Monday, 25 April 2016

Black-winged Stilts at Manor Farm NR

Agh, it’s another desperately unimaginative blog post title, shamelessly designed to harvest google search hits. Sorry about that. Actually, I’m still recovering the power of speech after yesterday’s leggy lovelies. I have been wanting to see Black-winged Stilts for years. I’ve dipped them once and seen a ringed escape but that’s it. When I heard that a pair had been spotted yesterday morning at the Ouse Valley ParkManor Farm NR, on the north side of Milton Keynes, I had to give it a shot. It took me more than half an hour to figure out how to get there and my master plan was “if I get lost, I just head for the M1 (and home)”. Thankfully, it was surprisingly easing to find and after a brisk walk, I laid eyes on my first ever pair of elegant, wild, wonderful Black-winged Stilts. Cor, they’re striking! All angles and contrasts and flourishes. Just beautiful!

No sooner had I set up my scope than the pair flew together to a distant island and proceeded to go through the intimate behaviours of courtship and mating. I think my chin hit the floor at that moment! I hadn’t even had time to configure my camera properly but I was so pleased that I managed to capture something of the moment, slightly blurry and mildly out of focus but frozen for posterity nonetheless. I particularly loved how the male bird’s final gesture (accidental or otherwise) was his right wing placed around the female, as if offering a little post-coital reassurance.

Context for the mating sequence, hastily digiscoped from approx 150+ metres away

After that, the birds separated and were constantly on the move around the site. Eventually, I decided I’d walk around the southeast edge and see if I could get to one of the new hides. This turned out to be the best decision of the day. As I rounded the corner and approached a narrow inlet, I could see the male bird foraging. He was infinitely closer than before and it gave me the precious opportunity to digiscope some better photographs (the top image and the following 3 images were all taken at this location, photographed right). By this point, I reckon I was probably grinning from ear to ear. I stayed on site for more than an hour, enjoying the birds and what is a superb nature reserve. I wished I lived closer.

I hear today that the birds have not been seen and have likely headed off. Perhaps they’ve realised they overshot their destination and are backtracking to mainland Europe. It’s a shame they’re oblivious to the immense joy they brought to many a birder on a chilly Sunday in April. Here’s hoping they fair well wherever they end up.

The all important Stilt stats
  • The last Buckinghamshire sighting was in 1988 (1st summer pair @ Willen Lake, 7-18th June)
  • The last Hertfordshire sighting was in 1998 (adult @ Park Street Gravel Pit, 27-28th May)
“The birds' 'knees' are actually in their feathers so the middle bit of their legs is actually their ankles. Stilts' legs are so long that when they sit in the nest their ankles are above their heads!” (RSPB website)

Where they should be...

Distribution maps courtesy of HERE and Birdguides, HERE

Sunday, 24 April 2016

In search of a Redstart

Every time I go out looking for a Redstart, I invariably find one of these instead...

Lady Wheatear at the Water End horse paddock, Friday (digiscoped)

Not that I’m complaining really. Better a Wheatear than a whole lot of nothing-but-the-usual.

Yesterday, after a couple of Whimbrel briefly joined the Spotted Redshanks at College Lake, I followed in their wake, hoping something else might alight in the shallows. Optimism eventually gave way to a practical realism and I left the Octagon Hide to walk a circuit of the reserve. I was hoping for Cuckoo but, at this time of year, there’s an openness to the possibility that anything could turn up, anywhere. And so it did…

As I walked down through the scrub at the NW end of the reserve, I saw a flash of red as a bird flew from the fence line to a tangle of leafless bramble in the enclosure. It called and then I spotted it at the base of the bush, a beautiful male Redstart. At last! I had been looking for one of these for the past month or so and there he was, a blaze of orange and black and white, with those lovely slate grey upper parts. Unfortunately, I had only seconds to drink in the sight before he skilfully tucked himself away, completely out of view. I waited another 20 minutes but he’d studied the Redstart manual in skulking and there was no way he was going to give me another glimpse.

Still, nothing beats the thrill of the chance encounter with a hoped for passage migrant. I walked back along the west bank footpath, smiling, with House Martins and Sand Martins swooping barely a metre above my head, snatching insects from the air. The nippy NE wind had deterred every other butterfly except for a single male Orange-tip, my first of the season, which perched briefly on a pretty Dog-violet.

When I got up this morning, I was content with the weekend’s birding. Little did I know that the best was yet to come…. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Spotted Redshank at College Lake

By 11:15am, the highlight of my morning had been catching the last few notes of what might possibly…probably….maybe was a Lesser Whitethroat at the Brickworks. I’d also managed a record shot of the/a female Muntjac (I know, exciting times). Anyway, when I got back to the car and heard that there were 2 summer plumage Spotted Redshanks (Tringa erythropus) at College Lake, I was off!

I think I’ve only ever seen a couple of breeding plumage birds and certainly none of any plumage in Herts or Bucks. As a fairly scarce wintering species in the UK, it’s not really a bird I have much experience of at all. To add a little frisson of discomfort excitement to the chase, I’d left my scope at home, so had to pick that up on route. I finally got to College Lake some time after midday, wondering if my scope detour had cost me my prize.

From the Octagon Hide, I could find only one of the Spotted Redshanks but that was quite sufficient. One definitely trumps none. There were also at least a dozen displaying, noisy Redshanks; one Little Ringed Plover; two Common Terns, plenty of Lapwing…and various other wildfowl which I basically ignored.

The Spotted Redshank came to within about 100 metres of the hide and, unfortunately, from there, most photography suffers from being badly backlit. Below are my best digiscoped efforts.

Spotted Redshank (left) with Redshank (right) for comparison

The context. The view from the hide. The arrow indicates where the Spotshank was when digiscoping it, approx 100 metres

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

What's better than a Wheatear?

....a FLOCK of Wheatears

Yesterday, a sunny day and a morning off BMT monitoring. I headed for the hills. After a single Wheatear at Pitstone Hill and assurances that the beacon was “dead, no sign of migrants”, I was happy just to saunter in the sunshine. As it turned out, the SE slope of Ivinghoe Beacon was very much alive, with at least 6 Wheatears. Unfortunately, the moment I spotted them, a screeching child ran along the footpath not far from the flock, and they all took flight. I relocated 5 but there could well have been a few more around. I plonked myself down on the grass and just watched the little group.

One pair took it in turns to have a dust bath. Another male was actively watching insects in the air, following them with his gaze and then jumping up to catch them. He was great entertainment, with the flash of his white rump and the bouncy way he launched himself up and then down again.

The slog back up to the car park was a lot less painful knowing it hadn’t been in vain!

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Rosy Redpoll

Heavy crop; horribly, horribly backlit...but…
it’s a Lesser Redpoll with a super duper rosy chest so who cares?!

Bovingdon Brickworks (BMT), yesterday: Sunshine and warmth and…ROSY CHESTED REDPOLLS.

For the past 7 days, a little flock of 6 Lesser Redpolls have been hanging out in the blossoming Blackthorn and Willow, on the west side of the site. I admire their economical approach to life. Why not spend 99.9% of the day hauled up inside a pretty Blackthorn, nibbling on juicy new buds? They barely move more than a couple of metres left, right, up or down. That’s not to say they make it easy to get photographs and/or video footage. Oh my word, no.

As I stood in front of the zinging bush, Long-tailed Tits, a pair of Blue Tits, a couple of Bullfinches and a few Goldfinches came along to join us. Dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrush and couple of Chiffchaff were already within earshot. The newly returned, mixed singing Willow Warbler was east, just out of range; as were a handful of singing male Blackcaps and the long time drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker. He really means business, having started his display back at the beginning of March. Overhead, not to be forgotten, were a couple of soaring Red Kites. Finally, after umpteen useless video clips [bits of twig, flashes of tail/wing/chest/foot], one of the males ventured out to my side of the bush. It wasn’t the one with the most impressive rosy, pink chest but it was as good as I was going to get. I hope you enjoy him.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Egg of Newt & spawn of Toad

Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris). Male.
Without the buoyancy of the water, the crest, which runs along his back, is folded over onto his body/tail

Apart from mangling a bit of Shakespeare, last week, I slid into the watery world of the Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris). This is the UK’s most common and widespread newt species. In terms of its length (up to 10cm), it sits comfortably in between the UK’s smallest newt, the Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus) and the UK’s largest and most protected newt, the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus). All 3 native species are fairly widespread and it seemed plausible that we might have at least 2 of the 3 on BMT land. The only way to find out was to get stuck into a proper, grown-up newt survey.

Close by, local RSK ecologist, Jess Breeze, and 3 bright, young Master’s students, found themselves in need of a convenient training ground. It was a match made in Resource Management heaven. A plan was struck, collaborations agreed and wellies cleaned. We even had an average overnight temperature of or above 5°C on Thursday, making bottle trapping a possibility. All that was missing were the slinky, lizard-like amphibians.

There are four main surveying methods: torching, bottle trapping, netting and locating eggs. They’re all fairly self-explanatory but there’s a whole lot more info here, if you’d like it.

Bovingdon Brickworks, lined pond

We started at Bovingdon Brickworks. The torching count was a complete surprise. Although I’ve seen frogs here, I hadn’t expected newts. We tallied 28 male and 30 female Smooth Newts. It was crawling with life!

Following a count of the adults, it was time to look for eggs. This entails a search for vegetation which has been folded over by the female, using her hind feet, to protect/house the solitary egg in its jelly sack. A single length of vegetation can be used more than once, creating a concertina appearance.

Spot the folded grass stem

Smooth Newt egg, 1) inside the grass stem 2) revealed 3) up close

Over the course of a breeding season, she’ll lay a phenomenal 200-300 of these and they will be the offspring of numerous different males.

The eggs are tiny, approx 2mm in diameter.

The fun didn’t end with the egg hunt. Oh no, after that it was time for bottle trapping in Hay Wood, Westbrook Hay.

8/4/2016, 9am, Hay Wood pond. Bamboo poles mark the location of bottle traps, set 2m apart, 12 hours previously

Bottle traps: 1) in the pond, 2) out of the water, showing angle of submersion, which enables the formation of an air bubble inside to provide trapped newts with oxygen

Our trapping, torching and egg hunt success was less impressive at the Hay Wood pond. Just 1 male and 1 female in the bottle traps. 3 spotted the previous night, torching (the water was too murky, following the heavy rain). No eggs found.

Bottle trap results: 1 female and 1 male Smooth Newt plus a well developed frog tadpole (back legs starting to sprout)

Having never surveyed newts before, it really was a fascinating and fun process. When Jess showed us the telltale sign of the presence of eggs and then unfurled the grass stem, it was one of those moments where you couldn’t help but gasp and smile at the ingenuity of nature. Sure, less than 1% of all the eggs laid will make it to adulthood but the fact remains, delicate, tiny and vulnerable organisms do survive. Nature may be red in tooth and claw but it is also structured in such a way as to sustain a life when it is at its most defenceless. To be aware of that is to experience, and to be enveloped within, a unique kind of limitless beauty. Many thanks to Jess and her colleagues for the opportunity.

Finally, in other news, Toads have spawned at the Brickworks. This is my first record of breeding Toads in the 3 years I’ve been walking the site. I’ve never seen so much frog and toad spawn as I have this season. Perhaps the mild winter meant that significantly more adults survived to breed another day…

5/4/2016, Brickworks breeding Toads #1
[Top Left] flooded dell, arrow points to spawn. [Top Right] spawning Toads around that vegetation
[Bottom Left] Toads. [Bottom Right] strings of pearls aka spawn in adjacent dell

P.S. Before I forget, I’ve added a new widget to the top of the left side-bar. The title will likely vary but for now, it links to a post from “this time last year...”.

P.P.S. Brickworks butterflies so far this year: Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma, Brimstone.
Bird highlights last week: a flock of 6 Lesser Redpoll feeding in a willow at the Brickworks. Amongst them, 3 or 4 males nearly in full breeding plumage - their bright red foreheads now complemented by gorgeous rosy pink chests. In Hay Wood, a pair of Treecreepers at chest height, no more than a few metres away. Exploring tree trunks together and occasionally singing. Any day is improved by a decent sighting of a scuttling creeper.

#1 If you’d like to see each of the photos more clearly, click on the image, then right click and select “open in a new tab”. In the new tab, click on the image to enlarge.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Kitchen sink birding

If any bird were to wake you on April fools day, which would or should it be? Yup, a Green Woodpecker, yaffling its head off. That’s what I got on the 1st April at 7am. Oh the irony. This morning, it was the Collared Dove who, year on year, in spite of my best dissuasive efforts, insists on singing under the amplifying eaves outside my bedroom window just after dawn. I love spring but first light serenades, not so much.

Momentous news from yesterday. I did not leave the house. And, I had my first ever visits to the garden feeder by Siskins. I’m guessing the two events aren’t connected. The Siskins visited throughout the afternoon, staying in the immediate area and returning, on average, every half hour. I had all the get up and go of a heavily sedated Walrus and so the chance to pull up a kitchen chair, fling open the kitchen window and position myself behind the kitchen sink to watch the garden was ideal. The streaky pair lifted the day completely.

As well as the Siskins, I had my usual visitors. Nearly all in pairs. So, pairs of Robins, Greenfinchs, Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Coal Tits, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Collared Doves (grrr), Blackbirds and Dunnocks. Singles of Wren and a few House Sparrows.