Friday, 23 March 2018

A Halcyon Day 21st March 2018

The first day of Spring dawned just as one would hope, a benign morning, a little chilly but sunny and with a gentle wind. Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins, Great Tits and Woodpigeons were all singing from around the garden, primroses and daffodils were adding their bright colours to the greening vegres and the whole day was set fair, a welcome diversion into more normal weather after the snow, strong, cold winds and rain of the past weeks.

Today I had Common Kingfishers on my mind. I say Common Kingfisher as that is the correct name to identify 'our' Kingfisher from all the other kingfishers in the world, of which there are many. However for  simplicity sake I will now refer to Kingfisher in this blog and drop the 'Common' 

Kingfishers are known to virtually everybody in Britain, due to being the most brilliantly coloured of all the bird species regularly found here and consequently finding themselves commemorated on mugs, china plates, countless greeting cards and being a perennially favourite image in wildlife magazines. There is even a beer called Kingfisher! People who have never seen one in real life can usually describe what a Kingfisher looks like, so ubiquitous is its image and when one is actually seen it always brings a sense of wonder, discovery and achievement to birder or member of the public alike. No one ever dismisses a sighting of a Kingfisher and it is regarded as almost a privilege to see one. Not that they are always seen that clearly, the usual sighting is of a seemingly disembodied patch of vivid electric blue disappearing with short whirring wings at incredible velocity into the distance, low over the water, following the course of a slow moving lowland river, canal or stream, often emitting a shrill chee or chi kee, trilled two or three times in succession.

If you are very lucky you may catch a glimpse of one, before it flies, its curiously squat form with an inordinately large head and long spear of a bill perched quietly and unobtrusively on twig or reed, river post or canal wall, overlooking an area of still and shallow water, awaiting an opportunity to dive on any incautious small fish or crustacean below.

In previous posts I referred to the disproportionate shape of the Hawfinch due to its huge head and bill and here, in the Kingfisher, we have another similar example. The business end of the Kingfisher comprises a large head counterbalancing a long and substantial, black pointed bill, the rest of its small body  appearing disproportionately inconsequential in comparison, this imbalance further emphasised by its stumpy tail and tiny feet.
The Kingfisher is indeed a thing of great beauty, basically blue above and orange  below but this cursory description hardly does its plumage the justice it deserves. The upperparts comprise blues of many shades, these colours seeming to vary, according to the angle of light, from deep blue to emerald green but its mantle and back are always a dazzling and vivid cobalt blue. The crown of its head is patterned with a myriad of tiny crescents of pale blue on a deeper greenish blue background as are the wing coverts with similar pale blue markings and there is a white flash on its neck and chin. Its very short feet and toes are the colour of red sealing wax whilst the underparts are a shade of rich chestnut.

This perfection of plumage is however married to less savoury aspects. It is markedly aggressive  to its own kind as well as other species and highly territorial. In fights they will endeavour to drown their rival by holding their opponent's bill underwater. Its nest is nothing more than a chamber which is formed at the end of an eighteen inch tunnel, both being excavated by the adult birds digging into a steep muddy riverbank and progressively the nest chamber becomes markedly foul smelling as the young grow towards fledging. Nest hygiene does not appear to be a priority in a Kingfisher's domestic existence. When I was a bird ringer with the BTO (The British Trust for Ornithology) I used to occasionally catch Kingfishers on my local river in Surrey and to this day can vividly recall my repugnance when on catching my first Kingfisher I held this creature of such beauty, close in my hand but was almost overpowered by the stench of stale fish emanating from its aggressively opened bill. Incidentally this bird almost fooled me to release it when it commenced to slowly and menacingly rotate its neck and head in an almost complete circle, like a serpent, presumably to persuade me to drop it in disgust or fear, which almost worked, so unexpected was such behaviour.

Those un-natural encounters, holding Kingfishers in my hand, were a long time ago and I have never since come anywhere so close to one in the wild. This year I resolved to rectify this and decided to pay for a day in a Hide, especially constructed to allow this to happen. I am aware that there are those that decry such  contrived situations but I am sorry but I do not have the time to sit for hours on a riverbank in the hope that I may be undisturbed and by some miracle a Kingfisher will come and sit within feet of me.

Before I carry on here are some Kingfisher facts.

Kingfishers are split into seven subspecies, one of which occupies the UK, and have a wide overall distribution stretching from western Europe, east to Asia and south to North Africa. Our subspecies numbers around 6000 pairs in the UK and is mainly confined to southern and central England although it has expanded its range northwards to central Scotland. Any river or stream hosting Kingfishers is regarded as being of good quality and healthy. Male and female Kingfishers hold separate territories apart from the breeding season when they come together to breed and an average Kingfisher territory on a river or stream stretches for about one kilometre. In hard winters when water bodies freeze over for extended periods Kingfishers suffer very high mortality, as in the winter of 1962/63, when it was estimated 85-90% of Kingfishers in England died. However they are capable of having three broods a year so numbers are soon replaced although 50% of young Kingfishers are dead after just two weeks from leaving the nest and only 25% of the young will survive long enough to breed in the following year. Most Kingfishers live for little longer than one year although there is an extraordinary record of one bird living for twenty one years.

A brood of  Kingfishers require at least a hundred fish per day if they are to survive to fledging and an adult Kingfisher has to eat sixty percent of its bodyweight each day to survive.

In Victorian times and its mania for shooting birds and stuffing them to be displayed in cases  Kingfishers were high on the list of desirable victims but the stuffed bird's plumage never had the lustre and sheen of the living one.The reason for this is that the Kingfisher's plumage is not pigmented but the brilliant colours are derived from light striking modified layers of cells in the feathers..

Today I drove to just south of Birmingham and met Darren in a Macdonald's car park (it could only get better) and followed him to a nearby farm where he had several different hides strategically placed to photograph various birds such as the aforesaid  Kingfishers but also Buzzards, Kestrels, Green Woodpeckers and Little Owls. It is a business, just like those companies that charge a fortune to take you on exotic birding trips abroad to any country you care to name. As someone who ran my own business I recognised, in Darren, an entrepreneur when I saw one and we got on just fine. There was a demand and he was satisfying it. The majority of his clients were he told me serious photographers both amateur and professional rather than birders but for me it was an exercise to get close to Kingfishers as much, as if not more so, than to photograph them.

At eight thirty, on a cold and sunny morning Darren led me across a farm field full of lambs and left me in a Hide, overlooking a stream, above which was a strategically placed perch just five metres from the Hide. I had the Hide all to myself and making myself comfortable I sat to await the arrival of a Kingfisher on the perch. The first three hours passed very slowly as I waited in the gloom of the Hide's spartan interior for a sight of the sparrow sized blue and orange beauty but nothing came and I began to feel very cold and not a little dispirited by the lack of action. There was literally nothing else to see and no other birds came anywhere near as I morosely stared out at the stream and listened to the sound of the running water. Yet another hour passed slowly and my phone told me it was just about noon and then, there was a Kingfisher, sat on the perch looking down at the water. I cannot begin to explain the sense of relief and almost effervescent joy the sudden appearance of the Kingfisher brought me. The trials and tribulations of the past four hours were forgotten in an instant, my feet no longer felt numb and life took on an optimistic aspect once more

The Kingfisher before me was a male, identifiable by its all black bill. Male and female Kingfishers are virtually identical apart from the bill where it is all black in the male but the female's lower mandible is orange red. 

The Kingfisher sat there, as close as could be, upright on its perch. its tiny red feet grasping the perch whilst it looked down at the water below, jerking its head up and down and  turning it from side to side, as it sized up the angles for a dive to secure a fish. It finally dropped at some speed into the water below, with a resounding 'plop' and secured a fish which it took a few metres upstream to a small bare tree overhanging the water. 

It swallowed the fish whole and after ten minutes sitting there quietly, it was back for more fishing and caught another fish which it again flew off with but downstream this time. 

While it was perched near to the Hide it was close enough to notice that its bill was stained with mud from where, presumably, it had been excavating a nest hole.

You can clearly see the mud stains adhering to the bird's bill
There was no immediate return by the Kingfisher, in fact there was no return for an hour at least, by which time I had been joined in the Hide by a serious photographer with an inordinate amount of impressively specialised and very expensive looking photography equipment.  I felt slightly intimidated as he started speaking in technical terms about focal lengths, aperture settings and shutter speeds, and worse, asking my opinion on photography matters well beyond my comprehension. It rapidly became clear to me that all these Hides were more for the photographer than the likes of me, a birder come photographer

This was way out of my league and I thought it best to confess to being a rank amateur and primarily a birder rather than a bird photographer who was intent on a world beating image. This seemed to do the trick as the photographer, recognising I was not in his league and really just a birder and not a competitor, became quite friendly and gave me some valued advice about camera settings and even suggested he could help me with my camera settings but I politely said I would rather stick to what I was comfortable with for now but would certainly experiment with his suggestions later. Frankly the Kingfisher's only two visits up to now had allowed me just a small number of images and I did not want to end up with a subsequent series of blurry photos as I experimented with the complex technical information I had been given.

As we sat there and chatted I was amazed to here my companion tell me he knew nothing about birds. He obviously knew what a Kingfisher was but his sole purpose was to get the ultimate shot of an iconic bird. So now I felt more at ease and more an equal, as we were both proficient in our respective areas of expertise but found ourselves in a Hide for very different reasons. His main reason for visiting was to try and get an image of the Kingfisher hitting the water in a dive. Good luck with that! At least my relative incompetence with a camera and lens meant I would not be troubling myself about attempting anything so complicated.

There was still no sign of the Kingfisher and during a period of silence I got to thinking about the ever increasing intolerance and impatience that exists between birders and photographers. I could come over all superior with my knowledge of birds and be patronising about my new found colleague's lack of identification skills and whose main concern was the fact he just wanted a photograph but I did not feel that way, coming to what was almost a revelation for me in  that there are those whose main form of relaxation is to take a really good photo of a bird or animal even if they are  at times unsure of what it is.The technical aspect is their holy grail whereas mine is more humble in that I am happy to get a reasonably good image of birds, most of which I can identify

There is a place for both of us in this world but unfortunately the increasing numbers of both photographers and birders with cameras brings conflict as both sides transgress the norms of reasonable behaviour and it is not going to get any better.

The afternoon wore on but thankfully the Kingfisher made several more visits throughout the afternoon and both of us from our differing perspectives were happy with the experience. I had, by the time I left, been in the Hide for no less than eight and a half hours and my chilled body certainly let me know it. A hot shower at home was never more welcome as I reflected on a successful but curiously disconcerting day out as I recalled a world revealed to me this afternoon, that was until then completely unknown to me.

I must get out more!

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Stop these Criminals Once and for All

E-Petition to ban driven grouse shooting

To anyone reading this blog can I ask you to kindly take the time to read the message below from Dr Mark Avery and if you feel, like me, that the criminal element in the grouse shooting fraternity, both the owners of the moors and their gamekeepers need to be brought to justice and stopped from illegally killing not only Hen Harriers but Golden Eagles, Buzzards, Peregrines, even Mountain Hares and anything else they consider will jeopardise the money they make from renting grouse shooting on their moors, then please sign the petition below.

The people wilfully killing birds of prey are criminals that consider themselves above the law and can act with impunity and their disgraceful activities must be stopped.

Just recently another Golden Eagle mysteriously 'disappeared' by a grouse moor in Scotland  and now yet another Hen Harrier, this very week, has 'disappeared' next to the only grouse moor in Wales. This is not coincidence.

Otmoor, our Oxfordshire RSPB Reserve has hosted at least two Hen Harriers this winter but I find myself looking at them with increasing anxiety as to their fate in the coming months.I want them to stay forever on Otmoor where they are safe but they will soon migrate north  as they require moorland on which to breed and they will then be in great danger from the criminals that await them with their poisons, traps and guns. These are our birds and not to be done away with by those who currently and arrogantly defy popular opinion and consider themselves beyond the law. I urge you to sign the petition referred to in Dr Avery's message below. In the end we will win from sheer pressure but how many Hen Harriers, Golden Eagles and other birds of prey will die before these crimes are stopped is totally and utterly depressing.

Here is the message from Dr Mark Avery who is leading the campaign against driven grouse shooting

'I'm asking a favour. 

A guy called Gavin Gamble started an e-petition in favour of banning driven grouse shooting before Christmas and it now has just a couple of weeks left to run. I'm trying to give his petition lots of support.  It has already passed 39,000 signatures (which is very good for these things) and is likely to reach 40,000 or more before it closes.  
The more support, the more likely it is for politicians, now or in the future, to tackle wildlife crime against birds of prey and unsustainable management in the uplands.

So my request is simply to pass on this email  so that the word spreads among birders, and that if you are sent this email then please send it on to others. The closing date for signatures is 2 April so we need to use these last couple of weeks well.

Many thanks for any help you can give (and thank you to those who have already taken action).

Best wishes and please forgive the cheek of this request'

Dr Mark Avery

Our beautiful male Hen Harrier is protected whilst it remains on the Otmoor RSPB Reserve,

Please help the fight to keep it safe in the U.K when it eventually spreads its wings and leaves us.

Photo courtesy of Terry Sherlock.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Revisiting the Mediterraneans 13th March 2018

Last Friday, myself and Moth went to Hayling Island on the south coast of England to view the pre breeding assembly of Mediterranean and Black headed Gulls that congregate at the former Hayling Oyster Beds at this time of year. Due to the cloud and drizzle we encountered it was impossible to do justice to the birds with a camera and any images we obtained were to my mind far from satisfactory.

This was particularly frustrating for me, as precisely the same thing happened the year before when I visited the colony at almost the same time and I vowed that this year I would endeavour to go on a day when there was sunshine and the gulls could be seem amd photographed at their best in optimal weather conditions. Sadly the weather confounded me, as last Friday evidenced.

Unbeknown to me I was also succumbing to a mild virus last Friday which resulted in my spending most of the subsequent weekend in a state of lethargy, trying to shake off whatever was ailing me. I was so debilitated that not even the occurrence of a Snowy Owl in Norfolk could ignite the embers of twitchiness  in me.

Over the weekend, from my almost permanent residence on the sofa, I had plenty of time to regularly check the weather forecast at Hayling Island in the coming week and every day looked unpromising. An unsettled week of cloud and rain was predicted and the weather charts displayed not a sign of the hoped for icons of yellow sun on any of the coming day's predictions. Monday turned out to be truly horrible with constant heavy rain all day and the Snowy Owl promptly disappeared. By that evening I was feeling better and checked the forecast once more for Hayling Island. Still no go, cloud and yet more cloud was predicted for the next two days with possibly some sun on Thursday but then anything could happen between now and Thursday. I was grabbing at straws and I knew it but with our notoriously fickle weather and variable quality of weather prediction there is always the vague hope that someone gets it wrong.

Today, Tuesday, I awoke to find sunshine outside the bedroom window. What's this? I checked the forecast for Hayling Island and a vertical line of yellow sun icons was indicated on the chart up until noon when it was predicted that it would cloud over. Something had clearly changed overnight.

I had been waiting and hoping for exactly this. A window of opportunity had unexpectedly arrived and I was determined not to waste it. Seize the moment! I was up, dressed and had the car loaded with camera, bins and scope in no time at all.  I left home at seven thirty and headed south. If I had been half an hour earlier departing my home all would have been well but the extra thirty minutes ensured  that I encountered delay after delay, due to nothing more than the sheer volume of traffic at all the favourite bottlenecks on the way to Oxford. People going to work endure this day after day but for me, unused to this, it was singularly frustrating. Finally I made it onto the infamous A34 to the south of Oxford but it had taken me double the normal time to get there. At this rate the sun would be long gone by the time I got to Hayling and indeed the sun was nowhere to be seen as I drove southwards. Doubts had begun to creep in but I was committed and now was almost two thirds of the way to my destination. I drove on, more in hope than expectation, but on reaching the south coast and Hayling in particular my gamble paid dividends, as here the sun was shining and on decamping from the car in the same tiny car park at Hayling, I found myself standing in a wonderful Spring morning, sunny and still, and a sea so smooth it resembled glass. Such a change from last Friday. A Blackbird sang his whimsical contralto notes from a nearby tree and out on the saltings Brent Geese quietly muttered to themselves and a small group of Mediterranean Gulls, some asleep, lazed in the sunshine on a muddy strand, well away from the hubbub, bustle and congestion of the frenzied gull colony that lay a few hundred metres beyond. All was well with me and this time surely I had got it right.

I wasted little time in walking out to the two  stony bunds where the gull  colony was situated. Another sign of Spring was evident as I walked along, in the form of a cluster of wild Daffodils that had forced their way through the dead grass of winter to display their butter yellow trumpets and pale lemon tinted petals to the world.

On this occasion I walked out to where a narrow channel of sea, of no more than twenty metres, separated me from end of the nearest bund, so I was looking down the length of the bund with gulls massed on top of it, scattered down its sides and around its edges. I stood on the grass top of the embankment and looked out across the water onto the rocks, pebbles and sand of the bund. These bunds are all that remains now of the former oyster beds, and beyond was a haze of blue sky, white clouds and  the expanse of Langstone Harbour 

The bunds on which the gulls congregate
I was completely on my own and sat quietly on the embankment's grass to survey the gulls. Although the gulls showed little alarm at my presence it was important to make sure my profile was as discreet as possible. The Mediterranean Gulls, noticeably more wary than the Black headed Gulls were a little uneasy when I initially stood on the embankment but once I lowered my profile, by sitting on the bank, they relaxed and soon were carrying on as if I was not there.

A nice contrast between a Black headed Gull (centre) and two Med Gulls
Note the brown hood on the Black headed Gull and black on the Med Gulls!

I have no idea whether all these gulls will breed here, probably not, although I am sure some will do so. Later, Common  and Little Terns will arrive to breed here and this is the primary reason for the reserve. Many of the Mediterranean Gulls will move on to other nearby islands in Langstone Harbour to breed and the congregation of gulls here looks more to be a pre-breeding assembly rather than one where most are going to breed. It will still be a while yet until nests are made and eggs are laid, probably not here and not until late next month or even May. Whatever the situation, one thing could not be denied and that is the great business of renewing life had begun in earnest for another year.

To visit a gull colony such as this is to be ceaselessly entertained by the constant activity of the birds, accompanied by a cacophony of cries, mainly from the Black headed Gulls which provided an endless soundtrack of harsh grating calls whilst the slightly more melodious querulous calls of the Mediterranean Gulls provided a more discreet accompaniment. 

It was primarily the Mediterranean Gulls that I had come to see, for at this time of year they are in their pristine and very attractive breeding plumage that will only last for three or four months before they start to moult into their duller winter plumage. They are really spectacular at this time of year with black hoods, poster paint red bills and legs and all white wings. Some, however, were still to attain full summer plumage, their foreheads showing white feathering much like an elderly dog shows round its grizzled muzzle. 

Mediterranean Gulls are fully adult when they are three years old and virtually all the birds I saw were adults. I did see at least four immature birds which look different to the adult in that they have an incomplete hood on the head and the white outer flight feathers are  marked with black. At least three individuals, two adults and a third calendar year bird were colour ringed which enabled me to get details about them from the ringers and these are shown at the end of this blog.

Immature Mediterranean Gull
The Med Gulls formed discrete little enclaves amongst the squabbling aggravation of Black headed Gulls, insular and concerned only with the process of courting and pairing unless a Black headed Gull intruded, when the interloper was threatened with outstretched wings and open bill. The Med Gulls were generally dominant over the Black headed Gulls but occasionally the burgeoning testosterone of the Black headed Gulls drove them to attack a Med Gull and often they would then become the victor. Watching the Med Gulls, standing fractionally taller amongst the Black headed Gulls, looking slightly supercilious with those clown like white surrounds to their eyes, I noted how the shape of the black hood differed in appearance depending on the gull's stance and posture.Sometimes when relaxed it was a complete hood encompassing the head and neck and at other times when the head was extended the hood only partially covered the hind neck. 

It was only too apparent that many were still in the first stages of forming pairs,coming together in their small gatherings, strutting and posing in a somewhat sedate and ritualised fashion, whilst others seemed to have already tied the bond. There was conflict where three or more were together and wings would be raised but even in such situations their displays were more discreet and possessing a casual elegance denied the Black headed Gulls. In courtship they would slowly bow with  an exaggerated posture, head and neck tilted downwards, tipping their breast to the ground and with wings and tail raised to the sky and then reverse the procedure so their neck and head were stretched up, with wings slightly held away from their body as they stood on tiptoe and opening their scarlet bills would call querulously, often in unison. 

A regular coming and going of these birds was in progress, some flying in close formation, as pairs, over the sea and calling constantly to one another as if strengthening their partnership whilst others would abandon their supposed mate and fly off into the harbour or land further down the bund to display elsewhere in a protesting commotion of flapping and outspread wings from others of their kind, indignant at the unwelcome arrival of another competitor in their midst.

A constant procession of both gull species flew out from the bund to circle over the sea, sometimes to settle and bathe on the sea and at other times to return to the colony to land and stand briefly, before repeating the whole process as if the impulse of the impending breeding season was too much, too vital,  to allow them to remain still for more than a minute or two.

It was impossible not to get caught up in the contagious excitement of the gulls, and whilst sitting and watching them the world slipped away behind me and I entered the beguiling alien spirit of the colony and became subsumed in its endless activity and noise.This is why I love to go birding. It is a release from all the cares. worries and anxieties of my human existence, as for a few hours I watch other beings in an existence totally uncaring of my world and that tells me it is not all about us. I come away as invigorated as having gone to a good play or exhibition, maybe more so. Sure we humans affect the natural world more and more with our non stop rapacious despoiling of the Earth but there are still places and sights in the natural world to imbue the spirit with optimism and this is one of them.

The Black headed Gulls were also in the process of forming pairs and strengthening their pair bonds.They seemed further advanced than the Mediterranean Gulls and their courting attitudes were more exaggerated and energetic, the proverbial noisy and annoying neighbours to the more aloof Mediterranean Gulls. Pairs would lower their breast almost to the ground with head and bill slightly upraised and trip slowly in small steps around their mate or repeat the same procedure on the sea flattening their bodies on the water and with head and bill just slightly raised above the water, swim in unison before raising their heads, all the while squawking noisily to proclaim their ardour. A very similar display also seemed to be employed as a threatening gesture.

The above three images show Black headed Gulls in a threat display

The above images show the courtship display of a pair of Black headed Gulls
Immature Black headed Gull

Adult Black headed Gull
The attitudes of the gulls and the various ritualised postures they adopt in their displays were a source of constant interest and entertainment. At no other time of the year can you see this, only when they are commencing their breeding cycle.

Some of the Black headed Gulls, but very much in a minority had already staked a claim to a tiny patch of sand and pebbles, often with a patch of dry seaweed or other vegetation as the base for a nest site and were defending it. Whether this was just a dummy run for the real thing somewhere else I could not know. Most of the gulls seemed to be only at a stage of ordered confusion, where sorting themselves into pairs and establishing a tiny area on which to pretend or practice to build a nest was their sole intent.

After two very pleasant hours I left Hayling Oysterbeds and its gull colony and made my way back to the car and in two more hours was back home.

Details of  the colour ringed immature Mediterranean Gull that I  saw today 

It was ringed as a chick on 2nd July 2016 in Vendee France. 

Ring number RJ8L

It has been seen subsequently at the following locations: 

Morbihan France on 16th 16th July 2017 September 2016
Malaga Spain on 29th March 2017
Lodmoor RSPB Weymouth on 27th October 2017
Radipole RSPB Weymouth on 6th December 2017

and finally at West Hayling Nature Reserve Hampshire today 13th March 2018

I also saw two adult birds both of which had been ringed in Belgium

Ring number 3TRR

Originally ringed as an adult on 31st May 2017 at Antwerp Belgium

Subsequently seen by me on 13th March 2018 at West Hayling Nature Reserve Hampshire

Ring number 330A

Originally ringed as an adult on 20th May 2017 at Antwerp Belgium

It has been seen subsequently at the following locations:

Mumbles Swansea Wales on 16th July 2017

West Hayling Nature Reserve Hampshire on 13th March 2018