Pied Wagtails in the garden


I had a little surprise the other day when a Pied Wagtail with a single juvenile dropped briefly into the garden. As common as these birds are today, I still find them quite rare in gardens.

Sadly the weather made it difficult to get a good picture, but you can see them here:

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We’re now seeing plenty of baby birds, with the previously mentioned bullfinches, plus Goldfinches, Sparrows and Starlings.

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Our bold blackbird with the damaged foot is still around and thriving.

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His rival isn’t in great shape either now, having had some form of accident either with a rival or with a predator meaning he now carries his right wing slightly by his side. But he’s alive and can still fly, so he’s doing okay.

The bullfinch males have become tamer than I’ve ever encountered before, and with a little patience it’s possible to watch them from mere feet away. I say patience is required, but sometimes they arrive next to you when you are not looking!

The garden is in great shape, so later this week I’m going to post flowers and bees.

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Baby grebes begging


Yesterday I shared a video of the juvenile grebe hunting for food. He wasn’t getting on that well, but he better learn quickly as his parents now have their hands full with three new chicks, as you see here:

You can just about hear them peeping away. While it’s not visible here, their bare red crown patch is prominent. You can also see that one of the three is much smaller than the other two, which often happens in nests of three hatchlings. Actually there was a size difference in the other two chicks, but that’s not really clear here. Whether all three make it to adulthood we’ll see.

Interestingly one of the adults was later spotted sitting back on the nest. They will at times have three clutches, so it’s not impossible that they are going to breed again.

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Young grebe snorkeling


The grebe family I mentioned on Monday is already progressing. The three new chicks are off Mum’s back, physically if not metaphorically! The result of this is that the older chick is now fending for himself, as you can see in this little video clip. He was so oblivious that he swam up within a foot of me.

You may want to keep the volume low as there was a coot chick next to me calling at a very high pitch and high volume. Ear-piercing.

The behaviour here is one he’d have seen from his parents a lot, and it’s called ‘snorkelling’. The grebe is just keeping an eye out for fish and will dive at any opportunity. Given some of his splashier moments, he may not have quite mastered it yet. He has, since hatching, been one of the splashiest and least competent swimmers I’ve seen for a waterbird. But he’ll learn, and our grebe family seem to have raised at least one chick successfully.

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Derby Cathedral Peregrines


As I was in Derby I decided to have a quick look at the Peregrine Falcons on Derby Cathedral. Sadly I didn’t have my big camera with me, so these are all snapped with a compact. You can see far better images, and video, on their own blog: Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project

So, there is a nest platform that helped encourage the birds to settle, but nothing was visible from ground level:

Nest platform

Nest platform

But we soon spotted one of the adult birds up above:

Distant falcon, ringed for guidance!

Distant falcon, ringed for guidance!

When he later took off (for the neighbouring Jury’s Inn hotel), we realised he actually had prey with him there, a pigeon. You may just make it out in this blurry zoomed image:

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We moved a little closer, soon spotting the other adult higher up:

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I heartily recommend you go check these wonderful birds out if in Derby. If not, at least check the webcams on their blog.

 

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Chaddesden Wood LNR, Derby


At the weekend I took a trip down to Derby, where I like to wander through the Chaddesden Wood Local Nature Reserve.

While the area has plenty of great birdlife, including a range of warblers (I saw/heard Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Whitethroat, all of which were nesting there), Green Woodpecker, Treecreeper and Nuthatch, and Tawny Owl, today I want to focus on life around the ponds.

Common Frog

Common Frog (by LA Gaunt)

This year is the first year I’ve spotted newts in the ponds here, though sadly I couldn’t predict where they’d pop to the surface meaning I got no pictures of them. Fortunately this handsome common frog was far more obliging. As was this smaller, redder specimen:

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Common Frog (by LA Gaunt)

It wasn’t just amphibians, there were plenty of insects such as Pondskaters and Waterboatmen. There was also this impressive 3cm long Water Scorpion:

Water Scorpion (by LA Gaunt)

There were a few damselflies darting around too, including several Azure Damselflies:

Azure Damselfly (by LA Gaunt)

Azure Damselfly
(by LA Gaunt)

And this glorious Large Red Damselfly, posing photogenically on a Flag Iris:

Large Red Damselfly (actually by me this time!)

Large Red Damselfly
(actually by me this time!)

Plenty of butterflies including Red Admiral and Speckled Wood:

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Speckled Wood (by LA Gaunt)

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Red Admiral (by LA Gaunt)

And, just because I got a good photo in a nearby garden, a young Nuthatch:

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Special thanks to Lisa Gaunt for agreeing to share her photos.

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Fledging our beautiful bullfinches


I think it’s dangerous to get to possessive about wild animals, yet it can be sorely tempting. I had this last week when I tweeted with great delight that ‘we’ had fledged ‘our’ baby bullfinches.

Obviously the parents did all the actual work, but given how regularly the parents were stocking up food from our garden, especially in poorer weather, it was hard not to feel slightly responsible for the three chicks.

Anyway, one came down to the feeders which allowed me to grab a couple of pictures:

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Great Crested Grebes and the ‘red spot’


I spend a lot of my time wandering by the lake at the University of York, as I’ve discussed before. One of my favourite birds to watch there has been the Great-Crested Grebe.

Great Crested Grebe Heslington Lake, June 2014

Great Crested Grebe
Heslington Lake, June 2014

This regular visiting has allowed me to make the sort of study I don’t normally get to do outside of garden birds, and I’ve picked up several things I’d not known before.

Grebes build an anchored, but essentially free-floating, nest. This helps protect them against water levels. The male and female take turns on the nest, incubating the eggs, which are rarely left uncovered. While on eggs they are feeding themselves, but once the chicks hatch it’s to feed the young. The newly hatched chicks initially sit tucked into the feathers on Mum’s back, while Dad does the hard work catching fish and passing it on.

One grebe, four heads

Hitching a ride

What I hadn’t realised before was how soon they are back on the nest for a second brood. Almost as soon as the first chick (they had one survivor of a clutch of three) was vaguely independent, the female was back on the nest while the male focused on raising that single chick. And, as before, they shared those duties.

Big brother/sister

Big brother/sister

Now they have a further three chicks (I thought it was just two till I studied my pics), plus the older chick still demanding food.

One grebe, four heads

One grebe, four heads

It was while watching these chicks that I picked up on something I had never noticed before. All four chicks had a small, triangular red mark on their crown. A bare patch of bright red skin.

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I hope it’s clear on those pictures.

So, what is this? A deformity? Some parasite? A magical third eye? A literature search was required. Wading through various papers there were lots of theories. The patch was natural, and present in nearly all grebe chicks. Some thought it helped control the chicks temperature while tucked on the parent’s back. Some thought it deterred predators. Others thought it was used in signalling parents.

It took a 1985 paper by Gary Nuechterlein to settle it. Hand-rearing some Western Grebe chicks, he used a series of experiments to determine that it was allied to begging for food. The more the bird begged, the brighter red the crown patch. Once fed, it faded to a lighter pink.

There we have it. Next time you spot grebe chicks, keep an eye out for the red patch!

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Great crested grebes


Since I haven’t posted in an age, and in advance of a few new proper posts,  here is a little video I took of some grebes. Busy parents: http://youtu.be/LpDeSFlbucY

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Want to hear me talk about Wildlife?


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.

You can find out more about Bettakultcha on their website, and tickets are available HERE.

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Wonderful Water Voles


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.

Water Vole hole, with footprint ringed York, March 2014

Water Vole hole, with footprint ringed
York, March 2014

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:

Rat, collecting his dinner York, March 2014

Rat, collecting his dinner
York, March 2014

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.

Blessed art thou, a rat swimmin' York March 2014

Blessed art thou, a rat swimmin’
York March 2014

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:

Water Vole York, March 2014

Water Vole
York, March 2014

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:

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCHopefully 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:

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If you want to know more, the Mammal Society and your local Wildlife Trust will have more resources. There’s also this Natural England factsheet (pdf).

So there you have it. Spiky wet Water Voles, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Certainly made me feel better for a while.

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