Monday, 22 September 2014

Falconry

I have difficulty in deciding on a position to take on the ethics of falconry, just as I have on some other relationships imposed by humans over animals (I'm very clear on many others, though, such as the relationship between Maltese hunters and migrating birds).

However, a  visit to Dover Castle by Rafael Historic Falconry provided both a spectacular display of the falconer's skill and of the birds' mastery of the air, especially when one of the peregrine falcons was set free to soar over the battlements and swoop across the jousting lawn.


Peregrines can be seen frequently along the White Cliffs but seeing them up close gives a new perspective.

I'd not previously seen a gyrfalcon and this one was a beauty, statuesque in line with its image as a Viking's hawk.


 
One of my favourite authors when I was younger was TH White, who wrote The Goshawk describing his difficult and less than successful attempt to master a recalcitrant Gos. A new book called H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald has used this as a base for her own more successful story, and usefully points out where White went wrong (driving himself and Gos half-mad with sleep deprivation didn't help).
MacDonald uses more tenderness in place of White's control, but I was reminded of this by the falconer's comment that the bird is not a pet and not a friend; it just uses the human as a source of food.


 

Friday, 29 August 2014

The "A" word

I refuse to say the "A" word this early in the year, but it's good to see a new colony of "A" lady's-tresses on Walmer beach, about 30 of them where I've presumably overlooked them although they are right beside a path. 

The usual patch by the road is poor this year, with just a handful poking through, while up on the Leas a manic mowing regime has wiped them out for the season.

It appears to be a good year for "A" gentian judging by their profusion on Foxhill Down, Postling Down and the usual little patch in Kingsdown.


Continuing the comparison game, burnet saxifrage seems more abundant than usual, while small and field scabious are scarce - perhaps the former can put its head above the rich sward, while the latter cannot. 

I look forward to seeing the Lydden devil's bit scabious soon, as I have seen my first of the year elsewhere.
 
 

Another scabious that's doing well is the naturalised sweet scabious at the root of the cliffs by Ramsgate harbour - a harsh environment of concrete, chalk, pollution and heat that these and other opportunists are enjoying.


Hopefully it will be a good fungus year..........



And finally, it's Folkestone Triennial time again - always a good time. This sign in London struck me as hopeful.....

 ..... and a series of benches have been designed as books - which one is this one?

Friday, 22 August 2014

Further fauna and flora from the far west




The peace and quiet of Skokholm makes it easy to concentrate on the fine details of the place - the geology, geography, weather, flora and fauna have all come under minute scrutiny over the years. We tried to contribute our own little bits, but this was of course mostly confirming what has already been recorded rather than making new finds.

I followed the long-established but lapsed butterfly transect, which was not difficult so long as one can count to 100 for the meadow browns. Apart from the odd small copper and peacock there was little else, although looking back on earlier counts it was clear that a greater variety had been present a decade or so ago, including good numbers of dark green fritillaries that bred on the abundant wild pansy. Apparently they were over-collected, and breeding ceased. This raises the question - should they not be reintroduced? I'll follow it up.

Man's involvement in the island's fauna is clear amongst the rabbit population, as Lockley the farmer (before he became Lockley the conservationist) brought in different breeds in the hope of marketing their fur, leading to a legacy of chinchilla-bunnies....

....... black bunnies.......

..... as well as normal bunnies.


The old red sandstone provides a lovely background to the sparse flora



 A few stream beds are lush with unusual plants, including sea milkwort, the bizarre allseed,bog pimpernel and lesser skullcap.

Scarlet pimpernels
  
  

The sea was warm enough for swimming, and was especially welcome as there are no baths or showers on the island.  The grey seals kept me company.



Back on the mainland, the glorious sun turned to Welsh rain, but didn't dampen the spirits because Pembrokeshire is so beautiful.


This is a red kidney vetch - weird.
 
When the sun reemerged, it brought out silver-studded blues- a very welcome addition to my life list. They are just gorgeous. 


And a grayling posed for a series of photos too :-)

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Birds on Skokholm

Not a bad place for a bird hide!

Overlooking cliffs where guillemots and razorbills "nest" away from the prowling gulls. Unfortunately, evolution has decreed that the chicks must jump/fall/bounce down into the sea, where other perils reside. Then they float out into the Atlantic with father razorbill or both parents if a guillemot. How did their ancestors develop like this? It's a successful strategy, though, as many hundreds breed here.



Even more astonishing, though, is the life history of the Manx Shearwater. 45,000 pairs nest in burrows across the tiny island but apart from corpses you don't see them in the day. In the evening, though, rafts build up as the birds that have been out to sea all day congregate, waiting for the comparative safety of darkness.
Then, if the moon is not too bright, they fly in and somehow find the right burrow.

If they don't find it, they are at the mercy of the gulls that are waiting for them, as their short legs make it difficult to move around on land. To help them find the burrow, the mate underground screams its banshee call. Sleeping at the observatory can be difficult as they are right outside.

The wardens are, of course, continuing the ringing process that was started when Skokholm became the first observatory in 1933.

The information gradually gained from the recording process is astonishing.... Manxies have been ringed and recaptured showing they live until at least 54 years old..... they fly 5 million miles in that time, between nest sites in the western British Isles and their winter feeding grounds off the coast of Brazil and Argentina...... and the parents leave the young in their burrows, and the fledglings eventually emerge and fly off to the south Atlantic on their own. And find their way back to the same island a couple of years later. I'm staggered.


The wardens and assistants also carry out ringing programmes on nesting storm petrels, auks, lesser black-backs and great black-backs (above) with much rock climbing.
There are also Heligoland and mist net traps that are no doubt full and fascinating in the migration times, but when we were there seemed to be occupied mostly by the handful of sedge warblers nesting nearby.


Families of choughs and ravens added to the enjoyment of cliff walks.



And of course there were puffins.......
.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Stay on Skokholm

"Stay on Skokholm" is not a description, but an imperative. You have to stay on Skokholm because, unlike Skomer, there are no day trips. The fishing boat leaves you on Monday morning and you're there until Friday. Or vice versa, for a weekend stay. Unless the weather prevents landing, in which case you wait....

We were fortunate to get a late cancellation with less than a week's notice so we rearranged work commitments and drove west to the far tip of Pembrokeshire for the 8.30am crossing. About 15 visitors can stay in the newly-updated accommodation which was comfortable in the dry, warm weather, and getting to know strangers who have similar interests was one of the delights of the stay.


The island is only about 1 mile long by half a mile wide and is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and administered by the Friends.  A well-stocked library and a ringing shed completes the observatory which has recently received accreditation again after a break of over three decades, and is staffed by two wardens and three volunteer assistants, who were charming, knowledgeable and good company.
Richard and Giselle write a good blog http://skokholm.blogspot.co.uk/, and are assisted by temporary volunteers Will (storm petrel expert), Dean (marine biologist) and Bill (pan lister and expert in everything else). The photo below shows Bill and Dean calling into storm petrel burrows and listening for replies, presumably under the delegation of Will.
 Skokholm is famous for its large populations of Manx shearwaters, storm petrels and lesser black backed gulls, of which more later.......

and puffins of course.