Monthly Archives: December 2010

Winter garden birds

The prevailing weather conditions have made me ponder what this post should be about, but a glance out the window made it immediately obvious that the numerous bird species in and around my garden would be a perfect subject. As I’ve mentioned previously, I feed the birds through the winter and as this one has been particularly prolonged and cold, and it’s still only Christmas time, my hanging and ground feeders have been kept topped up with mixed seed, niger seed, peanuts, sultanas and fat balls. There are numerous wild bird food suppliers out there and the one I prefer to use is Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire. The quality of the feed is always good and they take a proactive approach to managing their farm to encourage wildlife. Consequently the food isn’t always the cheapest but I’m happy to pay a little extra to support them.

The variety and numbers of birds visiting the gardens in my vicinity has been remarkable. Within the last week there have been numerous tits – blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), great tit (Parus major), coal tit (Periparus ater) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus).


Great tit male eyeing up a meal of seed on a bitterly cold morning

Long tailed tits usually appear over the space of 30 seconds or so, gorge on the fat balls and as rapidly disappear into a nearby tree. Coal tits appear on their own, take a seed and sit in the buddleia bush whilst they shell the seed and eat the contents and then usually fly away.  They occasionally stay for more than one seed, but not often. Blue tit and great tit behave quite differently, they are omnipresent and there can be up to 3 or 4 visiting  at any one time. Great tits are usually fairly nervous, they take a seed and sit at the back of the buddleia making maximum possible use of the available cover. Blue tits are much less neurotic and whereas they will take a seed and fly off to eat it, they sit in much more exposed locations. They are also happy to take on the resident robin (Erithacus rubecula). He’s a feisty little chap and he takes up position on a plant pot on the edge of the undergrowth and chases off all the other snall birds from his patch, particularly dunnock.

The resident robin guarding his territory on the flat feeder

The robin also stands on the flat feeder repelling all comers, but the blue tits have devised a technique to deal with this. They hang upside down on the edge of the feeder while the robin is on top and then flip over the top, grab a seed, and vacate quick-sharp to the buddleia bush giving the robin no time to attack.

Finches have also been conspicuous, up to half a dozen chaffinch are omnipresent in both front and rear gardens feeding on the ground. Before replenishing the flat feeder I sprinkle the remaining seed on the grass and under adjacent shrubs for chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), dunnock (Prunella modularis), robin, wood pigeon (Columba palombus) and collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) to graze on. There are always several chaffinch of both genders brightening things up:

Cock chaffinch resplendent in the freezing rime

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) show up every day to feed on niger seed and in the last couple of days an immature greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) has appeared. Other regular visitors include blackbird (Turdus merula), dunnock, collared dove and wood pigeon which feed either on the ground or on the flat feeder and starling (Sturnus vulgaris) which gorge on the fat balls along with blue tit and long tailed tit. Less frequent visitors include wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), rook (Corvis frugilegus), carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and pied wagtail (Motacilla alba).


Pied wagtail visiting during the coldest, snowiest, part of the recent cold snap

On several days over Christmas a flock of gulls consisting predominantly of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) has been swooping low over my front garden and the lawns on the other side of the road. I don’t know what’s attracting them but they’re a welcome addition to the roll of birds visiting my garden.


Black headed gull in winter plumage perched on a telegraph pole on Cottenham Road

As well as our resident birds there are lots of Scandin-avian visitors too. Opposite my house is an orchard-garden with lots of fruit trees and taller trees immediately adjacent. Since Christmas Day have been full of redwing (Turdus iliacus) and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). It’s entertaining to watch when the fieldfare flock are feeding on fruit on the ground and someone walks along the pavement, within a couple of seconds the whole place comes alive with hundreds of birds heading for the perceived security of the taller trees.


Fieldfare heading to the orchard floor for a fruit feast

Redwing are feeding on the bright red berries of an enormous bush whose identity is unknown to me. There are many tens of them and they have been in situ for the last three days in such numbers. The pale face stripes and red patch around the leading edge of the wing are very pronounced and distinguish them from the songthrush which is similarly sized but lacks the stripes and the red patch:


Redwing – one of the sizeable flock surviving the winter in the garden opposite mine

And the other Scandinavian visitor which has descended on the UK in large numbers this winter due to the particularly dreadful weather in Norway is the waxwing. I posted on waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) a few weeks ago after seeing them for the first time in Brimley Road, Cambridge. There have been several reports of waxwing sightings in Histon on the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s about’ blog in the last couple of weeks but despite keeping a look out I hadn’t seen any  myself… until yesterday. I took a walk to Narrow Close in Histon with my daughter, Sophie, where we found three waxwing in the top of a tree which were feeding on haw berries. We positioned ourselves behind a road sign and watched them for half an hour flitting between the top of the tree on one side of the road and a hawthorn hedge on the other:


Waxwing sitting in a hawthorn hedge

I think waxwing are absolutely exquisite and I’m immensely pleased they have descended on Histon, within a couple of hundred meters of my house. I planted a rowan tree in my garden three years ago to try to attract winter visitors such as waxwing but after a year or two of weak flowering and fruiting it keeled over and died. I don’t know why it failed but after a succession of very cold winters culminating in a ‘waxwing winter‘ the thought they could potentially visit is making me think I should try again. I took another walk to Narrow Close early this morning where there were 8 waxwing feeding on haw berries in adjacent hedgerows.


Another waxwing harvesting haw berries

A green woodpecker (Picus viridis), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and grey heron (Ardea cinerea) have also passed overhead in the last two weeks. The best thing about the wintry weather is the abundance of wildlife that can be seen by simply putting food out on a regular basis. Most of the photographs in this post were taken in my back garden, and all of them are within 200m of home.

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Favourite wildlife moments of 2010

As we rush pell mell towards 2011 I thought I’d compile a list of my top 10 wildlife moments of 2010. I decided a little over a year ago that I was going to start a blog but it took until September of this year to actually get on the case and do it. But now it is up and running I’ve realised it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve always derived a huge amount of pleasure from watching wildlife wherever I’ve travelled, in the UK and to more exotic locations. From snorkelling with green turtles over the coral reefs of the Seychelles to kayaking with orcas in the Canadian Pacific Ocean… and sitting in my dining room in Histon watching numerous species of small songbird frequenting my garden in the freezing winter weather.

But in 2010 these have been my favourite wildlife events (mostly within around 2 miles of where I live!):

10. Starting ‘The Naturephile’ and realising there are people out there who want to read it.

9. Garden spider: my garden was full of these little predators in September and October, filling my garden with webs such that negotiating the gauntlet to put the bins out became my job. Non-negotiable. I posted on them in October (post entitled ‘Araneus diadematus‘) when I got a great series of pictures of Shelob consuming a much smaller male just outside my back door:

That’s him wrapped up in the parcel of silk. Lunch.

8. Swifts in Histon: My photographic skills aren’t up to capturing good photographs of swifts but there were numerous individuals in the air all over the village in 2010. They were screeching up Station Road in Impington as I cycled home from work and 20-30 were regularly hunting insects over the fields north of Histon. There was a period in mid summer when every time a window or door was opened at home they could be heard overhead.  I hope they return here in the same numbers next year when I’ll try harder to get some pictures to share with you.

7. Marsh harrier in Histon: It’s very exciting to see big, rare birds of prey, particularly when they’re not expected. After the harvest this year there was a spell of several weeks where virtually all the birds seemed to have disappeared from my normal walking route. And one morning whilst mooching across the field lamenting the fact, a BIG bird hoved into view, low and approximately a quarter of a mile away. So calling the dog to heel, we sat down and waited. It flew to the opposite side of the field and quartered the long grass the full length of the field right in front of me – around 150-200m away – it was an immature male marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier hunting on the edge of Histon


After failing to find prey he ascended to approximately treetop height and disappeared over Histon to the south heading towards Cambridge.

6. Bullfinch: unlike fruit farmers I love bullfinch – they’re exquisite. When I was a child at home they were regular winter visitors but since then they have become exceedingly uncommon. I saw two in a tree near Girton a couple of months ago whilst walking with my ornithologist friend, David, and since then have seen them in and around Guns Lane in Histon several times. On one ocasion there were four, so I’ve gone from seeing on average one every 3-4 years to seeing 3-4 individuals at one time. A cock bullfinch flying over low against a royal blue sky is a sight to behold! Alas, I’ve no photographs yet, but hopefully this time next year…

5. Waxwing: My encounter with waxwing was described in a recent post simply entitled ‘The Waxwing‘. Myself and my friend Joe spent a freezing cold hour lurking under rowan trees on Brimley Road in north Cambridge and were very adequately rewarded with the presence of seven waxwing, which as well as being wonderfully photogenic were also highly amenable to being photographed. Consequently I managed to get a few nice pictures despite the filthy weather and low light:


Waxwing – Bombycilla garrulus – what a beauty!

There have since seen reports that there are waxwing in Histon. And this week I saw two starling-sized birds with crests amongst a flock of 20 redwing which were flying around near Cottenham Road which could have been waxwing. So far unconfirmed, but will keep looking.

4. Dragonflies: Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and this year I have discovered that a fallow field on the edge of Histon is alive with them from May through to September/October and they offer excellent photographic opportunities. If at rest they seem to be relatively fearless unless I make any sudden or threatening movements:


The blue body of the male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) in my garden, above and the yellow body of the female in a hedgerow, below:


On a sunny day in the countryside, especially near a river or lake, it’s difficult to avoid dragonflies and damselflies. And they’re very entertaining to watch.


Common blue damselfly at Milton Country Park, Cambridge

My Dad told me he was once sitting in the sun in my Grandmothers fruit garden in Denmark when a dragonfly landed on his thumb. He managed not to flinch as it landed so it remained in situ for a couple of minutes before flying off. It returned a short time later carrying a fly and sat on the Old Mans’ thumb and completely devoured its meal.

3. Histon Heron: The shenanigans with the heron were described in my post from last week – ‘Hungry Heron‘ so you can read the story and see the photographs there,  or follow the link to the video clip from here.

The Histon heron – a finely honed fishing machine

The story has moved on a tad since I posted. My friend Chris, whose garden is hosting the heron, emailed to say he had a second bird visiting which managed to negotiate the intricate system of wires comprising the anti-heron device around the pond and steal some fish. And more alarmingly was caught fighting with heron number one who is obviously keen to protect his interest in the supply of fresh fish available in Chris’s garden. I shall report developments as they occur.

2. Butterflies in Histon: this one came about after reading about the Big Butterfly Count in August. There were numerous butterfly species in and around Histon so my daughter, Sophie, and myself went into the fields and counted numbers of species for the requisite 15 minutes. The number of species and the number of individuals was amazing. We saw peacock, red admiral, painted lady, gatekeeper, large white, small white, green veined white, small copper, brown argus, common blue, and ringlet!

Brown argus

Common blue

Gatekeeper

There were also small heath, comma, speckled wood and holly blue in the vicinity which we didn’t count during our 15 minute slot. We’ll continue to do the survey in future years and report the findings here.

1. Seeing a wild badger with Sophie: no photographs from this trip, alas, but it was a great moment. We ventured into Knapwell Wood in Cambridgeshire with my friend, Woody, late in the evening, just before dusk, and staying downwind and as quiet as possible all the way, we managed to get very close to the badger set. We then waited… and waited, and we heard the badgers crashing around in the undergrowth. No animals appeared in view so Sophie crouched down and fell asleep squatting on her haunches…, to be woken up after 20 minutes or so as a young badger ambled up the path towards us. He must have caught our smell as he suddenly stopped 6-7m away and sniffed the air for a minute or two before turning tail and disappearing back down the track. Sophie was very excited but managed to keep quiet until we had emerged from the wood. Listening to an ancient wood prepare for the night with some creatures bedding down whilst others are waking up is a magical way to spend an evening. And Sophie seeing wild badgers for the first time in the middle of the wood made this my favourite moment of 2010.

Have a great Christmas and I’m really looking forward to sharing my posts with you in 2011.

Best wishes

Finn

Rookes, Crowes and Choughes

‘If men had wings and black feathers, few of them would ever be clever enough to be crows’

Henry Ward Beecher
Clergyman, wit and abolitionist

I’m incarcerated at home at the moment, having been laid low with a seasonal Yuletide dose of coughing and spluttering so I haven’t been out observing, photographing and recording. Consequently, this is an ‘armchair post’ using old photographs, and constructed in the warmth of my dining room.

It has been inspired by the superb book ‘Corvus‘ by Esther Woolfson which describes living with many different birds including a rook and a magpie. If you haven’t yet read ‘Corvus‘, insist on a copy as a stocking filler this Christmas. It’s a beautiful book and is beautifully observed and written, one of the best nature books I’ve ever read. It’s very informative, funny and thought provoking and has led me to ponder the enduring relationship between humans and our wild creatures.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) sitting on a fence at the top of one of Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire

The title of this post ‘Rookes, Crowes and Choughes‘ uses archaic (Tudor) names for three of the Corvids (crow family), ‘choughs’ at that time also included jackdaws, as used in one of the most unpleasant pieces of legislation this country ever promulgated, viz, ‘Destruction of Crows, etc. Act 1532’. This act was passed under Henry VIII and was extended under the reign of Elizabeth I with promulgation of the ‘Preservation of grain Act, 1566’. Together known as the ‘Vermin Acts’, they established a legal framework for the destruction of animals and birds of all descriptions which were deemed a threat to food supplies:

‘…to doo and cause to be don as moche as hym or theym reasonably shall or may be to kill and utterly destroye all manner of Choughs, Crowes and Rookes comyng, abyding, bedying or hauntying (their property) upon peyne of grevous amerciaments to be levied by distress of the goodes and catalles of the Offendours.’

Landowners and workers were thereby legally compelled to actively destroy corvids and communities could be fined up to 20 shillings for failing to meet every year with the court appointed functionary to agree methods to achieve this goal. Along with corvids; kingfisher (believe it or not!) dipper, woodpecker, shag, hedgehog, mole, polecat, fox, rat, badger, weasel, stoat, otter, wild cat and pine marten were all slated for destruction. Kites and ravens fetched remuneration of one penny, a badger or fox, 1 shilling, on presentation of a head as proof of its demise. There was therefore a real financial gain to be made by killing these creatures. (It’s interesting to note how many of the proscribed species are currently the subject of protection legislation and conservation programs.)

Henry VIII didn’t stop there, he also passed the ‘Sumptuary Law’ of 1510, to be updated several times under Elizabeth I and known collectively as ‘The Statutes of Apparel’, which governed what could be worn by which social strata thus establishing a dress code regarding furs. Royalty could wear ermine and substrata of nobility could wear fox, otter etc… . Open season was thus declared on all furry animals.

However, and it is a big however, it is very easy to sit in the comfort of our centrally heated houses with our cars and our convenience stores, and pass glib judgement on people of those times. In the 16th century many harvests failed, early death from disease was a ubiquitous presence in the lives of all people, rich and poor, and one way to stave off such a fate was to eat healthily. Anything which threatened the food supply was therefore deemed vermin to be exterminated.

Religious factors also played a part, e.g. the otter’s diet was predominantly fish so their flesh was deemed by the church to be sufficiently fishy to be eaten for religious reasons instead of fish. God help the otter.

Carrion crow (Corvus corone) foraging for insects

The Vermin Acts were repealed in the mid 18th century but the practices they enforced only started to abate in the early to mid 20th century. That reflects a blood lust in humans which is anachronistic and indicative of a deeply unpleasant side of human nature that in our more enlightened times one may hope would find an outlet in other, more civilised, pursuits. So it is infinitely less problematic to pass judgement on the contemporary activities of hare coursers, badger baiters, egg collectors and misguided land stewards who still trap, poison and shoot red kites… or hen harriers etc., etc..

Back to crows, I have never subscribed to the point of view that members of the crow family are malevolent, wantonly destructive, or the harbingers of doom, as popular culture has historically portrayed them.  And they certainly didn’t merit the attempts at wholesale extermination decreed for them in Tudor times.

I have often watched a couple of hundred rooks assemble in the mornings over Histon church amidst much cawing and general hubbub prior to disappearing en masse either as one, or in several smaller groups to feed in the local fields. I’ve also watched them wheeling in the air, playing tag, and indulging in what can best be described as pure devilment with their fellows and with other species of birds. They seem to possess a keen intelligence probably essential for a creature which lives socially in very close proximity to hundreds of others. The habit of all members of the corvid clan of caching food items, and then re-caching an item if they know they were watched first time round, indicates they have self awareness, awareness of others and coherent notions of the intent of others, and the ability to plan accordingly. And of course a very impressive memory.


Some of the Histon churchyard rooks (Corvus fruglilegus) taking to the air over a field to the north of Histon…
…and a single member of the mob on the ground looking for leatherjackets

It has also been demonstrated from a neuroanatomical standpoint that corvids have a high ‘encephalisation quotient’ – ratio of brain to body size – which renders them capable of higher levels of brain activity and I think that is adequately demonstrated by just watching them for a short time – 10 minutes observation has been enough to convince me on some occasions. ‘Bird brains’ they certainly aren’t!

The key point, it seems to me, is that scientific elucidation of relative intelligence levels between species is a somewhat redundant enterprise in many ways except than as part of an effort to change human perception, and hopefully educate people that random massacre of wild animals is not acceptable. I find it bizarre and shameful that it has ever been considered a reasonable occupation by humans to slaughter billions of animals for no particularly good reason. It is incumbent on all species to share our surroundings with each other in order to maintain a functioning and healthy place which we can justly claim to have managed in a sustainable way.

Blimey, there we are. Nothing like a dose of flu to catalyse a bit of pre-Christmas moralising. But I think if everyone were to read Esther Woolfsons ‘Corvus‘ it may impart a deeper understanding and respect for our fellow creatures in many more people. I think attitudes to other creatures are changing as the enormous amount of available information is accessed by people all over the world, but preserving wildlife will be a perpetual process as wildlife is squeezed into smaller and smaller pockets of true wilderness. I hope we can find a working balance.

 

Hungry Heron

The current beautiful but brutally cold weather we are experiencing is lethal for many tiny creatures but also larger birds including our grey heron (Ardea cinerea). Cold spells such as the current one can result in the death of a large proportion of our heron population as they are unable to fish for their normal food supply when water courses freeze over.

Statuesque grey heron on Cambridge Science Park

The grey heron is a member of the family containing  bitterns and egrets and aswell as being the largest European heron is one of the largest UK birds.  They stand almost a metre tall with an average wingspan approximately 185cm and feed predominantly on fish and other creatures, in or close to water, such as frogs and other amphibians, but have been known to take small mammals, reptiles and insects.

Herons are considered to be among the more intelligent birds due to their ability to hunt and catch such a wide range of prey. One individual in Histon has recently exemplified this intelligence in an unusual and amusing way. It arrived in my friends garden looking very sorry for itself a few weeks ago at the start of the winter weather. My friend, being a thoroughly decent sort, gave it some fish from his freezer after which the heron decided to loiter. After several free and very easy meals of frozen pollock it took up residence in the garden and when the stipulated mealtime was not observed to its full satisfaction would sidle along to the door and tap on the glass with it’s bill to summon the next course.


The Histon heron
Waiting for a snack…

…and tucking in to a pollock fillet…
…then retired to a nearby vantage point for some post-prandial relaxation

As well as being sizeable birds heron can be stealthy and are extremely efficient fishermen. They catch smaller fish and eels in their bill but as you can see from the photographs the bill is a fearsome weapon and is used to spear larger prey. I once encountered a heron pecking at a prey item on the bank of the Lode at Wicken Fen, as I approached the heron flew away and I found an enormous pike on the riverbank, approximately 2 feet long (I don’t know if a heron would be capable of catching and killing such a big fish) and it had made a surgical incision running from top to bottom immediately behind the gill and had been busy extracting the entrails.

Heron are not migrants to or from the UK but they have been known to cross the English Channel and turn up in France and the Iberian peninsula. They have various common names including the ‘hernshaw’ in Lincolnshire, the ‘marshmens harnser’ in Norfolk and a ‘shiterow’ or ‘shiteheron’ thought to originate from the herons habit of defecating when disturbed prior to take off!

So if your pond is overstocked with fish in the freezing cold weather and could use  some thinning out why not spare a thought for the struggling heron and break the ice so he can refuel and stave off the cold.

 

The Waxwing

At this time of year a look at the ‘What’s About‘ blog page of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club (CBC) website to see if there are any interesting avian visitors in the locale is well worth while. On Monday this week (29th November 2010) there was a posting on the CBC site recording a sighting of waxwing in Brimley Road, Arbury, north Cambridge. They were spotted feeding on the berries of the many rowan trees in this street. Having never seen a waxwing and having marvelled at the spectacular pictures I’d seen of them I went there at lunchtime to have a look for myself. Alas, there were no waxwing to be seen but I persevered and went there again on Wednesday lunchtime with my friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast, Joe. Again to no avail. So we decided to make an early morning trip on Thursday, reasoning that the waxwing would be more likely to be there at breakfast time.

Thursday morning was snowy and absolutely freezing cold but I set off at 7.45 with my camera. On this occasion it was third time lucky:

Five of the seven waxwing frequenting Brimley
Road last Thursday

The trip was definitely worthwhile! It was a murky, grey, cold morning and until I got within around 30m of the birds I thought they were starlings. But as I got closer the crest became evident and then the colours… and they were absolutely stunning. A blaze of colour brightening up an otherwise grim morning.

The scientific name for waxwing is ‘Bombycilla garrulus‘ which means ‘chattering silk tail’. They are predominantly resident in conifer forests in Scandinavia and are partial winter migrants to the UK. I.e. some of the population head south in winter – known as an ‘irruption‘ – when food supplies in the north which consist of a variety of fruit and berries including crab apple, rowan, cotoneaster and mistletoe, are insufficient to support the whole population. An article in todays edition of the ‘Chronicle and Echo‘, the local newpaper in Northampton, reported that that current weather conditions in Scandinavia are really atrocious so record numbers of waxwing are migrating south giving rise to a ‘waxwing winter‘.

Waxwing feed in flocks, perching in the top of a tree and making occasional forays en masse to nearby fruit trees where they go into a ‘feeding frenzy’ for a few minutes before returning to their perch. This behaviour was observed on Brimley Road, the 7 birds there were sitting in the top of a crab apple tree and moving to an adjacent tree which looked like a rowan with white berries, to feed. There are species of rowan from China which have white berries so I guess this tree was a Chinese variety. We watched them for approximately 45 minutes during which time they appeared almost completely unfazed by our presence or the constant hubbub prevailing in a suburban street just before the school bell.

They are approximately the size of starling and at a distance can be mistaken for starling, as I did. They are 18cm long with a 34cm wingspan and they make a call like someone quietly ringing a small porcelain bell. There are up to approximately 200,000 pairs in Europe and it’s conservation status is green.

I don’t normally go twitching, especially in places as public as this, and I thought people would think we were a tad bonkers. But it was a pleasant surprise how many people stopped to ask us what we were looking at and showed a real interest in the birds. One chap even stopped his van in the middle of the road for a chat, only moving when the traffic behind honked the horn.

A great way to spend an hour before work, despite the freezing weather!