Tag Archives: Curlew

Peak District: the barren hills

IMG_9073v2

River Ashop, Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak District contains some of the most dramatic scenery in England, and is a great place for walking. It is beautiful, historic, and interesting, but also bleak, damaged, and perplexing.

The famous Gritstone rock formations were like natural staging posts and diversions on our walks up in the hills.

IMG_0619v2

IMG_1006v2

Sometimes the layers – that would have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago from depositions of sand under the sea – were visible.

IMG_0171v2

IMG_5106v2

And sometimes it was hard not to anthropomorphise the escarpments overlooking the plains down below the Kinder Scout plateau.

IMG_9905v2

The bleakness of the moors is famous and loved by many. I can certainly appreciate a beauty in the desolation of the moors, hills, and plateaus, but there is also something that leaves me uneasy.

IMG_2350v2

IMG_9855v2

That unease stems from the knowledge I have that these areas should not look like this. This is not a natural wilderness, but – like so much of British uplands – a scraped, denuded desert shaped by the hand of man and the teeth of sheep.

IMG_4044v2

George Monbiot describes the ‘white plague’ and the ‘sheepwrecked‘ landscapes that have been stripped of so much that is ‘natural’.

It would be unfair to ignore the fact that some wildlife seems to thrive in these landscapes. Everywhere we went the squeaks and songs of Meadow Pipit followed us, and Skylark seemed to punctuate the bleakness, singing and looking down upon the land we have stripped almost bare for them.

Of course, the careful management of the land is deliberate to encourage one species in particular to flourish: Red Grouse. I didn’t have my camera with me, but even with an iPhone and some binoculars, I was able to pick the odd head out of the heather.

IMG_8719v2

Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

Occasionally, a parent would be separated from a chick, and the stripey young birds would scuttle across the paths in front of us.

IMG_9848v2

Red Grouse chick

And, of course, when land is maintained (burned and stripped) for one species, others sometimes benefit as well. Curlew were sometimes seen suspended in the wind or passing over our heads in small herds (yes, that is the correct collective noun), but more often they would announce their invisible presence with their mournful cries. At one point two almost sea-bird-like shapes appeared above our heads and seemed to hover over and watch us. Before I put my my bins to my face to identify them, they gave the game away with not just a call, but a song: weirdly my first Golden Plover for the year. I later watched one drop down in the grass so I took a record shot with my phone up against my bins:

IMG_7807v2

European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Despite trying to make a case against the wildlife desolation, I was also lucky enough to see a pair of Ring Ouzel and Whinchat. Whenever there was a tree – rare but present in gorges and river valleys – there were Willow Warbler singing – far more common up there than the also-present Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

Despite wheezing my office-air-con fuelled lungs, hungover, up hills, I also turned my eye to other non-avian fauna. Not exactly spectacular from the lepid-pespective, but a year tick for me was Green Hairstreak – a butterfly I expect to see many of shortly on my local Patch, but haven’t yet.

IMG_8407v2

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

I was also quite pleased with this rather uniquely marked Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (I have looked through tens of pics of this species and can’t find any that look quite like this):

IMG_5910v2

Two-banded Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium bifasciatum)

So… not dreadful, but still a pretty small number of species given the expanse of wilderness. I tried to cast my mind back before memory to what these hills would have looked like just a few hundred years ago. Fully wooded and just full of life. Life that is now not just gone, but beyond gone, before memory so treated as an irrelevance or a non-existence by the powers that be.

My perspective became ‘resolve’ and hardened when I saw this sign.

IMG_5089v2

Let’s just read that first paragraph again:

This apparently simple landscape has been shaped by people over hundreds of years. Forest clearance, farming and grouse shooting have all had a lasting impact.

You don’t say! Perhaps those words washed over you as neutral or benign, but just imagine flying to Brazil to visit the Amazon Rainforest and when you get there, there are just burnt and empty fields or pasture land for cows and there was sign saying “forest clearance, farming and wild animal shooting have all had a lasting impact”! Yes they ‘effing well have. We have wrecked our wooded island like a larger scale version of Easter Islanders who wiped out first their trees and, then, themselves.

It appears that some authorities are aware of the problem. We walked past a field of plastic posts. My friend remarked it was probably a commercial plantation, but when I peered into the tubes I was heartened to see a mix of species: English Oak, Birch, even Rowan had been planted and protected from the ever-hungry mouths of the white plague.

IMG_0883v2

Rowan. I thought back to the ancient stooping tree over the trout-filled stream that we walked by in some inaccessible corner. I thought back further. I thought back into the depths of imagination when dots of Rowan would have appeared in the newly ice-cleared land dominated by the pines, oak, and birches.

IMG_5531v2

An old Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

The rowan with their many leaves and colourful berries bringing something different to our newly re-forested land. Our land that soon after became an island (when dogger disappeared under the waves), and then… just a few thousand years later (blink of an eye in geological terms) has been stripped and scoured and scorched to the bleak and barren hills we now know that overlook our equally barren agricultural lowlands.

IMG_3941v2

Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

Sean and treesv2

Walking through planted pine woodland

IMG_6928v2

Well established pine and fir plantation

And so, during my walks in the Peaks, I reflected on the wild, the re-wild, the desolate hills, the life wiped out that is never to come back, and occasionally also the human life forgotten and lost in these hills, like the villagers of Derwent whose homes were ‘drowned’ in the name of progress (Ladybower Reservoir) with only the odd sign left telling of their presence.

IMG_4940v2

Looking down to Ladybower

IMG_5682v2

Gateposts from a now destroyed and drowned house in Derwent

If you would like to read more about re-wilding, I can heartily, and strongly, recommend George Monbiot’s magnum opus, Feral, which I see as a manifesto for the wild we so desperately need to let back into our hearts, our lives, and our environment.

 

Advertisements

The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 20.13.21

The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

IMG_6783v2

Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

IMG_7769v2

The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

IMG_6833v2

Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

IMG_6944v2

Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

IMG_6823v2

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

IMG_6951v2

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

IMG_6900v2

Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

IMG_7770v2

Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

IMG_6968v2

Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.

The land and water of King Lot

We spent Easter in Edinburgh with family.

The city of Arthur’s Seat:

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Along with the mound on which Edinburgh Castle is built, Arthur’s Seat has to be one of the most famous extinct volcanoes in the world. Presumably, although not definitely, it is named after our greatest legendary king (I am a big fan of Arthurian legends). Edinburgh’s connections with Arthur don’t stop at the famous hill. The whole area – Lothian – is presumed to be named after an ancient king, sometimes called Lot: the father of Sir Gawain of the Round Table.

Some (hi)stories suggest that the ‘noble’ pagan king, Lot, committed an act of Talibanesque logic and brutality by throwing his Christian daughter off a cliff for having the temerity to be raped by a Welsh pillager Lord called Owain. The pregnant victim, later known as Saint Teneu, miraculously survived her fall and gave birth to Saint Mungo or Kentigern, the Patron Saint of Glasgow.

Flowing through the kingdom of Lot is Edinburgh’s main river, the Water of Leith:

Water of Leith

Water of Leith

This river rises in the Pentland Hills amongst the ferns, birch, heather, and moss:

Bavelaw Marsh

Bavelaw Marsh

… where I watched Meadow Pipits rise and fall in their dancing song-flights.

The many streams that help form the Water of Leith are damned to form the Threipmuir and Harlaw reservoirs which provide much of the drinking water for Edinburgh.

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Harlaw Reservoir

Harlaw Reservoir

From these hills, the water tumbles down into the city and flows into the mighty Firth of Forth estuary.

A mile or two up the beach from where Water of Leith enters the sea, is Cramond Beach:

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

At low tide Cramond Island, way out in the Estuary, is linked to the mainland by a causeway:

Cramond Causeway

Cramond Causeway

Either side of the causeway is a sandy, muddy magnet for wading birds. Unfortunately, I had neither a camera (all the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone), nor a spotting scope, but throughout the day – whether in the hills or at the beach – I took a few photos of birds I saw through the ‘make-do’ method of holding my phone up to my binocular lens…

Left side, top to bottom: Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) in Balerno; Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) one of very many at Cramond Beach; one of my favourite birds, the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) at Harlow Reservoir.

Right side, top to bottom: Common Redshank (Tringa totanus); Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus); Goosander (Mergus merganser) swimming up the River Almond Estuary from Cramond Beach; and, Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) also on Cramond Beach:

Birds… honestly!

Birds… honestly!

Sand, shingle, and sky… and a Great White

After a solid day’s birding on the local patch on Saturday, I travelled south on Sunday as far as I could go – which is just under 80 miles to the South Kent coast and the headland of Dungeness.

Any birders or photographers in the UK will be very familiar with Dungeness, but if you are unfamiliar with it, the simplest way to describe it would be to say that it is a wonderfully strange place:

Dungeness

The photo above was taken in the RSPB nature reserve and you can see the nuclear power station in the distance and one hell of a lot of shingle in between. In fact, Dungeness has one the largest concentrations of shingle in Europe. So much so, that it can be seen from space:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Apparently, due to this geology, the Met Office classifies Dungeness as the only desert in the UK. British pub quiz fans may be furrowing their brow now as we are taught that the Tabernas desert in Spain is the only desert in Europe (I once walked for several miles through the Tabernas in midsummer wearing flip-flops – very uncomfortable – with some friends to go to a nudist beach, but… ahem… back to birding). Either way, the shingle is incredible and despite its designation as a desert, it is wonderfully rich in wildlife (as I have blogged about before).

I snapped some common birds, such as Kestrel (c.46,000 pairs in the UK):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Some less common, such as Kingfisher (c.4,000 pairs):

Common (or Eurasian) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Common (or Eurasian) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Some scarce, such as Smew (c.180 birds visit the UK each winter, with several at Dungeness on Sunday):

Smew (Mergus albellus)

Smew (Mergus albellus)

Another scarce bird I should have photographed was the (Eurasian/Great) Bittern, as I watched this incredibly secretive bird take off in front of me – looking at first like a Grey Heron wearing a tiger-print costume – whilst I had my camera in pieces after taking a landscape shot:

This is where the bittern was - doh!

This is where the bittern was – doh!

And finally, I also got a poor quality shot of a downright rare bird, Great White Egret (c. 35 birds visit the UK each winter and at times a significant proportion can be at Dungeness):

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

OK! I admit I shamelessly used the words ‘Great White’ in the title of this blog post to lure people into thinking it was about a large shark

Throughout the day at Dungeness and Romney Sands, I added 9 species of bird to my UK year list to take it to a total of 88).

As well as some of those above, these 9 also included one of the most exciting birding spectacles anyone can ever see: watching the fastest bird-of-prey hunt at high speeds. By the time I got the distant photo below, the Peregrine had narrowly missed a Lapwing it sent spinning in mid-air, and perched on the telegraph pole while thousands – yes, literally thousands – of Lapwing remained in the air and rightly on edge:

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

I also just managed to get this poor shot of the only stoat I have ever photographed as it bounded around in the grass under the inquisitive – but not really very threatening – eye of the kestrel above:

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

I then moved on to nearby Lydd-on-Sea and spent a couple of hours walking on the shingle beach…

Lydd-on-Sea

… and then a sandy beach …

Lydd

… as the sun went down over the largely empty beach at low tide. In the distance, you can see the white line as the waves break. But looking closer, you can see that the first white line is not actually the breaking waves, but instead a line of thousands of gulls and waders:

Beach

I saw Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Sanderling (see below)…

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

… as well as several hundred Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Just to recap on the new birds I saw which added to my UK 2015 list:
– Bittern
– Great White Egret (UK first for me – I have also seen them in Costa Rica)
– Smew
– Bar-tailed Godwit
– Oystercatcher
– Sanderling
– Peregrine
– Red-legged Partridge
– Chiffchaff

Ruff weather birding

The great thing about early year birding is that it is relatively easy to find birds to add to your year list.

Ignoring the weather warnings, I drove to three of the best birding sites in the South East to boost my list: Rainham Marshes (a very brief visit, looking through a fence before they opened); Elmley Marshes; and Cliffe Pools.

At Rainham I quickly ticked off:

  • Common Shelduck
  • Eurasian Teal
  • Northern Pintail
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Redwing
  • European Goldfinch

… and then (because I was too impatient to wait for it to open) promptly drove on to Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey …

Elmley Marshes

I first visited Elmley Marshes Nature Reserve in January last year. The wildlife was fantastic despite the terrible weather. Yesterday, it was a bit windy, but a lot nicer. However, when I had a walked a for a couple of miles and turned around to walk back to the car, the strong winds had brought some stormy weather with them. It was like being hit by a wall of stinging vertical rain and hail that was thrown into my face with gale force winds that, at times, stopped me from moving.

I eventually got back to the car, changed my soaking trousers, and drove on to Cliffe.

But, before this, and aside from the 20-30 minute long weather adventure, I also saw some great birds:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

(That last photo was taken hastily through my car windscreen once I had time to stop the car and grab my camera from its bag. By the time I had wound down the window for a better shot, the Harrier had plunged into long grass)

Aside from these birds, I also added the following to my New Year list:

  • Common Chaffinch
  • Rook
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Reed Bunting
  • Stonechat
  • Pheasant

On the way between sites I stopped to look at an estuary and take a picture of a bridge:

Bridge

Before watching some enormous but very distant flocks of Lapwing and other waders at Cliffe:

Flock

I didn’t get any good shots of birds at Cliffe, but I did add the following three to my year-list:

  • Common Kestrel
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Common Goldeneye

I finished the day with a year list of 58 and watched the Sun set over the Thames Estuary:

Thames

A Big British Birding Year: Part V (Harriers and Hares)

The Isle of Sheppey in Kent is not everyone’s choice destination. It has a reputation for being a little rough – so a good friend who was born there tells me – and one in twelve inhabitants on the island is an inmate of one of the three prisons.

But the island does contain the large Elmley Marsh which is a fantastic nature reserve… even in the heavy rain…

Elmley hide

Elmley hide

A winding road takes you a few miles driving through the marshes where you can spot wildlife from your car window – the closest I have experienced to safari outside of Africa. I got remarkably close to hundreds of Lapwing:

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Although, I didn’t get quite as close, it was from my car window that I saw my 50th species of the year:

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

and the 51st…

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Whilst not a new bird for my list this year, I did feel slightly voyeuristic photographing mating Greylags from my car window (the same couple is captured below in several different … er… positions)…

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Once out of my car, things were a little less pleasant. The wind made it difficult to walk and the rain drove into me horizontally and stung my face. But I walked for a couple of miles (it felt like twenty) and pulled my camera out from under my coat a few times to capture some truly magical wild moments…

A racing hare sprinting around bemused and occasionally startled sheep:

European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

And then, I saw the 52nd species of bird this year, the amazing and rare Marsh Harrier, a male (one of only about 350 pairs in the country) seen below flying low and pouncing on unseen prey:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

I also saw a female harrier being harried by a lapwing…

Harrier

Whilst the weather was about as inclement as it gets in the UK, the benefit was that I was all alone in hundreds of hectares of wild land. All alone, that is, apart from the wildlife.

Flock