Category Archives: Gulls

The most understated of ducks

I like ducks because they’re often easy to find, often colourful, and therefore also relatively straightforward to identify. And I always prefer it when I know what I’m looking at.

Last April (2017 that is) I spent a really gorgeous spring day at Rutland Water which is about 45 minutes north west of Cambridge and is an enormous U shaped reservoir and nature reserve. There was lots of wildlife to see including ospreys(!) of which more in a later post. But first off I wanted to post this picture of the humble gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk – knarand). At a distance on a dull grey winters day they can appear drab – understated even – the duck equivalent of an ‘LBJ‘. But on a bright sunny day when they reveal themselves in all their finery I think they’re really handsome birds:

A pair of gadwall – the male on the left and the female on the right

Being springtime the birds were also feeling fruity and this blackheaded gull was being a tad over ambitious when he tried to surprise his lady while she was perched on top of a narrow post:

Amorous, but ultimately unsuccessful, black headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk – hættemåge) on final approach

Not surprisingly all he ended up with was somewhere to perch

A pair of tufted duck (Aythya fulligula, Dansk – troldand)

Tufted ducks are a species of diving duck which are resident here throughout the year and are relatively unfussy about their habitat, so consequently they’re fairly ubiquitous in this part of the world. They also have a prominent crest which unfortunately neither of this pair were displaying. But as with a lot of ducks, easy to see and easy to identify.

Advertisements

Winter fieldlife

This post’s a tad unseasonal now, but I’m on a mission to try to catch up with myself,  so this is the first edition of the my race to the present! For the last couple of years the bird species that frequent my garden seem to have been changing. Greenfinch all but disappeared for over a year, even the ubiquitous chaffinch completely vacated for many months. There is always a niger seed feeder for the goldfinch and siskin, and even though siskin seldom visit, goldfinch were there every day. And then they weren’t. if I see one in a week these days that’s as many as it is. The strange thing is that all three of these finch species haven’t disappeared from the village so maybe, hopefully, they’ll return soon.

A goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) in a field on the edge of the village

During a stroll with the dog across the local fields at the end of December the goldfinches, and lots of other birds, were enjoying a glorious sunny winter morning. A grey heron flapped lazily across the tops of the trees:

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

Grey herons aren’t an unusual occurrence in this location, but what was unusual was that it alighted in the top of a tree:

To the general annoyance of the local corvid population. I think this is a carrion crow, it took exception to the presence of the heron and proceeded to dive bomb it and then landed in the same tree and squawked at it. To which the heron voiced its own displeasure:

All this bickering led to the departure of the crow followed shortly by the heron. And while I was trying to unobtrusively find a spot to get closer to the tree, a wren, one of my very favourite little birds, appeared in the hedgerow close by, so I had to spend a minute or two snapping a portrait of it, so I missed the departure of the heron. But it was worth it to get this little chap:

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The wren is one of our smallest birds and has an incredibly loud and varied song for such a small bird. It’s the most numerous bird in the UK, it weighs around 10g and is resident in the UK throughout the year. It’s a brave little chap and is one of the species that appears reasonably regularly in my garden where it’s always welcome.

Another bird which appears in the fields when the weather gets cold is the black headed gull:

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

It feeds in the fields in sizable flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, alongside other gulls such as the herring gull, common gull and lesser and greater black backed gulls, but they all disappear as soon as the weather warms up. This one was already starting to develop the black head summer plumage even though it was still only December. I guess the mild winter weather made its thoughts turn to mating early in the season…

Isle of Wight Part 2

The IoW avians:

We took our annual holiday two years running at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, and one thing I noticed during the first visit was that there were ravens on the cliff face behind the beach at Shanklin. As I didn’t manage to take any close-up photographs of them on the first visit I resolved to try a bit harder the second time around.

Then one afternoon I found myself on the seafront with the kids and the usual gulls were wheeling and squawking in the air:

Herring gull – Larus argentatus (Dansk: Sølvmåge)

I like herring gulls, their shrieking call is reminiscent of fun-filled childhood trips to the seaside. And it makes me laugh how easily they overcome their natural fear of humans and come right up close to try to scrounge a chip.

And another gull which frequents the coasts of the UK, but which I see more of on the fields inland is the black headed gull:

Black headed gull, Chroicocephalus ridibundus (Dansk: hættemåge) – undercarriage down for a landing on the beach

Having touched down a quick pause for a pre-prandial scratch before poking around in the silt for something to eat

And while the gulls were doing their thing I noticed a big black shape on the cliffs a few hundred metres away which I thought could be a raven. So I chivvied the kids along the beach to get closer and sure enough it was indeed a raven. It flew down from the cliffs onto the beach and landed around 30-40m away but as I was of the opinion that ravens would be like the other crows, not terribly comfortable being in close proximity to humans, I gathered the children close and told them to be calm. But as we stood and watched it strolled down the beach towards us and didn’t appear to be remotely fazed by our presence, or for that matter, anyone elses:

Close encounter with a raven (Corvus corax, Dansk: ravn)

He strolled on past with a purposeful gait and what struck me was the size of him. Ravens are huge! I’d read before that they are the size of buzzards and seeing one this close it’s easy to see they really are.

So for comparison, an obliging rook posed in the background, and even though the rook is 5-10m further away the size difference is stark. There’s no confusing this chap for any other type of corvid!

And the reason the raven was behaving as bold as brass was that it was on a mission to examine the contants of a litter bin for a late afternoon snack:

First it made a small incision with its powerful beak – one of natures tools that’s magnificently fit for purpose. Once access was gained, it proceeded to extract the contents through this hole and snaffle up all the pieces of food jettisoned by that afternoons beach goers:

When I left it was still emptying the bin and was only distracted once when a large group of noisy folk walked right past, but he just hopped away a few metres and waited for them to pass before burying his head inside the bin once more to continue the meal.

I really like this series of shots because it shows a spectacular and enigmatic bird being incredibly resourceful, and it’s the first time I manage to get really close to a raven.

Some years ago I went kayaking in the Johnson Strait between British Columbia and the Canadian mainland to see orcas, and while I was there I learnt a bit about the indigenous people of that region, the Haida indians. As with many indigenous folk, they had a conservation minded and mystical relationship with their environment because their very survival depended entirely on the forests and oceans and the inhabitants thereof.

And one of the creatures they held in particular reverence was the raven. A modern day Haida called Bill Reid has written a book consisting of a series of short stories based around the orca, the eagle, the bear and of course, the raven, all from Haida legend going back centuries to a time before Europeans intervened and ruined everything. If you ever stumble across a copy buy it and enjoy it, it’s called ‘The Raven Steals the Light’ (ISBN 1-55054-481-0).

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.

Alas, no bullfinch, but…

The weekend before last I went for a walk around the lakes of RSPB Fen Drayton. It was a customarily grey and cold morning and there was a lot of water standing where there wouldn’t normally be. But the lakes were full of ducks, waders and other water birds and the trees and hedgerows were thronged with other birds, but alas no bullfinch. To explain, the approach road to the car park is lined with hawthorn and other trees and they are home to many bird species including bullfinch, so I was hoping to see one or two and get photographs. But on this occasion alas, they were conspicuous by their absence.

No bullfinch, but hey ho, woodpeckers there were:

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) mining ants next to the car park at Fen Drayton lakes and fastidiously refusing to look up

And the green woodpecker wasn’t the only woodpecker hanging around the lakes:

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocops major, Dansk: stor flagspætte) patrolling the treetops

There was also great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), a large flock of mixed waders including bar tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica, Dansk: lille kobbersneppe) and several flocks of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås). And lots and lots of lapwing:

A small fraction of a much bigger flock of lapwing, I make it 84 in this group

In the 1970’s lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) were a common sight in the English countryside. Huge flocks consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals weren’t particularly unusual. My Dad used to call them plovers, or ‘peewits’, a name they acquired because of their distinctive call. But like many species, they have suffered hugely from habitat destruction as a result of modern farming methods. On this particular morning at Fen Drayton there was at least one flock and possibly two, at opposite ends of the lakes, there were a heck of a lot of them and they were frequently rising into the air en masse. And since the snow arrived this week there has also been a small flock of 30-40 birds close to Cambridge Science Park which I spotted on my way to work, and a small group of them alighted on the field right outside my lab.

A blue tit deftly plucking seeds from a swaying reed seedhead

On the last part of my outing round the lakes I headed for a hide overlooking an expanse of water where I was hoping to see water birds. A flight of four goosander containing a male and three females flew over on the way there and seemed to be a good omen! Outside the hids this blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse) was busy hopping from stem to stem in the reeds outside acrobatically harvesting the seeds.

And on the water there were A LOT of birds. The flock of lapwing higher up this post were on the ground at the far side of this lake, and the water was hosting gulls, ducks, swans and a lone heron. One of the loveliest ducks, easily identified by it’s triangular black head, white cheek spot and his regal black and white plumage is the goldeneye.

Goldeneye drake – elegance personified

There were a pair of goldeneye here, (Bucephala clangula (great name too!), Dansk: hvinand) and as with other duck species the lady is drab in comparison with the resplendent males. I spent half an hour waiting for them to paddle into the gap in the reeds just infront of this one for a clear shot. But they never did, so this is the best picture I could get. But isn’t he a beauty!

Crabs and Compasses

As a fitting coda to our trip to the Isle of Wight we had been invited to join some friends in Lyme Regis for the weekend. As I mentioned in my Isle of Wight post the eastern half of the English south coast was tipped on its end by tectonic forces so the geological history of that part of the world is exposed for all to see. In fact, moving from east to west is literally going back in time, heading as far as the Lower Jurassic era at Lyme Regis and Bridport, which is around 183-200 million years ago.

The Jurassic rock strata of the south coast westward from the Cobb at Lyme Regis

Those of you with a cinematographic interest may recognise the sea wall at Lyme Regis, it’s known as the ‘Cobb’, and was the location for the famous scene in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where Meryl Streep stands gazing out to sea. Which incidentally, is the only thing that myself and Meryl have in common, albeit for rather different reasons.

All our activities whilst we were in Lyme were marine orientated, I even managed to spend a couple of hours sea kayaking and peering into the crystal clear waters. The clarity of the water was incredible, it’s difficult to judge depth but I reckon at the deepest point I saw it was probably 15-20 feet deep. I could clearly see the bottom and the kelp fronds waving in the current, fish were darting in and out of the kelp and jellyfish were floating at the surface. I resolved to get up early the next morning and head out on the kayak to go snorkelling off the boat. So I got up and paddled out into the bay, but overnight a swell had risen which was swirling the sand around on the seabed and there was zero visibility in the water. So I need to make a return trip in the not too distant future so I can get in the water for a snorkel.

My son Jake and his friend Sam inspecting the contents of their crabbing bucket

Glancing over the sea wall while the children were crabbing I saw this handsome compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella) gently patrolling the periphery. I’d seen several of them in the bay the day before when I was kayaking and they’re common around English shores. They can pack a nasty punch for any poor unfortunate who makes contact with the tentacles which can cause a stinging, burning sensation and red raised lesions on the skin. I don’t know if it can get worse than that but it’s apparently fairly unpleasant while it lasts.

The compass can grow up to 30cm across which is about the size of this one.

Eyeing up the progress of the crabbing exploits was a hungry herring gull (Larus argentatus). He was very interested in any potential meals the kids may catch for him and he was ready to swoop onto any escapees.

Looking eastward from the Cobb are more cliffs and the rocks here are full of fossils. We were staying in the white houses on the left and just round the corner from there lies a prime fossiling beach which alas we were cut off from by the tide. There were lots of folk busy cracking open rocks on the part that was accessible but I think most of the fossils from that spot had already been found.

The cliff on the right with the yellow patch is called ‘Golden Cap’ and is the highest point on the south coast of England, rising to 627 feet (191m).

The catch:

Shore crabs – Carcinus maena

The bait for the crabs was bacon, they’re mad for it, and there was a prize for the first crab caught, the largest crab caught and the most crabs caught. My daughter won, every time she dropped her line into the water it was a couple of minutes or less before she hoicked one out. So, much to the chagrin of the boys, she won all three prizes and was as smug as hell for the rest of the day!

And as the bucket filled with crabs the gull got braver and braver:

But he was to be disappointed. At the end of the competition our bucket of crabs was emptied into the water at the bottom of those steps and they all scuttled away to freedom.

The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.