Wednesday 23 January 2013

Sexycola Stonechats 27th January 2013

Watching European Stonechats a few weekends ago on Otmoor RSPB reserve I reflected on how birding has changed during my lifetime and become so very competitive with the emphasis predominantly on recording species, numbers of species seen and the rarer the better. Taxonomy, identification and the number of different species seen are now the holy grail for many birders especially the younger generation and although important there is so much more to birds and individual species than just these aspects of birding. What about behaviour, moult, distribution, food, nests and migration? Not so sexy I agree but just as rewarding. There is still so much to learn about birds and individual species' ecologies. You can get just as much of a buzz recording some aspect of a species ecology that has not been recorded as finding, say, a Black Duck in Strontian (see earlier post). Well I do anyway! 

This prompted me to write the following 

As many know, stonechats do it for me. So much so that I wrote the book about them and their cousins  called 'Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola.' Published in 2002 by A&C Black and illustrated by my good friend Ads Bowley. Here are some interesting and random facts about stonechats.

The word Saxicola is derived from the Latin saxum for rock and incola for dwelling in. This no doubt is related to their alarm and contact call which replicates the sound of two small stones being struck together.They certainly do not inhabit rocky terrain!

The formerly single species called Common Stonechat has been split into three species: European Stonechat, (which includes birds from the UK) Saxicola rubicola, Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus and African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus. In my book published in 2002 I treated them as three species but the BOU only got round to splitting them in 2011. Nine years later, based on the identical mtDNA evidence to that used by me in 2002. Ho hum! Ornithological mafia!

The Common Stonechat as it was called before the split into European, Siberian and African Stonechat  has one of the widest distributions of any passerine in the Old World being found across three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa from the Arctic Circle to the very tip of South Africa and as far east as Japan

There are likely to be even more stonechat species in future with Caspian Stonechat Saxicola variegatus as a split from Siberian Stonechat being a distinct possibility and even the Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus may be split into Western Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus and Eastern Siberian Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri based on recent mtDNA evidence. African Stonechat may also be split into several separate species. Also keep an eye on the subspecies of Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus przewalskii from the Far East. You heard it here first!

African Stonechat male @ Madagascar
courtesy Ads Bowley
Stonechats can have up to three broods a year in the UK and western Europe

Stonechats in  the UK are partially migratory. Nestlings in the same brood can adopt different strategies with some migrating for the winter to southern Europe and their siblings choosing to remain in the UK. This is thought to be genetically driven. It is a gamble. If they stay in the UK then a prolonged hard winter will likely kill them off but if the winter is mild they gain an advantage over their returning migrant siblings in that they can claim breeding territories before the migrants return. Conversely if the resident birds do die in a hard winter there is still a reservoir of migrant birds returning in the Spring to maintain the species

Stonechats and Dartford Warblers are well known to have an association. This works mainly in favour of the warbler, which habitually skulks in vegetation low to the ground, as the stonechats using elevated perches take alarm at potential predators at a greater distance than most other passerines thus acting as an effective early warning system for the warbler. The warbler in contrast causes problems for the stonechat as it's close proximity adversely affects the feeding success of the stonechat

An African Stonechat in Zimbabwe has been seen to catch small fish and European Stonechats in a UK winter have been observed picking unidentified prey from the water's surface and even briefly dropping into the water to grab prey

Although an Old World inhabitant, the frozen remains of a Siberian Stonechat were found in the former nest hole of a Bank Martin on the Yukon River at Galena, Alaska and another was seen alive in New Brunswick Canada

Stonechats in the UK form pairs in the winter on territories that are abandoned in the spring.

European Stonechat female @ Otmoor RSPB

European Stonechat male @ Otmoor RSPB
Stonechats are one of the latest migrants to leave our shores with the peak time of exodus being October They are also one of the earliest to return, often arriving in late February to early March

But most of all stonechats are charming, pretty and charismatic birds with an endearing, perky disposition. Go see them for yourself. Biased? Moi? Surely not!

Monday 21 January 2013

Winter wonderland 20th January 2013

Living in the Cotswolds guarantees if there is snow around we will get a good measure of it. Roughly four hundred feet above sea level and living in a village such as Kingham virtually ensures we will be marooned by snow and ice covered roads as Oxford County Council either cannot be bothered or do not have the money to grit and salt the minor roads leading to our village.

No I do not live here. A rich banker does-some of the time!
I guess they assume we are all rich bankers (there are quite a few in Kingham) and all have four by fours or our very own JCB handy in the garage. Sadly not in my case nor a lot of others who live here. Last year was hopeless as all roads out of the village were virtually impassable to normal cars due to the ice and impacted snow. It is the same this year.

Minor road turned into ice rink courtesy of  Oxford County Council
Never mind we cope the best we can. So on Saturday it was a case of taking the village bus on what can only be called 'an interesting' journey into Chipping Norton and stocking up with fat balls, seed and peanuts to fill up the feeders, in order to keep our feathered friends from death's door. As usual Starlings and Blackbirds appeared from nowhere as did Woodpigeons and Jackdaws and the food supply diminished rapidly. However smaller birds held their own and Chaffinches, Robins, Dunnocks and House Sparrows also got a look in. A Brambling, seen only by my wife, paid a brief visit but soon departed. A flock of Long tailed Tits joined the Great and Blue Tits on the peanuts and fat balls, as did a Nuthatch. They scattered as a Great Spotted Woodpecker swooped down onto the feeders whilst a lone Redwing skulked under the evergreen hedge, finding food where the snow had not penetrated. The remaining few cotoneaster berries in the garden, untouched by the local Blackbirds soon disappeared as a small group of Fieldfares, losing all innate fear due to their hunger, swiftly removed what berries remained and then moved on. 

On Sunday I left the car (now temporarily a white Audi) where it was in the drive and decided to foot it to Foxholes BBOWT Nature Reserve, a walk of about a couple of miles. This was no hardship as the roads were virtually traffic free and I could wander down the middle of them, the countryside silent and still under its covering of snow, birding as I went. Inevitably there was not that much around as the heavy snow had blanketed virtually everything. However a stop by some Alders produced a nice little flock of Goldfinches with one Lesser Redpoll amongst them, all busily feeding on the catkins. Is it me or has it been a really good year for Redpolls? They seem to be everywhere this winter. I carried on up the icy road to Foxhole Farm which is at the beginning of the long, single track road to Foxholes and here there was a fifty strong flock of Chaffinches which included a few Yellowhammers and Greenfinches. A pair of Bullfinches, piping plaintively, flew ahead of me along the hedgeline, the male's pink underparts glowing with reflected light from the snow and their white rumps  flashed briefly as they flew, before disappearing into the dark depths of the hedgerow. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes were foraging in the waterlogged ditches below the hedge and a lone Fieldfare watched me from a small tree by the road, chackering to itself but not flying off as I passed. 

At the entrance to Foxholes, regularly repeated, harsh, corvid cries alerted me to the approach of a Raven. Through a gap in the trees I saw it arrive, huge, and pitch into the top of a mature conifer. Ever wary, calling constantly and looking around, it eventually fell silent. 

My main reason for visiting Foxholes was to try and find a Woodcock. Similar weather conditions last year eventually produced no less than fourteen so I was optimistic of success.

Entrance track to Foxholes BBOWT
There is one particular spot on the reserve they always seem to favour and making my way there I trudged back and fore through the thick snow, clinging brambles and bracken trying to flush Scolopax rusticola but with no success. Then, as is often the way of things, just as I was about to give up, one suddenly  flew up, dark and bulky, silently disappearing, low, through the snow covered wood. A brief view of just seconds but it was enough to give a sense of achievment. I carried on with spirit and resolve revived and eventually flushed another from some brambles below a Holly. It whirred away, bill held downwards, through the tree trunks into the depths of the wood. 
 A Muntjac completely hidden under some snow covered brambles gave me a start as it shot out from literally under my feet and then stopped to regard me, before slipping away through the snowy vegetation to become invisible once more. A couple of Pheasants rocketed upwards, their wings beating a tattoo on the twigs of the trees as they ascended skywards in their haste to get away and a lone Jay, in that distinctive hesitant flight, swooped out from the wood and away across the icing white fields. Then all was still and that was the sum of it. It started to snow-again. Two Woodcock was a just reward for my efforts but with the snowy conditions due to remain for at least a week the numbers may build up as they did last year. I do hope so.

The view from our bedroom one morning

Saturday 19 January 2013

Well just a few more 18th January 2013

Forgive me but so entranced was I by the Bearded Tits in Hyde Park that I have put up a few more images of them here plus some of the other birds present in the park on the same day. Apart from the confiding tits, the one great benefit of birds coming into regular contact with humans in places such as Hyde Park is that they realise they are comparatively safe from interference from us and allow close approach. Would that it were so in other places, but our selfish interests ensure that they are shot at, poisoned, trapped, harassed, you name it, on a regular basis and their natural habitats generally abused. Long may they be left in peace in the London Parks

Wednesday 16 January 2013

What a nice pair! 16th January 2013

A business appointment at The College of Naturotherapy in central London at lunchtime gave me time to pay a visit to nearby Hyde Park and a particular spot adjacent to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Why you may ask? Well for the last ten days or so two Bearded Tits have been frequenting a ridiculously small reed bed no more than thirty metres long by a few metres wide, right by the public path round the Serpentine and indeed to call it a reed bed may be exaggerating things. It really was that small.

Not only is this so remarkable but the tits appeared totally fearless and un-phased by the numerous members of the public and birding community that stopped to admire them. They perched openly on the reed stems feeding on the feathery tops of the reeds no more than ten feet from their admirers.
So it was, that coming out of the tube mid morning at Lancaster Gate, I crossed the road and went into the park and made my way to the aforementioned 'reed bed'. I am more used to the vast expanses of reeds at Otmoor and the elusiveness of the Bearded Tits that occasionally frequent there. This was the direct opposite. No long, tedious, endless waits for an all too brief view of birds flying across the reeds, only to then disappear into the depths of the reed bed. No sir. These beauties (sic Gordon Buchanan) perched right out in the open, almost as close as they could be in a tiny area of reeds. Not only could you study their plumage to your heart's content, as they were constantly in view, but you could watch them as they fed, burying their heads into the soft reed tops, feeding on the seeds. Their tiny bodies were so light that they could be supported by a single reed stem although occasionally when they sidled up to the thinner top of the stem it would bend and both stem and bird would slowly descend with almost balletic grace before the bird would hop onto another reed. These were the best views ever and I doubt very much that I will better them. Both birds were females and ringed. They had, according to another birder present, been ringed at Rye Meads Nature Reserve in Hertfordshire last November.
I just admired them, noting how their orange russet plumage blended perfectly with the sunlit dead reed stems. Their orange yellow eyes looked at us dispassionately as they went about their business extracting seeds with their tiny yellow bills. The photo opportunities were too good to resist and I along with others clicked away happily as these two charming individuals carried on their lives heedless of the strangeness and uniqueness of their surroundings and the amazement and delight they brought to all and sundry present.

The only time they showed any concern was when two Magpies perched on the railings separating us from the tits. This caused them to start calling with their ringing, pinging calls and descend to the bottom of the reeds until the Magpies flew off. 

It was a classic cold winter's day with blue sky and sunshine. The dull roar of the endless traffic was punctuated by the raucous calls of Rose Ringed Parakeets careering over the trees in the park. There was a gentleness and friendliness amongst our small group as we shared the delights of seeing these birds so close. A couple of very well dressed ladies of a certain age, out for a constitutional, passed by and I heard one say to her colleague  'Look at those twitchers. I really do not know what they see in looking at those birds but I must say they are always very friendly when you speak to them'. I will take that as a compliment then.