Monday, 21 July 2014

Sandwell Valley - July 2014

Yesterday I was back volunteering at Sandwell Valley after a few months off due to Open University work taking over a bit (with the exception of a couple of early-morning visits for the breeding bird survey). It was great to be back for a full day!

As there were enough volunteers in the hide for the morning, Alf and I went on a wander around the reserve. Bird-wise it was quiet, and the weather was rather warm and muggy, although we didn't get any rain (unlike the previous day, during which Birmingham was battered by torrential rain and thunderstorms!). Alf was keen to look for new plants to try and ID - he said as his eyes weren't as good as they used to be, he was getting more interested in things that keep a bit more still than birds! So we spent a pleasant morning seeking out plants - here are a few that we spotted.

Cut-leaved Cranes-bill (Geranium dissectum).

Lots of this about, Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum).

This was growing in the damp boggy spot outside the hide, it looks like Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga).

This was also in the same spot as the Brooklime, I think it is Marsh-Bedstraw (Galium palustre).
We also saw a fair few butterflies, including loads of Gatekeepers, a Comma, Meadow Browns, Small Skippers, Large and Small Whites.

A shy and retiring Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina).

Gatekeeper enjoying the sun (Pyronia tithonus).
Stopping off quickly at the visitor centre before heading down to the hide for the afternoon, we heard the Rose-ringed Parakeets squawking away in the trees behind the centre. From the hide there was a bit more bird action, including 3 Oystercatchers (one of them being one of this year's juveniles), a Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk which each separately caused mayhem among the Black-headed Gulls and Lapwings when they flew over, Common Terns, a Common Sandpiper, Kingfisher and a few Pochards. We had a slow but steady stream of visitors all afternoon so I had a bit of time to continue practicing my digiscoping and sketching.

This Pochard was about the best I managed through my scope - a bit vignetted but I like it.
Very variable sketches of Black-headed Gulls!

Pochard sketches, was trying to get him preening on the left.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Mercantour National Park - La Madone de Fenestre

Here's the final, rather tardy, blog post about my recent trip to the French Alps. We moved house over the weekend and it didn't go quite as smoothly as planned, plus I have an Open University assignment due in today - so at least I have some good excuses for my tardiness! Once we've settled in to our new house and I've caught up on my OU reading, I'm hoping to start painting again, now my thumb is just about feeling better :o)

On our third and final day in the Alps, we went on an epic walk starting and ending at La Madone de Fenestre refuge in the Mercantour National Park. This was located kind of around the treeline, with sparse trees dotted around at our starting altitude. There were enough still to provide a habitat for the birds we spotted as we set off, a Nutcracker being mobbed by 2 angry Mistle Thrushes! Around a stream by the car park I also saw a few Yellow Wagtails.

The start of our walk.
Going up...
Pretty soon we were snowshoed up and ascending some slightly alarming gradients! This was definitely the most epic walking I had ever done, concentration was required to follow in our guide Mel's footsteps and dig our feet into the snow properly at each step, for us city dwellers unused to hoofing up mountains it was hard on the ol' legs! On this walk we'd been joined by another couple who were also staying at the gîtes, they were a similar age and were similarly experienced to us when it came to walking (i.e. this was also the most epic walk they had ever done!) so it was nice to share the walk with them.

Looking towards the refuge.

Looking towards the refuge from a bit higher up!
The first part of the walk consisted of several steep ascents like this, interspersed with more level parts and short breaks to rehydrate and re-apply sun cream - it was sunny to start out with and we worked up quite a sweat. I was kind of glad that it soon clouded over as it made the going a bit easier.

View from the ascent.
View from the ascent.
It wasn't long before we saw more Chamois, and our first Alpine Marmots scurrying across the snow! I'd never seen Marmots before, they were bigger than I thought they'd be - think I was expecting something more Lemming-sized for some reason. They weren't too bothered by people and we saw plenty during our walk, some quite close to. We also heard them whistling!

Before the scrubby vegetation disappeared at higher altitudes, we heard lots more Lesser Whitethroats too, I still didn't manage to see one though! Higher up, as the vegetation became much smaller and sparser, there was a lot more uninterrupted snow which was great for spotting animal tracks and signs:

Chamois footprints.
Wolf footprints.
Wolf poop, with a bit of fox poop too (smaller, darker, less furry bits)!
We stopped for lunch on a prominent knoll from which the snow had melted; its dark colour compared to the surrounding snow meant it was pleasantly warm, having absorbed the sun's rays in the morning. Added to this, it was scattered with tiny treasures - miniature Alpine plants!

Alpine Bird's-foot Trefoil, Gentian sp. and Houseleek sp. in our lunchtime spot (apologies for lack of definite IDs!)
The best part of our lunch break though was the juvenile Golden Eagle which flew right over us - my first Golden Eagle, and despite my lack of eagle ID skills, there was no mistaking this one due to its close proximity! Brilliant! After lunch we set off again across the snow, and I spotted distant Wheatear and Black Redstart on some of the scree slopes and rocky outcrops. After a while we had to stop while Mel scouted out the safest route back down - I was glad we were with an expert guide, this was definitely not a walk I would have attempted without someone who knew what they were doing! Here are a few photos I took while he did this.

Up on top.
Up on top.
Up on top.
We started to descend, down some equally steep slopes as the ones we'd come up. This time we carried our snowshoes, and had to dig the sides of our feet into fresh snow to gain a good purchase at each step. I was not strong at this and made slow progress! However at different points we all had a go at sliding down on our bums which sped things up somewhat. As we descended we entered a wooded valley, through which a meltwater stream ran. However this stream was completely hidden beneath the snow and we had to carefully follow in Mel's footsteps to ensure we didn't suddenly plunge through! At one point we had to cross the stream at a carefully-chosen point - we took it one at a time, treading very carefully and tentatively.

As the woods thickened, we saw more boreal birds, and I added Willow Tit to my list. I also spotted this lovely flower:

I think it is a Snowbell sp.
As we reached the end of the walk, Mel informed us that he would place it into the 'challenging' category, that he wouldn't often get the chance to attempt as often their visitors were older and less sprightly than us, so we all felt pretty pleased with ourselves about that!

Chris and I feeling pretty pleased about having conquered a challenging route!
I have attempted to mark out our approximate route on this photo of the map that I took back at the gîte. I think we deviated slightly from some of the mapped paths depending on snow conditions but it gives the main gist!

Our route.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Changeable weather at Weeting Heath and Lakenheath Fen

Yesterday I was off once again on the West Midland Bird Club coach, this time to Weeting Heath in Norfolk and Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk. The day proved to be one of highs and lows in terms of the weather, and consequently the birding!

We arrived at Weeting Heath mid-morning, and the rain started pretty much just as we stepped off the coach. However we were soon ensconced in the hide, enjoying up to 8 Stone Curlews running around on the heath, and a couple of their chicks too! We also saw 2 Stoats chasing each other around like crazy creatures, not great news if you're a Stone Curlew (or a Rabbit, of which we also saw many) but very fun to watch. Lapwings, Pied Wagtails and Stock Doves were also spotted on the heath. With the rain intensifying, we decided not to chance the woodland trail in search of Woodlarks, and instead dashed into the woodland hide. Sadly the feeders were completely empty so bird action was a bit thin on the ground, but we did see a nice Marsh Tit briefly come and check the feeders, and also Goldfinches, Chaffinches, a Great Tit family and a Green Woodpecker in the trees behind the feeders. By now the rain was getting torrential, and we whizzed back to the coach and set off for Lakenheath.

Upon arrival at Lakenheath, some brave souls decided to venture out into the wet conditions which by now could accurately be described as biblical. The rest of us stayed on the coach and ate our lunches, thinking that all the birds would be sheltering in this weather. After about 45 minutes and when the rain looked like it might be easing, we got as far as the visitor centre before it bucketed down again with renewed effort! We stayed in there for another 20 minutes or so, and managed at least to see a few birds on the feeders including Reed Bunting, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the trees.

View from the visitor centre. Please stop raining!
We finally set out when the rain again went from being torrential to merely heavy, hot-footing it to the first viewing shelter where we found most of the rest of our group. While we were here, the rain finally stopped, and the sun came out, along with ALL THE BIRDS!!

Before - rainy grey skies...
.....after - skies-a-clearing!
We saw 3 Kingfishers, which were very active - flying around a lot and perching prominently on reeds. A pair of Marsh Harriers appeared and chased each other around for a while, giving us a good chance to observe the difference in size and build between the male and the female. There were also plenty of Kestrels and a Hobby around, although we were to get much better views of many Hobbies later on! We saw 2 pairs of Common Tern and a few Reed Warblers hopping around in the reeds. A Bearded Tit, after pinging around for a bit hidden in the reeds, emerged out on top of a seedhead quite close by, giving us super views! This was particularly pleasing as the conditions immediately post-rain were quite calm, but the wind soon picked up so that later on, although we heard more Bearded Tits, we didn't see any venture up out of the reeds. Finally, after the rest of our group had moved on, Andy M spotted a Little Egret, and then a Bittern flying over the reeds, for quite a distance - awesome!

We headed off up to the next viewpoint, where we'd heard Cranes could hopefully be seen.... on the way, the sun brought out all the butterflies, and we saw Green-veined White, Ringlet, Large Skipper, Small Tortoiseshell and Meadow Brown. Here are a few pictures:

Green-veined White (Pieris napi) on Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) on Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense).

Small White (Pieris Rapae).
Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) on Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris). View large for the full 'being eyeballed by a Large Skipper' experience.
A rather pale Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) on Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense).
I also spotted a new plant to try and identify:

I think it is Black Horehound (Ballota nigra).
When we reached the next viewpoint, there were Marsh Harriers galore - at least 8 floating over the reedbed. A smashing Hobby also flew right over our heads! We didn't stay long however, as a passing couple told us where to see the Cranes from, just a bit further along the path on the river bank. We headed over and had soon located the Cranes, a pair in the field on the other side of the river. We had to keep moving around to maintain our view as the vegetation on the opposite river bank temporarily obscured the Cranes as they moved around, feeding in the field. However we all got excellent views and watched the Cranes for some time - this was only the second time seeing Cranes for me, and the first time was in rather poor light, although we did hear them trumpeting on that occasion :o) After that we all felt pretty pleased with the day, after its initially very unpromising beginning, and we set off back to the coach, enjoying more hunting Hobbies and butterfly action on the river banks as we went.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Mercantour National Park - Le Boréon

Here's another blog post about my recent trip to France. On our second day in the Alps we went on a most excellent walk in Le Boréon, the area near to the Alpha Wolf Park that we'd visited the previous day. Our wise guide Mel had originally been planning a different, higher-altitude walk, but the weather forecast for the latter part of the day was not great so instead we set out on this slightly less ambitious but nonetheless lovely walk!

Near the start of the walk.
Our walk started at the bottom of a valley which we gradually ascended. To begin with the forest was thick, with lots of Spruce. One thing that made a big impression upon me in the Alps was how many trees there are, living in the UK I am used to seeing all upland areas grazed to the max so it was great to see mountains thickly blanketed with trees. There were occasional patches of snow on the ground, which increased in number and size the higher we got. Here are a few things we saw during the first part of the walk:

Ants' nest. Mel jimmied them around a bit to get them to squirt acid!

Another flower whose identity I have sadly forgotten.
As we ascended, the Spruce disappeared and the forest became more open, dominated by Larch and Arolla Pine. Mel said that we should expect to see Nutcrackers soon as this was their preferred habitat, and he was not wrong! Nutcrackers like to eat the seeds from the Arolla Pine cones, and the pine is reliant upon them caching its seeds, enabling it to disperse to new habitats much like Jays and oaks back at home. Soon I was enjoying my first Nutcracker, and the first of many we spotted whilst in the Alps. They were one of my favourite birds that we saw, very jaunty with a bright alert intelligent look, a mighty bill, and a loud 'KRARK' call which carried quite a long way!

Another new creature we saw plenty of was Chamois - once the trees had thinned out, to one side of the path there were frequent snow-filled gullies on the hillsides. It was very easy to spot Chamois walking across these!

Snow-filled gullies, good for spotting Chamois!
Distant Chamois on the snow.
As we got higher, the path become more frequently covered in snow, but not badly enough for us to need our snowshoes. Although I unsurprisingly didn't see any of the little skulkers, we heard loads of Lesser Whitethroats - they seemed to like the low-growing dwarf rhododendron and juniper bushes. This was a slightly different habitat to what I am used to seeing them in, I had no idea they were found at such high altitudes (+2000 feet)! We also saw Treecreeper, Chiffchaff and a Tree Pipit singing his head off at the top of a pine, and heard Redstart and Nuthatch.

Higher up. North-facing valleys were still completely snow-covered, and some of the snow was stained yellow by Saharan dust carried on the wind and deposited.

Higher up.

Once more I got a bit excited about the fine igneous and metamorphic rock specimens that were to be found! 

Glassy grey quartz, opaque white feldspar, nice shiny biotite. Classic granite!
Ignimbrite, great example of a very ugly volcanic rock!

This one was a bit more cryptic. It looks as though it has some banding and quite a lot of biotite, perhaps it is a gneiss-like rock.
As the walk progressed, the weather conditions did become more grey and cloudy and sadly we had to turn back before we could break through the treeline to reach the lake (Lac Nègre) that we were aiming for. It was the right decision though as it did start to gently drizzle on our way back down. Fortunately the weather didn't get any worse than this and our descent was just as enjoyable as the walk up had been (with possibly more falling over in the snow from me :oD). Here are a final couple of photos of the amazing scenery :o)

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mercantour National Park - Alpha, Le Parc des Loups

Here is the second of my blog posts about our recent trip to southern France. As well as spending a few days in Nice, we also stayed in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes Maritimes. Our hosts were Liz and Mel at their lovely gîtes in beautiful Berthemont les Bains:

Our base!
View from Berthemont Les Bains.
Meadow in Berthemont les Bains.
As well as the awesome scenery and comfy accommodation, our stay here included a different guided walk every day and all the delicious food you could eat! Liz and Mel were great hosts and I would recommend their services to anyone thinking of visiting this part of France :o) Here are a few photos of the garden of the gîtes, the underlying limestone bedrock meant the lawn was very species-rich, full of beautiful and unfamiliar flowers most of which I was unable to identify!

The garden.
Mystery flower 1!

Mystery flower 2!
Good ol' Quaking Grass (Briza media), one of my favourites :o)

The surrounding area was teeming with bird life too - Cuckoos were calling all day and Tawny Owls all night in the valley, and among others I saw Spotted Flycatchers, Serins and Crag Martins in the village. I also saw a pair of Peregrines circling high up around a crag, and we saw a distant pair of eagles near the same crag but their identification remains a bit of a mystery - they looked to have pale underwings but with darker coverts, and weren't light enough underneath to be Short-Toed, nor dark enough for Golden, and I think we were a bit outside the usual range of Bonelli's Eagle. Hmmm! If only my raptor ID skills were better :oD

Our first trip was to the Alpha Parc des Loups (wolf park) in Le Boréon. Here there are three captive semi-wild wolf packs of varying sizes, which are kept in large enclosures in the forest. Wolves have in the past couple of decades recolonised the French Alps from Italy and the park concentrates on the ecology of the wolf and the conflict that has arisen as a result of their return to France. 

Alpha Parc des Loups.

There were three different 'scénovision' presentations that combined audio, video and various props and scenes to tell the story of wolves in the Alps from three different viewpoints. They were an old shepherd who was pretty peeved about the wolves returning, as they predate his sheep and his only defence is his dogs; his son who has become a wolf ecologist working in Italy (the two of them don't get on); and the son's teenage daughter who has followed in her grandad's footsteps but at the same time, sees that the wolves play an important ecological role and hopes that humans can work out ways to coexist with them. I kind of assumed that they were fictional characters, invented to perfectly encapsulate all the opportunities and problems brought by wolves, but it turned out they are actually a real family! This brought extra depth to the stories for me; unsurprisingly I found the wolf ecologist's viewpoint most interesting. We particularly enjoyed the dramatic nighttime footage of several vigilant and tireless sheepdogs defending their flock of sheep against attack by a wolf pack!

Le Boréon.
In the thick coniferous forest of the park, I could once again hear what I assumed were Firecrests - however this time I finally managed to see one, woop! There were Coal Tits aplenty too, and Ravens which hang around waiting for the wolves to be fed. I also got a bit excited about the rocks - there were lovely chunks of gneiss everywhere..... when I did the geology module of my OU degree we got a box full of examples of different rocks, and the gneiss in that looked exactly the same as the bits we were seeing!

Textbook gniess! Mmm look at those layers of segregated mafic and felsic minerals, like a lovely cake!
In between watching the presentations, we had plenty of time to see the wolf packs. In the morning we watched the park's newest arrivals, three young Canadian wolves, being fed. They were very different in appearance to the park's other wolves, which were all European; although not yet fully-grown, they were larger, with much darker fur and longer snouts.

Canadian wolves feeding time.
In the afternoon it was time to watch the largest wolf pack being fed! It was really interesting to observe their behaviour, the hierarchical structure of their society was clear with the most dominant animals getting first dibs and some of the less dominant wolves getting less or even nothing to eat. They also for the most part took their food off somewhere to eat it alone, although some animals went to the same place which inevitably led to squabbles and growling.

Milling around pre-feed.
Feeding time.
A cheeky Raven getting in on the action!

Some of the younger wolves inspected the food, but decided not to take any, presumably as they might risk punishment from older, more dominant wolves if they did.
Bit of argy-bargy over food.
Well hello.