Sunday, 5 April 2020

Self Isolating Garden Birds

In the present circumstances there isn't really much of an option other than watching birds in the garden.  Usually, all birds in my garden  have been photographed through glass.  The Sparrowhawk photos were indeed taken through glass, but the others were taken sat on a garden chair while I pretended I was reading.  It seemed to fool the birds as they went about their normal business.  I have never been so close to a Mistle Thrush.
Male Sparrowhawk
 with Female Chaffinch
 Male Bullfinch with flower petal
 Female Bullfinch begging to be Fed
 Male Bullfinch
 Female Bullfinch
 Female Mistle Thrush?
 with Nesting Material
 female Mistle Thrush
 Trying to look cute
 Male Chaffinch
 Immature Blackbird
Greenfinch (c) 2020 Symon Fraser

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Self Isolating, Trees before Leaves

For this Self Isolating post I’m temporarily abandoning birds, and looking at identifying winter trees just before their leaves emerge.  These are all trees a few feet from each other in part of an urban cemetery filmed while the cemetery was still locked.
Walnut Bark
I started at a species which is the only specimen in the cemetery, and which is a rare tree in South Holderness: the Walnut.  It has unusual pale grey bark and relatively shallow scored vertical marks.  It must be a slow-growing tree as it has barely increased in height since 1969, and is not a particularly tall tree.  It is dwarfed by the adjacent species.
Horse Chestnut
 Sticky Buds
The next tree is much taller and has browner bark, and has some vertical ridges, and very flaky bark.  The small tribes have sticky buds beginning to open, and they reveal it is a Horse Chestnut tree.  Already the grass around the base of the tree was covered in tiny emerging leaves from higher up the tree, presumably all nibbled off by destructive Grey Squirrels.  
 Lime Tree Bark
The nearest mature tree to the north is another tall specimen, but this time is marked it by the thick bushy area near to the centre of the tree.  This is a typical feature of a Lime tree, which has been pruned.  These bushy areas prove a haven for Woodpigeons and Grey Squirrels.  The suckers which often emerge at the base of the tree are a haven for exhausted returning Woodcock in the Autumn.  Unfortunately, the park authorities have a policy of hacking these back every few years, so there are none present at the moment.
Cherry Blossom
 Cherry Bark

Moving west some white blossom is visible on quite a small tree: a flowering Cherry.  Cherries can become mature, but they aren’t usually as long-lived as the other trees shown in this post.  The bark on this tree can peel off.  It is different from the other species shown in that it is shiny, and has horizontal scarring marks.
 Oak Bark
To the south west is the only mature Oak in the cemetery.  It is over 100 years old, but is not yet a gnarled veteran.  It has brown staining typical of the species, but at the moment the ridges are still fairly undeveloped.  Some years there are acorns, but it is very rare that the crop is particularly abundant.
To the west of this tree is a Whitebeam.  This is a tree like the Cherry, which rarely attains majestic status, so this particular specimen is larger than average.  Holes have formed where former branches have been removed.  Unfortunately, this tree’s days are numbered, which is indicated by the fungi eating the heartwood which are visible near the base of the tree.
So far these trees have all been examples of broad-leaved or deciduous trees, so we are going to conclude with something different.  The stumps nearby are of a youngish Yew tree.  This is still alive as may be seen by the needles growing from the stumps.  Unfortunately, it has been the policy of the local council to hack down all ten young Yew trees to this pitiable state.  Presumably because these fast growing trees were starting to push out too far horizontally and were interfering with the grass-cutting machinery.  

The accompanying video is here

Friday, 3 April 2020

Self Isolating, Species 5 - Blackcap

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
Facts & Figures:
Population in 1970: 200,000
Population in 2019: 1,650,000
Change in Population: + 1,450,000
Percentage change: + 825%
Length: 13 cm
Oldest: 10 years 8 months
Eggs: 4-5
Broods: 1-2
A few weeks ago when the classes went to Fairburn Ings we saw a male Blackcap around the feeders at The Pick-Up screen.  This was probably a German bird, which decided to risk over-wintering in the UK.  It would then be able to return to Germany in good condition ahead of the other Blackcaps which had over-wintered in the southern Mediterranean and Northern Africa, and had to fly back over many more hundreds of miles.
British Blackcaps are now starting to arrive back on their breeding territories and woodland and area of scrub should soon be full of the song of a bird which has been called the “Northern Nightingale.”  The melodious song seems start a little scratchily and uncertainly at first, but then it gathers in strength and it soon becomes very loud and has a see-saw quality before stopping suddenly.  In addition to their beautiful song, Blackcaps also have a very obvious loud “tack-tack” alarm call.  Just occasionally, it is possible to hear Blackcaps making a shrieking call.
Blackcaps are vocally most often confused with Garden Warblers, but the latter bird is much less common, and arrives nearly one month later than Blackcaps.  A Garden Warbler’s song babbles along more or less at the same level of intensity, and doesn’t have the loud highs of the Blackcap’s song.  It is a much more relaxing bird to listen to.

Blackcaps are larger than Chiffchaffs, and just a little smaller than Sparrows, but they are much sleeker birds than the more rotund Sparrows.  I always try and stress my clients to look at the bills of any unknown bird if they can.  Sparrows have thick bills at their base ideal for crushing seeds, whilst Blackcaps have thin long bills the ideal shape for catching insects.  On migration Blackcaps will fatten up on Autumn berries, and the ones which over winter are actually known to change the shape of their bills, so they can cope with food left out on birds tables.  In winter when they can be rather desperate for food, they can be extremely feisty, chasing away anything else which tries to come for the same food.  If a Blackcap arrives too early and a day is too cool and there are few insects about, then a Blackcap will turn to ivy berries and the nectar from flowering trees.
Blackcaps appear to be very grey birds, and are the most grey of all the common UK warblers.  The adult is grey-brown above and pale grey underneath.  The male has the black cap, which lends the species its name, whilst the female and young birds have a rufous brown cap. 
 Female Blackcap
The best time to see them is when they first arrive as the males will sit in the open, and usually in early April the surrounding trees will be bare.  When the leaves come out the singing birds are much more difficult to observe.  One of the best local places to see them in May is Millington Wood, because it faces north and is high on the Yorkshire Wolds, so sometimes the leaves come out a fortnight later than in lowland areas with bushes and trees.
 A Pair of Blackcaps in winter
It is believed Blackcaps were first mentioned over one thousand years ago when Alefric, Bishop of Eynsham referred to them as a “swertling” in an Anglo-Saxon/Latin vocabulary.  They are one of the few bird species, which seemed to be doing better in 2019 than they were in 1970.  The population 50 years ago was estimated at 200,000, but now is thought to be as high as 1.65 million!

My video with examples of the Blackcap song from is available here

A Blackcap news story about the evolution changes in winter birds is available here: 

The RSPB Blackcap audio file is here

Here’s the BTO video to help separate Blackcaps and Garden Warblers here

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Self Isolating , Species 4 - Song Thrush

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)
Facts & Figures:
Population in 1970: 3.5 million
Population in 2019: 1.3 million
Change in Population: - 2.2 million
Percentage change: -37.14%
Length: 23 cm
Oldest: 10 years 8 months
Eggs: 3-5
Broods: 2-4
Song Thrush
Although there are still over one million Song Thrushes in the UK, in 1970 there were an estimated 3.5 million, so there has been a catastrophic drop in numbers.  There are probably a number of factors behind this fall including climate change, use of insecticides, pesticides and herbicides, but there is a theory that slug pellets could be another reason.  It is well known that Song Thrushes bash snails on a favoured “anvil”, usually a large stone or boulder to get to the flesh inside.  With the abundance of slug pellets which are also eaten by snails, poisons build up in the bodies of snails, and these could transfer to Song Thrushes.  I don’t believe it has been proved scientifically, but the theory goes that their eggshells become extremely fragile, and this affects the success of the nesting attempt.
Song Thrush
The Song Thrush has declined even more sharply in farmland, and this cannot be blamed on slug pellets.  It’s believed that 
Song Thrush
Song Thrushes gain their name from the incredible power of their song.  Each clear note is repeated several times, and then they sing a different phrase, which is then repeated several times. Browning while ‘trapped’ in Europe said: “that’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over/Lest you should think he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!”  (Home Thoughts from Abroad).  In British folklore one of the old names for this bird was Mavis.  It is believed that this derives from the French word mauvis, and it may be of Celtic origin. Chaucer referred to is as mavis, whilst Shakespeare used mavis and throstle interchangeably.
Song Thrush
Song Thrushes are also one of the last birds to sing in an evening when most of the other birds have already gone quiet.   Then, at the right time of the year, and in the south-east of England they go quiet as darkness finally falls, and are replaced by the Nightingales which sing during the night.
Song Thrush
The Song Thrush is smaller than both the Blackbird and the Mistle Thrush, but it is larger than the darker Redwing.  Redwings are superficially similar, but they have a pale cream supercilium above the eye, and the red colour on the flank.  Song Thrushes are a richer brown on the back than Mistle Thrushes, and their spots appear more regular, and they usually have a faint yellow wash around their throat which extends to their breast and along the flank.  
Bringing Back Food to the Nest
If slug pellets are banned, and the use of herbicides, pesticides and insecticides are curtailed, I suppose there is still hope for this species.
A video taken a couple of days ago behind the church featuring the song of this bird may be seen here

The BTO comparison video between Mistle and Song Theushes May be viewed here.

An audio file from the RSPB may be found at this link