The roost and the goose

The second day of the decade dawned dull and dismal, as Calum and I headed towards the Isle of Sheppey. After a decent circuit of Oare Marshes with species such as Rock Pipits, Bearded Tits, four fly-over Barnacle Geese, and a multitude of Cetti’s Warblers, Brents and waders, the time had come for us to cross the tidal channel of the Swale to try to find our first particularly special bird of the day. Fortunately for us, the weather did not reflect the quality of the birding!

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Drake Pintail.

Driving the entrance track of Elmley NNR felt a bit like a game drive in the heart of Africa, except with stubborn cattle replacing the bush’s big five. Across the flat expanse of wet marshland, hundreds of lapwings abounded and the distant cackle of wildfowl foreshadowed things to come. Eventually, once the unphased and unimpressed cows had moved off the road, we came to the car park of the nature reserve. And this car park was how all car parks should be: we barely had to walk twenty metres from the car before we locked eyes with an enchanting Long-eared Owl.

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Roosting Long-eared Owl.

This was the first time I’d been able to photograph this elusive owl. Long-eared Owls are very patchy and localised in their distribution, although the breeding population is boosted by non-breeders in the winter months. However, it is possible that these owls are becoming less frequent as winter visitors on account of climate change: the increasing mildness of the continent means that they are less willing to cross the North Sea in search of warmer climes. The warming climate of northern Europe is reducing the need to spend the winter in the UK. However, ringing recoveries still show that movements from as far as Russia are still frequent.

Reluctantly, we left the Long-eared Owl to roost in peace without any prying eyes and headed down the track onto the wetlands between the owl’s scrub and the estuary. This led us towards a surprise flock of White-fronted Geese, one of the special geese which winter this far south in the UK. There are two races of the White-fronted Goose, with both wintering in the UK. The Greenland White-fronted Goose (flavirostris) has a long, orange bill and is typically less widely observed than the race we came across at Elmley, the Eurasian (or Russian) White-fronted Goose (albifrons), which has a shorter, pinkish bill. The adults of both races can be recognised by the black barring on the breast and the nominal white foreheads. However, juveniles can resemble the much more common Greylag Goose, as we found out when we laid eyes on a lone young White-front the next day at Rainham Marshes – a rarity for the reserve.

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A young White-fronted Goose at Rainham Marshes on the 3rd, showing the small size and pink bill, but lack of breast barring and white forehead.

I would be pleased if I came across the White-fronted Goose more than once over the course of a year. However, Rainham Marshes turned out to be our third site for this species, as our next stop after Elmley was the wildfowl-rich Swale NNR. The quality of the site, or perhaps less positively the lack of good habitat elsewhere, was reflected by the numbers of geese on the reserve despite the constant sound of gunshots reverberating from the surrounding fields. The realisation that there were two hunters with accompanying golden retrievers concealed in the saltmarsh behind us was somewhat disconcerting. Despite the obvious disturbance that the hunting causes to the whole wildfowl population of the reserve – the Brent Geese were constantly alert and would fly at almost every gunshot – the shooting of geese and waders is allowed to continue regularly.

As well as the Brents, Greylags and Canada Geese which are present on the reserve, the Swale NNR also supports a good-sized flock of White-fronts, with a few Tundra Bean Geese also visiting every winter. The risk of one of these rarer geese being taken out by a rifle is ever-present. Fortunately, on this occasion this year’s wintering Tundra Bean Goose was still feeding with a flock of White-fronts when we arrived as the sun was beginning to set. Hunters threatening the survival of rare geese on a more than weekly basis even at one of the remotest sites in the south-east is just one example of the perpetual human-induced risk experienced by the world’s declining biodiversity.

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With further unnecessary and avoidable pressure on already threatened goose populations, how long will it be before wildfowl flocks such as these Brent Geese begin to dwindle and disappear?

Donkey of the night

African Penguins were originally called Jackass Penguins not too long ago, in fact the bird book that I use for southern Africa includes them under that latter name. I have to admit I’ve always found that name slightly amusing, although I didn’t know why it was applied to Africa’s only breeding penguin until last week at the Stony Point colony.

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The African Penguins have adapted to their higher latitude environment by possessing a pink gland above their eyes, where blood rushes to in hot weather to hasten heat loss.

There are six species of penguins which have been recorded in Africa, predominantly in South Africa. All except for the African Penguin are vagrants. Even the African Penguin is quite localised, restricted by its requirement for predator-free islands or occasionally mainland sites. These mainland sites are always situated between a major town and the sea, to provide a barrier which predators cannot cross. Examples of these mainland colonies include Boulders Beach and Stony Point, with their barriers from predators being Simon’s Town and Betty’s Bay respectively. Therefore these colonies have only established recently as the towns have developed into a sufficient size, in fact both were founded in the 1980s and now contain between 2000 and 3000 penguins.

Stony Point was the colony we visited on our trip to South Africa. I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to see the penguins in South Africa. It costs only 20 Rand (£1) to enter, and gives access to a long boardwalk which takes you directly through the colony. The penguins come so close that there are times when you are standing immediately above one which has chosen to shelter underneath the boardwalk! There are also a number of information boards along the boardwalk, one of which informed me of the etymology of the ‘Jackass’ Penguin: the species is known for its donkey-like braying sound which it often produces at night!

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Penguins, a section of the boardwalk and the outskirts of Betty’s Bay in the background

Humans have a long relationship with penguins, which has not always been good. This is particularly regarding guano collecting, which was a big business in the 19th century. Guano was very important during that era for farming as a manure to fertilise crops. It lead to the human colonisation of many offshore bird colonies as guano collecting became a full-time job. The problem with this in relation to African Penguins is that they nest naturally in burrows dug into guano, which therefore has to be very deep. If all the guano (often from other seabirds such as Cape Gannets or Cape Cormorants) has been removed by humans, then the penguins have nowhere to nest.

Fortunately, guano is no longer collected from areas where the penguins nest. Although, the guano layers are still not deep enough in many colonies for penguins to dig a nest. At Stony Point, we saw that artificial concrete nests had been installed. These nests are similar to a very large flowerpot lying on its side, half-buried. These have allowed the expansion of the colony where the quantity of guano available would have limited it.

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An example of one of the artificial nests.

There is another threat to African Penguins posed by humans. Sadly, this one is still an ongoing risk and very unpredictable: oil spills. Ships running aground can spill massive volumes of oil, which can severely harm seabird populations. Penguins are at a particular risk as they spend a lot of time near the surface of the ocean where the oil accumulates. The main problem the oil produces is that it impairs the waterproofing capabilities of the birds’ feathers. This exposes the birds to the full force of the water’s cold temperatures leading to hypothermia. Even the lucky ones who make it back to shore face consequences when they attempt to remove the oil from their feathers: it is often ingested and causes damage to the digestive system.

These threats among others have produced a catastrophic decline of 95% since the beginning of the 19th century, when 4 million penguins inhabited South Africa and Namibia. Now, there are only around 50,000 penguins left. At this rate of decline, we could see the extinction of the African Penguin in the wild by the year 2026 – just 8 years away.

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If the trend continues, this chick could be part of the eighth-to-last generation of African Penguins.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations working towards a happy ending for the African Penguin. Among these, SANCCOB is the predominant group performing rescue operations on penguins, particularly those affected by oil spills, while the Dyer Island Conservation Trust has opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai which will act as a centre for research and education. I am hopeful that iconic African Penguin’s downward trend can be reversed.

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Birds on Stilts and a North American Bonus!

Today (August 9th) we planned to visit RSPB Pulborough Brooks to see the Black-Winged Stilt family. The Black-Winged Stilts are a national rarity and the Black-Winged Stilts that are in Pulborough Brooks bred in RSPB Medmerry and then moved to RSPB Pagham Harbour before finally ending up in RSPB Pulborough Brooks. One of the RSPB volunteers joked that they had been given a guide to RSPB reserves! I was thinking of visiting them at Medmerry though it is a very long drive, it’s lucky that they moved north!
The first place in the reserve we visited was Jupp’s View and it turned out to be a good choice! One of the birdwatchers pointed out an adult Black-Winged Stilt to me and soon enough I had picked up all five. Later on, while I was still at Jupp’s View watching the Stilts, a different birdwatcher notified me of a Pec Sand, something I would never have dreamed to see here! A Pec Sand is a term what many birdwatchers use for a Pectoral Sandpiper!

A Pectoral Sandpiper is a North American vagrant*, the most common American wader to be found in the UK. I also remember reading an American book about a birdwatcher and one of the chapters told the story of when she tried to find a European vagrant in a group of hundreds of Pectoral Sandpipers! A Pectoral Sandpiper can be identified from other similar birds like Wood Sandpipers and Ruff by its brown breast band (which gives the species its name), very slightly down curved bill, Yellow-green-brown legs, white belly and streaky breast. It is also slightly larger than a Dunlin, which is useful because it was feeding in front of the only Dunlin on the whole lake! Other birds of note we saw at Pulborough Brooks were:
A Peregrine flying North West,
2 Kestrels,
3 Corn Buntings,
1 Little Egret,
5+ Green Sandpipers,
1 Greenshank,
3 Buzzards
and 3 Little Ringed Plovers.

There's a Pec Sand there somewhere...

There’s a Pec Sand there somewhere…

*A vagrant is a bird that is rarely seen in this country. Most vagrants are birds that have been blown off course on migration by storms or inexperienced juveniles. We were lucky today for our Pec Sand to be an adult.

Garden List expansion

Like many other birders, I keep a Garden List as well as a life list. This morning I was hoping to expand my garden list by maybe a species or two by doing a simple Birdwatch for an hour. I set up my binoculars at the windowsill in my bedroom and started watching my garden from 10:30. The first species to arrive was a pair of Robins, foraging in the leaf litter. Then a Blue Tit flew onto the feeder followed by another and another and another until there was about ten on and around the feeder. Just then some action started to happen. A flock of six Redwings flew into our garden then another six and the number of Redwings kept going up and up and up. by ten minutes I had counted just 100 Redwings in our garden. It was a spectacular sight, but not a new species for my garden list. More birds kept on coming, Chaffinches, Carrion Crows, Woodpigeons, even a Buzzard flew overhead. No new garden species though. Suddenly I spotted a small streaky bird at the foot of our giant Oak Tree, it was a little smaller than a chaffinch and probably a type of finch. I looked at it through my binoculars and spotted a patch of red on its forehead. A Redpoll. I had seen a Lesser Redpoll in our garden before, washing in our bird bath, but most of its features seemed to point to a Common Redpoll, such as the fact that going from its head downwards, there was a smaller, thinner white wing bar followed by a larger, wider one. I found out that a Common Redpoll was only seen once in Sussex in 2012 and even experts have difficulty telling them apart. It would also be a new species for my garden list! I couldn’t get very good photos due to the fact that it was so small, it was quite far away for my camera to reach and we were looking at it through a window. After it had flown into a laurel bush on the west side of the garden, I put the sighting into BTO’s birdtrack as a redpoll species. At the end of the birdwatch, I had seen 199 individual birds, a record for my garden. That number included:

7 Robins

20 Blue Tits

20 Common Wood-Pigeons

1 Buzzard

100 Redwings

10 Great Tits

10 Chaffinches

2 Dunnocks

3 Blackbirds

3 Jays

16 Carrion Crows

3 Magpies

1 Bullfinch

1 Redpoll spp.

2 Collared Doves

One of the Redwings