Friday, 20 May 2016

Homeward Bound

Our last day in the central lowlands of Sweden and a welcome improvement in the weather, allowing us to enjoy a prolonged session at a large reed fringed lake without the need for multiple layers of clothing (one of our group confessed to being cloaked in seven layers yesterday). From a raised vantage point sheltered by farm building and stands of trees, we could scope the freshwater expanse at leisure; numerous pairs of eager eyes scrutinising any flying object meant not much got by us. 

Almost the first bird we encountered was a red kite that cruised by at roof top level allowing impressive views of what is apparently a rare sighting in this part of the country. Good start. Hot on the heels of the kite an immature peregrine made an appearance scattering the gulls and waders into a frenzy. This bird loitered around the northern end of the lake for some time periodically stooping at groups of wildfowl or flocks of multi-coloured ruff, which although not especially pleasing for the hapless targets, did allow us to get a good idea of what birds were hiding away behind the amply vegetated small islands. Thanks to the over enthusiastic falcon we were able to add several species to the day list that may otherwise have remained absent: gorgeously  black spotted redshank, a sprinkling of Temmincks stints, garganey, and several dainty wood sandpipers. Most of these birds are held up here because of the strong northerlies of the past few days hampering their sprint further north.

If the peregrine caused havoc, imagine what something several times its size would do. The appearance of an immature white-tailed eagle threw the whole lake into chaos with its passage being tracked by chevrons of outraged black-headed gulls, hooded crows and a pair of marsh harriers. The distant image I captured of the male marsh harrier mobbing this massive marauder shows the differential in size quite well. The eagle caught a good sized bream from the lake and flew to a distant muddy margin to rip its prey to shreds. I remember the first white-tailed eagle I saw in Norfolk during the early 1990s. On that Saturday I was looking after my young son and pushed him in his buggy along the narrow puddle strewn tracks around Hickling Broad hoping to catch sight of the elusive beast. Alone and in the cooling dusk of a crisp February afternoon, we found the bird perched in a tree on a woodland edge. It looked like this brooding hulk was being mobbed by a small flock of sparrows, but in fact they were crows. It is a frighteningly big bird.

Sated by these wonderful sights, we moved on to another lake which unfortunately didn't have the protection afforded at the first. Here, exposed on the elevated ridge, the cruel wind whipped across the open water and lashed into us without mercy. A wooden hut used by a local nature group provided welcome shelter within which to consume our lunch, but it was not a pleasant session. However a common crane came close enough for a nice look and in the wooded fringe a marvellous pied flycatcher hopped from perch to perch belting out his joyous spring song. Bird of the day for me.

Later, en route to the airport, we stopped at a quarry area in search of the increasingly elusive ortolan bunting. It's not just the UK that has suffered catastrophic declines in songbird numbers, for despite most of the area we saw over our four days being quaintly rustic with red painted farm buildings dotted around, modern farming methods have contributed to a 90% decline in populations of some species: the ortolans being one such. But thanks to the expertise of our guides we had the bird jinking around us within a couple of minutes of our stumbling from the minibus. What a lovely bird this is and such a shame it has suffered big losses, declines not helped by ignorant and uncaring Mediterranean inhabitants regarding them as some sort of delicacy. Many perish during their spring migration caught in nets or on lime sticks and despatched by rough thumbs and fingers crushing their fragile skulls. Human beings: the scourge of the earth.

After, a large beer at Arlanda was most welcome and as with all of these trips much pleasant banter ensued. There are always friendly and interesting people on these trips which is one aspect making them so enjoyable. But as ships that pass in the night, each goes their separate ways once the aircraft has landed and tired bodies dragged through the airport to face a long trip to our respective homes. Who knows though, we may meet again on some other foreign jaunt. If it is half as enjoyable as our 4 days in Sweden we are in for a treat. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Cock of the Rock

After yesterday's inclement episode we thought we had seen the worst of what a Northern spring could throw our way. We were wrong. Today dawned grey and cold with a viciously biting wind and it simply got worse. Our drive to another section of the burnt forest to try again for the three toed woodpecker was made through wet snow, hail and driving rain: hardly what you would expect in mid-May. In these situations however the gallows humour tends to kick in, so with a stiff upper lip we staunchly faced the worst the weather could sling our way. Being able to retreat to a warm minibus helped.

For the day we had the services of another local birder who had intimate knowledge of the various woodpeckers and owls inhabiting the region. With the aid of a lure, broadcasting the sound of a drumming male, we were soon able to enjoy the brief sight of our target bird shuffling up the trunk of a dead pine. Great stuff and a life bird for me.

Onwards then to a day spent driving between various watch points in the deep green forest attempting to find other shy inhabitants of this verdant landscape. First up was a beautiful black-throated diver that cautiously cruised across the mirror calm surface of one of many lakes that dot the landscape, breaking up the serial ranks of pine. Seen through a telescope, the summer finery of this bird was a delight; a smooth grey head giving way to a jet black throat bordered by a zebra patterned collar chevroned into a white breast broken by delicate vertical black striping. So different to the odd winter plumaged individual we see back home.

Next we managed to persuade a pair of black woodpeckers to loop around us for a few minutes giving good views of their distinctive angular shape. As one of the birds swooped overhead I fired off a few shots against the lowering cloud. Most only caught part of the bird, but one captured the whole thing in silhouette which doesn't really matter when the subject is pure black anyway. Once again the Madden adage of blasting away hoping that at least one image brings the goods came up trumps. When the birds briefly perched, frantically trying to locate what they thought was an intruder, it was always obscured by the branches of nearer trees rendering photography impossible. Lovely birds these, but not wishing to disturb this breeding pair unduly, we retreated in search of one of its smaller brethren.

Is luring birds by the use of taped calls ethical? Is it real birding? I'm not sure about this, although the only way we could ever have hoped to spot any of the species on today's agenda would be by employing that method. Of course whether a bunch of British birders sees them or not is of no consequence whatever, except in the sense that we had paid for this very service. What is important is that 1. The birds are not disturbed or harmed unnecessarily; and 2. Something positive is transferred by way of education, wider appreciation of the local conservation issues and some investment into local conservation efforts. Happily bird tours undertaken with responsible operators fulfils these criteria I think because it would not be in the interests of the company/leaders to kill the goose laying the golden egg, I.e if the birds decide to move away there is nothing to attract visitors. Also being able to spend several days speaking with local environmentalists enables us paying punters to discuss all kinds of issues and exchange all sorts of ideas gleaned from our experiences in the UK and further afield. Maybe the fact you're reading this blog makes you more aware, albeit in a very limited way, of some of the happenstances affecting Sweden's wildlife. Maybe you will decide to find out more, maybe you will even visit. Certainly the fact that part of the cost of these tours goes towards paying local guides, ringers, hoteliers, transport companies etc helps to keep those things thriving, and surely that is what really matters. 

Anyway, the next gem to be fooled into doing battle with an imaginary interloper was a rather lovely grey-headed woodpecker. This bird stayed in view for some time perched in a tree (out of camera range) enabling everyone to obtain satisfying scope views. Lifer No 3 for the day. Could it get better?

Oh yes. After several abortive stops for Pygmy owl, intermissions that although devoid of owls did bring in a surprising number of other birds to mob the suspected predator, we walked a short way through the forest to see if we could find a capercaillie. Now this bird is towards the top of my 'must see' list but we didn't hold out much hope of locating one amongst the thick ranks of lichen encrusted tree trunks. We scrambled for a little way over boulders and fallen branches covered in a deep cushion of moss before arriving at what can best be described as a mini arena. And there proudly strutting to and fro atop a large mound of rock was the most magnificent bird I have had the pleasure of watching. The sheer size of this bird bowled me over and the fact we were able to get so close and observe it performing at its lek was sheer magic. This cock of the rock marched around emitting various high pitched clucks and clicks holding its head high and fanning its enormous tail peacock fashion. An impressive sight for any female bird that happened by. It seems though that it is unlikely any hen birds are unmated at this late stage and so the efforts of this testosterone enthused individual will go unremarked until his urge to mate subsides and he resumes his lone life in the deep forest. But for this bunch of cold, wind blasted Brits being able to encounter such a creature in its natural environs going about its intimate ritual was worth every numb finger, worth every damp layer of clothing, worth every penny paid. It was simply priceless.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Burnt Forest

A fire raged through a vast area of the forest here in Vȁstmanland in 2014 causing immeasurable damage both ecological and financial. Strong summer winds whipped the blaze to an inferno which raged for weeks before it was eventually brought under control thanks to water carrying aircraft dragooned from France and Spain. Once the smoke had cleared and the devastation assessed (incredibly only one person lost their life), it was decided to designate a large proportion of the affected area as an eco-park and to let nature heal the wounds and green over the scars. Some two years on, the scene is still one of ranks of charred and blackened tree stumps, their singed roots wrapped around moss stripped boulders like a witch’s scrawny grip on the arm of her chair. Nothing has or will be done to clear the debris except to clear fallen trees from paths and roads; natural regeneration will be studied and valuable information gleaned from what transpires over coming decades.

We visited the area today not only to exercise curiosity, but also to reap the silver lining from the cloud. It seems that the dead trees play host to large numbers of beetle larva that in turn prove irresistible to woodpeckers, notably the three toed woodpecker that has moved in and is thriving amongst the ruins.

It was a chilly and wet day though, at total odds with the previous 24 hours. Where yesterday the forest floor and wayside were carpeted with the white blooms of countless wood anemones, today those dainty flowers remained curled up; reluctant to expose themselves to the unseasonal chill. Maybe it was the inclement conditions, or maybe just bad luck, but try as we would with eyes, ears and thought no woodpeckers were forthcoming. But it didn't matter because the experience of being in such a superficially barren landscape was reward in itself. And I say superficial deliberately, because despite all life is returning, indeed it never totally left. Cotton grass has colonised some areas and various other simple grasses and wild flowers have seeded themselves to take advantage of the open ground and lack of competition. Invertebrates are present, providing food for the surprisingly diverse array of birds. Not huge numbers, but we did see woodlark, tree pipit, crossbills, a whinchat and various other common songsters. Deer are regularly encountered and even wolves have been spotted. Isn't nature wonderful?

After a picnic lunch taken in the shelter of a belt of trees overlooking a large lake, shivering fingers transferring the welcome sustenance to fuel starved bodies, we moved into an area of green forest interspersed with small cleared areas and the odd farmstead. En route we picked up a local bird ringer who has been studying Ural Owls for many years. He and his colleagues monitor a network of 50 or so nest boxes over their local area and our afternoon treat was to accompany him on a visit to an occupied box. Ural Owls, despite their benign, almost innocent, appearance are actually quite vicious and will dominate most other predatory birds in their chosen territory. In particular their nest sites have been shown to contain the remains of other owls, especially the smaller long-eared and tawny.  So, it was quite important for us to let the expert secure the area before we all blundered in. Equipped with ladder and a large net, the ringer approached the box first. With the experience born of years he expertly caught the brooding female in the net, lowered it to the ground, disentangled it and put her on display for an admiring audience. What a bird, and so close. I confess that I wasn't altogether comfortable with the disneyfication of this exercise and at one point almost walked away: I wasn't the only one. However, the activity would take place with or without us because it is important to monitor the breeding success of the species. The birds are actually disturbed up to four times a season yet still return to the same boxes year after year so maybe they don't especially mind. In any event it was an instructive episode and one unique in my experience. These owls really are quite stunning.

Following a much needed hot shower, dinner and a thoroughly deserved glass, or maybe two, of red, we once again ventured into the field to try and find some owls. Our first venue overlooked a rather uninspiring stone quarry compete with rust stained silos, conveyor belts and all the signs of industrial activity. We were then invited to spot the eagle owl. I commenced scanning the far ridges of the rock faces looking for suitable undisturbed nooks where these large birds could set up a home but could see nothing remotely reminiscent of an eagle owl or its nest. After a little while my much better half found the bird and with a smile Daniel, our Swedish guide, directed us all to the spot. There below us atop the ugliest pile of metal imaginable, was a huge cat like mound of spangled brown feathers from the midst of which a pair of deep orange eyes curiously gazed at us. These birds are mightily impressive and apparently go about their business quite unconcerned by the constant noise and activity during the day. The workers likewise respect the owls and although sometimes need to work close to, manage to avoid being carried off to feed the hungry chicks this particular female was then brooding. Ear tufts raised, this bird was a truly spectacular animal: the cold and damp were somehow quite forgotten.

We trawled along various almost deserted minor roads and woodland tracks in a vain attempt to lure a pygmy owl but with no success. We did see several more roding woodcock though which is always nice. Once again I had no trouble sleeping, but wasn’t entirely sure about getting out into the field before breakfast the following day. But that, as they say, is another story……….

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Grey Ghost

Enveloped by the gentle calm at the gloaming of a warm May day we waited at the edge of a damp meadow bordered all around by thick sentinel forest; a group of expectant birders, hushed and vigilant. And as the shadows of the tall pines crept slowly across the sward, one of our company caught a glimpse of something distant fly slowly across his field of vision. Something large: something special. Fifteen pairs of binoculars scanned towards the far end of the open space in the direction of his pointing finger, but there was nothing now to be seen.

We moved along a track a few hundred metres, flanked all the way by towering pine and spruce, to recommence our watch from a more advantageous viewpoint. And there, after a short wait, the most beautiful of creatures drifted into view to perch atop a tree stump; a great grey owl, the bird we had been promised and the one atop everyone's most wanted list. What a magnificent bird it was too with its outsize facial disc housing piercing pale yellow eyes framed by question mark shaped white feathering, powerful body cloaked in subtlety graded grey and strong, lethal talons. There was something altogether grandiose in the way the bird sat proud and still, turning its large head slowly this way and that looking and listening for voles scrabbling through the lush grasses. What a privilege to witness such a rare and impressive sight.

Great Grey Owl - What a Beauty!

It had been a long tiring day though, a day that began with a drive during the dark hours to Heathrow to catch an early morning flight to Stockholm. We arranged this particular trip with Naturetrek and once safely in Sweden we were picked up by our locally based tour leader Daniel Green and were straight into birding at a wetland site not far from Arlanda airport. Here we encountered many excellent birds including hobby, osprey, tree sparrow, and several sprightly yellow wagtails of the blue headed race flava. Newly arrived swallows twittered pleasantly on overhead wires, rather lovely plumaged jackdaws of the northern race soemmerringii poked around in dried cow pats whilst a thrush nightingale serenaded us from nearby scrub. Gentle, natural reminders that although we were only 2 hours from the UK we were most certainly in a very different ecological zone. Several species unobtrusively probed in the muddy transition zone between open water and reed bed, amongst them small numbers of jet black spotted redshank, surely one of the most striking of summer plumaged waders. And of course this was one of the reasons we had chosen to visit, to catch sight of migrating birds resplendent in their spring finery. To cap it all, a majestic pair of white-tailed Eagles soared lazily over the distant forest. This trip looked like it was going to be good.

Yellow Wagtail of the Blue-Headed Race Flava

Twittering Swallows

Jackdaw of the Northern Race soemmerringii.

Much paler around the nape with a distinct grey collar.

Suitably enmeshed into Scandanavian style birding, we were informed that a real treat in the form of a black-winged pratincole had somehow meandered to another wetland within striking distance. Did we want to go and see it? Well as it turns out yes we did! We didn't have to work very hard for this lost exotic, for as soon as we disgorged from the minibus its streamlined form appeared, twisting gracefully this way and that as it hawked insects above our heads. A life bird for many and we had only been in the country a couple of hours. At this locality many wood sandpipers and ruff were present as were a few whooper swans, winter visitors to most of the UK, but common breeders here in the Black River Valley area of lowland Sweden. With the evocative bugling calls of cranes echoing around the marsh we boarded our wheeled transport and drove the few miles to our hotel.

Black-winged Pratincole.

It should have been in somewhere way to the east. 

Whooper Swans

After a brief settling in and a tasty dinner we embarked on a late evening session thanks to the long hours of daylight available in these northern latitudes. And hence we come to the encounter with the owl, the grey ghost of the boreal forest. We were able to watch this bird for several minutes; posed ever watchful for movement in the grass below. When it leisurely flew from perch to perch it seemed to do so in slow motion, its huge wings carrying it assuredly in total silence. And then it was gone drifting away between the trees to pastures new. Superb. With the light finally fading and the sky turning shades of pink and amber we watched roding woodcock perform their erratic territorial flights, clucking and clicking as they went. On the drive home a short-eared owl flew for some time in front of us hunting mammals in the grassy field margins, a bird no doubt migrating further north, there to breed on the Arctic tundra. A fitting finale to our day.

The show over we drove back to the hotel where I was asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

A Week in May

Back from New York to a freezing cold house, believable tales of snow and frost, huddling around the fire all day trying to keep warm and not succumb to jet lag. It could surely only get better. And thankfully it did. A lot better.

Sunday 1st May. The swifts have returned dead on time.

One of our newly arrived swifts. Low numbers at present but they will build.
Tuesday 3rd May. A visit to RSPB Titchwell Marsh is always a delight and today whilst scanning through a patch of cut reed just east of the track I locked on to a cracking black-headed wagtail – a yellow wagtail of the eastern race feldegg.  I’d heard about this bird being seen the day before, but obviously nobody had so far seen it today. I alerted those around me to the bird, a real stunner, and as far as I can tell the news went ape. Nice to find something a little unusual. We watched this perky little chap for a few minutes until the frantic hordes began to wet themselves and then moved on.

Other highlights here were a flighty female ring ouzel, a gorgeous drake garganey and a rather confiding songthrush that fearlessly hopped around our table whilst we were partaking of the customary hot chocolate and gooey cake. Personally the songthrush stole it for me.

We left Titchwell to its avocets and slowly motored along the lanes around Choseley where we had another close encounter, this time with a lovely pair of courting brown hares. By keeping quiet and still we were able to observe these animals at close quarters as they gambolled across the roughly ploughed field. It was remarkable how effectively they blended into the landscape when hunkered down. Then the body and ears would be pulled flat, leaving only the alert big brown eyes above ground enabling 360° vision. No predator could get close.

We passed on joining the group of birders straining for distant views of dotterel – most beautiful birds but extremely distant - and instead parked the car by a large puddle further along the narrow track. Here, a pair of oystercatchers had set up home and one bird was busy bathing in the peaceful solitude of the reddening sun. A tranquil scene; sharing the intimacy of familiar birds going about their daily business.

In the fading light and blissful quiet of a glorious spring evening, we had great views of a slinky female wheatear and a meadow pipit on fence wires at Salthouse, before watching the silhouetted forms of little egret and avocet on a shallow pool. Happy with the day we made our way home.

Wednesday 4th May - Strumpshaw Fen. Time to check up on all those long-tailed tit nests I watched being built a few weeks ago. Happily nearly all have been successful with industrious parents visiting at regular intervals, beaks crammed full of tasty, protein-rich morsels for their bundle of young. Only one of the nests appeared abandoned and this in a quite exposed position above the river path. There will soon be an explosion of young long-tails in the woodland and isn’t that just fine.

Whilst ambling around the reserve I bumped into the warden and had an interesting chat about how critical it was to engage young people in the appreciation of wild spaces and wild things (there was a boisterous school group being shepherded around). We also spoke laughingly about the frantic antics of birders that congregated to catch sight of the recent penduline tit. I recounted the tale of one chap that had motored up from Reading to photograph this local rarity and then confessed he had seen his first marsh harrier as well. The response was better:  a group of green clad troopers had gathered on the river bank and were busy lamenting the fact they could not find the bird. A passing member of staff stopped to point out it was calling in the tree just above them. Priceless. But it does go to show how shallow the knowledge of many so called ‘birders’ actually is. I’m no expert – far from it - but honestly! put in some time and do an apprenticeship for Christ’s sake.

Anyway, the saddest news was that my friend, subject of one of my earlier posts, is leaving the RSPB to become a twiglet or some such thing at Bewilderwood. A real  loss I feel.  I had watched her earlier addressing the school group and she was simply superb, enthusing the kids with light hearted delivery of heavy duty messages. There is so much to learn and see here and for some kids it is probably their first experience of real wildlife. A shame, although it does make me realise how fortunate I was when young to have the run of the county on blissfully empty roads and bird infested byways without the distractions of a virtual existence getting in the way. There is a missing link that needs urgent bridging.

On a more positive note no less than four cuckoos had been seen earlier that day, I saw two myself, and that really is cause for celebration. Other notables were emergent large red damselflies, a super abundance of singing blackcaps and a saturation of stunning marsh harriers. Strumpshaw really is such a fascinating place.

Friday 6th May. There are few better places to spend a sunny May morning than at NWT Ranworth Broad. A week ago the skies were grey, the water turbulent and the air chill with the tendrils of winter still holding sway. Today it was fresh and bright, the water reflectively calm and the endless possibilities of summer hanging in the air.

At this season the difference a mere seven days makes can be quite profound. Whereas on the penultimate day of April only a few common terns were hawking over the broad now they are everywhere; chasing each other in courtship, vying with the black headed gulls for nest sites, squabbling over favoured perches and generally gracing the scene with their buoyant passage through air. A week ago the television screens in the visitor centre were trained on empty, forlorn and deserted swallow’s nests; today these so welcome harbingers of summer were fastidiously attending to their fragile cups of dried mud, tossing aside the accumulated detritus of winter ready to rebuild, reline and reproduce. On my last volunteering visit it was hard to believe any bird of the open fen could possibly incubate a clutch to hatching, but today the dedication and resilience of these hardy creatures was evident with broods of mallard, coot and moorhen being attended to by proud and protective parents. A lively scene then and surely one to celebrate.

But there was more to Ranworth today than just the regular resident and seasonal cast. Today was a special day, a day when some rather beautiful and irregular visitors stopped to say hello. The weather is to thank; low pressure bubbling up from the Continent sending spiralling anticlockwise airflows into the English Channel. Birds trying to migrate into the North Sea with the intention of reaching the Low Countries are met with strong breezes which sweep them along our south coast and displace them on our western shores. Black terns, gorgeous, dainty and lost. With the breeding imperative upon them they waste little time reorienting and head swiftly eastwards directly across country. It is at these times, occurring every few years, that we get a chance to see these lovely creatures refuelling over our waterways. The window is slight, perhaps only a day or two, and today was such a day.

Sensing some chance of an encounter, my first action on arriving at the visitor centre was to scan the open water hoping to see smaller, darker birds amongst the milling common terns. And sure enough there they were, three at least, hawking insects from the water surface at the back of the broad. Hoping to get better views, I hitched a lift on ‘Damselfly’ the craft we use for ferrying people to and from the staithe and for running our very popular Water Trail trips. Once aboard this spacious boat, the true tranquillity of the environment can be appreciated. On a day such as this one it was a pleasure to float close to dancing grebes, drift past unconcerned waterfowl and just take in the soporific atmosphere of this wonderful broadland retreat.

We saw herons diving into the broad for fish, witnessed a kingfisher skimming the dead calm surface a couple of metres from where we sat, watched marsh harriers and buzzards lazily drifting on the warm air and spooked a party of loafing cormorants from their roost site. But we could not get close to the black terns; at least not close enough for me. They were there, tantalisingly present, but too full of life and too far away for satisfying views. Wherever the boat drifted, they would appear on the opposite side of the broad. There we could see them dancing together over the skyline before plunging towards the watery expanse to pick some tiny morsel from the surface. Time and again all morning they would perform in this way, but never close to.  Does it matter that I couldn’t get a close up photograph? Not one jot. What really matters is that they were there, these monochrome sprites that for a few hours on a sunny May morning brightened the lives of all who saw them.