30 Days Wild – 30 habitats?


30days

This June the Wildlife Trusts are once again running their wonderful ’30 Days Wild’ campaign. If you don’t know it, you can read more and sign up HERE. I highly recommend it, and you can find all my posts from last year HERE.

This year I’m entertaining the notion of trying something different, and probably over-ambitious. I want to blog on a different habitat every day. Not in the hypothetical, I need to go to these places and take pictures. So I want  your help.

I’m setting myself some rules. I don’t intend trekking around the country. I live in York and want to try find 30 different environments in that area. They can be big broad types of habitat like ‘Forest’, or micro-niches like a particular patch of plants, or habitats within habitats that create specific conditions.

I have some ideas of my own, but I want to open this up and hopefully get some ideas I won’t otherwise think of. So please, all readers, 30 Days Wild bloggers, whoever, pop your suggestions in the comments and we’ll see if I can make your ideas make the cut!

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The sights and sounds of an English wood, New Earswick May 2016


Light and dark, a place of wonder and mystery

Light and dark, a place of wonder and mystery

Yesterday I featured a video on the sounds of the woodland. Today I want to delve into what sort of things were filling that wood with sound.

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

A lot of the noise comes from warblers, such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff.

Blackcaps have astonishingly complex songs, and much of the noise in that video comes from a male that was up in the canopy of the trees.

The Chiffchaff has a more monotonous song. It’s one you will hear all through the summer but, if you don’t know it, you’ll miss it. Once you do know it however you’ll realise they are everywhere!

Young robin

Young robin

Although the youngster in this photo won’t be doing much singing, birds such as Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, thrushes and Blackbirds all contribute to the wondrous noise of our woodlands.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

The tits always contribute plenty of noise, and on this particular day the Blue and Great Tits were out in force and making themselves known. The Great Tits were in exceptionally active form.

There was also a clutch of these little chaps happily flitting about getting fed:

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Long-tailed Tits are always a delight, and these youngsters with their black bandit masks are especially charming. They were also pretty relaxed around people and sat quite close to where we were tucked into the trunk of a tree.

The wood also feature two birds we’ve never seen in this location before. The first was a Spotted Flycatcher:

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher

Unfortunately it just wouldn’t turn its head while posing here, but hopefully I can get a better look next time.

There was also one of these:

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow

At first glance you could mistake it for a House Sparrow, but that all chestnut-brown cap tells us this is a Tree Sparrow. He can’t have been on his own either as he was clearly nest building:

Tree Sparrow collecting nest material

Tree Sparrow collecting nest material

Long-term followers will know that one of my favourite stats is that a Treecreeper climbs the height of Mount Everest every few days. That’s how we normally see them, round and up one tree. Fly to the bottom of the next. Repeat. So it was an unusual treat to see one find a sunny spot, fluff up, and have a sunbathe:

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Birds are never the only treat in a wood and it’s always worth looking at the trees, flowers and fungus that all help create the habitat that brings the wood to life.

Bluebells

Bluebells

Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

Cherry Tree

Cherry Tree

The bark of the trees adds a new sensory pleasure; touch. The flowers of the trees, and the leaves of the wild garlic, smell delightful. I’m told the fungus tastes okay, but I don’t advise risking it!

The final thing to feature, and we’re back to contributory bird noise, are the Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker

Woodpeckers are not always noisy, but on this occasion they were particularly vocal. There’s a clue why in the picture above. The bird has a mouthful of food.

Sure enough, a bit of concentration to pick a sound out amongst the cacophony, and there was the distinctive sound of calling chicks. And this is where the sound was coming from:

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Mum soon arrived and disappeared into the darkness.

You can tell this is mum as she has no red patch on the back of her head

You can tell this is mum as she has no red patch on the back of her head

Going, going...

Going, going…

Gone!

Gone!

Over the coming fortnight I’ll be keeping a close eye (and ear) on this nest in the hope of seeing the young fledge. I’ll have to get lucky. But if you have a good ear, you may be able to pick out the sound of those young Woodpeckers on this bit of shaky video:

But there we have it, into the dappled light and dark of the wood, the dry crackle and the moist squelch. A habitat for all seasons, and a treat for all the senses.

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The sounds of the woodland


While this is a video, it’s not the visuals that matter here.

The focus is fixed so the images intentionally blur as the camera pans around. Why? Because this video is actually about sound.

Any long term reader will know how passionate I am about the value and importance of listening to wildlife. In many ways this blog is badly titled!

The blur of images matches the initial blur of sound that is multiple birds from multiple species singing, calling, sounding alarms.

Blackcap, Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits, Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Robin, Dunnock and others are all present in this wood, and many can be heard here. Anyone want to try suggest what they can here?

Tomorrow I’ll have a new post on what I saw in this same wood. In the meanwhile, the comments section is open to anyone who wants to suggest IDs.


The Canal and River Trust have a new campaign called Stop, Look and Listen that highlights how many people feel they lack knowledge of nature, and the surprisingly high number of adults that cannot identify even basic bird sounds.

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Baby boom at Heslington Lake


With the Grebes already growing fast and getting into trouble, it’s worth looking at other chicks to be found around the lake.

Barnacle Gosling

Barnacle Gosling

Most of the geese now have goslings, and this makes them slightly more dangerous than normal. I’m usually dismissive of people who are afraid of geese, but when they have young they get aggressively protective.

The Barnacle Geese are a little more dainty and just keep an eye on you.

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The Canada and Greylag Geese on the other hand become a liability. It’s not uncommon to hear two sounds in close succession. The first is an “awwwwwww” as some unsuspecting student spies a lovely fluffy chick:

Deceptively fluffy

Deceptively fluffy

Of course this is closely followed by a second sound, usually a high pitched scream, as the same student learns why you never approach a chick with an alert parent nearby…

Always watching

Always watching

I have to be fair here, I was treated to a full-on attack myself the other day. Out for a run I went past three adult Greylag, one of which must have been unusually highly strung. As a result, it took against the dark sweaty shape moving rapidly (well, not that rapidly) towards it. So it launched itself at my head! Fortunately I read the signs and was tensed and ready to swerve it.

Fortunately on my walks round the lake they are usually more placid.

Relaxed geese

Relaxed geese

The coots on the other hand are never placid, regardless of season or breeding status. We showed this a week back when one went for a young grebe. They are even worse now they are feeding their own young.

Perfectly framed

Perfectly framed

Coot chick. Not a pretty sight.

Coot chick. Not a pretty sight.

It’s not just in the vicinity of their nest that they set off. Out in the middle of the lake, away from any obvious threat, this adult was still spurred into a whirr of action.

Get off my lawn!

Get off my lawn!

The object of this explosion of fighting spirit? A poor little moorhen that was scratting around near the concert hall.

Like someone who has just seen Jaws, this bird is afraid to get back in the water

Like someone who has just seen Jaws, this bird is afraid to get back in the water

Although an alternative explanation could be that the coot was just drunk:

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Can of Strongbow may be Coot’s Own

Not everything has young on the move yet. The Black Swan that appears from time to time is still single.

Black Swan

Black Swan

There was also a crow prowling about lo0oking for remnants of student lunches.

Upstart Crow

Upstart Crow

Finally, as the weather warms the carp inevitably appear at the surface of the water. They are big enough to take a small, new duckling. So this post ends on that warning!

Carp

Carp

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Car park Kestrel


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When on my way to work on a morning I often spot this Kestrel.

Because he lives around a busy car park, he is used to people and rarely cares if I approach for a photo. This particular lamp-post is a favourite spot and he uses it to scan the nearby grass bank for small mammals. Hence he usually doesn’t look at me. In fact he swooped along right past me onto this perch.

I took these pictures in late April. Presumably by this point he was already busy feeding up young, as I saw him with a female earlier in the year. Not seen her recently.

He had no luck from the post on this occasion and set off for a new spot. I didn’t quite keep up!

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Some more pictures from @Bempton_Cliffs


Since I had more decent photos than fitted into yesterday’s blogpost, here are a few more favourites from Bempton:

The plaque is on the other side

The plaque is on the other side

Razorbills amongst the kittiwakes

Razorbills amongst the kittiwakes

The morening mist over Bempton

The morning mist over Bempton

Look out Ned he's coming right for us!

Look out Ned he’s coming right for us!

Mainly gannets

Mainly gannets

Getting nesting material direct from the source can be hard work

Getting nesting material direct from the source can be hard work

Lone gannet

Lone gannet

He/she seemed quite lost on this ledge. There were no other gannets, just guillemots

He/she seemed quite lost on this ledge. There were no other gannets, just guillemots

Kittiwake giving the photographer the eye

Kittiwake giving the photographer the eye

Warring neighbours

Warring neighbours

Loving neighbours

Loving neighbours

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On a high rise seabird city


After yesterday’s report from Flamborough, we move a little North to Bempton. If Flamborough is about what may drop in, Bempton is about the summer residents.

Bempton's high rise des res

Bempton’s high rise des res

A coastal cliff is like a giant city for nesting seabirds. A high rise empire of family, sex, life and death. You can see beauty and elegance, and tragedy and brutality. But none of it is ever less than fascinating. It’s not only a high rise because of the scale, it’s positively Ballardian (tip of the hat here to the film critic Mark Kermode).

At RSPB Bempton Cliffs, unlike in James Graham’s 1975 work, here the residents intermingle. The only stratification is in the rock. But that doesn’t mean there are no hierarchies at play.

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Probably the dominant force are the gannets. Huge and increasingly populous, and an ever-present threat to all the other residents. Be it bird or mammal, a gannet could and would eat it. Nothing outside of the largest eagle would take on an adult.

Gannet on the wing

Gannet on the wing

And yet they are also the most graceful sight you will find here, especially when in the air, gliding on wings that reach nearly two metres across.

At this time of year they are focused on the next generation. Gannets can live for more than thirty years and a single pair may well stay together for much of that. They reaffirm their bond through ritual and touch.

You've got to love how studiously the razorbill is avoiding looking at the mating gannets...

You’ve got to love how studiously the razorbill is avoiding looking at the mating gannets…

And yet once they are done, he looks on almost approvingly.

And yet once they are done, he looks on almost approvingly.

Amongst the prettiest residents are the highly vocal kittiwakes. Attractive as these delicate little gulls are, their onomatopoeic name is a distinctive sound of the cliffs, echoing out at all stops.

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Like the gannets their minds are on breeding right now, and many are collecting mud and grass for their nests.

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Further down our hierarchy we find the auks (or aukses if you are a fan of Gollum…). Most numerous are the guillemots, closely followed by the razorbills.

As a raft out to sea, they look like a group of indistinguishable black and white blobs. But closer to, the guillemots are more a chocolatey brown, whereas the razorbills are a purer black.

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You also cannot fail to distinguish them when you see the shape of the bills. A thin dagger on the guillemot, a hefty axe on the razorbill. These bills do the hard work of catching the fish that comes back to the nests. Unlike the gannets and kittiwakes that build a proper nest, the auks nest on bare rock, their egg staying in place thanks to a miracle of evolution, an egg shaped perfectly to roll in a circle, never falling off the edge.

Razorbill

Razorbill

As peaceful as they can look, fights can break out on the water.

The colour and contrast has been artificially heightened in this picture to help make the fighting pair clearer

The colour and contrast has been artificially heightened in this picture to help make the fighting pair clearer

There is a third auk here. Occasionally as a black blob whirrs into the cliffs, you see a pair of bright orange-red feet dangling out the back, and maybe a glimpse of a thick and brightly coloured bill.

Spot the puffin pt 1

Spot the puffin part 1

Spot the puffin pt 2

Spot the puffin part 2

Yes, the puffins are here too. But they are harder to spot. Unlike a site such as Staffa where they surround you in undisturbed earthen burrows, here they seek deep rocky crevices from which you may see a ghost of a puffin peering out if you stare long and hard enough.

If I didn't know there was really a puffin here, I could convince myself it was an artefact of shadow

If I didn’t know there was really a puffin here, I could convince myself it was an artefact of shadow

There are visitors to these cities too. A kestrel passing by made it onto their bioblitz, a count of all the species seen in a day (and as it was my spot radioed back, you’re welcome RSPB!).

Not dead, merely resting

Not dead, merely resting

Prancing

Prancing

Does not like having his photo taken

Does not like having his photo taken

Atop the high rise we find another resident, the always engaging and photogenic jackdaw. Here they went from prowling, to posing, to panting.

So there we have it. Not a dystopian nightmare, but a beautiful example of how nature works. All the dramas of the best fiction are here, but played out for real on a daily basis. What’s not to love about that?


 

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Lost at deep mid-thicket 8 May 2016


Sunday was a delightful day and a trip to the coast beckoned. This was a slight gamble as the East Coast had been virtually impassable due to a thick sea fret the day before. But fortunately there was nothing but some light haze when we arrived.

We went to Flamborough first in the hopes of spotting an elusive hoopoe round the lighthouse. This is a bird I’m yet to see, and have wanted to see since it topped the list in the iSpy books when I was a kid. Sadly, elusive in this case meant ‘non-existent’. But the bushes around the head are always good for incoming Spring migrants, so well worth checking.

I'll be honest, I'm not sure there ever was a bird here

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure there ever was a bird here

Unfortunately, the problem with dense thickets is, as above, spotting anything can be a challenge. There were fleeting glimpses of Linnet, Lesser Whitethroat, Wren, Yellowhammer, Dunnock, Meadow Pipit and Willow Warbler. Probably Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher too. But getting any of them to sit still and prominent wasn’t so easy.

Distant Yellowhammer

Distant Yellowhammer

What the morning was therefore, was an auditory test. Picking out the songs and alarm calls of a multitude of species. So a distant ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ signified the Yellowhammer seen above.

Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipit

This pipit made a rare appearance above the horizon, unlike the assorted warblers that all stayed determinedly distant and elusive. There are photos, but none I feel happy to share!

The bird of the day was the Linnet, and there were pairs of this delightful little finch everywhere. But, again, not so keen on sitting out and open. The males were as bright as I’ve ever seen them:

Male Linnet

Male Linnet

But any brief pose was followed by flight:

Ready to go

Ready to go

Some of that alarm may have been down to the odd predator prowling the undergrowth, one of which did briefly make an appearance:

Honestly, there's an animal here...

Honestly, there’s an animal here…

Can you see it? Yeah, of course you can. There’s a weasel right in the middle of the picture!

There he is!

There he is!

The weasel played peek-a-boo for a couple of minutes, but getting a photo was point-and-hope as he was snaking in and out of the tussocks. He did do one classic pose up on the hindlegs, but was gone before cameras could be raised in anger.

That was it for the morning, and in the afternoon we headed for the seabird city of RSPB Bempton Cliffs, which will be our next blogpost.

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When territories collide – Video of Grebes and a Coot


Adult birds have their territories, and generally understand this. But young birds have to learn as this video shows:

The Coots are actually nesting nearby, but the baby Great Crested Grebe isn’t aware of this and strays into trouble with an always feisty bird.

The baby disappears underwater, showing how quickly they learn to dive, and the parent swims in to see off the threat.

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Hirundines and other incomers


As spring finally takes hold (unseasonal snow and giant hail aside) we are seeing a whole range of different birds across the British countryside.

Just last Friday I saw my first Swallow of the year, but since then I’ve seen one every day. While in Cumbria they were on the telephone wires constantly, and even though I only had the compact camera (and if you missed the owl debacle, you can catch up HERE), they posed fairly obligingly.

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It wasn’t just Swallows. Down by the River Eden the Sand Martins were also present and already busily making themselves at home, as you can see in this shaky video.

Swallows and Sand Martins, and House Martins, are all from the same family of birds; the hirundines. They are a widespread group, and watching their aerial dexterity is always a treat in Spring and Summer.

They mainly eat insects, taking them in flight whether high in the air or low across meadows, rivers, or any other insect rich habitat. Golfers and cricketers know the group well as they tend to disturb small insects in the grass, and a confident swallow will happily swoop round your feet while you are fielding at deep mid-wicket!

My first sighting of a swallow in 2015 was 18th April, so we’re four days later this year. I’m yet to see a House Martin or a Swift (similar, often bracketed with the swallows, but unrelated) this year, but I’m sure that will change in the next couple of weeks.

It will be a shock though, coming from North Africa for the summer and being confronted by this:

Let it snow

Let it snow

It wasn’t just the hirundines. There were Wheatears all across the North Pennines and into North Cumbria, including at Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian's Wall.  Nesting birds to the left, not distinguishable in photo!

Hadrian’s Wall.
Nesting birds to the left, not distinguishable in photo!

Along the Eden there were also Sandpiper and Goosander, with the latter now moving from their winter family groups towards breeding harems.

Goosander Male stretching his wings. Females unimpressed.

Goosander
Male stretching his wings. Females unimpressed.

So, a sense of moving between seasons, but a hark back to a season we never really got the first time round. The joys of ever-changing seasonality!

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