Saturday, 17 October 2015

RSPB Bempton Cliffs

Another belated catch-up post, this time from a visit in mid-August to the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve in the East Riding of Yorkshire. During the summer months the vast chalk cliffs are home to some quarter of a million seabirds. Best known for their large Northern Gannet colonies, the cliffs are one of only 2 mainland sites where these birds breed in the UK, (most breeding sites are on islands such as St Kilda and Bass Rock where the adults and their chicks are safe from most predators). Other seabirds such as some species of auk (which includes Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills) also nest on these cliffs, but their breeding season finishes earlier in the year, so by the time of my visit it was no surprise to not see any of them this time.

Despite a perfect forecast and my best planning efforts, clouds quickly moved in from the sea and refused to move on, leaving a situation of grey which typified my experience of August entirely! Regardless, the cliffs provide a spectacular setting and the Gannets with their 2 metre wingspan cannot fail to impress. They effortlessly navigate the wind and the waves, and thrive in their North Sea home. The birds nest in large colonies but manage to keep a sufficient distance from their neighbours so as to largely avoid skirmishes. (That said, I watched as two neighbouring adults from different nests snapped beaks at one another, though avoided any serious altercation.)

Adult Northern Gannet - showing off that 2 metre wingspan

By this stage in the season, many of the young birds had fledged and could be seen on the wing and floating in groups in the sea. Once they leave the 'nest' (which is little more than a space on the cliff ledge) there is no going back and juveniles then tend to group together in the sea below. Many others youngsters that remained were very close to fledging. Juveniles exercised their wings in readiness for that first, most critical flight. Gannets lay just one egg and I watched as parents stood by patiently as their single youngster practiced, long young wings flapping exceedingly closely to patient adult faces. Other youngsters wore the slightly comical attire of part dark juvenile feathers, part fluffy white down.

Practicing in readiness for that first critical flight from the cliff face

Part of a pair's courtship ritual
They always strike me as very affectionate birds, with the adults spending much time preening each other and their offspring, as well as renewing and reaffirming their close bonds with their partner (with whom they pair for life) with their elaborate courtship displays. Am I guilty of anthropomorphism? Perhaps... though I have no doubt that we have far more in common with our fellow species than is perhaps comfortable, or even convenient to admit, given how our species is capable of treating others. 

Gannets have several behaviours which I find fascinating to watch, one of which is 'sky pointing'. A bird which is about to depart from its nest, points deliberately skyward for several seconds before stepping slightly away from the nest, stretching out its vast wings, and then leaving the cliff face. It looks a little dramatic, (reminding me slightly of a person about to perform a swan dive) but with their 2 metre wingspan and nesting in densely packed colonies, you can see why this advance visual warning of their departure is beneficial to them as well as the surrounding birds!

'Sky pointing' and just about to depart

Mutual preening
A behaviour I hadn't seen previously here, was a male (I presume), trying to gift his partner a small stone. It had to be said though that despite his best efforts she looked decidedly unimpressed with his offering!

Gannet with what he thought would make a lovely gift - the recipient however was less impressed!

Other birds still present at the cliff face were the distinctive looking Fulmars with their stiff-winged flight and tube noses, and pretty Kittiwake gulls, though both of these in far smaller numbers than the resident Gannets. 

Closer to the visitor centre it was lovely to see a flock of Tree Sparrows in the vicinity of some bird feeders. Tree Sparrows are yet another bird which has suffered a severe decline in numbers and as such is currently a red-listed species.  Closer to home it's very rarely that I have seen them, though it is their chirruping call that often signals their presence prior to seeing them, the sound being similar to a House Sparrow yet sufficiently different to easily tell them apart.

Tree Sparrow

It has to be said that on this occasion I was paying more attention to the birds than the wildflowers or insects (though the latter seemed pretty thin on the ground, not surprising on this cool grey day!) however one tall and pretty wildflower I noticed standing out in the grassland I later identified as Chicory, (not one I've noticed on my more local wanderings). I'm sure the sun does sometimes shine at Bempton, but I think I will just have to keep returning to see sunlit Gannets for myself! :)

Wild Chicory

Monday, 12 October 2015

Tatton Park Red deer rut

October is the month when the annual Red deer rutting season is upon us. The rut (or breeding season) has started to get underway in earnest in the past week or so. I spent some time yesterday at Tatton Park, in Knutsford, Cheshire with the local RSPB 'Explorers' group with the hope of seeing the deer rut on a ranger-led walk which was an outing arranged for the group's 30th birthday celebrations. Tatton Park is home to managed herds of both Red and Fallow deer, numbering several hundred individuals. It wasn't far into the walk before we spotted one or two deer in the distance, then as we moved further through the park, large herds were seen, and at much closer range... 

The rut itself takes place throughout the autumn, generally peaking in the first half of October when Red deer males compete with each other to win the right to mate with a 'harem' of females. Foals are then born the following year, between mid-May and mid-July after an 8 month gestation period. Asserting and ascertaining dominance by the males is achieved mostly by sheer size, and intimidation through roaring and posturing as well as 'parallel walking' - when males will walk uneasily in parallel with one another to size each other up. Only when two males are closely matched and dominance cannot be determined by any other means will they resort to the fights for which ruts are famed.

The dominant male amidst some of his 'harem'
Apart from a few seconds' worth of interlocking antlers, which looked to be no more than a tame practice bout between two younger males, we didn't witness any fighting, however we were lucky to hear plenty of 'roaring', and it was quite obvious which was the most dominant male in the large herd we were watching from his stance in the centre of a large group of hinds, and his posturing which would quickly deter other males from coming too close. 

As well as their position amongst the herd and large size, the dominant males also tend to be recognisable as the ones with the largest antlers with the most 'points'. A male Red deer in his prime can have up to 16 points - 8 per antler. (Some might refer to him as a 'Monarch' because of the number of points (also called tines) of his antlers. Those with 12 points are sometimes referred to as a Royal stag, others with 14 points as an Imperial stag. The females of the species don't have antlers at all.)

The dominant male asserted his authority 'roaring' in the midst of 'his' large group of hinds. He was also the most muddied - dominant males will wallow in their own urine in a behaviour which - because of the pheromones it contains - helps to bring the hinds into oestrus. Some younger males stood within this group and seemed to be largely tolerated or ignored, though would be given gentle warnings (such as a half-hearted charge) by the large male if he felt they had overstepped an unwritten mark.

Reminding the other males who's boss!

Other large males tended to stay on the periphery of the herd. Perhaps they would take their chances with the females when the dominant male's back was turned, maybe their turn in the top spot would come in following years.     

Remaining on the sidelines - a male keeps to the periphery of the herd

Another large stag, which being on the outskirts of the herd was obviously less dominant, (but was certainly no small animal and had an impressive set of 10 point antlers), walked steadily towards and then closely past us. It was a treat to be in a prime position to admire this majestic animal as well as to watch and hear him 'roar' at close quarters. We did make sure to let him pass without [us] approaching any closer to him, knowing that their raging hormones can make the males quite temperamental during the rutting season! Watching the animals' actions and interactions during the rut was a really inspiring way to spend a few hours on a beautiful and sunny autumn day.

On the approach - this male walked towards and then straight past us
A close and loud encounter!

Monday, 5 October 2015

In search of dragons....

Well, October it may well be, but with daytime temperatures recently reaching a balmy 17/18C, any insects that remain on the wing have been making hay while the sun shines. I arranged to take an afternoon off work and headed over to a local Cheshire Wildlife Trust reserve - Danes Moss near Macclesfield. The reserve comprises sizeable areas of lowland raised bog - a rare and threatened habitat in the UK, as well as areas of woodland and heathland. The boggy habitat type suits many species of insect perfectly, with 11 species of damselfly and dragonfly having been recorded on the reserve, as well as 19 species of butterfly.

Some species of dragonfly can be seen in their adult stage as late as October, so armed with my trusty camera and macro lens combo, sunshine and a clear blue sky I was hopeful for what I might find.

Male Southern Hawker at rest

My wanderings got off to a great start when one of the first dragonflies to be seen was a Southern Hawker - this  turned out to be the species that was to dominate this visit. I canot help but be impressed by these large insects - with a body length of 7cms and a wingspan of around 10cms, they are one of our largest dragonflies. It's incredible to think that their basic body design has remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years - fossils of their ancestors date back to over 300 million years ago, and some such as species of Meganeuropsis had wingspans of up to 71 cms - about the same as a female Sparrowhawk! The hawker that had been flying about around me I was lucky to see land amongst a stand of long grass next to the path, but no sooner than he had alighted, he was up and off again, but soon settled again, this time choosing in a tree, just about at head height. There he stayed and was the model 'subject'. I took several photos and then left him be, not that he had appeared remotely concerned by my presence.

Moving closer to the water's edge I could see another 4 or 5 hawkers, all Southern as far as I could tell. I had inadvertently strayed onto the patch of one particularly inquisitive male who made numerous fly-pasts, and briefly hovered to get a better look at this trespasser. This offered another opportunity for a challenge I'd set myself earlier in the year of trying to photograph insects in flight. Fun and frustrating in equal measure I persevered and with a combination of manual focus and luck, managed a couple of photos I was quite pleased with. (Room for improvement for sure, but this was the most success I've had so far with flying dragonflies!)

Male Southern Hawker in flight
And again (the same individual as above)

A lovely surprise was to notice a female Southern Hawker ovipositing in a peaty bank 2/3 feet up from the water's edge. I have seen dragonflies of other species laying eggs into the water, or on vegetation in the water, generally in tandem (such as species of damselfly and darter), but with Southern Hawkers, the female lays on her own, and I was surprised to see her laying her eggs a relative distance from the water (this isn't something I was aware they did though apparently it isn't uncommon for Southern Hawkers to do so). Seemingly oblivious to my presence I watched as she got on with the important business of laying her eggs (and took a quick camera video also).

Female Southern Hawker ovipositing

The large hawkers are undoubtedly impressive, but the reserve is also home to many smaller species of dragonfly. At this time of year many species have already had their time in their brief adult lives and their DNA lives on in unseen eggs and larvae. Two species of darter though were still ubiquitous - Common and Black Darters, the latter being our smallest species of dragonfly in the UK. Both of these beautiful dragonflies allow a close approach, indeed if you hang around in their territory long enough they are quite likely to treat you as part of the furniture!

Sharing a picnic table with a Common Darter (female)
Side view (the same individual as above)
Male Black Darter

Female Black Darter (taken in September)

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Burton Mere wetlands

A sunny day and a with a few hours to spare last weekend I headed across to the other side of Cheshire and the wonderful RSPB reserve Burton Mere wetlands once again. To those who visit regularly, there probably wasn't a huge amount 'going on' in terms of the birds about there, however there are several species there that I rarely see closer to home so it's always a pleasure to visit.

One of the first birds seen (as well as the usual geese and rails close to the visitor centre) was a female Teal only a few metres away. Admittedly I find some female ducks can be quite tricky to identify, but with their tiny size and bright green patch of iridescent secondary feathers (the 'speculum'), female Teals are quite distinctive. In the background flocks of Lapwings took flight and swirled around in the distance.

Female Teal

On previous visits I hadn't walked across as far as the Inner Marsh Farm hide, so on this visit finally I did, and was delighted to see two Snipe relatively close to the hide (well the closest I've seen them at least!). Even at this distance (maybe 20 metres or so) with their perfect camouflage, whilst still, these small wading birds were all but indistinguishable from their surroundings.  

Spot the Snipe...!

Wandering back along the walkways I changed over to a macro lens to try to photograph some of the many dragonflies I had seen which were making the most of this unseasonable burst of warmth and sunshine. Brown hawkers were abundant but I couldn't get close enough to any to photograph them, however posing nicely on the rails of the walkway were several Common darters. I find darters generally quite obliging to photograph - if approached carefully it's possible to really get up close and personal with them, and even if they do take flight, they will often return shortly afterwards to their favoured perch. 

Male Common Darter
I noticed a movement in the long grass only a few metres from the boardwalk. Something was moving low and fast. I had no idea what it was though was expecting a young rabbit perhaps to appear. I was amazed to see not a rabbit at all, but a Stoat popping its head up to look over the top of the grass. Back down and along another metre or two and up it popped again. I'd readied myself this time and a macro lens would have to do - I was really pleased to get a photo of this small and quick mustelid (though I did wish I hadn't changed from my zoom lens!!!!). Lenses were promptly changed (again...) in readiness, but I didn't see the Stoat again, it was gone as fast at it had appeared. (Weasels and Stoats are very similar, I didn't see the animal's tail which would have confirmed my ID - Stoats have a black-tipped tail, however from the slightly larger size, I'm reasonably confident this is a Stoat.)

Stoat surprise!
Heading steadily back towards the visitor centre I stopped for a while at a screen by a reedbed, there weren't many birds that I could see there other than Coots in the distance, but there was one tiny little busy bird diving at the edges of the reeds. A closer look revealed that this was a Little Grebe (Dabchick). The bird was making short dives and appearing back at the surface not far away from where it started (unlike larger grebes where you have no idea where they are going to pop up again!). S/he stayed very close in to the reeds so the handful of us taking the grebe's photo resigned ourselves to the fact that any photos were going to be very much of the 'bird in natural environment' sort - the background was going to be a bit bitty and messy, but well, this is the bird's home after all, and they're always a pleasure to see, wherever they are.

Little grebe