Sunday, 23 November 2014

Starting Cold

One of the bonuses of the new job (beside getting to stay at a centre with an attached reserve) is the opportunity to do hill and moor training in the spring. As I've been sat on my behind a lot this year (birding hasn't been exactly strenuous) I decided to start getting my fitness back in order with some practice hikes. Everyone knows when out walking, its best to start cold; leave off you coat, ditch the scarf, get warm on the way. So I applied that logic to getting back into the hiking habit. Last night I hit the national park interactive map, selected the "more challenging" option, and hoped for the best. The walk chose was a 7 mile round route on Exmoor. I picked it for the same reason I pick most things. It allowed me to say something daft; case and point - "this morning I had to get into Simonsbath".

Simonsbath is only 40 mins from Nettlecombe, so I managed to grab breakfast with the other trainees, load up my bag with trail bars and bananas and be out and walking by 10 past 10. I followed part of the Two Moors Way, alongside the River Barle, to Bradymoor. The route then turned back past Picked Stones, across the Coombe of White Water, and past Winstitchen Farm to return to Simonsbath.

Starting down the Barle Valley

The route is anything but strenuous as I wind my way down the valley, hugging the bank of the Barle; but the ground is very wet and I spend a great deal of time picking round the marshier areas. As I drop down into the valley I pass the ruins of Wheel Eliza, an old mine (originally copper but later iron ore). Then on past the Cow Castle, an iron age fort atop a steeply sided hillock.

River Barle Toward Bradymoor

Just past the Cow Castle is a bridge of White Water, then the path winds up into a conifer plantation, moving away from the river and up onto Bradymoor. 

Conifer Plantation at Horsen Ford

After getting through the plantation, the path then rose for another mile or so, before sharply turning back on itself. The ground was incredibly boggy, and I was glad that I'd managed to reproof my boots the week before. Every gate was a mire formed by hundreds of passing feet, but thankfully I only met 5 people in the day. 

As I dropped down into White Water Coombe, I realised that the walk was the wrong way round! Suddenly the gradient shot up and I was looking at a sloping valley wall. After a year of not walking, and the previous two hours hard pace, I made a real meal out of the hill; stopping halfway up to "enjoy the view". But once at the top, the only way was down, through another four boggy fields and Britain's highest beech forest, before slipping my way back to the car. 

Exmoor was definitely the best place to restart my walking, as the route was incredibly kind... maybe I'll try for a 10 mile walk next Sunday...

Saturday, 22 November 2014

So Long Slapton... (another en route lifer)

The last 3 weeks at Slapton have been very kind to me. In addition to the daily spectacle of the starlings (which dropped off two days ago as the roost split in two), I've had pom skua, firecrest, yellow-browed warbler, black necked grebe, cirl bunting, and bittern to look at. Everyone at the centre and in the village was warm and welcoming, and I've been able to explore a number of exciting sites. Unsurprisingly then, I was a little sad to be leaving this morning (especially after the fun of the panto the night before), and a little down as I devoured my last Slapton-cooked breakfast.

Not wanting to waste a day of on the south coast, I decided to try to tick something off my birding bucket list, something that my northerly location usually ruled out. I have had a Dartford warbler pin badge on my camera bag for 3 years, just waiting for its turn on my bin's strap (only birds I've actually seen make it onto the strap). So, after loading up the car with all our luggage, I said goodbye to the girls and headed out to Aylesbeare Common. 

Arriving at the common just after ten, I parked up at the nearest lay-by and headed off down the nearest path. I wandered fairly aimlessly through the scrub until I found a likely spot (very marshy, the gorse dotted with low birch and willow); then I settled down to wait.

I wasn't waiting long, very soon a small dark bird with an almost long-tailed tit flight was working its way through the scrub. Its call was wren-like, almost like a wren with a back throat; and it was highly vocal as it observed me from between the branches. I'll be honest, I was hoping for one of those iconic "top-of-the-gorse" shots, but the bird was having none of it. Always in motion, the best I got was the shot below. I'm still elated though, I can finally put the "Dartford" badge where it belongs. However, I do now need a new target....

Aylesbeare Common

Monday, 17 November 2014

Starling murmurations are amazing...

Recently, I've been starting most posts with "up at 6 to count starlings" . Which goes to show what happens when I go out of my way to be nice and ingratiate myself with strangers... I get jobs at ridiculous times in the morning. 

Thankfully, this one is awesome. The birds that I usually take for granted in summer months, suddenly take on the same epic proportions usually reserved for wader roosts and raptor migrations (and that's a big dose of brilliant). 

I also often forget what smart little characters they are...

That's Captain Starling to you....

While most of our starlings are resident, many in the north and east of Europe migrate in the colder months. The birds at Slapton are mainly migrants from Scandinavia, mixed with the local population. Check out this distribution map I shamelessly stole from the BTO website.

Starling migration routes

The roosts are generally a defence against predators and a way to stay warm, and the best time to see the birds is just after dawn and right before dusk; their animated chatter can often lead you to a roost at dawn. Once you're in position, you have to rely on the brids for the rest; the displays can vary in duration and flamboyance with weather and predator abundance. Anyway, here's that video I promised of the birds arriving last night. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A Weekend Off (and another game of spot the birdy)

... this weekend didn't feel like a weekend off. The 6 am starts to count the starling out of the roost are really starting to hurt; however, it does mean I get to be out in the best part of the day. On Saturday I headed down to Prawle and spent a couple of hours seawatching, by which I mean I was distracted by a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins - which handily brought in a large flock of gannets, kittiwakes and gulls. Luckily enough, a pomarine skua flew right into scope whilst I was staring, otherwise I'd have had nothing new to show for the shift. On the way back to the car I managed some quick snaps of buntings and stonechats, then back to the Ley to catch the starlings as they came back in. There were approximately 50000 birds, but they came in in bulk, making estimation difficult; to make matters worse, they decided to drop in down the far end of the Ley.


On Sunday I headed down to Strete to find where the birds had dropped in - driving slowly along the beach with the window down to pick up the chattering. By 0715 they were all up, rewarding me with a brief display in the morning light before disappearing over the hill (I'll upload one of my videos as soon as I can cut them to size, I promise).
After watching the birds, I drove down to Torcross to check out the ducks... nothing doing - so I headed back, glancing at the beach as I went... 

"Hmmmm" said my brain, "that's too little for a cormorant".
"But, breakfast." said my stomach.
"Way too little," my brain recounted "Spin the car around blondie..."
I sped up to quickly get to the Ley car park, where I could wing the car around, and belted back to Torcross. I noted the position of the bird as I passed a second time and, after re-parking the car, quickly headed back to where I'd last seen it.
"It is small..." the brain chimed in again, but not a diver.

The bird was about 50 meters away now and I finally stopped to look through my bins.
Winner, black-necked grebe. Breakfast time.

Black-necked grebe

After breakfast I ran back down to the reserve. The rain had really raised the water level and I was hoping that a few little birds would be driven out of the reeds. I wasn't wrong. Over the course of the day I saw no less that 3 cetti's warblers, and even managed clear shots of a few. 

First up, my most acrobatic of individuals, see if you can spot it. Answers on a postard (... or in the comments box).

Spot the warbler

Rare moment of visibility

Friday, 14 November 2014

Showers in the South Hams

Guess who's had a good few days? Me that's who.

Below - one of at least two firecrests at Slapton Ley today (one seen - kinda)


On Tuesday I was out at Prawle looking at beach communities. It was rainy!

The beach was a gently sloping rocky shore, and - since I had forgotten to bring my bins - I got to grips with some serious invert I.D.

The warmer site, low wave impact and location beside the channel resulted in a really diverse community. Highlights for me included the gorgeous little by-the-wind-sailors (below) which had washed up along the strandline, and a pool full of invasive snakelocks anemone.

Cthalamus montaguii

Obelia genticulata, a hydrozoan colony

Snakelocks anemone, Anemonia viridis, and Cladophora rupestris

Amazingly coloured periwinkles, Littorina

By-the-wind-sailor, Vellela vellela
This week I have been doing the starling counts for Dennis; a local birder who is now sunning himself in the USA. So on Wednesday and Thursday I was up at 6:30 to get down to the reserve. Early mornings at Slapton are amazing, and this week I have been rewarded with two firecrests, 3 peregrines, a super late swallow, a bittern and over 45000 starlings.

TBH, I've been cheating with the firecrests, after Nick told me that there'd been an individual heard, I stuck on the tape and lured them to the camera; but I couldn't get a clear shot even then.

More importantly, I've managed to hit all my target species for the 3 weeks, and I still have a week in hand - time to get in some south coast seawatching!

Wooo! Firecrest!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Dawlish Warren and Start Bay

On Thursday, I had a day off. So, lured by thoughts of passing skuas, I got up early and headed to Start Point with some sea watching in mind. It was windy, "but hey, I'll tuck myself behind a rock" I thought. 

Wrong. Start point has minimal cover and I was battered by the incoming wind, 2 hours with my hands stuffed in my pockets, trying to keep my scope steady as the gannets and kittiwakes fed in the swell. To make matters worse, there was no hint of a skua to lighten my mood.

Stuff it, I thought, I'm off to find some mud. So I drove an hour to Dawlish Warren, then walked in the driving rain to the hide, Only to find...

Thursday's Bag:

Brent Geese
Grey Plover
Ring Plover

Brent Geese at Dawlish Warren

Stonechat pair at Dawlish Warren

Friday, I was stuck inside all day, but on Saturday we were walking a group from Start Point. It was blowing a gale in the morning as we set off from the lighthouse carpark, but as we dropped below the headland, the weather calmed a little. It was an easy walk with our ten students, with plenty of stops to look at the local flood defences. Not much chance to look at the bird-life but still...

Saturday's Bag (best bits):

Peregrine falcon
Black Redstart
Starling murm
Cetti's warbler

AND a very exciting Kelivn-Helmholtz cloud formation! Kelivn-Helmholtz Cloouds form at the interface of two currents moving at different speeds.

Fuzzy Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud - snapped with my phone

On Sunday evening I caught sight of a long-tailed duck and scaup reported on RBA. The sightings were at Beesands, a little village we had visited the previous day on our tour of coastal defences, and I decided to head out super early to catch the bird before the sun rose on Monday.

Failing in my plan of getting a good nights sleep, I was only heading down the road at 6:45; thankfully a layer of cloud was keeping everything down, and I arrived at Beesands in the gloaming. I quickly located the hide and watched as the growing light revealed a the bird, tucked into the reeds at the far bank. While the other waterfowl moved readily about the pond, the stubborn duck kept its distance, causing me to resort to abandoning the hide and trekking back round the Ley - smack into 3 feeding cirl bunting. 

I happily watched the little birds for 10 minutes before my stomach started to rumble, so I snapped some quick shots, bolted back to the car, and was in for breakfast at 8:10. Not bad for an hour's work!

Cirl Bunting at Beesands

Long Tailed Duck at Beesands

Also exciting on the bird front is a fabulous bird course being run at FSC Millport by yours truly. If you fancy getting to grips with your winter waders and waterfowl, or need a shot at some West Coast migrants, you can sign up here.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Live From the Ley

I'm roaming again, this time with the FSC's trainee tutor scheme, and for the next six weeks I'm out and about in the south west. Over this time I'll be split between the fabulous centres at Nettlecombe and Slapton Ley; and in between observing the best that FSC teaching has to offer, I'll be exploring the local environment to find out what I've been missing out on since I moved north.

My main targets while I'm down here are cirl bunting, cetti's warbler (I still haven't gotten a photo of one) and fire crest, plus whatever migrants I can bag.

We started out at Nettlecombe, having a couple of really great days in the local rivers and on the Bristol Channel. Obviously I was most taken by the shore day, adding snakelocks to my UK anemones list. There were also good numbers of all our native topshells, and well as copious juvenile shore crabs and the biggest rag worms I have seen in my life.

Snakelocks Anemone

Purple Topshell

Shore Crab

The third was the start of a three week stint at Slapton Ley (which comes with attached NNR). When we got to the pub last night we were informed that the murmurations were still in full flow in the nearby north ley. It turns out my fellow trainees are also keen to get to grips with their birds, so expect outside input now and again.

I was awake before dawn on Monday, and - obeying the "birds-before-breakfast" rule - I was down the hill to the reserve just after seven. A quick orientation walk gave me 8 gold crests and a yellow-browed warbler and a late hobby (doubtless held by the numbers of starlings), then I trudged back up the slope to work. We started the working week easing into our duties and getting to know the area, and - when released from our duties - Ami and Ilo joined me in dashing off down to the reserve to catch the returning starlings. If the girls weren't sure about the benefits of birding before dusk, they certainly were by the time the first 2000 starlings swooped in low over the bridge.

Monday's Bag:
Starling murmuration (40 - 45,000 birds)
Yellow-browed warbler
Hordes of goldcrest
4+ Cetti's warbler
Tufted duck
GC grebe
40+ GBB gulls
10+ Cormorant
3 Grey Heron

Tuesday morning, and I had convinced the girls to get up at 6 30 to see the starlings emerge from the roost. A power cut in the night meant a very dark morning. But Ilo and I still made it to the reserve for 6 50 as the first dribs and drabs were leaving.

The birds were just warming up, wheeling low, barely breaking the top of the reeds. Then BAM! Sparrowhawk! The reeds exploded with 35,000 birds. They took of low, and we lost sight of the sprawk as the starlings streamed over our head. 30 seconds later, they were gone... Then Ami arrived. Bad sprawk timing.

Abandoning the bridge, we went in search of potential firecrests, and I told the girls how to separate cormorant from shags. Further down the trail we scanned for cettis breaking cover, and I pointed out tufties on the lake and a silhouetted kingfisher as it broke for the bridge.

As the girls went to pick up their bags from the B&B, I stood with Dennis on the bridge, counting the 1000's of migrating woodpigeon. A cettis made a quick flash under the bridge and there was a rail feeding directly opposite us. Dennis is a mine of information; a resident of twenty years, he's an accomplished ringer, has studied wagtail roosts in the area, and is well connected in the area. He's already clued me in on the bet places to go for cirl buntings... Here's hoping

Tuesday's Bag:

Starling Murm
gold crest
tufted duck
grey heron

Taking off
Dropping in