Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Wild West

Walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, August 2012

While it seems like most of London has spent the last week looking for Wrynecks, some friends and I used the long weekend for our now annual camping trip to west Wales. Generally I'm not someone who likes to return to the same place year on year but our little patch at the bottom of a generous farmer's field, a stone's throw from the stunning cliff top path that winds around this beautiful part of the world, is an exception. It's about as 'off the grid' as you can realistically get and even my phone couldn't get any reception for days; these are precious moments. Waking every morning to the sounds of the countryside stirring through the flimsy canvas; the chirrips and whirrs of linnets and skylarks, the calls of crows, gulls, livestock...well, it's something I look forward to endlessly.

We've walked a good part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path now and one day we'll finish it (!), but this year we walked the path from Strumble Head to Fishguard.

With the forecast looking gloomy for much of the weekend it was with epic JOY that we hit the headland on Sunday morning with blue skies, sunshine and a light breeze on our backs. We survived the rollercoaster ride that is the Strumble Shuttle and were pretty soon all taking in the amazing views from the top. It's easy to see why it's a famous seawatching spot and there were plenty of seabirds on offer. Gannets were dotted everywhere, big white shapes in flight, occasionally dropping head first like a stone, into the sea to feed. Closer to shore kittiwakes (inc juveniles) gathered on the surface as herring gulls and fulmars wheeled above. Further scanning bought a small group of razorbills at sea and, perhaps most interesting of all, a passing shearwater. Bins could only take in so much but it looked ok for a Manx Shearwater, though I'd love to claim it was the Sooty Shearwater that was spotted the same day. Anyway, that was good but I was most excited by the brief view of a dolphin flashing through the water nearby! I only saw it briefly as it breached and disappeared, but I suspect it was a Common Dolphin since several others had been seen recently. My first wild dolphin anywhere I think. Elsewhere at Strumble Head a small crowd was gathered looking down on the inlet beneath the lighthouse and here's why:

Aw yes! These are Grey Seals I think - a mum and her pup. The white-coated pup must have been born only recently as it has yet to moult into its first proper coat. This one seemed quite happy in the water as its mum offered gentle encouragement and kept an eye on us. Pembrokeshire is a good area for grey seals with a population of around 5000 and as we walked north, almost every bay seemed to have them present.

There was plenty of wildlife to see from the path; birdwise it was all the good usual suspects of rocky cliffs and grassy slopes. A Stonechat was flicking about as we left the car park and Rock Pipits were abundant all along the cliffs. A Kestrel tussled with crows on the sunny cliff edge and there were Peregrines at several points. On the migrant front, Swallow passage was in full swing wherever we went along the coast and a single Wheatear perched on a rocky outcrop in some adjacent fields. In the sheltered, scrubby sections of the path, Chiffchaffs were regularly heard. These same areas were also good for butterflies with a Painted Lady a nice find on some thistles and a Wall Brown (a first) appearing briefly as we stopped for lunch on the headland where some French revolutionary types launched a brief and ill-advised invasion in 1797. Apparently it was the last invasion on British soil and it lasted 2 days before they were presumably told to sod off. There, that's some history for you.

The stunning colours of a Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) at Strumble Head
Purple flowers of heather (Calluna vulgaris) blooming on the cliffs
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) clinging to thistles on the coast path

Here's some footage of passing Raven, listen out for its distinctive kronk kronk kronk call:

The path on this section was a lot more up and down than the more southerly stretches but still a great walk.  After a couple of hours we rounded the headland towards Fishguard and ducked in land in search of a pub.

Thus it was kind of inevitable that a good few hours later we found ourselves crashing elegantly down lanes and fields in pitch darkness. Whose idea was Jagermeister followed by a night hike? Nevermind. In the city you forget what darkness is like, but out there, with no electricity to infect, your eyes can begin to read the shadows. And the stars! If you give them a chance. Bats skimmed our heads as we picked our way home.

The next day we awoke to RAIN and not your drizzly city rain either...COUNTRY RAIN. Buckets of it. And it didn't let up for 18 hours. It put a dampner on things (ha) and curtailed any further ramblings but that's the way it goes. Next morning I awoke to this, and everything was forgotten:

View from my tent

It's not hard to see why Lonely Planet voted the Wales coast one of the top places to go in the World in 2012. But you don't want to do what they say, right?!
Couple of days in Pembs bird list:
Kittiwake, Gannet, Fulmar, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Rock Pipit, Kestrel, Shearwater sp., Cormorant, Stonechat, Meadow Pipit, Wren, Raven, Magpie, Peregrine, Rook, Carrion Crow, Wheatear (1), Chiffchaff, Razorbill, Linnet (c300), Swallow, House Martin, Woodpigeon, Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Little Owl (heard), Tawny Owl (heard) - also possible Lesser Spotted Woodpecker



For my rambling family: K, K, J and B

Friday, 24 August 2012

Pledging to fledge!

This is just a quick post to say thanks to those who came along to my walk for the 'Pledge to Fledge' initiative at Nunhead Cemetery this morning. You can click on that green badge in the top right of the screen to read more about the pledge. I think it promotes a great, simple idea - to share a passion for birds and nature however you can. I hope those that came along enjoyed their morning walk, there were certainly lots of good questions asked!

It was a quieter morning in the cemetery than recent, but we enjoyed a softly cooing Stock Dove by the entrance, several noisy yapping Great Spotted Woodpeckers and loud bursts from secretive wrens throughout. Several Chiffchaffs were heard in their favoured patches of scrub, plaintive hweets! giving them away. I wonder how long these birds will be around for or if the cemetery will hold any wintering birds this year? Blue tits and Great tits buzzed in small flocks here and there and sweetly singing robins seemed to follow us around. Carys who came along, described listening for bird song as "meditative". I would agree with that.

Nunhead Cemetery is a little wonder, an example of what can happen if nature is left (relatively) unchecked. I think we all need a little wildness. Birds included.

Interesting link here to a London Wildlife Trust report on how birds in the capital are doing according to the BTO's Breeding Bird Survey.  

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

So, the 'Glasto' of birdwatching...

Thoughts on Birdfair 2012

Yesterday morning, around 6.30 I left South London for the blissfully quiet drive north to Rutland Water and my first trip to Birdfair. Encompassing all the various aspects of birding (conservation/travel/gear etc), I've seen it referred to as the 'Glastonbury' of birdwatching which is weird. I was kind of hoping it was going to be markedly less muddy and indeed, less shit than that...and thankfully that was the case. It was a jolly day out on all counts.

I managed to avoid all the temptations to sign myself up for some of the many EPIC trips that were on offer by companies from across the world. Instead I realised prize draws and raffles probably offered my best chance of going away anyway exotic in the foreseeable future. Tactics people! Albatrosses have been very high up on my 'wish list' of birds to see for a long time so I was totally taken by the Falkland Islands. I went to a brief presentation on the birds and geography of the (in)famous islands which firmly set the seed. Who knows, maybe one day? It was good to walk around and look through so many of the different stands, a welcome, if slightly frustrating, reminder of just how much there is out there to see.

It was great to catch up with Bernardo and Joao from Portugal at their stand and hear their interesting thoughts on the differences between nature conservation there and in the UK (hint - money!) You should look them up if you ever find yourself with a free day in Lisbon. I had a good laugh at David Lindo's talk (Honey Buzzard over Peckham!) and also really enjoyed the programme of short lectures that were taking place. To be honest they all sounded worthwhile but I went along to hear about the Rutland Osprey project and how the BTO's Breeding Bird Survey is signalling the changes in our bird populations. I thought the best lecture though was the one delivered by Tim Nevard, CEO of Conservation Grade farming and Danae Sheehan from the RSPB. It was a punchy talk about Operation Turtle Dove and the vital measures being taken to help our fastest declining migrant bird. A 91% drop in numbers since the 1970s and the reason? Me. And You. And him and her and the unsustainable demand we put on our food producing industries for MORE food at LOWER prices. The Turtle Dove is a bird that depends on the seeds of certain kinds of farmland plants/weeds for survival (as well as a safe roosting habitat/water) and these have nearly disappeared from our farming landscapes today. For a twenty minute lecture, it certainly made an impression on me.

And that latter point is something to mention because I think it's the one area that Birdfair fell down on. Amidst the sunshine and the friendly banter and the positive atmosphere I don't know what else people would've taken away from the event. No, hang on, that's not quite right, I mean I think the fair should've done more directly to ensure a conservation message came across. Nature and bird Conservation was part of it's core purpose and there were hundreds of amazing examples of this but something clearer and more 'in your face', for want of a better term, was needed. For example, this year the nominated project (to which an impressive percentage of the proceeds go towards) was Birdlife International's Flyways Programme - a really important project focusing on conserving wetlands along the main East Asian-Australasian migration route. Now if I hadn't have gone out of my way to look that up, I would've left Birdfair with little clue as to what it was about. Maybe I missed something, perhaps there was a talk about it earlier in the weekend...admittedly there was a really good article on it in the programme and I did see the mural also. But you can't guarantee everyone will read that and nor can you assume that just cos there's lots of birders around, everyone knows (or cares) about the devastating habitat threats facing Lesser Sand Plovers and countless other birds that rely on intertidal areas in the East. There'll never be a more receptive crowd and just a glance over the beautiful reservoirs, teeming with migrant birds (including a few of the most remarkable of all - Arctic Terns!) meant the inspiration was there for the taking. But just a little prod would've been good. Anyway, maybe that's something for someone who'll never read this to consider.

All in all it was a glorious day out and we finished up back round at Manton Bay watching Ospreys soaring across the sky in fading summer light. What could be better? Here are some other things we saw:

Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar - monster! Thanks to the chap who pointed this out.
Aw. One for Mum.
A non-migrating Vulcan bomber doing the rounds over Rutland Water 19/8/12

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Nunhead Cemetery birdwalk next Friday (24th)


I'd like to invite you to join me for a guided walk around the beautiful Nunhead Cemetery next Friday 24th August at 9am.

I have been birdwatching around SE London for a number of years and Nunhead Cemetery as always been one of my favourite spots. Secluded and undisturbed, it has a good variety of habitats including woodland, grassland and scrub, as a result it is a valuable local site for birds and other wildlife. Over the duration of this one and a half hour walk, we will listen out for some of the cemetery's resident species as well as some that might just be passing through. The walk will look at why these birds are found here and what we can do to encourage them.

This walk is for anyone who'd like to know more about the birds in the local area and pick up some helpful ID tips. It doesn't matter if you can't tell a Robin from a Wren, this walk will focus on identifying common garden birds by sight and sound.

Meeting point is inside the Linden Grove gates. Map here.

I was inspired to do this by a new global birding initiative called 'Pledge to Fledge'. This initiative encourages people with a passion for birds to share it with others over the weekend 24th-26th August 2012. I think it's a great idea and really hope you can join me!


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Tigers in Brockley!


Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

Sorry, didn't mean to alarm anyone with the title of the post...there are no REAL tigers in Brockley, well not that I've ever come across. But I have spotted a good number of these little beauties recently - Jersey Tiger Moths! I found these in the allotment garden by the station last week, where they were flitting conspicuously among the flowers and weeds. I saw another one bolting across the road nearby, a hurried mess of black and creamy white wings, a reddish spark from its underwing.

Given their fairly large size and the fact that they fly by day (unlike most moths) they can easily be confused for butterflies at first, a Red Admiral maybe, but it's soon easy to tell them apart. They're generally not that fussy about where they land, or put off by a bit of attention; they will expose their bright red underwing and take flight if suitably disturbed though.

They're certainly becoming more common now and summers in South London can be marked by the first appearance of this species. When I first saw one of these land on my window sill in SE London two years ago, I was slightly confused when my little moth ID book suggested it had a range across much of Europe but only in the farthest reaches of South West England. Naturally I thought I'd scored a mothing mega (!) but that summer it was revealed that the moths were being seen in London for the first time (although 2005-6 looks more likely) and in unprecedented numbers. Warmer and therefore more hospitable conditions are no doubt the reason for this gradual shift northwards from their 'natural' range of the Channel Islands and Europe. We may not be so aware of subtle climatic changes like this but here's proof that things are happening. Jersey Tiger moths even made it to Kent last year.

Now's a good time to see these stunning moths, love it or hate it, Buddleia is a good bet. Maybe there's a tiger at the bottom of your garden?!

Monday, 13 August 2012

A Birdfair warm-up...

What with the hordes (myself included) descending on Rutland Water next weekend for Birdfair you can bet there's going to be a fair few photos like this doing the rounds on the blogs next Monday:

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Manton Bay, Rutland Water 12/8/12

Obviously there'll all be much better than this speculative digi-scoped effort but I thought I'd get in first. It seems strange that, having not been for nearly 10 years, I'll end up going to Rutland on consecutive weekends, but I'm not complaining at all. What's maybe even stranger that it's taken me so long to catch up with an Osprey in the UK. I guess I've only really been actively birdwatching for a couple of years but given their relative success as a breeding species here now I thought I might have come across one sooner. Nevermind, this makes up for it at last! This is the adult male (trust me) perched up on one of the numerous telegraph poles dotted around Manton Bay.

Yesterday's Birdfair warm up was a long-promised trip for the folks, ever since they 'discovered' bird watching in time for retirement. So amid threats of blowing the inheritance on extravagant birding trips to far flung corners of the corners of the globe (which, despite protestations, I REALLY hope they do), we hit the A1 for the relatively easy journey north to Rutland Water.

Heading for Manton Bay we checked out a few of the hides before making our way to the ones with views of the Osprey nest. It was pretty busy in there but we squeezed in and were soon enjoying watching three of the Ospreys. One of this years juveniles flew close by the hide in front of us and had a pop at fishing (unsuccessfully) before flying off down the reservoir. Shortly after that, the adult female followed but instead of heading down the lake, began to circle high before drifting south and disappearing off out of view. That was pretty interesting and I think a good few people wondered out loud if that was IT for the beginning of her long return migration south. Conditions were certainly good for it; warm and hazy conditions with a light north-easterly. This prompted some pretty endless questioning from Mum about migration ("but what about her CHILDREN??!") Bless, guess we'll see, I wonder how many will be left by next weekend?

After that we ducked round to the Anglian Water Centre in Egleton, which was already busy in the throes of pre-Birdfair tent-putting-up. We had a walk about here before stopping in one final hide (Lapwing) for a view of the reservoir. I think I was trying to turn a Common Tern into an Arctic when Dad pointed out a bird flying across the water, maybe 200m off our spot, in the middle of the res. Got my bins on it and "...Black Tern!". I'd never seen one before but I was 99% sure of it. It was a real rocker of a bird; fast and agile with something almost 'falcon'-like about it...a much surer flight style, the ash dark, slender wings. Views in the scope highlighted a few points:

- very little evidence of forked tail
- relatively long and slender dark 'tern' bill 
- it also made several stooping 'dips' to the surface, not like the plunging dives of Sterna sp

The black breast/belly was really apparent and there was quite a visible contrast with the paler vent/rump. Confusingly, there was also a clear white forehead patch, as on Little Tern (but not so extensive) However, checking the Collins book it says that white head feathers can already appear on moulting adults in June. According to Birdguides there were countless reports of Black Terns over the weekend, on cue I think and no doubt aided by the winds. Really excited about seeing this bird, a lifer too! A good omen for Birdfair next weekend?!

Didn't manage any pics but here's some pretty nifty youtube footage of a Black Tern and a White-winged Black Tern together, just in case you were wondering about the difference ;) :

Rutland 12/8/12:

Goldfinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Robin, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellowhammer, Blackcap, Woodpigeon, Long-tailed Tit, Chiffchaff (h), Coot, Moorhen, Mallard, Tufted duck, Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant, Greylag Goose, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Black-headed gull, Common Tern, Little Egret, Osprey, Shelduck, Water Rail (h), Red Kite, Buzzard, Kestrel, Magpie, Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler (h), Willow Warbler(h), Chaffinch, Greenfinch, House Martin, Sand Martin, Pochard, Gadwall, Great Black-backed gull, Little Grebe, Lapwing, Hobby, Green Sandpiper, Black Tern, Rook, Pheasant.

('h' indicates 'heard only')

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Summer's swift exit

So here it is...the moment that UK Summer 2012 finally sodded off after months of sulking about:

3rd August 2012, approx 4.21pm, Seaford Head, East Sussex...

Yep, that smudgy speck on the fence post was my first out-going 'autumn' Wheatear of the year. I took it last week while I was down on the south coast helping with the annual RSPB Kittiwake 'date with nature' (more on that soon). By my reckoning Seaford Head (just along a bit from Beachy Head) is a good spot for migrants and I purposefully had a quick walk up there to check for some. It was about 15 seconds til I spotted this one flitting about on the cliff edge. I totally love Wheatears, I know they're a pretty common passage migrant but there's still something exotic about them. They're not flashy or anything, they just get in and do the business. Every time I see one I get a buzz, that day last autumn when I counted 19 in one field on Sheppey was a particularly good day! Ha. So, this girl (IDd it as female from the brief views as it skipped around to avoid walkers) has a long way to go...couldn't help but smile as it flicked up on to the post and cocked its head towards the sea, no doubt weighing up what were fairly breezy south-westerlies at the time. There's something special about seeing a bird you know is literally just about to start a long journey south. My first Wheatear of the year came in on March 17th, a cracking mint male back in Kent. To me that signalled the coming seasons more than anything else really, so watching this one go feels similar. But that's ok because everyone knows that Autumn migration > Spring migration, right?!

Aside from the this, there were clues everywhere really. House Martins hung about the cliffs in busy, buzzing  flocks and just before I spotted the Wheatear, I watched four swallows jink their way low and south other the waves at Splash Point. Up on Seaford Head there was a Whitethroat still looking pretty content among the scrubby bushes and a little further on, a Meadow Pipit gave confiding views with a beak full of insects. This individual may or not be making any long journey soon (as I understand, a small proportion of our breeding mipits do migate south, along with northern birds on passage) but still looks good:

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Back in London now and the number of Swifts darting across the evening skies dropped off massively this week, certainly by Monday (6th). There are still a few about, ones and twos, but otherwise those amazing scree-ming stars of summer are something to look forward to once again.