Monthly Archives: February 2012

Garden Gladiators

For the last three mornings my garden has been frequented by numerous blackbirds (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), at least four; two males, two females and possibly others. I couldn’t tell the females apart because they looked very similar but the males were identifiable. One was a typical black blackbird with a striking yellow beak and the other was very slightly smaller, slightly more brown and had a dark tinge to the end of his beak so he has been named ‘Blacktip’.


Blacktip

The second male blackbird, henceforth referred to as ‘The Arch Rival’


And one of the ladies

The initial skirmishes of the Histon Blackbird Wars started in my garden on Friday but I didn’t have a chance to study it what with getting the children to school and myself to work. The real gladiatorial action took place yesterday morning and commenced with the males and the two females chasing each other around at high speed on the ground and in the air. I’ve never noticed before but when blackbirds compete on the ground they actually run rather than hop, which from the human perspective lends the whole drama a comic angle. I imagine they can move alot faster when running and are therefore more intimidating to any rivals.

The Arch Rival perched threateningly atop the rabbit run

The females departed fairly early on in the proceedings leaving the two boys to battle it out, and it turned into an amazing spectacle which was very entertaining to watch. The Arch Rival occupied a battle station on top of the rabbit run from where he would walk round the edge and look down at Blacktip on the ground, and from where he would launch the occasional strike and chase Blacktip  around for a minute or two before resuming his vantage point on the rabbit run. This behaviour led me to think the The Arch Rival was possibly the dominant male as he seemed to hold the advantage all along and it went on for probably half an hour or so before the real battle commenced:

Aerial hostilities break out
The dogfight slowly gains more and more altitude, toe to toe and beak to beak
Higher still, now around 4-5m off the ground
And then they separated and descended to draw breath in the wisteria.

This was followed by The Arch Rival resuming his place on the rabbit run which he circled around for several minutes before dropping to the ground and walking and running around the same route for a further few minutes whilst Blacktip remained on the ground. this cycle of events was repeated several times over the next hour.


The Arch Rival back on the rabbit run, Blacktip was lurking on the ground

This activity eventually petered out and Blacktip was left on his own to recuperate under cover of the buddleia bush. Leaving me to think that he was the apparent victor…


Blacktip in the cover of the buddleia foliage

…Or was he?

This morning Blacktip appeared with a lady and seemed to be performing a courtship ritual where he was running around on the ground calling and she was following. That went on for around half an hour and they seemed to be getting along famously. And then The Arch Rival arrived back on the scene and 20 minutes or so of aerial combat ensued. the dynamic was different this time though. The female and Blacktip seemed to be chasing The Arch Rival, not Blacktip on his own.

As I go to press the action has ceased and all the blackbirds have disappeared although both the males have made short forays back into the garden looking for some breakfast, but the female hasn’t returned. Incidentally while this was taking place, all the other birds: goldfinch, dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, starling, collared dove and wood pigeon were using the feeders as normal, completely unperturbed by the battle taking place. My back window is like a 75 inch 3D HD TV showing nature documentaries all day, to which I can add my own commentary. As I write a pair of fieldfare are flying over and the blackbirds have been replaced by three dunnock.

And now… all three blackbirds are back and fighting again, so I’m going to sign off and watch them and I’ll report back with further developments.

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Springtime sojourn to the Suffolk coast

Last week we headed off to to the seaside for a few days and our chosen detination was Dunwich, a tiny village on the Suffolk coast which in medieval times was the capital of the region and a thriving, wealthy port for moving cargo and people between East Anglia and the European mainland. It’s an amazing place with very interesting history which I wrote about in a post last year.

We stayed in my favourite inn called The Ship which has panoramic views over the Dingle Marshes which stretch several miles north to Walberswick, which is renowned for it’s annual crabbing champi0nship. It is also where the king of art nouveau, Charles Rennie Mackintosh moved to after he had abandoned architecture to become a watercolourist and where the series of flowers known as the ‘Walberswick collection’ was painted.

The marshes along this part of the coast are full of wildlife, including rare birds such as harriers and bittern, mammals such as otters as well as a host of marsh and heathland plants and the associated fauna. It’s a wonderful place. The view from our window at The Ship was generally dominated by low grey cloud which occasionally saw fit to rain on us, but even so the wildlife was much in evidence without even leaving the inn:


The tree opposite our window played host to numerous small birds including this house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse)
And a couple of hundred metres beyond the tree were some pools of rainwater where lapwing and these teal were on parade each morningAnd beyond that was a ditch where a little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) was hunting every day

So, as you can imagine, it wasn’t so easy to haul myself away from my nice centrally heated room and my cup of tea and go out into the wintry mornings, when I could sit by the window and see all this! But I eventually extricated myself and walked a circuit of the village taking in the local church and graveyard, the remains of the Franciscan Friary and the woods inbetween, and was very adequately rewarded. The local church has the remains of a medieval leper hospital in its grounds which is a fascinating place historically, but is now inhabited solely by sheep and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). There were no sheep while we were in there but the snowdrops were growing out between the melting snow.


Snowdrops infront of the be-lichened walls of the ancient leper hospital in the grounds of St James church


A lapwing pair pausing in the Friary between displays of breathtaking aerobatic excellence

The Friary is long deserted by the Franciscan brethren and is now a ruin, but it still plays host to the local wildlife. As well as the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) , there was a songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) foraging amongst the  grassy tufts and robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) singing from the trees beyond.

A deciduous tree adjacent to the Friary was completely covered in lichen

I don’t know which species the lichens are on the tree trunk but I think there are at least four. The flat resupinates can be seen on old wood and even brick walls in towns and villages, but the feathery species are much more susceptible to atmospheric pollution and therefore only exist where the air is clean.

Beyond Dunwich to the south is the gorse covered heathland of Dunwich Heath which is owned and managed by the National Trust, and beyond that is the RSPB reserve at Minsmere where I watched a marsh harrier quartering the reedbeds and where another walker told me he had seen smew and a bittern in one of the lakes on the reserve. I went to look there but I didn’t see either, but I did see other birds, and some splendid lichens. Of which more in a later post.

More hungry garden birds

When the snows arrived a couple of weeks ago my garden immediately became host to all the species of garden birds that normally feed there and which had been absent for the whole of this winter. So I couldn’t resist taking some photographs, a few of which appeared a couple of posts ago, and the rest are here…


A hen blackbird was one of several trying to prise worms from the icy ground


A female great tit taking peanuts from the seed tray


Cock chaffinch eyeing up the seed scattered on the ground under the frosty buddleia

One of my resident robins perched on the seed tray after a feast


A blue tit waiting in the buddleia bush for a chance to get on the feeders

The sun came out early which made photography considerably easier, but it was tricky to ge the exposure right when a bird was stood on snow reflecting sunlight:


A dunnock pecking seed from the grass. They have gorgeous colours when illuminated by the sun


This starling was distracted by me and stared straight at the camera

And finally a goldfinch perched in the buddleia before the sun broke through the clouds hence the high ISO and grainy look.

A dearth of information in this post but I hope you like the pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them!

Crystallised countryside

After the snow at the beginning of February, last weekend the temperatures in this part of the world plummeted to a wintry -12C creating a cold crystalline landscape.

So here are some pictures from the frost bound south Cambridgeshire countryside:

Ash saplings and brambles festooned with ice crystals on the shaded north side. The sun had already stripped the south side bare of frost

It was still early in the morning so the sun was low in the sky and created ghostly scintillations as it reflected from showers of dancing frost crystals dislodged by wafts of icy breeze.

As I walked my footsteps made loud cracking and crunching sounds but when I stood still it was completely silent. No cars, no birdsong, just the sound of the breeze. It was absolutely beautiful.

The rays of the sun couldn’t reach the grass stems so they remained coated with crystals through the day

Giant burdock

The burrs of the burdock (Arctium lappa) normally provide seeds for goldfinches to feast on but today they were twice their normal size and weighed down by a thick coating of frost.

Barn owls bounce back

Every now and again there is a piece of good news regarding the survival of a particular species. Yesterday on the BBC news website was just such a story. It concerned the resurgence of barn owls (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) in the Trossachs around Loch Lomond in Scotland.

Watching barn owls silently quartering fields on a warm summers evening is a rare treat and getting rarer, so it was good to hear that in this area the numbers of field voles (Microtus agrestis) have rocketed by up to ten fold, which has led to a concommitant increase in the breeding success of the local barn owls.

A barn owl quartering a wheat field

Paradoxically, the reason the vole population exploded was the long freezing winters we had last year and the year before, in which large numbers of barn owls perished, but the voles were able to avoid the worst of the cold and move around by tunnelling under the snow and thereby avoid detection by airborn predators.

It was also interesting to read that the owls were maximising the benefit of the vole surplus by storing slaughtered prey in owl boxes, with up to 15 dead rodents in a single box.

Hopefully vole numbers will continue to remain high and barn owl numbers can recover even further. If anyone has heard similar reports about barn owl numbers in other parts of the country please let me know.

Guns Lane Raptors

Last Saturday before the snow came I went for a hike along Guns Lane heading north from Histon up to Rampton. It was an unusual walk because there was very little wildlife of any sort, and apart from small numbers of the usual birds such as chaffinch, blackbird and blue tit, and a small flock of 19 lapwing which flew over, there were also very few birds.

Two birds that were around were several kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk tårnfalk) and a lone buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge). Kestrels are one of my favourite birds, I never tire of watching them. They are compact birds, 34cm long with a 76cm wingspan, and their plumage is very attractive, which can be seen in the pictures below, and their flying skills combined with their UV vision and agile talons make them a superbly well designed weapons platform. So of course, as well as watching them, I try to photograph them.

This handsome male bird sat in the top of a tree carefully watching me as I got closer:

And decided I was too close as I got to the bottom of his tree:


Kestrel exiting the top of an ash tree showing of his talons and array of flight feathers

A bird that I never saw in this country until I was at least post-grad age was the buzzard. I saw them when I was on holiday in Denmark as a kid, but not here until I started holidaying in the south west and I’d see the occasional one in Cornwall, Devon and Pembrokeshire.


Like the kestrel, this buzzard was keeping a keen eye on my activities

But from the early 1990’s buzzards have spread to recolonise most of the rest of the country and are regularly seen them gliding overhead around home and perched on fence posts and telegraph poles by the side of the roads. The buzzard is a resident breeder in the UK and is a bird of open heath and farmland, its preferred prey is small mammals but will also take birds and reptiles, and when times are hard insects and earthworms can find their way onto the menu.

Buzzards are big birds with wingspan around 1.2 m and are unmistakeable when either down low like this one:


Also like the kestrel, exiting its perch when my unwanted attentions were deemed too intrusive…

…and gliding away to another less public location

…or when thermalling up high, minimising the effort required to stay aloft.

Meandering away on a non raptor related tangent, as I’m writing this post I’m looking out my window and there are blue tit, great tit, robin, dunnock, chaffinch, blackbird, long tailed tit and starling in my back garden. And goldfinch, and they’re the first ones to visit since last summer. As I posted about last time, the birds are being driven into gardens by the bitterly cold weather. It was -12C first thing this morning and it is now bright and sunny at 1pm, but the temperature is still only -3C. By the way, if you feed the birds try to put some food out the night before if you can, because the smaller songbirds such as blue tit and wren can die very quickly if they don’t find food soon after dawn when the weather is so cold.

The Songbirds Return

Up until February we’ve had an unusually mild winter and it was noticed across the country that songbirds were not frequenting gardens simply because there was abundant food in the countryside so they didn’t need to avail themselves of our feeders. The RSPB were advising people to clean their feeders and place a small amount of feed in so that passing birds would recognise it as a source of nourishment if times got tough. So a couple of weeks ago I topped my feeders up in anticipation of some cold weather and saw nothing apart from my resident cock blackbird who likes to dig worms out of my lawn.

And then the times did indeed get tough. The snow came last Saturday, lots of it, and on Sunday morning the transformation in my garden was immediate and the place came alive with hungry squabbling birds. Hen and cock chaffinch brought welcome splashes of colour:

Chaffinch are normally ground feeders so I’m not sure if this lady was confused by the contraption or the snow covering the hole.

(There’s a fungus there too on the branch of my plum tree which I must put some effort into identifying).

The sky was completely white and murky with total low cloud cover after the snow, so all the colours of the birds were muted and photography was challenging. Even the colours of this cock chaffinch, which was looking for seeds on the ground (more customary chaffinch behaviour), proved difficult to capture:


As well as chaffinch, dunnock, robin, blue tit, long tailed tit, collared dove, wood pigeon and blackbirds were all availing themselves of the platter. All the birds are welcome but the collared dove and particularly the wood pigeon can completely clean up in a matter of minutes, leaving very little for the other birds, so this time I put enough food out for all the visitors. A pair of great tit were gorging on some chopped peanuts, they are cautious birds and would visit the seed tray, pick up a piece of nut or seed:


Parus major – great tit, the male of the species

…and carry it off to the adjacent buddleia where it clamped the nut between it’s claws and pecked at it until it was gone, and then fetched another. If they’re not disturbed they can carry on flitting to and fro many times.


Female great tit demonstrating classic great tit feeding behaviour

I was shown how to easily differentiate between the male and female great tit by some bird ringers at Wicken Fen. They had caught a male in their net and the way to tell is by the width of the black stripe down the breast. The female has a thin stripe and that of the male is much thicker and can broaden as it descends widening to fill the gap between the legs. The broader the stripe the more attractive he is to the ladies.


Greenfinch – the first one I’ve seen in my garden since last winter

I often see, and hear, greenfinch in the trees where I walk and also the ones around where I work on Cambridge Science Park, but unless the weather is particularly inclement they don’t often venture into my garden, so this one was a welcome visitor.

Male house sparrow looking for a top up

None of my garden visitors were particularly unusual but it was lovely to see so many at once and to discover they were still out there. So I shall keep feeding them until the weather warms up and they move back to countryside.