After a patient wait Waxwings have finally arrived in Weymouth with 9 birds seen flying from the hospital in Monmouth Avenue towards Lodmoor just moments ago. They are one of the most colourful, characterful avian visitors to these Isles and it is relatively unusual for them to move this far south. Although possessing the colours and plumage one would associate with the tropics, waxwings actually resident to the coniferous forests of Scandinavia and Siberia. The southerly movement of waxwings is food related; if the berry crops are exhausted in their native lands they go in search of new reserves which is why finding a berry bush is often the best means of finding the bird. There have been 70 or so birds eating their way through Poole's berries and up to 20 in Dorchester in recent days so it was only a matter of time. Don't miss them - they are fantastic as Luke's pictures illustrate.
Click the below link to see some truly extraordinary images of waxwing earlier in the winter in Fair Isle - will warm your heart on a cold, grey day!
The recent cold snap has promoted an influx of thrush species to the reserves and surrounding countryside. Movements of blackbirds and song thrush have seen the local population temporarily expand and northerly species the redwing and fieldfare have dramatically increased in the past week. The main driver of this movement is food related. With the ground frozen they have difficulties finding invertebrates and so rely heavily upon fruits and berries. Hawthorns have been particularly berry rich this year and occasionally the trees that line the paths at Radipole have been overwhelmed by flocks of colourful redwing. Redwing migrate at night and the night skies are currently alive with their 'tssst' call. For more information and to hear their calls click on the bird identifier below.
Although on occasions both redwing and fieldfare breed in the north of Scotland, the vast majority are from Iceland and Scandinavia. If the freeze continues then the numbers of these birds will only increase and if you want to give them a Christmas treat then an apple or two sliced in two and placed in an open space (away from lurking Tom Cats), or impaled on a twig will be gratefully received.
For the second consecutive winter the harshness of the weather has forced us to take steps to help ensure that some of our illustrious visitors have a fighting chance of surviving the cold. The majority of our ditch and lake edges have been frozen solid for many days thus removing fishing rights for bittern and others. As with all the prime RSPB bittern wintering sites we have commenced pre-dawn supplementary feeding missions to favoured bittern roosting and feeding locations. We know that this works as we have seen the birds emerging from the depths of the reed to take advantage of the easy pickings, and are hopeful of capturing some footage on our motion activated remote cameras.
A bucket of prime bittern fodder.
The fish that we are providing are sprats which as sea fish are not part of a bittern’s natural diet; they are though extremely oily and high in energy which is perfect for combating the cold. Perhaps the most difficult part of the whole endeavour is ensuring that marauding gulls do not scoff the lot before the target species gets to dine, but experience has taught us that there is a certain density of vegetation that gulls are unable to penetrate.
The reason that we go to extra lengths to ensure that bittern are in the best possible shape to survive the winter is because of their low population nationally. In the 19th century bittern became extinct in the UK as a breeding species due to the wide scale drainage and 'improvement' of reedbeds and hunting. Although they re-colonised with better protection but even so by the late 1990's there were just 11 'booming' (calling) males in the British Isles - precariously close to once more disappearing.
Intensive scientific research took place to examine their exact niche habitat requirements which has lead to reedbed creation - for example RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset, (8 bittern nests in 2010 in what was a commercial peat extraction site in the mid-1990’s) and reedbed restoration such as what has recently occurred at Radipole. 87 British boomers and over 40 confirmed nests this year represents the best bittern year for 6 or 7 generations - but with such relatively low numbers their situation remains precarious; ergo the need to feed.
The picture below demonstrates what magnificently adapted reedbed dwellers they are and why they deserve the reverence directed towards them.
Although uncommon prolonged cold conditions and lack of food can lead to the discovery of weak, listless bittern - often in unusual locations (ie anywhere other than in a reedbed). In the unlikely event of this occurring please let us and/or the RSPCA know at the earliest convenience rather than attempting to catch the bird as they will strike at the eyes of any perceived attacker.
We have been fortunate to have some incredible otter sightings over the past fortnight, including a mother with cubs and an array of ones and two's making for the ‘otteriest’ period on Radipole that anyone can remember - quite possibly ever. It is obvious that otters are very active over the entire reserve as we are finding spraint and prints over a vast span - so it can be luck of the draw when it comes to seeing one given their nocturnal habit. For the past few mornings I have had pre-dawn starts, (to present sprats to our icebound bittern - more on that to follow) and just yesterday heard the call and saw the wake of otters in the morning and a full head and shoulders of a half grown pup in the soft, snowy white light of the evening. On Tuesday before sunrise Will and I saw two pups on the surface just feet away.
This morning I wasn't so lucky but I did find spraint (pictured below) deposited since last nights snow fell and there were prints everywhere betraying their presence.
Any otter poo enthusiast will tell you that the above is a fairly typical spraint containing fish bones and scales and characteristically smelling of jasmine. Spraint is placed at regular intervals to mark paths,'holts' (underground dens) or 'hovers' above ground resting areas.
This footprint taken a few months ago shows the typical 5 toes and characteristic webbing. The above is probably a forefoot as it is as broad as it is long, whereas a hind foot is more elongated. An adult otter print is up to 7cm (or 9cm long in the hind foot). Pups footprints are obviously smaller and could be confused with the feral American mink; however these are very unlikely to be encountered as otters - particularly females with young - will not tolerate mink and will actively pursue and kill them, restoring the natural order.
It is key when trying to glimpse otters to stay concealed, quiet and still and please resist the temptation to follow them at close range or take flash photography.
Will and I enjoyed a day away from the wetlands yesterday and headed east to Sopley Common. The duel purposes of this were to provide Will some felling practice in advance of his chainsaw assessment and allow me to freshen up my felling skills, as pines so differ from the willows that dominate on our home turf. The Common is a Dorset Wildlife Trust site but the heathland restoration works have been contracted to the RSPB's DHP Ecological Services who have been responsible for the restoration and enhancement of vast swathes of lowland heath through, in no small part, the removal of plantation pine which comprises a huge part of DHP's work.
Left to Right: James Tarrier and Chris Deick (DHP) and Will felling a small scotch pine.
Myself and Tarrier (erstwhile Radipole Reserve Assistant) beside a pile of brash.
The straight lengths of pine are collected and taken to a timber yard and milled into fence stakes and the brash gathered up by the tractor front loader, moved to a fire site and burned.
For further information on the diverse works undertaken by DHP click on the following link:
PS. Will and I saw pre-dawn otter pup's before we headed east!