Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Crow black

It isn't often you see a camouflaged crow.  This one was scavenging on the beach at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.  The black stuff it is standing on is a thin layer of coal which is washed out of the nearby rocks and, being lighter than sand, settles out on top.





To begin at the beginning:

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

Under Milk Wood
Dylan Thomas

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Magnificent Seven


I have been taking more and more notice of the bumblebees in the garden over the last few years and learning to identify them.  Some are relatively straightforward but the black/yellow/white ones are sometimes less easy.  This year for the first time I have been logging them each week for the BTO Garden BirdWatch which passes the data on to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT).  I am delighted to say that I have seen all seven common bumblebee species in the garden during the year.

The first buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) appeared in week 12 (beginning 13th March) and the last were seen in week 40 (beginning 25th September).  This is a queen on apple blossom.

The first tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) also appeared in week 12 and the last in week 39.  This one is a male on geranium.

Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) were seen from week 15 to week 39.  This queen has red pollen on her face to match her tail.

Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) were present from week 15 to week 43 (beginning 16th October) making them the last to disappear.  This one is on apple blossom.

Early bumblebees (Bombus pratorum) were seen from week 17 to week 29 so, although not the earliest to appear they had the shortest season and were first to disappear (hence the name).  The first is a male collecting nectar from Cirsium rivulare, the second is a queen.



Garden bumblebees (Bombus hortorum) flew from week 17 to week 39.  This queen is on grape hyacinth.  As you can see she has a very long tongue.

White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) were the last to appear and flew from week 25 to week 40.  This one is on Inula.

So in my garden the buff-tailed and common carder bees had the longest season at 29 weeks and the early bumblebee the shortest at 13 weeks.

I also saw lots of cuckoo bumblebees in the summer but they are a bit harder (for me) to identify so I am less sure of their flight period.  These could be vestal cuckoo bees (Bombus vestalis) or gypsy cuckoo bees(Bombus bohemicus).

I think this is a male forest cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus sylvestris).

I'll keep a close eye on them all next year and hope to get a bit better at identifying the cuckoo bees.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Bird of the week - Rock pipit


The rock pipit is a shore bird but stays away from the waves, preferring to search around rocks and seaweed for insects to eat.  It is brown with a slightly olive tinge, perhaps more than is shown in these photos.





Because rock pipits like rocky shores it is easy to predict their distribution.  We are at the southern end of their breeding range on the eastern side of the country but some move farther south in winter.


In Thomas Bewick's day the pipits seem to have been classified with larks and he called it the field lark or rock lark.  He included it in his first book A History of British Birds (1797) and not in volume II which dealt with water birds.

I'm pretty sure this is the same bird as our rock pipit as he writes:

The rock pipit is Anthus petrosus.  In French it is Pipit maritime.  You can watch a BTO video on rock pipit identification here.  And listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on rock pipit here.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Black-billed blackbird

This blackbird is a first year male.  His feathers are mostly black but he still has brownish wing feathers.  His bill is black but will turn orange/yellow in the new year.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

More beak deformities

I wrote a post last year about a great spotted woodpecker I saw in the garden with a severe deformity of the lower mandible.  I didn't see it again and I guess it didn't survive.  I have recently noticed two more deformities, both fairly minor.  This great tit in my garden should probably be OK so long as it doesn't get worse.  The upper mandible is elongated and slightly twisted to the right.



A couple of days later I noticed a very similar abnormality in a starling at Blyth.  Like the great tit, it appeared otherwise normal.



I have reported the great tit to the Big Garden Beak Watch, the BTO's survey of beak deformities (the starling isn't eligible as it wasn't in a garden).  In their results the great tit was the fourth most commonly affected bird after rook, blue tit and blackbird.  Starling was sixth after jackdaw.  Their data suggest there might be a geographical cluster of affected cases around Newcastle upon Tyne but numbers aren't big enough to confirm this.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Sleeping queens

It pays to be careful when picking up logs from the woodpile at this time of year.  I turned this one over to find four queen wasps hibernating underneath.

I took photos of the individuals to check on the species (they are all Vespula vulgaris).



One of them started to stir and unfolded its antennae.


Then I noticed it had what looks like the shed exoskeleton of a tiny spider on its head.


I moved them all to a different log pile where they can sleep through until the spring.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Bird of the week - Kestrel


This is a bird we normally see hovering beside the road as we drive past.  Seeing the colours close up makes it such a pity it is so difficult to get close to in the wild.  I love the colour co-ordination of the eyes, nostrils and feet.  Earlier in the year I went on a Birds of Prey photoshoot with Alan Hewitt and Andy Howey and met this male kestrel which is a hand-reared captive bird.  Unfortunately it has a damaged beak and it was harder for Andy to hide the bird's jesses - so it was a less perfect photographic model than the owls but it was still wonderful to be able to see such a beautiful creature.



Andy had a pocketful of (dead) mice to feed the birds with.  Because this is a captive bird it cannot hunt for itself but it certainly knows how to deal with a mouse (I have spared you the gory bits).







Like most of our birds of prey the kestrel is in decline.  It recovered from poisoning by organochlorine pesticides in the 1970s but has done less well in recent years.

The BTO BirdAtlas distribution maps show it is much less abundant in western Scotland, Wales and southwest England.


Thomas Bewick engraved the kestrel for his A History of British Birds (1797).  The name windhover is self-explanatory. Stonegall and stannel are probably corruptions of stand-gale, also describing the bird's ability to hover motionless in the wind.

In the Book of St Albans (1486) the kestrel was the lowest in the hierarchy of birds for falconry, suitable only for knaves and servants.

Our word for the kestrel comes from the French crécerelle (Faucon crécerelle). The kestrel's scientific name is Falco tinnunculus, meaning shrill falcon.  You can listen to the kestrel's call here.  Watch a BTO video on identification of kestrel and merlin here or hobby and kestrel here.  And listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on kestrel here.