Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Charity Begins at Home

I've been giving some thought lately to a project. Perhaps a better label would be pipe dream, to see every kingfisher, bee-eater and roller species that currently inhabits this wondrous world in which we live. I dreamt up this plan following a 'bucket list' session with the mem sahib down our local pub a couple of weeks back (which more than filled the paper napkin on which I scribbled). Realising such an endeavour would benefit from a modicum of research, I fished around on Amazon and there found a book wonderfully entitled Kingfishers, Bee- eaters & Rollers which contains colour plates, detailed descriptions and distribution maps for every one of these colourful species known to science: fate or what?  Needless to say I purchased the book and have been flicking through it for the past week or so wondering if it would really be possible to actually put this plan into action.

European Bee-eater

The 24 species of bee-eater seem relatively straightforward since most are to be found in Africa and India, with one species in Australia. Most seem reasonably widespread and where they occur at least locally common. Also they tend to be very bright, generally colonial and by their nature openly active in pursuit of their insect prey. So far so good.

Rufous-crowned Roller - Kenya

 The 12 species of roller would be slightly trickier, with the range of a couple of species limited to parts of Indonesia and one or two of the African species occupying more out of the way countries. Additionally one or two species appear to inhabit thick(ish) forest, providing logistical and access problems as well as making the buggers difficult to spot. Manageable though with sufficient planning, a good guide and a bit of patience.

Green and Rufous Kingfisher - Ecuador

This leaves the kingfishers. Yes the kingfishers, bit of a problem there. These multi-hued bane of small aquatic creatures have 87 representatives worldwide....and they are worldwide. So wide is their world that you would have to visit huge chunks of it to see them all. Now I'm not at all adverse to travelling (I'd hardly contemplate this quest if I was), but some of these little gems can only be found on remote Polynesian islets that seem to be no more than a pile of rocks and sand dumped somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. For example we have the Niau kingfisher that, as its name suggests, can only be espied on the island of Niau positioned in the Tuamotu Archipeligo (Im aware you know this, but I thought I'd include it for those few who failed Geography GCSE). Similarly the Marquesas kingfisher, a delightful creature with bright turquoise back and wings, a pure white front and head with a thin band of blue through the eye, perches unmolested by any other member of its family in forests on the Marquesas Islands. It gets worse: the chestnut-bellied kingfisher occurs only on Vanuatu which is a speck several hundred miles off the North-western coast of Australia, whilst the Numfor paradise kingfisher sits patiently in the sun dappled forest of Numfor Island off Indonesian New Guinea waiting for me to photograph it. If nothing else we would be racking up one hell of a set of air miles.
Im aware that we are extraordinarily fortunate even to be able to consider such a thing; it would be hugely expensive and time consuming. However we have the time and absolutely no intention of taking even so much as a groat with us, so I'm not too concerned about that. Is it really feasible? To be honest probably not, at least not for the kingfishers, but wouldn't it be fun giving it a go?

And now the downer, theres always a downer but bear with me. I've just seen a post on Facebook regarding the vast blazes that are raging in Indonesia. These appear to be resulting from forest fires which I guess have been deliberately set to create room for palm oil plantations. Habitat destruction on a huge scale. So immense are these fires that the smoke they create is fouling the air at the raptor count station in faraway Thailand. I've been depressed all evening. After all it is our consumerism here in the west that fuels the destruction. I'm sure if people really understood what the use of soaps, cosmetics and even chocolate really means then they would be horrified and cease use immediately.

My gloomy mood led me to think about our own track record in this department which over the centuries has not been too clever. This country used to be covered in forests, complete with wolves, bears, lynx, beavers and goodness knows what else. Our ancestors slowly hacked these temperate jungles down without much of a thought as to the effect on the ecosystem, whilst systematically setting about killing off any animal they regarded as a threat to themselves or their livestock. When the woodlands were cleared, a new set of creatures moved in, such as the great bustards that once sedately stalked across the Brecks; of course in our blood lust we successfully eradicated them not much more than 100 years ago. And then the wetlands. Never mind how even in our lifetime we have allowed much of the Broads to become a polluted, sterile cess pool, we also drained the Fens, arguable the single most important wetland this country ever possessed. Once home to serious number of cranes, bitterns and other assorted lovers of marsh and reed bed, it is now largely flat, featureless farmland. Surely there were better ways to organise food production?

Of course happily the tide is turning here to some degree; certainly with regard to the Broads and Fens sterling efforts are being made to clean up waterways, protect and manage sensitive sites to ensure optimum biodiversity, and where possible buy land to recreate the wetland havens they once were. But even now in the 21st century we seem to be reluctant to show tolerance and exercise wisdom: we still shoot badgers, the gentry dress in red and take pleasure from watching their hounds tear foxes limb from limb, hares are similarly torn to shreds by thugs who don't give a damn for the hare or for the law, ancient woodlands are bulldozed, hedgerows are grubbed up, birds of prey are indiscriminately persecuted and at the current rate most of the country will be under concrete or Tarmac within 50 years. So who are we to preach to the peasant in Sumatra or the ivory poachers in Kenya when most of our indigenous wildlife is under threat? Who are we to point fingers and shake our heads in dismay when another tiger is skinned or rhino dismembered when the bones of every big mammal that once roamed these Isles is now fossilising under out of town superstores? What right have we got to take the moral high ground when half our populace can't tell a hawk from a harnser?
In a strange way my doom and gloom lifted a little because I realised there is really precious little I can physically do about the Indonesian fires, the poaching in Africa and India, the decimation of just about everything in Vietnam, the selling out by various South American governments to the Chinese in exchange for mining rights in the Amazonian rainforest: the list goes on. But I can make a difference here, a small one admittedly, but nonetheless something positive. We can all make a difference. We can look after our own modest patch to encourage wildlife, we can plant native hedges, we can dig a pond, we can cultivate native plants, we can build bird and bat boxes and we can take an interest in the natural world surrounding us. We can even get out there and engage in some conservation activity with a multitude of charitable trusts. And we can stop using palm oil.

In this regard charity really does begin at home, because surely only when we literally look after our own backyards can we expect others to follow suit.

Anyway, returning to my fanciful quest. To try to see all the kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers of the world would have been difficult if I'd started yesterday. Today it is even more of a challenge because there will undoubtedly be fewer of them following the continued rape of the Indonesian forest. Add in the carbon footprint issue and one wonders if it can even be justified. But then I'm thinking there may be a way I can help these little birds after all. There must be a way to link the quest with some fundraising initiative or campaign for greater awareness? After all some of these species are uncommon or maybe threatened and raising awareness of their plight might help. Embryonic musings at the moment and clearly further thought needed. However if any of you have any suggestions or observations they would be very gratefully received. Im serious about that.

Apologies for the long post. For the record, here are a few more pics of the very few species of these families we have so far logged on our travels, lovely aren't they?

Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater - Kenya

Grey-headed Kingfisher - Kenya

Little Green Bee-eater - Israel

Lilac-breasted Roller - Zanzibar

Little Bee-eaters - Kenya

Pied Kingfisher - Kenya

Ringed Kingfisher - Ecuador

White-throated Kingfisher - Israel

White-fronted Bee-eater - Kenya

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Golden Autumn

What drives these minute little birds to make the journey? Why do they take such a huge risk? Launching themselves across the cruel broiling sea in a seemingly hopeless attempt to reach more promising feeding areas, safe from the advance of winters bite. The odds are so severely stacked against them, but still they come. And for the past week or so they have arrived in their thousands; Goldcrests mainly, minuscule packages of feathers no bigger than your thumb. On our east facing coast every stand of bushes or trees has held several of these incessantly active bundles of feathers; busy stocking up with the slim pickings of autumnal insect life to replace the energy expended in their epic journey across the featureless waters.

A look at the weather chart, or indeed poking your head out of the back door, over the past week would show lowering, rain filled cloud driven by a strong North-easterly wind clipping eastern England. The low pressure area producing these classic autumnal fall conditions picks up migrants leaving Scandinavia and northern Europe, even as far east as Russia, and throws them westwards towards our shores. And that is a marvel, a marvel of nature that happens every year here in our county. This years cast of displaced waifs, yellow-browed warblers, Pallass warblers, red-flanked bluetails, other warblers and shrikes have not disappointed the crowds of birders that eagerly await such events.

Not wishing to join the obsessive throng however, I chose to see what I could find in the quieter area of the dunes at Waxham last week. It was very soon clear that a major influx of birds was taking place with restless flocks of redwings and fieldfares very visible. I ambled south past Shangi-la (a well-known birding landmark - a beach house surrounded by thick vegetation) and found a sheltered spot protected by low scrub to simply stand and wait for the birds to come to me. I was royally entertained. Goldcrests moved past and around me in a ceaseless stream, uttering their high pitched contact notes as they busily hunted for sustenance. Some of these delightful, innocent faced little creatures came so close I could have easily reached out and touched them. They were constantly on the move, twisting their inquisitive heads to peer into every nook, their dark, beady eyes looking for tiny morsels with which to pluck off the yellowing leaves with their dainty, pointed beaks. They would often hover in hummingbird style to investigate the underside of foliage and I tried to capture this behaviour on camera, but the poor light and deteriorating weather made that task most difficult. After a while I put the camera away and simply watched.


These October influxes vary in their intensity, sometimes numbers of migrants are relatively low, sometimes much more significant. It is a hazardous undertaking though, and I once watched goldcrests being picked off by greater black-backed gulls a few metres from the shore at Mundesley a few years ago. On that occasion I also followed the progress of an exhausted lapwing that was struggling to make landfall. This poor bird flew inches above the waves in a labouring attempt to gain the beach. When only 20 metres from dry land it ditched into the sea and drowned. So sad, but simply one visible episode of a much wider saga played out across the oceans; these dramas must happen a million times every year well out of our sight.

So, to answer my opening questions. I guess the reason these diminutive forms show up here is essentially an accidental consequence of adverse weather. No doubt small numbers do intend to winter in our relatively mild clime, but most are making their way into southern Europe or even further south and east. Ive just been looking through some ringing recovery reports which show goldcrests ringed in Norfolk during October seem to move back to mainland Europe (Belgium) as soon as conditions improve where they will presumably continue south to their intended wintering areas. Many will die here because they cannot find sufficient food, they are predated or simply too exhausted. Whilst they are an undoubted delight to observe, lets hope for their sake that conditions soon improve to allow them to reorient and live out their short lives in peace.

Great Grey Shrike

Another migrant appearing briefly at Waxham


A fine male newly arrived at Minsmere last week


Thursday, 15 October 2015

Once Bittern

I knew it was there, stealthily stalking amongst the dense stand of reeds. I knew it was there because I'd seen it fly across the broad and land amongst the uniform stand of luxuriant summer growth. I knew it was there but I could not see its cryptically patterned form. Patience: the key to success, it was bound to show eventually. Other birds briefly enlivened the scene; jays looping to and fro in their mission to stash acorns, a green woodpecker bounding, a marsh harrier soaring, a Cetti's warbler blasting. But still the bird remained hidden. In the soporific warmth of another sultry early autumn afternoon, a brimstone butterfly, soon to hibernate in the shelter of some ivy clump, flittered lazily around the screen behind which I was positioned. Siskins, newly arrived from the dense tracts of Scandinavian forests, wheezed in alders above me whilst a heron stretched skyward spreading its voluminous wings to soak up the rays of the most welcome sunshine, looking for all the world like some sentry stood to attention. People came and went, chatting and picnicking and still the bittern cloaked itself in the matted undergrowth. Once a movement, slight but furtive, as the bird slowly emerged from the reed screen. I watched it briefly creep amongst the shallows poking around for fish fry or hapless amphibians; tantalisingly close but frustratingly obscured by dying reeds. And before long it slinked back into cover and disappeared.

Heron in Heraldic Pose

I started my Yare Valley excursion at Cantley Beet Factory, where I searched forlornly for a white-winged tern that had recently been dancing over the cloying waters of the settling ponds. Although there was no sign of this wanderer, the scene was enlivened by the tinny calls of bearded tits moving on short whirring wings through the abundant and luxuriant reed growth. I slowly tracked a small party and with the cover of a conveniently positioned hawthorn managed to position myself quite close to where these birds were feeding. What a delight to watch pristine males, fiery colours ablaze, cloaked in autumn shades of russet and gold that glowed in the glare of bright sunshine. They knew I was there, but determining I was no immediate threat, went about dismantling the dancing seed heads with gusto.    


Male Bearded Tit (with dark eye)


Male Bearded Tit (yellow eye)


Female Bearded Tit


Long-tailed Tit


Lapwings and a Ruff

These birds were numerous at Cantley

And then buzzards, a pair, mewing in the blue heavens. And then two more, and yet more until eight of these large raptors were spiralling above me on broad, fingered wings. Maybe these were local family groups or maybe genuine migrants moving lazily south as the season dictates. Whatever, they are always a pleasure to watch. Earlier, I had been alerted to another buzzard by the noisy attention of a large group of corvids, giving chase and generally harassing the larger bird. Crows seem to have great fun making mischief with raptors and these black tormentors, rooks and jackdaws mainly, seemed intent on inflicting as much misery as possible. The buzzard didn't appear to be too distracted; it simply glided purposefully on its way to richer foraging grounds.


The Buzzard Mobbed by Unwelcome Acolytes

And so we return to the opening scene, to Strumpshaw Fen and my lengthening wait for the bittern

I kept thinking that I really should be going home. I needed to move, but with the optimism bred of other long vigils keep giving the bird another 5 minutes, and another, and another. In all it took 2 hours of sitting quietly, waiting with finger poised on my camera shutter release, before I could briefly admire the spangled, marbled golds of its plumage at close quarters. It was no real trial, I chatted pleasantly to like-minded appreciators of all things wild, I could tune in to the merry chatter of the volunteer staff in the Visitor Centre, I basked in the warmth of the afternoon sun; no, it was no trial at all. Once the bird eventually broke cover, gliding from one reed fringed side of the open water to the other, I reeled off as many shots as my camera would allow. Through the telephoto lens I could note the intricacy of its camouflage, the stern looking countenance and the huge claws on its gangly feet. What a privilege. And then having been able to capture something of this beautiful, shy and mysterious bird, I myself slide off the bench, stretched my aching limbs to saunter back to my car, content and satisfied with the day.



Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Week in Autumn

Autumn, the season of change: summers end and the gradual descent into winters frosty grip; chilly, mist enshrouded mornings and foreshortened evenings, soon to be gaining daylight at breakfast and robbed of an hour at day's end. The season of colour: rainbow hued woodlands, hedgerows ablaze with scarlet berries. The season when the natural world is in a state of flux: frantic activity of mammals to store provender for the long, cold months just over the horizon; the last flurry of butterflies and wasps feeding greedily on ivy flowers; the movement of birds in numbers beyond count from north to south around the world. And it is these things that I have witnessed over the past little while. 

Red Admiral on Ivy

Saturday 26th September - a brief trip to NWT Ranworth. A spell here, sitting nibbling a snack on the picnic area outside the visitor centre, was quite productive with a pair of hobbies and a pair of sparrowhawks spiralling above us in the clear skies of early autumn. The hobbies were intent only on catching winged insects on which to snack. The sparrowhawks, presumably a pair, were more intent on sparring, periodically stooping at each other and soaring together in tight circles.


Female Sparrowhawk


Sparrowhawk Pair

Note the size differential with the female being much larger than the male

Here we watched a tight group of cormorants herding fish around the shallow areas of the broad, whilst a dozen of their fellows watched on from the safety of the tern rafts. When I worked here I used to watch fascinated at the coordinated way in which these oily birds hunted. Sometimes there were 30 or more moving around the perimeter of the broad in a tightly packed group. They would push the fish before them and then plunge en masse into the frightened shoal. The group would proceed in like fashion for 30 minutes or so before breaking up and flying to the trees on the far bank to digest their catch. Although the waters of the broad suffer greatly from eutrophication, it is nonetheless used extensively as a breeding ground for bream, perch and various other species and a subsequent nursery ground for thousands of fry; rich pickings for hungry cormorants, grebes, terns and the occasional osprey.

Great Crested Grebe with Perch

Tuesday 29th September - a walk along the dune system at Horsey. The high pressure system dominating the UK over the past week or so has resulted in a strong easterly airflow. This should have brought in lots of migrants that making their way south, get caught up in the stiff airflow and make landfall at the first opportunity after traversing the North Sea. When you weight but a few grams it is easy to get displaced. The birding grapevine has been awash with reports of yellow browned warblers spotted from seemingly every coastal back yard, with this promise in mind I spent the morning walking the dunes between Horsey and Winterton. I saw no minuscule yellow and green waifs or strays. Instead I had to content myself with excellent views of stonechats and a lone whinchat, whilst tinkling parties of goldfinches fed on the seed heads of marram grass.




Stonechat with Juicy Caterpillar!


Lovely Whinchat




Stonechat Preening

Thursday 1st October Gt Yarmouth/Gorleston. A sedate walk around the cemetery produced no sign of migrant activity other than a brief call of a yellow browed warbler that frustratingly failed to show itself. I should explain that Gt Yarmouth Cemetery is a very good spot for migrant birds as well as having some very interesting plant life. Nothing more sinister enticed us amongst the crumbling tombs. Later at Gorleston, turnstones were feasting on the carcasses of small crabs discarded by fishermen.  



Other recent highlights from Strumpshaw Fen:

Fishing Heron 

Little Egret

Little Egret Fishing


Little Owl