Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Catch Up Birding

On Tuesday we spent an hour or two at Hambleton Park. A picnic lunch with four of our grandchildren went down a treat by way of that time honoured British menu of sausage rolls, egg sandwiches, Golden Wonder crisps and blackening bananas. 

Birders never switch off do they? I couldn’t help but notice that as the sun warmed the sky a Buzzard flew from nearby trees and then upwards in search of thermals. Very quickly four other Buzzards arrived and joined in the midday fun. How these Buzzards find one another is remarkable but probably accounted for by their simply phenomenal eyesight, 6 to 8 times better than that of a human. After a little mewing and circling around the raptors went their separate ways across local farmland as I returned to the sausage rolls before the kids nicked the lot. 


Swallows were much in evidence too. After a slow start to the season, and apart from the now obligatory joined-up days of unwelcome wind and rain, the summer has been reasonably productive for Swallows. The mostly warmer and dryer weather of late has allowed something of a catch up to the Swallows’ intensive but necessary season of breeding. About twenty Swallows were feeding over the fields that adjoin the playground and then resting up on the overhead wires of the adjacent farm. 


A change of note in the Swallows’ twittering conversations suggested something was wrong. Cue the appearance of an ever opportunist Sparrowhawk which appeared on the scene but partly hidden by a low hedgerow. As usual the Swallows had seen the Sparrowhawk first and sounded a warning before they scattered in all directions. I caught a glimpse of the Sparrowhawk’s brown head, white supercilium and fierce eye as it tried to hide along the hedgerow. It was a juvenile male of the year, proven when ten minutes later I saw it over the trees chasing Swallows but failing miserably to catch one. A young Sparrowhawk will soon learn that stealth rather than a chase will catch the next meal, especially where Swallows are concerned. 

Thursday. Free from family fortune I set off for Cockerham via the moss roads where I realised just how much rain had fallen during the last 4 days. It’s a handy looking flood which may prove to be worth a look for a week or two. I didn’t count the hundreds of gulls but focused in on the far bank where 15 Black-tailed Godwits and a single Redshank fed. A single Kestrel on roadside wires proved to be a juvenile, my first and only of the year so far. 

Rawcliffe Moss - August


Then up to Cockerham where Conder Pool had transformed into Conder Lake and in the process lost a more than a few birds. Lapwings and Redshanks were much reduced with 50 or less of each together with 3 Common Sandpiper, 2 Greenshank and 4 little Egret. 

Fourteen Teal, 11 Canada Goose and 6 Little Grebe provided the wildfowl with 30+ Swallows, 20+ House Sparrows, 8 Goldfinch and a couple of Pied Wagtails in the area of the farm buildings. It was the Swallows that spotted a Sparrowhawk flap/glide slowly over before a number of the Swallows broke off from their rest and chased the hawk across the road and over the pool. 


At the layby I encountered 2 Reed Buntings in the hedgerow together with 8 Long-tailed Tits making their way along the roadside. 

Last week I’d promised myself another look at Cockersands where the field of set-aside looked very promising for birds. 


The sunflowers gazed into the rising sun but I looked in vain for birds while the adjacent fields wait for a cut of grass half a metre high. Best I managed was a single Meadow Pipit, 1 Chiffchaff, 2 Whitethroat, 5 Goldfinch, 8/10 Linnets overhead and plenty of Wood Pigeons. 


After those few days off it was good to catch up with a spot of birding and while the weather looks a bit mixed for the next few days, there will be more birds soon via Another Bird Blog. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Grey Or Yellow?

A couple of days of wet and windy weather have restricted my birding for a while. So for today I hope to answer the question “When is a grey wagtail not a Grey Wagtail but a Yellow Wagtail”?

It’s a subject that cropped up on my last post at Another Bird Blog when a reader suggested via a comment that my image of a Yellow Wagtail was in fact a Grey Wagtail.  The photograph is the one below. 

Yellow Wagtail

The species under discussion are two closely related ones, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava and Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea

The images below are pages from the The Crossley Guide that show not only the plumage differences between the two wagtails but also the different habitats and situations in which each is usually found. I’m sure that at most times of the year almost everyone can identify the adults of both species as they are really quite different in appearance.

Grey Wagtail - Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland) [CC BY-SA 3.0 a/3.0)] via Wikimedia Commons 

 Yellow Wagtail Yellow Wagtail - Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Yellow Wagtail, male or female, is an overall shade of yellow, whereas the Grey Wagtail while having parts of striking yellow plumage in both male and female, is an overall grey colour above.  No problem there then. 

 Yellow Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

Less practiced bird watchers may experience confusion and misperception when dealing with autumnal “grey” Yellow Wagtails such as the one in my picture at the top of this post, a very pale and quite fresh Yellow Wagtail in its first autumn plumage during September. At this time of year juvenile Yellow Wagtails are greyish/brown/olive above and buff whitish below, with a partly yellow belly and yellow under tail. Rather than the bright yellow and immaculate males of some field guides, autumn encounters of both species usually involve less bright and slightly worn plumaged adults of either sex, or duller juveniles. 

My pictures below show the typical dark, almost black legs of a Yellow Wagtail and not the flesh coloured legs of a Grey Wagtail. The Yellow Wagtail has clearly defined wing bars as formed by the pale covert feathers. By comparison a Grey Wagtail of any age always displays slate grey wing feathers together with narrowly edged greyish coverts rather than the much whiter ones in the wing of a Yellow Wagtail.

Grey Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail
Grey Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

A feature that is less obvious unless the two species are side by side is that the Grey Wagtail has a very long white edged tail whereas a Yellow Wagtail has a shorter tail. This is a useful separation tool in the field when the long tail of a Grey Wagtail “bobs” and “pumps” almost incessantly as opposed to the less mobile and much shorter tail of the Yellow Wagtail. A Yellow Wagtail has a demeanour rather like a pipit, often standing taller than the similarly sized Grey Wagtail that can appear quite "crouching". 

Another separation in the field is the differing calls of the two species. The Yellow Wagtail has a sweet “tsee” or “schlee” or a louder “suree”. The call of Grey Wagtail is totally different with an explosive, metallic “zi-zi” or “tsvit”

Below is a great video from the BTO which not only sets out the difference between Yellow and Grey Wagtails, but for good measure also includes the Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba, yet another “grey” wagtail.

I hope this post has been helpful to anyone unsure about separating Yellow Wagtails and Grey Wagtails, or even grey wagtails.

And for anyone looking for a top quality field guide to the birds of Great Britain and Ireland I recommend the following three books:
That's all for now. Back soon with Another Bird Blog. In the meantime I'm linking this post to Stewart's World Bird Wednesday

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Merlin And Mipits

The slightly murky start to the morning produced some obvious autumn migration by way of an influx of Swallows, some visibly heading south, a number of landfall Meadow Pipits, and my first Merlin of the autumn. 

I stopped at Braides Farm to look along the fence line and across to the sea wall. The local Grey Heron and Buzzard were in situ along the fence line and seemingly nothing else. When I looked closer there was a single Wheatear sat motionless on a fence post, probably easy to overlook except for its rather bright appearance on such a dim morning. 


I spent very little time at Conder Green where a large wagon with blacked out windscreen greeted me at the layby. The driver had spent the night there but very soon he started up the diesel engine to warm the cab, so goodbye the few birds that were about; 14 Little Grebe, 1 Greenshank, 2 Common Sandpiper, 2 Stock Dove, 2 Wigeon, 1 Grey Heron and 3 Little Egret. Loud “cronk-cronks” told me Ravens were about and when I looked up it proved to be a single one heading south. 

A quick look at Glasson showed about 300 Swallows around the marina with 7 Tufted Duck and 18+ Coots on the water. The sky was beginning to clear with the first signs of some promised sunshine. 

I settled down to go through the wagtails on Bank End Marsh when someone stopped to tell me that the whole road was closing for maintenance in 30 minutes time and that it would remain so until midnight. I don’t mind spending an hour two at Bank End but not a whole day thanks. Luckily by then I’d seen 45+ Pied Wagtail, 2 Yellow Wagtail, 15 Linnet and 2 Little Egrets. 

Yellow Wagtail

Grounded and flighty Meadow Pipits numbered 15 +. I also met an old friend here, a one legged Curlew I first saw a couple of years ago and in exactly the same spot. This bird is a real survivor even though adult Curlews have few predators except man and the wily old fox. 


I made it back to the main road and headed to Cockersands where a steady but not enormous stream of Swallows flew in off the river, over the silage field and then headed quickly south. There’s a nicely developing set-aside plot here where I counted 3 Reed Bunting, 3 Whitethroat, 8 Goldfinch, 2 Greenfinch and 10 Linnet. Very noticeable was a group of 15+ active and excitable Meadow Pipits along the roadside and where the pipits joined the other birds in taking advantage of the set-aside. 

Meadow Pipit

I was turning the car round when I spotted a Merlin fly low over the marsh and land on the roadside fence. Within seconds the Merlin was gone, over the fields and out of sight. 

Our UK Merlin is often linked to the Meadow Pipit. Meadow Pipits breed in good numbers in upland Britain where they share the landscape with the Merlin and other species. The dashing Merlin preys extensively on Meadow Pipits and the small birds’ ability to produce two or even three broods of young, a ready supply of food for a growing family of young Merlins. It’s an inter-specific relationship of the two species, so well connected that it is thought the Merlin as a species times its autumnal dispersal south to coincide with that of the Meadow Pipit while the pipit resumes the role of a meal ticket. I am positive this theory is true as many times in the autumn and winter I have seen a Merlin target Meadow Pipits, often ignoring other possible meals. 

Merlin - USFWS - CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There was time for a quick look at Lane Ends, Pilling; 18+ Little Egrets scattered across the marsh and 80+ Swallows feeding low over the marsh.

Linking today to Anni's Birding Blog and Eileen's Saturday.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tuesday Morning Birding

I arrived early at Conder Green where the birding seemed rather slow despite a good, bright start. My expectations were quite low today as the long staying Avocets looked to have departed, the breeding Common Terns left weeks ago, nesting Oystercatchers are reduced to a single bird, and the tiny family of Tufted Ducks vanished without trace soon after hatching. 

As summer turns to autumn the resident birds of recent weeks and months are now gone and there’s a gap until northern migrants arrive in numbers. But as usual a little perseverance and patience rewarded a more than a cursory look. Don't forget, "click the pics" for a closer look.

Predictably the Little Grebes added another one overnight and they now number twelve with more to come soon. It’s quite usual to see seven or eight closely grouped in the centre of the pool and then singletons scattered around the rest of the water where their constant diving and resurfacing coupled with their identical appearance makes for conflicting counts. Our wintering Little Grebes are impossible to approach with the slightest movement sending them into a dive under water or a swim in the opposite direction. There was no problem counting the remaining wildfowl as these were just 2 Wigeon, 3 Teal and the ever present Mute Swans which numbered 21+. The Mute Swan, our most conspicuous and year-round swan gets hardly a mention on this and other webs sites, remedied today with a photograph below. 

Little Grebe

 Mute Swan

Once again a Kingfisher put in a brief appearance by resting momentarily on the edge of the sluice gate before flying off to the nearest island and a perfect but distant pose of several minutes until it headed off towards the canal. 


The Lapwing count was 200+, birds roosting around the island joined by others from the estuary as the tide rose to push them off the river. Perhaps their numbers alone made them very unsettled as on several occasions the Lapwings spooked off in unison as if a raptor was close by or approaching. After a few circuits the Lapwings settled down again and returned to either feeding or roosting. I looked in vain for something that could put so many Lapwings into panic mode but a single Kestrel overflying at speed and chased off by a gang of twittering Swallows failed to meet the requirements. 


Other waders on the pool and in the immediate creeks - 4 Greenshank, 4 Common Sandpiper, 40+ Redshank and 3 Little Egret. 

While walking the old railway path 2 Avocets flew from the direction of the estuary, calling in unison as they flew above me. They headed straight across to the pool and their stomping ground of summer. When I returned to the pool about 30 minutes later to look for the Avocets they were nowhere to be seen but probably out of sight on the far side of the and out of view behind an island. 

From the railway path I could see 2 Common Sandpiper, several Redshanks and a couple of Curlews in the long creek which heads directly into the estuary. Small birds noted along here - 2 Whitethroat, 12+ Linnet, 8 Goldfinch and 1 Willow Warbler in quiet sub-song. 

At Glasson Dock about 600 post-roosting Swallows fed and rested around the moored boats. One Grey Heron and still 4 Tufted Duck around the yacht basin.

Linking today to  Stewart's World Bird Wednesday.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Farmer’s Friend

For today’s post there are more Barn Owls. It’s a species which always draws positive comments from readers. 

Yesterday I visited a friend up near the town of Garstang on the edge of the Bowland hills. I stopped off to look in a location where I knew there to be Barn Owls. I quickly got lucky although the owl didn’t stay around for too long. 

Within a minute or two of flying in and then moving along the fence line and the gatepost the owl had located prey in the rough grassy field. It immediately flew with the small mammal to farm buildings 100 yards away. 

Barn Owl

The owl is more likely to be listening for prey rather than looking for it. A highly accomplished hunter, a Barn Owl’s hearing is so sharp that it can easily locate voles and shrews hidden from view as they travel in runways beneath the grass The Barn Owl can see during the day, but its relatively small eyes (for an owl) are directed forward and are better adapted for night vision. The ears are asymmetrical, one level with the nostril and the other higher, nearer the forehead. They are covered with feathered flaps that close for loud noises and open for soft sounds 

Barn Owl

For such an effective raptor the Barn Owl might seem to be highly visible to its mammal prey by way of its overall pale appearance of white underparts and pale straw/brown upperparts. The explanation is that the Barn Owl’s light brown upperparts provide camouflage amongst the rough grassland over which the owl hunts for most of the year while the white underparts make the bird less visible against a pale sky when viewed from below. 

Barn Owl

The Barn Owl Tyto alba is the most widely distributed species of owl, found in all corners of the earth and on every continent except Antarctica. Their distribution over such a wide area of the world has led to the evolution of 35 subspecies/races in Asia, America, Africa, Australia and Europe. These divergent Barn Owls have variations in overall appearance, the largest in North America weighing twice as much as the smallest from the Galapagos Islands. But wherever they live Barn Owls remain cavity nesters attracted to the structures of man, trees, artificial nesting sites, and sometimes caves. 

Shame about the sliver of long grass sticking up to spoil the shot below! 

Barn Owl

A reminder - In Great Britain the Barn Owl is on Schedule 1 of both the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985; therefore the birds, their nests, eggs and young are fully protected at all times. Penalties involving a fine of up to £5,000 and/or a custodial sentence apply to offences against Barn Owls. It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb Barn Owls at an active nest site with eggs or young or before eggs are laid, or to disturb the dependent young.

This is not normally a problem on working farms where farmers are often in the best position to ensure freedom from disturbance. In fact, the Barn Owl is often referred to as “The Farmers Friend” as a family of owls comprising 2 adults and 6 young may consume over 1,000 rodents during a typical 3-month nesting period. 

Stay tuned there could be more owls soon on Another Bird Blog.

Linking today to Run A Round RanchAnni's Birding and Eileen's Saturday

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Late Owls

“Sun until midday and then rain from the west” advised the not always trusty weathercaster. This time they were spot on and I’m happy I made the effort to get up early and grab a few hours birding because while I’m blogging indoors, outside it may be about to start raining cats and dogs. 

A Kingfisher was the first bird I saw at Conder Green. Unfortunately it was a good distance away on the “nearest” but too far away island for a decent picture. Thank goodness for my archived pictures for readers who’d like to see a real Kingfisher. Our European Kingfisher occurs in Egypt too, but I don’t think I’ll be going back to that region any time soon. 


Those Avocets are still around and although the youngster has yet to fledge it was doing some serious flapping in readiness for the big day. The single adult remains ultra-protective in chasing anything and everything away from the corner of the pool the Avocets have called home for months now. 


Other waders and wildfowl noted as 120+ Lapwing, 50+ Redshank, 4 Greenshank, 3 Snipe, 2 Common Sandpiper, 2 Black-tailed Godwit, 1 Little Egret and 2 Wigeon, so few changes there. 

Little Grebe have increased to nine continuing their daily habit of adding one new member to the flock. New grebes appear as if by magic each day and while they can occasionally be seen pitter-pattering across the surface of the water, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Little Grebe fly, neither can I recall speaking to anyone who has. Many of our wintering Little Grebes are from the near-Continent with some arriving from Eastern Europe and Russia, so we must assume that they are able to fly? 

Little Grebe

I noted small birds as 6 Swift, 2 Stock Dove, 6 Pied Wagtail, 2 Whitethroat, 1 Great-spotted Woodpecker, 4 Greenfinch, 10 Linnet and 15 Goldfinch. There is a good crop of thistles this year but I’m not sure there’s an equal number of Goldfinches to do justice to the seed heads yet. It’s early for huge flocks of Goldfinches with September usually the peak month. 


At Glasson, 80 + Swallows feeding/resting around the boats and the basin, 4 Tufted Duck, 1 Great Crested Grebe and 12 Coot. 

Tufted Duck

On the way home I came upon two sibling Barn Owls hunting the same area of ground. The owls flew around a couple of roadside rough fields, quickly establishing a routine which centred on a ditch and a number of old buildings, places where both they and I would expect to find small mammals. 

Barn Owl
I stayed patiently in my car knowing that these young owls wouldn’t stray far and would also pass my way soon. Along comes a bloke in a car, who displaying not an ounce of field craft, decides to not only get out of his vehicle but to then walk up and down the road with his camera. This right next to the field the owls were hunting, but where the nutter perhaps expected that these wild birds would somehow fly or pose right next to him. I waited several minutes but needless to say to say the owls moved away from the immediate area. I left the clueless idiot wandering up and down the roads with the owls nowhere to be seen. 

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

No doubt this particular location will now be broadcast to all and sundry resulting in hordes of similarly enlightened folk harassing the same owls and annoying the farmer, not to mention continually disturbing the birds. That’s what always happens because most of these folk are so clueless and lazy minded they can’t think that there might just be Barn Owls elsewhere and then try to find others to watch instead.

Linking today to Run A Round Ranch.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Cautionary Tales

The Yellowhammer Eberiza citrinella is one of my favourite birds; I have many. Very often my favourite birds boil down to those I have grown to admire and respect after witnessing their decline over many years of birdwatching. Readers of this blog will be familiar with other species I mention frequently here - Lapwing and Corn Bunting to name but two. These three, plus a number of others are British species which dangle by a population thread thanks to the horrors of modern farming,  increased disturbance from an expanding human population and uncontrolled predators. Our once green and pleasant land is being trashed like never before in the name of the of  “economic progress”.

I recently watched a Yellowhammer on top of a fence post singing its melancholic “little bit of bread and no cheese”. It carried on singing until fatherly duties drew it back to the rough field where the female would be sat tight on her second lot of eggs. Yellowhammers nest low down in a bush, but sometimes on the ground. Yellowhammers are known to sing quite late in the year, sometimes into September. Also the male sings more frequently when the female is actually incubating. 

The sight and sound was a “blast from the past”, welcome for sure as I don’t see or hear the Yellowhammer much these days after a more than 30% decline in 25 years. Those aren’t my figures but highly optimistic and nationally calculated ones. The decline in our local farmland is more like 80%, and still plunging downwards, observations based on many years of field work, bird ringing and generally being an inquisitive but sceptical bugger about statistics offered up by experts. This is  especially so where localised factors come into play that are not picked up by overall trends.


The Yellowhammer population was pretty stable until the late 1980’s when the present decline began until it is now “red listed” as an endangered species within the UK. The reasons for the decline are many faceted with the major culprit being agricultural intensification: 
  • the mismanagement/destruction of hedgerows and associated field margins 
  • a decrease in late summer cereal crops/substitution with grass/silage crops and subsequent loss of winter stubble 
  • more efficient grain collection with less “spillage” and less grain left on the ground for seed eating birds 
  • increased use of pesticides to remove weeds and insects 
  • woodland planting along fringe habitats and the resulting decrease in suitable breeding sites for an open-area species 
  • increased predation from corvids  and others
  • urbanisation/fragmentation of habitat
It's an all too familiar story I'm afraid. 

And here’s tale number two, also concering the Yellowhammer.

The Yellowhammer, a bird native to the British Isles was many years ago introduced to a set of islands on the other side of the world - New Zealand. As so often happens there follows a familiar tale of man interfering with the laws of nature established during millions of years of evolution of species. 

The population of New Zealand settlers in the middle 19th century grew fast. The same was true for insect crop pests, particularly caterpillars and black field crickets. Normally, pests like these would be kept under control by insectivorous birds. However, New Zealand had none available for the job. 


The settlers cleared away New Zealand's forests and native birds disappeared with them. In the circumstances introducing insectivorous birds from England seemed to make sense. Yet, the bird species chosen by the Acclimatisation Societies (organisations founded specifically to introduce new animals and plants to New Zealand) for the task included some surprises, with the Yellowhammer one of the biggest. It is well known to us today that this heavy-billed bunting is primarily a consumer of seeds rather than insects, but it seems it was not so evident back then. 


During the 1860's and 1870's, 25 ships set out from London to various ports around New Zealand with these birds on board. Some were ordered by Acclimatisation Societies, some were sent for privately. A quarter of these shipments were organised by one family, Bills & sons from Brighton, and many of the Yellowhammers came from the area around this English coastal town. 

A scientific journal (NeoBiota) used newspapers and documents from the 19th century to reconstruct the history of how the Yellowhammer went from hero to villain in New Zealand in just 15 years. The detective work by the scientists not only identified where the Yellowhammers came from, but also where they ended up. They were able to pinpoint localities of release, and sometimes even how many birds were liberated there. 

Yellowhammers were initially warmly welcomed by the Kiwis but soon local farmers started to complain about the Yellowhammers’ taste for their cereal crops. The complaints fell on deaf ears as the Acclimatisation Societies with Government support continued to promote the introduction of Yellowhammers. In 1880 the last shipment of Yellowhammers arrived but these birds were never set free. Public pressure forced the Acclimatisation Society to get rid of them, and they were sent to Australia. 

From then on, Yellowhammers became the target of shooting, egg-collection, and poisoning. All means were allowed to rid the countryside of this now unwelcome guest. By then it was too late: Yellowhammers were well and truly Kiwis, and they remain common and widespread in New Zealand to this day. 


Who knows, pretty soon we may be asking our Kiwi cousins to return some of our Yellowhammers? If we as a nation continue down the route of destroying our wildlife heritage we sure as hell won’t have any of our own Yellowhammers left to sing of their "little bit of bread and no cheese".

Linking today to World Bird Wednesday.

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