Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Three lazy weeks in China...

Oh, boy am I tired. Over the past month I have been living and working in China, teaching at Nankai University. Now this was always going to be part of my new job, somewhere along the line, but changes in staff availability meant that I had the opportunity to get there this year. So I’ve been all kinds of outside my comfort zone, environmental ethics and behavioural change is not something I’ve taught before, I don’t speak any mandarin beyond “hello”, “thank you”, “sit down” and “cheers”, and I had never been to China before. Even the flight was a revelation. So long in the air… thankfully in cushy business class.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore with teaching 4 days a week, marking on top and a research workshop on the first weekend, that left me with just one free weekend to myself. In these spare moments, I split my time between exploring the huge local waterpark and the equally huge mall.

The water park was gorgeous. A welcome splash of green in what I was finding a disorienting and oppressive level of urbanisation. Each time I dropped by I spotted something new, white-cheeked starlings and crested myna on the first day, light-vented bulbul the next. Spotted doves, azure-winged magpies, night heron, red-throated flycatcher, a few fast and unidentifiable warblers in the canopy, as well as a very vocal oriental reed warbler who was happy to pose for pictures. At the university, hoopoe, tree sparrows and white-cheeked starling were nesting in the university buildings.

Aside from that, I ate amazingly well, wrote lots and got some quality sleep. On my last weekend, I shut myself away in a hotel near Beijing airport and worked on finishing yet another manuscript draft whilst watching HBO and Nat Geo Wild, making plans to “do it properly” next time; arrive a week early and do some proper birding, explore the wetlands. Until then, here are my favourite urban birds of Tianjin...

Red-throated flycatcher

Oriental Reed Warbler

White-cheeked starling

Light vented bulbul

Crested mynah

Black crowned night heron

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Flying into February

Last month I renewed my efforts to reach 400 birds before I get to forty. Starting the year on 262 and ticking off ring-billed gull, common crane and taiga bean goose in January. Of course, with the annual flock of bean geese still lurking around Slamannan, Tom decided that he had to tick them too (as if he needed to get further ahead of me...). After a flurry of messages, a whistle-stop tour of Scottish sites was planned, starting with Strathclyde for Iceland gull (for me) and ring-billed gull (for Jack and Tom), then up to Slamannan for the geese. By 8pm on Saturday, Tom was pulling into the drive and we were making plans for the next day's birding.

Of course, it snowed. The 80-minute drive from Dumfries to Motherwell was a scenic/hair raising trip through snow-covered hills and icy roads. When we arrive at Strathclyde it was to 50p sized flakes of snow and, typically, no birds. I mean, there were birds... just not the ones we were after. We picked our way diligently through the flocks flying or loafing on the ice-bound rowing lake, all the while our fingers cramping with the cold, but with no success. It was with a gloomy feeling that we got back into the car 45 minutes later and headed north.

When we arrived we seemed to be out of luck again. No sign of the birds in the fields between Slamannan and Fannyside, despite bumping Tom's poor car along every minor road open to traffic, the wheels skidding on the thicker lying snow. Almost conceding, we tried one last road, eventually giving up and swinging back the way we came. As we drove back in the opposite direction, Tom slowed to take in a couple of whoopers that Jack had spotted in a distant field, then - behind them - two lone geese that had been separated from the rest of the flock. Success! A quick photo later, we were off on our way. 

From just south of Sterling we set our sights on the lesser scaup that had been seen at Stranraer, stopping on the way for the chough at Turnberry (a super little bird which Jack picked out as it foraged on the beach). We arrived at Loch Ryan with the tide low, minimal daylight and a bitter wind. A large flock of scaup sat out on the water, but too far away to pick out their lesser counterpart. Luckily, two red-necked grebes sat in clear view and a mix of waders covered the mud. However, even these weren't enough to distract us from the chill, and after 15 minutes we decided that it was time to head home for a well-earned rest and a whisky. 

There was only one bird that I'd dipped in January, green-winged teal. I'd darted out of work to see a one at Caerlaverock, but with limited light (and warmth), I hadn't managed to connect with it. On Valentine's Day, Jack and I decided to make another attempt to see the bird. After a late breakfast of bacon pancakes, we made it to the WWT reserve at 10:30, to be told that the bird had again been seen on Folly Pond. 

 Only 7 years and 135 birds to go... 

Things are warming up around the house as well, all the birds are singing and there are new visitors to the feeders. The starlings have found the fat balls, smart with their yellowing bills, and a reed bunting has taken up residence in the scrub. At the camera trap, the otters continue to mark their territories, and my thoughts turn to the badger cubs soon to be born and the need to find the sweet-spot to places the camera to be ready for their first appearances above ground in a few month's time.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Watching Winter Wane

Since returning from our round robin of parent's houses over the Christmas period, I've been longing for warmer weather, longer days and time outdoors. There is still plenty going on around the house (as you'll see below), but my thoughts are turning decidedly to spring. With another birthday gone I've also been kicking myself about my lack of progress regarding my 400 before 40 challenge. Still sat at just 261 birds and now 33, I have decided that (now I have a permanent job and a comfy home) I will be making ticking off the birds a priority this year. 

To help assuage my restlessness and lazy-birder's-guilt, I have been planning for a year of nature, starting at home. With so many birds visiting the feeders and such a good array of wildlife around the house, we're wiring up the garden. After a couple of eBay bargains, we now have a bird box camera set up, and a feeder camera (which I intend to use for small mammals) on the way.

I've had the trail camera out around the house as well, with a super successful week between the 4th and the 9th, during which I picked up badger, roe deer and fox at the same location, with plenty of otter spraint nearby too. After a quick battery recharge, the camera went back out yesterday at the spraint site with fingers crossed for the next 5 to 7 days. 

Continuing with the nocturnal theme, the moth trap will also be out as soon as the weather improves and we have our eye on a Batbox baton detector for our fluttery friends.

I also managed to get out birding. knowing that I will be making numerous trips between Glasgow and Dumfries over the coming weeks, I have been keeping my eye on RBA for any potential lifers I could pick up en route. Luckily, on my first trip, a prime candidate appeared. A ring-billed gull at Strathclyde Loch, basically a two-minute drive from the M74. What more could I ask for?!

On Thursday I finished my course at 1 and by 1.30 I was pulling into the car park. There are always plenty of gulls around here, and I wandered to the southern end where a cloud had gathered around a couple feeding the mallard and tufted ducks... but it wasn't in with the common, herring and black-headed gulls here. Making my way back I returned to stand in front of the path from the car park again. I focused in on every gull, no matter the size or initial impression, determined not to miss anything, when suddenly, the blinking bird flew down about 10 meters in front of me. 

I snapped away, following it as it moved north, and became aware of another 2 birders to my left. We stood for a further ten minutes, happily shooting the gull before it finally lifted and went to perch atop a buoy. Checking my watch (2.05 now), I headed back to the car. Bird 262 in the bag.

The next day there was a shout of green-winged teal not 5 minutes from work, at Caerlaverock. For two hours I clock watched, waiting until my last meeting after which I could dart out and try to catch the bird. I knew it had been seen during the previous week and hoped that it would remain where it was. I was wrong, an hour and a half in the bitter cold until the light finally gave out, and I slunk home in a mood (but a thankfully warm car).

That night I sat with my bird books and tried to plan out a year of catching all the breeding species and regular migrants in southern Scotland that had previously gotten away from me; wood warbler, nightjar and bean goose. Jack's dad mentioned that the crane was still present at Coldstream, and I made up my mind to head out there the next day.

Feeling thoroughly annoyed at having to get up early at the weekend, we bundled into the car at 8 and were on site by 10.45. Chris had said that we should be able to spot the bird in the furthest fields if we scanned from the path at the north end. So when I didn't immediately see a tall, long-necked silhouette I was immediately on my guard. I didn't want to dip two birds in two days... Trying to manage my expectations, we began to walk the circular route around the fields.

The wind was bitter as we made our way along the flood bank, and the disappointment of the previous day was still fresh in my mind. Happily, after 10 minutes of stop-start walking, bringing up the bins to scan the fields every few minutes, we finally locked in on the crane. Instantly relaxing, we quickly made our way to the draw level with it as it fed, snapping a few quick shots. After getting the scope onto the bird we watched as it fed, then skirted further along the embankment with the river at our backs, setting up the scope again and alternately watching and shooting. 263 in the bag, two new birds in 3 days.

As the bird began to pace to the far side of the field, a passer-by mentioned that the Great White Egret was again further up the river. Scooping up the scope, we headed along the path for 20 meters before spotting the bird stalking along the far bank. Another life tick for Jack. The bird seemed alert and nervous, and seconds later, just downstream, two otters surfaced. They were fighting against the current and the kit was whistling away, but within a minute they were gone again. Feeling the wind cut in again, we headed back to the car.  

It may be cold and grim right now, but some of those winter blues are leaving. There are still migrants on the doorstep to ogle at, and the promise of new birds soon. I just have to lose the laziness and remember to get outside. Wish me luck!

Friday, 7 December 2018

One day birding in Arrecife.

As usual, I headed off to Lanzarote intent on getting in some birding alongside the workshops and talks of MICRO2018. But, yet again, it wasn't to be. I only managed around a 2-hour stroll along the front at Arrecife, staring longingly at the distant gulls and up at the surprisingly green slopes. My one day off, a particularly lovely Thursday, was spent marking. You're welcome, students.

However, that two hours did give me sandwich terns, whimbrel, ringed plover, grey plover, yellow-legged gull and both little and cattle egret, as well as Spanish sparrows and ring-neck parakeets in town. Considering the price of the flights and my accommodation, I may have to head back soon, especially with Houbara Bustard, Spectacled Warbler, Trumpeter Finch, Cream Coloured Courser and Andouin's gull on offer....

Cattle Egret at the bus station

Spanish sparrows at the dog park

Grey plover near the harbour

New Toys: Camera Trapping

A few months ago, I cracked and bought myself a trail cam, deploying it haphazardly around Kirkland. Since moving again, it has hung from the back of the door making me feel guilty, but last week I got my act together. I chucked it on a tree in the back garden with some bird food tucked behind a stump and promptly forgot it for a week.

When I checked it today it was stocked with footage and shots of pheasants, woodmice, foxes and a couple of local cats. Over the next few months, I'm hoping to be more selective about my sites, but in the meantime, here are some of the shots and footage from the new place and the around Kirkland. 

Monday, 10 September 2018

Date with a dipper

After ID'ing my moths and placing the camera trap yesterday, I was out with a cuppa on the garden bridge. As I moved to the upstream side a dipper zipped from beneath me to the bottom of the waterfall. 

Usually, the dippers near the house vanish as soon as they're disturbed, but this one hung around as I finished my tea and went to get my camera. Remaining as I happily snapped away and allowing both Jack and Chrissy to wander over to me, watch and leave again without obvious concern. 

I got some great images (some of which I might try to do something special with), but for now, here are some of the middling ones... 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Sooooo I bought a moth trap - Kirkconnel moths 08/09/2018

On Friday I returned from a field trip to Harris (more on that another day) to find two new toys waiting for me. A shiny new trail cam, and Skinner trap from NHBS. I've been looking forward to getting the trap since moving house, so, with a warm evening, only ten per cent chance of rain at between 2 and 3 am and a relatively low wind, I deployed the trap in the back garden. 

I woke at 6 to cover the trap, then waited until the godson was up and about to open it up and identify the contents. NB: with a three-year-old "helping" I.D took about 2 hours...

On the night of the 8th of Sept we bagged:

1 canary shouldered thorn
5 large yellow underwing
1 common marbled carpet
1 silver Y
1 spruce carpet
1 autumnal rustic
2 centre barred sallow
1 pink barred sallow
1 frosted orange
1 small wainscot
1 setaceous Hebrew character
1 rosy rustic
1 dark sword grass
1 dotted rustic
1 dingy looking July highflier...
and one difficult barred chestnut.

I am happy to be corrected on any of these identifications, I'm just starting after all! 

The trail cam also went out on Saturday; positioned on a well-used deer track. I'll be taking it in later in the week, so watch this space for shots of our local roe deer population.

Silver Y

Pink-barred sallow

Small wainscot
Dark sword grass

July highflier

Common marbled carpet
Canary-shouldered thorn

Canary-shouldered thorn

Pink-barred sallow

Centre-barred sallow
Frosted Orange

Centre-barred sallow

Setaceous Hebrew character

Rosy rustic

Autumnal rustic
Dotted rustic

Barred chestnut