Monday, 29 June 2015

Summer terns up

I got a call from Bill this afternoon about the terns at Roswell Pits. He wanted to know exactly how many chicks there were, and I told him I thought I could see three on Friday, when I was leading a bunch of excitable school kids around the site, (and therefore not having my telescope to hand). 
Just to make sure, I thought I'd wander up and confirm this, and have a good look at them as well. At first I could only see two, but as the parents arrived with food, the third shuttled into view to join its screeking siblings. Their subtle plumage of powder grey and white, burnished on top with bronze and black-cap, was contrast to their raucous begging at the approach of fish, though there was not much squabbling between them. They're obviously well fed, and on this warm day they spent much of the time dozing, bills drooping on their chins.
Closer to me, a lone grebe bobbed gently on the sparkling water, preening as it turned in circles.
Near the bridge, three Chiffchaffs relentlessly sang , every few notes interspersed with a mid-summer stutter, and in the heat of the afternoon they perched high up- blending in with the Ash leaves, and not scuttling about as they do in Spring. Summer has finally settled, it seems, and only one short gust of wind arrived- a pleasant change as today the breeze was a salve rather than the bothersome interference of recent weeks. Down at the settling beds the dry song of Reed Warblers could be heard above the slight rustle of Phragmites, and three well grown Pochard ducklings dived constantly- emerging with silt-caked faces.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Venetian blinder

It seems as if the trees have been shivering in the cool breeze since the Spring, and the wind has been blowing summer through the fens too quickly for my liking. Yesterday, however was one of those rare still days of blue sky and warm air. The raptors were up over the garden- a Marsh harrier glided past and a Hobby stooped and was lost beyond the tall hedge, only to swing back up and away down the village. 
We decided to wander down to the pits so to better take in the skyscape, and it wasn't long before more harriers flew into view. It looks like one of the nests is about to erupt, as a female brought in a vole and circled above, tempting the young birds into the air. The nestlings refused to show themselves, but, as another female arrived, two fresh harriers took to the air to claim the food. One of them was a normal juvenile, with rich sepia wings and sienna cap, but the other looked like nothing I have seen before. 
Over the years I have seen hundreds of Marsh Harriers, and it is their variation that attracts me to them, making individuals often very distinctive. Following a basic design, it can seem that the infinite variety of plumage combinations can give each bird a unique look, with wing patches large or small, underwing colours pale or dark, streaking and speckling- even eye colour differs between them. I did think that I had come across all the likely types to be seen, from dark males to pale females- but the second juvenile seen yesterday sported a uniform that dazzled. Although not up in the air for long, and quite distant, we could make out striking white tips to the wing feathers and mantle that completely transformed the bird into something special. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera to hand, so I've done a quick sketch back at home to try and capture the image. If this bird turns up anywhere in the country this autumn it will be easily recognisable, and it may well give us an opportunity to study the dispersion habits of these wandering hunters.  

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Please place the sea before precipitation

Plans for a solstice seek out of butterflies on the Suffolk coast seemed futile with poor ground temperature and very little sun peeking through the cloud cover.  In recompense I was treated to an lunch at Welney and an afternoon potter across the bridge onto the reserve.  The undoubted highlight was this trio which included a colour rung bird from the Great Crane Project.  There was a Quail doing some sporadic wet lipping and a male Peregrine whipped through and nabbed a chick of some description on Lady Fen.

I also got quite transfixed with the progress of this Leaf Weevil as it made it way along the handrail into one of the hides. 

The reserve staff and volunteers are lovely at Welney and we were over the moon when our little one was asked to help with the moth release prior to closing up.  She particularly liked the Elephant Hawkmoths as they are pink and matched the flowers on her dress.

I was particularly happy to see the Eyed Hawkmoth which I'm still to attract to my garden MV trap.  It only flashed it's underwing briefly but although blurry you can see why any predator would consider this moth to be a great deal bigger and more foxily ferocious than it ever could be, a great bit of evolution.

The sun hadn't poked out enough to warrant a second check of Chettisham Meadows for Marbled Whites so we had a good look at the Bee Orchids off Norfolk Road, Ely.  They're great plants and I tried a few different things to try and present them a bit differently.

Someone I met recently declared that the increased interest in Butterflies, Moths, Dragonflies and the like is down to what he called bored birder syndrome.  I think that's a bit disingenuous, there's just so much stuff growing and crawling and flying around over the summer, the very last thing any kind of naturalist can be at this time of year is bored.  Do bored botanists start looking at birds when the snow falls ??

Friday, 19 June 2015

Crossbill Traffic

It's been some years since I've seen or heard a chipper chupper in the Ely10.  On Tuesday me and 25 thirteen year olds were out on the school fields of Soham establishing whether we could measure the  speed of sound (of course we could but not very accurately they discovered).  The distinctive chip of a Crossbill overhead was a pleasant diversion and it flew over low enough to establish that it was a female type.  6 or 7 years ago there was a spell in July and August when I was recording flyover Crossbills most weeks, let's hope that there are a few more before the summer is over.

Monday, 15 June 2015


I didn't manage to get back to Welney, but I worked up a watercolour of the Phalarope from sketches done on Saturday. This last few days have thrown up some very big birds all over the country, but sometimes the littlest can be worth a look too. 

Bee is for orchid

Nature has a way of turning up where you least expect it. On the north western limits of Ely, just inside the enveloping A10, a stretch of grassland to rival that on any local nature reserve is alive with incredible lilac bees, clutching fresh green stems in groups of four or five, quiet in the cool evening shade. The meadow patches are nestled among small stands of low bushes and young trees, and Blackcaps and Wrens sing an evensong. One voice stands out for it's strangeness. It starts with a couple of chiff-chaff notes before descending into the stream of Willow Warbler. I glimpse the singer briefly- just it's head, and its bold supercilium and pale cheeks show that this bird has learned a new introduction to its verse. I can't help feeling that the lack of other Willow Warblers in the area this season have led this lone warbler to adapt like a backpacker studiously picking up useful phrases of the local language.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Welney Whirligig.

Phalaropes are the oddballs of the wader world. They spin and poke across the shallow scrape like no other waterbird. Chased by Avocets, young Redshanks and a Godwit, this male never stopped moving - a tiny speck on the great flatland, dwarved by all the other birds present. Its lithe neck and golden streaked back twist and turn so quickly that sketching it was a difficult task, and my first attempts have fallen short of capturing the rapid movement if not the form. Hopefully it will hang around long enough to give up the secret of its twitchy motion.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Old Blue Eyes and the Red Neck

A freshly fledged Jackdaw allowed a close approach between it's infant flights.  This photo was taken with the phone camera.  I never knew young Jackdaws had blue eyes.  Out on the Washes a Red-necked Phalarope was found and was showing from Grose Hide later in the day, a Honey Buzzard was also reported.  I couldn't get to see it but hope it looked something like this - another from the 2012 Arctic trip.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Crossword clue hits back

I was chatting with Rich the other day about the idea of going to southern Africa at some stage, and I said that I'd only consider wandering around the Veldt if I could have a gun to scare off all those big dangerous animals. And that's the beauty of Britain- there's nothing here to be afraid of- nothing that will kill and eat you. There's no way your body will be found half dismembered up a tree with bite marks on your skull.
So, on Sunday evening I found myself on Welney bank with Dunc, taking in the night atmosphere, quietly listening to a Corn Crake out on the wash, at ease in the enveloping darkness. Our eyes didn't strain to resolve the shadows; we were content just to soak up the aural landscape that we were in the middle of- unseen amongst the birds that,by day, would be too wary to accept our presence as the dominant species.
Further along the bank the long grass rustled- a deer probably, and in a moment it's going to get a shock as it picks up our scent.
It's still moving- it's... getting closer, and now I don't think it's a deer any more- this is no high stepping agile long-legged herbivore, eager not to be heard-a fox maybe! Surely a fox is too well equipped with keen sight not to have seen us in the near-blackness, especially as we must have been silhouetted against the last remant of light. 
I can see something now... surely not.. it's... still... coming... straight... towards... us! There is a point in all good horror films where the victims finally realise they've become the target. The shark or alien, or axe-wielding maniac is on course, and getting faster- but this is England- what can possibly happen.
Whatever was going to happen was now going to happen very shortly. A black wake of parting vegetation was just about visible- like the path of a torpedo- a torpedo heading straight amidships- my amidships. The rustle had now grown to a seething roar as whatever it was homed in- and at that point all sorts of things happened in my head.
The first emotion that suddenly replaced the slight puzzlement that I had been experiencing when the Thing was still distant, was one of disgust, aimed squarely at Dunc. It was triggered by the realisation that I was now being used as a human shield- Duncs trembling hand clutching my arm as he cowered behind me. Cowardice in the face of the enemy I call it- not  at all British.
Disgust turned to despair almost before I realised how ashamed with him I was - despair at the sudden awareness that now my own escape route was cut off now that Dunc was in the way. Worse than that there was a gate blocking further retreat. Disbelief unleashed histrionic giggling as neither of us could come to terms with the terrible fate that approached - the brain's refusal to accept this improbable situation despite the facts before us - causing internal combustion of grey matter as logic cells imploded.
The Beast was now only twenty feet away and not stopping. My conscious mind was now useless- it had resigned and gone home, leaving only one thing left. Instinct.
Without really being aware of what i was doing, my hands reached down to my coat pockets, and my arms stiffened.
Rule 1 when confronting danger- Make yourself big.
My arms spread out and my jacket was now the tail of a Peacock. 
This did not work.
It clearly couldn't see me.
I ka-kawed.
I ka-kawed like a fool.
I even flapped my arms.
What on earth was I doing.  
Finally the Beast stopped- just ten feet away. It stopped but it didn't retreat. We'd stood firm- held our ground- called its' bluff. Surely we had won- or at least drawn. This was the end of the film- there can't be a final twist- no final lunge just when you thought you were safe! Christ alive let this end. 
The dark shape just sat there- sizing us up.
If only I could see more clearly.
A beam of light suddenly appeared over my shoulder and pointed along the bank. 
Dunc's torch.
Where was that five minutes ago??!!
The Badger- at last aware of our presence turned and bolted.
It's all very well seeing them on Springwatch- but up close they certainly scare the Four letters, something, something, i, something out of you.
And we all laughed and vowed never to speak of this again.Ever.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Ten Badgers period?

We- myself and Rich- were up early this morning after clearing a couple of rides in the garden yesterday. The nets were unfurled just after dawn, and it didn't take long before a mixed bag-well- bags, of garden bird was being processed. Rich's main aim was just to see where the best places to put the nets were, and both nets proved successful at first, with one near a bush full of feeders, and another guarding the approaches at the corner of the studio. The Sun soon began to glare, and in the slight breeze the nets began to shimmer as light spattered along their length, and we began to catch fewer and fewer birds.
Even this quick couple of hours revealed interesting data however- two of the Great Tits pulled from the net were birds previously ringed. The first one was one that we caught last summer when Gary, Lou and Ian came round, but it was the second bird that was more impressive. In December 2012 Rich and Helen visited and we put some nets up in the garden for the first time. One of the first birds caught and processed was Y811959- a young male Great Tit, and it was this bird we caught this morning, three and a half years later. It's always amazing to recover birds that have been ringed in far off places- proof of incredible endeavour that belies the fragile form- but it's just as satisfying to find out that my own garden's birds have flourished and continue to thrive in the long term, not just for a short stint- Stint! Temminck's Stint, of course!