Tuesday, 23 February 2021

The first day of Spring (well, maybe) and a bit about Female Birdsong

On Sunday I cycled out to Guisborough Forest - a Forestry England site about 8 and a half kilometres south-east of my house as the Crow (or indeed the Jackdaw, Rook or Raven) flies. This involved riding up the vicious hill called Ormesby Bank (erm, well to be honest I pushed the bike up at least half of it) and then going along the fairly busy A171 Whitby Road which was a bit hairy in places  (although there is now an off-road cycle track for about half of the stretch I was on). 

The distinctive shape of Roseberry Topping, a sandstone outcrop
south of Middlesbrough, was visible for most of my journey

However, despite these hardships, I really enjoyed the journey. It felt like the first day of spring - warm and sunny with lots of birds singing. Almost as soon as I left the house I started hearing Robins, Dunnocks and Blue Tits warbling and chattering away. Then, while having a rest halfway up Ormesby Bank, I heard the descending wheeeze  that is Greenfinch song, followed by the "fast bowler's run-up and delivery" of a male Chaffinch and the repetitive teacher, teacher, teacher of a Great Tit. Just past the Cross Keys Inn on the A171 the ethereal song of a Skylark drifted down from the heavens - amazingly still audible over the pretty constant traffic noise. I didn't hear my first Blackbirds and Wrens of the day until turning off the main road just  before I arrived at the car park and visitor centre, where I locked up my bike.

The area around the visitor centre was very crowded with people, and quite noisy, so at the earliest opportunity I got on to the little footpaths going uphill and once again I was surrounded by singing birds. As well as more Robins, Chaffinches, and Dunnocks there were a couple of Song Thrushes (each lovely flutey phrase repeated two or three times before moving onto the next one) and lots of Coal Tits, particularly in the areas dominated by coniferous trees. Coal Tit song sounds (to me anyway) very like a Great Tit but more slurred and not as ringing. 

Although some of the bird noises described above might not seem very musical to you, they all qualify as birdsong and are used by the singers to attract mates, establish territories and ward off rivals. Like many birdwatchers I grew up thinking that singing birds were always, or nearly always, males of the species. In recent years however, work by ornithologists from across the world, (aided by a larger group of citizen-scientists sending in recordings) has shown that, far from being a rare event, it is actually quite common for female birds to sing, particularly in the tropics. This might be one of the reasons why it has taken us so long to notice female birdsong. 

Until the early 21st Century, most research into birdsong had been done in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. In these places the harsh winters mean that songbirds breed only in the spring and summer, and so have to set up breeding territories every year. In addition many species are migrants that race north in the spring to their breeding areas, having spent the winter in the tropics. The males often arrive first and compete with each other to set up territories - which they do by singing their hearts out. The females then arrive and choose the male with the most elaborate song (which, presumably, indicates that he has been able to find a good territory, fend off other males while still having time and energy to waste on singing). This leads, over successive generations, to male song becoming more and more elaborate.

In the tropics it's a different story. Many species breed year round, with no discernible breeding season, and may keep the same mate and territory for several years. In these circumstances it is possible that birds sing for different reasons than in temperate or arctic zones, and that this might explain why the ladies, in some cases at least, sing much as the chaps. To find out more about this fascinating aspect of bird behaviour, or if you are just confused by my explanation, visit the Female Birdsong Project's website (The Female Birdsong Project) to find out more. You can even contribute to the project, if you see a female bird singing.

Although I didn't notice any females singing at Guisborough on Sunday, I did have an experience with this in August last year when I saw two Linnets, a male and a female, singing together for several minutes near my home - I wrote about this in my blog at the time (Linnet pair singing together). That blog post includes a bit of video in which you can hear the song, although the birds are just dots in the film. I do remember that when I was watching them through my binoculars I could definitely see that both birds were singing and not just the male.

Anyway, back to Sunday's trip. As well as all the birdsong, plus a Great-spotted Woodpecker drumming (its equivalent of a song), I saw and heard two or three small twittering flocks of Siskins at the tops of some tall alders. I searched in vain for Redpolls (another small finch about the same size as a Siskin) but did add three species to my NMT list for the year - Rook, Treecreeper and Goldcrest (nos. 80, 81 & 82) - all common species that I was surprised not to have seen yet. 

I also saw several flocks of Common Gulls in the fields next to the road - a sure sign that spring isn't quite here yet, as this species is only a winter visitor in these parts. In the next few weeks they will be dispersing to their nesting areas, mostly north of here.  

Common Gull often goes unnoticed among flocks of its noisier, better known,
cousins, Black-headed and Herring Gulls. It is midway in size between the
two and, unlike either of those species has greeny-yellow legs, feet and bill. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Saltholme, Greatham Creek, Bellingham Beck and a couple of surprises at home afterwards

After nearly two weeks without any birding I was able to get out for a bike ride on Saturday. I hadn't been north of the Tees yet this year so I took advantage of the clear weather (although very cold and fairly windy) that was forecast, and headed across the Newport Bridge and along Haverton Hill Road towards Saltholme RSPB Reserve.

A few gulls on the river as I went over the bridge, and a Long-tailed Tit in the bushes just after it, were the first birds of the trip, but I didn't stop until I got to the village of Port Clarence. A flock of thrushes on both sides of the road there were enough incentive to stop (plus I needed a rest) as I still hadn't seen Fieldfare yet this year. However they were all Redwings.

After turning onto the Seaton Carew Road I started seeing a lot more birds - 4 Common Snipe that flew off one of the few unfrozen puddles at the side of the road were the first of many (at least 30 I think) that I saw during the day. A few metres further on a harsh, loud, chattering call got my attention and I saw my first Fieldfare of the year, and the first new NMT bird of the day (#69). The Fieldfare is a large thrush (a bit smaller than a Mistle Thrush but larger than Redwing and Song Thrush) that breeds in northern and central Europe  and comes to these shores in the winter. I think it is the most beautiful of our thrushes - it is certainly the most colourful, with its grey head, chestnut brown back, orangey front (with black spots), white belly and black tail. Unlike many thrushes they often nest in small colonies where they can be quite feisty when threatened by a predator - I watched a nature documentary years ago (David Attenborough I think) that showed a group of them attacking a young Raven which strayed too near the colony. Instead of just shouting at it, as many birds do, they dive bombed it with their droppings until its feathers were so gummed up that it couldn't fly.

This Fieldfare was one of many that I saw later in the day - 
posing nicely for photos on the new banks at the sides of
Cowpen Marsh and Greatham Creek

Moving on, I got to the open water of Saltholme, on both sides of the road. Or rather, what is usually open water. After the freezing weather of the previous week it was nearly all ice, with only small patches in the middle that were unfrozen. In these patches lots of wildfowl were gathered - mostly fairly distant Canada Geese on the West Pool, but a mixed group of ducks and Coot on the East Pool. 

By the time I left this area to take a detour to Dorman's Pool I had increased my NMT list to 73 - having added (as well as the Fieldfare), Coot, Lapwing (about 140 on the field next to Saltholme East), Wigeon and Shoveler.

A view across a frozen landscape toward the new(ish) Saltholme Pools hide

Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Ducks and Mallard - there were also several
Shoveler and Coot here, but I didn't get any pictures of them

A cropped version of the previous pic showing that some of the Mallards and
Wigeon were standing on the ice. There's only one Mallard (a male) in this
picture btw. All the other birds are Wigeon - the males with red-and-buff heads,
the females plainer brown - all with bluish beaks

Dorman's Pool was in a similar state to those at Saltholme - mostly frozen with a little bit of open water in the middle, although the birds were different. A knot of about 7 swans sitting directly on the ice (apparently) teased me by keeping their heads tucked under wings most of the time but the few that looked up were definitely Mute Swans and they all seemed the same size and shape so my hope of adding Whooper Swan to the list was thwarted. Several Snipe flew out out of the long grass next to the car park, but one heavier bird proved to be a Woodcock, my second of the year. Dorman's is the best place in the area to see the elusive Bearded Tit but they were staying out of sight in the reeds on this occasion.

Next was a quick visit to the Saltholme car park and visitor centre where I added Tree Sparrow to the list for the day and the year (NMT #74). This much scarcer relative of the House Sparrow can be distinguished from its cousin by the all-chestnut crown and the black 'comma' mark on the cheek. Unlike House Sparrows, both sexes look the same in Tree Sparrows, so if you see a plain brown, sparrow in the UK, it's a female House Sparrow.
Saltholme RSPB reserve has a good population of Tree Sparrows
which are now rare in most of the UK (the UK population decreased
by 93% between 1973 and 2008)

The last leg of my outward journey took me a mile and a half further north to Cowpen Marsh, Greatham Creek and Seal Sands, where the network of pools, channels and tidal mud held good numbers of ducks and waders, including three species that I hadn't seen yet this year - Shelduck (#75), Teal (#76) and Dunlin (#77). A Marsh Harrier had been seen just before I got there but I missed it.

Then it was the long haul home, against the wind for most of the way, with just a brief stop to look at Billingham Beck, where it passes under Haverton Hill Road. I hadn't realised what a good spot this is for birds - today there were several Teal, some gulls, a Redshank and a Snipe, but (I thought) nothing particularly special. The site definitely warranted future visits though.

Arriving home, tired and happy, I was enjoying a nice cup of tea with my wife when she spotted something at the window which turned out to be a Chiff-chaff (my first of the year - #78, and the first we've ever seen in our garden)  hovering briefly before going to sit on our washing line and then taking cover in our ornamental shrubs.

I thought the Chiff-chaff was going to be the last bit of excitement of the day - until I copied the day's photos onto the computer. After picking some nice shots of Fieldfare, Tree Sparrow and other birds to put in this blog I looked at one of the not very good pics of the Snipe I saw at Billingham Beck and noticed something I hadn't even realised was there. I wanted to be sure I wasn't making a silly mistake so I sent the photo to  a friend and also sought some opinions on Twitter. They all confirmed what I thought. The little brown bird circled in red in the photo below (the Common Snipe is circled in blue) was indeed a Jack Snipe. Jack Snipe is the smallest snipe and different enough from the others to be placed in a genus of its own. It breeds in a vast range stretching from eastern Siberia to Scandinavia but in the UK is only seen in winter, where you are most likely to see it burst from almost under your feet in marshy fields, before flying a very short distance into cover again.  I had a slight dilemma about whether to count it on my NMT list or not - I hadn't, after all, seen it in the field. In the end I decided to count it, making it #78 on the list and pushing Chiff-chaff down to #79. A very nice end to a brilliant day!

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Birding down Memory Lane, plus a philosophical(ish) point

Hi all, I haven't managed to do any birding at all since my last post (a combination of being really busy every weekday and awful weather today (Saturday) which made me less than eager to go for a long cycle ride). So this week I've decided to take a walk (or rather a bike ride) down memory lane.

For the first 9 months of 2010 I was part of a group of birders in the area around Vancouver, Canada, doing a Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) bird list. Most of us never actually met, and instead we shared our stories, lists etc. on an internet group called "bcvanbirds" (one of the newsgroups/listservs that used to be so popular in the pre-Facebook days). I was living near the town of White Rock, down by the US border and, although I had some good birding spots near me, some of the best birding in the area was further west, on the other side of Boundary Bay, so during that year I made several trips out there on the bike, and took advantage of the fact that Vancouver buses have bicycle-carriers on the front to get home. 

The rest of this blog is an account I posted on bcvanbirds on Tuesday the 2nd of February that year, with a few explanatory notes for those unfamiliar with North American birds or the geography of the Vancouver area.


(rather long email) - NMT South Delta - and a philosophical observation

Hi Everybody,

this post turned out a lot longer than I intended it to so if you're easily bored you should probably scroll down to the last paragraph or just skip to the next email in your in-box.

I made it out to the wild west again today (following in everyone else's bike-tracks from yesterday). I think I must be getting fit because at the end of the day it really didn't feel as if I had ridden very far. It was actually about 71.4km (aka 44.36 miles), which is only just a bit less than I did last week when I felt I had gone a really long way.

Anyway - enough of that, what about the birds? After getting over all the obstacles of roads, rivers and railways, the day really started just as it was full daylight and I was at the top of 112th Street heading down to the dyke [the long sea-wall on the north side of Boundary Bay].

Looked for the Golden Eagle on 112th but didn't find it - several Baldies [Bald Eagles] though - the first of probably well over 80 that I saw throughout the day. At the bottom of 112th there was a good-sized blackbird flock which I searched thoroughly for rusties, cowbirds  and other goodies but only found Brewers, redwings and Starlings. [Note - "Blackbirds" here refers to member of the large American bird family Icteridae, which are unrelated to the European Blackbird (which is a kind of thrush). It includes Rusty, Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds - all mentioned here. Other members of the family are Grackles, Meadowlarks and some Orioles. The Starling referred to here is the same species we get but it is an unwelcome introduction in North America, rather than a declining native bird as it is here.]

A male Red-winged Blackbird. The red epaulettes which give this widespread
North American bird its name, are only seen in the males and are most visible when 
they are singing, like this one which I photographed in Ontario in April 2009

The ride along the dyke to Beach Grove was really nice - good weather (despite the forecast) and lots of birds. Swirling masses of dunlins and Black-bellied Plover (NMT #92), loadsaducks, a couple of Red-throated Loons 
[the North American name for Red-throated Diver] at 112th, a constant trail of Bald Eagles, several Northern Harriers (at least 11 along the dyke).

Around Beach Grove there were two big groups of Black Brant (NMT #93) [the North American version of Brent Goose] totalling about 900-1000 birds. In amongst them there were of course hundreds of ducks including a few Eurasian Wigeon. About 50 Sanderling (NMT #94) at Beach Grove (just round the 'corner' of the trail where it turns to the south towards Centennial Beach) were a really pretty sight - bright white in what was turning into a cloudy and grey day. A gull here may have been a Western but I was starting to freeze solid by that time and didn't watch it for very long. 

Western Gull is about the size of a Herring Gull but with a dark grey back.
This is one which I saw a couple of weeks after this trip, in White Rock,
British Columbia. I wasn't sure of the identification until today when I put the
photo on a Facebook group for gull ID.

From there it was nice to warm up again with some proper cycling again (after dawdling along the dyke) - across the peninsula to Tsawwassen. The Willet didn't show itself at first and so that gave me the incentive to go along the length of the causeway on both sides. I was rewarded with 9 Black Oystercatchers (lifer, NMT #95), 3 drake Harlequins (NMT #96) [Harlequin Duck] and several birds I hadn't seen yet during the day. Another interesting gull (well, as interesting as gulls generally get (sorry, I'm not really a gull-person)) may have been a Thayer's but I'd really like to see a few with someone else there to confirm my ID before I start calling them myself. Another frustratingly unidentified bird (two birds to be precise) were two very uncooperative loons, one or both or neither of which might have been Pacific.

Just when I was thinking I might dip on [birding slang for 'not see']  the Willet I saw it (NMT #97),  being dwarfed next to a heron at the base of the causeway on the south side (pretty much where Pete L saw it yesterday - although I didn't get his email til I got back (thanks anyway Pete)).

From there to Alaksen via Arthur Drive (no Gyrfalcon), Deltaport Way (unsuccessfully trying to turn Brewer's into cowbirds again), 33A Avenue (no Kestrel), 41B Street (no Meadowlarks or Collared Doves) and the fields of Westham Island (no shrikes or Whitefronted geese). A bright male Ring-Necked Pheasant [the same species we get in the UK] just before the entrances to Reifel and Alaksen was NMT #98. After a nice cup of coffee, several cookies and a good chat with Pete D. at Alaksen (thanks for the coffee Pete (and sorry for cleaning out your snack jar - you're a real good samaritan)) it was out again into the worsening weather (steady rain by now) and to Reifel [the George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary] for the last birding of the day. No Bohemian on the way in (lots of Cedars though)  [Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings], and no Saw-whets  [Northern Saw-whet Owl] on the way out but lovely very close views of 10 Sandhill Cranes in the middle (NMT #99 and the last one of the day). By now the rain was pelting down and to top it all I got locked in and had to lift my bike over the gate (I got to the gate at 2 minutes past 5), and then ended up walking halfway to Ladner (the combination of narrow winding roads, heavy rain and no rear light made it too dangerous to ride a lot of the time) where I got the bus.

The Cedar Waxwing can be told from the Waxwing that we get in the UK (Bohemian 
Waxwing) by, among other things, the white feathers under the tail, which are red in 
Bohemian. This bird, which I photographed in May 2009 in Ontario, was caught, 
ringed and released safely for the purposes of scientific study at a bird observatory 
and is here being held by a trained and experienced bird-ringer (me).
The waxy red tips to some of the wing feathers, which can be seen in this photo
are what gives the bird the second part of its name

Okay, after that rather long-winded account, what is my philosophical(ish) point.

Let me ask you a question first - how is it that despite a wonderful day's birding in a beautiful setting, with 65 species, dozens of eagles, thousands of wildfowl and shorebirds,  8 NMT ticks and a lifer, I still felt slightly disappointed at the end of it?

I think the real reason is that instead of going out with an open mind I went out with a shopping list of birds that I wanted to see, and the hope that somehow I would manage to do the impossible and beat Pete D's 115 NMT birds. I don't think it even crossed my mind that I wouldn't even get to 100 on my NMT list. I've had similar experiences before when going to great birding sites in far-flung places (notably India) armed with my "Where to watch birds in ..." book, having paid too much attention to the lists of species at the end of the site description (which are always the accumulation of years of birding by hundreds of birders).

I guess the point is that if we decide in advance what is going to give us satisfaction and fulfilment instead of being open to finding beauty and satisfaction where it is rather than where we want it to be, we can sometimes fail to appreciate the gems that we find along the way.

Bye for now

Colin Conroy

now back in South Surrey and warm and dry again"

The approximate route of my journey as far as the Reifel Bird Sanctuary