Tag Archives: ornithology

An unusual but entertaining day at work

Earlier this week I was learning about a technique called ‘dynamic light scattering’ (DLS) which is used to determine the size of very small particles, even those as small as protein molecules. My teacher was a scientist called Ken who designs and builds DLS machines. It came up in conversation that he lives close to the southern end of the M40 corridor where I’ve seen lots of red kites and read stories of them stealing food from people, so I asked if he sees them in his neighbourhood.

Red kite (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente), this one was at Hamerton in Cambridgeshire

Red kites are big, distinctive, birds of prey and they’re a conservation success story in the UK, having been almost driven to extinction but then reintroduced in the 1990’s since when their numbers have rocketed. And as it happens they are very common indeed in that part of the world and Ken kindly agreed to upload this video clip to You Tube so I could post a link to it here. This all happened in Ken’s garden and I think it’s highly entertaining stuff,  I think I’d struggle every morning to get out the front door to go to work if I had this kind of show going on in my garden!

Later on, at the end of the same day, a big flock of a few thousand starlings were murmurating over the Cambridge Science Park as I left work to come home. I was keeping one eye on the starlings and one eye on the road when I stopped at a red traffic light on the edge of the Science Park and the starlings were swirling and wheeling around the sky just in front of me. Then a sparrowhawk drifted by but the starlings carried on murmurating until the hawk suddenly accelerated up towards them. Then all of the flocks shrunk down into very tight groups and focussed on taking evasive action. It was a piece of natural theatre going on in the sky which was spectacular to watch. Then the traffic lights went green and I had to move on so I didn’t get to see the culmination of the chase, but it was a captivating end to the day.

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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!

Sylvia – another unusual visitor

Like a lot of other folk I gave up making new year resolutions a long time ago because the resolve would normally last until the 2nd or 3rd of January before slipping quietly unnoticed into the flotsam and jetsam of recent history, never to be seen again. But for 2013 I made two resolutions – the first was to get current with my wildlife diaries which have been appallingly neglected for far too long – and the second resolution was not to condemn the first one to the black hole into which it would normally be swallowed. And so far so good, hence I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.

This years listings can be found here at ‘Histon Wildlife Diaries 2013‘ and if you notice gaps of more than a couple of weeks opening up please feel free to leave a pointed reminder that I need to get my finger out and get up to date!

As a consequence of my girded up loins and renewed efforts I’ve been spending more time peering into the garden to see which creatures are in residence. Just before Christmas I saw the first blackcap in the garden, it was a male with his coal-black cap, like a judge about to hand down the ultimate sentence, and he stayed for all of 2-3 seconds before zooming off into the sanctuary of our neighbours orchard. And of course I was very pleased with this visitation because it’s always good to welcome a newcomer.

Then a couple of weeks ago when the winter weather was at its filthiest here in Cambridge a female appeared and spent some time refuelling on my fatball feeder:


A female blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) on the birdcam fatball feeder

The birdcam used to be around 6m away from where it is now but there were very few takers for the lardy delights on offer.  But since I moved it to its current location it has been busy every day with numerous bird species. The reason for the change is the lack of cover in the original location which left the birds exposed to the possibility of predation by the local sparrowhawk. But now they have cover within a metre or so and and I can sit and watch them all in close up on the TV. And one of the first to arrive after I moved it was my lady blackcap, who you’ll have immediately noticed has a rufous brown cap, not the blackcap of the male. The specific name ‘atricapilla‘ means ‘blackcap‘ and the Danish name ‘munk‘ means ‘monk‘. I wonder which godly habits gave him that name, or is it simply his ecclesiastical bonnet?

She arrived early on a murky morning, fed quickly and left, and that was the last I’ve seen of her. But a couple of days later a male blackcap arrived and he’s been visiting several times a day every day ever since then:


The male blackcap feeding on an old apple

I’m puzzled as to why the female has been so conspicuous by her continued absence, I guess that now the weather is considerably more pleasant she is more comfortable feeding out in the countryside.

The male doesn’t restrict himself to ground feeding on fruit but is a more regular visitor to the fatballs.

And he tops up with water too. In the picture below he is wary of the goldfinch nibbling niger seed on the adjacent feeder. He was also aware of my presence behind a glass door around 8m away and when the goldfinch disappeared he threw numerous glances in my direction, but so long as I remained still he wasn’t too bothered.

Until recently it was thought that the blackcap was a migrant breeder here in the UK and that they spent their winters in Africa, apart from a sub population that remained here in the winter. But it is now thought that all of ours overwinter south of the Mediterranean and our winter visitors are a separate population from central Europe which migrate here to overwinter. In which case my visitors will be heading back east in the near future. After that I’ll hopefully see and hear our migrant breeders out in the hedgerows where they make a distinctive call which I think sounds like someone flint-knapping.

The British Trust for Ornithology have published a factsheet about blackcaps and their migration behaviour which is worth a read. We also have passage visitors as Scandinavian birds head south and it appears that garden bird feeders are having a major impact on the behaviour of blackcaps and other species too, such as nuthatch, which are now spreading into Scotland, assisted by garden feeding and climate change.

Mating Mutes

The sun is shining a lot now and the snow has totally disappeared. Unlike two weekends ago which was bitterly cold and the lakes at Milton Country Park were partially iced over. It’s not always easy to see all the water birds but they had been coralled into smaller areas by the ice. Ducks abounded at the park with teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) and tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) in numbers, as well as the customary mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand). There were two highlights of the trip, a goldcrest was busy hunting in a bush just a few feet away and seemed undisturbed by our presence. Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge) are beautiful little birds, they are our smallest breeding species, weighing 4-7 grams, and the northern populations migrate south in winter with Scandinavian individuals crossing the North Sea to overwinter in the UK.

Mute swan pair with a male tufted duck in the background

I didn’t manage to get pictures of the goldcrest, which is a pity, but I did manage to get pictures of the second highlight, which was a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane). And if the goldcrest is our smallest breeder, the mute swan is one of the biggest (if  not thee biggest), weighing in at a hefty 10.5-12kg, and breeding is what this pair had in mind.

Mute swans pair for life and the courtship dance is delightful to watch, they gracefully circled each other, repeatedly intertwining their necks:

And the dance culminated in mating. The male climbed on board the female and grasped the back of her neck with his beak, the whole thing lasted just a few seconds, which was just as well for the lady as her head was held underwater and she actually disappeared from view.

And after mating they rose up, breast to breast out of the water and continued the necking dance:

Finally, they relaxed back into the water and finished the ritual by bobbing their heads towards each other, and apart from the mating moments the whole thing was very calm and sedate. I think mutes are simply regal, they are very big, powerful, animals and I can’t hink of any creature which is quite so pristine.

And shortly after mating the male climbed out of the water onto the ice for a post-coital stretch up to his full height and opened his wings, surrounded by a retinue of coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and gadwall. A fitting finale to this series of captivating natural events.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch – the tally

I filled up the birdfeeders first thing this morning, made a jug of coffee, and sat in the window waiting for the birds to flock in. And very little happened. So I waited a little longer. And still nothing happened, and I put it down to the fact the sun was shining, all the snow had gone and the temperature was in double figures.

A dunnock mopping up seed scattered by great tits on the hanging feeder

Then at 9.26am a group of four long tailed tits arrived on the fat balls and from then on the birds came and went in rapid succession. So the plan was to count from 9.26 to 10.26 until at around 9.50 the dog vomited on the carpet so the next 20 minutes weren’t spent counting birds. The finish time was therefore a tad delayed, but the final counts were:

Species                                 Total counted                    Maximum number at one time

Long tailed tit                              18                                                              5
Blue tit                                            18                                                              3 Dunnock                                          3                                                               1
Collared dove                                6                                                               2
Blackbird                                       13                                                               2
Greenfinch                                      5                                                               4
Wood pigeon                                  6                                                               2
Robin                                                 3                                                                2
Starling                                             5                                                                2
Great tit                                            3                                                               2
Chaffinch                                         2                                                                1

A female greenfinch enjoying some longed for sunshine

So all in all, what with the Vesuvian intervention from the dog, it was an entertaining hour and a half.

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!

What a difference a frost makes

Having bemoaned the lack of wildlife in my garden, last Saturday the weather turned very cold here and after replenishing the bird feeders they were flocking in in droves! These resilient little guys were obviously finding sufficient sustenance elsewhere until the cold set in but now they’re here in numbers daily, and today we have had 10-15cm of snow and it hasn’t stopped yet so I reckon they’ll be around for a while longer too.

One of the species which I have missed because they are normally here all through the winter is the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke):

The cock chaffinch always adds a splash of welcome colour

Chaffinch are resident breeders in the UK and can generally be seen and heard in trees and hedgerows all year round. Another resident breeder I hadn’t in the garden or in the countryside much this year was the dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernsurv), the archetypal ‘LBJ‘ or ‘Little Brown Job’. When viewed closely they’re anything but LBJ’s. They feed on the ground so I always throw a handful of seed in the undergrowth for them. This little guy has been terrorised by my resident robin, but the arrival of a second robin has given him respite as my resident no longer has his eye on the ball.

My dunnock keeping one eye on the ground for seed while the other looks for the robin

The coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) is a pine tree specialist, seeking insects and spiders in the summer and seeds in the winter. This makes it a bit of a mystery here because we have very few conifers in the vicinity, but there are at least two flitting in and out of the garden all day:

The coal tit waiting it’s turn to get on the seed tray

A blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmajse) about to join the coal tit and grab a seed

Starling – (Sternus vulgaris, Dansk: stær)

Starlings are a bird that used to be very common and would murmurate in humungous numbers but this only happens now in a very few places. When I was an undergrad in Liverpool they would gather on icy winters evenings over Old Haymarket in vast numbers. The aerial manouvres were breathtaking, as was the acrid ammoniacal stench from the guano left behind on the pavements! I generally only see them in small flocks of a few tens these days, but they regularly come and avail themselves of the fatballs in my garden. And they’re more than welcome!

And finally, usually the most visible diner at my avian restaurant, the ubiquitous blackbird. Even they were conspicuous by their relative absence until very recent weeks, but now they’re back in  numbers:

And no English garden is complete without a feisty blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort). Having said that, according to the British Trust for Ornithology the blackbird is a ‘Migrant/Resident Breeder, Passage/Winter Visitor’ and they migrate within the UK but also in winter we get an influx from Europe coming from Germany and Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. It makes me chuckle that whilst us folk moan about the weather and then jet off to the Canary Isalands in the winter, the blackbirds are coming here to make the most of our balmy winter climate. Just goes to show, everything’s relative!

All the other garden birds…

In the last post I described the tits visiting my bird feeders. But of course they’re not the only species fattening up in the garden so this post is about the others. The berries and other food from the countryside are now becoming rather more scarce so greater numbers of more species are appearing.

One of the first to arrive, which has been around for a couple of months now, was my resident robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals). Robins are fiercely territorial and this little guy being  no exception makes it clear that my garden is his manor, in fact it’s fair to say he’s a complete thug. He only picks on birds of a similar size or smaller and he won’t tolerate them for even a second. The two species he seems to dislike most are the dunnocks (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and the coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) who have the temerity to enter his domain and he chases and beats them up remorselessly. Earlier this afternoon another robin turned up and I expected real fireworks as I’ve heard stories of rival robins fighting to the death and scalping each other! The fighting this time was restricted to a short chase and a bit of posturing and then it was all over, fortunately no injuries or fatalities were sustained.

A source of much concern this winter has been the absence of goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits). I have a niger seed feeder for them which I keep full, but they ignored it until a few weeks ago, but even then there was only ever one or two making the occasional visit whereas previously they would be feeding there every day, often five or six at a time. And then a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) attacked a goldfinch on the feeder and I didn’t see another one until a few days ago. I don’t know if the memory of the sparrowhawk was enough to keep them away but they have been conspicuous by their absence.

A lone goldfinch feeding on niger seed

There is a tall old tree 10 metres from my garden which I often see flocks of 20+ goldfinches in but they just don’t seem to want to drop down onto the feeder. Maybe if the weather turns icy they’ll alter their behaviour as food gets even more difficult to find.

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, Dansk:  grønirisk)

I’m always pleased to see greenfinches because they’re one of my favourite small birds and also because their numbers have been under threat from a nasty parasitic infection called ‘trichomonosis‘ which I posted about last year. So this little chap was very welcome. I was surprised to see him sitting on the niger seed feeder, but he wasn’t eating the seed, he was waiting for an opportunity to descend onto the seed tray which was already occupied.

The small birds usually have free access to the seed tray but occasionally it’s fully occupied by a pair of collared doves:

Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto, Dansk: tyrkedue)

This was one of a pair and its partner was just out of shot further along the fence. A lot of folk seem to be very unimpressed by collared doves but I like having them around and I particularly like this guy with his feathers ruffled by the wind.

Previously I’ve been taking my close ups with a Nikon D40x and a Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens. This has been a really good combination, it’s small and light and therefore easily portable and has performed really well. But last year I bought a Canon 7D because I wanted to upgrade my camera body to one which is more robust and with more capability. I chose Canon rather than Nikon because the lens I thought most appropriate for what I needed was the 80-400mm telephoto zoom, but every review I read of it was that it was no good at all for wildlife photography because the autofocussing speed was much too slow. So I reckon Nikon missed a trick there because Canon have the 100-400mm L series telephoto zoom for around the same price as the Nikon lens which I decided to go for because it is supposed to be good for wildlife.


Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus, Dansk: ringdue) keeping the small songbirds away from the seed tray all by himself

All the photographs in this post except for the greenfinch were taken in murky conditions using my new Canon lens and I’m very pleased with the image quality. So now I’m looking forward to experimenting with it further afield. I’ll post the results as soon as I can.

Tits, tits, tits!

Coal, long tailed and great, that is, in case you were thinking the News of the World had reinvented itself in blog format! The reason I’ve dedicated a post to the tits is because they have been the most regular visitors to my feeders and on many days I’ve seen these four species there at the same time: blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus, Dansk: blåmejse), great tit (Parus major, Dansk musvit), coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse).

Two factors combined to make photographing the songbirds in my garden considerably more challenging than is customary. Long periods of murky wet weather meant that the light was rarely optimal, and secondly, very few birds came to the garden at all up until November, and even then not in the numbers that have visited in previous years. I think the reason for that may have been the relative abundance of food in the countryside due to the mild and wet conditions that prevailed in the summer and autumn which gave rise to an abundance of blackberries, haws, sloes, hips and other berries. Then after November the birds started to reappear but the light didn’t improve so I took photographs at ISO settings of 1000-2000 to get the requisite shutter speeds, which is higher than I would normally use because of the higher background noise. Despite that I got some nice images:

Coal tit looking for a meal on a murky morningCoal tit looking for breakfast on a cold foggy morning

The coal tit is distinguishable at a glance by the prominent white stripe on the nape of its neck. They’ve been regular but infrequent visitors to my garden in other years but in the last couple of months they’ve been coming in ones and twos every day. The tits are not always easy to capture because they usually feed by grabbing a seed or nut and then flying into the cover of an adjacent bush to eat it. But just occasionally they linger for long enough, as this coal tit did. They prefer coniferous woodland in the breeding season where they feed on spiders and insects and in wintertime they are also prevalent in towns when they will also feed on seeds. Their conservation status is green, they’re resident breeders in the UK and can be found across Europe and Asia and in Africa too.

Long tailed tits disobeying the cardiologist!Two of a small flock of long tailed tits

As with coal tits, the long tailed tit is also immediately recognisable. Seeing one almost invariably means there are more close by. They fly from A to B one at a time, each following the previous one by half a second or so and are usually in small flocks of 10 or a dozen. I often hear them before I see them as they chatter to each other as they’re on the move. They like to feed on the fat balls I hang out, as do the other tits, and there can be 3 or 4 there at the same time with several more in the adjacent bushes, waiting their turn. They’re very charming little birds and I’m looking forward to them visiting on a bright sunny day so I can get some better images. Like coal tits they are also woodland birds, found across Eurasia they are resident breeders in the UK and their conservation status is green.

Great tit preparing himself to launch onto the seed tray

Great tits are probably the most regular partakers of the fare provided by my feeders, and that’s no bad thing, they’re handsome birds. There are a pair, male and female, feeding on seeds as I write, and they’ve just been joined by a pair of blue tits. The great tit is one of the birds that put the ‘song‘ in songbird, my Collins guide describes them as having a ‘rich repertoire’ and I’ve read they have around 70 different vocalisations, which suggests highly complex vocal communication for a small bird.

The male above has a chunk of peanut between his toes which he is pecking from. He is distinguishable from the female by the width of his black breast stripe which reaches as far as his legs, and the female below who has a very thin stripe which tapers downwards, is nibbling at a fat ball. In the depths of winter small birds need to spend most of the day feeding because the majority of their energy intake is used to maintain body temperature. Birds as small as a coal tit, which weighs 8-10g, therefore spend virtually all day feeding just to stay warm and they can die of hypothermia very quickly on a wintry morning if they don’t find food within a short time of waking up. So as us humans have destroyed so much natural habitat, our gardens and feeding stations are an essential lifeline for many species of birds.

Great tits also have green conservation status, numbering 2 million in summer 2000 according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Other species which have put in an appearance are the wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte), blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and a lone male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) flew through on one occasion – one of our eastern European overwintering blackcaps. Early one dark foggy morning as I was replenishing the feeders I caught a small movement out the corner of my eye so I glanced round without moving my head and a wren sat around 3 feet away watching me. When I finished I stood and watched him and he just waited for me to leave before grabbing some breakfast. I found out recently that wrens are our commonest bird, which really surprised me, but then they are adaptable and aren’t restricted to one particular habitat. It’s nice to see them flitting around the garden in their perpetual search for insects to see them through the winter.

(N.b. I source my bird feed from Vine House Farm. I wouldn’t normally do a free plug but I really like what these people do. They work together with the Wildlife Trusts and they farm the land to produce bird feed in the most wildlife-friendly way they can, and they publish a free newsletter to update on progress and news from the farm. Their feed is not always the cheapest but I’ve always found it to be very high quality.)

Titchwell birds – the final episode

I’ve posted several times with pictures from my trip June to Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast but I’ve now exhausted my photo collection from that trip so this is the last one. There was a terrific number of bird species present the day I was there including ducks, waders, raptors, passerines and gulls, but the wildlife wasn’t confined to birds, a wall brown butterfly and a chinese water deer also putting in appearances.

Gulls are many and often not-so-varied and can be easy to overlook: “What’s that bird?”, “Oh it’s just a gull”. But I like gulls and and it’s always good to have a new species identified and on this trip it was the little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus, Dansk: dværgmåge). At first glance the little gull looks like a black headed gull, but it is noticeably smaller:


Little gull in winter colours – the summer plumage includes a completely black head

The other obvious difference between the two species is the colour of the beak which is black on the little gull and red on the black headed. It may also be mistaken for a tern as it swoops down on the water in a similar way to a tern but it’s not fishing it’s picking food from the surface of the water. I haven’t seen other gulls feed in this way.


Black headed gull (Larus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

The black headed gull is common and I see large flocks of them feeding in the fields around Cambridge in the winter, unlike the little gull which is a rare breeder in the UK and a passage and winter visitor on it’s way to the Mediterranean.

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre)

Stalking the shallows were several grey herons searching for fish and amphibians. The heron is a very effective predator unlike the pied wagtail perched just a few metres away serenading the comings and goings of serried ranks of twitchers passing to and from one of the hides:


Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba, Dansk: hvid vipstjert)

This wagtail is an adult male, his colours are much darker and the black bib more extensive than the more delicately shaded female. The pied wagtail is a resident and migrant breeder and I regularly see them patrolling lawns, meadows and carparks with their characterisitic twitching tail.

The one bird which I knew could be seen at Titchwell, but which I also knew was very elusive, so I didn’t really expect to catch a glimpse of it, was the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus, Dansk: skægmejse). It’s one of those birds that I’ve seen pictures of and thought it almost looks unreal, like a childs drawing of an imaginary colourful songbird. A notion which seemed to be corroborated when I looked in my Collins field guide and it wasn’t listed! It transpires that it was listed, but as the ‘bearded reedling‘ instead of the ‘bearded tit‘, and it’s actually more closely related to the larks than the tits, to which it’s resemblance is only superficial. Despite the alternative name in my field guide it is listed on the British Trust for Ornithology ‘BirdFacts‘ website as the ‘bearded tit


Bearded tit juvenile

The bearded tit is resident in the UK but confined to the southern and eastern extremities. However, I did see some and even managed to get a photograph, albeit a not very good one(!). This one is a youngster, identified by the black eyestripe which differentiates it from the female, and the black patch on the nape which is absent in both adult genders. Of all the birds I saw on this visit the bearded tit (or reedling) was probably the highlight.