Gadding about

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Here’s another beauty from last weekend’s wonderful birding trip with the Glamorgan Bird Club. Though this bird is not the rarity of yesterday’s Rustic bunting, it’s not terribly common either, and is ‘Amber listed’, meaning its population has declined in recent years and its situation is being monitored.

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This is a male Gadwall (Anas strepera), a very handsome dabbling duck, a little smaller than a Mallard. Sitting on one of the ponds at the RSPB’s Lodmoor Reserve near Weymouth in Dorset, he was looking a little sleepy. Perhaps that’s why he wasn’t bothered about us looking at him, as he actually approached quite near – a bonus for me trying to get reasonable photos. We didn’t hear a peep out of him but, apparently, it’s their chattering call that originally gave the Gadwalls their imitative name.

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A bird in the hand

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I’ve just had a fantastic long weekend’s birding with the Glamorgan Bird Club at the Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset. Not only did we stay in an old lighthouse but we saw an incredible number of amazing birds. I haven’t typed up my list yet but I do know I had fifteen (yes, 15!!!) lifers (for non-birders, I saw fifteen species I had never seen before).

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This little beauty was one of them: it’s a Rustic bunting (Emberiza rustica), a bird that breeds in northern Europe and in Asia and normally migrates to Japan and parts of China and south-east Asia to over-winter. This little one may have been blown the wrong way by strong winds or perhaps, by mistake, it joined up with a group of other small birds heading for Britain.

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It was both an amazing experience and a real privilege to see such a rarity up close. (You can read more about this bird and see more pictures on the Portland Obs blog here.)

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Autumn migration: Stonechats

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Meet the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), the bird whose song sounds like two pebbles being rapped together, hence its common name.

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These little birds, about the size of your average Robin, usually live a little north of where I live in south Wales, preferring the plantations of conifers that grow in the Welsh valleys and the heathland of the Brecon Beacons. But, come the cooler temperatures of autumn they begin to move south to over-winter in slightly warmer climes.

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I saw my first local bird at the Cardiff Bay Wetland Reserve on 17 September, a pair at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park on 6 October, and then a solitary female at Grangemoor Park last Sunday, 8 October.

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Stonechats are not always easy to spot, as they duck down amongst tall grass and wildflowers in their search for insects and seeds, and their colours act as good camouflage. But, luckily, they also have a habit of perching on the tops of those grasses and wildflowers and on low shrubs so they can keep an eye out for threats – and humans with cameras! – so I have managed to get a few distant photos.

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Psychedelic seeds

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I’m still pretty useless at identifying native British trees: I can get most of the more common big species, like Oak and Ash and Beech, but I probably couldn’t identify a Spindle if you paid me … except at this time of year. Because in the autumn, the Spindle (Euonymus europaea) lights up in psychedelic colours that remind me of a dress I had in the ’70s (yes, I am that old!).

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The Spindle (so named because its wood was used to make the spindles used to hold wool and in spinning) has fruits that are hot pink. And not only that … when those fruits open up, the seed inside is bright orange. It’s such an outrageous colour combination that it makes me wonder why it’s so very bright … and I haven’t found the answer. I thought perhaps the orange was a way to attract birds and many websites say the seeds are eaten by small birds like Robins and Tits but, when I google images, I can’t find any showing birds actually eating them. The other alternative is that the colour is a ‘don’t touch me I’m poisonous’ warning – and certainly the fruits are poisonous to humans but to birds? If anyone has any information about this eye-popping colour combination, I’d love to hear it. Meantime, put on your shades and check out these psychedelics, man.

‘Like a flight of butterflies’

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‘… a cyclamen that looks like a flight of butterflies, frozen for a single, exquisite moment in the white heart of Time …’ ~ Beverley Nichols, Down the Garden Path, 1931

As you may have guessed, this is not a wild cyclamen but rather one of my houseplants. I bought it in flower back in February and it has just started flowering again. I actually have two this colour – the other has buds but they’re not yet open, and another cyclamen that has white blooms, also in bud. I love the little burst of colour they bring to my bedroom windowsill.

Sitting on the fence

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Have you ever noticed that some small beasties like to sit on fences?

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I guess fences are often a good spot to sunbathe, and to keep a look out, and they probably resemble logs and branches to the mini-beasts.

Common darter dragonflies are keen fence-sitters – they don’t even mind barbed-wire fences. And I was particularly delighted to find the Black darter dragonfly (below) sitting on a fence at Cosmeston the other day – my first sighting of this species.

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Flies and hoverflies also enjoy a spot of fence-sitting and can often be found taking care of their ablutions in such places. So, the next time you decide to sit on the fence, make sure some other creature hasn’t beaten you to it! 

One-two-one

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‘I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.’ ~ Henry David Thoreau. I have not shared Thoreau’s privileged occurrence but I do enjoy watching and listening to sparrows, like these two juveniles seen recently at Forest Farm.

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Birding on Gower

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It was a wild and windy but not wet day last week when I ventured for the first time to the incredible Gower peninsula, on a birding trip with my Glamorgan Bird Club friends.

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We parked near Mewslade Beach, then walked a circuit from there along the cliff-top coastal path, across the medieval field system of The Vile, through the little village of Rhossili and then back to the car park. Most of the birds were best viewed through binoculars or ’scopes so I don’t have many images of them to share but the scenery was just stunning! High stone cliffs honed in places to a razor edge by millennia of wind and rain, secret little coves nestled between tall protective hills, the long stretch of golden-sand beach at Rhossili that was recently named the best beach in Britain and one of the world’s top ten – Gower really does deserve the adjective ‘awesome’!

Oh, and getting back to the birds – I saw a total of 34 species: Cormorant, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Peregrine, Oystercatcher, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Pheasant, Magpie, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Raven, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Wren, Blackbird, Robin, Stonechat, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, and the two highlights for me, Common Scoter (a group of perhaps 20 floating together on the sea – seen through a ’scope) and several Gannets, flying low to the waves not far offshore, plus a bonus sighting of at least one Grey seal lolling about in the waves in one of the bays.

The group total was 46 species as I was too busy admiring the scenery to notice these: Shag, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chough, Rook, Bullfinch, Song Thrush, Common Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull. Thanks to John and Glamorgan Bird Club members for yet another fantastic day out!

171010 Rhossili beach

A mini challenge

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On Friday I went for a wander around one of my favourite local haunts, Cosmeston Lakes Country Park and, while there, I set myself a little challenge. How many critters could I find in one small area, perhaps no more than 2 metres square?

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My challenge wasn’t pre-planned: I had seen very little at this point on my walk and was thinking to myself that this was due to autumn and the cooler weather but, when I saw a Speckled wood butterfly at this particular spot – a bank covered with shrubs and small trees – I started wondering how much more there was that I simply wasn’t seeing. So, I stopped and looked harder. There was no poking under grasses or bushes, no sweeping or brushing to encourage movement, just focussing my eyes and ears to really see and hear.

There were, in fact, three Speckled woods – I just hadn’t noticed the other two, plus three different species of spider (the Garden spider was lunching on another critter but it was partly consumed and too tiny to identify), one hoverfly, three species of flies, a gall on Bramble that would’ve been home to the larvae of the tiny gall wasp Diastrophus rubi, and a leaf mine, made by the larva of some unidentified mini-beast. And I’m absolutely sure I didn’t spot everything!

Bully for you

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What a dapper fellow this male Bullfinch is, with his apricot-coloured waistcoat, grey jacket, black bowler and tails! The female, shown below, is elegant in a more understated way (I’ve yet to get good close photos of her).

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Sadly, despite its good looks, the Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) has been much persecuted by humans due to its preference for devouring the buds of trees, particularly tasty fruit trees, in the springtime. According to Buczacki’s Fauna Britannica, ‘As long ago as 1566, an Act of Parliament allowed for one penny to be offered for “everie Bulfynche or other Byrde that devoureth that blowth of Fruite”.’ And according to the BTO website, the number of wild birds was further depleted in Victorian times because people preferred to admire the Bulfinch’s gorgeous plumage in cages rather than in woodlands.

However, these factors are not the reason for the bird’s declining numbers – there was a sharp decline in the late 1970s, which has upturned slightly since 2000, but is still 36% lower than in 1967. That decline is thought to be a result of decreasing biodiversity in woodlands and of the negative effects of agricultural intensification. I haven’t been able to find any more recent population figures but let’s hope the Bullfinch recovers. What a loss that apricot waistcoat would be!

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