Saturday, 30 April 2016

Bird of the Week - Common snipe

I was lucky to see a snipe showing off its beautiful camouflage in Gosforth Park Nature Reserve this week.

The snipe (Gallinago gallinago) is a shy bird and is not often seen on the ground.  At this time of year it is performing its territorial display, flying fast across the sky and diving with its side tail feathers stuck out to produce a low-pitched throbbing sound known as drumming - some people think it sounds like a goat bleating.  Here is a pencil sketch of a snipe drumming by the famous Scottish artist Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935).

Snipes are not common and their numbers declined dramatically between 1975 and 1995, mainly due to loss of habitat.

The breeding population is mostly confined to upland and wetland areas.

This is boosted by a larger number of winter visitors.

The snipe is a blackbird-sized wader and was (and is) hunted for sport.  A "snipe hunt" is a fool's errand or imposed wild goose chase.  Because they are small and secretive and fly at high speed snipes are challenging targets for marksmen, which how we got the term "sniper" for a sharpshooter shooting from cover.  This is Thomas Bewick's snipe shooter.

Bewick also called the common snipe "the snite" and "the heather-bleater".  He wrote in A History of British Birds in 1797 "... when undisturbed, the Snipe walks leisurely, with its head erect, and at short intervals keeps moving the tail. But in this state of tranquility it is very rarely to be seen, as it is extremely watchful, and perceives the sportsman or his dog at a great distance, and instantly conceals itself among the variegated withered herbage, so similar in appearance to its own plumage, that it is almost impossible to discover it while squatted motionless in its seat: it seldom, however, waits the near approach of any person, particularly in open weather, but commonly springs, and takes flight at a distance beyond the gun.  When first disturbed, it utters a kind of feeble whistle, and generally flies against the wind, turning nimbly in a zigzag direction for two or three hundred paces, and sometimes soaring out of sight; its note is then something like the bleating of a goat, but this is changed to a singular humming or drumming noise, uttered in its descent.*
From its vigilance and manner of flying, it is one of the most difficult birds to shoot.  Some sportsmen can imitate their cries, and by that means draw them within reach of their shot;  others,of a less honourable description, prefer the more certain and less laborious method of catching them in the night by a springe like that which is used for the Woodcock.".
* From this comment I presume Bewick thought the drumming was a call rather than a non-vocal sound.

He also wrote "The Snipe is a very fat bird, but its fat does not cloy, and very rarely disagrees with even the weakest stomach.  It is much esteemed as a delicious and well flavoured dish, and is cooked in the same manner as the Woodcock".

You can listen to a recording of the drumming here and to Kate Humble's BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on snipe here.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Mallard ducklings

There were fourteen to start with but now they are down to five.

I hope these five make it.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Not so fast

While looking for adders last week I came across a slow worm deep in the hedge.

At first it wasn't easy to get a good view but then the slow worm changed its position slightly.

Then I found another one a few metres away.  The slow worm lost its legs as it evolved from a lizard ancestor but this one had also lost its tail (caudal autotomy), probably making it a very slow worm.

Monday, 25 April 2016

The buffish mining bee

I made my first visit of the season the Spetchells, the chalk mound near Prudhoe, Northumberland, to see the bees. When I arrived there were thousands of bees on the wing, nearly all males and nearly all buffish mining bees (Andrena nigroaenea).  Many were simply hanging around waiting for the females to emerge.

Here is a male resting on a lump of chalk.

Mining bees are solitary bees and each female digs a nest in hole in the ground, leaving a small volcano of chalk.

The female buffish mining bee is slightly larger than the male and is about the size of a honey bee.  A few females had emerged and started digging.

Mating in these bees is a rather frantic and ungentlemanly affair.  The female is jumped on by half a dozen or more males and there is a frantic scrum of bee bodies.

It was all rather too much for this chap who had to take a sip of nectar.

The next three photos show the comparison between a male on the left and a female on the right.

I'll be back there soon to see the females bringing pollen back to their nests and to watch the cuckoo bees sneaking into the nests while the owners are away.  One interesting observation - the hairy-footed flower bees I wrote about last week make a loud buzz as they fly but these mining bees' flight is silent.   This number of honey bees around a hive would make a lot of noise.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Bird of the week - Common crossbill

Here is a bird I had never seen until this morning, the (rarely seen) common crossbill.  The female is a beautiful metallic olive green and has an unmistakable bill.

The male is even more glorious, brightening up a cold gloomy morning.  Both birds were drinking from a muddy puddle but no less exciting to see for all that.  Many thanks to Phil and Denise for the tip off.

The common crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is the only crossbill occurring in England; the Scottish and parrot crossbills are confined to Scotland (in the UK).  The last two have even deeper and stronger beaks.  These photos show the female's beak in more detail.  You can see her upper mandible curves to the right, whereas the male above has his upper mandible curving to the left.  Left-crossing and right-crossing morphs occur equally but the genetic basis for their occurrence has not yet been worked out.

The crossbill is a bird of conifer forests and it uses its bill to extract seeds from cones.  The maps show its distribution in the UK and in Europe.

Listen to Sir David Attenborough's BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on the crossbill here.

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Close Shave

This drama unfolded on a cob wall which is home to many hairy-footed flower bees.  A male bee became entangled in a cobweb and was attacked by a spider.

A male bee has no sting and has only his jaws with which to defend himself from the (presumably venomous) bite of the spider.  I am normally non-interventionist in this type of situation but because my mother was there I had to rescue the bee.

He looked a bit bedraggled but agreed to pose for a few photos while he got his breath back.

I thought the bee might have been seriously bitten by the spider but after he had got rid of some of the cobwebs he flew off a few minutes later, apparently none the worse for his adventure.

Having written a blog post called A Close Shave I am now wondering how I can use A Grand Day Out and The Wrong Trousers.  Watch this space.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Snakes alive!

I haven't seen an adder for years.  Finding one has been on my list of things to do for the last two or three years but several expeditions to find an adder have been unsuccessful.  On Sunday my luck changed.  The forecast was good - cold but sunny - and I found nine (!) adders within 400m.  More than I have seen before in my lifetime.  The first was a female, out early to bask in the sun.

As she moved slowly along the bank she gave good views of her tongue as she smelt the air and of the nasal pit (which looks like a nostril)  which senses infrared radiation and helps in detection of prey.

I could also see the V on her head and the zigzag pattern along her back.

The next one I found was a large male.

He was a bit shy and kept his head in the grass.

Here is another female.

Then I found two females intertwined.

Lastly a smaller male deep in the hedge.

I also found a snakeskin, something I haven't seen for many many years. 

What a day!