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.

Commonly Spotted Orchids

We are fortunate in the UK in that the commonest orchids are also amongst the most beautiful. I spent a morning photographing some on the lo...