Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Small Wonders

It was a relatively quiet week at the reserves with little significant bird activity to report. Wader-wise, Cliffe Pools pulled in c20 Whimbrel and a small number of adult, summer-plumed Dunlin alongside good numbers of Lapwing (c200), Avocet (c100) and Redshank (c150). But the wildlife highlight of the week for me came after the moth trap was put out by the barn one night.

Check these beauties out:

Ruby Tiger (Phragmatobia fuliginosa)

Brown-Line Bright-Eye (Mythimna conigera)
Peppered Moth (Biston betularia). Most geography/ecology students will be familiar with this one due to its famous evolutionary trait of visibly adapting to its surroundings. During the industrial revolution in Britain, a dark or 'melanic' form of the moth was found in areas where pollution caused 'blackening' of tree bark and leaves. A white moth would show up easily against this background and would therefore be at a higher risk of predation.   
And how about this stunner...
Poplar Hawkmoth (Laothoe populi). This moth was in a kind of 'torpor' when we looked at it but it slowly began to warm up and beat its wings furiously. Eventually it took off like a Harrier jump jet! 
These are all night-flying moths; it's amazing to think that when the lights go out and we're all asleep, these dazzling moths are busy doing what moths do. Which as far as I can tell is lurking about in the undergrowth and going crazy for any light sources. Presumably they mate at some point too. Apparently some adult moths don't even feed, they survive on energy reserves built up during the transformation from caterpillar to pupa. Most, like butterflies, drink the liquid from particular flowers but some feed on lichen (I've often wondered if anything did!) From the looks of it, moth-trapping seems to be becoming a pretty widespread, and dare I say it...'cool' pasttime. And why not, it's harmless (the moths are caught alive and released in the morning) and it makes good conversation:

"yeah, I had a Setaceous Hebrew Character outside this morning"
"nice going, I had a Lime-Speck Pug and an Old Lady in my trap..." *

Moth ID is pretty new to me so I'm looking forward to exploring them a bit more in the coming weeks.

*all real names.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Photoblog: Birds of the Algarve (June 2011)

Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) Tavira saltflats 28/6/11
Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in flight, Tavira 28/6/11 

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
It was great seeing these for the first time. This photo doesn't really do it justice; they are a beautiful wader with exceptionally long red legs (apparently the longest legs relative to body length of any bird in the world) One of the highlights of my trip was sitting in a ditch early one morning, watching a pair I suspect were nesting nearby. Don't let it be said that I don't know how to have fun! 

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) Tavira saltflats, 28/6/11
 Not a great a photo but a nice record of this small, pretty wader that is a rarity in the UK (don't be fooled by the name!) You can just make out the dark legs and thin breast band that seperate it from other plovers.
Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) Parque Nacional Ria Formosa, 29/6/11
 I saw a few of these and although they look stunning when perched, I think they're even more incredible in flight. With rapid beats of stiff wings they looked somehow...primitive? 
White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) Tavira 28/6/11
There were several pairs of these hard-to-miss birds just a short walk from our apartment. They readily use man-made structures close to marshes to build their spectacular nests and return year after year to the same sites. It was great looking out in the evenings and seeing their striking forms dotting the horizon.
Mum and I twitching a Purple Gallinule! Field near Parque Nacional Ria Formosa, 29/6/11
A rare bird even in this part of Portugal which is supposedly a stronghold for the population. Closley resembling a Coot or Moorhen, locals call it the 'Purple Chicken' and although there were some doubts as to whether or not what we saw was one, I'm certain we got it.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Dipped on Spoonies but bagged a Beardy (ooer!)

I started this week with a trip to RSPB Elmley Marsh on the Isle of Sheppey. I’d heard a lot of good things about the site and news that several Spoonbills had dropped in during the week only added to the anticipation. Once I managed to find the site (um, memo to RSPB) I was impressed by the scale. The long meandering drive in was made longer with frequent stops to watch Marsh Harriers patrolling the ditches but otherwise it was fairly quiet. Mid-July is generally a quiet time for bird watching; return wader passage is yet to peak and most passerines are quietly recovering from the breeding season and/or building up reserves for movement in the coming months.  A Common Sandpiper flew in to join Avocet, Blackwits and a lone Ruddy Duck on one of the pools. Elsewhere a variety of warblers and Meadow Pipits were cheerily singing from the reeds and scrub. But the talk in the hides was of Spoonbills and unfortunately the word was that they had flown the previous day. Nevermind, that’s one I’ll have to wait for.
Hedgehog - a rare daylight sighting! Elmley, 10/7/11
Back at Northward Hill, my birding pick of the week came in the form of several Bearded Tits ‘pinging’ back and forth on a blustery reed bed way out in the marsh. Despite the wind, the little gingery-black jobs clambered and flew about, making use of the shelter afforded by the vegetation. It is thought that the population may have suffered as a result of the heavy snow in winter crushing a large section of the reeds but whether this has pushed the birds further up, increasing densities in the surviving areas, I’m not sure. Still, a great bird to see and another lifer for me.
While watching the Beardies, a Buzzard appeared from beyond the fleet giving a decent, if only momentary, view. This was the second sighting of the week after 4 birds caused a minor staff twitch when they flew over the office on Monday afternoon. Rounding off a good week for birds beginning with ‘B’ are the Barn Owls. Several evenings this week I’ve watched them hunting from the viewpoint near the car park. One evening with particularly good light I watched an owl approach from a fair distance away; as it neared my position it clocked me and kept my gaze for several seconds while maintaining direction. I was struck by its total grace in the air and its pale, bewitching features. Watching it, two questions came to mind; one, how can you tell a male and female Barn Owl apart? And two, for a bird that is crepuscular and nocturnal, why is it so pale in comparison to other owl species? I’ll have to get the book out on those and get back to you.
Work on the reserve this week has focused on maintenance and upkeep of the paths and barn.  Reptile fences have been finished at Cliffe and these areas have been checked regularly through the week for sheltering lizards and snakes. The fences are in place to stop reptiles moving onto areas of land that may flood during large scale water re-distribution work later in the year. A Butterfly transect at Cliffe on Friday yielded 8 species with Small White and Gatekeeper recorded in large numbers. On that note, I thoroughly recommend reading Patrick Barkham’s ‘The Butterfly Isles’ – a personable and in-depth look at the history and ecology of British butterflies.
Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), Cliffe Pools 15/7/11

Yellow Wagtail (Montacilla flava), Northward Hill, 13/7/11

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Reserve Diary: Week 1

Brice Fleet looking back towards Northward Hill
It was certainly odd waking up on Monday morning and gazing out at the scrub and marshland that now rolls away beneath my window. No sirens, no horns, no faint rumblings of over-crowded buses struggling up Lewisham Way. Just the wind. And birds, lots of them: chattery, wheezy finches singing from telephone wires, Song Thrush, Blackbird and Blackcap skulking in the bushes. But the highlight of this window chorus was a Turtle Dove on Tuesday, gently purring away in a manner befitting such a beautifully plumed bird. A life-tick before breakfast? Not a bad way to start eh?!
The main focus this week has been familiarising myself with the Northward Hill and Cliffe Pools reserves – two very different sites a few miles apart. Northward Hill contains a mosaic of habitats including oak woodland, scrub and grazing marsh while Cliffe Pools is principally a series of saline lagoons and brackish pools interspersed with rank grassland. They are fantastic sites with varied and interesting histories, they are also hugely important for many species of resident and migrant birds.
Speaking of birds...while installing reptile fences at Cliffe on Wednesday a call went out on the radio reporting that a local birder had a confirmed sighting of a Black Kite in the area and reckoned it was heading our way. With the news neatly coinciding with lunchtime we headed up to a viewpoint on the Thames wall in case it decided to follow the river a bit. Unfortunately, this annual but rather rare vagrant to the British Isles, which was probably brought in as the weather in the south east broke on Tuesday night, eluded us and lunch was spent in the company of a few passing Common Terns and a Kestrel instead. However we had more luck at Cliffe on Thursday with a lovely Spotted Redshank in characteristic dark breeding plumage pitching up at the Black Barn pools on the east side. This was followed by several Ruff, nicely dug out of a flock of Black-tailed Godwits by Dave, another RV. This was another first for me and after scoping an individual (which I presumed male) for a while I began to see why this curious, mid-size wader often causes a few ID problems. It was an attractive bird, with faded ‘tortoiseshell’ wing feathers, orange legs and a pale streaky, ‘scuffed’ crown. Added to this were a few messy black splodges on an otherwise white breast (a remnant of the bold breeding plummage?) Somehow it looked like an amalgamation of several different waders but perhaps that is its charm and its giveaway.
 These sightings, along with the appearance of numerous Sand Martins over the reserves this week, suggest that some birds are already beginning to return from their northern European/arctic breeding grounds. Another few weeks and there should hopefully be some more interesting waders stopping off here before continuing the long migration south.

On Friday I visited another site to assist with the final Lapwing productivity survey of the season. This survey is designed to establish the success of certain key breeding birds and involves scanning the area for any signs of breeding or ‘alarming’ adults and hopefully well-feathered or fledged chicks. Although it is very late in the season, amazingly, after an hour and a half of searching, an adult female Lapwing flushed from the grass just yards from the truck and landed in a small ditch close by. And she was followed by two part-grown chicks! Ironically, due to the constraints of the survey we were unable to include these (the predation risk for such young birds still being high) but it was a nice way to round off the week.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

and a furry little ball of Lapwing chick!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Raised in the City

Peregrine, London, April 2011 (image captured with scope)

Before leaving London I thought I’d write about one of my favourite bird watching experiences in the capital. I guess it’s easy to feel a little jaded when birding in an urban area since there is little scope for turning up something unusual. While there are rewards in becoming familiar with any species even common ones, I think every birder secretly craves that bolt from the blue every now and then.
I must’ve attracted some strange looks, standing by Lewisham roundabout one evening last month, bins raised to the dismal office tower overshadowing it. But circling the area and spooking the local feral pigeon population was a local first for me – an adult Peregrine falcon. I never thought there’d be a time in my life when I’d be able to see a Peregrine on my way back from Tesco.
In truth it wasn’t particularly a surprise. I had heard of Peregrines in the area and seen them elsewhere in south London. For the last year I’ve made a point of scanning the tower for any tell-tale silhouettes whenever I’ve been passing. Still, what luck to see such a magnificent bird in my own grimly urbanised part of south east London.
Nowadays a mention of a Peregrine sighting in London barely causes a stir. They have become a welcome though fairly regular presence, but that has not always been the case. With the first breeding pair reported in the late 1990s, the population has since risen to 18 pairs in 2010 and possibly 22 in 2011 (I’m sure I read this somewhere). It’s an impressive rise but what are the reasons for this?
For a bird that traditionally resides in hilly, upland areas and around coasts, the city is a surprisingly good alternative habitat. For one, there are plenty of tall buildings with undisturbed spaces that recreate their ‘natural’ environment of cliff ledges and rocky outcrops. Just as important is the food supply and the abundance of feral pigeons (as well as Starlings and anything else going) in London is one of the major factors credited with their boom. Although they are now arguably ‘urban’ birds they still bring an element of the wilderness to towns and cities, allowing urban dwellers a glimpse of life ‘outside’.
Someone asked me recently what happens to the birds that fledge each year, where do they go? It’s a good point because Peregrines are territorial and although London is a huge city, it can presumably only support a certain number of territories. Some young birds obviously leave the area and move elsewhere but the excellent London Peregrines website also suggests that there are birds literally ‘waiting in the wings’ for a chance to takeover or establish space for themselves. I find that really interesting. It goes on to point out that territories have decreased from an approx 3mile radius in the early part of the last decade to ¾ mile in 2010.
The marked upward trend in breeding pairs has a natural limit but a stable population of birds in London looks likely to continue and the city is richer for it.

Amazing Peregrine footage on YouTube:

Friday, 1 July 2011

All Change

"I want to live close to downtown to be near my friends
I want to be close to them,
And still be out by the trees and the wind
Havin' both will be hard to find I'm sure,
But then ain't that the way of the world,
I want the city but I want the country too"

- City Vs. Country by Jonathan Richman

The last month or so has been a pretty manic one round here. Aside from memorable trips to Pembrokeshire and Portugal, I've been busy making preparations for an exciting new challenge. This weekend I'll be saying a fond farewell to south London (for a while at least) and moving to north Kent to take up a 9 month volunteer placement with the RSPB. It'll be a big change but I'm absolutely thrilled at the prospect. Anyway, more on that soon, but for now I just want to say that normal service here will be resumed shortly. 'Til then- sing it, Jonathan.

Oh btw, in case you were wondering, the answers to 'Name that Bird - Round 3' are:
1. Goldcrest
2. Pied Wagtail (adult in winter plumage)
3. Kestrel (classic 'hovering' pose, albeit in silhouette)