17th January 2019

Shoveller Duck: it is a fairly quiet time for garden wildlife (though Waxwings are being spotted around Sheffield, so that is exciting) so I am doing an occasional series on duck identification, as it can be tricky for some, beyond the ubiquitous and well-known Mallard. The Shoveller (one l or two seems fine) is another easy one to identify. It is quite a large duck and, even though the female is much less colourful than the male, is distinctive in both sexes because of its eponymous and unique bill. The large, flattened bill is called ‘spatulate’ and it has a comb-like edge which enables it to sieve out food, so you will see it swimming around surface feeding. Being omnivorous (weeds, seeds, small animals, molluscs and plankton) also probably helps it survive and for years the population was increasing but lately it has been decreasing again, hence it being placed

Shoveller- female

Shoveller- male and female

Shoveller- male in eclispe plumage

Shoveller- male

on the amber list. Our numbers, a few hundred breeding pairs in summer, are swelled to around 16,000 birds in winter so this is the best time to see it. Conditions: A bright, cold day following a very heavy frost. Temperature: Max 4 Min -1C.

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13th December 2018

All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.

Juvenile Mute Swan, bathing

Mute Swan, bathing

Juvenile Mute Swan, bathing

Mute Swan, bathing

Juvenile Mute Swan, bathing

8th December 2018

I love watching the Heron skulking in the reeds, or taking off on the unique, lazy, m-shaped flight which you might watch on any wetland, estuary, or on the lake in your town park, transforming from a static shadowy, hunched form, unfolding

Heron

Heron

Heron

Heron

to an elegant, airborne giant in seconds. In Greek mythology Herons were thought of as bringers of bad luck. Heron’s feed in shallow water, and the Greeks realised this meant their presence would reveal, to enemies, the shallow crossing places they could use to invade.                         Herons used to appear on upper-class menus, as this recipe from the 1400’s shows: “Take a heron…serve him…scalding and drawing and kuttyng the bone of the nekke away, and let the skyn be on…roste….his sause is to be mynced with pouder of ginger, vynegre and mustard”. Thankfully, they (and we) are now protected from this practice! Conditions: A bright morning becoming grey and very wet. Temperature: Max 9 Min 7C.

22nd November 2018

Wigeon: here is another easy to identify duck, larger than the Teal I featured recently and, unless you live in Scotland and the North of England where they breed, more likely to be spotted over winter on wetlands and coastal areas, like these at Spurn. Our populations are boosted by  over-wintering influxes from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. A dabbling duck, feeding in large and often mixed groups in shallow water, on eel grass and pond plants, often eating up the weed disturbed by larger water-birds, they will also graze in groups on grassland. If you are trying to identify them, the male is the most easily distinguished, and Wigeon show a lot more white- on their bellies and the males on their wings when in flight-

Male Wigeon

Male Wigeon

Male Wigeon, landing

Female Wigeon

than when on water. Conditions: A grey day after a gorgeous sunny day at Spurn yesterday. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5C. 

30th October 2018

Pink Footed Geese do not breed in the UK but we host almost all their population over winter and the numbers are increasing, probably due to better protection of  roosting sites. These medium-sized, dark bodied Geese with Pink bills, legs and feet (as their name rather illustrates), fly in from Iceland, Spitsbergen and Greenland, a migration of over 2,000 miles for some, and if you hear the wonderful sound of geese overhead, as we did recently, you may be able to see a stunning skein of them flying in v-formation, the lead constantly changing to rest those taking on the headwinds.  They are the geese you will hear and see flying over Sheffield and many other parts of the UK, from now on, to feed at estuaries and farmland, on grain, cereals, potatoes and grass. Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of staying at the lake-edge, with friends who worked at

Pink Footed Geese

Pink Footed Geese

 and hearing and seeing huge flocks at dawn and dusk, coming in to roost and feed on potatoes collected from local Lancashire farms. Unforgettable. Conditions: Grey and cool with some drizzle. Temperature: Max 7 Min 2C.

22nd October 2018

“Busking Swans”- This weekend, at North Cave RSPB Reserve, near Goole, I watched the dramatic sight and sounds of a pair of Swans defending their lake-habitat against an encroaching adult. Many swans died the summer from avian botulism, brought on by the excessive heat- over 30 on Lakeside, Doncaster, for example- so I was glad to see these powerful creatures ‘busking’- hissing and swimming fast with their necks curved right back and their wings half open- an aggressive pose, or running on the water at great speed like skimming stones. Territorial

A pair of Swans busking towards an intruder

Busking Swan

Swans mostly use their wings to attack intruders

behaviour is more common when defending really young cygnets, or their nest, but the cygnets with this pair were well-grown. Anyway, this is a great sight you might get to witness on any stretch of water near you. Conditions: Balmy, sunny autumn weather continues. Temperature: Max 12- Min 8C.

19th June 2018

Grass Snake– this very healthy looking adult Grass Snake, our largest native snake species and the only one to lay eggs, was doing what they tend to do in June- hunting newts in ponds, while newts are active at this time of year. Later they will hunt more in the damp grasslands they favour, searching for Frogs, Toads, mice etc. I was lucky to watch this one in Sussex this week, hunting Great Crested Newts- stealthily swimming through the pondweed, checking for scents with its forked tongue. Conditions: Sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 21 Min 15C.

Grass Snake

Grass Snake hunting

Grass Snake

Adult Grass Snake