Sunday, 29 May 2016

Determined Lapwing & A Wild Goose Chase!

Peewit, Lapwing, Green Plover, Vanellus vanellus, whatever you call them, they're in big population decline here in the UK. I'm a scientist, so here's a graph showing the data from BTO that proves it (y axis is a smoothed population index & green indicates 85% confidence limits). 

Adult Lapwing showing off gorgeous feather colours & a jaunty crest.

Origins of the Lapwing name hail from Middle English lappewinke and lapwyngis, and back even earlier to the Old English hleapewince, all of which mean 'leap' and 'wince' or 'waver, move rapidly'. It's descriptive, as the Lapwing appear to make a big leap when they take to the air, and when on the ground they scuttle about quite rapidly. In that respect I'd hardly call them wavering, as I shall highlight below. However, when they're foraging they pause to listen, and patter on the mud using a foot, which increases their success rate in finding and catching invertebrates.

Pausing to patter, best foot forward.
The distinctive calls of peewit, or kievit, if the Dutch birds (explains some of their other names) ever made the short hop across the North Sea, can be heard as soon as you reach the marshes particularly in the spring. This is usually accompanied by some tumbling, turning, swooping and even upside down flying. How do they do that? If you haven't watched the aerial acrobatics of these amazing birds, then you have missed out on nature's very own Cirque du Soleil show.

Aerial acrobatics.

Almost upside down.

The decline in population isn't for lack of trying on their part. I was recently up on the North Norfolk coast at NWT Cley watching the Lapwing and their young families on Arnold's Marsh. They are determined birds when protecting their patch of marsh, be it from other lapwing or other bird species, many of which can be much, much bigger than themselves. They'll even take on the top avian predator of the marshland, the Marsh Harrier, and like most birds in the breeding season, have absolutely zero tolerance of crows and gulls. Mob-handed they take them on in mid air, trying to stall the perceived intruder's flight, or dive bombing anything on the ground. All intended to distract from nests and the precious bundles of fluff running among the grass tussocks.

Eyeing each other.

Duelling for a patch of marsh to breed in.


Commencing a dive bomb - zero tolerance of crows!
Taking on a Marsh Harrier!

However I was quite surprised when I saw just one female take on half a dozen Greylag that were meandering too close to her four babies. That saying about geese being the best guards, just got upgraded to Lapwing. This was a proper wild goose chase except there was real purpose in it, to keep those big, and as far as Mrs Lapwing was concerned, clumsy, birds off of her newly hatched babies.

Wild Goose chase!

Mum returns to chicks & calm is restored, briefly.

When a Lapwing hatches it seems to have the ability to run instantly, which is probably a good thing as on grazing marshes (prime Lapwing Real Estate) there are often even bigger beasts to avoid, like cows. It's worth noting in this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare, that he refers to them in Hamlet, when Horatio says of Osric "This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head." It's as if they can't wait to be hatched and are eager to get on with life, forward little chaps. I have to say I have never seen one with shell on its head though!

Barely out of the egg & already on the move.

Getting older & admiring the reflection.

Lapwing get another mention in Comedy of Errors, this time referring to their habit of luring predators away from nests "Far from her nest the lapwing cries away." This deception is carried out with cries and/or feigning injury and in fact explains another name. The Greek name used to be polyplagktos meaning "luring on deceitfully." Other writers have noted this behaviour, consequently the Lapwing has sadly become a symbol of deceit and insincerity. I say, it is only trying to survive in a tough environment.

Crying loudly to distract me from the youngsters.

So what are we doing to try to help these birds, they clearly do their very best to help themselves? I take part in the RSPB's Lowland Farmland Breeding Wader Survey (yes a right mouthful), along with other survey volunteers, and farmers who are managing their land in a way to support several dramatically declining species. I survey a farm each year in the Broads, I'm over on Halvergate this year. It's glorious out there (when the weather is kind), and I'm so pleased to hear the news that the RSPB have managed to acquire more land in this internationally important area. The target birds we surveyors are looking for are not just Lapwing, but also Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Snipe and Yellow Wagtail (technically not a wader but likes the wetlands!). The participating farmers in this partnership have been given advice about managing the degree of wet in their fields, and the amount of rush allowed to grow based on previous work by the RSPB. They are encouraged to scrape out foot drains (shallow 'ditches' containing water no more than ankle deep) and can use their cattle and sheep, but at not too high densities, to create areas of shorter sward. All of which provides soft mud into which long-beaked waders can probe for insects, worms, etc., especially important for chicks, and a variety of different vegetation lengths, and clumps of rush to provide cover from predators. Time, and surveys, will tell if these subtle management changes will make a difference, I really hope so!

Big flocks gather in winter.

Off to roost in the autumn.

What a tragedy it would be if we lost these beautiful and boisterous birds of coast and marsh. My favourite places for easy viewing of these birds all year round (and in large numbers in winter) are: NWT Cley or Hickling, and RSPB Buckenham Marshes, but really any field that's a bit damp and where the grass isn't too long.

Pause a while to watch and listen but remember, it's their marsh in spring, so don't get too close!

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Gulls At Play

Let's Play Fetch (or as Herring Gulls call it, 'Drop-Retrieve')

Little did I know I was going to Herring Gull playschool when I popped down to Walcott a couple of weeks ago. I was intending to watch the migration flypast , but got a little distracted by the antics of a group of this year's young Herring Gulls, and most entertaining it was too!

The bell for start of playschool seemed to be an adult with a crab who was willing to give it up to the youngsters, it was like getting your mini bottle of milk to start off the session. Once the crab had been 'seen to' a group of a dozen or so young birds decided it was time for a game of drop-retrieve. Some picked up a favourite stone, others a bunch of seaweed, then proceeded to drop it from about a metre above the water and dive in after it. There was no attempt to catch it before it hit the water, that would be drop-catch, not drop-retrieve.

A crab is a gull's mini bottle milk to start playschool.

One with seaweed one with stone.

Two with a stone, & one that has lost it's toy.
Two dropping stones, one yelling encouragement & three studying their efforts.

You know what's coming...
                                                                   ...timed it wrong & got bowled over by a wave! 

Am I too late? I've got a brilliant new toy to play with!

It all took place in the shallows and at first I thought is this training for foraging, but it really didn't reflect that, maybe if they were expert divers like gannets or terns. There is evidence that young gulls (this year's brood) do this sort of thing when the conditions are right, and luckily they were that day: light winds, bright sunshine and very little swell. The study proved that indeed these gulls were having playtime, and having seen it for myself I totally believe it. They were having fun and seemed to be positively encouraging each other, you know how they can yell. It was good to see another side to these birds that received so much unmerited bad press through the summer.

I do like gulls!

PS: The migration flypast mostly involved Brent Geese heading towards Cromer, with Gannets going the other way to Great Yarmouth, and a late pair of Sandwich Tern also going south.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

A #30DaysWild Ride Home

It took me almost an hour to get home yesterday, day 12 of #30DaysWild. I regularly cycle to work and normally it takes 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the wind direction. Yesterday it was almost an hour in only a light breeze. It wasn't a puncture, or the choice of a longer route that made me take much longer, no, it was all the wild distractions, so many brilliant encounters that are great for #30DaysWild which is an initiative for June being encouraged by The Wildlife Trusts .
So here is the story of 'My #30DaysWild ride Home'.

When I left work I started a list in my head of bird species I saw or heard on the journey; Woodpigeon, Herring Gull, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Carrion Crow, Jay, Dunnock, Greenfinch, Whitethroat, Wren, Jackdaw and I had barely gone 400m. I paused on the bridge over the river Yare to check out the fish (obviously inspired by the hero of this year's Springwatch, Spineless Si). There were lots of fry and some bigger fish too, guessing they might be Roach, the most common fish of the Broads area. The water was very clear (made a note to go back with underwater camera) but what really caught my eye was a dozen, all males, Banded Demoiselles flitting across the water, occasionally pausing on piece of reed. Suddenly, I noticed a change, there was much more purpose about their flight, and sure enough a female had flown into the group and she was proving most popular. Whilst watching all this I could hear more Whitethroat, another Wren, I think about three Reed Warblers, a Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler all singing and Blackcaps calling in their stone chinking way. Species total so far: 16.

Male Banded Demoiselle - photo taken at Wheatfen Reserve, Norfolk

Female Banded Demoiselle - photo taken at Wheatfen Reserve, Norfolk
After ten minutes I moved on, all of 50 metres, to where a Song Thrush was singing an interesting repertoire. I tried a video but the battery life on my camera was an issue, there is a little below! Then, as I was being gently dusted with Willow fluff, a second Song Thrush started up behind me. I found myself positioned directly in the middle of a Song Thrush sing off. It was a bit like 'The Battles' on The Voice on telly, certainly these Birds Got Talent! It was great stuff, Song Thrushes in stereo, with a Chiff Chaff chiffing in and an incessant backdrop of Tit squeaking, Blue, Great and Long Tails. I wanted to close my eyes and just listen but didn't dare in case I missed a flash of a passing Kingfisher, they're regular through that area, but no luck today. Species total update: 20.


Blue Tit Fledglings
One of last year's families from a nest box at work, I didn't catch them with the camera this year.  

I moved on again, through the woods, it was relatively quiet in there, one Robin calling. Then suddenly a loud croaking/cawing from back near the river. Only one thing makes that noise, Grey Heron, and it was complaining very strongly, probably at some corvids giving it grief. I continued on around the UEA Broad, where I saw a Swallow take a drink, yeah I know a Swallow swallowing! I was taking the even more scenic route home, well now that I had started my birds list I wanted to know if it would beat the morning ride to work list of 24 which included a Kestrel. Black Headed and a couple of Lesser Black Backed Gulls were on the Broad, and a motley looking hybrid Mallard (all counts for the list tho'!). Another extended family of Blue Tit fledgers were squeaking in the trees and a Whitethroat tricolating (Norfolk dialect for sprucing up/decorating) a Hawthorn. A Goldfinch flew over the path tinkling, and another Song Thrush came into auditory vision. I was enjoying this gentle ride when suddenly a Cetti's Warbler blasted out its song at me, I wobbled for a second, and just as I had recovered a Wren did the same! Both must have been so close to the path. A Great Tit called to its mate and a pair of Magpies worked the path in front of me for insects, worms and more likely dropped human food. Species total update: 28.

Cetti's Warbler gives it everything when they suddenly burst into their dramatic song!
Picture taken at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen in early May.

A Swallow not swallowing!
Picture taken at Hardley Flood, Norfolk #30daysWild Day 6

I carried on through Eaton Park, where there were more Blackbird, Chaffinch and Gulls. As I passed the boating pond three Swifts took a drink, all in turn and all aiming for the exact centre of the pond, was it a game I wondered? Out of the park and through the houses towards Unthank Road I looked out for Starlings as a week ago there had been several fledglings, not today. Maybe they are back out in another area of the park working the grassy areas for food. When I got to Unthank Road I heard a big fuss in the top of the trees. there was lots of wing clapping and crashing of leaf laden branches, it was a massive Woodpigeon fight. I did think, however, that the sirens I could hear heading their way was rather an excessive response. I don't think they were arrested for disturbance of the peace.

Here's a Swift from Hardley Flood not swallowing either!
Nightmare to photo such fast birds!

I arrived home to be greeted by Mr Blackbird and his couple of fledgers demanding more mealworms (I think Mrs Blackbird is back on the nest - actually I noticed she built a new one!). I put the bike away and a pair of Goldfinch stopped in the very top of the Silver Birch to chat before continuing their work of nest building. Either they are very slow builders as they were gathering cobwebs back in March (see the 'video' of stills below) or it is another pair, in which case, isn't that a bit late?

I thought to myself what a lovely ride home, so lucky. So what was the final species total? A splendid 29. No Kestrel on the way home but plenty of great things that were noteworthy for #30DaysWild.

Follow me on twitter @Spinkybird and see what else happens for #30DaysWild.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey, Cley Style!

There was a touch of Fifty Shades of Grey about Cley the other day, and not just in the sky. Despite the grey, murky weather the Cley wild things were gearing up for spring, the crossover, when briefly a bit of winter and summer collide. 

There are still plenty of geese about, Brents mainly and a few Greylag. It's as if every grey that was in their feathers had been picked from the sky's palette. 

The Wigeon are not thinking about heading East yet back to the breeding grounds, and are just focusing on looking and sounding gorgeous. They do pretty well on both counts.

This lot of Wigeon were set up by a cruising Marsh Harrier, who was looking to impress his girl with a nice juicy duck breast.

Pinging could be heard coming from the reed bed as the Bearded Tits flirt. I had hoped they might show out on the path to pick up grit but I had to make do with a pair of Reed Bunting instead. Still cute though, even the blurry female.

Oystercatchers were line dancing, I couldn't quite work out who was leading, but there was a lot of calling out!

I watched a pair of Redshank mirroring each other. There was some subtle tail display too. It was all rather sweet until, it seemed one got annoyed with the copycat and got a little violent. They yelled and grabbed each other. They must like that, as they quickly made up and went back to mirroring each other, and so it went on.

I almost missed this grey plover, it was blending in so well. I do think it looks a little forlorn, as yet mate-less, unlike the loved up Turnstone pair nearby.

Teal are starting to get frisky, erecting their showy head feathers. I think they sound like an old-fashioned policeman's whistle when they call, I wonder if they have handcuffs too? Now that's just stretching the fifty shades analogy too far!

I didn't see the sun so the Golden Plover didn't glitter in the grey, but there was plenty to brighten the soul, photographing it was tricky mind you!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Why Blue Tits are like Snowboarders & the Brilliant Thing about Gardens in Winter.

The days are short in January and leaves very little time for birding during the working week, but its not all gloom and doom because there's a lot going on if you just take a few minutes to look out of the window. Winter is a great time for watching birds, not only for the big spectacles out on the marshes be they salt or grazing marshes, but also for those birds that get driven by hunger into your garden at this time of year. Chris Packham described it as the "hunger gap" which starts in late January, early February and is when the birds are finding it more difficult to source a good meal in the 'wilds' beyond the garden boundaries. All sorts of species start to sneak in if you put out some treats and wait, some in quite large numbers. I had twenty-four Blackbirds, just like the nursery rhyme, in my tiny garden all at one time last February.

There's a Blackcap back in my garden at the moment. Could it be the same one as last year, I like to think so. His Missus also visited last year, but I've not seen her yet this winter. I was wondering when exactly they dropped by last year so I checked my records on BirdTrack - Its a brilliant app from the BTO which allows you to keep a record of your bird sightings and enables you to be a geek and delve into the records like the BTO do. It helps inform all manner of people making decisions that may affect our wildlife and even assists in criminal matters:

Smart male Blackcap who has been enjoying my garden for a couple of weeks

So I compared this January with last for my lists recorded at home, the Blackcap was in earlier last year. I also discovered that I have slightly more species recorded for this January but then that is probably skewed by the total number of lists I made this year compared to last (12 to 4), the picture will build each year.

January records extract from my BirdTrack submissions for the garden
Woodpigeon and Blue Tit are present on every January Garden list and despite being common I really enjoy watching them. Woodpigeon, I have noticed are not great sharers, a scrap seems to break out quite readily, even when there's more than enough food to go around. I've also been watching a Woodpigeon family with an only child since the summer. The squab after a tricky start on fences now does extremely well.

As for the Blue Tits, they remind me of snowboarders the way they move through the gardens, if you've ever been on the piste you'll know what I mean. Small groups of them dash past the window, making a few turns and ollies, and then a last minute deep carving turn into a bush or tree, equivalent to a piste-side stop up the mountain. They wait here for the last one to dive in and then there's a quick vote to see who's leading next and they are off again. It makes me want to get up the mountain on my snowboard - I just realised my jacket is a Blue Tit blue and my board yellow... gonna get Blue Tit stickers for my helmet!

No comments about tits on the piste please!

Blue Tit
Coal Tit after a rapid visit to the feeder (never there longer than 3 secs apparently) stashing a sunflower heart in the Honeysuckle
The Robin makes an almost 100% turnout on my lists and are definitely more conspicuous at this time of year in my garden. I have a pair visiting, and the other day as I was refilling the feeders one sat in the Forsythia, or the feeder launch-bush as I call it, singing softly, it was gorgeous! A young male blackbird thought he owned the Forsythia launch-bush earlier in the month but seems to have given it up lately, he drank a lot that bird! Regularly supping at the birdbath.
This Robin hasn't swallowed a whole fatball, honest!
On the subject of pairs, I submitted one BirdTrack list a week or so ago which had all the hallmarks of spring on it; pair of Robin, pair of Dunnock, pair of Blackbird (hope its Mr & Mrs from last summer, but it's so hard to tell when there could be tens of pairs around - Holt Blackbird Project if you're curious ), pair of Coal Tit, several pairs of Blue Tit, pair of Great Tit, pair of Woodpigeon (squab's parents), pair of Jay, pair of Chaffinch, pair of Greenfinch, and a Collared Dove threesome! Full house, I'd say!
Pair of Jay assessing the 'cage feeder' - smaller birds only mate!
I got a bit excited! Imagine all those potential fledglings, and it all starts in winter! I'm not totally disinterested in the garden for the rest of the year, but so many different birds are here all at the same time in winter. Yes I do look forward to when Mrs Blackbird brings her babies in for mealworms in the spring, but I don't want the same stress as last year, when the Magpies ousted the young Blackbirds from the nest a bit early. It was mayhem for both Blackbird parents for about a week or so but I think four out of the five fledged properly in the end. Sterling effort on their part, and on the part of my cat who managed to resist taking them, albeit with a bit of encouragement, or should that be discouragement?

Mrs Blackbird obviously with a big brood to feed last summer!

Go on, look out the window and see if you can catch, something bright glinting in the treetops like a jiffling Goldfinch. Or go out and listen, you might catch a wheezy Greenfinch, or the shakshak call of Fieldfare as they zoom by. I bet you'll hear a Robin!

Goldfinch a little splash of colour, never on my nyjer seed feeder, bizarrely!

Fieldfare, if the snow arrives surely they will drop in for the Cotoneaster berries

I was about to post this blog last night and I had even more winter garden excitement, a Little Owl calling...