Tag Archives: Sturnus vulgaris

The three flocks of Christmas

I love watching flocks of birds in the air. There’s a drama about them and it’s also an opportunity to see big numbers of wild creatures at the same time. Last winter (2015-16) a flock of 30-50 yellowhammers appeared in a hedgerow close by where I live, I think they were attracted by the cover provided by the hedgerow and the presence all around of low vegetation which offered ground cover and feeding opportunities. They were in a place where I hadn’t seen yellowhammers for three years or so, so it was really good to have then back.

yellowhammer-female-261216-0057A female yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

The yellowhammer is red listed in the UK due to declining numbers as a result of habitat destruction (the number of times I have to write that is becoming increasingly worrying), but this year, after an initial estimate of 40-60 birds, I saw the whole flock in the air on Christmas Eve morning as I was walking the dog, and there were approximately 100 of them. (I spent several mornings trying to get a good yellowhammer picture to illustrate this post but they were never quite so amenable again, so the one above will have to suffice; lovely bird, the image less so, but you get the picture, as it were).

Later on Christmas Eve we drove to Northampton for the evening and on the way there, over the A14 near Huntingdon, a large flock of hundreds of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) took to the air from an adjacent field, and I think it’s the largest inland flock I’ve seen for many years. I’ve seen big flocks around the coast more recently, but not inland. And then, just as I thought, ornithological speaking, that things couldn’t really be bettered, a starling murmuration (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) swirled over the western end of Stanwick in Northamptonshire and I estimated there must have been thousands and thousands of birds in it. And that’s one of natures truly amazing sights. Three spectacular flocks of increasingly endangered bird species was a wonderful way to start Christmas!

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Garden guests

It was in June that fledgling birds finally started to appear in the garden. With so many natural phenomena being late this year due to the delayed onset of spring and the warm weather, the birds were no exception. The first one that I noticed was this robin chick who appeared on its own every morning for quite a few days feeding on seeds and nuts from the tray feeder. I placed an old kettle in a bush near the feeders a couple of years ago hoping that robins would find it a suitable nest site, but they haven’t been tempted so far so I think it may be too close to all the other avian activity. I’m going to find a less disturbed location for it for next years breeding season when I’ll hopefully see a few more of these:

Robin fledgling gathering its strength before striking out on its own

The robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) is a feisty little bird which I’ve often found hopping round my feet looking for the insects that get turned over as I dig the garden, or sitting on a feeder within inches of me, completely unfazed as I’m working,  as long as I don’t do anything overtly threatening. Often I don’t know it’s there until I glance up and see it sitting on the fence peering at me, and if I ignore it and carry on working it will go about its business unconcerned by my presence. They are iconic garden birds and according to the British Trust for Ornithology our unofficial national bird.

A less frequent visitor to my garden is the greenfinch. I hear the males calling almost every day through the summer from the top of a tall fir tree in a nearby garden. They don’t often venture into my garden outside the breeding season, but this year both the male and female and then the fledglings would feed here, and this is the male:

The male greenfinch clearing up seed fallen from a hanging feeder

The shape of the pointed, chunky, beak of the greenfinch (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk) clearly marks it out as a seed eating member of the finch family although they also hunt invertebrates to feed the chicks to give them a rapid calorie boost.

The geenfinch showing off his seed cracking beak and sumptuous plumage

From a distance the greenfinch can look fairly dull, but in full breeding condition and good light the males have magnificent plumage. This one is also decorated by tiny drops of rain on its back.

This year the starlings were numerous and entertaining, another feisty visitor, especially when they bowl in mob-handed complete with sizable broods of unruly youngsters. For several weeks, families of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) with many fledglings invaded the garden and fed mainly on the fat balls. There were often 20+ individuals making a right old cacophany and emptying both the fat ball feeders every day. It was good fun to watch, and as the starling is red listed in the UK due to huge population decline it was good to see so many fledglings.

Starling fledgling on the right begging for food from the parent

Two more fledglings waiting to be fed, they haven’t yet grown the dark irridescent feathers of the adults

Taking matters into its own hands and being seen off by the adult. Note the fat ball feeder is nearly empty

The biggest and most colourful guest this year was the jay:

The jay, Garrulus glandarius, Dansk: skovskade

Jays are extremely infrequent visitors to my garden but this one appeared every morning and throughout the day over a week at the end of May beginning of June. It was taking seed from the tray feeder and I’m guessing it had a nest close by. (The ‘decorated’ wood of my fence really isn’t the most attractive backdrop for a nature picture so I’ve since moved the bird feeders to a new location infront of some foliage!). The jay is by far the most colourful of the crow family, most of which have almost entirely black plumage, except the magpie which is black and white. As you can see it’s the size of a small crow but the colours are magnificent. This one was brave too. I was sitting on a bench just 6-7m away and it was quite happy for me to sit that close and photograph it.

Jays feed mainly on seed and in the autumn they cache acorns by burying them in the ground for retrieval when things get tough through the winter. I’ve heard that a single jay can bury up to 5000 acorns… and remember where they all are! But I’ve also heard that jays are very good at propagating oak woodland, so maybe they do forget where some of their treasure is buried.

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.

Murmuration

Did anyone see the article about ‘murmuration on the BBC news website yesterday?

This is the technical term for the aerial swarms of starlings that occur immediately prior to settling into their roost site in the evening.

It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before but not for many years. I was an undergraduate in Liverpool in the mid 1980’s and I recall on winter evenings there were frequently murmuratons of starlings going on over St Johns Garden behind St Georges Hall in the centre of the city.

This is a great name for one of natures truly spectacular, and mesmerising, events. I don’t know how many birds were involved in the murmurations I saw but I believe it can be up to tens of thousands. The overhead spectacle is awesome, and in a rather different respect so is the effect it has on the pavements beneath… and the resultant stench!

The BBC article refers to some new research from two Italian biologists who studied the flocks of starlings over Rome, and using clever camera work they divined how the birds maintain the shape of the flock. There was also speculation about why they murmurate. I think it must be down to evasion of predators such as peregrine falcons.

I can’t resist the temptation to gratuitously insert one of my starling photographs here, because on an individual level aswell as in enormous swarms they are beautiful creatures. They have sumptuously iridescent plumage particularly when they catch sunlight at the right angle:


Sturnus vulgaris

Alas, I don’t have any of my own photographs of murmurations but I intend to rectify that situation in the future, at which time I will post again about these endearing creatures.