Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Middleton Lakes: Little Egret roost count breaks record

Little Egrets bred successfully at Middleton Lakes RSPB nature reserve this year - the first confirmed breeding record, fledging three young.  They nest among Grey Herons in woodland next to the visitor's car park.  In recent winters the local population of Little Egrets has formed a communal roost, with small parties of up to four birds trickling into the trees at dusk (over a period of about 30 mins).  It is fun to watch and count to birds coming into roost.  Yesterday evening, after a walk around the reserve, Colin, Steve and I gave ourselves the challenge of counting the roosting birds to see if we could match or possibly exceed the recent record counts of up to 54 birds. Starting just before 4pm, two birds were already in the trees, and soon a few more started to fly in, coming from all directions.  Soon we were into the twenties, then a bit of a lull, before a final rush, and we quickly got to fifty, then fifty two, and finally a party of four took us over the record and up to 56.  This evening the count was matched and it seems likely to be exceeded again soon.
Little Egret, Rutland Water January 2016

Great to see this lovely bird doing so well, taking advantage of the newly created wetland habitats in the Tame Valley and becoming a regular feature of a day's birding.  Great White Egrets are set to follow this trend, with up to four recently in the area, tending to favour Alvecote Pools.

Little Egrets are much scarcer in Banburyshire, the best site is Bicester Wetland BOS nature reserve where there are often one or two, but on Boxing Day we saw two at the top end of Boddington Reservoir, and they can turn up anywhere there is wetland habitat.

The reason we were birding at Middleton Lakes was partly because it made a convenient stop on our way homewards after visiting Beeley in Derbyshire to see the Dusky Thrush that has been a star bird for the past month.  We got really nice prolonged views of the thrush feeding on earthworms in a pasture field on the edge of this very pretty village.  It was too distant to get worthwhile photos, so I've dug out an image of a very smart looking Dusky Thrush I photographed in Kyoto last year, to mark the occasion.
Dusky Thrush, Kyoto, November 2015

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chacombe: Tricky gull ID challenge

Boxing Day update!  I've had some very helpful feedback on the identification of the gulls in the youtube clips below, indicating they are Herring Gulls not Caspian Gulls.  So I've edited this entry, reflecting I'm still on a learning curve with this species, and need to see some more!!

Thanks to the excellent work of John and Gareth yesterday - John first tracking down a 1st Year Caspian Gull at Chacombe, then Gareth finding a 2nd Year Caspian Gull at Grimsbury Reservoir in the roost at dusk - I made a further effort to find the species this morning in the Chacombe area.  I have spent quite a bit of time looking for them this autumn, without any luck, so I was not overly optimistic.  So it was a pleasant surprise to find two potential Caspian Gulls in the same cattle field, albeit at opposite ends.

I quickly grabbed some phone-scope footage before the inevitable happened and they flew off! This is quite a tricky site to watch, the birds are a bit flighty and view points very limited.  I am still learning a lot about gull ID especially Caspian, so it was great to be able to compare with the footage with that from yesterday.  The footage seemed to indicate that these were the same birds, but observers with more experience have spotted that they lack key features for Caspian, and are actually different birds to those seen yesterday.  This is a bit disapponting (and embarassing), but also shows the value of grabbing images or video to enable greater scrutiny of birds like these.  Hopefully it won't be too long before I can get some better views and a definitive sighting on the local patch!

There are exceptional numbers of "large" gulls in this area at the moment, I estimated about 2000 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 100 Herring Gulls and three Yellow-legged Gulls.

part of the A361 gull flock near Chacombe, Northants
Finally, for gull fans, some footage of the albino Herring Gull at Grimsbury Reservoir a couple of weeks ago.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Inverness: Aigas reunion

A few images from last weekend, when I joined up with friends to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of our year spent together working as field guides at Aigas Field Centre, near Beauly, Inverness-shire.
On Saturday afternoon we ventured up Glen Stathfarrar, the valley was filled with huge flocks of Fieldfare, feeding voraciously on berry-laden Rowan trees and worm-rich pastures.  The flocks seemed to be everywhere, even high up above the mountains: thousands and thousands.  A single Golden Eagle patrolled overhead, also, earlier on, a Red Kite - a bird we would certainly not have expected to see thirty years ago.
Red Deer stag
Glen Strathfarrar
Glen Strathfarrar
Huge flocks of Fieldfares with a few Redwings mixed in
That evening we had a great view of a Pine Marten attracted to peanuts next to our lodge  - they are now commonly seen here, but were still something of a rarity back in 1986.  On Sunday we stayed close to Aigas, wandering around the grounds including the idyllic small loch.  Fungi were much in evidence, nothing unusual but nice to see, especially the beautiful Fly Agaric.
Aigas Loch in the mist on Sunday morning
Aigas Loch
Shaggy Inkcap (Lawyer's Wig) toadstools
Shaggy Inkcap toadstools deliquescing
Fly Agaric toadstool
Thanks to John and Lucy Lister-Kaye for hosting us, and continuing to offer a great experience of Highland nature for the many visitors to Aigas.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Culworth: Dark Mullein and autumn colours.. and accentors

Definitely feels like a changing of the guard this weekend - with pretty much all of our summer migrants departed and  a few more of our winter visitors arriving, albeit in fairly small numbers.  On Saturday I drove though the Northamptonshire countryside between Wardington and Daventry, stopping in likely spots to see what was about.  Much of this landscape is arable farmland, most of which is currently bare ground following autumn harvest and before the emergence of the winter sown crops.  Gulls and corvids in particular are attracted to these fields, especially during cultivation or muck-spreading.  Lesser Blacked-backed Gulls tend to dominate, often with large flocks of Black-headed Gulls, however one area of farmland had attracted about 200 Common Gulls, by far the highest number I've seen so far this autumn, and a sure sign birds are moving in from the north and east.  While I was watching the gulls, three Fieldfares flew over, my first of the autumn - soon there will be hundreds in the area.  Another patch of farmland, just east of Chacombe, has attracted a flock of over 100 lapwings, actually quite a notable count for our area!  Two Golden Plover were also present with them, plus a few Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Stock Doves.

Out for a run in the afternoon, Mark spotted a large plant with yellow flowers growing next to a footpath through rough grassland just east of Culworth.  It was clearly a species of mullein, so I returned on Sunday afternoon to take some photos - it turned out to be Dark Mullein.
Dark Mullein
I don't recall seeing it anywhere else locally, maybe I've missed it but I doubt there is too much suitable habitat for it either.  Red Kites were also on the wing in this area, patrolling above a pretty valley between Culworth and Eydon that is hidden from the road.  A Redwing flew over, and I stopped for a while to photograph the autumn colours.
Valley at Culworth, Northants
English Oak

Back-tracking to Friday, an hour spent watching the gull roost at Grimsbury Reservoir was rewarded with further views of two Yellow-legged Gulls, one adult and one two year old bird.  I managed to photograph the adult in good light with both my SLR camera and the iphone/telescope combination.
Adult Yellow-legged Gull (phone-scoped)
Adult Yellow-legged Gull Canon SLR with 400mm lens
The beautiful Siberian Accentor hit the birding headlines this week, with the arrival of at least three in Britain (the first ever recorded).  This prompted me took look back at photos I took of Rufous-breasted  Accentor during a trek though the Sikkim Himalaya in 2010.  Their breeding habitat in Sikkim was juniper scrub at around 3500m, in this specific habitat they were quite common, but somewhat shy.  I didn't have such a good telephoto lens then either!  Interestingly, Alpine Accentors were migrating up towards their breeding habitat in the mountains, we encountered a small flock at over 4000m.  Of course we do have a resident accentor in the UK - the hedge sparrow.
Rufous-breasted Accentor, Sikkim, 10 April 2010
Rufous-breasted Accentor habitat
Migrant Alpine Accentor, Sikkim
Hedge Accentor..or Dunnock, Grimsbury Reservoir 2014

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Otmoor: Hornets and White-fronts

A relaxing and absorbing day spent wandering around Otmoor RSPB reserve with friends.  This really was the "day of the Hornets" at Otmoor.  Walking along the bridleway I first spotted three together crawling around on a fence post.
Seeing three together is not a common sight, so I look a few photos.  Then we realised there were many more the appreared to be feeding on the sap oozing from wounds in an adjoining Ash tree - several groups of two or three gathered around a good feeding area.  Realising we didn't really know too much about Hornets we quickly searched Google for the basics.  Apparently at this time of year they are busy mating.  There is a nice account of their life cycle here, which describes how on warm autumn days the sexuals (males and queens) swarm out to mate, collecting in trees near to the nest.  Presumably this is what was happening today, though we didn't actually observe any mating.

There was plenty of other wildlife of interest, including a small flock of  Redwings (about 40 birds) and Golden Plover (150).
Wildfowl are starting to arrive for the winter.  From the first reedbed screen we could see good numbers of Teal, Wigeon and Mallard, plus a few Shoveler and a single Gadwall.  A few dozen Snipe were also roosting or feeding on the edge of the muddy reed-fringe.
Large numbers of geese were grazing out on the wet grasslands, especially in front of the Wetland Watch Hide.  A small juvenile grey goose had me stumped for a while.  Is was noticeably smaller than the groups of Greylag Geese nearby.  Then, while scanning across the flock again I spotted the unmistakeable white forehead of a White-fronted Goose, with another slightly less well marked individual next to it.  Black belly stripes on both these birds were also distinctive.  They then joined together with the small juvenile goose and the penny dropped - this was a group of European White-fronted Geese, likely to be a family party, and freshly arrived from somewhere far to the north and east.
European White-fronted Geese, juvenile front left (without black bands on the belly)

Earlier in the week I made another visit to Boddington Reservoir to see the evening gull roost, just in time to catch the last rays of evening sunlight, creating a stunning scene with the reflections of the Canada Geese in the calm water.
Boddington Reservoir at dusk
Canada Geese (slr camera shot)
Canada Geese (phone-scoped)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Upper Wardington: return of the Golden Plovers

With so many of our summer migrants now departed it was nice to welcome back for the winter the first small party of Golden Plovers, four birds to be precise.  I anticipate this flock will quickly grow in number over the next few weeks.  The plovers were some of the first birds I encountered on an early morning drive around the local farmland which was considerably better than anticipated, with Skylarks, Tree Sparrows and Grey Partridges all showing themselves.

The Golden Plover have returned to their favoured field on the edge of the village, a site called Top Dawkins. This autumn, the cereal stubble has not been ploughed (as normally happens), and it looks like oilseed rape has been directly drilled into the stubble.  At the moment this is good habitat for Skylarks - some birds even producing short bursts of song this morning - and Grey Partridge (four birds yesterday).

Further on, between Chacombe and Thenford, another large field had a group of thirteen Grey Partridge.  I think some, if not all, of these birds derive from released stock.  Sadly though the fields favoured by breeding Lapwings are already over ankle-deep with Oilseed Rape growth, so won't be suitable for them in 2017.  I am hopeful they may just move to an adjoining field, time will tell.  More positive and perhaps most surprising was a noisy flock of about twenty five chattering Tree Sparrows in a roadside hedge - the largest flock I've seen locally for a few years.
Oilseed Rape growing in fields normally favoured by breeding Lapwings

A late afternoon visit to Bicester Wetlands reserve was enjoyable, nothing too unusual but nice to find a Stonechat, plus a couple of Snipe and three Green Sandpipers.
Wildfowl numbers are also slowly building up, including about seventy Teal and a few Shoveler and Wigeon.

I've been out and about in the local countryside over the past three weeks, some long runs taking me off the beaten track.  There have been some nice birding moments -
  • Red Kites flocking around cereal stubble just after combining,
  • A huge flock of Meadow Pipits finding cover in autumn stubble (I estimated three hundred birds)
  • A single Hobby flushed from a dead tree 
  • A gathering of at least two hundred House Martins swooping about the sky searching for insects as they head south.  
I've also made a couple of visits to Boddington Reservoir where water levels are currently quite low, exposing mudflats and an island has appeared, much favoured by roosting gulls.  A spectacular rainbow was also memorable.
Misty Boddington Reservoir
Rainbow at Boddington Reservoir
Red Admiral feasting on a windfall apple in our back garden
A juvenile Wigeon has joined the Mallards at Grimsbury Reservoir!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Tadmarton Heath: antidote to jetlag

It's been a while since my last posting, my excuse is that I've been down under for a couple of weeks (Queensland to be a bit more precise), enjoying some marvellous wildlife experiences as a prelude to the main event: my nephew's wedding in Noosa (on the aptly-named Sunshine Coast).

I plan to share my experiences of nature in the Cairns area later in the year, once I've had time to sort through all the images. As an appetiser here is an image of perhaps the best known Australian bird, the Kookaburra (a giant kingfisher that eats insects, small birds, chips etc).
Blue-winged Kookaburra, near Mount Molloy, Queensland

It was good to get out and about this morning in the beautiful crisp sunshine, definitely helped sooth the jet lag a bit.

I spend a good hour or so at Tadmarton Heath just as the day was starting to warm up.  A large flock of Goldfinches greeted me, close to a hundred birds, feeding on the seeds of thistles and other Compositae growing in the cultivated strip.  Most of them were juvenile birds, indicating a successful breeding season.
Plenty of signs of birds migrating through our area at the moment - a flock of twenty Meadow Pipits flew up from the rough grass and headed off to the south and a single Whinchat was perched up in the same area.  Quite a few Chiffchaffs were feeding in the smaller sallow bushes, also a number of Blackcaps and Whitethroats.

Many Speckled Wood butterflies were on the wing, mostly high up amongst the Ash trees. A couple of very smart Red Admirals were much more approachable, basking on the Bramble leaves.
Red Admiral
Blackberries are cropping well (and quite tasty).  The management of the reserve has created some really nice scrub habitat.  Last winter a mulching machine was used to "knock back" some of the scrub and it was good to see this starting to regrow.  This type of rough grassland with scrub is quite a scarce habitat in our area and an especially valuable resource for warblers and finches.
"Blackberry Way"