Sparrowhawks (Accipiter Nisus)

After a long break in terms of blog posts, I have finally decided to make another blog post again.

If you have read some of my previous blog posts, you may know that I have had lots of encounters with Sparrowhawks this year. As I have had so many, I have decided to make a blog post about Sparrowhawks, and also about some more of my recent encounters.

Sparrowhawks are probably one of my favourite birds of prey due to their striking plumage, especially of the male, and also their amazing ability to manoeuvre and hunt at high speeds.

Sparrowhawks can be found all over the UK, apart from in the very far North of Scotland. They often live in gardens in urban and rural areas, and also in areas of farmland and wetland, although, they are traditionally found in woodland, and primarily, this is where they tend to breed.

There is a big difference between the male and the female birds, with the males being fairly small birds of prey with a bluish grey back, and some orange and white underparts. The females however, are much larger and have a greyish brown back, with brown and white underparts. Due to this difference in size, the males tend to hunt on smaller birds, like Tits, whereas, the females tend to prey on larger birds like Blackbirds, and even up to Woodpigeon size. Although, they both usually hunt using surprise as they dash through trees and vegetation. Their incredible speed and manoeuvrability in pursuit allows them to sneak up close before chasing smaller birds through areas which most birds that size wouldn’t even get through, let alone at that speed. However, due to the numerous birds looking out for them, as soon as they are seen, the alarm call is raised, and they have lost their benefit of undetection, hence why only around one in ten hunts results in a catch.

When breeding, Sparrowhawks time the hatching of their chicks so that the chicks hatch at the same time that most smaller birds’ chicks fledge and leave the nest. Therefore, as fledglings make fairly easy pickings for Sparrowhawks, there is generally plenty of food around for the chicks, and not much chance of shortage.

There are roughly 35,000 breeding birds in the UK, and although their numbers faced a major decline in the past, they are now much more stable. Unlike most birds of prey, Sparrowhawks don’t usually live any more than three years – a relatively short lifespan.

In addition to my previous encounters, I have also had many more sightings, but one of the most amazing recent ones was in my garden. One of them was where I was playing badminton outside in the garden, when suddenly a male Sparrowhawk came soaring straight over the net, where it narrowly missed colliding with a shuttlecock that I had just hit. Again, like in previous posts, it was incredible to see such a beautiful bird up close, and also how it has adapted to survival in urban environments. It was clearly now much more tolerant of humans around it. Amazingly, I still not seen a Sparrowhawk actually hunt successfully and kill a bird, but maybe this will in time come. I am also greatly hoping that I will get to ring one of these birds soon, and see them up close, although I am not sure about whether I really want to hold one with those talons and beak.

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Farmoor Reservoir – Red-Necked Phalarope, Dunlin, and Little Grebes

Last Sunday, when we dropped off my brother at his sailing course, my parents and I decided to go for a wander around Farmoor Reservoir. I knew that a Red-Necked Phalarope had been spotted there very recently, and so I was hoping that we might see it.

After not too long, about halfway along the causeway through the middle of the reservoir, we spotted this tiny and beautiful wader. The bird was a juvenile bird, in the middle of its migration up north. This was quite a rare sighting for Oxford, as only around 30 of these birds migrate through the country each migration season. Unlike, most waders, these small birds (not much bigger than a House Sparrow), spend most of their time swimming about on the water, and with their lobed toes, are well adapted to doing so. Being a juvenile, it was nowhere near as colourful as the adults are, when they are in their breeding plumage, and so, this bird was mostly white, with a little grey, and no red neck at all.

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Juvenile Red-Necked Phalarope

Also, on the shore next to it, was a juvenile Dunlin – a similarly sized bird, but one that prefers to spend most of its time on its feet wading. I was amazed at how tame these two birds were, as they were not at all bothered by our presence, and were not disturbed by either us, or the many sailing boats in the water.

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Juvenile Dunlin

As usual, there were also huge numbers of Black-Headed Gulls and Coots at Farmoor. There were also two species of Grebe present – Great Crested and Little – two birds that hunt for fish and other underwater animals, by diving down underwater for long periods of time, and chasing their prey. At this time of year, most of the Great Crested Grebes aren’t in their spectacular breeding plumage, instead in a duller white, black and grey plumage.

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Little Grebe

On the smaller of the two reservoirs there, many Cormorants rest and sunbathe on some rafts that float on the water. There were at least 30 of these birds sitting on them. Unfortunately, I was not able to pick out the Shag among them, that had been spotted recently. There were also lots of Tufted Ducks at the reservoir – another species of diving duck, and one where the male in particular stands out. The male has a black and white plumage with an unmistakeable crest on its head. The females however, is a more browny black colour, with a hardly noticeable crest on the back of the head.

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Tufted Duck

Although I was only there for a short time, I was very pleased to see a huge variety of birds, and especially a Red-Necked Phalarope so close to home.

Nuthatches, Woodpeckers and more Bird Ringing

Apologies for the last post just now, which I accidentally published after just starting to write! There appears to have been a slight problem with either the computer or myself! Not sure which! I have now deleted this post from my blog page.

Back in my garden, there has been lots of bird activity recently, with large flocks of tits starting to form and congregate at the feeders. There have been huge numbers of Blue, Great, Coal and Long-Tailed Tits all visiting the garden at once, with numbers even reaching up to 40 at times. The purpose of these mixed flocks is for safety from predators (although, predators are more likely to find them), and to increase the chance of finding some food for survival. These flocks particularly start to form around early Winter, before times start getting harder for the tits. Occasionally, a Nuthatch has made a visit with them as well – a bird that I have not seen in the garden for a year or two. Nuthatches are incredible birds with their stunning orange and blue plumage with a thick black stripe through the eye. They also have the phenomenal ability to be the only bird to walk headfirst down a tree, unlike Woodpeckers and Treecreepers, which have their head pointing upwards.

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Nuthatch

Having said earlier in the year that I was hoping to have a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker visiting the garden, I have recently been very pleased to spot not only an adult, but also a juvenile with a totally red head. However, they have not visited the garden or the feeders together yet, perhaps suggesting that its parents are elsewhere, or that it has left its parents.

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Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker

Very recently, my bird ringing group with whom I train, decided to try and come ring birds in our garden. So, we moved our feeders out more into the open and then set up some mist nets around three sides of them. Although, I was quite disappointed to only catch three species of bird – Coal Tit, Blue Tit, and Great Tit, we did catch 20 individual unringed birds. For next time, we have decided to place the mist nets better, move the feeders 1 week before, so that the birds can adjust to it, and also, ring inside so that we don’t disturb the birds while we process and ring the birds that we have caught.

I have also recently visited Warneford Meadow – part of my local patch that is very close to my home, where I was able to spot some birds such as Green Woodpeckers and Kestrels, which is incredible considering that this is virtually surrounded by houses. The meadow often provides a wide range of wildlife at different times of year, and can be a beautiful place to quickly escape to for enjoying nature, without walking far.

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Green Woodpecker
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Speckled Wood

 

Brixham, South Devon

Part of our holiday over the summer was spent at Brixham in South Devon. My last blog post was about a small nature reserve nearby and this one will be more about Brixham itself.

As our house looked out over Brixham harbour, I was able to see all the action happening in the harbour, and so this was the perfect time to sit on the balcony with a pair of binoculars and identify gulls. I think overall, my knowledge improved greatly.

Also, from the house, it is possible to spot the occasional seal surfacing, although this requires a lot of patience.

The view from our house

Along the pier and along walls by the harbour, there are some very tame Turnstones which will allow you to walk within a couple of metres of them without being too bothered by you at all. Of course this time, there were as usual plenty of this beautiful birds with their mottled plumage. Some of them with some juveniles that had nearly gained their full adult plumage.

Turnstone

Also along the pier there are lots of Rock Pipits and various small waders at points too. This time, I saw the Pipits and some Dunlin amongst the rocks on the edge there. Often both of these species of bird (or any of the birds that I have seen on the rocks along the pier) are very hard to see because they blend in very well with their surroundings. Sometimes when watching them, they will suddenly disappear behind a rock or into a crevice when running around at high speeds to avoid the waves crashing down over them.

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Rock Pipit

Last year when I came here in March, I saw several birds amongst these rocks that for some reason I assumed to be Redshanks or something, but when looking back at some of my photos from last year, I saw a photo of a bird that I was certain was a Purple Sandpiper, yet I have supposedly never seen a Purple Sandpiper. I suddenly realised that these ‘Redshanks’ were in fact Purple Sandpipers, and just to be sure, I even consulted by various bird books, and there was no doubt that it was a Purple Sandpiper. I still cannot believe my ‘stupidity’ as these birds look nothing like Redshanks. So, there’s a new bird for me. However, this time, there were none of these birds because Purple Sandpipers are present in the UK all through the year, apart from during the summer months.

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Purple Sandpipers

One of the best things to do if you are staying in Brixham is to catch a boat out of the harbour, because in a small gap between two pontoons that is necessary to pass through, you can get up close to some big birds. On one of the pontoons is a flat surface where humans don’t pass over, and here Cormorants and Great Black-Backed Gulls sit and rest. Coming up so close to these two amazing birds is incredible and often, the Cormorants stretch out their wings in that well known position to sunbathe.

Sometimes, when the water is very clear and when you are lucky, you can see well enough to actually see Cormorants swimming underwater and chasing their prey. This is a very privileged moment and something amazing and very hard to see.

Jellyfish are also numerable in the water and sometimes these are caught along with some fish in the very popular activity; crabbing.

On Thursday, I am back to school, and this year is GCSEs for me, so hard work is about to get even harder. Although, hopefully I will still be able to spend lots of time with wildlife.

Berry Head, South Devon

Berry Head is a nature reserve near Brixham in South Devon and is one of my favourite places to go to while staying there.

The best time to visit Berry Head is probably in late spring because lots of seabirds, including Guillemots and Razorbills are nesting here. Of course, I was too late for this and so by the time that I came along, they were all gone and the cliffs were left virtually desolate. Although quieter than in previous visits, there was still lots of wildlife about to be seen.

Near the car park there, we saw two Whitethroats  in some shrubs. I have also seen Cirl Buntings here, as this is one of the best places in the country to see them, and though I didn’t see them this time, I did hear them.

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Common Whitethroats

This was certainly a holiday for testing my gull identification, as our house overlooked the harbour and all the gulls flying about, and here was another place with an abundance of gulls. There were Herring, Black-Headed, Lesser Black-Backed and Great Black-Backed Gulls. I decided to learn to distinguish different species by colour of plumage, leg colour, beak colour, size, etc.

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Great Black-Backed Gull (I think!)

Whilst there, we were lucky enough to see a pod of porpoises passing by out to sea and I just about managed to take a photo of one surfacing, however, it was not a very good one.

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A bad photo of a Porpoise

There were also lots of butterflies near the far edge of the headland in and amongst some wildflowers. I put my ever-increasing knowledge of butterflies to the test and identified Red Admirals, Peacocks, Gatekeepers, Speckled Woods, Large Whites, Small Whites, Common Blues, Walls and Small Coppers. There were all sorts of butterfly species. I took lots of photos:

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Small Copper

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Wall
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Gatekepper

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Large White

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary Areas

Apologies for no post in a very long time. This is because I have been on holiday in South Devon and North Cornwall for the past several weeks and have had very minimal WiFi connection!

Whilst walking along the coast of North Cornwall, I noticed that there were several RSPB Sanctuary Areas on either side of the path. Some signs said that they were in place there to protect ground nesting birds such as Skylarks and Corn Buntings.

In the past 40 years, our breeding farmland bird index has declined by over 50%. This is due to reasons such as a loss of mixed farming, crop changes, more pesticides, etc. In the case of the Skylark, this has declined by 51% and the Corn Bunting declining by 90%. They have both recently been placed on the IUCN Red List as a result of this. Often, in fields, as these birds are ground nesting, their nests can get trampled upon and destroyed, so sanctuary areas have been created to provide safe nesting areas with the right crops for wildlife being grown correctly.

Corn buntings are the main focus of the project, especially as they are now extinct in its neighbouring county, Devon, and also in other counties elsewhere in the UK, such as Somerset. There are now less than 50 pairs remaining in Cornwall alone. Work is of course being done by the RSPB and Natural England to create these sanctuary areas, but also to work with local farmers and raise awareness nearby. So far, the work has been successful and farmers have been willing to cooperate and work with volunteers from the RSPB.

Whilst there, I saw lots of Skylarks, and got a quick glimpse of a couple of Corn Buntings.

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Skylark

 

RSPB Minsmere – Bearded Tits, Roseate Tern and Marsh Harriers

Earlier this week, my mum and I went to camp in Suffolk for two nights in the hope of being able to go to RSPB Minsmere for two full consecutive days. The journey down did not prove to be a good start – there were horrific traffic jams on the motorways, there was some very heavy rain, and just to top that off – our car got struck by lightning. That was quite a terrifying yet amazing experience.

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I don’t really know my caterpillars, but I think that this is a Buff Tip.

Once we had arrived at our campsite near Minsmere though, the harsh weather had passed and we were greeted by the ‘purring’ of the Turtle Dove at a tree near the entrance. The next morning brought along an early wake up due to a very loud dawn chorus, with lots of birds in full sound – from Wrens to Yellowhammers, to Turtle Doves to Cuckoos – it was very busy. However, the main cause of our early wake up on both mornings was due to a Magpie pecking at the tent while squawking.

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Little Egret

Once at the reserve, we were greeted by a small rabbit who posed for a photo, not at all disturbed by our presence, happily cleaning itself. There were seven hides around the scrape (the main part of the reserve)(there are also 3 other hides over the reedbeds and woods), and so there would be lots of different viewpoints out over it. There were lots of waders, terns, gulls and ducks nesting all over it, and so there was plenty of activity going on. In recent years here, the nesting birds have had eggs and chicks predated upon by Foxes and Badgers living nearby, who although blocked by water, decided to swim. However, now the RSPB has built a fence around it which is deep enough to stop Badgers digging underneath it.

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Little Rabbit
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Older juvenile Moorhen (1st brood) helping feed younger juveniles (2nd brood)
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What I think is a juvenile Redshank

It is fair to say that waders were there on the scrape in the largest numbers. Waders there included lots of Avocets and Black-Tailed Godwits, with the latter having seemingly hardly any chicks in comparison with the first. There were also Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Greenshanks, Dunlins, Ruffs, Curlews, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, and Whimbrels. There were also some Common and Green Sandpipers, which from a distance could often be hard to distinguish between. The trip certainly put my wader identification skills to the test, with a huge number of birds there to be observed.

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Redshank
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Lapwing
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Phonescoped Redshank
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Phonescoped Avocet

There were three species of Tern present that were regularly seen on the scrape – Little, Common and Sandwich. They had lots of little chicks and would fish out at the sea behind before coming back to their nests on the ground to feed their chicks. On the second day, we were lucky enough to see a Roseate Tern – a much rarer species of tern in the UK than the others. It is much smaller than the Common and Sandwich Terns and has a mainly black bill.

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Buzzard

In the reedbeds, there are three species of bird that are well sought after – Bearded Tits, Marsh Harriers and Bitterns. We were lucky enough to see all three species, some with better viewing than others. The Marsh Harriers are quite easy to see as they are often found soaring over the reedbeds and at this time of year there are lots of juveniles flying about. This means that there are lots about in the sky – at one point, we saw four Marsh Harriers at once. Bitterns are very secretive and hard to see, but at one hide, on the far side of the lake, there were two within a couple of metres of each other, sitting in the reeds. Although it was too far away to tell that they were juveniles, the very fact that they were tolerating each other’s presence so close shows that they are not yet territorial like the adults. With Bearded Tits (one of my favourite birds), you often hear them ‘pinging’ before you actually see them. At this time in the year, they travel around in large groups – mostly a female with 5 or 6 juveniles. We saw them at various points, but our best viewing was when a female with 5 juveniles flew straight in front of the hide and settled in some reeds not too far away.

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Marsh Harrier

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Bearded Tits

There were also lots of Butterflies at the reserve as well, and while my knowledge of these is very little, this did not stop me from taking some photos. I have now decided that as butterflies are so photogenic, I really ought to learn about what I am actually photographing.

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Gatekeeper?
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Red Admiral

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Peacock

Throughout the whole trip, I saw 78 species of bird – a huge number of birds. There were also plenty of butterflies, dragonflies, deer, and some fish. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and would highly recommend anybody to visit RSPB Minsmere themselves. It is a great reserve to visit at any time of year as there is always lots to see.