Saturday, 20 February 2016

Martin Mere WWT

Conscious that spring is - at least in theory - just around the corner and that our winter visiting migrant birds will soon be returning to their summer breeding quarters, I braced myself for the chore/car park that is my local stretch of the M6 and headed up to Martin Mere wetlands reserve on Monday. This has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me to visit and see the spectacular numbers of wildfowl that spend their winters there.

The reserve is famed for these winter populations of wildfowl with total numbers of wild birds at the reserve in winter estimated at over 15000 individuals. Striking Whooper Swans return here in good numbers from Iceland each year (over 1600 individuals this winter). These large swans are easily distinguished from similar sized Mute swans by the yellow of their bills, and the large triangular yellow patch on each side of the bill distinguishes them from the smaller and much less frequently seen Bewick's swan.

Whooper Swans
Whooper Swan resting
Whooper Swan portrait
One of many singing Robins
The reserve also has a selection of captive birds and I wandered through a few of their enclosures before heading over to the hides to see the wild birds which were the real reason for my visit. I admit to having mixed feeling on seeing captive birds with their pinioned wings, but at the same time it is a privilege to see these birds, many of which I am unlikely to ever see in the wild, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust of which Martin Mere is a part, do do great conservation work for wetland habitats and their inhabitants. They are involved with and have had great successes in a number of internationally important breeding programmes of endangered birds. 

Of course the areas designated to captive birds are also great for wild birds too - in every area, native Moorhens, Mallards, Shelducks, as well as Black-headed gulls and pigeons, even an ambitiously early nesting Coot mingled with birds from all corners of the globe. Every few metres the trees seemed to have their own resident singing Robin.   

The start of the nesting season - a Coot

View from 'discovery' hide - Whoopers, Wigeon, Shelduck, Coot et al
Male Pintail
From the old 'swan link' hide and the 'discovery' hide there are great views across the largest mere at the site. From these I watched and attempted to photograph some of the ducks present such as Teal, Wigeon, Shelduck, Pochard and Pintail as well as the more familiar Mallard. The mere is also home to several species of wader such as Lapwing, Avocet, Godwit and Ruff, the distinctive cries of Oystercatchers in flight gave away their presence though they landed a little far away to photograph.  

Of the ducks, Pochard in particular I have never managed to see close enough previously to photograph although they do appear in small numbers locally in winter, (usually in single sex bachelor groups at a local country park), so I concentrated on the pair I could find and tried to catch a handful of photos between their frequent dives. (With the sheer volume of birds, one of the biggest challenges with photography here can be to get images without cropped bits of other birds in the frame!) A Cormorant made a brief swim-past between dives but was unfortunately just a little far away to really capture the beautiful turquoise colour of his/her eyes.

Male Teal

Male Pochard

A Lapwing feeding in the sandy mud gave me unusually close views of this beautiful bird - mostly I see them as part of larger flocks generally at some distance, but this one had struck out alone and was feeding close to the hide - the sun really brought out the beautiful colours in the wing feathers. When you see their large winter flocks of hundreds of individuals it would be easy to assume that they are doing just fine as a species, but as with so many other farmland birds, changes to and intensification of agricultural practices have led to significant population declines as they have found it increasingly difficult to rear their young. Numbers have declined by a shocking 80% in England and Wales since 1960, so they are then not surprisingly considered a 'red-listed' species of conservation concern.


Lapwing (same individual as above)

Looking a little lost amongst the considerably larger and more boisterous Greylag geese and Whooper swans was a lone Ross' goose. These pretty geese are usually found in North America often in the company of the Snow geese which they closely resemble except for being a little smaller with stubbier bills. They also develop bluish warty bumps (caruncles) at the base of their bill (particularly the males - with more wartiness meaning more desirable!). They spend their summers in northern Canada, then migrate in a southwesterly direction towards southern states of the US and northern Mexico. A birder might describe this bird to be of 'unknown origin' - s/he doesn't have the leg rings that you might typically expect to see on an 'owned' bird, however it is still much more likely that this goose has escaped from a more local wildfowl 'collection' rather than flown quite so far off its usual course.

Ross' goose
Nearing the end of the day I ventured out of main area of the reserve to have a look at the 'Reedbed walk' - a less trodden path from where with luck it is possible to see hunting owls and raptors. An interesting find along the way was a tiny skull - 3.5 cms in length, slightly broken unfortunately along the sutures (fibrous joints) of the skull bones. Clearly mammalian and with the 'wrong' line up of teeth for a rodent, by a process of elimination (I'd initially wondered about weasel and bat amongst the possible options) I eventually concluded that this is the skull of a mole (though as ever, if I've got it wrong please correct me). What amazing little sharp teeth they have!

Mole skull

Continuing along the path I was helpfully (?) informed that I'd just missed a Marsh Harrier, and that the owls appeared to be taking a break, so I instead focused on just enjoying the walk and the peace and quiet in the gradually setting sun.


Friday, 12 February 2016

Redesmere Feb 2016

With a beautiful day of sunshine on offer, I finished up work early so I could head over to Redesmere near Siddington in east Cheshire. Partly to get in some much needed practice with a new camera, but also of course to get out and enjoy wildlife watching in some sun. The birds I generally see there aren't especially unusual, but are always a pleasure to watch and photograph... the fact that conditions were calm, dry and bright made a  welcome change from recent weeks!

Greeting me as I got out of the car a Robin called, closely followed by calls of "Chiswick, Chiswick", which of course could only mean that close by were Pied wagtails. Soon enough I spotted a handful of these pretty little black and white birds running around on the tarmac, dodging the moving cars. (It always concerns me when I see them scurrying in busy car parks but they seem to be very aware and capable of avoiding the traffic.) A female Chaffinch watched from a nearby tree in case this new arrival might mean a few crumbs of bread to be had. On the far side of the mere I watched as a Sparrowhawk shot along the treeline.

Black-headed gull
The location is popular with people coming to feed the ducks, geese and swans and the usual suspects of Mallards and Black-headed gulls were there in their hundreds. As usual were a handful of larger gulls in amongst them including Common and Herring gulls of differing ages. Some old friends were there amongst the Black-headed gulls - birds wearing 'darvics' 2F70, 2F90 and 2F91. These are individual gulls I have seen and reported the details previous years (initially in 2013) and have reported the sightings to the researchers again this week. I wrote about these gulls and their monitoring (as well as how to report a ringed bird) in a previous post here. Ringed birds seen can be reported through the EURING website here. The data obtained from sightings is of great value to researchers so I would always encourage anyone to report the details of ringed birds seen or found.

Gull '2F91'

The usual gang of white farmyard (Embden) geese patrolled the car park, I felt a thwack on the leg as one ran past wings outstretched chasing off another. Common they might be but Mallards are still very beautiful ducks - oh how we'd flock to see them if they were rare. 

Male Mallard, resplendent in his his breeding plumage

In amongst the Mallards and geese were several pairs of Tufted ducks - small diving ducks that have a tendency to disappear underwater just as you are about to take their photo...

Male Tufted duck

Female Tufted duck

Large flocks of Greylag and Canada geese also frequent the mere - I aimed the camera at a large flock of Greylags passing overhead. I'm not sure that I managed to get a single bird in focus, and there are of course lots of chopped bits of birds but I still quite liked this image for the sense of slightly chaotic and noisy action it portrays of this incoming flock of geese. One of my favourite sounds when out watching wildlife is the humming sounds of the wingbeats of large birds.

Greylag geese

Rails were represented by familiar Coots and their superficially similar cousins Moorhens (more of the latter than I can remember  seeing here previously)

A partially submerged branch afforded one Moorhen a particularly good vantage point, as well as nicely showing off the oversized feet that make them so adept at walking on and amongst partially submerged vegetation such as reeds and waterlilies. 

Making the most of the sunlight I tried to photograph the beautifully red eyes that both Coots and Moorhens have.

Another Moorhen


All in all it was a visit where I didn't see any uncommon birds but it was just a pleasure to grab an hour out in the sun watching the wildlife. (And if there was one valuable lesson learned on the camera front, it was to not assume that the exposure compensation dial works in the same direction on all cameras!!! Ah well.)