Sunday, 10 December 2017

Outakes

I have been suffering from various minor but unpleasant illnesses over the last few weeks and combined with the occasional bout of bad weather I haven't been able to travel much to see wildlife. Rather than have a second week running with no post I thought I'd share some things which didn't make the cut over the last few months.

The roe deer group near the new development is reliably within a few hundred metres of the same place. They are virtually a guaranteed sighting at the moment. I continue to be surprised just how close to the building site they venture.



Roe deer split into groups in the winter and so members of the herd near the Avon can be seen at various points along the river. I've counted up to 12 different individuals on one day, though there is likely to be many more out of sight. 



One of the birds I've been seeing most regularly in recent weeks is the familiar robin



Robins are associated with the festive season and there are several reasons for this. Robins probably ended up on Christmas cards because they were delivered by postmen who wore red jackets and were therefore nicknamed 'robins'1. There is also a more natural reason- robins are one of the few birds that can be found singing over the whole winter2. They do this to warn off intruders from their territory. The typical Christmas card image of a robin on top of a spade or a postbox really depicts a robin on a lookout post. 

You might imagine them as cute little birds but they are highly aggressive and males fight off intruders viciously. These fights regularly end in fatalities and it's thought as many as 10% of robin deaths in some areas comes from this fighting!

I recently spotted this blackbird having a drink out of a puddle. 



You might think of the humble blackbird as such a familiar bird that we know everything about them but we are still finding out so much. It's recently been discovered that as many as 12% of the blackbirds we see in winter have migrated here from Europe3. Ringing tells us they come from Finland, Sweden and Denmark with some just passing through and others staying for the season. 

A famous song opens with the line "Morning has broken like the first morning, blackbird has spoken like the first bird". The BTO have proved that blackbirds are the first birds to arrive at garden feeding stations on dark winter mornings 4. This is because of their large eye size which means their visual capability in low light is much better than other birds. This is the literal case of the early bird catches the worm. 

Finally, here's one more bird that I see all the time but rarely makes an appearance here, the local great crested grebe


These are now common birds but we were very close to losing them in the UK altogether. Towards the latter half of the 19th century there were as few as 32 breeding pairs 5. They were sadly hunted for their spectacular breeding plumage- as you can see, my grebe is now in it's paler winter plumage. It's thought that many grebes migrate to the UK but because they spend virtually their entire life in water they are tricky to ring and so we know little of their migration habits. 

I walk past the fishing lake at least once a week, much more often outside of winter, and so I know that this grebe is resident and is virtually always found on the lake. I've never seen any young grebes here and actually it's quite unusual to see more than this one individual on the lake at a time. 

That's all for today but I will hopefully be back soon with more!

4: Ockendon, N., Davis, S.E., Toms, M.P. and Mukherjee, S. (2009) "Eye size and the time of arrival of birds at garden feeding stations in winter" Journal of Ornithology 150:903 pp.903-908 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Beautiful Bullfinches

The longer I write this blog the harder it becomes to find new species to share here, doubly so on my local patch. Sometimes though I get lucky and see a new species close to home that I haven't seen locally before.

Which leads me nicely onto this beautiful bird, a bullfinch.



These bright finches are UK residents and feed on seeds and buds(1)- this individual was flitting around the tree pecking at buds. The bright colour shows that this is a male but there was also a paler female present too. 


Now whilst I have seen the occasional bullfinch before I've never seen one in the area that I call my patch but I've actually seen quite a few over the last week or so. So why might this be?

Interestingly this year there have been a large number of the rarer hawfinch in the UK(2) and I don't think it's an enormous leap to suggest there may be a link here. The reasons cited for their larger numbers is twofold. Firstly, it's thought poor food supplies are forcing hawfinches to look further afield- like with the waxwings last winter, there are more hawfinches than food supplies. 

It's also been suggested that Storm Ophelia co-incided with their migration period, blowing them to the UK rather than down to the Mediterranean where they normally migrate too. Although they look fairly different there are a lot of similarities between hawfinches and bullfinches. They eat similar foods and whilst many bullfinches are resident, some do migrate south for the winter. 

Another small bird I saw recently that is a less common sighting was this treecreeper



Treecreepers feed on invertebrates on trees, starting near the base and working their way up the tree, using their stiff tail feathers for support(3). Unlike nuthatches, they only ever head up the tree, never down it. Treecreepers do leave their breeding territories at this time of year but they only venture as far as 20km(4).

A bird I see more often locally is the buzzard. 


As you can see, this is hardly the most rural of environments. The bird is sat on the perimeter fence of a local building site where a new housing estate is being built. It means this bird has lost a lot of it's hunting territory, though at least there is some field left in front of this fence. 

I was surprised to see another buzzard only a short distance from this one, sat on top of a bound of gravel from the groundworks. 


I don't see the buzzards often enough to be certain, but I think that the first one here is the parent of the second. Buzzards are territorial(5) so this second bird is most likely a descendent or the partner of the familiar bird I usually see.

I suspect the reason the buzzards gather here is the large number of rabbits on these fields. A row of bushes next to the path I walk along contains many entrances to warrens. 


Interestingly, the group of roe deer I shared last week seem to have taken to the site too, despite the noise of the building work nearby. 




I was concerned that the building work would affect the wildlife on the site significantly but there seems to be no sign of that so far. It just seems to have pushed the wildlife to the bit of land that remains field which happens to be right near the quiet footpath I walk on. It's still not clear if this land will eventually be built on and I hope it isn't because the wildlife need it. 

In the last fortnight the leaves have turned on the remaining trees leaving some stunning Autumnal colours. 



I think that's a fitting place to end- see you soon!


2: Kench, E. 20/11/17 'Look Out for this fantastic finch in a tree near you..." Eastern Daily Press
3: Snow, D and Perrins, C.M (eds) (1998) The Birds of the Western Palaearctic Concise Edition Oxford: OUP. ISBN: 0-19-854099-X pp. 1411-1416

Sunday, 19 November 2017

November Notes

Let's begin this week with some of my local roe deer.


I was surprised to see how calm these deer appeared to be. They were only a few hundred metres away from a busy building site where groundwork was going on and this was only a few minutes after the loud canon that is fired for Remembrance day. Unlike other species of deer(1), the roe deer's rutting season has long since finished. They form small groups in the winter, as I saw(2). It is most common to see roe deer 'lying up' like this- they do this to ruminate (chew the cud) between feeding bouts.

Last week I visited Lymington-Keyhaven which is now starting to get busy with overwintering birds. I was also pleased to discover that the tide was out on my visit meaning there was a good opportunity to spot feeding waders.

There were several curlews feeding on the mud.


Last week I discussed how badly curlews are doing locally although you wouldn't know it at Lymington-Keyhaven. Every so often you could spot another large wader a little way out to shore and it would turn out to be a curlew. Unfortunately it's unlikely that many, if any, of these birds actually breed locally. Most of the UK's breeding curlew is in Scotland and the North of England(3) so it's likely these curlews are winter visitors, possibly only stopping off here on their way further south(4).



Here's a much smaller wader, a redshank.


Like curlews, redshank are generally found more in the North of the UK. Locally a few nest in the New Forest wetlands but most can be found at Lymington-Keyhaven- the Solent is an important area for them on the south coast(5).

Very close to the path I spotted this turnstone


The majority of waders have a duller plumage in the winter but turnstones have one of the more extreme changes, going from a bright chestnut brown to a dull grey(6). They get their name from the way they forage for food, often looking for invertebrates under stones. This individual didn't have to worry about stones though and was instead sifting it's way through the seaweed. 

I also saw a few species of duck at the reserve, including a few teal



Whilst some of the duck species that overwinter in the UK can be tricky to identify, teal are easy thanks to the green stripe on their head and the green wing feathers. The RSPB state that teal are resident in this part of the UK(7), though I've only ever seen them in the winter. Like the other birds mentioned today, teal are mainly found further north outside of winter. The UK is home to a significant percentage of the north-west European wintering population of these birds.

One final aquatic bird today and it's a canada goose that I see from time to time on my local fishing lake. It's easy to spot due to it's unusual plumage. 


It's difficult to know for certain what's going on here. The top of it's head should be fully black but here it looks like the black plumage hasn't formed properly. I think this goose is probably leucistic which means part of the plumage lacks the melanin pigment needed to produce the normal colour(8). This can cause problems for the bird as makes the feathers less strong and can result in members of the species not recognising it, though I think this individual will probably be OK on both counts. 

The other possibility is that this is a hybrid-goose, the result of a canada geese mating with a domestic goose or a different species. Geese breed with other species quite often and because all geese have 40 chromosomes they can do so successfully(9) which results in geese with unusual plumage. I would expect the hybrid to look more different from a canada goose than this individual does though.



1: 'Understand the British deer rut' 29/08/12 Discover Wildlife 
2: 'Roe Deer' The British Deer Society
3: RSPB: Curlew
4: 'Lymington and Keyhaven Marshes Local Nature Reserve' Hanstweb
5: 'Redshank' New Forest National Park Authority
6: RSPB: Turnstone
7: RSPB: Teal
8: 'Leucism and albinismBTO
9: 'What is this strange goose?' Askanatrualist.com 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Brilliant Beaks

I'm a little behind on my blog posts after going away last weekend. Two weeks ago I visited RSPB Arne, the charity's reserve on the west side of Poole Harbour. As always I saw some great wildlife.

I was really pleased to spot a curlew from the hide.


Curlews are the largest British waders and are recognisable by their size and the curved beak. Curlews are in a lot of trouble at the moment. They used to breed in sizeable numbers in the New Forest but a 2016 survey recorded only 40 breeding pairs in the forest. It's estimated that across the South of England there are less than 200 breeding pairs and it's possible the bird will be extinct in the area within 20 years(1). 

This is obviously greatly concerning and is likely due to loss of habitat and nests being disturbed by people- curlews are ground-nesting birds. More needs to be done to protect this stunning birds before we lose them completely.

A more common wader I spotted at Arne was this group of redshank


Redshank are easily recognisable through their bright orange legs. A fair number do breed in the UK but there are some 130,000 birds wintering here(2). As many as half of these will have migrated here from Iceland. They feed on invertebrates in the mud which they probe with their short bill. 

I also spotted some more unusual birds which can be seen in this photo:

The black birds at the back here are cormorants and there's also what looks to be a less black-backed gull amongst them. It's the white birds at the forefront that are most interesting though and you can just make out from some of the bills, particularly the individual in the centre, that these are spoonbills.

Spoonbill spend most of their time inland at reedbeds, lakes and rivers but sometimes move to marine environments in the winter(3). They are migratory birds which have gradually been coming to Poole Harbour in greater numbers. This year there around 75 birds, a new record, due to the rising population in Europe(4). They were extinct in the UK but in the early 21st century a breeding colony was formed in Norfolk and this year a pair successfully bred in Yorkshire. The growing numbers of birds in Poole Harbour mean it is possible they may one day breed here.

One final bird for today is this Great Spotted Woodpecker which I saw yesterday. 


It's likely this woodpecker is on a dead branch looking for grubs. The way the bird's beak is attached to the skulls allows it to use great force on the branch and not give itself concussion(5). This is not the only way woodpeckers are adapted to reaching grubs- they have long tongues which can 40 millimetres beyond the tip of the beak!


1: Wynn, R. (2016) 'New Forest breeding Curlew survey: 2016 results'. Online here.
3: BirdLife International (2012) 'Platalea leucorodia' IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Version 2013.2

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Clever Kestrels

I was really pleased yesterday to get a really good look at the kestrel which I often see hunting on the floodplains of the River Avon here in Ringwood.


I saw it again a few minutes later on my return journey where it kept hovering over the grass before diving down and catching a rodent. It then flew off with it's catch to a distant tree where I assume it ate it or possibly stored it for later.


It's likely that the catch was a vole as this is the most common prey that kestrels eat. They need to somewhere between four to eight voles every day(1) which is why they seem to always be hunting when you see them. As well as being able to hover on one spot they also have fantastic sight, being able to see and then catch a beetle from 50m away. Incredibly they are also ultraviolet sensitive which means they can follow the scent trails of rodents(2)! 

It's very nearly November but locally red admirals seem to still be doing very well. On one ivy bush I found three individuals and there are plenty still on the wing. 


In theory red admirals are butterflies which migrate to the UK from Europe but there is evidence that they are overwintering here in the South(3) and my personal experience would go along with that. Red admirals have one brood a year with the peak emergence being between mid-August and early-October(4). I am hypothesising that the emergence locally was towards the latter end of that period which would explain why there seem to be so many so late in the year. Of course the warmer temperatures mean they are thriving at the moment but this will only last for so long.

Walking along one of my favourite paths this week I was pleased to see large numbers of meadow pipits:

Meadow pipits are a relatively common bird in the UK thought numbers are declining. They can mostly be found in the uplands of the North of England and Scotland but they move south for the milder winter(5). Whilst they feed on invertebrates for most of the year, in winter they tend to eat seeds of grasses and heathers(6).

Up in some of the local trees are some sizeable mistletoe plants. 


Mistletoe is mainly found in the South of the UK and the West Midlands and most commonly, but not always, on apple trees(7). Although we regard them as parasitic they are technically only 'hemi-parasatic'- this means that they have their own green leaves for photosynthesis and only rely on the host tree for water and mineral nutrients(8). Generally mistletoe doesn't do significant harm to it's host, damaging a few branches but not killing the tree. 

Perhaps more common than mistletoe in our local trees at the moment are the grey squirrels


At this time of year grey squirrels are gathering food to store for winter. They don't hibernate and instead build thicker dreys where they can hide up in very cold weather and then go out and find their stored food(9).

You don't tend to imagine squirrels to have calls but they seem to be very local at the moment. They have a variety of calls but I think I've been hearing their territorial 'barks', presumably a noise used to tell other squirrels and competing animals not to come near their food stores. 

That's all for today and I shall see you in November.

_________________________________________________________________________________

2: Viitala, J; Korplmaki, E,; Palokangas, P and Koivula, M. (1995) 'Attraction of kestrels to vole scent marks visible in ultraviolet light' Nature 373 (6513) pp. 425-427 (Online here).
6: Hoya, J. (ed) (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 9. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. pp.763. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Awesome Autumn

It may well be Autumn but no-one seems to have told the temperature which is refusing to go as low as it should be at this time of year. That's good news for the butterflies though as they are able to keep flying. I've been seeing the occasional peacock butterfly and plenty of red admirals though on Sunday (22nd October) I was amazed to see a small copper.


Bear in mind that this little butterfly has survived the recent storms which though didn't affect us too badly here did give us strong winds and a lot of rain. There are usually two or three broods of small coppers a year but it's possible that this was a rare fourth brood, something which has been recorded in the South before. 

It's lovely to see butterflies so late in the year and I'm wondering if I might end up seeing one as late as November this year?

Whilst the number of invertebrates is significantly lower than it was a few weeks ago there are still plenty to be found if you look in the right places. Take this ivy bush which I passed today which was covered in buzzing insects. 



Ivy's late flowering is vital for insects. A 2014 study(1) discovered that an average of 89% of pollen pellets collected by honey bees during the Autumn come from ivy. The study also highlighted the importance of ivy flowers to other species such as bumble bees, common wasps, butterflies, hoverflies and other fly species. 

I walked part of the Stour Valley path near Throop on the edge of Bournemouth this week and saw a few birds of note. Flitting about on the concrete supports for one of the bridges was this grey wagtail

Grey wagtails spend most of the year around fast-flowing rivers where they feed on various aquatic invertebrates like flies, mayflies, and beetles and have even been recorded eating crustaceans and molluscs (2). In winter these birds move away from fast-flowing water and can be seen everywhere from gardens to city centres (3). It's interesting that this individual is still near fast-flowing water, perhaps indicating there is still enough food for it here at the moment.

Along the route I also spotted this magnificent grey heron


At this time of year grey herons have spread out away from their nesting colonies(4) and can be seen pretty much anywhere where there is water. Around harvest time they can often be seen in fields where they look for rodents to eat(5)- indeed I saw a heron catch and eat a rat in a field earlier in the year. 

I also saw a moorhen on the Stour too. 

Whilst UK moorhens stay here all year round they are joined in the winter by around 30,000 migrating birds from Europe(6).

One of the most common birds I've seen this week are pheasants. They are really tricky to get good photos of though as they run away from you so I've only ended up with pheasant heads stuck out over the top of a field and pheasants running away. 


Pheasants are not native to the UK but were introduced from Asia for hunting- indeed, it's thought that they are one of the world's most hunted birds(7). 

Pheasants are legally hunted between the 1st October and the 1st Febuary(8) each year. Beaters walk around in areas where pheasants, and other game birds like grouse, are likely to be which causes them to try and fly to safety where they are then shot down and collected by dogs. It disturbs me that killing things for sport is still perfectly legal in the UK in the 21st century. Not only is it legal, it's also big business. 

Landowners that have hunting interests are more likely to provide and manage good habitats than those without(9) and this is often used as a justification for hunting. The government should be working with landowners to ensure habitats are well managed instead of relying on people who want to kill things- that's not real conservation, it's just an accidental byproduct. There are also regular stories of birds of prey, including rare species like hen harriers, being killed in suspicious circumstances around grouse moors so they can't feed on chicks. 

I enjoy the bright colours of pheasants and the way they scuttle around is amusing but I always feel a certain melancholy when I see them knowing that their days are likely numbered thanks to the idiots who think killing living things counts as sport.

I've tried something new today and have put the sources to the information I've used here where I can. You may be interested in reading further on things I've talked about or they might just help to prove I'm not making things up!

                                                                                                                                                      

1: Garbuzov, M. and Ratnieks, F. (2014) 'Ivy: An underappreciated key resource to flower-visiting insects in autumn', Insect Conservation and Diversity, 7, (1), pp. 91-102.
2: Santamarina, J. (1989) 'The Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) diet in the Ulla river basin, Galicia. NW Spain'. Ardeola (in Spanish) 37 (1). pp 97-101. Link
7: Robertson, P. (1997) Pheasants. Voyageur Press. ISBN 0-89658-361-9.
8: Game Act 1831- online here.
9: Oldfield, T.E.E, Smith R.J., Harrop S.R. and Leader-Williams N. (2003) 'Field sports and conservation in the United Kingdom', Nature 423. pp 531-533