Tag Archives: water birds

Glorious Glen Affric

During my excursion to the Highlands in June 2014 we  took a trip from Garten up to Inverness and down the north shore of Loch Ness before heading up to one the wildest places I’ve been to in the UK, Glen Affric.

It seems that Glen Affric is right in the  midst of the back of beyond and I can imagine it’s a harsh place to live in the depths of winter. But often with remoteness comes undistrurbed natural beauty, and so it was here. On arrival we parked up at a car park on the bank of River Affric, and after fastidious application of insect repellent to deter the midges we ate lunch at a picnic table . And as we sat and watched the river a dipper was busy skimming to and fro. A closer look after lunch revealed that it had built a nest on the underside of a bridge and it was bringing insects back to feed the chicks.

Dipper – Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær – contemplating the next foray upriver…

This was too good a photo opportunity to miss and I hopped from stone to stone into the river and eventually perched on a rock a couple of inches above the water that was just about stable enough to keep me out the river. I wanted to get a picture of a dipper as it skimmed past low over the water and I managed to capture this series of shots as it took care of the crucial business of feeding the hungry youngsters:

… setting off

… passing through at high speed…

… and heading back with a beak full of grubs. A successful mission.

I’ve never had the chance to photograph dippers like this before so I’m very happy with this series of pictures. I rarely see them because they’re birds of fast moving rivers like the ones found in the hills and mountains and consequently they’re not to be found in my part of the world. Despite the fact I see it very infrequently, the dipper is a resident breeder in the UK and is green listed and therefore not of concern. And unlike most waterbirds which hunt by swimming or diving, the dipper hunts by running along the bottom of the riverbed. Some years ago I watched one do this in a mountain stream in Betws y Coed in Snowdonia, it’s a fascinating thing to watch and it made me wonder how they diminish their bouyancy in order to avoid floating off the river bed.

The reason we went to Glen Affric was to see rare dragonflies, specifically, the northern emerald which is very local to the Highlands of Scotland and absent from England, and the downy emerald which can also be seen in some parts of England but is uncommon. For the record, we saw a lot of downy emeralds over Coire Loch at Glen Affric but no northern emeralds. As we were dragon hunting I only took my long telephoto lens and I didn’t take any landscape shots of the terrain (or none which I’m happy to share), but to get an idea of the place follow the link above and the two pictures on the first page labelled ‘River Affric‘ and ‘Looking down over Coire Loch‘ best reflect my memories of it.

I didn’t get any dragon pictures here either because I couldn’t really get close enough to them, so as it was a gloriously sunny afternoon I just enjoyed the silence and the views and the whole atmosphere of the place, which was utter tranquility.

Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea, Dansk: bjergvipstjert

Like the dipper, grey wagtail were also darting up and down the river.  They are resident breeders and passage visitors with amber conservation status in the UK, but their numbers are not of concern in Europe as a whole and they are beautiful little birds to be seen hunting insects over fast running streams. I think the name ‘grey wagtail‘ suggests something a tad dull and uninteresting, which does them a huge disservice, something like ‘saffron wagtail‘ would be more appropriate!

The best sighting of all at Glen Affric was one I didn’t get a photograph of because I was driving at the time. And it was also the most unexpected. We had just left the parking place at Glen Affric to return to Garten at around 6.30pm when a dark brown/black creature approximately the size of a cat bounded across the road and ran along in front of the car for four or five seconds, and it was a pine marten (Martes martes). We had paid to sit in a hide two nights previously to guarantee a sighting of this most elusive creature, and here was one running down the road in front of us. It’s funny how a whole four day trip can be made by a four second sighting of an incredibly rare and charismatic creature.

Alas, no bullfinch, but…

The weekend before last I went for a walk around the lakes of RSPB Fen Drayton. It was a customarily grey and cold morning and there was a lot of water standing where there wouldn’t normally be. But the lakes were full of ducks, waders and other water birds and the trees and hedgerows were thronged with other birds, but alas no bullfinch. To explain, the approach road to the car park is lined with hawthorn and other trees and they are home to many bird species including bullfinch, so I was hoping to see one or two and get photographs. But on this occasion alas, they were conspicuous by their absence.

No bullfinch, but hey ho, woodpeckers there were:

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) mining ants next to the car park at Fen Drayton lakes and fastidiously refusing to look up

And the green woodpecker wasn’t the only woodpecker hanging around the lakes:

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocops major, Dansk: stor flagspætte) patrolling the treetops

There was also great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), a large flock of mixed waders including bar tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica, Dansk: lille kobbersneppe) and several flocks of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås). And lots and lots of lapwing:

A small fraction of a much bigger flock of lapwing, I make it 84 in this group

In the 1970’s lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) were a common sight in the English countryside. Huge flocks consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals weren’t particularly unusual. My Dad used to call them plovers, or ‘peewits’, a name they acquired because of their distinctive call. But like many species, they have suffered hugely from habitat destruction as a result of modern farming methods. On this particular morning at Fen Drayton there was at least one flock and possibly two, at opposite ends of the lakes, there were a heck of a lot of them and they were frequently rising into the air en masse. And since the snow arrived this week there has also been a small flock of 30-40 birds close to Cambridge Science Park which I spotted on my way to work, and a small group of them alighted on the field right outside my lab.

A blue tit deftly plucking seeds from a swaying reed seedhead

On the last part of my outing round the lakes I headed for a hide overlooking an expanse of water where I was hoping to see water birds. A flight of four goosander containing a male and three females flew over on the way there and seemed to be a good omen! Outside the hids this blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse) was busy hopping from stem to stem in the reeds outside acrobatically harvesting the seeds.

And on the water there were A LOT of birds. The flock of lapwing higher up this post were on the ground at the far side of this lake, and the water was hosting gulls, ducks, swans and a lone heron. One of the loveliest ducks, easily identified by it’s triangular black head, white cheek spot and his regal black and white plumage is the goldeneye.

Goldeneye drake – elegance personified

There were a pair of goldeneye here, (Bucephala clangula (great name too!), Dansk: hvinand) and as with other duck species the lady is drab in comparison with the resplendent males. I spent half an hour waiting for them to paddle into the gap in the reeds just infront of this one for a clear shot. But they never did, so this is the best picture I could get. But isn’t he a beauty!

New Year Ducks

For the last 14 months or so I’ve been saving my spare pennies in order to upgrade my photographic hardware and the plan was to put the money towards the Canon 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens which I mentioned in my last post.

(I’ve bought several items in the last 7 or 8 months or so from an online second hand camera shop and I’m going to give these guys a free plug because they have been very good indeed. They are called ‘MPB Photographic‘ and are based in Brighton, UK. I got a cheap Canon 18-55mm lens, a Manfrotto tripod, several filters and the battery grip for my Canon DSLR. All were good prices and the quality has been excellent and exactly as described on the website, so I’ve saved between £5-600 so far! Apparently, the pictures of items on the website are always of the item you are actually buying, not a new one, and the images are zoomable so you can get a good look at it too. So after buying my lens there and it being in mint condition I’ve decided that I’ll buy second hand if they have what I’m after).

The good lady wife gave me the lens for Christmas and I was very excited about getting out and about with it between Christmas and New Year, and then on Christmas Day I came down with the lurg and was incapacitated for a week. But on New Years Day I was feeling a little more human, and the sun came out, so I was determined to get to a lake and try to take photographs of distant water birds.

Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) – the male of the species, with his reflection and his piercing yellow eye

I drove the short distance to Milton Country Park on the north side of Cambridge, which was full to overflowing with folk walking off their New Years Eve hangovers. I’ve been on a mission to get a good photograph of a tufted duck because they’re handsome birds and I’ve taken many sub standard pictures which simply don’t cut the mustard, so I was pleased to get these pictures in lighting conditions that were challenging. It was a very cold but sunny day and by the time I got there in the mid afternoon the sun was already behind the trees, so the light was starting to fail and I needed high ISO to get a picture. But despite that the quality of the images is pretty good I reckon!

The male tufties were grouped together, there were around half a dozen of them, and a way distant was a female, paddling around on her own and she seemed to be avoiding the males.

The female tufted duck and a black headed gull in winter plumage

The lady of the species is dark brown on top with mottled brown flanks and is rather less noticeable than the male. Bit I really like this picture of her because of the colour of the water. She was 60-70m beyond the group of males in the pictures above and I really liked the difference in the colour of the water due to the sun shining on the trees behind her and reflecting on the water, but where the males were the water was the colour of the reflected sky.

So I’m very satisfied with the performance of my new zoom lens and I’ll be posting lots more pictures to show you in the very near future.

(P.S. I’ve been really struggling to keep up with all your blogs and it’s been a source of major irritation, but I’m now going to try to catch up with you all over the next week or so. See you soon. F)

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.

All those flocking waders

The Cambridgeshire Fens can be a bleak and windswept part of the world as the winter months descend, and today it was very bleak and very windswept, but it’s a great location for getting out and seeing some exciting and scarce wildlife.


A small flock of lapwing and golden plover over Burwell Fen

For those of you who don’t know the Fens they’re characterised by wide open flatness and big skies. They were originally under water but were drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th and 18th centuries to leave high quality arable land. The soil is extremely rich in organic material which gives the soil the rich black colour evident in the picture above.

I set off there on Saturday with my friend David because there had been a report on the Cambridge Bird Club website of short eared owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) in the vicinity. After wending our way through Swaffham Prior and Reach we rocked up at Tubney Fen where we sat in a new National Trust hide overlooking a new pond with new reed beds which had four coots (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: blishøne) and a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) paddling on it. And no other signs of life whatsoever.

As we watched, the mute swans took off and looped round low right in front of us and landed back on the water. At least one of them landed on the water in the spectacular and graceful way that mute swans do. The other one crash landed on the ground just short of the water and after regaining its equilibrium stood looking highly indignant but managed to retain it’s dignity in a way that only a mute swan could in those circumstances. We hoped it wasn’t injured but it looked to be suffering from little more than damaged pride.

After another five minutes sat in the hide the lack of further activity and the low temperature caused us to move on, and on the way back to the car we spotted eight whooper swans in a field several hundred meters away. The whooper (Cygnus cygnus, Dansk: sangsvane) is a winter migrant to the UK and a very scarce breeder, usually less than ten pairs a year will breed here. It’s a similar size to the mute swan but it’s neck is straighter and the beak is straight with a black tip and pale yellow base. Their breeding territory is in the high Arctic and they migrate south as far as Africa for the winter.


A family unit of eight whooper swans – two adults with white plumage and the charateristic yellow beak and six cygnets with pale grey/white plumage and without the yellow beak

We decided to move on to Burwell Fen from Tubney Fen and on the way we were considerably closer to the swans so we stopped for another look. And as we looked David noticed that a pale brown stripe in an adjacent field was in fact a flock of golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk: hjejle) and lapwings (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk:  vibe). When I was a kid I spent a fair amount of time out and about exploring the countryside and huge flocks of lapwing consisting of hundreds and possibly thousands of birds were a fairly common sight. But their numbers have been dwindling for decades and these days I’m pleased if I see more than twenty. A carrion crow was getting agitated in the tree beyond the plovers because a buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge) was perched there too, but the crow wouldn’t get too close and the buzzard just sat tight and ignored it. There turned out to be 243 lapwing in this flock and for me that alone justified the trip.


Around 10% of the lapwing in our flock of 243

There were also several hundred golden plover. As we watched another even bigger flock joined them and when they were flushed into the air we could see another flock as big again in the middle distance and beyond that another that was enormous. So we estimated that between these flocks there were several thousand birds. It was a amazing sight.

The flocks of waders eventually settled so we made off further into the Fen, pausing to gaze at a group of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) relaxing in a field:


These very well camouflaged roe deer didn’t seem at all perturbed by our presence

As we watched the deer, a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) quartered the field and then a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) swooped past car, travelling with the customary haste that species is renowned for.

Arriving eventually at a car park, we continued on foot over a bridge where several kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were quartering all the fields around and almost immediately spotted a short eared owl. It was perched on a fence post in the middle of the adjacent field and I initially mistook it for a little owl because I was looking at it from front-on and I could only see the top half, but when we saw it through David’s spotting scope we could clearly see it was of the short eared variety.

Short eared owl hunting rodents the easy way, not wasting any energy

As a result of the inclement weather, low light and strong wind, and only having a 300mm lens I couldn’t get any good photographs, but it’s unmistakeably a short eared owl, so I’m happy.

We saw various small songbirds such as chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs,  Dansk: bogfinke) and goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits), five bird of prey species, whooper swans, and countless thousands of golden plover and lapwing. So despite the cold it was fine way to spend a Saturday morning.