Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Eastward Ho!

It is 7pm (Monday 24th August) and I've just noticed a party of gulls heading east over the house. They are going to their roost somewhere in the broads, maybe Wroxham or Ranworth. The season is turning and this evening flight heralds, in a small way, the transition from summer into autumn. Although at present it seems only small numbers are involved, the daily movement will soon gather pace so that towards dusk during the shortening days ahead numbers will build. By the end of November large impressive flocks of mainly the larger species will fill the sky as they purposefully seek overnight sanctuary. I attempted to count the birds one evening a couple of years back but had to give up because I couldn't keep track of the numbers involved over quite a large front. It was also getting too cold (my dedication to science only stretches so far). However by the time I jacked it in I had recorded well over 1000 birds over my own back yard travelling in loose 'V formations. My view was restricted by the house on one side and trees on the other, so I imagine from a more strategic vantage point the numbers actually using this corridor of north Norwich as a flight path would be much more impressive. As a spectacle in its own right it makes a worthy show especially when witnessed against the backdrop of a rich red autumnal sunset. Maybe I'll try again in a few weeks time.

Gulls are a regular feature of the summer here in Sprowston nowadays, their caterwauling rendering the area reminiscent of an archetypal seaside town rather than a city suburb 20 miles inland. I like them. We have mainly lesser black-backs hereabouts with smaller numbers of herring. They breed on the roofs of industrial units along the ring road and we are able to witness their complete breeding cycle, although blessedly not from too close a distance. The birds begin to appear during April when their mating rituals, courting flights, raucous cries and looming presence on roof tops adds spice and vibrancy to the local bird scene. The adults really are handsome birds in their spruce breeding livery and still seem incongruous to me in such a built up environment. Their presence here is of course easily explained; a wealth of predator free nest sites together with an ample supply of food courtesy of any number of discarded fast food packages (thrown carelessly from passing cars), scraps they can pilfer from overfilled bins, supermarket throwaways and the odd road kill. They will take live birds as well. I was once shown an extraordinary series of images a chap had taken of birds on his neighbours rooftop. The first showed a lesser black-back and a blackbird sitting idly side by side, the second showed the gull turning his head and looking down at the blackbird as if noticing it for the first time, the third showed the blackbirds legs poking out from the gulls beak; the rest of the bird was sliding down its gullet, swallowed whole in the blinking of an eye. I don't suppose that's an isolated example and I suspect many birds meet an untimely end as a mid-morning snack for one of these brutes.
For a birder the gulls prove themselves quite useful as a means to pinpoint passing birds of prey. Not much gets by them and when they spot a potential danger they will mob it relentlessly, drawing attention to the spiralling raptor with their barking yelps. I've been able to watch many a high flying buzzard jinking to dodge the lunges of the gulls. In this way Ive been able to keep track of passage migrants and residents that I would never have suspected as floating above me without the keen attention of the gulls.

As summer progresses we witness the first flights of the brown mottled juvenile birds always accompanied by their parents who utter guttural notes of encouragement to their offspring. These family bands spend a few weeks marauding around the parish, forming mewing groups of maybe a dozen birds wheeling around in the soft warm breezes. And then like the swifts and pretty much at the same time, they move on, dispersing to child-free school playing fields or to pig farms on the city outskirts. Here in late summer the adults can loaf around and moult in peace, their parental duties dispensed with for another year.   

This colonisation of city environs is a relatively new phenomenon but now the birds can be found all over Norwich. A friend recently recounted how she has been watching a nesting pair in the very centre of the city from her workplace in one of the tower blocks around Surrey Street. Certainly they are to be encountered regularly in that area as well as around the cathedral. At the latter site however they play second fiddle to the territorial peregrines that waste no time in launching themselves with fervent gusto at any that pass too close to their nest site. I believe I am correct in saying that on occasion gulls have become prey items of the falcons illustrating that in nature no one species has it all their own way.

Strangely no mention of nesting pairs in the Norwich area was made in the 2013 Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report with only cursory mention of the odd pair in the previous three years. The 2012 edition does contain an article by Peter Allard relating to the large numbers nesting in the Gt Yarmouth area, but again no mention of Norwich or any other Norfolk town. There must be a couple of hundred pairs of lesser black-backs now breeding in the city with perhaps 30-40 herring gull pairs? It would be very interesting to undertake a city-wide census. Anyone interested in helping?

Hen Harrier Response

As a postscript to my previous post Harried Harriers, my local MP Chloe Smith did respond to me on the subject of what the government plans to do regarding the persecution of hen harriers (and birds of prey in general). I didnt expect, and didnt receive, any firm commitment, but at least she has promised to raise the issue with the Environment Secretary.

 Ms Smiths Response:

           Dear Mr Madden,

Thank you for contacting me about protection for birds of prey.

I understand the concerns you raise and agree with you that raptors including buzzards, kites and hen harriers are some of our most spectacular birds, especially in Norfolk. 

I am aware that the Scottish Government has introduced vicarious liability for certain offences against wildlife committed by a landowner's employee or agent. The Law Commission for England and Wales has considered this issue as part of a broader project on wildlife law, but its interim report raised concerns that this could unjustly extend the normal principles of liability to legitimate businesses and place unreasonable burdens on them.

Currently, therefore, there are no plans to introduce vicarious liability offences in England, but I am assured that Ministers are looking closely at how the new offences in Scotland work in practice and will consider this when shaping future wildlife crime policy. I have written to the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to raise with her your views on this. 

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

With best wishes,

If you want to add weight to the issue it might be worth contacting your own MP ..as they say every little helps.  

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Stop That Pigeon!

There was a flutter of correspondence in the EDP a while ago concerning the increasing numbers of woodpigeons running riot across the land. As you would expect most of the commentary was rather negative with various solutions being presented, most of them of a terminal bent, including many opinions to the effect that they should all be shot. Whilst I’m a little dubious of the legality of this approach, I will not dispute that they can be troublesome, especially if you are a fruit or veg grower, or maybe park your car under a roost!
The population of woodpigeons has burgeoned greatly in recent years, and they have become increasingly urbanised. Basically they are a successful species that seems able to eat vast quantities of just about anything – a kind of goat of the bird world. Yet despite their seemingly unending appetites, general clumsiness and dull wittedness (why do they always fly towards a speeding car?), they do have another side, so I would like to offer an alternative view of these much maligned creatures.

Some years ago I was puzzled by a noise that seemed to be coming intermittently from behind our ageing gas fire. After prising a small gap in the back plate I was surprised to see my torch beam reflected back from the frightened eye of a distinctly bedraggled and forlorn woodpigeon. How on earth the fool had managed to fall down the chimney goodness knows, but there he was huddled and soot-laden in the most inaccessible spot imaginable. A dilemma had presented itself; do I leave the poor thing to expire and rot away, or do I try and rescue it? Only one choice really and a call was made to British Gas who to my mild surprise treated it as an emergency “never know what damage it’s done to the flue on the way down” the man said with much gravity. Within the hour, on a desperately cold February night, our heating system had been turned off, the gas fire dismantled and I was able to grab the bird and release it into the night. Shame we couldn’t restart the boiler and had to freeze for a couple of days, but at least the pigeon survived.

No further thought was wasted on pondering the fortunes of the bird until we noticed the fattest of his ilk loitering in the garden had a deformed wing. Putting two and two together we concluded this individual must be the one that had fallen down our chimney and caused much unnecessary shivering. Over the following 5 years we watched his antics (it was definitely male!) and grudgingly developed affection for what turned out to be a philandering, fearless thug. Despite his deformity, he would strut along the garden path heedless of the odd cat that strayed into the vicinity, he would beat up any rival that dared stray into his realm, he would muscle his way into a share of any food discovered by other birds, and as for the women in his life……!

He was a real tough character who seemed almost indestructible. He would vanish sometimes for a couple of days but always reappeared to assert authority and straighten up his patch.  But now he’s gone and we miss him. I suppose the freezing cold of winter may have finished him off, or maybe it was just old age. Without his iron rule there is a breakdown of order and we seem awash with lawless woodpigeons – we seriously need a coup (sorry, couldn’t resist that one).

As for them being a bit dumb, a neighbour told me that he watched a woodpigeon struggle to reach the contents of his feeders. After a while the bird struck one feeder with its wing and knocked it to the ground where it could happily feed on the spilled seed. This became a regular antic – so perhaps they are not as daft as they seem?  Oh yes they are, we all know they are, but our dictator provided much colour and interest during his reign and our opinion on woodpigeons changed thanks to him and his exploits.

In any event it looks like these fat, waddling and charmingly colourful characters are here to stay. They are colourful you know – take a really close look at the intricacy of their velvety plumage if you don’t believe me. I think we should all just try and live with them but if you see one in your garden with a drooping wing let me know – it would be good to think he is still alive and well and terrorising some other neighbourhood.  

Our Fearless Crooked-winged Woodpigeon

Another Garden Bird Dozing During a Snow Shower

A Juvenile at Cley

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Harried Harriers


Hen harriers. There's been a lot of activity amongst conservationists recently concerning their perilous plight, and quite right too. And with the Glorious 12th having been reached, the cash crop of the (over)managed moorland can be reaped by the moneyed folk who believe blasting some living thing from the sky is good fun. But do we as a nation really care? We are supposedly a country of animal lovers, with whole industries devoted to the wellbeing of domestic pets, with charities doing sterling work looking after that icon of British wildlife the endearing and endemic donkey. Yet we stand by and allow a bunch of gun toting idiots to obliterate one of our most fantastic and beautiful birds of prey; our bird of prey, not some African or Indian species whose tenuous grip on existence would doubtless cause people to launch Facebook campaigns and empty their pockets in a vain attempt to reverse the downward trend. Nothing wrong with that of course, but hells teeth! we have a crisis here right in front of us and it's about time we started sorting out our own backyard before waxing lyrical about what Is happening in the wider world. How can we preach about the horrendous things happening to wildlife around the globe whilst allowing the seemingly unaccountable privileged few to wipe out our own precious bird life? There is simply no excuse in this 21st century of ours for a situation to pertain whereby a minority of rich landowners can effectively - and illegally - eradicate a native species for commercial interests. It stinks and quite frankly is a disgrace. And as for YFTB and that prize fool Ian Botham, let's just say I can think of an excellent use for the handle of that cricket bat loitering in the loft...stick to cricket Botham, its the only thing you are remotely qualified to talk about.

Why doesn't our government do something? Why hasn't any government for the past 20 years done anything? Individually theres not much we can do, but collectively we may get our elected politicians to actually ensure the law is adhered to and our wildlife properly protected. Ive sent a missive to my local MP asking her what the heck she is prepared to do about it, pointing out that although hen harriers do not breed in Norfolk they do use the coast and Broads as an important wintering ground. In this way they contribute, albeit marginally, to our local economy. Maybe we should all do the same? In any event Ill let you know what she says.

My friend Darren who blogs More Than Kittiwakes see link opposite recently recounted the first time he saw a hen harrier which got me thinking as to when I first encountered one here in Norfolk. It was in January 1979 when we had something of an influx with birds being widely reported all over the county. The one I saw was hunting the marshes at Buckenham and shortly after that I saw another as it floated across the road in front of the car at Surlingham. From that point I kept a lookout for these white-rumped raptors every winter and made frequent excursions to the bleak lookout point at Stubb Mill to see them coming to roost in the distant reed beds. The hobby of standing alone on a raised ridge of mud as the sun set over the flat landscape of East Norfolk is one that appeals only to the dedicated. It was, and is, mostly freezing at this spot and at times decidedly eerie. Before the current wooden platform, interpretation board and special footpath had been created the chances were you would be pretty much on your own, or possibly standing with the welcome support of maybe just one or two other hardy souls. Walking back along the lonely lane towards the car park conjured up all kinds of supernatural imaginings with various rustles and flutterings from the hedgerows and trees being magnified to take on a more spectral interpretation. Perhaps Id read too many M R James ghost stories than was good for me. Ive tracked down a scribbling I made after one such bitterly cold trip which gives a flavour of the feelings engendered by a dusk outing to this lonely spot.


I love the sight of a hen harrier quartering the fields hereabouts in search of prey.  I love to see them sailing across the vista of empty marshes dotted with silhouettes and broken sails of disused wind pumps as they silently come in to roost. I love the unexpected encounter as one tussles with a short-eared owl over the glistening reed heads at Titchwell. And I dont want to lose them.

An encounter with a Hen Harrier on Hoy recently -

the only pic I've ever managed to take!


Wednesday, 5 August 2015

On a Summer Afternoon

Summer. The season when the fancy of every birder temporarily moves away from those avian creatures we love so much and migrates to a variety of other winged creatures - the insects - that at this time of year proliferate. The hemp agrimony, golden rod and buddleia scattered around the garden now play host to a bewildering variety of flies, butterflies, beetles, spiders and other tiny denizens of the undergrowth. Close scrutiny of the flower heads reveal a rotating cast of characters that is quite literally buzzing.

Armed with my new toy, a Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens, I spent some time over the weekend admiring at close quarters various striped, spotted and otherwise decorated bugs as they went about their business supping nectar, gathering pollen, mating and predating. I live in Sprowston a suburb to the north-East of Norwich in an area developed during the 1930s. Apparently our immediate surroundings once comprised fruit orchards and certainly when we moved here in the mid1980s there were plum, cherry and apple trees all around. Over the intervening 30 years many of these ageing trees have succumbed to disease or have been felled by strong winds, but a few remnants survive. Gardens from houses on adjoining streets back onto one another effectively forming large blocks of green space; in our immediate area perhaps an area of 2 acres is enclosed in this fashion. A valuable wildlife habitat. The overall viability of the area as a breeding ground for birds and insects has diminished somewhat over the years as older residents who could no longer manage their large plots sadly pass away or move out and younger folk with more vigour move in. So, whereby there were once significant areas of neglected grass and scrub, there is now decking, summer houses, bouncy castles and carefully manicured lawns. Because of this we seem to have pretty much lost such insects as grasshoppers and the hitherto large numbers of grass loving butterflies, but there are still a bewildering variety of goodies to be discovered.

A Google Earth View of Our Manor

Our particular garden covers an area of about 30m x 10m, thats 300m² that at times resembles untamed jungle. But there is a kind of order. Over the years I've grown wild flowers from seed, the aforementioned hemp agrimony being one such. Those attractive pink spikes have seeded themselves here and there as have ox-eye daisies, red and white campion and meadowsweet. There is a small lawn, mown sparingly, which is superficially green but on closer inspection is made up of various mosses, clover, buttercups and lots of yarrow. Live privet hedging borders either neighbour and we let this flower before pruning. Ivy and honeysuckle weave amongst the hedging and over the shed whilst here and there native trees have sprung up; some from conkers, acorns and other seed planted by my lad when he was young, others arriving naturally via birds or airborne distribution. Whilst these trees are lovely to have there will come a time when they outgrow our modest plot, but for now they remain to add diversity. Then there is my pride and joy, a pair of ponds, one sited in the depression left by the extraction of an old and sadly missed Victoria plum that had terminal disease; the other dug just for the hell of it. The list of visitors to and residents in these oases beggars belief. Then of course there are lots of ornamental annuals and bedding plants as well as pots holding the sweetest smelling roses you could imagine. And there is dead wood, the rotting trunk of a cherry tree that has provided rich pickings for woodpeckers, song perches for many birds, nesting sites for solitary wasps, host for fungi and a support for our linen line. Yes, dead wood has a multitude of uses.


Our Garden - Note the Tree Stump Fulfilling a Vital Role


The 'Lawn'


The Hemp Agrimony Patch

So, back to that small patch of mixed hemp agrimony and golden rod. The chief diners were bees and hover flies. The bees came as several species from the humble honey bee, through various bumble bees to tiny solitary species that so far I have not been able to identify. Likewise the hover flies appeared in several forms including one monster that when seen initially from afar I mistook for a hornet. These tiger-striped sugar lovers provided the photographic challenge of the day - trying to capture one in flight. Tricky, but the results were reasonable.


Hoverfly - Episyrphus balteatus


Hoverfly - Sphaerophobia scripta

Monster Hoverfly. Presumably a Hornet Mimic

But all is not a bed of roses for these little chaps because death awaits them at every turn. Periodically a predatory wasp would appear swiftly inspecting flower heads for unwary bees that it would capture and carry to its nest there to feed its offspring with fresh meat. I dont know where these ferocious predators build their nests, so further investigation needed here. Stealthier was the crab spider, well camouflaged and patient, positioning itself on the edge of the bloom awaiting some hapless insect to blunder within striking distance of its poison laden fangs. I watched this eight eyed mini monster firing a string of silk towards a more favoured position which it would then use as a tightrope to travel from one flower head to another. Fascinating. Butterflies dropped in from time to time, holly blues and green-veined whites, whilst ladybirds hunted aphids. A busy scene indeed.  I love our small slice of England, especially when it is full of life on such a summers day.

Another Fly Bites the Dust

Crab Spider - Misumena vatia


Ichneumon Wasp - Species Anyone?

It Is a Very Good Lens