Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Two turtle doves...

You just get the slightest feeling that birding may be picking up. It may just be me wanting it to be so, but I am feeling more like putting up with the heat and getting out there. Wader passage is starting - just - and there are a few other nice birds to catch up with. With a cooler day forecast I set out early as ever, this time for Kent. My main stop was to be Oare Marshes in North Kent. This is a lovely smallish reserve, basically a marsh with a circular path next to the Swale estuary. It has tidal movements, less of water, more of waders coming into it at high tide. I've been here quite a few times before so I knew where to go and to park.
There were two birds I wanted to see. One, a Bonapartes gull, has been visiting here in the Summer for the last 5 years. It is a waif and stray from America so it totally lost and is now living here! The other birds were a family of 4 black-winged stilts. This is particularly exciting as it is one of the few broods to fully fledge in the country.

When I arrived the tide was rising and the central marsh was starting to fill with waders being forced off the mud. Most of them are black-tailed godwits, the brown waders in this photo. My target though was the stilts which were initially at the back of the marsh. A short walk and I got round to where 2 other birders were already onto them. They are another of those birds which does what it says on the tin. They have black-wings and they have really long legs, just like stilts! This is one of the adult birds. The two juveniles were parked on a more distant island!.

Both the adults were in the area though.

The limited space forced the birds of all sorts a bit too close together and squabbles would break out.

After an hour or so they moved to the front of the marsh and basically went to sleep amongst the other sleeping birds including a good number of avocets.

My other target, the Bonepartes gull, was out on the estuary feeding on the mud. I have already seen one in May, so you wonder if that one may even be the same bird as this one? Anyway, it took me about 10 minutes but eventually I found it amongst the slightly larger black-headed gulls.

The problem is that from behind it looks very like a "normal" gull! It's only when it turns sideways that you see the distinctive black, not brown, hood and more delicate bill. I watched it for about 30 minutes. It never came close but traversed the estuary looking for tasty morsels.

These shots show you a couple of the key ID features. The size, slightly smaller than the black-headed gulls, the white eye ring and the black slightly down-curved bill. It never flew but did flap a couple of times and you could see the black tips to its primary feathers.
Finally at Oare I stopped at some cottages near the reserve entrance. One of the locals had put me onto it as a good location for turtle doves. Boy, he wasn't wrong. There must have 5 or 6 purring away in the bushes. They used to be the iconic sound of Summer in the UK but now their numbers are dramatically down, due to habitat loss here and awful slaughter by the guns in the Mediterranean on migration.

Mostly they were calling out of sight but occasionally popped up onto the wires. They were also still displaying and two flew quite close to me, chasing each other round and round.

After Oare I did go down the coast to Dungeness. It was pretty quiet, though the patch had lots of gulls feeding just offshore.
I did pick up another year tick in the form of black redstart but it was very flighty. Still, a good day out, some lovely birds showing well. Lets see if things really do start picking up now through July.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Blowing in the wind

In the Summer birders turn into "moth-ers" and start searching out harder targets. Moths and butterflies are present in vastly larger species numbers than birds in the UK. There are about 600 species of bird on the UK list, but over 2,500 moths and butterflies. They are also harder to see, with many moths being nocturnal and butterflies extremely local. I have been running a light-trap in the garden which lures moths in and you can collect and ID them in the morning. The hard part is working out what they are though.
An alternative method, which only works for a limited number of species called clearwings, is to use chemical lures. These are impregnated with pheromones which the insects find irresistible. You can buy them online and they are species specific. They come with a trap as well. All seemed very interesting so I invested in one with two lures and have tried them both.
It was remarkable. Both lures worked for their target species, within a matter of minutes for one and a couple of hours for the other.
The first lure was for a smallish moth called a red-belted clearwing.

They are well-named, with their wings being pretty much transparent and having a red belt across their abdomen. I put the lure out, which is a small plug above a plastic bucket and literally within 10 minutes I had 5 in the trap and you could see others flying around. The pheromones disperses on the wind and lures them in, but the short time shows they must be present nearby.
The second species is much larger, and if often mistaken for something else - it is the hornet moth.

It has that black and yellow banding seen in wasps and hornets and the stocky structure is certainly reminiscent of hornets. I only caught one but it was a handsome beast. Again the speed though with which it appeared must mean they are present locally but you never see them.
I will try again and next year you can get other lures (they have sold out this year) for other species as well. Amazing how well it worked....

Dim and distant

Just a quick post. There have been very few opportunities to go birding recently, so a red-backed shrike at Thursley seemed too good an opportunity to miss. It was seen late yesterday and reported again today so I braved the M25 and slogged round to the Moat car park.
I could see probably 8 or 9 birders at the end of the raised walkway looking across to some trees so I yomped down there. By the time I got there it was approaching 11am and getting very warm. I could see a bird in a tree but it was distant and the haze was already starting to rise.

It was on a tree and quite mobile though within a limited area. It would perch, then dive down presumably grabbing food and return to one of the perches. It was too far even with a scope to see what prey it was having.
Occasionally it came a bit closer, but only really through a scope could you make out the plumage details.  It was a cracking male bird in breeding finery.Most birds seen in the UK, now we have lost our breeding population, are juveniles.

You can make out the salient points to its plumage though - the red-back, the bold eye-stripe and with a bit of imagination the dark, hooked bill. I didn't last long and trudged back home through the traffic. Hopefully the Autumn return migration should pick up in the next week or so and a few waders might pop up!!

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Dive, dive, dive....

I remember back in the mid 1970's going up to Loch Garten to see what was one of a very few pairs of ospreys nesting in the UK. Certainly it was the only one where you were just about guaranteed to see them. Since then they have, mainly naturally but also with a bit of encouragement, spread and grown in numbers. They now nest at many sites in Scotland as well as Wales and through central England. They are now so predictable that a few enterprising locations have set ups where you can either watch the birds (Loch Garten, Loch of the Lowes, Manton Bay) or where they come to feed. The latter are normally at fish farms where the owners have realised that for the cost of a few trout they can hire out seats in hides to photographers and make a decent living from it. We have already been to Rothiemurchus where we had good views of ospreys diving into the trout-stocked pool. This year I decided to try the Rutland Water set up, run out of Horn Mill fish farm, on the recommendation of our relations, Wendy and Michael. They have been here many times and got stunning photos so I booked in for an evening session.
I got to the farm about 4 which is down a small lane about 10 minutes drive from the giant reservoir the is Rutland Water. Three other cars were already queuing to get in and vey soon Ian our "spotter" came and let us in. We were taken to the hide and got ourselves set up. The news was mixed though. Two of those in the hide had been there in the morning and saw no ospreys from 4.30am till past 9!! The set up is fairly simple - a rather luxurious hide with comfy office chairs on wheels. There were 6 of us in the hide with plenty of room either for tripods (which no one had) or to hand-hold. The pool was right outside and small fish were jumping frequently. Ian left us with a walkie-talkie as he would wait up the hill and call us if a bird came into sight. We settled down for what we hoped wouldn't be a long wait. As it turned out we were very lucky. The first bird came in after about 20 minutes and over the next 4 hours we had 7 dives from 3 birds.

The pattern was reasonably predictable. When a bird came in it would first of all sit up in a dead tree to the left of the hide with a good view of the fishing pond.

They would sit up there, occasionally calling, bobbing their heads around and flapping in the strong breeze to keep their balance. For us it was tricky as you couldn't hold your lens up all the time as they could spend 15 minutes or more waiting for the perfect time to pounce. There was no discernible trigger move but suddenly they would plummet down off their perch and you had to try and grab the focus.

Photos on the way down were much harder than on the way back up. The reason is that the birds do not gently snatch fish off the surface, they plunge deep into it trying to grab a fish as they scattered away from the diving bird. As you can see from the photo above the fish detect the bird before it hits the water.

 After splashing deep into the water the next thing they have to do is to get back out again. Of the 7 dives we saw, a fish was caught on only 3 occasions. The other 4 were misses. With no fish they could get out and fly off quite easily.

On every occasion when they missed they circled straight back round to the waiting tree and had another go. The bird above, blue 28, had three misses in a row before catching a fish - bad for him but good for us!! When they do grab one then it is a lot harder for them to get themselves up and out of the water as this sequence shows.

Under the water they must be securing their grip on the fish, which is not a small one, and trying to align it so that it faces forward. They do this so it is more streamlined in flight and creates less drag. The first time you see it you think the bird is stuck in the water but they eventually get out and fly off to either eat the fish or deliver it to their young in the nest.

The lake is well stocked with fish, with small ones jumping out of the water constantly, presumably being chased by the bigger ones. You can also see, as in the top shot in the set above, that the big ones appear on the surface looking very relieved that they were not the one chosen by the diving osprey.
By the time we left just after 9 it was getting pretty dim, and photography was getting harder with ISO settings getting pushed out. The ospreys though kept coming for a late evening snack, giving us fun all the way to the end of our session.

You can't say how fortunate we are to now have these majestic birds not only back as regular breeds but on number such that we can get experiences like this with them. Thanks to Ian, Jamie and Lawrence for giving me such a great time. I absolutely know I will be back.