Tag Archives: wild birds

Breeding season brings out bird’s quirks

The robin, which has been visiting us for almost four years now, has finally introduced a mate. It may that he’s had a mate in previous years but if so we haven’t seen her and he’s never taken any worms to give her, as male birds often do during the mating season. We had started calling him a ‘Philosophy robin’, wondering if he intended to spend his life thinking robin thoughts rather than mating. This has changed.

The robin’s mate waits for her gift of worms

For the last couple of weeks, he’s been coming into the garage to eat a few worms himself before gathering two or three and flying away with them. Luckily for us, his mate either waits in the Pyracantha hedge or in the lime tree on the other side of the wall so we’ve been able to see what goes on. Being in the habit of coming to us for mealworms, the male is now eagerly offering his mate worms, seemingly at every opportunity, coming to the bowl several times in quick succession and flying off to stuff his gift of worms into her beak. She’s a fortunate robin and we’re curious to see when the young ones appear, especially as the RSPB say that the male feeding the female at this time can impact on clutch size.

Selecting the best worms

Looking at the photographs, you can see the beautiful detail in the robin’s feathers and also that there is a slight nick in his beak. How did it happen, I wonder? Wear and tear, perhaps? A fight?

See the tiny nick at the end of his beak?

Elsewhere, the breeding season is in full flow. In the woods I picked up the broken shell of a song thrush (Turdus philomelos). Bright blue and speckled with small black patches, this will have been removed from the nest as soon as the young one hatched. Where they’re nesting is a mystery, but it would be nice to think that one of the brash mounds in the woods has made itself attractive as a protected ‘dead hedge’ in which to bring up a family. We’ve found many old nests during our work on rebuilding the brash piles.

Song thrush egg shell

In the nearby garden I tend, the fruit cage has yet to have its wire netting roof put on for summer and its accessibility has been taken advantage of by a female pheasant. In a slightly scruffy gap between the raspberry canes, I spy a scratched out depression in the middle of which is a pale olive-brown egg. No doubt more will appear and I’ll have to work around her and later make sure the door is left open so the chicks can get out when they’re ready to fledge.

The pheasant’s egg

Back at home, plants are springing into lush new growth. In the herb bed, the fresh young leaves have been noticed by a male starling (Sturnus vulgaris). He’s been down a few times now and has been nipping off the new growth and carrying it away to line the nest his mate has made. Starlings have a habit of doing this. Thyme, oregano and lavender are popular, while rosemary is nipped off and wastefully left behind. That was a new plant too. Birds have no respect. I’m reminded of similar bird behaviour from about ten years ago, when starlings nipped off every bit of new growth from a lavender and flew off with it. That same spring, sparrows transformed a gracefully flowing clump of Stipa tenuissima into something that more resembled a small green hedgehog. Taking turns, they grabbed hanks of the grass in their beaks and pulled, tugged and jumped until it came free, only stopping when it was entirely pruned. When they’d done that, they made a move on the primroses and pulled off every flower, leaving them on the ground to wither. That’s birds for you.

Tracking activity through the winter woods

Spending time in the woods after snow gives an interesting opportunity to look for signs of activity that wildlife leave behind them. It’s easy to spot where they’ve been, but not always easy to tell what the species was. Walking along one of the main paths through the woodland I’ve been working in during winter since late 2014, I spotted the footprints of a large bird and knew immediately that it was a pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). The footprints, one placed directly in front of the other, brought to mind a clear image of a male pheasant in all his flamboyant glory as he stalked along the path. Male pheasants always look slightly foolish to me; their tentative gait makes them seem uncomfortably nervous, as if they wish to be invisible, but they’re so brightly coloured that you can’t miss them. I must look kindly on them as pheasant season has not long ended and they’ve no doubt been dodging the lead shot of hunters for many weeks.

pheasant prints in snow

Walking on through the woods I spot snow that has clearly been disturbed over a large area. Patches of snow have been moved aside, revealing the leaf litter beneath. I wonder what creature did it. Was it badgers visiting the latrines we find throughout the woods? Or were they looking for food, perhaps? A slow walk and closer observation amongst them and reveals the answer, for next to almost every bare patch I see the faint footprints of a blackbird in the melting snow.

blackbird foot printsThe blackbird’s footprints

The bird’s passage between the trees, as it tossed aside the snow and moved the leaves, is very obvious and reminds of me how blackbirds throw up leaves and bark chippings in gardens. I hope it found what it was looking for, be it worms, grubs, beetles or slugs.

blackbird activity snow 2Signs of foraging

This woodland is host to a large number of fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) during winter. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia, arriving in autumn and leaving in late winter, and I first noticed them in November, when I saw a flock of them perched in a tree in a hedgerow on the nearby farm land, all of them facing the same direction. They are timid on their migration visits and fly off at the hint of a nearby human, but their presence in the woods is clear. Certain trees, often larch or pine, tell that they’ve been used for roosting and the evidence is seen in the dense scattering of droppings at the base of the favoured tree. Stand still and you won’t necessarily see the fieldfares but their voices are all around you. It is a strange cacophony of whistles and clacks and it sounds to me just like I imagine a sound effect might do in an old science-fiction B-movie, used when insectoid aliens are about to terrify some unsuspecting humans (you can hear them in this clip). One day the fieldfares might stop for me to photograph them, but that day is yet to come.

Another mystery in the woods is one created by humans. Someone tried their hand at building a shelter of sorts but it didn’t go too well and stood for less than 48 hours before collapsing in an ugly heap. It’s a little irritating because two other mounds had been taken apart to put this wreck together and we’ll need to dismantle it. It’s fairly regular for people to come into the wood and play, but they usually do a better job of it than this.

mysteryWhat the hell is that supposed to be?

By contrast, here’s one that Karl made nearly two years ago, which is still looking sturdy.

mycelium mound snowMuch better

Growing feathers is hungry work – helping birds through their moult

A robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been visiting us for three years now. It started as a youngster, coming into the garage and seeming content to perch and watch the activity in there. Seed was put down for it and it returned every day, sometimes several times. After a while, we started supplying live mealworms, which proved extremely popular, and a routine became firmly established.

13-02-2015-robin-2The robin when it first started visiting

Robins don’t live long in the wild, with only about a quarter reaching their first birthday, but I believe this is the same robin. We did have an interloping robin for a season, but that bird behaved differently to this one and the first robin was recognisable when it returned in autumn. The routine established with the first robin three years ago has been repeated pretty much every day since then. This is how it goes: one of us will go to the garage and the door handle will screech as it’s turned. The robin hears this and comes to sit in the wood shed next to the garage. Whoever is there will turn to it and say ‘Hello robin’, which is the signal for it to fly in through the door and stand in a particular spot on a work bench. The mealworms are then produced and the robin will eat several, occasionally stopping to give a sharp glance at its feet.

looking-at-feetThe robin looks at its feet

Being replete, it will then do one of two things – take a mealworm and fly off with it over one of our left shoulders, often ruffling the hair, or fly to a bag hanging from some shelves and perch there. Here, it will polish its beak on the same spot of the bag’s rim and then rest for a while. There we have it; unless we go away, which is not often, this is the sequence we repeat every day. This year, a male and female blackbird have joined in the mealworm bounty, though they prefer to stay outside the garage.

robin-bagResting on its favourite bag

Watching the robin every day, we notice that it has moods. Sometimes it is full of confidence, chest puffed up, and at other times it seems flat-feathered and timid; we wonder if it’s had a near miss with a cat, or if something else has frightened it, but the routine remains the same.

0821-robinDuring the moult and looking pretty scruffy

During the second half of August, the robin started eating more mealworms than usual, up to 16 a visit compared to the current average of six. The increase in appetite was soon followed by it starting to look increasingly bedraggled, feathers loose and sticking out all over. What was happening? It was moulting, as all birds do, shedding old feathers and growing new ones. During this time, birds can’t fly as well as they usually do and tend to go quiet so they don’t alert predators to their dishevelled state. The blackbirds moulted shortly before the robin, with the male losing all his tail feathers. All three birds are now looking considerably smarter, with smooth new feathers and brighter colours. Will they stay with us throughout the winter? Will this be the robin’s last moult? Only time will tell, but the birds’ ‘cafe’ will remain open.

Edit: After reading more, I’ve discovered that if a robin gets through its first year or so, it can live quite a bit longer than 1.1 years. The two oldest ringed robins were 19 years, 4 months, in the Czech Republic and 17 years and 3 months, in Poland. ‘Our’ robin may be around for a while yet!

robin-aug-2I’ll just sit here, thanks

Charting the course of autumn wildlife

Now that this long autumn has begun its move towards winter, the activity of wildlife has changed from one of raising young to securing a territory and surviving the coming months of cold. Robins need little reason to fight amongst themselves and their battles become more frequent as the year ages and they strive to acquire and hold the territory that will feed them until spring. Finches and tits group together to form chattering flocks, hedgehogs, dormice and bats prepare for hibernation and amphibians burrow into soil, compost heaps or under log piles.

1021-1

In this old house, autumn is heralded by the arrival of wood lice, which suddenly increase in numbers and crawl about the edges of rooms or find their way into the bath. As temperatures drop, they are joined by, and appear to be eaten by, spiders and their numbers drop again. We find the dessicated bodies in clusters under cobwebs, tucked away behind the fridge or under the washing machine. Many people don’t like insects in their homes, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, unless they bite or a light has been left on in an open-windowed room and it fills with dancing craneflies (Tipulidae).

In the great outdoors, it is interesting to stand amongst autumn trees and see the changes. In the woods, the deer have moved back into the dense central growth, where they make beds by scraping away the grass and leaves to reveal the bare earth they seem to prefer resting on. They are donning their winter coats, turning from a rich brown to a dull fawn, which blends perfectly with the muted colours of approaching winter.

deer-scrapeA deer has scraped away the grass and moss to make a bed of soil

All around us, insects are seeking shelter, tucking themselves against seed pods or the curls of fallen leaves.

nov-2015Ladybird seeking shelter

Slugs are fattening up on the last of the fungi, that not eaten by mammals, and will themselves become meals for hedgehogs, thrushes or toads.

slug-mushroom

In the Cotswold woodland I frequent, a small team is working to collect the brash from tree thinnings and build it into loosely woven mounds. Work started late last year and finished in spring and now that it is due to begin again, I’ve visited the woodland to observe wildlife activity around these mounds and it is gratifying to see.

shelterA small mammal has made a shelter in this thick mass of pine needles

Spiders are weaving their webs in the woven brash and many small birds move in and out of the twined stems. As I walk along the pathways or through the trees, birds flit from one brash mound to another. Sheltering so many insects, the mounds have become larders for them, as well as both habitat and hunting ground for small mammals and amphibians.

1021-3The birds spend a great deal of time investigating the woven brash

When it sometimes seems that all species except humans are sensibly tucking themselves away from the cold, I hear the soft sub-song of robins and blackbirds under shrubs, then suddenly the voices of dozens of birds. I look up to see a large flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) has landed on a lime tree, and are calling ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. I can make life easier for these wakeful birds, so the seed feeders will be filled over and again and the songsters will continue to enliven the relative quiet of winter.

 

Time to clean out the nesting boxes. Or should we?

The British Trust for Ornithology states that Bird Protection Law permits the cleaning out of nesting boxes between 1 August and 31 January and as there are seven nesting boxes in Ruth’s large garden and she doesn’t like going up ladders, at the end of September she asked me to help her clean them out. Armed with gloves, a nest collecting bucket, a stiff brush and a ladder we set off, eager to see how many had been used and what the nests looked like.

birdbox-4A very private residence

Some were easier to get at than others; one was high up and almost entirely hidden by ivy, with only the entrance hole to be seen, whilst another was attached to a mature yew tree surrounded by a dense thicket of Symphoricarpos.

All the boxes were made by Ruth’s husband, a skilled carpenter, and were easily accessible at the base, which swivelled out to allow cleaning. The entrance holes were surrounded by a metal plate to prevent woodpeckers enlarging the hole and reaching in to take young birds.

nesting-box-3Made with care and attention by Ruth’s husband, Fred

As we made our way around the garden, opening boxes, removing the contents, giving the inside a quick scrub, the old nests piled up in the bucket. In the end, we found that five of the boxes had been used and were fascinated to see their variety.

five-nestsA wide variety of nests

All had a base of moss topped by a mixture of wool and other material, but one nest, with shell fragments showing it was used by a Great tit (Parus major), had a particularly deep and luxuriant foundation of moss, topped by a thick layer of wool. It looked so cosy – imagine being born surrounded by that softness.

luxury-nestThis mix of moss and wool was our favourite

In contrast another nest, whilst clearly used, had a fairly thin foundation of moss and very little wool. Yet another had been finished with downy feathers and a single unhatched egg showed it had been used by a blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus).

bluetit-eggUnhatched blue tit egg

All this cleaning activity begs the question, why clean out nesting boxes? A piece in The Telegraph suggests that it doesn’t really matter and that birds don’t really mind. It’s a thought provoking article, but unfortunately the studies mentioned are not named or linked to, so it isn’t possible to read them. Over on the RSPB website, the cleaning of nesting boxes is recommended: ‘The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. We recommend that old nests be removed in the autumn, from August onwards once the birds have stopped using the box’. Take your pick, but if Ruth wants to clean out the nesting boxes that’s fine with me. We didn’t destroy the nests, incidentally, we tucked them under hedges around the garden so that other creatures can make use of the materials. That or they will gently compost into the earth.

 

Grape expectations

2012 was a fruit year for us; we planted two new apple trees and a grape vine in our medium sized garden, adding to another apple tree, currants and gooseberries planted the year before. Each year we’ve watched them put out a bit more fruit, a few more apples on this tree or a better crop on the blackcurrant bushes, but it was the grapevine that had me most excited. We’d already used leaves from the summer pruning to make variations on Cypriot Koupepia, tasty little rolls of vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat, tomato and fresh herbs, but the fruit was slower to appear.

vine_leaves_2Koupepia in the making

I know that grapevines do well in this area as I’ve seen them growing and producing many bunches of fine tasting grapes. How good it would be to have a vine in our garden too – it’s one of those things that, once you realise the possibility, you just have to do it. The vine was planted over Easter 2012 against a south-facing wall where it would be bright, warm and sheltered. That first year it got settled in and didn’t grow a lot, not that we expected it to. Thereafter, it grew a little more and we carefully pruned it and tied it into the wires we’d put up, but the grapes were small and few so we left them for the birds.

oxford-grapesGrapes in a garden close to where we live

It didn’t start producing any fruit to get excited about until this year, when some 20 bunches started to form, tiny and green, gradually swelling and turning a beautiful dark purple. We waited impatiently for them to ripen, looking forward to the first fragrant, sun-warmed juiciness bursting in the mouth.

The view of the grape vine out of the kitchen window is partly obscured by the branches of the Magnolia tree, but it didn’t prevent me from seeing a blackbird flying into it, the foliage moving briefly and then all going suspiciously calm. That blackbird looked to me like it flew into the vine with purpose. Its movements mirrored exactly the way they fly into next door’s cherry tree when the fruits ripen and the tree fills with birds for a week or two. They clamber along its branches to pull off the cherries and scattering stones on the ground, which are then put into storage by mice. Time to check those grapes.

grapesNot a lot, but it’s a start and there should be more next year

I discovered that the blackbird had clearly been paying more attention than I had – the fruit was ripe and many of the easily reachable grapes had already been pecked at or eaten. Even so, there were many bunches of grapes that the birds couldn’t reach and they were ripe, as juicy and delicious as hoped for, so I cut them from the vine, leaving some for the birds to finish off. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the birds would watch the fruit more closely than me; indeed, I know from past experience that they do as I remember seeing a blackbird eating a huge and perfect strawberry I’d had my eye on for days, moments before I was about to pick it for myself. Next year it would probably be a good idea to net the vine before the fruit ripens, but we shall still leave some for the birds.

Return of the robin

During the winter of 2014-2015 a very bold male robin (Erithacus rubecula) took up residence in our courtyard and the surrounding area. We bought mealworms for him and he started approaching us when we went outside and even, on a few occasions, came into the house. We put up a bead curtain at the door to dissuade him, but he came under it, so we kept the door shut and he came in through the windows instead. One day, Karl looked up to see the robin staring at him from my monitor and for a few weeks, we changed our routine flinging open of the windows every morning, for birds are not generally used to the insides of houses and tend to become confused and panicky.

robin-new-territoryThe usurper surveys his territory

Then another robin appeared – the two of them tolerated each other quite well to start with but, as the breeding season got under way, they became more territorial and started to fight and the intruder won. We rather missed the first robin – he had a curious habit of bending over and looking at his feet every few minutes.

looking-at-feetYep, feet are still there

During the spring the new robin introduced a mate to us and from the number of mealworms they flew off with, we reckoned they had two broods. She was less forthcoming than him, but the two of them would visit often, hopping about nearby and taking mealworms as they were offered. In mid-summer, she disappeared and we assumed she had been predated, by a sparrowhawk or a cat. Then the male  disappeared too and we were robinless for a few weeks, though well attended by a male blackbird (Turdus merula) who took to staring at us through the kitchen window while we cooked dinner.

blackbird-windowWhat?

Imagine the surprise, then, when last week I went to open the garage to find a tool and heard a familiar flutter nearby. A robin landed on a tool handle a couple of feet away and sat calmly looking at me, then he bent over and stared at his feet. The first robin was back. It was as if he’d never been away, for his demeanour had not changed at all. If anything, he seemed more relaxed than before and took to roosting in the open woodshed when anyone was outside – a ping-pong ball sized blob, barely noticeable from a distance. It was lovely to have him back and to wonder once more why he stared so intently at his feet, when other robins don’t appear to – at least, not that we’ve noticed.

robin-aug-1I’ll just sit here, thanks

There are, however, pitfalls to having such a self-assured bird around – one day, I went to get a tool from the garage. I was running slightly late, but was only slightly perturbed when the robin appeared and alighted on his current favourite tool handle. I gave him a few mealworms; he’d usually go off about his business after this, but that day he decided that a nap in the garage would be just the ticket and he could not be encouraged to leave his comfortable roost. I tried glowering at him from all angles, but he just stared at me and stayed put. I looked at him sitting there so impassively and thought, ‘Now what?!‘. The situation felt rather absurd and I was struck at just how determined wild creatures are and that you really cannot persuade them to do anything they don’t want to do, they are very much their own beings. The robin wasn’t confused and didn’t appear to be frightened – he seemed to feel safe and comfortable where he was and didn’t want to move, so in the end I decided I’d have to let him get on with it; the only option was to leave the garage open and be grateful for over-looking neighbours in case of human intruders. He’s still very welcome, but maybe we should move some of the tools out of view.

 

The blackbirds and robins are nesting again

Feeding the birds means that we can easily tell for the first time how many broods they are having and when. The main thing we watch out for is whether the birds eat the offered mealworms or fly away with them and, for both robins and blackbirds, it looks like they are onto their second broods of the season.

robin-blackbird

After the garden robin took over the courtyard robin’s territory in May, he introduced a mate and they started courtship feeding around May 5. This continued until May 29 when it abruptly stopped and both birds started appearing separately, which we understood to mean that the female was no longer sitting on the nest and the first brood of robins had been raised. On June 5, courtship feeding resumed and, as far as we know, is on-going. By ‘as far as we know’ I mean that the robins have endeared themselves to our next door neighbours who, seeing us feeding them, naturally wanted to try it for themselves and so the robins are visiting them as well. With a steady supply of good food, it will be interesting to see how many broods are raised this year.

blackbird-doorstep

There are also two pairs of blackbirds coming to us for mealworms, one pair from the courtyard and the other from the garden. They will occasionally all turn up in the same spot and a chase then ensues, but they mostly stay in their own territories. The courtyard blackbirds are still nesting in the ivy that grows on the wall between us and next door and, the young having fledged, the female gathered more material to refurbish the nest and laid eggs again. Those eggs have hatched and both birds are busily feeding young ones.

blackbird-window-3

The garden blackbird’s territory has come to include our kitchen windowsill, as he has spotted us through the glass and will sometimes perch outside and stare in at us. Sometimes he does this while we’re eating our dinner, which can feel a little awkward, and reminiscent of scenes from Dickens’ Oliver Twist where the boy of the same name asks for ‘some more’ gruel. At least with us, the blackbird will get it.

blackbird-window

The Tawny Owl – Stotfold, Thurnscoe, 1942

After reading of my adventure with checking out the owl’s nest, my friend John Davison sent me this poem which tells of an adventure from his boyhood in 1942, when he was around 13 years old. John and his friends would spend many hours in the fields and woods around Thurnscoe, Hickleton and Hooten Pagnel, out all day long  exploring together in a way that youngsters rarely experience now.

 

JOHN 1954

The Tawny Owl – Stotfold, Thurnscoe, 1942.

So typical of old ash trees, its crown was torn away,
But why and what had caused it, I really could not say,
Very likely putrefaction, or lightning on the prowl,
All I know, there was a hole, wherein dwelt a Tawny Owl.
Scores of pellets, regurgitated, were littered everywhere,
Confirming, absolutely, an owl was nesting there,
Wait here, I ordered Judy, at that moment somewhat rash,
And immediately began to climb that ancient rugged ash.
Staring down on that owl’s nest, I could not believe my eyes,
Five curious chicks glared back at me, all of a different size,
Then suddenly the larger one lunged vengefully at my face,
And I was fortunate to escape in that confined space,
[Quickly I remembered that photographer* and a Tawny Owl,
Which assailed him as to blind him in an incident so foul]
So when the owl attacked me I raised a hand to shield,
And felt the bird brush by me to glide smoothly to the field.
I saw it floating to the ground then quickly thought of Judy,
Who usually was a gentle dog but could be somewhat moody.
If I did not get down in time she could kill that helpless bird,
That in mind I rushed down that tree as if by the devil spurred.
Oh, how dreadfully wrong I was, how misguided was my fear,
My Judy was the victim, the owl seized her by the ear!
She squealed so loud and pitiful, her blood in copious flow,
Speed was then essential to make the needle claws let go.
I placed the owl beneath a bush, as if in a nightmare dream,
Tenderly soothed that bloody ear in fresh water from a stream,
That trauma ended our meanders, no further would we roam,
And I with Judy, and the owl, made our weary way back home.
I kept that Tawny Owl for months until it could strongly fly,
Then returned the bird to Stotfold and waved a fond goodbye !

*Eric Hosking

John Davison 2015

owl pelletA tawny owl’s pellet

 

 

 

 

 

Checking on an owl’s nest – you’ll need armour

In the far corner of Ruth’s orchard, there is an old shed where her late husband stored some of his work materials. It’s become a little run down and there is a large pane of glass missing from the door, but there is something appealing about this old shed in the orchard with long grass and cow parsley growing around it. Ruth’s son had asked about clearing it out, but Ruth had heard movement in there and suspected that a bird was nesting inside,  possibly an owl. She asked me to check and find out.

orchardThe orchard

Intruding on an owl, or any bird, during breeding season isn’t a good idea and I had some misgivings, but said I would check, very quickly, as it would be better than Ruth’s son entering without knowing if there really was an owl. Not without precautions, though, for as soon as she made the request, an image came to mind of a nesting box I’d photographed some years ago. It was a box for owls and on the front of it, in big red capital letters, was the stark warning ‘Goggles must be worn’, probably alluding to the experience of bird photographer Eric Hosking, who lost an eye after being attacked by an angry owl.

gogglesAnd make sure you do, too!

With the image of ‘Goggles must be worn’ flashing in my mind, I wondered how to  approach the shed safely without becoming the target of an owl’s talons. I had on a thick waxed waistcoat and there was a pair of heavier gloves in my bag, but what of my head and face? Inspiration struck and I asked Ruth if she had a compost sieve. She did, so we brushed it off and it became my owl armour, held at an angle in front of my face and over the top of my head.

sieveOwl armour

Thus protected, I crept towards the door with the missing window pane. At around 1.5m from the door, there was a whoosh and a large bird erupted through the window, flew over my head and sped towards some nearby conifers. It was a Tawny owl (Strix aluco) and its appearance during daylight hours set off alarm calls from every bird in the vicinity. I was expecting something like this, but the experience left me trembling and I returned a little unsteadily to where Ruth was waiting at the edge of the orchard. ‘You have a tawny owl’, I said. ‘Oh good’ she said, ‘Let’s stay away from it and keep it secret’. The location will remain unspoken and no one will be allowed near that shed until August, when the young ones will certainly have fledged and, left in peace, the owl should sort out the garden’s rabbit problem.