Category Archives: Birds

More bird diversity from RSPB Titchwell

RSPB Titchwell has a ‘linear’ layout encompassing various habitats and that make it a good place to see a diverse range of bird species. Following on from my last post here are few more waders, wildfowl and geese that were in residence when I was last there in November last year.

Shoveler pair – Spatula clypeata

The shoveler inhabits shallow lakes and marshland where there is open water and it can be seen all year round in the UK. It breeds in the UK before heading south for the winter when the breeding population is replaced by visitors migrating south from Scandinavia and eastern Europe. The size of the UK breeding population is around 1100 pairs.

Brent geese – Branta bernicla

The distribution of brent geese in the UK is interesting because their are three separate overwintering groups which migrate here to the UK. They come from Canada, Svalbard and Russia and overwinter primarily in Strangford Lough in Ulster, Lindisfarne in the UK and the rest of the UK respectively. There are 100-110,000 birds recorded annually in the UK but in the case of the Canadian and Svalbard visitors it’s easy to see how human activity could profoundly affect those very local populations. As these individuals were seen in Norfolk I guess they from the Russian cohort.

A flock of lapwing – Vanellus vanellus and golden plover – Pluvialis apricaria

Golden plover have a distinctive black face and breast stretching down to its legs in the summer but which fades to pale brown to white in the winter so the birds in this group all have their winter plumage which I would expect as this was in mid-November. The golden plover is resident all year in the UK with 33,000 breeding pairs in 2016 according the BTO and 410,000 individuals recorded in the winter of 2006-7 as the population swells in autumn as migrants arrive from the north.

The lapwing is for me an iconic bird and a sign of summer and I remember seeing big flocks of them over the farmland close to where I grew up in Northamptonshire. It’s now rare to see such flocks inland although I still see mixed flocks of lapwing and golden plover over the Cambridgeshire fens in the winter time. And that is refected in this mixed flock on the ground at Titchwell and it’s interesting to see the species separation on the ground.

RSPB Titchwell is a great place for a day out to see lots of wildlife in summer and winter. There is always something wonderful to see including migrants at the right times of year and I consider myself very lucky to live close enough to it to be able to make day trips there.

Coastal waders at Titchwell Marsh

RSPB Titchwell Marsh is a reserve I’ve posted about several times before and it’s a great place to get close to a lot of bird species. It’s on the north Norfolk coast and it includes various habitats from woodland scrub to fresh water lakes, reedbeds, salt marsh and the BIG beaches that make that part of the country so spectacular. It’s home to bearded tits, which I didn’t see on this visit in November last year, but I saw many other species of goose, duck, wader etc.

The increasingly elusive curlew – Numenius arquata

The curlew is Europe’s biggest wader, with it’s very long downturned beak and distinctive call it’s easy to recognise. Alas, as with so many other species it’s endangered in the UK with big losses in numbers, approximately 80% decline in the last 50 years or so, due to habitat loss. The east coast of the UK is a globally important feeding and overwintering station for migrating birds, and there’s increasing realisation of the importance of protecting it as climate change threatens to encroach and flood low lying coastal areas. To mitigate against that, there are initiatives underway in East Anglia to allow the sea to reclaim tidal land which will provide a buffer against the potentially catastrophic flooding that rising sea levels could bring, as well as providing huge amounts of habitat for the creatures that rely on these tidal mudflats. I hope that projects like the one to create habitat using the spoil from the London Crossrail development at Wallasea Island in Essex will help to redress the balance and enable stabilisaton and even increases in populations of the visitors that rely on it for sustenance during their arduous journeys.


Another wader which was present in numbers at Titchwell was the bar tailed godwit:

Bar tailed godwit – Limosa lapponica showing it’s magnificently long beak

The bar tailed godwit, like the curlew, is also one of the bigger waders with a very long beak, but in the case of the godwit the beak isn’t curved downwards and it has a pink root extending a long way along it’s length. The tip of a godwits beak is also prehensile, enabling it to better find it’s prey of shellfish, snails and worms buried deep in the mud of it’s coastal habitat. They breed in the summer in the high Arctic and head south in the autumn to feeding grounds that include the UK coasts and the British Trust for Ornithology estimate a population of 30,000 individuals.

A pair of bar tailed godwit

The bar tailed godwit is an amazing bird and in 2020 a youngster broke the record for the longest recorded non-stop flight when it migrated from Alaska to New Zealand in one hop – a flight of approximately 12,200km (7,625 miles)! It’s well adapted for long distance travel, with long, pointed wings and the ability to store a lot of energy and the whole journey took 11 days at speeds up to 88km/hr (55mph). It’s a phenomenal feat of endurance and navigation.

A very welcome return

When I was a kid and we holidayed every year in Denmark, the stork was an iconic bird and one we never saw in the UK, and we would take trips down to Ribe in southern Jylland – the Danish mainland – to see storks nesting on church towers, thatched rooves and wagon wheels the locals had mounted on tall poles for that purpose.

In recent years a successful reintroduction program undertaken on the Knepp estate in Sussex with birds from Warsaw zoo has resulted in storks breeding again in England. The last recorded breeding in the UK happened in 1416 so it’s been a very long time coming!

Yesterday I went for a walk around Burwell Fen and Wicken Fen and the spring weather was perfect for nature watching; and birds, butteflies and mammals were out in abundance. But the star of the show was a stork sitting atop the Tower Hide at Wicken Fen. I’d been tipped off by another person enjoying a walk in the spring sunshine that it was there, but I was a tad sceptical until I rounded the bend and there it was. The first time I’d seen one outside Denmark or central Europe. Suffice to say I was beside myself.

White stork – Ciconia ciconia – perched on the Tower Hide at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire

The stork is a migrant to Europe after overwintering in Africa and is up to 1.1m tall with a wingspan of around 1.8m. It’s a big bird and nests in small colonies on spectacular nests made out of sticks and I hope they start building them in Cambridgeshire again in the not too distant future.

I’d deliberately left my camera in the car to just enjoy the scenery and of course I half regretted that, so I took these images with my phone. Not the best quality photo’s of a stork but I’m very pleased with them and they record a very special sighting for me.

After taking flight from the hide it soared higher and higher over the Fen for probably 10-15 minutes or so before disappearing.

Apart from the stork, the Fens were alive with othe creatures and even though I don’t like lists this time it’s worth sharing a selection of what I saw and heard:

Hare, roe deer, orange tip butterflies, peacock (butterflies), speckled wood, brimstone, oystercatcher, lapwing, shelduck, swift (the first I’ve seen – and heard – this year), swallow, kestrel, sparrowhawk, marsh harrier, hobby, peregrine falcon, buzzard, cetti’s warbler, sedge warbler, grasshopper warbler – and all of these whilst being constantly serenaded by wrens and cuckoos.

If only I’d taken my camera ūüôā

Owl Outing to Burwell Fen

The short eared owl is resident in northern England and Scotland where breeding populations reside, but in my part of East Anglia,near Cambridge, they are only seen in winter time when migrants from Scandinavia arrive.

A really good place to see short eared owls is Burwell Fen a few miles to the east of Cambridge. it’s a wide open scrubby space bordered by farmland and by Wicken Fen which is managed by the National trust and is itself an important nature reserve.

I went there with some friends who hadn’t seen a short eared owl before and were excited at the possibility, and as with all things natural, even though I was reasonably confident we would see one, there’s never any certainty. We met up there one afternoon in early January and within 5-10 minutes one appeared hunting over the grassland.

Short eared owl – Asio flammeus – quartering the Fen

I don’t know if the cattle that were grazing the Fen were flushing the voles that the owls feed on but this one seemed to be spending a lot of time hunting around the cattle.

One owl taking exception to a second one encroaching into it’s space

As we watched over the Fen for the next couple of hours at least 3-4 owls were in the air, and here’s photographic evidence that were at least two!

It was a bright sunny winter afternoon in January and because of the time of year the sun was low in the sky all day and the light was spectacular. It lit up the Fen, which can appear grey and featureless on a cloudy winter day, in gorgeous pink and orange hues. It was beautiful to look at but challenging to photograph! And before the sun sunk below the horizon a barn owl also appeared to hunt small rodents.

A ghostly barn owl – Tyto alba – appeared just before dusk, the night shift replacing the day shift

And shortly after the sun sunk below the horizon in a polychromatic blaze of colour…

By now it was too dark to see the wildlife, and too cold to linger, but it had been a wonderful introduction to the Fen and to short eared owls for my friends!

Fenland floods

Because the land is very flat to the north of Cambridge there is a lot of infrastructure to deal with flooding and that includes extensive flood relief around Earith. A couple of weekends ago there were lots of waders and ducks making the most of the flood waters there including black tailed godwit and blue winged teal (Spatula discors), an unusual visitor from north America.

A flock of black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa)

The birds were too far away to photograph individuals but we estimated there were 2-300 in total. There were many other birds on the water and mixed in with this group were teal (Anas crecca), redshank (Tringa totanus) and the ubiquitous black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). We didn’t see the blue winged teal but the regular teal, shoveller, redshank and godwit more than made up for that.

Right at the start of the walk there were two coot nests, one was being sat on and the other was in the final stages of construction.

Female coot (Fulica atra) busily building her nest platform above the water

And whilst the female was occupied with home making, the male was otherwise engaged defending his territory and squaring up to another male:

Unfortunately all this mating activity was to no avail, on the same walk a week later the flood water had receded and both the coot nesting sites were left high and dry and were deserted. But there is a huge area here which is suitable breeding habitat for coots so hopefully they found somewhere a tad more permanent

It was a bright and sunny spring morning and the route was regularly punctuated by the song of chiffchaffs which could be seen flitting around the trees. And then this little chap popped up right in front of us on a bramble just a few feet away

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) posing for a portrait
Another very obliging pose

The chiffchaff has a distinctive song from which it gets its name and is one of the first migrant warblers to arrive back in the UK from its winter feeding grounds in north Africa. It can be heard as early as late February and at this time of year there are many of them singing in the tree tops.

Springtime Fenland birdlife

After my last post, my long time blogging friend, Scott, mentioned in a comment that he was reading a book set in my part of the world, viz the fenland of East Anglia. And that reminded me that during the Covid lockdown we’ve beeen allowed to drive a few miles to exercise outdoors, and back in April I ventured over to a local fen for a walk with my camera.

The Fens are a unique ecosystem characterised by lakes, reed beds and low scrub which create habitat for a wide range of wildlife and they’re a great place to see flowers, birds, mammals and reptiles. It was a glorious sunny day when I was there and the wildlife was abundant, including this male reed bunting who posed beautifully for his portrait:

Reed bunting Ouse Fen 18 Apr 2020_3015Reed bunting (Dansk – R√łrspurv, Latin – Emberiza schoeniclus)

Cuckoos (Dansk – g√łg, Latin – Cuculus canorus) were cuckoo’ing all around the Fen – it’s apparently a good year for cuckoos here in the UK, and I heard one for the first time ever in the village a few weeks ago – and bittern (Dansk – r√łrdrum, Latin – Botaurus stellaris) were booming. The bittern is a smallish brown heron which lives and breeds in reedbeds and is extremely rare in the UK, only 191 males were recorded in the UK by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in 2017. Their booming call is an amazing sound and it can carry for over a kilometre. It’s difficult to find a recording that really does it justice but if you click on the link this one hopefully gives you a good idea of what they sound like. Even though when they boom they’re very disticntive and easy to hear, they’re not easy to see unless in flight as they blend in perfectly with the background of the reedbeds. But one of these days I hope I can post one of my own pictures of a bittern to show you.

However, one bird that is easy to see is the marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier Ouse Fen 18 Apr 2020_3040Marsh harrier (Dansk – R√łrh√łg , Latin – Circus aeruginosus)

The marsh harrier is another one of the British birds of prey whose numbers have recovered significantly since the 1960’s presumably after the pesticide DDT was banned, and this one is a male hunting small mammals or birds over the low scrub of the fen.

The marsh harrier is a constant on the Fen, and it seems the bittern may be coming one too, which is fantastic. But the cuckoo isn’t, they’ve laid their eggs for the host species to rear and will soon be heading back on the perilous journey to the rainforests of sub-Saharan west Africa, hopefully to return to the UK next year to fill the spring air with their wonderfully distinctive call.

Avian relaxation

Following on from my last post when I mentioned the changes in behaviour of the local wildlife, since then there have been more birds relaxing in the garden. There have always been wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) round and about, and for several years they’ve nested in my plum tree in the front garden, but this year, in the absence of most of the normal human intrusion, they’ve been omnipresent. There are often at least two sitting atop the garden wall just relaxing,

49871188083_5601f155bd_cPreening wood pigeon on the garden wall

Growing on the garden wall is a wisteria, and you can see the purple flowers here. But what you can’t do is smell the flowers.

49871189203_d73b7ff92f_c

On a hot sunny day, for a couple of weeks in early May, the bracts of flowers, which are up to a metre long, fill the garden with the most intense and heavenly aroma. Interestingly though, the bees don’t seem to be that bothered by it, but I love it!

What I think are a pair of males have adopted a branch in the apple tree which they fight over – I assume they’re males, if they’re females I imagine they’d probably just take it easy and have a chat, but I guess it’s that time of year.

49872029342_e55e4a4386_cWoody wood pigeon perched on the ‘fighting branch’ – I can see why they like that particular spot

But a few days ago this one dropped down out the apple tree onto the grass and after lazily mooching about for a few minutes just hunkered down and did nothing for 20-30 minutes or so:

49930145537_6c4790cfeb_bCooling off on the ground, and obviously not afraid of the local cats

He wasn’t sufficiently relaxed to doze off like the dove in my last post and he stayed alert, but even so, I’ve never seen one do this before.

 

The fragile nature of Green Belt

Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been working with a group of people from my village to try to limit the development of our Green Belt land. ‘Green Belt‘ is undeveloped green space encircling built up areas which has legal protection from development in order to limit urban sprawl and provide places where people from towns and cities can go for relaxation.

One of our areas slated for development is Buxhall Farm, which is around 300m from where I live. It’s in the Green Belt and I’ve posted about it’s wildlife on numerous occasions. On the face of it it’s a flat and boring piece of arable farmland with little value for wildlife. Or so you might think. Closer inspection shows that it’s home to many species of birds as well as wildflowers, butterflies moths, mammals etc. All you have to do is look…

Linnet (Linaria cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

All the picures here were taken on Buxhall Farm over the Easter weekend from 19th to the 22nd April and at the end of this post is a full list of my sightings there from that weekend.

The linnet is a ‘red listed’ bird in the UK which means it’s of maximum conservation concern. This listing is usually due to falling numbers which is often the result of habitat destruction. Linnet are present at Buxhall all year round and breed there.

Dunnock  (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv)

The dunnock isn’t red listed… yet. It’s a common sight round here and it has a rather lovely song, and some interesting mating habits.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke)

The skylark is red listed due to declining numbers, largely due to intensive farming methods. I spoke to the farmer earlier in the week and he told me that he leaves wide field margins to encourage the wildlife and farms his land accordingly. So hats off to him, it shows that it’s possible to make a living from the land without destroying all the wildlife.

Female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: r√łrspurv)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

Over the last three winters there have been flocks of around 50 yellowhammers (also red listed) at Buxhall Farm and this is an important number of these lovely birds. They are one of those iconic farmland/hedgerow species whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, also due to intensive farming methods, but we still have a healthy population in my neck of the woods.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

All in all I saw at least 7 species of butterfly. There were many whites, but only one species that I could identify as it flew close and slow, but there were probably large whites and green veined whites too, both of which I see there every year. Butterflies are a very good indicator of the health of a habitat so to see so many species so early in the season was wonderful.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

Long tailed tits are normally fliting from tree to tree in small flocks but this time there were only two and they seemed local to a particular tree, suggesting they’re a breeding pair using it as a nest site.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Land designated ‘Green Belt’ has historically not been developed to retain those green areas for local people to get away from the city. But under current planning legislation an authority can simply take land out of Green Belt and develop it as it pleases. Combined with the massive curtailment of funding from central government to local authorities there’s now intense financial pressure for those authorities to try to develop an income stream from the land they own. It’s perfectly understandable that cash strapped councils need to raise funds but I don’t think this is a good way to do it, but it’s what’s happening around my village and what we are trying to minimise.

The full list of sightings on Buxhall Farm between 19th-22nd April 2019:

Species                 Number

Great tit                    1
Blackbird                 5
Greenfinch               1
Skylark                     17
Wren                         4
Dunnock                   4
Yellowhammer        4
Long tailed tit          2
Carrion crow            3
Goldfinch                  8
Rook                         21
Starling                     2
Reed bunting           8
Corn bunting           2
Whitethroat             2
Swallow                    2
Magpie                      2
Blackcap                   1
Linnet                       1
Blue tit                     2
House sparrow       3
Buzzard                    1
Robin                        1
Wood pigeon           3
Collared dove          1
Songthrush              1
Green woodpecker 1
Kestrel                      1
Chaffinch                 1
Butterflies:
Peacock                    2
Small white              1
Holly blue                 1
Orange tip                1
Brimstone                 1
Speckled wood         1
Small tortoiseshell  1

It’s a really great place for wildlife and I hope we can help to ensure it remains as very well managed farmland and doesn’t get destroyed by developers building houses.

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds – the next instalment

Following on from my little rant about crap marketing by a well known purveyor of sports equipment at the end of December last year, I thought I’d check and see if the same gloves were still on sale and if so, whether the sales pitch had changed.

Imagine my disappointment to find that the offending text was still in situ in an unabridged form:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Either they didn’t actually pass on my comments to the relevant people within their organisation, in which case they fibbed to me. Or they did, and it got lost in the ether – in which case they’re incompetent, or they did and then decided not to change it, and in that case they’re scumbags.

Suffice to say I shall be voting with my feet and my credit card and source my sports kit elsewhere. Bastards.

But that’s enough of that and I hope a picture of a spring butterfly will lighten the mood a tad…

This is a holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) which is usually the first butterfly I see in springtime when it emerges in March/April; after which it disappears for a while. But it has a second emergence in June – August (the technical term¬† is ‘bivoltine‘), and this image was taken in the summer in my garden. And it makes me smile when idiot marketing people conspire to ruin my day!

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds

I try to avoid too much political comment and opining in this blog, but just occasionally I stumble across a piece of corporate loopiness which makes me spit feathers and has to be commented on… . So apologies in advance, but here goes.

I’ve never had much respect for marketing, it seems to me it’s simply a way to convince gullible people to part with their hard earned cash for something they don’t need and may not even want. And today whilst looking for some gloves I came across this description for a pair of convertible mittens on the website of an internationally well known purveyor of sports equipment:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Also suitable for hunting migratory birds. Really?! I’m sure I won’t be alone in finding this piece of marketing nonsense completely bonkers. Will someone really read that and think to themself “I must buy those because if I don’t I’ll be less well equipped to shoot a willow warbler”?

And to illustrate my point, here is a small selection of our migratory birds:

Migratory bird 1 – waxwing

Migratory bird 2 – fieldfare

Migratory bird 3 – short eared owl

Frankly, I’d rather have cold hands.

But in the interest of fairness I must point out that I contacted the company to voice my disquiet and they came straight back to me to say they had passed on my concerns to the relevant people within the organisation. So now I’m waiting see if anything changes… . I’ll let you know what transpires.