Birds, Ecology

Hammerhead!

When you see your first spoonbill cross the sky above your head I promise you will do a double take. They look so peculiar with their long necks outstretched and the odd bulbous end to the beak. We saw one over Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, last month and for a moment I thought we were looking at a pterodactyl! With the long neck extended in flight and the bill so long and strange and its massive wingspan it had proportions that seemed quite alien.

Couldn’t catch that one but here are some Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) we saw in USA last year — even here they look primitive

The Spoonbill we see in England is white (Platalea leucorodia) and was wiped out in the 1700s because of drainage of the wetlands and hunting. However in recent years they are recolonizing areas in the South West and South East, from Europe, and have even bred in Yorkshire. The work of the RSPB and the Wetland Trusts in habitat creation is helping and these spectacular birds can be seen once more.

European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Snettisham on the Wash 2020
European Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire 2020

Thanks to Bill for his pictures of Spoonbills (all rights reserved).

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Birds, Ecology

A Crane to Lift the Spirits

Yesterday, having come to terms with cancelling our visits to grandchildren because of the risk of Corona Virus and facing 12 weeks in lock-down, the collapse of the economy, evaporation of our pensions, disintegration of the world’s infrastructure and the disappearance of all toilet paper (not to mention the possibility of impending premature death), we packed a picnic and set out to find the Whooper Swans out on the Ouse and Nene Washes.

These are areas of fenland fields that are flooded in winter by the waters of the rivers Ouse and Nene in Cambridgeshire, England. This year after the deluge of recent weeks the area was more like an inland sea but we found the Whoopers (Cygnus cygnus) and some Bewicks (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) grazing in nearby fields — nipping any hope of agricultural recovery, literally, in the bud. They are preparing to leave for their breeding grounds in Iceland and Siberia respectively.

Whooper Swans (with the occasional Bewick) grazing.

But, wait a minute, what are these in the distance? Not the swans — behind them!

Common Cranes and Mute Swans on the Nene Washes yesterday, albeit at a distance.

Cranes became extinct in Britain 400 years ago, didn’t they?

Not so! The now inappropriately named Common Crane (Grus grus) evidently reappeared in 1978 — probably when 3 individuals were blown in from Europe. The population teetered for a number of years with slow breeding, but with some migration and a little help from captive breeding, reintroduction and habitat creation it continues to grow. There are now 50 pairs or more.

As we watched one of these pairs who were a long way away (mitigation for the poor photo) two more individuals flew in, landing precariously and then displaying to each other just as we had seen Sandhill Cranes do when we were in Texas last autumn. They danced, bouncing from leg to leg with their necks extended backwards, calling and fluffing out their magnificent plumed tails in a bonding exercise — presumably indicating to the other couple that they are no threat.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) — also a very rare visitor to Britain, by Bill Branford (all rights reserved)

The thought of life after extinction is very comforting just at the moment.

Sandhill Cranes by Bill Branford (all rights reserved).

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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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