Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Fossils on a point

Peace and quiet. The only sounds to be heard is the gentle lap of water on the beach, the twittering of swallows and linnets, the warbling song of willow warbler and skylark, the muted honk of barnacle geese and the raucous calls of gulls soaring in a brilliant blue sky overhead. In either direction coarse sand and pebbles merge into mudflats glinting silvery grey in the bright sunlight. Behind me tall sand dunes with tufty grass and beyond that the soft roar of the ocean.

Spring migration had truly begun at Spurn Point, I had seen my first sand martin, wheatear, redstart and whitethroat of the year on this long spit of land that juts into the river Humber. At one end the distant yellow fields of oil seed rape, dark green mounds of trees with stark white wind turbines that are becoming a feature of our landscape just as electricity pylons did. At the other end a rather battered and bruised lighthouse stands sentry over old abandoned houses and military buildings. A life boat station remains but the families that once called this wild tip of land home have long moved on. Now the men and women working the life boat and the pilots remain on a rotation.

The serenity of Spurn Point

The spit of land is just as battered, the tidal surge just before Christmas destroyed the road that had only just been rebuilt, once again changing the dynamics of this wild landscape. Yet Spurn remains as it always has been a mecca for bird watchers and birds alike. A stop off for migrants, one of the first ports of call for birds exhausted from flying non stop over the turbulent waters of the North Sea and a known hotspot for the more rare and unusual birds that visit our shores. A small piece of quiet and natural solitude, nestled between the industry of the North Sea and the bustle of the cities.

How a landscape can change in a matter of hours. From the bright sunny skies, warm balmy breeze and constant chatter of birds, the morning dawned with a thick blanket of swirling white fog. Tree, bush and building all softened around the edges and kind of more muffled hush descending with only the odd linnet or swallow zooming overhead. And with bird watching looking gloomy Spurn reveals its other secret treasures to me. Fossils. Where cliff and beach have been worn away the remains of ancient wildlife is revealed. With cliffs and sea shrouded in fog, just the rumble of waves crashing and pebbles rolling, we scour those left scattered at the top of the beach searching for that one pebble or stone that reveals its secret so long locked away. And with the fog lifting, we find what we are looking for, ancient creatures carved in stone, preserved for eternity. 

An ammonite and Devil's toe nail (Gryphaea)

Monday, 14 April 2014

Larking Around

Only recently had the trees been felled, leaving a mosaic of sandy soil, mossy grass, patches of dark heather and tangles of twigs and branches. From the main road this seemingly barren landscape sloped up to the tall dark green conifer trees that surrounded the patch on three sides. While it may seem an extreme change this is the cycle of this forest where trees are planted and felled on a rotation. Add to that the process of returning areas to more natural grassland heath and more of such open areas can be found amongst the blocks of trees. For 100 years ago this landscape was totally different. The entire area was open with grass and heather heaths, open sandy areas, low intensity arable farming and abandoned fields. Rabbits in particular were farmed in large enclosed warrens. Following the First World War the Forestry Commission began the process of afforestation, planting hundreds of hectares of Scots and then Corsican pine to provide a reserve of timber for a country whose trees had been as ravaged by the demands of war as its people. Today the whole of Thetford Forest is a patchwork of pine plantations, broadleaved trees and heath land, and is managed not only for timber, but for recreation and wildlife.

Woodlark carrying food for its chicks

Such barren looking patches of clear fell and grassy heath provide important habitat for a number of scarce breeding birds, including the woodlark. The tufts of short grass, close proximity to bare soil and good high posts for singing, are all perfect for woodlarks to set up home during the summer.

Knowing an area is good for breeding woodlark, seeing a pair there with the male’s sweet song of melancholy notes which includes a lu-lu-lu, giving the bird part of its scientific name Lullula arborea, is one thing. Finding its nest is a whole different ball game, one of patience and knowledge. Even knowing there is a nest within a few square feet in front of you, it is still hard to see, such is the excellent cryptic nature of nest and chick.

A beautiful woodlark nest

But there nestled amongst the grassy stems is a tightly weaved nest, in which four greyish brown chicks are squeezed in. What a privilege to be allowed to approach and view such a nest, which is done under strict licence. Monitoring of this species has never been more important. Since the early 1980s the range and population of woodlark in the UK has actually increased following a severe decline, but it is still comparatively rare and its breeding range restricted. Forestry plantations form a key part of this increase, but interestingly in the Forestry areas of Norfolk and Suffolk numbers of woodlark are in decline. Understanding more about the movements, breeding success and habitat use of birds in such areas is contributing to maintaining and increasing woodlark numbers by feeding into management plans for the forest. To that end this, and other nests are being monitored from egg laying to fledging, and the chicks are being colour ringed to look at movements of birds and where they subsequently return to breed.

Feed me!

On returning these four chicks to their snug nest and stepping carefully away to a safe distance, we watch as both parent birds call with a soft ‘tlewee’ to each other, beaks full of recently foraged insects, before swooping in back to the nest. We turn to leave, happy birds, happy chicks, happy people. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

A Snipe's Tale

Back in May 2011 it was just another ringing session at Cranwich. We had been ringing in the reeds and surrounding land for a couple of years. The project was just starting, who knew where it would take us and where we would be now with it. The huge number of reed warbler nests found and monitored, the vast number of birds ringed from reed warblers and lesser whitethroats to kingfishers and reed buntings. But that was all to come. On this day it was a different bird that caught our eye as we rounded the corner and approached one of the nets. There in the top shelf was a common snipe. Never before had I held a snipe in the hand and never before had one been ringed at Cranwich.

Me and the snipe at Cranwich
With its dark brown, rufous and pale streaks, short legs, stocky body, dark liquid eyes and long straight bill the snipe may not be bright and colourful, but it is nonetheless beautiful. In the UK the snipe is widespread and resident, making short to medium distance movements, breeding particularly on moorland and in grassy upland areas. Lowland areas have seen declines in breeding numbers but see large numbers skulking around the edges of pools in winter. Our snipe was likely to be passing through with none so far recording breeding at the site.

And so we took the usual measurements, and some additional ones of the bill and head, it was good practice for our upcoming first trip to the Gambia, where we would catch more common snipe as well as painted snipe in the trips that followed.

Measuring the bill of the snipe

Fast forward three years (is it really that long!) and a well placed source at the BTO receives a recovery of a snipe, unfortunately shot dead in northern Spain. It is none other than the snipe we ringed all those years ago. It seems that this snipe was not content to remain just in Britain but was making at least one movement within the species wider range. Evidence shows us that while part of the UK breeding population is resident, numbers in winter are bolstered by migrants from the continent and Iceland. In fact throughout the Western Palearctic the species is much more migratory, moving between northerly breeding grounds and more southerly wintering grounds. More than that research indicates there are actually four separate snipe flyways with overlap between.

Snipe flyways from Svazas & Paulauskas 2006
This snipe was shot in the county of Asturias in northern Spain, falling within the North-West Europe flyway (number 2 on the map). Of course this recovery tells us nothing more than this bird was originally ringed in Britain in May 2011 and was then shot in northern Spain in January three years later. It does not tells us where this individual was breeding or where it usually spent its winter. But it does add to the overall all picture that birds are moving between Britain and continental Europe, something we would not have known if it were not for the individual marking of birds.