Tag Archives: migrants

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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The mating season

In my last post I said I was catching up, and this one is from a year ago, but I reckon if I can delay for 12 months then it will be back in season again. These green woodpeckers were in the same field as the goldfinch in the previous post and they demonstrated the brutal efficiency of natures processes one sunny Saturday morning late in March.

Before I get on to the mating season though, there have been a few firsts this week, the winter migrants are nearly all back from their winter sojourn in Africa. On an outing last weekend I saw (and/or heard) common whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, willow warbler, sedge warbler, blackcap and, best of all, nightingale, but more of that in a later post. Swallows have been in the skies over Histon since April 12th (at least that the first time I saw one, and I expect the swifts anytime from now onwards.

Some movement in the grass caught my eye around 60-70m away but I couldn’t see what it was until I peered through the binoculars and there was a lone green woodpecker rooting around for ants. As I watched a second woodpecker dropped to the ground just a few feet away, and I think you can tell from the determined look on his face what’s on his mind:

A pair of green woodpeckers – (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) the male is on the left and he’s eyeing the lady with single-minded intent

In this instance courtship lasted for no more than a few seconds:

He sized her up, leapt on board, and in a few more seconds it was mission accomplished and she was inseminated,

At which point he spun on his heel and headed for the exit with indecent speed but maximum efficiency:

The whole event was over in not more than a minute or two and not a single joule of unnecessary energy was required.

I don’t know whether green woodpeckers pair off or if they’re promiscuous, may be the courtship rituals had been observed previously, but the mating process (at least in this instance) was entirely to the point. But it seems to work pretty well and produces successive families of green woodpeckers in this particular field year on year. And I love it when the chicks have first fledged as there can be two  or three youngsters with a parent in attendance on a tree trunk or a telegraph pole, and four greenies together is a very colourful sight.

That time of year

Spring appears to have now definitely sprung, but before that the weather was very cold and many songbirds were coming to the garden to feed. One of the regular species was the blackcap pair which arrived during the fierce weather after Christmas and left around three or four weeks ago when the weather started to warm up.

The female blackcap – easily identified by her brown cap

There are two types of blackcap in the UK: those that migrate to sub-Saharan Africa to overwinter and those which migrate here from central Europe to overwinter. So I guess my pair, which oddly I rarely ever saw in the garden at the same time, were European visitors sampling our balmy winter weather.

Even though the female was the first blackcap I saw in the garden she visited nowhere near as often as the male and it took me a while to get a good portrait of her, but I managed to get these just before they disappeared to enjoy their springtime and rear their chicks in Germany or Poland.

Constant visitors all the way through the winter and still resident are my pair of chaffinch which are always welcome to brighten up a dull day.

Cock chaffinch resplendent in full courtship plumage

…and the charmed lady

The chaffinch pair probably have a nest nearby with chicks in, but before eggs and chicks the delicate matter of mating needs to be taken care of:

A pair of collared dove demonstrating that the act of lurv is not always so delicate

Spring has indeed sprung!

A special winter visitor

When the snows came a few weekends ago an influx of birds came to my garden to feed up on the seeds and fatballs I put out for them. I also threw out some squidgy grapes which had been getting overripe at the bottom of the punnet. And as well as all the usual species a winter visitor from Scandinavia also appeared.

Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris (Dansk: sjagger)

The fieldfare is a species of thrush from Scandinavia which migrates to overwinter in the UK. They’re hardy, feisty birds and utterly resplendent in their psychedelic finery! I’ve seen large flocks of them flying above the countryside around Histon but rarely within the village itself. And then this handsome bird arrived in my garden to feed on the squidgy grapes.

Dismembering a grape

It finished the grapes and then took up residence under a bush in the garden and repelled all comers. Whenever another bird came within striking distance it would emerge from its refuge at speed and chase it off. Which sufficed for everything smaller than a blackbird.

After the grapes had gone I augmented its diet with some apple, which coinidentally is also a favourite food of blackbirds. And within minutes there was competition for the fruit. The fieldfare adopted a very distinctive stance when the blackbird, or anything bigger, like a collared dove or a wood pigeon came within range and several fights ensued. And the fieldfare wasn’t always the winner because blackbirds are also accomplished pugilists when they need to be. So it all worked out evens, they both got some apple and a good scrap would keep them fit too:

The’repel all boarders’ stance, wings down, tail in the air. If that didn’t suffice then all out assault ensued

The fieldfare, I assume it was the same one, appeared in the garden after first light every morning until the rain washed away all the snow and it hasn’t been seen since. At the same time the trees and bushes in the village were also frequented by the fieldfares during the snow but they all disappeared with the snow too.