Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Blackpill SSSI, Swansea

Having spent the weekend in Breacon Beacons with friends from France and sadly not being able to follow them onto Mid Wales it was nice to bump into a small patch of vegetated dunes on the edge of Swansea Bay at Blackpill.
Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum dominated dunes at Blackpill beach
Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum

Although designated as a SSSI due to its importance for hosting internationally important numbers of wading birds they were all way to far away to photograph due to the tide being out, so I stuck around the vegetated dunes to see which species I could find, unsurprisingly there was nothing of too much note but it was nice to see the Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum in flower.

The sea wall was largely covered in Sea Sandwort Honckenya peploides, a common coastal plant and plenty of Rock Samphire Crithmum maritimum. Once a highly prized foraged herb but now sadly out of fashion, probably due to its intense salty, parsley taste but I quite like it.

Sea Sandwort,Honckenya peploides
Where the Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria was most abundant, Sea Spurge Euphorbia paralias was often dotted around and close to the edge of the dunes the delicate pink flowers of Sea Rocket Cakile maritima was abundant.

Sea Rocket, Cakile maritima growing amoung the Marram, Ammophila arenaria
Canadian Fleabane, Conyza canadensis

The sea wall which runs along the entirety of the bay sadly cuts short the majority of the dune habitats which would normally be present and forms an unnatural climax vegetation. This was comprised of a number of non-native species including Canadian Fleabane, Conyza canadensis and Fennel Foeniculum vulgare, another herb I regularly seek out to forage due to its lovely aniseed taste. 

One native species could be seen among all the invaders the small Autumn Hawkbit Scorzoneroides autumnalis.

Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autumnalis

Down below the high tide mark were a few islands of vegetation, these were comprised of an endemic species which only originated in the 1870's in Southern Britain. 
Common Cordgrass Spartina anglica is an allotetraploid species derived from the hybrid Spartina × townsendii which came about due to the introduction of Smooth Cordgrass Spartina alterniflora, most likely in bilge water which then hybridised with the native Small Cordgrass Spartina maritima. 

Although at first it was seen as a key species for fighting coastal erosion it then went on to stabilise tidal mudflats, a key problem for wading birds however the species has since had a natural die back of unknown cause has reversed the spread.

An Island of Common Cordgrass, Spartina anglica

Friday, 2 June 2017

Skomer, Pembrokeshire

For a few years now, Bethan has been nagging me to take her to Skomer to see the Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica but when ever we've attempted to go either the weather hasn't played ball when we've tried or I've been tied up with work during the peak puffin season.

Middleholm and Skomer from Martin's Haven

Puffin Raft off Skomer
So with a couple of days off we went, before hand we stayed with a lovely couple (who we found on Airbnb) in . An early start at Martin's Haven and a long wait in the queue but we manage to make the first boat of the day and the weather was perfect.

It didn't take us long to spot the first puffin, as soon as we were near Middleholm we started to see birds busy bringing fish in to their chicks. By the time we'd reached Skomer rafts of hundreds of Puffins could be seen offshore, all waiting to come in. After bumping into two friends after landing, we wandered to the far side of the island past the old farm. The previous time I'd been to Skomer was early in the season when the Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta were at their peak, this time it was the Sea Mayweed Tripleurospermum maritimum which was at it's peak. It was everywhere and provided a wonderful backdrop to any photographs being taken.
Sea Mayweed, Tripleurospermum maritimum covered slopes

Sea Mayweed, Tripleurospermum maritimum

Young Rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus feeding in the Sea Mayweed 
After wandering around the North of the island and seeing the usual Seabirds we made our way towards the Wick. By far the best place to see breeding seabirds on the cliff ledges and the puffins which nest in the deep soil close to the path.

Rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus also burrow here and had obviously had been breeding judging by the number of young about. Some happily feeding next to visiting tourists, although it was the puffins they had come to see.

Puffin, Fratercula arctica coming into land on The Wick

Puffling looking out of its burrow
Puffins are always top of peoples lists, admittedly their striking colours and character makes them a joy to watch but I think people would think the same if they sat down and watched any species for an extended period of time. Skomer has around 10,000 pairs of puffins making this the largest population in the southern Britain. The Puffins around the Wick don't have much fear of people and are quite happy to wander across the path in front of people. Many with fish for their chicks, Some of which were taking their first tentative look at of life outside the burrow.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica

Although the puffins are what Skomer is known for its the birds that many visitors don't see which the island is more important for. With 310,000 pairs on Skomer and 40,000 more on its sister island Skokholm, around half the worlds population of Manx Shearwater, Puffinus puffinus can be found breeding here. Although this time I didn't see any. Whilst walking back to the quay, deep within a burrow we could hear the distinctive eerie call of a shearwater, a lovely end to a lovely day.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Four More Weeks, Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, Ontario

With the weather continually warming but it still seeming to rain a lot (eventually with some consequences), it was soon starting to feel a bit more like the spring I knew.

Blood moon rising over Lake Ontario

With this mixture of weather came the midges Chironomidae spp., bad news for us, these huge swarms  covered everything, it's almost like driving through rain when trying to get to town but its good news for the birds, high in fat these tiny insects allow the birds to rapidly put on weight, becoming little butterballs allowing them to continue their northerly migration, many back to the boreal forest which covers vast swaves of the northern landscape.

Blackburnian Warbler, Setophaga fusca one of the stars of the show
Day by Day the numbers of sparrows were now getting less and less, many of these species with only the local breeders being heard and seen by the end of the month but replacing the sparrows were what I had really come to see, the New World Wood-Warblers Setophaga spp. in Spring.

This really is a spectacle worth the travel, many of the species I had seen last fall, they were ugly in comparison to what they now looked like. Prime examples of this were Blackpoll Setophaga striata, Chestnut-Sided Setophaga pensylvanica and Blackburnian warblers Setophaga fusca, all of which looked amazingly different to their drab autumnal selves. Some species change very little, Orange-Crown Vermivora celata, Chestnut-Sided Setophaga pensylvanica (my favourite fall warbler) and Black-Throated Blue Warblers Setophaga caerulescens don't feel the need to change and look much as they do all year round.

A jewel, an adult male orange morph Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea

The most noticeable difference to the fall is the noise, no simple confusing chips now, the birds had found their voices and were belting out a cacophony of song. Confusing songs and whole new learning curve and eventually I managed to learn the most obvious and distinctive.

The Lighthouse, now with additional water
By mid-May the woods were a riot of sound, colour and smells. Birds of all colours had moved up from the south, Scarlet Tanagers shared trees with Baltimore Orioles, looking like last years left over Christmas decorations. Dormant seeds had sprouted into ephemeral spring flowers and Bursting buds bathed the forest floor in soft spring light but still the water levels on the lake kept rising.

In the end the water levels were the highest recorded on Lake Ontario for a 100 years, causing flooding in many low lying areas, the net lanes often had water running through them and the swamp was filled to the brim. A westerly breeze caused huge problems, the fisherman lost their dock, the cottage opposite lost several foot of shoreline and eventually the lighthouse became stranded and surround by water.

The change in flora was also noticeable, the Dutchman's Breeches and trout Lillies gave way to Woodland Phlox Phlox divaricata, which enjoyed the wet weather and formed a mauve carpet all through the woods. Canadian Columbine Aquilegia canadensis grew along the paths. One of my favourite flowers and a key nectar species for hummingbirds in the spring, A truly lovely species to find.

Canadian Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Eastern American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus americanus
More fauna was also becoming more noticeable, especially snakes which could often be seen basking on in the shrubs and on the paths. Northern Water Snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon had taken to basking in the dogwoods above the flooded pools around the harbour area. A Raccoon Procyon lotor was found sleeping in one of the larger trees on the 4th of May. Eastern American Toads Anaxyrus americanus americanus started showing up early in May and could be found occasionally for the rest of the month.

Male Golden-Winged Warbler, Vermivora chrysoptera
A number of notable species were caught, including many I wasn't really expecting to be extracting out the nets.

An Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus was caught on the 10th May, a male Golden-Winged Warbler Vermivora chrysoptera on the 11th and a female banded on the 23rd.

An Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus on the 15th, Mourning Warbler Geothlypis philadelphia on the 16th, Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus on the 20th after several days of two being present on the site.

Yellow-Breasted Chat, Icteria virens
A Yellow-Breasted Chat Icteria virens on the 21st, Hooded Warbler Setophaga citrina on the 22nd, Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius and finally an Olive-Sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi on the 26th. In the end a very busy month!

By far the most special was what most people would class a boring species, a corvid but not your ordinary crow. A week prior to being caught Dave had thought he had seen a Fish Crow Corvus ossifragus. Similar looking to the related American Crow, it has a distinct nasal call and is generally much less shy. He was right and a few days later it was confirmed. Now we had to catch it, eventually after a couple of days feeding on some stale crisps left by some children it was caught in a bow net. This is the first case of the species being banded in Canada and a species Dave had never banded, not a common occurrence in the slightest!

Fish Crow, Corvus ossifragus

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Day Out in the County, Sandbanks Provincial Park & Kaiser Crossroads, Prince Edward County, Ontario

With the afternoon off, Ketha had agreed to take me on the tour of the county and finally I could see Sandbanks, a well known Provincial Park on the north western end of the county and also visit a couple of the vineyards.
Sandbanks Provincial Park

False Solomon's Seal, Maianthemum stellata
With the temperatures soaring and the sky being largely cloudless we thought we couldn't have picked a better day. We weren't quite right as the the lake soon became shrouded in a thick fog. Sandbanks can be found on the edge of Lake Ontario, it became a park in the 70's  and contains world's largest freshwater sand bar and dune system. Historically the site was cleared for pasture in the mid-1850's with cattle predominately grazing the dune system, causing the dunes to become mobile and destabilised and burying everything in its path. efforts to stabilise them have been ongoing since 1911.

Another current problem was the lake...which was at its highest level in 100 years causing there to be no beach (although Ketha assured me there normally is). Off shore there were large flocks of Ring-Billed Gulls Larus delawarensis and a few Bonaparte's Gulls Chroicocephalus philadelphia but very little else. The dune system's flora consisted largely of American Beach Grass Ammophilla breviligulata which helps to stabilise the dune system, amongst the grass False Solomon's Seal Maianthemum stellata, an attractive plant with small star shaped flowers. Sand Cherry Prunus pumila was one of the few shrubs in flower and could be found along most of the shore. Close to the car park the invasive non-native Greater Celendine Chelidonium majus could be found.
Sand Cherry, Prunus pumila
After leaving Sandbanks and quickly visiting Black Prince and getting a bottle of Mary Jane's Magical Hemp Wine and visiting the cooper next door who had visited the observatory in the fall we made our way to Kaiser Crossroad, a well known local birding spot.

Although not much to look at, a series of maize fields with flooded depressions, its an amazing place for birds and seems to draw in large numbers of shorebirds, gulls and terns. A few days before the place was heaving with shorebirds but it was pretty quiet apart from large numbers of Ring-Billed Gulls and a few Caspian Terns Hydroprogne caspia but there was one wader present and it was a good one, a Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa, a good bird for the county and a lifer for me. It soon became very clear why there was very little about when a large female Peregrine came over doing a sorty, causing the godwit to lift giving me ever better views of all its distinguishing features.

Marbled Godwit, Limosa fedoa and two
Ring-Billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

All in all not a bad afternoon away from the Obs!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Mountain View & Point Petre Woods, Prince Edward County, Ontario

With the afternoon off and rain threatening to disrupt banding the following day I took the opportunity to go and visit a couple a local botanical sites with sheila, one of the observatory volunteers.

Mountain View Woods, showing the stream running down from the escarpment.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum

The first port of call was a private property, located in the north of Prince Edward County in the small community of Mountain View. The habitat consisted of a deciduous woodland, consisting of a beech and maple canopy which have enabled rich soils edged on one side by an escarpment providing good drainage for the slopes. A small stream ran through the middle of the wood creating an area of damp ground which was suitable for Jack-in-the-Pulpit Arisaema triphyllum to grow. The rich soils found on the rest of the site provide the perfect habitat for a range of spring ephemeral species including a couple I had been looking forward to seeing since I arrived.

As well as plants the woods were also home to a few species of amphibians. I had hoped to find a salamander and spent a large amount of time flipping logs in the hope of finding one but it wasn't to be. I did manage to find a Northern Spring Peeper Psudacris crucifer crucifer a tiny species of frog which is more often heard than seen.

Northern Spring Peeper, Psudacris crucifer crucifer

Trillium spp. growing in the wood below a Beech tree
White Trillium, Trillium grandiflora

Trilliums Trillums spp. were by far the most flamboyant plant present. Trilliums are an interesting family of plants and seems to be one of the relatively few plant families to rely on ants to help disperse their seeds. Trillium grandiflora was the commonest species found throughout the wood and formed dense stands in some of the areas. It really is a grand flower, with its large distinctive 3 petal flowers its easy to understand why its the provincial emblem of Ontario and has been since 1936.

Red Trillium, Trillium erectum

Just as pretty were the Red Trillium Trillium erectum, although It wasn't as numerous it could still be found in good numbers. With it's deep red flowers it easy to see how it got it's folk name Woke-Robin due to its analogy with the European robin Erithacus rubecula. Although close to being over a few Sharp-lobed Hepatica Anemone acutiloba were still in flower along with swathes of Trout lilies, Erythronium americanum so named due to their distinctively patterned leaves.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Anemone acutiloba
The real reason for going to Mountain View was to see the Squirrel Corn Dicentra canadensis, a small unassuming Dicentra which looks superficially similar to Dutchman's Breeches Dicentra cucullaria, a very common woodland flower. With it's delicate white heart shaped flowers and fine foliage it really was a beauty!

Squirrel Corn, Dicentra canadensis

A few other species could also be seen in whilst wandering about including Blue Cohosh Caulophyllum giganteum, Small-flowered Crowfoot Ranunculus abortivus
Large-Flowered Bellwort Uvularia grandiflora , Early Meadow-Rue Thalictrum dioicum, Milterwort Mitella diphylla and Long-Spurred Violet Viola rostrata.

Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum giganteum

With the weather getting wetter we had to cut short our trip but it allowed us to quickly visit Point Petre woods in the search for one last rarity, Twinleaf Jeffersonia diphylla which can only be found in southern Ontario. Sadly due to the rain the plants weren't out in full flower but at least I got to see them!
Twinleaf, Jeffersonia diphylla

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Three Weeks of a Canadian Spring. Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, Ontario

Leaving what already felt like a reasonable advanced spring in the UK, I'd flown across the Atlantic expecting similar weather and conditions (after all, Prince Edward Point is roughly on the same latitude as Paris) but boy was I wrong.

The Point Lighthouse, Prince Edward County

Arriving to torrential rain, which quickly turned to sleet and eventually snow was a bit different to the sunshine I'd left in the UK. Dave picked me from the airport and had already planned the first bird tick for me to see nearby. A second year male King Eider Somateria spectabilis which had wintered at Colonel Samuel Smith Park on the outskirts of the city (and also where I twitched a Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis in November last year when I was volunteering at the observatory in the fall). It was quickly spotted and seemed relatively at home with the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, Gadwall Anas strepera and Ruddy Ducks Oxyura jamaicensis it shared the marina with.

The old fence line, probably about 100 years old,
Prince Edward Point.

After staying at a friends for the night, the next morning we started to get the observatory up to running order. Whilst picking up groceries and driving through Milford we spotted a number of vultures circling, not unusual but Dave rapidly stopped and pointed out a bird which was flying in a different manner with its wings seemingly tucked in, a Black Vulture Coragyps atratus, an unusual record for the county but not all that surprising as they are slowly expanding their range north.

It took a couple of days to get the nets up (consisting of 8 standard net lanes and the 100mm swamp net) as we weren't in a hurry and the ground traps all set we were ready to start at 6.30am on the 10th April. Although still cold, the sun was out and it was warm enough for the first few Blanding's Turtles Emydoidea blandingii to emerge from hibernation and sun themselves in the swamp.  The first morning certainly wasn't a disappointing with 91 birds of 17 species banded. I'd previously caught many of the species in the fall although it took a short while to get used to Eastern American species again (and having to open rings!) I was soon back into the swing of it.

Blanding's Turtle, Emydoidea blandingii
Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus migrans

After a tip off about a large owl just east of Belleville, we quickly made the trip up to see it. On reaching the area Dave immediately suggested the area of habitat it would likely to be in, although even then it still took a couple of attempts to eventually see it. To pass the time waiting for dusk, one evening we took a quick trip to Napanee Limestone Plain an Important Bird Area (IBA), a large area of Alvar habitat protected specifically for the endangered Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes Lanius ludovicianus migrans. A species Dave had previously worked on which allowed me to see where the species could previously be found, where it once nested and understand what habitat it preferred. In total 3 individuals were seen including a bird singing close to the road. Whilst viewing the shrikes a group of Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca dropped into to a temporary pool in a stubble field on the other side of the road giving great views.

Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa
With the day fasting coming to a close and the sun dipping lower on the horizon, we made our way back to where the owl had been seen. Sure enough it was exactly where Dave had suggested it would be. Sitting on a fence post, 6 foot from the road sat the Phantom of the North, the Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa. It was surprisingly camouflaged for such a large bird. Although the species can be found across the whole of the northern hemisphere, it was first described in Canada in the late 18th century before also being discovered in Northern Europe.

It showed little fear of us, hunting whilst I was photographing it. The bird left with a size 8 band on, it turned out to be a second year bird (SY pattern shown in the secondaries and primary feathers, the beige look of the bird also suggested this) hopefully it'll provide us with an interesting recovery in the future.

The next morning with the nets set,a smart male After Second Year (ASY) Sharp-Shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus was the first bird caught, it gave me a run about but eventually got stuck in the pocket of one of the mist nets. Although we catch a large number of raptors in the fall, we only catch a small number in the spring.

The first warbler of the year was also caught, a male Pine Warbler Setophaga pinus, although plenty had been hanging around the observatory, it's still the only one we've managed to catch this spring. The first few weeks was characterised by good catches of  Ruby-Crowned Kinglets Regulus calendula, Brown-headed Cowbirds Molothrus ater, American Goldfinches Spinus tristis, Purple Finches Haemorhous purpureus and Slate-Coloured Juncos Junco hyemalis hyemalis, with the number caught much lower than when we first arrived. From around the 20th of April Myrtle Warblers Dendroica coronata coronata have been increasing in number and by the 27th. The trickle became a landslide with 8 species of warbler being seen around the observatory including early Blackburnian Warbler Setophaga fusca and Blue-Winged Warblers Vermivora cyanoptera.

Blue-Winged Warbler, Vermivora cyanoptera

Numbers of hirundines increased daily with Cliff Swallows Petrochelidon pyrrhonota busily rebuilding their nest on the side of the building. Tree Swallows Tachycineta bicolor have been investigating the nest box traps daily although only 3 have been caught so far . 6 Purple Martins Progne subis have returned and are starting to using the boxes provided. Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica can often be seen down at the harbour and are rebuilding their nests in the abandoned sheds.

Eastern Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor
Notable birds caught over the month include two European (invasive) species rarely caught down at the observatory. A female House Sparrow Passer domesticus was banded on the 16th April and a European Starling Sturnus vulgaris was banded on the 23rd. Both species are rarely caught and are by no means annual at the observatory. Other notables included an Eastern Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor was banded on the 13th and was also present on the 14th . It was the first banded since 2009. A female Red-Bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus was caught on the 20th, a Vesper Sparrow Pooecetes gramineus on the 23rd, a notable early Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus on the 25th (2 days after it had first been seen and about a week earlier than the earliest record for the area), a Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia, a Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus, a Pine Siskin Spinus pinus and a stunning Blue Winged Warbler Vermivora cyanoptera on the 27th. Finally a Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea was trapped on the 29th (about six individuals have been calling in between several nets).

It hasn't just been birds which have been appearing for the spring. As the weathered warmed more and more species of reptile have emerged from their winter hibernacular. 5 species of snake have been seen including Eastern Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, Northern Water Snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon, Smooth Green Snake Opheodrys vernalis, Northern Redbelly Snake Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata and Northern Brown Snake Storeria dekayi dekayi. Two other species of turtle have also been seen. Two Snapping Turtles Chelydra serpentina can be seen in the swamp and a group of Midland Painted Turtles Chrysemys picta marginata can be found at the end of the harbour. Frogs are still remaining elusive with the majority calling far out in the swamps and can only be heard and not seen but a Grey Treefrog Hyla versicolor and a Northern Leopard Frog Lithobates pipiens was found in the net lanes on the 28th.

Grey Treefrog, Hyla versicolor

Red Admirals Vanessa atalanta are by far the commonest butterfly currently found around the point with many congregating with large numbers of diptera around the distinctive holes formed by sapsuckers. Mourning Cloaks Nymphalis antiopa, Grey Comma Polygonia progne and American Painted Lady Vanessa virginiensis have also been present in the area with many taking advantage of the abundance of spring flowers which have been profusely blooming for the last week or so. The bulk of the spring flowers are comprised of Dutchman's Breeches Dicentra cucullaria and Trout Lily Erythronium americanum which are currently carpeting the woodland floor, with small patches of Spring Beauties Claytonia virginica and Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis.

Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

A small number of mammals have also been present around the site. American Red squirrels Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, Eastern Chipmunks Tamias striatus and Eastern Grey squirrels Sciurus carolinensis are often seen.  A Groundhog Marmota monax emerged from hibernation on a sunny day on the 13th. Three North American Beavers Castor canadensis were in the harbour on the 18th. A Long-Tailed Weasel Mustela frenata has been around the site for a couple of days. White-Tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus are often seen on the road out of the observatory in the evenings and tracks can be seen on the trails after rain.

Groundhog, Marmota monax

The undoubted highlight so far is obviously the Say's Phoebe Sayornis saya which was spotted in the Observatory garden on the evening of the 23rd. Although a common western species, it is only the 4th record for southern Ontario in the last 10 years and the second record for the Observatory, with the first being recorded in the fall of 1990.  Although it seemed keen to be caught and was often perching on the mist net poles or even the net strings itself. It remained out of the net and was seen until dark but sadly departed overnight and hasn't been re-found.

Say's Pheobe, Sayornis saya. An undoubted highlight!

Hopefully the next month continues to be as good as it has been so far, now bring on more warblers!