Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Birkenhead Docks: The Urban Misconception by Elliot Montieth

In the heart of one of Wirral & Cheshire’s most urbanised districts lays an oasis amongst a concrete jungle, where the misconception that nature can't thrive in an urban environment is no more.
Common Tern by Elliot Montieth
Common Tern by Elliot Montieth
As youngsters we were taken to and from nature reserves witnessing the very best of Mother Nature, believing that it was only there, at nature reserves, that we could continue to witness the greatest wildlife. We were brought up believing that the only places where we could still observe the finest of our British wildlife through these dark times was to visit sites which have some form of protection: Ramsar sites, SSSIs, SPAs and so on. But amongst the ruins of the once almighty Birkenhead Docks, the misconception of nature is revealed to all.

Opened in 1860 Birkenhead Docks had one of the mightiest dock complexes in the UK, but as the docks reached their peak they collapsed into a big black hole of decline. Unwanted and unloved, the dock’s condition deteriorated to the point that during the 1960’s the docks were deemed toxic, a biological hazard, a site never to be reclaimed by nature. But in 1985 the government backed a 25 year plan to clean up the entire Mersey River system. After waiting for over a century, nature was given the chance it had been waiting so long for. Birkenhead Docks was transformed from a toxic wasteland into an oasis teeming with such a diverse array of bird life that it could easily take on any nature reserve.
Grey Phalarope by Elliot Montieth
Grey Phalarope by Elliot Montieth

To date over 120 species have been recorded in and around the dock complex ranging from the expected to the unexpected: Great Crested Grebe, Great Northern Diver, Black Tern, Great Skua, Shag, Kingfisher, Merlin, Rock Pipit, Grey Phalarope, Brambling, Scaup, Common Sandpiper, Leach’s Storm Petrel, Mediterranean Gull and Common Scoter. The dock has quite possibly the most formidable bird list of any urban site.

From what the docks once were, the transformation they've undergone is simply astonishing. From a toxic wasteland to a site which holds Wirral & Cheshire’s largest Tern colony - 15 pairs of Common Tern, and Wirral’s largest inland wintering flock of Great Crested Grebe, which can include as many as 60 individuals. Birkenhead Docks also contains a wide variety of water birds which need very clean water with an endless supply of food; Kingfisher, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Grey Wagtail, Common Tern and Great crested Grebe are all here because the docks provide such habitat.

From all of this information you’re right in thinking that Birkenhead Docks must be a well watched site regularly visited by local birders, but that’s far from the truth. The docks did have their heyday, when birders and twitchers from across the county would visit. They came mainly to see the “white-winged gulls” which would arrive annually along with Yellow legged Gulls to bathe in the dock’s life-giving waters after gorging themselves at a local rubbish dump, which has since been turned into a nature reserve. But all that was 20-30 years ago, since then the docks have only been watched by just one birder, Sam Johnson, but in the early 2000’s Sam left the docks. Even when Sam watched over the docks for 30 years there would rarely be another birder visiting to see what was about.

I’d been doing WeBS at New Ferry and Port Sunlight River Park for a year when in October 2015, I was asked by Mersey WeBS Coordinator Dermot Smith to take up a new WeBS patch at Birkenhead Docks, a decision I’ll always be grateful for as it opened my eyes to the true meaning of urban nature.

Great Northern Diver by Elliot Montieth
Great Northern Diver by Elliot Montieth
After finishing off my first WeBS Count at the docks on a cool October afternoon, where the evening sky was awash with blacks, oranges and purples partnered with the sounds of the wintering Kingfisher, police cars, Black-headed Gulls and chavs filling the air, whilst watching the Great crested Grebes, I just fell totally in love with the docks; it was a life-changing moment. From that moment onwards I took the decision to take up the ruins of Birkenhead Docks as my patch and get more people to see what I saw in the docks that evening and to make it once again a hot spot for birders. The first step in doing so was to set up the Birkenhead Docks Birding Blog, the primary aim of which is to blow away the misconception of urban nature and to get local birders, photographers and twitchers visiting the docks once again and, if possible, for one of them to find a rarity! But for this to happen there had to be something which would grab the attention of the local birding community.

On the bone chilling morning of November 28th at 12:43 whilst out doing one of my regular 4hr circuits round the docks scanning the waters round the “Tern” raft I saw a supposed Cormorant which had an extremely white throat. I missed the bird dive as I could barely stay still due to the howling winds, but the words Great Northern Diver popped into my head. Could it be? A Great Northern Diver on my patch? A Great Northern Diver in Birkenhead Docks? A county rarity! The bird then resurfaced right in front of me and my god there it was, one of the most beautiful encounters of my life, an adult Great Northern Diver in partial summer plumage with a crab between its daggers, what a beast! After getting word out it didn’t take long for local birders, twitchers and photographers to start pouring into the docks to witness this northern wonder. This was the bird I’d been waiting for to give the docks their reputation as a birding hotspot back. But better was yet to come.

Scaup by Allan Conlin
Scaup by Allan Conlin
Finding a bird which would get birders re-visiting the docks was one part, the next was getting visiting birders to find a rarity and on the 19th of January it happened. That afternoon I received a text from good mate and Wirral birding legend Allan Conlin saying that he had visited earlier that day and without optics had seen a Scaup species. I was over the moon that not only another birder, but a birder who I look up to had visited my patch and found what later turned out to be the site’s first ever “Greater” Scaup. This was more than I could have ever have dreamed of, a Scaup in Birkenhead Docks! Sounds like the stuff of legend. Then to finally hammer home Birkenhead Docks as a birding hot spot, on the 24th of January whilst paying the Scaup another visit with local birder and photographer Michael Davenport, I found yet another Great Northern Diver! I couldn’t believe it, the dock’s 3rd county rarity this winter! Birding doesn’t get more adrenaline-filled than this.

It was done, with the help of Allan Conlin, we’d manage to wipe the misconception away and get more and more members of the birding community to see the secrets of Birkenhead Docks and the beauty of urban birding.

Elliot Montieth, @Elliot_Montieth
Elliot's Birding Diaries

Monday, 15 February 2016

Get into nest boxes by Noah Walker

Nest box by Noah Walker
Nest box by Noah Walker
Last autumn I started making bird boxes for garden birds and raptors, in the hope that I could encourage more nests that I could record for BTO's Nest Record Scheme. If you’re a young birder like me, I would really recommend taking part in the Nest Record Scheme. It's a brilliant way to interact with nature, to learn more about birds and their nesting behavior and to help the BTO learn more about what is happening during the breeding season. By monitoring things like egg laying date, hatching success, brood size and successful fledglings, we can get really important information about what might be affecting bird populations. Also with temperatures rising causing mismatches between birds nesting and the abundance of food the scheme is crucial and can tell us what affect global warming may be having on birds nesting.

Having made nearly 100 passerine bird boxes and 5 raptor boxes I started putting them up in January. I started by putting up 20 in the nearest site on the top of Folly hill (a 2 minute cycle ride away). The main target species are Great Tits and Blue Tits, with a chance of Coal Tits and, if I'm really lucky, Nuthatches. For the Blue Tits and Great Tits I put the bird boxes in the normal sites on trees around 4m up with a bit of cover or foliage nearby. For the Coal Tits I tried to put them in denser coniferous areas with slightly more vegetation in front and higher up. There are also several Robin nest boxes that instead of encouraging Robins got a Spotted Flycatcher nesting in one last year, which will hopefully nest again this year.

Great Tit nest by Bob Coyle
Great Tit nest by Bob Coyle
The next site is a small area that I've been lightly managing and putting bird feeders up at. I've put 8 boxes there all for Blue Tits and Great Tits. I've also been placing them around my village for House Sparrows, which will be my main interest. There are several flocks of around 50 that move around 5 or 6 main areas of hedgerow that they're going in. To encourage them in, the boxes are in groups of at least 5.

Tawny Owl by John Black
Tawny Owl by John Black
The final site is the largest in Nuneham Courtney near Oxford where I'm putting 40, again for the same target species as the Folly. There are several types of habitat including coppice, arboretum plantation, oak and native woodland, coniferous wood and a Lime wood. I'm also putting up 4 Tawny Owl boxes, a Little Owl box and eventually a Barn Owl box. I really can't wait to see if they are used so I can monitor them for the Nest Record Scheme and maybe ask my ringing trainer to come round and ring.

Through the spring and summer I'll check the ones near me and in my village every weekend along with open nests, and the ones near Oxford every week to a fortnight. Every time I'll note the stage of the nests - whether it is being built, adults are incubating eggs or if there are young how well developed they are. Hopefully I can ask my Ringing trainer to come over to ring the Spotted Flycatchers and any interesting bird box nests like Nuthatches. Along with them there are the raptor boxes for the owls but also open nests of Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Red Kite and Kestrel to monitor and maybe ring.

It's National Nest Box Week this week so why not build or buy a box of your own to put up? The Nest Record Scheme have produced a "quick start guide" so download that and you'll be all set to start nest recording too!  

Noah Walker, @NoahWal01

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Coastal Life by Dan Rouse

Having lived near the coast all my life, I couldn’t imagine living more than a ten minute walk from the nearest estuary or beach. I’ve grown really fond of birds such as auks and seabirds, with my favourite group being waders. Having said that, the decline in certain wader species such as Curlew, Oystercatcher and Redshank means that I see less of them on my stretch of heaven in South Wales.
Oystercatcher ringing by Dan Rouse
Oystercatcher ringing
by Dan Rouse

I’ve just entered my second year in the “Patchwork Challenge” on my WWT Llanelli patch and have recently acquired a second patch called Morfa Bacas, on the Burry Inlet. Oystercatcher once thrived on this estuary in the 1950’s but a cull was authorised in the 1970’s and the population was reduced almost to extinction on the estuary. Since then, there has been a growth in the numbers and in the 1990’s a project was set up on the roosting areas to ring these bird and monitor the growth in the population. In October, I helped with a catch of 501 birds which was amazing. What was more amazing was to see how the numbers of Oystercatchers had grown - to a roosting flock of around six thousand birds on one stretch of beach! The data collected and analysed showed amazing results with some birds being ringed back when the scheme first started. I took a shine to one particular bird which was ringed on my birthday (1996) and we were lucky enough to catch another bird which was originally ringed in Sweden.

View from Morfa Bacas
View from Morfa Bacas by Dan Rouse
Last November, I was passed the baton and took up the role of WeBS counter for the Morfa Bacas sector of the estuary. I was thrilled to have been given this opportunity since this sector and the estuary itself has a special place in my heart. I will do anything that I possibly can to protect it and WeBS counting is a brilliant way of monitoring the bird species found here. Once a month I venture out to Morfa Bacas, usually at around 8 or 9am to get a consistent count going. Once parked, I walk up the cycle track until I see the estuary. On the site there are three brilliant vantage points through the trees and brambles (which provide excellent birds for my Patchwork Challenge score!). I peer onto the estuary in the hope of getting a decent count and spotting the usual suspects such as Goldeneye, Brent geese and Pintail all of which are featured species on the RAMSAR designation for this site! However, my November 2015 count featured 2 Great White Egrets! Now, these are not uncommon for the estuary but it was the first time I had seen them and the first time they were recorded on the WeBS count date.

Great Norther Diver by Dan Rouse
Great Norther Diver by Dan Rouse
WeBS is an extremely fun way to get to grips with an area and it does feel like you belong there. There is one main counter for each sector but more can take part in the count. I know that some groups do a group count for the sector and this is a brilliant way of encouraging younger people to one day take up the role of WeBS counter. It really helps you to get to grips with what’s common and uncommon for a site and know whether additional information needs to be given, such as filling out a rarity report for the County recorder.  These mentoring activities will mould young people into brilliant data collectors and improve their ID and knowledge dramatically. I would definitely encourage people to offer opportunities for young people to join them on their birding activities so we can learn how to do these things and one day return the favour by encouraging and helping others.

This year, the NEWS surveys has been running and is a perfect first stepping stone to start on. I took
on five sectors including two priority sectors at Rhossili, a place famous for its tourism and beauty. My counts were rather low as we’ve had some dreadful weather for January and I got blown to bits as well as struggling with a cold! A nice Great Northern Diver is always good to see, but I will definitely be returning again to carry out additional counts on a day where there will be more than a couple of species of birds. These are another brilliant group count and a chance to explore other areas that you don’t visit every month. I can’t say that I will apply for the same NEWS sectors as I had counted this year but I will definitely be continuing my counts on the Swansea and Carmarthenshire coast line. Also, there is an open invitation for anyone visiting Swansea/Carmarthenshire area to come on a count session with me!

Dan Rouse, @DanERouse

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Winter on the Blyth Estuary, by James Common

To me, my local patch local is the centrepiece of the birding world, a microcosm of the wider countryside where I can enjoy the thrills, spills, trials and tribulations of birding without straying too far from my front door. Patching is an incredibly rewarding affair, both exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure but wholly enjoyable for this very reason. On patch I can watch the area's fauna change throughout the seasons, follow the breeding attempts of various species and much, much more. My patch in particular holds a special place in my heart as it is in fact the site on which I was raised, so to speak. This is the site on which I first discovered my love of birding and the site on which I cut my teeth as an amateur naturalist. Above all else however it is a site that, despite periods of prolonged absence, welcomes me back time and time again and continues to both surprise and delight year in, year out. On this subject, I am of course referring to the Blyth Estuary in Northumberland. A place I have been lucky enough to call home for many years and one that really comes into its own during the winter season.

True to the nature of the site, during winter most of my wanderings focus on the Blyth estuary itself. Here waders gather in force, putting on a fine show throughout the season with Dunlin and Redshank by far the most numerous. The former whirling and wheeling in a spectacle reminiscent of southern Knot gatherings though often in the absence of any Knot. Indeed, a count of five Knot is actually rather good by my standards here. Alongside these; smaller accumulations of Turnstone, Curlew, Lapwing and Golden Plover never fail to delight, as do some of the site's less abundant leggy offerings. Among these, Black and Bar-Tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and the odd Purple Sandpiper. The large gatherings of waders here clearly have the potential to turn up something altogether more interesting, though to date, the best I have managed comprises a lone Spotted Redshank. Tales of a wintering Terek Sandpiper before my time only fuel my hope of one day unearthing something remarkable here. We shall see.

Great Northern Diver by James Common
Great Northern Diver by James Common
The Blyth estuary and adjacent harbour also attract their fair share of wildfowl species. Of course Mallard, Teal, Shelduck and Gadwall are commonplace here and often joined by obliging flocks of Goldeneye, Red-Breasted Merganser and Eider. The characteristic "awoooh" of the latter the soundtrack to many a winter walk. These species are occasionally joined however by some altogether more appealing species, particularly after a good bout of stormy weather. Winter usually finds at least one Great Northern Diver residing on the Blyth, while Red-throated Diver have, to date, proven similarly annual. Another local chap did recently photograph a Black-throated Diver in the harbour too, though commitments elsewhere meant that I failed to catch up with the bird. Blast! I did however manage one on the sea a few weeks later. Velvet Scoter are likewise fairly regular visitors to Blyth. Indeed, the back-end of 2015 proved particularly good for this species with numerous birds on the sea and a particularly showy first-winter drake taking up residence on the estuary itself, much to my delight. These are definitely one of my favourite birds. Elsewhere here Guillemot and Shag regularly crop up in winter, as do Long-Tailed Duck while only the other day I was lucky enough to catch up with a Glaucous Gull cruising over the estuary in typical, Pteranodon-esque style. Truly, you never know what you will find during winter on the Blyth.

While discussing seabirds I owe it to the patch to briefly mention my favoured seawatching position just north of the estuary. Many a cold, winter day has been spent here, often for little or no reward – as is the nature of seawatching I guess. When things go right however winter seawatching here can be thoroughly rewarding. Little Auks are a regular winter feature with 28 recorded this season alone, often very close to shore and thankfully, rarely stranded on the beach as at many other locations. Additionally, seawatching here has allowed me to catch up with my only patch Little Gulls among other winter species such as migrating Whooper Swans and large flotillas of Common Scoter. There is also great potential for a number of species "in off" with notable records to date this winter including Woodcock, Brambling and various thrushes shooting in above the surf. I did say I would keep this bit brief however..

In winter, the hulking industrial estate mentioned previously is often bursting with berries courtesy of innumerable growths of Whitebeam and Spindle. These in turn provide a draw to many species, including good sized flocks of winter thrushes. There is however one winter visitor to the Blyth that warrants a specific mention. Waxwings! Three years on the trot now winter has provided sightings of these spectacular migrants with this year's birds showing particularly well, often down to a matter of feet. A real festive treat if ever there was one and surely one of the most sought after winter spectacles. I do believe my "peak count" for Waxwings at Blyth stands at a rather good 27 birds during the last eruption year. Lovely!

Bypassing talk of Peregrines, Grey Partridge and other patch based goodies (if only to keep the word count down) there is one other area of the patch that warrants a mention. Perhaps more so than others as this is indeed the first nature reserve I remember visiting in my youth. I am of course referring to Ha'Penny Woods Local Nature Reserve, a small piece of remnant woodland that fringes the River Blyth a little upstream of the sites previously mentioned. Here I find it possible to lose myself entirely, immersed in Red Squirrels, Otters and a host of avian treats. This site is great for a number of species from Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail to Tawny Owl though it is the wood's passerines that hold perhaps the most allure. Here Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker are commonplace, as are Bullfinch and Goldcrest, alongside of course a smorgasbord of familiar woodland denizens. Ha'Penny truly comes into its own in winter, visibility increased due to fallen leaves and has the potential to surprise year on year, Willow Tit being the latest in the series of grin -inducing moments.

Shore Lark by James Common
Shore Lark by James Common
In short, winter on my patch is a glorious affair. Continuing on from Amy Robjohn's wonderful post on the subject a few weeks ago, it really is worth grabbing yourself a patch. To me, patch birding is one of the most rewarding and incredibly enjoyable hobbies around and this year, spurred on by the popular Patchwork Challenge I aim to indulge myself further. 

James Common, (@CommonByNature)