Daily Archives: February 10, 2012

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.

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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.