Tag Archives: cormorant

Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

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Autumnal Anisopterans

Yesterday, 28th October, was one of those glorious sunny autumnal days where the air was fresh but the temperature was raised by bright sunshine, and I’d heard that the winter migrants were arriving on the lakes at Milton Country Park on the northern edge of Cambridge. So I took my camera to work and headed there for a stroll at lunchtime in the hope of snapping a teal or wigeon or perhaps a more unusual visitor. Several waterbirds were on parade including these cormorants:

Several migrant duck species were there too, including wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the duck with the chestnut head in the background of the cormorant picture is a male wigeon, tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand):


A male tufted duck resplendent in his pied plumage and bright yellow eye

…and gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand).

What I didn’t expect to see though, certainly not in the kind of numbers present, were dragonflies. It’s  nearly November and the weather has started to get more autumnal but the warm weather up to now must have suited these airborne predators. In particular common darters (Sympetrium striolatum) were conspicuous, six at one time including two mating pairs. It’s always a treat to watch dragonflies but especially on a sunny day at the end of October, living uo to their name and darting about making a loud low frequency buzzzing noise .

Stunning symmetry of a pair of mating common darters

The darters were sunning themselves on the fence lining a viewing jetty on the edge of a lake and while they were busy warming and copulating a migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta) was patrolling the adjacent reedbeds. All the dragons were pretty much oblivious to my presence unless I ventured too close then they would rise into the air, the copulating couple in tandem, only to return to pretty much the same spot with 30 seconds or so.


Migrant hawker

Every so often one or more of the common darters would chase the hawker away until it lived to its name and plucked one of them out of the air and butchered it whilst flying around our heads, scattering the inedible parts around us. After its aerial snack it headed up into the treetops and disappeared.


The hawker missed a trick. It went to alot of effort catching its darter on the wing when it could have had twice as much protein if it had spotted this pair. But I’m glad it didn’t!

The Farne Isles

An absolute must for me when I go to the northeast of England is a boat trip to the Farne Islands. The Farnes are a group of small low islands lying a couple of miles off the coast between Bamburgh and Seahouses.

The Farne Islands from the Northumberland coast

The islands were immortalised in 1838 by the heroic actions of Grace Darling, the 23 year old daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper. When a shipwreck was spotted during a North Sea storm on Big Harcar, a small rocky island nearby, Grace and her father crewed a 21 foot rowing boat to rescue the stranded passengers from the SS Forfarshire. Grace was 23 at the time of the rescue, which she survived only to be carried off by tuberculosis 3 years later. Which seems downright unfair to me.


The Longstone lighthouse from where the Darlings’ rescue mission was launched

The islands are currently owned by the National Trust and they are famous for enormous numbers of seabirds including guillemots (Uria aalge, Dansk: lomvie), razorbills (Alca torda, Dansk: alk), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, Dansk: ride), puffins (Fratercula arctica, Dansk: lunde), terns, cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv), shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Dansk: topskarv) and assorted gulls. During the breeding season there are many tens of thousands of numerous species nesting there.


The shags on the Farnes were very relaxed and this one let me approach within 15 feet or so and didn’t seem remotely perturbed. Its yellow mandible and green eye are very distinctive. A few metres along the cliff top were this pair of downy youngsters :

…busy preening out the down and nurturing the nascent flight feathers. It’s remarkable how in such a short space of time nature provides these young fishermen with a full set of plumage capable of withstanding the rigours of these semi-aquatic hunters underwater feeding technique.

There were one or two turnstone patrolling the rocky shorelines of the islands but the vast majority of the seabirds were completely absent. However, one which did make numerous welcome appearances throughout the course of our trip was the gannet (Morus bassanus, Dansk: sule). They are our largest seabird and can be spotted from afar due to the titanium whiteness of their plumage and their black wingtips. They seemed to be simply passing through that day, all heading north, and none of them paused to dive for fish, which was a pity because it’s spectacular to watch. They were predominantly in family groups of 3-6 birds with adults and patchy darker coloured youngsters.


An adult gannet resplendent in its brilliant white plumage and pale yellow head


…and a family group of three being led by a dark coloured juvenile

The other creature for which the Farne Islands is renowned is the seal. Specifically the  Atlantic grey seal. All the islands I saw had large groups of them consisting of territory conscious bulls and numerous smaller females and calves. The bulls were highly vocal, rearing up into threatening postures to intimidate any others that unwisely ventured too close. No more physical aggression was required but from the face of the male below they are quite capable of a proper fight resulting in scar tissue. Although I imagine that is most likely to happen during the more serious business of a competition for the attentions of the ladies.


A big bull Atlantic grey seal basking in calm waters
The seal on the right is a female minding her calf on the left
And another female launching herself into the sea from the rocks
Several members of a bigger group basking in the sunshine

The rocks and the water was full of seals, most were simply basking in the sunshine, the females were minding the youngsters and the males were being generally grumpy. They would hang in the water peering at our boat and some of them were asleep in that position, standing on their tails with their heads poking out of the water. The waters looked crystal clear and it gave me a hankering to explore the islands in kayak and do some snorkelling. But that will have to wait until the next trip.

Seahouses Seabirds

Seahouses, on the Northumberland coast, has proved a fertile hunting ground for birdlife in the past and my most recent visit in August was no exception. It has a  sheltered harbour which plays host to numerous gulls, ducks and other seabirds and to the north are miles of beaches interspersed with rocky outcrops and some great rockpools which keep the kids (and me, of course) entertained for hours. I accidentally slipped into a bed of seaweed whilst leaping around between rockpools, my foot disappeared up to the knee making a glutinous squelching sound as it went, and when I pulled it out it was a rather fetching greenish brown and the stench was worse than the inside of a packet of dry roasted peanuts! But that aside, the wildlife was spectacular.

I’d never seen goosander before (Mergus merganser) then I spotted this trio of females standing at the edge of the water in the harbour. I think they are handsome birds, they nest in holes in trees and have a hooked and serrated beak which is designed to catch and hold onto their main prey item which is fish, thus they are also referred to as ‘sawtooths’.


Three female goosander (Dansk: stor skallesluger) relaxing on the shoreline in Seahouses harbour

Shags frequently patrol the harbour diving for fish, they were plentiful both in the sea and perched on rocks and seawalls. They were the only seabird other than gulls that I saw on the Farne Islands, but more of that in a subsequent post.

The shag (Dansk: topskarv) could only really be confused with a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), but the shag is alot smaller with a wingspan of 95-110cm compared to the  120-150cm wingspan of the cormorant, and it doesn’t have the white patch behind the lower mandible. The prominent yellow patch on the shag above indicates this is a  juvenile. On the water cormorants swim with a straight neck and their beak pointing up in the air and will leap up into a dive, and in flight they have a longer neck with a pronounced kink in it.

Cormorants are now regularly resident inland. About 20 years ago I was walking along the Woodford Valley to the north of Salisbury and was somewhat taken aback by the sight of a cormorant in a tree. I’d never seen that before and I think it was around this time they were starting to encroach inland. They’re now a fairly common site around our inland waterways, there are several which overwinter on a lake here in Histon – the first one arrived here about a week ago – and there is a flock of a few tens of bachelor males resident at Wicken Fen nature reserve a few miles from here. I think anglers take a rather jaundiced view of their fondness for fish, but I regard them as a welcome addition to our local fauna.

Another common site in the waters around the Northumberland coast was the eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl):


Juvenile eider trying to dislodge a foreign body from its wing.

This youngster could be confused with an adult female but it lacks the white beak tip and white edges to the covert feathers. The pale stripe over the eye suggests it’s a male. I first saw a male eider in full breeding rig when I was at Skagen on the northern tip of Denmark and they are magnificent birds:


Male eider on the right, distinctive in his white breeding plumage with black cap, flanks and tail, and malachite green nape. Alas he didn’t come any closer!

At the end of the summer male eiders malt, during which time they can’t fly. Because they can’t fly the malting plumage needs to provide camouflage and is known as ‘eclipse‘ plumage. They can become almost black during this period.


From the distribution of the white patches I think this one is a second year male undergoing his malt

And this is him emerging from the water with another juvenile in the foreground

Eider nest close to the water where the female sits tight. They feed on crustaceans and molluscs, predominantly mussels, which they open with their powerful beaks. They overwinter all around the UK coast but are only resident in the north and Scotland.


One of my favourite birds – the oystercatcher

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) can be found all around the coast of the UK, at least all the parts that I’ve visited, and I think they’re splendid. That awesome flame-red beak is vertically flattened and blunt and is adeptly used for opening cockles and other shellfish, digging for worms and probing between rocks for insects.


The redshank – I think this bird is exquisite, the colours are beautiful and the shape is perfect, nature at its aesthetic best!

The redshank (Tringa totanus) is a resident breeder and migrant visitor which feeds on worms, crustaceans and molluscs. It’s Danish name is ‘rødben‘ which translates literally as ‘redshank’ and it is also known as ‘the sentinel of the marshes’ from being the first species to take to the air when flushed whilst making an awful lot of noise.

All the photographs here in this post were taken in Seahouses, so hopefully it’s easy to see what a great place it is for wildlife, and birds in particular.

Early morning duck walk 22/01/2011

Before I sally forth on my intended theme for this post, and continuing the astronomical precedent from my earlier post where I included a picture of the recent partial solar eclipse, I want to share a picture of the moon I took last week. At this time of year opportunities for wildlife photography in the evenings are severely limited. But on Tuesday and Wednesday (18th and  19th January) the moon looked spectacular early in the evening when it was low in the eastern sky,  and also very early in the morning, around dawn, when it was low in the western sky. So on Tuesday I rushed home from work, grabbed my camera and headed out the door with the dog in tow to try some lunar photography. I think the moon is an amazing thing and I can’t resist the opportunity to photograph it, and this is what I got:

Full moon low in the eastern sky 180111
Full moon low in the eastern sky around 6pm on 18th January, 2011 (f5.6, 1/800, ISO 800, 300mm)

After my lunar digression, and as alluded to in my post ‘Avian East Anglia’ I have been out taking a look at the bird life at Milton Country Park. I set off with my friend just after 8am on a very cold grey Saturday morning, which became progressively colder, greyer and rainy as time went by. Consequently I was less than hopeful of seeing much in the way of wildlife.

My fears of a fruitless walk at the Country Park were unfounded. As we entered the park a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) was making plenty of noise high in a tree and during the walk we saw two and heard at least two others. I don’t usually use a spotting scope but my friend, David, has one and it really does enable some terrific close up views of  distant creatures. We viewed a great spotted woodpecker at the top of a tall tree a good 100m away and the scope brought it right up close. I may add one to my next Christmas list.

A distant great spotted woodpecker – if only I could digiscope! This one wasn’t taken on Saturday… but it was at Milton Country Park

A cock bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) was busy feeding in some bushes at the edge of a lake and plenty of blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius) and great tits (Parus major) were to be seen. A brood of six last years mute swan cygnets (Cygnus olor) were communing  in a quiet corner of a lake:

One of six mute swan cygnets

And a pair of adult mute swans were on the slipway into an adjacent lake. A flock of mixed gulls consisting predominantly of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) with a single common gull (Larus canus) in their midst shared a flooded field on the edge of the Park with a flock of 57 lapwing. The lapwing would take to the air periodically and fly circuits round the Park before settling down again and each time they rose there seemed to be more of them, but a final count on the ground came to 57. I was pleased to see this number as I rarely see flocks of lapwing greater than 20  individuals.

Coot (Fulica atra), cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), a moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) and a lone kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) made appearances but the stars of the day were the various duck species. I like ducks and it’s always good to see more than just mallard:


Male tufted duck resplendent against the oleaginous steely grey-blue of the water in the early morning

Note the prominent tuft and the yellow eye of the tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) above. It was tricky to get good quality images due to the low light of the murky early morning. I opened up my lens (Nikon 70-300mm VR2 zoom) to f5.6 and was using a shutter speed of 1/80s at 300mm zoom. The ISO was set to 800 to cope with the light hence the slightly grainy look.

A flock of approximately 20-30 shoveler (Anas clypeata) were feeding on the same lake as the tufted duck:




Small group of shoveler – see the splendid beak of the male in the background (top) and in the foreground (lower)

Shoveler diet consists of small insects, molluscs, crustaceans, seeds etc. which they filter from the water with huge spatulate beaks by sweeping the beak from side to side with their whole head underwater whilst swimming round in tight circles. They come up for air only very briefly which meant I had to take quite a few pictures before getting one with the beak visible. Beatiful birds, I like these.

Several small groups of wigeon (Anas penelope) and gadwall (Anas strepera) mingled with the other water birds such as the numerous coot, gulls and cormorant.


A coot in the foregound with a pair of gadwall close by and a pair of wigeon in the background

By the end of our walk I was frozen but it was well worth braving the cold to see such a diverse range of birdlife. I shall return there on a sunny morning to try and get some less grainy photographs!