Monthly Archives: August 2014

My blogging century

This is my 100th blog post as iago80. It has been fun…

100 photos: one from each blog post

100 photos: one from each blog post

I have shared my travels, including to some exotic places:

Volcano, Costa Rica

Volcano, Costa Rica

… where I have seen exotic wildlife…

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

… and been privileged to photograph some extremely rare animals in the wild…

Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa)

Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa)

Closer to home, I have explored history…

Nottingham

… and shared landscapes that I have found interesting and beautiful…

Trent

Many of you have also shared my journey to photograph birds in the wild…

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Thank you for reading. I look forward to sharing my next 100 photo-stories with you.

A Big Birding Year: Part XIX (good creature of mud)

This blog has described Rainham Marshes before, (here and here), and Saturday was my second visit as part of my Big Birding Year. There have been numerous sightings recently there of the very rare Spotted Crake, and I always go full of hope to see my first Bearded Tit. Unfortunately, I did not get any life-firsts or see any particularly rare birds, but I did add a tick to my year list.

But first, I want to re-cap a bit on the terrain as it fascinates me. As I have pointed out before, Rainham Marshes sits next to the Thames about 18 miles down river from Central London, but the steel and glass spires of London can just about be seen looking West up-river in the distance:

Rainham and view to London

The marshes are now protected from the tidal Thames by some flood defences, although every time I visit, I am struck by how close to the water level the marshes are:

View East

To illustrate this better, I want to return to my new favourite online map tool (topographic-map.com) which shows clearly that most of the marshes sit below sea-(and Thames) level.

topographic-map.com

In fact, Rainham Marshes is the lowest lying land inside the M25. Despite its importance for wildlife, I would guess, sadly, that the chances these marshes will still exist in 100 years are very slim indeed.

But, for the moment, the marshes provide refuge to important wildlife, including the bird which has become my 92nd species to be photographed of the year (A Kingfisher nearly became my 93rd as well, but was too fast for me), the Black-tailed Godwit. In the heavily cropped and fuzzy zoom image below, two Godwits can be seen in flight along with a Lapwing and Black-headed Gull whilst you can see another Lapwing in the background and a third (male) Godwit looks on from the right almost nonchalantly:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Godwit, as a word, is from two old English words meaning ‘good creature’, and its Scientific name, Limosa, means mud, which is appropriate as these beautiful birds hunt for small creatures in the mud with their long bills.

Formerly heavily hunted – shamefully it still is in France – even 170 years ago Yarrell noted that numbers of these birds were declining:

Yarrell

In fact less than 40 years after Yarrell was writing, the breeding population was extinct in the UK. Luckily, these migrant waders started breeding again 70 years later in the 1950’s and every year around 100 birds will spend the Summer in the UK, like the birds I photographed, and even smaller numbers will breed.

The UK is already starting to feel a bit Autumnal and soon these birds will migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. However, unusually, it is in Winter when you have the best chance these beautiful birds. this is because the UK receives its own Winter migration influx from a slightly different sub-species that breeds in Iceland. Around 44,000 Black-tailed Godwits will winter in the UK, but I was particularly pleased to see the much rarer (in the UK) European form here during breeding season.

Black-tailed Godwit has been assigned red conversation status in the UK. If important sites like Rainham Marshes disappear under water, the threat to these birds will increase further and they could disappear from the UK as a breeding bird like they did in the 1880’s for another 70 years, or perhaps even forever…?

Three scenes of Southern France

We returned from our last visit to France almost a month ago, but it has taken me this long to review some of the photos I took. I have recorded before some of our trips to the Aude region in the extreme south of the country here, here, and here.

I want to reflect back on, and share, three landscapes that are now very familiar to me, but may not be well known by others:

Scene One: The Medieval French Village
Lagrasse is a stunning village built around the famous Abbey which dates from the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th Century (and no, I haven’t forgotten a digit there) and can be seen rising above the trees in the background:
Lagrasse

Hirundines whip around the sky above the narrow and ancient streets such as these nesting House Martins:

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

And in the surrounding gardens a large number of birds can be found such as this Spotted Flycatcher:

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

[It’s digression time] Despite this not being a great photo, flycatchers are probably one of my favourite types of bird to photograph. Why?… (I hear you wearily but politely ask) Well, because birding and bird photograph is bloody difficult. Birds are generally small, shy (read as ‘far-away’) things that spend their time flying around quickly or hidden in bushes and trees. When walking around with a camera, a birder is often first aware of a nearby bird when it flies off startled by your presence (they invariably see or hear you before you see or hear them). A bird in flight is generally not a bird you are going to be able to photograph and it will not settle down for quite a distance. A flycatcher, however, is different. The birder is alerted to its presence by it flying, but then it settles on a perch. It takes off again – “damn! I missed it!” but never fear, because it is likely to settle back on the same perch it launched off from, as that is how it hunts.[here endith lengthy digression]

Scene Two: The Mediterranean Valley
I have mentioned before that my wife’s family have a home in a valley near Lagrasse. In case you want to consider staying there, have a look at their website, here. Here is a view from the top of the hill next to her home down into the steeper neighbouring valley:

Valley view

To give a sense of the topography of the area, I used the excellent website topographic-map.com which is powered by Google. Below you can see where my wife’s home is marked by a big red X and where I was standing and pointing to take the photograph above marked by an arrow. You can also see the precise elevation of the hill (I intend to use that website lots):

valley map

It was in this valley that I got my photo of a Bee Eater in France. Even though the photo is crap, you get a sense of the amazing colours of this bird – if anyone can think of a more exotic looking bird found in Europe, let me know:

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

I was also pleased to get my first definitive photo of an Eagle from my wife’s house – reassuring the residents after my previous dismissive comments that soaring raptors were buzzards. I hopefully made up for my previous cynicism by confirming that it was the wonderfully named Short-toed Snake Eagle:

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Scene Three: The Pyrenees
My wife’s home is only about an hour’s drive from the Pyrenees, and so my final scene is from the picturesque Gorges de la Frau. Lily can be seen walking up in front of me:

Pyrenees

With my new-found favourite map website, you can see where I took the photo (X, as always, marks the spot) and the altitude sign is on top of the mountain – Sarrat de Rouquieres – seen in the photo to the left – higher, we should observe, than any point in Britain:

Gorges de la Frau

It was craning my neck back to stare up at the mountain that I saw a corvid with what appeared to be blazing wing-tips. The photo is distant and poor of the wonderful Alpine Chough, but I cannot really explain the reason why the light at this angle makes its all-black wing-tips look like they are on fire. If there is magic anywhere in the world, surely it is with the wildlife that lives high in the mountains:

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:

Yarrell

Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.

A Big Birding Year: Part XVII (Hammering home my 90th species)

The Jubilee River at Dorney looks the very picture of a quintessential natural English river.

Jubilee River

However, the ‘river’ was shaped by man and is barely 20 years old. Correctly speaking, it is a 7-mile long hydraulic channel, designed to relieve flooding risk from the Thames near Maidenhead. Nature has embraced it so quickly, that it effectively looks and acts like a natural tributary of the Thames. It is the largest man-made river in the country, the second largest in Europe, and attracts as much – if not more – wildlife than the nearby section of the Thames: truly an eco-engineering marvel of the modern age.

There is a section where one can walk along boards through overgrown reeds. The view from space shows a nice clear path looping out in the reeds with square viewing platforms:

Walkway from space - thanks to Google Maps

Walkway from space – thanks to Google Maps

The current reality is somewhat different from when this satellite photo was taken. The boards are heavily overgrown with weeds and reeds. The stinging nettles have grown to at least 2 foot above my head and stung me several times as I pushed my way through, squashing Deadly Nightshade berries beneath my feet as I walked. In the photo taken from my phone below (at point marked with a red ‘X’ on the map above), the path is actually to the immediate left of the nettles:

Nettles

But the scratches and stings were worth it to be immersed inside a wetland habitat which allowed me to get closer to a Reed Warbler than I have ever been before:

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Whilst slightly obscured, it stayed its ground and made quite a lot of noise a few feet away from me as I took his photograph and then moved on. His home was amidst the reeds seen below left (and at point marked with a red ‘Y’ on the map above):

Reeds on river

I also snapped this female Banded Demoiselle amongst the reeds:

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)

On the walk I also managed to get photos of two more bird species to add to my Big Year photo-list:

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

… and…

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

These photos were all taken last weekend on a scorching English summer day. I then drove to another nearby man-made water-feature: my birding nemesis, Staines Reservoir:

Staines Reservoir

Whilst there, aside from photographing distant ducks which turned out just to be mallards, I managed to capture my 90th species of bird in pixels for the year in the UK:

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Whilst my birding year will not break any records, I am quite pleased that in less than 20 birding trips out in the first 7 months of the year, I have photographed 90 species of birds. My target for 100 for the year is within sight.