I was in southern Arizona at the end of May, for a couple of days. Both days were with the excellent bird guide Richard Fray – see two previous blogs from 2013 where I also was shown loads of birds by Richard (here and here). The second day this year was rather similar to my previous journey up Mount Lemmon with Richard – many of the same excellent bird species.
But the other day this year was spent closer to the Mexico border. The birds were good but it hasn’t been the birds that have stuck in the mind most since that day. Although, let’s be clear the birds were brilliant.
We started by seeing both members of a pair of Rose-throated Becards and their amazing nest. I’d like to know more about how such a small bird evolved to build such a relatively enormous nest. But most birders would be more interested that they had seen half of the US breeding population of this species (roughly, in most years). It was fun to see it – and there is no chance at all that we would have seen them without Richard.
And the day ended with brilliant views of Rivoli’s (Magnificent) Hummingbird (which I might have found and identified on my own, on a good day) and then of Elf Owl (smallest owl in the world) and Whiskered Screech Owl (thanks to Richard!).
But it was in the mid- to late- morning that the most memorable event happened. There were birds in this part of the day too – although no Elegant Trogons – including a species which I’d always vaguely wanted to see in the wild because it looks like a smart bird in the field guides, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (smart bird indeed!).
We walked up a canyon and the day was getting hotter and hotter. The going was a bit uneven and we were clearly coming to the time of day when birds were becoming less active and the balance of pleasure was swinging back towards a cold drink and air conditioning, and probably a nap in the heat of the day.
We walked up the canyon and I’d finished the water in my bottle and I was clearly getting hot and tired as I was stumbling on the rocks now and again – a good sign of tiredness with me.
We came to an area of deeper shade where there were lots of plastic water bottles under a tree. Richard explained that these had been left by volunteers of the Border Angels as this was a route that was used by immigrants illegally entering the USA from Mexico.
Now I am a birder, and I’d been pleased to add several lifers to my list that very day, but I am quite interested in people too. I looked around and tried to imagine what it would be like to arrive here, from over the top of the canyon I guessed, and be desperate for water. I was thirsty but I hadn’t been crossing deserts to get into this woodland and into the Land of the Free. Maybe there were some immigrants hiding away and fearfully watching us at this very moment.
You can’t have failed to notice that the current PotUS wants to build a wall in these parts. And as I had travelled through the US there had been plenty of mentions in the broadcast media of the Trump policy of taking the children away from the families of illegal immigrants. I’d heard about all this in the UK, on my arrival in Chicago, as I drove through the High Plains, and as I drove south to here – but now I was standing in the type of place where all this happened. Where desperate people attempted to sneak into the country and where they faced physical ordeals on the journey and crushing disappointment if caught. It took my mind off trogons.
As we headed back towards the car we glimpsed a bird which might have been a trogon (it’s not on my list) and just after we met a couple of mounted Border Patrol officers.
These two young men looked very cool – both literally and metaphorically – and I envied them on both counts. Quite how they looked so unhot and unbothered in that heat I don’t know but the neat haircuts, tanned faces, smart uniforms, shades and rugged good looks (which were reliably confirmed to me after they had gone by an experienced observer) accounted for the metaphorical coolness. And their horses were cool too – beautiful animals constantly moving their feet because they were standing on the canyon bed of football-sized boulders. The officers were perfectly friendly and asked the obvious question of what we were doing and we gave the obvious answer of birdwatching. We had a quick chat along the lines of ‘anything about’ which I guess was a mixture of vague interest, a bit of friendliness, a bit of checking on whether we looked shifty about anything (if we had claimed the trogon we should have looked ill at ease) and a smidgeon of seeing whether we made any slip-ups.
So these were the people who were looking for illegal immigrants. Of course, they seemed like very nice young men – polite, well-spoken and personable. But then, we weren’t a group of hispanics who had come over the border the night before – we obviously weren’t!
They asked us whether we had seen anything (this wasn’t about birds) and how far we had gone up the canyon and then they wished us good day (I can’t remember whether they said ‘have a good day’ but they might have done). And then the two cool young men, on their beautiful horses, with their sidearms (of course they had guns!) headed up and we headed down.
Richard explained that they probably asked us where we had gone to check our story, as these areas often have hidden motion detectors to alert the authorities to parties moving around. We may have triggered such an alert while watching Montezuma Quails.
That’s what I will remember the longest. Not a dramatic encounter, and not a bird, but a lifer in a way.
Dear Dr Coffey,
Each week seems to bring news of another Hen Harrier disappearing on or near a driven grouse moor.
You must have been briefed on the findings of the study presented in Vancouver back in August on the analysis of NE’s Hen Harrier data.
You do know that the science suggests that there is habitat for over 300 Hen Harriers to nest in the English uplands.
You know, don’t you, of the science that demonstrates that Peregrines do very badly on land managed for grouse shooting when compared with the nearby land not so managed?
But as far as I can recall, you have never even criticised the illegal persecution of birds of prey by grouse-shooting interests.
You do know that you are the Defra Minister responsible for biodiversity conservation?
So why aren’t you acting? Why are you sitting idly while criminals persecute the wildlife that it is your job to protect? I think they think you are on their side. I’m just wondering whether they are right.
RSPB press release:
Yet another hen harrier disappears in suspicious circumstances in North Yorkshire
This is the ninth tagged hen harrier in three months to vanish in similar circumstances in the UK
Hen harriers have declined by a quarter since 2004 and are on the brink of extinction in England
North Yorkshire is ‘worst county in the UK’ for bird of prey persecution, according to Birdcrime report
A rare hen harrier has suddenly disappeared in North Yorkshire, triggering an investigation by the police and the RSPB. This is the ninth bird to disappear in suspicious circumstances in the last 12 weeks.
The bird, named Arthur, hatched from a nest in the Peak District this summer. This was the first time hen harriers had successfully bred in the Peak District since 2015. Arthur, along with his sister Octavia, was fitted with a lightweight satellite tag by RSPB staff as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project, which has enabled the RSPB to track his movements since leaving the nest in July.
Transmissions from Arthur’s tag showed him fledging from his nest and remaining faithful to that area in the Peak District. He then moved to the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, in mid-October before flying back north to Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. On the morning of Friday 26 October he flew onto the North York Moors National Park. He registered his last position at 0955hrs when he was just north of Lowna Bridge, near Hutton-le-Hole.
RSPB Investigations staff searched the area of the bird’s last known location but found no sign of either a tag or a body – prompting concerns that the bird may have been deliberately killed and the tag destroyed. In August, his sister Octavia’s tag also suddenly cut out, with her last location coming from a driven grouse moor in the Peak District. No trace was found of her either. The police and the RSPB are appealing for information.
RSPB Assistant Investigations Officer Jack Ashton-Booth said, ‘Arthur’s last location showed he was in an upland area close to several driven grouse moors. When tagged hen harriers have died of natural causes in the past, the tags and bodies of the bird are usually recovered. To find no trace of Arthur or Octavia is extremely concerning. Arthur is the ninth hen harrier to suddenly disappear in suspicious circumstances since August. This is gravely concerning given that the species is on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird in England.’.
Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. They nest on the ground, often on moorland, and are known for their spectacular courtship display, the ‘skydance’. Like all wild birds, they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to intentionally harm or disturb them. Anyone found to have done so faces an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail. But, despite full legal protection, studies show that the main factor limiting their population is illegal killing by humans.
Over 30 hen harriers were tagged during June and July 2018 in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project. Of those, eight birds (Hilma, Octavia, Heulwen, Thor, Athena, Stelmaria, Margot and Arthur) have since disappeared in suspicious circumstances, along with another bird, Heather, who was tagged in 2017.
Calculations based on habitat and prey availability indicate that England should be able to support around 300 hen harrier pairs. But this year only 34 chicks fledged from nine English nests, according to a report by Natural England. In 2017 there were only 10 chicks in the whole of England.
The RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report showed that North Yorkshire is consistently the worst county in the UK for recorded bird of prey persecution, accumulating significantly more confirmed incidents in the last five years than anywhere else. Data showed that 15 of the 55 confirmed incidents in England in 2017 took place in North Yorkshire. Since these only represent known, confirmed incidents, the RSPB believes this is just a glimpse of the true scale of the problem, and that many more crimes will have gone unreported and unrecorded.
If you have any information relating to this incident, please call North Yorkshire Police on 101 quoting crime reference number.
If you find a wild bird which you suspect has been illegally killed, contact RSPB investigations on 01767 680551 or fill in the online form: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns/positions/wildbirdslaw/reportform.aspx
If you have information about people killing birds of prey in your area and would like to speak to someone in confidence, call the Raptor Crime Hotline on 0300 999 0101.
This is the ninth RSPB-tagged Hen Harrier to disappear in recent months but there is also at least one (who knows?) NE-tagged bird too.
This bird ceased transmitting in an area of driven grouse moors.
This post is about damaging tracks, past and present, on protected moorland.
I’d like to take you back in time on Walshaw Moor.
This photograph was posted on this blog in Wuthering Moors 39, 13 September 2013.
I pointed out that this place was marked on the OS map as a stream but now (in 2013) it seems to be a track.
I can point this area out to you on the Walshaw Moor Catchment Restoration Plan map here…
We are looking at the area to the bottom left of the left hand corner of the black box on the map above. This bit…
Yes, all a bit fuzzy but we can do better than that. Here is the most recent satellite image from Google Earth (June 2018)…
Yep, there are the two tracks and the lower one, the left hand arm of the wonky Y shape, is the one in the photograph.
Here is the same place in 2006 (also from Google Earth)…
Same tracks in the same place.
But lo! through the wonders of satellite imagery we can have a look at the same area in 2003 (also from Google Earth)…
No tracks this time – just a stream, or sike, or syke.
It’s very obvious that someone built some tracks here. Here is the relevant area from the JNCC MAGIC system. You can see the tracks on the OS map.
I’d like you to glance at the top left hand area of this map (a part of the Walshaw Moor estate with which you should now be becoming a bit familiar). See the name Warcock Hill? I wonder what a Warcock is?
This seems to be the area where the estate plans to ‘mitigate’ the impacts of the new track, the completely new track which hasn’t been built yet (and I hope never will be) by restoring the blanket bog. Basically the estate is saying that the damage done by building a new track (the one highlighted in the black box on the map higher up this post) will be offset by doing some habitat improvement down in this part of the estate. See here from the planning application papers…
Well that’s interesting. This part of the SSSI (Unit 51) is in Unfavourable No Change condition – I can show you that on MAGIC because it’s an alarming orange colour…
So my understanding is that’s not legal. You cannot use restoration of the habitat in one damaged part of an SSSI/SPA/SAC as mitigation for damaging another part of the SSSI/SPA/SAC. You can see why that isn’t allowed – it’s just moving the damage around rather than repairing it. You’d have to be taking the mickey to suggest such a thing.
If we have a look at SSSI Unit 51 we find that an NE staff member, Andrew Clark, rather pithily commented that for Unit 51:
Restoration works are required to ameliorate the loss and damage to habitat as a result of unconsented operations. Enforcement action is being undertaken to address this issue.
That damage is going to include building tracks, turning circles, grouse butts and drainage etc etc. the enforcement action mentioned is presumably the court case that NE took and which collapsed in 2012. It is difficult to know how much of the issue was addressed.
So, many years ago this grouse shooting estate carried out unconsented actions and it is not clear how much of the habitat damage has been dealt with. Some of those damaging actions were certainly carried out in Unit 51. The estate has been paid large amounts of public money in order to repair some of the damage but NE and Defra have admitted that not all of the damage will be repaired under their agreement with the estate. Now the estate wants to build another track which will cause some more damage. NE consented that track through a Habitats Regulations Assessment which my (our) legal action showed to be unlawful back in May this year.
The estate has now re-applied for planning permission and come up with a plan for mitigation of the damage of the new proposed track which involves carrying out works on a part of its land which was damaged in the past by unconsented operations, and which is in Unfavourable condition, and which the estate has an obligation to get back into Favourable condition (new track or no new track), and which NE has a duty to enforce.
NE must simply object to this planning application and/or tell the two planning authorities involved that they cannot consent the track. And Defra must ensure that this happens.
Or we must.