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!