Friday, 30 October 2015

A birding trip to Portland Bird Observatory

I am currently taking a slight break from uni studies, making use of a 'reading week' by joining a Next Generation Birders trip to Portland Bird Observatory, in Dorset. I travelled up by train on Wednesday, and have joined fellow young birders Josie Hewitt, Billy Stockwell, Sorrell Lyall and Ephraim Perfect for a few days of birding, ringing, photography and moth trapping. It has been a brilliant few days, with so many things to look at, and plenty of good birds. I will be producing a detailed few blog posts on the trip, but for now here are a few highlights:

Portland Bird observatory is set up in Portland lower light, where we are staying for our trip to this lovely island. A small flock of Linnets are picture here flying past in the morning 

 This stunning Pallas's Warbler (aka 'seven-striped sprite') was found in the quarry opposite the pumping station in Southwell on Wednesday, and so it was cool to catch up with this very nice eastern specialty. A good start to the trip!

 I was very lucky to find this smart Little Bunting this afternoon, when it dropped down in front of me with its characteristic 'tick - tick' call. I spent a minute or two watching the bird, perched atop a hogweed, before the eberizia flew off northward. There was no sign during the rest of the afternoon

 We have been enjoying great views of Short-eared, Barn and Little Owls every day, with the former two hunting around the top fields around dusk

Goldcrests and Firecrests have featured really well, with good numbers of both present around the bill every day at the moment. We have ringed over 10 new Firecrests so far 

It has been a delight to watch the amazing Kestrels that populate Portland, with an incredible density occupying the areas of rank grassland. It makes for some great photographic opportunities

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

AK weekend wildlife cruise

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to help out with several superb AK wildlife cruises around the surrounding coast. AK wildlife cruises was set up by Cap'n Keith over fifteen years ago in Cornwall. He runs his 12-seater vessel out of Falmouth docks, and takes groups of people to see the spectacular marine and avian wildlife that can be encountered along the Cornish coast. Trips are typically four hours long, and can range over 40 miles in distance, being taken east towards St. Austell, or west to the Lizard Peninsula. Cetaceans are regularly encountered throughout the year, from the incredible Fin Whale and Basking Sharks, through to the more commonly-seen Harbour Porpoise, Common and Risso's Dolphins, and Minke Whales.

St. Mawes Lighthouse from the cruise

I joined two trips over the weekend, with fellow student and crew member Gemma Haggar. On Saturday, with a howling north-west wind and threatening skies, we headed east up the coast, past St. Mawes head, Portscatho and Veryan, all the way towards Gorran. It was a superb trip, and we came across a fantastic array of wildlife: we saw three separate pods of Harbour Porpoise, amounting to a total of 27 individuals- a great tally; Grey Seals were scattered along the coastline, with a single three-week old pup giving good views in one of the bays. Flocks of Gannets were the main pointers to any cetaceans seen, and we also had great views of these superb pelagic wanderers as they dived into the water to pluck up fish and sprats. It was great to see some of the winter's first divers, with singles of Great Northern and Black-throated Diver representing the first of what can be an impressive wintering population in the south-west; views of Peregrines along the coastal cliffs were great, especially when one sliced through a flock of Linnets and managed to catch one. We saw over 40 Mediterranean Gulls, a single Whimbrel, Little Egret, and a lonesome Chough, which was great.

We had a great Harbour Porpoise (Phoecena phoecena) day on Saturday, encountering 27 individuals in three pods. These shy little mammals are the smallest of the UK's cetaceans, measuring between 1.4 and 1.7 metres long. They feed on a broad variety of prey, from fish and shellfish, to squid and octopuses. They commonly surface two or three times for air every 10-20 minutes, making relocation a little tricky at times. 

Most of the Grey Seals we saw were bulls, but we did come across this one seal pup, which may have been the same as a fluffy white individual Keith came across two weeks ago


Watching these apex predators from the boat was great, especially as it allowed views which could rarely be achieved on land

We had an equally productive trip on Sunday, heading the opposite direction along the coast: first to Maenporth, crossing the Helford passage to the Lizard, working up to Manacles Reef and the Black Land, before returning at a fair distance to try and pick up any cetaceans. We had much calmer weather conditions, but a slight south-east wind made for tricky observations, with the lighting also making it hard to pick up any fins breaking the surface. Earlier in the morning, Keith had spied a pod of three Bottlenose Dolphins working along Gylly Beach, which are quite unusual for the area. We were fortunate enough to connect with these on our way out of Falmouth docks, which was great. One individual sported a fair number of scars the dorsal fin, and so hopefully we may be able to photo-ID this individual against the database. Aside the Tursiops, we also came across a playful pod of 15 Common Dolphins off Black land, and we spent a good ten minutes watching these acrobatic animals playing in our bow wave. Birdlife did not disappoint either: we had more superb views of Peregrines along the cliffs between Maenporth and The Lizard; flocks of Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes passed by during the afternoon, along with the odd Mediterranean Gull; a Little Egret passed overhead on our way of the bay; and plenty of Buzzards and Kestrels hovering over the cliff edges gave good views.

Bottlenose Dolphins have to be one of the most well-known cetacean species in the world. They are fantastic animals, and incredibly intelligent. Interestingly, there are said to be two different 'varieties', with a smaller form which tends not to stray further than five miles from land, whilst a larger pelagic form rarely strays that close to land. The markings and wear that accumulate on the back and dorsal fin can provide a great natural way of idenitifying individuals. Keith was telling me about a particular individual called Clett, who has an incredible story spanning 20 years. He even has a Fecbook page, so check him out! After widely ranging around the UK, he was last seen this spring.

 One of the many Gannets that afforded brilliant views

 Mediterranean Gulls

Grey Herons

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The thrushes are back!

It's that time of year again: calm, clear nights are filled with the 'seep' calls of Redwings and the 'ticks' of Song Thrushes, whilst fruiting hedgerows and berry-covered trees become the site for a major feast. I do love autumn thrush migration, especially when you can stand on your Uni campus and watch flocks of up to 70 Redwings migrating overhead during the morning!

So yeah, the thrushes are here! Or at least, in Cornwall at any rate. I awoke from our caravan on the 12th to hear my first few Redwings of the year calling before dawn broke, and in the ensuing days witnessed a fantastic arrival of hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of mixed turdus species falling from the sky into the county. It was superb to see flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares streaming overhead, particularly on the busier days when over 500 were noted. My counts builded gradually from the 12th, as noted in the following counts...

  • 12th October - three Redwings
  • 13th October - 158 Redwings, six Song Thrushes, six Blackbirds
  • 14th October - 25 Redwings, three Song Thrushes
  • 15th October - 87 Redwings, nine Song Thrushes, 16 Blackbirds, three Fieldfares
  • 16th October - 498 Redwings, 19 Song Thrushes, 12 Blackbirds, 72 Fieldfares
  • 17th October - 157 Redwings, 21 Song Thrushes, three Mistle Thrushes
By the 17th, the visible migration of birds overhead had more or less dried up, but many were now scattered amongst the various fruiting bushes and trees that line the fields and pepper the gardens. On campus, the most utilised trees took the form of the Yew conifers, which happened to be right outside our main lecture theatre! I spent quite a while on many a day watching them picking these potentially poisonous (to humans) berries and down them with satisfaction - as can be seen in the images below!

So there we are- it really is great to have the thrushes back, and hopefully some more periods of calm and clear conditions will provoke more movements and passages of birds overhead. For now, I shall enjoy watching them across the country in the surrounding area...

 Blackbirds making use of the Yew berries on campus

Arty Blackbird shot

 Song Thrushes



Saturday, 24 October 2015

Snorkelling around Maenporth

A few days ago I headed down to the coast near Falmouth, with the hope of finding suitable conditions to head out snorkelling. The weather over the last few weeks has been a bit mixed, leading to fairly murky water for the most part, so to cycle up to Maenporth and find a flat calm sea and superb clear waters was great. I was in a bit of a rush to get in the sea, as I only made it down after a two o'clock lecture...the sun as already getting lower in the sky, so opportunities for photography was diminishing too!

Thankfully I was in the cool water within a short while, slipping out of the shallows and into the more biodiverse depths of the rocky coastline. I really enjoy snorkelling among the kelp forests and peering down to see what interesting sights appear from amongst the mass of waving algae. The water was much clearer once I had passed out of the surf zone, and exploring my way in and around the various rocky channels and hidden inlets revealed a wealth of wildlife to observe...

Spiny Starfish, ranging in colour from a deep blue to bright white with brown markings, were scattered amongst the rocks- if you watched them for a little while, you could see the very slowly making progress across the seafloor. Seaweeds of many different species were the hiding places of an interesting variety of fish, from the bulky Ballan Wrasse, the more colourful Corkwing Wrasse, and also a handful of bright green little fish, which I haven't identified as yet. One of the fish species I really like seeing if the Common Blenny- these characterful little rock-dwellers are very well camouflaged, and rest atop barnacle-covered rocks closer to the surface. It is quite fun to approach and watch their reactions as you invade their territory in an attempt to photograph them.

Every now and then I would come across a little colony of Blue-rayed Limpets, all clustered together at the bases of Kelp fronds- although they don't look like much from a distance, you can see their fantastic electric-blue dorsal stripes when taking a closer look. Perched sedentary on the edges of rocks and hiding amongst the kelp were the occasional Snakelocks Anemone, tentacles waving in the gentle swell. Clinging to the rocks closer to the surface were Dog Whelks, Limpets, Winkles, the pretty Common Topshells and Razor Clams.

 One of the brighter variants of the Spiny Starfish (Marthasterias glacialis) with a Breadcrump Sponge (Halichondria panicea)

Blue-rayed Limpets (Patella pellucida) clumped together in a cool little cluster on the stipe of kelp. These herbivorous species much their way through the kelp using their radula (teeth), working their way down the stipe and eventually loosening the holdfast and resulting in the Kelp's uprooting

 Common Blennies trying to remain hidden, although their inquisitive nature often results in them coming right up to the camera and investigating the new intruder

 Snakelocks Anemone- some of these cnidarians often have a greener hue, with purple tips where symbiotic algae photosynthesise and contribute energy to the anemone

Common Topshell

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Late Autumn Moth Trapping

Autumn is a great time of the year for moth-trapping. Although the diversity encountered inferior to that of the summer months, the quality is often just as good, with a superb array of commonly-seen moths turning up in the traps. The species invariably sport a lovely colour combo that reflect the more muted and subtle tones of autumn. In addition to the resident and common garden moths, calm conditions with a good southerly airflow can result in large influxes of migrant lepidoptera, such as Silver Ys, Vestals, Rush Veneers and Rusty Dot Pearls. But scarcer species can include stunners such as the Crimson Speckled, Palpitta vitrealis and the lovely Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Over the last few weeks I have been running my little heath trap outside the caravan most nights. Although numbers were very low a couple of weeks ago, this was primarily due to the full moon. The last week has seen some decent catches, ranging up to 30 individuals, and including as many as 13 different species. Some of the species are a little dull, admittedly, but for the most part they have been a pleasure to catch, bearing a delicate pattern and lovely suite of colours. The obvious stand-out from the crowd was that of a pair of Merveille du Jours that I trapped on the 10th - a first for me, and a species that I have always wanted to see! The Green-brindled Crescent is an almost equally stunning moth, which has only just appeared in the traps over the last few days.

In terms of the more commonly-occurring species at the moment, a typical selection on a daily basis includes Beaded Chestnuts, Square-spot Rustics, Black Rustics, Setaceous Hebrew Characters, Feathered Ranunculuses, Red-line Quakers, Bricks (yep, the names get better!), Lunar Underwings, Large Yellow Underwings, the odd Green Carpet and Common Marbled Carpet, and an Autumnal Rustic. These make up the bulk of each trapping session at the moment, although the increasing brightness of the moon at night is likely to decrease catch sizes in the coming weeks.

A selection of images of recent moths...

The superb Merveille du Jour. This translates more or less to 'wonder of the day', which I'd say was extremely fitting! They blend incredibly well into the lichens on tree trunks!

The Green-brindled Crescent, with an almost iridescent metallic green colouration to the scales of the upper wings. This species is distributed throughout the UK, the larvae of which feed on Hawthorn and Blackthorn in the spring

Pink-barred Sallow - one of a number of autumnal sallow moths that emerge and add a splash of colour to the moth traps. Most species of sallow begin their larval life stage feeding on Sallow catkins, hence the name, before diversifying into a wider range of herbaceous plants for nutrition

The Hummingbird Hawkmoth is a particularly delightful migrant species that you may glimpse darting from flower to flower in its constant quest to secure nectar. It has been superb to see this long-tongued (Macroglossum) species on campus, where this image was taken

Green Carpet- a species that can be encountered throughout the whole year, although many have been appearing in the traps over the last month.

One of the more common species that turn up in the moth trap on a daily basis: the Feathered Ranunculus. This is another very pretty species, albeit a little more subtly. Ironically, the preferred foodplants of the larvae are Biting Stonecrop and Thrift (amongst others), as opposed to Ranunculuses.

 Autumnal Rustic 

This species is one of two similar-looking moths that can now be found visiting the moth traps: this is a Red-line Quaker, and has only appeared in the traps in the last week, whilst its similar cousin, the Yellow-line Quaker, has not shown up at all as yet.