Friday 14 June 2019

British White Storks?

White Stork, Spain, August 2018.

The reintroduction of White Storks at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex has been grabbing the headlines in recent weeks, see here and here.

Knepp is well-known for (re)wilding and is an exemplar of what can be achieved by allowing natural processes to return. The impact on biodiversity of the Knepp project has been huge and Knepp has become a leading light for other estate and landowners to follow.

Knepp's latest venture, to 'reintroduce' White Storks is a little troubling to me and feels like an attempt to secure a USP that will generate publicity and income. I don't have a problem with that per se, as the owners of Knepp have to bring in income to support their estate and to pay their bills, but from a nature conservation point of view, the arguments seem weak. Why should I care? Well, this is important as conservationists must maintain their integrity and our work as a movement must stand up to close scrutiny.

The reasons for my troubled feelings are as follows: Firstly, White Storks are not under threat (IUCN Least Concern), so why put effort into this species? Well, perhaps it is because they are big, showy and attractive - easy to for visitors to spot and don't really create any enemies in the wider landscape. They build massive great nests and seem to be happy living alongside people.

Second, and perhaps the main contention in my mind is that they were never really part of our native avifauna. Sure, storks turn up each year as overshoots on their return spring migration from Africa, but did they ever breed here regularly?

The oft-cited record of a pair on St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416 supports the point. If storks had been a common part of the scene, this record would not have been that special and would have long been forgotten. This must have been a remarkable, possibly unique record at the time, suggesting that storks had not nested in the UK at least in spoken history at that time. Other quoted evidence is the connection in place names. This is also seems dubious; historians have stated that in the early part of the last millennium, there was little differentiation in the names of long-legged wetland species and references to storks could well have been to herons or egrets. Therefore, place names linked to storks may be a red herring, as they could have been named after the local herons. An example of this is near my local patch, Wheldrake Ings. Adjacent to the Ings on higher land, is Storwood, presumably named after the presence of 'storks'. But look closer and it seems strange that on the other side of the ings, again on slightly higher ground is a large heronry, in a wood, which thrives to this day. No storks, Grey Herons (and recently Little Egrets!). Records of heronries in this area go back to the early 1400s, a similar time to the Edinburgh White Stork nest. But there are no records of White Storks at Storwood or anywhere in the Lower Derwent Valley area. Now, if people recognised the White Storks at Edinburgh, surely they would have identified them if they were in the Lower Derwent Valley too? So to me, the name Storwood is far more likely to refer to the Grey Herons nesting in the wood than to the presence of storks. And the same could be true of other place names linked to storks.

Sadly for White Storks, like virtually everything else, they were included in feast menus, records of which were often meticulously kept. However, written analyses of these accounts have found it hard to prove the source of the birds and other animals provided at these lavish banquets. Storks may well have been imported from the continent for food. Mediaeval feast records from the LDV area reference Spoonbills, Grey Herons and Bitterns, but no White Storks.

My last point is linked to folklore. Across the native range of White Storks, there are many cultural references to White Storks. Even us Brits all know the folktale of White Storks carrying babies in their beaks! And this is partly due to the previously mentioned close ties to people. Storks benefitted from woodland clearance for agriculture and exploited buildings as nesting sites, something that was often actively encouraged, as storks were seen as omens of good luck in many places. I could go on, but a quick internet search will show you all the cultural references. So if White Storks were widespread in Britain, why are there no such similar references in British folklore?

I am therefore surprised that Natural England licensed this project as a 'reintroduction' when the evidence of White Storks being anything other than a scarce spring overshoot is scant. Nevertheless, in a climate where wildlife needs every bit of help it can get and as many advocates as possible, maybe the bigger picture shouldn't be ignored. If the presence of storks inspires people to get into nature or at least appreciate it a little more, then it is a good thing I guess. I applaud Knepp for their ambition, it could even lead to a Victorian-esque game of oneupmanship among the large estates, all vying to have the wildest estate, and hopefully the habitats and less sexy species will benefit on the back of the storks - carried in their beaks perhaps... So, good luck Knepp, I hope your project works, but just be a little more honest in your narrative!

Sunday 9 June 2019

Tiny bees

Maybe the reason I had never seen a Common Yellow-face Bee was that they are so tiny! Philip noticed several sitting around on leaves in the garden this morning so I got a couple of pics. I am going to charge my drill and go out and make a load of holes in the tree stump to help them out. Also, nearby a tiny Ruby-tailed Wasp sp was lurking, possibly a parasite of the Yellow-faces?

Common Yellow-face Bees.

The Spring that keeps on giving!

I have never had the chance to go looking for a Black-headed Bunting in Britain as they have always tended to turn up in private gardens, or on remote islands off the west or north coast of Scotland. So, when Craig Thomas found a handsome male BHB along Old Fall hedge at Flamborough on Friday afternoon, I realised I had a chance to finally see one. My old mate Philip was visiting for the weekend and although he had seen dozens in Armenia the week before, he too had never seen one in Britain, so with positive early news on Saturday morning, we headed east for Flamborough.

Old Fall hedge, east side.

We joined a small group of birders standing on the road verge scanning down the east side of Old Fall hedge and to our delight, our colourful quarry was happily sitting on a Hawthorn bush about 50 metres away. Great stuff! A chunky bunting, with bright yellow underparts and black head, and a surprisingly bright rufous nape and mantle.

Having missed this species in Cyprus a few years ago, this was a world tick for me and thoroughly appreciated. After enjoying good views and helping arriving birders to see it, the bird suddenly flicked off the bush and disappeared.

Black-headed Bunting. Smart dude.

A little later and despite some rather selfish and impatient photographers walking down the hedge (which risked flushing the bird) the bunting popped back up, this time much closer and head on, enabling us to enjoy the golden yellow underparts and jet black head. Again, the bird chilled for a minute or two, and then dropped back into the crop field, presumably to feed. He reappeared further along the hedge where for a while he interacted with a male Yellowhammer, seemingly getting the better of the local bird.

News that the Subalpine Warbler had been seen again at the golf course willows prompted our departure and we headed down there, where we bumped into a few of our friends.

Golf course twitch. Spot two Yorkshire Terriers, me and Mark P at the left hand end. Also note Craig Thomas having a sit down. It's clearly hard work all this rarity finding!

We hung out and soon saw the little grey Subalp feeding through the rose bushes, Willows and the large Sycamore. It was very actively feeding, alongside Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat. Try as I might, I couldn't see the white in the tail very well, which would be essential to help with specific identification (Moltoni's vs Western vs Eastern) so thought I'd try and video it with my phone. This was successful, though sadly didn't help matters as it kept it's tail closed most of the time. Nevertheless, the bird showed well every now and again and it was enjoyable birding with good mates in warm June sunshine.


Female (presumed Western) Subalpine Warbler. Other photos by Trev Charlton revealed the tail pattern, making Western the most likely species.

Across the head, the rainclouds were piling up ominously and we noticed many Burnet Moth sp chrysalises in the grassland, along with a few Northern Marsh Orchids. We had a short seawatch, from the new hide, with the most noticeable thing being the large numbers of Painted Lady butterflies moving across the headland, presumably part of a large immigration. 

Flamborough lighthouse, Northern Marsh Orchid, Burnet moth sp chrysalis

Later on, the family arrived and we headed to North Landing to check out the caves and the intertidal stuff, noting a tiny Bee Orchid in the grassland next to the slipway. Razorbills, my fave auk, gave good views, but Puffins were sparse. Thoroughly soaked - the rain had arrived - we finished the day at the YWT Living Seas Centre, where the kids did some marine-themed activities as part of World Ocean Day.

 Puffin, plus Razorbills, North Landing.

A great day at the Great White Cape in the Spring that keeps on giving!

Garfish skull, courtesy of Ant Hurd, Living Seas Centre. Found on South Landing beach today.

Sunday 2 June 2019

Redneck and the Great Creak

After a week in Derbyshire with no birds and a handful of moths, I had a few hours to kill today (Saturday 1st June). After finishing my jobs, I decided to go to Wykeham to have a look for the Honey Buzzards. Sadly, I was defeated by rain and traffic on the A64, so I  span round and headed west instead, to Fairburn Ings.

The diminutive Red-necked Phalarope, a relatively drab male, was watched from the roadside platform swimming about around the islands in the main bay. A typical late spring migrant it was incredible to think this bird could have spent the winter off the Peruvian coast, before heading back across the Central American isthmus, over the Atlantic to Fairburn Ings, West Yorkshire! I watched the bird which stayed close in to one of the islands, occasionally spinning around to stir up critters. The Avocets nesting on the islands had a few chicks and two migrant Dunlins were also present.

Redneck. Always against the light so not great for phonescoping.

Next up, I decided to head down to Wintersett to have a look for the Great Reed Warbler.

The giant Acro was audible on arrival clanking and creaking away in its favoured reedbed. After a bit, I managed to pick the bird up, sitting close to the water's edge on swaying reed stems, singing away. His song seemed a little half-hearted; perhaps he realised there were no female Great Reed Warblers at Wintersett.


Great Reed Warbler. My first in Britain since one at Paxton Pits in 2016 (see here) and my first in Yorkshire since 5th May 1990 which I watched in a ditch at Sammy's Point, Spurn.

Two Hobbies were catching damselflies, of which there had been an immense emergence and I heard and saw a Cetti's Warbler.

I finished the day on a Yorkshire heath listening to Nightjars churr. Gorgeous!