Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Very Pleasant Risk Assessment

As you may or may not know, I am holding a beach clean-up event on Sunday 8th March on behalf of the Marine Conservation Society. Part of being the organiser involves carrying out a risk assessment of the beach in question and today myself and my mum popped down to Worthing for that very reason. I have been to the beach several times in the past so I know it reasonably well but I also wanted to get an idea of the space we would be litter-picking in and the sorts of facilities available to us on the day.
The last time I visited this beach, Goring-by-Sea, the wind was absolutely howling and there was misty rain in the air which made a casual stroll rather unpleasant after some time! This afternoon was a total contrast to this; the heavy clouds from earlier on in the day had broken up and the sun was out, lending a mildness to the air. We were both surprised at the lack of a coastal breeze once we were on the beach, which is often responsible for bringing the temperature down a few degrees. It was actually very pleasant and I have my fingers firmly crossed that we will have a repeat of such conditions on the day of the event!
Having forgotten to bring either a tape measure or pedometer, I roughly paced out the space we will need for the survey and then checked this area for potential hazards. While wandering along the beach, we spotted various naturally occurring debris such as fish vertebrae and various egg cases. I had to do a little I.D. work on the egg cases when we got back home as I know very little about them. I found them to be whelk and either dogfish or catshark cases. I had an inkling about the latter but the whelk case was news to me: I've always wondered where those strange objects resembling bubble-wrap came from!
I have a decent number of confirmed volunteers for the beachwatch event but more are always welcome! If you are interested in taking part, you can visit this link to register

Saturday, 7 February 2015

My First Water Rail: Warnham Nature Reserve

After a week of working on hard on a particularly complicated portrait which I finally finished last night, I found myself longing for a little me time away from work. The weather forecast this morning read thick cloud all day and a high of 5°C. That was good enough for me since there was no rain forecast and frankly, during a British winter, that is a bonus. I decided to go to my nearest nature reserve, Warnham, about a 10 minute car journey from me. I hadn't been there in a while and it has a lovely big pond that at this time of year should be hosting a variety of waterfowl.

Warnham Nature Reserve is located just outside of Horsham, and borders the A24. It has 92 acres of land with a range of habitats including marshes, grassland and reed beds, and has three bird hides, feeding stations and a raised walkway through the marshes.
When I pulled into the car park, I saw that there were only three other cars there. Hardly surprising given that it was only 10:45am and the air was a little on the nippy side. I wasn't fazed, having bundled up beforehand and with my rambling binoculars around my neck and my handheld camera in my pocket, I headed through the visitor's centre and towards the first hide. Out of the three hides, it is the smallest and gives a view of the pond bank and reeds. A pair of mute swans were there, a male and female, softly honking at one another. Several coots and some woodpigeon paddled in the shallows, drinking and preening their feathers.
On from here, I followed the path around the meadow area which in the Summer, when there are no livestock being kept there, you can walk through and see a wonderful array of butterflies and dragonflies.  21 different species of the latter have been recorded here in the past. A number of different songs and calls overlapped each other, the sweet tune of the Robin mixing with the squeaky chirp of Chaffinch and Gpldfinch. From the trees on my left a bright dart of green swooped across the path in front of me and over to the woodland in the distance; unmistakably a Green Woodpecker. Up on a large tussock in the meadow landed a Song Thrush, briefly looking around before disappearing into the shrubbery.

Inside the second hide, the largest of the three, I sat watching flocks of Great tits, Blue tits and Goldfinch squabble over the hanging feeders, the surrounding trees full of chirrups that suggested many more Goldfinch were waiting for their turn, while on the ground, 10 or so Chaffinches pecked at the seed, darting in and out of the undergrowth. A pair of Dunnocks were half-concealed in the low branches of the hedges, keeping themselves to themselves as they often do. Two Robins kept watch over the area.

By the time I left this hide, the sun had pushed through the layer of cloud and the wind had picked up, making my eyes stream with the chill of it. I longed for the woolly hat I had chosen not to wear. Following the path, I wandered in the direction of the marshland, listening to the squawking calls of the gulls on the pond. The dry leaf litter rustled occasionally from a foraging Blackbird and high above me, Magpies hopped from branch to branch.
The raised walkway took me into the marshland which was very quiet, save for a Wren, Long-tailed Tit and lone Wood mouse scrabbling about among the reeds. If you carry on following this path, you go deeper into the marsh and eventually into woodland but on this occasion, I chose to turn around and head for the third and final hide which, incidentally, is my favourite. It gives a fantastic double-aspect view of the whole pond and offers the best perspective of the thriving Heronry.
The gulls were perhaps the hardest to miss since they were being particularly noisy. The 30+ Black-Headed gulls were in their Winter plumage, lacking the black caps, which leaves them looking completely different from their Summer selves. To be fair, the majority of raucous noise was coming from the Common gulls, all 40+ of them. Across the other side of the pond was a group of Greylag geese and I was delighted to see these as it was a first for me to see them in the flesh. Their orange-pink bills and white wing bars helped me I.D. them straightaway.
I had several other "firsts" on this trip, one of them being a sighting of seven tufted ducks. These were diving and reappearing all over the place so I struggled to get a firm count but I got there in the end. Unfortunately, as with all my photos today, the shots I got weren't that great. My main aim was to catalogue them as a sighting though and you can at least see the tufts that gave them their name!
By this point, I glanced at my watch and realised I had been on the reserve for nearly an hour and a half; the time had quite honestly-no pun intended-flown! I left the hide and made my way back towards the visitor's centre. I paused on a bridge outside the second hide to watch a Wren that was hopping about in the reed bed and I am so glad I did as this is where I had my third "first" of the day, and definitely my most exciting one. A rustling made me turn my attention away from the Wren, just in time to see a Water Rail go sloping off into the reeds! I was thrilled to spot one and quite amazed I did when I studied the size of it. The red colour of its long, thin bill glinted in the sun and I could just make out the blueish colour of its chest before it disappeared. Sadly, I didn't manage to snap a photo but it's in my memory and that's the most important bit, I think.
Before leaving, I nipped back into the first hide to get a closer look at a group of large birds. I was yo-yoing between them either being Shags or Sormorants and since looking at the photos, I've decided they were Sormorants (please do correct me if I'm wrong!) It was quite amusing to see them holding out their wings to dry.
Just as I was about to turn to leave, a group of Mallards swam towards the hide and with them was my fourth and final "first" of the day; a Shoveller! It was a pretty good way to end my trip, despite the fact I was definitely feeling the cold by that point. 

Here's a full list of my spots today:

11 Greylag geese*
7 Tufted ducks*
1 Shoveller*
1 Water rail*
1 Long-tailed tit
2 Canada geese
2 Wrens
1 Goldcrest
Blackbirds (male and female)
1 Carrion crow
2 Song thrush
10+ Blue tits
10+ Great tits
1 Green woodpecker
2 Heron
7 Cormorants
40+ Common gulls
30+ Black-headed gulls (winter plumage)
10+ Chaffinch (male and female)
6 Mallard (5 male, 1 female)
6 Goldfinch
2 Dunnock
3 Moorhen
5 Coot
2 Mute swans
1 Great-spotted woodpecker
1 Wood mouse
2 Grey squirrels
4 Robin

Friday, 6 February 2015

Up Close and Personal!

Our garden feeders have been getting busier and busier over the past weeks. Flocks of great and blue tits have been squabbling amongst themselves and the lawn has been scattered with ground-feeders. I try to keep the various feeders filled but it's hard to keep up with them sometimes! Yesterday morning, while still wearing my pajamas, I wrapped up in my coat, gloves and bobble hat and blinked my way through the flurrying snow to refill the feeders. I normally put out a variety of food to keep everyone happy; suet pellets, peanuts, mixed seed, sunflower hearts, suet balls and some nyger seed for the occasional visiting goldfinches.
The great tits are certainly the boldest of our garden birds as they don't even wait for me to leave the area before helping themselves. In fact, I barely even step through the back door before they all descend from the surrounding branches, calling to each other to declare breakfast served! This is my favourite time to watch them, when the food is fresh (out of the packet) and there is a sense of excitement among the birds as they discover if there is anything new on the menu. 

Usually I try to take photos of our feathery visitors from the kitchen window but the feeders are too far away for it to really be worth it, until I get my hands on a telephoto lens for the SLR! On this particular morning, however, I decided to try something new. I took my handheld camera, a tripod and a large umbrella (the snow had turned to drizzle at this point) and set up a rudimentary filming rig on a chair about 2 metres away from the feeding station. My handheld is of reasonable quality and has a good zoom on it but being so close to the station meant that I didn't need to zoom in too far and lose too much image quality. I pushed the record button and went back inside, leaving the birds to do their thing, with the hope of getting some good, close-up footage of them. 
I wasn't disappointed at all! The images in this post are screen grabs from the footage I got and I was particularly pleased with the very close shots of the seed feeder, where it was easy to see the birds picking out the seeds they wanted and flicking the rest on the floor. At least the blackbirds and pigeons are kept busy! What was perhaps the best observation was seeing how many seeds the nuthatch slotted into his long beak before flying off. One of the marsh tits too paid a visit, flew off then returned still holding a seed only to add an extra one to his already-full mouth. 

It's fascinating to see all of these species at such close range, enough to be able to see the detail on their faces and the markings on their wings. Considering I was only using a small handheld camera, I'm quite impressed with the footage I managed to get from this endeavour. I went through it all, taking the best clips and put them all together to create a five-minute video which is actually very relaxing to watch; there's something almost mesmerising about it. Or maybe that's just me!

You can watch the video on my YouTube channel here or below. Let me know what you think!

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Humble Dunnock

The feeding station is absolutely buzzing with activity, the yellow-ish blurs of blue and great tits spiralling through the air. A pair of robins keep watch from the ground, while a male blackbird chases the paler female with a stream of chuckling calls and above, in the leafless trees, a great squirrel sits preening his tail. With all of this going on in your garden, you could be forgiven for overlooking a species that blends in with the piles of crisp, fallen leaves that it spends its time turning over.

The dunnock is possibly the most undervalued species of garden bird, in my opinion. Its appearance certainly doesn't help, seeming from a distance to be a drab, brown bird, like a duller sparrow, but upon closer inspection, this is far from the case. I actually think that the dunnock shares more characteristics with a robin than a sparrow and its markings set it aside as a very pretty bird. The cap and chest is a delicate silvery-grey colour that contrasts with the warm, brown of the rest of the body which is streaked and speckled with dark markings. Crucially, the bill is thin and pointed, much like the robin's but completely different to the short wedge of the sparrow's bill, and is designed to pick out small insects and seeds, so it will nearly always be found on the ground, hopping about with movements similar to its fellow ground-feeders, and flicking its head from side to side searching for minuscule morsels.

Yesterday, one of our local dunnocks spent a while perched in a deciduous tree belting out its pretty song. Although it doesn't quite match up to the syrupy sweetness of the robin's Spring song, it is certainly very close. I took it to be a male getting a headstart at attracting a female mate with his vocal talents. We had a pair of dunnocks nesting in the front garden last year so perhaps this year will see the same pair return, although these birds are not known for their monogamy. They lead very complicated patterns of mating, with females often having more than one male partner (polyandryous) and the male having more than female (polygynous), but that's not to say monogamy is completely out of the question; these birds just like to keep their options open. Smart when your main goal in life is to breed as many times as possible.

I find it pleasant viewing to watch a dunnock in our garden, originally dubbed a "hedge sparrow" by the Romans. It is quiet and unassuming, content to pick through leafy debris, until the bolshier robin chases it away, although it won't go far before creeping back through the undergrowth. It's the kind of bird that, during feeding, is no bother to anyone and is happy keeping to itself. The male leads two lives though for, come breeding season, he will be defending his territory and likely have to fight off several other males to gain the attentions of the female. He will even peck at the female's cloaca before mating, in order to eject any sperm from the previous male and thereby increasing his chances of success.
It occurred to me to devote a little writing time to the dunnock while I was watching him yesterday, singing away. A species frequently brushed aside and ignored by garden birdwatchers, there is so much more to this little bird than is immediately obvious. So, the next time you look out at your garden, I suggest you train your gaze on the ground and watch out for this small, grey loner, keeping himself to himself; he has quite a social life!

Image credits: