Nature-watching in Europe Issue 9

Issue 9 contents:


Italy - magic of the Sibillini Paul Harcourt-Davies
News and Research

Adders - what harm photographers and watchers can do
Slovenia - land of lakes and limestone
Spain - crane migration
European Breeding Birds Atlas - how to contribute to the second edition.


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Late afternoon at Stackpole

Sometimes, it seems that Lady Luck is on your side.  Or maybe you've just put in the hours and it's about time something happened.

We walked alongside the lake at Bosherston from the Eight-Arch Bridge to the Grassy Bridge.  During the winter there are usually a flock of up to 40 goosanders here.  Normally they are on the far side of the lake - and they believe in keeping their distance.  Today, yes, they were on the far side, but the far side of the narrowest part - and they even deigned to come half way across.  At last, a decent opportunity for photography.

People often put food down for small birds on one end of the Grassy Bridge.  This practice is not encouraged, but is done often enough for birds to expect people to provide them with a snack.  As we arrived, a robin sat there expectantly.  A grey wagtail worked its way along the parapet away from us.  Wagtails often have a beat they use repeatedly, so I sat and waited.  It took a while, the bird flew off, came back again, and again, and posed for a few photos. 

A young heron - one of last year's chicks - came and sat on the parapet in the sun for a while.  Chaffinches, blue tits, great tits and dunnocks checked the feeding station.  As did a female mallard with two males following her around.



A new season

March 21st is traditionally the first day of spring in Britain, and probably in most of Europe.  This year in Pembrokeshire, it is the continuation of a spell of pleasantly mild daytime temperatures tempered by a light but cold north-easterly breeze,  and cool nights.  It’s a good day for going out and seeing what is about.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about mammal recording at the annual meeting of county recorders in West Wales, organised by the West Wales Biodiversity Centre.  One of the WWBIC staff had produced a map showing the density of records in each one kilometre square in each of the three counties - Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.  It was no surprise to see large areas of blue or green (few records per square) and some bright orange or red areas (lots of records - sometimes 1000s).

There was one square, adjacent to the one we live in, where there were less than 50 records.  How had we missed recording there?  Well, there should have been bird records, but birds atlases at least are recorded at the tetrad (2x2km square) level, and were not included in this map.

So, I gave myself a challenge - could I record 50 species there at this time of year.  I'm pretty good on birds.  As county mammal recorder I should be able to find a few signs of things.  A few plants are coming into flower, and there might even be a few insects around.

To record properly, means moving slowly.  I walked briskly along the road to warm up, slowed down as soon as I got onto the footpath and started looking around.  By the time I reached the edge of the 1km square, I was looking and listening.  This is a habit I must get back into.

To cut a long story short, I recorded 51 species. 

24 species of bird - mostly identified by call or song.  If I'd concentrated only on birds, I might have found a few more.

3 species of fern - hart's tongue, hard fern and bracken are all fairly easy to identify.  The bracken was dead, but that still counts - it will come up again in a few weeks.  There was also a Polypody species, and now that I've checked a book or two, that will be given a name next time round.  There was another fern, but I'll have to take the book with me to ID it.

16 species of flowering plant.  These include ash, hazel, holly and other trees and shrubs, as well as lesser celandine and primrose in flower and a few that could be easily identified from their leaves. 

Insects were few and far between - a couple of Bombus terrestris - buff-tailed bumblebee - queens searching for holes to nest in.  Also a queen wasp who didn't stay around long enough to be identified or photographed, and some dark brown hoverflies that didn't want to be photographed.

Mammals were the stars, though.  Moles make life easy by making molehills.  Badgers, foxes and rabbits are good at leaving footprints in mud.  A pile of otter spraint was a good find, and a grey squirrel chasing its tail in a garden made up the total. 

Mammals are mostly recorded through their signs, and a live sighting is a bonus.  I was walking along looking at the ground for plants, when a badger came out of the wood and stopped in front of me.  She was a bit unsure what was going on, but she waited, and I waited, and she waited, and then she decided it was safe to continue.  She made a slow bee-line across the corner of the field to a large hole I'd already noticed.  I kept downwind, and went along the edge of the field to intercept her.  She disappeared into the hole, and I continued back to the footpath.  A quick glance behind me revealed that she was out again, and heading for the wood.  Of course, I didn't have a proper camera with me, just a compact with a good zoom.  I took a few snaps, whistling to attract her attention briefly before she disappeared into the wood again.   She waited in the hedge as I went past - obviously curious about this strange intrusion into her territory, but not unduly alarmed.

Back home, the collection of records needed to put somewhere useful.  There are lots of on-line recording systems, many of them for single taxon groups, eg birds at the British Trust for Ornithology website.  However, I had a mixture of things, and they were all mixed up too, as I wrote them down in the order I recorded them.  iRecord would be a good option, but even better was a local version, on the WWBIC website.  


Nature-watching in Europe issue 8

Bulgaria - Central Balkan National Park

France - Golfe du Morbihan

Ireland - Pine Martens

Spain - volcanos on the western Canary Isles

Garden Finches

News & Research

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Gossip from the Garden

It’s late January, and New Year’s resolutions have usually either been abandoned by now, or put aside to be done "sooner or later”.  Sorting out the sun-room fell into the latter category.  It was meant to be a room where we could sit and enjoy the back garden, where the bird feeders and and the plant pots are.  But over the last few months - or maybe a couple of years now - it has become a store room, a dumping ground for things that we haven’t had time to put away properly.  The seats are used by cameras and lenses, not by people.

That came to a sudden end last week when I was asked to record a piece for Radio Wales about the RSPB Big Garden Bird Survey.  I had only a few hours notice to tidy things up so we could sit and watch birds while the reporter asked me questions.  Okay, so it was for radio and no-one would know if it was recorded indoors or outdoors, or if there really were any birds.  But it is a lot easier to talk about something that you can actually see.  So now the room is usable by humans again - though there is still plenty of stuff that needs to be properly sorted out, thrown out or put away.

I sat in the sun room this morning with a cup of coffee, watching the sparrows lining up for their turn on the feeders, the starlings squabbling amongst themselves and generally being bullies until the squirrels arrived and sent them packing.  Blue tits and great tits snuck onto the peanuts whenever the squirrels gave them a chance. Up to eight blackbirds busied themselves with the abundance of windfall apples.  A bank vole made its way through a grassy tunnel by the wall.  This is what the sun-room and garden was supposed to be about!

Then a male bullfinch flew in.  One of my favourite birds with its scarlet waistcoat and black cap.  Usually we have up to a dozen in the autumn and early winter when the privet berries start to ripen.  Once the berries are gone, so are the bullfinches.  These birds usually pair for life, so seeing one alone for about ten minutes suggests that he may have lost his mate.  He ferreted around in the ivy on the wall, within a few feet of the window.  Of course, I hadn’t got a camera ready - a casualty of not using the room for so long.  When he disappeared round the back of the wall for a few minutes,  I reached for a camera, but did not have a tripod.  In the dull light, through double glazing, and hand-holding a long lens, there was no chance of a decent photo.

But what I did see more clearly through the camera (no binoculars in reach either) was that the bullfinch was not really interested in the ivy.  It was the stalks of honeysuckle growing through it that had caught his attention.  He was working his way along the stalks, eating the new leaf buds.  It is this habit of eating leaf buds, and more particularly flower buds, that got this species into trouble with fruit farmers.  No flowers mean no fruit.  I remember my grandmother draping old net curtains over her black-currant bushes to keep the birds away. 

This coffee break was reminder that I need to get the camera and tripod organised so that I can photograph anything that comes into the garden - double-glazing not-withstanding.  The prevailing wind comes across the garden so we can’t leave the windows open at this time of year.

It was also a reminder that I must get into the habit of having my coffee breaks in the sun-room instead of in the kitchen, so I can enjoy the birds properly again.