Monday, 24 October 2016

Getting stuck in

As the days get colder and inevitably wetter, the coastal ranger team set to work on more autumnal tasks. In the last few weeks we have been focusing our efforts on Newton Pool local nature reserve. A brilliant wetland habitat it is home to a host of different species; from shoveler and little grebe to water plantain and otter. Various forms of vegetation management ensure this area is kept in top shape for its inhabitants.
One of the easiest residents to spot are our Exmoor ponies who graze the area throughout the year. Through munching and trampling they ensure the grasses and reeds are kept low, creating open areas for birds and allowing less robust herb plants to flourish. The rangers and volunteers give them a helping hand by cutting and removing areas of grass to create open areas and reduce nutrient levels. Later on in the year we will also coppice a section of the willow and alder to encourage regrowth.
One of the many residents: an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar  © KateBradshaw
Arguably the most entertaining activity is reedmace management. Although a native species to Britain, reedmace Typha latifolia was introduced to the site many years ago and is starting to take over; out-competing other plants and closing in around the pool, making it a less open habitat for birds. Reedmace has an incredible root structure with a good rhizome system that creates a network underground, stretching into the open water.  This means there is only one thing for it – to don the waders and get stuck in (sometimes quite literally).


A volunteer tackling a stand of reedmace 
Volunteers have found themselves knee deep in mud pulling up the towering plants to compost them. There is always the occasional casualty. Although we are yet to have a full face first tumble into the mud this season, we have had two cases of being stuck with a rescue operation required, one lost wellie and a lot of wet feet.


Awards for muddiest participant...

We have to admit we are often distracted by the awesome creatures we find hiding amongst the vegetation. Chasing a spider around trying to get a photo is always a good excuse for a few minutes break.

Pachygnatha clercki found and painstakingly identified by one of our volunteers © KateBradshaw

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Dunes of St. Aidans

Rolling from sandy foreshore to marram covered dune to herb-rich grazing paddocks, St. Aidans dunes are a brilliant example of Northumberland dune habitat. Becoming a multi-coloured swathe of flowers in the spring and summer, they are home to nesting birds, small mammals and hundreds of insects. Although they are naturally very healthy a surprising amount of management goes into ensuring the biodiversity of these dunes is maintained.
Digging out pirri-pirri
Invasive species must be managed to ensure native species can flourish. Lines of volunteers walk the dunes, forks in hand and eyes to the ground, looking for the bright green serrated leaves of pirri-pirri. It’s small brown seed heads attach to clothing and animal fur and spread across the dunes, easily setting seed. An invasive plant introduced from New Zealand, we dig out the roots to prevent its long tendrils out-competing less vigorous native species. Garden varieties have encroached onto the dunes and although some species such as Spanish bluebell and daffodil look beautiful during the spring flowering season they can easily dominate areas and threaten the delicate balance of the herb rich grassland.
Raking grass in the dunes
The dunes are also home to Exmoor ponies that graze the paddocks at certain times of year. They allow herb plants to flourish by preventing the spread of more dominant grasses. We also cut the grass in certain dune hollows that we are unable to put stock on as a form of artificial grazing. The bright yellow of ragwort is a common site along the coast in the summer months and it flourishes in the dunes. Although it is a native species it is poisonous to livestock and so must be dug out of the areas grazed by ponies and areas adjacent to paddocks. Hundreds of cinnabar moth caterpillars, which feed solely on ragwort, have to be relocated from flowering plants being pulled to the tiny ragwort florets that will hopefully be munched before the next flowering season.
Cinnabar moth caterpillar
This management approach is constantly evolving and being assessed to ensure it is as effective as possible. So far it has allowed species such as tufted vetch, meadow vetchling and pyramidal orchids to flourish adding to the botanical mosaic of colour and species. While pulling ragwort our team of volunteers found destroying angel fungi nestled in the grass and an exciting collection of butterflies, such as common blues and painted ladies, could be seen fluttering through the paddocks. Having just finished a big fencing project along the roadside to ensure there any no pony escape attempts this winter, we are now turning our minds to pirri-pirri hunting and other winter management work in the beautiful dines of St. Aidans.
Common blue butterfly

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

All Quiet on this Westerly Front

Autumn has officially arrived, and with it come migrant birds.
Or at least, that's the theory: countless birds head south for the winter, with the right weather conditions causing some to stop and rest at sites such as the Farne Islands. Extreme weather, particularly with easterly winds, can even produce rare birds not normally seen in Britain - the Farnes have a great track record for these national scarcities.
This autumn, however, has seen an almost constant procession of westerly winds, resulting in low numbers of migrant birds stopping over on the islands. But despite the overall low abundance, the constant (and often unrewarding) searching has turned up a few highlights.
The first was actually spotted by Andy Douglas of Serenity boats, who called on the third of August to let us know an Osprey was passing over Inner Farne - the 20th record for the islands. The following day saw a small influx of Little Stint on the mainland, prompting a search trip to the Outer Group where, with a pleasing inevitability, we located a juvenile on Brownsman pond. After drawing a blank in 2015, it was good to get this species on the year list, and even better when a second bird was discovered on Knoxes Reef on the 20th of August!
Little Stint, © Ed Tooth
The most exciting discovery of the autumn came on the ninth of August, when an unmistakable whistle called attention to the unbelievable sight of a Kingfisher flying along the shore of Inner Farne. It perched for around 15 seconds, before flashing off across the Kettle and out of sight. Only the third ever record from the islands!
The next few weeks produced a juvenile Cuckoo on Inner Farne on the 15th of August, a juvenile Black Tern north through Staple Sound on the 16th, a Mute Swan and five Pochard past Inner Farne on the 24th, and a Long-eared Owl on Brownsman on the 27th. Then, finally, easterly winds arrived and the results were instant: the 28th of August saw not only a small influx of common migrants such as Garden Warbler, Whinchat and Pied Flycatcher, but also the arrival of a skulking Wryneck, an obliging Wood Warbler and the Farnes' 18th Hen Harrier. The Wood Warbler stuck around until the 30th, showing beautifully to rangers and visitors alike, but the other birds were all one-day-wonders, disappearing as the westerly winds returned.
Wood Warbler, © Tom Hibbert
These prevailing winds have also kept things quiet at sea, with very few migratory seabirds recorded during our daily seawatches. We typically rely on northerly winds to produce a memorable seawatch, and so far this autumn there has only been one spell of anything even close to northerly winds, coming in early September. This spell produced the first (and so far only) Sooty Shearwater of the season, when it cruised past the south end of Inner Farne towards Longstone on the fourth of September.
The following morning was also relatively productive, with 38 Brent Geese, 184 Teal, 161 Common Scoter, one Velvet Scoter, eight Wigeon and three Red-throated Diver all flying north. Going south at the same time were singles of Tufted Duck and Great Crested Grebe, which may be common on mainland lakes but are actually fairly rare out here.
But the real seawatching highlight came that afternoon. At 07:53, a Cory's Shearwater was seen flying north past Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire. The bird was tracked moving north up the coast, reaching Beadnell at 12:44. A nervy ten-minute wait followed before it appeared in Staple Sound, cruising lazily north and giving great views to some lucky rangers and visitors. To top it off, two juvenile Pomarine Skua flew north shortly afterwards.
The final surprise of the autumn came just yesterday (13th of September), when an unusual call drew attention to a low-flying Pacific Golden Plover heading north over Inner Farne. If this sighting is accepted by the records committee it will represent the first ever record for the islands.
The records so far just go to show that even in less than ideal conditions, there are exciting migrants out there waiting to be found. We'll keep our eyes and ears open, and if you are visiting the islands please let us know of any birds you spot; who knows what could appear next!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The end of another season

The breeding season at the Long Nanny tern site has drawn to a close. The majority of the birds have left, starting the migration to their wintering grounds. The site is packed up, tents collapsed and the assistant rangers that vigilantly watched the colony throughout the summer have moved on to other things.
Little terns and Arctic terns nesting on the Long Nanny spit © Kate Bradshaw
It hasn't been an easy season, but five little tern Sternula albifrons chicks fledged from a minimum of seventeen nesting pairs. There were thirty seven nesting attempts made through out the season, but some of these may have been repeat attempts by pairs that lost nests earlier in the season. It is therefore impossible to say exactly how many pairs nested on site. The nesting success of the little terns was impacted by stoat, kestrel and poor weather mainly during the incubation period. 

Although the number of fledglings seems low we managed to avoid any losses due to flooding of nests at exceptionally high tides in June and July. This is through ranger intervention during the events and the raising of nests onto fishing crates to reduce the impact of tides. Some of the little tern colony nested in a new area of the site this year. This provided them with slightly more protection against high tides compared to the exposed area of spit that they have historically nested on. This meant that three nests did not need to be raised onto fishing crates at all this year.

Little tern nests raised onto fishing crates and pallets © Kevin Redgrave
Around a thousand pairs of Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea bred on site this year, which is almost half of last years breeding population. Sadly they experienced a very difficult season, with only two chicks known to have fledged.  Their nests were impacted by the extreme high tides and productivity was affected by poor weather, predation and possibly poor feeding when chicks were hatching.

Ringed plover Charadrius hiaticulaalso also breed at the Long Nanny and are often forgotten in the hubbub of the tern colony. This year five chicks were successfully fledged from sixteen known nesting attempts by a minimum of six pairs.
Ringed Plover
A variety of predators were a problem this year with stoat and kestrel causing the most problems. Earlier in the season we also struggled with crows and gulls, particularly black-headed raiding the site. However the vigilance of the five rangers and volunteers protected the little tern colony from the majority of predator attacks until site closure on 27th July.

Many thanks to this years’ assistant rangers  - Alan, Rachelle, Oliver, Scarlett and Will, all the volunteers that worked throughout the season and to everyone who cooperated with them to help make the breeding season as successful as possible.

Sunset at the Long Nanny ©Rachelle Regan