For anyone that is interested, I’ll be doing a brief presentation on ‘Why watch wildlife?’ as part of Bettakultcha York on Tuesday March 18th.
Last year I made the mistake of making numerous predictions about the sort of things I aimed to photograph and blog about. I failed to do most of them. So this year, I learned from that and will just let everything come along as and when it happens. Which leads me to today’s post.
When I moved to the new house in York last year, I was delighted to learn we had a local population of Water Voles. I did share some photos back in May, but they were a bit gloomy. So I’ve been trying to get at least one vole to sit in the sun. Sadly, whenever I’ve seen one in good light it’s been when I haven’t had my camera to hand.
I’ve been off work sick this week (nothing serious), and have been making myself better with the occasional walk in the afternoon sunshine. I know where the voles are, and I’ve seen them out over the past few weeks. So I knew where to look.
Examining their various bolt-holes (at least the ones on the surface) showed signs of action (see above). Water Rats (an inaccurate alternate name for Water Voles) were nearby.
Unfortunately the first sighting wasn’t a Water Rat, merely a Rat by the water:
A lot of people chuck whole slices of bread into the water (something you shouldn’t do), but the rats are at least clearing up. Many people dislike rats, but a healthy population of these bright rodents is no bad thing.
People often confuse Rats and Water Voles, and they are of similar size. But as you’ll see, not similar appearance.
While staring at the opposite bank, looking for any sign of a Water Vole poking his nose out, or swimming along, I heard a plop/splash noise just down below me. Sure enough, on my side of the river, mere feet away, was this little fellow:
Yes! There, in the full sun, so close I almost needed to back up to get it in focus, was a Water Vole! You can even see his yellow front teeth (incisors). Most rodents have yellow incisors. It’s not that they are dirty or rotten, and they aren’t heavy smokers! They have a very heavy enamel coating on those teeth, as otherwise they would wear down far too quickly.
It was quite content to sit there while I took a lot of photos, and even happily changed position a few times to get different angles:
Hopefully you can clearly see the difference in shape and bearing between the vole and the rat. Colour isn’t so reliable, you get pale voles and dark rats. But the shape of the head is pretty distinctive, especially in the eyes, ears, and nose:
So there you have it. Spiky wet Water Voles, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Certainly made me feel better for a while.
A little bit of seasonal phenology this past weekend with the first Peacock and Brimstone butterflies, plus first honey bee and first bumblebee. We’ve had Small Tortoiseshell for about a week too.
The wonderful sunshine has brought them out, let’s hope it stays fine and they don’t get hit by a late cold spell.
We had many reasons for buying our house in York (nearly a year ago now). Many were valid, sensible things based on the state of the roof, or the number of bedrooms. The normal stuff. But there were some less rational reasons. Like the Treecreeper we saw outside the house the first time we saw it*.
I’ve always loved the Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris). They have a wonderful habit of popping out at close range, at eye-level, before disappearing on up the tree. As such, you can get some great views.
There’s a key aspect of what I just said there: “up the tree”. Up. Not down. Treecreepers cannot climb back down. They behave like no other bird you will see, scaling up and around a tree, then flying down and across to the next. They might manage a little downwards movement if going along the underside of a branch, but mainly it’s just up, up, up.
This could all make them very obvious, but unlike the showier woodpeckers and nuthatches that have similar behaviour, the tiny Treecreeper has quite exceptional camouflage. As you can see here:
They are remarkable little workers, climbing as much as 2500m a day (which means in a week they scale greater than the height of Mount Everest!). They power themselves by eating tiny insects from the surface, and just into the bark, of trees.
There was at least one pair flitting about, so I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if I can find a nest site too.
* A word of warning, don’t just buy a house based on availability of wildlife
I recently introduced the above Blackbird to the blog. Due to some past scrape his left foot is damaged, and he tends to hold his left wing down too. But he moves absolutely fine and is perfectly healthy and defending his territory.
As many of you will know, many birds can get quite used to human presence. In our garden the blackbirds, siskins, redpolls and goldfinches all take a fairly relaxed attitude to our sharing their space. Oddly the robins are quite skittish. The wood pigeons are oblivious, but they tend to be oblivious of most things. But I hadn’t realised how at ease this particular blackbird has become.
The other evening I came home with every intention of topping up the birdfeeders. I could see the blackbird was outside eating some old apple on the lawn, but I knew he wouldn’t be that put-out. Sure enough, I went out, he hopped onto the recycling bins and watched me. As soon as I was up the garden, back he went to the apple. When I came back, despite passing within a couple of feet, he stuck to his evening meal (your five-a-day really do matter).
I went back up with another feeder, and again he sat there quite content. But as I turned back from the feeders, he wasn’t there. I just saw his rear end, as he disappeared into my kitchen!
Now, I’ve had plenty of birds get in the house before, and it’s always a scene of panic. So I knew I was going in to find a blackbird going nuts, flapping and screaming. But I was wrong. He was sat quite calmly on the floor at the far end of the kitchen. As I walked up towards him, he simply hopped back along the kitchen past me, and back out the door. I had more of a sense of a guilty conscience at being caught, than one of panic at being trapped. He was totally at ease.
Anyway, I’m now more careful about shutting the door when I’m outside. I’m against naming wild animals, but if this blackbird keeps making himself at home, I may have no choice (any suggestions?).
A snippet of song
There are lots of songs about Blackbirds. I’ve previously mentioned ‘Blackbird’ by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. There are also songs by the likes of The Beatles, and the American standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. All these songs are ultimately inspired by the song of the real Blackbird, and as wonderful as they may be pale into insignificance if you are fortunate enough to be serenaded of an evening.
The other evening I managed to catch a blackbird (the one mentioned above) in song. Here is a little 90 second sample:
Firsts for the Year
I had a good lunchtiome stroll round York University lake the other day. Managed to see my first Grey Wagtails, and Treecreepers of the year. Also saw several Great Crested Grebes that have paired up. To top it all off, when I got home I spotted my first Water Vole this year down on the local river.
With some decent light and a group of fairly trusting birds in the garden, it was worth an attempt at getting some decent pictures.
The most obliging was probably the tamer of our two male blackbirds. He tends to sit in the hedge outside our kitchen window, and seems oddly fascinated by me doing the washing up, sitting watching me closely. But if I go outside and he’s there, he rarely moves off.
He popped down for a feed and happily sat and let me take some photos of him:
There are a fair few starlings around too, and one decided to use the top of the feeder pole for a bit of posing:
The Lesser Redpolls were out too, and unlike the pictures the other day you can clearly see the red cap:
I’ve mentioned the variety of finches we’re now getting in the garden, and it’s been a good four weeks now that we have had a small company of Siskins hanging around.
One notable aspect of this though has been the noise they make, even with only three or four in a tree. We hear this racket most mornings. They don’t roost in our nearby willow, but they arrive pretty much as soon as the sun comes up.
Anyway, the other morning I decided to try record this using just the voice recorder function of my mobile phone, for your benefit. Here is the result:
You may need to turn the volume on your computer up quite high as it’s not exactly a professional recording! If you want to know how I got this recording, there’s a quick guide HERE.
Anyway, that’s maybe half-a-dozen tiny finches making all that noise.
We’ve also had the occasional Lesser Redpoll. They are fine to ID when you clearly see a red head like this (sorry for the poor quality, it was raining heavily!):
An obvious Redpoll. But, this time of year, they are often far more nondescript with no real red:
Pretty much no red at all (can you make any out? I can’t). So for ID you go onto secondary characteristics, like that little black mask and bib.
At times it’s pretty chaotic, with 6+ of three species fighting for space on the feeders:
It’s not just finches though. We’ve two pairs of Blackbirds, and the males often square off. They also sit pretty close to the house and are pretty relaxed around us:
I recently put some fat balls quite close to the living room window, and the Coal Tits in particular like those:
We’ve also got a couple of magpies that have been hanging around since they were juveniles in the summer. Like all magpies they are smart enough to know when they are being watched, and as such harder to photograph. But here’s one:
So I have no professional recording equipment, and really had to improvise to get this bit of audio:
I recorded it in the first place by simply pointing the microphone of my Samsung Galaxy S2 at the tree containing the chattering birds.
I downloaded that recording to my computer in an unhelpful .3ga format, which I then converted to MP3 using Bigasoft Audio Converter (on a free trial). I used the same software to cut it down to the best 30 seconds of audio.
WordPress doesn’t support MP3 without an upgrade, so I uploaded the file to SoundCloud then used a little bit of HTML code to create and embed the player. First you put:
…inside square brackets [ ], then the link for the audio:
https://soundcloud.com/david-craven-5/siskins then /soundcloud
…again in square brackets 
Hope that’s clear?
It’s not great, but something I’m going to try more this year. If anybody as tips or suggestions of ways to better achieve this, I’d love to hear from you!
Having discussed my fears of the ‘curse of the Big Garden Birdwatch’ yesterday, I had a feeling this morning I was in for a decent day.
Walking out around 8am to ensure all the feeders were topped up, there was already an early starter. A single female Siskin. They’ve been around for a week now, somewhere between 8 and a dozen in total, a lovely little company. They seem to have settled in for the remainder of the weekend. Tiny as they are, they are also feisty. Sensing I was coming to remove the feeder she was occupying, she settled for turning and hissing at me, attempting to hold her ground till the last possible moment before heading for the nearby willow tree (most of our birds use this as a spot to queue).
I finally started the count around 9:30, and almost as soon as I did we had two Lesser Redpoll appear on the nyjer seed. We’ve not seen them in a few weeks, so it was another good omen.
We soon had Blackbird, Siskin, Wood Pigeon, Starling, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. Although it was good to see so many species, numbers were relatively low in all cases. Knowing there are usually at least half-a-dozen each of Siskin, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, it was odd to see just three or four of each.
Other appearances were made by Magpies, Dunnocks, our Robin, and several House Sparrows.
Around 45 minutes in what was noticeable was the absence of tits. We normally have plenty of Blue, Great and Coal Tits, and fairly regular Long-Tailed Tits too. Eventually we did get three Blue Tits, but no others.
So the final totals for the hour were:
2 Lesser Redpolls
3 Wood Pigeons
3 Blue Tits
4 House Sparrows
While you’ll hardly ever get every species in an hour, it was a shame that the numbers ended up being less than representative of our actual population of many species. I had hoped one of the local pairs of Bullfinches might have dropped in, but you can’t be greedy!
As I write this around 1pm the numbers of finches are back up, and we’ve seen the previously absent Great and Coal Tits too, so at least we know they were just being lazy. Ditto the Collared Doves, who we found still sleeping in a tree at the front of the house around 11am.
For all those minor complaints this was one of the most successful Big Garden Birdwatch sessions I’ve managed. If you’d offered me Siskin and Lesser Redpoll a fortnight ago I’d have been delighted.
Going to try get photos of many of these garden birds this weekend, so hopefully I can follow this up with some images.
(Sadly the BGBW website is currently down, so I can’t put my results up yet)
It’s that time of the year when we find an hour of a weekend to count the birds in our garden. I’ve been doing this, across various properties, for a number of years now. This will be the first year since I moved back to York, so hopefully the first of many!
If you don’t know how to do it, there are instructions HERE on the RSPB website.
It’s pretty easy, you just sit for an hour (I’d suggest either around 9am or 3pm as that’s when birds tend to be more active) and count the maximum number of each species you see. So if you see three blue tits on three occasions, that just counts as one. Three at once, that’s three.
I am hopeful of a really good year this year, as we’ve been inundated with Siskins for a week now. But the BGBW curse usually strikes and the birds magically disappear as soon as you start counting! You can see my disappointing results from last year HERE.
Will we see anything unusual this year? Who knows! We’ll see this weekend.
I can only urge everybody to take part, as the more data we provide, the more useful the results are.