Friday 5 October 2018

Thames Whale Watching

On Tuesday 25th September Dave Andrews, whilst carrying out survey work, masterfully found a Beluga Whale swimming in the Thames estuary off Gravesend. This sparked off a mass twitch, as well as a media frenzy, with many eager onlookers hoping for an incredibly rare sight of this arctic cetacean. There are only 19 previous records of Beluga in UK waters, which have mostly been brief encounters from northern coastal localities. So to have this one in southern England and in the Thames estuary made it an exceptional record. Clearly this whale was a long way off course, but initial fears for its well-being were soon put to rest as it was seemingly feeding well and showing no signs of distress.

I was unable to get down to Gravesend until the weekend, so it therefore seemed very unlikely that the Beluga would hang around for most of the week for me to see it. However, when news came in that it was still there the next day, and then the day after that, amazingly it looked like I may have a chance. Come Saturday reports came in early of the Beluga’s continued presence and we were soon on our way. The journey from Cambridge is only an hour and a half so it wasn’t long until we had arrived in the busy Gravesend streets. Initially it was unclear where we should go to view the whale as it hadn’t been seen in its usual spot 2 km east of the Ship and Anchor pub. We chanced stopping at a shopping centre where there was a small gap in the built up riverside to view the water. We were in luck – the whale had been seen here 15 minutes ago. Initial scans of the river were unsuccessful; however it wasn’t long before Dad shouted “there it is!” I was struggling to get onto to it, but after getting some good directions from Dad I managed two views as the whale surfaced twice.

A typical view of the Beluga Whale as it surfaced in between feeding dives

Very happy whale watchers gathered near the Gravesend Sailing Club

We moved around to the Ship and Anchor Pub where there was a small crowd of admirers watching the whale. Views here were also distant and in the opposite direction to where we looking from before. We retraced our route on foot and, after a 15 minute walk through a grim industrial area, found a nice open leisure area where a much larger crowd had assembled to watch the Beluga. From this position the whale could be viewed with the naked eye as it came up for breath (usually surfacing 2 to 6 times) before returning to the bottom of the water to feed (up to 5 minutes at a time). What made the experience even more enjoyable was seeing so many others, including not just birders but plenty of awe-inspired locals, appreciating this once in a lifetime sight. Some seemed concerned for the whales safety, which is not that surprising considering what happened to the Northern Bottlenose Whale in the Thames in 2006. However, Bottlenose Whales are deep sea feeders whereas Belugas often frequent estuaries so perhaps, despite being a very long way south, this sighting is not as out of place as it seemed. In fact, a Beluga survived for several weeks incredibly in the River Rhine, Germany, in May 1966.

At the time of writing the Thames Beluga hasn’t been seen for 4 days, so hopefully it has made it back in the North Sea from where it can travel back to its natural Arctic range.

On a side note, this week I also visited Therfield to see the juvenile Pallid Harrier which has been frequenting the stubble fields there for several weeks now. After some fairly distant views we were treated to one close flyby, from which I took the following shots. What a great bird!

Friday 28 September 2018

Stormy Birding

Last week several low pressure systems moved quickly across the North Atlantic and struck the UK, bringing with them rain and strong winds. It meant a change to the calm, warm conditions we have been experiencing through most of September, to something a bit more autumnal. This provided the recipe for a good weekend's birding.

First thing on Saturday morning Meadow Pipits were streaming over, which is always a good sign of classic autumn passage conditions. I wished I had the foresight to have been out counting the Mipit movement, as there may well have been a new garden record judging by other counts across the country. The plan for Saturday had been to head for the flooded fields at Barway to look for passage waders and then carry on to the Ouse Washes where up to 2 Pallid Harriers had been recently frequenting. However, when reports came in from Grafham Water, firstly of a Grey Pharalope and of a Manx Shearwater shortly after, it signaled a change of plan.

We got to Marlow car park at Grafham in good time and made our way down to the shoreline where a small crowd had gathered to watch the displaced seabirds (found by Mark Hawkes). We were soon onto the Grey Pharalope, which was making several short flights before settling down on the water. Whilst it was sat on the water it was quite tough to pick out due to its small size and its grey plumage being a very similar colour to the surrounding water. Panning further across the water and we were quickly onto our second seabird of the morning - a Manx Shearwater. It was distant, but due to its larger size and contrasting black and white plumage, it could be easily fixed upon. At times the Shearwater drifted closer and good views could be had as it sat on the water. After a while it took flight with trademark stiff wings and drifted over the water away from us.

Manx Shearwater - Grafham Water

The rest of Saturday was largely written off as bands of rain made birding quite unpleasant. However, late in the day a text from Brendan Doe saying he had found a Pectoral Sandpiper meant we had to make a quick dash to the nearby Longstanton drainage lagoon. Unfortunately when we were only 5 minutes away from the site Brendan rang to explain the bird had disappeared. On arrival our first few pans across the lagoon were fruitless, with only the 2 Dunlin that were previously accompany the Pec Sand on show. I persisted searching and as I panned across the weedy southern edge of the lagoon thankfully the Pec Sand showed itself again. A top find by Brendan!

Overnight the weather calmed slightly, suggesting there could be good conditions for nocturnal migration. At 04:45 I was woken by the sound of noisy geese flying over. We regularly get Canada Geese in this part of Cambridge, but these were definitely not ‘honking’ sounds nor did they sound like Greylag. I was still half asleep but to me these sounded like Pink-feet. Checking my sound recorder later that morning and sure enough the calls were there and they were indeed Pink-footed Geese – a new garden bird. These weren’t the only highlights of the recording, as a group of Sandwich Terns had also flown over earlier in night.

With signs of overnight movement and early morning rain we thought we’d make a quick visit to the Research Park on the off chance that something had been grounded there. It was my turn to walk the dog, so as I headed off in the rain Dad got to sit in a nice dry hide. I had made it almost halfway around the nearby field when Dad rang to say they were 3 Whooper Swans on the lake. These were unlikely to fly off in the rain, and sure enough were still there when I got back to the hide. This is only my second record of Whoopers at the Research Park and the earliest birds I have ever seen locally.

Whooper Swan - Cambridge Research Park

As Sunday progressed the winds strengthened and moved around to a north-westerly direction – ideal sea-watching conditions. Luckily I was offered the chance to accompany Simon Gillings to do just that at Sheringham for the afternoon. We arrived at the eastern shelters around 14.00 and it was soon apparent there were plenty of sea birds on the move. Manx Shearwaters were passing in very good numbers, signalling we were likely going to have a good session. At about 15.30 Simon picked up a small very pale Skua flying west. It took me a while to get onto it, but luckily I managed to find it as it passed the nearest wind turbine. Its small size, very pale back and wings and general cold feel led us both to agree that it was a Long-tailed Skua - a new bird for me! A little later I spotted 2 Manx Shearwaters passing at close to mid range. With them was a bird flying much closer to the water and it clearly had a white rump! It was a Leach’s Petrel – a tough bird to see in Norfolk! Unfortunately I couldn’t get Simon onto it as it flew past quickly and very low to the towering waves (it was not on show most of the time). All in all it turned out to be a terrific sea-watch; certainly the best I have ever experienced. Below are our afternoon totals:

1 Eider (drake) 2 Purple Sandpiper
c50 Common Scoter c25 Arctic Skua
2 Red-breasted Merganser 1 Long-tailed Skua
c20 Red-throated Diver c30 Great Skua
2 Fulmar c40 Auk sp.
7 Sooty Shearwater c20 Sandwich Tern
150+ Manx Shearwater 3 Kittiwake
1 Leach's Petrel 1 Little Gull
250+ Gannet 1 Mediterranean Gull
1 Red-necked Grebe

Purple Sandpiper - Sheringham

Friday 21 September 2018

Local birding

Most birders look forward to September with optimism. Migration is now in full swing, and it can be a particularly rewarding time to find a variety of different species - especially after a summer period with generally little change. However, the extent to how productive a day’s birding can be is largely determined by the prevailing weather conditions. An easterly airflow can bring with it a stream of migrating birds from the near continent, whereas westerly winds are usually less productive (though still can be very inviting to west coast birders searching for American rarities!) Unfortunately so far this September the weather has largely been dominated by the latter and thus the birding (in this part of the country) a little slow.

Westerly airflow (Sep 20th) -

Patchworking in the last couple of weeks hasn’t been as successful as I would have liked. The Cam Washes, which has been productive at this time in previous years, is completely dry and therefore mostly hard work finding good birds. I have therefore been spending most of my birding time at the nearby Research Park. There hasn’t been anything too spectacular here yet, but it has been nice to see the Bittern fairly regularly as well as a several common passage waders (Common and Green Sandpipers, plus a few Snipe) on the island as water levels continue to drop. The most tantalising sighting in recent weeks was a ringtail harrier, which flew quickly over fields to the south of the Research Park on the 15th. Annoyingly it was always distant as it flew NW towards Cottenham, and sadly I didn’t have my scope, thought I did manage to fire off a few record shots. To me it looked too short-winged and bulky for either of the rarer harriers and lacked any orangey underparts – which pointed towards it being a Hen Harrier. However, I would have liked much better views to be certain of this identification; mainly as there seems to have been a small influx of Pallid Harriers in recent weeks – now that would have been nice!

Little Grebe (juvenile) - Cambridge Research Park

Ringtail Harrier sp.

Birding slightly further afield has provided better quality of birds. I had a good morning at Grafham Water on the 9th - birds seen around the reservoir included: 2 Black Terns, a juvenile Osprey, a Sanderling on the Dam and a confiding juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. A quick trip to Paxton Pits on the 15th produced a Black-necked Grebe as well as a variety of common waders. Then to Fen Drayton Lakes on the 17th where a Cattle Egret was seen on the island at Ferry Mere (6 were seen subsequently at nearby Mare Fen by other observers).

Curlew Sandpiper (juvenile) - Grafham Water
Common Sandpiper - Fen Drayton Lakes

On another note, this week I was inspired to read A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife which has been drawn up by Chirs Packham and the collaborative efforts of a group of high-profile conservationists. The manifesto certainly provides a very ambitious set of proposals, but most are logically thought-out and well reasoned. The action proposed is bold yet also timely, since biodiversity is being lost at such a tremendous rate in the UK (the first page of the manifesto highlighting the declines for a depressingly large selection of species). I was left thoroughly inspired after studying this document and I really do recommend giving it a read through.

Friday 14 September 2018

Autumnal Mothing

As we move into September the moth trapping season is beginning to wind down. The number of moths and diversity of species begin to decrease with each recording session. Lower night time temperatures and increasing likelihood of rain also mean there are fewer opportunities to run the trap. A warm, dry night at this time however, can signal the chance of an interesting catch, with the potential for a small range of distinctive autumnal species as well as the prospect of a rare migrant.
One particular species tends to dominate my trap in autumn – the Large Yellow Underwing. Late August to early September is the peak of the flight season for this fairly big moth, and at this time it is not uncommon for over 100 individuals to be filling the trap in a single night's catch. In some locations on the south coast several thousand may be caught in just one trap, as local moths are joined by migrants from the near continent. Accompanying the Large Yellow Underwings are other routine species, which are also found in fair numbers. These include Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Vine’s Rustic, Square-spot Rustic (which comes in an incredible variety of forms) and the curiously named Setaceous Hebrew Character.  
A plague of Large Yellow Underwings

Autumn is the time of the year when one of my favourite groups of moth start appearing – the Sallows. These striking moths are generally woodland species, which have evolved a yellow, orange and brown colour mix to their forewings in order to camouflage against the autumnal senescing leaves. In recent years I have had a good record of attracting species from this group into my suburban garden. The most commonly found is Barred Sallow, which is the only member of the group that appears in fair numbers. Sallow and Dusky-lemon Sallow are less frequent and this year I have recorded my first Orange Sallow - a stunner! The remaining common members of the Sallow group - the Pink-barred and Centre-barred Sallow have eluded me thus far but I am hopeful to catch one in the coming weeks. Pale-lemon Sallow is a much scarcer member of the group, though has been noted fairly frequently in Cambridgeshire. 
Sallows: (Clockwise from top left) Barred Sallow, Sallow, Orange Sallow and Dusky-lemon Sallow

Micro moths are much less numerous in autumn compared with the summer months, with only a handful of species recorded in most trapping sessions. There is however always the potential for a few interesting species turning up and trapping on a warm night this week provided me with four new micros for the garden list. Box-tree Moth was one of these new species. I was previously familiar with these invaders after seeing numerous reports from the London area, though few have so far reached Cambridgeshire much to the relief of local gardeners. On finding this invasive species in the trap I was amazed to see how big it was; far larger than most micros and even some macro species! In all likelihood Box-tree Moths will become a regular sight in the garden in the near future, but hopefully not to the extent which has occurred in France earlier this year

Another highly distinctive micro species caught this week was Epiblema foenella; a fairly large tortricidae species with conspicuous white-angle marks on the wings. Agonopterix nervosa was also new and to my surprise a fairly scarce species locally.  
Box-tree Moth

Epiblema foenella

Agonopterix nervosa

Friday 7 September 2018

Disappearing Doves

Farmland birds are in trouble. The 2016 State of nature report found farmland birds have declined by 54% since 1970 and 12% of farmland birds are at high risk of extinction from the UK. Of these, the species which has experienced the fastest decline is the European Turtle Dove. Numbers are down a massive 93% since the 1970s. Sadly this is not a local phenomenon, Turtle Doves are rapidly declining through much of their European range, so much so that the species is now considered at risk of global extinction and is classed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Since I began bird watching in the late 1990s, I have found Turtle Doves to be the bird species which has most noticeably disappeared from my local countryside. From the early to late 2000s Turtle Doves could be seen reliably at all three of my main local patches, sometimes in fair numbers such as when adults and juveniles flock together readying for their return migration. Fairly suddenly, at the turn of the decade, the doves vanished from two of my patches. This was mirrored on a national scale, with the birds becoming scarce very quickly, even warranting broadcasts by rare bird news services - unthinkable only a few years ago. Luckily at my third local patch Turtle Doves have remained and have so far returned every summer.

Turtles Doves are a long distance migrant, spending the winter in west Africa and returning to Europe in summer to breed. Each April I wait nervously at my local patch to see if the regular pair have survived the winter and their hazardous migration back to the UK. Usually the first sign of a returning bird is the characteristic soft ‘purring’ of a male. Fortunately this was indeed the case at my patch on April 22nd this year, and from early May onwards one or two birds were to be seen on most visits.

The reasons for the Turtle Dove decline are varied. Operation Turtle Dove has highlighted what are considered to be the four main factors associated with the rapid decline:
Food shortages on their breeding grounds - Research points towards the loss of suitable habitat on the UK breeding grounds and the associated food shortages for turtle doves being the most important factor driving turtle dove declines.
Disease - An emerging potential additive cause of population decline is the disease trichomoniasis. Recent research has highlighted a high prevalence of infection in turtle doves by the parasite that causes this disease.
Unsustainable levels of hunting on migration - Of the estimated population of 3-6 million pairs of turtle dove breeding in Europe and Russia the annual hunting bag total in EU member states alone was estimated at 2-3 million birds, [...] If these figures are accurate estimates, hunting may constitute a significant factor driving population declines. 
Habitat loss on their wintering grounds - Africa’s landscape is changing too. Increasing human population pressure is transforming many of the wooded habitats favoured by our migratory birds into more intensive agricultural landscapes, with livestock causing additional damage through overgrazing.
Clearly Turtle Doves are facing multiple threats and a coordinated response is therefore needed to halt the decline. In the UK the RSPB has teamed up with Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England to form Operation Turtle Dove – a partnership aiming to address the four main factors associated with the decline. In the south-east (the UK stronghold), the project has been raising awareness as well as encouraging farmers and land managers to establish and maintain Turtle Dove habitat. This year an emergency action plan, to provide supplementary food in the crucial early stages of the breeding season, has been implemented at over 100 sites.

Certainly the action being carried out by the Operation Turtle Dove partners is encouraging, but is it too little too late to save this species’ place in the UK countryside? Plans will need to be delivered on a sufficiently large scale if Turtle Doves are to recover, but will farmers and landowners be willing (and adequately funded) to help? Also this conservation work may prove futile unless similar action is carried out along the Turtle Dove’s migratory flyway.

So therefore the Turtle Dove is facing a very uncertain future. However, if the good work being carried out by Operation Turtle Dove is expanded and coordinated well with further land managers, then there is surely hope.

The pair of Doves at my patch have now departed and are likely on their way back to west Africa. Hopefully they make it safely through the winter, for next spring I will be waiting anxiously for their return. 

All photos were taken near Waterbeach, Cambridge in 2018

Friday 31 August 2018

Exceptional August Nocmig

Sonogram showing 3 Ortolan Bunting calls from the first flyover bird

I began recording the nocturnal migration (nocmig) of birds in September 2017 after being inspired by the amazing success Simon Gillings was having not far from where I live in suburban Cambridge. The process involves leaving a microphone outside all night to record the calls of migrating birds. Then, using a free software package called Audacity, scrolling through the spectrogram generated by the recording to look for call signatures (this usually takes from 30 mins to an hour). Over the past year the results from this monitoring technique have been very surprising. I was already familiar with mass nocturnal Redwing migration in October/November, but flocks of Common Scoters passing over my garden in March/April – now this was extraordinary!

My recording equipment: a Panasonic LS-12 recorder with Rode VideoMicro Microphone placed inside a large bubble-wrap lined bucket

The spring period was in general very good for nocmig; the stand out species recorded being Stone-Curlew, Avocet and the Common Scoters. Migration began to slow in the summer months and thus recording took a short break before continuing from July onwards. The most notable birds recorded in this period were waders and as August approached wader calls were becoming quite a frequent occurrence.

Flyover Whimbrel

Interestingly Whimbrel turned out to be one of the most common nocturnal migrants in August. In the past  I have heard them at night with my own ears but the numbers passing over in the recordings (minimum of 4 groups on 22nd) were very surprising to me – especially as so few are found locally during the day. The diversity of waders was also unexpectedly high, with not only routine species such as Common Sandpiper and Oystercatcher recorded but also unanticipated species like Godwits (in this case it was hard to distinguish between Black-tailed and Bar-tailed). See which wader species you can identify in the compilation of calls below:

Towards the end of August several even more interesting species were recorded; firstly a Sandwich Tern on the night beginning 24th and then Tree Pipits on 23rd and 30th. Then, when processing the recording from the night beginning 28th, a call was heard that set my pulse racing – an apparent series of ‘plik’ calls from an Ortolan Bunting. This species is a well known nocturnal migrant and can be very difficult to observe in the UK - in fact Ortolan Bunting has never been seen in Cambridgeshire. Recent recordings carried out in the south of England have shown that Ortolan Bunting occurrence here is not as irregular as previously thought – but could my recording be one? After checking through the very thorough ‘Things that go plik in the night’ article (see here: ) I was more convinced and opinion from experts was in agreement. It was an Ortolan!

Ortolan Bunting - taken earlier this year from Plataforma de Gredos, Spain

Still on a high from the Ortolan Bunting recording of the previous night I began processing the file from the night beginning 29th with great enthusiasm. I had barely got an hour into the recording (time of call 21:31) when I recognised a familiar looking call signature. It can’t be can it? Another one! Expert opinion was again in agreement – another apparent Ortolan Bunting! This time two ‘tew’ type calls.

Nocturnal flight call recording is really producing some surprising results as well as contributing to our understanding of bird migration. It is also generating further questions. Are Ortolan Buntings a regular nocturnal migrant over East Anglia and if so why have none been detected in Cambs before? Was the large scale nocturnal movement of Common Scoter over England this Spring a rare event or does it happen regularly? Hopefully in the coming years more knowledge can be gathered and these questions perhaps answered. To anyone who is interested in bird migration I would certainly recommend taking part in nocmig. If you would like to give it a go starter kits can be purchased cheaply and there is some very helpful information on the subject here:

My thanks to Simon Gillings, Magnus Robb, Aat Schaftenaar, Joost van Bruggen et al. for help identifying the Ortolan Bunting calls.

Friday 24 August 2018

American waders at east coast RSPB reserves

In the past week I have been lucky enough to see two ‘lifers’, both of which were American waders and both at fantastic RSPB reserves. These come on the back of yet another American wader seen less than a month ago – a Lesser Yellowlegs at RSPB Titchwell, making it a triple header of new wading birds for me, all at east coast RSPB reserves.

On Monday I visited Minsmere to see a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, which had been found over the weekend. Incredibly this is the second east anglian Semi P in less than a month after one previously found at Snettisham (thought to be a different bird), which I had dipped. I was therefore quite keen to see this one. It had been frequenting South Scrape and regular reports had implied that it was relatively settled. On arriving at Minsmere, amazingly my first visit to this great reserve for nearly 10 years, we headed straight to South hide. Initially the peep was not in view, but it didn’t take long for it to show itself and good, prolonged but distant views could be had. Other birds on the scrape included 7+ Spotted Redshank and an impressive flock of at least 79 Little Gulls including several juveniles.

Semipalmated Sandpiper (if you can find it!)

Little Gulls

After enjoying the Semi P for about half an hour time was spent exploring the rest of the reserve. A Hobby was seen hawking dragonflies towards the Bittern hide and at least 2 Great White Egrets were seen around North Marsh. Bushes near the Sluice looked good for migrants and contained decent numbers of Warblers, Stonechats and Wagtails, though nothing scarcer than Lesser Whitethroats could be found. A Pied Flycatcher was found by others in this spot the next day, showing that there is potential here. The dunes area contained lots of Grayling butterflies as well as a few Common Lizards. However, the star sighting here were 4+ female Wasp Spiders – a new species for me.

Barn Swallow juvenile

Wasp Spider female

News broke later in the week of another rare wader – an adult Stilt Sandpiper at Frampton Marsh. On Thursday afternoon I was very kindly offered a lift to go see it and jumped at the chance. We arrived in the evening after battling rush hour traffic on the way. The news was good; the Stilt Sand was still there and better yet it had been joined by a juvenile Red-necked Pharalope. We quickly walked around to observe North Scrape and were soon watching the rare wading pair. Both the Stilt Sand and the Pharalope were feeding frenetically on what was a relatively small scrape. I had been expecting distant views but both birds were feeding only about 50 metres away and, to make the scene even more enjoyable, the Sun was starting to peek through bringing with it some lovely light for photography.

Stilt Sandpiper adult

Red-necked Pharalope juvenile

At times the Stilt Sandpiper and Red-necked Pharalope shared the same area of scrape and fed side by side. It was a truly awesome birding experience. People may criticise the RSPB for some of their more controversial decisions, but they sure create wonderful reserves which attract some awesome birds.

Size comparison showing a juvenile Black-tailed Godwit dwarfing the Stilt Sand and Red-necked Phal