Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Wirral

A bit of location hopping on the Wirral side of the Dee Estuary this morning...
First stop was Burton Marsh and apart from the presence of 5 very distant Little Egret, the site proved unusually disappointing.
Next it was one of my favourite places and an often overlooked gem...West Kirby Marine Lake.
I arrived as planned at high tide and despite a low bird count and a very choppy sea which threatened to engulf the path that circles the lake, I managed to get close views of Redshank, Dunlin and a single camera shy Turnstone!

The highlight of the day was the drive back towards Parkgate, where I got a real treat, with a very close view of a Red Kite flying along the side of Telegraph Road just north of Heswall.
Parkgate itself was very quiet apart from a further 4 Little Egret and I was disappointed to learn I'd missed the Spoonbill yet again!

Finally it was back to Burton, but this time Inner Marsh Farm.
Hen Harrier and Ruff were just visible at the far reaches of the marsh, with Shelduck and Teal a lot nearer to the hide.

I couldn't resist a shot of this cheeky Grey Squirrel...

The most pleasing event at Inner Marsh was the sound of a very early Cuckoo calling from the woods close to the car park...Although I couldn't see the bird, I was more than happy to hear it because it's the first I've heard in several years!
Spring is here!

Friday, 26 March 2010

Red Grouse Study (1)

So far this spring I have made two trips to the Peak District where my observations for this project will take place.
On the first occasion my real targets were Mountain Hare, but because of inclement weather I settled for photographing Red Grouse.
The second occasion the Grouse were my targets and after observing an interesting trait in their behaviour, the seeds of this project were sewn...
The area of Bleaklow that I visited on Sunday contained a total of 3 pairs of Grouse in an area roughly about a square mile.
Whether or not all 3 pairs were nesting in this immediate area remains to be seen because the Red Grouse is a very territorial bird and the males fight aggressively to establish breeding territory throughout the autumn and into winter.
I decided to focus my attention on the pair that were nearest to the location I had parked my car because at this point my only aim was to photograph the birds and then leave.
As I was making my way towards these birds, which were still a good half a mile away, something caught my eye hiding in the heather...This it turns out was a female Grouse and I was immediately struck by how well camouflaged she was in this her natural habitat.

I made my way slowly and stealthily towards her, keeping as low as it was possible to do so while carrying my camera equipment over exposed open moorland.
As I got closer to the bird I fully expected to flush her, but to my surprise she stayed put until I was within 20 feet or so, but by this time her head was raised and her eyes were firmly upon me.

Then the moment came that inspired to begin this little project...
Seemingly out of nowhere, a male appeared next to the female and started to display vigorously.
The display it turns out wasn't for the female but for myself!

My eyes and camera were transfixed on this fine looking male as he proceed to strut almost Rooster like, up and down in front of the female, all the time edging a little further away from her position.

Eventually he changed his tact slightly and moved a good few yards away from the site of the female, but walked a good few feet closer to me.

I found all this to be totally mesmerising and I soon realized that this was the response he was after because all the while the male was keeping me entertained, the female was making an exit in the other direction...I'd been had by a Red Grouse!

Next, I decided to back off by quite some distance and the male soon rejoined his mate about a hundred or so yards from their original location.

I then set off slowly in the direction of their new location and I was soon only a matter of yards away again...I decided to stop here and see what happened.

To my surprise the birds didn't seem to mind my presence at this new spot and were happily feeding, sometimes even moving closer towards me.
Every time they did move away, I followed keeping a constant distance of about 20-25 feet between us...This I think is as close as I want to get because the last thing I want to do is cause any distress to these beautiful birds.
In conclusion, I can only think that the site where I first saw the female must have been her nest site and although it's a little early for her to be sat on eggs, I think that this must have been thought of as a premium spot for rearing her young...This feeling was re-enforced after seeing the 2 birds returning to this spot after I had later moved on.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Red Grouse Study Introduction (2)

I had to laugh this morning, after joining the Nature Blog Network yesterday and finding out today that they have categorised my blog in the 'Academic' section!
I guess this is the result of me naming this project 'Red Grouse Study'...Oh the irony!
Like I tried to explain yesterday, I have no aspirations to be some kind of Red Grouse scholar if you please, all I really want to do is learn a little bit about these fine birds and watch and photograph their behaviour.
I imagine that these reports will be more akin to a 'O level ' essay than some deep and groundbreaking scientific paper, but hey I'll do the best I can.

So to the star of the show...The Red Grouse.
I thought I'd get the ball rolling by giving a little bit of basic background information about the species...

Red Grouse Lagapus lagopus
The Red Grouse is a race of Willow Grouse that is only found in parts of Great Britain and Ireland.
While the European Willow Grouse has a largely white plumage, the Red Grouse is a reddish/brown colour.
A medium size Grouse standing 37-42 cm, they are a very plump bird with a small head and hooked-tipped bill.
The male of the species is much redder in colour than the female and has a red wattle above it's eyes.

The preferred habitat of the Red Grouse is extensive heather moorland, but it's also at home in areas of upland bog...The Peak District, where most of my observations will take place is perfect because it offers both of these scenarios.
The Red Grouse feeds mainly on the ground eating heather shoots and invertebrates such as Crane Fly.
Small young Grouse feed mainly on insects including Crane Fly, Beetles and Sawfly larvae as well as moorland plants.
The female Red Grouse usually lays 6-9 eggs in late April or May which are laid in a hollow that is scraped by the female amongst the heather or soft rush.
The female incubates, but the male is always close at hand.
The young are active soon after hatching and feed themselves.
The flight feathers of the young grow very quickly and they fledge in 11-12 days.
They are not fully grown until 30-35 days and they stay with their family for 6-8 weeks.

So that's the basics that I've learned through a little research...I now hope to provide my own insight into these birds over the next year or so...

Anthony Dixon R.A. (Reluctant Academic) Manchester, England.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Red Grouse Study Introduction

Earlier this year I told you that I was planning a couple of projects for 2010...One features migrant birds and should hopefully get underway next month and the other was to capture Owl species in my home borough of Stockport.
Frustratingly the Owls are becoming a very time consuming venture and the rewards have been very few up to now.

I've decided to take a far more leisurely approach to the Owls and while not abandoning the idea altogether, I feel that my time could be better spent on another species in the meantime...

The species I have chosen is my old favourite, the Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus).
My reasoning behind this choice is, despite being a fairly common sight on the bleak moorlands of Britain, it still remains an elusive and in my opinion a very interesting subject.

I propose to study these birds at regular intervals throughout the seasons for the next 12 months.
Starting now makes perfect sense to me because obviously it's the start of spring and hopefully I'll get to witness new arrivals in the next couple of months.

Now, I'm calling this my 'Red Grouse Study'...Don't get me wrong, I'm not a scientist nor do I have any aspirations to be so.
I do however want to observe these birds the best I can and hopefully learn a little more about their behaviour.
I have said before on these pages about how much I admire the hardy Red Grouse and hopefully over the next year or so, should you choose to follow this project you will find out exactly why I hold it in such high esteem.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Dark Peak

After a last minute change of plan, this morning saw a whistle stop tour of the Dark Peak and the chance to photograph some of my favourite locations...

An early start to hopefully capture some early morning light was somewhat hampered by the time I arrived at Edale by thick fog...In fact a real pea souper!

My time was limited today, so rather than hang about waiting for the mist to clear, I decided to keep moving and take the short drive to Mam Tor.

Mam Tor or 'Mother Mountain' is the second highest peak in the Peak District behind the world famous Kinder Scout.
Around the summit of Mam Tor there is a ringed 'ditch' which is the remains of an Iron age hill fort.

The other famous feature of the mountain is a 4000 year old landslide which has attracted studies by Geologists from all over the world.
In 1819 the A625 Manchester to Sheffield road was constructed, but unfortunately the road which winds around the slopes of Mam Tor, twice crossed the main body of the landslide.
Over the next 160 years the road was under constant repair due to land movement and in 1977 a large movement restricted the road to a single lane.
Another large movement in 1979, resulted in the permanent closure to traffic.

I have always had a fascination with Mam Tor with it's unstable slopes and the remains of the former A625 prove that man really can't compete with the power of nature.

Next stop this morning was a short 2 mile journey to Castleton and an interesting feature known as Cave Dale...
A dry limestone valley which was formed by glacial meltwater carving the soluble limestone into a deep narrow gorge at the end of the last Ice age.
Over time, the river found it's way underground leaving a dry valley and many caverns and chambers below.

I first visited Cave Dale as a schoolboy and have always loved the area.

It is a very unique place and although only a few minutes walk from the centre of Castleton, it can give a sense of great isolation...In fact it can be quite eerie sometimes, especially at dawn with nothing but the squawking of Ravens and Jackdaws to keep you company!

Jackdaws are something of a feature of the Castleton area and they seem to be just about everywhere you look.
In some cultures, the sight of a Jackdaw on a roof is the sign of a new arrival.
Alternatively, a Jackdaw settling on a roof or flying down a chimney is considered to be an omen of death and even coming across one is considered a bad omen...hmmmm!!!

Finally, after an aborted stop at a very busy Derwent Valley, I arrived at the very quiet and remote Bleaklow.
Conditions were much improved on my last visit a fortnight ago, with nearly all the snow now melted leaving a very wet and boggy footing on this unforgiving peat moor.

The reason I wanted to visit Bleaklow today was to photograph the Red Grouse again and I'll tell you more about it in my next post...

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mandarin Ducks

Back to Etherow this morning and with slightly better light than yesterday, I took a few more shots of the beautiful Mandarin Ducks.
I've been watching these Ducks for a good few years now, but today I witnessed the greatest number I have seen at any one time...20!

It's interesting to note that the species is in decline in it's native Asia, but they are increasing steadily in the wild here in the UK.
Latest estimates are of around 7000 birds in Britain, which is now about the same number as Japan.

The majority of the British population of Mandarin's is in southern England, with isolated pockets further North.
I count myself very lucky to live so close to one of the very few Northern strongholds for these stunning birds.

Although the male of species really stands out with it's spectacular multi-coloured plumage, I've always found the female to be a very beautiful bird in it's own right.
At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking it's just a grey, rather drab looking bird, but on closer inspection you will notice some very subtle colouration...The white ring around the eyes really stands out against the grey/brown head and there are olive green and blue flashes on the wing tips. The female is also the more vocal of these very shy Ducks and makes a rather pleasant 'croaking' sound.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Plastic Fantastic?

A short local trip to Etherow park this morning got my mind thinking about a subject that has been a hot topic for birders and naturalists for quite some time now...So called "Plastic Birds".
Plastic is a term I happen to dislike and refers to species of birds here in the UK, which are non native or introduced species or escapees living in a feral state.

Last week, Greater Manchester County Bird Recorder Judith Smith was interviewed by John Craven on the popular BBC Television programme Countryfile about the plight of the Ruddy Duck in the UK.
The Ruddy Duck is a beautiful looking bird that was introduced to private Wildfowl collections in Britain in the 1930's, but escapees meant that this native North American species soon bred into many thousands.

The Duck's soon spread into mainland Europe and the real problem started when they arrived in Spain where they successfully bred with the critically endangered White Headed Duck creating hybrids which damaged the survival chances of the White Headed further more.

In 2003 a decision was made based on research by leading scientists, European Governments and major Conservation organizations to eradicate the Ruddy Duck from the UK to try and save the White Headed Duck in Spain.
A very difficult decision and one backed by the RSPB, but with UK numbers of Ruddy Ducks said to be down to around 400 and only a handful of migrant birds making it to Spain every year from these shores, should we be reconsidering the cull?

The White Headed Duck conservation effort in Spain is a great success story and one that the Spaniards are very proud of (comparable to the Red Kite in Britain) but surely with so few numbers arriving from the UK we should perhaps now be thinking of giving these birds a stay of execution.

Now what has all this got to do with my trip to Etherow Park you may ask!
Well Etherow is a stronghold for the beautifully exotic Mandarin Duck...Like the Ruddy, a introduced species (from China) but one that over the years seems to have been unofficially excepted on the British List.
Another species that can be seen at Etherow is the Egyptian Goose...Quite a rare sight in the North of England, but fairly widespread in Norfolk.
I think the Egyptian is now regarded as a 'tick' by many birders in Norfolk, but curiously not in my home County of Greater Manchester.
This time last year, there was only one Egyptian Goose at Etherow, now there are four...As far as I know they have not been introduced, so they must have arrived from elsewhere in the UK.

The Mandarin Duck, Egyptian Goose and even the very familiar Canada Goose are all regarded as "Plastic Birds" by British Birders and are classified 'No Status' by the RSPB.
The Canada Goose is as common a sight as a Mallard on British lakes, while birders will travel great distances to catch sight of Mandarin Duck and Egyptian Geese.

These particular so called plastic birds are (no matter how they got here) now very successful wild birds in their own right and I'm wondering if it's now time to reclassify them and officially accept them as British birds?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Lyme Park Sunset

I had an hour to kill early yesterday evening and after Sunday's failed attempt at the Mountain Hare, I thought I might have a look for it's Brown Cousin at Lyme Park in Cheshire.

March of course is the time of the 'Mad March Hare' and the moorland landscape of this National Trust parkland is a good place to spot these shy creatures.
Dawn and dusk are the best times of days to see Brown Hares and in the Spring, the Hares are very active and can often be seen 'Boxing'.

I had a quick scout around the 'Cage' area of the park but my luck was out again!
However there was method in my madness and I chose this part of the park for good reason...

This is a place I have photographed on many occasions and past experience has taught me that after a beautiful sunny day, there isn't a better area of this delightful place to capture the setting sun...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Not So Bleak In The Peaks!

Early start today in what looked to be glorious conditions for a trip to the Peaks and another attempt at the elusive Mountain Hare.

I arrived at Bleaklow at around 7.30am and was greeted by clear blue Sky's and a in-car temperature of -9 degrees!

They don't call it Bleaklow for nothing and after about 10 minutes of my journey across the plateau that leads to the Higher Shelf, I was already extremely cold and struggling to walk in the still very deep snow...

After a while, I spotted Mountain Hare tracks and decided to follow them a little further on and to a place that I knew would give me better cover from the elements and the animals themselves.

The further I ventured, the more difficult conditions were getting...
This was a very physically demanding trek in the snow, over some of the hardest terrain in the UK and when I reached a deep icy ravine I decided to stop and think about my options...
Should I continue and risk damaging my equipment and worse injury or should I turn back?

There was however another option and that was to turn back and drive to another spot which I know is pretty good for Hares.
This I decided was the most logical.

I arrived at the new location just in time to see a mountain rescue team heading off in my planned direction!
This of course wasn't good news and despite the seemingly good weather, conditions were dangerous and people were obviously getting into trouble in this most unforgiving of landscapes...Time to cut my losses and resign myself to not getting the desired shots.

I didn't feel all that bad about not seeing the Mountain Hare on this occasion...There will be plenty of other times and during my adventure I managed to capture a lot of very pleasing shots of another moorland speciality...The Red Grouse.

I have always found the Grouse to be one of the most captivating of creatures...
Not only are they a truly handsome bird, but they ooze character and I also have a great admiration for the way these hardy birds survive in the most harshest of environments.

It is always one of the great joys of the moors to witness the Red Grouse's almost clumsy flight and their comical cackle never fails to put a smile on my face.

All in all and largely due to the Grouse...this will go down as a good day photography wise, especially after a couple of disappointing trips recently.

Friday, 5 March 2010

BBC Walk On The Wild Side

A brief television appearance tonight, as one of my Blue Tit images was featured on BBC Television's North West Tonight feature 'A Walk On The Wild Side'.

The shot was actually displayed on 2 separate occasions by presenters Gordon Burns & Dianne Oxberry who were joined in the studio by wildlife photographer Ben Hall.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Spring Tide

Today, I witnessed one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the British birding calendar...Spring high tide at Parkgate.
Several hundred birders descended on this usually quiet part of the Wirral for the annual pilgrimage and were treated to a morning of bright sunshine and a good variety of species.

I arrived with my friend Andy at around 9.30am and spent the first half hour or so following a beautiful looking Stonechat...This is a species I see quite often at Parkgate, but yet again I failed to capture a shot that pleased me!

A quick walk along the sea wall was next and a Little Owl was just visible in a tree close to the golf course.
Across the marsh, Kestrel were perching on driftwood and Gulls & Corvids were scouring the landscape.
In the far distance towards Wales, large flocks of Gulls and Waders were getting restless.

By 11am the tide still looked a long way out, but hoards of people were still arriving by any means possible...

The real fun started around midday as the tide crept ever closer to the wall...
flocks of Waders such as Oystercatcher, Dunlin and Knot passed by with Spoonbill, Curlew and Marsh Harrier also present if not all too far away!

Grey Heron waited patiently along with a couple of beautiful Little Egrets...

By 12.15pm, the tide was up against the wall, causing almost chaotic scenes as Water, Meadow and Rock Pipit's joined dozens of Skylarks desperately looking for relief from the rising waters.
Small mammals were also on the look-out for dry land including a lovely little Harvest Mouse which dived into a rare dry area close to my feet!

Around 12.30pm, the crowds of people headed back towards the Boathouse and we decided to leave and see what was happening at West Kirby...Sadly this proved to be a mistake and the only bird of note was a young female Shag on the Marine Lake.