Every industry has its own jargon and acronyms and anyone working for the RSPB soon discovers the bird version. Having recently been immersed in web design meetings, I might be forgiven for confusion at reports of record numbers of SEOs on Wallasea ( Short-eared owls not Search Engine Optimisers) and many non-birders would perhaps refer to me as a barwit or mipit for this! And all this rambling has been brought about by the success of a large wild bird cover area here on Wallasea.I first blogged about this space, sown with a pollen and nectar mix in late June, when it was full of wild flowers and buzzing insects providing food for the chicks of our farmland birds. Our friendly farm manager, Robert, has been most concerned that this area just inside the gate of our site would reflect on his housekeeping and bring accusations of poor land management. So let me put the record straight right now. At this time of year, when the rest of the farmland is fairly inhospitable to birdlife, this conservation patch is a magnet for birds. Seed eaters are having a feast, staying here when they would normally have moved off the island,and these seed eaters are not all feathered - the mice and vole population is also enjoying the extra rations.It is this small furry larder that is bringing the most spectacular visitors. A wide spectrum of birds of prey are flocking to this space to hunt, from haughty harriers to miniscule merlin. But it is the short-eared owls that have caused most excitement lately. Last year we were privileged to provide a roost for up to four of these marvellous birds, but this year has seen an incredible increase, estimated at ten birds at the time of writing!Short-eared owls are medium sized owls with mottled brown bodies, pale under-wings and yellow eyes. They are commonly seen hunting during the day, preying mainly on small rodents such as voles, along with the occasional small- to medium-sized bird. They hunt using a slow 'flap and glide' flight as they search low over vegetation. Each winter, there is an influx of continental birds (from Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland) to northern, eastern, and parts of central southern England, especially around the coastal marshes and wetlands. They are of European conservation concern and so are an Amber List species, so we are lucky to see them.If you, like me, count these birds as a new addition to your list, pause on your way to the wetlands car park and take in the bird spectacle by the gate. Huge flocks of corn buntings and finches are swirling around and sitting on the overhead wires and it shouldn't take too long a watch to be treated to a view of some of our larger visitors too. If you are lucky enough to get some good pictures, please add them to our gallery for everyone else to share .Here's one that Wallasea Birder Jeff Delve was kind enough to send me.
Walking the dog is a pastime that not only gets many of us out of doors daily, but keeps us fit and allows us to indulge in a spot of 'bad birdwatching'and general nature-watching. Research has shown that this also helps to keep a lot of us mentally healthy - though I can't speak for myself on this one! However, unfortunately for those of us who keep to the rules and clean up after our pooch, there are a minority of our number who let us down and get us all a bad name!.This week I was lucky enough to attend an access countryside management course, aimed at helping landowners influence walkers behaviour, encouraging and helping them to 'do the right thing', but also giving us great ideas for the development of dog exercise areas and a fresh approach to this key audience for projects such as ours.
The Wallasea Island wild coast will eventually have 15km of new tracks along which to explore the island. However, dogs( apart from assistance dogs) will not be allowed on all of these paths, due to our conservation aims and duty of care to other visitors. However, as an office of dog-lovers, the staff are keen to welcome dogs and their walkers and want to develop an area that will be attractive,useful and cater for the needs of this important group of visitors ( and their chauffeurs!)The Wallasea Walkies area will be a large fenced area, beside the wild bird cover area as you enter the reserve, bounded by a mixed native hedge which will also be great for the local wildlife. Paths around the area will provide a choice of secure, sheltered walks and we hope to include some benches and other useful additions to the area to make it an attractive choice of exercise area. This space will also be large enough for dog-orientated events; perhaps a dog show or agility contest.
In the meantime, dogs and their companions are welcome to use the seawall footpath as long as the dogs are kept on a lead. This is as much for the dogs' safety as that of the wildlife and other vsiitors in the area. Soft mud in the area can be treacherous - birds can happily paddle around on it, but heaven help the dog or owner who try to copy them. Our overwintering birds have travelled here in huge numbers from distant northerly places to feed and rest - if they are regularly disturbed they will not only struggle to conserve enegry and survive the winter but move off the habitat we create for them. In Spring and Summer a different set of birds come here to nest and raise their young and disturbance makes that difficult and may lead to abandonment of the nest and young. Our island is also home to many mammals whose scents may be irresistable to active dogs, leading to a much longer than anticipated walk if dogs are off lead!
If you are a regular walker in the area and have suggestions or ideas that you'd like to contribute we'd love to hear from you or your dog. Just call by the office in Grapnell's Farm - Ellie the cairn terrier will be happy to chat to the canine visitors and humans may ask for Hilary. Woof!
Many of you may have noticed the rapid spread of Little Egrets through the country in past years. I remember well, dashing off to a WWT site in Northern Ireland where the first few of these tropical-looking birds visited Strangford Lough a few years ago, and now they are to be found throughout much of the North. This, it seems is an indication of climate change, global warming and what the compilers of the Bird Atlas show as a general shift of species from south east moving north west. This is great news for birds and their watchers in the south east, where increasing numbers of rare species are turning up, but not so good for north-western birds with nowhere left to go.
Here on Wallasea Island, Little Egrets are a common sight as they lift on approach from their feeding along our ditches and creeks, or wade around the mud of the Allfleet's Marsh. But this week, keen eyed birders spotted a bigger brother - a great white egret. As the name suggests, a large, white heron. Great white egrets can look similar to little egrets, but they are a more impressive size - the same size as the familiar grey heron, of which we have several families about the island. Other identification features to look out for include black feet (not yellow), yellow beak (in juvenile and non-breeding plumage), and a different fishing technique like that of the grey heron.
Expanding populations in Europe mean that this species is now seen more frequently in the UK - it can turn up in almost any part of the country, with most in south-east England and East Anglia. Great white egrets favour all kinds of wetland habitats - even farmland ditches can attract them - and they are most likely to be seen during spring and winter.Like the herons, they eat fish, insects and frogs, caught by spearing with its long, sharp beak. Like the heron family, this bird breeds in extensive areas of reeds, usually by large shallow lakes or fishponds. As they are partially migratory and dispersive,most european birds migrate to North Africa and the Middle East (especially Israel) but they are also wintering in increasing numbers around the Adriatic and even in Holland.
If you are heading to Wallasea for a spot of birdwatching, it is not just the wetlands worth watching at the moment. Hundreds of corn buntings are among the farmland birds who usually winter elsewhere, but have decided our Wild Bird Cover area ( near the farm) is a good spot to stay in. Birds of prey including short-eared owls, barn owls,harriers,and yesterday a buzzard, have also been seen hunting close by. So don't just drive by on your way to the seawall - pause and take in this excellent addition to the project and see what you can spot!
Many thanks to Jeff Delve for providing this great image of the great white being escorted by his little egret cousins!