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Ashol-Pan, Kazakh's first trainee female Eagle Hunter in 2000 years (c) Asher Vidensky

Ashol-Pan, Kazakh’s first trainee female Eagle Hunter in 2000 years (c) Asher Vidensky from

A very dear friend of mine was recently bought a lesson at the Hawk Conservancy for her birthday. She is a big fan of birds of prey, especially the kestrel she sees on her daily walk with the dog, but i think the lesson transformed her. Into what remains to be seen! I could definitely see her working with birds of prey but she need to do the Lantra Award in Bird of Prey Management and Husbandry. I  remind her that I made the leap from Care Worker into the environment sector- although i had formal qualifications it was the volunteering and building up skills slowly that really mattered in breaking through, not the MSc.

This morning i can’t shake an image out of my head and I finally remembered why; a story on the BBC back in April of the first female trainee Eagle Hunter in the Altai Mountains for 2000 years. I looked up the story again and every time I’m blown away by the images.

As I write this I recall a conversation with my Father on Christmas Day. I was stunned to hear he had been to see the Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies while visiting my brother before Christmas. Not so strange you might say, but there is history of course. Dad can’t do sci-fi or fantasy that well, so this was a bit of a surprise. Then he recounted the story which I had heard a few times before of the picture he drew as a boy of an eagle standing on a rocky precipice. I reminded him of the picture in my 1974 Tolkien Calendar of Gwaihir the Windlord and Bilbo Baggins and we still haven’t got to the bottom of which came first the picture in the calendar or the memory of the drawing!

Gwaihir and Bilbo

Gwaihir and Bilbo

And of late as I pass below the chalk escarpment of the Surrey Hills near the Mole Gap on my way home to Dorking via Guildford, I’ve regularly spotted two red kites drifting laconically over the fields and hedgerows below The Wotton Hatch. I have seen soiltary birds before down this way but never a pair. I couldn’t be sure if they were mates, but I hope so.

Red Kite (c) ANDALUCIA PLUS IMAGE BANK / ALAMY from

Red Kite (c) ANDALUCIA PLUS IMAGE BANK / ALAMY

I’m sure there’s some psychological resonances going on here: a return to the instinctive, the need to take flight, views from above, ability to see hidden truths, hunting success (which remains an elusive prey). I’m grateful to my friend, ever my muse, and my father for pulling these connections together from the Moria- like mines of my subconscious.

And just before I sign off, my favourite bird of prey, the Marsh Harrier. So reminiscent of good times in East Anglia working for the RSPB.

Marsh Harrier (c) Robert Canis

Marsh Harrier (c) Robert Canis

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View across the River Wey to the main scrape (1) at BCF

View across the River Wey to the main scrape (1) at BCF

In October I signed up to monitor Burpham Court Farm, Guildford, for the BTO Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS). This Sunday gone was my 3rd Core Count (the first Sunday in the month) and the first on my own. As a relative newcomer to wetland birds- I am mammal ecologist- I enlisted the support first of Ken Ankorn, SWT Planning Officer and Surrey Bird Club member: and on my second outing in November, Mike Waite, SWT Living Landscapes Manager (my boss!) and in the best way possible all-round nature know-it-all!
Burpham Court Farm is owned by Guildford Borough Council, and is connected to the wonderful corridor of wetland habitat along the River Wey which includes Riverside LNR, Parsonage Meadow North of Guildford and sites that make up the Wey Valley Meadows SSSI to the south. Regular sightings so far have been large flocks of Canada Geese, Lapwing, Teal and Widgeon with growing numbers of black-headed gulls. Last month we spotted a solitary Snipe. This morning I logged 160 Lapwing, 100 Teal, 22 Widgeon and 45 BH Gull, and the snipe was there again. Last month it had been skulking in the rushes, today he was happily at his business drumming that long, long beak into the soft mud. Other sightings today were two grey herons, 1 lonely mallard, 2 pied wagtail, 2 moorhen and a Greater Black-backed gull.

View from Riverside Nature Reserve across BCF. The water feature in the foreground is part of a ditch line that joins the Wey at Burpham Weir

View from Riverside Nature Reserve across BCF. The water feature in the foreground is part of a ditch line that joins the Wey at Burpham Weir

I’m glad I had come on my own today. It was great to have the support of Ken or Mike but even with two it was hard to get close enough to the 3 scrapes at Burpham without disturbing the birds. This time however, I was able to get down to the north side of the Wey, bending here in a large U as it leaves the Navigation, without sending anything flying. I was therefore surprised to see through my scope, as bold as brass, a dog fox nosing amongst the rushes on the other side of the ditch line towards Slyfield. The birds didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by him. But when I edged out from behind an alder to get a better view…boom! 150 lapwings went skyward. An amazing sight.

Location of main "scrapes"- areas of standing water. .Only (1) seems to remain throughout the year

Location of main “scrapes”- areas of standing water. .Only (1) seems to remain throughout the year

But Where are all the coots? And a surprisingly low number of moorhen too. There is not much fringing and in-channel vegetation along the Wey here, and even less since the Environment Agency undertook channel clearance as part of their flood recovery programme. But the situation can’t be helped by the resident American Mink. They are of course mostly known for their impact on water voles but there is evidence for impacts of Mink on water birds, and particularly coot & moorhen (Ferreras and Macdonald 19991)

“Mink presence significantly affected the density of breeding coots and the number of chicks hatched per pair of coots, as well as the average number of nests per pair of moorhens and the percentage of moorhen clutches hatched.  Mink diet during the birds’ breeding season (March–September) was studied through scat analysis. Ralliformes (coots or moorhens) represented 10% of the ingested biomass and were the fourth prey in importance after rabbits (45%), fish (25%) and small mammals (14%). Mink obtained 11% of their energy requirements from coots and moorhens. Impact of predation by mink during the bird breeding season was moderate to high for moorhens (16–27% of adults and 46–79% of broods) and high for coots (30–51% of adults and 50–86% of broods).”

In November, Mike and I were treated to a full floor show from these glamorous predators. Emerging from behind a thick alder coppice stool, not one but two of these dark destroyers made their way along the river bank. I suspect there are more, and records submitted to SWT over the last two years bear that out: the Wey (and Mole) have resident populations of Mink. There are no water vole at Burpham and at present there are no known water vole populations on the Wey. That said no county-wide surveys have been undertaken since 2007. A full resurvey of sites known to be populated up to then is underway, the bulk of which will be resurveyed in 2015.

 


Although there were plenty of signs, the mink didn’t show up today but instead as I hunkered down to survey scrape 3, I chanced a glance over my shoulder to see if the cormorant I had picked up on the last two surveys was around, Instead I caught sight of a large , slow-moving (dare I say lolloping?) shadow passing across the meadow, with jackdaws and crows in hot pursuit. I had my suspicions as soon as I saw it, having watched a field-full of these stunning birds of prey on a survey in Oxfordshire when I was a consultant, but only when it banked sharply to retaliate against a particularly brave corvid did I see the notched tail and confirm it as a red kite. That was a first for me for the site.

BurphamWEBS111214 (4)
It’s very pleasing in such a developed part of the UK that there are still areas like Burpham and the corridor of wetlands along the Wey. I’m looking forward to keeping track of comings and goings here over the winter and beyond.

1 Ferreras, P. and Macdonald, D.W. (1999), The impact of American mink Mustela vison on water birds in the upper Thames. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36: 701–708. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2664.1999.00431.x

Today is International Mountain Day http://www.un.org/en/events/mountainday/

We don’t have any mountains in Surrey. The highest point is Leith Hill near Dorking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leith_Hill at between 293-295m above sea level which is the second highest point in South East England after Walbury Hill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walbury_Hill, East Berkshire at 297m asl. Gibbet Hill at Hindhead http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibbet_Hill is the second highest point in Surrey at 272 m and followers of this blog will know this hill and its surrounding area has particularly fond memories for me.

To add some perspective I recently visited my friend Dr Wayne Dawson, a Research Associate at the University of Konstanz in Germany . Konstanz is itself 405m above sea level http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstanz. From here we ascended into the Alpstein in Switzerland and reached the Schafler which is 1900m above sea level.

This was my first trip to this region of Europe and I was suitably awestruck both by the River Rhine and its beautiful wetland habitats such as the RAMSAR site at Wollmatinger Ried http://www.nabu-wollmatingerried.de/info.html#englisch, the historic town of Konstanz and of course the Alps which from my host town emerged from the November mist but once in my visit.

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 It was only on our trip into the Alpstein when I managed to escape above the clouds and found myself basking like a desperate slow-worm in beautiful autumn sunshine. We hiked in tee-shirts up to the Shafler and gazed in awe at the snow-capped crags and pinnacles of nearby Santis (2508m asl). 

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During a  lunch break on our ascent, I fed Alpine Choughs from my hand.

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Alpine chough video: http://youtu.be/ACAVn0_QgUE.

On our descent, Wayne spotted a red squirrel bounding through the snow and we watched it disappear amongst the fir trees. Nearby, I saw some ungulate tracks and a little further on we were treated to the sight of a wild Chamois, a goat-antelope species native to southern European mountains, as it did its best to coolly avoid us and other walkers out that day.

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Chamois video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2BaF2II5ag

My world would be less without Mountains, and I do not depend on them for my life and livelihood. I am lucky enough to have ascended Mount Kilimanjaro (5896m asl) and to regularly receive Facebook updates from our guide Casper whose livelihood depends on ascending the mountain on a  weekly basis. I made sure the group I chose to take me up Kili were paid a living wage and treated well. Its work of organisations like the International Porters Protection Group http://ippg.net who work to prevent the exploitation of locals and make sure mountain tourism provides a better livelihood for people in these remote areas.

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