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

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Crete in October 1: flowers of the second "spring"

Crete experiences a spring-like burst of plant growth and a second flowering season in the autumn - rainfall dampens the parched ground, triggering many bulbs into life.  By mid-October, the limestone grasslands and rocky slopes have become carpeted in delicate crocuses, narcissus and squills.

An opportunity to find some of these lovely autumn flowers came about when Mark and I decided to book onto a week of swimming along the south coast of Crete with the excellent Swimtrek.  Fortuitously, we were able to meet up with our Cretophile friend Bruce for a couple of days beforehand, and explore an "off the beaten track" walk across the mountains to look for flowers and other wildlife.

On Saturday 13th October we caught an early bus from Chania and an hour or so later jumped off at Askyfou, where an expanse of agricultural fields are surrounded by limestone hills.  It was quite cool and the hills were covered in cloud, but gradually the sun started to break through. 
Hilltop fort
fields near Goni
The fields were full of birds - Cirl and Corn buntings, Stonechats, a Whinchat, Woodlarks and a Red-backed Shrike.  We soon spotted the first of a couple of dozen Griffon Vultures, which were then joined by three Eleonora's Falcons, as well as Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Ravens. The track started to lead up a valley between two hills and before long we found a few white crocuses Crocus laevigatus, then more and more - in places carpeting small patches of grass amongst the rocky limestone slopes.
Track leading from Goni to Asphendou
As the mist cleared, Griffon Vultures and other raptors started to appear
Crocus laevigatus
Crocus laevigatus
Crocus laevigatus
A few beautiful daffodils Narcissus serotinus were growing in a couple of places - quite small and very delicate.
Narcissus serotinus
Narcissus serotinus
We continued to scan the skies for raptors - there was a good chance of seeing Bearded Vulture here too.  We were not in luck, but we did see both Peregrine and Golden Eagle.  Flowers continued to appear, including the well-named arum lily, Friar's Cowl, growing beneath an old olive tree. 
Friar's Cowl - an arum lily
Bruce spotted one of just a few of the endemic Cretan colchicum Colchicum cretense.
Colchicum cretense
We then passed through the small village of Asphendou and entered the gorge of the same name, with stunning cliffs.  Many goats graze across the hills of Crete and no doubt have a profound effect of the landscape and ecology, they also keep the numerous dung beetles busy.
A cave nearby has helped to give an amazing insight to the extinct fauna of Crete, which included several species of deer and a dwarf elephant.
view down the gorge
dung beetle
Spiny Chicory
Autumn Buttercup
Autumn Squill
Autumn Squill became more common as we descended through the gorge.
A single specimen of the strange little Cretan Biarum Biarum davisii was growing beside the track but well tucked into the rocks and hard to photograph well.  Endemic to Crete and apparently quite scarce, this arum lily was once use to induce abortion.
Biarum davisii
An hour or so later we left the gorge behind us and had our first views along the south coast of Crete.  It was noticeable how arid the landscape was here.  Recent rains that had brought the hills to life hadn't really reached the south coast and the spring flush of growth was much less evident.  However, it was exciting to see the first few tall and spectacular flowers of the Sea Squill Urginea maritima, a flower that we later found to be abundant along the coast.
Sea Squill
After half an hour we caught a minibus along the coast to Hora Sfakion, then waited for the coastal ferry to arrive which was the cue for the departure of the bus back to Chania - and just time to enjoy a glorious sunset.
Later the following week Bruce caught up with a couple more of the classic autumn flowers of Crete:
Sea Daffodil Pancratium maritium - a classic flower of Cretan beaches in late summer and autumn
Greek Sowbread  - Cyclamen graecum
Cyclamen graecum
My second blog about Crete will cover the south coast around Porto Loutro, our base for the swimming holiday.