Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Saved by Insects - Weeting on Bank Holiday

Travel relaxations implemented, so blew the dust off the scope and headed off to Weeting for some summer sun and birds. By sheer coincidence Mike was there too! I had a target list of Stone Curlew, Tree Pipit, Turtle Dove, and coincidentally so did Mike.

We knew the reserve would probably be closed, and it was. We had hoped Stone Curlews would be in the field opposite but they weren't, or at least not visible to us. I assume we were a bit early, in that the Stone Curlews are probably still happily raising chicks on the reserve, blissfully unaware they are not raising young birds to fly back to wherever next year, but simply spending all their time and energy making a snack for Mr Fox. Soon the inevitable will happen and the birds will spend the rest of the summer in the field over the road rooted to the spot in a state of catatonic existential misery. 

We got Cuckoo, Lapwing, Curlew, and loads of Rooks, but nothing else. We then headed up the path in the woods north, and soon had a dragonfly. Clearly a Chaser, I went through my mental check list - four spots on the wings? No. Broad depressed body? No. Well I guess that just leaves Scarce Chaser. Fortunately Mike was on the case and was soon confirming that wow yes that absolutely was a Scarce Chaser! Long story short there were quite a few, over 10 in total across the woods. We did get some great views of those chevrons down the spine and the clear yellow flush at the base of the wings. I even saw one 'breathing' in that the two halves of its abdomen rhythmically slightly separated. No idea what that was about. (From twitter it seems Monday was the day when lots emerged).

A little further on we saw our first Green Hairstreak. We went on to see a further ten or so, with some nice views of closed wings on broom. Another first for the year. Smashing butterflies.

We walked over to Hockwold Heath which looked splendid but in the heat the birds were hard to come by. We had a nice pair of Stonechats and more Curlew, and were pretty sure we heard a Stone Curlew but couldn't see one. 

We walked back with Mike picking out some Roe Deer hiding on the wood - very hard to see - to complete an excellent list despite not having seen any of our target birds.

We though we would try Santon Warren, and to our surprise found that whereas in March you more or less have the place to yourself apart form a handful of birders, on a May bank holiday it is heaving.  We parked (luckily just two spaces), dodged the picnics, walked out our usual walk west and found a Tree Pipit immediately flying up and doing its song flight. Hard to come by now in the south we were very pleased. That was just about the last decent bird we saw, but we to a Broad-bodied Chaser perching nicely, showing us the clear difference in shape to Scarce, and a nice row of yellow flank spots. Then on the way back a Light Emerald Moth, which I think is quite common but was nevertheless a nice surprise for us.

So, that was it. Great to be out and seeing nature in full flow across many different classes. Birding is back!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Schrodinger's Birdwatch.

One of the philosophical conundrums that Quantum Mechanics raised when it first appeared was on the nature of light. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? And the answer, roughly, is that if you are looking for it to be a wave, it's a wave, and if you are looking for it to be a particle, it's a particle. Waves and particles are concepts, and reality is under no obligation to exactly line up with your concepts.

Anyway

Off I went for my daily patch watch today. Overcast, dull, overnight rain, surely some migrants? Well, no. The pair of Mandarin in their usual place, some Blackcaps and Chiffchaff singing, a Whitethroat, then over the railway line and up to the fields. The usual Yellowhammers and Linnets, then a stop to scan the horizons noting a Red Kite and a Sparrowhawk over, then four Fallow Deer marching out of a hedgerow, giving me a look up and down, and slowly trotting off. A pair of Red-Legged Partridges, the solitary bird now having found a mate. Then back down past the scrape and home with a stop to look for a singing Sedge Warbler from the river-side by the scrape.

Now Steve Gale, over at the excellent North Downs And Beyond, doesn't think birding the patch is really on at the moment. Or rather, he says the lockdown law says it isn't on. The guidelines are for exercise only, not to carry on birding.

So...

Off I went for my daily exercise today. Overcast, dull, overnight rain. The pair of Mandarin in their usual place, I heard some some Blackcaps and Chiffchaff singing, a Whitethroat, then over the railway line and up to the fields. The usual Yellowhammers and Linnets  then after what was a decent stretch of walking up an incline, a brief rest during which a Red Kite and a Sparrowhawk flew over. Then four Fallow Deer marching out of a hedgerow. Clearly I had to stop then to avoid spooking them, and I watched as they looked me up and down, then slowly trotted off. A pair of Red-Legged Partridges, the solitary bird now having found a mate. Then back down past the scrape and home. I stopped for a brief rest opposite where a Sedge Warbler was singing and stepped back into the wood to let a jogger past and maintain distance.

So. Birdwatching? Exercise? I guess what you see is up to you.


Friday, April 17, 2020

a Spring in my step

8:30 and I'm out on the patch again, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be*. First up is two Sparrowhawks displaying over the village. I have a feeling they are nesting along a tree-lined brook as I frequently see them in this area. They both look like females to me so maybe they are marking the edge of joint territories.

Down by the river and the first Lesser Whitethroat of the year bursts into song just a few feet from my head. I peer through the foliage trying to see it, and see a bird fly off after which there is no more song ...

Then its business-as-usual, singing Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and a Whitethroat, all down by the river area. Then up the path toward the farmland and its Yellowhammers and Linnets and a very distant Red Kite, and then as I'm having my umpteenth scan of a ploughed field Boom! There, about 100 yards away, is a male Wheatear.

Wheatears are on the patch list, but not for about ten years. There was a distant spring when a pair were on an adjacent field for a few days, and another spring day a couple of years later when there was one by the river, but then nothing. I've had them over the other side of the valley at Tharbies on a few occasions, and Mike had one up there yesterday, and top local birder and photographer Jason Ward had one a few miles south at Latton Common, but here, up to now, nothing. Not a peep. Or a chackk.

It just sat there for a while. It looked cold grey colour. Now I'm no expert as you will have gathered by now, but it looked the normal type, not one of those Greenland varieties. I looked a way for a few minutes whilst I sent a quick text to Mike to gloat inform him, and when I looked back it was sat there again, but a metre or so to the left.

After a while of this I wondered if there were any more Wheatears. It was a heavily ploughed field, and after some scanning another male revealed itself. They were soon running around, and I left them feeding. I had spent so long watching them I think I may have gone over my government-mandated hour so hurried on home.

It's the kind of sighting that makes you wonder how many you've missed. It was hard work, a lot of scanning, and they could easily get in a rut left by the deep plough. Anyway I didn't miss them. And they are on the patch and year list. Fantastic.

* This is a lie. There are a lot of places I'd rather be.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Do You Really Know What a Sedge Warbler Looks Like?

Or, more correctly, do I?

It was towards the end of a reasonable but unspectacular patch walk. Three Redwings the highlight, perched quietly in some trees, possibly the last of winter. But other decent sightings; a Jay in a tree giving that Buzzard call, some nice Yellowhammers, good views of Linnet, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, distant Red Kite, then on the home stretch along the navigation a lady pointed out a pair of Mandarin under the opposite bank (from a safe distance), and then a Willow Warbler singing unseen from the middle of a thicket, probably the same bird I heard yesterday.

I noticed a movement down by the water's edge. A Chiff. And a second one. Oh hang on...

The two bird were silently picking their way through a mass of twigs all just coming into leaf. The second was a Sedge Warbler. Normally, Sedge Warblers are easy, bursting up from bushes giving their distinctive rattling churring song, but this was the first for a few months, and wasn't singing. In the end it was reasonably straightforward; heavy eyestripe, which was what first gave it away, browner and dumpier than the chiff, rusty rump, slight streaking on the back, and a stout tail. But it was good to have a decent look at it. It is seeing birds in unexpected places at unexpected times that makes for mistakes. Now, I obviously have no independent adjudication to point out that its was something else, but it was nice to slowly unpick this bird and get all the features. And that Chiff? The supercilium was quite strong continuing well behind the eye, longish primaries and pale legs, so if I had to guess I'd say Willow Warbler. But I don't have to guess, I can leave it as a Chiff.

This lockdown lark is making me think again about our birds. The everyday birds, the Blue Tits, the Linnets, the Mallards, are all spectacular in their own way. With nothing else to do it's a pleasure to spend time enjoying them.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

We'll be a long time in lockdown ...

A slow steady rise in the numbers of Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat. Some Fallow Deer showing well. The Mandarin around again. Quite nice all in, which is just as well because we birders are going to be here for some time. Possibly the rest of this year and into next. Here's why I think this.

There are two ways out of this pandemic; Vaccine or Herd Immunity. We'd all prefer a vaccine, but there is a long period of testing of any candidate, possibly (I believe) up to two years. We could shorten it, but that is risky as that testing period is there for a reason. Meanwhile, our economy will slide into depression and life will become more difficult. A prolonged shutdown will cost lives as we will be unable to look after everyone who needs it. If you thought being unable to get your hands on toilet roll was frustrating, wait until we start running out of food. So we will have to open up the economy at a point where we don't have a vaccine

That points to some kind of herd immunity strategy. The Herd Immunity strategy is based round the notion that there are vulnerable people who if they get the virus may die, and there are less vulnerable people who will nearly all live if they get the virus. If we can keep the vulnerable ('old') people isolated whilst we get the proportion of the population who have had the virus to over 60%  then the vulnerable people could be let out again as the level of immunity in the community means the virus is unlikely to spread.

Optimistic calculations say we currently have around 20% immunity currently. So we need to go through what we have been through another three times.

A managed Herd Immunity has always been the underlying principle of the government strategy because of the sheer practical impossibility of the alternative. We are currently trying to 'flatten the curve'. That means get the demand down and the capacity of the health service up to a point where it can manage the demand. We are likely to achieve that in the next few weeks.

Hence, by the end of April we will be looking at lifting the lockdown in some way. The strategy will be, I think, to get the economy moving, allow the virus to spread amongst the younger section of the population (because we cannot realistically prevent that), which will increase health care demand, and keep the vulnerable people isolated.

I think this is going to be the way of things for a few years. We will evolve into a society that lives with the virus, rebuilding our businesses and social lives in ways the avoid close contact.

During this phase it will be important to keep the demand on the health service as low as possible, and keep vulnerable people locked up. I wouldn't be surprised if families are allowed to go on holiday, for instance, but not with old people.

Where does that leave birders? Well, isolated at home I fear. Most birders are over 50, myself included, and enough people my age have had very bad experiences, not just Boris, to make me think getting it would not be a wise move. So I think the government will say that trips that are not work related or involve taking young people on holiday or out socially will remain banned. And that means most of our birding trips.

I think there's also a problem for nature reserves building. Take Minsmere, the gold standard of bird reserves. Most people who go there are over 60, never mind 50. They spend much of their time sat in hides. It isn't possible to socially isolate in a hide, so they will be shut. It's going to be pretty hard to watch the scrape, or scan for Bitterns from the Bittern hide, if we can't go into hides. So if reserves do open up, I think there will be new ways of allowing people to see the key areas, eg long screens with gaps and people moving freely behind.

But that's a while off. Meanwhile allowing pensioners to all head off on a day to the coast adds potential strain on the NHS, exposes NHS staff to more virus, and for that reason it isn't going to happen.


Friday, April 10, 2020

The Slow Steady March of Spring.

My daily routine is now settled. Get up and do the full patch. Through the now flattened corner field, into the small wood by the river, look over the lower park area, along to Feakes Lock, up through the loop field along the railway (a few trains, all completely empty), past SLRS, up to the farm, then over the top fields, down back across the railway line and home. Lucky me can just manage all that in the one hour the government allows.

This daily routine gives as near a complete picture of what is happening on the patch that I can imagine doing, and the headline is that it is slow going. Here's the notable sightings.

24th March - Water Rail at SLRS. Grey Wagtail over. Blackcap m first for the year. Fieldfare 3.
25th March - Barn Owl by the railway line in the evening
26th March - Mandarin - a pair all over the patch, very noisily, presumably looking for a nest site. Treecreeper, down to the mead near Old Harlow - Lapwing, Snipe, and Gadwall.
28th March - Kingfisher, Little Egret, Cetti's Warbler! back after the Beast from the East. Redwing 15 N and c30 Fieldfare
31st March - Golden Plover 35 in the middle of a field on the high eastern section. first for the patch. Also 13 Fieldfare.
4th April - Blackcap
6th April - Yellow Wagtail 1 calling and flying over, Mandarin pair on the backwater quietly swimming around, now settled presumably.
7th April - Teal 5 on SLRS
8th April - nothing to report
9th April - 2 House Martin, 1 Whitethroat. The Water Rail out in the open at SLRS.
10th April - The Water Rail having a good long feeding session. 3 Blackcap, 2 Whitethroat., 3 Black-Headed Gulls over.

The insect life has been emerging too. Peacock, Comma, and Small tortoiseshell have been out in decent numbers, and after a gap today saw Brimstone as well as my first Orange tip Butterfly of the year. The years first Vestal Cuckoo Bee too. There have been Fox,  Muntjac deer, and Pipistrelle Bat too.

This birding is like the birding I did as a school boy, when trips to coastal hot-spots were beyond my means and I had to make do with whatever was in my local park. Time spent quietly checking a bush to see what is moving in there, taking time to enjoy close-up Great-Spotted Woodpecker, finding Long-tailed tit nests. Slowly the summer visitors are turning up, and the insects are appearing.




Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lockdown Patch watching

So here we are. For the next three months weeks at least, its the patch for me, for us all. Not that today this is a problem. Sun shining, spring clicking into gear, this could be interesting.

Lockdown day #1, and an opportunity to get round the patch on my government-mandated daily walk. Chiffchaff silently flitting through the trees a nice start, although there's been a few for a week or so now. A Muntjac deer giving me a long stare (aren't you supposed to be indoors?), a Grey Wagtail over, inexplicably my first on the patch this year, then woah! what's this? Picking round the edge of the now overgrown pond just over the river, tail up in the air, bright red beak, yes its a Water Rail! I guess they live here, but I've not seen one for two years on the patch, so its a nice opportunity to spend some time looking at this shy swamp-dweller at a reasonable range. Patch watching at its best.

A little further on and there's a quiet chuntering from the middle of a bush. A familiar summer sound. eventually, the chunterer pops out, and as expected it is the patch's first Blackcap of the year. A stop to look up to the park over the horse field; Buzzard in a tree, distant Sparrowhawk and Red Kite. A little further on and there's the sound of some chattering from a small hedgerow. Starling-like. I look through the bushes and cannot see anything there.

Up through the loop field, a Meadow Pipit through from the south, unclear if its a migrant or not. Then I see Starlings up from that hedgerow. I count 120. Amazing. Not seen anything like this many for a while, so I assume these are migrants.

Over the railway line and up the other side. Quieter here, but there are a few Fieldfares in the long hedge here, new arrivals. Some Yellowhammers and Linnets, back down past the pond, Green Woodpecker in a tree, and there's a Red Kite in the field having a good hunt. Something small starts flying around. A hirundine? No its a Pipistrelle Bat, possibly disturbed by the Kite.

Spring starting to appear all over. Bee Fly, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, and Peacock Butterfly all seen today.

The patch, truth be told, has been quite good recently. Firstly Mike came over (when such trips were legal) and on a long bash through we had two Mandarin fly in and Mike picked up a Peregrine going through, as well as some deer tracks. A later visit saw few birds but did see five Fallow Deer running off including two full-antlered stags. Even my dog walk in the park has been productive, with a gull going over showing pure white underwings. As it turned and revealed those translucent primaries this was clearly an adult Mediterranean Gull, the first for a while.

Suddenly I'm quite looking forward to this regular walk.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dave-less in the Brecks.

Its late February so its The Brecks for more year ticks. But unfortunately Dave is still laid up with a foot problem. For now, The Fun Boy Three is just two. Dave has asked how we got on, so this, Dave, is how we did.

A sunny start at Cockley Cley. As we pulled in there were three raptors circling over the distant wood, a Common Buzzard, a male Goshawk (126), and a Ringtail Hen Harrier! Blimey, there's a surprise for a start. We were out of the van and looking and could hear Woodlark (127) singing. It seemed to come from all angles, and we had a while trying to locate the source of the song, but then we realised it was right over our heads. Marvellous. About 200 Fieldfare there as well.

Well, Dave, you know what Goshawk views there are like. Good if you were a field or two closer. It was a decent view for Cockley Cley of a male in display flight, but you wouldn't have bothered getting your camera out of the car.

A couple pulled up alongside and asked if we were going for the Shrike. We said we thought it was a bit of a distance, and they said no just a few miles, so we loaded up birdguides and off we went.  We saw it. It was difficult parking as it was a farm road with lots of other birders there, so we didn't hang around. It was distant. Remember the one we saw at Holkham? We were at one end of Holkham and the bird was at the other? A grey golf ball in a bush a mile away at 60x? It was like that. Great Grey Shrike. Probably that species. Might have been a fluffy toy nailed to a perch. I'm ticking it anyway. 128.

Lynford Arboretum. A tale of the unexpected. We were directed to two Tawny Owls roosting way up in a pine (129, thats all 5 of the UK owls, sight views, still in Feb). Picked up the usual woodland goodies - Coal Tit (130, yes first for the year for me) a few Siskin (131), 3 Marsh Tit, and two Grey Wagtail on the river (132). Then down to the Paddock and three Hawfinches feeding on the ground including one male with burnished ginger head. Nice, but again wouldn't have bothered with your camera. Not as good as those views we had in Hatfield Forest a couple of winters ago.

A detour to Santon Downham with LSW on the target list, possibly Otter. As usual there was a crowd standing by a nest hole, but we soon gave up, neither of us being the best at waiting for birds. Remember where we had Woodlark last year? They were there again. But no finches. In contrast to last year, deathly quiet. Not a Redpoll or Brambling anywhere.

We finished up at RSPB Lakenheath, hoping for Cranes that had been seen recently in the afternoons here. We did the new photography hide, with 8 splendid Reed Buntings - you would have enjoyed that, and will do the next time we come, then up to the Washlands with decent numbers of Wigeon and Shoveler and bizarrely a male Goosander, but again not nearly as good as the Abberton views. then that long hack down the river bank in light rain along the muddy walk until finally we got to Joist Fen. We had a Bittern (133), briefly in flight, ticked but it will be disappointing if that's the best we do this year, then a pinging Bearded Tit (134) showed itself on the edge of the reeds, a sparkling male doing the splits and generally showing off. You might have got your camera out for that. And then we were directed towards a new digging area where there were a couple of Water Pipits (135). Possibly slightly greyer now than November birds, quite distant, certainly not as good views as the one we had in front of the Draper Hide at Rye Meads a couple of years back.

Then the long trudge back, broken only by seeing a distant flock of Swans just over the railway line. c100, which the telescope on zoom showed to be Whooper Swans (136), with only the heads being visible over the trainline.

Then that was it. We didn't see any Cranes. We didn't get rained on much, but blimey it was cold out at Lakenheath, and it was a long muddy walk. Not help by the gate being locked when we returned and having to climb over the fence.

Get well soon mate. We miss you and need you back on our trips.

Black Brants, Lumpers and Splitters

Black Brant has been a bogey bird for me. I've been places where they've been seen, eg Ferrybridge, and not seen them. I've seen some that turned out to be hybrids. I was approaching the conclusion that the ability to see something slightly different to the main flock and pronounce it a separate species rather than something that was just part of the variation of the main species was something a bit beyond me as a birder. Perhaps by nature I'm a Lumper not a splitter.

So, imagine my surprise then whilst scanning a party of Dark-Bellied Brent Geese at Swale NNR, when boom! there it was gleaming away, my very own Black Brant. White blaze on a dark flank, thick white neck ring, and a very black back. This latter feature is the one I'd noticed in photos, so was particularly welcome.

The acid test on finding an unusual bird is whether if you look away, or if the flock shuffles round, you can refind it. This one I could pick out with its back to me just because of the exceptional darkness of the back. Smashing. Just for the record, we had Merlin and Peregrine on the trip back at Elmley; Hen Harriers there were none.

I noticed that Birdguides has very few records of Black Brant for Kent, neither does the Kent OS site. I assume locals can't be bothered reporting them. Other Brent flocks have them all year round, so there doesn't seem a particular reason why Kent shouldn't get them.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Elmley Long-Earedonomics.

Long Eared Owl. There can't be many birds as charismatic as a Long-Eared Owl. Not particularly scarce - not Great-Grey Shrike scarce, for example, they are increasingly difficult to see. Mainly because that small minority of photographers who will keep getting closer and closer until they flush whatever bird they have chosen to pursue means that roosts are now kept secret, and anyway many roosts are often not in places suitable for viewing. LEO was top of my target list for 2020, so when they appeared at Elmley off I went.

Elmley was a bit of a surprise. It has slipped off my radar following the RSPBs departure and the farm began running the reserve themselves. The packed car park showed it clearly hasn't slipped off everyone's radar, and groups of people admiring two perched LEOs showed why they were there. That is when they weren't admiring a Short-Eared Owl perched up close up to the car park or taking the short walk to see a pair of Little Owls. Even so, despite the fences, I gather some photographers have been breaching the borders to try and get closer.

The LEO's were fantastic. Prolonged views from 20m distance. My understanding from twitter is that a tall LEO with erect ear tufts is a stressed LEO, and a fluffy bird with flattened ear tufts is a happy LEO, in which case these were happy birds, with one very happy watcher ticking them off for the first time in years.

There were three distinct groups present. Birders like myself, men with long lens cameras either taking pictures of the LEO or waiting for the SEO, and groups of women with bridge cameras having a fun day out. That's a mix of people I've only seen elsewhere at Minsmere.

In the light of that, having an honesty box requesting £5 per car seemed a bit naive. So when I returned with Mike the following week it wasn't a surprise to see a man on the gate asking for £5. He said they'd had a day with 300 cars and found £10 in the box. Even allowing for artistic licence, that's a bit of a miserable return.

Lets just do the numbers. 300 cars, £5 each, is £1,500. Were that to happen 7 days a week that's just over £10K. If that happened every week of the year that's about £500K.

Now, that isn't going to happen. But something like that might happen. Revenue could easily be north of £100K, and I don't know much about farming economics but I feel that would raise some eyebrows in the farm office. And that's before you've opened the farm cafe with coffee and cakes. Garden Centres that are successful, from observation, are basically cafe/restaurants that sell plants as a hobby. I'm guessing the same could apply for nature reserves; the wildlife gets the punters on the premises, and the cafe takes profit from a captive and willing crowd.

All of which goes to show that LEOs could be big business. Perhaps other reserves could plant clumps of bushes to attract them near their car park. We could have competing LEO roosts. When it comes to finding the bird that tops the list for combined charisma and scarcity, LEO is right at the top, so why not use their star quality to raise money for their welfare?

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

HS2, Brexit, the EU. A moan

I don't do politics on here, as I don't particularly appreciate being lectured by my fellow birders so I assume they won't want lecturing back, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. But ...

I cannot help noticing that some of my fellow birders think we should have stayed in the EU, and also think we shouldn't build HS2. And my view is you can believe either of these, but it is hard to believe both these at the same time.

The demographic consequences of staying in the EU were helpfully made clear in a projection by the European Commission made in 2018. It's here. And what it projects for the UK population is:

2018 66 million
2020 67 million
2030 71 million
2040 75 million
2050 78 million

so from 2018 to 2050 that's an increase of 12 million. The increase alone is a greater number of people than the current populations of medium sized European nation such as Belgium, Czechia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden. And, furthermore, a decade or two later we become the most populous nation in Europe.

The increase is largely due to immigration. Quite a lot of this will happen anyway, in the EU or out. Now, it isn't the purpose of this post to discuss whether that's a good thing or not, but it is the purpose to point out that having an increase in the population of, roughly, Sweden or Belgium, requires an increase in the infrastructure of the magnitude of roughly, Sweden or Belgium. Thats lots and lots of roads, airport, power stations, trains, hospitals, houses, towns, cities etc etc. That's lots and lots of green spaces, nature reserves, wildlife havens, all gone. It means digging up ancient woodland and buiilding HS2. It means that nice new A14 that goes through uninterrupted fields between Cambridge and Huntingdon is eventually going to go through new towns.

The 'good' news, is that this increase which is also replicated in Sweden and Belgium to some extent, is matched by population reductions in Eastern and Southern Europe. Also, in many countries, people are increasingly deserting rural areas and moving to cities. So there are big opportunities for widespread rewilding, big reserves, big increases in wildlife populations.

But not here in the UK. Here in the UK its building, building, building for the rest of most of our lives.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Black Grouse Theory

The last few years have seen some mirky corners of my UK list properly cleaned out. One brief view of a Nightjar silhouette? Now a decent view of birds flying round and churring. Fleeting view of Goshawk? Prolonged view of several at Cockley Cley on several occasions. Short brief view of Little Auk, may have been a Starling? Close up fly-byes and one on a reservoir.

One dingy-record remains. A bird ticked, but not experienced. Black Grouse. A brief view of Blackcock lekking at distance. Not the lekk itself, as that was just over a hillock. Just birds in the air. Good enough to tick, in the small hours of a bird race sometime last century. Roll forward thirty years, and family business in Leeds gave me an opportunity to spend the morning correcting this state of affairs.

But where to look? Unlike some of our local rarities such as Stone Curlew (Weeting Heath, or Minsmere entrance road), Goshawk (see above), or Savi's Warbler (Minsmere, Island Hide, bushes at the back left corner of the mere), information on where to see Black Grouse is difficult. Lekks are closely guarded secrets for obvious reasons, but general winter habitat?

Careful curating of my twitter feed gave some clues. The southernmost English population to my knowledge is in Swaledale, and specifically the northern tributary of Arkengarthdale. The 'road' from Langthwaite to Barnard Castle goes past Shaw Farm, a local centre for aiding the status of Black Grouse. Other names that popped up were Whaw, a village in Arkengarthdale a few miles north of Langthwaite, and West Stonesdale which is the dale from England's highest pub, the Tan Hill inn down to Keld, the village at the top of Swaledale. So, 8am out the door ...

The sun shone as I left Reeth heading north, and I started stopping off at likely-looking spots on the road and scanning. My working theory was that Red Grouse like the moorland heather-rich tops, but Black Grouse prefer the wooded edges lower down the slope avoiding the barren windswept moors themselves. I searched diligently, found lots of likely looking blobs, but when I got the scope on them they were either stones or clods of earth casting shadows, or rabbits. And there were lots of rabbits. Odd how, when you remove every predator from a grassy landscape, that the place should become over-run with rabbits.

I was soon on open moor where I connected with a few Red Grouse, and a couple of distant waders in flight that were probable Golden Plover, but other than that is was barren, and I found myself at Tan Hill Inn where I stopped for a bacon sandwich. Yes, that Tan Hill Inn. the one where Vera was filmed (partly), the one that gets cut off by snow every winter, the one that is on TV so often Mrs DD feels she knows personally the young couple who run the place.

On down West Stonesdale, Its a beautiful little dale, and the area round Keld is for my money England's finest landscape, but Black Grouse there were none. I started getting a bit desperate, stopping at places not on my itinerary and searching. In the end I thought, well Whaw was on the list twice, so go back.

Find Black Grouse at Whaw? I couldn't even find Whaw. I eventually decided the collection of odd buildings and huts on the far side of the valley were Whaw, so I pulled in by the side of the road, set up the scope and had a good look among the edges of a few stands of bushes and trees. Nothing. Just a flock of Fieldfare and Starlings.

More out of desperation than anything else I decided to scan the moorland at the top of the opposite hill. Bracken, heather, grand, and rocks. Lots of little outcrops, grey, brown, and black in the low afternoon light. Scanning back one of the black clods seemed to have moved. And then a grouse-like head appeared. Could it be? I kept watching, and soon realised there were two blackish birds and a brown one. One of the blackish birds lifted its tail to show off all-white under tail coverts. Prolonged views at 60x were enough to rule out the classic confusion species of Dark-Bellied Brent Goose and Moorhen. I scanned further and found two Red Grouse and another Blackcock. This bird, slightly lower down, showed all the features. White under tail, white crescent on the wings. At last. All that stood between me and fantastic views was half a mile of valley. I decide not to try and get closer, but headed off, turning in the road at a point that I later found out was the actual hamlet off Whaw, and headed back to Leeds. No longer with just one distant view of Black Grouse on my list, but two distant views of Black Grouse.

If you want to see Black Grouse in winter, then, weather permitting, you can go on the road from Langthwaite to Tan Hill, stop just north of Langthwaite and scan the distant tops of hills with a good telescope. On the OS Map it is opposite Wood House looking toward Low Moor. There are some roads near there so if you trust your vehicle on these single-lane tarmac tracks you could try and get closer, or if you fancy a walk you can park at Langthwaite (£), walk up to Shaw Farm and then across the moors to Whaw and back down the valley to Langthwaite. The grouse could be anywhere, on the tops of moors as well as on the edges.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Year Listing at Abberton Res.

First proper trip out of 2020 and we chose Abberton. We missed Black-Throated Diver, Black Necked Grebe, Hen Harrier, Merlin, White Fronted Goose, and Green-Winged Teal, but nevertheless were happy with our haul.

Started in the murk at West Mersea where a prolonged scouring of the sea was about to draw to a miserable close with just Red-Breasted Merganser of note, when a Great Northern Diver popped into view. We observed it occasionally surfacing between lengthy dives, explaining why it had taken us so long to see it.

Then Abberton Church, where poor light and some rain restricted our viewing to a few Goosander and a small party of Pintail amongst the many Teal and Wigeon.

A coffee at the centre then the hides. From island hides two distant Long-Tailed Ducks became close-up long-tailed ducks when they flew in our direction. Very dainty nicely marked females. A couple of Marsh Harriers appeared distantly. Then round to Hide Bay and just a Peregrine in a tree. And Great-White Egrets everywhere. Must have had at least 5 before I connected with any other heron species.

Layer-De-La-Haye causeway. A Swallow! And then a few more Goosander, and a Scaup. Round to Billet's Farm. We just missed the Hen Harrier which was a bit frustrating as we had been scanning keenly for the bird as it had been seen recently, but managed 2 Bewick's Swans, a tricky year-bird now, some Golden Plover and another Marsh Harrier. Layer Breton Causeway gave us good views of sleeping Ring-Necked Duck, and another Scaup, but not Smew. We went back to Abberton Church for some of the afore-mentioned goodies, passing some people parked by the side of the road for what must have been the White-Fronts, drew a blank again at the Church apart from 56 Corn Buntings on a wire then two close up in a bush which was very decent - won't good as good as views as those again this year I should think - then win our way past Layer Breton causeway where two Redhead Smews had appeared and swam close.

So overall pleased with a decent start to the year. No-one sees everything at Abberton as its a huge area. And its good to leave some birds for the next visit. Wouldn't want to have all the good stuff on the first visit. That would be greedy.