Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Happiness Hour at South Gare

I am in the middle of a training course about Mental Health First Aid, and after the last session our homework was to do a "Happiness Hour" - in other words, to spend an hour doing something that made us happy, and then to notice the effect it had on us.

I decided to spend an hour bird-watching as this usually makes me happy. So I went down to South Gare this morning with my binoculars, telescope and camera, and also a camping chair, a flask of coffee and lots of warm clothes. The plan was to sit at the end of the Gare for an hour or so, watching whatever birds I could see, and to just enjoy the experience.

It was a cold, clear and fairly still day - perfect conditions - but despite this I didn't see another person for the whole time I was sitting there. I did however see a few interesting birds. Scanning the sea surface with my telescope revealed at least five different Red-throated Divers and a couple of Guillemots - all in their winter plumage. In the case of the divers, the difference between the summer and the winter uniform is quite striking. In the summer they have bright red patches on their throats but these birds were all grey on the upper sides and white on the underparts and the face. However, it is the distinctive shape, with a needle-like upward-pointing bill and the pattern of the white and grey that distinguishes Red-throated Divers from other bird species that might be seen on the sea off the British coast in November.

While I was scanning I spotted a tight group of about 20 small black ducks flying north over the surface of the waves in the distance - Common Scoters. I was on the lookout to see if any of them had a flash of white in the wings which would have made them Velvet Scoter, but sadly no.

At one point while I was sitting remembering a previous sea-watching session at the Gare when a Purple Sandpiper had come and landed just in front of where I was sitting, I looked up and about a second later it happened again - a Purple Sandpiper flew in from the right and landed on the concrete about ten meters from me. It didn't stay there long before flying down onto the concrete blocks reinforcing the end of the gare but I was able to get some pictures of it, clinging on to the sloping surface and probing the crevices looking for small invertebrates to eat. Later I saw it (or possibly another one) round on the south side of the gare alongside a Turnstone, where I was able to get a nice picture showing the similarities and differences between the two species.

Both Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) and Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) breed in northern latitudes, including the high arctic, with Turnstone occurring over a wider range both in the summer (it breeds as far north as Ellesmere Island and the north of Greenland, and as far south as the Baltic Sea) and in the winter, when it gets down to the southern tips of both Africa and Australia and about three-quarters of the way down South America. In the UK it is a very common species on coasts in the winter but can be seen at almost any time of year and in many different coastal habitats. It gets its name from its habit of turning over stones to find food. The Purple Sandpiper on the other hand is more restricted in its breeding range and also only reaches as far south as southern Spain and halfway down the east coast of the USA in the winter and doesn't occur in the Pacific or Indian Oceans at all. In the UK it is much harder to see than the Turnstone and is hardly ever seen away from the very edges of the water on rocky coasts and usually doesn't appear until late autumn.

So, back to the Happiness Hour - how did it make me feel? It did really make me feel happy. I spent an hour and a half sitting on a chair right at the edge of the land and didn't once think of Brexit, the General Election, Facebook (we-e-e-ell I might have looked at it once), money, work or any of the other things that I normally worry about. It was cold (although thankfully not rainy) but I was well protected from the cold, and I felt as if the cobwebs had been blown away. I have never been a massive fan of sea-watching but today I thought that I ought to do it more often.

Although it's not really purple in my view, I suppose I might concede
that the Purple Sandpiper is at least 'purplish' in colour
Purple Sandpipers really do like to be right next to the water.
Just before this photo was taken, the waves washed right over this rock,
and the bird too, but it just carried on as if nothing had happened

The Turnstone, or Ruddy Turnstone to give it its proper name, has ruddy-orange
colouration on its back in summer but in  winter, when we see them most,
they are much more dully coloured but still have bright orange legs

Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones are often seen together, although Turnstones
are much less fussy about the habitats they choose

Saturday, 12 October 2019

More about Grey Wagtails

In my last blog I told you about the Grey Wagtail that visited my newly made garden pond (which used to be a bath). See The making of a pond and an unexpected visitor. He/she has been back at least twice since then.

In that blog I didn't put a picture of a Grey Wagtail but yesterday when visiting friends I saw a card they had got with a nice painting of a Grey Wagtail on it, and a little bit of information about the species on the back and I thought I should share it here. It's by an artist called Madeleine Floyd and I really like her style.

The bird in the picture is an adult male, with his black throat patch and completely yellow underparts. The one that came to our garden was an immature bird and so it lacked the black throat and only had yellow the very bottom of its belly and underneath the tail. It also had a lovely peachy wash on its throat and breast, with the rest of its underparts being off-white.

In case you find it hard to read the writing on the back of the card in the picture below, what it says is "Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)  - The largely resident and elegant Grey Wagtail owns the longest tail of the Wagtail family and has black and smoky grey upperparts with a sulphur yellow chest. This attractive palette contributes to an air of a gentleman. His call can be loud and sharp but his song is made up of chirruping flutey notes and fast trills and warbles. He is happiest living beside a mountain stream, enjoying the rocky terrain, but can make his home in other waterside locations as long as there is fresh running water nearby, from which he can catch water insects and mayflies to feast on"

picture ©Madeleine Floyd

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The making of a pond and an unexpected visitor

Sue and I have just had a lovely, unexpected and very welcome visitor in our garden - a young Grey Wagtail, drawn in by our new pond, which we only made on Saturday (today is Tuesday). I would call that a success for our (still developing) wildlife garden .

The pond is actually a bit unusual (those who know me will be surprised by that not one little bit) - it is made from an old bath which had been fly-tipped in our back alleyway and which I asked for when the council were getting it cleared away. I have been gradually developing a ‘wild area’ in one corner of our garden over the past year and a half. When we moved in, the entire garden was covered in concrete, wooden decking and gravel on top of blue plastic sheeting and it has been quite a job turning it into a nice garden (we’re not finished yet). This latest stage involved digging a trench about 2 metres long, 1 metre wide, and slightly less than half a metre deep and putting the bath into it (having first purchased the right size of plug - 75p from one of our local hardware shops). The soil here, below the top 6 inches or so, is full of broken bits of brick and so I needed to use a pickaxe to loosen it before I could make any headway through it. Below that, luckily starting at about the depth I needed the trench to be, is a hard layer which appears to be very dense clay and it is this that the bath, aka my pond liner, is now resting. I used some of the soil I had dug out to fill in the gaps around the sides of the bath as much as possible.

Once the bath was in place I put some soil, gravel, rocks and all the broken brick I had dug out, inside it to give insects and plants something to burrow/ root into and also to allow any non-aquatic creatures to climb out easily. Then I filled it using water from our rain-water butt, using two watering cans. See the attached photos that Sue took at different stages of the process. The final result was a rather eccentric type of small pond with a little rocky island and no plants growing in it yet. 

I was quite please with the end result but I wasn’t expecting it to attract any wildlife this soon after its creation. Add to that the fact that we have not had many birds of any sort in our garden over the summer, since we took most of the feeders down in the spring. I had only just put them back up again a few days before the creation of the pond and although I had seen evidence of birds visiting them (peck marks in the peanuts), I hadn’t actually seen anything on them until this afternoon. I looked out of our bedroom window (the best place to view the feeders) and saw, first two Collared Doves, then a bunch of House Sparrows on the ground and on the peanut feeder, and then I noticed something on the side of the new pond - a small bird, similar in size to the sparrows but with about half of its length taken up by a long tail, which it was constantly wagging up and down. A Grey Wagtail! Many of you will be familiar with Pied Wagtails - black, white and grey birds, common in towns and cities in the UK. Well, Grey Wagtails are similar in size and shape (with a slightly longer tail), but with a smooth grey back and varying amounts of yellow on the underparts. This particular one had bright yellow under its tailbase, and on its rump but the rest of its belly was whitish. Its throat and upper breast were a nice pale peachy buff colour, with no black patch, and it had a little pale line above each eye. This combination of features told me that it was an immature bird, hatched earlier this year. It is too early to be able to tell what sex it is, although next year, if it is a male, it will have a jet black throat and yellow from its throat to its tail.

Wagtails are closely related to pipits, and like them are fine-billed, insect-eating birds, but a generally much more colourful and interesting to look at than pipits, most of which are very similar looking streaky brown birds - the archetypal LBJs (Little Brown Jobs). There are three wagtail species which breed in Britain - the Pied Wagtail (which is actually the British and Irish race of the much more widespread White Wagtail), the Grey Wagtail, and the Yellow Wagtail. Many people, on seeing their first Grey Wagtail, mistake it for a Yellow. This is understandable, but Yellows are actually quite different - smaller, yellower and unlike Pieds and Greys, Yellow Wagtails are not here all the year round. Instead they migrate to Africa for the winter. They are also much scarcer than either of the other two species and are not usually found in towns, preferring instead wet grassland habitats and marshes.

Grey Wagtails like fast flowing upland streams, but also any kind of watery habitat, including urban canals and park lakes. When I was young I would have expected to have to go to a wild, hilly place to be able to see one - in fact I saw my first one in the hills of the Peak District in Derbyshire at the age of 16. I was very excited. Now, however, they can be found over most of lowland Britain, although you are still more likely to see one near a fast flowing stream than an urban garden pond/bath, and I admit that I was almost as excited to see my most recent Grey Wagtail as I was to see that first one, all those years ago.

I wasn't able to get a picture of today's bird, but click here to see some pictures and some more information about Grey Wagtails - Grey Wagtail Bird Facts - RSPB

The bath - prior to being given a new function
Preparing the ground
Ready to be filled
The ceremonial filling of the pond
The finished product

All photos © Sue Conroy