October 24, 2017

Blue Tit fledgeling (Cyanistes caeruleus)

As I mentioned in my video post at the beginning of May about the Robins, we’ve had plenty of nests in the garden this year. It’s been a few weeks now so here’s an update of their progress:

  • The Starlings successfully fledged from the nest above our bedroom window about four days ago
  • The Moorhens chicks who’d only just fledged at the beginning of the month are roving about more, though there would appear to be only three of five remaining
  • The Blackbirds have incubated four chicks in the lean-to shed, they’re getting quite big now (more from them another day)
  • The House Sparrows who nest under the tiles above Joe’s window are now bringing their fledgelings to feed in the garden
  • Next door’s Swallows still seem to be building their nest and rather excitingly a pair have been casually renovating on of the old nests in our coal shed so fingers crossed they decide to stay

This little Blue Tit (below) is from a nest in the box in our larger Yew tree, they fledged on Friday and have been noisily haranguing their parents to bring food to their various ‘secret’ locations all over the weekend whilst I’ve been gardening. I also found another Blue Tit nest this weekend in the stonework of the wall around our side garden and today the two of the chicks from that later brood were squeezed into the entrance hole chirping madly at anything which passed, including Joe and me.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

When we first moved in, these birds nested in our ramshackle coal shed for a couple of years, then after a particularly bad year in which many more than usual didn’t make it back over the Sahara, we’ve been a little bereft. Hundreds of them and their close relative the House Martins (Delichon urbicum), still frequent our airspace and this year there’s even been a little more interest in our outbuildings. Next door’s car port has a nest though and the messy side garden we keep our hens in has proved a useful area for gathering straw and feathers with which to do much of the construction.

They do look a little ungainly on the ground, having such short legs and feet better adapted to perching than waddling around. I was quite pleased to get these shots as they don’t hang about for long due to the fact that as well as being a very busy time for them, the hens do get a little territorial about their garden, the more dominant ones liking to chase any intruder in a terrific show of chicken ferocity. Of course the Swallows just casually spring into the air and zoom off, sometimes doing a couple of circuits just above hen head height as if to prove a point.

Nesting Robins (Erithacus rubecula)

So far this year we’ve been having a bit of a bumper year for nests.

Starlings have returned to last years penthouse suite above our bedroom window, the Moorhens who share our hen’s food successfully incubated 5 eggs, Blackbirds are again nesting in my lean to shed, House Sparrows are nesting in both our roof and that of our closest neighbour and the neighbours on the other side have Swallows building a nest in their car port. Its safe to say that spring has most definitely sprung.

Pride of place in this nest-a-thon must go to the robins though who thoughtfully built their nest at just below eye height in the ivy which holds our coal shed together. Here’s a short edit of some footage I shot with my DSLR and Camcorder, which would be much better if the lighting was consistent throughout :)
A Robin's Nest in the Ivy

Collin Park Wood SSSI

Back at the beginning of December I was inspired to visit this Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve which I’d recently noticed was just off  the route I take to and from my son’s nursery. It was during a particularly cold snap which saw us having several consecutive days of freezing fog and some of the most remarkable Hoar frost I can remember.

As I got out of the car, the path into the reserve already looked like some path into Narnia and I was glad to have wrapped up so warmly. The fog and snow seemed to dampen any sound I made and it would have been eerie, had it not looked quite so beautiful. I was however beginning to have a niggling regret about not having brought some kind of magical device – the EOS 5D is a truly magnificent piece of kit, but it’s not much cop in the battling mythical creatures stakes -and I do like to be prepared.

Having walked for a few minutes and seen or heard literally no wildlife whatsoever, I put the wide angle lens on my camera and determined to capture some images which would give some idea of the sense of place, rather than it’s inhabitants, who were wisely holed up out of the -8° temperature.

After about half an hour it was becoming clear that I’d made the correct lens choice, the wide angle doing a great job of capturing both trees and the super frosty bracken and briar at ground level. This smug complacency didn’t last long. I was lining up another tasty panorama through the woods when I noticed a largish raptor shape speeding overhead and landing high up above me in the canopy. I was literally frozen. I think I’ve mentioned it was -8, plus I was kneeling down desperately trying to work out how to swap lenses whilst still keeping sight of the perched bird which by now I was pretty convinced was a Goshawk – too bulky for a Sparrowhawk – tail too long and behaviour and habitat seemingly wrong for a Buzzard. My binos, luckily having been ’round my neck, I settled for a closer look then, since it appeared to be having a bit of a preen, decided to try a lens swap. Before I’d even got my pack off my back, my clumsy mammal movements betrayed my position and said raptor was gone, leaving me with the even stronger impression of Goshawk. I know they are recorded in this general area but this was a first for me and I’m really wondering if there have been any other sightings.

As I made my way back to the car, very pleased with my pictures and the Hawk sighting, I was snapped out of my reverie by the sound of something large crashing through the undergrowth ahead of me. Dog? I thought. Wolf? Balrog? Then onto the path emerged a rather surprised looking Roe deer about 20 meters in front of me. Again I thought, “lens swap time” and again I missed the shot, but paused long enough to get a really good look, before the animal bounded away through the trees, spooked by my movements.

RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch

No huge surprises during the hour’s bird watch, but it was nice to see that the Song and Mistle thrushes didn’t miss their cue even if the woodpeckers, Wrens and Jays did.

The winning species in terms of numbers at least, was the humble Chaffinch:

Species Scientific Name Number
Listed in the order they showed up
1 Magpie Pica pica 2
2 Nuthatch Sitta europeaea 1
3 Robin Ericathus rubecula 2
4 Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs 7
5 Blue Tit Parus ceruleus 3
6 Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 2
7 Great Tit Parus Major 3
8 House Sparrow Passer domesticus 3
9 Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis 1
10 Dunnock Prunella modularis 1
11 Blackbird Turdus merula 5
12 Jackdaw Corvus monedula 4
13 Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 1
14 Wood Pigeon Columba palumba 2
15 Starling Sturnus vulgaris 2
16 Greenfinch Carduelis chloris 1
17 Song Thrush Turdus turdus 1
18 Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus 1
42

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Seasonal post this one.

At this time of year the local Sparrowhawks make the most of the glut of inexperienced and deliciously nutritious recent fledgelings. I’ve never understood why people get upset about having these exquisite predators visit their gardens. They’re usually about as close as we get to genuine tip predators, those highly evolved specialists who sit at the top of the food chain, sharing their evolutionary niche with Polar Bears, Great White Sharks and Lions. Complaining that they take birds from a busy bird table is a bit like getting uptight about Orcas eating Sea Lions from a busy beach. Species necessarily coexist and the presence of predators in an ecosystem indicates that it’s healthy. If there aren’t enough resources lower down the food chain to feed everything else, then there won’t be anything to support those predators at the top.

Twice this week, I’ve seen a female Sparrowhawk like the one in the photo below, catching birds in the garden. In all likelihood it’s this same female that I photographed a few years ago or at least a close relative, because they’re pretty short lived, the average lifespan being just 2.7 years.

Early on Tuesday morning I raised the bedroom blind and thought that although the weather had indeed taken an intemperate Autumnal turn, I definitely wasn’t expecting snow just yet. Large, fat, floaty flakes too. Then I noticed the alarm calls from the birds in the yew tree.

Trying to loop the blind cord round the stubby stanchion thingy, requires delicate figure of eight finesse, especially when trying to prevent a toddler getting tangled up in it. Eagerly scanning the garden for an anticipated raptor encounter hampers this. Eventually, and with the cord in a terrible mess, I spot the hawk. She’s on the lawn, covering her prey with self consciously flexed wings like a child afraid that someone’s going to copy her exam answers. All the while a sizable tree brimming with thrushes, finches and tits is venting their collective spleen, so pretty quickly she tires of the attention.

A forward lean and full smooth wing extension turns a crouch into an upward swoop.
Flight feathers flick dew from the wet grass, once, twice, three times.
The dead finch’s head metronomes each off beat, then she’s gone.

Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

Not your classic bird pose this one, but I’ve always been interested in capturing pictures of birds at this stage of flight. Whether the slow power of larger birds as they beat the air into submission or that fizzing burst of energy which propels the littler ones, for me there’s something magical about freezing the action at the point when they actually defeat gravity.

Linnets used to be popular cage birds, the male having an intricate, and slightly ethereal twittering song, but thankfully that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more. Just as well as this is now listed as an RSPB red list species, breeding numbers having fallen significantly over the past 25 years in this country, as well as being a Species of European Conservation Concern.

Again its changes in farming practices which have so dramatically affected a bird which exploited non intensive arable practices. The increased use of herbicides and monocultural approaches to grassland ‘improvement’ have eliminated a lot of the seed rich native plants or ‘weeds’ as they’re often called. The widespread use of another monoculture, the increasingly widespread bane of hayfever sufferers, oil seed rape, has been beneficial during the summer, but the lack of stubble fields during the winter months has robbed them of habitat and food, when they need them most.

Just in case you’re not convinced about the ID of the blurry blob in the first picture, here’s the one I took fractionally before.

Nice, but not quite so much fun in my opinion.

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

A very familiar British garden species. On our bird feeders, they’re usually the ones going through the seed mix, eating the sunflower hearts and chucking the smaller stuff on the floor, much to the delight of the waiting hens.

They used to be birds of arable farmland but due to changes in farming practice, mainly the disappearance of stubble fields and less sympathetic hedgerow management, winter gardens have become an important food source.

The finch in my picture is a male, the female being browner and just a bit plainer looking and being photographed early in spring a few years ago, he’s looking his breeding best. The morning sun caught him rather well too as he eyed me cautiously from his newly budding perch, before beating a hasty retreat.

Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

A small, perfectly formed gull. Unlike their heftier, noisier, cousins the Herring and Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Kittiwakes are only associated with coastal areas. You won’t find them chasing tractors or looting chicken dinner scraps from black bags on landfill sites. Instead, during the breeding season, they can be found in large, cliff ledge colonies but from August onwards they head back out to the Atlantic, where they spend the entire winter at sea.

This “spending the winter at sea” lark is something I’ve only just really started to wonder about. I’ve long accepted that auks like Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills spend the winter at sea, but what can that actually mean? Surely being at sea during a storm is a bit hazardous, so apart from bobbing about like a cork, which I suppose may be quite a good defense, though probably not good for getting your full sleep quota, how on earth do these birds manage? If anyone out there has any ides I’d love to hear them. Google thus far isn’t shedding much light on the subject, but if I do find out, I’ll do a follow up.

A quick note about the first picture. Although the framing is at best a bit off, possibly the kind of view you’d get if it was bobbing on the sea, I find the intimacy of being able to see the fiddly little details intoxicating. The delicate blood red eye liner and gape line, alongside the faintest of white scallops defining the shape of the pale grey wing feathers, is deeply rewarding to me.

Portraits can’t always be totally perfect and if not, they won’t win the wildlife photographer of the year, but as long as they’re revealing, they’re doing they’re job in my book.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

When we were first viewing the house we now live in, I saw a pair of Little Owls silhouetted on a branch overlooking our side garden. We’d already pretty much decided to buy the house but lets just say that owl appearance certainly didn’t harm it’s prospects.

Every year since we’ve moved in, the owls have nested in an old hollow apple tree in our neighbours’ front garden and early each summer I’ve usually seen the female teaching a youngster or two how to catch worms or insects on our front lawn. They’re partly diurnal or active during the day and also crepuscular, which means they’re particularly busy in the twilight hours either side of dawn and dusk, so fairly easy to spot during the day once you get your eye in.

They’re not a native species, but a mid 19th century introduction and unusually for an introduced species have neatly fitted into the UK ecology without discernible negative impact.

They’re pretty small owls, a little smaller in length than a Blackbird, but obviously a lot stouter and their plumage very well camouflaged particularly when sitting motionless on an old branch. However they do have favourite perches, so once you’ve spotted one in the same place a few times, it’s relatively simple to observe and perhaps even photograph them (see above). Apparently in some places they’re so accustomed to humans that they’ll boldly sit on a fence post in plain view. Ours were never so accommodating but with a bit of patience I managed to photograph one on a few occasions.

Towards the end of last summer, an injured male owl was found in the lane beyond our drive and taken to local rescue center. Sadly that was the last sighting any of us had of any Little Owls. I’m guessing the injured owl was a juvenile as I’ve normally only seen males courting our resident female in early spring. Her disappearance could simply be due to natural causes as they’re not particularly long lived creatures. I’d observed her for five years and three is the average life span so she may just have died, but because of the injured male, I just wonder whether she picked a fight with the wrong Tawny Owl, perhaps defending her chick.

Very often I’d be woken in the early hours by some very vocal sparring between Little Owls and an interloping Tawny (Strix aluco) and the larger species is known to occasionally predate the smaller, so maybe it’s not too fanciful a notion.

With a little luck, the excellent habitat around us may encourage another owl to take up residence, but for the time being the nightly hooting of amourous Tawny owls continues to go unchallenged.