Birds, Travel

Herons and Egrets!

Last month in Texas we saw lots of herons and egrets, so what’s the difference? They are all members of the heron family, Ardeida . We tend to call the white ones egrets but they are not a separate family. In fact the great white egret, (Ardea alba), above, is closely related to the great blue heron (Ardea herodius)below.

To make things more complicated the great blue heron has variants that are white, thus only differing in superficial appearance from its egret cousin by its shaded heavier bill and paler legs.

Although the appearance of these two is similar their distribution is very different with the Great Egret being widely distributed through most of the world while the great blue heron is usually restricted to the Americas. Both look quite different with their necks hunched up. Here is the great blue heron with his neck extended a little:

Here is a smaller heron, the tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor):

This chap is a more specialist feeder, fishing for minnows in the shallow, we saw him dashing about quite frenetically fishing, not the cool stalking that we usually associate with herons. They have a trick of stretching out their wings to make a pool of shadow into which the fish swim. They are more restricted in their distribution living mainly around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. He is in winter plumage (only two colours) in the breeding season he sports a beautifully russet/maroon neck.

Here is the yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) keeping a low profile during the day — herons fill many niches — these hunt crustaceans and insects at night, often nesting high in trees.

Here are two black crowned night herons(Nycticorax nicticorax) , at Sable Palm Sanctuary, South Padre Island, Texas:

Black crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycricorax)

These beautiful birds are common in the wetlands of the USA and also found in the warmer parts of Europe and were reported to have bred for the first time in the UK in 2017, in Somerset. Whether this was due to the hardiness of one pair who strayed too far north or to global warming is the question!

They are not however the only new herons to be colonizing our shores. As well as the great egret and the little egret, the cattle egret is becoming quite common, we have seen several this year in the UK and nearly always, happily as you might expect, in fields of cows!

Western cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) in Texas — small white heron with a yellow bill

Here is a snowy egret for comparison — note the black bill, these are limited to the Americas and are very territorial in the breeding season when they display noisily, pointing their bills skyward and bobbing up and down to the great interest of other egrets gathered to watch. They also tumble in the sky in their attempts to attract a mate.

It is similar in appearance to our little egret (Egretta garzetta) which is only an occasional visitor to the States

Snowy egret (Egretta thula)

This little heron is a green heron (Butorides virescens), they sit in thick undergrowth by preferably shallow water looking intently for little fish onto which to lunge.

The last of the herons that we saw in Texas was the rare reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) seen here at a distance, its numbers are decreasing, breeding in the Caribbean and a visitor to the Gulf of Mexico.

Thanks to Bill Branford for allowing me to use his photographs of the great egret, snowy egret, western cattle egret, green heron and the reddish egret, (all rights reserved).

I will show you the ibises, cranes and spectacular spoonbills soon!

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adventure, Birds, Climate

To the Alamo and Beyond

Here we are, a group of intrepid British bird-watchers hunting the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasillium) in Texas last month, in perishing conditions as a freak cold front swept the US. All wearing everything we had and me with socks on my hands we searched a ranch 1/6th the area of Wales for a little tropical owl at the far north of its range. Our guides were tenacious and cunning with their recordings of Pygmy calls and inside information about recent sightings, they had no intention of letting us go until we had seen this timorous beastie.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brazillium)

Here he is, about the size of a starling (but all puffed up), as intrigued by our strange appearance and beguiling calls as we were by him.

It had been even colder the day before when icicles were spotted dangling from the air-conditioning vent at breakfast. Here are the more robust members of the party looking for icebergs on Corpus Christi Lake.

As the more feeble fled for shelter in adjacent woodland we were treated to a view of this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) who had had the same idea.

As we climbed back into the minibus and fell upon the last of the emergency Worther’s Originals (the beauty of travelling with Grandads) a little bird flitted frantically in the bare branches above, looking for something to eat — a Black Throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) — a late migrant caught short by the Arctic blast.

Black throated green warbler — juv (Setophaga virens)
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adventure, Birds, Wales

Bardsey Island Chough Hunt

I really want to see choughs in the wild. Delicate crows with fine scarlet beaks and feet. There are choughs on Bardsey Island, Enlli in Welsh .

Here is a wikimedia map of Wales to show the location of Bardsey Island, in the Celtic Sea, a couple of miles from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.

Below is what you see as you set out from Porth Meudwy.

I had waited 4 days for the sea conditions to be suitable and now they were — I was off to hunt the chough.

Colin the boatman, a local farmer, told us that this year was the first for thousands of years in which no one had overwintered on the island. Not so many years ago the population was about 80 — now they are mainly summer visitors.

As we arrived the tide was coming in and the grey seals on the beach were starting to bob around in the rising water, the larger ones, I guess male, lolling in the ripples making a soulful siren call which reminded me of the spiritual reputation of the island where 20,000 saints are said to be buried — Celtic saints.

Until the time of Henry VIII there had been a monastery on the island and it was a place of pilgrimage, three visits to Bardsey were equivalent to one to Rome. Presumably punters paid well for such potent indulgence and being buried there was de rigeuer for anyone with ambitions of canonisation!

The boatman told us to climb the mountain for the views and I did — no one else did. It was steep and painful and the only other people I saw there were two separate elderly ladies who were staying on the island, both walked with sticks and addressed me in Welsh, pointing out the landmarks. You can see the Mountains of Wicklow and the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland on a clear day. I could see Cardigan Bay all the way to Pembrokeshire and the nearby Llyn peninsula with Snowdon in the distance and the burrows of the Manx shearwaters but no choughs. “What, not seen a chough! They are usually here — must be nesting.”

View of the island from halfway up the mountain

By 3pm the waters around the island were getting choppy and the trusted boatman would not risk our precious lives to view the puffins from the sea but seeing our disappointment he kindly took a detour and showed us the Ynes Gwylan Puffin Colony on the two little isles off Aberdaron.

As we approached the plump little birds started whizzing overhead showing the white flashes of their flanks as they flew ahead of us to land in the water and dive for sand eels.

Safely back on land I drove to the tip of the peninsula where I had been told that choughs hang out but all I found was a hungry herring gull and a farewell view of Bardsey Island.

Bardsey from Mynydd Mawr
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Birds, Ecology, Gardening, Wales

Protecting the Innocent

Baby barn owls and Jan

Here they are:  last years baby barn owls safe in the arms of local owl whisperer, Jan, from the Species Habitat Protection Group that monitor the owl box on our land.  I couldn’t show you these last year as their location was better kept under wraps — there are evidently still people out there who will abduct baby barn owls to rear as pets and for sport.

We hear barn owls every night but this year Mum and Dad have not used our box again.  It should be a better year as the dry weather allows the parents to hunt every night.

Two days ago Alan and I went to inspect the osprey nest over the hill.  This year there are three chicks, two male and one female, just about ready to fly, jostling for space in the untidy nest.  The location is well known now so their custodians have made a car-park with a hide which provides many volunteer watchers (and doubtless electronic surveillance).

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One fuzzy ‘fish-hawk’

Here are pictures from a previous year from the Osprey Centre webcam in the Dovey Estuary courtesy of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust Creative Commons License .

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The mother was sitting on the cross-bar above the chicks, when we visited, waiting for the male to return with a big fish.  Below, the reservoir was shrinking fast in our only dry summer for years!

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Whoops — I spoke too soon — with a crash of thunder the drought appears to have ended!

We are reminded that, despite the drought, our habitat is Temporate Rainforest and that our garden, tended only by the Almighty is, this year, very fashionable!

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It would merit a gold medal at any of the horticultural shows — Chelsea, Hampton Court or Tatton Park!

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Birds, Ecology, Wales

Happytat Creation

Here’s something to cure election fever!

Something new and glorious and full of hope!  It’s something we’ve discovered 50 yards from our back door — a pair of nesting Barn Owls!

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Here is the male (I think) who is paler and here is his mate with her buff coloured chest

barn owl cropped

and dark spots on her flank.

Best of all, there are three chicks which I hope to show you in a couple of weeks when they will be ringed and meet the public.

All this and the photos are courtesy of the Species Habitat Protection Group who erected the nesting box and have been monitoring it for 3 years.  Last year there was just one tell-tail Barn Owl feather, so we knew someone had been house-hunting, but we had no idea that they had moved in this year and started a family.  Thank you Jon, Jan, Roger and Brian and the other volunteers.

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Birds, Ecology, Wales

Never Malign the Humble Starling

It could cost you an admirer!

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Starling by John Quine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

I once had a very high opinion of a man for whom I worked, in a lofty Victorian hospital with what they now call ‘orangery windows’ in the roof of the long ward on the top floor. One day a bird that had strayed into the ward became trapped, flying up against the glass of one of these windows.  His frantic tweeting was disturbing the ward and distracting the medical students that my boss was trying to teach — it didn’t take much to distract a medical student.  Now, I knew he was an enthusiastic bird-watcher and early tweeter (nothing to do with Twitter — it was long before that).  Perhaps I thought I’d impress him.

“I’ll get the pole and let the bird out!’ I said and went to fetch the thing like a giant boat-hook that opened the sky lights.

“Good idea!” said he.

When I came back, they had moved along the ward, nearer to the bird and could see the flapping, squawking creature more clearly as it threw itself repeatedly against the glass in panic.

“Oh!  It’s only a starling!” said the boss ” Leave it!”

Crash!  There it was, shattered on the ground — not the window — not even the bird — but my shattered illusion — my respect, in shards on the floor of a paeiatric ward in North London.

Later, when the previously wise old patriarch, now demoted to a racist tyrant, was having his coffee, I went back and released the bird.

I remember this because it is the time of the year when flocks of these enterprising and social birds ‘graze’ our fields looking for something, I’m not quite sure what.  They alight (several hundreds of them), making a great stain on the hillside, chattering.

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Then they lift in a swirling cloud and swoop low over the pasture scattering the sheep  who are scared, they are convinced that this murmuration of birds is supernatural. Suddenly the cloud swoops into a tall tree, all talking, so that the Douglas Fir twitters with an invisible din.

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Then they are off again swirling, the ball of birds, tumbling up and down the valley, in and out of the morning mist, like a great ball of the lightest, flightiest, celestial dough, rolled back on itself and kneaded by an invisible force.  A splash of dough lands on the overhead electricity wires, then drips, bird by bird, back onto the grass.

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All the time more and more individuals are joining the throng then, suddenly, they are gone.  All that remains is the throb of a thousand wings as they pass overhead, there is nothing like it — perhaps the sheep are right!

starlings-by-paul-mcgreevy

Starlings by Paul McGreevy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 Have a look at these murmurations: http://essexnaturalist.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/starlings/

 

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