Vultures over Monfrague, Extremadura, 4th April 2014

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Bucket List

After a busy week, I felt in great need of some wide open space today so I headed to Cliffe and the marshes. I know of few landscapes more soothing to my mind, or more rewarding for the nature-lover than this expanse of estuary and today it delivered on both.

With the heavy morning haze burning off to leave a bright, simmering autumn day, I started in Cliffe church yard amidst a din of whistling starlings. A few goldcrests called from the boundary oaks along with two handsome, fresh chiffchaffs. Several dunnocks peeped and, as I glanced up in the direction of a rattling mistle thrush, two swallows zipped by the tower.

Down on the rspb reserve it wasn't long before I spotted the long-staying, immature spoonbill roosting on one of the ski pool islands. Further scanning brought my first two pintails of the autumn, along with a single ruff and greenshank. The pools were ruled by fleets of coots. With high tide some way off there was little of note on Flamingo - a few more pintails sailed serenely by and dozens of little egrets strutted along the weedy edges, but lapwings were conspicuous once again. Even relatively early in the day, the air was thick with insect life and crane flies and flies of all sorts continually bounced off me. Dragonflies and darters buzzed through the scrub and a clouded yellow butterfly kicked up and charged past me on the track down to the river. The butterflies it seems were enjoying the balmy autumn weather with clouded yellows abundant along the river wall. From a personal perspective, it seems to have been a good year too for wall butterflies and another one lived up to its name today, flitting amongst the grass in the sunny seclusion of the river wall at the Thames View Point.

With only the slightest easterly breeze I expected the river to be quiet, so it was nice to see two juvenile kittiwakes flying up and down mid-channel between passing ships. While watching these my eye fell unexpectedly on the large, dark shape of a juvenile gannet flying low over the water, down river away from me. Walking east along the wall, black-headed gulls and several common gulls made up the throng, hawking high over head  for the insect bounty. At Lower Hope Point, utilising an upturned bucket, I was happy just to sit and watch the river flow for a while. At one point I head a distant, hoarse tern call and managed to pick out a small bird with discreet black head markings mid-river. With a good view difficult due to the haze, a black-headed gull did me a favour by flying along side it and dwarfing my bird in the process - revealing a presumably juvenile little tern.

Plodding on, I passed a family sat quietly on the bank and a fisherman on the saltings doing little more than I had been, minus a bucket. Beyond him I could see birds scurrying back and forth on the sea wall and, edging closer, saw eight of them were stonechats, hurriedly feeding on the swarming flies. They were joined at the banquet by four wheatears and yet more meadow pipits. I could watch wheatears all day long and maybe, because I knew these might be the last ones I see this year, they looked extra smart. Walking back, I met the fisherman again and stopped to ask about his catch. Not good, nothing in fact. He told me how he used to catch cod there years ago but not any more in this part of the estuary. I wondered if this was due to disturbance and the new port development but he thought it was overfishing. He went on to say how he'd been visiting the same stretch of river for 45 years and some of the things that had changed on the marshes. He wasn't hopeful but it was interesting and I liked hearing about it.

Heading back around by Allen's pond, I heard the shrill whistle of a kingfisher and crept round in time to see a bird perched in some dead, overhanging buddleia. It was gone in a flash but I stayed and waited and it soon returned. Again, I was happy just to sit and stare, surrounded by the sweet, slurred calls of chiffchaffs as they pinged about the dense undergrowth.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

London Climate Change March, 21/9/14

If you read the papers on Monday morning you'd be forgiven for thinking that there weren't many news-worthy stories happening on Sunday, not just in the UK, but in numerous countries across the world. It is, after all, quite a regular occurrence these days to see many thousands of people gathered on the streets, placards in hand, shouting, cheering, clapping or just quietly expressing their feelings on important issues to the powers that be. I mean, isn't it?

Here are a few photos from the rally held in Parliament Square on Sunday to highlight the depth of public feeling on the global threat of Climate Change. The event was timed to coincide with the UN's New York summit on Climate Change which started this week. 

I spent a fun few hours walking among the 20,000-strong crowd, the same one whose numbers I'd overheard two policeman sneeringly belittle as they watched from Parliament Square. I liked reading the placards that bobbed around me and the messages that came across:

Of those messages, the threat of Climate Change and the disentangling of democracy from corporate interests rightly gathered side by side. Emma Thompson's speech railed against the degree to which corporations responsible for so much strife and environmental damage have wormed themselves into our culture and collected unconsciousness. The Bishop of London spoke of Climate Change as a "moral issue".  

After the speeches, an ill-advised (?) minute of silent reflection and the rather saccharine video that proceeded them, a huge carbon molecule loomed into view... 

...and there was a game of spot the pigeon too...

But overall, the message was clear...

Why did people march for Climate Change? See this useful New Scientist guide.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Shrike at Shorne

A couple of digiscoped photos of the Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) at Shorne Marshes RSPB, North Kent, today -  first reported yesterday afternoon.

'Ave a butcher's:

I stopped by Shorne on my way home from ringing on the off chance that the bird might still be around. Thankfully after half an hour scanning from the tow path, I caught a glimpse of something shrike-like perched on a bush, but only a split second before a Sparrowhawk tore through in pursuit of something and the bird dived into cover. Thankfully, after watching the area a shrike did appear a few minutes later and showed well for a few minutes before disappearing again. The bird appeared less marked/barred than juveniles I've seen in Europe but this may have been an effect of the bright sun overhead, still, a great bird to see as ever.

Although only a brief trip to Shorne, it was good to visit again. A Hobby put on a good show which I shared with a passing cyclist and there were nice views of a juvenile Marsh Harrier too. The towpath scrub held a few calling blackcaps and chiffchaffs and nearby there were more signs of autumn with two flocks of Jays passing high over the marsh - nine birds in all. Some of the local residents were also preparing for autumn - yes, the sheep of Shorne were being shorn...

The guy in the middle is a record holder for sheep shearing apparently...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The last song for Lodge Hill?

Part of Lodge Hill and Chattenden Woods, Hoo Peninsular, Kent, 2013

I didn’t sleep much last Thursday night. This came as a result of flicking through twitter in the evening and reading the news that Medway Council have approved the controversial Lodge Hill development on the Hoo Peninsular, near where I live. The plan is for a 5000 unit, new town development in the middle of a SSSI site. I stared at it, my temperature rising, utterly shocked at the decision.

The timing was surely no coincidence – with local communities and campaigners far and wide (not to mention national and local media) largely distracted by the government's Airports Commission result and the fate of a hub airport in the Thames estuary due two days before it. After that positive outcome and the widespread relief that followed, this feels like a case of one step forward, two back.

I've written about Lodge Hill and Chattenden Woods before. It is, in short, a remarkable place; for birds – including the Nightingale, a beautifully subtle woodland blur, but a bird that yells it's secret with unparalleled melody and power. It is a protected and rapidly declining migrant species (a 60% decline in just c15 years between 1995 and 2009, BTO) which breeds on the site and the close vicinity in nationally significant numbers (84 pairs, BTO, 2012). It is a site full of rare and interesting invertebrates thriving in a range of habitats. It has archaeological importance and tracts of grassland that are difficult to describe but seldom seen elsewhere in the area!

Now picture a warm summer's evening at Lodge Hill, some time in the future; dozy moths flit beneath the soft lights of a Tesco Metro, the scent of fried chicken catches the breeze and 10,000 cats defecate on patchy lawns thinking about what bird they might eat next. Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating...but what happens to everything I mentioned above?

The answer is apparently 'offsetting' the nightingales to a remote part of the Essex coast - creating habitat in the hope (and only hope) that they come. For all the talk and proposals written, a nightingale's behaviour can't be predicted on this scale - at any rate, the pressure placed on them in the meantime would most likely break an already fragile population. It is no coincidence that these birds have made their home here. As for everything else? Well, plans include a nice, managed country park for them.

It’s not always just about the headline acts though; the Lodge Hill and Chattenden Woods complex supports a vast array of common or locally scarce species, all of which have a place in our local natural heritage. What struck me, when talking this news through with my Dad, was that it wasn’t the impact on the nightingales or the scrub or all the brilliant insects that I recalled until later. What came immediately to mind was the impact the potential development would have on a wider environmental scale. The area upon which Lodge Hill lies could be seen as the cornerstone of a landscape that, bar the blinking lights of the power station at Grain and its associated industries, is still largely dominated by small, rural settlements and farming. The plans to stick a new town in the middle of it, and ride rough shod over a government-approved environmental designation, will irrevocably alter one of the last tracts of wild, open land in the South East. The consequences of this will be felt by many and creep far beyond the edge the wood, down to the estuary shores and continue across much of the country.

The view from the top - a sensitive landscape
Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) sunning itself in a Chattenden Wood ride, April 2013

Despite feeling exhausted, Friday worked out well in the end. It was good to be busy so as not to think too much about all this. And when I finally did start to look at my phone again I could see things happening, there were angry tweets, passionate blogsmedia reports and messages from friends. It was great.

Sitting on the train home in the evening, looking for a distraction, I got round to finishing 'Cider with Rosie'. I can't quite believe it's taken me so long to read it but I'm glad I have - it's an absolute joy. I plodded through but only because I couldn't help but savour Laurie Lee's words; I read some passages over and over again throughout, with vivid pictures forming in my imagination. It was perhaps fitting that my journey should include the last chapter. Here he recalls the dramatic changes taking place in his small village in the late 1920's, a gathering of pace that led him to write "I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life". Those words stuck to me.

For Medway Council to brand this development as "sustainable" is either a downright lie or exposes a frightening and twisted cynicism, born from a shocking lack of responsibility and understanding. I don't suppose the blame for this decision can fall squarely on Medway Council, I would imagine they have been placed under great pressure from the developers, Land Securities, who are looking to boost their strategic south eastern 'portfolio' in the wake of the Ebbsfleet 'Garden City' reprise. Internal influences no doubt played a part too.

Medway and North Kent has been blessed with many wonderful sites of national natural importance - Lodge Hill is right up there. Those in power, the decision makers, have a responsibility to all of us to recognise this. It is a site which confounds and amazes and to knowingly erase it, depriving future generations of a chance to discover something so unique, would be tragic.

Thankfully, it's not over yet, there is a still a chance and that's better than none -

Please help by urging Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, to 'call in' this decision and stop the development.

(Also check out the RSPB website for updates and Miles King's excellent blog for reports on Lodge Hill and a range of issues)

Let's hope that this isn't an encore and come next April, the April after that, and all the April's to come, the rides and scrubby copses of this incredible site will continue to ring to the sound of something irreplaceable...

Nightingale singing at Lodge Hill, 20th April 2013:


Thanks for reading (photos by me - feel free to use/share them)

Monday, 11 August 2014

Bee-eater Country

Squinting through the mid-morning haze, across the gently sloping valley and scattering of dry copses, the scene reminds me of places I've passed through in Portugal. Focusing on a distant bare tree that long ago gave up begging for water, there is a murmur of excitement from the small crowd near me as a bright flash of turquoise sees a Bee-eater alight on top of its pale branches. In the shimmering haze it has all the colours of an oil slick, occasionally aligning to give the impression of one of Europe’s most beautiful birds. Then another bird appears next to it before both disappear with a burst of wings and glide low out of view. It might not be Portugal but this is definitely bee-eater country.

In fact the setting was the Isle of Wight, on Saturday, but to these birds, a pair and a charitable third 'helper', it is home - marking only the fifth time Bee-eaters have bred in Britain, beyond their southern European range, and, with the news that they were feeding young in the nest, only the third successful attempt.

I’d been hoping for a chance to see the birds since the news was released recently of a pair at the National Trust’s Wydcombe Estate in the south of the island. With a plan hatched to make it a weekend trip given the girlfriend stamp-of-approval, we headed over after work on Friday, arriving to pitch our tents near enough under the ramparts of Carisbrooke Castle as dusk fell as quickly as the rain. The campsite was excellent and gets my recommendation over the numerous caravan sites that dominate on the island. At some point in the early hours of the morning a willow warbler made it's way along the hedgerow behind the tent calling, in doing so, it filtered into my sleep...or perhaps I dreamed it? I'm not sure, but we woke to blue skies and a warm breeze at least.

We took the bus down the quiet, winding roads to Whitwell and walked the short distance cross-country to the site, accompanied by a birder from Hampshire who’d had the same idea. It wasn't difficult to find the site:

The National Trust and RSPB have done a great job in setting up a public viewing area for the birds and showed us over straight away, keen for everyone to see them. The views at distance were good and clearly no impact was had on the birds which hunted actively over their favoured area for the two hours we stayed. Three adults were seen, with at least one on show most of the time. A couple of aerial forays bought them close to our viewpoint as a nearby sparrowhawk made a few fleeting appearances. The birds regularly hunted from a telegraph wire and I had great scope views of a bird demolishing various bees and a dragonfly by banging them on the wire to remove stinging parts. Sometimes they disappeared with their prey, presumably to the nest site, but I watched one consume a brown butterfly, a Comma perhaps, itself.

Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) nr Whitwell, Isle of Wight, 9/8/14

Ok, my attempts to record it in photographic form are laughable so here’s one from Spain in April this year:

Stunning! Let's hope these birds are successful.

Mission accomplished and Bertha-related tent-mishaps just about averted, the rest of the weekend unfolded nicely too.

Wall butterfly (Lasiommata megara) Chillerton Downs, Isle of Wight, 9/8/14
Grayling (Hipparchia semele) Chillerton Downs, 9/8/14

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ancient Avocet at Cliffe!

colour-ringed Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) Cliffe Pools, 29/4/14

On the 29th April this year, I saw this Avocet (above) feeding on the small pool in the area known as 'coastguards' at Cliffe Pools rspb reserve. Scanning across, with the bird showing comfortably at good range, I noticed the colour rings on its legs (Left: Red/Yellow, R: Yellow) so noted down the pattern and digiscoped a passable photo for my records. I've seen colour ringed avocets at the site before but never succeeded in getting any results from the various online resources.

After similar efforts with this this bird, I was expecting the same outcome so I was pleased to get an email last week which suggested it's history could be traced and requested my photo. Shortly after I received an email from the ringer, John Middleton, with the bird's history which turned out to be very interesting!

It turns out that this bird was ringed on 02/07/1990 at Titchwell, Norfolk, and these are the subsequent sightings:

Holme, Norfolk

Havergate, Suffolk

Funton, Kent
Elmley, Kent

Elmley, Kent

Elmley, Kent

Elmley, Kent

Minsmere, Suffolk

Havergate, Suffolk

Havergate, Suffolk

Tamar, Devon
Exe, Devon

Exe, Devon

Titchwell, Norfolk

Snettisham, Norfolk

Elmley, Kent

Rushenden, Kent
Titchwell, Norfolk
Funton, Kent

Rushenden, Kent

Funton, Kent

Titchwell, Norfolk

Elmley, Kent
Blythburgh, Suffolk

Titchwell, Norfolk

Snettisham, Norfolk

Titchwell, Norfolk

Titchwell, Norfolk

Titchwell, Norfolk

Titchwell, Norfolk

Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

I knew that waders can be long lived but I had to do a double take when I saw that initial date! These records mean that when I saw this bird, it was approaching it's 24th birthday - what a remarkable achievement.

Looking through the list of sightings there are some interesting patterns - particularly the bird's regular movement between North Norfolk and the Thames estuary, after a visit to Devon as a young bird. There are also the three long periods with no sightings.

Amazed with the result, I forwarded it to the BTO for their interest and yesterday had an email from Lee Barber, Recoveries Officer, who was able to confirm the bird and share some further information. This bird was one of a brood, all of which were ringed at the same time and the odd record still comes in. This means it is currently one of the longest-lived avocets ever recorded in the UK. Lee also points out that in 1990 Avocet was still a rare breeding bird (they become extinct in the UK in 1840 and only recolonised North Norfolk in 1947). Projects like this help establish important information about movement, health and other things. The European record for Avocet is currently 27 years 10 months.

Report colour-ringed waders here and here.

Thanks to John, Lee and Raf Vervoort for their help.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Lodge Hill - a site full of surprises

Yesterday a few more documents were put on the Medway Council website regarding the ongoing consultation for the plans to replace a vast, thriving chunk of countryside at Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsular  in North Kent with a new town of 5000 homes, plus shops, facilities, roads etc. It's horrendous.

The latest documents were hard to find on the page but they are there, buried in the jumble of responses and consultations - quite a lot of them as you'd expect for something of this size. They are dated '28th July 2014' and marked 'OPA Assessment' and 'Updated Invertebrate Survey'. Check the page here and enter the reference MC/11/2516 then 'documents' if you'd like to have a look - I've had a quick read and they make quite interesting reading!

The invertebrate report is an important one for a site like this, since it's position as a 'brownfield' site in the middle of a relatively remote, rural greenbelt area means it comprises quite a mix of habitats and ecotones that have developed with little disturbance. These include ancient woodland, wetlands, grasslands, scrub and rocky or disturbed ground. There's lots of room for insects to thrive at Lodge Hill. Here are a few things I picked out from the report:

  • The report, which replaces one done in February 2014, identifies the site on the whole as being of "county level significance" for the invertebrate groups assessed
  • This was based on 386 species that were recorded
  • Of those, 29 species are really important - being of conservation concern

The survey is great because it finds a lot of things that the average Joe Wanderer (me!) would miss and in areas that it's not possible to visit. Here are just some of the things it found:

  • Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis lucina) - great! Recorded in 2013, this is a very rare and declining butterfly not only in Kent but in the UK. According to Butterfly Conservation it's of High Conservation Priority and threatened on a European level. It's listed on the Kent Local Biodiversity Action Plan.
  • Other scarce butterflies like Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Small Heath - these are listed as 'vulnerable' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standards and Small Heath is 'Near Threatened'.
  • Garden Tiger Moth - a declining species
  • Paragraph 3.3.3 says "Three species of bug formerly extinct or endangered in the UK, but now more widespread in England were also recorded" this includes the Box bug Gonocerus acuteangulatus previously only known from a single UK site.
  • They found Lesne’s earwig (Forficula lesnei) - I love earwigs!
  • And a nationally scarce Long–winged conehead bushcricket (Conocephalus discolor)

The report then talks a bit about how the survey was 'scored', in terms of assessing the relative importance of habitat and species. These scores are re-configured against subsequent changes eg expansions in range of some formerly very localised and scarce species. And this is how it reaches the conclusion that it is likely of county-importance, at the very least, in this regard. Disappointingly it rather supposes that the fauna is not "exceptional" for a site of this size in South East England. But I live near it and disagree, looking through that small list above, I think it's a site that is really important...and full of surprises.

What do you think?

Duke of Burgundy butterfly - image courtesy of I Kirk via WikiImages (29/7/14)