Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Sandwell Valley - October 2015

On Sunday I was back at RSPB Sandwell Valley for my monthly volunteering stint. Although the forecast had been for sunny spells, the day ended up being one of blazing sunshine and cloud-free skies and I felt a bit overdressed in my woolly jumper (I am ready for winter!). The calm conditions meant that there wasn't much out of the ordinary around but we had an enjoyable day nonetheless. 

Alf and I started the day with our usual walk around the reserve. We began by heading up to the horse paddock as I thought I'd spotted a Fox sunbathing there (as they often do) from the car on the way in. When we got to the paddock there were no signs of life, so we turned around to walk down to the river, only to see a bushy russet tail whisk away into the undergrowth on the other side of the road! The sneaky fox had probably been watching us the whole time! So I was unsuccessful in my attempts to get a Fox photo, but here are a few other photos of the reserve looking splendid in the early autumn sun.

The woodland around the path leading down to Kingfisher Corner.
Not 100% sure but I think this is Prickly Sow-thistle (Sonchus asper).
A very shiny iridescent beetle on some Nettles. My identification efforts only got me as far as some kind of leaf beetle, can anyone else identify it more conclusively?
Forge Mill Lake.
The new nature-themed screen looking over the marsh.
We saw a pair of what we were 90% sure were Ravens flying down the railway line near the bridge - they zoomed past us so we only caught a glimpse, but their apparent large size, longish-looking tails and the whoosh of air against their powerful wings gave us definite Raven vibes. Along the River Tame we saw Grey Wagtail and Meadow Pipit, some nice views of Snipe on the far side of the islands, several Buzzards up and enjoying the clear skies, and there was lots of Jay action, unsurprising for the time of year. We saw a fair few busily ferrying acorns around, causing us to ponder the mutualistic relationship between Jays and Oaks, and also between other species of jay and tree. I then started thinking about jays generally and how awesome they are - I have only seen three jay species (Eurasian, Siberian and Blue); how amazing would it be to see every jay species in the world!

From the hide Teal had increased in number since my last visit and there seemed to be plenty of Gadwalls quacking around, but only a few Shovelers and one Pochard. The Kingfishers were putting on a good display once again, they seem to have become used to using the numbered posts around the Lake edge as perches. We also heard the squeal of a Water Rail which remained typically hidden in the reeds, and the Lapwings were very jumpy indeed, all taking flight at the slightest provocation. Our best sighting of the day was a  Mediterranean Gull roosting with the Black-headed Gulls; it was preening its snowy plumage with one hefty bill! I enjoyed playing with my new camera once again; here are some of the results:

A Coot enjoying Alf's apple core.

A Coot reflecting.
Due most likely to the pleasant weather, the hide was very busy so I sadly didn't have much time for drawing. Here's what I produced; I think it's probably my best attempt yet at a Snipe (previous efforts have been pretty terrible!):

Snipe and aborted Gadwall sketches.
Finally, back in the centre, I picked up a copy of the new RSPB Sandwell Valley Flora produced by SandNats. Looking forward to getting stuck into this!

Essential reading for Sandwell Valley fans.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Lake District 2015 - fauna

In this blog post I'll be focussing on some of the birds and other animals I encountered during my holiday in the Lake District last week. As I had my new camera with me, I was hoping to be able to get some better photos of birds than I'd been able to previously, and happily this did prove to be the case!

On the morning of our first full day, we had the only really bad weather of the week - continuous heavy rain, which kept us indoors for a few hours. Despite the confinement however it ended up being an action-packed few hours! Our bedroom looked out over the cottage's lovely front garden, and the neighbours had several well-stocked feeders in their garden. This meant that there were birds aplenty constantly passing through our garden, and I found that I could use the bedroom as a comfy hide from which to take photos through the open window. The heavy rain meant that the light wasn't great, but I did manage to get a few shots I was quite pleased with.

Slightly soggy Siskin.
I was especially pleased to see a Nuthatch fly into a pipe embedded in the wall, for shelter from the rain. It stayed there for a long time, drying off and preening, and every so often checking on the rain to see if it had slackened off enough to head out again. Here are a few photos!

Nuthatch sheltering.
Has it stopped raining yet?

Nuthatch checking up on the weather.

Staying indoors for a little bit longer.
My photo hide backfired somewhat as I left the sash window open quite wide while I went off to do something else - when I came back a Robin had flown in and was trapped in our bedroom. However I was luckily able to trap and release it quite easily. When I came in it obviously became more distressed and was flying against the window which caused it to slip down between the two layers of sash window. I grabbed a spare towel and used it to block off the gap at the top while slowly lowering the bottom window to release the Robin into the towel. I carefully wrapped the towel around it, quickly opened the window again and opened the towel. The Robin flew away with no problems so hopefully there was no harm done. On top of that we then watched the Labour leadership election on telly, it really was a morning of non-stop excitement!

I had several more goes in my bedroom photo hide during the week and these are my best results from those. Fortunately the weather was rather good for the rest of the week so these are less gloomy than my photos from the first morning!

My favourite - a juvenile Blue Tit.

Juvenile House Sparrow stuffing its face.
Although a relatively quiet time of year for birds, we still saw some nice Lake District favourites on our walks. Ravens were everywhere, honking away, and there were large flocks of Meadow Pipits preparing for migration on the tops of nearly every hill we went up.

We also saw some great mammals! On our second day, Chris and I went on an awesome walk/climb up Eagle Crag. This was a challenging ascent (by my standards anyway) with several scrambles up steep gullies, slippery in places after all the recent rain, and some rather precarious narrow paths through the rocks.

Eagle Crag on the left hand side. Yep we went up that way.
The walk started along Greenup Gill, which we walked with Chris's parents Dawn and Dave (we would rendezvous with them later after descending from Eagle Crag). Along here we had a great encounter with a Stoat looping its way through the grass straight towards us, seemingly not realising we were heading right for it! In the end though it did notice us and turned around.

Greenup Gill.
About halfway up Eagle Crag we followed a short detour which Wainright informed us would lead to a viewpoint. That view turned out to include a magnificent young lone Red Deer stag, eyeballing us from further down the slope! I didn't have my zoom lens with me so you'll have to scrutinise the photo closely to find him ;o)

View full size to find the stag!
We had some superb views from the top, and the descent was much easier. Dave and Dawn were watching and guiding us from afar too, to the safest place to cross Greenup Gill which was rather swollen after all the rain!

View of Langstrath valley from Eagle Crag.
The terrain on the descent was much gentler!
On another day we took it a bit easier with a stroll around parts of Borrowdale.This took in different terrains and habitats, where we encountered various characteristic inhabitants of each! On bracken-covered slopes we spotted a pair of Stonechats and some migrating Phylloscopus warblers (either Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler, we only had brief glimpses). 

Brackeny slopes.

Along the shallow pebbly-bedded rivers there were Grey Wagtail, and a Dipper only a few metres away from the path, seemingly oblivious to our presence. 

Perfect Grey Wagtail and Dipper habitat.
Walking between Castle Crag and the adjacent ridge, which sloped downwards towards us and was strewn with small rocky outcrops, scree and intermittent stunted Hawthorns and Rowans, I spied a small flock (ten or so) of Ring Ouzels making their way south along the ridge! Having only seen my first Ring Ouzels earlier this year, this is still a VERY EXCITING bird for me to see. Although distant, their silvery wings catching the sunlight were unmistakeable. 

Ring Ouzels to be found at the top of the left-hand slope!

The most exciting encounter of this walk was along the wooded river valley and was one I'd been hoping for, no trip to the Lake District is complete without it! Chris and Dave were up ahead when I spotted a quick movement on an Oak next to the path - it was a Red Squirrel! I whizzed over quicksharp to get a good look. Luckily it stayed frozen for a few minutes while we ogled it, before scampering further up the trunk and out along a bough. I was too excited to think of taking photos of it!

My favourite bird encounter of the week was on our highest walk. Chris and I walked from the slate mine on the Honister Pass to Green Gable, and then up Great Gable. The cloud base was low and as we ascended Green Gable we entered the clouds. The view from the top was cryptic to say the least!
As we couldn't see much we decided this was a good opportunity to stop for lunch before heading on up Great Gable.
After a surprisingly quick ascent up Great Gable (perhaps fog can make time appear to pass differently) we were making our way towards the summit when I heard a few muffled, gentle peeping calls. Scanning through the fog I found a super-smart male Wheatear, and three Golden Plovers not too far away, wandering through the rubbly stones which provided the perfect camouflage. I watched them for a bit but Chris had already headed to the summit, so I went to catch him up and enjoy the intermittent views which appeared every so often through the clouds.

View of Wast Water from the top of Great Gable.
I wanted to watch the plovers for a bit longer though so went back and relocated them. In the misty murk this chance encounter with these unexpected travellers had a slightly mysterious and magical air.

View full size to spot the Plovers!
The final wildlife encounter of the week was much closer to home. On the last morning we were all rushing around packing our bags and tidying up as we had to leave the cottage by 10. I heard a sudden exclamation from Dawn - she'd opened the front door only to find a large Common Toad sitting on the doorstep! In fact it was more draped over the threshold (it must have been huddled against it before the door was open) so the door couldn't be closed again without crushing the poor amphibian's feet. I only had time to take a few quick photos, before I gave the Toad a gentle poke to try and encourage it on its way. It seemed very reluctant to move however, so I picked it up and carefully deposited it in some ivy covering the ground in the garden. The last I saw of the Toad was it crawling away into the undergrowth. Godspeed, Toad!

Common Toad.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

207. Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

Another smallish cute wader (there are lots!), Common Ringed Plovers or just Ringed Plovers to most are a widely distributed species, breeding in parts of northern Europe, northern Russia and Siberia and around the edge of Greenland. They winter in Africa - anywhere in the continent except the Sahara - and also around coastal parts of southern and western Europe (including bits of the UK) and the Middle East. The UK and nearby coastal regions of mainland Europe (France, Belgium and the Netherlands) are generally the only places where Ringed Plovers can be found all year round. Their preferred habitats are sandy or shingly beaches (against which they are excellently camouflaged) and other water margins e.g. along the edges of large lakes, mudflats and estuaries. During the breeding season they are not too gregarious but can form large flocks during migration and in winter. Their plumage is very distinctive; the photo shows an adult in summer. In winter the bill becomes mainly black and the legs may be slightly less bright orange; the black mask and breast band become browner and less distinctive. Juveniles look similar to winter adults, with duller orange or yellowish legs and less uniformly-coloured upperparts - they have a scaly appearance. Here in the UK the only other similar-looking species you're most likely to encounter is Little Ringed Plover; Ringed Plovers can be told apart by the lack of a yellow eye-ring, orange legs (and bill in summer), larger size and rounder, chunkier appearance.

Common Ringed Plover, ©Kjartan Birgisson, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Common Ringed Plover painting.
Not too shabby.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Lake District 2015 - flora

Last week I was on holiday in the Lake District with my partner Chris and his parents. We go there pretty much every year and always have a great time, walking in the hills and valleys and enjoying the wildlife. As always I was on the look out for new plants to try and identify, and although autumn was in the air we were still able to find plenty. Chris's mum Dawn is a wildflower fan also so we had fun trying to identify what we'd found!

I spotted the most new plants on the very first walk we did, which was from our cottage in Stonethwaite over to Watendlath and back again. It had been raining heavily in the morning but luckily by the afternoon it had pretty much stopped, although was still rather grey.

Looking down to Watendlath.
As well as new plants, I enjoyed trying out my camera on some old favourites. I'm a big fan of the heather triumvirate!

Bell Heather (Erica cinerea).

Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix).
Heather (Calluna vulgaris).
Lots of lovely heather on this walk.
And also the cute buds of Devil's-bit Scabious:

Devil's-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis).
On to the new ones....I hope I got the identifications correct for these:

Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale). Lots of this growing on certain parts of the hills between Dock Tarn and the path down to Watendlath.
Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia palustris). Nearly missed this hiding away in undergrowth beside the path.
Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum). I'd seen lots of the orange seed pods on walks around the same time last year, but hadn't found any still in flower until now.
We also found a patch of orchids, but we found another much bigger and better patch of orchids on another walk, coming down a valley towards Seathwaite after descending Great Gable. I think they were all Heath-spotted Orchids, but I'm not very sure!
Heading down the valley.

Heath-spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), possibly.

Heath-spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), possibly.

Heath-spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), possibly.
Next up, a blog post about the Lake District fauna we encountered :o)

Monday, 21 September 2015

Sandwell Valley - September 2015

Yesterday I was back once again for my monthly volunteering jaunt at RSPB Sandwell Valley. It had been a while since I was last there - September has been very busy so far, we went to End of the Road festival, had a week in the Lake District, oh and I FINISHED MY DEGREE! I submitted my final assignment on Saturday so now I have a bit more free time to play with and am looking forward to cracking on with various other fun projects that I've been planning for a while. 

Back to Sandwell Valley though.....Alf was off gallivanting around Portland Bill for the weekend so we didn't have our usual morning stroll, instead I was in the hide all day - I had no complaints about that though. I had my new camera with me and was looking forward to trying it out. Bird-wise it was quiet-ish, a few dregs of summer migrants were still sloshing about - we saw quite a few Swallows from the hide and there were several Chiffchaffs about, I even heard one singing briefly when I first arrived at the reserve. Small numbers of winter visitors have started to arrive - we had nice views of 2 Snipe feeding on the shore of Forge Mill Lake, and small groups of Teal and Shoveler dibbling around. We also enjoyed the antics of a Kingfisher making its way around the lake, stopping to sit on nearly every number-post; later on it was joined by its partner near the sluice gate. A Little Egret was a somewhat unusual visitor too, they only occasionally swing by Sandwell Valley, but this one had apparently been around for a while.

Here are a few photos...........

Little Egret on the move.

Massively cropped so not a good photo, but this gull (perching) is really bugging me! The one on the water is a Lesser Black-backed, the weird gull had similarly-coloured wings but pink legs and the strange bill pattern. Is it just a weird juvenile?
Robin outside the hide.
And here are some drawings! 

Black-headed Gull sketch.
A mixed bag of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gull sketches.
Back up at the centre I bought one of the limited edition Snipe badges to commemorate the opening of the new visitor centre. A lovely design and still some available, pin badge fans!