Tag Archives: RSPB

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.

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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.

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.

Titchwell ducks

I like ducks. A couple of hours spent by the side of a lake gazing at and identifying numerous duck species is time well spent in my opinion. (N.b. as I write this I’m sipping a glass of a very tasty Chilean Cabernet and listening to The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave. How much better can life get?)

Anyway, back to the ducks. Inbetween chasing swifts with my camera and snapping marsh harriers and avocets there were several species of duck availing themselves of the bounty supplied by the fresh and salt water mudflats at Titchwell.


Shoveler male

Shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk – skeand) can be seen on the lakes close to Cambridge but it’s rare to see them close up. At Titchwell there are so many birds there that if I wait long enough it’s very likely I’ll get close up, and so it proved with several species of duck. The shoveler is immediately recognisable by his enormous beak which he uses to filter crustaceans, molluscs and other small creatures from the water. The pale blue patch just visible on the upper forewing is just visible on this one and is diagnostic for the shoveler. The blue-winged teal also has a blue patch here but the teal is smaller and doesn’t have the distinctive beak of the shoveler.


Teal female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is the smallest duck and the male plumage is handsome. Like the mallard, the female is predominantly brown but she has the lovely green patch on the lower forewing, visible on the lady above as she stretches her wings. Teal can form big flocks on coastal wetlands out of the breeding season. They are named after their call.


Pochard female (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Another species which kept flitting into view was the pochard. Pochard are not regular breeders in the UK, but in the winter there can be around 40,000 here which have migrated in from Eastern Europe and Russia and they can be seen on lakes, gravel pits and estuaries.


A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach

I think one of the  most majestic ducks is the shelduck. The red beak, black head, and brown, white and black body make it very distinctive. Shelduck are big too, almost, but not quite, the size of a small goose. They were persecuted in some sandy areas of the UK in the 19th century apparently because they competed with rabbits for burrows. Which sounds to me like any excuse, because why would anyone worry about a few homeless rabbits! Despite that there are now around 60,000 individuals overwintering in the UK and around 11,000 breeding pairs. The conservation status is amber in the UK but it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole.

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!

At long last

After a summer of fixing and painting and holidaying I can now sit down and devote the time to pick up where I left off with blog posting. I’ve collected lots of photographs and I’m about 20 posts behind, so here goes…

Since I acquired my new camera earlier on in the summer I’ve been crawling around in the undergrowth taking pictures of wild flowers and here are a few of them.

Wimpole Hall Farm is a stately home to the west of Cambridge which is owned by the National Trust and is set in extensive park and farmland. A stroll round the park there earlier in the summer was as rewarding as ever with a buzzard and a couple of great spotted woodpeckers putting in appearances, but I didn’t have my zoom lens with me so I was restricted to photographing things which were close by and didn’t move too quickly.

Growing in the shade of a line of trees were bugle flowers…


Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Bugle is related to self heal (Prunella vulgaris), they are both members of the family Lamiaceae and both have medicinal properties.

According to Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English botanist and renowned herbalist:

Self-Heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself, it is an especial herb for inward or outward wounds. Take it inwardly in syrups for inward wounds, outwardly in unguents and plasters for outward. As Self-Heal is like Bugle in form, so also in the qualities and virtues, serving for all purposes, whereunto Bugle is applied with good success either inwardly or outwardly, for inward wounds or ulcers in the body, for bruises or falls and hurts. If it be combined with Bugle, Sanicle and other like wound herbs, it will be more effectual to wash and inject into ulcers in the parts outwardly…. It is an especial remedy for all green wounds to close the lips of them and to keep the place from further inconveniences. The juice used with oil of roses to annoint the temples and forehead is very effectual to remove the headache, and the same mixed with honey of roses cleaneth and healeth ulcers in the mouth and throat.’

I’m not sure what Culpeper means by ‘green wounds‘ but it makes me glad I live in the penicillin age. Indeed he died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 37. No herbs could cure that.


Purple self-heal

This picture is an attempt to give a feel for what an English meadow looks like in summer, two of my favourite flowers – self-heal and white clover (Trifolium repens) set in the long grass against a blue ‘Simpsons sky‘.

Another name for bugle is ‘carpenters herb’ due to its ability to stem bleeding, although it appears it does this not by catalysing the clotting process but by lowering blood pressure and heart rate in a similar way to digitalis, the active pharmaceutical compound which gives foxgloves their toxicity:

Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, growing next to the path to the cafe at Wimpole

On another foray into the countryside in June, this time to RSPB Fen Drayton, I was specifically looking for oxeye daisy and in amongst the daisies were these lovely dames violets (Hesperis matronalis). Dames violet originates in the Mediterranean but has colonised the UK after escaping from gardens. It has been used as an ‘antiscorbutic’, i.e. to treat scurvy.

Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and dames violet growing slongside the Cambridge Guided Busway at RSPB Fen Drayton
Dames violet flowers

Also growing alongside the busway were lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra), which I think is rather lovely and not ‘lesser‘ or a ‘weed‘! I’d be happy for it to grow in my garden…

Lesser knapweed – I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal or herbal uses of lesser knapweed

…and ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi):

I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal uses of ragged robin either but it’s also rather beautiful and small clusters of it punctuated tracts of grass mixed with other flowers.

There’ll be more flowers to come, and butterflies… birds… mammals etc. etc.

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!

Damsels of Fen Drayton

One of the reasons for my trip to Fen Drayton a few weeks ago was to have a look to see which of our dragonflies were out and about. I went in early June and that time of year is a little early for the true dragons to have emerged, although it’s not impossible. But despite the shortage of the true dragons, the hedgerows and lake sides were abuzz with damselflies.


Male red-eyed damselfly – Erythromma najas

Dragonflies and damselfies are the two members of the taxonomic order ‘Odanata‘ or Odanates. There are two sub-orders within the Odanata: the Anisoptera – the true dragonflies, and Zygoptera – damselflies.

Azure damselfly – Coenagrion puella – the blue form of the immature female

Damselflies in the UK are approximately 4-5cm (1.5-2 inches) long and have thin abdomens and are all smaller and more delicate than the chunkier dragonflies. Having said that, the biggest living Odanate is currently a damselfly who resides in the rainforests of Central America, it has a wingspan of 19cm (7.5 inches) and the abdomen is 10cm (4 inches) long. A real whopper!

Blue tailed damselfly – Ischnura elegans – immature femaleBlue tailed damselfly – immature male – Ischnura elegans

Male and female Odanates, and immature and mature individuals, can often be distinguished by colour. The common blue female below is conspicuously brown so the species gets its name from the electric blue colour of the male. The common blue can easily be confused with the variable damselfly which is the same blue colour, but they are distinguished by the black markings on segment 2 of the abdomen which is shaped like a goblet on the variable and a club on the common blue. Also, the antehumoral stripes (on the side of the thorax) are complete on the common blue and broken on the variable. Although, as the name suggests, the variable is indeed variable and it can make distinguishing the two species a little tricky.


Common blue damselfly female – Enallagma cyathigerum – the only common blue we saw on this trip, perched on my friends finger

The black goblet on segment 2 is visible under the front of the wings on the variable damselfly below. But confusingly, it’s living up to its name because the antehumoral stripes are unbroken.

Male damselflies have two sets of paired claspers at the end of the abdomen which it uses to clasp the female on her pronotum, which is the protrusion in the middle of the back of the head. The claspers have tiny hooks on them which match grooves in the female pronotum and in order to avoid procreational mismatches the hooks and grooves are species specific.

Variable damselfly – Coenagrion pulchellum

In the picture above a variable male has clasped his lady by the pronotum. Male damselflies have primary genitalia at the end of the abdomen on the 8th segment, but in order for fertilisation to take place he needs to transfer a ‘spermatophore’ from the primary genitalia to the secondary genitalia on the second segment at the thoracic end of the abdomen. The female then curls round in to the ‘wheel’ position to transfer the sperm to her genitalia which are underneath her 8th abdominal segment.

A pair of variable damsels in the wheel position

All the Odanates are carnivores, and the larvae which hatch from eggs layed under water are ferocious carnivores, the larger ones will even take small fish! On one occasion last year while I was photographing large red damselflies (Pyrrhosoma  nymphula), a large hawker dragonfly (I think it was a migrant hawker, Aeshna mixta) which had been buzzing around higher up for several minutes suddenly dived down and caught one of my large red damsels. In a few seconds the migrant butchered it and ate it on the wing and the inedible bits of wing and leg were discarded and rained down around me.

Scarce chaser – an immature male

A lone Anisopteran, or ‘true’ dragon was spotted on this trip and it was an immature scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. He was a lovely mustard colour and he can be differentiated from the female by the colour of the thorax which is dark grey in the female, and from the male adult who is electric blue. He undergoes quite a transformation in transitioning from immature to adult.

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.