31st December 2014

Even on this last, wintry day of 2014 the Tits are getting territorial and staking claims to the bird boxes. A Robin dared to perch on this one and the Blue Tit immediately saw it off. Great Tits and Blue Tits begin long before their breeding season to try to lay claim to territories and possible nest-sites. Studies of Great Tits have revealed that they use many different songs to stake their claims. Ornithologists have a theory, they call the ‘Beau Geste’ hypothesis. Just as in the novel of that name, where the author P. C. Wren imagines a soldier propping the bodies of dead soldiers round the fort to make it look as though it was better defended than it was, they think Great Tits vary their songs from different corners of the territory to look as though it is better defended than it really is! I also include a recent shot by Lynn, my chief spotter, of the stunning male Mandarin Duck which can be seen along some waterways in the country, including South Yorkshire- thanks to her for helping me spot things through this year of blogging. I originally aimed to do one year of blogging and then stop, but I’ve decided I will still blog next year, but not so frequently. To follow, you don’t need to do anything- just don’t expect one every day. Wishing you all good times in 2015. Conditions: A slight thaw has set in so the 5 inches or so of snow in Sheffield is slowly dripping away.

Great Tits begin staking out territories even in the heart of winter

Great Tits begin staking out territories even in the heart of winter

A Roben was using the box as a perch

A Roben was using the box as a perch

Temperature: Max 5- Min4 c.

One of 3 Blue Tits vying for the box today soon saw off the Robin

One of 3 Blue Tits vying for the box today soon saw off the Robin

A male Mandarin Duck- keep your eyes open. These highly coloured ducks are increasingly naturalising in England, including on the River Derwent.

A male Mandarin Duck- keep your eyes open. These highly coloured ducks are increasingly naturalising in England, including on the River Derwent.

30th December 2014

Two common seaside birds with red legs and beaks, as we travel back north in very cold conditions. The gorgeous Oyster Catcher masses on estuaries in winter where its haunting piping call can be heard across the waters where they feed on mussels, small crustaceans and worms. In winter it is joined by thousands of migrant cousins from Norway. It breeds on almost all the UK’s coasts in spring but in recent years has been found nesting inland more. The Black Headed Gull, as I posted a while ago, doesn’t have a black head in winter, only a couple of small, dark marks, but it’s legs and beak are really bright, as this photo taken in Bexhill two days ago shows. Like the Herring Gull, it is a great scavenger, feeding inland and on rubbish dumps as much as on the coast in modern times. Conditions: Bright, sunny and cold. Temperature: Max 2 – Min0 c.

A very colourful Black Headed gull in its winter plumage

A very colourful Black Haded gull in its winter plumage

This Oystercatcher lands, showing its hit underwings

This Oystercatcher lands, showing its white underwings

An Oystercatcher wading through the shallows, looking for food

An Oystercatcher wading through the shallows, looking for food

The wonderful Oyster Catcher, beginning to breed inland more.

The wonderful Oyster Catcher, showing its orange-red beak and eye-ring. It is beginning to breed more inland.

29th December 2014

Watching the Turnstones yesterday, a Herring Gull muscled in on the scene and frightened them off. Big seagulls, the Herring Gulls are white and grey with a distinctive orange-red mark on the bottom of their beak. Like the Turnstones, they will also eat a wide range of scavenged things, including chips! This one was just looking for insects on the cliff-edge. Conditions: Heavy frost and clear bright, still weather. Temperature: Max2  Min -3 C.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

A Herring Gull stalks up to the Turnstones

A Herring Gull stalks up to the Turnstones

Then it takes off. It will feed along the waters edge when the tide has receded a little further

Itt takes off. It will feed along the waters edge when the tide has receded a little further

The big bird scares the Turnstones off

The big bird scares the Turnstones off

28th December 2014

Turnstones are usually seen feeding on the shore-line, eating crustaceans and mussels, and insects found by using their strong beaks to probe under stones or seaweed. Today though, walking in the beautiful sunshine on Galley Hill, Bexhill, I watched a dozen

Turnstones on the cliffs

Turnstones on the cliffs

IMG_7541

lovely Turnstones feeding on insects in the grass at the edge of the cliff. They eat the most varied diet of any wader, apparently prepared to scavenge dead carcasses of animals and birds, potato peelings and all sorts! They are also one of the furthest travelled, and we see most overwintering, having flown from their breeding grounds on the high Arctic, only about 500 miles from the North

IMG_7533Pole. Though you’ll see most in winter, they can be seen passing through in spring or summer but they don’t breed in the UK. They are less colourful in winter but their bright orange legs and white breasts with the two dark breast-patches and mottled backs make them very attractive and  easy to identify at any time. Conditions: A cold, dry and bright day. Temperature: Max  3- Min  -2 C

27th December 2014

Gorgeous sunny day for Christmas, down South anyway, then yesterday Sian told me of the inches of snow falling in Sheffield while down south we had torrential rain and gale-force winds. For something altogether calmer, Squirrels frequently strip bark from trees and here’s one recently in the Botanical Gardens doing just that. Though it is a well known phenomenon there are various theories about why they do it- some rather fanciful. The most likely is that they strip off the tough outer bark to reveal the sugar and sap-filled layers of cambium underneath, for food. They probably also strip bark for nesting material. Since this one was doing it in winter, either might apply. They are very tame in the Botanicals and, as can be seen, come up close (they willl take food from your hand) but there are less people around offering food in winter. (When he was a toddler walking near Forge Dam, one once speedily climbed up Kierans arm and ate some of his ice-cream!). They seldom completely ‘ring’ trees (eat the bark all the way round) as deer can, fatally for the tree. However, stripping bark can weaken trees and let infection in. Conditions: Calm after the storm. Snow clearly still laying in Sheffield but just very soggy in Catsfield. Temperature: Max 1 Min -1 c.

This squirrel kept coming up expecting food

This squirrel kept coming up expecting food

This squirrel was busy stripping the bark of this pine

This squirrel was busy stripping the bark of this pine

It had stripped quite a few strips already, as can be seen from the exposed red under the bark

It had stripped quite a few strips already, as can be seen from the exposed red under the bark

Close-up of it gripping the bark in its teeth.

Close-up of it gripping the bark in its teeth.

26th December 2014

Two Boxing Day traditions which have become much more benign lately came to my mind while walking the track near mum’s today: hunting the Wren and the Fox. The myth was that the Wren, the tiny bird with a loud voice, alerted St Stephen the martyr’s sleeping guards, leading to his death by stoning. This was then avenged by the trapping and caging or killing of many Wrens on St Stephens’s Day (Boxing Day). They were then carried on poles, decorated with ribbons and greenery, into the Churches or paraded around houses, with the Wren-hunters being given food and drink. Pre-Christian, the same tradition took place in many Celtic and Druidic cultures on December 21st, the shortest day, linking the Wren to the death of the old sun and the birth of the new. In a few places, including Dingle and the Isle of Man this tradition is still marked but the Wren is represented by an image on a decorated pole around which people dance. Wrens suffer from cold winters anyway and the BTO and Winterwatch want you to check on your bird boxes and let them know if you have groups of wrens roosting together in your boxes- the most Wrens ever recorded in a roost is 63 huddled together to keep warm! I saw and heard several Wrens on my walk, and also heard the fox-hounds baying, preparing for the Boxing Day Hunt which, at least for the present is now focussed on following laid trails rather than hunting the Catsfield and Battle foxes.

The BTO and Winterwatch want to hear if any bird box in your patch has Wrens roosting in overnight through winter

The BTO and Winterwatch want to hear if any bird box in your patch has Wrens roosting in overnight through winter

It is thought Wrens may have been associated with bad spirits because of their habits of creeping about in crevices and disappearing into the undergrowth.

It is thought Wrens may have been associated with bad spirits because of their habits of creeping about in crevices and disappearing into the undergrowth.

This city fox had been sleeping in the sun in our garden a while ago

This city fox had been sleeping in the sun in our garden a while ago

Conditions: A great frost after starry skies and a new moon last night. A still, cool day with a milky sun. Temperature: Max 4- Min 0C

24th December 2014

I probably won’t do a post tomorrow, and I know I covered Sparrowhawks the other day, saying to look out for them in the garden at this time of year, but yesterday this wonderful female just flew into our Rowan tree and sat there. Females are 25% larger than males, and have browner backs. She looked all round and up and down, wondering where all the little birds, that she’d spotted feeding nearby, had disappeared to. After the Sparrowhawk left, they emerged from the privet hedge! She could clearly hear them, twisting her head round and cocking her head to try to locate the sound, but they were safe in the hedge. Sparrowhawks are very manoeuvrable, able to fly quickly among dense trees and shrubs, which is why they do

Female Sparrowhawk- fantastic claws with which she catches her prey

Female Sparrowhawk- fantastic claws with which she catches her prey

so well in our gardens, but this time the small birds were too quick for her. The white patches on the back of her head really show well. Conditions: Some sun and cloud. Temperature: Max 6- Min 4C.

This shot shows the two white patches on the back of her head.

This shot shows the two white patches on the back of her head.

She could hear the birds moving about but not see them.

She could hear the birds moving about but not see them.

Her brilliant amber eye and the yellow patch on her beak.

Her brilliant amber eye and the yellow patch on her beak.