9 – 5, be it on dog walks, whilst cycling, or when running close to home; this makes the surprises all the sweeter! After all, expectation is high when you visit a nature reserve. I would expect one of nature’s spectacles when visiting Lackford Lakes for example, if not a Kingfisher then a Starling murmuration or a vibrant dawn chorus.
Expectation is not so high on a morning’s dog walk, so when a small butterfly cascaded down to a head-height leaf yesterday, I was thrilled to make out the under wing, defining it is as a Purple Hairstreak. This delicate pint-sized butterfly is not uncommon, but it is just typically out of reach, and loyal to the treetops of its favoured oak trees. To have one come down to my level, seemingly presenting itself for my pleasure, is the undoubted highlight of my week. It rested with closed wings, hiding the vivid purple associated with its flight, but showing off the namesake white hairstreaks and orange- fringed eyelets. The delicate orange coloration is also reflected in the very tips of its antennae. With a flutter it ascended - back to the tree tops and honeydew bounty that it feeds upon.
… and the penultimate Wildlife Wonder from 07th December, 2016:
Despite having had great days’ bird watching, in both the east and west of the county, this week one of the most memorable encounters was again within the urban confines of Bury St Edmunds. Whilst dutifully heading into town for a spot of Christmas shopping, I was alerted to the presence of an avian predator by the local pigeons scattering skyward over St John’s Street - a good early warning of a raptor in the area. It could have been a Sparrowhawk, but this time it was a much more effective killer; Peregrine Falcon. Not just one of them, but two!
I occasionally see single birds over the town, and indeed over my home, but it was great to see the pair on this occasion - both cruising over in archetypal swift-like pose, wings held stiff on a determined glide. At the same time as I was watching my local birds, a friend was watching his own in Derbyshire and also achieving much better photographs, which I share here. I have seen Peregrine widely - indeed all over the world - but there is a special affection for these local birds. They offer a steady reminder of nature's enduring capacity to adapt; whilst indiscriminate pesticides, gamekeepers and egg collectors crashed the Peregrine population of yesteryear, they now thrive on our most urban of structures.
On the 2nd of August this year I met Titan. Titan is a Turtle Dove, a unique Turtle Dove; the only UK Turtle Dove to be successfully satellite tagged. He was satellite tagged by RSPB scientists in my home county of Suffolk last summer. He has now made the return trip to and from sub- Saharan Africa giving vital data, hugely increasing understanding of the migratory route taken by ‘our’ Turtle Doves each year.
There are layers of importance to this meeting for me. First, it is always a pleasure to see a Turtle Dove; for a species which has suffered a 91% decline in breeding birds across the last twenty years any sighting is most welcome. Added to that the attractiveness of the species in its own right - both on sight and sound - making any encounter memorable. The fact that Titan has added so much to our understanding of Turtle Doves’ migration, places him at the forefront of migration science. Titan is the only survivor out of a total of seven tagged birds. The reality that only he has made it to and from Africa is an acute demonstration of the mortal peril this species faces. To then overcome the ‘needle in a hay stack’ issue of finding a single bird in dense coastal strip makes the encounter hugely gratifying.
Aside from these physical issues which all had to resolved in getting us both face to face, there was, for me, layers of emotional attachment. I have spent the last few years wholly dedicated to Turtle Doves, pushing myself beyond my physical limits to raise funds for Operation Turtle Dove. As well as the journeys undertaken, we have pursued as much awareness raising as possible, ensuring the plight of our ailing Turtle Dove population is kept towards the top of the conservation agenda. With so many worthy causes and species threatened by extinction this is no mean feat.
Across the last two years friends and I have drawn a self-propelled line from Saltholme RSPB reserve in the north-east of England all the way to Bayonne on the French-Spanish border. 1000 miles of endurance completed in just 27 days. We call our journey Dove Step and it seeks to mimic the migratory route of our breeding Turtle Doves. In doing so our aims are two fold: raise both funds and awareness for Operation Turtle Dove. I should point out that neither my friends nor I are athletes capable of naturally undertaking back-to-back marathon journeys each day. It is granite mental resolve, our belief in what we are doing, which allows us to push ourselves to the limit and beyond. I could not personally have achieved the endurance feats of the last two years without this mental resolve.
In covering much of the English range of Turtle Doves - and the whole of France - we have drawn a line which is comparable to the route taken by Titan. When overlain - our route vs Titan’s - the lines intersect and we also have a very clear steer of where our journey must go next. To date, we have walked 300 miles in England, from Suffolk to the north-east; kayaked channel equivalent distance in the North Sea; cycled 570 miles from Calais to Bordeaux and walked the remaining 140 from Bordeaux to Bayonne. Well over 1000 miles of self-propulsion, for Turtle Doves and all undertaken in just 27 ‘Dove Step days’.
To meet Titan, having spent so much time preparing, pushing so hard and travelling so far, felt almost like closure, a chance to reflect upon the successful completion of this year’s journey. We have a couple of equipment sponsors to whom we are immensely grateful. Thereafter, every other aspect of Dove Step is self-funded as is all the training. This time last year I had only been sea kayaking once and had never touched a road bike. I have now completed a 25 mile expedition at sea and cycled 570 miles in just six days! In pursuing the whole country-crossing this year there was a lot of potential for failure. We relied upon a weather window to launch the kayaks, while cycling on public roads and for 100 miles a day comes with its own dangers, not least riding in proximity to traffic for hours at a time. Finally, having kayaked and cycled for eight consecutive days, whilst familiar, the walking leg was always going to be subject to fatigue given what went before it. With annual leave from our employers limiting the available time, the journey could easily have unravelled at any time. Making the finish line in Bayonne allowed for immediate relief. It was only whilst watching Titan that I started to translate the relief into genuine happiness and pride. I could not be prouder of what we have achieved - as a team and for Turtle Doves.
To date our efforts, via your support, have raised £8k for Operation Turtle Dove. Funds from last year’s journey allowed for 9ha of Turtle Dove seed mix to be sown in the East of England, providing food for Turtle Doves on their return from Africa and again later in the season when they have young to feed. The funds from this year are going towards plugging the last remaining gap in scientific understanding of the lifecycle; what is affecting Turtle Doves on the wintering grounds? To this end, funds will be used to support research over the upcoming winter period. RSPB scientists are launching an expedition to study birds in Senegal in wintering congregations. This tangible application of our support makes it easy to continue with our journey. It makes me feel less helpless and believe that the population could stabilise and we could retain Turtle Doves as a UK breeder. Turtle Doves are of course also indicative of other farmland birds and other migratory birds using the Afro-European flyway, with all the legal and illegal hunting and habitat pressures therein. Whilst Turtle Doves are my favourite, I of course care deeply about all our birds and these wider issues.
The route Titan has taken on migration tells us exactly what we must do next; Spain. Specifically, a crossing of the western side of the country. We will make this journey completely on foot and leave in early 2017 - over 700 miles of back-to-back marathon distances - our biggest challenge to date.
You can find out more about Titan and follow his upcoming return migration via the RSPB website and follow our progress towards our next journey on the Dove Step 3 blog.
Never Give Up!
I am uniquely privileged to be one of a very close circle of ornithologists who have had the pleasure to meet, in person, the maverick Yolo Birder.
A man, a lone wolf, a disrupter and a proactive advocate for the nature.
It was an honour to explore the banks of the Tyne with him one fine September morning. Anonymity doesn't come easy though. Yolo would slip in and out of my company, one second by my side, the next out of sight in repose to prying eyes. He would always rejoin my path allowing for the conversation to continue. Sometimes with a different jacket, glasses or headwear. Sometimes with a wedding ring or watch - sometimes without - all tricks of his trade. Through the myriad of accents he used there was one common theme; dedication. Whole hearted dedication to our birds and in particular raptors. Always consistent - always Yolo.
Maybe Yolo walks beside those advocating raptor persecution? An unwelcome spectre, shadowing their actions and diligently planning their downfall. I hope so.
He certainly walks amongst us bird watchers. Albeit much more subtly than the camo-clad hoards.
It was a pleasure to walk with Yolo and to view his beloved Peregrines.
I am proud of my involvement with the RSPB.
I am proud to have volunteered for them for the last ten years and even before that when assisting my father. I am proud to have fundraised for the RSPB and specifically Operation Turtle Dove for the last three years and intend to do so for the next three, at least.
I cannot think of any single action the RSPB has taken which has caused me disdain or made me reconsider renewing my membership.
As well as more straight forward support through species championing of Turtle Dove, volunteering and fundraising I also lobby my MP on the behalf of the RSPB but moreover myself. I love nature. I love our wildlife and I love our wild spaces - all of which the RSPB seek to protect.
The RSPB is a handy hook to use when sat in front of politicians. They understand the RSPB’s motives, the organisation is instantly recognisable and politicians know the RSPB has a membership of over one million, which inevitably includes some of their constituents.
Corresponding with my MP and especially meeting with him wasn’t something I found easy. Having now done it a few times and also met other politicians I am more comfortable and well-versed in how best to conduct my self.
The first time I met with my MP I was intimidated, just as I am when I fulfil public speaking engagements. However, in both cases I do so because I care deeply about nature and know the only way to effect change upon the establishment is to engage with it. Remember politicians are often landowners as well as decision makers. They hold all the cards!
To publicise the plight of a given species, in my case Turtle Dove, I get in front of people face-to-face and use print and digital outlets to get the Dove Step campaign in front of as many people as possible. This output can then be linked to via social networks.
Therein lies my crucial point; social networks are not a means to an end in themselves and they are not usually effective in influencing decision makers.
Through the RSPB I received parliamentary training, which included briefing from an MP’s aid. It was made abundantly clear that 38 degrees (and similar) petitions will be disregarded, tweets are similarly ‘throw away’ and the best way to initiate meaningful correspondence remains via letter writing, attending MP’s surgeries and meeting them in person.
It is not a stretch of the imagination to realise that a tweet sent from your iPad on a Sunday evening does little but blow more hot-air into the ether where twitter handles including phrases such as ‘against’ and ‘action’ abound.
It is however the recent trend of supposed bird watchers and nature lovers to tweet senior RSPB staff with the threat of ‘cancelling membership’, which I take huge objection to. It is churlish, naïve and damaging. It validates untrue media assertions in articles such as ‘RSPB backs pheasant shoots and says they’re good for the countryside’ it puts out a message that conservationists are not on a united front. In recent cases people have tweeted without fully reading and understanding the context behind issues such as the T in the Park Osprey’s and indeed the RSPB stance on pheasants.
When someone says ‘I am cancelling my RSPB membership’ over a single, misunderstood point what they are actually saying is I don’t support the following:
To be categoric I can think of no organisation I would rather support and to spell it out; I will not be cancelling my RSPB membership.