Sunday, 31 January 2016

In between the storms... a quick visit to Sutton reservoir

Campbells (front) with Duclairs behind and a regular Mallard
In between the various name storms we're experienced this winter, I paid a brief visit to Sutton reservoir for the first time this year. I was greeted by the usual motley crew of Mallards and their super-sized domesticated-gone-feral  descendants of Duclairs and Campbells which were in their usual spot near the entrance, as well as a handful of Coots. There wasn't the treat of birdsong as I'd had earlier in the month at Quinta (presumably because it was cool, windy and generally unspringlike...) but several common woodland birds were moving through the trees flanking the reservoir - the familiar contact calls of Long-tailed tits, the alarming of a Blackbird, a Robin calling and singing half-heartedly in turn. 

In the centre of the water gulls surfed the unusually choppy (for a reservoir) water - they were nearly all Black-headed gulls, with a handful starting to develop their breeding plumage of deep brown on their heads. As usual, I checked for other types of gull amongst them. With a quick glance any interlopers often stand out because of their considerably larger size - previously at Sutton I have seen Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls mingling with their considerably smaller comrades, today the giant among them was a single Common gull. Also almost them, and almost indistinguishable amongst all the Black-headeds with its similar size was [what I'm sure is] a Mediterranean gull, just developing the black hood which it has in breeding plumage. This was a first for me locally, but also not a bird I would expect to see here in eastern Cheshire at all, their distribution in the UK generally being restricted to the southern and eastern coasts of England. It was a bit of a 'bad photography day' and I only managed a record shot... 
Mediterranean gull (left) amongst 100+ Black-headed gulls
Coming home to roost - Black-headed gulls
The most numerous birds I saw by far were the Black-headed gulls - they roost on the reservoir and by late afternoon dozens more were flying in from wherever they had spent their day resulting in 150-200 of these birds on the water. 

Sitting on some steps at the western end of the reservoir (where I was nicely sheltered from the wind) I watched as  Great crested grebes fished for Perch - it was impressive both how many dives seemed to result in a successful catch, and also how the birds manage to swallow the unfortunate and comparatively large fish whole! In this relatively small reservoir I saw at least 5 Great crested grebes, all but one starting to develop their striking copper coloured breeding plumage for which they are so renowned. It is heartening to know and see how well they are now faring, having previously been hunted almost to extinction here for the plume trade so that well-to-do women in Victorian times could have hats adorned with their feathers. This unsustainable hunting (do we ever learn?) of native birds led to early legislation being introduced in order to afford birds some degree of protection, such as the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880. Despite these, the trend for ever more elaborate and exotic plumage (even, to the extent to whole (stuffed) birds) being used to decorate hats, led to the foundation of the RSPB in 1889 by women who opposed this cruel trade.

All of which leads me neatly into a quick reminder that this weekend is the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, details for which can be found here. I shall grab a coffee and binoculars and start my hour of watching how many and which species of birds visit the garden this year (hopefully the rain might even stop for some of it....).

Great-Crested grebe

Grebe with Perch

Sunday, 17 January 2016

New Year at Quinta

After an exceptionally mild and wet start to the winter, it seems at last the weather is cooling down and perhaps some normality (for the time of year) will return. Where I am in Cheshire we have certainly had more than enough rain, but have been fortunate to have not suffered with flooding here. Thoughts are of course with the people who have been afflicted by flooding, but also with the wildlife affected - for many in these areas this winter will have been their last.

Wednesday 6th January, on a rare afternoon of sunshine, I went over to Quinta arboretum and wildlife reserve to see how things were faring, particularly if wildflowers were emerging with the mildness of the winter.  The first thing I was struck by was the amount of birdsong - it was a refreshing 6/7C but with the lengthening days and the pleasant sunshine, the sound of birdsong was all around. A charm of Goldfinches flew overhead uttering their gentle tinkling song, a volery (the collective noun apparently...) of Long-tailed tits flitted through the branches of a miriad trees in the arboretum. Mistle thrushes, Crows and Nuthatches called, Jays screeched whilst Robins, Blackbirds, Song thrushes, Blue, Great and Coal Tits sang. I attempted a 'soundscape' recording using my camera which includes several of the above;

Perhaps the most striking sight was that of what I presumed to be spiderling silk, perhaps left behind from 'ballooning' (i.e. when dispersing, they climb to a higher point and release silk which is caught on the wind and carries them to another location). Though I thought it a little late in the season to be seeing this if that's correct. Smaller spiders can also use a similar [albeit risky] technique when they want to relocate, and I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps there had been a mass movement of spiders perhaps as a consequence of/in response to the endless rainy weather. (Any suggestions welcome!) The sun lit the tiny strands everywhere I looked - it covered the grass, on every bare branch they were blowing in the light breeze... a veritable sea of gossamer. I spent a little time playing around trying to photograph this (with mixed results!);

Spaced every few centimetres a strand of silk was caught by the light breeze

What I had really come to see however was how the wildflowers were faring with the mild conditions. Usually I wouldn't expect to see Snowdrops in flower until early/mid February (their usual flowering period is February to March) however here they were already in early January, just starting to come into flower - early but of course a welcome delight to see. Wild Primroses too had their first buds - the varieties sold in garden centres of course come in an array of vibrant (some might say gaudy) colours, but I always come back to the pale yellow of the native wildflower as my favourite by far.
Primrose coming into bud
Green Alkanet
Other wildflowers I suspect weren't so much early, as late, and just continuing to flower throughout the relative warmth of the early winter included Periwinkle and Green Alkanet and the occasional daisy. Green Alkanet, whilst native to Western Europe, is an introduced species in the UK, but is very much enjoyed by hoverflies and bees during the spring and summer months when it is more commonly seen in flower. The early leaves of Bluebells which will carpet the ground in spring pushed up through the leaf litter. A beautiful sight (though really much too early) was that of a cherry tree well in bloom.


Early leaves of Bluebells
Blooming early... cherry tree blossom