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.