Sunday, 24 April 2016

Formby point

An hour's drive from my local patch towards the coast lies the town of Formby in Merseyside. The pine forests and dunes to the west of the town at Formby Point are designated as a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' (SSSI) because of their importance to wildlife, the area is managed by the National Trust. The main reason for visiting was primarily because this is the closest place to me (so far as I am aware), where you are able to see Red squirrels, these small and endearing mammals having disappeared from Cheshire some 25 years ago.

Since the introduction of Grey squirrels (or more correctly Eastern Gray squirrels) to the UK from their native North America, populations of our native Red squirrel have plummeted. This has been due to a combination of factors - the larger greys can eat large quantities of tree seeds, even before they have fully ripened, giving them a competitive advantage and reducing the availability of food for reds. They also have a more omnivorous diet which can include the eggs and young of birds in spring, and they have been known to raid the winter food caches of reds if they find them. Greys can also harbour and easily spread a pox virus to their smaller cousins which reds have little or no immunity to, and which often proves fatal to them. It is estimated that within 15 years of greys arriving in an area inhabited by reds, the latter will disappear. 

As reviled as greys often are, I am mindful that they are only here because of deliberate releases in the Victorian era. Once seen as fashionable additions to country estates, the first releases of Grey squirrels in the UK are attributed to the Henbury Park estate in Cheshire in 1876. (Another dubious distinction for Cheshire!) Similar such releases continued in estates around the country for more than 50 years following. The greys can also hardly be blamed for the wholesale destruction of much of the mature and pine forest habitats to which the reds are best suited.
For sake of comparison I put together a table from information on the two species from the Mammal Society;

Grey squirrel relaxing on my old garden fence

Armed with some shop-bought hazelnuts (which I'd been advised to bring along to tempt the squirrels), on a hastily arranged day off work to make the most of an entire day of sunshine, it was a fairly early start in order to arrive at Formby soon after the car park opened and while the squirrels, being diurnal, were [I hoped] still busy foraging on the ground after their night's fast.

Much of the time there I spent on the short and pleasant circular 'squirrel walk' in the pine forest. Low wooden fencing keeps people to the paths and there are also squirrel feeders in the conifers which are topped up during the day. I haven't seen a Red squirrel in a few years, and have never before seen them this close - keeping still and quiet they would be just a few feet away at times. In a real case of cuteness overload - it was impossible to resist taking lots of photos of these beautiful animals.... 

I used to have a squirrel 'teddy' just like this!
Burying nuts for leaner times

And just for a bit of fun... an animated gif from a 'burst' of images, photo-bombing in the background is one of several ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

Later in the day it got much busier making spotting the squirrels more tricky as they retreated back into the tree canopy to avoid the noise and particularly, I suspect, the dogs. At this time of year I was informed they are also likely to have young kits in their dreys to attend to so getting there early certainly paid off.

The site is also important for Sand lizards which are one of the UK's rarest reptiles. They enjoy basking on the sand dunes preferring to keep close to Marram grass or other vegetation to which they can run for cover. Perhaps early afternoon was too late in the day when I was wandering the dunes in search of these pretty lizards - a local jogger confirmed I was in the right spot for them - but they were nowhere to be seen. No tracks, nor even the sound of tell-tale scurrying when - as is so often the case - they spot you before you spot them. 

So with no luck finding the lizards I instead made the most of what was an exceptionally beautiful clear and calm day, taking in the scenery which, with the cloudless blue sky, felt less like the UK, and more like somewhere in the Mediterranean.  

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Nant yr Arian Red Kites

Only once in my local patch of East Cheshire have I seen a Red Kite - this was near the small Peak District village of Wincle. Once common here, Red Kites became increasingly scarce due to human persecution in the 1700s after being declared 'vermin' (they had previously been held in high regard and enjoyed protection by Royal Decree in the Middle Ages). According to records held on bounties paid, the birds had probably disappeared entirely from the county by 1800 giving Cheshire the dubious distinction of being one of the first counties to exterminate the bird within its borders.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Happily, even though they are still very rarely seen locally (in future there are sites in Wales and the Midlands from where they may hopefully naturally colonise the county again), they have been one of the great conservation success stories in the UK. There have been several successful reintroduction programmes in England and Scotland since 1989, and in Wales, which was for a considerable time their one remaining stronghold, their numbers have increased greatly. (For a time I worked for a company based in Surrey and the redeeming feature of my occasional long commutes into the office which took me through the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire where plentiful views of these birds can be seen from the M40 motorway following the successful reintroductions of hte species to the Chilterns.)

Inverted silhouette of a Red Kite showing the distinctive forked tail
A large bird of prey with a wingspan of nearly 2 metres and a forked tail, they make a distinctive silhouette. They are primarily scavengers but will also take a variety of prey such as small mammals and even earthworms. Although not generally persecuted intentionally, they still fall foul of human activities - being scavengers they will fall victim to poisoned baits (put out illegally and intended for other wildlife), and also to secondary poisoning from consuming rats/mice killed by rodenticides.

An Easter break for a few days in west Wales granted us the opportunity to see this spectacular bird again in one of its true strongholds - in the counties of Powys, Ceredigion and Carmathenshire they are quite a common sight. Close to Aberystwyth at Nant yr Arian - formerly a Forestry Commission site, now calling themselves 'Natural Resources Wales', is one of a number of locations where the public can come to see these incredible birds in large numbers as they come in to take advantage of the food put out daily for them.

Eating 'on the wing'
There were so many of the birds in the area, including several sightings just from the cabin where we stayed, that there wasn't any real need to go to a feeding site, except to appreciate the sight and sound of the sheer numbers of kites that visit. The information leaflet for Nant yr Arian states that "on a good day, up to 150 of the birds can be seen", when we visited there were at least 150 present. The birds are fed at the same time each day (2pm in the winter months, and 3pm when the clocks change), and from miles around the birds can be seen making their way towards the area. When their food of meat scraps is brought out the birds waste no time in flying in to snatch up pieces from the ground - they don't stop, food is typically grabbed in their talons and they will then eat it on the wing bringing beak to talons and talons to beak, rather than linger on the ground. With so many birds the scenes can look a little chaotic... food gets dropped, others get in the way, minor skirmishes ensue. Their forked tails acting obviously as rudders their acrobatics are an awe-inspiring sight.

Close encounters...
Out of focus 'K'
The reintroduced birds and also some of the wild-bred birds have been wing-tagged - of the 150 or so kites present, we noticed several with these tags (which will fall off by themselves after a few years). 

A simple key allows identification of where the bird was tagged and released by the colour of the left wing-tag, and in what year, by the colour of the right wing-tag. (For all its simplicity, colours of course fade and can also appear distorted by the light.) So 'K' in the [poor] photograph was tagged and released in Wales (black left tag) in 2012 (red right tag). Each tag also has a strip of the opposing tag's colour at the bottom so if one falls off before the other it should still be possible to identify the individual bird.

Tag guide from Yorkshire Red kites

Female Siskin (lining up her approach to the busy feeder)

Of course no bird-friendly visitor centre would be complete without small bird feeders nearby, so after the kites had largely finished their free meal, and whilst enjoying the requisite coffee and cake, we watched the comings and goings of hundreds of passerines (the scrubby ground underneath the feeders was alive with finches). Lesser Redpolls joined Siskins, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Goldfinches at the feeders, birds in the genus Parus, were represented by the usual suspects of Blue, Great and Coal tits

Male Greenfinch singing

Male Chaffinch
How I wish our birdfeeders at home looked!