Saturday, 27 June 2015

Certainly more than two

Summer is definitely coming on apace and the birding is starting to hit the doldrums. Down Maple Lodge this morning there was more excitement about insects than birds. Apparently a horehound longhorn moth has been found!! It is very pretty I have to admit, however....
Anyway, first thing I went to go and have a look at the stars of the reserve at the moment, the sparrowhawks who are nesting. They started a couple of months ago, have gone through the incubation phase and the small fluffy stage and now they are almost ready to fledge. The nest is really close to one of the main paths through the reserve meaning we can get really good views of them and also they seem to have become habituated to people lurking about in bushes.
There are definitely three and possibly four in the nest. First thing this morning they were all quite active.

There was quite a lot of wing flapping and jumping around in the nest. all this was the prelude to the female coming in with a bit of breakfast for them.

 I don't know what she brought in but they looked very pleased with it.

After a long morning pulling nettles the afternoon was spent visiting a new reserve with Judith. This was the RSPB reserve at Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire. The reason for going was to try and see turtle doves, which have been reported there. Twenty years ago they were the sound of Summer in the UK, now they are becoming quite scarce.
After a bit longer drive than it should have been due to heavy traffic we arrived to find a lovely little reserve. It is not big, with a circular path taking you round a central reed bed. The usual suspects such as reed warblers, reed buntings, kingfishers were all present. What we did find though were the turtle doves. I guess there were 3 calling around the reeds, sitting out in trees. Beautiful call, beautiful birds although quite nervous and never coming close.

We were very impressed with the reserve though. There use to be a watercress bed and a clear stream ran through the middle, almost chalk-like with crystal water, verdant plant growth and fish visible in the depths.

 It had a really nice to feel to the reserve, three hides, not too far away and clearly well managed.
To top it all off, on the way out we spotted a hare in a field. It was down in the vegetation and let us creep up on it in the car. Eventually though it got bored and disappeared at speed into the longer grass.

Overall a really nice Summers day!!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Flowers in the rain

Guest contributor: Judith Passingham
A good thing to do in Rickmansworth, on a warm overcast Saturday afternoon, is to take a walk around the local Aquadrome. A series of flooded gravel pits thread along the Colne valley, with the River Colne itself on one side and the Grand Union canal on the other, spotted with attractively coloured barges and flanked by wooded areas and open fields. We walked along the valley, firstly dodging the rain, and then taking pleasure in the patterns it created in the water, and the droplets in the flowers, ignoring the entire lack of suitable rainwear.

In mid June the flora is an interesting combination of the first ‘flourish’ of Summer, and the evolving later Summer plants. Active tendrils of the Old Man’s Beard stems are starting to thread their way among the bushes, and there are numerous large clumps of blackberry blossom in evidence with white delicate petals, brownish yellow stamens. The first parsleys or umbellifers are seeding into green star shapes, whilst mid and later summer species are in development.

Around the various pools there are many flowers including several types of clover; white, yellow (of the trefoil variety) and purple (of red and zig zag types), purple vetches and comfreys of various hues,  all populated by large bumble bees moving methodically from flower to flower.

 There are many nettles growing up high to shoulder height between the trees and bushes, some with purple flowers- others with green crumbly tendrils between the nettle leaf bracts.Towards the Stockers lake area there is goats rues in whites and pale purples, red campions with their small pink flowers shining out of dark green, and light purple thistles populated by honey coloured bumble bees searching endlessly and systematically for pollen. 

Some of the plants are covered with cuckoo spit – small green insects contained in gobbets of white foam, others have beetles and shield bugs. Tiny black beetles lodge amongst some of the pollens in the centre of white and pink wild roses.

 Two Great Spotted Woodpeckers interact on the branch of a dead tree. A baby Garden Warbler emerges,  dampish, after a heavy shower.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The times of the tides

The day before I had a particularly long but successful business trip to Rotterdam so I decided that a lie-in was in order. Surprisingly I was still up at round 8 though and feeling not too tired. So, I pinged off a quick email to work to say I was going to take a day off. The reason - the Hudsonian whimbrel. This is another rare American wader, following on from the Hudsonian godwit and the greater yellowlegs. I'd never seen one before but to add insult to injury my brother-in-law got it the previous weekend.
It was hanging out on the south coast near the yellowlegs at a place called Church Norton which is near Pagham harbour. the directions seemed straight-forward although parking was iffy as you had to park in the church and brides were apparently getting upset at twitchers crashing their big day!
I got to the church on time, at about 10.30. There were a  number of cars already there. The bird was normally seen "from the hide". A track led off the car park and I soon found myself on an estuary with lots of mud and about 15 birders. Two were already leaving and the news was "no sign". In theory I was there at a decent time, the tide was low and lots of mud but it was rising rapidly. Over the next 90 minutes we saw lots of other waders - curlew, the commoner cousin the eurasian whimbrel, dunlin and ringed plovers but no sign of the star. It was now getting pretty hot as well. By 12 the tide was pretty full. The mud had all but disappeared and the waders gone into a roost. Most of the birders also retired as well to wait for the tide to fall.
I went back to the car and drove off to find some lunch, as the decision to go was a late one so I hadn't made any sarnies. A quick stop for fuel of the diesel and sandwich variety and I was back on the estuary. A few others were doing the same, lurking in bushes and having a bite to eat. Then suddenly on my phone came an alert that the bird was seen at 12. Very strange, no other birders around to call it in and you would have presumed they would have waited. A few others saw the alert and came back but no sign.
I did walk down the estuary and you could see in the grass a number of birds of curlew shape lying up. The heat haze was awful though and there was no chance of making anything out. We did get on one group and two looked whimbrel-like but way too far off to make them our properly. A few of us decided though that this was the best place to wait for the tide to fall as this was where the mud would first appear so we basically camped out whilst mud slowly appeared.
Eventually things started to hot up. First one bird appeared opposite us, then another in flight, then 3 all flew in at once. The game, as Sherlock would say, was afoot.
The bird itself has only recently been upgraded to full species status and can be tricky to tell apart from its commoner European cousin. The main diagnostic though is the lack of a white rump, plainly visible in flight. So, for the next couple of hours I suppose we studied every large wader and everyone was "white rump". Some played hard to get and either flew towards us or walked around without raising their wings. One group of 3 had a bird which "looked good" and no one saw white when it landed but it then vanished in the long grass never to reappear - a possible or even a probable but not a certain.
Finally we got excited. One bird, clearly a whimbrel came marching down the estuary.

Why is this a whimbrel not a curlew? Well it's smaller although that is hard to tell, the beak is a lot shorter and it has a bold stripe on its head. We watched this bird for I suppose 45 minutes as it fed voraciously on the mud. Would it raise it's wings? Would it heck. A couple of times it sort of shrugged and we thought we could see white but not conclusive either way. Finally it had moved so far we had to decamp further up the estuary back to where I started the day by the hide.
I got there at the same time as the bird and another 10 or 15 people were already on it. Our party slowly arrived as well. Finally it gave a big wing flap right in front of me....... and showed a white rump. Not the Hudsonian after all. Everyone continued staring at it hoping we might be wrong but no. It was now about 6.45, the tide was starting to come back in again and it was getting overcast and quite dark even though we were near midsummer.
I gave up on this one and had a last scan of the estuary - curlew, curlew, curlew, small curlew?!! One bird way over the far side looked odd. The bill was much longer than our friend but not quite like a curlew. Then it turned and I got a bright flash of white on its crown. Suddenly it all fell into place. Hudsonians were meant to have longer bills - tick - and are an overall darker, browner colour - tick.
I gathered up my gear and almost shouting to everyone else "its over there" I yomped the few hundred yards to where it was.
"Oh yes" said a bloke already there "its down in that gulley". He could have bloody waved and told us earlier!!!!
Finally, all 20 of us got onto the bird in the rapidly failing light.

The whole "jizz" of the bird was different and made us 100% happy with the id before it even flew and showed us its non-white rump.
It was somehow longer, in bill, in body and in legs. It almost resembled more of a godwit with a bent bill. The stripe in its head was really showing well though.

You can see here the characteristic whimbrel stripes but these I think are the most definite I've seen. It did fly once totally confirming the identification but we were already happy.
It paraded around on the mud catching crabs and other small stuff but always a good couple of hundred yards or more away hence the not brilliant photos  which are all heavily cropped and at ISO2000 or so.

Finally, by about quarter to eight we all gradually gave up and wended our way back to the car park. Some very happy birders. Took me over 9 hours to get the bird. Another birder, Brian Harrison who was very good company over the many hours, had been there since 8!!
A not too bad trip back was made all the better by England stuffing NZ at cricket but to be honest , who cared. What a great Spring for rare American waders. Wonder what the Autumn will bring?

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Monty's in the marsh

If at all possible I try to combine long work trips with the opportunity to do some birding. A spotted sandpiper when I visited Masterfoods, a water pipit at Tilda rice and Speyside before our Scottish conference come to mind.
So, a long trip up to Leeds to present a customer segmentation  gave me the chance of bagging a lifer. There is a pair of Montagu's harriers at Blacktoft Sands near Hull. They are presumed to be nesting. They are also the biggest "tarts tick" on my UK list. Basically, they are the bird I haven't seen that most other people have.
I left early in the morning and blasted up the M1. On the way up I stopped at Welbeck near Nottingham. This is a good place for seeing honey buzzards, especially if they are nesting. This year however they are not nesting, and talking to a local birder there in only one female around and she seems to be a once every 3 or 4 days bird. Two hours of watching got me lots of common buzzards, yellow wagtails, a cuckoo, lesser whitethroat and a kestrel but no sign of honeys.
So, I gave up and moved up north to Blacktoft. In what is becoming a pattern I just plugged in the postcode and drove on in reverie. I got to the village of Blacktoft. Strangely for an RSPB reserve there were no signs and no evidence of a reserve of hides. I began to suspect my error and looked at a map. I was indeed near the reserve, it was on the other side of the river!! Not far away as the crow flies but 30 minutes drive to go back around.
So, 30 minutes later I to to a well signed and popular RSPB reserve. The guy in the centre pointed me to the best hide for Monty watching but said he'd been here regularly and only seen them twice.
The hide was pretty full and on asking the person I sat down next to if they were showing the news was good - the female had been seen about 20 minutes before.
The hide looked out on an open pool and beyond that marsh and reeds. It was close to feeling like Summer as well and there was a strong heat haze over the reeds. It was clear it was good for harriers. There was a constant presence of marsh harriers, drifting over the reeds, hovering over worried ducks and carrying off coots!

After only I suppose 20 minutes or so a much smaller harrier popped up. Still basically brown but on long slender wings and with a characteristic "ring tail" or white mark on her rump it was the female Monty's. Lifer!!! She was a long way off though, probably half a mile or more back and with the heat haze it meant photography came under the "record shot" category.

 She drifted over the reeds, occasionally disappearing. Finally she totally disappeared for half an hour or so before repeating the performance. These are VERY rare breeding birds in the UK and either it is not known if these are breeding or, more likely, the RSPB are being pretty cautious about releasing information. Anyway, what most people wanted to see was her mate. They look totally different, on light grey and black wings.
Finally he popped up out of the reeds and for about 3 or 4 minutes the two chased each other over the reeds.

You can just about make out how smart a bird he is. The general feeling in the hide was that she was on eggs (or chicks) and she was basically giving him a chivvy on to go and catch some food for her. Certainly he suddenly turned on his tail and went off with a purpose away from us, hopefully to get her some tea. Great birds and it will be a real coup for the reserve if they raise chicks.
To be honest there wasn't a lot else on the reserve. They did have nesting avocets but apparently they lost all their chicks to foxes and the marsh harriers,  leaving just a few adults mooching around. They also had bird feeders with tree sparrows which are pretty rare down south nowadays,  but commoner further north.

So, although I dipped on the honeys,  a lifer made my day -  and made the trek into Leeds for my presentation the next day a lot better!!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Are those cats wild? Wild, they're absolutely livid!!

For my birthday Judith bought me a photo experience day run by Jessops. It was run at a place called the Cat Survival Trust near Welwyn ( I'd never heard of it before and you wouldn't know it was there. It's on the edge of the town behind a farmshop. It was started about 30 years ago with the intention of running almost a studbook or exchange centre for zoos. Basically they take in and breed endangered cats and "loan" them to zoos removing the need for them to source new stock from the wild. Take your own view about whether it works but the guy who runs it is a bit evangelical about it and about climate change and the animals themselves seem to be well looked after, albeit in small enclosures for animals like these.
The day is run by a team of 3 from Jessops with the intention of getting you to get more from your camera. If you are new to DSLR's then it would be very good. If you are reasonably experienced then you wont get much from it. It is probably a cause worth supporting though and the Jessop's team were very helpful and pleasant throughout.
The day from my pov was therefore spent lurking around outside the enclosures. You get VERY close to the cats.
They had snow and amur leopards, puma, jaguar and servals all showing themselves. A lynx was there but sat in a corner and a clouded leopard was not seen. They have a few smaller cats but the weather was hot and they didn't show at all.
I'll post some of the better photos. All in all it was an interesting day and you can see the logic to what they are doing there. If you want to get some close-ups of big cats it may be worth a trip - you can visit but have to join first mainly I suspect for health and safety reasons!!

As well as the cats they do have a few owls as well, which they are branching out into. These two were quite good fun!!