Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Considering Volunteering? You should be

So as you may know I'm currently halfway through a stint as an "Assistant Ranger" at the National Trust for Scotland's utterly fantastic St. Abbs Head National Nature Reserve. I wanted to put together a post detailing the various perks of working in such a place with the ultimate aim of persuading more to people to head out and volunteer for positions such as mine! Yes my post is voluntary, but we all have to start somewhere and truth be told the job pretty much pays for itself with beautiful scenery, outstanding wildlife and for the birders among use stacks upon stacks of fantastic seabirds.

The first and perhaps the most obvious benefit of taking on such a role is the obvious boost to your CV, especially if, like me, you're seeking a career in conservation, ecology or some like minded pursuit. 
Secondly, we all like to do something good for others once in a while? Volunteering for organisations such as the RSPB, National Trust and so forth is a sure fire way to make yourself feel all warm inside by contributing towards what is undeniably a very importance cause! These almost certainly are the main reasons people choose the volunteer and for me at least were in the forefront of my mind when applying for my current role. 
If you need more motivation to undertake a spell as a volunteer warden, ranger or so forth then imagine having some of the most beautiful and pristine places in the country on your doorstep, all of the time. For me the real perk of the jobs here at St. Abbs is exploring the reserve after hours once the visitors, dogs, noisy children and grumpy photographers have left. The phrase "kid in a sweet shop" springs to mind. 
Having the reserve to myself means I see a lot of things other visitors simply miss with the mammals here at St. Abbs a perfect testament to this. Sure many visitors may catch the odd glimpse of a Rabbit, Hare of if they're lucky a Stoat or Weasel but I doubt many of them have been lucky enough to enjoy the more secretive residents of the site. I have! The last few months have provided innumerable encounters with Roe Deer, Badgers, Foxes, Stoats, Bats, Shrews and Hares often down to within a few metres at times. This goes without mentioning the excellent views of Grey Seal, Harbor Porpoise, Bottlenose Dolphin and Minke Whale obtained from my favourite seawatching rock! 

Of course it's not just mammals that show better outside of working hours and as every birder knows mornings and evenings often toss up the best views and in the case of St. Abbs at least the best birds. Some highlights of my placement so far include Green-Winged Teal, Red-Backed Shrike, Ring Ouzel, Mandarin (2), Spotted Flycatcher and lots of raptors! Even if you don't find the birds yourself you're pretty well situated to be "next on the scene" as soon as the news comes out. Sadly I was just two days late to see both the Collared Flycatcher and Subalpine Warbler that turned up here in May *weeps*!

It's not just the rarities and secretive mammals that make volunteering at St. Abbs the amazing affair that is it. Equally important is the chance to immerse yourself in surroundings totally different to those you're used to. For me the awe inspiring cliffs of St. Abbs and the 40,000+ sea birds that adorn them like jewelry are a gigantic change from the fields and inland water bodies I'm used to birding/lurking about on a regular basis. Not only do you find yourself learning a lot more, broadening your identification skills and having a genuinely amazing time you simply end up seeing things you're not at all used to! 

For me a few examples are Common Scoter and Manxie, both of which I'd seen before but never so close. Peregrine and Kestrel on the nest and in the case of the latter feeding chicks. Heck, even the Gulls have surprised me, obviously I've seen photos and videos of Great Black-Backs hunting other seabirds but before St. Abbs never had I witnessed the act myself. Until last week that is when I watched a monstrous individual drowning and consuming an almost fully grown Guillemot chick; one of the ones I'd been monitoring on my plots no less! I couldn't possibly recite all of the interesting and in some cases surprising events witnessed over the past months without turning this post into more of a bird based, excited rant than it already is but what I can say is that the past months (and hopefully those to come) have been some of the best of my life and have resulted in me not only learning a lot and bettering my chances of one day getting paid for this sort of thing but also meeting stacks of interesting and knowledgeable people, all of whom I'll no doubt keep in touch with come September when I leave. 

If you ever find yourself with the time to up sticks and do something spontaneous like undertake a long term residential placement or similar role, do it! You really won't regret and the organisations you donate your time to really are grateful to have you. Sure I'm not being paid here at St. Abbs but I do have free access to all National Trust reserves nationwide for a whole year and if that wasn't enough I'm heading out free of charge to the Isle of May tomorrow for a day of puffins, terns and other treats. Just another incentive to get out and start volunteering! Who knows where it will take you..

-James Common
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay.  The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now graduated.

Monday, 7 July 2014

PatchChat: Drew Lyness on Lemsford Springs, Hertfordshire

Birding for me has changed significantly in recent years. For the last year I have been spending the majority of my time birding in the wonderful county of Norfolk and we all know about its sparkling reputation among the birding community. However, this is an extremely significant upgrade from where I have spent the 8 years prior to my relocation to Norfolk. This is because I spent most of my teenage years birding Hertfordshire… yes, Hertfordshire. It is landlocked, in close proximity to London and a place where finding literally any wading bird other than Lapwing should be considered a noteworthy. I have had days where I have visited some of the counties most highly rated birding spots like Amwell Nature Reserve, Tring Reservoirs and Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits and still barely scraped 40 species in a day. 

Despite this, there are a few reserves in the county I have fallen in love with because of both their character and resident species. They helped me develop an ongoing passion for nature and none more so than Lemsford Springs. This tiny nature reserve managed by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust on the edge of Welwyn Garden City is a haven for nature and, in winter, this reserve has a special secret which provides salvation for much of the local wildlife. Lemsford Springs is a brilliant nature reserve which shows how historical human engineering and management can create fantastic home for nature. It is at the forefront for some incredible scientific research and still remains a fantastic example of how a nature reserve is capable of bringing the local community closer together. 

 This tiny reserve (just under 4 hectares) was once a fully functioning Watercress bed. It was one of the main suppliers of watercress to surrounding towns as well as London. Watercress used to be an important part of people’s diets because of its high vitamin C content and it was even claimed to be a cure for diseases such as scurvy. By making use of the area’s natural springs a wide shallow spring fed channel was created running alongside the River Lee, ideal for growing Watercress. From one side of the reserve, the springs release fresh water which slowly travels south through the channel and empties out into the river lea on the other side. In 1970 Lemsford watercress bed were bought by the Wildlife Trust for just £2500 from the cress farmer who owned the site. The site then became known as Lemsford Springs Nature Reserve. Two hides have been installed and the reserve is open to all, although it is kept under lock and key. To gain access the keys are kept in the porch of the wardens house which is next to the reserve entrance gate.

Since its purchase by the Wildlife Trust, Lemsford Springs has become home to all kinds of wildlife. Some of which has even attracted media attention as the reserve has featured on both the BBC’s One Show and also Countryfile. One of the reserves star attractions is the Green Sandpiper. This species is present most of the year on the reserve apart from when it goes off to breed in Scandinavia from April to June. It nests in trees using old thrush nests and the males stay to raise the young once they hatch. This species is attracted to Lemsford by the high concentrations of fresh water shrimp found in the watercress channel now known as the lagoon. Just one Sandpiper is capable of eating over 8000 shrimp per day and at peak times this fairly small lagoon plays host to up to 15 Green Sands. Most of the Green Sandpipers which visit the reserve are colour ringed on site which allows us to identify individuals and get to know their behaviour. Being a regular to the reserve spending literally hundreds of hours of my life watching Green Sandpipers I really got to know particular birds and became quite attached. Hearing that one has not returned from migration or was eaten by the local Sparrowhawk still upsets me a little.

At Lemsford Springs we are still getting to know more and more about our Sandpipers as we have become the first reserve to ever to attach geolocators to this species. We are trying to find out more about the breeding location of our British wintering Green Sands. These tiny tags record the hours of daylight and light intensity levels which can be processed to give a longitude and latitude allowing us to roughly locate where a bird has been. The issue with these tags (as well as being expensive) is the fact that once a tag has been put on a bird, in order to gain any data, the tag must be retrieved off the bird again. Elsewhere this would seem almost impossible however due to the colour ringing of the Sandpipers previously we have now know that many individual birds reliably return from their breeding grounds to spend the winter on the reserve. The only problem now is catching them. Believe me, they are smart. Some of our Green Sands have got used to being caught in the mist nets and now instead of flying along the lagoon (to be inevitably caught in the trap) they fly straight upwards to avoid them. The Wildlife Trust then turned to spring traps to catch them. So far we have retrieved the tag off just one bird using this method but what it revealed is truly spectacular. This bird flew from Lemsford Springs to its breeding grounds in Finland in just 48 hours without stopping! However this is just scratching the surface into what new research methods can reveal about this fairly secretive bird. These are exciting times. 

Green Sandpipers aside, Lemsford Springs has a lot more to offer. In the winter this reserve is one of the best birding spots in the county. The secret of the springs is that the water here never freezes no matter how cold it gets. During particularly cold winters most of the local lakes and pools freeze over and the ground becomes impenetrable to most birds making feeding very difficult. However at Lemsford the water keeps flowing as it remains at a constant temperature having recently risen from the underground springs. This means birds can still feed here. This refuge attracts both Common Snipe and Jack Snipe in some numbers, even a Bittern has been attracted to the tiny reed bed here to feed in the unfrozen water. This reed bed usually hosts a pair of Water Rail too. Little Egret are also regulars. The lagoon water is also very important for birds to drink when all other sources are frozen. Brambling, Siskin, Lesser and Mealy Redpoll can all be seen here in winter both on the feeders in the wardens garden and also coming down to the lagoon edges to drink. In history during very cold winters the lagoon has attracted all kinds of surprises, Dipper being one of them. This was an extremely good record for the county.

Summer is usually a quiet time for Lemsford Springs. A few resident birds remain to breed including Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails and Green Woodpeckers. Many common warbler species can also be seen here including Garden Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat. In some summers Mandarin Ducks nest here using some of the many owl boxes, providing a touch of the exotic. One of the best discoveries made by me and the warden in recent years was a Yellow Wagtail on the reserve. To most this is not an uncommon bird however this was the first recorded at Lemsford Springs for 50 years so not a bad find. After all, due to the reserve's location, it is not the sort of place to go looking for rarities. The rarest bird recorded here was probably Night Heron and this was many, many years before the reserve became my patch. I love Lemsford for its resident wildlife. Having read all this it may seem unsurprising to you all that my favourite bird is undoubtedly Green Sandpiper (the bird that I have probably put the most hours in watching during my teenage years). 

Apart from the birds, the reserve also has some other extraordinary wildlife including Britain’s only poisonous mammal, the Water Shrew. This amazing little shrimp killer is rarely seen but Lemsford Springs holds a healthy population. I have been lucky enough to have had a few encounters with them. Both Muntjac Deer and Fox are also regular mammal species on the reserve. A wide variety of invertebrates can also be found here in summer including many common butterflies such as Ringlet and Large Skipper.

However it is without question that the success of the wildlife is undoubtedly because of the fantastic management here by local volunteers and the warden. On the first Sunday of every month a work party is held (without fail, whatever the weather) where a group of keen and enthusiastic people turn up from the local area to help with the practical conservation needed to keep the area fantastic for wildlife. It is a huge job clearing the lagoon for the winter of all the watercress that has grown up during the summer, as well as coppicing all the crack willows growing around the lagoon edges, plus general reserve maintenance. The atmosphere during this work parties is brilliant as everyone just has fun doing whatever job needs doing and know what an amazing impact their work is having on the local wildlife. Without these people the wildlife simply wouldn’t be there which is what makes Lemsford Springs such an incredible and special reserve. To those volunteers I say thank you! Who knows, maybe one day another kid will visit the reserve, become inspired and develop a passion for wildlife like I have from this remarkable gem in the crown of Hertfordshire Birding. I continue to return to Lemsford as often as possible when I am back in the county.

Also, if you do come across any colour ringed Green Sandpipers on your local patch I would love to hear from you, after all there is a pretty strong chance they are from Lemsford Springs. Thank you!

-Drew Lyness
Drew has had a real passion for nature since he can remember and he is now 20 years old. His birding really developed when he moved to Hertfordshire in 2005 and discovered his patch Lemsford Springs. During 2013 he worked for RSPB in Dorset (Arne and Radipole) and later that year he moved to Norfolk. He is now experiencing the birding delights the county has to offer. He is a student at the University of East Anglia studying Ecology, at which he is now the president of the conservation and wildlife society. Birding aside, his other hobbies include squash and roller-skating. He also used to play the steel pans, "the world’s most awesome musical instrument", as part of a pan band.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The secret birding sites of Western Andalusia: Number 2 – La Janda

Southern Spain is not unknown to British birders, in fact its one of the most popular destinations in Europe for them. But hidden within striking distance of the world famous Donana is a series of sites that many in the UK may have never heard of. Here are my top 5 sites that may have escaped your attention when looking at a birding trip in Spain.

La Janda – A sleeping giant of Spanish birding
La Janda is not your average birding site, in fact it’s a miracle it still exists at all. Before the 1950’s La Janda was a 20km square inland lake and wetland, one of the greatest of its kind in Iberia.  However during the fascist regime of Francisco Franco (more on him at the end!) it was decided that one of two great areas were to be chosen to be turned into agricultural land, La Janda and Donana.  While Donana has gone on to receive international protection and is known to birders the world over, although now under massive threat (more on this at the end too!), La Janda was drained and turned into mile upon mile of rice paddies and other agriculture land. It was nothing short of an ecological disaster.

La Janda was once home to breeding Common Crane, the last breeding site in Andalusia, Demoiselle Crane, Marsh Owl, Osprey, herons, ibis, crakes, rails and duck species including threatened species like White-Headed Duck and Marbled Teal. While La Janda has suffered greatly over the last 60 years it still remains a fantastic birding site throughout most of the year, pointing to just how good it was before the actions of Franco. There is also the nearby area of Benalup which is also worth a mention as another superb area for birding.
There are several ways of tackling the La Janda area, the map below giving the route through the former lake and which roads connect to it. This article assumes a southern starting point.

The southern track area (Around 11km in length) is very dependent on water level. If it is dry then it can be quiet, other than larks and other passerines, but if the fields are flooded then a whole host of species can be present. One of the most obvious is the increasingly large flocks of Glossy Ibis, which have become a very strong breeder in the area in recent years. Waders, herons, egrets, Spoonbills and birds of prey (including rarities such as Long-Legged Buzzard, Pallid Harrier and Spanish Imperial Eagle) can all be seen here with numbers growing markedly when the rice paddies are flooded. The main canal on the north side of the main southern track is a great place to look for Purple Gallinule which cling precariously to the reeds by the canal. Behind the canal is a huge expanse of farmland where similar species as mentioned about can be seen throughout the year. It is also a great place to find the Bluethroats, Common Cranes, Hen Harriers, Short-Eared Owls and Merlins that winter in La Janda.

Fence lines close to the main track are a fantastic perch for Fan-tailed Warbler, Stonechat, Tawny Pipit, larks and sometimes Bee-Eater, Little Owl and small birds of prey such as Common Kestrel and Black-Winged Kite.
Further into La Janda is a 1.5km line of trees by the track. Despite being cut back in early 2014 these trees are home to a fantastic Cattle Egret colony. In the past this area was also a breeding site for all of the heron and egret species but other than the Cattle Egrets, and a couple of pairs of Glossy Ibis, the other species have all left.

The land rises and changes habitat as you approach the farm in the centre of the area. Species more familiar to UK birders can be found here but it is also a great place to find Spanish Imperial Eagle, Roller, Hoopoe and Rufous Bushchat. Beyond the farm is a flat, open area of woodland. Birds of prey are very evident here with Booted Eagle and Black Kite relatively easy to find. During the migration period a huge variety of birds use this area as a stopping point, spring 2014 saw a good number of Roller in this area.
The track drops down once again to grazing meadow and joins the long track which runs from Facinas to Benalup, a good area to find Little Bustard. At the t-junction of the two tracks is a small pool and sometimes an area holding water by the track itself. This can be a great place for Purple Gallinule at close range and the pool itself looks great for crakes and rails.

Turning left we come to the Northern section of La Janda (about 5km in length). This is generally dryer then the Southern section and the bird species found here reflects that. A small pool on the south side of the track can hold waders in early spring, with Black-Winged Stilt and Common Sandpiper the most common. The agricultural land here is a good place to see pipits, larks and wagtails but also more elusive birds such as Stone Curlew. The woods to the north also hold Sharpe’s Woodpecker (Iberian Green Woodpecker), which are often heard from the track while driving along.
The track continues until reaching the CA-212 which goes from Benalup to the A-381, just north of Los Barrios. By taking a left then immediate right you enter the Benalup area and leave La Janda.

Despite its destruction La Janda is still a fantastic birding site all year round. Unfortunately it seems the current Spanish government are too naïve and short-sighted to see the true potential of La Janda for ecotourism purposes so its protection and long term future are far from certain.

Also with Donana facing a disaster of its own in the near future (water drainage, new pipes for gas extraction off the coast, new buildings destroying coastal habitat etc. etc.) the 6 million birds that use it every year face a very bleak future, along with all wildlife in South Western Spain.
Soon it could be a very real scenario that two of the greatest wetland areas in South West Europe will be gone for good. Donana at its limit is about the size of London and La Janda would cover three quarters of the Isle of Wight, soon they may be all but a memory.

Example Species:
All Year
  • Cattle Egret, White Stork, Griffon Vulture, Little Bustard, Purple Swamphen, Black-Winged Stilt, Stone-Curlew, Eagle Owl, Calandra Lark, Thekla Lark, Fan-Tailed Warbler, Spotless Starling.
Breeding Season
  • Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Short-Toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Booted Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Collared Pratincole, Scops Owl, Red-Necked Nightjar, Bee-Eater, Hoopoe, Greater Short-Toed Lark, Red-Rumped Swallow, Tawny Pipit, Rufous Bush Chat, Great Reed Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Ortolan Bunting.
  • Garganey, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Black Stork, Honey Buzzard, Osprey, Roller, Wryneck, Lesser Short-Toed Lark, Bluethroat, Black-Eared Wheatear, warblers and finches.
  • Common Crane, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Black-Winged Kite, Short-Eared Owl, Merlin, Bluethroat, winter ducks
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 25 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, Wheatears, Reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.