Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Next Term, 6: Puffin

Puffin - Open Wide

Everyone seems to like Puffins, although I'm sure there's someone somewhere, other than Chris Packham who isn't that enamoured with them. Puffins, or Sea Parrots, as they were once known, only spend a relatively short time on our cliffs. They have only recently started to arrive on "the Great White Cape", and aren't yet back in their full numbers. However, by the end of the first week in July, they will all have virtually abandoned our shores until next March.‏

People are probably attracted to Puffins initially because of their multi-coloured bills, in combination and contrast with their dinner-jacket appearance. Because of the close views on TV when images of Puffins fill the whole screen, the uninitiated tend to assume that Puffins are fairly large birds, but when they see one on the Yorkshire cliffs for the first time, they are usually struck by how small they actually are. On their small island colonies they habitually nest in rabbit burrows, but this isn't practical in Yorkshire, so our Puffins are confined to small fissures, and cracks in the chalk cliffs, and they lay their single egg when they have the option at the end of a short tunnel. The comical growling noise Puffins make in their massive colonies tends to go unnoticed here, where their calls are drowned out by the noisier Kittiwakes, Gannets, and Guillemots. 
Comical Pose
Although Bempton is the most well-known Puffin site on our coast, we avoid the crazy queues there, and enjoy a location where there are fewer people, but many more Puffins. Just occasionally it is possible to get much closer views of the Puffins than you can get at Bempton. If the weather is nice it is also well-worth going on one of the many seabird cruises at the bottom of the cliffs. On one of these you may be lucky enough to get unparalleled views of the Puffins both on the sea, and flying close to the boat. 
Taking Off
 Bringing fish back
Until last summer we had never seen any young, but twice towards the end of June we managed to see a Puffling on the edge of the cliff, presumably waiting for the next high tide, so it could drop into the water, and escape the nest site. If the young Puffin survives its first year, and we aren't punished by gale-force winds, it has every chance of enjoying a fairly long life. As with many of the other seabirds on the cliffs, Puffins can be long-lived. Up to the present time the oldest ever Puffin in the UK lived to be almost 37 years old! 
Puffling behind its parent
 Autumnal Puffin - with no sheath on the bill
Not many people realise that Puffins only have that colourful bill during the breeding season. It is actually a colourful sheath which is used for display purposes and as an aid for digging out burrows. During the autumn this 'mask' falls away, and the bird is left with a much smaller bill to survive the winter on the Atlantic Ocean. 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Next Term, 5: Wheatear

Male Wheatear
As mentioned last time Wheatears are another member of the chat family. These are among some of the earliest spring migrants to return in March, but their migration time is also one of the most prolonged with some arrivals still taking place well into May. Male Wheatears are extremely handsome birds with blue-grey blacks, apricot underparts, a dashing black mask through the eye, and the tell-tale white rump. It is the latter that has given the bird it's rather misleading contemporary name. The Wheatear isn't named after its failure to breed in wheat fields among ears of corn, rather it is a corruption over many years from the original old English name "White arse." Before the world of binoculars the most noticeable feature of the wheatear was its white rump as it was flushed. 
On a Tyre
 in Damp Pasture
 On the Rocks
Female Wheatears are also attractive birds with brown upperparts, apricot underparts, the stunning white rump, but no black marks through the eye. 
On Oilseed Rape
Unfortunately, Wheatears do not breed locally, but pass through the county twice a year: before breeding begins, and the long slow autumnal post-breeding migration. Wheatears are birds of higher altitudes than the sea level offered by coastal East Yorkshire. They can be found nesting in drystone walls in West and North Yorkshire, but they are also birds of mountains and moorland. 
Wheatear in Flight - displaying rump
 7 Wheatears on a woodpile
Some years the slightly larger Greenland race birds also pass through in significant numbers, but this is highly dependant on prevailing weather conditions.  
9 Wheatears on 2 woodpiles
 A Wheatear on Autumn Migration

On migration Wheatears will tend to be located near livestock, or where there is a ready supply of insects for them to devour and fatten on before continuing on their way. They often perch in prominent positions. I have seen them on fence-posts, dung-heaps and even tyres, all of these on the coast. One of the most surprising locations was far inland at North Cliffe Wood on a gorse bush. It continued on its migration as we watched, setting off far into the air in a northerly direction. The most amazing spectacle was 7 jockeying for position on one pile of wood at Kilnsea, with 2 also present on the adjacent wood pile!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Next Term 4: Redstart

Male Redstart
The Redstart is a member of the chat family, perhaps the most attractive family of British birds. These include the Stonechat, the Whinchat, the Wheatear, the much scarcer Black Redstart, the rare vagrant the Bluethroat, and any others? Oh yes, the everyday Robin. Even the largest, least colourful English member of the chat family, the Nightingale has its own outstanding qualities, but this isn't the place to go into those. The Redstart is probably the most colourful member of the whole family with its bright orange underparts, its blue-grey back, black throat and white forehead. The Redstart gets its name from its most eye-catching habit of moving its orangish-red tail in a sort of shivering motion. 'Start' is a remnant of the old English word for tail.
 The distribution maps for Redstarts show that the birds are most likely to be found in the west and north of Britain. One would therefore expect that the only Redstarts seen in East Yorkshire were those on the coast at migration times, perhaps a handful in the spring, and a greater number heading south in the Autumn. They are well known as breeders around the Strid near Bolton Abbey, and can be found in several other woods in both north and West Yorkshire. When I was at Bishop Burton college I learned that they had bred in an open-fronted bird box in the woodland there in around 1996, but this seems to have been an isolated event. However, shortly after passing my driving test I visited a nature reserve and nearby historic site in the Yorkshire wolds, and came across some male Redstarts in breeding plumage. Since then I have discovered a thin population of Redstarts in many of the valleys in the wolds.  The birds seem particularly attracted to nesting in cracks in Ash trees on the wolds.  It seems strange that a relatively small yet significant when added together breeding population of such a bright bird as the Redstart has been virtually under the radar for centuries. 
At least 2 days next term we will be travelling to the wolds to see if we can locate these bright, but quite unobtrusive birds. The female is a lot less colourful than the male, but she still has the habit of shivering her tail. Whether we obtain any decent photos remains to be seen, but if not we should see some moulting individuals on the coast during the autumn sessions.
Female Redstart
 Male Redstart
 Juvenile Redstart
 Autumnal Redstart in Moult

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Next Term 3: Yellow 'flava' Wagtails

 Yellow Wagtail

The Yellow Wagtail is one of my favourite spring birds, and is still hanging on as a breeding species in East Yorkshire. This isn't a bird we will be specifically going somewhere to see, but hopefully our luck will hold, and we will enjoy good views of a stunning male. The male has the most vivid yellow upperparts, which extends to just above the eye. The back is green with darker wings edged with white and the tail being almost black with white outer tail feathers. It's rather strange that we can delight in a bird with such bright colours, but many of us would shirk from purchasing a car with that same garish trim! 
Yellow Wagtails are some of the earliest spring migrants to return, usually in about the 3rd week of April, and are quite often seen among the feet of sheep, cattle or horses. This has led to them being known in some parts of the country as milkmaids. Although they are very brightly coloured, they have one of the most uninspiring songs, which mainly consists of just 2 notes, which approximates to a "sweee-swee." 
Blending in on Oilseed Rape
 Failing to blend in
Yellow Wagtails were traditionally known to breed in areas such as partially flooded wildflower meadows. In East Yorkshire they can still be found nesting in agricultural areas such as fields of oilseed rape, winter corn and potatoes. Researchers have discovered that if Yellow Wagtails breed in a potato field, they can comfortably produce two broods in a season, but in oilseed rape they can only manage one, as it becomes too thick for them to attempt a second family. They often line the road to Sunk Island just inches away from the drainage ditches, but the latter often dry up. However, it's only a short flight to the river Humber, which is never more than a quarter of a mile away. They can also be often found on muck heaps, which attract the kind of insects, which are becoming harder to locate in over-sprayed fields. 
Less photogenic with droppings
 Blue-headed Wagtail (c) 2015 Chris Cox
Yellow or 'flava' Wagtails are found all over Europe, but the colour of the head markings varies from country to country. At migration time, and depending on prevailing weather conditions, many of these variant races may turn up on the east coast, especially at Spurn. 2 years ago the Friday morning session found what looked like a Blue-headed Wagtail at North Cave Wetlands, but this was a paler blue than normal, so was reclassified as a 'Channel' Wagtail, not a bird, which you can find depicted in the standard bird books. It is regarded as a cross between the Blue-headed Wagtail, the commonest flava wagtail found on the near continent, and our own Yellow Wagtail. The only other variant we have come across so far in the past 11 years was an Ashy-headed Wagtail found at Spurn. This is most commonly found on the Iberian peninsula. 
Blue-headed Wagtail (c) 2015 Chris Cox
 'Channel' Wagtail (c) 2015 Chris Cox
 Ash-headed Wagtail
 Yellow Wagtail
Yellow Wagtails are another species whose population has fallen in the last three decades, but they continue to be seen in a few pockets of our area. When the construction works at North Cave have been completed, and some flooded meadows are created perhaps the Yellow Wagtail will return to breed in the vicinity of that reserve too? 

Friday, 27 March 2015

Next Term 2: Cuckoo

Another iconic bird of the spring we will be tracking down next term is the Cuckoo. 40 years ago the distinctive two-note call of the male Cuckoo could be heard in almost any habitat, and the bird could be seen almost anywhere, even in the most suburban of locations. Unfortunately, it has gone into a steep decline since then, and has been lost from many of its traditional haunts. 
Male Cuckoo
Cuckoos have always been much easier to hear than to see, as a poem by Wordsworth attests, and there are many who claim to have never seen a Cuckoo. This isn't something those currently enrolled on the spring course will be able to say. Every class member will be going to at least 2 locations where the Cuckoo is almost guaranteed, and there are a couple of other locations where they are a distinct possibility. 
Last year the Friday groups had a very close encounter with an individual at everyone's favourite North Lincolnshire reserve, plus others were seen at the Turtle Dove location. We also heard them at other venues, but there were several sites where they weren't heard at all, but a few years ago their call would have been a continuous background noise almost every week. 
There is more to the vocal range of the Cuckoo than the 2-note 'song' of the male.  We hope to also hear the unusual bubbling call of the female, and the even less-well known and little-heard 'gowking' belly-laugh of over-excited male birds. 
Some people are struck on their first sighting of a Cuckoo with their resemblance to a bird of prey. The Cuckoo is greyish above and paler below with barred underparts. It has pointed wings, a long grey tail, and bright yellow legs and feet. There is a theory that this resemblance is a evolutionary strategy. Raptors are generally mobbed by smaller birds, so that the small passerines will all gather round the intruder until it gets fed up and moves out of their territory. In a Cuckoo's case a Meadow Pipit, which leaves its nest to mob a Cuckoo will unintentionally reveal its breeding site to the bird which intends to leave its egg in that nest.  
The Cuckoo's unorthodox breeding strategy of leaving its eggs in the care of a surrogate family has worked well for many millennia, but the species has declined dramatically in recent years. Previously, the bird could be found in virtually every habitat type, but now seems to be mainly confined to some wetland habitats, and areas which aren't intensively sprayed with insecticides. For instance, Cuckoos haven't declined as drastically in the wildernesses of some areas of Scotland. One of the main food sources for Cuckoos are hairy caterpillars and other unusual insects, but vast numbers of these have been wiped out since 1970, and the Cuckoo has disappeared as a consequence.
You may read some of the background of the declining Cuckoo and many other species in "Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo" by Michael McCarthy. Of course many Cuckoos have been tracked on their migration to and from the UK in recent years, and you can follow their progress on the BTO migration website.
 Immature Cuckoo

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Next Term 1: Turtle Dove

As the countdown for the Spring/Summer term begins, this post is the first of a new feature, illustrating some of the special species we will be looking for.

Turtle Dove
One of the star birds we will be looking for next term will be the Turtle Dove. In the 11 years of the course we have found these almost every summer at probably 7 locations in total. Unfortunately, it will probably be found in only 2 of those locations in 2015, and in one of those venues there appear to be fewer individuals every summer. All classes will be going to the most reliable, but relatively little-known site, whilst the Friday group will also be visiting the second place.
Turtle Doves were relatively common when I remember seeing my first ones in about 1970, but they have declined around 80% since then, and continue to do so. There is probably no one reason, but changes in farming practice, which has meant the reduction in field side wild flowers and the resultant seeds is one of the most important factors. Continued shooting and trapping on some Mediterranean Islands has probably exacerbated the problem.
Turtles Doves are the most attractive member of the pigeon family currently found in the UK. In comparison with the others they are fairly secretive birds, and prefer to nest under the cover of thick scrub. Apart from the wonderful pink underparts, the rufous tortoiseshell upperparts, and white bordered diamond shaped tail, they are renowned for their wonderful soporific trimphone-like cooing, which is redolent of lazy, hazy summer days, and which regretfully seems to be slipping into the past.
 Note the red eye
The birds shown on this page were all photographed during the course of previous classes with at least 10 students in tow. Rather belatedly the RSPB and other conservation bodies are taking action to try and prevent further losses before this species becomes extinct in the UK. Here's hoping the rot can be stemmed, and these birds will continue to be seen and heard for many years to come.
 Taking off - showing tortoiseshell back and white-edged tail
 Note the white-edged tail from underneath