Monthly Archives: June 2016

Wildlife notes: On pioneers and procreation on the patch

Warning: the text that follows is relatively lengthy. These are taken from some of my observation notes from walking around the patch. It is also possible that some people may find some of the subject matter distressing, although I would hope not.

The Warbler of Oz

I have already noted how the first Cetti’s Warbler has recently arrived on the patch. Cetti’s are, of course, famously elusive. Often incredibly difficult to even get a glimpse of. Although their shyness contrasts with their explosively loud territorial song.

Where they are common, it often seems as if they are protecting a relatively small patch of reeds, not needing to sing-out from the reed/tree tops like other birds because of their penetrating voice. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz, a relatively unassuming bird hiding behind a curtain of reeds and some trickery to make their voice appear supernaturally loud.

The new Wanstead Cetti’s is elusive to type – this is the best photo I have managed to steal of it, just an eye peering out from behind a curtain of Blackthorn:

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Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)

But in other ways, the Wanstead Cetti’s is atypical. It clearly does not have an established territory yet and is highly mobile – I have heard it call at different places up and down the Roding, Tony and I followed it from bush to bush the other weekend although only getting fleeting glances, and we think it is the same bird that was also singing on Alex lake, several hundred metres away.

The only explanation I can think of is that it is a pioneer. As the species expands its numbers across the area, young birds are forced to find new territories. Males like ours find a new suitable habitat and spend time finding the best parts and, of course, singing for a mate.

As a classicist, I foolishly attempt to apply literary terms and motifs to natural phenomena, but even I am struggling with this one. A territorial song delivered where there is no rival to defend your territory from? A love song designed to attract a mate that is not there? It is like some sort of anti-soliloquy: rather than a monologue delivered to nobody but always heard by an audience; it is more a monologue aimed at an audience that is simply not there. Unless of course a few birders count as the audience.

Other patch pioneers

If it is any consolation, the Cetti’s, whilst alone, is not alone. Elsewhere on the patch, we have other birds singing to no-one. Our Chiffchaff-mimicking Willow Warbler is probably singing somewhat futilely now – although I am not 100% sure that a mate has not arrived. Similarly, its neighbour in Motorcycle Wood, the Garden Warbler, is still singing full pelt which might suggest it has not succeeded in drawing a mate out of the sky… out of thin air almost.

In Wanstead Park, we have two or three singing male Reed Warbler. At least one is quieter now and I have seen it with a female. But another is still singing its little heart out across the pond in the vain hope that it will woo a taken female, or summon a new female down from above.

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Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Sexual stories

Some resident birds have less trouble ‘attracting’ a mate. Today I was lucky enough to watch Coots mating at close quarters. Coot is a common water bird, and they always seem to be fighting, displaying, f***ing, or rearing young. But, actually, I realise today I have never really watched ‘the act’ itself as closely as I might have imagined. Here are my notes from today:

Male following female closely but slowly through the water. Male, insistent, neck outstretched, flat, and emitting loud ‘pitt!’ call repeatedly. Female swimming away, but clearly deliberately not escaping, given speed. Suddenly, female seems satisfied, turns body to side and plunges head beneath the water raising rump in the air. The male climbs on top of the female with its feet on her back. Initial motions seem almost ceremonial, female raises head briefly for breath, then plunges again and lifts rump and ruffles feathers more. Coitus clearly occurs although both birds’ cloaca remain invisible throughout. Act lasts a few seconds, and birds swim off although remain close by each other.

Not exactly romantic, but somewhat ritualistic like waterbird courtship. Fascinating! There  is, of course, another water fowl’s sexual antics which is infamous.

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The picture above hangs in my house. It can be looked at in many different ways, but I like to think it is a light-hearted warning against anthropomorphisation of animals. Every bird depicted is a predator and labelled, not by name, but simply as ‘murderer’. With one exception: the Mallard (‘rapist’). Anyone who has witnessed Mallards mating knows why this is. Here are my notes from a few weeks ago, also from Perch pond:

Perch pond. Two drake Mallard pursuing female frantically. Both attempting to mate. One appears more successful and is pinning the hen using typical neck-biting technique, although often both males are biting her. Female is struggling to stay above water as both males are on top of her. Vigorous thrashing and struggling lasts for some time. [I am genuinely fearful for the hen’s safety. I have never witnessed a drowning, but know that they occur] Eventually one of the drakes appears to give up and swims a little distance away. Copulation appears to continue, although may have just begun. Successful drake dismounts and swims off in opposite direction. Hen Mallard pursues successful drake, appearing intent on remaining close to copulating partner.

Of course, from human eyes, the act appears violent and abhorrent. It is literally difficult to watch. I was willing the female to get out of the water so that, at least, the risk of drowning was removed. Part of me even wanted to scare the drakes away, although my better self put such a silly idea aside. The aspect that fascinated me most was the hen’s behaviour after coitus. She pursued the successful drake closely, but without any signs of distress or violent intent. I can only imagine that if the act was successful and her eggs are fertilised then it is in her interest to remain close to her mate… successful brood rearing is more likely if both parents are present.

The next stage in the process

New life is everywhere on the patch at the moment. Every bush seems to emit the high-pitched begging calls of chicks. Nests are sat on and young are being demanding – the cycle of life that has existed ever since that first egg hatched (the egg definitely came before the chicken by the way – although species allocation is a human construct, and delineation between species is never clear-cut – at some point, there had to be a switch-over when an egg contains a chicken but the parents would have been designated as the closely related predecessors to a chicken).

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Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with young on nest

Today I witnessed another scene that is difficult for modern human sensibilities. A Lesser Black-backed Gull swooped down and plucked a young coot chick from the nest with the mother sitting on top of it! I have seen many a cootlet and duckling taken from the water, but never from underneath the mother on the nest. There was a moment of squawking from the parents, but then the  Gull was off and the chick was swallowed.

If you are not feeling great reading this, let me end on a more cheerful note. I defy you not to find the photo below cute. This is actually just off the patch and in a garden near where I live and was taken a few days ago. A rather scraggy vixen and her two cubs:

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Red Fox family (Vulpes vulpes)