Friday 31 May 2024

A Little Stint on Arran 28th May 2024


Today we had planned on crossing Kilbrannan Sound on the small ferry that takes you and your car from Lochranza on Arran to Claonaig on the Kintyre Peninsula, and then driving down to Campbeltown. However the weather pressaged a change of plan as the forecast predicted heavy rain for most of the day.

This is Scotland so such a situation with the weather was hardly unexpected and, after all, there was no reason to feel dispirited as we already had experienced some days of beautiful weather and still have two more weeks to go on Arran. Staying in the house was not an option so we made a plan to drive to Blackwaterfoot that lies half way down the west side of the island to visit the Old Bakehouse that we have come to know well due to its attractive array of pastries, bread and now with coffee as an added temptation.

The drive to Blackwaterfoot is on a virtually deserted road alongside the Kilbrannan Sound, the rocky shore for the most part never more than a few metres from the road. 


A shore that at this time of year is home to pairs of breeding Oystercatchers and Common Sandpipers.The former, bulky black and white birds with bright orange bills that with ringing calls, fly to reveal striking white bars on coal black wings. 

Oystercatcher

Much smaller is the Common Sandpiper that stands sentry on a large rock by the seashore while its mate incubates four eggs, hidden in a nest in long grass and dense vegetation nearby, often on the landward side of the road.Once the eggs hatch the parent birds will lead the precocious young to the shore to take their chances.

Common Sandpiper

The other dwellers on these stony shores are the Black Guillemots that lay a single egg below a huge boulder whilst the more isolated areas of shore above the  tideline are populated by loose colonies of Common Gulls incubating their eggs in a rudimentary nest. Each  gull's gleaming white head and breast form a distinctive mark amongst the banks of pebbles where they choose to nest. 

Black Guillemot

Common Gull

This western side of the island is far less populated than the busier eastern side and much of the shore is deserted for the most part and birds can still find enough peace to nest and raise their young although the increasing disturbance from dog walkers and campers is becoming a problem.

The month of May has brought to this part of the island a profusion of growth as the bracken begins to unfurl its green fronds below the prolific birch trees that grow on the hillsides rising up from the road. The cerise pink flowers of Red Campion bring a pleasing variance to the omnipresent green of the roadside verges. Foxgloves, each plant a crooked spire of multitudinous purple flowers, its tip bent over like a beckoning finger  rise above the bracken in pockets of profusion while  flag iris raise brilliant yellow, floppy petalled heads from green fleshy stalks in  the wetter areas of field and ditch.



We arrived at Blackwaterfoot in the predicted rain and after a coffee and chat with George the baker retired with a couple of his cinnamon twirls to park beside an area of rocks and rotting seaweed. Nearby the Clauchan Water flows under the road and out to sea in a mini estuary, dividing one side of sand much favoured by the public from the opposite side that is mainly rocks and seaweed, the latter thrown up by the winter storms and now reduced to a rotted mulch above the tideline. This unappealing area is rarely disturbed by anyone and definitely not on a rain sodden day such as this.


This is all to the good as at this time of year it attracts migrating birds such as White Wagtails, Northern Wheatears and especially waders, the rotting weed providing a home for countless invertebrates and an invaluable source of food for the birds.

Of wading birds, I have seen Whimbrels here as well as Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, Dunlins and Common Sandpipers. Many are breaking their journey to feed up in order to head further north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. 

Today brought a most pleasant surprise as the blackened expanse of seaweed was covered with more waders than usual, swarming like restless ants across its surface. Checking in my bins many appeared to be very pale, especially when seen against the blackened seaweed.They could only be one thing, Sanderling, my favourite waders. I looked through the flock busily picking invisible prey from the rotting weed. Sanderling in Spring display a bewildering variation in plumage, no one individual quite  the same as any other.They vary from grey and white to a rich orange chestnut and this flock was typical with birds showing varying degrees of colour saturation from both ends of the spectrum.

Why this is so is a matter of speculation.On the one hand it may be that the richer coloured birds are older individuals or that some birds never achieve the rich orange colouration at all whilst another suggestion is that birds on migration curtail their moult and  only acquire their rich colours when they arrive at their breeding areas






Sanderling

I counted through the Sanderling a number of times, no easy task as they were constantly and haphazardly moving about at speed but finally I settled on a very good count of thirty and a delight to find on this miserable morning.As one  inevitably does I checked and re-checked their number to see if I could get a higher count than thirty. 

It was on my last count that I got thirty one. I looked more intently and found an individual that looked a slightly brighter orange than any other of its companions. It also displayed two very distinctive buff lines forming an inverted v running down its back. I realised I had discovered a summer plumaged Little Stint.






Little Stint

Once onto it I noted its more rapid erratic movements and when it came close to a Sanderling how much smaller it was in comparison. 

When seen on its own its diminutive size (it is one of the world's smallest waders) was less obvious but the quicker feeding action and richer colouring gave it away as did the two buff braces one on either side of its mantle. 


It scurried back and fore, always on the fringe of the feeding Sanderlings, constantly picking minute prey items from the weed. It was never still, forever feeding, doubtless using the weather intervention to replenish its energy reserves. Soon it will have to head onwards to breeding grounds that can be anywhere in the Arctic Circle from northern Scandinavia, the Russian Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya or across northern Siberia where it will breed in a brief window from mid June to August, whilst the Sanderlings will head for Siberia or northwest to Greenland, maybe via Iceland.


Little Stints migrate over 7500 miles from their winter homes on either European and North African Mediterranean coasts or sub Saharan Africa to the Arctic Circle and then back again. 

How do they manage this almost miraculous and perilous journey but manage they do.

I took many images of the Little Stint, some good some not so. By this time despite the rain I had abandoned the car to sit on a bench, getting thoroughly soaked in the process.It was singularly unpleasant but the stint was worth it. The last Little Stint to be seen on Arran was in September 2002 so this was a truly momentous birding event for Arran and, it has to be said, for me also.


Periodically the birds would take alarm and fly in a tight fast flying flock out over the sea before wheeling in unison to come back to land and recommence their frantic feeding. The seaweed was obviously a goldmine of food and the flock after landing further down the beach would always return there on rapid twinkling feet as soon as they felt safe to do so.

Other waders fed amongst them, Ringed Plovers, both migrant and local individuals, while half a dozen Dunlins, only slightly bigger than the stint, wandered amongst the larger Sanderlings.

Ringed Plover

Dunlin

Turnstones looking almost thuggish in comparison due to their larger more robust build were vigorously turning over the seaweed with their short stout bills, looking for prey. Most were still in either non breeding plumage or still had to progress their moult to its summer finery but one or two were almost there in their attractive harlequin breeding colours.

Turnstone

I forgot about the rain and the inevitable inconvenience and frustration it brought as I continued to watch the birds feeding below me.

A Little Stint on Arran.Who would have suspected that after twenty two years?

The Little Stint was last seen on the 30th May


Thursday 16 May 2024

The Pool Frogs of Greenham Common 15th May 2024


Today, one that promised warm sun, I went to Greenham Common Nature Reserve in the neighbouring county of Berkshire.

In  the dark days of winter past, a chance conversation with a fellow birder alerted me to the fact that it was possible to see  Pool Frogs in a pond at Greenham Common during the months of May and June. I stored this information at the back of my mind until today when I decided to put it to the test.

The pond in question, fairly near the car park is situated away from the main paths in a quiet, neglected corner which is probably just as well as this large reserve can get very busy. Signs tell dog owners, of which there are no shortage, to not allow their dogs to run amok in the pond as.there are other ponds where they can let their dog do its worst if they so wish. By and large the dog owners that come here adhere to the request and if not there are volunteer rangers to ensure they do.

Consequently the pond's habitat has not been trashed, the water is clear and undisturbed and water lilies prosper in one corner whilst the margins are suitably populated with weed and reeds in which the frogs can hide and live out their lives.




I arrived at around 8am which was far too early and for the next hour and a half there was neither sight nor sound of any frog whatsoever. For a thirty minute diversion I walked over to some distant bushes where a Nightingale was singing loudly and even managed a brief glimpse of its russet coloured body as it sang from deep within a hawthorn thicket.

I returned to the pond more in hope than expectation and as I feared there was  still no sign of any frogs. I had arranged to meet Peter here at 9.30am and was about to concede defeat when simultaneously Peter arrived and I heard the first frog's croak emanating from the far side of the pond .It was 9.30am! 

Pool Frogs breed later than our Common Frogs which commence in March and April whereas the Pool Frogs choose to breed in May and June.As with our Common Frogs the croaking comes from the male Pool Frogs which inflate a sac on each side of their throat to create the sound which is surprisingly loud.

The sun was  beginning to warm the shallow water and in turn the frogs, which like to come to the surface to bask in the sun, commenced becoming more active
.
However the first tentative croaks soon fell silent as one of the frog's deadliest predators, a Grass Snake, its cold blood also warmed and energised by the sun, swam round the margin of the pond, eventually passing by almost at our feet. Its head was held above the water as its black forked tongue tasted the air. With sinuous grace its long body waved in curves under the water, propelling it forward. I was granted an expressionless pitiless stare from a golden yellow eye and then it was gone into the aquatic vegetation at the margin of the pond. Doubtless a luckless  frog would become its victim.




I have to confess to an uneasy relationship with snakes.On the one hand I feel an instinctive revulsion and fear but on the other a fascination and attraction I cannot rationally account for.

With the snake's departure the frogs croaking recommenced although remaining intermittent as slowly more and more frogs revealed themselves.Never having been to the pond before it took me a little while to familiarise myself with the frog's routine. There were definitely areas of the pond they preferred, close in to the margins where they would lie in the weed at the surface. They were ultra cautious and one had to move very slowly and carefully otherwise they would crash dive below the surface with an audible plop.





Standing quietly in a particularly favoured sunny corner with lots of weed by some overhanging bushes, brought the best results and provided I remained motionless more and more frogs surfaced there.




Pool Frogs are similar in size to Common Frogs but if examined closely can be told by their more pointed heads and longer legs. 


The males were in the majority, the larger females much fewer. All were predominantly brown or green in colour, overlain with darker blotches, bars and spots, the markings varying greatly from frog to frog. 




One large individual, possibly a female was intriguingly and attractively spotted all over its body, while others showed varying degrees of green on head and body and all a prominent light yellow or green dorsal stripe running down the entire length of head and back. 



P
ool Frogs were, until relatively recently, shrouded in confusion as to whether they were truly native to Britain. There would appear to be two separate populations, the Northern Pool Frog, very much range restricted and endangered, found in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Estonia; the other, the Southern Pool Frog much more widespread, occurring across a large region of central, southern and eastern Europe into Russia

It has been established that the Northern Pool Frog was indeed native to Britain with bones being discovered that dated from mid Saxon times and there are records documenting their presence in England well before any known frog introductions. Unfortunately just as it was determined they were the rarest  of our native amphibians the last known colony at Thompson Common in Norfolk became extinct in 1995!

However in 2000 Northern Pool Frogs from Sweden were re-introduced to two sites in Norfolk, one undisclosed, the other being Thompson Common, their last known location in Britain

This would suggest that the Pool Frogs at Greenham Common are of the southern form and therefore not native and must have been introduced at some point.Not that the frogs care about such semantics,


Whatever the provenance it is nice to see them apparently thriving in their undisturbed pond, a welcome addition to Britain's impoverished biodiversity and bringing much pleasure to those who know of and wish to see them.

So it was that approaching noon I put the camera down and stood, silent and contemplative in the warm sunshine by the peaceful pond with its raft of water lilies and shared some time in the presence of the frogs, staring inscrutably with goggle eyes as they sunned themselves amongst the tangles of weed.The Nightingale's sublime notes, although coming from afar, clearly audible.

Spring in all its glorious profusion, variety and wonder encapsulated right here.