RSPB Minsmere – Bearded Tits, Roseate Tern and Marsh Harriers

Earlier this week, my mum and I went to camp in Suffolk for two nights in the hope of being able to go to RSPB Minsmere for two full consecutive days. The journey down did not prove to be a good start – there were horrific traffic jams on the motorways, there was some very heavy rain, and just to top that off – our car got struck by lightning. That was quite a terrifying yet amazing experience.

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I don’t really know my caterpillars, but I think that this is a Buff Tip.

Once we had arrived at our campsite near Minsmere though, the harsh weather had passed and we were greeted by the ‘purring’ of the Turtle Dove at a tree near the entrance. The next morning brought along an early wake up due to a very loud dawn chorus, with lots of birds in full sound – from Wrens to Yellowhammers, to Turtle Doves to Cuckoos – it was very busy. However, the main cause of our early wake up on both mornings was due to a Magpie pecking at the tent while squawking.

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Little Egret

Once at the reserve, we were greeted by a small rabbit who posed for a photo, not at all disturbed by our presence, happily cleaning itself. There were seven hides around the scrape (the main part of the reserve)(there are also 3 other hides over the reedbeds and woods), and so there would be lots of different viewpoints out over it. There were lots of waders, terns, gulls and ducks nesting all over it, and so there was plenty of activity going on. In recent years here, the nesting birds have had eggs and chicks predated upon by Foxes and Badgers living nearby, who although blocked by water, decided to swim. However, now the RSPB has built a fence around it which is deep enough to stop Badgers digging underneath it.

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Little Rabbit
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Older juvenile Moorhen (1st brood) helping feed younger juveniles (2nd brood)
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What I think is a juvenile Redshank

It is fair to say that waders were there on the scrape in the largest numbers. Waders there included lots of Avocets and Black-Tailed Godwits, with the latter having seemingly hardly any chicks in comparison with the first. There were also Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Greenshanks, Dunlins, Ruffs, Curlews, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, and Whimbrels. There were also some Common and Green Sandpipers, which from a distance could often be hard to distinguish between. The trip certainly put my wader identification skills to the test, with a huge number of birds there to be observed.

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Redshank
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Lapwing
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Phonescoped Redshank
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Phonescoped Avocet

There were three species of Tern present that were regularly seen on the scrape – Little, Common and Sandwich. They had lots of little chicks and would fish out at the sea behind before coming back to their nests on the ground to feed their chicks. On the second day, we were lucky enough to see a Roseate Tern – a much rarer species of tern in the UK than the others. It is much smaller than the Common and Sandwich Terns and has a mainly black bill.

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Buzzard

In the reedbeds, there are three species of bird that are well sought after – Bearded Tits, Marsh Harriers and Bitterns. We were lucky enough to see all three species, some with better viewing than others. The Marsh Harriers are quite easy to see as they are often found soaring over the reedbeds and at this time of year there are lots of juveniles flying about. This means that there are lots about in the sky – at one point, we saw four Marsh Harriers at once. Bitterns are very secretive and hard to see, but at one hide, on the far side of the lake, there were two within a couple of metres of each other, sitting in the reeds. Although it was too far away to tell that they were juveniles, the very fact that they were tolerating each other’s presence so close shows that they are not yet territorial like the adults. With Bearded Tits (one of my favourite birds), you often hear them ‘pinging’ before you actually see them. At this time in the year, they travel around in large groups – mostly a female with 5 or 6 juveniles. We saw them at various points, but our best viewing was when a female with 5 juveniles flew straight in front of the hide and settled in some reeds not too far away.

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Marsh Harrier

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Bearded Tits

There were also lots of Butterflies at the reserve as well, and while my knowledge of these is very little, this did not stop me from taking some photos. I have now decided that as butterflies are so photogenic, I really ought to learn about what I am actually photographing.

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Gatekeeper?
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Red Admiral

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Peacock

Throughout the whole trip, I saw 78 species of bird – a huge number of birds. There were also plenty of butterflies, dragonflies, deer, and some fish. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and would highly recommend anybody to visit RSPB Minsmere themselves. It is a great reserve to visit at any time of year as there is always lots to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duke of Edinburgh 2

Recently, I returned from my Silver Duke of Edinburgh Assessed Expedition, following up from my practice earlier this year. This time, it was in the New Forest, and while the terrain was much flatter for walking, the weather was not on our side at all: the first day was boiling hot –  far too hot to walk, on the second, there was constant heavy rain, and on the last, the weather was nice, but there were a lot of very muddy bogs due to the previous day’s rain. However, this did not stop the wildlife from coming out, and so once again, it was a great trip for seeing nature, especially birds. Of course though, there are no photos due to the risk of breaking my camera.

On the first day, very little wildlife was around because of the heat, although I did notice a huge number of Blackbirds and Song Thrushes foraging among the leaves in the shade from the trees. Often, we would walk along a path through the forest, and several of these birds would suddenly fly up, having not been seen by us before as they were well camouflaged.

Also, that day, I came across several families of Nuthatches high up in the trees, and also a Tree Pipit singing from the top of a small shrub. The latter being a much rarer bird than it used to, now gaining itself and IUCN Red list status, due to its recent decline. That same day, all three species of Woodpecker regularly found in the UK also made an appearance – Lesser Spotted, Great Spotted and Green.

The next morning, I woke up and looked out of the tent to see a herd of deer running across the far side of the field. I don’t really know my deer too well, but I think that they were Fallow Deer. Whilst on the expedition, I also saw Muntjac, and possibly some Red Deer, but I can’t be sure.

That day, as we were more heading through the heathland part of the New Forest, I came across common heathland birds such as Stonechat, Meadow Pipit, Linnet, Hobby, Skylark (unfortunately not its rarer cousin though – the Woodlark), and also my first Dartford Warbler, which I was very pleased about. I really needed some binoculars or even a scope though, as often the birds were very far away and hard to identify.

The next day, at lunch by a lake, as we were well ahead of time, I decided to see what wildlife I could see by doing a little bit more exploring around the lake. I came across several large families of Mandarin Ducks, however, in all cases, it was just the female with lots of juveniles – no males. I am not entirely sure why this is – there are various possibilities, but if anybody knows, I would love to know myself. Also, next to the lake was a part of the path where some seed or something had been thrown down to attract birds. There were Chaffinches, Robins, a pair of Moorhens feeding several young chicks, lots of Great Tits and Blue Tits (there was also a Marsh Tit among them!), and many House Sparrows, with a few Tree Sparrows as well.

As we walked along the last stretch to the finish, a Spotted Flycatcher was singing up above on a branch.

However, after the expedition, I noticed that I had come across some rather less welcome members of the wildlife community – ticks!

Also whilst on my expedition, I hugely improved my lichen identification skills, due to our aim – because lichen is an indicator species, one can tell by which species are present on trees, whether or not the area has good or bad air quality. Overall, the New Forest tended to be an area with low Nitrogen levels in the air – this is good and shows that the air quality round there is healthy. If you want to take part in the survey, then you can do so via the OPAL Air Survey – there are instructions on this website: https://www.opalexplorenature.org/airsurvey

Overall, on my expedition, I saw 49 species of bird, a few species of deer, lots of butterflies and other insects, and much more. Once again, it was an expedition full of wildlife.

 

 

Fledglings in the garden

The holidays have begun (at least for me), so hopefully a fun holiday full of wildlife awaits us.

This year has been a fairly good year for the breeding birds in my garden, with all sorts of different species of bird successfully raising some young. For the past couple of months, the air has been full with the sound of high-pitched tweets from lots of juveniles.

As usual, there has been an influx of baby Blue Tits and Goldfinches. This is partly because there are so many adults of these species in my garden, but also because both have relatively large clutch sizes (Blue Tits in particular, with up to 16 eggs!). Whilst the Goldfinch has a much smaller clutch with around 5, they may have have 2 or 3 broods every year, whereas Blue Tits usually only one. Therefore, the nyjer seed and sunflower heart feeders have been visited the most by far, and have rapidly been eaten. However, there have been nowhere near as many Goldfinches as we had last year – there were around 15 juveniles and 6 adults all trying to land on one feeder at once.

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Blue Tit fledgling
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Juvenile Goldfinches

Two very similar birds – the Robin and the Dunnock have also been breeding and raising young, and not surprisingly, fights were soon breaking out – baby Robin against other baby Robin, baby Dunnock against baby Robin, adults against juveniles – there was every combination that you could think of – all because of food and territory. Juvenile Robins of course don’t really look anything like their parents, with a mottled brown breast instead of bright orange. Juvenile Dunnocks look very similar, except they are only a little less grey on their head and body.

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Juvenile Robin

One of my favourite birds is the Long-Tailed Tit – a bird that travels in groups and looks just like a lollipop in shape. They can easily be identifiable by sound due to their high-pitched calling to each other as they move. While raising their young, they build an incredibly intricate nest composed of moss, feathers and spiders webs. Unlike most nests, it is a full sphere/oval shape with a hole to enter. I have seen several families of Long-Tailed Tits passing through the garden recently, especially being birds fond of fat balls. The young can be identified by their whiteness instead of pink, and brownness instead of black.

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Juvenile Long-Tailed Tits

Also, a pair of Jays managed to successfully raise one juvenile – a very similar bird to the adults, just quite a lot scruffier. Although often very timid birds, the ones in our garden are quite brave and not too afraid of humans.

There have also been some baby Blackbirds investigating the garden with their parents, learning how to dig up worms and other grubs.

 

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Juvenile Blackbird

Last year, a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers raised three juveniles, yet, so far this year, only a couple of sightings of a male have been seen so far. Hopefully, some more young will be raised soon, however, it is starting to get a little late for that.

However, I have noticed a Green Woodpecker becoming a lot more active recently, ‘yaffling’ away lots, while perched on the top of a large tree. It has yet built up the courage to come down and feed on the lawn so far, but this is a fairly unusual sighting for a bird inside a city, although, they are often seen in parks, and Oxford is a fairly green city.

 

More Birds – a Peregrine, a Sparrowhawk and a Goldcrest

After a busy couple of weeks, I have decided to make another blog post, this time just about the birds that I have seen around me recently.

I managed to make another trip up to RSPB Otmoor whilst I had some time to see if I could catch sight of the Cranes again. This time, I was very pleased because I managed to locate them without being shown where they were. This was not an easy feat though because they are usually right on the far side of a very large field, hiding amongst some very long grasses. The only time it is possible to see them is when they occasionally poke up their head to have a look around. After a few minutes of scanning the field with my scope, I finally had a stroke of luck and spotted two of them. (N.b. there was a mistake on my last post – I have actually seen Cranes one other time as well as the others – in France).

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Sedge warbler

Also while I was up there, I had a very close encounter with a Turtle Dove, where one was just sitting not far in front of me, on some gravel, eating some seed. I had not seen one on the ground before, as usually they are very timid and generally just perch up in a tree whilst ‘purring’.

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The timid Turtle Dove

I was very pleased to see a Peregrine Falcon up there, circling up high with a Buzzard, because this was the first time I had seen one here before – I wonder if they might be nesting up on the television/radio mast nearby. Soon though, it had soared up so high that I could no longer see it, especially as it was a very sunny day and the sun was far too bright to look up into.

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Reed Bunting
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Marsh Harrier

Whilst on the bus to school, as I was sitting at the front, I suddenly noticed up ahead what looked like a Sparrowhawk chasing a small bird (presumably a Tit or something) across a very busy road. The Sparrowhawk itself was being chased by a Woodpigeon – not the cleverest of things to do. At the edge of the road, the Sparrowhawk suddenly caught the small bird and dived straight down into a small bit of grass next to the pavement. By the time that our bus managed to pass the area where I saw it disappear, it had gone. I was quite surprised by this incident – seeing a woodland predator hunting very close to the city centre of Oxford, but I suppose it shows just how much our wildlife has adapted to living in our cities.

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Linnet

Whilst bird ringing recently, I ringed my first Goldcrest. I find it amazing just how how small they are, especially with the bird weighing in at 5.1g – half of the weight of a Wren that I also ringed earlier that day.

 

 

Otmoor – Turtle doves, Cranes and Hobbies

Recently, I went up to RSPB Otmoor, mostly in the hope of seeing some Cranes there, but also hopefully some other birds. Within not too long of arriving, I saw a Grass Snake, bathing in the sunlight along the edge of the bank of a small stream. I stepped very quietly and mostly remained very silent and still because they are reptiles which can easily be disturbed by the slightest movement, or even footsteps just passing by along the nearby path. Unfortunately, I appeared to have disturbed it a little, so it slunk off, but only into a small, patchy bit of vegetation, so, by the time I had got by camera out, I was only able to take a photo of it under some leaves.

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Not a very good photo of a Grass Snake

Not long after this, I noticed a beautiful Whitethroat, sitting up on a wire and singing its heart out. Also along the wire were a few Lesser Whitethroats – the much less common cousin of the Whitethroat, with around 74,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

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Whitethroat

Up ahead, I noticed a group of about four others, all with their scopes scanning over the marshland, and so I knew that there was probably something quite interesting out there. They showed me that there were two Cranes out there, and so I fixed up my own spotting scope on it and there they were. They were very hard to see because they were right on the far side and most of the time, they kept their long necks and heads right down in the grasses as they were foraging. I was very pleased to see two of them, as this was only the second time that I had seen these birds (the other time being at WWT Slimbridge), but also because less than 100 of them are present in the UK. Unfortunately though, as they were so far away, I was not able to take a picture. By the time I stopped watching them, nearly 20 people had gathered to watch.

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Reed Bunting

Otmoor is probably best known for the Turtle Dove, with people travelling from all around the country to come and see them here. Unfortunately, in recent years, the population has declined massively, with a 91% drop in the UK since 1995, with only around 14,000 breeding pairs annually now. This is because of shooting in the Mediterranean as they pass over in migration from Africa. They are most well known for their amazing ‘purring’ sound. I was lucky enough to see a couple of these whilst I was here.

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Turtle Dove

Another highlight at Otmoor at this time of year are Cuckoos and Hobbies. Although very different birds, they both can appear very similar in flight, with the same shape. I managed to see a few of both of these, especially Cuckoos, because they are not at all that hard to find, as you simply have to walk towards the noise they make. The Hobby is one of my favourite birds because of its beautiful red underpart around its legs, and also because of its amazing high speed aerial manouvres whilst catching dragonflies.

There are also incredibly high numbers of warblers there, with Grasshopper, Reed, Sedge and Chiffchaff all regularly being seen at this time of year. The air is full of the sound that they make, with all sorts of different songs.

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A Reed Warbler

Near to the end, I suddenly saw a group of about four of five Great Spotted Woodpeckers, clearly this was a pair with some new fledglings. One of them was very tame and allowed me to stand not too far from him and take photos, not at all bothered by my presence in the slightest.

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Great Spotted Woodpecker fledgling
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At the same time a Wren was also happily singing next to the Woodpecker

Back at home, one recent school morning, I woke up to discover a Fox trotting around the garden, happily investigating everything. I managed to take a photo through the window, hence the reason why the photo is a bit fuzzy.

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School morning Fox

 

Canoeing – Goosander, Kingfishers and Grey Wagtails

Finally, my school exams are over, hence the reason why I have not made a blog post in ages, due to the revision that I have been doing over the past two weeks. While I have been revising, I have still managed to find some time to go out and be amongst nature. However, I found that revising while sitting outside was not the best technique due to the fact that I kept on getting distracted by passing wildlife. Unfortunately, there are no photos this time as I did not want to risk taking a DSLR onto a canoe.

During my revision, I went up to the River Severn near Shrewsbury because it was my Uncle’s 50th birthday, and we were going to go canoeing. Before we had even started, I noticed a swirling mass of Swallows, Swifts and Martins above the river, all of them occasionally dropping down to the water’s surface to pick up some sort of insect or fly.

Almost immediately from having been on the river did I suddenly notice a Kingfisher come flying straight past my boat before curving up and going into some trees on the edge of the river banks.

Also, along the banks and shores of the river (or should I say river cliffs and slip-off slopes – geography revision clearly paid off!) for the whole length of the river were innumerable numbers of Grey Wagtails. Despite their rather dull name, they are actually a very beautiful bird with bright yellow chests, and they are also very charismatic with their unmistakeable ‘wagging’ of the tail. The sexes can be told apart by the female’s lacking of the black throat that the male has.

Later on, by the edge of the river, at first sight, there appeared to be a female Mallard Duck spreading her wings out over the ground. However, when I took a closer look, it was in fact covering up lots of tiny little ducklings, all hiding underneath her. I was not too sure of the reason behind this as it was right at the shore’s edge and there was no visible predator around, nor was the weather harsh. Perhaps, she just thought that I was a danger.

Soon after, I came across another Kingfisher, however, this time, it was sitting on a branch only a couple of metres away from me, not at all disturbed by our presence. I was very pleased to see this, but also quite annoyed that I hadn’t managed to bring my camera in some way, as this would have been a superb photo opportunity. Yet, it was an amazing experience and the only time I have ever been closer to a Kingfisher was while I was also canoeing in the Dordogne, where I encountered one in a similar experience, but even closer and tamer. To distinguish between the sexes of Kingfishers, the male has an entirely black beak, whereas the female has an orange underside to the beak.

Towards the end of the trip, I notice a female Goosander on the other side of the river: a bird that I don’t actually see that often, so it was very nice to see one so clearly. However, there was no male with its wonderful green head.

Also, back closer to home, I have ringed my first bird after being sent my trainee ringing permit and license. It was a lovely little juvenile Robin. Also that day, we also caught a Song Thrush, which I discovered is very hard to extract from the net because it has a barbed tongue which can be a bit of a pain to entangle as you can imagine.

Bird Ringing – Bullfinches, a Goldcrest and several Blackcaps.

Last weekend, I embarked on starting my ringing training at a site in Oxford with Andy Gosler, one of the best ringers in the country. Previously, I had gone along to a taster session (see a previous blog post) to see what it was like and I loved it so much that I decided that I wanted to learn to bird ring myself.

Waking up at 5.30am was certainly the hardest thing, but the experience was certainly worth it. Firstly, once we had set up the mist nets, we set about waiting before going off on various rounds to the nets to see if we had caught anything.

Throughout the course of the day, I avidly sucked up as much knowledge about it as I could, from how to hold birds, to setting up the nets. That day, as it was my first ringing session, I was just made familiar with the birds in my hand, learning how to hold them and how to pass them from one hand to the other, preparing myself for when I would be able to take measurements myself and do the ringing.

The data collected from bird ringing includes what the bird is (i.e. species), its ring number (if it already has one, and if not, one will be added), its sex (if it is a female, then what sort of brood patch) and age, fat and muscle levels, weight, and wing size. These results are then sent off the British Trust of Ornithology, who add it to there database.

By the end of the day, we had caught numerous Blue Tits (including a very handsome male) and Great Tits, a few Blackbirds (all male though), several Blackcaps (both male and female), some Wrens, a very small female Goldcrest, lots of Robins, and perhaps the highlight of the day, and the first ever catches on this particular site – two beautiful male Bullfinches in full colour. In total, 24 birds were caught over the course of the day. Most of these birds were held and released by me.

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Beautiful male Bullfinch
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One very handsome male Blue Tit

The day increased my patience even further due to long periods of waiting for birds, however, it was certainly worth it and I was even more looking forward to more by the end. At the end of the session, Andy told me that he was happy to take me on as a trainee ringer and I could apply for a permit via the BTO. I am the youngest person that he has ever taken on to train.

Next week, I will be bird ringing again, so my next post will probably involve what happens next time.

If you do happen to find a bird that is dead and has a ring on it, then you should report it to the BTO via their website. However, sometimes on the larger species of bird, if they have a ring, then you can easily read it in the field with a pair of binoculars. This too should also be reported with the location.