Monday, 30 December 2013

A bit of sniping

I recently drafted the text for Snipe for a forthcoming Birds of Hertfordshire.  A tale of woe.  Sage (1959) stated that ‘There is little doubt that the Snipe is a widespread breeding bird in suitable localities over the county’.  With the last proven breeding in the county at Rye Meads in 1998, the Snipe is now extinct locally as a breeding bird. During the 1988-92 Atlas, Snipe bred at Rye Meads, King’s Meads, Sawbridgeworth Marsh and Standon Lordship.  I knew all of these sites well when Snipe were breeding, so today I went out to take a look at what had changed.

Rye Meads looks great at the moment; nicely flooded and with lots of Snipe.  This used to be a great site for breeding Snipe but became unmanaged during the 1980s with the result that they ceased breeding.  In the early 1990s, Rye Meads was acquired as a nature reserve by the Wildlife Trust.  With management back in place, Snipe returned and up to 3 pairs bred during that decade but ceased to breed again by the early 00s.  Sawbridgeworth Marsh today also looked nice and wet, but the over-riding impression since Snipe last bred was one of changing vegetation.  Some excellent work is being put in to maintain a small area of fen meadow but overall there is a spread of coarse vegetation and scrub.   During my years at the Wildlife Trust, King’s Meads was one of the sites I put a lot of effort into acquiring as a nature reserve in the early 90s.  I remember complaining publicly that a management change by Thames Water had resulted in the loss of breeding Snipe and Garganey.  They were on the phone pronto, balling me out, but the fact remains that it happened. Today, at King’s Mead there is serious deterioration of the meadow sward; where once there was tussocky grass, Adder’s-tongue Fern and Snipe, today there is a sea of sedge and rush.  Finally, I looked at Standon Lordship, the one site in private ownership rather than a nature reserve.  The old Snipe meadow was partly under willow plantation, partly grazed to billiard table.

The reasons for the loss of Snipe at each of these sites is, in my view, as clear as the beak on its head: inappropriate management of either water or sward.  We have come to expect losses on private land through agricultural intensification but the sad truth is that, on the other side, we also have losses at nature reserves due to insufficient management.  So, back to the Snipe text and tell it how it is.  Anything we can do about the situation?  Perhaps, we shall see.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A quick meze or two

The occasional trip abroad is a perk for the over-worked, under-paid ecologist.  Cyprus was the venue for the latest jaunt, with the only hardship being the preparation and delivery of a presentation on the management of coastal lagoons.  On the up-side - hearing about projects across Europe, in Spain, France, Slovenia, Greece and of course Cyprus, the ouzo, meze, and a quick tour of some of the key birding sites on the island.

Akrotiri Lake was much as I remembered it from 30 years previously - a shrunken, distant, heat-hazed wetland with thousands of pinky-flamingo-shaped-shapes.  The scruffy pools behind Lady's Mile Beach at Zakaki were still good despite some on-going works around them and offered up Citrine Wagtails, Bluethroats, White Pelican, Penduline Tits, Red-footed Falcon and a selection of waders.

The muddy margins of Akhna Reservoir looked good, but heavy disturbance by fishermen and shooters left it virtually bird-less and disappointing. 50+ Spur-winged Plovers was the highlight.  By contrast, the undisturbed airport treatment lagoons held many birds; lots of Shoveler with some Teal and Garganey, a good variety of waders including Marsh Sandpiper and a couple of Whiskered Terns. Loafing large gulls allowed a leisurely ID comparison of mixed flocks of Yellow-legged, Armenian, Caspian and Baltic Gulls. At least 40 Red-throated Pipits grovelled and pssseeii-ed around the margins, along with a couple of Black Francolins.

John was desperate to re-live his clubbing days at Aya Napa but luckily we overshot to Cape Greco. Some continuing migration was evident by the regular flocks of bugling Common Cranes passing overhead.  BOPs were also on the move, with Short-toed Eagles, Sparrowhawks and some distant ring-tail harriers. Cyprus, Sardinian and Spectacled Warblers scuttled around the sparse bushes and we finally managed to dig out a couple of the wintering Finsch's Wheatears.

Pics - Spectacled, Finsch's, Baltic, Armenian, Caspian, Cranes and Short-toed Eagle.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013


A new wetland makes its debut this week. Back in July, work started on a new coastal lagoon in Suffolk, in the style of a newly created site we had seen in The Netherlands.   Utopia on the island of Texel came to Hollesley in Suffolk and we now have Holl-utopia.  After the moving around of 16,000 m3 of soils and the installation of two sluices on the 18 ha site, water was allowed onto the site last weekend.  A day later, the first good bird, a Glossy Ibis, turned up.

Holl-utopia is a shallow lagoon with a high percentage of islands; some grassy, some bare, some covered in sand or gravel.  The objective is to attract breeding waders, such as Avocet, Ringed Plover and Redshank, hopefully breeding terns, and certainly passage and roosting waders.  Water levels will drop during the spring and summer to expose extensive muddy areas.  An electric anti-predator fence around the margin will keep the local foxes as mere spectators. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Tern around

Previous blogs have discussed the remarkable increase of breeding Black-headed Gulls on rafts in the Lee Valley and their interactions with the Common Terns the rafts were intended for.  There is a widespread feeling that the terns are being squeezed out by the Black-heads.  Last years total of 56 pairs of Common Terns was the lowest in the valley for some 30 years and productivity was poor.  However, this summer has seen a more encouraging picture with an increase to 72 pairs spread across four sites and with a minimum of 77 young birds fledged.   The Black-heads continued their rapid increase; from 107 to 180 pairs. The graph below shows Lee Valley nesting Common Terns in blue, Black-heads in red.


This year, a few new c-rafty ideas were tried out.  One theory has it that the gulls prefer nesting against an edge, whereas terns prefer the open spaces in the middle of the raft.   At Rye Meads, 4 normal sized 3 x 3m rafts with wire-framed side panels were locked together and put out with a new giant 6 x 6m raft with open edges sloping into the water (see pics above).  We sat back and waited.  The gulls arrived and occupied all the corners and edges of the smaller rafts, with only the last few birds settling on the large raft, and most of these nesting against the chick shelters provided for the terns. Somewhat surprisingly, the first terns settled in the middle of the gulls on the smaller rafts, with a few on the new raft.  On a group of rafts on another site, a similar pattern was noted, with the terns settling amongst gulls despite considerable space being available.  Are the terns nesting amongst gulls for protection? And balancing this against any hassle they may get from the gulls?

So the jury is still out on whether Black-heads are squeezing out terns, as long as there is enough space for both.   Try larger rafts, with Black-heads around the edges and terns in the central space.  Put at least one raft out later, just as the terns are arriving, so at least some space is available for them. Then sit back and enjoy both gulls and terns.

Friday, 4 October 2013

This is the right island, inish?

For once I was in the elite squad. On the plane, just behind the bandana boys. Slightly fortuitous it has to be said. I booked the flights to Ireland a couple of months back, little knowing an Eastern Kingbird would appear the day before the flight. Anyway I was there. A quick hop over the water, off the plane, pick up the hire car and away in a screech of wheels.  And still just behind the bandana.

But they must have caught an earlier ferry as they were nowhere to be seen as we boarded the Happy Hooker, complete with Bottle-nosed Dolphin riding the bow. After an hour we were on Inishmore. “Arrh, birders” said the bike man, adding “It was me that hired the bike to the guy that found the Kingbird”.  Perfect. A sign.  A quick check on Birdguides before we peddled off  (other equally expensive info services are available); no sign of the Eastern Kingbird on Inishbofin.  Inish-where?

Birding on Inishmore is easy. There are basically 3 types of birds there; those with red breasts, those that are black/grey and go "Karrr", and rares. Anything that doesn't have a red breast or go “Karrr” is worth a look. But they are hard to find. My first day’s tally was encouraging: red breasts 2017, Karrrs 234, rares 0.  By the end of the trip the results were only a little better: a couple of Chiffchaffs, a few Wheatears, two Lapland Bunts, a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a Little Stint, a Med Gull and two Ring-billed Gulls.  One evening, after a few pints of Guinness, I had a thought; if you want to find yanks in a foreign country then the best bet is probably America.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Going, going, Rudong

After a weeks ‘lock in’ at Chongming Dongtan, the design work to create a series of lagoons, reedbed and saltmarsh was nearing completion. The final task was to present the plan to an assorted group of Shanghai officials, reserve directors and academics from the local Fudan University. Two hours ecological quizzing by the professors was somewhat challenging but seemed to go okay and then off to lunch with our very hospitable hosts. The custom appeared to be for each person considered to be a host to individually drink a toast to each guest with rice wine. There were a lot of hosts. Refills and toasters kept coming. Then the food, a lovely mix of local dishes; fish, shrimp, shellfish, succulent pork, duck and ‘poison fish’ soup. I like this sort of trip.

With the job done, a bit of free time was in order and we were soon off on the 2-hour trip up the coast to the fishing port of Rudong. But not before we had a bit of feedback on a colour-ringed Black-faced Spoonbill I had photographed on the reserve a couple of days before. It was a second year bird, ringed as a nestling in Korea in July 2012. It wintered at Mai Po reserve in Hong Kong until May 2013 before turning up at Chongming Dongtan. On arrival at Rudong, we were pointed by local birders towards an area of coastal scrub good for migrants. An old man was selling incense from a small brick building on the edge of the area. We saw a few Siberian Thrushes, Pale-legged Warbler, Asian Brown and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers, Richard’s and Red-throated Pipits headed south calling.

Then off to the mudflats and a walk out amongst the giant wind turbines, shellfish gatherers and assorted vehicles. Lots of Great Knot, sandplovers, stints, Broad-billed and Marsh Sandpipers, a few Nordmann’s Greenshank and then a small feeding flock of the target bird; Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Little is known about the feeding requirements of Spoonies on migration but Rudong is clearly an important site. Up to 50 birds had been counted here in the last week and every one we saw was in wing moult. By now the local press were aware of our presence and were hot-footing it across the mud. Close behind them were representatives from the local authority with an invitation to lunch; an opportunity to press home some points on shorebird conservation. A major area of the Rudong mudflats is destined to become a port in the near future. Presumably the area amongst the turbines will stay, but still raked daily by hundreds of fishermen, pulling out ragworms and shellfish. The high tide approached, the sea rushed in and the waders poured over the sea wall to roost on recently reclaimed land; soon to be built on. As we returned for lunch, we passed the area of scrub. Half had been freshly bulldozed, as had the building the old man had been selling incense from. Just a pile a bricks remained. Such is the speed of development here.

Pics: above - Spoony, Black-faced Spoonbill and Rudong mudflats.
Below - Great Knot, Marsh Sand and 2 hours trading left.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Knot work

Work trips are not all there are cracked up to be. While Dark-sided Flycatchers call from outside and Eastern Crowned Warblers crash into the window trying to draw attention, we have to sit all day in a room discussing the finer details of Reed Parrotbill diet and Saunders’ Gull nesting requirements as we try to design a 2,500 ha nature reserve. How can we provide more food for Black-faced Spoonbill?

Yesterday however, we did get out early. Wading barefoot through the mudflats of Chongming Dongtan nature reserve, we talked to bird ringers catching waders and local fishermen catching shellfish. The ringers were catching and colour marking waders; with the aim of adding to the knowledge of how waders use the East Asian-Australasian flyway. The catch was mainly Broad-billed Sandpipers, Long-toed and Red-necked Stints. The birds are caught by specialised bird catchers using clap nets with decoys. The fishermen were mainly sifting the bivalve Corbicula out of the mud to try and earn a crust; this beast also being a major food source of the Great Knot. But the introduced Spartina a vigorous grass growing to 2m tall, threatens both the fishermen’s livelihood and the Great Knot. Fishing for shellfish in the reserve seems a bad idea but the shellfish company also sprays out the Spartina that is marching across the mudflats at an alarming rate. The mudflats held Greater and Lesser Sandplover and Grey-tailed Tattlers. All day long birds moved south, calling flocks of Wood Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Terek Sandpipers, Far Eastern Curlews, Great Knot, and Whimbrel, along with hundreds of White-winged Black Terns, Swallows and Yellow Wagtails. It was okay I suppose.

“What does the ecologist think” stops me daydreaming about yesterday and brings the mind back inside to the theory. One of the reserve’s key species is the Marsh Grassbird, a skulking species with a distribution split into a number of isolated sub-populations across China, Japan and Korea. At Chongming, it is one of the few species found in the Spartina marshes. Can we remove the invasive Spartina without losing Grassbirds? Elsewhere it is found in more varied marshy grasslands including overgrown rice paddies. Breeding birds seem to prefer dense, mid-height reeds and grasses in shallow water for nesting, with some taller plants for singing posts. Now, where shall we create the islands for breeding Saunders’ Gull? Can we grow a sacrificial rice crop to lure the Hooded Cranes off the adjacent farmland? Outside it starts to get dark, the flycatcher rattles off to roost and Night Herons fly past the window. Kwak.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Chongming Dongtan

Touchdown in Shanghai and just a few hours in China is enough to grasp the enormity of the environmental problems in this country. The rate of concrete pouring and coastal land reclamation is astounding. We are based at Chongming Dongtan Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Yangtze River for two weeks. This is a major staging post for waders, with good feeding mud flats being lost at an alarming rate. There can be little doubt that coastal wetlands along the East Asian-Australasian flyway are facing an ecological crisis.

We are in China to work on the design of a major wetland creation project. There is a plan is to build a huge new 25 km seawall, enclosing 2,500 ha of Spartina dominated saltmarsh around the nature reserve. The wall is being built to enable the introduced Spartina that has spread across the mudflats to be removed and the opportunity exists to work with the excellent reserve staff here to create the best possible habitat for key species after removal.
Chongming Dongtan is located at the eastern part of the Chongming Island, which is a low lying alluvial island. Due to the sedimentation of mud and sand from the Yangtze River, Chongming Dongtan consists of large areas of fresh water/salty water marshes, tidal creeks and inter-tidal mudflat, where there are farmland, fish and crab ponds and reed beds. It is an important staging and wintering site for migratory birds. Key species here are Hooded Cranes, Reed Parrotbill, Marsh Grassbird, Black-faced Spoonbill, Saunders Gull and the waders of the East Asian-Australasian flyway. The highlights of a quick look around on day one were a large flock of Reed Parrotbills and evening meal of shrimp, duck, mushroom and noodle. The waitress gave me a dirty look while others laughed; apparently I had greeted her with “hello mother”.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Forest Monkeys reveal secrets

The Dutch name for Little Bittern is Woudaap, which in direct translation means Forest Monkey.  Last weeks work involved a great deal of nimble movement through reedbed ‘forests’, culminating in the Somerset Forest Monkeys revealing some of their secrets.

We started with a good deal of thrashing about in the reedbeds at Minsmere.  Thinking about climate change, the impact of too many Red Deer, and natural succession in an ageing reedbed.  How are we going to manage this site over the next 25 years?  Nothing beats getting into the habitat and experiencing it close-up to understand what needs to be done.

Then on to Snape, where new wetlands are being created.  A bit of electro-fishing to understand how the fish populations are developing, then a look at the area currently being created to add a few tweaks to the design; imagining yourself in a metre of water surrounded by reeds and thinking what features would attract a feeding Bittern or a Great White Egret.

Then down to Ham Wall, where after a summer of meticulous recording by a superb group of volunteers and local birders, we soon homed in on the Little Bittern nesting and feeding sites.  Water depths, edge profiles, reed characteristics were all recorded and some electro-fishing revealed the secrets of the Forest Monkeys favoured feeding areas.  Such details will be invaluable in creating similar habitat elsewhere.

One interesting fish caught in some numbers at Ham Wall was the Moderlieshen or Sunbleak Leucaspius delineatus, a non-native species that has a highly developed life history strategy. The majority of cyprinid fish species take 2-4 years to become sexually mature and spawn just once a year. The females scatter many thousands of eggs over aquatic macrophytes or gravel,and these are then left unguarded and vulnerable to predation.  Unusually for cyprinids, the Moderlieshen become sexually mature at one year old and are batch spawners, with females laying several batches of eggs, between April and July, which are guarded by the males until they hatch. They were first recorded in the Somerset Levels around 1990, their origin unknown but likely to have arrived via some fish stocking by anglers.

Photos above - Moderlieshen, Little Bittern nest.

Monday, 29 July 2013

I knee-d a Purple Emperor

The first Purple Emperor of the day landed on my shorts and wandered around my knee for a few minutes, no doubt remarking on my sweaty qualities.  Frustratingly, no amount of contortion could get the beast into focus through the camera lens before it soared off over the woodland canopy.  So began my walk around Broxbourne Woods this weekend.  After the first Emperor of the day they became decidedly scarce for a while and it seemed I would not get a decent photo, unlike Silver-washed Fritillaries, which were everywhere.  I have walked these woods since the 1970s and never have they been so numerous. They were distinctly hard to find in the 1970s-1990s but now every sunny glade seems to have a few. A remarkable change in status.  Likewise the Purple Emperor.  In the early days, every White Admiral was scrutinised in the hope of finding the Emperor.  Now almost full circle, I saw more Emperors than Admirals on my two hour walk.

At Danemead, a Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust nature reserve within the woods, Broad-leaved Helleborines were just coming into flower and the exit holes of Goat Moths were still evident in the small group of old trees that they have inhabited for decades.  Back in the depth of the planted conifers, a family party of Firecrests mingled with a large mixed flock of tits and 9 Crossbills chipped away from the top of a Larch.  On the final stretch back to the car park, Purple Emperors at last began to perform; a couple zooming around large sallows, a couple more taking moisture from the damp path and a final individual sucking away at a gate post.

Photos: my feet, Silver-washed, White Admiral and PE.


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The road to Utopia

The Wadden Sea islands in The Netherlands are remarkable for both migrant and breeding birds. Texel, at the southern end of the chain is perhaps the best known of the islands and has high levels of conservation management. In 2010 the Dutch conservation organisation Natuurmonumenten created a new nature reserve on Texel. The reserve is a 28 ha brackish lagoon behind the seawall adjacent to the Wadden Sea. Formerly a grass field in agriculture, the land was excavated to create a series of islands in a shallowly flooded lagoon. Around 84,000 m3 of soil was removed and 2,000 m3 of cockle shells brought in to cover some of the islands, which were a mix of grass, shell and mud. Seawater can enter the lagoon at high water via a sluice.
We visited Utopia in 2011 and were duly impressed. The site already supported good numbers of breeding Common (600 pairs), Arctic (60) and Little Terns (54), Avocets (73) and Ringed Plovers (10). Black-headed Gulls (200 pairs), Black-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Redshank and Eider also breed. Spoonbills feed in the lagoon and passage and wintering waders use the lagoon for both roosting and feeding. Terns and other seabirds have a distinct advantage on Texel; the island has virtually no mammalian predators apart from a few Stoats. This was evident at our first stop; a Sandwich Tern colony of some 1200 pairs, easily accessible by ground predators but with hundreds of chicks. Even crows seemed scarce, apparently kept in check by the resident Goshawks.
This type of habitat is sadly lacking in the UK, with coastal habitats under severe pressure from human activities and sea level rise.  However, we are now well on the way to creating our own ‘Utopias’. The first, an 18 ha freshwater lagoon on the Suffolk coast will be excavated and functioning by the end of the year.  The project will excavate 16000 m3 of soil and create a mosaic of grass, bare mud and islands topped with 2000 m3 of shingle for nesting and roosting birds. The site will have an anti-predator fence around the perimeter.  More to follow but in the meanwhile...this is the Dutch Utopia.