The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn

Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)
Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

Another winter migrant from Scandinavia and Siberia, the Fieldfare have arrived in huge flocks. As the cuckoo is considered to be the herald of Spring, so the Fieldfare announce that winter is definitely here. An enormous flock descended on our garden, and the woods behind, two weeks ago when the snow was at its deepest. They quite literally filled the woods with their raucous chack-chacking. Fieldfares arrive on the east coast from October onwards and work their way across the country foraging for berries, resorting to worms and insects when the berries run out.

Field_Fare-5
Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

Fieldfares are large, colourful thrushes, much like a mistle thrush in terms of size, shape and behaviour. They stand very upright and move forward with purposeful hops. They are the most pugnacious of birds, prepared to get physical to defend a food supply. We put out apples and currants for them to supplement our meagre berry crop and watched as they strutted, argued, threatened and when that failed to deter a competitor, wrestled each other to the ground.

Field_Fare-2
Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

The English common name fieldfare dates back to at least the eleventh century. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘feldefare’ perhaps meant traveller through the fields. But it may be derived from Old English ‘fealu’ which in modern terms means ‘fallow journey/farer’. This may allude to the natural habitat of the bird being the fallow winter fields and their hedgerows. It is a lovely name, the ‘Fallow Farer’, and conjures an image of silent, frosty fields with the hedgerows laden with berries and flocks of ‘Fallow Farers’ busily flitting along them.

Field_Fare
Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

John Clare’s poem describes this scene perfectly.

On Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter

I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

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I’m a bit weak on Gull identification

I’m writing this today, Saturday, with snow still covering Somerset, trying to remember last Tuesday. It seems as if an entire season has passed and that last Tuesday happened sometime during a previous summer. If it hadn’t been for the low position of the sun, casting long mid-morning shadows, I could well have believed that I was experiencing one of those rare dry and even rarer, sunny, days of a summer past. I had decided to walk with the dogs across the fields towards Brean Down, a towering coastal peninsula that jutts out into the Bristol Channel and is almost the last uprising of the Mendip Hills before they disappear into the sea, and then north along the sands below Weston Super Mare.

At low tide here the shore line birds are usually far out across the mud flats and impossible to reach, but this morning, by luck rather than by judgement, the tide was still high over the sands, so that the few sea birds that had chosen this short strip of coastline to search for food were still close enough to approach on firm sand.

Distinctive amongst the usual assortment of crows and gulls was a small group of oystercatchers. These are distinctive birds with long red bills, red legs, mad red eyes and glossy black and white plumage. Despite its name oysters do not form a large part of its diet which is varied and dependent on habitat. Coastal oystercatchers prey upon limpets, mussels, gastropods, and chitons, whilst those on estuaries hunt for bivalves, gastropods and polychaete worms. Species occurring inland feed upon earthworms and insect larvae.

Oystercatcher
Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

One noticable variation in sub-species is the shape of the bill which is determined by diet. Birds with broad bill tips open molluscs by prising them apart or hammering through the shell, whilst those with pointed bill tips tend to probe for worms. Juveniles watch and learn technique from their parents so a young individuals final bill shape will be defined by the habitat they grow up in.

Small group of Oystercatchers
These have a slightly different bill shape

As its name suggests, the redshank’s most distinctive features are its bright orange legs and slender orange bill that looks as if it has been dipped in black ink.

Redshank
Redshank (Tringa totanus)

A member of the Sandpiper family, redshanks spend much of the winter on estuaries and coastal lagoons with as many as half of these birds having migrated from Iceland. Like the larger oystercatches these elegant little birds hunt for insects, earthworms, molluscs and crustaceans by probing their bills into the mud.

Redshank
Redshank (Tringa totanus)

The problem with identifying gulls is that there are so many species and sub-species, all with subtle and often seasonal differences. So having taken some quite good identification shots and confident that my wife, an experienced bird watcher and fount of all knowledge, would be able to identify them for me I was a bit surprised when she said: “Dunno, gulls are difficult.”

Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull

So after several hours of intense study I believe that this is a lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) and that this may be an adolescent; or an adult in winter plumage. You see the problem developing here? You know where you are with an oystercatcher or a redshank, but with gulls it’s all a bit vague.

Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull

This after extensive research I am fairly confident is a herring gull (Larus argentatus) or it could be another lesser black-backed gull……

Herring Gull
Herring Gull

This is a tricky one. The plumage suggests that this is a yellow legged gull (Larus michahellis), but with pale green legs and bill? Well if anyone reading this does know I would be gratefull if they would share their knowledge.

Juvenille Yellow-legged Gull, or is it?
Juvenille Yellow-legged Gull, or is it?

Sunday: further investigation, we got out all the bird books, reveals that this is probably a second winter common gull (Larus canus). Strangely, common gulls are not very common at all.

Later on Sunday: turns out that the herring gull is another lesser black-backed gull.

Waxwing

Waxwing_at_Bathpool
Click on the image to view full size.

A group of these beautiful birds spent today feeding on mistletoe berries in an old cider orchard in Bathpool, just outside Taunton.

I had not seen a Waxwing before, so today was very exciting, particularly as the light was so good and there was the possibility of a good photograph. Waxwings in Somerset are, I think, a very rare event as the few that do make it across the North Sea are usually to be found along the east coast from East Anglia up to Scotland. For them to be this far west may well be due to the poor berry crop this winter. There normal diet when they are here is rowan, hawthorn, cotoneaster and rose. They may have been on the mistletoe because they couldn’t find anything more palatable.

According to the RSPB, birds that arrive in the UK are usually from Scandinavia and arctic Russia where they breed in spruce and pine trees of the Taiga. In winter, when their summer food of insects has gone, they rely on berries, and their winter distribution depends largely on the berry crops close to their breeding areas. In most years when local crops are good, they will move south and west, but not too far from the breeding areas, and only a small number will be seen in Britain. In poor berry years, large numbers of birds may move considerable distances and this is when we receive an influx in Britain.

It was so nice to be out in the sun again after so much rain.

A Merry Christmas

Click on the image to view full size.
Click on the image to view full size.

Somerset is fast becoming an inland sea. So with no snow forecast, just more rain and with mud everywhere, I’ve been driven indoors and have had to resort to found objects to pass the time. It has however given me the opportunity to experiment with focus stacking. For those that have not encountered this before (including me until a couple of weeks ago) it is a digital image processing technique which combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a resulting image with a greater depth of field than any of the individual source images. Which, in theory, makes it perfect for close-up and macro photography. The problem with it of course is getting your subject to co-operate and stay absolutely still for several minutes; which is why I offer up the humble Teasel, very prickly but absolutely static.

There are about 15 species of Teasel, Teazel or Teazle in the genus Dipsacus. All 15 are tall herbaceous biennial plants growing to 1–2.5 metres tall and are native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa.

The genus name is derived from the greek word for thirst, dipsa, and refers to the cup-like formation made where sessile leaves merge at the stem. (When I’ve finished wrapping presents and making mince pies I may have time to photograph the inside of a teasel head.) According to several sources the hollow cup-like formation allows rain water to collect and this may perform the function of preventing sap-sucking insects such as aphids from climbing the stem. I have no idea how this might work and can find no information that might explain it.

The cultivar Fuller’s Teasel was once widely used in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool. It has stouter, recurved spines on the seed heads, making it ideal for the job. The dried flower heads were attached to spindles, wheels, or cylinders, sometimes called teasel frames, to raise the nap on fabrics; to tease the fibres. Some people who weave wool still prefer to use teasels for raising the nap, claiming that the results are better; in particular, if a teasel meets serious resistance in the fabric, it will break, whereas a metal tool would rip the cloth.

We plan to grow them in the garden next year; partly for their beauty, but mainly because they are an excellent source of summer nectar and pollen for insects and autumn seeds for birds.

Well that’s it until some time after the Queen’s Speech. I hope everyone has a wonderful time and I do hope it stops raining soon.

Bittern at Ham Wall

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Ham Wall is part of an internationally important wetland project just west of Glastonbury, on the Somerset Levels. Created from worked-out peat diggings it forms an extraordinarily beautiful habitat of reed beds, wet scrub, wet woodland and open water. It is home to a wide variety of birds, some rare, as well as marsh orchids, dragonflies, otters and water voles.

One of the rarest of the water birds and evidence of the success of the wetlands project is the Bittern. A member of the heron family, it is shy, secretive and difficult to see even when it hunts for fish along the waters edge with its pale buff brown plumage blending with the reeds behind. The Bittern was on the edge of extinction in the 1990s with a population of just 11 birds. The RSPB estimate the current population to be in the region of 100 birds so it is hardly out of danger. But projects like Ham Wall, Westhay, Lakenheath and their like are making a major contribution to the Bittern’s recovery.

Like so many of our most extraordinary birds it was once common across the UK and like many other birds that are now rare, or extinct, its numbers began to fall in the middle ages when it was hunted for the table; it was considered a delicacy at Tudor banquets. In the 18th and 19th centuries a rise in the popularity of taxidermy combined with the draining of England’s wetlands devastated the surviving population until in 1886 the Bittern had disappeared from Britain.

The 20th century saw the return of a small population which amounted to 60 birds by the 1950s. But by 1997 pollution had destroyed the habitats and the population crashed, again.

These are, hopefully, more enlightened times and the RSPB, with the assistance of European funding, has created a research programme that has revealed just how delicate the relationship between reed bed conditions and Bittern numbers are. Bitterns prefer wet reed beds, where they can fish easily without being seen. As water levels rise and fall over the seasons, large open wetlands allow mud to build up in small areas drying out the reed bed whilst new wet areas form as water channels change. This way the Bittern always has hunting and nesting areas. In closed wetland reserves there is little opportunity for this natural process to occur, so the RSPB along with the Somerset Wildlife Trust and Natural England are managing their sites so that they mimic the natural ebb and flow of a wild wetland.

Bitterns are polygamous, with one male having several females dotted through the reed beds and it is the male’s remarkable foghorn-like booming call as he declares dominion over his territory that makes this plump little heron such an iconic wetland species.

We were photographing a Great White Egret when this little chap appeared briefly. I had only enough time to swing the camera around and refocus. I was almost too excited to remember to press the shutter. Hopefully next time I will be more prepared and will be able to record more of this remarkable birds behaviour.

Early Morning at Cheddar Reservoir

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This beautiful Great Crested Grebe was hunting very early on Sunday morning. The reservoir, and much of the Somerset Levels, was covered in a thick blanket of mist which muted sound and reduced the light to an almost monochrome state. We sat as close as possible to the waters edge and watched this one diving for breakfast, hoping that it might surface with another pike. Sadly the best it could find was a couple of minnows.