Thursday, 29 July 2010

D is for...


I spent a day doing some assessment work with a colleague, Clare, last week. We spent the entire day trawling the cliffs and beach between Baggy Point and Saunton, on the North Devon coast. I use the word trawl advisedly, as it didn't arf rain... Despite the unpleasant conditions, we found large quantities of Autumn Squill along the cliff, as well as some exceedingly unperturbed sheep.

 Sheep contemplates pursuing the ultimate aim in an ovine life: suicide.

 Sheep stoically chewing over the remains of some clifftop vegetation on Baggy Point.

Didymodon cordatus
Further along the cliffs is the main UK population of a small moss, called Cordate Beard-moss. It seems to be happy, amongst a very large population of Scrambled-egg lichen. A bit of the nationally scarce Sea Stock Matthiola sinuata enlivened a superbly soggy end to the working day.

A random picture of two lasses watching the surf - and the surfers at Saunton Sands.

A stark reminder at Slapton that disease is a part of life for everything: we came across this unfortunate juvenile Blackbird, which is probably not much longer for this world. Not only showing some gross tumours, but the skin around the head was crawling with ectoparasites - a veritable garden of delights for a parasitologist, but I'm not one of those. Don't think we'll be seeing that bird again! If you're of a sensitive nature, don't scroll any further along this posting, please.

 Whatever the cause, this is a pretty grotesque set of growths on a wild bird.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Written to music by the Dresden Dolls...

Having possibly done something good in a previous life, I was allowed out of the office, with the express task of whipping through some basic monitoring at Prawle Point, one of my favourite places in the country. Sometimes life can be kind...! The day seemed to have been badly chosen at the outset, as when I woke up it was sheeting with rain, and the journey down was completed through a series of increasingly hefty showers. I wasn't worried though, because - in contrast to South Brent - it never rains at Prawle. True to expectations, the drop off the South Hams plateau to the coast was accompanied by a general brightening of the day and a lifting of the spirits.

We set out on our task in a stiff westerly breeze, which blustered around us and constantly threatened to remove our work, our coats and ourselves, if we were not paying close attention... Ignoring a couple of Cirl Buntings in the nearby thicket, we concentrated on the cliffs, finding such delights as the nationally scarce Autumn Squill, the dirt-common Rock Samphire and the variably rare Rock Sea-lavender (rarity depends very much on the lines you draw between taxa). We also managed to find a handful of clumps of the exciting (no, honest!) Golden Hair Lichen, which looks to me rather like a pan-scourer which has been steeped in saffron.
Teloschistes flavicans. Golden Hair Lichen.

 Autumn Squill (Scilla autumnalis). The purple one.

Today was another day at Slapton, where ringing continued apace for the season. A bright and early start meant we were in the right place at the right time to catch two Kingfishers and two Magpies on the opening round of the nets. You may find it perverse, but we were rather more interested in catching two Magpies than the Kingfishers... in 50 years of ringing at Slapton, only 7 Magpies have been caught before, whereas we catch up to 10 Kingfishers a season on a reasonable year. All context, you see...

Magpies. What more can you say? The bird on the right of the left-hand picture isn't going blind, it's flicking the nictating membrane over it's eye. Don't know what AJ's bird grabbed, but I'm sure it wasn't as painful as it looks...!

Half an hour later, during a walk round the nets, there was a squeal of anguish from the other side of the open water on the higher ley. Looking up and across the water, I was just in time to see the female Marsh Harrier standing firmly on a juvenile Coot, which was the source of the squeal. Unfortunately - or not: depends on your point of view, I suppose - the harrier lost her bottle when she saw me, so flopped off north up the ley to harass something else.

The rest of the ringing didn't produce any great surprises, though a healthy number of Reed and Cetti's Warblers were ringed again.

Cetti's Warbler. A small one.

Tufted Duck update: the brood of 9 seems to have been reduced in size, but a further three (count 'em) broods were out and about, all of which look as if they hatched at much the same time. So, that meant a brood of 5 tiddlers on the channel between the leys, a brood of 4 tiddlers and a single tiddler on the graveyard pool, and a further brood of 4 not-quite-such-tiddlers on the graveyard with them; I'm choosing to assume that the latter are the birds from 2 weekends back, though this is purely lazy speculation on my part. It'd be good if some of them manage to survive the various predators around the ley and get to adult size.

Female Tufted Duck with downy ducklings. This is the girl on the channel, with proper tiddlers.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Fuer Denise...

It's been a fun couple of weeks! The autumn ringing season's started up, so summer's out the way and we can concentrate on the fun of migration again - only semi-joking. Slapton started up last week, with a good first day - 133 new birds and another 20-odd retraps from previous years. Included within this total were about 25 new Ceti's Warblers - they seem to have had a decent year to put it mildly. Not included was this little baby: a Garden Warbler which could barely flutter along the path ahead of us. Carefully put into the scrub and left to call it's parents in, it was last seen chirping its way towards the sea, along the line of willow beside the road.

Juvenile Garden Warbler 

Female Reed Bunting. An old bird which is beginning to develop male patterns and colours in it's head markings

We were also pleased to see a brood of no fewer than 9 very young Tufted Duck heading down the channel with their mother. At the edge of the open ley, the whole family began to learn how to take the business of being a Tufted Duck very seriously indeed: nine fuzzy little ducklings attempting to dive for perhaps the first time was highly entertaining! Several managed to get the hang of getting under quite rapidly, but had problems staying under - their down must trap a lot of air - so would resurface with so much speed that they left the water entirely. Others struggled with the concept of diving: they would take the proper Tufted Duck leap into the water, but misjudge their strength and do something of a half-somersault, going under on their backs instead of headfirst...

Tufted Duck brood

Midweek I helped lead a Nightjar walk on the edge of Dartmoor. We met up at 9:30 p.m. and strolled across the heath at a birder's pace, making all of 200metres per hour. After a diminishing chorus of Mistle Thrush and Blackbird, with a smattering of Willow Warbler and Redpoll, the light drew out into a fine sunset and the first Nightjar began singing from some distance down the valley - sounding rather like a faint two-stroke engine, churring up and down in tone. As usual with the first of the evening, he soon petered out into silence, but then a male appeared from below us and slowly sauntered past us, wings flicking like some giant tropical swallowtail butterfly. He circled round us at about 50m distance in the fading light, then disappeared back into the valley in the same silent fashion. After a little while, two more appeared from above us, chasing each other around and about in near-darkness. A third bird briefly joined in and we were treated to a spectacular display of nocturnal aerobatics and the rather treefrog-like 'gwoink' flightcalls, with accompanying song from a couple of more distant males.

Green 'unripe tomato' spider, found along the edge of the heath

Sunset over Trendlebere Down

Today was spent on a speculative attempt to confirm the presence of breeding Willow Tit on Dartmoor. Several of the group met up at a site where a couple of the survey group had heard birds earlier in the year and put up a couple of nets to ring. Bizarrely we managed to catch a single juvenile Willow Tit, as well as seeing/hearing at least three others in the same area. By far the best result yet on any site, and finally proof-positive that they still cling on on the edge of the moors. A very instructive bird to see in the hand too!

Juvenile Willow Tit. Note particularly the bull-neck, the long black cap reaching far down the nape, the lack of a pale spot on the bill and the chunkiness of the bill as well.

Finally, some pictures of the garden, as the title goes. (Cue music)