Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 25, 2019

Musings of a Sunday Afternoon

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The Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) – a denizen of the woods.

I am often, these days, when walking in the woods happy to have my route dictated by the proximity of other walkers – if there is an empty path to choose, I’ll follow that one.  This, I dare say, makes me sound something of an unsociable grouch with no kind word for anyone.  This I am fairly sure is not true, as hopefully my friends and colleagues would vouch.  It’s just that whilst out in the wild places it is often my own company that I seek, as well as, of course, the company of the creatures who call such places home.  Such evasive behaviour perhaps creates a stronger empathy  with such animals, which themselves are doing something similar so that they may go about their business in the quieter corners of the woods.  I would sometimes go as far to say that in some small way I myself begin to think like a denizen of woods

A warm spring-like Sunday brings many folk out into the woods.  Rightly so too.  The woods on such a day without visitors within them would seem quite wrong, as much as some might crave a greater sense of solitude.  How else are children supposed to experience the first hand pleasures of their natural environment, to feel an integral part of it and to sow the seeds of a respect and appreciation that they may carry with them throughout their lives.  There are too many reasons these days to stay indoors.

I think the more of us who can think like denizens of the woods the better.

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 27, 2019

Estuarine Dramas

Yesterday was a cloudy but calm day over the estuary of the River Crouch.  It was though, a sense of benignity that obscured the many dramas of estuary life, enacted every day, but so often beyond the human gaze.  They are dramas however, that may on occasion be brought to the fore.  As I walked across the marsh along one side of the river I was afforded a fine view of the wading birds flocking in their hundreds across the low tide mud.  There were maybe 400 little Dunlin, scurrying and probing, half as many of each Golden Plover and Lapwing, a liberal scattering of Redshank and a few dozen Grey Plover.  All were foraging in the invertebrate rich mud with an air of purposeful contentment.

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Redshank (Tringa totanus)

And then to a bird they were airborne.  A swarm of wings swept up-river, others scattered across the grazing marsh on the far bank.  Surely my arrival hadn’t put them to flight; I had walked this path many a time without so much as ruffling a feather.  I looked upwards for sight of a predators wings, a Peregrine perhaps, but saw nothing but the apparently panicked waders.  Then a pair of wings stood out from the rest, barely larger than the masses filling the air, but different.  It was a Merlin, that little marauder, Europe’s smallest falcon hardly bigger than the plovers it pursued, but enough of a menace to them to trigger that wave of panic across the mud.  Perhaps more familiar to some as that flash of grey hounding its quarry low across the ground, this one had singled out its target and had followed it higher into the sky.  I had seen this once before, when I watched one Merlin almost taunting a Skylark climbing desperately upwards in an effort to shake its attacker off.  This one had squandered its element of surprise – the plover survived and the frustrated predator sloped away.

I continued my walk and everything was calm again.  The birds had settled, just a few hundred metres upstream to resume their own predations.  Then another shape appeared over the marsh as the sleek form of a Kestrel sped by overhead.  It didn’t seem to be making a concerted play at the waders on the river, but its appearance was enough to the send the birds skyward once again.  Little rest it seems for feeding masses, but equally little joy for hungry falcons.

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Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

As I walked further up-river everything, once again, was calmness.  Oystercatcher were picking their way diligently through the more stony stretches of the estuarine mud, while Black-headed Gull loafed lazily on the wing or standing along the water’s edge.  The gulls though, we also ever-watchful.  I noticed the more purposeful movements of a pair of those clean, white wings.  A Redshank had evidently founded itself some desirable morsel and the gull aimed to have it.  The chase was on.  The smaller Redshank zig-zagged low over the river, reluctant to gain too much height.  The gull matched every twist and turn, showing no sign of being discouraged.  The wader banked sharply, gaining a few metres on its pursuer.  The gull gained them back, anticipating the next evading swerve of its bewildered target.  I watched as the two birds wrote their own, contorted lines into the drama of the estuary, as if tethered to each other, invisibly, elastically – exchanging their gains and losses, all for the small prize held within a Redshank’s beak.  Then the gull made a decisive lunge, perhaps even making contact with the wader and the prize was dropped and within an instant claimed.

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A winter plumage Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 21, 2019

Reed Life

A delightful winter’s day on the Essex marshes (the RSPB reserve of Bowers Marsh) – crisply cold and beautifully bright, the sun igniting the heads of the reeds into so many feathery flares and picking out the assorted birds scattered across the shallows and grazing fields in striking sharpness.

And birds there were a plenty, but it was not the plovers in their hundreds and the gatherings of winter waterfowl that stole the show, but birds of an altogether more surreptitious nature.  A keen ear may have heard quiet, but purposeful ‘ping-ping’ calls sprinkling among the reeds edging the open water.  The eye might then have caught a twitching among the stems and then perhaps a dart of a matching brown flash crossing a gap in the stand or over the tops of tall grasses.  They would be Bearded Tit, or as some may refer to them, Bearded Reedling.

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Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) – male.

The name comes not so much from a bearded appearance, but rather the males sporting an impressive, drooping moustache.  They are birds entirely restricted to large reed-beds and scarce they are too.  The RSPB reckons on 630 pairs scattered around the UK, large near the south and east coasts of England, but also in the Northwest of England and Eastern Scotland.  As a non-migratory resident, hard winters are a significant hazard to them and a check to their numbers.  With all this in mind, to watch at leisure ten of them clambering among the reeds not more than 10 metres away, gorging themselves of reed seeds, was indeed a real treat and a true delight.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 14, 2019

Bird Power

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Mallard (Anas platyrhychnos) – one of the most familiar of all British birds.

The ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’ is a theme of  the natural world that has often shown itself on these pages.  A recent observation demonstrated to me once again how we can never rest on the laurels of our familiarity with even the most abiding or often seen animals with which we share our lives.

A cat stalking the bushes fringing a lake on an Essex nature reserve – the Essex Wildlife Trust’s wonderful Fingringhoe Wick, no less.  There it crouched, eyeing a few ducks dabbling about at the edge, a handful of the many such birds scattered across the water.  They included nothing special, in that there was nothing one wouldn’t expect to see here on a January afternoon; plenty of Mallard, a few Tufted Duck and good numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler, all special, of course, in their own right.

The cat pounced, without success, but scattering the ambushed few birds into the air.  At the commotion the other ducks close by would surely flee to the safety on the far side of the water.  But no, they did quite the opposite.  Within a few moments thirty or so ducks – mostly Mallard and few of the Gadwall – had come about and surged forcefully towards the offending feline, quacking loudly as they went.  The cat, bewildered at this unexpected turn of events, edged backwards, away from the water’s edge.  Yet the scolding continued, until the threat had been well and truly seen off and cajoled far away from any opportunity to renew its predatory attempt.

It was a remarkable and surprising show cooperative aggression by the birds to effectively deal with a dangerous problem.  It was a behaviour that this observer had not previously seen exhibited by the perhaps not so humble Mallard.

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A pair of Gadwall (Anas strepera).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 30, 2018

Dividers of Opinion

The sight of bright green parakeets squawking their way around the Southeast of England, even after decades of their successful establishment here, is a decidedly incongruous one.  Incongruous, but not unwelcome… for some at any rate.

The Ring-necked Parakeet is an Asian native, established in the UK, mainly around London and the Home Counties, by way of successive escapes and introductions since the 1960s.  Their opportunism has been quite impressive really, perhaps all the more so given a chiefly sub-tropical natural distribution, although their presence among the foothills of the Himalayas does suggest something of a hardy streak.  They have risen from a handful in 1968, to three of four thousand in the 1990s, to a current estimated population in excess of 30,000.  The RSPB suggests a breeding population of 8,600 pairs.

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Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) at Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, Essex).

They are great dividers of opinion.  Some bemoan the mess and noise of their winter roosts.  They have an appetite for fruit that has, on occasion, brought them into conflict with growers.  Some naturalists decry their competition with native birds for nest-holes in trees.  On the flip side there is many a Londoner that welcomes the colour they add to the urban wildlife scene; we can be quick to complain about anything that does not fit exactly into our own, uncompromising norm.  As for the competition for nest-sites, while genuine enough, actual adverse effects on the populations of the likes of Jackdaw and woodpeckers are yet (to the best of my knowledge) to be observed – time, in this regard, may tell.

I have seen them on many occasions, not least at their staggering winter roost of several thousand birds at Wormword Scrubs park, but the sound of their distinctive shrieking closer to where I live at Thurrock Thameside Nature Park pricked up my ears and I was pleased to see three of them swoop down to feed on some nut-feeders presumably put out for less exotic visitors.  It did a great deal to brighten a dull December day.

Ring-necked Parakeet 4 (scaled)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 16, 2018

Deep Winter

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Deep Winter

The woods are winter still.

The whole place gripped cold

And wrapped in a day long dusk,

The sky labouring beneath its own weight.

Last night’s hoar has persisted:

Bramble leaves fringed delicately white

And spent bracken fronds

Frosted and curled with cold.

 
But away through the damp-glistened hornbeam,

The rusted ash and incongruous holly

The gloom is centring itself

Around a robin’s beak.

The first notes restrained,

As if testing the air and drawing breath.

Afterwards exhaled in a languid flurry

Of smoothness and viscosity.

 
It seems the summer could hardly

Be further from this place.

Forgotten by a wandering sun,

Shrunken and stifled by winter’s creep.

It has been absorbed into its atoms,

Remembered by its vestiges:

The bird with the spring

On the tip of its tongue.

 

(© Ross Gardner 2018)

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 18, 2018

The element of surprise

One of the greatest compulsions of the natural world is its apparently unending capacity for surprise.  This I was reminded of, very recently, by…… some ducks.

The Mallard is perhaps the most familiar of all British duck.  The Wigeon and Teal perhaps less so, but any who were inclined to take an interest in birds would quite soon become acquainted with them; while breeding populations may be small, both winter around the UK in their hundreds of thousands.  I have watched all three of these species more times than I could remember, yet yesterday I saw a behaviour I had never seen before.

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The Teal (Anas crecca) is a common winter visitor to the UK.

At the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes reserve there is a long, open body of water.  At one end it terminates in a sloping bank, not too steep and colonised in the drier part of the year with a weedy growth of plants.  On this occasion it was alive with ducks, of the above-mentioned species.  At any given moment two or three dozen of them could be seen running up the bank, busying themselves amongst the mud around the plants and then waddling just as purposefully back down to the water’s edge to ‘drink’.

This was most intriguing to watch, all these ducks running their perfectly straight lines, up and down from the water and back.  Two theories I have for this behaviour; someone reading this might know for certain.  At first I pondered whether they were taking advantage of a windfall of seeds fallen from the plants growing on the bank, scurrying up to gather a beakful, but requiring a good drink so as to swallow the dry food.  Then I wondered if instead they had discovered an abundance of some invertebrate or other, thriving in the mud at the top of the bank, taking in what they could before returning to the edge to take on water so as to more effectively sieve them from the substrate.  The latter, I think, seems the most likely.

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The fleet at West Canvey Marshes.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 28, 2018

A Wild Rover

So the autumn finally decides to feel a bit more like autumn, arguably taking a temporary swing towards the winter to come. Yet a few days before we were still extolling the virtues of rather more than a mere lingering warmth of a summer already quite distant – all Comma butterflies and dragonflies, bumblebees and even reptiles.

And there was another among this list of warmth loving animals, one that I’m always happy to renew an acquaintance with.  The rather ominously monikered Devil’s Coach-horse is a creature that stands out in the memory as one those that made a particular impression on me as a boy, like the little-finger-sized Emperor Moth caterpillars that inhabited the bramble-filled wasteground near where I lived and Slow-worm that used to frequent the garden.

The Devil’s Coach-horse, for the initiated, is a beetle (Ocypus olens) and a member of the huge family of Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae) with more than 60,000 species world-wide.  The 1000 or so that live in the UK account for around a quarter of the national beetle fauna.  Most are typified by a narrow, elongated body shape and short wings that, unlike other beetles, exposes a greater part of the abdomen.  The Devil’s Coach-horse is no different and at around 3cm long is also our largest species.  They are formidable looking creatures, equipped with powerful jaws with which they doubtlessly terrorise the smaller animals which may happen across their path and on which they feed.

The thing that perhaps really sets them apart and maybe can especially capture the imagination of an impressionable young boy, is the threat display exhibited when alarmed.  The abdomen is curled upwards and forwards scorpion style, as is more than ably demonstrated by the insect I encountered and photographed below.  They of course have no sting and are harmless to humans, but they do have quite an array of deterrents for any would be predators, from fluid issued from the mouth, to noxious chemicals produced by glands on the tip of the abdomen, to the releasing plain old fecal matter from the anus.  These latter qualities I was not aware of as a lad, but I’m sure that especially the last listed would only have served to enhance the appeal of these splendid little beasts.

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Devil’s Coach-horse (Ocypus olens). Copyright 2018 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 23, 2018

Of wind and wonder

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Aust Cliff

A breezy day yesterday at Walton-on-the-Naze put me in mind of some verse I had penned a few years back, for a different place but at the same time of the season.  For both the attraction was the same – the lure of fossils on a beach.  That previous location however, was far from Northeast Essex coast at Walton.  It was the other side of the country in fact, in the lea of the red and grey facade of Aust Cliff, on the banks of the River Severn, in view, pretty much, of the Severn Bridge.  And instead of the Eocene exposure of the crumbling east coast cliff, bearing its hoard of 50 million year old shark teeth and more recent (but still ancient) fossil shells and fragments of whalebone, those western cliffs yield Triassic fossils of much older origins, 200 million years before – shark teeth also, but maybe for very fortunate bone fragments of plesioraurs and ichthyosours.

But while the fossil hunting was not especially successful it was the wind that day which stuck in the memory…

Storm Rising
The wind drums at the cliff-face,
Through bridges, beneath the eaves
Of houses facing the blast.
Rattles the flashing leaves
Of poplars seething with every
Grabbing, grappling gust.
Churns a chocolate sea, breaking
Over wave-smoothed mud
In a foam of creaming surf.
Boomerangs the gulls above,
Throws starlings looping
Over fields of quivering turf.
Tolerates a kestrel hanging
In a precarious hover,
Defying the rush of air.
The wind shuns each feather,
The elements of sea and stone,
Raising its voice to the Earth's ear.

 

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 8, 2018

Raptors

It’s not often you get a five raptor day within a stone’s throw of the South Essex urban sprawl.  This though, was very much the case last weekend.

As I have made mention of more than once within the pages of this blog, amid this spread towns and industry are to be discover considerable stretches of open country.  So it was yesterday that I found myself walking the seawall around the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes reserve, the remarkable brownfield reserve of Canvey Wick (an entomologists treasure trove in due season) and their adjoining acres.  This all comprises a landscape of grazing land, dykes and ditches, scrub and saltwater creek frontage.  It is an area not unknown by local naturalists as a potential draw of wandering birds of prey, not only raptors, but owls too.

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Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus).

First up was a beautiful female Marsh Harrier, all brown, but for her creamy yellow crown.  She was loafing over the saltmarsh on easy, languid wing-beats, showing only the faintest interest in the Curlew she had spooked beneath her.  Not long after a Buzzard sailed overhead, much to the chagrin of the Carrion Crow paying its close, harrying attention.  I am always impressed by these birds, something which is undiminished by their resurgence of recent years and returning to former, long vacated haunts.  Their occurrence around these part is becoming increasingly regular.

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Buzzard (Buteo buteo).

The Peregrine racing over the fields an hour or two later was indeed a treat, perhaps one of the two birds I had seen a few miles eastward a couple of weeks back.  Even before the slate-grey upperparts are clocked, these birds a quite unmistakable; undoubtedly a falcon with all its narrow-winged aerodynamism; undoubtedly a peregrine, emanating that sense of predatory power and robustness.  The recovery of the Peregrine from the pesticide disasters of the mid-20th century is well-known, to the extent that they now inhabit many of the UK’s larger towns and cities, enjoying rich pickings from the thriving populations of city pigeons.  As birds general quite faithful to their breeding areas, there is however, a small proportion of these falcons given to migratory movements and so some of those that haunt the coastal landscapes during the winter may well have their origins in Scandinavian Europe.

The Kestrel, I am pleased to say, have long been a feature of such places, but its presence here today no less a welcome one.  The last of the five though, was perhaps the biggest treat of all.  It was provided by a Merlin fly-by.  These are the smallest falcon, scarcely bigger (if at all) than a Blackbird.  They are hunters of upland realms during the breeding season, dispersing, often to coastal areas for the winter and perhaps joined also by migrants from Northern Europe.

It’s not often that birdwatching pans out quite as conveniently as this, but when it does it is good fortune to be cherished.

 

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