Rutland Water(birds)

On Saturday I was very pleased to be going to Birdfair. Birdfair is the bird enthusiast’s event of the year, taking place at Rutland Water: one of the best birding sites in the Midlands. It was great to meet many new people from the birding community and attend some nice talks and events, however the highlight for me was seeing many amazing birds in the nature reserve.

In the morning, just before lunch, I was able to go to Swarovski tower. The Swarovski tower is where people can go to try out the Swarovski telescopes and it is located in an excellent position overlooking the nature reserve. The telescopes were perfectly positioned; when I looked through the first scope I was amazed to see a pair of Great White Egrets! These are huge white herons which aren’t common in Britain although they have been increasing in numbers. I had only seen 1 before this, read about that one here, so I was very pleased.

The next scope I looked through held another surprise: an Osprey perched on a fence post in the water! Along with the Great White Egret, I had only seen one other Osprey before this one. And my first one was seen flying while travelling along the M23, so these were much better views by comparison! 8 pairs of Ospreys bred at Rutland Water last year, which is a great number considering that they first started breeding here in 2001. Rutland Water is one of the few sites in England where Ospreys breed, with a few pairs breeding in Wales and the main stronghold being in Scotland. You can tell that the Osprey I saw was a male due to the lack of a heavily marked breast band.

I am quite happy with these two photos even though they were taken through the Swarovski telescopes without any digiscoping equipment.

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The pair of Great White Egrets

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The male Osprey. Unfortunately the lack of a breast band can’t be seen in this photo.

Just after lunch I met up with other young birders and naturalists for a walk around the nature reserve, visiting several hides. The first hide we visited was Sandpiper hide. Plover hide overlooks Lagoon 4 which has several scrapes and lots of open water. On the nearest scrape to the hide there were several waders: 2 Lapwings, 2 Common Sandpipers and a single Little Ringed Plover. On the opposite side of the lagoon to the hide was a flock of Great Black-backed Gulls, the largest number I’ve ever seen together. You don’t often see such large aggregations inland at this time of year, however Rutland Water being such a large water body I wasn’t too surprised. Great-black Backed Gulls are one of the more coastal of the large gulls, only really venturing inland during the non-breeding season. The population swells in winter with many tens of thousands of gulls joining the British population. Especially large numbers are found around landfill sites and in roosts at reservoirs.

My favourite hide was Shoveler hide, it was packed with great birds! Living quite far inland, I don’t regularly get the chance to see good numbers of waders. However, at Shoveler hide I had the best views of waders I have had for a very long time! There was a small area of exposed mud right in front of the hide where there were several Greenshanks and Ruffs. Unfortunately the Greenshanks were obscured most of the time by reeds. However the Ruffs moved further away and into the open water where I could watch them clearly. There were also 2 or 3 Black-tailed Godwits feeding, one of the larger wading birds with very long straight bills. About 15 metres away from the hide was the first scrape. There were an impressive number of Green Sandpipers: a group of 5 were sheltering from the wind behind two small metal tanks. Further to the left someone spotted a Wood Sandpiper, one of the species I really wanted to see.

Wood Sandpipers are mainly passage migrants to Britain, meaning that they pass through on migration. A handful of pairs do breed here, however only in the Scottish Highlands. One of the conservation practices taking place to try and boost the breeding population of this bird in Scotland is the re-flooding of previously drained marshes. Wood Sandpipers are very similar to Green Sandpipers although there are several features that can tell them apart. In Green Sandpipers, the brown neck and upper breast ends abruptly and becomes white whereas in the Wood Sandpiper the brown slowly dissipates into the white belly. Also, Wood Sandpipers show many more white spots on the back than Green Sandpiper. The main feature that I use to separate the two species is the eyestripe. The eyestripe in the Wood Sandpiper clearly projects past the eye, however in the Green Sandpiper the white eyestripe is only visible between the bill and the eye.

Below are a few photos I was able to take of the waders at Shoveler hide, again I am quite pleased with them as this time they were only taken through my binoculars!

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A trio of Ruff feeding.

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Wood Sandpiper. In this photo the eyestripe behind the eye is obvious.

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Black-tailed Godwit

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A single Ruff

Once we had made sure there weren’t any real rarities hiding among the waders near to the hide, we switched our attention to the birds beyond the first scrape. There was a plethora of wildfowl: Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Canada Geese, Greylag Geese and even a pair of Egyptian Geese sat on a metal tank. Amazingly, one of the other young birders managed to spot a distant Marsh Harrier floating above the reeds on the other side of the lagoon before dropping down. It was chocolaty-brown with a cream-coloured cap, meaning that it was a female or a juvenile. Rutland Water has a breeding population of these beautiful birds and some birds also pass through in autumn. It was hard to tell whether this bird was a Rutland Water breeder or a passage migrant because at this stage many different bird species have begun their southward migration although some are still raising their second brood.

Also well-spotted was a group of 4 Red-crested Pochards far out into the lagoon which quickly moved out of sight behind the reeds. Unlike the Marsh Harrier, we couldn’t sex the birds as males resemble females very closely at this time of year as they are moulting. This plumage is called eclipse plumage and can cause identification problems for many birders as males usually look completely different to what they look like for most of the year. These Red-crested Pochards were a new species for me, although I can’t wait to see more again as I would really like to see the males in breeding plumage.

That sums up my account of the young birders walk at BirdFair 2016, I can’t wait for next BirdFair!

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Some of the Young Birders. From left to right – Sophie, Me, Noah, Toby, Eleanor, Ben, Zach, Fin, Ellis, Luke, Harry, Frank, Sam and Jacob.

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It’s Popping Hot

Some people find plants boring. However, they are very clever. How can a plant be clever? Through evolution, plants have developed many fascinating ways to survive and thrive.

The key to a plant’s success is largely in the seed dispersal technique. Without a way to disperse seeds, plants would not be able to colonise new suitable habitat and spread. Therefore plants have learnt to be ingenious in their methods of ensuring the future of generations to come.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking through my local farm when I heard a few pops coming from the vegetation beside the path. At first I thought they were the calls of a grasshopper or a cricket, but definitely not a species I had heard before. I stopped and waited to see if I could hear anymore. I did, and this time I thought they sounded like click beetles, but why would so many be clicking at the same time? I was puzzled by this strange sound until, accompanied by a pop, I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked closer to where the movement had come from but I couldn’t see anything that I thought could have made the sound, just a patch of vetch. Then I realised that the sound was coming from the vetch itself!

Vetches are plants related to peas, they have pods like peas although usually much smaller. The pods begin green, the same colour as the leaves, and then as they mature they turn darker until they are brown. Plants in the pea family often have pods that pop, which is advantageous to the plant as it is a great method of seed dispersal. This method ensures the seed is enough distance away from the parent plant to prevent overcrowding.

Before I witnessed the popping of the seed pods yesterday I had no idea how it actually worked. How did the pods pop? I have done a bit of research and what I found out was fascinating. On hot days like yesterday the seed pods dry out, aided by the dark colour of the mature pods in some species which absorb heat. During the drying process forces build up inside the pod until it reaches a point when the pod explodes. In most pods there are two lines of weakness running along the pod, and it is here where the tensions which are set up in the wall of the pod cause the pod to explode. Similar to when a pulled spring is let back, the two halves of the pod curl back at lightning speed which flicks the seeds out of the pod!

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These two pods are still green and have not dried enough to pop.

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Two seed pods which are ready to pop! They have dried in the hot weather and turned brown.

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Two freshly-popped seed pods, showing the two halves of the pod

 

Yaffle

This morning I found myself at the wonderful Knepp Estate once again, for another session of bird ringing. I ringed less birds than last week although it was really interesting as there was a more diverse range of species.

The highlight of the morning bird-wise was catching a Green Woodpecker. This is the largest bird the group has caught when I’ve been there and really fascinating to see up close. When it’s in the hand there is so much that you miss when you watch it from much further away through binoculars.

For instance, one thing that we noticed was the tail, it was very strange. The tail feathers are adapted in woodpeckers as they are very stiff. This helps them when they are holding on to the trunk of a tree and they use it as a prop.

The main diet of the Green Woodpecker is made up of ants. They spend much more time on the ground compared to the other woodpeckers in the UK, the Lesser Spotted and the Greater Spotted Woodpeckers. They can often be seen on the ground on lawns, in parks and in other open spaces, hammering into ant nests and using their incredibly long tongue to hoover up the ants.

The open area amongst the scrub at Knepp is perfect for Green Woodpeckers as there are loads of ants nests. We often came across the poo of Green Woodpeckers, which is really distinctive. It is medium sized for a bird poo and easily identifiable by its appearance of cigarette ash. What’s really fascinating is that you can see the remains of ants when you break them open.

Despite having a large bill, it’s relatively weak compared to the two other woodpeckers. This is because as they spend more time on the ground, they don’t knock on wood as often. To construct their nests they chisel at soft wood and they rarely drum. Instead of drumming they have a very loud and distinctive call, which has earned them the English folk name of ‘Yaffle’.

They have very interesting breeding behaviour. Green Woodpeckers often pair for life, although they don’t socialise outside of the breeding season. They re-establish their bond in the breeding season using their loud calls and often a period of courtship. Both parents share the breeding responsibilities. What I find interesting is that often, once the young have fledged, one parent takes half of the brood out to teach them how to feed and the other parent takes the other half!

Green Woodpeckers are one of my favourite birds to watch. The genders can be easily told apart by the colour of the stripe that runs down at a diagonal from the base of the bill, called the malar stripe. Males have a clear red malar stripe bordered with black whereas females just have a black malar stripe. So, if you live in England, Wales or most of Scotland, why don’t you go out and watch Green Woodpeckers for yourself? If you live in Ireland, unfortunately they are only extremely rare vagrants there!

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The juvenile male Green Woodpecker

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He’s looking at you!