Tuesday, 6 September 2016

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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Catching the flycatchers

They sit rather upright, like they are sitting to attention, alert and ready. Their eyes are large, and their short but broad bill has whiskers around the base to help catch the flying insects they feed on. These agile little birds take their prey on the wing, dashing out from a branch, snatching prey mid-air before returning to their perch. They are known as Flycatchers. In Britain we have two regular species, both of which are migrants, appearing in the spring, nesting through our summer and then heading south to Africa for winter. 

The Spotted Flycatcher, could be called the striated flycatcher, or the boring, dullish browney-grey flycatcher. At first sight they may appear just that, a little brownish grey bird with a few streaks. But look closer, and you see the large, dark eye, the pale white underparts with the subtle soft brown streaks. Its back and wings darker with delicate striations on the head. Then just sit and watch. They are wonderful to watch. Sitting patiently on a branch, telegraph wire, or edge of building… then darting out into the sky, almost hovering mid-air sometimes, or dashing around in pursuit of prey. Then back to sitting and watching, the picture of calm following the frenzy of activity. 

The subtly beautiful Spotted Flycatcher

It was one Sunday afternoon in June that saw us sipping tea and eating kindly offered biscuits while watching a pair of Spotted Flycatchers busily feeding and coming to and fro from their nest on a ledge under the eaves of a barn. We had been invited to see if we could catch and ring the birds as part of the BTOs wider ringing scheme. Although just up the road from us, we do not get too many opportunities to ring adult Spotted Flycatchers and were only too happy to take up the offer. With the birds busy feeding chicks it was not too long before the one, and then the other were caught in our strategically placed net. The process was quick, we are old hands now, and it is not long before the birds are back catching insects and feeding their chicks. Just a little time though to admire the subtle beauty of these little birds. 

The other species is the Pied Flycatcher. Much more of a western UK bird, we do not see them much at home in the East of England. But travel west and we have often been found helping out with nest box monitoring projects for these charming little, black and white birds in the sloping woods of Wales. It is not however a bird one expects to catch when mist netting in your parents-in-laws garden. Namely because we are mostly catching birds that come into the seed and nut feeders to eat, and Pied Flycatchers like the Spotted ones prefer their food a little more wriggly, flying, and alive. So when Lee picked a rather dull brown bird out of the net it took us a moment to realise what it was! Females and young Pied Flycatchers tend to be browner than the striking black and white males. But there are still the Flycatcher features of short but broad bill, large eyes, and in this case the white patches on the wing and tail telling us it is a Pied. In fact it was a bird of the year, hatched probably only a few months before in one of the surrounding woodlands. But to see it, let alone catch it in the garden is quite something else! 

The unexpected Pied Flycatcher caught in the garden!

Friday, 22 July 2016

Misty Dolphins

The country sweltered as bright hot sunshine blazed in the azure blue sky, steaming away the rain that had dominated the summer so far. Across the country people headed to the seaside, rivers, pools and lakes. And where there were none they dug out their paddling pools, filling them with cool, clear water, the sighs audible across the country as the refreshing water bathed hot skin. People flocked to water like parched travellers searching the desert. OK all sounds rather dramatic for just one or two hot days in the year... but we are British and this is what we do!

The Wild Barley family did the same; introducing the newest member to the delights of the ocean lapping your toes, although in her case it was more like washing her from head to toe. The tiny little intake of breath as the cool water rushes over almost instantly followed with giggles of delight. When in West Wales there is one place I am always drawn to, the lure of those magnificent mammals never far away. While there is always a chance from most headlands along this coast, New Quay has to be one of the best places to try and see the bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay. The dolphins and New Quay have both featured numerous times in Wild Barley over the years. This time while the sun beat down on the green Welsh countryside and even over head for a while, that mysterious, shrouding fret or haar, also known as sea fog lay thick over the water close to shore. As the morning progressed the coastline, harbour wall, houses, shops and yachts standing on their keels as the tide went out, all disappeared behind its pea soup like shroud. There would be no dolphins seen from shore this time....

Nothing for it but to head out onto a boat, all of us, the dog included. The sea itself was calm, just a slight roll and tiny dark waves breaking its surface. The fog surrounded the boat, cloaking the coast, with headlands occasional appearing from the greyness. No horizon, sea and sky merged into one. But it was not dreary, gloomy grey. The bright sunshine that was hidden above gave lightness to the grey, while the sea remained a beautiful green colour. The fog made the scene more mysterious; one could almost imagine hearing a fierce Welsh dragon breathing behind the mist...

Occasionally the sun would break through, turning the sea bright green, and revealing a rocky coastline with small pebbly bays, huge rocks and towering cliffs. Here the last few breeding seabirds wheeled from the rock, disappearing into the fog. Kittiwakes and fulmars sit high up the cliff, shags and cormorants stretch their wings while sat atop huge boulders. Bobbing on the water below small groups of razorbills and guillemots, the contrast of their black and while plumage gleaming against the green of the sea.


We continue on, the mist closing in once more, the boat guided only by GPS. The guide continues with her spiel, providing interesting information not only on the dolphins, but the bay, its history and geology (one just had to imagine the rock formations she was describing!) With no reference point as to where we were, we simply motor on through the pale grey, until suddenly up ahead something large and dark breaks the surface with a splash. The word 'dolphin' erupts from my lips interrupting (in the nicest possible way!) the guide. Four animals break the surface once again, heading for the boat which slows. A dark shape glides beneath the surface right alongside us, before they surface again in the wake of the boat. Eyes scan the water to the edge of the mist, searching. Then boom, two dolphins leap clear of the water in pure synchronicity. They are right on the edge of the mist. Two more breach, their forms more hazy as they disappear into the fog; a brief but none the less breathless encounter. We sit, quiet once more, searching for any sign of the group. The guide calls out; just by the headland she assure us is there, she has sighted a female and her new calf surfacing close by her side. Eyes strain into the mist. Sure enough the faint outline of rocks and coastline appears, a small fishing boat bobs nearby and there breaking the greeney grey water a dolphin followed closely by a small calf. We watch her for a while, before turning for home and heading back into the fog.

Calf bottlenose dolphins peaks above the waves next to mum

We pass closer to shore, watching the waves lap the rocks and swirl into crevices. The heads of grey seals pop up occasionally from the waves, watching us back. Further along and a heavily pregnant female lies high above the water line, soaking in the warmth filtering through the fog.

It is only a sense that we are almost back to harbour, based on time rather than position. Gazing back into the fog and suddenly four more bottlenose dolphins leap clear on the water, drawing further excited yelps from my lips. There is no time to stop. It is a last goodbye. The harbour comes into focus, appearing from the mist with its ghostly figures on top. We are soon back on dry land, the sun now starting to fight back against the blanket of fog, pushing it away from the houses and harbour. Yet it still lingers close offshore, not quite willing to give up its blanket hold on this part of the coast.
What a fabulous trip for our Wild Barley family. Robyn’s first boat trip and first dolphins (hopefully of many!) and Barley’s first trip on a boat... she is an old hand at dolphin watching from shore :)

Our trip was with New Quay Dolphin Spotting Trips who work in connection with Sea Watch Foundation.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The House Martins

Finally a dry, sunny, warm Sunday morning. Through a bright blue sky with only a few white fluffy clouds soar numerous, small, dark pointy winged birds with forked tails. As they twist and turn against the sky a brilliant white belly and rump flash against the dark back and wings. Their calls fill the air. To me it sounds like someone blowing short raspberries, Robyn in particular does a very good impression. It is in fact a short chirrup, but I like the analogy of my daughter blowing raspberries better! There are twenty or so of these small birds dashing through the warm morning. In groups they dip low and then shoot up under the eaves of the small brick cottage sitting near to farm buildings and open ground. Looking up under the eaves there are a dozen or so small, round, muddy brown blobs attached to the underside with a small dark hole. The birds are House Martins, and with the reed beds at Cranwich completely flooded with limited access we decided to try our luck at trying to catch some of these gorgeous little birds. 

The distinctive House Martin

In the same way we caught Swifts, we now hoist up a net in front of the eaves and the House Martin nests. As the birds drop out of the nest they invariably fall into the pockets of mist net and we are able to extract them safely. 

Up close they are not merely a black and white bird. The feathers on the back are glossy dark bluish purple, the contrast with the white rump and belly is striking. But the very best feature of House Martins are their feathered legs, right the way down to the claws on their toes. 

Up close to the House Martin

As with the Swifts one might ask the question, why go to this much trouble to try and catch House Martins? Well sadly, like the Swifts, House Martins are Amber listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern and has undergone a moderate decline in numbers. 

House Martins are a summer breeder, spending the winter south of the Sahara in Africa. They arrive from April, and although many do not start breeding immediately very soon they begin to build their little mud nests, often repairing old nests.  It is a delight to see small groups of chattering House Martins at muddy pools of water during the early summer, collecting their beakfuls of mud before swooping up to careful place them to form a the muddy shell which is then lined with soft feathers. One of problems is the lack of nesting spaces with modern buildings and the removal of nests from houses. It is illegal to remove House Martin nests during the breeding season, although many are still unfortunately destroyed because of the issue of the bird’s droppings. 

House Martin chicks peeking from the nest

Such is the concern with the decline in House Martins nesting in the UK, especially in England, the British Trust for Ornithology is running a National Survey of House Martins to try and establish reliable population estimates, investigate how the population is distributed and look at the position of nests, timing and number of broods. If you would like to find out more about the survey, and maybe even make a donation to help fund the research then please check out the BTO website

For us we now have the exciting opportunity of a breeding colony of House Martins that we can monitor on a regular basis. 

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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

You never know what you gonna get

Cranwich was sitting under grey clouds. What had happened to summer? A week of greyness and rain meant the water in the pools was up, and the puddles full so that those in wellies had to be careful when crossing through to avoid water spilling over their tops. The conditions though were actually pretty good for mist netting, not bright sunshine and only a slight gusty breeze occasionally billowing the fine mesh nets. We were well into the Constant Effort sessions, setting nets in the same place for the same time, once every 10 days. The reed warblers were well and truly into their breeding around the sites and the wader or wetsuit clad team were busy monitoring them, along with the other nests on site. As the morning progressed a steady stream of birds were returned to the ringing station. Numerous reed warblers were brought back and ringed with not only the metal ring but as part of the ongoing project onsite, fitted with a colour ring also. Some already had metal rings on; birds ringed as chicks in the nest now returning to Cranwich as breeding adults. For the first time we also caught a sedge warbler, originally ringed in 2012 as a chick in a nest, one of only eight ringed that year. Now, four years later it is back as a breeding adult!  

The warblers kept coming; next up a Cetti’s warbler. This individual we have seen and caught a number of times since it arrived last autumn. He is all the more obvious for wearing a yellow colour ring! Originally ringed at nearby Lakenheath as part of a project there, this bird has decided Cranwich suits is breeding habitat needs much better. 

Cetti's Warbler

The other warbler making a significant appearance this year at Cranwich is the garden warbler. Seemingly a plain and boring bird being small and brownish grey, with most guides saying no distinguishing features being the main ID feature! Get up close and they are one of the prettiest birds in such a subtle way. Soft brown, grey and white feathers, a dark eye and an almost friendly expression. We have caught quite a few over the last few weeks. Today though one turned up with a ring on already, but the ring did not say British Museum (all British rings have a unique number and the British Museum address) it said ICONA MADRID! This bird was originally ringed in Spain! Garden warblers spend the winter south of the Sahara, passing through countries like Spain on their migration. 

Spanish ringed Garden Warbler!

It was turning into a very eventful ringing session! There were of course the usual great and blue tits, as well as a willow tit. Then there was a Jay, only the third ringed at Cranwich. Topping of the morning was a family party of long-tailed tits. The young with their chocolatey brown feathers and bright red eye ring, looking a bit weathered and worn after raising so many chicks. 

Beautiful Jay

By now the sun had broken through the clouds and it went from a slightly chilly morning to boiling heat in an instant. The morning’s session was over and it was time to retreat to some shade and well-earned rest, ready to do it all again in during the next session.

Juvenile Long-tailed Tit

Saturday, 21 May 2016

If you go down to the woods today...

Nope we didn’t have to go in disguise and there were not all the teddy bears having a picnic, but this time we were definitely in for a big surprise. 

Sunlight from a golden evening streams through the trees, the dried crunchy leaves and needles scattered on the forest floor glow in the dappled sunlight. The trees are bushing out with bright green leaves, mixing with dark evergreens of the pine trees. A rustle in the fallen leaves and two men appear from the open grassy track, carrying a ladder, and head into the shade of the trees. They move as quietly as possible, carrying their load. Manoeuvring the ladder against one of the tall trees, one begins to climb to the large nesting box attached to its trunk. With care he opens the side hatch and peers in. The box is a Tawny Owl nest box, one of 20 put up around the Forest in a new monitoring project. 

Sunlight streams through as the guys check the box

At the bottom of the box on top of the fresh sawdust placed on its wooden floor, is a deep cosy nest of greyish, soft down and hidden beneath a small layer of feathers are 10 creamy eggs.  

Here is the surprise. The eggs do not belong to Tawny Owl, or even Stock Dove perhaps the other species expected to inhabit the boxes. They do not even belong to Jackdaw, although that would be unusual given the location within the Forest. No, the nest belongs to a Mandarin. A beautifully exotic duck whose usual range is in East Asia but that was introduced in the early 20th Century and is now a naturalised resident. 

It seems odd, a duck nesting in a tree cavity. But there are many that do, including our native Goldeneye. 

Mandarin nest. Photo: Mike Toms

But there it is all nestled within the squared walls of our box. This time the female is not present and has carefully covered the eggs to keep them warm in her absence. Carefully the ladder is removed and the team retreats, we will return again to check the nest again with the hope of catching the female as she leaves, but also to check that the ducklings have climbed out OK. For that is how it must be, the ducklings will claw up the inner wall of the cavity and launch themselves out of the hole! Good job they are so soft and ‘fluffy’!

A few days later and the glorious sunshine had vanished to be replaced by a rather dull, grey morning. But once again, moving softly and quietly between the trees and over the rustling leaves the team with the ladder returns to the tree and the box. This time we are in luck, the female is in the box and we are able to catch her. What a beautiful bird. While the male may have all the flashy colours, the subtle beauty of the soft greyish brown feathers, mottled chest and big dark eye of the female is captivating. 

The beautiful female Mandarin

We let the female go with an extra bit of bling in the form of a uniquely identifiable ring. She will return to her nest and very soon those little ducklings will be making that leap of faith. It’s then a long walk through the forest leaf litter and grassy tracks to the nearest water of the river. 

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Whale Watching in the Azores

After taking people ‘virtual whale watching’ in the Azores for the last three WhaleFest events, I felt it was finally time to set foot on the archipelago myself. But when to go? The virtual whale watching experience at WhaleFest had focused on the sperm whale. For the people of the Azores this is The whale; when they talk about whales on the island it is about the sperm whale. This is the whale they hunted until the mid-1980s, still using traditional methods. They are the whales that are intricately intertwined with the culture and history of the islands. They are the whales that are present year round. So I could go any time, weather permitting. But speak with any of those affectionately known as ‘whale geeks’ (and I count myself honoured to be included in this) and they talk of spring. Of baleen whales. At this time of year ocean giants such as blue, fin and sei whale migrate past the Azores on their way north. At the same time there is a bloom of phytoplankton leading to large numbers of zooplankton (tiny animals like krill) aka whale food! My mind was set, spring it would be with the hope of encountering these magnificent giants. 

And so we arrived on the island of Faial, first week of May, smack bang in the middle of the spring migration. The charm of the island captured me from the start; dominated by the caldeira, the huge crater of an extinct volcano, brilliant green and lush vegetation slopes down to meet dark volcanic rocks, black sandy beaches and the glistening azure blue sea. In the charming town of Horta the traditional buildings are white, with coloured borders to the windows and doors, dark shutters and topped off with red tile roofs. Those that break the trend of white tend to be painted a pale, pastel colour, maybe yellow or blue. The streets are cobbled with dark stone, and along the sidewalks patterned with white stone into writing or pictures; a windmill, boat or whale. Madeiran wall lizards scamper over walls made of volcanic rock, its surface characteristically peppered with small holes. The tree lined seafront promenade overlooks the marina where numerous yachts line up, busy but not nearly as busy as it will become. The town is a traditional stopover for transatlantic sailors, many of which have left their mark with paintings on the marina steps. Looking east over the channel the impressive sight of the eponymous Pico which for the majority of our stay has at least some cloud cover, on occasion completely obscured while even on our clearest day a band lies just beneath its peak. 

Horta (Photo: Lee Barber)

But as captured as I am by the island, it is the sea and the whales I am here for. 

My first two trips are onboard the RIB Risso with Horta Cetaceos. Trip one and our skipper Pedro expertly guides the boat over the swell and out to the south of Faial. He is guided by the lookouts, a throwback to the old whaling days, now these sharp eyed watchers call out all species for whale watchers. Pedro uses the speed of the boat to take us quickly to the locations, then slows and carefully manoeuvres us around not one but three different species of baleen whale. First a humpback whale, with tail fluke lifted in greeting it seems. Then not one but two majestic fin whales, of which I am so used to seeing at a distance, high up from ferries or cruise ships, now, low to the water I am struck by their beauty, gracefully slipping through the waves. Then from the grey blue waves surfaces a magnificent blue whale. If you thought fin whale looked big from a small boat, the blue blows them away. The blow is huge, followed by a massive head and long, long, long body. Finally a tiny dorsal fin breaks the surface followed by a short tail stock and then whale disappears beneath the vast ocean. In a word it is awesome!

The awesome blue whale!

Trip two and Pedro heads north of Faial. Conditions are not great for the spotters, with high cloud the ocean is a calm, silvery grey that makes it harder for them to spot the blows. But they are seeing something, a back of a whale, a fluke print. And so we go. We are distracted though. In the calm conditions and with Cory’s shearwaters everywhere we are distracted by a group of bottlenose dolphins and then of common dolphins. Once again being so low to the water gives me a new perspective on both of these species, a perspective I must say I loved! Finally we arrive in the area where the spotter has seen this whale. Still it is down to us on the boat to find it. Ahead I glimpse something breaking the surface. No blow, just a dark back and small dorsal fin. It is a whale but a small one. We approach carefully and are treated to views of a minke whale. A whale that is very familiar to me, but of which sightings in the Azores are more unusual. With reports of larger whales we head back. It is those majestic fin whales again. We watch as a whale surfaces four or five time’s then dives for around 6 minutes. With Pedro’s skill and experience we are able to manoeuvre close enough to give the whale space, but to allow us to see the characteristic white lower jaw on the right side. With the sun beginning to break through the cloud the sea turns an oily blue colour and on our way back to the marina we encounter the bottlenose dolphins again. The group is chilled, spread out and relaxed. They approach and through the deep blue you can see their full length as they ride alongside the boat. It is magic to be so close to such beautiful animals in the wild. 

The white right lower jaw of a fin whale

My final trip is a full day with Whale Watch Azores and whale biologist Lisa Steiner. After a night of wind and rain the day dawns with a clear sky, just the odd white fluffy cloud obscures the vast blue sky and skirts the midriff of Pico. Despite the pickup in the wind and the odd white cap the sea conditions are not bad and at times the wind drops away leaving a stunning blue ocean. This time we head right along the coast of Pico on the trail of reports of a blue whale. Once again we encounter welcome distractions. The first a totally chilled out humpback whale that simply cruised along just under the water’s surface. From the slight elevation of the catamaran’s bow we can see the almost white glow of the whale’s pectoral fins. Then we encounter common dolphins, racing through the blue waves and sweeping this way and that under the bow of the catamaran. It is one of those moments where the water has calmed and it is almost glassy in places. Further on and the distinctive movement of striped dolphins catches our eye. They speed through the water, cutting the surface with a spray of water or leaping tremendously high out of the water. Then finally we meet up with a couple of other boats and from the surface a blast of water shoots high into the air. It is the blue. What follows is an awesome encounter. Again the slight elevation allows us to see the vast blue shadow of the whale beneath the water before it breaks it to breath. The routine is the same again, surface four or five times then down for around 8 minutes. But this time, this whale raised its fluke out of the water every time it dived for its deeper dive! Not all blue whales lift their tail flukes, and not all every time they dive! With each lift of the tail a whoop would escape my lips, as unstoppable as the blue whale itself. The trip is topped off with ‘whale’ riding dolphins. As they approach vessels to ride the pressure wave the bow creates, dolphins will often ride the wave a whale creates as it moves through the water. I have heard of it, but this was the first time I had seen it. Common dolphins would surface and then just behind a fin whale would surface! 

Awesome tail fluke of a magnificent blue whale

It was a long trip back to Horta, but I felt at peace sitting on the bow of a boat, watching waves, Cory’s shearwaters and even a couple of loggerhead turtles, remembering each detail of all of the encounters I had had during my superb trip to the Azores. I can see why this group of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic is a mecca for whale watchers and is being considered for Whale Heritage Site status by the World Cetacean Alliance. 

I will be back. Summer dolphins and the sperm whales that have eluded me this trip are calling….

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