The fudge duck at Ham Wall

Seeing a ferruginous duck at Ham Wall brought back memories from when I was about 8 on a family holiday in Scotland. It’s a distinctively-coloured duck which normally lives in south-eastern Europe, but a handful come to the UK each year.

Dad had previously been very excited to see a black-throated diver, which didn’t interest me at all. But a bit later he was also thrilled to see a Ferruginous Duck – pointing out to me the unusual colouring. For some reason that did catch my interest, and the event has stayed in my mind since then.

I’ve wanted to see another one ever since – and dipped ignominiously a few years ago (apparently a female was in full view but I hadn’t recognised it). Thus when a drake showed up a couple of days ago at Ham Wall, I had to go.

Ferruginous Duck with coot and female mallard

I arrived in the hide at about 10.30 to find an array of birders already there. It was all quiet. One guy smiled and pointed into his telescope – and there it was, in full view. He also showed me where to view with my binoculars, and I was able to watch it for about an hour. With its colour it’s not hard to see why it’s called ‘ferruginous’ – the white tail end is also very characteristic.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck with gadwall

On my way back towards the car I stopped off at the first viewing platform as there were plenty of birds to see. The unexpected bonus was to see the glossy ibis: it’s been at Ham Wall for a couple of years but although I’d seen it several times, I’d never had as good views as I had today. The lighting was reasonably good and the photos below capture something of their iridescence – which leads to their ‘glossy’ name.

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

An obliging woodpecker – and the day I took Jen on a twitch…

There’s a green woodpecker that turns up on the back lawn at the Vicarage occasionally, and yesterday afternoon it appeared again. Because of the slightly odd construction of the covered area between the kitchen and garage, there’s a convenient half fence that allows me to photograph birds in the garden unnoticed. I used that for the woodpecker, as it bounced around the lawn energetically. Unfortunately it was soon heading exactly in the right line for my cover to no longer work, so that the moment it caught sight of me it flew off agitatedly. Nevertheless I secured a couple of reasonable snaps…

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

One of the local specialities is the number of bearded tits which frequent the nature reserves: dozens of pairs nested at Ham Wall this year. They are notoriously rather elusive, and until last month I hadn’t had a good sighting of one. However, elusiveness does not equate to shyness – a point I hadn’t realised until I was told about the boardwalk on the way to the Island Hide at Westhay. This is where seed is put out for them, which they eat in full view of the birdwatchers around.

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Obviously a better photograph would be to catch one in a more natural environment – but as this was my first proper sighting of them, I’m content for the time being!

Meanwhile, last month a mega rarity showed up in South Wales, near Abergavenny – in the quarries around Pwll Du. This was a common rock thrush, a bird which breeds on rocky mountain slopes in southern Europe, but should winter south of the Sahara. Why an adult male should head in the opposite direction is something of a mystery. I persuaded Jen that a cold, grey, drizzly day wouldn’t dampen the excitement of seeing such a rare bird – or at least, I persuaded Jen to tolerate my enthusiasm on the matter! We arrived the day after the bird first showed up: over the next few weeks it became bolder and more amenable to photography, but while we were there it was fairly distant even while clearly visible. I did at least manage a few decent record shots!

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

There’s a nice account of John Marsh’s discovery of the bird here – he’d actually been looking for ring ouzels when he stumbled across it. Unfortunately the bird disappeared a few days ago – I say ‘unfortunately’ because the weather is turning cold, and the bird’s capacity to be sensible and go south rather than north seems a bit limited.

After spending an hour or so admiring the rock thrush and wishing it had got closer, we decided to go for a walk up one of the nearby hills. We chose Blorenge, the hill that overlooks Abergavenny: it is next to Pwll Du and was walkable within the time available. It was cold and damp, shrouded in fog and boggy on the top – but we enjoyed it!

Looking a bit damp on the top of Blorenge

First encounters with French wildlife

I was meant to be taking an interest in a chateau – but something else had caught my eye. A large white and black butterfly was fluttering around which I’d never seen before. With a bit of fortune, I obtained a decent photo. I did some quick research and found it was a scarce swallowtail (which is a misnomer for France). The curious thing was that until I saw the photo, I was convinced that the head of the butterfly was at the other end – so maybe the coloration and stripiness was intentionally deceptive?

Scarce Swallowtail at La Guerche chateau.

I was amazed by how many butterflies we saw throughout the two weeks, many of which were new to me, including other new species like the Cleopatra and the White Admiral.

There were also lots of lizards. When we arrived in the small, picturesque town of Carennac, we parked on a roadside carpark which overlooked the River Dordogne. There was a wall which paralleled the road, on the top of which was a particularly obliging wall lizard, which didn’t seem to mind my putting the camera lens so close to its face. Perhaps it was used to lapping up the attention? We then found that we had parked illegally, so we had to depart swiftly!

Wall lizard at Carennac

During our week staying in Gramat, we took a walk from Lacave, choosing one which appeared to follow the line of the Ouysse river for much of it. We hadn’t reckoned on the scrubby line of trees along the river bank, though, which meant we had very few good views. On one of the few occasions when we found a significant gap in the trees, I went to the water’s edge and found myself eye-to-eye with a marsh frog!

Frog lounging in the river near Lacave

The birding was much more difficult than I had expected: possibly late August wasn’t a good time, and possibly I was going to the wrong areas: but even a dawn walk in a wooded area near Gramat was fairly futile. Towards the end of our stay, we went to the nature reserve at La Brenne, which is about 50 miles east of Châtellerault – and that made up for my previous attempts!

The first lake we went to, by the reserve’s centre, was full of egrets, which reminded me of the Somerset Levels. The second lake we went to, the Étang Ricot, seemed to have hardly any birds: until we saw a purple heron being chased off by a grey heron. As I’d only once seen a purple heron before, and that only briefly, this felt notable.

Jen then went off for a run (in the heat of the day – and it was hot!) while I went to the Terres de Renard. Another purple heron lurking distantly on the side of the lake, and I took many photos of it. Then another flew in much closer to the hide, providing much better and more dramatic opportunities.

Purple heron on the prowl – at La Brenne nature reserve

I watched it prowl around for a while and observed its similarity to the familiar grey heron – but thought it looked more slender and weaker than its cousin. How wrong I was!

After catching a couple of small fish and swallowing them whole, it then plunged after something much bigger.

Purple heron subduing its catch

When I saw what it had caught, I was astonished…

Purple heron with a huge catch

I was staggered by the size of its catch – it could have fed Jen and me for several meals! This one wasn’t for downing in one gulp, and having speared it successfully it strode off into the reeds to dismember its prey.

On the way to the final lake we went to, I saw a flurry of back-and-white wings and shouted ‘hoopoe’! Jen stopped the car and we watched it fly into a bush and then up to a telegraph wire. It looked like a great photo opportunity but, spying some food on the ground, it dropped down. Jen edged the car forward, then I used the passenger door as a hide, and just managed to control my excitement enough to secure a presentable photo.

Hoopoe near the La Brenne reserve

Throughout the day we saw plenty of coypu. They’re entertaining animals, not least in their being very visible and watchable – and I’d have been excited if these sightings weren’t tinged with the regret that they are an invasive species with detrimental consequences to the native ecology.

Coypu swimming at La Brenne

What’s not to like about a small furry animal washing itself – even if it is a coypu?

At our final stop, at the Étang Purais, we hoped to see squacco herons, which we’d been told were there. I looked out of one of the windows of the hide and saw none, and tried further round. Jen went to the first window and announced, “I’ve just seen a bittern there!”. Knowing that Jen can be a very alert observer without being expert, I said, “no you haven’t, you’ve just seen a squacco heron!” Indeed she had – the first time she’s seen a new species before I have! It’s intriguing seeing these birds acting like normal herons – except on a much smaller scale.

Squacco heron

Three humbugs, with spashes of yellow and red

About ten days’ ago I bumped into Sue Sellick in Shapwick village: had I seen the grebes from the Decoy Hide on the Heath recently? A pair had nested close to the hide, and their three chicks were still young enough to be hitching rides on their parents’ backs. I hadn’t, but I persuaded Jen that we really should go. They were just outside the hide and very photogenic!

Great crested Grebe at Shapwick Heath with a humbug hitching a ride.

The parents took it in turns to carry their chicks while the other went fishing.

The chicks seemed to have insatiable appetites…

There were three little humbugs in all, though usually only one showed at any one time.

Family portrait on a sunny afternoon…

A few days previously I went to Harnhill, in Cirencester, for three days’ retreat. While there I went on a walk over the fields towards Ampney Crucis – and I heard many yellowhammers singing, for the first time in ages. This may be because I’ve not been in typical yellowhammer habitat in a long time, but it’s a nationally red-listed species, meaning that it is endangered because of a serious recent population decline. I was determined to get a good photo, and having spotted a favourite perch of one pair, I went back a couple of times to do so.

Yellowhammer near Harnhill, Cirencester

At the end of last week, while Jen was still in London, I went up one of the coombs on the edge of the Quantocks to try to see redstarts. I wasn’t particularly hopeful of much more than a distant sighting, and in the lower part of the valley the lack of birdsong didn’t improve my outlook. Halfway up, I happened to turn around, just in time to see a flash of red tail feathers fly across the path. It was indeed a redstart! After hanging around for a while I realised I was close to the nest site, and found myself watching both parents while they were feeding their young. Although my camera ended up malfunctioning, it was my best sighting of redstarts, and my first photographic sequence of the male was at least halfway decent!

Redstart in the Quantocks

Morrey Salmon: the father of British bird photography

A few months ago I went to visit Norman Salmon, a retired Army major living in Ashcott. He talked about his life in the military, particularly his involvement in the Korean war; he also told me about his later pursuit of his future wife, which led him to southern Africa and to cross half of Europe to re-unite with her: a wonderful Cold War romance that would grace a movie! As I was leaving, he showed me some photos of his father, Morrey Salmon, who had risen to the rank of colonel whilst serving in World War 2 with the RAF regiment – but whose real passion was as a pioneer of wildlife photography.

I was fascinated and found a copy of his book, which he co-wrote with Geoffrey Ingram in 1934, “Birds in Britain today”. A few weeks later Norman gave me a copy of the biography he and his brother had written about their illustrious father, which gave me some of  his background.

Morrey Salmon, holding a juvenile puffin on Skokholm

Morrey Salmon, who was born in 1891, had a distinguished military career in two world wars. One of his most notable achievements came near the end of the first world war, when he led the liberation of the small French town of Bry. His company came under heavy gunfire, and they lost 24 soldiers in the conflict, but he was determined to persevere and succeeded in taking and securing the town even with a depleted company. Norman visited Bry over ninety years later, and was honoured in a civic ceremony as the son of their chief liberator.

Between the wars he worked in his father’s business, South Wales India Rubber Company, but joined up again at the start of the second world war. He was the Commander of the RAF Regiment in North Africa, and then rose to the rank of colonel for the invasion of Sicily, before ultimately taking overall charge of the RAF regiments for the invasion of Italy.

For all this, it was nature that was his greatest passion. He was avidly interested in photography from an early age, and took his first photograph of a bird in 1909. He joined the Cardiff Naturalists in 1910, and two years later started its Photographic section. In 1914 some of his photos appeared in a major exhibition in London.

Morrey_Salmon_RBS1crmed

Photo of a red-backed shrike at a nest in Wales. This is of considerable historical interest because this species no longer breeds in the UK.

He used much of his spare time in the inter-war years in the countryside, observing and photographing wildlife. His chief companion in this was Geoffrey Ingram, and the two of them eventually wrote a book together, “Birds of Britain today”. It’s a fascinating record of the birdlife in the UK at the time, and the comparison between the 1930s and now is quite revealing.

For example, I was intrigued to see a substantial entry on the red-backed shrike, complete with a photograph of a male on a nest. It was then a regular breeding bird throughout the UK, although sparsely distributed: it happened that there were several pairs near them in South Wales which they were able to observe at close quarters on many occasions. However, they wrote that “Our own view is that it is becoming, or indeed has become much scarcer, especially in the western districts which we know so well.” This was a perceptive observation: red-backed shrikes ceased breeding altogether in the UK by 1989. There have been a few signs of hope since then – for example with two pairs breeding on Dartmoor in 2010 [ref1;ref2] – but this is still very far from their widespread distribution in the early part of the twentieth century.

Peregrine falcon feeding her youngsters on her cliff-face eyrie

Today, the way for a wildlife photographer to get a close shot of a bird would be to use a big zoom lens – but when Morrey Salmon was active, such lenses did not exist. The only option was to build hides near to where the birds were. This was how he was able to get such good shots of the shrikes, for example. Writing about a hide that they had set up near a peregrine’s nest, he and Ingram were almost lyrical about its location:

Crouched in a hide on a narrow shelf high up on the face of a cliff, all the world seemed open to our sight, and the view stretching away for miles across the hills was almost indescribable. Behind the hide, a little waterfall festooned at its lip with great masses of Saxifraga hypnoides, splashed and tinkled unceasingly, while to its music was added the wild and ringing pipings of the Ring-Ouzels nesting on the screes below… In front, not more than twelve feet away, upon a small ledge fringed with polypody ferns, and separated from the hide by a deep cleft in the face of the cliff, was the Peregrines’ eyrie containing three small young about a week old.

This makes photography with big zoom lenses seem quite tame by comparison!

Twenty years later he was experimenting with flash photography. On one occasion he and a colleague (Arthur Brook) decided to try to snap swifts as they flew up to their nests, realising that early evening was the best time to do it. So they rigged up a camera and flash system on a ladder which they operated below. The experiment was a great success but there was something odd about what they saw. As he describes it:

An extraordinary photo of a swift in flight, arriving at a nest, with cheeks stuffed full of insects it has caught.

We developed the plates while having supper and when we looked at the negatives we simply could not understand what we had got because the head of the bird in each case had the profile of an Otter. When I arrived there next evening Arthur had printed some and the mystery was resolved. The bird’s throat was so bulged out with a mass of flies that it reached beyond the tip of the bill. We had obtained what had never been done before – photographs of speeding swifts flying up to their nests with food for their young and flying out again.

Morrey Salmon’s passion for wildlife and its photography led him to be at the forefront of nature conservation at a time when it was a small minority interest. When writing about the peregrine, he referred to the antagonism of pigeon breeders whose birds were being killed by peregrines. He and Ingram wrote: “When surveying the pros and cons of this question, it is well for all to bear in mind that pigeons can be raised artificially in thousands, annually, but once let a species like the peregrine be exterminated it is exceedingly improbable that it can ever be re-established. It seems an exceedingly unwise policy to allow our native birds of prey to be exterminated for the sake of imported or artifically reared creatures which represent nothing but so much £ s. d.”

It was a theme to which they returned at the end of their book. In a passionate plea to gamekeepers, they urged them to cease their persecution of birds of prey, and in particular to end some of the more barbaric practices that were then used. They conclude their book thus: “…as sportsmen, will you not give the most sporting birds we have, the largest raptors especially, a sporting chance?”.

Their words did not fall on deaf ears, even if change was slow. The work of naturalists like Salmon and Ingram ultimately led to legislative change through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which – amongst other things – made it an offence to kill any bird (with certain obvious exceptions), with higher penalties for the killing of many of the raptor species, like peregrines and harriers, which appeared on Schedule 1 of the Act.

Morrey Salmon’s distinguished life was given appropriate reward: his military career, for example, earned him two military crosses and a CBE. His conservation work led him to be awarded the Gold Medal of the RSPB, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Wales. The significance of his photography is probably best described by another notable pioneer, Eric Hosking, who described him as the ‘Father of British Bird Photography’. Even now, in the early 21st century, it is clear that he was an exceptionally skilled wildlife photographer.

Birds of Britain Today, by Geoffrey C S Ingram and H Morrey Salmon, published by Nicholson & Watson, 1934.

Footprints on the Sands of Time: the life of Colonel Harry Morrey Salmon, by Norman & Hugh Salmon, 2011

Future forests of the past

It’s not often that a headline will make me want to buy a newspaper immediately – but this one from the Western Daily Press did so: “Forest hope for pine martens”. The article described a new study, by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is directed towards the future release of pine martens in the Forest of Dean. A few years ago, I went to a wildlife hide in the Cairngorms specifically to see the pine martens (see photo); so I’d be delighted to see them much closer in the next-door county!

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore: they’re very engaging animals, which would boost ecotourism in the Forest of Dean.

Re-introducing formerly native species back into the UK is something that I’m very interested in. Thus, in 2010 I went to Knapdale Forest in Argyll to see the beavers that had been released there, and have been following the progress of the beaver re-introductions ever since.

So why should we be releasing species back into the wild? Here are a few reasons.

  • Hunting by humans led to the extinction of beavers four hundred years ago, and the restriction of pine martens to the remoter parts of Scotland. Now, in a much more conservation-minded era, I think we have a moral obligation to release these species back into the wild.
  • As these species used to be part of the British ecosystem, there is little doubt that they would again thrive in the UK. Furthermore, they’d return to an ecosystem that co-evolved with them – and would have none of the problems associated with alien species like coypus and American mink (about which, more in a moment).
  • They would bring beneficial effects to other species. For example, writing about the alien grey squirrels and their detrimental effect on our native reds, George Monbiot wrote, “…there is another way of dealing with grey squirrels, which requires hardly any expense, indeed hardly any human intervention at all. Unlike trapping, shooting or poisoning, it works. It is happening with extreme prejudice in Ireland at the moment. There is a scientific term for this method. Pine martens.” Monbiot went on to describe how the introduction of pine martens into Ireland had a dramatic effect: the reds – which are too fast and agile to be easy prey – have been bouncing back, at the expense of their slower and fatter grey cousins.
  • Beaver in Knapdale Forest: it was well worth a midge-infested dawn walk to see them!

    Beavers are regarded as natural ecosystem engineers, because their dams create new habitat, such as ponds. They are likely to have a strongly positive effect on biodiversity. A detailed analysis in Mammal Review showed that otters, water voles and great crested newts, which are all nationally endangered, should all be beneficiaries.

  • Ecotourism is profitable. I’m an example of the potential market for this, as someone who has made efforts to see pine martens, beavers and otters. As I chat with people in the bird hides here, I’m conscious of how many people travel large distances in order to see the wildlife in the Somerset Levels, which suggests that the ecotourism market is quite large.

The process to re-introduce a species does, however, seem slow and expensive. One of the intriguing aspects to the re-introduction of beavers is that there has been a highly successful unofficial release program in the Tay valley at the same time as the rather expensive formal scheme run by Scottish National Heritage in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Jim Crumley describes this in his engaging and enthusiastic book, “Nature’s architects: the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes”. There is much more romance to the unofficial scheme than to the rather plodding official one – but history reveals a less rosy record regarding other unplanned releases.

  • When I was a kid and my parents took me to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, I was excited to see a coypu from one of the less well frequented hides. This would no longer be possible because they have now been exterminated, as their effect on the landscape is destructive (for example, in severely damaging reedbeds), without the redeeming features of beaver engineering. For a species that is a resident of South America, there was an understandable lack of sympathy. They are regarded as a pest species in France and other parts of Europe. [ref]

Coypu in western France near Cenon-sur-Vienne

  • Like coypus, American mink were brought into the UK for fur farming, but regular escapes led to a growing British poulation which had a devastating effect on our own water voles. This is because mink are small enough to be able to pursue water voles into their own burrows, and their daily need for meat is particularly high when they are feeding their young. While strenuous efforts are being made to eradicate them, this is proving very difficult. As it happens, some of the best allies in this are otters, for whom mink are a nice meal, and for whom water vole burrows are too small.

These two ecological disasters illustrate why official release schemes, for all their slowness and bureaucracy, are actually needed.

Other ideas that are being circulated include the desire to release a top predator into the wild. The likeliest, at least in the near future, is the lynx. As a secretive, solitary cat it is likely to spend most of its time hiding in forests, dining on deer, avoiding human contact and ignoring sheep. The Lynx UK Trust is currently leading the campaign for their re-introduction, and would like to release them into the Kielder Forest area of Northumberland (where Jen and I went recently) and the Borders.

Another species is the wolf. Their re-introduction to Yellowstone has had a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem: the elk moved from grazing out in the open to frequenting denser woodland; aspen and willow trees therefore recovered, providing better habitat for beavers, which grew from one colony to eight [ref]. As it happens there’s a video clip on Facebook about this which is doing the rounds as I write, which argues that the arrival of the wolves there ultimately led even to the rivers becoming more stable: the clip appears to be derived from a talk given by George Monbiot, to which video was added here.

Although I would love to see wolves re-introduced to, say, the Scottish Highlands, I recognise that a predator which lives and hunts in packs is much more contentious than a solitary, elusive, forest cat. While they would undoubtedly help to control the red deer population, they might also find the local sheep a tasty alternative. It would probably be better to re-introduce the lynx first and assess its impact on the environment before beginning to seriously contemplate releasing wolves.

I’d be delighted if pine martens were released into the Forest of Dean – even more so if this was followed by lynxes. There’s a colony of beavers which has mysteriously appeared on the aptly-named River Otter – and I’d certainly be excited if they happened to make their way up to the Somerset Levels! I strongly believe that continuing to re-introduce these species into the wild is the right course of action: we will have a more biodiverse countryside, which will lead to our own lives being enriched by them.

Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!