Common Kingfisher

Unexpected wildlife encounters are one of life’s unsung simple pleasures; even the worst, darkest day can be turned around by the sound of an exquisite, soaring birdsong, the gentle peacefulness of the trees and clouds, or the appearance of a shy animal. In our recent climates of bright sunshine and warmer temperature, it’s no longer a struggle to tear oneself away from a warm fire and book and brave the outdoors, and my time spent wandering in the sunshine was rewarded with a up-close-and-personal encounter with my favourite bird: a common kingfisher.

The kingfisher is, for me, a bird full of contradictions; the iridescent, jewel-bright feathers seem unexpected for its tiny, plump frame and disproportionately long beak, and the brutality of its hunting at sharp odds with the precision of its flight and delicacy of movement. They are also very elusive, and often only spotted as a flash of turquoise and amber along a riverbank – even to have only seen this is to count oneself very lucky indeed. Kingfishers are fiercely independent and live very solitary lives; the only time they will even contemplate company is during breeding season, and very few live to see more than one.

I had never seen a kingfisher in the wild until now, having to make do with my dad’s boastful stories about his unending sightings of them along a nearby reservoir. They tend to stick around the banks of rivers, lakes, and streams where there are lots of dense scrubs and bushes, so that they can hunt from overhanging branches. The sight of a kingfisher is a real compliment to the quality of the water, and an indicator of a healthy freshwater ecosystem; they frequent clear, slow-flowing water where prey-visibility and populations are high. I was surprised that my spotting took place by a pond in a local park which I always thought of as being more of a murky, pungent swamp than any kind of wildlife haven, but it makes sense. Thanks to the water’s characteristically stagnant smell and dense, muddy banks, there are never any people or dogs walking by, so the bank-side trees and bushes have grown thick and abundant, and the pond is always full of sticklebacks and tadpoles around this time of year. The kingfisher, furthermore, seems to have grown used to the occasional human visitor; as I said before, most kingfishers sightings I hear about are of flashes of bright colour as the bird darts into thick cover at the sound of oncoming feet, but I was able to stand and watch the bird in branches only a couple of feet away from my head, as it sat perfectly still and watched the water’s surface. It was certainly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen – there are stories of the birds being stuffed and sewn onto ladies’ hats in Victorian Britain, and (whilst such disregard for living things is always baffling to me) I can understand their appeal as jewel-like decorations.

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One of the best things about kingfisher sightings is that you can almost guarantee that you’ll see them again. Kingfishers are highly territorial; since it must eat around 60% of its body weight every day, it is essential for the bird to have control over a suitable stretch of hunting ground. Even when mating pairs for in the autumn, the two birds will retain separate territories and only merge them together in the spring. Any kingfishers encroaching on another’s plot faces brutal consequences; fights between the birds often occur, where one bird will try to drown the other by holding its beak beneath the water. I walk back to park to see the kingfisher every week or so, mainly to watch it hunt; from its perch, or whirring above the water, the kingfisher spots its prey and bobs its head in order to gauge the distance, then dives beneath the water with barely a ripple on the surface. Kingfishers have a third eyelid which allows them to keep their eyes open underwater; once the prey is caught, the bird emerges wing-first from the water, flies back to its perch where it slaps the fish onto a branch to kill it, then swallows it whole, head first. It is all over in about thirty seconds, then the bird is back to watching the surface of the water again, planning its next meal.

Now that April is reluctantly bringing the warm temperatures promised by spring, kingfishers will start laying their eggs in burrows dug into the sides of the riverbanks, which means they’ll be a little easier to spot now that they’re hunting for seven mouths rather than one. You may even hear mating pairs calling to one another in a high-pitched whistle. When the campaign for a national British Bird was launched recently I was hoping with all my heart the kingfisher would win out; I’m not sure what the criteria for specifying ‘britishness’ in a bird is expected to be exactly, but for its colourful beauty and devilish intelligence, there is really no better ambassador than the kingfisher.

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Winter Bird Feeding

I have always been an advocate of feeding birds wherever and whenever possible, especially in winter. It is cheap and easy, and fills your garden with wildlife (though maybe I have a self-centred reason for doing this, as I like to sit in front of my window and paint whatever I can see in the garden – painting empty hedgerows is really quite dull). So, I just wanted to post a link to this really interesting article, which explores the pros and cons of winter bird feeding, and also offers some solutions against the ‘cons’, e.g. thinking carefully through the placement of food to encourage safe nesting, watching out for high fat and salt content in store-bought birdfeed, or participating in public research schemes like (to use the article’s example) FeederWatch.

http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/01/05/winter-bird-feeding-good-or-bad-for-birds

FeederWatch is to record garden birds in North America – a British version can be found on the RSPB website in the form of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, which takes place on the 24th-25th January 2015. It’s a great way to contribute to conservation projects and only asks for a couple of days – you can find some really useful resources, such as pictures for identifying birds by both sight and audio files of their various calls and songs. Placing food out in the garden in the run-up to such an event is a really good way to attract birds to your area, so that you can get a good idea of the kinds of birds living there. I’m sure I’ll be writing much more about garden birds now that the Birdwatch is only a couple of weeks away, but for now you can read all about the project on the RSPB website:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/?gclid=CPHfxsCWjMMCFYoEwwodSq4AEQ

Wagtails – Home and Away

It has been a long time since I last wrote here – after graduating I went on a long trip to Africa with a Born Free project and immersed myself in the wildlife there, returning only last month. My home-coming was perfectly timed in autumn, easily my favourite season, and I was delighted to see jays, robins, and hedgehogs to welcome in my first few days.  Even magpies and rats looked positively exotic having not seen them in so long!

The similarities, more than the differences, between British and African wildlife was what startled me most, most particularly the ubiquitous presence of pied wagtails in the game reserve I lived and worked in. I’m not entirely sure of the difference between a pied wagtail and an African pied wagtail – both are domestic breeds rather than migratory so it must be more than mere geography – but they are certainly alike in their ability to take over a place.

The African wagtails were building a nest in the roof of my house. The roof was a sheet of corrugated iron over walls made of thick clay-mud, and provided perfect nooks and crannies for the birds (and, judging by the loud chattering that kept me awake most nights, for bats, too). Of course in Britain the birds are less welcome to be swooping in arcs over the dining table, but they are still easily found – I lived happily with the birds in Malawi because they reminded me so much of home.

There are three species of wagtail in Britain – grey and pied, which are here all year round, and yellow, which is a summer visitor.

Pied wagtails are the most common as they are less restricted to water environments than the other two, therefore you can see them in parks, churchyards, city hedgerows, and gardens as well as along rivers and streams. They are sprightly and cheerful souls, and can be seen dashing around in search for food when not standing and frantically bobbing its tail up and down. They are also curious, and very friendly – I worked in a café in Birmingham to save up money for my travels, and on my walk there would pass a church. The café would often let me take home the croissants and pastries which didn’t sell that day and I would scatter some of the crumbs for the birds in the churchyard. Soon, a young (with pale grey/brown markings rather than black) wagtail caught on to what I was doing and would always fly down to my feet whenever I walked past, waiting for the crumbs, and often following me all the way home. They make a characteristic ‘chi-sick’ sound, which has led to Bill Oddie nicknaming the birds Chiswick Flyovers.

Grey wagtails, though not rare by any means, are harder to spot, not in the least thanks to a very misleading name – they are far more distinctive than it suggests, with slate-grey/blue upper parts and long lemon-yellow tail. They are badly affected by harsh winters. Yellow wagtails are fairly easy to spot if you catch them at the right time in summer. Both of these species love water, and aren’t picky about it; they are just as likely to gather around an urban settling tank as a lake or channel. They are beautiful to watch on the water, their characteristic long swoops picking up huge dragonflies and skaters without a single pause or break, and flick up the water in sunlit droplets.

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For anyone interested in reading about my stay in Africa, in which I lived and worked on a rural game reserve, I wrote a blog there at www.apassagetoafrica.tumblr.com. It has lots of pictures of the wildlife and birds I encountered there, and I learnt a lot about the conservation work and issues going on in that part of the world, and the amazing animals that live there.

The Dawn Chorus

My hands have been itching as if they were covered in nettle stings to get back to writing here; after reading a small library of books, amassing a minor financial crisis of library fines, and spending more time in the glow of a Microsoft word document than any human should ever feasibly have to spend, 15000 words were finally written, handed in, and rewarded by delicious freedom.

One up-side to a month of late nights and early mornings spent at my desk has been catching the birds greeting the early hours of the morning with crisp and delicate music. The dawn chorus occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day: it’s especially noticeable in spring, when the birds are either defending a breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. They sing at dawn because the air is calmer and sound transmission is good: a time of night that is usually characterised as bathing in rich silence becomes a cacophony of sound and melodic trills.

The little birds work as a kind of feathery orchestra – each species has its own place to come in, so as the hours progress the different voices and melodies layer on top of one another. The order begins with blackbirds and ends with goldfinches, going through robins, wrens, thrushes, warblers and pheasants. David Attenborough is currently doing a really great radio series about different bird-calls, which you can catch up with online if you can’t face the 5:58am broadcast:Wren

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk/episodes/player

Most of what I know about the dawn chorus has come from my dad – he organises wildlife walks in a park back in Birmingham, and runs a dawn chorus walk in the early hours of a May morning. He really knows everything there is to know about nature, and I always make sure to ask him lots of questions.

The chorus starts as early as 4am (I can only assume the little birds have a bottomless supply of coffee to get them up so cheerfully) – but what, and why, are they singing? In general, only the male songbird sings, and his song has one of two poetical lyrics – “come here!” or “go away”. For all its prettiness, the notes pinging together like tiny coins, the dawn chorus is brutally competitive; full of plagiarism, trickery and feathered egos.

In order to attract a mate, a male bird has to obtain and defend a territory – a male claims his territory by singing in it and letting other males know to stay away. He throws down the gauntlet with a string of notes before leaving gaps to wait for replies to his challenge, so that he can locate other males and defend his territory to any strangers nearby. Some species, like chaffinches and great tits (snigger) use a number of voices and choruses to convince other males that there are lots of birds in the area. Some birds even mimic the calls of other species to increase the complexity of their songs (and desirability of them as mates) and to show the female that they have survived enough breeding seasons to have heard these other songs. Some migratory birds even mimic their international cousins; marsh warblers may mimic the sounds of 70 or so species, telling the females where they have spent the winter.Image

When male songbirds are advertising for a mate rather than marking territory, they sing songs that are longer and more complex (the territorial calls are more repetitive). It becomes an energy-intense activity that indicates his quality and fitness. Males will constantly develop and re-develop their songs in order to have the most complicated – and therefore most desirable – tune. Wrens, for example, have songs that contain over 700 different notes per minute and can be heard 500m away.

The new dawn chorus is probably my favourite part of spring, a sure sign that winter is wheezing its final breaths and nature is beginning to wake up with all the colours and sounds of a new season. Waking up at 4am may seem like a rather hellish suggestion, but it’s worth catching the chorus on a morning when you can’t sleep or are feeling particularly lively. I find it surprising that there hasn’t been a piece of music or a work of art based on the dawn chorus – it is masterful how the layers and layers of calls rise and fall past one another piling up like coloured grains of sand as the sky changes colour along with it. The little birds wake up the colour in the world, coax the sun out over the hills and expand the dark pocket of night into daytime sky.

“a light broke in upon my soul
It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased – and then it came again
The sweetest song ear ever heard”
Lord Byron

The Great Slime Kings

I sadly haven’t written here for a while due to some looming university deadlines – the last few weeks have been meted out in a rhythm of research, essays, and library fines. My mind ticks and whirs through word counts with only the odd moment reserved for writing. But a recent encounter on the streets of London has spurred me to take a break from schoolwork and surrender to the temptation to write here which has been nagging me on the stroke of every hour in the library. Walking home late from a long day of work, when the sun had set and the streets were dark, a curious little shape suddenly flitted past my feet. Of course, my inquisitive self couldn’t just carry on walking home after that, so I turned and followed in the direction I saw it go. It was a tiny thing, so within a few strides I had caught up to it – it was a little brown frog, with bright amber, quivering eyes, and with a quick movement I swept it up onto my palm.

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Funnily enough, this has happened a couple of times in London. Frogs and toads get in a very sociable mood on days when the air is heady with the smell of rain, and they eke out adventures in the newly-formed puddles. On the way home from a night out in Camden I once caught a young toad, much to the surprise and admiration of the friends I was with (if it’s such an impressive skill, perhaps I should add ‘frog-and-toad-catching’ to my CV!). What I got from my friends in that chance amphibian meeting was a lot of questions: how did I know it was a toad, how on earth did I manage to catch it, is it true that frogs and toads are allergic to human skin. So, I’ll answer a few of them now – frogs and toads have already started laying eggs in ponds and small rivers, so you may well come across some in the near future.

If you find an adult, it’s easy to tell if it’s a frog or a toad – I have always thought that frogs are a bit nicer to look at. Toads are rounder and squatter, frogs more delicate and less warty. A sure-fire way to tell is to give the creature a gentle prod – a frog will hop away, but a toad will crawl.

As for catching the little things, I honed my skills over some serious frog-catching training in my childhood. My mother’s friend, Ann, had a huge garden, rambunctious with overgrowing tree-roots, wild-flowers and long grass, cut with a patch of water in the middle. Whilst mum and she would sit and drink tea whilst chatting, Ann’s husband would sit with me by the pond and help me to catch the frogs that had made it their home. Of course, it wasn’t easy – I had to coat my hands in pondwater (which I’ll explain a bit later) which made them about as easy to hold onto as warm butter, and with but a few hops they could reach the protective arms of the wild grass never to be seen again. The power of their hind legs has been a perennial source of fascination, propelling this little thing so far that it can escape the heavy-handed clutches of clumsy humans. But with trial and error came a timeless tactic: to cup our hands over them and gently scoop them up whilst keeping our palms closed, before slowly opening our hands. Then the frogs would sit happily with us, the strange pink giants who found them so endlessly fascinating.

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It is crucial to remember, however, that frogs and toads are extraordinarily fragile. They have very sensitive skin that absorbs chemicals easily – if you smoke, or have used soap or handcream in the last few hours, you should really leave them well alone, as harmful toxins can pass from your skin to theirs. Like I said, I always used to dip my hands in pondwater first, although the creatures are so covered in mud and water usually that it’s okay to handle them with dry hands, so long as you don’t hold onto them for too long. They are far more likely to be hurt by jumping and falling out of your hands, so do keep close to the ground to avoid any death-defying leaps.

I mentioned a little earlier that frogs and toads are laying eggs round about now. To spot frogspawn, look for clumps of clear jelly, smattered with black dots, in ponds and streams that are thick with algae and weeds. In similar habitats you may also find toadspawn, which are long, clear tubes with the black dots inside. When they become tadpoles, take a good look at their colouring – dark brown tadpoles will grow into frogs, whilst black means little toads.

The life cycles of frogs and toads were also an integral part of spring in my younger years. Wellies were donned, dungarees pulled over knees scraped from tree-climbing, and with a jam jar in one hand and a net in the other, I was ready to go off tadpoling, catching the little critters with sticklebacks before releasing them when it was time to go home. One year, my father let me keep a few of the tadpoles I had caught so that I could watch them grow. The trusty jam jar, not longer looking sad and empty,  was placed on my windowsill with an array of other natural objects – a tiny bird’s skull, a shark’s tooth, pebbles and twigs. I would watch the jar carefully, drawing out its contents into notebooks with bright colours and bold sweeps of a pencil. I would think of all the famous frogs and toads from my storybooks – Toad of Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and all the fairytales that promised a magical transformation if I plucked up the courage to kiss one. Every morning sleepy legs were pulled out of bed and directed to the jar, marking how the hind legs grew out of the body, from tiny lumps at the back reaching further and further out like strange tendrils until they became spindly limbs. I watched the tail shrink and googly eyes grow, until that black blob of cells became a minute, perfectly formed, creature. And then they would grow mischievous, escaping out of the jar and dancing across the window sill and its keep-sake obstacles to the sounds of my mother’s horrified gasps ad my delighted giggles. When that happened, we released them into the wild, to live lives taking after one of the storybooks sitting on my bookshelf.

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Luckily, my experience of these wonderful creatures was much happier than Seamus Heaney’s, whose poem Death of a Naturalist I’ll finish with. I have always loved this poem despite being unable to relate to it – my inner naturalist has always indeed been alive and kicking! So much for the ‘plop’ and ‘slap’, I have always found frogs and toads to be charming and delicate delicate little creatures, bodies and flesh like wet tissue paper clumped over a hair-breadth wire carcass. But anyway, I think it’s time for me to get back to my essays, so here is his beautiful poem.

Death of a Naturalist

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

– Seamus Heaney

Bats

Daubentons Bat

Daubentons Bat

Blossom, daffodils, blue, green, pink; my wool winter coat has been cast to back of my wardrobe, the windows beam with sunlight and birds chatter at dawn. It seems that spring is finally blooming here in London, drawing out shy flowers from the hard winter soil and gently waking up a whole range of animals from hibernation. Snakes, hedgehogs, bats, frogs, and bees all (very sensibly, if you ask me) escape the cold winter weather by hibernating in special habitats, before spending the balmy afternoons of springtime seeking food, a place to roost, and a mate. Bats will be struggling the most in this transition – according to the Bat Conservation trust, all of Britain’s species are endangered. It is a very sad thought that they are struggling to maintain their numbers: bats are intelligent and unusual animals, and an integral part of British wildlife. The image of a cloud of bats flitting in great arcs over roofs at the arrival of dusk is something that is quintessential of the British countryside; an important part of the landscape we must do our best to preserve.

Bats have gained an unfair reputation as blood-sucking, rabid little vermin, but really they are lovely, shy creatures who mind their own business and actually play an important part in keeping natural spaces healthy and thriving. None of the 17 British varieties of bats will sink its fangs into you and drink your blood – ours are all insectivores – and the three vampire bats that do exist (in Central and South America) are harmless, painlessly extracting inconsequential amounts of blood from pigs, chickens and other livestock. The association between bats and all things spooky and supernatural stems from the ancient Celtic summer festival of Samhain, when huge bonfires would attract insects and, naturally, their predators – the bats. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead were present at these events, so they instinctively linked bats to messengers or signs of the spirit world.

Long-eared Bat

Long-eared Bat

Some cultures say that it’s lucky to have a bat in the house, but you’d be just as fortunate to have them in your garden. Just one of these little mammals can eat 2,000 – 6,000 insects in a single night, and even the teeny tiny pipistrelle bat can get through about 3,000. As for calling somebody “blind as a bat” – I suppose it could be taken as a compliment! Bats can actually see perfectly well in black and white, and have evolved echolocation to navigate in the dark and find prey. [‘Echolocation’ is a system used by animals whereby the creature emits a (usually high-pitched) sound that reflects off the object and returns to the animal’s ears. The animal then works out the distance of the object from the time it takes for the echo to return.]

You can make your garden bat-friendly, helping to boost their dwindling population and thrive post-hibernation, in a number of simple ways. You can encourage insects by extending the flowering season for as long as possible, and plant hedges, trees, and bushes to provide navigation aids and good roosts. Ponds and standing water without fish are a haven for insects like hoverflies, mosquitoes and midges, and you’ll soon see bats swooping over the water’s surface to catch their prey. For the ambitious, installing bat boxes on mature trees or the side of buildings is the ultimate bat-friendly act, and you can find out more on the Bat Conservation Trust website. Such small acts pile up to form a barricade around these elusive and misunderstood creatures and allow them to thrive, flinging their tiny bodies over the horizon at dusk and darting like tadpoles through the growing gloom.

'Ophelia' by Arthur Hughes, 1852

‘Ophelia’ by Arthur Hughes, 1852

A Daubenton’s bat is added to the corner of Hughes’s Pre-Raphaelite painting to portray a scene of rural English whimsy. Daubenton’s bats are sometimes known as water bats as they feed insects on the surface of the water. This one hunts in the bottom-left corner underneath the willow tree.

Magpie Moth

I have always been strangely fond of moths – where most people react with annoyance and a swift swipe with a rolled-up newspaper whenever one traipses in from outside, I’m always very glad to see one. I like their tiny feet, phantom wings, and silent flight. When I was at university in Durham I often used to sit with window open, trying to catch one as it flew into the light cast by my desk-lamp. I once caught a buff ermine moth down by the river Weir – after goading it into my hands I began the insurmountable task of trying to get my friends to touch its soft and fluffy coat, though my efforts were met with shrieks and flurries of feet pounding in the opposite direction.  Many of the moths in England are truly beautiful creatures – you’d be forgiven for thinking that all British moths look like those little brown things that tumble over the window sill like scraps of parcel paper, but many are astonishingly striking and exotic-looking.

 

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Magpie Moth (Abraxus grossulariata)

The magpie moth is a common sight throughout the summer, and loves light and shiny objects as much as its corvine namesake. These pretty moths were once a great favourite with collectors because they could easily be bred to create forms with new and unusual patterns – they were the perfect guinea pig. Their black spots and yellow splodges to me look like the ink splodges one might find in a psychiatrist’s office, or the print of a dress, reminding me of how often silly images can overlap human and nature.

 

 

[Small elephant hawk moth (Deilephila porcellus), caterpillar, and pupa].Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

This colourful little splodge is widespread in our gardens, parks and open country, cutting through the gloom with its rich pink and green colouring. The most astounding thing about these moths is their eyesight, which is perfect colour-vision, even when it is too dark to see at all. Its young larvae are especially striking – the moth gets its name from their long, trunk-like noses.

 

 

tumblr_lzxtrlQpyW1qk931ho1_500Death’s Head Hawk-Moth (Acherontia atropos)

A summer visitor from Africa, you may recognise these creatures from a certain well-known movie poster. If you look closely, you’ll spot an astounding pattern on the moth’s back, an eerily distinctive skull-shaped pattern. This huge (and huge they are – we found two in our garden shed last summer and my mum mistook them for mice!) and relatively rare moth loves honey, and will often sneak into beehives in search of its favourite treat. Once there, it displays another peculiar characteristic: it squeaks. It’s thought that this noise pacifies the bees, but if you pick one up it will make the same noise, so it may also be a defence mechanism. Or perhaps it just has a very excitable personality!

 

 

images (2)Large White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)

The white plume moth looks like a wispy, skeletal fairy; a moth shape cut out from tissue paper. Its feather-like wings and long, spindly legs can be found especially dotted on wasteland.