Saturday, 28 February 2009

Southern Sweden part deux

Photos: Hawk Owl on a kill; Hawk Owl with mouse; a Hawk Owl larder; Golden Eagle; and Golden Eagle with Red Kite (click to enlarge)

A business meeting in Malmo on Friday afternoon was the perfect excuse to stay an extra day and do some more birding in southern Sweden. I had heard about another HAWK OWL at Krankesjon, just a few minutes drive east of Malmo, so that was my first stop. Arriving on site at 8am there was only one other birder present but, over the course of the next 5 hours around 40 birders came and went (including two car loads of Danes). The owl performed extremely well and was completely fearless in the company of man, as is often the case with this species. The weather was perfect - very still, sunny and cold, with a hard frost overnight. Food is obviously plentiful and I saw the owl catch 4 mice, two of which it ate and 2 of which it stored, as can be seen in the third photo.

A real bonus was an immature GOLDEN EAGLE that circled low over the site late morning in the company of a RED KITE, shortly followed by a WHITE-TAILED EAGLE. The Golden Eagle shows the classic profile of a long-tailed aquila eagle and can be aged as an immature (probably a 'first-winter' bird) as it has large white patches in the outerwing and is very white in the tail with a prominent dark trailing band.

Does birding get any better than this?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

A call to G20 leaders...

A serious post... (sorry - I won't do this often - normal service will be resumed shortly)

Leaders of the 20 largest economies will be meeting in London on 2 April to discuss how to tackle the global economic crisis. I want to show how this meeting is critical in terms of ensuring success at the UN climate change conference in December in Copenhagen.

COP15 (the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) is the formal name of the important UN climate change conference that will take place in Copenhagen in December 2009 (see countdown clock to the right).

This is the point when countries are supposed to agree on a new and effective framework to tackle climate change after the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

The KP, as I will call it (because it's almost as controversial as the other "KP" - England cricketer, Kevin Pietersen), was designed as a first step in tackling climate change and called on rich countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by an aggregate of 5 per cent between 2008 and 2012 from a baseline of 1990. The first action was focused on developed countries because it is rich countries that have caused the problem - they are responsible for the vast majority of the stock of greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere - and they have the means to tackle it. Not that difficult, you might think.. put up a few windfarms, tax the worst gas guzzlers and fit a few energy efficient lightbulbs and Bob's your uncle.... However, the reality is very different. Although some countries will meet their targets (the UK being one - although more by accident than design!), the hard reality is that global emissions have grown by around 40 per cent since 1990 and the science is telling us that our earlier predictions about the sensitivity of the climate to rising greenhouse gases was too conservative both in terms of the rate of change and the extent of change that we should expect. So that initial 5 per cent reduction for rich countries, although a start, is now woefully inadequate if we are to have any chance of halting manmade climate change. Hence the agreement to begin negotiations in 2007 on a new post-2012 framework that would involve all countries, in accordance with their capabilities and historic responsibilities, in taking action to reduce emissions. The pace of these negotiations is slow and many are not optimistic that a sufficient deal will be done, especially in the context of the global economic crisis.

As we negotiate 2009 and work out how we tackle the immediate crisis in our economy, we are facing a number of other crises bubbling away under the surface - including climate change, energy security and biodiversity - all of which have been caused by the unsustainable use of resources, whether in the economy or in nature. A recent EU report showed that the current financial losses on Wall Street of USD 1-1.5 trillion are dwarfed by the current loss of natural wealth - forests, water, grasslands, oceans etc (none of which appears on anyone's balance sheet), estimated to be between USD 2 and 5 trillion annually! If we don't do anything to tackle these crises in unison, our policies to tackle the financial and economic crisis will ultimately unravel as nature calls in our debt of borrowing against her.

The forthcoming London Summit of G20 leaders is a key point in time. Here we have leaders of the 20 major economies coming together to discuss coordinated governmental action to stabilise the global economy. Most are implementing huge stimulus packages involving a combined total of trillions of US dollars. If these stimulus packages take into account our climate and energy objectives by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, 'smart' electricity grids allowing more household generation, better public transport infrastructure and creating an economic value for our natural capital, we could put ourselves on a path towards a more sustainable, low-carbon economy that not only helps reduce the risk of serious manmade climate change and creates the political momentum for success in Copenhagen at the end of the year, but also reinvigorates our economies, creates new jobs, increases our energy security and tackle poverty. We may not get such a chance for coordinated governmental action on this scale again.

What can you do? Write to your MP (in the UK you can click here to find out who your MP is and how to contact them), write to your Prime Minister or President, tell your friends, run naked through the streets (ok, that might be a step too far) and generally let it be heard that this matters.

Some common questions on climate change:

Q. Does a changing climate matter anyway? Hasn't the climate always changed?

A. The answers are yes, it does matter; and yes the climate has always changed but not at the RATE that we are causing it to change.

Q. Why does it matter?

A. Some think of global warming as meaning warmer summers, milder winters, maybe good English wine (ok, that might be a step too far etc..). And there is no doubt that there will be some benefits to some people, at least in the short-term (eg Siberia may be more inhabitable). However, the net effect of a climate that warms at a rate that is way beyond the natural cycle, is undoubtedly very negative. Consider the 2 billion people who rely on fresh water from summer glacier melt in the Himalayas. Traditionally these glaciers melt in the summer to provide fresh water and are replenished by precipitation in the winter. However, these glaciers are now melting at a much faster rate and are not being fully replenished in winter - the prediction is that they could disappear within a few decades. Where will these 2 billion people get their water from then? And, as the flow begins to dwindle, won't the people nearer to the source be tempted to capture and store sufficient supplies for themselves at the expense of others further down river? 2 billion people having to move because of a lack of fresh water will not be a trivial problem.

Most of the world's major cities are at sea level and near coasts (London, New York, Shanghai to name a few). All are vulnerable to sea level rise. If the ice shelf on Greenland melts there is enough water to raise sea level by 7-8 metres. And if that is combined with melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet, that rise could be up to 15 metres. That means my birthplace in Norfolk, England, has no chance and, in fact, most of Norfolk would be under water.

These are just two of the potential effects of man-made global warming. Others include more drought, particularly in already dry areas such as Africa, reduced crop yield, more intense tropical storms, increase in vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, severe flooding in highly-populated low-lying areas such as Bangaldesh (India is already building a fence along its border with Bangladesh and it's not to stop Indians going on holiday to Bangladesh!).

Natural climatic variation usually happens very slowly and over thousands and millions of years, allowing species, including man, to adapt and make subtle changes to living patterns at natural rates. We are changing the climate fast and in a big way. And it is not just the environment that will be hit. This is going to hit our economies, affect our security by increasing the likelihood of conflict and the creation of millions of climate refugees as well as setting back development, particularly for the poor.

Q. OK, so it's serious. But isn't it all too expensive to put right?

A. No. The landmark report by Lord Nicholas Stern on the economics of climate change showed that the costs, although very difficult to quantify, would likely be around 1 per cent of GDP (higher if we went for a more aggressive stabilisation level) but the costs of inaction would cost us between 5 and 20 per cent of GDP by 2050. In other words, if we tackle climate change we will achieve our expected level of wealth in 2050 by June 2050 instead of Jan 2050 - is that such a hardship?. The problem with the climate debate is that it is often focused on costs and, therefore, everyone wants to minimise the cost to themselves as a contribution to the global effort. These 'costs' should really be considered investments - they are short-term costs that secure future wealth. And if we do it right we will create new jobs in low carbon energy and products and services, create new markets and, at the same time, increase our energy security by weaning ourselves off foreign energy sources from unstable parts of the world, improve our air quality and protect ourselves from volatile fossil fuel prices. If I was a government I would certainly want to invest in that!

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Waxwings, Woodlarks and a Wuff-leg

There are good numbers of Waxwing around this winter. A flock of between 100 and 150 can be seen most days from our flat as they wheel around central Copenhagen. Today I came across a flock of 200+ at Vestamager. They gave a wonderful display for about ten minutes, coming down to bathe and drink at a small ice-free patch on a nearby dyke, before a female Sparrowhawk blitzed through, spooking them all. Unfortunately they never came back - particularly unfortunate as the low sun was just emerging from the cloud that has seemed depressingly omnipresent this winter! Other highlights included 3 Woodlarks feeding on a roadside verge (just about the only place where the grass was not covered with snow, due to the splash over of salt put down by the local authorities), a Woodcock flushed from a forest path, 5 Mealy Redpolls, 6 Hawfinches and a distant Rough-legged Buzzard.

Photos below: Waxwing; Waxwing bath time; a Fieldfare; and a Woodlark (I risked my life on my belly in the middle of the road to get this shot - I hope you appreciate it! ;-)

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

In the trenches...

News from our French cousins, battling on the front line of birding on behalf of us all....

Thursday, 12 February 2009


Photo above: Hawk Owl habitat at Valinge, Halland (can you spot the Hawk Owl?)

Just back from a very enjoyable trip to southern Sweden to look at a selection of the good birds that are wintering in the area. The weather was excellent - one of the best weekends all winter with mostly clear skies, light winds and lots of sunshine. Temperatures were down to -9 at one point in Vastergotland but, with no wind, it didn't feel that cold. Highlights included 2 HAWK OWLS (absolutely stunning birds), a GYRFALCON (a real monster of a falcon, positively dwarfing the Peregrine that was making pathetic attempts to scare it off), ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE (obviously lost but, amazingly, returning for its 4th winter in a row on a suburban housing estate in central Sweden) and a PYGMY OWL (very cool) with a supporting cast of ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD, MEALY REDPOLLS, WAXWINGS etc. Some photos below. More to appear shortly (courtesy of Peter who managed much better photographs than me).

The Hawk Owls are just class - they have almost no fear of humans and, at one point, the Valinge Hawk Owl dived from its perch to catch a mouse just a few feet away from me (the end result of the swoop in the photo below). We had the pleasure of spending 5 and a half hours on Sunday watching this Hawk Owl, allowing study of its habits and behaviour. During that time it caught two voles and a mouse and coughed up a pellet (which I collected and aim to study later - don't tell Libby!). Most of the time it spent sitting, sentinel-like, atop a larch or pine tree, constantly turning its head at every sound. They clearly have incredible hearing. At one point my tripod squeaked a little as I adjusted it and, even though it was sitting on the top of a tree probably some 750 metres away at that time, its head spun round in a shot, its piercing yellow eyes fixed on me for a few seconds until another noise distracted its attention. A truly awesome experience to spend time with this arctic owl.

The other real highlight for me was the GYRFALCON. Having arrived at Getterons reserve on Saturday afternoon about an hour before dusk, we were hoping it would put in an appearance as the geese came into roost on the small patch of unfrozen water. The reserve visitor centre affords excellent views over the estuary and the warden told us that this was the best spot from which to view the falcon, which was a regular visitor during the early morning and just before dusk. So we ordered a cup of tea and sat looking over the spectacular vista.. Just as was taking my first sip, I caught sight of a HUGE falcon coming in low over the estuary from the north. Without lifting my binoculars I instinctively called out "GYR" and then, when I did get my binoculars onto the bird, I saw just how big it was - a Peregrine was mobbing it and it looked TINY in comparison. This GYR really was a beast. It scared the living daylights out of the local wildfowl and promptly sat on the saltmarsh to preen and bide its time before selecting which species of local duck or goose it was going to have for supper. It treated us to several passes, each time prompting much respect from the local ducks and geese, before finally settling on a wooden fence post some 400-500 metres out from the visitor centre. WOW.

Photos below (click to enlarge): Getterons Naturreservat at dawn (where we stayed at the observatory on Saturday night for GBP 11 each!); Hawk Owl at Valinge; Hawk Owl swooping for prey; Hawk Owl (Peter Ransome); Oriental Turtle Dove (Peter Ransome); and Pygmy Owl.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Rough-legged Buzzard

Photos: Rough-legged Buzzard, Sydhavnstippen, Copenhagen, 31 January 2009

Denmark is a good place to catch up with the Fenno-Scandian cousin of our Common Buzzard - the Rough-legged Buzzard (RLB). Superficially very similar to Common Buzzard but, with detailed observation and knowledge about the key characteristics of RLB, they are actually pretty easy to pick out, even with fairly distant views.

Apologies for the quality of the photos (taken in poor light at long range etc etc) but, even though they aren't high quality, they still show the salient features. The best feature is the tail-pattern, with RLB sporting a white inner tail and a broad dark tail-band. This is best viewed from above (ie when the bird is banking). Other good plumage features include a lightish-coloured head, a dark belly and a prominent round, dark carpal patch on the underwing. With experience, structure and jizz become good indicators of this species -it is longer winged than Common Buzzard (to me, sometimes recalling a Kite species) and, when soaring, the wings are typically held at a dihedral (like aircraft wings - look it up!). RLB also actively hovers frequently when hunting for prey (not to be confused with Common Buzzard that can sometimes "hang" in the air facing a fresh or strong wind).

There are several of these migrant birds of prey wintering in Denmark this winter, with probably a dozen or more in the Copenhagen area alone. March or April will see them returning north to breed - the population is estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000 in Europe/Russia. Meanwhile I will continue to enjoy getting to know these fantastic birds of prey.

Monday, 2 February 2009


Photos: jackal; leopard; lioness; and cheetah.

This winter Libby and I decided to break up the long, dark and cold Danish winter by taking a holiday in January. Destination was Kenya and Zanzibar: Kenya for safari and Zanzibar for a few days snorkelling and enjoying the coast. We spent 6 nights on safari - three at a new reserve in Laikipia (to the north-west of Nairobi) and then three nights in the Masai Mara. All I can say is WOW! The wildlife was simply stunning. I had no idea we would be just feet away from lions, leopards, cheetahs and the amazing array of Kenyan wildlife. And to drop off to sleep at night in a tent (completely unfenced) with the sound of lions roaring was an incredible experience. One morning we were awoken by the sound of an elephant brushing against our tent - and taking my first step out of the tent a short while later, I put my foot slap bang in the middle of a huge elephant footprint - some of those adults are enormous....!

We were incredibly lucky - we saw probably 100+ lions, 10 cheetahs, 3 leopards, 100s of elephants, tens of giraffes, 100s of buffalo, white and black rhino plus all manner of antelope species, hyenas, jackals and an amazing array of birds. I was in wildlife heaven. We even managed to spot the BBC Big Cat Diary's Simon King as he tracked a group of young cheetahs.

After the safari experience we flew to Zanzibar and stayed three nights at an eco-lodge on Chumbe Island, a coral atoll just off the capital of Zanzibar, Stone Town. Here we stayed in a truly sustainable eco-friendly wooden 'bungalows' with electricity and hot water provided by solar panels and showers from collected rainwater. The food was all locally produced and I have to say, it was amazing. The snorkelling was out of this world with sea turtles, 100s of colourful fish, starfish, the very poisonous conefish and, for me, the star - the coconut crab. These huge crabs (they are up to 50cm across) are nocturnal and are so-called because they love coconuts and have been known to climb the coconut palm to collect coconuts off the tree. Apparently they are very good to eat so they have all but died out over most of the region but on the island they are protected, so we were very lucky to see them.

On our last day we took a guided tour around Stone Town. This is an incredible place with a very rich history and influences from India, Oman, the UK and Portugal as well as Africa. It was the hub of the slave trade and also the base from which the great explorers, including Dr David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, began their travels. It was very sobering to see the cells in which slaves were kept while waiting for transportation to other parts of the globe - the conditions were just horrendous. Probably less well known is the fact that Freddie Mercury was born there and his birthplace is now an art gallery and museum! (good quiz question!).

All in all a great trip and I am sure we will be back... and we will watch Big Cat Diary with a whole new perspective!