Monday, 27 February 2012

More Traffic Lights

John Sparham revisited his photos from last Tuesday, and produced better versions of the green & red pair, as well as some first pictures of the birds which looked amber in the field. Unfortunately it was a very overcast day, so it'll be interesting to see what quality of pictures may be obtained in brighter conditions.
All photos (c) 2012 John Sparham
Crossbills - green & red
Crossbill - 'amber'

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Traffic Lights at Dog Mess Central

Yellowhammer - refusing to come completely into the open

Yesterday saw the only classes this half-term week, as the Tuesday 'pupils' tried to catch up on a rained-off session. The star birds were likened to the colour of traffic lights. Although these pictures show the red & green 'lights', there was also an 'amber' bird, but no photos exist.

The morning sessions started very quietly indeed, but a Goldcrest and Treecreeper enlivened the gloom. When we got to the heath area we could hear the strange noise of Crossbills flying around, but they were very hard to track down. Eventually one was heard singing. The song appeared to be coming from an area of gorse bushes, but Margaret spotted a green Crossbill singing from some power lines above our heads. Everyone got point-blank views of this particular bird, and then some distant sightings of about 6 birds in a high conifer.

Walking along a ditch & a bank to get better views of the birds once they had relocated we also saw an extremely early basking female Adder. She should be joined be several more in the coming weeks. Although the day was a lot warmer than of late, I hadn't really expected to see an Adder in February. The same individual was seen in the afternoon - identified by the proximity to the ladybird!

Marsh Tits showed for both sessions near the car park, but the Treecreeper was only seen properly in the morning. A male Kestrel also hung over the car parking area, and 3 Buzzards were seen to the east.

In the afternoon the Crossbills were spotted by one of the new Sues at the top of a Silver Birch tree just over the dragonfly pond. This must be the area where they come down to drink, so may be worth revisiting for better pictures in superior light conditions. They were only present at the pool in overcast conditions yesterday. Although the pm session missed out on the Yellowhammer, Treecreeper & Goldcrest, they did have a pair of Green Woodpeckers, which gave reasonably good fly-by views. They provided a nice fillip to the closing section of the afternoon session.

This venue is ruined by inconsiderate dog owners who refuse to poop up their mess, so an awful lot of time is wasted examining the floor when we should be searching the trees and skies for birds. Dog-walkers are notoriously badly behaved at this site, as we have seen in the past - the other summer signs were put up to ask owners to put their dogs on leads to avoid harming ground-nesting birds, but when we were there not a single dog was on a lead.

The rest of the week is my own to either write a piece for a local magazine, or try & track down some interesting late winter species
Crossbills (c) 2012 John Sparham
Female Adder (& 7-spot Ladybird)
Singing Green Crossbill
Record shot of Siskins
Green Woodpecker

Monday, 20 February 2012

Lulu in Full Voice

Checked out a Woodlark venue today, but didn't really hold out a lot of hope - especially after the recent cold snap. As soon as I opened the car door, I could hear one singing, and then saw a pair in flight. Woodlark are one of the finest songsters we have in the UK, so it was really uplifting to hear them, and a sign that spring is almost here. They landed on a nearby bank, so were easy to photograph from a distance. I heard another 2 singing birds, but it soon clouded over, and when the drizzle started the birds went quiet.

Another early sign of spring was the Chiffchaff in the garden on Saturday & Sunday. There is almost light at the end of the very long tunnel, which has been Winter 2011/2012!!!


Sunday, 19 February 2012

After the Big Freeze

Great Spotted Woodpecker (c) 2012 Richard Whateley
Mistle Thrush (c) 2012 Richard Whateley
Great Tit (c) 2012 Aileen Urquhart

Last week saw quite a thawing out after the bone-chilling previous week. Most of the wetland habitats were still frozen over, so were largely devoid of birds, so we tried to find birds in woodland. The Tuesday & Wednesday groups went looking for Bullfinches, which came up trumps again, although the courtship scene observed the previous week was not repeated. Other birds seen were Treecreeper, Redwing, Long-tailed Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker, & Stock Doves.

The Thursday & Friday groups went to our only fragment of ancient woodland. Here, the most fascinating birds watched were some over-excited Great Spotted Woodpeckers. There were at least 2 females & 1 male, but another individual may also have been involved. One bird drummed on one resonant piece of wood, then there was a short pause, then it drummed on a different stump, which emitted a sound at a quite different frequency. One of the birds drumming was definitely a female, so it isn't only male birds which drum.

On both visits Common Buzzards were seen, which is a new bird for this particular area. It is unlikely that they will breed in the fragment of ancient woodland, as it is a very popular area with noisy ramblers & dogwalkers, so they are unlikely to settle down long enough to breed in peace. However, there are a couple of suitable copses nearby, so hopefully we will have some breeding in the area this summer. Other birds seen included: Blue, Great, Coal & Long-tailed Tits, Treecreepers, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Rooks, Carrion Crows, Wrens, Dunnocks, but only one session obtained decent views of some genuinely wild Bullfinches.
Bullfinch [female]
Record shot of Goldcrest
Record shot of Goldcrest

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Rarely Seen Bullfinch Courtship Dance

Yesterday afternoon's students were rewarded with an amazing display of what appears to be a courtship dance between a pair of Bullfinches. The various stages of a Gannet's Courtship display & pair bonding has been well documented, but I've never seen the courtship of this much more widespread species depicted or even mentioned in bird books. This could be partly due to the size and prominence of the Gannets on their breeding sites, whilst Bullfinches are relatively secretive in their habits, and spend most of their time in deep thickets. Research has revealed that the courtship is described in the massive scientific tomes entitled Birds of the Western Palearctic.

This would have made a great little film, but I had to make do with taking 80 or so still photographs. During the whole of this performance the male made gentle almost purring sounds, but didn't break into the full wheezes and squeaks of its rarely heard song. At one point the male brought his bill into contact with the females (not caught on camera), which almost seemed to replicate a human kiss, and I heard a gasp escape from some of my students behind me.

Meanwhile, one of the top local bird photographers had also arrived, and once the birds had moved on admitted that he'd seen nothing like it himself. Even though the light dusting of snow the previous evening almost deterred some people from attending, those who did make the journey were rewarded with a rarely seen aspect of our resident bird life. Our birds are sometimes decried for their dull plumage, but there was nothing dull about these Bullfinches' feathers or their behaviour on this occasion.

What follows below is a few highlights of the dance with my interpretation of what seemed to be taking place.

Male Bullfinch (right) bows down to the female
Male becomes upright & female begins to raise her head back
Female raises her head further, making herself look tall, and male looks away appearing subservient
male turns back to female steps closer, whilst female faces away from him, brings her head down & also flattens her crown feathers
female looks towards male, but moves her body away from his
female moves further away from male
male sways from side-to-side, whilst singing softly & female raises her head towards him again
male still singing, whilst female pulls her head back
female pulls her head even further back, (imitating a sky-pointing Gannet) displaying her black bib to the male
female's head pulled back to its furthest extent, while the male still swaying side-to-side

female brings her head back down towards the horizontal, whilst male continues to sway
the female's head almost returns to normal, whilst male bows even lower, at the same time his tail is jerked to an angle approaching 90 degrees

Friday, 10 February 2012

Bullie for You!

This has probably been one of the most difficult weeks for viewing birds since the classes started in 2004. The wetland habitats that we normally visit at this time of year have almost iced over completely, so the water birds have deserted in droves or are very difficult to see without telescopes. The answer has been to revisit nearby locations that we no longer usually visit, which still hold something decent to see at close quarters. The answer yesterday was for extremely close views of Bullfinches. Some of these birds came within 3 feet of participants.

A new member saw his first Bullfinch only a couple of weeks ago & yesterday remarked that it was an absolute privilege to get this close to such stunningly beautiful birds - a species which puts a lie to the claim that all British birds are dull brown and unremarkable.

Where to go next week if there hasn't been a major thaw, and everyone has been to the Bullfinch location?...

Bullfinch [male]
ditto with Blue Tit
Bullfinch [female]
Bullfinch [female]
Coal Tit
Record shot of Great Spotted Woodpecker [male]
Great Spotted Woodpecker [female]
Reed Bunting [female]