adventure, Birds, Ecology, Scotland

Isle of May

The Isle of May is in the North Sea, 5 miles from the mainland of Scotland, off the East coast in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, we visit it in May and the ocean is like a mill pond.

Looking back towards the mainland and Anstruther.
Our boat lands in the natural inlet amidst a colony of artic tern.
Arctic Tern with attitude
The grey seals in the inlet can’t be bothered to move. This is where they come to breed but most have gone now.

As we head off up the footpath to the side of the island favoured by the seabirds, because of the high cliffs, a cloud of kittiwake announce themselves — lots of birds say their name but none as clearly or as often as the kittiwake! There are two species of Kittiwake in the world — the black-legged and the red-legged. They are thus easily spotted and identified and are enchanting little gulls.

The British Kittiwakes are Black Legged

There were more than 3000 breeding pairs on the Island at a recent count but they do not restrict themselves to off-shore Islands — we saw them on cliffs in Dunbar.

There are about 200,000 seabirds on May which is less than a mile long and 1/3 mile wide, and we have come to see some of the ones that we do not see on the mainland, up close, and to appreciate the scale of the seabird colony.

Puffins

The puffins, there are about 40,000 pairs, nest on the grassy tops and that is where the rabbits come in. They dig the holes that the puffins populate.

Puffins looking out to sea, waiting for their mates to return from sea with their bills loaded with sand eels.

They are very alert — their young pufflings are very vulnerable until they can fly and swim. Airborne predators can reach the island like this Greater Black Backed Gull.

Opportunist Predator

The next layer down in this colony are the auks — the Razorbills (about 3000 breeding pairs) near the tops of the rocky cliffs and the Guillemots (23,000 breeding pairs), lower down nearer the sea.

Razorbills with the heavy duty bill.
Guillemots nearer the water — the one on the left is a Bridled Guillemot
Guillemots

On the sea, bobbing along in twos and threes are Eider drakes like these fine fellows, we stepped over a number of their mates incubating eggs in rocky crevices along the foot path.

Eider duck
Near the harbour inlet some Shag are nesting.

As we leave, the boat circumnavigates this magic isle so that we can see the dramatic sea cliffs from below and we can really appreciate the safety they afford to the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Nobody climbs them to collect eggs any more. But, no longer manned, the lighthouse and the foghorns still protects shipping in the Forth as they has since 1635!

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Cornwall, Ecology, nature

It’s a Miracle, but not in Cornwall

It may look like Cornwall but you can tell it’s not Cornwall because there aren’t any people, police, naval ships, radar installations, helicopters or motorcades. And no G7 demonstrators — a beach near my daughter’s Cornish home has been piled high with the undead bodies of middle aged ladies dressed as dead mermaids! All very artistic. No, this is Wales, this week at Cwm Tydu and I had no idea that this part was so beautiful.

Rain Forest!

One or two midges by the stream and butterflies in the meadow. Best of all (you may remember how long I hunted these last year) there are choughs! Spotted by chance and very active probing for ants on the grazed sward, just as they like it, courtesy of wild ponies.

Its a shame their bills and feet are so muddy, you can’t see how vibrantly red they are. Never mind — the news is good about these rare birds because the previous day we saw a chattering of them swooping above Bird Rock, north of Aberystwyth showing the splayed, finger-like feathers at the ends of their wings– seems their numbers may be on the up.

Mud is the order of the day — here one of the many house martins at Aberaeron harbour is collecting mud to build his house.

The common whitethroats are displaying.

Everywhere there is the hum of bumble bees making the most of this years blooming of the dog roses.

This one has so much pollen in her sacks it is a miracle that she can still fly — but then wild life is full of miracles.

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Birds, Ecology

Cuckoo!

Just after dawn this morning we witnessed something very odd and heartening.

Everyone knows how the wicked cuckoo preys on the poor little birds (reed warblers, dunnocks, meadow pipits), laying an egg in their nests which hatches into a monster that evicts the other natural nestlings and grows huge on the tireless efforts of the adoptive parents.

This morning we heard the first cuckoos, up in the forestry. There were two males vying for territory, skirmishing in the treetops. Here is one.

The two birds had quite distinct calls so we could monitor their conversation! Both had the striped breast that is said to mimic a sparrow hawk — a cunning ploy to frighten the prey hen bird from her nest and give the female cuckoo time to lay.

The little birds out and about today were mainly willow warblers and robins but whichever they were some of them were not afraid of the cuckoos.

In fact groups of little birds were attacking the relatively huge cuckoos and driving them off their perches so… Not just feckless victims!

Heroic little birds.

Robin
Willow Warbler
Grey Wagtail with attitude!
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Ecology, nature

Orgy on the Waun

Lovely day in Mid-Wales with a strange sound drifting over the forestry pond — like softly spoken geese. Not geese, not any bird, certainly not cicadas on this chilly, bright spring day. They are the muted tones of amorous amphibians — lovelorn toads!

Thirty, maybe fifty, in the pools of sunshine around the margins of the upland pond.

The smaller, more numerous, males clinging,piggy-back, onto the fecund females, bulging with eggs. Others joining in and some with their heads above the water calling.

See the strings of fertilized eggs and (below) an exhausted male!

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Ecology, Health and safety, Hill Farming

Rural Detox!

Do you remember the old barns we inherited when we bought this farm — here is Alan starting to demolish the tractor shed!
The area at the back remained a gathering ground for scrap metal and all the bits and pieces that might just be useful in the future!

But the future is now!

We took a look at the older stuff and I accepted the proposition that it might just be asbestos, took some to the tip and had it checked and confirmed that it was asbestos. They thanked me for my offer but said they didn’t want it — at any price. At this point it could have stayed behind the shed for another 20 years but no, with the help of a friend with a digger we have sorted and stacked it and tomorrow an approved contractor is arriving, at immense expense, in PPE to double bag and remove same to a place of safety (actually controlled un-safety) after which I will get a certificate!

Ancient Asbestos
Roof tiles that no-one wants to recycle

And look — space for a new barn!

Sadly — the large ash tree has been reduced to produce — logs
and kindling!

Tomorrow the man will come to measure up for the steel frame of the new barn and we will order the wooden cladding, the painting of which will be another new diversion.

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Ecology, Wales

Cemlyn Bay — Amazing Habitat

A few days ago we visited Anglesey and on our way home we stopped at Cemlyn Bay (it was on our way and there was a little red bird on the map so we thought we’d have a look). The bay has a strange eliptical shingle beach like the Chesil Beach but a perfect curve. At first we thought it was man-made — something to do with the atomic power station on the Eastern promontory but it is natural. There is a brackish lagoon behind this pebble bank.

Walking along the bank we were struck by the unfamiliar plant life — Sea Kale, Sea Campion, Sea Beet and Thrift.

Sea Campion — Seline uniflora (Its leaves are the smaller grey-green ones)
Sea Kale — Crambe maritima with its strange ball like fruits.
Wild Thyme –Thymus polytrichus

At either end there were clumps of sweet smelling purple flowers which I assumed was the sea lavender that the information board boasted, but no, it is Wild Thyme. There was lots of Ragwort and Bird’s-foot Trefoil with many yellow and black striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth.

Cinnabar Caterpillar Tyria jacobaeae

The Cinnebar Moths are protected from predation by absorbing the toxin from the ragwort that makes them foul tasting. When we were children one rarely saw Ragwort as it was zealously sought out and destroyed by farmers as it was known to cause liver failure and death in horses. The toxic alkaloid, Pyrrolizidine, is metabolized by the liver which it gradually destroys — however, nowadays the risk is not thought to be high as the dose needed is great — still, best kept out of pasture and hay.

There were lots of moths as well: Six Spot Burnet Moths, Zygaena filipendulae (not Cinnabar Moths which are similar in colour but a different pattern).

Six Spot Burnet Moth Zygaena filipendulae

Burnet Moth Caterpillars feed on Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil — interestingly this also contains a toxin, a cyanogenic glycoside which when chewed produces cyanide. This also protects them from predation as they are said to release cyanide when attacked.

As we walked around the bay the noise of chattering birds became louder, not gulls, but thousands of terns — clouds of them, swooping and swerving over the lagoon. As we got nearer we could see hundreds perched on rocks and a weir and standing at the edges of the water.

Terns on the lagoon.

Common Terns with red bills, black at the tip, and Arctic Terns with plain red bills. Distinguishing these birds is easier when there are so many, together at close quarters, when one can compare them easily.

Common Tern with young.
Arctic Terns

Sandwich Terns breed here in large numbers (third largest breeding colony in the UK), they are a little bigger with black bills with yellow tips.

Sandwich Terns – juveniles

All the time there were birds flying over us to fish at sea and coming back carrying fish and feeding young.

Sandwich tern -note the shaggy crest.

Walking out onto the headland we heard a strange sound, a mellow moaning, from out on the distant rocks where the surf was breaking,”I wonder…” said Bill raising his telescope, “Yes, Grey Seals!” They were lying like great curved pods, balanced on semi-submerged rocks with heads and tails in the air, waiting for the incoming tide.”

Vivian Hewitt’s House and Walled Lagoon.

On our way back we met the Reserve Warden, I asked her about the strange walled area — was it military? She told us about the eccentric millionaire between the wars who bought the farmhouse that stands within the peculiar 20 foot ramparts. She said he had the walls built during the depression to provide work for local people.

For his birthday I bought Bill a book — Early Birds and Boys in Blue by Phillip Jones — A century of Radnorshire aviation. On the night we returned from Cemlyn he was reading about the pioneer aviator, Vivian Vaughan Davies Hewitt, the first man to fly from Holyhead to Dublin in 1912. When Hewitt retired from flying he had moved to Cemlyn Bay, immersing himself in the bird-life and creating the walled sanctuary upon which we had just stumbled and where the wild thyme grows.

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Birds, Ecology, Wales

Chough-Hunting again!

Since the slight relaxation of the Corona Virus Lockdown in Wales we have renewed our search for the elusive chough. There are more in Wales than anywhere else in the UK but still probably only just over 200 pairs, mainly in coastal areas where they feed on invertebrates associated with grazing animals. They like a short sward and lots of creepy-crawlies in the droppings of the animals that crop the grass.

The Light house at South Stack, Anglesey (Ynes Mon) where we started our search

This time we went looking on Anglesey in North Wales. Almost the moment we got out of the car we were treated to a flypast — 16 birds all calling out their name!

Already gathering as they do in winter to feed when they are more often seen inland (though never by us)
At last a good view of a magnificent chough.

We followed the flock to the coastal path where we could watch them on the rocks of the high cliff face.

This has been an exceptional summer in Wales and we have been out and about in the fields and pasture much more than previously and I am always commenting on the lack of the usual infuriating insects — this may be due to the hot, dry spring but we notice it more markedly in the grazed areas where one might expect to be pursued by a cloud of flies — not this year. I do wonder if the amount and efficacy of the pour-on, long-acting insecticides that are almost universally used on farm animals now are impacting on the bio-mass of insects. If so where will this leave the other creatures in the food chain — like the chough.

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Ecology, nature

Lockdown Liberty —

or are we just seeing what was there all along, albeit in the shadows.

My daughter lives in a modern development in the centre of Peterborough, a city of over 200,000 people. They don’t have jackals in the subways (like Tel Aviv) but since lockdown she has been working from home and has noticed snakes in the garden, grass snakes and there are adders too. Her neighbour recently opened the door to a Roe Deer.

Roe Deer in Peterborough thanks to Amberley McKeen

Feral goats have come down off the Great Orm, a hill in North Wales, to roam the streets of Llandudno left deserted by the tourists.

Locked down in Mid Wales we are spending much of our time out of doors and seeing more of the wildlife than I have ever done before.

Local Common Lizard making a hasty retreat

In the wood there are flashes of Pied Flycatchers and all around the sound of Wood Warblers, starting their little engines. A Redstart poses briefly in the sunshine:

We have discovered lizards for the first time, basking in the unseasonal sunshine — skittish and shy, unlike this celebrity cousin down the road at Ynes Hir — posing for the visitors to the reserve when I last visited.

I always knew we had newts in the pond but we recently noticed something very strange — some have great big (relatively) floppy, webbed hind feet and pin-like tail extensions —

Bigfoot newt — Actually a Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus)
Rest assured they are breeding in our pond — here photographed with 2 larvae –babies still with external gills, unlike tadpoles they develop their front legs first.

In case you are in any doubt about the identity of these little beauties — look! No spots under the chin:

Ventral surface of Palmate Newt

Now we know that they are Palmate Newts we put them back quickly as they are protected!

Back home for tea having guiltily spent the afternoon pond dipping without even the pretence of a single grandchild but not before checking out the Pied Flycatchers nesting in the oak tree by the track.

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Birds, Ecology

Hammerhead!

When you see your first spoonbill cross the sky above your head I promise you will do a double take. They look so peculiar with their long necks outstretched and the odd bulbous end to the beak. We saw one over Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, last month and for a moment I thought we were looking at a pterodactyl! With the long neck extended in flight and the bill so long and strange and its massive wingspan it had proportions that seemed quite alien.

Couldn’t catch that one but here are some Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) we saw in USA last year — even here they look primitive

The Spoonbill we see in England is white (Platalea leucorodia) and was wiped out in the 1700s because of drainage of the wetlands and hunting. However in recent years they are recolonizing areas in the South West and South East, from Europe, and have even bred in Yorkshire. The work of the RSPB and the Wetland Trusts in habitat creation is helping and these spectacular birds can be seen once more.

European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Snettisham on the Wash 2020
European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire 2020

Thanks to Bill for his pictures of Spoonbills (all rights reserved).

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Birds, Ecology

A Crane to Lift the Spirits

Yesterday, having come to terms with cancelling our visits to grandchildren because of the risk of Corona Virus and facing 12 weeks in lock-down, the collapse of the economy, evaporation of our pensions, disintegration of the world’s infrastructure and the disappearance of all toilet paper (not to mention the possibility of impending premature death), we packed a picnic and set out to find the Whooper Swans out on the Ouse and Nene Washes.

These are areas of fenland fields that are flooded in winter by the waters of the rivers Ouse and Nene in Cambridgeshire, England. This year after the deluge of recent weeks the area was more like an inland sea but we found the Whoopers (Cygnus cygnus) and some Bewicks (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) grazing in nearby fields — nipping any hope of agricultural recovery, literally, in the bud. They are preparing to leave for their breeding grounds in Iceland and Siberia respectively.

Whooper Swans (with the occasional Bewick) grazing.

But, wait a minute, what are these in the distance? Not the swans — behind them!

Common Cranes and Mute Swans on the Nene Washes yesterday, albeit at a distance.

Cranes became extinct in Britain 400 years ago, didn’t they?

Not so! The now inappropriately named Common Crane (Grus grus) evidently reappeared in 1978 — probably when 3 individuals were blown in from Europe. The population teetered for a number of years with slow breeding, but with some migration and a little help from captive breeding, reintroduction and habitat creation it continues to grow. There are now 50 pairs or more.

As we watched one of these pairs who were a long way away (mitigation for the poor photo) two more individuals flew in, landing precariously and then displaying to each other just as we had seen Sandhill Cranes do when we were in Texas last autumn. They danced, bouncing from leg to leg with their necks extended backwards, calling and fluffing out their magnificent plumed tails in a bonding exercise — presumably indicating to the other couple that they are no threat.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) — also a very rare visitor to Britain, by Bill Branford (all rights reserved)

The thought of life after extinction is very comforting just at the moment.

Sandhill Cranes by Bill Branford (all rights reserved).

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