Sunday, 20 January 2019

BTO English Winter Bird Survey: Moreton Pinkney

Thank you to everyone who had been reading my blog over recent years, I've now passed 40,000 views, and currently standing at 41,157!

This morning I was out surveying what is normally my breeding bird survey square near Moreton Pinkney in south Northants - but this time as part of the BTO's English Winter Bird Survey.  This was my second of, hopefully, four visits in the period Dec to March. The aim of the study it to shed more light on why the majority of our farmland birds continue to decline.  There is also an emphasis on recording Brown Hares and other mammals.

It was near perfect survey conditions this morning - calm, sunny and fairly mild.  Robins and Great Tits were singing and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming.  It is quite interesting to see "my" survey square in winter, with a different mix of species including our winter thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares. Last month, on my first visit, I glimpsed a Kingfisher speeding along the small stream and saw several Jays.  It was rather sad to see that a large field corner that had been left to go wild for a few years had been ploughed up, especially as Common Spotted Orchids had started to colonise last year.  Small losses of habitat like this, if repeated across the landscape, can have a big cumulative effect on bird populations - removing valuable year-round foraging areas rich in seeds and insects.

The continued absence of any Tree Sparrows was not really a surprise given the widespread disappearance of this species in our area recently.  They are not helped by the recent conversion of many derelict barns to new homes, but this is not the main fain factor affecting them - it is the loss of good winter feeding sites (cereal stubble, game strips etc.) that is by far the main cause.
These barns used to be home to chattering groups of Tree Sparrows, but they seem to have died out now.
The watery sunshine cast a warm glow across the landscape and the illuminated the view across to the church at nearby Canons Ashby.
View towards Canons Ashby

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Winter random square: thrushes and tree sparrows; plus Wardington Common Buzzards

Common Buzzard, Wardington
This weekend was Winter Random Square time again - the long-running winter bird count organised by the BOS for many years, and really easy to do: just spend at least two hours in your allocated 1km square (they all have reasonable public access via rights of way) and count what you see.

I recorded 31 species in my square, centred on the tiny hamlet of Plumpton tucked away in the south Northamptonshire countryside.  Most prominent were thrushes - lots of Redwings (at least 200) and plenty of Fieldfares, feasting mostly on the remaining berry crop but sometimes dropping down onto the fields to search for worms and other invertebrates.  Also good numbers of Skylarks and Yellowhammers, though raptors were is short supply, just a solitary Red Kite.

Driving out to the survey square I stopped off at a couple of places I used to see Tree Sparrows quite reliably, but couldn't find any - though there was a nice gathering of Lapwings and Golden Plover in a winter sown cereal field.
Golden Plovers, near Weston, Northamptonshire
I tried one last spot on my way back - a strip of game cover that looked promising - and sure enough, mixed in with about 50 Yellowhammers were a scattering of Tree Sparrows - about ten in total.  In the past few years Tree Sparrows have become noticeably scarcer in our area and they have disappeared completely from my BTO Breeding Bird Survey Square in nearby Moreton Pinkney.  So good to see them still around.

I hope to see Tree Sparrows in my garden again over the winter, but at the moment the most interesting birds around the village are the Common Buzzards, which like last year, have gathered in the big arable field at Top Dawkins.  My peak count so far is 19 birds.  One was particularly confiding, feeding quite close to one of the gateways.  They make short flights or a quick run, then pounce on their prey in the soil.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Bicester Wetland Reserve: Jack Snipe, plus Blenheim Park bird fest.

Whooper Swans, Blenheim Park
Nice to actually be writing a blog post about local wildlife after recent travels further afield.  Great to have a day off when the weather is perfect for enjoyable autumn birding - early frost, blue skies, warming sunshine and light winds.  I decided to make a mini-tour of the southern part of the BOS area, aiming to get the Bicester Wetland Reserve by mid morning, then straying just beyond the BOS area to Blenheim Park in the afternoon.

Buzzards were already out in the fields looking for food as I set off just after sunrise. A covey of eight Grey Partridges flew up from the minor road towards Thenford, so I stopped and found a few dozen Redwings and Fieldfares feeding along the hedgerow, with Chaffinches and Yellowhammers.  A stop at Thenford Church in the slight hope of a Hawfinch produced a Siskin and a Raven, plus lots of Greenfinches and calling Green Woodpecker.

A quick visit to Croughton Quarry was rewarded with a fine view of a frosty pool but few birds, just a single Tufted Duck. 
Croughton Quarry - small pool
Moving on towards Cottisford, a flock of Lapwings was a nice find, a total of about 185 in two groups.  Close by, some extensive stubble fields were alive with Skylarks, certainly at least 50, probably many more.  A stop at Cottesford Pond to look for the Great Egret present there a couple of days earlier produced 15 Moorhens and a Wigeon but no egret.

By ten I'd arrived at my main morning destination, Bicester Wetland Reserve.  The pools were still slightly frozen in places, but small groups of Teal were dotted around the edge, with a few Shoveler mixed in.  A Cetti's Warbler sang briefly from the reedbed.  Strimming was in progress near the main hide so I quickly moved on towards the Cattle Bridge Pool hide.  A couple of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks flew over.  Looking from the hide, a couple of Teal were tucked into the edge, then I spotted a snipe half hidden in the rushes opposite the hide.  It looked very small and a stripy head pattern indicated Jack Snipe.  Annoyingly I'd left my telescope in the car, but as the bird looked very settled I took a few record shots and jogged back to get the scope.  It was worth the effort as after a while the Jack Snipe woke up and started it's unique bobbing behaviour.
Jack Snipe - looking alert
Jack Snipe - bill tucked in
My next stop was Northbrook, a small area of wildlife rich farmland near Upper Heyford.  Normally reliable for Corn Buntings, none were immediately in evidence, but a small group of Golden Plover were keeping a low profile in the middle of a huge cereal field. I decided not to linger as I wanted a good amount of time at Blenheim.

Blenhein Palace is of course world renowned and one of the UK's major tourist destinations.
Blenheim Palace
It sits within glorious parkland with lakes, meadows and fine old trees including many veteran Oaks.  In recent weeks it has become incredibly attractive to wildfowl and birds that wade - especially Great Egrets.  This is largely due to the temporary drainage of Queen Pool, one of the two large lakes in front of the palace.
Information about the £40 million restoration project
This has created a unique feeding opportunity and the birds have taken full advantage, not only the egrets, but many hundreds of Teal and other waterfowl including a few Whooper Swans.  
The park was looking fabulous is the bright afternoon sunshine.  Entering the park via the right of way from Woodstock, you reach the lake in about five minutes.  The Great Egret was immediately obvious - wading about in the middle of the large pool that remained after the drainage of the lake.  Little Egrets and Grey Herons preferred to sit around on the mud!  A Yellow-legged Gull and a couple of Green Sandpipers were also present.  Overhead, a couple of Peregrine Falcons were chasing each other and calling quite loudly, while both Red Kites and Common Buzzards drifted over.  There have been some fabulous photos taken of the Great Egrets, when up to six were present recently, now it seems just a single bird remains.

I then remembered to look for the Whooper Swans.  They were further on, feeding right next to the Grand Bridge, almost continually up-ending and searching for food items in the muddy lake-bed.  They are occasional winter visitors to our area, breeding in Iceland and a few places in Scotland.

Whooper Swans beneath Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge
People were everywhere but the birds seemed relaxed and it was a privilege to be able to enjoy such a great wildlife experience, albeit a short-lived one, on our doorstep and in such fine surroundings.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Crete in October 2: the spectacular coastline around Loutro

Colchium macrophyllum
Writing my first blog about Crete yesterday, I was excited to find out about the extinct endemic dwarf deer of  Crete, some with the incredibly long antlers, and depicted many times in the Asphendou cave. So were there any endemic birds around back then?, or any subspecies that have survived to the present day.  Apparently, there are two recognised extant Cretan bird subspecies - of the Great Tit and Jay, and there was an endemic owl, Athene cretensis, a relative of the Little Owl, which became extinct when humans arrived.
Porto Loutro at sunrise

Anyway, back to the lovely resort of Loutro on the south coast of Crete.  Typical birds around the settlement were Italian Sparrows and Collared Doves, and just beyond in the scrubby hillsides were Sardinian Warblers and Stonechats.  Blue Rock Thrushes were also common, especially along the coast.  A few warblers were passing through, I noted both Willow and Garden. Surprisingly, one of the most commonly encountered birds was the Kingfisher - several birds were feeding around the rocky coastline, sometimes perched on the small boats moored at the jetty in Loutro.  Crag Martins were quite common along the coastal cliffs, in small flocks.

The birding highlight though was the regular sight of several Griffon Vultures soaring above the hillside that overlooks Loutro Bay.  They were often joined by Ravens and Buzzards and on our last morning, by a pair of Bonelli's Eagles.  The peak count I made was of forty birds.  This represents about 10% of the Cretan Griffon Vulture population, which in turn is 70-80% of the Greek population.  I assume their main diet is goat, as they are by far the most common mammal grazing the hillsides; there are also quite a few sheep.  There are also "wild" goats introduced by early settlers too.
Griffon Vultures soaring high above Loutro
The coastline is spectacular, with many caves, multi-coloured cliffs and remote pebble beaches.

Natural arch near Hora Sfakion
Coastline east of Loutro
Sweetwater Beach between Loutro and Sfakia, a spring behind the beach is used to pipe drinking water to Loutro
Coastal caves just east of Hora Sfakion
Above the cliffs, arid limestone "phrygana" supports a few plants and even a few trees.  Most spectacular and surprisingly abundant was the Sea Squill.
Sea Squill
Most of the week the White Mountains, that rise above the lower hills, were covered in cloud, but on the last couple of days they revealed themselves.  One of our fellow swim-trekkers is a mountain guide in Scotland and explored these mountains for a few days before joining in the swimming.  He has written a great blog about his adventure.
Hora Sfakion with the White Mountains in the distance.
Butterflies were not numerous but included a few I've not seen before, as well as the always welcome Swallowtail and Clouded Yellow:
Cretan Greyling
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
Pale Clouded Yellow
Clouded Yellow
Also, the impressive Carpenter Bee was attracted to pot plants at a taverna:

A couple of half-day swims gave time off in the afternoon to explore inland a bit more.  A walk up the Aradena Gorge behind Marmara Beach was particularly impressive: towering walls of orange limestone with vultures soaring above.  In the sandy soils of the gorge, a single clump of the beautiful Colchium macrophyllum was in full bloom.  Further up the gorge were quite a number of lovely yellow stenbergia flowers.
Aradena Gorge viewed from the sea
Colchium macrophyllum
Aradena Gorge
The second walk followed the coast from Aghios Roumeli (where the famous Samaria Gorge meets the coast) back to Loutro.  This was an excellent walk with spectacular scenery and some welcome shade from a forest of pine trees.  Overhead, again, were Griffon Vultures, but also a couple of Golden Eagles - an adult and an immature bird circling together above the graggy hilltop.

Coast near Cape Plaka - nice the see pine trees thriving here despite the presence of goats
Golden Eagles, the immature bird has extensive white on wings and base of tail.
We enjoyed a fabulous week - a very enjoyable time swimming with some lovely people, superb Cretan cuisine, and a great insight into the natural history of Crete. I'd love to make another visit - next time in the "first"spring.
Sunrise at Loutro
Sunrise at Loutro

Sunrise at Loutro