Saturday, 16 May 2015

Thinking Dutch on flood defence

The Dutch think big! Why can’t we do the same?  A short trip over to The Netherlands for a meeting with the Dutch Birdlife partner Vogelbescherming Nederland (VBN) was a suitable excuse for a couple of site visits. First on the itinerary was a Black-tailed Godwit hotspot at Eemland where 200+ pairs nest on a typically open, wet meadow habitat.  Godwits are increasingly restricted to nature reserves where high water levels are maintained and this reserve is a great example of management for meadow birds.

Continuing north, we came to our main destination outside of the town of Groningen where a massive total of 3,000 ha of wetland habitat has been created as a flood defence scheme for the town.  The waters of the local rivers flow north towards the Wadden Sea.  Historically the low areas around Groningen supported a large peat bog habitat.  Attempts to drain the area started in the Middle Ages and the last 100 years has seen the area managed as pasture.  However, Groningen has a history of serious flooding when river levels have been high.  The local water board Noorderzijlvest looked for a flood defence area, a 'washland', in order to protect the town.  They concluded that the area to the south west of Groningen called De Onlanden area was most suited to fit their requirements. The area was mainly under the control of farmers or conservation organizations. A partnership of organisations was formed and in 2009 the new flood defence scheme was initiated. 

There are two main areas that we looked at: De Onlanden and an area near Zuidlaardermere.  Flood waters are stored in these areas to various depths of up to 1m.  How is this different from washlands in the UK? The key factor is there is an agreement that a level of water is retained into the spring, creating fen, reed and open water habitats.  This brings a win-win situation; flood storage and wildlife-rich wetland habitat. And wow, is this a win for wildlife. 250+ pairs of Black-necked Grebes, breeding Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns, 16 booming Bitterns, Corncrake, Baillon’s, Little and Spotted Crake, 120 prs of Bluethroat, 100prs of Grasshopper Warblers and 150 prs of Marsh Warbler. But this area is not just for wildlife; it is now extensively used by local people for cycling, walking, fishing etc.

In the UK we have numerous washlands, but none deliver like De Onlanden, ours are drained down in the name of maintaining storage capacity. Why can’t we think big and imaginatively like the Dutch?

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Great Knot

Chongming Dongtan is an important stopover point for migrating Great Knot. The Great Knot is a long distance migrant that uses a limited number of stopover sites between the wintering sites in Australia and the Russian breeding areas. The Great Knot is also a wader that is in some trouble; numbers have declined sharply in recent years. Habitat loss and degradation, hunting, lack of food and pollution all form potentially significant threats.  Students from Fudan University have been studying Great Knot to understand their migration strategy. This year, birds are being radio-tagged and leg-flagged at Chongming.  The birds are caught by ex-hunters sat out on the tidal flats who whistle the birds down to a clap net.  Remarkable stuff.

Studies have shown that many Great Knot undertake a long flight straight from Australia to the north Yellow Sea, with varying numbers stopping off at Chongming before completing the short hop up to the north Yellow Sea.  This may largely depend on weather conditions. Birds may stay at Chongming just a day, or for up to 2 weeks, again largely dependent on weather. This is reversed in the autumn, with a long flight south from Chongming.  Studies show that birds attain a significantly higher body weight at Chongming Dongtan during the southward than northward migration. The Fudan University team are also stationed on the Chinese/Korean border to await northward-bound radio-tagged birds. Birds have been recorded arriving the day after leaving Chongming.

The diet of the Great Knot is mainly bivalve molluscs, gastropods, polychaete worms, crabs and shrimps.  At Chongming the main food is the small gastropod Assiminea violacea and the clam Corbicula fluminea; beasts of brackish waters that like the mudflats towards the mouth of the Yangtze. These two can form 70% of the diet of Great Knot at Chongming and are critical to its migration strategy.

Photos: above: Great Knot, clap-netting, fitting radio-tags and leg-flags.
Below: bird with radio-tag, autumn Great Knot, food!, shell-fish gatherer.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Knee-deep in buntings

Chongming Dongtan National Nature Reserve is located at the seaward end of Chongming Island in the mouth of the Yangtze River in China.  With my third visit in little over a year it’s beginning to feel like home from home.  The ‘Bird Habitat Optimisation Project’ we have been involved with is progressing at speed.  Twenty-seven km of 8 m high sea wall and a series of sluices (water gates) have now been completed. The early stages of the habitat creation are now underway and we are back on site to check all is going to plan.

The project aims firstly to eradicate, by cutting and flooding, the invasive non-native Cord-grass Spartina alternifolia that has spread across 1,600 ha of mudflats and secondly, to create habitats to support the priority species of waders, wildfowl, cranes and reedbed specialists such as the Reed Parrotbill, within the 2,500 ha project area. Wide channels and meandering creeks are being created to carry water around the site. Nesting and roosting islands are being created in lagoon habitats.  Open pools and creeks are being formed in the reedbeds.  Some of the creeks are being formed by carving into the mud with high pressure water hoses and the resultant liquid slurry is pumped into embanked areas to settle out and form the islands.  The completed scheme will have 425 ha of reedbed, 1000 ha of brackish lagoons and 160 ha of saltmarsh. Water will enter from the Yangtze on high tides and flow through the site around huge perimeter canals 40m wide and 4m deep.

The site is a sea of mud as around 50 excavators and 200 workers attempt to create the new habitats out of the Spartina dominated marsh.  All around, migration is in full swing. Our first morning was cloudy and wet with birds leaping out of every bush. Buntings were everywhere; Little, Yellow-browed, Chestnut-eared, Black-faced and Tristram's were trying to out-'tick' each other. Red-flanked Bluetails and Olive-backed Pipits lurked under the trees.  It's tough working here but someone's got to do it.

Hoardes of swallows feed around the excavators, A trio of Reed Buntings; Common, Pallas's and Japanese, flit around the vegetation, and Red-throated Pipits call overhead every minute or so.  Mongolian Plovers, Terek Sandpipers and Turnstones dodge the diggers in the muddy pools.   The site continues to turn up surprises, not least the flock of 3 Long-billed Dowitchers feeding in one pool.

Photos: above: Black-faced Bunting, diggers in unison, hosing ditches, water control structure.
below: Long-billed Dowitcher, Olive-backed Pipit, female Pallas's Reed Bunting.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Champagne and forests

With my wine supplies and the Euro both at low levels it was time for a quick trip across to France to visit the Champagne region and beyond. Cruising along a French motorway is not the best way to build a good bird list.  A couple of White Storks heading north were the highlight in a rather barren landscape.  The countryside was one of huge open arable fields with little or no rough ground or weedy corners.  The cleaned and manicured environment appeared to have little space for birdlife other than pigeons and crows.  Into the champagne region, the vineyards above the arable land supported a few Woodlarks and Stonechats, whilst Serin and Black Redstart were a feature of the villages. Even birds of prey seemed very scarce; a few Buzzards, a Hen Harrier and a handful of Black Kites on the move.

The exception to this general impoverishment seemed to be the woodlands.  They were full of birds; several species of woodpeckers including Black and Middle-spotted, lots of Nuthatches, Short-toed Treecreepers, Hawfinch, Firecrests, Marsh and Willow Tits.  The ground flora was also rich; the abundant Wood Anemone and Cowslip seemed to be 2-3 weeks ahead of the UK.

Why should this be so different to my local woods where all the woodland specialities have dwindled to zero in recent times?  One obvious difference is that all French woodlands seem to be managed.  Stacks of fire wood are a ubiquitous feature both in the forest and throughout every village.  The French forest management is based on high forest of native species, with long rotations, small-scale felling and mixed age structures, in contrast to the UK forestry obsession with plantations of non-native conifers that damaged so much of our ancient woodland.  The French reliance on natural regeneration from ‘mother trees’ promotes a diverse woodland structure from saplings through to tall mature trees.  The woodlands also seemed to be wet; lacking the network of drainage ditches so obvious in many UK woodlands.

Although deer are present, they do not seem to be in large numbers, nor do the woodlands show any obvious browse effects.  Wild Boar are also obvious, or at least evidence of their foraging are everywhere.  The rooting activities of Boar are claimed to be beneficial for natural regeneration but may have damaging effects at high densities.  Shooting is commonplace and no doubt keeps numbers of both deer and boar in check.  Again by contrast, we have ineffective deer control in many areas and a blinkered view to allowing Wild Boar to re-establish in our woodlands.  My local ‘protected’ woodlands are sadly owned by the Woodland Trust who do little or no management but do promote open access.  Dog-walkers and off-road cyclists seem to be the dominant users.