Tag Archives: sortemejse

Passerines and Ponies

One weekend in the middle of July we took off down to the New Forest for a couple of days. The New Forest was originally a hunting forest for King William in the 12th century and 800 years later was eventually awarded National Park status in 2005. It lies along the south coast of England in Hampshire in a triangle delineated by Southampton, Salisbury and Bournemouth, and covers around 150 square miles, which in the context of southern England is a fairly sizable area. As the name suggests it consists of ancient forest which is interspersed with large areas of heathland and it’s renowned for its wildlife, being home to many less abundant species of birds, butterflies, mammals and reptiles.

One day while we were there we found a secluded spot on the edge of Stoney Cross to eat our picnic. We parked the car adjacent to some woodland where the canopy was so dense it was nearly dark on the forest floor and impossible to see in. There were lots of small birds darting around and I could see that some of them were chaffinches, but there were others that it was simply too dark to see properly and identify. So when one of the kids had finished their sandwich and there was some left over I broke it up and put it on a rotting tree stump on the edge of the forest and sat in the boot of the car with my camera. Within seconds the stump was full of birdlife, and now I could see them properly most of them were chaffinch:

Hen chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke) eyeing up a crusty morsel

It was challenging photographically because it was starting to rain and as you can see above, looking into the forest it was very murky indeed, so I increased the ISO to 800 and hoped the shutter speed would be fast enough. Shortly after the chaffinch descended, there were great tits (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse), marsh tits (Poecile palustris, Dansk: sumpmejse), a robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) and my favourite of them all:

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea, Dansk: Spætmejse)

I like nuthatch and I rarely get to see them. Occasionally my parents have one visiting their feeders in the winter but it’s a long time since I saw one in the wild, so this was a treat. And this one liked sausage roll:

The nuthatch is a woodland bird which nests in holes in deciduous trees and is the only bird I can think of which I have seen walking headfirst down a tree. The marsh tit is also a bird of dense deciduous woodland which nests in cavities in old and rotten trees, so it was no surprise to see either of them in this particular spot. But I can highly recommend taking an old baguette or sausage roll to entice them down out of the tree canopy to get a good view.

Marsh tit (Poecile palustris, Dansk: sumpmajse)

The most famous and charismatic residents of the New Forest are the wild ponies. They are common in the forest and can be seen wandering around the towns and villages:


My daughter making friends with a New Forest pony

We were standing on the terrace of an ice cream shop tucking into our soft-ices as a small herd of ponies sauntered down the road from the direction of the car, top left. They spotted us and three or four of them came up the slope to join us on the terrace and attempted to share our ice creams! They are completely wild but they’re accustomed to humans being about. But if you happen to be in the forest when a herd come thundering past at high speed it’s an alarming experience, as we found out shortly before this picture was taken. They came by around 25m away and a few minutes later came back even closer. I’ve stood on the rail at Cheltenham watching the Gold Cup as the horses come past on their way to the finish line, and it’s extremely exciting – but it’s a lot more exciting when there’s no rail and no jockeys to keep them in a straight line!

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Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

Essex adder challenge

Danbury Common near Chelmsford in Essex is a National Trust site that is a mixture of woodland and heathland and is renowned for reptiles, in particular teh European adder (Vipera berus). The weather for the last 2-3 weeks has been ideal for resurrecting hibernating reptiles so myself and my friend, Dave, who is a very accomplished nature photographer, went along to try to get some pictures of adders. They are the only venomous reptile native to the UK and their preferred habitat is heathland. Dave originates from Essex and is familiar with Danbury Common and assured me that we would definitely see adders, so I was rather excited as I’ve never seen a wild one before.


The heathland terrain was perfect reptile territory, there are substantial areas of gorse and heather intermingled with bracken

Unfortunately two events conspired against us: the weather on Saturday morning was the coldest it has been for weeks and with 100% cloud cover there was little warmth to entice the adders out of their burrows, and secondly there had been an accidental fire right over the main hibernaculum, all of which resulted in the total absence of adders and any other reptiles!

Despite that, the Common is a great place for wildlife so we wandered around to see what else was in residence and were rewarded by the first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) and chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) sightings of the year for me.


A male blackcap, one of a pair

Until recently blackcap were considered to be summer migrants to the UK, spending there winters in sub Saharan Africa and as far down as South Africa.  More recently they have been winter residents too and it is thought this is the result of westward migration of birds from eastern Europe and also from the Low Countries, not our summer residents staying put. They disappear from my regular haunts around Histon in the winter, but my friend who lives on the other side of the village, just half a mile away, has been hearing them sporadically through the winter.

I heard several chiffchaff and saw a couple too, but they didn’t come close enough to photograph, but the woods were full of great tit (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse) which were more amenable to pose for a portrait:


Male great tit feeding on pussy willow. The tree was busy with at least four great tit, a pair of blue tit and a long tailed tit

Backwarden nature reserve and Danbury Common are bisected by a road and Backwarden is an area of woodland containing sycamore, oak, birch and willow similar to that on the Common. Many of the trees were hosting various fungi including moulds and these brackets growing out of the stumps of felled trees:


…and this amazing mass of gelatinous psychedelic slime mould which I thought resembled candle wax:


I’ve never seen anything quite like this before but it appeared the sap had welled up out of the felled tree and the sugar rich solution was providing a glut of nourishment to opportunistic fungi.

The highlight of the trip, in the absence of snakes, was a weasel (Mustela nivalis) which bounded across the path and stopped to scrutinise us for long enough to take a couple of photographs. It’s years since I’ve seen weasel and we had to zoom in on the pictures to decide whether it was a weasel or a stoat (Mustela erminea). The stoat is around 30cm long so is bigger than the weasel which is around 20cm, and the stoat has a black tip to its tail which our little creature didn’t. Stoats go completely white in the winter except for the black tip of their tails and it is the pelts of the winter stoat which are used to make the ermine gowns of members of the UK House of lords.


Momentarily distracted by our presence

Then probably a potential prey item. Ready…

Set…

Go!

And he was off, like a brown furry exocet, at quite phenomenal speed. The pictures aren’t very good quality, but you can clearly see what he is and it may be a good few years before I get to photograph another! I’ll try to get to Danbury again over the summer and if I manage to take some pictures of an adder I’ll post them here.

A stroll through the Meadow

Last Sunday I spent a glorious couple of hours in the piece of scrub near my house where me and the dog while away significant chunks of our time. He chases rabbits, cats, pheasants and generally enjoys doing what dogs do, and I marvel at all the wildlife to be found in my local bit of wilderness. It’s probably about 300m x 150m and it’s called ‘Rowleys Meadow’ even though it’s not a meadow, and it lies on the northern edge of the village with houses lining it’s southern periphery. On the east, west and north side are old hedgerows and some wonderful old trees and in the middle are stands of young ash trees, grassy areas and large clumps of brambles.

It plays host to an astonishing variety of wildlife which in the winter and early spring is mainly birds, although a peacock butterfly fluttered by last Sunday and on several warmer days since Christmas I’ve seen bumble bees flying around there . But on this particular day it was the birds that stole the show (click here for a full list of all my sightings on this outing on February 26th).

There are very healthy numbers of green woodpecker here due to the trees and the grassland where they can find there favourite food of ant and termites. They’re tricky to photograph in the Meadow because they’re hidden in the grass and they’re very skittish, so it’s difficult to get close enough when they’re on the ground or in the trees.

Green woodpecker with his black eyepatch and scarlet military policemans cap. This one did let me get close enough… just

There are regularly 5-10 green woodpeckers (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) to be found as I circumnavigate the Meadow. It’s easy to spot them, both the colours and the low bouncing flight, often no more than 15 feet from the ground, are very distinctive. And of course it’s call is like no other creature, if you’ve never heard it listen here. Scroll down to the entry from Lars Krogh from Lindet Skov in Denmark dated 19/04/2011 where there is a very good recording of a male greenie yaffling and drumming.

Another bird which I almost always see in the Meadow is the long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse). But for the tail, they’re tiny: the adults weigh 7-8g with a wingspan of 18cm. The long tailed tit is one of those creatures that make we wonder how such tiny ones can survive a long freezing winter. They can also be very difficult to photograph as they never stay still for more than a few seconds.


On final approach…

But when you are lucky enough to capture them they make delightful pictures!


Touchdown!

You may have noticed the lichens on the branches, I’ll share some photographs of those in the next post. In another tree adjacent to the one with the long tailed tits was a pair of great tits (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse), among others. I like great tits, they’re handsome birds and they’re entertaining to watch feeding in my garden, especially when there is a family of them. The pair here are a male and a female:

Male great tit, his black stripe stretches all the way across his chest from toe to toe, making him very desirable indeed. I think the ‘A’ indicates he is the alpha male

The stripe of the female is much narrower:


Great tit female

And very shortly after I took the pictures of the great tits, a female sparrowhawk circled slowly overhead. The trees and hedges suddenly went very quiet as all the small birds concealed themselves from this fearsome predator. I’m not sure if she was hunting as I spotted a second, possibly a male, sparrowhawk circling much higher up. She was probably not more than a hundred feet up, but the male was several hundred feet up. I watched a pair of sparrowhawks do this over my garden once before, where the male was much higher, and I think it may be part of the courtship routine. (If anyone can confirm or refute that please drop me a line and let me know).


A female sparrowhawk circling over the hedges at the north end of the Meadow

All in all it was a very enjoyable and rewarding trip in bright warm sunshine and the  birdlife was there in spades.

Garden Gladiators

For the last three mornings my garden has been frequented by numerous blackbirds (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), at least four; two males, two females and possibly others. I couldn’t tell the females apart because they looked very similar but the males were identifiable. One was a typical black blackbird with a striking yellow beak and the other was very slightly smaller, slightly more brown and had a dark tinge to the end of his beak so he has been named ‘Blacktip’.


Blacktip

The second male blackbird, henceforth referred to as ‘The Arch Rival’


And one of the ladies

The initial skirmishes of the Histon Blackbird Wars started in my garden on Friday but I didn’t have a chance to study it what with getting the children to school and myself to work. The real gladiatorial action took place yesterday morning and commenced with the males and the two females chasing each other around at high speed on the ground and in the air. I’ve never noticed before but when blackbirds compete on the ground they actually run rather than hop, which from the human perspective lends the whole drama a comic angle. I imagine they can move alot faster when running and are therefore more intimidating to any rivals.

The Arch Rival perched threateningly atop the rabbit run

The females departed fairly early on in the proceedings leaving the two boys to battle it out, and it turned into an amazing spectacle which was very entertaining to watch. The Arch Rival occupied a battle station on top of the rabbit run from where he would walk round the edge and look down at Blacktip on the ground, and from where he would launch the occasional strike and chase Blacktip  around for a minute or two before resuming his vantage point on the rabbit run. This behaviour led me to think the The Arch Rival was possibly the dominant male as he seemed to hold the advantage all along and it went on for probably half an hour or so before the real battle commenced:

Aerial hostilities break out
The dogfight slowly gains more and more altitude, toe to toe and beak to beak
Higher still, now around 4-5m off the ground
And then they separated and descended to draw breath in the wisteria.

This was followed by The Arch Rival resuming his place on the rabbit run which he circled around for several minutes before dropping to the ground and walking and running around the same route for a further few minutes whilst Blacktip remained on the ground. this cycle of events was repeated several times over the next hour.


The Arch Rival back on the rabbit run, Blacktip was lurking on the ground

This activity eventually petered out and Blacktip was left on his own to recuperate under cover of the buddleia bush. Leaving me to think that he was the apparent victor…


Blacktip in the cover of the buddleia foliage

…Or was he?

This morning Blacktip appeared with a lady and seemed to be performing a courtship ritual where he was running around on the ground calling and she was following. That went on for around half an hour and they seemed to be getting along famously. And then The Arch Rival arrived back on the scene and 20 minutes or so of aerial combat ensued. the dynamic was different this time though. The female and Blacktip seemed to be chasing The Arch Rival, not Blacktip on his own.

As I go to press the action has ceased and all the blackbirds have disappeared although both the males have made short forays back into the garden looking for some breakfast, but the female hasn’t returned. Incidentally while this was taking place, all the other birds: goldfinch, dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, starling, collared dove and wood pigeon were using the feeders as normal, completely unperturbed by the battle taking place. My back window is like a 75 inch 3D HD TV showing nature documentaries all day, to which I can add my own commentary. As I write a pair of fieldfare are flying over and the blackbirds have been replaced by three dunnock.

And now… all three blackbirds are back and fighting again, so I’m going to sign off and watch them and I’ll report back with further developments.