Friday, 28 November 2008

Nothing out there today

Snow clouds gathering and a cold, cold northerly wind. I like the pinky sheen you get in the clouds before snow in winter and thunder in the summer. But there was nothing of note on the sea this afternoon. A few very distant Common Scoters and a fly past Great Crested Grebe. To chilly to stand there long without a coat despite conditions being quite good for looking for Porpoises. Unfortunately yet another one of these has been found a few miles up the coast dead on the sea wall this week.
Where to next? Frank's first short safari tomorrow.
In the meantime let us know what you have found in your outback.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

It's not only (Grey) Herons that are called 'Frraaannnk'

The safari gave up the opportunity to have a good look at Preston's Waxwings yesterday. But look what we got instead!
He's a chocolate slobrador...he's traumatised the cat...he's eaten her dinner...he's HUGE...he's Frank!
We think we know how he came to get that name - something to do with boxing.
His safari dutis will to use that finely honed nose to sniff out the best wildlife sites Lancashire and Lakeland have to offer...except of course those reserves where dogs are rightly not permitted.

Where to next? Where-ever Frank drags us. Actually that's unfair because he doesn't pull on his lead and is extremely well trained - a credit to his previous owners. A cracking rescue dog, I just hope we don't spoil his good manners.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Fun in the sun

The Waxwings will have to wait a while. The safari only went as far as the local nature reserve on a cold day with a fierce wind. None-the-less it was a good day. Now that the leaves have dropped we get to see all the summer's secrets. This nest is from a Goldfinch or Greenfinch and is placed high in a bush which I remember planting, when I was Warden at this site, not too many years ago - it's great to know your efforts really do have positive results and make a real difference - conservation in action!

Further round the track we came upon these well chewed Rosehips, the greedy culprits are Greenfinches in this case. Again I can remember planting these bushes.

On the water there were a good many Coots and in the margins a fair few Moorhens. In a recent post I said that Mediterranean Gulls were the best bird in the book - well guess what? - I've changed my could be Coots or it could be Moorhens (Woggies). The Moorhens have the red beak and the Coots are the ones with the full white face - hence the saying as bald as a Coot. Close inspection at the top of their head will reveal no sign of a bald patch! Hope I've done a better job of photographing these black birds - I do struggle with them and the light wasn't up to much...too many excuses perhaps.

The day was a good one for raptors. We tried to sneak up on a Buzzard sitting minding its own business in the top of a small tree. Just as it was within camera range a Magpie appeared from nowhere and practically landed on its back. The Buzzard took off across the field with the Magpie in hot pursuit and was joined by three Carrion Crows who increased the mobbing to intolerable levels and the Buzzard soared away in to the distance.

The field behind the Buzzard held about 1,000 Pink Footed Geese. We had already missed a photo opportunity with the Buzzard, just missed a Kingfisher by minutes - someone else flushed it accidentally, and the Buzzard had made the Geese nervy. Getting close wasn't going to be easy. Fortunately a thick hedge provided enough cover and we were able to peer through a small gap without upsetting the flock too much although they certainly knew we were there.

Moving quietly away from the Pink Feet our attention was grabbed by a blue bullet. A male Peregrine Falcon sped past us only a few feet off the ground in an attempt to get amongst a flock of Woodpigeons feeding in the stubble. They spotted him and his blast was unsuccessful. He had a couple of half hearted swoops before moving off to terrorise some other flock of unsuspecting Pigeons.

This below isn't him its a male Kestrel hanging in the wind. Don't be fooled by the azure blue sky, it was a long way off summer.

The feeding station held a nice variety of birds, nothing out of the ordinary but plenty of bright male Chaffinches like this handsome chap.

The number of small birds attracted the attention of a Sparrowhawk, which if anything was travelling even faster than the Peregrine we had seen a few minutes earlier. Maybe it just seemed it was faster because it was nearer and we had the bushes as a background. It was certainly shifting, but like the Peregrine it missed its evening meal.

Bumping in to the Ranger we learned that he had just seen two Grey Partridges crossing the track in front of his pick up. Nice to know this increasingly scarce bird is still about. He also told us where to look for the Long Eared Owl as it had moved since the last Safari. Not the best views of it (we couldn't find the other three) but welcome all the same.

In the last of the light we headed back to Base Camp - a good afternoon's safari.

Where to next? Those Waxwings are a must before they eat all the berries and move on.

In the meantime let us know what you have found in your 'outback'.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Northerly winds = ???

With the wind in the north and a definite chill in the air there is the distinct possiblity of 'white winged' gulls. Sorry about the poor quality of the photos, they are photographed from slides projected on the wall. The first shows a young 'cafe-au-lait' coloured young Iceland Gull. You can see there is no black in the wingtips. This one I got at the ornamental lake of an hotel in Blackpool a few years ago.
This is the same bird sat on the water. Although further away than the two Herring Gulls in the foreground you can see that it is about the same size but a little slighter. They can turn up anywhere where there are lots of gulls; places like docks, lakes and reservoirs and rubbish dumps either on the coast or inland.
This big brute is a Glaucous Gull, just about as big and bulky as a Great Black Backed Gull, much bigger than the Icelands. This one is an adult - not my picture but again photographed off a projected slide.

You are much less likely to find these inland and are overall less numerous than Icelands, this is certainly true in Lancashire, where they are decidely coastal.
So if you get out into your chilly outback keep an eye out for these white winged beauties hiding in amongst the other 'regular' gulls.
Where to next? Two jumpers on and out into the cold; but are there any Waxwings about and where did the Ross's Goose go?
In the meantime let us know what you have found in your it tropical, warm, temperate, cold or downright freezing- - - - anyone from Churchill out there with Polar Bears (apparently recorded once in the UK - in Shetland about 1750ish) in their back garden?

Monday, 17 November 2008

Bingo - We hit the jackpot!

A dull, cold, drizzly day. Waterproofs on and the safari set off from Base Camp with a shed load of hope.

No sign of the Long Eared Owls in their normal bushes. We moved on and checked out some of their hang outs from last year. Still no sign. Then at the last chance saloon....Got one....Yippee!

Not just one. We knew there had been two seen from time to time but a thorough check of the bush revealed FOUR! Top count of the winter so far.

A brief look at the water had six Whooper Swans leaving the reserve replaced a few minutes later by 63 Wigeon whiffling in from up high. Their 'wheeooo' whistles are one of the sweetest sounds of the winter. In the bushes behind the hide there was a large flock of Long Tailed Tits, well over a dozen and a crackin' little Goldcrest in with them.

Back to Base Camp for a well earned cup of tea.

Where to next? There's Waxwings about...nice little birds, always worth a look.

In the meantime let us know what you have found in your outback.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

It's cooling down - it's not geting any 'otter!

A fine day beckoned so the Land Rover was filled with recycled chip fat and pointed towards north Lancashire. First stop was our deer zone. It didn't appear to disappoint, before we got to the wood there was a couple of Fallow Deer grazing out in the open.
A little further along the footpath we discovered why. Their favourite woodland had been fenced off. someone has spent a lot of time effort and money to keep them out. Not sure why; but with deer having no natural predators now in the UK over grazing by them in woodlands can have a detrimental effect on the flora and ability of the woodland to regenerate.

There are some very nice old trees in this area. This one is a Scots Pine, not a native this far south.
On the other hand this striking Oak has some age to it and will be reported to the Ancient Tree Hunt (see links on right) . The left hand trunk is over 15 feet (5m) in circumference just above the fork - we didn't measure the smaller trunk but it's still pretty big.

Our second venue was to the nearby wetland. I always enjoy these Tussock Sedges. There was an old Tarzan film (Johnny Weizmuller I think) in which the baddies dressed up as plants similar to these and from their camouflaged position on the edge of the track they blow darted the passing safari parties - very scary for us!!!!

Tarzan's path looked just like this!! Hope there's no-one in there with poison darts today!

Sneaking safely past the Tussock Sedges we come into an area of Alder Carr. This is wet woodland. Alder trees are adapted to growing in waterlogged conditions - they have nitrogen fixing bacteria in their roots. Carr is the first stage of the woodland succession of wetland areas. Eventually they will dry the wetland out enough for Oak and other trees to be able to grow, by then no-one would know the area was once a lake. Without the intervention of man or a natural disaster setting back the succession all still or slow flowing waterbodies will eventually become woodland.

Out on the open water there were plenty of Coot, some 200 of them. A nice male Goosander was fishing in between them, swimming along with its head under water spying for unsuspecting fish. A few Teal, Tufted Ducks and a couple of Goldeneyes completed the count of the water. Overhead a pair of Buzzards took advantage of the fine conditions and participated in a beautiful skydance. A Bittern took a very brief flight low over the tops of the reeds before crashing in, never to be seen again.

Earlier in the day we had met a couple who had been fortunate enough to watch the warden ringing some Bearded Tits, along with a couple of Goldcrests and Blue Tits. We heard the distinctive 'pings' of the Bearded Tits deep in the reedbed but did not manage to see any. As the sun dropped lower in the skythe light spangled through the silvery tops of the reeds.

The Starling roost at this reserve is impressive, probably over 50,000 birds. Today it was just a bit too far to our left to be able to see properly. But the roost wasn't today's main target.

Darkness fell and at last the hide became quieter - this is usually a place of solitude, almost loneliness - but not today. Coach party after coach party ambled in crashed about got comfy then left. At last there was just us and it was getting nicely darker and the water became as still as a millpond - perfect conditions for our quarry.
In the gathering gloom there were a couple of Ravens flying over to roost and a fair few invisible Snipe were revealed by giving their 'skkrrr' call. The thin 'ssips' of Redwings were also heard.A Sparrowhawk perched up. probably waiting for the Starlings but was 500 yards away from the main action/dining area.
Any Otters? No not this time - they are becoming a bogey mammal on a par with the Long Eared Owls. But again on the walk back to the Land Rover in the dark we disturbed a small herd of Red Deer which we could hear splashing about in a panic deep in the redbed.

Where to next? An impromptu day off tomorrow so the Long Eared Owls are definitely on the agenda...fingers crossed.

In the meantime let us know what you have seen in your outback.

Friday, 14 November 2008

More gully stuff

The picture is the answer to the question - 'which is the UK's most numerous breeding gull?
D'yer know what it is yet?
Answers please......I'm not telling you you'll have to write in.
Surprisingly it is the species that most people see the least due to the fact that it only breeds on northern sea cliffs and spends most of the year out at sea. There are a few pairs nesting on buildings in ports, particularly Newcastle. They are almost never found inland.

Best bird in the book is the Mediterranean Gull. This is an adult showing the full black head, big white eye brows, bright shiny red beak and pure white wings. A real beauty. Most of the world's population actually live in the Black Sea not the 'Med; but if I said to you that 's a Black Sea Gull you'd think I said black seagull and then you'd think I was bonkers! So I think it's OK to call them Med Gulls.

Their young look like very pale versions of Common Gulls. But just to confuse the issue so do young Ring Billed Gulls - a rare but increasing visitor to Britain from America. I've not seen one for a while now. First picture is a young Med, dark bill and legs and a pale brown panel in the wing, the second picture is a young Ring Bill with a stout black tipped pink bill and a paler panel in the wing. You've got to admit they are similar and despite being much paler on the mantle than young Common Gulls are still quite tricky to pick out, being out-numbered several hundreds, if not thousands, to one.

Below is a Little Gull. The only British species to be darker - almost black - on the underwing than above, which you can see is silvery grey. The best place to see these is Seaforth Nature Reserve in spring when often well over a hundred are present. The are a very dainty small gull with an effortless buoyant flight. They nest in eastern Europe but many years ago I was lucky enough to warden a nesting pair in Norfolk in the late 1970's.

Now we come to them more regular species. This is a Black Headed Gull in adult winter plumage. Thin dark red bill, dark flesh legs, little splurge behind the eye.

In flight the white leading edge to the wing is a give away. You can see it on the upper and under wings.

Unlike the Mediterranean Gull there is some black in the wingtip and the underwing is smokey grey not pure white.

The white leading edge can be easily seen even if the bird is coming towards you.

Just a couple more shots of Black Heads to make sure you've got your eye in.

The other species most regularly seen is the Herring Gull. This is the gull of seaside sound effects and stolen ice creams, sandwiches, etc. Large powerful, bold with a silvery grey back, pink legs and a strong yellow beak with a red blob - the gonyal angle. Very easy to identify in flight - look for the clean underwing with the translucent patch. Lesser Black Backs seen from below have a narrow black band along the trailing edge and no translucent patch.

The translucent patch is evident in all age groups as this first winter bird shows.

Even on a grey day like today the wing appears translucent, in sunny conditions it is very easy to pick out if if the gulls are soaring at great height.

Below is the bully boy of the shore line. In our part of the world the biggest bird normally seen on the beach; the Great Back Backed Gull. Very big, very powerful and very belligerent. They will fly over the top of feeding gulls disturbing them to see if there are any easy pickings. I have seen them kill Rabbits and Herring Gulls at Seaforth Nature Reserve.
This magnificent specimen is an adult Lesser Black Backed Gull. same size as the Herrings but significantly smaller than the Great Black Backed Gulls and subtly paler too. A nice tone of dark charcoal grey rather than totally black.

Below are some annotated beach scenes from this afternoon. I really must get some digiscoping equipment. But if your down on the beach with your binocs or even just the dog these are the views you will get so the pictures are quite relevant.

Enjoy your gull watching whervere you are - there's far more to them than just 'seagulls'!

This is the sort of thing they were after on the beach. Lots of shellfish washed up after the recent storms. This one is a very fresh Prickly Cockle.

Where to next? I might have some more gull info about the 'white winged' gulls. but then there'll be a safari to report on over the weekend.

In the meantime don't forget to let us know what you have found in your outback.

And just in case we've upset any Australians with our multitude of gull species - here's a crackin' picture a Silver Gull.

Well worth the wait don't you think?

Thursday, 13 November 2008

A very quick bit about Shipworms

Refering back to the dunes post (Friday 7th Nov).

The Shipworm isn't a worm, it's a bivalve mollusc - like Mussels, Clams, Cockles etc. The valves have been modified to 'chew' through the wood and to prevent the hole collapsing and crushing the soft worm like body the animal lines the hole with a stiff calcareous tube.

Most of the large pieces of wood washed up on the beach have signs of infestation and they were a serious problem to mariners of old in wooden ships. Christopher Colombus had a copper sheath over the hull of his ships to keep them at bay.

Where to next? If time allows there might be some more gull pictures obtained.

In the meantime let us know what you have found in your outback.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Gulls, gulls, gulls....Gulls, gulls, gulls.

A very short safari along the beach today. There were hundreds of gulls rooting through the strandline after yesterdays storm...which leads nicely in to a gull masterclass.

I couldn't see any Mediterranean Gulls and wasn't really expecting to. (One spent all last winter at Bispham beach a little to the north and to the trained eye was quite easy to pick out from the sea wall without binoculars - is it there this year?) They can be told from Black Headed Gulls as they do actually have a black head (although in winter all that remains in both species is a dark smudge behind the eye). The bill is heavier and a brighter coral red, the legs too are brighter red. The back - mantle - is much paler than the silvery grey of a Black Headed Gull. This one is a second summer bird as it has black feathers in the wing tip, adults have pure white wingtips.

This one below is an adult Black Headed Gull moulting its 'black' head. You can see the bill is a darker shade of red, more burgundy than coral and finer too. A very easy way to identify Black Headed Gulls at all times of year, and in all plumages, is by the white leading edge to the outer wing and smokey underwing when seen in flight.

Here are two Lesser Black Backed Gulls, both adults. The mantle colour is not black (it is in Great Black Backed Gulls, which are obviously bigger and have pink legs) but a very dark charcoal grey. Legs are yellow. The preening bird in the foreground is a Herring Gull with pink legs and a silvery grey mantle, very close in shade to the Black Headed Gull's colour. The brown on the wings indicates it is a young bird second or third winter plumage. How do I know it's winter - they are standing on a frozen lake and there are dark flecks on the head and neck. Both Herring and Lesser Black Backs have this but 'Yellow Legged' Gulls do not making them stand out a little.

An adult Herring Gull has learn't how to raid the bird table at base camp; and yes it does take the peanuts left out for the smaller birds. The wind has to be in the right direction for it to get the necessary fine control for a landing and it doesn't half teeter if it has to land on the top of the fence. Sorry about the glare - the picture was taken through the kitchen window. You can still see the pink legs and pale mantle.

I don't have a picture of a Common Gull (that's Mew Gull to anyone the other side of the Atlantic - I hate to be pedantic, by why can't you lot call anything by its proper name?) yet but they are intermediate between the smaller Black Headed Gull and the larger Herring/Lesser Black Backed Gulls. Also their mantle colour is an intermediate slatey blue grey. So next time you're out and about in your outback have a good look at the gulls - there are plenty of different species to sort out - unless you are in Australia where most places only have two; big 'uns and little 'uns. Would you believe it Blackpool beach has more species of gull than a whole continent!!!!! (There's a Silver Gull...oh and another one...and another...and another...and infinitum. I've got some slides of one somewhere I'll have to dig 'em out and scan 'em.)
Be wary of the 'colour' of the mantle in bright sunlight as it an look different on adjacent birds if they are not facing the same way. The aspect causes shadows and shadowing making the same colour look different - an example of this can be seen in your own living room if it is painted the same colour on all walls - look in a corner - although the colour is the same it will appear to be different. The best light for assessing mantle colour is dull and flat as on a cloudy day when there are no shadows. (This is irrelevant in Australia where they are all Silver Gulls, or the other one - what the other one is depends whereabouts in Aus you are)

More gull masterclass coming up in the future...when we might look at some immature plumages and throw in the confusing melee of 'Yellow Legged' Gulls.

If any of you are wondering -I didn't manage to get the head from the Porpoise, the tide had removed it before I got to it. Some of the spine was still there and it really stunk...not a sniff of the skull - if you'll pardon the pun.
Here's a question to ponder during the long dark nights (of the northern hemisphere at least). Not quite the meaning of life; although I believe Ford Prefect et al have sussed that one, and far less important and worrying than 'why do wellingtons always suck your socks off?' But this........
I don't know about your neck of the woods but round here the gulls spend loads of time foraging round the rubbish dumps and following the plough in muddy fields so without access to a well known brand of washing powder how do they stay whiter than white? In fact the only time they show any trace of 'dirt' is when they have been out at sea and got contaminated with spilt oil; something that, thankfully, seems to be happening much less frequently now than in previous decades.
A second question (for UK readers only) is which is our commonest breeding's not the Common Gull. Answers on a post card coin a phrase.

In the meantime let us know what you have seen in your outback.

Where to next? We still hope to connect with the very elusive Long Eared Owls sooner rather than later we hope.