Eider down, and up, and down again


Eider drake Amble, May 2015

Eider drake
Amble, May 2015

Something that occasionally strikes me is how the habitats of different animals have changed over the 30-odd years I’ve been watching wildlife.

There are obvious ones, like the urbanisation and recovery of Peregrine Falcons. But another is the way birds that existed primarily on open seas and shores have also moved into coastal towns.

A good example is the Eider, a sea duck I used to only spot bobbing up and down and splashing about in little flotillas off the coast in places like Scotland and Northumberland. Their feathers used to be (still are) used to stuff pillows and duvets, leading to ‘Eiderdown’ becoming a word for a quilt/duvet, even when it’s not truly filled with eider feathers.

Eider duck Amble, May 2015

Eider duck
Amble, May 2015

In both Alnmouth and Amble though, I noticed they had moved not just into estuary mouths, but happily down the river and into the harbour.

Eiders are a bird of contrast. There is the contrast between the striking males and the cryptically brown females. There is the contrast in the male’s plumage between black and white (not forgetting that green feathery mane).

Eider drake Amble, May 2015

Eider drake
Amble, May 2015

Then there is the contrast between their appearance, striking and severe, and their voice. Because for a serious looking bird they make one of the quite frankly silliest sounds of any British animal. The male pulls his head back, and as he tilts it back and pushes it back out, unveils a querying “ooooh?”

The best comparison I can draw, and it’s one that only readers of a certain age range and nationality will get, is that if Frankie Howerd was a bird, this is the noise he would make. You can hear a recording HERE

At Amble, this was taken to an extreme, because a small group of males followed a couple of females into a small square harbour. The effect of the tall stone walls was that of an amplification chamber, raising the volume of the call. Sadly I didn’t make a recording myself, I was too busy laughing. But Chris Watson happens to have recorded a four minute video recording them in the very same place. You can watch it on the BBC website.

There’s also a BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day dedicated to the Eider.

Juvenile Eider It takes three years to reach maturity

Juvenile Eider
It takes three years to reach maturity

They have clearly become quite tame in these areas, used to people and expectant of feeding. Stand at the harbour wall and they will swim up to you, looking up hopefully. I’ve seen the same thing with Goosander in places like Kendal. It’s great for getting to see these lovely birds, but a little bit of me is saddened by the erosion of wilderness it represents.

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There is a season, tern, tern, tern…


Yesterday I had a brief sprint through some of the birds I spotted around Alnmouth. Today, I’m going to focus on a couple of species in particular.

Terns have always been a favourite of mine, beautiful, elegant and graceful, yet fierce when defending a territory. A quick glance around the internet will show plenty of ‘when terns attack’ videos.

Shortly after arriving in Alnmouth and scrutinising the OS map, I’d discovered the existence of Coquet Island. This little rock was apparently home to 90% or more of the UK breeding population of Roseate Terns, a bird I’d not seen before. So a trip seemed an obvious choice.

Coquet Island One mile off the coast of Amble, Northumberland

Coquet Island
One mile off the coast of Amble, Northumberland

Coquet Island As seen from Alnmouth

Coquet Island
As seen from Alnmouth

Sadly, the company that ran the trips from Amble let us down (we rang, we booked, they confirmed, we travelled specially, they cancelled when there was nobody else to go). But that didn’t stop us seeing plenty of other terns.

Feeding frenzy Alnmouth, May 2015

Feeding frenzy
Alnmouth, May 2015

The mass of birds above was spotted from an observation point at the end of Northumberland Street that looks to the South. My assumption as that it would just be gulls, mainly black-headed gulls. But when we walked down and stood next to the river, it became obvious there were plenty of terns in there too.

A tern, but what species?

A tern, but what species?

Initially I was excited at the chance these were Roseate Terns, especially when I noted the dark bill. But closer examination showed a yellowish tip to the bill, dark legs, and a bigger bird all-round. Sandwich Terns.

Sandwich Tern Note the yellow tip of the bill

Sandwich Tern
Note the yellow tip of the bill

Roseates have red legs, and often a little red to the bill.

Actually this was a great illustration of why it can be useful to take plenty of photos, as studying them helped hone the IDs of the different species.

Dive! Dive! Dive! Common Tern, Alnmouth, May 2015

Dive! Dive! Dive!
Common Tern, Alnmouth, May 2015

There were also numerous Common Terns, identified by the red bill and legs. That’s a good summary for the Arctic Tern too, but Arctic terns have a shorter pure red bill and stockier build.

Sandwich Tern Common Tern Posing for comparative purposes

Sandwich Tern
Common Tern
Posing for comparative purposes

Of course, focusing on the glamour of the terns neglects the gulls that were having equal success with the silvery sprats in the river. Which is harsh, as black-headed gulls are under-rated birds in summer or winter plumage.

Black-headed Gull Alnmouth, May 2015

Black-headed Gull
Alnmouth, May 2015

They fished notably lower than the terns, flopping into the water rather than diving dart-like.

The terns here are towards the top of the picture. Most of the birds lower down are Black-headed Gulls

The terns here are towards the top of the picture. Most of the birds lower down are Black-headed Gulls

We watched the flock moving back and forth following a shoal for about 30 minutes, even having time to shoot some shaky video (you may want to turn the volume down as the wind was really rattling past).

Eiders tomorrow. For now though, as unsurprisingly I had a lot of pictures, here a few more. Because one good tern deserves another…

Tern Around (Bright Eyes)

Tern Around (Bright Eyes)

Tern to Stone

Tern to Stone

If I Could Tern Back the Hands of Time

If I Could Tern Back the Hands of Time

Love Will Tern You Around

Love Will Tern You Around

Tern the Beat Around (Actually, puns aside, note the bit of crest you can see at the back of the head)

Tern the Beat Around
(Actually, puns aside, note the bit of crest you can see at the back of the head)

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A brief look at Alnmouth


A view into Alnmouth

A view into Alnmouth

I spent last weekend in Alnmouth, in part exploring the estuary of the river. This is the first of a few posts inspired by the trip. As the picture above shows, it’s a lovely little village that could be bracketed as ‘picturesque’. But that muddy foreground, the river, the ea, all promise nature.

Google maps view of Alnmouth

Google maps view of Alnmouth

Because it’s tidal you get mudflats, and that means waders and other shore birds, plus whatever happens to come in off the sea.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Mud, mud, glorious mud

In practice this meant Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Eider, Grey Heron, Black-Headed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Terns, Mallards and Shelduck.

Sadly most were at a distance, and the Whimbrel was seen when I wasn’t carrying my camera. But here are a few pics anyway.

Grey Heron and Black Headed Gull River Aln May 2015

Grey Heron and Black Headed Gull
River Aln May 2015

Bar-tailed Godwit River Aln, May 2015

Bar-tailed Godwit
River Aln, May 2015

Shelduck River Aln, May 2015

Shelduck
River Aln, May 2015

Cormorant River Aln, May 2015

Cormorant
River Aln, May 2015

Ringed Plover River Aln, May 2015

Ringed Plover
River Aln, May 2015

Ringed Plover River Aln, May 2015

Ringed Plover
River Aln, May 2015

Oystercatcher River Aln, May 2015

Oystercatcher
River Aln, May 2015

Common Sandpiper River Aln, May 2015

Common Sandpiper
River Aln, May 2015

The beach and estuary was being well combed by Rooks and Jackdaws that were also very used to human company.

Rook on patrol Alnmouth, May 2015

Rook on patrol
Alnmouth, May 2015

Jackdaw scanning the beach Alnmouth, May 2015

Jackdaw scanning the beach
Alnmouth, May 2015

Jackdaw Amble, May 2015

Jackdaw
Amble, May 2015

Rook beachcombing Alnmouth, May 2015

Rook beachcombing
Alnmouth, May 2015

The mud also attracted swallows and martins that were collecting it for use in nest-building.

Swift Alnmouth, May 2015

Swift
Alnmouth, May 2015

Swallow collecting nest material River Aln, May 2015

Swallow collecting nest material
River Aln, May 2015

Swallow in the mud River Aln, May 2015

Swallow in the mud
River Aln, May 2015

House Martin Alnmouth, May 2015

House Martin
Alnmouth, May 2015

This one landed to collect something, but seems to have given himself a fright instead:

In fact the skies of Northumberland were full of swallows, swifts and martins. There were plenty more to be found hanging around Alnwick Castle. In fact, because pairs were engaged in nest-building you often found queues developing.

Swallows waiting their turn Alnwick Castle, May 2015

Swallows waiting their turn
Alnwick Castle, May 2015

Mate is occupying the nest. He had a long wait.

Mate is occupying the nest. He had a long wait.

And this is the nest occupier!

And this is the nest occupier!

There were also Lapwing breeding in the area and we saw them whirling and calling regularly.

Tomorrow I’ll post some of the great Tern photos I managed to get, and I’ve got some Eider photos to share too. But they both deserve their own posts.

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Heslington Tilmire


Back in March I had a wander around Heslington Tilmire as there had been a Great Grey Shrike in the area. Sadly we were too late for that. But there was plenty more to see.

The location of the Tilmire

The location of the Tilmire

The tilmire is a historic area for open grazing with, as the ‘mire’ part suggests, a rather boggy element. The minute we pulled up we spotted kestrel and sparrowhawk in the air, and soon a mewing buzzard was overhead too.

Buzzard

Buzzard

Mewing

Mewing

The hedgerow was full of small birds, most of which were being very relaxed about our present, but so active amongst the trees and bushes as to defy photography! The horde of chiffchaff that had recently arrived were particularly noisy and flitting about happily, but hard to catch:

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCThere were also plenty of long-tailed tits, often sitting just feet away, and a treecreeper too, though as this blurry image shows, again hard to get a hold on:

SONY DSCYork is fortunate to have good populations of the otherwise threatened Tree Sparrow around and about, and this was no exception.

SONY DSCEasily distinguished by that pure chestnut brown cap. I also noticed their ‘chirp’ is a slightly different pitch to the House Sparrow, an observation that has never occurred to me before.

The final surprise of the trip didn’t come till I was home and looking at these photos. Sometimes you get back, you are passing over some images, and you realise what you photographed wasn’t what you thought. Sure enough this time, one of many shots I tried of the chiffchaffs was something else entirely:

SONY DSCThe big eye tells us this is a bird used to dark, in this case dense forests. It’s our smallest bird, the goldcrest. Didn’t spot it at the time (though I had heard them), but a good illustration of why you should always check through any pictures you took.

On the way back there was one quick glimpse of something that seemed ususual. There were two of us, and we both later admitted we’d thought the same thing: Hen Harrier. But with such a fleeting glimpse I won’t be counting it for the year!

There’ll be a little pause in the blogposts for a few days as I’m off for some peace and quiet on the Northumbrian coast, but hopefully there’ll be stuff to talk about from that trip too.

David

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Trying to photograph bee-flies


The bee-fly is one of those spring treats, like Swifts, that I always look forward to. They are one of the first spring specialists to appear, so when you see them (10 April this year for me), you know spring has sprung. And you have to be quick, because they may only be around a matter of days (I saw them between the 10th and 12th, and that was that).

We have several species in the UK, but generally speaking, certainly in the North, you’ll be seeing Bombylius major. They seem to be becoming more common, and more widely spread, and they are the type of thing that can cause people to panic. Here’s why:

bee Fly (B.major)

Bee Fly (B.major)

That’s a pretty lethal looking ‘sting’ on the front of it. The fly is about 2cm in length, and that implement is a good 5mm long. Easy enough to think at first glance that it’s a threat.

But the ‘sting’ is in fact a proboscis (literally ‘forward feeder’) used to feed on nectar from flowers. Bee-flies present no threat to us. They are not great news if you are certain species of bee however, as they are a parasite. They find where solitary bees are nesting, then hover outside and flick their eggs into the nest. The larvae then feed on the bee grubs.

When the beeflies emerged this year, I was determined to get a picture. They do a lot of hovering, so my hope was that if I got set somewhere I could get a picture. And the blown-up shot above isn’t bad, and the original is better:

SONY DSC

Bee-fly in typical hover

And that makes it look easy. But of course, when you see a decent shot of any animal, what you don’t see are the hundreds or thousands of shots that were rejected. Like these:

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCBut persistence pays off, and there were a couple I was happy with:

SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCSo, next spring if you seem to be menaced by a hovering bumble bee with a massive front-end sting, don’t panic, it’s a harmless bee-fly.

If you want to know more, it’s well worth reading Erica McAllister’s blogpost on bee flies. It contains information on the different species, and on distinguishing bees and bee-flies.

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An open letter to Liz Truss and Amber Rudd


The general election is done and dusted, and against all the predictions and polls we have a majority government. Not only that, we have the bulk of the government we had before.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over this, but I’ve never been a great believer in the idea there are ‘good’ political parties and ‘bad’ political parties. Whatever colour the rosette, individuals are there with their own points of view, beliefs, and prejudices.For better or worse.

So, in that spirit, my first post-election entry is an open letter to two ministers; Amber Rudd and Elizabeth Truss.

Dear Ministers,

Firstly, congratulations to you both on winning, and to you both on your places in the cabinet. As someone who believes in greater representation in politics, I’m pleased to see two of the jobs that I’m most interested in going to women.

I’m writing this as I believe we are facing a five year period where the future of the British environment has never been more threatened. Between you, you have more power to do good in this matter than any of our conservation bodies, and it’s a challenge I’m sure you wish to take up.

I’m delighted that your party, or at least it’s leadership, seems to believe we need to remain in the European Union. We need reform, but we are better off inside where we can play a role. I agree entirely. This can start with the upcoming review of the Birds Directive, and the Habitats Directive*. You can lead the charge here, not for the proposed weakening, but for stability, or even a strengthening of the law.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that weakening protections for nature is utterly contrary at a time when another EU report shows us that 33% of bird species are endangered, 77% of habitats are in poor condition, and 30% of habitats have declined over the last six year. Birds like the Turtle Dove have declined by up to 90%. The Skylark, a bird immortalised in song and in verse, a bird inextricably linked with our cultural memory of the Great War, has declined by at least 50%. Much of that due to illegal hunting. If the law we have isn’t strong enough to arrest or reverse such declines, what logical argument could ever be made for weaker rules?

I’m fortunate to have water voles living just near my house. But more broadly this is a species that has seen numbers and range contract hugely, threatening its future. And yet again, like the Skylark, this is a species that exists firmly in British culture, something your party has an admirable stated desire to protect and solidify.

Hunting, legal and illegal, fragmentation of habitat, over-development, ever more industrialised farming practices, and ecologically unsound home building are all contributing to this. Weakening regulation will, beyond any doubt, send certain species into irreversible and critical decline.

These arguments are not purely ‘moral’ either, nor are they only rooted in some sort of hair-shirt leftist environmentalism. Nature is good for us economically. The services we get from a strong natural environment are worth at least £325bn a year across the EU. To say nothing of the positive benefits to mental and physical health, reducing the financial and logistical burden on the NHS.

Your own government last year concluded that the alleged ‘burden’ of environmental regulation was having no discernible negative effect on growth or development (a review conducted by Caroline Spelman at the instigation of George Osborne).

There are obvious issues domestically too. An issue that will take up both your time is that of fracking. Again, on this I’m not an alarmist. I don’t believe there is a threat of earthquakes, nor do I believe we would be talking about gas coming out of household taps. However, as a geologist and someone who has paid attention here, I don’t see it making any real contribution to our energy supply. The issues of accessibility, regulation of drill sites, and the complex and relatively small scale of our landscape mean getting the gas out will be incredibly difficult in any meaningful level. Worst of all, it will have no beneficial effect on energy costs. Even the chair of Cuadrilla has made this clear. The only way it would bring bills down is if the government massively subsidise the companies extracting the gas, and then we are just paying through a different route. Hard to argue to reduce subsidies for wind and solar whole handing them to gas and oil.

So where to start? A great idea waiting to happen is the Nature and Wellbeing Act proposed by The Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and numerous partners. This would be a way of showing that you are, as your leader has tried and failed to justify previously, the ‘greenest government’. Perhaps your coalition partners were holding you back here? No more, you can make this happen now with a parliamentary majority. Not only that, drafted and argued correctly, it would be hard for any serious party to oppose.

The key principles would be:

  • A commitment to reviving species and restoring habitats
  • Mapping and connecting local networks of green space
  • Universal access to natural spaces
  • Researching and, if valid implementing, ecotherapy principles
  • Making caring for nature part of the principle of British Values in schools
  • Ensuring all school curricula have elements of nature and outdoor learning within them
  • Establishing an Office for Environmental Responsibility in government
  • Strengthening National and European laws around nature

I don’t believe these would be onerous, and the savings that would be made by reducing the demands on the NHS through a healthier population would more than compensate for costs.

I don’t know if you’ll read this, or an assistant will read it, or maybe it’ll just be ignored. I’m know you are busy, and I know I ignore a chunk of the mail that comes across my desk too. But even if you don’t read it, I hope it’s in your mind anyway. I hope that you can lead across the next five years and help restore part of what defines our country.

Thanks you, and best wishes for the next five years.

David

 
* If readers wish to have their say on the proposed change in EU law, there is a public consultation.

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My Wild Life and 30 Days Wild


A new campaign I’m a big fan of is My Wild Life. This is a Wildlife Trusts initiative to encourage everybody to think about what nature means to them. Basically, one of the key points I try to make in this blog!

As I’ve said before, the importance of nature to our mental and physical wellbeing is extremely important, and as a generation of kids grow increasingly divorced from the natural world, any initiative aimed at encouraging them and their parents to reconnect with the outdoors has to be welcomed.

You can submit your own story through their website, and I’d strongly encourage everybody to do so.

I’d also back the accompanying 30 Days Wild campaign. This is aimed at getting people to try do something ‘wild’ every day through June. I’m going to sign up and give it a go, and I hope plenty more will do the same.

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Heslington Lake


I spent a lot of time last year blogging about the various birds around Heslington Lake. I’m not going to devote quite so much time to it this year, but it’s still good to get an update.

20150515_122754

One of three chicks

20150515_122725

Mum (or Dad) busy with the fishing

The Great-Crested Grebes are back and have launched brood one already. Whereas this time last year they had the one chick and were moving towards brood two, this year they have all three chicks looking hale and hearty. As such, I suspect brood two will be much later.

Baby coot wondering where everybody has gone

Baby coot wondering where everybody has gone

Plenty of coot chicks around, but not so many moorhen or mallard. The few mallard ducklings I saw seemed to have been abandoned, so it’s no surprise they are nowhere to be seen a week later. The Barnacle Geese have goslings, but that’s about it.

The most interesting thing is that a male mallard and female pochard are paired up and now parading a couple of ducklings around. Ducks hybridise quite a bit, and following on from the goose hybrid we’ve discussed before, it’ll be interesting to see what these two look like if they reach adulthood.

Baby bunny

Baby bunny

Rabbits are looking healthy after a bit of myxomatosis the last couple of years. I see one kit every morning, sitting in the same spot.

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The fight for the birdbath


As Maia T was so taken by the bathing blackbird yesterday, I thought I’d just throw up a few of the other pics from that same ‘photoshoot’.

Check out what pure joy looks like...

Check out what pure joy looks like…

So our nesting female greatly appreciates a daily bath, usually the same sort of early evening slot. But whenever any bird takes interest in anything, the starling mob usually want a piece of the action.

An unwelcome guest

An unwelcome guest

But she was in no mood to share, as she soon made clear…

Get off my lawn...

Get off my lawn…

The starling was happy to try a different angle of attack…

Attack from the rear

Attack from the rear

And reluctantly, having held out and had a good wash first, the blackbird gave up the bath.

Triumph

Triumph

Of course, hanging around close enough gets you a handy shower.

A splash of victory

A splash of victory

And if you are one starling, there’ll soon be others seeing if they are missing out:

Envious glances

Envious glances

And soon potential bathing buddies:

Dipping a toe

Dipping a toe

And, eventually, a queue:

Waiting your turn

Waiting your turn

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Migrant Spring skies


An established sign of spring is the first swallow. For me, this year, they came on 18 April. The first House Martins followed 10 May, and the first Swifts 13 May.

While Swallows are the ‘traditional’ marker, it’s the visually-similar-but-not-related Swift that is my favourite. While the hirundines (swallows and martins) are pretty, the swift has scythe-like drama, especially across a late evening sky. Add that wonderful screaming call, and you have something truly spectacular.

They arrive last, leave first, but that few months they are here are a highlight of our Spring/Summer.

Chiffchaff Heslington Tilmire

Chiffchaff
Heslington Tilmire

On the subject of migrants, it’s remarkable how quickly chiffchaffs fill our audioscape. March 14th I hadn’t heard one since late October. March 15th, they were everywhere, and will be everywhere for another 6 months.

 

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