Saturday, 29 August 2015

206. Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

Here's one I've been looking forward to for a while! Little Ringed Plovers are probably one of my favourite birds, because obviously, they are adorable. They are a regular visitor to RSPB Sandwell Valley although their breeding attempts have not always been successful there (if only they would nest next to the Common Terns, I'm sure their eggs and chicks would then avoid predation). A few thousand of these diminutive waders breed in the southern half of the UK, and they are a relatively recent arrival here, having bred for the first time in the 1930s. They like sparsely vegetated pebbly/sandy/muddy shorelines along freshwater, such as at gravel pits, lakes, reservoirs, sewage works and along rivers. Even post-industrial sites with puddles will serve (see below)! Little Ringed Plovers look similar to Ringed Plovers, but are smaller and slimmer, with a bright yellow eye-ring in the adults and lacking the bright orange legs of their larger relatives. Juvenile look quite similar to the adults, but lack the black face pattern and breast band, having more tentative brown markings instead, and also have no yellow eye-ring. Outside of the UK, they are very widely distributed - breeding virtually continuously all the way across to Japan, although they are not usually found in large numbers. There are resident populations in some parts of south Asia, and others winter in central Africa and parts of equatorial Asia.

Another reason why I like Little Ringed Plovers so much is that one of my formative birding experiences involved them, so they remind me of that time of discovery and also of the other fun stuff that was going on in my life back then. It was back in 2008 when I was living in York with my parents after finishing my first degree, and trying to work out what to do next. I was working part time at a jewellery shop with some lovely people, building up my birding skills by volunteering at St Nicholas Fields and enjoying loads of great live music with my gig buddy Barwell.....good times! I used to commute to work on foot, a walk of around 45 minutes, which took me past the old carriageworks next to York railway station. This was an area of derelict industrial land which was starting to be reclaimed by nature; I often wondered what interesting things I might find there if I could explore it but I don't think there was any 'official' way in. I was always peering in anyway while walking past and one day in May I noticed a couple of small, fluffy, long-legged chicks bobbling around on the gravel! They were very close but without adult plumage I wasn't sure what they might be. After that I brought my binoculars whenever I walked along that route, and although I didn't see the plovers every time, had soon found an adult. Back then I wasn't familiar with the differences between Ringed and Little Ringed Plover so as soon as I got to work I was on the laptop to check which it was, and bingo - of course it was Little Ringed Plover. A life tick for me at that time! Over the summer I saw them quite a few times, and was able to see the chicks grow up. In September that year I moved back to Birmingham where I've been ever since so I don't know whether the plovers returned again; I've seen many Little Ringed Plovers since too, but my first encounter with them remains one of my favourite birding memories.

Little Ringed Plover, ©Frank Vassen, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Little Ringed Plover painting.
Took my time on this one and I'm quite pleased with it :o)

Monday, 24 August 2015

Birthday fun on Cannock Chase

On Saturday it was my birthday, hurrah! I celebrated, as I often do, by ambling around some heathland.  Chris drove us to Cannock Chase where we spent a marvellous afternoon walking in the Sherbrook Valley area. The weather was hot and clammy but the heathland was looking great blanketed in purple heather.

Cannock Chase.
Cannock Chase.
As expected for the time of year it was fairly quiet bird-wise, the best thing we saw was a large family of Stonechats catching flies and repeatedly dropping down onto the path in front of us, presumably to feed on some insects there. We also saw Whitethroat, Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers and lots of Jays, and heard Raven and Blackcap. At one point we saw a Carrion Crow perched at the top of a tree, panting in the heat! I also spotted some interesting plants including a couple that were new to me. In the car park were Fairy Flax and Common Centaury:

Fairy Flax (Linum catharticum).
Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea).

Then on the heath, as well as all the more familiar plants, I found two I hadn't seen before:

This one looks like Climbing Corydalis (Ceratocapnos claviculata). Apparently it is an ancient woodland indicator too.
We found one large patch of this. I think it is the hybrid between Bilberry and Cowberry, Vaccinium x intermedium, which is known to grow on Cannock Chase. Exciting!
On top of all the nature fun I was having, Chris also got a bonus history fix, as we briefly checked out the German war cemetery and Katyn memorial. Cannock Chase has something for everyone! ;oD After an excellent afternoon we headed back home to continue the birthday fun (which mainly involved eating too much and watching Shaun the Sheep: The Movie). Good times!

Cannock Chase.
Cannock Chase.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

205. Black-winged Pratincole (Glareola nordmanni)

Black-winged Pratincoles are very similar in appearance to Collared Pratincoles but with a few small differences. As the name suggests, Black-winged Pratincoles have darker wings; they also lack the white trailing edge on the inner wing that Collared Pratincoles have. Their tail is slightly shorter, so that the wings extend beyond the tail tip when the bird is at rest, and they also have slightly longer legs and less red on the bill. Juveniles of both species look pretty much identical though! The habitat is similar to that of Collared Pratincoles but with more of a preference for wetter, more vegetated habitats. Black-winged Pratincoles breed mainly in central Asia, with their distribution stretching from Ukraine to the northern tip of China; they winter in parts of southern and western Africa. They are a rare vagrant to western Europe.

Black-winged Pratincole, ©Sergey Pisarevskiy, via Flickr Creative Commons.


Quite a quick one today. Bit chunky again as is my tendency.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

204. Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola)

Collared Pratincoles are very smart if slightly weird waders. They have long pointed wings and forked tails, making them appear tern- or swallow-like in flight, and they feed by hawking for insects in flight. For a wader they have relatively short legs and bill too. The plumages are similar in both adult males and females; in summer it is as in the photo below and in winter they lose their black collar and red at the base of the bill. Juveniles also lack these features, and have mottled wings and a broad spotted breast-band. Their preferred habitat is open, flat, dry areas near water, mudflats, saltpans, wet meadows, canals and river and estuary edges. They breed in various parts of southern Europe and north Africa around the Mediterranean, and further east as far as Kazakhstan. They winter in sub-Saharan and parts of east Africa; there are also resident populations here too. Every so often a vagrant turns up in the UK and other parts of northern Europe.

Collared Pratincole, ©Pedro Jordano, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Collared Pratincole painting.
Hmm that Pratincole on the right is a bit of a big fella! I did have two attempts at sketching it out, the first time was even bigger.... This was the last page of my current sketchbook, the next one is bigger so hopefully going off the edge of the page will be less of a problem.

It's nice having a bit more free time now for painting as my degree is nearing its end, I only have one more assignment to submit in September. As well as work for my blog I've also been doing some other paintings (hence fewer posts on here) which will remain secret and mysterious for now! Have been practicing my newly-acquired driving skills too, with mixed results - today I drove to the Clent Hills with Chris for a lovely walk, but my driving was not quite so lovely. I was feeling a bit discouraged by this but doing this painting cheered me up a bit, as I enjoy painting in and of itself (obviously) and it also reminded me that when I first started, my bird paintings and drawings were of a lower standard than they are today. If you practice at anything, you will improve!

View towards Birmingham from the Clent Hills.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Stroll on the Rowley Hills with SandNats and my new camera

On Saturday I went on an excellent stroll over the Rowley Hills with SandNats, a group I hadn't been out with before. They are a super knowledgeable bunch; the focus of the walk was invertebrates (about which I know practically nothing) so it was a eye-opening experience for me. I still prefer birds, plants and rocks though ;o)

I was also super excited to try out my new (to me) camera! It is actually my brother's old camera, but he had recently upgraded to a newer model and very kindly gave me his old one. It's a Lumix G2 which is a few years old now, but compared to the cameras I was using previously it's a massive step up! It does have one problem with it (the reason my bro decided to upgrade) - it possibly has a bit of grit or something in the lens as it is a bit jerky when focussing. BUT, with the help of a handy adaptor I will be able to use all the lenses from my ancient film SLR (a Praktica PL nova 1b) with it! This will hopefully mean I can get some better photos of birds, obviously an exciting prospect. The adaptor only arrived today so I couldn't use any other lenses on the Rowley Hills on Saturday, but I was still very pleased with the first photos I took with the camera.

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) on Lucerne (Medicago sativa).

Robin's Pincushion gall produced by the wasp Diplolepis rosae.

Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus).

If I was a Bee-eater prospecting the UK, I'd think this would make a fine home. Come on Bee-eaters, you know you want to.

The find of the day! Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis).

Another great find, Roesel's Bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii).

The Rowley Hills.
Very common but I love the fuzzy thistledown of Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense).
Me playing with my new camera (Mike Poulton took this one!)

The pond at the edge of Bury Hill Park.
Love the Rowley Hills.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sandwell Valley - August 2015

On Sunday I was back once again for my monthly volunteering stint at RSPB Sandwell Valley, but it was a bit of a different day to normal. We had a big Family Fun Day event arranged to celebrate the opening of the brand new visitor centre and with wildlife activities aplenty expertly organised by Alex, Cathy and Nadia, and a good weather forecast, were hoping to get a good turnout! When Alf and I arrived the place was teeming with volunteers; we'd all been allocated a role in Alex's Rota (our masterplan for the day). Instead of my usual place in the hide I was down to be a 'roving' volunteer in the morning and afternoon, walking around the reserve and talking to visitors, and to cover other volunteers' lunch breaks around lunchtime. Sounded good to me - I would get to do a nice variety of things.

I started off with a walk around the reserve which was looking great in the sunshine.

The Marsh.
Forge Mill Lake.
I saw and spoke to a few people; bird-wise it was fairly quiet as expected for the time of year. There were lots of Reed Warblers skulking around in the reeds fringing Forge Mill Lake; a fair bit of Green Woodpecker activity (we'd seen a juvenile and an adult from the centre before I set off) and the usual suspects on the lake. The juvenile Common Terns were still around and doing well, and I saw a very cute juvenile Blackcap hopping around in the bushes on the lake bank. I also saw quite a few Large White butterflies and a few Small Whites, plus the odd Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown. The Himalayan Balsam was in full flow and getting a bit out of hand in places - it's very difficult to keep on top of. It does provide nectar for various pollinators though.

As well as this hoverfly I saw plenty of bumblebees visiting the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera ) flowers.
I also managed to find a plant I'd never seen on the reserve before.

Common Centaury (Centaurium erythraea). Lovely.
I headed back to the new volunteer room in the visitor centre for an early lunch, in preparation for covering other volunteers' lunch breaks. At 12:30 I was scheduled to cover pond dipping at pond 2! The last time I did any pond dipping was probably at least 2 decades ago, although I did also remember a bit of the identification stuff from the short aquatic invertebrate monitoring project I did much more recently as part of my degree. After watching the demonstration from chief pond-dipper Rachel though I soon got the hang of it and had a great time looking at what everyone had found and helping them identify their critters. There were plenty of newt tadpoles, water boatmen, whirligig beetles, snails, leeches and the like. Both kids and parents were well into it! It was a big contrast to my relatively quiet morning wandering around the lake but it was good fun. Each session lasted half an hour then at the end we had to make sure everyone had put all their pond beasties safely back into the pond, and rinse out and fill the trays and pots with a bit of pond water ready for the next group.

Learning how to pond dip!
At 13:30 I was covering pond dipping at pond 1! As it turned out, pond 1 seemed to be short of volunteers for the rest of the afternoon so that's where I stayed until 16:00 when it was time to start clearing up. The afternoon was so hectic I didn't have time to take any more photos! It was great helping visitors find and identify pond creatures and seeing them getting so excited about nature. I also saw Mike Poulton and we had a quick chat about the latest Friends of Rowley Hills antics, things are going well with our group. Once the pond dipping equipment was tidied away I caught up with Alf and Colin who'd had similarly busy days in the centre, showing visitors birds through their scopes. The centre was still packed with people; visitor numbers had far exceeded what we were expecting. They did all eventually leave though, and we were left slightly dazed but very happy with how successful the day had been!

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!