Friday, 9 February 2018

January Highlights!

Weather: January saw very changeable weather. The month began unsettled and mild, but windy. Then there was a quiet and cold spell, with high pressure dominant. The rest of the month saw a return to an unsettled westerly type, with fronts crossing the country at regular intervals. It was generally mild, although some parts saw colder conditions in the third week, with snow in most areas.

Places Visited:  Amwell, Rye Meads, Cheshunt and Santon Downham.

Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.’

Coming up on the show tonight…...!

It was a customary high number of visits this month. Several trips were paid to Amwell, with visits to the other two LVRP Reserves at Rye Meads and Cheshunt. However, the outstanding visit of the month was to Santon Downham, near Thetford. More of that later.

The first two visits of the year were to Amwell. Not only were there mixed fortunes on the wildlife front, the Reserve also saw an enforced closure.

With the finish of the work along the canal everyone assumed that the Reserve would revert to normal operations, with access to the Gladwin Hide. Only to find a few days later, that the place had to be shut down because of the discovery of the dreaded Bird Flu, with the unearthing of several dead birds around the area. Fortunately, it was reopened less than a week later, with DEFRA giving it the all-clear.

The vandals at the James Hide were still in the vicinity, with the Hide looking even worse than ever. Fortunately, Jenny and her staff were on hand to clear up the mess, so that we punters could sit in peace and comfort. Mrs Watervole & Katy Kingfisher continued to keep the Hides’ feeders full, despite all the carnage around them.

Also, the leaf-blowers had thankfully departed, albeit leaving lots of leaves around. Unfortunately, most of the wildlife had also gone. There didn’t seem to be much about, certainly not in the Woodland, early on. Goldeneye were still around, on the main lake, as were a few redhead Smew. However, there was much more lake than birds.

Coal and Marsh Tit were regular visitors to the feeders, which seemed to be doing great business. Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Siskin were also seen around the area, mostly on the Alders. My first Song Thrush, for a long while, appeared on one of the walks up the canal. It was singing away, low down on a branch, right out in the open.

A bonus was seeing a pair of Ravens being harassed and chased off by a Peregrine, high up above the Dragonfly Trail. Ravens 0 Peregrine 1; a good away win.

Most of the lagoons and ponds were either frozen over or were about to be. It was quite amusing to see Moorhens and Coots trying to skate across the ice, wondering what had happened to all the water.

I also managed to take part in this months’ ‘Bittern Roost Watch’, organised by Jenny. A handful of us, including Sylvia Undata, spent the last hour of daylight not seeing a Bittern. Sylvia even remarked, ‘I could have spent the hour at home, not seeing a Bittern!’

As usual, the Bittern turned up the next day. C’est la vie!

Still to come…….!

I have always tried to avoid visits to Rye Meads at weekends, due to the presence of the ‘Great Unwashed’. I also avoid Tuesdays & Thursdays, due to work parties out on the Reserve. And now, because of shortage of staff, they have decided to close the Reserve on Fridays, for the foreseeable future. Hence the reason for just the one visit this month.

Although Sparrowhawks, Green Sandpipers, Shelduck, Jay and a few Wagtails were seen, it was a rather quiet visit. I spent most of it in the Kingfisher Hide. The water levels were too high outside the Draper Hide, which translated to there not being many birds present. The upper tier of the Ashby Hide was leaking and therefore had to be cordoned off. Water levels outside the Gadwall Hide were quite low, but most birds were on the far side of the lagoon.

I checked the bramble branch, along the stream, for the Willow Emerald egg galls. It was surprisingly still there. Hopefully, we might get some damselfly action later in the year.

However, the outstanding visit of the month was a trip to Santon Downham, near Thetford. Sylvia had graciously invited me along, to try for the ‘promisedOtters in the area, along the Little Ouse. I was a tad dubious, as I knew from experience that twitching for anything usually proved disappointing.

Oh, how wrong I was! Within minutes of arriving, a quick walk along the river brought us to a throng of photographers. My heart skipped a beat. Without even having to ask the assemblage, I spotted an Otter right in front of us, only several feet away.

For the next couple of hours, it slowly meandered upstream, followed by the heaving masses, all of us clicking away like Lady Di had appeared. It didn’t seem very bothered by us, at all. At one point, it even swam to within a few feet of me.

However, that wasn’t the only delight of the day. Several Common Crossbills were seen, on the branches above us. It was a case of where to point the camera.

Although a low area species total, it was brilliant seeing a wild Otter, up close, for the first time. I had seen them a few times, in Scotland, but always at a great distance.

Then it was time for a first visit of the year to Fishers Green, in the hope of spotting another Bittern. Unfortunately, none had been seen here all month and, indeed, none were seen on the day.

Bird numbers still remained low, here and most other places, a worrying trend. No Teal or Wigeon were seen and not very many other ducks. Geese numbers were also down.

However, there were a few highlights. First up, was a lovely redhead Smew, in the usual place - Friday Lake. Although it took a few patient minutes for it to appear. One had also been reported over at Bowyer's Water. No drakes have been reported, as yet.

The other major highlight was the surprise appearance of a Water Rail, outside the Bittern Hide. It was vacuuming up the feeder spillage, along with Woodpigeons, Magpies, Moorhens and the occasional Chaffinch.

I say 'surprise' because these birds are notoriously shy and keep to the reed edges. Any views of them are usually fleeting. This one, however, returned every 15-20 minutes to pick at any spilt seeds. Right out in the open.

There were an amazingly high number of dog-walkers around the area, plus several cyclists and joggers. I'm fast coming to the conclusion that the LVRP is for humans and not wildlife.

The month ended on a high note, with a final visit to Amwell. The Goldeneyes were still around, this time spotting 7 of them, including 4 drakes, some of whom were in display mode. They were all seen from the Gladwin Hide, after walking down the newly created gravel track.

The 'shornline' was still bare, after all the work. I’m hoping that someone will sow some wild flower seeds and not let it become overgrown with weeds. Time will tell.

The Woodland provided sightings of several more Treecreepers, Siskin and Goldcrest. It has been a bit more entertaining here, than of late. It was here that I bumped into my Sunday evening drinking buddy, Barry, who became a ‘year tick’!

A little earlier, I had spotted a Great Spotted Woodpecker and was looking at it through my ‘Bins, until the sight of a cyclist recycling his energy drink made me move on. As did the GSW. The cyclist was dressed in the tour de rigueur, mostly bright green. I’ll never look at a brussel sprout in the same way again.

Coal Tits, Red Kites, Buzzards and a few more Great Spotted Woodpeckers rounded up a very nice day out.

It was quite successful on the mammal front, this month. Not just because of the Otters. At Amwell, I spotted Bank Voles, Brown Rat, Grey Squirrel and Muntjac.

Whilst on ‘Bittern Watch’ a Fox was spotted, extremely close to a Grey Heron. Any closer and they would’ve had to have become engaged.

Muntjacs and Grey Squirrels were also appearing, on regular occasions, at Fishers Green and Rye Meads.

Of course, at this time of year, no invertebrates were about. However, I’ve noticed that Midges are still around and in some number.

Snowdrops were seen at most of the Reserves, always a delightful sight. Daffodil shoots are already appearing. I’ve even seen a clump of Primroses flowering.

All in all, an encouraging month. Next month should see the last of the very cold weather and hopefully the beginnings of Spring. I have already witnessed Great Crested Grebes performing their courtship displays.

I've reached the stage where life stops giving you things
and starts taking them away.’

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Thursday, 11 January 2018

Wildlife and Weather Roundup 2017 - Part Two


July was a generally unsettled month but it was often warm, especially in the south-east. There were brief hot spells, with widespread thunder. It was cooler from the third week onwards and there was some heavy persistent rain at times.

All of which resulted in three visits - Amwell, Rye Meads and a walk up the River Stort to HMWT Thorley Wash. The local walk was the first and most fruitful outing.

There were a few Buzzards screeching high in the sky; a family of Kestrels, which put on a very good flying display; several Coot and Moorhen families; a Common Tern fishing up and down the river; several Swifts screaming overhead; a Kingfisher which zipped up the river and several Warblers - including a Blackcap and a very vocal Grasshopper Warbler, were all seen on a rare sunny day. Little Egret, Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Common Tern, Swift, Kingfisher, House Martin and plenty of tuneful Warblers were the highlights at Rye Meads. Amwell had Great Crested Grebe, Little Egret, Lapwing, Common Tern and Kingfisher. However, there were few Warblers and very little from the waterfowl sector here.

There wasn’t much in the way of mammals this month. Very few sightings, in fact. However, while a buck Muntjac was seen at Amwell, the highlight was spotting four Water Voles at Thorley Wash, with one of them coming out in to the open, quite close.

Butterfly and Moth sightings continued to greatly increase. It’s looking like a good year for lepidoptera. All three visits resulted in seeing well over ten species. Cinnabar Moth caterpillars showed up at Rye Meads, while the first Gatekeepers, Ringlets and Small Coppers appeared. Essex and Small Skippers showed well along the River Stort. There were numerous Meadow Browns and Red Admirals about.

Despite the poor weather, dragons and damsels flourished. Banded Demoiselles continued to delight, as did several Red-eyed damsels. Black-tailed Skimmers and Emperors were still around, some seen ovipositing. Shockingly, the only Broad-bodied Chasers I saw this year were in France. The season was over for both Large Red damsels and Hairy dragons. However, they were replaced with Common and Ruddy Darters, as well as a few Brown Hawkers.

Apart from the usual insects seen this month, the star spot was another sighting of a Hornet Mimic hoverfly, at Amwell. There were lots of Marmalade hoverfly sightings. I had a lucky sighting of a Robber Fly having lunch, at Amwell. Regiments of Soldier Beetles were seen along the River Stort, while several Thick-kneed Flower beetles were seen in several areas.

The flowers blossomed, as to be expected at this time of year. However, I didn’t pay a great deal of attention, what with everything else going on and they were only helpful in finding invertebrates.

In the UK, the weather was again very dismal. However, a visit to Papua New Guinea was hot and humid. Locally, August began unsettled with showers and mainly westerly or south-westerly winds. This pattern continued until the third week, when it turned warm and sunny. However, the month ended cooler and showery.

A very memorable trip to PNG took up the first fortnight, while the final days of the month saw visits to Amwell, Cheshunt and Rye Meads.

Papua New Guinea was a dream and an ambition come true. I had always wanted to photograph Birds of Paradise from as far back as I could remember. It didn’t disappoint, with 15 species of BoP seen, of which 7 were photographed. Nearly 200 bird species were seen overall. The wonderful wildlife aside, the people of PNG were among the friendliest I have ever encountered.

A full report of the trip can be found HERE.

Brown Sicklebill
Masked Lapwing
Pied Heron
A few days after returning, I visited Amwell, which wasn’t as productive, bird-wise. How could it be? In fact, bird totals were down on all three local visits this month. A Bittern had been seen here, but had chosen the day I visited to be absent. Next up, was a short visit to Rye Meads. Here, at least, I found the usual Kingfisher, plus 2 Little Egrets, 7 Green and 1 Common Sandpiper, a pair of eclipse Garganey, plenty of Lapwings and a fleeting glimpse of a Hobby. Cheshunt was the last visit of the month, with another Kingfisher and 3 very obliging juvenile Chiffchaffs, posing outside the Bittern Hide. However, it was ominously quiet at all 3 Reserves.

It was even quieter on the Mammal front. Even in PNG, where all we spotted were a Ground Cuscus and a Macleay’s Forest Wallaby.

The butterflies and moths seen in PNG were out of this world, as to be expected. Locally, Comma, Common Blue, lots of Whites, Meadow Brown, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood all made appearances.

Silky Owl butterfly
It was still slightly disappointing for odonata, although I was delighted to find my first Willow Emeralds and Migrant Hawkers of the season, at all 3 local Reserves. Banded Demoiselles were still about, as was a late male Black-tailed Skimmer, at RM. Also seen there, were scores of Red-eyed damsels. Hawkers and Darters were now everywhere. I spotted and photographed a few species in PNG, but not until the very last day. They too, were quite spectacular.

Painted Grasshawk
On the insect front, needless to say in PNG, there was some pretty amazing stuff to be seen. Colourful, varied and sizeable. Domestically, an Orange Ladybird, plenty of Cross Spiders, a few Dock Bugs, another Hornet Mimic hoverfly, Mint Leaf Beetles, another Robber Fly, this time without lunch and plenty of Bees and Wasps were around. Although, it has to be said, not in vast numbers.

The local flora, of course, had been gorging on a diet of mainly rain, with some added sunshine. It had led to an explosion, almost hiding everything. A proliferation of mainly Buddleia and Purple Loosestrife were everywhere. However, in PNG, the rain-forests were spectacular.

The summer was notable across the UK for being wetter and warmer than average. Each of the three months exceeded their long-term average rainfall totals in many areas. Broadly speaking, June was wettest in the north and July was wettest in the south, with August a mix of the two. It was the UK’s 11th wettest summer on record. The full summer mean temperatures were slightly warmer than average. June was in fact the fifth warmest in records dating back to 1910. East Anglia was the warmest region in the UK.

The poor weather continued this month, starting with a weak ridge of high pressure. The rest of the month was generally unsettled with an unusually high number of rain days. It was often cool, with frequent winds and belts of persistent rain, alternating with brighter showery weather. It then warmed up later in the month, with mainly southerly winds, but was often cloudy with some fog patches.

After the enchantment of PNG, it was back down to earth this month. There were trips to Amwell and the River Stort/Thorley Wash area. There were also several trips to Rye Meads, which continues to be the place to visit. I also spent a few days in Norfolk.

A walk up the River Stort, to Thorley Wash was first up, on the first day of the month. It was a low bird total; however, I was delighted to find a dozen or more Willow Emeralds, this time much closer to the Reserve than last season, which also had three present itself.

Then came Rye Meads, the first of three visits, followed by Amwell. Birds were still quite scarce, although there were now a few wildfowl arriving. Common and Green Sandpipers, Snipe and Kingfisher were good value at RM, while Kestrel, Hobby and a late Swallow appeared at Amwell.

I spent three days in Norfolk, visiting various Reserves. As usual, it didn’t disappoint, with plenty of wader species to be seen. I was especially delighted to see a pair of Corncrakes.

Mammal sightings were still few and far between, but there was a lovely little Pygmy Shrew seen zipping around, whilst visiting Snettisham. There were, of course, Red Squirrels present at Pensthorpe NR. Konik Ponies were seen adjacent to the River Stort.

The insect season started to tail off significantly. Butterflies, such as the Whites, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood are still about, but not much else.

Willow Emeralds were now out in force, in several Reserves, together with Common Darter and Migrant Hawker. All the usual suspects, in fact. However, it’s good to see WE distribution and numbers expanding.

Of the rest of the invertebrates, Cross and Nursery Web Spiders are now out in some number. Adult Dark Bush Crickets, Dock Bugs, hoverflies, bees and wasps are now all that’s on offer. However, the best sightings were along the canal path, at Amwell, where I found Green, Hawthorn and Forest Shield Bugs.

The flowers? Oh, please. Buddleia and Purple Loosestrife are the only things still noticeable.

October was predominantly shaped by a mild west or south-westerly airflow, bringing some spells of unusually high temperatures, both by day and by night. However, the winds did turn briefly northerly for the last weekend of the month, bringing the first widespread frost of autumn. Around the middle of the month, ex-Tropical Hurricane Ophelia dragged warm air northwards across the UK, resulting in high temperatures, hurricane-force winds and a red sun. By comparison, Storm Brian wasn’t as big an event; he was just a very naughty boy.

I only visited Amwell and Rye Meads in what was a very quiet month. The 4th quarter is, for me, a traditionally understated time and I always look forward to the New Year.

Amwell was my first visit of the month, just before it was unfortunately closed down for several months, due to maintenance. However, there wasn’t much about and so I cut my losses and spent the afternoon at Rye Meads.

Only the usual stuff was about this month. Wildfowl continued to arrive, but not in any great number. The first Snipe for a long while started to appear, while Sandpipers, both Common & Green were seen, albeit in ones and twos. The Kingfishers still provided lots of entertainment, with a male perching up amongst the red berries, quite close to the Hide. The first Redwings of the season turned up, but their cousins, the Fieldfare, were conspicuous by their absence.

Although Autumn had now arrived, in force, blowing the golden leaves off the trees, there weren’t any decent mammal sightings. I guess they were keeping their heads down.

The few butterflies that were still about included a lovely Brimstone in the middle of the month. Otherwise, only several Red Admirals were seen on the wing and I fear that they would probably be the last for this season.

The odonata season is now sadly almost over as well. Only Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers are still about and only then in small numbers. The last of the Willow Emeralds were seen at Rye Meads, where I found a few pairs egg-laying on a bramble branch – something that even the British Dragonfly Society hadn’t heard of before.

Dock & Green Shield Bugs were seen on a sunny day, early in the month. Other than those, the only decent insects still on show included Dark Bush Crickets and a Hornet. I also noticed that there were still lots of Midges around, reflecting a warm and dry month.

The sunshine was one of the most notable features this month and it ranked the 9th sunniest November since records began. Most areas had above average sunshine, but even then, it wasn’t as sunny as last year. It was a colder than average month for the UK overall. Rainfall was below average for most, with the south east being the driest area of the country.

Thanks to the clearer weather, it was a much better month for trips, with visits to all three LVRP Reserves, or, as I call it, the ‘Lee Valley of the Kings. The work at Amwell had been delayed, allowing people to visit during the week, so I paid three visits myself. The month started with a sighting of a pair of Water Pipits, at Rye Meads. There were also lots of Wagtails about, while Kingfisher showings were getting less and less. A pair of Stonechats showed up on the goalposts in the HMWT meadow. Redwings continued to flourish, but there were still no Fieldfare. Next up, was a trip to Cheshunt, where Bitterns were being seen regularly. However, again, not on the one occasion I was there. Water Rails were good value, though - a pair bickered over feeding rights, out in the open. A pair of Kingfishers flashed up and down the relief channel and there were good views of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Finally, a pair of Reed Buntings flew around outside the Hide. At Amwell, Goldeneyes had turned up. Red Kite and Sparrowhawk were seen on regular occasions. A Water Rail gave a wonderful, close-up view outside the James Hide, where even Phil the Pheasant showed up again! The Feeders brought Coal Tit & Marsh Tit. The Woodland proved disappointing, with very few birds on show, other than Redwing and Goldcrest. However, on the last visit, a flock of Siskin flew through. Waterfowl were still arriving, but still arriving in low numbers.

It was more encouraging on the mammal front this month. A Fox was seen at Amwell, quite close to a Muntjac, who are now starting to appear regularly. A pair of Bank Voles were seen outside the James Hide.

All in all, it was a much better month. The first snow fell on the last day of the month, albeit a few flakes.

Despite a brief cold snap, autumn, as a whole, turned out to be slightly milder than average, thanks in part to a mild October. September was generally cooler and wetter than average, while October was mostly warm, dry and mild. Sunshine was below average in most areas, although temperatures were closer to average. The first widespread frosts of the season came at the end of October. Most areas were somewhat duller during both September and October. November rainfall was below average and was slightly colder, mainly due to a cold final week. It was also
sunnier and slightly drier than average.

The first week was mostly mild, but much of the early part of December was cold with significant snowfall in some areas and numerous frosts in most areas. Many places had a rather dry month, but with strong winds.

The year ended quietly, paying a visit apiece to Amwell, Cheshunt and Rye Meads.

First up, was a trip to Cheshunt, ostensibly for Bittern. It was a very cold day, having snowed the previous day. My thought was that, if the lakes and lagoons froze over, it might bring a Bittern out. I was pleased to see that my reasoning and logic were both rewarded. A bonus sighting was a redhead Smew. Also seen, were Water Rail, Goldcrest and Sparrowhawk, making it an enchanting day out. Then it was Amwell, where the works party had been very favourable to Birders. The highlights here were Coal and Marsh Tit, Treecreeper, Goldeneye, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Kingfisher and Siskin. Rye Meads proved to be the last visit of the year and it was a fairly quiet end, seeing Sparrowhawk, Water Rail, Snipe, Kingfisher, Redwing, Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff.

The Bank Voles, at Amwell, continued to delight, while Muntjac, Fox and Grey Squirrel all made appearances.

And so, on to the annual stats:
I made a total of 59 trips out this year, the lowest annual total yet, since my retirement.
The commonest birds of the year were the Mallard and the Woodpigeon, both seen 58 times. Can you guess where I didn’t see them?
The commonest Mammal was the Grey Squirrel, seen on 18 occasions.
The commonest Butterflies were the Red Admiral and the Speckled Wood, with 20 sightings.
The commonest Damselflies were the Blue-tailed and Common Blue, making 18 appearances, while the Common Darter Dragonfly appeared 15 times.
The most seen invertebrate was the almost-ubiquitous Midge, with 37 appearances. Although, it did seem that they were everywhere, all of the time. My most exciting sightings were the appearances of several Chafer species.
The most interesting flower this year, was the Bee Orchid, seen on 4 occasions.

166 bird species were seen in total this year, in the UK, slightly up on last year. Of which 48 were the most seen on one day, at Amwell, in early January. Together with the world total I spotted 391 species this year.
The most Mammal species seen, on one trip, was 9, whilst visiting Norfolk, in mid-September.
14 species of Lepidoptera were seen, on two separate days, in July, at both Amwell and the River Stort/Thorley Wash.
10 species of Odonata were seen, on two occasions, visiting Amwell, during early to mid-June.
30 invertebrate species were seen whilst visiting Rye Meads, on one memorable day, in early June.

Rye Meads was the most visited Reserve this year, with 25 trips. It also takes the top honours for being the most interesting place to be, in the UK, with a fair few excellent sightings. Kudos goes to the staff for the rescue and recuperation given to a juvenile female Bittern. A ‘special mention in dispatches’ goes to Jenny and her team of volunteers at Amwell. They and other Reserve volunteers do a magnificent job.

The Annual Bearded Tit Awards (ABTAs):
Bird of the Year: The Birds of Paradiseof course!
Mammal of the Year: Water Vole
Lepidoptera of the Year: Lesser Purple Emperor
Odonata of the Year: Southern Migrant Hawker
Invertebrate of the Year: Rose Chafer
Flora of the Year: Bee Orchid
Weather of the year: Aurora Borealis

And finally, my respect and thanks go to all my fellow wildlife enthusiasts this year, who, like me, spent many an hour dodging dog-walkers, cyclists & joggers, whilst also sat patiently watching tall trees and empty ponds.

A special ‘thanks’ goes to Ron, Mary and Katy, for providing great company and lots of laughs.

Roll on 2018!

Tinkety-tonk old fruit and down with the Nazis!’
Sign-off originally used by the Queen Mother in a letter dated February 1941.

NB: Holidays - best before kids.
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