Tag Archives: female

A Twitch to Flamborough

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Sunday, August 28, 1988
The sea again. Its magic lure drags Steve, Alan, Paul and me off to seawatch, anywhere on the East Coast where, according to the weather forecasts, the wind should be suitable for our porpoise (as the spell check suggested). We decide to go to some place where we can seawatch but where there is also another specific bird to look for. In that case, we must head for Flamborough where there have been reports of a Desert Wheatear although there are no details to hand of either its exact location or its plumage. We arrive at about 8.30 a.m. and there is a lovely light foggy drizzle drifting around the cliff tops. Not too pleasant for the birdwatchers but brilliant for keeping down any lost little vagrant passerine.

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There are other birdwatchers around, all looking for the relevant little bird. We find a somewhat peculiar female wheatear within half an hour, and then another, and another. We soon realise that all female wheatear are somewhat peculiar. None of them seem to have a consistent set of plumage features that they have in common with all the other female wheatears.

northern 3ccccccccc

Nothing for it. We set off down to the lighthouse for a sea watch. Same old place as ever – we set up our telescopes on the slope below the main cliff edge and start watching. No sign of Flamborough’s most famous birdwatcher, its very own “Mr.Sea Watch”, Brett Richards.

twitcher6

There are some Arctic Skuas moving through and we are able to study their piratical antics in some detail. After about ten minutes I see one all dark bird flying steadily and heavily northwards. Then it seems to remember its error and sweeps back around in a huge arc. Then it starts flying around in very large circles as if it is by now completely confused. On the other hand, it could be some vaguely half remembered display flight of some sort.

Pomarine Skua 4vvvvvvvvv

Whatever the case, it finally stops its circling, makes a half-hearted attempt to harry a Kittiwake and then heads off out to sea. We all pick the bird up and we all agree that at long last, we’ve seen a Pomarine Skua. It’s bigger than all the Arctic Skuas and it’s obviously not a Great Skua. Its flight is heavier than an Arctic and its behaviour is completely different. Every Arctic we have seen today has been energetically and enthusiastically chasing Kittiwakes in a most agile and nimble way. They are all darting, lightly built birds that at no point have shown the slightest inclination to soar or circle like some marine Common Buzzard.
Ten minutes later I find another large and heavy skua but this time, it’s down on the water. Again, its structure is much more solid than the Arctics, its bill is more substantial, its body weightier, and it even has what may well be rudimentary spoons sticking up into the air at the back end.

pom on seacccccc

We watch it for a good twenty minutes as it cruises around, well separate from the rest of the birds on the water. We are all satisfied that it is a first winter dark phase Pomarine Skua.
If we think we’ve had a difficult time of it with bird identification so far, then we are sadly mistaken. In the next half hour or so, we’re going to get into very deep water indeed and I don’t mean falling off the cliff.
We still have the best part of a sunny afternoon left so we decide to walk slowly round to see what we can turn up in the way of migrants. It’s really rather pleasant. A nice day, a blue sky and the hope that more or less anything might be out there for us to find it. We turn up any number of Northern Wheatears, both male and female and a Short-eared Owl, that looks very pale and which we try very determinedly to turn into a Barn Owl, but without any success, because in the final analysis, we just can’t ignore those dark carpal patches. We stop at the top of the cliffs, a little way south of the lighthouse at a point about fifty feet or so above the sea. There are lots and lots of wheatears here, flitting around, most of them near some kind of ruined wooden landing stage.

northrbqqqqqqqqqq

Alan soon spots what he thinks is a funny wheatear and we all set up scopes to examine it more closely. The first and most obvious feature about it is that its eye stripe is not as fully developed as the other birds. It seems to be more buffy, even russetty, in colour and seems to begin further back on the head, almost behind the eye itself.

desert 2ccccccc

The bird, a female, is obviously tired and is harried and picked on by all the other birds. Nevertheless it keeps returning to the landing stage steps and eventually begins to preen. That’s when we realise two interesting things about the bird. Firstly, its tail, as far as we can see, is completely black and although it has a smallish area of white in the top two corners, this is really no more than a slight curvature of the line between the white rump and the black tail. It is completely different from the T-shaped pattern that we have been looking at all day, more or less, on all the other Wheatears. Indeed, we’ve even noticed that with every Northern Wheatear that we’ve seen, this T-shaped pattern may even be visible when the bird is at rest. Not the case with this bird.

Desert-Wheatear-0bbbbbbbbb

The second feature, and for me, the one that clinches it as a female Desert Wheatear, is the fact that as the bird lifts its wing to preen, it reveals a snowy white underwing which is absolutely and totally white, except for a darker line on what must be the trailing edge. For weeks after this I look at Northern Wheatears and cannot find a single one, either in real life or in photographs, that comes even close to our mystery bird in the whiteness of this underwing. There is not a hint of brown or buff, just a brilliant white like a patch of bright fresh snow.
This bird, however, is not terrifically distinctive except for these two features and the eye stripe. This differs slightly from the Northern Wheatear but, in truth, if there is supposed to be a major difference in basic plumage, then there just isn’t one. It is perhaps a little peachier in colour but is not really fundamentally different from the Northern Wheatears that continue to chase and harry it. It is at this point that our problems start, because, as I later suspect, the mystery bird flies off without our noticing it, perhaps because the cliff is overhanging at this point and there is a vast area underneath it that we cannot see. It is certainly impossible to see the comings and goings of every single bird.

norethern flight ccccc

A few seconds later, a Wheatear of indeterminate species comes to perch on the landing stage, just as our bird has on several occasions in the past few minutes. A small crowd of some ten or twelve  birdwatchers has by now assembled, all trying to see whatever we’re looking at but apparently too shy just to ask us. We lead them to believe that this is the mystery bird even though we have not yet seen either its tail or underwing to confirm this. When the bird flies away, of course, it has the T-shaped pattern of an ordinary Northern Wheatear and this leads a high percentage of the new onlookers to think that we are a bunch of complete village idiots. Well, we are, but on the other hand, I know what I saw. And yes, I am more than a little put off by the episode at the end when I was fooled by the Northern Wheatear on the landing stage, but Steve soon calms me down.  He makes the valid point that whatever has happened subsequently, we did all four of us see a female Wheatear with an all-black tail, and an all-white underwing, whatever antics the bird got up to afterwards and whatever skilfully designed imposter came along its place. And surely even the most aberrant of birds could not have two diagnostic features of another species? That discovery would knock the Rarities’ Committee back a bit.
The whole appalling business does have its funny side however, because as soon as the assembled group of eight or ten becomes fifteen or twenty, this is easily a big enough crowd, particularly here at tight-lipped rare-bird-suppressing Flamborough, to attract an even greater number of birdwatchers. Very quickly, we have seventy or so people, all looking downwards with great deliberation.

Somebody on duty in the lighthouse then presumably thinks that one of us has had an accident and perhaps somebody has fallen off the cliff. Perhaps we are all looking at a corpse floating past. Whatever the case, it doesn’t take the RAF Rescue helicopter very long to get here and it soon arrives, a huge  deafening yellow whale that hangs, hovering loudly, about twenty yards from the cliff edge. I can’t really believe it’s here for an unconfirmed report of a female Desert Wheatear. News cannot possibly travel that fast. On the other hand, it would be really tremendous if that were the case and he could use the loudhailer – the electronic equivalent of Kevin’s voice:

“Hey, you on the cliff – yes – you – you on the left – in the green – yes – stop harassing that bird – return to your homes – and by the way, do you know they what they’ve had at Spurn?”

Rescue-Helicoptercccccccccc

Our final gesture is a last bit of seawatching as we give up hope that our Desert Wheatear will return to its original spot and we soon get a superb bit of unusual bird behaviour.

Guillemot06cccccc

It’s a Guillemot that is performing some bizarre sort of preening ceremony that seems to consist solely of the bird lying flat on its back in the water, with only its beak and its little legs sticking out above the surface. It remains motionless for minutes on end so that it looks just like a man bathing in the Dead Sea or a gigantic dead fly floating around in the bath. A strange end to a puzzling day.

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Filed under Aviation, Humour, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

The five golden double entendres of buying a bird table

You might not think so, but this is a good time to be buying a bird table. It will give the birds plenty of time to get used to the presence of this new garden furniture, and with a little bit of luck, they might even start coming to the table fairly quickly. At the moment, for example, there are lots of recently fledged baby birds who could all do with a little help to find food.
For me, the most basic thing to buy is a free standing weighted block in which to insert the framework which will eventually hold your food dispensers.
This is the type of thing I mean…..
41oKJ7McgdLThe top is like this….
feeding station
Our bird table looks like this….
A1
There are three metal bird feeders…
A2
The leftmost one encourages them to nibble nuts…


They love the middle one, which contains a pretty revolting block made of suet and either insects or mealworms.

 

A6

The tiniest birds, like baby Long-tailed Tits, can even manage to get inside two layers of anti-squirrel proofing!
A8

On the right is a dispenser which allows birds to take away sunflower seeds.

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In time, the birds will get used to it, and your bird table will attract lots and lots of them. At the moment, it is almost totally baby birds, who can make up for this summer’s apparent lack of insects by snacking on the food we provide. So far, we have helped out Great Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits. In winter, there are many other species which turn up, such as Dunnocks, Chaffinches, the increasingly rare House Sparrow and the showy Siskin.

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If you want some extra variety, there is a fabulous bird table webcam, at the Cornell Institute in Ithaca, New York State. Every single bird here is different from ours, except, of course, the ubiquitous Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Your biggest enemy for a bird table anywhere in England is the pesky Grey Squirrel, but half an hour watching the Ithaca website at the moment will show that we in Nottingham are not the only ones with difficulties. The real problem is that what you think is just one Grey Squirrel is, in fact, two, the male and the female, but you, as a mere human being, cannot necessarily tell the difference. At the moment, the youngsters are slightly browner, but even then, there might well be five separate ones which you think is just one very fast moving individual!
So make sure that anything you buy is squirrel proof. They might be more expensive, but given that squirrels will not just eat bird food on the spot, but will also take it away to store for the winter, in the long run you might actually save money, as you avoid two or three kilos going missing every single day.
We bought all the different bits for our bird table from Amazon Marketplace. That is, of course, not the only place where you can purchase bird tables, but in my opinion, you would certainly be better to avoid garden centres, to avoid wood and to go for metal, and, above all, never ever to have a bird table with a nest box attached.
Above all, remember the five golden double entendres of bird table purchasing…

Firstly, you will need a very big, heavy, bottom.

And an impressive top to hang your feeders on

Hang your nuts where the squirrels can’t get at them.

Don’t let your suet blocks get nibbled either.
.
And finally, don’t  let your seed spill on the floor.

All of the above feeders are, in my experience, squirrel proof, although in July and August, smaller adolescents can get through the bars to feed, but, because they grow fairly quickly, this will not last for ever.
Don’t frighten them too much! A young squirrel dead from sheer fear will not be easy to get out of the feeder, and, from a moral standpoint, it’s not really very Dalai Lama.
Initially the expense of feeding the birds, and not the squirrels, can be rather high. It is reminiscent of when, in Monty Python, Michael Ellis goes to the pet shop to buy a pet ant….

“Is there anything I’ll need with my ant?”

“Yes, sir – you’ll need an ant house. This is the model we recommend, sir. And then you will need some pieces of cage furniture which will keep him entertained. Here’s an ant-wheel, an ant-swing, and a very nice little ladder. He can run up there and ring the bell at the top, that’s a little trick he can learn.

Here’s a two-way radio he can play with… and of course you’ll need the book. So, sir, that is, if I may say so, one hundred and eighty-four pounds twelve pence, sir.”

On the other hand, if you set up your metal fortified bird table a few yards from your panoramic dining room window, you will be able to watch the comings and goings of the birds, and relieve the stresses and strains of the day for the rest of your life, even if your camera is showing its age, the curtains cast a reflection, the sun is in the wrong place, all the usual excuses….


The bird above is a blue tit.


These are great, blue, and coal tits.

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Filed under My Garden, Nottingham, Wildlife and Nature