December 12, 2017

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Thanks to Aneurin Owen both for the inspiration for this post and for the Scientific name. Once you start getting into taxonomy, you start dropping these arcane species names into conversations hoping to look erudite (I probably don’t, but that’s never stopped me before). Tonight. for the first time ever and without any prompting, I was asked the common name for Haematopus ostralegus. I got as far as working out there was a reference to blood (haema) but that was it. Bah! It’s a common misconception that scientific names a re Latin but there’s alot of Greek going on in taxonomy and this species’ name literally it means “blood footed collector”.

To be fair there’s a lot of binomial nomenclature out there to memorise. This is the system of identifying every organism on earth by Genus and Species, created by the Father of Taxonomy, Carolus Linneus. It’s just a shame I dropped the first ball thrown to me, which incidentally, is the reason I failed to get into the house cricket team at school. No second chances at public school.

Anyhoo, Oystercatchers! They remind me of cartoon snowmen with a particularly impressive carrot for a nose, or bulked up smaller waders, wearing several overcoats and a partial Groucho mask. They have an unmistakable squeaking alarm call and aren’t at all shy about using it. Unless you’ve got good field craft, this sound, along with a spectacular white flash of the trailing wing edge, as rapid wing beats propel their equally spectacular white rump away from you, are the the best you can hope for.

Their common name is actually a bit of a misnomer, as although physical size and powerful bill mean they’re one of the few waders actually capable of opening an oyster, smaller molluscs like Mussels and crusatceans, even earthworms, form a major part of their diet.

Aneurin Owen

Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

During the 1940s and ’50s the use of pesticides badly affected Buzzard numbers by reducing their ability to reproduce. The withdrawal of these chemicals in the ’60s along with a significant reduction in illegal killing by gamekeepers, led to a gradual re-population across the country.

These days it’s our most common raptor, the naturalist’s name for a bird of prey, and over here in the West they’re extremely numerous, approaching their maximum breeding density of around one pair every 1.2 miles.

I knew they hunted a variety of prey apart from their usual prey of voles, as I’ve frequently seen them standing around in muddy winter fields, often in small groups, hunting earthworms. You can see by the above photo that a Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) is a much larger proposition than either worms or voles, and although I didn’t expect them to be eating something this big, according to a recent Norwegian study they often target medium sized birds. Indeed this study recorded them feeding 10 Jays (Garrulus glandarius) and even a magpie (Pica pica) to their young!

All of a sudden, the relentless mobbing behaviour, where individuals of a certain species cooperatively attack or harass a predator, made a bit more sense to me. I always particularly wondered why Corvids (crows and their allies), so often on the receiving end of mobbing themselves, bothered to hassle Buzzards. But if they’re a legitimate prey species themselves, I suppose it’s a smart evolutionary strategy.

Mobbing also seems to play an important part in teaching juvenile birds about predatory species, as well as making it impossible for the predator in question to mount any kind of sneak attack. My hens do something similar whenever a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) tries it’s luck by hiding in the Holly tree in our side garden, hoping a Tit or Finch will hop in for dinner. They all race over and cluster around the base of the tree squawking, clucking and generally making a lot of noise. In the face of all this hysterical racket the Sparrowhawk invariably gives up pretty quickly and if there ever were hen chicks around to witness it, I’m sure they’d get the picture too.

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Another species I used to see more of. This one’s in real trouble and now on the red list.

As a schoolboy waiting for my bus in the centre of Bristol, the increasingly dark nights following the start of the new school year used to be made slightly more bearable by the giant flocks of Starlings which wheeled overhead before roosting on the surrounding buildings.

As a young urban bird watcher, this species was pretty much guaranteed in any garden or park probing the grass for insects or squabbling for food on the bird table. I certainly took them for granted, though always enjoyed seeing them for their iridescent plumage and characteristically boisterous behaviour.

Gradually and without me even really noticing they became somewhat less ubiquitous and when I moved away to college in Reading, I supposed that they just weren’t such a common species that far West. In truth, habitat and invertebrate prey loss through changes in farming practices, the fetish for new build housing and a general tidying away of favoured nesting places, has lead to a drop in numbers across Europe. In the UK, they’ve declined by over 66% since the 1970s.

This spring, I was therefore particularly pleased to discover that the scrabbling noise in the roof directly above our bedroom window was down to a pair of Starlings, who’d excavated the old House Sparrow nest behind the gutter.

This video was taken a few days before the chicks successfully fledged and you can hear them shrilly welcoming their parent’s beak full of still wriggling insect goodness!

Our Starlings' Nest (HD Video)

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Today’s species is usually a big crowd pleaser. I’ve seen them a few times on Ynys Môn (Anglesey), both on a boat trip to the aptly named Puffin Island near Baumarris, and at the fantastic RSPB reserve at South Stack, but it’s been very difficult to get close enough for a decent picture even with my 100-400mm lens.

This year we fulfilled an ambition of mine to visit the Farne Islands and arrived just in time for the Puffins, and many other birds, to be busying themselves with nesting. Many of the other birds choose to nest on the high cliffs around the island of Inner Farne, but these remarkable little auks use the old rabbit burrows, further back from those vertiginous drops.

I took a few pictures of them in flight, but seemed unable to get myself in the right position to find one prepared to pose for me on the ground. Until that is, I spotted another photographer who suddenly froze then very slowly advanced towards a nearby burrow. I caught his eye and he very generously hissed, “one just coming out over here” so we were both able to get some really nice close ups as the bird weighed up our potential as predators. Pretty soon s/he decided that we were safe enough, so fully emerged and waddled around to line up a decent flight path, out over the cliffs and back to the sea to feed.

Even by Northumbrian standards, the Farne Islands are a really magical place. We were luck enough to see a huge list of interesting wildlife and I even managed to take a satisfying amount of pictures of them.