Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 14, 2019

Bird Power

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Mallard (Anas platyrhychnos) – one of the most familiar of all British birds.

The ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’ is a theme of  the natural world that has often shown itself on these pages.  A recent observation demonstrated to me once again how we can never rest on the laurels of our familiarity with even the most abiding or often seen animals with which we share our lives.

A cat stalking the bushes fringing a lake on an Essex nature reserve – the Essex Wildlife Trust’s wonderful Fingringhoe Wick, no less.  There it crouched, eyeing a few ducks dabbling about at the edge, a handful of the many such birds scattered across the water.  They included nothing special, in that there was nothing one wouldn’t expect to see here on a January afternoon; plenty of Mallard, a few Tufted Duck and good numbers of Gadwall and Shoveler, all special, of course, in their own right.

The cat pounced, without success, but scattering the ambushed few birds into the air.  At the commotion the other ducks close by would surely flee to the safety on the far side of the water.  But no, they did quite the opposite.  Within a few moments thirty or so ducks – mostly Mallard and few of the Gadwall – had come about and surged forcefully towards the offending feline, quacking loudly as they went.  The cat, bewildered at this unexpected turn of events, edged backwards, away from the water’s edge.  Yet the scolding continued, until the threat had been well and truly seen off and cajoled far away from any opportunity to renew its predatory attempt.

It was a remarkable and surprising show cooperative aggression by the birds to effectively deal with a dangerous problem.  It was a behaviour that this observer had not previously seen exhibited by the perhaps not so humble Mallard.

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A pair of Gadwall (Anas strepera).

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 30, 2018

Dividers of Opinion

The sight of bright green parakeets squawking their way around the Southeast of England, even after decades of their successful establishment here, is a decidedly incongruous one.  Incongruous, but not unwelcome… for some at any rate.

The Ring-necked Parakeet is an Asian native, established in the UK, mainly around London and the Home Counties, by way of successive escapes and introductions since the 1960s.  Their opportunism has been quite impressive really, perhaps all the more so given a chiefly sub-tropical natural distribution, although their presence among the foothills of the Himalayas does suggest something of a hardy streak.  They have risen from a handful in 1968, to three of four thousand in the 1990s, to a current estimated population in excess of 30,000.  The RSPB suggests a breeding population of 8,600 pairs.

Ring-necked Parakeet 5 (scaled)

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) at Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, Essex).

They are great dividers of opinion.  Some bemoan the mess and noise of their winter roosts.  They have an appetite for fruit that has, on occasion, brought them into conflict with growers.  Some naturalists decry their competition with native birds for nest-holes in trees.  On the flip side there is many a Londoner that welcomes the colour they add to the urban wildlife scene; we can be quick to complain about anything that does not fit exactly into our own, uncompromising norm.  As for the competition for nest-sites, while genuine enough, actual adverse effects on the populations of the likes of Jackdaw and woodpeckers are yet (to the best of my knowledge) to be observed – time, in this regard, may tell.

I have seen them on many occasions, not least at their staggering winter roost of several thousand birds at Wormword Scrubs park, but the sound of their distinctive shrieking closer to where I live at Thurrock Thameside Nature Park pricked up my ears and I was pleased to see three of them swoop down to feed on some nut-feeders presumably put out for less exotic visitors.  It did a great deal to brighten a dull December day.

Ring-necked Parakeet 4 (scaled)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 16, 2018

Deep Winter

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Deep Winter

The woods are winter still.

The whole place gripped cold

And wrapped in a day long dusk,

The sky labouring beneath its own weight.

Last night’s hoar has persisted:

Bramble leaves fringed delicately white

And spent bracken fronds

Frosted and curled with cold.

 
But away through the damp-glistened hornbeam,

The rusted ash and incongruous holly

The gloom is centring itself

Around a robin’s beak.

The first notes restrained,

As if testing the air and drawing breath.

Afterwards exhaled in a languid flurry

Of smoothness and viscosity.

 
It seems the summer could hardly

Be further from this place.

Forgotten by a wandering sun,

Shrunken and stifled by winter’s creep.

It has been absorbed into its atoms,

Remembered by its vestiges:

The bird with the spring

On the tip of its tongue.

 

(© Ross Gardner 2018)

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 18, 2018

The element of surprise

One of the greatest compulsions of the natural world is its apparently unending capacity for surprise.  This I was reminded of, very recently, by…… some ducks.

The Mallard is perhaps the most familiar of all British duck.  The Wigeon and Teal perhaps less so, but any who were inclined to take an interest in birds would quite soon become acquainted with them; while breeding populations may be small, both winter around the UK in their hundreds of thousands.  I have watched all three of these species more times than I could remember, yet yesterday I saw a behaviour I had never seen before.

Teal 4 (scaled)

The Teal (Anas crecca) is a common winter visitor to the UK.

At the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes reserve there is a long, open body of water.  At one end it terminates in a sloping bank, not too steep and colonised in the drier part of the year with a weedy growth of plants.  On this occasion it was alive with ducks, of the above-mentioned species.  At any given moment two or three dozen of them could be seen running up the bank, busying themselves amongst the mud around the plants and then waddling just as purposefully back down to the water’s edge to ‘drink’.

This was most intriguing to watch, all these ducks running their perfectly straight lines, up and down from the water and back.  Two theories I have for this behaviour; someone reading this might know for certain.  At first I pondered whether they were taking advantage of a windfall of seeds fallen from the plants growing on the bank, scurrying up to gather a beakful, but requiring a good drink so as to swallow the dry food.  Then I wondered if instead they had discovered an abundance of some invertebrate or other, thriving in the mud at the top of the bank, taking in what they could before returning to the edge to take on water so as to more effectively sieve them from the substrate.  The latter, I think, seems the most likely.

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The fleet at West Canvey Marshes.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 28, 2018

A Wild Rover

So the autumn finally decides to feel a bit more like autumn, arguably taking a temporary swing towards the winter to come. Yet a few days before we were still extolling the virtues of rather more than a mere lingering warmth of a summer already quite distant – all Comma butterflies and dragonflies, bumblebees and even reptiles.

And there was another among this list of warmth loving animals, one that I’m always happy to renew an acquaintance with.  The rather ominously monikered Devil’s Coach-horse is a creature that stands out in the memory as one those that made a particular impression on me as a boy, like the little-finger-sized Emperor Moth caterpillars that inhabited the bramble-filled wasteground near where I lived and Slow-worm that used to frequent the garden.

The Devil’s Coach-horse, for the initiated, is a beetle (Ocypus olens) and a member of the huge family of Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae) with more than 60,000 species world-wide.  The 1000 or so that live in the UK account for around a quarter of the national beetle fauna.  Most are typified by a narrow, elongated body shape and short wings that, unlike other beetles, exposes a greater part of the abdomen.  The Devil’s Coach-horse is no different and at around 3cm long is also our largest species.  They are formidable looking creatures, equipped with powerful jaws with which they doubtlessly terrorise the smaller animals which may happen across their path and on which they feed.

The thing that perhaps really sets them apart and maybe can especially capture the imagination of an impressionable young boy, is the threat display exhibited when alarmed.  The abdomen is curled upwards and forwards scorpion style, as is more than ably demonstrated by the insect I encountered and photographed below.  They of course have no sting and are harmless to humans, but they do have quite an array of deterrents for any would be predators, from fluid issued from the mouth, to noxious chemicals produced by glands on the tip of the abdomen, to the releasing plain old fecal matter from the anus.  These latter qualities I was not aware of as a lad, but I’m sure that especially the last listed would only have served to enhance the appeal of these splendid little beasts.

Ocypus olens (scaled)

Devil’s Coach-horse (Ocypus olens). Copyright 2018 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 23, 2018

Of wind and wonder

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Aust Cliff

A breezy day yesterday at Walton-on-the-Naze put me in mind of some verse I had penned a few years back, for a different place but at the same time of the season.  For both the attraction was the same – the lure of fossils on a beach.  That previous location however, was far from Northeast Essex coast at Walton.  It was the other side of the country in fact, in the lea of the red and grey facade of Aust Cliff, on the banks of the River Severn, in view, pretty much, of the Severn Bridge.  And instead of the Eocene exposure of the crumbling east coast cliff, bearing its hoard of 50 million year old shark teeth and more recent (but still ancient) fossil shells and fragments of whalebone, those western cliffs yield Triassic fossils of much older origins, 200 million years before – shark teeth also, but maybe for very fortunate bone fragments of plesioraurs and ichthyosours.

But while the fossil hunting was not especially successful it was the wind that day which stuck in the memory…

Storm Rising
The wind drums at the cliff-face,
Through bridges, beneath the eaves
Of houses facing the blast.
Rattles the flashing leaves
Of poplars seething with every
Grabbing, grappling gust.
Churns a chocolate sea, breaking
Over wave-smoothed mud
In a foam of creaming surf.
Boomerangs the gulls above,
Throws starlings looping
Over fields of quivering turf.
Tolerates a kestrel hanging
In a precarious hover,
Defying the rush of air.
The wind shuns each feather,
The elements of sea and stone,
Raising its voice to the Earth's ear.

 

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 8, 2018

Raptors

It’s not often you get a five raptor day within a stone’s throw of the South Essex urban sprawl.  This though, was very much the case last weekend.

As I have made mention of more than once within the pages of this blog, amid this spread towns and industry are to be discover considerable stretches of open country.  So it was yesterday that I found myself walking the seawall around the RSPB’s West Canvey Marshes reserve, the remarkable brownfield reserve of Canvey Wick (an entomologists treasure trove in due season) and their adjoining acres.  This all comprises a landscape of grazing land, dykes and ditches, scrub and saltwater creek frontage.  It is an area not unknown by local naturalists as a potential draw of wandering birds of prey, not only raptors, but owls too.

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Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus).

First up was a beautiful female Marsh Harrier, all brown, but for her creamy yellow crown.  She was loafing over the saltmarsh on easy, languid wing-beats, showing only the faintest interest in the Curlew she had spooked beneath her.  Not long after a Buzzard sailed overhead, much to the chagrin of the Carrion Crow paying its close, harrying attention.  I am always impressed by these birds, something which is undiminished by their resurgence of recent years and returning to former, long vacated haunts.  Their occurrence around these part is becoming increasingly regular.

Buzzard - close-up (scaled)

Buzzard (Buteo buteo).

The Peregrine racing over the fields an hour or two later was indeed a treat, perhaps one of the two birds I had seen a few miles eastward a couple of weeks back.  Even before the slate-grey upperparts are clocked, these birds a quite unmistakable; undoubtedly a falcon with all its narrow-winged aerodynamism; undoubtedly a peregrine, emanating that sense of predatory power and robustness.  The recovery of the Peregrine from the pesticide disasters of the mid-20th century is well-known, to the extent that they now inhabit many of the UK’s larger towns and cities, enjoying rich pickings from the thriving populations of city pigeons.  As birds general quite faithful to their breeding areas, there is however, a small proportion of these falcons given to migratory movements and so some of those that haunt the coastal landscapes during the winter may well have their origins in Scandinavian Europe.

The Kestrel, I am pleased to say, have long been a feature of such places, but its presence here today no less a welcome one.  The last of the five though, was perhaps the biggest treat of all.  It was provided by a Merlin fly-by.  These are the smallest falcon, scarcely bigger (if at all) than a Blackbird.  They are hunters of upland realms during the breeding season, dispersing, often to coastal areas for the winter and perhaps joined also by migrants from Northern Europe.

It’s not often that birdwatching pans out quite as conveniently as this, but when it does it is good fortune to be cherished.

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 30, 2018

Shingle

Shingle

My hands are the sea, dug deep

To feel garnered warmth

And the waves clawing at the beach.

Wringing songs from the stones,

Cajoling and coercive,

Gathering voices towards a tumult

Only to recede unfulfilled

In a softly sibilant hush.

The shingle wins and the shingle losses

And small things pick up the pieces.

Chesil beach and The Fleet (scaled)

Chesil Beach, Dorset.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 23, 2018

A Collective Interest

Funny how quite trivial, random occurrences can set the mind thinking along equally unexpected pathways.  In this instance it was the chance noticing in the back of a 1981 edition of the Collins Pocket Dictionary (a book which among others I had rescued from the oblivion of landfill) of a page of collective nouns.  It provided a few minutes enjoyable distraction from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing at the time, enough indeed to write about it here.

Brent Geese on the wing (scaled)

Winter flocks Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) gather in their thousand around the sheltered coasts and estuaries of Britain.

Many in the list were fairly run-of-the-mill; the herds of this and flocks of that.  Others though had clearly, some time in the past, caught the imagination of their observers, leading thoughts toward the pleasingly onomatopoeic and occasionally, it would appear, to a decidedly poetic turn of phrase.  Of the former, a ‘gaggle of geese’ is a very well-known and most apt case in point, as anyone who has listened to the gathering winter flocks of Pink-feet and Brents would no doubt testify; the word gaggle is derived from the Old English gagelen – to cackle.  Others, like ‘a leap of leopards’, ‘a chattering of choughs’ or ‘a pack of hounds’, provide no less descriptive examples.

Of those more poetic turns the ‘charm of goldfinches’ is known by many and as indisputable as the geese above.  With such colourful appearance and sweet, jangling music how could they be regarded as anything other than charming?  There were others on the list however, that demonstrate a similar sense of intimacy possessed by the onlooker that first expressed them.  An ‘exaltation of larks’ requires little explanation given the beautiful, soaring songs of the male birds in spring.  The ‘shrewdness of apes’ puts me very much in mind the Orang-utan I was lucky enough to see in the forests of Borneo last year.  They would often tolerate our inquisitiveness and often not stir from their lofty vantage, looking back at us with a kind of sleepy thoughtfulness.  Yet always, one could sense, they remained quietly alert and harbouring, I dare say, their own thoughts about ourselves.

Orang-utan and baby at Danum (scaled)

Orang-utan mother and young one in the Danum Valley, Borneo.

One of my favourites though is ‘a wisp of snipe’.  A glance at the same dictionary defines a ‘wisp’ variously as “a small bunch or tuft“, or as “something delicate, frail, etc“, things which in their own way describe the demeanour of the birds on some winter marsh, huddling cryptically among the tussocks, or flushed from cover and that small shape arcing upwards into the grey sky and lost from view amid heaving, portentous clouds.

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Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 16, 2018

Still Summer

Black-tailed Godwit flock (scaled)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) gathering on the Essex coast.

But for the subtler signs of the seasonal change in the countryside, yesterday was a day plucked from a week in mid-summer rather than one in mid-September, delightfully warm and full of small, summery life.

The Essex coastal marshes are bearing the slow shift towards autumn, with their steadily growing hordes of birds that will have amassed to impressive quantities come the days of autumn proper; the likes of the Black-tailed Godwit gathered in their hundreds and the Teal scattered already plentifully along the low-tide water of the creek.  Yet a couple of hundred metres inland, among the grassy habitats and the woodland edge, butterflies flitted, maybe not with the intensity and number of a month previous, but all the same in a most pleasing number and diversity.

I was pleasantly surprised by the eight species I saw given the lateness of the season.  Among these were a number of Meadow Brown, somewhat unexpectedly as they rarely seem to fly far into September in these parts.  Less surprising perhaps were the Small Copper, Small Heath and Common Blue, the latter which seem to have enjoyed a particularly good year.  The Speckled Wood could still be seen, patrolling and basking in the lea of the woods or within their pool of light filling a gap in the tree canopy, while another Wall Brown fly by cautiously leads me to hope that this much declined butterfly is, locally at least, enjoying improved fortunes.

Pick of the day though was a certain Clouded Yellow, one in particular from the several that I encountered.  These are migrants to Britain, unable to survive our winters.  This one just seemed to gleam a sharper, brighter, almost lemon-yellow than its nevertheless beautiful fellows that I had seen earlier.

I don’t lament the gathering influence of the autumn as some folk might, but I am still given to cherish whole-heartedly these bonus days of summer

Clouded Yellow 4 (scaled)

A stunning Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus).

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