Charlie's Blacktoft Blog

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Charlie's Blacktoft Blog

I'm the visitor experience officer at Blacktoft Sands
  • Marsh harriers in the grip of winter

    Yes it seems that winter has come early this year with nighttime temperatures over the last few days plummeting below zero helping to freeze the ground solid for the first time since 2010! Of course this means that many of our waterbirds seek refuge on the river and so turning the focus of the reserve onto the bird of prey roost and the few hardy passerines that often show a little better in the cold.

    Just before the freeze Mike let the Koniks back into Ousefleet where they looked very nice on Friday in the mid afternoon sunshine, lovely to see them all getting along now as one herd after the introduction of Theo and Splat last year.

    The marsh harrier roost has really been spectacular with a fantastic count of 37 birds on Friday, there's also a good chance of seeing barn owl and merlin while watching the marshies in to roost but remember to wrap up well if visiting on a late afternoon as it can be bitterly cold.

    A tower of marsh harriers - if you look closely there are seven!

    You can also get great views in the daytime too

    Alarmingly though this year we currently have no hen harriers roosting at all, a very sad and damning reflection in the current totally unacceptable levels of illegal persecution of this magnificent raptor, where will it all end before people realize their selfish folly? The total eradication of a species within the UK for the benefit of grouse shooting, a sad reflection of where we are in the current enforcement of UK wildlife protection law and humanity in general. 

    Equally as nice as the harrier roost but in a very different way has been the continued excellent views of fieldfares and redwings as they gobble up the remaining berries along the hedgerow. They have certainly been helped by Scandinavian blackbirds and song thrushes but I also watched one of our regular robins swallow down a haw berry whole the other day! 

    Redwing and fieldfare at a drinking pool

    And at least on Friday there were a few berries left!

    A lovely 'red' female blackbird - when I was ringing I always wondered if these redder birds were continental


    And robin

    Plenty of tree sparrows are now present around the feeders and at least a pair of bullfinch persist within the willow scrub. Other birds to look out for include stonechat, and with the cold I suspect a few bearded tits will start to emerge from the reedbeds as are a few water rails

    If the lagoons thaw then the wildfowl will return from the river, but with the weather forecast this looks likely to be a fair time away! But off course cold weather isn't always a bad thing, I'm really hoping that it will benefit some of the meadows that we manage by helping to slow down the grass growth for the spring and allow the wild flowers to flourish.

    Greylags from before the freeze

    I'll leave you with a final bit of Christmas Market birding in York, its always amazing to see the pied wagtails roosting in the trees in the center of York but even more so this weekend when the Christmas market was packed full of shoppers all jostling and buying presents, oblivious to the 1000+ pied wagtails all asleep above their heads!

    A pied wagtail decorated 'Christmas' tree


  • The East Asian wader flyway - Thailand

    Its always very interesting to see other parts of the world, particularly when there are some exciting waders involved! As a habitat manager you can learn so much from seeing birds in different habitats and a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of going to Thailand to see a fantastic selection of Asiatic waders that I had dreamed of catching up with for many years and which were feeding in the salt pans, rice fields and freshwater habitats near to the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok. It certainly gave some food for thought and has given me some inspiration as to how we could create new habitat along the Humber.

    The nine wader flyways of the world, as you can see Thailand is on the East Asian - Australian flyway

    Thailand is predominately lowland country with a long shoreline and then lots of wet rice growing paddylands which support a wide range and number of many waders and wetland birds, however many of the key wader sites are located along the coastline with the salt producing lagoons of importance for large concentrations of many species. The freshwater paddy fields can be important for certain species such as wood sandpiper but it seems that many paddies do not hold as many waders as they used to due to intensification of production.

    Salt lagoons

    As you can see much of Thailand is a very wet place - this photo was taken on the plane, truly an awesome wetland area! If only the Humber had a wetland floodplain like this! We're working on trying to create wetlands similar to this through a project but currently its difficult to even persuade anyone to flood up just one field! 


    Many birds winter in Thailand but like the Humber many just stop off on their way south with birds on the Asian flyway continuing down to Australia and new Zealand where hundreds of thousands of waders winter. It was interesting to have a few photo's in my inbox when I returned from stalwart reception volunteer Martin Redfern who gave a nice link to this final migration destination for many species that I had seen, he had been in Cairns in Australia. Good to see that it wasn't Skippy the bush kangaroo or Rod Hull and Emu that had got Martin raving about the wildlife but the wader spectacle in front of him on the beach! Top marks to you Martin, flying the Blacktoft flag down under!

    One of the species I didn't see but Martin did! Terek sandpiper, maybe they had mostly moved south?

    The more familiar whimbrel but what certainly looks like a far eastern curlew too - that would certainly get a few pulsed racing if it was on Ousefleet! 

    Habitat loss and lack of management, inappropriate habitat management (planting mangroves on wader areas!), economic development, hunting, and disturbance are all threats that the East Asian waders are facing, all sadly very familiar themes that match with what is happening on all the wader flyways of the world. This directly links to the Humber where it seems like its a daily fight to ensure that all these problems do not overtake us but it must be doubly hard in areas that have little or no protection and where economic development takes precedence over wetland birds.  

    The main site visited Khok Kham was about 1.5hrs south from Bangkok and was mainly a large area of saltpans where they produced salt through evaporation of sea water. These areas were used by both roosting waders that fed on the nearby mudflats and birds that actually fed in the shallow waters of some of the saltpans. The main target species was of course spoonbill sandpiper which winters in very small numbers at this site, one of the rarest waders in the world this enigmatic species was superb to see even if it didn't want to show its bill for the camera!

    The shy spoonbill sand! It did show its bill, honest.

    However it was many of the other waders that really caught my imagination providing a waderfest of species that would have made a very memorable days birding back at Blacktoft! I could have easily spent a month looking at and counting the waders and still not done them justice, but a total of 34 species wasn't too bad for a what totaled only about a day and a halves birding, and I probably missed a couple of familiar species because I was busy looking for the Asian specialties!

    Can you ID the waders in this shot - there are three species?

    Broad billed sandpiper has long been one of my boggy birds so a flock of around 300 mixed with greater and lesser sandplovers just blew me away! The sandplovers gave an interesting challenge in separating out the species while looking for spoon billed sandpiper.

    Just a few of the broadbills and sandplovers!

    And a closer look - the sandplovers here look to be all greater, they all seem to have quite big bills 

    And below one bird that Blacktoft is quite famous for after having the first record of this species for the Western Palearctic, red-necked stint! These were in winter plumage and it was interesting to note the difference in the dark center of the wing coverts on the adults and juveniles. There were also a few tagged birds, the green flag indicates they were ringed in Thailand.

    There were some quite good numbers of curlew on site that will have been of the race orientalis that comes from central Russia, they are a little larger that the European birds, but not as large as the two or more far eastern curlews that were mixed in with them. You can see in flight how long the bill on one of them was and how much darker the rump area is, I didn't expect to see this species as they are not that common at this site so it was particularly pleasing to get a photo too, even if it was distant.

    Curlew flock, they have quite white rumps compared to far eastern which may be at the right hand side of the photo

    And with the longer billed and darker far eastern curlew

    Later in the day we traveled to the coast in some local boats to see both white faced plover (considered by most as a race of Kentish plover) and also a little gem of a wader Malaysian plover, a local breeding bird that needs undisturbed beaches to raise its young. Development of tourist resorts is off course a problem for this species and parallels the issues that are of course facing our own UK ringed plover population that has very few undisturbed beaches on which to breed these days. 

    Malaysian plover

    There were also some nice views of great knot!

    The next day we visited a superb large and working area of salt lagoons where I caught up with a few more of my dream birds, great to see long toed stints creeping along the bunds of the lagoons and actually being able to see their strange long toes that apparently help them to creep across floating vegetation. Hopefully when one arrives on the Humber I'll be ready!

    Interesting on this site to see them preparing the lagoons by rolling them flat as a crispy duck pancake! In the UK we always talk about landforming the lagoons to make them better for waders and inverts, well maybe I suppose they would be better land formed but certainly these saline lagoons seemed to be providing some excellent feeding opportunities for many hundreds of birds! What do we know?

    Also fantastic to see pacific golden plovers so close up alongside literally hundreds of marsh sandpipers, black-winged stilts, the odd bar-tailed godwit of the larger baueri race and a small party of red-necked phalaropes. There were also a few more familiar 'UK' species such as grey plover, turnstone, avocet and sanderling.

    Pacific golden plover

    This lesser sandplover was quite obliging

    Grey plover

    Marsh sandpipers galore - these were just a few

    A real wow through was the number of great knot - this time a flock of 5000+, however this is apparently well down on the 10,000 they used to record only a few years ago highlighting the declines of many species on this flyway but also along all the other wader flyways of the world. On the Asian flyway there is a lot of focus on industrialization of estuaries particularly around the yellow sea including China and South Korea where many crucial staging posts for many species are being totally destroyed by land reclamation. There is some suggestion that disappearance of key feeding sites on migration for species such as great knot and bar-tailed godwit are leading to birds not being able to survive their migration.  However I will also point out that the UK is certainly not without this threat especially and there are many examples where economic development has taken priority over key wader feeding and roosting areas, even along the Humber, so we must certainly not be too smug or complacent when it comes to the protection of our own key wader sites. 

    A few great knot in flight

    And some of the roosting birds with a few other species

    There were certainly two very welcome surprises to be had at this site, firstly a stunning flock of Asian dowitchers that suddenly flighted in, I'd heard that these could be difficult to see anywhere these days as they have in recent years declined so markedly so I was more than please to find them. 

    Note the spotted redshank on the right

    I'd also hoped to see one or two Nordmans greenshank, probably after spoon billed sandpiper one of the fastest declining and threatened waders in this part of the world, what I didn't expect was there to be a flock of at least 35 - 40 mixed in with the great knot. There may have been more as apparently a flock of 140 had been seen the week before - almost unheard of! They are quite a shy bird so they stayed quite a distance from us but on the photo you can make out the distinctive two toned bill of Nordmans that helps separate it from common greenshank.

    Nordmans greenshank with a few great knot - you may have to enlarge to see the bird on the right with its bill showing

    Finally another brief visit back to the spoon billed sandpiper site revealed how lucky we'd been the day before as they were working on the salt lagoons that had held many of the waders, however one with water in was rather impressively full of the smaller race of Black-tailed godwit melanuroides and hundreds of curlew sandpipers.  

    There is no doubt the conservation of wading birds (like unfortunately so many other species around the world) is into the future going to be a real challenge, the worlds human population is growing so fast and this often means extensive development in areas that waders are totally reliant on for their survival. What is the answer? Its certainly difficult to say but in their wintering areas and along their migration routes if many of the species I have written about are going to survive there needs to be a cessation on development of major mudflats, particularly as we already know on the Humber this habitat is almost impossible to re-create.

    We also need to research ways in which we can create habitats where waders can feed, many of the salt farms in Thailand were created on areas that at one time held mangrove's and although I'm not suggesting destruction of this habitat, it does show that through history inadvertently good wader habitat has been created although of course it will never replace natural habitat quite as well. If we could create habitat that has an economic use then this would of course ensure that they weren't devalued as an asset and developed. Not easy but not impossible, nothing is impossible!

    The headline really is that if we care about our world we really need to find a way to develop in a less destructive way and quickly before its too late, otherwise future generations will not have the privilege of seeing all these beautiful and inspiring waders which I'm sure you would agree would be a very sad fate for so many beautiful species.

    So make sure that you don't let this happen through ambivalence, be prepared to stand up for your local estuary and its wetland birds where you can. 

    I'll leave you with a pair of Malaysian plovers to prove my point.



  • Back to Black-toft

    Apologies for the lack of blogs recently, I've been sunning myself in Thailand and then come back to blighty to a string of meetings, so apologies again for the lack of quality photo's mainly because before 9am its been a bit dark!   

    In fact this morning was the first real morning that I've managed to have a good look around site and fully appreciate that despite it being almost mid December we do in fact have a pretty good selection of birds, how long this will last with the forecast of overnight frosts I'm not sure but off course there will always be the Marsh harrier roost to look at.

    Anyway a bit of late news to start with was that a Hawfinch was present on the reserve briefly while I was away on Holiday, the first time this species has been seen to land rather than just fly over. 

    However it seems like the GW teal departed about the same time as I did and has not been seen recently even though there are still good numbers of teal and wigeon using the lagoons at times. Other duck to look out for are include gadwall, shoveler, mallard and shelduck. Plenty of pink footed geese coming out of roost on Whitton Island and over the reserve this morning on there way out to feed on the arable.

    Duck and waders on Ousefleet

    A few waders too with 6 black tailed godwits, 5 ruff and then a few dunlin, redshank and lapwings, nice to see a few of these birds using Ousefleet flash at last. Look out for the curlew too as they pass over the reserve too and from roost. At least one little egret feeding on site today and at least 15 marsh harriers out of roost.

    Black tailed godwits

    One of the most spectacular spectacles this week has been up to 2000 fieldfares and lesser numbers of redwing, song thrushes and blackbirds all stripping the bushes bare of their berries, great to see the fieldfare all perched on the bare branches looking like Christmas decorations.


    Also nice this morning was a pair of stonechats at Townend lagoon, tree sparrows on the feeders, a fly over yellow hammer and still a pair of bullfinch

    What was quite amazing was when having a look over horseshoe meadow there were still flowering plants such as corn marigold and this field scabious

    Field scabious

    Hopefully I'll get to do a bit of a Thailand wader blog soon - it was great to see the birds from the Eastern flyway at last, something I have dreamed about for years but never got the chance to see, but it was also very thought provoking with many of the same problems Eastern wader populations have affecting the Humbers waders .