The three flocks of Christmas

I love watching flocks of birds in the air. There’s a drama about them and it’s also an opportunity to see big numbers of wild creatures at the same time. Last winter (2015-16) a flock of 30-50 yellowhammers appeared in a hedgerow close by where I live, I think they were attracted by the cover provided by the hedgerow and the presence all around of low vegetation which offered ground cover and feeding opportunities. They were in a place where I hadn’t seen yellowhammers for three years or so, so it was really good to have then back.

yellowhammer-female-261216-0057A female yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

The yellowhammer is red listed in the UK due to declining numbers as a result of habitat destruction (the number of times I have to write that is becoming increasingly worrying), but this year, after an initial estimate of 40-60 birds, I saw the whole flock in the air on Christmas Eve morning as I was walking the dog, and there were approximately 100 of them. (I spent several mornings trying to get a good yellowhammer picture to illustrate this post but they were never quite so amenable again, so the one above will have to suffice; lovely bird, the image less so, but you get the picture, as it were).

Later on Christmas Eve we drove to Northampton for the evening and on the way there, over the A14 near Huntingdon, a large flock of hundreds of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) took to the air from an adjacent field, and I think it’s the largest inland flock I’ve seen for many years. I’ve seen big flocks around the coast more recently, but not inland. And then, just as I thought, ornithological speaking, that things couldn’t really be bettered, a starling murmuration (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) swirled over the western end of Stanwick in Northamptonshire and I estimated there must have been thousands and thousands of birds in it. And that’s one of natures truly amazing sights. Three spectacular flocks of increasingly endangered bird species was a wonderful way to start Christmas!

Rainham shorties

This is the last post from my trip to Rainham Marshes, and as I promised in the last one, here are a selection of the best short eared owl shots from that day. The shorties are winter visitors to the UK from Scandinavia so the east coast is a good place to look for them, and it was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, as numerous owls were flying past at very close range, making it pretty easy to get some good pictures as they quartered the reedbeds and the beach:

These are my favourite images from that trip to the marshes of estuary Essex and it was a tremendous way to spend a day, all rounded off with the best display of owls owls I’ve ever seen. Hope you like them too! And as this is my first post of 2017, a belated happy new year to you all too

More Rainham wildlife

The terrain at Rainham Marshes is fairly varied with beach, river, lakes, reedbeds, scrub and grassland amidst the industrial conurbation of the Thames Estuary.  And with varied terrain comes varied birdlife including wader, ducks, birds of prey and passerines:

A lone black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobber-sneppe) amongst a group of teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) at the lakeside with reedbeds in the background

As well as godwit a small flock of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) would occasionally lift of the ground as an alarm was raised over some perceived threat, circle around for a minute or two before returning to where they were flushed from. I’ve seen that kind of behaviour before in response to the sighting of a predator such as a peregrine falcon, but I didn’t see any predators of that ilk so maybe an unseen ground predator such as a fox was in the vicinity.

And across another section of reedbed was the raised Eurostar train track and a transport depot full of trucks just beyond

And I love this image of another stonechat craning from the top of a bulrush to keep a wary eye on what we were up to:


We had heard a report that at the far end of the reserve toward the landfill hill there were short eared owls in the area, and later on in the afternoon we decided to wander down that way to see if we could find them. And it didn’t take long…

Short eared owl (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) patrolling the reedbeds

And that heralded the start of probably the best display of owl activity of any species that I’ve ever seen. And I’ll post some more shorty pictures next time. But isn’t this guy a beauty?!

Rainham Marshes

Normally when I head out into the wilds I like to get to somewhere where there is little or no evidence of humans, my benchmark for a good place is  the complete absence of human noise. And that’s not usually easy to do. But on this trip back in December I found myself in a place that was everything I’d normally avoid!

A view across the marshes to the hill in the background which is an enormous landfill site, full of Londan’s waste

I was at the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes which is in that part of estuary Essex I’d only normally visit if I had to, but apart from that it was bordered by industry on one side, landfill on another, a motorway and the Eurostar trainline on the third side and the River Thames providing the boundary on the fourth, southern, edge. But despite my original prejudice it turned out to be a brilliant place to see some great wildlife and bizarrely it was actually enhanced by the hubbub going on all around.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola, Dansk: sortstrubet bynkefugl)

On entering the reserve, just beyond the visitor centre a male stonechat was perched on a twig close by, and I like stonechats – they’re very smart birds – so I took it as a good omen that I would see lots more wildlife. And the little guy was indeed a harbinger of things to come. Despite its green conservation status and being a resident in the UK, I don’t see stonechats very often, so I was pleased to see this one so close by.

The terrain at Rainham is interesting. It’s a combination of marshy reedbeds, small lakes, grassy scrub and in the middle is a disused military shooting range which I think dates back to the world wars. But altogether it’s a little oasis of wilderness in the midst of the industrial devastation that dominates this part of the Thames estuary to the east of London.

Reeds, wigeon, lake, lapwing and in the distance a marsh harrier perched on a fence with an oil storage facility in the background

The marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) is a magnificent bird of prey which I see fairly frequently as they quarter the low lying fenland that prevails to the north and east of Cambridge and the occasional one drifts through over the fields where I live, and here was a female showing her prominent golden crown, hunting over the marshes at Rainham. This species of harrier is another bird of prey which was virtually driven to extinction in the UK but has recovered in the last 40 years, presumably as the use of DDT ceased. And in the foreground on the island in the lake were wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe) an unidentified gull and what I think may be starlings.

The lapwing take flight in  front of a pair of huge wind turbines

May be there were so many species and numbers here because they were hemmed in to a small area of suitable habitat, but further east along the estuary, deeper into Essex, there are huge areas of tidal mudflats on the Thames and other river estuaries, so this could be the western extremes of that expanse of habitat. Either way, the diversity of the birdlife here on the marshes was remarkable.

A male shoveller looking resplendent and with that enormous beak to the fore

I said further back up this post that the southern boundary of the reserve is the river Thames, and to make the point, beyond the dyke which provided protection from the coastal tides of the river, a ship headed out to sea…


It really is a diverse and fascinating place! And somewhere I’m hoping to visit again before the winter is over.

The amazing potential of phone photography

A few weeks ago, in August, I was in Toronto and on a glorious sunny day I took a boat trip out to Centre Island, which, in the unlikely event you ever find yourself in Toronto wondering what to do, I can heartily recommend. There were many huge and colourful butterflies including monarchs and swallowtails fluttering around the island, and some others I didn’t recognise. It was a work trip so I hadn’t taken my DSLR with me and the only way to get a photograph was with my phone camera. And then I discovered that monarchs are skittish and it’s not easy to get close to them, which I needed to do as I only had a phone to take pictures with, but after chasing several and failing to get within range I managed to sneak up on this one:

monarch-toronto-aug-2016-ppMonarch butterfly – Danaus plexippus

I stooped down on the opposite side of the plant to the butterfly and reached around to point my phone and take this picture. I must confess, I was a little gobsmacked at how well it worked. The light conditions were challenging as it was late morning and the sunlight was intense, so there was lots of contrast between the shade and the light. But after minimal post processing to darken the sunny bits I think is a pretty good image! I changed my phone earlier this year for an iPhone 6S plus and I was impressed with the quality of the camera from the start, but after this shot I’m really impressed with it.

I hope it’s not a global phenomenon, but this year, due to climatic aberrations, many butterfly species have been hit really hard and their numbers have plummeted. The results of the ‘Big Butterfly Count‘, an annual survey of our Lepidoptera here in the UK, was reported today, and the news was bleak. Many erstwhile common species have really suffered and this is a phenomenon which I’ve noticed and commented on several times since the Spring this year. And now it’s official. Sir David Attenborough (the worlds greatest living human being), and president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said that butterflies are a good barometer of the state of nature in general. I’m inclined to agree with him and I think it’s a very bad sign that the plight of our butterflies in the UK is so dire. It doesn’t augur well.

small-copper-wandlebury-roman-road-sep2016-ppSmall copper – Lycaena phlaeas

But one of my absolute favourite butterflies, and one that I only see very infrequently, even in a good year, is the small copper. I think they’re gorgeous. I haven’t seen one for about three years and then, randomly, a friend of mine showed me this picture a couple of weeks ago which he took with his phone, also an iPhone 6S, on the Roman road between Cambridge and Linton.

So there are still some lovely butterflies out there, but please think of them and, if you can spare it, leave a little bit of your garden to grow wild with no chemicals to help them recover. And if you don’t have a camera handy to take a portrait give it a go with your phone instead, you might be surprised!

Conder Green

A few weeks after the outing to Norfolk I wrote about in the last few posts, I found myself in a place called Conder Green, which lies on a small tributary of the River Lune in Lancashire, with Morecambe Bay to the west and the Lake District to the north east. I stayed in a hotel which was on the Lancaster Canal and surrounded by farmland, and there was lots of wildlife in the immediate vicinity.

Little egret at dusk on the Glasson Branch of the Lancaster Canal (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre)

The little  egret, or indeed egrets in general, were birds I had always associated with more exotic  parts of the world. The first time I saw them in numbers they were perched on fish stalls in the market at Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles. Their numbers have been steadily increasing in England after they first began to colonise here in 1988 having moved across the water from France, where they had also been expanding their range northwards. But to see one in Lancashire reminded how far north and west they have migrated compared to the location of my first sighting!

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne)

Goldeneye female on the Lancaster Canal (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The moorhen and the goldeneye were on the canal adjacent to my hotel, and in the field next to that was a hare which appeared at first sight remarkably unfazed by my presence, until I got just a little too close, and then common sense prevailed and it did what hares do best, and ran:

The European brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

I was pretty happy with these two shots, I’ve previously got some good pictures of hares by creeping up on them very slowly when they’re sitting tight, but I’ve never got a good picture of a hare in full flight before.

The hare is a member of a taxonomic group called ‘Lagomorphs‘ along with rabbits and pikas. It’s a group that has been around for 90 million years, so hare-like creatures may have been running around with dinosaurs. The modern version evolved in central Europe but only since the UK split away, geologically that is, from mainland Europe. So it is thought that it was introduced to these islands around 2000 years ago by the Romans.

Wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand)

Just a short walk from the field where the hare was is the River Lune, which appears to be tidal as it’s so close to the coast of Morecambe Bay, so when the tide’s out there are extensive mudflats for waders and ducks including these wigeon, and I’ve also seen teal and curlew here:

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

This bird, with its unfeasibly enormous beak, was one of a flock of around 100 curlew, and that’s an extremely unusual sight these days.

More ducks and more waders at RSPB Titchwell

This is the final instalment from my trip to Norfolk when I ended up at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Even though it was in the middle of January and it had been ferociously cold at 6.30am before the sun rose and warmed the earth, by midday it was a bright, sunny and warm day. Perfect conditions really for a trip to the coast to see the wildlife.

A raft of shovellers (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

The reserve at Titchwell consists of two fresh water lakes separated from the sea by a high dune. And to the west lies an expanse of scrubland which provides more space for wild birds and animals to exist unmolested. Consequently, and because of its location on the north Norfolk coast, it’s a very good place to see  many water birds some of which can be rare sightings, such as the spoonbill.

There were no spoonbills to be seen on this trip but there were plenty of other species including shoveller, whose Danish name ‘skeand‘ translates as ‘spoon-duck‘ for reasons easily divined. Another of my favourite ducks, because of it’s gorgeous colours, is the diminutive teal:

Male teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is about half the size of the chunky shoveller and there are around 2000 pairs breeding here in the summer. I like etymology, so the collective noun for teal – a ‘spring‘ (because of they they rise en masse almost vertically when flushed) – is a fun one. Both the teal and the shoveller, which has 700 breeding pairs in the UK, are amber listed. But a ray of hope for these threatened water birds is that huge areas on the east coast of England have been opened up to the sea and allowed to flood as a mitigation of the worse ravages of the effect on the oceans of climate change, and this will hopefully create homes for hundreds of thousands of resident birds and migrant vistors throughout the year.

Ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula, Dansk: stor præstekrave)

There are 110-180,000 pairs of ringed plover in Europe and around 4% of them breed in the UK, but the numbers and range of these have been steadily declining, so this species has earned red conservation status in the UK, although it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole. Hopefully the new coastal habitats being created here will help to reverse this trend.

The next four pictures are of birds which appeared in the previous two posts and were photographed at Snettisham, but one of the great things about Titchwell is that it’s possible to get close to the wildlife. And as they were there too I’ve included these images in this post because I like them:

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe)

Black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

I really like the ripples and the reflections of the godwit in this image.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

Another thing that I like about this collection of pictures is that it demonstrates the importance of mudflats for these birds to find the molluscs and crustaceans they need to refuel. It doesn’t make for the most interesting background for a wildlife portrait, unless there are some photogenic reflections, but I guess it focusses the eye on the subject!

There was no image of this small seabird in the previous, at least not on it’s own, but there may have been significant numbers mixed in with the huge flocks of dunlin:

Knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle)

The knot is another of those truly magnificent creatures that breeds in the northern Arctic (a real feat of survival in it’s own right) and then migrates to its winter feeding grounds as far as south Africa, south America and Australia. And then a few months later they do the same journey in reverse. I wonder how many miles one of these little birds can cover in its whole lifetime – and all under it’s own steam? I can’t help but have immense respect for them!

Ducks and more waders

I wrote a couple of posts a while ago about a trip to the north Norfolk coast in the depths of winter, but I didn’t get round to completing the story. All the wader (‘shore birds’ in N.America) images in that post were taken on the beach at Snettisham, and as I was leaving there at around half past nine in the mornng to head along the coast a short hop to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, the sun had risen and more birds were discernible on the previously invisible small lakes immediately behind the beach.

A handsome male goldeneye (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The goldeneye is a diving duck which has recently colonised Britain and there is an annual breeding population of around 200 pairs but it’s also a winter visitor when around 27,000 individuals arrive here to seek sustenance on lakes, rivers and tidal mudflats.

A lone redshank poking around for molluscs and crustaceans in the tidal mud (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben)

Also prominent on tidal mud flats is the redshank, or ‘the sentinel of the marsh‘ as it’s often the first bird to raise the alarm when a disturbance occurs, is amber listed in the UK although there are 24-25,000 breeeding pairs and up to 130,000 winter visitors. As with many other birds, encroachment by humans and habitat destruction has limited their range and therefore numbers in the UK. But despite their struggle with humans I always expect to see redshank when I visit the coast, and the other wader that I’d be very concerned if I didn’t see is the unmistakable oystercatcher:

A few members of a big flock of oystercatchers passing overhead (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade)

Despite high expectations of seeing some of the 340,000 wintering UK oystercatchers their conservation status in the UK is amber, the European status is ‘vulnerable’ and globally they are ‘near threatened’ due to recent population decline. But there are still good numbers of them in the UK so I hope their numbers can be stabilised.

Another amber listed wader in the UK is the grey plover:

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

The grey plover is a truly global bird, it breeds on the Russian tundra and in northern North America but can be found as far afield as southern Asia, Africa and even Australia – it has a huge annual range! So it’s remarkable to think that this little guy came from Canada or northern Russia to feed on a Norfolk beach – and also that some of its relatives may be in Australia. It seems that many of our birds are struggling, including the statuesque black tailed godwit which is faring even less well than the grey plover and is red listed in the UK.

Black tailed godwit taking flight (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

According to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) the taxonomic name derives from the Latin word ‘limus‘ meaning ‘mud‘. In order to name such a handsome bird ‘Muddy muddy‘ I can only imagine that particular  taxonomist was having a bad day. It deserves better! The black tailed godwit also breeds in the north and like the grey plover can also be found in southern Asia, South Africa and Australia. Another accomplished globe trotter.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

The largest European wader is the curlew which can be easily distinguished by it’s enormous downcurved beak and it’s equally unique call. Alas for the curlew, it is also red listed in the UK with 66,000 pairs recorded by the BTO in the UK in summer 2009. Even though it’s numbers are declining it’s still not unusual to see one or more on an outing to the coast.

At this point, between 9 and 10am, I decamped along the coast to Titchwell, pausing mid way where another iconic winter visitor was patrolling an adjacent hedgerow:

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

It’s pretty depressing to report that the fieldfare is also red listed, but fortunately this is a local UK phenomenon and it is a species of least concern in Europe and globally. It’s our most colourful thrush and visits the UK from Scandinavia in the winter when it can be seen in large flocks in fields and hedgerows, often mixed in with redwing – another Scandinavian thrush which overwinters in the comparatively warmer climes of the UK.

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!