I was late rising this morning and when the phone rang and rang and then rang again I wa quite certain that there must be a special bird about. I was right, Dave Stone excitedly told me that there was a Ross's Gull at Bowling Green Marsh. Ross's Gull is an extreme rarity here in Devon and this one is in fact the first record for the Exe Estuary and one of just a handful ever recorded in the county. I dont particularly like these "twitches" being a a bit of a contradiction to what I like about about wildlife watching but if you want to see really rare birds then needs must.
Ross's Gull is a small gull which is an Arctic breeder and named after a Naval Officer, James Ross. It is a true bird of the far north and breeds in the north of Siberia and the North American continent in Northern Canada. When it has finished breeding it then flies even further north. Quite how this one came to be here in the South West of the UK is one of those mysteries that can never be solved. This lonely individual is a young, non-breeding bird in it's second year. I was expecting to see a much more attractively marked bird and have to confess to some disappointment in this regard. The legs are fleshy red and the beak is delicate and solidly black. The tail is distinctive in flight being wedge shaped with a noticeable blackish band on the end. As a young bird it has black markings on the wings remeniscent of a LIttle Gull. Adult birds lack these markings but in the summer and in breeding plumage, have a noticeable black band around the neck and also have a pinkish suffusion on the breast. This bird was feeding on small flying insects around one of the pools on Bowling Green Marsh which is apparently typical behaviour.
This is now species 209 for my Devon Bird Gallery which can be perused here.
Peregrine Falcons are extremely hard to photograph in flight so you can imagine that I was pleased to get this shot yesterday. This is a female….the "Falcon"…. males are called "Tiercels"….. they are hard to seperate in my opinion but at my Schedule 1. license site I had been watching the pair for a while and I knew which was which. Males are smaller than females but when they are not together I dont' find them easy to separate. In the evening I met up with Dave Stone who has a good Blog look here. There are some nice pictures as well. I took him to where I had seen Tawny Owls the evening before, they are not all that easy to see let alone photograph and I knew that Dave hadnt even seen one this year. When we got to the lane, I have to confess that I was hopefu and quietly confident. But then we started to hear a bird, we knew immediately that it was close by. There was a right commotion coming from a nearby tree, 2 Jays were going mad, obviously unhappy about the owl which was also quietly calling in a massive old oak tree. It was hard to locate even though I was certain it was there. Then it flew and landed in another tree, it was hidden, or so it thought but we could see it through the oak leaves and tucked tight to the trunk as it peered at us. Dave got his photos and he was elated. (See them on his blog.)I have to confess that it gave me a great deal of pleasure to be able to give him some success.
I was on the way back home this evening, it was well after 8 and I was half way along a very old quiet and narrow country lane. This is one of those very deep lanes with high Devon banks. The lane is fringed with old oak trees which makes the lane very dark even in the middle of the day. I suddenly saw a Tawny Owl fly cross the lane, that doesnt happen often. Tawny Owls are common (probably) but they are nocturnal and secretive so you dont see them even when you know they are somewhere nearby. Even in flight I saw it clearly, a rich brown colour with long wings and a round head. Quite a treat and perhaps a good opportunity for a photograph? I immediately pulled the car in to a gateway and walked back to where it had been. I realised that it was still there for certain because a pair of Robins where going crazy, mobbing something in one of the old oaks…. I was certain it was there. I have to be honest, I was surprised when I looked up high in the oak and I could clearly see a silhouette looking down at me. The Robins were still going crazy, now joined by a blackbird or two. I can say without hesitation, if you hear birds alarming constantly in a tree or shrub, then they have become aware of an owl and its a good way for you to find it. The only problem was that it was getting dark and the bird was just a shape high in a tree. I tried very hard to get a decent photograph but conditions were not in the least bit favourable. I have photographed Tawny Owls before but regardless of the low shutter speed and equally low light, this improves on my previous attempt to photograph an adult bird. However, I did photograph 3 youngsters recently at my friends woodland.
A great opportunity presented itself recently when we discovered an active Great-spotted Woodpecker's nest in my friend's woodland. When they are incubating its quite hard to find an active nest because they are quite secretive. Even though its not hard to find woodpecker holes in trees, some are from previous years and others have been worked on in the current year and then been abandoned when the breeding birds have chosen another hole. I thought I had cracked it when I saw a bird disappear in to a fresh looking hole andwe set up hides to overlook the tree. I spent hours watching but only occasionally saw a bird entering. I put this down to one of the birds spending hours incubating before being relieved by it's partner. Then we realised that we were watching the wrong hole all along because a bird was arriving constantly and entering a hole much higher in the same tree!
This was a mystery, I still have no idea what was going on and have no idea why the bird was from time to time going in and out of a different hole. Incubation is relatively short and eggs hatch after only 12 days but the youngsters stay in the nest for around 3 weeks. It seems that these young have a few more days before they fledge because as you can see in the above, the feathers have yet to fully grow and the beak is not fully formed yet. There should be some much better photo opportunities in a few days just immediately and prior to fledging. At the moment the chicks are very noisy and are constantly calling. This rises to an excited crescendo when the parents arrive with food. When the chicks are at this stage their nests should be easy to locate.
You can tell the male from the female by the red patch on the nape which is absent in the female but weirdly, youngsters have a red forehead which is absent in adults. Iterestingly, therefore, newly fledged Great-spotted Woodpeckers are more colourful than their parents. I can't think of any other specie where this is the case. Just to summarise, you will see three differently marked Great-spotted Woodpeckers. Red on the nape, a male, no red on the nape, a female and red on the front of the head is a newly fledged youngster... either male or female.
This is an interesting photo because it shows the male leaving the nest burrow with a beak full of fecal material which is collected from within the nest burrow and then dropped away from the nest hole. I have yet to see the female at this nest site. Quite why this is I have no idea. Is the female in the nest burrow, brooding the chicks, quite possibly? The male is constantly bringing food to the nest but so far I have had no sight of the female. It could mean that the female has unfortunately succumbed to a predator and the male is doing a grand job feeding the chicks with no assistance?
I have had numerous opportunities to photograph Peregrine Falcons this year. These "in-flight" shots were taken under the terms of my Schedule 1 license which licenses me to photograph this species in the nest territory.
Here's another shot of the "tiercel" as it patrols above it's territory. The thing that impresses me about a Peregrine in flight is the way that the head is kept very still in flight.
This is a male Peregrine Falcon which I photographed today. Males, which are called Tiercels, they are considerably smaller than females (known as the Falcon). It isn't particularly easy to tell them apart in my opinion, but if you see them together then the difference is obvious. The male is usually a better marked bird with clearer defined markings on the face.
My friends had told me that they had seen Turtle Doves, or more specifically a Turtle Dove at Haldon Forest, quite close to public walks and one of the popular carparks. I have had a busy few days since my return from Lundy so it wasn't until yesterday that I got the chance to go to try to find it. I parked the car and even as I collected my camera from the boot I could hear the distinctive song, once you hear one you will never mistake it for anything else.
I walked towards the sound and for a few minutes, even though I had pinpointed the tree that it was singing atop of, I couldn't see where it was. It continued to sing though and I eventually located it. This is the first Turtle Dove that I have seen in Devon so another species for my gallery, 208 now. Have a look by clicking on the links. here.The Turtle Dove is a bit special though and we should be really alarmed by their current rarity. This is a species of dove that has declined by 94% in the last 20 years. Year on year, they decrease even more and it is expected that that without a miracle, they will be extinct in the UK by 2021! Supposedly the reasons are not known but when you learn that 100000 are shot every spring in Malta alone, not to mention illegal hunting in France and Spain then its not too hard know the reasons. We should take the strongest possible stance against these countries. But we don't. They act without regard to the law and without any regard to the sustainability of an entire species. The Turtle Dove is going to become extinct and those responsible are member s of the EU, seemingly mainstream and civilised countries yet we can do nothing to prevent them exterminating an entire species which will be lost, just like the Dodo. It is an absolute outrage and our own government could do so much more if we really wanted to. We could take action against the countries responsible but there does not appear to be any political will to act. So are we responsible for the demise of this species simply by our own inactivity.
I remember seeing Turtle Doves when I was a boy and not even thinking about it, though the Midlands has never been a particular stronghold for the species but they were comparatively common in the summertime. I do remember one particular day when I saw them in willow trees by the Trent and Mersey Canal and then minutes later I then saw a Tawny Owl at its nest in a very old Willow. Quite a day when you look back and it must have been good if I can remember it for 54 years!
I have a Schedule 1. license issued by Natural England to photograph Peregrine Falcons at a nest site. Without a license you are breaking the law and you a liable for a fine of£5000 or imprisonment for up to 6 months. Any photos published here were taken under the terms of my Schedule 1. License.
I recently spoke at some length with a senior officer at the BTO about the publication of photographs of Peregrine Falcons on my blog. The message was that any photographs and information about the species could only serve to spread a interest and admiration, this can only enthuse and educate people. The more people that have an interest and a love of the species, the more protected they will become.
I have been watching and photographing at my licensed nest site for the last several weeks and have observed some interesting behaviour. Here are a few for you to enjoy.
Lundy is a lump of picturesque granite, 3 miles wide, stuck in the middle of the Bristol Channel off the coast of Devon and Somerset. Geographically it is counted as part of Devon even though it could just as easily be Somerset. Decisions have been made to retain it's rustic culture with very little real access to the outside world, no internet, TV and a poor mobile phone connection. It is 7 minutes by helicopter and just under 2 hours by boat. There is a Tavern and a small well stocked shop as well as cottages for visitors to stay and a rough camping field (with excellent facilities by the way). I chose the latter and although camping is not something I do that often, it was fun and hardly a challenge as the weather was glorious. In the rain it would have been a different proposition.
The bird life is good and rarities are often encountered. On my trip I missed the two birds that would have made it even more memorable, a Black Guilemot in full summer plumage and also a Turtle Dove. The problem being that you can't be in two places at once and as everything is done on foot, getting from one steep descent and than ascent means that you have to make choices as to where you are going to be and then suddenly you may be an hour or more of stiff hill climbing away from what you may want to see. So as with all things birding there is a massive element of luck.
My main reason for visiting was to try for photos of Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). There is a small breeding population on Lundy and since the eradication of the rats , both Brown and Black, the nesting seabirds have been able to increase their numbers dramatically. This is probably the only place in Devon where you have a good chance of photographing them. They nest on an area of cliffside at Jenny's Cove, a misleadingly benign name for a rough and treacherous cliff top in the middle and on the west of the Island. I had never been advised that the climb down and up was as arduous as it was, nor that one slip on the wet turf could mean a fall of 300 feet on to the rocks and pounding surf below. So all in all, I was pleased (but not certain that I was in the right place) to get to a spot overlooking the likely area. Take note if you want to see the Puffins on Lundy as early morning and just before dusk are the times that will give you the best opportunity. You could be in the right spot and sit all day without even a glimpse so timing is key. I arrived at 1800 hours, plonked myself down precariously and sat waiting, all the time amusing myself by watching the nesting Razorbills, Guilemots and Fulmars. As 8 o'clock ticked around I suddenly saw a Puffin sat out on the hiltop, its predominantly red beak (from the distance) glowing back at me and the white breast like a beacon. A I have not visited some of the more well known Islands for Puffin I haven't got great photos of this species yet so it was a real thrill to even see one. As with all quests that have a good outcome, when you have made a lot of effort to get results, success is even more thrilling.
After only a few minutes the one I saw first was joined by another and then I saw even more. It was hard to count how many I had seen because I wasnt sure if I was counting the same bird but I dont think that really matters. It seemed to me that one bird was investigating a nest burrow whereas others were emerging from burrows. I saw birds flying off the cliff but didnt see any fly in so I am making the assumption that all the birds seen had just emerged from their burrows where they had been all along. I guess that if they are incubating eggs then there is going to be very little activity at the colony site. Later on in the season when prey is being brought in to feed chicks, activity will be constant.
This is a view of the cliffside. You can see that there s a combination of grass and rocks with burrows beneath the rocks. The area of cliffside that I was on was devoid of the rocks so it seems that the correct combination of rocks and turf is quit crucial.
Now just a few other birds seen on my short visit. Spotted Flycather were, if not numerous much more noticeable than on the mainland.
Sedge Warblers are a species that can be quite noticeable when they are displaying for mates at this time of the year. I am reliably toled that they do breed on Lundy.
Ravens are breeding birds on Lundy and this is a newly fledged baby bird which can be told by the fleshy gap still evident on the corner of the beak.
….and a Rock Pipit.
This is a Pearl bordered Fritillary a specie that is in decline in the UK. Devon is a stronghold for the species and Butterfly Conservation in Devon has played a massive part in it's success. I have had a busy week with wildlife but I am working on sensitive projects which means that I can't post too much here which is a real shame but you just can't take the safety of some species for granted. So, for the time being here are a few photos of a really lovely butterfly, in itself a sensitive species. There is the dichotomy, the more rare and sensitive a species is, the more interesting it is to publish on the blog and then there is the question of giving away locations which could have massive impacts on the safety of the species you want to talk about.
Pearl Bordered Fritillary are on the wing at the moment. They prefer specific habitat which should include cleared scrub on the edge of woodland. They lay their eggs individually and low on the ground near to, or on the leaf of a Dog Violet like the one on the picture below.
The egg hatches in to a small black larva which overwinters in the micro climate "under scrub". To insure against very low temperatures they have a natural anti-freeze. Early the following spring the larvae pupate in to a cacoon, emerging as a Butterfly in late April and May to begin the life-cycle once more.
Its worth reiterating that without the work of the people in Butterfly Conservation, and others like them, rare and scarce species would struggle to thrive and I, for one, am very grateful for the work they do for little or no reward.
The more I think about Saturday's encounter with a Grasshopper Warbler, the more pleased I am with the outcome. I was also able to add another species to my gallery of Devon Birds which now numbers 206. I was struck by the similarity of behaviour with that of Dartford Warbler, both species suddenly perching on an exposed perch after being very secretive prior to that.
Without doubt, the way to find a Grasshopper Warbler is to listen very carefully for the very distinctive and unique song which is unlike any other species. As the name suggests, the call is very similar to the "chirping" of a grasshopper, a sound that we have all heard at some time or other. I wonder how often we have heard a Grasshopper Warbler but mistaken it for the insect?
The round tail is a nice feature and the dark brown regular markings on the back and on the lower flanks are distinctive.
The song of the Grasshopper Warbler is delivered from an exposed perch and has a ventriloquy quality. When I heard this one on Saturday I couldn't pinpoint where it was singing from at first and it was quite a surprise to see how close it was to me.
I haven't been fortunate to even see a Grasshopper Warbler for years and years, ( but I did hear one in Yorkshire the year before last). Last year I had been told of a good site, in a valley by a river on Dartmoor. I had a really good look there then but wasn't successful. Then yesterday I had an email that told me specifically that 4 had been heard there again this last week, so when I had some time today, I made the journey quite confident that I had a good chance. I walked along the valley very slowly and quietly listening intently for the distinctive song which is described as similar to the ratchet on a fly fishing (or fixed spool) reel.
At first I heard no sign amongst the Willow Warbler and Chaffinch songs that I cold hear from all around. Then…. was that one? I sat quietly on a rock and listened really carefully again but, nothing. Then suddenly, there it was, that distinctive song. I was quite thrilled and I quickly hurried to where I had heard it. It wasn't long before I caught sight of it which was pleasing to say the least. I sat quietly and it wasn't long before I watched it flying back and forth in it's territory. I tried to guess which was it's favourite singing perch because I have read that when they are "reeling" they sing from atop of a bush or bramble. I looked at some likely bushes and knew that if I got lucky, then I would get some superb photographs. After an hour or so, with only quick glimpses, I heard a long and drawn out reeling song that went on and on. I homed in on the bird perched in a very exposed place andI got a bit closer. I was thrilled when it carried on reeling and I had it in my viewfinder. I struggled because the camera kept focusing on the long dead stems of grass and not on the bird but in the end I got the camera to focus and I got some blinding shots. The picture above is just the first of around 40 really nice shots and I will post some more tomorrow when I have had time to process them. Very specifically it prefers low scrub with scattered brambles which is not too dense. The habitat here is perfect by all accounts and if I were a Grasshopper Warbler then I would enjoy the summer here as well!!
I have never had the chance to photograph Grass Snake before yesterday. Snakes in the UK are probably more common than you may think but they are usually secretive and difficult to see. Grass Snakes are non venomous and will not bite, or rarely. They are variable in colour and you could confuse it with the poisonous adder which will bite. My advice would be to always leave well alone, thats best for the snakes as well. A tiny bit of research shows me that only 14 deaths from adders has occurred in the last 100 years even though there are up to 100 adder bites a year. But back to yesterdays snake, it was really great to see a truly wild snake and something that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Dave Stone, a well known local birder and blogger told me that there had been another male Lesser Whitethroat showing really well on Exminster Marsh, that's two or three now. He also had a little problem with his camera so I made arrangements to meet him at the RSPB Car Park this morning to help him with the camera and also for him to direct me to the area that he had seen the Lesser Whitethroat previously. We had only been there a minute or two when we heard the bird singing and showing very well. I took lots of pictures, the light was awful and we had to use all the tricks that we know to try and get some kind of image worth keeping. It was raining and the bird's plumage was wet as you can see in the photograph. I have "fiddled" with the image in "Photoshop" to turn the saved photograph in to an image. I adjusted the exposure and contrast to make the picture "pop out" from the background. Then I put a background on it sharpened the image and increased the saturation. Quite pleased with the results.
The bird was singing loudly but also engaged in a tussle with a Common Whitethroat which it wanted to evict from it's claimed territory.