Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – A Welsh Day Trip

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – well I hope I spelled them right (now I’m also worrying that I’ve spelled “spelled” wrong – should it have been spelt?) – or in English, red kites and the Elan Valley for a fantastic day out. We headed over to the Elan Valley first as several friends had recommended it as being well worth a visit. We somewhat underestimated how much was there and only had time to drive around about half of it, but the half we did see was amazing. The Elan & Claerwen valleys have been dammed in 6 places and the result is beautiful reservoirs set in even more beautiful countryside.

Our visit was on a bit of a dreary day weather-wise, but it had the advantage of giving everything a beautiful misty (bordering on foggy) atmosphere.

There was snow on some of the highest peaks, but nothing to hamper our exploration. In places the road was lined by avenues of tall trees, but elsewhere the views were pretty breath taking.

None of the dams were actually flowing on our visit, but hopefully next time we go back they might be. We found a well-kept (and surprisingly empty) bird hide, from which we could just about make out some ducks in the distance – too far away to get decent photos, but just close enough to identify them as a male (bottom) and female (top) goldeneye.

After the dams, we headed back through the small town of Rhayader to go to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Gigrin Farm. We’d pre-booked spaces in their photographic hide and had to be there by 2pm for the feeding. Gigrin Farm have been feeding red kites since the early 1990s. Having started with just a few pairs, they now regularly have over 300 red kites coming to the feeding station. So we were expecting a lot of kites, but have honestly never seen anything quite like it.

As we approached the hides, we spotted a huge white bird in the distance across the field.  Turned out it was a leucistic red kite; leucistic birds are not the same as albinos as they still have pigment in their eyes. Apparently up to 1% of the Welsh red kites are actually white or partially white.

As 2pm drew closer we could see more birds amassing in the surrounding trees. They clearly all knew what time the food was due.

2pm on the dot and a tractor appeared to dish out the meat for the birds. Within seconds the sky was full of swirling kites – literally hundreds of them. Chris took a video just with his phone which gives some idea of the sheer number of birds filling the sky.

Red kite phone video

I then tried to film them as they swooped down to pick up the meat. They are so fast it looks as if the film has been speeded up, which it hasn’t.

Red kites at Gigrin

Initially we thought this was great and we were going to get loads of amazing photos as they were all so close. Then we discovered the problem – there were so many and they moved so fast, it was impossible to focus on just one and get a nice sharp photo. We can now understand why small birds flock together in large numbers to confuse predators; this massive flock of kites had the same effect confusing us photographers. So although we took over 750 photos between us, I don’t think a single one is as crisp and clear as we would have liked. In our defence we weren’t helped by the dull overcast weather and it may have been better on a sunny day.

Having said all of that, it was still an absolutely stunning spectacle. Once we stopped worrying about the photos and just stood back and watched, it was just incredible. We have seen red kites before of course, but never so close up. I hadn’t realised how huge they are; their wingspan is pushing 2 metres!

The numbers swooping down at any one time were incredible.

This next photo looks like it is a composite shot of 4 birds, but is actually 4 in a row, all swooping down and off again one after another.

When viewed in the sky they almost formed an abstract pattern silhouetted against the sky, wings pointing in every conceivable direction.

Their aerial acrobatics were phenomenal, twisting and turning as they dived. They’d scoop up a piece of meat in their talons, then bend over to transfer the prize to their mouths to eat.

Here are a few more photos of them for no other reason other than they are really photogenic birds.

The white kite that we’d seen as we arrived put in several appearances, easy to spot amongst the more usual coloured ones. He/she appeared to have a number tag on his wing, so may be part of some study.

Red kites of course weren’t the only birds of prey making the most of the meaty picnic. We saw several buzzards watching from the trees. Perhaps because they are slightly smaller than the red kites, they are content to wait their turn.

We didn’t see any come down while we were there (although to be honest there may have been some amongst the melee of red kites), but we did see this one glide beautifully into the tree, displaying its gorgeous fan shaped tail.

And of course there were large members of the crow family making the most of the opportunity too. Initially we thought they were all carrion crows, but I think there were a few rooks lurking in there too – distinguishable by their paler beaks and pointier looking heads.

Final treat of the day – a heron flew lazily (in comparison to the kites at least) across the field and landed in a tree.

Hopefully we can go back to see the kites again in the summer when the light should be better and we can perhaps get crisper photos. But in the meantime we’ve got the memories of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles we’ve ever seen.

 

 

Buntings, Warblers and Fishers

Last year for my birthday we had an amazing day at some local Nature Photography Hides. As part of the deal we were entitled to a return visit to one hide this year. So a couple of weeks ago we headed over there for another lovely peaceful day – this time at their reed bed hide. This provided pretty much what it says on the tin – a hide in the middle of a reed bed.

Not knowing much about the ecology of reed beds, we weren’t sure what we would see, but as soon as we got there we could certainly hear plenty. Lots of small birds were clearly hiding in the reeds and singing their socks off. Much more visible and considerably noisier was a small flock of Canada Geese which flew in almost as soon as we got settled in the hide.

They are noisy, boisterous birds and seemed to be constantly squabbling with each other, although there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone. While they jostled for position a lone coot sailed serenely around, unfazed by their kerfuffle.

Another small water bird also emerged periodically from the reeds. We didn’t know what it was at first, but the good people of the iSpot website identified it as a Little Grebe. It was a fairly dumpy little thing, but was clearly very good at diving. Sadly it didn’t ever really come close enough for a very good photo.

Another species which arrived in a small flock was Black Headed Gulls. At least half a dozen of them would appear and hover over the water before diving for small fish. They are beautifully sleek looking gulls, with perfect delineation between their black heads and white bodies – as if the heads had just been dipped in black ink.

Several other species put in fleeting appearances. Swallows skimmed the water for insects, but were way to quick to catch on camera. Buzzards soared above us, but were too high and silhouetted against the pale sky were also too hard to photograph. A heron did flap lazily by a couple of times, flying slow enough to get recognisable shots, but sadly not landing anywhere within sight of the hide.

Aside from the distractions of the larger birds coming and going, the most common birds proved to be the buntings and warblers that we’d heard in the reeds when we first arrived. As usual we took literally hundreds of photos, which I’ve gradually whittled down to a few half decent ones. The willow warblers were singing all around us and often obliged by landing photogenically on reeds near the hides.

While scanning through the warbler photos, I found one that looked a bit different – it had more of a white stripe over its eye. Turns out this one was probably a Sedge Warbler. Shame there was only the one slightly blurred photo.

The reed buntings were as abundant as the willow warblers and also had a penchant for posing photogenically on the reeds. The males are more distinctive with a black head and white collar above a mottled brown body.

The people who run the hide site, supplied us with mealworms to attract the birds. This one is feeding from a tiny pot, camouflaged and stuck to the reeds.

The females are a bit plainer, without the black and white headgear, but beautiful nonetheless. They also seemed a bit bolder than the males, often coming onto wood near the walkway quite close to the hide.

We even got to see one of the female reed buntings gathering nest material, although we never saw a nest.

There is always the hope whenever you visit a hide near water of seeing a kingfisher. The site we were on has a dedicated kingfisher hide and last year we’d spent a very happy couple of hours with amazing views of one right in front of us (see https://toolazytoweed.uk/2017/01/16/wildlife-hides-part-2-the-king-of-fishers/ for last year’s blog post)  After a few hours in our reed bed hide though we hadn’t been so lucky. Chris decided to get up to stretch his legs and as he put his camera down said “this will probably make the kingfisher appear”. Unbelievably as he turned his back on the reeds a kingfisher did just that – flew right past the hide and way up onto the power lines above. Grabbing the camera quickly again he managed to get at least a recognizable shot.

The power lines were a long way up, but incredibly the kingfisher could still look down and focus on the fish in the water below. We watched amazed as it dived straight down to catch them.

After a few dives the kingfisher flew off, so Chris again decided to go stretch his legs. Although my short legs would benefit from stretching, I stayed put and continued trying to get the perfect shot of a reed bunting. I was so focussed on this that I initially missed the fact that the kingfisher had landed on a perch just feet in front of me. I got so flustered when I did see it that I couldn’t focus in time, so only managed this blurred shot of it flying off. But at least it proved to a disbelieving hubby when he returned that I had indeed seen the king again!

So I guess the moral of this story is that once you’re in a hide, never lose sight of what’s in front of you, never leave your chair and never turn your back to the view!

30 Days Wild – Day 19 – Upton Warren Wetlands

It’s Day 19 of 30 Days Wild and after yesterday’s lethargy, I was determined to get out and about. So I headed out to Upton Warren Wetlands Reserve. For some reason I thought it might be cooler near water and I fondly imagined bird hides would also be oases of calm in the heat. How wrong can you be? It was of course hot and humid there like everywhere else and the bird hides were more like ovens than fridges!

Chris and I had been to Upton Warren a couple of months ago, but we’d only had time to visit the Moors section of the reserve. So this time I headed for The Flashes, which are saline pools and so attract an interesting array of birds, especially for such an inland location. Since I was expecting to photograph birds, I left the macro lens at home – with hindsight another error of judgment for today! Fortunately the lens I did take, wasn’t too bad for insects (although I couldn’t get as close as I would have liked), because the place was alive with damselfies, demoiselles and dragonflies.

The sailing pool was absolutely awash with Common Blue damselflies – they were everywhere. They certainly lived up to their name today – they were very common and very blue. There were so many I was afraid of treading on one.

Then I spotted something bigger, which fortunately settled on a landing platform. I think it is a Black Tailed Skimmer. It was certainly skimming low over the water.

Next up was a Banded Demoiselle; my second demoiselle species of the year.

The final one was this huge dragonfly I spotted as I finished up for the morning. I say spotted, but actually I heard it first. It was so big that when it flew off, its wings made such a noise, I actually thought I’d disturbed a small bird and turned round to see what it was. I think it is some kind of hawker dragonfly.

Anyway on to the birds – there were of course plenty there, despite me being distracted by the dragonflies. First happy sighting was this mother duck with her ducklings.

Moving on, probably the most common bird I saw this morning was the Black Headed Gull – again it does what it says on the tin – a gull with a black head! This one is an adult in breeding plumage.

Although this one looks completely different, I think it is also a black headed gull, but a juvenile this time.

And to confirm the difference in plumage, here is a poor photo of an adult feeding an even younger one.

My favourite bird from today, and the one I went hoping to see, was the Avocet. Absolutely stunning black and white birds with long curved bills. I couldn’t help but take loads of photos! They seemed very territorial, chasing off anything that came within their patch, regardless of size of the intruder.

And this I think is an avocet chick. It’s not got the adult plumage yet, but the beak is the same and it was behaving the same.

Both adult and young avocets behaved the same way – poking about through the water with their long bills looking for food. I managed a couple of shaky videos of them doing this. You can tell from the noise in the background, just how many birds were around today.

Avocet feeding

 

Avocet chick feeding

There was a real cacophony of bird sound all morning, most of which was unidentifiable to me, although I did think that perhaps there were some warblers near the hides – something definitely seemed to be warbling! Although there were birds everywhere, the only other species I really took photos of were this Shelduck and some Canadian Geese.

I no doubt missed lots of other species. Someone in one of the sweltering bird hides told me they’d seen a Mediterranean Gull from the next hide. I don’t think I saw one of those, but then I’m not sure I’d have been able to tell the difference if I did! Although it would be nice to be more knowledgeable about the birds, I don’t really mind going to places like Upton Warren as a novice. Just seeing so many birds, species I’d only ever seen on the telly (thank you Springwatch), is glorious. Upton Warren is a delight and I’m already looking forward to going back so Chris can see it too – although we might wait for a cooler day!

 

Out and About – Grimley Brick and Gravel Pits

The weekend brought some gloriously sunny weather – forget spring, it felt like we had skipped ahead to summer. So we ventured forth, if not very far, to Grimley which is just north of Worcester. Grimley has several old flooded gravel extraction pits, which now form important wildfowl sites for the county. There are 2 main areas – each situated conveniently next to a pub!

The first pit we went to was off Wagon Wheel Lane. The Worcester Birding twitter feed had been full of news that an American wigeon had been spotted amongst our British wigeons. Having never seen a wigeon of any nationality, we hoped to see some. Having said that, it would probably have helped if we’d googled what a wigeon looked like before we set off! All we really knew was that they were ducks, so we snapped photos of anything vaguely duck like.  Fortunately when we got back and studied the photos, it turned out we had seen some of the British ones, although no sign of the elusive American. As with so many birds the male (top) is flashier looking than the relatively plain female (below).

Of course while chasing anything duck like, we inevitably got pics of a few other species. This lucky female Northern Shoveller was accompanied by at least 5 males.

Tufted ducks were bobbing about everywhere. I love the clean lines of the black and white plumage and the bright golden eye of the males.

Another species that was new to us was the Common Teal. We didn’t manage to get very close and from a distance we thought initially these were just mallards, until we spotted the creamy yellow rump. From our distant viewpoint it hadn’t been possible to make out the beautiful red and green plumage on the head, but thanks to the power of the zoom on the computer we could appreciate it back home.

Possibly the stars of the show for us on this trip were the exotic looking Great Crested Grebes – birds that we’d only ever seen on Springwatch before.  We got a fairly close up view of this one, although as with most birds it hid behind twigs to avoid decent photos.

There was a pair though doing what looked like a courtship display on the far side of the lake. They bobbed up and down facing each other. If they’d been a bit closer I’d have tried videoing it, but they were just too far away for that.

Love seemed to be in the air for a pair of swans too. One was already on the lake when another one landed further away. The first one spotted it and hurtled across the water – I thought at first it was an aggressive or territorial thing, but then they started entwining their necks around each other, so I guess they had other things in mind!

After a short pit stop at the Camp House Inn, we headed to the other set of pits nearby. First sight was this heron – I’d never studied one before and hadn’t realised just how large they were. We tried creeping closer to get a better shot, but as we were going across an open field, he spotted us straight away and flew off when he considered we were too close for comfort.

These lakes were clearly popular with a group of cormorants that were perched on fence posts in the middle and in trees. I still find it hard to get my head round seeing what I think of as sea birds this far in land!

As we headed back to the car we spotted some smaller birds. The first is definitely a reed bunting (which proves we are learning something as we didn’t know this before we went to Upton Warren a few weeks ago).

The second is either a chiffchaff or a willow warbler – you can apparently only differentiate them confidently by their song. We weren’t paying attention to the song, but having listened to both of them on the RSPB website, the chiffchaff song seems the more familiar, so this is maybe what we heard. Either way it was a very cute, tiny little bird that bobbed up and down wagging its tail a bit like a wagtail does.

As always while Chris concentrated on the birds, I kept getting side tracked by the insects. There were quite a few large bumblebees buzzing around and the pussy willow was provided much needed sustenance to several, like this Red Tailed Bumblebee.

While trying to get a decent photo of a buff tailed bumblebee, I spotted (no pun intended) this pair of 24 spot ladybirds. They were very small and the grass they were on was waving around in the breeze, hence the less than perfect photo. They were slightly less shiny than other ladybirds and look as if they have a fine covering of downy hairs, which would make them the 24 spot ones  – a new one for me.

When I was looking at the red ladybirds above, I hadn’t noticed at the time that there was a pile of creamy coloured ones right next to them. Again they are not perfectly in focus, as I obviously wasn’t focussing on them as I didn’t know they were there! These ones turned out to be 16 spot ladybirds – another new species.

And finally, because I can never resist a comedy photo – here is the very rare 4 winged duck and a rather splendid pair of owls on top of the Wagon Wheel Inn’s thatched roof.

Awesome Autumn

Feeling the need to get out and about at the weekend before the days got too cold, I headed over to Bodenham in Herefordshire. This is the village I grew up in – there’s something very comforting about an autumnal walk around childhood haunts. The area has beautiful woods, lakes, a small river & a pretty village – all the ingredients for the perfect walk. This post is mainly and unashamedly a celebration of autumnal colours.

I started off in Queenswood Country Park. The trees were just starting to come into their full autumn glory. I’m not good on tree identification, but I really just loved the colours – it doesn’t really matter what the species are.

leaves-6

leaves-3

leaves-5

leaves-4

The leaves of course look great when you see them on a larger scale still on the trees. But they also look good if you focus in on just a few on the ground.

leaves-7

The trees weren’t the only plants turning colour – the ferns were looking splendid too, turning coppery gold in the sunshine.

ferns

ferns-3

The woods and hedgerows were bursting with berries and fruit of all colours, which was great to see, although the holly did make me feel like Christmas was on its way!

berries

red-white-berries

black-rowanberry

It may be late in the year, but there were still plenty of insects about. The ferns in the wood had several large hornets buzzing around (no need to panic, they were our normal hornets, not the dreaded Asian hornets). I’ve always rather liked hornets and if you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you!

hornet

There were also still a few bees around, like this Common Carder and a large Buff-tailed Bumblebee queen gathering pollen from the ivy.

carder-bee

bumblebee

The village has a lot of ivy and of course I couldn’t resist checking it for Ivy Bees. After chasing a lot of Honey Bees, I finally spotted a single Ivy Bee – good to know that this new British species has reached Bodenham (the record has been duly logged on iRecord for the Ivy Bee mapping project).

ivy-bee

The woods of course had lots of birds and squirrels rustling about in the canopy, all making a point of staying out of clear shot of the camera. Fortunately Bodenham Lakes have a bird hide, so I whiled away some time watching a large flock of Canada Geese, splashing about in the shallows.

canada-geese

Autumn is a photographers dream – I wish my photos did it justice. It also makes me wish that I could paint to capture the subtle ochres and tawny russets that epitomise this time of year for me.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 8

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_08Day 8 and I’m still ploughing my way through the IDs from the weekend’s bioblitz – maybe shouldn’t have taken quite so many photos! But it’s all good and discovering some new species for the garden list. It being Wednesday though, I dragged myself from the computer and headed over to take my Dad out for our weekly pub lunch – no hardship there!

Dad by riverAs it was a lovely hot day we decided to head to one of our favourite pubs The Riverside at Aymestrey in North Herefordshire – the pub is by the river Lugg and you can sit outside right next to it for your lunch. Today they had Herefordshire snails on the menu, so I went for those (with a big pile of chips of course!), while Dad went for some smoked salmon.

It is a fantastic spot and we go there quite often in the summer to watch the dragonflies, butterflies and once a kingfisher that darted down the river under the bridge and away. Sadly today all you get is a photo of the bridge!

River

The little river has fish and lots of insects, which in turn attract plenty of birds. Today we saw nuthatches and yellow wagtails, plus lots of sparrows chirping non-stop. Today’s real prize was the Beautiful Demoiselles. Having chased them around for ages on Sunday at Knapp & Papermill reserve, here they were landing within feet of me, while I tucked happily into my snails. Not only that but there were mating pairs (the Demoiselles, not my snails!)

Beautiful Demoiselles Aymestrey

Feeling full and happy after lunch, I took Dad home, then decided to stretch my legs to work off those snails! I headed to Bodenham Lakes, which are about a mile from where I grew up, but once again I’m ashamed to say this is somewhere I’d never visited. Funny how you often don’t visit the things that are on your own doorstep! That’s one of the great things I’m finding about 30 Days Wild, that it’s getting me to do some of these things – finally!

Lake

Bodenham Lakes are actually old gravel pits that have been flooded and are now managed by Herefordshire Wildlife Trust. They are apparently very good for bird spotting and even have otters – not that I saw any of those today. I did though hear my first cuckoo not only of the year, but probably the first one I’d heard for about 30 years! I then managed to find the bird hide which has splendid views, in this case of the Canada Geese.

Geese

The meadows by the lake were full of flowers including these beautiful Common Spotted Orchids and the whole place was buzzing with bees, most notably these Red Tailed Bumblebees.

Orchid

Red tailed Bumblebee

But the stars for me today of Bodenham Lakes were the damselflies and demoiselles. They were everywhere! It felt like I could hardly take a step without disturbing them – I kept seeing flashes of blue all around me. As at Aymestrey there were even mating pairs. I thought all of these below were Common Blue Damselflies, but I’ve already found out from the very helpful people on iSpot that the bottom ones are Blue-tailed Damselflies instead!

Common Blue Damselfly

Mating Damselflies 2

Mating Damselflies 1

Not only damselflies, but I also saw Banded Demoiselles (thereby completing the set of Demoiselles in one day – I think there are only 2 species – Beautiful and Banded). Didn’t manage to get a brilliant photo – I need to drag Chris back to Bodenham with his steadier hand for photography, but hopefully it is at least recognisable.

Banded Demoiselle

There weren’t that many butterflies around today, although I did see another Painted Lady, some speckled woods, what can only be described as a “brown one” and some Common Blues. The Common Blues were flighty as ever, but I did pursue one long enough to get this just about identifiable shot.

Common Blue Butterfly

So all in all a particularly good day today. I shall definitely be heading back to Bodenham Lakes soon and also no doubt back to the pub too!

 

Ladys MantleAnd finally as always the latest weed in my 30 Lazy Weeds from our garden – Lady’s Mantle. I like the subtlety of this gentle looking plant. I love the soft wavy pleated leaves, especially the way they catch droplets of water like this. They provide lots of ground cover and are quite happy in the shade as well as in sunnier spots, so suit pretty much any garden. Time to give room to less showy plants like Lady’s Mantle!