Vultures over Monfrague, Extremadura, 4th April 2014

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)

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Swanscombe Marshes

Upon entering Swanscombe marshes today, I experienced two distinct sensations. The first thing I noticed was the incredible noise, a thrum, emanating from crickets and other insects in the weedy grass, barely metres from the last block of river front apartments. My delight with this was quickly tempered though by something else, a feeling in my gut, an almost physical lurching, when I thought about the future of this important site. Walking through it, over the rocky, flower-rich embankment and along the many overgrown desire lines, on the verge of being reclaimed by bramble, buddleia, rank grasses and more, it was impossible to hide from the unpleasant distraction of the imminent planning application from London Paramount. But it is testament to this place that I could still wander, immersed and frequently amazed, happily for a few hours.

I wasn't the only one. A couple of guys fished on the bank of the river by the entrance, while their kids sat cross-legged in the tall grass. I asked what they were catching, "mud and boots so far", but they didn't seem to mind. Elsewhere, an elderly couple sat quietly on some steps, watching the river, and a few dog walkers made their way about the place. Between all this was that ever-present thrum.

Walking through the tangle of grass, clover and vetchling, butterflies flushed at every step; mobs of gatekeepers, common blues, the odd skipper, whites and a Small Copper. After one such step something bigger took flight with a silent clap of deep yellow wings and a Clouded Yellow butterfly swept across my path. This was my first in Britain this year and somewhat unexpected given it's relative scarcity. Later on, I saw several more, with at least two individuals present.

Clouded Yellow butterfly, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14
Small Copper, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14

By the derelict pier, two skylarks flushed from the bare, weedy ground and flocks of linnets and goldfinches buzzed overhead. The abundance of scrub here is ideal nesting habitat for birds like these so it was no surprise to see many juveniles in their midst. While admiring the pier and the manner in which nature has blossomed in its disrepair, a Common Sandpiper called and flew in to find a suitable roost for the high tide. A little further along I spotted a fine, male Stonechat perched up on a spiny limb of Dog Rose, shortly before he was joined by a female and a juvenile. This group were then joined by a never-ending parade of common whitethroats, with up to eleven appearing in the same bush at any one time. Again, it was good to see many juvenile birds, sandy-toned and with plainer features - I've never seen so many in one place before! A Kestrel shot across the sky in the distance before alighting on one of the pylons. Over a small, stagnant pond, a flock of house martins stooped and were joined by a couple of swifts, no doubt on their way back south. At the edges, I watched dragonflies chasing around endlessly. I was mesmerised by a pair Ruddy darters mating:

Ruddy darters, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14
Emperor Dragonfly ovipositing, Swanscombe Marshes, 27/7/14
House Martins over Greenhithe
Stonechat and Common Whitethroat, Swanscombe Marsh, 27/7/14
- in the background is the Cobelfret ferry - familiar to estuary birdwatchers!

It was an excellent walk and great to see the wildlife thriving - long may that continue. Swanscombe marshes has a truly excellent variety of habitats and is an overlooked local gem. It is a wild classroom and in many of its parts, an excellent example of natural succession in an urban context. The blinded and irresponsible development proposed for it will punch a hole in the lungs of North Kent.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Howlin' Fling! Isle of Eigg, July 2014

It seems that barely a month passes these days without me visiting some achingly beautiful corner of Scotland, this was my fourth trip in under a year; how I've grown used to the unnerving jolts of sleeper carriages in the night and the efficient hum of CalMacs. So it was this weekend as myself and a few others headed north once more, this time to the majestic Isle of Eigg, nestled between Rum and Mull on the west coast. Unlike previous trips, wildlife or wilderness was not the driving factor here, in fact 'FUN' (and therefore not necessarily birding) was the party line I was given before we left, rather it was the promise of seeing some great bands, drinking, dancing and generally having an amazing time - all courtesy of the great folk behind (Eigg-based) Scottish independent record label Lost Map Records and the 3rd 'Away Game' mini-fest, this time out christened 'Howlin' Fling'.

And have an amazing time we did. Of course I still found time to explore the island and my surroundings, anything less would be plain foolish. I found Eigg to be a charming place and had a great time birding its heathery slopes and rocky shores between splendid bouts of gaelic rap, glorious noise, swooning, drinking and yes, howling.

Meeting the aptly named Shearwater from the train in Arisaig harbour on Thursday, the hour-long crossing to Eigg bought a scattering of seabirds including singles of Kittiwake, Puffin, Gannet and two Razorbill, while the rocks around around Arisaig harbour hosted numerous common seals. An interesting mid-channel sighting was of a small flock of Golden plovers that arced low past the boat and off to the south west. Nearing the small jetty at Galmisdale, Black guillemots were fairly conspicuous and a few Eider nursed young in the shallow and muddy inner harbour.

Pitching our tents on a low, grassy headland a short walk from the harbour afforded nice views of the Sound where several dozen Arctic terns from a nearby colony squawked and swooped endlessly during our stay. A pair of hooded crows kept an ever watchful eye on the pretty harbour and more than once I heard common sandpipers shrieking somewhere nearby. With the sun out and the music not kicking off until the Friday, we took a walk along the cliffs to the west and a path that led to the Massacre Cave. It was nice to find a single Grayling butterfly here, a species that is largely absent from my local area. Meadow pipits called throughout and a few crossbills and Spotted flycatchers flicked around the pine woods lining the path from the 'village'. Near the cave was a single juvenile Wheatear and a small flock of rock doves. The cave itself was spectacularly eerie, requiring some agile shuffling on knees to access, with the darkness inside lending weight to its reportedly tragic history. But it is a GREAT name for a metal band at least.

With no metal in sight sadly, the Thursday night headline slot was seized by a pod of common dolphins that swam into the small channel by the pier and gave incredible views to those assembled on the little terrace of the tea room/bar overlooking it. They swam and breached down to 20m at times, causing a little crowd to gather in appreciation on the rocks - undoubtedly the best views I've ever had.

Friday started with an hour watching the sound from the new harbour wall with Manx shearwaters in mind. Happily it paid off and, although distant, the distinct low, gliding flight pattern revealed a steady passage of birds and some small flocks gathered on the water. Following breakfast, an assault on the imposing peak of An Sgurr that towers over the island like a sinister basalt dorsal fin was planned and we headed up the steep path to the accompaniment of Ravens kronking overhead. They lurked at the top too as we ate a victorious picnic, gawped at the incredible view, played 'Name that Island' and took selfies (naturally). But aside from the view, the morning belonged to a ringtail Hen Harrier that gave good views as it cruised over a nearby slope. To see these stunning birds on a bleak marsh in winter is special but to see them glide over purple-studded heather on a summer's day in a landscape as right as this is breathtaking.

With some great birds on show, it was perhaps fitting that the lines were blurred somewhat when it came to the festival line up. This is why I spent an hour or so on Saturday watching a Woodpigeon duel it out with a parliament of eagleowls - with the result being closer than you might expect. Then there was an encounter with a WOLF too which wasn't actually the least bit frightening, in fact it was kind of beautiful. It's testament to the organisers' vision and good taste that every band I saw bought something to the weekend and contributed to the spirited atmosphere with simply great performances. Sorry to go a bit Buzzfeed but off the top of my head stand outs included - Sam Amidon, Johnnie Common, The Pictish Trail, Meursault, SeaZoo, Jens Lekman, local band Metta and the two guys playing in the Ceilidh Hall on Sunday afternoon that we we stamped and clapped along too. Look them up. This is how music festivals should be done.

Then all too soon it was time to leave again. There was just time on Monday to cycle down to the beautiful singing sands at the other end of the island where a couple of Whinchats hopped among the scrubby croft margins and some kestrels bounced on clifftop gusts. On a high ledge on the shear rock cliff that surrounded us I'm sure I saw a Golden Eagle alight briefly too. Packed into the Shearwater for the return trip there was a heartwarming cheer for the organisers and residents waving us off before we crossed back to Arisaig. The water was flat calm under the hot sun and quiet as a result but still a couple of harbour porpoises appeared briefly and two superb Great skuas pitched off the glassy sea and flew past. I thought that would be it for the trip but there was one more highlight to come. Sitting sleepily on the train, not far out of Arisaig, I perked up momentarily as the train veered into the open and ran adjacent to a large loch. It was just in time to see a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sat on the water! What a beast. It was a blink and miss it moment and it felt quite surreal, but it was a great way to end a fantastic few days.

Campsite, Eigg, 17/7/14

An Sgurr, Eigg, 18/7/14

Dolphins! Come on! Galmisdale, Eigg, 17/7/14

And some footage with bonus great commentary (!):


Dolphin crowd

Meursault in the Marquee - f'in Yes! Eigg, 20/7/14

An Eagleowl takes flight - nearly. 

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) at Cleadale, Eigg, 21/7/14

Awesome beetle in the grass by our tent - ID  suggestions welcome

Rum rising - from the Singing Sands, Eigg, 21/7/14


Thanks to Johnny and everyone. KS, sorry for stealing your joke :)