Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Sandwell Valley - December 2014

On Sunday I was back at RSPB Sandwell Valley again for the final time this year. It had been a while since I was last there, due to hectic busy times - mainly involving Christmas preparations and scratching my head over my current Open University module, Oceanography which I think is the most difficult module I've done so far :o( So I was looking forward to getting outside, relaxing in the hide and enjoying the birds!

Alf and I went for our usual walk in the morning, and I got my first look at the newly-muralled railway bridge (formerly drab grey concrete). It looks brilliant!

The bridge.

The bridge.

The bridge.

The bridge.

The bridge.

The bridge.
I recently finally entered the 21st century and bought my first smartphone (I'd previously had a reliable Nokia brick with loads of buttons) so I was excited to see how it could enhance my birding experiences! The results proved to be mixed :oD

On our walk round, I loaded up the Birdtrack app (which I'd installed upon first getting the phone) for the first time and fiddled about, trying to work out how to use it. It turned out to be pretty straightforward and I was soon merrily adding sightings to my list as we walked around. Reading the instructions somewhat belatedly now, the only thing I didn't do was retrieve my existing sites, so my list is just recorded under a grid reference for Sandwell Valley. Doesn't look like I can edit the site for that list retrospectively, but at least I will know for the future! Can anyone recommend any other good (preferably free) birding/nature apps for Android?

On our walk round, things were pretty quiet. The relatively warm weather over winter so far has meant there has been a bit of a dearth of ducks compared with chillier years - there's only been a handful of Goldeneye sightings, and Goosanders and Wigeons have been around but only in small numbers. However, there has been at least one Pintail around for most of the time for a while now, the first time in recent years that this species has been more than a very occasional visitor to the valley. Snipe numbers have been great too - from the south bank on our walk, Alf and I counted at least 42 on the island. 

Back at the visitor centre after lunch, we were about to leave when we spotted another volunteer, Jason, who had been on his way home but had stopped and was intently photographing something out of his dad's car window. We realised that it was a small group of Rose-ringed Parakeets - Alex had mentioned they'd been getting more bold recently and had started visiting the feeders outside the centre. They were up in a tree overhanging the centre; we carefully opened the door so as not to spook them and watched for a while. They did indeed fly down to the feeders and we got super-close views of them feeding. I took a few photos on my usual camera, and on my phone:

Rose-ringed Parakeet (taken using my camera).
Rose-ringed Parakeets from my phone.
Rose-ringed Parakeets from my phone.
Down in the hide in the afternoon it was very quiet visitor-wise - I think everyone must have been off occupied with festive antics elsewhere. We had nice views of Teal, Gadwall and some super-smart Goosanders, and the ever present Lapwing flock. I tried some phonescoping with my new phone but alas the results were rather poor! I might try making an adaptor to see if that improves matters.

About the best I managed with my phone through my scope....pretty dreadful! :oD
And here's the best I managed through my camera....not much better.
I think I would probably get better results outdoors - the hide is very gloomy inside and the lack of light is certainly hampering my efforts. Might try that next time.

Unfortunately I forgot to pack my sketchbook so I have no drawings - I blame tiredness! Looking foward to a good break over Christmas, I am planning to finally catch up on sleep, stuff my face and maybe do a bit of festive birding in and around York and Birmingham :o) Happy Christmas whatever you are doing!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Birding in Minneapolis - day 3!

My final day in Minneapolis was a bit quieter bird-wise. In the morning I decided to visit Lake Hiawatha as I'd seen on eBird that Bufflehead had been reported there in the past - one of my target birds! They migrate through Minnesota at this time of year in small numbers so although there was a chance I might find one, twas a fairly small chance. To get to Lake Hiawatha I took the light rail to 46th Street then walked down Minnehaha Creek, which was a lovely walk.

Minnehaha Creek.
Minnehaha Creek.
Minnehaha Creek.
Along the creek I saw more American Robins, American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, Mallards and a Hairy Woodpecker. I also got another life tick, Golden-crowned Kinglet, of which I saw a group of four, very nice. I'd left my field guide at the hotel though and could only remember Ruby-crowned Kinglet off the top of my head.....this was obviously 'the other one' but until I got back, my notebook just said 'whatever their Firecrest is called'!

At the lake it was bloody windy! I power-walked along the shore and found a bench in a relatively sheltered spot, from there I found plenty of Ring-billed Gulls, American Coots, a few Greater Scaup and one solitary female American Wigeon - another life tick, hurrah. I also saw three Red-tailed Hawks fly overhead, calling and larking around together - smashing. Alas I did not find a Bufflehead, that remains a bird for another day! Maybe I'll see where and when Chris's next North American conference will take him (and possibly me), hmmmm...

Lake Hiawatha.

Although migration had already peaked before my visit, and Minneapolis was settling into the quieter winter period, I was very happy with my birding experience there. I visited some great places - think I managed to jam quite a lot into 3 days (I also visited several museums and landmarks) - and particularly enjoyed meeting up with Bob and Buddy, top notch Minneapolis birding pals! I'm not big on listing but I saw 18 new species, so was pretty happy about that :o) So that was my birding over for the holiday - except this Common Loon which I spotted in MSP airport.....

It will hypnotise you with its glowing eyes....

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Birding in Minneapolis - day 2!

On the second day of our holiday, Chris's conference started and I was up super early to go and meet up with Bob, who I'd arranged to go birding with via BirdingPal. BirdingPal is a great website that enables you to get in touch with local birders in locations all over the world, so that you can meet up on your travels and make the most of birding opportunities thanks to their local knowledge. Bob picked me up outside our hotel at 7am and we headed off to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, in Bloomington near MSP airport and the Mall of America. The sun had just risen as we arrived and there was a bit of frost on the ground.

Just after dawn from the viewpoint over the reeds.
Here is a map I picked up of the area! We parked at the Old Cedar Avenue car park and set off south down the trail and then along a boardwalk through the reeds to the viewpoint.

Map of Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Long Meadow Lake unit.
As well as myself and Bob, Bob's border collie Buddy also came along - he was ace, kind of like a friendly and placid rug, no bother at all to the birds. En route to the viewpoint we saw a Great Blue Heron, and from the viewpoint we saw plenty of Pintail, Shoveler, Greater Scaup and Trumpeter Swan. There was a moment of excitement when an American Crow chased a Peregrine right past us over the reeds!

Great Blue Heron.
We then walked back up to drop Buddy off in the car for a sleep on his comfy bed, and headed in the other direction for a longer walk towards the Bass Ponds. The weather was chilly and there was a brief flurry of sleet but it didn't last. We saw plenty of Green-winged Teal on Long Meadow Lake when we walked under Highway 77. There was also a fair bit of awesome raptor action! We saw a few Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers, at one point one of each in a chase - great to see them alongside each other to compare. We'd bumped into a couple of birders too who said there were some Rough-legged Hawks around, and indeed one flew over us soon enough - it was a dark phase bird, and was indeed incredibly dark! Finally we also had great views of a few mighty Bald Eagles. Bob works for a security company which as well as providing security systems for the Walker Art Centre (which I'd visited the previous day), also provided a camera for this Bald Eagle nestcam in Minneapolis! I'm going to enjoy checking in on that over winter and spring; the eagles have been visiting occasionally in recent weeks to add new grass to the nest, and breeding should commence in January!

Bass Ponds.

Bass Ponds.
Further along on our walk we encountered a big flock of sparrows. Argh! I am very confused by American sparrows! The checklist I picked up back at the car park helped narrow it down somewhat; there were definitely lots of American Tree Sparrows in there. But with them flitting in and out of thick scrub, we weren't able to ID them all! Also in the flock were a few American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees and a female Northern Cardinal. A little further on we got SUPER CLOSE to a Downy Woodpecker which was clambering about in some branches next to the path. I also saw a quick glimpse of bright red fleeing rapidly down the trail ahead - my first view of a male Northern Cardinal, but I was soon to get much better views. I also got a bit overexcited when I saw this next to the path!

A Beaver was here!
Bob remained chilled - pretty much his general demeanour most of the time (although not when talking about hunting - he is not a fan. No disagreement from me there) and pointed out a Beaver lodge too on our way back to the car.

Beaver lodge! (Probably not really visible unless you view full size).
Our next stop was the visitor centre (inset A on the map)....from the car on the way there I saw my first Wild Turkey, just strolling along the grass at the roadside! The visitor centre had great big windows at the back looking out onto a well-stocked feeding station, and here there were great views to be had of Black-capped Chickadees, House Finches, White-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy, Hairy and Red-breasted Woodpeckers, the ubiquitous House Sparrows and best of all, Northern Cardinals! These were another of my favourite birds that I saw during my trip, who can resist their jaunty red charms!

We still had a bit of time before Bob had to get to work in the afternoon, so next we drove to the Chain of Lakes in western Minneapolis. We checked out Lakes Harriet and Calhoun and Lake of the Isles; there were plenty of American Coots about, the usual Canada Geese and Mallards, and I saw my first Pied-billed Grebes. I had been thinking of visiting these lakes at some point during my trip but wasn't sure if I'd have time, plus I could only have got to them by bus, so it was great to be taken there - Bob was very generous with his time and knowledge, I saw a lot more of Minneapolis than I thought I'd be able to in the time we had there! The areas around the lakes are pretty swanky and it was fun to look at all the fancy houses and neighbourhoods.

Lake Calhoun with downtown Minnepolis in the distance.
Finally we drove back to downtown Minnepolis and Bob dropped me off at the hotel. I had a great morning with him and Buddy, they were superb Birding Pals! He even gave me his old fourth edition copy of the National Geographic Birds of North America field guide - mine was only the second edition and he'd recently updated to the newest version.

I didn't do any more birding that day, but in the afternoon I visited the Bell Natural History Museum which was also great. Here are a few of the things I saw there!

Outside the Bell Museum of Natural History.

I folded a Passenger Pigeon. See for more info!

The museum is famous for its dioramas of North American wildlife. This was one of my favourites.....the Ground Squirrel has escaped the Golden Eagle's clutches!

My favourite fact that I learnt at the museum is at the end of the second paragraph.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Birding in Minneapolis - day one!

A couple of days ago I got back from a short holiday in Minneapolis. Chris had been attending a conference there (the North American Conference on British Studies) with his work  and I was lucky to be able to tag along for a cheap holiday as Chris's employer were paying for the hotel :o) I'd wanted to visit Minnesota for a while, although I must admit that was mainly because of Fargo which is one of my favourite films! However I did a fair bit of research online before we travelled to see what Minneapolis might have to offer other than snow, botched kidnappings and kinda funny-looking guys. I was dead excited to see some new North American bird species as I'd never visited the USA before, and had only been to Canada (Nova Scotia) once.

Minnehaha Park & Falls

Chris and I visited this fine park on our first day in Minneapolis before his conference started; it was a great reintroduction to some of the common North American species I'd seen before, and also a chance to see a few new ones!

Minnehaha Park.
The area surrounding the falls, and the gorge below, were stuffed full of birds! We startled a couple of Blue Jays a few times while walking around, there were big flocks of American Robins everywhere, and a few Dark-eyed Juncos rummaging around in the undergrowth. Upon seeing American Robins, Chris said he realised now why the costume of Robin (i.e. Batman's sidekick) is the colours it is - it obviously doesn't resemble a European Robin, problem solved!

Minnehaha Falls.

Minnehaha Park.
We also saw a few species that were new to me. A mighty Red-tailed Hawk, which had escaped our notice but must have been perching in a tree very close by, suddenly took off right in front of us which was pretty thrilling! Also we spotted two woodpecker species, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker. So many woodpeckers in America! Red-bellied Woodpeckers were one of my favourite birds that I saw on this holiday - I loved their bright red heads!

Minnehaha Park.
Walking downstream from the falls we also got nice and close to a Wood Duck, who had not quite yet gained his breeding plumage and was looking a bit dowdy!

Wood Duck who will probably look much better in a few weeks time!

Loring Park and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

In the afternoon on the first day, Chris and I met up with Kieran, one of Chris's colleagues who was also there for the conference. We walked through Loring Park on our way to the Walker Art Centre, and saw the ubiquitous Canada Geese and Mallards; more excitingly for us there was one black squirrel amongst the many greys. We had lunch at a restaurant overlooking Loring Park and hopefully I didn't embarrass Chris and Kieran too much when I whipped my binoculars out towards the end of our meal to more closely scrutinise a fair-sized raptor that had flown across the park and landed in a bare tree! Its size, long tail and direct flight, combined with information I'd gleaned from eBird before our visit, told me it was most likely a Cooper's Hawk - another life tick, bosh!

Loring Park.
After that we headed over the the Walker Art Centre for some Culture! Outside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden just over the road we saw a large woodpecker at the top of a tree; the light was not great but from the size and shape I thought it was probably a Northern Flicker. As it flew off it had a noticeable large white rump which confirmed the ID, another life tick! By the time we left the Walker it was dusk, and we walked back through the Sculpture Garden which was full of roosting American Robins, through Loring Park again and back towards downtown Minneapolis for dinner. What a cracking first day in Minneapolis.....I would be up bright and early the next morning though for the main birding event of my trip!

View from Minneapolis Sculpture Garden towards downtown Minneapolis.

Canada Geese in Loring Park at night.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Sandwell Valley - November 2014

Yesterday I was back volunteering at RSPB Sandwell Valley. In the morning Alf and I went for our usual walk as there were volunteers aplenty in the hide. Following the heavy rain overnight, the River Tame was looking rather swollen. We saw 3 Little Grebes at Kingfisher Corner struggling against the current!

Kingfisher Corner, looking wetter than usual.
The River Tame.
As we made our way round the reserve, the resident Rose-ringed Parakeets were being particularly active and noisy, moving in the same direction as us through the trees on the opposite bank of the river. We got some nice views of them, especially when two chased a Kestrel for a bit before both parties stopped and landed in the same, leafless tree. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity, perhaps the Parakeets were concerned about Sparrowhawk attacks but once they got a clearer view of the Kestrel they realised she posed no threat?! Whatever, it was great to see both perched in clear view in the same tree. 

We headed back to the centre to eat our lunch, then down to the hide. On the way we checked the bird table, which has been moved to make way for the construction of the new visitor centre. It was bustling - loads of action! The birds obviously approve of the new location - we saw plenty of the usual favourites, and even a couple of Willow Tits popped in. 

I also spotted a new plant to try and identify, growing in the meadow on the way down to the hide. I could tell it was a Galium but which?

I think it is Hedge Bedstraw (Galium mollugo).
Alf told me he'd seen some ginormous fungus on the way down to the hide too, we found it and I took a few pics. I am pretty rubbish at fungus ID though - if anyone knows what this is, let me know! It was about dinnerplate sized.

Mystery fungus.

The hide was pretty busy for most of the afternoon! Luckily there were lots of great birds to show to visitors - the Pintail pair have now been loitering for a few weeks, maybe they'll stay for the winter? There were lots of Snipe nearby on the islands (surely soon we'll get a Jack or two), Grey and Pied Wagtails mashing around and loads of Teal and Goosander. Even the Water Rails stuck their beaks out of the reeds for a few brief sightings.

I had a go at getting some digiscoped photos of the Snipe while they were resting, this is about the best I managed - cropped to (mostly) remove the vignetting:

Digiscoped Snipe.
As it was busy I didn't get many drawings done but here's what I did manage:

Sketchy Great Crested Grebe, Teals and Snipe. (Apologies for poor scan quality, will use a different scanner next time!).
At around 3ish, there was an EPIC rain shower - this photo should give some indication of its severity!

We had to wait for it to pass before we could close up the hide. However, the Snipe were loving it! They all woke up and started probing around for tasty snacks in the soil, presumably the rain brings all the invertebrates the Snipe like to eat up to the surface. Once the rain had (mostly) passed, we were able to close the hide and head back up to the centre. Alf had been having a clearout of his books at home, and gave me his old copy of Food For Free by Richard Mabey, as I had mentioned it in a previous conversation and he didn't think he was getting much use out of it. Thanks Alf! :o)

I'll definitely be avoiding the fungus section.....but am looking forward to chowing down on a few plants!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Sandwell Valley - October 2014

On Sunday I was back at RSPB Sandwell Valley, volunteering in the hide once again. Apart from the singing Chiffchaff by the temporary visitor centre (wonder if he'll stick around over winter?), it felt very autumnal when I arrived, with lots of atmospheric mist swirling around, but that soon burned off in the bright sunlight. However it left all the spiders' webs covered with water droplets for a good while!

Spiders' webs after the mist had cleared.
Autumnal vibes!
Down in the hide, things were feeling distinctly autumnal too - all the hirundines had departed, and wildfowl numbers had increased, with good numbers of Gadwall, Goosander, Pochard, a few Teal and Shoveler, and quite excitingly 2 Pintail (not a regular winter inhabitant), around. No sign of any Wigeon today but I'm sure they'll be back soon too. We also had very nice views of a few Snipe feeding and resting on the islands and shore of Forge Mill Lake, and we heard but did not see a fair bit of Water Rail activity. The clear skies seemed to be conducive to hunting raptors, we had multiple sightings of Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard. Raptor-like visual acuity would have assisted us too in getting a better look at the Kingfisher that whizzed past the hide a few times!

I, er, completely forgot about looking out for new plants to try and ID, doh! I blame sleepiness brought on by enjoying myself over the past few evenings since my exam, I fell asleep on the bus on the way home from Sandwell :oD I did however at least remember to attempt some drawings. Since mid/late summer, the Cormorants have been gathering and now there are usually between 15 and 20 to be seen most days fishing in Forge Mill Lake and drying off and preening on the boom marking the reserve boundary.

Cormorants on the boom.
I think Cormorants are very charismatic and fun to draw! In particular they have beautiful dark aquamarine eyes! Here are my attempts:

Cormorant sketches.
Cormorant sketches.
I also played around trying to digiscope the Cormorants too, these were probably the best/least vignette-y results:

Digiscoped Cormorant.
Digiscoped Cormorant.
Back at the temporary visitor centre, Alex (Sandwell Valley Visitor Officer) gave me an awesome chunk of fossils! She'd found it at Winnats Pass in the Peak District when she used to work there. The pass is formed of Carboniferous limestone, which long ago was coral reefs, and consequently is full of fossilised wee beasties. Alex had brought it in for me knowing my interest in geology, cheers Alex! :o)

Fossils from Winnats Pass....I think this is part of a bivalve shell.
Fossils from Winnats Pass.....bits of bivalve shell, crinoid stem pieces, and some nice quartz.