I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
I still haven't seen a swift and it's the last day of April - I will feel disappointed if I don't catch up with one today.
But I do keep hearing them! It almost fooled me yesterday evening. I know that we are playing swift calls from some buildings at our headquarters here at The Lodge - to attract swifts to the nestboxes we have provided - but the other evening I heard swifts from a new place. I looked up and couldn't see any. I kept looking - they sounded quite close to me. And then I noticed a suspicious looking structure on the building and realised that our head of what we call 'Central Services' has got swift-mania and has put up more boxes and more tapes. It almost had me fooled - let's hope it works for the swifts too!
I'm sure I'll see a swift soon and if I see one going into a nest hole or see and hear groups of them screaming like the devil-birds they are - then I'll fill in a swift record to help their conservation.
Yesterday my work took me to the RSPB nature reserve at the Nene Washes - east of Peterborough.
It's a fantastic place - and yesterday was a sunny day.
This site is the stronghold for nesting black-tailed godwits in the UK and they were displaying well through the day, alongside lapwings, snipe and redshanks. It's also the site where we are reintroducing corncrakes back into southern England. We didn't see any corncrakes but the first ones were heard last week - their rasping call announcing their return from sub-Saharan Africa. We also didn't see the one-legged crane which appears to be making the Nene Washes its home.
A male garganey flew in to some shallow pools - and looked superb with its chocolate head and white eyestripe. Nearby on other pools, a few wigeon and pintail, and a single whooper swan, were the remnants of the vast wildfowl flocks which fill the washes in winter.
A migrant wheatear paused on a fence post and single swallows and sand martins flew south, inland.
A hobby was catching insects high above us and a red kite drifted past.
Yesterday was a mix of straggling winter visitors not yet gone, some migrants moving through but the pulse of the seasons is now a strong breeding and nesting pulse. Yesterday the Nene Washes were full of breeding waders, ducks, warblers and yellow wagtails. Nature is thinking of sex - and not just thinking of it! This is the breeding season and everything is geared to it.
And it's happening at an RSPB nature reserve near you! If you can get to the Nene Washes then all well and good but there are many other RSPB nature reserves where you can see nature at this exciting time of year. We've upgraded our web pages on our nature reserves to make them even more informative and to give potential visitors more information on where to go and what to expect when you arrive. We can't promise what wildlife you will see - but if you don't give it a look then you will miss one of the best times of year for seeing nature. Come and have a look! Nature is wonderful - help us keep it that way!
James Marchington's blog is always worth a glance but his recent post on the lead issue is well worth reading. I've always thought that he is open-minded - after all, he posts comments on this blog sometimes, presumably after reading it! - and his blog backs up that view. Thank you James for being a reasonable voice on many issues. So, since James (in a comment on this blog) asked for the evidence of efficacy of copper bullets in deer control, to help inform the conversation, I am pleased to give it here.
There's not a lot of lead flying around on our nature reserves (I'll come back to that) but there is deer control - lethal control - on a few of our 200+ nature reserves. Some of those dead deer have then entered the human food chain as venison and so as far back as May 2008, when we learned of the fragmentation of lead bullets and shot in carcasses (see previous posts) we began to think about whether we should move away from lead ammunition to non-toxic alternatives. And if we should, then what this would mean in practical terms for, for example, deer stalkers on a few of our reserves.
So we trialled the use of copper bullets on our land. Three sites, two in Scotland and one in southern England, were involved. We found that copper bullets were perfectly viable alternatives to lead ones - the full paper was published last year and is available for all to read here. These results were also reported to a deer Management Conference of the Deer Initiative in Kenilworth on 13 March and was given a perfectly good write-up in the Shooting Times soon afterwards.
On the RSPB site referred to as Scotland 1 in this paper we have now used over 500 copper bullets and those who use them report no problems - they would not be happy to switch back to lead ammunition now. Interestingly, a local gunsmith from whom we purchase ammunition reports that 'American hunters have now moved in a big way to copper ammo. Not for toxic reasons, but because they are 'better' bullets.'.
We aren't firing ammunition over our nature reserves all the time so why do we do it at all? In Scotland, we are trying to restore large areas of native pine woodland at sites such as Abernethy Forest - the area around the famous Loch Garten osprey nest. High deer numbers prevent the restoration of that habitat. But why don't we just fence out the deer? Well, in some places we do try that but in fact we have been taking down deer fences on our land - particularly those inside the forest itself - and encouraging others to do the same. The reason for that is that deer fences are incredibly effective killers of capercaillie and other wildlife.
The capercaillie is a very large woodland grouse which has declined dramatically in numbers. It's one of the species we fear will be affected by changing climate, and is affected by wet summers already, in addition to disturbance, predators and a range of other factors. Restoring large areas of good habitat will help the capercaillie cope with all these threats and will be great for red squirrels, Scottish crossbills and the whole range of species that makes Abernethy so important for wildlife. So we are keen to expand the forest into places where it used to be but was cut down or burned in historic times. And that's why we are culling deer - to allow the trees to regenerate to provide more great habitat for a whole range of species.
Let's get back to basics - lead is a nasty poison. The evidence that this poison is widely distributed in tiny fragments in deer carcasses shot with lead bullets is a matter of potential concern to human health. The RSPB has been using lead bullets (like almost everyone else who culls deer) for many years but when we learned of the evidence of bullet fragmentation we rapidly moved to investigate safe practical alternatives. We investigated those alternatives in a scientific manner and published the results last year. On the basis of this evidence RSPB Council agreed to phase out the use of lead ammunition on our nature reserves and we are carrying out that programme now. We have been open with what we have done and have shared the evidence with shooting organisations throughout the last two years. I would hope that it would be difficult to describe our approach as anything other than timely, responsible and scientific - can the same be said for that of the shooting community who have a much greater responsibility on this subject? Let us hope that wise heads prevail.