Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Common Crane - Slimbridge Wetland Centre

Its hard to believe but its now been over three decades since the Common Crane made a return to the UK as a breeding bird. That in itself is impressive, but when you consider, it had been 400 years since these birds had last breed; you then begin to understand how utterly amazing and significant this is - In 1979 two Common Cranes stopped over on migration near Hickling Broad in Norfolk: and stayed! Two years later they successfully raised 1 young; so began the recolonization of the Common Crane in Norfolk. 30 years later there are nearly 20  breeding pairs, 2 pairs at Lakenheath Fen and another pair at an undisclosed site in Scotland. The Norfolk Crane's Story.

In 2010 the The Great Crane Project began; a five year program to re-establish these magnificent birds back into areas where they once thrived - The Somerset Levels Click on the link above for details including a fantastic 30 minute video telling the whole story. My own tale starts on the 20th April 2014 when I noticed a headline posted on facebook reading 'Common Cranes nesting at Slimbridge; if successful it will be the first crane to be hatched in the wild in the west country for 400 years!' On the 21st of April 2014 I was heading west on the M4 - destination Slimbridge!

Sir Peter Scott
This was my first visit to Slimbridge so after paying my entry fee I grabbed a map and made my way around some of the hides. There were 4 Common Crane seen from one hide, these were free flying individuals from the Somerset Levels, not clipped exotics. Other wild species included Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Lapwing, Common Sandpiper and Ruff + the expected duck species.


Hide - Slimbridge style!

Lesser Black-backed Gull

I eventually made my way to the Martin Smith Hide, the number one place to view these breeding celebrities. Luckily, the pair had chosen a nest site far enough away from the hide not to be disturbed, however, a sign does remind people to keep voices down. Here I met Derek, a volunteer with The Great Crane Project. Derek was kind enough to fill me in on the history of the pair we were observing.

Common Crane at nest Slimbridge 2014

Both birds were hatched in 2010 (April / May) and released onto the Somerset Levels in August 2010. They returned in 2013 to Slimbridge showing a connection as a pair; dancing, trumpeting together, pirouetting etc. In fact they did make a nest and lay eggs but their breeding attempt failed - bad weather is presumed to be the culprit. Derek also informed that there had been a few fatalities as expected. One individual was killed by a fox, another hit an overhead power cable, and yet another was missing. However, the overall survival rates are looking good.

During my time at the hide the female was on the nest and the male was at the back of the reed bed. At one point 4 other cranes circled around the site but didn't land. Previously some cranes had landed but had been attacked and forced to leave by both male and female. These attacks involved bill stabbing, kicking and wing slapping. For a species that is very social during most of the year, it certainly shows a low tolerance for company during breeding season. Before I departed the male made his way over to the nest where he took over incubation. The female remained next to the nest preening. I felt very privileged to witness a small part of what could be a very exciting time for not only the cranes but for all involved in this amazing project. I lived out in Canada for ten years; when I returned in 2011 Red Kites were flying over Woking football ground! Who would of believed that? So who's to say where we will see these giants one day?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dolgoch Hostel - Remote birding in Wales

Getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life for some might mean a 5 star hotel with Spa or a Mediterranean villa or even a quintessential Inn in a rural village..for us, it was one of the most remote hostels in Wales! This 17th century farmhouse called Dolgoch is owned by the Elenydd Wilderness Trust and is located in Tywi Valley within the Cambrian Mountains. Its solitary and peaceful situation create an atmosphere that transcends time and transports weary hostelers to a simpler place. The building itself is steeped in farming history and many of the original features are still present. However, if its mod cons, comfort and convenience you require; you will be in for a shock. 

The basics: There are 3 bedrooms; housing 21 guests, an open planned kitchen / lounge, 2 toilets and 2 shower cubicles. There is no electricity what so ever. So no, you can't plug in your computer, charge your phone or plug in a hair dryer. Lights in the downstairs common area, toilets and landing are solar operated and are put on sparingly. There is no fridge or freezer so think carefully what foods you bring. Heat is produced by a log fire which is lit in the evening. The showers during our stay are operated by boiling your own water, placing it in a bucket and immersing a small pump which subsequently pumps water to a shower head - basic but functional. The stove in the kitchen is gas operated + there are 2 other double burners which allow opportunity for multi-boiling when the hostel is at capacity. It is also recommended that water is boiled before drinking.

Voluntary wardens rotate on a weekly basis and are present at Dolgoch in there own quarters within the farmhouse. There is a variety of information available at the hostel but I would advice to do your homework first and definitely bring a map - OS Explorer 187. The nearest town is 9 miles away in Tregaron where there is a petrol station, grocery store, pubs, cafe and other amenities.

Our 4 day trip started with a 5:30 am departure from Woking in Surrey, putting us in Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales at about 10:30am. (En-route we pulled over at a rest-stop, a part of the Wye Valley Walk; where we got Willow Tit!) After a quick pit-stop in the town we headed up the coast to Borth where we started our coastal walk. The weather and scenery were perfect. Linnet, Rock Pipit and Goldfinch kept us company along the path while recently arrived Swallows cruised over the fields. Above us both Common Buzzard and Red Kite enjoyed the thermals and at the shoreline Oystercatcher made their presence known with their continual peeping contact calls. 17 species in total and a refreshing and panoramic start to our holiday.

On our way to the Dolgoch hostel (1 hour drive from Aberystwyth) we stopped in at Devil's Bridge for a little tourist ogling of the Three Bridges and waterfall in the Reidol Gorge. This world famous site even gets a mention in the words of William Wordsworth. After a refreshing drink at the Hafod Hotel we continued southeast via the town of Tregaron. This quaint Welsh town sits on the River Teifi (Afon Teifi) and is the last stop for supplies before the hostel. A forty minute drive through some amazing landscape put us at the hostel. 

Though I had done my homework I didn't 'really' understand the beauty of this place. Now I did. Breathtaking landscape, a farmhouse that oozed character and a bird feeder!

The following morning I spent some time outside soaking up the atmosphere and checking out the local birds. Willow Warbler, Redstart, Wren, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush and Robin were all singing from the hillside. Above the ridge Ravens croaked as they passed over and the drumming of Great Spotted Woodpecker echoed through the valley. The perfectly positioned bird feeder is located in the garden, viewable from the kitchen. Being the only feeding station in this part of the valley gave it a very loyal attendance - the majority being Chaffinch and Siskin. However, after a little observation, another finch sneaked in  - Lesser Redpoll

Other attendees included Great Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and raids by a posse of Jays...After a hearty breakfast and an injection of caffeine we headed out for our day : The Elan Valley

Red Kite, Common Buzzard and Raven were all in attendance enjoying what was to be a very warm spring day. The main focus for tourists in this area is the amazing dams built by the Victorians to supply water to Birmingham. We parked up at Craig Goch and took the trail along the Pennygarreg Reservoir to the next dam. At the base of the dam was woodland, comprising of coniferous trees, Willow, birch, alder and Sessile Oak. Birds of interest included Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Coal Tit and Common Sandpiper along the stream.

We finished our day with a pub meal in Rhayader before heading back to the hostel. 


The following day my wife stayed at the hostel; where she hiked the local hills while Nolan and I headed to the Cors Caron Nature Reserve. This raised bog is located just outside Tregaron and has a wheelchair accessible boardwalk and substantial hide. The reserve seemed very quiet with no wildfowl except Mallard and Canada Goose. Swallows and Sand Martins hawked insects above the scrape in front of the hide with Reed Bunting making an occasional appearance. There was Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Wren in the willow scrub, joined by Chaffinch, Siskin, Great Tit, Blue Tit and Lesser Redpoll in the trees. There were a few of star species including Stonechat and Kestrel on the reserve and across the road in the Sessile Oak - Pied Flycatcher, Redstart and the obligatory Red Kite watching from above. 

A fly-by look at The Strata Florida Abbey and a bonus bird: Goshawk floating above the adjoining hills sent us on our way back to the hostel. Another quick cuppa tea and catch up with Lori before I headed out on my own to The Gwenffrwd-Dinas RSPB Reserve. 

The location of this reserve has to be seen to be believed - absolutely breathtaking was my first impression. The Alder and Sessile Woodland seem almost fake, each tree with its own character and story. The second I entered this arena I new I was in a special place. There were Pied Flycatcher and Redstart calling everywhere. My earlier sightings had been at distance but here, the viewing was intimate. The Redstart were calling higher in the trees but the Pied Flycatchers were singing close to nest boxes, often changing perches but long enough for me to get a photo. Other species here include Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Marsh Tit, Whinchat and Yellowhammer to name a few. Both Redstart and the Pied Flycatcher had recently arrived back from Africa but were already staking claims on the nest boxes; ready to begin another breeding season. The following day we left the hostel and our little rural retreat and headed back to Surrey. I have learned over the years that some of my best adventures have not always been the most comfortable but they often remain the most memorable...this has been no exception. Wales always keeps me coming back for more...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Heathland Birds

As most of us know, or maybe, in my opinion, should I say; Heathland birding can be pretty dull. I have spent many hours plodding around this unique habitat and more often than not - its pretty un-birdy. A Stonechat off in the distance, maybe a glimpse of a skulking warbler and if your lucky, a churring Nightjar in the right month. I am painting a bad picture of course, but, as with anything, timing is key. Today my timing was perfect. In fact, it has been one of my most 'happiest' birding days that I can remember. No massive species list, 29 to be exact. And no mega rarities. Just killer looks at some very cool birds.

I'll try keep the waffle down and let the pictures do the talking, however, I should give you the basics. Ash Ranges is just outside of Pirbright in Surrey. Though this land is used by the military; when the red flags are down the public have access. Though I had heard of this place I had never actually birded it. It was on my friend, Dave Baker's recommendation that I was here today and I am very grateful for his advice. On arrival I had Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Coal Tit, Dunnock, Goldcrest and Robin before I got out of the car. On entering the heath, right on Que, as Dave said; a male REDSTART was singing. This species goes into my 'candy bird' category - bloody stonking birds! Got great looks at this individual and tallied 3 in total.

Before walking up the trail I picked up Tree Pipit, new species for the year.

About 15 minutes later I was finally getting good looks at a bird I have loved and admired since childhood: DARTFORD WARBLER. This notoriously skulky heathland specialty allowed me some fleeting views into its secretive world..'it can't get any better than this?'...I was wrong...

Further up the trail a few Linnets crossed my path along with a singing Woodlark!

At this point I was completely content and wished for nothing more. 20 minutes later a Cuckoo landed in a snag opposite me and began to call...

After ogling the recent African arrival I headed back to the car, picking up my first Swallow of the year.

To round things off, as if I hadn't been spoiled enough, I got got killer views of a male Stonechat.

Now that was a very good day...