Tag Archives: climate change

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.

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COP21 – is 2015 the start of something big?

This is the first time I’ve posted about a news story, but I’m really happy about this one:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35084374

The agreement which has just been reached at the COP21 climate conference in  Paris, to curb carbon emissions and head off the more dangerous ramifications of climate change, is the most important one so far this century. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not perfect. But it puts us in a good place to push on and make it work.

It’s the start of a very long and difficult process but the consequences of failure are unthinkable. But now 195 countries have agreed a framework to try to achieve some level of climate stability as a result of human activities, so the initial steps have been made.  Hats off to the French for driving it and all the other negotiators for working to reach such a vital agreement.

Comma

I hope 2015 is the start of something big and that the Paris Agreement will ultimately help to ensure the survival of lots of species like this one!

The glimmer got a little brighter

Following on from my post from yesterday, in todays news on the BBC News website:

UN climate summit: China pledges emissions action

These are the two countries which really need to take big action on emissions and it looks as though they may be serious.

Let us all hope so!

A glimmer of hope

Yesterday on the BBC News website there was an article entitled:

‘Rockefellers to switch investments to ‘clean energy”

I think this one of the best pieces of news I’ve heard for a very long time and that it may signify that people who’s opinions and actions can influence government policy are finally taking steps to curb what has the potential to be the greatest global disaster in modern times.

The Rockefeller family, who made their vast fortune from trading in fossil fuels, have announced, on the eve of the next climate summit, that they are to divest themselves of all their investments in fossil fuels and reinvest them renewable energy!

If this is as true as it appears then huge respect to them and I hope that many other businesses, banks, investment houses etc. follow suit and send a very powerful message to the UK, US and all other governments who are in thrall to the fossil fuel industry that there are other ways to fuel the world that don’t need to involve wrecking it.

I don’t really have any appropriate images to illustrate this post so I thought a singing whitethroat was as good as anything.

Down on the farm in July

Summer was late arriving in  2013. The weather was cold and wintry up until June and that had a profound effect on the wildlife. Breeding seasons were knocked out of kilter by it, and the numbers of many species have suffered as a result. But it seemed that once summer did arrive the wildlife got very busy very quickly to make up for lost time.

The skyline on my regular dog walking route is dominated by a magnificent poplar tree which makes a wonderful sound when the wind blows. It’s right on the pathway where many walkers pass every day and there is a bench underneath it which folk sit on occasionally. But despite all the human activity in such close proximity a pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were brave enough to build a nest in it about 20-25 feet up.

Kestrel fledgling taking it easy and apparently unfazed by me pointing a telephoto lens at it

I posted about the adults taking up residence in the poplar in August last year. Their decision to nest in this exposed location paid off in spades as the kestrel pair fledged three youngsters who could be seen in around the poplar into the later months of 2013.

And a pair of the fledglings sheltering in the poplar

I made a point of not lingering too long around the poplar to avoid disturbing the birds, but because of the constant human presence there I think they were relaxed about me taking pictures as long as I didn’t try to stay too close for too long.

All the pictures in this post were taken on one summers evening stroll in July, and as well as the kestrels there was lots of other wildlife.

Also breeding in the field adjacent to the poplar tree were numerous skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get photographs of skylarks for a long time but on this particular evening this one perched on top of a low bush and sang for England. I called the dog to heel and using an adjacent bramble as a shield I crawled as close as I could, which was less than 10m in the end, and poking my lens though the bramble I finally got some pictures:

A singing skylark lit by the low, late evening sun

The resident corn buntings (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke ) usually vacate the fields around Histon with the harvest at the beginning of August, but in 2013 they stayed much later. I don’t know if that was coincidence, because there was still cover in one of the fields, or if it was a result of the enforced delay in the breeding cycle due to the cold spring weather. But they were here in much greater numbers and much later in the year than normal. According to the British Trust for Ornithology the corn bunting is so sedentary that individulas only 30km apart sing in different dialects, but I’d love to know how that was discovered.

Corn bunting on a regular perch in the late evening sunshine

Corn bunting are red listed in the UK due to rapid decline in numbers as a result of habitat destruction for agriculture. Despite that, and decreasing numbers in Central Europe for the same reason, it’s not considered under threat as a species in mainland Europe… yet.

Another songbird which is also red listed in the UK, also as result of rapidly declining numbers, is the yellowhammer (emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv).

Male yellowhammer with his striking yellow head plumage

The yellowhammer has suffered catastrophic decline in numbers over the last few decades and over the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed the numbers in my locality seem to be on the wane too. I think it hasn’t been helped here by the farmer who recently took a flail to all the hedgerows and a lot of the drainage ditches and stripped most of the winter cover and food away. I just don’t see the sense it that – it wasn’t impinging on the crops or impeding access to farm machinery. Seems completely pointless to me.

Yellowhammer and corn bunting are both species of bunting and prefer arable farmland, but due to the intensive nature of arable agriculture and the resulting lack of seed, either natural or crop, both species are under dire threat in the UK. I’ve seen evidence to show that rates of decline can be slowed by changes in farmland management such as set aside or organic cropping, but I think attempts to conserve need to be applied in more holistic fashion to ensure survival of the wildlife.

One species which appeared to be abundant last summer was the hare. They’ve been ever present on any summers evening stroll across the fields in 2013. And I’m still seeing them through the winter too.

And as I headed home there was a spectacular sunset:

…one of many through the summer of last year.

Less predictable ramifications of global warming

This all seems a mite anachronistic now, but at the end of March when things appeared to be warming up and becoming rather more in keeping with the calendar this happened:

Snow capped post box at the front of my garden on March 23rd!

I often here folk grumbling that global warming often doesn’t feel that way, and, of course, the reason for that is that the average global temperatures are rising which can result in higher highs, but also lower lows, as more heat energy is sequestered in the atmosphere and the oceans causing altered patterns and much greater unpredictability. ‘Climate change‘ therefore seems the more accurate description.

From the point of view of the UK, our weather system is complicated because we are at the edge competing systems, from the south and west Atlantic, east from Europe and north from the Arctic. A major determinant of which of these systems dominates is the jet stream. This is a ribbon of fast flowing air, around 100mph (160kph), formed at the barrier between cold arctic air and warmer mid-latitude air, around 6-6.5miles (11000m) up, and moving from west to east. It’s position can wobble northwards and southwards and in the winter it tends to be south of the UK so we are dominated by cold polar air and in the summer it migrates further north so warmer conditions can predominate. But due to climatic variability in recent years the position of the jest stream has not conformed to tradition and has remained much further south so our summer weather has been much colder and wetter in the last few years.

Hence snow at the end of march…

A male great tit, Parus major, wondering what’s going on!

The unseasonal weather over the last few years has caused real problems for wildlife. Numbers of bees and butterflies have been down and hibernating creatures such as hedgehogs can struggle to find food when they eventually arise from the winter slumber.

A male blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, nibbling on frozen fatballs

The blackcap pair which arrived in my garden in January made their last appearance during the March snow and then disappeared. I think they must have been overwintering here in the UK and when the really cold weather finally ended they headed back on their long flight to central Europe in time for the breeding season.

We’re now at the end of June and the jet stream has moved north allowing high pressure systems to move in from the Atlantic to the west and bring some warm weather. Long may it last!

The birds and the bees

Insects have been hit hard by climatic aberrations in recent years and on my meanderings around the Cambridgeshire countryside this year numbers of bees and butterflies sightings have been down compared to previous years. It’s now the middle of June and I saw the first dragons of the year today; two damselflies. I also read this week in ‘The Guardian‘ newspaper that a third of managed honeybee colonies in the USA were wiped out in 2012. This article makes very sobering reading. And it’s a similar story in Europe, but in Europe neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been implicated in colony collapse disorder, have been banned for two years to evaluate their effect on honeybees. My concern is that the onslaught on the bees is complicated and removing one variable may not show a significant effect in the limited two year duration of the ban. But I hope it does!

Early last month the sun finally broke through and gave us some insect friendly weather and it was remarkable how quickly the microfauna emerged.

Beefly – Bombylius major

Beeflies are found over large parts of the globe and can be seen hovering in sunny glades from the springtime. The narwhal of the Dipteran world, the spike looks fearsome but is only used to probe flowers for nectar, there is  no sting. Beeflies procreate by flicking their eggs into the entrance to the burrows of wasps and bees where the larvae feed on the grubs of the occupants.

A pair of hoverflies doing their best to rectify the decline in the insect population

I think these hoverflies are ‘Eristalis pertinax’ but I’m not certain. It was good to see them though, especially as they were taking their biological responsibilities so seriously.
Addendum: on the subject of climatic aberration mentioned at the top of this post I just found and read with increasing concern this link:

http://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/human-climate-change-is-wrecking-the-jet-stream-uk-met-office-calls-emergency-meeting/

which my blogging buddy Sam posted on her excellent WP blog ‘Science on the Land‘. This provides a chilling insight (in every sense) into why the weather in the northern hemisphere is behaving the way it is. And it doesn’t look as though it’s going to get any better folks.

Serendipity II – The charismatic cuckoo

I don’t recall having seen a cuckoo before, even though I’ve heard their unique call many times. But on my sojourn over to Wicken Fen a couple of weeks ago there were lots of them. ‘Lots‘ is a relative term because cuckoos are becoming increasingly scarce, their conservation status is red due to recent declines in the breeding population and in 2000 there were 9.6-19000 breeding pairs in the UK. But on this trip we heard and saw at least 5 and possibly several  more.

Just before I spotted the first cuckoo I glanced across the lake and this was the view:


A pair of shoveler in the foreground, a little egret behind and a roe deer just beyond the reeds

I really like this picture because of the colours of the reeds and the water in the evening sunshine, but also because it contains three interesting species. Apart from rabbits, any wild mammal is exciting to see in this country, so the roe deer was a pleasing encounter. The little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) is a member of the heron family which is now resident in the UK, presumably as a result of climate change. I associate them with warmer places because that’s where I saw them before 2000, but nowadays they’re not particularly uncommon here. And in the forefround are two shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand) which are migrant visitors to the UK, but this pair obviously liked it enough to linger and are still here in the middle of May, long after they would normally have left.

And then there were the cuckoos:


A pair of cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Dansk: gøg

The cuckoo is an incredible bird and until very recently it was poorly understood. Last year the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) managed to tag five male cuckoos with tiny satellite tracking devices and found out that they headed to the tropical sub-Saharan rainforests of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cuckoo arrives back in England from Africa in late March or April and departs in July or August. It leaves earlier than other species because its parasitic breeding strategy removes the need for chick rearing. That means the cuckoo spends a minimum of 8 months a year in Africa so to call it a British bird is, I suppose, less than accurate, even though it breeds here.


The classic hanging wings pose which I always associate with the cuckoo

The tagged birds were all fitted with solar powered devices which transmit location data once every 48hr. The tracking data revealed that all five birds headed south over France and across the Mediterranean before heading down across Africa to Cameroon and DRC. All five made it. One of the birds died in Cameroon and two more died on the way back, but two of the five made it back to East Anglia this year. I believe the BTO plan to tag more birds including females and I’m very keen to see the results of that experiment.

The cuckoo is an iconic bird in the UK and it’s call is very distinctive. The call is generally recognised as a signal that Spring has arrived and there are local traditions around the UK based on the cuckoo. It is said in Worcestershire that the cuckoo is never heard before Tenbury Fair on April 21st or after Pershore Fair on June 26th. The song actually changes in June from the characteristic ‘cuck-coo‘ song to a shortened ‘cuck‘, and there is a rhyme about this:

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July far far I fly
In August away I must

My Dad remembers a similar rhyme he used to sing when he was a kid in the 1940’s which was essentially the same but with some local Northamptonshire words substituted in.

I’m not quite sure what these two were doing but they were acting as a pair, and every minute or two one of them would dive off into the adjacent reedbeds to return a minute or so later. As I mentioned above, cuckoos are parasites and they could have been looking for nests to parasitise. There breeding strategy is unique, at least as far as I know. They lay their eggs in the nests of one of three other small songbird species: the reed warbler, the meadow pippit and the dunnock. All of these are the size of a sparrow (ish) so are much smaller than the cuckoo which is dove-sized, which I guess guarantees that the cuckoo chick will be much bigger than its ‘siblings’ and it won’t be threatened. The cuckoo chick then ejects the other chicks from the nest to die and the parents assume it is one of their own and feed it until it fledges. I’ve seen film of a cuckoo chick turfing out the other chicks and it’s a remarkable process, and not particularly pleasant to watch!

Despite their unsavoury procreation habits they are spectacular and charismatic birds and I hope the BTO research can find ways to guarantee their continued return here to brighten up the Spring and Summer.

Blakes Wood

In my last post I visited Danbury Common in Essex. After getting over the disappointment of not seeeing snakes we headed to Blakes Wood which is another National Trust site situated on the opposite side of Danbury to the Common. It’s an area of ancient woodland, predominantly hornbeam and sweet chestnut under which the ground was covered in withered chestnut husks emptied of their contents long ago by squirrels or mice, and in the springtime wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) carpet the forest floor.

Bluebells have been voted Britains favourite flower and they normally reach their flowering peak in mid May.


Bluebells are delightful flowers when there is only one plant, but when they stretch across a forest floor as far as the eye can see they’re absolutely magical. I didn’t expect to see any at the weekend, it still being March, but they are starting to flower already.

The Natural History Museum is conducting a survey of bluebell flowering times as a means of monitoring climate change. A quick glance at the data is starting to get alarming, the earliest flowering time seems to be getting earlier, from first flowerings in Essex in May in 2010, moving to the middle of March in 2012, in just three years since the study commenced. I don’t know what the long term ramifications of climate change will be for our native flora and fauna, we’ll have to wait and see but I hope the bluebell woods survive.


A single wood anemone protruding through the bluebell leaves

The wood anemones are as beautiful as the bluebells even if they don’t have the same level of ‘Wow‘ factor. The forest at Blakes Wood was liberally bespattered with carpets of wood anemones and I got down in the undergrowth to try to fill the frame with flowers:

I was keen to capture a shot with both anemones and bluebells in the same frame and that turned out to be tricky because of the sparsity of the bluebells, but I eventually found this one:


Spanish bluebell bulbs have been sold in garden centres but they are a different species, Hyacinthoides hispanica, to our UK bluebells. Flytipping of garden waste has resulted in the Spanish variety getting into our woods and cross breeding with the native species. This is a real problem because it is anticipated the hybrids may eventually take over from the natives, but I console myself that the invaders and hybrids are lovely to look at too. I can’t wait to visit the woods again in May when the bluebells are in full bloom, and when I do I’ll share the results with you.

Roesels bush cricket

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at my dining table gazing out the window when I spotted this silhouette throught the blind:

So I snapped a picture and I really like the detail through the blind. It’s clearly a cricket, and a male (it lacks the long pointed ovipositor of the female which would be protruding from the back end) and its very long, very fine antennae are visible too.

So I popped around the other side of the blind to take a proper photograph, which unfortunately had to be through the window:


The markings on this creature suggest he’s a Roesels Bush Cricket

I went on to do some research on the Roesels bush cricket, Metrioptera roeseli, and it turns out it’s quite an interesting creature. It is a European species, named after the German artist and entomologist August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof, which found its way to England in the late 19th century where it established a toe hold in the far south east, in Kent and Sussex, where it remained for several decades. In the last few decades, possibly assisted by climate change, it has spread over much of south east England and the Midlands.

The migration of this species may have been assisted by the road network which could provide conduits for travelling further afield. There are two forms of this insect, the macropterous or long winged form, and a short winged form. It is reasonable to imagine that the long winged cricket would migrate further and faster, but even though Cambridgeshire appears to be towards the northern periphery of their range this short winged individual has arrived here too.

Roesels bush cricket is distinguished from all other bush crickets by the yellow/green edge to the hard cover of the thorax – the ‘pronotum‘ – and the light spots immediately behind the pronotum. One other similar species, the bog bush cricket, also has a light edge to its pronotum but it doesn’t extend all the way round as it does with Roesels bush cricket.

I’d never heard of Roesels bush cricket before I started trying to identify this individual, and then a few days later I was rooting around in the undergrowth of a field of scrub, also here in Histon, and I spotted a creature which I thought was a very green grasshopper. I managed to fire off a couple of photographs and when I uploaded the images it turned out to be a cricket not a grasshopper:


The macropterous form of Roesels bush cricket

And it was another male Roesels bush cricket but he clearly has the long wings of the macropterous form which extend well beyond his abdomen. So it appears I’ve found both forms of this colourful creature within a week. It’s amazing what can be found by poking around in the long grass!