Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bittern by Gull ID fail

Today was a day of quality, and a little added surprise.  Still not at my most energetic, I decided to head a little further afield to Amwell Gravel Pits in Herts.  This is a site I should be frequenting much more than I do having carried out most of my birding in Herts, and with the reserve a little over half an hour by direct train from my local station.  As a carless (I said carless!) birder, this was my first visit there since moving to London.  My bad.

It started well, 20+ Siskin chattering away in Birches just off Amwell Lane, a brief snatch of song of a male Blackcap from nearby woodland, followed shortly by 4 soaring Common Buzzard as I walked along the canal towards the viewpoint.  An Oystercatcher was heard calling from Great Hardmead Lake but not seen.

I really should visit this site more often.  It really is excellent.  From the viewpoint, a count of 52 Shoveler, 22 Lapwing, and around 20 Common Gull along with Gadwall, Teal, Tufted Duck, nesting Cormorants, 2 Cetti's Warbler, 5 Common Snipe, and a single Little Egret.

Having seen reports from previous days, I headed over to the White Hide to view the reedbed where a Kingfisher was heard calling.  I didn't have to wait long till I connected with the master skulker as it crept through the reeds about a metre in from the water edge.

The reedbed opposite the White Hide where the Bittern has been wintering

The Bittern finally emerged from one of the cuttings allowing a couple of shots.  It is such a thrill seeing this enigmatic bird.  The bird showed well at times allowing great views of its stunning plumage.

Bittern - Amwell GP 26/02/14

The day got a little complicated.  A gull first spotted by two birders got their attention and I was immediately summoned to provide my expert ID Gull knowledge.  My initial thoughts were Iceland Gull, but it looked all wrong.  An all dark bill with a pale tip, primaries way too dark, but a very pale bird nonetheless.  I didn't have a clue what this was so I sought guidance.

With thanks to the helpful souls that contacted me through Twitter, it transpired that this is an aberrant Herring Gull that has been present on the reserve for a while.  A strange looking bird, that gave me a right ID run-around.

Back to normality, the redhead Smew was still present with at least 5 Goldeneye including 2 drakes at the southern end of the lake.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When two passions collide

It was interesting to see the feature on BBC1's Inside Out programme yesterday evening on UK airport development with the effervescent Mike Dilger reporting on the tabled proposal for the Isle of Grain (IoG) hub airport system on the North Kent Marshes.  I worked in Airport Development for four years (which in no way makes me an expert on such matters), but this emotive and divisive political hot potato does bring together two of my passions in life into a head-on collision course, birds and civil aviation.

So my confession, before I was a 'proper' birder, I was a 'proper' plane spotter.  I remember sitting as a ten year old on the old Queen's Building at Heathrow Airport  (where today's new Terminal Two is located) watching Concorde take-off, the diagnostic roar of four after-burning Rolls Royce Olympus engines thrusting the delta wings of these evocative aircraft on another return trip to the Big Apple.  How civil aviation has changed - cleaner, quieter, aircraft arguably possessing less character than their predecessors, but an industry investing heavily into making these aircraft greener than ever before.  I applaud the airframe and engine manufacturers for continuing to extend their environmental targets.

The Old Queens Building now demolished (oh the memories)

A stunning aircraft (oh the memories)

The problem is that globally, in spite of the world's political and social problems, there is a widening of the middle social classes, a demographic with disposable income.  The middle classes (defined as people earning between $2 and $13 a day) trebled in number between 1990 and 2005 in developing Asia to 1.5 billion; they rose from 277m in Latin America to 362m over the same period; and in sub-Saharan Africa from 117m to 197m (Economist).

This has exposed an increasing global population to the opportunities for air travel and coupled with the growth of the 'low-cost' industry, more people are flying.  This is a good thing.  UK airports alone have seen the total number of terminal passengers increase by 77% between 1995 and 2013 (CAA).

The UK's hub airport Heathrow is at a choke-point and a solution needs to be found to alleviate the capacity asphyxiation that our primary air passenger gateway is currently experiencing.  Expanding Heathrow does not appear to be a popular option, too much collateral damage, too many residents already exposed to aviation related noise (both air and surface access), a new runway may be a short-term solution (at the expense of Sipson and Harmondsworth) but would double the number of residents exposed to aircraft noise and would continue to struggle with future expansion limitations.  Gatwick, the other airport shortlisted in the Davies Commission for a second runway appears to lack the prestige that Heathrow currently possesses and is not viable as an option for a hub airport.

Whether it be Planes, Trains, or Automobiles, is there an appetite for construction of new transport infrastructure in the UK?  Airports, HS2, major road improvement schemes are the subject of strict public scrutiny with the primary objections focused on environmental grounds, climate change, noise, air quality, land use, etc.  There is the added element of NIMBYism too.  Having worked as a bird surveyor on a section of the proposed HS2 route last year, this somewhat glib acronym was given added pertinence and gravity having experienced first-hand the potential destruction of communities and habitat.  With effective mitigation, the pain of this loss can be significantly reduced, but there will be pain nonetheless, a price to pay if we are to preserve the long-term prosperity of our country.

I remember my first airport planning task in my first airport planning role.  To design a Boris Island airport schematic.  With a blank piece of paper, I methodically drew up using a Computer Aided Design tool, a scale drawing of the concept that was eventually presented at an early steering commitee meeting by my then boss.  A proud moment I guess, but I was uncomfortable with it then as I am now of the proposals.  It is difficult to park the emotional side and stay objective but the IoG airport development proposal sits extremely uncomfortably with me.  Having watched the programme last night, the eradication of such a globally important habitat is tantamount to the destruction of the Amazon rain forest or our negligence of proliferate overfishing.  A bit excessive perhaps, but the point is that our bio-diversity matters.  If we manage this locally, then we have a great chance of protecting this globally. The IoG proposal opposes this concept. Frankly, what does BoJo care about wintering populations of Black-Tailed Godwit or breeding Marsh Harriers?

We need airport expansion at our hub airport, our current system cannot cope with the demand as capacity is already strained.  Expanding existing infrastructure is the sensible solution. Amsterdam do it, Paris do it, Frankfurt do it, but we need to be clever and innovative to deliver the capacity that we need.  We need a joined up solution that connects the London airports either through the airline alliances or through inter-modality.  We just don't have the space to do it all at one airport and destroying an important ecological habitat for me is not the way forward. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mid morning ramble

Is it really still February?  This time last year we were freezing our brass monkies off.  The contrast couldn't be more meteorologically opposed.  It was indeed a lovely morning to be on the move again, albeit slowly as the rehabilitation to full health continues.  First stop, the front paddocks at Walthamstow Marshes with 2 flyover Common Gulls, a Reed Bunting calling, 3 Mistle Thrushes, and small flocks of Goldfinch, Greenfinch, and Chaffinch, all either singing or calling, undoubtedly enjoying the warmth of the sun and the soft southerly breeze.

Waterworks NR, a short walk across the Lea Bridge Road, and a welcome oasis from the clamor of traffic and industry.  Bird song everywhere.  At least two Chiffchaff singing with a total of four noted.  From the hide overlooking the pool on the right, a Kingfisher called and flew into the trees where it perched briefly before calling again heading over the reserve.  Two Little Grebe and two Shoveler were also present.

Eight Tufted Duck inc. 5 drakes were present on the large pond with a total count of 26 Teal from the other hides.  A Grey Wagtail flew over as did a single Common Gull and Jackdaw.  A Kestrel was in attendance for much of the time hovering and soaring.  It felt like a raptor day today but this was the only return.  A Small Tortoiseshell flew along the main path and came to rest taking in the warmth of the sun. The first butterfly sighting of the year.

Small Tortoiseshell - Waterworks NR

Walking out of the reserve, a calling Meadow Pipit flew over the old pitch and putt area.

Following the path into Middlesex Filter Beds, Chiffchaff were again very much in evidence with at least two singing and 4-5 noted all along the river where the Firecrest was once again picked up relatively quickly this time appearing to be the female, showing well as it fed amongst the trees on the far side of the relief channel. A pair of Grey Wagtail actively fed along the river edge and there were small numbers of Little Grebe and Teal.

Crocus in bloom on the Pembury Estate, Hackney Downs

Friday, February 21, 2014

Just Gulls

Nothing exciting today, just a gentle stroll round Walthamstow Marshes produced around 120 Black Headed Gulls on the river Lea with half a dozen of these with entirely brown hoods.  There were a further 190 on the flooded marsh itself with 2 adult Lesser Black Backed Gulls and 2 adult Common Gulls.  A singing Goldfinch and 2 Green Woodpeckers feeding on the marsh were the only other birds of note.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 where was I?

Time is a curious thing.  A difficult few weeks, the body's ability to endure periods of what felt at the time like an unrelenting decline, the reset button has been activated on a life that just a couple of months ago was being played out with remarkable monotony.  Default settings are good, it keeps things simple.

Just before Christmas, the onset of a condition that I have suffered with for 20 years was making an unwelcome appearance.  First denial, then more denial, a little panic, a visit to the doctor.  Please not again. Three years had passed since the last 'flare-up' the longest period of remission experienced since the first diagnosis, forgive me for having felt invincible.  The beginning of January was managable, not great but still enough fortitude for a couple of local patch visits.  Then it set in. Brutal, tormenting, unequivocally cruel.  The 1st of February, a visit to the hospital for an intrusive procedure and the inevitable admission.  A total of a week spent at UCLH for aggressive treatment and back home to recover.

Ulcerative Colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease that according to the National Association of Crohns and Colitis, affects 1 in every 420 people in the UK.  That's a lot of people.  High profile sufferers such as Darren Fletcher of Manchester United and former England rugby captain Lewis Moody have recently talked openly on the BBC about their particular struggles with the illness.  It's not very nice.

I may be flirting recklessly with understatement here, but it was great to get out birding again today and heading gingerly down to my local patch was self-prescribed medicine that my spirit had been craving during difficult times.

Middlesex Filter Beds

The air was still and alive with bird song, the sun out, dare I say warm, Greenfinches, Dunnock, Wren, Great Tits, Blue Tits, all joining together in a pre-spring chorus on a day where it felt that spring had truly sprung. I'm not being lulled into a false sense of seasonal security here.  Alighting at the Lee Valley Ice Centre (Sochi was too far), and two Chiffchaff were in full 'song' in the small wooded area just off the main road.  I love that sound in February.

Middlesex Filter Beds rarely disappoints for such a small reserve.  A walk along the relief channel returned 10 Tufted Ducks (6 drakes), seven Little Grebe, eight Teal, and 1f Pochard.  Two Grey Wagtails flew down river, and a Jay sat pondering life in the thickets.

Tufted Duck - Middlesex Filter Beds 19/02/14

Further along the path, a Chiffchaff started to sing on the far side of the river, joined by a second in the central wooded area.  It definitely felt springlike today.  Of course eyes are always on the lookout for Firecrest and with a little helping of patience a single bird showed well on the far side of the relief channel.

Firecrest - Middlesex Filter Beds 19/02/14

Having eventually lost this individual to view, two birds were then later seen together in the central wooded area adjacent to the 'riverside' path calling and one male captured on the very poor attached video clip.

Just so great to be out and about again.