Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Siberian Accentor Influx

Siberian Accentor Easington
Copyright Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig

Sometimes strange things happen with birds. 

On Sunday 9 October 2016 a Siberian Accentor turned up in a quarry on Shetland, a “First” for Britain. They are extremely rare in Western Europe, and had come all the way from Northern Siberia and the Urals or its wintering grounds in South East Asia. 

Every single twitcher around the country was in what was practically physical pain. This was as a result of a combination of it being a “First” for Britain, hard to see even in its native habitat and they were not able to get to Shetland to see it. I was included in the they. I had various commitments; such as school that I wasn’t able to miss and it was a long way from Somerset to Shetland. In the end we braced ourselves for the situation and decided we’d just have to learn to live with it. However, it stayed for only two days and was gone before many twitchers could get up there.

However, there was a tiny bit of hope, a mini influx of Siberian Accentor had turned into a mass influx with around 80 arriving into Western Europe during the next few days.

Then as we had been praying for, another one turned up on Thursday 13th October 2016 in Easington near Spurn, East Yorkshire. A Second for Britain.

People couldn’t believe their ears, but the disbelief didn’t last long and almost everyone made their way as soon as they could. Unfortunately for me, I still had the pesky obligation of school. I was sitting at home that evening seeing everyone’s photos on social media. Eventually it got too much for dad, and mum and I sent him up on the Friday before he actually imploded. One parent had to stay home with me, though, as they couldn’t just leave me for a cross country road trip (as much as they probably wanted to), and so Mum decided to be the bigger person and stayed behind. Dad came home that evening on cloud nine, but wisely didn’t gloat.

The next day, Saturday, I had AONB Mendip Hills Young Rangers, which I can’t miss. I get a John Muir Gold Conservation Award at the end, but only if I don’t miss sessions. Dad didn’t mind too much, but mum certainly wasn’t happy. I had a great time finding out about ancient lead mines but I had an underlying sense of stress. Was the bird going to stay for just one more day?

Then came news of another Siberian Accentor near Teeside, a third for Britain. This one was being hard to see and not out first choice to try for.

Finally, Sunday morning, we left the house at 5.30 am. The entire drive up, the stress was almost palpable. During a trip to the Amazon in Peru, one evening Mum missed a bird that was new for us that Dad and I saw. She was not happy and it was somehow Dad’s fault (for not giving better directions). The next day, we went back to the same spot and Mum this time managed to see the bird well. Our bird guide, Gunnar Engblom exclaimed with relief that the “Craig Family Harmony Index” had been restored! So the phrase was coined. Right now, there was a high risk of the Craig Family Harmony Index remaining fairly un-harmonious. Dad wasn’t stupid and so wanted us to see the bird just as much as Mum and I. Otherwise a few years down the line Mum would have no recollection of agreeing to him going without her.

When I woke up a few hours later we had arrived, and it was raining. It was fine until we were out the car and it was like a switch had been flicked and suddenly it went from drizzle to torrential rain. That would have been fine as well, except when we got to where the bird had been seen that morning and discovered that we had missed the Siberian Accentor by 5 minutes. For over an hour we waited in this pouring rain, when finally someone started yelling for their mate to come over. There was a lot of confusion; did he just want to have a chat with his friend, or had he seen the bird and forgotten to tell everyone else? Everyone started frantically looking around and then we saw it!

It was a terrible view, my bins were foggy from the rain, rain was making everything harder and there was a large fence in my way. Besides all this, I was ecstatic. But, 10 minutes later, I managed to see it again! This time it was a bit better. Siberian Accentor basically looks like a Dunnock with a stripey head and not hard to identify.

After twenty minutes the bird disappeared again and so after a while we decided we should probably get back in the car before the rain completely soaked through our coats. 

We then went to Spurn to see a Shorelark and bumped into our good friend Ruth Peacey. She had been thinking of going to Cornwall for a Red-eyed Vireo but my message last night telling her she was insane had swayed her to make the sensible decision. There is only one rule of twitching, always go to see the rarest bird that is least likely to turn up again, asap! We then all got soaked looking for the Shorelark on the beach. At this point we had enough and we retreated to the car. Eventually the rain stopped and we jumped out of the car to join people watching the Shorelark just a few metres away. I took loads of photos of it and enjoyed the close views. 

Shorelark, Spurn
Copyright Mya-Rose Craig

We birded around in that area for a while, but then decided to try our luck with the Accentor again to see if we could get better views.

When we got back to the site, it was sunny. The bird, again, had been seen just a few minutes before we arrived. But after a few more minutes of patient waiting, it flew out into the open a couple metres away. We got amazingly views in brilliant weather conditions and we all took lots and lots of photos.

So far, in the last few weeks just under 150 Siberian Accentor have turned up in Western Europe including a total of eight in Britain, 53 in Sweden, 44 in Finland and 9 in Denmark but nobody knows what has caused the influx. Some really good friends Rob and Lucy were on the Isles of Scilly and so missed the birds. Just hoping for another one for them!

About the Author

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig at Antartica
Photography copyright Mya-Rose Craig

Mya-Rose Craig is a 14 year old young British Bangladesh birder, naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, activist, writer and speaker. She is based near Bristol and writes the successful Birdgirl Blog, with posts about birding and conservation from around the world. She loved seeing Mountain Gorillas in East Africa and Penguins in Antarctica over Christmas 2015, her 7th continent.

Mya-Rose was a Bristol European Green Capital Ambassador along with Kevin McCloud, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Tony Juniper, Simon King, Miranda Krestovnikoff and Shaun the Sheep! See the full list of Bristol Ambassadors. She has also been listed with the singer songwriter George Ezra and actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones as one of Bristol's most influential young people. Please like her Birdgirl Facebook Page and follow her on Birdgirl Twitter

Sunday, 18 September 2016

What are we going to do about the State of Nature?

Last Wednesday, 14th September 2016, it was the launch of the State of Nature Report 2016 (http://bit.ly/2cSjVNR) at The Royal Society in London (the first report came out in 2013 and revealed a severe loss of nature occurring in the UK since the 1960's). It is a report assessing the situation of 4000 species in the UK over the last 50 years and into the future with input from 53 diverse conservation organisations. Based on the assessment of 8000 species, the report scientifically proves that 15% of our native species are extinct or threatened with extinction and 53% are in decline. The evidence also suggests that the UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average and that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. I find this the most shocking statement in the report. I would be interested to know who else we are grouped with, China perhaps?

I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch by Gill Perkins, the CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The highlight was listening to Sir David Attenborough speak and also meeting him, which was a dream come true. It was somehow appropriate for the youngest person there to be meeting the oldest person. 

Sir David Attenborough at the State of Nature Report Launch 

Sir David Attenborough at the State of Nature Report Launch 

Sir David Attenborough wrote the forward to the report and also the one in 2013.  In 2013 he reminded us about the wonder of the nature around us in Britain and our territories and how all was not well with our nature but that:

“This important document provides a stark warning: far more species are declining than increasing in the UK, including many of our most treasured species. Alarmingly, a large number of them are threatened with extinction. The causes are varied, but most are ultimately due to the way we are using our land and seas and their natural resources, often with little regard for the wildlife with which we share them. The impact on plants and animals has been profound."
Now in 2016 he wrote: 

"The news, however, is mixed. Escalating pressures, such as climate change and modern land management, mean that we continue to lose the precious wildlife that enriches our lives and is essential to the health and well-being of those who live in the UK, and also in its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before. 

But the State of Nature 2016 report gives us cause for hope too. The rallying call issued in 2013 has been met with a myriad of exciting and innovative conservation projects. Landscapes are being restored, special places defended, and struggling species are being saved and brought back. 

Such successes demonstrate that if conservationists, governments, businesses and individuals all pull together, we can provide a brighter future for nature and for people."

We were welcomed by Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB on behalf of the State of Nature Partnership before Sir David Attenborough spoke and reminded us that the most valuable thing we have in the UK is our natural environment, which it was in serious trouble and needed our help as never before. He hoped that post Brexit would lead to an opportunity for legislation tailored to the needs of British wildlife. After reminding us of the dire state of the UK’s wildlife, he inspiring us with what could be done, with determination from all sides including the government and the farming industry.

Young birder Mya-Rose Craig meeting Sir David Attenborough at
the State of Nature Report Launch, London 

Young birder Mya-Rose Craig sharing a joke with Sir David Attenborough 
at the State of Nature Report Launch, London 

Next we heard from Dr Trevor Dines, Botanical Specialist, Plantlife, who was hugely inspiring. He reminded us of Matt Damon in the film "The Martian" with his #Iamabotanist and how we can all use this hashtag. Dr Dines told us about how bluebell, buttercup and conker had all been removed from the Junior Oxford English Dictionary and how we need to teach our children about nature. He urged us to take children within our families and friends outside into nature. 

As I looked around the room, almost everyone in it was a white top conservationist (apart from me on both counts!), and reminded me how important it was that we engage all of society in nature. If we fail to do this, then we just have the same people talking to each other about what we need to do to save our nature. If we are to succeed in saving our wildlife, we must have the whole country behind us, including ethnic minority and young people, as we can not save our wildlife alone. 

The report does have a section on connecting children with nature but disappointingly didn't mention the February Natural England Commissioned Report  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/monitor-of-engagement-with-the-natural-environment-pilot-study-visits-to-the-natural-environment-by-children and it's findings on the disparity between white and ethnic minority children in how often they are taken into a green space (Our report summary is at https://1drv.ms/w/s!AlHI1zymOkP6lQr03gg7aWi4x_7n). Once again, the image in the report was of a white child in the countryside. Maybe an image of a mixed group of children playing in a city reserve would have been more representative. I know that many organisations like Avon Wildlife Trust and the RSPB have been doing some great work in Bristol in engaging children of all ethnicity.

In terms of engaging children, this is something that I have tried to tackle though blogging, workshops and when I spoke at the Science Teachers’ and Geography Teachers’ Conferences earlier in the year. However, ironically, it's Pokemon Go that seems to have had the biggest impact on otherwise indoor dwelling teenagers.

In June, I organised the Race Equality in Nature Conference trying to establish why we weren't getting ethnic minority people out into nature and what we should be doing to make change (Conference Report and documentation links -https://1drv.ms/f/s!AlHI1zymOkP6lFciU1tQX0r56Nmn, https://1drv.ms/f/s!AlHI1zymOkP6lFUbVyvJ1OfT1c5r, https://1drv.ms/f/s!AlHI1zymOkP6lHO2pVQbVZxh3mn3. 
Otherwise, we just have the same people talking to each other and trying to make change alone. We need the people of our country on the streets protesting about the reduction of conservation funding and loss of our Bumblebees because of pesticides.

The State of Nature Report produced quantitative data for 3,816 species, of which, over the long term 56% have declined and 44% have declined strongly or moderately. Over the short term 53% have declined and 41% have declined strongly or moderately. A lot of work is still needed to increase out knowledge. The report states that the biggest threat to our wildlife species is from the intensification of agriculture and climate change. I would add that the 32% reduction in government conservation funding since 2008 is having a dire impact. With our exit from the EU, the funding situation may well get worse as well as the impact from farming, unless nature is not prioritised.

Andrea Leadsom MP, the Secretary for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) spoke next. I thought she was was not being honest about her plans and was wholly unimpressive. I felt that she talked a lot about what the government was already doing but then giving us a huge amount of spin with no actual commitments for the future. How are you going to do achieve any of these things? Why didn't you think of some commitments and promises before you came to speak? Maybe she would have had more to say on extending the badger cull and repealing the Hunting with Dogs Act (without scientific basis). Here are some of her bland statements:

“It is my ambition and it’s my department’s vision to be the first generation to leave our environment better than we found it since the industrial revolution.

But with three quarters of our landmass farmed, how we manage our farmland is key to tackling the challenges we see in this report. We must now continue to work with farmers and environmental organisations, learning from their experience and their expertise, to secure further improvements to our habitats and wildlife.

And as many of you know, we want to develop an ambitious 25 year plan for the environment - far longer than most of the political timescales that we see. We want a truly long term vision that builds on some of these successes and sets the direction for future policy. To help build our 25 year plan, we will soon publish a framework setting out a new game-changing approach to managing the environment in to the future.

Following our decision to leave the EU, we now have a unique opportunity to develop a set of policies tailored to the needs of the UK, our species and our habitats. We have the opportunity to look again at the ways we work with farmers and landowners to improve our environment. Natural capital will lie at the heart of this and I was pleased to see it was given such prominence in your report. We have truly ambitious plans to transform our approach to the environment and we now have a new opportunity to do just that. But it is only through working together that we can make sure our environment is protected and improved for generations to come.”

Keith Taylor, Green MEP, highlighted the issues with Andrea Leadsom’s speech extremely well:

"I'm pleased to hear that Defra has a plan for the future of Britain's wildlife. I'm just disappointed that Andrea Leadsom didn't think that we should be party to exactly what that plan entails. Unfortunately, rather than being a well-developed, but unfathomably secret, proposal to safeguard the UK's precious wildlife, I rather fear that like 'Brexit means Brexit', an ambitious plan means an ambitious plan. The 'new opportunity' the former Leave campaigner is, no doubt, referring to is Britain's upcoming divorce from the EU. With that in mind, I would like to take the opportunity to remind Andrea Leadsom why, without EU nature laws, the scale of wildlife decline uncovered in the State of Nature report would have been far greater.

British conservation efforts have benefited from the largest single body of environmental legislation in the world. In fact, the EU is responsible for about 80% of all environmental laws in the UK. These laws are driving positive conservation action. Protected wildlife sites were being lost at a rate of 15% a year before EU action; now that rate has fallen to just 1% a year. Wildlife and environmental issues were sidelined during the referendum campaign, but we cannot allow leaving the EU to be an excuse to erode the vital safeguards Leave campaigners like Andrea, maligned as ‘red tape’. As Greens, we are calling on the Government to commit to maintaining and strengthening current EU environmental protections.”

Funnily enough, Andrea Leadsom had a change of plans and was not able to answer any questions. Whilst natural capital has it's limited place, it does not replace the government's huge funding cut in conservation spending.

We then had a second panel discussion, answering questions. The panel was chaired by Sue Armstrong Brown, Policy Director, Green Alliance and made up of Tim Breitmeyer, Country, Land and Business Association (CLA); Dame Helen Ghosh, National Trust; Nick Laken, Kingfisher Plc (B & Q), Orlagh McLaughlin, Northern Island Young Campaigners and Lolo Williams, Conservationist from Springwatch.

Lolo Williams started by calling the government the worst for wildlife and nature in his lifetime and pointed to no promises made by Andrea Leadsom at all in her speech.

Young Birder Mya-Rose Craig with Lolo Willams 

We also heard from Tim Breitmeyer (CLA), representing farmers who said that farmers wanted to work with conservationists in partnership. The panel discussion was extremely positive in this area. However an area that I disagreed was the idea that intensive farming was over. This fails to acknowledge the use of extremely poisonous insecticides and herbicides, wiping out our pollinators. 

On the other hand, the NFU responded on the BBC in a typically unhelpful way, refusing to accept the findings of the report (making statements that were not based on facts and unsupported by scientific), enlisting the help of their friends at The Daily Mail and deliberating launching their “Back to British” campaign on the same day. If you care about wildlife, why would you launch your own campaign on the same day? There were some on social media who seemed to be saying that criticising the NFU was not acceptable, but I don’t agree. It is for us as conservationists to explain the impact of agricultural methods on our wildlife using science based evidence and then to reach out to farmers to continue working in partnership with us to make change for the future. However, if those representing farmers say “no, what your saying is a load of rubbish and really wildlife is doing better not worse and so we don’t need to make changes or work with you” then we need to highlight this and try to persuade farmers that those representing them are not being helpful to them and are showing a real disregard for our wildlife. 

I am surrounded by dairy farmers where I live and I know that most do care about wildlife. One local dairy farmer (and my neighbour) is already working with Avon Wildlife Trust to create wildflower corridors for pollinators. Many farmers have been working hard to help nature, this kind of action needs to be publicised, thanked, supported and financially rewarded to encourage more projects working in partnership. Are the government going to increase their funding of conservation, to financially reward farmers?

Climate change is having an increasing impact on nature in the UK, driving range expansion in some species. We should act to save nature both for its intrinsic value and for the benefits it brings to us that are essential to our well-being and prosperity (such as pollinators).

The report confirmed that we have had significant losses of habitat over the last 100 years leading to the loss of species that need specialist habitat:

  • Of farmland species, 52% have declined and 12% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of grassland and heathland species, 60% have declined and 13% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of  upland species, 55% have declined and 15% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of woodland species, 53% have decreased and 15% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of coastal species, 58% have declined and 15% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of freshwater and wetland species, 53% have declined and 13% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of urban species, 47% have declined and 7% are threatened with extinction;
  • Of the 8,500 marine species, 38% have declined.

The positive message from the report is that the success stories show that with shared determination we are able to save our natural world.

I would urge the 53 conservation organisation who contributed to this report to focus on engaging the whole of our society in nature. If our voting population care about saving our wildlife, it follows that our politicians will start taking action rather than just talking, as will our farmers through financial pressure from the supermarkets and ultimately consumer.  I am completely in awe of 14 year old Lucy Gavaghan, who has managed to persuade British supermarkets to abandon eggs from caged hens.  Maybe we can do the same with bee killing pesticides?

Young Birder Mya-Rose Craig with members of young conservation group, A Focus on Nature
(AFON) Megan Shersby, Matt Collis and Tiffany Francis 

The report was produced by a new partnership of 53 organisations involved in the recording, researching and conservation of nature in the UK and its Overseas Territories. These include a wide spectrum of conservation charities:

A Focus On Nature afocusonnature.org 
A Rocha arocha.org.uk 
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) arc-trust.org Association of Local Environmental Records Centres (ALERC) alerc.org.uk 
Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) bats.org.uk 
Biological Records Centre (BRC) brc.ac.uk 
Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland bsbi.org 
British Bryological Society (BBS) britishbryologicalsociety.org.uk 
British Dragonfly Society (BDS) british-dragonflies.org.uk British Lichen Society britishlichensociety.org.uk 
British Pteridological Society (BPS) ebps.org.uk 
British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) bto.org 
Buglife buglife.org.uk 
Bumblebee Conservation Trust bumblebeeconservation.org Butterfly Conservation butterfly-conservation.org
Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) ceh.ac.uk 
Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) cieem.net 
Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland conchsoc.org 
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Durrell) durrell.org Earthwatch eu.earthwatch.org 
Freshwater Habitats Trust freshwaterhabitats.org.uk 
Friends of the Earth foe.co.uk 
Froglife froglife.org 
Fungus Conservation Trust abfg.org 
iSpot ispotnature.org 
Jersey Government Department of the Environment gov.je/Government/Departments/PlanningEnvironment Mammal Society mammal.org.uk 
Manx BirdLife manxbirdlife.im 
Marine Biological Association (MBA) mba.ac.uk 
MARINELife marine-life.org.uk
Marine Conservation Society mcsuk.org 

Marine Ecosystems Research Programme 
National Biodiversity Network (NBN) data.nbn.org.uk National Forum for Biological Recording nfbr.org.uk 
National Trust nationaltrust.org.uk 
Natural History Museum nhm.ac.uk 
ORCA orcaweb.org.uk 
People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) ptes.org Plantlife plantlife.org.uk 
PREDICTS predicts.org.uk 
Rothamsted Research rothamsted.ac.uk 
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) rspb.org.uk Shark Trust sharktrust.org 
States of Guernsey gov.gg 
Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS) sahfos.ac.uk 
University of Sheffield sheffield.ac.uk 
Vincent Wildlife Trust vwt.org.uk 
Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) uk.whales.org
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) www.wwt.org.uk
Wildlife Trusts www.wildlifetrusts.org
Woodland Trust woodlandtrust.org.uk 

WWF wwf.org.uk 
Zoological Society of London (ZSL) zsl.org

About the Writer

Young Birder Birdgirl Mya-Rose CraigPhotograph taken by and copyright Chris Craig 

Mya-Rose Craig is a 14 year old young British Bangladeshi birder, naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, activist, writer and speaker. She is based near Bristol and writes the successful Birdgirl Blog, with posts about birding and conservation from around the world. She loved seeing Mountain Gorillas in East Africa and Penguins in Antarctica over Christmas 2015, her 7th continent.

Mya-Rose was a Bristol European Green Capital Ambassador along with Kevin McCloud, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Tony Juniper, Simon King, Miranda Krestovnikoff and Shaun the Sheep! See the full list of Bristol Ambassadors. She has also been listed with the singer songwriter George Ezra and actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones as one of Bristol's most influential young people. Please like her Birdgirl Facebook Page and follow her on Birdgirl Twitter