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!

 

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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.

Bees and Birds

Spring is clearly upon us. The sun has been shining on and off, and on the good days I’ve seen quite a few bees and flies zipping about. I thought this Common green bottle fly was looking very striking.

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Birdwatching is obviously where it’s at, but when I’m out birding I find it impossible not to notice the smaller airborne creatures. The Hairy-footed flower bee below is particularly good at hovering.

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I was struggling to identify what species of bee this was (I’m fairly new to Apiology) but, after posting a couple of images on r/whatsthisbug, I was speedily enlightened. Someone also jumped in to let me know that the purple plant in the foreground is Lamiun purpureum, commonly known as Purple dead nettle. Go internet!

Anyway, back to nesting.

Firstly, an update on the Mistle thrush nest from my last post. As you no doubt remember, the Mistle thrush must have just started laying when I found it, as the nest had only one egg.

A Mistle thrush’s clutch can range from 3 to 6 eggs, 4 being commonest. So I returned to the nest five days later to see how many the bird had decided to go for. When I arrived at my new favourite-to-climb tree, I could see that one of the adults was incubating. I waited half an hour or so for the bird to fly off to feed, rather than disturb it’s strict incubating schedule, and began my intrepid ascent for a second time.

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Looking good! Just 3 eggs, the minimum a Mistle thrush will go for, but they’re probably just being cautious as it’s quite early in the season. They will have a second brood later in the year so it’ll be interesting to see if they go for a larger clutch when the conditions are better (if I can find the nest!).

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As I was admiring the intricate details on the eggs I suddenly sensed some movement in the branches above me. I turned my head and was startled to see one of the parents no more than a foot away from me! I instinctively snapped a quick pic before promptly leaving the nest.

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I left in a hurry not just to save the bird any unnecessary agitation but also for my own safety – as I recalled reading in A Field Guide to Monitoring Nests that “adults [with young] may even attack you at nest.”

After this, I found myself wondering what it might be like inspecting a nest 7 meters up a tree with one arm clinging to the trunk and the other shielding my beautiful face from a dive-bombing Mistle thrush. So I did what any sensible nester would do: posted a query to the NRS forum.

My post was met with a good number of informative and reassuring replies, one even from a co-author of the Field Guide to Monitoring Nests! They mostly said similar things like – “Sam, you’ll be fine. They are only small(ish) birds and rarely attack”, and “I monitor five or six Mistle thrush nests a year and have never had one make contact.”

Fine, I thought, just a bit of vocal scolding from the bird and maybe a bit of nearby swooping, but my face should remain intact and I should be able to keep my cool and not fall out of the tree.

But the next day I got a different response from another long-time nester who said – “I’ve had Mistle thrushes give me a serious whack on the head and it does hurt! After a few attacks it is beyond a joke and I would recommend a hard hat when visiting a nest with young.”

Oh God I thought, I get enough strange looks as it is – scrambling up trees and taking photos in a very busy London park – I’m not going to have to wear a funny looking hard hat as well am I?!

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Luckily a second reply from the co-author of the field guide put my dilemma to rest. He clearly knew the nester who had warned of painful whacks, as he called him out for being a southern softy, and also made the more serious point that wearing a hard hat is not advised as it may cause harm to the attacking bird!

So it’s settled, I don’t have to wear a silly hat – moreover, I mustn’t for the bird’s sake – I’ll just keep my visits as brief as possible and brace for impact!

I have been away for the last week visiting my parents in the South-West. I did some good nesting with my father so there will be another post coming soon with some pics from Cornwall. For now I will leave you with the first chicks of the year for my dad and I, three little Blackbirds.

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Cute right?! Its funny how something only a day old can look so wizened.