Tag Archives: great spotted woodpecker

The ultimate songbird

In the springtime this year I took a trip to Paxton Pits nature reserve which is a cluster of lakes on the edge of St Neots near Bedford created by gravel extraction. They cover a sizable area and are interspersed with woodland and scrub and incorporates a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).  One of the reasons for going there in springtime is to hear the song of the nightingale for which the Pits are a recognised site.

Early signs weren’t hopeful as the skies were grey and it was cold and raining. So not the best conditions for seeing or hearing songbirds in full voice. And first off, there was very little of anything, and then a great spotted woodpecker put in an appearance low down on a tree trunk.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

This one is a female, the main difference between her and the male is the lack of a red patch on the nape of her neck. I was pleased to get so close to a great spot as they’re normally higher up and not so easy to photograph. They feed on insects which they dig out from crevices in tree bark, but will also take birds eggs and I’ve heard they take chicks too which they can find when they enlarge the holes in bird boxes to get to the nest – which is one of the reasons why the entrance to bird boxes for small birds now have metal surrounds.

The sound of a woodpecker drumming carries for a very long distance, not because of the volume but because the frequency of the drumming has a strike rate of 10-40 per second which causes the tree to resonate.

Shortly after the encounter with the woodpecker the clouds cleared and it turned into a warm sunny day, much more suitable for songbird encounters, and the first one was a whitethroat:

Common whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger)

The whitethroat is one of our non-resident warblers which were just arriving in the UK from their annual migration back from sub Saharan Africa. When they’re attracting a mate they do a mad little jerky flight heading roughly straight up from the top of a bush and dropping straight back down again, and while they do it they have a distinctive song. But as distinctive as it is, it’s not in the same league as the ultimate songbird:

Nightingale (Lucinia megarhynchos, Dansk: sydlig nattergal)

The nightingale is a fairly drab little bird to look at, but the song is incredible. And when it has returned here in the spring after migration, also from tropical Africa it starts to sing… and people will flock from miles around to hear it. Alas, as with many bird species the nightingale is red listed in the UK and in desperate need of protection, consequently this was the first time I managed to photograph one.

There are ponds and shallow pools on the site of the Pits too, and these are being nurtured to encourage dragonflies and amphibians such as this great crested newt:

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus, Dansk: stor vandsalamander)

Great crested newts are also endangered in the UK due to habitat destruction and are therefore heavily protected. It was good to see an adult male in his full breeding regalia, he’s a spectacular beast.

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Ever the optimist

The font of all wisdom in my area for what birdlife is around is the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s About‘ blog. A short while ago there was a report of a sighting of a bittern at one of my regular nature walks, Milton Country Park. This was an exciting development because I’ve never seen a bittern before, so on the following Saturday morning I set off before dawn to be in situ at sun up to try and see it. The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: Rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reedbeds and is so perfectly camouflaged it is almost impossible to find until it breaks cover. It’s famous for the ‘booming‘ call of the male which can be heard up to 1km away, so I set off hopeful of not only seeing one but maybe hearing it boom too. Ever the optimist!

The conservation status of the bittern in the UK is red, meaning it is scarce and under threat. Alas, the chap I was hoping to catch a glimpse of was very scarce indeed, to the point of being completely absent. Oh well, next time maybe. But every cloud and all that, even though the bittern had absconded there was other birdlife in abundance.

And not only birds, snowdrops were blossoming on the forest floor

The Country Park is made up of old gravel or quarry pits surrounded by a mixture of grassy scrub and mature woodland. Up in the treetops great spottted woodpeckers were hammering holes…

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

I think this one is a female – the male has a red patch on the back of his neck which I think was absent on this one. The woodpeckers drumming sound results from the frequency of drilling rather than the power. They have energy absorbing tissues in the head to prevent brain damage and they strike at a frequency of 10-40 times a second which makes the tree trunk resonate, and that’s how they create their unique sound. Treecreepers were spiralling up these trees too, but they were just too quick to get a photograph.

But on the lakes there were hundreds and hundreds of water birds of all types:

Courting great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker)

The full mating ritual of the great crested grebe is a wonderful sight. I’ve only ever seen it a couple of times and it involves swimming away from each other to a distance of 20-30m or so, then turning and swimming rapidly towards each other and when they meet they rise up in a vigorous display of necking before settling back into the water facing each other and creating a heart shape with their heads and necks. This is repeated mofre tha once and is utterly absorbing and delightful to watch. I was fervently hoping that my pair here were going to perform but they were content to simply preen, commune and doze. Still lovely though.

Another male great crested grebe with a pair of male pochard in hot pursuit (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Two male tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) eyeing a lady with bad intent. Love, or something, was in the air!

Both pochard and tufted duck are divers and the rapid spread of the tufted duck in the UK in the 19th century is though to be the result of colonisation of UK waterways by the zebra mussel which originates in southern Russia.

A male gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand)

On a grey murky day the gadwall looks like a dull grey/brown duck but when the sun shines on them they are quite handsome birds, easily recognised on the water by the black rump, general brown plumage and the grey/black beak.

Coot and moorhen (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne and Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne, respectively) are both members of the family Rallidae along with water rail (which I saw on a previous recent visit to the Country Park, but not this one, even though I spent 10-15 minutes quietly looking where I saw one before) and crakes, which aren’t to be found in these parts.

The coot…

…and the moorhen

The male coots were in the mood for love and fighting out on the water on all the lakes, and were too numerous to count, and the occasional, more secretive and less aggressive, moorhen ventured into view from the reeds at the lake edges.


The brown heads are male wigeon, the black and white ones are male tufted duck, the two brown ones in the foreground are a pair of gadwall and out of focus at the back is another gadwall and a coot

As the sun came up the birds on the water semed to spring into life and large groups of various species busy feeding. All the pictures in this post were taken in a couple of hours or so from dawn until 10-11am and within a 300m radius. But as the sun arose and the light changed the colour of the water changed dramatically and gave some wonderfully varied backgrounds.

I stopped at a gap in the undergrowth to photograph the various species above and as I stood snapping the robin hopped into view between me and the water pecking at the seeds on the ground left by a benevolent walker for the ducks:

I think the most colourful, and therefore my favourite duck of that morning was the wigeon:

A pair of wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the male behind, the lady in front

The male on his own – resplendent in his psychedelic finery

The wigeon is a resident breeder in the UK and it’s conservation status is amber, which surprised me because I see plenty of them on the lakes around Cambridgeshire. They are vegetarians feeding on leaves and shoots and rhizomes, and in my view they are one of our prettiest ducks.

So no bittern on this trip but lots of other wildlife on the water and in the trees!

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!

Wonderful Wildlife of Wicken Fen

Around 10 years ago I used to do voluntary work at Wicken Fen which lies in the flat emptiness between Cambridge and Ely. Wicken Fen is one of the last and the largest piece of remaining fenland in East Anglia and is home to a plethora of wildlife. It’s owned and managed by the National Trust in such a way that diverse habitats favouring different species are established and maintained. When I worked there we were engaged in various activities such as repairing boardwalks, fences and hides, scrub clearance, which was a good activity for freezing winter days because it involved a huge fire to burn the felled scrub, but my favourite job was building raised ponds with wheelchair access so disabled children could safely do some pond dipping. Which is an activity that everyone should be able to do, child or not. All you need is a net, a jar, a magnifying glass and a pond and a sunny day is turned into a fantastic voyage of biological discovery.

My re-exploration last weekend started from Upware at the back end of the Fen where we parked and joined Wicken Lode. We had counted over 30 species of birds within the first half hour of our walk. If it had been solely down to my good self the number would have been rather less because my skills when it comes to recognising birdsong are a tad limited. Fortunately I was with my friend, David, who’s aural acuity is considerably better honed than mine, and I’m highly envious of his ability to detect the song of distant bird species and identify them. One of the first birds to greet us in the car park was this mistle thrush perched on top of a telegraph pole:

Mistle thrush – Turdus viscivorus (Dansk: misteldrossel)

… and a great spotted woodpecker, also finding a handy perch at the top of a telegraph pole:


Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocops major (Dansk: Stor flagspætte)

Great spotted woodpeckers make a characteristic drumming sound by doing what their name suggests and it is the frequency of the drumming, of around 40 beats per second, which generates the resonant sound. Anatomical examination of their skulls has revealed the presence of built in shock absorbers which prevent them damaging their brains when they drum. They feed on tree seeds such as acorns and insects which they dig out from under the bark of trees and they can also take birds eggs and chicks which they have been known to steal from birdboxes by drilling holes through the walls and plucking them out.

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from Upware and head out along Wicken Lode on to the Fen where a Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger) gave away his location by singing in a way that only Cetti’s can. It’s an amazing sound and I can highly recommend having a listen here. These recordings don’t quite do it justice, but you get a feel for it. Also on the Lode were a family of three mute swans; male, female and one cygnet. Mute swans are always photogenic but I felt particularly blessed when the male spread hs wings and shook himself down:


Mute swans (Cygnus olor,  Dansk: knopsvane)

We turned off the Lode and headed along Harrisons Drove where we came across a field of very impressive bovines. In  order to manage the fen (and at the same time draw in more visitors, no doubt) cattle and horses are used to trim the vegetation back naturally. I’d never seen the cattle before and they are magnificent animals – looking more like a cross between a highlander and a bison than traditional farm cattle:


They must be hardy beasts indeed to survive on the meagre nourishment offered by the fen

Also along the drove I spotted a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, Dansk: Blå kærhøg) quartering the field, either a female or a juvenile, identifiable by the pale band around the rump just infront of the tail feathers. In my opinion, spotting a harrier, even a fleeting glimpse, justifies an expedition into the fens early on a freezing morning. Alas it was too far away to photograph, but when after another couple of hundred metres we entered a hide overlooking a lake, there were plenty of subjects for photography…

This lake was home to hundreds of ducks – we estimated around 800 from 5 species that we could see… as well as coot and mute swan. Watched over by the longhorns.

I don’t think this lake is there in the summer because looking at the area on Google Maps there is no water, and David pointed out that their were no diving ducks such as pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland – which tranlates as ‘table duck’ which shows what the Danes think of them!) tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) or goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand), suggesting the water was too shallow. But there were large numbers of shallow feeders such as gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), shoveller (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand), pintail (Anas acuta, Dansk: spidsand), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) and wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand). We had seen three flocks of wigeon (and heard them too, they make a great sound) fly over and land on the water just before we got to the hide.  Some of them were on the lake above and lots more were on an adjacent one:


Wigeon. Lots of them! I counted around 60 in this group.

And in between the two lakes were numerous reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) flitting between the hedgerow and the path and pausing to pluck seeds from the seedheads of the reeds, hence their name…

Male reed bunting – one of my better reed bunting shots

And the female:
We saw 44 species of birds that we could identify on our way around Upware and the Fen. And as well as all the birds Wicken is home to a phenomenal diversity of insects, large mammals including roe deer and otter, small mammals including shrews, voles, mice and the predators that hunt them, and reptiles including lizards which can be seen basking in the sun on the boardwalks and fenceposts early on summer mornings. Now I’ve been back and rediscovered the Fen I’ll make sure I get back later in the year and post about the changing wildlife in what is a unique collection of ecosystems.

Robins and rails

I headed down to the RSPB reserve at Fowlmere south west of Cambridge early yesterday morning (Saturday 5th November, 2011) with my friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast, David, where I was hoping to catch sight of a merlin or a kingfisher or another water bird which I don’t see in my regular haunts. It was a murky, grey morning and the air was holding so much moisture it felt damp. Consequently, conditions for photography were challenging,

Looking across the reedbeds at Fowlmere, distant trees looming out of the mist

Probably due to the weather it wasn’t easy to see the resident birdlife. We heard a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte) from the car park but once we entered the reserve it was really quiet, apart from the faint roar of the traffic on the A10 and the occasional jet heading into Stansted airport. But of birds, there was not too much evidence. We heard some redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel) and fieldfare (Turdus pilarus, Dansk: sjagger) as they passed overhead unseen, and as we got close to the Reedbed hide a robin (Dansk: rødhals) and a songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) were lurking in the bushes near the entrance and a stoat scampered across the bottom of the steps into the hide. From inside the hide we could see 15-20 mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) on the water, and perched on a fencepost on the opposite side of the water was a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, Dansk: isfugl).

I like the segmentation in this picture and the physical delineation by the fence of the cut and uncut reedbeds. And of course, the tiny spark of blue and orange of the kingfisher sitting in the middle.

Also on the lake was a heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) fishing in the shallows and half a dozen teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand), and a muntjac deer wandered by. The kingfisher subsequently vacated and no further avian visitors appeared so we vacated too and made our way to the Drewer hide where we’d been told a water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) was busy feeding. And it didn’t let us down.

The water rail is from the same family as coots, gallinules (moorhens) and crakes and lives and feeds in and around shallow water predominantly on animals but also some plant material.


Water rail emerging from the reeds…


…looking for invertebrates in the mud


And whilst this charming waterbird was busy captivating my attention a robin was flitting between a nearby hawthorn bush and the reeds:

The robin seemed a tad out of place in the reeds, but a lovely dash of colour on a grey morning with its reflection in the pond


From the front it’s apparent that the water rail is a very slim bird facilitating easy movement between the stems in the reedbeds. I can’t remember the last time I saw one so it was a treat to see this one so close and it loitered for getting on for an hour, until after we left.

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!

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!