A Tale of Two Patches (I’m a fungi to be with)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

It was the best of times: a shrike on the patch! The first Great Grey Shrike on the patch in 39 years. I wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye when the last one was seen. And, I’ve never even seen one (I’ve got three species of shrike on my lists and ‘Great Grey’ ain’t one). Brilliant! Except…

It was the worst of times: I didn’t see it.

I had been out the night before and may have had a drink or two. I missed the calls from Jono alerting me to the Shrike, and woke up too late. It had gone. A fantastic find by Tony and well deserved, but devastating to dip.

Nick and I searched hard, but didn’t find it. There were points on my walk around the patch when certain bushes seemed so promising as a shrike-perch that I almost built myself up into a frenzy of expectation and optimism. But it was simply not to be.

I hit a low searching the patch of grassland known as the Forbidden Triangle, which resembles the Bermuda Triangle in that anything with wings that might visit the area disappears and is never seen. But even that was not to be the nadir…

I scraped the barrel by walking into the City of London Cemetery. It was like Piccadilly Circus at the gates with flower stalls doing a roaring trade from the bereaved and hearses gliding past with large entourages. I looked at the three paths roads stretching away in-front of me which, then, in turn, split again like some fractal nightmare of labyrinthine infinity, and I just gave up. I nipped between a processional cortège like a green-clad funeral crasher, and escaped back out of the gothic gates without having seen so much as a robin.

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

By the time I reached Wanstead Park, my optimism of finding the Shrike had all but evaporated.

My mood was poor as I entered the wooded darkness of the dell. I knew I was leaving any likely habitat for a Shrike-stopover.

But as I entered the woodland, my funk was pierced by what sounded like a thousand ultra-high-pitched whistles. As the trees encircled me, it felt like I was surrounded by legion invisible Goldcrest. And, albeit not quite literally, I probably was. Our resident reguli (I feel like Alan Partridge insisting on referring to the plural of his car make as ‘Lexi’) have been swelled enormously by Eastern passage migrants.

It was the age of wisdom: In a better frame of mind I began to see things that were there, rather than hoping to see something that was not (profound no?!). And those things were mostly of a fungal nature.

Autumn can so easily seem like a season of death. But with death comes decay, and with decay comes a bloom as impressive as any Spring floral display. I was surrounded by mushrooms, toadstools, and slime moulds.

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From the large…

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… to the truly minute (I found caps that were just a few millimetres in diameter).

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I found and photographed at least twenty types of fungi. Exhilarated at the prospect of looking them up and listing them somewhere, I longed to thumb through my tome of Collins Fungi Guide and tick off everything I had seen. But the reality was to be somewhat different.

It was the age of foolishness: The Collins guide illustrates over 2,400 species of fungi. It boasts that it is the most complete field guide available, although there are believed to be well over 17,000 species of fungi growing on the British Isles. I hopelessly failed to accurately identify anything – even with photographs and a guide book.

Other than having a broad sense of fungal families seen: Inkcaps, Parasols, Chanterelles, Agarics and the like; I flailed with the scale and similarity of the possibilities. The very fact that this blogpost is posted somewhat ‘after the fact’ (to take a line from Eminem) is a clue to the reality that I spent two nights flicking between photo and guide picture largely fruitlessly.

“…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

It was the epoch of belief: I realised once again what many birders have noted before; birding in Britain sits in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of wildlife hobbies. Enough variety and variation for challenge, but not so much that it becomes a hard science rather than a pleasurable hobby. There are about three hundred species of breeding and regularly visiting birds in the UK, and about three hundred more possibilities of scarcities and vagrants.

It was the epoch of incredulity: Compared with 17,000+ British fungi (it is believed that science has named less than a tenth of the fungi in existence on earth: likely to be in excess of a million species), birding is positively ‘Duplo’-like simplistic fun. I know there are people who will  examine gill filaments and spores of a fungus under a microscope, or indeed the genitalia of a moth, for the sake of identification, but… I prefer birding: “definitely a Chiffchaff. It just went ‘chiff chaff‘”.

“…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…”

It was the season of light: Being in a somewhat philosophical frame of mind off the back of my fungal forays (and still blissfully unaware of the ID enigma I was to encounter at home) I did my best to cheer Nick up over a couple of pints of beer at our patch pub (and failed rather miserably – Nick finds more on the patch than most of the rest of us put together, but was clearly gutted by the GGS dip). [OK! I realise two birders drowning their sorrows is hardly an embodiment of the ‘season of light’, but I have committed to this ‘Tale of Two Cities’ theme now and I am damn well going to see this extended metaphor through to the bitter end! The pub is the ‘Golden Fleece’ after all (although the nearby ‘North Star’ would’ve been even better for my story)]

It was the Season of darkness: [This one’s back on track] The next day was so foggy, that attempting to identify any birds on patch was tricky and photography was virtually useless…

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Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) in broom in the fog


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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubecola) in the fog

“…it was the Spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

It was the Spring of hope: I whirled around the Flats from dawn to check in case our shrike had come back or come out of hiding. But to no avail. My Sunday of hope lay elsewhere: on another patch a few miles down the road (or down river to be more precise)…

A mere stone’s throw from the stone barges of Rainham, a little warbler was skulking around in some bushes. Another local birder, Shaun Harvey had played a blinder (almost literally) and found London’s second ever Dusky Warbler from its “took” or “teck” calls. Most of the Wanstead crew piled over on Sunday morning, along with many other birders to congratulate our neighbouring patch-worker and pay our respects to the diminutive dark phyllosc.

I stood in the twitch line looking at the tangle of gorse, nettle, bramble, and ‘thorn occasionally hearing the odd call from deep in the vegetation. A ‘tick’ from the ‘teck’, so to speak, but I wanted at least a glimpse as well. A Robin, a Wren, a Dunnock, and a Reed Bunting all popped up every now and then to show us how easy it is for a bird to perch in full view while our Asian visitor stayed resolutely hidden.

But eventually, through fence, branch, stalk, and twig, I got a view of an eye under a distinctive supercilium peering out from its thorny bower and then that brown phylloscopus-body moving between twigs. That is how life ticks are made.

It was the winter of despair: Winter is indeed on its way, and the season of crazy passage vagrant arrivals will soon be over, but it is no time for despair. For every fungus that cannot be ID’d, there will be another that can (maybe with practice); for every bird that is dipped, there is another that can be ticked. And with both comes a story to be told, even if not quite worthy of a Dickens novel.

 

On birding and blogging

This is a response to this, this and this. If my post is to make any real sense, it might be sensible to click the links and read them first. Off you pop!

The author of those blog posts, The Wanstead Birder (who occasionally goes by the name of Jonathan or Jono), is a fellow birder on my local patch. He can actually say ‘his’ patch with some authority as he was highly responsible for re-energising and organising the birding activity on the Wanstead  Flats and Park. He is also one of my favourite bloggers and takes an okay photo too.

So, you can imagine I was somewhat alarmed when I read that Jono might be throwing in the towel on the whole blogging malarkey. I even pleaded with him (on a well known 140-character-limit social media site that rhymes with ‘titter’) to think of his fans and keep on putting fingers-to-keyboard.

As you will have read, Jono gives a number of reasons why he feels that blogging may be a dying medium and why he may quit. I can personally relate to several of them; most notably that I find it very difficult to find the time to blog.

But, I wanted to approach the issue from a slightly different angle, and set out why I think blogging and birding go hand-in-hand so well and, at the risk of being grandiloquent or hyperbolic, I think are actually an important combination.

A tribe called ‘birder’

Jono also recently lent me an excellent book…

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Birders: Tales of a Tribe, Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker describes what makes a ‘birder’ and why we do what we do through a number of anecdotes and stories. Amongst the stories, he relates the role of the trusty notepad to a birder. Going out of fashion now in this digital age, the notepad used to be an essential item of kit for a birder, second only to binoculars: listing what you have seen and, in the days before common ownership of super-zoom lens cameras, noting down observations to be able to accurately record the sighting.

Now, spreadsheets hold the lists and twitter can be updated with what you see real-time. For more detailed observations, as well as capturing the experience in full (everything from the scenery, weather, the trials involved, and the emotion), blogs serve a wonderful purpose. Birding is about more than lists of birds, and a blog fills the space of those truly detailed notebooks and diaries with the added benefit of being able to be read widely by others as well.

A skill I have always been highly envious of is the ability to draw. I adore the sight of a notebook with detailed sketches of birds, or even just bits of birds adorned with pencilled notes about the relative length of primaries or the particular shape/size/colour of a supercilium. This is just not something I could do; my sketches would be so comically imprecise and childish to render them useless. Occasionally some of my record shot photographs are not much better (exhibit ‘a’ below taken today as an example), but photos do fill a gap and, I think bring a blog post alive.

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This work of art is titled: ‘You wouldn’t catch Jono posting a pic like this’, or ‘Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)’, or ‘my 99th patch bird for the year, and patch tick’

Now imagine you can combine good photography, some semblance of wit in your storytelling, having enough variety of activity to record (maybe patch birding supplemented by plenty of interesting trips further afield, or even abroad), throw in some maps, some lists, some trivia or history, some personalities (etc etc) and you have a blog that works. It captures and records memories as well as any notebook, it allows others to share in the adventure and sometimes compare similar (or even the same) experiences – as with our recent find of a Yellow-browed Warbler told on three separate blogs here, here, and here. So, if you can imagine all of those elements done well, then you may well be imagining Jono’s blog. Which is why I was concerned that he may be stopping, and why I hope he will reconsider.

Every birder has a different journey to make: are we twitchers, or diligent patch birders, or photographers, or conservationists, educationalists, ornithologists, ringers (hopefully not stringers), call recordists, travellers, artists, or do we just like a nice walk involving watching a few birds along the way? I am not at all sure yet what my journey will look like, what combination of this wonderful hobby I intend to make my own, but I am certainly enjoying the process of finding out. I share my attempts, my triumphs, my failures, my experiences, and my musings on this blog. This is the closest thing in my life to a form of creative expression.

And that is an important point that I know Jono has acknowledged: we write primarily for ourselves. This is my notebook. If others read and get any form of pleasure or utility from what I have written, then I see that as a bonus. At its best, as with our patch multi-author blog wansteadbirding, it can be a genuinely useful resource. Today Nick and I saw a Swallow fly over. I was immediately able to check when the latest sightings of swallows were seen over the past few years on the patch by bringing up his blog on my phone. We are all aware how the internet has been the greatest enterprise in mass information sharing ever attempted in history: blogs play a small, specialist, and personal part in that enterprise.

Just why?

Wildlife blogs are the medium through which the wild and the digital come together; a gateway to share and preserve what one has experienced outdoors.

Wanstead Flats and Park is our patch. It pales next to the parts of the world or even spots in the UK that are truly renowned for wildlife. It will not be the subject of a programme like ‘Springwatch’, or an Attenborough documentary, it will not have a dedicated periodical or newspaper column written about it, but it is recorded through the efforts of few people through some blogs that anyone can read. It is a green space in inner London that faces threats and challenges, but holds on to being one of the best birding sites in one of the best cities in the world. If it wasn’t for the encyclopaedic listing of life recorded on the patch found here, or the conservation efforts of a local group captured here, or the progress of the local birders found here, as well as the occasional offerings from the weekend contributors like Jono, Tony, and – if you will excuse my immodesty – me,… then, this place would not be known or understood anywhere near as well. Through social media, websites, and blogs we can let the world (or as much as might want to look) know what is happening and we can be, perhaps, better armed when threats to this habitat or others occur.

I am well aware that I didn’t answer Jono’s essay question, and I am also well aware of the many factors which make it difficult to keep a blog going. But I also worry that, at the moment, without the regularity of reporting through a blog (its great benefit, or curse, over a simple website), then places like Wanstead Flats could be far more easily forgotten or ignored. Maybe one day, some new medium, making an online blog seem as quaint as a paper notebook, will render sites like this one irrelevant, but until that day comes, I hope people like Jono (who really show people like me how it should be done) keep taking some time to tell the world what they are seeing and experiencing.

Patch perfect

I went out onto the patch this morning with one intention: finding a Yellow-browed Warbler. It has been a bit of bogey bird for me: every year there are many, many that visit the UK, but I never seem to be in the right place at the right time, and when I have been, I have still missed them.

And so I worked hard to get one. I carefully looked, but even more carefully listened as I walked first through Bush Wood and then around the SSSI. Bush Wood seemed full of Goldcrest calls, but there was little else there.

It seemed a little odd to be trying so hard to find a bird that has never been found on the patch, with the exception of a single call once heard. I thought of all the hours Nick puts into the patch and he has not seen one here. But then I thought about the number the guys from the patch were seeing up in Shetland, the fact that more do seem to be coming each year, and the fact that one had been heard nearby in Snaresbrook the other day as well as one or two others on key London sites. So I persevered.

I remained almost totally focused on my goal until I was distracted by a bird high up in Motorcycle Wood. I couldn’t see any colouration at first, but the shape and size pointed singularly at Ring Ouzel. Patch year tick! It then started chacking loudly to put its ID beyond doubt. When it flew down into the birches, it revealed its stunning crescent and was followed by another one – a pair (and later we would see a total of three together and another possible in the Copse to the East of Alexandra lake – the most I have seen anywhere!)

I followed the Ouzels for a bit and walked out of the trees to try and get a better view from the South of Motorcycle Wood. It was here that I heard that wonderful, unmistakeable high-pitched reverse wolf whistle. Yellow-browed Warbler. I could not believe it. In fact, at first, I literally did not believe it. The call was repeated over and over again, but I couldn’t see a thing. I decided it must be another birder playing a tape on the other side of the trees.

Then, a strange succession of things happened in a very short space of time: I wanted to walk around and check for another birder; I wanted to stay and find the bird; I wanted to believe my ears and tweet it out to alert the world to my triumphant find – first conclusive YBW on the patch ever and I was the finder. So, I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from Jono. As the thought flashed through my mind that he must be the culprit playing the recording, the calls got closer and louder. I looked up and saw a small Phyllosc warbler moving through the birches. I then saw Jono come around the corner asking me if I was playing tape; I was very pleased to be able to say ‘no’. Yellow-browed Warbler finally ticked off: a new life bird for me (very pleased to have got over that embarrassing hurdle), my 106th bird on the patch, and 97th for the year on the patch.

Jono and I continued to hear the calls – sometimes incessantly for a minute or two, but didn’t get any good views. Not for ID, but for the love of birds I wanted to see what I had only seen on paper and pixels: that super citrus supercilium and those wonderful wing-bars on that great green plumage.

We were soon joined by Tony, then Richard, and then Simon. At first the bird was silent. Never before have I so wanted others to experience a bird I have already heard and seen. It is difficult to explain, but the desire to share that wonderful experience (and maybe a slight sense of wanting to ensure everyone believed what I knew to be true) was very strong. We did that thing that birders and horror film victims always do: split up to have a better chance of finding the bird. I stayed put whilst the others walked off. Soon after, the calls started again like a tiny avian car alarm: I looked over at Tony and Richard who were still just about visible but they had obviously not heard anything so I ran over, gesticulated and cupped my hand to my ear whilst pointing at the tree from where the call came. Jogging down, we were all soon sharing the same experience.

Whilst in the middle of this happy mayhem, I noticed a Skylark calling from the Police Scrape, and then we saw a skein of geese circling . I was some way from the others and simply noticed that the geese were calling very strangely. I had no idea what they were, I just knew they weren’t Canada or Greylag. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait as the guys behind me started shouting. I stared hard through my bins and made out the barring that conclusively confirmed what I had heard Tony say: White-fronted Goose. 15 of them, and the third sighting in a decade on the patch if the records are correct. This, at the same time as the first Yellow-browed Warbler was calling!  I was giggling like a tipsy teenager.

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Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)

When we eventually all saw the YBW briefly on a branch, it was pure birding magic. It is not an ostentatious bird, but at that time it truly felt that I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

But it was only hours later, when I was back on the patch, that I managed to get a photo or two of this amazing bird.

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Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

So the day is ending with me having found (or joint found), heard, seen, and photographed a life first, got anther patch life tick and got a year tick – finishing the day on 98 birds for the year (tantalisingly close to my century target and equalling my score last year). But so much more important than a tick is the fact that I got to experience this patch birding magic with others – birding can be an amazing experience alone in the wild, but I increasingly learn how much better it can be when with others.

When Jono and I finally got photos of the bird this afternoon, we were with his daughters. How many 9 and 11 year olds have seen a Yellow-browed Warbler in inner London? My guess is very few indeed. And that highlights how truly special today has been.

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Whether a wind-blown vagrant or, as science increasingly seems to believe, a pioneering radical avoiding the normal migration routes (like the small percentage of bees programmed not to follow the hive when there is bountiful nectar found to ensure new pastures are also sought out), I shall never forget this bird or this wild experience just a few minutes walk from my terraced London house. Wanstead Flats is a genuinely incredible place.

 

 

 

By the early evening light: the Autumnal migration orrery

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This year I have got better at snatching short opportunities to bird the patch: still sometimes at the weekend, occasionally early in the morning, and occasionally after work.

The late summer/early autumn migration – my second on the patch – has delivered old friends from fly-over Yellow Wagtail, to the watchful Muscicapidae (and/or Turdidae depending on whose authority you follow) using our trees and bushes as we might use service stations on a long motorway journey: Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, WhinchatStonechat, Northern Wheatear, and Common Redstart.

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Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

When seen after work, these birds have often been bathed in the golden light of early evening. Wonderful when the light was behind me (with the birds above); not so wonderful when the light was behind the bird as was the case below.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Sometimes the flycatching birds – like those above – are mimicked by normally shyer, more skulking, birds. One balmy evening, the air was so thick with insects that the warblers were out darting out of their usual bushes to catch flies mid-air or chase each other around. Whilst a poor quality photo, it was on this evening that I got some of my best views of our resident Lesser Whitethroat – coaxed out of the thickets wearing its bandit mask to attack the mass of airborne protein:

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Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca)

As Autumn moves closer, some our summer breeders have their numbers swelled by more northerly kin stopping off on their way south: in particular Willow Warbler, Goldcrest and Chiffchaff.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The local birders have all been following mixed flocks with hope and anticipation. The high pitched calls of Long-tailed Tits often the first sign that something interesting this way comes. Moving through the trees, raiding the twigs of invertebrate life as they go with Blue Tit, occasionally Coal Tit (whose distant calls yesterday had Nick and I holding our breath in vain for the hope of Yellow-browed Warbler), and then the comparatively massive Great Tits barging through the leaves like american footballers.

One afternoon in the Old Sewage Works, I watched a particularly large caravan of mixed birds pass by, counting tens of tits along with multiple Chiffchaff, Blackcap, and Goldcrest. I thought that was it, but decided to check with a quick burst of taped yellow-browed and then Willow Warbler. On the second try, almost immediately, up popped a lovely bright bird just a few feet in front of me. I fumbled with my camera like poor old brother Fredo using a gun in the film ‘The Godfather: Part I’ when his father, the old don Corleone, is ambushed while shopping. Fredo’s father is critically injured and he is left facing his own incompetence sat on the side of the road; I was left with photos of a twig where moments before a beautiful had perched just a few metres in front of me. Despite there having been many Willow Warbler through the late summer, I seem to be camera-cursed with them, only snatching this poor shot in near darkness (since my photos of our territory-holding bird in the Spring):

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Sometimes my late evening jaunts would mean I literally ran out of light before I had quite finished my birding. And so it was as I walked slowly around our grottiest of ponds, the Jubilee, looking for a relatively long-staying wader. As the sun went down I dodged almost mutantly large rats – fat from the industrial quantities of bread thrown into the pond and rubbish deposited all about (see Jonathan Lethbridge’s excellent post on the problem with this pond, here) – as I continued my search.

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Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)

After a little while  of searching I eventually saw my quarry through the gloom. It was still feeding on the fringes of the pond island. I scurried forwards to get a photo… the most successful mammal on earth sending the second most successful scurry, in turn, right in front of me and into some undergrowth. I stood right by the rat tunnel to get my shot of the Common Sandpiper, any view of a wader on the patch is a moment to be savoured as they are scarce indeed, just before the light disappeared altogether.

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Breeze Block (Lateres aurita*) and Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Even knowing the photos would be atrocious quality, I was pleased to have seen this little chap. I walked off into the dusky night  happy, but scratching. Within a few minutes I found a flea on my arm. Within a few minutes more, I had found another. It appears being that close to rats can be rather more hazardous than I had imagined.

Sometimes Autumn doesn’t feel like a season in its own right, but rather as an extended transition between Summer and Winter. Passage migration brings the regular stop-overs and flyovers, and – of course – it sometimes brings something truly special, like this year’s Ortolan Bunting which I feel incredibly lucky to have seen. It also brings gatherings and movements of birds: from mini murmurations of Starlings, to the trickle of South-bound Swallows feeding as they fly, but which have yet to become a great flow.

While some leave, others arrive, like these Wigeon (albeit I doubt these ducks view any of our ponds as their final wintering destination).

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Eurasian Wigeon (Anas Penelope)

Of course, some birds seem untouched and untroubled by the changing of seasons like these two inhabitants of our local river Roding:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

All together, it feels like some ancient astronomical contraption (or Orrery). Different species moving in different directions and at different speeds and orbits, (with some stock still like a pole star) as the single giant cog of time moves inexorably around. Unlike the early scientists observing and turning the wheel, as birders we may observe but there are no wheels for us to turn. Humanity overall is not just an observer though. Occasionally we manage to throw giant spanners in the works. To finish where I started, Whinchat numbers in Britain have more than halved in the last twenty years. As we slow some orbits or break cogs altogether, who knows what damage we are doing to the contraption overall. Will we one day be left with the giant wheel of time turning and no bodies (biological rather than astronomical) to whir around it?

*my translation😉

Scottish sojourn: Part II (Wildwood)

First came the birches…

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Silver Birch (Betula pendula) wood in Highlands

…and then came the pines…

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Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Rothiemurcus

… and then the oak…

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Mixed woodland dominated by Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), Taynish NNR, Argyll

This is a crude description of the order with which our island became re-forested after the last Ice Age eight or nine thousand years ago. As the ice retreated, the trees advanced. In the high mountains of Scotland, the pines were kings. Just about everywhere else, our lands were carpeted with oak dominated woodland. And so the Wildwood became.

To say that we have deforested our ‘green and pleasant land’ would be an understatement of spectacular proportions. Only tiny fragments of ancient forest remain, and nowhere has it been untouched. Nowhere.

But… perhaps the closest we can experience to this original wild woodland is in Scotland. The temperate oak rainforests of the West coast, and the pockets of Scots Pine that remain in the Highlands. I recently visited both.

Taynish and the temperate rainforests

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Taynish NNR

The Taynish peninsula is the westernmost-but-one protuberance on the larger (famously phallic) Kintyre peninsula on the South West coast of Scotland. The main woodland area is dominated by two ridges (one of which can be seen above) and a marshy valley in between (also seen above). Water surrounds. The lochs are fished by Osprey (which I saw there) and Otters (which I didn’t – although I had seen them on Mull the day before).

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Shores of Taynish and Loch Sween

This is one of the few areas believed to have been continuously covered in woodland since the last Ice Age with soil pollen records showing only a dip in the Iron Age when man felled some of the trees and again in the 18th-early 20th Century when the woodland was heavily, albeit largely sustainably, coppiced. For the last fifty-plus years the woodland has been allowed to gently revert, edging closer (even if never reaching) its original pristine state.

The woodland is called temperate rainforest because of the volume of rainfall (well over three times the amount of rain that falls in London), the relatively mild climate (as a sheltered peninsula in the South of Scotland), and the number of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts etc) and epiphytes (that grow on other plants also including moss, lichen, and ferns). It actually reminded me more of Cloud forest (that I have seen in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru) rather than rainforest. It is magnificent; I am not sure I have been anywhere in the UK that feels so alive.

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Oak with ferns, mosses and lichens growing on it

The understorey is rich and varied. The diversity of fungi, mosses, lichens, grasses, liverworts, slime moulds, ferns, orchids, and other higher plants was just staggering.

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And while I was there, I watched both Spotted Flycatcher, and Pied Flycatcher amongst the tits, treecreepers, thrushes and other common woodland birds.

When out on the heathland and flower-rich carefully grazed areas, I walked amongst more Meadow Pipits than I could count, as well as Lesser Redpoll, Corn Bunting, and Skylark. Apparently Spotted Crake have been recorded here, but they did not show for me. And things get even better when it comes to the invertebrates, with a particularly broad range of butterflies and moths: It is an important site for the Marsh Fritillary, although I was there too late in the year to see them, but was happy with a life first Scotch Argus:

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Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops)

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Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata)

I visited other temperate rainforests along the coast while I was there, and can say with some conviction that it is my favourite British habitat. I was at Taynish on a Saturday morning and did not see a single other person until I returned to my car. I cannot recommend a visit to this area highly enough.

The Scots Pine woods

Unless you have seen it, it is difficult to emphasise the contrast between the denuded highlands, or the lifeless timber plantations with the wonderfully rich habitats of true Scots Pine wood. Like the ancient oak woodland, these are tiny remnants of the once mighty Caledonian forest that cloaked much of Scotland until a few hundred years ago.

Unlike the semi-natural linoleum of dead needles that cover the floor of dark spruce plantations, the naturally-growing pine forests are carpeted with an array of ferns, juniper, grasses, and mosses. The understorey is teeming with life.

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Forest stream in Rothiemurcus

I came across huge Wood Ant nests, garish fungi, and some rather more familiar life-forms up above the forest floor:

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Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

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Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

But I didn’t go up to Scotland to see Coal Tit. I had other quarry in mind and I got one of my pine forest ticks at the beautiful setting of Loch an Eilein.

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Loch an Eilein

High up in the pines I heard, and then saw, a bird I am used to seeing in the Pyrenees, but had never come across in Britain; the wonderful Crested Tit.

But above and beyond ticking off birds, was an opportunity for me to reconnect with something we have all but entirely lost: our great forests, the wildwood, and quite simply… the wild. My emotional state reflected the woodland I visited; I felt alive.

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Fallow Deer doe (Dama dama)

Scottish sojourn: Part I (Raptor)

Scotland is beautiful.

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I actually can’t quite remember where this is

This statement is so uncontroversial as to render it almost irrelevant. But it was driving almost 1000 miles around Isle of Mull, the South West coast, and the Cairngorms recently that it made this truism a truth again for me.

The lochs and the hills. So famous. And home to some spectacular wildlife, including some of the rarest and most impressive birds of prey in the United Kingdom.

Three of us travelled to Mull in search of eagles. Actually we may have been searching for different things, but I was definitely searching for eagles. White-tailed Eagle in particular. I had never seen one of these re-introduced giants before.

Despite there being two specially monitored breeding sites for tourists to see the eagles, the chicks have now fledged and are often away from the nest sites. And so it was when we visited. But we did have three sightings of these ‘flying barn doors’ all around the spectacular sea loch, Loch na Keal…

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Loch na Keal, Mull

On our first day we secured views of an adult and a juvenile on the hillside overlooking the loch. But on our second day, we were phenomenally lucky. We sat eating on the North East shore when an Eagle came straight towards us across the water. At first it resembled a Golden Eagle, but better views proved it to be a juvenile White-tailed- one of this year’s chicks. It was just an awesome being to behold. The largest bird of prey in the UK, and the fourth largest eagle in the world.
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Juvenile White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

We didn’t get as close to Golden Eagle, but they were there – sometimes just tiny specks soaring over the ridges, occasionally perching. Even when not seen, there is a sense of presence from these mountain gods looking down from their olympian heights at everything beneath them.

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Glen More, Mull

Buzzard are everywhere on Mull, helping to put context on the scale of the eagles. There is also another raptor I was searching for on Mull. A bird I know only from France, and from stories. A bird facing almost certain extinction in England due to horrific persecution from some criminally managed grouse estates. The ‘sky dancer’, a bird I have identified as a grey ghost. The Hen Harrier. We watched this male hunting over the moorland at one of the highest road-accessed points on the island, but were also lucky enough to see two ring-tails as well on  separate occasions…

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Record shot of Male Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Back on the mainland, I went to see the Osprey breeding site at Loch Garten (a rare occasion where I can show you a protected bird on a nest without breaking the law). Meet ‘Rowan’ the fledgling:

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Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

But I was also lucky enough to see this species twice more, including over the lochs around the ancient oak rain-forests (more on them in a later post) of the West coast:

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My experiences with these raptors were personal moments of some profundity to me. Each of the species above has experienced persecution. In the case of White-tailed Eagle that persecution has led to UK extinction, eventual reintroduction and now a slow recovery. In the case of the Hen Harrier the persecution continues and extinction gets closer. In this sad context, small victories are important like the petition to ban the sham of a country sport, driven grouse shooting, (note I am not necessarily against the hunting of grouse, just this particularly environmentally destructive practice) passing 100,000 signatures yesterday. Please do click here to sign up if you live in the UK: Sign here

Birding the Yucatan: Part V (The Island)

My wife on Isla Contoy

My wife on Isla Contoy

There exist few hospitable places left on earth that can claim to be truly ‘untouched’ or ‘unspoilt’, but given its accessibility, the small ‘Isla Contoy’ off the coast from Cancun, gets pretty close.

Only just over five miles long, this narrow strip of rock, sand, and mangrove only just peeks up above the turquoise waters of the Carribbean sea.

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boart

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boat

Much is made of the unspoilt wild beauty of the island, and it is very beautiful, but all is not quite what it seems. The island has secrets, and one of them is quite deadly.

First of all, it is certainly not a pristine habitat, untouched by the meddling influence of man. The scene of tropical paradise below is perhaps somewhat tainted if you realise that the palm trees should not actually be there at all, but were planted or introduced by humans…

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Introduced palm trees

In the foreground of the photo, and covering much of the island, is one of the four species of mangroves (more on them later as they are a clue to the island’s deadly secret).

The palms are not the only signs of the human touch. There are a few buildings, although literally only a few (in single digits), including a dock where visitors arrive, an observation tower where they look out, and a couple of habitations for the four or five rotating temporary conservation workers who are the only human residents. Aside from guides and scientists, only 200 tourists are permitted to visit a day, and must abide by a number of rules to protect the ecosystems (such as not wearing sun cream).

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View from the highest point on the island with dock and observation tower visible

While the human presence is thankfully small, there are large numbers of birds. Frigate birds in their many thousands use the islands as a breeding ground.

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Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

The chicks perch precariously (frigatebirds don’t actually ever truly perch, they just sort of rest on something) in the mangroves above the lagoons while large fish swim around menacingly below. Sometimes the chicks fall in the water.

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Frigatebird chick

Wading shorebirds visit the islands in large numbers as well. I stood on a small jetty photographing the Spoonbills (below) in the distance on a lagoon when a guide brought his tourists to look at them. He pointed at them and said in Spanish “Mira! Flamencos” (“Look! Flamingos”) – I didn’t embarrass him and, to be fair, they were quite far away and flamingos do apparently visit the island in large numbers, although I didn’t see any there.

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Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

There are good numbers of ibis, herons, and all manner of waders, big and small, including the the ultimate ‘shorebird’…

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(Ruddy Turnstone) Arenaria interpres

I photographed this chap on the beach as we boarded our boat home. The reason it fills the  whole frame is I couldn’t step back far enough or change my lens fast enough to get a more pleasant aspect.

Terns and other sea-birds can also be found circling, or come on to the island to roost or breed. And that’s it. I mean, we are talking over 150 species, so not bad for such a small island, but there are no passerines whatsoever on the island.

The reason there are no resident perching/song-birds or anything similar, or any resident mammals, is the same reason why the island has never been been fully inhabited by humans. There is no freshwater. No rivers, no springs, or ponds, just very salty lagoons.

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Lagoon and the ocean

Humans have visited the islands for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Mayan pottery and carved shells have been found, but these were likely left by visiting sea-farers. The island has only ever been accessible by boat.

On approach and departure from the island, for miles, the sea is shallow and almost impossibly turquoise. We did some snorkelling, although the reefs in this area are not large or in great condition. More impressive is the odd dark circular shape that we saw as the boat moved through the sea. At certain points these rock-like shapes were really quite numerous – and sometimes almost the size of a small car. And they were moving. The island and the sea around it is an important breeding area for sea turtles. In fact all four of the major turtles breed on the island’s beaches: Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, and the largest turtle in the world, the Leatherback.

We saw other dark shapes in the sea. From a distance it appeared to be a small black island, and then a floating mat of some sort. We got closer to see a densely packed flock (or ‘gulp’) of several hundred, maybe thousands, of cormorants…

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Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

As our boat powered alongside them, we all watched transfixed as the tightly packed gulp became a flight. The black shape, turned black and white by the splashing wings and feet, soon became an elongated cloud that stretched further than my camera lens could encompass and passed alongside and then out beyond the boat. It was a magnificent wild spectacle of the first order that is only poorly translated into pixels.

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Cormorants in flight

Trip list

Having finally come to the end of this rather long, serialised trip report of my time in Mexico, I can now include the trip list of species positively identified while we were out there.

As I said in a previous post, the list is nowhere near as long as it should have been, but it includes a number of life-firsts (marked below by a star*), and there were an even greater number of fantastic memories. The double-crested cormorants above, were not rare or unusual, but seeing this huge flock on a turquoise sea was an incredible experience I shall never forget. If you have the opportunity to visit the Yucatan, I heartily recommend it.

  1. Spotted Sandpiper
  2. Wilson’s Plover*
  3. Willet*
  4. Mangrove Warbler*
  5. Red-winged Blackbird
  6. Groove-billed Ani
  7. Tropical Kingbird
  8. Least Tern*
  9. Great Egret
  10. Palm Warbler*
  11. Dunlin
  12. Greater Yellowlegs*
  13. Black-necked Stilt*
  14. Mangrove Swallow*
  15. Mangrove Vireo*
  16. Tropical Mockingbird*
  17. Tri-coloured Heron*
  18. American Flamingo
  19. Royal Tern*
  20. Brown Pelican
  21. White Pelican
  22. Laughing Gull
  23. Caspian Tern
  24. Turnstone
  25. Sandwich Tern
  26. Ring-billed Gull
  27. Ruddy Ground Dove
  28. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher*
  29. Yellow Warbler
  30. White-winged Dove*
  31. Golden-fronted Woodpecker*
  32. Osprey
  33. Green Heron
  34. Black Vulture
  35. Northern Jacana
  36. Anhinga
  37. Altimara Oriole*
  38. Social Flycatcher
  39. Magnolia Warbler*
  40. Cinnamon Hummingbird*
  41. Black-crowned Night Heron*
  42. Pygmy Kingfisher*
  43. Lesser Scaup
  44. Double-crested Cormorant
  45. Reddish Egret*
  46. Vermillion Flycatcher
  47. Lesser Yellowlegs*
  48. Blue-winged Teal
  49. White Ibis
  50. Great Blue Heron
  51. Wilson’s Phalarope
  52. Empidonax (sp?) Flycatcher
  53. Turquoise-browed Motmot*
  54. Hooded Oriole*
  55. Clay-coloured Thrush
  56. Yellow-olive Flatbill*
  57. Greyish Saltator*
  58. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  59. Lesser Greenlet*
  60. Spot-breasted Wren*
  61. Turkey Vulture
  62. Hawk (sp?)
  63. Brown Jay
  64. Great-tailed Grackle
  65. Bronzed Cowbird*
  66. Great Kiskadee
  67. Red-throated Ant Tanager*
  68. Rose-throated Becard*
  69. White-bellied Wren*
  70. Myiarchus (sp?) Flycatcher
  71. Plain Chachalaca*
  72. Roseate Spoonbill
  73. American Golden Plover*
  74. Cave Swallow*
  75. Euphonia (sp?)
  76. Barn Swallow
  77. Northern Cardinal
  78. Collared Dove
  79. Black-cowled Oriole*
  80. Common Ground Dove*
  81. Feral Pigeon
  82. Yucatan Jay*
  83. Snowy Egret
  84. Yucatan Wren* (heard only)

*= Life Tick.