Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Great Shearwater, simply beautiful

Chris’s quest for bird photographs turned up trumps a couple of years ago; his pictures of a Great Shearwater are simply beautiful.  It took a great deal of effort and carbon to obtain, since he needed to be 40 miles off Land’s End, but I know he believes it was worthwhile.

From just about every birder I speak to now and online, I pick up reports of birds on the move.  I read of local ringers getting big catches of Warblers, Wheatears turning up in gardens, Spotted Flycatchers appearing from nowhere in unlikely places, Willow Warblers feeding on the rocky shore and Terns moving south along the coast.  It’s that time of year when just about anything can turn up anywhere and a rare bird raises the pulse of twitchers.  If one is prepared to spend enough time and money, a great many vagrants can be seen in these islands at this time of year, but it’s not the unusual that excites me, more the whole concept of migration embedded in such fragile creatures.

There are lots of waders and seabirds moving through too.  At the Wetlands Centre this morning the tides pushed hundreds of Curlews, Godwits, Redshanks and Greenshanks close to the hides and good numbers of Terns patrolled the beaches to the west.  Off a nearby headland there are Fulmars, Gannets, Kittiwakes and more. Reports of a Baird's Sandpiper quickened the pulses of many local birders in the hide, but I stayed put, preferring to watch the Sanderlings, Dunlins, Knots, Ringed Plovers and Turnstones on the nearby beach.

Even though we’re near the peak of this great exodus, I shall have to hang on until late September for my biggest thrill of the autumn, when thousands of Swallows move steadily around the bay and head off south over the lighthouse.  This miracle of visual mass migration is what does it for me.

Thursday, 23 August 2012


The Goldfinches in our garden are a constant source of pleasure.  Never away from the feeders for very long, they brighten up even the dullest of days; life would be much poorer without them.  Almost motionless, they perch like Christmas tree decorations steadily feeding on the sunflower hearts and niger seeds.  Such beautiful, delicate little birds they appear gentle, but can often be feisty, squabbling and rising quickly in aggressive aerial combat.  It never lasts long and they soon return to a vacant perch on the feeders.

At this time of year, moulting adults look rather scruffy and visit us less frequently.  Juveniles are more common, but show only a hint of their splendid plumage to come.  In a couple of months they’ll all be back in prime condition, ready to decorate the garden feeders once more in time for Christmas. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Marsh Tit

Willow Tit

Carolina Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

One of the most wonderful things about the natural world is that it doesn’t answer back; it’s an escape from the everyday problems of life and a refuge where I can forget the day-to-day trivia, which become less important as I get older. Communicating with nature is a one-way process; it speaks to us in pictures, sound and emotion; we enjoy it, not the other way round and much of the world seems not to appreciate its wonders and what it offers.  In the rich West, everyday life proceeds at a complicated pace, there are so many distractions mostly fuelled by technology, but nothing compares with the simple pleasure of looking at a flower or a bird.

There’s so much to see and enjoy in the common things of nature.  At this time of year juvenile Blue, Great and Coal Tits have yellow faces and are easily told apart from adults; they’re noisy and some are probably still attached to their parents.  Marsh and Willow Tits are not easy to tell apart and it was the ‘petuw, petuw, petuw’ call that gave away the young Marsh Tit in the valley this morning.  They’re less common nowadays, but I can often find them in deciduous woods and they’re still visitors to garden feeders, but alas not mine.  Willow tits on the other hand are much more elusive and I haven’t seen one for a long time.

The origin of bird names is intriguing, but these 'twins' are particularly confusing.  Marsh Tits should be associated with marshes and Willow Tits with willows; it’s not that simple.  The former is generally found in woodlands and not marshes, whereas Willow Tits, although often found in willow thickets, normally live in marshy places.  There must be an explanation.

There’s a similar dilemma with Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees; Carolinas are found outside the Carolinas and both have black caps.  Like our almost identical twins, they’re difficult to tell apart and when I’m in the US, I mostly relying on others for wisdom.  I’ve never knowingly found them together and so have had little chance of learning the difference.

Marsh and Willow Tits were originally considered one species and only separated just over 100 years ago.  Audubon certainly knew there were two distinct chickadees, but I wonder who first separated them.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

American and European Coots

Below are some photographs of American and European Coots, they're very much alike, but there are subtile differences.  The first three photographs are of American Coots.  There's a real difference in the amount of white on the forehead and a distinct dark mark near the base of the American Coot, which is not present on the European species.  The American Coots shots were taken in Texas, the European ones at various places in the UK.