Since the slight relaxation of the Corona Virus Lockdown in Wales we have renewed our search for the elusive chough. There are more in Wales than anywhere else in the UK but still probably only just over 200 pairs, mainly in coastal areas where they feed on invertebrates associated with grazing animals. They like a short sward and lots of creepy-crawlies in the droppings of the animals that crop the grass.
This time we went looking on Anglesey in North Wales. Almost the moment we got out of the car we were treated to a flypast — 16 birds all calling out their name!
We followed the flock to the coastal path where we could watch them on the rocks of the high cliff face.
This has been an exceptional summer in Wales and we have been out and about in the fields and pasture much more than previously and I am always commenting on the lack of the usual infuriating insects — this may be due to the hot, dry spring but we notice it more markedly in the grazed areas where one might expect to be pursued by a cloud of flies — not this year. I do wonder if the amount and efficacy of the pour-on, long-acting insecticides that are almost universally used on farm animals now are impacting on the bio-mass of insects. If so where will this leave the other creatures in the food chain — like the chough.
Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) used to be called Goatsuckers because they hung around goats and other domestic animals and as they seemed to do them no harm it was assumed that they fed on the milk of these animals. They do not. They eat insects especially moths that fly at dawn and dusk and sometimes throughout the night.
Maybe they picked the occasional fly from a sleeping mammal but modern pasture hosts far fewer insects than it did now that we Click our stock — spray them with long acting insecticide. If you want to see Nightjars today (or rather tonight) you need to go to the moors or a grazed heath but what they like best is recently felled and re planted conifer forest but you must start by listening. Spotting birds at night is a thankless task but male Nightjars announce themselves with a loud churring — a strange jarring, mechanical sound, each one modulating its chur slightly differently.
The first time I heard one, I was out lambing on a hillside just after dark, I had no idea what it was — I wondered if it was a chain saw up in the woods.
Last week Bill and I went up into the forestry at dusk and listened. True to form, just as we had given up and were wending our way home we heard the first chur. It was from the edge of a newly planted pine plantation around the clear-felled area we call the “Dead Zone”, where the mature pines have been cut leaving stumps and a matrix of dead sticks and broken branches tangled around ditches of stagnant water in a post-apocalyptic landscape. This whole area above our village has sections of pine wood at different stages of growth. As we stood, one bird would fall silent then another further along the margin would take up the call — all along the edge of a new plantation.
Night was falling fast and we headed for home across the Dead Zone, aware that large bats were all around, swooping overhead making a strange eerie sound as they passed close by.
On the longest day we visited again — at 10:15pm we started to be treated to churring from all around the amphitheatre — the felled clearing surrounded by young trees — the midges were biting as the land darkened and the purple hill in the distance seemed to grow against the fading light and the new moon appeared. “Not much chance of seeing one now,” then suddenly a giant swift came out of the dark, right in front of us, looping and swerving after its aerial prey — just a few feet above our heads — not a bat, after all — but a Nightjar!
This secretive, almost mystical bird, is having a come back — its numbers increasing — in the hilltops of Wales, where the forests rich in insect life are felled in rotation opening up the habitat so that these amazing birds can manoeuvre in open skies above the forest floor where they nest and rear two broods before heading back to the Congo, almost invisible as their camouflage is so good. This is an American cousin, very similar, that we almost trod on in Texas — look carefully — can you see him?
Here she is under a strangely blue sky, for Wales– Mother Magpie, unlikely heroine of my last blog — fighting to save her two (there may have been more) fledglings. They are both alive and she and Father Magpie are still feeding them. The Sun is still shining:
This is one of the chicks — having a flying lesson with Mum, fully fledged but smaller than the adults and with a shorter tail. At night they roost close to their original nest, next to the telegraph pole.
But look at this —
Last evening at dusk, not 10 meters from our door, waiting for the light to finally fade — Tawny Owl bides her time.
While we blustered about trying to find the tripod, she flew away and this morning the head count was the same — but she’ll be back!
1 am awoken from deep sleep by Magpie calling from very nearby.
“Owls!” I hear from the edge of perception.
Then there is a clomping down the stair, crash, expletive, flash of light and the sound of a something heavy being moved.
Then I hear it: “Qweeik! Qweeik!” Very loud and very near. There is a chorus of twit-toowooing from all around the rim of the bowl of hills in which we are presently contained. Every urgent, insistent queeik answered by a reassuring, low pitched owly sound from a different direction and each queeik parried by the rattling panic of a magpie.
Now my eyes are open and there is wild illumination from outside the house. Trees flash on and off like Christmas lights; I wonder about hallucinations in confinement — hypnogogic perhaps. Better go with the flow — I rise and grab a dressing gown, descend the stairs in darkness (mustn’t alert whatever it is — that’s odd someones moved the toolbox — I’ve got good night vision). The front door is wide open — I follow the flashes.
The qweeiking and corvid football rattling are unabated and can now be localized to the tall leylandii on the bank just above the house below which a man in a dressing gown and carpet slippers is scanning the tops of the aforementioned trees with the beam of a powerful flashlight.
The sky is clear, crossed by a shooting star. The moon is bright but still quite new so the stars are not so dulled by the moonlight. “Watch out!” calls the man who is hearteningly familiar, “Watch where you step!”
Looking down, there is a middle sized black and white bird sitting at my feet, looking up at me but not moving.
Now there is a moral dilemma. Farmers hate magpies, I’m not keen on them — they raid nests, eat loads of fledglings, do unspeakable things to defenseless, sick and trapped creatures and desecrate the bodies of the dead (true, they don’t drive to County Durham).
Now the tables are turned: Magpie has met its match. Its nest is under attack by Tawny Owl — female tawny owl egged on (sorry) by male members of her family from a distance (typical) and we feel a wave of sympathy for the magpie mum whose only just fledged baby has parachuted onto the patio and into our protection.
First thing next morning there are no feathers on the ground and later an adult magpie is seen feeding a fledgling in the big pine tree at the other end of the house near to where the baby bird had landed the night before while the other parent feeds its sibling in the leylandii.
Spring is a frenetic time but this year is different — rather than dashing about doing what Humans do, we are locked down at home so we can look around and see what most years we might miss. All within walking distance of home! Suddenly we have visitors!
Walking in the forestry above the village the din of Willow Warblers was deafening — seemed there was one at the top of every other tree (and not a Willow in sight!) Was this a fall — had they all just dropped en masse out of the sky on their migration?
Home again and the first Wood Warbler announces his presence with a call like a tiny quad bike starting (said to sound like a coin spinning on a marble slab!) Usually hidden in the foliage, for the last week or so when the oaks are still not quite in leaf we have a chance to spot these lovely birds.
In the glorious Spring sunshine we took our daily exercise climbing nearby Van Hill
We’ve seen Tree Pipits doing their parachuting display flight and hear our local Garden Warblers who flit around the shrubs and hedgerows singing their own “irresolute chatter” trying not to be photographed!
Today we walked miles in search of a Common Redstart, up on the hill in a row of mature Oak and Rowan we could hear but not see them — all we have is this chap on the wire.
We have become enchanted by the Pied Flycatchers, Bill checks them out every day, this one we call Orca.
All pictures, except fuzzy Tree Pipit, thanks to Bill Branford (all rights reserved).
A few days ago, walking past the bank in the town centre we heard an avian kerfuffle, squawking and a flurry of pigeons taking to the air and a fast moving shadow crossed our path — “Raptor!” said Bill.
We checked out the nearest suitable nesting site — the parish church and there it was — sitting on a turret, preening itself. A Peregrine Falcon but neither of us had a camera.
Since then we take our daily exercise past the parish church every day bristling with binoculas and cameras — today we were rewarded!
And here is her mate, perched lower down the tower having just delivered her lunch.
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.
Thanks to Bill for his pictures of Spoonbills (all rights reserved).
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.
But, wait a minute, what are these in the distance? Not the swans — behind them!
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.
The thought of life after extinction is very comforting just at the moment.
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:
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!
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
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!
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.
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.