Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pheasant Pluckers!

I am reading 'Adventures Among Birds' by W. H. Hudson. First published in 1913 it celebrates its centenary this year. It is remarkable and very sad how so little has changed or improved in a century!
The book contains 27 chapters, each a memoir or a musing or a series of anecdotes or idle meanderings amongst the world of birds. One such chapter is entitled 'The Sacred Bird'. You would not know by the title that he is discussing the Common Pheasant Phasianus cochicus. The title is ironic. To most this bird is not sacred at all but to shooters, landowners, gamekeepers and their ilk it is the most sacred bird. So sacred that all other living creatures need to be extirpated to ensure the Pheasants' happy that it too can be shot! Hudson talks of the desire of landowners to make the bird artificially abundant so that an estate which yielded a dozen or twenty birds a year to the sporstman would be made to yield a thousand. This necessitated the destruction of all the wildlife supposed in any way and in any degree to be inimical to the pheasant.
Male Pheasant - Feeding in our garden
He talks of a keeper 'Who shot all the local Nightingales because their singing kept the pheasants awake at night'. Another case is 'of an old heronry in a southern county, in the park of a great estate. On my last visit to this heronry at the breeding season I found all the nests hanging empty and desolate in the trees and was told that the head keeper had killed all the herons because their cries frightened the pheasants. They were shot on the nests after breeding had began.'

Male Pheasant - In the garden!
And I have to quote this passage: 'Another instance...throughout a mid-June day I heard the sound of firing in the woods, beginning at about eight o'clock in the morning and lasting until dark. The shooters ranged over the whole woods. I inquired of several persons as to the meaning of all this firing, and was told that the keeper was ridding the woods of some of the vermin. More than that they refused to say; but by-and-by I found a person to tell me just what had happened. The head keeper had got twenty or thirty persons, the men with guns and a number of lads with long poles with hooks to pull nests down, and had set himself to rid the woods of birds that were not wanted. all nests found, of whatever species, were pulled down, and all doves, woodpeckers, nuthatches, blackbirds, missel- and song-thrushes shot; also chaffinches and many other small birds. The keeper said he was not going to have the place swarming with birds that were no good for anything, and were always eating the pheasants' food'.
Now I suspect things have altered very little. I was enjoying a few pints of the local bitter in a pub in North-west Norfolk last Sunday evening talking to an acquantance who lives there. I had been out walking during the day and I had seen upwards of five Ban Owls Tyto alba and I had just finished mentioning this fact when he informed me that he had erected a Barn Owl box in his garden but was getting little joy out of it due to the local jackdaws moving in. Furthermore he was becomoing increasingly concerned about the number of Barn Owls being shot by local farmers because they were suspected of tacking pheasant chicks. I didn't know that his was happening...was it even legal? I love to see Barn Owls, I'm not too bothered about the semi-domesticated Pheasant. Then I was told that this same farmer had killed 46 Foxes last year. 46!! all caught in snares. When he was asked if this was legal the farmer replied that it was, so long as the snares are checked every 24 hours. I couldn't believe what I was hearing!

Close-up of greater coverts of a dead Jay's wing

The following day we went for a walk around Holkham Park - we were there for three hours and the sound of guns going off never stopped. We only came across one shooter wandering home carring his dead pheasants. But we did find a recently deceased Jay Garrulus glandarius lying at the edge of a field. There were no obvious signs of how this bird had met its end. It clearly had not flown into anything, it had not been attacked... we suspect that it had been shot. Was it vermin? Was it a danger to the sacred pheasant chicks or was it just a laugh to shoot it!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Short-eared Owl study

There have been up to five wintering Short-eared Owls Asio flammeus on a disused pit top in Gedling, Notts over the past couple of weeks and I had been toying with the idea of a visit for a few days when a phone call from a mate last night gave me the impetus I needed. I arrived at just past 09.00 this morning and there were a number of dog-walkers enjoying the frozen snowy conditions. However, it did not take me long to locate two birds and they provided me ample opportunity to take some photographs.

The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland published in 1986 by the BTO opens the account of Short-eared Owl thus: 'Floating low down with a wavering and rolling flight, punctuated by occasional glides before banking and wheeling high on stiff narrow wings, the Short-eared Owl provides a welcome winter encounter'.

This is a perfect description of the flight of these two birds this morning. They appeared to be quite tolerant of the dog walkers and me, plus camera but they did not seem to be actively hunting for food.

Both birds frequently landed next to tufts of dead rushes or sedges until eventually both of them settled down out of sight and out of the way of the dogs.
It is known that a variable but frequently large number of these birds arrive from the continent each winter. Arrival can begin as early as late August but most seem to arrive in November. A lot of our own home birds move off to the coast and into mainland Europe so it is possible that the bird on Gedling Pit-top are continental ones.

This site is pretty reliable for wintering Short-eared Owls and as it is known that communal roosts on the ground amongst tall coarse grasses, heather, sedges and scrub are used over many years this site is likely to hold a few of these birds for a few more years to come.

A few years back it was also possible to see up to six birds wintering in the scrub land near to Netherfield Lagoons, just a few miles from this site. I haven't seen any there for some years. Perhaps birds moved from there to the Pit-top which is now the prime site.

Although these birds are opportunistic feeders taking and eating whatever prey they are able to catch their main food item is the field vole and I suspect that there are plenty of these here. However, I shouldn't imagine that thick snow and hard ground would help the Owls' cause much.

The Breeding Atlas says that the mid-winter population of Short-eared Owls is likely to be in the range of 5,000 - 50,000 individuals for Britain and Ireland which is only a tiny fraction of this bird's world population.

The black patches around the distinctively yellow eyes are clear on this individual as is the pale face. The Collins Field Guide says the bird has a 'mean expression'...more quizzical I'd say. Notice the white trailing edge to the wing on this bird - this is a good way to distinguish Short-eared Owl from Long-eared Owl which lacks this feature.

Don't rely on length of ear tufts - short and long - as these are practically invisible in flight in both species. No sign of any tufts on these birds as you can (not) see!

The photo above shows off the very long, narrow and fairly pointed wings and the obviously rounded head. Another good feature by which to tell the two species apart, which is clear in this photo, is the almost solidly black wing-tip with only one clear bar inside the tip. Long-eared have evenly barred wing-tips with several distinct bars. Notice that the belly is un-streaked and the breast is streaked - another good way to distinguish the two species as the Long-eared Owl tends to have the streaking extending over the belly

During the time I was present neither bird made any sound and this is what I have come to expect of this species during the winter. I suppose that if your main hunting technique is to hear your prey it pays to keep silent!



Thursday, January 24, 2013


Warming to my subject I'll continue.  I grant that there needs to be more than just two species of gull. What of the rare gulls not mentioned in the previous post? I was coming to that. As well as the super-species of Tip Gull Larus refusicus, and Seagull Larus briney I propose that we lump all or nearly all of the rarer gulls into a single species to be known as: Vagrant Gull Larus properlostitis. Here be all of those North American jobbies that look the same (Franklin's/Laughing!!) and the northern white-winged birds and those that you only ever see somewhere near Oban. We can lump these with those from the Med. i.e. Med...and Slender-billed and Audouin's. Now we have three species of gull!
Vagrant Gull!

Another Vagrant Gull

Tip Gull!
 This leaves the highly dodgy gulls. Those that turn up at London reservoirs and landfill sites late Tuesday evening and have disappeared by first light on Wednesday. They are often called Flaky-backed or Streaky-backed Gull or Glaucous-thinged Gull. These just don't exist. I suggest we call them Gullible Larus easilytakeniniwas. No more driving through the night to reach some shoddy, dodgy wet patch or tip to look for iffy gulls. No more struggling with primary mirrors, secondary windows, assessing grey tones (which, let's be honest are grey). Moult strategies, feather-wear, colour abnormalities and bare-part colouration can all be lobbed in the bin. Not needed anymore.

                                                                                    A pair of Very Vagrant Gulls

                                                                               More Vagrant Gulls

Identification will be straight forward. If you're on a boat or falling down a cliff or off the end of a pier and you see a gull it's guaranteed to be a Seagull. If you are near a dump, an industrial estate or eating fish and chips and you see a gull it's a Tip Gull. If you are lost on the west coast of Scotland  it's a Vagrant Gull.  If you are anywhere near London it's a Gullible.There no problem!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tip Gulls

When I was very, very young I went through a dodgy period of 'stamp collecting.' It was a worrying time as I became more and more engrossed in amassing a collection of 'Decimal Definitives.' These are the everyday stamps you used to stick on letters way before texts and emails made such a form of communication virtually obsolete. Now there were loads of these...enough to keep the most anal-retentive collector happy for years. The good old P.O. kept issuing ever more as the cost of postage rose. However, it all got a bit out of hand when 'Proper' collectors started paying a premium for stamps with different glues. I kid ye not. Some stamps were different because they sported Gum-Arabic on the back instead of Bostick, or Prit-stick on the reverse instead of super-glue. The latter were the most expensive due to their rarity as they stuck fast to your tongue when licked or some such. So I sold them. Now I think the same applies to gulls. As a rule I'm all in favour of splitting...more ticks means more goodness. But gulls...come on! How far can it go? I remember with fondness pre-Caspian/Yellow-legged/American/Armenian/Kumlien's times. Before these birds were born. When a Lesser Black-backed Gull was just that, not a fuscus/intermedius/graellsii job. And when there were just Common Gulls and kamtschatschensis wasn't invented. I can't keep-up and worse still I can't identify all of these when I see flocks of gulls. So I have a suggestion. Lumping!
Mixed flock of Tip Gulls -' Larus refusica'
I suggest that taxonomists or cladeists or whatever look very closely at similarities between gulls and begin to lump them back together to ease landfill-site identification. A good start would be to stick all the truly pelagic gulls such as Kittiwake and Sabine's together under the old moniker 'Seagull.' Next up would be the mainly land loving gulls, basically all the rest. These I would lump as a new species: Tip Gull - Larus refusica. You could have a few subspecies viz: Big Black Tip Gull, Greyish Tip Gull and Small Blurry Tip Gull.
More Tip Gulls
If this happy situation came to pass I would not have to spend time out in the freezing cold as I did today looking for a first-winter Glaucous Gull amongst a gabillion other gulls constantly flapping about. The sky seemed to be full of gulls wheeling about and I spent all the time mentally saying "What's that?" "What's that?" and "What's that?" I'd know what they were... they'd all be Tip Gulls!
Yet more Tip Gulls
No I didn't find the Glauc.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Viva Le Twig!

Looked out of the kitchen window this morning to see a single Fieldfare feeding on bits of apple on the snow-covered lawn and five birds in the hedgerow. Half-a-dozen Redwing flew low over the house earlier and along with the now resident Song Thrush, a Mistle Thrush just outside of the front door feeding on more apple and the twenty or so Blackbirds hanging around it is clear that the recent weather has forced birds to move around in their search for food. So five species of thrush in the garden at the same time. After the earlier posts lamenting the absence of these birds this is quite a surprise.
Better yet was the male Blackcap on THE twig. I had just come in from throwing some seed out when I caught sight of the bird but I didn't have time to get the camera and compose a decent shot. So Blackcap pics are a bit hurried.
This morning the twig has provided support for this Dunnock:
The BTO are currently conducting a survey on Blackcaps in the garden and to quote "More than a thousand records have now been submitted through the Garden Blackcap Survey, a behavioural study of Blackcaps in winter gardens. The current freezing conditions across much of the country are set to bring even more of these birds to feeders, so please let us know what they eat and how they interact with other visitors." The Garden Blackcap Survey runs during January only. Apparently Blackcaps can be quite aggressive to other species whilst feeding in gardens. The bird in my garden was quite benign and just concentrated on getting seeds into its belly without expending energy chasing away other birds. Plenty of food for all could be the reason - no need to get aggressive!
Blackcap - A new twig bird!
This male House Sparrow, which is nowhere near as frequent a sighting as I would like, was the first to be photographed on the twig.
Male House Sparrow - Making a comeback?
 As was this Robin.
That's a new species for the twig list taking the total over the past three weeks to 18 with eleven species photographed. The book is now open on the total for the year!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Twig listing!

Every birder lists. Any birder that tells you he/she doesn't keep any list at all is being economical with the truth. I know all manner of birders...some with world lists of over 7 000 species, a lot with world lists of 4 000 - 5 000 and even more with world lists around 1 - 2 000 (Which is where I am). I know walkers who like to bird when they are walking and some of them claim not to keep any lists at all. So what is it you are writing in that little notebook as we are walking then? I know a bloke who keeps a TV list - all the birds he has seen on the TV; a bloke who keeps a bog list - not the marshy kind but birds he has seen whilst sitting on his loo! The most common are year lists, patch lists, county lists and country lists - any country that the birder has visited. Some dedicated birders keep day lists and where they get the time from for this they only know.
Because the BTO and the RSPB publicise garden bird-watching (The BTO all year; the RSPB during a single weekend) nearly everyone has a garden list.
I have taken this a stage further and thought I'd start a TWIG list! Pick a single twig and see what lands on it. This narrows your birding right down!
This year I have seen 17 species on this single twig. It's kind of interesting and rigidly boring at the same time....I need to get out more.
I have managed to get some photos of a number of species to prove that I am looking at the same twig. So Long-tailed Tit:
Long-tailed Tit - On a twig
And Goldfinch in this week's snow.
Goldfinch - On THE twig
 And Great Tit before the snow - much the most frequent denizen of that twig.
Great Tit - On THE twig
 Greenfinch in the snow - the second most frequent bird.
Greenfinch - Same twig
 Blackbird - obviously! No other thrushes though 'cus there aren't any.
Blackbird - Same twig
Blue Tit. Not as frequent as I would have thought. Probably too wary of the local Sparrowhawk and so these pop out and soon shoot back into the cover of the bushes behind.
Blue Tit - Same, it is!
 And Chaffinch which doesn't seem to be much bothered by anything, including our cat.
Chaffinch - On THE twig
Siskin, Tree Sparrow and Dunnock have been on and off as though they were electrocuted. Wren, Robin and Coal Tit are much more frequent but I have not had the camera handy. Starling, Collared Dove, House Sparrow and Song Thrush have been Twigged but only once.
Now you just know you want to find your own twig!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Song Thrush but no Shrike

Yesterday we drove over to Beeley Moor in Derbyshire to twitch a long-staying and quite confiding Great Grey Shrike. There had been a light dusting of snow overnight so the prospects of some scenic shots of a moor plus frosty-snow looked good. The bird was present early morning and a message came over the pager service at 10:43 that the bird was showing. We arrived at 11:00 - no bird! And no snow. Snow in lowland Nottts but none on the higher ground of Derbyshire. So a dip. We gave it a good hour and a half by which time a number of birders had turned-up but there was to be no joy.
The change in the weather to harsher conditions might mean more thrush movement. Today there were a number of Redwings on the move over Bingham with twenty to thirty birds flying over the town centre as I did a bit of shopping. Still no Fieldfares though.
Beeley Moor, Derbyshire
 On the subject of Thrushes a mate informed me last night that a photograph I took of a Song Thrush some years back on St Mary's had been used to illustrate an article in the Sunday Express. Written by Stuart Winter this piece manages to mix the recent Hobbit film with declining Song Thrush numbers, Greek mythology and English Literature. Quite an achievement! Fortunately Song Thrush numbers are beginning to revive and just to prove it a bird popped-up in our garden this afternoon and spent some time hunting for food.
Song Thrush Today's bird
This is the first Thrush other than Blackbirds to use the garden for feeding this year. Probably a direct result of the overnight snow. At one point there were eight Blackbirds feeding on the lawn, all males. These could be continental birds that have moved here for the winter - a few seem to have longer wings and darker bills than normal. If this weather continues for a few more more days I expect there to be more thrushes feeding in the garden and I might well see some Fieldfares. But probably not a Shrike!
Check out or better still take part in the BTO's winter survey which aims to further our understanding of what is happening to our Song Thrushes and other species of thrush. Log-on to
Song Thrush   Same bird looking for food under today's snow.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Foggy Waxwings

I have been struggling to catch-up with Waxwings so far this year. Although I saw a good flock at the close of 2012 the flocks over the last week or so have been highly mobile. Present for a few hours one day and then gone. I suspect that they are constantly on the move looking for suitable food. The berry-bearing bushes and trees in my neck of the woods are all bare and have been for some time. I don't know what the ideal conditions are for a good berry crop during a year but last year couldn't have been right. I strongly suspect that this is the same reason that I'm not seeing thrushes. And NO I still have not located a single flock of thrushes and I still haven't seen a Song Thrush this year. So 'Bare Berry-bearing Bushes Beat Birds' is the headline.
However, I did get onto some Waxwings today. Thick fog did not prevent me driving over to Attenborough Nature Reserve on the West side of Nottingham just after lunch. But it almost prevented me from seeing the birds. I walked past them twice before I heard them trilling! There were a dozen birds listlessly picking at a few berries so I hung around to enjoy the sight before heading off back home.
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulous
I hadn't driven much more than half-a-mile when I spotted a group of birds at the top of a bare tree by the side of the road. Hello...these look like...Waxwings I thought. And they were. A group of nine birds. Typical. You see the first ones for the year and then they're everywhere...nearly.

The same Waxwing Bombycilla garrulous
The miserable, cold, foggy conditions didn't make for good photography and this second group of birds didn't hang around for long before they set off. In search of berries me thinks!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Pair of Redheads

Yesterday we met a couple of friends and spent three hours walking from Baslow, round the Chatsworth estate and back to Baslow. Another three hours in the field and STILL no Fieldfare or Redwing. We heard two Mistle Thrushes in song and caught sight of one at the top of a Sycamore, but no Song Thrush and only half a dozen Blackbirds.
Today I had a couple of hours around Colwick Park just west of Nottingham City centre and north of the River Trent. I went along to have a look at the Smew which had been reported but at the back of my mind I was thinking thrushes. I shouldn't have bothered!
Good views of Red-crested Pochard - but not close enough to get a good photograph as it was a dingy, overcast day so high ISO and hence this grainy shot:
Red-crested Pochard
Even more of a grainy shot of this Redhead Smew as it sped away over the lake. There have been reports of three birds but I could only find one. Still, that's one more Smew than Song Thrush, or Mistle Thrush or Redwing or Fieldfare!! It's got to the stage where I don't want to see any thrushes now. Perhaps I can go an entire year without.
 Fairly decent views of this Kingfisher on the beck just next to Colwick Hall. It's always nice to bump into one of these especially during the winter months.
 If anyone knows the location of big winter flocks of thrushes...!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Fieldfare!

Three hours birding around the Holme Pierrepont complex just east of Nottingham on the south side of the River Trent. Three Smew, all redheads, were the highlights of the morning although they were all pretty distant. I added a couple of birds to the year list, as you do this time of year. One of them was a Fieldfare! But just the one! Still no Song Thrush and no Mistle Thrush. However 24 Redwing was a bit more positive. I was talking to a young birder who assured me that there were loads of Redwing and Fieldfare just west of the main lake, feeding in paddocks and a campsite where the grass is kept just right for thrushes so off I popped. Not a single bloody bird!
I couldn't get anywhere near any birds to photograph so had to make do with this shot of a dead job. I think it was a Chaffinch and I think it has been lunch for a Sparrowhawk.
Sparrowhawk kill! Chaffinch remains?
Blott's Pit held good numbers of common waterfowl - lots of Tufties, Pochard and Wigeon, Coot and Mallard but grebe numbers were low as was most everything else. Still the reeds looked decent in the light as the mist rose.
Common Reed Phragmites australis
So six days in and I've found just one Fieldfare, twenty odd Redwings, thirty odd Blackbirds and no Song or Mistle Thrushes. How long will this continue?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Still No Thrushes!

Three hours birding at Rutland Water in belting weather. Sunny, warm and dry but still pretty squelchy underfoot. As the weather is currently so mild there appears to be little hard weather movement and the number of birds currently using the north arm of the reservoir is considerably less than during freezing conditions. Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Coot and Great Crested Grebe were present in small numbers as were Little Grebe and Goldeneye but disturbance by sailing boats could account for low numbers too. Nonetheless we had good views of Black-necked Grebe and Long-tailed Duck as well as a Red Kite performing over the dam. But still NO THRUSHES!

Field and hedgerow with absolutely zero thrushes

45 minutes driving through highly suitable habitat in south Notts and Leicestershire, three hours walking around the North Arm of Rutland Water and scanning the surrounding field plus 45 minutes driving back through suitable habitat produced: No Song Thrush. No Mistle Thrush. No Redwing. No Fieldfare. Half a dozen Blackbirds. What is happening here?  Supposedly large numbers in the south still so I'm told. Four days into the New Year and I have seen only one Redwing  and a few Blackbirds - and I've been birding every day!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wot? No Thrushes!

It's a New Year which means a New List. Consequently I have been out for the last three days laying the foundations for, what will definitely be, a record breaking year! If I can keep my list going beyond May that is. So January 1st and I was at Hoveringham Gravel Pits in Notts. Two and a half hours. No Mistle Thrushes. No Song Thrushes. No Fieldfare. One Redwing and a half dozen Blackbirds. Prime habitat - lots of hedgerows with hawthorn berries, pasture for horses and lots of worm and insect rich sward. Where are the thrushes?
January 2nd and four hours grubbing arouind Clumber Park in north Notts. Different habitat - parkland, woodland and cultivated fields again with miles of hedgerows. No Song Thrushes. No Fieldfares. No Redwing. One Mistle Thrush singing about half-a-mile away. Half a dozen Blackbirds.
Blackbird. The only thrush left!
January 3rd. Four hours at Titchwell in North Norfolk. No Song Thrushes. No Mistle Thrushes. No Fieldfare. No Redwing. Half a dozen Blackbirds. Then three-quarters of an hour at Hunstanton Cliffs. Don't expect much in the way of thrushes here. Good job as there weren't any apart from a couple of Blackbirds.
A recent posting on the BTO BirdTrack page discussed the increased reporting rate from observers of thrushes. The BTO are also currently conducting a survey into wintering thrushes and their food sources. I look forward to seeing the results and finding out where the thrushes are 'cus they ain't anywhere near me.
I'll be out again tomorrow looking for thrushes...!