Tuesday, 30 April 2013

30th April: Cranes

Best birds of the morning today were a 7 Common Cranes which flew high North over the Avalon Marshes at 11:45.
The birds were very distant but were still a lovely sight through the scope.

Earlier, on this mornings guided walk we were treated to 'scope views of a Grasshopper Warbler back on it's usual territory, the first one i've actually seen this year, though i've heard a few 'reeling'.
It felt like the warmest day of the year so far, and the butterflies responded well and were out in force at Ham Wall RSPB:

Green-veined White

Orange Tip
This Great-crested Grebe flew over nice and low, showing off the big white panel in the wing that is so striking when you see the upperside in flight.

Why not book one of my Guided Walks to join me for a morning or afternoon of birding on The Avalon Marshes. SEE MORE, LEARN MORE!

Monday, 29 April 2013

29th April: Ring-necked Duck returns

The re-opening of the path to the screen overlooking Loxton's on Ham Wall RSPB (closed previously due to flooding), immediately got a result when a drake Ring-necked Duck was found there this morning. This is most likely the bird that was around when the Pied-billed Grebe was first discovered, but has not been seen since 26th March. It's probably been here all along, just hiding in some un-viewable patch of water.

The very indistinct grey wing-bar is a good identification feature in flight.
Tufted Duck show a very prominent white wing-bar
Elsewhere on the Avalon Marshes, a few spring-like sights were complementing the lovely sunny weather:

Mallard duckling

Willow Warbler in full song

Sunday, 28 April 2013

28th April: Shapwick Hobbies

One of the highlights of Spring (and indeed the year!) on the Avalon Marshes is the acrobatic display of feeding Hobbies. The Hobby is a small falcon that winters in Africa and breeds throughout Europe. The high numbers of insects on the Avalon Marshes (one of the many benefits of a large area receiving no pesticide input) makes the area a perfect place for migrating Hobbies to stop off and feed to re-fuel on their journey North. The birds have only just started arriving, and their usual prey of dragonflies have not emerged yet, but there has been a big hatch of some sort of fly (possibly St. Marks Fly?) which seem to be providing a decent food source. Noah's Lake was the place to see these birds today, as around 12-15 were giving incredible views in front of the hide. The light wasn't great but I managed to get a few nice photos, which I hope convey the dashing agility of these wonderful little raptors.
It is still early in the season for Hobbies, up to 70 have been recorded at later dates in the Spring, making this surely the best place in the country to see them!

A fly-by Bittern was a nice bonus too

Saturday, 27 April 2013

27th April: Black-winged Stilts Ham Wall

I had a wonderful surprise this morning when I was scanning from the 2nd viewing platform at Ham Wall RSPB and picked out 2 Black-winged Stilts at the very back of the lagoon. They were very distant, but birds like this are unmistakeable however far away they are!

With a drake Garganey!

Very distant, but you can tell what they are
 Earlier in the day, I saw the drake Wood Duck that has been hanging around Meare Heath for a few days. It's almost certainly escaped from somebody's wildfowl collection, but it's a beautiful bird for sure.

Wood Duck
Just before midday, a report on the Somerset Ornithological Society Message Board of a Black kite West over Noah's had me rushing out to try and intercept it. I couldn't find the Kite but an Osprey flying low West over Catcott SWT was a nice consolation prize.


A marginally better photo of the one of the Stilts from the afternoon

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Illegal Hunting in Malta

Those of you who know me, or have previously followed Joe's Birding Blog will know that the issue of illegal hunting in Malta is something that I feel very strongly about. I have been to 4 of the bird protection camps run by Birdlife Malta in the last 2 years to help monitor bird migration and prevent illegal hunting of protected species and try and involve myself as much as I can to bring this appalling practice to an end.
Last week Charlie Moores of the excellent Talking Naturally website initiated a conversation on the issue with Nik Barbara, Lawrie Phipps and myself, where we reveal the extent of the problem, discuss the possibility of a tourism boycott of the island, and answer some of the criticisms that maltese hunters level at us campaigners. If you haven't heard of the situation in Malta, or would like to learn more, it is well worth a listen, it will be just 25 minutes very well spent.

Click here to listen to the discussion on the Talking Naturally website

Eleonora's Falcon- shot dead

Little Egret- shot down in to the sea in front of my eyes. We rescued the bird with the help of the Maltese police,
 but it died en-route to the vet

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

24th April: Eel Conservation

Today I was back on Ham Wall RSPB helping with the weekly volunteer work party. First job was shifting a load of reed compost from the reserve back to the Avalon Marshes Centre. Composting is an eco-friendly way of removing the reed cut from the reserve as part of the management program, and is available to buy for your garden. It makes as excellent soil conditioner apparently. More details on the process and how you can get hold of some are available here on the Ham Wall RSPB website
A loaded trailer next to the composting 'pods'
After that (and a quick tea break next to the 2nd viewing platform where we saw 2 Garganey), we started assembling an Eel Ladder. Before the area was drained, migrating eels could access the wetlands through natural river systems. Nowadays, the complex network of rhynes, ditches, sluices and banks separate many reedbeds and marshes from the rivers, making it difficult for eels to access them. These eel ladders, supplied by the Environment Agency provide an ingenious means to allow eels to recolonize areas they have previously been lost from. Eel populations have suffered terribly from over-fishing and pollution, as well as from being isolated from suitable habitats, like the Avalon Marshes.

A raised bank separates the majority of the reserve from the Glastonbury Canal (which connects to the South Drain and then flows into the Bristol Channel at Huntspill). The bank is too big an obstacle for young eels to navigate, so they need a helping hand. A covered tunnel runs from the top of the bank into the Glastonbury Canal, on the crest of the ridge it connects to a pipe which runs down into the reserve. A small pump, like the one in your garden pond at the connection point runs during the night to create a flow of water down both the pipe and the tunnel. As the pumped water flows down the tunnel into the Canal, eels can detect the change in water properties, and if it is to the liking (which it certainly should be) clamber up the tunnel, then down through the pipe and into the marsh.

The tunnel with the lid opened. The bristles make it easier for the eels to climb up

The pipe which deposits eels into the reserve.
To find out more about the complex management of the nature reserves, join me for a Guided Walk or Private Tour. SEE MORE, LEARN MORE!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

23rd April: Frisky Bitterns

It was a stunning sunny morning down on the Avalon Marshes today, clear skies and not a breath of wind first thing. The weather clearly had an effect on the Bittern population as there was a notable increase in activity over recent days. While standing at the 2nd viewing platform at Ham Wall RSPB, 2 birds got up from the reedbed and started circling quite high over the reserve. The size difference made it apparent that it was a male chasing a female. The female was croaking loudly and this aroused another male that had been hidden in the reeds behind us to burst up, fly over our heads and join the chase, only to be followed by yet another male! For a bird renowned for its secretive habits, this was really quite a sight, and a fascinating insight into their behaviour.
The original pair

the second male

he was having a good old 'croak' too
 Other interesting birds on the reserve included 5 Garganey, 4 Common Sandpiper, an oddly inland Oysterctacher, 3 Arctic Terns and rapidly increasing numbers of Whitethroat, Reed and Sedge Warblers.

Earlier, from the first platform, this Coot gave a very close (and very rapid) flypast. I just about managed a photo that fitted it all in the frame.  Take a look at the close up of the feet, weird wierd creature!

Monday, 22 April 2013

22nd April

The Avalon Marshes were fantastic today. I recorded 90 species of bird just on Shapwick Heath NNR, Ham Wall RSPB and Shapwick Moor HOT, without really trying too hard.
Obvious highlights were the 2 Whiskered Terns that stayed for a few hours this morning before departing to the West (1 is now at Durleigh Reservoir) and the long staying Pied-billed Grebe, but a top notch supporting cast of migrants included Avocet, Garganey, Arctic Tern, Hobby and Grasshopper Warbler along with the 'usual' Great White Egrets, Bitterns, Ravens and Marsh Harriers.

3 Avocet were at Ham Wall and then flew west over Noah's

One of up to 8 Garganey on the marshes today (4 Ham Wall, 3 Meare Heath, 1 Noah's)

This Hare on Shapwick Moor seemed totally unconcerned by my presence
4 Ravens were putting on a great show at Ham Wall, an absolute tank of a bird

This Carrion Crow wasn't so impressed though!

Early morning Whiskered Tern, still distant
If you fancy joining me for a day on the Avalon Marshes, click here to book a Private Tour. SEE MORE, LEARN MORE!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

21st April: Whiskered Terns Shapwick Heath NNR

This morning I was woken by a text message from Steve Miller alerting me to the presence of 2 Whiskered Terns that he had just found on Noah's Lake at Shapwick. Now normally, I would have been at that site myself around that time, but I was over the other side of the county having spent the night before celebrating my stepdads 50th birthday (Happy Birthday Kev!!). Fortunately the birds found the area to their liking and were still present when I finally arrived a few hours later. As is usual for terns on Noah's, they were feeding mainly on the far side of the lake from the path and hide and so were too distant for any good photographs, views through the telescope were excellent though, and I got a great look at these rare visitors of which there have been only 5 previous Somerset records.

They were very distinct in shape from the 6 Arctic Terns that were also present, with a short tail and broader wings. When seen at the right angle, plumage differences were also obvious. Whiskered Terns have a very dark grey belly, and their upperwings are silvery in contrast to their dark back. These features just about show up in my very poor photos.

The short tail

dark underbelly

silvery wings
The last Whiskered Tern I saw was back in May 2008 when one was found at Radipole Lake in Dorset. This bird showed much closer and I got some quite nice photos which give a much better impression of the bird.

Friday, 19 April 2013

19th April: More Arctic Terns

This evening I finally managed to find a flock of Arctic Terns feeding somewhere I could get close enough to take some photos. They were on a very innocuous looking peat-working pond between Ham Wall and Sharpham and gave excellent close views in beautiful light along with a 1st summer Little Gull. I'll stop talking now and let the photos speak for themselves.

Just in case the location was in any doubt. Glastonbury Tor in the background

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

17th April

I covered a lot of ground today, starting at Shapwick and Ham Wall, then Tealham and Tadham, and Westhay Moor before returning to Ham Wall, where the days highlights came from.

At the second viewing platform the Pied-billed Grebe was again showing well, and at the back of the water, unfortunately too far for a photo were 3 Garganey, my first of the year, a Yellow Wagtail and a Common Sandpiper. Bitterns, Marsh Harrier and Great White Egrets were also on show, and heading back home through Shapwick, 11 Arctic Terns were still on Noah's Lake.

Singing Pied-billed Grebe

Drake Goldeneye

Marsh Harrier with nesting material

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

16th April: Arctic Terns

I was pretty happy with the 2 Arctic Terns that I saw on Noah's Lake a few days ago, thinking that I had been very lucky to see some at all this Spring, so what happened this afternoon was really quite special. I had gone down to the hide overlooking Canada Lake, a little-visited part of Shapwick Heath NNR, and upon looking out of the window could see 5 terns feeding over the water, all of which turned out to be Arctics. Shortly, another 2 dropped in, and the little group gave a wonderful display as they chased insects around the far side of the lake. After watching them for half an hour hour, a Peregrine Falcon swooped across the lake, presumably hoping to catch an off-guard duck, this spooked the terns and they group together and flew high to the East. Assuming they had moved to Noah's Lake, on the main part of the reserve, I hurried for another look. On getting there I was shocked to see a decent-sized flock of terns, and counted 25 birds, all Arctics! As I watched them for the next hour or so, more arrived, and at one point there were at least 35 Arctic Terns feeding together, a phenomenal sight.

Arctic Terns undertake what is probably the longest annual migration of any living creature. They spend the winter (Summer that side of the equator) in Antarctica, taking advantage of the abundance of krill and lack of competitors and predators, and then fly North to breed on isolated shores. Most nest towards the Arctic Circle, in Iceland and Norway, but there is a British population forming the Southern limit of their breeding range. For most of their migration they follow coastlines, but occasionally a few take a short-cut overland (who can blame them with a journey that long!) and so get seen at place like Shapwick.

I have a huge amount of respect for these birds, the life they lead is absolutely incredible. The effort they go to fill an ecological niche is just mid blowing, and it is always a treat to see them, they're such graceful flyers, and they make what must be an incredible difficult life look so easy.

In 2009 I had the privilege of wardening on The Farne Islands, where I lived in a small cottage on Brownsman Island with 1000 pairs of Arctic Terns as neighbours. The birds today weren't showing quite so well as the Farnes birds (they used to perch on my head there!), but they still bought back many happy memories from that special place
Farnes Arctic Tern with its evening meal

Earlier today, our walk around the reserve produced 'much of the same', with the heron family showing particularly well:

Great White Egret- the long staying individual ringed as nestling in France

Little Egret-with the bluey-pink lores (the fleshy bit between the eye and the beak) of breeding plumage

Several Bitterns were flying around, while others boomed from deep in the reed bed

Passerine migrants are pouring in now, with warblers becoming particularly abundant; Whitethoat, Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler and Blackcap are joining the dawn chorus in greater numbers every day.

And this dapper male Wheatear dropped in to feed on some drying peat

Why not book one of my Guided Walks to join me for a morning or afternoon of birding on Shapwick Heath. SEE MORE, LEARN MORE!

On a somewhat un-related note, it appears as though I contributed towards a first record for Australia today: http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=255028. Hopefully this wont be the only time that I ever add a bird species to a national list!