Thursday, 23 July 2015

203. Cream-coloured Courser (Cursorius cursor)

Cream-coloured Coursers are small, plover-like waders, but with a curved bill and longer legs. Males and females have similar, plain buff plumage with a strongly marked head; juveniles are browner and more speckled. They all have very distinctive black outer wings and all-black underwing, visible usually only in flight. Their preferred habitat is open, dry, bare flat terrain such as semi-desert and savannah. Their distribution is patchy around north Africa, generally avoiding the central Saharan region; they are also found in parts of the Middle East and India. Occasionally they turn up as vagrants in Europe.

Cream-coloured Courser, ©Tarique Sani, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Cream-coloured Courser painting.
Hmmm, not too bad but I seriously bodged the feather detail on the neck - doh!

Monday, 20 July 2015

Sandwell Valley - July 2015

Yesterday I was back for my monthly volunteering stint at RSPB Sandwell Valley. Exciting times afoot, as the brand new visitor centre 'Nature's Reach' is now open to the public! Although I think it's been open for a couple of weeks or so, there is an official grand opening event on 2nd August so come along to that for the full experience! Yesterday though as they were a bit short of volunteers I was in the hide in the morning, and on reception at Nature's Reach from 2:30 in the afternoon until closing time at 5, so I had a nice varied day :o)

Down in the hide there was some excitement due to the presence of two Black-tailed Godwits, fairly unusual visitors to the reserve. One looked smaller than the other and had brighter plumage, although both had their breeding season rusty red feathers on. They seemed fairly settled, busily feeding mostly around a group of Black-headed Gulls and Lapwings, and although they did fly up a couple of times when disturbed, always returned again. I had a go at sketching them:

Black-tailed Godwit sketches.
There were quite a few juvenile birds about. The Common Terns have been successful, raising two chicks that it seemed were taking their first flights this very day - apparently they hadn't been flying at all the previous day. Their parents were vigilant as ever at seeing off Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Magpies that got too close, but now the young'uns can fly they are hopefully pretty much home and dry. We also saw one Little Ringed Plover juvenile scuttling about but it probably came from elsewhere - don't think they've bred at Sandwell this year. There were a few Tufted Ducklings about also. 

Juvenile Little Ringed Plover, digiscoped through the hide scope as I didn't have my own with me today.
Forge Mill Lake looking splendid.
Behind the hide we had a brief and unexpected encounter with a Garden Warbler - well not entirely unexpected as we'd heard one singing in the same location on the breeding bird survey, but now everything's stopped singing you don't really expect to get a great view of anything really, much less a Garden Warbler. I didn't spot any new plants to try and identify this time, but the damp bit behind the hide always has some nice plants, like this Meadowsweet and Water Figwort:

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
Water Figwort (Scrophularia auriculata).
Around the reserve throughout the day I saw plenty of butterflies - Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and the highlight - one Marbled White in the grassland as I was walking up to the visitor centre. I'd never seen Marbled White at Sandwell Valley before, although apparently a few do pop up here and there every year.

The only photo I managed to get of the Marbled White - they never sit still!
In the afternoon I enjoyed familiarising myself with Nature's Reach and selling LOTS of ice creams and cold drinks to visitors - cheers nice weather! Here are a couple of pics of the interior - in some ways it's similar to the old centre, but a lot more spacious and with even bigger windows looking down onto the marsh and Forge Mill Lake:

A bit blurry, the new reception area.
For all your snacking and beverage needs!
Take a seat and enjoy the view.
Best of all, about an hour before closing time Chris and our friends Andy and Ellie (who were visiting for the weekend) came to visit :o) They enjoyed looking round Nature's Reach and searching for newts in the ponds, then once the centre was closed up for the evening we went for a short walk around the reserve. I craftily steered us towards the best spot for checking whether the Black-tailed Godwits were still there, and indeed they were. One was roosting with his beak tucked away, but we all enjoyed watching the other having a good preen - Chris, Andy and Ellie had never seen a godwit before and were suitably impressed by its very long beak! After a nice walk in the sun we all headed home together - infinitely better than my long solitary bus journey to the reserve that morning.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Dodging the downpours at Minsmere

On Sunday I was off again with the West Midland Bird Club for our monthly jaunt, this time to RSPB Minsmere. As it was forecast to pretty much start raining when we arrived there and finish when we left, we were feeling some trepidation about the day in store! Upon arrival it was indeed raining quite heavily; this did at least mean though that the hundreds of Sand Martins around the bank where they nest were feeding low down, giving us nice views. I also saw a Water Vole in the pool next to the bank, swimming away with a large piece of reed grasped in its teeth! 

Sand Martin bank and Water Vole pool.
The first half of our day consisted mainly of us scuttling quickly between hides and spending extended periods within them, sheltering from the rain. I had been planning to go over to Dunwich Heath to look for Dartford Warbler and Woodlark, but there was no chance in this weather - disappointing but there'll be another day for that. Plus a couple of our group did head up there and saw nothing but a Stonechat so at least I didn't miss out! From the various hides we did particularly well for waders, picking up loads of Black-tailed Godwits, Common and Spotted Redshank (in full breeding plumage!), plenty of Avocets (some with very tiny chicks), Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Dunlins in breeding plumage, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, Lapwings and one solitary Knot. I even had time to do a couple of sketches of Avocets:

Avocet sketches.
Common Terns were everywhere too, and they looked to have had a successful breeding season with a couple of the islands being full of toddling tern chicks. We also saw a couple of Mediterranean Gulls in their super smart black hoods. Elsewhere around the reserve there were Reed Warblers everywhere; around the sand dunes we had a few Linnets. As usual I was on the lookout for new plants to try and learn, I saw a few around the dunes that were now familiar to me thanks to my Gronant trip a few weeks ago, as well as a couple of other new ones:

Actually I already knew this one but I like it and hadn't seen any for a while! It's Sheep's-bit (Jasione montana).

This looks like Yellow-horned Poppy (Glaucium flavum), it has weird-looking very long seed pods.

I think this might be Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum).
Luckily by the time we'd sat in the East hide for a good while, it had stopped raining and it remained relatively dry for the rest of the afternoon. We saw Swallows at the sluice although unfortunately it appeared that several Swallow chicks had drowned there - very sad. It was unclear how it had happened - maybe their nest had collapsed, or perhaps the water level had risen and engulfed them. Walking back towards the visitor center we saw two watchful Red Deer in the reedbed, as well as some of their distant bovine relatives further along, and I found another couple of plants to try and identify. 

Cattle helping with habitat management. Very impressive horns!
Black Horehound (Ballota nigra).
I think this is Marsh-mallow (Althaea officinalis).
Back at the Bittern hide the sun finally came out, bringing raptors - Hobby and Marsh Harrier. We also heard a few pings of Bearded Tits but they were keeping low in the reeds.

Nice light from Bittern hide as the sun finally began making a tentative entrance.
Although I was disappointed not to have been able to visit Dunwich Heath, it had been a pretty good day in spite of the weather, and as Andy M pointed out it's better to get soaked early on then dry off later, rather than the other way round!

Friday, 3 July 2015

202. Senegal Thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis)

Senegal Thick-Knees are closely related to Eurasian Stone Curlews, as evidenced by their very similar appearance. The main differences are that Senegal Thick-knees have a slightly longer, stouter bill with more black than the Stone Curlew, no black-bordered white wing-bar, and a slightly plainer outer tail. They are more closely tied to water, preferring similar habitats to Eurasian Stone Curlews but always near rivers, lakes, mangroves or irrigated fields. Senegal Thick-knees are resident in Egypt and also much of central sub-Saharan Africa.

Senegal Thick-knee, ©Sergey Yeliseev, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Senegal Thick-knee painting.
Quite pleased with this one, although its tail is rather too short.