Tag Archives: resident breeder

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!

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The Magnificent Mute

Mute swans are beautiful birds. There are few sights as impressive as a male mute, wings cocked, protecting his youngsters. The family below were on a very small lake at RSPB Fen Drayton and just before I took the pictures below, the male had launched a pre-emptive strike against a perceived threat at the other side of the lake, around 40m away. I couldn’t see who the interloper was but the sight and the sound of the big male as he raced across the lake, wings outstretched and beating on the water, must have been extremely intimidating. It was unnerving from where I was standing!


The male on the left is back with his brood after nullifying the threat. But he’s still got his wings cocked.

The mute (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) is one of the biggest flying birds with a wingspan greater than two metres and an average weight for the male of approximately 11kg, it is a very impressive bird indeed and a group in the air flying close by is a real jaw dropper.

In the UK mute swans belong to the monarch and no one else is allowed to take them. They are marked every year, a practice that was originally identifying them  for the monarchs table, but I think Her Maj’s palate has evolved since then and eating swans is, fortunately, no longer fashionable.

It is native to the UK and a resident breeder but when things get too cold on mainland Europe winter migrants can show up here too. They tend to remain in their home territory all year round but can also form groups in the winter and move to a winter feeding ground, presumably this behaviour is driven by the temperature, availability of food and safety in numbers.

The ‘mute‘ in ‘mute swan’ is apparently derived from the fact that the mute swan is not as noisy as other swans. I’ve strayed too close to a nest before though, and at that moment mute was probably the last adjective to spring to mind as they voiced their discontent by making a violent hissing sound to warn me off. I took the hint and retreated as swiftly as possible.

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!