Last week as my wife and I spent a relaxing half-term in a converted Shiel (a salmon netting station) right beside the River Tweed in Berwick I picked up my Guardian newspaper and read an article over two pages with the headline ‘Puffins at risk of being wiped out, conservation experts warn’. A large colour photo of twelve birds accompanied the feature, which described how the Atlantic Puffin has, for the first time, been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of species at risk of being wiped out.
The crash in Puffin numbers in Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which together hold 80% of the European population, has been linked to climate change and fishing practices. In the UK, there have been significant losses on Fair Isle and Shetland, though elsewhere numbers are better. Other species added to this list were European Turtle Dove (90% decline in UK since 1970s), Slavonian Grebe and Pochard. The Puffin was obviously highlighted because of its iconic status in our culture and because it is one of our nation’s favourite birds.
This bad news is part of an ever changing picture of loss and gains in nature that people (of my age in particular) have been following over the years. On 4th November, the BBC breakfast programme had news that Goldfinch numbers are increasing dramatically and experts want our help because the thinking is feeding birds in our gardens is possibly the main cause of this increase. There are now 2,000 pairs of Red Kites soaring above us and 100 pairs of White-tailed Eagles after ‘rewilding’ initiatives.
Climate change has produced increasingly regular visits to Carsington by Little Egrets, Great White Egrets more occasionally (though as recently as 30th October) and even a Cattle Egret last year. Even more surprising, a pair of Bee-eaters bred at a quarry in Cumbria. This was only the sixth attempt at breeding in the UK.
Underlining such positive trends, one of our reasons for staying in a Shiel was to watch out for otters. The very first morning, while we were getting ready for breakfast at 7.30, one turned up just opposite; it was only 20 yards away, swimming up and down and catching fish. After 20 minutes it went further up river and out of sight, but the next morning, at virtually the same time and in the same place, it was there again. This time it came out of the water and walked about on the shore, enabling us to take a picture, before we saw it for the last time two days later.
In late May this year I also watched an otter for almost an hour from a hide at RSPB Leighton Moss. If anybody had told me, even ten years ago, that I would be watching otters quite easily and in two entirely different parts of England, I would probably have said ‘no way’! With such a remarkable increase in the numbers and spread of this species, let us hope the same can happen to the Puffin.
QUALITY RATHER THAN QUANTITY IS CARSINGTON’S AUTUMN BYWORD
Although monthly totals for September and October were lower than usual, the quality of sightings was high. Great White Egret and Stonechat turned up in each month, a Marsh Harrier joined the final Osprey of the year as raptor highlights in September, while October brought two site firsts as a Ring Ouzel joined a Blackbird influx on Stones Island on the 12th and, eight days later, a report of a Yellow-browed Warbler was recorded.
November then got very exciting with two Water Rails calling in Hopton Reed bed on the 2nd, a site-first Red-throated Pipit flying over Stones Island on the 13th was identified by its call, the first Great Northern Diver returned on the 15th, and two days later three juvenile Shags were the first of that species at Carsington since 2008. Fourteen Whooper Swans showed up on the 20th, while the weekend of 21-22nd was diver time, as up to six Great Northerns were seen on one day, albeit two simply flew through, and a Red-Throated turned up, though it stayed for a miserly 20 minutes.
Reed Warblers were feeding fledged young in Hopton Reedbed up to 20th September – the latest record at Carsington, and three birds overflying on 25th October was the second latest Swallow record. October registered the last Blackcap record of the year on the 12th, and two days later the first Brambling arrived along with a sizeable group of Fieldfare; inevitably, Redwings were noted the following day.
The growing number and variety of wildfowl is evident as winter approaches. Up to 128 Pochard, 145 Wigeon, 242 Teal, 246 Tufted Duck and 148 Mallard have been counted, along with good numbers of Gadwall, Goosander and Goldeneye, while among the more unusual ducks, Red-Crested Pochard, Red-Breasted Merganser and Common Scoter have featured. November’s count of Coot topped 1,100 and there was also a massive count of 620 Canada Geese recorded in October, when 53 Pink Footed Geese also flew through on the 19th.
Two species that had fared badly during recent years seem to be recovering nicely (maybe because of the disappearance of the voracious Yellow-legged Gull ‘Brutus’), as Moorhen numbers have reached double figures, and Little Grebes have attained very healthy levels, with 32 counted in October when 50 of their Great-crested cousins were also noted.
The reservoir’s had a very poor wader count this year, however, though 210 Lapwings were noted on 29th October – the same day the latest-ever Curlew Sandpiper was spotted – and Golden Plover, Snipe and Dunlin have featured reasonably regularly among the sightings.
Hopton Reedbed is becoming an increasingly popular place, and 300 Starlings roosted there on 6th November. A huge flock of 3,500 Woodpigeons flew through in late November, and parties of Lesser Redpoll have been seen or heard regularly on Stones Island.
As many as 11 Buzzards have been recorded in the skies at any one time, and Hobby (6th September), Merlin (two sightings in October and November) and Peregrine (several records) were other raptor highlights.
AUTUMN TALKS TEACH US ABOUT BIRD FLIGHT AND MIGRATION
The talks at our club meetings in October and November were both fascinating and educational, explaining what we do know – and the huge amount we still don’t know – about the life of birds.
In October, ‘Bird Flight’ by Jeff Blincow was the centrepiece of our annual joint meeting with Derbyshire Ornithological Society – and below is a summary by Bryan Barnacle, Chairman of DOS, who was one of the 25-plus audience that enjoyed Jeff’s talk ….
A presentation that starts with the assertion that birds have evolved from dinosaurs is bound to capture attention and Jeff Blincow’s talk was certainly different. We progressed through the evolution of flight, starting with insects and progressing through mammals (bats) to a detailed concentration on birds. In parts, the explanations were technical but Jeff’s genial style meant that his analysis of anatomical differences and physiology came in easily understandable words.
There were many photo images, covering birds from most parts of the globe. Many were excellent shots (one of a Sun Bittern was quite stunning) but it was fascinating to hear about those that pleased Jeff the most. Like so many of his peers, he often spends patient hours trying to get one particular shot but in his case this is regularly focused on capturing a particular aspect of flight control. Examples of this, showed herons compacting their necks to improve streamlining and geese in flight benefiting from the “V” formation, which produces a 25% reduction in the energy expended by most of a skein.
Even more impressive, and surely more difficult to capture, were shots showing birds with the alula (a structure of four small feathers at the base of the wing) extended in order to control the airflow over the leading edge of the wing. This principle has been copied by man during the design of aircraft.
In November, the often-mysterious world of bird migration was the subject of a fascinating talk by Nigel Slater (who joked that he’d not brought any cookery books with him!). Nigel covered a huge amount of ground – both actually and metaphorically – during an hour and three-quarter’s talk … and you sensed he could have continued for well into the night if we’d not told him to aim for a 9.30 finish!
Nigel gave us some history of mankind’s fascination about why birds apparently disappear for half of the year (and amusing reasons once believed to be true, such as swallows hibernating in mud at the bottom of ponds!), and stated the surprising fact that it was not until the early years of the 20th century that bird ringing began to demonstrate some of the amazing feats of migration tackledby birds sometimes weighing only a few grams.
He described experiments that concluded birds seem to rely on genetically implanted information – using techniques like reading the stars and the earth’s magnetic field to get from A to B – and trotted out some of the astonishing routes and distances undertaken by birds like Arctic Tern, Red-necked Phalarope and even tiny hummingbirds.
Modern tracking techniques are now accelerating our knowledge enormously, he added, illustrating this with the heart-warming story of the Sociable Plover, only 200 of which were believed to be left in existence, until a tracker took some RSPB overseas staff to a remote wetland between Syria and Turkey, and they discovered a flock of 3,000 birds!
HELPING TO STAMP OUT WILDLIFE CRIME
We birdwatchers are all about experiencing nature first hand. As we spend more time than most out of doors, watching birds and other wildlife in their often fairly remote home environments, we are also in the privileged position of being able to spot and, therefore, help stop crimes against wildlife.
Much of the UK population may not even realise that there are laws protecting our feathered and furry friends: anything from animal theft and poaching to raptor persecution and the destruction of sensitive wildlife habitats can be an offence under laws such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act and other statutes.
A group within the Derbyshire Police are dedicated to minimising wildlife crime across the county. They are passionate about the natural world and volunteer to undertake these secondary duties over and above their main police job. The policing of wildlife crime is thinly funded, but thankfully the Derbyshire commissioner is more understanding than most and makes available what resources he can.
We, in turn, can help them by being vigilant, by reporting direct threats to animals and birds or, indeed, suspicious behaviour and activities that may warrant further investigation. Most of us may never have seen a spring trap first hand, but we would probably recognise what it’s designed to do, and could disarm it with a stick or stone to eliminate the immediate threat to the next animal that happened along. Similarly, without risking our own health and safety, we could cover up obviously poisoned bait intended to kill wildlife such as birds of prey should we encounter this in the field,
Most importantly, though, we can provide details for the ‘wildlife police’ to use to pursue and prosecute wildlife criminals. The means to do so would normally be to ring 101 (999 is strictly for emergencies) and give the number of your local police contact. The list below details those with wildlife policing responsibilities is areas within a broad radius of Carsington; any would be happy to hear from you with information about an offence or suspicious behaviour …
PC 1921 Karl Webster, Matlock
PC 2581 Emerson Buckingham
PC 14281 Andrew Shaw
PC 1288 John Bointon
PCSO 12705 Tamsyn Bell-Heather
PC 2283 Richard Siddall, Ripley
PC 2049 Miriam Roche, Ripley
PC 2493 Steve Clarke
PC 2975 Steve O’Callaghan
PCSO 4412 Mike Coates, Clay Cross
PC 14051 Gemma Rice (St Mary’s Wharf)
PC 2917 Joanne Kelly (Cotton Lane)
PC 14347 Claire Starr, Peartree
WILDLIFE CENTRE VOLUNTEERS KEEP THE GENERAL PUBLIC WELL-INFORMED
There are lots of unsung heroes who come to Carsington Water to do great work without many of our visitors fully understanding just how much we have come to rely on them to keep the site safe and looking great.
Our Volunteer Rangers, the Parkwood Conservation Volunteers and the Derbyshire Community Payback Team have all been visiting Carsington for years, working on an astounding variety of vital tasks.
One group that deserves a special mention is the dedicated band of Volunteer Rangers who staff the Wildlife Centre on Tuesdays and Sundays throughout the year. I’m sure most birders will know the team and the work they do but for everyone else it’s worth taking time to mention their fantastic work.
Many of the Wildlife Centre Volunteers initially joined a Severn Trent Water/RSPB partnership scheme called Aren’t Birds Brilliant. When this came to an end over four years ago the team joined Severn Trent Water’s Volunteer Rangers.
The team engages with all of our visitors from weekly regulars to high-season crowds, from coach groups to school groups, never failing to share their enthusiasm for this site, its water and its wildlife.
They are very careful to allow visitors to learn for themselves, lending binoculars, telescopes and field guides, and offering tips and advice and knowledge of the site when needed. In the summer they answer countless questions about why the water levels are low and in the winter they’re often the first port of call for the hundreds of people who come to see the Great Northern Diver.
While visitor numbers vary, the Wildlife Centre Volunteers engage with as many as 1,500 people per month and, at peak times, can host over 400 people in a day! A sign of what a fixture they have become is the fact that school groups will now enquire whether the Wildlife Centre Volunteers are available on the specific days they plan to visit.
As well as ensuring so many visitors have a great day out, the volunteers also submit some invaluable records to the Carsington Bird Club whether it’s via their twice weekly species count or by bringing to attention something a little bit more unusual like a passing Cuckoo, a visiting Snow Bunting, or a lingering escapee.
Over the years they’ve witnessed species trends at the reservoir – like the dwindling presence of Little Owls while others like Little Egrets are arriving in greater numbers. They’ve watched the Black-headed Gulls colonise the tern raft and the Yellow-legged Gulls terrorise the Little Grebes!
So if you’re visiting Carsington on a Tuesday or a Sunday and would like to know more about Carsington Water and its varied birdlife make your way to the Wildlife Centre where you’re guaranteed a warm welcome.
John Matkin, Severn Trent Water
NEW BOOK TO HELP BUILD WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY SKILLS
Fabulous photographer Paul Hobson, also a regular speaker during our indoor season (and who’ll be with us again next autumn), has just published a new book designed to increase field skills and techniques of those who enjoy wildlife photography. Paul focuses less on the lenses, cameras, exposure and composition, and more on how to get close to the wildlife subjects, offering practical guidance – via projects and tips – allowing mastery of some of the arts of field craft.
The 232-page hardback book costs £16.99 from bookshops, £19.99 from Paul’s website (www.paulhobson.co.uk) which includes packaging and postage, or he’s selling it at a discounted price of £16 at any of his talks, the programme of which is also viewable on his website.
CBC’s winter programme of talks continues either side of Christmas, and we can look forward to varied subject matter. The January talk will be preceded by our Annual General Meeting, so if you want to hear a summary of where the club is at, or make a point about our organisation, please remember to come along half-an-hour earlier than usual – at 7pm. All our meetings are held in the Visitor Centre’s Henmore Room:
15 December ‘A New Challenge’ (Coombes Valley) by Paul Bennett
19 January AGM followed by Gannets & Bass Rock by Peter Gibbon
(Unfortunately, there will be no meeting in February)
Severn Trent Water, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, RSPB and New Leaf Catering also stage one-off or regular activities. To check if events need booking, call 01629 540696 (STW), 01773 881188 (DWT) or 01629 540363 (New Leaf). The programme for the next three months is:
First Sunday of month – Birdwatching for Beginners with STW ranger – Meet Visitor Centre (10am-12 noon)
First Sunday of month – Optics demonstrations – RSPB shop, Visitor Centre (10am-4pm)
Every Tuesday/Sunday – Wildlife Centre volunteers on parade – Wildlife Centre (10am-3pm)
Third Saturday of month – ‘Forest School’ (three sessions during the day) – Millfields car park (contact DWT)
1 December – Nature Tots: Rocking Robins (charge applies) – 10.30am-noon (contact DWT)
11 December – Jazz Evening (tickets available to book) – From 7pm (contact New Leaf)
29 January 2016 – Wildlife gardening (charge applies) – 10.30am-1pm (contact DWT)
1 February – Nature Tots: Plant Power – 10.30am-noon (contact DWT)
13-21 February – Half-term Welly Wander (free trail leaflet) – Available all day