Tag Archives: Wigeon

Now you see me, now you don’t

One of the great things about birding the same patch is you get to build up a sense (or even a monitored trend for those of us who keep spreadsheets) for which birds you see over time. Migration is, of course, a major factor in birds appearing and then disappearing. Our Swift flocks have now gone. They were present on every visit to the Patch from 22 April until the end of July. I missed last weekend as was away so can’t pinpoint their departure. But it never ceases to amaze me how fleeting their breeding stopovers seem to be. One day the the sky seems full of scything screamers and then, like Keyser Söze, they are gone.

Willow Warbler is a species which seems to have a tentative perch-hold on the Patch. I got four records of Willow Warbler in the Spring. The first was probably just a passage pass-through, and then three weekends in a row in April/May when I had one or two birds singing. Almost certainly an attempt at making a viable territory, but not, perhaps, successful. Now we get a second bite at the cherry with the returning birds and I got a bright bird yesterday in Wanstead Park.

IMG_4809v2

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

But with other birds, their presence or otherwise seems more arbitrary or subject to annual cycles not connected to migration. It has been a good year for Little Owl on Wanstead Flats. We think two pairs have bred successfully. I looked in their ‘usual places’ yesterday but couldn’t find them, only to hear one calling loudly from a different copse as a dog walker went past it. It stayed put long enough for me to take its picture.

IMG_4862v2

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Nuthatch, and even Treecreeper, have also been spotted more frequently this year than in others. But other birds seem not to be doing as well. I’ve seen very few Grey Wagtail this year, for example. Whilst Little Grebe seem to be doing better than I remember before, and have bred on Alexandra Lake, Great Crested Grebe have seemed almost entirely absent; I saw my first for this Spring and Summer on the Shoulder-of-Mutton pond in Wanstead Park on Saturday.

IMG_2859v2

Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

2016 and 2017 were good years for Wigeon on the Patch. We saw up to a patch-record-breaking 61 birds in 2016. But there were very few sightings of this duck early this year with it not even being on my patch year list. So I certainly didn’t expect to see one today on 12 August! But Nick found one, on the River Roding, and I photographed her as she is the earliest returning Wigeon we have a record of on the Patch.

IMG_5096v2

Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Other birds are scarce visitors but you come to expect them at certain points in the year. So it is with Yellow-legged Gull. Today three of us were treated with lovely views of a 4th calendar year bird that Nick actually found yesterday by Alexandra Lake. This was a patch year tick for all of us involved.

IMG_5031v2

4cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Meanwhile, other birds never seem far away. It is a rare day on the Patch not to hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker, or to see one sail over your head at some point. However, despite them being common, I don’t often get to watch them close-up, so yesterday I was pleased to get close views of two males; an adult and a juvenile by Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. In my slightly sentimental state as an expectant dad, I like to imagine that this was father and son bonding on the Patch. Something I hope to be able to do in due course.

IMG_4831v2

Adult male (Picus viridis) aka ‘Daddy’

IMG_4820v2

Juvenile male aka “junior”

Advertisements

The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 20.13.21

The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

IMG_6783v2

Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

IMG_7769v2

The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

IMG_6833v2

Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

IMG_6944v2

Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

IMG_6823v2

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

IMG_6951v2

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

IMG_6900v2

Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

IMG_7770v2

Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

IMG_6968v2

Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.

What is a duck?

I spent yesterday photographing waterfowl at the London Wetland Centre.

I was reminded of the inductive reasoning ‘duck test’: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.

At first glance, this is reasonable enough (for those of you having sensation of deja vous, don’t worry, it isn’t a glitch in the Matrix, it is because you might remember this previous post).

I am sure if I showed most people this photograph, they would tell me it is a duck:

Wigeon

You wouldn’t need to know that it was a Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope), to be able to correctly assume that it was a type of duck.

But what is it about a duck that tells us it is a duck?

Also, I would hazard a guess that a reasonable minority of people, if they had joined me yesterday, would have told me that this Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis):

Little Grebe

…or this Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)…

Coot

… were ducks. They are not.

So I conducted some scientifically robust polling of non-birding friends and family to try to find the answer: what is a duck?

The answers I received were remarkably similar: ducks live on (or like) water. Some people were more specific about habitat – informing me that ducks “like lakes”; whilst others gave me further clues about behaviour, telling me that ducks are not very good at flying.

Not ducks

Whilst the Coot and the Little Grebe, might confuse a few people, I would guess that fewer people would be fooled by this:

Great Crested Grebe

That was, of course, a juvenile Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus).

And I doubt (I hope!) anybody would think this Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) was a duck:

Snipe

Both of them are water birds, but they just don’t look like ducks – largely because they have completely different bills. So, it can’t just be their love of water which makes them ducks.

But then ducks do share many physical characteristics with swans and geese such as Mute swan (Cygnus olor):

Swan

…and Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus):

Egyptian Goose

But my fictional companions would be able to identify them as swans and geese respectively, largely because of their size and neck length. But here is the rub…

Swans, geese, and ducks are all part of the same scientific family: Anatidae. OK, that isn’t particularly surprising. But what if I told you that that the Egyptian Goose wasn’t really a goose at all. It belongs to a sub-family called Tadorninae, which mostly includes shelducks and other large ducks.

Ducks

So, there is a blurry area on the edges of the duck family, but there are a whole number of ducks (about 80 species) where you would have no difficulty in labelling them ducks.

But there remains great variety in this grouping.

The biggest genus is ‘Anas’, often labelled the dabbling ducks. Such as this Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata):

Shoveler

… the wigeon we saw above, and this beautiful Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)…

Pintail

…like many ducks found in the UK, the birds above are migratory, and sometimes fly thousands of miles twice a year to spend the winter in warmer climes than their homeland in the frozen north. So, some ducks fly very well (although others have almost lost the ability to fly altogether, such as the torrent ducks).

The word duck comes from the Old English verb, ducan, meaning “to duck or dive”, and it is appropriate for a large number of diving ducks, such as the Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)…

Tufted Duck

And so, I shall end with the words of a far wittier man than me, Douglas Adams, who answered the question both accurately and amusingly:

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.”