Monday, 26 March 2012

Ovington and the River Itchen - 24th March

Today we ventured a little away from Four Marks, down to the river Itchen at Ovington.  The place was packed with people taking the chance to stroll along the river and then return to the Bush Inn for lunch or a drink.  This was precisely our intention, and we did not intend to walk far, but it was enough to see something unusual.

With the lack of rain the river was low,and not too fast flowing.  As a result there were lots of trout visible in the water, and they were easy to watch as we stood on the bridge.  The footpath splits the main river from a side channel, and as we stepped off the bridge I noticed an eel like fish in the gravel area.  The size was a concern though it was only about 10 cm long which was much to small for an eel.  As I looked closer I could see that the fish was picking up small stones and flicking them away in an effort to dig down into the gravel.  This was clearly no eel, and I vaguely remembered Lamprey.  As we watched them it became clear there was in fact two, and they were both moving the stones, some quite big in comparison.

As usual when confronted with something like this I did not have the best camera, but I did manage a record shot.  If you look closely you can see the two fish one close close to the vegetation, the other off to the left.

These are in fact Brook Lamprey, and are special to the Itchen, but not something that is easy to see.  These animals have a very interesting life cycle, with the spawn hiding down into the silt in quieter areas of the river, and filter feeding on detritus.  Unlike other Lamprey species they do not spend time in the sea, and are not seen attaching themselves to other fish.  Typically they are only active at night, but will come out during breeding.  As they develop into the adult fish, they metamorphisise with the digestive tract degenerating, and the sucker-like mouth developing.  The adult phase is all about breeding, the act that we were witnessing today, after this is complete they will die, and their young will start the process all over again.  If you want to see what we were seeing then follow this link to the BBC web site where there is very good small video by Simon King on the Brook Lamprey.

Further along the footpath, Helen and Katie saw a Water Vole, unfortunately all I could see was it's latrine, but is good to know they are present on the river here.  As we waited for the vole a Comma butterfly put in an appearance, and did give me the opportunity to photograph the first for the year.

Back in the garden of the Bush Inn a Peacock flew through.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Lymington 17th - 19th February

Lymington was to be the base for our weekend while we explored the marshes around Keyhaven and Pennington, and also the New Forest.  When we arrived on Friday afternoon, it was dull and overcast.  We set off for the marshes at Keyhaven, and as we arrived it began to drizzle with light rain,  Despite this we walked the path around the marsh and pools.  There was plenty of duck on the pools, Wigeon, Teal and Pintail, but the gloom made it very difficult to photograph them.  The rain held off and we walked back to the car along Pennington Lane,  Two years ago we had been treated to a lovely display by a Barn Owl here, but unfortunately it now seems to have disappeared, hopefully not a victim of the bad winter weather.

Saturday morning was dry but windy with some sun.  The forecast was for heavy rain later so we got up had breakfast and decided to head into the New Forest.  The first stop was at Shatterford.  Where we walked the loop down alongside the railway, then along the dyke to Denny Wood through the wood and back along the road to the car park.

The wind was now quite strong, and this seemed to keep the birds down.  There was a pair of Stonechat on the gorse as we entered the wood and Buzzards circling overhead, but most of the activity was in the wood.  Redwings could be heard everywhere, and Blue and Great Tits would drop to the floor picking up moss and seeds.  In the trees Nuthatches called, and Robins were singing everywhere.  There were plenty of ponies, and as usual they made for that kodak moment!

We left Shatterford and went to try and see the Dark-eyed Junco at Hawkshill Enclosure.  It was still very windy, and this was probably one of the reasons why it didn't show.  There was plenty of seed around, put there by birders wanting to lure the bird out, but all it seemed to be attracting was Chaffinches.

Rather than stand around waiting we headed off down the track, and was rewarded with superb views of a male Crossbill as it ripped the cones apart at the top of a pine

When we got back to the Junco site, there was a school party that had decided to rest in the area.  Rest isn't probably the best word, as they were running around and making a considerable noise.  By now even the Chaffinches had gone!

By now the skies were darkening, and the forecast rain arrived, putting an end to outdoor pursuits, so we headed back and walked into Lymington for a coffee and wander.

Sunday dawned with clear skies and sunshine, the tide was rising and the light on the marshes was wonderful.  We decided to do the full marsh walk that we were going to do yesterday before heading home.  The day did not disappoint, with the superb light and rising tide we had a wonderful day.  Here are the highlights.

Teal were plentiful to but they were mostly settled into the bank sleeping.

This Dartford Warbler greeted us as we walked on to the marsh, it didn't stay long, but just enough to get this shot.

On Normandy Marsh the light was just right, the pools were full of duck, with the shoveler being very active.

The teal though were more content to sleep

Little Egrets are very photogenic probably due to their size and colour.  This one was fisjhing in the ditch, and was totally concentrating on the task at hand.  The reflections are lovely.

As the day wore on the duck became more sleepy.  These teal made for a lovely composition, and the Pintail is just a beautiful duck

A Reed Bunting posed nicely on a bush as it tried to sing in the sunshine.  Their song is pretty weak at the best of times, but this one was still learning. 

This Skylark took time off from singing high above the marshes to come down and fight off two others.

On the sea I found this Slavonian Grebe but just as I put up the camera it flew off, still it is nice to capture something different.

This Cormorant was fishing in the boating pool, I just love the scaly plumage on the back and green eye.  While it was continually diving we never saw it catch anything.

Black-tailed Godwits were almost everywhere, and very active.  This individual was having a very good wash.  I did see one Bar-tailed Godwit in amongst a flock of Grey Plover.

One of the stars of the area this time of year is the Spotted Redshank.  This is one of five we saw on Normandy Marsh

We saw one Avocet on Normandy and another later on at Keyhaven.  There were two later back on Normandy, and they were even showing signs of courtship.

Once upon a time like the Spotted Redshank you would only see Greenshank on passage, but now they over winter.  Again this area is very good for them, and this one was very confiding as it chased away a Redshank

With the tide dropping the Dunlin were very active feeding along the water's edge.  They seemed to be very jumpy when other birds came by, but were totally unconcerned by the dogs and there owners

It was a lovely walk on a beautiful day to end a wonderful weekend!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Somerset Levels 27th - 29th January

The main objective of this weekend was to see the Starling murmarations around the reserves at Shapwick Heath.  Helen and I set off mid afternoon, with the hope of arriving in time to catch the Starlings going to roost at Ham Wall.  The pressure was on though as the A303 was closed for a while due to a lorry fire, and as we approached Meare and the Ham Wall reserve we could see the flocks gathering around the levels.  We managed to park just outside of the car park, and quickly headed off down the track to the reed beds.  The weather was not helping, it cloudy with very dark clouds, and as we set off we were treated to a very heavy shower, which also convinced some of the observers to leave. 

The starlings by now were flying around the reed bed, and the noise was amazing, it was quite dark, and difficult to make out the birds, but it appeared like the ground was black from what we thought were Starlings.  It turned out there were Starlings but they were perched in the reeds.  Despite the gloom I did manage to get some pictures as the flock swirled around the reed bed.

As the rain eased and the clouds cleared the light became better the Starlings seemed to change their minds about settling to roost, and started to pour over the reeds and across the ditch to the adjacent field.  Here they would land on the ground, but not settle, and once again they would be off flying around the reeds.

Finally the light beat us and we decided to head back to the car.  The majority of the birds were in the reeds and noise became even louder as we walked away.

We were staying at the Meare Manor Bed & Breakfast which was about a mile from the Ham Wall reserve.  We had been told that the morning, when the Starlings leave the roost can be even more spectacular than the evening roost displays.  The key was knowing where the birds had roosted the night before, which we did, so we decided to get up early, and be on the reserve to watch the Starlings wake up.

We were expecting a frost first thing in the morning, but whilst it was cold, there was no frost, the sky was relatively clear though and we expected quite a pleasant sunrise.  We drove down to Ham Wall, and made our way along the track to where we had left the Starlings last night.  This was easy to find due to the prescence of the errant bramble branch!  The Starlings were already calling from the reeds and you could sense there was movement too.  From across the fen a Tawny Owl called, and gradually more and more bird calls could be heard from the surrounding trees and reeds.  We waited, and gradually one or two more people arrived, but nothing like the gathering there had been the night before.  As the light improved birds began to fly out of the reeds and over us.  The one highlight being a Bittern that slowly made it's way across the reeds and off to the north.  In the distance the dawn began to pick out Glastonbury Tor that overlooked the reserve.

All the time the Starlings were getting louder and louder, and flying around just below and above the reed tops, it was clear thy were getting ready to leave, and the swirling undulating flight along with the increased chatter was quite mesmerising.  The light again made it difficult for photographs, but the grainy feel of them helps to portray the experience.

All of a sudden they were off and out of the reeds, they did not leave immediately, but circled around and then groups split off and made there way over us and the reeds.  There was still chatter from the reeds but we thought that the event over with, and we started to look elsewhere, only for there to be a sudden increase in the noise that continued to get louder and louder followed by the reed bed suddenly exploding with Starlings.  The flock emerged like black smoke and drifted over the reeds in differing shapes, with the chatter increasing in a loud crescendo.  Several passes were made over the reeds, and then finally they broke up and thousands of birds flew off over our heads.  An incredible spectacle that words and photographs struggle to describe.

The main event over, we decided to return to Meare Manor for breakfast, however we had to stop on the way to take in the sunrise over Glastonbury.

Back in the village small groups of Starlings could be seen almost everywhere.

After Breakfast we headed back down to Ham Wall.  Because it was likely to become very crowded this evening we decided to leave the car in the car park, and spend the day walking the reserves, returning to Ham wall in time for the evening Starling performance.  The weather now was perfect, with blue skies and a lovely winter sun.  We started off waling around Ham Wall, and then in the afternoon walked the main track through Shapwick Heath and back.  Highlights were the four Great White Egrets and a very close fly past by a Bittern at Ham Wall.  Unfortunately the Yellow-Browed Warbler did not show, but here are some lovely moments from the day.

Siskin - Ham Wall

Shoveler - Ham Wall

Great Crested Grebe - Ham Wall

Agriculture versus Natural

Reed Bokum


Reed "Fish"

Ice rainbow

Reed Bed Glow

Late Afternoon Sun
Evening Geese
Hoards of people were coming down the track at Ham Wall, gathering to see the evening Starling roost.  It was in itself an interesting spectacle with bicycles, scooters and children running up and down the trails and tracks.  I wonder what the wildlife made of this?

The sun was setting, and with it came the cold, and as the dusk wore on you could sense the concern that maybe they were not coming.  Then slowly small groups of starlings appeared above the reeds and came together in larger flocks circling around the trees.  Very quickly the sky was full of Starlings.

At one stage a Buzzard could be seen amongst the flock, but this failed to cause the concern and confusion that generates the dancing patterns.  In the photograph below the Buzzard can be seen.

The Buzzard is on the left

The Starlings continued to group, and decided to go down into the reed bed on the other side of the track from where they roosted on the previous night.  The flocks would come in from the south, and pour over the trees into the reed bed.  Here they would swirl around the reeds calling continuously and flying above them in waves.  Thousands and thousands of birds were coming together, and just when you thought it was complete more would turn up.  The sky was full of Starlings and it was an amazing sight.

The birds continued to swirl and around the reeds creating once again the dark black smoke effect.

It was getting darker and darker, and just when you thought they were going to settle down in this new site, the roost exploded and all of the strlings poured back across the reeds and trees into the original roost site that had been used the previous evening.  Thousands and thousands of Starlings turned the sky black and the noise was deafening.  As they poured into the reed bed the reeds once again turned black, and the noise began to quieten down.  The show was over, and we slowly made our way back to the car.

The clear skies of Saturday were relaced with overcast and slightly misty conditions on Sunday.  we were heading back home, but before we did we set off for a drive around the levels to the north of where we had been on Saturday.  The highlight was a very confiding Buzzard, and a very atmospheric scene alongside the many ditches that covered the very flat landscape.