Monday, 14 April 2014

Can you hear the nightingales sing? (Part 2)

Last year I wrote a blog about Lodge Hill - a miraculous chunk of north Kent's rural landscape on the Hoo Peninsular that is home to the Nightingale, a rare breeding bird - and how it could all disappear.

A year on, some things have changed but one thing hasn't - the developers, Land Securities still want to build 5000 homes on the site. This will equate to a potentially catastrophic loss of wildlife on a local (and national) scale. Medway Council recognised it wasn't right and withdrew their plans, Land Securities on the other hand, simply went away and came back in March this year with revised plans which look remarkably like their first.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the current public consultation, so if you have time, please respond and object to this wholly damaging and inappropriate development.

Why is it important? See this post from 2013

Submitting your opinion is easy - it takes 2 mins (because I've written the answer below!)

- Click here to comment through the Medway planning page:

- Click the button saying you do not have a reference number

- fill in the deets and pick your fave bits from the following, or write your own:

I strongly object to the revised Lodge Hill planning application on the following grounds:

1. Lodge Hill has been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England, the government’s expert advisors on the natural environment. This is in recognition of the site’s critical importance for nightingales, a migrant bird greatly declining in the UK. The 2012 BTO survey showed the area to hold 84 pairs of Nightingale – with 69 inside the boundary directly affected by development. This total amounts to 1.3(+)% of the national nightingale population. As such it is likely the single most important breeding site for this bird in Britain.

2. The site has considerable biodiversity value: Bat roosts have been recorded present in 19 structures, with several species of bat foraging on site. The site is likely to be of at least county importance for bats. Populations of great crested newts, toads, lizards, slow worms, grass snakes and adders are present. The site is at least of county importance for reptiles.

3. The cumulative impact of the proposed development has still not been recognised in any form. The revised application hugely underplays the additional infrastructure features needed (roads, drainage, sewerage, power) which will, without question, contribute to further damage of habitats in the area. Likewise, it is entirely inevitable that an influx of people to the area on this scale will have a permanent negative impact on the ecology and rural character of the area as a whole.

I find it absurd and downright disturbing that a site proven to be of significant ecological value on a national scale is being treated in this way. When the plans were proposed initially, little was known about the value of this site. What has now been proven is that this is a unique site for nature in the UK. These plans set a tragic example for children today and the generations to come, on our relationship with the environment. Lodge Hill is a key part of the landscape of North Kent and should be preserved without hesitation for the future prosperity and enjoyment of local people, visitors and wildlife.

For these points and more I remain thoroughly opposed to these plans.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

How Yoda lost his head

All the ingredients were in place for a good few hours at Cliffe today: baking spring sunshine, a mild south westerly breeze, the promise of migrants filtering through. And yet, for all its splendour, there was a dark side lurking to spoil my mood.

It may have been that I was spoiled by last week's adventures in Spain, where the skies were buzzing with a never-ending parade of hirundines and every step promised something new. Or perhaps my mind was clouded by the inevitable rush anybody with a passion for birds and the natural world feels during April's earliest days. Ok, so I didn't really expect a carpet of exotic migrants waiting to be discovered upon my arrival but then I guess I didn't expect to be greeted by things like this either:

Or this:

Look at these two photos, how different are they?

The fly-tipping in the top photo makes me livid. Look at it. People have a stunning nature reserve of international importance on their doorstep and this is what they think of it. This lot was dumped around by the black barn pools, a heap of garden waste and plastic rubbish, I just hope there's no troublesome seeds or plant matter in there. In what reality do some people think this is a fair and decent thing to do?

Now the second photo. I haven't walked down the track between the reserve and Cliffe village for a while, maybe since the winter. So I was surprised and  disappointed to see the old Courtshole Farm complex being developed, particularly sited as it is, just several hundred metres from the reserve boundary. Admittedly, I'd heard something was happening to it and it was in disrepair and largely only used for holding cattle in winter (as far I could tell?) but still...a shame. OK, so maybe they're converting it into flats or affordable homes for the kids who are growing up here I thought...ha, wrong! That sign reads "14 Executive Homes within a Gated Development". My stomach turned when I read that. Just what is an 'executive home' exactly? And WHY does a small, rural community in North Kent need an exclusive 'gated development' just yards from a SSSI boundary and historic church? In what reality...

So you see, I guess I was a bit distracted and I haven't even told you about the dirt biker or the people traipsing through a private field, toddler in tow, frightening all the livestock. I said there was a dark side in this post didn't I?
"Patience you must have" 
This aside, it was actually a pretty nice couple of hours at Cliffe in the sunshine. A single sub-adult Spoonbill was still present on Flamingo, while a couple of swallows and a single House Martin passed through headed north. Shoveler and Black-tailed godwits were still present in good number and at least three Sedge warblers were back on territory around Black Barns. Best of all though, were three nightingales singing loudly along the Saxon Shore Way. Always hidden, even when standing seemingly yards from them, it's great to have them back again.

Sitting out on the wall by the concrete coffins for a bit, several Mediterranean gulls drifted up river close in, cawing softly all the way. I love hearing the calls of these birds - instantly conjuring up thoughts of warm hazy days, just like their name. There were no terns to be seen but a single Harbour Porpoise was a bonus as it surfaced several times a short way off and headed down river towards the estuary. Topping off an eventful afternoon was a Black Swan on the pool at coastguard's, I had to do a double-take (!):

Mega: a totally genuine Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) Cliffe Pools, 13/4/14

After a shaky start, I think you'd agree there's plenty of reasons here not to let the dark side win...

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Hoopoe at Snodland

In a little over twenty four hours I'll be on my way to Extremadura in Spain, via Madrid. There's a fair chance I'll encounter a Hoopoe or two while I'm there, accustomed as they are to the sheltered groves and rich plains of western Spain. But it turns out I needn't have bothered - why go to Spain when you can go to Snodland?!

A few photos of the superb Hoopoe at Snodland this afternoon:

Hoopoe (Upupa epops) Snodland, 29/3/14

After a very enjoyable visit to Cliffe this morning, I stopped at Snodland for a look at the Hoopoe which has (remarkably) been present in the area since late-November. With the bird having kept a low profile for much of the winter, it was an opportunity to see a much-anticipated new bird for me in Britain and Kent, having missed it twice last week. Thankfully, this time I was put onto the bird straight away by another birder and had great views of it for half an hour as it spent some time preening on a low branch and then feeding energetically on the close cropped lawn at the back of the farm house. As I watched, it made short work of a number of worms and grubs, with its distinct, curved bill and looked comfortable in its adopted home north of its European breeding range. A fantastic bird and a great way to start the holiday!

Back soon - cheers!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Cairngorms, March 2014

It's hard to describe what a stunning place the Cairngorms are, a simply magnificent wilderness of mountains, forests and lochs stretching as far as the eye can see. I've wanted to go for some time and last week I finally made it, taking the sleeper train after work on Wednesday and returning on Sunday night. Despite sore knees and blisters, it was a superb few days with some great walks and memorable birding.

The birds were hard won (mostly) with cold winds and frequent snow showers making it hard going at times, but I managed to see 4/5 of my trip ‘targets’. On the way down from Inverness I stopped for that most Scottish of specialities - American Coot at Loch Flemington, which I found after a bit of trial and error navigating. And there’s not much more to add really, a Lifer but whatever way you look at it, a Coot is a Coot is a...

American Coot (Fulica americana) Loch Flemington, Invernesshire 20/3/14

A scenic drive down to Grantown via Nairn bought the first of many Red Grouse as well as Curlews over the moors. Stopping in Abernethy Forest on the first afternoon I also picked up my one (and only) Crested Tit high in a pine along a track near Loch Mallachie. After finding my hostel for the night in Aviemore, I took a walk up to the peak overlooking the town through Craigellachie NR. A steep climb here through a bare woodland of twisted trees, heavy with bushy lichens, brought a large flock of 90+ siskins and redpolls, before my arrival at the top was greeted with the first of many snow flurries. However, a Peregrine calling above me on the descent, capped a good day.

Staying at the bunkhouse in Aviemore, the next morning I was up at 4.45am and back in Abernethy just after 6 to look for Capercaille. Finding my way to Forest Lodge in the dawn gloom was interesting, but the walk that morning was immense as I watched the sun rise and the snow fall over the forest. After several hours I had no luck with capers, despite following some good looking paths on my OS. But revelling in my surroundings, I continued walking on a track for about 90 minutes out to the mountain bothy at Ryvoan Pass. I waited here a while and it wasn't long before grouse began making their presence known. I was soon able to pick out three Black grouse amongst a dozen or more Red grouse. Against stony skies it was trickier to separate them in flight than I imagined but there was no doubting when I flushed a gorgeous male bird near the path on my way back and it arced beautifully past me in the warm morning light.

The circular route I took back towards Abernethy was largely quiet save for a single crossbill flying over and a Dipper that flashed past me on a stream, but it was livened up by the odd bit of improvisation required, including some agile shimmying across a fallen tree to cross a deep ford!

After the glorious start I decided to head up to Cairn Gorm to see what conditions were like. With a strong, icy wind across the base car park and the distant top station largely shrouded in cloud, a walk up didn't seem too promising but I headed up anyway picking a trail from the back of the visitor centre that took me closest to the most immediate, eastern ridge. It looked like the most obvious place any birds on the mountain would try and shelter out of the way of the westerlies blasting through. It wasn't long before I realised how tough the wind was when I spotted something swirling way out to my left. At first glance I cursed the fool who had let a plastic bag go here but getting my bins on it I could see it was an OS map disappearing into the distance, worse still, it was my OS map ripped right out of my rucksack pocket! Stumbling on, I pondered heading back and waiting a bit, but with the wind behind me decided against facing it. It proved to be a good decision as just a few steps further I spotted more movement out of the corner of my eye. I think already knew what it was before I turned completely and yep, I did so in time to see a Ptarmigan fly in land about 30ft away (see yesterday's post)! I fumbled briefly for my soaked bins but didn’t really need them as it paused for a moment and looked at me. Moments later it pitched up and flew further downhill past me, another bird appearing with it too. It was an awesome moment! This had been the bird I probably wanted to see here most of all and the weather and surroundings added up to an exhilarating birding experience. After that the walk wasn't so bad (!) and I even managed to find a flock of 20-odd Snow buntings a bit further up. It’s simply amazing how birds like these adapt to their conditions and it was a privilege to be a fleeting visitor in their domain.

Abernethy sunrise
Farmstead at Rynettin, Abernethy
Cairn Gorm
The toughest postal route in Britain
Snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) (centre)

As for the rest of the trip, I was pleased to find three Whooper swans in a flooded roadside field south of Aviemore, the same day I found a flock of 20+ Bewick’s swans at dusk on a loch. Loch Garten gave up Goosander as I looked for an early Osprey (with no luck) but another highlight came early on Saturday as I walked by one of the large lochs. Scanning the water I picked out two distant shapes which turned out to be Red-throated Divers. As I watched, the birds began displaying and calling with bewitching groans and wails filling the air. It was really something, the first time I've experienced divers on their breeding grounds. I went back the next morning and they were there again, that haunting sound filling the valley behind me.


On Saturday, my planned walk up into the Lahrig Guhru pass was aborted by the weather, although I managed to get as far as the Chalamain Gap and the knee-busting walk through the boulders that fill it. But after that I decided to stick to low ground and, starting near Tullochogruhe, walked the six mile track out to the Loch Einich through Glen Einach (Gleann Einich). It turned out to be an amazing afternoon and while I could count the birds I saw on one hand, the landscape was breathtaking. The path followed a river winding its way along the edge of Rothiemurcus Forest and into the moorland where it left the trees behind. Here, the land opened out into a vast, wide glen and the path mirrored the river meandering across its floodplain. I expected the loch would eventually slither into view ahead but it never did and it seemed like it was not going to give itself away so easily. I ploughed on and eventually, after two and half hours, reached Loch Einich. It’s a spectacular place. Surrounded on three sides by sheer, grey, snow-capped crags, it sits in a perfect glacial valley that could have been carved by a giant ice cream scoop. The remoteness was striking and the silence so utterly pure, pierced only by whistling wind, water on stone and the sudden alarm call from a pair of dippers. The walk back didn't feel any shorter and I winced through the last mile, but it was undoubtedly an afternoon to cherish and one of the most memorable walks I've ever done. Unfortunately reality was fractured somewhat by hearing the Arsenal result later that evening, with that in mind; a remote mountain was a good place to be.

Feeling pretty tired on Sunday, I decided to visit Insh Marshes RSPB before heading back to Inverness via the Findhorn Valley and hopefully, some Slavonian grebes at Loch Ruthven. It feels like I've already used the word ‘spectacular’ too many times, but needless to say it could easily extend to all these. Findhorn produced Kestrel, Raven, Common Buzzard and best of all, a ringtail Hen Harrier that patrolled the ancient floodplain margins. The RPSB reserve at Loch Ruthven failed to turn up any Slavonian grebes but was a beautiful spot to end the day. The final action of the trip went to a skein of Pink-footed geese flying over, westwards, probably thinking it was time to head home.

Loch Einich
Loch Ruthven
Curlew in the Findhorn Valley
A wilderness
With thanks to Dan, Eleanor, Tony and Cory Jones for the tips!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Footprints in the snow

I got back on the sleeper train from Inverness this morning after a fantastic few days birding and hiking in the Cairngorms. More words to come but for now here's a clue to as to one of the highlights of my trip - can you guess what made them?! Clue: it's not a Coot...

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Starlings and St Mary's Bay

In the photos below it looks like I've accidentally smudged fingers on my camera lens, but there's no mistake here - this is the brief view I had of a fantastic Starling murmuration over St Mary's marsh on Saturday:

Walking along the track from Swigshole mid-morning, the marshes on either side bristled with the hopeful energy of the season. The early buds of Blackthorn lined the path in places and old sounds, silenced by winter, were once again audible: a Skylark, a Dunnock and, most strikingly, a Lapwing. The bird was displaying over the wet grassland, a tumble in the sky and a low, graceful swoop, but fast like an invisible rollercoaster, and all the time uttering a sound that can't help but amaze.

I stood and watched a fine adult male Marsh Harrier over Decoy for a bit while several more birds appeared in the distance. Beneath it somewhere, hidden in the reeds, a Little Grebe tittered at an unheard joke. Several times I inadvertently flushed a female Sparrowhawk who eventually gave up her stealthy watch from the copse and took off past me, scattering a flock of nearby fieldfares. From the ditch a Cetti's warbler sang, but otherwise there was little that could match the large flocks of rooks for noisy conversation. For a visual spectacle however, there was no doubt...

Glancing over the marsh towards the river, I could see movement on the horizon. At first, a thin wisp appeared like a tentacle from some fantastic creature reaching over the sea wall, but in a second it had leapt skywards to form the remarkable cloud-like shapes above. From a mile away, it was hard to estimate a figure but I would say that 5000 starlings would be a low guess. After several minutes, it was gone, and the birds settled back into the grass, out of sight. I wonder if this restless daylight congregation is a sign of 'foreign' birds feeding up before dispersing back to the continent - another sign of the changing seasons and a hint of the riches, and wonders, to come.

Mute swans (Cygnus olor
Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) conspicuous on the marshes
High tide at St Mary's Bay
View across St Mary's marsh. The combination of standing water and muddy,
poached tracks of crazing cattle attracted a huge number of starlings and
 Black-headed gulls - Mediterranean gulls cannot be far away now
Looking back on St Mary's Bay, the river and Southend in the distance

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Spring, almost

A mirage of waders, Cliffe Pools RSPB 21/2/14

What a breath of fresh air the last few days have been, blue skies and sunshine hugging the horizon in this little part of England at least. Filled with the kind of dizzy spirit that only the end of winter can bring, I had an enjoyable few hours at Cliffe the other afternoon. Straight away the first signs of change were visible on the pool near the car park, where a small group of Black-headed gulls fussed and called on their breeding islands. In amongst them were three Oystercatchers no doubt with the same idea. On Radar pool the action was firmly packed around the causeways where a huge flock of wintering Black-tailed godwits continues their stay. Roosting nervously, the flock frequently took to the air as a dark Marsh Harrier loafed around the vicinity, however I soon spotted a more likely cause for alarm as a Peregrine patrolled distantly and passed right over my viewpoint. A good number of Pintail were visible on the pools and Gadwall too, surprisingly.

The bright, clear skies seemed perfect for Buzzards and it wasn't long before two appeared over the reserve. Hearing a distant mewing cry, I scanned and picked out one thermalling in high over the Cement works and another near Cliffe village. At the Thames Viewpoint the river was ablaze in harsh, late afternoon light and buffeted by increasing gusts of wind but on the more sheltered marsh eight Corn buntings (and likely as many more) showed well on a clump of brambles. It's always great to see these birds that blend so well into the drab colours of winter but whose rattling songs are too rarely heard here in spring.

Elsewhere a few Fieldfares lingered still on the skeletons of fruitless hawthorns and a Stock Dove flushed from the grass on the back track. The final spectacle of the day emerged over Cliffe Marshes in the distance where a large, sweeping flock of starlings, many thousands strong, stirred restlessly. It was the most I've seen in the area for some time.

Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa) spooked by a passing Marsh Harrier
Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) on the fence by Black Barns

Staying local, yesterday I made my Medway WeBS count from Hoo and Kingsnorth. Conditions were good, although the glare of the sun over the estuary made things difficult at times. The highlight was undoubtedly a large flock of Brent Geese which topped out at 531 after birds roosting on the marsh were flushed off during my count by a dog walker. A single Egyptian goose was in with them and a couple of Canada's but I couldn't detect any pale-breasted birds in the poor light. Otherwise the Teal flock remained steady at 170 birds while 186 Shelduck, 92 Oystercatcher and 5 Great Crested Grebes were also present. The most unusual encounter of the morning though was a single Dunlin which flushed out just yards ahead of me on the sea wall, I'm not used to seeing them so close. Other birds in the area included numerous skylarks and a flock of c130 Woodpigeon. At Kingsnorth Power Station a juvenile Marsh Harrier was being mobbed by rooks and the escaped Harris Hawk was still present in the paddocks  by the sewage farm. 

The final part of my count area is adjacent a small pocket of woodland that creeps right down the water's edge. It looks dense, diverse and largely untouched but a big 'Private' sign prevents me from exploring further. I don't like signs like this and I'm equally confused that the wood appears to be owned by a 'Residential Marine Ltd'. Maybe I'm just paranoid...