Saturday, 6 January 2018

A Great Gull

Last week I took the scope I was given for Christmas to my local nature reserve Blashford Lakes. The reserve is always a great place to visit but having the scope meant I was able to see much further than before across the sizeable lakes.

Thanks to the scope (and a nice man in the hide who pointed it out) I was able to see a bird I hadn't seen before, a ring-billed gull

Photo from Blashford Lakes Blog(1)
Ring-billed gulls come from North America and locals will be used to seeing these gulls in car parks where they apparently congregate in large numbers(2). They do this because they can easily see any approaching predators and there's plenty of food around in the form of rubbish humans have left behind(3).

Ring-billed gulls are rare but regular visitors to the UK. There are only a handful that winter across the UK but those that come are seen year after year- this is at least the third winter that this individual has spent at Blashford. 

The scope also allowed me to clearly identify what I was seeing- for example I was able to see that rather than the tufted duck it looked like initially, the bird in the foreground here is a scaup

Like many of our winter visitors, scaup breed in Siberia and Northern Europe before moving south to avoid the freezing weather. They are diving ducks meaning they dive underwater to catch food, which most consists of shellfish, crustacea and small insects(4).

Another duck I saw, and in good numbers too, were gadwalls

These birds are dabbling ducks which means they stick their heads under the water to find plants like algae and grasses to feed on(5). They therefore need shallower water to feed in and this is why they came relatively close to the hide. It's odd that compared with the bright colours of the male of most other species of duck that these birds are so understated. 

My other spot of note was a green sandpiper on the shore of one of the lakes. 

These waders work around muddy edges of lakes and ponds where they find small invertebrates. They breed in subarctic Europe but where they breed is unexpected- unlike nearly every other wader these birds nest in old nests belonging to species like fieldfares up trees! 

This time last year I was regularly seeing a green sandpiper on the River Avon- the river level remained fairly low throughout the winter. This year though we've had a very wet winter and the river levels are significantly higher. 

River Avon December 2017
Green Sandpiper on the River Avon, December 2016
As you can see, the sandpiper was feeding on parts of the river bed that were exposed whereas this winter even most of the plants have been submerged. According to the Met Office, locally we had about 50% of the average expected rainfall for December in 2017(6) whereas in December 2016 it was just over 20%(7). 

The scientist in me finds this information fascinating. Last winter was clearly unusually dry which meant the green sandpiper had a place to feed it would never normally have. Even 2017 seems fairly dry though the data only goes to the 27th of December and the remaining four days were extremely wet here- I estimate the figure to be closer to 70%.

According to the Met Office, 2017 was the fifth warmest year in the UK since records began in 1910(6). Scarily, the nine warmest years since 1910 have occured since 2000. Whilst the weather may change it's so clear that climate change is happening and the data shows it is happening alarmingly quickly. 

That's all from me today but I just want to direct you to my new Facebook page- if you're on Facebook give it a like for all the latest blog updates as well as local news stories and extra photos.

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