Tag: birding (page 1 of 4)

Beautiful bee-eaters found in East Midlands quarry

European Bee-eater merops apiaster near Tiskanias River estuary Lesvos 11/05/10

European Bee-eater (picture not taken in Nottinghamshire).

This past week I have had some major bird envy, as just 10 minutes from my hometown in the UK, a small flock of European bee-eaters have been spotted. European bee-eaters are possibly one of the most beautiful birds you could hope to see. Found across mainland Europe and parts of Africa, they are not birds you often think of spotting in a quarry in Nottinghamshire, most excitingly the bee-eaters are showing signs that they could breed on the site. Bee-eaters live up to their name by feeding on bees and other invertebrates such as butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

There have been lots of people visiting the site to see the bee-eaters and I am so happy to see the coverage of them and of wildlife in the area. I may be a little biased, but I think the East Midlands has some of the best wildlife in the UK and can often be a little overlooked, I hope our newest arrivals stick around for the foreseeable future (at least until I am home next so I can see them!).

Swallows by the sea

By JJ Cadiz, Cajay – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4256704

In my opinion there are few birds more magical than swallows. For myself (and many others), swallows are the sign of a changing season, a light at the end of the tunnel from the grey and dark winters. They stay in BC throughout the Spring and Summer and do not just blend into the background, they are a noisy, sometimes chaotic species and truly are a joy to watch.

The four main swallow species I see are barn, tree, northern rough-winged and violet-green swallow. The latter are less common, and I hardly see them in the city. Northern rough-winged are brown with a light front, and I have seen them nesting in small holes in a quarry. The violet-green, as the name suggests, are the most striking and can mostly be seen around wetlands and marshes.

In the city tree swallows are a lovely species, with deep-blue iridescent backs, it is not uncommon to suddenly find yourself surrounded by a large flock, picking off insects around trees.

However the swallow that dominates my coastal neighbourhood is the barn swallow.  I am lucky enough to see the swallows every day on my walks along the coast and beach. For a bird that spends half the year in the tropics, they are very much at home on the Canadian coast. Like little acrobats in the sky I watch them twist and turn in the meadows, manouvering between trees and skimming the grass in search of insects. I watch in awe as they are skim from one end of the meadows to the other, before dropping over the cliffs and down onto the beach. They keep low to the ground, dodging waves, in order to feed on the small insects found on the seaweed and sand. It is really easy to feel a connection to the swallows, they follow people as they walk along, gobbling up each insect that is disturbed by their steps. At the moment it is the adults who expertly dodge your legs and feet, but soon the young will be out of the nest, and learning to fly,  this leads to a few hairy moments where a collision between swallow and shoe seems inevitable. Swallow numbers are continuing to decline in our area, the cause is poorly understood. Despite it just been June, I am really making the most of seeing them before they head off again in a few months on their amazing journey south.

Beautiful barred owls

What a glorious weekend it has been, finally the sun is shining on Vancouver Island, and more excitingly I had an unexpected encounter with some beautiful barred owls. When it comes to owls my record of seeing them compared to other birdwatchers is poor at best. Quite a few times I have been tipped off on the best places to see owls, only to find empty branches and owl shaped shadows in the forest. This weekend however, was different, I was walking through a small patch of woodland, that is well known for barred owl sightings. The barred owl is a widespread, fairly common species of owl found right across the island. They are adaptable and seem very comfortable with life in our towns and cities.

I sensed my luck was in almost from the minute I entered the woods, I could hear some commotion further up the path, it sounded as though 3 or 4 hummingbirds were very upset about something in one of the trees. A good tip for finding owls and other raptors is to see how smaller birds are behaving in an area, when a raptor is present, it is very common to see a number of small birds mobbing it. As I walked down the path I could hear the hummingbirds very clearly, and after reaching the tree I was met with the unmistakable stare of an owl. A beautiful male barred owl sat on the branch, clear as day, undeterred by the hummingbirds, who were taking it in turns to dive towards it. This owl lives in an urban park, and was not fazed as people walked and cycled past.

Another tip for watching wildlife is to not only watch the wildlife but also the people around you. I saw a woman looking up the tree behind me and it turned out that she was looking at a baby barred owl. We swapped what we were looking at (she had not yet spotted the male). High in the tree sat a little fluffy blob, with their head down, trying to get a little bit of rest. I have never seen a young owl before and I enjoyed watching it scratching, yawning and generally just sitting around. Now I know where the owls can be found, I will definitely be going back to visit this family of owls that are very much at home in the middle of town!

Waxwing winter and a good year for robins, here are the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch

Waxwing

Waxwing

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has released the results of the UK’s Big Garden Birdwatch a long running citizen science project, where those taking part record and log what birds visit their garden for an hour on a particular date, it has become increasingly popular, and this year saw nearly 500,000 people take part, logging 8 million birds.

The results of the study has shown that 2017 was a waxwing winter, they flocked to the UK from northern Europe in search of food. Waxwings can often be seen in winter in the UK, but every seven to eight years, they come in higher numbers because of a shortage of food in Scandinavia. These sleek and beautiful birds, are a dusky pink colour, with a black stripe over their eye. They really are a joy to see and I am sure many people will have been very pleased to have them visiting the garden in search of berries. A little birdwatching tip, car parks with berries are often the best places to see them!

Other species that have done well, include goldfinches, which are up 44% since 2007, I am sure this is a noticeable difference for those who have watched the birds in their garden for many years. Once a less common sight, goldfinches are seemingly all over the place, again they are beautiful birds, with a yellow (gold) wing stripe and a red face. Robins have also seen a jump, the number of robins seen visiting gardens is now at a 20 year high. Starlings are up 10% on last year, a small rise given their dramatic decline, and red listed status, but an increase is still good news.

Goldfinch

Goldfinches

This year was not so good for some of our tits (stop giggling). Blue tits, great tits and coal tits were seen less frequently than last year. This is believed to be because of the weather, prolonged rain meant that caterpillar numbers were low and this had an impact on them feeding their young. Less food means fewer surviving young and thus a reduction from last year. However hopefully they will bounce back this year.

We are still seeing long term declines of our finch species, chaffinches are down 57% from 1979 and greenfinches are down 59%. It is so important that we all continue to make an effort and ensure our gardens are great places for birds.

Greenfinch

Greenfinch

To make your garden more attractive to birds follow this link to the RSPB, they have some very handy tips on how to get birds into your garden!

https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/

Seeing the sky dancer

I was hoping to spot some of the last trumpeter swans, before they make their long journey north. I went to the quiet, flat farmland in Saanich, the perfect spot for wintering swans. After driving a back road through multiple potholes, I arrived at a marsh that reportedly had over 200 swans on it just a few days before. A few pintail and shoveler ducks sat in the waterlogged field, and red winged blackbirds sang on the tops of the reeds, but no swans. I sat and waited for a little while, scanning the far fields with my binoculars, hoping to see the unmistakable white mass of one of North America’s heaviest birds.

By this point the ducks and the red winged blackbirds had fallen silent, I looked across the reed and locked eyes with one of the most beautiful raptors, the northern harrier. The harrier has a distinctive shape, large broad wings, and a long thin tail, this harrier, a brown female, floated elegantly across the reeds looking for prey. I watched in awe at her beautiful, effortless and quiet flight as she went back and forth across the reeds to the field verges and back again, meticulously listening and looking for prey below.

In the UK they are called hen harriers, and are an increasingly rare sight, in this part of Canada however, they are doing ok, they are affected by urban development and intensive farming, but they are not considered as a species of conservation concern. They are often referred to as sky dancers, because of their acrobatic mating display, however, watching them hunt, it is easy to see why they were given that name. They are effortless and graceful in the air, a far cry from the bulky swans I was hoping to see! I was transfixed by this special bird, they really are a joy to watch.

Study finds that yellowhammer songs which have disappeared in the UK still exist in New Zealand

The yellowhammer is a small, bright yellow farmland bird, found throughout the UK (and Europe). A beautiful little bird, and one I have been lucky enough to see quite regularly in the Midlands, they tend to perch on bracken, hedgerows or small shrubs and sing. The famous expression for the yellowhammer song is ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, with a number of additional notes either side; each male has its own distinct notes and many regional dialects have formed throughout the country.

However, due to a population decline, that now sees the yellowhammer red listed, a number of the regional dialects have disappeared. But this week, a new study showed that the lost birdsongs of some yellowhammers are still alive and well, not in the UK, but on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. In the 1860s and 70s, 600 yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand, and a population still exists today. A group of scientists began comparing recorded calls from the UK and New Zealand, and to their surprise they found that the New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as the birds in the UK. The lead author described the findings in The Guardian as the “avian equivalent of what happens with human languages. For example, some English words, which are no longer spoken in Great Britain, are still in use in the former British colonies.”

The findings are now believed to show that the birds in New Zealand have retained a number of songs and dialects, that were originally from the UK, but have since been lost in their native land. Listening to the songs of the yellowhammers in New Zealand is almost like travelling back in time and hearing one of the sounds of the UK countryside 150 years ago.

Battling the weather for birds.

Harlequin Ducks

I love winter on my patch, although this year is testing my patience somewhat. For Canada, Vancouver Island is mild in winter, with temperatures and weather similar to that in the UK. But this year has been a different story, snowstorms and Arctic gales have consistently hit the island. This has meant that the usual enjoyable birdwatching trips around my patch have looked more like something out of March of the Penguins.

The reason I love winter here so much is because of all the birds. Yes, summer brings a number of smaller, brighter species, but on a good winter day at my local beach I can easily see 30-40 species without even trying, and this is about 5 minutes away from the city centre, perfect for any urban birder. Today the wind was the issue, gale-force Arctic winds coming straight off the sea; the birding can generally be quite good on windy days, as many birds move into the harbours for a bit of a shelter.

Walking down the street the ground was covered in American robins, I imagine that the cold weather further north from us has brought many into the city. American robins are a common species, different to the robins we see in the UK, they are a member of the thrush family, and act as so, they are often seen scuttling along the ground or up in the trees eating berries. An Anna’s hummingbird was buzzing away, perched on a phone line, it is amazing to see such a tiny bird braving the elements in winter. This individual had a bright pink front and was showing it off as I passed.

After reaching the harbour I ducked next to some rocks to get a bit of a break from the wind, the harbour was filled with the usual suspects. A male hooded merganser was showing off his impressive white hood to a group of seemingly interested females. A pied-billed grebe was foraging away further out, and a flock of common mergansers passed me by, keeping an eye on me in between dipping their faces in the water. I was also very lucky to see one of my favourite birds, is it ok to have favourites? Three harlequin ducks were resting on the far shore, two males, one female. The males are so beautiful, I know it is wrong to like a bird based on appearance, but with their sleek neat pattern, blue/grey feathers on the head and body, red/orange sides topped off with distinct white bars on their face, neck, around their breast and horizontally along their body, it is hard not to admire them.

Cormorants (I think double-crested cormorants, but I struggle to guess the species) were braving the wind, flying out of harbour. After a glimpse of some surf scoters in the distance, and a belted kingfisher bashing sticklebacks on the side of a boat, I decided to call it a day, my hands were basically frozen onto my binoculars at this point.

Walking back round the coast I noticed another birder watching something out at sea (top birdwatching tip, don’t always watch the birds, watch the people). I scanned where he was looking and spotted a marbled murrelet bobbing among the waves. This is a special species, a small seabird, the marbled murrelet is a member of the auk family, and is listed as endangered in BC. They spend winter on the ocean, but in spring they have a secret that eluded ornithologists for years. Unlike other seabirds you will not find marbled murrelets nesting on cliff faces or the rocky shoreline, they nest in the ancient old growth temperate rainforest along the coast, their nest can be as far as 45 miles inland. They make their nest within the giant mossy trees, travelling back and forth at dawn and dusk, like tiny ghosts of the forest. They are a remarkable link between land and sea and a great example of the connection between the cold seas and tall trees on Canada’s Pacific coast.

marbled_murrelet 1004051_675586805790571_646136540_n

Working together: Humans and the Honeyguide

dsc_2377-male-honeyguide_custom-60f02f3960cdd7f26f8bdc40012428bf09097ce1-s1000-c85

If you have followed even half of the news stories over the last two weeks you will have seen nothing but division and separation, but there was one story tucked away within the chaos that shows unity and co-operation, not between two sets of people, but between humans and birds.

The honeyguide is a starling size species of bird found in Africa. The bird feeds on bee grubs and beeswax, however despite it being slightly more resilient to bee stings than other birds, it is not immune and its small size means that feeding from the hive is difficult work. The aptly named honeyguide has developed over hundreds of years a mutualistic relationship (meaning a relationship between two organisms that benefits them both) with local people in order to feed from beehives.

This incredibly rare relationship between wild birds and humans was recently studied by researchers. The honeyguides lead human hunters to beehives, for the local people honey is an important part of their diet, and finding beehives can be time-consuming. With the birds as guides the time is greatly reduced and the hunters can gather honey from the hives for their people. In order to access the hives the people smoke out the insects and use axes to break in and harvest the honey. Now this is something that the honeyguide could of course not do on its own, once the hive has been opened by people, the bird can access its food source. Both the birds and the people have their food and thus both have benefited from using each other. What makes this relationship even more interesting is that there is communication between the two species. Local people use a specific call which is recognised by the honeyguides. Once called the birds often come out of the trees and seemingly understand that the people want the birds to guide them to the beehives. The honeyguides are able to recognise a call and not only know the meaning but respond accordingly. This is something that is incredibly rare between people and wild animals, we can train domesticated species to respond to a call, but for this to happen for untrained wild birds is pretty unique and a wonderful example of the benefits that collaboration can have between two very different organisms.

Gannet returns to Channel Islands after flying record distance!

Gannet

A gannet from the Channel Island Alderney has returned home after flying an amazing 1700 miles to Scandanavian waters, gannets tend to fly around 200-300 miles whilst fishing. The gannet is being monitored by the Alderney Wildlife Trust’s Track-a-Gannet (T.A.G) project. The project is providing researchers with new information on the gannets feeding habits and how they may be affected by offshore energy projects, such as wind farms, and what techniques may be best for their conservation.

Cosmo the gannet’s record flight.

Back from the dead- Blue-eyed Ground Dove

The stand-out blue eyes of the Blue-eyed Ground Dove had not been seen for 75 years, and had never been photographed, until now. Researchers have confirmed the unlikely news that the Ground Dove, which was believed to have been extinct for almost a century, still lives in some top secret remote areas in Brazil. Whilst the news has been met with joy and celebration efforts have now turned to the bird’s conservation, with only 12 individuals documented. The announcement was made at the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival, where audience members were presented with evidence of the bird’s existence, this news has been met with delight and excitement at the bird that came back from the dead (sort of)!

columbina_cyanopis_rafael_bessa4

Blue-eyed Ground Dove Columbina cyanopis © Rafael Bessa

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