Tag Archives: Apus apus

Apodidae – the swift

Last month I spent a day at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell near Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast. It’s a particularly dramatic bit of coastline and is home to a very impressive array of birdlife which is concentrated here on the reserve. As well as all the waders and other water birds squadrons of swifts were wheeling and zooming low over the water plucking insects out of the air.


Swift – Apus apus. Dansk – mursejler

Swifts have been declining in numbers and their conservation status is amber, but it was difficult to believe they’re struggling! There seem to be good numbers of them in the skies around Cambridge too. I love it in the summer when I open a window and the sound of shrieking swifts filters down from on high.

Insects beware, bandits at 6 o’clock!

Photographing swifts in flight is challenging to say the least and something I’ve never before had much success with, but there were so many of them at Titchwell and they were flying close to the ground so I gave it a go. They seemed to have preferred routes which I guess were dictated by where the insects were flying and that made getting pictures a little less tricky as their flight paths were more predictable. And here are the results.

Swifts are members of the Apodidae family and on ther face of it appear fairly similar to swallows and martins. But my oft ill-remembered scchoolboy Latin leads me to believe that ‘apodidae‘ means ‘lacking feet‘ whereas swallows and martins are passerines which means they have feet adapted for perching. Swifts do have feet but they are tiny and adapted for clasping and not perching, all four of their toes pointing forward. One thing that the three species do have in common is that they are all awesome aeronauts. A juvenile swift can spend up to three years aloft after fledging and it will spend most of its life on the wing: eating, sleeping, gathering nesting material and even copulating in the sky.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology swifts shut down their brains one side at a time in order to maintain stable flight. But I’d like to know how they found that out – I can’t think of an experimental design that would enable this conclusion!

The swift is a summer migrant to UK shores and they spend their winters in South Africa, and I suspect the journey doesn’t take too long, covering a thousand miles in a couple of days!

My day at Titchwell was gorgeous, it was during the foul wet weather we’ve been having but shortly after we arrived the sun emerged and stayed with us for the whole day. I took nearly a thousand photographs and I’m going to post the best of them in batches in the next few weeks, interspersed with some other local wildlife. I hope you like them!

Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

Heading south

Last Friday I found myself on the M40 heading south to Windsor. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly eventful trip from a wildlife perspective, but it turned out to be quite remarkable.

My first port of call was my parents house in Northampton, where a great spotted woodwecker and her chicks were feeding on a hanging peanut feeder:


Female great spotted woodpecker eating fatballs in my folks garden. She is easily distinguished from the male due to the lack of a red patch on the nape of the neck. Juveniles also lack the red nape but she was feeding two juveniles so it was obvious she was an adult female

My folks back garden has been a real haven for birdlife in the last few weeks and is currently home to families of great tit, goldfinch and carrion crow too. My Dad places a couple of flower pot stands full of fresh water on his garage roof every day and the carrion crows and rooks then rock up with beaks full of dry bread they have scavenged in the locality and dunk it in the water until it is completely sodden from where they carry it off to feed their chicks.


Carrion crow fledgling, it’s not immediately obvious from this shot but it has very short stumpy tail feathers – diagnostic of a fresh-faced youngster

My folks garden is around only 50m away from a long spinney of old trees and consequently they get a great variety of birds and are currently playing host to a jay, a pair of nuthatch, numerous goldfinch, dunnock, blackbirds etc, etc…


A pair of goldfinch settling a dispute on the garage roof

After a brief stop off in Northampton I headed off south to Maidenhead. One of the original release sites where attempts were made to establish new red kite populations was on the M40 corridor, and not long after passing Oxford I spotted the first one. Shortly after that there was another… and another… and another. From then on down to Windsor there were groups of up to five over the motorway or the adjacent fields every couple of minutes, and I counted 30-40 individuals in that short distance. (Alas I didn’t have my camera with me from here on, so this post is a bit thin on pictures, but I hope the words are sufficient to hold your interest!)

Later on, in the evening, I took a walk along the Thames at Maidenhead where a pair of geat crested grebe were performing a courtship dance. This involved necking followed by diving to collect weed from the riverbed which they presented to the partner when they reached the surface. Overhead, red kite, swallows, swifts and house martins were all wheeling around at various heights hoovering up flies, and the martins were flying to and fro from nests built under the eaves of the houses on the riverside, feeding their young. And an arctic tern was patrolling up and down along the river making the occcasional dive after an unfortunate fish. I love watching terns hunt, they’re amazing fliers, so it was great to see one here.

Heading back north again on Saturday evening there weren’t the numbers of kites I’d seen on Friday, but there were still a few to be seen. All in all, the red kite conservation story is an amazingly successful one and it’s good to see that human intervention can sometimes correct an egregious wrong perpetrated in the past!

The birds and the bees (and the flowers)

As our warmest and driest Spring on record turns into what is shaping up to be a warm and dry Summer, nature’s great events are occurring apace to exploit the prevailing climatic conditions.

The first swifts were seen over Histon 3 weeks ago (by me at least) after their heroic journey back to their breeding sites from overwintering in Africa. To celebrate this event I’ve spent several hours sitting in the garden of the Castle pub on Castle Hill in Cambridge enjoying a few convivial sharpeners and watching the swifts shrieking through the sky like an avian aerobatic team. I can heartily recommend both activities!

Wild flowers, including one of my favourites, white campion, are now in bloom:

White campion, Silene latifolia, decorating ditches and hedgerows

White campion is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive machinery are on separate flowers. It grows in well drained earth and flowers from Spring to Autumn and is now delineating my walks across the open countryside. Another one of my favourite wild flowers is red clover (Trifolium pratense) which is a gorgeous colour and provides nourishment for bumble bees:


Red clover flower being harvested for pollen and nectar by a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). This is the national flower of Denmark.

And of course the local birdlife has been very busy breeding and raising chicks. Alot of species started this process earlier this year due to the unusually warm weather in Spring. I have a pair of blue tits raising a brood in the nestbox in my crab apple tree and my friend told me of a family of song thrushes which fledged from his garden a month ago. Which is very early.

A pair of great tit have been feeding their chicks on crushed peanuts which I put out on my bird feeder over the last month and last week they fledged and the whole family were feeding in my garden for just a day or two before they ventured further afield. (If you put nuts out for the birds during the breeding season please make sure you use crushed nuts as inexperienced parents can try to feed whole nuts to chicks and this can have fatal consequences). Great tits have over 70 different vocalisations which I think is remarkable, almost simple language! And on my explorations along the fields and hedgerows around Histon last weekend (21st May, 2011) I saw more great tit, blackcap and whitethroat all feeding gangs of fledglings:


Common whitethroat male, Sylvia communis

There are two species of whitethroat to be found locally, the common and the lesser (Sylvia curruca). They are distinguished by their song, which I won’t try to describe because I’ve never yet read a book which gives the remotest idea of what birdsong actually sounds like by a written description! But if you want to compare them try here for the common whitethroat, and here for the lesser whitethroat.


And another male whitethroat, this chap was singing long and loud, punctuated with characteristic jerky flights straight up in the air and back to the same spot

There are a good number of common whitethroat in the hedgerows north of Cambridge, lesser whitethroat are also here but are not so numerous. There are other distinguishing features between the two species, the lesser, as the name suggests is smaller (~11cm long compared to ~13 for the common), and is generally more grey with a pale grey head and noticeably darker grey ‘ear’ patches. It also has dark grey legs. Both species overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, the common in central Africa and the lesser in eastern Africa.

Linnet can be regularly seen flying around the bramble thickets on the edges of the village and perching and singing on top of them. On Saturday early in the morning a fracas was going on in an elderbery tree in Rowleys Meadow in Histon which ended when a jay was chased out of the tree by a family of linnet and a family of whitethroat. The jay alighted on an adjacent shed to suss out the lie of the land and contemplate another raid whilst the indignant songbirds dispersed into some scrub to hide. Eventually the jay decided to keep his powder dry and disappeared into a nearby wood. Jays, like other members of the crow family, will raid nests of smaller birds for eggs and chicks, so it’s a perilous business being a small bird with a family to rear.


A linnet male perching on a bramble. When they’re not protecting a nest I’ve managed to sneak within 15 feet of linnet perched like this.

Linnet, Carduelis cannabina, are abundant resident and migrant breeders, although their numbers, as with many of our songbirds, are declining, and they are also passage and winter visitors. Due to their declining numbers over the past 40 years or so their conservation status is red, indicating they are globally threatened. They are finches which live in open country and farmland and feed on seeds.

Many species of moths, butterflies, bees, flowers and a plethora of other creatures are all appearing as trhe seasons are progressing and there’s something new to see every week!