Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Sandpiper on a Tightrope

As I was back in Warwickshire for the weekend the white-rumped sandpiper at Drayton Basset Pits (nice to see the old name being used on Birdguides) proved too much to resisit.  Time was short, I had to drive back to Surrey later, so it was going to be a classic twitch – arrive, see bird, go home!  I can hear them booing now from the stalls but I don’t care.
I timed myself walking from the car park to Fisher’s Mill Bridge, 7 minutes, better than I thought and very pleasing because the bird of course was apparently on the North Pits.  Typical, not on Fisher’s Mill Pool, all nice and detoxified by the RSPB, no it was on the filthy old north pits, poking around in the dirty sludge.  Still, I got a bustle on and arrived at a gaggle of twitchers 8 minutes later.  A quarter of an hour from car park to north pits, surely a record!
My pleasure was short-lived when I learned that it had not been seen for an hour.  I had it on good authority too, John Harris told me “It was feeding just here, but I turned up an hour ago and its not been seen since”.  I reminded myself for the second time in a week that ‘correlation does not imply causality’, and thanked John for the info.  Some other birders were adamant it had gone out of sight behind some long mounds and would emerge ‘eventually’.  Mindful of my impending long drive I did not want to wait, and decided to somehow make my way round to the other side of those mounds.
Such a move is fraught with danger of course, a tightrope walk along the line between genius and idiot.  If you relocate the bird, and a place where people can view it from, you are the hero genius; startle the bird so it disappears into the sky and you are a blithering idiot and may be pushed in or burnt at the stake, depending on the level of rarity you just flushed.
Aware that I was being observed I put on a peerless display of fieldcraft, every tuft of grass was potential cover.  I dropped into the undergrowth and disappeared like a Ghurkha, emerging hundreds of yards further on.  I came up behind a willow, and after a brief scan found myself looking at only the third white-rumped sandpiper I had ever seen.  It was on its own and feeding busily away on goodness knows what in the murky water.  I enjoyed some good views, took a pointless mobile phone ‘record’  photo, then dropped back down among the phragmites to begin my return.  I came up again among the assembled twitchers and gave them the news.  I accepted the plaudits, gave them directions and watched them go off to see it too.
I was in good spirits walking back, which were raised further by the presence of a long-tailed duck on one of the pools, the first of the winter.  Back at the car I realised the whole episode had been executed in an hour and a half, a master-twitch!  :D
Quite possibly the worst photo of a white-rumped sandpiper ever!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Easy on the Ivy

There may be many evils in the universe, greed, sloth, Darth Vader, etc.  Now a letter in the Daily Telegraph would have us believe there is another far greater – ivy!  Read on:  “SirApart from the small number of property owners who have eradicated this plague, a look at the countryside reveals that trees are being strangled by ivy.  It is now spreading horizontally across verges, woodland, and wasteland.  Something must be done about it”.
Wow, but before we launch our slash and burn assault let us have a glance at the case for the defence.  Ivy does not cause trees to die.  It is a non-parasitic climber, taking no nutrients from any trees it uses as support.  If it needed to take nutrients from what supported it then clearly it could not grow up walls.  The adhesive hairs on its stems are for grip only, and while they may scour masonry they do not harm tree bark in any way.
Ivy has its own roots and leaves, photosynthesising food and taking up water itself.  Its roots are not deep and hardly compete with its host tree more than any other plants in the vicinity.  Its leaves are along branches and trunks, grabbing what sunlight passes through gaps in the tree’s crown, it certainly does not shade sunlight from the tree.  Indeed it is not in its interest to out-compete and ‘strangle’ its supporting tree to death, otherwise it would be brought down with it itself.
It may come as a shock to the letter’s writer but trees do die, and maybe the sight of living ivy still clinging to a dead tree may suggest a connection.  It is well to recall the adage ‘correlation does not imply causality’, for it is particularly poignant here. 
Ivy also has great ecological significance as one of nature's larders and dormitories.  It flowers and produces nectar late in the year when other sources are scarce, a blessing for many insects.  Its berries remain through to February and are a vital source of winter food for birds.  Being evergreen it is also a valuable year-round home and roost for a whole range of creatures from invertebrates to mammals. 
It may often look untidy, it may sometimes be ‘framed’ when its support tree dies, but far from ‘doing something about it’ it would be better if we left it alone and just enjoyed the wildlife that it sustains.
Ivy growing up a telegraph pole (which was once a Scot's Pine but definitely not killed by the ivy!)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Boris, Cliffe, and the Birds

I had the chance to visit Cliffe Pools this week, the reserve at the centre of the strange plan to build an airport in the Thames Estuary in the early ‘noughties’.  That plan was rejected in 2003 on the grounds of the “...significant impacts on wildlife…” that it would wreak.  Now of course a proposed Thames Estuary airport is in the news again, a little further along the north Kent coast at Grain, but as close as makes no difference to migrating and feeding birds.
The idea’s great champion, without whom the idea would surely wither on the vine, is Boris Johnson.  On March 13th of this year I wrote to Mr Johnson, pointing out a glaring inconsistency which I hoped he could explain:

Dear Mr Johnson,
I wonder if you could clarify a puzzling conundrum for me. This week you (reportedly) stated that a third runway at Heathrow, "would be an environmental disaster" and "It will not be built as long as I am Mayor of London.We can all appreciate the economic arguments for increasing airport capacity, but your solution is to build a Thames Hub airport in the Thames Estuary.  Now the previous idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary at Cliffe was rejected in 2003 due to the "significant impacts on wildlife".   In January of this year the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced the creation of 12 national 'Nature Improvement Areas'. These will create nature reserves, restore habitats, and bring extra protection for some of Britain's most important sites for wildlife. One of these 12 sites is the Thames Marshes, covering all of the land where the Thames Hub airport would go.  In the light of this could you please explain how this could be any less of an 'environmental disaster'.

I did get a standard response from a lackey saying that Boris was very busy but was considering his reply.  Well six months is long enough and I think I will prompt the Right Honourable Mayor to honour his promise of a reply!
Visiting Cliffe it was sobering to see what might have been lost, acres of lagoons, mudflats, scrapes, and scrubland, a huge larder for birds like their own giant Tesco!  Numbers of wintering shoveler were beginning to build up, and a couple of early goldeneye were also already residing on the pools.  A large mixed flock of lapwings and golden plover was a great sight to see, something I used to take for granted.  Then a swathe of black-tailed godwits processed around one of the lagoons, feeding in a relentless sweeping pattern, each seemingly concerned that the birds around it might be getting more worms than it was!  They followed and jostled each other in an endless circuit of feeding.
On the way back in a huge flock of passerines came in from the direction of the Thames.  It was about 4 o’clock and I hoped it was starlings and that I would be in for a treat as they swirled around the darkening sky.  They did not seem to be flying like starlings though, the jizz was all wrong!  Indeed as they streamed overhead I could see and hear that they were fieldfares, around 300 plus a quick count told me.  They invaded the shrubs and assaulted the berry bushes, presumably a tad puckish after their flight from Scandinavia.  I imagine they too were very glad that the bushes were still there and had not been concreted over for a runway.  If only Boris was a birdwatcher, we and the fieldfares could rest easy!
Cliffe Pools - lagoons, scrapes, bushes and the estuary in the background.  What a great place for an airport!