Monday, 30 January 2012

Black and White Warblers in Spring

These photographs of this most delightful warbler were taken last spring by Chris at Magee Marsh in Ohio during our amazing 10-day visit. Almost always found on trees with few leaves, they often search upside down for insects on the trunk, rather like nuthatches.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Irony of Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is a world-class establishment. In its more than 250 year history, quality is everywhere. Although winter is perhaps not the best time to visit, there’s still so much to see. Plants from every corner of the globe mix with native species. Shrubs sprout young light-green buds ready to burst, whilst most trees are still in deep sleep. At every turn there’s clear educational information; the first label I read tells me there are 20 badger setts within the grounds and that I’m in London. Modern sculptures sit well with the greenhouses and the typical yellowish London brick Georgian buildings.

Snowdrops hide in a border by an old wall, but there’s little else in flower outside; inside the glasshouses it’s a different story. The small Alpine garden, half outside, half a glasshouse is a delight and leads to the quite exceptional Prince of Wales Conservatory. I enter a desert with perfect cacti and succulents, so unlike the sad individuals I used to grow. A glass door takes me into tropical rainforest, with displays of orchids to die for. Another door leads to temperate ferns and I exit via carnivorous plants with the message of how endangered and important these environments are and the vital part Kew plays in saving them.

I’m never far from birds. The early spring song of robins and dunnocks follows me and Canada geese sit on every lake. A jackdaw mobs a male sparrowhawk, but screeching ring-necked parakeets high in the trees gives the gardens an extra appeal.

The new Sherwood Gallery is magnificent, with superb botanical art from all over the world. Perfectly displayed in modern style, the experience is top drawer. A truly great painting by Alan Singer of a cactus wren on saguaro stands out, as do several quotes on the walls. One from The Origin of Species arrests me; ‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved’.

The great Palm House is a miracle of Victorian ingenuity and a legacy of Empire. I sit and marvel at the structure with coffee plants by my side. I’m here to give a talk entitled ‘Birds, Rainforests and Coffee’; it’s perfect, I’ve just seen parakeets, entered a rainforest and am sitting in front of coffee.

In the Temperate House, I share an intimate moment with a robin feeding from my hand and am struck by the irony of Kew. Fighting to save the planet from the consequences of climate change, every 45 seconds immediately above, a plane on its final approach to Heathrow dumps carbon onto those very plants vital for its survival.

Monday, 23 January 2012

European Goldfinches

Goldfinches have become much more common over the last decade or so. These shots taken by Chris show what stunningly beautiful little birds they are.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Prothonotary Warblers in Spring

These shots of this most lovely warbler were taken by Chris at Magee Marsh in Ohio last spring. They were so confiding and have such a wonderful song.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Close-up shots of a ‘British’ Ring-billed Gull

These close-ups of a Ring-billed gull take by Chris in Hampshire recently show just what a lovely, but fierce looking bird it is. Rare on this side of the Pond!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Stonechats and Scott of the Antarctic

We’re blessed with lovely little Norman churches here and one of the most beautiful is in the village of Rhosilli at the very end of the peninsular. The village, perched high over the Atlantic, seems to be defined by the old church with its centuries old stark, perpendicular tower, looking directly out to sea. But it’s not just the church that gives this place a special feel. Inside its cold limestone walls there’s a magic plaque on the north wall dedicated to the memory of Edgar Evans, who accompanied Captain Scott on his epic journey to the South Pole. Evans was a native of the village and will be particularly remembered this week, which marks the centenary of the day Scott and his team reached the Pole.

The mile-long walk from the village to the coastguard lookout passes old dry-stone walls, recently repaired and safe for another hundred years. To the north is the sweep of Rhosilli Bay, which is an icon of the Welsh landscape. Its three miles of golden sand shines bright in the winter sunshine and with no wind, the pastel-blue sea is like a millpond dotted with white specks of gulls and black lines of Common Scoters. A Raven stands sentinel on the cliff edge; others croak overhead signalling the beginning of breeding. I had hoped for an early Fulmar, but there are none; they’ll be here in a week or so to take possession of their traditional ledges. To the south of the stone walls is Rhosilli Vile, a medieval field system, where vegetables are still grown for local markets; it lies fallow now, but will soon begin its season. At the headland, Worm’s Head, an island at high water is majestic, alone and still. It dominates this ancient spot and merges perfectly the land and sea.

From the top of the cliff, I hear Oystercatchers on the shore below; many hundreds call, but are mostly invisible against the rocks and pools on the treacherous causeway. A lone Grey Seal slides beneath the still water and a Great Northern Diver seems to do well catching fish under the lea of the Worm. Turning for home a Stonechat perches on a gatepost to remind me that I’m privileged to live in such a truly beautiful place.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Lapwing Circuit

For many years now on winter days, my wife and I take off and drive what we call the Lapwing Circuit. It’s a simple route around the peninsular on which we live, just to look for birds in favourite locations, but hoping to find as many Lapwings as we can. The weather is usually cold and most of the birding is done from the comfort of the car, with just occasional quick trips outside to peer over hedges.

First stop is what we call the Lapwing Field. Years ago we could expect to find a decent flock here during most of the winter months and if the weather was particularly cold, there would often be Golden Plovers as well. We draw a blank again today and may need to rename this field, or even take it out of the circuit.

Next is Oxwich Beach. From the comfort of the car park, I count the small flock of Sanderlings and scan the bay for grebes and divers. Red-throated is much the commonest in winter here, but the sheltered water to the east of Oxwich Head gives sanctuary to a Great-northern Diver today, which cheers us up no end.

We head for Rhossili Bay. Facing due west and exposed to the full force of Atlantic gales, this magnificent sandy bay is the wintering home of thousands of Common Scoter. The trick is to look behind the surf, where these jet black sea ducks feed on the bivalves disturbed by the pounding surf. I count only a few hundred, just a fraction of the number I know are out there. Velvet Scoters winter in the bay too, but at this distance and from the steamed up windows of the car, there’s no hope.

Lunch, in the car of course, is normally taken by the northern salt marshes. If we time the tide correctly, the air can be full of thousands of waders and wildfowl including hundreds of Lapwings and Golden Plovers reminding me of childhood days spent on northern moors; we get it right today. Best of all though is the Short-eared Owl quartering over the vast expanse of spartina grass, which entertains us long after the waders and our sandwiches have gone.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Winter Thrushes

It’s another strange winter. Amazingly we’ve had no frost yet and the winter thrushes have not arrived in the village. The last two winters were bitterly cold, breaking all records; this one may do the same, but it’s the unbelievably warm weather that’s entering the record books. Gone is the myth that a bumper harvest of berries signals a cold winter; the hedgerows are dripping and the few Blackbirds that are around make little impression on the harvest.

We need frost; it cleanses the soil and resets the biological clock. The grass was still growing in the garden at the beginning of December and some shrubs have still to loose their leaves. Maybe winter will arrive eventually along with the Redwings and Fieldfares, but there’s every chance we could miss it altogether this year, which would probably please the climate change deniers. What they fail to accept is that the models predict big swings in weather and we’re getting just this; some very cold winters, some warm and wet and not so nice summers. Climate change is here, but the world seems not to want to do much about it.

Friday, 6 January 2012

American Woodcock

Taken last spring in Ohio by the boardwalk at Magee Marsh. This bird was so close we could have touched it and demonstrates just how much woodcocks trust their camouflage.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Another really beautiful North American warbler photographed during our trip to Magee Marsh in Ohio last spring. Just a stunning little bird.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Chestnut-sided Warbler

This lovely Chestnut-sided Warbler photographed by Chris during our trip to Magee Marsh in Ohio last spring is probably spending its winter in Central America. Perhaps it’s feeding in a shade-grown coffee plantation?

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Night Sounds

On crisp, still winter evenings like this I like to wrap up well and walk along the shore as the tide comes in. There’s little light from the stars, but the rising creamy moon begins to light up the gentle breakers shining against the darkness of the water. The streetlights across the bay and over the Channel on the Devon coast create orange necklaces along the distant shores. The noise from the main road just a little way away is muffled by the sand dunes and the yellow glow from the streetlights reminds me that I’m near the town.

I walk briskly in the cool air; the sound of crunching shells under foot seems deafening, but I’ve come to listen to the waders. As the sea creeps ever nearer, oystercatchers pipe up and begin flying in the darkness, I pick up the soft shrills of Dunlins, but have no idea where they are. I disturb a solitary Grey Plover, such a plaintive call and one I don’t hear often. Ringed Plovers are about too and as I near the river, Redshank alarms fill the night air. I rarely hear Curlews after dark; I know they’re here, but even during the day, they’re not very vocal in the bay. I’m not alone. Joggers pass by on the beach and even at this late hour, dog walkers need to exercise their charges. I spot two lights moving about on the mud and guess they’re fisherman illegally digging for lugworms in this protect site.

I turn my torch towards the sky and catch the flashing wings of Oystercatchers as they fly between the beach and the playing field on the other side of the main road. Although there’s little to see, the hive of activity, missed by most, is magical and easily compares with the daytime spectacle.