Tag Archives: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend, the 26th and 27th January 2013, is the weekend of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This is a form of citizen science by which the RSPB can harness the collective spotting power of the nation to assist in compiling data on the nations bird populations.

The idea is to spend one hour noting which bird species visit a chosen area and the maximum number of each seen at any one time. This point is important because an individual can make several visits over the course of an hour, so counting total numbers will overestimate the numbers of a particular species.


A long tailed tit paying a visit to my garden this morning

If you want to make a pot of tea and sit by the window for a relaxing hour sipping and counting the details of how to take part are here on the RSPB’s website. Even if you don’t get many interesting birds in your garden, or even many birds at all, this is important and useful data too for compiling population sizes and distributions, so every participant is crucial in creating an accurate picture of the health of the nations birdlife. Which is in turn a useful indicator of the health of the natural environment in the UK as a whole.

I’m going to do my recording tomorrow morning and I’ll post my results here too.

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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.

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!

Carduelis (or Chloris) chloris

A sound I hear frequently at the moment when I open a door or a window which stands out from all other birdcalls is the call of the male greenfinch. It’s quite variable in tone from fairly high pitched, as in the recording here, to lower pitched where it almost sounds like a whirring mechanical toy.

The bird in these pictures has a reddish hue to it because it was being lit by the evening sun as it was getting lower in the sky, and also from the reflected light of the rusty ironwork and insulators of the electricity supply cables:


Greenfinch male calling from the top of a telegraph pole

The female greenfinch is similar to the male but her colours are much more drab, she is darker grey/brown without the vibrant green of the male.

The greenfinch is a resident breeder in the UK and can be found in gardens and parks at all times of the year feeding on bigger seeds and sometimes insects when rearing youngsters. It has a chunky beak which is typical of finches and is custom built for cracking open seeds.

The taxonomic name for the greenfinch is listed in some references as ‘Carduelis chloris‘, as in my RSPB ‘Complete Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Rob Hume published in 2002, (RSPB – Royal Society for the protection of Birds) ISBN 0751373540, and also in the RSPB Bird Identifier website. But in the BTO BirdFacts website (BTO – British Trust for Ornithology) and in my Collins Bird Guide 2nd edition from 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 726726 2, it is listed as ‘Chloris chloris‘ (Dansk: grønirisk). Somewhat confusingly the BTO entry goes on to explain that the name derives from ‘carduelis‘ meaning ‘goldfinch’ and the Greek ‘khloros‘ meaning ‘green’. So it appears that the two names may be interchangeable. Incidentally, the chemical element chlorine also derives its name from khloros as it exists as a green gas.

He’s turned round to keep on eye on me – his seed-cracking beak clearly visible

The poor old greenfinch has taken a bit of a battering in the last few years since 2005 from the trichomonad parasite which causes a disease called trichomonosis. This microscopic parasite lives in the upper digestive tracts of several birds species including other finches, house sparrows (Passer domesticus, Dansk:  gråspurv) and pigeons and doves. I’ve heard that feeders may become contaminated by pigeons from where it infects the smaller birds. It’s particularly unpleasant (as are most parasitic infestations!) because it causes the throat to swell to the point where the birds can’t swallow so they eventually die of starvation.

Fortunately I’ve never seen any evidence of infected birds but if you think you may have a problem you can click here for the RSPB advice sheet which has details on how to identify the problem and how best to deal with it.

Winter garden visitors

Redwing and fieldfare have now made the journey south from Scandinavia to overwinter in the fields and hedgerows of the UK and the first frosts have happened over alot of the country. The weather has turned generally pretty cold so it’s time to spare a thought for the struggling wild creatures. I’ve now cleaned and replenished my feeders to help the birds survive the winter months. For example, a blue tit weighs between 10-12 grams so a night spent asleep in sub-zero conditions is an extremely challenging time and they need regular food supplies to keep warm. You’ll notice the photographs in this post weren’t all shot in the cold winter months but all the species shown are regular winter visitors to my garden.


Greenfinch waiting for a vacant space on the seed feeder

I hang bird feeders from the trees in my front garden with peanuts, mixed seed and fat balls in along with a ground station with peanuts, seed and sultanas. There are some good online suppliers out there including the RSPB, Soar Mill Seeds and the one I’ve now been using for a few years is Vine House Farm. This combination of feeds attracts a wide range of birds including starling, blackbird, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit, robin, greenfinch, chaffinch, rook, jackdaw, carrion crow, collared dove and wood pigeon.


Wood pigeon perched in the cherry tree in my front garden


One of the Churchyard rooks sitting on a neighbours’ TV aerial contemplating a raid on the ground feeder

 


One of the blue tit pair in my crab apple tree checking for danger before disappearing into the nest box

 There are also infrequent visits from great spotted woodpecker, song thrush, wren, sparrowhawk and even a yellowhammer put in an appearance on one occasion.

In my back garden I also hang peanut and mixed seed feeders and a niger seed feeder for goldfinch. I have two suspended seed feeders above ground out of the way of marauding cats and squirrels which work well for ground feeders such as chaffinch and dunnock. A similar range of small birds appear in the back garden but the crows, woodpecker and sparrowhawk  don’t seem to venture in there, but dunnock and goldfinch are regular visitors all through the year.

Goldfinch – one of this years offspring. It still doesn’t have the black head markings and the face is pale orange rather than the deep red of the adults.

Adult goldfinch


Dunnock

Living on the edge of countryside surrounded by gardens with big old trees and an orchard is obviously a good place to be to see birds (and bats in the summer), but being in the middle of the village or even in the middle of a city like Cambridge, well away from countryside, doesn’t preclude seeing interesting birdlife. A friend in Histon has seen siskin and redpoll in his garden, neither of which are common garden birds, and another friend in the centre of Cambridge has regular visits from sparrowhawk and jay. So simply hanging up a couple of birdfeeders with nuts and mixed seed can turn an urban garden into a mini nature reserve, and you can sit in the warm with a cup of coffee and watch it all out the window. I’ve been amazed to see what has turned up in my garden in the last few years!