Friday, 31 March 2017

Of fires, glyphosate and the annual dandelion cull

The Safari watched plumes of smoke rising from four fires over the Forest of Bowland (supposed Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) as we drove back to Base Camp along the motorway last Saturday. The grouse shooting crew were burning the heather and everything in and under it sleepily coming out of hibernation in late March. Hedgehogs, Adders, Common Lizards, a multitude of invertebrates and any seeds lying on or near the surface get incinerated so as a few rich folk can kill lots of one species of wildlife. The following day we were having a mooch up the northern prom with Monty, GB and JH, looking across to the hills the fires were still burning and a fug of brown smoke hung in a narrow cloud across many square miles of lowland northern Lancashire at about 2000 feet up. Anyone else deliberately producing this amount of coloured smoke would have have the Law crashing down on them like a ton of bricks, but not this lot - one rule for us, no rules for the mega-rich. Anyone else causing that amount of damage to protected habitats in this time of year would also no doubt have to answer for their deeds, bit oh no not this lot! It's time to ban the ecological disaster, nay ecocide, that is driven grouse shooting and start the process to a much more diverse upland landscape one with more than a lot of Heather (isn't it an understorey woodland shrub anyway?) artificially maintained over-populations of Red Grouse, a few Meadow Pipits and not a lot else! Burning really shouldn't be allowed after Christmas!!! If at all, if the ground conditions are too wet to allow mechanical cutting then it's likely too wet to be burned, being peaty, tough, let the Heather grow and anything else that might like to grow up on those fellsides.
The other thing we noticed was a narrow browning strip along the edges of the grass verges and around the base of tree, lamp-posts and sign-posts - ahh the glyphosate gangs have been out in force. No longer having the manpower to look after the roadside verges properly all and sundry are reaching for the weedkiller. Frank used to get really ill when this stuff was sprayed and strangely Monty required the vets for an upset stomach last week, apparently a stomach infection from something he ate...or was it a reaction to the freshly sprayed weedkiller? Anything that creeps, crawls or slithers over the treated areas like worms, slugs, snails, beetles etc will pick a little up, anyhting that eats lots of those things like Blackbirds that we regularly see in the early morning foraging on the verges will be accumulating a dose but to what effect???
And then it was a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mother's Day duties done by all and sundry it was time to kill those Dandelions, by three O'clock the air was positively humming with the sound of lawnmowers all taking the heads off the newly opened Dandelion flowers, what chance do the bees and other early season pollinators have, when we're so quick to remove one of their most important sources of food? Who said all grass must be totally green 1/4 inch high and devoid of any other plant? Wouldn't it be great if TV adverts told us to look after and encourage our Dandelions instead of vilifying them as something that must be sprayed, pulled or burned - what actual harm do they do and there really isn;t much that looks better than a huge roadside swathe of them - yes they look far better than feral Daffodils and are far more useful too, the Daffs are cheery but there's just so many in the wrong place. But the Dandelions have no 'value' as they weren't bought and no-one spent any effort planting them so therefore they must worthless! What a pity we can't appreciate the Dandelions for what they are and if we want yellow plants along our outer suburbs and rural roads why can't we have Primroses and Cowslips - of native provenance of course. Close to Base camp there is a short strip of verge that is currently a superb picture, a joy to the eyes, glowing golden yellow with a mass of Lesser Celandine, no doubt someone will complain the grass there isn't green enough and it'll get sprayed off.
Rant over.
Later that afternoon we had a thrilling but maybe unwelcome to the garden at Base Camp, come to eye up the chance of a bit of a feast. Heron (Garden #21).
The gulls alerted us to his presence, going Billy Bonkers overhead, but he wasn't fussed by them at all. fortunately Monty didn't get a sight nor sniff of him otherwise all Hell might have broken loose!
During the week we've been able to get out and have a look at Patch 2. Not a great lot happening when we've been looking but others who have been able to look longer have seen some good stuff and good numbers of the more normal fare. A flock Of Jackdaws (P2 #33) going north and one of 11 Grey Plovers (P2 #34) going south were good additions to the year list here. The following day we saw a Grey Seal dozing well over half a mile out.
Looking at the photos we took we noticed that it had received a bad gash to its throat, probably from a rival bull in a fight over one of them's harem.
 Beyond him there was a flock of eight Tufted Ducks (P2 #35) but again looking at the pic we discovered there was a Teal (P2 #36) lurking in the flock. We spent so long looking to check the Teal was a Teal we failed to notice the four Scaup a little further out...dohhhh.
Can you spot the little dabbler?
High tides at lunchtime had us itching to get to the tiny saltmarsh at lunchtime, we were able to take a long lunch-break and meet up with AB to see if any Jack Snipe were pushed out of the vegetation by the rising waters.As the water flooded the marsh the larger birds were soon forced to move several Little Egrets came past us. This one has unusual markings.
A single Ringed Plover flew past too.
The water rose higher and began to flush Snipe out, we had seven in all and then four Jack Snipes (121)
Not the best pic!
We watched one land in the dunes and AB set off to see if he could find it with us close behind. Unfortunately he was looking the wrong way when it flushed from almost under his foot on a tiny sandy track.
After work we took Monty to the cliffs and a short sharp shower dropped a Wheatear. We'd not taken the camera the two previous evenings and seen two Wheatears both nights. This time we had the camera but until the shower hadn't seen a single bird other than the local gulls. Prior to the shower it had been lovely and sunny but the thick cloud had us bumping up the ISO on the camera - AGAIN!!!
Still not all that good but 1000x better than our other one for our Year Bird Challenge
Yesterday we had a day off. We booked it when we got the tide tables last October, the highest tide of the spring which means a good chance of spotting Water Pipits down on the nearby marshes. The high tide wasn't until early afternoon so we went to the nature reserve for an hour on the way. As soon as we got there we saw a few Sand Martins (122, MMLNR #51) hawing insects high over the far end in the gloom.
A Water Rail shot across the gap in the reeds in front of the hide but didn't reappear and a Cetti's Warbler teased us by doing the same many times. but only really showing once and that wasn't the best if views.
A Woodpigeon came down for a drink and performed much better.
And then we had a stroke of luck, the Cetti's Warbler sang really loudly and closer this time - it was in a bush well up the bank to the side of the hide.
We weren't going to better that in the dull conditions - still want that pic in the sunshine, greedy we know! - so off we went to the marsh via a flooded field to check if the recent Green Sandpipers were still there, they weren't, the flood was devoid of life apart from a Pied Wagtail and a Mallard.
At the marshes we met PE and then JS who'd pulled up behind us at the flood. They'd been looking for the Cattle Egrets, very likely the same six we saw on the South-side a couple of weeks ago. We'd not bothered going the few extra miles to see them this time.
At the marshes PE was kind enough to let us have a look through his scope at a couple of Avocets (123) which soon became six when four more flew in from the outer estuary. Far too far for a pic though.
The tide rose slowly and we were treated to Redshanks, Shelducks, a white duck with a yellow bill that looked like a Cattle Egret when rummaging around in the creeks. Heavy showers sent us scurrying in and out of cover as the tide rose inexorably higher and higher. A Peregrine appeared on a gate post miles out towards the river mouth. Also out that way were about two dozen Whooper Swans and a multitude of Little Egrets. What with Cattle Egrets, Avocets and all these Little Egrets it's getting like the Carmargue out there - without the sunshine obviously!
The rising water flushed a Jack Snipe that dropped in only a little nearer to us and a large flock of about three dozen normal Snipe flew round over head for a while.
The Peregrine was sat on the gate for ages but the only other raptors were singles of Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and a Buzzard that took an interest in something unseen in a creek. No harriers of any description today.
Once the tide was right up excitement at the thought of lots of pipits grew and then dissipated as there weren't that many about and they didn't really come close to us, apart from a single Meadow Pipit.
A commotion amongst the gulls had us looking what all the fuss was about. One of them had caught a mammal flooded out by the water. It looked like a Mole but our pics aren't that good.
Too big for a vole
Sadly no pics of the underside, if not Mole could it be a Water Shrew??? But those feet do look Mole-like big.
In the last of our news a heavy rain shower this morning dropped a Wheatear (P2 #37) onto the picnic tables outside the cafe at work.
We were working outside most of the day in lovely spring conditions but the gulls didn't alert us to anything out of the ordinary going over. But back at Base Camp after work we saw a Tawny Mining Bee on a neighbour's wall, the first record for here, although only a few hundred yards away CR reported 'lots' on his Plum tree that afternoon.
Where to next? A weekend of good weather is promised but we might only be able to get out on Sunday afternoon after family duties.
In the meantime let us know who's showing well in your outback.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The annual pilgrimage to dip the lesser pecker

The Safari left Base Camp without a winter jacket for the first time this year yesterday. We were on our way to meet up with our long-time birding buddies from the South-side for our annual rendezvous at the usual Lesser Spotted Woodpecker site.
After a slight frost at dawn the day quickly warmed up and with sunshine and little in the way of wind forecast the decision was easily made to ditch the winter coat - a decision well made as it happened as we would have cooked had we worn it - the day was a scorcher for early spring.
We arrived on site first and had a few minutes with another birder in the first hide which overlooks a large pool/small lake. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (118) drummed in the trees to our right. We're certain we've heard this already this year but neglected to add it to our year list. Numerous Chiffchaffs chiff-chaffed, Wrens and Robins sang loudly, greenery sprouted here there and everywhere; the place was alive!
On the water there was little at first glance but looking further we found Tufted Ducks, Wigeon, a Great Crested Grebe, Goldeneyes and a Cormorant sat in the trees on the small island. Star of the show were four Little Grebes wickering away and dashing at each other in a territorial dispute in the reeds to our right.
Little Grebe
From the woods another woodpecker called, a different species, but not the hoped for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a Green Woodpecker (119). Would we see one today we often hear them here on our annual visits but only rarely get to see them.
The rest of the gang arrived as other groups of birders came back to the car park from the woods - it wasn't good news, no-one had a sniff of the Lesser Peckers all morning. It might have been negative news but we put a positive spin on it by twlling ourselves it was our turn to strike lucky so off we went being regaled and entertained by tales of cetaceans and birds from the south west coast of South America by the recently returned AB (You can read trip reports here). What was perhaps more weird than some of the names of the birds he saw was that one of the passengers on the cruise knew the Safari! It really is a small world and we can't go far in it without being recognised - fame at last....if only!!!
Yes there were birders out today who recognised us too! We followed in their footsteps down to the woods and waited, not too long, Apparently there had been sightings earlier in the week but the woods were quite so we soon moved to the feeding station after a very brief scan of 'the' Tawny Owl tree. No sign of it today. On the way to the feeders we passed a male Goldcrest giving a very serious display to a female, his crest raised as far as it could go to show his glorious blaze of fiery orange to best advantage. She was having none of it, ate a tiny spider and shuffled off to find another totally spurning his amorous advances. A privilege for us to be able to watch the drama play out though.
The feeders were busy with the usual garden birds. A Robin provided a brief photo-opportunity on the stump just across the fence.
A Jay (120) flew through the trees at the back but didn't circle round to visit the feeders. Reed Buntings came and went and a Nuthatch fought off all-comers to defend his table full of seeds. It wasn't long before we were able to Great Spotted Woodpecker (YBC #102) to our Year Bird Challenge photos. Unfortunately the light under the trees at the feeding station isn't too good and like the Robin it wouldn't sit where there was a bit of sunlight coming through the canopy, or at least sit facing the sun.
After a good feed it left but fortunately returned for a much better pic a few minutes later.
Oh that it was the smaller species, not sure if anyone has seen that on the feeders here, certainly never heard of it but we suppose it could happen as they do find feeders attractive elsewhere as IH told us of his Lakeland Lesser Pecker experiences during the winter. If we had no luck at this site maybe we'll all have to decamp to that place next time!
Anyway it was time for another look at the favoured woodland and so we stood and stood and not much happened. The woods were quiet, by now it was mid-morning and even the freshly arrived Chiffchaffs had just about stopped singing. While we were stood at a previous nest site a small broad blunt winged pointy billed bird flew over us from the trees in the distance. It landed somewhere behind us but didn't call and couldn't be relocated - a near miss or wishful thinking???
With time passing we moved further down the track passing the first Primroses we always photograph each year. We'd didn't take a pic this time, we'd get them later on the way back - we didn't come back that way in the end so no Primroses for you.
At the next hide which was supposed too overlook a large area of wet grassland for observing raptors and which now looks over a very speedily developing birch woodland we longed a sounder of Wild Boars to appear (not that are any round here) for either/or/and a Great Grey Shrike to pop up and impale some poor unfortunate prey item on a nearby thorn bush - of course neither happened. But IH and JG both simultaneously said did you hear that...they were referring to the call of a possible Lesser Spotted Woodpecker they;d both just heard. The rest of us listened hard but if it was one it didn't call again...near miss or wishful thinking again? More likely the former this time.
We moved onto higher ground overlooking the lake where the Gorse bushes were in full flower and the air hung heavy with the delicious scent of Coconuts from them. The first butterfly of the day was nectaring on them, a Large White which wouldn't stay still for its pic to be taken. The only Chiffchaff (YBC #103) we saw all morning singing in the open put on a bit of a show for us.
After a quick lunch break back at the car park we moved on the other end of the reserve passing beneath a couple of very high soaring Buzzards on the way.
A Brimstone flitted along the Gorse hedge too but didn't stop. We invariably see our first of the year here as they are very scarce around Base Camp although we are trying to change that by encouraging landscaping schemes from developers to include their foodplant Alder Buckthorn in their planting schedules.
It's a fair walk to the bottom end of the reserve passing through birch woodland at first where we spotted some huge specimens of Elf Cup Fungus over two inches (5cm) across and a couple of logs bedecked in smaller more normally sized specimens.
One of the fallen logs was covered in Honey Fungus too and where the bark had peeled off you could see the thick black root-like hyphae that give it its other name of Bootstrap Fungus.
At the far hide all was fairly quite except for a pair of Gadwall and yet another wickering Little Grebe when all of a sudden a brute of a female Sparrowhawk started soaring above us.
That was the bird of the day until this little chap appeared a couple of minutes later and started to put on a bit of a show.
He was always a bit distant but dived several times each time successfully catching a small fish.
At last he came a little nearer.
And from this perch gave us a fantastic display of hovering, no photo - we were too busy just watching as his wings were whirring and his head absolutely motionless. A little bright blue jewel suspended in the brilliant sunshine. It was one of those 'you never know when it's going to happen best wildlife experiences of your life' moments. From there he came back to his perch, Kingfisher (YBC #104)
but he didn't stay there long - he is a he as his bill is all black, the female has an orangy red lower mandible) - his mate arrived and went to sit in the reeds where he had been earlier. He promptly caught a fish and took it to her and fed her as part of his courtship. With over 150 combined years of wildlife watching between our group none of us had ever seen that before! Behind them the strident song of a Cetti's Warbler boomed out.
Pity they weren't on the near perch but we mustn't be greedy!

A fabulous few minutes at that hide! With AB having just moved house he was under strict instructions to get back early to empty yet more boxes so our time was up. The walk back back to the car park was filled with chat about how amazing what we'd just witnessed was and plans for future wildlife adventures. We passed a flitting Small Tortoisehell butterfly on the way and then found this Peacock enjoying a good slurp of sweet Blackthorn nectar.
We might not have seen the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but you can't say the site didn't produce the goods - it did and then some, a brilliant place! 
Where to next? Not sure but it could be Patch 2 on Monday
In the meantime let us know who's not for giving themselves up in your outback.

Friday, 24 March 2017

A bit of warmth is great isn't it

The Safari has enjoyed another sunshine filled day today, well we would have done even more if we'd been able to get out and about a little more. We didn't get a look at the flat calm sea early doors but did have a little run out at lunchtime to the waste depot. Driving round the corner we saw there were a lot of gulls on the roof today but up at the top and out of sight from the only car parking spot.
Most were Lesser Black Backed Gulls as is expected at this time of year, most of the Herring Gulls and Black Headed Gulls that frequented the piles of rubbish only a couple or three weeks ago are now in their breeding colonies/areas, whereas the Lesser Black Backed Gulls are still moving through.
The gulls didn't move around much at all, we could have done with a Buzzard flying over to mix them up a bit and prove to us the Iceland Gull was definitely not present. 
Back at work we watched a male Blackbird collect a beakful of worms for his nestlings not far away - spring is definitely springing now!
After work we picked up Monty and as we puled up at his work we heard our first Chiffchaff (117) of the year and it wasn't long before we heard our second and then third. This is the joint latest date we've had them since 2010. In only one of those years did we find a wintering bird. They've been coming through for about two weeks so it shows you how little we've been able to get out recently.
A bit of walking around the wildflower area at the top of the mound revealed three Bee Orchid rosettes close together but we couldn't find any anywhere else.
At the very end of our walk there was a piece of roadworks detritus that had found its way to on to the grassland. Always worth a lift at this time of year it was - there was a Toad lurking beneath. Another 'first' for us this year.
The was a good sound-scape too with Wrens, Song Thrushes, Mistle Thrushes and Great Tits all singing for all their worth.
A very productive hour out in the very pleasantly warm sunshine.
Where to next? Tomorrow sees our annual safari to Lesser Spotted Woodpecker-land - but will we see any? They are really struggling now and we're not sure if we heard somewhere that they could well be extinct in Britain before 2030, we certainly hope not.
In the meantime let us know who's sprouting in the spring sunshine in your outback.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

It was there but...

The Safari was able to get out to the big park before family duties kicked in on Sunday. It only took us a couple of minutes to find the Chough. We'd expected to see a large crowd giving us a clue as to where it was but there was no-one with bins and scopes to be seen. However, as it happened it was only a few feet from where it had been seen the previous day.
With the dreadful conditions and long range our pics weren't up to much and this dire effort is the best of a very bad bunch. Still a Chough (115) is a very welcome addition to our Year Bird Challenge, indeed it was our 100th species photographed giving us a 'hit rate' of 87%.
Monday's weather was much better but sadly we were stuck in the office driving the desk and unable to take advantage of the sunshine.
During the week we had the opportunity of a quick scamper down on to the beach to investigate an interesting looking piece of driftwood that may be useful as a feature for the refurbished gardens at work.
We had a good look at it but it was far too heavy for us to drag off the beach unaided. A good poke around it revealed a large Plumose Anemone secreted in a crevice so it would be a shame to remove it from the marine environment.
It would be good to see this specimen fully open. At the steps off the beach on our walk back to terra-firma there were a lot of starfish washed up from the previous day's heavy weather. We quickly found three different species, Common Starfish, a Cushion  Star and a Brittle Star, possibly Ophiothrix fragilis. It was good to be out on the beach again even if only for a few minutes, you just never know what you might come across down there.
Today we left Base Camp to the lovely sound of a Song Thrush singing loudly from the end of the street. We can hear the ones from Patch 1 in the distance but this was the first we've heard this close for a good number of years.
A quick morning look at the sea at Patch 2 while the computer was booting up and the kettle boiling gave us a flock of 33 Whooper Swans (P2 #32)  flying out to sea on their way to Iceland for the breeding season and a flock of 10 Eiders much closer in going towards the river mouth. All the while we could see little bouncing brown dots heading northwards most of which were well out to sea, Meadow Pipits, there were hundreds of them although we heard very few calls overhead. A little later in the morning we found out that 'thousands' had gone over the point to the north of us, JS had obviously been able to do a proper watch not just our ten minutes or so. All the same it was really good to know we'd witnessed a tiny part of a much bigger migration spectacle.
After work we took Monty to Chat Alley as Patch 2 would be still far to soggy after yesterday's nonstop deluge. he had a great time and we spotted a cracking male Wheatear (116) on the rocks down on the lower walk.We did get a pic for the YBC (#101) but it was with our phone on full zoom at considerable range so although we've added the pic to our album as it is jsut about identifiable we're too embarrassed to put it up for you to see...yes it is really that bad!
Where to next? Hopefully there'll be some sunshine and something to point the camera at.
In the meantime let us know who's on the move in your outback.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

A cracker and a bad dip on a very wet day

The Safari was able to get to the nature reserve fairly early this morning. We walked in past a quiet and very wet wetland seeing very little on the way to our first stop at the Feeding Station. There was a bit of activity with several Chaffinches, Blue Tits and Great Tits coming and going. A bright male Pheasant displayed furiously to a non-plussed Woodpigeon while a pair of Dunnocks skulked around in the Brambles waiting for a lull in the fighting on the feeders to do a lightning smash and grab raid on the seeds.
A tidy male Reed Bunting (MMLNR #48) appeared briefly and Rabbit refused to come out in to the open for a pic. Just outside the hide there was a pile of droppings on a stump which looked rather Stoaty; a species we've not seen for far too long.
As ever we were time constrained and had to move on after a few minutes. Before we reached 'Ice Station Zebra' we stopped at the wet meadow for a quick can. The Cowslips are coming into flower but we were after Snakes Head Fritillaries, a couple of scans later and Bingo there was one with the flower about to open.
ICZ was warm and there were no druggy scrotes today thankfully. A Great Crested Grebe graced the water but there was no dancing today, no gulls were in view either; we hoped the Iceland Gull would put in appearance, assuming it's still about. A Cetti's Warbler sang loudly to our left but refused to show itself as usual.
Carrying on to the Bird Club hide the rain started and came down heavy for a good while so we were stuck in there so as not to get the camera wet. It wasn't a plan but it turned out OK. A Sparrowhawk (MMLNR #49) came wafting over the scrape flushing about 30 Teal, no Green Winged Teal today - as usual. A few Shovelers came out too as did two Snipe (YBC #97).
Unfortunately they didn't circle close enough for a decent pic in the dull conditions.
We kept hearing another Cetti's Warbler but it wouldn't come out of the reeds, and then we saw a dark brown shape flit across the gap. It went in deep but then appeared on the corner of the area of cut reeds. Arrghh - a Wren!
A pair of Little Grebes (MMLNR #50) kept us entertained while the rain continued to fall.
And then a movement in the cut between the reed caught our eye and we swung the camera round as fast as we could. We fired off a burst of shots roughly in that direction and hoped the settings would be OK and that the auto-focus had found something to lock on to.
With far more luck than judgement Water Rail (YBC #98) finds its way on to our Year Bird Challenge list.
The rain was still failing heavily and at last Monty had settled and laid down when a little bit of magic happened. A Cetti's Warbler (YBC #99) came out close to where the Wren had been and proceeded to put on a show for us!
Holy Shamoly they never come out like this for us especially when we've a camera in our hands. but when they pose like this once in a Blue Moon wil do us nicely. A Blue Moon when there's a bit of sunshine wouldn't go amiss sometime this year.
It was a relief to get a good pic of this tricky species that rarely gives good views, not here at least. It was a shame this white Grey Lag Goose wasn't the Great White Egret it superficially resembled.
Getting back to the car as quickly as we could didn't give us anything extra but there were a lot more gulls to look through from the new bench - still no Iceland Gull though.
Back at Base Camp we learnt that a Chough had been in the big Park for much of the morning only a few hundred yards from where we'd been. After lunch we headed out in the rain for a look. If it wasn't for the queues caused by the nearby bridge being out of action we'd have seen it missing it by only a few minutes. With a bit of luck it should be around tomorrow so we might get out before family duties are required.
Where to next? Hopefuly the Chough but failing that we might see something along the motorway network.
In the meantime let us know who popped out to say hello in your outback.