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.

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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Cumbrian Owls… or why you always pack your camera

Deciding what to pack for a weekend away can be tricky, and many factors come into play. What will the weather be like? Where do you plan on going? All this can mean you rationalise the amount you carry, and a reasonably weighty SLR with lenses may end up staying at home if the plan is for antique shops and cafes.

But as I have again discovered this weekend, you should never leave the camera at home, because wildlife has a habit of finding you.

On Sunday morning we discussed how few of us had seen owls. On Sunday night, this appeared in a tree outside the house:

Tawny Owl, Lazonby, April 2016

Tawny Owl, Lazonby, April 2016

Not a great photo as it was taken in poor light with a compact, but unmistakably a Tawny Owl.

What’s worse, it wasn’t a fleeting glance. Despite being mobbed by local blackbirds she happily sat there for a good half-hour. In fact, we went before she did, driven in by cold, dark and snow!

It got worse when her mate also appeared and sat on a separate branch a few feet away. He was much harder to see.

Tawny Owl, Lazonby, April 2016

Tawny Owl, Lazonby, April 2016

These were probably the best views of Tawny Owls I’ve ever had, and they were remarkably calm despite four very excited people paying them a lot of attention. In the circumstances I’m delighted with the photos I got, but there’s a handy reminder that you never know when a good wildlife sighting will present itself.

A few more bad photos of the owls:

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Grebes on a sunny afternoon

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When I reported from Heslington lake a couple of weeks back, there were a couple of pairs of Great-crested Grebe now on the nest. Now, the first chicks have hatched, they are out of the nest, and rafting with their parents.

Grebe with chicks

Grebe with chicks

What’s interesting here is that the item in the top corner of this picture is the spot this pair usually nest, or at least have for the past two or three years. But this year they nested several hundred metres down the lake at another spot. Yet within a couple of days, she is drawn back to the familiar and comfortable smaller lake.

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None of the photos seem to quite show it, but at is most usual she has four chicks back there. They have been off the nest about a week now and seem quite content, apart from when Mum shakes her feathers out and sends tiny grebes flying across the water!

Of course, another reason for moving could be she didn’t like the neighbours, as a pair of Coot nested just two feet away:

Noisy neighbour #1

Noisy neighbour #1

Noisy neighbour #2

Noisy neighbour #2

Coot are incredibly aggressive, I’ve seen them take on a full-grown Canada Goose and see it off, as well as plenty of mallards, to say nothing of bullying scores of smaller moorhen. If they moved in next door to you, you might consider moving at the first opportunity too.

In fact, I grabbed this photo on my camera of two Pochard (there was a third actually) being seen off by a feisty coot:

Fleeing pochard

Fleeing pochard

The second grebe pair has been doing well too, but at the moment there are no chicks to be seen.

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Getting the photo above here was a real bonus. The grebe popped up directly below me with a fish, which he proceeded to carefully manoeuvre into position to swallow whole.

It’s wrong to anthropomorphise these things, but doesn’t the fish look really shocked at this turn of events?

One shocked fish

One shocked fish

He moved it around so he’d be able to get it down headfirst, occasionally bashing it into submission against the water. Being a Perch, the fish has a nasty barbed fin along its back that it erects when confronted by a predator, but this didn’t stop our grebe.

A little shakin', a little tenderisin'...

A little shakin’, a little tenderisin’…

Sure enough the fish was soo0n lubricated and in position to go down the gullet of the predator.

Staring into oblivion

Staring into oblivion

You can, incidentally, see from these photos how well water-proofed the grebe is. The water is just forming droplets that will roll off his back, keeping him perfectly dry.

Water off a grebes back

Water off a grebes back

There is a fifth Grebe on the lake, the gooseberry, the spare wheel. A poor single male. It’s quite sad really, as he is still swimming up and down the lake, calling, a piece of water weed dangling from the corner of his mouth; an offering for a lover that will never appear.

Other birds are more successful, and I’ve spotted at least one mallard hybrid with its work cut out.

How many ducklings can you spot?

How many ducklings can you spot?

While one bird was looking after this entire mob (how many can you count?), they are almost certainly being crèched here, with more than one nest of ducklings now sticking together.

The biggest threat as I took this photo was a nearby Greylag Goose that had taken a violent interest and picked up at least one duckling and gave it a good shake. Fortunately the adult was on-hand to save it, before taking the entire group to the other side of the lake.

It’s not just the water birds that can be seen producing the next generation though, and I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of the Mistle Thrush peering out of her nest.

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Spring at Heslington Lake

Most lunchtimes I go for a stroll round Heslington Lake, but a few days ago (before the rains returned) I happened to take my camera with me.

The sun meant there were a lot of sleepy waterfowl around the lake:

Let sleeping mallards lie

Let sleeping mallards lie

Normally they’d never let you walk past with food, they’d be up and harassing you, but not this day.

Greylag Goose

Greylag Goose

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese

Where normally there’d be eating, fighting, territorial behaviour, everywhere there was dozing. Though there were a few Barnacle Geese a little more awake, if not especially active:

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There was the opportunity to get a decent close-up look at some of the birds, and to see the structure of their bills:

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Greylag Goose

Greylag Goose

In both these you can, I hope, see ‘teeth’ on the bills of the birds. They’re not true socketed teeth like we have, instead they are a cutting edge formed from serrations along the inside of the bill. You can see this clearly on this goose skull:


Speaking of serrated bills, the lake in winter is always home to a few Goosander. It’s rare though to see these ‘sawbill’ ducks out on the banks, so it was a treat to spot these female sunbathing.

Female Goosander

Female Goosander

Goosander tend to winter in such a way that the females and that years youngsters stay in one place, but the older males go elsewhere. They then return and pair up.

The males and females are easily distinguished. The females are more slender and have a russet-brown head. The males have a dark iridescent green head.

Both though have the fish-stabbing bill. The serrations in this case are not for tearing up grass, they help hold fish in place, like the barbs on a harpoon.

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Female goosander

Another detail that could be observed was the dense feathering on many waterfowl that helps with both insulation and water-proofing. You can see this ‘fur’ around the back of this female mallard:

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Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit

But the main feature of the day? Dozing in lunchtime sunshine.

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Big Garden Birdwatch 2016 – National results and a few thoughts

Yesterday saw a little spike in my blog stats as a whole bunch of people looked at my results for the Big Garden Birdwatch 2016. Apologies to those people as they were obviously searching for detail and analysis from the National results, which came out yesterday.

The results

There were 8.3 million birds recorded overall, a drop of around 300,000 from 2015. We’ll come onto reasons for that in a minute. The top ten were:

  1. House Sparrow
  2. Starling
  3. Blue Tit
  4. Blackbird
  5. Woodpigeon
  6. Goldfinch
  7. Chaffinch
  8. Great Tit
  9. Robin
  10. Long-tailed Tit

That’s largely unchanged from last year. Blackbird and Blue Tit have switched places, Goldfinch is up from 9th relegating Chaffinch to 7th and Robin to 9th. Collared Doves have dropped out by one place, replaced by Long-tailed Tits up from 13th.

Here in North Yorkshire the results were a pretty good mirror for the National perspective:

  1. House Sparrow
  2. Blackbird
  3. Blue Tit
  4. Starling
  5. Woodpigeon
  6. Chaffinch
  7. Goldfinch
  8. Great Tit
  9. Long-tailed Tit
  10. Robin

Across the UK Siskins and Goldcrests were big winners, climbing 10 and 13 places respectively. The Siskins had only just arrived the week before in our garden, but they are still here daily over two months later and showing little sign of migrating anywhere North or East of us.

What changed?

So what brought on the changes? Mainly it’s a result of a mild winter, currently looking to be a full two degrees above the December-February average.

Small birds like Long-tailed Tits have a higher survival rate when the weather is milder, meaning more are around and looking for food. There is a longer-term trend too, with tits and finches making more use of our increasing garden feeding.

At the same time, the milder conditions probably led to that slight overall drop in numbers. Mild weather means more wild food sources are available, which means fewer birds making use of garden feeders. That will explain the drop in numbers for larger birds like doves, crows, magpies, pigeons, and blackbirds, as well as birds like wrens and robins that would have benefited from late-lasting insect food sources.

It’s a good job there has been a milder winter, as the wet spring of 2015 meant more nest failures according to the BTO. But the higher survival rate should mean more nests this spring and the chance of a bountiful year going into BGBW 2017.

Outside of Big Garden Birdwatch there are other interesting signs of milder weather. I had my first bee-fly a full month earlier than last year. At the same time, I’ve only yesterday heard my first Chiffchaff, over two weeks later than 2015.

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Monday Bird of the Week No.11 – The Siskin

With our Siskins likely to leave any day now after their winter stay, this seems as good a time as any to resurrect Monday Bird of the Week (and my 250th post to this blog!).

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We’ve had about five-to-ten of these green-yellow finches in the garden for a good two months now, and they have been pretty much ever-present in the garden in that time, dawn till dusk, either on the feeders or chattering away in their odd electronic language from the trees. But soon they will leave, heading back to their breeding sites. This could be North into Scotland, or across the North Sea into Scandinavia and Russia. They also breed in Wales. Birds do live and breed off across Asia too, but it’s unlikely the birds we see here would follow such a route. Pairs that have established this winter in our garden will stay together to breed in spring and summer.

The males and females are easily distinguished, the male being a brighter green and with a black cap. The female slightly pale, but with an attractively stripy appearance.

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Female siskin

It’s no surprise they have stayed together in this little group as studies have shown they are extremely social and form highly cohesive flocks. Their constant and complex vocalisations can make it sound like a larger flock than is actually the case, and I have heard one male singing in an overlapping cacophony that could easily have been mistake for two or three individuals. This social dynamic continues through the breeding season and, like Dunnocks, non-breeding subordinates may help with feeding the young of more established pairs.

They are tiny, the smallest of the five finch species we’ve had in our garden this winter, but acrobatic and fearless. Whereas some of the other finches, notably Bullfinches, will generally flee if we are in the garden, the siskins will tolerate you standing only a few metres away while they eat. They are also pretty feisty and are not easily bullied off a food source despite the Goldfinches and Greenfinches being larger.

Away from a feeder they eat seeds and perch and hang from the tiniest branches. Bird books say they don’t like eating on the floor, but this winter we’ve often seen all of ours happily seeking out spilt seed on the ground. As always, don’t assume what you read is consistent for all birds!

Like many finches they have been kept as caged songbirds. I’m not a great fan of this, especially when you have a bird with such complex social interactions. I suspect this explains the problems they often have breeding in captivity.

Finally, and to my great delight, it turns out there is a Czech folk song, Čížečku, čížečku, connected to Siskins, centring around their apparent contribution to spreading poppy seeds. If your Czech is any good, there is a video here featuring a caged bird too:

According to Wikipedia the lyrics, in a call and refrain fashion, are:

“Siskin, o little Siskin, a little birdie,

Tell me o Siskin how the poppy is sowed”

“This is how the poppies are sowed”

As the song progresses you go through growing, blossoming, harvesting, milling and eating.

It’s always fantastic to see where birds and human culture connect.

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What… is the flight speed of an unladen Goldcrest?


An exhausted Goldcrest fresh from landfall at Spurn in 2014

An unintended consequence of yesterday’s post was that I found myself in a discussion on Facebook regarding how long it took a Goldcrest to fly across the North Sea between England and Scandinavia.


This wasn’t something I knew off the top of my head, and I couldn’t immediately find an answer. I took to the hive-mind of Twitter, even directing the question at the RSPB and BTO, but to no avail. I did however get lots of references to “laden or unladen?”, “African or European?” and mentions of coconuts. If you don’t know what that means, you need to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I was stumped, and may have quietly let it drop. But that lunchtime, for only the second time, I happened to spot a pair of Goldcrests flitting about in the trees on campus, building up their strength for the flight they may soon undertake.

So when I got home that evening I decided to do a bit more research, and eventually found a four year old story in which the BTO reported on the ten fastest British birds, based on their data. Happily, in an impressive third place, was the Goldcrest! Clocked at an astonishing 15-19 miles per hour. Not bad for a bird that weighs the same as a twenty pence piece.

So what does that give us as a flight time?


Let’s imagine our Goldcrest is crossing from Stavanger in Norway, to Spurn Point in England, as indicated above. There are shorter routes, but we’ll go with this, a distance of around 430 miles.

430 miles at 17mph is 25 hours and about 20 minutes. In other words, about a day. It’s a non-stop flight as there are no islands or handy woods to stop in*.

So, next time you see a Goldcrest, especially if it’s on the East coast in Autumn, bear in mind it’s just covered 400 miles in a day. If it looks tired, it has every right!

  • While there are no islands or handy woods, there are freighters and oil rigs, and for decades birds have been seen to stop on them in particularly bad weather. A search of the internet will reveal Short-Eared Owls perched on ships, falls of migrant finches, and a range of other delights. In fact, even the “birdie blender” offshore wind-farms so beloved of sections of the press can be a refuge. The platforms at the base of the turbines have been recorded as resting spots by tagged Harriers and Cuckoos.
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On the campaign trail with the garden birds

With the US Presidential Primaries well under way, and an imminent EU referendum here in the UK, it occurs to me that many of the birds in my garden are on their own version of the hustings right now, competing to win both states (a territory) and the approval of the electorate (one or more females).

Robin on the prowl Old Moor, Feb 2016

Most notable on this particular circuit are the robins. One in particular has staked out a five garden territory with ours as the Southernmost (which technically makes it Florida, fitting as the back lawn has been like the everglades recently). He moves between high points in each of these parcels of land singing his song, or ‘stump speech’ to stick to the political metaphor.

Unlike some of these candidates, no protest puts him off (hello Donald Trump), and he is unwavering in the face of all distractions. Even if I’m directly below with a pair of sheers, the speech must be delivered, the election must be won.


He’s not the only one on the campaign trail though. The garden shed is again the critical battleground, the ‘swing state’, for the territories of two local blackbird pairs. The faces change, but the map of this particular election remains constant for some reason.

It’s not all big picture though. The local Wren has again staked out the abandoned House Martin nest and is now singing vigorously from cover. He’s not so much looking for presidential oversight, more a bit of local power, and runs pretty much uncontested.

Wren, Lunga

The Greenfinches and Goldfinches are squabbling and fighting amongst themselves at this point, more of an inter-party struggle really, like Blairites and Corbynistas. Meanwhile a single crow has taken to bullying an entire mischief of magpies, like a political bigwig taking issue with the attention of the paparazzi (I name no names here for fear of legal action!).

The Dunnocks have a happy little existence away from the bustle and trappings of any specific politics, carving out their own little free live commune where the three of them can just get on with life.


Finally we have our migrant workers, the Siskins. They are just getting on with things and won’t really get down to their personal politics until they head off for Scandinavia in a couple of weeks’ time. By staying out of it they can just concentrate on the business at hand, getting themselves good and energised for the trip home. Like the robins, nothing phases them and I can now stand just a few feet from them while they get on with it, chattering away amongst themselves. You have to respect that ethic.

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Is it Spring yet?


Is it Spring yet?

It’s never a straightforward question. Meteorologists broadly break the year up into four seasons, and Spring occupies the months of March-May. So on that basis, today is the first day of Spring.

Another way of measuring Spring is the Vernal (or Spring) Equinox. The word “equinox” literally means “equal night” and is the point when, because of the way the Earth is aligned with the Sun, day and night are of roughly equal length all over the world. From now until September (the Autumnal Equinox), the Sun spends more time in the Northern Hemisphere and we get longer days than the Southern Hemisphere. By that measure, this year the first day of Spring is March 20th.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

There is also the phenological view. Phenology, as we have discussed before, is the seasonal behaviour of animals and plants. Last year I talked about this in relation to a first Peacock butterfly of the year around March 10th. But this year I saw my first Peacock on January 24th. Soon we will have the arrival of migrants such as warblers.

This is the problem with any measure of Spring. What we mean by it in many senses is not fixed, it’s defined by linguistics, by an almost poetic sense of new life, of warmth and light and the way nature feels. That cannot be easily defined to a specific date. It’s Spring when it feels like Spring. You cannot define that for a country, the signs may take 20 more days to reach the Scottish Highlands from the Cornish Coast.

A month ago, it felt like Spring. It’s been a wet and mild few months really. But with snow due here tomorrow, it currently feels more like Winter. Certainly the view of the garden at the top of the page doesn’t look like Spring.

A Robin, singing

A Robin, singing

But on the other hand, birds are nest-building, and singing, and proclaiming territories. That always feels like Spring to me.

On balance, I feel we are moving into Spring now. But if it still feels like Winter to you, that’s not a reason to feel bad. Seasons matter because, in a temperate climate, our nature has evolved to this cycle. A mild winter can be incredibly damaging. The cold is needed to get certain plants to germinate properly, they in turn provide food for insects, which provide food for birds and mammals. A mild winter can draw out certain species, like my January Peacock, which will then be killed in a later cold spell.

It’s easy to have a favourite season, and for many people they just look forward to Summer. But it’s important to see the value of all our seasons, and enjoy their own unique qualities. So, whether you are currently experiencing Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter, enjoy it for it’s own individual glory. Don’t just hark after the passing of time.

Posted in Birds, Invertebrates, Phenology, Why watch wildlife? | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A few more photos from RSPB Old Moor

Despite yesterday’s extensive post, I still had a fair few pictures from RSPB Old Moor that made me happy, so I’m now just sharing them in a second post with no real context or captioning. You’ll probably be glad of that. If you have any questions about what anything is, just post in the comments.

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