Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Here be dragons!

It's half term! Which means I've been rather occupied putting together activities and running events for our visiting families. Yesterday, we held a very busy session of pond dipping, one of my favourite events we run on the reserve. Soon enough, everyone's trays were swimming with activity in the form of water fleas, backswimmers, mayfly nymphs and a huge number of caddis fly larvae, by far the kings of camouflage in the pond. 

But the creature that grabbed everybody's attention was actually not a creature at all - it was a skin! Or rather, several skins left behind, in perfectly preserved condition, by a batch of freshly-emerged hawker dragonflies. These exuviae could be seen dotted around the edge of the pond, still clinging to the reeds they crawled up before the beautiful adult dragonflies split through the casings. Very sensibly, they emerge overnight as the darkness provides them with some protection from predation while they are in a vulnerable state.

After yesterday's pond dipping excitement, we moved on to minibeast hunting today which yielded a whole lot of lovely, shiny ground beetles. We also set a moth trap so our visitors were all able to have a really close look at some of the wonderful moth species we get on the reserve. Now, I have developed a huge appreciation for moths ever since I started work at Pulborough Brooks and I am super excited we have started setting traps again. Having said that, my knowledge of moth names is severely lacking and I only tend to remember the easy ones with the obvious names (I once found an orange moth in the garden and, when I looked it up, I was disappointed to find out it was actually called "orange moth") but there are a lot of brown species that I have no clue about, so I will be making a conscious effort this year to broaden my moth knowledge!

White Ermine showing off a spectacular fur coat!
Is it a twig or a moth? It's a buff tip!

Buff tips definitely make my list of top 3 favourite moths - their camouflage abilities are almost unbelievable! I always look forward to catching one of these beauties and never grow tired of their ability to perfectly mimic twigs. 

Tomorrow is the start of the Wildlife Trust's 30 Days Wild campaign which I intend to take part in again this year though I will admit, I'm at a bit of an advantage working on a nature reserve!

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Tales of Tiger Tracking

Last weekend I returned from a two-week trip to India. I went with family to visit my aunt and uncle who are currently living in Delhi, where we spent most of our time. What a crazy city! It was an intense holiday and fantastic for wildlife, particularly birds, but there is one huge highlight that I have to talk about now, while it is still relatively fresh in my mind.

We took a four-day trip down to Madhya Pradesh, located more or less smack-bang in the middle of India. After an hour's flight to Nagpur airport and five hours of driving through rural villages on roads that make our potholes here look quite tame, we arrived at Kipling Camp, on the outskirts of Kanha National Park. Having come from the extreme hustle, bustle and noise of Delhi, I was struck by the contrast the camp made, where the only noise was that of the common hawk cuckoo, locally known as the 'brainfever bird' for its repetitive three-note call. This was a sound I came to be very familiar with over the next four days.

Kanha National Park is one of 27 tiger reserves in India and known to be one of the best places to see Bengal tigers in the wild. It is just shy of 2000-sq-km and plays host to a huge number of species of flora and fauna but it is the tigers that draw people from all over the globe, with an estimated number of 89 currently living on the reserve. In the 1970s, with the the extinction of tigers a very real threat after decades of relentless poaching, Project Tiger was launched and Kanha was one of the first areas to come under the project's protection. Today, populations of Bengal tigers in India have recovered to an extent, with over 2500 animals in the wild, but poaching is still an ever-present and concerning threat.

We had three morning safaris booked during our stay at Kipling. Now, there's not much that will get me out of bed at 4am over three consecutive days, but the prospect of heading out in a jeep in pursuit of birds and mammals I'd never seen before was definitely enough to do the trick. I was careful not to get my hopes up over the prospect of glimpsing a wild tiger because I knew the stats and they weren't really in our favour. As I discovered on our first two safaris, there were plenty of other species to keep me interested. And the birds! I have so much to say about the birds but that's for another post.

Scratch marks
Pug marks

So our first two trips out yielded no tigers. That wasn't for want of trying by our guides who were constantly scanning the trees and listening for alarm calls. They did show us proof that the tigers were out there though, in the form of deep scratches 10ft up a tree trunk and pug marks on the sandy road. However, by the end of day two, as we nursed cups of Masala Chai and chatted about what we'd seen and heard, all five us were resigned to the fact that a real-life tiger sighting was probably not on the cards.

Day three. We were once again being driven by Rahim, who was the most fantastic guide and absolute expert on birds. He had already taken us out the day before on both our morning safari and for an evening bird drive. I was in awe of Rahim, who seemed to know everything there was to know about Indian birds and could even imitate each species' call. As we queued with the other jeeps at the park gates, waiting for them to open at 6:15am, there was a tangible sense of anticipation in our group. We all knew that today was our last chance.

We set off with Rahim and another guide from the park and, as had happened every morning, jeeps began peeling off from the main track, heading off to different zones of the reserve. We had visited two different zones already; today we were heading for Kisli. On our first two safaris, we stopped frequently to look at and photograph various different species of deer and birds. This time, we barely stopped at all, and when we did, it was because Rahim slammed on the brakes to scan the surrounding area. I had no idea what he was looking at but that goes to show how well he knew the park. Every time we stopped and sat in silence, staring into the undergrowth, my excitement grew.

Rahim and our park guide were determined, there was no getting away from that. They were seeing things that we simply weren't. When we stopped, Rahim would climb on top of the jeep, each leg balanced on the roof bars, and scan the horizon with my binoculars. The two guides spoke to each other in Hindi and although none of us spoke the language, we could tell by the tone of their voices that something was definitely happening. Several times we stopped to look at fresh pug marks and at one point we came across droppings. After a while, I started recognising certain parts of the track and came to the realisation that we were looping round and round the same section of forest. Our tiger was somewhere among those trees.

Another stop. More listening and scanning. More talk in Hindi. My heart was beating hard against my chest. Suddenly, Rahim thrust my bins back at me and dropped heavily into the jeep, slamming a foot on the accelerator. We were hurtling down the trail and adrenaline flooded my body as I held on. Another stop. More Hindi. A strange noise echoed from up ahead and Rahim told us that it was the alarm call of a barking deer. Even I know that alarm calls are a good sign when tracking tigers. We followed the trail in the direction of the call and as we rounded a corner, we saw three other jeeps parked and everyone inside them standing up, cameras and bins all pointing to the right.

"Tiger, tiger!" whispered Rahim, gesturing at us to stand on our seats. I focused on the bamboo patch he was pointing at and gasped. That flash of movement in between the grass was unmistakably a tiger. Despite those camouflaging black stripes doing their job, I could clearly see the sinewy movement of an orange body passing through. "Have camera ready," Rahim told me. I waited, holding my breath, for her to come out into the open. And she did.

There wasn't a sound from anyone as we all watched this stunning animal amble slowly across the open grass. The sun highlighted her white underparts and the spots behind her ears. I was ecstatic when I looked at my photos later to see I'd caught her face as well; you can even see her panting. Once she'd disappeared into the thicker trees, we looked around at one another and all had the same huge grins plastered across our faces. My heart was still hammering from the pursuit.

Having seen what they'd come for, the other jeeps turned around and headed back from where we had come. Our guides decided to carry on forward as they thought they knew roughly where the tiger might emerge from the trees. At the right spot, we sat and waited with only the call of the brainfever bird breaking the silence. About 15 minutes passed then a harsh, throaty call echoed from the forest. "Langur alarm call" Rahim told us. Another good sign from the monkeys. A few more moments then my stepdad, Kevin, whispered "here she comes!" We were afforded a second glimpse of our tiger as she strolled down the valley and at one point, it looked as if she might come out on to the road directly in front of us. Sadly, she chose a different route, and with one last push through the vegetation, I watched those stripes merge with the bamboo and vanish.

That was, hands-down, the best wildlife encounter of my life. You simply don't get to see an animal like that in the wild everyday. The whole experience of tracking her was one of the most thrilling things I've ever been through and I truly couldn't stop the feeling of pure excitement rushing through me. I count myself extremely lucky to have had such a fantastic sighting because many visitors to the park only have the briefest of glimpses, or don't have any at all. The very fact that she wasn't in a zoo or put there intentionally, she was just in the wild, wandering freely, that's what made it so special. Knowing that she was doing what tigers do naturally and I was witnessing nature at it's finest, well; there's no beating that.

Kanha National Park:

Kipling Camp:

Saturday, 5 March 2016

New Garden Visitors

I had a lovely surprise this morning thanks to a chance look through the window. As I may have mentioned, our new garden hasn't been getting many feathered visitors, other than a resident woodpigeon and several feisty robins arguing over territory. I'm still putting out food but only a small amount to keep those who do visit satisfied. Whenever something is on the feeder it catches my eye immediately because it doesn't seem to happen that often at the moment, and this morning, as I was in the middle of getting dressed, I noticed a couple of birds scoffing down hearts that I hadn't seen before. I grabbed my bins and was taken straight away by the bright yellow plumage and black cap of one of the birds: a siskin! The other was duller with more markings, which I identified as a female. As I continued to peer through my bins, more birds appeared and I counted three males and two females, plus a female redpoll and a goldfinch. 

It certainly brightened up my morning, since it's the first time we've been visited by siskins and redpolls. They hung around for quite some time afterwards too; what obliging birds!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The First Adder of the Year

It was another blustery day at Pulborough Brooks. The thermals, fleecey socks and wooly hat were firmly on and doing their jobs as I strolled across the reserve this morning, squinting as the sun appeared intermittently from behind the heavy clouds. I stopped at Fattengates for a quick scan of the brambles and was rewarded with two fluorescent male bullfinches, always a welcome sight.

At West Mead, a large group of wigeon were grazing to the right of the water. As the sun came out once more, it highlighted two snipe as they dashed towards the edge of the pool. They spent some time here, preening themselves and generally being quite active which made a change, since snipe seem to favour tucking their heads away and not moving for long periods; at least, they do at Pulborough! I scanned the taller grass where that the wigeon had now vacated and managed to pick out four more snipe, one of which was demonstrating said "tuck-and-sleep" behaviour. Their camouflage is truly amazing when they are stood still, especially among short reed beds, but this was a great opportunity to see them out and on display. It was a treat to see a decent number of pintail, shoveler and shelduck too.

I was keeping a keen eye out for raptors, particularly peregrines after having had successful sightings of them over the past few weeks, but it was slim-pickings today, despite the occasional bursts of sun. Although it was breezy, conditions which might put some birds of prey off, it was ideal for falcons to be out hunting. However, I only had two buzzards, one of which was looking pretty weathered on his right wing and tail. Not that I don't love to see buzzards, particularly when the sun catches their markings. I met up with a fellow volunteer (off-duty) standing with a visitor on the pathway known as "Adder Alley", and for good reason; amazingly, the visitor had located an adult female adder to the left of the path! When I arrived it had disappeared but it soon came back in to view once the sun came out and bathed the grass in light and heat.

(Apologies for the photo quality! These were taken on my phone)

I've actually only seen one other adder before and it was a very young one, only just bigger than an earthworm. This adult was over 2ft in length and I was able to leisurely admire the beautiful diamond pattern on her scales and see her smelling the air with her thin, black tongue. It certainly made up for the lack of raptors!

The track down to Nettley's hide is usually a great place to spot goldcrests and even firecrests. My walk today yielded both species, with a particularly fantastic showing from a firecrest which was flitting around in the open only a foot in front of me. I got lovely clear views of the bold, orange crest, olive body and black eye-stripe. On the same trail, I also caught sight of a green woodpecker as it landed on the trunk of an oak. Once again, this made a nice change as I normally only see the yellow of their rumps as they fly away.

In other birding news, I made it our for my first patch session a couple of weeks ago, guided by my fellow Midhurstian (not sure that's the official title!) Sophie, of The Oak by the Rife blog. It was a beautiful day and Sophie took me on one of her most frequented walks, pointing out where she had seen various species over the years. At one point we were discussing ravens after she received a text from her mum saying she'd seen on fly over the house, and I commented that I had never seen one in the wild (naturally the Tower of London ones don't count). No more than 15 minutes later, we heard the unmistakable cronk-cronk call and were treated to a fantastic over-head sighting of a raven; it even demonstrated the call again as it was directly above us. I might try out this technique on other species I'd love to see: "I have never had a Long-Eared Owl in my garden..." 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Big Garden Birdwatch 2016: My First Brambling!

A new house in a new town means new birds. I've been particularly looking forward to doing the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this year for this very reason. It's given me an opportunity to get a really good idea of what birds we have visiting our new garden as, up until now, I've only really managed fleeting glances through the windows, although this technique has yielded some great spots already! I've been adding to a new patch list as each species has revealed itself and recently bullfinch, goldcrest and nuthatch have all been included.

When I woke up yesterday, the muted grey light told me that it wasn't the sunniest of mornings. It was drizzly, cloudy and typically British. I was already lacking in hope for many feathered visitors as our feeders have hardly been descended upon since moving here and I've had to change the food on more than one occasion because untouched peanuts have gone mouldy in the persistent rain. I just think that the mild temperatures have meant that there are still plenty of natural food sources out there, so the birds haven't found the need to visit the feeders as often as I'm used to. With that in mind, I wasn't expecting to see much.

The first quarter of an hour lived up to my expectations. The only activity going on came from three feisty robins bullying a lone blue tit, while three woodpigeons watched from the branches of the oak tree. I found it fascinating to see the robins using the feeders with ease as this behaviour is relatively new for this usually ground-feeding species. 

Without a doubt, the highlight of the hour for me was a visit from a brambling! I watched Friday's episode of Winterwatch which mentioned the possibility of seeing bramblings hidden in flocks of chaffinches and I couldn't believe it when I spotted one during my watch. It was an extremely fleeting visit, but it perched on a bush long enough for me to get a positive I.D. before flitting off over the fence. Actually the same thing happened with a bullfinch later in the hour so I was able to add those both to my list.

Image: John Harding/BTO

I rode the brambling high for the rest of the hour and actually quite a few of my favourite species made appearances, including a nuthatch, long-tailed tit and a great-spotted woodpecker. Whether the latter was the same one I'd hear drumming earlier in the morning, I don't know. I was also serenaded by a particularly enthusiastic song thrush on the top of the fence. Both of these would suggest we have an early Spring heading our way!

There was quite a lot going on in the area of trees behind the garden (of course). There is one I call the "starling tree" because it's usually bustling with them. However, they were replaced yesterday by a flock of 30 or so bullfinches and goldfinches. I could just about make out the bold, black heads and flashed of red although I could really have done with a scope at that point! One day, one day... I saw the brambling again, this time hanging upside down at the top of bare tree, pecking at the tiny branches. There were also a number of carrion crows fighting above me and a mix of gulls lazily circling the trees.

My total tally for the hour was as follows:

3 Woodpigeon
1 Blackbird (m)
3 Robins
2 Blue tits
1 Magpie
1 Coal tit
1 Song thrush
1 Brambling
1 Bullfinch
1 Jay
1 Great-spotted woodpecker
1 Dunnock
1 Long-tailed tit

I've put together a little table comparing my results from the past three years. Obviously two of the three counts were in Southwater but it will be interesting to see how the results vary at this new house over the next few years.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Triple Threat at Pulborough Brooks

A belated happy new year to you!

What a hectic few weeks I've had and sadly no time for any birding. I was on hides and trails at Pulborough the Sunday before last but this glorious weather we've been having meant that visibility was bad and very few birds were out other than the ducks and waders. It wasn't the best start to 2016. However, when I was last out on the reserve, three weeks ago, I had an absolute cracker of a day and nearly suffered whiplash trying to watch everything at once!

The first part of the day was relatively uneventful. There were a couple of perched buzzards at West Mead and Winpenny and the odd snipe hiding in the long grass. It all started to get much more interesting once myself and Graham made our way to Hanger View. One of the largest trees to the left of the view is known as the "peregrine tree", so-named because, in the past, a female peregrine was frequently spotted perched on the branches. This was the first I'd heard of it since starting at Pulborough a couple of years ago. It would seem that a new female-a ringed juvy born at Amberley-has taken up this tradition as she was there for several hours on this particular day, preening herself after a wash. This was enough to keep me entertained for some time. The position of the tree gave me relatively close views of her with just my bins.

Several visitors were with us at the view and naturally everyone had their attention fixed on the peregrine, with the occasional shout of "bullfinch in the sloe bushes!" (I counted three females and two males at one point) One lady I was speaking to said that she and her husband had seen a very distant short-eared owl when they were down in Little Hanger hide. She kindly pointed me in the direction they'd been looking, which fell just behind where our falcon was perched. Literally as I focused my bins past her and onto the river bank, I had a shortie in my sights immediately! I was tickled by the fact that we'd all been so distracted by the peregrine that we'd been missing out on other exciting sightings. It didn't stop there though.

As the other visitors became aware of the shortie, all scopes and bins refocused and followed its progress. Not long after this, after the owl dropped out of sight then reappeared in two different places, we realised there were now two quartering the riverbank. One of them landed on a fence post and a visitor was kind enough to let me look through his scope, so I could have my first close-up view of this stunning bird. I could see the characteristic piercing yellow eyes and very round facial disc.

Everyone's attention was now divided, with some back to watching the peregrine, some looking in the berry bushes for bullfinches and some chatting with each other. Many of us had lost sight of the shorties and I was scanning the banks trying to relocate them. As I brought my bins upwards, I saw both of them circling higher up, along with another bird. It most definitely wasn't a third owl though, something I realised the second I caught sight of the forked tail-a red kite! The two shorties were circling above the kite and taking turns to dive on him. At this point, the peregrine took off from her perch and joined in with the assault on the poor kite. It was quite a sight to see! 

The kite didn't hang around for long, not that he was really given a choice. Being attacked by two owls and a falcon is enough to make anyone feel unwanted! After he cleared off, it seemed the owls weren't keen on hanging around either and we lost sight of both of them. The peregrine did come back to rest in the same tree again, apparently quite pleased with her contribution to the aerial display. 

I haven't been doing hides and trails for long so I don't have a huge pool of experiences to make comparisons with, however, I can confidently say that this particular day was the best I've had on the reserve so far. I couldn't have asked for more; three species of raptor all at once and showing in a spectacular fashion! Fantastic.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Out with the old (patch) and in with the new!

It all happened rather fast after an extremely long process; my parents and I are now living in Midhurst. We moved from our Southwater house exactly a week before Christmas (!) and into the place my mum and step-dad bought together in the beautiful historic town of Midhurst, found smack-bang in the middle of the South Downs National Park.

Given the option, I don't think I would have chosen to move away from where we were before. I was so spoilt by the rural location of our cottage, being fully immersed in nature and not being able to look out of the window without seeing some form of wildlife. I talked about this in my guest post for A Focus On Nature but, in a nutshell, living in Southwater and immersing myself in the natural world were the reasons I decided to pursue conservation as a career. I have had some amazing experiences in that quiet corner of West Sussex.

Our old back garden bordered a huge expanse of woodland and so we had all sorts of creatures visiting the feeders. I discovered the undeniable quirky character of the nuthatch, now my favourite garden bird, and was treated to frequent close sightings of great-spotted woodpeckers, including a male and female pair feeding their two juveniles on the peanuts. We regularly had goldcrests hopping about in the bushes, the occasional visit from goldfinches, long-tailed tits and bullfinches, the odd treecreeper clinging to the oak tree and even a couple of redwing stopped by briefly on their way through. I think the most exciting sighting I had was actually one of the last before we moved, seen from the kitchen window, and that was a firecrest!

In the three years we lived there, we had five different species of bird nesting in the garden, though not all with successful broods. The first year the nestbox went up, the blue tits moved in straight away and their chicks fledged with success, spending the next couple of weeks using our feeding station to learn how to feed. At the same time, a few metres above the box, a pair of nuthatches spent weeks lining a hole in the oak trunk with mud until it was only big enough for the parents to fit through and then flew back and forth with food for their chicks. I didn't see them fledge so can only hope they did so successfully.

 The following year the great tits decided it was their turn in the box and the same thing happened; I saw a flock of juvenile great tits on the feeders and made the assumption that they had come from our box. Elsewhere in the garden, a female blackbird had decided the hedge next to our kitchen was the perfect place to build her nest, and I spent many moments at the window watching her return with her beak stuffed with twigs and moss. She laid three eggs which all hatched, but sadly, the day after, they had disappeared from the nest. I put this down to either corvids or woodpeckers. In a separate bush at the same time, long-tailed tits built themselves an impressive ball of feathers, moss, horse hair and lichen. Unfortunately this didn't even see eggs as it was destroyed by a predator of some form before the family returned to lay any.

I explored quite a bit of the woodland surrounding our old house where I had some close encounters with roe deer on several occasions. The first one was with a doe and her very young fawn, so young it still had its spots. I remember holding my breath and not moving a muscle from where I was stood, while my heart beat wildly in excitement. We frequently had deer crossing in front of the house too and so I was often able to watch them from the front garden. I always felt grateful to be so close to such beautiful animals in the wild and still do.

I also built a mini wildlife pond not long after we first moved in. I would have loved to construct a full-sized one with plants but the house (and garden) were rented so that wasn't an option. It didn't seem to bother the local amphibians that my pond was only small; I had both toads and frogs frequent it right up until the last few weeks, when there were two resident frogs living under the pile of rocks surrounding it. 

It's actually quite difficult to look back on three years worth of experiences and remember each and every one in perfect detail. The big ones have stuck with me, naturally, but there were others that would have just become blurry in my memory if I hadn't have blogged about them. I'm definitely going to be better with recording what I see, hear etc. if only so that when I move away from this patch eventually, I'll be able to look back as I'm doing now and recall everything over and over.

The feeling of leaving was bittersweet. I was worried that moving to a slightly more suburban area, albeit with a small patch of woodland behind the house, would mean less variety of garden birds. I have absolutely nothing against blue tits and starlings, as many of you will know from this article I wrote back in October , but I knew I would miss seeing the nuthatch and woodpeckers especially! 

It turns out I didn't need to worry. The first bird I spotted after moving in was a goldcrest! And not a goldcrest in the distance through bins. Nope, this was in a small tree in our neighbours front garden, about 6ft from our window. I took that to be a good sign. Since then we've had goldfinches and long-tailed tits on the feeders, a song thrush in the front garden and two great-spotted woodpeckers fly over, chuck-chucking as they went. It's looking like this patch won't be letting me down any time soon.