A trip to the coast

At the end of November we headed to Keyhaven Marshes for some coastal bird watching with our Young Naturalists. We were last here with the group a couple of years ago so it was great to return again with some who came last time and take some of our newer members who had never visited this part of the coastline before.

Pleasantly surprised by the weather (I had been keeping an eye on the forecast all week and been expecting to get wet), we headed off from the car park under a lovely blue sky. Deciding once again to list the different bird species spotted, we were quick to see collared dove, house sparrow (bathing in puddles along the side of the road) and starling. We scanned the first area of reeds for marsh harrier but were unsuccessful, settling for mallard, black-tailed godwit and grey heron instead.

Keyhaven view

Keyhaven on a lovely blue sky day

Following the path we watched a number of turnstone rummaging for insects, crustaceans and molluscs on the shoreline. On our way to Keyhaven Lagoon we added black-headed gull, little egret, brent goose, magpie, pintail, gadwall and wigeon to our list. Pausing by the lagoon we watched mute swan, coot, shelduck, avocet and Canada goose for some time and flock of linnet also flew over our heads. Whilst walking along the path between Keyhaven Lagoon and Fishtail Lagoon we saw buzzard, curlew, redshank, dunlin, stonechat, lapwing, shoveler, teal and herring gull. Out in the Solent we saw great crested grebes and on pausing to chat to a group on the corner by Butts Lagoon we were directed towards a pair of peregrine, perched either end of a concrete block on an island.

Peregrines

Peregrines perched on a concrete block in the Solent with Hurst Spit behind

The group also told us they had seen red-breasted merganser from this corner as well, so we spent some time trying to pick these out using the scope and were rewarded for our patience.

Bird watching

Looking at the Red-breasted merganser

We carried on along the path, noting down great black-backed gull, moorhen, blackbird and carrion crow. We found a sheltered spot to stop for lunch (it was still a bit windy out on the sea wall) before heading inland and following the path past the old tip.

Walking

Heading inland towards lower Pennington Lane and the ancient highway

Here we did not spot what was spooking the lapwing and golden plover but we did enjoy watching them flocking overhead.

golden plover

Golden plover

lapwing

Lapwing

We decided we had enough time to make a brief detour towards Pennington Marsh so headed along the lane, watching kestrel, pheasant, robin, chaffinch, jackdaw, wood pigeon, rook and dunnock and hearing the distinctive call of a Cetti’s warbler. We then turned back and headed towards Keyhaven and the car park, following the ancient highway and watching cormorant and tufted duck on the pond by the landfill site. Along this path we also saw meadow pipit, blue tit and great tit and heard a nuthatch calling.

Finally we paused again by the bridge over Avon Water, scanning the reed bed and trees behind for signs of a marsh harrier. We spotted a large bird perched on the top of a distant tree and whilst this is a good place to see marsh harrier, with its back turned to us we couldn’t say for certain it wasn’t a buzzard. We let Will decide whether or not this was a sighting and he quite rightly decided it wasn’t, as we couldn’t be certain. It had been worth the look though as whilst here we saw a kingfisher fly past, a very lovely bird to be last on our list.

Keyhaven view 2

Keyhaven

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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A Day by the Sea

On Monday Jo and I spent the morning working with the Milford Conservation Volunteers at Keyhaven. Although we mainly work at Blashford Lakes and Fishlake Meadows we have a number of other sites to look after. The reserve at Keyhaven is large, consisting of almost all the saltmarshes and mudflats outside the sea wall between Hurst Beach and the Lymington River. It is an important reserve for nesting gulls and terns in the summer and for waders and wildfowl in the winter. Its value is greatly enhanced by the neighbouring Hampshire County Council nature reserve, together the two reserves make one of the largest areas managed for nature conservation in the county.

The work we were doing was on the one small area of the Trust reserve that is inside the seawall. The wall here used to be a rather porous construction of timber and clay, as a result the land behind it was wet and quiet salty. Since the wall was reconstructed just over 25 years ago the saltwater has been kept out more effectively and the area has become drier and fresher. A lot of species are adapted to live in the narrow habitat band that lies between the saltiness of the sea and truly freshwater, as this habitat is very restricted these species tend to be very local and frequently rare. A time of rising sea level might be thought of as one which would bring benefits to these species, but in fact many are in decline. Our modern seawalls are effectively engineered so that they keep almost all of the saltwater outside and freshwater inside, the fuzzy edge that was the home of the brackish habitat lovers has been squeezed.

I was approached last year by a group of local residents interested in the potential of getting the brackish elements back, by finding a way to get some more seawater onto the marsh. It was really exciting to have such interest in what is often perceived as a dull habitat. Although we are still looking at how they goal might be achieved there is interest in the idea from both Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Monday’s task was to tackle some of the scrub that has established since the site has become fresher so that the former open character can be restored. We coppiced lots of willow and cleared a large area of bramble thicket. Hopefully once there is a more salty regime this will help to limit the regrowth of much of this scrub and encourage brackish marshland habitat.

 

P1090874
Clearing bramble thicket with the Milford Conservation Volunteers, (and collecting rubbish).

 

Getting about

Sadly the title does not refer to me as I have been laid up for several days. Having done no more than look out of the window for three days, yesterday I ventured out to at least look from the car window at the fine sunny day.

I headed for the coast, feeling then need for a wide horizon. This also gave me the chance to see a little wildlife. I also came across a story of many years of wandering, that highlights the importance of the Solent coast. The carrier of this tale was a black-tailed godwit feeding beside the road at Milford-on-Sea.

Black-tailed godwit are medium sized (a bit smaller than an oystercatcher), long-legged, long-billed waders that breed on Iceland and return to the UK to moult in late summer and then to winter, staying on until they moult back into their red breeding plumage and return to Iceland, usually in late April. They feed on intertidal mudflats, pools and fields and will move between the coastal flats and flooded river valleys, avoiding the sandy shore favoured by their relative the bar-tailed godwit.

black-tailed godwit feeding

black-tailed godwit feeding

We actually know quite a lot about the lives of black-tailed godwits and they have been the subject of intense study for almost twenty years. They are attractive birds, quiet approachable and have long legs (that is important!). They are also the traditional bringer of spring in Iceland where they do not get the more familiar harbingers of most of the rest of Europe, the cuckoo and swallow.

Now for the legs! It is always important to have legs but if you are studying birds long legs allow the use of easily seen rings, which means you can individually mark birds and identify them in the field, with no need to catch them again. It was in this way that I came across a story of wanderings, thanks to RR-YX.

black-tailed godwit RR-YWx

colour-ringed black-tailed godwit RR-YX

I could see that this bird was an adult and the worn rings told of a few years, small size also hinted at it being a male. In these days of the internet it can be very quick to get information about colour-ringed birds and so it proved for this one. It turned out that it was ringed as an adult male on 18th April 2003 as a newly arrived migrant at Vogalækur, Mýrar, Mýrasýsla, Western Iceland. This was done as part of a long-running project to track the movements of Iceland’s waders co-ordinated by the University of Iceland. But this was just the start of the tale after a couple more sightings nearby in the next couple of days he then turned up at Keyhaven, Hampshire on 17th November 2003 and remained in the area until April 2004. What was pretty certain was that he would have left Iceland well before November, so was he in the Solent unseen?

The following autumn gave a clue to where he might have been, in August 2004 he was seen at  Killingholme, on the Humber in Lincolnshire before turning up again at Keyhaven in November and then staying until at least 13th April 2005, although there was a surprise, a brief trip to the Ouse Washes, Cambridgeshire in mid February. It was again at Killingholme in the autumn from July, staying at least a couple of months before again being seen at Keyhaven in November staying until late March. The autumn of 2006 saw him avoid the Humber as far as we know and appear in Keyhaven in October, after a trip to Newtown on the Isle of Wight in November he was not seen all winter until appearing at Titchfield Haven at the start of March 2007 and then on the River Avon at Ibsley on St Patrick’s Day.

The next few years saw the general pattern of autumn on the Humber, winter at Keyhaven continuing. Sightings became more interesting in 2013, with a trip to Coward’s Marsh, Christchurch Harbour in February, then the Ouse Washes on 1st April, Benbecula in the Western Isles on 23rd and then SW Iceland on the 25th. Not quite as good as a satellite tag, but you can still see get the picture and a lot cheaper and now ten years after he was ringed! Further sightings followed at favoured sites with another in Iceland in May 2015.

When I saw him yesterday he was over sixteen years old and back at an old haunt. Many people see colour-ringed birds and do not report them as “They will have been seen before” or someone else will report it. What his story shows is that all the records together produce a story of regular haunts on which he mostly relies of survival, but also of a knowledge of other key sites all around the country. His tale shows how our wildlife relies on a network of sites, regular returning shows how continuity of habitat is important, he knows where he is going and what to expect when he gets there. So we need to look after networks of sites across the whole of these islands and further still and we need to ensure that they persist, a new site will not automatically get added to the inventory as an immediate substitute for the loss of a traditional location.

Lastly his trip from Benbecula to Iceland in 2013 shows his speed of travel, in fact it will have taken him well under the two days to make the flight as he took the spring to Iceland with him after we looked after him for the winter.

Please do report any colour-ringed birds you see, there might not always be a long story but there just might be. You can report them via the BTO at  BTO Ringing Scheme and click on the “report a ringed bird” icon on the top left side (you can report all ringed birds you see or find here, not just colour-ringed ones). For some schemes you can track down the ringer which can get you the details much faster, but there are links as to how to do this there too. Not only is it fascinating but it provides invaluable data for nature conservation and gives insights as to how we might go about serving the needs of real birds.

For colour-ringed birds note which leg the colours are on, where they are in relation to the leg joint “knee” and where the metal ring was if it can be seen. By convention the combinations are quoted with the bird’s left leg first then the right, so this one was RR-YX.

colour ringed BW from rear

RR -YX

Just imagine looking at him from behind and you will get it right! Oh, and get a picture too if you can.