Archive for January 2014

January 2014 – the wettest month since records began.   Leave a comment

 

Yes, its official, January 2014 is the wettest month since records began, at least in Southern Britain. Many events have been weather affected throughout January but I have managed to go ringing on five or so occasions and do a little birding, as well as going on the East Anglia trip that I have already reported on.

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Anita and Kara at Anita’s flat in Bournemouth. John and Anita returned from their long trip to South Africa on the 4th and Anita held a belated 40th birthday party on the  11th 

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Anita relaxes with friends and family at her 40th birthday party. John, Amber, Janis, Margaret and I are all in there somewhere. Kara took the photo.

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We managed three ringing visits to Holton Lee. As usual we ringed or retrapped lots of Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Robins and Dunnocks plus a small number of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Nuthatches. The large number of retraps allows us to hone our aging skills by examining birds of known age and comparing the plumage against the published criteria. On the 14th we trapped the first Reed Bunting for the site on the but had already ringed as a juvenile (3J) female at Lytchett Bay on 23rd August 2013. I’m happy to report that we considered it to be a first-winter female (age code 5) which of course, it should have been.

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We have long considered that our ringing site at Fleets Lane needed some maintenance, mainly in reducing the height of the vegetation to promote new growth. Seven of us met up on the 26th for a very tiring four hours of cutting, trimming, hacking and trimming.

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Like all newly cut vegetation it looks pretty hacked about now, but should be ideal for ringing once the new growth starts to sprout in March.

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The 27th saw a very wet WeBS count at Holes Bay at lunchtime but later on the weather had eased of enough to warrant a trip up to the Blashford Lakes neat Ringwood. The causeway at Ibsley is still flooded and impassible to all but 4x4s.

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…. but a Bewick’s Swan posed for photos on the flooded meadows.


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The main reason for going was to see a male Ferruginous Duck at Kingfisher Lake. This is a private lake surrounded by a high fence with lots of vegetation obscuring the view. I managed a brief and obstructed view of the ‘Fudgy Duck’ before it disappeared behind and island. We ended up at nearby Ivy Lake (above) where we waited in vain until dusk in the vain hope that either the resident Bittern or Great White Egret would put in an appearance.

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On the 28th I drove over to West Bexington in west Dorset to see the adult Glaucous Gull that had been there for about a week. It does wander up and down the coast so I was lucky to see it flying immediately in front of the car park as soon as I arrived.

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It eventually settled on the beach. I tried to get it in the same photo as this beautiful rainbow. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not I succeeded.

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Glaucous Gull is a scarce but regular visitor to northern Britain from the arctic, but twitchable individuals this far south are pretty uncommon.

 

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Glaucous Gulls share the white-wing tips with the closely related Iceland Gull, but are larger with a thicker bill and more fierce expression. This bird is at the smaller end of the Glaucous size spectrum.

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Christmas 2013 was the first since I was a kid that I didn’t get invited to a Christmas party or a Christmas dinner-dance, so when we heard that our friends at the Phoenix (previously Nexus) organisation were attending a Burn’s Night dinner we gladly joined them. Here the piper plays us into the dinning room.

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The haggis is piped in. It was an excellent meal but my injured toes are still recovering so we didn’t join in with the dancing.

 

And finally I have to report the sad end to Margaret’s car. The little Daihastu was over 20 years old but finally expired the day before yesterday. It was taken to the scrap merchants who crushed it into a little cube. Margaret bought it for £300 over seven years ago and got £80 back for the scrap –  good value motoring in my opinion.

February brings new adventures including my first foreign travel of the year – more of that later.

 


Posted January 31, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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6th – 11th December 2013 – Zimbabwe   Leave a comment

The final part of the tour was in Zimbabwe. Very tired after the overnight flight we drove eastwards from the capital Harare to the Vumba Mountains on the border with Mozambique.

IMG_5149 Abdim's Stork

On route we saw large flocks of Abdim’s Stork, an intra-African rains migrant. With the rains imminent, large numbers had arrived in Zimbabwe. Some follow the monsoon rains as far north as Oman.

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Our first day in the Vumba mountains was very wet and finding the birds was a struggle. Eventually the rain was replaced by a thick mist and we scored with our main targets, Robert’s Warbler, Chirinda Apalis ……

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…. and the beautiful Swynnerton’s Robin. Photo from http://www.pers-birding-pages.com

 

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Leaving this lovely, if rather wet spot, behind, we returned to Harare for an overnight stay. There was just enough time in the afternoon to visit a nearby game park.

 

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IMG_5150 Wildebeeste

There were a number of mammals like these Blue Wildebeeste, but this park has almost certainly been restocked with game so it is debatable if these can be considered truly wild.

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A large number of the ungulates in Africa have been split into multiple species in Vol 2 of Handbook of Mammals of the World. For example the Blue Wildebeeste above is a different species from those on the Serengeti. However this tick-fest did not extend to the giraffes, different races of which vary considerably in the pattern of the coat. If it was split this form would be the Southern Giraffe.

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Zimbabwe has certainly had its fair share of political and economic problems. Hyper-inflation was halted when the Zimbawean Dollar was abandoned in favour of the US Dollar, but not before 100 trillion dollar notes were in circulation!

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In spite of all these difficulties, Zimbabwe has better roads and a higher level of private car usage than most African countries. This family are certainly travelling in comfort!

 

IMG_5191 Southern Carmine Bee-eater

The following day we headed north on a long drive to the Zambezi valley. The further north we went the hotter it got and the worse the roads became. On route we came across a group of beautiful Southern Carmine Bee-eaters.

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We spent two days in the Zambezi valley. In spite of fairly basic conditions, we were looked after very well. The temperature was very hot, over 42c during the afternoon, and in spite of extensive searching we failed to find our main target – the elusive African Pitta. This species can only be seen when it starts to call after the onset of the rains and this year the rains were late.

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Relaxing in the heat of the day at the lodge.

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Retz’s Helmet-shrike

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I’ve already posted pictures of the family of African Wood Owls in residence around the lodge, but the juveniles are so cute, I couldn’t resist posting another.

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One of the features of the area was the regular sighting of a pair of Bat Hawks. It very unusual to see this crepuscular species in anything but  poor light after sunset. Photo by Simon Cox.

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As I have said earlier the rains had yet to come. For us it meant dipping on a good bird, for the locals it meant having to dig in a dry river bed for water!

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It is at moments like this that we realise just how privileged we are in Europe. Gas, electricity and water are taken for granted and a huge fuss is made if we are deprived of them for just a few hours. Imagine doing this every time you needed to do the washing up.

So we failed on our main quest in the north of Zimbabwe but we enjoyed birding in the area and in spite of the heat, had a a good time. We later returned to Harare for an overnight stay. The following day we were expecting a long, long transfer (seven hours) at Nairobi but instead delays at Harare meant we had the seven hour wait there, which was far preferable as it is a much better appointed airport. At Nairobi we just got off one plane and got straight on to another.

A lovely trip with some excellent and seldom seen birds, some good mammals and most enjoyable company.

Posted January 27, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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December 2013 – the Nyika Plateau – Malawi   Leave a comment

Returning to the trip to Malawi in November/December 2013, we continue the saga on the Nyika Plateau in the far north of the country.

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As we drove north we passed extensive rubber plantations. I was somewhat amused by this sign.

IMG_4773 Irridescence in cloud

As we ascended the plateau we encountered huge thunder clouds and were particularly taken by the iridescent fringes to the upper layers.

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Caused by refraction through ice crystals in the upper and outer layers of the cloud, this presented a spectacular sight through a telephoto lens or binoculars.

IMG_4968 Nyika Platea lodge

The accommodation on the plateau was at this lodge. During the British colonial administration an attempt was made to turn the entire plateau into a pine plantation but fortunately this failed as it was too costly to transport the timber to market. The pines themselves seem to have done little damage, Eland and other large mammals often shelter in them at night and they provide nest sites for many raptors but bracken spores arrived with the seedlings and are now taking over the natural grasslands at an alarming rate.

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Although it was cool at night (about 7c) it wasn’t that cold, however the staff treated us as if we were in the Arctic with a roaring wood fire (from the pine plantation) in the cabins, hot water bottles in the beds and blankets for a night drive! The cabins were very spacious and comfortable Who says I rough it on foreign trips!

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Abundant game on the plateau included many Roan antelope. Here a dominant male is seeing off a young male. The chase lasted for five minutes or so and the older male would not leave the youngster in peace.

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Herds of enormous Eland were a regular site especially on night drives.

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We saw many Zambian Reedbuck (above) as well as Cape Bushbuck and the occasional Common Duiker.

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Herds of Common Zebra were seen on the grasslands but little game at all was seen in areas taken over by bracken. This herd approached but didn’t enter the bracken

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….. this Zebra of course being the exception that proved the rule

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Part of the National Park is in Zambia and we freely moved between there and Malawi, as did this group of Zambian Klipspringers which got added to the list for both countries.

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There were many special birds on the plateau including this Montane Widowbird  ….

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…. the widespread White-naped Raven ….

IMG_4784 Cisticola to ID

.. and the diminutive Churring Cisticola, which like many of its genus is named after its vocalisations.

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More spectacular species included this Black-bellied Bustard. Pictures of the same bird in display can be found on my first post about this trip.

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We were delighted to see a female Denham’s Bustard with a chick …..

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… and later on to see daddy !

IMG_4978 Nyika Plateau

The rolling grasslands of the Nyika gave us species as diverse as Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, Blue Swallow and Pallid Harrier whilst the wooded patches provided Olive-flanked Bush-robin, Bar-tailed Trogon and various greenbuls.

IMG_4941 Jackson's Emperor

We were on the trail of a diminutive cisticola when this stunning moth was found (which was considerably bigger than the bird). All thoughts of chasing a small brown bird vanished as we gathered round to photograph this beauty, which apparently goes under the name of Jackson’s Emperor.

 

IMG_4865 Sunset

Each evening we stayed out late and enjoyed a sundowner before driving back in the dark. The best nocturnal sighting was probably a Side-stripe Jackal which was a new mammal for me. The various owls and nightjars seen have already been posted under the heading of ‘Malawi and Zimbabwe – the night birds’

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Well that was that for Malawi. From the Nyika we returned to the miombo woodland area we visited on the way north before driving back to Lilongwe. Unfortunately the carrier who was to fly us to Zimbabwe had gone bust so we had to fly north overnight to Nairobi and then back south to Zimbabwe, so it was a tired and bedraggled group that arrived in Harare the following morning. More of that in the next post.

Posted January 24, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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17th – 20th January 2014 – East Anglia   Leave a comment

After leaving Cambridge on the evening of the 17th we drove to the small town of Framlingham in Suffolk where we stayed with Terry and David for two nights. Terry is an old friend of Margaret’s from Plettenberg Bay in South Africa who came to the UK in 2002 after the death of her first husband. Here she met David and they married soon after. Margaret has only recently got in touch with her so, having not seen each other for over 15 years its was a great reunion.

David and I got on very well, he is very interested in birds and wildlife and in particular bird vocalisations, he has traveled extensively around the USA and hitch-hiked and camped all around Europe, he loves music, has a great collection of blues and folk, plays the guitar and keyboards and has met many famous musicians like Dave Gilmore and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd. All of this would be quite an achievement but when you realise that David has been totally blind since the age of 12 it becomes almost unbelievable. We both agreed that David was truly inspirational.

On the 18th we spent the morning at the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve before heading north to Blythburgh and back to Framlingham.

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Terry, David and Margaret in Blythburgh Church

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Minsmere is the RSPB’s flagship reserve. The area was flooded in WWII to deter invasion and rare birds like the Avocet soon returned to breed. The reserve consists of extensive reedbeds, woodland, heathland and a large wetland scrape.

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A view over ‘the scrape’. To the south of the reserve is Southwell B nuclear power station.

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Moe unusual birds seen that day included Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Tundra Bean Goose, Peregrine and Red-throated Diver but this flock of over a thousand Lapwing wins ‘spectacle of the day’. There was a single Golden Plover in there somewhere, we did manage to find it.

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A close up of a few of the Lapwings. David really appreciated hearing their haunting calls

To hear the calls of Lapwings click on this link  http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Vanellus-vanellus

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Greylag Geese where very common and unlike the birds we see in Dorset,  were wild wintering birds from Iceland. Again David appreciated their constant vocalisations.

For Greylag Goose vocalisations click on this link http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Anser-anser

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Birding done, we called in to see Blythburgh church and then visited a friend of Terry and David who lives in the village. Although a church has stood on this site since 654 the current church dates to the 12th century.

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One it’s most important features is this ancient wooden ceiling with ornately carved angels.

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Margaret explored a narrow spiral staircase only to find that it ended at a spy hole in the church wall.

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Before we left Framlingham on the 19th we called in to see the local castle.

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Later we visited the pretty village of Walberswick. I used to visit this area a lot in the 1980’s often seeing Snow Bunting and Twite in the area plus many birds of prey but today all I saw was a few Red-throated Divers offshore and a few Mediterranean Gulls.

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However later that day just south of Lowestoft we came across this flock of 27 or so Snow Buntings.

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They blended in perfectly with the shingle. Most British wintering Snow Buntings are of the Icelandic race insulae, but an increasing number of the Scandinavian nominate race are seen in East Anglia

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A number of birds were coloured ringed. As all the colour rings were of the same type I would imagine they have been ringed locally. If I can find anything m,ore about them I will post it later.

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In increasingly cold and blustery conditions we visited Lowestoft Ness, the most easterly point of the British Isles.

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We stayed overnight with my friends Alan and Debbie who live in Lowestoft. Although originally from Derby and living in the same road as me, I didn’t meet Alan until we both went to Leeds University in 1969. He was one of the ‘famous five’ who lived in the decrepit slum in Fraser Terrace and we have kept in touch ever since. I met Debbie in 1974, just before they were married. As I mentioned earlier about Jennie, visits have been less frequent in recent years and the last time I saw Alan was at our ‘Leeds reunion’ in 2003.

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On the 20th we called in to the seafront at Great Yarmouth where after quite some effort we located a single Horned (or Shore) Lark. Wishing to avoid rush hour chaos on the M25, we only stopped briefly in Norwich where we made another ecclesiastical visit, this time to Norwich Cathedral.

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As with the other churches visited this weekend, Norwich Cathedral is a magnificent building.

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Many of East Anglia’s churches had their stained glass windows destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, who considered such beautiful works to be ‘superstitious ornamentation’. Fortunately Norwich’s cathedral largely escaped unscathed.

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A quick look around the cloisters before we set out on the long drive home.




 

Posted January 23, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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17th January 2014 – Cambridge.   Leave a comment

We spent a great long weekend in Cambridge and East Anglia. The main purpose was to visit friends, but we took the opportunity to do some sightseeing (mainly churches and cathedrals) and of course I managed a bit of birding.

We drove up to Cambridge on the evening of the 16th and met up with my friend Jennie the following morning. I first met Jennie in 1972 when she moved from Brighton to Leeds University to do a PhD. After I graduated in 1973 Jennie, along , Di and Nigel (whom I met up with at Christmas time) and Dave (whom I last saw in 2011) all friends from University, shared a house for three years in Leeds. After that we went our separate ways, Di married my friend Clive and moved to Newcastle, Jennie moved to Cambridge, Dave move to Co Durham and I married Janet and moved to the other side of Leeds. Only Nigel still lives in Leeds.

I kept in regular contact with Jennie initially, sometimes visiting her when I went birding in East Anglia, but as time passed visits became less frequent and we last met up when we had a ‘Leeds reunion’ in 2003.  It was lovely to see her again and Margaret very much enjoyed meeting her for the first time.

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Redheads united ! Margaret and Jennie

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King’s College Chapel,  the largest private chapel in the world and one of England’s finest churches.

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King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

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King’s College Chapel nave showing the largest fan vault in the world.

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Jennie and Margaret at King’s College Chapel, it is here that the famous choir sits.

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Later we visited Trinity College ….

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Statues commemorating some of the former students

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Wonderful carved ceilings

Wren Libray

Photography was banned in the fantastic Wren Library so I copied this photo from the internet.

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In the afternoon we headed north to Ely to visit it’s famous cathedral. Once called the Isle of Ely as it stands on raised ground above the surrounding fen, it was here that Hereward the Wake held out against the forces of the William the Conqueror in 1071.

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Every bit as dramatic as anything we saw in Cambridge, Ely Cathedral is one of our finest architectural wonders. It dates from 1083 although an earlier Saxon monastery stood on the site since 673

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The ornate wooden ceiling is a masterpiece.

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The nave

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One of its unique features is this octagonal lantern …..

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… built in 1322 when the earlier Norman tower collapsed.

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Ely Cathedral, one of our architectural gems, I considered it to be the finest building we visited during the weekend.



Posted January 22, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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Citizen science – two examples of it at its best   Leave a comment

Citizen science is a concept that members of the public can add considerably to scientific knowledge if they take part in properly executed investigations. Examples in the ornithological world include the Garden Bird Survey conducted by RSPB members. Surveys by the BTO such as the Breeding Bird Survey, WeBS count (wetland birds survey) and Nest Recording Scheme need a higher level of expertise, but are still carried out by volunteers, as of course, is the BTOs Ringing Scheme, which I have reported on many times in this blog.

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Although produced and published by professionals, the data in these two massive and highly informative tomes from the BTO were gathered by amateur birders (the Bird Atlas) and ringers (the Migration Atlas)

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The reason I am posting this blog today is because yesterday I was stunned by two bits of news in which citizen scientist played a significant role. The first concerned the migration of Red-necked Phalaropes in Shetland. Whilst this research was carried out by the RSPB, I’m sure  amateur ringers carried out a significant role. This tiny waders are on the edge of their circumpolar Arctic breeding range in Shetland and it had been long assumed that they migrate to the winter on the sea in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean off Oman, as do the European and west Siberian population.

By fitting data loggers the researchers found that the Shetland birds actually cross the Atlantic and Central America to winter off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador at the northern end of the Humbolt current. Thus the tiny British population probably derives from North America rather than Scandinavia.

More can be found about this research here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-25661650

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A female Red-necked Phalarope (females have the brighter plumage due to the reversed breeding roles in this species) Photo from Loch Funzie, Shetland by http://www.wildlife-photography.uk.com

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We saw many Red-necked Phalaropes in winter plumage off the coast of Oman, in November 2011. It would appear that the British birds don’t join them. Photo by Ewan Brodie.

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The second item that I found astonishing was when I was watching Stargazing Live on the BBC. On the first program on Tuesday they asked for volunteers to scan through thousands of photographs of distant galaxies on the website looking for examples of ‘gravitational lensing’. Due to the distortion of space-time by a heavy object, the light from a very distant galaxy can be bent around a closer galaxy, so that instead of eclipsing it the closer galaxy forms the light of a more distant one into a circle around it.

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Gravitational lensing. Picture from Wikipedia.

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Within 48 hours 50,000 amateurs had examined 7,500,000 images and found 5 examples of gravitational lensing. One showed a very distant galaxy, the light of which had taken 11,000,000,000 years to reach us. This means it the image comes from a time when the first galaxies were forming and due to the ongoing expansion of the Universe is now 40,000,000,000 light years (c 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Km) away!

This discovery was sufficiently significant that observatories in the UK, mainland USA, Chile and Hawaii immediately turned their telescopes to examine it wavelengths across the EM spectrum.  A triumph for citizen science!

In the picture above, the light from the distant galaxy 11 billion light years away has been ‘lensed’ into a red ring around the closer galaxy, which itself is a ‘mere’ one billion light years away. Picture from BBC Stargazing Live website.

28th – 30th November 2013 – Liwonde National Park, Malawi   Leave a comment

After an interval over Christmas and New Year I can return to the saga of the Malawi and Zimbabwe trip in November/December last year.

One of the highlights of the trip was time spent at Liwonde NP which lies just south of Lake Malawi. The Shire River that drains Lake Malawi flows to the Zambezi through the park. We traveled up the Shire River by boat and arrived at Mvuu camp about lunchtime. The area around the lodge was not fenced and you had to have a guard with you when you went to the chalets, especially at night as Elephants were often seen nearby. Pictures of the Liwonde chalets and of the Pel’s Fish Owl can be seen on earlier posts.

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This African Fish Eagle was seen on our boat trip up the Shire River.

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This Yellow Baboon seems to be surviving in spite of having a broken tail

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Hippos aren’t just common along the Shire River, they are abundant.

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Are we keeping you up?

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As with my trip to Uganda earlier in the year, a large flock of African Skimmers was seen along the river.

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The three species of Skimmer (one in the Americas, one in Africa and one in Asia) have a unique bill shape. The lower mandible is much longer than the upper and when feeding in flight, is dragged through the surface of the water (described as unzipping the pond), if it makes contact with a fish the  upper mandible snaps shut.

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The view from the dining area. The grassy lawns on the banks of the river were favoured by Hippos in the early morning and Elephants and Waterbuck could also be seen whilst eating lunch.

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Also visible from the dining area was a pair of Saddle-billed Storks. This bird can be sexed as a female on the account of its yellow eye.

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After an early morning game drive we were astounded to find the lodge staff had prepared an alfresco breakfast for us out in the bush.

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The surrounding mopane woodland was studded with giant Baobab trees, but many of their trunks had suffered from extensive elephant damage as the leviathans know that below the bark there is a supply of water.

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There have been a lot of taxonomic changes among the antelope, for example there are now six species of Kudu., rather than two. This is a male Zambezi Kudu.

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We only saw a single Sable Antelope, this magnificent male was in the mopane woodland.

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Do Warthogs get sore wrists? I strikes me that having to shuffle along like this to feed is a bit of a design fault.

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Eastern Bearded Scrub-robin

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No wonder the Bohm’s Bee-eater on the left is looking away.

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At the end of an afternoon’s birding we stopped by the river for a sundowner but we arrived a bit on the late side, so it was more of a ‘sungoner’

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On the second day we took a boat upstream to try and find Rufous-bellied Heron but the river levels were too high and  they appeared to have moved on. These young male Elephants were having a scrap in the river ……

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…. as our boat approached they took their flight onshore ……..

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….. but they upset the Hippos in the process !

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From the boat we were able to time our sundowner to perfection.

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Ewan and I saw the rare Mellor’s Mongoose feeding in the creek at the back of our chalet. Also in the photo is a young Black-crowned Night Heron