Monday, 30 June 2014

Changeable weather at Weeting Heath and Lakenheath Fen

Yesterday I was off once again on the West Midland Bird Club coach, this time to Weeting Heath in Norfolk and Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk. The day proved to be one of highs and lows in terms of the weather, and consequently the birding!

We arrived at Weeting Heath mid-morning, and the rain started pretty much just as we stepped off the coach. However we were soon ensconced in the hide, enjoying up to 8 Stone Curlews running around on the heath, and a couple of their chicks too! We also saw 2 Stoats chasing each other around like crazy creatures, not great news if you're a Stone Curlew (or a Rabbit, of which we also saw many) but very fun to watch. Lapwings, Pied Wagtails and Stock Doves were also spotted on the heath. With the rain intensifying, we decided not to chance the woodland trail in search of Woodlarks, and instead dashed into the woodland hide. Sadly the feeders were completely empty so bird action was a bit thin on the ground, but we did see a nice Marsh Tit briefly come and check the feeders, and also Goldfinches, Chaffinches, a Great Tit family and a Green Woodpecker in the trees behind the feeders. By now the rain was getting torrential, and we whizzed back to the coach and set off for Lakenheath.

Upon arrival at Lakenheath, some brave souls decided to venture out into the wet conditions which by now could accurately be described as biblical. The rest of us stayed on the coach and ate our lunches, thinking that all the birds would be sheltering in this weather. After about 45 minutes and when the rain looked like it might be easing, we got as far as the visitor centre before it bucketed down again with renewed effort! We stayed in there for another 20 minutes or so, and managed at least to see a few birds on the feeders including Reed Bunting, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the trees.

View from the visitor centre. Please stop raining!
We finally set out when the rain again went from being torrential to merely heavy, hot-footing it to the first viewing shelter where we found most of the rest of our group. While we were here, the rain finally stopped, and the sun came out, along with ALL THE BIRDS!!

Before - rainy grey skies...
.....after - skies-a-clearing!
We saw 3 Kingfishers, which were very active - flying around a lot and perching prominently on reeds. A pair of Marsh Harriers appeared and chased each other around for a while, giving us a good chance to observe the difference in size and build between the male and the female. There were also plenty of Kestrels and a Hobby around, although we were to get much better views of many Hobbies later on! We saw 2 pairs of Common Tern and a few Reed Warblers hopping around in the reeds. A Bearded Tit, after pinging around for a bit hidden in the reeds, emerged out on top of a seedhead quite close by, giving us super views! This was particularly pleasing as the conditions immediately post-rain were quite calm, but the wind soon picked up so that later on, although we heard more Bearded Tits, we didn't see any venture up out of the reeds. Finally, after the rest of our group had moved on, Andy M spotted a Little Egret, and then a Bittern flying over the reeds, for quite a distance - awesome!

We headed off up to the next viewpoint, where we'd heard Cranes could hopefully be seen.... on the way, the sun brought out all the butterflies, and we saw Green-veined White, Ringlet, Large Skipper, Small Tortoiseshell and Meadow Brown. Here are a few pictures:

Green-veined White (Pieris napi) on Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) on Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense).

Small White (Pieris Rapae).
Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) on Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris). View large for the full 'being eyeballed by a Large Skipper' experience.
A rather pale Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) on Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense).
I also spotted a new plant to try and identify:

I think it is Black Horehound (Ballota nigra).
When we reached the next viewpoint, there were Marsh Harriers galore - at least 8 floating over the reedbed. A smashing Hobby also flew right over our heads! We didn't stay long however, as a passing couple told us where to see the Cranes from, just a bit further along the path on the river bank. We headed over and had soon located the Cranes, a pair in the field on the other side of the river. We had to keep moving around to maintain our view as the vegetation on the opposite river bank temporarily obscured the Cranes as they moved around, feeding in the field. However we all got excellent views and watched the Cranes for some time - this was only the second time seeing Cranes for me, and the first time was in rather poor light, although we did hear them trumpeting on that occasion :o) After that we all felt pretty pleased with the day, after its initially very unpromising beginning, and we set off back to the coach, enjoying more hunting Hobbies and butterfly action on the river banks as we went.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Mercantour National Park - Le Boréon

Here's another blog post about my recent trip to France. On our second day in the Alps we went on a most excellent walk in Le Boréon, the area near to the Alpha Wolf Park that we'd visited the previous day. Our wise guide Mel had originally been planning a different, higher-altitude walk, but the weather forecast for the latter part of the day was not great so instead we set out on this slightly less ambitious but nonetheless lovely walk!

Near the start of the walk.
Our walk started at the bottom of a valley which we gradually ascended. To begin with the forest was thick, with lots of Spruce. One thing that made a big impression upon me in the Alps was how many trees there are, living in the UK I am used to seeing all upland areas grazed to the max so it was great to see mountains thickly blanketed with trees. There were occasional patches of snow on the ground, which increased in number and size the higher we got. Here are a few things we saw during the first part of the walk:

Ants' nest. Mel jimmied them around a bit to get them to squirt acid!

Another flower whose identity I have sadly forgotten.
As we ascended, the Spruce disappeared and the forest became more open, dominated by Larch and Arolla Pine. Mel said that we should expect to see Nutcrackers soon as this was their preferred habitat, and he was not wrong! Nutcrackers like to eat the seeds from the Arolla Pine cones, and the pine is reliant upon them caching its seeds, enabling it to disperse to new habitats much like Jays and oaks back at home. Soon I was enjoying my first Nutcracker, and the first of many we spotted whilst in the Alps. They were one of my favourite birds that we saw, very jaunty with a bright alert intelligent look, a mighty bill, and a loud 'KRARK' call which carried quite a long way!

Another new creature we saw plenty of was Chamois - once the trees had thinned out, to one side of the path there were frequent snow-filled gullies on the hillsides. It was very easy to spot Chamois walking across these!

Snow-filled gullies, good for spotting Chamois!
Distant Chamois on the snow.
As we got higher, the path become more frequently covered in snow, but not badly enough for us to need our snowshoes. Although I unsurprisingly didn't see any of the little skulkers, we heard loads of Lesser Whitethroats - they seemed to like the low-growing dwarf rhododendron and juniper bushes. This was a slightly different habitat to what I am used to seeing them in, I had no idea they were found at such high altitudes (+2000 feet)! We also saw Treecreeper, Chiffchaff and a Tree Pipit singing his head off at the top of a pine, and heard Redstart and Nuthatch.

Higher up. North-facing valleys were still completely snow-covered, and some of the snow was stained yellow by Saharan dust carried on the wind and deposited.

Higher up.

Once more I got a bit excited about the fine igneous and metamorphic rock specimens that were to be found! 

Glassy grey quartz, opaque white feldspar, nice shiny biotite. Classic granite!
Ignimbrite, great example of a very ugly volcanic rock!

This one was a bit more cryptic. It looks as though it has some banding and quite a lot of biotite, perhaps it is a gneiss-like rock.
As the walk progressed, the weather conditions did become more grey and cloudy and sadly we had to turn back before we could break through the treeline to reach the lake (Lac Nègre) that we were aiming for. It was the right decision though as it did start to gently drizzle on our way back down. Fortunately the weather didn't get any worse than this and our descent was just as enjoyable as the walk up had been (with possibly more falling over in the snow from me :oD). Here are a final couple of photos of the amazing scenery :o)

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mercantour National Park - Alpha, Le Parc des Loups

Here is the second of my blog posts about our recent trip to southern France. As well as spending a few days in Nice, we also stayed in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes Maritimes. Our hosts were Liz and Mel at their lovely gîtes in beautiful Berthemont les Bains:

Our base!
View from Berthemont Les Bains.
Meadow in Berthemont les Bains.
As well as the awesome scenery and comfy accommodation, our stay here included a different guided walk every day and all the delicious food you could eat! Liz and Mel were great hosts and I would recommend their services to anyone thinking of visiting this part of France :o) Here are a few photos of the garden of the gîtes, the underlying limestone bedrock meant the lawn was very species-rich, full of beautiful and unfamiliar flowers most of which I was unable to identify!

The garden.
Mystery flower 1!

Mystery flower 2!
Good ol' Quaking Grass (Briza media), one of my favourites :o)

The surrounding area was teeming with bird life too - Cuckoos were calling all day and Tawny Owls all night in the valley, and among others I saw Spotted Flycatchers, Serins and Crag Martins in the village. I also saw a pair of Peregrines circling high up around a crag, and we saw a distant pair of eagles near the same crag but their identification remains a bit of a mystery - they looked to have pale underwings but with darker coverts, and weren't light enough underneath to be Short-Toed, nor dark enough for Golden, and I think we were a bit outside the usual range of Bonelli's Eagle. Hmmm! If only my raptor ID skills were better :oD

Our first trip was to the Alpha Parc des Loups (wolf park) in Le Boréon. Here there are three captive semi-wild wolf packs of varying sizes, which are kept in large enclosures in the forest. Wolves have in the past couple of decades recolonised the French Alps from Italy and the park concentrates on the ecology of the wolf and the conflict that has arisen as a result of their return to France. 

Alpha Parc des Loups.

There were three different 'scénovision' presentations that combined audio, video and various props and scenes to tell the story of wolves in the Alps from three different viewpoints. They were an old shepherd who was pretty peeved about the wolves returning, as they predate his sheep and his only defence is his dogs; his son who has become a wolf ecologist working in Italy (the two of them don't get on); and the son's teenage daughter who has followed in her grandad's footsteps but at the same time, sees that the wolves play an important ecological role and hopes that humans can work out ways to coexist with them. I kind of assumed that they were fictional characters, invented to perfectly encapsulate all the opportunities and problems brought by wolves, but it turned out they are actually a real family! This brought extra depth to the stories for me; unsurprisingly I found the wolf ecologist's viewpoint most interesting. We particularly enjoyed the dramatic nighttime footage of several vigilant and tireless sheepdogs defending their flock of sheep against attack by a wolf pack!

Le Boréon.
In the thick coniferous forest of the park, I could once again hear what I assumed were Firecrests - however this time I finally managed to see one, woop! There were Coal Tits aplenty too, and Ravens which hang around waiting for the wolves to be fed. I also got a bit excited about the rocks - there were lovely chunks of gneiss everywhere..... when I did the geology module of my OU degree we got a box full of examples of different rocks, and the gneiss in that looked exactly the same as the bits we were seeing!

Textbook gniess! Mmm look at those layers of segregated mafic and felsic minerals, like a lovely cake!
In between watching the presentations, we had plenty of time to see the wolf packs. In the morning we watched the park's newest arrivals, three young Canadian wolves, being fed. They were very different in appearance to the park's other wolves, which were all European; although not yet fully-grown, they were larger, with much darker fur and longer snouts.

Canadian wolves feeding time.
In the afternoon it was time to watch the largest wolf pack being fed! It was really interesting to observe their behaviour, the hierarchical structure of their society was clear with the most dominant animals getting first dibs and some of the less dominant wolves getting less or even nothing to eat. They also for the most part took their food off somewhere to eat it alone, although some animals went to the same place which inevitably led to squabbles and growling.

Milling around pre-feed.
Feeding time.
A cheeky Raven getting in on the action!

Some of the younger wolves inspected the food, but decided not to take any, presumably as they might risk punishment from older, more dominant wolves if they did.
Bit of argy-bargy over food.
Well hello.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Rowley Hills wildflower walk

On Saturday I headed over to the Rowley Hills once more for a wildflower walk organised by the Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust and led by local ecologist and botany expert Mike Poulton. There was a good number of attendees on the walk, keen to see some lovely wildflowers and hopefully some butterflies too. Although the weather forecast had been a bit grim, the rain didn't start until after the walk had finished, and the still, humid conditions were quite good for butterflies and day-flying moths!

The Rowley Hills looking grand in the June sunshine.
Mike explained a bit about the site's history; the Rowley Hills are former quarries, which were used as landfill once their working life had ended, and after that were capped with soil. They are now one of the largest expanses of unmanaged grassland in Birmingham and the Black Country. Although the landfill was capped several decades ago, the toxicity of the underlying soil has mostly prevented larger plants from becoming established, so succession has been kind of halted. However now the site is slowly being colonised by Hawthorn and Bramble scrub which is of some concern as although it is a valuable habitat in its own right (it was absolutely teeming with Whitethroats for example), it replaces the grassland which is inhabited by a different and more diverse range of species. Although the site is accessible to the public, the Rowley Hills has been divided into small land plots by its owner who is trying to sell them off, and as a result is in fragmented ownership. The Wildlife Trust has bought one of the plots, their Portway Hill reserve, and because they're not able to manage the whole site, are removing all the encroaching scrub in their plot to help preserve the grassland. Together with the Hawthorn scrub in other areas, this will help maintain a mosaic of different habitats to promote overall higher species diversity.

Here are some of the plants we found, hope I remembered all their names correctly!

Crested Dog's-tail (Cynosurus cristatus).

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor). This is doing very well on the site - although it photosynthesises, it can also parasitise the roots of more competitive grass species, stealing their nutrients and reducing their vigour! In this way it helps engineer the ecosystem by preventing these grass species from taking over, thus maintaining the diversity of the plant community.

Lots of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor).

Bush Vetch (Vicia sepium) with a Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum).

Ahem, I can't quite remember which Crane's-bill this was, I may have been distracted by trying to photograph a moth when Mike told us! I think it might be French Crane's-bill (Geranium endressii).

A weird mutated form of the Crane's-bill with curled petals.
Compact Rush (Juncus conglomeratus).

Smooth Rush (Juncus effusus).

Apparently one of the rarest plants in Birmingham and the Black Country, Tall Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella praealta).
Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum).

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera). We were all dead chuffed to have found this, it was in pristine condition too!

Hare's-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense).

Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia).

Lucerne (Medicago sativa).

Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis).

And here are some of the butterflies and day-flying moths we spotted! As well as these, the ones I didn't manage to photograph were Green Hairstreak (yay finally!), Large Skipper, Small Heath, Peacock and Speckled Wood.

Common Blue butterfly female (Polyommatus icarus). Not quite sure how I managed to get this in focus, but I like it!

Mating Common Blue butterflies (Polyommatus icarus). Dead pleased to have seen this!

Caterpillar of Five-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena trifolii).

Latticed Heath moth (Chiasmia clathrata).

Burnet Companion moth (Euclidia glyphica).
Five-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena trifolii).