Monthly Archives: August 2011

Subbuteo

Falco subbuteo, (lærkefalk in Danish), after which the table football game is named (it was the games creators favourite bird apparently), is a summer visitor to our shores. It is a migrant breeder and passage visitor, spending the winter in Africa and despite being widespread throughout Europe, there are only around 2000 pairs in the UK which are predominantly confined to the south and east below a line from the Severn to the Humber estuaries.

They breed in nests abandoned by other birds, often those of crows, and they feed on insects and birds which they take out the air in flight. To do that they need to be fast, and they are extremely fast, taking dragonflies and small birds by utilising their amazing speed either in level flight or in a stoop. They have a slate grey back and are white with black speckles underneath with dark, grey/black head, eye patches and moustaches similar to a small peregrine falcon (vandrefalk), and I find the easiest visual differentiator is the red thighs and underside of the tail.

Whilst I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve last weekend I watched one hunting and I managed to get some pictures, which aren’t the best quality, but I hope convey some of the drama of their high velocity hunting technique:

Beginning the approach:

…homing on the target:

…and pulling up with empty talons:

The red thighs are visible in the second and third photographs above, and are diagnostic for the hobby.

It’s exhilarating watching a wild predator hunting, especially at the speed these guys do it. And it presents an interesting photographic challenge too, one which I’m yet to perfect as the high speed flight of the hobby requires high speed panning. I’m looking forward to the next chance I get to practice.

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Pyrrhula pyrrhula

Without wishing to appear melodramatic, I’ve been waiting for decades to get a photo of a bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula (in Danish, ‘dompap‘). My parents have been feeding the garden birds since I was a kid and I can remember seeing bullfinch in the garden back in the 1970’s. But then over a few short years they seemed to all but disappear. They were legally persecuted by farmers because of their ability to strip fruit trees of all their fresh shoots in record time, and were therefore blamed for financial misfortune in the market garden sector and condemned to slaughter.

I think extermination is far too high a price to pay, but destruction of these magnificent birds is, alas, what ensued. So in the intervening years, twixt the 70’s and very recently, my sightings of bullfinch were restricted to an occasional glimpse, and that seemed to occur on average once every 5-10 years.

Maybe I just didn’t go looking in the right place, but since I’ve been exploring around Histon over the last 3 years or so the number of sightings has increased significantly. There is a good supply of scrub round here which is providing cover and sustenance so they are now a fairly frequent occurrence. Despite that, I still feel a deep flush of excitement and satisfaction when I see the flash of black and pinky/orange pass overhead, especially if it’s set against a deep blue sky. It’s a beautiful sight.

Even though I see them reasonably often now, I hadn’t managed to get a photograph of one until last weekend when I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve near St Ives in Cambridgeshire. I’d seen a pair together and heard several more calling in the hedgerows and then whilst leaning on a gate this chap appeared on the ground and hopped along for just long enough to get a picture:


A male bullfinch on the ground. Alas he always seemed to be behind a tuft of grass

I saw and heard at least a dozen during my walk but this was the best shot I got so I resolved not to leave until I had got a better one. As I approached the car park I saw another male fly into a hole in a bush so I waited for a few minutes but he didn’t reappear. So I went through the hedge to have a look on the other side, disturbing an elderly couple enjoying a glass of wine (now there’s an angle to nature watching I feel I should explore in more detail!). And then after a few seconds he appeared on a frond and began stripping seeds from it:


…and he stayed for long enough for me to fire off two shots of which this is one

And that, my friends, of the tens of thousands of nature photographs I’ve ever taken, is my favourite!

Water birds at Milton Country Park

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I was at Milton country Park on a dragonfly hunt there were lots of birds about too, So between photographing the darters and hawkers I managed to capture some water birds:

Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus, preening on a log in a lake
Moorhen chick

Moorhens are common water birds seen on rivers and lakes, they can be secretive but are often seen out of the water on grassland. They are resident breeders and winter visitors in the UK with approximately a quarter of a million individuals. They are omnivores and are one of the few British birds which practice cooperative breeding where youngsters will assist in rearing subsequent broods. Their red beak and very long yellow legs and toes are distinctive and peculiar to the moorhen. The taxonomic name ‘Gallinula chloropus‘ translates as ‘little green footed hen’. For my international readership, the Danish name is ‘Grønbenet rørhøne‘ – according to the BTO. (If you actually call it something different or have a local name please let me know).


This coot (Fulica atra) was one of a group of moorhens and coots, including the moorhen above

I find coots amusing to watch as they have splendidly bad attitude and defend their patch against all comers, even members of their own species, and will aggressively charge other birds. They inhabit the same territories as moorhens and are also resident breeders and winter visitors. (In Danish – blishøne).

Great crested grebe with youngster

My favourite water bird (apart from the kingfisher, of course) is the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus). They can regularly be seen on open lakes and have been persecuted in the past because of their dense plumage which was used in place of fur. They have distinctive crested head plumage and an amazing courtship display. During the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 I watched a pair for a long time performing on a lake in Leicestershire – one of the few pieces of countryside where access wasn’t forbidden at the time. They would swim away from each other in a straight line for 20m or so and then turn and with beaks low on the water swim towards each other at high speed, raising up when they reached each other forming their necks into a heart shape. All terribly romantic! It’s a beautiful display and one of these days I’ll hopefully see it when I’ve got my camera handy. (By the way, in Danish these are ‘toppet lappedykker‘). Great crested grebe are also resident breeders and winter visitors but the numbers are much less than moorhen or coot, with 8000 adults here in the summer. Despite the lesser abundance their conservation status is green.

Hawkers and darters

A lunchtime visit to Milton Country Park on the northern periphery of Cambridge this week to look for dragonflies turned out to be an hour well spent. For the first 10 minutes they were conspicuous by their absence but then a brown hawker appeared over a small pond, very distinctive with it’s rufous wings shimmering in the sunlight. I tried to photograph it in flight but it proved beyond my talents. Even though there were three or four whizzing around the pond at any one time  I moved to a place under a tree which was overhanging the water and knelt down and waited. Within a couple of minutes a female brown hawker alighted on a log floating in the water and started ovipositing:

She seemed to be completely unfazed by my presence and busily worked her way along the log probing below and above the waterline for a suitable crevice to secrete her eggs.

She was there for around 10-15 minutes in total and every so often she took off but seemed to always to return either to her log or to a spot on the pond bank 5-6 feet from me. Even when my friend, Joe, came to see she still went about her business taking little notice of us.



She eventually departed along with all the other hawkers so we strolled along to a different location which was a wooden jetty protruding into another of the lakes. It’s surrounded all the way by dense rushes and has previously been a good place to see dragons. And that didn’t let us down either. We saw only two species, a pair of blue tailed damselfy and numerous common darters. All males. The males of this species are easily distinguished from the female as they are a glorious red and gold compared to the less vibrant green of the female.

The male of the species…

…and the lady:

There were several male common darters perched along the wooden jetty (the female above was snapped in Histon a couple of weeks ago), they were also happy to let us get up close and would occasionally dart away suddenly to chase a prey insect before returning to the same spot.


The compound eyes of the common darter – I like the depth of field in this picture rendering just the dragon in focus

When I was out for a stroll with my friend, David, who’s a bit of a dragonfly expert, last weekend, we found a dead migrant hawker dragonfly. We were marvelling at the complexity of the compound eye and he told me that a chap in the States had counted the facets in the eye of an American species, and apparently he got up to around 28000! He must have had a string of long winter evenings to fill. But dragonflies are amazing creatures and I can see how they inspired him to want to do it.

I also took a couple of nice bird photo’s on this trip but I’ll save those until next time.