As I write this in mid-November, I’ve had to resort to my ice scraper for only the second time since last winter. Yes, the adult Great Northern Diver is back with us and there are Redwing and Fieldfare around but in no great numbers, and I have just been watching a mixed flock of tits picking food from leaves still left on my apple tree, so winter is around the corner but has not seemed in any great hurry to arrive.
But the weathermen have warned it will be much colder next week, with chill winds sweeping down from the Arctic (by the time you read this, we’ll know whether they were right!) – so it looks like the birds will really be needing our help with feeding from now on so stock up.
The other gift that the clement weather provided was a prolonged exit of summer birds on migration like the long-staying Garganey at the reservoir. Two Swallows were spotted at Knoll Beach in Dorset yesterday. Together with stormy weather bringing sea birds inland, all this has added up to a rich variety of birds passing through Derbyshire this autumn, especially for those observers who had not only forecast the weather patterns’ effects but who were hardy enough to venture out in the wind and rain to see what was about. It seems an age now since ‘Autumn Watch’ was on the television!
So what can we look forward to this winter in and around Carsington? Well, with 22 Great Northern Divers seen recently from a cliff-viewing spot in County Mayo, Ireland, it would be reasonable for us to hope a few more divers might come our way. A longer-shot might be White-billed Divers, two of which were seen in Shetland.
Reports posted from Scotland described sizeable flocks of Waxwing and, closer to home, five Whooper Swans were at Kedleston. I have noticed a larger amount of beech ‘mast’ covering the woodland floor near me at Holloway, which was welcomed by some Brambling feeding on it. Great Grey Shrike, recently spotted at Beeley, is no stranger to Carsington, so one might just turn up. Meanwhile, good-sized Starling flocks have been flying around Carsington. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they all assembled for another huge roost like they did at Kirk Ireton one year recently?
Also on their way are two eagerly-awaited books: The BTO’s Atlas of Breeding and Wintering Birds has been promised for this autumn, and The Birds of Derbyshire, published by DOS, is also about to appear on the bookshelves. If you haven’t ordered them, and still have a space on your Christmas present list, they can be obtained via those organisations’ websites. Certainly I’m looking forward to some happy reading when perhaps the winter weather is too awful to go out or the days simply get too short.
RESERVOIR’S RARE OLD OCTOBER!
Once the calm and warm summer finally moved aside, strong easterly and northerly winds arrived to play havoc with a few birds’ navigation systems – resulting in one of the most exciting Octobers on record at Carsington Water. Among more than a dozen site rarities that showed up that month were four species on the Derbyshire rarities list.
Only the sixth and seventh site records of Gannet were logged when young birds turned up briefly on the 12th and 18th. The fourth appearance at Carsington of a Green-winged Teal was enjoyed by quite a few birders, since it stayed for nine days, and a visit from a Grey Phalarope – viewable from Sheepwash and Lane End hides on the 19th – was only the sixth record for Carsington. Meanwhile, two Great Skuas (aka Bonxies) wheeled in for 20 minutes on the 11th, followed two days later by another that stayed around for two hours before flying off to the north-east.
As well as those county rarities, a Whooper Swan was seen on the 13th and 19th, a Brent Goose popped in on the 1st, a Little Egret stuck around three days from the 6th, a drake Common Scoter was viewed from Sheepwash on the 12th, while the following day six Red-breasted Mergansers could be seen from the same vantage point.
Other unusual visitors to site included a Garganey that had arrived on 16 September and stayed six weeks, and during October two Rock Pipits, a male Stonechat and two Crossbills were also recorded.
For once, this frenetic period of activity perhaps rather overshadowed the return of our winter favourite – the Great Northern Diver, which dropped in on 9 November and looks set to stay a while once again.
Since the last newsletter we’ve seen summer birds depart, replaced by some winter arrivals. The last Sand Martins were recorded on 19 September, two days before the final Wheatear on site, while it was more than a month later than a solitary Swallow flew through. The latest ever Arctic Tern at Carsington, a juvenile, was seen on 20 October.
While the last Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were logged over five days in early September, as many as 17 Chiffchaffs were still around on 11 September. Three Chiffchaffs were noted on 21 October, and nine days later a Blackcap was seen, so they seem likely to be overwintering birds.
Arrivals included Fieldfares and Redwings (63 and 465, respectively, were recorded on 20 October), and Siskin and Lesser Redpoll have been noted, as was a Brambling on 1 November. Meanwhile, Starling have been increasing in numbers with as many as 400 seen in a single flock.
September’s wader passage was good, with 15 species noted, including Curlew Sandpiper, Little Ringed and Grey Plovers, both Godwits, Ruff and flocks of up to 300 Lapwings. A Jack Snipe was spotted on 22 November.
Wildfowl numbers spiked as usual in the autumn with 1,184 being the highest count of Coot so far, along with up to 462 Teal, 448 Tufted Ducks, 324 Wigeon and 255 Pochard, and smaller numbers of Goosander, Pintail, Scaup and Shoveler. A Red-crested Pochard was in residence for two weeks in September, and both Great-crested (after a good breeding season) and Little Grebes were around in reasonable numbers.
The gull roost incorporated as many as 4,000 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and at various times has included two Kittiwakes, plus Little Gulls both in September and October. Perhaps less welcome is the return of ‘Brutus’, our cannibalistic Yellow-legged Gull who ate a young Black-headed Gull in front of an audience. We’re hoping those Little Grebes keep their heads down this year!
An Osprey passing through in early September topped the raptor chart, though two Hobbys heading south on 13 September and Peregrines logged both in September and November were also good sightings. Sparrowhawks were a fairly regular sight, including on consecutive days in mid November.
BIRD OF THE ISSUE: GREY PHALAROPE
Grey Phalaropes breed in the Arctic and spend much of their lives when not breeding well out to sea, feeding, on marine plankton – so when we see them they are most likely to have been blown off course by a storm. In North America they are known as ‘Red’ Phalaropes because of their vibrant crimson-red breeding plumage.
Only around 200 are seen in the UK each year, usually between October and January, mostly around the coast, so to have had one at Carsington this autumn is something of a prize. ‘Our’ bird was in non-breeding plumage – a quite distinctive grey and white. They tend to be quite tame and approachable, which is a distinct advantage for the bird-watcher who may not get many chances to view Phalaropes.
On their breeding grounds, Phalaropes feed on insects and aquatic animals and, interestingly, in this species, like all Phalaropes, the breeding roles are reversed. Females are larger and more brightly coloured, they pursue the males, compete for nesting territory and will aggressively defend their nests and mates – and, once the eggs are laid, they leave the incubation and raising of the young to the males.
BIRDING ON THE MOVE …
As we batten down the hatches for winter, it’s refreshing to look back at some of our members’ experiences on holiday. Here are two accounts of the rich (and sometimes baffling) bird-life found in farther-flung locations…
BORNEO – A WILDLIFE HAVEN
Malaysia emerged top of the pile when my wife and I decided to go ‘somewhere a bit different’ for our 35th wedding anniversary – and through our excellent travel company, Selective Asia, I was able to make sure the itinerary included Sabah, one of the two Malaysian provinces on the island of Borneo, noted for its wildlife, most particularly as one of the last refuges of the iconic Orang-Utan.
We also took in three locations on mainland Malaysia, including Kuala Lumpur, and each boosted my growing bird list, but there can be no doubt that our first destination, Borneo, was the main highlight. Magical is an overused adjective, but the view from our balcony at Borneo Rainforest Lodge – overlooking a garden, meadow and river, with the jungle’s living tapestry as a backdrop – was, well, quite simply magical.
I’d pored over field guides and trip reports before setting off, in an attempt to research which birds I might see, but as well as species, there were families I’d never heard of, such as sibias, minlas, trogons and fulvettas, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Furthermore, bird-watching somewhere so totally alien demands different techniques, since virtually all birds spotted were new to me!
So, after my trusty bins, the most important tool was a notebook in which I scribbled each bird’s distinctive features before dashing back to my room at the end of each session to pore over the field guide and see if I could work out what I’d just seen! Guides in two locations were a great help, and without them I may not have managed the 118-strong total of my final list.
The most awesome bird of the trip was almost certainly the Rhinoceros Hornbill, which is four feet long and competes with the cicadas as the noisiest thing in the jungle. I saw four hornbill species in all, including at Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge a pair of ‘Oriental Pieds’ that evidently roosted in the same tree every night.
Among several raptors, the White-bellied Sea Eagle was probably the most impressive, while for stunning colours the Black-naped Orioles that patrolled a city-centre park in Kuala Lumpur were hard to beat, though the electric blue Large Niltava ran them close, each Kingfisher on view was a riot of colour, and the Whiskered Treeswift’s markings were exquisite.
Bulbuls and Drongos were lively, the Black-thighed Falconet (a sparrow-sized raptor!) was delightful, and species with unlikely names like Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler , Silver-eared Mesia and Black-throated Wren Babbler have now made it onto my ‘life list’.
A few acquaintances from previous Asian trips popped up again, including the Oriental Darter, Spotted Dove, Brahminy Kite and Large-billed Crow, and the ubiquitous Mynas were everywhere. Even more familiar were the small handful of birds I also see in the UK – like Grey Wagtails, Common Sandpipers and Tree Sparrows, which seemed to have displaced their ‘House’ cousins as the most regularly seen ‘town’ bird.
But it wasn’t all about birds and Orangs: Borneo boasted other exciting primates – such as gibbons, macaques, langurs and the odd-looking proboscis monkey. Their haunting calls – along with the immense din generated by cicadas at dusk – brought the jungle alive.
Then there were reptiles and insects, including hand-sized butterflies sipping nectar. We also saw flying squirrels and a slow loris during a night drive, and several monitor lizards, one of which lumbered across a golf course I’d decided to investigate.
And if I had to choose a single spellbinding moment it didn’t actually involve a bird. It came when I stealthily mounted a canopy walk for a spot of quiet bird-watching; I’d gone only a few paces when, looking to my right, I spotted a mother and baby Orang-Utan relaxing in a tree top not 30 yards from me. Doing as I’d been told by our guide, I switched off my camera’s flash and, in those valuable few seconds, the orange beasts had silently slipped out of sight. No picture – but a magic memory!
A CRANE-FEST IN HUNGARY
Our Webmaster Richard Pittam’s love of birding and photographing birds was rewarded during a trip to Hungary in September, which he’d organised through regional specialists, Saker Tours.
The quest for good photographs meant each of his five days in Hungary saw Richard ensconced in a hide – two days in Crane hides, two at a passerine drinking pool and another at a Pygmy Cormorant hide. Though birds were his main target, other wildlife gave him some good opportunities, including Roe Deer and a number of Red Squirrels that were closer to black than red!
Common Cranes turned up each time they were expected, and Richard managed to get some fine shots of these impressive birds. Other water birds that posed nicely for Richard’s unseen lens were Great White Egret, Water Rail, Little Crake (“a tick”, adds Richard), Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank, with Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier, Reed Warbler and Hobby also showing up in their natural habitat.
While a pair of Sparrowhawks were also willing models at the drinking pool, they were also a pest as they tended to scare away some of the smaller birds Richard hoped to capture on film. Nevertheless, he saw Greater, Lesser and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, and a pair of Hawfinches, one of which when startled flew right into the window of the hide. With that sturdy beak, it was a surprise the glass didn’t break!
A lot of the good birds were seen during his day in the cormorant hide, when Pygmy Cormorant duly arrived, along with Coot, a number of ducks – and those reliable cranes once again. His first day in the crane hide also produced some good non-water species, including Turtle Dove, Hooded Crow and Red-backed Shrike.
To read Richard’s own words on this trip – and to view some of Richard’s brilliant shots in Hungary go to http://www.richardpittam.com/wildaperture/blog/?p=2725
TREES AND TATTOOS ON TALKS AGENDA
Turkey, Morocco and the fate of our own British woodlands were the topics on the agenda during our talks over the past three months.
Noted photographer and regular Carsington guest speaker Paul Hobson talked eloquently and passionately about what is happening to the woodland on our own doorsteps. As with most habitats there was bad as well as good news, and his photos spoke volumes on their own. His main focus was birds, but he also higlighted mammals, insects – particularly moths and butterflies – and funghi, describing how important each was to the long-term future of woodland habitats.
Chris Ward took us to Morocco – which contains a variety of landscape that would surprise most of us, from snow-capped peaks to the arid fringes of the Sahara Desert. His brilliant photographs would do nothing but encourage anyone contemplating a trip to north Africa, and Chris painstakingly described where to go and what to see in the best habitats.
Perhaps the most unusual talk came from Tristan Reid – aka The Inked Naturalist – who was on a two-pronged mission: firstly he showed us some of the brilliant birdlife found off the main tourist trails in Turkey … and secondly he told us about his extreme ventures in support of a local conservation organisation that is concerned about the damage to globally-important biodiversity sites that will result from the Turkish government selling off its waterways to private sector companies.
In an attempt to raise awareness of this issue – and funds – he has already had his arms and torso tattooed with 24 of his favourite ‘local’ birds, and next year he plans to begin a 4,000-kilometre walk from west to east across Turkey to celebrate the country’s wondrous wildlife. Needless to say his fee went straight into the charity pot.
BUTTERFLIES – THE FINAL SCORE
Last issue we said what a fine year it was turning out to be for butterflies. Well, the mild and warm conditions ensured that this continued throughout the late summer in much the same vein, and on the two formally-prescribed Carsington ‘transects’ alone more than 1,150 butterflies were recorded, representing an increase of around 250 per cent on last year’s grand total.
Around the Shiningford transect, the 758 butterflies seen was the second highest transect aggregate since Carsington records began in 1994, and more than tripled last year’s total. Eighteen species were identified, including a site ‘first’ in the shape of the delightful Dark-Green Fritillary.
Sheepwash transect registered 399 butterflies, which though more modest was still an increase of 66 per cent over 2013. Overall 26 species – roughly half those likely to be seen in the UK – have now been recorded at Carsington Water. And if this year’s trend continues, it’s quite possible a couple more new species might be recorded in the next year or two.
Our winter programme of illustrated talks is now under way, and we’ve had some real variety already (see report above). Next it’s our Christmas party, with our AGM scheduled for January. As the newsletter went out, we’d still to finalise speakers for our February and March meetings. If you can get along to any of the forthcoming dates, remember we usually begin meetings at 7.30pm (but note AGM begins at 7pm) and it’s £2 for members and £2.50 for non-members.
17 December 2013 – Food and drink at the Bird Club’s Xmas party, including a look at Borneo’s wonderful wildlife by Gary Atkins – Henmore Room 7.30pm
21 January 2014 – Annual General Meeting, followed by Ornithological Fraud by Peter Gibbon –Henmore Room 7pm
The regular Severn Trent Water events – which will continue into 2014 – are listed below, and on 14 December there is also an RSPB optics demonstration day, when people contemplating buying binoculars and telescopes can try them out for size. And remember, some events need booking, so it's always worth checking with the Visitor Centre on 01629 540696 before going along.
First Sunday – Birdwatching for beginners (enjoy a gentle two-hour walk led by experienced STW volunteer ranger David Bennett – Visitor Centre 10am-noon each month
Tues/Sundays – Spotting wildlife (STW volunteers man the Wildlife Centre) – 10.30am-3.30pm
First Tuesday each month – ‘Nature tots’ – a series of learning events for youngsters run by the DWT/SWT Partnership (contact 01773 881188 for places) – 10-11.30am
Last Saturday each month – Sheepwash Spinners (learn about traditional wool spinning with demonstrations, from fleece to gifts to garments) – Visitor Centre 11am-3pm.
KNOW YOUR COMMITTEE – Here are the club officials and their contact details ……