Monday, 23 April 2018

Points of views

The morning had started out as a Shelduck chase. Following a few twitter exchanges about the territories they use (which is a blog in itself) I decided a good morning to count some of the non-breeding flocks in the eastern basin.

Working back from the Swale station, I soon found myself up on Raspberry hill. Here, and Tiptree hill have long been known as the best viewpoints for the estuary islands by both birders and non-birders alike. In Helm's 'Where to watch birds in Kent, Surrey and Sussex', Don Taylor had long sung the praises of the viewpoints for 'scoping the distant creeks. They provide some of the best birding on the estuary (probably why I chose Chetney for my first blogpost here). Both viewpoints even have seats of sorts nowadays; the owners have put in a superb huge beam of a bench up on Raspberry hill, while broken chunks of concrete from one of the old wartime buildings have been piled up around the base of the telegraph pole on Tiptree. This is the busier of the two viewpoints, as the path here is one of the highest points of the Saxon Shore Way long distance footpath, although I am usually joined by walkers rather than birders. With my caveat that general birding remains much better on reserves, I've promoted both often enough in the past, but the distant birds views only appeal to obsessive birders (with my cakky old Bridge camera I never get a decent image, but they're fine for record shots of flock sizes, behaviour, etc., besides, heat haze for both 'scope and camera can be a pig). Walking from either Lower Halstow or Iwade appeals to few (leaving a vehicle anywhere at Funton can be problematic; break-ins are, sadly, routine). But they are worth the effort.

Taylor, Wheatley, James, 4th ed., 2003 Don't trust the 'P',
some footpaths are missing, but that Tiptree star is spot on
While I've tweeted and blogged plenty of pics from up there these past five years, another reason I haven't banged on about them these past couple of years because of the ongoing Coast Path discussions. Some stretches of new footpath are likely to arrive in the area, and during this time I'd been asked for information, mainly concerning on both roosts and general disturbance levels. Just a couple of months back I was contacted about one roost near here, when I heard that publication of the route through the estuary is looking likely to be in September (which will raise a few blogposts at that time). So, we're getting close enough not to have to worry about any impact from publicising the viewpoints to birders a little more on here (heck, the other month I was even tweeting the county Recorder saying it'd be worth while getting up and having a scan over Chetney). To date I've only published the first part of the shoreline site guide for the same reason; the remaining sections will come online shortly.

Today that Chetney viewpoint did me proud, and Shelduck numbers were high, higher than expected. (Numbers along the whole of south shore this spring are par; somewhere around the levels that used to get picked up on WeBS in the 90s, nothing that would excite anyone other than a local.)

Rather than take footpath along the ridge I followed the road west down to Bedlam's Bottom and then along to Funton Creek. I was soon distracted by Rooks. They were feeding manically among the saltings and cord-grass beds.

I cursed myself- another pet subject was playing out, and I had nearly missed it. The mini-heatwave we had just enjoyed meant the ground surface was solid in many fields nearby, making difficult feeding for corvids. You can often see three figure counts of Crows on the flats during the year, they have adapted to estuary feeding, but Rooks (and, to a lesser extent, Jackdaws) only join them in big numbers when feeding is tough. Only the day before I'd been impressed by how much like concrete my allotment beds had already become, but I hadn't sussed it was Rook time. Nearly a Rookie mistake.

Some local landowners control corvids, just as some North Kent nature reserves do. You can have a big debate on the merits of that, but what interests me is why some landowners spare Rooks, others cull. The texts are clear; Rooks will take both game bird eggs and wader eggs. But to what extent? 'Birds of the Western Palearctic' states the young are fed almost exclusively on insects, but that these are hard to obtain when fields are dry. So, perfect conditions for looking at a question I'd been interested in for years.

I took the bridlepath up Tiptree. I went to count my Shelduck flocks first, and found they were nearly all missing (explaining in part the raised Chetney numbers). Then I noticed the local Lapwings were agitated. Not just territorial interaction going on, but real agitation, birds even gathering in a 'mini-flock' sitting out in the middle of one of the pasture fields. Others were flight-distracting. These behaviour continued during all the time I was up there, and it was not going unnoticed by others; numbers of Rooks, as well as Crows, were coming off of the saltings and into the fields.

Now the land below Tiptree is no nature reserve. The land is worked, and workers are often out and about. But I then saw someone strolling slowly down the central counter wall and wandering through the centre of the small peninsula below me. Paperwork and behaviour gave away as a bird surveyor, and clearly noting the Lapwings.

Now of course there's an appeal to wandering fields, but any good surveyor should know better than most just how disturbance can happen during a survey. Whilst the published survey methods are clear about checking every field, at the same time they also stress disturbance must be kept to a minimum:

"Extensive open areas should be checked from roads tracks and footpaths without disturbing nesting birds. If birds are flushed, retreat as quickly as possible.. counts are most accurate when birds are undisturbed.. an observer walking through a field, or a crow flying over, will usually cause all the lapwings to fly up..'

All probably why the methodology states a telescope is the essential piece of kit for Lapwing surveys. This surveyor was diligently noting each bird that overflew them, or that they picked up in their binoculars. They just didn't appear to be noting what was happening behind them. From nearly a kilometre and a half off. I just had to sit and watch it happen. Easy for Lapwings to keep one or two Crows away, much harder to target a couple of dozen Crows among a hundred Rooks. And corvids are just as good as us at mapping out territories. They were watching.

That person could well try to justify, and you can justify any action. Justifications hold more weight when countering criticism, but the feedback was pure. In this instance the Lapwings were clearly disturbed, known predators were clearly gathering and published methodologies were not being employed. Why it is best to try to appreciate why the RSPB's Bird Monitoring Methods ask you to do certain things, and then apply.

Especially if in plain sight of any observer who happens to be up on what is acknowledged as one of the county's premier birding viewpoints, on one of the county's busier footpaths. Without fieldcraft, you will be seen. And local birders are already on the lookout for problems.

A couple of years back, after discussions with RSPB Investigations, I highlighted the plight of our gull colonies; reports of unauthorised landings were on the rise, and some satellite colonies within the island complex had deserted, some witnesses allegeding watching a gang of egg thieves out on the islands (taking the eggs for either for the restaurant trade, or for selling locally, private or otherwise. Sadly, with so much wildlife crime still happening, priorities have to be made and gull colonies come lower than birds of prey. So it has to be local birders who 'recognise, record, report' (the tagline of BAWC). The county ornithological society even kindly published some links to my pleas in here and in other county birding facebook pages.

As it is coming up for that time of year again, here's the link to my original 2016 appeal.

Of course, viewpoints out to these colonies are Godsends. 'Scopes and cameras necessary tools.

I'm told by some there are mobile phones with better cameras than I own. Don't doubt it (but still don't ever want to own a mobile). No-one should be naive enough to think they aren't able to be viewed on the marshes, and their actions, whether disturbance or criminal, recognised, recorded and reported. I know I'm often photographed or filmed by some landowners, and I'm more than happy with that.

We birders are being asked to set high standards to the general public when alongside our SPAs nowadays, as legally required initiatives to reduce disturbance, such as Birdwise, come into play. Studies have already proven birders to be one of the main disturbances to wintering wildfowl and waders. Often inadvertently, but disturbance all the same. Birders' egos bruise easily when called out on such things, but it really is time to put such sensitivities aside and for us all, birders and birdwatchers, professionals and 'citizen scientists', to acknowledge such feedback and keep raising standards in the field- because we know additional big pressures on our estuaries are coming, and we need to get the public, not just ourselves, 'birdwise'.

Finally, whether we like it or not, pics of poor birding behaviour appear nigh daily in our birding timelines, often with calls for outright 'naming and shaming'. My harsh tweet that day was deliberately general in details, and non-illustrated. The chair of the county's Conservation and Surveys Committee did reply pretty quickly asking for details, so I did provide clues needed by giving him enough to work out details and appreciate problem (which he did, even though I'd ensured the cropped pic I'd attached for positioning the incident had a nice anonymising blob added over much of the highly pixellated person).

Being on the receiving end of feedback can be painful, but we all have to face up to it from time to time. If we don't want to face up to it, we fall back on logical fallacies; appeal to emotion, claim false cause, personal incredulity or 'the strawman'. Or we can take on board, and improve. And that 'we' is why I've posted this; if a few birders think more about such things, then worth it.

A final thought. I normally veer away talking about Schedule one birds during the breeding season, but as the county's rep on the Rare Breeding Bird Panel recently talked about the estuary in an open Facebook group, I'll make the following point. If you were surveying an area with Schedule One nesting birds, are you committing 'reckless disturbance' (the legalese) if you fail to act in accordance with that species' proscribed methodologies once those methodologies have been pointed out to you? Tricky; why best to try to stick to the published methods in the first place.


I'll say it again; if you can put up with a lot of the birds on show being specks, and you haven't yet been to either of these viewpoints, do go. On a rising tide, or over a full tide (especially a spring) at this time of year. On a winter's afternoon, any time of tide. You really won't be disappointed. Just remember to take your 'scope.

From Tiptree hill:

From Raspberry hill:

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