RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2010

That time of year again, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, one of the world’s biggest exercises in citizen science. The usual drill: one hour of birding in the garden, with the counts being the maximum seen at one time.

  • blue tit × 3
  • great tit × 2
  • coal tit
  • long-tailed tit
  • chaffinch × 3
  • goldfinch
  • woodpigeon × 2
  • pigeon × 4
  • magpie × 3
  • blackbird × 3
  • song thrush
  • robin
  • dunnock × 2
  • ring-necked parakeet × 3
  • sparrowhawk

There’s a few fairly regular visitors missing; greenfinch, jay, great-spotted woodpecker, goldcrest, nuthatch. But on balance think it’s a pretty decent list.

Bird of the Year 2009

Starting with the trainspotter-y listing details: I added three birds to my patch list and three to my British list, one of which was a lifer. Really, that’s not a very good score; I got two lifers and a patch tick in the first week of 2010. But the year had a few highlights nonetheless.

The patch ticks were all in Dulwich Park. One was a fieldfare which turned up when it was snowy in February, which was pleasing but if anything slightly overdue.

There was also a peregrine falcon I spotted flying high overhead in March, which wasn’t actually the first time I saw a peregrine in Dulwich Park; it’s just that the first time, many years ago, what I’d actually seen was a pigeon from a funny angle. It was only a fraction of a second before my conscious brain kicked in, but for that moment I ‘knew’ it was a peregrine (Ivory-billed Woodpecker, anyone?). Back then it would have been a truly staggering sighting; but in the last 15 years London peregrines have gone from 0 to 18 breeding pairs. Which is great news, but downgrades my peregrine sighting from ‘staggering’ to ‘exciting’.

And finally, I saw a firecrest, which was a very gratifying reward for all the times (hundreds? thousands?) I have seen goldcrests and dutifully checked for an eyestripe, just in case.

Two of the three British ticks were from the same jaunt to the Lee Valley Park in June where I had a good day, seeing I think eight species of warbler and hearing several nightingales. But I went there on an actual twitch to see the Savi’s warbler that had been hanging around for a bit. I definitely heard it (they have an extraordinary song) and I saw something which looked roughly like a Savi’s warbler and was in the right place… but was so distant it could have been a reed warbler that just happened to be in the same bit of reedbed. But it’s not a lifer or anything and I definitely heard it, so as far as I’m concerned that’s a tick.

And on the same day I saw a brown flash moving from one bush to another which, equally recklessly, I’m going to say was a Cetti’s warbler. Again, it was definitely there — it was singing beautifully — and it’s not  a lifer, so I’m happy to count it on my British list.

And the third British tick is, slightly embarrassingly, really, little-ringed plover. Which is an attractive wee beastie — the eye-ring makes all the difference — but which lacks the real star quality I’m looking for in my Bird of the Year.

I didn’t see anything new in Provence, but I did get a nice selection of the classic Mediterranean species: nightingales singing all over the place, black kite, the inescapable Sardinian warblers; a short-toed treecreeper nesting under the tiles of the villa where we stayed; Dartford warbler, subalpine warbler, woodchat shrike, woodlark, turtle dove. And one of the cutest birds EVAR, one which I haven’t seen for a few years, crested tit.

But my bird of the year was a species I’ve only seen once before, I think, in Norfolk many years ago, and that one was a female or a juvenile, so it looked, not wishing to be rude, a bit drab and nothingy. Whereas the male I saw in France looked like this:

That is one good-looking bird. I just love that little highwayman’s mask it has, and it’s such an elegant colour combination: pink, russet, slate blue and black. Just as birdsong is often beautiful but doesn’t really sound like music, birds are often beautiful, but despite what the creationists will tell you, they don’t necessarily look designed. Or at least not by a designer with real flair. They look like what they are, things which have developed organically.

But there are some species where that organic process has produced something which happens to coincide with human ideas of stylishness, and the red-backed shrike is one of those. It looks fabulous. And that is as good a reason as any to make it my Bird of the Year for 2009.

» Firecrest is © Sergey Yeliseev and used under the by-nc-nd licence. Lanius collurio – Pie-grièche écorcheur – red-backed shrike is © arpian and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

A bit of Essexy birding

I had a good day at Rainham Marshes in Essex today. I got a new bird, Bean Goose; also saw peregrine, loads of ducks (wigeon, pintail, gadwall, shoveler, shelduck etc), stonechat, meadow pipit, huge numbers of lapwing, ruff, possible water rail, and the most obliging bird of the day, this extremely tame Slavonian Grebe:

Ah, the wonders of iPhone digiscoping.

And the most entertaining sighting of the day was an extremely manic and not-at-all-shy stoat which was scampering around the place like a mad thing.

Bird of the Year 2009: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

Provence in May was just a great place for flowers. I claimed on Twitter to have seen nine or ten species of orchid, although it’s entirely possibly I over-claimed, since there tend to be lots of very similar species, some of them are quite variable, and I didn’t have a book with me. Still, I definitely saw an absolute minimum of six species because I saw six kinds of orchid: i.e. a bee-type orchid, a Serapias orchid, Lizard Orchid, some kind of hellebore and so on. This is a Serapias species:

And there were lots of other flowers: various kinds of rockrose, asphodel, wild Gladiolus, broom, poppies. I love the Mediterranean in spring.

But my plant of the year is lavender. Not the fields of lavender which are such a familiar image of Provence, but the wild lavender, Lavandula stoechas, which was blooming in great swathes of purple out in the scrub:

LATE BREAKING NEWS!!

In a controversial move, the BOTY judges [i.e. me] have made the shock last-minute change to their [my] decision!

I know, you’re excited.

I was browsing through my pictures from Provence, looking for ones to use to illustrate this post, when I came across this shot I snapped with my phone of a weird-looking red thing:

When I saw it, I thought it might be a fungus, but on closer examination it was clearly a plant. The lack of chlorophyll made me wonder if it was some kind of broomrape just emerging, but it didn’t really look right… so I snapped a picture of it and went on.

Well, when I found the photo, I decided to post it to the ID Please group on Flickr, and it turns out it is a different parasitic plant: Cytinus ruber. You can see a more fully open specimen here.

Apparently the Cytinus plant grows entirely inside the roots of Cistus plants — i.e. rockroses; the pink petals in the picture are from a Cistus — and only produces an external growth when it flowers. So it has a lifestyle normally associated with fungi.

So that’s kind of cool. But it gets better (or at least geekier). Cytinus was previously included in the same family as the famous Rafflesia, the amazing genus of plants from southeast Asia which include the largest single flower anywhere and which also live inside their host plant when not in flower.

But DNA testing has revealed that Cytinus is not closely related to Rafflesia at all; it has now been moved to the order Malvales, a large group of largely shrubby flowering plants that includes the mallows, hollyhocks, hibiscus, okra, cotton, baobab and indeed Cistus. So this plant which is so alien-looking and so highly specialised is part of a family of woody flowering shrubs; but it has changed so dramatically that only DNA testing makes it possible to discover the relationship.

So, for being both attractive and completely geektastic, Cytinus ruber is my plant of the year for 2009. Sorry Lavandula stoechas; maybe your turn will come round again another time.

Best Insect

I think that the hornet I saw at the Lee Valley Park deserves a mention. To give it its full name, it was the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, the largest wasp in Europe*, which I rarely see. And another good London sighting was the Summer Chafer I saw on Wandsworth Common.

And in Provence in May I saw some nice butterfly species, like Swallowtail and Scarce Swallowtail, masses of little blue ones, Red Admirals, Painted Lady, and the Southern White Admiral, which was new to me:

There was also the extraordinary Libelloides coccajus, which completely threw me for a loop when I saw it. I didn’t have most of my books with me, and I don’t know when I’ve last been so baffled by an animal. Being unable to identify an insect isn’t a surprise; they are really hard, and while I’m a reasonably competent birdwatcher, outside the class Aves I’m a complete lightweight. But to see such a large and spectacular insect and have absolutely no idea what group of insects it belonged to was startling. And cool.

And the insect spectacle of the year was the Great Painted Lady Invasion. Painted Lady butterflies were all over the place in Provence, but although there were certainly a lot of them, I didn’t think much of it; and then they started turning up in the UK in record numbers. Painted Ladies are migratory, and they make it to Britain in fairly small numbers in most years; this year they arrived in their millions. And I initially learned about it on the internet: suddenly references to Painted Ladies, sometimes thousands of Painted Ladies, started popping up in my Twitter feeds and on blogs. By the time they reached London they had spread out a bit, and I never saw more than half a dozen in the garden at once. But they were all tending to travel in the same direction, and they just kept on coming for days. I did a half-hour count on May 29th and saw 36 pass through. One a minute is infrequent enough that you could be in the garden and miss what was happening; but scale up those numbers over the whole of the country — over the whole of Northern Europe, probably — and it’s a staggering phenomenon. And all because of a particularly good thistle-growing season in Morocco the previous year, apparently.

But despite stiff competition, my insect of the year was Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, Hemaris tityus, which, as you can see at that link, is a moth which looks like a bee, right down to the transparent wings. It’s something I’ve wanted to see ever since I got my first moth book, and I was thoroughly pleased to see them in Provence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

Once again, embarrassingly, despite the fact that so many of the world’s species are non-insect invertebrates, I can’t think of single particularly notable spider, scorpion, snail, squid, sea squirt or anything else which I saw in the wild this year…

Best Fish

…and I don’t have anything for the fish category either. Though that’s not particularly surprising because the little buggers live underwater all the time, so you don’t tend to spot them when you’re just casually out and about.

Best Amphibian

Marsh Frogs, at the London Wetland Centre, Barnes, making quacking noises that sound more a duck than most ducks do.

Best Reptile

There’s not a lot of choice in this category, but that’s OK, I’m very happy to choose Moorish Gecko.

I love geckos, with their little buggy eyes, their flat feet, and the way they scamper around on the walls as though it was the easiest thing in the word to ignore the laws of physics.

Best Mammal

My mammal of the year 2009 is the water vole, Arvicola amphibius. These used to be a common sight in British rivers and canals, but they’re sadly quite rare these days, so I was pleased to see one in the Lee Valley. And I’m fairly sure it actually was a water vole rather than the much commoner and much less adorable brown rat.

Best Ecosystem

I love dry scrubby habitats — heathland, savannah, Mediterranean scrub — although it’s hard to explain why, exactly. So the Provençal scrub in the spring, with the wild lavender and rockrose in flower, and orchids and gladiolus, and pine and broom, and the nightingales singing, and butterflies everywhere … love it. There’s nowhere better. And it is certainly my ecosystem of the year for 2009.

Tune in again in an unspecified amount of time to discover the winner of the most prestigious award of all, Bird of the Year 2009.

* To get seriously geeky about it, and here at the BOTY awards we are unashamedly geeky about such things, it is the largest eusocial wasp; i.e. the largest of those wasps that builds a large paper nest. Which are what people normally think of as wasps. Using the term ‘wasp’ in a broader sense, the horntail/great wood-wasp Urocerus gigas is certainly larger, and I think there are even larger species of parasitic wasps in other parts of Europe.

Christmas food debrief, bitterns etc

I should note in advance: the bitterns are not part of the food debrief. I daresay they turned up on Henry VIII’s dining table, but not mine.

Food notes: the fruity stuffing was good, the pistachio one mainly tasted of parsley and garlic, which was pleasant enough but not very christmassy. The prunes in bacon were delish, a much better addition than sausages in bacon. Cooking a whole boned ham leads to Too Much Ham. I’m quite glad I did it this once, but I won’t again.

And actually I don’t think I’m going to do turkey next year; even with a (very expensive) free range organic slow-grown turkey, cooked beautifully, though I do say so myself, it’s just a big boring. The stuffing is much better than the actual bird. Maybe I’ll do a big joint of beef instead.

I had a great day birding today: I’d heard via the London Wetland Centre’s Twitter feed (@wwtlondon) that the cold weather had produced an unprecedented influx of bitterns. They aren’t sure whether they’re from elsewhere in the UK or from the continent, but yesterday and today they’ve had 6 or 7 on site. Now bitterns are notoriously skulky and difficult to see, being streaky reed-coloured birds that live in reedbeds — and incidentally, I believe the American Bittern is rather easier to see than the European, for comparison — and last time I went bitterning at Barnes I saw diddly-squat, but I figured I’d never get a better chance.

And sure enough I had six sightings of bittern, each closer and clearer than the one before. The water was mainly frozen over, and they were presumably desperate enough for food that they were stalking along the ice just by the edge of the reeds, with their surprisingly large feet sliding with every step.

I also had great views of water rail, the bird you may remember me mentioning before which has, according to the book, ‘a discontented piglet-like squeal, soon dying away’. I saw four pairs, including telescope views of a pair preening each other about thirty feet away.

And my last special bird of the day was jack snipe, a smaller, less elegant and generally more self-effacing version of the normal snipe, but my second lifer of the day after the bitterns.

So some early contenders for the Bird Of The Year Award 2010. I do btw still intend to do BOTY 2009, but it can wait until my computer has been fixed. Using the iPhone for blogging works better than you might think but it’s no substitute when it comes to long posts with links and pictures.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 24: Robin

No surprise in the final bird on the advent calendar. Or at least, no surprise for my British readers; robins probably appear on more Christmas cards here than Jesus.

In fact, the robin is so deeply linked to Christmas that it’s slightly surprising to remember other countries don’t have the same association. Some of them have the excuse that they don’t actually have any robins — and no, Americans, your so called ‘robins’ don’t count — but the same applies to other European countries.

It’s not completely clear where the connection came from. It’s relatively recent, as folklore goes; at most back to the eighteenth century, and it became really well established in the nineteenth, as Christmas cards became popular. One suggestion, according to Birds Britannica, is that Robin was a nickname for Victorian postmen, who had red uniforms; so the birds often appeared on Christmas cards carrying envelopes in their beaks. Or perhaps it’s because they sing through the winter.

Christmas aside, they are very popular birds; they are famously tame around people, hanging around gardeners looking for worms. Apparently they actually evolved this behaviour in association with wild boar, which they would follow through the forest in much the same manner. I guess there are worse things to be than a substitute boar.

Happy Christmas, one and all.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 23: Partridge

I’ve been baking a ham, wrapping presents, and listening to cheesy Christmas music today, so let’s plough on with the Christmas clichés.

I’ll skip the seven swans a-swimming, the six geese a-laying, four colly-birds, three french hens and two turtle doves; but here’s a partridge:

It’s not in a pear tree because, apart from anything else, it would be very unusual to see a partridge in any kind of tree.

The partridge above is the Grey Partridge, Perdix perdix, which is native to the UK, as well as much of the rest of Europe. So that’s probably the partridge in the song, although according to Wikipedia the song came from France, so perhaps it was about the Red-legged Partridge — which also came from France. The song dates to 1780 in English, and the first breeding record of RLP is 1770, so they could even have been introduced together… though probably not.

People have all sorts of reasons for introducing birds to countries where they aren’t native, but not surprisingly, species which are good for hunting and eating are one popular choice.

The Red-legged Partridge is still known to hunters in the UK as the ‘French Partridge’, and even after 200 years we still think of it as an introduced species. But it’s not the only introduced game animal; the pheasant, the rabbit and the fallow deer are all so well established as to seem like native species, but the (originally Asian) pheasant was brought by the Romans, and the Normans brought us fallow deer and rabbits.

Here’s some good stuff from Wikipedia about variant versions of the song:

France

In the west of France the piece is known as a song, “La foi de la loi,” and is sung “avec solennite,” the sequence being: a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs’ trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful full-breasted maidens, and twelve musketeers with their swords.

Scotland

In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were three partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o’ merry corn.

That French version sounds like a recipe for one hell of a Christmas party.

» Photo Credits: Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) is © Tomasz Kulakowski and used under the CC by-nd licence. Partridge in Snow 2 is © Keith Marshall and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 22: Spotted Nightjar

I’m going out on the razz this evening and I have things to do; presents to wrap, cats to give pills to, ummm… that might be it. But anyway, here’s a quick one, a lovely picture of a Spotted Nightjar and chick which I found on Flickr:

Cryptic camouflage designed to help birds hide can be just as beautiful as flamboyant plumage used to attract mates.

» Photo Credit: There are two nightjars is © Brent Barrett, and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 21: Raven

My computer shows signs of being on its last legs, so here’s an avian omen of death. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, in the build-up to a battle, three animals — the eagle, the raven and the wolf — turn up in an ominous foreshadowing of the bloodshed to come.

I’m pretty sure this literary trope didn’t arise from symbolism or metaphor, but from simple observation. Animals don’t need to be that clever to work out that following an army is a way to find meat.*

And ravens are actually pretty smart. Crows and parrots are the cleverest of birds, capable of problem-solving, playful and inquisitive.

Perhaps that’s why Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (‘thought’ and ‘mind’), which flew around the world each day, gathering information for him.

And North American folktales raise the raven even further, into the spirit who created the human world; but also a trickster, capricious and dangerous.

That’s my kind of creator: a raven creating the world out of boredom and mischief. That’s the trouble with Christianity; I guess I can live with a a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful, but does he have to be so damn pious?

* Even when there wasn’t human flesh available, there would be scraps of rubbish to pick at. It has been suggested that dogs were not intentionally domesticated by people; wolves domesticated themselves by switching to a diet of scavenged rubbish and becoming associated with human settlements.

» Photo Credits, from top to bottom: Common Raven (Corvus corax), © Derek Bakken, used under the CC attribution licence; Raven, © Atli Harðarson, used under the by-nd licence; Common Raven, © Paruula, used under the by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 20: Hawfinch

I sometimes dream about birds. Particularly, I dream about rare birds turning up suddenly in my garden.

And my subconscious aims high; I dream about mixed flocks of parrots and hornbills which, in dream-logic, have been caught up in some extraordinary freak weather system and blown from all corners of the world to turn up together in suburban London.

These are nice dreams, I suppose, but they also carry a whiff of anxiety. The panicky feeling of trying to find and positively identify an exciting new bird, which, being a bird, is liable to fly away.

I remember three birds from last night. There was some kind of pipit with a yellow flush along each side of a strongly streaked breast. There was a large, black and white booby which was flying against a window with the mechanical aimlessness of a badly-programmed computer game character that reaches a wall and just keeps walking on the spot. And there was one identifiable species; a hawfinch:

A booby turning up in my garden would be preposterous. A hawfinch would just be staggeringly unlikely; they do breed in Britain, and they clearly come to birdtables in some places:

Look at that beak, big enough to crack open cherry stones. What a bird.

» Hawfinch is © Andreas Øverland and used under the CC Attribution licence. Hawfinch 3 is © Max Westby and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 18: Short-eared Owl

I had to have an owl for one of these entries, because let’s face it, everyone loves owls. So here is the Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus.

The Short-Eared Owl Is one of the most widely distributed species of bird in the world; it’s found on all continents apart from Australia and Antarctica. There are even endemic subspecies on both Hawaii and the Galapagos. These four photos were taken in British Columbia, Iceland, the Galapagos and California respectively.

There’s something slightly mysterious about these species which have incredibly wide natural distributions: Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Mallard. I mean: why them? Obviously they have to be adaptable species, but even that just invites the question: what makes them so much more adaptable than other species?

For example: there are about 30 native duck species in Europe. What is it about the mallard that makes it so much more adaptable, so that while other species are dependent on specialised habitats and need to be the subject of careful conservation programs, the mallard just cheerfully takes up residence on any old bit of urban canal or garden pond?

It’s not surprising that when new, manmade habitats appear, like parks and gardens, some species should be quicker to adapt to them, perhaps because they somewhat resemble some wild habitat; so House Martins, which were once cliff-nesters, adapted easily to nesting on buildings. They were moving into an open niche. But presumably that wasn’t true for the Short-eared Owl. So what’s their secret?

» Photo credits, from top down: Short-eared Owl, © Rick Leche and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence. Fighting Owls, © Árdís and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence. Short-eared owl on Genovesa island, © Petr Kosina and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence. Short Eared Owl (Asio flammeus), © leftrightworld and used under the CC by licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 17: Green-tailed Sunbird

Still on the dinosaur thing, because it is genuinely fascinating, I think. Yesterday I picked a bird that looked like a bit like a dinosaur to illustrate the point, but of course they’re all evolved from dinosaurs, even ones like the Long-tailed Tit, or this Green-tailed Sunbird:

And it’s not a distant relationship, in evolutionary terms; birds fit right into the middle of the family tree of dinosaurs. Here’s something I just learnt from Wikipedia, which I don’t think I’d appreciated before: Velociraptor, the predatory dinosaur made famous by Steven Spielberg, had feathers. Indeed it had stiff, quilled ‘wing feathers’ on its arms, although it didn’t use them for flight. It had hollow bones. It brooded its eggs. Some of the smaller species in the same family probably used their feathers for gliding.

However, the other scary predatory dinosaur in Jurassic Park, the Tyrannosaurus rex, did not have these kind of quilled feathers. Which means that Velociraptor shares a common ancestor with modern birds which it does not share with T rexVelociraptor is more closely related to the Green-tailed Sunbird than it is to Tyrannosaurus.

And Tyrannosaurus, in turn, shares a common ancestor with the sunbird which it does not share with Iguanadon, or Stegosaurus, or Diplodocus.

It’s an extraordinary thought.

» I didn’t want to get too sidetracked because the details are complicated and I’m only getting most of this stuff from Wikipedia myself, but just a couple of pedantic points. Firstly, the velociraptors in the film are much too big, apparently, although there is a larger related species called Deinonychus which is the right sort of size. The real Velociraptor was about turkey sized. Still too big to glide though.

And secondly: it’s true that T rex did not have quilled feathers. But apparently, some of the smaller tyrannosaurids do show signs of having had primitive, downy feathers for insulation. It may be that the only reason T rex doesn’t have these is that it is too big to need insulation, and like elephants, rhinos and hippos, it has lost it. Or maybe the hatchlings were downy but they grew out of it.

Wikipedia has an article about feathered dinosaurs. The whole business is mind-boggling, in the best possible way.

Photo credit: Green-tailed Sunbird (male) – Aethopyga nipalensis is © Mike (NO captive birds) in Thailand and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 16: Red-legged Seriema

In the comments for the last entry, Tricia said:

Just…look at its DINOSAUR EYE, Harry!

seriema

The reason why some birds look, from the right angle, rather dino‑saurian is that they are dinosaurs.

Red-legged Seriema

Many people think that the dinosaurs went extinct. This is NOT TRUE.

They just grew feathers.

» The headshot of the Red-legged Seriema is © Sarah and Iain but used under the CC attribution licence. The other Red-legged Seriema is, as far as I can tell from the Wikimedia information, © James Faraco Amorim and used under the CC by-sa licence.

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Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 14: Wilson’s Storm-petrel

The tubenoses — the petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses — are a wonderful group of birds saddled with a slightly unfortunate name. It’s true that they do have tubular nasal passages on top of their beaks, presumably to help them sniff out food at sea, but it’s not exactly a name full of the romance and mystery of the open ocean.

But then you or I might not look at horses, tapirs and rhinoceroses and feel the most interesting thing about them is that they have odd numbers of toes. That’s taxonomists for you: they concentrate on what’s most distinctive, not what’s most exciting.

And for me, what makes the tubenoses so wonderful is that connection with the sea. They are genuinely sea-birds; to watch a shearwater or an albatross skimming between the waves is to see a bird completely inhabiting a world that we can only visit. The open sea is where they are at ease; for them, dry land is where the danger lies. Most species only come to land to breed, and even that, only at night. I visited Skomer last year, the Welsh island with about 120,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters — 30% of the world’s population — and if it wasn’t for the bodies of those who had fallen prey to the Great Black-backed Gulls, you would never have known they were there at all. To see them, I had to take a boat trip out as night fell, to watch the flocks building up offshore.

But shearwaters and albatrosses, with their stiff-winged, banking flight, have a sort of purposeful quality, a robustness that seems fitting for a life at sea. What’s amazing about the storm-petrels is how completely unsuited to that life they seem. This is a group of Wilson’s Storm-petrels:

They are little, delicate, fluttery birds, and when they are feeding, they flutter along close to the water and patter their little feet on the surface. Supposedly the name, petrel, is a diminutive of Peter because, like St. Peter, they walk on the water.

It’s not so surprising that they feed at sea, perhaps, but the idea that they make their whole lives at sea, that they spend the winter out among the big rolling grey waves of the open ocean, is astonishing.

It’s not just storm-petrels, of course. Puffins, those comical little birds which look like cuddly toys, or earnest, permanently surprised clowns: they overwinter out in the middle of the north Atlantic. Writing this at night in London, with a cold breeze coming from the window, it’s an extraordinary thought, all those little birds sitting out there on the water somewhere in the cold and the dark.

» Both photos of Wilson’s Storm-petrels (1, 2) are © Patrick Coin and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence. Incidentally, check out this hypnotic video I found while looking for photos.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 13: Long-tailed Tit

Familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s hard to get excited about even the most attractive of birds when you see them for the 20,000th time. But there are a few birds which are dirt common but which never fail to give me a little thrill of pleasure every time I see them. Like long-tailed tits:

They are just so adorable, like little feathery lollipops.

They travel around in restless groups, constantly talking to each other with little sree sree noises; outside the breeding season it’s not unusual to see groups of 25, 30, 40 birds, and you can stand in a gap between a couple of trees and see them fly over, one after another, half powder-puff and half tail, and they just keep on coming and coming. If it wasn’t for all that tail, they’d be one of the smallest birds in Europe, and they are Just So Cute. Even their nests look like something a flower fairy would live in.

» Long Tailed Tits is © SteveB!Mésange à longue queue (Aegithalos Caudatus) Long-Tailed tit is © Luciano Giussani. They are both used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 12: Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

This is one of my favourite birds ever, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla:

Or in a more orthodox portrait:

They have a simple three-note call, and on a birding trip to Venezuela we encountered one individual that consistently got the notes in the wrong order. Which got funnier every time it did it.

» Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, perhaps my favorite blurry shot ever is © Andy Jones, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and used under a CC by-nc-sa licencechestnut-crowned antpitta was originally uploaded to Flickr by jj birder and is © John Jackson.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 11: Red-necked Phalarope

When I read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, it kind of made me want to visit Iceland. On the one hand, it’s a bleakly pessimistic tale of a man struggling to drag himself out of grinding poverty, only to be crushed underfoot by changing circumstances. On the other hand: phalaropes!

Phalaropes — that’s the Red-necked Phalarope — are related to sandpipers, snipes and suchlike. Apart from being rather beautiful, they have a couple of particular quirks of their own. One is this extraordinary feeding behaviour (Red-necked Phalarope again, this time in winter plumage):

That spinning swirls food up to the water surface where they can pick it up — or at least that’s the assumption; it’s not an easy thing to test, and I don’t know if anyone has tried. Whatever the purpose, it is incredibly endearing watching them spin around like little demented rubber duckies.

The other unusual thing about them is that the female is more brightly coloured, while the drabber male incubates the eggs and raises the young. The rule of thumb in biology, that males are larger, more brightly coloured, and more aggressive, arises in the end from a basic physiological bias: sperm are easy and cheap to produce, eggs are more expensive. Babies are more demanding still. So there’s a general advantage for males to try to mate with as many females as possible — they can always make more sperm, so any chance to reproduce is worth a shot — while females have a different set of incentives: because there is a practical upper limit on the number of offspring they can produce, they need to be more choosy their mates. Which is why, in human societies, ‘polygamy’ actually always means ‘polygyny’; men having many wives is common, wives with many husbands incredibly rare.

That logic does apply to birds as well as mammals: birds’ eggs are still somewhat expensive to produce — more so than sperm, anyway — and in the vast majority of birds the males are the ones with the glamorous plumage. But the imbalance is less dramatic, and if the males can be persuaded to sit on the eggs and do all the rearing, that frees up the females to maintain territories, mate with several males, leave eggs with each of them and bugger off leaving them to bring up the chicks.

This role reversal has happened in a handful of bird species, including the phalaropes, the painted snipes, the dotterel, the jacanas (lily-trotters), and the buttonquails. These birds are all somewhat related, but not especially closely; they are in the same large group that includes waders, gulls, terns and auks. Clearly it is a perfectly functional arrangement, but it still leaves you wondering: why them? What circumstance arose that caused this behaviour to switch? Did they go through a period of raising the young cooperatively before the sexual roles diverged again, this time the other way round? It’s fascinating stuff.

» IMG_8198 is © Bjarni Thorbjornsson and used under a CC by-nc licence. The video is from MIT TechTV.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 10: Sword-billed Hummingbird

When I started this advent calendar I intended to just post picture of a bird each day and leave it at that, but I keep thinking of things I want to add. Today, though, I really am just going to post a picture:

That is a Sword-billed Hummingbird, Ensifera ensifera. Not, sadly, one of the hummingbirds I saw in Ecuador.

» Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is © David Cook and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 9: Sedge Warbler

You wouldn’t last long as a birder if you weren’t able to find beauty in little brown birds, but they don’t always photograph well, so I was pleased to find this lovely shot of a sedge warbler on Flickr:

The Sedge Warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus, is an archetypal LBJ — Little Brown Job — but is actually quite flashy compared to some of its relatives; with that striking white eyebrow stripe and streaky back, it can look positively glamorous on a sunny day in spring, perched on top of a bush and singing its heart out.

And it’s the song, really, which is the most remarkable thing about them. It’s a bargain that many birds strike with evolution: being small, drab and inconspicuous is great when it comes to avoiding predators, but when it’s time to attract a mate, you need to be a bit less… boring. So they sing. And the finest singers are usually found among the drabbest birds: the warblers, the larks; the nightingale.

These birds are like the anti-peacocks; the peacock has the most extraordinary plumage imaginable, but all it can do is squawk. The song of the nightingale or the skylark is an evolutionary freak as remarkable as the peacock’s tail.

The particular trick of the Acrocephalus warblers is mimicry. Sedge warblers produce a fast, rattling song, full of croaking noises, squeaks and whistles, and in amongst it all you can hear little snatches of other species: tits, finches, wagtails, coot. And apparently, as well as those European species, there are little snatches of African bird calls, learnt while the warblers are overwintering south of the Sahara. The result isn’t perhaps quite as pleasing to the human ear as nightingale song, but it’s still a remarkable thing — and the female sedge warblers seem to like it.

You can hear a selection of sedge warblers on xeno-canto, an excellent database of European birdsong I discovered while writing this post. And also its cousin, the marsh warbler, whose song consists almost entirely of mimicry.

» Sedge Warbler is © Tim Williams and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 8: Swallow-tailed Gull

This is the Swallow-tailed Gull, Creagrus furcatus. It’s endemic to the Galapagos, and as you can see, with that big red eye-ring it’s one of the world’s more striking seagull species.

I use the word ‘seagull’ deliberately because, for some reason, it really winds up a lot of birdwatchers; they insist that the only acceptable term is simply ‘gull’.

This is of course ridiculous. ‘Seagull’ is a perfectly reasonable, normal English word; it’s mildly colloquial, but it’s not actually incorrect, unlike, say, ‘buzzard’ for vulture or ‘hedge sparrow’ for dunnock.  And while gulls aren’t the most pelagic of species — they’re not like albatrosses that only return to land to breed — most species, like this one, are more or less associated with the sea.

But then it’s not really about accuracy: it’s just the linguistic equivalent of pissing in the corners to mark your territory. Insisting that seagull is ‘wrong’ is just a cheap way of asserting your own status as a higher class of birdwatcher than the little old lady who throws bread to the seagulls from Brighton pier. Because if you’re a birder you use the right kind of colloquial words for birds: blackwit, hoodie, sproghawk, bonxie, butterbutt, mipit, sprosser…

Anyway, returning from that detour to our friend the Swallow-tailed Gull (you can see the slightly forked tail in the picture above). The most remarkable thing about the STG? It’s the world’s only nocturnal gull species, which is why it has such big eyes, and it feeds on fish and squid that come to the surface at night.

» swallowtailgull 11 is © zrim/Phil; 090717-F10-8769Swallow-tailed Gull is © Mike Cornwell. They are both used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 7: mousebirds

I just love this picture of mousebirds feeding on aloe flowers in South Africa:

I’m not quite sure about the species — Speckled Mousebird, maybe? — but it doesn’t matter. Here are some more mousebirds, showing their tails better:

The mousebirds are an African family of birds which are distantly related to parrots. They are great little beasts, with real personality, and as they clamber around the foliage in groups they do have a certain mousey quality to them.

They are also one of the very first genuinely ‘exotic’ birds I ever saw; on a family holiday to Kenya when I was quite young we flew into Nairobi and stayed the night there before heading off on safari, and I saw some mousebirds in the the city that evening. OK, they’re a bit drabber than some tropical birds — they don’t have the jaw-dropping impact of toucans or quetzals or bee-eaters — but they are proper African birds, and it was a one of the first of many thrilling sightings on that holiday.

»  Mousebirds on Aloe ferox flowers is © Martin Heigan and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. 5 in a row…………, was uploaded to Flickr by and is © crazykanga.