Guest Post for Wild South London – A Throwback to Spring and Wild Hull

Note: I’m very sorry from my break from blogging which was caused by having to do my GCSE exams and then being abnormally busy in the holidays. Thankfully I felt my exams went well and all that is over now so I can get back to blogging regularly. This seems like an appropriate post for my return to blogging as this was how it was before my exams…

This is a guest blog post for Will Harper-Penrose, urban nature blogger and self-proclaimed adventurer, about the urban wildlife of Hull. His blog can be found at https://wildsouthlondon.wordpress.com/ which is packed with interesting posts in his entertaining writing style.

When Will first asked me to write this blog, the prospect didn’t fill me with joy. I had never really been looking for wildlife in the city centre, it has always been just as easy for me to visit sites in the countryside, which most people would view as being better. That all changed, though, during the course of this trip, in two of the top sites for urban wildlife in Hull.                                                                                                                                                      However, I think it is fair to say that Hull is not seen as the most glamorous of places, but in this blog post I hope to extirpate this stereotype, at least from a naturalist’s point of view. Now, where has my copy of The Urban Birder got to?

First up on the list of places to visit was the Pearson Park Wildlife garden. This is a mini wildlife oasis managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, secluded in the heart of urban Hull. It is aimed at involving young children with nature, something that previous readers of my blog will know I feel strongly about, with eye-catching fact boards and creative statues dotted around.                                                                                                                                                    I headed straight for the pond, having fond memories of pond-dipping, and was not disappointed as lurking within were the dragons of this realm, Smooth Newts. These were my first of the year and courtship behaviour was observed, often involving three newts at a time. They are definitely best seen up close, though, with their beautiful and striking mottled bellies, washed delicately with the colours of fire. Very small tadpoles were also writhing around the pond and congregating in the shallower areas. A sure sign of spring. Along with them, my first Pond Skaters of the year flicked effortlessly across the unruffled surface of the water.

P1110566

Tadpoles in the Pond

P1110570

Pond Skater

I then decided to take a look around the rest of the reserve. There were a multitude of garden birds; Wrens were flitting from bush to bush and firing their rapid song into the clear spring air, Long-tailed Tits roamed the canopy in their parties, exploring every nook and cranny in the delicate new branches for miniscule insect prey and this rather friendly Robin came down from his perch to investigate me.

IMGP0961

Friendly Robin

It may have been better to visit later in the year, the information boards promising me Common Blues told me that, but all around me, spring was coaxing the world into coming out to play after a long winter; fresh green leaves were appearing on the Hawthorn bushes, Great Tits were broadcasting their repetitive song and the first bumblebees of the year were taking their initial tentative flights into the air. Spring was springing and I was loving every second of it. At the boundary of the reserve a juxtaposition became apparent, through the hedge I could see businesspeople striding briskly down the path, I could hear the squeak of car breaks and the occasional horn blast. But, if I turned around all of this melted away and the serenity of the gently swaying bushes and trees and the calming calls and movements of the birds would absorb me and the outside world didn’t seem to exist.

P1110573

 Fresh Hawthorn Leaves

P1110568

The Wildlife Garden

Back to the main park it was to try to photograph some of the (mostly feral) birdlife at the pond. The easily-spooked pigeons had flown up all around and their atmospheric flapping filled every part of the soundscape, taking me to 1800s Wisconsin and the immense, and sadly now extinct, Passenger Pigeon flocks. They soared in circles with wings raised into a poised, elegant V and departed to wreak havoc in the bread crumbs of the city centre. Many wildfowl and gulls frequented the pond including this immature Herring Gull:

P1110576

Herring Gull

What would a visit to Hull be without seeing its claim to fame, the Humber river? I wasn’t expecting much, but was secretly hoping for some scarcer birds out on the estuary, but what followed made me think differently about urban birding.

I came to the river by The Deep with the Humber Bridge in the distance, landmarks galore (!), and was immediately greeted by a Redshank bobbing amiably among the rocks by the shore of the great river, a good start and maybe a foreshadowing of what was to come.

P1110580

Redshank

P1110629.JPG

Many Landmarks!

Scanning the river brings up nothing but a few distant gulls. But, a short walk along the river later and a large wader is seen pottering around among some seaweed. A quick glance through my binoculars confirms it as a Curlew. It allows me to edge closer and closer until I am about 3 or 4 metres away, I fire off some shots but then go back to scanning the river as I am in a more likely place for birds that have come in from the sea. When I finally lower my binoculars the Curlew has come even closer, now this is definitely the best view of a Curlew I’ve had! It allowed me to get ridiculously close, waders here are certainly tamer than in their usual seaside or estuarine habitats. This is one of the great joys of urban birding! Seeing a Curlew is even more special now, because of their well-publicised and drastic decline.

P1110617

P1110623

Curlew

Further downstream, I come to a quay sunken into the street where some Moorhens and Mallards are bobbing about. There is also a Mallard’s nest tucked away in the corner of the quay amongst some grasses, the female who is incubating the eggs and guarding the nest is defiantly hissing at some males who have approached too close. Unfortunately, you can see that some of the eggs have fallen into the water, a tragedy for the female and one of the dangers of having your nest so close to the edge of the water.

P1110632.JPG

Female Mallard on her Nest

P1110636.JPG

Eggs in the Water

I come to a channel flowing into the much larger Humber and it makes an attractive photo opportunity, this view would not look out of place on an unspoilt and wildlife-rich Scottish estuary. But it is here, just a stone’s throw from the centre of industrial Hull. The wildlife associated with this environment is also present here, albeit in much smaller numbers. At this point in time I am incredulous that I let myself think that urban birding was not going to be a worthwhile pursuit! Many gull and wader prints were also scattered around on the mud; it seems I missed quite the party!

P1110641.JPG

Prints

P1110643.JPG

Channel into the Humber

I keep walking and seaweed-covered rocks start appearing at the bank of the Humber, out of the corner of my eye I see a whir of wings and expect to turn and see small waders; Dunlin, Turnstone or something of that description. But no, Starlings have some down from the rooftops on my left to reap the rewards of the estuary. I have never seen this behaviour before and you can see the characteristic feeding method of inserting the bill into the weed and then prising it apart, looking for invertebrates hidden within. Starlings; the unofficial waders of today!

P1110651.JPG

Starlings Feeding on the Seaweed

Just behind the Starlings it becomes present that true waders are in attendance, a group of Redshank are puffed up on the tideline and another group of them then shimmer back the way I have come, uttering their peevish but calming calls, the white panels in their wings shining out amongst the gathering gloom. An allusion to North Norfolk, past holidays there were always Redshank-filled and this moment brought me back there.

All in all, this was a brilliant day that changed my opinion of urban birding and nature watching. I won’t be surprised if I take many more trips to find nature in the city again!

 

Harrier Fever

Having recently read Mark Avery’s brilliant Inglorious (for the second time) and unexpectedly seen my first Hen Harrier, I find myself blissfully affected by ‘harrier fever’. Ever since I read Inglorious and learned of the Hen Harrier’s plight I have longed to see one. That all changed one evening at Alkborough Flats this February…

Perhaps it’s human nature to defend the underdog (which the Hen Harrier certainly is in the context of illegal persecution)? Perhaps it’s the bird’s undeniable classiness and elegance? Perhaps it’s that the harrier is the pinnacle of evolution in the form of a vole-hunting machine? In any case there is something irresistible about Hen Harriers, something that makes one rejoice whenever one is seen. For some reason, I have always seen the Hen Harrier as a special bird, early memories of seeing a female pictured in my dad’s Collins Gem field guide prove this. I imagined it chasing chickens (it is a HEN harrier after all, but now I now that Moor Hen is an old name for Red Grouse which makes much more sense…) or sitting in the heather of the uplands in Britain or Northern Europe. I always thought to myself how beautiful, intricately marked and well camouflaged it looked. Strangely, it was not a bird that I ever envisaged seeing, maybe I could sense the illegal persecution?

One cold, February evening me and my family paid a visit to Alkborough Flats in the hope of seeing a Starling murmuration. We did see one, although it was very far away and the light levels were falling rapidly, it was still a sight to behold, the flock twisting and turning like a shoal of avian fish. But before this we were seated in a hide waiting for something to happen.

Redshanks pottered around the pools before us while a considerable roost of lapwing was forming on the mud. A dark shape drifted over the reeds, wings raised, quartering the ground intensely in the edge of my vision. A Marsh Harrier. A lovely bird to see, although quite a common sight on the reedbeds of East Yorkshire. This bird is followed by another and they both float left over the marsh. Suddenly a brown bird bursts from cover very near the hide. The white rump is immediately obvious. I know it instantly, a ringtail Hen Harrier. It flies differently to the Marsh Harriers, it is quicker and far more elegant than them. Twisting and turning, it hassles some small birds hidden amongst the reeds and was then lost. A brief but heart-pounding view of Britain’s most controversial raptor.

I needed more, harrier fever had overtaken me, so a trip to Blacktoft Sands duly ensued.  I was desperate to see a ‘silver ghost’, an adult male. Blacktoft started off with prolonged views of many Marsh Harriers and then another ringtail made an appearance, again drifting confidently through the air and into the Phragmites. My second Hen Harrier and my second ringtail. Even though it was once again a brief view, none of the joy had been taken away and this only intensified my desire to see the big prize (unfortunately also seen as the big prize by gamekeepers to disband nests on their managed land), a silver ghost. A shout of “Barn Owl” from the other side of the hide got my pulse racing and a fly over of a small falcon sadly wasn’t the Merlin that was in the area, but a Kestrel. A far commoner but nonetheless beautiful bird. There were also some murmurings about a male Hen Harrier that could have been briefly seen.

After this, the Barn Owls did come out to play, there were two in the air at one point, and rewarded us with prolonged and enjoyable views of them hovering and drifting over the marsh like serene spectres. They made me re-think what my favourite owl was and they did come out on top of the Short-Eared Owl…

It was getting dark and suggestions that we should leave were being made, I was watching the distant Starling murmuration along with everybody else in the hide when I decided to scan the reedbed once again, almost in vain. A light shape caught my eye, it was there. The silver ghost twisted and turned in the half-light, the black wingtips forming an exquisite contrast with the powder grey body. It was up, down, hawking over the marsh. The cold wind stung my eyes and nipped at my toes but the Hen Harrier continued to fly while it unknowingly instilled joy in my heart. It showed for what seemed a gratifying eternity and I eventually had to tear myself away from the spectacle to go home. No day can ever be a bad day when you see a Hen Harrier.

I could have gone into lots of detail about illegal persecution and displayed my passion to conserve this truly amazing species but I think I’ll save that for nearer Hen Harrier Day and the Inglorious 12th, my blog is in danger of having a complete harrier imbalance. Anything for a pallid to turn up near me…

My Patch

Seeing as I am new to blogging I think that I should introduce the places that I visit on a regular basis to watch wildlife. I am 15, and therefore can’t own a car or moped, so I am limited as to how far I can travel (without bugging my parents) by bike in a day. My patch which I bird at is an area of mature hedgerows, which have turned into broken woodland in places, pastures used to graze horses and the pools which form in these pastures. I will refer to this area as ‘Priory Fields’.

P1110034

Priory Fields

It is very accessible for me, being only a 10 minute walk away, and is probably the best birding location in the (very) local area. As I said, it is an area of pastures with mixed mature hedgerows, a feature now sadly disappearing from much of the lowland farmland, in my area at least. Some of my favourite inhabitants of this area are the winter thrushes and they are abundant here. Especially Redwing and Blackbird along with smaller numbers of Mistle Thrush and Fieldfare. It is magical to walk down one of the pathways on a crisp morning in a corridor of trees and hear the alarm calls ring out, forming a pleasant chorus of chucks, seeps and rattles which is one of the quintessential sounds of winter.

P1110041

Redwing

The pools in the pastures are quite a unique feature of this area of farmland, being full pretty much all year round, and support species which would not be present on normal farmland. For example they are a local hotspot for gulls; mainly Black-Headed, Herring and Common gulls and occasionally Mediterranean Gulls, although I have never seen them here. They also periodically attract migrating waders including Little Ringed Plover.

P1110046

One of the Pools

P1110050

Mixed Flock of Gulls

Other birds living here include decent numbers of Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Yellowhammers and Bullfinches are also reasonably common; one of my favourite birds. Along with all the regular farmland and garden birds other relative rarities have occaisionally been reported such as Peregrines and Red Kites. On the other side of my village there is more farmland which is more crop-based but holds large numbers of wintering Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting along with Lesser Redpoll, Roe Deer, Skylarks and Tree Sparrow. Here, last summer, I was surprised to see a male Black-Tailed Skimmer dragonfly, something I really was not expecting to see. This just goes to show that even humble arable farmland can sometimes surprise you!

To see other wildlife, namely invertebrates, I usually visit my local botanical gardens. There is a meadow there that, at the right time in summer can put on a spectacular show. All of the common garden butterflies occur here along with Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Meadow Brown and even Small Copper. It is late summer when this meadow, bordered by woods and a lake, is at its best. With the golden light just beginning to fade away through the swathes of grass and the bronzing, brittle leaves on the trees, I found myself there last summer. The air was hazy and balmy and huge numbers of dragonflies whirled around my head and up to the treetops. Changing direction with crackles of gauze wings, they pursued their prey, the myriad of small flying insects. All of this activity made their wings glisten against the August sun and sent me into a trance of happiness.

IMGP3466

 

A Trip To Spurn Point

Last weekend I went to Spurn Point to see what birds would be there. Spurn in the migration season is always special, there’s always something rare! I am really lucky to live relatively close and have this facility at my disposal, I really should go more often.

When we arrived the wind was bracing to say the least, even knocking us off-balance at times and the sky was a brooding mix of deep blue and charcoal-grey clouds, stretching out over my head like an immense stormy veil. The day, bird wise, started off very quietly, a visit to the seawatch hide turned up nothing and the hide down the road gave us very good views of flying Little Egrets and a Redshank showing really well. Redshanks are not the most exciting of birds but it was nice to see one so close that you could appreciate the extremely intricate patterns in its plumage.

IMGP3552

Redshank

When looking for the Black Redstart (I didn’t see it in the end) in the caravan site (at the ‘tip’) I noticed a Weasel slinking about underneath a bush. A caravan site isn’t the first place you would expect to see a Weasel! It seemed to target a flock of House Sparrows but they didn’t notice it or didn’t seem to care. Whatever the case it was not successful.

Once we got to Kilnsea Wetlands my luck started to change, to start off a flock of fieldfares flew overhead, their conspicuous white underwings flashing on and off like beacons in the subdued light. As soon as we got in the hide I got a lifer, a Greenshank. It was paler and less elegant than I expected but, in fairness, it was understandably huddled up against the biting wind. Up until then I thought I would have gone to Spurn twice in a row without getting a lifer, which is near impossible for someone with such a limited list as me. The pools were absolutely teeming with other bids as well, such as Golden and Grey Plovers, Mute Swans, Wigeon, Shelduck and one Brent Goose. A really nice way to end the day was to see two Short-Eared Owls masterfully quartering the ditches. Although their colours were dampened by the falling light levels they were still a sight to behold, floating above the ground effortlessly. This was the first time I had seen Shorties flying, I had only previously seen one in late winter earlier this year near Bempton roosting in a gorse bush.

IMGP2355

Record shot of a Short-Eared Owl near Bempton earlier this year.