Monday, 11 December 2017

Round and round the gooseberry bush

The young sparrowhawk has been back and was playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the blue tits.  When I first spotted him he was again on top of the hedge.

The blue tits were hiding out in the gooseberry bush, in view but out of reach.  The sparrowhawk made an attack to try to flush them out but failed.  He sat and watched them from below.

Another attack and another failure.

Then he tried from above, again without success (I have since moved the water bins to make a more photogenic background).

After sitting on the hedge for a while he flew off to try elsewhere.

The photography is a big (but enjoyable) challenge.  This is in deep shade on the north side of the house and looking through the window.  I have to use a lot of exposure compensation when he is silhouetted on the hedge and take it off when he is on the ground.  I use manual focus when he's under the bush as the autofocus can't cope.  And everything happens so quickly.  I'll try some action shots if I get a chance.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Bird of the week - Willow tit

Willow tits are rare birds so I am very fortunate to be able to see them less than 5 miles from here.  Marsh tits and willow tits are very difficult to distinguish in the field, except by their calls, but these birds were calling to each other constantly, making identification very easy.  They are very engaging little birds and more confident than the blue tits and great tits in the same hedgerow.

When I watch them they usually grab a seed and disappear into the hedge to eat it.  They come back for another very frequently so I wonder if they are caching food in the hedgerow as coals tits do.  Sometimes they stop and eat the seed in full view.

Willow tits are in severe decline and are on the red list and have more or less disappeared from large parts of the south.  Causes for their decline include loss and degradation of habitat, competition from other tits (especially blue tits), and nest predation by great spotted woodpeckers,

They now have this curious distribution across the middle of the UK.

The willow tit is Poecile montanusmontanus meaning of the mountains.  I'm not sure where that came from as it doesn't live in mountains.  Thomas Bewick didn't include the willow tit in his A History of British Birds (1797) - I think it it wasn't identified as a separate species from marsh tit (Poecile palustris) until 1827.  It wasn't recognised in the UK until 70 years later, despite being widespread.  Archibald Thorburn painted blue tit, coal tit, great tit, marsh tit and willow tit about 100 years ago.

You can watch a BTO video on how to tell marsh tit from willow tit here (it's not easy if they are quiet).  Listen to the willow tit's call on the RPSB website here.  Read a review of research into the reasons for the willow tit's decline here. And listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day here.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Terror returns to the kitchen garden

Regular readers of this blog will remember the frequent visits to the garden by a male sparrowhawk last winter which kept me entertained for weeks.  Recently I have seen evidence of kills near the feeders so I knew one was about but haven't see the killer - until first thing this morning.  When I glanced out of the window this juvenile sparrowhawk was sitting on the hedge about 4m away.

When I saw him it was only just light and he was silhouetted against the sky but I managed to move into a better position for the photos.  I was standing at the window but I moved slowly and he didn't seem to see me.  I presume he is a he because of his size (females are larger) but he still has juvenile plumage.  He was constantly alert, scanning all the small birds flying nearby.

He is obviously a good judge of whether prey is within reach and doesn't want to waste energy.  As he sat there, just above the feeder, blue tits and other small birds were flying in to the feeder and diving into the gooseberry bushes when they saw the danger.  I could count 10 blue tits and two great tits trapped in the bushes, with the sparrowhawk less than 2m above them.

At one stage he made a strike but was unsuccessful and returned to the hedge.  After a few minutes he flew to the fence across the garden but was having difficulty keeping his balance in the strong gusty wind and eventually flew off to try his luck elsewhere.  I hope he'll be back.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Wagtails skating on thin ice

We have had a few cold nights recently with frost and ice on puddles.  On a cold afternoon I noticed this pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) hunting on the ice.

It is a pity I didn't shoot a video as it was struggling to keep its feet.

Then I noticed a grey wagtail (Motacilla) a metre away on the ice.

It was also slip slidin' away, as Paul Simon would say.

I was surprised there was anything there for them to eat.

But then the grey wagtail found an enormous caterpillar.  Quite what that was doing in the ice I don't know.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Bird of the week - Coal tit

The coal tit (Periparus alter) is the smallest of the three common tits seen in gardens and is much the fastest moving.

Life is tough for small birds such as these at this time of year.  Coal tits spend much of the day searching for food while looking out for danger.  They go around in mixed flocks with blue tits and long-tailed tits as there is safety in numbers. Being small they are low in the pecking order at feeders so they grab a seed and eat it in a nearby bush or tree and they also cache food for harder times.  Energy balance is critical and they will sit on the sunny side of a tree (when the sun is out) and on the leeward side when it is windy.  Read more about small birds' adaptation to winter here.

Coal tits usually pair for life but older males are prone to cheat on their partners and father chicks by other females.  It may be that the females prefer more mature males (seems sensible!) as they may have better genes for longer survival.  See here.

Coal tits are widespread in the British Isles.

Coal tits' preferred habitat is conifer woodland.  This BTO Garden BirdWatch graph shows that they are most likely to be found in gardens at this time of year.

Because they dash to and from the feeders so quickly it is difficult to tell how many there are in the garden but my impression is that I see more now than there were several years ago. The Garden BirdWatch data bear this out.  There are also more of them in gardens in years with smaller conifer seed crops.

Thomas Bewick didn't have much to say about the coal tit in A History of British Birds (1797).  This is his whole entry. He usually wrote at greater length about birds that were good to eat.

Archibald Thorburn painted a coal tit with a great tit.

You can listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day here.  You can watch an old BBC Springwatch video with Bill Oddie and Kate Humble talking about coal tit chicks fledging here.