Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Wildlife and Weather Roundup 2016 - Part One

This is a Brexit and Trump-free zone! No celebrity obituaries here. And no, there isn’t a ‘hidden message’ this time. It’s just an end-of-year round-up - fat-free; vegan-rich and wildlife-friendly. I can also confirm that no wildlife were hurt during the creation of this report. Move along, please!

The Weather:
2016 was the 13th warmest year in the UK, in a series going back to 1910. All UK regions recorded higher than average temperatures for the year, but East Anglia was among the warmest. The warmest months included September and December. The wettest were January and June. There was no really cold month. If that’s not odd, I don’t know what is. Overall, for the UK, 2016 was warmer than average, but close to average for rainfall.

The most extreme weather events of the year were a series of winter storms which occurred at intervals between January and mid-March, bringing damaging floods in certain areas. Much of the rest of the year was relatively benign, with some settled spells.

The weather forecasters managed to get it spectacularly wrong this year, for the most part. Even the usually reliable, but gorgeous Carol, couldn’t be totally dependable.

Globally, 2016 beat 2015’s record-breaking temperature and so, for the first time in the past 150+ years, three consecutive years have set a new annual global temperature record.

A strong El Nino, which lasted from May 2015 to May 2016, was the cause of much of the abnormal weather events and weather watchers are now predicting more abnormal weather in the years to come. It might just become the new normal.

'Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.'
George Orwell 1948, in an essay in the Socialist Leader.

This was another great year for wildlife watching. Even though the totals were down, both in species and visits, it was nonetheless a very satisfying year. I concentrated mainly on quality rather than quantity, this year, which probably reflects the low totals.

A new camera and lens combo seems to have improved my photo efforts, but was somewhat tempered by the usual lack of field-craft skills. However, unlike others, I didn’t attempt any underwater photography.

The highlight, this year, was a wonderful trip to St. Kilda, a personal goal achieved. However, it was mitigated by a disappointing trip to Ghana. Note to self: must read the paraphernalia before choosing trip.

The month could be summed up in one word: Mild. The Arctic was in positive temperature territory, unheard of in winter. At the start of January, the UK was very unsettled, dominated by low pressure, with frequent active depressions and fronts. It was generally mild, but it turned colder for a few days around mid-month, with widespread frosts. The last third was generally very mild and wet with strong winds. Storm Gertrude caused widespread disruption, with damaging winds. It was the 4th wettest January, on record, in the UK. Sorry, did I say ‘one word’?
Visits this month: Somerset Levels. 2 trips to Amwell, 2 trips to Cheshunt.
The stand-out trip this month was a short foray to the Somerset Levels. I have always wanted to see a Starling Murmuration and they didn’t disappoint. It was quite a spectacle and I heartily recommend a visit. Other birds on show down there were Great White Egret, Common Crane, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Barn Owl. Not only did we see a Starling Murmuration, we also saw a Duck Murmuration! It was very good for raptors, with 6 species seen. The first Daffodils and Snowdrops of the season were seen here, on what was a fantastic 2-day trip.
Shelduck, Goosander, Ring-necked Parakeets and Stonechat all appeared at Cheshunt. At Amwell, I had a close-up Sparrowhawk sighting. All the Gulls showed again this year, including Caspian and Yellow-legged. Well, it was a Gull and it had yellow legs. A Coal Tit showed briefly, while the female Bearded Tit was still present and there were also good views of Treecreeper and Siskin. Both venues also provided good views of Water Rail, Smew, Goldeneye, Goosander and Goldcrest. There were lots of wildfowl & Thrushes about.
The first Bank Voles and Fox were seen at Cheshunt, while Muntjac started to appear regularly.

February began unsettled and wet, with westerly and south-westerly winds. A bit like how I felt, at the time. Storm Henry brought widespread gale-force winds early on and then Storm Imogen brought further strong winds soon after. It turned colder around the middle of the month with some scattered wintry showers and sharp night frosts. After some further rain, there was a mild interlude towards the end of the month, but the remainder was generally dry, sunny and cold.
Quite possibly a record 11 visits were made this month, despite the poor weather and being the shortest month of the year. 5 trips to Amwell; 2 to Cheshunt; 2 to Mistley Walls; 1 to Rye Meads and 1 to a new venue, Hartham Common.
Lots of wildfowl were still about, although not quite in the numbers of recent years, possibly due to the abnormal weather. More and more Thrushes continued to turn up. Shelduck & Pintail were the stars at Mistley, as were lots of waders, including Knot, Redshank and Blackwits. Also seen there were Red-breasted Merganser, Avocet, Oystercatcher, Curlew and Turnstone. One of the ‘local yokels’ also pointed out a Mongoose. Eh? Lots of Goldeneyes were still at Amwell, but the Smew was elusive. Not so at Cheshunt, where I had a close encounter with 3 redheads. Unfortunately, they didn’t give me their phone numbers. Surprisingly, there was no drake Smew seen at all, this season. Goosander and Stonechat showed well at Cheshunt, as did a pair of Great Crested Grebes, doing their courtship dance. This time, I checked for dogs. Ahem. Great Spotted Woodpeckers were now starting to drum. Ring-necked Parakeets appeared on every visit there, with upto a dozen present – now probably a permanent fixture in the LVRP. A lovely Cetti’s Warbler, Lesser Redpoll, Bullfinch, Siskin and a pair of Marsh Tits performed well, late in the month, at Amwell. Goldcrests and Treecreepers were seemingly everywhere. The Bramblings were still around at Rye Meads. There was a close encounter with a Kingfisher, at Hartham Common, thanks to a tip-off by Mary & Katy. Shush, don’t tell anyone!
Bank Voles performed well at Amwell and there were plenty of mammals to be seen around most places. However, the stars were the plentiful Muntjacs, with a record 12 seen on one visit, at Cheshunt.
Midges continued to be a nuisance. I think it was my new aftershave. Pollen spewed forth towards the end of the month, causing sneezing fits. Daffodils and Hawthorn flowered early again this year, while there were goods shows of Snowdrop and Crocus.

It was the second wettest winter for the UK and the warmest on record going back to 1910. December 2015 was one of the most extraordinary months in the UK's observational records, being both exceptionally mild and wet, with several storms bringing record-breaking rainfall totals. A brief cold snap in mid-January brought a welcome respite before further stormy weather brought widespread disruption at the end of the month. Overall, January 2016 was slightly milder than average across all areas. February was dry, sunny and cold, but with some bright, sunny spells particularly during the second half of the month. Thank God for thermals.

At the start of March, the weather was dominated by low pressure, bringing wet and cold weather. There were strong winds associated with Storm Jake, while it was very wet across the country. However, high pressure became established from mid-month, bringing dry, settled weather, often with plenty of sunshine. More unsettled weather then returned during the final week, while Storm Katy brought damaging winds, particularly in the south-east. Locally, I was ok, but I think a stiff breeze knocked down next door’s garden gnome.
7 visits were made this month. I went to Amwell 3 times, with one each to Bramfield; Lemsford Springs; Cheshunt and Thorley Wash.
Despite the poor weather, both at the beginning and end of the month, I managed to get out and about seven times. Migration began, but there still wasn’t much coming in. I felt like migrating myself. A Bittern finally showed itself, twice, at Amwell, thanks to the ‘Bittern Whisperer’. Smew, Goldeneye and Goosander made their last appearances of the season. Redshank turned up at the end of the month, at Amwell, as did Barn Owl, Cetti’s Warbler, Chiffchaff, Marsh and Coal Tit, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and lots more Thrushes. It was turning out to be quite a good year for Goldcrest. Elsewhere, there were Green Sandpipers at Lemsford Springs, which also saw Snipe and Treecreeper. On the same day, I looked for Hawfinch at Bramfield, although unsuccessfully this time. However, it was quite good for raptors, including Red Kite. Cheshunt saw just the usual stuff this month, but did include several Call Ducks. I also paid a visit to Thorley Wash, attending a HMWT Water Vole event. We didn’t see any - the weather put paid to that - but there was Buzzard, Kingfisher, Woodpeckers, Wagtails and Chiffchaff to be seen. Sadly I didn’t see any Water Voles all year.
However, Bank Voles continued to delight at Amwell. Then a Weasel promptly showed up and took one of them. It was a very exciting and close encounter. The Muntjac population seemed to be increasing. Don’t they have hobbies?
Insect sightings were also increasing; mainly Queen Bees but March saw the first of the Ladybirds, a 7-spot.
Flora began to bloom more and more, with the first Primroses at the beginning of the month. Buds were sprouting everywhere.

April began unsettled, with frequent showers and some longer spells of rain and this unsettled theme persisted for most of the first half of the month, although it was quite warm in the south. The second half was often cool and showery, but with a warm sunny interlude between the 19th and 21st. Sleet and snow fell unusually late in the month.
Despite the poor-ish weather, I managed to again get out 7 times. Visits to Amwell (3); a day trip combining Abberton, Mersea and Mistley, another to RSPB Lakenheath Fen, SWT Lackford Lakes and, finally, a visit each to Cheshunt and WWT Barnes.
It was unseasonably cold and wet for most of the month and I had to pick and choose my days out carefully, at times visiting several places on the same day.
There were plenty of raptors about, especially at Amwell, notably a Marsh Harrier at the beginning of the month. Hobbys started to appear at the same time. The increase in migration brought in a fair few Waders, as well. Oystercatchers, Little Ringed Plovers, Dunlin and Redshank all made appearances. However, the best visit for Waders was to Mersea, which also brought Ringed Plover, Knot, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and Turnstone. There was even a Common Sandpiper seen at Cheshunt, towards the end of the month. Common Terns started to appear. The first Cuckoo could be heard calling. Hirundines began turning in some numbers. Fieldfares and Redwings made their last appearances of the season. On the Warbler front, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Reed, Sedge and Willow Warbler all showed up and showed well. The other notable sighting this month, was at Lackford Lakes, with a long-staying Long-tailed Duck. It was my first visit there, thanks again to Ron and I came away suitably impressed with the place. I also made my annual trip to Barnes, seeing all the usual birds there, but all of which gave great close-up views. The LWC is always a great place to hone your photography skills. However, I think I still need a bit of honing.
There wasn’t much to shout about, mammal-wise this month. However, the first butterflies appeared, including Brimstone, Orange Tip, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. Incredibly, despite the poor weather, a few Large Red damselflies were seen at Lakenheath Fen and Amwell.
The best insect sightings of the month were Bee-fly, Dock Bug and St. Mark’s Flies, all early detections. There was an invertebrate explosion as the month went on.
Bluebells and Daffodils continued to flower throughout the month, while the first Forget-Me-Knots appeared. I forget exactly when. There was a lone Periwinkle and Tulip found at Amwell, while my first sighting of Snake’s Head Fritillaries were a delight to see, down in Barnes.

The month began unsettled and windy with low pressure in charge, before becoming warmer and more settled with high pressure. For much of the rest of the month an easterly flow prevailed, bringing plenty of fine, warm and sunny weather, with scattered thundery showers, which affected western and southern areas. It was particularly warm in the second week. This pattern was interrupted by a brief colder interlude mid-month and an unsettled spell, but warm and sunny weather re-established itself in many areas during the final week. It was time to break out the sun cream.
It was another 7 visits this month – 3 to Amwell and 1 each to Rainham Marsh; Sawbridgeworth; Cheshunt and lastly, to Rye Meads.
Although not one of the great months, weather-wise, early on, I managed to pick out the sunnier days. However, it was another record hot month for the planet, another in a long line of record-breaking months. This trend would continue.
Shelduck appeared at both Rainham and Amwell. There was another spectacular sighting of a Sparrowhawk at Amwell, at the end of the month. Marsh Harriers were at Rainham. Hobby appeared several times, at several venues. Waders continued to prosper, with the usual Oystercatcher, LRP, Lapwing and Redshank, all showing well at most places. There was also another visit by a Dunlin, this time at Rainham, which also had Greenshank present. Common Terns were now plentiful. However, 4 Black Terns also arrived, at Amwell, setting the pulse racing. They were also seen at Rye Meads. A Cuckoo was finally seen, at Amwell, while others were heard on nearly every subsequent visit everywhere else. Hirundines increased in number, with all of them crowding the skies. The Kingfishers seemed to have disappeared from Amwell, but they were seen at Rainham early on, before showing well at Rye Meads, where the first of 3 broods fledged. Yellow Wagtails appeared at Amwell over the course of a few days, delighting everyone at the Watchpoint. A Wheatear also turned up there, again delighting everyone. It was my first sighting of the year and a first at Amwell. Warblers had now arrived in huge numbers and were very vocal before pairing up and nesting. All the usual suspects, of course, but I was delighted to see a Grasshopper Warbler in the Sawbridgeworth Marsh. I was also lucky enough to find a Treecreeper nest, near the James Hide, at Amwell. They only managed to fledge one youngster, but it gave great, close-up views. Linnets appeared at Rainham.
The now overgrowing flora started to obscure mammal sightings. However, the star spot of the month was a Water Shrew at Rainham. It was my first-ever ‘live’ sighting of a Shrew. Redpoll cattle were introduced at Rye Meads, while a Grass Snake appeared at Amwell. A Red-eared Terrapin turned up at Cheshunt, near a Great Crested Grebe nest.
Butterflies and Moths started to come into their own this month, as more and more species started to appear. Orange Tips did well this year, as did Peacocks and Red Admirals. Although very few Small Tortoiseshells were seen. The star this month, on the Lepidoptera front, was a Poplar Hawkmoth.
Odonata exploded, a little earlier than in previous years. There were plenty of damsels, with a sighting of Red-eyed later in the month. The dragons appeared late on, with Hairy’s leading the charge. I was quite pleased; I was starting to have withdrawal symptoms.
Invertebrates started to explode too. Of the many species seen this month, the stars were Bee-fly, Dock Bugs, Green and Hairy Shield Bugs, St Mark’s Fly and Wasp Beetles.
The Bluebells bade us farewell for another year. However, they were replaced with lots of lovely Orchid species.

Spring was fairly wet and slightly colder than normal, across eastern England. March brought some very wet and windy weather from Storm Jake early on, as did Storm Katy toward the end of the month. However, the middle of the month saw two weeks of fine, settled weather, with high pressure establishing itself over the UK. In April, a mixture brought some spring sunshine, fluctuating temperatures and above average rainfall. Temperatures in March were below normal in the south, while all areas were colder than normal in April. However, May saw a slight improvement.

At the start of June, the weather was dry and settled, but often cloudy, with north-easterly winds bringing low cloud in from the North Sea. Showers and thunderstorms increasingly broke out inland after the 5th. From the 10th onwards, the weather was generally unsettled, wet and cloudy, with low pressure often in charge. There were also thundery downpours at times and heavy rain and thunderstorms caused significant disruption in the south-east. It was the dullest June on record in the south-east, as well as quite a showery month, with very few sunny spells. I had to break out the wet weather gear!
All of which limited me to only 4 visits, but one of them was a short cruise around the Outer Hebrides, encompassing a much-anticipated visit to St Kilda. One day was spent visiting Balls Wood/Hertford Heath/Amwell. There were also visits to Thorley Wash and London Zoo.
The holiday to the Outer Hebrides was memorable not just for setting foot on St Kilda, but also for the sight and sounds of thousands of seabirds. Not forgetting the smells, too. Too many wonderful bird species to name, but a special mention goes to the endemic St Kilda Wren. Again, I heartily recommend it. Don’t forget to bring your seasickness tablets.
Unfortunately, it’s that time of year again, as birds now start to disappear for a while. However, there were still a few special sightings. Oystercatcher, Little Ringed Plover and Redshank were still about at Amwell. Common Terns and loads of Warblers were all busily raising youngsters.
Mammal sightings were down even more, as the lush flora now started to obscure nearly everything. The mix of rain and sun, sun and rain was obviously taking effect. However, this meant, of course, that invertebrates started to prosper. Butterflies now started to come out, in force. The first Skippers, Meadow Browns and Speckled Woods appeared. As did more moths, with Cinnabar and Yellow-tailed showing well.
More and more species of Odonata started to show up. There was an incredible 14 species seen, during one day, at BW/HH and Amwell. I had my first-ever sighting of Scarce Emeralds at HH, together with first showings, this year, of Common Emerald, Black-tailed Skimmer, Ruddy Darter and Emperor. Banded Demoiselles were now out in some numbers, always a delight to see.
The star insect of the month was undoubtedly a close encounter with a Ruby-tailed Wasp. New-for-year sightings included Black-headed Cardinal Beetle, Longhorn Beetle, Mint Leaf Beetle, Speckled Bush Cricket and Thick-kneed Flower Beetle. Other star spots, this month, were Dark Bush Cricket, Dock Bug, Green Nettle Weevil, Scorpion Fly, Soldier Beetle plus loads of Mayflies, Midges and Bees. It was a veritable invertebrate nirvana, definitely a month to be wearing kevlar-enforced trousers!

I tried to learn a few new flower species this month, as well. Although it was quite odd to see Primroses blooming right next to Bluebells, up in the Hebrides. It was the month to see Orchids. More Forget-Me-Knots, Foxgloves and Ragged Robin all bloomed.