Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Normal for Norfolk

Barn Owl at Holkham NNR

Short of a warmly unseasonable September (figures crossed for it), August ban holiday marks the last chance for a summer camping break, and with a decent weather forecast the girlfriend and I headed for Norfolk. For the most part it was a beach holiday, to enjoy the sun, sea and sand, but you can't escape the birds of Norfolk, should you lose your mind and want to.

In the pinewoods behind the dunes at Holkham there had been reports of migrants right out of the top drawer - Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike, and one of the many Greenish Warblers turning up in Norfolk this August. Alas, carrying a beach tent and windbreak (essential items for a day on the Holkham sands) and other beach-going paraphernalia made birding a wee bit difficult, and day reports on Birdguides suggest all the aforementioned star birds had left anyway. The best I could find was a Kestrel hunting toads on the dunes, and a family of Willow Warbler. For all the world I willed one of them to have the pale wing-bar of a Greenish Warbler, but no.
What made up for any disappointment in the pines was the Barn Owl hunting over the open pasture and across the marsh. Splendidly close views of a bird it is forever special to see. Other birds along the walk back to the car park included Coal Tit, Little Egret and Curlew. Nothing to quite compare with the Spoonbill in April though. As we drove out we had another sighting of the Barn Owl as it nonchalantly whisped across the car park.

On the Monday the north winds blew, too cool for the beach, so we gambled on which of the North Norfolk birding sites to head for. We chose first NWT Cley Marshes. and there was plenty around; large numbers of Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff and Avocet, in the early afternoon a flock of 50 Golden Plover came in, many in still summer costume. Marsh Harrier is a speciality there, and I counted at least three males and three females, yet no juveniles. There wasn't much else to pick out though, and a Common Sandpiper was the only single wader of any note.

In the evening we had time for a quick stop at Titchwell Marsh RSPB, also a good place to get close views of waders. It was much the same as at Cley, plus a few Spotted Redshank, one Knot, a few Grey Plover, and my first Greenshank of the year (#176) was in the marshland just west of the reserve. It is always worth walking out on the beach at Titchwell, and although it was too hazy offshore to scour for skuas and shearwaters, many Sanderling, Turnstone, Dunlin and Oystercatcher pottered around on the surf line. I have always kept a soft spot in my heart for Sanderling - in their white winter plumage, they look somehow dainty and pure, perhaps spirit-like wardens of the tide.
Finally in to roost came six Little Egret. I'm still a kid really and even I'm old enough to remember how special that once would have been prior to their colonisation of these isles. Heck, it's still special!

Pictures from the weekend:

That Barn Owl again.

Little Egret at Holkham.

Greylag Geese at Holkham, many groups of 4-10 birds passed over heading east, presumably for a roost.

3 Black-tailed Godwit and a Ruff, at Titchwell.

The Titchwell scene.

And a couple of digi-scoped videos by the girlfriend:

Video 1 - Ruff at Titchwell
Video 2 - Little Egret Roost at Titchwell
Video 3 - More of the Holkham Barn Owl

Finally on the drive back home through the Norfolk farmland a Barn Owl was illuminated in our headlights. Fortunately veered right into the field beside the road and then kept pace with us for a 50 yards or so. Impressive really, because we were zooming along at a steady 40pmh at the time. Pretty swift stuff for a delicate owl.

Norfolk, it never disappoints.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The ABB Diaries

Aren't Birds... great?

They are and I'm on bird high after two marvellous days volunteering at Carsington Water. It's difficult to put a number on how many people we showed the birds to, probably over 200 on both days (we'd have many more with nicer weather), and as ever the Little Owls were a hit.

During the quiet times I was thinking about the word wonder, and settled my mind that one defintion must surely be 'that something which we would never be able to imagine for ourselves'.
If you didn't know about very much of the Little Owl, would you ever imagine that owls could chill out in open all day long, or imagine a wild creature could bear such uncanny resemblance to a fluffy toy, or even imagine you'd see one of these fantastic creatures today?
For me, that's one dimension to wonder, and I think it's why the people go 'wow'.

Back to yesterday, and something special dropped in to the island in front of the Wildlife Centre. After brief rumination with other volunteers I made the call, one Dunlin and as companion, one Little Stint, which jizz-wise is how they struck me first. Very small, black legs, plumage on the back that always gives me the impression of a tortoise shell, otherwise very light, and it's August, all amount for a bird fairly obvious on immediate sight. The partnering Dunlin helped IDing too, indeed I think all passage waders should be required one!
Later in the day I met the recorder for Carsington Bird Club, and he told me this was the first Little Stint found on the reservoir for 3 years. I was surprised, and then he explained they formerly had many more before that, but that with water levels generally higher now the muddy fringes aren't what they used to be.

Other best birds were a juvie Sparrowhawk, looking somewhat bewildered stood on a rocky mound on one of the wader islands - a great bird to show visitors, and in one of the reservoir's several creeks a family of four Spotted Flycatcher. My first for the year (#175), and there I was thinking I might not see any this summer. Apparently they breed up in the hillside woodlands around the water.
Finally, a Yellow-legged Gull, probably a 3rd-year bird judging by some untidiness in the plumage and a slight dullness to those famous legs. Carsington has a small number of the species coming in each evening at present, they follow other gulls into the mainly Lesser Black-backed roost.

And for anybody reading this, if anybody reads this, the Aren't Birds Brilliant(!) event days at Carsington (run by the RSPB and Severn Trent Water) continue throughout the year on Sundays and Tuesday. Come and drop in one day!

One for the Distinctly Dodgy Digiscoping DVD? That's the Yellow-leg late on, and at least gives you something to look.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Birds of Bridlington

There was an entry about Bridlington I failed to post last month, the one describing the town's nesting population of Kittiwake. There are 20 or more nesting pairs in the streets around the harbour, many of them finding home on window ledges, and roof tops. Using your imagine to look through the eye of these truest of sea gulls, it's not far fetched to view our stone buildings as rocky outcrops, a landscape of craggy natural edifices, and the perfect des res for the overspilling Kittiwake from the nearby cliffs.
By choosing these urban nest sites the birds afford the closest of encounters, for those who care look. The funny glances I was given by passersby while photographing the gulls suggest many visitors and townfolk aren't really interested in deciphering Kittiwake from their more familiar cousins, and that's a great shame. No gull is cuter, more gentle, or as pleasantly graceful as the Kittiwake, it's almost a dainty feminine quality they have, far more attractive than those mean-looking Herring Gull stealing your chips.

What's less alluring is the mess that invariably collects below their nests. Elsewhere along the east coast, most notably in Newcastle where Kittiwake had been nesting on buildings since the 1930's, they've been moved on from time to time. That makes one wonder how much longer the folks of Bridlington will tolerate the sight and smell of Kittiwake guano.

We need to be looking after these birds. Along the Yorkshire coast from season to season they're struggling these days, and matters look worse further north to Scotland and beyond. While global warming gathers apace and the North Sea rises in temperature, their main food item - sand eel - are dwindling. Although it may help in the short term, it currently doesn't seem clear whether closing the sand eel fisheries along the coast will prevent an overall continuation of the decline, and that is worrying. Sand eel, and Kittiwake are beacons indicating the health of our seas. If they struggle, we have to worry.
For years the government ignored the evidence linking the sand eel fisheries to sea bird decline, and both now pay the price. In the end, that argument could be negated by global warming. The competing interests of (the fishing) industry and wildlife conservation, could simply be overwhelmed by the changing climate. Welcome to the future...

Now there's something to open your curtains up to!

Good to see young, although only in a quarter of the nests, I suppose it was getting on in the season.

Officially that's Black-legged Kittiwake.

Elsewhere around the harbour...

A flock of a dozen Turnstone knocked around below the harbour wall.

The two common waders, Redshank and Dunlin were present at low tide.

Herring Gull, and a decent number of 1st, 2nd and 3rd year Lesser Black-backeds hung around too.

Friday, 3 August 2007


Blink and you'll miss it, a 4 second digi-video-scope of one of the King's Mill Barn Owls...

With that graffitied backdrop, you perhaps see what I mean about these being owls with a considerably urban taste in territory.
There were three yesterday often hanging out very close to the busiest road out of town. And showing very well too, in what looked like evening playtime. I called the rest of my family down to watch and just like with the Carsington Little Owls, there was that word again, 'Wow!'.
Aren't Owls Brilliant?

(Video courtesy of the girlfriend, with luck we'll manage something better before the owl family disperses.)

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The King's Mill Owls

Summery evenings, we hardly knew ye, but now you're back we're determined to enjoy you.

My walk with the girlfriend to King's Mill Reservoir was lovely, and promised the possibility of a Barn Owl (more on that later). Surprising really that so few people were out there with us, it makes you want to knock on front doors and invite folks away from their television. Are you mad, it's beautiful out here?

At the 'res', the bird roosts are already beginning to develop. Up to a couple of hundred Black-headed Gull commuted in late on, and by the reed bed 150+ Coot settled in for the night, with many more elsewhere around the fringes of the water.

Around the hedges an ever moving troop of 20 Long-tailed Tits chattered among each other. I confess I don't actually know that's the collective noun for Long-tailed Tit, I choose it because for me their behaviour always draws comparison with a troop of monkeys searching for fruit in the jungle canopy. Their breeding activities, whereby related non-breeders will help a pair raise their brood, bares more similarity to the forest apes too.

Now a Barn Owl family has drawn whispering attention to King's Mill since breeding was discovered there a couple of months ago. This is the first known record of nesting at the site and according to the reports it's been a great success, with at least 2 juveniles present at the moment. What makes this discovery more thrilling is this territory is relatively urban; you have a averagely large reservoir popular with walkers and water sports enthusiasts bordering on one side, the busy A617 to Newark road on another, and an 'adventure base' for children on yet another, and through all of that dissects a railway line. So this isn't some dirt quiet back road in the wilds of rural Lincolnshire. If only more people knew that Barn Owl could live so close to a large number of people, basically within our conurbation, how much prouder we'd all be of our oft derided and half forgotten district of Nottinghamshire?

Anyway, we watched in the last light of the evening for 5 minutes as an adult swooped along the railway and then off into the wheat field, while in front of us a late calling Reed Warbler sung in a small patch of reed bed near the car park.
That Barn Owl, by the way, is 107 for my carbon neutral list. The girlfriend loved seeing the bird, and it soon put at end to the complaints that I refused to let her stay sat by the ducks!

Speaking of Barn Owl, news today comes from the RSPB that the species has been voted Britain's favourite farmland bird, by the people who wrote in to them or visited their website. Who could possibly fail to agree?

And for more on Barn Owls in Nottinghamshire try reading the diaries of the Rushcliffe Barn Owl Project. Who knows? It may even have been the offspring from their successful efforts that have found a home at King's Mill, though with average young dispersal being around 7-8 miles, I freely admit we'd really be at the high end of their reach.
Wherever they came from, here's to the owls!

Those little monkeys.