Tag Archives: ornithology

Geddington swallows

A couple of months ago I was at my sisters place in Geddington, a small village in the Northamptonshire countryside which is right next door to one of the original release sites for the reintroduction of red kites into the UK. Consequently, one doesn’t have to look too hard to see red kites there, but on this particular trip it was swallows that were the stars of the show.

Geddington is a very old village and the cottages in the middle, one of which is occupied by my sister, are built from Northamptonshire ironstone, which is a gorgeous building material. Not only is her house built with it but so is her very substantial shed. She leaves the door to the shed open all the time because there are bats roosting there, and in the summer swallows use nests built in the eaves there.


A brood of swallows on the verge of fledging

Swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk: landsvale) migrate here from South Africa in the Spring and they generally arrive back around the second weekend in May. They return to the same place every year and often refurbish an old nest which can be used year after year, and there are records of the same nest being used for decades.

I usually get an excited phone call from my sister in the middle of May to tell me her swallows have returned. They come back again and again and she comes over all maternal when the first one arrives.


A pair of very recent fledglings which haven’t yet plucked up the courage to venture outside

They have now done all their breeding and feeding up and are congregating on roof tops and power lines and contemplating the enormous feat of flying down through Europe, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara desert before crossing the rest of sub-Saharan Africa to South Africa. Where they will spend the next 6 months before doing the whole thing again in reverse. Awesome!

The magnificent marsh harrier

During a day spent at RSPB Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast in June the bird sightings were many and varied but one of the undoubted highlights for me was a marsh harrier which made regular appearances throughout the day.


Here’s looking at you…
A marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk – rørhøg) doing as the name suggest – harrying the marshes

The marsh harrier is one of our least numerous birds with around 400 females in the UK. According to the British trust for Ornithology it almost became extinct in the UK but has made a small recovery. It lives and breeds in reedbeds but during it’s recovery it has learnt to frequent farmland too. With the destruction of its normal habitat that adaptation may prove to be its saviour.

Marsh harriers hunt small mammals and birds and can be seen gliding over marshland and reedbeds with their wings in a characteristic shallow ‘V’ shape. It is restricted to East Anglia in the UK and its conservation status is Amber due to the declines seen in the past.

Despite its amber staus in the UK it is a species of least concern in the rest of Europe, which is good news. Hopefully a few more will find their way here to swell the UK population. They can mostly be seen here in nature reserves and the small number of locations where reedbeds and wetlands have not been drained.

One of the best reserves for harriers is Wicken Fen lying between Cambridge and Ely, and this is the only place where I’ve seen marsh harriers and hen harriers in the air at the same time. Wicken is owned by the National Trust and has a hundred year expansion plan which involves buying up the surrounding farmland as the soils becomes progressively downgraded and ultimately exhausted. So in around 100 years time it should be an enormous area of fen and home to large numbers of rare birds such as the harriers. So they may not be so rare then. Fingers crossed!

The iconic avocet

‘Iconic’ is a word that is overused, but in the case of the avocet it is entirely appropriate. Those of you from the UK – and possibly some of you from further afield – may know that in the UK the avocet is the emblem of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB.

A trio of avocet feeding on the water at RSPB Titchwell as a pair of swift hunt winged insects just overhead

The avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta, Dansk: klyde) had all but died out – in fact it may have totally died out – in the UK in the 19th century, but in the 1940’s a breeding population from the European mainland re-established itself when the coastal mudflats along the east coast of England were flooded as a defensive measure against a possible German invasion. So there you go, just occasionally something good can result from a war!

Avocet can be seen breeding on the east coast of England in the summer, and they are resident in the southwest during the winter, they are also winter and passage visitors. It is therefore an early symbol of conservation success and it was originally adopted by the RSPB in 1955 as the their symbol to adorn the new RSPB tie. Its continued success led it to be adopted as the RSPB logo in 1970. They are beautiful birds and they can be pretty feisty when it comes to guarding their territory.

The long upturned beak of the avocet, from which it gets it’s generic name, ‘Recurvirostra’, along with its black and white plumage makes it completely unmistakable. I have seen avocet before but not in such numbers and not so close and it was only on this trip that I realised they have very distinctive pale blue legs. So all in all it’s a very striking bird.

The upturned bill has a functional aspect too. It is the upper mandible which is curved and the avocet use it to stir up the sediment by sweeping it across the surface from side to side dislodging crustaceans, insects and worms which they detect by touch. The one below had captured a meal and the dark shadow just in front of its beak is a cloud of sediment churned up by the scything beak.

As with just about every species on the planet, including humans, the main threat to the avocet comes from inconsiderate human activity including reclamation of wetlands, depletion of water levels in rivers, infrastructure development and pollution by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), insecticides and heavy metals. Despite that, the global population is estimated to be between 210-460,000 individuals. It’s unclear if those numbers are stable, but as some populations decline others are increasing. So hopefully they’re OK for the time being.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in non-blogging stuff in the last month so I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with all your blogs. The pace is unlikely to let up before September but I’ll try to visit as many as I can in the meantime. I will be back!

Apodidae – the swift

Last month I spent a day at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell near Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast. It’s a particularly dramatic bit of coastline and is home to a very impressive array of birdlife which is concentrated here on the reserve. As well as all the waders and other water birds squadrons of swifts were wheeling and zooming low over the water plucking insects out of the air.


Swift – Apus apus. Dansk – mursejler

Swifts have been declining in numbers and their conservation status is amber, but it was difficult to believe they’re struggling! There seem to be good numbers of them in the skies around Cambridge too. I love it in the summer when I open a window and the sound of shrieking swifts filters down from on high.

Insects beware, bandits at 6 o’clock!

Photographing swifts in flight is challenging to say the least and something I’ve never before had much success with, but there were so many of them at Titchwell and they were flying close to the ground so I gave it a go. They seemed to have preferred routes which I guess were dictated by where the insects were flying and that made getting pictures a little less tricky as their flight paths were more predictable. And here are the results.

Swifts are members of the Apodidae family and on ther face of it appear fairly similar to swallows and martins. But my oft ill-remembered scchoolboy Latin leads me to believe that ‘apodidae‘ means ‘lacking feet‘ whereas swallows and martins are passerines which means they have feet adapted for perching. Swifts do have feet but they are tiny and adapted for clasping and not perching, all four of their toes pointing forward. One thing that the three species do have in common is that they are all awesome aeronauts. A juvenile swift can spend up to three years aloft after fledging and it will spend most of its life on the wing: eating, sleeping, gathering nesting material and even copulating in the sky.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology swifts shut down their brains one side at a time in order to maintain stable flight. But I’d like to know how they found that out – I can’t think of an experimental design that would enable this conclusion!

The swift is a summer migrant to UK shores and they spend their winters in South Africa, and I suspect the journey doesn’t take too long, covering a thousand miles in a couple of days!

My day at Titchwell was gorgeous, it was during the foul wet weather we’ve been having but shortly after we arrived the sun emerged and stayed with us for the whole day. I took nearly a thousand photographs and I’m going to post the best of them in batches in the next few weeks, interspersed with some other local wildlife. I hope you like them!

Wee brown birdies

In the brief intervals between howling gales and torrential rain in these parts we’ve had the occasional glimpse of sunshine, and in those moments I’ve managed to grab a few pictures of some small birds; those little ones that look small and brown at a distance and can defy attempts at identification.

I’ve been a little concerned at the small numbers of certain migrants which have returned to my local patch, in particular blackcap, yellow wagtail and whitethroat.


Common whitethroat – Sylvia communis, one of the few to return to the Meadow in 2012

Last year at this time I would expect to see 5-10 whitethroat during a circumnavigation of the Meadow but this year I hadn’t seen any until I spotted this one and his mate, last week, bringing food to the nest. I also found another pair which I think are nesting in a tree on the other side of the track to this pair, but I’m yet to confirm that. And I still haven’t seen a single blackcap or yellow wagtail in 2012. Hopefully they made a successful migration back here and are just elsewhere, but I do miss ’em, they liven up my walks with the dog.


Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita

A wandering warbler which has returned in numbers is the chiffchaff, and I hear them singing almost everywhere I go. This one was in a field here in Histon, and let me get close enough to take this picture, which is my favourite chiffchaff shot.

The rest of the birds in this posts are not migrants in the UK and I see them all year round. The yellowhammer is a bunting that has a very distinctive song, described in numerous field guides as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese‘. Which is a very good example of the pitfalls of trying to over-interpret birdsong! I was with my daughter when we saw (and heard) this one calling, and after telling her about the ‘little-bit-of-bread…’ thing we spent the rest of the walk thinking up alternatives. My favourite was ‘I’m-going-down-the-pub-for-a-beer‘.

Yellowhammers – Emberiza citrinella

I was particularly pleased with the second yellowhammer picture because I like the out-of-focus foliage surrounding the focussed bird. I recently upgraded my DSLR to one with more sophisticated focussing capabilities than my ageing Nikon D40x, which all my pictures up to now have been taken with. And one of the main reasons was so I could focus more quickly on small birds in bushes, such as this one, where the foliage was moving around in the breeze causing the camera to struggle to find focus. This picture was taken with my D40x and I was surprised by how well it turned out, so maybe I’d have delayed upgrading if I’d captured this image first!


Reed bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus

Reed buntings are present in the local fields and hedgerows all year round and this little chap, for he is indeed a male, was singing long and loud perched on the top of the rape flowers. A circuit around this field is an ornothological treat, on one lap I’d expect to see several reed buntings, at least one or two corn bunting, lots of skylark and occasionally linnet and goldfinch. And on Saturday (9th June) there were two bullfinch, an adult male, resplendent in his black cap and peach breast, and a male youngster, the same colours but a tad smaller and with more muted colours, perched in a tree together on the edge of the field.


Dunnock – Prunella modularis

And my favourite little brown bird is the dunnock, which are also here all year round, and in the winter are regular visitors to my garden. These two were transporting food to the youngsters in the nest in the midst of a bramble thicket. Fortunately, despite the low numbers of migrants in my locality there are still enough birds around to liven up a walk in the countryside.

Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

My tame wood pigeon

Several posts ago I mentioned the wood pigeons that were frequenting my garden. For the last 2-3 weeks there has just been one, but he has been very regular, dropping in and mooching around the back lawn and vacuuming up the spilled from the feeders, even though he’s fairly adept at balancing on there and helping himself. I’m calling him a he because I’m imaging it is the same one and that if he were a female he’d be busy incubating eggs and rearing chicks.


Tidying up the garden with one of the local blackbirds

This particular pigeon seemed very relaxed in the garden, he would fly in and spend alot of time just wandering around and feeding on seeds and a couple of weeks ago I happened to glance out the window and he was still on the ground. I watched him for a couple of minutes and he didn’t move so I went off to get my camera but by the time I got back he had disappeared.


Enjoying the sunshine

Then several hours later he was back and doing the same thing again. He was hunkered down on the ground with his wings extended. I’ve never seen wood pigeons do this before but I can only assume that he felt sufficiently secure to relax and enjoy the sunshine! He was there for several minutes before he was disturbed by another bird and then he wandered around for a few more minutes before flying away.


Columba palumbus (Dansk: ringdue)

And in my humble opinion he is a very handsome bird. This evening as I write this there are three wood pigeons sitting on my garden fence, so maybe he’s told the wife and kids about it too. I’ll have to put out more seed and nuts than usual tomorrow.

The chiffchaff and the willow warbler

The chiffchaff and the willow warbler both members of the warbler or ‘Sylviidae‘ family. There are 63 members of the Sylviidae of which 14 species breed in the UK. They’re very similar to look at and can be pretty tricky to tell apart. Last week in my local meadow I came across both species in photographable locations so I  thought I’d try to show the differences. Both species are summer migrants to the UK having overwintered in Africa, the chiffchaff goes to the Mediterranean and some head south of the Sahara, and the willow warblers all  go down to tropical sub-Saharan Africa.

This publication from Birdlife International tells us that the global population of willow warblers is estimated to be between 300 million and 1.2 billion individuals, and a fact that blew my socks off was that the northern Siberian population overwinters in southern Africa, which is a journey of over 7000 miles or 11000 km… and back! And they’re only 19cm long and weigh 10g, so they may be tiny, but they’re incredibly tough. The chiffchaff is also a scarce winter visitor to the UK.

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) collecting nesting materialWillow warbler showing off her pink legs, bright supercilium and pale ear coverts

The willow warbler has longer primaries and the light stripe over the eye, the ‘supercilium‘ is brighter and more pronounced than that of the chiffchaff, and the ear coverts of the willow warbler (the patch under the eye) are a pale olive colour. The other visual diagnostic feature which is probably easiest to see at a glance is the leg colour, the willow warbler has pinkish brown legs whilst those of the chiffchaff are much darker, almost black.

Chiffchaff showing off its more subdued facial markings and overall colour scheme and the dark coloured legs

In the absence of a clear sighting the easiest way to differentiate between these two species is by their song: click here to hear the chiffchaff song, and here for the willow warbler song.

The conservation status of the chiffchaff is green and in 2000 there were around three quarters of a million territories in the UK, but the willow warbler is amber due to a decline in the breeding population, but despite that there were still two milion territories in 2000.

Returning songbirds

There’s a particular spot in my local meadow where there are some large clumps of brambles which are home to numerous species of bird including songthrush, blackbird, linnet and house sparrow. And in the summer chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and common whitethroat are all there too. Chiffchaff have been here for a couple of months now, and willow warbler almost as long but I hadn’t yet seen a whitethroat, so I set off last Monday in the hope of seeing the first one of the year.

A cock robin singing to the ladies

There were many species of songbird in the meadow including the robin (Erithacus rubecula: Dansk: rødhals) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and the air was alive with the song of all these species.


House sparrow female

Robin and house sparrow are resident species in the meadow and I see them all year round there, but not the chiffchaff:

The chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita Dansk: gransanger), which is a warbler, and willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) can be very difficult to tell apart if only seen at a glance, but they can be distinguished by their song, of which more in the next post. This chiffchaff was one of a pair which were calling to each other and flitting around the bushes passing within a few feet of me on several occasions and seemingly unfazed by my presence.

Cock linnet

Resident in the UK is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk), they disappear from the fields around Histon in the Autumn, presumably to congregate at a winter feeding ground, and they reappear in the Spring. And they have recently turned up in the meadow. Also resident, and present all year round, is the dunnock…


Dunnock, Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

… and the chaffinch:

Cock chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke

There were no whitethroat back in the meadow last Monday but as you can see there were plenty of other birds. In the last week I’ve also seen kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard, blackcap, green woodpecker, jay and magpie.

I recce’d the meadow again this weekend and the whitethroat are now back from wintering in Africa. They are very distinctive and both sexes are easily identified by their strikingly white throat, and the males display by singing from the top of a bramble thicket or a sapling and flit 4-5m vertically into the air and then descend to land in the same spot. They’re lovely little birds, with a very distinctive song, and I’ll hopefully have some pictures to show you in the near future.

Wild Geese

At the same time I was experimenting with ISO and coots at Milton Country Park there were geese in the vicinity too. A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) were grazing in a field  immediately adjacent to the park.

There is another flock of greylags I encounter every day on my way to and from work. There are around 20-30 that have taken up residence in a field that is on my cycle route. The field is adjacent to a lake and the cycle path passes between them and every morning I pass by there are numerous heads poking up above the crop. I’m surprised the farmer puts up with this because the field now has a number of large threadbare patches as a result of the goose activity. But the geese have been there for a couple of months now and so far he hasn’t shot them so I imagine he probably doesn’t plan to. Which I’m rather pleased about.


Five of a small group of greylags ensconced in a field immediately adjacent to Milton Country Park

The RSPB website tells us that the greylag is the ancestor of domestic geese and is one of the largest and bulkiest geese native to the UK. It also describes it as ‘uninspiring‘. However, a few weeks ago on my way to work the flock of greylags were spooked and flushed up into the air. They headed for the safety of the lake which was only around 75m away so they didn’t need to gain height and one of them veered around and was heading straight for me at headheight. We simultaneously computed that if we continued on our current trajectories the end result would be an ugly collision twixt self and goose! So I braked and the goose wheeled, and it duly arrived at the lake unscathed, passing a few metres in front of me. My adrenaline levels were significantly elevated for the remainder of my journey to work and I can attest to the fact that this particular greylag was indeed very large and very bulky. And anything but uninspiring.

A lone canada goose – I like the symmetry of the reflection

The canada goose (Branta canadensis, Dansk: canadagås) was introduced to the UK and is now a resident breeder here and can be seen all over the UK apart from northern Scotland, and like the greylag it feeds on vegetation. I think it’s a handsome bird.