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?' 

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