This bank holiday weekend started with a beer festival and ended with a new bird. Those two things make for a surprisingly good combination, especially if there’s a fry-up involved and no early morning in sight.
The new bird was all thanks to RSPB Ouse Washes, which is home to the largest area of washland (grazing pasture that floods in winter) in the UK. Located in the heart of the Fens between Ely and Chatteris in Cambridgeshire, RSPB Ouse Washes isn’t the most well known RSPB reserve by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely delivered the birds for us on Sunday, racking up 57 from arrival to home time.
Lush! I'll definitely make another visit for the dragonflies when they're out (Photo: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
The reserve is very simple. There’s one long walkway tracking part of the reserve boundary with 10 hides dotted along it, all of which look out onto the pasture area. A small visitor centre and loo facilities sit just off the car park, and other than that there’s just birds and the eerie beauty of the Fens. It’s quite remote and there isn’t a café, so bring a packed lunch and thermos to make the most of the two mile boundary walk and hides. Pair the Washes up with some time in Ely and you’ll get history and nature all in one day!
We didn't see a sunset or sunrise, but I bet they're spectacular at the right time of year (Photo: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
I’ve done a few day lists before at other reserves and always find it adds to the outing. Our list started with a blackcap singing along the driveway. We felt this was reasonable to count as we’d seen an RSPB sign already. A quick look in the visitor centre and out the window onto the feeders got us a couple of favourite garden birds, and before we knew it we’d ticked off 10 without even beginning our walk.
Apparently there's loads of cows - over 2000 grazing cattle, but we didn't see any (Photo: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)
Anything you see while standing within the perimeter of the reserve counts. That buzzard two miles away, counts. That song thrush smashing snails in someone’s garden, counts. Hear it or see it, it’s going on the list! We were barely able to keep up after entering the first hide and seeing six species of duck, little egret and grey heron, and other typical water birds. And the great thing about Ouse Washes was the almost magical way every single hide, even though looking out onto the same area, added a few ticks to the day list. Here are a few of our species highlights from our casual birding Sunday, and the new-for-me bird:
Redshank, greenshank and black-tailed godwit
Ducks! Wigeon, pintail, tufted, gadwall, teal, shelduck, and shoveler
Lapwings showing off with their dives
Snipe, no drumming though
A marsh harrier just meters from the hide
And a new one for me, a male ruff looking particularly fancy!
Winter at RSPB Ouse Washes is peak birdwatching time (Photo: RSPB rspb-images.com)
The new bird was great, but the highlight for me was seeing my first swift of the year overhead. The herald of summer to come, and definitely one of my top 5 birds. Bring on the warm weather!
Although my role on the RSPB magazines is full of variety and surprises, it’s not every day you get to spend an hour on Skype to India, talking about life in South Asia… and vultures.
Yes, vultures. A family of birds with which most Brits are only vaguely familiar, and that very few would describe as beautiful, captivating or even cute. So why did these gawky-looking, faraway scavengers merit so much RSPB attention?
Well, that I can now answer. What I learned during my conversation with RSPB vulture hero Chris Bowden is worth sharing.
The mystery of the vanishing vultures… Solved. Photo: Guy Shorrock (rspb-images.com)
1. Vultures need help
Apologies to those who already know the vultures’ woeful tale, but for those who don’t, here it is in a nutshell.
After millennia of relatively peacefully co-existence with humans, “people noticed that vultures were dying in their thousands – and what proved to be in their millions,” Chris recalls. The RSPB was called in to investigate, and it turned out the population (originally estimated at over 40 million), was plummeting at one of the fastest rates ever seen. In just one decade, around 99.9% of the birds died.
By early 2004,the researchers had the answer. Vetinerary diclofenac, widely administered to sick cows in India, was deadly to vultures that eventually fed on their carcasses. Chris, already working on international RSPB projects, moved to India to help tackle the problem, co-ordinating efforts with local partners including the Bombay Natural History Society. Their strategy included a) banning the use of diclofenac on India’s free-roaming cattle, and b) breeding vultures for release, in a bid to save them from extinction.
Asian vultures are being bred for release into the wild. Photo: Chris Bowden (rspb-images.com)
2. People need vultures
No creature on Earth deserves to go extinct in my opinion, but it soon became evident that vultures do an important job. Without them, Chris told me, “human health is impacted. Cattle in South Asia aren’t eaten but used for dairy. As they die, there’s 12 million tonnes of rotting meat every year that is now not being eaten by vultures.
“Some of it just rots, so you get more flies, more pollution of watercourses and so on, and there’s evidence [albeit a lack of data] that feral dog populations have increased significantly," putting thousands more people at risk of contracting rabies.
Wow. We definitely need to bring back the vultures.
3. Help crosses continents
Although vultures are not a UK species and many Brits have never even seen one, support from RSPB members in the UK has helped save them. Chris and the local partners successfully fought to get diclofenac banned for vetinerary use in 2006, and continue to close various loopholes in the law. In 2011 the SAVE partnership was formed, working across borders with partners in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Cambodia, researching and tackling vulture loss there. Breeding centres are also preparing a new generation of captive-bred vultures for release.
Though they remain on the brink of extinction, vulture numbers have now stabilised. And local communities in South Asia know that people far away in the UK care enough to save their vultures, and it means a lot. Without that support, Chris tells me, we might not have saved these birds.
Our conversation reminded me that the RSPB works well beyond our own shores, providing an 'emergency service' for birds on the brink around the world. And that although our heads may be filled with the nature we see around us – with our garden robins, our local wildfowl and the awe-inspiring birds of prey soaring above us – we still have space in our hearts to reach out to this faraway, ungainly-looking bird, that's unlikely to win any popularity or beauty contests, but merits just as much fight and dedication as any of our favourites.
I was very interested to hear about Chris' everyday life and work in India, too - though if you want to read more about that, look out for a copy of the RSPB's Impact newsletter later in the summer. Meanwhile, if you'd like to help save Asia's vultures, click here.
Heathlands are home to some of my favourite wildlife, so I love them. This wildlife can be tricky to find, so that makes me love them even more!
They are beautiful places, ablaze with yellow in spring and purple in summer. When the sun shines, they can be real heat traps and that’s exactly what we enjoyed yesterday at the RSPB’s wonderful Arne reserve in Dorset – one of the finest heathlands around (in my opinion).
This week, I thought I’d pass on some of the things that I have learned from my successes, and failures, when it comes to looking for secretive heathland birds, elusive reptiles and some very smart insects and spiders. These are just some of the stars of these special places. There are hundreds of species to find, and enjoy, though.
Meeting up with the rest of the Nature’s Home team at Arne gave me the chance to put some of my fieldcraft skills to the test and I was feeling the pressure. The team were hoping for reptiles but if it is too hot, too cold, too early or too late, you can easily see nothing at all...
Sand lizards are bigger than common lizards and the males are bright green in spring! (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
I’ve blogged previously about adders and it was one of those days when it warmed up really quickly, meaning that the adders had almost certainly warmed up before we met up at 9am and were sheltering away deep in the heather and gorse. Sand lizards are a different matter though. Having a superb close experience with a gorgeous “spring green” male the day before, meant I was keen to see more. The green really blows you away when you see it and it is a great way of picking them out among the heather.
We drew a blank at the first piece of heath we visited. It was very flat and the cold north-easterly wind that blew straight across it meant that basking conditions just weren’t good. We needed some undulating terrain and some shelter and the north end of the reserve provided just that, with all sorts of dips and south facing slopes for lizards to enjoy.
The rustling of dried leaves might reveal the presence of a lizard, such as this male sand lizard (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
The guys were enjoying the beach and I wandered off to come face to face with... you got it, a male sand lizard. A call to Jack and everyone arrived and the little beauty continued to show – one of six I saw at Arne. Listen for rustling among the heather and then wait for them to cross a gap. If you find a basking one, stand still – and enjoy!
Scratching the itchWind is not good for Dartford warblers, but I always think a bit of heat and sunshine is. The gorse thickets around the heaths provided several of these beautiful birds singing their scratchy songs and flicking up on top.
Listen for the scratchy notes and then scan the tops of heath and gorse for the charismatic Dartford warbler (Ben Hall rspb-images.com)
Yellow gorse flowers, red-pink front and slate-grey back makes for a rather fine colour combination set against a blue sky. Top tip for Dartfords are to learn their scolding contact and alarm call and their warbler, then just sit and wait. They also follow stonechats around from time to time, so keep an eye on those significantly easier to see heathland specials which are incredibly noisy at this time of year.
Eyes to the groundKeep your eyes to the ground when you’re walking on sandy heathland tracks because a world of action is going on down there. Green tiger beetles can flip up at your feet like little jewels and I was over the moon to find the very rare heath tiger beetle on my Dorset visit. Lots of solitary bees and wasps dig their tunnels in the soft soil of the paths. Once you’ve found the holes, you just need to wait for the occupants to either come - or go!
You'll find some lovely little peaty pools in heathlands ands these are full of life. A raft spider had come out to balance on the water's surface just before we left. What a beast! Sundews, damselflies, palmate nets and much, much more could be lurking, so peer into a pond when you get the chance because there is always something to see.
The raft spider, balances on the surface of the water in peaty heathland ponds (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
After dark delights
The heathland nightshift includes one of our most mysterious birds: the nightjar. I thought that the bit of heath behind our bed and breakfast had some good potential, so just after nine, Jack and I headed out to get away from the road noise in the middle of the heath. Once we’d gone far enough, there it was: The distant “churring” of a male nightjar. We hurried round the path while there was still enough twilight for a glimpse and sure enough he was doing a few circuits, flashing the white patches on its wings and tail in the hope of catching the eye of a female. After great views of it perched in a pine, all went silent. The very clear night and plummeting temperatures told me that he was going to wait until some females arrived back from Africa, and there were a few more moths on the wing to munch on, before he put in much more effort!
The nightjar is unique in a UK context. The bristles around its beak are perfect for trapping insects (Graeme Madge rspb-images.com)
See it yourselfJune, July and August are also terrific months for heathland wildlife, so there is plenty of time yet in magic May, and beyond, for you to put your skills to the test on our heathland gems on an RSPB reserve. I hope our July Nature’s Home heathland feature will whet your appetite too. I haven’t seen it yet myself but I hope Anna, Alun and the guys have slipped in a lovely photo of a sand lizard somewhere!