Actor Martin Shaw teams up with ornithologists to support well-being and mental health; encouraging us to “stop and watch”

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Robin by Gray Images

Actor Martin Shaw,  known for his roles in The Professionals, Judge John Deed and Inspector George Gently, has teamed up with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to promote the value of connecting with nature through mindful birdwatching, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.

The well-being benefits of connecting with nature are now better recognised than ever before, with a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating the positive effects on health and well-being that come from interacting with the natural world. Some GPs now prescribe birdwatching and other outdoor activities to help treat stress and other conditions.

Mindfulness has similarly been proved to support our mental well-being… so what if we combine the benefits of nature and birdwatching with mindfulness?

Actor Martin Shaw, working with the BTO, has done just that and produced a downloadable podcast, Stop to Watch – A time to be with nature. The podcast guides listeners through a mindfulness approach that can be used to let the stresses of the day melt away while you focus on birds.

Deb Lee of the BTO said, “We should not underestimate the healing power of taking time out to be with nature, particularly during these very strange and stressful times. Spending time with nature doesn’t have to take you to a nature reserve; it can be experienced from home – listening to the sounds, feeling the wind, or the sun. It is about focussing on what is around us and experiencing the wonder of it.”

The podcast is being launched as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, which runs from 18–24th May.

The Stop to Watch podcast is free and can be downloaded from www.bto.org/podcast

Over 7,000 people sign up for garden citizen science survey during lockdown

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House Sparrow by Edmund Fellowes/BTO

Gardens cover more land than nature reserves in the UK, yet their importance for our wildlife is under recorded – is that about to change?

While our movements have been restricted, many of us have spent more time watching and enjoying our garden wildlife. Since the beginning of April, over 7,000 people have taken the opportunity to engage with the UK’s most robust garden wildlife survey, joining 11,000 existing members and turning their observations into scientific data, by joining Garden BirdWatch (GBW), a long-term garden wildlife survey run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Garden BirdWatch records help scientists at the BTO understand how garden birds and wildlife are changing over time. Thanks to the sightings of thousands of Garden BirdWatch volunteers we understand more about how wildlife uses the food, shelter and other resources in our gardens, and the threats they face, such as disease. Most importantly, the more we know about how birds and animals use our gardens, the more we can improve our cities, towns, villages and individual gardens for wildlife.

Garden BirdWatch membership was made free in April (it normally costs £17), in an attempt to help people find an enjoyable purpose in their garden birdwatching during this period of uncertainty. The free membership offer will continue while the current movement restrictions remain in place, each free membership lasting for a year.

Kate Risely, GBW Organiser at the BTO said, “Many more people are turning to their gardens for interest and to watch wildlife, and we are delighted that so many want to contribute their sightings to our research. Garden BirdWatch has been running for 25 years, making the survey older than some of our younger volunteers. We hope some of the people who have joined this year will still be participating many years in the future!”

Make your garden wildlife observations count by joining BTO Garden BirdWatch free at www.bto.org/gbw

Stay alert for nature – helping wildlife out of the lockdown

Lapwing nest - credit Andrew Gouldstone
Lapwing nest – © Andrew Gouldstone

Millions of people have found solace in nature during the six weeks since the lockdown started. Now nature needs our help and space if it is to thrive as we head outdoors. The RSPB calls for people to stay alert for wildlife.

For most UK species, breeding season is now in full swing and wildlife is at its most vulnerable point of the year. Our countryside birds, mammals and reptiles will normally avoid busier areas of human activity to ensure their nests and young are safe from accidental harm, steering clear of popular beaches, busy footpaths or dog walking hot spots.

The RSPB’s Director of England, Emma Marsh said “This year, nature hasn’t needed to adapt to human behaviour, as we stayed home, and some of our wildlife has reclaimed the places we’ve temporarily given up. As we head back out, we need to be alert and avoid disturbing nature as it gets on with producing the next generation.”

Being alert is particularly important for threatened species such as little terns and ringed plover which nest on beaches and could abandon nests or chicks if we don’t stay alert at the seaside.

Following five simple steps could make all the difference in helping our wildlife as we ease out of lockdown and get back into the countryside.

  1. Stay Alert – any habitat can be a home for wildlife and many of our most vulnerable species are very good at hiding themselves in plain sight. Beaches are home to threatened ground-nesting birds like little terns and ringed plover, while seals have been choosing to rest at popular spots during the lockdown. Even the grass verges next to paths could be hiding skylark or meadow pipit chicks!
  2. Stick to paths and bridleways – the simplest way to give nature space is to keep to the spaces we usually use most, so please do stay on the amazing network of public footpaths and bridleways across England.
  3. Keep dogs on leads in the open countryside – They might be man’s best friend but for vulnerable chicks, a dog bounding through a nest can pose a real threat. Keeping your dog on a lead in the open countryside will help protect both wildlife and livestock. Heathlands are home to ground-nesting rare nightjar and woodlark, which can be easily disturbed by dogs off leads.
  4. Back away if you disturb a breeding species. Short, sharp alarm calls, birds with full beaks or coming unusually near to you usually mean you are too close to young, which can often be very well hidden even if they are almost underfoot! If you see any of this behaviour, you should back up the way you came to avoid any risk of disturbing or injuring young, being careful to watch where you tread.
  5. Report bad behaviour – If you notice anything suspicious going on in your local countryside, such as evidence of wildlife crime, fly-tipping or uncontrolled fires, then please do report this to your local wildlife crime officer using the police 101 number.

Nature is still in crisis with more than 40 million birds having vanished from UK skies in just 50 years, 56% of species in the UK are in decline, and one in ten of our wildlife are critically endangered. The RSPB is looking carefully at how and when we can start to re-open our network of nature reserves safely for both people and wildlife.

For now, our reserves remain closed, until they are ready to welcome back visitors.  Please visit www.rspb.org.uk for the latest information on the reserves nearest you

Shetland’s wonderful webcams

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Screengrab of the Soteag Cliff Cam.

During the lockdown, many of us will have turned to the live feeds from webcams located the world over to provide a little escape from what’s happening around us. Undoubtedly operators of these cameras will have seen a significant increase in traffic. Many of the visitors will be wildlife enthusiasts who will have found that there are plenty of feeds to choose from, whatever their wildlife interest is. Cameras operated by charities, businesses or private individuals provide us with a glimpse of somewhere else. And at this time we could all do with some of that!

One such network is the system known as Shetland Webcams set up by Andy Steven who used to be Shetland’s tourism chief. The network has been up and running for 10 years and more recently it has benefited from investments from crowdfunding and commercial sponsorship. As a result, the network of (at the time of writing) 13 cameras covers 11 locations and includes a feed from 60 North Radio and a binaural sound feed. Together these give virtual visitors an opportunity to enjoy Shetland in a range of different ways.

For wildlife enthusiasts, some of the locations for the cameras on Shetland provide views of a wide range of species. On the shore, gulls can be seen making their way over the rocks while seals and even otters can occasionally be seen in the shallow waters. The Puffincam not only provides views of the stunning landscape but also views of the nesting birds. Currently, due to the lockdown, the Puffincam has had to utilise the feed from another camera to provide views of their nesting burrows. But despite this, you can still keep an eye on these engaging birds.

Even with the lockdown restrictions in place, the network of cameras continues to provide not only a fascinating insight into the lives of birds but also a link to another place. Somewhere many of us would love to visit and enjoy – in short, an escape – something many of us are looking for at this moment in time.

With more and more evidence that engaging with nature and the natural world provide major benefits for both mental and physical health, maybe views like this can go some way to offset the problems caused by the lockdown – however necessary the lockdown is.

Whatever reason you have to visit the Shetland Webcam site let’s hope that the views it provides prove to be beneficial and enjoyable. Although we all strive to reduce screen time, during times like these I think we can all be excused. And lets also thank those who set up these services and keep them up and running. Long may they continue.

The latest report on UK’s breeding birds shows mixed results.

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Greenfinches by Edmund Fellowes

The latest Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report, covering population trends for the UK’s bird species, is released today. This report is a celebration of the dedication of the volunteers who give up their time and take part in bird surveying; collectively they walked 14,996km whilst actively surveying in 2019. 

The distance walked in 2019 is the equivalent of walking from the BTO’s headquarters in Norfolk to Palmer Land in Antarctica! Since the survey began in 1994, the total distance walked by BBS volunteers is a staggering 299,701km, almost seven and a half times around the World! But what has it told us?

The report covering the population changes of UK’s breeding birds shows that one of our most widespread and common bird is in trouble and disappearing from large parts of the country, and how skilled volunteers are helping to monitor the changes as they unfold.

The Greenfinch is a familiar bird, being a frequent visitor to garden feeding stations across the UK, but how much longer might this be the case? The 2019 Breeding Bird Survey results show an alarming decline. During the last 23 years, the Greenfinch population has fallen by 64%.

The main driver behind this change is a parasite that causes a disease called trichomonosis. Known as a disease in cage birds for some time, it was first noted in British finches in 2006. Infected birds become lethargic, have fluffed-up feathers and are unable to swallow food. Transmission between birds can be via contaminated food and water, e.g. at garden feeding stations. Good feeding station hygiene, with regular cleaning and disinfecting can help to slow the spread. The Trichomonas gallinae parasite is a parasite of birds and does not pose a health risk to humans or their mammalian pets.

In contrast, the UK’s commonest bird, the Wren, just got even more common with an increase of 30% over the last 23 years as reported by the Breeding Bird Survey. This translates to around 11,000,000 Wrens across the UK, as calculated using BBS trend changes and historic estimates and published in another bird monitoring report, APEP. A run of mild winters no doubt contributing to the 30% increase since 1994 as revealed by the BBS Report.

It is now possible to monitor the population changes for 117 bird species and it is all thanks to the dedication of the thousands of BBS volunteers who go out every spring to survey the UKs’ birdlife.

Sarah Harris, BBS Organiser, said “I am always amazed by the power of citizen science, the dedication of volunteers and in turn, the difference their observations can make to conservation and research. The Greenfinch is still found across the UK and you might be forgiven for thinking nothing is amiss, but as the BBS shows, nothing could be further from the truth – thanks to all those who take part we are able to keep an eye out for changes in bird populations.”

Paul Woodcock, Biodiversity Evidence Specialist at JNCC,  said, “The report really highlights the huge contribution made by BBS volunteers up and down the country, and shows that the high quality data can help understand when, how and why bird populations are changing. Thank you to everyone involved”

Mark Eaton, RSPB’s Principal Conservation Scientist, said “Greenfinches are fantastic little birds, and the flashes of green and yellow used to be a common sight at our bird feeders. The food we put out for these little seed-eaters has become increasingly important over the years, as food availability in the wider countryside has reduced. Continuing to provide food is important but you can help them, and other birds, by cleaning your feeders and water sources every couple of weeks with a mild disinfectant.”

The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey is a partnership jointly funded by the BTO, RSPB and JNCC, and the report is published by BTO annually on behalf of the partnership.

The full report can be accessed here for trends on all 117 species covered by the Breeding Bird Survey.

Chance of a rosy future with record year for roseate terns

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Roseate tern © Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
  • 2019 saw a record-breaking 122 pairs of roseate terns, Europe’s rarest breeding seabird, on Coquet Island.
  • Three webcams now installed on Coquet Island provide a window into the life of roseate terns and puffins.

In 2019 there was a record-breaking 122 breeding pairs of roseate terns, Europe’s rarest breeding seabird, on Coquet Island. The previous record was 118 pairs in 2018.

Roseate terns almost went in extinct back in the 19th century because of the demand for their feathers in ladies’ hats. In 1989 there were still only 467 pairs across the whole of the UK, and Coquet Island has become one of the key sites for helping populations to recover.

Since taking over management of the Island in 1970, the RSPB has used a wide range of methods to bolster roseate tern numbers: installing nest boxes, trialling new techniques such as gull-scarers and ‘aerolasers’ to deter other birds, and building up lost habitat, to name a few.

Paul Morrison, RSPB Northumberland Coast Site Manager, said: “When I first started working on Coquet Island 35 years ago, I could walk over most of the Island without seeing a roseate tern. Now it’s a joy to hear their noisy chatter every time I step out of the lighthouse!

“There’s always a lot more work to do, and roseate terns still face a long uphill battle – but every year I feel more and more optimistic that with the help of our incredible volunteers and members, roseate terns will one day become a common sight around the UK coastline. In the meantime, please do check out the live webcams to see roseate terns strut their stuff on their ‘terrace’ or settle into a nest box – or look out for our puffin ‘runway’!”

Please visit www.rspb.org.uk/coquetisland to see the web cameras. The web cameras, and much of the roseate tern conservation work, has been made possible through the EU funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project. The LIFE Project (www.roseatetern.org) is a partnership between the RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland and North Wales Wildlife Trust focused on protecting the remaining three colonies in the British Isles and restoring five historical sites for future recolonization.

The RSPB is also asking for people to submit their own archived images of puffins as part of their citizen science project, Puffarazzi – please visit http://www.rspb.org.uk/projectpuffinUK to see how your photos could help protect these iconic clowns of the sea.

Bring the outdoors to your living room with RSPB Zoom backgrounds!

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One of the free Zoom backgrounds © Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

The RSPB has released 15 free images of its nature reserves for people to use as Zoom backgrounds! Covering everything from lighthouses to lakes across all four countries, there’s something for everyone.

Once downloaded, you can share a screengrab with the hashtag #NaturePhotoBomb to celebrate nature and the outdoors – even if you have to stay at home.

Nic Scothern, RSPB’s Deputy Director – Engagement, said: “Over the last few weeks many of us have had limited or no access to the outdoors, making the outdoors more precious to us than ever. By sharing these beautiful images, we hope to give people a way to make nature part of their virtual social life and recreate some of that sense of peace that comes from a natural setting.

“Are you settling in for a team meeting? Try out an awe-inspiring snow-capped Ben Griam! Or if you’re about to sit down for a virtual tea with your parents, why not bask in the peaceful glow of mist rising off the reedbed at Minsmere? Let us know what you come up with using the hashtag #NaturePhotoBomb, and we look forward to welcoming you to the Reserves in person once they reopen.”

This weekend, wake up to the symphony of the Dawn Chorus!

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Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
  • Sunday 3rd May is International Dawn Chorus Day – a day to celebrate the early morning swell of birdsong!
  • In this unprecedented time when many of us have limited access to the outdoors, you only need to open your window to enjoy this natural phenomenon.
  • 40 million birds have disappeared from the UK since 1970, but there are many ways you can help, from providing some water to putting up a bird feeder.

This Sunday, 3rd May is International Dawn Chorus Day! While early morning bird song continues through to June, this day is a wonderful reminder to celebrate the daily treat of a birdsong choir. Starting about an hour before sunrise (around 4:30am) birds take advantage of the still, quiet air to trumpet, squeak and caw to attract a mate or warn off rivals from their territory. Don’t worry if that’s a bit early for you, though – they often continue singing until about 7am so you can catch their final encore.

Many of us have limited or no access to the outdoors right now, so it’s the perfect time to throw open your windows and let the birdsong in. Even if you don’t have a garden, you will still be able to enjoy the majesty of this natural alarm clock, especially with the current reduction in noise pollution. You may even be able to hear spring migrants who have flown across continents to get to the UK – swifts and swallows often travel all the way from Africa!

These are some of the birds you may be able to hear as part of your local dawn chorus:

  1. Blackcap – a warbling verse
  2. Dunnock – fast and squeaky bursts
  3. Robin – short, laid-back verses with a ‘liquid’ quality
  4. Song thrush – rich and confident calls
  5. Willow warbler – a soft, gentle whistle
  6. Wren – packed, bold and loud
  7. Chiffchaff – helpfully sounds like ‘chiff chaff’
  8. Skylark – a pleasant burble sometimes minutes long
  9. Great tit – a two-note ‘tee-cher tee-cher’ call
  10. Woodpigeon – a wonderfully recognisable ‘coo’ call
  11. Cuckoo – the males’ recognisable ‘cuck-oo’
  12. Nightingale – high, low and rich notes

Sadly, bird populations in the UK are declining, and many of the birds who lend their song to the Dawn Chorus are struggling. For example, cuckoos have declined by 65% since the 1980s, while in the last 60 years the sweet song of the nightingale has seen a 90% reduction.

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help – there’s a whole list on the RSPB website, including putting out suitable food scraps, hanging bird boxes or even making a bird bath from an upturned bin lid!

Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB, says: “Waking up to the glory of the dawn chorus is one of the most uplifting parts of spring, particularly at this uncertain time. The alarm clock choir of robins, wrens, blackbirds, song thrushes and our other brilliant birds is utterly inspirational and a reminder of how nature can lift our spirits. So many people are taking solace from it.

“But while the impact of the current lockdown means that many of us are hearing birdsong more loudly than ever before, we must remember that 40 million birds have been lost from UK skies in just 50 years – and we all have a part to play in saving this wonder for future generations. Let’s look after our birds as much as they are helping us.”

There are a whole range of ways you can help, so please head to the RSPB website (www.rspb.org.uk) for some inspiration. Or join in our celebration of the Dawn Chorus on social media, using the hashtag #DawnChorusDay.

Twitter – @Natures_Voice | Facebook – @RSPBLoveNature | Instagram – @rspb_love_nature

To find out more, please visit www.rspb.org.uk/dawnchorus

British Cuckoo completes 22,000 mile odyssey in record time.

Sadly my sponsored cuckoo Raymond didn’t make it beyond August 2019 so it’s good to read that Carlton II has arrived back in the UK.

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Cuckoo by Steve Ashton

A Cuckoo called Carlton II has just arrived back in England having spent the last ten months travelling to and from the Congo rainforest, becoming the first of the BTO’s satellite-tracked cuckoos to return to this country in 2020. 

Aided by favourable southerly winds, he completed the last leg of his mammoth journey in record time, Ivory Coast to southern England in seven days. In doing so, he leap-frogged two other tracked cuckoos, named PJ and Senan, currently stopping over in Spain and North Africa respectively.

Carlton II was fitted with a high-tech satellite tag in May 2018, by scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology at SWT Carlton Marshes, Suffolk, to allow them to follow his every move. We have lost almost three-quarters of our breeding Cuckoos during the last 25 years and, as Cuckoos spend more time outside of the UK that they do in it, it is vital to understand where they go, the journey they take to get there, and any pressures they face that might be contributing to their decline.

Carlton II spends the summers in Suffolk and the winters in Gabon, Central Africa, and travels over 5,500 miles between the two, dodging many hazards, such as high winds, sand and hailstorms, ferocious thunderstorms, drought and lengthy sea-crossings. Since having his tag fitted Carlton II has flown over 22,000 miles on his migration.

Dr Chris Hewson, BTO lead scientist on the project, “It is great to see Carlton II getting back to the UK so quickly. Taking just a week to cover more than three thousand miles from Liberia to Berkshire is an awesome feat and something even  swifts don’t manage. This shows us just how quickly these harbingers of spring can get here from tropical Africa when conditions for their journey are good It’s a journey so full of hazards that it’s always a relief when they get back,  no matter how fast or slow. These Cuckoos have taught us so much about their lives, giving answers but also raising more questions as to what might be behind their decline.”
Anyone can watch the Cuckoos as they make their incredible journeys at www.bto.org/cuckoos

UK Crane population reaches its highest level for over 400 years

We are all in need of some good news so today’s press release from the RSPB is very welcomed.

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Common Crane [Grus grus] confirmed breeding of at least one pair at Lakenheath Fen RSPB reserve. Suffolk, England. 17th May 2007. Possibly for the first time in 400 years!
© Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
  • Latest common crane survey reveals a record-breaking 56 pairs of cranes in 2019, bringing the total population to an estimated 200 birds.
  • Cranes became extinct in the UK around four hundred years ago but following the natural recolonisation of a few birds and extensive conservation work, including a reintroduction programme, these graceful birds are making a return.
  • Cranes are the tallest bird in the UK, standing at 4ft. They are fabled for their dances; complex displays with bows, pirouettes and bobs, which take place every year between the male and female.

The crane was lost from the UK for nearly 400 years, but thanks to conservation efforts their population numbers have once again hit record levels.

These birds, the tallest in the UK at 4ft, used to be quite common. They were even frequent fixtures at medieval feasts – Henry II’s chefs cooked up 115 of them at his Christmas feast in 1251, but a combination of hunting and wetland decline led to their extinction in the 1600s.

In 1979, a small number of wild cranes returned to Norfolk and conservation groups have been working together to encourage more and more of these birds.  They have now spread to other areas of the UK, benefitting from improved habitat such as at the RSPB’s Lakenheath and Nene Washes reserves as well as Natural England’s Humberhead Peatlands. Cranes recolonised Scotland in 2012 and Wales in 2016.

In 2010, the Great Crane Project – a partnership between the RSPB, WWT and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and funded by Viridor Credits Environmental Company – joined the movement. The project creates and improves existing habitat, as well as hand-rearing young birds for release on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

All the conservation effort has yielded impressive results, with 56 pairs across the UK last year.  Of these, up to 47 pairs attempted to breed and they raised 26 chicks. The total population is now believed to be over 200 birds – a new record.

Damon Bridge, Chair of the UK Crane Working Group said: “The increase of cranes over the last few years shows just how resilient nature can be when given the chance. With the support of our wonderful partners, we’ve been able to recreate more and more of the cranes’ natural habitat, giving them a place to recuperate after the winter and raise their chicks. They are not yet out of the woods, but their continued population climb year after year is a very positive sign.”

Andrew Stanbury, RSPB Conservation Scientist said: “Thanks to the dedication of individuals, the UK Crane Working Group and conservation organisations, we are delighted to see crane numbers continuing to recover. Nature reserves have played a vital role. At least 85% of the breeding population are found on protected sites, with a third on RSPB reserves alone”.

Dr Geoff Hilton, WWT’s Head of Conservation Evidence said: “The reintroduction of lost species must be supported with good habitat management and protection for the recovery to work. The success of the crane project to date demonstrates what can be achieved in a short space of time by giving nature a helping hand. We also must thank dedicated land managers and farmers in the area for supporting crane conservation.”

Chrissie Kelley, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust’s Head of Species Management said: “’As partners in the GCP, and with a long association working with Eurasian Cranes, we are thrilled to see wild cranes doing so well. Seeing these birds in flight is breath-taking and we have regular sightings of them over our reserve in Norfolk. We hope soon to spot one of the released birds amongst those that visit Pensthorpe.”

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Common or Eurasian crane chick [Grus grus] three-week-old captive-reared chick, WWT, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, July
© Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)