Saturday, 26 September 2020

Northern Bottlenose Whales, Firth of Clyde

There has a been a group of three northern bottlenose whales in the Firth of Clyde since about mid August but they only get reported intermittently and have been pretty far ranging, initially reported for a few days from near Lochgilphead, then from Great Cumbrae island near Largs and finally a week or so ago from Arrochar. I drove through the first and the last of these places on my way to Mull of Kintyre last Sunday, and then passed through them again today on my way home. I did keep stopping at various places for a scan of the lochs, but I always seemed to be a week or so behind the whales and had no great expectation of seeing them today.

However, I'd just gone about a mile past the turning for Garelochhead at the southern end of Loch Lomond when I got a message that the whales were now in Gare Loch, just 10 miles from where I was. At the next roundabout I made a U-turn and headed back. A great decision as it turned out, because the whales showed very well swimming in amongst the boats and yachts.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Surveying a bog on Mull of Kintyre

This is the life, how could I ever regret changing career in 2012, from I.T. manager to ecologist? NVC surveys of blanket bogs are just the best job in the world, what a habitat, what scenery! 

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Claonaig ferry, Mull of Kintyre

I called in at Claonaig ferry about 10 miles north of my campsite this morning, on my way to my job near Tarbert. I was amazed to see these two otters asleep on the rocks about 3m below where I was standing and completely oblivious to my presence. I suppose that I could have got myself a once in a lifetime photo if I'd made a noise and woken them, but I decided that they looked peaceful and there was really no need to disturb them.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Winter auks and an eagle, Mull of Kintyre

Quite a few auks around the coast at the moment, including this razorbill and guillemot in Campbeltown harbour. I don't often see razorbills in winter plumage so it was good to get this comparison shot of the two species together.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Mull of Kintyre

After a long and tiring journey I finally arrived at my campsite at Carradale on the Mull of Kintyre. It's been a beautiful day with stunning views of Jura and Arran and in the last hour of daylight I watched two red-throated divers fishing in front of Ailsa Craig, "Paddy's milestone" from the beach at my campsite.

With all of these new covid restrictions being threatened I was a bit unsure that I'd make it to Mull of Kintyre this week, but here I am, on my own in a caravan next to a beautiful beach. The weather has been glorious and tomorrow I start work on my own surveying a peat bog 😆. I've got all of my supplies with me and apart from buying petrol I don't think that social distancing will be a problem.

The Isle of Arran.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Autumn flowers on the Great Orme

Photo: Broomrape sp., probably common.

I can't get enough of the Great Orme and it was a wonderful day today, with bright blue skies and still quite a few flowers lingering into autumn.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Sabine's Gull, Hale

Today I called in at Hale to see the remarkable juvenile Sabine's gull which has been feeding on a stubble field adjacent to the lighthouse for the past three days. When I got there it hadn't been seen for an hour so I wandered down to the shore and managed to pick out a couple of curlew sandpipers with the small dunlin flock. Eventually though the gull did reappear and showed well for 30 minutes or so until I decided to leave.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Shifting baseline syndrome at Hesketh Out Marsh and Banks Marsh

It says something about how things have changed over the years when I can go to Hesketh Out Marsh followed by Banks marsh and see six spoonbills, great white egret, probably around 40 little egrets and four avocets and still come away feeling a little sad and disappointed, when just thirty years ago I might have considered it one of the best birding days of my life. The reason for these feelings of sadness and disappointment is the lack of waders I saw on the Ribble today. 

Over the past 20 years we've all become accustomed to these wonderful egrets and spoonbills, so much so that we now expect to see them and they barely warrant a mention in any quick scan of the saltmarsh. For sure they are very welcome new additions to the local avifauna, but the other side of the coin is the devastating lose of waders. 

On a single day in September 1983 I saw a flock of 85 little stints at Frodsham marsh but 37 years later it seems like there's barely that many in the whole of the UK. Just look at Birdguides, one little stint here, two there, but very rarely do you hear of double figure counts from anywhere. Today I saw one and it felt like a mega tick. Curlew sandpipers have fared little better, a flock of 24 at Hesketh Out Marsh yesterday was considered likely to be the largest flock in the UK at the moment. Today I saw one in flight.

This is both extremes of shifting baseline syndrome. On the one hand, it would be easy for new birders to dismiss egrets and spoonbills as a common sight on estuaries around the UK and perhaps not realise how rare they were just a generation ago, whilst at the other extreme the baseline for what is a good wader count decreases as each generation passes, so that birders in years to come might wistfully look back at the days of a flock of 10 little stints when the generation before expected to see 80 and before that who knows how many? 

Why does this matter, well if you don't recognise the spectacular growth in egret and spoonbill numbers over a short period of time then perhaps you also won't see them for what they are, climate change indicator species, and if your baseline for a good little stint count is 10 then perhaps you won't recognise that actually even 10 represents a dramatic decline in numbers from just 30 years ago. This is shifting baseline syndrome, each generation sets it's expectations of what is good a little lower than the last because they weren't around to see what things were like two or three generations earlier.

Whilst new additions are welcome, they don't make up for the loses, I'd sooner go back to the days of large numbers of arctic waders in the UK and leave the egrets and spoonbills for holidays to the Mediterranean.

Also today, an injured and over summering tundra bean goose and a couple of pink-footed geese, plus two peregrine and a merlin. Not a bad day really, just a bit sad. I seem to have a lot of sad days at the moment....

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

The Great Orme

The Great Orme, despite travelling to the otherside of the world on more than one occasion, this is where my heart truly is and Llandudno is the place I would most like to live. I've so far not achieved that dream but I guess that I should at least consider myself fortunate to live within a 90 minute drive. Imagine if the dream was to live in Brisbane or Christchurch, I might never get to go again. At least when it's Llandudno I know that I can just jump in the car and be there before breakfast and home for tea.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Wryneck, George's Lane, Horwich

My experience with wryneck is that they either show incredibly well or are incredibly skulking.... fortunately todays bird in George's lane on the flanks of Rivington Pike chose the former.

From visiting this place many times I knew that I could park close to the kennels now turned cafe, but instead I opted to park at the start of George's lane and walk the mile and a half to where the bird had been seen. It was a nice day and I felt like a walk and really there is no point in rushing to see a wryneck. If it wants to show itself it will be there right in front of you, if it doesn't then no amount of dashing around will make it appear. In anycase I'd already seen three wrynecks in the north west following birds in St Helens (1996), Seaforth (1997) and Fairhaven Lake (2015), and I don't really keep a Manchester list, so no real pressure, just enjoy the day and hopefully the bird will perform.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Osprey passage south

Back to the Cumbrian coast for 7.30am today and hopes of some visible migration were given a big boost by two ospreys heading south in the first hour. One of them hung around for a bit fishing the channel before disappearing south. Also today, an adult female and juvenile wheater, several swallows and house martins, a family party of Sandwich terns and around 180 ringed plover.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Little Whimbrel, Blakeney 1985: Connecting the past with the present.

Little whimbrel, Blakeney harbour, Norfolk
24th August 1985 © David Cottridge.
In late August 1985 my dad and I set out for Norfolk for a long weekend birding. It was one of our favourite birding places and late August was a favourite time of year because it gave us the opportunity to see a few early autumn migrants whilst at the same time many of the summer birds would still be around. We booked into the White Horse Inn at Blakeney for the nights of 24th & 25th August. My dad must have been keen to go because 24th August was his wedding anniversary though that didn't really register too much with me at the time!

Back in 1985 the North Norfolk coast and in particular Cley-next-the-sea was still the epicenter of mainland birding in the UK. Bird information services were still in their infancy and Nancy's cafe was at the height of it's powers and nearby Walsey Hill was also an important source of information. In the mid 1980's it sometimes seemed that I spent every weekend with my mates in the autumn in this area and it turned into a really good social event. Sometimes we'd sleep in the car, sometimes a tent, other times in a B&B, very occasionally a hotel.

This was different though, this was with my dad and I expected the pace to be a bit more relaxed. Dad was a keen birder, he had been since at least his early twenties, but he didn't really do twitches and he was what I would call a selective birder, he didn't like seeing birds out of what he considered to be their proper context and for him the overall experience was everything not just seeing the bird. So for example he turned down the opportunity to come with me to see a juvenile great northern diver in the midlands because he wanted his first great northern to be a summer plumage bird in the Scottish Highlands. He did however love the North Norfolk coast, though the irony was not lost on him that many of the migrants we saw such as 1st winter barred warblers and ortolans were just the east coast equivalent of a juvenile great northern in the midlands, but this was different because the North Norfolk coast was meant to be full of migrants, that's what it was all about, that's what he wanted to experience and so in that respect they weren't out of context.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Leucistic starling in the garden

Imagine this, you watch the small starling flock at the end of the garden every day for weeks hoping for a rose-coloured starling in an invasion year, and you get to know every bird individually, then suddenly a leucistic starling turns up out of the blue and after you recover from the shock you wonder, is it leucistic common or might it be leucistic rose-coloured? It's common the bill shape is wrong for rose-coloured. Cracking bird though. A dead cert for the Pennington Flash starling roost I would have thought.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Bearded Vulture at Crowden, Woodhead Pass

The bearded vulture currently in the Peak District has relocated to Crowden at Woodhead Pass so today I decided to call in for another look. Woodhead Pass is a bit easier to get to for me than where it was previously near Ladybower Reservoir, but it's still a pain, mainly because of the traffic around Mottram. It was worth it though because on the ground at least I had far better views today than last time, and it wasn't so windy so I was able to use the full magnification of the telescope. Also today, four ring ouzels from the Pennine Way.

When I arrived it was sitting on a cliff in some woods on the side of Hey Moss less than half a mile from Crowden Outdoor Education Centre and  I watched it there for about 30 minutes at a distance of about 200m. Then it flew north and I thought that was the last we were going to see of it for a while, but it circled round and amazingly landed on the lower slopes of Bareholme Moss just about 150m away from us. It remained here for about another 20 minutes before flying north again up the valley for about a mile or so and was lost to view. I had a walk around the valley looking for ring ouzels and whatever else I might find and continued to see the vulture, but always distantly and in flight.
All of the photos of the vulture in this post were taken on my phone at a distance of between 150 - 200m. It only has to move about 2.5 miles further north to enter Greater Manchester and become a potential north west tick so this might not be my last encounter with the bird.

One last Bearded Vulture photo (for now)

I accidentally deleted this photo but when I "re-discovered" it I felt it deserved a post of its own. It was taken today at Crowden in Derbyshire on the side of Bareholme Moss. The bird flew and landed here, right behind us at a distance of about 150m. The photo was taken in poor light on my phone and through the telescope on a magnification of 50x. I also zoomed in a little using the digital zoom on the phone and finally before I posted it here I cropped it quite a bit, so it's anybody's guess as to what the magnification really is on this photo. Personally I think this is a great photo considering that it was taken on my phone!

Monday, 3 August 2020

"Whispering Bat" a new addition to the garden list

I was delighted to record brown long-eared bat over the garden two nights ago. This is one of the very few occasions that I have managed to actually get one to register on the bat detector. Brown long-eared bats belong to the Plecotus group of bats which are often referred to as the whispering bats because their echo location is so quiet. 

Bats evolved echo location in order to allow them to catch flying insects at night, but some moths countered this by evolving ways of hearing the bats echo locating. This gives the moth an advantage because it is forewarned. Brown long-eared bats have evolved huge "ears" which are actually more like satellite dishes which allow the bat to echo locate much more quietly and therefore evade the moths early warning system. Because they echo locate so quietly they are rarely picked up by bat detectors, in fact I believe that they have to come within 3-5m in order to register.

By coincidence the following night I recorded another bat which the detector also identified as brown long-eared but although the frequency might be in the range you can clearly see that it has the hockey stick shaped call associated with pipistrelle sp. and it is in fact the social call of a pipistrelle sp.

Brown long-eared is at least the 5th species of bat I have recorded in the garden this year, the others being common pipistrelle, soprano pipistrelle, noctule and whiskered. I'm also still getting regular recordings of what the detector thinks are Nathusius's pipistrelle and Leisler's bat but they've so far not been clear cut recordings and until I get a classic I won't be counting either of those species.

Brown long-eared bats will also glean insects off the foliage of trees at night, in particular butterflies and moths. This is a technique of hovering around leaves and picking off insects, which means that day flying insects such as butterflies are as vulnerable as nocturnal insects. The bats then often carry their prey to a night time roost which can be a cave or tree, or often an old building, where they remove the wings and eat the more edible parts, leaving the wings scattered all over the floor below. I came across just such a roost in Derbyshire in 2016.

Photo: Small tortoiseshell wings at a 
Brown long-eared bat roost.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Long-billed dowitcher, Marshside

I had an excellent morning at Marshside, with a summer plumage long-billed dowitcher on Polly's pool, as well as common sandpiper, several ruff, little ringed plover and a merlin over the saltmarsh and a flyby cattle egret. This evening there was a whimbrel in front of Sandgrouders hide.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Comet Neowise over the back garden

With feet firmly planted on my lawn I added the comet Neowise to the garden list last night. It may be 64 million miles away and traveling at 144,000 mph but distance doesn't matter, I was standing in the garden so it's on the list.

Apparently this comet was only discovered on 27th March 2020 which is slightly alarming!

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Bone Crusher at Cutthroat Bridge

Ok so this bearded vulture turned up in the UK about four weeks ago having previously been seen in the Channel Islands, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was seen sporadically in various places until last weekend when it was finally pinned down in the Peak District near Ladybower Reservoir. It was roosting on a rock in a valley which was about a two hour walk from the nearest parking spot, uphill and across a blanket bog, and that's assuming that you could get parked because there was so little room. As if that wasn't bad enough, the bird often left the roost at dawn, around 5.45am, so if you wanted to be guaranteed to see the bird you needed to be there before it flew which meant starting walking at about 3am, with most of the walk more or less in darkness. Not an appealing thought.

Apart from the hardships involved in getting to the roost site, initially it didn't appeal to me because although nobody disputes that it's a wild bred bird, it most likely originates from a release scheme in the Alps and will probably only appear on the British list as Category E, i.e. an extremely dodgy tick. It's also one of the tattiest looking birds I've ever seen with amongst other things an almost none existent tail, which in my opinion is one of the main assets of a bearded vulture. Sure it's a big bird with a wingspan of around 2.75m, but size isn't everything and besides it's only six months ago I was watching wandering albatross with a wingspan of 3.5m.

However..... over the past week or so I've watched a steady stream of respected friends and birders being drawn to the bird and almost without exception reporting back in glowing terms, obviously seeing something in the bird which I didn't. Perhaps one reason they are going is for an insurance tick, because nobody actually knows for sure where the bird originates from. The Alps may be favourite but the Pyrenees can't be ruled out at the moment and if it's from there then the bird would be elevated to the heady heights of Category A, i.e. a genuine wild bird and a bona fida tick. But how will we ever know? Well all it needs is a feather. Apparently DNA extracted from a feather can pin down exactly where the bird is from. Just yesterday somebody found a feather which was at first thought to be from the vulture, and although some doubt now seems to surround this particular feather, it was a close shave. Surely it's only a matter of time before such a tatty looking individual sheds another feather? Perhaps after the bird leaves somebody will examine the area around the roost site and strike gold? Perhaps when it's soaring overhead and being mobbed by ravens it will drop a feather? So imagine ignoring a bearded vulture on your doorstep because you think it will be consigned to Category E and then after it's gone finding out from a feather that it was from the Pyrenees. Bit of a sickener I should imagine, so in an effort to avoid that scenario, I decided it was time to join the party.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Diary of a Little Ringed Plover nest

During the coronavirus lockdown in April and early May 2020, a pair of little ringed plover took up residence on the yacht club foreshore, in an area which looked likely to provide very suitable breeding habitat. The male was seen displaying and eventually the pair were seen copulating.

Little ringed plover are listed in schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), and as such it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb them at, on or near an ‘active’ nest. With this in mind I am deliberately not saying exactly where these birds nested and though regular readers of this blog will have a pretty good idea, the chances of the birds returning to breed next year in the same location is negligible with no coronavirus lockdown in place.

It was clear that the birds were taking advantage of lockdown to breed in an area where they would otherwise not be able to breed due to high levels of disturbance. As long as lockdown persisted they could probably nest successfully in the area, but by the beginning of May restrictions looked likely to be lifted slightly and I was concerned that a resumption of yachting and swimming might lead to a level of disturbance which the birds would not be able to tolerate and would lead to either the accidental destruction or  abandonment of the nest. Little ringed plovers like to nest in stony areas adjacent to water with very little vegetation yet despite this the nests can be very difficult to see even at close range. Nests can be crushed by people or vehicles who don't even know that they are there.

I felt that the least I could do would be to make the yacht club aware of the situation and see if they could restrict access to the area around the nest and ask members to keep dogs on a lead. As I result of this I emailed the commodore of the club who proved to be very understanding and keen to help.

Fencing was erected around the nest using just pins and barrier tape and signage put up to inform people about what was happening. By the beginning of June yachting and open water swimming had begun again in earnest and by the end of the month sometimes up to 100 people or more were present on or around the foreshore or in the water, and on other days yachts and trailers were parked up everywhere. Open water swimming then continued daily until the end of the period with at times up to 60 people in the water and at least as many either waiting to enter or watching, and over 80 cars on the yacht club car park. Yet despite very high levels of disturbance all around the fenced area the pair miraculously managed to hatch 4 chicks. As is usual with the species the chicks were running around in the immediate vicinity of the nest within hours of hatching, and by the following day they were venturing further afield, often outside the fenced area along the whole length of the foreshore and most people were oblivious to them.

In fact this lack of visibility was one of the biggest problems which I encountered and one which I didn't anticipate. Despite the fact that there were signs up saying that birds were nesting within the fenced area most people I spoke to seemed to think that they weren't there because it just looked like a pile of stones with no vegetation where it would be impossible to not see a bird sitting on its nest. Yet the nest was there and the birds were sitting. Then when the chicks hatched, they were also virtually invisible at first, being little more than the size of the stones and the same colour, and when they crouched down they just disappeared.

After the first week only one chick remained, with the other three chicks possibly picked off one by one by a kestrel. Around this time the family's behaviour changed and especially in busy periods they started spending a lot of time in the area where the yachts were parked.

Twenty-four days after hatching the last remaining chick took it's first flight. By this time the female had abandoned her parental responsibilities and was nowhere to be seen. The juvenile remained on the foreshore with the male for a few more days, even occasionally still being brooded, until it was last seen on day 29 after hatching. 

This is my diary of the events. For most of the period I did not have access to the yacht club and all of my viewing was done from a vantage point outside the perimeter fence at a distance of approximately 115m. The majority of photographs and the videos in this post were taken from this position, especially those at the start. I actually found this a better place to view from, rather than inside the yacht club because it was slightly raised up and the birds behaved more naturally.

On only a handful of occasions up until about the middle of June did I enter the grounds, usually if I thought somebody was getting too close to the nest and keeping the adults off the eggs or there was a dog nearby off the lead. When the chicks were about a week old I was given access to the club which enabled me to observe the family when they started using the yacht parking area and from about the third week in June I did start to enter the club more regularly and was able to sit and watch the birds at a distance of about 50m.  

This diary is about the birds, their behaviour and their remarkable resilience, it is not about people. I have nothing but praise for the efforts of the yacht club and the organisers of the open water swim, and when I mention disturbance, it is not intended as a criticism of the individuals, rather I am trying to show how resilient to disturbance the birds were.

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