Monday, 31 January 2011

La Ferme aux Grues

A weekend of birding around the lakes and woodlands of the Champagne region is the added bonus of needing to re-supply with enough fizz to last through the coming year’s celebrations. After filling the car boot, it’s on with the birding, and firstly into the woodlands.

Looking around the Oak and Hornbeam woodlands surrounding Lac du Der and at the Foret d’Orient, the contrast with English woodlands is immediate; the French manage their broad-leaves for a supply of firewood. Coppice clearings and woodpiles are everywhere, resulting in well-structured woodland habitat. Even on a murky, frosty morning we quickly found four species of woodpeckers including Middle-spotted and Black, as well as numerous Short-toed Treecreepers, Nuthatches, Firecrests, Hawfinch and both Willow and Marsh Tits.

Lac du Der, France’s largest artificial lake, was not at its most accommodating; an icy north-easterly blowing across the water. Dabbling duck were abundant, principally Mallard, Teal and Wigeon, with a few Shoveler and Pintail. Greylag Geese, wintering birds from Sweden, were everywhere, with 100+ White-fronts and a few Tundra Bean thrown in. Bewick's Swans numbered 50 or so, with Whoopers only slightly less numerous. At least 50 Great White Egrets were noted, mostly around the shallow pools and floods beyond the lake, but not a single Little Egret. Buzzard, Hen Harrier and Peregrine hunted around the lake.

The highlight of the afternoon is the arrival towards dusk of the Cranes as they gather to roost on the islands. They feed by day in family parties in maize and other stubbles in the surrounding countryside, although the normally productive feeding viewpoint at La Ferme aux Grues was surprisingly quiet.  By late afternoon they  join into large noisy flocks drifting in low over the lake banks towards the roost sites.  As hundreds gathered on one of the larger islands, a party of five Wild Boar scuttled through, scattering Cranes in all directions. By the time frozen fingers had almost snapped off, around 1,500 had assembled on the islands within our view.

Below: La Ferme aux Grues, Foret d'Orient, Cranes arriving at the roost, Lac du Der.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

KP (3); the rejuvenation

Freezing fog and five Great White Egrets greeted us at Ham Wall as we met to review last year’s management. Overall a very satisfactory year with 8 Bittern nests, successful breeding of Little Bittern, attempted breeding by Great White Egret and a singing Savi's Warbler.

Reedbeds under conservation management have traditionally been managed by rotational cutting, with the objective of slowing natural succession. Even on a small site, such an objective is questionable, but with a site of over 200 ha, this is not a feasible option. So Ham Wall is the focus of a larger scale ‘reedbed rejuvenation’ project. Compartments of up to 20 ha will be 'perturbed' by holding at a lower water level for a number of years and reverted to grassland by a combination of cutting, burning and grazing. After maybe five years, the ground will be re-flooded to create a shallow wetland. Reeds will slowly re-colonise but the return to early successional habitat will attract large numbers of waders and waterfowl in the early years. The land will then be allowed to return to reedbed, with higher water levels, and continue through its succession. Compartments will be 'rejuvenated' on rotation in order to maintain the early stages of reedbed.

The wet, early successional reedbed will benefit Great White Egret (as well as a range of other species) and we hope breeding will become established. The Dutch population at the main breeding location in Oostvaardersplassen reached a record high of 154 pairs in 2010 after the creation of additional feeding habitat in the late 1990s. Similar habitat will be created at Ham Wall.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

In defence of the single goose

Why do the words ‘of unknown origin’ seem to follow every report of a single ‘wild’ goose? Single geese have had a rough deal for as long as I can remember, usually being relegated to the ‘escapes section’ of the bird report without much thought.  Clearly some individuals do have a captive origin, but the occurrence of these single geese seems to better reflect their national status rather than the number in captivity. Single White-fronts used to be more frequent in the Lee Valley (reflecting their abundance nationally) but were normally ignored or regarded as escapes. These days, they are decidedly scarce. Single Bean Geese in the Valley over the last 30 or so years have all been ‘escapes’, despite at least two being rossicus and turning up in cold winters. Okay, Barnacles are very messy, with the huge numbers of feral birds in East Anglia and the near continent, but most single grey geese are likely to genuine wild birds in my opinion. With a bit of careful consideration, the status of wild geese in our area could be better documented.

Anyway, the goose flocks at Holyfield today included a second Pink-foot that has joined the long-staying bird from last year, and a single White-front was also present. Interestingly, the flock also contains a neck-collared Greylag Goose, caught and ringed in Sweden in 2000 and seen in the UK this winter and last, before apparently migrating back north-east. It was in Bedfordshire, Essex and then Rattray Head in Aberdeenshire last spring, before re-appearing in Cornwall in December.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

KP (2)

Radipole Lake has been punching below it's weight for many years. With the second phase of the restoration programme completed this winter, it is beginning to look fighting fit at last. The key issue has been one of habitat stability and a resultant lack of diversity, now being ably tackled by the current reserve staff, with a bit of Kick-ass Perturbation.

With restored ditches and new pools in place (see above), attention can be turned to reed management. Some of it should be simply got rid of; grazed out and replaced with swampy grassland (some of it suitable for passage Aquatic Warblers). Some short-rotation and some long-rotation cutting is required, and commercial reedcutting is not a bad option for the former. Often considered an anathema by conservationists, it all depends on scale, and small-scale regular reedcutting is undoubtedly good for Bearded Tits. BTs benefit from mosaics of different aged reed; cut reed, young reed, old reed, extensive edges next to water, pools, shallow scrapes and ditches. There are good examples of reedbeds where declining management has resulted in declining BT populations, and conversely examples where re-invigorated management has been matched by a resurgent BT population (look no further than Blacktoft Sands).

Commercially cut reed blocks will result in fixed reed clearings for a number of years but in the right size and location can provide good habitat for BTs as well as an assortment of other birds from Water Pipits through Snipe and duck to Cranes. A Dutch study found that you can remove up to 50% of the standing crop of a reedbed annually with no loss of breeding birds. On nature reserves, a maximum removal of 20% would be more appropriate.

Cut reed blocks and ditch management should increase interest for visitors as more birds become visible. Overall, continued 'disturbance' in the habitat should maintain it's diversity of wildlife.  Not much was visible today however - a Marsh Harrier, a few Bearded Tits and a Goosander, the 6+ Bitterns present managed to avoid being seen.

Friday, 14 January 2011


At least 20 redpolls have been feeding in the garden on nyjer over the last month.  A variable bunch from classic Lesser through to Mealy. A selection of photographs shows some of the variation but by no means all.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

To feed or not to feed?

The recent severe weather has been tough for Bitterns, with many being seen around the remaining areas of unfrozen water, frequently in unusual situations.  Bitterns traditionally suffer in such cold winters.  At least 17 sites attempted to feed their Bitterns, usually with Sprats or Sardines, during the coldest spell of weather and 8 sites report that Bitterns were seen taking the fish. See Steve Blain's video of a Bittern eating sprats  (or below) provided by local birders at Stewartby Lake.  At Leighton Moss, three Bitterns came to the feeding site regularly (about once every half hour), took some fish and then returned regularly during the day.  At most of the other sites, Bitterns were seen in the vicinity of the food and may well have taken it.  So it would appear that feeding in hard weather may help some Bitterns survive.  We feed Blue Tits, so why not a bird that is a conservation priority in the UK?

On the other hand, is this just another example of unnecessary human tinkering?  Will it make any difference at all to the population in the coming spring, or will it even hinder a natural dispersal of young birds to new sites?  What do you think?

Edit - In a rather low poll, 16 out of 16 respondents thought we should be feeding Bitterns.

Saturday, 1 January 2011


A traditional New Year’s Day thrash through the valley yielded a meagre return of 85 species. Rather than delivering a load of more unusual birds, the recent cold weather appears to have prompted a mass exodus instead. With most pits still largely frozen duck numbers are very low. With a valley total of around 12 Smew, 8 Bitterns and 50 Goosander, numbers of these cold weather specialists are barely above average. Long-staying single Pink-footed Goose and Red-breasted Merganser, along with a couple of flocks of Waxwings, the bird of the winter, were about the highlights. Kingfisher, Chiffchaff, Snipe, Cetti’s Warbler and Little Egret remain distinctly difficult to find.

Holyfield Marsh: 2 Smew, 6 Goosander, Pink-footed Goose.
Cheshunt GP: 2 Bitterns, 2 Smew, 60 Siskin, 5 Water Rails.
Girling Res: 12 Black-necked Grebe, 2 Green Sandpiper, 5 Goosander, 21 Goldeneye, Tufted/Pochard hybrid.
Waltham Abbey: 5 Waxwing.
Rye Meads: Shelduck, Cetti’s Warbler, Bittern.
Amwell: 3 Smew, 2 Woodcock, Pintail, Little Egret.