Ghana

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African pied hornbill

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything on here, but after a bird watching trip to Ghana I have some nice photos that I’d like to share with you. Also, nesting season has already begun so this post will be shortly followed by many more.

I am very fortunate to share my birding obsession with my Dad. There is always something to do together or talk about, and he is always on hand with answers to my many questions. Another of the many benefits is that every now and again he invites me to join him on an amazing bird watching holiday. The research and planning my father does before one of our trips is incredibly thorough. He read over 100 trip reports written by other birders and made many lists of what birds we could expect to see at different locations. This year we went to Ghana. We were there for 10 days and managed to see 160 species, 130-ish of them being new birds for me!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t photograph all 160 species… And the few photos that I have deemed good enough to share are a bit of a random selection of what we saw. For this reason I will not be giving a very full account of our trip or putting much of a narrative to the photos. But feel free to hit me up for stories whenevs.

We spent the first three days around Accra, mostly in Sakumono for it’s lagoons, but also went for a day trip North to Shai Hills for some savanna habitat. Here is some of what we saw.

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Some of the first birds we saw were these Plantain-eaters. They are quite a common sight, but always seemed bit comical.

These two starlings were also quite common-place, but never got boring.

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The Splendid glossy-starling. Shaded by the tree so not at full splendor.
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The Purple glossy-starling. Mid-day sun made him shine, but also made my photo over-exposed.
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The Collared pratincole looking very smart.

The next bird made a very loud call, like a whip crack, but always from the middle of a very thick bush. We heard it almost everywhere we went but could never see what bird was making the very distinctive call. It was beginning to wind me up a bit. It wasn’t until the last day that we saw the bird calling, the Yellow-crowned gonolek, a bird that we had in fact already seen and photographed on our first day…

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Yellow-crowned gonolek, I will never forget your call.
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Magpie mannikins.
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Little bee-eaters.
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Yellow-billed shrike, I would have called him the Long-tailed shrike, but there’s already one of them.
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The Yellow-billed kite was the most common bird of prey, we saw many.
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Also made some friends in Accra. They liked our rolled cigarettes.

After Accra we traveled west and stayed at Hans Cottage Botel, just south of Kakum National Park. On our way we had a very nice driver called Ernest, he turned out to be quite interested in birds and a very good spotter. At one point he stopped the car and said there was a bird on the road just ahead of us, we got out but couldn’t see what he was talking about. Turns out we were looking in the wrong place and it wasn’t till he threw a stone near to it that the very well camouflaged Long-tailed nightjar revealed itself to us.

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Was very lucky to catch this whilst there was still some daylight left, as all nightjars are crepuscular or nocturnal.
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I miss Ernest.

The hotel (or botel) itself was very good for birds. It was surrounded by a crocodile infested lake, which had a few small islands on it that were busy with nesting weaver colonies, egrets, cormorants and kingfishers. Here is the view from the bar, where I spent most afternoons whilst Dad rested. There’s a treat for anyone who watches it to the end.

The weavers were very busy throughout most of the day building their nests. They would fly from their island to the tall bamboo trees that surrounded the lake, harvest a long strip of bamboo leaf, and fly back with the long green grass streaming behind them.

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The Village weaver collecting the bamboo grass.
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These flight pics were very hard to take as my lens only has manual focus.
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A fine nest! Good weaving!
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As well as the Village weaver there was this, the Orange weaver. There was also Viellot’s black weaver but I didn’t get any good pics of them.
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Woodand kingfishers were easily seen around the hotel.
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The African pied wagtail looks a bit smarter than ours, in my opinion.
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The Red-headed rock agama.
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Zonocerus elegans, can’t find a common name.
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Distant pic of the Black bee-eater, name doesn’t really do it justice.

After Hans Cottage we traveled south to Brenu Beach, Cape Coast. The beach was very picturesque, with white sands and palm trees (no pics soz), but we spent most of our time walking up and down the dusty, pot-holed road that led to it, which was particularly good for birds. The palm trees around the beach did allow for some nice views of the Splendid sunbird though.

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Along the track we added many new species during the final days of our trip. We also got a lift home from a friendly ambulance driver one day, I had to hold the back door shut as we went.

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It was very hot but I didn’t want to get caught without appropriate optics.

The Green turaco is a very pretty bird, we had seen it a couple of times during our holiday, but only fleeting glimpses of it in flight. Dad kept on saying that I really needed to see it perched to appreciate it fully. On our final day of birding I did get to see it perched, and I was so awestruck that I didn’t have enough of my wits about me to take a decent photo. Got a half decent photo of it flying away though.

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Thanks for stopping by!

On the same day, our last full day of birding, we also managed to track down one of the best birds of the trip, the African crake. Like many crakes and rails, the African crake can be difficult to spot as it likes to skulk among tall grasses and reeds. The habitat along the track seemed perfect for the bird, but as it was such a vast area we knew that we to be pretty lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Out of the very many trip reports Dad had read for this area, only one group had been lucky enough to chance upon the crake. But when we wandered off the track a little way into the savanna and happened upon the elusive bird we surely did feel like were in the right place at the right time. And that feeling is one of the regular rewards of bird watching, which brings me great joy and peace.

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As with the turaco, I was so taken with the bird that I didn’t spend much time fiddling with my camera.
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But I feel like the haziness and imperfections of the photos add to the elusive character of the bird.

Thank you for an amazing trip Dad! Now get on with your nesting…

 

A Few Survivors

The nesting season is coming to a close. There are still nests out there to be found, some Wood pigeons will still be nesting come October! But as most birds have finished the job, and many are now with young, you may have noticed that everything’s a bit quieter and the birds have become more elusive.

It is at this time of year that many birders turn their attention to butterflies, moths and other insects. But before I get the moth trap out, I thought I’d round off the nesting posts with a few pics of some the nests I found this year where the young successfully fledged.
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Firstly, this Blackbird nest that I found back in May. I shared this photo of the eggs on a previous post but, with the trip to Scotland and other things to write about, I failed to keep my readers updated on the progress it made.

On my second visit to the nest the eggs had hatched and the chicks were looking very healthy at just under a week old.

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The blue feather tracts with the coppery feather tips sprouting out looked particularly vibrant on the these guys. And on my final visit to the nest site I was happy to see fledged youngsters nearby and no damage to the nest. Good job guys!

You may remember these little Greenfinch chicks from the video I uploaded to a post a while back.

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On my following visit to nest the chicks were all still there and beginning to look very grown up, starting to show their true colours!
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And, again, with my final visit to the nest site there were fledged young around the undamaged nest. Great news!

More recently, on a trip to visit my dad in Cornwall, we were hoping to locate the nest of a Reed bunting, which can be quite a challenge. Last year we were the only people in North Cornwall to monitor one.

My step-brother Jake joined us, as he has taken to doing since reading my blog! We set off relatively early after quite a raucous night-before, and arrived at a little known sight off of the A39 , which seems to only be visited by us and a local farmer who keeps a few sheep and bee hives nearby. The weather was fine and plenty of insects were buzzing about the wild-flower meadow, whilst we waited to hear the distinctive song of the male Reed bunting.

Over half an hour passed without a peep from the bird but we remained patient as Dad had said that this always happened, and usually the bird would start singing after he’d set off back to the car. And, sure enough, after a little more waiting the male began to sing from the hedgerow behind the boggy area at the bottom of the field.

We watched the male fly over the reed beds a few times and sing from different perches. His attention seemed to be directed to a particular patch so, as the female had not shown herself, we decided to check it out.

As we approached the area we heard a small fluttering of wings and saw a quick flash of brown, as the female flushed. Dad and I, having wellies, stepped into the bog and carefully searched any likely looking tussock of long grass or reeds. After a few moments of unfruitful searching we decided it would be a better idea to retreat and watch for the female to return to the possible nest, in order pinpoint a more exact location.
Thankfully she did return to the same area, and we were now confident that we knew exactly where the nest was… pretty much.

Dad, as he usually does, allowed me to go first and (hopefully) have the honour of finding the nest. Again, the female flushed. I got right down into the bog, being careful not to dangle my camera into the water, and carefully pulled apart the long grasses. I couldn’t see anything at first, and a low level of panic started settle over me. But after getting my head right in clump, and nearly toppling over in the process, the nest revealed itself to me.

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Three intricately detailed eggs and two recently hatched chicks!

Finding them as they’re hatching feels very special, and it also makes for very good data! It allows you to quite accurately work out the date that the first egg was laid, which is more difficult if you’ve found the nest in the middle of incubation or once the chicks are older and less easy to age. Having the laying date for the first egg is significant when looking at the impacts of climate change.

Anyway, I’m on my way to Devon and Cornwall now to get some rare Pokémo… Oops! I mean butterflies and moths!

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Gotta catch ’em all!

 

Scotland pt.2

As I said at the end of the previous post, finding the Ringed plover’s nest seemed to get the ball rolling for our nesting…

As we were driving back to the cottage, happily discussing our find, we decided to delay our return by taking a quick drive down a side road that we hadn’t explored yet. It was a small road which led to some holiday cottages and went past a few lochans. We were driving past one of the lochans when I thought I spotted a gull sitting on a tiny island in the middle of the water. I told Dad to stop and reverse back a bit to bring it back into view, and sure enough there was a Common gull clearly sitting on a nest in among some heather on the tiny island (just big enough for a person to stand on). We pulled over, hopped over a fence and leapt from the shore to a little clump of vegetation, which served as a stepping stone to get to the island.

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A nice little spot for a nest.

 

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Very pretty! About the size of chicken eggs.

Dad and I have found a couple of Common gulls’ nests before but never in the UK, only on a birding trip to Finland. And despite the name, the Common gull is not a very common gull in the UK so we were very pleased with our second nest of the day, and the third of the trip.

Later that day we took a boat trip to Handa Island, which is home to nearly 100,000 seabirds during the breeding season and has some very pretty white-sand beaches with clear blue waters.

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Nice huh?
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This Razorbill was caught in some strong winds.

We saw thousands of Razorbills, Guillemots and Black guillemots nesting on an off-shore stack and along the cliffs. There were Puffins about too but they were too difficult to spot without a telescope. There were also good numbers of both Arctic and Great skua nesting on the island but visitors are, understandably, not allowed to approach the nests. However, as we were walking back to the beach to catch the last ferry back to mainland, I noticed a little fluffy thing hopping across the footpath. And all of a sudden there wasn’t just one, but seven, little Red grouse chicks crossing the path and generally bumbling around, with two anxious looking  parents leading the way.

 

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Cute!
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‘Cheep! Cheep!’ he says.
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Mother grouse keeping watch.
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Father grouse checking us out.

The chicks had clearly already fledged so no nest to be found but still a great little encounter, and also really surprising that the chicks hadn’t already been scoffed by one of the many Great skuas about!

The following day we thought we’d check another local beach and see if we could find ourselves a second Ringed plover nest, since we’d got the technique down. We strolled along the beach waiting for a Plover to run from under our feet to the shore, and it didn’t take long for one to oblige. This time we didn’t even bother with an initial search of the area where we thought the bird had flushed from, we simply retreated to a suitable distance and waited for the bird to, hopefully, return to a nest.

Luckily we had a good view of the beach from where we had parked the car, that made the waiting much more comfortable as it was a particularly windy day. It didn’t take long for the bird to return, and, as it settled in a suitable looking spot for a long while, we were pretty sure we were in luck.

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Yay!
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This one had four.

On our penultimate day we decided to have a proper search of our cottage’s garden for nests. There was definitely a Wren and a Willow warbler nesting somewhere within the grounds, but both evaded us. Over the week we had seen Lesser redpoll flying over and often dropping down into the stunted pine trees that bordered the garden. We had poked our heads into the spiky trees a few times looking out for a tiny little cupped nest (about 7cm diameter), but thought it was probably a bit of a long-shot as the NRS get less than ten records a year for this species, which is on the red-list for conservation.

However, as I was searching around for the Wren’s nest Dad saw the Lesser redpoll go down, yet again, into the pines, and this time he had seen exactly which tree it had dropped into. He called me over, pointed out the tree, and we approached. After a few seconds of inspecting the tree dad exclaimed, ‘Got it!’ The bird was still incubating and didn’t flush until we were practically face-to-face with her.

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A very well hidden, tiny little nest.
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Five lovely eggs.

A perfect last find for a wonderful holiday. The rarest nest we’ve ever found! The NRS got only five records for Lesser redpoll last year and none from the Highlands, and even though we weren’t able to monitor the nest over a long period the data will still be very valuable for such a vulnerable species.

Great!

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Scotland pt.1

Last week my partner (Roxanne) and I went on a trip to Assynt, a region in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, with my father and his partner. We were staying in an old crofter’s cottage in a remote former fishing village called Culkein. The surrounding landscape of mountains and moorlands, rugged coastline and sandy beaches, interwoven with lochs and sea lochs, made for stunning views…

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The mountain Quinag or Gaelic Cuinneag (meaning milking pail) has three peaks. These two are Sail Gharbh (Rough Heel) and Sail Ghorm (Blue Heel).
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Picturesque bay on Handa Island. Not really how I’d imagined Scottish beaches!

And excellent birding!

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The local area had some great species. As soon as we arrived both Arctic and Great skua were seen from the cottage, Great skua was a new species for me so I was particularly pleased. And the nearby beach held Rock pipit, Oyster catcher, Dunlin and Ringed plover.  Roxanne was the first to spot Ringed plover and was awarded ten points from Dad. The points seemed arbitrary but Dad assured us he was keeping track.

 

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The first Ringed plover of the trip that Rox spotted. More from this bird later.

The road behind our cottage turned into a very rough track, which went through moorland and led to a medium sized loch. Our first bumpy drive down it was slightly reckless as we knew it was a dead end but were unsure if we’d be able to turn around anywhere along it, and Dad will be the first to admit that reversing isn’t his strong point… But we went for it anyway and luckily there was a suitable turning place, and lots of good birds!

Along this track we got our first nest of the trip: a neat little Meadow pipit’s nest, which was nestled underneath a clump of heather.

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We revisited the track every morning hoping to locate more nests. Great skuas and Arctic skuas were holding territories and always appeared to be sitting on a nest, but frustratingly we must have been a bit too early as they were just sitting about in suitable sites.

Another bird that kept us returning to the track was the elusive Golden plover. A pair of Golden plover definitely had a nest nearby because on more than one occasion the pair were doing all they could to confuse us and lead us away from their probable nesting site. Golden plovers’ nests are notoriously difficult to find (less than ten records a year for the NRS) and the closest we got was finding the shell of a predated Golden plover’s egg.

With mine and Dad’s early mornings reserved for nesting our afternoons were free for more relaxed activities. On one afternoon we took a scenic drive around the area and I was able to get this pic of a Red deer in front of Quinag, which I think is almost good enough to go on a souvenir calendar or tin of shortbread.

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However, after three early mornings of bouncing the hire car down the potholed track and finding no new nests, I started to lose my sense of purpose and could be found laying in boggy moorland photographing mosses and lichens.

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Roxanne thinks they look like underwater photographs of marine plant life. But I was imagining them as alien landscapes.

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By the fourth morning we had done some fantastic birding, seen quite a few mammals, visited a view pubs, and were just generally having a great time. But between Dad and I there was an unspoken, not worrying, but nagging feeling, that we hadn’t found any new nests. So we decided on a change of location for our early morning excursion. Instead of going down the usual track we decided to visit a local picturesque beach and see if we could find a Ringed plover’s nest (Rox’s ten pointer from the first day).

We walked along the top of the beach, which was a mix of sand a pebbles and ideal for Ringed plover. And sure enough after a minute of walking we noticed a Ringed plover running away from a suitable looking nest site towards the shore. This exactly what a Ringed plover is supposed to do when flushed from a nest: run, not fly, in a relatively straight line towards the shore, whilst alarming. We had a quick search around but couldn’t find anything so decided to fall back and watch to see if the bird would return, maybe we were looking in the wrong spot.

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The waiting game.

We sat and waited with a good view of the beach. After a short amount of time the bird started to slowly return to the top of the beach and, to our surprise, settled in the exact spot we’d just been searching…

Surely, with our well trained eyes, we would have spotted a nest there, we said. Perhaps, like the Skuas, this bird was having us on and just testing out of spot to see if it would be suitable for a future nest. But after at least a good half hour of the bird remaining in the same spot we decided to go and check it out.

Oh, there it is!

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How could we have missed that?!

Admittedly the eggs are pretty tiny (about 3cm long) and very well camouflaged against the sand and pebbles.

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Not much in the way of nesting material, just a bit of a scrape and few tiny stones.

This find seemed to get the ball rolling for our nesting, and over the next few days we had some great discoveries. So stay tuned for the next post and you’ll get to see the first chicks of the trip (actual cute and fluffy ones, not like the usual bald and scrawny ones!), AND the rarest nest my Dad and I have ever found!

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Progress

The last couple of weeks have felt quite summery. The Swallows are settling in, more and more Swifts are arriving everyday, the warblers are in full song, and a lot of butterflies have sprung into life.

Here’s a Holly Blue that managed to stay still just long enough for me to snap it… didn’t want to open up and show me the brilliant-blue upperside of its wings, but still pretty!

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And here’s a Comma catching some rays and displaying its characteristic ragged wing margins…

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I’ve been spending a lot of time out and have discovered quite a few new nests and potential sites, but for now I would like to update you on the progress of the Dunnocks and Greenfinches that I’ve been monitoring.

If you remember, my bestie James and I discovered a Dunnock’s nest in the alleyway behind our flat a couple of weeks back – you know, the one with amazingly bright blue
eggs.

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Well they’ve hatched and the chicks are looking strong!

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As the nest is so close to the flat, and quite exposed, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to test out the remote control for my camera, and try and get a shot of one of the adults at the nest. The nest is quite high so I had to precariously balance my tripod on top of our tallest stool to get the nest in frame. (Excuse the quality, taken hastily with phone.)

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I was aware that the presence of the camera might disturb the birds so I kept an ear out for alarming and kept an eye on my watch – if the adult didn’t approach the nest after too long I would abandon my project. Though to my delight the parent came back to feed its young after only about ten minutes of waiting.

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I did get a few pics of the parent actually sticking its beak down the chicks’ necks, but they were either a bit out of focus or had the adult facing away from the camera and obscuring the action. Though I hope to get some more shots like this (using tripod and remote) so stay tuned.

Now, remember those lovely Greenfinch eggs from the last post?

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Well they all hatched into these little fluffballs!

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But, I’m sorry to say, they didn’t make it. Got predated about four days after hatching…

Not to worry though! I found another Greenfinch nest just around the corner! It’s at a similar stage to the last and I was able to get this video of the hungry little guys waiting to be fed and trying to avoid the blazing sun. Enjoy!

Lost and Found

Some bad news to start with. I’m sorry to say that my first nest of the year, and first ever Mistle thrush nest, has been predated.

As I approached the nest site last weekend I was concerned by the quietness. There was no sign of the adults and I was able to climb the tree without any alarming or dive-bombing. Perhaps they were both out getting food for their happy and hungry chicks? Unfortunately not.

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No doubt they were had by Corvids – maybe the Crow that was hassling them on my last visit.

When you first start nesting, it’s hard not to get downhearted by predation. You spend so much time trying to find a nest, and then re-visit it every week, I certainly get quite attached to the parents and hope for their success. But predation is so common – roughly half of the nests that I find this year will be predated. That may seem like a lot, but you have to bare in mind that the nests that I find are the ones that are findable. I know where there are loads of nests that I just can’t get to, and no doubt they will have a much higher rate of success.

Here’s a beautiful Long-tailed tit nest.

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Admittedly it’s a bit messy at this unfinished stage, but they are quite striking once complete. Lichen and moss weaved together with hair and spider’s web (giving it elasticity for when the 7 or so chicks inside it grow) and lined with literally thousands of feathers. They commonly spend up to three weeks building, my father and I once had a pair who appeared to be lining with feathers for two whole weeks!

Here’s the nest now, predated with it’s contents strewn through the bush.

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But that’s life. The pair of Long-tailed tits have already started building a replacement nest, and it’s in a much better spot. And I’ll be out tomorrow looking for where the Mistle thrush pair have moved on to.

Anyway, since losing the Mistle thrush nest I have found many new and exciting nests!

On my way to work each day I had noticed a pair of Moorhen on this picturesque pond on Blackheath Common.

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So I took my wellies to work with me and on the way home carefully waded through the reeds until I was startled by the noisy flushing of a Moorhen. I peered into the tussock of reeds from where the bird had shot and was delighted by what I saw.

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Ten eggs! Count them, ten!

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Moorhen clutch sizes usually range from 5 – 8 eggs. Less commonly their nests can contain as many as 14 eggs, but larger clutches are likely to be the result of egg dumping from another female. I have not seen another female on this pond, but that’s not to say that one hasn’t been sneaking in and leaving an egg behind. My dad reckons he can see that a few of the eggs have a slightly different patterning and maybe they’ve come from a different parent, though he did add that he may have just been looking at it for too long as it was his desktop background. He could well be right though, and I am putting it to the NRS forum. What do you think?

As well as the Moorhen nest, I’ve found this beautiful Greenfinch nest in a prickly gorse bush.

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And my best friend James and I stumbled across this Dunnock’s nest in the alley behind the back of our flat.

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Very pretty eggs!

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I’ve also found so many Blackbird’s nest that I’m almost losing track!

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A Harrowing Nesting Adventure…

The time had come to check the infamous Mistle thrush nest, which was covered in my first and second blog posts.

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If my calculations were correct, the eggs should have hatched. With all that I had learnt from nesting literature and the NRS forum, I was anticipating an aggressive display from the adult birds. What I had read had made me somewhat anxious, as the nest was quite high up and I didn’t want to tarnish my never-having-fallen-out-of-a-tree record.

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As I approached the tree, I was greeted with raucous alarming from both parents. Surprisingly, I was not the cause of the alarm. The pair had spotted a menacing-looking Crow nearby and had begun to fearlessly launch themselves at it. I watched closely and imagined I was the Crow, hoping to prepare myself. After a few fierce dive-bombs from one of the Thrushes, the Crow decided to forego it’s predatory meal and flew far across the park. Both parents left the tree to see the Crow off – the perfect time to begin my assent.

Having visited this nest twice before, the path upwards felt quite familiar, so I climbed as quickly as possible to minimise disturbance and any chance of attack from the protective parents. But, as soon as I was a few meters up, the cacophony of two alarming Mistle thrushes surrounded me.

I continued climbing but braced myself every few seconds as I felt the birds swoop by my head. They were getting so close that I could feel the air, being pushed from under their wings, parting my hair. Thankfully, the birds did not make contact and I was able to reach the nest without injury.

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Two healthy looking chicks and one unhatched egg, most likely not fertilised.

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I hastily clambered down, but as I looked to ground I was greeted by the unnerving sight of another wild force, circling the bottom of the tree.

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The fox hadn’t spotted me so I was able to get a quick picture whilst dangling from a low-ish branch.

I wasn’t actually unnerved by the presence of the fox, they are shy creatures and avoid direct contact with people (it could probably just smell the empanada in my backpack that lay at the foot of the tree). The encounter simply added to the wildness of the situation, and made me feel happy to be doing what I was doing   🙂

The Nest Record Scheme gets about 70 records a year for Mistle thrush, which is relatively small when compared to the ~1,300 received for Blackbird and ~500 for Song thrush. I am currently monitoring three Mistle thrush nests, and hope to find more next year.