Gannet research- on this weekend of rain and winds, and climate talks, a reminder of the wonderful flight-powers of Gannets around our coast. Some recent research, called ‘Track-a-Gannet’ or TAG, has discovered that our Gannets can fly up to 500 miles in 36 hours in search of food. The research should help in the long-term planning of wind-farm sites, as well as in lobbying for larger Marine Reserves. Conditions: Blustery with heavy rain spells over whole weekend. Temperature: Max 10- Min 4c.
The season of Starling murmurations: I came across this lovely description of one by the great 19th century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, he of ‘Glory be to God of dappled things’ fame: “We saw a vast multitude of starlings making an unspeakable jangle. They would settle in a row of trees: then, one tree after another, rising at a signal they looked like a cloud of specks of black snuff or powder struck up from a brush or broom or shaken from a wig; then they would sweep round in whirl-winds- you could see the nearer and farther bow of the wings by the size and blackness; many would be in one phase at once, all narrow black flakes hurling round, then in another; then they would fall upon a field...I thought they must be full of enthusiasm and delight, hearing their cries and stirring and cheering one another”. Here is a relatively small murmuration at Aberystwyth pier, taken last winter. Although not as many appeared as usual, the backdrop of a wonderful sunset made it special. Conditions: Milder and cloudy. Temperature: Max 8, Min 5c.
Acrobatic Wood Pigeons– today we’ve had up to a dozen Wood Pigeons at any one acrobatically trying to reach the dwindling series on the Joseph Rock Rowan, feet from our back windows. After scoffing the easy-to-reach ones they are having to improvise more. The photos speak for them selves, as, year on year, we seem to be getting more Wood Pigeons in our city garden. Temperature: Following a light dusting of snow yesterday, temperatures are still low, but with some bright spells. Temperature: Max 4- Min 0c.
Swallow migration– it seems a long time since our UK Swallows were feeding up, preening and gathering, in preparation for their long flight south. They travel through western France, Portugal, and eastern Spain, to Morocco. Some then fly down the Nile Valley, while others choose the west coast of Africa, avoiding the Sahara. Feeding as they go, they are at risk of starving before they reach their destination of South Africa. They fly around 200 miles a day at about 20 miles an hour. When there, they feed in small flocks and roost in thousands. Mum and I, stuck in the nursing home in these cooler conditions, are longing for their return! Conditions: some wet and cold days. Temperature: Max 8- Min 2
Blackbird populations- in September and October Blackbirds tend to be less frequent visitors to our gardens, partly as they are moulting and hide more, partly because they are feeding more on berries in the wild. Now we have many again, feeding up or winter, especially on the Rowan. Most of our Blackbirds will stay put, some migrate further south and many will migrate into the uk from continental Europe and Scandinavia, travelling at night. The males from abroad have darker beaks– we haven’t had them here yet but more females migrate here than males, because males are more territorial. This may explain why we have so many more female Blackbirds, with their lovely mottled brown chests, than males at present. Conditions: Mild, with rain coming in. Temperature: Max 15- Min 8c.
Spindle- another favourite, small tree for wildlife and beauty. My sister gave me a root of her Spindle a few years ago and it now flowers well, with the nectar attracting many insects. The leaves are the food plant of several moth caterpillars. It has beautiful autumn colour and here you can see the stunning orange and pink fruits, which birds eat (you may be surprised by the bright orange bird droppings that can appear in the garden! Spindle is our native euonymous, The dense, white wood was used for spindles and skewers and is still a favourite for really good quality drawing charcoal. Conditions- heavy showers and string gusts of wind. Temperatures falling to near-normal for November. Temperature: Max 8- Min 5c.
Blackcaps in the Rowan- if you needed encouragement to plant a tree with autumn berries in your garden, the visit to our Rowan this morning of a gorgeous pair of Blackcaps might be it. The males of these greyish warblers have a velvety, black cap while the females cap is a warm chestnut colour. Garden feeding is helping more of these warblers to overwinter, which means you get to hear their beautiful song, the reason they are called the‘ ‘northern nightingale’, that bit earlier in the year. Conditions: Blustery, dry and mild. Temperature: Max 15- Min 8c.
Mistle Thrushes have been turning up on our Rowan ‘Joseph Rock’, which I put in the garden years ago specifically because the autumn colour is so good, and the yellow berries are eaten later than the native Rowan’s red berries. They have just decided the berries are ripe for eating. They do something unusual, called ‘resource guarding’, as Sian researched recently. Some Mistle Thrushes will guard a tree, often Holly or Yew, to deter other birds from eating the berries, saving them for harder times in
midwinter. Resource-guarding Mistle Thrushes have been shown to breed earlier and have bigger broods than others. Conditions: Another in this spell of worryingly warm November days, with sunshine and a stiff breeze. Temperature: Max 17- Min 9c.
Sparrowhawks: As Chris Packham chose this as his favourite bird on Autumnwatch, and we have Sparrowhawks dramatically low-flying through the garden most days at present, I thought I’d post some of the photo’s we’ve taken in our Sheffield garden recently. These beautiful birds are making a recovery since the past impact of DDT and persecution, and now cover almost all of the UK, except the Highlands. Winter sees a few extra Scandinavia birds coming in, too. The BTO is studying whether their recovery is having a significant impact on passerines (perching birds) but they think this is most unlikely. One possible species affected may be Bullfinches but our experience is that we have Sparrowhawks all year round and more Bullfinches than ever. Females are larger and brown-backed, while males have grey backs. Chest colours vary. Conditions: Light cloud and gentle breeze, continuing very mild. Temperature: Max 16- Min 10c.
Chestnutting- One of my best early memories is of going to the local woods to gather bags and bags of chestnuts every autumn, and I did it again the other day. Sweet Chestnut trees, introduced to the UK by the Romans from their native southern Europe, seem to have a good crop this year. The lovely, deeply fissured trunks, which twist and spiral when they grow old, are also a delight. The biggest girth ever recorded for any tree was a Sweet Chestnut, recorded in Sicily with a girth of a staggering 204 feet (62 metres)! While I love eating the nuts raw or roasted, they have been ground for flour and even ground for starch for laundry in parts of Europe. Conditions: A cool and dry, cloudy day, a little more seasonal following exceptionally warm
weather. Temperature: Max 11- Min 9c.