Tag Archives: Birding

Scoring (real) birdies: Australia reflections part 2

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When it comes to golf I’m largely in agreement with Mark Twain who was reported to have described the game as “a good walk spoiled”.  As with so many of these well known and iconic quotes, Twain did not originate the phrase and almost certainly did not say it.  Reminds me of what Einstein didn’t say about bees.   Regardless of how you feel about golf*, and I appreciate that many people enjoy and play the game, golf courses represent an interesting set of environmental challenges and opportunities.  On the one hand maintaining areas of perfect turf requires a big input of water, fertilisers, biocides, even grass dye, and energy – there are some interesting thoughts on this in a recent blog post at goingzerowaste.com (though it’s riddled with adverts so be patient).  One of the links I picked up from that blog was to the Audubon Society in the USA which has an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf certification scheme.  Its aim is to help course management teams to reduce the impact of their activities and, importantly, to maximise and protect the biodiversity on their golf courses.

There are similar schemes elsewhere in the world, for example the Golf Environment Awards in the UK.  Of course building new golf courses that irreparably damage important wildlife sites is unforgivable. For existing courses these are moves in the right direction because typically less than half of a course is the playing area.  The rest comprises rough grass, woodland, lakes and streams and so forth: in other words, good habitat for a broad range of wildlife.

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All of this was on my mind last Wednesday when I was invited on an early morning birding trip to the urban Eastlake Golf Course by UNSW bird researcher Dr Corey Callaghan.  We were joined by other staff members and postgrads from the department. Six of us spent a very enjoyable couple of hours from 6:15 am walking a route that took us close to the large bodies of water that give the course its name, through woodland and bush dominated by species of Banksia and Casuarina. The latter, despite being true flowering plants, look for all the world like the familiar conifers of many a British golf course.

Over a period of two hours we saw 70 species of birds.  To put this in perspective, our Waterside Campus bird surveys back in Northampton also take around two hours and start early in the morning, through a similar mosaic of grassland, woodland patches, and a water body (the River Nene).  On these surveys we typically see between 20 and 30 species; the most we’ve ever recorded in one morning is 39, and that really was exceptional.  Remember also that Sydney is not in the tropics – at around 33 degrees south we’re technically subtropical here.  Given the latitudinal gradient in bird diversity, a two hour survey on a tropical golf course should yield even more records, all else being equal.

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Of those 70 bird species, I think about 20 were new to me, i.e. lifers in birding parlance, though I still need to write up the list of birds I’ve seen so far on this trip.  Perhaps I’ll do that this afternoon as temperature in Sydney peak and its frankly too hot to do much else. As I write it’s midday and official temperature for the Coogee area is already 29 degrees C, and that’s with a cooling sea breeze.  Western Sydney is likely to top 40 degree later today.

Although whole families of birds in this region are unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, there were others that we saw on Wednesday which would not be out of place in Northamptonshire.  For example, we saw common greenshank, which overwinters here after an epic journey from northern climes, and Australian raven which is a different species to the ravens and crows from the UK, but very similar looking.  The wading birds such as greenshank and sharp-tailed sandpiper were benefiting from the drought conditions that has exposed parts of the lake bed. Though if this continues there’s a danger of most of the water being lost completely, impacting the  large eels and other fish we saw in the shallows, as well as the semi-aquatic Eastern water dragon.

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Birds, plants, fish and lizards were not the only wildlife we saw at Eastlake however – some very delicate fungi were benefiting from the regular watering of the fairway:

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It’s not all been birding and swimming in the (not very) warm sea, however.  This week Angela, Stephen and I were joined by our CSIRO collaborator Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy for an intense week of writing.  This manuscript boot camp has gone better than we expected and we have a very good first draft of a paper that should be in a position to submit to a journal by the time my visit here ends on 2nd February.


*I make an exception for crazy golf at seaside resorts which I play with my old university mates with beer, gusto, and not a little rivalry.

Winter visit to Wicken Fen


If it’s winter, it must be time for the annual second year undergraduate field trip to Wicken Fen, a yearly pilgrimage that’s been run by my colleague Dr Janet Jackson for many years now.  The purpose of the trip is to show our ecology and environmental science students an example of large-scale habitat conservation and restoration in action, at one of England’s oldest nature reserves.  I try to go along and help out when I can, though I missed it last year because of my trip to Brazil.  It was more than a fair swap, though there’s something about Wicken’s stark winter beauty that always makes for a memorable day.

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The National Trusts’s nature reserve at Wicken Fen is one of the few remaining patches of the wetland habitat that once covered most of East Anglia.  There’s little of it left (less than 1% of the original area) but large-scale, long-term initiatives such as the Great Fen project and the Wicken Fen Vision are trying to increase this by restoring the farmland surrounding the remaining patches.  This is important landscape-scale conservation because the fenland habitat is rich in biodiversity.  Wicken Fen alone is reckoned to host more than 8,300 species of macro-organisms, most of which are invertebrates, including more than a thousand each of flies and beetles.  There’s also an impressive list of birds that use the site either for breeding or over-wintering, and on our day trip we managed to see 31 species*, highlights of which were a pair of Hen Harriers, a lone hunting Barn Owl at dusk, and a huge flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover that provided a backdrop to our guided tour.


Another great highlight which impressed both students and staff was a close encounter with some Konik Polski ponies which were curious and friendly, and yet more or less wild, as they stay out on the Fen all year round with no shelter and the minimum of human intervention.

Konic ponies

Everyone was enchanted by these hardy little horses and it was a struggle to get the students to move on with the tour!

Konic ponies with Janet

As Carol Laidlaw, conservation grazing warden at Wicken Fen explained to us, these ponies, together with the tough highland cattle, are a vital part of Wicken Fen’s ecology.  Their grazing prevents woody plants from colonising, and this, together with their physical presence in the landscape, leaving hoof marks and dung piles, opens up both small patches and larger areas for colonisation by plants.  For anyone interested in reading more about the grazing animals I can recommend Carol’s excellent article on the project.


Although the day was cold it was not the frozen landscape we normally encounter and there were even a few plants still in flower.  It’s been a mild winter so far – how long will that continue?  If you’ve never visited Wicken Fen I can recommend it as a day trip whatever the season or weather, there’s always fascinating wildlife to see.

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*Bird list for the trip was: Collared Dove, House Sparrow, Blackbird, Kestrel, Fieldfare, Goldfinch, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Magpie, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Carrion Crow, Snipe, Hen Harrier, Wigeon, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Feral Pigeon, Starling, Wood Pigeon, Robin, Chaffinch, Wren, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Coot, Mallard, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Jackdaw, Barn Owl.  Plus chickens being kept in the garden of one of the local cottages!

Is Booterstown Marsh the best small urban nature reserve in Europe?

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On a recent visit to Dublin, where I’m External Examiner for some courses at UCD, my host Dr Jan-Robert Baars took me on a short early evening excursion south of the city to Booterstown Marsh.  What a great little nature reserve it is!  It’s tiny (only 4.3 ha) and is boxed in by urban development on all four sides.  To the north there are buildings; to the east runs a busy main road and housing; on the southern side is a car park and the entrance to Booterstown train station, with the railway line completing the rectangle of infrastructure to the east.  Beyond that is a beach and the open water of Dublin Bay.

The reserve is largely saltmarsh, fringed with trees, with a freshwater stream coming in from the north (visible in the bottom right corner below.

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As the tide turns, seawater rapidly ebbs and flows from the reserve, bringing with it food particles and nutrients for the plants and invertebrates of the marsh.  The next photograph was taken only a few minutes after the previous one.

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If you click on these photographs above to maximise their size you can see something of what makes this reserve so special – the bird life that is supported by those plants and invertebrates.  The very abundant dark birds are Black-tailed godwits, the white ones are Black-headed gulls.  During our visit, which lasted less than an hour, we saw a total of 12 species including other wading birds such as Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Little egret, Grey heron, and Redshank.  These are birds that one often sees from a distance, foraging on lake margins or mudflats.  But here they are just a few metres from a busy railway line which funnels commuters to and from the city every day.

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Whether by accident or design the open-ended station bridge makes a great viewing platform; here you can see Grey heron and Little egret.

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At its eastern side the bridge looks over Dublin Bay and provides further birding opportunities.

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If you have the opportunity to visit Booterstown Marsh (and I strongly recommend it) there’s a useful guide produced by the Irish Wildlife Trust.  This urban nature reserve is one of the most interesting I’ve ever visited, because it affords the opportunity to get very close to a diverse assemblage of birds that are not normally so confiding.  Clearly these birds feel secure despite the rumbling traffic and the dashing trains.  I almost envy the local commuters!

If you think you know of a more interesting small urban nature reserve I’d be interested to hear about it – feel free to comment below.

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My thanks to Jan (pictured below on the bridge) for introducing me to this wonderful site.  The final list of birds that we saw on the reserve was:  Black-tailed godwit, Dunlin, Grey heron, Little egret, an unidentified duck, Black-headed gull, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Woodpigeon, Moorhen, Mute swan, Jackdaw.  On the Dublin Bay side we also spotted Pied wagtail and (from a distance) a Curlew.

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