Thursday, 30 April 2015

Gorillas That Are Missed

When we visited Rwanda last September we were privileged to be able to spend an hour in the company of a group of mountain gorillas. It was at once an exhilarating and unnerving experience. On the one hand you know you are being looked after by expert guides, yet on the other you are within a few feet of some of the most powerful animals on earth. During our far too brief stay with these magnificent creatures we were entranced by the gentleness of the dominant silverback, Ugenda, who had given the group his name. He had taken a young male under his wing in whose company he was snoozing and generally lazing the morning away. The other silverback, Wageni, was a touch less tolerant and on one occasion actually charged us, an episode that got the heart thumping and left you feeling pleased you had a spare pair of trousers back at base. It was of course all much ado about nothing; we had made too much eye contact whilst taking our snaps, and he was simply putting us in our place. The grinning faces of the park guards told its own story and we were ever so slightly abashed that we had reacted by trying to outrun a half ton ape when all we needed to have done was adopt a non-threatening posture, crouch down and acknowledge who was boss.
So sadly both of these wonderful characters are now dead. They were attacked by a lone male named Giraneza and have died of injuries sustained in some kind of aggressive takeover action. I feel quite weirdly bereft. It really is like losing a friend or relative and it is quite hard to understand what has happened. It is a natural event I guess and is certainly better than having to learn they died through the actions of poachers, but it is nonetheless a real blow. Apparently the now leaderless group has dispersed and is vulnerable. Let's hope they find the protection of another strong group and can get their lives back together. More details can be found at here.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Dead Sea

Even with an intermittent cooling breeze and plenty of water you soon feel drained whilst walking around in the heat of the desert surrounding the Dead Sea. We spent most of Wednesday there in the company of Carmel Zitronblat, a birder based in Jerusalem, who kindly agreed at short notice to try and find some of the special birds of the area for us. One thing became quite clear, quiet early: you have to work very hard to see birds in this harsh landscape. Not only are they thinly distributed but they all blend in so well with the rock strewn landscape. No brightly blazing kingfishers here, just for the most part small birds cloaked in various pale browns and whites - the perfect camouflage. And it was hot, very hot, even early in the morning. Still we did alright. The area we visited was essentially the strip of sun scorched land between the Dead Sea to the east and the imposing Judaean mountain range to the west that thrusts up from the desert floor to dominate the horizon for tens of miles. It is in this mountain range that you will find Masada where the Jews held out for 7 months against the Roman army that eventually built a ramp of rock and compacted sand with which to reach the gates and storm the fortress only to find the inhabitants had committed mass suicide. Here too are the dry caves at Qumran that held the scrolls upon which ancient tribesmen had scribed psalms and stories of events occurring in biblical times. We visited both a couple of days back as well as spending time floating in the Dead Sea itself - great fun! The mountains form a very effective rain barrier, but there are many Wadis that help carry the rains that fall around Jerusalem down towards the sea. Where these depressions occur they form strips of green where low growing flowers and shrubs find sufficient moisture to cling on to life. As ever in such environments what at first seems lifeless will, on closer inspection, prove to be anything but. You just have to exercise patience and have a good pair of binoculars.

Lesser-spotted Eagle

A lone migrant making its way north through Israel

Tristram's Starling

These perky birds seemed to appear out of nowhere whistling their three note
welcome as soon as we stepped out of the car. They were after free hand-outs
and as soon as they realised none were forthcoming upped and disappeared.

Southern Grey Shrike

Brown-necked Raven

Another scavenger that seemed quite used to people.

Nubian Ibex

Family groups of these hardy mammals could be found marauding around the Wadis.
Quite how they scrape a living from the parched earth beats me.

Sand Partridge

Graceful Prinia

These tiny little birds were singing their hearts out from every clump of bushes.
About the size of our long-tailed tit they gave a welcome buzz to an environment
otherwise devoid of birdsong.

White-crowned Wheatear

A beautiful bird seen only too briefly as we drove up into the mountains

White Storks

We saw two groups of about 150 birds riding the updrafts over the mountains

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Fisher King

We are in Israel and it is hot. We have 5 nights in Jerusalem followed by 4 nights in Eilat on the Red Sea coast. We have naturally spent some time strolling around the old town and will see several important Holy Land sights over the next day or two including Bethlehem, Masada and the Dead Sea area. Impressions so far are mixed which is perhaps not unexpected in a country that is itself something of a conundrum. The people are friendly and very helpful but tension is obvious and military personnel at times seem to outnumber tourists, which is for us an unusual and perplexing situation. To cap it all a sparrow crapped on my head yesterday which I thought a most unwelcoming act. Anyway let's not worry about the violent history and the politics because I'm sure as hell not going to be able to make any profound judgments on those topics. Let's stick to what I do know something about, the wildlife.

We spent most of today at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a one acre plot in the middle of a city that is expanding at the same alarming rate as my waistline. The place was thronged with birds and butterflies of all kinds which just goes to show what a few trees and bushes and a strategically positioned pond can achieve. A charming oasis set optimistically amidst never ending miles of concrete. The star of the show was undoubtedly the white-throated kingfisher that sat patiently on overhanging branches waiting for some hapless frog or in one case a baby terrapin to show itself. It really doesn't pay to be small or tasty in this world (Kylie Minogue excepted). There were lots of migrants on show chief amongst them lesser whitethroats and blackcaps, although we also saw chiffchaffs, spotted flycatcher and all too brief tantalising glimpses of one or two warblers that will simply have to be put down as the ones that got away...unless the blurred images I took reveal something more when loaded on a proper PC. Anyway hope you like the following images which give a taste of what we saw today.

Lesser Whitethroat

Many of these slim, pale migrants were using the JBO to stock up before
continuing their migration. Most were sporting a ring as this one is. 

White-throated Kingfisher

A resident here and one of a breeding pair.

Female Blackcap

Male Blackcap

Who Would be a Frog?

Spectacled Bulbuls

Two males having a spat, fanning their tails and wings to show the yellow
under tail coverts to great effect

Despite its best efforts the kingfisher could not swallow this baby terrapin. It
eventually popped out of the beak and hopefully was not too badly injured.

Hooded Crow

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Nostalgia Just Ain't What it Used to be

I mentioned in my first post that my mate and I used to keep written records of bird's nests we found and unusual things we observed. Now at the time we were doing this birds were everywhere and their conservation was not high on anyone's agenda. It wasn't so much of an issue then: lapwings nested in every field, even well into the suburbs of Norwich would you believe; tree sparrows, redpolls, bullfinches and turtle doves were throw away species that didn't afford a second glance; swallows nested in barns, boat houses, sheds and outbuildings all over the place; spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, snipe and sand martins could be found with little effort, and species like house martins were so numerous we used to walk through Thorpe St Andrew and watch birds feeding young in nests built above the doors of nearly every bungalow. Halcyon days indeed.

Although our efforts were purely amateurish, the power of recording does prove itself in the sheer numbers of nests our pretty unsophisticated selves managed to find. We didn't stake out the birds, we utilised no special techniques, but simply chose an area to visit and rummaged around. We peered into hedgerows (there were more of them then), we utilised every rod and cone of our youthful eyes to pinpoint the crests of incubating lapwings wavering in the marshland breeze, we climbed trees to inspect likely holes and crevasses, and quartered the marsh dykes for the nests of swans, coots and moorhens. It is illegal now to do this, and quite rightly so, but during the dark ages of the 60's and 70's nobody seemed to care. But we did - in our own way, with our self-made code of morality. Childish egg collecting exploits (believe me all 1960s schoolboys did it) gave way to a simple desire to discover things. And discover things we did, for example:

We found a moorhen's nest with a clutch of 16 eggs, and a blackbird incubating an eventual clutch of 7. The abnormal moorhen clutch could have been a result of multiple occupancy, but we monitored the blackbird every couple of days and witnessed the clutch slowly increasing. Hardly earth-shattering science but interesting nonetheless.

And then the time along the beach at Pwhelli in North Wales where we found a ringed plover’s nest. Nothing unusual about that except the eggs were being incubated by a turnstone. We retreated to a safe distance and sure enough saw the mixed pair of ringed plover and turnstone both return to the vicinity of the nest. Shame it wasn't closer to home otherwise we could have seen what the offspring eventually looked like.

We used to regularly inspect the nests of swallows located under low railway bridges spanning the network of drainage ditches across the Breydon marshes in East Norfolk. These breeding sites had obviously been in undisturbed use for many years and the nests had reached a height of 18 inches or so as they had been piled atop one another season by season. This was mentioned in the 1977 Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report.

More bizarrely, we happened upon a freshly shot rook under Buckenham rookery with a pale blue egg protruding from its ovum. How strange is that? We sent this record to the legendary local naturalist Dick Bagnell-Oakley who replied by handwritten letter on smart BBC letterhead explaining how eggs were formed and how pigmentation was transferred to eggshells.

Without constantly cycling and tramping around the countryside keeping our ears and eyes open we would never have experienced these things and our lives would have been the poorer for it.

We were not saints, but to balance the unintended damage we inflicted (keeping birds off their nests etc), we also did some practical good. We sent our annual records to the county bird recorder Michael Seago, a well-known and respected local Naturalist and author of Birds of Norfolk, a book whose allure was partially responsible for our early birding exploits, and we helped save the lives of some young birds. It sounds a bit silly recounting it here, but I distinctly remember finding a cold, naked young blackbird, one that had spent perhaps only a couple of days in this world, on the ground beneath a raided nest, unmoving, cold and seemingly lifeless. I breathed life into it - literally gave it the kiss of life - cradled it in my warm hands and it miraculously revived. We found a nest full of similar aged young and deposited the orphan therein. I like to think it survived.

And then the kestrel, a freshly fledged youngster from a nest in a drainage mill. Thinking itself adult and invulnerable, it nevertheless crash landing on the mud of Breydon Water having mistaken the sheen on the sun kissed ouse for a solid landing spot. It would have died floundering there on the mud except that a pair of naturalists in the making happened by and saw this matted bundle of feathers struggling to reach dry land. I found a long branch from a dead willow tree nearby and thrust this towards the young raptor. The bird seemed to instinctively realise I was trying to help and struggled determinedly inch by inch towards salvation. After a frustratingly long time the young bird, that had probably never seen a human being before, had gripped the branch allowing me to haul it landwards. Before long it was sitting forlornly on my wrist, no doubt feeling sorry for itself but totally unperturbed by my stroking its wonderfully soft downy head and cheek. This a wild bird, but somehow a connection was made that moment: the fledgling was not in the least frightened and we were as one. A real Kes moment if ever there was one. Once you find yourself actually saving the life of a wild animal can you ever really turn your back on the natural world? I don't think so.

I’ve tracked down some of our original handwritten records from the 1970’s which you may find interesting:

143 blackbirds nests found by a casual searching
of mainly local hedgerows gives some indication
of population densities in suburban areas.  

In 1977 house martins were a widespread breeding species and the
observations from central Norwich are sadly no longer likely. 

In 1976 the sighting of a marsh harrier caused us much
excitement. Nowadays they hardly merit a second glance. How times change.

Some eggstraordinary records (sorry).

To show how widespread and common yellow wagtails
were in the mid-1970s

Spotted flycatchers were easy to find as well.

As were turtle doves

A page from our nest records log. Note the abundance of
songthrush records.

Skylark Nest

Nothing exceptional about that.....except it was found at Mousehold in
Norwich from where these lovely songsters disappeared many years ago.

And finally to give you all a little amusement.........

Scanning the Mud at Breydon in 1979

Scanning the Sea at Sea Palling in 1974

As Ever Sporting a Fashionable Look in 1973

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Breckland Easter

There is not much of the real Breckland left. Thanks to the commercial afforestation in the interwar period of the last century most of the extensive open grassland heaths have disappeared. Where once great bustards, stone curlews, lapwings and woodlarks held sway in the miles of gently rolling semi-desert landscape stretching from mid Norfolk to the border with the Fens, now thousands of acres of pine forest stretch in regimented lines as far as the eye can see. Ironically the best preserved areas are those forming the MoD training area to the north of Thetford which for obvious reasons is not actively farmed or accessible to the general public. Other remnant heathland can be found on nature reserves such as those managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust at Weeting and East Wretham. Although the thick stands of monotonous pine do provide refuge for various species of deer and those ubiquitous grey squirrels, their overall wildlife value is limited. However once the pines are felled for their timber the situation changes with the replacement young plantations being very attractive to a wide range of birds, flowers and insects. At least they are for a few years before the trees once more gain height and shade the ground rendering it bare and lifeless. The plants in particular are incredibly resilient and seeds of heather and other specialists trapped in the thin sandy soil for decades will germinate quite readily once conditions improve. Happily the more enlightened attitudes of the Forestry Commission nowadays means that these cleared areas are going to increase within the next few years thanks to an active plan to revert over 10% of their holdings to open heathland (always subject to available funding of course). This is great news and together with a programme of planting of a mix of native trees in some areas, the whole Breckland area will become far more diverse and wildlife friendly. And people will benefit as well because this region is absolutely beautiful, easily accessible and full of interest.

Sunday we took a walk through Lynford Arboretum where siskins chased each other through the tops of spruce, nuthatches chirped to each other from their prospective nesting sites in the scattered beech trees and many familiar birds of various species proclaimed their possession of a favoured patch. I briefly espied a hawfinch in one of the trees in the paddock, but it somehow disappeared before I could get the scope targeted. The weather was not favourable for photography with a lowering cloud resulting in very low light levels. Trying to capture images of birds under the shade of the trees was akin to needing infra-red capability. Still I liked getting close to this dunnock and near Lynford Hall someone had put out a pile of seed which attracted several brightly coloured tits and finches.


Marsh Tit

Great Tit

Later at Grimes Graves we had no trouble spotting the great grey shrike that has wintered there and I was really pleased to see a party of a dozen yellowhammers feeding in the tussock strewn grass. The males were resplendent, but I couldnt get anywhere near enough for a decent picture this was the best I could manage..and the shrike was even less cooperative.


What a stunning bird, a male in full breeding dress. Unfortunately I couldn't
get any closer before it sought refuge in the dense cover of nearby pines.

Great Grey Shrike

No way to get any closer to this bird since it favoured the undisturbed
area of the MoD training zone at Grime's Graves.
We really need this blocking weather system to move on so migrants can start arriving. Im getting fed up with grey skies and it really is about time we had a spell of decent weather. A nice steady south-easterly airflow for the next couple of weeks would suit a treat.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Changing the Guard

The cold nor-westerly’s we’ve had over the past week has retarded bird migration here in Norfolk, yet despite nature not co-operating as well as it may there are nonetheless sure signs that spring has arrived.  My weekly stint at Cley Marshes and the surrounding area has allowed sight of a few goodies that promise of the warmer, more vibrant and colourful days to come. Last week at Weybourne, chiffchaffs were in full voice with at least four birds periodically singing from a patch of pool side willows. I’ve also heard them singing recently in various places around the county including Mousehold in Norwich and even in the middle of Sprowston where the songster could hardly be heard for the incessant noise of the passing traffic along Wroxham Road.  Some of the earlier birds may well have been overwintering adults able to set up territory earlier than the migrants, but a lot of the birds now present will be freshly arrived from their North African wintering grounds or maybe even from Extremadura where we saw lots in mid-February.



This bird was found at Weybourne caught mid-chiff or mid-chaff

On Cley reserve itself the cast of characters has noticeably changed. Gone now are the whistling flocks of wigeon and the tooting teal to be replaced by frisky head-bobbing shoveller and sparring shelduck. Gone too are the twisting tinsel-like masses of golden plover in whose stead we have bubbling lapwings and piping redshank. Where winter roosts of spectral white gulls gathered we now see avocets scything the shallow waters. A week can make a huge difference in this season of transition.



The bird on the left is female and still retains the light edging to the feathering
which is a feature of winter plumage. It may also be a relatively young bird
perhaps hatched last year. The bird on the right is a full-blooded male. 


Other waders are present that will not breed here but nonetheless allow us to see them in their summer dress. Black-tailed godwits feature heavily at this site and are present pretty much all year round. Nearly all the birds we see here are of the islandica race which breeds in Iceland, and this week I noticed one bird sporting its deep chestnut breast feathering, transforming it from its winter grey to something of much greater beauty. Over the coming weeks many more of these richly liveried birds will grace the Norfolk marshes before whisking away north to take advantage of the Arctic summer. The continental race of the species limosa limosa limosa (don’t you just love these Latin names) used to breed here in large numbers but drainage of the wetlands, shooting and egg collecting very effectively wiped out our breeding population.  Nowadays only a couple of pairs manage to cling on in the Fens – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have them back big-time.

Black-tailed Godwits

These birds were pictured this week. Note the summer plumaged bird in the lead.

Black-tailed Godwit

This is a much closer and gloriously colourful bird I photographed a couple of years ago.

Black-tailed Godwits

A wary group showing a staging of moult photographed at Cley in April 2012
Norfolk is one of the few counties where, if you are patient and lucky, you can see all four of the established and regularly breeding heron species. No spoonbills yet, but within the space of a few minutes on Wednesday I saw bittern, grey heron and little egret from Daukes’s hide at Cley. The bittern was especially welcome because a sighting at this time probably means the bird is here to stay and means business, i.e. may already be paired or is actively seeking a mate. No booming has been recorded yet, and this may also be positive news in that if a pair has already been formed then there is no need for the male to waste energy shouting for a partner.  Fingers crossed that the reed beds at Cley may host this most enigmatic of herons once again this year.


Not a very good shot, but the bird was a long way off.
Little egrets are, in my opinion, one of the most photogenic of birds. They have a small breeding colony in the wood beside the coast road at the east end of the reserve. The plumes the birds grow during courtship are lovely and make these endearing creatures even more of a picture.


Little Egret

These birds simply love fishing for sticklebacks that swarm in the drains at Cley

Little Egret

Showing off the breeding plumes to great effect

Grey herons also breed in small numbers in the wood and use the reserve as feeding grounds. In past years they have preyed on avocet chicks, but over the past couple of seasons seem to have found other means of sustenance. Seeing one of these impressive predators close to allows you to appreciate the full extent of their wingspan and the lethal weapon that is their beak.


Grey Heron

Huge wings on these birds, and a huge beak as well 

It’s all change at Cley, and not just on the reserve. If you pay a visit to the Visitor Centre – and you should - you will be able to take advantage of the displays and events now installed in the newly completed Simon Aspinall Wildlife EducationCentre. It is fantastic! Also when you’re there be sure to try your hand at the interactive quiz and information facility. I wrote a lot of the text for this and I think it works really well. If you do go I would be very interested in knowing what you think of the whole setup.