A lammergeier on Dartmoor – the fog of twitching

I spent most of yesterday trying to see the lammergeier, a large vulture with a wingspan of 2.75m, which had been seen on Dartmoor the day before. This is a very rare bird for Britain – indeed it is the first record of the species for the country. However all did not go to plan and I drew a blank.

Bartgeier_Gypaetus_barbatus_front_Richard_Bartz
A lammergeier By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak, via Wikimedia Commons


The bird was first spotted last week in mid Wales and was videoed crossing the Bristol Channel last Thursday

The name ‘lammergeier’ appears to have come back into fashion – in the mid 80’s and 90’s it was replaced by ‘Bearded Vulture’. Lammergeier translates from the German as the lamb hawk and such a name was considered an impediment to its conservation so it was changed. It is a very rare and threatened species in Europe and has been successfully re-introduced into the Alps and the Pyrenees. It is a very specialised vulture as it predominately feeds on the marrow from the bones of dead herbivores.

It is mentioned in the Bible (in Leviticus) as a species which should not be eaten by people (presumably on account of it diet) and legend has it that a lammergeier was responsible for the death of the ancient Greek playwright and poet Aeschylus. Lammergeier are fond of feeding on tortoises which they pick up from the ground and then drop onto rocky ground from a great height to break them open before feeding on them. Aeschylus had a bald head and legend has it that a lammergeier mistook his shiny head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on him killing him instantly……

I subscribe to a service called Birdguides which provides detailed updates on the location of rare birds in Britain.

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Here is a screen grab of the Dartmoor records

The specific language used by Birdguides is important and needs some interpretation to the uninitiated. “Immature at Yar Tor” – the first record is unambiguous – the bird was seen there at 15.33. A little later the sighting becomes ‘reported’ i.e. it may not be correct….

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 22.01.26The ‘reported’ status is then further questioned as “others believe this sighting relates to a drone”. I must say I have never seen a 2.75m drone on Dartmoor.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 22.37.40The record update then becomes ‘reportedly’ which means it is probably not correct….

Nevertheless I spent most of Tuesday around Soussons Down near to the Warren House Inn. When you are trying to re-locate a first for Britain such nuanced language is lost on you until you have time to reflect …..

My time however was not entirely wasted I did manage to photograph a few of the commoner and more classic Dartmoor birds.

Tree pipit 2
This is a tree pipit singing on top of a hawthorn bush at Soussans

Tree pipit 3

I spent half and hour watching the bird carry out its classic display – flying high into the air and then descending whilst singing onto the top of the bush. Listen to the song here (courtesy of Tweet of the Day)

Stonechat female 1
A little later a female stonechat appeared on the same bush on the way to its nest to feed its young

Meadow pipt 1
Back at the Warren House Inn area I photographed this skylark

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Another view

As I was standing around at Soussons yesterday the lammergeier was seen over Princetown and North Hessary Tor (6 miles away) but unfortunately I didn’t know this as I had no phone reception. I am now waiting for ‘news’ before I head out again.

There are two other essential Birdguide words that would be twitchers need to know.

‘Purported’ – a purported record is one that has been submitted but it not believed. However it is reported in case it turns out to be correct and no one can then be accused of suppression.

‘Putative’ – a putative record is slightly more credible than a purported one but one would be well advised to allow the sighting to be firmed up before travelling hundreds of miles across the country to see it.

So we have a transition of bird sighting terminology.

Purported -> Putative -> Reportedly -> Reported -> Seen

Well worth remembering in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Icy night camping followed by whinchat, wheatear and cuckoo

We wild camped on Saturday night at Dick’s Well behind Brat Tor.

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We set up our tents in bright sunlight before our 10 Tors teams arrived later in the evening

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As darkness fell the moon rose – close by Jupiter shone brightly.

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It was a still but cold night – in the morning the tents were covered in frost

Dick's Well 3
This is my walking boot which was inside my tent all night – crusted with ice – thank goodness for my 3 season Rab sleeping bag!

Dick's Well 5
In the morning we walk back to Nodden Gate – the sun was shining again. Beside the River Lyd is this lovely matrix of habitats, moorland, gorse and small shrubs – a softly re-wilded landscape

Whinchat
Patches of gorse are great habitat for the whinchat – we saw a couple of birds on our walk back (this rather blurry photo was taken on the Islesof Scilly last year)

WheatearThere had also been a large fall of wheatear overnight. The previous day there had been a couple of birds – Sunday morning they were  everywhere. It is great to see and experience migration in action – it is such an exciting time of the year.

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Later in the morning we walked from the Willsworthy Ranges around to Lane End and saw a couple of cuckoos – our first birds of the year. The first bird we saw was a female who performed her characteristic bubbly call. Moments later a male arrived and sang the classic cuck – coo call. Both birds were being chased around by a carrion crow – cuckoos in flight can look very like a bird of prey and I suspect the crow thought they were sparrowhawks and wanted rid of them in case they predated its nest. (This photo was taken last year in Northamptonshire by my  friend Steve Brayshaw.)

 

 

 

A trip to Holne Moor – cuckoos, scrub and flood prevention

I spent the afternoon yesterday with Kevin Cox, who lives in the Mardle Valley, is an RSPB Council member and heavily involved with Devon Birds. We talked about Devon birds, Devon Birds and the management of Dartmoor’s commons. Kevin has recently purchased part of Holne Moor from South West Water.

Holne 1
Holne Moor overlooking Venford Reservoir.

We went up to Holne Moor to have a look around. A very interesting visit for me. This is the key bird research area I have written about recently – the place where Exeter University’s Professor Charles Tyler, his team of research students and nest finders have been working (The Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group) – see here and here. This is the area where some of the key cuckoo research is taking place as well as being an area which supports high population densities of whinchat and meadow pipit.

Holne 4
The moor is grazed and has a swaling programme but does have quite a lot of small trees dotted around the landscape – cuckoos need these small trees so that they can survey the landscape and see where the meadow pipit nests are. On many commons now these dotted isolated trees are absent and new regeneration is now difficult due to the grazing and burning pressure.

The area is also very interesting as it gives a clue as to how natural flood management measures might work on Dartmoor in the future and play a part in ‘slowing in the flow’. South West Water have retained a belt of land around their reservoir at Venford. This area has been fenced off.

Holne 2

In this photograph you can clearly see the fence line – with grazed moorland to the right and the lightly grazed enclosure to the left. You can see that patches of light scrub have developed in the closure.

Holne 3
Here is another view of that enclosure.

These two photographs tell me a couple of things.

Firstly, if Dartmoor was not grazed, scrub and eventually woodland would quickly develop – the George Monbiot re-wilding scenario. Dartmoor is of course as I have said many times before an important historical and cultural landscape and therefore if the re-wilding scenario were to happen across the Dartmoor landscape then most of that would be lost. The landscape of Holne Moor is a good example of this as it has been ‘designated’ as a Premier Archaeological Landscape – see here for further details.

Atlas of Antiquities 1Jeremy Butler in his 5 volume Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities sets out a detailed catalogue of the archaeological interest.

Atlas of Antiquities 2
The map and accompanying text details the importance of the area from the Bronze Age, through the Mediaeval period to the present.

The challenge for all those involved with the management of such places therefore is getting the balance right between archaeological interests and biodiversity – both of which are of European Importance. I have written about this challenge before and it seems to prove intractably difficult to solve even though all parties are in fact pretty much in the same place – i.e. everyone wants a grazed landscape.

As Kevin Cox said to me on site yesterday (I paraphrase) – the archaeology has survived on here on Holne Moor for thousands of years through the ebb and flow of vegetation and farming cycles, however at the moment there is a biodiversity crisis and we may only have 30 years to save some species such as the cuckoo. Surely there is enough flexibility and goodwill within the system to tweak a few management techniques and thereby work out how to enable the cuckoo (and whinchats, meadow pipits etc) to flourish (e.g. ensure there are perching places and enough food for cuckoos) – the work that the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group are currently researching.

The second thing that the two photos above tell me is how quick and easy theoretically it will be to naturally add regenerating trees and scrub to the landscape in very small but strategic places so that natural flood management schemes can help slow the flow. If enclosures were erected around specific stream valleys the developing scrub would quickly emerge and add ‘hydraulic roughness’. The areas of grazing land lost would be tiny and as long as the Commoners were compensated and not penalised as the current ‘ineligible feature’ nonsense currently would do then surely this too is a win-win for everyone.

I thought yesterday was going to be dominated by Storm Imogen – it certainly seems to have around our coasts but inland it was pretty windy but in my experience was mostly dry and allowed me instead to make a new friend, see a new place and think more about Dartmoor and its management.Holne 5

 

A day on St Agnes

A great day on St Agnes in wonderful October sunshine.

Agnes 1
Another in my series of shots from outside the Turk’s Head

Agnes 2
Looking over to Tresco with the Cow and Calf (rocks) in the middle of the picture and the Scillonian starting its journey back to Penzance

Agnes 3
The bar from St Agnes over to Gugh

Agnes 4
Covean at low tide – apparently in the Times top 100 beaches in the UK

Agnes 5
On our way back to St Mary’s on the Osprey

Rfbluetail
A record shot of the red-flanked blue tail on the cricket pitch – clearly a different bird from the one seen in Barnaby Lane

Whinchat
A whinchat near the Pool – first one I have seen for decades!

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There were several very visible kestrels on St Agnes yesterday