Friday, 22 May 2015

Rainham and the Gentlemen of Science

'Gentlemen of Science' is the collective name for employees of Birdwatch magazine, past and present, and pre-me they were all indeed gentlemen. Yesterday I met up with two of the gents, Ian and Simon, for a birding morning at Rainham. We've been trying to organise this trip since late January, so it was a pleasure and a triumph to finally co-ordinate ourselves to do it. Ian met me at Woodford tube station and from there we drove to the reserve and, after a chat with Howard, went down to the start of the trail.

While we waited for Simon, we were entertained by the musical stylings of this Whitethroat. Soon Si arrived, and promptly found a couple of Little Ringed Plovers. We continued to scan the scrape for a little while, but found nothing else very exciting.

We walked anticlockwise, and I was pleased to see lots of damsels out around the woodland area.These are both male Azures but there were also Blue-tailed about. The first one was doing that wing-cleaning-with-the-abdomen thing, or perhaps just flipping me the bird.

We also saw a couple of dragons round here - a Broad-bodied Chaser which sat down and posed nicely, and a Hairy Dragonfly which didn't.

On Aveley Pools were the rather lame collection of wildfowl you'd expect for May, plus a surprise - a pair of Wigeons. Everything was miles off, though these weed-dancing Great Crested Grebes were just about in camera range. Lots of Swifts zoomed about overhead, a Cuckoo flew over, and a couple of Hobbies frolicked in the sky out towards Wennington.

While the gents scoped the far shore, I stared at the reeds until a Reed Warbler popped out into view.

At the next viewpoint over the pools, this trio of hormonal Gadwalls put on a bit of a show, circling over the water with much argy-bargy between the two drakes.

Ian spotted this magnificent Drinker caterpillar which was bimbling along the raised edge of the boardwalk.

A little further, we paused for me to take a few (dozen) photos of this typically fearless male Reed Bunting which was delivering his boring song from a pathside reed stem. He seemed to have a curiously dingy grey underside, plus that twisted outer tail feather.

Where the path turns left to Butts hide, we noted two distant Kestrels, one of which briefly became less distant. A Common Buzzard drifted high overhead, causing the birds out on Wennington Marsh to stare up at it but not to flush.

On to Butts hide, from where the gents picked out a very distant group of small waders on the shore of the Target Pools - three Dunlins and four Ringed Plovers.

I was more diverted by the two very agitated Redshanks that were calling incessantly and circling the hide, at times so close that they seemed about to come in and join us. We could hear the piping of Redshank chicks nearby, perhaps too close to the path or the hide for the parents' comfort.

At one point, one of them pitched down into the vegetation right by the path, and sat there for a moment looking fraught. Meanwhile, another Cuckoo shot past.

We carried on, taking a moment to enjoy a couple of high-up Hobbies and the many Swifts sharing their airspace.

At the Dragonfly pools, we heard a bit of pinging and a pair of Bearded Tits came chasing over the reeds, sadly not pausing long enough for any photos.

The pair of Mute Swans here have a brood of five small cygnets, which they were leading through the narrow watery cut-throughs at a very sedate pace. They swam under the bridge as we walked over it, and we had very close though not very photo-friendly views of the little fuzzballs.

The Kingfishers nesting by the MDZ are due to fledge any day now. Unsurprisingly nothing happened during the two minutes we spent in the hide.

We actually spent a lot longer watching a couple of Marsh Frogs in the little area of water next to the MDZ. Two were calling loudly, puffing up their impressive face balloons, and apparently in pursuit of a third. I don't know anything about Marsh Frog breeding biology but this did look like courtship behaviour - maybe they spawn much later in spring than Common Frogs do.

A little further along we found a pair of Coots, each one tending a single gawky chick.

That was almost it. On the feeding station by the visitor centre were House Sparrows feeding their fledglings, a charming but too-distant-for-photos sight. And then this still-smart Peacock appeared and posed very nicely. I can't decide which of the pics I prefer so here are both of them.

And finally... as we enjoyed a quick cuppa in the cafe before home-time, this curious thing came floating down the Thames.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Up north - day 5

We made an early start this morning, as our destination - RSPB Leighton Moss - is a fair old drive away. The day started quite brightly but on the way I fell asleep in the car and when I woke we were being battered by heavy rain. This eased up quite quickly but it wasn't until mid-afternoon that the sun came out. You'll know that this means lots of rather dull and noisy photos to come...

We spent a bit of time watching the feeders near the car park, and a bit more time in Lilian's hide. Then it was off towards the Public hide, where the most evident wildlife was a pair of Black-headed Gulls directly in front of us.

Far, far off in the corner of the lake, an Otter or possibly two Otters could be seen occasionally surfacing. This was a thrill of course (I'd never seen Otters in England before) but they really were too far off for discernable photos.

A pair of Great Crested Grebes that were dozing nearby woke up, and came together for some head-shaking. Then they parted and dived, and when I saw they'd surfaced with weed in their bills I knew what was coming.

Not sure where this Pochard was going but he was in quite a rush.

On the way round to Lower hide, we were treated to close views of a male Marsh Harrier collecting nesting material.

The trail through woods to Lower hide is attended by a number of Pheasants which have no fear of people at all, and a spanking male plus about seven females were soon milling around our feet. We indulged them with some handouts of seed.

I took the opportunity to get some frame-fillers of Pheasant plumage.

From Lower hide we had, as I'd hoped, better views of the Otters. There were three in all. The photos are distant, and dull, but I'm still thrilled with them.

On the way back we stopped for more Pheasant-feeding, and also encountered a hand-tame Robin. While this was going on, a stunning Stoat legged it past us in the field opposite.

We stopped at the dipping ponds near Lilian's hide to look for the male Redstart that had been reported here, but couldn't find it. There was a very excitably singing Wren as compensation.

Back at the visitor centre we had a bit of lunch and then set off to look at the other half of the reserve. Almost immediately we bumped into a pair of Treecreepers. The male was foraging and then bringing his catches back to his mate - this is her, waiting patiently at the bottom of the tree.

Along the way here are several nice gnarly fallen trees which serve as good baiting spots to attract little birds. This male Nuthatch was coming down for sunflower seeds...

... while at ground level a lovely little Bank Vole sneaked out to hoover up fallen crumbs.

Up in the trees were a couple of Marsh Tits.

We visited the two hides at the far end of this trail but there wasn't a lot to see, so we decided to return and head off to the Morecambe Bay bit of the reserve.

Here were plenty of birds, though not that much variety and light was tricky. The Black-tailed Godwit count must have been in the low thousands. There were also quite a few Avocets dotted about, and a handful of Pintails.

We went on to another site for the close of play - I'm not saying where just out of paranoia, as they have had some issues with disturbance of the special birds nesting there, namely Peregrines and Ravens, both of which we saw. And that was the end of our last full day in the north-west. Thank you very much to Hazel and Mike for showing us a most excellent time.

Up north - day 4

Tuesday was the sunniest day of our whole stay, and we decided to spend it at Martin Mere WWT, with a look at RSPB Marshside if time allowed. Martin Mere follows the standard WWT layout, with a collection of captive exotic wildfowl and a wider expanse of natural habitat beyond.

The first large pool beyond the way in was full of wild Mallards and Shelducks, plus an assortment of not-wild things including Whooper and Bewick's Swans, Goldeneyes, Pintails and Eiders. As we watched them, a staff member went in to throw some seed about, and the ducks went nuts.

One of the first atttractions you reach on going through the doors is an enclosure of those ubiquitous Short-clawed Asian Otters. The otters were not on view but something else was - sitting all hunched up on the seating rail surrounding the enclosure was a Chiffchaff which had obviously flown full tilt into the glass panel above.

Poor little thing. It seemed basically OK, just stunned, was able to move its head so no broken neck. Paul moved it away from the busy otter area and put it in a tucked-away corner of a small wildlife garden.

We checked out all of the displays, which as well as the usual array of ducks, geese and swans also included flamingos and screamers, and there was a walk-in aviary containing Avocets and a pair of African Crowned Cranes. I did take a few shots of the exotica but tried to concentrate on wild stuff.

These drake Shovelers were doing some bill-jousting.

Elsewhere, Mallards were behaving badly. Any female Mallards, whether paired or single, who don't yet have a nest are vulnerable to this sort of thing, as the drakes go all out to try to get a bit of DNA into the next generation. However, the females have a secret weapon - complex internal anatomy meaning that they can select which male gets to inseminate them and which get effectively sent down a blind alley.

I wonder if this very advanced intersex Mallard still gets unwanted male attention. I also wonder whether old male-like females like this go into eclipse plumage. Will have to ask Google...

Lots of Black-headed Gulls here. This is a first-summer, developing its first ever black head (invariably the young ones are a few weeks behind the adults).

Also lots of hirundines, mainly Swallows this time.

After a mini-lunch we went into the wild part of the reserve. This is based around a large marshy water body (the titular 'mere'). Martin Mere is famous for its visiting Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans, which are of course not here at the moment, but there was plenty to keep us amused, including lots of singing little birds like this Chaffinch.

If you go right at the way in you go through Tree Sparrow country. They are well catered for here, with tons of nestboxes and plenty of large feeder trays to keep the Cyrils out.

A medley of Tree Spuggies. Paul was particularly pleased to see them, as he's a big fan of House Sparrows but had not seen their country cousins before.

Halfway down this trail, a pair of Tawny Owls were very well-hidden in an ivy-cloaked tree.

Heading the other way, I found a lone Whooper Swan, which for whatever reason couldn't or didn't want to migrate north with the others.

A singing Blackcap in deep cover. The light angle was appalling - photoshopping to reveal it really is a Blackcap has made the background look like the middle of a nuclear explosion, sorry about that.

In the woods were clumps of this attractive flower, which I believe is False Oxlip - a hybrid between Cowslip and Primrose.

More dreadful lighting - Med Gull coming off the mere.

We were on our way out to the car park when a distant raptor appeared overhead, and circled close enough to reveal itself to be a young Peregrine.

We decided there was time to visit the nearby RSPB Marshside, a newish wetland reserve near Southport, which featured in this blog way back in 2009. It has developed quite a bit since then, with more established water bodies and vegetation.

We spent quite a while in Nel's hide where two drake Pintails were feeding quite close at hand. Further off were masses and masses of Black-tailed Godwits.

Other wildfowl around included Shovelers.

A flock of beautifully marked Golden Plovers went by at the far side of the water.

On the way down to Sandgrounder's hide, we passed a Gorse bush, which on one of its limbs bore these extraordinary double flowers.

Sandgrounder's doubles as the visitor centre here, and was closed, it being well after 6pm. From the viewing slots adjacent to the hide we could see a female Avocet sitting quietly on her nest on a small gravelly island.

A lone Redshank was picking its way around the same island, oblivious to the sitting Avocet sending it death glares. When the Avocet chicks hatch, this sort of thing will not be tolerated! And that was the end of day 4.

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