The furore that greeted news that Defra was considering plans to destroy buzzard nests and imprison adult buzzards to remove them from pheasant shooting estates in England has been huge. And if you are one of the many people who have already written to your MP – thank you!
Robin Prytherch has been studying buzzards for over 30 years in an area of 75 sq. km. near Bristol. Territoral pairs and breeding results have been recorded. Special aspects of the study have been social behaviour and life histories of individual birds – we thought we would see what he has to say about the Defra idea – here’s his guest blog.
When I heard about the Defra proposals for controlling buzzards on a Northumberland pheasant shoot I was outraged! It sounded like plans for the protection of pheasants drawn up in 1712, 1812 or even 1912. But not for 2012, surely? Yes it is true, and time for me to get serious.
I have investigated many aspects of the lives of buzzards including their social behaviour and breeding biology over more than 30 years near Bristol. The idea of destroying nests and attempting to remove the adults to other areas is foolhardy and cruel in the extreme. This idea reveals that the authors of the proposal are woefully ignorant of how buzzards would behave in such a situation.
Adult pairs (usually three years or more old) defend a territory (which may vary from under 50 to over 300 hectares). They will not tolerate any other buzzards in the territory (apart from their own juveniles) and the intruders are escorted out – sometimes they are chased and attacked and even killed. Other young birds are wanderers until they find a mate and settle into a territory. If a pair is removed from their territory another pair will quickly replace them. The whole idea of capturing these birds and holding them in “prisons” is repugnant. It is probably not feasible anyway and who is going to pay for an endlessly increasing number of birds being held for a lifetime that could exceed 20 years. Removal of buzzards will achieve nothing but stress to the birds and be a waste of time and money. So, I would urge all involved in this sad idea to think carefully again and to look upon buzzards as friends and not as foe.
Buzzard in flight - illustration by Mike Langman
Consider this: I am often asked ‘why are buzzards chased by crows?’ My reply is: ‘because buzzards eat them’. The truth is that buzzards don’t just catch rabbits, voles and other small mammals but also birds. The favourites, amongst a great variety, are pigeons and corvids (crows) and of the latter it is mostly carrion crows and magpies that they catch. When I tell this to people – including many farmers - they are often amazed and they instantly become a friend of buzzards.
Perhaps the pheasant shooters in Northumberland should learn from this story and remember that we all live in the 21st Century and not in the 17th or 18th Century. It is for all of us to think and behave in as well-informed a manner as possible and not to hark back to old outmoded ideas about the countryside unless they have a proven value in our present age. My feeling is that Defra have let everyone down by not researching their plans more fully in the first place. The plans should be thrown out immediately.
If you would like to read more and perhaps drop your MP a line – here’s Conservation Director, Martin Harper on the subject.
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[Guy Anderson finishes telling us about the February expedition to train colleagues in Myanmar and survey spoon-billed sandpipers on their wintering grounds]
Leave only footprints (Viv Booth)
Up early on the next high tide just after dawn, and our flotilla motored the last few miles up the creek to Teng Mung where we embarked, several long days ago. We are greeted by a welcoming committee of most of the village, several dogs, pigs and a cow or two. Its very strange to be back in bustling streets, with short horizons and people everywhere, and this strange hard ground that your feet don’t sink into.
Cars are already waiting to whisk us back to Yangon. Three of our four trainees will stay in Teng Mung to continue working with the BANCA Livelihoods programme, and we say heartfelt goodbyes and thanks. The forth, Gideon, has to travel back with us to Yangon and then faces a 12hr bus journey back to his home town of Kalaw – an old ex-British hill station in north-central Myanmar. He’s a keen birder and well-known birding tour guide in Kalaw. This trip to the lowlands of Mottama was the first time for him too, but he swapped his familiar forest babblers for estuary waders with ease.
We take the new road to Yangon – a wide two lane highway, almost completely empty of traffic. The potential for vehicles to be speeding along here does not deter several families from walking down the inside, bicycles in both lanes including several cycling the wrong way along the outside edge. I have to question my sanity as we whizz past one such daredevil peddler, who is carrying what appears to be a live short-eared owl in one hand! A look out of the rear window confirms my identification. Owls are a symbol of good luck in Myanmar, so one can only hope this one had a lucky future ahead of it. Let's hope Myanmar, its people, its natural resources and its wildlife does too. I feel very privileged to have spent time here studying spoonies in the field, and its been an absolute pleasure working with local conservationists, knowing that their efforts are making a real difference to the fortunes of this bizarre and endearing little bird.
Oh … before I go, you probably want to know how many spoonies we saw in the end? Well, between us we recorded nearly 100 sightings in our four days in the Gulf of Mottama. We are bound to have recorded some individuals more than once, and no doubt missed others completely. This is why the technique of estimating proportions of spoonies within wader flocks is so important. Our data are now being crunched along with the results of other similar surveys in January – the more data the merrier when it comes to this type of population estimation. Some fairly heavy statistics need to be applied (‘hard sums’ in my head), and we’ll report back on this at a later date. What is already abundantly clear from our data is that the Gulf of Mottama remains a crucial non-breeding area for spoonies and hold a significant proportion of the world population. All future efforts to protect and monitor spoonies and the mudflats and saltmarshes of Mottama should therefore be encouraged.
Boats at sunset (Viv Booth)
[Guy Anderson continues telling us about the February expedition to train colleagues in Myanmar and survey spoon-billed sandpipers on their wintering grounds]
Woken up today by a snuffling snout - a local pig, undeterred by the knee-deep rising tide, is on the look-out for any discarded remains of last night’s dinner. The local people are at home with the constant ebb and flow of the water and their lives revolve around it.
We head for a new survey site today and we get it just right – an area where the first pioneering saltmarsh grass stems thin out into open mudflat. As soon at the first bit of young marsh is revealed by the falling tide, there are waders moving on to it from nearby high tide roosts on the shore. Bare patches of mud within the saltmarsh grass soon have lot of scampering pale dots in them, and as soon as we can, we get off the boats and head out in different directions to start surveying. Very quickly most survey teams start seeing spoonies in the flocks, one with at least 11 individuals in it. But the birds aren’t hanging about, and soon disperse as more and more mud becomes exposed further to the south.
As the day wears on and heats up, a few hundred small waders return to the mudflats within a kilometre of the boat, and there is at least one spoonie with them. I spend several hours creeping towards these birds trying to get some passable video footage. The birds flip from one side of the mudflat to the other with annoying frequency, and for no apparent reason, and I fear I am playing a loosing game with my little strange-beaked friend. But eventually I managed to record some footage that is at least identifiable. My admiration for professional wildlife cameramen grows with each metre closer I creep towards the birds, and with each bead of sweat that trickles down my neck.
Spoonie-eye view of the world (Viv Booth)
Being this close to the birds gives me new insights into their behaviour. The spoonies have several ways of feeding: they run and pick food items off the mud surface, like most small waders; they stick their beaks into the mud and probe, again like many other waders; but they also do something different - in tiny shallow pools left between ripples in the mud surface they dabble, just like a mallard on a village duck pond, sweeping their bill from side to side, and rapidly opening and closing the beak a fraction as they go! They must be filtering algae or some form of bacterial ‘biofilm’.
The Spoonie I am watching (and other waders) also spends quite a lot of time sitting still, hunkered down on the mud, occasionally tilting its head to one side and looking up. This is classic wader behaviour when there is an aerial threat present - we have seen peregrines, and harriers out here, but today I can see nothing. Either the waders are shamming, or their eyesight is much better than mine. Eventually I pick out a small flock of falcon-like birds circling high high up in the wincingly-bright midday sky. So high and distant and speck-like that when I take my binoculars off them for an instant, I am completely unable to find them again. They throw me for a bit. What falcons would hang around in flocks here? Then I realise they are not falcons at all, but Oriental pratincoles – graceful long-winged waders that spend no time wading and lots of time hawking insects. More like terns in shape than either waders or falcons really. But they seem to have fooled the stints, plovers and spoonie in front of me into thinking they are some kind of threat - if you happen to be a small wader out in the middle of a huge mudflat with nowhere to hide, then I guess taking a precautionary approach makes a lot of sense.
Back at the boat, the different survey teams compare notes. We’ve recorded another 37 sightings of spoonies between us. Steve and Rachel have made a noteable achievement – they found a spoonie dropping! They watched one bird closely, and carefully recorded where it, um, recycled some nutrients, and duly collected the ‘sample’ with the enthusiasm that only ecologists with an inordinate fondness for waders could muster. One of the main questions in understanding the ecology of spoon-billed sandpipers in Mottama is their diet and how this relates to different sediment types. This small dropping sample will not answer all the questions but it might provide some clues as to what that particular bird had been eating earlier that day.
Final scan of the mud (Viv Booth)
We wait for the tide to return for the last time. Team photos are taken while we stand in the mud by the boats. We collect the last few data from flock scans as waders return in advance of the tide. As dusk falls, the world turns to water again and we chug back to the village and on past it inland up a tidal creek as far as we can go before mooring by the bank for our last night afloat.