Tuesday, 26 February 2013

I wish it would get Otter!

During late February 2013, Lorna and I visited the Brecklands area of Norfolk for a weekend.

On Saturday the 23rd we got up very early to reach the River Ouse as early as possible. On leaving Lane End (Bucks) I spotted a Barn owl working along a hedgerow which was a good record for the area. Just the night before I had seen a Tawny owl in the Beech wood nearby.

I had heard reports of a pair of otters that had become very habituated to human presence. We arrived at the site during a flurry of snow which was atmospheric. It didn't take long to find the pair of otters which appears to be a mother and an almost adult cub. They were playfighing in the river and along the bank, when a local domestic cat interrupted them. After a stand off the cat approached, but soon changed its mind, once the mother took more interest. The cat made a dash back into its garden, followed by the inquistive mother otter.

Soon both the otter and cat re-emerged and continued with their business. By now the adolescent had started fishing in the river, and was clearly a proficient hunter bringing up several Roach.

The two of them then began to hunt the bank we were standing on and even came within 2 feet of my lens to check us out.

Later we watched as a Kingfisher took advantage of the disturbance the otters were making, by catching several small fish species.

Despite the cold, we spent almost 2 hours watching the antics and behaviour of the pair, hunting birds as well as fish.

The UK Otter population is a great success story, (they have now been recorded in every county in the country) and their numbers continue to rise. This is a perfect indication of the health of our waterways and coastlines and its great to see them in such a bold way. I am more used to scrambling across rocky shorelines in Scotland for distant glimpses.

I then went in search of the Black-bellied race of Dipper that has been over wintering in Thetford. It was suprisingly easy to find along a fast flowing stream and I watched it catch several caddisfly larvae. Dippers are specially adapted to forage underwater, they can both swim and walk beneath the surface. They walk by gripping stones with their feet and holding out their wings against the current to prevent them from being pushed along. Black bellied dippers differ from our resident race of dipper by the dark underbelly, which is chestnut in the race (gularis).

The rest of the day was spent at Lakenheath Fen RSPB Reserve. The washland held the typical species of waterfowl and at least 7 different Marsh harriers were patrolling the extensive reed-beds. It was great to see how much this reserve has come on and improved its habitats since the RSPB intensified their management here. A Whooper swan was associating with the Mute swans along the river, and a Water rail was skulking under the huge willow near the Visitor Centre.

A rustling in the undergrowth along the side of the last poplar plantation, had a mammal feel to it, so I investigated further. It then revealed itself as a Weasel, and continued to hunt the bank of a small ditch for small mammals. I hid behind a stand of reed, until it made its way close enough for a really good view and photographs. I was especially happy with obtaining photos as it was the final species of British mustelid left for me to photograph. The winter is a very good time to look for both Weasels and Stoats along ditches, stone walls, riverbanks and rabbit warrens as they struggle to find prey during cold periods.


Happy with the views, I moved on to the Joist Fen Viewpoint where I saw 3 Common cranes circling high above the reed-bed. I later found a presumed 4th bird feeding on a ploughed field over the river. The day ended in a Pub in South Lopham.

(All pictures; Ian Loyd)

Farlington Marshes

Ever since I started birdwatching I have usually visited Farlington Marshes at least once over the winter. On a very bitter November day I met up with two good friends from Sparsholt College there for a day of birding. Farlington is more a local patch to them, so it was nice to hear more about the management and recent news on the reserve from them.

Farlington Marshes (Ian Loyd)

Farlington Marshes which is managed by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust is nestled into the northern corner of Langstone Harbour, and is an area of carefully managed costal grazing marsh and pasture, reedbed, brackish and freshwater lagoons and Hawthorn scrub.

We were particuarly on the look out for a Red-breasted goose that was associating with the wintering Dark-bellied brent geese flocks. We soon found a flock of 150 Brent geese feeding on the eastern side of the reserve. The Red-breasted goose was showing very well amongst them. We were able to watch it from a distance of 20-30 meters. This was my first sighting of an accepted wild Red-breasted goose. There are several escaped birds at large in the UK but those that turn up with Dark-bellied brent geese around the southern and east anglian coasts are usually thought to wild vagrants. It was also quite clear from observations of the bird that it was not an escaped individual.

Red-breasted goose (Ian Loyd)

Red-breasted goose (Ian Loyd)

Red-breasted goose (Ian Loyd)

Red-breasted geese breed in the Russian arctic and over-winter around the Black sea. The majority of the population can be found in Bulgaria during the winter, where they are currently facing many threats from disturbance by hunters that are targeting commoner geese species and they face conflict with farmers for eating their crops. In the last 10 years it is thought that 50% of the population has declined. This has prompted efforts from WWT and the RSPB to try and find a conservation solution.

Later into the day we made our way up to the scrub at the Southern point of the Reserve, where a Short-eared owl was hunting the nearby grasslands. We stayed put and eventually the owl felt confident to hunt much closer to us giving us superb views of it unsuccessfuly hunting for voles.

Short-eared owl (Ian Loyd)

Short-eared owl (Ian Loyd)

Short-eared owl (Ian Loyd)

Short-eared owl (Ian Loyd)

 A look across the harbour revealed the usual wintering waders and wildfowl, but as the wind was so bitter, we headed back inland to escape it. Near to the lagoon we spotted a second Short-eared owl, and a fellow birder directed us to a Pipit atop a hawthorn. He was struggling to confidently identify the bird. We were able to see it for just a few seconds before it flew off. Luckily it re-appeared on the grassland in front of us. I managed to obtain a few distant shots, and a better look at the back of the bird. None of us felt at all confident on the correct identification of the pipit, as it didn't show typical features of Meadow, Water or Rock pipit. After anaylsis of the pictures it became more clear that it was in fact a Water pipit.

Water pipit (Ian Loyd)

Monday, 4 February 2013

BBOWT Bird Race

On a cold but fresh Sunday 2nd of December, birdwatchers and BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust) volunteers and staff gathered at Sutton Courtney Environmental Education Centre in Oxon for the annual Birdrace.

The BBOWT Birdrace differs from more standard versions of the event, because it requires each team to visit 3 BBOWT nature reserves and there are points gained for inventive team name, least miles travelled and best non-bird highlight as well the best bird of the day and highest number of species recorded between 9am and 4:30 pm.

This was my first ever birdrace and I joined up with my fellow Biodiversity Conservation Trainee Neil Fletcher as team captains. We had planned out a route together previously and Neil had kindly done a recce of the timings to reach each site the day before.

The 3 BBOWT sites we visited were Dry Sandford Pit, Lashford Lane Fen and Parsonage Moor, we also visited sites such as Dix Pit, Didcot Sewage Farm and rubbish dump, Farmoor Reservoir and RSPB Otmoor.

We decided that we would need an itinerary that would incorporate as many different habitats as possible.

We did very well at most of the sites visited, finding most of the birds we were hoped for, plus missing a few as well as some unexpected additions.

We finished the day with a grand total of 77 species which was the highest total ever recorded on the event.
Kestrel (Ian Loyd)

Our highlights included; Slavonian grebe close to the causeway at Farmoor Res, a pair of Scaup hidden amongst the flock of Tufted duck there too, a flock of 10 Ruff and 30+ Snipe at Otmoor plus a brief view of a Short eared owl. Adding species such as Nuthatch, Kingfisher, Chiffchaff  and Grey wagtail can always prove difficult but we had success with most of the more tricky species. However we embarrassingly failed to see a Canada goose all day.

We drove a distance of 72 miles and our name was decided to be "Ruff and ready" but "There is Farmoor at Otmoor" was also considered.

The organiser of the event; Colin Williams's team stumbled across a mega find in the shape of a Hawfinch whilst at Dry Sandford Pit (the first record for the site and birdrace).

This is the fun of a Birdrace, you never know what you will see!

Butterfly Bonanza of the Chiltern grasslands

During the months of July and August I was helping with many butterfly surveys as part of my conservation traineeship which took me to some great butterfly sites across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. However one new site that I visited stood out even though it wasn't a Wildlife Trust reserve. Yoseden Bank is a small area of pristine chalk grassland, that is well managed to support a healthy diversity of flora and invertebrate communities. The buttefly population here is very impressive as the hill is south facing giving Adonis blue a breeding population.

Adonis blue 

The sheer numbers of butterflies is what makes the site special, with hundreds of Meadow browns, Small/Essex skippers, Marbled whites, Common blues and a very healthy population of Chalkhill blues.

Chalkhill blue 

The long grass is also home to Great green bush crickets which are a very large and impressive species.

Great green bush cricket 

80% of all favourable-condition chalk grasslands have been lost over the years due to lack of traditional management (sensitive sheep grazing) resulting in scrub encroachment and for transformation of land use for agriculture.