31st December (Mon)
I dropped in on Decoy Lake which is only a few miles from my home and is a popular place for dog walkers and those with kids. It also acts as a small recreational lake where they do canoeing and a few other water based activities, however, it’s not massively active so the water doesn’t get disturbed much and therefore birds happily gather on it. With the exception of a bit of marginal habitat and some very small areas of reed, the lake offers little variety for much else than gulls, a few ducks and the odd drop in Cormorant or swans.
However, as with any site, and particularly if it has water, anything can and does turn up. Today I went out to see a Great Northern Diver which had been reported on the lake; a species usually seen on the sea but does occasionally turn up inland on lakes. It gave me the run around for a while, walking around the whole lake, not seeing it until the very last stop where it turned up fishing close to one of the edges. It was a little far away so the pictures aren’t great but you can certainly notice its a little different.
They’re about the same size and superficially look similar to a Cormorant, with a long flat back and long billed face on a thick(ish) neck. And just like cormorant, they also spend a lot of time floating on the water and diving underneath in search of fish. The trick to picking them out is the bill which is thick and dagger-like. Colour can also help as Cormorants have yellow in the bill which our common divers don’t have and generally greyish whites.
This bird is in full winter plumage which is always duller, made up of greys, blacks and white, as is true for all winter divers. The other divers which you might come across are Black-throated and Red-throated divers which again are both generally only found on the sea along our coasts in winter but are less common. Unfortunately there name doesn’t elude to an easy distinguishing feature between the three (google images for the winter plumage of each), however, the way to pick out a Great Northern Diver is the white notch in its black half collar which neither of the other two have. It also help that Great Northern Diver is the biggest of the three with the heaviest bill, so a chunky sizeable looking bird can be reassuring ‘feeling’ when you look at it.
Who knows how long this bird will hang around, it seemed happy and very successfully fishing here, but what’s really nice is to be able to watch it close up and pick out those ID features on calmer waters than the sea often provides! Other birds seen on the lake today included Mute Swan (4), Cormorant (2), Mallard, Tufted Duck (14), Coot (6), Moorhen (2), Black-headed Gull (~175), Herring Gull (~25) and a Kingfisher.
30th December (Sun)
I happened to be in London today following a 30th birthday party in Wimbledon. Strolling back through some of the streets I couldn’t help but notice the screeching parrot-like sound of birds flying over my head. This isn’t a new sound to me, far from it, as I don’t think a visit to anywhere in London doesn’t result in at least one of these birds being heard at some point; Ring-necked Parakeet (or Rose-necked Parakeet).
You always hear first, see second with this bird as they tend to hang high up in the tree tops in small groups or pairs. When in flight they move fast and direct but the parrot shape silhouette is distinct. Even if you only get a glimpse, the very long thin tail trailing behind will always make an impression in you mind as something a bit unusual. If you do get a good view, well, I don’t think anyone will miss-ID this bird – it’s a vibrant green parrot! Do try to pick out the ‘ring’ though as the rosy-red necklace of feathers is rather beautiful.
Although London is littered with them and they only seem to be increasingly, they are still not super common across the country. Reports are frequent from elsewhere but always small numbers and in urban locations, usually hanging out near garden feeders especially in winter. Whether these are birds dispersing from London or more local escapees is anyone’s guess but I’ve yet to see one locally despite reading reports of birds in both Exeter and Plymouth. To be honest, as cool as parrots are, I really hope they don’t spread; they out compete native tree hole nesting birds and generally look very wrong here, however, I doubt I’ll get my wish.
28th December (Fri)
Morning high tide visit to Bowling Green Marsh and the viewing was rather difficult. A thick blanket fog covered the whole of the estuary and pools in front of the hide. It was a good test for identifying birds just by shapes and jizz as the mist allowed views of up to around 15m out and the birds seemed extra nervy, flushing every 10 minutes or so. They seemed to opt to spread out further as a result making accurate counts frankly impossible.
Black-tailed Godwit were present in good numbers of several hundred joined by around 15 Bar-tailed Godwit which sat tightly in one group. Some of the usual ducks were present; Mallard, Pintail (4), Teal and Shoveler. Lapwing, Redshank and a gentle scattering of Dunlin were also present. Probably the stand out birds were the Snipe which looked to be in really good numbers, maybe up to 20 around, and the odd Golden Plover which is unusual on the pools as the main flock tends to hang out on the estuary irrespective of the tide.
26th December (Wed)
Back in the village churchyard and another frequently seen conifer you can ID easily. I remember this tree from my childhood as one was planted in a front garden on the street I grew up on. Given the name ‘Pom Pom Tree’ because of the little ball-like cones which grew on it, myself and the other local kids used to gather at this tree to play various games or to pick the cones to throw at each other. Little did I know back then that its proper name wasn’t Pom Pom Tree but in fact Lawson Cypress – I think our name was better!
This is by far the largest in the cemetery standing at some 15m+ tall and has a beautiful twisted trunk at it’s base before splitting off into several smaller forked trunks half way up. These trees can grow much much bigger than this, often twice the size, and the division of the main trunk into lots of smaller trunks is common. What makes this tree super easy to identify are the leaves which are green year long and look like a series of overlapping scales not dissimilar to snake-skin. If you peel back the leaves you’ll see, hidden underneath, a twig which each leaf is attached to and where each of the many revel-sized cones are fixed. You’ll also notice the silvery/white underside of the leaves which you can just about see coming through when the leaves are at rest.
This species is frequent across the UK and has many ornamental varieties which come in several different forms/shapes, however, the ID features above are always present. Unfortunately there are a lot of other species in t he Cypress family which you could come across and confuse this with although this is the most common. Once you start looking more frequently you tend to be able to spot the differences which are mostly the general shape of tree and how it holds it leaves; Lawson Cypress hold its leave in flattened horizontal sprays.
Fun Tip: crush the leaves and smell the very distinct herby aroma – parsley anyone?
25th December (Tue)
Stuffed full of Christmas dinner (my first vegetarian one!), I managed to waddle out for a short walk on Christmas Day to explore the local cemetery. Rather appropriately, stood right in front of the church, is a Norway Spruce; otherwise know as a Christmas tree it’s lovingly placed in people’s homes and decorated with lights and…well…stuff! This one has stood here for several decades, long enough for it to grow to a decent size and have plenty of cones on it!
If you’re familiar with Christmas tree’s then you have no problem picking out the classic conical shape of Norway Spruce but if you’re a little unsure then the cones can really help with identification; incredibly long and cigar-shaped, hanging pendulous from the branches in clumps. The scales on the cones are very characteristic too which are diamond-shaped with the bottom edge sometimes jagged or having a double point.
There is only one species it could be confused with which is a Sitka Spruce. They are superficially very similar but two things to look out for:
1. Needles – they have a ridge making them stiffer/sharper to the touch than Norway Spruce
2. Cones – the edges of the scales are very crinkled compared to Norway Spruce which is mostly smooth except the bottom edge (as said above)
I was surprised to find out it’s needles are frequently eaten by the caterpillar of several species of moth (spruce carpet, cloaked pug, dwarf pug and barred red if you’re interested). Norway Spruce is found all over the country and planted frequently in forestry plantations. It’s actually a reintroduced species, believed to have once been native pre the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago before being reintroduced 500 years or so ago.
December 23rd (Sun)
I spent the afternoon on the Somerset Levels, mostly on Shapwick Heath and then later on RSPB Ham Wall for the Starling roost hoping for a good display. It was a relaxed chatty walk rather than a wildlife focused one so we only really briefly looked at the flooded pool called Meare Heath and from the hide looking over Noah’s Lake. At the hide there were plenty of ducks around including over a 1000 Wigeon, ~200 Pintail, Tufted Duck, Gadwall and some Teal alongside Canada Geese, Cormorants and Mute Swans – you can tell from my list that I wasn’t paying too much attention…
One bird that was hard to miss was the Great Egret that was sat right next to the path before the hide. I see these, without fail, every time I come to the Levels and they are easy to pick out being all white and their general size which is twice the proportional size of the only bird it could be confused with which is a Little Egret. Two other features worth noting are the bright yellow beak and the S-curved neck which is a particularly helpful ID feature when seen in flight and your perspective of size is slightly lost. They were a bird that used to be super rare less than 10 years ago, maybe even 5, but now they are a common site in this part of the country and spreading, so you could easily stumble across one.
We did make it to the Starling roost and despite some slight drizzle initially the weather did clear up and stay dry for their arrival starting at 3.45pm – 20 or so minutes before the sunset. The birds don’t arrive all at one, more in drips and drabs numbering hundreds to thousands of birds, and slowly collecting into ever increasing numbers. What you’re really hoping for is that they decide to twist and swirl before entering their roost in the reed where up 500,000 can eventually gather together. It doesn’t always happen and despite the many many times I’ve been, I’ve rarely been lucky to see a really good display, however, todays was a really good one with birds swooping and dancing in the most amazing patterns!
You really must make time to go and you have before the end of February at which point the birds disperse for the Spring – you have be warned!
December 22nd (Sat)
It was a beautifully sunny morning so I kicked off the day with a run from Thornbury (where I was staying) down to the River Severn by the second Bridge, an area known as Whale Wharf. I like to leave avoid headphones when I run, partly for fear of being run over by a car, but also so I can hear birds as I go. Plenty of Robins were singing which are pretty much the only bird in constant song at the moment (I’ll explain why another time), the odd Wren alarm calling, a Treecreeper in song and a nice big flock of 60 Fieldfare which were chattering away as they flew across open fields between mature trees in the hedgerows. I didn’t have my binoculars with me but I could pick out lots of Oystercatchers and the odd Curlew feeding on the estuary mud when I finally reached the river.
I also had a lovely surprise later in the day when I visited the local shops and spotted this Red Admiral feeding on a Hebe (ornamental plant). This butterfly stands out because of it’s black velvety wings marked with red bands and dotted white at the wing tips – nothing else to really confuse this with. It was once thought that Red Admirals were only a migrant species to the UK with adult butterflies flying to Britain from North Africa (yes, really!) and Central Europe in the spring to lay eggs. The resulting emerging adults are the ones we then see during Summer before these individuals migrate south again to avoid death by frostbite.
Historically it was believed they couldn’t winter in the UK and any butterflies spotted in Nov/Dec were the product of eggs being laid very late in locations with enough warmth to allow them to hatch. However, Red Admirals are being seen increasingly frequently in the UK and with our seemingly milder winters, it may now be the case that this butterfly will change to being classed as both migrant and resident – a species which is benefiting from climate change.
December 21st (Fri)
I took my mum out for a walk today at Ideford Common which sits in a larger area of mixed woodland/plantation and heathland type habitat on Haldon Hills. Our mission was Christmas related; find pine cones to make festive bird feeders for the garden. I’ve explored lots of the sites on Haldon and knew that it was a good place to find conifers. Hopefully, somewhere in amongst the numerous trees, would be a Pine species with large cones! Arriving in the car park, you’re immediately surrounded by birds thanks to the feeding stations set up on cut tree stumps and in hanging feeders; Coal tit, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Robin and a Nuthatch all seen in about 5 minutes.
We left the car park and walked the muddy trails in search of pine trees. There were plenty of trees around but one species was completely dominant; the Western Hemlock. It’s easy to identify as it appears to hold its needles flat, with the majority and longer needles facing outwards, opposite from one another. Compare this to most other conifers whose needles mostly radiate at seemingly random angles or face more uniformly or in a single direction. The cones are also quite easy to ID being very small (not being much longer than the longest needles) and with thin finger nail-like scales.
It’s no surprise it is dominant here as it is one of the most popular forestry trees, used for the production of timber and wood pulp. It’s not brilliant for wildlife when planted this way as it creates densely shaded areas, suffocating the ground of light and therefore is relatively devoid of plants or animals. It’s also a non-native tree, brought over from North America specifically for use in timber production because of it’s fast growth qualities. It is one of the most common conifers in the UK so no doubt you will encounter this tree and if you get the chance, crush some needles in your hand as they smell like Grapefruit.
December 20th (Thu)
Today I discovered another fungi down by the little brook in the village but this time it was right down by the waters edge, hidden in thick leaf mulch, and under the canopy of the trees. With such a conspicuous colour, you’d think that this would be simple to identify but it turns out there are LOTS of orange coloured fungi! And, as with lots of fungi, generally all appear just as the leaves turn in Autumn and continue well into December, leaving me to wonder if the colour is a clever strategy to remain inconspicuous amongst the leaves to anything that might want to eat them! I’ll see what I can find on it.
This one is Sulphur Tuft – a common and widespread species which is often in clumped groups as I found these. The clumps can get much bigger and more spectacular than my humble gathering and usually indicate the presence of deadwood which they feed on and slowly decompose over several years (a helpful mulching fungi!). The cap can be a lot more yellow (or sulphur coloured) than these, particularly when young, but develop this orange tan towards the center with age. Although the photo doesn’t show it very well, the gills had a really clear greeny tinge and closer inspection showed some blackening too which apparently is a good ID feature.
One other great way to help with ID is to make a spore print. You can do this simply by breaking off the stipe and leaving the cap sat on white paper. The spores in the gills will slowly drop and after a few hours its creates a lovely print. I didn’t get the timing quite right on either of my two attempts but the colour of the spores were clearly brown which matches that for Sulphur Tuft. Definitely a technique I want to try again with other fungi!
There are only a few other common species you could mix this one up with, the main one being the Honey Fungus which displays similar clumping, preference for trees and the orange colouration. Two things which can help you avoid mixing them up:
1. When mature the caps of Honey Fungus can reach 15cm across where as Sulphur Tufts remain smaller at just 7cm
2. Honey Fungus has a ring or collar of excess cap around the stipe, something which is completely absent on the Sulphur Tuft.
This is an inedible mushroom! It is bitter to the taste and will often cause stomach upsets and much worse! so stick to just enjoying the view.
December 19th (Wed)
I’m always amazed about what new things you can find on walks you do all the time and so close to home. Taking a lunchtime 30 minute stroll around my village, I ended up spending a long time lingering around one of the several streams/brooks which run through it. This one is nothing special to look at initially; large sections go through silt and leaf litter beds overshadowed by trees, whilst the rest is an artificial rocky channel built between road and church wall. It’s also only seasonally wet, running dry for most of the summer when more grassland type vegetation seems to grow, but after lots of rain it is now back to full flow and a good place to explore.
As always at this time of a year, I saw a very familiar Grey Wagtail. It spends all winter here, flicking from feeding in the stream to the neighbouring graveyard. It’s a bird I hear all the time when walking around or stood in the garden and in fact, I got a big surprise last month when it turned up in my garden! First time ever, lingering underneath the feeders for a good 10 minutes before shooting off again calling the whole time. The best way I can describe the call is a sharp and penetrating ‘zic-zic’ repeated every second or so. It’s similar to that of a Pied Wagtail but sharper with a metallic feel to it – you’ll no what I mean when you hear it – listen here:
Today’s top find was not avian, however, but fungal! My run of finding December fungi continues and I’m learning more and more about how to identify them the more I find. This one was an absolute brilliant moment as it’s a fungi family I’ve always wanted to see and, ironically, there was a large patch growing right by the brook and church around two really old tree stumps where a large Field Maple (and even larger Horse Chestnut) used to stand. It’s called a Collared Earthstar! These specimens are right at the end of their lives and therefore are a bit dry and ragged, but you still see all the key features: an onion-like ball sat on a flower-shaped dish with 5-7 branching arms. There are several other types of earthstar fungus but Collared is the most common, widespread and largest of the lot being the size of an average person’s palm and, unlike many of the other earthstars, the onion-like ball sits directly onto the dish rather than raised on a short stalk as many of the others species are.
Where I found these mushrooms is exactly as suggested in the book; somewhere with humus-rich soil or a wood-chipped areas. Where the large trees had been taken down, several of the limbs were wood-chipped on site and therefore left the perfect substrate for this fungus to grow. Due to the hardness of the fungus, the fruiting bodies can last all winter so there is a good chance to find one of these yourself, however, sorry to disappoint but these ones are inedible.
December 17th (Mon)
Sadly I didn’t get a chance to go out today but rewind a few days to my day at Bowling Green Marsh; once finished at the hide I made my way to Darts Farm for a quick wander round the enormous ‘farm shop’ (which is more like a mini mall) to soak up some Christmas energy and, if I honest, use the toilet facilities! On route you cross over a stone bridge by a pub which spans a small section of the River Clyst. I always take a quick glance up the river as I pass and on previous days I’ve seen Common Sandpiper, Grey Heron, Black-tailed Godwit and numerous duck species, but today I saw something completely new to this section of river; two Black Swans!
Now this species is not new to me, or the local area, as Dawlish is home to some of the most famous Black Swans in the country. The bird has become synonymous with the town whose town emblem is the Black Swan. Records of swans in Dawlish go back as far as the early 1900s and they’re so iconic of the town that they even have their own waterfowl warden paid for by Dawlish Town Council!
They’re actually native to Australia and during my visit there a year ago I saw thousands! They fill the same niche in Australia as our Mute Swan do in the UK and, just as we have introduced Black Swan here, the Mute Swan has been introduced to Australia. Despite both countries having wild introduced swan populations, neither has seen a boom in the non-native species – something I find bizarre given how well suited they appear to each others habitat. Mystery to be answered!
Usually I ‘m not a fan of non-natives, there is something which doesn’t quite look right about a non-native in it’s wrong environment; take Canada Goose for example which to me looks odd here but when you see it in Canada everything about the beauty of the bird changes. For me that’s all about the right bird being in the right place, where it evolved to be. Either way, the Black Swan is a beautiful bird and one that is hard to mix with anything else being all black feathered, a bright lipstick red bill and swan shaped! It’s a lot more widespread than I realised, as shown by the Winter Distribution map found in the BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11, so you really could stumble across this bird on any waterbody and winter is a good a time as any.
December 15-16th (Sat-Sun)
A couple of friends came to visit this weekend and blustery southerly winds brought lots of rain meaning opportunities to get outside (without getting soaked) were very few. However, with a bit of ‘gentle’ encouragement, we donned our best waterproofs and embraced the experience of feeling nature at its wildest! Proved be worthwhile as down on Torquay seafront we spotted a Peregrine Falcon being mobbed by a Jackdaw right over the town centre. Unfortunately no photo but it appeared to be carrying a significant piece of prey – maybe another Jackdaw? – as it battled to make progress in the strong head wind.
On Sunday we took a stroll along Dawlish Warren beach. The middle section of the site was heavily flooded and the rain meant not many song birds would be about so the focus was on the beach. With dog walkers now allowed up to Groin 9, most of the birds were beyond this marker and towards the point. Many gulls present, including mostly Herring gull, the odd Lesser black-backed gull and 4 Greater black-backed gull as well as a handful of Oystercatcher. Other waders were few an far between as most tend to sit on the other side of the spit, sheltered by the dunes and where feeding is better, but 2 Sanderling and 2 Turnstone were a delight as they scurried along the shore between the washed up seaweed.
My best photo from the day was thanks to a dog which flushed an Oystercatcher and two Herring Gulls which flew off together giving a lovely comparison of both size and markings in flight. The Herring Gull is one to become familiar with as its our ‘standard default’ gull in which you can compare all others to when trying to ID; light grey back and defined black triangular tips, white rump and white tail end.
The Oystercatcher is a good baseline wader too, with lots of clear markings to get familiar with; pristine white underwings, a black back with a white wing bar that almost takes up the entire bottom half of the wing, a white rump and black tail end. And of course not forgetting that red rod sticking out it’s face which also helps!
December 14th (Fri)
I spent the morning at one of my favourite places to birdwatch – Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham – a place which will feature regularly in my nature diary as I like to get there as much as possible. Today I was able to time my visit to be there during the ‘peak’ bird time; one hour before until one hour after the River Exe’s high tide. Bowling Green Marsh is essentially a set of freshwater marshy pools, unaffected by the tide, which lies adjacent to the River Exe. Birds love to come here because during the high tide all the intertidal mud they would usually feed and stand on is covered in water! The Marsh offers them a safe place to roost and feed while they wait for the lower tide and the intertidal mud to be exposed once again.
Below is a rough count of the birds seen today at the marsh:
DUCKS: 650 Wigeon, 200 Shoveler, 15 Pintail, 10 Gadwall, 1 Tufted, 400 Teal, 1 Shelduck
WADERS: 200 Lapwing, 75 Avocet, 70 Redshank, 30 Dunlin, 450 Black-tailed Godwit, 2 Bar-tailed Godwit, 1 Ruff, 1 Curlew, 1 Snipe
OTHER: 2 Grey Heron, 4 Greylag, 1 Cormorant, 3 Moorhen, 1 Coot, 14 Canada Goose, 1 Black-headed gull, Herring Gull
December 13th (Thu)
I took an early evening trip to walk around Stover Lake to see if the Goosanders were back. These birds spend the winter here every year, coming in from the various and numerous local rivers and streams in which they breed and spend the rest of the year. Unfortunately I didn’t time the visit well and arrived in the fading light of the day around 3.30pm (apologies in advance for the poor photos), however, I was delight to see that the Goosanders have arrived – hurray!
There was quite a large flock too! Initially swimming in smaller groups but coming together in one big raft as the darkness really set in. A quick count saw a total of 5 males and 13 females/juveniles on the lake – a gender imbalance which is very common across the UK. The males are very distinctive being almost all white bodied white a dark green head compared the an almost all grey body and browny/red head for both the females and juveniles. Both are much large that ducks with elongated bodies and long, thin bills. Cool looking birds.
Other birds seen on the lake included 1 Greated Crested, 3 Tufted Duck, 5 Mute Swans (family), 1 Cormorant, Coot, Moorhen and numerous Mallard/hybird farm duck.
December 12th (Wed)
Today I visited RSPB Swell Woods, an ancient oak woodland which lies on the southern border of the Somerset Levels. It’s a cool place and somewhere I visit a couple of times of year when tour leading. Thanks to the recent damp weather, it was full of interesting mushrooms and although fungi are not a particular strong point, you only learn by giving them a go! So this is what I think I found:
I find identifying mushrooms incredibly hard but I know identifying what tree species they are growing on really helps. In this case it was easy; oak for everything! The rest relies on a combination of looking underneath the cap; gills or pores? Assessing the size, colour and smell on occasion!
December 11th (Tue)
Walking back past the local pub I noticed this little fellow on the wall. Although we do get moths in the winter, it isn’t many and the majority will either have died in the cold or be hidden, hibernating somewhere a lot safer than an exposed wall! This, however, is one of the winter moths and it’s called a Mottled Umber.
Identifying moths is made very easy when you have the wonderfully illustrated ‘Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ as the drawings by Ian Lewington are always spot on to the tinniest of detail. Now for most moths you only have one drawing to compare to but as you’ll see from my screenshot of the books drawing, Mottled Umber has several! It’s one of those annoyingly ‘highly variable species‘ which means you have to look for key features to nail the ID.
Luckily for me I have a clearly marked individual similar to that in the book which shows the best features;
– strong banding across the wings
– single black spot in the middle of the pale section of the wing
– two small black dots on the thorax just below the head.
Interestingly it appears the females are completely wingless and can be found on the trunks of mature trees at night. Mottled Umber fly late in the year, from October into December, and can be found in woodland, suburban areas and a wide range of other habitats. So keep an eye out at your local pub!
December 9th (Sun)
While I was out on a walk in Paignton, I stumbled across these large brownish mushrooms in an undisturbed field. Nothing particularly striking about the mushrooms but what was really cool was the ring formation they’d formed. A little internet research throws up that these are in fact called ‘Fairy Rings’ – a name given to these fungal formations by British folklore where it was believed fairies would dance the night away, dining from the caps of the mushrooms. I’ll let you decided if you want to believe that or not!
The rings form when a single spore, one of the thousands/millions released by a mushroom, lands somewhere with sufficient nutrients and water to allow it to grow. In many cases the correct host plant is key. These spore then develop thin strands of growth called hyphae that spread out in all directions, just like a plants roots, through the soil absorbing water and nutrients and building the body of the fungus known as the mycelium. The mycelium will slowly move outward from the center, and when the nutrients in the center are exhausted, the center dies, thereby forming a ring.
These rings will continue to spread out many meters and can persist for hundreds of years if left undisturbed. The largest and oldest known ‘Fairy Ring’ is in France, measuring 600m wide and estimated to be 700 years old!!! Given my one was in a farmers field I doubt this one will ever have the joy of such a long life but for now it lives on.
I’m confident my mushrooms are Field Blewit given the location in an open field, presence of gills underneath the cap and the key ID feature being the soft violet colouration on the stipe (stalk-like part). The violet is a bit faded but apparently this is common as the mushroom gets older as mine clearly are. It’s hard to mix it up with anything else in this type of habitat and yes, it’s edible!