Saturday 11 April 2015

A Very Gothic Experience (not really) and more courtship displays

Yesterday I was in a cemetery next to an old church, walking among the graves, when I heard the distant croaking call of a Raven. Looking up I saw the huge, flying cross silhouette of this great and most gothic of corvids, soaring majestically over.

...Well, that would leave out the fact that it was a glorious sunny day, the graves were covered in beautiful floral displays, and a Raven's croak never sounded particularly gothic in my opinion! I've always been struck by how oddly polite their call is, and while it can be heard from a great distance there's nothing loud or fussy about it. Compared with the screeching of Rooks or the harsh 'chak!' of Jackdaws it's really not sinister at all. But it is great for finding them, as the call is unmistakable, and as soon as you hear it just look up and you'll no doubt see a big black bird flying over.

This particular church was at Minstead in the New Forest, whose graveyard is notable for having Sir Arthur Conan Doyle buried there (among the new graves because he was buried far from the church due to his spiritualist beliefs being a bit suspicious to the clergy at the time). There's also a grave which originally had the words 'faithful husband' but after finding out some things to the contrary after his death his widow cut carefully around the word 'faithful' and removed it, so now it just reads something like 'he was a husband'. I guess sometimes that's all you can say. ^^

After visiting the church I went for a walk around the area, and on a field I saw the black and white blur of two Pied Wagtails fighting. It seemed very violent as one kept pinning the other onto the ground, but then as they stayed still for a moment I got a good look at their plumage and realised they were a male and a female. They female crouched down and presented her tail to the male, and began to flutter her wings, and he jumped onto her back and quickly mated with her. In fact it was so quick that I wondered if it had actually succeeded at all. As I wrote about in my Black-headed Gull post, birds mate by touching their sexual organs together, which are similar in males and females and are called the cloaca. (There are a few exceptions to this as in some species of birds the males have penises, I think Ostriches and ducks, but not may others.) With these Pied Wagtails their tails were so long that it looked like a struggle to get them out of the way for long enough to expose the cloaca to each other. It's possible they had the same thought I had as I saw them mate twice more afterwards. The female can only produce one egg a day, and the pair must mate successfully beforehand each time.

Most people know about well-known courtship displays like the mating dance of the Great-crested Grebe, but I'm starting to realise that other species all have their own courtship rituals too, and if you watch them carefully enough at this time of year you might see them for yourself. I never would have guessed that a Pied Wagtail gets in the mood for mating with a vicious fight! To see it for yourself keep an eye on pairs of common birds that you see at this time of year, especially of species that you never normally see together, like Robins. You might see the female being fed, displays of behavioral mimicry, mutual preening (like the famous 'billing and cooing' of pigeons) showing off by the male, and after mating some birds have rituals then too such as calling or spending time close together afterwards. It's tempting to anthropomorphize these birds, and I think we all do to some extent, but all these behaviours have reasons behind them and it's interesting to make a guess at what they are. Feral birds like ducks and pigeons, and even escaped birds if they are living in a natural enough environment, can be great to watch as it's easy to get close to them. I wrote about seeing the Black Swan's mating dance here, and about watching a Woodpigeon feed his mate 'pigeon milk' here.

As I walked through an area of heathland surrounded by conifers I was lucky enough to hear the song of a Firecrest, and get a good view of this wonderfully colourful bird. Firecrests are a hundred times more striking in real life than in pictures, and the yellow-ochre splash of colour on their shoulder is particularly dazzling, especially in contrast to their olive backs and black and white striped heads. Their song is a series of speeding up notes, a little like the Goldcrest's song but all on one note. I've always found Spring Firecrests to be very confident birds, easy to see at close range once you hear them. And they always seem bigger than Goldcrests, though whether they actually are noticeably bigger is perhaps not true. It's the colouring that makes them seem so, and perhaps the confidence soon. Firecrests are one bird I'm proud to say I'm 'getting better at'- I saw my first one with help in 2010 and since then I've been finding my own locally, and can recognise their song.

It's still early April and it's weird to think that while some birds, like the Pied Wagtails, are well on their way to breeding, some of our breeding species are not even here yet! Later on in the Spring if I travel to their New Forest again I'll be able to hear Cuckoos, Redstarts, Wood Warblers, Woodlarks and Tree Pipits, but heard not a peep of any of these species just yet. Meanwhile, the Raven I saw earlier is one of our earliest breeding birds, and could have already fledged his young for the year. It's amazing to think about. One migrant I did see yesterday was the first Swallows of the year, for me at least! It's always lovely to see them come back.

Finally, as I walked through the wooded New Forest enclosures I was impressed to see a species I don't remember when I last saw- I kept passing mounds of earth covered in great swarming masses of Wood Ants! These beasties are about 3 times the size of a black ant, and are more fussy about their habitat. I'm not sure if they actually eat wood but they certainly chew it, as one nest was near a pile of logs that had become riddled with holes!

Happy Spring, everyone! I'm certainly full of the joys. :)

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