Thursday, 23 July 2015

203. Cream-coloured Courser (Cursorius cursor)

Cream-coloured Coursers are small, plover-like waders, but with a curved bill and longer legs. Males and females have similar, plain buff plumage with a strongly marked head; juveniles are browner and more speckled. They all have very distinctive black outer wings and all-black underwing, visible usually only in flight. Their preferred habitat is open, dry, bare flat terrain such as semi-desert and savannah. Their distribution is patchy around north Africa, generally avoiding the central Saharan region; they are also found in parts of the Middle East and India. Occasionally they turn up as vagrants in Europe.

Cream-coloured Courser, ©Tarique Sani, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Cream-coloured Courser painting.
Hmmm, not too bad but I seriously bodged the feather detail on the neck - doh!

Monday, 20 July 2015

Sandwell Valley - July 2015

Yesterday I was back for my monthly volunteering stint at RSPB Sandwell Valley. Exciting times afoot, as the brand new visitor centre 'Nature's Reach' is now open to the public! Although I think it's been open for a couple of weeks or so, there is an official grand opening event on 2nd August so come along to that for the full experience! Yesterday though as they were a bit short of volunteers I was in the hide in the morning, and on reception at Nature's Reach from 2:30 in the afternoon until closing time at 5, so I had a nice varied day :o)

Down in the hide there was some excitement due to the presence of two Black-tailed Godwits, fairly unusual visitors to the reserve. One looked smaller than the other and had brighter plumage, although both had their breeding season rusty red feathers on. They seemed fairly settled, busily feeding mostly around a group of Black-headed Gulls and Lapwings, and although they did fly up a couple of times when disturbed, always returned again. I had a go at sketching them:

Black-tailed Godwit sketches.
There were quite a few juvenile birds about. The Common Terns have been successful, raising two chicks that it seemed were taking their first flights this very day - apparently they hadn't been flying at all the previous day. Their parents were vigilant as ever at seeing off Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Magpies that got too close, but now the young'uns can fly they are hopefully pretty much home and dry. We also saw one Little Ringed Plover juvenile scuttling about but it probably came from elsewhere - don't think they've bred at Sandwell this year. There were a few Tufted Ducklings about also. 

Juvenile Little Ringed Plover, digiscoped through the hide scope as I didn't have my own with me today.
Forge Mill Lake looking splendid.
Behind the hide we had a brief and unexpected encounter with a Garden Warbler - well not entirely unexpected as we'd heard one singing in the same location on the breeding bird survey, but now everything's stopped singing you don't really expect to get a great view of anything really, much less a Garden Warbler. I didn't spot any new plants to try and identify this time, but the damp bit behind the hide always has some nice plants, like this Meadowsweet and Water Figwort:

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
Water Figwort (Scrophularia auriculata).
Around the reserve throughout the day I saw plenty of butterflies - Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and the highlight - one Marbled White in the grassland as I was walking up to the visitor centre. I'd never seen Marbled White at Sandwell Valley before, although apparently a few do pop up here and there every year.

The only photo I managed to get of the Marbled White - they never sit still!
In the afternoon I enjoyed familiarising myself with Nature's Reach and selling LOTS of ice creams and cold drinks to visitors - cheers nice weather! Here are a couple of pics of the interior - in some ways it's similar to the old centre, but a lot more spacious and with even bigger windows looking down onto the marsh and Forge Mill Lake:

A bit blurry, the new reception area.
For all your snacking and beverage needs!
Take a seat and enjoy the view.
Best of all, about an hour before closing time Chris and our friends Andy and Ellie (who were visiting for the weekend) came to visit :o) They enjoyed looking round Nature's Reach and searching for newts in the ponds, then once the centre was closed up for the evening we went for a short walk around the reserve. I craftily steered us towards the best spot for checking whether the Black-tailed Godwits were still there, and indeed they were. One was roosting with his beak tucked away, but we all enjoyed watching the other having a good preen - Chris, Andy and Ellie had never seen a godwit before and were suitably impressed by its very long beak! After a nice walk in the sun we all headed home together - infinitely better than my long solitary bus journey to the reserve that morning.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Dodging the downpours at Minsmere

On Sunday I was off again with the West Midland Bird Club for our monthly jaunt, this time to RSPB Minsmere. As it was forecast to pretty much start raining when we arrived there and finish when we left, we were feeling some trepidation about the day in store! Upon arrival it was indeed raining quite heavily; this did at least mean though that the hundreds of Sand Martins around the bank where they nest were feeding low down, giving us nice views. I also saw a Water Vole in the pool next to the bank, swimming away with a large piece of reed grasped in its teeth! 

Sand Martin bank and Water Vole pool.
The first half of our day consisted mainly of us scuttling quickly between hides and spending extended periods within them, sheltering from the rain. I had been planning to go over to Dunwich Heath to look for Dartford Warbler and Woodlark, but there was no chance in this weather - disappointing but there'll be another day for that. Plus a couple of our group did head up there and saw nothing but a Stonechat so at least I didn't miss out! From the various hides we did particularly well for waders, picking up loads of Black-tailed Godwits, Common and Spotted Redshank (in full breeding plumage!), plenty of Avocets (some with very tiny chicks), Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Dunlins in breeding plumage, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, Lapwings and one solitary Knot. I even had time to do a couple of sketches of Avocets:

Avocet sketches.
Common Terns were everywhere too, and they looked to have had a successful breeding season with a couple of the islands being full of toddling tern chicks. We also saw a couple of Mediterranean Gulls in their super smart black hoods. Elsewhere around the reserve there were Reed Warblers everywhere; around the sand dunes we had a few Linnets. As usual I was on the lookout for new plants to try and learn, I saw a few around the dunes that were now familiar to me thanks to my Gronant trip a few weeks ago, as well as a couple of other new ones:

Actually I already knew this one but I like it and hadn't seen any for a while! It's Sheep's-bit (Jasione montana).

This looks like Yellow-horned Poppy (Glaucium flavum), it has weird-looking very long seed pods.

I think this might be Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum).
Luckily by the time we'd sat in the East hide for a good while, it had stopped raining and it remained relatively dry for the rest of the afternoon. We saw Swallows at the sluice although unfortunately it appeared that several Swallow chicks had drowned there - very sad. It was unclear how it had happened - maybe their nest had collapsed, or perhaps the water level had risen and engulfed them. Walking back towards the visitor center we saw two watchful Red Deer in the reedbed, as well as some of their distant bovine relatives further along, and I found another couple of plants to try and identify. 

Cattle helping with habitat management. Very impressive horns!
Black Horehound (Ballota nigra).
I think this is Marsh-mallow (Althaea officinalis).
Back at the Bittern hide the sun finally came out, bringing raptors - Hobby and Marsh Harrier. We also heard a few pings of Bearded Tits but they were keeping low in the reeds.

Nice light from Bittern hide as the sun finally began making a tentative entrance.
Although I was disappointed not to have been able to visit Dunwich Heath, it had been a pretty good day in spite of the weather, and as Andy M pointed out it's better to get soaked early on then dry off later, rather than the other way round!

Friday, 3 July 2015

202. Senegal Thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis)

Senegal Thick-Knees are closely related to Eurasian Stone Curlews, as evidenced by their very similar appearance. The main differences are that Senegal Thick-knees have a slightly longer, stouter bill with more black than the Stone Curlew, no black-bordered white wing-bar, and a slightly plainer outer tail. They are more closely tied to water, preferring similar habitats to Eurasian Stone Curlews but always near rivers, lakes, mangroves or irrigated fields. Senegal Thick-knees are resident in Egypt and also much of central sub-Saharan Africa.

Senegal Thick-knee, ©Sergey Yeliseev, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Senegal Thick-knee painting.
Quite pleased with this one, although its tail is rather too short.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

30 Days Wild | Day 30 - Marbled White discovery!

For the final day of 30 Days Wild, I was once again pondering what I might do, not having planned anything specific. However I needn't have worried - as so often happens, nature swooped in to inspire me out of the blue!

I've blogged quite a lot during 30 Days Wild about my commute along the canal towpath from Selly Oak to Birmingham University. I've walked this way since August last year so have really enjoyed seeing the seasons unfold along this route day by day. There are some really nice bits of grassland and scrubby habitat, only small fragments, but as far as I can tell they are undisturbed - I don't think they are ever mowed, due to their inaccessibility. One such fragment is this slope beneath the canal where it crosses a road:

Steep grassy slope, viewed from the canal towpath (that's the railway on the other bridge).
I've often thought this slope looked like it might be a good spot for butterflies, and indeed this year have already spotted a few Common Blues and Large Skippers on it. However, when I peered over onto the slope in passing during this morning's commute, I thought I must have been mistaken - there were two Marbled Whites chasing each other through the grass! Throwing all thoughts of punctuality out of the window, I stopped, leaning over the bridge railings to get a good look and make sure my eyes were not deceiving me.Yep - Marbled Whites they were! I knew that there were only a handful of sites in the West Midlands where they had been recorded (the Rowley Hills being the best) so I was pretty excited at the thought that this could potentially be a previously unknown colony. I contacted EcoRecord once I'd got to work, and they confirmed that they had no records of Marbled White from this site previously - the nearest they had was Woodgate Valley. I couldn't wait to get out for a proper look on my lunch break.

At lunchtime I tried to count the Marbled Whites. I saw a maximum of four on the wing at any one time, there were probably a few more hiding in the grass too. As my camera is very old and a bit rubbish, and the slope itself is not accessible, I couldn't get any good photos of the butterflies, and although I did try to see if I could capture them on video, this was unsuccessful! But here is a Marbled White photo that I took on Saturday in the Rowley Hills :o)

Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) butterfly.
As well as on the slope, the Marbled Whites were also using the grassland at the top of the slope, behind a fence.

Grassland at the top of the slope.

Grassland at the top of the slope.
I'm going to keep checking back every day - can't believe I can see Marbled Whites five minutes from my office! Hopefully their numbers will increase over the next week or two - their peak flight period is mid-July. I'll try and get some better photos too with my other camera. What a great end to my 30 Days Wild!

Monday, 29 June 2015

30 Days Wild | Day 29 - botanical art

I was pondering what to do for day 29 of 30 Days Wild at work this morning, when I opened a weekly news email from the University. Inside, among other items, was a bit of information about a small exhibition of botanical art currently on display on campus - just the thing to go and have a look at on my lunch break!

The exhibition showed how botanical art had changed through the centuries, as its purposes and applications had changed alongside. There were some beautiful illustrations and books of various types on display, the books being my favourite.

Although I enjoyed the work on display, I wasn't inspired to try my own botanical illustrations - I'm enjoying learning about plants but they just don't quite hold the same interest for me as birds do, and I can't imagine getting the same pleasure from creating my own images of plants as I do birds. I will stick to enjoying other people's botanical depictions!

Sunday, 28 June 2015

30 Days Wild | Day 28 - suburban wanderings

On Day 28 of 30 Days Wild, I waited until the weather got good in the late afternoon, then set out for a walk around my neighbourhood. Although we've lived in Bournville (south Birmingham) for a year now, I haven't had as much of a chance as I would have liked to get to know the area - it's a very pleasant place to walk around and I feel lucky to live here.

To start my walk, I walked across Rowheath playing fields where I saw House Martins swooping and feeding over the grass.

Rowheath playing fields.
At the other side of the fields was a part I hadn't seen before, an area of rougher grassland, not mown like the rest of the fields. I was intrigued by this area, although it had obviously been left to grow there wasn't much in the way of amenity grassland species - there were quite a few grasses and loads of clover, but it was sparsely vegetated. Basically it looked like it was crying out for someone to go and chuck a load of grassland wildflower seed over it to increase the species diversity a bit!

Rough grassland at Rowheath playing fields.

Rough grassland at Rowheath playing fields.

From there I headed along the little path to Woodlands Park, which has plenty of fine old mature trees, then across the road to a couple more fields. I don't really like Grey Squirrels normally but there was a young one foraging around under some trees next to the fields and it was pretty cute!

Woodlands Park.

Woodlands Park.
Juvenile Grey Squirrel.
I skirted around the edge of the fields along the slightly sketchy path following a small stream, and was rewarded with a family of Nuthatches feeding in the trees, and a cute juvenile Blue Tit!

Good for Nuthatches.
Emerging at the end of this path I was in the furthermost of two fields, this one another unmowed field with a path around the edge. I'd visited here once before but in the middle of winter, so was excited to see what I'd find in summer. It was pretty good for Birmingham suburbs!

I don't know what these fields are called or if they even have a name, so can't really caption them adequately!

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) butterfly.

Lovely masses of this growing in the grass, I think it is Lesser Stitchwort (Stellaria graminea).

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) butterfly.

As well as the above, I also saw a Blackcap singing his head off, and coming back out of the fields, I saw a Sparrowhawk fly into one of the trees around the field edges. I walked back a quicker way along roads, but still saw a Swift darting around up high. As usual when I go out for walks on my own, this had ended up being longer than planned but that was fine by me! It's got me thinking about other walks to do over summer in the neighbourhood, I might try Kings Norton Nature Reserve next....