Tag Archives: skeand

Serendipity II – The charismatic cuckoo

I don’t recall having seen a cuckoo before, even though I’ve heard their unique call many times. But on my sojourn over to Wicken Fen a couple of weeks ago there were lots of them. ‘Lots‘ is a relative term because cuckoos are becoming increasingly scarce, their conservation status is red due to recent declines in the breeding population and in 2000 there were 9.6-19000 breeding pairs in the UK. But on this trip we heard and saw at least 5 and possibly several  more.

Just before I spotted the first cuckoo I glanced across the lake and this was the view:


A pair of shoveler in the foreground, a little egret behind and a roe deer just beyond the reeds

I really like this picture because of the colours of the reeds and the water in the evening sunshine, but also because it contains three interesting species. Apart from rabbits, any wild mammal is exciting to see in this country, so the roe deer was a pleasing encounter. The little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) is a member of the heron family which is now resident in the UK, presumably as a result of climate change. I associate them with warmer places because that’s where I saw them before 2000, but nowadays they’re not particularly uncommon here. And in the forefround are two shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand) which are migrant visitors to the UK, but this pair obviously liked it enough to linger and are still here in the middle of May, long after they would normally have left.

And then there were the cuckoos:


A pair of cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Dansk: gøg

The cuckoo is an incredible bird and until very recently it was poorly understood. Last year the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) managed to tag five male cuckoos with tiny satellite tracking devices and found out that they headed to the tropical sub-Saharan rainforests of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cuckoo arrives back in England from Africa in late March or April and departs in July or August. It leaves earlier than other species because its parasitic breeding strategy removes the need for chick rearing. That means the cuckoo spends a minimum of 8 months a year in Africa so to call it a British bird is, I suppose, less than accurate, even though it breeds here.


The classic hanging wings pose which I always associate with the cuckoo

The tagged birds were all fitted with solar powered devices which transmit location data once every 48hr. The tracking data revealed that all five birds headed south over France and across the Mediterranean before heading down across Africa to Cameroon and DRC. All five made it. One of the birds died in Cameroon and two more died on the way back, but two of the five made it back to East Anglia this year. I believe the BTO plan to tag more birds including females and I’m very keen to see the results of that experiment.

The cuckoo is an iconic bird in the UK and it’s call is very distinctive. The call is generally recognised as a signal that Spring has arrived and there are local traditions around the UK based on the cuckoo. It is said in Worcestershire that the cuckoo is never heard before Tenbury Fair on April 21st or after Pershore Fair on June 26th. The song actually changes in June from the characteristic ‘cuck-coo‘ song to a shortened ‘cuck‘, and there is a rhyme about this:

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July far far I fly
In August away I must

My Dad remembers a similar rhyme he used to sing when he was a kid in the 1940’s which was essentially the same but with some local Northamptonshire words substituted in.

I’m not quite sure what these two were doing but they were acting as a pair, and every minute or two one of them would dive off into the adjacent reedbeds to return a minute or so later. As I mentioned above, cuckoos are parasites and they could have been looking for nests to parasitise. There breeding strategy is unique, at least as far as I know. They lay their eggs in the nests of one of three other small songbird species: the reed warbler, the meadow pippit and the dunnock. All of these are the size of a sparrow (ish) so are much smaller than the cuckoo which is dove-sized, which I guess guarantees that the cuckoo chick will be much bigger than its ‘siblings’ and it won’t be threatened. The cuckoo chick then ejects the other chicks from the nest to die and the parents assume it is one of their own and feed it until it fledges. I’ve seen film of a cuckoo chick turfing out the other chicks and it’s a remarkable process, and not particularly pleasant to watch!

Despite their unsavoury procreation habits they are spectacular and charismatic birds and I hope the BTO research can find ways to guarantee their continued return here to brighten up the Spring and Summer.

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Minsmere in wintertime

My meanderings around Suffolk in February inevitably led me to RSPB Minsmere. I’d heard there were bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum), which I’ve never seen before, and smew (Mergellus albellus, Dansk: lille skallesluger) which I’ve also never seen, in residence there. Indeed, theere had been an influx of bittern from Holland due to the fierce winter weather there and numbers were up, so I felt a little twitching was in order.

For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Minsmere is characterised by woodland on the inland side to the north and east with a network of reedbeds and lakes behind a sand and shingle bank running along the coast. It lies between Dunwich Heath and the Coastguard Cottages to the north, and Sizewell to the south. It is a haven for numerous species of bird and my friend told me that on a morning trip there with a dawn start he spotted over 100 species of birds by lunchtime. And I reckon that’s an impressive tally. Many mammals also live and visit here including red deer, fox and otter.

As it is an RSPB reserve there are hides for observing the wildlife and as I set off along the bank which forms the sea defences to find one various gulls and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the sea. I paused to watch a marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) quartering the reedbeds, and then headed on to an open hide where I installed myself to see what was in residence.


The view from the south end of the hide

From the lower right hand window of the hide are the reedbeds of the reserve and from the upper left window is the reactor dome of Sizewell nuclear power station. The power station reminds me that I’m very grateful for havens such as Minsmere but I also wonder why on earth does it have to be just there, the juxtaposition offends me somewhat. But there it is, so I contented myself with looking out the front of the hide and here are some of the birds I could see:


A lone lapwing foraging for sustenance

Immediately in front of my hide, in which I was the only occupant, was a water filled channel separated from the lakes just beyond by a thin strip of reeds, and immediately to the fore was a single lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe). Low grassy islands in the lakes were home to various species of duck, the most numerous being…


Teal, two males and a female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)


Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand), and lurking in the background is a shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

All of these ducks are resident or nigrant breeders and winter visitors and where I am I only see them in winter. According to the BTO the teal is unusual in that it has no other names in the UK, which is an interesting little factlet which obviously needs to be challenged. If anyone knows of a local name for the teal please let me know. Another amusing piece of nomenclature is the shoveler, so named presumably for its shovel like beak and in Danish is known as the ‘skeand‘, which translates into English as the ‘spoon duck’. It uses it’s magnificent beak to filter small molluscs and crustaceans from the beds of shallow water by sweeping it across the surface and sifting the food from the disturbed sediment.

Alas, most of the birds were just too far away for my 300mm lens, but I plan to upgrade my optics this year so next time I post from Minsmere I’ll hopefully have lots of high quality close ups too.

Wonderful Wildlife of Wicken Fen

Around 10 years ago I used to do voluntary work at Wicken Fen which lies in the flat emptiness between Cambridge and Ely. Wicken Fen is one of the last and the largest piece of remaining fenland in East Anglia and is home to a plethora of wildlife. It’s owned and managed by the National Trust in such a way that diverse habitats favouring different species are established and maintained. When I worked there we were engaged in various activities such as repairing boardwalks, fences and hides, scrub clearance, which was a good activity for freezing winter days because it involved a huge fire to burn the felled scrub, but my favourite job was building raised ponds with wheelchair access so disabled children could safely do some pond dipping. Which is an activity that everyone should be able to do, child or not. All you need is a net, a jar, a magnifying glass and a pond and a sunny day is turned into a fantastic voyage of biological discovery.

My re-exploration last weekend started from Upware at the back end of the Fen where we parked and joined Wicken Lode. We had counted over 30 species of birds within the first half hour of our walk. If it had been solely down to my good self the number would have been rather less because my skills when it comes to recognising birdsong are a tad limited. Fortunately I was with my friend, David, who’s aural acuity is considerably better honed than mine, and I’m highly envious of his ability to detect the song of distant bird species and identify them. One of the first birds to greet us in the car park was this mistle thrush perched on top of a telegraph pole:

Mistle thrush – Turdus viscivorus (Dansk: misteldrossel)

… and a great spotted woodpecker, also finding a handy perch at the top of a telegraph pole:


Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocops major (Dansk: Stor flagspætte)

Great spotted woodpeckers make a characteristic drumming sound by doing what their name suggests and it is the frequency of the drumming, of around 40 beats per second, which generates the resonant sound. Anatomical examination of their skulls has revealed the presence of built in shock absorbers which prevent them damaging their brains when they drum. They feed on tree seeds such as acorns and insects which they dig out from under the bark of trees and they can also take birds eggs and chicks which they have been known to steal from birdboxes by drilling holes through the walls and plucking them out.

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from Upware and head out along Wicken Lode on to the Fen where a Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger) gave away his location by singing in a way that only Cetti’s can. It’s an amazing sound and I can highly recommend having a listen here. These recordings don’t quite do it justice, but you get a feel for it. Also on the Lode were a family of three mute swans; male, female and one cygnet. Mute swans are always photogenic but I felt particularly blessed when the male spread hs wings and shook himself down:


Mute swans (Cygnus olor,  Dansk: knopsvane)

We turned off the Lode and headed along Harrisons Drove where we came across a field of very impressive bovines. In  order to manage the fen (and at the same time draw in more visitors, no doubt) cattle and horses are used to trim the vegetation back naturally. I’d never seen the cattle before and they are magnificent animals – looking more like a cross between a highlander and a bison than traditional farm cattle:


They must be hardy beasts indeed to survive on the meagre nourishment offered by the fen

Also along the drove I spotted a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, Dansk: Blå kærhøg) quartering the field, either a female or a juvenile, identifiable by the pale band around the rump just infront of the tail feathers. In my opinion, spotting a harrier, even a fleeting glimpse, justifies an expedition into the fens early on a freezing morning. Alas it was too far away to photograph, but when after another couple of hundred metres we entered a hide overlooking a lake, there were plenty of subjects for photography…

This lake was home to hundreds of ducks – we estimated around 800 from 5 species that we could see… as well as coot and mute swan. Watched over by the longhorns.

I don’t think this lake is there in the summer because looking at the area on Google Maps there is no water, and David pointed out that their were no diving ducks such as pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland – which tranlates as ‘table duck’ which shows what the Danes think of them!) tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) or goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand), suggesting the water was too shallow. But there were large numbers of shallow feeders such as gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), shoveller (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand), pintail (Anas acuta, Dansk: spidsand), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) and wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand). We had seen three flocks of wigeon (and heard them too, they make a great sound) fly over and land on the water just before we got to the hide.  Some of them were on the lake above and lots more were on an adjacent one:


Wigeon. Lots of them! I counted around 60 in this group.

And in between the two lakes were numerous reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) flitting between the hedgerow and the path and pausing to pluck seeds from the seedheads of the reeds, hence their name…

Male reed bunting – one of my better reed bunting shots

And the female:
We saw 44 species of birds that we could identify on our way around Upware and the Fen. And as well as all the birds Wicken is home to a phenomenal diversity of insects, large mammals including roe deer and otter, small mammals including shrews, voles, mice and the predators that hunt them, and reptiles including lizards which can be seen basking in the sun on the boardwalks and fenceposts early on summer mornings. Now I’ve been back and rediscovered the Fen I’ll make sure I get back later in the year and post about the changing wildlife in what is a unique collection of ecosystems.