One man's marshes

One man’s marshes

A brilliant history of the birds, birders and landscape which combine to tell this story of the marshes of Lymington and Keyhaven – seen through the eyes of one man, Ed Wiseman. A former warden of the marshes, Ed draws from his own experience and the notes and writings of others to produce a wonderful account, evocatively illustrated by local artists Dan and Rosemary Powell.

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Currently available for pre-order for Xmas at powellwildlifeart.com, it will also be available on Amazon as soon as the books arrive with me from the printer.

To whet your appetite have a look at these sample pages. A mere £14.99 – how can you refuse?

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Water water everywhere

We toured the pools and muddy ditches of the Azores. These are usually mere puddles, and any waders that may be around will congregate in these small feeding stations.

But it rained. The pools were ponds, the ponds were lakes. The waders that may have been eking out a living on the muddy margins now had a choice of gourmet restaurants open for business. If there were any waders here in the first place – which I doubt.

But we tried our best – hardly a lake, coastal margin, or bucket of stagnant water went unregarded in our search for something that wasn’t a sparrow. Eventually we rocked up at a large lake. There were a few mallard, and some of those weren’t exactly pure bred. But we persevered and took a little walk through some adjacent woods and small-holdings. There were plenty of Goldcrests (Regulus regulus azoricus) – there are three sub-species on the Azores – and Waxbills (Estrilda astrild), but one of our group saw a Common Yellowthroat flying away from him.

In the best traditions of birding we gathered the rest of the gang together and stood around the bush where we thought the beast had gone. I thought it had flown out into a small allotment 100 meters of so away, and I wandered off there since I had had enough of staring at the bush in question. Within a couple of minutes I had relocated the bird and within 10 minutes everyone managed to get a decent view, and some (not me) a decent picture or two.

So instead you get to see one of the local Goldcrest. Enjoy.

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Ringing the neck of a duck

So here we are on the Azores, on the main island São Miguel (obviously to the people who live on the other eight islands of this well spread archipelago that may be a contentious description).

We are bumbling around looking for rare birds – although very soon it becomes self-evident we should concentrate on looking for any birds at all. The most exciting thing of the afternoon is a discussion of whether a particular duck is a Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), a Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) or a hybrid of the two, This discussion is taking place leaning on the wall of a small pond on a farm that our guide, Gerby, knows from previous trips.

It all seem to hang on the extent of bill colouring, the shape of the head, and some finer plumage details. There were two duck in question – a female (definitely a Ring-necked Duck) and a male (who knows).

Given that both birds were about 150 meters away and it was almost impossible to get a decent scope view because of the wall – did I mention it was taller than Jan – I thought I would give you the impression of what we were seeing. And therefore how fairly pointless the debate was.

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As you can see – very easy to sort out.

Much easier was our first actual rarity of the trip. But more of that later.

The Yanks are coming…

…or not.

After a long hard summer, it’s great to be off to the Azores. A bit of rest and relaxation and some bird watching with some fairly hard-core birdwatchers. They want to see American birds.

That poses a very immediate and interesting question. Why not go to America? That’s where the birds are. Surely it would be easier to see them there? And that is self-evidently true. But there is a deeper answer to that question.

And the deeper answer to that question reminds me of an experience from over 20 years ago. We were watching another American bird – a Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) – that had happened to turn to just outside Romsey, Hampshire UK. We were chatting to other birders and one couple said that they were about to go look for a Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata) at some place in Berkshire. Being the generous types that we are, Jan and I offered to show them a site about 15 minutes drive away that was very reliable for seeing Dartford Warblers. “That’s very kind, but no thanks,” came the slightly surprising response. “You see, it wouldn’t be a Berkshire Dartford Warbler,”

And that’s when we got introduced to the idea of complex bird lists.

Everyone keeps a bird list. Even friends who phone up and say there’s this thing the size of an eagle in their their garden with yellow and red on it. “What is it? Can you come round and tell us?” (It’s a Goldfinch. It’s almost always a Goldfinch.) Once they’ve learnt Goldfinch they’ve got a list of one.

We certainly always kept a list. One list of birds we’d seen anywhere. But the Ring-necked Duck couple were the first to make us realise that where you saw the bird could be a little important. And 20 years later we are on trip with people who want to see American birds – or any other birds for that matter – in the Western Palearctic (WP for short). The Western Palearctic is roughly Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. The United States, and all their lovely birds, inhabit a different ecozone – the Nearctic. And that’s why people come birdwatching in the Azores. It is the westernmost land in the WP, and therefore the most likely to be home to American birds that get blown off-course whilst migrating up and down in the US of A.

Some people take this very seriously indeed. The people we are on holiday with, for example. One or our companions only needs to see two more bird species in the WP and his WP list will be 800. I think that is a probably a good number and will put him well up amongst the top WP listers. By comparison, our WP list is only around 405.

Yes we now keep a WP list. And a garden list. A world list. A Hampshire list. Computerised record keeping means all lists as just the touch of button away.

So how are we getting on, on our hard-core WP listing holiday. Well, next time I get a wifi connection I’ll let you know more.

Petrel Station

A few days away from work culminated in the three days on Skokholm Island. On the boat on the way over we discovered that some intensive ringing of European Storm Petrels was going to take place over the nights of our stay.

We were looking forward to some relaxing time away from the phones and emails, but couldn’t resist the chance of handling this tiny sea bird. So it was a very late night working until 3 in the morning. But what a night it was.

The wardens and the other qualified bird ringers were luring birds into the mist nets by playing a selection of the storm petrel calls, where they were being bagged up ready from processing – have their weight and key measurements taken, and fitted with a unique ring. 256 birds were trapped. 8 had been trapped on the island in previous years and three birds were from other sites – four from close on the mainland, one from Portland Bill in Dorset, England and one as yet unknown.

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We were fortunate to be able take some photographs from the release site. I was lucky enough to get this one full in the frame and most in focus – a stroke of luck since we were working in the small red glow from a head torch.

If you want to know more about Skokholm Island then head over to the warden’s blog at http://skokholm.blogspot.co.uk/ .

The Mad Dog is Dead

Simon Russell Beale, who knows a thing or two about Shakespearean theatre, seemed to enjoy this production of Richard III from his seat immediately in front of us.

Almost as long as Richard’s reign, this production at the Almeida didn’t have the pace of many recent productions. It did seem to have every single last line that Shakespeare penned (plumed?) but that didn’t detract from the power and menace of the piece.

With an audience used to the full War of the Roses tale being built in the three plays of the Hollow Crown, this production had to carefully bring people up to speed with the monster Gloucester who was to become the tyrant King Richard III. This was elegantly achieved from the very opening scenes of the modern day excavation of Richard’s remains from a car park, complete with BBC voice over. A combination of modern day dress and mobile phones with period armour and swords gave a broad landscape on which to paint this brutal tale.

Finbar Lynch played Buckingham, Richard’s right hand thug, with a stylish authority – right up to the point he was shot in back for daring to be hesitant in ordering the murder of the princes in the Tower. A lesson for all right hand thugs who seek to promote their master above their level of competence.

And that, of course, is Richard’s great failing. He seizes power because he can. He enjoys the game of plotting against his enemies, friends and family. He uses all means, fair and foul (well, actually, foul and foul) to remove obstacles from his path to – nowhere. With no plan other than to be King, no plan to govern, no plan of action at home or overseas, and certainly no broad appeal other than to his increasingly narrow band of thugs, he simply wanted to be the King.

As is customary these days Ralph Fiennes played the ambitious Duke of Gloucester partly for laughs, at least in the first half. But the laughs were often cut short by yet another death on his murderous rise to the top. Unusually, all the murders took place in plain view, again adding to the running time but making sure no-one was left in any illusion about the depravity of the central character. The only death scene which struck a slightly sour note – maybe the wine was off  – was the drowning of the Duke of Clarence in the barrel of Malmsey. The obviously emptying empty barrel resonated, not with the gurgles of a drowning man trying to gasp for air, but the heaving breathing of an actor stuffed head first into a small barrel. Obviously it is competing with the Martin Freeman production where Clarence was drowned – very convincingly – in a fish tank but it was still a petty poor effort.

As Fiennes’ Richard gathered momentum to his thankfully inevitable destruction at Bosworth Field, friends and foe joined forces to bring this particular experiment to a merciful end. And one of the good things about this play is when the end comes it is short – nasty and brutish, but mainly short. No drawn out death speeches.

Apart from Fiennes and Lynch the standout performances came from the female leads. In the play they are threatened, bullied, beaten and raped. They have their husbands and sons murdered. But they are the constant reminder to Richard that he is vulnerable to power and they provide the driving force to the opposition which brings his short region to an end. In particular Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret command the stage.

Not the best Richard I’ve seen – Martin Freeman on stage and Cumberbatch in the Hollow Crown are difficult to beat – but certainly up there. But when Ralph Fiennes does play for laughs, whether in a serious piece or a period comedy, I occasionally get the unnerving feeling that I’m watching Rigsby from Rising Damp – a TV sitcom of a generation ago for younger readers. I was tempted to ask Simon Russell Beale if he felt the same.

 

Do Satnavs Dream of of Electric Sheep

In the pub last night I overheard the discussion, argument, pointed row that one might hear anywhere.

Satnav or map? Map or satnav?

There were the usual arguments on both sides. Satnavs are safer to use. Maps help you learn about where you are driving. Satnavs get you lost in unpredicatble ways. Maps work best if you are driving north. And so on and so forth. As usual with this argument, there was no clear winner and the conversation turned elsewhere (turn around when possible, as Ms Garmin might say).

I’m a satnav person myself. I like maps, but if I’m driving from A to B I like a little voice telling me how best to achieve that. Obviously, a passenger reading a map can do that. But if you don’t have a passenger, or you don’t have a passenger who can read a map, that’s of little use. And even if your passenger can read a map when you’re driving south, it’s more of a trauma if they send you up a cart track to a dead end than if the same thing happens because Ms Garmin’s maps are out of date.

But one thing that didn’t strike me until today was that satnavs can be dangerously funny. We all know the pronunciation can be a bit weird at times – Bevois is Beevus you stupid machine, not Behvwah – but I didn’t think there was an inbuilt sense of humour. Maybe this is the start of AI – artificial intelligence – and soon the Tom Tom drums will be beating to tell us our reign is over.

So what was it that brought this on? Not all roads have a name or number in the database from which the satnav dispenses its information. “Drive 800 yards along the Road, and then turn left” is not unusual in the countryside. These unnamed routes might be identified as Road or Street or Byway or by some other generic name. Occasionally there may be another piece of information in the database to help identify the road you are on, turning into, turning off or whatever. But today was a masterpiece. This particular road was identified as a street – St. Because there was no name the additional piece of information that was available (a weak bridge) was a appended to the St. Our lovely satnav then spent a few joyous minutes advising us that we were about to join, were driving along, were about to leave Saint Weight Limit.

We almost turned around when possible to hear it all over again.

Buzzards make late come back

Buzzards make late come back

It’s Christmas.

It’s Norfolk.

Juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard
Juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard

Given that every time we go to Cornwall Jan falls over and breaks something – well twice – we decided that the flat landscape of Norfolk was safer territory this year. After all there is a general election to win, and we can’t play a full part in that from hospital.

Our good friend and wildlife artist, Dan Powell (most of the sentence can be rearranged without too much damage), suggested to us the other week that Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) were seen less frequently at the roadside verges of Hampshire. We had conjectured that the Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo) which have spread eastwards over recent years have taken their patch on our motorways and byways. So, always up for bit of real science we decided to count them both on our way from Southampton to Cley Next the Sea.

In a four hour drive over 205 miles we saw 18 Kestrels and 16 Buzzards. Oh, and three Red Kite (Milvus milvus). But the interesting thing was that the Buzzards, with the exception of one or two, were all seen in the first two hours of the journey. The Kestrels, with the exception of three or four, were all seen in the second half of the journey. it would certainly seem that these two tend not to share roadside habitat. Of course there are plenty of places where you will see these birds together. But the motorways of the UK may not be one of them.

So today, to try to redress the balance slightly, we went in search of Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) at Burnham Overy Staithe. For those you who care about such things, Staithe is a Middle English word found in the East and North of England from Old Norse ‘stǫth’ meaning ‘landing stage’. This morning we parked up on the hard at Burnham Overy Staithe and ventured out toward the dunes. It was blowing a hooley, and whilst it wasn’t terribly cold the wind chill made it feel like we were three jumpers short of cozy. Anyhow, no sign of buzzards whatever the state of their legs. Unfortunately whilst there were plenty of people about they were hikers, dog-walkers, joggers and people out generally taking the air. But not a binocular between them. No-one looked like they might know the location of the birds in question.

Fortunately the RSPB staffer at the Titchwell reserve did. So on the way back from another chilly walk we stopped at the small car-park just east of Burnham Overy Staithe he recommended. Or, in truth, we stopped in a storage area in a field that we thought was the car park, but hey it was within a mile of where he said. Another birder saw us parking up and drove into the same field. He had an excuse. He was from Toronto and probably thought we knew what we were doing.

Still there was an inviting path. We followed it. There was a gap on the hedge where we three could stand and view the fields and dunes. We stood in it. There was a buzzard. We ticked it. This birding lark is so easy. But wait, no it’s a common buzzard.

But we didn’t have long to wait. Another buzzard hove into view. Noticeably longer winged than the Common Buzzard. Noticeably bigger overall. Noticeably back and white, with a very speckled breast. And then a second bird – another juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard, this one with the slightly, but distinctive, hunched winged gliding shape.

Our man from Toronto was happy – the first he’d seen in England. And we were happy – the first we’d seen this year. And that made the Buzzards the narrow winners over the Kestrels. Assuming the Rough-legged count. Or a narrow win for the Kestrels if they don’t. Almost a score draw in a game of two halves.

Richard III – Some like it Cold

Freeman Richard III

I never expect much from the Telegraph.

When their theatre reviewer says that Martin Freeman playing Richard III is like “sending a boy to do a man’s work” they fail to reach even that lowly expectation. This was, in fact, a stunning performance of real power. This Richard III sets out his coup within a coup in a stark, relatively modern setting. The programme notes refer to some modern history which influenced some of the thinking of the production – but this was never overtly evident in the staging and direction of this simple and direct power grab.

It looked and felt like any country which had not yet completed the struggle from dictatorship or dictatorial monarchy to democracy. A pretty accurate rendition of the 15th century.

Freeman’s Richard was delivered with a cold blooded ruthlessness which has been lacking in some recent versions. The attempt to make Richard seem victim rather than villain has no place in this production. The rather unbelievable seduction of his murdered brother’s wife, Ann Neville, often seen in modern productions is swept away. This Richard makes clear the benefits of marriage and by implication the contrary. Ann quickly recognises which way the wind blows. And it blows cold and strong.

Unfortunately – for her rather than the audience – she makes the usual error of failing to take up the offer of butchering Richard with his own knife when she is offered the chance.

The cramped space of the Trafalgar Studio makes this a play where you are literally on top of the action. And yet that small space allows the actors and the action to easily describe the locations from the intimate rooms of conspiracy to the expanse of Bosworth Field.

Giving a 20th century look to this war of Lancaster and York means this was full on Guns’n’Roses. But as always some historical elements remain. Knives give the requisite amount of blood that can’t quite be fulfilled by a Walther PPK. And the amount of blood was prodigious. Usually the result of off-stage murders which resulted in the bloody murderer, bloody ghost, or bloody severed head appearing on-stage. In one on-stage murder, the fountain of blood justified the front four rows of the tiered seats donning the splatter gowns at the break. A shame that a few people assumed the bloody havoc would be restricted to the final battle of Bosworth. Oops.

This was the most spectacular blood and guts scene, but each murder whether on or off-stage was represented with chilling brutality. The drowning of Clarence in an office fish-tank – complete with live goldfish – was skilfully and realistically enacted. The one-handed strangling of Ann by Richard full of terror.

Although Freeman’s was a cold blooded performance of ruthless ambition, some of it was delivered with genuinely comic humour. If only Richmond had declared in the final blade against pistol confrontation with Richard, “Call that a knife? This is a knife.” the evening would have been complete.

As it turned out the pistol saved us from the one failing of almost every Shakespearean production – the lingering death. No chance here for Freeman to stagger around bleeding from multiple wounds. He had scarcely finished pleading for a new horse when he was dropped stone dead with a single shot. A fitting end for this Richard. Straightforwardly ruthless. Straightforwardly dead.

They call me mellow yellow

One of the species we wanted to see if we could whilst on Orkney was the Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus). It is a species in decline in northern Europe and is one of the UK’s rarest bees. Although it can turn up throughout the British Isles, the Orkneys and the Western Isles are the best chance to see this large and distinctive bee.

20140717-121913-Orkney-7106Of course, every site on Orkney with an interpretation board suggests you might see the Large Yellow here – along with hen harriers, short-eared owls, otters and Elvis. Nevertheless we kept an eye open in all the likely habitats.

Eventually on another walk in another area where this elusive bee might be found Jan decided to examine the clearly non-native, but extremely large, fuscia bush. Just on the basis that all bees like fuscias. I don’t know if that’s true but certainly seemed plausible, and indeed there we found our first two or three GYBs. We even managed to get a few snaps, but these were mainly of bees’ bums hanging out of the flower bells.

Surprisingly well named, this bee is large and yellow, and deserves close inspection to see the subtle yellow banding across much of its body.

20140717-124535-Orkney-7122We saw a few more away from the fuscia but in high winds – to us, not to Orkney – the bees were a bit more elusive. No sooner did they leave one thistle flower than they were 20 metres away clinging on to the next. Finally we find one, exhausted from its exertions, perched on a reasonably sheltered leaf where we could get some better views, although pin-sharp photographs were still tricky in the wind.

Having got our eye in for this bee we have now seen a few more, and hopefully with better weather due we may get a chance for some better pictures in the next day or two. We’ll let you know.

In the meantime here is an extract from the Natural History Museum’s conservation notes for this species.

Conservation status
Bombus distinguendus is a flagship species for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in Britain and a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species.
Bombus distinguendus is classified as Nationally Scarce.
Threats
Multiple factors threaten B. distinguendus, chief among which is often habitat removal, particularly with the reduction of red clover cultivation since 1940 due to changes in farming practices.
The main driver of decline is believed to be a reduction in the density of food plants with deep flowers over large areas of suitable grassland habitat (Williams & Osborne, 2009). Continuous availability of suitable habitat within and across years is important, because the bees may not be good dispersers, and are not known to have colonised any new areas across barriers of unsuitable habitat.
Climate change is unlikely to have been the main driver of decline in the past. Although there is an interaction between the effect of food-plant availability and climatic specialisation and a future impact is possible (Williams et al., 2007).
The impact of pesticides is unknown.
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