Blog Site by Appointment to His Regal Majesty the Maalie King

He who would be a Leader, let him be a Bridge

Crown Copyright: The Royal Maalie Court

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Veteran's Night with the TCA

Last Thursday (25 January) I visited elder son (Worzel) and partner in Hambledon (Hampshire) for his birthday weekend. On Thursday evening I was a guest rider with the Titchfield Cycling Association. Please see HERE for an account of the event.

A toast to TCA absent members in The Hampshire Bowman
(Left to right: Jon, Maalie, Matt, Worzel)

My route back to Mintcakeland took me via Cardiff where I joined Tortoiseshell and wife for a meal in La Lorenza Italian restaurant, followed by a pint (or two) of Brains Bitter in the local by way of a nightcap.

I followed a mountain route through mid Wales the next morning and added Kingfisher and Red Kite to my Year List.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Altostratus lenticularis

I awoke this morning (Jan 23rd) to find that my weather station was recording the first sub-zero temperature (-0.3°C) since I acquired it last November. With nearly a cloudless sky and hoar frost on the ground I drove out to the end of Askam Pier so see if there was any snow on the hills. There was indeed (but not much) but conditions were good for generating altostratus lenticularis.

View from the end of my street - the clouds are altostratus lenticularis

Moreover, feeding in the creek beside the pier was a Spotted Redshank in winter plumage.

Spotted Redshank, an un -common relative of the 'ordinary' Redshank

Now, back to the clouds. Altostratus means "medium height" and "layered". Lenticularis means lens-like. These clouds are formed when moist air moves across a mountain range (the Cumbrian Fells, in this case) and is forced to rise until it reaches colder air above and condenses into cloud. Because of some atmospheric condition, typically a temperature inversion , the cloud does not rise higher to form cumulus but instead spreads out to form stratus (in this case altostratus, because of its height).

Because the air is moving, and also undulating over the mountains, the stratus doesn't form a continuous layer but instead breaks up into individual "lenses" which move away and the next one if formed.

Once the lenses have cleared the mountains, it is quite common for them to become "stacked".

Stacked lenticular clouds today over Walney Island

Ocasionally, the lenticularis can be dramatic, and not suprisingly they have been mistaken for UFOs! The image below is courtesy of the Cloud Appreciation Society.
What would you think if you saw this at night, back-lit by the moon?

Answers on a postcard...

Friday, January 19, 2007


Extinction of species is as natural a part of evolution as is speciation. The process of Darwinian natural selection may generate species which are highly adapted to a particular prevailing set of environmental circumstances. The posh name for "highly adapted" is stenoecious. The problem with these highly adapted species is that they "paint themselves into a corner", and if the environmental circumstances happen to change, they are stuffed (Ooops, I mean unable to cope with the changing circumstances). So "adapted" is the opposite of "adaptable" (for those who want to know, "adaptable" species are euryoecious).

My favourite example of a stenoecious species is the Everglade Snail Kite, a critically endangered species, which I have been fortunate enough to see in the Everglades National Park in Florida.

The Everglades Snail Kite - adapted to eat only aquatic snails

This bird is so highly specialised that its bill is critically structured only to winkle out the flesh of an aquatic snail called the Apple Snail. It is superb above all others in locating, catching and eating Apple Snails.

The aquatic Apple Snail - exclusive diet of the Snail Kite

So, from a conservation point of view, if the authorities in Florida wish to increase the flow of drinking water to Miami; or divert the flow of the Shark River into agriculture; or manage some of the Everglades in the interests of the Seminole Indian Tribe, then this destroys the habitat of the Apple Snail. The Snail Kite, whose bill is adapted to dealing exclusively with a diet of Apple Snails, suffers a knock-on in the food chain. If the snail becomes extinct, the kite inevitably follows.

The concern that conservationists feel now is the rate of extinctions . Research reveals that until the 18th century, an average of about 0.25 species became extinct per year. This rate jumped to one species per year in the 19th century, to 1,000 species per year in 1975, and to 40,000 species per year by around the year 2000.

So what has caused this alarming increase in the rate of extinction of species in recent decades? It would be perverse indeed to imagine that man's activities had nothing to do with it. Extinction can be caused by direct hunting: the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon and Stella's Sea Cow are well-known examples.

The Dodo - too nutritious for its own good?

Indirect human affects such as habitat destruction (e.g. tropical rain forests), wetland drainage, pollution and climate change have all taken their toll. However, one of the most important causes of extinction is the most catastrophic, and also the most pitiful because it could have been avoided with foresight. And that is: the introduction of alien species.

In a balanced ecosystem, the eponymous "balance of nature" is in harmony of sorts. There is a complex interacting dependency that maintains a long-term stability. Species become extinct as circumstances change naturally, to be replaced by others that evolve to capitalise on the new situation. But to introduce an alien from a different ecosystem can cause chaos. The places where these affects are most devastating are island archipelagos which became geologically separated early in evolutionary history: Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the Galapagos are classical examples.

Australia separated by plate tectonic movement from the super-continent of Gondwanaland many centuries ago. At the time, mammals were at an early stage of evolution, and a separate line, the marsupials, developed in Australia. They became isolated from the mainstream of mammal evolution where the more advanced and "successful" placentals evolved. When Australia became settled by European people, a few placental rabbits were introduced and they were able to out-compete the endemic herbivores and, axiomatically, "bred like rabbits" and virtually took over the continent. In desperation, European foxes were introduced to control the rabbits. Did that work? Oh no, the foxes turned to predate the indigenous marsupials that were not adapted to avoid such predators. There were many extinctions, and many species, including the Leadbetter's Possum, have become endangered.

Leadbetter's Possum, endangered emblem of Victoria, Australia

In New Zealand the position is arguably even worse. This land-mass separated off from Gondwanaland even before Australia, in a period before any sort of mammal evolutionary line had commenced. In isolation, the higher animals in New Zealand were restricted to birds, reptiles, fish and amphibia; but no mammals. (Seals and bats found their way independently in due course). Without the need to escape from mammalian predators, many endemic bird species in New Zealand became flightless, or developed greatly weakened flight. Obviously, the Kiwi is the best known example, however there are dozens of other examples.

As in the case of Australia, the introduction of a few rabbits into New Zealand wreaked havoc. And the response to attempt to control the rabbits? Introduce cats, ferrets, weasels and stoats! The rest, as they say, is history. These advanced mammalian predators ignored the rabbits and took readily to the flightless or weakly-flying bird species. One of the alleged fastest extinctions on record occurred when the lighthouse keeper on Stephen's Island let his cat out, which cleaned up the entire population of the unique Stephen's Island Wren in a couple of hours!

I count myself fortunate to have lived in New Zealand during the 1970s. As a birdwatcher, I was astonished at how much the bird life was dominated by introduced species; the European Blackbird, Yellowhammer, Redpoll, Skylark, the Indian Mynah, to name but a few. To see the interesting endemics required excursions into the thickest parts of the forested National Parks, or even to the off-lying islands where the Wildlife Service had eradicated alien predators. High on my list to see was, of course, the Kiwi, and I was able to locate a few of these as they pecked about on the high-tide mark on a beach at night on Stewart Island.

Flightless Spotted Kiwi of New Zealand

Another rare endemic bird that fascinated me was the Kokako. This had two sub-species inhibiting the North and South Islands, respectively. The North Island sub-species was rare but secure, but the South Island race was precarious. And it was sad to learn from Ju's Little Sister that it has recently been declared extinct.

The North Island Kokako is a shy, secretive weakly flying forest dwelling species. To see one simply "flying about" is extremely unlikely. But there are more subtle methods: being territorial, the males respond very well to tape recordings of the song of their own species. Males regard the recording as a rival intruder and will sometimes emerge to see him off!

And so it was with a tape-recording of a Kokako supplied by the New Zealand Wildlife Service, and a tape player system that would look cumbersome by today's standards, I set off to camp by the shores of Lake Okataina (not far from Rotorua) in the heart of Kokako country. I set my alarm for an hour before first light, and enthusiastically drove to a likely looking spot in the forest and started playing the tape at dawn. You can imagine my excitement when I heard a bird singing the mellifluous fluty notes in response! I remember tingles down my spine, and the hairs standing up on the back of my neck!

But would the bird come out and show itself? No way! By the time the rising sun was casting shadows, the birds had shut up shop and were refusing to play!

The second morning, it was harder to get out of my warm sleeping bag - there were ground frosts even in spring. However, I returned to the same spot, and started playing the tape again and sure enough, the local male responded! Surely, I felt, he would show himself today! And just as I sensed he was getting close, the song from my recorder started deepening in tone, and slowing down. Damn! The batteries were flat! I gave up and went straight to the nearest service station for a new set of batteries!

On the third and final morning, I was suffering from severe sleep deprivation. As the alarm dragged me from the depths of slumber, and the sweetest of dreams, I tried every trick in the book to persuade myself that there was no point; I thought of every excuse why it was futile to try, why I needed another hour's sleep (at least!). But operating on automatic pilot, I dragged myself from the comfort of the sleeping bag and made my way again to the now familiar spot. Would it work this time? Well, yes it did. It was not the best view I have ever had of a bird, I must admit. But it did show itself, briefly, as it hopped along a leafless branch, and then dropped back into the canopy and disappeard from sight. There it was - the Kokako!

New Zealand North Island Kokako - rare, but thankfully well protected

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


As a change from my January trips to the Camargue in 2005 and 2006, I decided this year on the Mediterranean side of Northern Spain and to venture as far into the Pyrenees as time and conditions would allow. My evening flight from Liverpool on January 4th meant it was dark on arrival at Girona but I woke next morning to a bright clear frosty morning. I set off north-west to Olot and then tok the mountain road to Ripoll. My bird list got off the ground with several common species but I was getting concerned that my hire car was overheating. When the temperature gauge hit the red zone at 1090 m at the Coll of Merolla, it was time to abort any notion of climbing higher and to free-wheel as much as possible to the airport to change the car.
The Pyrenees, view from Coll of Merolla
The next morning was an early start for the coast at Cap de Creus, up near the border with France, where the Pyrenees meet the sea. The whole Cap de Creus peninsula is designated as a nature reserve, comprising mainly of dry maritime heath, host to Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, and Black Redstarts. It must be one of the few remaining unspoiled parts of the Costa Brava.

Yellow-legged Gull, a congener of our Herring Gull

The Cape itself provided a couple of hour’s quality sea-watching with numbers of Balearic Shearwaters (a lifer!) feeding with Gannets, Razorbills and Cormorants on a shoal of sardines offshore. And a single Cory's Shearwater drifted past the headland.
This certainly warranted a glass of Spanish beer in the sunshine at the Cape Lighthouse bar!

Balearic Shearwater
Cap de Creus, where the Pyrenees meet the Sea

Sunday was my last full day, so with the day dawning its sharpest and clearest yet I decided to go for bust and see just how far I could get up into the mountains. I retraced Friday's route to the Coll of Merolla, turned north at La Pobla de Lillet and up the windy mountain road through the alpine mountain town of Castellar de N'Hug. I stopped there for a coffee and then carried on upwards and upwards, the road seemed to go up for ever! Well above the tree line, the road eventually arrived at the Coll de la Crueta at 1900 m (over 6200 feet). From there I climbed a small summit, probably taking me to 2000m.
Forbidding January environment at the Coll de la Crueta
In such a harsh environment, birds were not plentiful, but a flock of some 40 Choughs (red-billed) flew over and I saw a couple of Griffon Vultures and a Golden Eagle. And, just as important, filled my lungs with some fresh cold alpine air!

The birding trump card arrived on the last day. With an evening flight I didn't want to go too far afield so headed towards the coast near Platja de la Fonollera. Here there is a "mini-Camargue" river delta system with quite large areas of farmland submerged as rice fields. The focus was a small nature reserve Les Basses d'en Coll (car park at 41°59.94N, 03°11.36E) with footpaths and even a birdwatching screen or two. Whilst mostly agricultural, the stubble fields held large numbers of House and Tree Sparrows, Chaffinch, the odd Brambling, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, with Sky, Crested and Wood Larks. Reedy creeks and rice paddies had Lapwing and Curlew, Cetti's and Fan-tailed Warblers, Chiffchaff, Kingfisher, Water Rail, Grey Heron, Little and Cattle Egrets, Marsh Harrier, Pied and Grey Wagtails. Scrub and bushy bits had Jay, Green Woodpecker, Robin, Stonechat and Black Redstart. So a couple of productive hours were spent there.

Birders who might feel trapped in a family holiday getting bored sitting on beaches in the Costa Brava might bear this little gem in mind!
Les Basses d'en Coll - a little gem of a nature reserve

Moving on to a mirror-calm sea, I founds Shag and Great Northern Diver, this must have been at the limit of the wintering range of this species.

With light starting to fade, there was time left for a stroll out to the lighthouse at Cap de Sant Sebastià and a to take last lingering look at the Mediterranean before turning for Girona airport.
Cap de Sant Sebastià, farewell to the Mediterranean (for now). Note encroaching altocumulus/altostratus, the first real clouds of my trip.

My final bird list was 69 species which I consider very satisfactory for this time of year.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Ashes

Congratulations to all my friends in Australia for their well-deserved 5 - 0 victory in the Ashes series. Remember, however, it is just for the time being!

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Day!

A very Happy New Year to all my readers!

For birdwatchers, the Ancient Custom and Practice on New Year's Day is to get out birdwatching, no matter what the weather, and unashamedly "twitch" to get the "Year List" off to a good start (see here for my discussion of listing).

Today I met up with birdwatching/ballet/football friend Pam at the RSPB Reserve of Leighton Moss , on the border of Cumbria and Lancashire. This large reserve comprises extensive areas of marshlands and reed beds, with open water and surrounding woodland. A good diversity of birds is guaranteed.

Pam looks out over the marsh at at Leighton Moss

Our day gave a joint list of over 50 species, including the waterfowl: Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Shelduck, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Pochard, and Goldeneye. Waders seen were Lapwing, Snipe, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Greenshank.

Calls of the secretive Bearded Tit and Water Rail were heard deep within the reeds but we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these species.

Driving home I heard on the radio that Pam's football team Oldham Athletic had won their game by five goals to nil, and I wondered whether she had regretted not staying at home to see their victory!