Saturday, 31 January 2015

Bird of the week - Bittern

I reckon to see at least one of the bitterns on most winter visits to the Pearce hide in Gosforth Park.  Often it is a brief view as the bird flies from one reed bed to another but sometimes it comes out into the sunshine for a few moments.  It pays to look closely at the reeds as the camouflage is amazingly effective.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Very Hungry Hedgehog

So what do hedgehogs like to eat?  Since I first became aware a couple of weeks ago that the hedgehog wasn't hibernating she has been back every night, despite the freezing weather.  She was originally eating apples put out for the blackbirds but was immediately more interested in the food I put out for her.  Offered a choice of peanuts, sultanas, cat biscuits and mealworms she would take at least half the dishful, eating most of the peanuts and some sultanas and mealworms.  She didn't think much of the cat biscuits.

The clock in the camera showed that she first arrived between 8 and 9 pm and usually returned at around 2 in the morning. 

She also drinks a surprising amount of water.

The left over peanuts etc. also attracted other visitors.

More recently I put out some dog food and that is what this hedgehog likes best.  She eats a whole dishful every night and even tips up the dish to lick it clean.

I started by giving her half a pack, 75g, thinking it would be plenty, but I noticed on the video that she kept returning to the empty dish looking for more.

So I put out a bigger dish with a whole pack of 150g and she easily eats it all in one go - in less than an hour.  If she weighs say, 800g, she is eating around 20% of her body weight in one sitting.  That's over 1kg a week.  We'll be OK until the fox realises what we're up to.

Here is another short video.  I think the videos probably won't play on iPads (and perhaps iPhones) but should be OK on everything else.  It is difficult to believe that much food would fit inside the hedgehog.


Monday, 26 January 2015

What's in a name?

Since Christmas I have been reading a wonderful biography of Thomas Bewick (Nature's Engraver by Jenny Uglow). The book and Rusty Burlew's discussion of the names we give to bees set me wondering about the names of birds. Rusty argues convincingly that bee names should be two words - as in honey bee, leafcutter bee, etc because they are all bees - and she prefers bumble bee to bumblebee because it is also a bee.  However, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Institute all use bumblebee.

There seem to me to be similar inconsistencies in bird names.  For example we use sparrowhawk but honey buzzard. Chaucer used spar-hawk, Tennyson wrote about the sparhawk in Sir Launcelot and QueenGuinevere and Bewick made a woodcut of a sparrow-hawk.

We write stock dove but woodpigeon.  (The BTO and RSPB both write woodpigeon but the Collins Guide and Wikipedia use wood pigeon.)  We write blue tit but blackbird, although Bewick called it a black ouzel.

All authorities write shore lark but skylark

and shelduck but ruddy duck, etc.

All the finches are one word (gold, green, bull, haw, and so on)

but all the buntings are two (reed, snow, corn, etc).

I'm not sure it matters all that much and I expect most of the inconsistencies arise from common usage.  If you want to read more about this subject you can see what the International Ornithological Committee has to say about it here. Even it doesn't have all the answers.

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

What's the diagnosis?

This rather dishevelled great tit has been around in the garden since the end of last year.  It flies without difficulty and behaves and feeds normally yet you can see it has missing feathers from the nape of its neck, disordered body feathers, discoloured wing feathers and distorted and discoloured tail feathers.  These photos were taken on 2nd January but I have seen it in the garden several times today.  It still behaves normally and looks the same as this although I didn't get follow up photos.

My first thought was that it had escaped from a predator but it has no sign of injury.  I think it must have some disease or infection to affect its feathers and I guess it must be fairly long standing, given the feather deformity and discolouration.  I didn’t get far finding the answer online.  If you google “damaged tail feathers” all you find is loads of stuff from budgie and cockatiel breeders!

I feel for this bird because this is how I look most of the time.  If you have any idea what it is please leave a comment.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Bird of the week - Yellowhammer

The yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) is a popular and easily recognised bird.  It has been suggested that its song was the inspiration for the opening notes of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto and/or fifth symphony.

It seems surprising now that yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s to help control insect pests on cereal crops.  It was recognised too late that they prefer eating cereals rather than insects!  Read the full story here or the original paper here. How the yellowhammer became a kiwi.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Nest boxes

Last year there were 17 nest boxes in the garden and this past week I have been cleaning them out and refurbishing a few. All except a camera box (a subject for a later post) are home made.  Six contained tree sparrow nests.  They included two on electricity poles in the kitchen garden.  This is one showing how full the box is by the end of the season.  The nest contained lots of feathers and produced at least two and possibly three broods.

I also made a terrace of three boxes for the tree sparrows and it was a success, although I am not sure the nest on the right was complete - it was certainly smaller.

The box below has a different design but tree sparrows used it as well.  These were also keen on using feathers and I saw the birds dashing out to collect them just after a pigeon had been killed by a sparrowhawk.

Three boxes contained blue tit nests which are mainly made of moss and don't fill the box as much.

Many of the boxes with holes have a 25, 28 or 32mm plate to protect the entrance.  I also have some open fronted boxes and the challenge is to protect them from magpies.  Below is one design with a grill made of plastic clematis netting.  It contained a nest (I don't know which birds were in it) but that isn't proof they survived the magpies.

This is an alternative design.  It is low down at the base of a fence and partly hidden by ivy.  The entrance is through the diagonal hole top right and I have removed the lower panel to show the nest.  This was all made of moss but I didn't see which birds were in it.  I reckon this is pretty magpie-proof.

Overall 13 of 17 nest boxes were occupied - 6 by tree sparrows, 3 by blue tits and 4 unknown.  There were also crows nesting in a tall horse chestnut tree, starlings in tree holes, blackbirds in the hedge and I'm sure many other nests as well.  I'm busy making a few more boxes.  News of how they fare this year will follow later.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Bird of the week - Blackbird

This really is the early bird that catches the worm.  It was the earliest arriving garden bird in the BTO Shortest Day Survey of 10 years ago (see here) and the BTO Early Bird Survey of a year ago (although I can't find the official results of this one on line).

There have been a lot more blackbirds in my garden since the New Year - a dozen or more at a time.  The local population will have been boosted by migrants from Europe and they are probably now moving into the garden because they have eaten most of the berries in the hedgerows.  This is confirmed by UK data from the BTO Garden BirdWatch which shows the increase in reporting of blackbirds in gardens after the autumn trough.
Blackbirds are also driven into gardens by cold weather (see here) so I may have even more next week.

To see the latest BTO BirdTrends data on long term population trends for blackbirds click here.