Tag Archives: swallow

Geddington swallows

A couple of months ago I was at my sisters place in Geddington, a small village in the Northamptonshire countryside which is right next door to one of the original release sites for the reintroduction of red kites into the UK. Consequently, one doesn’t have to look too hard to see red kites there, but on this particular trip it was swallows that were the stars of the show.

Geddington is a very old village and the cottages in the middle, one of which is occupied by my sister, are built from Northamptonshire ironstone, which is a gorgeous building material. Not only is her house built with it but so is her very substantial shed. She leaves the door to the shed open all the time because there are bats roosting there, and in the summer swallows use nests built in the eaves there.


A brood of swallows on the verge of fledging

Swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk: landsvale) migrate here from South Africa in the Spring and they generally arrive back around the second weekend in May. They return to the same place every year and often refurbish an old nest which can be used year after year, and there are records of the same nest being used for decades.

I usually get an excited phone call from my sister in the middle of May to tell me her swallows have returned. They come back again and again and she comes over all maternal when the first one arrives.


A pair of very recent fledglings which haven’t yet plucked up the courage to venture outside

They have now done all their breeding and feeding up and are congregating on roof tops and power lines and contemplating the enormous feat of flying down through Europe, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara desert before crossing the rest of sub-Saharan Africa to South Africa. Where they will spend the next 6 months before doing the whole thing again in reverse. Awesome!

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Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

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!

Bamburgh birdlife

I spent the last week of August on holiday in Northumberland. I like it up there for a number of reasons, the main one being the great variety of wildlife. I was based in Bamburgh, which apart from having a spectacular castle, is right on the coast with miles of huge beaches which are thronged with birdlife.

A young knot, one of a mixed flock of knot (Dansk: Islandsk ryle) and turnstone on the beach at Bamburgh. The peachy brown colour on its breast gives it away as a youngster.


…and a turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

These two species were numerous on all the beaches and flew low over our heads in small flocks as we were bodysurfing the waves. The Danish name for a turnstone is a ‘stenvender‘ which translates directly as ‘turnstone‘, so it’s tempting to think that our Nordic ancestors brought the name with them when they arrived here over a millenium ago!

The turnstone is exclusively coastal and is very aptly named as it flips stones of all sizes in its search for insects and other invertebrates lurking beneath. It is also a scavenger and its entry in the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Birdfacts reveals it has been known to feed on corpses! It breeds in the high Arctic and is a passage and winter visitor to UK shores and is one the worlds longest migrators, turning up as far south as South Africa. Consequently it can be seen in many parts of the world as it overwinters in Africa, South America, southern Asia and Australia.

Knot, Calidris canutus, are also coastal passage or winter visitors in the UK. They breed in Greenland and Siberia where there habitat is wide open tundra. They feed on insects and plants in the summer and in wintertime on molluscs from the intertidal area of beaches, from which it’s specific taxonomic name ‘canutus‘ is derived from the name of the Norse king Canute, so this species has a definite Viking link (Danish ‘Islandsk ryle‘). Outside the breeding season they can flock together in enormous numbers, 100,000+ (I’m not quite sure how they’re counted though!)


This pair of knot are living up to their name, running through the surf

The beaches were home to lots of waders in Bamburgh but the rest of the village was also home to non-marine species, most notably swallow, house martin, pied wagtail and linnet.


A swallow stretching its wings on the garden fence. A couple of weeks later it will be heading south and then on to South Africa

Our garden played host to flocks of swallow and house martin who were busy hunting insects over the adjacent meadow, and pied wagtail (Dansk: hvid vipstjert) which are resident in the UK and are ubiquitous in parks and gardens picking invertebrates from the grass.


A pied wagtail youngster, above, and an adult…
The adult has a white face and black cap and breast which the youngster hasn’t yet acquired

A walk around Bamburgh Castle and the playing field at the foot of the castle was accompanied by lots of linnet. Linnet are resident in the UK but their conservation status is red due to decline in the breeding population so it was good to see them in such numbers:


Linnet male looking for grass seeds on the cricket pitch under Bamburgh Castle

There was a family of linnet on top of the castle walls with the adults feeding the fledglings and on the playing field beneath this imposing superstructure was a mixture of numerous wagtails and linnet.

I think the chap in the photograph has some unusual colouration. He has the fading pink breast and red forehead spot of a cock linnet approaching Autumn, but the greater covert feathers on the wings (the ones at the top of the black primary flight feathers) are dark brown. I’d expect them to be the same lighter brown colour as higher up the wing and back. Maybe that happens at this time of year too.

Other highlights around Bamburgh were a flock of approximately 100 lapwing over the fields between bamburgh and Seahouses and on another day a flock of around 50 curlew (Danish ‘storspove‘). And to the north of Bamburgh lies Budle Bay which when the tide is out plays host to large nubers of waders, gulls and other seabirds.


A curlew (Numenius arquata) on the tidal mudflats of Budle Bay

As well as curlew there were oystercatcher, black headed gull, redshank, knot, turnstone and mute swan all visible from the side of the road. I was guilty of one of my more scatterbrained moments on this trip as I forgot to pack my binoculars. I’m fairly sure that with some ocular assistance I’d have found alot more species out there.


A pair of mute swans on Budle Bay after the tide has come in

Heading south

Last Friday I found myself on the M40 heading south to Windsor. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly eventful trip from a wildlife perspective, but it turned out to be quite remarkable.

My first port of call was my parents house in Northampton, where a great spotted woodwecker and her chicks were feeding on a hanging peanut feeder:


Female great spotted woodpecker eating fatballs in my folks garden. She is easily distinguished from the male due to the lack of a red patch on the nape of the neck. Juveniles also lack the red nape but she was feeding two juveniles so it was obvious she was an adult female

My folks back garden has been a real haven for birdlife in the last few weeks and is currently home to families of great tit, goldfinch and carrion crow too. My Dad places a couple of flower pot stands full of fresh water on his garage roof every day and the carrion crows and rooks then rock up with beaks full of dry bread they have scavenged in the locality and dunk it in the water until it is completely sodden from where they carry it off to feed their chicks.


Carrion crow fledgling, it’s not immediately obvious from this shot but it has very short stumpy tail feathers – diagnostic of a fresh-faced youngster

My folks garden is around only 50m away from a long spinney of old trees and consequently they get a great variety of birds and are currently playing host to a jay, a pair of nuthatch, numerous goldfinch, dunnock, blackbirds etc, etc…


A pair of goldfinch settling a dispute on the garage roof

After a brief stop off in Northampton I headed off south to Maidenhead. One of the original release sites where attempts were made to establish new red kite populations was on the M40 corridor, and not long after passing Oxford I spotted the first one. Shortly after that there was another… and another… and another. From then on down to Windsor there were groups of up to five over the motorway or the adjacent fields every couple of minutes, and I counted 30-40 individuals in that short distance. (Alas I didn’t have my camera with me from here on, so this post is a bit thin on pictures, but I hope the words are sufficient to hold your interest!)

Later on, in the evening, I took a walk along the Thames at Maidenhead where a pair of geat crested grebe were performing a courtship dance. This involved necking followed by diving to collect weed from the riverbed which they presented to the partner when they reached the surface. Overhead, red kite, swallows, swifts and house martins were all wheeling around at various heights hoovering up flies, and the martins were flying to and fro from nests built under the eaves of the houses on the riverside, feeding their young. And an arctic tern was patrolling up and down along the river making the occcasional dive after an unfortunate fish. I love watching terns hunt, they’re amazing fliers, so it was great to see one here.

Heading back north again on Saturday evening there weren’t the numbers of kites I’d seen on Friday, but there were still a few to be seen. All in all, the red kite conservation story is an amazingly successful one and it’s good to see that human intervention can sometimes correct an egregious wrong perpetrated in the past!

Wandering warblers

In the last two to three weeks I’ve seen several of our migrant bird species which have been returning from Africa and Eastern Europe for the breeding season in the UK. And in the sunny weather we’re experiencing this month lots of bird species, migrant and resident, can be seen during an early morning walk.

Last Sunday the weather was glorious, there was very little wind so there was no traffic noise so the only sound in the air was the buzzing of insects and the singing of birds. And there were plenty.

I set off with my friend from work, Dave, who is very knowledgeable about wildlife and a very good photographer too (check out his website here for some stunning images). Dave had come over so I could show him the local Histon wildlife and it didn’t disappoint. Within a couple of hundred metres of leaving my house we were watching a group of five blackcap chasing each other through the trees.


Male blackcap perched in an ash tree

Male blackcap are very aptly named, they have a very prominent black cap which stops just above the eye, the female and juveniles less so, theirs are a lovely rufous brown colour and also very distinctive. The blackcap is a short distance migrant in western and southern Europe and I’ve heard that there is now a population in eastern Europe which migrates to Western Europe and the UK instead of heading south. Maybe that’s down to global warming causing increased spring temperatures here.

Other migrants which we saw in good numbers, and which I’ve seen around north Cambridge for the last three weeks or so, are chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat. The chiffchaff heads south to the Mediterranean for winter and some individuals carry on to sub-Saharan Africa.

The willow warbler heads further south to tropical sub-Saharan Africa for the winter:


Willow warbler sitting in the top of a hawthorn tree

Chiffchaff and willow warbler are very difficult to tell apart visually, but they can easily be distinguished by their song. The chiffchaff is named after it’s call which is a single note sung with alternating pitch, the willow warblers song is more musical and easily distinguished from the chiffchaff.

Whitethroat of which there are two species – common and lesser – over-winter in sub-Saharan and northeast Africa respectively.

Common whitethroat male singing from his perch on a bramble

It’s good to see the migrants returning from Africa, I don’t know what percentage of individuals that start what must be an extremely hazardous journey make it back to the UK, but the willow warbler in particular is a very common bird so good numbers must make it.

The other migrant which I’ve seen in the last week, which is the real harbinger of summer, is the swallow. I only saw a single one first time on the 16th April, which was busy hoovering up flies over a field of oil seed rape, but yesterday I counted 7 sightings over the same field, so I think the numbers are increasing. And since then we’ve had real summer weather!

Weekend field walks 9th and 10th October 2010

This Saturday (9th October,2010) I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend David on a long walk around the Histon countryside. David is a zoologist and knows considerably more about the wildlife than myself, consequently it was a terrific walk and something of an education.

We set off around 8.15am and the weather was mild but very grey with 100% low cloud cover. Very soon after entering the fields we heard a jay making alot of noise in some trees bordering gardens at the back of the main road.  As we passed a small sycamore tree a possible meadow pipit passed overhead and we heard a second flying past later on in our walk. Shortly after that a large flock of golden plover flew over at high speed and several groups varying in size from approximately 5-10 up to 70-80 were spotted in the air and on the ground in several other fields. Many evenings whilst walking at night last winter I heard birds on the ground making a short whistle consisting of a single  note and had no idea which species was responsible. Our golden plovers in the air were making exactly the same noise so the mystery of the night time whistlers was solved too. A kestrel and a sparrowhawk made solitary appearances and a peer into an old tumbledown barn revealed a little owl – a good day for birds of prey.

The mild damp conditions of late have been ideal for fungi. Gorgeous bright yellow heads of the yellow fieldcap mushroom (Bolbitius vitellinus) lined the walk, all at various stages of growth from recently sprouted, just a couple of centimeteres tall with very rounded unopened caps, to old and nibbled specimens around 10cm tall and the caps more dull in colour and 4-5cm in diameter:


Recently emerged yellow fieldcap mushrooms


Older yellow fieldcap


A cluster of four mature yellow fieldcaps

We also found a ‘substance’ which preliminary inspection suggested the most likely identity was dog vomit! It occurred every few paces for several hundered metres wrapped around grass stems – suggesting a very poorly dog. When it was gently disturbed at the edge it had a powdery consistency and blew away in the breeze like dry Ready Brek. It varied in colour from grey/white to pale buttery yellow, so we concluded it must have been some kind of mould:


Mucilago crustacea – a slime mould. This stuff can move slowly to new food. Only at a snails pace, but don’t stand still for too long!

Toward the end of our outing as we headed back to the village a small flock of gulls consisting of a lone herring gull, a black headed gull and around 30 lesser black backed gull were beautifully contrasted against the dark ground in a ploughed field. Despite the grey weather it was a great day for wildlife.

After the nature fest on Saturday followed by just one or two small drinks with some good friends in the evening, I contemplated a shorter stroll this morning to blow away the cobwebs. But the weather was absolutely glorious and the profusion of birdlife resulted in another whole morning spent in the countryside. I heard six green woodpecker, one of which was exiting an old oak tree at high speed having been flushed out by a buzzard. A second buzzard appeared over the farmhouse with a sparrowhawk shadowing it right overhead but at much greater height. The buzzard quartered the fields and then headed off south west over Histon:


The unmistakeable shape of a buzzard. I love watching
big birds of prey so seeing two buzzards in one walk
was very special

Despite the weather no swallows were around today, I saw small numbers (less than 10) on Saturday and Sunday last weekend but we’re now heading towards mid-October so the last stragglers must be heading for Africa.

Many songbirds put in an appearance today which has been an unusual event since the harvest got underway at the beginning of August. Two yellowhammer, two corn bunting, numerous reed bunting, dunnock, blue tit, robin and a pied wagtail were all spotted today.


A corn bunting on the right and a male reed bunting sitting together and as I watched a female reed bunting arrived. Marvellous!

Yellowhammer

I was particularly pleased to see the wagtail, it’s the first one I’ve seen in the fields this year, whereas last year they were on display almost every day. I hope that’s not a nationwide phenomenon.

A lone kestrel and two sparrowhawks were up and about today so another good day for birds of prey. Also as yesterday, many skylark were extremely active playing tag and because of the lovely weather they were singing up high. I managed to go one better with the pipits of yesterday as I watched one fly up out of a small bush when disturbed by me landing in another one about 30m away in full view. The local churchyard rooks were omnipresent, digging out invertebrates in most of the fields accompanied by countless wood pigeon and carrion crows.

It was difficult to choose a highlight from this weekend, but as I sat on a tractor trailer in the sunshine making some notes a common darter dragonfly buzzed past and settled on an old plough to sun itself. It’s late in the year for dragonflies so that was good to see.


Mature male common darter warming up in the morning sunshine sat on an old plough

I shall post again soon about our local birds and hopefully next time I shall have seen the first winter immigrants such as fieldfare and redwing. Fingers crossed.