Birds

Visitors!

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!

This was the first — who gave himself away by his call: Chiffchaff.
Blackcaps are suddenly everywhere with their “irresolute chattering developing into clear, slightly melancholy flute like notes”.
Pied Flycatcher, just arrived –male, perched above our path.
Pied Flycatcher –female, first spotted peeping out of a hole in the old oak tree.
Willow Warbler

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?

Competing Willow Warbler

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.

Wood Warbler —

In the glorious Spring sunshine we took our daily exercise climbing nearby Van Hill

Northern Wheatear, male, on Van Hill
Beautiful female Northern Wheatear also admiring the view.

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.

Tree Pipit showing off during its song flight, parachuting back to a tree with legs down singing for all it was worth.

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).

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Nature Photography, seasons, Wales

Spring Fever

We know it must be spring because the cock pheasants are rutting, fighting beak and nail while the hens pretend not to notice. These two are spoiling for a fight —

and it all kicks off!

Getting quite violent but balletic!

After several skirmishes the newcomer takes off with indecent haste leaving the resident cock to strut about guarding his territory while the eight females under the bird feeders, seemingly oblivious, continue to excavate the ground for peanuts thrown down by the picky nuthatch.

One hundred yards further up the valley another drama enfolds as the unusually sunny weather is drying out a shallow pond threatening the lives of several thousand tadpoles.

Enter International Tadpole Rescue with a bucket and dust pan!

All re-homed to a bigger pond further up the valley.

Over the road in our neighbors pond things are equally torrid as the toads, who pair later than the frogs, are only now laying their spawn. Here they are, photographed by Sue Whitehead (all rights reserved).

See how different the toad spawn is from the more familiar clumps the frog spawn.

We know that the mud at the bottom of these ponds is full of ferocious dragonfly nymphs and hungry newts and the surface today was sparkling with the ripples of a hundred pond skaters excited by the prospect of a juicy tadpole. How many adults will emerge from all this spawn?

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Birds

Oblivious to Corona

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!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) high on the spire of the parish church.

And here is her mate, perched lower down the tower having just delivered her lunch.

Here’s tomorrows lunch, looking edgy!

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

But right now he is cleaning his talons.

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lifestyle, Wales

Give us this day…

When everything you know seems under threat you start to realize what really matters. Here’s a tribute to our local baker.

They make bread in the old fashioned way from simple ingredients — just flour, water, yeast and salt. Here’s some dough proving, slowly — waiting to be put into crocks…

and baked into delicious, crispy wheat or rye sourdough bread. There are wholemeal wheat, rye and spelt loaves and “Llanidloes specials” with the magic cheesy crust. There are olive ciabatte, Chelsea buns and almond croissants.

Baked each day and delivered to local shops. No plastic wrappers, tiny carbon footprint, no waste — they sell out every day but nothing for the birds as the humans fight for every last crumb!

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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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nature, Spiders

The writing spider?

To calm my nerves my daughter, who is staying in Australia, writes that she has been clearing the cobwebs from the outside of the house!

Today she sent me a picture of the St Andrew’s Cross Spider (one of her neighbours) :

Australian St Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope keyserlingi) ventral view.

If its back were showing you would see dramatic (wasp like) bands of yellow and black. She shows the characteristic saltire, that X of zig zag, actually spiral, threads called web decorations or stabilimenta. This last word says it all — these have to be stabilizers or shock absorbers to strengthen the web. These are formidable engineers.

Webs like this are made by members of the Argiope family all over the world. Here’s one we saw in the southern USA:

Just a little spider, sitting in the middle of a huge cross made of spiral threads, wrapping something up before Christmas. It was the cross that fascinated. In the US they call them Zipper Spiders (A. aurantia) or Writing Spiders — some of the more untidy spinners produce stabilimenta that look as if you should be able to read them!

You can find their cousins all over the world with assorted variations in markings and web stabilimenta. There’s at least one that can be seen in Britain (Argiope bruennichi) and isn’t it just typical that we have to travel half way round the world to find that out!

Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi) by Ben Andrew

We’ll be looking for this one at Minsmere next summer!

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Cornwall, Thoughtful

Back on the Fringe

Celtic knot, granite with lichen!

A magic place, soon after dawn (which isn’t very early) on the Fowey estuary in January. Lapwings cluster on the sandbanks and the eerie calls of the curlew heralds the progress of the seasons.

Snow drops are under the bare oak in St Winnow’s churchyard, primroses blooming and campion in the hedgerow under the golden gorse. All in the cool moist air that reminds us of our amazing good fortune as family and friends in Australia (who used to tease us about our rain) suffer unimaginable heat and anxiety. They are living with the threat of loosing everything they hold dear in a biblical inferno.

I wish I could send them all a little while in the cool of St Winnow’s churchyard.

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