Monday, 25 May 2015

Banburyshire: a weekend with waders

Over the holiday weekend I spent some time watching our local waders - curlew in the Upper Cherwell Valley, lapwings at Balscote Quarry and little ringed plovers at Bicester Wetland Reserve.
Early on Monday morning I searched in vein for the red-necked phalarope that spent Sunday afternoon at Bicester Wetland Reserve. 

roe deer buck, Bicester Wetland Reserve
I then visited Balscote Quarry and enjoyed an hour watching two broods of lapwings, nesting little ringed plovers and very close views of a green woodpecker.  Little grebes are nesting there too.
green woodpecker
Lapwings seen to have vacated their farmland nesting site near Thenford, the spring barley crop now much too tall.  Just possible they have had some success and moved chicks to adjacent sheep pastures but not sign of them and I'm not optimistic.

Our local birds are incredibly busy at the moment - blue tits in a tireless search for small insects to feed their growing chicks, a female blackbird industriously building a nest in the climbing hydrangea, fledgling starlings constantly demanding food, great-crested grebes giving their youngsters a piggy-back and lapwings watching ever so warily for predators.
blue tit, back garden
great-crested grebe family, Compton Verney
An added bonus at Balscote Quarry was a ringed plover, quite likely still on route to the arctic, where of course it is still very cold.  The is no great rush - this picture shows what the Norwegian arctic looks like at 1000m elevation in early July, in an area with plenty of ringed plovers nesting - they are the most common wader there.
Arctic Norway inland from Tromso, July 2013

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Upper Cherwell Valley: Curlew amongst the saxifrage

It's been a while since my last blog entry so I'm playing a bit of catch-up. 

Last weekend I enjoyed taking part (with Neil McMahon) in the Long Day Count organised by the Banbury Ornithological Society (BOS).  Twelve hours in the field within a 10km square (SP54) makes this event quite a marathon, especially if you start at 4am as we did!!  Thanks to Neil's excellent field skills, and especially his ability to pick up and instantly identify even the faintest of calls, we did pretty well - see his write-up here.  Highlights included a drake Mandarin duck on a "just dug" farm pond, spotted flycatcher, just-fledged ravens and a red kite.  Misses included nuthatch and yellow wagtail.  The latter seem to be extremely scarce in the local area so far this spring.

On Monday morning an early visit to Tadmarton Heath BOS nature reserve was rewarding, with six species of warbler singing, and long-tailed tits feeding young.
crab apple blossom

long-tailed tit
In the evening I caught up with one of the grasshopper warblers that have taken up residence in the scrubby grassland nest to the Hanwell Fields housing estate in Banbury (where up to six have been counted). 

Wednesday evening was warm and sunny so I took off for a run across the local area, including some higher farmland known as Danesmoor.  Several large fields were put down to grass last year and during the day the first harvest of grass had been taken - with a flurry of fast-moving tractors and trailers.  I was stopped in my tracks by a remarkable number of raptors wheeling above this major grass cutting operation - presumably attracted by some easy pickings!  Having never seen more than one red kite locally before I could scarcely believe it when my kite count reached ten birds, also an exceptional twelve buzzards and two kestrels. Some of these kites had travelled quite a way to join in the fun; no doubt a taste of things to come as red kites get more established in South Northants.

Friday morning was a fairly early start for my second breeding wader survey in the Upper Cherwell Valley, part of a wider RSPB co-ordinated survey across the Upper Thames area. 

Spring in the Upper Cherwell Valley
Perfect conditions - lovely calm sunny morning and curlew present in some of the fields, a total of three counted so quite likely two pairs.  One meadow also had a good scattering of the lovely meadow saxifrage plants in full bloom, a very localised flower these days and very indicative of quality unimproved grasslands.
meadow saxifrage

On Saturday morning another early start (5.30am)! - this time a BOS field trip to Tadmarton Heath near Broughton, to hear the (almost) dawn chorus and enable newer members to discover the reserve. We had a very enjoyable couple of hours, picking out the songs of garden and willow warblers and numerous whitethroats.  We were all taken by surprise by the appearance of stunning male ring ouzel, feeding out in the open on the cultivated wild bird strip.  A reminder that there are still birds on migration.
male ring ouzel

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Lake Kerkini: an evolving wetland - home to thousands of herons and pelicans

A few days spent birding around Lake Kerkini in northern Greece last week was very rewarding and offered great opportunities to get close up to water birds, especially pelicans and egrets.
Dalmatian pelican
In the surrounding countryside there are good populations of Mediterranean birds, including shrikes and golden orioles.  White storks nest in the villages and black storks on wooded hillsides.  
black stork
white stork
There is good accommodation available, we stayed at Limneo and Ihnilatis, though the choice of tavernas is limited off season.
The lake has an interesting history as it was first established in the 1920s partly to control flooding in the area and downriver (where a huge lake was drained and converted to farmland), and also to drain the existing wetlands and so help control the spread of malaria.  The need for greater flood control and a supply of water for thirsty crops led to further development of the lake in the 1980s - banks were raised considerably and existing wetlands, including wet forest, were badly damaged or destroyed.  Shallow lakes with extensive water lily beds where marsh terns bred were lost too.  On the plus side the lake is now well established and has a developed into a major breeding site for Dalmatian pelicans, with very large heron and cormorant colonies in the flooded forest. The surrounding landscape is low intensity farmland and wooded hillsides.  Snow-capped  mountains complete the scene (snow persisting well into spring).  There are several good viewpoints around the lake and drivable tracks to explore. 

A boat trip out to the main heronry was a real highlight.  The boat drifts very quietly into the colony, enabling close views of night herons, pygmy cormorants, spoonbills and little egrets on their nests within the trees
night heron
Great white pelicans roost on sand banks here in large groups and are stunning in their bright orange facial breeding colours: weird and wonderful.
great white pelicans
Thousands of cormorants and hundreds of grey herons nest here, and dominate the colony.

There is trouble in this paradise for herons - the forest is suffering the effects of flooding and the sheer numbers of breeding birds have an impact too.  There are many dead and sickly looking trees, but also many quite healthy: hopefully the forest can recover over time.  The boat then continues from the heronry to the Dalmatian pelican breeding colony (a platform and a raft), keeping a safe distance to avoid disturbance.  These are still very rare birds - when this colony first established it was the only new one anywhere in the world for over a century.  Dalmatian pelican remains have been found at archaeological sites in the UK (Cambridgeshire and Somerset) and it is not inconceivable they could return with a bit of help, maybe Rutland Water would make a good home for them?
Damlation pelican colony using artificial raft
In late April the whole area around the lake is packed with nightingales.  They really are extremely common in this part of Greece. The hillsides are thick with scrub, with a transition to woodland higher up.  Although on first glance the woodlands look natural, they are actually well managed and as a result very thick with scrubby regrowth.  There is very little grazing here. The result is huge expanses of ideal nightingale habitat. In fact it is hard to find any "old growth" woodland here - I struggled to find many woodpeckers as a result.

I real highlight for me was also watching newly returned golden orioles singing from stands of poplars -at one stage five males together in the open, then swooping up into the air above the trees chasing after insects.
golden oriole
Lesser spotted eagle was a new species for me and is common here, often flying quite low over the hills and giving really good prolonged views.  Other birds of prey included black kite, marsh harrier and short-toed eagle.

Mammals are interesting too, we had two sightings of wild cat and one of golden jackal.  Quite a lot of spring flowers, including leopard's bane Doronicum officinale in the hilltop woodland and some beautiful anemones in the grassy edges of the scrubland.

Green lizards were particularly showy at the picnic area next to the boat departure point at Kerkini Harbour.