Tag Archives: RSPB

Summer stories of France: Part I (a grey ghost and silhouettes)

As any regular reader of this recently irregular blog will know, aside from my relatively new birding patch in East London, I have another patch.

My second ‘patch’ is in a remote part of Southern France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. As I type, it is a sweltering evening in East London. And so it was also sweltering a couple of weeks ago in France. Whilst I tried to avoid the mid-day heat, I walked out every morning and evening to record the wildlife as I have attempted to do for the last seven years.

Every day I would scan the sky for dark shapes… for raptors, such as…

Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

But what I was really hoping for was … other than the dreamy hope that a Griffon Vulture or Lammergeier might soar down the mountains to us … a view of a Hen Harrier. I have watched these birds glide low in the valley a couple of times before but not for a few years. Their horrendous persecution and near extinction in the UK intensifies my desire to see it anywhere now – like the sudden, almost guilt-driven, desire to see a terminally ill friend or relative.

One evening I walked back along our long dusty track to try and see a Turtle Dove – which I duly did, or rather I listened to its purring of bottled summer song.

I got to the point where I knew I needed to turn around to get home before dark, but sat for a few minutes by a small deserted building.

Ruin

The rocks I sat on were annoyingly uncomfortable, but the views in the golden light of evening, and the almost mystical awareness of nature that enveloped me on the hillside in the shadow of this ruin, compelled me to stay longer than I should. As I stood and wiped the dust from my shorts I became aware of something in the upper periphery of my vision.

After the initial flick of my head to see what what happening, I stood as still as the ruin and watched a Hen Harrier. Far closer than I have ever been before, it glided in front of my eyes, tracing the contours of the land and bushes as perfectly as if it was connected by some invisible wire to the ground. But the Harrier was connected to nothing. It was free, and by the time I had slowly exhaled a single breath, it had slipped over the brow of the hill like wind-blown smoke.

It was a male. As grey as dry slate with its wingtips dipped in black ink. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And it was gone.

These words do not accurately depict what was going through my mind at the time. When the Harrier had disappeared over the brow of the hill, it was as if I were an anxious parent whose child had just slipped from his hands into great peril. Any reverie I had been in as it flew across my sightline had been shattered. I ran. In some dreadful contrast to the grace of the Harrier, I chased it like a greedy, chubby child might pursue a dangled chocolate. As the Harrier had only been 25-30 metres in front of me, I was over the hill in a small matter of seconds and ready with sweaty palms to claim my prize: a photo of my favourite bird.

But it was gone. Of course, it could not have ‘gone’ as it had been there just a few moments before and I now had a perfect view over the scrub and cultivated land for almost a mile in every direction. But it was gone. Logically, I can reason that it had swooped down on some unsuspecting prey just a few feet beneath its talons, or it had landed to avoid the sweaty ape that was invading its territory, but it seemed like it had vanished like a phantom, or disappeared like its kin due to the persecution of man. My greedy desire to photograph the Harrier then seemed to horribly mirror the greedy desires of those who cannot tolerate the competition the Harrier poses on their grouse moors. I stood in silence, still looking, but with the downcast outline of man shamed by the grotesque actions of his kind.

I felt like I had seen a ghost. And perhaps, tragically, in a way, I had.

If you can help the Harriers, please do.

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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 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…?

A Big British Birding Year: Part VI (Oh Sandy!)

This weekend my quest to photograph more species of bird took me to one of the spiritual homes of birding: the RSPB HQ at Sandy in Bedfordshire.

Despite being deep inland, it is Sandy by name and sandy by nature; largely covered with heathland:

Heath

Although also with beautiful birch…

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

… and other, mixed, woodland…

Woodland

It was walking through these woods that I saw one of our introduced mammals, descended from a few escapees from private collections from the 19th century onwards…

Reeves' Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi)

Reeves’ Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi)

They are the oldest known deer species, appearing in Europe up to 35 million years ago.

Muntjacs were not the only introduced species I snapped at Sandy. Two more, also additions to my bird list for the year, were:

Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

… and the more naturalised…

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)

Other birds I added to my year-list were:

Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

… and the rather distant shots (merged below) of…

Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis flammea cabaret)

Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis flammea cabaret)

… as well as a shy and hiding…

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

But I also managed to take some slightly better shots of birds already on my list, including:

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

… and…

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

My list building did not stop at Sandy either. I nipped into the Summer Leys reserve in Northamptonshire and scooped a Pochard…

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Then I went back to my family home and added the 59th species of the year to my list from the back-garden:

Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

A Big British Birding Year: Part IV (Big Garden Birdwatch)

This weekend, tens of thousands of people will have spent an hour counting the birds in their gardens for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. I joined them, as indeed I did last year .

I also got to tick one more bird off my year list to take me to a grand total of 49. The 49th species I photographed is one of the most hated birds in the UK: the Feral Pigeon:

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Many people refer to the feral pigeon as a rat with wings. I don’t completely disagree with the comparison, as, like the rat, the feral pigeon has thrived in a world dominated by humans (let us not forget that humans do incomparably greater damage to this planet than all the so called ‘vermin’ put together). A few other things about feral pigeons that you may or may not know:

  • Feral pigeons are effectively domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild and bred.
  • Domestic pigeons were the first birds in the world to be domesticated (between 5-10,000 years ago) from the handsome wild version of the species, the Rock Dove.
  • Domestic pigeons, often bred as homing or racing pigeons, are able to navigate back to their home roost up to a 1000 miles away if they are released from a strange place.
  • Despite their reputation, and unlike humans, feral pigeons are immune to, and incapable of carrying, the deadly H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus.
  • Feral pigeons are monogamous and mate for life. When you see a male puffing up his neck and chasing a female whilst cooing – he is courting a female that he will then stay faithful to for the rest of his life (something that many human males seem to find difficult).

Anyway, there ends my lesson, but as you can see, I don’t believe we should hate these natural survivors as much as we often do. Now, back to the listing…

I counted 3 feral pigeons together at one time in the garden – according to the RSPB rules – to count them for today’s birdwatch which I submitted online to feed into the organisation’s enormous database. This was one down on last year.

I counted two Blackbirds – a male and female – which is the same as last year:

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Two Robins (one more than last year):

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

At least two Great Tits (also one more than last year):

Great Tit (Parula major)

Great Tit (Parula major)

Two Blue Tits (same as 2013):

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

One Wood Pigeon (down from three last year):

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

One Carrion Crow (I didn’t see any this time last year):

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Strangely, I only saw one of the normally highly gregarious Long-tailed Tit (two this time last year):

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

At least one Chaffinch (one less than last year):

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

One Wren (which was missing from my hour last year):

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

And, finally six Starling (which improved on the solitary one I saw last year – although the photo is significantly worse!):

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

To summarise, I saw 11 species in my garden (in zone 1 in London) which was one more than last year (two new species, but missing a Magpie from last year). Five of of the species I saw were more numerous or new compared to last year, although five were also less numerous or missing when compared to last year, and two species produced the same number as last year. So overall a pretty even picture when compared against last year, but not bad in such an urbanised area.

Secret London: Part IX – Eastern marshes

On the very eastern edge of Greater London, just before the Thames flows under the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and over the Dartford Tunnel, the brackish water passes some important wetland: Rainham Marshes.

Thames from Purfleet

To a central Londoner, it feels like you are out in the sticks, but looking back up the Thames, the steel and glass towers of Canary Wharf, the City, and now the Shard, are visible although nearly 15 miles away (I took the shot below at maximum zoom)…

London

History on the marshes

Around 6,100 years ago, as our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers, Britain became an island. A catastrophic tsunami (created by some huge land movements in Norway) turned marshland into what we now know as the English Channel and turned some low lying forest into marshland. Over time, as silt has shifted or been washed away, remnants of these ancient forests are exposed in the marshes…

6,000 year old tree stump

More recently, the marshes have played an important role in British military history. In the early part of the twentieth century, soldiers came to the rifle ranges and the antique target ranges remain to this day…

Target

Before flood defences were raised, blocking its view down the Thames, this tower (below) would have been used to to spot any U-boats/submarines sneaking up the river. It also used to have a machine gun on its roof to shoot down Zeppelins. Now it sits in tranquil retirement amidst the wildlife…

Tower

The nature reserve

Rainham Marshes has now been reborn as a nature reserve, maintained by the RSPB, and is an important site for wildlife.

The view below is from one of the bird hides…

View from hide

The Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) below are seen in front of some of the vast expanse of reeds the marshes are famous for…

Starlings

In winter, large numbers of ducks, such as these grazing Wigeon (Anas penelope) and sleeping Shovelers (Anas clypeata) flock to the marshes…

Wigeon

… and yesterday I saw huge flocks of Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) twist in the air as they rose time and again up from their feeding grounds (seen here with an oil refinery and other industrial structures in the background)…

Lapwing

Whilst often fiendishly difficult to spot wading, I also spotted quite large flocks of Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) in flight…

Snipe

Thames shoreline

Thames view

On the other side of the flood defences, boats and ships pass up and down…

ship

… and the heavily tidal Thames exposes muddy flats where more ducks and waders congregate such as the wonderfully beaked Curlew (Numenius arquata) that I actually photographed this time last year (I’m cheeky but honest!) beside a Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)…

Curlew

The Thames also washes up a disturbing quantity of rubbish…

Trolley

Rubbish

Plastic can obviously cause significant damage to wildlife and the environment, but animals also get on with their lives around it, such as this Wigeon…

Wigeon and bottle

… and this Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) – sorry about the grainy photo – picking around seaweed and other, less natural, detritus…

Rock Pipit

Birds, birds, birds

Other than the grainy Rock Pipit, and a couple of the flock-shots I was pleased with (all above), I didn’t actually get to snap anything too out of the ordinary, but here are a few of the photos I did take…

Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – posing

Blue Tit

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) – also posing

Carrion Crow

The UK’s smallest bird, and one of my favourites, Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) – most definitely not posing!

Goldcrest

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

IMG_7065 copy

…which should not be confused with the black headed, Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) – taken at Rainham last year, as I only got blurry shots yesterday 😦

Reed Bunting

Talking of blurry shots, here is a distant snap of the worryingly declining Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Skylark

A male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch

… and finally, Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Collared Dove

I am sure many London-based wildlife lovers would take issue with me describing Rainham Marshes as ‘secret’ London, but I am sure many more people based in the capital wouldn’t have thought about spending a day in a beautiful place to the very east of our capital.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2013

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) organises an amazing survey every year in the UK where half a million people spend an hour noting down the birds seen in their garden during one specific weekend in January. That weekend is this weekend, and I have just submitted my results.

I live in an apartment in Zone 1 in London. I am very lucky that, despite my central and highly urban location, I share a reasonable sized garden with the owners of the other three flats in my block. I spent an hour with my binoculars, a notepad and pen, and my camera looking out of my sitting room window and noting down what I saw. An important rule of the survey is that you only note down the number of birds you can see at any one time to avoid the possibility of double-counting. Here is what I spotted:

Blackbird (Turdus merula) – 2

Blackbird

This fat, young female (above) was one of two Blackbirds I saw in the hour. It is ranked as the fourth most common garden bird in the UK and last year’s survey showed that people saw an average of 2.6 of them per garden recorded.

Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – 2

Blue Tit

Despite the rather poor photo above, I saw at least two Blue tits flitting regularly between the trees during the hour. Blue tits are recorded as the third most common garden bird with last year’s results showing that there were, on average, nearly three of them per garden. Indeed the increase in bird feeders in garden is probably a major factor which explains the 20% population increase in Blue tits recorded over the last 30+ years of the RSPB survey.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) – 2

Chaffinch

The bird above is a female Common Chaffinch. From last year’s survey, it is ranked as the fifth most common garden bird and the fact that I saw two of these birds fits neatly as that was the average record returned last year.

Feral pigeon (Columba livia) – 4

Feral pigeon

Although only ranked as the 15th most common garden bird from last year’s survey, if you take the results for Greater London, it is the fifth most common bird. Given my central urban location, it was no real surprise that I saw more of these feral birds than any other.

Great tit (Parus major) – 1

Great Tit

The eighth most common bird in the RSPB survey and at least one was repeatedly present in my garden during the hour.

Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) – 2

Long-tailed Tit

Only recently included in the top 15, this cute bird (above) is now 13th in the list. It mainly feeds and flies in family flocks of 5-15 birds, but I only spotted two in my garden during the hour.

Magpie (Pica pica) – 2

I wasn’t quite dexterous or quick enough to capture the magpies in my garden with my camera, but I spotted two of them, which places me above average. The Magpie is the 12th most common garden bird.

Robin (Erithacus Rubecula) – 1

Robin

One reason why the gardener’s friend is only 9th most common garden bird is surely that they are so territorial that you are unlikely to see more than one in your garden at any time. However, the RSPB data over the years shows that Robin has undergone a worrying 32% decline in the UK.

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) – 1

Starling

Whilst pleased to see one Starling, I was surprised it was on its own as Starlings are normally highly social. The Starling is the second most common bird in the survey, but this belies the fact that since 1979 it has suffered a horrendous 80% decline in numbers – one of the worst population falls of any bird in the UK.

Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) – 3

Wood Pigeon

In stark contrast to the Starling, the Wood Pigeon (above) which is the sixth most common garden bird, has increased in number by a staggering 800% in the last 30 years!

So those were the ten birds I saw in one hour from my central London window, which goes to show that you do not have to travel far to experience wildlife. However, at four counted, the Feral Pigeon was not the most common vertebrate seen from my window. As I am lucky enough not to be overlooked, it wasn’t humans either. The most common animal I counted in my garden during the hour was the Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) (called the Eastern Gray Squirrel in its native North America)…

Grey Squirrel

One factor which may have reduced the number of birds I saw in the hour was that a domestic cat (Felis catus) was out trying to hunt them and also chasing the squirrels.

Cat

And, to complete the picture, like something from a Tom & Jerry cartoon, the neighbour’s dog (Canis lupus familiaris) was out chasing the cat, the squirrels and barking at anything that moved.

Dog