Tuesday, 2 December 2014

My Personal Favourite Duck

Every British birdwatcher has a favourite duck. Anyone who has seen Spring/Autumnwatch with Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games arguing about whether the drake Pintail or drake Smew is the prettiest and most elegant of all the ducks, and any young birdwatcher who has ever pored over the pages of their new bird book knows it. In Britain they are some of our most colourful species, and a lot of the most colourful species are easy for even a beginner to see. When I was young my favourite was the drake Tufted Duck, with his striking black-and-white plumage, purple-sheened head and adorable tuft on the back of his head. Then for ages I loved the Smew. Now my favourite is another sawbill-the fantastic Red-breasted Merganser. I saw a sizeable flock of them a few weeks ago and felt inspired to write about them! Especially as my camera is broken so I can't photograph fungi any more. :( What terrible timing, right in peak fungi season!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Norfolk part 3- sketching at Titchwell

 Here we go! In the third and last part of my series of posts about Norfolk, I return to Titchwell and bring my sketchbook too. Btw the above photograph was taken at Titchwell beach. In contrast to Cley's shingle beach it has lovely sand. But the weather was pretty blowy and wild that day so not many sunbathers!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Clouded Yellows and Not-So-Yellows!

Before I finish the post about Titchwell, I wanted to write a quick post about something I saw recently. I was able to visit two of my favourite Kentish nature reserves again (I used to live in Kent), RSPB Dungeness and Elmley Marshes. I will write about both these reserves and how much I love them and why in future posts, I expect.

At Dungeness I was happy to see a couple of Clouded Yellows, the butterfly I put in my favourite butterflies list and said was hard to see in some years and easier in others. But the next day when I visited Elmley, I was seeing them flying across the path every few metres! I don't think I've ever seen so many. Is this a Clouded Yellow year? I would predict yes!

What's more, they weren't all the bright yellow I described in the butterflies post. I saw at least two that were very washed out and pale looking, with a greenish tinge. Seeing butterflies of any species that are pale coloured isn't that unusual as they fade as they get older, and when I saw the first one that's what I assumed it was. But when I saw the second one it seemed really unusual to see two that were faded in exactly the same way, so I looked it up and found out that there's a form of female Clouded Yellow called f. helice that is pale like this, so it seemed very likely that that's what I saw. As far as I can tell f. helice isn't a subspecies but a colour variant, something that's hard to understand for someone who mainly knows about birds like myself, as very few birds in Britain have anything like this (Cuckoos are the only ones I can think of, where rarely a female will be rust brown instead of grey). About 5-10% of female Clouded Yellows will be f. helice, which isn't all that much so I was very pleased to see them, and to see something new, as well as just seeing so many Clouded Yellows! I love them so much. It made me inspired to make some artwork about them, so hopefully that will actually happen, watch this space!

There's still a few weeks in the Clouded Yellow's flight period, and the weather is still decent, so keep an eye out for these wonderfully brightly coloured butterflies and their not-so-colourful but fascinating sisters! If there are any butterfly fans reading this, I'd love to know if you have been seeing Clouded Yellows too this year.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Norfolk part 2- Cley Time

In Norfolk, the place I was most looking forward to visiting was Cley. Wells next the Sea is located on the coast pretty much exactly between Cley NNR and Titchwell RSPB nature reserves. Both are famously good reserves, and both I had visited before, about 12 years ago, when I was in the Wildlife Explorers. It was on a weekend residential where we thoroughly traveled the reserves in this particular part of Norfolk, and then took a detour on the way home to sites for Stone Curlews and Nightingales (successfully seen and heard singing respectively). We went because of Norfolk's fame as a hotspot for birds, and it didn't disappoint!

Monday, 8 September 2014

In Norfolk part 1

I was lucky enough to spend the week before last in Norfolk, haven for birds and birdwatchers alike! Of course I ended up with so much material for my blog that one post could never be enough, so I'm going to split my Norfolk writing into three parts.

I went with my family and we stayed in a little town called Wells next the Sea. True to the name you could walk right down to the beach in about 15 minutes from where we were staying, along a path next to the harbour. At low tide there were Redshanks and Turnstones feeding, with a Cormorants gulping down huge fish on the water at high tide, and any time you walked along you could hear the chirping of an extremely healthy population of House Sparrows, which was wonderful and reassuring as they are in such huge declines everywhere. There were Swallows flying low over the path, Buzzards soaring over the beach, and a couple of Shags that had chosen a very odd roosting spot in the form of a pair of tyres on the side of a boat! All of this was going on just in and around the town so there was plenty to see, but I think one of my favourite things that I saw was a Wall Brown butterfly on the plants by the beach path. I wrote about the butterflies I love to see every year in my last post, so it seems like a good time to talk about the lovely Wall Brown, which I couldn't have put on my list because it's so uncommon in the south where I live. Norfolk is now the most southern part of Britain that I've seen one! Actually I'd be interested to hear from UK readers: is this an every year butterfly where you live? It definitely isn't for me, but like a lot of common butterfly species it may have declined a lot. Wall Browns are a little like very bright Speckled Woods, with orange patterns and a row of eyes around the edges of their wings. The one I saw had a chunk out of one of its wings, but it was flying just fine. I bet the predator diverting eye patterns did their job!

My sister and I were walking along to the beach along the path when we saw what I at first thought was a dragonfly- it was about the right size, with a long, bright red and black body. But when it landed I could see that its wings were small for its body and held closed over the back rather than open, like a dragonfly. It wasn't a damselfly either as the body was much too thick and too short. I was puzzled until the day after that when I looked in a book about seashore wildlife and saw an insect that looked just like it! It's called a Sand Wasp and apparently is a ferocious predator of caterpillars. I'd never seen anything like it before!

The beach at Wells was lovely; not so good for swimming as the Welsh beaches I was on last year (where I found the Gannet), but with less jellyfish and Weaver Fish! (I didn't see the Weaver Fish in Wales but there were signs up about them because they hide in the sandy shallows and have a painful sting! I did see the jellyfish though. Moon Jellyfish, we think. There were dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions??!! The beach was covered in washed up ones. No swimming that day!! ^^) One thing that had been washed up at Wells beach was hundreds upon hundreds of razor shells, the long thin shells you usually see only a few of. They were all sizes but there were significant numbers of tiny ones, so we wondered if the Razor Clam breeds nearby. There were loads of Oystercatchers about too, so the source of the shells was quite clear. It looked like they had been having quite a feast!

I also found this fantastic Mermaid's Purse:

Just along the coast from Wells you can get a boat trip out to see seals where they breed and congregate on Blakeney Point. This has obviously proved popular as no less than four separate companies currently offer this service! There's no disturbance to the seals as nobody is allowed to land, but one of the shops in Wells had a cartoon in the window of seals in a boat taking photos of a load of sunbathing humans. XD

Four species of tern also breed on Blakeney Point but this was all over for the year, except for a couple of lingering Common Terns. We did see a lovely Red-breasted Merganser as we approached the colony though, which are always a pleasure to see. And then were rounded the Point and...there were the seals!

Most of the ones in the top photo are Common Seals, and most in the lower photo are Grey Seals. Until this I didn't know the two species would share a colony like this! As you can see they are of extremely variable colours and there's no 'grey' and 'not grey' despite the name. You can tell them apart by looking at the faces, though I'm not that good at it yet. The Common Seals have what I've seen described as a 'cute' face with a short nose and a rounded face, while the Grey seals have longer noses and pointier faces. Grey Seals can grow bigger than Common Seals but there's a lot of size overlap so it's not a simple rule.

Unlike other large marine mammals like whales and dolphins, it really is quite easy to get really good views of seals around the British Isles as there are very reliable spots to see them, like this one which I get the impression gives sightings at all times of year. It really is special to watch a mammal that is so unlike the mammals we might get good views of on land. This is an animal whose back legs and tail have fused together to make its body into a streamlined tube of muscle and insulation, and whose front legs have lost their 'fingers', as it was more useful for them to become fully webbed and become flippers. The bones that make those fingers are still there inside the flipper- I remember learning about it in my Biology A-level, and whales' flippers are just the same no matter how big they are. It's quite famous that seals are wonderfully graceful in water but the opposite on land, but I found that the seals I saw moving on land were surprisingly fast and maneuverable! Here's one I saw getting out of the water:

I made this one quite big as it has some nice views of the Grey Seals' faces, showing their long noses and small eyes.

This one certainly made a splash but it lumped itself along very speedily! It was impressive. Seals are totally used to moving those great big bodies on land and watching them move was fascinating. I honestly could have watched them all day except the boat had to go. Most of them weren't actually going anywhere but it was really funny watching even the ones that were lying around as they don't have so much use for the flippers on land and it makes for some funny poses! You can see in the above photo that most of these lazy seals just let their flippers flop over the fronts, but some were waving them around, and seemed to be attempting to scratch or even shield their eyes from the sun. You can also see in all my photos of the variety of poses that seem to be comfortable for seals! There's one I like to call 'the banana' which a couple of Common Seals in the first photo are doing: it's where they balance on their side with both the tail and head held out stiffly off the ground. It looks horribly uncomfortable to us but it can't be because lots of them were doing it, and when I went on a seal boat trip in Scotland back in 2010 loads of the seals were doing it then too!

In fact at the time I took these photos the Common Seals were in the middle of their breeding season. The two species of seal seem to share the space amazingly well and it probably helps that they breed at different times, with the Common Seals breeding in the summer and the Grey Seals in the winter. The tour guide told us some really interesting things about seal breeding- it turns out that only Grey Seals have the white, fluffy pups you see in pictures. Common Seals have pups that are born waterproof and can swim almost immediately! That was amazing to learn. And we even saw a very small Common Seal pup! The boat continued along the shore a little way from the colony, and there was a sort of long black blob lying where the sea was washing onto the beach. The guide said this was a baby, and looking through binoculars I saw that it was! It honestly looked like a piece of driftwood that had washed up. The babies are kept away from the colony when they are very young, as this one clearly was, because of the danger that a heavy adult seal would roll over and squash them. But seal milk is very rich and that baby seal would probably have been big enough to join the main colony within a few days of us seeing it. It's so strange to think that such a small seal baby was already capable of swimming independently, if it wanted to!

Later that week I visited the Norwich museum and saw a taxidermy seal that showed how the end of a seal's tail is structured, something that can be hard to see on a living seal in the field.

On either side are the flippers  containing what were once the animal's foot bones, and in the middle is the tail proper. I'd never realised that these parts were separate! Note: I didn't photograph the whole taxidermy seal because the head mount was just terrible. It looked like someone had just put in any old set of glass eyes without any thought of what a seal's eyes actually look like. The result was this giant pair of goggly orange-rimmed eyes, so unlike the dark, soulful eyes of a living seal. I think it was quite an old specimen, but even so!!

The Norwich museum was quite something in that it had one of the most comprehensive collections of bird taxidermy I've ever seen. There was an exhibit of scenes showing Norfolk wildlife in various habitats, which of course included many birds, and then there was a room filled with nothing but bird taxidermy, all sorted by species group, that seemed to contain almost every regular British species and several irregular ones too! I enjoy looking at taxidermy birds, especially if they are well mounted and well preserved, because it's an excellent opportunity to look at the bird's feathers closely. But there were so many birds that appear in Britain only as vagrants in that collection that you could tell they had been shot as trophies by hunters. It reminded me of a small collection of taxidermy they have in Beaulieu, New Forest, that I'm quite familiar with, the prize piece of which is an enormous flamingo. According to the description it had been shot while feeding on the Beaulieu estuary, by someone who presumably didn't know if it was a truly wild vagrant or an escape from someone's collection. Being quite young and seeing that was my first introduction to the fact that people used to shoot unusual birds, rather than watching them as birdwatchers and twitchers love to do today.

Seeing the taxidermy was interesting, but what was definitely more interesting was the video playing in the foyer of the museum that showed highlights from Norwich Cathedral's Peregrine nest cam! Norwich's pair of urban Peregrines had fledged no less than four chicks this year's breeding season. We watched the fledging section, which showed the oldest and biggest chick (Peregrines seem to practice brood reduction like a lot of birds of prey, meaning this chick had hatched before the others) being blown off the ledge while practicing flapping during a windy spell! It must have been a bit of a surprise. He was totally fine, as several days later when only the youngest chick was left on the platform, being reluctant to leave, the oldest chick returned for a visit. The captioning on the video described what happened next as playing, but I'm not so sure! The oldest chick seemed to be persistently trying to preen the neck of the youngest chick, and it ended up pulling out two of the younger chick's feathers! The younger chick retaliated to by tugging at the older chick's neck feathers, though none came out. It was very funny to watch. However the youngest chick did eventually pluck up its courage and leave the platform. Four fledged young Peregrines makes this an extremely successful year for the Norwich Peregrines!

Later that day, while my parents were looking round Norwich Cathedral, I saw a bird of prey soaring around the spire. Of course I immediately guessed it was a Peregrine, but getting my binoculars on it (I carried them everywhere in Norfolk! You have to) showed that it lacked the very clear black and white head markings of a Peregrine, and was actually a Sparrowhawk. But because I'd been looking up anyway, I scanned past the spire, and what did I see?

Now THERE'S the black and white head markings I was looking for! It just goes to show that if you don't follow David Lindo's advice and Look Up, there could be a tonne of stuff you're missing! Peregrines have a habit of sitting in a high place in their territory and scanning until they see some likely looking prey. They are so known for it that the RSPB sets up watchpoints in various places around the country each year so they can show people these lovely birds sitting in their favourite spots watching for their prey. I think this one is actually sitting on the nesting platform! It's clearly a specially put up platform so everyone must have been really pleased when the Peregrines started nesting there. I wouldn't have been surprised if the Peregrine had attempted to see off the Sparrowhawk but maybe it just couldn't be bothered. I did once see three Peregrines gang up to force a Buzzard down into a tree so it was out of their airspace! They are incredible birds. It's wonderful that they are becoming so at home in our towns so more and more people are able to see them each year.

Next time: the sublime and beautiful Cley!

Friday, 15 August 2014

My Five Favourite Butterflies

Summer is a quiet time for birds. Though some are still feeding babies, the majority have finished and their babies are now independent, or at least don't require constant attention! The earliest returning migrants are definitely on their way out- I haven't seen a Swift since the Saturday of the ringing (and already miss their screaming calls as the soundtrack to my lunch hour). At this time of year most birds stop singing because there isn't the same urgent need to defend a territory. The adult birds start moulting and need to lay low for a while. Woodlands go quiet, as the birds even seem to be calling less at this time of year, and it's hard to find them in the fully leafed trees. Estuaries are still nowhere near migration season so there's not that much to see, and all the ducks are in eclipse so things are much less colourful than usual. Some species, like Skylarks, seem to disappear altogether at this time of year, only to reappear in the autumn.

I've heard this season called the birding doldrums, and that seems to fit it pretty well. In the UK a lot of birdwatchers start watching butterflies in this season because while the birds are quiet, butterflies (while also quiet, by nature ^^) are springing out everywhere and fill the niche of something to watch. I haven't been able to watch butterflies that much this year but in the past few years I've been occupied every summer trying to find the speciality butterflies of Hampshire. But that's not what I'm talking about today (maybe another time?), these are my top five favourite butterflies that I see every year, and never get tired of seeing. Seeing the first one of these butterflies every year makes me so happy, and I always wish they could be around all year.

Orange Tip
This is one of our most simply patterned butterflies, and yet one of the most beautiful. Only the male is colourful, and he is white with huge, bright splashes of orange on the top of each set of wings. It's a colour you have to see to believe! These butterflies are unmistakable. Even the female can be told with a good look as she has green mottling on her underwing, which the other white butterflies don't have. A few butterflies will show up while its really still winter (Red Admirals as they hibernate and will come out on sunny days, for example), but the Orange Tip is a true sign of spring. I always miss them when they are gone, by early summer.

Marbled White
Not colourful like the Orange Tip, but intricately patterned, this one I remember seeing for the first time on some chalk grassland on a Wildlife Watch walk when I was about eight. I fell in love with it straight away. I know it's not a chalk grassland specialist (unlike the other special butterfly we saw that day, the Chalkhill Blue) but I always associate it with special butterfly habitats, even though in reality it can turn up all kinds of places, even the school playing field when I was kid! I see them on my local patch too, but nothing beats the chalk grassland Marbled Whites for sheer numbers. Sometimes you go when there's clearly just been a hatching and you can barely move for Marbled Whites! Fantastic things.

Silver-Washed Fritillary
Another one that feels special to my locality (Hampshire), and this one really is not all that widespread and I'm lucky to live in an area where you can easily see them. It's a size larger than most common butterflies, and in books it doesn't look that distinctive from the other fritillary species, which are mostly orange withn black squiggles. The distinctive thing about this butterfly is they way it flies in a strange slow and floaty way, especially later in its season. It's great for getting good views, and distinguishes it from the other common-ish fritillary around here, the Dark Green Fritillary, which is very fast flying and is practically impossible to spot at rest. The Silver-Washed is slow to the point that it will sometimes even land on people! I've had them land on my shoes as I was walking through Crab Wood (the fungi place, and one of my most reliable sites for them). Although they like mature woodland they are also wanderers, and we've even had them turn up in our garden, a long way away from any of their local strongholds! Here's a photo I took a few years ago of one resting on a man's arm:

A common grassland butterfly, that is distinguished from other brown butterflies like the Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper in that it never has any orange on it. It is dark coloured on its upperwings, and a good view will show a thin white line all around the outside of the wing. But the really beautiful thing is its underwings, which have several classic butterfly eye-markings on them, each with the teeniest white dot in the middle like someone has painted it with a brush. They like to sit still with their wings closed to show off these eyes. The Ringlet could not be considered colourful but it is special to look at nonetheless! And it has a beautiful name.

Clouded Yellow 
This is the only one I've talked about where I may well not see it in a particular year, no matter how many good butterfly sites I go to. You can't try to find a Clouded Yellow, and because they are migrants from the continent, some years are very good for them while others are bad (it used to be that even numbered years were good and odd numbers bad, but seeing as 2013 was a relatively good year in my experience maybe it's broken its streak). When you see one you'll know it, as no other butterfly has such a deep, beautiful yellow shade. The Brimstone, which is the other yellow butterfly and is much commoner, is a much more lemoney yellow. The Clouded Yellow is also special because it turns up right at the end of August and throughout September, when the seasons for a lot of butterflies are over until next year, so it reminds you that the butterfly year isn't quite over yet. And you can see them anywhere- on somebody's flowering garden bush, or in farmland margins or at the coast. They are restless and rarely land, and when they do they will rarely ever open their wings. I've never seen this and have only seen photos as proof that it actually happens! But when they are flying their colour is so distinctive, and so different from any other butterfly in the UK, that you will know immediately that you're seeing a Clouded Yellow.

I'd love to hear about other people's favourite butterflies, whether UK or in other countries, so please do comment and tell me all about them! I'm now off to Norfolk for a week on a family holiday, and you know what that means- BIRDS!! My mum and I can't wait to go to Cley and Titchwell; even if it isn't migration season and even if the Birding Doldrums aren't over yet, that doesn't matter to us. I'll write all about it when I get back! And, fingers crossed, I'll get some sketching done too. :D

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Put A Ring On It!

My fascination with bird ringing began back in 2003, when my family and some family friends visited the then recently built Barnes Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve. There we met a man who had collected some birds for ringing. He down a little cloth bag, reached in and pulled out a Blue Tit, which he proceeded to give to my little sister to hold. He showed her how to hold its head gently still between her fingers and cup its body in her hand, and I remember how tiny it was and how amazing it was to see it close up.

Ringing birds is, of course, not really about seeing birds close up but its easy to see why my 13 year old self might have latched onto this! Since then I've learned a lot more about why birds are ringed, and how recoveries can teach us so much about the species; its migration patterns, its lifespan, its population movements, and its presence in new locations. The basic principle, for those who haven't heard of ringing, is that a lightweight metal ring is put around the leg of the bird giving the location it was caught and a unique reference number. That means if the bird is caught again or the ring is found, the number can be used to find out all sorts of information about the bird. In Britain as far as I know its possible to ring any species of bird if you have the right licenses and know the right techniques, but the type of ringing I got the opportunity to see today was mist net ringing. This is when a thin, billowing net stretched between poles is used to catch small birds in flight. Other techniques include ringing chicks in the nest (I've seen a program where this was used for raptors- I can imagine that ringing could be especially important for species of raptor that are still illegally killed in this country) and using a type of throwing net to surround members of a flock of birds, such as geese. I think I've seen this one on a program too, possibly Autumnwatch, where it was used to not-particularly-great effect on a flock of Brent Geese- only about two were captured! In general I don't know much about these techniques.

This morning, I was lucky enough to attend a ringing session at Titchfield Haven, along with my mum and about 10 other visitors. It started at 6am! This meant getting up at 4.30 for me. But it's amazing how getting up horrendously early to do something you love is a million times easier than, say, getting up at that hour for work. When we arrived, we were taken to a secret part of the reserve, behind one of the mysterious 'keep out' signs on one of the boardwalks. Here there was a little hut, with wires running towards it, and a table outside covered in ringing equipment. The wires, we soon discovered, were powering a CD player in the hut, and several speakers around by the nets that were playing various bird songs. There was a Willow Warbler song, which I've heard many times in real life, and a Grasshopper Warbler song, which I've never heard in real life but recognised from descriptions (it sounds just like a very loud grasshopper). Grasshopper Warblers are active at dawn, so the tape had been playing for a while before we arrived to encourage them into the net, and the trained ringers doing the session had already been round the nets once and emptied them.

 There were three or four fully trained ringers, and one trainee ringer (a young woman just like myself- yay! Sometimes I feel like the only young female birdwatcher in the world) doing the session. The trainee ringer started out being the scribe, which is the person who will record details of the birds species, its age, its ring number and its condition. This information, once computerised, will be the information that anyone recapturing the ringed bird will get, so its very important, and it looked a complicated job too as information comes very thick and fast during the actual ringing!

Hanging outside the hut were many cloth drawstring bags, some of which were vibrating slightly. The ringers began removing the birds from the bags, and the first birds that were revealed were the Grasshopper Warblers that the recorded song had attracted. This was the first time I'd ever seen one, and though I was expecting that we would see them and had hoped I would recognise them, being familiar with pictures of them, I was somewhat baffled when the first birds were drawn out of the bags, as birds in the hand look so different. But were were shown their distinguishing feature- the barred feathers under their short tails, which are plain on most birds.

The warblers were held in the way the man at Barnes showed my sister- head supported between two fingers with the body against the palm and the legs pointing outwards for the ring to be attached. The rings were taken from a plastic string, placed in a pair of pliers and gently attached to the bird's leg, loosely enough that it can move freely up and down the leg and will never pinch into it. While in the hand, each bird's wings were measured (while closed, from the first joint to the end) and they were weighed, by placing the bird beak down into one of those little film container pots, for the shortest time possible for the scale to register their weight.

Soon the Grasshopper Warblers were all done, and released straight away in the opposite direction from the nets. The next birds were Reed and Sedge Warblers, which I did recognise, especially the Sedge Warblers with their distinctive pale eyebrows (actually superciliums but that's a mouthful) and their bright ochre streaky plumage. The Sedge Warblers made no noise in the hand, but the Reed Warblers were very noisy, calling indignantly even while inside the weighing device. None of the birds made any noise in the bags. Being in a dark place is generally calming for birds.

Next came some young Whitethroats, which were again hard to identify in the hand. Whitethroat juvenile plumage is pale all over the underside and not just the throat, so it was hard to make the association, even though I've seen young Whitethroats in the wild. The ringers were assigning the birds a number based on their estimated age, and while for some birds it was easy to tell they were juveniles (the Whitethroats, a Dunnock that had the streaky breast and pink beak juveniles have), for others it was harder. The ringers showed us how to guess a bird's age using its feathers- the adults would be expected to have worn edges to their wing and tail feathers (especially as some birds like Reed and Sedge Warblers apparently don't moult until they've migrated back to southern Africa), while the juveniles were more likely to have clean edged feathers. I think they said the code was 1 (for birds still in the nest) up to 8 for aging the birds, with these juveniles being assigned a 3. All aging had to be done very carefully with no assumptions recorded.

There was one young bird that was put in the 2 category, and we were shown why. When the ringer brought it round to us from the nets he said he was going to release it back where it was found instead of at the ringing area because it was so young. It was a Cetti's Warbler, and while it looked fairly well feathered at first, under its wings you could see all the feathers weren't grown yet, which led to a very odd effect- the wing bone actually shows between the feathers! I've seen this before in young birds (not living ones but sadly dead ones that I've had to opportunity to study), and while I didn't get a photo of the Cetti's warbler's underwings (it moved so quickly and my camera is not great for quick moving subjects so I got very few photos throughout the session) I do have this photo of a dead young Great Tit I found in May this year to show you what it was like.

You can see the bone where it joins the body, as well as the 'tubes' the new feathers grow from.

It's so strange to think of young birds going about with their bones showing under their wings! Seeing a Cetti's Warbler up close was wonderful as well, as they are very good at hiding and are hard to see in the field. (Though I did get a very good view last year of one singing right out in the open! I talked about it in my new year's post.) It was a lovely chocolate brown, and had very short, rounded wings that were very different from the other warblers' wings.

An adult Cetti's Warbler in mid-moult, which is why it's so scruffy.

The ringers went around to empty the nets several more times, and in small groups were were able to go and see this happening. Only a trained ringer can extract a bird from a mist net, because they can sometimes be tangled and have to be extracted very carefully. When we first approached the nets there were several more small warblers, and something bigger and much more colourful. It was a Kingfisher! When it had been carefully extracted, the ringer showed us an odd quirk of the Kingfisher- when in the hand, it revolves its head slowly round and round, like a tracking CCTV camera, going almost 360 degrees, or so it looked! Apparently the only other British bird to do this in the hand is the Wryneck, and though I have heard Wrynecks use this odd neck action in the field to scare or confuse predators (which is where the name comes from, and I have heard this is supposed to look like a snake but I don't know for sure), no one seems to have seen Kingfishers doing this in the field. Presumably it does it to look out for danger.

It made no sound in the hand, but kept opening its giant beak all the same.

When the Kingfisher came out of the bag, the ringers had to get a special, extra short ring out to accommodate the Kingfisher's very short legs.

The Kingfisher was a juvenile, which was tentatively sexed as a male due to the only small amount of orange at the base of the bill (females have more). They said it's not possible to tell for sure at this age though. There are no suitable nest sites for Kingfishers at Titchfield Haven so this one must have moved in from elsewhere, and Titchfield Haven is a great place to see Kingfishers outside of the breeding season so I'm sure it's finding the fishing very good!

Only about a third of the lower mandible was orange- sexing clue!

The Kingfisher was definitely the star of the morning! Just look at this wonderful plumage.

Spangled' is the only word to describe those feathers!

The birds were also assigned a number to show how much body fat they were carrying. This was judged by the simple technique of blowing on the birds' breast feathers to part them and show the shape of the chest. The fat showed up as pinky-yellow bumps. We saw an adult Sedge Warbler that had an extremely large amount of fat on its body, so that it was put category 8 meaning the highest amount! When it was released the ringer said it might drop right to the ground because of its weight. This didn't quite happen, but almost! This bird will have to do an incredibly long migration quite soon, so it's building up for that. It's normal for migratory birds to put on an incredible amount of weight, and some (like some waders) even compress their internal organs to make more room for fat stores.

On the other side of this was the other 'big' bird caught (the Kingfisher being the other, though they aren't big at all really), a juvenile Blackbird. It had lots of speckling still, though a full tail. The tail was dark so I guessed it was a male, but the ringers guessed female (though too soon to tell for sure) and said that even female Blackbirds have very dark tails, so I may have been wrongly sexing a few tail feathers in my collection! When the ringers blew on its feathers to judge the weight there was no fat on it at all, just a sharp ridge along the middle of its chest that was the bird's keel bone jutting out under its skin. You couldn't see it at all when the feathers were in their normal positions, and it's so strange to think that feathers cover up these huge differences in the shapes of birds' chests. The young Blackbird pooed while it was in the bag, and the purple colour of the dropping suggested the bird had been living on fruit, so maybe it hasn't got good enough at feeding itself on invertebrates yet? I'm sure there's lots of good weather left this season so it has plenty of time.

One of the things I had hoped would happen during this session was a recapture of a bird from elsewhere or a previous year, and this sadly didn't happen, though a bird ringed a few days ago by the same ringers did show up. However as a feather enthusiast I also wanted to learn more about feathers, and that certainly did happen! In the past I've seen feathers that have dark bars of wear across them, and I'd assumed this was part of the natural wear of the feather. But one of the ringed birds had these dark bars on its tail feathers, and the ringer told us this can be caused by a disruption in feeding while the bird is a baby in the nest, such as if it rains for a couple of days and the parent bird can't feed them constantly like they would on a dry day. It was fascinating! I had a quick look in my collection to see if I had a feather with these bars handy but couldn't find one.

The other fascinating thing I found out was about Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, and the one way to confidently tell them apart in the hand. I always used to go by the old 'dark legs=Chiffchaff, pale legs=Willow Warbler' thing but that's not reliable. (To be honest, I still go by it sometimes as it's just easier! Of course if the birds are singing their incredibly different songs then it's ok. ^^) But when they're in the hand, the ringers showed us how to look at the primary feathers to tell the difference. In both birds, after the first feather in the wing, the outer webs of the primaries are emarginated. In Chiffchaffs this continues to the the 6th primary, but in Willow Warblers it only goes up to the 5th primary. It was really good to finally hear a concrete way of telling them apart, but not exactly something you can use in the field! 

There were several Willow Warblers in the session, and all were the loveliest lemon yellow colour in their eyestripe and all over their underparts. The ringers said Willow Warblers were more likely than Chiffchaffs to be bright like this, which confused me as a few years ago in autumn we had a very yellow leaf warbler in the garden for a few weeks that I'd always thought was a Chiffchaff. I'd been going by leg colour which isn't reliable, but thinking about it it might have been a bit late for Willow Warblers at the time, as they leave for their migration earlier. Maybe colouring varies depending on where the 'batch' of Chiffchaffs or Willow Warblers are from. The ones we caught today were probably migrants grounded by the cloudy weather, and they might have all come from the same place.

Look at those lovely bright yellow feathers!

Some of the Willow Warblers had quite dark legs (though always with a pinkish tinge) but they also all had very brightly coloured feet that were this strange pinky-yellow colour! Late in the session a Chiffchaff was caught (one of only a couple in the whole session) and it had brightly coloured feet too, showing just how unreliable the dark legs thing is. But its plumage was totally different from the Willow Warblers', being much paler and with less yellow, though there were lovely big yellow patches on the edges of its wings! We were each given the opportunity to release a couple of birds, and I was given this particular Chiffchaff to release. It was incredible to hold it and feel it take off and fly away. :)

I've been wanting to attend a ringing session for most of my birding life and it was wonderful to finally do so! Thanks to all the ringers ran the session and taught us their knowledge. :) Though I don't think I'm quite ready to train as a ringer just yet (I don't have enough time to dedicate to the training, plus as far as I know there's no one ringing any closer to me than this Titchfield Haven, which is almost an hour away) I'm so happy I got to see it today, not to mention I got to see my first Grasshopper Warblers, and my second ever Garden Warbler!

The final list: multiples of Grasshopper Warbler, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Cetti's Warbler and Willow Warbler; a few Chiffchaffs, Whitethroats and Garden Warblers; two Wrens; and one each of Robin, Dunnock, Blackbird and Kingfisher. About 100 birds in total were ringed!

For more info on ringing, here's the BTO faqs: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/about/faqs

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Black-headed Gull Colony- sketchbook

(Read the unofficial precursor to this post, Herring Gull Town, here!)

I wrote last time about the Black Swans and their mating dance at Titchfield Haven nature reserve, which was fascinating but what really draws me there every spring is the amazing colony of Black-headed Gulls that assembles every year on one of the scrapes! This colony is carefully protected with controlled water levels and an electric fence to deter ground predators, and is a relatively recent addition- I've been visiting regularly for about 15 years and I can confirm that it wasn't there during my early visits. It's wonderful that they have been able to create this excellent habitat for the birds to breed. There's a hide overlooking the main scrape, where you can get fantastically close views of the gulls interacting, and honestly it's so fascinating I could watch (and sketch) all day! Black-headed Gulls are so commonly seen scavenging in towns and flying around that it's easy to take them for granted, but breeding season is the most fascinating time to watch any species' behaviour and they are no exception.
I visited four times, this year and last year, and saw the colony at 4 different stages.

1. Courtship (21/3/14)

 On this visit I wasn't sure if the colony would be there yet, but it was fully assembled. It's only when I visit this colony that I realise the variety of sounds Black-headed Gulls can make, and most notably, how loud they are capable of being! You can hear them all over the reserve. Most other species that normally live there stay away from the scrape at this time. ^^

The Black-headed gulls were all assembled, but the actual breeding part was only just getting started, and in fact there were a few that didn't quite have their full breeding caps yet (the 'black' cap, actually dark brown, which gives the gull its name). But pairs were definitely forming- everywhere I looked I could see pairs of gulls sitting close together, and one always seemed slightly bigger than the other. When I wrote about the Herring Gulls I mentioned learning that males in that species are bigger than females, and wondered if Black-headed Gulls have this too. It wouldn't normally be possible to tell but having them all sitting in pairs was a useful frame of reference. However the difference may have seemed more pronounced than it really was because the males were showing off so much! They were standing tall, calling all the time with their throats puffed out, and stretching their necks to make the cap look bigger, with the female staying close by their sides.

In one of these pairs, I watched the female start pecking at the male's beak, in exactly the way the Herring Gull chicks from my post above pecked the red spot on their parent's beaks to get them to regurgitate food. Black-headed Gulls don't have pecking spots (their bills are all one colour and dark red), but it seemed to work the same way as the male suddenly regurgitated a couple of lumps of food (even he looked a bit surprised about it! Though that might have been just me XD) for the female to eat. I've seen the female from pairs of birds from other species using similar techniques and it's always fascinated me. Sometimes I think the female is testing the male as a provider by acting like their future chicks will and stimulate his instincts for feeding them, and sometimes I think she is using chick behaviour to get him in the mood for having babies! But most importantly, she needs to be fed to build up her strength for laying the eggs. What was funny with these two was that while the female ate one piece of the food, the male quickly snapped up the other one as if he hadn't meant to give her so much!

This isn't a sketch of the actual regurgitation! It was too quick a moment for that. Just someone poking at pebbles.

But that wasn't all the pairs were doing to bond- they were also displaying for each other! I've watched this colony before, but never this early, so I'd never seen them display before. The gulls would make deep 'bows' to each other, dipping the heads low and raising their behind as high as possible, with the tail fully spread, before coming back up and bending their neck as far as possible upwards so it looked bent round almost at a right angle. It was really strange to watch, not least because the male would sometimes be in the middle of a bow before realising another male was getting too close to his mate, and would suddenly burst out towards the invader to scare him away. It kind of ruined the poise of his display, but needs must!

My attempt at capturing the 'bow'

Another notable thing was the way the birds (particularly, I think, the males) were holding their wings when they were with their mates. Normally a standing gull has its wings tucked flat against its body, but these displaying birds held their wings slightly outwards from the body, in a way that reminded me a little of how male Mute Swans raise the secondaries of their wings up over their backs when they are swimming along. In swans it makes their plumage look particularly fine, and it made the gulls' white and delicate grey feathers look especially smooth and pristine too, but I suspect the actual purpose of this was the same as the swans'- to look bigger and stronger, and threatening to rivals!

Some of the pairs were starting to build nests, but this didn't mean much more than them starting to pick up sticks and bring them to one spot, where one gull (the female?) would be sitting tight as if to 'reserve' it for their use. Gulls aren't great nest builders but I suspect it was still a bit early to see any proper nests. The one in my sketch below kept picking at a plant in front of her that was much too big; there was no way she was pulling it up to get it into the nest but she didn't seem that worried.

Nest building, or just picking at it?

Not all the other birds were elsewhere- there were notable numbers of Oystercatchers on the gull islands too (whether nesting or just hanging around I don't know), and a few ducks, and a nest building Moorhen pair! Their nest was much further along than the gulls', and was nestled in a patch of reeds just above the water level. They were nice and close to the hide so I got a sketch.

2. Nest Building and Incubation (2/5/14)

Flash forward to about a month later, and I visited the colony again to see how their breeding season was going.

It had come a long way! There were nests everywhere, with sitting gulls covering most of the islands on the scrape. Some of the nests near to the hide were even pretty impressive, with large piles of sticks on top of clumps of reed, and incubating birds on each one. None of the near nests had any chicks yet that I could see, though it's possible that some of the nests further away had some.

Sadly the Moorhen's nest was no longer there, and the clump of reeds the pair had been using was now occupied by a gull's nest. Presumably the gulls had muscled the Moorhens away from the spot, and possibly even used the Moorhen's nest as a base for their own nest! I did spot some Moorhens swimming along the side of the scrape though.

I think the nest on the left is the ex-Moorhen nest, now firmly occupied by an incubating gull

The gulls on the reed nests were the most interesting to watch, especially the pair on the right in my above sketch. The bird on it got up to turn her eggs, revealing she had three. However she couldn't seem to relax on the nest and kept getting up and fidgeting with the eggs. I wondered if they were close to hatching and perhaps she could hear peeping or feel movements. But then her mate came back and I began to see why she might be a nervous bird. He kept flying in with new twigs to spruce up the nest (it was big already, but perhaps maintaining the nest shows he is a strong partner), but his mate was filling the whole nest and he couldn't perch next to it without being too low, so he opted for landing on her back! At first she took it quite well, but after a while she began to seem more and more bothered, her feathers got more messy and the male never seemed to be able to find anywhere to put the sticks. After a while she got off the nest altogether and left the eggs for quite a few minutes. I did wonder if they were an inexperienced pair, and whether those eggs would hatch at all at this rate! But it's all experience for next year even if they don't. There might be advantages to an elevated reed nest, but it did seem to present some problems for this pair.

Here's a sketch of some different reed nests. There's a fully made nest on the right, and though I didn't finish drawing it in there's another one on the left. In between them there were a pair of birds who seemed determined to make a nest in the area between, where there was a bridge of reeds. The spot was much closer to the water than two on either side and didn't seem ideal, but they kept bringing sticks and one kept bowing its (her?) breast downwards and pressing it into the reeds as though to flatten them and make it comfortable (that's what's supposed to be happening in the sketch). Either they hadn't been able to bag a space on the islands before they filled up, or the reed nests were actually more desirable and they wanted to create a new spot for one.

I watched a different pair mating, but they seemed to be having a little difficulty! When birds mate (most species, anyway) both of them have to twist their tails around enough for their sexual organs, the cloaca, to touch together. However the male was having so much trouble balancing on her back, flapping his wings around, and waving his tail widely, it didn't seem like they were being very successful!

I thought it would be a bit too late for this kind of thing but I saw on Springwatch a pair of gulls mating right after their nest had been predated by a Badger, so maybe this pair had lost their nest? Or maybe the female just hadn't finished laying her clutch.

All the nest on the scrapes and in the reeds were being fiercely defended, with intruders being chased away with a threatening stance and a fast swim in their direction! Here's my attempt at capturing it:

3. Chicks! (28-05-13)

I didn't visit the colony at the chick stage this year, so now I'm going to confuse you by going back to last year (back when I used softer pencils!). I had an enjoyable visit that yea where I got to see the chicks at their most fluffy and tiny! Gull chicks aren't as cute as, say, wader chicks (though both are the type of chick that is active and downy as soon is it hatches, not the kind that hatch naked and do a lot of growing in the nest), but they have an adorable gawkiness to them that I love trying to capture in my sketches. In my post last year (linked at the top) about the Herring Gulls, and Titan and Wilhelmina the chicks, I spent a lot of time not quite being able to capture the chicks' character, and these predecessors to those sketches had similar problems. But it's all a learning process.

Some of the nests were still at the stage I left them that at last time (or...next year...sorry this post has such a weird timeline!), with birds sitting firmly on eggs and bringing nesting material. I also saw one pair switch which bird was incubating, which was interesting to see. From this I found out that Black-headed Gulls both incubate, which means I was often just guessing about which bird was on the eggs when I talked about them earlier, and noticing roles as clues (like bringing nesting material- is this a way for the male to impress the female?).

It's easy to get behind on your feather care in the hecticness of the breeding season!
This was one member of the pair who switched incubating roles. It had a distinctive brown smudge on the back of its neck below its cap.
The other (assumed male by me at the time) returned at feeding time!

At this stage a few birds, like the one above, were still sitting on eggs, but there were chicks absolutely everywhere! They were speckley brown and fluffy, with legs that seemed too big for their bodies. 

It was raining throughout the visit, but that was ok. When you're in a hide and you're watching nothing but water birds, rain really doesn't effect your birdwatching!
Getting wet = not a problem!

But while the adult birds' feathers were keeping them relatively waterproof, the chicks were all still downy and not waterproof at all, leaving their parents with the job of acting as umbrellas for them. This was done by the parent birds holding their wings out from their bodies as far as they could, and the chicks crowding in as closely as possible. It looked like a tight squeeze! It also looked pretty uncomfortable to have wriggly, pointy-beaked chicks stuffed up under your wings.

Two seemed to be the average number of chicks in each family, or sometimes three, but one family that I made particular notes on stood out.

At first I thought this bird had two chicks, which were both the same size as you'd expect, then another one came and huddled in under her that seemed smaller. Then yet another, smaller still, joined them! I'm assuming they were all hers as it doesn't seem likely that a gull would raise another gull's babies, so maybe there was some form of brood reduction (feeding less to weaker babies and concentrating on the strong ones to ensure they, at least, survive) going on due to her very large family? I then noticed that, sadly, there was a very small, almost dead baby nearby, just outside the nest area. I did think it was dead at first but thought I saw a slight movement; the chicks, jostling to be under their mother, all pecked the baby as they passed it. It was certainly very far gone, anyway. This was possibly the result of brood reduction, for a gull with a clutch of five would certainly be overwhelmed. Or it's of course possible that it wasn't her baby at all, and it just happened to be nearby. Either way, perhaps the chicks pecked because they saw it as a rival in their rush to get a warm spot under their mother's wings.

There were a few older chicks that were bigger, had a few body feathers and were roaming further afield, but they were easily intimidated by the noise and fights constantly going on among the adult gulls. I watched as a couple of these 'teenage' chicks accidentally got in the way of a fight among adults, and to get away from it they left the island they were on and hurried out into the lagoon where it was so deep they seemed to be almost swimming! Perhaps they were swimming- adult gulls swim after all. 

As time goes by in this colony, I've noticed that more and more Common Terns arrive. They don't nest anywhere on the main lagoon, but a few pairs nest in lagoon behind it that seems less popular with the gull colony, and some more are on special tern nesting islands in the lake next to the lagoons (though Oystercatchers and the odd pair of gulls take up a few of the platforms too). Seeing the terns contrasted with the Black-headed Gulls is always fascinating because it makes the terns look tiny. I think of the Black-headed Gull as small because next to Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls, it really is. But the Common Tern is much smaller again. In fact all the sea terns, even the bigger Sandwich Terns, are smaller than the Black-headed Gull. Then again, I think I checked it out and found that the smallest sea tern we get in Britain (the tiny Little Tern) is bigger than our most numerous marsh tern! (the Black Tern- I did see some once in constrast to Common Terns and they certainly were weeny.)

4. All grown up (15/6/14) (no sketches this visit)

Now in 2014 again, my latest visit to the colony was in mid-June where I was hoping to see more small chicks. There were still some that were downy, but on the closest islands the babies were larger and almost fully covered with feathers, though they didn't yet have the streamlined shape of the adult birds. A Black-headed Gull's first plumage is a mixture of brown and white, mostly brown but with patches of white that make them look very confusing, at just a glance you're not sure what species you're looking at! If they survive until winter, the chicks will moult into a plumage with much more white, with brown fringing across the wings and a dark band at the end of the tail, like the bird in the photo below.

This wasn't taken at Titchfield Haven but was actually from winter 2010, in a park in Paris! I know it's random but it makes good reference for this post. I didn't see much wildlife in Paris so probably there won't be a full post about that. ^^

Black-headed Gulls won't breed their first summer, and gulls you see in spring and summer that look almost like adults, but with some brown fringing and remnants of the black tail band, are probably always one year old. There were a few of these hanging around in the colony this year, and I found myself wondering if any of them were chicks that I sketched back in 2013! Even if not those specific ones, it seemed likely that they were born at Titchfield Haven, and whatever their reason for hanging around there I expect it will help them when they breed to have been around nesting adults when they were younger!

Sadly on this visit I couldn't check on the status of the reed nesting birds (whether the pair had succeeded in making their 'in-between' nest, etc) because the vegetation in front of the hide had grown so high that I couldn't see low down enough. But I did see something rather gratifying: two families of Moorhens! I didn't see either of their nests but one had some medium sized but still downy babies, and the other had three absolutely tiny babies! The tiny chicks were roaming quite far afield but the adults had a close eye on them, and they stuck to the side of the scrape and well away from any of the islands.

There was a large chick on the close island with most of its feathers, but one comical patch of down on the top of its head that it probably didn't realise was there! It was pestering a parent like anything for food, pecking at its beak and trying to get the parent to regurgitate. This succeeded, and the parent dropped a chunk of food onto the ground, but quick as a flash another adult gull suddenly rushed in and grabbed it! Having seen the intruder off indignantly the parent tried again, but it seemed to be having trouble bringing up the next lump of whatever-it-was. Unlike what I've seen with pigeon milk, gulls don't seem to be able to feed their food straight into their chicks' beaks as a liquid, so instead it has to come out in lumps and some of them look hard to cough up! Honestly, it almost painful to watch. :O But the parent eventually succeeded and the baby got its meal, without it being stolen this time.

Speaking of meals, I was viewing from another hide (overlooking the neighboring scrape but you can still see what's going on on the large scrape from a distance), when there was a scuffle on the main scrape- a Lesser Black-backed Gull swooped down and targeted a family of Avocets. (there's a few pairs that breed at Titchfield Haven! It's really cool. They tend to breed further from the hides though so it's harder to observe them.) The parent had at least two large chicks, almost as big as her and mostly black and white but still with grey baby feathers on their backs. She was not happy with the gull's proximity to her babies and shooed it off angrily, with a strangely musical alarm call. I couldn't help thinking that her chicks were probably too full grown to be caught by the Lesser but it was impressive to watch! The Lesser didn't give up however, and swooped over to the gull nests, where despite being hounded by the adult Black-headeds, it managed to catch one of the downy chicks. It quickly bore the chick away to the scrape in front of my hide where there were fewer Black-headeds about, and began pecking at the chick and holding it underwater to kill it. A man in the hide who was a regular there told me it had taken 'dozens' of the chicks. But even if it had, and even if it was quite sad to watch, the Lesser Black-backed Gull had a good reason- living, just like any other bird. Any bird species only has to raise enough chicks every year to replace older birds who have died to keep the population stable, and the colony certainly didn't have as many chicks as it did on my visit in 2013 at this later stage, but it's not like there were incredibly few either! And soon the ones that are still downy will be feathered, and too big for the gull to carry off, and it will have to find a new source of food. The mortality rate of course includes first winter deaths, and then more in first summer and second winter, but the ones who survive into their second summer when they are old enough to breed will have already survived a lot, and they will hopefully be equipped to survive a lot more. The oldest recorded Black-headed Gulls have been in their twenties.

Thanks for sticking with me in this odd travel in time, I hope it made sense! I know I will be watching this colony (and sketching it!) for many years to come. It's not only fascinating, but funny! And now whenever I see those common, town dwelling gulls that are Black-headeds, I think about how much they had to go through to get up, because I've seen it happen. Watching common birds on their breeding sites will ensure you never take them for granted again!