Monthly Archives: February 2014

The disappearing dove

Every year millions of migrating songbirds heading from Africa to Europe get blown out of the sky by weird people with shotguns. That combined with the policy in the UK of destroying habitat at an alarming rate is making life impossibly possibly difficult for some of our iconic bird species, one of which is the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur, Dansk: turteldue).

But last summer I was exploring one of my regular haunts, Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on a warm Saturday morning and the air was buzzing with insects including this handome hoverfly known as the ‘footballer‘ due to its rather fetching black and yellow striped thorax. This species is common in England reaching a peak in July which is when I snapped this individual.

The footballer hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus

And hoverflies aren’t the only abundant insects to be found in July. Milton Country Park is also home to mumerous species of Odonata, the dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera).

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum – perched on a seedhead

The Park has 4 big lakes:

MCP map

…and a few other streams and pools, and despite the abundant human presence it remains a haven for some properly exotic wildlife including a bittern that appeared for a week or so last year, and the occasional osprey stopping off on migration from sub-Saharan Africa to breeding sites further north in the UK.

The great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) isn’t an exotic migrant but it’s a beautiful bird and can always be found here:

The grebe was almost hunted to extinction because its dense feathers were coveted as a substitute for fur. But it has recovered and can now be found on lakes over most of the UK. The one above is an adult and the one below still has the striped head markings of a juvenile.

But getting back to the point, the undoubted star of the show on this trip was the turtle dove:

The turtle dove is in very serious decline, I believe we have lost around 97% of our breeding population and it is anticipated it will become extinct in the UK by 2020 as it’s also under increasing pressure in Europe. The reason for its catastrophic decline is that it feeds on seeds from cereals and other plants and both of these are a scarce commodity in the fields of the UK at the time the doves need them.

So the birds arrive here in the UK exhausted after a heroic migration across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. And those that avoid the gun-toting imbeciles in southern Europe arrive here to find there’s not enough food. So as it takes them a long time to rest and feed and get back into breeding condition, they only have time for a maximum of one brood per season before they have to head all the way back. And this enforced curtailment of there breeding window means they just can’t sustain their numbers.

They arrive back in the UK from around mid April so I’ll try to capture some more photographs before they finally stop coming here all together.

Seabirds and serendipity

Every now and then an event occurs which reaffirms ones faith in human nature. Just such an event befell me last week whilst away on a trip to the coast near Lancaster and Morecambe.

On Friday morning I was wrapped up against the driving rain and howling wind taking photographs of seabirds on Morecambe beach which is situated on the Irish Sea coast just south of the Lake District. Morecambe Bay is vast, when the tide goes out it leaves square miles of mudflats which provide vital winter sustenance  for thousands of seabirds. It is also a source of great danger to humans because there is a lot of quicksand there, and when the tide comes in it does so extremely quickly and can cut the unwary beachcomber off with no escape route. Consequently I didn’t wander onto the mud, I waterproofed myself and sat on the end of the Promenade where the birdlife was plentiful and, with a little patience, came reasonably close.

A majestic shelduck making ttracks in the mud whilst looking for breakfast

The shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) is a large duck with a wingspan of over a metre and is both native to the UK and a winter migrant. It’s mainly found on the coast and in estuaries but can also be seen on lakes (although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one inland). They feed on molluscs and crustaceans of which the Morecambe Bay mudflats are bursting at the seams. So a good place for a hungry shelduck to be.

I like photographing waders because I generally only get to do it at the coast, and one of my favourites, because I think it’s an elegant little bird, is the redshank:

Redshank – Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben, demonstrating how it got its name

The redshank also sifts molluscs and crustaceans from the estuarine silt and is a skittish little chap known as the ‘sentinel of the marsh’ due to it’s habit of being the first species to take to the air when flushed.

Several flocks of oystercatchers were also scouring the manmade rocky outcrops strategically placed to guard against storm tides, and were also patrolling the mudflats. They were anything but skittish, unlike the redshank, and ventured close to where I sat and seemed highly adept at finding shellfish and extracting the delicacies within.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) feasting on the contents of a mollusc shell

So my morning was splendidly wiled away in cold and sodden comtemplation of the ornithological treasures of Morecambe Bay. It was also my daughters birthday that day, so the afternoon was spent taking afternoon tea in the magnificence of the tearoom of the art deco Midland Hotel. The tea (and the champagne) was delicious and the views across the bay to the mountains of the Lake District were splendid

And that brings me neatly back to the event that reaffirmed my faith in human nature. On leaving the Midland I dropped my wallet as I was getting in the car. Serendipity was on my side because it was found by two lovely people from Manchester, Dave and Angela Williams, who had stopped off in Morecambe on their way home from the Lakes. As we were on the move I wasn’t easy to get hold of, but Dave and Angela persevered until we made contact and then waited until I could get back to Morecambe and gave me back my wallet complete with cash, credit cards, driving license etc etc. Which in my book is a very generous thing to do and for which I’m very grateful indeed. So this post is dedicated to them as a token of gratitude, and all other decent and honest people too!