Monthly Archives: August 2013

Garden guests

It was in June that fledgling birds finally started to appear in the garden. With so many natural phenomena being late this year due to the delayed onset of spring and the warm weather, the birds were no exception. The first one that I noticed was this robin chick who appeared on its own every morning for quite a few days feeding on seeds and nuts from the tray feeder. I placed an old kettle in a bush near the feeders a couple of years ago hoping that robins would find it a suitable nest site, but they haven’t been tempted so far so I think it may be too close to all the other avian activity. I’m going to find a less disturbed location for it for next years breeding season when I’ll hopefully see a few more of these:

Robin fledgling gathering its strength before striking out on its own

The robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) is a feisty little bird which I’ve often found hopping round my feet looking for the insects that get turned over as I dig the garden, or sitting on a feeder within inches of me, completely unfazed as I’m working,  as long as I don’t do anything overtly threatening. Often I don’t know it’s there until I glance up and see it sitting on the fence peering at me, and if I ignore it and carry on working it will go about its business unconcerned by my presence. They are iconic garden birds and according to the British Trust for Ornithology our unofficial national bird.

A less frequent visitor to my garden is the greenfinch. I hear the males calling almost every day through the summer from the top of a tall fir tree in a nearby garden. They don’t often venture into my garden outside the breeding season, but this year both the male and female and then the fledglings would feed here, and this is the male:

The male greenfinch clearing up seed fallen from a hanging feeder

The shape of the pointed, chunky, beak of the greenfinch (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk) clearly marks it out as a seed eating member of the finch family although they also hunt invertebrates to feed the chicks to give them a rapid calorie boost.

The geenfinch showing off his seed cracking beak and sumptuous plumage

From a distance the greenfinch can look fairly dull, but in full breeding condition and good light the males have magnificent plumage. This one is also decorated by tiny drops of rain on its back.

This year the starlings were numerous and entertaining, another feisty visitor, especially when they bowl in mob-handed complete with sizable broods of unruly youngsters. For several weeks, families of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) with many fledglings invaded the garden and fed mainly on the fat balls. There were often 20+ individuals making a right old cacophany and emptying both the fat ball feeders every day. It was good fun to watch, and as the starling is red listed in the UK due to huge population decline it was good to see so many fledglings.

Starling fledgling on the right begging for food from the parent

Two more fledglings waiting to be fed, they haven’t yet grown the dark irridescent feathers of the adults

Taking matters into its own hands and being seen off by the adult. Note the fat ball feeder is nearly empty

The biggest and most colourful guest this year was the jay:

The jay, Garrulus glandarius, Dansk: skovskade

Jays are extremely infrequent visitors to my garden but this one appeared every morning and throughout the day over a week at the end of May beginning of June. It was taking seed from the tray feeder and I’m guessing it had a nest close by. (The ‘decorated’ wood of my fence really isn’t the most attractive backdrop for a nature picture so I’ve since moved the bird feeders to a new location infront of some foliage!). The jay is by far the most colourful of the crow family, most of which have almost entirely black plumage, except the magpie which is black and white. As you can see it’s the size of a small crow but the colours are magnificent. This one was brave too. I was sitting on a bench just 6-7m away and it was quite happy for me to sit that close and photograph it.

Jays feed mainly on seed and in the autumn they cache acorns by burying them in the ground for retrieval when things get tough through the winter. I’ve heard that a single jay can bury up to 5000 acorns… and remember where they all are! But I’ve also heard that jays are very good at propagating oak woodland, so maybe they do forget where some of their treasure is buried.

Minsmere raptors

Whilst I was at RSPB Minsmere, which I described in my last post, I was expecting to see birds of prey because I know that marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) nest in the reedbeds there and it wouldn’t be totally unexpected to see a hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk) or a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk).

Avocet were nesting on the mudflats along with plenty of other birds including the black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge):

Black headed gull in full summer plumage guarding its nest

I was engrossed peering into the distance with my new spotting scope, and I found a spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, Dansk: skestork). The Danish name translates as ‘spoon stork‘ which just about sums it up really. I didn’t get a photograph because it was too far away, but it looks exactly like a white stork with a long beak shaped like a spoon. The conservation status of the spoonbill is amber and it is extremely rare in the UK and not terribly common on mainland Europe either. According to the British Trust for Ornithology there are 75 individuals in the UK and between 1998 and 2002 there were only 4 breeding pairs.

But I digress. As I was gazing into the disatnce the air raid warning was sounded: “There’s a peregrine… there are two!”

A peregrine falcon swooping down onto the nesting gulls

The falcons, I found out subsequently, were nesting on Sizewell B, the nuclear power station adjacent to the reserve. They arrived from that direction and when attacking they appeared to be working in tandem. The speed of their forays was absolutely breathtaking and caused total chaos on the ground:

The nesting gulls trying to distract the pair of peregrines

I tried to capture the falcons in the middle of their attack which was not easy, but I managed to catch one just above the left hand point of the mudflat behind. It wasn’t until I looked at the image at home that I realised the second falcon was in shot on the right too. So even though this photograph won’t win any awards I really like the drama going on here!

A common tern giving chase to deter the peregrine

The falcons raid lasted for several minutes and I didn’t see them catch any prey, thanks in no small part to the bravery of the common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne).

After the excitement of the falcons I ended up in a hide on the edge of the woods overlooking the reedbeds and sure enough the marsh harriers were much in evidence:

The female marsh harrier with her brown plumage and golden yellow crown

… and the male:

Whilst photographing the male marsh harrier a brown shape lifted out of the reeds and someone in the hide identified it as a bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum). It was too fast for me to identify it by myself as I was focussed on the harrier, but that means I heard one booming at Lakenheath in the morning and saw one at Minsmere in the afternoon. Not a bad day out.

Juvenile marsh harrier with ragged brown plumage and no yellow crown

I didn’t see a hobby but it would be churlish to dwell on that after the excitement of the peregrines, the family of marsh harriers, and the bittern and spoonbill neither of which I’d previously encountered.

A day out at Minsmere

RSPB Minsmere is nestled on the North Sea coast in Suffolk sandwiched between the heather and gorse of Dunwich Heath and the nuclear power station at Sizewell. I spent a day there at the end of June and the plan had been to make a 5 a.m. start and get there for the sunrise. But the weather on that morning was foul so I started later and stopped off on the way there at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, on the west side of Suffolk, to wait for the rain to abate. Lakenheath Fen was previously owned by the Bryant and May match makers so the woodland there is primarily poplar which is apparently the wood of choice to make match sticks. Consequently the air is filled with that wonderful noise that poplars make when the wind blows.

Despite the pouring rain, which precluded photoghraphy on the Fen, the omens were good. There were reports of a red footed falcon which I didn’t see, but I did see a wild otter, the first time I’ve ever seen one. And I heard a bittern booming, and it was the first time I’d heard that too. So that was two new encounters even before I’d reached the coast.

The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reed beds and hunts fish so stealthily that it’s next to impossible to see until it moves. The booming is an amazing sound and the recording can’t really do it justice, it can be heard for more than a kilometer and the only thing I can liken it to is a distant foghorn. Coming through the reedbeds early on a quiet rain sodden morning gave it a ghostly quality which is difficult to describe. Bittern are rare and to give you an idea of how unusual it is to see, or hear, one, there were only 600 individuals in the whole of the UK in 2010/2011 and only the males boom. East Anglia is a good place to look though because they migrate here across the North Sea from Holland, and the first breeding record was in Norfolk in 1911, having been extinct in the UK in 1868.

From the Fen I headed off in my rainsoaked state to Minsmere. But the gods were with me as the sun came out on the way and stayed out for the rest of the day. It turned into a scorcher.

Common whitethroat male guarding his bushes

On the way into the reserve from the carpark the habitat is woodland which opens out onto grassland before arriving at the fresh water and salt water lagoons. There were reports of stone curlew on the heath and an old twitcher with a telescope claimed to have spotted them, but I couldn’t find them and remained sceptical. But in an adjacent bush was a male whitethroat patrolling the apex, even though it was the end of June he was one of the first I’d seen this year. Pausing momentarily to snap the whitethroat I then wended my way to a hide overlooking the salt water lagoons.

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) snapped from the comfort of the hide

The main hide overlooking the lagoon is, in my opinion, pretty much perfect. It’s a modern and substantial affair and it made me chuckle listening to the twitchers grumbling about how they preferred sitting in a draughty cold shed with limited views and no comfort whatsoever. I’ve got no problem doing it the old fashioned way when it’s the only option, but when the facilities are to hand I much prefer to sit in warmth and comfort with panoramic views through huge glazed windows which can be opened if so desired. And on this occasion the facilities were available, so that’s what I did, and I hope you like the results…

A pair of common terns – “Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick. You treat this place like a hotel!”

The common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) on the left had been sitting there for many minutes, then the one on the right arrived to be scolded mercilessly by it’s companion, and this happened each time the second one came back after a brief fishing trip. The common tern could easily be mistaken for the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea, Dansk: havterne) but is easily distinguished at a glance by the black tip to its beak which is absent in the arctic tern. Both species are consummate aeronauts and fishermen, and they both breed in Europe before migrating south to Africa and beyond.

There were big numbers of all kinds of seabirds on the lagoon including the terns. Gulls, black tailed godwits, a spoonbill (another first ever sighting for me), and numerous ducks including shoveller and shelduck, none of which I got really good photographs of. But this pair of gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk knarand) were feeding close by and did allow me to photograph them:

Male gadwall behind nesting black headed gulls…and the female of the species

Gadwall can often be seen on lakes inland in the winter when they appear drab and uninteresting compared to say a shoveller or a goldeneye, but in bright light in their finest breeding plumage I think they’re quite splendid.

The star of the show at Minsmere is often the avocet. I’ve seen them and photographed them here before but this time they were nesting on a mudflat close by:

The iconic avocet (Recurvirostra avoseta , Dansk: klyde)

Avocet parent-to-be looking after the nest

The other avocet parent was sitting on the nest and occasionally stood up to turn the eggs. It did this every few minutes giving nice views of the eggs which would be extremely well camouflaged when exposed to potential predators such as the great black backed gull.

At one point a pair of peregrine falcons appeared and proceeded to launch multiple waves of tandem attacks on the ground nesting birds. It reminded me of the scene at the start of the film ‘Battle of Britain’ when the Luftwaffe fighters swoop down and shoot up a British airfield. Suffice to say all hell broke loose, it was highly entertaining to watch, and I’ll write more about that in my next post.

It’s not just the birdlife which marks Minsmere out as a special place for wildlife. I knew there were red deer (Cervus elaphus) in this part of Suffolk but I’d only ever seen occasional individuals and one or two small groups in the past. But on the way off the reserve in the early evening there was a big field in which there were several hundred of them.

Grazing red deer

On first spotting these I thought they were livestock on a farm, but then I realised there were no fences that they wouldn’t be able to simply step over so they must be wild. I’d never seen so many of these in one place before.

On an unrelated note (the trip to Minsmere was in June and I’m writing this in August), so far this year in Cambridgeshire there has been a dearth of butterflies especially small tortoiseshell. But the day before yesterday there was one flitting around the entrance to work when I came home and when I got here there were five more on my buddleia bush. And yesterday there were more in the garden. So I hope they’re making a late recovery, along with other hard hit species, from the Lepidopteran devastation inflicted on them by the cold weather in previous three years.

A pair of local red list birds

In a recent post I talked about the plans by the local council to develop our greenbelt land and our campaign to prevent it. I provided species lists of my sightings on the land to counter their claims that the proposed development would pose no danger to any of our red listed wildlife.

Here are a pair of those red list birds that I photographed this year to prove to the powers that be that they are actually there! Despite the council’s environmetal survey concluding that there are no red list species to be found, these two species nest here every summer.

The first is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke):

This year has been a good one for corn bunting around Histon, several times I’ve counted flocks of 20+ individuals and they have been present every time I walk around the fields since they arrived in the spring. The corn bunting is red listed due to historical and more recent population declines, most likely as a result of modern farming methods. Numbers dropped by 89% between 1970 and 2003.

They live on arable farmland and feed primarily on seed and invertebrates during the summer. They also nest on the ground so overall their lifestyle is really not compatible with modern mechanised, chemical intense, farming methods. Which, as a result of the numbers I see here, makes my neighbourhood an important place for them. In the year 2000 there were 8500-12000 ‘territories’ (individuals or breeding pairs) in the UK so the several tens of my local birds are a small but important fraction of the total.

And the other red list species which I see regularly throughout the summer is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk). The linnet is a finch which also feeds on seed and insects and is also red listed due to big decreases in its population, 57% between 1970 and 2008. But the good news for linnets is that although their numbers are decreasing in England and Wales they are increasing in Scotland and Northen Ireland.

A cock linnet is a handsome bird with a crimson spot on his forehead and cerise chest plates, neither of which are, alas, particularly prominent on this one:

Cock linnet

The linnet has a grey head and the pale grey spot on its cheek, which is prominent on this one, is diagnostic of the species. The linnet can be seen here in the winter in large flocks unlike the corn bunting which disappears from the Histon fields to wherever they go to in the winter after the harvest. The harvest was started here, and finished I think, last week, so I probably won’t see another corn bunting until next spring.

The linnet was immortalised in a 1920’s music hall song called ‘My old man (said foller the van)’. This song is about a family having to do a moonlight flit because they can’t pay the rent, and after they’ve filled the removal van there’s no room for the wife so she has to follow behind on foot:

My old man said “Foller the van,
And don’t dilly dallyon the way”.
Off went the van wiv me ‘ome packed in it,
I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers
When you can’t find your way ‘ome.

Back in those days cock linnets were commonly kept as caged domestic pets because of their pleasant song, hence the mention in this ditty. Fortunately for the linnet though they are no longer held captive.

(In case you’re wondering, the ‘dillying and dallying‘ involved the poor girl stopping off in the pub, getting drunk, and then, not knowing where she was going, she got impossibly lost.)

Wicken wheatears.. and some other creatures

The blogging Muse left me in the Spring and I switched to acquisition mode, since when I’ve been out and about taking a lot of photographs. I’ve now got enough images to keep me posting until the end of the year  so I’ve reverted to posting mode and at the same time I’ll be catching up with all my fellow bloggers who I’ve been neglecting for too long!

At the end of April the sunny weather prompted me to take an early morning walk around Wicken Fen. At that time of year fairly large areas of flat pasture immediately adjacent to the fen are flooded and provide habitat for overwintering waterfowl, along with all the other winter visitors and early spring migrants to be found on the Fen. So in good weather at that time of year there’s usually plenty of wildlife. The pasture which isn’t flooded is managed by grazing it with Highland cattle:

The Wicken Highland bull

I’m no expert on cattle so I don’t know for sure, but because this old guy was on his own and also because of the sheer size of him, I think that he’s a bull (and he didn’t stand up to allow unambiguous gender assignment by an amateur observer). He was absolutely enormous, even laying down I estimate the top of his head was around 5 feet off the ground, he was the size of a car!

Back to the birds though, one which I’ve only seen at reserves on the coast before is the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus, Dansk: skægmejse), but on this particular morning there was at least two of them flitting around the reed beds between The Mere and Adventurers Fen.

Female bearded tit

I’m yet to get a really good photograph of a bearded tit and this one continues the tradition. It would have been OK but it is too blue because I didn’t have my glasses on when I set the white balance, so I mistook the ‘sun’ setting for the ‘incandescent light’ setting. Alas, an unavoidable consequence of hurtling into middle age! I tried to post process the image but alas I couldn’t get it to look quite right so I decided to leave it as it is and own up to my incompetence!

The bearded tit is a resident breeder and passage/winter visitor and there are only around 600 breeding pairs in the UK, so it’s good to know they are just up the road from where I live. Their conservation status is amber in the UK due to a recent decline in their breeding range but they are not a species of concern in Europe as a whole. They live and breed in reedbeds and feed on invertebrates in the summer and seed in winter.

Another iconic inhabitant of the Wicken reedbeds is the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg). The colour of the sky reveals the weather on this glorious April morning as a male marsh harrier thermalled overhead. He was in the company of eight others, and that’s an amazing sight.

A marsh harrier gaining height as the earth warmed up in the early morning sunshine

The marsh harrier frequents reedbeds and marshland and feeds on frogs, insects, reptiles and small vertebrates. Its conservation status is amber in the UK due to its small non-breeding population and a localised breeding population, but as with the bearded tit its not a species of concern in Europe. It almost died out in the UK in the 1960’s but has recovered since then and has changed its behaviour by starting to also nest on farmland, and many individuals now overwinter here too. Those that migrate head down to central and southern Africa for the winter. Another recent raptor success story along with sparrowhawks and red kites, but still a work in porogress to secure the UK population.

Male reed bunting

Small songbirds such as the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) were busy proclaiming their availability from the tops of the hedgerows, but the highlight of the trip was a small group of around half a dozen wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker) feeding in a field adjacent to the Fen as I arrived:

Male wheatear – rear view

The name ‘wheatear’ may derive from the archaic ‘white arse’ which is a local name for it in some parts of England. It’s a migrant breeder in the UK and overwinters in Africa. After the last ice age its range extended northwards with the retreating ice, but they still all migrate back to Africa in the winter, even those individuals that breed in Alaska!

… and from the front

The female is also a striking bird even though she doesn’t have the same slate grey back and black eye stripe that the male does.

The female wheatear

I watched the wheatears for 20 minutes or so before heading on to the Fen and when I returned around 3 hours later they had all gone. So it appears it was an overnight rest and refuelling stop for them before heading further north and west to their summer breeding grounds.

Falco tinnunculus

It’s always good to see birds of prey and even better when they are nesting. This year has been particularly good around Histon with a kestrel nest, at least two barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nests – of which more in a later post – and at least two little owl (Athene noctua, Dansk: kirkeugle) nests. And that’s just the ones I know of, I’m fairly sure there’ll be sparrowhawks nesting in reasonably close proximity too.

Back to the kestrels though. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my favourite tree which is a really big old poplar on my (and lots of other folks) regular dog walking route. This year it played host to a family of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk). Initially I was concerned that being so close to a well-used public footpath the disturbance would be too great. Also, the nest was 7-8m up the tree and directly above a bench where the local kids sometimes hang out in the evenings, so on the face of it not the best spot for a pair of falcons to raise a brood.

The adult male kestrel standing guard over his nest site

The male and the female were in constant attendance around the nest site and on this occasion both were present. As I watched the male he flew off so I walked on past to avoid causing too much disturbance. As I departed the female flew a second diversionary line out the tree in another direction, alighting on the ground around 50m from the tree, on top of a furrow which had been ploughed to take potato plants which had not yet sprouted. So she was very conspicuous but keeping an eagle eye (kestrel eye?) on myself and the dog:

In general though the kestrels adults seemed fairly relaxed about all the activity going on around their chosen nursery.

At this point in time, at the end of April, the nest would have had eggs in which are incubated for approximately 4 weeks before hatching. They produced three youngsters which I’ll update you on in a later post.

Getting more up to date, I just got back from exploring the coast on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, and the birds of prey there were numerous. Buzzards were plentiful and on the cliff tops peregrine falcons were much in evidence, with four separate sightings on different days and different locations, one of them chasing a raven which was highly vocal in proclaiming its disapproval. I didn’t get any pictures of the peregrines but I’ll post some raven shots in the near future.

Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…