Tag Archives: Fulica atra

The indomitable coot

The coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) is a common water bird found on lakes and rivers in all of the UK apart from north west Scotland. They are related to the rails and crakes, they are extremely aggressive and will see off bigger birds who are sufficiently unwise to encroach on their territory.

Whilst wandering around the lakes at Milton Country Park on Saturday it was early in the morning and the light was really murky, so I experimented with the ISO settings to try and extract some half decent images from the gloom, and in these two images the ISO was 1600 or higher. The high ISO has given the pictures a slightly grainy feel, but that’s to be expected, and I like the colours:

The coot was diving repeatedly and resurfacing with beaks full of weed

I like the colours and the reflection of the beak

Apparently the baldness as in ‘bald as a coot’ comes from the white saddle above the beak, which I think is a tad strange because the chicks really are bald.

Coots are omnivores and their innate aggression extends to their chicks which when food is short they discourage from begging by biting them, sometimes so hard it kills them. It’s a tough existence being a coot chick, they are also regular prey items for other creatures such as herons. On a busy lake with other species of birds the coots are good fun to watch as they chase off allcomers.

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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!

Water birds at Milton Country Park

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I was at Milton country Park on a dragonfly hunt there were lots of birds about too, So between photographing the darters and hawkers I managed to capture some water birds:

Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus, preening on a log in a lake
Moorhen chick

Moorhens are common water birds seen on rivers and lakes, they can be secretive but are often seen out of the water on grassland. They are resident breeders and winter visitors in the UK with approximately a quarter of a million individuals. They are omnivores and are one of the few British birds which practice cooperative breeding where youngsters will assist in rearing subsequent broods. Their red beak and very long yellow legs and toes are distinctive and peculiar to the moorhen. The taxonomic name ‘Gallinula chloropus‘ translates as ‘little green footed hen’. For my international readership, the Danish name is ‘Grønbenet rørhøne‘ – according to the BTO. (If you actually call it something different or have a local name please let me know).


This coot (Fulica atra) was one of a group of moorhens and coots, including the moorhen above

I find coots amusing to watch as they have splendidly bad attitude and defend their patch against all comers, even members of their own species, and will aggressively charge other birds. They inhabit the same territories as moorhens and are also resident breeders and winter visitors. (In Danish – blishøne).

Great crested grebe with youngster

My favourite water bird (apart from the kingfisher, of course) is the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus). They can regularly be seen on open lakes and have been persecuted in the past because of their dense plumage which was used in place of fur. They have distinctive crested head plumage and an amazing courtship display. During the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 I watched a pair for a long time performing on a lake in Leicestershire – one of the few pieces of countryside where access wasn’t forbidden at the time. They would swim away from each other in a straight line for 20m or so and then turn and with beaks low on the water swim towards each other at high speed, raising up when they reached each other forming their necks into a heart shape. All terribly romantic! It’s a beautiful display and one of these days I’ll hopefully see it when I’ve got my camera handy. (By the way, in Danish these are ‘toppet lappedykker‘). Great crested grebe are also resident breeders and winter visitors but the numbers are much less than moorhen or coot, with 8000 adults here in the summer. Despite the lesser abundance their conservation status is green.

Bad birdwatching

The title of this post is unashamedly borrowed from the book “How to be a bad birdwatcher” by Simon Barnes (The Times sports writer and RSPB columnist), which I started reading today while I was waiting for my son to finish his swimming lesson. Having discovered what was meant by ‘bad birdwatching’ I can’t think of a better way to describe my fascination with birds and wildlife:

“…the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected”. Genius.

I’ll write a review of the book when I’ve finished it, but please don’t hold your breath, reading a book is a fragmented and necessarily slow process these days.

Please forgive my rambling but there is a point to this. This morning I was planning to head to the lake beside the A14 between Histon and the northern edge of Cambridge to look for grebes, geese, ducks and cormorants. However, in the course of the last week I’ve seen green woodpecker on several occasions in and around the carpark at work on Cambridge Science Park. As I still don’t have a good photograph of a green woodpecker I reasoned an early morning stroll around work may enable me to put that straight. So that is where I headed.

Initially there were no woodpeckers to be seen but on a dull grey morning the trees and bushes were alive with birdsong:


Robin singing his heart out in an alder tree. He wasn’t alone, plentiful dunnock and wrens were doing the same

…as were numerous greenfinch, but this one clammed up as soon as I tried to photograph him. (Whilst taking this picture I was approached by a security man who said my camera looked like a shotgun. With the lens hood on at full zoom maybe a blunderbuss… but not a shotgun, surely!)

Cambridge Science Park is located on the northern edge of Cambridge bordered by the A14 to the north and the A10 to the east, it is around 1km in diameter and in keeping with the rest of this part of Cambridgeshire is as flat as a pancake. It was created in 1970 and some of the old trees and scrub remain between the buildings and the landscaping. These, along with small lakes and streams in drainage ditches form a good variety of habitat which is generally undisturbed.

I’ve worked on Cambridge Science Park for 15 years but I had no idea this  WWII pillbox was tucked away in the undergrowth until yesterday. (The pole in front of the dog has bat boxes at the top so I was very pleased to see the proactive approach to conservation).

Consequently there is alot of birdlife, from kestrels and sparrowhawks to water birds – ducks, coot, moorhen – and songbirds – greenfinch, goldfinch, great tit and I’ve seen goldcrest and lapwing on rare occasions. There are plentiful rabbit too and as a result it’s not uncommon to see foxes out the window hunting for a meal.

The Science Park was vibrant with birdsong during my walk and as time progressed the sun came out and it got warmer. I didn’t see any unusual species but the sheer numbers and volume of sound made for a very enjoyable walk.


One of numerous dunnock livening up the Science Park with their Springtime singing…

…and one of a flock of long tailed tit

A male great tit feeding on one of several bird feeding stations

… a magpie

…and a moorhen

Lots of birdlife to be seen, and all within a 500m radius of where I work. But I still hadn’t seen a green woodpecker. So I decided to head over to the lake within 500m of the Science Park where I know there are waterfowl including greylag geese… and green woodpeckers.

The lake didn’t disappoint. There were moorhen, mallard, greylag geese, great crested grebes – and even a single green woodpecker which was flushed up from the ground and disapperad into some distant and inaccessible trees.


Male, left, and female mallard

Greylag goose

The greylag goose is the bulkiest of the Anser goose genus and is the species (Anser anser) from which domesticated geese originate. Studies of greylag geese led the zoologist Konrad Lorenz to rediscover the theory of imprinting – the phenomenon you are probably familiar with, of baby nidifugous birds (those which leave the nest at a very early age) imprinting on their parents, which can be a human being if that is the first creature they encounter after hatching.

Konrad Lorenz was an interesting man and a glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals he was an Austrian biological scientist, born in 1903. He graduated from Vienna University as a medic in 1928 and received his zoological doctorate in 1933. He joined the Nazi Party and indicated his support for their ‘racial hygeine‘ theories (one of the worst obscenities of the 20th century in my opinion), accepted a chair at the University of Konigsberg in 1940, joined the Wehrmacht as a medic and was shortly after captured by the Russians and eventually repatriated to Germany in 1948. He went on to study aspects of animal behaviour, later extrapolating these to apply to humans, and in 1973 he received the Nobel Prize for medicine for studies on social behaviour patterns.

Returning to natural history, there was a pair of great crested grebe on the lake which I were hoping were going to display:

But this time I was unlucky. When displaying, they swim away from each other then turn simultaneously and swim rapidly toward each other and when they meet they rear up in a necking dance before repeating the whole process. I haven’t yet been able to get photographs of this beautiful courtship ritual, but I’ll keep looking.

I said at the top of this post that there was a point to the ‘bad birdwatching’ reference. I set out yesterday specifically to try to photograph green woodpeckers which I think are spectacular. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of a woodpecker, and no pictures, but I had a lovely time looking and seeing all the other wildlife.

So I guess by Simon Barnes definition I’m a fairly shabby example of the birdwatching fraternity! But I’ll live with that.

 

 

 

 

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.

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!