Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clumber Park

Woke up this morning to a fine sunny day. No rain! No wind and no miserable leaden sky. We decided to make the most of this opportunity so we drove up to Clumber Park in north Notts. to try for a few decent photographs to add to my stock. I especially wanted to add pictures of Mandarin and Nuthatch. Mandarin was a dead loss but Nuthatch was quite a success.
We managed to locate two male Mandarin Duck but as is the norm with these birds they prefer to hangout under overhanging vegetation at the water's edge. One bird refused to leave the dense vegetation on the bank and the other bird would not move more than two or three metres from the bank. And as both were over two hundred metres from us I could only manage this record shot. A disappointing start.
Wandering around looking for Nuthatch I stopped to take a couple of close-ups of this Mute Swan cygnet. Always good for an arty photo.
As indeed is this close-up of the flank of a Canada Goose.
But it was Nuthatch shots that I was wanting after failing to get decent pictures of Mandarin Duck. A suitable site was located and sure enough a couple of obliging Nuthatches fed away totally unfazed by our presence.
Judging by the chestnut tones on the flanks of this bird it is an adult male. Females have a lighter chestnut flank. The ventral region of this bird was particularly deep chestnut.
I managed to shoot off a few virtual 'rolls of film' and left pretty satisfied with the images that I have.
Nuthatch Portrait


Back later for the Mandarin! This is also a really good site for Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tit as all are confiding and regularly use feeders around the park so decent photographs of these are a good bet. If its 'cute' squirrels you're after you can't go wrong here as the little beggers do just that. Run up to your feet and practically beg for your nuts!


Monday, November 26, 2012

Waxwing Invasion

There can't be many birders in the UK at the moment who are not aware of the current influx of Waxwings into the country. I'm not certain of exact numbers but I would not be at all surprised to find out that in excess of 5 000 birds are currently devouring berries, especially Rowan berries, wherever there is a good supply. Waxwings are prone to these irruptions, moving south in large numbers when food is scarce or conditions are harsh in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.
I took these photographs of a couple of obliging individuals just across the road from Asda in Grantham this afternoon. A weekly shopping trip was suddenly made a lot more interesting. There were seven birds visible, one taking up station at the top of a TV aerial, four flighty individuals and two seemingly content to sit out the entire winter in a lone Rowan.
Five of the birds gave calls in flight and when perched - a trilling 'sirrrr' that is so easily recognised. Because these birds were in a residential area, as they so often are, some of the local people were keen to find out what was happening. Every time this happens people are always interested and very positive about both the birds and the birders.
Talking to people about the Waxwings and letting them peer through your binoculars often engenders a kind of protective instinct. They become their birds and are watched and enjoyed. Hopefully these winter birds do a good job in recruiting people as birders.
 A couple of years back, during the 'Waxwing winter' of 2010 a party of 13 birds rested up in a plum tree in our garden and last year there were about twenty birds feeding in the trees around our local bus-stop. It looks pretty much as though this winter is going to measure up to some of the really big Waxwing years.

I would hazard a guess that this bird is an adult female. The back is really grey as can be seen in the fourth photo, the red appendages on the secondary tips are quite small and there doesn't appear to be many. I would expect an adult male to have a stronger black bib and more sharply defined markings on the wings and tail.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

State of the UK's Birds

'The State of The UK's birds 2012', a joint publication by the BTO, RSPB, WWT and five other conservation bodies has just been published and has been garnering a good deal of press coverage. The headline news that '44 million birds have been lost in the UK since 1966' seems to have hit a nerve in the public body and even my local radio station has been covering this story in some depth: interviewing local birders as part of the coverage. These 44 million birds equate to a breeding pair lost every minute since 1966! This being the case it comes as no surprise that the press has picked up on this story. The 40 page booklet reports on the latest results from bird monitoring in the UK and its overseas territories. The first headline from this report that worries is the news that both the Long-tailed Duck and the Velvet Scoter are threatened with global extinction!

Long-tailed Duck -Adult Winter Male
The UK's overseas territories hold some of the world's most vulnerable species and these are being threatened by fishery by-catch, oil spills, the building of airports and volcanic action. So the odds are stacked-up very much against survival for some of these birds.
The report begins by emphasising the vital role played by all of the volunteers involved in collecting the data through such schemes as the Garden Birdwatch; The Nest Record Scheme; The Breeding Birds Survey and the Wetland Birds Survey amongst others and calls this whole process 'Citizen Science.' An apt moniker I think.
There is a table covering two pages titled 'Trends in Common Breeding Birds In the UK' and this is becoming more and more ironic each year as many of the species covered are becoming far from common. A good number of birds are increasing but some of the losses are staggering: Willow Tit down by 93% since 1970...why?
Willow Tit
Starling down by 80%, Spotted Flycatcher - 88%, Tree Sparrow - 91%, Corn Bunting - 90%. Curlews are down by 61% and Cuckoos down by 62%. And don't expect to get Turtle Dove on your year list in the future - down by 93%
Turtle Dove
There are a couple of pages on monitoring seabirds and for some species in decline there is some understanding of the causes: such as the decrease in Kittiwake numbers being partly attributable to falling sandeel numbers: reduced prey availability is an obvious cause of decline.


There are sections dedicated to waterbirds, both along the coast and at inland waters and populations of overwintering migrants as well as sections on non-native birds and a three page spread on the UK's overseas territories. The report states:
'By combining new population estimates with known species trends, we can estimate how totals of birds have varied since the 1960s.The total number of breeding pairs in the UK has fallen over this period, from 105 to 83 million – a loss of 22 million pairs (21%). Numbers remained roughly stable either side of a substantial decline between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s: 27 million pairs of breeding birds were lost from the UK between 1975 and 1987'

The report is detailed on specifics - it gives cold, dispassionate facts based on rigorous scientific research and data gathering and analysis. What it does not do so well is give reasons for declines or indeed expansions in bird numbers. It's not the job of these organisations to speculate too much or make guesses but ocassionally suggestions are mentioned as in the case of seaduck declines:

'The causes of seaduck declines are unclear, although a number of reasons have been suggested: climate change, oil pollution, by-catch in gill nets, over-harvesting (some seaducks are legal quarry elsewhere in Europe), changes in levels of eutrophication, predation and various industrial developments. However, there is insufficient knowledge about how these impact seaduck numbers – more research is needed before we understand what is driving declines'
There are so many ways to help conduct this research and the report finishes with half a dozen pages dedicated to ways in which people can get involved - proper Citizen Science!
Read or download a copy of the report here:
The good news is that Common Buzzard numbers are up by 439% - who'd have guessed it!
Common Buzzard

The State of the UK’s Birds 2012 report is produced by a coalition of three NGOs - RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies - the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. (JNCC).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Illustrators and Authors of bird books: John Anderson

Strictly speaking John Anderson was neither an author of a bird book nor an illustrator. The reason I am sticking him on my blog here is due to his little known publication: 'Anatomical and Zoological researches: Comprising an Account of the Zoological Results of the Two expeditions to Western Yunnan in 1868 and 1875.'  On one of these two expeditions Anderson collected a specimen of the Irrawaddy dolphin, Orcaella brevirostris and conducted anatomical comparisons with the River Ganges dolphin, Plantanista gangetica. He tended to make comparative anatomical studies of all of the species he collected and he worked on reptiles as well as mammals and birds. What makes this report so interesting from a birder's perspective is the series of ten plates by John Gerrard Keulemans. I would think that these plates have very rarely seen the light of day so this is a good opportunity to post a few for viewing.
Anderson, a Scot, was born in 1833 and died in 1900 and he was blessed or burdened with one of the longest lists of Fs you are likely to see. He was: FRSE, FRS, FRGS, FZS, FLS, FRPSE, FSA! That's a lot of societies. He was born in Edinburgh and studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1861.
Anderson was appointed to the chair of natural history in the Free Church college in Edinburgh where he worked for the next two years but his big decision was made when he accepted the position as the first curator of the Indian Museum at Calcutta. He moved to India in 1864 and took up his post in 1865 and held it until 1887.

He made several expeditions to China and Burma collecting a great many specimens along the way and the report on his travels to Yunnan contained plates of reptiles - mainly types of tortoise, mammals and fish as well as odd plates of insects and shells. All of the plates  - 83 in total, are well executed but it is the set of 10 bird plates which catch the eye. All 81 plates are lithographs that have been individually hand-coloured.
John Gerrard Keulemans illustrated a number of works during the 19th century and I will post more of his work on later blogs. Especially after I have worked out how to prevent images turning blurry when they have been posted.  Now test your ID skills by naming the five birds above.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gull Invasion

Two days ago saw a really photogenic early morning sky for just a few minutes. As the sun was rising the light was changing by the second but I managed to get a couple of photos that captured, pretty much, the clouds and the light as I saw them.
Whilst I was leaning out of the bedroom window watching the light  I counted over fifty Fieldfare moving west. Pheasant numbers in the field had moved up to seven and Magpies and Carrion Crows were feeding on scraps which had been thrown out the day before.
But what made today a little more unusual was the flock of gulls that pitched into the field outside the house. During the twenty years of living here I could count the number of times gulls have used this field to loaf in on one hand. Early morning tends to see movement of Lesser Black-backs, Herring and Black-headed Gulls heading out to feed in the surrounding arable fields and there is always good movement in the evenings as birds move back towards roosting sites on the gravel extraction lakes along the Trent valley. I think most of the birds that I see use the Hoveringham complex and over the past few years this has turned up good numbers of white-winged gulls as well as Yellow-legged and the odd Caspian and Mediterranean Gull. Today there were 75 Black-headed Gulls and 7 Common Gulls just outside my front door!

Occasionally some of the birds displayed an interest in the same rubbish that earlier had been of interest to the corvids. I presume that these birds were just resting awhile whilst moving from one feeding area to another.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Authors and Illustrators of Bird Books. Pt V: James Bolton

Missell Bird from Bolton's Harmonia Ruralis 1794 - 1796
Until just a few days ago I had never heard of this bloke. I was browsing the net looking for some images of birds by a German artist called Blumenbach when I came across an art gallery's comments about the exquisite and 'mouth-watering' illustrations of James Bolton. Who? So I did a bit of checking around and discovered that he was responsible for the book 'HARMONIA RURALIS; OR, AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NATURAL HISTORY OF BRITISH SONG BIRDS.' You know the one!
Bolton was a Yorkshireman, born in Warley in 1735 he died in Warley in 1799. He was a weaver then an art teacher and later he became a publican. All of his life was spent in and around the Halifax area and he and his brother were both involved in the study of the local fauna and flora and especially fungi. Bolton's initial work was illustrating works on flowers before he illustrated and published a work on ferns. He was particularly interested in mycology and he collected and catalogued fungi specimens from around halifax. The result was the publication of the first English-language work devoted to fungi, Bolton's three-volume An History of Fungusses growing about Halifax, published 1788-1790, with a supplement in 1791. Fungusses...brilliant.
The most interesting and unusual aspect of Harmonia Ruralis is the approach. There is an illustration of each species dealt with followed by an illustration of the nest and eggs. The illustrations are hand-coloured engravings and are really difficult to come across. There were eighty, forty in each of the two volumes of the work.
The two images above are typical examples. The Hedge Sparrow spooked by a giant magpie moth and above is the Hedge Sparrow's nest and eggs. The forty plates of nests and eggs all show a lack of scientific accuracy, in fact you could be forgiven for thinking it's the same nest, with different coloured eggs copied forty times. The birds are a bit 'samey' too but there is an unmistakable beauty to the plates; if you can find any!
Here we have the plates for Red-headed Linnet and the sparrow's nest has been plonked, precariously, into some twigs at the end of a branch. All the birds and nests were drawn from life and Bolton's own observations were to be found in the text. If he drew all of the nests from life I can't quite see how he got the following Northern Wheater's nest:
 Wheatears nest in crevices and burrows - this looks suspiciously like that Hedge Sparrow's nest again.
I have managed to gather together 60 of the plates in colour and all 80 without colour by trawling the net. These illustrations are still popular and turn up on tea-towels, coasters and mugs but I'd like to bet it proves difficult to locate any.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bigging-up the BTO. Pt 2 Swifts

After Michaela’s beaver action and the wonderful ‘How to identify a Pole Cat.’…’Er…that’s a Pine Martin, mate.’ episode on Tuesday night, Wednesday night’s episode of Autumnwatch was a must see programme. After the rib-tickling comment that when a ‘Scottish Wild Cat finds domestic pussy  that would be very attractive, thank you very much’ we moved on to some insightful stuff on the migration routes of European Swifts.

By attaching those tiny 1.3gm geolocators to the backs of Swifts new information has come to light. The BTO has tagged and recaptured nine Swifts and they show that Swifts in their wintering areas on the African continent move great distances to exploit temporarily superabundant food sources. Most interesting appears to be the stopover in Liberia where returning spring migrants spend ten or so days refuelling on aerial termites before heading north over the Sahara desert. However what amazed me the most was the journey undertaken by Swift A320 out over the Atlantic Ocean. Looking at the map of its travels it left the west coast of Congo Central on 14th April 2011 and arrived over Liberia on 17th April  - two or three days at sea.
Chris Mead says on page 61 of ‘Bird Migration’ published in 1983:  ‘Swifts are supremely aerial and yet shun long sea crossings on migration.’  At the time Chris Mead knew his onions. He had worked for the BTO since the 1960s primarily in the ringing section and at the time of the publication of ‘Bird Migration’ he had handled over a quarter of a million wild birds during ringing operations. Chris wasn’t to know that Swifts do not shun sea crossings…new technology and the continuing work of the BTO and its volunteer ringers has discovered this. (Click on this link to access a detailed map of Swift A320 and find out more about its amazing journey.)
By 2004 and the publication of the BTOs ‘Time To Fly. Exploring Bird Migration.’ There were still gaps in our knowledge. The migration map shows birds crossing the Mediterranean Sea into North Africa before disappearing and then reappearing in Central and Southern Africa. Clearly there was no idea that the birds followed the countries of the Western seaboard of Africa.
For a really detailed and analytical account of Swift migration you should check pages 443 – 445 of the BTOs mammoth publication ‘The Migration Atlas’
                                                                                         Photo by Paul Stancliffe

In the mid 1980s I spent many a summer’s evening ‘Swift-Flicking’ in west Notts and what I remember most were the huge parasitic flies that lived out their lives between the feathers of the Swift’s wings. I don’t remember any of our ringed Swifts being recovered. But recoveries of other groups’ ringed Swifts were made. In 1976 a bird ringed in Warwickshire twelve years earlier was recovered in Mozambique after it had been shot!

Without the continuing work of the BTO and its volunteers we would be so much poorer in our knowledge of and understanding of so much about our birds. It makes you wonder what we will find out over the next ten or twenty years. Meanwhile it's episode three of Autumnwatch tonight!