Wildlife Watching on Guernsey: Spring Forward

By guest author Chris Bale

There's a reason why somebody, somewhere had the foresight to make February the shortest month of the year, and the genius to steal yet another day from it once every four years! I'm pretty sure he or she, like me, and thousands of other folks across the UK would gladly wish it away altogether in exchange for bringing forward the seasonal transformation of winter to spring.

Of course I'm being flippant but, personally speaking, the onset of spring is the most anticipated event of the year. New life, warmer, longer days and the mass migration of birds heading north from Africa in full breeding plumage to search out a mate and bountiful conditions, perfect for raising the next generation.

You see, I am a photographer of birds, and there is an agonising, annual test of patience that occurs some time between capturing your last images of wintering birds; Lapwing, Redwing, Fieldfare and Mistle Thrush, and the arrival of said northbound migrants. It's very much like watching shampoo and toilet roll adverts in the middle of an exciting film. I wish it wasn't so, but this lull sees me at my unfulfilled and grumpy worst! So, it would be best for everyone involved if we could just 'skip the ads' and fast forward to the next season.

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Early Spring Mallard Duckling, Silbe Nature Reserve.

Well for all my moaning the truth is simple. I am, without doubt, one of the lucky ones. Living on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, means that the first signs of spring begin to tell here weeks before they appear on the UK mainland. I have, before now, posted images of the first brood of Mallard chicks whilst there is still heavy snow affecting mainland Britain.

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My wife and daughter in February Dafs.

Last year the new bird observatory in Alderney trapped, ringed and recorded the first swallow in the British Isles (See Header Image). There are daffodils in bloom by mid February and during the first two weeks of March our first Wheatear, Sand Martin and other early migrants will be seen to grace our shores. March will also see the return of many of our breeding seabirds, including Britain's southernmost population of Atlantic Puffins.

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The Northern Wheatear, very often the first passage migrant seen each year.

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Atlantic Puffin on Burhou, Alderney.

So should I be complaining about our not so long, mild winters, warmed by the sea air and Gulf Stream? Or, should I be sharing the news with as many people as possible, suggesting that an early visit to Guernsey could help see away their winter blues and catapult them straight into the joys of slightly warmer climes and a chance to feel the optimism that engulfs our Island at this time of year? Believe me when I say even if you encountered a stormy day, which is still possible, then Guernsey does that in its own spectacular and memorable way, too! You won't be disappointed.

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The cream wall on the left...that was my house! My neighbours had seen it all before.

Guernsey has long been known for it's picture post card views, cliff walks, beaches, tranquil lanes and quaint houses and yet it is still fairly untapped for the wildlife that serves to enhance every one of these aspects. If I'm honest it is often overlooked by those who live here too, which can make raising the profile of conservation issues hard at times.

However, the more people that recognise, appreciate and visit 'our Island' to share in its natural wonders the more credence it will be given as an economical factor, a tourism booster and finally something that should be protected, encouraged and promoted in local schools, households and businesses.

With the support of a reputable and long standing hotel like The Bella Luce, Guernsey's wildlife has found a great ally and those people wishing to see and experience that nature could have no better base from which to schedule their activities.

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Yellow Wagtail. Jaonnaise Bay.

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Spring Chiffchaff

Once April begins the migrants begin to arrive 'en mass'. Yellow Wagtail, Whinchat, Swallows, Cuckoo, Wryneck, Ring Ouzel, Chiffchaff, Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler, Redstart and others are commonly seen and recorded. There are also perennial sightings of Hoopoe, Honey Buzzard and other more rare birds to add to the resident species becoming active with nest building and laying. Our Stonechat population makes for great viewing at this time.

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The ever-chattering Reed Warbler.

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The Hoopoe often appears briefly on our shores having over flown its breeding grounds.

The breeding Marsh Harriers will also afford you good views, often displaying spectacularly over the reed beds, and if arranged with a local tour guide or birder you may also get privileged views of Peregrine Falcon nest sites (through scopes). There are also regular rib voyages and excursions to see the Islands from a different perspective and you can explore caves, see puffins and also get up close and personal with the resident Grey Seal population.

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A majestic male Marsh Harrier. Claire Mare Nature Reserve.

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A curious Grey Seal just off Fisherman's Beach in Herm.

Another short boat trip is a must to visit the beautiful Island of Herm - an absolute haven for wildlife. Shore birds like Oystercatcher and Curlew will be obvious along the Beaches of the west and north. Look to the skies on the south coast cliffs for Raven and to the sea (200ft below) for puffins, razorbill, Guillemot and Fulmar. It really is a small slice of Heaven whether you like birdwatching or just enjoy a good walk.

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The Oystercatcher: A familiar sight and sound.

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A Curlew with it's striking curved bill.

Alderney is a little further away but should be considered as a possible jaunt as it has been proven already by Britain's newest Bird Observatory that it is simply a mecca for migrating birds. When you add that fact to the third largest Gannet colony in Britain, the Channel Island’s largest Puffin colony and a strong hold for Dartford Wablers then you'll soon realise that it would be well worth the excursion. Friendly people, a pedestrian pace of life and a real glimpse of what Island life could (and some might say should) be like. The Alderney Wildlife Trust do regular guided tours and boat excursions to the seabird colonies and will always be happy to assist you with enquiries.

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Gannets circling, looking for shoals of Mackerel near Alderney.

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A wonderful Male Dartford Warbler in its perfect Gorse habitat.

As for me, well my wife and I have a little shop in 'The Old Quarter' of St Peter Port where we sell my images of Channel Islands Birds. The Bird Box has been a great success thus far and we're hoping for even greater things in 2017. We have recently acquired a course fishing lake and some woodland which we are currently transforming to include a nature trail, bee hives, a chicken run, bird hides, bird feeders, nest boxes and two owl boxes. We are also sowing two large areas of wild meadow. This will serve as a recreational area for families, school groups and individuals to enjoy and learn about the countryside code, our delicate eco system and it's importance to our health and wellbeing.

By late-March I am also hoping to be able to offer guided walks and trips for birdwatchers, photographers or anyone who has an interest in seeing the wonders and secrets that Guernsey holds, including Les Rouvets Lake, mentioned above. I'll have to keep you informed on this for now as it will only become a reality if I believe I can deliver an experience that is unique, professional and will keep people coming back for that early taste of spring, year on year. After all, you'll have become so accustomed to the very best quality and service at The Bella Luce Hotel that I dare say expectations will run high...and so they should!

I do sincerely hope our paths cross in 2017 (preferably after February) and that I have perhaps given you something more to consider whilst choosing a holiday in Guernsey. I truly wish that whatever you decide to do, whilst you're here, serves to invigorate and inspire you, relax and cleanse you, but most of all fill you with deep, deep joy.

Chris Bale.

The Bird Box: Where "Wonderful Nature Makes Beautiful Art".

If you're staying at the Bella Luce and would like to book a bird-spotting or wildlife watching tour with Chris then please let a member of our front-desk team know and we will make arrangements for you.

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Bella Luce