Thursday, 28 May 2015

Academy Rangers descend on Blakeney Point

National Trust Ranger Academy
My name is Pete and I work as an academy ranger for the Trust in the Lake District. The academy scheme provides training, both theoretical and practical, to those with passion but without the background skills or knowledge. Myself and Bruna – an academy ranger based in Snowdonia – have just spent a week at Blakeney Point in North Norfolk to help the team monitor a variety of sea birds and learn from them.
The A-team: from left Josh, Paul, Sarah, Bruna, Pete and Ajay

The ability to work between sites is one of the key strengths of the academy programme. Sharing best practice not only saves the time of wheels being reinvented, but is also a great way to be re-inspired and share time with like-minded people. Preserving areas for the next generation is not always an easy task, especially when in can mean change for the current generation, and the challenges that this change brings. However, we share the belief that conservation is worthwhile. We have been gifted with a glorious planet and so of course we want to share it with others – a little compassion goes a long way.

The ability to engage, educate and inspire is just as important as practical skills, as we need future supporters, members and volunteers to continue our work indefinitely. It turns out meeting our core target of “for ever, for everyone” is quite a task! Education and engagement can prevent misunderstandings occurring. For example, the site of a tree being cut down can easily evoke mental images of mass deforestation. But with vast timber imports from Europe and further afield a sustainable wood industry is vital to stop deforestation elsewhere, especially in countries with less stringent controls. Conservation is a truly global concern and so it is important not to become too fixated on making our grass green if that comes at the expense of the metaphorical grass elsewhere. Wood is often a bi-product of our core woodland aims of habitat management, visitor safety and access. Having a varied age structure, different light levels and allowing some trees to reach maturity of a large girth (providing nesting holes/deadwood habitat) are important for a valuable habitat, and as such some trees are removed.

Good communication is key. With such a large organisation this can occasionally be difficult but staff and volunteers are committed to sharing our passion, knowledge and expertise. Here at Blakeney, coastal ranger Ajay Tegala and the team do a fantastic job, speaking to almost every visitor to the point. This not only helps to educate and inspire the visitors but enables the rangers to point out safety concerns and help protect the vulnerable ground-nesting birds and fragile sand dune, salt marsh and shingle habitats. String fencing and signage deters boats from mooring in the tern colony (sandwich, common, little and arctic) and near other ground-nesting birds.

Our time at Blakeney 
We were extremely lucky to be greeted on our very first evening by a friendly visiting Bluethroat (Luscinia svecia).The Bluethroat was once a regular migrant to Blakeney Point, sometimes in numbers up to 25, but declined in the 60's and by the 80's were rare visitors. There is now just one Bluethroat spotted almost annually, and rarely two, so this was a great site to see. Another interesting sighting during beach patrols and nest surveys was several Garden Tiger (Arctia caja) and Brown Tail (Euproctis chrysorrhoea) moth caterpillars.
Bruna looking out for the Bluethroat
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecia), a rare migrant
Brown hare (Lepus europaeus), fairly common on the Point
Caterpillar of the Brown-tail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea)
Birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), one of many Spring flowers brightening up the dunes
Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) chicks using one of the nest boxes, - they have since fledged

The only access to Blakeney Point is by the seal boats (externally run boat tours) or via a three-mile shingle walk from Cley beach – suffice to say, the ridge between the boat landing and the Lifeboat house (pictured at top of blog) is the busiest part of the Point! This also happens to be where several Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) choose to “nest”. I use the inverted comma's because their idea of a nest is simply laying eggs on the floor into a small scrape in sand, grass or shingle. They lay one egg a day to a total of four – however, females will sometimes share nests, hence the five eggs we found in one nest! This means they can share incubating duties and have extra defence against gulls (particularly common and herring) and other predators. In order to protect the eggs from accidental damage, and minimise stress to the female, we erected temporary fences around each new nest.

Bruna enjoys spotting her first (of many) Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) nest

A rare five-egg osytercatcher nest, the result of two females sharing a nest

On Wednesday we were joined by two ecology consultants from ECON to survey the local fish population in relation to the food supply for little terns (Sternula albifrons) and sandwich terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis). We used a 50m net in Pinchen's creek, using smaller nets and buckets to remove the fish and crabs, take measurements and then return them to the water. Species found included Bass, Herring, Lesser and Greater sand eels, Flounder, Crangon and plenty of crabs. The plan is to return to survey at different tide levels and build more robust figures.

Pulling the net across to sample the local fish population
Measuring the fish before returning them swiftly to the water

Over at Blakeney Freshes, ranger George took us out to monitor a variety of nesting birds. George was himself an academy ranger at Blakeney before securing his permanent role. There were a few Oystercatchers and lapwing still on nests but the avocets and a pair of lapwing already had chicks, who seemed to be doing well. Large drainage channels and sluices were dug out last year with the help of the RSPB to help regulate water on the freshes, and new scrapes dug out by digger with small islands. The avocets in particular took well to this improved habitat. The spot of the day was a pair of little ringed plovers with three chicks in tow, with a third adult being chased away by the pair. This may mean there is a second breeding pair – fantastic news for this schedule one species, which has just 1,200-1,300 nesting pairs in the UK.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) male on grassland Norfolk, England
The stunning Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), which has had breeding successes on Blakeney Freshes
We both had a fantastic time and have learnt a huge amount - not least how to live for a week without running water or mains power - some of which we will be able to take back to our properties and use again in the future. Ten academy ranger positions are advertised near to the start of each year across England, Wales and Northern Ireland - please visit National Trust jobs for this and more. 

Sunday, 24 May 2015

24th of May: Blakeney Blue

Today saw the arrival of one of the most special visitors to Blakeney Point...

The Bluethroat is perhaps the iconic Blakeney Point spring migrant, but is rarely so showy.

Paul captured some footage of the bird by the Tamarisk.
Perhaps the first Bluethroat to be filmed on the Point?

We would like to thank those who came up to see the bird for being respectful and not disturbing it. It was a surprise that so few people made the effort to come and see this most beautiful of birds.

The Bluethroat was undoubtedly the highlight of the week. But other discoveries included....

Marbled Coronet in the moth trap

799 Sandwich Tern nests in the colony

There are now lots of eggs on the sand and shingle, including dozens of Oystercatchers.
Sadly these are at risk from predation by Common Gulls...
Common Gull feasting on Oystercatcher egg

Finishing on a happier note...
We now have Avocet chicks on the Point

- Ajay (with photos from Paul and Sarah)
Please note that it is illegal to photograph Schedule 1 bird species at their nesting sites (including Avocets and Little Terns) without a licence. We are licenced for nest monitoring purposes.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

17th May: Mega start to the week!

This week got off to a great start and a lot of excitement with not one but two Sub-alpine warblers dropping into the Plantation on the Point on Monday 11th May.  One of these was the extremely rare Moltoni's Sub-alpine warbler, only recently separated as a species in February this year.  The other was a female Sub-alpine of unknown species - still of interest although less rare.  The male Moltoni's warbler was a first for both England and therefore Norfolk too, meaning it was a major a twitch.  It was great to see everyone enjoying the glimpses of this rare bird.
Moltoni's Warbler (Richard Porter)

Footage of male Moltoni's Warbler (Paul Nichols/ National Trust)

There was a nice supporting cast of migrants on that day too, with 4 Common Redstarts, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, 3 Whinchats, 1 Lesser Whitethroat, and 7 Yellow Wagtails.  A scan of the harbour also produced a couple of fine waders in the form of a Wood Sandpiper and a Curlew Sandpiper in summer plumage.   The rest of the week has been relatively quiet in terms of migrants.

In insect news this week we've had a few butterfly 'firsts' for the year including Common Blue, Red Admiral and Painted Lady.

Today we carried out the first major nest count of the year in the Black-headed Gull colony.
Mixed Sandwich Tern and Black-headed Gull Colony, Blakeney Point (Sarah)

With careful footwork we counted 2,075 nests, a few of those already with chicks and a couple of eggs ready to hatch.
Black-headed Gull egg hatching (Sarah)

Shell and shingle (Harry Mitchell)

Blakeney Point ranger team 2015 (Harry Mitchell)

- Paul, Sarah, Ajay and Josh

Sunday, 10 May 2015

10th of May: Sandwiches on Eggs

We can now confirm that Sandwich Terns are once again nesting on the Point; today we counted 400+ nests in the main colony on Far Point.
Sandwich Tern (Ian Ward)

Oystercatcher nests are springing up all over the place with many pairs returning to their regular nest sites, and Redshank nests are being found too so all four resident waders are now on eggs.
Oystercatcher (Ian Ward)

Little Terns are displaying above their usual nesting areas and you can clearly hear their characteristic chatter.  They should start to settle this week.

We also have four pairs of Mediterranean Gulls on the Point.

 Mediterranean Gull (Ian Ward)

The chicks from the first Skylark nest of the season that we were following have now fledged, leaving behind an empty nest.  Eggs in the Pied Wagtail nest have now hatched - the same adult pair successfully fledged two broods last year so we're hoping for an equally good season for them this year.  

Many plants are now flowering and it is lovely to see the pretty blooms of Sea Campion, Thrift, and Bird's-foot-trefoil (commonly known as Eggs and Bacon or Granny's Toenails) and Heath Dog-violet amongst others.  
Heath Dog-violet (Ian Ward)

We currently have Bluebells not just at Bullfer Grove but on the Long Hills too, however we reckon the display at Bullfer Grove is the one worth visiting!
 Bluebells on the Long Hills (Sarah)

In Migrant news things have been relatively quiet.  The Shorelarks are still here but down to three birds now.  We have also had a male and a female Whinchat (seen on separate days), Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Wheatears, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, and numerous Swifts, Swallows and House Martins passing through.

Cock Pheasants have been spotted fighting down near the Hood.
Cock pheasants fighting at the Hood (Richard Porter)

Pheasants have done funny things in the past.  One particular cock took up residence on the shingle ridge a few years ago and would attack anybody or anything (even the quad bike) that got in his way.
Pheasant on the quad bike, 2010 (B. Beuche)

 - Paul, Sarah and Ajay

Sunday, 3 May 2015

3rd of May: First chicks

May has begun and with it we have the first chicks of the year on Blakeney Point. Skylarks, although they look punkish now, should grow into natural opera singers.
Skylark chicks in the main dunes (Sarah)

As well as Skylarks, Meadow Pipits also make their fragile nests in the dunes, so please stick to the boardwalk and obvious paths to avoid accidental crushing of eggs.

The Mallards that nested early on in Suaeda on Far Point have vacated their nest and are presumed to have fledged.

The latest Sandwich Tern roost count gave an estimate of 4,500+ individuals (on Tuesday 28 April). There are probably now between 5,000 and 5,500 roosting, with the first nests about to appear. Little Terns have been displaying over the beach and we hope they will settle soon.
Little Terns on Far Point (Graham)

Common Gulls are one of the species that will predate the eggs of many of our breeding birds. We set up a dummy nest, using chickens' eggs painted to look like Oystercatcher eggs, to see what would take them...
Common Gull about to take one of the eggs

Our five Shorelarks are still present, mostly hanging around Beach Way but sampling the delights of Great (Sandy) Low at times for a change of scene!

Today we have had two Chiffchaffs and a Swift (first of the year was seen on Thursday 30 April), other birds of interest have included Hobby and a Spoonbill (Tuesday 28 April).
Spoonbill in Pinchen's Creek (Sarah)

Two species of owl have been photographed, with the aid of telescopes, on the NNR this week: a resident Barn Owl on the Freshes, and a Short-eared Owl hunting on the Point.
Short-eared Owl on Pelvetia Marsh (Ajay)

Barn Owl on Blakeney Freshes (George)

The latest low tide seal count was conducted on Friday, recording 331 Grey and 9 Common. This is a slightly higher count than this time last year.

If you like bluebells, then the National Trust's Bullfer Grove, near Gunthorpe, is a very good place to visit at the moment...
Bluebells at Bullfer Grove (George)

Sunset behind the Lifeboat House (Ajay)

- Paul Nichols, Seasonal Assistant Ranger