Category Archives: UK wildlife

More Rainham wildlife

The terrain at Rainham Marshes is fairly varied with beach, river, lakes, reedbeds, scrub and grassland amidst the industrial conurbation of the Thames Estuary.  And with varied terrain comes varied birdlife including wader, ducks, birds of prey and passerines:

A lone black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobber-sneppe) amongst a group of teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) at the lakeside with reedbeds in the background

As well as godwit a small flock of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) would occasionally lift of the ground as an alarm was raised over some perceived threat, circle around for a minute or two before returning to where they were flushed from. I’ve seen that kind of behaviour before in response to the sighting of a predator such as a peregrine falcon, but I didn’t see any predators of that ilk so maybe an unseen ground predator such as a fox was in the vicinity.

And across another section of reedbed was the raised Eurostar train track and a transport depot full of trucks just beyond

And I love this image of another stonechat craning from the top of a bulrush to keep a wary eye on what we were up to:


We had heard a report that at the far end of the reserve toward the landfill hill there were short eared owls in the area, and later on in the afternoon we decided to wander down that way to see if we could find them. And it didn’t take long…

Short eared owl (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) patrolling the reedbeds

And that heralded the start of probably the best display of owl activity of any species that I’ve ever seen. And I’ll post some more shorty pictures next time. But isn’t this guy a beauty?!

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Rainham Marshes

Normally when I head out into the wilds I like to get to somewhere where there is little or no evidence of humans, my benchmark for a good place is  the complete absence of human noise. And that’s not usually easy to do. But on this trip back in December I found myself in a place that was everything I’d normally avoid!

A view across the marshes to the hill in the background which is an enormous landfill site, full of Londan’s waste

I was at the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes which is in that part of estuary Essex I’d only normally visit if I had to, but apart from that it was bordered by industry on one side, landfill on another, a motorway and the Eurostar trainline on the third side and the River Thames providing the boundary on the fourth, southern, edge. But despite my original prejudice it turned out to be a brilliant place to see some great wildlife and bizarrely it was actually enhanced by the hubbub going on all around.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola, Dansk: sortstrubet bynkefugl)

On entering the reserve, just beyond the visitor centre a male stonechat was perched on a twig close by, and I like stonechats – they’re very smart birds – so I took it as a good omen that I would see lots more wildlife. And the little guy was indeed a harbinger of things to come. Despite its green conservation status and being a resident in the UK, I don’t see stonechats very often, so I was pleased to see this one so close by.

The terrain at Rainham is interesting. It’s a combination of marshy reedbeds, small lakes, grassy scrub and in the middle is a disused military shooting range which I think dates back to the world wars. But altogether it’s a little oasis of wilderness in the midst of the industrial devastation that dominates this part of the Thames estuary to the east of London.

Reeds, wigeon, lake, lapwing and in the distance a marsh harrier perched on a fence with an oil storage facility in the background

The marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) is a magnificent bird of prey which I see fairly frequently as they quarter the low lying fenland that prevails to the north and east of Cambridge and the occasional one drifts through over the fields where I live, and here was a female showing her prominent golden crown, hunting over the marshes at Rainham. This species of harrier is another bird of prey which was virtually driven to extinction in the UK but has recovered in the last 40 years, presumably as the use of DDT ceased. And in the foreground on the island in the lake were wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe) an unidentified gull and what I think may be starlings.

The lapwing take flight in  front of a pair of huge wind turbines

May be there were so many species and numbers here because they were hemmed in to a small area of suitable habitat, but further east along the estuary, deeper into Essex, there are huge areas of tidal mudflats on the Thames and other river estuaries, so this could be the western extremes of that expanse of habitat. Either way, the diversity of the birdlife here on the marshes was remarkable.

A male shoveller looking resplendent and with that enormous beak to the fore

I said further back up this post that the southern boundary of the reserve is the river Thames, and to make the point, beyond the dyke which provided protection from the coastal tides of the river, a ship headed out to sea…


It really is a diverse and fascinating place! And somewhere I’m hoping to visit again before the winter is over.

The amazing potential of phone photography

A few weeks ago, in August, I was in Toronto and on a glorious sunny day I took a boat trip out to Centre Island, which, in the unlikely event you ever find yourself in Toronto wondering what to do, I can heartily recommend. There were many huge and colourful butterflies including monarchs and swallowtails fluttering around the island, and some others I didn’t recognise. It was a work trip so I hadn’t taken my DSLR with me and the only way to get a photograph was with my phone camera. And then I discovered that monarchs are skittish and it’s not easy to get close to them, which I needed to do as I only had a phone to take pictures with, but after chasing several and failing to get within range I managed to sneak up on this one:

monarch-toronto-aug-2016-ppMonarch butterfly – Danaus plexippus

I stooped down on the opposite side of the plant to the butterfly and reached around to point my phone and take this picture. I must confess, I was a little gobsmacked at how well it worked. The light conditions were challenging as it was late morning and the sunlight was intense, so there was lots of contrast between the shade and the light. But after minimal post processing to darken the sunny bits I think is a pretty good image! I changed my phone earlier this year for an iPhone 6S plus and I was impressed with the quality of the camera from the start, but after this shot I’m really impressed with it.

I hope it’s not a global phenomenon, but this year, due to climatic aberrations, many butterfly species have been hit really hard and their numbers have plummeted. The results of the ‘Big Butterfly Count‘, an annual survey of our Lepidoptera here in the UK, was reported today, and the news was bleak. Many erstwhile common species have really suffered and this is a phenomenon which I’ve noticed and commented on several times since the Spring this year. And now it’s official. Sir David Attenborough (the worlds greatest living human being), and president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said that butterflies are a good barometer of the state of nature in general. I’m inclined to agree with him and I think it’s a very bad sign that the plight of our butterflies in the UK is so dire. It doesn’t augur well.

small-copper-wandlebury-roman-road-sep2016-ppSmall copper – Lycaena phlaeas

But one of my absolute favourite butterflies, and one that I only see very infrequently, even in a good year, is the small copper. I think they’re gorgeous. I haven’t seen one for about three years and then, randomly, a friend of mine showed me this picture a couple of weeks ago which he took with his phone, also an iPhone 6S, on the Roman road between Cambridge and Linton.

So there are still some lovely butterflies out there, but please think of them and, if you can spare it, leave a little bit of your garden to grow wild with no chemicals to help them recover. And if you don’t have a camera handy to take a portrait give it a go with your phone instead, you might be surprised!

Conder Green

A few weeks after the outing to Norfolk I wrote about in the last few posts, I found myself in a place called Conder Green, which lies on a small tributary of the River Lune in Lancashire, with Morecambe Bay to the west and the Lake District to the north east. I stayed in a hotel which was on the Lancaster Canal and surrounded by farmland, and there was lots of wildlife in the immediate vicinity.

Little egret at dusk on the Glasson Branch of the Lancaster Canal (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre)

The little  egret, or indeed egrets in general, were birds I had always associated with more exotic  parts of the world. The first time I saw them in numbers they were perched on fish stalls in the market at Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles. Their numbers have been steadily increasing in England after they first began to colonise here in 1988 having moved across the water from France, where they had also been expanding their range northwards. But to see one in Lancashire reminded how far north and west they have migrated compared to the location of my first sighting!

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne)

Goldeneye female on the Lancaster Canal (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The moorhen and the goldeneye were on the canal adjacent to my hotel, and in the field next to that was a hare which appeared at first sight remarkably unfazed by my presence, until I got just a little too close, and then common sense prevailed and it did what hares do best, and ran:

The European brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

I was pretty happy with these two shots, I’ve previously got some good pictures of hares by creeping up on them very slowly when they’re sitting tight, but I’ve never got a good picture of a hare in full flight before.

The hare is a member of a taxonomic group called ‘Lagomorphs‘ along with rabbits and pikas. It’s a group that has been around for 90 million years, so hare-like creatures may have been running around with dinosaurs. The modern version evolved in central Europe but only since the UK split away, geologically that is, from mainland Europe. So it is thought that it was introduced to these islands around 2000 years ago by the Romans.

Wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand)

Just a short walk from the field where the hare was is the River Lune, which appears to be tidal as it’s so close to the coast of Morecambe Bay, so when the tide’s out there are extensive mudflats for waders and ducks including these wigeon, and I’ve also seen teal and curlew here:

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

This bird, with its unfeasibly enormous beak, was one of a flock of around 100 curlew, and that’s an extremely unusual sight these days.

All those flocking waders…

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the vast flocks of geese which overwinter on The Wash; and there were also big numbers of other birds including small groups of dunlin close in by the shore:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But a little further out, and almost invisible until they took to the air, were enormous flocks of thousands of dunlin. I couldn’t see what flushed them, but every few minutes they rose en masse and put on a stunning display of aerobatic prowess:

Thousands of dunlin moving in very close proximity at high speed and never colliding

Occasionally they turned into the sun creating a shimmering ribbon of grey and white across the sky:

And as with the geese in the previous post the other thing which I hadn’t thought about until they were swirling overhead was the noise. It was a very different sound to the geese which gave a slow muted beating sound, the dunlin sounded more like a fast moving cloud of enormous insects. It was a really exciting spectacle. And as well as the dunlin flocks of oystercatcher wheeled over from behind and landed in a line on the mud flats:

Several hundred oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: Strandskade) seeking safety in numbers

… and it’s always good, but increasingly seldom, to see flocks of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe):

When I was a kid in the 70’s vast flocks of lapwing were a relatively frequent phenomenon in the fields out in the countryside around home, but their numbers have plummeted twixt now and then, so it’s good to see there are still places where thay can still be found doing what lapwing should be doing!

Winter in the Wash

One of the ‘must see‘ natural events in the UK occurs in the winter when hundreds of thousands of ducks, waders and, in particular, geese spend the season on the mudflats of the Wash. The Wash is a huge bay on the east coast of England into which the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse all drain into the North Sea.

When the tide recedes, like Morecambe Bay in the previous post, enormous areas of mudflats are exposed which provide sustenance and a roost site for colossal numbers of birds. Every morning at dawn thousands of geese take flight to head inland to feed, and the geese are what everyone goes there to see.

Multiple skeins of pink footed geese at Snettisham at dawn (Anser brachyrhynchus, Dansk: kortnæbbet gås)

I arrived at the coast at Snettisham on the north Norfolk coast around 6am when it was just starting to get light. Already sizable flocks of geese were in the air and I was concerned that I’d missed most of them. But then as the sun rose higher gargantuan flocks started to pass overhead and it was a truly incredible sight!

I don’t know how many thousands of geese were there but at the end of the day I went back to the same place to see them return. It was getting dark and all was still, so, as in the morning, I thought I’d missed them. And then they appeared, quite suddenly in their tens of thousands. I tried to estimate the numbers by counting small numbers of each wave and multiplying up, and I estimated there were between 30-40,000 birds returning.

Skeins within skeins, I like this formation

And if you’ve ever spent any time near geese you’ll know that they’re not afraid to announce their presence, so the other thing that I hadn’t expected, but maybe I should have done, was the noise. It was a magnificent cacophony! And not just the squawking, but the sound of them flying when they came over lower to the ground.

These birds breed in the summer up in the Arctic, in Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen and then head south to the relatively balmy conditions of the UK coast in winter (!).

Another skein of pink footed geese passing low overhead

It’s unknown why geese fly in skeins, but it’s thought to provide an aerodynamic advantage to the ones behind as they slipstream in turbulent air generated by the bird in front. Which makes me wonder if they constantly switch the pacemaker or if the biggest and strongest bird is always the one at the front.

I estimated there were around 500 birds in this huge flock, but even that was a tiny proportion of the total

To see this meant getting up and out at 4am which is never my favourite thing to do, and it was ferociously cold, but it was worth it to see such a unique spectacle. And as the sun rose and it got lighter, it soon became apparent that the geese weren’t the only seabirds in the area:

A shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach past a lone dunlin in the foreground

Small flocks of shelduck and dunlin were mingling and feeding close in to the shore

The Wash is now not the only significant area of coastal mudflat in East Anglia. In order to attempt to mitigate some of the anticipated ravages of climate change, flood defences protecting areas of farmland on the coast further south in Essex have been deliberately breached. This has allowed the land to be reclaimed by the sea and to regenerate the tidal mudflats that were there before humans originally interfered. The new habitat  was created with the millions of tons of earth removed the ground under London in order to build the Crossrail tube train tunnels. And as soon as this happened the wildlife started to recolonise, and even though it is still fairly barren in comparison to established habitat, I hope that in the near future it will also provide refuge to hundreds of thousands more birds, and lots of other wildlife too.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But more of dunlin in the next post, and plenty more species of sea birds both at Snettisham and after that at the RSPB coastal reserve at Titchwell.

Morecambe Bay

Since my posting rate plummeted a couple of years ago, due mainly to the increased pressure of work, I’ve still been out and about accumulating a lot of photographs so now I’m going to try to get some of them into posts.

In early spring 2014 I found myself at Morecambe bay in Lancashire which is famous for its vast tidal mudflats that constitute a well stocked larder for a multitude of seabirds, and maximum danger for the unwary beach walker. The Irish Sea tides race in and swirl about at incredible speed and there are areas of treacherous quicksand too.

A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand)

The bay is so enormous that when the tide’s out it’s not always easy to see much wildlife, but by the pier in front of the Midland Hotel there were shelduck, curlew and oystercatchers and I also caught a tantalising glimpse of a distant red breasted merganser.

A curlew on full power for take off (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storpsove)

As I didn’t have my camera with me and I’d never succeeded in getting a picture of a merganser, I returned to the same spot very early the following morning with the relevant optics. It was the end of February and the weather was filthier than a Springbok in a ruck (which as any rugby fan will know is as dirty as it gets!) –  it was freezing cold and blowing a gale, so I sat on the ground with my back to the wind, and waited.

Despite what I said earlier, there were a good number of birds in the vicinity including curlew, shelduck, redshank and this oystercatcher who landed right in front of me and every so often he popped up into view as he mined the crevices in the rock for his breakfast.

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) landed close by on the rocky shoreline

And I didn’t have to wait too long before not one, but a pair, of red breasted merganser appeared in the water just 20 or so metres away, which justified getting out early and braving the elements:

Male (dark headed) and female (brown headed) red breasted merganser (Mergus serrator, Dansk: toppet skallesluger)

I think these are spectacular birds. They are generally resident breeders on the west coast of England and winter visitors on the east, so these were probably residents. They are one of two species of saw-toothed ducks, the other one being the goosander, which are resident in the UK. They have serrated beaks which they need to grasp their fishy prey which they can catch by chasing them under water. According to the BTO there are 2200 pairs in the UK in the summer and their conservation status in the UK is green suggesting the population is stable at least in this part of the world. The only other time I’ve seen a merganser was a month ago down on the south coast at Keyhaven, so they’re an uncommon but splendid sight!

Fenland falcon

A few Saturdays ago in January I made a trip to Burwell Fen, which is separated from Wicken Fen by the Burwell Lode. The whole area is a great place to see birds of prey in winter, and it’s not unusual to see buzzard, marsh harrier, short eared owl, barn owl, sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon, occasionally hen harrier and in the summer hobby. And it’s also not unusual to see 4 or 5 species in one visit. On this trip I saw marsh harrier, buzzard, short eared owl and sparrowhawk. And there were kestrels hovering over the fenland the whole time I was there.

A male kestrel (Falco tinnuculus, Dansk: tårnfalk)

Kestrels are renowned for their ability to seemingly hover. In fact they’re flying into the wind at the same speed as the wind is moving, so I guess it’s not technically a hover, but either way it’s impressive to watch. Incidentally, there were strong winds in my part of the world last weekend and I saw a buzzard which looked to be doing a reasonable impersonation of a kestrel… which gives you a good idea of how strong the wind was!

I’ve seen kestrels described as the ‘motorway falcon‘ because many sightings are of them hovering above roadside verges. This has created the impression that kestrels are very common and that the countryside between the roads must be full of them. But alas, as with most things, that’s not so. It’s not the presence of other raptors which has forced them to the roadside but the large swathes of agricultural devastation which has depleted habitat and rendered the farmland barren as a source of food for them. Consequently, they’re nowhere near as common as they may seem.


This male kestrel was perched on top of a telegraph pole and I’d been keeping an eye on him for several minutes to see what he might do. It was a beautiful sunny morning with good light for some photograsphs if I could get myself, the sun and the subject all in the right place relative to each other.


And after a few minutes the kestrel took off from his post, looped around and did a low altitude, high speed fly past. At his closest he was no more than  ten metres or so away and less than a metre above the ground, like he was posing for his picture! He executed his fly past and then swooped up higher and zoomed off over the fen on a hunting trip.


It was a remarkable twenty seconds and I don’t know why he looped past so close to where I was. It almost looked as though he was checking me out, and in the last picture he was definitely looking in my direction. It made my morning too, kestrels are spectacular and beautiful highly specialised predators, and it’s rare to see one in the air so close.

Ouse Fen

First things first, a very happy new year to you all. I hope 2016 brings you peace and prosperity. Heading back into the depths of last year I spent a very cold morning at the end of November exploring Ouse Fen which is a great place for songbirds and water birds.

RSPB Ouse Fen is another collection of exhausted gravel  pits which have created a series of lakes and been turned into a nature reserve. It’s part of ongoing extraction so new habitat is being created all the time and will all eventually become nature reserve, creating an enormous network of varied habitat. It’s located between Needingworth and Bluntisham near St Ives in Cambridgeshire.

The entrance onto the reserve is via a pathway across a bleak field leading to a sheltered path that’s lined with established hedges, and the hedges are always full of songbirds. On this trip it was as busy as ever and within a few metres I spotted a goldcrest just a few feet away and within a few seconds there were four of them. In my experience goldcrest are devilish difficult to get good photographs of, because like wrens, they are tiny and they flit around at high speed in the undergrowth. But this time I ramped up the ISO to 1000 which allowed a reasonable shutter speed of 1/320 s and got lucky:

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge)

The Danish name translates as ‘bird king‘ I guess from his splendid golden crown, and it’s the smallest breeding bird in the UK, weighing in at 5-6g.

Despite its diminutive stature it’s conservation status is green and more than half a million territories were recorded in the UK in 2009. Hopefully it isn’t suffering too badly with climate change…

Another bird which was in good numbers on this trip was the bullfinch. When I was a kid it wasn’t too unusual to see bullfinch on the feeders in the garden. But after the 1970’s their numbers plummeted such that it was years before I saw one at all. But nowadays I see them fairly frequently in the countryside (never in the garden though) and they had 190,000 territories in 2009 in the UK, so they can’t be doing too badly and their conservation status is amber.

The female is striking but has fairly drab colours in the winter:

Bullfinch female (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

And the male is splendid even in winter with his peachy orange breast, black cap, grey back and white rump:

The bullfinch is a chunky finch with a beak to match which they use for cracking the seeds or stones from small fruit like cherries. They also eat shoots and consequently part of the reason for their downfall in the 1980’s was a result of falling foul of the fruit farmers. I love to see them and because of the relative scarcity of sightings and their skittish nature I’ve been waiting a long time to get a half decent photograph of one. And on this occasion I managed to get pictures of the male and the female. So I felt particularly smug on the way home!

Goldfinches harvesting seeds from teasel heads (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Ouse Fen is known for the prevalence of finches including redpoll, linnet and goldfinch all of which I’ve seen there before but this time it was only goldfinch that were on parade so I’ll try to get some redpoll and linnet pictures next time.

The indomitable wren

Even though my regular finches had been conspicuous by their absence in the garden one of my favourite birds, and one of the tiniest, was often flitting around the flower pots hunting insects:

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The word ‘troglodyte‘ has derogatory connotations so I wondered why the taxonomic name for the wren uses it twice, and apparently it originates from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’. Even though the BTO website lists its habitat as woodland and undergrowth as it’s an insectivore I guess that could make sense in some countries, so I guess it may depend on the nationality of the scientist who named it.

Wrens are tiny, weighing on average 10g and with a 15cm wingspan. They’re resident in the UK and I think it’s remarkable that such a tiny creature can survive a long cold British winter. A real testament to the effectiveness of feathers as insulators. And another amazing thing about wrens is their voices, they have incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird, if you’d like to hear it click here: Eurasian wren song.

Yet another remarkable fact about the humble wren is that it’s the most numerous songbird in the UK with 7.7 million territories. And as they’re not always easy to see as they flit around the undergrowth I was surprised by that statistic until I learnt to recognise the song. After that I realised they are everywhere!

This little chap appeared one day in February this year on a bug hunt in the flower pots, he posed right outside the window and let me snap a series of portraits. Wrens have been regular visitors through this year and I’ve deliberately avoided tidying the garden hoping they continue to treat it as home.