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!

DSCN1237

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.

DSCN1164

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.

DSCN1268 (2)

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.

DSCN1176

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?

Coot-like coot-foot

Scientific names, often consisting of a mix of Greek and Latin, can sometimes be a little peculiar. For example, Phalaropus translates to coot-foot, and fulicarius to coot-like, to produce the scientific name for the Grey Phalarope. It isn’t really coot-like on outward appearance at all, only the feet as suggested in the generic name Phalaropus.

Phalaropes are waders, but are unusual among the group as they have partially webbed feet (like coots). This allows them not only to feed along the muddy margins of wetlands but also to lead a pelagic lifestyle, often congregating in large numbers offshore on their way to spend the winter in tropical oceans. The nearest they breed to the UK is in Iceland and the east coast of Greenland. Phalaropes are also unusual in their breeding behaviour. Their breeding plumage is an attractive rusty-red although uncommonly among birds, the females have the more beautiful attire. This is because they perform the courtship displays as well as defend the territory. In this role-reversal, the males incubate the nest and look after the young as they are developing.

Grey Phalaropes pass through UK waters twice a year on their migration, although mostly keeping out of sight of dedicated sea-watchers on coastal headlands. This all changes, however, when events like those earlier this week occur.

DSCN0270

I was lucky to see this male Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage on the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway a few years ago.

On Wednesday, Storm Ali struck the UK, powering its way from the west with wind speeds in excess of 100mph. Less than two days later, Storm Bronagh also blew in from the Atlantic. The combination of these two systems had notable effects on sea-going birds, particularly Grey Phalaropes. Over the past few days they’ve been turning up all over the UK, including double-figure counts at locations in the South-West. Of this large number, around 60 were found at inland locations, one of which being Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent. This is only a half hour drive away from me, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see my first British phalarope.

RSCN0538

The Grey Phalarope at Bough Beech Reservoir. It has been aged as a first-winter, meaning that it hatched this year somewhere in the Arctic.

Sadly, as with any vagrant bird, it is likely that at least some of these displaced phalaropes will be unable to make it back to where they’re supposed to go. Storm-driven birds often use up a lot of energy on their wayward journeys and cannot find enough food where they end up. Furthermore, birds like these phalaropes have usually never seen humans before in their remote, high-latitude nesting grounds. Therefore, they are frequently confiding and approachable, putting themselves at huge risk. Fingers crossed that this one gets back on track!

 

A corner of County Kerry in a Kentish Cave

Saturday saw me attending another excellent field trip run by the South-East group of the British Bryological Society. This time we were headed to a private site just inside Kent called Hungershall Rocks. The sandstone at Hungershall Rocks is part of a large number of these outcrops stretching across the Weald from Tunbridge Wells to Ardingly and all along the ridge there are sites with a wealth of rare bryological flora.

Hungershall Rocks is a private site just outside Tunbridge Wells near High Rocks which we were lucky to get access to. Plenty of excellent bryologists have visited the site in the past and the records stretch back over more than 150 years. It has been interesting to see how the bryological flora of the site has developed over such a long time, with new species being discovered but equally species that were here in the past being lost from the site.

The rocks themselves are mainly under tree cover, however some are more exposed. Some patches are dripping wet due to the clay within the rocks and others bone dry. There are a plethora of nooks, crannies, ledges and some caves too. This wide range of rock features leads to a very diverse set of mosses and liverworts that can be found on these rocks.

It wasn’t only mosses and liverworts that were in abundance either. There were many different vascular plant species inhabiting the rocks, especially ferns. One of the best finds of the day was this beautiful, eye-catching and impressive-looking plant:

DSCN2127

It’s stunning, isn’t it?

It wasn’t too easy to get to. It was growing on the wall of a small cave, where very little sunlight penetrated. There was only really room for one person inside the cave and that person had to be in a crouched, uncomfortable position. So why was this rather underwhelming (to be honest) plant worth such an effort to get to?

It is Trichomanes speciosum, the Killarney Fern. Killarney is a small town in Ireland’s County Kerry, the county where half of Ireland’s known populations of this fern are found. As you can see from the map below, this species has a predominantly Western distribution in the UK and is quite unusual in the East, being recorded in only a handful of sites in the South-East:

Killarney Fern

NBN Gateway map for Trichomanes speciosum

You might be thinking that it doesn’t look like a normal fern usually does and you’d be forgiven for thinking so because this is not the most commonly seen fern life-stage. The life-cycles of ferns are very complex and unusual and this is a seldom noticed part of it.

The green felty stuff that you can see in the image are the rhizoids of the gametophyte (also known as the prothallus), the gametophyte being the life-stage before the recognisable adult sporophytes that we most commonly come across; the rhizoids being filaments attached to the gametophyte which conduct water.

On the undersides of the fronds of adult ferns there are small, usually brown, sporangia which contain spores. These spores are released and when a suitable site is found, they grow into a gametophyte like the one shown in the image. The word gametophyte comes from the word gamete – the male and female reproductive cells (the ova and the sperm cells) that they produce.

The gametophyte features an archegonium and an antheridium. The archegonium is the female reproductive organ, which contains a single ovum. The antheridium is the male reproductive organ, which releases lots of sperm. The sperm swims through a thin film of moisture and into a nearby archegonium where the ovum is waiting to be fertilised.

Once the ovum has been fertilised, it becomes a zygote and later an embryo. The embryonic fern relies on the prothallus (gametophyte) from which it grows for its water and nutrients. Soon the embryonic plant grows into a sporophyte (the large leafy plant we most regularly recognise as a fern) and the prothallus dies.

That is fern reproduction explained as simply as I could (I can only just understand some of it myself) and there is a lot more to it. This link explains fern reproduction in much more detail, however as a warning there is certainly a lot of scientific jargon used: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~joyellen/fernreproduction.html

The following diagram is a representation of the fern life cycle, from the same website:

Fern_life_cycle2copy

So, that felty green stuff on the wall of a cave might not look like much. However clearly there is a lot of interesting information and a very complex life-cycle behind it.