Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Brooklyn Heights

There was a report on the local TV news yesterday morning here in New York, about the worrying trend for pedestrians to have an unwanted, and presumably rather one sided, encounter with cars as they cross the road. These worthy folk somehow manage to blunder into moving traffic because they are so focussed on texting/downloading meaningless drivel/playing candy crush saga that they fail to look where they are going and unwittingly cross on a red light. Observing the way yellow cabs take off when they have the green leads me to think there must be an awful lot of dented bonnets around the city. But it is completely true. The sheer volume of people walking around with eyes glued to a small electronic device held inches from their nose is quite amazing. I mentioned this to a group of wonderfully, typically uber-friendly, native New Yorker ladies we got chatting to over a cuppa at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (they commented on the size of my camera lens and this naturally led to various other comparisons of cultural divide) and they agreed it was indeed startling. It is, apparently, a relatively new way of going about daily business and seems to be mainly, but not exclusively, a malady enjoyed by the young. Much shaking of heads ensued before all admitted we would ourselves be lost without modern technology. After all this post comes to you via airport wi-fi and a temperamental iPad. Anyway I can feel myself digressing here (and it is absolutely not due to the abundant complimentary red wine in the BA lounge), because the point I was going to make was that I would never, ever collide with a car because I was looking down at my phone. No sir! My graceful dive over a car bonnet would stem from the fact I was looking up. And the reason this middle aged nut would be gazing skywards would be to see if there were any birds passing overhead or zipping about in the trees. It is migration time here on the eastern flyway of the USA with millions of warblers making their way north. It would surely be rude not to try and see a few.

So, yesterday morning we got the metro over to Brooklyn to visit the aforementioned Botanical Gardens. The plan was that because it was midweek, a little on the cool side and there is an admission charge, it would be likely empty and we would have the run of the place. Oops, I should have used my phone! Tuesday is free admission day and it was heaving. There was a Japenese style band whacking seven bells out of.... well seven bells, the motorised lawn mowers were belching their way over the lawns, aircraft from JFK jetted overhead every minute and hordes of school children were running around screaming and shouting at the top of their voices. I was not a happy bunny and with grating jaw and muttering grumpy curses, set about gazing into the tree canopies in a forlorn quest to find little stranded birds. Not a hope. Not a sign of anything warblerish tazzing around in the tree tops. Bugger! But I underestimated the tenacity of these little jewels that don't really give a tinker's cuss about us and the mayhem we create, for soon low down amongst the erupting bright green foliage of a stately willow, we had the pleasure of watching a lovely black and white warbler hunting for aphids and other tiny insects right in front of us. It was oblivious to the human chaos roundabout and was instead intent on survival; finding enough sustenance to get it through the next leg of its epic journey to its breeding grounds somewhere wild and romantic further north. It was nonetheless the devil's own job to photograph. And it was not alone, for also partaking of the unseen bounty was a sweet faced ruby-crowned kinglet and a yellow-rumped warbler. All three birds share about four colours between them but somehow seemed as bright as a fresh rainbow. Umm, so maybe there were birds here after all. Time to put on a smile Madden you grumpy sod and celebrate the fact the sun was tentatively poking through the clouds, the cherry blossom was simply too beautiful for words and the world doesn't revolve around you and your desire to get 'warbler neck'. And in fairness, once I get a little fix of something new - the black and white warbler was a life bird - I get a touch more reasonable. In fact when the Japanese band decided to stop thumping on logs, crashing their cymbals and generally calmed down it was much easier to absorb the ambience of this wonderful urban resource. Beautiful trees, strident mosaics of colourful tulips, heavenly scented flowering shrubs and amongst it all the hardiest, most resilient wild creatures. Once again nothing even remotely rare or unusual, but I hope you agree they are in themselves quite lovely..........

Monday, 25 April 2016

We Took the A Train

We did indeed take the A Train all the way to Jamaica Bay, not far from JFK airport, where there is a conveniently situated wildlife reserve. How lucky was that! Here with the jagged toothed skyline of Manhatten forming a surreal backdrop, you can explore several trials leading through scrub and damp wood bounding salt marsh and shallow lagoons. The melting pot season that is spring resulted in us being able to observe parties of lingering Brent geese (which are not the same dark-bellied population as those we commonly find in Norfolk winters, but are instead the pale-bellied race that also winter in Ireland)  sharing the bay with newly arrived Forster's terns, barn swallows and the delightful tree swallows that we watched at very close quarters as they inspected nesting boxes positioned by the trails. And what beautiful creatures they are; iridescent green and purple-sheened heads and backs, a lovely twittering song and a cheeky sparkle in their watchful eyes. These sprites were full of the joy of the season, chasing one another in courtship and staking claim to their favoured box. I could have watched them for hours.

Although the dry heat of another clear spring day repressed a lot of small bird activity, we did manage to catch site of a few new species for the trip. A singing Carolina wren entertained us briefly, belting out a tuneful chant and a lovely song sparrow did likewise quite unbothered by our close proximity. The ubiquitous American robins hopped all around us and a northern mockingbird went through a varied repertoire from cover. Other little birds took the form of blue-grey gnatcatcher and a couple of yellow-rumpled warblers quietly feeding in the depths of the tangle. 

The open waters held several species of gull; laughing gulls braying to each other, a great black back loafing on the beach, herring gulls and probably others out on the sand banks. The Forster's terns entertained us, fishing and courting close to, whilst a pair of Ospreys attended their nest on a specially placed platform. Ospreys must be one of the most widespread of birds - I've seen them on four continents - but they will not breed in Norfolk. What a shame that is.

It's always good to visit new localities, see new birds and chat to people with a different outlook on life. And let's be honest, if you live in the Bronx you will have a different mindset to a person idling his time in the east of England. So I like to observe and the A train is as good a place as any. During the intermittent dozing of our journeys to and from town, we encountered a couple of gangsta dudes jiving badass, hobos touting for loose change, entrepenurial wide boys selling branded sweets and drinks for a tad under retail rates, a incoherently ranting drunk who decided nobody would mind if he pissed all over the floor, lots of young ladies who weren't as I first thought yapping to themselves, but were instead talking loudly into a hands free mobile set up (why must they do that) and various other colourful characters. The A train is quite entertaining, and I'm glad we took it. As always the wildlife trumps all and goes about its simple business regardless of the idiosyncrasies of man.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

A Thin Slice of the Big Apple

Amidst the swelter and constant noise of New York City there is the oasis that is Central Park. After a hectic day sightseeing, tramping the skyscraper lined streets, marvelling at the 360 degree view from the Empire State, giggling at the guy who couldn't find his train in Penn Station and was walking around arms waving uttering increasingly loud curses - 'Jesus I can't even find my f***ing train'
'Where the f**k is my goddam train', it was such a relief to sit down in the relative calm and smell the spring greenery. Even on a midweek afternoon the place was swarming with people yet the park is big enough to swallow whole troops of squealing school kids, extensive enough to accommodate herds of dog walkers and their assorted canine pals and wild enough in some areas to support quite a lot of wildlife. At this time of year the park can act as a magnet for migrant warblers, orioles, vireos and the like making their way into the northern sections of North America and Canada. The birds stop to refuel on insects taking pollen from early flowering oaks or to feast on the caterpillars of various moths before making the last leg of their lonely journey to their breeding grounds.

After a couple of hours binocularless roaming around on Thursday we decided to join a group on Friday led by a well known local birder who, armed with iPod and amplifier, called various birds into our general vicinity. Maybe not quite what I would call a proper birding session, but hey we're only here for a few days and haven't got the time or site know how to do it all ourselves. We did pretty well as it happens, and despite the lures and 20 or so pairs of eyes from other participants, managed to see  several birds for ourselves, or at least before anyone else spotted them, Palm warblers, northern waterthrush, a pair of spiralling red-tailed Hawks and so on. Nothing rare or particularly unusual but it is nice to reacquaint ourselves with species we haven't seen for 20 years or so and to once again be in the vibrant, Starbucks obsessed, USA.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Easter Fare

Easter has struck early and with it a new season of family events has kicked in at nature reserves all around the county, in fact for some Easter has marked their opening for the summer season. I've spent time over the last week helping out at both Norfolk Wildlife Trust Ranworth Broad and RSPB Strumpshaw Fen. The welcome onslaught of visitors has been at times akin to a tornado touching earth; the respective visitor centres awhirl with holidaying families, keen birders and local people who, having spent a long winter imprisoned by winter's chill, have at last been released to savour the singular sense of light and space these slices of Broadland can offer. Brief impressions of time I spent at these excellent local venues are clumsily given below
NWT Ranworth Broad

Spring is bursting all around. The wet woodland surrounding the boardwalk from Ranworth village is resounding to the thrill of vibrant birdsong; wrens, robins, woodpeckers and chiffchaffs boldly staking out territories whilst hidden Cetti's warblers explode their loud clatter of notes from deep cover; songthrushes pouring forth their sweet, varied repertoire from the mature trees on the higher borders of the reserve whilst marsh harriers and buzzards float lazily over the reed beds of this special water world. An otter entertained some lucky visitors early on, briefly poking its broad, flat head above the surface of the broad before submerging with a flick of its thickly furred tail; thereafter a trail of gently popping bubbles accompanied by the harsh squawking of enraged black-headed gulls provided the only clue to its whereabouts. The sighting over in an instant but for a few the memory will linger.
At the eastern end of the trail, the wardens of the Bure Valley Living Landscape have completed their annual reed cutting. This allows the multitude of special plants that flower here during the summer to flourish; milk parsley that life-giver to the swallowtail, ragged robin, marsh marigold, meadowsweet and loosestrife. This intensive management work is vital to ensure the reed bed remains in good health and is a small scale example of the work undertaken all over the Broads. By June the new reed growth will be chest high, buzzing with the vibrancy of insects and migrant warblers.


During these Easter holidays the weather has, predictably, been unpredictable. A brilliant opening day gave way to showers and strong winds over the Easter weekend before a return to spring sunshine. But even during inclement spells, beauty could be found with dramatic sunlit vistas of vivid spring green foliage highlighted against an evil looking dark cloudscape. Rainbows as a backdrop to sun kissed bows of motor cruisers; surely the season in a nutshell. The milder conditions with south-easterly winds brought delight in the form of three swallows that briefly flirted around the Visitor Centre on the last day of a changeable March. They were nowhere to be seen the following day, an April Fool's joke to all that thought they were 'our' swallows come back to reclaim their summer home.


Of all the birds that epitomise Ranworth though, it is surely the great crested grebes that steal the show. At this time of year they are in peak condition, displaying to one another in full view of admiring onlookers. On a lunch break sitting quietly by the less watched portion of the broad, I was lucky enough to witness a courtship display by a pair that seem intent on setting up home in a sheltered bay. With no aquatic weeds available to them with which to perform their dramatic dances in this sadly polluted environment, the birds made do with a clump of debris plucked from a low growing bough. How wonderful to witness this intimate moment at such close quarters and be able to admire the birds in all their seasonal finery.


Although the grebes will soon build their flimsy floating platform and lay a clutch of real eggs, it was smaller more fat enriched fare that our younger human visitors craved. Chocolate Easter eggs: a prize for completing the regular Easter Eggsplorer quiz. This is always a popular activity and helps entertain the children whilst allowing mum and dad to take a breather. Those eggs were delicious.


RSPB Strumpshaw Fen
Here is a more accessible, subtly different, environment with its consequent different mix of wildlife and people. On the middle weekend of the Easter period the reserve played host to some real birding gems: firecrest and an obliging penduline tit. The firecrest probably a migrant moving through, the penduline tit a long stayer and potential breeder - assuming it can find a mate. The combined attraction of this avian duo and a children's Easter Egg trail resulted in an interesting and amusing (to me at least) mix of camouflage coated birders making a heads down bee line to the birds, whilst herds of boisterous and excited children careered through the woods en-route to their next activity station. A majority of birders wearily returned a couple of hours later trudging back to their cars with long faces, species unticked, but the children remained happy.

During lulls in the action I had a look for the birds myself. I eventually connected with the firecrest as it tirelessly skittered through a dense tangle of ivy. A lovely little bird and one that is always a delight to the eye. Although this one will in all probability move on soon, it was intriguing to hear that two more were seen together in a different part of the reserve. Potential breeders? Time will tell.


As for the penduline tit I drew another blank. I've been vaguely looking for the bird for the last couple of months, but it has proved most elusive. Today it was seen by some lucky people off and on either tazzing around at the top of a blossoming cherry by the river, or on reed mace by Fen Hide. With the gaggles of long-lensed birders milling around both areas my heart wasn't really into joining the fray, so I contented myself with an hour in the hide itself.
Here in the relative peace and calm you have a wonderful view of the reed bed. Today the marsh harriers were in full swing with several gorgeous males sky dancing over their territories, broadcasting their far carrying yelping display call. As I watched these birds stooping and swirling over the reeds there came to my ear the excited whistling of a kingfisher, and soon a male bird whirred into view and perched on a stake positioned in the water.This bird made several attempts to fish, hovering in hummingbird fashion a few metres above the surface before plummeting head first into the still waters. It was a little too far away for serious photography, but I reeled off a few shots which were not entirely unsuccessful. Great birding and a successful family event on such a fine, sunny spring day.

It is good to be in these places again and to feel part of something important. Spreading the message of conservation to the general public whose support for the work of both organisations is crucial. The smiles on the faces of the visitors told of an enjoyable experience and that gives satisfaction enough for the first few days of what will, I’m sure, be a season full of wonderful wildlife and people.