Some Birds!

A late report from yesterday was of the returning drake ferruginous duck seen on Ibsley Water in the late afternoon. When I arrived this morning there were people looking for it, without success, however one observer was excited to have found a great white egret. Unfortunately I had to tell him that “Walter” was a regular, on going into the Tern hide he was there, standing on the Spit Island. I then scanned the lake and instantly found that there was a second great white egret standing with a group of little egret on the north shore. Swinging round I came upon a party of 6 brent geese, an unusual sight inland, these were all adults of the dark-bellied race. Despite a pretty good look there was no sign of the ferruginous duck though.

I had a guided bird walk in the morning so I was back in Tern hide by 09:45, still no sign of the duck, but the two great white egret were together. The new bird has no rings and is the same size as Walter, the second bird last winter was significantly smaller, so this new comer is a different one and also probably a male.

At the end of our walk I returned to the Tern hide and soon spotted a diving duck with white under-tail coverts, similar to a ferruginous duck, however it was the wrong shade of brown, however as we looked a second bird was seen and this was the real thing! The sun came out for a bit and although distant the rusty colour was clear as was the pale eye, smaller size and characteristic head-shape. There were also a few waders on the lake; 6 dunlin, a ringed plover, a green sandpiper and at least 3 common sandpiper. All in all quite a good range of species, it was a shame they were all on show the day after our Bird Trail!

Needless to say I have no pictures of any of these birds, so I will include a couple I took at the end of last week when I had a day off and went down to Pennington and Keyhaven Marshes. Both these are species I have pictured at Blashford, although in each case they were terrible pictures, these are hopefully a little better.


Grey phalarope, a little closer than the bird on Ibsley Water!

spoonbill preening

Spoonbill, the only one I have ever seen at Blashford was almost 1 kilometre from the hide when I tried to get a picture! No such issues at Pennington on Friday though.


A Counting Time

I seem to have been out counting birds a lot in the last few days. On Friday morning I was on the shore of Portsmouth Harbour near the Roman fort of Portchester Castle watching a flock of brent geese. Unfortunately they did not do very much, although this did not mean it was a waste of time. This particular flock of over 500 birds included just seven juveniles, two pairs with a single gosling each, one pair with two and one pair with three. This illustrates that although lots of geese may go up to Siberia to nest, quiet often very few actually rear any young. Long term studies have shown that many birds, even though they may live a good few years, will never produce any young, whilst others will produce broods year after year. The important part of any population is that section that contributes to the next generation, this is the effective population, so knowing which birds these are and where they prefer to be, is important in developing a conservation strategy. The birds I was watching were feeding on sea lettuce, a kind of bright green seaweed that grows on the mudflats.


Brent geese near Portchester Castle

Brent geese, in common with a number of other Arctic nesting geese and swans migrate as a family and will stay together all winter, allowing the juveniles to learn where the best feeding areas are. From studies of ringed birds we know that birds will come back year after year to exactly the same feeding areas as they did with their parents in their first winter. So staying with your family is important and family members can be seen and heard calling to one another whenever they are on the move so that they don’t get lost in the mass of birds.


A brent goose family. Dad is on the lookout and the youngsters are behind, you can tell them by the pale bars across the closed wings.

If you look at brent geese feeding on grass you will generally find a far higher proportion of juveniles than you will see in flocks feeding on intertidal areas. Feeding on grass allows them to feed more continuously and to get more food and, of course, the tide does not come in and cover your dinner. For this reason grassland feeding areas are particularly important for the effective population. What all this means is that just counting the birds to find out where the largest numbers are does not necessarily tell you were the most important sites are, for a successful conservation strategy you need to go into things in a bit more detail.

Today we were counting wildfowl at Blashford Lakes, this should have been done last Wednesday, but fog intervened and almost no birds could be seen! Today I arrived at first light to find things not much better, but luckily the mist cleared and a count was possible in the end. The ducks at Blashford do not stay together as families, so I have no idea if they birds I count are champion breeders and major contributors to the next generation of biological dead-ends, probably some of both. So we just count the number of birds on each lake, this gives an indication of the relative importance of each lake and allows us to see trends in numbers.

Blashford Lakes is internationally important for the number of gadwall that winter here, this accolade goes to any site that regularly holds 1% or more of the west European population. Today’s count of gadwall, at a total of 762, was comfortably above this threshold. It was notable that most of them were on just two of the lakes, which shows how conditions can vary even between lakes that are beside one another.

The highlight of the day was at the end when locking up I saw two bittern from Ivy North hide, one sitting up high in the reeds to the left of the hide and the other out in the open under the trees to the right. Standing up high in the reeds is something they seem to do quite often, they can even walk along, gathering bunches of reeds using their neck until bunched enough to be grabbed in their large feet. In this way by alternately sweeping one way and then the other they can proceed at some speed a meter or more above the water. I got this shot of one standing up in the reeds at dusk on Friday evening, when I visited the hide on a walk with our volunteers.


Bittern standing up in the reeds





Coastal Bird and Wildlife Spotting

Yesterday was a great wildlife spotting day. On opening up Tern Hide, a male Goldeneye was clearly visible on Ibsley Water and this was soon followed by views of an otter on the far side of Ivy Silt Pond, a first for me at Blashford and a great start to the day.

It was then time to head over to Keyhaven Marshes with our Young Naturalists, on our first outing from Blashford Lakes.


Young Naturalists on our first outing to Keyhaven, raring to go on a great bird spotting adventure

We got off to a great start, with views of a juvenile marsh harrier from the car park and even better views once we had started walking of it hunting over the reed bed. We also watched a fox making its way through scrub and grassland, disturbing the birds as it got closer to them.


In total, we clocked a grand figure of 74 different species, including a great white egret, 2 Dartford warbler, a peregrine, a ruff, Mediterranean gull, eider and red-breasted merganser. A number of species were present in large flocks, such as golden plover, knot, dunlin, wigeon, teal, black-tailed godwit and lapwing. The bird spot of the day though had to go to Jackson, who spotted 3 spoonbill flying over. We kept our eyes peeled for them as we carried on walking and had distant views of them feeding out on the salt marsh.

The find that excited the group the most however, was this dead juvenile Brent goose, close enough to the footpath for Bob to reach so we could take a closer look. On close inspection it appeared to have perished from natural causes as there were no obvious signs of predation. The bird would likely have hatched somewhere on the Taymyr peninsula, in northern Siberia, making the long journey here to overwinter on our warmer shores. Whilst many do survive the journey, this goose had a somewhat sadder ending!

Thanks to Bob for joining us for the day and providing a wealth of local site and bird watching knowledge, and to Nigel for driving the minibus.


Hurst Castle with the Isle of Wight behind


Blashford Rarities

When it comes to what constitutes a notable wildlife record it I soften the context that matters. As proof of this I will offer a couple of sightings I made at Blashford Lakes today. I was at the reserve early so I opened up the hides, I had a good look across Ibsley Water from the Tern hide, hoping for an early sand martin as I have never seen one in February, and I still haven’t! Scanning the lake I did see at least 11 goldeneye, including 5 adult drakes, but it turned out the most notable bird was standing just to the east of the hide on the shore, a single brent goose. It was an adult dark-bellied brent, a common bird just a few miles away on the coast but they very rarely go far inland, at least in winter.

brent goose and redshank

brent goose and redshank

When I told Ed about the goose I found out that the redshank was also of interest being the first one reported this year. As I mentioned brent are coastal birds in the winter, perhaps venturing a mile or so inland to feed on grass or winter cereal fields at most. At about this time of year, especially in a mild winter they will start to move off eastwards, heading to Holland and N. Germany, where they will feed up until mid May, when they head into the eastern end of the Baltic Sea. They breed about half-way along the northern shore of Siberia and get there by flying overland across Finland from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic to the White Sea in the Arctic Ocean. On occasion over half the total population have been watched heading off overland in a single day, this is perhaps 200,000 birds or more in a single day. My guess is that today’s bird was at the start of the first leg eastwards, perhaps to Essex and got parted from the rest of the flock in the night and in wandering about lost found its way to Blashford.

This year’s mild winter is in strong contrast to last year, when winter stayed with us into April as did most of the winter birds, this year many have already gone and the first summer visitors will be with us by the end of next week.

Amazingly the brent goose was not my only notable sighting of the morning, outside the Lapwing hide there was a male stonechat, again hardly a rare bird and a species that you can see with ease all winter no more than a mile away, but actually on the reserve they are very rare visitors. This was only the third that I have ever seen at Blashford, I have no good explanation for their rarity, much of the grassland with brambles along the eastern shore of Ibsley Water looks fine for them, but evidently I do not see things as a stonechat does.

I will end with some wild daffodil, taken near the Woodland hide, they are looking very good, just in time for St David’s Day.

wild daffodils

wild daffodils


Blurry bittern and fuzzy buzzard

As Jim surmised in his posting, at least one bittern was seen  from both the North and South Ivy Lake hides yesterday.  One of these sightings was of a bird with a large tench, too large for it to swallow, which it carried  into the reeds outside the North hide, presumably to dismember and eat in peace (or pieces?).  The great white egret was spotted, briefly, from the same hide.  Also reported yesterday were a small flock of Brent geese on Ibsley Water, although not obviously there when I opened up this morning.

I was, however, lucky enough to see one of the bittern as it stalked the reed edges visible to the south of Ivy Lake. At first almost invisible to the naked eye, and even in binoculars, it emerged and wandered along in front of the reeds for at least an hour. Never one to pass up an opportunity to post, yet another, distant, dark and blurred image, this is what I saw..

Bittern lurking along reed edges to south of Ivy Lake

Bittern lurking along reed edges to south of Ivy Lake

Some lucky visitors also saw a water rail from the Ivy North hide.

But it’s not all about distant images of the more rare species.  One of the great perquisites*  of my job is being the first to see which birds are on parade immediately outside the hides when they are opened each morning.  Carefully opening the door and treading quietly, many birds are unaware of one’s presence and its possible to get reasonably close images with my modest camera.  Even though we have a large number of coot on the reserve, it’s not always possible to see them at close range.

P1460784 coot

One of the many coot outside the hide. Notice the slight pink flush to the bill a feature not always seen.

They are often followed by gadwall, a species for which the reserve has designated conservation status, as we have something like 1% of Britain’s wintering population here.  They have a similar diet to that of the coot, a liking for the plants that grow in the depths of the lakes.  Being dabbling ducks, they can’t dive to retrieve plant material, the lakes are quite deep,  the gadwall have learned that they can live quite well by scavenging the left-overs from the plants the coot bring up. So in a curious way it’s probably the presence of so many coot that allow the gadwall to survive the winter here in such numbers and give the reserve its conservation designation.

For the casual spectator,  gadwall can appear to be quite drab looking ‘grey’ ducks, but a close-up reveals some quite intricate patterning within the feathers, making them, for me, one of our most attractive waterfowl.

The subtle and intricate pattern of wavy markings (vermiculations) on the gadwall's plumage

The subtle and intricate pattern of wavy markings (vermiculations **) on the gadwall’s plumage

This image was taken through the glass in the hide window on a dull day and doesn’t do full justice to the splendour of these birds, but do try to look closely on a fine sunny day – absolutely stunning.

Across the reserve the numbers and range of birds are much as I reported last week.  Winter hasn’t really started to bite too deeply and the natural food supply allows  means many of the woodland birds are still able to resist the temptation of our well-stocked seed feeders.

One regular visitor to the Woodland Hide area, a buzzard,  is often only seen as (s)he flies through,  so I took the opportunity of grabbing an image of this bird perched on a branch nearby.

Buzzard, lurking near woodland hide.

Buzzard, lurking near woodland hide.

As you can see its yet another in my now famous series of slightly fuzzy pictures!!

*perquisite (perk) -‘an incidental benefit gained from a certain type of employment’  

**vermiculation – Wormlike marks or carvings, as in a mosaic or masonry.