Kestrels on Roundshaw

After a period of almost 2 weeks of not seeing the kestrels, we’re now seeing pretty much everyday and now see them hunting, rather than just perching in the trees. If you’ve never seen a kestrel hovering as it spots prey and then swooping down to pounce, then I have to tell you that it’s a magnificent sight.

At the weekend we even saw the male catch what appeared to be a small lizard or maybe a newt and eat it whilst stood on a fence post.

Lock Down Wildlife Walks -Kestrels and Skylarks in London!

Kestrels! Within sight of the London Shard!

Roundshaw Downs, on the site of the former Croydon Airport, is now an almost natural grassy chalkland habitat. With the A217 forming one border of the site and the towers of Croydon, the IKEA chimneys and the Shard all in view, it feels both an urban and a rural setting at the same time. As you entire the site, there are information boards telling you about the habitat and that there are skylarks and a pair of kestrels resident. I’ve lived here for about 5 years now and, although I’ve visited a few times, had never seen either…until the lock down that is.

In these times strange times of being unable to travel to see wildlife and having just one daily form of exercise, we feel really lucky to have this local nature reserve pretty much on our back doorstep.

Our daily walks with our 12 month old Benjamin, have become a regular wildlife-spotting adventure. The first thing that strikes you upon entering the Roundshaw Downs, is the sound of bird calls all around you, with the song of the skylark an almost constant backdrop, along with blackbirds, blue tits and Starlings Although you can hear the skylarks everywhere, they do seem to be hard to spot, hiding in the long grass, but we’ve been lucky to spot a couple.

Second is that it is good to see that the Downs are absolutely full of pollinators, with honeybees and bumblebees seemingly everywhere, attracted by the abundance of wildflowers including forget-me-knots and carpets of bluebells in the shade of the trees.

However, the most exciting thing for me is finally seeing kestrels, or more specifically a male (one of a mating pair, I assume) which we see 2 or 3 times a week now, letting us get a good idea of his favourite perches and hunting grounds. Kestrels, with their hovering behaviour whilst hunting, are probably my favourite bird, so to know that we have a pair just around the corner from home feels comforting and our lock down walk is always the highlight of the day.

Skylark
Skylark

Note: All photos have been taken handheld with only a 70-300 mm lens and with a 12 month old strapped to me, which presents its own challenges, both in terms of the time you have to take a shot and being able to get in the best position!

Its seal time again – Harwich / Walton-on-the-Naze

Autumn has been a season of seal watching so far and last weekend was no different. It was also another new location for us, taking a boat from the port of Harwich in Essex with Sealwatching.co.uk.

The boat left from the quay at Harwich Dock and motored out through the port, past the huge shipping container port and along the much more pleasant beach at Dovercourt for about 45 minutes until reaching Hamford Water Nature Reserve. It was there that we found the seals. First just one or two in the water, then a couple more basking on the banks, until we spotted another group of about 50 hauled up ahead. As we approached, they spooked and started launching themselves into the water, making quite a splash as they went.

It was interesting to see a few of them skipping along, jumping in and out of the water like dolphins playing. The boat hung around for a while as we watched the seals (and i’m sure a hen harrier way off in the distance), before we headed back, this time with the tide, to be back at the dock within 30 minutes.

It was a very pleasant way to spend two hours and the crew took good care of us, providing binoculars if needed and a running commentary of the sites along the way and a history of the local landmarks.

Before heading home, we stopped off at Essex Wildlife Trust’s Hanningford Resevoir for a quick trundle along their Wind In the Willows inspired nature walk, coffee, cake and dropping in and our of a couple of their hides for a quick peak.

Seals from Burnham-on-Crouch…sorry it’s late part 2

Those very few of you who may follow this blog will have seen that we go to Burnham-on-Crouch quite often to see the seals and back in mid-September my wife and i went again, this time with baby Benjamin!

This time, it was just a day trip, but we did go again with Discovery Charters and met up again with our friend Noodles the dog.

It was another great day of seal watching, but also some pleasant sightings of water birds. I swear every time we go that the number of birds is increasing massively. The great work that the RSPB has done as Wallasea Island has not only created a great habitat for the returning birds, but has also helped to de-silt the river Crouch.

I won’t take too much time with words here, but just let the photos do the talking!

Seals from Chichester Harbour…sorry its a bit late part 1

A few months back my wife found out about another colony of seals (grey and common) within easy distance of home, with trips running out of Chichester Harbour. So back in early September we drove down and went on a boat trip with Chichester Harbour Water Tours (other operators are also available).

The habour itself is a good 15 minute drive away from Chichester (taking traffic in to consideration) so if you’re in Chichester for a look, give yourself plenty of time to get there – which we did not and had to rush!

 

 

The area around the harbour is a good place for walks and there’s a nice cafe also.

The trip from the harbour to where the seals can be seen is lovely with  sailing boats, sailing clubs and waterbirds to spot along the way and once there we had great views of the seals in the water and on the sand banks. It was certainly worth the drive down and the rush!

 

Cape Town & Hermanus – Whales and Penguins please

So, our first proper holiday with baby Benjamin. A week in Cape Town and Hermanus with the main aim of seeing some southern right whales (after our failure to do so in Western Australia) and also African Penguins.  It’s the beginning of spring in August in the Western Cape, not peak season for most tourists, but it is a great time to see whales and penguins. The spring weather meant quite a lot of sunshine, not too hot, but with a big temperature drop as the sun went down, and the odd spot of rain.

On our first day in Cape Town we got the help of a local guide, Merryl O’Brien, to help us get a feel for the place. It’s not something we normally would do, but we had Benjamin and we had a lot of questions to ask of a local that we couldn’t seem to find out before we arrived. Merryl took us out of town and down the Cape to Cape Point. On the way down, we saw Cape fur seals in Hout Bay and, before getting Simon’s Town, we spotted a few people by the side of the road looking out to False Bay right by Glencairn railway station. We guessed they had seen some whales and stopped to see if we were correct. Sure enough, we saw a couple of juvenile humpbacks right up close to shore, probably only 50m away from the road itself. We were expecting

some shore-based whale sightings in Hermanus, but not here, so this was a real bonus.

The weather was foul, when we reached Cape Point, so deferred the trip up the funicular railway and the views over the bay that it offered (had the weather been nice) and carried on to the Point itself for the obligatory photo-op by the Cape of Good Hope sign. We were again surprised to see ostriches here, right by the shore, having thought that they lived in more arid climates! We spent the afternoon visiting a couple of vineyards in the Constantia Valley wine region, one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere with some vineyards dating back to the 1680s. First we had lunch at Groot Constantia (the olive, tomato and ricotta ravioli in the Jonkershuis restaurant was incredible) then with a wine tasting at Constantia Glen and their Flagship Tasting, with a mix of reds and whites.

On our next trip out to Simon’s Town, we gain stopped to see the humpbacks at Glencairn, before driving down to Boulder’s Beach to see the penguin colony. The penguins here are African penguins (also known as jackass penguins due to the donkey-like bray that they frequently and loudly emit). After paying a small entrance fee (35 Rand) you walk out onto the boardwalks and are immediately greeted by penguins dotted around the walkways, in the overgrowth and, as you reach the end of the walkway, all over the beach itself. Back in Simon’s Town (home to the South African navy, so you’ll be surrounded by people in uniform) we did a whale-watching trip with Simon’s Town Boat Company. It didn’t take long until we came to some humpbacks again very close to shore, but not the same ones we saw up near Glencairn, and some more fur seals, both in the water and sunning themselves on the rocks.

So, on to Hermanus, where the plan was to see southern right whales every day, either from land or shore. They’re called right whales as they were the “right” whales to hunt. They are big, so you get good returns for your time and money, and they often move slowly and close to the surface, meaning they were easy to catch.  This also means that they should be relatively easy whales to find if you only want to see and take pictures of them.

We booked an apartment near a place called Gearing’s Point in Hermanus which is one of the many whale watching points that are dotted along the Walker Bay coast, all of which can be reached on the Fernkloof cliff path. We stopped off at Betty’s Bay to see the penguins at Stoney Point nature reserve. If anything, the penguins are even better to see here. I can’t explain exactly why, but maybe you’re just a little closer them and sometimes you’re almost eye-to-eye with them.

As we arrived at the car park, right on Gearing’s Point, there were quite a few people gathered around the walls, with cameras or binoculars out. There were whales about and I jumped out of the car to get a look, being rewarded by seeing a southern right breaching probably only 70 metres or so from me. Unfortunately we had to go and check into our apartment so the viewings were cut short. In the afternoon, we did a land-based tour along the coast to some of the best whale-watching spots with local whale watcher, expert and photographer, David de Beer. We spotted quite a few southern rights as we explored these points along Walker Bay a then took a drive up to a view point on top of the hills for a spectacular view over Hermanus and Walker Bay as the sun began to set.

We spent the rest of the week doing various boat trips from Hermanus New Harbour (Hermanus Whale Cruises and Southern Right Charters), but our planned cage-diving with sharks trip was cancelled due to choppy seas. Instead we did a Big Marine 5 tour with the same company, https://www.whalewatchsa.com/Dyer Island Cruises, where we spotted another humpback, penguins, loads of fur seals, albatross and Heather even saw a sunfish, but no sharks (apart from one shadow underwater of a bronze whaler shark.  Apart from that first day, we didn’t really see any other whales from the shore, but on our walks along the cliff path we saw plenty of birds, including a cape sugarbird and some fiscal shrikes. We also saw what we think was a cape mongoose, along with lots of the dassies (or rock hyrax) that are common around the Cape.

All in all, our mission was accomplished, we saw the southern rights (sometimes with some nice breaching and often very close) and we saw hundreds of penguins. Everything else was a bonus, including the great food and local wines and beers (Old Harbour I’m looking at you), with the spectacular setting of Bientang’s Cave Restaurant, right at the foot of the cliffs in Hermanus, with the waves crashing against the rocks next to you being a particular favourite.

So, what’s next?

Inverness and the Moray Firth

So, a flying visit…literally.

An Easyjet flight up to Inverness on a Friday night, 2 nights in Nairn and a flight back to Gatwick on Sunday evening, all with a 4 month-old baby? Sounds crazy, but we had heard about the Scottish Dolphin Centre a while back, where you can potentially see bottle-nosed dophins from the shore and decided we had to go.

The Scottish Dolphin Centre is run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) charity, through which Heather has adopted one of the dolphins, Spirit. It sits on the mouth of the River Spey in a former salmon fishing station. We started the day with a tour of the ice house where, as the name implies, was used to store ice for preserving the salmon back in the day. The ice house is now used for exhibitions and “dry dives”, where videos of underwater wildlife is shown. After a nice lunch in the centre, we went on a guided wildlife walk (2.15pm, April 1st to October 31st) with Adam, one of the guides.

The walk, started with some time looking for dolphins from the centre, but alas with no luck, so we headed along the river spotting huge number so gulls and other seabirds. Soon after something spooked them and sure enough 2 osprey appeared from up river. We trekked along the river looking for otters, but again nothing this time. After the tour, Heather and I went further down the river and crossed the old railway bridge, now converted to be part of the national cycle network and as we crossed, another osprey came over head.

After the Dolphin centre, we drove to a few other places along the firth where there is supposed to be good chances of seeing more wildlife, Portgordon for seals, Burghead (dolphins from the Burghead Visitor Centre – a former coastguard lookout) and Hopeman East Beach (dolphins again), but had no more luck. That was the enough for day one, so head back to our apartment in Nairn for dinner and good nights sleep.

Sunday morning, we drove down to the Clansman’s Harbour for a boat trip on Loch Ness with Jacobite cruises. We just did a short trip from the harbour to Urquhart Castle and back, but it was enough to get a good feel for the Loch and to hear all the stories about the fabled monster. We had some time to kill following the cruise so we drove a few miles down the road to the Loch Ness Centre for an immersive exhibition about the monster and all the attempts down the years to prove whether or not it really exists. Let’s just say, it is unlikely!

Our last activity for the weekend was a wildlife cruise with Dolphin Spirit from Inverness Marina. Dolphin Spirit offer two tours, one on the Dolphin Spirit which is more sedate and another on Dolphin Mischief, a RIB, for the more adventurous. With our little one, we were on the Dolphin Spirit this time around, but otherwise we would probable have taken the RIB. It was a nice trip, no dolphins again, but we saw some grey seals, some cormorants and a common tern.

It was a great weekend, with beautiful coastlines and countryside, lovely people, nice food and some nice wildlife spotting, but no dolphins this time round. However, it was enough to make us want to go back, for a week at least next time!

Wildlife on your doorstep – Fox cubs in the garden

If you had seen my last post, you will have seen why we haven’t been travelling much recently, however the last week has shown us that you don’t need to go very far to see interesting wildlife and more than that, you don’t even have to leave your property.

We live in Wallington, South London and although it’s not the centre of the metropolis, it’s not exactly rural either. My wife had bought me a trail camera, or camera trap for my birthday in January and I was waiting for a chance to use it. A few weeks ago, whilst looking for something in the garden shed, i heard a few mewing noises, seemingly coming from underneath or at the back of the shed. This, along with the freshly dug hole under the side of the shed led me to believe that a vixen had made her den there. So, this was an excellent opportunity to set up the trail camera and see if I could discover if my hunch was correct. I set up the camera about a month ago and waited. I checked it a few times and all i had was a few images of the vixen, but when I checked again on Sunday, was rewarded with these images of mother and at least 4 cubs making their first playful steps out and about the world.

I’m not sure what the white thing is that mother and cubs had in their mouths, but it looks like it made a great first toy.

I’ve put the camera back up, hanging from the washing-line pole and see what else i can capture in the coming weeks.

The elusive lynx, 4th time lucky!

Watching wildlife does not often result in instant gratification. It requires patience and, even when surrounded by natural beauty, can lead to long days of disappointment. However, when you do find what you’ve been looking for, that frustration is forgotten and you feel like you have earned that moment of wonder.

We have been trying to see lynx for a few years. We had previously spent seven days in the Carpathians Mountains in Romania and five in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus looking for Eurasian Lynx and made a trip to Donana National Park in southern Spain looking for their smaller Iberian cousins, all without success. So to start 2019 we headed back to Spain and to the Sierra de Andujar Natural Park in Andulusia, home to largest population of this rare and endangered creature in the Iberian peninsula.  To make sure that we had the best possible chance of success, we booked a five day tour with Iberian Lynx Land, a local nature and eco-tour company.

After driving to the Natural Park from Seville and checking into our hotel, La Caracola Hotel Rural (included in the tour price), we met up with Jose Luis, who was to be our guide. Straight away took us in his 4×4 up in to the Sierra Morena mountains to begin our adventure. We soon saw a car stopped by the side of the road and we decided to check on what had caught their eye and were happy that we did, as there was a cute Little Owl perched on a boulder in a field. We headed off again, passing dozens of people lining the road that wound around the range, with their scopes, long lenses and binoculars who were also hoping to see the “gato” as the locals seem to refer to the lynx.  Jose Luis said we’d be joining them later on, but first we were off to the hydro-electric dam for lunch and to see what else we could see. As we sat and had lunch by the river, Jose Luis set up his scope and spotted saw some ibex on the cliffs on the opposite bank. We then checked out a tunnel next to the dam and, with the use of a torch, saw a barbastrelle bat and some greater mouse eared bats. After lunch, it was back to the road-side watch points and we joined the crowds in their hope of spotting a lynx.   We spent the rest of the afternoon sat by the road, looking down across the valley with our binoculars, looking for movement or shapes in the shadows and listening out for the cat calling out or magpies in distress. After many hours, the sun slowly sank behind the far hills and called time on day one.

Early the next morning, Jose Luis picked us up again and we drove out to a different dam. It was cold, minus two, as we walked on to a bridge over the river. Almost straight away Jose Luis spotted an otter down stream, so we headed that way for a closer look. We watched as this otter ate his fish breakfast on a rock and then saw a couple more as they swam across the mist-laden water. We stayed for a while longer, but then is was time to try to find our little big cat back at the roadside watch points. We spent another eight hours on the roadside and we saw Spanish Imperial Eagles, a Black Vulture, a number of Griffin Vultures, Red Deer and Fallow Deer, but alas, again no lynx. It was beginning to feel like another of those trips where we would end up being frustrated, even though we had seen some lovely animals.

Day three would surely be different, especially as we would not be going back to the public watch points, but have access to a private estate which was part of a habitat enhancement project and frequented by a number of lynx. The project attempts to make the land more habitable for rabbits, which make up 70% of the Lynx’s diet, and therefore improving the environment for the Lynx. We drove round the estate slowly and soon heard some magpies calling in distress off to our left. We parked up and kept a watch in our mobile “hide”. After a few minutes, a lynx jumped down on to the road, not from our left but from the right hand bank of the road and strolled slowly across in front of us. I managed to take a couple of snaps before she disappeared in to the overgrowth. Finally, we had seen a lynx and so close too. Yes, the moment only lasted a matter of seconds, but we felt lucky to see this beautiful creature.

We spent the rest of the day on the estate with no more luck and, to be honest, in spite of our many hours both back on the estate and on the roadside we did not manage to see another cat. Was it worth it? Yes of course! These are truly incredible animals and to finally see one was very special.