Sunday, 4 January 2015

Lee Valley

46 years have now passed since I first started recording birds in the Lee Valley; each year with its notebook neatly stacked on the bookshelf.  Over that time I have seen 265 bird species in my rather arbitrary valley recording area that stretches roughly from Ware down to Walthamstow.  In roughly a third of these years I have attempted the traditional New Year list, over the years noting between a feeble 76 and a magnificent 90 species. This years total was a very reasonable 89 species.  Whilst the number of species recorded over the years has kept steady or even increased, the number of birds certainly has not.

This winters mild conditions (so far) are evident by a real lack of wintering wildfowl. Tufted Duck, Pochard and Gadwall are all remarkable by their absence. Four Smew were one of the highlights of the day, but this is a far cry from the 40+ peaks of the 1980’s. Likewise the 4 Goosander noted of the dozen or so currently in the valley is way short of the flocks that approached 100 birds back when we had proper winters.  Despite the mild conditions, 6 or 7 wintering Bitterns are present, one of which revealed itself for the list.

Raven made it onto the list for the first time this year, with 4 birds at Amwell giving a characteristic tumbling display. Others becoming ‘regulars’ in recent years include Ring-necked Parakeet, Little Egret, Peregrine and Yellow-legged Gull.  Caspian Gull would have been added to the list if I had bothered to stay longer watching the gull roost.

Finches and buntings have been difficult to find in any numbers in recent years but this year it is great to see that the Lee Valley Park have retained large areas of stubbles and wild bird crops around Holyfield Farm.  These areas produced 250 Chaffinch, 50 Reed Buntings, 40 Linnets, a dozen Red-legged Partridge, hundreds of thrushes and a Stonechat.

From top to bottom, the highlights were as follows:
Amwell: 4 Raven, Yellow-legged Gull, Marsh Tit, Woodcock.
Rye Meads: Jack Snipe, Shelduck, Pintail, 5 Chiffchaff, 3 Cetti’s Warblers.
Holyfield: Stonechat, Pintail, 4 Goosander, Peregrine, Little Owl, 21 Egyptian Geese.
Cheshunt GP: Bittern, 4 Smew, 6 Water Rail.

Girling Reservoir: 7 Black-necked Grebe, Goldeneye.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Best of both worlds

One of the interesting aspects of a foreign trip is to examine how wildlife reserves are managed away from the UK.  As well as a tour of Cape May sites, we spent a couple of days visiting a dozen or more sites around Delaware Bay.  So how does US management compare with UK management?

Firstly, the area of protected land in the US is remarkable, but it is a big country.  There is not only an extensive system of Wildlife Refuges but also numerous major wetland restoration schemes. The Estuary Enhancement Scheme around the bay has aimed to restore functional tidal flow to marshes, resulting in huge areas of Cord-grass (Spartina) dominated saltmarsh.   Since the introduction of regular tidal flushing at the restored 243 ha Little Creek, the saline mudflats within the impoundment have been heavily used by shorebirds (especially Short-billed Dowitchers and sandpipers) in spring and autumn, especially at high tide when the estuary mudflats are unavailable to them.  The site has a monthly flooding regime during passage periods before deeper flooding in winter.  Grass shrimps are abundant and these and the resident fish form the food base for waterfowl and wading birds.  It is also now more heavily used by Snow Geese (up to 300,000) feeding on the abundant growth of Spartina.  Not many of these restored sites seem to have much ongoing management though, resulting in rapid vegetation growth and a resultant loss of open habitat.

The Wildlife Refuges at Bombay Hook and Forsythe have bunded fresh and brackish lagoons.  These sites are so large  (Bombay Hook is 6,500 ha) that the main access is via a car route, with walking trails and viewing platforms around the site. Maintaining the populations of migratory waterfowl is a major objective at the refuges.  The freshwater lagoons are drained down in spring, providing muddy areas for waders. During the summer, emergent plants grow across the lagoons, providing abundant food for waterbirds when the lagoons are re-flooded in the autumn. This practice of Moist Soil Management is widely used in the US.  In addition, 450 ha of the refuge are planted with crops such as winter wheat, buckwheat and grass/clover leys specifically to provide food for waterbirds. Some of these areas are flooded. We don’t do much of this in the UK.  Most of these sites have high viewing platforms.  They provide good, high, long distance viewing but rarely any close views of birds.

So how does the UK differ?  Well our smaller nature reserves receive more intensive management of the habitats (perhaps too much in some cases).  Where we restore or create new sites, habitat designs tend to maximise the value of a site, maybe again a reflection of the smaller areas we have to work with.  Our reserves also tend to get people closer to the wildlife, either through site design or the range of infrastructure provided. All of this can be seen in the design and management of a reserve such as Minsmere.

Richard Crossley’s vision is to bring these ideas together to create the best of both worlds.  After looking at the pending restoration of Pond Creek Marsh at Cape May, we met with Dave Golden, the Chief of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife for some excellent discussion on possible designs.  Perhaps we might see the Pond Creek restoration take on a more UK site feel.  Likewise, perhaps we’ll see some US ideas popping up on this side of the pond.

Pics from top: Western Sandp, Little Creek, viewing platform, Forsythe, ducks, Minsmere.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

On the move - Cape May

Arriving at Cape May late into the evening, where we were staying with Richard and Deb Crossley, we were quickly informed that weather conditions were ideal for a ‘morning flight’ and so we were out at Higbee’s at 5.00am, ticking Great Horned Owl on the way.  Dark shapes zipped through the half-light, the bushes ‘tick’ed and ‘zitt’ed, and as light arrived it was clear that many birds were on the move.  Northern Flickers were everywhere, at least 200 passed over in the first couple of hours.  Cedar Waxwings, American Robins and Bobolinks called from above and the bushes were alive with warblers and vireos. A viewing platform in the corner of one of the fields overlooks an area of scrub where the first sunlight arrives. A dozen or more species of warbler were prominent this first morning, including Tennessee, Nashville, Parula, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, Hooded, Prairie and Black and White.

The ‘morning flight’ at Cape May is an amazing migration spectacle.  Morning flight is an after sunrise dispersal of migrants, mainly birds re-orientating and moving northwards up the Delaware Bay shoreline back from Cape May point. The fields and wooded areas at Higbee Beach is one of the best places to observe this movement.  Some counts have been staggering, not least the 67,000 migrants counted on 13 October 2003, including 58,959 Yellow-rumped Warblers, and the 1,516 Flickers that day somewhat eclipsed our 200. After the morning flight, the custom is to move down to the hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse or explore the Cape May ‘meadows’ or other less watched areas.  At the hawkwatch platform, birds are called and counted as they pass.  That first day, 500 American Kestrels passed through according to the tally board. 

Over the following days the spectacle of visible migration was always evident; hundreds of Blue Jays endlessly flying through one day, thousands of Tree Swallows clumped in a bush another.  There were raptors galore every day with up to 50 birds of 8 species circling above at peak periods, with Sharp-shined Hawks (or ‘Sharpies’ as they like to say over there) continually visible overhead.

On the quieter days, we did the ‘must-do’ trips up to Stone Harbor Point and Nummy’s Island.  Stone Harbor Point is a long sand spit to the seaward side of extensive saltmarsh. At high tide waders gather in numbers; numerous Western and Semi-p’s on the beach, Willet, Marbled Godwit and Short-billed Dowitcher in the saltmarsh.  Rails, herons and egrets lurk in the dense Spartina beds.  Further north, Forsythe Wildlife Refuge (aka Brigantine) is another location not to miss.  Water levels were rather high on our visit but Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows were there to be ‘squeeked’ and ‘pished’ out of the grass and scrub.  If visible migration is your thing, it is spectacular at Cape May.

Pics from top: Sharpie, tree swallows, black & white, Higbee's, Short-b Dow, hawkwatch, flycatcher ID, Lesser Yellowlegs.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Holl-utopia - a year on

Towards the end of last year, I reported on a new wetland being created at Hollesley in Suffolk and given the name ‘Holl-utopia’ after the Dutch site Utopia Farm that inspired it.  At Hollesley Marshes there were very few breeding and passage waders and the site sustained only two pairs of breeding Lapwing annually. This fell well short of the aspirations and targets for the reserve. The issues revolved around the layout of the field system and the inability to raise water levels high enough.  The plan was to create a new 13ha coastal wetland habitat following the design of ‘Utopia’ on the island of Texel.  However, the wetland would be freshwater rather than the brackish conditions of the Dutch site, at least in the short term, due to the difficulty of constructing a sluice through the sea wall.
The key feature of Holl-utopia is that it is a shallow wetland with a high percentage of islands; some grassy, some bare, some covered in sand or gravel.  The landform creates extensive terraced areas of shallow water down to just 20cm depth, with a slightly deeper central ditch system.  Water levels will drop during the spring and summer to expose extensive muddy areas and ultimately dry out to just retain water in the deeper ditch features. The drying out is seen as an essential feature for rejuvenating the wetland in the future.   New water control structures allow water to both enter from, and drain to, the adjacent existing ditch system.  An electric anti-predator fence around the margins of the wetland keep the local foxes as mere spectators. 

The first spring saw Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Temminck’s Stint and Garganey recorded, along with 25 species of wader.  So how did the first breeding season shape up (with thanks to Dave Fairhurst for the data)?  Not too bad:

·          Shoveler - 1 female seen with 7 ducklings.
Lapwing - 25 nests fledged 60 young with 100% hatching success.
Ringed plover - 3 pairs fledged 9 young.
Little Ringed Plover – a male was on territory throughout May
 Avocet – 41 pairs fledged 82 young, the largest number of young fledged from a single site in       Suffolk since 1986.
 Oystercatcher – 1 pair fledged 2 young
Redshank – 10 pairs fledged 30 young.
Black headed gull – 1 pair fledged 3 young.
Shelduck – 1 pair fledged 7 young.

     Pics above: Hollutopia in May and July