Friday, May 29, 2015

London - dinosaurs, wetlands and a marathon!

On the 25th of last month I travelled to London with my girlfriend Jane, to register for what is becoming an annual event for me, the London Marathon. Obviously running is my main reason for visiting the capital but there are plenty of wildlife watching opportunities to be had especially in the Spring.
After registering at the Xcel Centre, we had pasta for lunch (what else?) then headed for one of my favourite buildings, the Natural History Museum. This temple of the natural sciences in South Kensington was designed in Romanesque style by the architect Alfred Waterhouse and is adorned with intricate carvings of plants and animals. But as any child will tell you the star attractions are the dinosaurs, and a new superstar had recently been unveiled and I was dying to make her acquaintance. Her name is Sophie and she is the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever unearthed. With huge plates along her spine and her spiked tail raised in a menacing fashion, Sophie dominated the Earth Hall. I fell for her hook, line and sinker and my girlfriend had to drag me away to enjoy the myriad of other fascinating exhibits on show, or maybe she was jealous of the attention I was giving Sophie! To be fair, palaeontologists are not sure of the sex of this 150 million year old cutie, she was named after the daughter of an unknown benefactor who made the acquisition possible.

The gorgeous Sophie.

We enjoyed a long sojourn around the whale hall, but it was soon time for dinner in the shape of more pasta. The day before a marathon is supposed to be one of rest, but London is naturally full of attractions and distractions, and I'm not one to do as I should anyway.
After a good night's sleep I was soon on the train on my way to the marathon start at Blackheath. Many people are inspired to run a marathon by watching the coverage of the race on the BBC. But it is impossible to fully convey in words the emotions involved in this amazing sporting spectacle. The runners, the supporters, the charities, the camaraderie, the fleeting friendships, the noise, the music, the colour, the fancy dress outfits, the struggle, the will power, the support, the shared endeavour; to paraphrase something I heard, if the feelings surrounding the London Marathon could be bottled and shared around the world, life would be immeasurably better for everyone.
I was on the blue start for a change and was able to spot a few celebrities including Jensen Button and Iwan Thomas. But the best sight was the runner dressed as a T-Rex! It was an enormous outfit with working articulated legs attached to the back of his own feet. He deserved a medal just for turning up. Apparently he had even trained near his home dressed in the outfit. Without a doubt it was the best fancy dress I have ever witnessed at a marathon and I was disappointed that there was not more coverage of him on the television.
I had quite a good race and finished in 3 hours and 12 minutes, which means I get automatic entry for next year; maybe I could run as a stegosaurus!
At the start of the race I had ticked off Ring-necked Parakeet for the year flying over the common, and there were plenty more of them to be seen in St. James's Park after the race, along with a motley collection of ducks including Red-crested Pochard. Although a tame Grey Heron was very approachable.

We were up early the next day to visit the Wildfowl and Wetland Centre at Barnes. This is becoming an annual pilgrimage as well; Spring is the perfect time to add a few migrants to my birding year list. We set ourselves the challenge to record as many species of bird as possible in the two hours that we had available to us. But we were distracted by the non-avian delights of this urban wetland. Foremost amongst these was a colony of Marsh Frogs that were calling rapaciously. These are non-native amphibians but are widespread across Europe and are distinguished from the similar Pool and Edible Frogs by their grey vocal sacs.

Other more ephemeral diversions were provided by sulphur-yellow Brimstone butterflies of which we saw at least five different individuals.
But |I mustn't forget the birds. Naturally wetland birds dominated the list including Great-crested and Little Grebes, Common Terns and a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. Another photogenic Grey Heron posed outside one of the hides. Warblers that serenaded us along the lush trails included Willow, Sedge, Reed, Backcap, Chiffchaff and a quite showy Garden Warbler (if you can describe the drabbest-plumaged breeding warbler in Britain as showy!). Which is more then can be said for the Cetti's Warblers exploding into song at every opportunity but as usual remaining completely invisible; I'm sure they employ Klingon cloaking technology!
We recorded a very creditable 50 species of birds in our all-too short time at this urban oasis, but we look forward to visiting again next year to try and beat our target. We celebrated our weekend with a free pint of London Pride given to all marathon finishers by Fuller's in the Euston Flyer pub, before we caught our train back to Chester.

Marsh Marigold

Harry, Paula and me (in blue!)
N.B. all photos either Lumix compact or iPhone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Local Migrants

I had a spare couple of hours last Saturday so I decided to explore a few local sites for Spring migrants.
First stop was the Lighthouse at Leasowe where an obliging Wheatear posed for a few photos before being scared off by a dog-walker. In fact there were a lot of people out and about in the warm afternoon sunshine; it had been a cold and cloudy morning so it was unsurprising that people were making the most of a change in the weather. Crowds of people are not conducive to successful wildlife photography so I headed to Shotwick Lake in search Yellow Wagtails. I have had some success photographing this beautiful migrant at this site in previous years but there were none to be seen last weekend, but a male Swallow perched briefly on the fence of the boating lake allowing me to take a quick snap.
I didn't want to head home early on a sunny May evening so I went to the nearby RSPB reserve at Burton where there were plenty of exciting migrant to be seen. The approach road to this gem of a reserve snakes its way through a small woodland where singing Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps serenaded visitors from the treetops above a sea of bluebells; I wish I had brought a smaller lens with me to capture this magical blue carpet.
A male Garganey showed well but distantly from the visitor centre on my arrival. I walked the short distance to the Marsh Covert Hide were I spent the rest of the evening trying to get a clear shot of Reed and Sedge Warblers that were singing, feeding and flitting about amongst the stands of phragmites. The Reed Warbler's smooth incantations are a symphony in comparison to the jazz of the Sedge Warbler's breathless song; and both songsters are the proverbial music to my ears in Spring. Which is more than can be said for the guttural grunts emanating from the Little Egrets breeding in the nearby trees; they have to be heard to be believed, they sound as though they are thoroughly intoxicated to the point of bringing up their last meal!
I finally dragged myself away from my beloved warblers and was enchanted by a family of Canada Geese; not many people's favourite bird but the goslings were adorable. And just to round off the day a family of Treecreepers were feeding in the carpark. I have never seen more than two together before so to see what must have been more than six at once was a real joy.

Male Wheatear

Sedge Warbler (shame about the reed!)

Reed Warbler

Canada Goose gosling

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Not Strictly for the Birds

One bright May morning in the early 1990’s I found myself in a very crowded hide at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve in Lancashire. As it was barely 6 o’clock there must have been a good reason for the crush in the, then recently constructed, Lilian’s Hide. After a seemingly long wait that reason revealed itself when a stunning male Little Bittern stepped out from the reeds into the bright morning sunshine. Unlike the Eurasian Bittern which breeds on the reserve this male was not endowed with the camouflaging phragmites-coloured plumage that makes its larger cousin so difficult to see; it had a black crown, upperparts and flight feathers that contrasted markedly with its beautiful rich buff underparts and buff white wing patches. And as for little; it was barely the size of a nearby Coot!

The throng of birdwatchers admired this beauty for at least five minutes until it retreated once more into the reedbed. As the crowd drifted off my attention was again drawn to another animal that had kept me fascinated during my wait for the rarity; but it wasn’t a bird. Across the mere splashes and ripples and briefly-glimpsed snake-like curves of a largish mammal occasionally broke the surface. But this was no Loch Ness monster but a near-mythical creature equal rarity at the time; an Otter!

In the two decades before the 1970’s Otter numbers in Britain had declined dramatically, but increased protection and improvements in water quality have led to a dramatic increase in this beautiful mammal in the past few years. During the 1990’s they were still a rare sight in England but now they have returned to every county, and RSPB reserves are among the best places to see them. In fact the Leighton Moss Otters are now so obliging that they were heavily featured in the BBC’s Autumnwatch programme last year. If you spend some time at Leighton Moss’s Lower and Public Hides you would be very unlikely not to see them.

Otter at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB

Although inland Otters used to be mostly crepuscular with a lot of sightings around dusk and dawn, at protected sites they can be active throughout the day. I have even managed to photograph them on a sunny afternoon at Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk. This reserve hosts many sought-after fenland birds such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier, but it has also become synonymous with very rare insects such as the beautiful Swallowtail butterfly, and the impressive Norfolk Hawker. The abundance of dragonflies at reserves such as this provide a welcome food source for breeding Hobbies. Sad though it is to think of these jewel-like insects being prey to this dashing falcon, it is all part of the natural cycle. Managing reserves provides suitable habitat for a myriad of invertebrates that form part of a chain that sustains apex predators such as raptors. And we can enjoy not only the insects and the birds but the scenic habitat as well!

Wasp Beetle at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB

Broad-bodied Chaser at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB

Not only does the RSPB manage its own reserves for the benefit of a wealth of wildlife, but it lobbies Parliament to try and improve the wider countryside, by for example promoting environmentally friendly farming practices to encourage more diversity and halt the decline in farmland birds. And of course healthier farmland bird populations rely on a diversity of wildflowers, insects and wetland areas.

Many RSPB reserves have stunning displays of wild flowers during the Spring and Summer, so after you have enjoyed an early morning dawn chorus from the birds it is well worth taking a closer look at the colourful flora that is more than just a backdrop to the birdlife; it is an integral part of the environment that helps sustain the birdlife, and it is beautiful to boot!

Flag Iris at Valley Lakes RSPB

Southern Marsh Orchid at Titchwell RSPB

South Stack cliffs in Wales are duly famous for their breeding seabirds and are also one of the best places in the country to see that tumbling coastal crow with its blood-red feet and curved bill, the Chough. This bird relies on the abundant insects that are to be found in pasture that has been carefully managed. The maritime heathland at the top of the cliffs is also a rich source of invertebrates. I can keenly remember a sunny May day when the heath was buzzing with Cockchafers; these large bumbling beetles were flying around in large numbers and occasionally tumbling around in the heather. Careful scrutiny, also revealed a few metallic Rosechafers for all the world looking like gaudy flying emeralds. The heath is also home to Tiger Beetles and later in the year delicate Silver-Studded Blue butterflies.

There is a good reason for the abundant insect life and that is the profusion of Spring flowers; the heath is an Impressionist’s floral pallet. White Sea Campion flower heads bob in the breeze alongside delicate pink Sea Thrift and tall stems of purple Sheep’s Bit Scabious contrast with the gaudy yellow heads of Kidney Vetch. Naturally the flowers attract insects and in some years migrant Painted Lady butterflies from the continent appear in huge numbers and clothe the flowers with their orange and black wings while refuelling on nectar. The heather also provides cover for our only venomous snake the Adder. A few Summer’s ago I can clearly remember one slithering along the path near Ellin’s Tower, but it dived for cover in the heather before I managed to focus my camera.

Sheep's Bit Scabious at South Stack RSPB

Thrift at South Stack RSPB

Painted Lady on thrift at South Stack RSPB

Butterflies are a firm favourite amongst birdwatchers as they are colourful and easy to observe. Last year’s heatwave was a boon for these insects after previous wet and cool summers. Near Llandegla in North Wales the RSPB manages heathland for the benefit of Black Grouse and the nearby forest is a superb place from which to view the Spring lek on an RSPB-led walk. In the summer the felled areas of forest also echo with the sound of churring Nightjars. The forest edge was full was teeming with common butterflies last year such as Peacocks and Red Admirals and it was lovely to see good numbers of Small Tortoiseshells which have suffered a decline in recent years. Later in the Summer the area is also home to Black Darter dragonflies and a careful wait on a sunny day might be rewarded with the sighting of a Common Lizard.

Peacock at Coed Llandegla

Red Admiral at Coed Llandegla

Black Darter at Coed Llandegla

Common Lizard at Coed Llandegla

Much further North, many birdwatchers visit Loch Ruthven in Scotland to see the rare breeding Slavonian Grebes in its red, black and gold finery. The tranquil birch fringed loch is also home to a population of Common Toads and Spring is the best time to see them as they return to the loch to breed and lay their toadspawn. Frogs, toads and other amphibians are abundant on many reserves but one RSPB reserve is home to all six species of our native reptiles; Arne in Dorset. Reptile rambles are held in the late Spring to search for these often elusive animals. It is one of only a few sites in the country where all six British species can be seen. Arne is also home to 22 species of dragonfly and was the first place that I ever saw the Small Red Damselfy. This species has a more restricted range in Britain than its larger relative the Large Red Damselfly which is found throughout the UK and at many RSPB reserves.

Common Toads at Loch Ruthven RSPB

One species of invertebrate that I did see at Arne on a recent visit was the Raft Spider. A number of these large arachnids were found secreted around a small pond and I even photographed one feeding on a hapless damselfly. Amazingly, sitting at the centre of its web adjacent to the pond was a beautiful Wasp Spider, which as its name suggests, has striking yellow and black stripes on its abdomen. This is another large species and is thought to have only colonised the south of Britain in recent years, but it is a marvellous addition to our fauna.

Raft Spider with Common Blue Damselfly at Arne RSPB

Wasp Spider at Arne RSPB

Mammals on the whole are relatively difficult to observe, especially when compared with the ease with which we watch birds. But one RSPB reserve has become a magnet for those wishing to see the beautiful Stoat. The river estuary at Conway RSPB has been home to this voracious predator for some time, and a visit at the right time of year can produce breathtaking views of this elusive mammal. The mother Stoat secretes her numerous offspring along the rocky shoreline of the Conway River while she works tirelessly to satisfy her hungry brood. But like all infants, the boisterous young Stoats get up to all kinds of mischief while their mother is away; scrambling under, over and around the rocks, splashing through the mud and fighting and hiding amongst the Samphire. Last year as I stood on the footpath an adult Stoat even ran through the legs of my tripod! This was a great wildlife spectacle to rival anything in the country. And not to be missed at Conway at the same time are the gorgeous flowers of Bee Orchids that decorate the footpath margins.

Stoat at Conway RSPB

Bee Orchid at Conway RSPB

Stoat at Conway RSPB

RSPB reserves are some of the best places in the country to see mammals, indeed, my first ever visit to the flagship reserve at Minsmere resulted in the amazing view of a Stoat climbing headfirst down a tall tree with a bat in its jaws! And a trip to the beautiful Caledonian forest at Loch Garten is not complete without seeing the Red Squirrels visiting the nut feeders.

Red Squirrel at Loch Garten RSPB

Larger mammals can still prove difficult to see, but Leighton Moss in Lancashire is a great place to see Red Deer. Although a lot of the rutting action takes place out of sight in the extensive reedbed, the roaring of the stags send shivers down your spine. But sometimes the males will break cover and charge after each other through the shallow pools. The reserve is also home to Roe Deer, and evidence of their presence in the form of tracks in the mud can provide a fresh identification challenge.

Muntjac Deer at Titchwell RSPB

There are even some reserves where, if you are lucky, it is possible to see marine mammals. The area of water just below the lighthouse at South Stack is often a good spot to see our smallest cetacean the Harbour Porpoise. But you have to have sharp eyes because, even though they can grow to about a metre and a half in length, they spend very little time at the surface. A glimpse of a dark dorsal fin rolling through the water is all you will see, and they are impossible to see in rough weather, but just knowing they are there is exciting in itself. And the occasionally the large head of a Grey Seal can be seen bobbing in the water at this site, they are as inquisitive about us as we are about them. I have even been lucky enough to see a Common Seal that had swum up a channel at Titchwell onto the main reserve.

Brimstone at Lakenheath RSPB

Migrant Hawker at Titchwell RSPB

Common Darter at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB

Large Red Damselfly at Ynys Hir RSPB

For over a century the RSPB has been at the forefront of bird protection, guarding our avian heritage by buying reserves and promoting responsible environmental stewardship in the wider countryside. And, not by accident, this enlightened policy has been a real boon for a whole spectrum of other wildlife. This article has barely scratched the surface of our non-avian wildlife, there is so much to see, RSPB reserves are brim full of all kinds of wildlife, so get out there and enjoy it. Oh, and there are some great birds to be seen as well!

Leighton Moss RSPB at dusk

Saturday, May 2, 2015

South Stack and Hoopoe Head

An unusual title for a blog post you might say; well South Stack is the well-know and truly amazing RSPB reserve on Holy Island, Anglesey, and a Hoopoe head is exactly that, the amazing head of an exotic rare visitor to our shores, but more of that later.
I had driven to North Wales originally with the intention of visiting the Great Orme in Llandudno to try and see a Ring Ouzel. The males of this close-relative of our Blackbird sport a white collar that contrasts markedly with the rest of their black plumage and these are always a joy to see if you are lucky enough to catch up with one. A few of these migrant thrushes had been frequenting kale fields on the Orme and I was keen to try and photograph one. But as I travelled along the North Wales coast my thoughts turned to seabirds and I decided to visit South Stack RSPB instead; after all on a visit a few years earlier I had found my own Ring Ouzel.
It was a beautiful sunny day so I shouldn't have been surprised by the number of people at South Stack, but the carpark by the café was full and there were a number of coach parties visiting this beautiful area. I decided to walk the less-frequented heath that extends towards North Stack in the hope of finding some Adders. My luck wasn't in, and I had even put a shorter lens on my camera in the hope of photographing our only venomous snake, which was a bit unfortunate when a Stonechat perched close by and a Kestrel flew overhead. But I did see some gorgeous male Wheatears and a few Swallows moving through.
I then walked down the steps towards South Stack lighthouse where I had excellent views of the Guillemots and Razorbills perched precariously on the precipitous cliffs. The geology of the area is fascinating and the auks make the most of the giant folds in the rocks, using the ledges as nest sites.
I also scanned the rafts of auks bobbing on the sea and was pleased to find a number of Puffins, these are quite scarce breeders in this part of Wales.
The heady coconut scent of gorse flowers filled the air as I walked to Ellin's Tower. I once read that the famous Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus visited Britain just to see and appreciate our amazing gorse bushes; they are indeed an underrated plant.
I returned to the café just as ace local birder Ken Croft was writing the word HOOPOE in large letters on the sightings board. A quick chat and I was soon on my way to the Range, an area of maritime heathland that is managed by the RSPB. Ken had only just found this exotic Mediterranean visitor so our chances of finding it again were good. A group of half a dozen birders gathered at the site of Ken's sighting but there was no sign of our target bird. So we split up and set off in different directions along the myriad of footpaths. After about half an hour of fruitless searching we regrouped at the original site just as Ken spotted the bird in  the distance. I raised my binoculars and was pleased to see the bird feeding distantly in a depression in the heather. But I could only see its exotically coloured head; its long down-curved bill was the perfect counterbalance for the tightly-packed black-barred crest. It is no wonder that the great naturalist Gerald Durrell named his pet Hoopoe Hiawatha.
But I was unable to study the beautiful plumage of the whole bird as it took off suddenly; I didn't even see it fly, which is a shame as such is its beauty it is sometimes known as the avian equivalent of a butterfly.
Despite extensive searching for most of the afternoon by an increasing number of birdwatchers, the Hoopoe wasn't seen again that day. But I did take the time to pause at the west end of the Range and watch a raft of about two hundred Manx Shearwaters lift off from the surface of the sea and fly effortlessly South.
The Hoopoe was seen again briefly later in the week and I returned to North Wales a few days later and caught up with a male Ring Ouzel on the Great Orme.

Guillemots on South Stack Cliffs.

Gorse by Ellin's Tower.

Record shot of Puffins on the sea.

Raft of Razorbills.

Male Stonechat.



Meadow Pipit on Gorse, Great Orme.

The first Hoopoe that I saw in Wales was way back in 1990, and I saw another near Rhyl in October 2013, where I took the following photos: