Friday, 27 April 2012

Variations in Yellow - Follow-up

Just over a week ago I published a blog on the group of Yellowhammers that had begun visiting my garden. Those visits continue I’m glad to say, but the numbers and colour of those birds has changed noticeably in that time.

Firstly the group has increased in size to up to ten birds at a time. I haven’t seen that number of birds together in one go other than during the winter, and then in mixed flocks of finches. On recent occasions the Yellowhammers seem to have been in the company of Goldfinches and Chaffinches, so perhaps the congregation is a run-over from winter into spring?

The colour change has been quite dramatic, posing the question of whether this group is the same one I saw 10 days ago. Judging from their colour, the earlier birds I thought were a mix of male and female or juvenile. The colouring of the “new” birds would suggest that they are nearly all male. Now I’m not a greatly experienced birder, but I don’t think that birds can change plumage as much in just over one week; hence my belief that this second group is a different group.

So if there is a second group the next question concerns the total number of birds in the area. In my wanderings around the pathways and lanes around the village I have noticed numerous Yellowhammers atop the hedges singing to establish territories, but I have not noticed any groups of birds – indeed I can’t see those birds leaving territories to join a group to feed in my garden! So with the two groups there are nearly 20 birds above what I suspect is the resident population, and I suspect that I have witnessed a migration. Perhaps these birds came south when the weather turned snowy and cold in January, and they are only now moving back. I think I will have to do some research with the BTO.

Oh, I almost forgot, we also had a nice looking Stock Dove come for a feed.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Lincolnshire Delights

Today I went down to Lincolnshire on one of Michael Flower’s excellent trips (see Michael's blog). The target species was the Nightingale. We went last year at the same time and the selected site was stuffed to overflowing with passerine migrants – ten singing Nightingales, Garden Warblers, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and Willow Warblers – so the expectation for today was high.

The weather today was not as good as a year ago. I took a look at the Met Office forecast for RAF Waddington (just up the road), and that suggested overcast conditions with a 20% chance of a shower. In fairness the forecast wasn’t too far wrong, but when the only shower arrived, it was a bit of a downpour. We all took shelter under the trees, protecting the camera equipment from the rain.
The Nightingales were certainly in aural evidence, although this year we counted only 5 singing males. A couple made themselves seen, but spent most of the time out of the way. The other warblers were also a bit in short supply. We didn’t hear one Garden Warbler, but there were several Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaff. Even the Swallows numbers were low. Some of this could have been the overcast conditions, but Michael told us of reports that many birds had been held up in their migration because of bad weather in Spain. Let’s hope it improves soon.

Willow Warbler
After lunch I went back to find the Nightingales again. One particularly took my interest, and I spent a good hour following it as it moved around its territory. Given the energy and volume this bird puts into its choral repertoires it is not surprising that it needs to refuel between performances. I watched as one bird sought out morsels in the undergrowth, occasionally coming to the edge of the hedging and into plain view on the paths. If only that had been more predictable, then I would have had some better photos. As it was I had to wait patiently for the bird to come to rest in its singing position.


Getting ready to sing

At full volume

Pausing before an encore

Just having a rest
I love these birds. They are master songsters, and are by no means as dowdy as some would describe their plumage to be. It is just such a shame that their territory does not extend just that bit further north into East Yorkshire. Come on climate change!!!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Grebe Day Out

Last week I turned up to see the Garganey at Tophill Low only for them to have moved on over night. Yesterday I was anxious that the same may happen with the Black-Necked Grebes that had arrived at North Cave Wetlands. So I decided to hit the road early before the day warmed up.

On arrival my first sighting was of two posturing Great Created Grebes, performing in front of each other in anticipation of raising a brood of stripy youngsters. Then, with all present and correct on the Main Lake and easily seen from South Hide, were the three Black-Necked Grebes. I have seen this species before but in the autumn when the plumage is much less vibrant. These birds all displayed the golden yellow head feathers, and clearly had the red eye that they are known for. Two of the birds seemed to have paired up, while the other kept well out of the way. The relationship between the paired birds seemed very strong, with both performing synchronised diving and making sharp “peeps” if the other was more than ten yards away.

A "flotilla" of BNG?

Paired up BNG

Where have you gone?

Back together again - male on the right?
South Hide began to fill, and as I had been given two close passes by the “pair”, I decided to move on. The rest of the reserve was dominated by very noisy Black-Headed Gulls ready to breed. I am sure that there are more this year than before, but when there is plenty of food about and very few predators, it is perhaps not surprising that success rates are high. The Avocets have returned in good numbers, but I’m sure they won’t be as successful - awful parents!

Avocets in open formation
Coming back to the grebes, North Cave was able to boast not only Black-Necked and Great Crested varieties, but also the ubiquitous Coot and Moorhen, as well as the less common Little Grebe. Almost a full house! Wouldn't that be something to see.

Coot on incubation duties

Resplendant Great Crested Grebe

Distant Little Grebe
Other birds of note were the returning Swallows and Sand Martins, Willow Warblers (at least a dozen singing males around the reserve), numerous Reed Buntings, and a few Blackcaps.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Variations in Yellow

Yesterday my garden was visited by a group of seven Yellowhammers. I have often had the odd bird coming to pick up the droppings from the feeders, particularly in the harsh cold times. But to have seven in one go at this time of year was unusual to say the least.

Why this should happen in April is not clear to me. If it were winter, then I might expect to find Yellowhammers in mixed flocks of finches and buntings. But if you walk the local back roads or fields now, you are much more likely to come across a singing male every two or three hundred yards.

The other element that surprised me was the variation in plumage colouring of the group of seven. If my analysis is correct, then the group had two males in it. Judging by the difference between these two birds, I would almost be tempted to say that one was a season or two younger than the other. The other birds I think were all female, but even these had variations in the depth of yellow displayed.

Interestingly, the bird shown below is one I came across in Thixendale today. It was one of three males whose territories, I think, were within a couple of hundred feet of hedgerow. Each was as vivid as the one shown. Could it be that competition between males makes the plumage more striking? Comments?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Sunshine Always Follows Showers

I think we all experience periods where things don’t go quite as planned or as we would hope they would, and then something sparkling happens to make things alright again. Friday’s day out was like that. Having patiently watched Birdguides all week and the reports of a resplendent pair of Garganey at Tophill, I was finally going to get the chance to see them. I haven’t seen a drake in full breeding plumage, so this was going to be a great opportunity.

The pair had been reported on North Lagoon all week, so it was there that I went first. No sign of them!! It seems that overnight the water level in the Lagoon had risen. As Garganey are only small, such a rise may have put much of their food source out of reach, so the chances were that they may be found elsewhere. I looked all over the reserve, but no sign of them anywhere. They could only have moved on. Shame.  
However, that disappointment was well compensated for by some excellent views of other species, and a number of firsts for the year. The firsts included Swallow, Sand Martin, Willow Warbler, and Linnet, and I even came across a couple of Weasels on site. The star of the day though was a cute little Water Vole on North Marsh. I was dodging the showers, sitting in the hide hoping for a glimpse of the Kingfisher, when the Vole appeared from amongst the reeds, sat itself down and began to devour a reed crown. After half an hour of chomping when I thought the poor thing would explode, it calmly launched itself back into the water, swam around the corner and into its bankside tunnel – probably for a sleep to digest its huge meal.

Water Vole

Second helpings

Off to digest its meal
All in all, and with 54 species under my belt for the day – including some fine views of the SEOs and a Willow Tit – I couldn’t complain about missing the Garganey or the rain, could I?

Drake Gadwall

Goldfinch with nesting material

Greylag on sentry duty


Magnificent Short-Eared Owl

Willow Tit

Willow Warbler

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Abroad in Norfolk - Part Two

The beaches on the north Norfolk coast are wide and largely empty, making them a perfect take-off and landing strip if you happen to have your own microlight. So it was for Peter Marcou, who I met at Brancaster. In exchange for some shots of him taking off and in flight, Peter kindly provided me with some shots of the coastal strip to illustrate my blog – mostly dunes and salt marsh and ideal for a variety of birds.

Brancaster - looking west
Brancaster - looking east
The second visit during our trip to north Norfolk was to Cley Marshes – the jewel of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves. The weather continued to be warm and sunny, but the wind was a chill northerly straight off the sea.

Cley is a quite expansive reserve, and covers a range of different habitats – from salt and freshwater marsh, to large reed beds and grazing marsh. Some of the lagoons were a bit low on water because of the drought, and this had uncovered a number of additional mud banks. The reserve also has one of the best visitor centres I have come across – and the lunches weren’t bad either.

In the morning I visited to three main hides which afforded some good views across the main scrapes and pools. The birdlife was not as varied as I had hoped, but there were plenty of Avocet, Bar- and Black-Tailed Godwits, plus a few Ruff (still in winter garb) and plenty of ducks. The geese were limited to Greylags pairing up to raise new broods. The reed beds along the walkways were full of the calls of Bearded Tits (or Bearded Reedlings as they are called locally), but which made few appearances other than fleeting fly-overs or brief views through the reeds. Those views were the closest I had come to those birds, but it was quite frustrating that I still have no close up photos of them.
Kestrel atop Avocet hide
After lunch I went to Bishop’s hide and was treated to some really good and close up views of Avocets, Black-Tailed Godwits and Ruff.
Squabbling Avocets

Avocet with thoughts of food
Black-Tailed Godwit
Later I did the walk along East Bank from where I saw three distant Red Kites (quite rare for around Cley), and two high flying buzzards – thought by a local (and dubiously by me) to be of the Rough-Legged species. I did pick up one “lifer” however. I have twice heard a Cetti’s Warbler in East Yorkshire, but never seen one. Today I did both. Having heard the call a few times I stood and waited. My patience was rewarded with the briefest of sightings – too fast for a photo – before the bird dived back into a bramble, not to re-emerge. A quick study of my Collins confirmed what I had seen.

Not long after I spotted some commotion on the far side of the reserve with all the birds on the scrapes going up in unison. I scoured the sky for a predator, but none was to be seen. Then I noticed that sections of the reeds were being flattened, and only then did I see a herd of marauding red deer ploughing their way across the reserve. They reached East Bank, swam the ditch, climbed the bank and down the other side before galloping off across the grazing marsh and disappearing into the distance. What was driving them I do not know, but they certainly made everyone stop and stare – including a number of passing motorists.
Red Deer - climbing East Bank
Off and into the distance having disturbed everyone
The visit to Cley Marshes really concluded my trip to north Norfolk. Overall I had seen 60 different species, and found some really good places to visit for the future. I really enjoyed the wildlife, and am already planning a return trip for the end of the year when our winter migrants return.