Sunday, 28 February 2010

Naturetrek on the Levels

Just back from leading an amazing tour for Naturetrek on the Somerset Levels. This tour around the Somerset Levels in late February was a brilliant opportunity to see the diversity and abundance of waterfowl using wetlands during the winter. Touring across the many reserves large numbers of Shovelers, Wigeon, Pintail, Teal, Mallards, Golden Plovers and Lapwings were a highlight. All the expected raptors revealed themselves over the reedbeds on the second day while Cetti’s Warblers sang explosively and Water Rails squealed from the reeds. Otter spraints and diet remains were easily found. The group weren’t disappointed by the million of starlings which are now famous for their huge gatherings as they come to roost in the reedbeds. The flocks came in on a beautiful sunny evening, swirling and twisting to avoid aerial predators. The last few hours of the tour really were an amazing spectacle!! Bitterns showed from time to time too over the two days and we heard some 'booming'. This photo is of an immature female peregrine as she flew overhead giving awesome views!

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Meeting Price Edward

Monday was a true adventure with a colleague to Windsor Castle to receive an award from Prince Charles. I picked up the Sandford Award on behalf of the learning team at Bristol's City Museum & Art Gallery - a recognition our high quality heritage offer to schools. Prince Edward was very nice to meet and after the ceremony my colleague Rita and I got to have a little chat with him when he began mingling. It was very exciting and a true privilege. The castle itself was beautiful with some amazing artifacts from the bullet that killed Nelson, an Ingot crown to Napolean's cloak!! A very special day indeed.

A trip to the Exe

After Saturday's Somerset delights, it was a mid-morning Sunday start to the Exe Estuary to give the bird commentary on the RSPB's avocet cruise. I went with a birding friend Dave and popped in to Dawlish Warren first to try and track down a surf scoter from North America - this type of duck is rare in the UK. As we scanned out to sea there were lots of common scoters and after 15 minutes or so Dave found the surf scoter - it has a steep Roman-nosed beak and a tail that sticks out of the water! Dave also managed to seek out a red-throated diver and two black-throated divers!

The cruise went well (photos to follow!) and we had some warm, very pleasant winter sunshine. It was so relaxing - I got very sleepy mid-way through (fortunately not when I was doing the commentary!!). The birds showed well including four great northern divers (just metres away from the boat with one only a foot or two away), two slavonian grebes, brent geese, shags and lots of avocets, godwits and other wading birds. There was a kingfsher in Starcross and turnstones busily turning the seaweed - it looked alive from a distance!!

To finish off the day we popped back to Dawlish catching up with the scoters on a now calm sea and spotted a gannet on the horizon. Eight black-necked grebes were on the sea further down the coast while herring gulls chilled out nearby, hoping for someone's hot donut or other scrap!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Somerset Levels' delights

Popped down to the Levels today for a Starling Bonanza with Stephen Moss, family and friends. Was a brilliant afternoon on Shapwick - lovely February sunshine despite the chilly temperatures. Amongst the waterfowl I got to see a striking male goldeneye, a whooper swan (usually upending) and the great white egret. Over on Ham Wall the starlings showed off incredibly well, literally coming down into the reeds in front of us. This was one of the best displays I've seen in many years. The presence of a few sparrowhawks, a marsh harrier and a peregrine (more distant) helped to produce some great twirls and sudden twists in the floating swarm. As most settled, some of the trees looked like burnt logs. There were at least two albino starlings - I spotted one! Just as it couldn't get any better Stephen shouted glossy ibises - flying over the reserve were three of these heron like birds with down-curved beaks. Awesome! The starlings meanwhile were still zooming around with more flocks coming in and others behind. Slowly, the light faded, the birds settled and it was time to head back to Mark for some dinner and socialising.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Phew!! A busy few weeks and culminating in me being ill in bed for past two days! Still feeling much better now. Last week I was tour leading for Naturetrek. With Charles Martin as my co-leader, we spent two wonderful days with 16 clients exploring the Somerset Levels. Despite overcast and rainy weather we saw all the likely suspects (Lapwings, Wigeon, Shovelers...) in good numbers and had a few scarcer birds including Whooper and Bewick's Swans, Long-tailed Duck and a Great White Egret. The Starlings performed well too - swirling in their masses some distance away from Shapwick where we were expecting them; however they suddenly changed direction and flew straight overhead towards Ham Wall. An awesome experience - just the pattering sounds of their wings could be heard as they passed over.

On Saturday I spent the day doing some bird ID tutoring - we visited Marshfield in the morning catching up with Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings; in the afternoon Slimbridge WWT gave good views of Bewick's Swans and many other waterfowl and wading birds!

Sunday was then a fun day out with the University of Bristol SCUBA diving club - we ventured down to the south coast. The first two sites were too murky so we finished off in the brackish water between Weymouth and Portland - I managed to tick off a few skills and see some anemones, crabs and mud!! The nearby pub was a warming reward after before heading back to Bristol.

Today was the launch of the Bristol House Sparrow Project - check out where you can report any House Sparrows you see and help us help Bristol's House Sparrows! We launched the project with St Mary Redcliffe Primary School in Victoria Park, south Bristol.

Monday, 1 February 2010

France and Exe Estuary

It's been a busy few weeks. Last weekend I travelled to Orleans, France - 6 hours south of Boulogne- to deliver some possessions to my brother and his family living out there. The ferry trip was exciting with some great birds including over hundred gannets, a harbour porpoise, 4 great skuas and over 300 cormorants stood on a metal platform! The fields along the journey were very bland - huge expanses of monotonous, open country, rather like parts of East Anglia. There were few birds, although one field had around 8 brown hares chasing each other. In the suburbs south of Orleans I found a female lesser spotted woodpecker - a real highlight, while lots of sparrows were inhabiting a bush nearby. The ferry back was just as interesting with Mediterranean gulls on the lamp posts at the hypermarket and more in the port. Over 10,000 herring gulls were loafing around while over 100 starlings came to roost on the nearby cranes. At least four black-necked grebes were diving in the port and as we left I put my binoculars up, revealing over 100 great crested grebes sitting on the sea just out of Boulogne.

This Saturday I was tutoring a friend and we went down to Bowling Green Marsh to develop more bird ID skills and try out some survey work. The sounds of the wigeon calling was beautiful and the hedges were alive with robins, dunnocks, goldfinches and greenfinches. A weasel even joined in the fun and came too and fro on a log by the lane. On the mud black-tailed godwits gave out their quivering calls while some avocets fed nearby - close enough for a few nice photos.

Later, I was giving commentary on the RSPB's avocet cruise with Charles Martin. It was a full boat with over 100 people, gorgeous sunshine and plenty of wildlife. Highlights included 3, yes 3 great northern divers, 2 black-necked grebes, a grey seal, lots of avocets, a goosander, a tufted duck and the usual shags, gulls and mergansers.