Saturday, 30 December 2017


It's time for my review of the year! At the end of the year I like to have a look back on the best wildlife I saw. But first, the stats! Here are number of animals etc that I have written about on this blog. These are all things I saw with my own eyes, could positively ID and managed to get a photo of. 

Invertebrates: 81
Birds: 73
Plants: 21
Fungi: 6
Mammals: 6
Fish: 2
Reptiles: 1

I think that's pretty good going. The birds total is exactly the same as 2016, though the species are quite different. It was a great year for invertebrates and not so great a year for fungi and the stats reflect this. Let's move on to my highlights then!

The Ringwood Waxwing

Last winter saw an irruption of waxwings from Northern Europe here in the UK. I made several attempts to track a flock down but I kept missing them. Finally one turned up in a car park in my hometown and I saw my first waxwing. What a bird!

The Hungry Heron

Sometimes it's the behaviour rather than the species which really surprises you. Back in February I saw a grey heron catch and eat a rat in the fields next to the River Avon. Whilst I was aware that herons eat more than fish it was still a very rare thing to see. 

Tremendous Tawny

The last thing I expected when walking up a country lane in the middle of the day was to see a tawny owl roosting on someone's car. I hear tawny owls all the time at night but to see one so clearly in the daytime was an incredible experience. 

Beautiful Butterflies

It seemed to be a good year for butterflies recently. I managed to spot a total of twenty different species this year which I was pleased with and so many of them were stunning. 

Painted Lady (July, Longham Lakes)
Brimstone (July, New Forest)
Peacock (September, RSPB Lodmoor)
Small Copper (October, Fordingbridge)
My Deer

It's been great to follow the local herd of roe deer this year. I've seen them change coats as the season's progress and even have fawns. More than any other wild animals these are the ones I feel next as I've seen the same individuals time and time again. 

Buck (March)
Fawns (July)
Doe (November)
Charming Chicks

It's always lovely to see baby birds but few are as cute as the lapwing chicks I saw at Blashford Lakes in April. They were really close to the hide meaning I had a stunning view of them. 

And that's it for 2017. It's been a great year for wildlife and I look forward to more in 2018. Thanks so much for reading this blog and for all your messages about it. Happy New Year!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Super Shovelers

It's been a fairly mild week which means our winter visitors are likely happy with their choice to spend the season in the UK. This week I paid a visit to Blashford Lakes which is probably at its busiest time of the year in terms of bird life.

I was lucky to get very close to one of the trees cormorants like to perch in and this resulted in a photo I'm really pleased with.

The UK has an internationally important wintering population of these birds, some 41,000 birds1.Unlike other birds they are not too particular about their habitat and will happily go to freshwater lakes like at Blashford, estuaries or the coast- anywhere with a good supply of fish is OK with them. 

I also saw a few of what is becoming my favorite waterfowl, shovelers

These birds are so odd-looking. Females look much like female mallard only with an enormous bill whereas males have a beautiful green head. They use their remarkable bill to forage for aquatic invertebrates2. The bill has 'lamellae' on the edge which are comb-like structures that act as sieves- this allows the birds to skim invertebrates from the water's surface. This adaptation means they don't have to compete with food resources with other ducks. 

Again the UK is an important place for these birds as 20% of North West Europe's population call it home3

Another spot was this lovely little grebe

Little Grebes are superb swimmers and pursue fish and invertebrates underwater up to a depth of one metre4. They are buoyant due to not having a tail and reappear from dives like a cork. Like other grebes though they are not good at walking and nest right at the water's edge for this reason. 

It's not all waterfowl at Blashford of course- I also spotted this green woodpecker

This bird was almost certainly feeding on ants here, which take up the vast majority of their diet5. It probes it's long beak into the ground and licks up ants and their larvae. Their tongues are long, about 10cm- so long in fact that they have to wrap around the skull in order to fit in the head6!

Moving elsewhere, I spotted a pair of goosander when I was walking past the River Avon this week. 

These birds use their long serrated bills to catch fish- they especially like trout and salmon7. They also have been known to eat virtually any other aquatic creatures they can find from molluscs, crustaceans, insect larvae and amphibians to small mammals and birds on occasion8

When walking in the New Forest this week, I came across a sizeable herd of fallow deer which included one white individual. 

Normally fallow deer are light brown and spotty but they coat does darken in the winter. Even so, you would normally expect to see pale spots on these deer but this does vary between populations. It's only the distinctive tails that tell me these are definitely fallow deer. 

You might imagine the white deer to be an albino but actually white is fairly common in deer as it's simply natural variation9. I suppose it's similar to humans having ginger hair in that it's a less common variation but a still a relatively high proportion of individuals have it.

That's all for today but I hope you have a good Christmas and I'll be back next week with my end of year round-up.

4: BirdsUc: Little Grebe
5: RSPB: Green Woodpecker
6: Robinson, R.A. "Green Woodpecker" BirdFacts. BTO
7: RSPB: Goosander
8: del Hoyo, J. Elliott, A, Sargatal, J (eds) (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol 1. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. pp. 626
9: BDS: Fallow Deer

Monday, 18 December 2017

Winter Wonders

Yesterday I visited one of my favorite nature reserves, Lymington-Keyhaven. The reserve comes alive at this time of year as visitors arrive to enjoy our relatively mild winters.

It didn't take long at all until I spotted the first wigeon of the day.

Though small numbers of wigeon do breed in the UK (in Scotland and the North of England), all the wigeon around here are winter visitors from Russia, Scandinavia and Iceland1. The key identifying feature of wigeon are there bright yellow forehead, though this is only the case in males- females of most of our duck species look very similar. 

Also on the reserve were a flock of brent geese- whilst I have seen these birds at the reserve before, yesterday's visit was the closest I've seen them to the footpath on top of the sea wall. 

These brent geese come from a long way North, the Taymyr peninsula on the Arctic coast of Siberia. They fly some 5000 kilometres to reach us, cutting over Finland and going around the southern shore of the Baltic Sea on their journey2. They spend the winter feeding on eelgrass and on crops in nearby fields3. There are several subspecies of brent geese- these are dark-bellied. Scientists are divided upon whether these subspecies are genetically different enough to be identified as separate species altogether- at the the moment they remain one species. 

One further migratory bird I spotted was this greenshank

I'm lucky to live in one of the few parts of the UK where you can see greenshank in the winter. Many pass through the east coast and they can be seen in Cornwall and Devon but the only place further west than that in England is around the solent4. Indeed, we are lucky to have greenshank this far North at all during winter as the vast majority spend their winters in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Australasia. 

So why do so many migratory birds spend winter at Lymington-Keyhaven? The reserve contains both a salt marsh and mudflats which are home to the invertebrates that these birds need to eat in vast numbers to survive5. There are also large creeks between the salt marsh which are perfect nursery areas for fish, again providing food for many of these species. The salt marsh also sits behind the sea wall which means these birds have their ideal coastal habitat yet are sheltered from the worst of the winter weather. 

Of course, I didn't just see migrants, I also saw plenty of resident birds. The highlight of these was the kingfisher which seemed to follow me around the reserve. 

Kingfishers are highly territorial birds- this it because they have to eat around 60% of their own body weight every day and so have to have control of a suitable stretch of river 6. They will fight off intruders, grabbing their beak and trying to hold it under the water. Territories are somewhere between half a mile and two miles long so it's likely this bird is the king of the Lymington-Keyhaven.

To conclude today I just wanted to refer back to a post from a few weeks ago. I speculated that 2017 had been a good year for bullfinch numbers. Well the BTO's BirdTrack survey has found hard data to support my own observations. This graph shows just how high the number of bullfinch sightings this year has been compared to usual 7. 

It's always nice to have my own observations made official! That's all for today but I'll hopefully be out and about lots over the festive season so there will be more soon!

4: RSPB: Greenshank
5: RSPB New Forest Local Group: Lymington-Keyhaven Nature Reserve
6: Fry, H. Fry, K and Harris, A (1999) Kingfishers, Bee-eaters and Rollers. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 219-221
7: Twitter: BTO

Sunday, 10 December 2017


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