Thursday, February 9, 2017

Frank Gardner's quest for Birds of Paradise

When I returned from Norfolk at the weekend I learned, to my horror, that there was a two part documentary being shown on BBC 2 which had already started !.It covers an expedition to Papua New Guinea by Frank Gardner and Benedict Allen essentially to locate Birds of Paradise that the former so wished to see..  Well, perhaps not so different from many other documentaries which television provides until you learn that Frank Gardner is confined to a wheelchair and realise the terrain in which the birds are present in PNG is challenging at best ! For the various reasons I outline below I didn't want to miss the programmes and set to retrieving the first one I had missed through the bewilderingly easy system now available even for non-techos like me!

Like many I had heard vaguely of Frank Gardner and what had beset him in Saudi Arabia whilst on a filming assignment for the BBC which , basically , saw him targeted by terrorists, his cameraman being killed and himself being left for dead after being shot eleven times. He survived his injuries but, as a consequence, lost the use of his legs. Sometime later I was travelling to or from my then home on Islay and parked up in a Lochlomondside car park to have a rest and listen to the radio. I missed some of the programme which, essentially, was dealing with the outcome for people who had survived similar experiences and being left with some form of permanent disability. Frank Gardner was answering questions and I was overwhelmed by his outlook , his optimism, his totally positive and realistic view of matters and even came away myself, as an able bodied person, feeling utterly motivated into taking a more embracing view of life. Whilst I'm sure there had been dark times, his outlook was so reasoned, forward looking and lacking in self pity or rancour as to be extremely humbling. I became a fan.

And now if reportage on security matters is being made on television or radio in his capacity as the BBC's Security Correspondent I listen intently as the content is always reasoned , factual, informative and balanced. As a person he comes over as being very polite, tolerant and fair and someone whose views are very much worth listening to.

He's a birdwatcher too so there's a bit of a connection there!! One of his boyhood dreams was to see Birds of Paradise, perhaps some of the most extravagantly plumaged birds on Earth. This two part series deals with a trip he's made to PNG with Benedict Allen, the explorer and the inevitable challenges which needed to be faced.

By courtesy of Lynx Edicions , "Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World" Volume 2  Passerines

Now I'm not going to spoil anyone's enjoyment of the first programme  ( and, of course, I haven't seen the second one yet ! ) but there are a lot of accompanying issues and story lines interwoven into the programme's narrative and footage. It's much more than an expedition to see birds, believe me ! A typical FG comment , "there's much to be happy about" !

So, make sure you download the first programme from last Friday and watch tomorrow ( Friday)

2100 hours BBC2 Birds of Paradise : the ultimate quest.

And if you think it ends there I can also recommend a recent book written by Frank Garner, "Crisis" which has figured at the top of the Sunday Times Best Seller list. Next to birding, books in this genre are my next guilty pleasure. It's a gripping read !  OK folks, commercial break over !!!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The man who created Potteric Carr Nature Reserve. 7.2.2017.

Potteric Carr Nature Reserve lies on the SW outskirts of Doncaster, South Yorkshire and is a mosaic of open water areas, grazing fields and woodland. It is administered nowadays by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust but was initially the brainchild of a Doncaster resident who gradually brought together the 600 acres or so that comprises the reserve and managed it via an army of local volunteers.

It was a real pleasure on Tuesday to visit the reserve, to have a wander around and to swap reminiscences with the man who brought it all about, Roger Mitchell.  But the story is a little more convoluted than that ( aren't they always ! ).  I first met Roger in the early 1970's I guess when he brought together a "South Yorkshire Conservation Group". He was much involved with the County Wildlife Trust and this group acted out a watchdog role as far as planning proposals that might affect wildlife sites and interests.  We then worked together when, essentially, he was my boss within the newly formed South Yorkshire County  Environment Department within the Metropolitan County system which had come into being in 1974. Those were exciting years that, in many respects, saw conservation and environmental matters come of age and begin to achieve more recognition than previously. I eventually left in 1979 to join the RSPB.

During that period Roger effectively ran two jobs. The day job and the Potteric Carr job !!  His was a crystal clear vision of what he wanted to achieve and the potential that he saw associated with the reserve. His enthusiasm and drive never diminished and Potteric in some inevitable way found its way into many conversations such that we, as staff, often used to mutter amongst ourselves , " He's on about Potteric, again"!   But that is the real stuff of dreams and the substance of dreams realised.

The reserve nowadays is a tremendous place. Its species list is extensive and breeding species have included Bittern, Little Bittern and Black-necked Grebe. The pathway network is extensive and you need a good, full day to do the place justice. And remember, this is a reserve on the outskirts of a major town surrounded by road and rail networks, a veritable jewel and sanctuary of tranquility amidst the hubbub of modern day activities.

Given it's around twenty five years ago since we'd last met there was much to talk about.  I asked Roger when he'd first visited the site. " Oh, when I was about fourteen I suppose ". No doubt he and his cohorts had crossed a few active railway lines in the process to reach what was then colloquially referred to as  "the swamps".   But a vision of what the area might become emerged and a lifetime's efforts made available to achieve those ends resulting in what can be seen today.  Impressive stuff!  Well done, Roger !

And here's Roger standing next to the new Visitor Centre which the YWT have recently erected along with new car parking facilities. It's a great testament to what can be achieved through dedication, an ability to address the multifarious challenges that emerge with such projects and to absorb some of the  disappointments too. And I can recommend the roast pork and stuffing bread cake ( served with chips , of course, this IS Yorkshire after all ) and from past experience the bacon butty. So make space in your diary for a visit and marvel at what has been achieved!

High tide , high expectations. 3.2.2017.

News that the coastal road closure had been lifted coupled with the fact that the high tide at Titchwell was predicted to be around 1030 hours prompted a rapid change of plan.Whilst I got there early the opportunity had been espied by many other people too as the car park was filling quite quickly.

There was still enough time to make a leisurely examination of all areas alongside the footpath to the beach. Almost in a replay of previously the ditch near the Visitor Centre produced a nice surprise in the form of a Water Rail feeding out in the open in an entirely unconcerned way. The usual array of duck species was on the main lagoon together with a nice group of Avocet.  Finally I reached the coast and chose a quieter spot to the west away from the gathering at the very end of the path !.

  Now to a mere observer of the seascape there were few indicators of the delights that lay beyond !

A telescope scan showed duck to be everywhere. In addition to the large raft of Common Scoter other parties were scattered around,  many with accompanying Velvet Scoters which were easily segregated, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and, best of all, a seeming profusion of Long-tailed Duck were all obvious. I've never seen so many Long-tails off Titchwell, or of Velvet Scoter either.  I eventually found a single Slavonian Grebe amongst several Great crested Grebe dotted about and, then, quite fortuitously, came across a Red-necked Grebe which promptly dived and couldn't be found again. I'm not into counting fleeting views for year lists, but confess to a frantic casting around trying to locate the bird again, which I didn't !!

Odd Red-throated Diver appeared at distance and a single Razorbill, so there was much to search for. It was great, and so was the weather too. A slow return along the path produced nothing new compared to the day I'd spent here previously other than Brambling and Siskin visiting the feeders so it was time to move on. Choseley Barns was a disappointment with nothing there other than a few Woodpigeon  and a great mound of earth which blocks the view across much of the large adjacent field. Yet another deliberate intervention ?

On to Thornham and an exploration of the eastern end of the Thornham/Holme area. There was little to be seen so I travelled around and came into the NWT Holme Reserve just on the off chance of the Ferruginous Duck having returned  ( it hadn't ). Obviously the surfeit of riches from the morning wasn't going to be replicated ! Time was moving on so I thought I'd take a tilt at Golden Pheasant at Wolferton. I was there in good time, secured "the lay by spot" and waited.  At 1730 hours I finally conceded with a tally of a Grey Squirrel, 3 Muntjac and 2 Fallow Deer ! The day had obviously closed down ! It had been a good week nonetheless, so no grumbles, and there was still time for a roast dinner and a pint of Ghost Ship before thinking of the return journey tomorrow and the delights of the Five Nations Rugby.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A day at Cley. 2.2.2017

I'd promised myself a day spent nowhere else other than at Cley, mainly so that I could discover the pathways etc around the newly extended part of the reserve and , generally, have a good , relaxed days birding.  Firstly I went down the Beach Road and , finally, managed to see the immature Glaucous Gull.

A poor photograph , but a great bird that was certainly confident and provided nice views.

I spent some considerable time trying to catch up with the Siberian Chiffchaff which had been reported ( along with three other Chiffchaffs ) . Certainly the odd Chiffchaff was around but I saw none of them as they appeared to be very mobile. Despite the forecast the weather was nice and sunny , so I had a walk along the new trail out towards Salthouse and visited the new hide.  Not a lot in evidence but I guess this new scrape  is certainly going to "deliver" in future.  I spent the final part of the afternoon looking for the Smew which spent its time between the Serpentime and the seclusion of a nearby ditch. I did finally get some very poor views of an immobile bird hunkered down within some reeds at the far end of said ditch !

The sea was very quiet other than a lone Red-throated Diver and then I had the East Bank to myself as dusk began to fall. A Tawny Owl called from the woodland adjacent to the road and, then, yet another day was over !

North Norfolk challenge!. 1.2.2017

The day started well.  I went to Salthouse early and simply happened across a 3rd winter Caspian Gull that I couldn't even share with anyone  (as I imagine they were still engaged with toast and marmalade or whatever )!  At one point a 3rd winter Herring Gull pitched up alongside as a very useful comparison. Other than that the area was somewhat short of birds.

Ever onward I then discovered what might best be described as a bloody nightmare ! I do try not to use bad language ( it's entirely unnecessary ), but this scenario warranted worse, honestly. There were road diversions in place from Blakeney to the other side of Wells !!!  Signage was minimal, involved a detour around Fakenham and , as we all know, Norfolk's lanes, if you do try and use your initiative are , shall we say, confusing !!!  And so it was . I went through villages of name and description that would be contenders for locations in " Midsommer Murders " , I became lost , wasted time  and cast a pox on all road engineers !! Somehow I managed to find Stiffkey and had a lone time birding over the marshes.

Brent Geese and Little Egret were feeding close in to the car park due to the lack of activity, but little else was in evidence.

Attempts to catch up with previously reported species at both Choseley and Thormham Harbour came to nought, so on I went to the RSPB Titchwell Reserve , and I'm pleased I did as , in many senses, it saved the day.

The list of duck was impressive with Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Pintail, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Shelduck, Common Scoter ( at distance as the tide was out ) supplemented by Brent Geese , Grey lag Goose , overflying Pink footed Goose and an equally  impressive list of waders  including, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot , Dunlin , Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Avocet and, finally a very showy Jack Snipe in the ditch behind the Visitor Centre ( the one that usually delivers Water Rail, but didn't ).  And in addition I had great views of both a Chinese Water Deer and a Muntjac. What more can you ask for ?  There was the question of road diversions , which were still in place , as was the curse of a plague of frogs etc!!!!

Transfer to the coast. 31.1.2017.

Today marked my "transition" to Norfolk's north coast.  I'd planned a rough route which allowed me to call in at various places, but added to this by deciding to go through the centre of Great Yarmouth too. Why,you ask ?  Well, the seafront at Great Yarmouth is one of the easiest places in winter to see Mediterranean Gull, hence my detour.  However, such appeared not to be the case as very few gulls were around at all after my "drive thru" southwards so I resumed my journey northwards feeling a bit disgruntled. Eventually I saw a veritable cloud of Black-headed Gulls and the inevitable figure dispensing bread to the assembled throng ! And, as expected, there within the flock , was a single Mediterranean Gull ; a quite handsome individual with the black flecks of its emerging hood just begining to appear. But only one...interesting !

On, northwards, to near Horsey, in fact almost opposite the point at which we'd all been stationed last evening watching for Cranes and harriers!  Several fields carried pools of water around which were groups of Golden Plover and Lapwing together with low numbers of Common Snipe dispersed across the same areas. Several Skylarks put out phrases from , as yet, incomplete songs.

Onward to Walcott, where I called in at the Kingfisher Cafe ( closed Mondays ! ) for the habitual bacon butty and tea to accompany a sea watch from the adjacent promenade.  The sea was dull, grey and seemingly flat, but carried a restless, disguised swell  that saw birds disappearing for intervals within its advancing embrace.  A few Red-throated Divers, but little else other than scavenging Turnstone and Sanderling   "working the pavement" opposite the cafe, but nowhere else along its length.

And so , finally , to Salthouse , where I saw the results of the storm surge and devastation of less than a couple of weeks ago. As expected a few Mallard, Wigeon, Shelduck , various gulls, a Little Egret and a single Pied Wagtail was all that was on offer so I moved on to the NWT Centre at Cley where I met with people from last evening and picked up on news about a Bean Goose, possibly more, that was with a large Pink-footed Goose flock at Weybourne. So it was back along the road ( not that far ) , parking in the coastal  car park before walking eastwards over the hill to the Coastguards' Cottages to view the flock from the nearby access lane. It was rather a big flock spread over two fields at least , mainly due to being spooked by two idiots who entered the main field trying to get photographs !  I did manage to get a view of at least one of the Bean Geese before heading back to try and get the last couple of hours of daylight at Cley.

Walking along the East Bank at Cley it was immediately obvious where the tidal surge had moved through as some quite large areas of reeds were still flattened. This inundation had reached the coastal road and deposited large volumes of debris carried forward on what must have been a significant tidal surge of 10-15 feet high. Whilst there was plenty of duck and waders in evidence on Pope's Marsh, small birds were few and far between. Both the Local Authority and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust need to be congratulated on restoring normality to what had otherwise been an extreme event which, by now, had no effect on access along the road or within the reserve at all.   I simply enjoyed the raw, wildness of it all, promised myself a full day taking in the delights of the whole area and "retired" at dusk to a welcome pint of "Ghost Ship" and the promise of a good meal!