The migrants return!

I was just about to leave for a day at Old Moor this morning, packing my scope into my bag, and from outside the kitchen I heard “Chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff”. I couldn’t spot it, but then Laura shouted me upstairs because there were two birds in the top of the tree in the back garden, a “blue tit and a little dull one”. Any birds in our garden is a blessing, and this was a particularly good find.

I wish more confusing birds were like the Chiffchaff, and shouted their name to help identification. It would be great to travel through woodlands and hear “Willow-Tit-Willow-Tit-Willow-Tit”, or walk by the sea and hear the plaintive cries of “Arctic-TERN! Arctic-TERN!”.

So on to Old Moor, and one of the first birds I saw was my first Sand Martin of the year, flying over the mere, and I saw a couple of more of them there later. There were also a few more Chiffchaffs chiffchaffing away.

I set myself a playful goal today of finding 50 species on one visit. I failed, but got a healthy 47 (yes I will list them in full anally-retentive glory at the bottom of the post). I thought I may have 48, but the grey goose I thought would be something exciting turned out to be a Greylag with a funny beak.

I do love this time of year, as you can see practically anything – for example the first of the migrants were joined by a straggling Whooper Swan.

Two target species I had today were Ringed Plover and Green Woodpecker. The Ringed Plovers completely failed to show (ah well, later in the month…), and I spent ages in one hide scanning the trees for the woodpeckers. I left and walked into another hide, and a man with an unfeasibly large telescope said to me, before I’d even closed the door, “you’ve just missed a green woodpecker!”. Fantastic. I console myself with the fact that with his scope he was probably watching one in bloody Doncaster or something.

As promised, here’s today’s full list:

Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, Blue Tit, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Collared Dove, Coot, Cormorant, Dunnock, Gadwall, Goldeneye, Goldfinch, Goosander, Great Crested Grebe, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Greylag Goose, Jackdaw, Lapwing, Little Grebe, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie, Mallard, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Pochard, Redshank, Reed Bunting, Robin, Ruddy Duck, Sand Martin, Shelduck, Shoveler, Skylark, Starling, Teal, Tree Sparrow, Tufted Duck, Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Woodpigeon, Wren

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Anyone know any houses to rent?

Sorry to waste blogspace on pleas like this… We’ve decided to move, and have handed our notice on our current house. It’s time for a change!

We’re kind of (optimistically) looking in the general Bradfield/Loxley area, two bedrooms, no more than £600pm, and need somewhere before the end of June. We have one small, clean, well behaved cat. If anyone knows of anything going give me a nudge! (you can email me at peterjmella(at)googlemail(dot)com).

That swan

I’ve solved the mystery of the tame Whooper Swan at Hornsea Mere.

From ‘Where to Watch Birds in Yorkshire’ (Mather, 1998, p58): “The resident pinioned Whooper Swan at Kirkholme Point has a predilection for vehicles and can be a pest, albeit an interesting one.”

According to a reply to a query about the swan on BirdForum, it was a crippled bird, pinioned through injury, that was taken to the mere and got a bit too used to its cushy lifestyle. He can get sulky round breeding time, and sometimes attracts passing Whoopers in the winter months.

If anyone’s got any more information about this swan then please let me know!

Bridlington!

Me and Laura had a trip to Bridlington today. We started by swinging by the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs reserve, which is an impressive breeding ground for Gannets, Kittiwakes and other seabirds. There were also loads of Guillemots around in the sea, although sadly we were a bit early for Puffins.

Walking past a couple, one of them told us they’d just seen a dolphin not far from the cliffs. Pointing it out Laura clearly saw it as it broke the surface, and I completely failed to see it. After that it wasn’t seen again. Annoyingly I dipped a dolphin today. Bah.

Bridlington was, as usual, home to a scary amount of huge, cocky Herring Gulls, plus large numbers of Turnstones which busied themselves round your feet and begged for chips like strange-looking starlings. There were also quite a few with gammy feet, just like the usual affliction that affects town pigeons.
As well as gulls and Turnstones, the harbour was also home to many Redshanks, and examining some cormorants paid dividends… one turned out to be my first Shag of the year (anyone sniggering there should be ashamed), and one wasn’t a cormorant at all, but a Diver! No expert on wintering divers, I’ve been flitting between Black-throated and Red-throated identifications all day, but on reflection I feel Red-throated more likely, as the bird seemed pretty small (smaller than the Shag which is was near to), and greyer than you’d expect from a Black-throated. Jury’s still out though…

On the way home, we made a quick detour to Hornsea Mere, which is a large lake, the banks of which include a cafe and boat club that seems to have been unchanged from the 1950s. Mainly Mallards, Greylags, Mute Swans and Canada Geese, the mere also included a Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Ducks and quite a large flock of Goldeneye.
I also got quite excited by a Whooper Swan, before realising it must have been a tame one, as it was harrassing some men in a hut until they came out and fed it a bowl of seed. Is it a resident there? Or a bird that got a bit used to being looked after? If anyone knows this swan’s story then let me know!

Bradfield, Agden, Damflask and Loxley

Today I went for a walk, starting at Low Bradfield, round Agden Reservoir, past Damflask Reservoir, and back home through Loxley.

Agden Reservoir itself was a pleasant walk. Not too much to see on the water, bar a few Mallards, Canada Geese and Moorhens. The woods were full of the usual small species of birds, including a few tit flocks that included larger numbers of Coal Tits that usual. I also heard my first Curlews of the year. I was watching these for a while around the Agden Bog nature reserve, and became aware of a ludicrously tame Robin that decided to stand just behind me. I discovered why it was so unafraid of people – there was a recently topped up pile of bird food on a wall post, on which it posed so close that it could even be snapped by a compact digital camera.

Right at the end of the Reservoir, there was a Kestrel, sat hunched in a tree in plain sight.

Walking back through Low Bradfield, I then took the road down to Damflask Reservoir. The lack of interesting birds on Agden was made up for on Damflask straight away, as almost immediately there was a Great Crested Grebe resplendent in full summer plumage (photographed below, honest!), and a Cormorant drying its wings in characteristic fashion. In the adjoining woods, I also saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tits, a Treecreeper and Goldcrests. I also caught sight of the Curlews I’d been hearing all morning, as a flock of circled above the water, crying out as they did so.
Walking back towards Loxley, I saw a flock of small, brown, streaky birds in a field that I’m not 100% sure enough to identify. They appeared to be bunting or finch-like, feeding on the ground, and panicking and flying back into a nearby tree every few minutes. My first thought was Linnets, though I didn’t see any that resembled summer males.
Down Loxley Road there was a large flock of Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, Rooks, Magpies, Woodpigeons and Black-headed and Common Gulls feeding what appeared to be vegetables scattered around the fields for the sheep. There were also plenty of Mistle Thrushes around, and a few Song Thrushes too. I walked through Loxley and the adjoining footpaths, with a vain hope of spotting a Kingfisher or Dipper by the river, and then to Malin Bridge and hopped on a tram home.
I’ve not done this for a while, but here’s today’s full list…
Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, Blue Tit, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Collared Dove, Common Gull, Coot, Cormorant, Curlew, Dunnock, Goldcrest, Great Crested Grebe, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Greenfinch, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Kestrel, Linnet(?), Long-tailed Tit, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Magpie, Mistle Thrush, Moorhen, Robin, Rook, Song Thrush, Starling, Treecreeper, Woodpigeon, Wren

Today’s lunchtime spots

It’s hard to believe it was snowing yesterday isn’t it? There’s still a chill in the air, but a nice warm Spring sun making you believe it’s the end of March again.

Today’s lunchtime trip to Weston and Crookes Valley Parks included some good views of a small flock of Treecreepers in Weston Park, which were making their weird high-pitched bubbling calls and crawling around the branches in a way that always reminds me in a strange way of giant, crawling insects.

I also saw my first Rabbits there, scurrying about by the margins of Crookes Valley Park, not far from the children’s playground. There was also the usual birds, including Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Greenfinches, Mallards, Moorhens, Blackbirds, Carrion Crows, Magpies, Woodpigeons, Robins and a Wren, and of course loads of squirrels.

Why you’ve got to love Dunnocks

The Dunnock is the perrenial “Little Brown Job” that birdwatchers talk about, the drab, brown bird that skulks around the undergrowth, and is more often heard than seen. Even the name “Dunnock” means “small brown bird”. It’s actually quite handsome, but coloured in with a particularly unimaginative pallette. Its song is pretty but not as spectacular as other birds out there. First impressions would suggest that the Dunnock is the Mr Average of Britain’s common birds.

But there are some very interesting secrets that the Dunnock keeps close to its chest. Firstly it’s not like any other British birds, being an accentor. Accentors are usually mountainous species of Europe and Asia, but the Dunnock is one of only a couple that occur in lowland areas, and the only one representative in Britain. Confusion as to its true affinities led one of its most common names, Hedge Sparrow. Nowadays the most “correct” common name for it is supposed to be Hedge Accentor, but its very little used outside official bird lists.

Ok so that’s not the most dramatic secret a creature can have, I admit, but it makes up for this by its remarkable sex life. Truly, the Dunnock is a filthy, filthy bird, by human standards. Their complex sexual relationships include much partner-swapping, and practically every combination you can think of between males with two females, females with two males, and even two or three males sharing a small harem of females. They copulate more than any other small bird recorded, once or twice an hour over a 10-day period, and the male is so speedy to do so as he leaps over a female that it took years for observers to work out what he was actually doing. Courtship largely consists the male pecking at the female’s cloaca until a droplet of sperm from a previous mating pops out. Far from the dance of the Great Crested Grebe, or the display of a Bird of Paradise, isn’t it?

The drab, boring Dunnock getting up to all this is akin to suddenly finding out your perfectly ordinary next-door neighbours are hosting particularly kinky orgies on a Saturday night. Next time you see a Dunnock scrabbling about in a hedge like a little, innocent, feathered mouse, remember that its life is probably a lot more interesting than you would ever imagine…

(Pic from Wikipedia Commons – license here)
Some sources for this post: Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Maybe (2005); Wikipedia