Tag Archives: winter migrant

The Magnificent Mute

Mute swans are beautiful birds. There are few sights as impressive as a male mute, wings cocked, protecting his youngsters. The family below were on a very small lake at RSPB Fen Drayton and just before I took the pictures below, the male had launched a pre-emptive strike against a perceived threat at the other side of the lake, around 40m away. I couldn’t see who the interloper was but the sight and the sound of the big male as he raced across the lake, wings outstretched and beating on the water, must have been extremely intimidating. It was unnerving from where I was standing!


The male on the left is back with his brood after nullifying the threat. But he’s still got his wings cocked.

The mute (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) is one of the biggest flying birds with a wingspan greater than two metres and an average weight for the male of approximately 11kg, it is a very impressive bird indeed and a group in the air flying close by is a real jaw dropper.

In the UK mute swans belong to the monarch and no one else is allowed to take them. They are marked every year, a practice that was originally identifying them  for the monarchs table, but I think Her Maj’s palate has evolved since then and eating swans is, fortunately, no longer fashionable.

It is native to the UK and a resident breeder but when things get too cold on mainland Europe winter migrants can show up here too. They tend to remain in their home territory all year round but can also form groups in the winter and move to a winter feeding ground, presumably this behaviour is driven by the temperature, availability of food and safety in numbers.

The ‘mute‘ in ‘mute swan’ is apparently derived from the fact that the mute swan is not as noisy as other swans. I’ve strayed too close to a nest before though, and at that moment mute was probably the last adjective to spring to mind as they voiced their discontent by making a violent hissing sound to warn me off. I took the hint and retreated as swiftly as possible.

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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!

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.