This Friday, I’m delighted to present a guest blog by Rob Hume. I know Rob as the man who found the UK’s first ring-billed gull and was my predecessor as editor of the RSPB’s magazine. He's now author of one of the most talked about, and in my opinion, best bird books of 2016, which is why it was selected as Nature's Home Winter 2016's book of the issue. Here's Rob with his take on changing times....
Britain's Birds - a changing perspectiveSince leaving what was then Birds magazine and the RSPB I have been living in a small Dorset village with a Hampshire postcode, and sampling the birds, butterflies and wild flowers of both. Most come on the Hampshire side of the line, especially as I am a regular at Blashford Lakes, in the Avon valley between Ringwood and Fordingbridge, in the New Forest, and at the little western outpost of Hampshire that is Martin Down national nature reserve.
There are pluses and minuses with such a long-distance move. The Norfolk coast with its pink-footed geese, snow buntings, rare autumn migrants and so on seems a long way off, both in distance and time; some birds I used to see regularly I now see hardly at all. How much is because of location and how much simply declines of species such as lesser spotted woodpecker, yellow wagtail and lesser whitethroat?
Yellow Wagtail is getting harder to see, but Rob's move "down south" has brought him rich rarity rewards (image by Andy Hay - rspb-images.com)
Local specialtiesObviously I’m out of range now for things like nightingales: but closer to woodlarks and Dartford warblers. I enjoy some birds far more often – little egrets and my long-time favourite Mediterranean gulls, for example (which I see occasionally over the house, often on the holiday beaches of Bournemouth, and have seen flocks of more than 600). I have far more experience of birds such as goshawks now – but the local Bewick’s swan flock, once exceeding 100 but down to the 20s when I arrived, came down to a single bird this year.
Rob's favorite bird at its stunning best (Mike Langman - rspb-images.com). The wall next to my desk has a very fine original of a "Med gull" kindly done for me by Rob himself.
Rarity role callCatching up with rarities is not so simple, and anyway I have stopped going far to find them: but being fairly close to places such as Keyhaven Marshes has given good birds such as long-billed dowitchers and semipalmated sandpipers, and Blashford has been good to me with finds including long-billed dowitcher, several ring-billed gulls and a Franklin’s gull – being close to a gull roost guarantees many long, cold vigils in the hides!
While hard at work on the new book, I also looked afresh at commoner birds. I never stopped enjoying them, but it was nice to look again with the eyes of a beginner. With a bit of RSPB seed mixture on the lawn, I even attract yellowhammers to the garden (where from, I have no idea) – as many as 27 – and the odd bullfinch and even a firecrest or two in the garden is a bonus. It has all helped get the book, produced in association with another ex RSPB staff member, Andy Swash, and computer-design wizard Rob Still, into even better shape.
Never again struggle with your bunting ID thanks to Britain's Birds (yellowhammer by Andy Hay - rspb-images.com)
Buy Britain's BirdsBritain's Birds is a must have ID guide, absolutely packed with stunning photos and information to improve your ID skills. It's fully deserving of the Nature's Home book of the issue and I can't recommend it enough.Find out more about it and get your copy from the RSPB shop
As you will have seen from my last blog post, I managed to get out of the office back in June for a trip to Scotland to meet with some of the team at RSPB Scotland.
I was blessed with amazing weather, which was absolutely perfect for my visit to Loch Lomond, another new site for me. It was a good chance to catch up with an old friend, Rob Coleman who I know from his time working on RSPB Ouse Washes and Titchwell Marsh – two of my regular haunts from the past.
Not only was the wildlife spectacular, just check out the sort of view you get as a bonus when visiting this gem of a site!
Loch Lomond - not a bad setting to watch your ospreys...
Wildlife frenzyGreenland white-fronted goose is one of my favourite birds, and a speciality of Loch Lomond, but as it was summertime and they’re all in Greenland, I contented myself with these two as we were fed and watered on arrival.
I'm assured that the real Greenland white-fronted geese that spend winter here are a little harder to see than these two.
The team told me a lot about creating the ideal feeding conditions for these rare geese around the Loch and as a big goose fan, I lapped it up. It never fails to amaze me how much work has to go in to cater for the needs of wildlife. Which reminds me, there are some tips for wild goose watching from yours truly in Nature's Home Winter 2016, which has literally just been printed.
I already knew that Loch Lomond had a fascinating history, and even has a song named after it (hence the blog title) but I soon learned that it is also a very beautiful site and one with a cracking range of habitats and wildlife as we were given the tour by Site Manager Paula Baker and Rob, who is officially known as RSPB Scotland Area Reserves Manager - Forth & Loch Lomond.
Moth trapping had taken place the previous evening on site and among the many lovely beasties on show was this poplar hawk moth, which I tried a couple of arty shots with. Note the word "tried".
It hardly seems possible that the poplar hawk moth can fly with these curvy wings
Redstarts sang cheerily from the oak woodland, tree pipits “fizzed” and “buzzed” from the tops of bushes and once we reached the loch shore, ospreys started to appear. I reckon we saw around eight different individuals with many looking for food for their young – a superb bird to see in such a beautiful setting.
Loch Lomond is a fantastic site to see ospreys (Chris Gomerall (rspb-images.com))
In the dockSo, a confession. One thing I was really hoping to see, even more than these brilliant birds: it’s a plant and it only goes around the shores of Loch Lomond. It wasn't discovered until 1936 and is sometimes called the Loch Lomond dock which would seem a sensible name. It’s the Scottish dock and I can tell you I was really excited to be shown one of these rare plants. Each to his own, remember...
Here's a shot I grabbed of it. Admittedly it wasn't the time of year for seeing it at its best, but I felt really privileged to see one.
The super rare Scottish dock - another great species for the list!
There will be more on RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond reserve in Nature’s Home in 2017 so I only wanted to whet your appetite with this blog post. The Loch and all its secrets will be revealed in your magazine soon!
It’s 4.30am and I’m brewing coffee. We’re about to set off from Cambridge for a long bank holiday weekend on Islay. The stag party of three (not the most raucous of stag-dos) are packed and ready for wildlife watching, distillery tours and wild camping, and for all of us it would be a completely new experience of Scotland.
The view from the ferry (actually the way back, and of Jura, but you get the idea).
I volunteered in the Cairngorms last year so was well aware of at least some of the beautiful landscape Scotland had on offer, but for the groom it was a first. The less said about the 10 hour drive the better, but once we approached Loch Lomond the excitement started to build. The ferry ride from Kennacraig to Port Ellen flew by as we stood at the bow feeling the refreshing Scottish air.
It was a very short drive to our accommodation once we docked – just a stone’s throw from the Lagavulin distillery. The whiskey tour would come later, and sitting on the deck of our shack all I could think about was the little bay in front of me and its potential for otters.
A l-otter potential.
With not a hangover in sight we rose early and packed a lunch. The Mull of Oa was the destination for a good long walk and some wildlife. But before we could even really get going we pulled up in a layby. My friend had spotted something big.
“Is that an eagle?” he asked.
“…Yes!” I said. “Four of them!”
Yep, four golden eagles, just taking flight and calling like they were in a spaghetti western. Nice start.
The Mull of Oa is great little RSPB reserve, with clear signage of where’s best to spot specific things. The circular walk is quite short but we managed to make it last over four hours, taking in the views, the couple of ravens and the few gannets. Sadly we didn’t manage to get sight of the choughs on the cliffs or any marine mammals, but there was plenty of time left in the weekend.
Back to base just didn’t feel right after a long walk, so we headed for the lighthouse near Port Ellen hopeful of there being a beach. And what a beach! Pristine sands, crystal clear calm water, and not another person in sight. We had a chilly swim with the jellyfish and a bit of rock pooling, then headed back for a BBQ.
Plenty of jellyfish, but not a whale in sight.
We’d booked a whiskey tour for Sunday morning after the swim, and the very friendly tour guide gave us a tip-off on some nearby otters. I’d guessed right, and just along from our cabin would be our stake-out for the night.
Clambering in the dark, accompanied by me keen-on-wildlife friend and noisy-not-too-interested friend, we settled in on a rocky crag.
Nothing. And I’m blaming the noisy friend for it!
Port Ellen at sunset.
Peat infused whiskey makes for an interesting breakfast, but overall the tour was very interesting and well worth a visit even if you can only manage the 11am booking. The ferry back was booked for 3pm, so that gave me about an hour to look for the number one thing I had on my list. Hen harriers.
My friend had booked the ferry from Port Askaig – clever, since we’d have the opportunity on the way back to drive through the north of the Island. We’d be going past Loch Gruinart, which is the other RSPB reserve on Islay. A quick look at the map table and I clocked the recent hen harrier sighting, visible from the edge of the visitor centre car park. I had half an hour left to scan.
Success! I think. It was unbearably far away and I can’t be 100% certain it was what I wanted it to be, but it was grey and quartering a field. I’ve decided I’m having it since we didn’t see whales, dolphins, choughs or otters.
We made the ferry in time, and all decided we’d have to come back soon, but for much longer. Perhaps a different island though – something to Mull over at least…