Thursday, 10 July 2014

Scottish Odyssey 2014 ~ The Crex-Crex of the Corncrake


"... a summer noise among the meadow hay…" 
John Clare

Corncrake making its 'Crex- crex' song. Photo credit: © David Gill 2014

I have a new 'lifer' on my bird list. David and I were on Skye two weeks ago, watching Corncrakes!

Yes, we actually saw two Corncrakes, one in flight and the other some distance away from the first in long vegetation. These birds have been given Red conservation status by the RSPB. They were far more prevalent in the past before updated agricultural practices began to interfere with the Corncrake habitats. You can read about the legal protection of this species here.

Many folk in the islands off the west coast of Scotland will have heard the distinctive 'crex-crex' sound, but few will have seen these shy birds in recent years. After our Skye sightings we kept a sharp eye open on Iona, but failed to spot any more. We knew they were close by as several males were calling loudly.

We sent this iPad audio recording of a male Corncrake, with David's photo, to the RSPB, along with details of the Corncrakes we saw and heard ... It may take a few seconds to load on this page.


video


Photo and audio credit: © David Gill 2014, used with permission

Corncrakes are fascinating birds. Unlike most members of their bird family - the Coots, Water Rails and Moorhens - they rarely inhabit wetland landscapes, preferring meadows with long grass and wild flowers and fields in which the crops have reached a decent height for cover.

Each winter the birds migrate to the grassy plains of sub-Saharan Africa and each spring they make the long journey to the islands off the west coast of Scotland.

My photo ... you can see how hidden the Corncrake was. Photo shot with zoom lens.

Male Corncrake singing. Photo credit: © David Gill 2014

Deep in the foliage ...

... with one eye peeping out. Photo credit: © David Gill 2014

Corncrakes breed in their first year, with the female incubating the clutch of about ten eggs while the male moves on to mate with another partner. I was given the impression that the Corncrake is a bird who loves to skulk away from the limelight, so I was not surprised to discover that nests are laid low on the ground in the middle of areas covered by vegetation.

The Corncrake is also known as the Landrail. You might like to read this RSPB blog post by Mark Avery - and the rest of John Clare's poem, The Landrail, which features in it ...



Recommended reading
  • Corncrakes by Rhys Green and Heather Riley (Scottish Natural Heritage, 2005 edition)

Website suggestions

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tree Following ~ Silver Birch in July



This post is the fifth in my Tree Following series, part of a wider project run by Lucy Corrander from the Loose and Leafy blog. I am following a Silver Birch in Suffolk, UK. You will find the other Tree Follower links for July 2014 here ... so do take the chance to go on a virtual exploration of the arboreal world!


Diary Entry

Technically this entry should have appeared a month ago, but I had already added my May-June contribution via Mr Linky when the sighting took place, so here it is.

Tuesday 10 June 2014, noon

I was looking out from my window ten minutes ago when a flicker of movement caught my eye from the fir tree adjacent to my Silver Birch. A young Grey Squirrel jumped to the ground and headed towards the trunk of the birch. There was a scuffle in the dense foliage of the Weigela, and a small squirrel head appeared at a height of 150 cm, very close to the coconut feeders that hang from the Silver Birch. I have a feeling the youngster may have lost its balance at that point as it emerged from the base of the shrub and scampered over to the decking. A moment later a Magpie landed just over a metre away. The Grey Squirrel looked small and vulnerable. The bird, however, only had eyes for the feeder, and the youngster hopped safely over to the far side of the garden. I often watch Grey Squirrels from my window as they chase along the tall trees that border the Local Nature Reserve, particularly when the trunks are bare, but I have not seen a Grey Squirrel on our side of the garden fence for some time. I hope this one will return and make it up the trunk of the Silver Birch to the feeders. 


Grey Squirrel (one I took earlier - no camera to hand on 10 June)

* * *

As of 7 July 2014, the squirrel has not been seen again ... yet. The only other animals to report this month are the bats that continue to flit and dive outside my window at dusk.



The Silver Birch is still a mass of green leaves, though shades of brown have crept in among them, reminding me that the longest day is now well and truly behind us. I keep reminding myself that most schools in England have yet to break up for their summer vacation!

The brown shades belong to the female catkins, which are filling out in response to wind pollination. The seeds or 'nutlets' are dispersed on the breeze. Like sycamore keys, the seeds have wings to enable them to travel. One or two have landed on us in the garden.



There are also a few yellow leaves like the one below, suggesting some kind of stress to the tree. I guessed this might be due to drought or mineral imbalance, but it seems from BBC Lancashire's Ask the Gardener programme that it may be due to waterlogged conditions around the roots. Of course, the weather conditions here in Suffolk are very different to those in the north-west, so who knows; but we did have a lot of rain in the county at times last winter.



I was particularly interested to discover that Silver Birch leaves attract aphids, which in turn attract Ladybirds. There is even a species of Silver Birch aphid (Euceraphis betulae). I have not seen any Ladybirds on the tree to date, but I noticed this striking pair on a nettle in the vicinity: 

14-spot yellow ladybirds (small, native species)

When it comes to birds, the garden has been somewhat quieter this month. The Blue tit and Starling families have fledged.

However, the following birds have deigned to put in the odd appearance on the Silver Birch itself or on the feeders that hang from its branches ...

Sightings include ...
  • TFb2  Great tit (several frequently on feeder)
  • TFb4  Blackbird (one male frequently below feeder, another on the feeder - and a female)
  • TFb6  Blue tit (several frequently on feeder)
  • TFb7  Robin (one or two appearances, including today)
  • TFb8  Magpie (about three frequently dive-bombing feeder)
  • TFb9  Wood Pigeon (up to ten perching around the feeder area)
  • TFb10 Dunnock (two frequently below feeder)  
  • TFb11 Starling (infrequent appearances of up to three birds) 

Previous birds not seen this month (and admittedly I was not at base all the time) ...
  • TFb1 Great Spotted Woodpecker 
  • TFb3 Long-tailed Tit
  • TFb5 Song Thrush 
  • TFb12 Carrion Crow (on fence at back of Silver Birch) - first seen on 14 May 2014
  • TFb13 Goldfinch
 
On the insect front, this month's sightings include ...

  • TFi5 Skipper Butterfly (three, definitely the first time I have seen these in my home patch)
  • TFi6 Meadow Brown Butterfly (two, definitely the first time I have seen these in my home patch)
  • TFi7 Large White Butterfly (one)
  • TFi8 14-spot Yellow Ladybirds (two)
  • TFi14 Blackfly (colony) 
  • TFi15 Marmalade Hoverfly (one) 
  • TFi16 Shield bug (still identifying exact species)
There have also been plenty of moths. Sadly my moth ID skills are sadly lacking. 

TFi5 Skipper butterfly (I'm not sure yet which variety)

TFi15 Marmalade Hoverfly on flowers beneath Silver Birch


Previous sightings around the Silver Birch include ...

  • TFi1 Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly [March]
  • TFi2 Buff-tailed Bumblebee [March] 
  • TFi3 Brimstone Butterfly [April]
  • TFi4 7-spot Ladybirds [April]
  • TFi9 Small White Butterfly [May]
  • TFi10 Orange tip Butterfly [May]
  • TFi11 Harlequin ladybird [May]
  • TFi12 Garden Chafer (Phyllopertha horticola) [June] 
  • TFi13 Ruby-tail Wasp [June]   
Of course it is often hard to tell whether the flora and fauna that I spot in, on, around or under the Silver Birch - or on the feeders that hang from its branches - are there specifically on account of the tree.

Next month will be August: where is the year going? But July is always a good month for growth and wildlife, so I shall keep my eyes and ears open meanwhile, as I continue to follow the Silver Birch. Thank you for calling by ... and for those of you who have been reading my posts on Skye and Mull, there will be a few more coming soon. 


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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Scottish Odyssey 2 ~ Finches at Dunvegan on Skye


It was lovely to find Dunvegan in sunshine. The castle grounds were looking magnificent ...


... with waterlilies ...


... lupins and delphiniums.


We were delighted to find a Bullfinch as we rarely see these Amber Status birds in our own neck of the woods, and have only ever seen one in our Suffolk garden 'down south'.  


We soon noticed that there was also a female. 


I'm not sure what she was eating but it seemed to come from the tree ...


... near the roses.


We also saw this Goldfinch just outside the castle grounds from a place where we like to watch seals on the skerries.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Scottish Odyssey 1 ~ Heading South (amphibians)

We have just returned from a holiday on (well, mainly off) the west coast of Scotland. The weather was remarkably kind, and even hot at times. To date we have only processed the last of my digital films, so please forgive me if I begin at the end! I shall highlight the creatures we saw in yellow.

It seems remarkable to think that only last weekend we were ambling through the sub-tropical gardens at Arduaine, some miles south of Oban. We were looking for a picnic place on our drive to Dumbarton and noticed a sign saying 'Coastal Viewpoint'. It proved to be an idyllic spot, consisting of coastal views, unspoilt beaches ...



... and glorious plants such as the one below. It seemed very strange to be sitting among palm trees in hot sunshine, but the gardens benefit from the effects of the Gulf Stream.     



Scottish Flame Flower, perhaps?

The Arduaine headland protrudes from Loch Melfort and the gardens, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, face south over Asknish Bay. The photo below shows the beautiful coastline along the edge of the garden - and despite the fact that schools in Scotland had broken up for the summer vacation, the beach was certainly a crowd-free zone. We watched Gannets flying from one side of the bay to the other and one visitor claimed he saw a White-tailed Eagle.  


After enjoying the view we wandered inland to explore the part of the garden that spreads out around the pond. I had just turned my eyes to the water in the hope of seeing a newt when ...


... right on cue, David spotted one. 


It was a small but fine specimen ...


... and I enjoyed watching the newt as it swam in the water ...


... as it twisted and turned among the tadpoles ...


... and dived under strands of weed.


The tadpole population was certainly very healthy, though I rather suspect that all too few of these small creatures will make it through to maturity. 


It was time to head for that elusive viewpoint, but just before we left the pond, we noticed a second newt (in the photo above). I had a hunch that the newts would be Palmates, perhaps juveniles, but I am not convinced that this identification is correct. I am submitting the sightings to the Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK (RAUK) site for their records. The only eft I have ever seen in Scotland was on the edge of Loch Awe. 


Arduaine - what an unexpected jewel in the Scottish coastline! 


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Tree Following ~ Silver Birch in June



This post is the fourth in my Tree Following series, part of a wider project run by Lucy Corrander from the Loose and Leafy blog. I am following a Silver Birch in Suffolk, UK. You will find the other Tree Follower links for June 2014 here ... so do take the chance to go on a virtual exploration of the arboreal world!



WELCOME, Tree Followers et al, to my June update.

My Silver Birch (B. Pendula) has been looking green and leafy since my last update. The photo above was taken on 10 May, shortly after I posted my May bulletin on Mr Linky.

The weather has been mixed so far, with grey cloud being a dominant feature. The temperatures have been mild but it has been cool at dawn. The Blue tits are probably the most frequent visitors to the coconut feeder on the Silver Birch - and as predicted, the roses are in bloom.



DETECTIVE WORK

The month (by which I mean the weeks between posting my May and June TF reports) began with a slight concern. I noticed another birch nearby, and began to wonder whether I was right in identifying this one as a Silver Birch after all!

The two trees seemed similar at first, and in fact, I had not noticed that there were differences. Something twigged (sorry), and I began to realise that the two were by no means identical. I erroneously assumed at this point that the other must be a Downy Birch - purely on the grounds that it differed from my tree.

However, I looked a bit more closely, and noticed that the leaves on 'the other tree' were more forked and less saw-edged than my tree. The other tree's leaves had deeper indentations than the leaves you see above. They also appeared a bit more like a squashed maple leaf and less like the shape of a kite.

Leaves of Silver Birch, B. Pendula [above] and Swedish Birch, B. pendula 'Darlecarlica' [below]

Thanks to Dr D.G. Hessayon's book on trees and shrubs, I have come to the conclusion (and I hope I am right) that my birch is indeed a Silver Birch (B. Pendula). I believe that the other tree is probably the Swedish Birch, B. pendula 'Darlecarlica'. It is not in my gift to photograph this one, but you will find a good picture here.

Mystery solved! I feel somewhat chastened to think that it has taken me this long to make this discovery, but there you go.

BIRD LIFE

I decided to tighten up a bit on my bird observations, so I began to chart the birds I saw on my (B. Pendula) tree or on the feeders hanging from its branches to see if any daily patterns or surprises emerged.

Sightings include (roughly in order of frequency) ...
  • TFb7  Robin (frequently below feeder)
  • TFb2  Great tit (frequently on feeder)
  • TFb6  Blue tit (frequently on feeder)
  • TFb10 Dunnock (frequently below feeder)
  • TFb4  Blackbird (frequently below feeder)
  • TFb8  Magpie (frequently dive-bombing feeder)
  • TFb11 Starling (on or under feeder, frequently three birds at a time)
  • TFb9  Wood Pigeon (perching around the feeder area)
  • TFb12 Carrion Crow (on fence at back of Silver Birch) - first seen on 14 May 2014

I also have a new bird species on the block, the beautiful Goldfinch (TFb13). I had planted up some bedding plants in a pedestal planter on the patio, when minutes later I looked out to see two Goldfinches perching on the metal rim. One flew up into the Silver Birch while the other plucked some strips of fibrous hanging basket liner, presumably for a nest. The Goldfinches returned today, and I am really hoping that they will stay around as they are such colourful and delightful birds. You will notice that the one below is not on my Silver Birch! Sadly I didn't have my camera to hand when the Goldfinches landed, but these are such fine birds (despite their messy nests) that I wanted to re-post an earlier picture.


Goldfinch

The only other new bird to settle in the vicinity of the Silver Birch was a sleek brown one with a slightly speckled chest, slightly larger than a Satrling. I didn't think it was a Mistle Thrush as its speckles were not very pronounced. I wondered if it was a female Blackbird like this, although its eye markings were more prominent. Today I saw the bird again in the company of three other juvenile Starlings - mystery solved, I think!We also think we had a fleeting glimpse of a Coalt-tit, but are not entirely sure. This would be another new species for my Silver Birch birdlist, but I won't add it until it re-visits and I can be sure.
There have been no further sightings of ...
  • TFb3 Long-tailed Tits
  • TFb1 Great Spotted Woodpecker
  • TFb5 Song Thrush

However, the members of the Blue tit brood have delighted us with their antics on and around the coconuts that hang from the Silver Birch.




INSECT LIFE

The main insect immediately below the Silver Birch was a large Garden Chafer (Phyllopertha horticola). It was busy devouring a leaf when I looked down and saw it. According to the RHS, this species can cause a lot of damage to lawns.



We have been very excited this month as BBC Springwatch has come to our (relatively) local nature reserve, RSPB MInsmere. I first spotted the colourful Ruby-tail Wasp on the Minsmere site back in August 2012. It was scuttling over the surface of a wartime tank-trap. I am delighted to report that I have had several more sightings of this unusual insect on sunny days on the wooden posts around my patio, metres from the Silver Birch. Of course, the juxtaposition between the birch and the wasp may be of little significance: who knows ...

Ruby-tail Wasp in my garden, 1 June 2014

I am sitting at my window as I type, peering out into the semi-darkness. We have had bursts of warm sun today. We have numerous moths flying around the kitchen and a pair of skittish bats in the garden, flitting alongside the feathery forms of the Silver Birch branches. It will soon be the longest day.



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Thursday, 29 May 2014

Sand Martins at RSPB Minsmere


We continue to be avid watchers of BBC Springwatch from RSPB Minsmere, our (pretty) local nature reserve. The photo above shows a sandy cliff on the reserve, and you can see where sand has been 'burrowed out' by ... 





... Sand Martins, who are among the first spring migrants to appear in Suffolk from their winter quarters, south of the Sahara.


The tunnels can be almost a metre in length.



Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Newts - and BBC Springwatch - at RSPB Minsmere

© David Gill (cropped by me)

We were very excited when we heard that the BBC Springwatch programmes would be coming from RSPB Minsmere, which is a reserve we thought we knew quite well. The first programme has already put paid to that feeling as we found ourselves learning a number of new facts as we watched the screen last night.

However, we made a new 'discovery' of our own at the weekend when we noticed several newts on site. Does anyone know if there is a collective term for them? I know very little about these attractive creatures, but we soon realised that there appeared to be more than one species in the water.

We had hoped that the newt in David's photo above was going to be a Crested Newt, a variety we had not seen, but I suspect the red belly points to an ID of a male Smooth or Common Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris / Triturus vulgaris) since these amphibians display crests during the breeding season. You can read more about them on the ARKive site. You can read about their conservation status here and about their protection under the law here

If you are reading this blog and can confirm or refute my tentative identification for the newt above, I would be extremely grateful! To complicate matters somewhat, I understand that the Great Crested Newt can have an orange underside ...

The light conditions made it difficult to catch a good glimpse of the creatures, but we enjoyed seeing them all the same. The newt photographs below have been cropped and enlarged. I had been looking for dragonflies and damselflies, so the newts were an added and unexpected bonus!











Springwatch at RSPB Minsmere