Thursday, 29 December 2011


Top two - Wallasea present.  Lower two - Wallasea future? (Tiengemeten)

A trip out to Wallasea Island in Essex this week reminded me of a visit to The Netherlands earlier this year. The Wallasea Island ‘Wild Coast project’ is a landmark conservation and engineering scheme for the 21st century, on a scale never before attempted in the UK. The aim of this project is to combat the threats from climate change and coastal flooding by recreating the ancient wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture. It will also help to compensate for the loss of such tidal habitats elsewhere in England.

Although the Wallasea project may be the largest of its kind in this country, the Dutch are ahead of us in this sort of restoration. In the summer, I visited the island of Tiengemeten in South Holland and had a glimpse of what Wallasea may come to look like in the future.  The project at Tiengemeten was undertaken as part of a programme to restore 3,000 ha of tidal areas in the Dutch Delta region, itself part of the wider Dutch Ecological Networks Plan to create 160,000 ha of ecological networks. Tiengemeten extends to 1,000 ha and was formed as agricultural land claimed from saltmarsh. Now it is being returned to near-naturally functioning habitat. The island has been divided into three zones. The Wilderness zone covers 700 ha and is ex-arable land now open to the influence of the tides and water regimes of the island. The Richness zone (250 ha) is a landformed area of shallow flooding, reedbed and scrub, wet in winter, drier in summer. Finally, the Cultural zone (50 ha) is made up of a campsite, a cafe and a few houses and cropped fields. Grazing by Highland cattle is the primary management tool.

The island was officially given back to nature in 2007 after it was purchased by the Dutch Government. In 2008, a full breeding bird survey was undertaken. The results included the following totals (pairs): 87 Bluethroat, 125 Avocets, 4 Black-winged Stilts, 151 Marsh Warblers, 18 Black-tailed Godwits, 11 Garganey, 3 Spotted Crakes, 3 Goshawk, 1 Corncrake and 612 Greylag Geese. Another full survey was undertaken this year and the results are awaited with interest.

Meanwhile, back on Wallasea, the landscape is still of arable fields surrounded by sea walls, and it has a way to go to match Tiengemeten. Despite this, the birding provided some anticipation. Thousands of Brent Geese and Lapwings fed in the fields. Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier, Merlin and Peregrine hunted around the sea walls or over the areas of un-harvested crops retained to provide food for farmland birds. A single Rough-legged Buzzard and a Spoonbill provided the highlights for the day.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Fishy pits

Pike and crayfish sushi appears to be on the Christmas menu of the Great Northern Diver currently residing at Nazeing gravel pits in the Lee Valley.  A largish crayfish brought up from the depths was dispatched with some skill.   Nazeing is not the most exciting of the valley waters for the birder but being one of the largest of the gravel pits, it does occasionally specialise in stray seabirds.   Black-throated and Red-throated Divers have made long-staying appearances, as well as visits by Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and Fulmar.  In the dim and distant, a Little Bittern was also seen, not that there’s much habitat for it today.  Prior to the 1970s, Nazeing held huge numbers of diving duck, mainly Tufted Duck and Pochard.  Numbers declined sharply and remained low until recent years when numbers have increased again, probably due to reduced disturbance as the amount of sailing has declined. 

The lack of aquatic vegetation, either submerged or marginal, results in minimal numbers of herbivorous wildfowl, even Coots are remarkably sparse.  However, fish populations are good, as evidenced by the numbers of Great Crested Grebes (usually up to 50) and Goosander (20+ at peak).  Nazeing is currently one of the best sites for Goosander in the valley, with the last 15 years seeing a significant shift in Goosander distribution from the Lee Valley reservoirs to the gravel pits.  The size and openness of the lakes attract passage terns and gulls.  The northern lake intermittently supports a small gull roost; in the past with up to 10,000 birds nightly, mainly Black-headed and Common Gulls, with the occasional Med Gull.  When spring tern passage is underway, a quick check is often productive.  If Arctics or Blacks are about, there a fair chance Nazeing will pull one.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

An Eastern Crowned Warbler once flew halfway across this ride

....and into a whole net of controversy. And who’s fault was it that we didn’t see this eastern gem – well it was everyone’s apparently, although no-one seemed to blame the warbler for flying off. It was apparently released into a willow tree, with barely a good-bye, but at that time it was just a Yellow-browed Warbler, low-life amongst asian vagrants, barely worth the time of thinking ‘not a bad inland record’ let alone travelling to try to see it. Then its true colours were revealed (good job they didn’t have to send the prints off to Kodak) and the greyness of its crown matched the blood-drained faces of the local birders who suddenly realised Hertfordshire’s one-in-20-year-good-bird was at Hilfield Park Reservoir, otherwise known as 'Fortresss Hilfield'.

There was some talk that some didn’t want the news to be released. Now if ringers or birders don’t want to release news of a bird, that’s their decision as far as I’m concerned. One might argue it’s a little anti-social as there can hardly be any birder who hasn’t at some time gone to see a bird found by someone else...but it is their decision and should be respected. I’ve nothing against ringers either, quite the contrary. Did you know that, statistically speaking, 50% of the UK’s recorded Eastern Crowned Warblers have been picked out of a net. However, this was Hilfield Park Reservoir – a designated Local Nature Reserve (LNR), and according to Natural England “LNR’s are for both people and wildlife”.

The trouble is, I’m not sure how many ‘people’ are thought should benefit from an LNR, but it surely must be more than the present number, and it would certainly include the hastily formed Hertfordshire branch of the Eastern Crowned Warbler Appreciation Society (ECWAS). Okay, so the birds of the site are well recorded and documented in an excellent report (where you can see that the site doesn’t actually have many ‘crowning’ moments). There is a view that withholding bird news is in the best interest of the conservation of the site. But ultimately is it really beneficial for the future of the site?

Back in the early 1990s, the Wildlife Trust stoutly defended this site against a planning application to locate the nearby sailing club on the reservoir. Had it lost, the site would not support its current importance for wildlife. One of the main arguments used at the time was that the site was not fulfilling its LNR objective – ‘for both wildlife and people’, as few people were allowed in. Now this is a water company operational site and understandably there are rules to be followed. Anyone can access this site if they are a Wildlife Trust member and arrange to pick up a key (as it has always been). But opening the site for special events requires a bit more organisation and supervision. And by the time the ECWAS arrived, it was apparent that the warbler’s discoverers had scarpered as quick as the bird itself. Perhaps if the spirit in which the site was designated is to be fully realised, a ‘friends of...’ group, with a specific remit to both record wildlife and ‘encourage use of the site’, might be a better bet for the future.