All those flocking waders…

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the vast flocks of geese which overwinter on The Wash; and there were also big numbers of other birds including small groups of dunlin close in by the shore:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But a little further out, and almost invisible until they took to the air, were enormous flocks of thousands of dunlin. I couldn’t see what flushed them, but every few minutes they rose en masse and put on a stunning display of aerobatic prowess:

Thousands of dunlin moving in very close proximity at high speed and never colliding

Occasionally they turned into the sun creating a shimmering ribbon of grey and white across the sky:

And as with the geese in the previous post the other thing which I hadn’t thought about until they were swirling overhead was the noise. It was a very different sound to the geese which gave a slow muted beating sound, the dunlin sounded more like a fast moving cloud of enormous insects. It was a really exciting spectacle. And as well as the dunlin flocks of oystercatcher wheeled over from behind and landed in a line on the mud flats:

Several hundred oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: Strandskade) seeking safety in numbers

… and it’s always good, but increasingly seldom, to see flocks of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe):

When I was a kid in the 70’s vast flocks of lapwing were a relatively frequent phenomenon in the fields out in the countryside around home, but their numbers have plummeted twixt now and then, so it’s good to see there are still places where thay can still be found doing what lapwing should be doing!

Aurora borealis

A couple of weeks ago my very good friend from Thessaloniki, Agni, returned from a trip to Finland and sent me these pictures of the Northen Lights, or to give it its correct scientific name, the Aurora Borealis. The Aurora occurs when streams of charged particles from the sun are driven out into space by the solar wind. They are largely deflected by the earths magnetic field but at the poles where the magnetic field is at it’s weakest they can enter the atmosphere and react with different gases, and different gases produce different colours. The most common colour is yellowy green which is generated by oxygen at a height of around 60 miles.

Despite being half Danish and spending nearly all my summer holidays, and some winter holidays, in Scandinavia, I’ve still never seen the Aurora, so I think these pictures are absolutely stunning. And it must have been totally jaw-dropping to see it for real so I’m now even more on a mission to go and see them for myself!

Aurora borealis‘ means ‘dawn of the North’ and is named after the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the corresponding Aurora in the Southern Hemisphere is called the ‘Aurora australis‘ or ‘dawn of the South’.

I don’t normally post other peoples pictures here but these are so special they have to be shared, so I’m really grateful to Agni for letting me post them. They were taken with a Nikon D3200 on a tripod with a 10s exposure time. And they’re so cool!

Winter in the Wash

One of the ‘must see‘ natural events in the UK occurs in the winter when hundreds of thousands of ducks, waders and, in particular, geese spend the season on the mudflats of the Wash. The Wash is a huge bay on the east coast of England into which the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse all drain into the North Sea.

When the tide recedes, like Morecambe Bay in the previous post, enormous areas of mudflats are exposed which provide sustenance and a roost site for colossal numbers of birds. Every morning at dawn thousands of geese take flight to head inland to feed, and the geese are what everyone goes there to see.

Multiple skeins of pink footed geese at Snettisham at dawn (Anser brachyrhynchus, Dansk: kortnæbbet gås)

I arrived at the coast at Snettisham on the north Norfolk coast around 6am when it was just starting to get light. Already sizable flocks of geese were in the air and I was concerned that I’d missed most of them. But then as the sun rose higher gargantuan flocks started to pass overhead and it was a truly incredible sight!

I don’t know how many thousands of geese were there but at the end of the day I went back to the same place to see them return. It was getting dark and all was still, so, as in the morning, I thought I’d missed them. And then they appeared, quite suddenly in their tens of thousands. I tried to estimate the numbers by counting small numbers of each wave and multiplying up, and I estimated there were between 30-40,000 birds returning.

Skeins within skeins, I like this formation

And if you’ve ever spent any time near geese you’ll know that they’re not afraid to announce their presence, so the other thing that I hadn’t expected, but maybe I should have done, was the noise. It was a magnificent cacophony! And not just the squawking, but the sound of them flying when they came over lower to the ground.

These birds breed in the summer up in the Arctic, in Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen and then head south to the relatively balmy conditions of the UK coast in winter (!).

Another skein of pink footed geese passing low overhead

It’s unknown why geese fly in skeins, but it’s thought to provide an aerodynamic advantage to the ones behind as they slipstream in turbulent air generated by the bird in front. Which makes me wonder if they constantly switch the pacemaker or if the biggest and strongest bird is always the one at the front.

I estimated there were around 500 birds in this huge flock, but even that was a tiny proportion of the total

To see this meant getting up and out at 4am which is never my favourite thing to do, and it was ferociously cold, but it was worth it to see such a unique spectacle. And as the sun rose and it got lighter, it soon became apparent that the geese weren’t the only seabirds in the area:

A shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach past a lone dunlin in the foreground

Small flocks of shelduck and dunlin were mingling and feeding close in to the shore

The Wash is now not the only significant area of coastal mudflat in East Anglia. In order to attempt to mitigate some of the anticipated ravages of climate change, flood defences protecting areas of farmland on the coast further south in Essex have been deliberately breached. This has allowed the land to be reclaimed by the sea and to regenerate the tidal mudflats that were there before humans originally interfered. The new habitat  was created with the millions of tons of earth removed the ground under London in order to build the Crossrail tube train tunnels. And as soon as this happened the wildlife started to recolonise, and even though it is still fairly barren in comparison to established habitat, I hope that in the near future it will also provide refuge to hundreds of thousands more birds, and lots of other wildlife too.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But more of dunlin in the next post, and plenty more species of sea birds both at Snettisham and after that at the RSPB coastal reserve at Titchwell.

Morecambe Bay

Since my posting rate plummeted a couple of years ago, due mainly to the increased pressure of work, I’ve still been out and about accumulating a lot of photographs so now I’m going to try to get some of them into posts.

In early spring 2014 I found myself at Morecambe bay in Lancashire which is famous for its vast tidal mudflats that constitute a well stocked larder for a multitude of seabirds, and maximum danger for the unwary beach walker. The Irish Sea tides race in and swirl about at incredible speed and there are areas of treacherous quicksand too.

A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand)

The bay is so enormous that when the tide’s out it’s not always easy to see much wildlife, but by the pier in front of the Midland Hotel there were shelduck, curlew and oystercatchers and I also caught a tantalising glimpse of a distant red breasted merganser.

A curlew on full power for take off (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storpsove)

As I didn’t have my camera with me and I’d never succeeded in getting a picture of a merganser, I returned to the same spot very early the following morning with the relevant optics. It was the end of February and the weather was filthier than a Springbok in a ruck (which as any rugby fan will know is as dirty as it gets!) –  it was freezing cold and blowing a gale, so I sat on the ground with my back to the wind, and waited.

Despite what I said earlier, there were a good number of birds in the vicinity including curlew, shelduck, redshank and this oystercatcher who landed right in front of me and every so often he popped up into view as he mined the crevices in the rock for his breakfast.

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) landed close by on the rocky shoreline

And I didn’t have to wait too long before not one, but a pair, of red breasted merganser appeared in the water just 20 or so metres away, which justified getting out early and braving the elements:

Male (dark headed) and female (brown headed) red breasted merganser (Mergus serrator, Dansk: toppet skallesluger)

I think these are spectacular birds. They are generally resident breeders on the west coast of England and winter visitors on the east, so these were probably residents. They are one of two species of saw-toothed ducks, the other one being the goosander, which are resident in the UK. They have serrated beaks which they need to grasp their fishy prey which they can catch by chasing them under water. According to the BTO there are 2200 pairs in the UK in the summer and their conservation status in the UK is green suggesting the population is stable at least in this part of the world. The only other time I’ve seen a merganser was a month ago down on the south coast at Keyhaven, so they’re an uncommon but splendid sight!

Fenland falcon

A few Saturdays ago in January I made a trip to Burwell Fen, which is separated from Wicken Fen by the Burwell Lode. The whole area is a great place to see birds of prey in winter, and it’s not unusual to see buzzard, marsh harrier, short eared owl, barn owl, sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon, occasionally hen harrier and in the summer hobby. And it’s also not unusual to see 4 or 5 species in one visit. On this trip I saw marsh harrier, buzzard, short eared owl and sparrowhawk. And there were kestrels hovering over the fenland the whole time I was there.

A male kestrel (Falco tinnuculus, Dansk: tårnfalk)

Kestrels are renowned for their ability to seemingly hover. In fact they’re flying into the wind at the same speed as the wind is moving, so I guess it’s not technically a hover, but either way it’s impressive to watch. Incidentally, there were strong winds in my part of the world last weekend and I saw a buzzard which looked to be doing a reasonable impersonation of a kestrel… which gives you a good idea of how strong the wind was!

I’ve seen kestrels described as the ‘motorway falcon‘ because many sightings are of them hovering above roadside verges. This has created the impression that kestrels are very common and that the countryside between the roads must be full of them. But alas, as with most things, that’s not so. It’s not the presence of other raptors which has forced them to the roadside but the large swathes of agricultural devastation which has depleted habitat and rendered the farmland barren as a source of food for them. Consequently, they’re nowhere near as common as they may seem.


This male kestrel was perched on top of a telegraph pole and I’d been keeping an eye on him for several minutes to see what he might do. It was a beautiful sunny morning with good light for some photograsphs if I could get myself, the sun and the subject all in the right place relative to each other.


And after a few minutes the kestrel took off from his post, looped around and did a low altitude, high speed fly past. At his closest he was no more than  ten metres or so away and less than a metre above the ground, like he was posing for his picture! He executed his fly past and then swooped up higher and zoomed off over the fen on a hunting trip.


It was a remarkable twenty seconds and I don’t know why he looped past so close to where I was. It almost looked as though he was checking me out, and in the last picture he was definitely looking in my direction. It made my morning too, kestrels are spectacular and beautiful highly specialised predators, and it’s rare to see one in the air so close.

Ouse Fen

First things first, a very happy new year to you all. I hope 2016 brings you peace and prosperity. Heading back into the depths of last year I spent a very cold morning at the end of November exploring Ouse Fen which is a great place for songbirds and water birds.

RSPB Ouse Fen is another collection of exhausted gravel  pits which have created a series of lakes and been turned into a nature reserve. It’s part of ongoing extraction so new habitat is being created all the time and will all eventually become nature reserve, creating an enormous network of varied habitat. It’s located between Needingworth and Bluntisham near St Ives in Cambridgeshire.

The entrance onto the reserve is via a pathway across a bleak field leading to a sheltered path that’s lined with established hedges, and the hedges are always full of songbirds. On this trip it was as busy as ever and within a few metres I spotted a goldcrest just a few feet away and within a few seconds there were four of them. In my experience goldcrest are devilish difficult to get good photographs of, because like wrens, they are tiny and they flit around at high speed in the undergrowth. But this time I ramped up the ISO to 1000 which allowed a reasonable shutter speed of 1/320 s and got lucky:

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge)

The Danish name translates as ‘bird king‘ I guess from his splendid golden crown, and it’s the smallest breeding bird in the UK, weighing in at 5-6g.

Despite its diminutive stature it’s conservation status is green and more than half a million territories were recorded in the UK in 2009. Hopefully it isn’t suffering too badly with climate change…

Another bird which was in good numbers on this trip was the bullfinch. When I was a kid it wasn’t too unusual to see bullfinch on the feeders in the garden. But after the 1970’s their numbers plummeted such that it was years before I saw one at all. But nowadays I see them fairly frequently in the countryside (never in the garden though) and they had 190,000 territories in 2009 in the UK, so they can’t be doing too badly and their conservation status is amber.

The female is striking but has fairly drab colours in the winter:

Bullfinch female (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

And the male is splendid even in winter with his peachy orange breast, black cap, grey back and white rump:

The bullfinch is a chunky finch with a beak to match which they use for cracking the seeds or stones from small fruit like cherries. They also eat shoots and consequently part of the reason for their downfall in the 1980’s was a result of falling foul of the fruit farmers. I love to see them and because of the relative scarcity of sightings and their skittish nature I’ve been waiting a long time to get a half decent photograph of one. And on this occasion I managed to get pictures of the male and the female. So I felt particularly smug on the way home!

Goldfinches harvesting seeds from teasel heads (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Ouse Fen is known for the prevalence of finches including redpoll, linnet and goldfinch all of which I’ve seen there before but this time it was only goldfinch that were on parade so I’ll try to get some redpoll and linnet pictures next time.

The ultimate songbird

In the springtime this year I took a trip to Paxton Pits nature reserve which is a cluster of lakes on the edge of St Neots near Bedford created by gravel extraction. They cover a sizable area and are interspersed with woodland and scrub and incorporates a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).  One of the reasons for going there in springtime is to hear the song of the nightingale for which the Pits are a recognised site.

Early signs weren’t hopeful as the skies were grey and it was cold and raining. So not the best conditions for seeing or hearing songbirds in full voice. And first off, there was very little of anything, and then a great spotted woodpecker put in an appearance low down on a tree trunk.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

This one is a female, the main difference between her and the male is the lack of a red patch on the nape of her neck. I was pleased to get so close to a great spot as they’re normally higher up and not so easy to photograph. They feed on insects which they dig out from crevices in tree bark, but will also take birds eggs and I’ve heard they take chicks too which they can find when they enlarge the holes in bird boxes to get to the nest – which is one of the reasons why the entrance to bird boxes for small birds now have metal surrounds.

The sound of a woodpecker drumming carries for a very long distance, not because of the volume but because the frequency of the drumming has a strike rate of 10-40 per second which causes the tree to resonate.

Shortly after the encounter with the woodpecker the clouds cleared and it turned into a warm sunny day, much more suitable for songbird encounters, and the first one was a whitethroat:

Common whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger)

The whitethroat is one of our non-resident warblers which were just arriving in the UK from their annual migration back from sub Saharan Africa. When they’re attracting a mate they do a mad little jerky flight heading roughly straight up from the top of a bush and dropping straight back down again, and while they do it they have a distinctive song. But as distinctive as it is, it’s not in the same league as the ultimate songbird:

Nightingale (Lucinia megarhynchos, Dansk: sydlig nattergal)

The nightingale is a fairly drab little bird to look at, but the song is incredible. And when it has returned here in the spring after migration, also from tropical Africa it starts to sing… and people will flock from miles around to hear it. Alas, as with many bird species the nightingale is red listed in the UK and in desperate need of protection, consequently this was the first time I managed to photograph one.

There are ponds and shallow pools on the site of the Pits too, and these are being nurtured to encourage dragonflies and amphibians such as this great crested newt:

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus, Dansk: stor vandsalamander)

Great crested newts are also endangered in the UK due to habitat destruction and are therefore heavily protected. It was good to see an adult male in his full breeding regalia, he’s a spectacular beast.

COP21 – is 2015 the start of something big?

This is the first time I’ve posted about a news story, but I’m really happy about this one:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35084374

The agreement which has just been reached at the COP21 climate conference in  Paris, to curb carbon emissions and head off the more dangerous ramifications of climate change, is the most important one so far this century. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not perfect. But it puts us in a good place to push on and make it work.

It’s the start of a very long and difficult process but the consequences of failure are unthinkable. But now 195 countries have agreed a framework to try to achieve some level of climate stability as a result of human activities, so the initial steps have been made.  Hats off to the French for driving it and all the other negotiators for working to reach such a vital agreement.

Comma

I hope 2015 is the start of something big and that the Paris Agreement will ultimately help to ensure the survival of lots of species like this one!

The indomitable wren

Even though my regular finches had been conspicuous by their absence in the garden one of my favourite birds, and one of the tiniest, was often flitting around the flower pots hunting insects:

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The word ‘troglodyte‘ has derogatory connotations so I wondered why the taxonomic name for the wren uses it twice, and apparently it originates from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’. Even though the BTO website lists its habitat as woodland and undergrowth as it’s an insectivore I guess that could make sense in some countries, so I guess it may depend on the nationality of the scientist who named it.

Wrens are tiny, weighing on average 10g and with a 15cm wingspan. They’re resident in the UK and I think it’s remarkable that such a tiny creature can survive a long cold British winter. A real testament to the effectiveness of feathers as insulators. And another amazing thing about wrens is their voices, they have incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird, if you’d like to hear it click here: Eurasian wren song.

Yet another remarkable fact about the humble wren is that it’s the most numerous songbird in the UK with 7.7 million territories. And as they’re not always easy to see as they flit around the undergrowth I was surprised by that statistic until I learnt to recognise the song. After that I realised they are everywhere!

This little chap appeared one day in February this year on a bug hunt in the flower pots, he posed right outside the window and let me snap a series of portraits. Wrens have been regular visitors through this year and I’ve deliberately avoided tidying the garden hoping they continue to treat it as home.

Where did all the finches go?

Until a couple of years ago my garden bird feeders were always visited by lots of finches: chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, even the occasional siskin. But then the goldfinch disappeared from the feeders, I didn’t see a single one for around 18 months, and then, even more bizarrely, the chaffinch stopped visiting. Greenfinch were always occasional visitors even though I could hear them in the nearby trees, but they seldom came in to feed.

I don’t know what caused the finches to change their habits but it made my garden rather less colourful.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) – a rare visit to the niger seed

In the last year or so I’ve seen goldfinch on my TV aerial and regularly in the front garden around the pond, but they still tend to avoid the back garden even though there is always a feeder full of niger seed for them. I often see and hear both chaffinch and goldfinch in the nearby fields when I walk the dog, so they are still in the area, and chaffinch seemed just as common as ever… except in my garden. But goldfinch sightings increased over spring this year as did those of chaffinch:

An erstwhile unusual visit from a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke)

And along with chaffinch and goldfinch, greenfinch have also been visiting more frequently, and in springtime this year there were a family with a couple of young:

Adult male greenfinch fuelling up (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk)

And one of his fledged brood:

The male and a fledgling feeding together:

It’s a mystery why they moved away, maybe sparrowhawk visits became to frequent, or maybe because of recent warmer winters there is enough easily accessible food in the countryside. I stopped feeding the birds later in the spring because the seed was left uneaten and it began to go mouldy, but now the weather is getting cold I’m going to clean the feeders and refill them for the winter. And keep my fingers crossed the birds find them to their liking.