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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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.

First Nests of the Season

Birdwatching is my obsession. If I’m unable to get out at the weekend to one of my local parks I am full of regret and woe. Thankfully, I mostly do find time, and as I work at a school I am currently on Easter Holidays. What better time to go out hunting for eggs?

I got into birding (and subsequently nesting) through my father, who is an expert on birds and knows quite a lot about other things too. He is always on hand to answer any queries I may have about identification of birds, methods for finding nests, recognition of calls and songs. He’s basically an ornithological wizard and during this time of year we are regularly texting each other updates of our nesting successes in a seemingly cryptic language, like:

“First Lotti about N3. Different bush”
or
“Meapi 4E WA at Manor Common”.

Its not actually a secret code that my father and I have developed to deter rival nesting gangs from spying on us (we don’t have any rival nesting gangs), it’s just the code that is used by anyone submitting data to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Nest Record Scheme (NRS).

Lotti = Long-tailed tit
N3 = Nest 3/4 built
Meapi = Meadow pipit
4E WA = Four eggs warm (indicating incubation has begun)

‘Different bush’ is actually a secret code and I defy anyone to crack it.

Anyway, the NRS is a vital scheme and the BTO do invaluable work with all the data sent off to them by nesters throughout the UK. You can read more about the NRS in my sidebar (or at the bottom of the page if you’re on a phone) and you can read much more and find out how to get involved by going here.

So, for most weekends since Christmas I’ve been out on my local patches surveying what birds are about and which spots might make good nesting sites.

Two weeks back, as I was stalking a pair of courting Robins, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a nest hole about three meters up in an Ash. There looked to be some fresh scraping around the hole and I had seen Great spotted woodpeckers in this part of the park on a previous weekend – but as these thoughts were going through my mind, the luminous green head and deep red bill of a Ring-necked parakeet popped out of the nest hole, looked at me and slowly ducked back in.

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I had stumbled upon my first nest of the year. Even though it was a nest that I wouldn’t be able to properly survey without an endoscopic camera, and it belonged to a non-native species that some birders look down on, the rush of joy and excitement of discovering it was still there. Finding a nest is like being let in on a secret. Witnessing something that is happening all around you but is seldom seen. So I moved back from the nest, found a tree to lean on, and stayed there for several hours.

The female emerged again not long after I had fallen back and was joined by her mate who had been faithfully standing guard in a nearby tree.

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They mated and then flew off to feed. This indicated to me that she had just laid an egg, as many birds mate straight after laying, and she did not return to incubate.

Most birds lay one egg a day and don’t start incubating till a full clutch has been laid. This is so all the chicks hatch at the same time and grow at a similar rate. The exceptions being birds of prey (and other large birds) who incubate from the first egg and in difficult years depend upon having a a runt of the litter for the stronger chick(s) to devour. This type of behavior, which is shocking to many, is broadcast live most years on BBC’s Spring Watch. 🙂

I returned the next day to see if my theory  was correct – that pair of parakeets were at the laying stage. This time I had arrived a bit earlier and was able to observe the female go into the nest, stay in for about twenty minutes, re-emerge, mate, and then fly off to feed without returning to incubate. Nailed it.

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After watching the parakeets coming and going I became keen to find some new nests, which I could fully observe. But after a couple of weekends I wasn’t having much luck.

I had found two Long-tailed tit’s nests, but both were in the middle of the thickest brambles so I couldn’t inspect the nests without leaving an obvious path to them, which would be appreciated by any predators. I had also found a definite nest site of a Robin, but that too was inaccessible, as it was in the middle of a large wood pile and removing any sticks would risk damage to the nest.

I was getting pretty distraught, as you can imagine, until I came across this Mistle thrush at building stage.

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Great! I thought. I’ll leave it to its building, check up on it soon. It’s only about four meters up in a pretty climbable tree. Totally recordable.

Though, to my horror, upon my return the next week, the birds were gone and the only bits of nest which were left lay at the foot of the tree. Early predation perhaps? Or the birds just decided it was a rubbish site? It did look pretty flimsy at the early stage of building.  Nevertheless, I courageously carried on, mostly searching for where the thrushs had moved on too, they’d have to try again somewhere. Unless they were dead.

Thankfully they weren’t dead, and I found their new nest not far away. The female was incubating but, alas, the nest was just out of reach in a less climbable tree.

Needless to say, at this point I was starting to lose faith entirely. What was I doing? Why couldn’t I find any nests? Who goes around looking for nests anyway? It’s a mug’s game.

These kinds of thoughts weighed heavily on my mind, until Easter Sunday. I was returning from another unsuccessful nest hunt around the park, beside myself with feelings of defeat,  when I noticed another Mistle thrush’s nest! This one was much higher than the previous ones, about 7 or 8 meters up, but I’m really good at climbing trees so I went for it. As I ascended, planning my route, testing branches, an ecstatic rush coursed through me – partly adrenaline (not fear) from climbing up the tree, but also the excitement of what I might find upon reaching my target. I was not disappointed.

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A beautiful egg, one which I had never seen before. And the nest, decorated with feathers. Great. Totally worth it.

Don’t look down though!

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Stay tuned to see how the nests progress, don’t get too sad if they get predated though, it happens often. That’s life!