Category Archives: wildlife

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani

“We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” – Led Zeppelin, Immigrant

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Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) – at Jigokudani, Nagano prefecture

There is a place called Hell. A sheer and narrow rocky valley high in the Japanese mountains. It is freezing cold and under snow for several months a year, and yet jets of super-heated steam shoot out of crevices and pools of boiling hot mud bubble malignantly. Jigokudani (‘Hell Valley’) is appropriately named. It is also home to the most famous group of wild macaques.

Japanese Macaque is the most northerly existing species of wild primates, other than humans, in the world, and so also the only primate to regularly inhabit and flourish in the snow.

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The hot spring pool at Jigokudani

Jigokudani is remote and the landscape is inhospitable. Few people would visit the small number of dwellings high in the hills except a few locals taking advantage of the ‘Onsen’  (naturally geo-thermically heated baths) up here. However, something happened in the early 1960’s which was to change that and turn Hell Valley into a major tourist attraction.

During a period of particularly fierce snowy weather, a female macaque and her baby descended from the icy rocks and climbed into the warm water of the man-made Onsen in the tiny mountainous hamlet. This species of monkey exhibits high levels of intelligence and, soon after, large numbers of the group would follow this example and warm up in the baths.

In 1970 a photograph of this behaviour graced the front cover of LIFE Magazine. A new pool was constructed a few hundred metres away to capture the hot spring water and give the monkeys their own place to bathe. Wildlife documentaries and hundreds of thousands of visitors followed. I was one of them.

Although we visited in early April, it was unseasonably warm and so most of the snow had melted. The monkeys roam around the mountain slopes as wild macaques should but their diet is supplemented by grain from the local reserve management which ensures people get a reasonable view of them.

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Watching this large group was utterly fascinating. The social dynamics are highly complex. There is a strict hierarchy from the alpha male (the visitor centre has photos of each ‘boss’ from 1964 to the present) to the lowliest youngster and this was often painfully clear when a juvenile would commit some undecipherable infraction against an angry senior.

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A male exerting his authority

Great howls and screams would sometimes precede slapping, biting and shoving and the series of photos below surely depicts something along the lines of protest, distress, resignation, and submission of a young macaque moments after it was harshly disciplined by the large male above.

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But there were also wonderful moments of tenderness and affection displayed through grooming or parental care.

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Whilst order and discipline is meted out largely by the male hierarchy, the organisation is actually matrilineal in design – females largely staying faithful to the group whilst most males will be expelled at some stage or are nomadic between troops. The females choose who to mate with and when to mate (apparently not always with the alpha male), and shape most of the organisational decisions. A fascinating observation I have read about since my visit is that there are very high levels of homosexuality in this species with females, in particular, likely to show bisexual preferences as the norm rather than the exception.

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Being around such a sociable troop of highly intelligent primates, it is difficult not to relate and anthropomorphise. I defy you not to find this toddler cute…

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I watched this poor little thing picking grains up off the floor for a while and then – in response to something another macaque may have done – it suddenly started bouncing up and down looking like it was dancing while playing an invisible trumpet*.

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Three images stitched together here of our ‘dancing baby’ monkey

It was a shame not to have seen them in the snow, from the perspective of my photographs, but just amazing to get to watch wild primates so closely.

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*None of the behaviour here is trained or induced for human observation. This troop has become used to being watched over the last fifty years and largely ignore the bald primates who mill about a bit every day whilst dropping lots of grain.

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Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

I was straggling at the back of our small group on an unsuccessful walk in the hope of finding Hazel Grouse when I heard something. At first it took my mind a few seconds to register the sound. But on the third or fourth occasion the sound penetrated me at a deeper, primal level. A long, distant, moaning howl. I stopped, felt a small surge of adrenaline and felt my senses sharpen. This was my first wild experience of Wolf in Europe.

The day before, we had encountered an even more distant relic of Europe’s all-but-entirely lost megafauna: Bison.

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Our experience of the Białowieża forests began exceptionally early in the morning on the Saturday. It felt like we were tracking something; a guide-led walk to a known nesting site. That nesting site happened to be in a wooded wetland largely created by Beaver.

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How often do we see sights like this in the UK? I would contend very rarely indeed. We no longer have Beaver (other than a few trial reintroductions in Scotland, but lets hope that increases soon), and our country is the most denuded of forest of any country (other than the tiny city-states) in Europe. Where we do have woodland, they are largely lifeless plantations or forests managed and fenced off for pheasant shooting.

The Woodpeckers

This site was to be our first encounter with a target woodpecker. And we did indeed get views of White-backed Woodpecker – a life-tick for me and one or two of the others. We didn’t stay long as the mosquitoes were vicious and legion.

A few minutes drive and another spot of forest where we watched a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpecker making multiple visits to their nest hole.

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Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) – Female in hole and male to right

At the same site we had our first trip encounter with Black Woodpecker; only my second ever. I remember the first time I heard, then saw, one and being taken aback by how loud and big it is (read about that here). The feeling was similar on this occasion – it sounds like an effing dinosaur (I imagine) and the drumming is that of heavy machinery rather than a bird. Later in the day we watched in awe as one of these giants tore a rotting tree trunk to shreds with a large pile of wood chips accumulating at the base.

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) through a gap in the hornbeam leaves

At the other end of the size scale, we felt lucky to get a single view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a bird I am sad to say I have only seen on three occasions in the UK).

Whilst neither Black nor Lesser were ‘ticks’ for me, the next two woodpeckers were. Bob helped locate the only Three-toed Woodpecker we were to encounter on the trip and this led to the guide discovering its exact nest location. We watched from a respectable distance.

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Finally, on a second attempt, we watched a Grey-headed Woodpecker emerge and then fly from its nest in some parkland near the strict reserve forest.

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Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – this was the only photo our group got of this bird

We saw and heard our familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker on numerous occasions but failed to connect with the common Green Woodpecker or Wryneck (which also breed locally). We also made an aborted attempt to see Syrian Woodpecker in Warsaw. The point I am building to with this rather rapid list is that ten of the eleven species of woodpecker which breed in Europe are found locally in Eastern Poland. It was just one sign of many that we saw, on our whistle-stop tour, of the diversity which can be found when natural habitats are preserved or left untouched. The contrast with the UK could not be more stark.

A similar point could be made about owls found locally. As it was, we actually only saw one: a life-tick for me as Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, peered out of its hole to investigate the possible Pine Marten scraping at its tree (which was actually our guide with a stick).

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

A different guide walked us around the Strict Reserve. She was an expert in Collared Flycatcher and told us that in some years there are more recorded in the forest than Chaffinch! The gloom of the forest meant that the photos I got belied just how wonderful our views of this species were.

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

It was a similar case with the stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher and a handful of Spotted Flycatcher. It was great to see these birds in song, and nesting in their home environment as flycatchers (Spotted and Pied that is) are just passage migrants on our Patch back home.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

In my three and half years of birding the local Patch, we have had a single Wood Warbler singing from the tiny copse we call Motorcycle Wood. In Białowieża, the forests rang out with the wonderful song of these stunning birds.

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

As with forests everywhere, birds are not exactly easy to find or see – our failure to see Hazel Grouse or Nutcracker is certainly testament to that. Woodland tits were harder than I expected in Poland: Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit seemed less numerous than I am used to in the UK; we only heard one Coal Tit once or twice on the trip, and had no sign of Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, or Crested Tit (although we are aware that they are there).

Such is the enigma of forests. They teem with life and yet the ‘life’ does not always make itself easily found. We were aware that the forests hold Lynx, but did not expect to see one (nor did we).

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The long walk back from an unsuccessful search for Tengmalm’s Owl

The trees

The majestic parkland oaks we are used to seeing in the UK, rotund and sprawling, are  virtually anathema to primary forests. There is far too much competition for such overindulgent horizontal growth.  I remember the thinner, taller trees in the wonderful Atlantic oak forests on the west coast of Scotland. But I was taken aback at the size (girth, but particularly height) of some of the trees in Białowieża. They seemed to be freakishly tall versions of familiar trees we are used to in the UK. Maybe that is what thousands of years of uninterrupted survival of the fittest does in a forest?

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The fringes

Some birds seemed easier to find on the fringes of the forest; often as different habitats met. And so it was on the edges of Białowieża village, where we picked up good views of Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Tree SparrowRed-backed Shrike and lots more. It was often in these fringe areas where from within deep vegetation we would listen to, and on one occasion had reasonable views of, Thrush Nightingale which was another life tick for me.

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

Białowieża opened my eyes to what much of Europe, including the UK, could and, perhaps, should be like. Białowieża began, for me, as a place in my imagination, but let’s all hope that it remains a reality for Europe and for the world. Primary forest is part of the primal heritage of all of us; wired into our instinctive synapses. To lose it altogether is surely to lose something deep within our identity. I think we all need the wake-up call in the form of the penetrating howl of a wolf or a Black Woodpecker drumming into our skulls the message of fragile vitality that exists in the remaining fragments of our once great forests.

This Hobby of mine

Spring has been, temporarily (?), catapulted into summer on this first May Bank Holiday. Record breaking temperatures and clear blue skies. Perfect for raptors. I’ve already seen four Red Kite this Spring, which is four more than I saw last year, and the year before that! And yesterday I saw two birds, including this one with a missing eighth primary feather on its left wing.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

It was also a fantastic day for Hobby. All over East London good numbers were seen. I can’t be sure exactly how many birds I saw in the multiple sightings I had, or whether they were all repeats, but I can be sure there are at least two as I watched a pair circle each other effortlessly, getting higher and higher over the Old Sewage Works, their bright red trousers showing well in the sunshine.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

At one point I even saw one of them sweep past me with avian prey in its talons. This was possibly the first hirundine I saw on the day as there seem to be strangely few around the Patch yet. I picked up a few Swift distantly over Ilford and, later, when dozing in the sun on the Western Flats, I eventually watched a couple of Swallow fly overhead in the early evening. But I have now gone longer through the year than any previous year without seeing House Martin and Sand Martin.

The advanced and unseasonably hot weather enhances the feeling that Spring passage migration is over, emphasised even more by the lack of Wheatear on the Patch. I have probably missed the chance for Spring Redstart, Whinchat, and – most sadly – Ring Ouzel.  We have had record Ring Ouzel for the Spring, but I have seen none of them. I shall have to wait for their return in Autumn when they are normally slightly easier.

But it is hard to be too disappointed when watching birds in glorious weather. Lesser Whitethroat are singing in multiple locations, we have a couple of singing Willow Warbler, territorial Reed Bunting, and a singing Reed Warbler. All of these are small and fragile numbers across the Patch, but still more common than our warbler hopes of Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Garden Warbler which are all still missing from the Patch list so far this year.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)

The woodpecker in the cherry blossom

Why am I a birder?

There are many reasons. Here is one…

Twenty miles South East of Mt Fuji, the world famous volcano appears to be floating in the sky like some fantasy in the imagination of the great animator, Hayao Miyazaki. This other-wordly image is not something I can share with a photograph as the ghostly white shape seems to disappear like a mirage if you photograph it through the haze of distance as if the mountain gods simply prohibit images.

Ohiradai is a village in the hills served by a small mountain train.

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Across the tracks and down a narrow, steep path, there is a small, abandoned, wooden house with an old cherry tree growing next to it.

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I was stood watching a small flock of Japanese White-eye, when a tiny woodpecker sailed over my head onto the mossy trunk of the cherry tree: Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

The diminutive dendro, or petit piciform (depending on where you place it, taxonomically) proceeded to forage for insects meticulously right in front of me. As you can see in the photo of the scene, above, the tree was in heavy shade so this was not really an opportunity for good photos. But, for a several minutes, early on a Spring morning I just watched this stunning little bird feeding in this shady pocket of picturesque Japan.

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

After a little while, my reverie was broken as the JPW wisely flew off on the arrival of one of the international scourges of small garden birds.

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker is not in any way scarce in Japan and I was to see the species on several other occasions through my trip, but this was my first sighting and the moments I shared with this bird were truly special, albeit unremarkable for the bird one would imagine. That is birding at its best for me; a bird, and a unique moment I shall never forget.

48 hours back on the Patch

Going on holiday to Japan for almost three weeks at the time when we did is great for cherry blossom, but not so great for the patch list. Missing three weeks of prime Spring migration is not ideal. First world problems, eh!

The silver lining, other than getting to visit a fabulous country, was that I have cleaned up this weekend and even been a little bit lucky, if I’m honest.

I was almost chewing off my hands I was so keen to get out on the Patch after flying back, demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t even wait for the weekend and went straight out after work on Friday evening.

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Alright, so I took this on Saturday morning, not Friday evening, but still…

Before I stepped on to the Patch I could hear the first year-tick singing away. This is the latest I have ever had Chiffchaff and so I was pleased to hear that familiar sound. Within a minute of being on the Patch, I had chalked up my second year tick, and a scarcer one at that: Shelduck. Today I saw two more and even got a record shot of them flying over.

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Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) – possibly not the last terrible record shot

As I strolled towards two of my patch colleagues in the distance, I saw one of them point at the sky. And so another species (Red Kite) was added to my patch year list. In fact, it was the first Red Kite I had seen on the Patch in almost three years. Like buses, I saw another today.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Within seconds, a Peregrine Falcon flew right passed us as well.

This was all very good, but I had failed to see the Tree Pipit that had been found a little earlier in the day. My colleagues wandered off to go home and, almost immediately, up popped the Tree Pipit. Luckily I was able to call them back, so they could share in this sight as the light faded out of the day – the best, or most prolonged, view I think I have ever had of a Tree Pipit.

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Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

The pace didn’t let up the following morning. I was in search of a young Rook that had been seen for a few days. This is a bird that has always eluded me – and several others – on the Patch. But within minutes of scanning the crows in the trees, I had found it. A juvenile Rook is not easy to distinguish from Carrion Crow (as they have yet to develop the white bill), especially when the light is against you, but the pointy bill and slightly peaked crown (seen on the left) can be contrasted with the sloping culmen on the crow’s bill and the flatter more evenly rounded head shape of the nearby crow on the right.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus) on left and Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone) on right

In similarly speedy time I jammed onto a Brambling which had been seen on the island of Alexandra Lake. This being my first perching Brambling on the Patch, I also have a record shot of it, but rather like an ugly child, it is something only I love, and I won’t inflict it on other people.

The luck didn’t desert me there either. A little later I watched as a Woodcock (only my second on the Patch) was flushed out of Motorcycle Wood to a clump of young birches before deciding it preferred its original daytime hiding place and flew straight back, just about giving me enough time to steal a photo of it moving through the trees. Silhouetted, obscured, poor quality, but still wonderfully woodcock!

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Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

It then felt all a little pedestrian to be taking more bad photos of a passing Buzzard, but this, too, was a late addition to my year list for Wanstead. My excuse for sharing this photo is the interesting fact that this bird is missing its fifth primary feather (or ‘finger’) on its left wing with a gash that seems to reach all the way in to the coverts.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

In a 48 hour period I have added 12 birds to my Patch year list, taking me to a reasonably respectable 87 (although still some way behind the front-runners and with some notable omissions that will be difficult to claw back like Hawfinch and Mediterranean Gull), and, in case you feel everything went my way this weekend, I still managed to miss the two or three Ring Ouzel that were seen briefly this weekend. But, it was still some successful patch birding as well as simply being nice to be wandering around familiar territory that I felt I had left in winter and returned to in Spring.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

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Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

Japan: trip report part I (The Top Ten)

I have just returned from a long holiday in Japan. It was a family holiday with very little dedicated birding involved.

This was a trip of:

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Kinkaku-ji (Buddhist temple), Kyoto

and…

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Tokyo

But, I did see some birds (including 20 life ticks) and so thought there may be some value in a sort of trip report from a non-birding trip. In other words, if you are planning a trip to Japan that will include all the best birding sites and the utilisation of local guides, etc, this may be of limited use. On the other hand, if you are interested in birds but unlikely to have much time to dedicate to birding (as I didn’t), I hope, and aim, for this to be of some value. For these reasons, I haven’t really bothered with logistical aspects as the purpose of this ‘top ten’ is to highlight the birds that can frequently be found all over Japan (on the main island of Honshu where I stayed).

Intro: general comments on birding Japan

At the risk of starting off on a bit of a sour note… there weren’t all that many birds. I am aware that anyone with real experience of living in, or birding in, Japan may have just spluttered on their sushi, but that was my experience. There seemed to be less bird song than I am used to in the UK (although I did love how various street signs played different bird songs/calls as a guide for the blind) and the variety of commonly seen birds also seemed relatively low.

It’s all about the hills. Japan is a country full of contrasts and this includes the topography. Much of Japan seems incredibly flat and low altitude and nearly all of this low-altitude land seems to be taken up with urbanised buildings or agriculture. The hills then seem to appear out of nowhere; they are steep; and mostly covered in forest. It should be no surprise that this is where the wild things are.

The top ten

When I go somewhere new, I often go with very little conception of what I will and won’t see. Taking a bird field guide (in this case, Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil) is obviously useful, but they inevitably include everything you might possibly see with very little indication of what you are most likely to see. With that ‘gap-in-the-market’ in mind, the following list is what I would have found useful to read before I left: A list of the birds (7 species and 3 families) that you would almost struggle not to see.

1.Brown-eared Bulbul – my comment above about lack of bird calls or song should really have a caveat exempting the loud and varied calls of this ubiquitous bird. Before I left, one of my Patch-birding colleagues repeatedly said ‘Brown-eared Bulbul‘ whenever Japan came up. To me it was simply one of the thousands of birds I still hadn’t seen. Little did I know how quickly and thoroughly that omission would be righted when I reached Japan. They. Are. Everywhere!

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

2.Large-billed Crow – I saw a fair few Carrion Crow on my trip, but they were outnumbered significantly by Large-billed Crow. Only marginally smaller than a Raven, these chunky and noisy corvids were frequently found in large numbers in the cities we visited.

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Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)

3.Black-eared Kite – look up to the sky in Japan. If you see any birds circling, they are probably Large Billed Crow. If they aren’t, they are probably Black-eared Kite. Again, these birds – like many kites around the world when they aren’t persecuted – seem highly comfortable in densely populated areas and can be seen in large numbers. Unfortunately for my world list, Black-eared Kite is still considered a subspecies of Black Kite, despite several distinguishing features. Apparently, it has evolved quite distinctly and separately from Black Kite for a long time, but the intermingling of genes in the overlap areas have prevented the experts from separating completely.

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Black(-eared) Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

4.The Tits – The first bird family, rather than species on my list. As in the UK, and handful of species of tits are seemingly common and well distributed across Japan, cropping up again and again wherever I went. Japanese Tit, closely related to our Great Tit was ubiquitous, closely followed by the attractively-coloured Varied Tit. Other species encountered were: Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and (although, strictly speaking, not in the Paridae family) Long-tailed Tit.

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Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius)

5.Wagtails – Having lumped an entire bird family into the list above, I feel less guilty about now introducing a genus. Wagtails were one of only a couple of groups of birds where I felt they were more common in Japan than they are in the UK. Japanese Wagtail and Black-backed Wagtail (the subspecies of the familiar European White Wagtail) were most common with Grey Wagtail present as well.

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Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis)

6.Oriental Turtle Dove – I saw this attractive dove frequently. It’s commonness was bittersweet for me as it reminded me how increasingly scarce the closely related, but slightly smaller, European Turtle Dove is in my home country; a bird I haven’t even seen for a couple of years in the UK.

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Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)

7.Hirundines – We chose our time to visit Japan to coincide with ‘Sakura’, the cherry blossom, but this also meant I got to experience some of the Spring migration I was missing back in the UK. Just as the swallows and martins are returning North to breed from their wintering grounds in Africa, so swallows and martins have also been appearing all over Japan from their wintering grounds of Borneo, the Philippines, Java, etc. Our familiar Barn Swallow was common as was the Asian House Martin which was a life tick for me.

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Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) subspecies guttaralis

8.Tree Sparrow – Interestingly, this species seems to have filled the niche of House Sparrow almost entirely in Japan and was far more commonly seen than I have ever found this species to be anywhere else that I have seen it. Anyone used to Tree Sparrow in Europe will be able to see that this subspecies has a richer brown hue to it and a large bill.

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus saturatus)

9.Ducks – This section of the anatidae were relatively strongly represented and mostly familiar species to me (more on this in the next blog post), with the exception of the Eastern Spot-billed Duck which was one of the most regularly seen species throughout my travels.

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Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)

10.Japanese White-eye – Lastly, this attractive little bird was a lovely addition to my world list and is relatively easy to pick up in small flocks across Honshu.

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Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus)

EDITED ADDITION
It was only when re-reading this, that I realised I missed off a bird that easily deserves to be in this top ten. As I didn’t have the heart to knock one of the top ten off the list, I have simply cheated and created an eleventh.

11.White-cheeked Starling – Not quite as frequently seen or heard as the Bulbul, but not far off. This Starling is almost as common as our own Common Starling.

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White-cheeked Starling (Spodiopsar cineraceus)

The mute’s story: swan song

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Jubilee Pond, Wanstead Flats

I seem to be particularly time poor at the moment. Life is full. But dawn, on Sunday, gave me an hour on the Patch; just enough time to fulfil two duties: read the Jubilee Pond water gauge (74cm in case you were wondering); and do the BTO Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count on the same pond.

In the stillness of a Winter’s early morning, the water was at its most viscous density and the ducks just… shone in the morning light!

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Drake Gadwall (Anas strepera)

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Hen Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

We are still at peak winter swan numbers, with 19 Mute Swan on this relatively small pond. The main breeding pairs will likely soon expel the younger and inferior birds. Courting and territorial-type behaviour has already started with head and neck dances to their own strange primal music of growls, whistles, clicks, and hisses.

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Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

One of the cobs is darvic ringed. Ringed by an East Anglian group, Orange 4CVO was somewhat less well-travelled than I might have hoped. It was ringed just up the road – on Hollow Ponds – in October of last year. It will be good to see if this is one of the successful breeders this year.

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It was good to be out, even if only for an hour.