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
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
A male Mandarin Duck- keep your eyes open. These highly coloured ducks are increasingly naturalising in England, including on the River Derwent.
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 Haded gull in its winter plumage
This Oystercatcher lands, showing its white underwings
An Oystercatcher wading through the shallows, looking for food
The wonderful Oyster Catcher, showing its orange-red beak and eye-ring. It is beginning to breed more inland.
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.
A Herring Gull stalks up to the Turnstones
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
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
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
Pole. 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
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 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
Close-up of it gripping the bark in its teeth.
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
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
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
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
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.
She could hear the birds moving about but not see them.
Her brilliant amber eye and the yellow patch on her beak.
Some seasonal and some unseasonal flowers today. It has been so mild there are still some second flushes of flowers out but otherwise the expected winter flowers like Mahonia, Hellebore, the Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’ and the Winter Iris are all well in flower, pretty early. But it is unusual, though not unheard of, for Primroses to be out this early ‘up North’, and we have lots of plants with leaves over 5 cm’s long plus this tot with many flowers. As you can see, the birds have caught on and are enjoying the early tender flowers of the Primrose. Conditions Another mild day with some rain and wind predicted. Temperature: Max 11- Min 5C.
Unseasonably early tot of Primroses, well-chewed by birds.
The Hellebores or Christmas Roses are just coming out.
The Mahonia and Winter Honeysuckle have been out a while- both provide nectar and pollen for insects and birds and the Mahonia berries are enjoyed by the Thrush family
Winter Flowering Iris, out pretty early- picked as a tight bud and brought in, they unravel in a few hours and smell of Primroses
Another bird that is easy to spot all year round in most of the UK is the (Grey) Heron. This wonderful, ancient-looking bird which stands about 130 cm’s tall and’ next to the Mute Swan, is our second biggest native bird, tends to be solitary in winter. Its varied diet helps it survive, taking fish, frogs and newts, small mammals and birds. The only conditions which really threaten it are periods of severe cold, when it can’t find the food it needs. It will then tend to migrate to coastal areas, as the Kingfisher will, or further south to warmer climes. Populations can be decimated if severe conditions continue. However in mild winters it can begin courtship and breeding as early as February. Around 63,000 birds overwinter in the UK and because they are well adapted to city, town,parkland or country it is always worth looking out for one, either patiently standing waiting for a fish to pass by or with its unique, lazy flight, passing overhead. Conditions: Another very mild, windy and often wet day. Temperature: Max 12- Min 10c.
Grey Heron in typical stalking pose
Heron, neck extended, patiently waiting.
Heron on the River Don, under Lady’s Bridge
Heron resting on a factory roof in the centre of Sheffield
Winter Solstice and the shortest day. The garden has been full of birds- including panic among the Blackbirds preceding a swift but unsuccessful hunt by a Sparrowhawk. However, mid-winter seems a good time to cover one of the few insect-eating birds to overwinter in the UK. This robin-sized bird- the Stonechat– often calls attention to itself by sitting on a high branch or post above the scrub and making a sound like stones
Typical Stonechat behaviour and here, a male in summer plumage
Stonechat in paler winter plumage
being struck against each other. From there It flies off to catch an insect returning again and again to the same watch-out post. Stonechats don’t come into city gardens but look out for them any time of year if you are walking by scrubland, heath, rough grassland, on the moors or by the coast. In severe winters, like the insect-eating Wrens, their populations can suffer but they will move south or east to coasts, and forage a little on fruits and berries. Lovely strong-colours in summer, they are a little duller in winter, and females have lighter coloured heads all year round. Stonechats inspired W.H Auden in his poem ‘The Wanderer’: “….lonely as chat on fell, By pot-holed becks, A bird stone -haunting, An unquiet bird”. Conditions: Breezy and fresh, mostly dry with some sun. Temperature: Max 11- Min 10c.