Mike Smart


New Curlew conservation website – www.curlewcall.org

As noted in several recent issues of GNS NEWS, much attention has been devoted in recent years to Curlews in Gloucestershire, both wintering birds on the Severn Estuary, and breeding birds in the Severn and Avon Vales. This reflects a wider interest in Curlews and a growing realisation (throughout UK, and indeed internationally) that the Eurasian Curlew has undergone a sharp decrease in numbers in recent years. Much of the interest in the UK has been devoted to birds breeding in upland sites in northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland; but appreciable numbers continue to breed across lowland southern England too, and should not be neglected: a workshop devoted to this topic was held in Slimbridge in February 2017, and now a website on this topic (with much support from GNS) has been established at www.curlewcall.org. Do take a look and add your comments.

 


Another ringing session at Ashleworth Ham on 1 August

This was the ninth session out of twelve in the British Trust for Ornithology’s Constant Ringing effort at Ashleworth, three each month from May to August.  This study has been going on at Ashleworth for twenty years now.

Starting before sunrise, it didn’t look, at first sight, as though there were many birds about: little birdsong (just a few bursts of Willow Warbler: were these adult birds having a last session at the end of the summer, or newly hatched young ones, trying out their song for the first time?), nor much sign of bird activity early in the morning; yet the ringing session showed there were still quite a lot of birds about. 

Conditions were quite good to start with (overcast, no wind), but unfortunately the wind rose rather earlier than forecast soon after half past seven (the wind makes the nets belly out like galleon sails, so that the birds bounce off instead of getting caught).  So the catch, although just above the average for the time of year, was limited to 73 birds; 44 of them were summer visitor warblers all the same; interestingly, the vast majority of them were juveniles (probably locally bred as they were nearly all still in post juvenile moult), so it looked as though most of the adults had moved out already. Birds caught: 1 juvenile Grasshopper Warbler (another indication of local breeding, picture below by Mervyn Greening); 4 Sedge Warblers (all juveniles); 23 Whitethroats (not a single adult); five Blackcaps (one adult); 6 Chiffchaffs (just one adult in moult); 5 Willow Warblers (one adult in moult); plus the usual array of residents: as many as seven Reed Buntings (all juveniles); a single juvenile Great Tit; one juvenile Long-tailed Tit; no Blue Tits; 2 juvenile Treecreepers; one Blackbird; couple of Dunnocks, couple of Robins, five Wrens (all juveniles); three Linnets , three Goldfinches, two Bullfinches. 

Other birds on the reserve: 1 Sparrowhawk; 2 Buzzards; 1 Green Sandpiper; one Redstart; about 10 each of House Martins and Swallows hawking insects, probably migrants on their way south; one Raven; a flock of at least 50 Goldfinches (autumn coming!)  

No hay has been cut as yet on the reserve (which no doubt gave the Reed Buntings time to raise their second broods).  Water levels low on the scrapes, but a nice stand of Flowering Rush in the middle pool.  


Interesting observations at Coombe Hill, even in dry conditions

Recent rain in Gloucester hasn’t raised water levels at the GWT reserve at Coombe Hill; the north scrape is completely dry, and the south scrape is almost dry – just a dribble of water left yesterday 29 July.  There is still water on the Long Pool however, though the Long Pool hide is closed (as in previous years at this time), because of a hornet’s nest.

Interesting stuff however: at first sight, there were no birds on the north or south scrapes.  But occasional Little Ringed Plover calls could be heard from the Grundon Hide; after a while these became ever more anxious, as two Kestrels landed in the short aquatic vegetation in the north scrape; the Kestrels appeared to be an adult female accompanied by a juvenile, probably recently out of the nest, and were clearly hunting on the ground.  The adult LRP kept running around on the floor of the scrape, then undertaking nervous circular flights round  and round; the chicks (which ought to be fledged by now, as they were first seen on 3 July and someone recorded them during the week as fledged) never showed any sign of flying and stayed round the scrape – there was no sign of LRPs on the Long Pool.  Not sure what the outcome was: the Kestrels were never seen actually to catch any prey, while the chicks were never seen to emerge from the vegetation unscathed.

Surprising, on one hand that the chicks didn’t try to fly, but just lay doggo, on the ground; they can’t yet be confident of flying away; and on the other that Kestrels were trying to catch them on the ground: any other raptor, you might have thought, but surely the windhover is an aerial predator.

Otherwise, mostly on the Long Pool, which still attracts passing waterbirds:  eight unringed Canada Geese, 100 Mallard, 180 Lapwings, five Green Sandpipers, and two Snipe; still at least eight Sedge Warblers (generally churring rather than singing) in the thick ditch side vegetation through the reserve.

And lots of wild flowers now; Corky-fruited Water Dropwort and Flowering Rush among others


Ringing at Ashleworth

Yesterday 22 July we carried out another of the regular Constant Effort Site ringing sessions at Ashleworth, where no hay has as yet been cut on the GWT reserve.

Outwardly, it appeared that there were few birds about: scrapes almost dry, little or no birdsong, not much activity.  But the ringing showed that in fact there were large numbers of recently fledged young birds present, recently emerged from the nest, often just completing their post juvenile moult, before setting off on their long migration journeys to the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa.  It is very likely that all these juveniles were locally bred, as they would hardly move off before completing this moult, and almost none of them showed any additional fat (which migrants arriving from outside the reserve would be likely to do).  So, this represents a snapshot of breeding attempts and successes.  After Friday’s fairly heavy rain, conditions were surprisingly favourable: windless in the early morning, with a light cloud covering which made the nets more difficult for the birds to see.  We had a catch of 93 birds, slightly above the average for the mid July visit, and made up as follows:

  • One juvenile Kingfisher; unusually, no Redstarts caught, though there had been several adults earlier in the season; one juvenile Grasshopper Warbler (particularly interesting, as on earlier visits we had caught an adult male and female in breeding condition: this is a very strong indication of local breeding); no Reed Warblers caught or heard, which suggests that they did not attempt to nest this year; nine Sedge Warblers (mainly juveniles, but a couple of ringed adults, caught earlier in the season; so they haven’t left yet, but will be going soon); as many as 32 Whitethroats (all but one were juveniles, showing that this species has increased greatly in the hay meadow hedges in recent years); seven Blackcaps (two adults and five juveniles, probably birds that had nested in slightly higher ground round the edges of the reserve, and were now moving into lower areas; like Whitethroat, more than usual); no Lesser Whitethroats this time, though we have caught juveniles on previous visits; eleven Chiffchaffs (every man jack of them a juvenile); two Willow Warblers (one adult and one juvenile); nine Reed Buntings (again, all juveniles; late hay cutting may have helped this species which nests in long vegetation in hayfields).  Also, as usual, a variety of resident breeders: one juvenile Dunnock; seven Wrens (nearly all juveniles); three juvenile Robins; one juvenile Great Tit; one juvenile Blue Tit; five Long-tailed Tits, mainly juveniles; one adult Linnet; one juvenile Goldfinch.

Few other birds of note around the reserve: one adult male Peregrine perched on a dead willow; about 20 House Martins and 20 Swallows hawking insects (probably locally bred juveniles as well).Mervyn Greening, Mike Smart

Mervyn Greening, Mike Smart


Curlews along the Avon

Baby Curlew 1 July 2017

I had a very interesting day looking at Curlews along the River Avon, both the Worcestershire  and Gloucestershire banks, on 1 July.  One site on the Gloucestershire bank is a Lammas meadow, cut late for hay (not silage) and above all, cut gradually, strip by strip; access by the public is not allowed in the breeding season from 1 March to 31 July, to avoid disturbance of ground-nesting birds.  Rather little of the hay had been cut (less than 10%), but the Curlews, both young and old, seemed happy feeding on the cut strips.  Looking along the cut strips from a distance with a telescope, I could see two young birds of the year: one was already able to fly (which is a very early date, last year I saw fledged birds from 9 to 23 July); it was obviously a young bird from the short, only partly de-curved beak, and from the bright spangled plumage on the upperparts – dark centres and buff edges, recalling juvenile Ruff.  The second youngster was nearly full grown, but with no proper tail and only a fluffy ball of down at its rear end, and the wings not yet fully developed, not showing beyond the tail, so not yet flying; presumably two different broods.  When I approached, the fledged bird flew off on its own; the other one disappeared, no doubt lying doggo and burying its way into the grass; one adult (apparently a male) hung around, very anxious, repeatedly giving the two note alarm call (“cour-LEE”, accent on the second syllable, repeated rapidly), which is no doubt the signal to big chicks to lie doggo.  Another adult got up a bit further on in the long grass, doing the five note alarm: I suspect this call means that there is another brood in there, with perhaps slightly younger chicks.  At this site last year, a little group of fledged birds of the year were present for a few days, in a group together, after the last adults had left; I took them to be locally bred birds, but they might of course have been passage birds from elsewhere; I’ll be interested to see if the same happens this year.

I then moved to the east bank, in Worcestershire.  In one hay meadow there, I have seen fledged young in the last couple of years.  On previous visits this year, I have found adults present on this field, but on my last visit, there was no sign of them, though I walked right through the field.  I walked right round the field again on 1 July, and had almost completed my circuit, without seeing any Curlews.  Then, suddenly, only ten yards away, a very agitated adult rose, calling desperately, and I heard quiet calls, apparently from young birds.  When I looked closely  I found two freshly hatched young, with large remains of eggshells still in the nest, (see pictures); they were so young, they didn’t even run away or burrow;  I think they must have hatched that very day. This shows, firstly, how closely birds will sit, without rising at the approach of an observer: it’s very easy to overlook birds acting so secretively.  Secondly, this is an incredibly late date for hatching: it must be a replacement clutch.  The young won’t be flying until about 5 August, even if they manage to escape hay-cutting: I’ve spoken to the farmer, who is sympathetic, but he needs to cut his hay some time!  After this, I then visited another nearby field, where the farmer purposely leaves his fields uncut until the Curlews have fledged.  He has already seen young in this field, and on my visit there was an anxious adult doing the five note alarm: I’m sure there is at least one young bird in the long grass.  At this site, there was a flock of up to 15 adult Curlews in mid-June: I take these to have been failed breeders or non-breeders, gathering in a flock before departing to moulting and wintering sites on the estuary and coastline.  No sign of them on 1 July, just the one anxious adult.


First Curlew of the year

The level of the Severn rose considerably on 1-2 February, though it is dropping again now; as a result, smaller local streams could not flow out into the Severn and have backed up on the meadows, bringing a light flood with perfect conditions for the birds – after a very short flood in the second half of November, this is the first real flood of this winter.

At Coombe Hill Meadows on 4 February, the circular walk was under water; some water on the boardwalk to the Grundon Hide, but the hide is perfectly accessible, scrapes on 1.05m. and shallow flooding everywhere. The first Curlew of the year (unringed) was sitting quietly on its own, feeding and preening, not calling at all, behaving just like a bird that had only just arrived from its winter quarters on an estuary or coast somewhere.  Also a Black-tailed Godwit and 340 Lapwings.  Sharp increase in duck numbers: 3 Mute Swans, 20 Canada Geese, 1 Shelduck, 1040 Wigeon, 1000 + Teal, 40 Mallard, 48 Pintails (29 males, 19 females, many paired but some courtship parties with more males), 20 Shoveler.  Flock of 16 Pied Wagtails, probably migrants.

At Boddington, where there have been several hundred Lapwings for the last week, none at all today.

At Severn Ham, Tewkesbury, no sign of any Curlews; 10 Mute Swans flew over to the south, 3 Cormorants were fishing on the Severn.

Near Corse, where there have been good numbers of Lapwings in the last few weeks, only about 30 left; also a large flock of at least 1,500  mixed Fieldfares and Redwings (mainly Fieldfares, probably at least 1,200) on a freshly planted field.

At Ashleworth Ham, where water levels were also higher: no Culrews yet, but 2 Mute Swans, 175 Canada Geese, 4 Greylag Geese, 1 Shelduck, 130 Wigeon, 800 Teal, 45 Mallard, 1 Pintail, 2 Shoveler, 3 Tufted Ducks, only 1 Lapwing, 2 Nuthatches, 1 Goldcrest.

 


Coombe Hill and Ashleworth today

For some weeks now, water levels at both Coombe Hill and Ashleworth have been unusually low for the winter months, and water bird numbers have been low: we really need a small flood!

No change in conditions today: light frost, mist early on, much of the water surfaces iced over, rather more birds at Ashleworth than at Coombe Hill.

At Coombe Hill, practically all birds were round a hole in the ice on the Long Pool: 2 Mute Swans; 2 Canada Geese; 1 Shelduck; 40 Wigeon; 60 Teal; 15 Mallard; 10 Shoveler; 2 Grey Herons; 1 Coot on the Long Pool, five on the canal;  NIL Lapwings or Snipe; finally succeeded in finding two Stonechats alongside the footpath.

At Ashleworth, good numbers of birds right in front of the hide: 2 Mute Swans; 61 Greylags flew in (so they haven’t all departed to the breeding grounds); 200 Wigeon; 700 Teal; 20 Mallard; 2 Pintail; 15 Shoveler; 25 Snipe.  While we were pouring over our telescopes, carefully counting ducks and Snipe, we missed a Marsh Harrier flying past at some height, which was photographed by one of the keen cameramen: the picture looked altogether convincing.

Why do people buy takeaway meals then leave the debris on the roadside at nature reserves?

Boddington: about 200 Lapwing, shared between sheep grazed and cereal fields just south of the Gloucester Old Spot Inn.  So that’s why there are none at Coombe Hill or Ashleworth.

 


Field Meeting at Lower Lode on 22 January 2017

Fourteen members gathered for a walk, following public footpaths through a variety of habitats in the Lower Lode and Forthampton Court area, on a bright, frosty, late January morning. Starting by the Severn, the first point of interest was the brick pits just behind the flood-bank, originally excavated in the nineteenth century to provide clay for bricks to build houses in Tewkesbury; though the pits were frozen over, at least 40 Cormorants were resting in the tops of tall trees surrounding the pits; this is a regular loafing spot for these birds which must be finding a lot of fish in the Severn. Walking inland we then went through meadows now converted to maize cultivation, and slightly uphill to the first river terrace, where gravel brought down in distant geological times was evident; en route two members were fortunate to hear the breeding call of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a species rapidly declining all over the country, and something of a speciality in the area; worth looking and listening again here as the season progresses! We flushed a Snipe from some maize left uncut as game cover in the maize field, and a Green Sandpiper flew over, clearly wintering along the stream, though not frequently recorded here.

On the higher ground is the Key Wildlife Site of Forthampton Oaks: (Key Wildlife Sites are areas not actually registered as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, but of interest for their wildlife, and recognised in the planning system). Forthampton Oaks is an impressive stand of oak trees on higher ground overlooking the Severn and looking across to the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury, some dying, some in rude health; their special interest is a series of unusual beetles, recorded by GNS member Keith Alexander. In the parkland around Forthampton Court there are a variety of large trees, including a Wellingtonia in which we found a Tree Creeper roost, with good numbers of wintering thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings, feeding (on invertebrates) on grassy fields.

Then back down to the river, through ancient hay meadows, in their original state and not ploughed up for maize, where Curlews nest in summer, and with a summer Sand Martin colony in the mud banks of the river. From the river bank there are fine views back upstream of Tewkesbury Abbey, dominating that reach of the river. The historic Lower Lode Inn, just by the former ferry across the river to Tewkesbury, provided a good spot to reflect on the morning’s observations.


Preliminary report on 2016 breeding Curlew survey

Curlews are a familiar breeding bird along the Severn Vale from Gloucester up to Worcester, and along the Avon from Tewkesbury to Evesham. They nest in hay meadows, and their bubbling call is one of the sounds of summer.   Upwards of 50 pairs may nest in this area, making it one of the most important areas for the species in the South-West.  So in spring and summer 2016 a small group of observers has tried to assess the number of breeding pairs, to identify the fields where they nest (they are known to be strongly faithful to breeding fields), and to make an estimate of productivity – given that many chicks are known to fall a prey to predators (notably foxes, and probably crows and gulls as well), and that some fall victim to early mowing, particularly of silage.

The preliminary results are as follows (a more detailed report will appear in due course):

  • About 30 pairs that attempted to nest were found in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
  • This is probably an underestimate, as some known sites were not covered, and nesting birds were often difficult to find in long grass, remaining particularly discreet when they had young chicks in June.
  • Nesting began late, as many riverside meadows remained flooded until well into April, rather later than in most recent years.
  • Several pairs, presumed (from their behaviour) to be nesting, were located in April and May; very few nests were found, since they are well hidden in the long grass, and it is important not to disturb grass around the nest, thus making them more liable to predation.
  • Some nesting pairs appeared to lose their eggs or young early in the season; the adult birds tended to stay on for a short time at the breeding site, and then to disappear, no doubt departing to the moulting and wintering areas around the coast, including the Gloucestershire sector of the Severn estuary.
  • When the chicks hatch, the females leave the breeding site fairly early (before the young are full-grown), leaving just the male to care for the  chicks in late June and July when the young are learning to fly.
  • At least six adult males with just-flying chicks were found during July, and at least one more was suspected to have young because of the agitated behaviour of the male.
  • When the chicks are able to fly, the male departs for the coast, leaving the chicks to fend for themselves.  For a few days chicks may be seen on their own near the breeding place; at one site six flying juveniles were seen together in early August, suggesting that the total number of successful broods may have been above seven.
  • There are a few records of young birds appearing at non-breeding sites along the Severn, presumably young birds on their way to the coast.
  • It was notable that the majority of farmers and landowners, on whose land Curlews were nesting, were very favourably disposed towards the birds: they were very familiar with the species, recognised them as returning to the same field or fields year after year; in many cases they made special arrangements to avoid disturbing the nesting birds, in some cases suspending hay making if young birds were present.

Breeding birds in the Severn and Avon Vales this year

The bird breeding season in the Severn and Avon Vales is almost over, so this seems a good time to offer an update on the results, based on observations made by the many birdwatchers active in this area, particularly, but not exclusively, at the two Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserves at Coombe Hill and Ashleworth Ham; and not just waterbirds, though they have been the main focus.  We have paid particular attention this year to identifying fields on which Curlews are breeding.

The beginning of the season was unpromising, because of the flooding which lasted well into April; we haven’t had spring flooding for several years now.  Three pairs of Shelducks (rather more than usual; they are more numerous on the estuary, where they nest in rabbit holes) produced duckings  – at Coombe Hill, Ashleworth and Cobney Meadows; two of these were unusually early in mid-May, despite the flooding, which suggests that they were nesting, as is traditional, in the boles of pollarded willows; the Ashleworth pair was seen to lose their young to a passing fox, but at least some of the other two broods seem to have survived.  The usual breeding pairs of Mute Swans, Greylag and Canada Geese and Mallard occurred, but no other ducks have as yet been proved to nest; some Tufted Ducks will no doubt be nesting somewhere.

Grey Herons and Little Egrets have nested at the usual Vale heronries; today at Coombe Hill, the unusually high number of nine Little Egrets was present, most of them clearly recently fledged juveniles, which no doubt originated in a local heronry.  As for waders, Coombe Hill has been the star site, even though successful rearing of chicks has been very poor. For the first time ever, a pair of Avocets attempted to nest; this was hardly unexpected, as there are colonies at Slimbridge and on the Worcs Wildlife Trust reserve at Upton Warren near Droitwich; sadly, they abandoned their attempt fairly early on, but we may hope to see them trying again in future years.  A pair of Oystercatchers successfully raised two chicks on the island.  At least nine Lapwing nests were seen from the hide, but only two produced chicks and both broods seem to have disappeared, which is pretty depressing; there have been few reports from other sites, though one or two pairs seen to be nesting on maize fields in the Vales .  A pair of Redshanks also nested at Coombe Hill for the first time for several years; they produced two chicks, but neither reached the flying stage; no records of nesting Redshanks at any other site have been received.  At Ashleworth, only Coot and Mallard seem to have nested successfully on the reserve, though two pairs of Curlews nested on the SSSI, just outside the reserve, one of them successfully raising two chicks.  No nesting Redshanks and very few Lapwings have been found on other sites in the Vales in Gloucestershire, though several have been successful at other sites on the Severn and Avon in Worcestershire.

As for Curlews, the wet weather of recent weeks has meant late hay cutting, which may have helped them to bring off young chicks successfully.  We have found three adult Curlews with definite broods of chicks in the last ten days, and strongly suspect (from the agitated behaviour of the parent) that at least three more pairs have raised chicks, which are notoriously difficult to find in the long grass.  The Curlew is a well recognised and much loved species in the area, and many farmers are willing to delay hay cutting when they know there is a nesting Curlew on their land.  It is very striking that these adult Curlews (which are highly faithful to the same breeding field, year after year) nest predominantly in ancient hay meadows, so we have been paying greater attention to botany; if you look after the hay meadows (a very desirable conservation objective in itself), you will look after the breeding Curlews – and other ground-nesting birds like Skylarks and maybe other waders too.

Among other breeding birds, there have been no signs of Quail or Sported Crake this year (both probably bred last year).  Ringing at Ashleworth produces good data on nesting songbirds, and it seems that Sedge Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat and Reed Bunting have had a good year, with at least one pair of Grasshopper Warbler.

Autumn migration has already begun, with a lone Spoonbill at Coombe Hill in June, the first returning Snipe and Green Sandpipers from mid-June, and already returning Teal, Greenshank, Whinchats and (rather unusually away from the estuary) a Bar-tailed Godwit.