Tag Archives: Haematopus ostralegus

All those flocking waders…

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the vast flocks of geese which overwinter on The Wash; and there were also big numbers of other birds including small groups of dunlin close in by the shore:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But a little further out, and almost invisible until they took to the air, were enormous flocks of thousands of dunlin. I couldn’t see what flushed them, but every few minutes they rose en masse and put on a stunning display of aerobatic prowess:

Thousands of dunlin moving in very close proximity at high speed and never colliding

Occasionally they turned into the sun creating a shimmering ribbon of grey and white across the sky:

And as with the geese in the previous post the other thing which I hadn’t thought about until they were swirling overhead was the noise. It was a very different sound to the geese which gave a slow muted beating sound, the dunlin sounded more like a fast moving cloud of enormous insects. It was a really exciting spectacle. And as well as the dunlin flocks of oystercatcher wheeled over from behind and landed in a line on the mud flats:

Several hundred oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: Strandskade) seeking safety in numbers

… and it’s always good, but increasingly seldom, to see flocks of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe):

When I was a kid in the 70’s vast flocks of lapwing were a relatively frequent phenomenon in the fields out in the countryside around home, but their numbers have plummeted twixt now and then, so it’s good to see there are still places where thay can still be found doing what lapwing should be doing!

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The day after the day before

It’s been far too long since my last post, life has been frenetic resulting in little or no time for WP’ing. But I’m back now and after I’ve completed this post I shall be taking a grand tour of all your blogs that I’ve been  neglecting recently!

In my last post I mentioned the frigid weather conditions prevailing on top of the cliffs at Bempton back at the end of February. But the day after that clifftop adventure was bright, sunny and warm, and we were up on top of Flamborough Head, just a few miles south of Bempton, running around in shirt sleeves. What a difference a day makes.

Looking north along the cliffs from Flamborough lighthouse in lovely warm sunshine!

On a sunny day the coast in that part of the world is a wonderful place to be, and there’s wildlife in abundance:

North Atlantic grey seal enjoying breakfast in relaxed fashion

And while the seals were taking life easy in the sea the shoreline was patrolled by various seabirds including this oystercatcher who was picking over the recently exposed seaweed looking for crustaceans.

Not the best picture of an oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) I’ve ever taken but I like the rock and the surf! After the clifftop we headed down to the harbour at Bridlington where the tide was out and lots of seabirds were picking over the detritus you might expect to find around a working harbour.

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima, Dansk: sortgrå ryle)

The purple sandpiper breeds in the Arctic, very rarely in the UK, but overwinters on the coast here where it can be found in large flocks, often alongside turnstone.

A lone purple sandpiper accompanied by a pair of turnstone

Even though the tons of litter that lined the beaches offended me, the birds didn’t seem to mind, they were racing along the tide lines picking over all the debris, human and natural.

The turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) is also a winter visitor to the UK, very rarely breeding here. It feeds mainly on insects during the summer but according to the British Trust for Ornithology they also feed on birds eggs, chips and even corpses. It suggests the corpses are human but I wonder where they would find one of those, I’ve never encountered one on my seaside meanderings!

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.

A bit of a tern

In my last post I talked about the highlights of my trip south to  Hampshire, but I didn’t mention our excursion to the beach at Lee on Solent. On a warm but very cloudy day but we took a punt on the weather so the children could go for a swim in the sea. The tide was out and revealed an extremely colourful shoreline festooned with different seaweeds, snails, limpets and sundry other shore dwellers.


The diverse array of life forms revealed by the receding tide

Pecking around the rocks was a lone oystercatcher who seemed to be largely unconcerned by the whooping and hollering of the kids splashing around in the shallows:

The statuesque oystercatcher.
People rave about the avocet , but I think oytercatchers are just as impressive!

But the real stars of the show were  the arctic terns which were fishing in a small lagoon left in a dip in the beach when the tide went out. The precision aerial acrobatics of these amazing birds makes the Red Arrows look like amateurs! They are also expert at long haul, spending their summers in Europe and overwintering in southern Africa or even further afield. According to the BTO one individual was ringed in the Farne Islands in June 1982 and was next recorded in Melbourne, Australia, in October of the same year. Arctic terns return to their place of birth to breed so by the time this one saw the UK again it would have covered approximately 27500 miles over the sea!


Looking for a fish,

Manouevering into position for the dive,


Making fine adjustments…


And into the dive,


Mission accomplished.


Bandits at 6 o’clock

The terns were diving down through numerous other seabirds including black headed gulls, great black backed gulls and herring gulls, so they didn’t have it all their own way. Every time a tern made off with a fish a black headed gull would be in hot pursuit, both birds squawking and shrieking. The terns seemed to invariably escape with their spoils, but the gulls never seemed to tire of harrassing them.

All that, and the children got to go for a swim, so we all went home satisfied with our afternoons achievements.