Archive for July, 2015

Going through photos from the trip my family, friends and I took to Ireland last month, combined with telling people about the trip and general reminiscing, has gotten me thinking about a few different aspects of Ireland. One of the big ones that has been on my mind was the low numbers of raptors I saw. Over the course of the entire 10 day trip, I was a total of 2 Common Buzzards, 1 Eurasian Kestrel and 1 Eurasian Sparrowhawk. That was it! My brother and I talked about this and he added that on other trips to Great Britain that he has taken, the overall raptors numbers were always much smaller than he expected. Where were all the raptors?

Well, I got to reading and found out that what I saw in Ireland was pretty typical. There are very low population numbers of raptors on the emerald isle, and this is mostly because of humans. Over the past several hundred years, humans have persecuted raptors extensively. During the 1700s and 1800s raptors were killed in Ireland (and many other parts of the world) for sport and because it was thought that they preyed upon domestic chickens and ducks. This resulted in a massive reduction in all species of raptor that occurred on the island and outright extirpation of four species. None of the species of bird of prey (diurnal or nocturnal) have rebounded completely, and there is little public support for birds of prey.

Several groups are currently monitoring raptors of Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service is the government branch in charge of designating important habitat for protection and monitoring bird populations. In Northern Ireland, the corollary governmental organization is the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Additionally, there are four non-governmental organizations that are working on raptors in Ireland. The Irish Raptor Study Group (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Irish-Raptor-Study-Group/345679678896374?sk=info&tab=page_info) is an all volunteer organization that is working on raptor monitoring and conservation in the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (http://www.nirsg.com/) is a similar, all volunteer organization that works in Northern Ireland to monitor raptor populations. The Golden Eagle Trust (http://www.goldeneagletrust.org/) has lead reintroduction programs for Golden Eagles, White-tailed Eagles, and Red Kites to Ireland where they once were native. BirdWatch Ireland (http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/), which is the Irish branch of BirdLife International, is dedicated to the conservation of all birds and launched the Raptor Conservation Project a few years ago in Ireland.

And significant human caused treats still exist. Poisoning of rodents, and the resulting poisoning of raptors, is still a major problem in Ireland (as it is also here in California, for that matter). large numbers of raptors die every year due to exposure to toxic chemicals from eating poisoned prey animals. The organization BirdWatch Ireland is currently working on a project to monitor raptor populations, educate the public of the benefits of raptors in ecosystems, and outlawing and prosecuting poisoning of raptors. Learn more about them at: http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Ourwork/WingandaPrayerRaptorAppeal/tabid/1204/Default.aspx

It is impressive to me how much the state of birds of prey in Ireland are similar to the state of birds of prey in the USA maybe 50 years ago. Now we in the USA have much stronger regulations protecting the raptors that live here, a very broad base of research and monitoring across the continent, and broad public support for raptors as amazing creatures that should not be targeted. It will be interesting to see if Ireland is able to follow a similar path. Hopefully, they will do so faster than we did, and protect their birds of prey quickly.

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My recent trip to Ireland brought me a bunch of lifers, 34 in total! To the non-birders reading this, a ‘lifer’ is the first time you see a particular species, thereby allowing that species to be added to your life list. Getting so many was pretty darn terrific, and it made me realize that there are many lifers still to be had in the US. Now, I am not supper obsessed with adding to my life list. Some people are all about getting the next species added to their list, and then it is off the next one and the next one after that. This style of birding has never really appealed to me. I really enjoy spending time with a bird and getting to know it in more detail than is possible from only a first impression. But, that having been said, seeing something new is pretty exciting. So, when I read on a local bird list that several Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) had been sighted not far from my house, I decided to go and have a look. Grasshopper Sparrows are a bit of a nemesis bird for me. They are not particularly rare in central California where they breed in small numbers out in grassy and weedy agricultural fields. But, while I have spent lots of time in such habitats, I have never seen or heard one. So, with some detailed location notes in hand, I drove into the agricultural land south of Davis, CA one Tuesday morning to see what I could see. Once I reached a particular stack of hay bales, I parked the car and got out to walk along the county road I had driven down.

That morning was a really pretty one in the lands south of Davis. There was an almost complete cloud cover except to the west where the trailing edge of a weather system was leaving the sky open and clear. A moderate breeze was blowing, as it almost always does out in the wide open fields and pastures. The birding was pretty nice as well. As I walked down the road, I passed a partially mowed hay field on one side and the field on the other was flooded with just a few inches of water. The combination of grassland and water made for a nice diversity of birds, even though I was only there for half an hour.

As soon as I stepped from my car, I heard the hoarse call of a Ring-necked Pheasant. Western Meadowlarks were singing all around. A flock of some 90 Red-winged Blackbirds were foraging in the grasses above the water line in the flooded field. In the areas of slightly deeper water were a pair of Great Egrets and one female Mallard. I was pleasantly surprised to see 4 Wilson’s Phalaropes swimming in tight circles in one corner of the flooded area. Overhead, small groups of Long-billed Curlew, impressively big for members of the sandpiper family, were flying from west to east going to find breakfast. And, as I stood and listened to the wind, I heard the double tick and high trill of a Grasshopper Sparrow! I heard one on each side of the road, and then another one farther down on one side. As I searched the grasses for the bird, I saw one take off and land on a barbed wire fence and sing, right in front of me! It was quickly joined by another Grasshopper Sparrow and then yet another! The second and third birds were young ones coming to beg food from the first adult bird. And there was still a bird singing somewhere on the opposite side of the road for a total of at least four Grasshopper Sparrows! The three stayed in front of me for a while, moving from fence to ground to grassy tuft before moving farther into the field and disappearing in the grasses. I was not able to stay much longer, but as I walked back to my car, I could still hear the occasional double tick and trill song drifting to me across the breeze.

Getting to see these birds was a real treat for me, and I am definitely going to make a point of seeing some of the other North American species that I have never, quite crossed paths with. I think Sage Sparrow, another nemesis bird, will be one I will work on this summer.

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