Thursday, 18 April 2013

Great Bustards


A birthday treat was to visit the reintroduced Great Bustards on the military range of Salisbury Plain. Amid great secrecy (blindfolds, Official Secrets Act, chinese burns) we were taken by Land Rover across the firing ranges to a hide on the plain. From there we could see an enclosure with three dots that (on magnification) turned into great bustards.

Looking through the provided Swarovski, the dots became three heaps of feathers - apparently turkeys trying to turn themselves inside out.
The birds were all males, indulging in a lek even without the presence of females. Presumably the bright display can be seen for a long distance across the steppes, and so can attract any potential mates from the area.
One bird (purple 5) was clearly the dominant male, and was the only one to have reached breeding maturity so far. He's a bit of a star, and knows it.

From time to time, other birds flew in (still only males, unfortunately), giving us good views of their white, brown and black wings, looking vaguely like geese. If I had seen one elsewhere, I would not have had a clue what it was.
At each arrival, Purple 5 would approach the newcomer, which would crouch down into a submissive pose. Purple 5 would then strut around for a while, but then the group would calm down and proceed to lek again.
The birds are not pinioned or constrained in any way, and so can fly off and may disappear for weeks at a time. Over 50 have been released, and many have been sighted in various parts of the south-west. When thick snow fell this winter, they all flew south towards the Dorset coast but started to return when the weather improved.

A particular problem seems to be that they are reluctant to see foxes as a threat. This may, of course, be because they see dogs being walked nearby and so do not take fright when a real predator appears.

The project will take time to prove its success, as the birds are brought in as eggs or chicks from Russia and then have to reach maturity. Consequently the establishment of a breeding group will be a few years away. I wish the team the very best of luck, both in breeding success and in raising funds to keep the project going. It should get good publicity by being on the One Show tonight.

Marvellous birds - just look at that moustache! I only later saw that I had cropped the greatbustard.org website name as below:
Maybe this could challenge the hegemony of the legendary fatbirder?



While watching the bustards, a popular pastime was playing spot-the-stone-curlew. At 400 yards or so, that's a challenge, but eventually one was seen "just to the left of the dandelion". Great to see.



Unexpectedly, a pub in Oxford was found to sell Arkells Kingsdown Ale, which tasted not half bad.

Monday, 8 April 2013

South Foreland

It was a pleasant spring morning so we went looking for spring gentians on the St Margarets cliff-top. We didn't find any (they are probably now consigned to the sea after one of the cliff falls) but there was consolation in a sudden arrival of raptors around 11am.
Firstly a red kite was seen being mobbed by the local jackdaws and crows, and this might have been the same bird seen by the Bockhill birders who were probably gazing skywards by the monument in the picture at the time.

Then my sharp-eyed companion saw a spiral of raptors riding a thermal overhead, with more joining to benefit from the lift. We counted three more red kites and eleven common buzzards.

But even this number was small compared to the numbers counted by the Bockhillers across the bay.

The Bockhill website compliments Robert Sonnen of the National Trust on the good work he has done on the clifftops between Dover and Kingsdown, and we would echo the praise as much of the scrub has been cut back and the sward has been improved by the Dexters and Koniks over the winter. We look forward to recording the butterflies on these areas this year.

Then..... refreshments at Mrs Miggins pie shop (aka Mrs Knott's tearoom) where tea and scones are served in bone china crockery, and an air of refinement is all around. And where I have been known to don a pinny to help out in the busy times.
From the top there is a marvellous view, and eye-level views were had of kestrel, sparrowhawk and peregrine, with ravens flying along the cliff-edge.

This brought to mind a most enjoyable book by local birder (ringer and taxidermist) Norman McCanch, who describes the enviable lifestyle of lighthouse-keeping as a birder. Each page is fascinating as the changing seasons bring different species to the safety (or danger) of lighthouses.

And finally an autumnal photo (since we've given up on spring and summer) taken this week at St Margarets.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Snakesheads


Today I started to wake, opened my eyes, sought out the sunlight and stretched my back.
Maybe it's nearly spring - nearly time to to shed my skin and feel good again.
Nearly, because it's only warm out of the relentless chilling starvation wind.



The sequence of renewal has started but it progresses only slowly.  The coltsfoot is first, as usual in the shelter of the cliffs.
A lesser stag beetle is found under a log, comatose but alive and waiting for its time to strut and fret his hour upon the woodland stage.
 

 Moscatel raises a tentative bud, and a rare patch of wild daffodils remains furled, unwilling to greet the uncertain sun.

In a garden, a lawn of snakeshead fritillaries is dotted with pink, the start of a glory that should already be here.

And an early chiffchaff chimes the birds into life, "as if every note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into winter's coffin".
Edward Thomas wrote this towards the end of In Pursuit of Spring, a work that seems all the more poignant in this slow chilled season.

Snakesheads


Today I started to wake, opened my eyes, sought out the sunlight and stretched my back.
Maybe it's nearly spring - nearly time to to shed my skin and feel good again.
Nearly, because it's only warm out of the relentless, chilling, starvation wind.



The sequence of renewal has started but it progresses only slowly.  The coltsfoot is first, as usual in the shelter of the cliffs.
A lesser stag beetle is found under a log, comatose but alive and waiting for its time to strut and fret his hour upon the woodland stage.
 

Moschatel raises a tentative bud, and a rare patch of wild daffodils remains furled, unwilling to greet the uncertain sun.



In a garden, a lawn of snakeshead fritillaries is dotted with pink, the start of a glory that should already be here.

And an early chiffchaff chimes the birds into life, "as if every note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into winter's coffin".
Edward Thomas wrote this towards the end of In Pursuit of Spring, a work that seems all the more poignant in this slow chilled season.