Tag Archives: whitethroat

The ultimate songbird

In the springtime this year I took a trip to Paxton Pits nature reserve which is a cluster of lakes on the edge of St Neots near Bedford created by gravel extraction. They cover a sizable area and are interspersed with woodland and scrub and incorporates a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).  One of the reasons for going there in springtime is to hear the song of the nightingale for which the Pits are a recognised site.

Early signs weren’t hopeful as the skies were grey and it was cold and raining. So not the best conditions for seeing or hearing songbirds in full voice. And first off, there was very little of anything, and then a great spotted woodpecker put in an appearance low down on a tree trunk.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

This one is a female, the main difference between her and the male is the lack of a red patch on the nape of her neck. I was pleased to get so close to a great spot as they’re normally higher up and not so easy to photograph. They feed on insects which they dig out from crevices in tree bark, but will also take birds eggs and I’ve heard they take chicks too which they can find when they enlarge the holes in bird boxes to get to the nest – which is one of the reasons why the entrance to bird boxes for small birds now have metal surrounds.

The sound of a woodpecker drumming carries for a very long distance, not because of the volume but because the frequency of the drumming has a strike rate of 10-40 per second which causes the tree to resonate.

Shortly after the encounter with the woodpecker the clouds cleared and it turned into a warm sunny day, much more suitable for songbird encounters, and the first one was a whitethroat:

Common whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger)

The whitethroat is one of our non-resident warblers which were just arriving in the UK from their annual migration back from sub Saharan Africa. When they’re attracting a mate they do a mad little jerky flight heading roughly straight up from the top of a bush and dropping straight back down again, and while they do it they have a distinctive song. But as distinctive as it is, it’s not in the same league as the ultimate songbird:

Nightingale (Lucinia megarhynchos, Dansk: sydlig nattergal)

The nightingale is a fairly drab little bird to look at, but the song is incredible. And when it has returned here in the spring after migration, also from tropical Africa it starts to sing… and people will flock from miles around to hear it. Alas, as with many bird species the nightingale is red listed in the UK and in desperate need of protection, consequently this was the first time I managed to photograph one.

There are ponds and shallow pools on the site of the Pits too, and these are being nurtured to encourage dragonflies and amphibians such as this great crested newt:

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus, Dansk: stor vandsalamander)

Great crested newts are also endangered in the UK due to habitat destruction and are therefore heavily protected. It was good to see an adult male in his full breeding regalia, he’s a spectacular beast.

Advertisements

The busiest burdock

In my last post I wrote about the wildlife to the north of Histon. This post is about the wildlife to the west of the village. The two areas are divided by a main road and they are quite different in character. The north is very open with big open fields lined with ditches and hedgerows and the west has more trees and scrub.

In mid June I ventured there to compare the birdlife with that to the north, because I normally see less farmland birds like skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammer here, but more finches and migrant warblers like chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat.

Dog rose (Rosa canina) bejewelled with raindrops

There had been a refreshing shower shortly before I set out which had left the flowers on a rose bush bejewelled with raindrops. It was a good time of year for the wild flowers as the ground had not dried out and there was plenty of sunshine. And of course, if the wild flowers are in good shape, there’s plenty of food for insects and therefore abundant sustenance for birds too.

(And on the subject of insects there was a news report from the BBC today regarding the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) which became extinct in the UK in 2000, but was reintroduced to an RSPB reserve at Dungeness in Kent and is now successfully breeding. Great news!)

But I digress. The dog rose flower was in the local meadow, but passing through there to the farmland beyond there is a field which is lined with drainage ditches, hedgerows and wide unmown borders which support a wealth of wildlife including wild flowers, bumble bees, dragon flies and birds. One of the wild flowers there is the burdock, Arctium minus, which has enormous spiky leaves and big burs which get stuck to your clothes, and on this walk there was a burdock patch that was full of songbirds:

A cock linnet resplendent in his sumptuous breeding regalia: the crimson bindi and rosy breast

The linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk) were omnipresent here throughout the summer, and occasionally a yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) appeared too. It’s easy to find yellowhammers if they’re in residence because of their characteristic song (a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese).

The striking colour of the male yellowhammer

And the yellowhammer song carries on the wind for hundreds of metres and because they are so colourful they’re easy to spot with a pair of binoculars.

A male whitethroat watching an adult linnet feeding a fledgling

At least one pair of whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger) were nesting on the edge of this field too. The whitethroat are amber listed and the conservation status of the linnet and the yellowhammer is red list due to decline in their numbers. And in a very old oak tree just a few metres from here was a pair of barn owls (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nesting, and their status is also amber, but more about those in a later post.

Red clover – Trifolium pratense – the national flower of Denmark

Meadow warblers

Our migrant warblers were all back from Africa and nesting by the beginning of June. There are four species which normally frequent my local countryside, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger), willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) and the whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger).

The blackcap have been conspicuous by their absence this summer. The central European winter population, of which a pair took up residence in the garden last winter, disappeared in the spring and that was the last time I saw one. Chiffchaff were, as always, the first winter visitor I noticed returning because of their characteristic song calling out from the trees. There are several other birds singing in the background here but the call of the chiffchaff is clear above the others, and it’s easy to see where it gets its name from.

Chiffchaff male declaring his availability in early spring

It’s now at the start of September and I haven’t seen a chiffchaff for a while, but through the summer I regularly saw willow warblers which were nesting in a bramble thicket that I passed when I was out walking the dog. Willow warblers are very easy to mistake for chiffchaff by sight but willow warbler song is quite different.

Willow warbler parent with a beak full of insects heading for the nest

The song isn’t the only diagnostic differentiator between these two species, there are a couple of others but they are more subtle. The most noticeable is the colour of the legs, chiffchaff have dark, almost black, legs and the willow warblers are red brown. Differences in plumage of the willow warbler are the brighter stripe over the eye (the ‘supercilium‘), a more promounced dark eyestripe and the patch under the eye (the ‘ear covert’) is olive grey with a pale patch immediately below the eye, compared to the more uniform dark grey colour of the chiffchaff. So if you get a good look through binoculars it’s not too difficult to tell them apart, but the song is the easiest way.

Another foray to collect flies for the chicks

Pausing to check up on me before heading into the nest

For a couple of weeks there was a spot in the field where I could stand close to the nest and watch the comings and goings of the adult willow warblers bringing food for the youngsters, and they seemed cautious but otherwise content for me to be there if I stood still.

Whitethroat male – my best ever bird portrait!

My favourite warbler is the whitethroat. They are easy to tell at a distance, even without optical assistance, and this is my favourite picture of one. The male whitethroat has a jingly jangly song and when he’s advertising for ladies he perches on top of a bush and flies repeatedly in a jerky motion straight up and then flutters back down to the same spot.

And while I was busy photographing the warblers I was being serenaded night after night by this chap:

A male songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) filling the meadow with song

A tad incongruous in a post about warblers, I grant you, but he was there all the time and his songwas magnificent! As with the chiffchaff there are several other birds calling too, but the thrush is easily distinguishable from the noise. This is the first time I’ve posted a link to my own (amateurish!) sound recording, but I think it’s OK. Let me know what you think.

Summer songbirds mainly, especially linnet

The summer solstice was a couple of weeks ago, the weather is warm and sunny and the evenings are light until after 10pm. For the last week I’ve been heading out across the fields in all hours of daylight and the wildlife has changed significantly. Until a few weeks ago there was alot of bird activity around the nests and I could watch whitethroat and blackcap in the same place for several weeks before that.


Common whitethroat about to head for the nest

The birds are still around but they have dispersed and a tad more legwork is required to see the same species I was seeing 2-3 weeks ago. But now, the first broods of the next generation have all fledged and while my garden has played host to families of starling, great tit, and goldfinch – the fledglings easily distinguished from the adults by their lack of a crimson face – further afield, the hedgerows are thronged with linnet, whitethroat, reed bunting, corn bunting and yellowhammer.


An adult goldfinch and two fledglings on the niger seed feeder in my garden. The speckled brown and lack of a red face makes the youngsters easy to identify.

Another finch of which there are many adults and fledglings in the countryside are linnet. Linnet are one of my favourite birds for several reasons: they are delightful to look at with their cerise breast patches, they have a lovely song as they fly overhead and as long as I don’t do anything daft they will often sit tight and let me get really close to photograph them.


A cock linnet, underlit by the late evening sun, showing several diagnostic freatures including the cerise breast, grey head and pale grey grey cheekspot and the crimson spot on the forehead

Rather interestingly the taxonomic nomenclature is Carduelis cannabina, which approximately translates from the Latin as the ‘cannabis finch’! The linnets diet consists of small seeds so I imagine the name derives from the days when hemp was grown to make rope and they were seen in numbers feeding on the seeds.

There is a field of oil seed rape on the edge of Histon which I had always imagined to be devoid of wildlife but in the last few weeks families of linnet, reed bunting, greenfinch and whitethroat are regularly perched on top of the rape plants.


Greenfinch male in the middle of the rape field

The rape seed pods are full of small black seeds and if you squeeze one seed between your fingers there’s enough oil in it to make the ends of your thumb and forefinger really greasy, so it’s easy to see why rape is a lucrative crop and why it is a good energy source for songbirds.


Female linnet perched on top of a hawthorn tree at the edge of the rape field, she doesn’t have the cerise breast patches of the male, but lovely colours none the less

Linnet are migrant and resident breeders and passage and winter visitors. In the winter they can be seen in flocks of several hundred over farmland and often mingle with other finches. There conservation status is red due to population decline over the last forty years even though the European population numbers between 10 and 30 million pairs! Despite the overall numbers, along with a multitude of other bird species they are the victims of habitat destruction and the systemic use of herbicides which kill off their food supplies.


Cock linnet perched on top of an apple tree also on the edge of the rape field…

… and another one sitting on power lines. Look at the colour of that breast – they’re beautiful birds!

So if you can’t think of anything else to do this weekend and you feel like some gentle excercise and peace and quiet take a walk in the countryside and keep your eyes open for all the songbirds.

Many species of butterfly including large and small white, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, ringlet and small skippers were flapping lazily around the hedges on Guns Lane this morning, basking in the warm sunshine and I saw the first gatekeepers of the year today too:

A gatekeeper probing for nectar in ragwort flowers

All in all, it’s well worth a trip to the countryside armed with a pair of binoculars!

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.