Thursday, 31 December 2015

Otmoor: plover-filled farewell to 2015

Skies filled with golden plover and lapwings were the highlight of a morning spend stomping around Otmoor.  There was plenty else to enjoy (not least the blue sky!) - marsh harriers, a brambling, peregrine, even a glimpsed bittern.  But the spectacle of many hundreds of plovers stays in the memory and I enjoyed taking dozens of pics.









Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Japan in November (No.3): Ochi-ishi boat trip

17.11.15
I have to admit to having a soft spot for seabirds and I was in my element today, a wonderful morning spent boating around two offshore islands (Yururi and Moyururi) with Koji Niija. This is a special area for breeding seabirds, several of which are at the southernmost part of their distribution and this is the only place in Japan you are likely to see them. Most of them can also be seen in November, when passage and wintering birds add further interest.
Koji has run seabird cruises for a few years now and operates in partnership with local fishermen who host the tours in addition to their normal fishing.  This is unusual, but has the benefit of connecting the fishermen with their local wildlife much more than would otherwise be the case.  It was great to see their enthusiasm for the birds and hopefully this will help ensure their long term conservation. The project has won awards, and deservedly so.  The slight downside is that the boats are not designed for tourists and you have to adapt and find a suitable perch!  Fortunately there was only three of us, plus the two boatmen, so we had plenty of space.
Leaving our mooring early in the morning, a single drake long-tailed duck was pretty much the only bird inside the harbour and soon we were heading out into surprisingly choppy waters.  Getting any photos of the birds looked like being a real challenge! 
Mid November is the peak period for diver passage along this coast and we witnessed a constant stream of divers, mostly Pacific divers, and disturbed dozens from the water.  A couple of red-necked grebes showed briefly too.
I was soon watching my first ancient murrelets, they were quite common, small rafts of birds bobbing around on the waves but very hard to focus on.
Ancient murrelet
Birds were now more numerous and it was evident there were fish shoals attracting feeding gatherings.  The first of these was a group of short-tailed shearwaters, which we approached quite close to.
short-tailed shearwater
raft of short-tailed shearwaters
Then a larger auk took flight and my surprisingly quick reaction with the camera caught a decent image of a puffin - not one on our "expect to see" list.
fast reactions were required to capture the "larger auk" in flight! - horned puffin
It was clearly a horned puffin, the only other species in the Pacific is the all-black tufted puffin.  In winter plumage the horned puffin looks quite like Atlantic puffin - it is more distinctive in the breeding season.

horned puffin No.1
A larger feeding frenzy of seabirds contained more of the same species, pelagic cormorants and another horned puffin, this bird has more of the breeding colour remaining on the bill.
horned puffin No. 2


sea stacks

immature white-tailed sea eagle and ancient murrelets - little and large
Soon afterwards the first rhinoceros auklets came into view, a bird I last seen many years ago on the other side of the Pacific in California.  There were good numbers but most views were of birds swimming away from the boat!
rhinoceros auklet
By now the sun was shining and sea conditions slightly less choppy. We continued on around the far end of the smaller island, looking for two more auks.
Moyururi
These obligingly appeared, first up were a couple of pigeon guillemots, then a very elegant spectacled guillemot, both allowing a reasonably close approach by the boat.

pigeon guillemot
spectacled guillemot
Next was a small flock of harlequin ducks, which eventually took flight.  Then another real highlight, this one mammalian - a sea otter suddenly appeared and instead of swimming away, it moved towards us and came right up to the boat, quite wonderful and too close to focus with my long lens.  They are actually very rare in Japan and this is the only place you can see them, maybe as few as four adults survive.
sea otter
Continuing onwards, Koji showed us a small group of red-faced cormorants perched on a sea stack - another seabird that, in Japan, only breeds here. By now we were on the homeward leg, but there were still plenty of birds and a continual passage of divers.  As we neared the harbour, a Brunnich's guillemot was using the sheltered waters, another new bird for me and another surprise.  
Brunnich's guillemot
Within the harbour itself, a drake harlequin and a single ancient murrelet allowed very close views, for once in calm conditions.
ancient murrelet
giant octopus being unloaded back at the harbour
Many thanks to Koji and the fishermen for a brillant trip.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Japan in November (No.2): from Kushiro to Nemuro

16.11.15
After a good nights sleep in a comfortable Kushiro hotel, we picked up a hire car (4WD Nissan Note) and set off for along the coast, heading further east towards Nemuro. The rain had cleared overnight and the air was crisp and clear. Dozens of black-eared kites circled around the hillsides on the edge of town, enjoying the clear sunny weather.  Driving on north, after about twenty minutes a large eagle soaring overhead caused a rapid u-turn and search for a roadside pull in.  It was worth it.  Our first Steller's sea eagle was drifting over the forested landscape.  A magnificent bird.  We later found out that they had only just started to arrive from Siberia - they are winter visitors to this part of Japan.
Steller's sea eagle
We continued along scenic roads, past coastal settlements with fish farms in the bays.
Hokkaido coastline east of Kushiro
One lake held huge numbers of whooper swans.  We saw several thousand during the day, they must use these wetlands to feed up before moving further south: in another couple of months this area will be in the grip of a very cold winter, but just at the moment the wetlands must look very attractive to them.
adult and juvenile Whooper Swan
The coastline is spectacular with forest extending towards the cliff edge creating a natural ecological transition to wind-swept grassland and cliff.  Not something you see too often in Europe.
forest almost reaches the clifftop, Pacific Ocean beyond
In the woods, our first of many sightings of Japanese pygmy woodpecker and the Hokkaido race of Eurasian Jay and Eurasian Nuthatch.
Eurasian jay
Eurasian nuthatch
Japanese pygmy woodpecker
The most impressive wetland was at Kirritapu, great expanse of swamp with huge numbers of wildfowl congregated around the outlet from the wetland into the sea.  There is a newish wetlands centre beside the coastal road here, fortuitously open in November and serving a very welcome cup of coffee.
View across Kiritappu wetlands
Thousands of pintails and wigeons here, with a few American wigeons and a drake falcated duck.
pintails and wigeons
suddenly all the wildfowl took flight
Great views of a black-tailed gull as we crept towards it, using the car as a hide.
black-tailed gull

To round off the day, as we approached Nemuro, a majestic white-tailed sea eagle sat atop a fir tree, close to the road.
white-tailed sea eagle

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Japan in November (No.1): at sea with albatrosses

15.11.2015
The first leg of our Japanese adventure involved catching one of the brilliant high speed trains and travelling north from Tokyo to the port of Sendai.  Here we boarded an overnight ferry to Tomakomai in Hokkaido.  The idea was partly to catch up with some seabirds unlikely to be seen close to shore.
I have to say the ferry was extremely comfortable and well organised and it was an enjoyable journey.
Frustratingly it rained continually all night and all morning, which made seawatching more challenging, but none the less rewarding.
I was on deck from 6.30am to about 10.30am with a short break for breakfast.  Most common were dark-morph northern fulmars (hundreds) and also quite a few black-legged kittiwakes (100).
black-legged kittiwake

northern fulmar
northern fulmars
northern fulmar
After about half an hour I spotted the first of about fifty Laysan albatrosses, dwarfing the other birds, flying effortlessly ahead of the ferry.

Laysan albatross and northern fulmar
Laysan albatross
Other birds seen: black-footed albatross (1), black-tailed gull (5), pomerine skua (6), fork-tailed storm petrel (2), sooty shearwater (2), streaked shearwater (15).
Arriving in Tomakomai about 11am, we were met by a taxi that whisked us off to the railway station at Chitose, where we caught the train to Kushiro in eastern Hokkiado.



Thursday, 24 December 2015

Bicester Wetland Reserve: Thanks everyone who completed a consultation form

Great response from so many of you to our request for people to participate in the Oxfordshire County Council consultation for the new ring road that threatens Bicester Wetland Reserve.

Alan Peters has also done a great job raising awareness though local media, not least on BBC Oxford, and this has stimulated a lot more interest from people living locally. Many of you have encouraged friends, colleagues and family to participate. Thank you very very much: it does make a big difference.

As soon as we get any more feedback on the outcome of the consultation I will let you know.

Plans for the new country park north of Banbury started to gain some momentum last week.  Cherwell District Council have contracted Ryder Landscape to put together a Masterplan for the area and and to start the planning process they organised a "scoping" workshop with stakeholders.  They have also been out and about surveying the site.

The area offers considerable potential for wetland enhancements, especially a decent sized patch of floodplain grazing marsh, and it was good to see this opportunity recognised around the group. I am also promoting the idea of at least part of the country park being designated as a local nature reserve.

Hopefully, more news on this over coming months.

I'll sign off with a lovely image from our recent trip to Japan. I'll trickle a few more images and highlights from Japan onto my blog over the festive period.
Red-crowned cranes on a frosty morning, Tsurui, Hokkaido
 Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas!

Mike



Saturday, 5 December 2015

URGENT: please help defend Bicester Wetland Reserve


Please spare ten minutes in the next two weeks to help defend BicesterWetland Reserve, a wetland jewel on the outskirts of Bicester, now threatened by a major new ring road.
Oxfordshire County Council are conducting a consultation on two options for the new road:
·         Options 1A and 1B are very similar and involve building a raised road across Bicester Wetland Nature Reserve.
·         Option 2 is across open country and misses the Reserve completely.

There is a feedback form which gives members of the public the opportunity to state their preferences and is available on line. Please log onto:
This website gives you the outline to the scheme, explains the options and provides a link to the Feedback Form.  There are seven questions in total, the most important are questions one and two.
Question One – please tick “do not support at all” for Options 1a and 1b. You can remain neutral or support option 2.
Question Two – please select “Southern alignment: Route Option 2”
Question Three – please describe why you think it is important to protect the Bicester Wetland Reserve as an important wildlife site for the area.

The number of responses matter so please make sure you complete the form before the deadline of 18 December.
 
Some extra details about the reserve:
·        The reserve is situated just outside Bicester, one of the fastest-growing towns in Europe.
·         It was established in 1999 and is an increasingly important area for wildlife and a veritable oasis within this rapidly developing town.
·         Major wintering site for Teal - regular counts of 250-350, also good numbers of Gadwall, Shoveler, Wigeon.
·         Up to 130 Common Snipe winter here, also regular numbers of Jack Snipe. Breeding water birds include Little Grebe. Mute Swan, Tufted Duck, Coot, Moorhen and Kingfisher. Water Rail are regular throughout the winter and possibly also stay to breed.
·         The reserve is a regular site for Green Sandpipers with a maximum day count of 23. Altogether 18 species of wader have been recorded on the reserve.
·         Nine species of warbler have been recorded on the reserve, 8 of which have bred there. In total 126 bird species have been recorded, 17 species of mammal (including Otter), 23 species of Butterfly, 14 species of Dragonfly, 3 Amphibians including Great Crested Newt and we have regular Grass Snakes.
·         We have even had a few local rarities: Glossy Ibis, Red-necked Phalarope, Great White Egret, Bearded Tit, Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Common Crane and Bittern!

 thanks, please act NOW

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Spiceball Park, Banbury: re-wilding the River Cherwell!

This week the Wildlife Trust started an exciting project to re-naturalise the River Cherwell where it flows though Spiceball County Park in Banbury.  I grabbed an opportunity to join RSPB colleague Charlotte Kinnear and take a look at the work in progress with Jude Hartley, Catchment Partnerships Officer, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust.

Charlotte Kinnear and Jude Hartley discussing thework
The river channel had been over-widened in the past, and this means during low river levels there is a only a very thin layer of water flowing over the riverbed, not great for the fish populations.  One of the main aims is to create a more natural, somewhat narrower channel.  This will be particularly beneficial during dry periods in the summer, but will also make the river that bit more dynamic.  The river banks are also being re-profiled to create shallower gradients, opening up views of the river for people walking through the park.  
this stake marks the edge of the new river channel
During my visit, works to fell some of the riverside trees had been completed.  The trunks and branches had been laid into the river as far as a set of stakes that defined the edge of the "new" channel.  An excavator was then reshaping the riverbank and pushing soil over the felled trees.  This jumble of branches and soil will create a very interesting habitat once regrowth happens next spring and summer.  I'm hoping this new habitat will be particularly attractive to sedge warblers, maybe reed buntings too.  Certainly a great place for otters to explore and kingfishers to perch.  This year has seen a real upsurge in otter sightings along the rive - hopefully this trend will continue.
tree trunks and branches laid into the edge of the river with soil bulldozed on top.

video
This initial phase of work will, we hope, be the start of more action to improve habitats along the Cherwell north and south of the town.  There are certainly some excellent opportunities.  Great for the town to be proud of the river and take some positive steps to make it better for nature - it does seem to have been somewhat neglected in the past.