Monday, 30 May 2016

Biebrza Marshes, Poland 4: final thoughts incl. Cranes, Godwits and Wolves

This is my final post about Poland for the time being.  What I haven't really talked about is how the agricultural land that surrounds the marshes contributes greatly to the wildlife value of the area and the experience for anyone visiting.  These areas are very accessible compared to the wetlands, and offer some insight on how our countryside might have looked in the fairly recent past - when birds like Whinchat, Red-backed Shrike and Wryneck were still breeding in lowland England.
male Red-backed Shrike, a common bird
Whinchats in particular, were very common, almost every rustic looking fence line was occupied by one or two!  Small scale dairy farming is still commonplace, mixed in with arable farming and small orchards.
One of the many dairy herds
Most of the arable crops are grown in strips, with several crops grown in close proximity and relatively few large moncultures of oilseed rape and cereals.
Yellow Wagtail (race flava)
Yellowhammer - very common indeed
Some of the wetter meadows grazed by the dairy cows had a few pairs of Black-tailed Godwits, Lapwings and Redshanks with the occasional Curlew.  The godwits were great to watch, often perched on fence posts, a sight we don't get to see too often in the UK - maybe one day they will find Otmoor to their liking....
Black-tailed Godwit

Cranes were commonplace in pretty much all of the habitats on offer and very easy to see in small groups, even a few larger flocks of fifteen to twenty birds.  Early one morning I was fortunate to find a pair right next to the road, in one of the few areas of peat bog.  With a delightful backdrop of birch trees and cotton sedge, they looked very much the part.
Crane pair
Large mammals have survived in this part of Poland, most famously the Bison at  Bialowieza Forest.  In Biebrza there are still Wolves and Lynx, as well as the Beavers and Elk previously mentioned.  Of course I did not see Wolf or Lynx - they are very shy indeed - but I did find fresh Wolf footprints on a track within the Grzedy Forest Protection Area, where I also had a brief view of a Pine Marten.  Spotted and Lesser Spotted Eagles also nest in the forest.
Wolf footprint - it was still a suprise to see how big it was
These mammals are vitally important for the ecology of the area - the grazers and their predators - and this national park has one of Europe's the best surviving examples of a relatively complete food chain!
White Stork - commonly seen, also just a few Black Storks
White Storks nest in most of the villages
Immature Lesser Spotted Eagle, spied through a gap in the hedge.  They spend a lot of their time feeding on the ground.
Planning my visit was made relatively simple due to the excellent info available, not least via the Wild Poland website and contained within the Crossbill Guide to North-east Poland.  Driving in Poland is not too bad once you are away from Warsaw, you just need to take a bit of care on the dirt roads around the national park area - I nearly got the Nissan Micra stuck on day one and was more cautious thereafter.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Biebrza Marshes, Poland 3: wet alder woodlands with River Warbler and White-backed Woodpecker

In several parts of the Biebrza Valley the wide open expanses of reedbed and fen are bounded, towards the valley sides, by extensive areas of wet woodland - including willow scrub and alder carr.  The "transition zone" from fen to woodland seemed to be a particularly valuable habitat, an intricate mosaic of wetland habitats full of warblers (especially Blackcap, Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat).  In the clumps of willow would often hide a Thrush Nightingale, a wonderful songster with a loud rattling song....but equally good at keeping itself hidden.
River Warbler
I tried several times to see one, but failed completely (I definitely needed a bit more patience!).  Never mind, I had more luck with the River Warbler, a bird I'd not seen before, so I was really pleased when one decided to sing on top of a dead-looking bush a few metres from where I'd decided to park up for lunch.  Not the most spectacular bird, but very much a part of the Biebrza soundscape.
The alder woodland was looking particularly stunning with the first flush of bright green leaves reflecting in the water.
Alder carr
I was fortunate to be directed to a nest site of a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers in this habitat.  The nest hole was in a decaying tree overlooking a wide ditch.
female White-backed Woodpecker visiting the nest
male White-backed Woodpecker
The birds seemed quite tolerant of people but I did worry that as the word got around they seemed to be under almost constant observation. I enjoyed watching them as they foraged in the woods, collecting great beakfuls of food.  I also heard Grey-headed Woodpecker in this location several times but just could not locate the bird - somewhat frustrating, but one for another trip!  Wood Warblers were much in evidence, perhaps even the commonest bird in pretty much all the woodlands (there are also extensive forests on the very sandy soils above the floodplain).
Wood Warbler
Evidence of Beaver activity was everywhere along the ditch:
Also a really nice selection of flowers, sedges etc.:


Lily of the valley
Wood Cow-wheat

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Biebrza Marshes, Poland 2: the wild river with marsh terns

The southern basin of the Biebrza valley has the best examples of natural floodplain and associated wildlife.  Here the river merges seamlessly with reedbeds, willow carr and fen.  Oxbow lakes and shallow floods provide habitats for three marsh terns - Black, White-winged and Whiskered.
Black Tern
All were present in smallish numbers.  Currently the wetlands are not a wet as they often are.  A couple of dry years in north east Poland has meant the extent of flooded wetland this spring is less than average.  In really wet years, hundreds of terns nest here.
Whiskered Tern
White-winged Tern
Whiskered Tern
Black Tern
Biebrza Valley, southern basin
Nonetheless, it was easy to get good views of the terns as they hunted for insects along the river and across the adjacent swamps.  Sitting quietly tucked into the riverbank was a great way to watch them as they swept back and forth and I managed to master focusing the camera sufficiently to capture a few images.
Other birds in this habitat included Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Black Stork, Great Egret and White-tailed Eagle.
Being a Saturday, there were probably as many local people fishing as there were visiting birders.  The fishermen waded out into the marshes quite fearlessly, and no doubt got the best views of the marsh terns. Sadly, just after I arrived, a fisherman walked straight through the area where Ruff were gathered.  So I missed a likely good view of lekking Ruff.
Quite a few people fishing, -looked like a wonderful place for it!

Biebrza Marshes, Poland 1: magical wetland experience - Aquatic Warblers, Elk and much more...

I've wanted to visit to Biebrza Marshes in north east Poland for many years, especially since acquiring a copy of "Portrait of a Living Marsh", a wonderful book filled with the work of 32 wildlife artists, published back in 1992.  The main wetland and forest areas are part of a relatively new national park (established in 1993) and nature based tourism is being developed.
I grabbed a window of opportunity to take some leave, booked flights with Wizz Air and spent a full four days exploring the area last week.  It was a really rich area for wildlife - great expanses of largely natural floodplain wetlands surrounded by farmland and forests.  Four days were not really enough as there is so much to see, but allowed time to get a good look at what are called the lower and middle basins of the Biebrza river valley.
The avian jewel in Biebrza's crown in the rare and secretive Aquatic Warbler.
Aquatic Warbler
About a quarter of the world population return to these marshes each spring, where they set up territories in the extensive sedge beds.  A great place to see them is the
Dlugu Luka Boardwalk, where you can experience life in the midst of the fen, while keeping feet dry.  
the boardwalk at dawn
the same boardwalk later in the morning
I visited four times, three times in the morning and once in the evening.  In the mornings the birds were reluctant to sing but every now and again one appeared atop a stem of reed or sedge.  You need to be quick, as they soon descend back into the thicket of sedge leaves.  In the evening, in contrast, many birds were singing all around the boardwalk - now you appreciate how many there are.  But they were impossible to see.  Frustrating, but also wonderfully enigmatic.
The area around the boardwalk was full of other interest - groups of Black-tailed Godwits displaying and then chasing off a Montagu's Harrier, displaying Snipe all around, reeling Grasshopper Warblers.  
Black-tailed Godwits in flight over the fen, early morning
A nearby watchtower is a perfect vantage point for viewing out across the marshes. Late one evening as dusk descended, I watched from the tower as a female Elk emerged from the adjoining forest to graze on the willow scrub.  Then I noticed a movement around her legs and realised she had a tiny calf.  Now regretting leaving my telescope in the car, I quietly descended the stairs and returned with my scope and tripod.  I quickly got a much better view of the Elk and calf.  Now, I realised there were actually two calves (it turns out this is quite a rare occurrence). This was the last I saw of the family as the mother then walked her youngsters back into the forest.  The next day I returned to see if they were still around, but instead there were two young male Elk in the same area, this time in full daylight.
the two Elk

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

SP42: Long Day Count

The Long Day Count  on Sunday 9 May was blessed with wonderfully warm sunny weather and productive conditions for birding.  This year I covered SP42 with Colin Wilkinson, and we had a very enjoyable time tracking down birds in woodland, farmland, small lakes, grazing marsh, parkland and villages.  Much of the area was new to me, including hamlets such as Glympton and Kiddington, as well as some slightly more familiar places like Worton Wood and Northbrook.
Perhaps the greatest excitement came right at the end of our Count (after 11 hours!) when we arrived at Worton Wood hoping for a Jay.  We stepped out of the car door and almost immediately Colin picked up the harsh scold of the Jay.  In fact the bird was very agitated, so I tried to see what all the fuss was about.  And there, tucked deep into the hazel coppice, was a Tawny Owl.  It seemed quite unimpressed with the noisy Jay, and just sat tight.  The Jay lost interest and soon all was quiet.
Tawny Owl
time for a snooze
Other highlights included Mandarin Duck, Corn Bunting, Hobby, Spotted Flycatcher and Curlew.
In total we saw 73 species, so were pretty chuffed.

Today, in contrast, has been dull and wet but ample compensation came in the shape of a beautiful Turnstone, at Grimsbury Reservoir, a patch first for me.
Turnstone - en route to Greenland?

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Wyre Forest: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Palmate Newts

The Wyre Forest is a wonderful place to spend time exploring at any time of year, but Spring is just magic.
Wood Anemones
This extensive tract of ancient woodland is located a little to the west of Kidderminster in Worcestershire. Much of the area is managed either by Natural England (it is a National Nature Reserve) or the Forestry Commission.
It is arguably the most important site for biodiversity in the Midlands with a long history of detailed study, recently brought together in a new book, The Nature of Wyre.
I was very fortunate a few years back to be introduced to the Wyre by one of the editors of the new book, Brett Westwood - BBC Natural History presenter and a wonderful field naturalist.  He showed me some of the best places to look for the special birds, flowers and insects, including something I had never heard of before, the Ground Caddis.
A very bold male Goldcrest singing close to the path
Taking advantage of the warmer weather today, I hoped to catch up with Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies, but in the even the limited sunshine failed to lure them into flight (but see some images from 2009 at end of the blog). However there was much else to enjoy, with all the summer migrants now arrived I was able to locate at least seven Wood Warblers, three male Pied Flycatchers and several singing Tree Pipits, Garden Warblers and Blackcaps. A female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was also a really nice sighting, feeding very unobtrusively on the branches of a large oak tree.  I also saw my first Spotted Flycatcher of the Spring. The only bird I missed was Redstart - I normally see a couple of singing males here.  
Beech trees are just coming into leaf, ahead of the oaks
This person looked to be well set up for photographing kingfishers along the Dowels BrookDedication.

Many Orange Tip and Speckled Wood butterflies were on the wing, and spring flowers were out in profusion.  Lovely old orchards are dotted around the edge of the main forest - they are looking stunning at the moment, with much of the blossom at its best, especially cherry and pear.
Cherry blossom
Fern fronds starting to unfurl
On my first visit, with Brett, we searched for Palmate Newts in track side puddles to no avail, so it was especially nice to catch up with them this time.  They seem to like the big tractor ruts along some of the grassy rides along the Dowles Brook.  As you get close they like to dive into the mud rather than pose for photos. However, they did display their palmate rear feet rather well.
Palmate Newts like a muddy puddle
Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Wyre Forest, 9 May 2009
Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Wyre Forest, 9 May 2009
Tomorrow I participate in the Banbury Ornithological Society "Long Day Count" - up to twelve hours in the field to try and locate as many bird species as possible in a ten by ten kilometre square. This year I will be covering SP42, an area I'm not too familiar with, so it should be a chance to explore some new local sites.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Upper Wardington: more wagtails, skylarks and fledglings

Sunday morning was cold, crisp and frosty but the early morning sunshine washed the yellow wagtails with a warm glow as they perched on the fence line.  I stopped to capture a few more images before continuing to Williamscot to survey a 1km square for the BOS summer random square survey.
male Yellow Wagtail
The idea of the survey is to find out approximately how many pairs of each bird species are breeding in the square.  Quite a challenge then! Fortunately there is quite good footpath access around the village and surrounding fields, largely sheep and cattle grazed pastures.  Nothing surprising to report, but nice to find a couple of pairs of Tree Sparrows, six singing Goldcrests and two drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a male Sparrowhawk.  It was interesting to find only two warblers, one of each of blackcap and chiffchaff.  There is very little suitable habitat for the scrub loving warbler species like Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat - the hedges are generally too well trimmed.
Back at home, the fledgling robins were soaking up the sun too, and growing up rapidly.  Great to see them doing well.
Robin fledgling
Today, Monday,  I was able to spend bit more time watching the wagtails first thing, and a friendly a Pied Wagtail decided to sit on the road right next to me.
Pied Wagtail
Skylarks were much in evidence too, they really like foraging in the pea field next to the road, giving me good opportunities to use the car as a hide and get some nice pics.  A single Wheatear also stopped off briefly before a Buzzard disturbed it, not to be seen again.
The Yellow Wagtails have taken suprisingly well to modern agriculture, nesting in monocultures of wheat, potatoes and beans, and feeding in pastures intensively managed for lamb and beef production. Though they are declining they do seem to be able to adapt to modern farming, unlike most other birds of this habitat.  Let's hope they continue to persist in our area and brighten up our spring birding.
Yellow Wagtails