Monday, 25 January 2016

A quick trip to China

Winter birding at Chongming Dongtan in China is like a good UK winter and a mega autumn rolled into one.  You get huge numbers of ducks and geese along with stripey warblers and pipits. This was my fourth visit to Chongming, with one trip in each season.  We were back for a weeks stay at the ‘eco-village’ with a mixed programme of site checking, report writing and presentations. The aim was to prepare a management and monitoring plan for the nature reserve and its new habitats that are now appearing as a result of the Bird Habitat Optimisation Project.  Just to remind you, the project is to eliminate 16 km2 of invasive Cord-grass Spartina alternifolia and then create 25 km2 of wetland habitat, mainly lagoons and reedbeds.  After the design and build phase, with contractors being on site for the last 2 years, the lagoons are now taking shape and the Spartina is being cut and flooded.

Pallas's and Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-flanked Bluetails and Daurian Redstarts flit around the village gardens while we work.  The early morning walks around the fields beyond the village gate reveal hundreds of Red-throated, Water and Buff-bellied Pipits with Rustic, Black-faced and Pallas's Reed Bunting.

Back to the plan.  The target species are Reed Parrotbill, Hooded Crane, Tundra Swan, Great Knot, Far Eastern Curlew, Spoon-billed Sandpipers, Nordmann's Greenshank, Black-faced Spoonbills and Saunders’s Gull. Weeks of reading everything published on these species ends up getting distilled into the plan.  How do we create and maintain suitable feeding, breeding, roosting habitat for the key species?

Out to section A of the reserve to check the newly created reedbed pools and ditches.  Snipe ping away, Reed Parrotbills noisily crunch through reed stems to find their scale bug dinners and Chinese Penduline Tits swirl around in flocks.  Dusky Warblers and Bluethroats hop around the reed bottoms.  The lagoons support hundreds of wildfowl: Spot-billed Duck, Pochard, Pintail, Falcated Duck, Goosander and Goldeneye.  Two separate sections of the reserve will be managed by WWF and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  Both are currently developing visitor and educational facilities. A high five moment as the roosting islands we had created in front of the proposed WWF viewpoint had ....roosting waders.  Eighty Black-faced Spoonbills loafed in front of the TNC visitor centre as we arrived but they rapidly took flight to find a quieter area.  A bit more screening required perhaps.  

Final presentations done and report crunched, we headed back out to the saltmarsh to find the wintering Tundra Bean Geese, Hooded and Common Cranes. In the duller moments, the flocks of gulls kept us going and seemed to contain Mongolian, Heuglin's, Slaty-backed and Saunders’s. Being an ecologist is not such a bad job at times.

Photos: top - from design (lower) to habitat on the ground (top)
Below - Black-faced Spoonbills, Chinese Penduline Tit, Red-throated Pipit, Pallas's Warbler.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Wallasea - a wetland designed for the future

The RSPB’s wetland creation project at Wallasea Island in Essex has been much in the news over the last year.  In July, the first phase of the intertidal habitat was completed and the sea wall breached.  On completion of all five phases of this innovative and forward-looking project, around 700 hectares of saline to fresh water habitats will have been created.

The project aims to combat the threats from climate change and coastal flooding by recreating a wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture.  It will also help to compensate for the loss of tidal habitats elsewhere. Habitat design will look to accommodate colonizing species from the south.  Much of this design is difficult to see at ground level but the aerial photograph above shows many of the habitat features incorporated into the design.  This is what can be seen:

A – This will be the visitor hub in the future.  Immediately adjacent are three shallow saline lagoons that will be managed for passage and breeding waders (top photo below).  They will be rotationally dried and flooded to maximize their food supply.  They will provide ideal conditions for Black-winged Stilts.

B – The entrance to the reserve will be through an area of saltmarsh saline creaks with shallow pools, suitable for a range of specialist invertebrates.

C – Shallow saline lagoon with islands and seasonal brackish pools suitable for breeding birds and a range of characteristic flora and fauna.  The conditions will be suitable for species currently more frequent to the south and that are likely to move northwards.

D – Seasonally drying salt pan, for Kentish Plovers with a bit of luck.

E – Freshwater marsh and grassland with pools and ditches for breeding waders.  These areas will be protected from mammalian predators by a barrier fence built into the surrounding ditches (see photo below).

F – Rough grass and wild-bird cover around the margins of the wetland will provide habitat for small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.  The photo shows the mosaic cutting pattern to increase the structural diversity of the rough grassland. This will also benefit birds of prey such as harriers and owls.

G – An area of regulated tidal exchange with numerous islands, where water levels can be controlled (see sluice photo below) for the benefit of breeding, passage and wintering waterbirds.

H – The inter-tidal area has numerous features designed into it, including shallow lagoons that will provide the ideal feeding conditions and food resource for Spoonbills.  Once fed-up and in the mood, higher islands with scrub have been provided for the Spoonbills for nesting.

I – The range of islands provided includes some with shingle, sand and cockle-shells for nesting terns (hopefully Little Tern) and Ringed Plovers.  Will it all work?  We shall see.