Purple Sandpipers at Newhaven

With the year coming to an end I though that it would be a good idea to go out on one last excursion in search of wildlife. I chose Tide Mills, a long-abandoned coastal village near Newhaven in East Sussex which has a record of scarce or rare birds like Rose-coloured Starling, Red-backed Shrike, Grey Phalarope and Tawny Pipit.

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The Red-backed Shrike at Tide Mills, 25 September 2016

The reason why I chose to visit Tide Mills was due to a few interesting birds that had been recorded there in the last few days. Firstly, a male Serin had been spotted near the village ruins. These are usually only rare passage migrants in the UK, however as it is December and far from the main autumn or spring migrations I am not sure why it turned up here. Since the 1970s there have been a few breeding attempts in the southern and East Anglian counties however never more than a couple each year.

Also, there is a strong wintering population of a dozen or so Purple Sandpipers that visit the pier at Newhaven. Along with Brighton Marina, this pier is one of the most reliable sites to see Purple Sandpipers in Sussex and as I had not yet seen one in Britain before I was keen to take a look.

Unfortunately the Serin had either moved on or was hiding well within its bush when we visited. Despite many people searching for it we had no luck, which is a shame, however we still had the Purple Sandpipers to look forward to.

Walking along the pier we looked down at the struts below us, which is where the Purple Sandpipers usually spend their time. However we hadn’t seen anything by the time we reached the halfway point which was worrying! We continued to walk along the pier, still looking down. Fortunately I looked up for a brief moment to see how much of the pier we had left to walk and to my surprise I spotted a group of medium-sized dumpy birds sitting on the concrete beams projecting off the top of the pier!

We slowly made our way closer until we were as close as we could get. We could see that most were indeed Purple Sandpipers, 12 in total, along with a few Turnstones. They were barely wary of us at all, most of the time simply eyeing us from just a few metres away. I suspect that the high tide probably pushed the sandpipers off the concrete foundations below, which allowed us to get such good views of them. Not what I was expecting at all! We spent a little while with these very cooperative birds taking many photos, some of which I have attached below.

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Preserving The Gambia’s Cultural Heritage

Over Christmas I was very lucky to be able to visit the small country of The Gambia situated in West Africa south of the Sahara Desert. This trip was primarily for birding and looking for other wildlife and we had the help of our excellent guide, Lamin Bojang.

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Lamin is incredibly knowledgeable, being able to identify everything from flyover sunbirds to calling babblers. He is superb at replicating bird calls and often he will receive a response. His knowledge certainly paid off and we were able to find a number of my ‘must-see’ birds including Bearded Barbet; Senegal Batis and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater.

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A shy Senegal Batis

However, it is not only his bird knowledge he is keen to pass on. Lamin has been working on an excellent project that aims to protect Gambian history for future generations. This project is in the form of the museum for ‘cultural heritage and environmental preservation’, which will be the first one in the community and in fact The Gambia as a whole. He and his team have recently finished constructing the museum building itself and they are now beginning to manufacture strong glass cases to protect the artefacts.

As well as the galleries containing artefacts, Lamin has also constructed a coffee bar at the entrance as well as a bird hide overlooking a small waterhole which secretive and hard-to-see species such as Western Bluebill, Violet Turaco and Green Turaco are known to frequent.

I believe that this museum has incredible potential for teaching both locals and tourists about the culture of The Gambia as well as helping researchers and preserving the heritage for future generations. The bird hide should help to teach the locals what amazing bird life resides in the village or area they inhabit and with the scarcities the waterhole attracts the museum will also be a destination for ecotourists. I look forward to seeing how this ambitious and rewarding project develops.

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Lamin in the future coffee bar

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The bird hide still in construction. Hanging pieces of cloth will be put over the gaps which the viewers can lift to see the birds.

Here are some of the cultural artefacts that will be displayed in the museum galleries:

My article in Wingbeat

The RSPB write and compile a number of magazines about wildlife and nature aimed at a range of different age groups. For instance, teenage RSPB members receive the Wingbeat magazine. The Wingbeat magazine is ‘written by teenagers… for teenagers’ and this summer I was lucky enough to be given permission to write my very own article for the magazine. This article was recently published in the January 2017 issue.

I chose to write about one of my main passions: pan-species listing. As detailed in my last post, I recently recorded my 2000th species. In my article in Wingbeat I explained more about what a pan-species list is; what one needs to keep a pan-species list; why to keep a pan-species list as well as some of my pan-species listing highlights.

2000 and beyond!

As many of you know, I have been keeping a pan-species list for a year and a half. A pan-species list (or PSL) is a list of all species that you have seen within either the UK or Britain and Ireland. My main target, that I set in the new year, was to get to 2000 species by year-end, which was always going to be a big challenge for me. I started the year on around 1300 species and retrospectively I am very pleased at the number of species I added during the course of the year.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was on the home straight. I needed just 29 species for me to reach the magical number however I was in the last, and generally toughest month due to the lack of many invertebrates. However, I had a field trip planned which would hopefully get me all the way.

On a cold Sunday morning I met several other bryologists (bryology is the study of bryophytes – mosses and liverworts)/naturalists in a car park in the Lewes district of Sussex. We were at Chailey Commons for a meeting of the South East group of the British Bryological Society.

Our first stop on our outing was the short acidic grassland immediately next to the car park. There were a few common grassland species here, including the very familiar Rhytidiadelphus squarrosusor Springy Turf-moss. This species is not only confined to acidic grassland like this but can also be found almost anywhere with short grass. For example it out-competes the grass in our lawn in some places! Once you have seen this species regularly it becomes quite distinctive, it is medium to large sized (for a moss!) with a red stem. It has very short, thin leaves on the stem as well as slightly larger pointed leaves on the short branches and at the apex.

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Springy Turf-moss (Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus)

Another species found in this short grassland was Kindbergia praelonga, or Common Feather-moss. This is another largish moss which, as its name suggests, resembles a feather. Unlike Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus is completely green, including the stem. It has opposite branches with leaves similar in size to those on the green stem. The branches become shorter, like the tip of a feather.

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What I believe to be a frond of Kindbergia praelonga

After examining the grassland, we moved to a small patch of woodland around a quite large but seasonal pond. This pond is one of the few sites outside of the New Forest for Fairy Shrimps, however I needed to have been visiting in summer for a chance to see one of these rare crustaceans.

In this small wood we found a number of common woodland species, including our first liverworts of the outing. The first liverwort I came across was the small but abundant Metzgeria furcata, also known as the Forked Veilwort. This liverwort is very thin and forms small patches on tree trunks with the thalli (the leaves) adpressed to the substrate. It is the most common thallose liverwort and away from the coast, the most frequently encountered Metzgeria species. It also occasionally grows on rocks, although more frequently in the west of Britain where it is generally damper.

Along with that species of Metzgeria we also came across another species of the same genus: Metzgeria fruticulosa, or Bluish Veilwort. This is much less common than M. furcata, and a new species for me. This species is separated from furcata by the gemmae, which is “a small cellular body or bud that can separate to form a new organism”. Metzgeria furcata only produces gemmae rarely in Britain however fruticulosa is almost always gemmiferous, with gemmae located at the tip of the thalli.

We also encountered several patches of the moss Fissidens taxifolius (Common Pocket-moss) on the soil on the steep bank leading down to the pond. The genus Fissidens is a tricky genus for beginners as specimens often need close examination, either in the field with a hand lens or with a microscope. Luckily I was with lots of people much more knowledgeable than myself, so the specimens we found were quickly identified as this species.

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A species of Fissidens from the Cotswolds last year

After recording everything that could be found in that small patch of woodland we headed to a habitat I have never explored before: a WW1 trench! There were a number of very interesting bryophyte species in this trench that was used for training in the Great War, including one of the least common bryophytes of the meeting: Aulacomnium androgynumThe common name of this species is Drumsticks, named after the very distinctive reproductive feature, which comprises of a long stalk with a ball of gemmae at the vertex.

A variety of different mosses and liverworts were not the only new species I found in the wartime trench. There were also a range of ferns growing on the muddy bank and luckily a member of the Sussex Botanical Recording Society, Helen Proctor, was on hand to help me identify a few. Most were common species that I had recorded before, however one was a common species that I hadn’t recorded before! This was the Broad Buckler-Fern, Dryopteris dilatata. Distinguishing this species confidently from other species is possible by looking at the brown, papery scales on the stem. If these scales have a dark centre, then they belong to the Broad Buckler-Fern.

After a thorough exploration of the trenches, we moved on to an area of damp heath. Here there were Sphagnums aplenty! Sphagnums are large mosses which love damp, boggy habitats on the edges of streams and other water bodies as well as in bogs and marshes. The genus is quite easy to identify from other mosses due to its size and elongated, upright shape with a thick capitulum, which is a compact head containing new branches. However, identifying Sphagnums to species level is much trickier! For a confident identification one will need good literature, such as the key in the British Bryological Society’s Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: a field guide. Fortunately there was also a Sphagnum expert with us who was able to verify what we found. I was quite pleased at the number of Sphagnum species we recorded on the outing: compactum, fallax, capillifolium, papillosum, palustre and fimbriatum. However, this is only a small fraction of the species of Sphagnum in the UK!

While we were examining the Sphagnum one of the members of the field outing flushed a medium-sized, stocky bird from the leaf litter. It flew high in the direction of the road. I stared at it as it flew off with my mouth agape for a fraction of a second, before I exclaimed: Woodcock! These plump wading birds are related to the Snipes, however they are unusual in that they are nocturnal; they often feed away from water (on moist pastures for example) and they roost in woodlands. Woodcock was one of my bogey birds: species that I really should have seen but hadn’t. I have traipsed through many woods in my local area hoping to disturb one from its daytime rest, which is by far the easiest and most common way to spot a Woodcock, without any luck. Therefore I was exceedingly pleased to have finally come across one.

Soon after we flushed the Woodcock, it was time for me to head off. When I arrived back home I counted up the number of new species I had found and I was pleased that I had just made it to 2000, with Woodcock being species number 2000! Now it is time to think of a new target to keep me motivated to find more interesting wildlife. My next PSL target is to reach 3000 species by my 15th birthday in August 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Starling Weekend

On Saturday afternoon, I headed to Hedgecourt Lake to see what might have been blown in on the storm the previous week. I have encountered several normally coastal species at Hedgecourt over the last year, for instance Slavonian Grebe and Scaup. Being the largest semi-natural waterbody in South-east Surrey it appears to be a magnet for seabirds blown in from the coast. Unfortunately there was not much in the way of scarce species, however an Egyptian Goose on the roof of the floating pontoon was a welcome surprise. I believe they frequent the lake but I have never been able to catch up with one here. They aren’t native to the UK, they were brought here for ornamental collections and quite a few escaped. There is now a stable breeding population in the UK, mainly concentrated in East Anglia however they could be seen throughout the country.

While watching the goose, I heard a whoosh above my head. I looked up and I was slightly surprised to see a flock of around 100 Starlings making their way to the other end of the lake. It appeared that one of the most iconic Hedgecourt events of the winter was beginning: a Starling murmuration! Plenty of other similar-sized groups of Starlings soon joined and several thousand were swarming above the icy waters in just a few minutes. The noise was immense – every Starling was calling to their companions, creating a sound that carried all the way across the lake.

Although the main murmuration had taken place at the far end of the lake the whole flock was beginning to fly straight towards us. The tightly-knit group made several quick flybys. Every one of the many thousand birds passed over us in just a few seconds leaving nothing but the plops in the water as they lightened their load.

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Once these amazing aerial displays were finished the Starlings poured into the reedbed closest to us. An endless stream of birds flew into the reedbed for minutes on end, they never seemed to run out. Soon around ten thousand birds were flying around and settling in a reedbed that is only a fifth of a hectare in size. Again, the noise was truly spectacular! Starlings often use murmurations to exchange information about the top places to find food, one of the hot topics would have been the best feeding spots.

Reedbeds are excellent habitats for many different species, a variety of different invertebrates, plants, mammals, fungi, fish and of course birds utilise them in many different ways. I was sure that these Starlings filling up the reedbed in their droves would push something out… and I was correct! Firstly a Kingfisher shot out like a bullet and crossed to the Alders on the other side of the lake and secondly a magnificent Bittern flew on deep, pounding wingbeats to a farther reedbed. This was my first here this winter. They are winter visitors to much of Britain including Hedgecourt; however around a hundred pairs do breed, mainly in East Anglia.

Unfortunately, the Starlings soon began to quieten down. The light was fading fast and the lake was beginning to freeze over once more. On Sunday morning they would wake up again, stream out of the reedbed and visit the most popular feeding areas. Then that same evening they would do it all again …

That evening, just after the murmuration, I heard news of an immature Starling that was being seen in a garden in the busy town of Crawley. But this wasn’t just an ordinary Starling! This particular Starling had become lost on its migration and somehow arrived in rainy Sussex having come from somewhere between the steppes of Eastern Europe or Western Asia and its wintering area in the Indian subcontinent! It was in fact a Rose-coloured Starling!

Rose-coloured Starlings are closely related to ‘our’ Common Starlings. However they are easy to separate, more so in adults. Even juveniles like this one can be told apart without much scrutiny. Adult Rose-coloured Starlings in their breeding attire are very beautiful birds, their plumage an equal mix of pink and black. Their breast and back are pink, along with their bill and their legs. They have black wings, tail and vent along with a glossy black head which often shows a long crest drooping down the nape. Non-breeding adults aren’t much different, however the pink colouration is dirtied by a grey-brown, the crest is shorter and stubbier and the black colouration on the head and flanks becomes scaly and vermiculated.  Juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings are similar to juvenile Common Starlings, however significantly paler. The main distinguishing feature, however, is the pale-yellow base to the bill.

This particular individual had been seen in a suburban garden around Bradfield for the last few weeks, although the news had only just surfaced. I imagine it was a non-birder who first spotted it on their patio but wasn’t able to identify it. Anyway, it appeared to still be in the area and I was eager to glimpse this very uncommon vagrant for myself. So the next morning we parked by the side of the road and immediately I could see that there were many Starlings around. Rose-coloured Starlings are unusual among vagrants in that they usually don’t turn up at the expected coastal rarity hotspots, for instance Spurn or Flamborough Head. Instead, they prefer to visit places I would never imagine a rarity to find itself, for example business estates or generally biodiversity unfriendly areas such as this suburban Crawley district. This is because they prefer to associate with large flocks of their only British relative, the Common Starling, during their stay on our shores.

Within fifteen minutes of our arriving on the right street a group of fifteen or so Starlings were spooked from one of the gardens and flew up into a large bare Silver Birch right next to our vehicle! It was easy to see the odd one out, the pale plumage of the juvenile Rose-coloured contrasted strongly with the other Common Starlings. After making sure that it was the right bird (it did indeed have a pale yellow base to the beak), I took a few record shots (photos that are intended mainly as proof rather than a photographic masterpiece!) through my binoculars and just a minute after I first spotted it it flew off over the rooftops. It wasn’t the most amazing view, however I was pleased that I did manage to get a glimpse of this unusual wanderer.

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The Rose-coloured Starling in very poor lighting. You might just be able to make out the pale yellow bill.

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A much better photo of the starling by Mya Bambrick, a fellow young birder who managed to see the bird later that day.