Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Crakey! Change the record books.

Calling Baillon's in typically rushy habitat.

Last year, during a trip to The Netherlands, we speculated that Baillon’s Crake was being overlooked in the UK, both as a migrant and breeding bird.  With fortuitous timing, a national Spotted Crake survey has been undertaken this year and surveyors were asked to listen out for Baillon’s Crake.  And one was found!  A rapid e-mail to reserve managers to raise awareness of the possibility of Baillon’s resulted in at least 7 singing males at 3 sites across England and Wales, with a possible 2 more at 2 further sites.  Crakey!

So is Baillon’s Crake a scarce migrant and rare breeder in the UK rather than a vagrant?  Probably, but it is likely that the drought conditions in the Donana region of Spain earlier this year will have prompted more birds to move north looking for favourable conditions.  The drought appears to have affected a range of species.  We have seen influxes of Glossy Ibis and Black-winged Stilts, as well as Baillon's Crakes, and impacts on the movements of other birds, such as Spoonbills.   At least 3 pairs of stilts have attempted to breed in the UK as predicted in an earlier blog.   The Netherlands is also having a good year for Baillon's Crakes with at least 30 singing males.   However, 2005 was also good in The Netherlands yet failed to produce a record in the UK.   Were they overlooked?

Baillon’s Crakes can breed in small areas of suitable habitat; wet, low, tussocky but often open vegetation such as flooded sedges, rushes and grasses.  They also seem to like the edges of pools if this year’s birds are anything to go on.  Calls are poorly understood.  Although the best known is the short Garganey-like rattle of the male, at least 4 different calls have been heard from birds this year.  However, calls can be hard to hear in many conditions and they may not call that often!   Singing birds appear to be best heard between 22.30 and midnight at least, and with birds in The Netherlands known to arrive late, they may be singing well into July.   How many of this year’s birds will return next year?
Typical Baillon's habitat in The Netherlands (Ruud van Beusekom)

Sunday, 15 July 2012


If there’s anything likely to make the Grumpy Ecologist un-grumpy it’s the Beaver.  The Beaver highlight of a three-day trip to north-east Scotland began by creeping knee-deep in water through a remote section of a nature reserve on a gloomy evening, with steady drizzle of course.  A Spotted Crake briefly whipped from a fantastically crakey marsh, a Marsh Harrier flew by, and then there it was: an initially unrecognised turd deposited in a super-highway of a path out of the water. Suddenly we were at Beaver-central; fallen trees, dragged branches, pathways and a possible lodge.  Fantastic!

The day had begun at the Loch of Strathbeg; at the UK’s largest dune loch.  A brief search along the Loch shore for Creeping Spearwort (or its hybrid with Lesser Spearwort) always looked likely to fail due to unseasonably high water levels but a summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe, 35 Goldeneye and a flyby Bonxie kept us happy. The rushy Low Ground in front of the visitor centre, now grazed by a herd of Koniks held a couple of hundred Curlew and a summering pair of Whooper Swan, while botanical interest was provided by Lesser Butterfly Orchid and the remarkably insignificant, but scarce, Mudwort.  After some hours looking at the management of the reserve, the drive south took us past the disgraceful Trump’s Folly and down to Blackdog for the scoter and Eider flocks harbouring Black Scoter and Surf Scoter. All paled into insignificance compared with the soon-to-be new addition to my British wildlife poo collection (the first since Wallaby on the IOM).

Now if any extinct animal should be returned to the UK, it is the Beaver (and then the Lynx).  However, potential introductions have become bogged down in ridiculous controversy and ‘fence-sitting’. Meanwhile, Beavers have done it for themselves, escaping from captivity on the River Tay and spreading out over recent years.  Why is the Beaver so important? Well, the Beaver is an ‘ecosystem engineer’; one of the few species that can significantly change the geomorphology and hydrology of the landscape.  In doing so, Beavers have been shown to increase habitat and species diversity at the landscape scale.  By the beginning of the 20th century, hunting had reduced the European populations of Beaver to a low ebb of some 1,000 individuals.  Then, as recognition of its qualities grew, re-introductions progressed across Europe, beginning in Sweden as long ago as 1922.  Over the last 80 years, Beavers have been reintroduced to 27 countries on mainland Europe, with the UK being one of the few exceptions. Despite this, Scottish Natural Heritage embarrassingly tried to remove the Tay freedom fighters.  More can be found out about the Tay Beavers here Let’s hope they are here to stay.

At Loch of Strathbeg: Koniks, Whooper and Mudwort.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

More Essex

Scarce Emerald (Lestes dryas) and getting down to the hard-grasses, looking at the diminutive anthers of Curved hard-grass (Parapholis incurva - left) next to Hard-grass (P. strigosa - right).

Following the Essex theme, last week provided the opportunity to look around a rarely visited south-east corner of the county.  The seawalls and borrow-dykes provide the habitat for some local botanical specialities; Slender Hare’-s-ear, Sea Barley, Stiff Saltmarsh-grass and Curved Hard-grass were all duly noted.  The saline borrow-dykes supported Spiral Tasselweed and the specialist lagoonal isopod Idotea chelipes, whilst the more brackish pools had Scarce Emerald Damselfly and Hairy Dragonfly.  The bird highlights included 5 Short-eared Owls and 6 Whimbrel, as well as breeding Redshanks and Shelduck.