Friday, 30 October 2009

The rest of the year


Not a lot, getting things organised for June, including buying a car. A couple of calm sunny days to take the macro lens out to Fen Drayton for Scarce Chaser and damselflies

Scarce Chasers (the second picture is worth looking at full size, I think)

Common Blue Damselflies with food

Variable Damselfly


First weekend went to Plymouth to do a seabird and cetacean survey to Roscoff and back. One group of Bottlenose Dolphins and some good seabirds.

Next weekend took the car, tent and mountain bike (fits easily inside the Yaris) up to Scotland for a couple of weeks. I managed four days of timed tetrad visits for the Bird Atlas, in amongst a quick trip to the Outer Hebrides, a day looking for dragonflies and some rain.

The longest and hottest day, Beinn Dronaig. 8 miles in on the bike (320m climbing) and then 6 hours surveying. 8 miles back. The penultimate photo shows the bridge - two bits of wire. Result: it's pretty but there's not many birds.

A much more productive day (Golden Eagle, Ptarmigan with chick, Ring Ouzel) up Sgurr a Chaorachain, seen here from Bidean an Eoin Deirg. Thankfully the latter is seven metres shorter than the former so is a subsidiary peak to it rather than a Munro. Therefore very few people walk along the ridge and disturb things like the Ptarmigan. I probably ought not to say that it's a far nicer top than the actual Munro.

One Munro to another, so a well developed path. Munro bagging is another realisation of the collecting/listing instinct that is so obvious in birding. The discussions amongst the walkers in the hostel were almost identical to those heard amongst birders. To use birding terminology:

Ticking - seeing species/reaching the top

Dipping: to not see a bird. Equivalent to being beaten back by bad weather or being a complete idiot and accidentally climbing the wrong hill.

Splitting: Considering two races of a species to be two separate species, those allowing you to tick both and have a longer list. Equivalent: deciding that a subsidiary top should have been a Munro itself so climbing it as well (unlike Corbetts there is no absolute definition of a Munro other than what Mr Munro decided)

List blindness - OK, so not a real birding term but there should be some term for people who don't bother looking at interesting/pretty birds because they're not rare. See above.

Four days on the Outer Hebrides (Oban -> South uist, North Uist -> Skye) were very pleasant. Stayed it the Gatcliffe Hostels at Howmore and on Berneray. Interesting bunch of people in them. Any conversation that goes between renewable energy from the sea, sea kayaking, oceanography, and recollections of accompanying convoys across the Atlantic in WWII is not bad.

Had one day, sunny but quite windy, looking for dragonflies around Loch Maree. I managed to see the three main species - Azure Hawker, White-faced Darter and Northern Emerald but only got photos of the latter (which was the one that I already had a decent photo of)

Back via a few hours in Speyside: Osprey, Red Squirrel and Crested Tit.


Day out at Strumpshaw early on for Norfolk Hawker and Swallowtail Butterfly.

Several evenings out getting breeding records for the Bird Atlas, including several broods of Little Owls


Week at Boxtree, the family cottage in Herefordshire. The view from the Twmpa


Two trips up to Norfolk but by far the best bird, a male Pallid Harrier, was in the Fens just north of Cambridge.

The Fens where the harrier was, unfortunately not quite in this light.

Norfolk, nice light, few birds.
Beach at East Hills

The third and fourth weekends in September I went to Bilbao, firstly as one of the guides on a Whale and Dolphin themed cruise and secondly to do one of the monthly surveys with Biscay Dolphin Research Programme. Some excellent sightings, largely on the themed cruise, which made guiding very easy. Highlights were two groups of Sowerby's Beaked Whales and very good views of Cuvier's Beaked Whales, especially on the survey crossing where five came past very close to the ship in the short spell of calm seas, allowing them to be seen very well underwater. No photos, but see last year. Another highlight of the first trip was the boils of Yellowfin Tuna in the southern bay. They were up to 50m across with tuna jumping out continuously chasing bait balls of Anchovies at the surface. They continued until sunset with a Fin Whale appearing near one bait ball and some Striped Dolphins joining in with another.


First and third weekends were more seabird and cetacean surveys, to Roscoff and Santander this time. No photos and, frankly, very few interesting sightings. Otherwise not a lot.


Little Owls found for the winter atlas list and two days of timed visits done. Second paper of the year accepted.

Ascension on the way home (April)

The MOD flight we get back from the Falklands stops on Ascension Island for refuelling. This means that if we sort it ourselves we can stop on Ascension for 3 or 7 days. A tropical/equatorial (8 degrees south) island is something of a contrast to the Southern Ocean. The temperature is 26-30C but the south-east trade winds mean that hydration and sunburn are bigger problems than absolute temperature. April is an excellent time to visit as the Green Turtles are still laying eggs but early clutches are beginning to hatch, ten minutes from the hotel. I contacted the seabird researchers and went out with them on weekdays. Daria and Ruth also stopped and were excellent company and a very good way of finding out what was happening on the island, aided by the mainly male demographic of the US and UK air bases and aerial technicians. Some of these photos are theirs (thanks).

Laying Green Turtle

Hatching nest

Dead hatchling the next morning

Crab on the beach

Octopus in the rock pools

Turtle pits on one of the many sandy beaches

Turtle Pits, from the days turtles were sold to passing ships. The turtles were turned on their back when they came in to lay eggs and then the following day a float was tied to them before they were turned back over. They dragged themselves to the sea but couldn't sink the float. A small boat then approached them and towed them to these pits where a small crane lifted them into these pits. Thankfully someone realised this was too easy and there would soon be no more turtles so hunting was scaled back and then stopped. There is now a healthy population of Green Turtles breeding on the island, with Hawksbills seen around the island but not breeding.

Some of the volcanic landscape and surprisingly pale sand.

The seabird guys are studying the effects of the removal of feral cats from the island in 2001/2. The cats preyed on the seabird chicks and pushed all but one of the breeding species to just a few offshore rocks. The species than stayed on the mainland, Sooty Tern, survived by synchronising it's breeding cycle, to produce a mass defense against the cats and a glut of chicks so that some survived. They breed every 9 months, including a couple of months absence before they start again. This is in contrast to all other colonies where breeding is continuous through the year with pairs coming and going on their own cycle. Interestingly the 9 month cycle appears to be starting to break down now that the cats have gone and also Brown Noddies have joined the Sooty Terns at their 'Wideawake Fairs' - Wideawake is the local, onomatopoeic name for the terns

Wideawake Fair, doing very well without feral cats around.

Most of the seabirds that remain, including the entire world population of the Ascension Frigatebird, are confined to Boatswain Bird Island, a few other small rocks and some inaccessible cliffs.
Masked Boobies are one of the species that have spread onto the mainland. There were 'spare' adults in the population that couldn't find space on Boatswain Bird Island so breeding pairs have increased rapidly now that the mainland is suitable. A German film crew was on the island for a few days to film the seabirds before joining a German research ship (RV Meteor) to film research at a nearby deep sea vent that was discovered five years ago by a team from Southampton.

Filming Stedson, with a White Tern coming in to investigate. White Tern has been on my want-to-see list for as long as I can remember and they didn't disappoint.

Crossing an amazing recent volcanic landscape

One of the endemic plant species

The path back (the lower line across the slope). Full respect to the Germen who did this with a large tripod across his shoulders.

It's 26C or so, the landscape is fairly unforgiving, so obviously you go on a hash house run with the locals. The loose lava means that you can only run a few bits. Good fun and good to meet other people there. The white staining on the rocks (other than the arrow) is sub-fossil guano from pre-cat times when there were extensive seabird colonies on the island.

Finishing with a cool drink and a bonfire. I felt the kids needed 'supervising' playing with the fire, so I joined in with them.

Comfortless Cove, one of the two bays considered sheltered enough from the breakers to be safe to swim. I got in the water once, but to call it swimming may be an exaggeration.

Comfortless Cove (originally Comfort Cove but changed for obvious reasons) was the place where sick crew members were put ashore to avoid contaminating the islanders. they were given food and water and left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly there is a cemetery here.

Our catch of three Yellow-fin Tuna from a morning's sport fishing. Also good views of Madeiran Storm Petrel and some spectacular jumps from a Bottlenose Dolphin pod (the latter being more widely appreciated than the former).

Sunday afternoon windsurf lessons, I stuck to the surf kayak.

Yesterday's tuna

We brought the tuna, others had charcoal, plates, knives, sauces, drinks etc. Good evening.

Some people wondered if there was enough on Ascension to fill a week. There is.