Exeter Peregrines

Having just spent a weekend in Exeter at the university I was very lucky to get to spend some time with Peregrine expert Nick Dixon and the long time monitored Peregrines found in Exeter on St. Michaels church. 

Nick has been studying these birds for 20 years and if I remember correctly they have been breeding on the church for 21 years. They are an incredibly productive pair of birds and this year they laid 4 eggs of which two have hatched. 

It’s not unusual for urban Peregrines to produce clutches of 5 or 6 eggs and their chicks to hatch out much earlier than more rural pairs based on the wider abundance of prey available for urban birds. Last year the Exeter birds hatched two birds from 4 eggs and Nick has a theory behind why two eggs are have not hatched for two years consecutively. 

Based on the extensive monitoring by Nick and colleagues they get to know the birds very well, whilst sat in the beer garden with great views of the birds (beer garden – very convenient for Peregrine watching) Nick told me how the male bird seems to not be the best hunting bird but more interested in incubating and brooding the chicks. The male on several occasions has brought in the dried girdle of a pigeon from his food cache and while the female struggled to glean any meat from it the male has taken his chance to brood or incubate chicks/eggs. Nick has also observed how these pigeon girdles can be dangerous – on a couple of occasions he has seen the female get the girdle stuck around her leg and then she continues to try and incubate the eggs with this skeletal shackle knocking the eggs.


How are such intimate views obtained? Well like several other urban Peregrine pairs around the country Exeters pair are also monitored by a new HD nest camera which can be viewed by anyone on the web. These websites give a fantastic live view of the life’s of Peregrines without being intrusive. Things observed include whether the adults are ringed birds, date of laying and size of clutch, how many hatch and develop and what sort of food is being brought in to the chicks. Sadly it also sometimes shows things that some viewers may find distressing, this includes at another site last year the killing of a chick by a rogue female which eventually took over the nest site. This year I believe at the same site a video has been doing the rounds on social media of the adult female sat brooding very small chicks, something spooks her and she jumps off the ledge flicking one of the tiny chicks of the ledge with her – very distressing viewing but how often does this happen? Clearly it’s part of the cycle and one of the problems predators face competing in what appears a very healthy environment for Peregrines where nest sites are becoming a premium. As humans we like to create a soap opera and story to wild animals going about life to help us connect and understand what is going on in their world.


One of the most interesting things about the Exeter Peregrines is how the current pair have been documented attacking and killing Common Buzzards that enter their territory or airspace. I have witnessed various inter species territorial displays of aggression but the Peregrines at Exeter have taken it to another level, this pair have not only tackled wild Buzzard flying in their territory but they actively kill the birds. Nick has recovered several Buzzard corpses and witnessed countless mid air dog fights and deaths. Sadly I can’t remember the current figure Nick stated but more can be found on a paper by Nick published in British Birds following this link.

One thing is certain from Nick et al’s observations you do not want to be a Buzzard flying past st.Michaels church, Exeter, you might end up with a sore head or worse! 

More details about Nick Dixons work can be found at here

The Exeter Peregrines webcam is available at this page here

One final point for readers – if you enjoy a webcam or two and the site has a donate button feel free to make a contribution. Often the hard work of people like Nick is unpaid and webcams can be incredibly expensive to put in place and stream. Nick has also created a nice booklets to support the costs of the new webcam and streaming which can be found here

Sometimes I think that in this age of social media a like and a share is all these projects need but as annoying as it is conservation costs money.

Thanks for reading, enjoy the webcams out there at the moment and coming soon will be Part two of our Philippines adventure. 

Philippine Eagle Foundation – part 1

This post is well over due! Apologies but since coming back from the Philippines it’s been back into the deep end with all sorts of things and the UK raptor monitoring season starting. Anyway I have decided to split the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) into two blog posts as I’ve got lots to share.

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On March 13th I flew out to Davao city in the Philippines to go and spend some time with the PEF at their base the Philippine Eagle Centre in Malagos within the Baguio district about 45 minutes drive from Davao city. The main aims of the trip were to learn first hand the work the foundation do to help save the Philippine eagle, share our experience and knowledge training birds of prey by training staff and birds, take equipment that the foundation struggle to obtain and that will help them with the care of their captive birds and of course to come face to face with an incredible Philippine eagle.

The Philippine eagle is one of the largest eagles in the world only found within the forests of the Philippines and sadly is now one of the rarest eagles in the world. There is thought to be only 400 pairs left in the wild and the IUCN redlist classes this bird as critically endangered. There are several issues facing the Philippine eagle including deforestation creating fragmented habitats, shooting and trapping by local villagers to protect livestock and also for fun and in some cases the pet trade. The Philippine Eagle is protected in the wild and in 1995 it was made the national bird of the Philippines. As a kid I remember seeing a picture of a Philippine eagle in a book and being completed absorbed by it, this huge mysterious eagle of the forest with its huge beak, crest of head feathers and stunning blue eyes I knew I had to meet one. When I got older and realised how endangered this species was then I also knew I had to play some small part in helping to save it – Raptor Aid had to go to the Philippines!

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Philippine Eagle – (c) Raptor Aid

The PEF started life officially around 1987 when the government funding ceased and so a band of staff continued unpaid to get the PEF and its care of the captive eagles up and running. In 1992 with the hatching of Pag-Asa the first ever captive bred eagle sparked an international awareness about the plight of the Philippine Eagle, it is both humbling and a privilege to meet and find that many of the ‘originals’ from back in 1987 are still heavily involved in the running of the PEF. The first aim of the PEF and the centre was to create a sustainable captive population of the eagle and to find out more about its status in the wild and the problems it is facing. This is also extended to the wider environment working with local communities empowering them to protect the eagles as well as the forests which they both call home.

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The team back in the 1980’s – Three people in this photo are still working at the PEF! (c) PEF

Our visit began back in the UK where Raptor Aid started compiling equipment to take out to the centre to help them with the management of their captive birds including tools for making equipment, leather and identification rings for all their captive birds. One of the main aims for the trip was to use our experience with training captive birds of prey to train members of the education team in handling and training some of their birds for flying. We will come to this in the second part of our blog but first we had to find our feet and look around the centre.

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Handing over the goodies! (c) PEF

The Philippines is a beautiful country, the city of Davao that I saw was busy and the traffic was in my own words ‘Every car for itself’ I have never seen anything like it but it just added to the experience. I had a nice hotel (except for a missing toilet seat), I said I would lose weight out there as they didn’t really understand vegetarianism (veg doesn’t cancel out the meat they still serve you) so I thought my diet would consist of rice until I found a fantastic Pizza/Pasta cafe 5 minutes from my hotel so I think I gained weight!! Dr Jayson Ibanez who I had been liaising with from the start and who oversees all the conservation and research at the PEF came to collect me and it was great to finally meet him, he is one of life’s friendly, happy people – it makes a massive difference to have that greeting you off the plane!

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I don’t think this was a crash helmet? (c) Raptor Aid

The Philippine Eagle Centre (PEC) is roughly 8 acres in size at the foothills of Mt.Apo and is not only home to a captive breeding population of Philippine eagles for conservation and research but also several other species of raptors and animals. You can find out more about the PEC here.

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The Philippine Eagle Centre (c) Raptor Aid

It was straight into training in the first few days, the centre has interns from all fields of education including the vet nurses that I showed the basics of what equipment is used in handling captive birds of prey and then basic health checking of birds. It’s always tricky to begin with when you are trying to explain even a basic thing to people who might not speak your language, I have to admit though that it was me who should be embarrassed as most Philippino’s spoke good or very good English yet all I could muster was thank you! I gathered the education team with the vet interns and over the first week we caught up as many of the birds possible that needed equipment changing and ID rings fitting, we also took the opportunity to give the birds a quick once over health wise and trim beaks and talons. Some of these birds were already handled by some of the education team during guided tours but my job was to help them get the birds flying over the next week or at least start the process.

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Interns learning the falconer knot (c) Raptor Aid

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Equipment making and fitting equipment to a Philippine Hawk Eagle with staff (c) Raptor Aid

I of course spent a lot of time around the centre exploring and just sitting and watching the birds in aviaries. I have always found it is important to enter anything with an open mind especially other countries and cultures, and this was certainly true whilst at the PEC. The grounds were really natural full of native plants and trees, many of these trees growing through the aviaries especially in the huge domed pairing aviary that contained a male and female Philippine eagle hopefully starting a long lasting pair bond. As I stared up at these birds 60 ft high on a huge limb of a tree I couldn’t help but imagine them in exactly the same position in the wild patiently waiting for the next meal. Usually such day dreaming was rudely interrupted by the wailing of the many White Bellied Sea Eagles they had at the centre or the one solitary Grey Headed Fish eagle which had the most comical of calls.

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Philippine Eagle in naturally perched aviary (c) Raptor Aid

I did of course get to fulfill a boyhood dream and a tick off the bucket list. I had been asked to also help the team retrain Chick 23 or Imbulog the young Philippine Eagle that had previously been trained for a film in collaboration with Cornell University, America. I have to admit when you read and watch videos of the “Monkey Eating Eagle” your mind conjures up all sorts of images of size but Imbulog was nowhere near as big as I thought he would be, don’t get me wrong he was still a big eagle weighting 5 KG and a set of feet to catch monkeys and a beak to back them up! It was the eyes though that struck me as the defining feature, they looked straight into you, maybe I’m romanticizing a bit but no other adult raptor has these baby blue eyes, the beak and mane of feathers just accentuate the eyes. I say mane because in birders terminology the back of the head is known as the nape and any extended feathers are known as a crest but although Imbulog could use these feathers as a crest in a warning posture they really did look like a mane of feathers. Nevertheless when I met the breeding females later in the first week the nape/crest/mane/crown whatever you call it was terrifying when fully erect and in territorial display, I’ll explain more on that in part 2.

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A picture say’s it all – Truly stunning but sadly incredibly rare (c) Raptor Aid

Dominic or Bong as he was more commonly known was training Imbulog and as I myself know from training eagles that one to one bond is incredibly important with this group of birds I tried not to interfere to much in Imbulog’s training and just observed Bong and the eagle and offer my experiences and advice where I felt necessary. Once again it is always tricky coming in as an ‘expert’ (I hate that title) and not treading on people’s toes, I could see Bong had a fantastic calm manner around the birds and the more I got to know him I learnt he also had a lot of experience training birds. Imbulog is in good hands and I look forward to sharing his progress soon.

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Bong, myself and Imbulog (c) Raptor Aid

Another part of the trip was to go and talk to Jayson’s university class which he teaches weekly, these students come from a range of courses with a common interest in the environment and how it might help their individual degrees. I packed the talk with lots of images of the work Raptor Aid has done and the monitoring work we carry out in the UK. They seemed to enjoy having this big bearded English man talking to them or maybe it was just the beard they were laughing at??

One thing I quickly realised during my first week was just how truly friendly and welcoming the country and its people were. The PEF still had members of staff working there from the early days in the 80’s but there was never a feeling of hierarchy, the younger or newer members of the team were encouraged and supported and if anything it felt like one big family. I suppose it’s understandable though when you all have the same passion and goals in life!

Part two coming up…………..

 

 

Poke & Stroke – It’s not cool!

There isn’t a week that passes when we aren’t sent images or come across images of organisations using birds of prey in the public domain with poor basic welfare standards. We have blogged about this previously referring to many outfits as ‘poke and stroke’ in relation to the way they allow people to handle and stroke their birds to make money. Raptor Aid has contacted countless local authorities, event organisers and venue owners trying to highlight the poor practices and welfare standards they are allowing to take place.  Sadly for the most part our efforts come to a dead end. It might come as no surprise that when we go direct to the owners of the birds our advice and concerns are often met with aggression and animosity – no one likes to be told they are in the wrong and have their livelihood threatened – Raptor Aid believes anyone who works with animals in any form should follow best practice and welfare guidelines along with reviewing how they manage and work with their birds.

So where does this ‘poke and stroke’ mentality come from? Is it as bad as we make it out to be? And if so what is Raptor Aids answer to the problem? In this blog, we aim to answer these questions and more (Get comfy it’s a long blog!!).

Birds of prey in captivity and commercial use

To those with little knowledge of birds of prey (BOP) in captivity this has been going on for centuries, more correctly known as falconry, the art of hunting with a bird of prey. These techniques are now used for training any bird of prey in captivity. When I first had an interest in captive birds of prey around 18 years ago there was, to my knowledge, only two bird of prey centres in the North West. Individual falconers were very secretive and kept to themselves. You needed a contact or be fortunate to know someone well enough to gain access to this world. I also remember the price of birds being higher than present day with Harris Hawks fetching between £800-1400 and Goshawks over £2000. During those 18 years, I have seen a remarkable change in not only the use of BOP but the price the birds fetch.

The problem begins with who can own a bird of prey – anyone can! You could go out tomorrow and buy yourself a Barn owl or Harris hawk and sadly there are no laws or legislation to stop you or to check your knowledge of how to care for the bird. The only paperwork that is required is proof that the bird is captive bred (known as an article 10) this is provided by the breeder on collection of the bird and is in place to control the trade in wild BOP. However not all birds of prey need an article 10 or any form of identification (Leg ring/microchip). This has seen a huge increase in BOP being bred for commercial profit and has led to the increased use of birds to make money commercially with little legislation. Due to the relative ease of captive breeding the value of many species has fallen, Barn owls can be bought for as little as £50, Harris hawks as low as £150 and Goshawks less than £500.

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One of many

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Hatchimal’s – Top selling toy Xmas 2016 and more expensive than the above living Barn owl!!

In the North West 18 years on, you can easily find 10 bird of prey centres ranging in size and quality and a similar number of freelance organisations that have no base, these are the ones that have the fewest restrictions and often cause the most concern. Bird of prey centres that are open to the public for more than 7 days in a calendar year must have a Zoo Licence, this a legal requirement with an inspection carried out by a government inspector. However, a Zoo Licence isn’t a necessary requirement for public BOP displays. If you see a public display with BOP that you are concerned about it is worth asking if they have visitor centre, as the council is obligated to investigate complaints for licenses they grant.

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Who benefits most?

The easy availability of birds has seen a rise in organisations using birds of prey for public displays and talks. These can appear in many guises from commercial services like handling sessions and flying displays, or sanctuaries and rescues who are claiming to work for the birds in their care, including wild birds of prey. Anyone using animals commercially should be scrutinised for what educational and conservation message they are giving out. In Raptor Aid’s opinion animals should not be used SOLELY just to make money and as humans we should have moved past this idea of looking at animals in captivity purely for our enjoyment and pleasure. Don’t be afraid to question any organisation on their conservation and education credentials. BOP rescue is often a common reason for asking the public for money in the form of donations using captive BOP and again you should not be afraid to ask about their credentials. If they are asking for donations are they a registered charity? If not then we would advise against handing over your money unless they can show complete transparency. If they claim to work with wild birds of prey they should not have any wild birds on display, this is against the law. If they are raising money for captive bred birds of prey they have rescued again you should ask yourself, where is my donation going? If they are not a charity then they don’t have anyone to answer to so can spend your donation on whatever they like. Often these types of organisations allow handling of the birds for a small fee with the chance to stroke them & take photographs. You must ask yourself who is this really for and is it going to directly benefit the birds? There are several issues with this which we will address in more detail below.

Location – Why are they there?

The chances are the organisation are in attendance as an added attraction to an event or venue. Professional well-presented organisations are now being squeezed out by bad organisations because the latter don’t charge a fee to attend but will make money from the public by charging for activities like holding a bird. The former organisations may charge £250 or more to be in attendance but this is for a reason – it costs money to run a professional BOP display team. Sadly, event organisers don’t take this into account and now shun the professional set ups for the free option. Often organisations may claim to be a not-for-profit organisation, charitable or Community Interest Company – these are used to put your mind at ease but unless they have a registered charity number then you can never be sure where your money is going. The venues that birds of prey are now being used in are of concern for Raptor Aid, in our opinion town centres, outside supermarkets and even in cinemas are stressful environments for birds of prey. These are chosen because of the large volume of visitors for making money.

Donations

Britain is supposed to be a nation of animal lovers and Raptor Aid sees this being abused by some organisations showing BOP in public. Some organisations just ask straight up for a donation for the upkeep of their birds – captive bred birds of prey that are not wild rescues that the public are duped into thinking they are helping in some way when they may just be funding someone’s hobby. Giving a small donation or paying for a picture with a bird is often done with cash, which can be a tricky thing to keep track of. Raptor Aid questions how much of this money is taxed if the organisation is not registered as a company or charity. We have also seen many organisation using the birds to fundraise for other charitable causes and whilst this might seem like a noble thing to do it does not mean the welfare of the birds should be any less important.

Poor equipment and husbandry

As stated running a professional bird of prey team is expensive which is why you should expect to pay £250 upwards for a professional display. Many of the bad organisations cut corners on things like insurance, equipment, diet, and out-of-site housing. Birds in poor feather condition, sat on inappropriate and dangerous perches wearing badly fitting equipment are just some of the things we often see that might not be obvious to the public. Also of concern is the way the birds are handled, birds of prey do not suit being cuddled and laid on their backs. They possess sharp talons so using bare hands or perching on people’s heads and shoulders is not only dangerous but bad practice.

The birds’ needs

Some of the basic needs for a bird of prey when on display include being provided with a suitable comfortable perch, fresh water for bathing or drinking, shelter from the elements (gazebo etc), barrier or fence from the public and to be free from stress from the other birds and any surrounding activity. It is difficult not to get too anthropomorphic about animals but instead we should try to be sympathetic to their natural requirements. Birds of prey are predators who in the wild would try to avoid humans at all costs, a captive BOP although trained to accept humans as part of their life, and build up trust, still need to be shown respect. They are not animals that we believe enjoy or benefit from being handled or stroked by lots of people continuously and owls are often the ones that must deal with this the most. Despite what you are told just because a captive bred owl is hand reared does not mean it enjoys being touched by multiple people, owls especially are one of the more secretive group of birds. We have heard all sorts of excuses about how stroking birds on the back of the head or with the back of your hand doesn’t harm the feathers – this is rubbish! Continual stroking of any bird’s feathers will damage their delicate structure and is purely for human enjoyment.

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A catalog of poor welfare and husbandry

What’s good practice

When it comes to bird of prey displays you certainly get what you pay for. A well set up public display of BOP should include well trained, settled birds sat on suitable perches well-spaced apart from each other with access to drinking and bathing water, underneath an appropriate shelter on a suitable surface (grass) in an appropriate area (field or park). The company should also be able to show if requested copies of relevant insurance, performing animals licence and animal transport licence at any event. Species specific signs are also a good thing to have in place for the public to read and trained members of staff on hand to answer questions. Public handling and participation in anyway should be avoided at any public event for the safety of the birds and the public as explained above. Any flying displays should be well choreographed with an entertaining and educational dialogue. Most of the above might seem like common sense and you would expect any organisation to have all of this at the forefront of their mind, but sadly as many images and personal experience have shown, this is not the case and it is getting worse.

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A well presented display with no public handling is both educational and exciting!

What’s the answer?

The answer for Raptor Aid is simple in theory but not so in action, current legislation needs to be reviewed including the performing animals licence and zoo licence act. Travelling bird of prey teams should either be included in the zoo licence act or have specific legislation brought in to cover their requirements. Another move would be to bring in a licensing scheme for breeders of birds of prey and subsequently prospective buyers thinking of owning birds of prey. This we appreciate would be no easy task with many hurdles but the current status of buying and selling birds of prey needs addressing. Sadly, these suggestions cannot be easily actioned without more pressure on the government. What we can do is to continue gathering evidence and lobby event organisers and venues on what they should expect and what is good practice. We have tried to talk to the BOP organisations directly and unsurprisingly they don’t want to know. Sadly, many organisers and venues including local authorities are very closed to the ideas we present them. It appears that to some, the customer or event are more important than the welfare of animals, and it would cause too much inconvenience to pull an attraction based on information they don’t understand or want to understand. We have developed guidelines for both event organisers and venues and will be sending these out and offering training for local authorities and any other organisation who are receptive.

How can you help?

In some small way, you have helped by reading this. The next step would be to keep your eyes open and share what you have read here with friends and family. Every week Raptor Aid is approached by professionals who, despite carrying out their work in a professional manner, are suffering at the hands of others with poor standards. At the end of the day this is about the birds and how they are cared for and used commercially. If you wish to receive a copy of our guidelines please just drop us a message and feel free to share it widely. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and should you still not be happy then feel free to forward what you have seen to us and we will follow it up by contacting the organisers or venue. Information worth noting includes:

  • Name of the company in attendance with the birds
  • Date of event and name of event
  • Location
  • Images of the birds and display
  • If you asked any questions their responses
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Your help is critical!

This isn’t going to go away overnight but it is something that needs to be addressed and changed as soon as possible. Every year hundreds of birds of prey are taken around village fetes, summer shows, town centres and shopping centres, children’s birthday parties and schools with little regard for the basic requirements and welfare needs for the birds – often the birds are the last thing to be thought about.

Golden Eagle Monitoring 2017 – Part 1

Scotland is an incredible country the landscape and scenery are surely right up there with anywhere else in the world and the wildlife is hard to beat. February sees us start the Golden eagle monitoring as part of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups Highland branches ongoing work. Each year several dedicated volunteers from the various regional groups head out to start monitoring specific species found in their regions. Last year we got involved with monitoring one of the most iconic of all birds of prey the Golden Eagle and so last week saw Jimmi and a friend take to the Highland hills to begin the monitoring of 5 Golden eagle territories for 2017.

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This is Scotland!

Golden eagles live in some pretty remote places in the UK, no longer found in England they are restricted to Scotland and parts of Ireland. Their numbers have seen a small increase shown by a recent national Golden eagle survey in 2015 but it must be pointed out that the Golden eagle is still under threat from direct persecution as is demonstrated by the Southern Scotland population where only 2-3 pairs are found with the potential for 14-16 pairs. We heard at the Highland Raptor Study Groups meeting on the Monday an update on the plans to relocate eagle chicks from nests in other regions of Scotland to release in the Southern region to help bolster its population, one chick would be taken from a healthy nest of twin chicks with the hope of up to 10 chicks released per year over 5 years. You can find out more here but I’m sure we’ll be blogging again on this subject.

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Highland Group meeting – planning the year ahead

Essentially to try and get the full picture of Golden eagle activity on any given territory whether you have visited it before or not the first visit around February is very important because we are not only looking for birds on territory but whether they are adults, in pairs, display flights, copulating or nest building or just directions of flight. On the Tuesday we headed to a new territory where we had good access which was brilliant as the weather was ‘Scottish’ so we remained relatively dry in the Landrover – on the drive in towards the end of the track we stumbled upon a pair of eagle perched on a small crag. We back tracked and found a high piece of ground to watch over a larger area of territory and were rewarded with distant views of a pair of eagles moving towards a next door territory on the weeks list. It is worth bearing in mind that most eagle watching is done at long distance to make sure disturbance is kept to a minimum but also to see a larger area of sky, these birds have incredible eyesight but do get used to some activity on the hill with sheep farmers and stalkers going about their business.

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All you need for eagle watching

Wednesday saw a trip out alone to a rather wind swept moorland so I was relieved to find shelter next to a small bungalow out of a full wind and the odd hail shower. Watching eagles can be long and fruitless, four hours of watching produced one eagle a long way off rising in the West and cruising across the sky line for 5 minutes before disappearing. A little bit inconclusive but nevertheless it was an eagle in the right area and those brief 5 minutes made the other 235 a little easier. I took a drive further up the glen to find a Peregrine sitting on an old traditional site that hasn’t been recorded in use in over 20 years, whilst making a cup of tea the Peregrine took to the air to drive away a Golden eagle, I watched in amazement as two of my childhood dream birds were locked in a mid air dog fight and I even managed to film some of it – incredible views! The eagle dropped away behind a ridge and the Peregrine returned to its watch point on the top of the crag. We will continue to monitor this crag along with the Golden eagles, wouldn’t it be fantastic if Peregrines returned after so long, it just goes to show that sometimes you just need a bit of luck and a cup of tea.

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Spot the Peregrine?

Hold on how can I forget a juvenile White tailed Sea Eagle floated over my head in an almighty hail storm just before I decided to head home! I’m using the weather as an excuse for my rather awful grainy out of focus image. White tails will cover huge distances during the winter months especially juvenile birds in search of food and then territories as they get older. Both species of eagles will rely heavily on carrion and stalkers deer gralloch’s over the winter months so it is not unusual to see them in close proximity cruising for a meal.

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The fingered primary feathers of a White tailed sea eagle

The final couple of days saw us visit two more territories one of which I could never get tired of visiting, it is out of this world beautiful and exactly what you would expect to see as Golden eagle habitat. Open moorland, rushing burns and large snow capped hills with sheer cliff faces just screaming out for eagles, it makes you realise how hardcore these birds really are. We found a nice spot to sit and wait and before too long a pair of Ravens another upland bird moved across the nearest ridge line then disappeared, within 5 minutes they returned but this time on the tail of an adult Golden eagle, the eagle clearly being aggravated took a perch on the smallest crag soon to be joined by a mate. The reason we knew it was a bonded pair was because after a short period of sitting together the birds began a brief moment of copulating (mating) before taking flight and rising off into the clouds and out of sight.

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Spectacular!

All of this information will be fed into a central database in order to create a larger picture of where Golden eagles are and to create larger population trends along with more unique studies. It must be pointed out that although the raptor study groups do get funding from the Scottish government this is done by volunteers like us who give up time and money to carry out this field work – OK we do love it though! We got to see some of the fantastic work of other members of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups at the annual conference in Perth on the Saturday and it was a brilliant way to cap off a fantastic week of eagle monitoring.

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A lot of bird nerds in one room! Perfect finale!

Personally I must thank Ashley and Tracey Smith at Invercassley Cottage B&B for putting me up once again, you won’t find better hosts anywhere in the Highlands and they know a thing or two about wildlife! We will be back again in about 6 weeks to check on occupation of nest sites so fingers crossed.

Thanks for reading and keep an eye on Facebook for more images and the mid air battle video.

Jimmi

Let’s cuddle an owl (and other things wrong with captive birds of prey in the UK)

One of the reasons Raptor Aid was created wasn’t just for wild bird of prey conservation but also for the good of birds of prey in captivity globally. It would be a little bit rich of us though to point fingers around the world at how other nations and cultures treat birds of prey in captivity without addressing the issues that arise on our own soil. You may have a keen interest in birds of prey (hence why you’re here reading this) so some of what we discuss below might not be new to you but to many the images and text that follow may shock you and surprise you. The British are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers and for the most towards our domesticated animals who we share our lives with we are, but often for animals we have little or no knowledge that are used in the public eye perhaps we should be asking a few more questions.

Raptor Aid is built on years of working with birds of prey in captivity, the mistakes the heartache and the wonder of sharing these incredible birds with a wider audience. We have seen a shift in people’s views on animals in captivity especially birds of prey, most noticeably topics like tethering birds of prey and birds in aviaries, but more recently mobile organisations using birds of prey. We should probably at this point state that we are not anti birds of prey in captivity BUT we are very much FOR a review and change in legislation towards obtaining birds of prey and their commercial use with the public. Those of you new to birds of prey in captivity in the UK might be surprised to hear that you don’t need any form of legislated/legal licence to own a bird of prey – anyone can go out and buy a captive bred bird of prey without any previous knowledge. What is even scarier is certain people with little or no knowledge can continue to go on a buy a selection of species and take the birds out as a commercial enterprise with very little legislation in place to control this and the standards. This is where Raptor Aid wants to make a difference and you can help!

Here in the UK currently the only legislation you should obtain for using a team of birds commercially are as follows:

  • Only captive bred birds must be used, and those that require it must have the relevant paperwork (Article 10/Closed ring or microchip)
  • Public Liability Insurance/Employers liability
  • Performing Animals Licence
  • Animal Transport Licence

*The Animal Welfare act does still apply to anyone displaying animals*

Sadly there are several organisations which pop up and are operating all over the UK without some or any of the basic legislation above. It must also be pointed out that the above legislation is not that difficult to obtain, insurance can be obtained from a variety of companies with no vetting, captive birds are easily obtained with little knowledge or vetting, Performing licences are granted with little more than a brief check from the local authority who often have little knowledge of this area and the transport licence which only requires one form and a payment to be obtained. Nevertheless each of these go some way to hopefully showing the commitment to the birds that are under the care of the organisation.

*An important point to make is that if the birds are not kept on public display in the same place for more than 7 days they do not require a zoo licence so do not fall under this legislation which will include most pop up displays*

With the birds in mind take a look at some of the issues we find that crop up with the poor public displays in the images on this page and lets discuss what Raptor Aid feels is very wrong with demonstrating birds in this way. This is a very subjective and emotive thing and to the organisations in these images stroking an owl or letting hundreds of passers by hold the birds in one day in the middle of a busy shopping centre may not be deemed an issue but let us explain our position based on experience and the best interests of the birds.

Location – Often the worst offenders for poor welfare and standards when demonstrating birds appear in similar locations, these include supermarkets, shopping centres, high streets and car boots. The reason for this is fairly clear to Raptor Aid it is all about getting maximum exposure with little consideration to the birds needs for financial gain. The named locations do tend to be busy and are often on hard standing ground which is recognised as unsafe flooring to tether a bird of prey. A bird jumping off a perch onto a hard floor can damage itself and its feathers, we are also seeing birds on perches sat up on tables which again has inherent risks. The proprietors of such venues are often more interested in the pull of an unusual exhibit to their venue and probably believe the organisations have the best interest of the birds at the forefront of their minds, sadly we find it is money that is at the forefront of their mind.

Motives – This can be a difficult one but as mentioned above the vast majority of organisations like this are using the birds to take money from the viewing public either via donations, direct handling, photographic opportunities and selling merchandise. Education, conservation and more frequently rescue sanctuaries are used as a plausible reason to encourage you to part with your hard earned cash but ask yourself what’s educational about meeting a team of birds of prey in a very unnatural environment like a shopping centre. Sadly in the world of selfies and instant social media a quick image with you or your child holding an owl is a lifetime of misery for that bird. The biggest question could be asked of those claiming to be a sanctuary or rescue centres, are they a registered company or charity or are you just handing over £10 to someone to help them pay for their hobby. Does this organisation declare all the money it is taking be it self employed or a not for profit organisation? There are lots of fantastic rescue centres around the UK saving wild and captive birds of prey every day that don’t put the birds in their care through this sort of use to make a bit more money.

Handling & Photographs – There is a time and a place to enjoy handling and experiencing these fantastic birds and the venues mentioned above are not really one of them. Owls are often the most widely used in these situations as when hand reared due to their naturally very docile nature can become very well conditioned to certain situations but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Without being too anthropomorphic (not that its a bad thing sometimes) imagine being passed around 50/60/80 children a day for your photo in the name of education and conservation. These birds are often portrayed as ambassadors for their wild cousins without a second thought to their own physical and mental well being. In some of the images here you will see owls perched on heads, shoulders and being cuddled by the handlers, this is neither sensible or beneficial for the birds nor is perching the birds on unsuitable objects for a photo opportunity. We have recently been informed of a monkey sanctuary allowing an owl organisation to come in on set weekends and allow customers to handle and have photographs with their owls ad lib. Imagine if an Owl sanctuary allowed someone to come in and do that with small primates, there would be outrage! What’s the difference? Raptor Aid believes if you wish to experience and handle birds of prey you should go and visit and book onto a professional bird of prey handling experience at a dedicated centre, but be warned do your homework because as shown in some of these pictures the birds sat on peoples heads including very young children are at a bird of prey centre which also operates as a sanctuary, needless to say this is an appalling practice.

Stroking – As humans one of our main senses is touch and feeling, we just can’t resist having a squeeze or a stroke to find out how it feels and owls again really feel the brunt of this. It is true that owls are incredibly soft but why do we feel the need to experience this, does it benefit us or the owl? It certainly isn’t the owl but despite this organisations will continuously allow people to handle and stroke their birds without any welfare considerations or health and safety concerns for humans. Raptor Aid have heard all the excuses under the sun regarding why some people feel it is OK to stroke a bird or owl including using the back your hand so your oily hands don’t affect the feathers or stroking the front of the breast or back of the head is OK because these are not flight feathers and because the owl gets enjoyment from being stroked. Lets firstly discuss feathers, easily the most important attribute to a bird for flight, Camouflage, protection from the elements including rain and cold. We spoke to a top avian vet about stroking birds and he explained it is not only the oils the birds put on their feathers we can remove but what we can’t see is the structure of the feather and how that has evolved to repel the elements so when we stroke them we damage this. You also cannot spot the dirt on your hands that we rub onto the birds or the potential zoonotic diseases the bird may be carrying that you could pick up from stroking them. Finally and the most difficult to explain is Raptor Aid feels they are not that sort of animal and by continued stroking and petting only gives the public the wrong idea about owls and other birds of prey. Please think twice! (We will explore this topic in an independent blog in a lot more detail)

Equipment & knowledge – This is a difficult one for the general public to police but most common sense when you stop and look at the situation will tell you whether it is a professional set up or not. Within the bird of prey world there are certain pieces of equipment used both on the birds including the leather anklets and jesses and the perches the birds sit on. Take a look at these closely, are they clean? Equipment that looks old or covered in faeces will be a good clue to how the birds are always kept. Leather being a natural material will deteriorate especially when not maintained, does it look dry or too big for the bird or frayed? The perches often used with birds of prey should either be purpose built wooden turned blocks with a suitable top like rubber or astroturf or metal framed bow perches. The cheap option is to just cut some log stumps to size and tether a bird to that. They are potentially neither safe or hygienicso it makes you think where the donations go doesn’t it? The knowledge of the handler is another difficult one but essentially avoid anyone who over sensationalises things or speaks negatively about the birds to get a laugh. People love to use elaborate facts to wow audiences so if it sounds far fetched it probably is, what is really scary is such organisations often go into schools with this same poor husbandry and knowledge. Images of owls being put in props including tinsel and hats do nothing for the image of the species or offer a true reflection of the birds themselves, once again it is for human enjoyment. Stand off barriers should be in place and the birds should be provided with shelter and clean drinking water.

Above are just some of the points that when thought about hopefully make perfect common sense. Birds of prey are incredible creatures but because of this and their ease of availability here in the UK they have become a target for some organisations to make money. It is also worth pointing out that some of these organisations start out life with all the best intentions for birds of prey but as we at Raptor Aid know first hand it is an expensive and time consuming business and you can’t cut corners when animals and welfare are involved. Raptor Aid are beginning to work with establishments and produce guidelines to help educate them if they are approached by a bird of prey organisation offering to carry out displays at their venue. If you come across a bird of prey organisation exhibiting near you that you are concerned about please take as many details as possible and try to speak directly to the owners of the bird with your concerns and the organisers. You are also more than welcome to forward details to Raptor Aid and we can make inquiries ourselves.

We will be blogging in the future more on individual topics raised in this blog but thank you for taking the time to read what has become a lengthy and very emotive blog.

Yours in birds!

Whats in store!

So 2017 has started a bit damp a bit cold but plenty of plans for birdy stuff. The big news is that we have applied to be a charity, this has been a long term aim of Raptor Aid and at the end of last year we started the process of approaching potential trustee’s and drafting a constitution and sorting the application to send off to the Charities Commission. This is all done with four fantastic trustee’s who will be introduced in due course and also two fantastic advisors but first we need the green light – watch this space!

Some of the reasons for going charitable is longevity towards working for birds of prey in the wild and captivity, accountability and credibility in the long term. Asking anyone for their hard earned cash needs to be done in a professional and accountable manner plus the Gift Aid will make that money go a long way further. The nice thing about Raptor Aid as a charity is we have next to no over heads, no staff wages or bills to pay so all the money raised will go towards projects we are supporting and involved with.There is no point going into to much details before we have the green light though but we have irons in the fire already and plans afoot.

In the meantime we are not sat watching the phone, our captive bird of prey team has been separated to a sister company which will take care of all the commercial side of things. Raptor Aid will continue with the conservation work with several things currently keeping us occupied check them out below.

Captive birds of prey – More and more people are owning birds of prey and also breeding them in captivity, sadly it seems birds of prey are being treated like any other consumable humans buy and are all to easily dispensed with as quickly as they are bought. We are monitoring four internet bird of prey for sale pages over the next 12 months to document the sad state of affairs captive bird of prey ownership seems to be in. This also means the rise in people using birds of prey to make money commercially has seen an increase and as you might imagine the standards have slipped, there is little legislation and with councils and government bodies already stretched Raptor Aid will be working with other organisations to develop better guidelines that may one day help or become legislative. We will also be lobbying schools and venues to avoid using companies which fall below such guidelines.

Field Work  – This has already started here in the UK, we have been out checking some territories and watching pairs starting courtship displays in certain areas. Nest boxes are being either renewed, revamped or new ones put in place with 4 Little owl boxes off to the Gloucestershire Little owl project tomorrow. We also head up to Scotland at the end of February for two meeting one being the Highland Raptor Study Group spring meeting followed by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups Conference a week later. We will be stopping up in Scotland for the week and starting our Golden Eagle surveys to check for birds on territories so hopefully we will have some nice weather.

Field Trips – Raptor Aid are all about making connections and creating working links with other conservation projects and highlighting these to a wider audience as well as offering our own advice and support. We start by heading to the Philippines to work with our friends at the Philippine Eagle Foundation in mid March taking out supplies for the centre, support in training at the centre and also the possibility of climbing to a wild nest to fit a GPS tag to a Philippine Eagle Chick. We will also be giving some talks to Staff, students and schools and hopefully looking at getting some of their schools into a twinning project with UK school childrenWe have several other projects we are going to work with this year including Belize and India.

Nest Box Scheme – Although we already run and take part in nest box schemes the ultimate plan is to start one for school children to get involved with. This is something that has been going on for a while now as it has to be just right, the nest boxes, how it will work and how it will be managed and monitored. There are lots of exciting aspects to this scheme that will come to light in the near future. Watch this space!

We will also be running our raptor identification workshop for the Field Studies Council and will be looking to roll out our own one here in Cheshire along with some other organisations along with getting out to groups to talk about our work and how you can help birds of prey. Lots happening so keep an eye on here and Facebook.

Thanks for Reading!