It's been a while since I last did a blog post, A Levels took over my life last year! But now the A Levels are done, and I'm on a gap year before I go to uni next September. The plan this year is to volunteer locally, spend a lot more time on my art, earn some money for uni, see as much wildlife as possible, and not have to worry about school work or exams! This summer I've seen some great wildlife, so I wanted to do a blog about what I've been up to.
My best digiscoping attempts:
Other British birding highlights in July included my first Pectoral Sandpiper, at RSPB Frampton Marsh, along with 16 other species of wader that day.
At the end of July, I went on a family holiday to Iceland, staying in the southeast of the island for a week. The bird list was relative small, at 42, but included some great species and superb views. Red-necked Phalarope was the bird of the trip (and a lifer), with brilliantly close views of a male at Thingvellir National Park. The second lifer of the trip was Harlequin Duck, which I unfortunately only managed very distant views of 2 females on a rocky inland river, but a great tick nonetheless. I also saw my first ever whale, a Minke, on a whale-watching boat trip from Reykjavík. We only got glimpses as it surfaced a couple of times, but the large numbers seabirds were also amazing to see - Kittiwakes, Gannets, Puffins, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters and close Arctic Skuas.
The scenery in Iceland was just breathtaking, and we of course visited some of the key sites in the Golden Circle. Despite all the people, seeing the waterfalls of Gullfoss, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the Geysirs, the geothermal river at Reykjadalur, the black sand beach at Vík, and standing between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates at Thingvellir, were all brilliant. And of course the glaciers and volcanoes were spectacular - Hekla was visible from our accommodation!
It's a beautiful country, and we were very lucky with the weather, with most days being gloriously sunny. It's somewhere I'd definitely love to visit again in the future.
The 3rd weekend of August saw the highlight of the birding year... Birdfair at Rutland Water. Always a great event, and again this year I spent hours wandering around the art marquee in awe!
Straight after Birdfair I was off to Menorca for a week on a family holiday. It was a beach holiday, but I managed to see some pretty good wildlife. Bird highlights included an Egyptian Vulture flying over the beach, Blue Rock Thrush, Purple Heron, Woodchat Shrike, Booted Eagle, Stonechat, Raven and Turtle Dove. I've been to Menorca 11 times, but only seen Turtle Doves in one other place on the island. I noticed that every evening on the beach, when most people had left, a few doves would come down onto the sand looking for food, and they seemed quite tame and unafraid. So one evening I took some food for them, and managed to get them to come very close, so close that I even got them onto my feet! It was bizarre, but they just weren't bothered by my presence at all, and happily fed at my feet for over half an hour!
I also got 3 butterfly lifers - Cleopatra, Swallowtail and Two-tailed Pasha. And there were Hummingbird Hawkmoths everywhere, some even stopping long enough to get a close look.
So that was my summer, and autumn so far has been equally as busy and filled with wildlife, so there'll be another blog soon!
For the rest of the trip we ventured out of the Monfragüe National Park and into the surrounding Biosphere Reserve. Without the biosphere reserve there wouldn't be the national park - here the wildlife interacts with human life, supporting the rich biodiversity in the park itself.
Day 3 - Monday 17th October
On our third day we visited Arrocampo Wetlands, to the east of the national park, to experience a different habitat to the previous day. Here we added lots of great wetland species to the trip list, including Snipe, Great-crested Grebe, Water Rail (heard only), Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, and the only Black-headed Gulls of the trip, as well as nice views of Purple Swamphen. I managed 2 lifers here as well - a SQUACCO HERON that gave good scope views as it flew over the back of the reeds and a glimpse of a BLUETHROAT - lifers 11 and 12 of the trip. We also managed to see a Bittern as it flew down into the reeds in front of us, which, despite a few being present throughout the winter, is a very rare sighting in Arrocampo! We were also treated to great views of Marsh Harriers throughout the day, and a fleeting view of a Merlin.
Some scrubby habitat adjacent to the wetland was full of Chiffchaffs, Zitting Cisticolas, Cetti's Warblers, Sardinian Warblers, and the odd Dartford Warbler, Hoopoe and Whinchat. As well as lots of beautiful Long Skimmer dragonflies. The males of this scarce dragonfly, found in Africa and now in Southern Europe, are a lovely slatey blue-grey colour, and the females a light green and blue. There were also a few Broad Scarlet dragonflies, and we found a stunning Wasp Spider in the long grass. Lifer 13 came in the form of a very smart IBERIAN GREY SHRIKE, feeding a little way in the distance, just before lunch.
After lunch we headed to some small ponds, where we saw Little Ringed Plover, Green and Common Sandpipers, Spanish Sparrow, Little Grebe, Little and Cattle Egrets and a few European Pond Terrapins in the water. A Clouded Yellow butterfly and Hummingbird Hawkmoth were also seen, as well as a fairly large shedded snake skin, thought to be from a Montpellier snake.
We then made our way to our accommodation for the last 2 nights, in the town of Malpartida de Plasencia, stopping en route in the small village of Toril, for a short tour of a museum about the local area. To finish the day, we found a huge European Mantis while walking back from dinner!
Day 4 - Tuesday 18th October
Before we set off for our last full day of birding, a little Moorish Gecko was found in our accommodation. It provided a good opportunity to try out my new clip-on macro lens for my phone, and I was very pleased with the results.
We spent the morning walking through farmland and dehesa habitat in the biosphere reserve, just east from the town of Serradilla. This land was very different to the barren farmland I'm used to in the UK - it was full of wildlife. The non-intensive, traditional farming of livestock, without the use of pesticides and monoculture and where the Cork and Holme Oak trees are left to flourish, allows the wildlife to thrive. It provides an excellent habitat for many passerine species; despite the drizzly weather we saw Goldfinch, Corn Bunting, Greenfinch, Crested Lark, Serin, Black Redstart, Meadow Pipit, Firecrest, Stonechat, Wheatear, Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap and more. All around us Woodlarks were singing and we were treated to great views of a couple feeding in a field. Cetti's Warbler was also heard, as well as several Cirl Buntings, although despite our best efforts we couldn't see any. Here we also had good views of ROCK SPARROWS - lifer number 14 for me.
We walked west for about 3km, to where the path met the ridge at Garganta del Fraile, which was actually only less than 4km west along the ridge from where we were on the second day at Castillo de Monfragüe. At Garganta del Fraile, or 'Friar's Gorge', we had brilliant views of Griffon and Black Vultures, seeing them closer than we had done before on the trip.
We spent the rest of the day in the municipality of Mirabel, eating lunch at spot looking up at the beautiful Castillo de Mirabel. Here we saw more Griffon and Black Vultures, with one Black Vulture offering superb views as it flew very low overhead. In a pocket of scrub habitat we struggled for a while to see a male Cirl Bunting that we could hear singing, until suddenly it was spotted in a tree and finally we got great views of this striking little bird. We also found a couple of Large Psammodromus lizards, giving another opportunity to use my clip-on macro lens for my phone to get some close up photos.
In a nearby Cork Oak woodland we saw Nuthatch, Mistle Thrush, Great Spotted Woodpecker and SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER, another lifer. We also saw a huge 400-year-old Cork Oak tree, the second-oldest tree in the region (if I remember correctly!).
Before heading to the town of Plasencia, we met with the Mayor of Mirabel to talk about ecotourism in the region. It was a very interesting conversation about how some areas of the biosphere reserve, like Mirabel, do not receive many visitors despite their brilliant wildlife, as we had experienced earlier in the day.
On a tour of the town of Plasencia, we saw the many beautiful buildings and churches, however we were slightly distracted by the occasional Red-rumped Swallow, Pallid Swift, Crag Martin and Spotless Starling that flew overhead! I also managed to spot a Redstart from the minibus on the way there - the only one of the trip.
Day 5 - Wednesday 19th October
With flights at 3pm, Emma and I set off for the airport mid morning, leaving the others to enjoy a few more hours of Spanish life. Although during the 3 hour taxi drive to Madrid we continued the birding, with close views of Cranes, Black-shouldered Kites, Lesser Black-backed Gull and WHITE STORKS, which were surprisingly the first of the trip and the final lifer for me. Emma got her flight back to the UK, whereas I was flying to Portugal to continue my Iberian birding adventure, joining my parents in Tavira in the Algarve.
It was a brilliant 5 days of birding, with absolutely stunning scenery. I saw 102 birds altogether, 16 of which were world lifers, as well as 8 lifers of other classes of animals. For me, the highlight was the Spanish Imperial Eagle drinking from the river, the Eagle Owl and seeing so many Griffon and Black Vultures amongst the beautiful mountain ridges and exposed rock faces. The dry, yellow-ochre grasslands of the dehesa dotted with Oaks and Olive trees was a new landscape for me, so it was very interesting to experience the wildlife here. Autumn is a brilliant time to visit this region, however in spring the dry dehesa is transformed into a carpet of green by the autumn and winter rains - something I would love to see. The traditional Spanish cuisine and Extremadura culinary specialities was also a part of the trip that won't easily be forgotten!
I would encourage all birders, wildlife lovers and outdoor enthusiasts to visit this amazing region of Spain. There is such a wealth of wildlife, offering brilliant views with a backdrop of impressive landscapes. I'd also like to again say a huge thank you to the Cáceres Tourist Board and David Lindo for inviting us on this trip, and to Martin Kelsey our guide, I think it's safe to say we all had a brilliant time!
In October 2016, I was invited to Extremadura - one of Spain's best birding regions - on a 5 day press trip led by The Urban Birder, David Lindo (@urbanbirder). We stayed in the northern part of Extremadura, the province of Cáceres, birding in the Monfragüe National Park and surrounding Biosphere Reserve. I'd like to say a huge thank you to the Cáceres Tourist Board for facilitating this trip, it was truly brilliant!
Extremadura is a vast area in central Spain, covering over 40,000 square kilometres. Situated in the northern province of Extremadura, Cáceres, the Monfragüe Biosphere Reserve covers 1,150 square kilometres, of which 180 square kilometres make up the National Park itself. Monfragüe lies on the River Tagus (or Tajo in Spanish) and the River Tiétar, and is home to a plethora of stunning scenery, created by the mountainous ridges, rivers, wetlands and the network of dehesa habitat.
In our 3 full days of birding we got an excellent taste of the wildlife in this beautiful region, however there is so much more of Extremadura to discover - I'm sure I'll be back to visit the other parts in the future!
Unfortunately, my DSLR camera decided to stop working after a couple of hours of birding, so I had to make do with my phone for rest of the trip. Although with my Opticron phonescoping adapter and MM3 60 ED scope I managed to achieve phonescoped photos I was very happy with.
Day 1 - Saturday 15th October
I landed in Madrid at about 3pm, meeting David and the rest of the group - Josie Hewitt, Emma Cole, Niki Bloom and Miriam Darlington - as well as our guide Martin Kelsey (http://www.birdingextremadura.com/). It was then a 3 hour drive to our first accommodation, in Torrejón el Rubio. On the drive, we managed to see our first 19 species of the trip, including 3 lifers for me - IBERIAN (Azure-winged) MAGPIE, BLACK-SHOULDERED KITE and a juvenile SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE that flew low over the vehicle! A few flocks of Common Cranes were spotted too, as well as our only Red-legged Partridge of the trip. On arrival at the accommodation, 2 more lifers were soon seen; CRAG MARTIN and a whirling cloud of GRIFFON VULTURES in the distance. A short walk nearby produced good views of Hoopoe, Grey Wagtail, Zitting Cisticola, Great Egret and Crested Lark. We finished the day with the first of many delicious traditional Spanish meals!
Day 2 - Sunday 16th October
After a breakfast of cheese, meats and traditional pastries, we headed to Castillo de Monfragüe, stopping en route to look at some geology. We stopped at a location where you could see ripples on the surface of the exposed rock-face next to the road - these ripples are evidence that this rock, now forming the Spanish countryside, once lay on the sea bed near Australia! We were surrounded by a beautiful dawn chorus of Robins, Cirl Buntings and Woodlarks, with Iberian Magpies flitting between the trees.
The views at Castillo de Monfragüe were breathtaking, it is possibly one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. Stood on the ridge we looked down on the River Tagus, the river that meets the sea in Lisbon, although here in Monfragüe it is more like a series of lakes, due to damming along its course. Walking up to and around the castle itself we saw Chough, Raven, Peregrine, Crag Martin, Black Redstart and heard a Pied Flycatcher. A couple of Hawfinches showed nicely - having only seen them once before in the UK it was great to see them so easily. However the vulture spectacle seen from here was an amazing sight. Looking along the ridge we saw Griffon Vultures perched on the rocks, and watched them as they stretched their 2.8m wingspan and took off, soaring into the valley below us. We also watched a couple of EURASIAN BLACK VULTURES on the ridge - another lifer for me. The park is home to the largest concentration of breeding Eurasian Black Vulture (or Cinereous Vulture) in the world, with over 400 pairs, and throughout the week we were treated to great views of this huge bird.
We then moved on to where the river crosses the ridge, about a kilometre west of the castle. Standing in the gorge, we looked across the river at an incredibly impressive rock face, known as Peñafalcón, or Falcon's Rock.
Here we saw several Black Redstarts, including some very striking males. As well as Grey Heron, White Wagtail, Song Thrush, more vultures and got closer views of Crag Martins as they perched briefly on the rock face. Here we also got brilliant views of a lovely male Blue Rock Thrush, and my first ROCK BUNTING. (Please click on the images below to see the full photos.)
A delicious lunch was enjoyed at a restaurant in the village where the Extremadura Birding Festival is held in spring, Villarreal de San Carlos. A short walk here produced some other non-bird lifers for me; Brown Argus and Bath White butterflies, and a Large Psammodromus lizard, as well as Dung Beetles and Vestal Moths. Linnets were also added to the list here, and we enjoyed nice views of Crested Larks.
After lunch we set up camp for the rest of the afternoon at Portilla del Tiétar, in the hope of seeing Spanish Imperial Eagle, and Eagle Owl later in the evening. After a short while watching the vultures and Blue Rock Thrushes on the rocks across the river, a Spanish Imperial Eagle was spotted flying high up. As we locked onto it with our bins and scopes, it suddenly swooped down into the gorge, landing on the other side of the river, just a hundred metres away or so! When then watched in awe as this beautiful eagle, an adult, drank from the river in front of us, dive-bombed by Iberian Magpies, before it flew to perch in the trees a little further away. An unforgettable encounter! Dartford Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Skylark, Kingfisher, streams of Cormorants flying upstream to roost and a high-up male Hen Harrier made up the supporting cast to this wonderful experience.
We then went for a short break to a nearby coffee shop before returning to the viewpoint at Portilla del Tiétar for the evening. At the coffee shop, we added another species to the list, and another lifer, SPANISH SPARROW.
When we returned to the viewpoint, we watched and waited for about 40 minutes before we heard the first monosyllabic hoot of the EAGLE OWL on the rock face in front of us. After 20 minutes of intensely scanning the hillside as the light faded rapidly, listening to its call, the bird was finally spotted flying up onto the top of the ridge. It gave great views for everyone, silhouetted against the navy sky, before flying off to the other side of the ridge a few minutes later. Another lifer, and another brilliant wildlife encounter. Walking back to the vehicle we saw Free-tailed Bats hawking over us, and had Red Deer cross the road ahead as we drove back. However best of all was a Wildcat that darted into the bushes in front of the vehicle! A great way to end such a brilliant day.
The first couple of days of this Spanish birding trip were brilliant, and a post on the rest of the trip will be coming soon!
In June this year I found out that my application for the Young Darwin Scholarship, run by the Field Studies Council (FSC), had been successful! Meaning that in August I was due to head off to their Preston Montford Field Centre near Shrewsbury for the introductory residential. As it was such a brilliant few days I thought I'd write a blog post about my experience.
Firstly, I should say a little bit about the scholarship. The Young Darwin Scholarship is a scheme set up by the FSC to support young people who have a keen interest in nature, and has been running for the past 5 years. Every year, 15 scholarships are awarded to 16 and 17 year olds across the country, giving each scholar the opportunity to attend an introductory course at Preston Montford, just 10 minutes away from the birthplace of the great Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury. Following the residential, scholars receive further support from the FSC, in the form of bursaries towards their workshops and courses, bursaries towards future Young Darwin reunions and career advice.
The 5 day residential started on Saturday 20th August, at the wonderful Preston Montford Field Centre. As Shrewsbury was the birthplace of Darwin, the course was focussed around 'What would Darwin do today?' - getting us to explore the area in which he grew up, and deepen our interest in the natural world. Everyone arrived at lunchtime, and after an icebreaker activity, we split into teams to do an OPAL earthworm survey, and learn more about citizen science surveys. After dinner, we headed to The Mount in Shrewsbury, where Darwin was born and spent his childhood. We took a walk along the River Severn, seeing a Kingfisher, and walking past Darwin's 'thinking path', where many of his ideas were born, before exploring 'Darwin's Meadow'.
On Sunday morning we had a guided tour down Snailbeach mines, where they used to mine for Barite (barium sulphate) and Galena (lead sulphide), amongst other minerals. As we walked through the tunnels trying not to bump our heads on the low ceilings, we found quite a few Herald and Tissue moths sheltering on the walls, two new species for me. We then explored the spoil heap, looking for pieces of Barite and Galena to take home, and looking for wildlife - we found a striking Field Grasshopper in the pink form amongst other insects, and a young toad.
In the afternoon we went for a hike through Stiperstones Nature Reserve, a stunning area of heathland on a hill with interesting geology. It was a beautiful walk, surrounded by Ravens, Buzzards, Swallows, the odd Kestrel, and we saw a family of Stonechats as we approached the end of the walk. We came across several small Common Frogs and a Fox Moth caterpillar, a caterpillar tick for me! We also stopped to sit in the heather quite a few times, to feast on the bilberries!
After dinner we set up various humane traps to monitor the wildlife at Preston Montford - Longworth (small mammal) traps, camera traps, a footprint tunnel and a moth trap, before hunkering down in a woodland by the local badger sett. We waited amongst the trees for about an hour as the light faded, but only the people at the front saw a badger (not including me unfortunately!).
Monday morning involved inspecting the traps we had set up the night before, starting with the Longworth traps. We'd set 16 traps, and as the usual success rate is about 10%, we were expecting one, maybe two, traps to have a small mammal inside. Well we were much more successful than we'd anticipated, with 5 traps harbouring a little furry creature, and in one trap there were 2 juvenile Bank Voles - it's very rare to find two animals in one trap as the trap door would usually prevent another from entering! In total we had 5 Bank Voles, including 1 pregnant female, and 1 Wood Mouse. After that excitement we collected in the camera traps and had a look at the footprint tunnel, which had unfortunately been unsuccessful, before heading over to the moth trap. I'd woken up early that morning to turn the light off and cover the trap with a sheet, to prevent the moths from escaping before we had a chance to pot them. So I already knew that we had a lot of unwelcome visitors in the trap... about 50 wasps! Now I like wasps, and it angers me that this beautiful creature is demonised so much, but finding a mini swarm in your moth trap is a slight nuisance! When we took the sheet off the trap we found that most of the wasps had congregated on the rain-cover for the bulb, so it was removed and they were not a problem anymore. There were still quite a few inside the trap on the egg boxes however, so we had to pot the moths with great care. We didn't have time to identify the moths, as we needed to head off in the minibus for our next activity, so we potted them up and left them in the fridge for later.
Following that, we hopped in the minibus and headed over to the River Severn to spend the rest of the day canoeing. In groups of 5, with a canoeing expert at the back to help steer us through the high waters, we set off along the river, observing the wildlife, and generally having a lot of fun! We saw a few Common Sandpipers along the way, as well as a Kingfisher, Little Egret, a family of Goosander and several close Buzzards. After travelling for 4 miles downstream, we stopped for lunch on the bank, before attempting to do some fresh water sampling from the canoes. It was then our task to design a citizen science survey for Himalayan Balsam, an invasive non-native species, that we found was widespread along the banks of the Severn. As we canoed a further 5 miles downstream, we tested our surveys, tweaking them in a few areas, ready to present to the group when we returned to Preston Montford. In the afternoon we were surrounded by Banded Demoiselles as we pulled into a small inlet, as well as the odd other dragonfly, like Brown Hawkers. It was a brilliant way to spend the day!
On returning to Preston Montford, we listened to a talk about careers in ecological consultancy, which provided a great insight into a possible career path. After dinner, we went to Venus Pool, a nature reserve just outside Shrewsbury, for a spot of evening birding. It was a good spot for waders, with lots of Lapwing, 3 Snipe, 3 Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank seen from the hides, as well as a Goosander, Little Grebe and Little Egret. We then went on a walk around the fields to where there was the chance of seeing a Barn Owl... As we approached we heard 2 birds hissing, so we stopped and waited, and then one flew out and began quartering over the fields, followed by two more when we looked beyond the hedge - just brilliant!
The plan for our last full day on the course was to do a BioBlitz of Preston Montford - trying to record every species in an area. Before this, we listened to a talk about biological recording followed by a talk about the publications produced by the FSC, and then identified the moths from the previous morning. The highlights from the trap were several Brimstone, Swallow Prominent, Rosy Rustic, Spectacle, Dusky Thorn and a Poplar Hawkmoth. To make the BioBlitz a bit easier, and to get more out of the day in terms of learning identification skills, we signed up to do a couple of different sessions with different experts. For example there were experts in botany, dragonflies and damselflies, soil invertebrates and bees, ants and wasps. In the morning session I, and a few others, joined the bees, ants and wasps (Apocrita) expert. Armed with sweep nets we set out around the centre's grounds, learning so much about the biology and identification of these creatures. We also found a first for the site, an Anthophora furcata, or Fork-tailed Flower Bee! Ruby-tailed Wasps (Chrysis sp.) were also great to see.
After lunch I did the dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) session, where we learnt that dragonflies are a lot harder to catch in sweep nets than bees! We saw 5 species of dragonflies and 2 damsels - it was great to learn the differences between Migrant and Southern Hawkers, and Common and Ruddy Darters, both on the wing and in the hand when we managed to catch them. We also saw Brown Hawkers, Common Blue Damselfly and Blue-tailed Damselfly. I've never seen any of the Odonata order in the hand, so that was fascinating!
After the BioBlitz, we got to be young kids again in a session with an environmental education officer at the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, where we did some of the activities that they do with children across the county. It was great fun (even though we're supposedly too old for these activities!), learning about the importance of environmental education and allowing children to explore the outdoors.
Also staying at Preston Montford at the same time as us were the Darwin Scholars, a scheme for under 30s from across the world who work in conservation. Over dinner on our last evening we were paired up with one of the 'old' Darwin Scholars who works in a field we're interested in, to talk to them about their jobs. It provided a great insight into the types of conservation projects that are out there to get involved with. After dinner we went on a short walk around the Preston Montford estate with a group from Vision England, which was a great way to spend our last night.
Wednesday morning was spent tying up loose ends from the week - putting records from the BioBlitz into iRecord, debriefing about the past few days and talking to Cathy and Angela, the organisers of the course, about our plans for the future and how the scholarship can support us. After a lunch in the sun on the lawn we departed our separate ways to all across the country.
It was a really brilliant, interesting and fun few days, with a great group of people - I can't wait for our reunion next year at another FSC centre! I would like to say a huge thank you to the Field Studies Council and everyone at Preston Montford for such a wonderful experience. And if you're a young person interested in nature reading this then I would definitely urge you to apply for it next year! If you would like to find out more about the Young Darwin Scholarship, click here.
Two weeks ago I joined about 20 other A Focus On Nature members (AFON - the network for young conservationists) at the Knepp Estate in Sussex, for a wonderful weekend of wildlife. The Knepp Wildland is one of the largest re-wilding projects in Europe, where 3,500 acres of the Sussex countryside is preserved, allowing natural habitat regeneration, enabling it's wildlife to thrive. We camped at the Knepp Wildland Safaris farm, which acted as a great base for our wildlife excursions on the estate.
We started the weekend with an introductory talk by Charles Burrell, the owner of the estate, about the re-wilding project and the livestock farming - which is essential for the vegetation management and financial security of the project. We then, armed with sweep nets to hunt for insects, proceeded on a walking tour of just a small part of the project, led by Knepp's resident ecologist Penny Green. It was brilliant to be immersed in the habitat searching for insects with several insect experts, sharing their knowledge and identifying the contents of our sweep nets. I also saw my first 2 butterfly lifers of the weekend - Marbled White and Purple Hairstreak. The Purple Hairstreaks stayed high up in the tree tops so the views were very distant, but the Marbled Whites showed much closer, fluttering by over the fields, but unfortunately never landing for more than a second. Someone did manage to pot one though, allowing us to get a great close up look of this stunning insect.
After a barbecue in the evening, using meat from the deer, cows and pigs that graze on the estate, Penny led us on a walk to look for Barn Owls. We hunkered down in a field, looking over at a barn in which the owls nest, waiting silently and intently. As dusk set in we watched an adult bird bringing in food, hearing the chicks hissing as they were fed. A large Oak Eggar moth clumsily fluttered by us as we waited, and a Little Owl called repeatedly from the trees behind us. We then went to sit by a lake, where we watched 5 or so Daubenton’s Bats whirling back and forth over the water, feeding on the moths – truly magical! After inspecting the 2 moth traps by the lake to see what had already been attracted to the blinding lights, we headed back to the tents, ready to get up early for the bird ringing on Sunday morning.
I arrived at the ringing base, about a 5-minute walk from the campsite, at half past six, but an even earlier start for most of the group had meant they got great views of a purring Turtle Dove. After hearing what I’d missed, I took a walk up the path with a couple of others, to where the bird had been seen. After a few minutes a Turtle Dove flew over, landing out of view, but we did get to hear its characteristic purr – my first one in the UK for about 5 years! For a couple more hours we watched the ringing, allowing us to see great birds like Chiffchaffs, Bullfinches and Lesser Whitethroats in the hand. A Kingfisher was also spotted darting across the lake a few times, with its electric blue sheen shimmering in the sun.
On the way back to the campsite for a late breakfast after the ringing, everyone suddenly stopped on the path and started taking photos of an insect on a cowpat... it was a stunning male Purple Emperor! This beautiful creature allowed us very close, not at all bothered by the circle of people and cameras surrounding it. We later found out that male Purple Emperors need to take in certain minerals and salts in order to breed, such minerals they can get from a variety of sources, including dung, dead animals and tree sap. Once a source of these nutrients has been found, it becomes the males' sole priority, meaning they will very reluctantly give it up - providing remarkable views to anyone who is lucky enough to chance upon this fascinating behaviour. Knepp is the best place in the country to see this species - and now I can see why! Our encounter with this glorious animal was a first for me and many in the group, and one that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Following that excitement, it was scheduled for us to do a Purple Emperor walk, but after our previous encounter we weren't sure that we could be more impressed by this butterfly! Led by a Purple Emperor expert, we learnt so much more about them. Although we didn't get any closer views, it was brilliant to see so many individuals of this scarce species. It was fascinating to observe different behaviours; the males patrolling the trees with their powerful wing beats, seeing off anything that flew nearby (they are very aggressive butterflies!), and the females searching the sallow woods for a perfect leaf on which to lay their eggs. We were also very privileged to be shown an egg and a chrysalis, from which a female had emerged a few days previous. On the walk we also got much better views of Purple Hairstreaks, allowing me to get a record photo of one as it rested on the oak leaves. There was another flurry of excitement on the walk when a White Admiral was spotted, a species not seen at Knepp very often at all, and another butterfly lifer for me!
When we returned back to the campsite after the walk we went through the moth traps, in which were hundreds of moths, caddis flies, beetles and other insects. We saw some great species like Buff-tip, Buff Arches, Bordered Beauty, Dun-bar, Ghost Moth and 3 Elephant Hawkmoths.
The weekend finished with a group photo, then everyone departed their separate ways, and I started the 7 hour journey back home - but it was definitely worth it! It was great to meet more like-minded young people, seeing loads of brilliant wildlife, and of course getting 4 butterfly lifers. We had very good weather all weekend, although at some points it was unbearably hot and humid, but at least it didn't rain. My close-focussing Opticron Verano HD 10x42 binoculars were perfect for this trip, enabling me to get brilliant views of all the butterflies and insects. I will no doubt be visiting the Knepp Estate again in the future, it is truly an amazing place!
In the first week of April I went down to Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory in East Kent, for a week's birding with 3 other Next Generation Birders; George, Sophie (who was just back from spending the winter in Ecuador, so almost every bird she saw on the trip was a year tick!) and Lewis. We spent 5 days, from the 4th to the 8th, scouring the stunning flat landscapes of East Kent in search of birds and other wildlife.
I had a brilliant week, seeing 96 bird species, 38 of which were year ticks and 1 was a lifer! The weather was generally kind to us, with the odd rain shower here and there, but that gave me time to do some revision for my AS exams!
All week we were treated to good views of Firecrest, Short-eared Owl, Corn Buntings and Grey Partridges - birds I don't get to see all that often, and I don't think there were 15 minutes that we didn't hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker!
Even though the sea watching at Sandwich Bay isn't brilliant (after all it is a large bay) it was great just to be by the sea, a nice change from where I live, so far inland. We did however see a small flock of around 10 Scoter on the sea on the first day (Monday) which were the only ones seen all week. We also saw Great-crested Grebes on the sea throughout the week, which was a bit of an odd sight!
A daily visit to 'The Scrape' south of the Obs provided nice views of Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Snipe, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Ducks, and a single male Wigeon on Friday. As well as several whinnying Little Grebes.
On Tuesday morning I took a walk over one of the golf courses to the sea, seeing a Stonechat, Short-eared Owl, a flock of Dunlin (the only ones seen on the trip) and my first Swallow of the year.
A Peregrine and a Marsh Harrier were seen over the Obs that day too. And it was brilliant to sit in the small woodland down the road from the Obs, 'The Elms', and have Goldcrests, Wrens, a Blackcap, Chiffchaffs and a Firecrest flitting about and singing in the trees around me!
On Wednesday, we had brief views of an immature Mediterranean Gull that just dropped into a field outside the Obs, so that was a nice and unexpected year tick. A Ring-necked Parakeet was also seen flying over. In the afternoon, as unfortunately the Bee Walk that was planned was called off due to bad weather, we headed over to Stodmarsh NNR, a reserve of vast reed beds and lagoons. Whilst walking through the woodland, heading towards the marsh, we had a pair of Treecreepers close to the path, a year tick. And it was not long until we were watching several male and female Marsh Harriers showing brilliantly, as well as hearing tonnes of Cetti's Warblers very close to the path, one of which we managed to get good views of (well, for a Cetti's anyway!). We also heard Water Rail, and I spotted 2 Red Kites across the lagoon, before it started tipping it down and we had to shelter in the hide. However the rain did bring down a handful of Swallows and Sand Martins, the latter being a trip tick.
All week there was bird ringing going on too, which was interesting to observe. On Wednesday they ringed a Redwing - I've never seen one so late in the year! A Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chiffchaffs, Starlings, Willow Warblers and Firecrests were other good birds ringed during the week, although I missed the latter two unfortunately.
On Thursday we headed up the coast to Pegwell Bay, getting there 3 hours before the high tide to watch the waders coming in. It wasn't massively busy on the wader front, but we did see 2 Brent Geese (dark-bellied), Curlew, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Common Gull and we got great scope views of 9 Sandwich Terns! We also had an escaped Harris Hawk fly over us!
On Thursday afternoon we took a walk up to 'New Downs', a scrape by the River Stour north of the Obs, to look for the Avocets and other waders there. On the walk up to the scrape we saw a Peregrine and a lovely Kingfisher, as well as many singing Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Amongst the Oystercatchers and ducks on the scrape, we saw the Avocets, 13 of them, and 5 Ringed Plovers, both trip ticks and nice birds to see.
There was plenty of other wildlife besides birds to be seen throughout the week. When we first arrived, a beautiful Angle Shades moth was resting on the Obs wall, and stayed all day, allowing for a good photo opportunity. Moth trapping was done most nights, so it was very useful to watch the catch being processed and identified, especially as most of the species were ones that I caught when I trapped the week before at home. (Please click on the images below to view them full screen)
Around the Obs recording area there are several reptile refuges, which are often used by Slow Worms to warm up under. It was brilliant to see these creatures up close - I've only ever seen them once before and that was a rather quick view. So I was thrilled to see about 6 in the week, and managed a few photos with my phone. On Wednesday, Sophie and I lifted up a refuge to find a Field Vole underneath it, which was a bit of a surprise!
The last day of the trip was one of the best day's birding I've had in Britain for a while! It started with Sophie and I taking a walk around the area south of the Obs, when we got great views of Short-eared Owls, my first Wheatear of the year, 2 continental Coal Tits (Periparus ater ater), Corn Buntings and Grey Partridge. Then as we were sat in the hide at the scrape watching Curlews and the first Wigeon of the trip, the Obs warden came in asking if we'd seen 3 waders drop in at the scrape, as he'd just had a Long-billed Dowitcher fly north with 2 Redshanks! Soon we were dashing about scanning the marsh area nearby, with no luck on the Dowitcher front. We did however watch a female Hen Harrier drift by, my first for a long time! After giving up searching and heading back to the Obs, we decided that after lunch we would head up to New Downs (another scrape area north of the Obs) in the off chance that the Dowitcher had settled there. As we were walking along the riverbank, Sophie looked behind her at a scrape next to the river and saw 3 waders... I set my scope up as quickly as possible and there it was, the Long-billed Dowitcher with 2 Redshanks, a lifer! We proceeded to take some record shots and watch it (after some quiet celebrations at having refound the bird) for a few minutes, before suddenly it took off and headed north again. It wasn't seen again that day, but it was seen the subsequent few days after we had all gone back home. The birding hadn't stopped there for the day though - we hadn't been back at the Obs for 5 minutes before we heard that there was a Crane at the spot where the Dowitcher was first seen in the morning, quite a scarce bird in this part of Kent! And whilst watching the Crane I got a glimpse of a Merlin overheard, another year tick. A truly brilliant day that won't be forgotten for a while!
My brilliant Opticron Verano HD 10x42 binoculars and MM3 60 ED scope were put to great use on this trip. I had to carry the scope around a lot - it is just the right balance between lightness and performance, perfect for a trip like this. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a travel scope!
It was a brilliant 5 days down on the east coast of Kent, a county I haven't been to for years. We had good weather, and I certainly can't argue with 38 year ticks and a lifer! I'd like to say a huge thank you to the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory for having us, and I will definitely be visiting again in the future!
It's been 2 months since I last posted, sorry about that! But A Levels have taken up all of my time recently, especially with mock exams last week. I couldn't even get out birding at all in half term as I spent all week revising! Sadly that is going to be the case for the next few months until the summer holidays.
However I have been working on a couple of pieces of artwork since the New Year. The first being a commissioned watercolour painting of a Red-backed Shrike, which was a leaving present for a teacher at school, from their department. The second is a pencil drawing of a Slavonian Grebe in winter plumage, which I was asked to do for the Spurn Bird Observatory newsletter. I really enjoyed doing both of these pieces, and I'm looking forward to all of the other paintings and drawings I've got lined up to do in the near future! (Please click on the artwork to see larger images)
In February I managed to get a handful of garden ticks, with a Cormorant high over my mum's one morning, and 3 Greylags and a Mallard low over one afternoon. And on the last weekend in February, I spotted 3 Siskins in my dad's garden, which stayed for a few hours before moving on. They came quite close to my bedroom window as well, so that was nice to see!
The most impressive wildlife spectacle I witnessed in the first 2 months of 2016 was watching a beautiful Short-eared Owl hunting over the fields at Cossington Meadows in Leicestershire. I'd kept seeing reports of 1 or 2 birds showing well at the site throughout the winter, and as it isn't too far from my dad's I took the opportunity of a free weekend at the end of February to have a look for myself. I watched the owl for about an hour and a half, as it quartered over the fields in the afternoon sun. It offered brilliant views; flying quite close to the small gathering of binoculars and cameras, and perching on a fence post not too far away. When I saw the 'SEOs' at Portland last October, we didn't see them until it was almost dark, so it was really great to see one in such good light at Cossington, even though it was against the sun for a lot of the time.
Unfortunately I couldn't take my camera or my brilliant Opticron scope, which would've been perfect for trying to digiscope the owl with my phone-scoping adapter. So I had to make do with trying to 'digibin', by holding my phone up to my binoculars and attempting to take a decent record shot, and I was quite pleased with the results!
So that was the extent of my wildlife adventures in January and February, but hopefully the coming months will see some more great experiences in our natural world!
2015 has been a great year of birding, and general wildlife-ing. I started the year with 220 birds on my British list, and by the end of it I've managed to get 21 lifers or British ticks - not bad going! I'm not a year lister by any means, but my British year list for 2015 is my highest yet, at 186 species. I've also religiously used BirdTrack to record my sightings, keeping a detailed account of my birding this year. Here's a map of my BirdTrack sightings this year:
Here's a brief round up of my 2015 lifers and British ticks, but please have a read of my previous posts for more detailed accounts of my birding this year.
1. Short-eared Owl - 23/1/15, RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire
A trip to the Cambridgeshire fens in search of this beautiful owl was very successful, with 3 individuals seen. 12 Cranes were also a highlight of that day.
2. Dartford Warbler - 18/2/15, Hampshire
Back in February fellow young birder, Josie Hewitt, kindly invited me to stay with her in Hampshire, where she is lucky enough to have Dartford Warblers on patch. So we went out to ring them, which was a fabulous experience.
3. Ring Ouzel - 19/4/15, Peak District
Whilst on my Duke of Edinburgh Silver practice expedition in the Peaks, a flock of Rouzels flew over me and landed long enough for a reasonable view, needless to say I was ecstatic to get a lifer on DofE!
4. Night-heron (British tick) - 26/4/15, Attenborough NR, Notts
5. Grasshopper Warbler - 26/4/15, Attenborough NR, Notts
A brilliant day twitching the Night-Heron just half an hour from my house, and watching my first Gropper reeling away by the path.
6. Little Tern - 28/5/15, RSPB Titchwell Marsh, Norfolk
7. Black-winged Stilt (British tick) - 28/5/15, RSPB Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire
Little Tern was quite a surprise at Titchwell on a great day's birding in Norfolk, and a slight detour to Frampton for the stilt pair delivered the goods. I only managed digiscoped record shots of them both though:
8. Stone Curlew - 11/6/15, Weeting Heath, Norfolk
In June I was invited down to Suffolk to be on Springwatch Extra (a brilliant experience), so I did some birding at RSPB Minsmere, and stopped at Weeting Heath on the way back for the Stone Curlews. Distant views, but a great tick.
9. Lesser Whitethroat - 15/6/15, Attenborough NR, Notts
I finally managed to see this species at my local Attenborough Nature Reserve after several failed attempts, and was treated to lovely views.
10. Black-necked Grebe - 1/7/15, East Midlands
11. Montagu's Harrier - 12/7/15, RSPB Blacktoft Sands, Yorkshire
Close views of Tree Sparrows were another highlight of a brilliant day at Blacktoft, getting great (if a tad distant) views of the male and female Monty's.
12. Red-footed Falcon - 16/7/15, Stoke
This stunning little falcon showed really well, hovering just above the crowd of birders, a great twitch.
13. Sabine's Gull - 11/8/15, Pennington Flash, Manchester
As I was staying with my granddad near Warrington, it was too good an opportunity to not twitch the Sab's, another lifer that showed brilliantly.
14. Manx Shearwater - 24/8/15, Bardsey Island
15. Storm Petrel - 25/8/15, Bardsey Island
16. Long-tailed Skua - 26/8/15, Bardsey Island
In August I went on the excellent Next Generation Birders trip to the magical Bardsey Island, off North Wales, where we stayed in the Bird Observatory. Thousands of Manxies were a daily spectacle, ringing Stormies one night was just amazing, and one day a juvenile Long-tailed Skua sauntered slowly past the west side of the island, giving great scope views. A brilliant week of birding with other people my age!
17. Red-flanked Bluetail - 19/10/15, Wells Woods, Norfolk
A twitchy day trip to Norfolk, stopping first at Wells Woods, produced one lifer, a juvenile Red-flanked Bluetail (my photos aren't great though). Unfortunately I missed out on the other 2 rarities in the woods that day (Blyth's Reed Warbler and Hume's Leaf Warbler), but a very pleasant day in Norfolk nonetheless!
18. Firecrest - 28/10/15, Portland
19. Pallas's Warbler - 28/10/15, Portland
Another NGB Bird Observatory trip, this time to Portland in Devon. There were always several Firecrests in the Obs garden, a few of which were ringed by the ringers on the trip. A Pallas's Warbler caused a lot of excitement when it was spotted down the road from the Obs, turning up in the nets in the Obs garden on our last day! (Please click on an image to view the whole photo).
20. Red-rumped Swallow - 23/12/15, Holkham, Norfolk
21. Iceland Gull - 23/12/15, Kings Lynn, Norfolk
Another day trip to Norfolk for some winter birding (and a bit of twitching). The Red-rumped Swallow showed very well, and I managed a couple of half-decent digiscoped record shots. Then we stopped in Kings Lynns on the way back home for the Iceland Gull, which posed for us just a few metres from the car. My last lifers of 2015.
So that's my 2015 lifers and British ticks, finishing the year with a British list of 241. This year I started learning a lot more about other forms of wildlife, like bees, butterflies and moths, getting a moth trap in October. I was only able to put the trap out once this year, but in 2016 I plan to put it out a lot more!
In October I also got some new Opticron kit - a pair of Verano HD 10x42 binoculars and an MM3 60 ED scope. My first time using them was on the Portland trip at the end of October, when the scope was particularly useful for sea watching. In December I also got a phonescoping adapter for my iPhone, which is really great, especially for trying to photograph moving birds, like the Red-rumped Swallow. My new bins focus a lot closer than my old ones, so I'm looking forward to using them for watching and identifying invertebrates in 2016.
I hope everyone had a great 2015, and I wish you all the best for the next year!
Since the end of October (after returning from Portland Bird Observatory) I haven't been able to get out birding at all, as this last half term has been full of A Level work. After Portland my British list stood at 239, having got 19 lifers or British ticks this year. So I was desperate to get out birding, and use my Opticron bins and scope, when the Christmas holidays came around!
I recently acquired an Opticron digiscoping adapter for my iPhone, and this was my first time using it. It soon proved very useful when trying to digiscope my first 20th lifer of the year...
On the 23rd of December, my grandparents and I went to Norfolk for the day. We first stopped at Choseley Barns, unfortunately dipping on the Rough-legged Buzzards. However twitching the Red-rumped Swallow at Holkham was much more successful! The bird showed very well, not particularly close though. But I was very pleased with the digiscoped records shots I managed to get with my new digiscoping adapter and iPhone:
We then moved on to RSPB Titchwell Marsh, where Siskins and Bramblings were flitting about in the trees and on the feeders by the visitors centre. Other good birds included Knot, Turnstone, Water Rail, Water Pipit (year tick), and plenty of wildfowl, including some smart male Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Shoveler, Red-crested Pochard and Brent Geese. A Chinese Water Deer was also seen on the marsh opposite the pools.
On the journey back home, we stopped in Kings Lynn to twitch the Iceland Gull, which posed by the river just a few metres from the car! A fabulous last lifer of 2015!
I saw my first December moth at the end of the year as well, on my grandparents kitchen window.
I spent New Year's Eve in London, and on the drive down I counted over 60 Red Kites as we drove along the motorway, with lovely views of them in the sun.
This September I started my AS Levels, so for the first half of the Autumn term birding was put on hold for me. I did manage to get one year tick in September though, a Garganey at Attenborough one weekend.
From the 5th - 7th of October, I was on an AS Geography field trip to the Cranedale Centre in Yorkshire, to study rivers. It just so happened that my birthday was during this trip, so I spent my 17th wading through the River Derwent! Not most teenagers' idea of a great birthday, but I really enjoyed it, much better than being stuck in classrooms at school all day, that's for sure. I also found this moth near my dorm one evening, which I later identified as a Green-brindled Cresent, a rather stunning beastie.
On 11th October, I made a trip to Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, near Coventry, to take part in a discussion, with 4 other young naturalists, about the connection between young people and nature. Our conversation was recorded, and made into a podcast to form part of the Wildlife Trusts' campaign; 'Every Child Wild'. Please see my previous blog to find out more about it, and to listen to the podcast.
October half term was my chance to get out and see some wildlife, starting with a day trip to Norfolk on the first Monday of my break. With gripping photos of all the rarities seen in Norfolk that weekend popping up all over my social media feeds, I was very eager to get out there myself and go birding. So on Monday morning my grandparents and I went to Wells Woods to try our luck with the host of migrants sheltering there. It was a morning of mixed success, with the Red-flanked Bluetail (lifer!) showing fairly well, my photos really don't do this bird justice though! Rather frustratingly, I only heard the Hume's Leaf Warbler that was present, and got untickable views of the Blyth's Reed Warbler. So I came very close to 3 lifers at Wells Woods, but only came away with one. But it's definitely not all about the ticks, the Bluetail was a great bird, and the number of Goldcrests in the woods was quite staggering. Everywhere you looked the trees were teeming with these charming little birds, allowing you to get very close.
We then spent the afternoon at the RSPB Titchwell Marsh, a reserve I always love to visit. I saw 48 species of bird, with highlights of Brambling (year tick), Black-tailed Godwit, a lovely Spotted Redshank very close to the main path, Knot, Greenshank, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and a couple of hundred Golden Plover in the splendid autumn sun. However the star bird was a Great White Egret that flew over us whilst we were sat in the first hide, circled to the back of the reedbed and disappeared out of view - only the second time I've ever seen one in the UK, and a year tick.
The next day I did some local birding in Nottinghamshire, visiting Besthorpe Nature Reserve and Budby. My granddad and I saw 40 species, including a Green Sandpiper, Redshank, Snipe, several Kingfishers, Raven, Redwing, and a small flock of Redpoll, a year tick.
At the end of October was the NGB trip to Portland Bird Observatory, where we saw some great birds, and it was really nice to go birding with people my age. Please see my blog about the trip.
So despite the lack of birding and wildlife seen in September, October more than made up for it. The 3 lifers (Red-flanked Bluetail in Norfolk, Firecrest and Pallas's Warbler on Portland) have brought my British life list to 239. And 4 year ticks (Garganey, Brambling, Great White Egret and Redpoll) have brought my year list to 182, not bad!
I'm Sorrel, a young birder and wildlife artist based in the East Midlands - this is my blog all about my birding and wildlife adventures.