Friday, 29 February 2008

And the winner is......


Thanks to everyone who voted in the first Birding Copenhagen blog poll... Short-eared Owl and White-tailed Eagle seemed to be the favourites but I can exclusively reveal that none of the options was right - my next species was actually, unexpectedly, a CRESTED LARK which decided to take up residence in Copenhagen town centre for 3 days. Crested Lark is a rare bird in Denmark - there is one breeding site in north-west Jutland but on Sjaelland (the island on which Copenhagen is located) they are less than annual.

Despite visiting the favoured wintering site of Short-eared Owl no fewer than five times, I have yet to see one... (even though up to three are regularly reported from there!). I have also just missed out on White-tailed Eagle (the all too familiar "you should have been here 10 minutes ago..." story). So you were close...

Danish Cartoons - freedom of speech or freedom to insult?

The last two weeks have seen an unwelcome return of the controversy surrounding the publication in the Danish media of cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed. This story began in 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons, including one of the prophet Mohammed wearing a bomb as a turban. Danish Muslim organizations, who objected to the depictions, responded by holding public protests attempting to raise awareness of Jyllands-Posten's publication. The controversy deepened when further examples of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries. This led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds (resulting in more than 100 deaths), including setting fire to the Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, and desecrating the Danish, Norwegian and German flags in Gaza City. While a number of Muslim leaders called for protesters to remain peaceful, other Muslim leaders across the globe, including Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas, issued death threats. Many Islamic organisations and nations implemented boycotts of Danish products in protest.

The Danish press defended the cartoons as an expression of freedom of speech, stating that many other religions had been depicted in a critical or humourous way and that this was part of a free society.

The controversy gradually died down but then, a couple of weeks ago on 12 February 2008, Danish police arrested three men (two Tunisians and a Danish national originally from Morocco) in connection with an alleged plot to kill the cartoonist responsible for the "bomb in the turban" cartoon, Kurt Westergaard. This prompted a very strong reaction among the Danish media and the following day nearly all of the main Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoon as a show of support for Westergaard, citing freedom of speech.

Now, to me, freedom of speech comes with some responsibility. Clearly the original publication of the cartoons was an innocent representation of free speech that sat comfortably alongside cartoonists satirical depiction of many other religions, individuals and organisations and there was no way they could have predicted the backlash that would follow. The fact that a few individuals chose to break the law and plot to kill the cartoonist represents a criminal offence and, rightly, these individuals were detained and deported. But is the right response to a tiny minority to republish the cartoons, knowing they are insulting to a wide section of the Muslim community, in the name of free speech? To me this is a blatant and intentional insult and is an abuse of the principle of free speech. Free speech should not be used as an excuse to go round deliberately insulting people just because you can... it is rude and wrong. I wouldn't dream of insulting my work colleagues, just because I can.. I might make fun of them, knowing that a joke would be taken in the right spirit, but if I KNEW they would take the joke as an insult, then it would be rude and wrong of me to make that joke.

The republication of the cartoons, to me, is a deliberate attempt by the Danish media to insult Muslims and is not a proportionate or fair response to the fact that three individuals were plotting to kill the cartoonist.

The Danes are struggling with immigration and the integration of Muslims into their communities. With the attitude of their media I think they have a lot to learn about respect and tolerance before they can hope to move towards a truly multicultural society.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008



i) Pantanal gang:
Back row (left to right): Governor of Mato Grosso's personal assistant, Ian Johnson (former Vice President of the World Bank), me, Michael Kauch (German MP), Jose (Senator Serys Slhessarenko's office), Anders Wijkman (Swedish MEP) and Malcolm Bruce (UK MP).
Front row (left to right): Ethna Johnson (Ian Johnson's wife), Maria (interpreter), Caroline (Governor's office) and Grazia Francescati (Italian MP).
ii) A Capybara (the world's largest rodent)
iii) A Caracara (a bird of prey)
iv) A macaque

A work commitment meant I spent ten days in Brazil in mid-February, arranging the policy content of a climate change forum for legislators from the G8 countries and the major emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. It was a very successful event, if exhausting, with President Lula, the Japanese Prime Minister and over 80 legislators in attendance. We managed to secure consensus statements on biofuels, forestry and made a lot of progress on developing a post-2012 framework for climate change. Afterwards, courtesy of the Governor of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi, we spent two days in the Pantanal, a huge wetland area (about the size of France) in the west of Brazil. The sheer scale of Brazil is staggering. We met with the Governor in the city of Ciuaba after he had travelled 2,000km to meet us, from his home in the same state! After that meeting, where he assured us that his USD150m fortune from soya was not impacting on the rainforest or other highly biodiverse land (ehum), he invited us to visit the Pantanal as his personal guests. After travelling 3 and a half hours along what can best be described as a dirt track, we arrived at the Sesc Pantanal Lodge set in the stunning Pantanal wetlands. The period Dec-Jun is the wet season so the water level was very high. Most of the forested area was flooded and we had to get around by boat. Having arrived at around 8pm we were given 20 minutes to change before heading out on a night safari. This involved taking a boat on the river with a huge spotlight, hoping to see some of the local wildlife. Literally ten metres from the pier we spotted a Caiman, a sort of mini crocodile, the first of several we were to see that night.. Later on we saw bats the size of hawks, some nocturnal birds that resembled giant nightjars, several brightly coloured frogs, an anhinga (a sort of large cormorant) and a few Capybaras (the world's largest rodent). The following day was spent walking some of the trails where we saw monkeys, lots of birds (most of which I had no idea from which family they were, let alone species!), lots of stunning butterflies and more Capybaras. An amazing place and a real dream come true to visit. The pre-trip talk of huge mosquitos carrying malaria, denge and yellow fever, cockroaches the size of rats and leeches that lie in ambush as you walk past was soon forgotten when the locals told us there was no malaria in the area, no yellow fever and no cases of denge fever for years. Phew... Apparently if we had visited the area 200 miles to the north, all three are present.

All in all an amazing trip and I will definitely be back..

Monday, 11 February 2008

Chitty runner

I made a flying visit back to Norfolk at the weekend following a couple of days working in London. The weather was Spring-like with a warm sun, clear blue sky and a light westerly breeze. With a packed lunch and a flask of coffee I took off for the day, exploring my favourite haunt of Winterton north dunes, hoping to pick up a scarce bird or two. Seawatching was slow going, with a few Red-throated Divers, a small flock of Common Scoter, a single Gannet and the odd Brent Goose or Sanderling, so I pottered off down the Holmes Road to look for the elusive Treecreepers (the only semi-reliable site in Winterton). No sign, but I did manage Bullfinch and a Coal Tit (both not easy in Winterton). A bit further north I stumbled across 3 Cranes loafing in a field and, after a scan of the area north of the concrete blocks, I picked up a Peregrine sitting on a clump of grass in the middle of a marshy field. It wasn't long before it was terrorising the local pigeons and I twice watched it make (unsuccessful) attempts to catch lunch before settling back to the same clump of grass. It was only my fourth Peregrine in Winterton (and the third in the last two years), so a delight to watch. During the afternoon I went back to the beach to try to photograph the Sanderling that was running up and down. A local name for Sanderling is Chitty Runner and, apparently, local people from Winterton are known as Chitty Runners, too.. so it is an appropriate bird to find there.. It wasn't particularly obliging (they are buggers for keeping still) but I did manage the photo above. The foray to the beach also resulted in my most gruesome find of the weekend - a wooden box on the tideline that clearly used to hold the ashes of a poor lady called Helen, cremated at Mortlake Crematorium in June 2007. Nice..

As dusk approached I was hoping for an owl or two and that is exactly what I saw - two Barn Owls hunting over the dunes. Sadly no Short-eared Owl (a long shot) but a sub-adult male Hen Harrier was a bonus before the light finally disappeared on what was a thoroughly enjoyable day.

69 species over the two days puts me in the lead in the Winterton Bird Spotting Collective's annual year-listing competition. See But I am sure the lead will be short-lived - last year's winner saw a whopping 173 species!