Thursday, 25 October 2012


I'm taking time out to be a full-time father (as if there was any other way to be a father anyway!) - my wife has returned to work, so we've taken advantage of the opportunity for me to take the last three months of her maternity leave - in effect unpaid leave to look after our daughter. It's fun! Rhythms are pretty baby-tuned now, so there are brief bursts of activity whilst she sleeps, punctuated by bursts of feeding and playing - but best of all we've been able to take the opportunity to go out and walk together most days.

Today was a kind of soft-focus day. We visited Yarner Woods NNR for a midday walk. It's mild muggy weather at the moment (a Saharan air-stream appears to be to blame) and the cloud base was around 180m, so we spent the entire walk in or just below the cloud, but at this time of year there's something very right about it: the leaves are turning, the spider-webs and grasses are pearled with water and everything seems rather hushed. As we walked round the woods, the only loud noises were a handful of Jays rasping their disgust at our intrusion; otherwise there was little to be heard apart from the random drip of water falling from saturated leaves and branches above us, and the sibilant calls of Goldcrests searching for insects.

As we walked down one track, there was a flurry of excitement: Blackbirds and Robins hopping off the track, then a burr of wings in a dozen different directions as a small flock of Redwings emerged from beneath the Bilberries where they had been fossicking in the fallen oak leaves. Semi-whispered 'tseet' calls between them - and then they were gone, deep into the tangle of branches and leaves in the valley below us. A Brambling flew over, only its wheezy call betraying its presence, and then we were down at the hides, where a constant stream of Coal Tits arrived and departed, rooting for overlooked seeds below the feeders, occasioning great interest from Sabina, who seemed fascinated by the abrupt appearance and equally rapid disappearance of each bird from our limited field of vision. Nothing remarkable, nothing surprising, but comfortingly appropriate for the time of year.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Dune Gentians

Back at the beginning of the month I went out to measure the water tables at Braunton Burrows - something I usually do monthly to help maintain a long-running measure of the site's hydrological status. And out on one of the dune slacks, there was a plant in flower which I've been hoping to see there for quite some time: Dune Gentian - Gentianella uliginosa. OK, it's not exactly the most conspicuous of plants: these were only about 10cm tall at best, and it's not the most thrillingly obvious of plants: in fact it looks rather similar to its close cousin the Autumn Gentian (or Felwort) Gentinella amarella, but this is the only site in England where they grow. There are a couple of dune systems in Wales where the species is more abundant, and this may be the source of this population - much like the late lamented population of Fen Orchid Liparis loeselli - but there seems to be nowhere else in England (and perhaps the UK) where you can see this plant.
This is Autumn Gentian - a relatively large and robust species with numerous flowers and unmerous pairs of leaves above the basal rosette. The calyx is also clearly pressed tight up to the corolla, with just the tips of the teeth diverging.

This is the one. Smaller than amarella, with fewer flowers, fewer pairs of leaves and with calyx teeth unequal and coming away from the corolla.
Many grateful thanks to Dr Tim Rich at the Museum of Wales for confirming my identification too.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Simple things...

It's been pretty poor for most things in Britain this year, with perhaps the honourable exceptions of molluscs and bryophytes. Not a lot of consolation though. We went out for a walk today; a round route at Mansands, near Brixham. We left home in steady rain, sufficient to ensure that today's batch of nappies would 'dry' in two batches - one lot indoors and one lot under the scaffolding - and with a cloud-base low enough to obscure the tops of the hills surrounding Bovey. By the time we got to Mansands the rain had reduced to drizzle, and the cloud-base was down on our heads - the only brightness coming from the lemon and gold spires of Toadflax in the hedges. Encouragingly, shafts of sunlight soon gleamed through the fog on our way down the track, which is treacherously slippery in the wet. We started to see some immediate responses from the wildlife: hoverflies appeared at the powder-puff heads of Hemp-agrimony in the hedge, clouds of tiny midges emerged to jostle for position over our heads and a couple of bedraggled-looking Gatekeeper butterflies burst from the sodden vegetation like tiny erratic gingersnaps batting through the air.

Hoverfly on Hemp-agrimony.

By the time we got down to the hide overlooking the wetland, the fog was beginning to burn off, in fact sufficient to see a handful of Mallards upending, a couple of young Coot and Moorhens doing their best to con their parents into feeding them - and several sleek blue-and-green Emperor dragonflies patrolling the water. The wetland is a Hendrix-like haze of Purple Loosestrife at this time of year, though it's not particularly photogenic in the swirling fog! We carried on to the coast-path, turning south towards Scabbacombe, trudging up a steep incline in what was raidly turning into tropical conditions: humidity rapidly closing in on 100%, temperature somewhere in the mid-20s and whether carrying baby or rucksack, the body's response was an immediate muck-sweat...

We soon gained the plateau and paused for breath amidst swirls of cloud and flashes of sunshine, the excited peeps and trills of a pair of Oystercatchers echoing up the cliffs from the rocky beach below. More butterflies joined us: Meadow Browns, subtle brown-and-orange, Green-veined Whites like scraps of paper fluttering across the grassland and a single Common Blue, mimicking the blue of the sea. The sea was beginning to emerge from the murk: tatters and shreds of fog blowing up past us anc coalescing around the higher ground, leaving a flat-calm, azure blue sea behind. In the distance a long grey bank of fog obscured the view north and east towards Dorset, whilst Berry Head and Scabbacombe Head floated in and out of view as the fog drifted, all accompanied by the mournful wail of the foghorn on Berry Head.

Scabbacombe Head emerging through shreds of fog

One sheep looking startled, the rest of them looking for food.

We strolled on steadily towards Scabbacombe beach, where we stopped to eat, relax, paddle and admire a small flock of Manx Shearwaters heading south, just inside the fog-line - which by this time was rolling back towards the land. Eventually, however, it was time to tackle the hill to Scabbacombe Head. We crossed the stream - hedged with Purple Loosestrife and Hemp-agrimony, resounding with hoverflies and bees - and slogged our way up to the top of the hill. Turning inland we began to leave the fog behind, but before we'd left it's grasp, we were startled to see a small wader on the gravel track in front of us. Despite all hopes to the contrary it proved to be a juvenile Dunlin, but was one of those birds which is remarkably confiding: it pottered along in front of us, then turned back and tentatively approached almost to touching distance. Eventually, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, it decided we were alarming enough to warrant flight and promptly flipped over the hedge to the neighbouring field. Presumably on its way south towards West Africa and bamboozled by the conditions into landing for a while in an apparently unsuitable area - lets hope it makes the journey successfully.

Lost and perhaps a little confused: Dunlin

For no particular reason other than I quite like the image - and it's a tough life being a limpet.

And again, for no particular reason except that it's a new species for the garden: Oak Bush-cricket.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Inselaffe mode again

A thought struck us: let's get away from the English 'lack-of-summer' and spend a week in Germany, where the sun will shine, birds will sing and the inlaws will look after Sabina occasionally whilst we relax a little. Well, we kind of got it right...

The journey over was quiet - we occasionally had to check that Sabina was still in the back of the car, she was so quiet - and we drew up at French border control in Dover with plenty of time to spare before our ferry. We were waved through without even a cursory glance at our passports (!), spiralled around the port and got to check-in, where the lady behind the counter knew who we were even before we'd rolled to a halt. A ticket for an earlier ferry was issued and we were through to the queue almost before we knew it. Amazingly slick!

The ferry proved to be a deeply absorbing place for Sabina, who spent most of the journey flirting with other passengers. We left Dover with two colour-ringed Herring Gulls on board, but unfortunately never had chance to see whether they continued with the vessel or returned to the port - I can't help thinking there must be a few international movements across with the ferries though. And predictably enough, as we reached France, it started raining...

So we rolled off the ferry at Calais under the overcast and headed briskly off through northern France (flat), Belgium (flat) and finally western Germany (nearly as flat), arriving in lovely - and sunny! - Leverkusen just about ready for a snooze. Our post-drive wind-down was serenaded by a male Black Redstart on the neighbours' roof: a sure sign that we're not in England any more. Nice.

Garden birds in Leverkusen.

Day one in Germany and we're woken with a mildly damp start. A walk around the Biesenbach seemed the perfect way to stretch legs tired out from constant slouching in the car. Sabina into sling and off we tromp. Black Redstarts feeding young, tails quivering rufous, are everywhere around the horse-paddocks just beyond the houses. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calls from an orchard tree. Better still, a Firecrest pipes up from the conifers by the path. Starlings buzz through between grass and holes in trees, trailing fat grubs for chicks rasping their hunger to the air. Swallows and House Martins skim the trees and grasses. All in all a pleasant start. Once away from the fields and gardens and walking through the Naturschutzgebiet along the stream, we're into proper wet woodland with swampy fens growing into Alder carr. If it was warmer we'd be looking out for dragonflies. As it is, we're not. Blackcaps seem to be everywhere. Under the trees the path is lined with Wood-sedge, Remote Sedge, Wood Melick and strawberries, whilst the Beech canopy casts a cool and luminescent green light over everything.

Nature red in mandible and palp

The afternoon passes with a blur of relatives, whilst the bird feeders in the garden are bedecked with young Great and Blue Tits, Greenfinches and Bullfinches - and the odd Ring-necked Parakeet. After their departure we head out for another wander in afternoon sunshine, where we encounter some of the local Yellowhammers and a flyby Hawfinch.

Our second day began in slightly damp fashion again, so we set off on a longer and more complicated walk - starting by heading upstream along the Biesenbach. As we walk up the valley, we're slightly surprised to see a house with a substantial pond and extensive lawn, upon which graze a pair of colour-marked Mute Swans. A large duck-house-type building on the edge of the water has a Grey Heron on top, and another heron sits on top of the main house, where a walkway leads up from ground to roof. We wonder vaguely whether these are pets rehabilitating birds, or coincidental. On the roadside there's a family of Egyptian Geese, mother grazing and guarding eight semi-featherd goslings, whilst father sits on top of a building and watches for trouble.

Further along the valley the sun finally deigns to come out as Naomi feeds Sabina. We follow this meal up with a scramble up a steep bank, then a trudge through thigh-deep wet grass (mmm!) around a field-edge to a track, then across the road and down another field margin - to be met by neck-deep nettles! After that the walk back through the woods and across the plateau of the Schoene Aussicht is a breeze... Highlights of the day: a Red Kite drifting overhead, more Yellowhammers and a corking male Serin who flies over, then circles back to land on the fence just in front of us. Sometimes it's just worth it. The weather staying nice persuaded Na to head to the local swimming lake for the afternoon, where she and Michael swam whilst I strolled around with Sabina and admired the wildlife.

Some Leverkusen countryside. Next to the dynamite factory.

Garden birds in Leverkusen. Hey, this is just like home.

Wednesday, our third full day, dawned downright English: cold and dismal. We thought this would be a good point to stretch our wings a little and visit the Ohligser Heide, just to the north of Leverkusen, near Solingen. We found our way to the rough area without incident, but then struggled to find the heath before being put right by a kindly passing dog-walker. Calling it a heath seemed excessive to me, given that most of the site was planted with trees, but some heath restoration has occurred - and looks to be paying dividends: lots of heather, some Purple Moor-grass, sedges and Bog-myrtle in a variety of heathland types from dry and sandy through to proper wet. Despite the heathy element, the birds were rather woodland-ish: Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Wood Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper and more Firecrests. Crested Tits purred at us from the trees every so often, and we watched an entertaining spat between Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the trees above, whilst a Red Squirrel ambled unconcernedly across in front of us.

By Thursday we're in the mood for something a bit different - and joy of joys, so's the weather! We head down to the banks of the Rhine, to Hitdorf am Rhein, where we crossed on the ferry as foot passengers for a walk along the banks to some of the remaining auen. These are the remnant riparian forests which once would have stretched along the banks of a wildly meandering river, but now are confined to small remnants, patched here and there with oxbows and fragmented by pastures and meadows. The auen around Cologne are restricted compared to those I've been used to in Austria, where they form the basis of a National Park, but in many ways they are similar beasts. Tall poplars stand over a dense shrubby understorey of hazel, nettle and (aargh!) Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Knotweed, rides cut through the woodland are the haunt of mosquitoes, butterflies, hoverflies and dragonflies, and the air is full of mingled songs of Blackcap and Blackbird, mixed with the more exotic strains of Icterine Warblers and Golden Orioles. On top of all that the sun shone gloriously warm and for a while, a brief glorious while, I could abandon my coat and my jumper! And on our return to the ferry, whilst Na fed Sabina, there in front of us was a female Eider, meandering along with the local Mallards for the cone-ends that the local ice-cream seller threw them. No rings, no sign of wing-clipping, but an Eider on the Rhine in June??

One of the many barges which make crossing the Rhine such an exciting experience. This one with the endearing name of 'Tossa'. I kid you not.

And here she is: star of the show, in a sense. I'm still a little bemused.

Friday, however, returned us to rain with a vengeance: almost continuous and absolutely tipping it down. Our consolation prize: aving dragged ourselves round the local shopping centre, we found a family of Fieldfares feeding their young on the lawns of the local park... Every turn a new treat.

Our final full day was yet another rainy day. We threw caution to the winds and took ourselves off round Altenberg, in the hope that it would ease off later on (as forecast). Well, it didn't, proving that German weather forecasters are no better than the Met Office (ha!). We strolled around the woods, listening to the trees dripping and admiring the mosses glistening, but saw little of note until almost back to the car, when a male Goshawk hurtled from the trees in front of us, smashed through a small pack of crows - sending them all into hysterics - and disappeared back into the trees as suddenly as he'd emerged. It all happened so fast that we didn't even get to see if he'd made a kill (I blame the amount of rain on the binoculars and the fact that juggling binoculars, an umbrella and a reluctant baby in a sling is nigh-on impossible), but it was an undeniably impressive display of speed and power.

Finally, a bit of German culture: a half-timbered house in the Altenberg area (listed building fanatics, please note: they get to install double glazing in listed buildings, because it's more efficient, safer and people in Germany like to feel warm in winter)

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Late springing

It's been a funny old patch here in Devon lately. The weather's oscillated between spells of glorious spring sunshine, when the butterflies and bees crowd the flowers and the birds frantically get on with either breeding or migrating, and patches of foul, blattering, cold rain where everything seems to batten down the hatches and take cover for the duration.

Because the weather's been so inconsistent - and I've discovered it's not as easy to be spontaneous with a small baby in the house - we've not been out ringing at all in April, so Sunday was a great opportunity to get out for the morning. Opening the car door, I was greeted by the sound of a Grasshopper Warbler reeling away steadily in the adjacent Rhos pasture like this (click the arrows to hear the song). I opened the nets to the sound of Blackcaps and a Garden Warbler making their presence known to their rivals, and the morning was spent ringing to the accompaniment of Willow Warblers (perhaps the sweetest of all the UK's summer sounds), a Redstart and a couple of Cuckoos. Being mid-spring, there wasn't much to ring, but a healthy number of Willow Warblers included at least two ringed as adults this time last year.

Bird of the day was, however, not even a bird, but a particularly fine female Adder, basking complacently on a Molinia tussock: she waited patiently until I'd taken a number of photos, then resumed her interrupted relaxation without batting an eyelid. Not that she could bat an eyelid, but I speak figuratively...

American Skunk-cabbage - a colourful addition to the local streams and as yet apparently without the drawbacks of things like Himalayan Balsam or Japanese Knotweed. It does, however, as the name suggests, smell quite rank.

A fully-open flower, wafting a gentle stench on the breeze

And this one's done the business. It's no coincidence that it seems to be pollinated by flies...

Garden Warbler

The star of the show!

A very good-looking snake indeed...

Friday, 20 April 2012

Bogging sphagtastic

For some reason, I was fool enough to organise a day's outing to the heights of the moor on Saturday, in an effort to learn and improve some identification of Sphagnum mosses - bog-moss; the stuff that makes those fat, hummocky cushions on the bogs that look so invitingly soft, yet mask such decidedly soggy ground.

Accordingly 10 (yes, ten!) of us assembled at Whiteworks, just to the south of Princetown, with the cloud roiling and bubbling up to the south-east and a forecast of possible showers - perhaps a little wintry - to come. We were fortunate enough to have secured the help of Mark, county bryology recorder and Sphagnum enthusiast, and Roy, the other bryophyte expert in the group (the rest of us can probably best be described as anything between enthusiastic amateurs and burgeoning improvers) to guide us through the minefield of mosses.

Setting off over the ridge we were immediately sidetracked by a ruined building which contained a number of interesting (non-Sphagnum) mosses as yet unrecorded in that tetrad, such as Rough-stalked Feather-moss Brachythecium rutabulum. We soon found the enthusiasm to head onwards at a brisk pace, only to hit a patch of wet heath which contained our first Sphagna... a rich, wine-red hummock of Sphagnum rubellum (or S. capillifolium rubellum, depending on who you listen to). This was a nice clear and easy species to get our teeth into: not only red as a glass of port, but with such tight-packed individual plants that it resembled a cauliflower. Less simple was a soft-looking, almost weedy specimen: Sphagnum subnitens. This was much less obvious - more what we were all expecting! A little further down the slope and we bumped into a rather apologetic patch of Sphagnum tenellum, softer and more soggy-looking even than the subnitens. This species almost falls apart in your fingers, but has a characteristic 'lobster-claw' effect to the tips of the branches when you look with a hand-lens.
Sphagnum (capillifolium) rubellum. Like a cauliflower soaked in port. Mmm.

Duly impressed with these three starters, we headed down to the bog itself, across a pale yellow-white mass of last year's growth of Molinia.Almost the moment we hit the flatter ground, we bumped into our fourth species: the depressingly variable Sphagnum denticulatum. This is a fairly key species to know, particularly given its tendency to be found in a wide variety of habitats. A twisty kind of moss with branches that are vaguely reminiscent of cows-horns, the best association I can make to remember it is Desperate Dan's famous cow pies. Even if the Beano was always more my cup of tea as a child... A few paces further and we hit another species again: Sphagnum palustre; brown, long-branched and occurring in great sprawling mats under our feet. At this point we learn that this is typical of a whole tribe of Sphagna, having cells which lift from their leaves, giving a roof-tile effect to the branches when you look at them through a lens.
Sphagnum palustre. Similar to papillosum, but with longer branches. Looks a little less spiky to me, and perhaps - in this case - a bit more ochre.

By this time, the cloud had roiled up sufficiently to start discharging, and a grey hazy veil descended on the hillside to the southeast of us. This approached us steadily until we were caressed by the first gentle drops of rain. Nothing daunted - for are not mosses characteristic of humid habitats in any case? - we pressed on. More Sphagna were found which were treated with some caution by Mark and Roy: these looked as if they might be representatives of Sphagnum inundatum and S. fallax, but Mark's caution won out to the degree that he took samples home to identify with certainty under the microscope. Then another - more definite - species: Sphagnum papillosum. Similar to S. palustre, and with the same roof-tile structure, yet subtly different: shorter, fatter branches, preferring a slightly different habitat.

This is a bit of uncertain Sphagnum. Perhaps there should be a category: Sphagnum confusum, though there's probably already a species with that name. Anyway, this could be fallax, or it could be flexuosum. It doesn't help that it's slightly out of focus too. The darker species is probably S. inundatum, though it could conceivably also be some very denticulatum. Aargh!

Sphagnum papillosum. Short branches, looks pretty spiky in close-up and is quite a brownish-buff plant.

By this time the rain had turned to hail. Hah! Hail. We laugh at hail. We settled down to eat lunches, backs to the wind and hail, watching the hillside opposite gradually turn white. A snifter of coffee later the weather eased, and we gathered our fortitude and set out once again, towards the peak of the bog. We soon encountered Sphagnum capillifolium (or S.c.capillifolium) - a looser and more attenuated moss than rubellum, yet with the same rich wine-red suffusion. Lying in a wet hollow nearby was the next species: S. cuspidatum, which has the unenviable yet memorable look of a drowned kitten when hauled from its watery lair. By this time we were well on a roll, and the return of the hail was little more than a niggly inconvenience. As we tramped across the bog we came to an indicator of good-quality habitat: low hummocks of S. magellanicum, a broad-headed Sphagnum which looks as if it's been dipped in long-dried blood.
Sphagnum (c) capillifolium. Rather longer outer branches to the head (capitulum), but still a wine-red beast.

Sphagnum cuspidatum. Fluffy stuff.

And there are plenty of bryophytes which like to grow on the Sphagnum too: in this case lots of Polytrichum strictum growing on a hummock of S. rubellum

Sphagnum compactum? Or perhaps some papillosum masquerading as compactum?
Our search took us onto the main body of raised bog, where we sought a true Dartmoor rarity: Sphagnum austinii. The only prior record of the species was in 1967, when it was noted as growing in numerous tall hummocks across the northern part of the bog. The hummocks remain, but unfortunately the Sphagnum appears to have long since died out; its mass providing a perfect haven for a number of other species of moss and of liverwort, as well as making a nice dry shelter for voles, judging by the holes dug in the sides. By the time we'd searched across the top of the bog for any trace of austinii the hail had begun to drift several centimeters deep, so reluctantly we gathered ourselves together and trudged back to the cars.
And the final species: a bit of Sphagnum magellanicum poking through the hail.

Growing on the old presumed Sphagnum austinii hummocks were plenty of other interesting bryophytes, including the liverwort Mylia anomala

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

East Anglia

An invitation to a friend's wedding gave us our first major travelling test with Sabina. The wedding was in Norwich and we knew that we had the chance to stay with some relatives and some friends, so it seemed like a good idea. Accordingly, we set out on a (yet another) fine spring morning soon after breakfast and trundled steadily along the M5 to Bristol, then east along the M4. We planned in a couple of breaks to allow for feeds and nappy changes - an immediate change from our usual routine - and motorway service stations being what they are, I planned the stops for some local wildlife trust reserves. So, we took our first break at Clouts Wood & Markham Banks, just south of Swindon.

This turned out to be a narrow valley with steep grassed slopes on the northern side - calcareous no less, so likely to be rather interesting from our point of view, but not much to be seen at this time of year - and a deciduous woodland on the southern slope. A small stream trickled gently along the valley floor, with occasional (and rather dry-looking) mires feeding in to it.

The sun continued to shine, the birds sang - though still no more migrants than we've already been hearing, so Chiffchaff and Blackcap joining the resident Goldfinches, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and Woodpigeons, and the woodland flora looked - rather unsurprisingly - much the same as we see round here: Bluebells, Ramsons, Primroses, Dog's-mercury and so on. Despite the relative familiarity of the site's wildlife, it was a near-idyllic spot to stop and break a boring journey. We walked the length of the valley to the scramble up the escarpment, to find a rather disappointing surround of intensive arable and dairy farming, and a newly-planted woodland shielding what looked like a set of industrial units. Can't have it all, I guess.

We headed back to the journey. Several Red Kites later, and a fairly rapid drive around the north side of the M25 and we were headed off up the A12 to the next break: Tiptree Heath, in Essex. By the time we left the car, Sabina was wailing and we were both getting a bit tired. Naomi parked - almost abandoned the car - and we scurried to the shade of a young oak to feed and change the beast. She wasn't really in the mood for food, just bored with lolling in the car-seat, so we walked briefly around part of the reserve - to the tune of a Willow Warbler - and slugged out the last few miles to Stoven for our first stop.

The evening passed in a bit of a haze: much family catch-up, a short walk around the local fields (many many Red-legged Partridges, a couple of Brown Hares and the odd Yellowhammer) and then a slide into sleep.

Next morning was my watershed moment: my first visit to the quintessential RSPB reserve: Minsmere. Naomi blithely promised Bitterns and all sorts of interesting goodies, so I was well primed for the event. The drive there took us along increasingly smaller roads (that looks wrong somehow, but decreasingly smaller really doesn't work. Incrementally? Whatever.) and over a tedious succession of speed-humps. Finally, however, we arrived and fed the baby in the carpark, as flocks of Black-headed Gulls squalled overhead against the blue. Amongst the squeals and squalls were a couple of deeper, more melodic calls: a pair of Mediterranean Gulls wheeling amongst the rest, wings shining-white compared to the duskier underwings of the Black-headed Gulls. Not a bad start.

Minsmere wasn't, to be honest, quite what I was expecting, but was still an interesting site. The main scrape was heaving with Black-headed Gulls, all settling in and pairing up for the breeding season, with a smattering of Avocets also beginning to pair up and a handful of ducks either fuelling up for their return to the north or perhaps thinking of breeding themselves: Shoveler busily patrolling the water with bills just submerged, Wigeon waddling across the grass tugging away at the new spring growth, and a handful of Mallards, Gadwall and a couple of Teal loafing quietly on the water's edge here and there.

The main scrape at Minsmere, from the hide along the shingle ridge.

Black-headed Gulls and a lone Greylag

Just to the south lies Sizewell nuclear power plant - it's amazing how nuclear sites tend to be associated with good birding spots; in part because of the warm water outfalls from the cooling process, but still.

We walked steadily around the reserve, never really hanging around too much as Sabina became fractious if we spent too long in one place. We were fortunate though, in that we managed to bump into not one, but two Bitterns, stealthily emerging from the reed fringe, and a party of Bearded Tits bouncing and pinging erratically in last year's reed growth nearby. Feeding time loomed for us all, so we retreated to the shade of the woodland fringe and spent a contemplative hour watching a pair each of Coal Tits and Great Tits investigating the knotholes in the trees, searching for suitable nest-sites. Spring looming indeed...

Spot the birdie

Creeping out of the reeds

OK, not the most up-close and personal pictures you'll ever see, but with a 105mm lens, I think it's not too bad an effort.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Pictures of spring: Bovey Tracey

Comma butterfly. Presumably an overwintering adult - the forewings are looking a bit worn and faded, nectaring on Celandines next to the river Bovey.

River Bovey at Wilford Bridge, looking downstream into Parke.

Nice garden-escape anemone species (it grows in our garden too) amongst Celandines on the banks of the river Bovey

Green Alkanet

Magnolia, or: 'Spot the Robin'

Shining Cranesbill - a common hedgerow plant in this part of the world, but one which I really enjoy. The button-like shocking-pink flowers are outstanding amongst the vivid shining green leaves, and it somehow always looks fresh and clean, even in the height of summer.

Primroses and Celandines, splashing yellow along the foot of the hedges

Common Dog-violet, with Yarrow and Ivy-leaved Speedwell, injecting a tint of blue to the vegetation

Barren Strawberry growing amongst Yarrow on a dry bank

Honeybee on Grape-hyacinth in the garden. These flowers are absolutely heaving with honeybees at the moment, whilst the bumblebees seem to be concentrating on Rosemary flowers. The mass of tulips next to these Grape-hyacinths are attracting a large number of hoverflies and tiny beetles, all of which seem to be eating pollen. Nice to do the wildlife-watching the lazy way and sit on the doorstep!

Gratuitous picture of Sabina, to prove that she's doing very well, thankyou, and enjoying her second bird-ringing session on the moors. And that her sunhat's currently too big.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

WeBS; migrants

I spent a while today covering someone's Wetland Bird Survey count on Dawlish Warren - an hour-long snapshot of the waterbirds present on the site, my contribution to the network of surveyors looking at the Exe today, themselves a contribution to the national WeBS survey data collected each month for the British Trust for Ornithology, who use it in part to gauge trends in waterbird populations.

Being a sunny day and a mid-afternoon count in mid-March, I wasn't expecting a great deal out of the survey, and add to the mix the fact that today was Mothering Sunday - and you can see that there was plenty of potential for people to be out and about on the beach. Sure enough, when I arrived the beach was packed to the gills; a few hardy souls even in the water. The northerly wind was keeping the swell down to nothing though, so checking the sea was a cinch - and there were only just more birds than waves. A measly half-dozen Great Crested Grebes was it...

On down to the pond beside the visitor centre, where in addition to a fine drake Teal with three females, a Chiffchaff sang lustily from the high willows, whilst another called quietly in the willows just in front of me. Buoyed by this sign of a rapidly-turning season I headed on to the main wader roost. Nothing much along the seafront - two Knot roosting on a groyne the best of it - and plenty of people walking the beach even this far up. The tide was still some way off the bight, so after a rapid scan of the waders there I headed off to check the end of the sandspit.

Here was another sign of spring arriving: a fine male Wheatear flipped off ahead of me, from behind a mix of stone-grey, black and white, then a rich apricot-buff when he turned to check whether I was still walking his way. The point proved as enduringly birdless as the rest of the beach, and so I headed back towards the main roost along the riverside. An immediate reward came in the shape of a small flock of Sanderling, still in their silver-grey plumage and without any hint of the freckly ginger-rust they will develop soon for their summer plumage, who skimmed along the waterline and landed within a couple of metres of me. Heads bobbing with initial alarm, they soon settled down and began trotting along the water's edge, dipping erratically to grab small invertebrates as the waves washed across the sand.

Sanderling, trotting gently along the sands. Perhaps having wintered in South Africa, and on the way to the high Arctic to breed.
On to check the bight again, where the main wader roost usually occurs on the Warren. Not many birds, as most of them have headed off towards their breeding grounds - but there was a massed pack of Oystercatchers, all black backs spiked through with orange bills, a couple of Curlew sauntering impassively along the edge of the water in search of a tasty crab, and a fringe group of small waders - Knot and Dunlin - silver-grey, picking daintily into the shallow water for crustaceans and molluscs. Lurking on the fringes were a trio of Ringed Plover, all black bands laid across white and brown, a huddle of Turnstone on a fishing boat and a lingering group of Brent Geese - another of the species which has pretty much gone for the summer now.

Brent Geese - the last few lingering on the Exe will soon be heading off to the tundra of Arctic Russia, via the Waddensee - a massive area of intertidal mud between Germany and Denmark.
Most of the waders and almost all the wildfowl have now gone north, perhaps to Scotland and northern England or to staging posts on their way to the Arctic, but for a month or six weeks yet we'll see a gradual turnover of birds which wintered further south still: Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel which have avoided our gloomy winter and lived it up on the sandy beaches of western and southern Africa.

True to spring weather form, the rain began as I headed back to the car, so only a cursory check for interesting plants on the way back - one day I will spend  little more time looking through the dune grassland to see what I can find lurking...