Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Late summer updates and musings

Living on Blakeney Point offers a great opportunity to study the movement of bird life, and the reserve is famous as a stop-off point for birds moving to their breeding grounds/wintering areas in spring and autumn. Earlier in the summer we saw a small influx of waders, including bar-tailed godwit and turnstone. These birds are likely to be failed-breeders, cutting their losses in the Arctic to get a head-start and exploit the relatively uncrowded feeding sites here. Curlew returned in respectable numbers, though their journey was presumably less arduous as they had less ground to cover. These birds breed across the UK (excluding most southerly locations) and their call has become synonymous with desolate moors and upland areas. Now we are privileged to hear them through the night and it’s really a lovely sound – a soothing counter-melody to the staccato harshness of the pied pipers of Blakeney Point.

Roosting turnstones in Blakeney Harbour: Richard Porter

  As the weeks pass by, more and more wading birds are starting to arrive. One of the curious things you have to learn as a budding bird-watcher is that the avian calendar is not strictly aligned with our own. By now, most species have bred or are expending their final efforts to successfully rear young (hopefully). Already there is a slight feeling of restlessness in the air, and avian autumn is within touching distance. Here, the passage of time and birds has been marked with the arrival of large numbers of whimbrel, and smaller numbers of sub-arctic breeding species such as greenshank and green sandpiper (an arboreal nester that lays its eggs in the old nests of other species).   

Birds that have been breeding locally are starting to band together, too. Their territorial streaks tamed by the waning of their reproductive cycles, the same grey partridge that were so secretive earlier in the year have now decided to expand their social circles in a bid to increase their stakes in the survival lottery. One of the highlights of my season so far began to unfold as I was lying in bed one night, reading a book. My head is on the pillow, right next to the window, and I hear a loud, slightly-unnerving sound that is simultaneously grating and keening. It betrays the vocalist as a wretched creature in distress. The noise is so loud and close it almost seems like it’s coming from inside my room. Curiosity piqued, I open my window wide and peer beneath the ledge before searching the immediate vicinity, half-expecting to see a young raptor on the floor. I see nothing, which gives the situation a new degree of strangeness. I can’t let it lie, so I leave the house by the back door and step into the night. I start to round the house and approach the little patch of ground that sits in front of my bedroom window, and there I see it - a grey partridge in the half-light, its rear side shrouded by the darkness, its head and breast illuminated by the full moon to which it seemingly calls, head held skywards like a corncrake. I was very close but it was uncharacteristically unperturbed, preoccupied with the task at hand. It would have made a great painting. I would have called it “partridge moon”. Alas, those days of solo crooning are gone, and these days I’m much more likely to stumble across a group of 10 birds in the dunes. They aren’t the only birds banding together. In a premature nod to the winter, linnets are roaming in ever-increasing flocks and a modestly-sized group of starlings can be seen patrolling the reserve. 

Living here, you have the luxury of being laid bare to the finer points of bird behaviour. We only have to open the front door of the big blue lifeboat house to be witness to amazing things. Sometimes, after our brains have been exposed to an hour of TV-watching in the evening, we almost forget where we are and after rising from the sofa, stretching and turning around to face the window, are hit with a renewed appreciation of how lucky we are to be living in such an amazing place. Several times this week we have watched hundreds of black-headed gulls take to the wing and indulge in an aerial feeding frenzy, plucking flying insects from the air in a slightly clumsy imitation of­­ a hirundine or swift. 

This week I have been employing commando tactics in an effort to get better views of the waders that frequent the creeks off yankee ridge. Leaving the house at the evening low-tide, I’ve been approaching the ridge from beach way and keeping a low-profile until I reach the wreck of the yankee. I will admit, with no small embarrassment, that from there I have sometimes crawled on all fours and occasionally made use of a sideward roll (cringe) in order to reach a patch of suaeda that provides the dual benefit of being an excellent vantage point and concealing my presence. I sincerely hope that no-one saw me from across the harbour in Blakeney or Morston - pride is a delicate thing. Luckily my antics payed off and I got an excellent chance to study four greenshank feeding in the creek. It’s nice to slow down sometimes, just taking the time to observe a single species in a bit more depth than usual, and I enjoyed watching these birds for an hour as they pursued small fry on the ebbing tide.  

Breeding terns

I’m pleased to be able to say that the little terns are doing really well this year. Estimates are purposefully kept conservative and are subject to change, but we can divulge that the number of fledglings has so far surpassed that of many previous years, even when considering the lower-margin of the estimates. All signs point to a “bumper year” and for the colony at the “watch house” this is certainly one of the best seasons in recent memory.

Notorious for their habit of nesting in loose colonies within touching distance of the high-tide mark on shingle beaches that are also valued by recreationists, these little birds need every help they can get. Luckily, there are some fantastic volunteers here at Blakeney Point, who selflessly and enthusiastically give up their spare time to help protect a much-loved and iconic part of our wildlife. For this bird, every colony in the UK is massively important – their status as a breeding bird in this country is precarious and their fate would be a lot worse if it wasn’t for the efforts of the volunteers. On the outside, their job is to see that the colony is not disturbed or threatened by external forces, but they are also making a huge contribution to our knowledge of this species in Norfolk (particularly this colony) through their observations and counts. For my part, watching the birds work together to see off a threat as if they were one giant organism with a hive-mind has been another highlight. 

Little tern fledgling: Richard Porter

An extra bonus has been the confirmation that arctic terns have nested on the tip of far point, and are currently raising chicks. These birds have historically nested here in small numbers, but it’s always encouraging to see them in the breeding season because they are on the southerly edge of their range here. A famous wanderer from pole to pole, they really bring home the fact that birds do not adhere to national boundaries and the conservation efforts geared towards many of our species have to be considered with respect to wider geographical areas.

Arctic tern with chick: Richard Porter

We’ve had several interesting sightings recently, including a red-throated diver at sea in breeding plumage (15th and 31st July). This is another bird that breeds in more northerly latitudes, and is most often seen in its winter plumage, which is much more drab. Arctic and great skuas have been spotted drifting down the coast on numerous occasions in mid-July, and a sooty shearwater was seen far out to sea during the strong onshore winds of the 12th of July. Along with red admirals, painted ladies, and confiding gatekeeper butterflies, the point was also host to some dark green fritillaries in late June, as photographed by local wildlife expert Richard Porter.

Dark green fritillary nectaring on bramble: Richard Porter

 Things are set to get really interesting soon, as the passage proper of birds through the point is on the horizon. We’re really excited to see what might stop by, and will of course keep you posted! 

Thanks for reading,
Luke (Seasonal Assistant Ranger)