Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Big British Birding Year: Part V (Harriers and Hares)

The Isle of Sheppey in Kent is not everyone’s choice destination. It has a reputation for being a little rough – so a good friend who was born there tells me – and one in twelve inhabitants on the island is an inmate of one of the three prisons.

But the island does contain the large Elmley Marsh which is a fantastic nature reserve… even in the heavy rain…

Elmley hide

Elmley hide

A winding road takes you a few miles driving through the marshes where you can spot wildlife from your car window – the closest I have experienced to safari outside of Africa. I got remarkably close to hundreds of Lapwing:

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Although, I didn’t get quite as close, it was from my car window that I saw my 50th species of the year:

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

and the 51st…

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Whilst not a new bird for my list this year, I did feel slightly voyeuristic photographing mating Greylags from my car window (the same couple is captured below in several different … er… positions)…

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Once out of my car, things were a little less pleasant. The wind made it difficult to walk and the rain drove into me horizontally and stung my face. But I walked for a couple of miles (it felt like twenty) and pulled my camera out from under my coat a few times to capture some truly magical wild moments…

A racing hare sprinting around bemused and occasionally startled sheep:

European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

And then, I saw the 52nd species of bird this year, the amazing and rare Marsh Harrier, a male (one of only about 350 pairs in the country) seen below flying low and pouncing on unseen prey:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

I also saw a female harrier being harried by a lapwing…

Harrier

Whilst the weather was about as inclement as it gets in the UK, the benefit was that I was all alone in hundreds of hectares of wild land. All alone, that is, apart from the wildlife.

Flock

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A Big British Birding Year: Part IV (Big Garden Birdwatch)

This weekend, tens of thousands of people will have spent an hour counting the birds in their gardens for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. I joined them, as indeed I did last year .

I also got to tick one more bird off my year list to take me to a grand total of 49. The 49th species I photographed is one of the most hated birds in the UK: the Feral Pigeon:

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Many people refer to the feral pigeon as a rat with wings. I don’t completely disagree with the comparison, as, like the rat, the feral pigeon has thrived in a world dominated by humans (let us not forget that humans do incomparably greater damage to this planet than all the so called ‘vermin’ put together). A few other things about feral pigeons that you may or may not know:

  • Feral pigeons are effectively domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild and bred.
  • Domestic pigeons were the first birds in the world to be domesticated (between 5-10,000 years ago) from the handsome wild version of the species, the Rock Dove.
  • Domestic pigeons, often bred as homing or racing pigeons, are able to navigate back to their home roost up to a 1000 miles away if they are released from a strange place.
  • Despite their reputation, and unlike humans, feral pigeons are immune to, and incapable of carrying, the deadly H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus.
  • Feral pigeons are monogamous and mate for life. When you see a male puffing up his neck and chasing a female whilst cooing – he is courting a female that he will then stay faithful to for the rest of his life (something that many human males seem to find difficult).

Anyway, there ends my lesson, but as you can see, I don’t believe we should hate these natural survivors as much as we often do. Now, back to the listing…

I counted 3 feral pigeons together at one time in the garden – according to the RSPB rules – to count them for today’s birdwatch which I submitted online to feed into the organisation’s enormous database. This was one down on last year.

I counted two Blackbirds – a male and female – which is the same as last year:

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Two Robins (one more than last year):

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

At least two Great Tits (also one more than last year):

Great Tit (Parula major)

Great Tit (Parula major)

Two Blue Tits (same as 2013):

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

One Wood Pigeon (down from three last year):

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

One Carrion Crow (I didn’t see any this time last year):

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Strangely, I only saw one of the normally highly gregarious Long-tailed Tit (two this time last year):

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

At least one Chaffinch (one less than last year):

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

One Wren (which was missing from my hour last year):

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

And, finally six Starling (which improved on the solitary one I saw last year – although the photo is significantly worse!):

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

To summarise, I saw 11 species in my garden (in zone 1 in London) which was one more than last year (two new species, but missing a Magpie from last year). Five of of the species I saw were more numerous or new compared to last year, although five were also less numerous or missing when compared to last year, and two species produced the same number as last year. So overall a pretty even picture when compared against last year, but not bad in such an urbanised area.

A Big British Birding Year: Part III

To really get my numbers up for BBB, I visited one of my favourite sites just out of London: Rainham Marshes.

Marsh

It lived up to its name, as it was impossible to walk all the way around without Wellington boots or getting very wet feet following the floods. But I did manage to see 17 more species of birds to get my numbers up to 48 for the year so far. This included some very common species I just hadn’t managed to photograph yet since 2014 began, such as:

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decoacto)

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decoacto)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

I also saw some fascinating behaviour from other common birds, such as great flocking activity from the thousands of Starlings found at Rainham:

Common Starling (Sturnis vulgaris)

Common Starling (Sturnis vulgaris)

… and a Swan feeding on Common Reed-mace – often called Bulrush – (Typha latifolia):

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Scanning the sky, I caught:

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

… and…

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

As is often the way, the most interesting (or rare) birds I photographed were often taken at enormous distances or were heavily obscured such as the merged two shots of a single male (top) and pair (bottom) of Stonechats:

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

…as well as…

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

…and…

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Rainham marshes is only a couple of big deluges away from succumbing to the mighty Thames estuary which runs right next to it:

Thames

The seawall is covered in plastic and other detritus, and I was incredibly lucky to photograph both Meadow and (the rarer) Rock Pipits (left and right respectively on the collage I have made below):

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), and Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), and Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

And finally, I was very pleased to capture the rare -ish (around 2000 breeding pairs in the UK) and incredibly shy Cetti’s Warbler. The explosively loud warbler is one of the most recent arrivals to the UK; first recorded breeding in the UK in 1973. Unfortunately, I only got heavily obscured shots like the two merged below:

Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)

Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)

A Big British Birding Year: Part II

My journey to photograph as many species of British birds in one year as possible took me to ancient London woodland yesterday.

Queen's Wood

Queen’s Wood in Haringey is small – around 52 acres – but important. It is a recognised wildlife hotspot in the capital and contains rare species of tree (I shall perhaps return in warmer months and write more about these) and insect as well as supporting large numbers of birds.

Queen’s Wood is a fragment from a much larger wood that used to cover much of Northern London and Essex and it may be directly descended from the truly ancient Wildwood that covered most of Britain following the last Ice Age.

It is allowed to grow in a relatively unrestricted manner, although there is some tending using some surprisingly traditional methods to carry the logs:

Horse

But, I went to photograph birds. I was pleased to add four new species to my 2014 list:

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

… and finally, I photographed one of the three species of Woodpecker known to reside in the Wood (the same bird is pictured twice below, amalgamated to show different aspects, as it was always partially obscured – an occupational hazard when photographing birds in woods):

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

There were other birds there that are already on my list from last weekend including an exceptionally tame Robin:

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

… and, lastly, I couldn’t resist this shot of a Grey Squirrel:

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

After two weekends into the year, my total stands at 31.

A Big British Birding Year: Part I

Jessica (Rosamund Pike): I thought you agreed to wait to do another Big Year.

Kenny (Owen Wilson): Jess, I’ve told you, the birds wait for no man. And neither do I.
– The Big Year, 2011, 20th Century Fox

Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

A ‘Big Year’ is an informal competition amongst birders to see or hear the largest number of species of birds in a year. It mainly exists in the States and the record for the US is held by Sandy Komito with a staggering 748 species from 1998. They even made a film about it with Owen Wilson playing Kenny Bostick, who is very loosely based on Sandy, alongside Jack Black and Steve Martin.

I plan to photograph as many species in Britain this year as I can and will publish them to this blog as my own little Big Year.

I started yesterday and clocked up 27 birds in the day (inevitably almost every day afterwards will be a smaller, and decreasing, number(s)). Along with the Parakeet above, I got the following:

Blackbird (Turdus melua)

Blackbird (Turdus melua)

Coot (Fulica atra)

Coot (Fulica atra)

Great-crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

Great-crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

The first ducks I photographed in 2014 were a pair of Wigeon:

Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)

The problem with counting birds I photograph is that, sometimes, the quality of photograph will be awful (see the shot of a pair of snipe below for evidence). To avoid this becoming too tedious a list of poor shots, I have created some collages below:

Ducks clockwise from top left:
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Gadwall (Anas strepera)
Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

Ducks

A mixed bag from left to right, top to bottom:
Magpie (Pica pica)
Western Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
Redwing (Turdus iliacus)
Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)
Cormorant (Phalocrocorax carbo)
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Mixed 1

Mixed bag 2:
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) – believe it or not, this distant smudge is actually a pair with a Jack Snipe invisible behind them (so not counted)
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Great Tit (Parus major)
Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Mixed 2