August, 2017

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Natures Home magazine uncovered

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  • 10 steps to a September to remember

    It’s all go in September, no matter where you live, or where you look. Migration is in full swing and millions of birds are heading your way from all corners of the globe. There are fabulous insects to seek in the September sunshine and fungi are popping up everywhere following the late summer rain. There’s not a minute to waste, so to get you in the mood for a September to remember, and 30 days of nature’s finest, here are  my 10 “must sees” for this magic month.


    You'll find dozens of different species of fungi in September. Parasol mushrooms can easily grow over a foot tall (Mark Ward)


    1.Watch the waves. Seabirds, from skuas and storm-petrels to shearwaters and Sabine’s gulls are on the move around the coast. The sleek sooty shearwater is an all black, stiff-winged ocean wanderer with a silver lining to its wings. In September, it disperses into the northern hemisphere’s seas having bred in the southern hemisphere on islands off New Zealand and South America. On days with a strong onshore wind, get yourself to the coast and scan out to sea for the sight of these marvellous migrants arching up over the waves before plunging back down into a trough at rapid speed.


    Head for the coast and if the wind is in your face, scan the waves for passing seabirds this September (Mark Ward)

    2. Make your way to the fungi festival. You might associate autumn’s bonanza of weird and wonderful fungi with October, but September is just as good - especially as there has been plenty of rain to encourage the fruiting bodies to pop out from the soil. Mixed woodland provides a great range of species, so get down to your local wood to see what you can find. From toadstools and clubs, earthstars and earthballs to stinkhorns and puffballs there’s a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and colours to match those nifty names. There are some smelly ones too. Stinkhorns live up to their name and the chicken-run and aniseed funnels provide some interesting alternative aromas. Check out my blog from a couple of years ago for more on September's fab fungi and a look back at some of the species I found last autumn. Let us know how you get on!

    September has plenty of smells too - keep your nose to the ground for the stinkhorn (Mark Ward)


    3.Watch birds on a wire. Swallows, sand martins and house martins gather in family groups before finally heading off south to Africa for winter. Watch them closely and listen to their conversational calls and you can sense the excitement. Are they discussing when to go and which route to take? We’ll probably never know for sure. What do you think?


    House martins, swallows and sand martins gather on telephone wires before taking their final bow and heading south (Nick Upton rspb-images.com)

    4.Eye up some ivy. There’s a new bee in town and it’s coming to an ivy near you. The ivy colletes has colonised naturally, spreading gradually northwards through the UK. It is a gorgeous bee with a super stripy abdomen. Ivy flowers are a great late source of nectar for bees and hoverflies, so when the sun shines stand under some ivy– and prepare to be impressed! I'd also highly recommend checking out our the superb blog of Nature's Home's gardening guru, Adrian Thomas, for more September gardening ideas.

     
    Keep an eye on ivy flowers this September - they teem with insect life (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)


    5.See a Siberian sprite. Yellow-browed warblers are tiny birds from the forests of Siberia, weighting less than a 50 pence piece. Their lively “Tsoo-eet” calls carry far and wide for such a tiddler. They have become much commoner in the last few years, turning up anywhere and everywhere in autumn. It’s though that they may even be establishing new migration routes and wintering grounds, so keep your eyes and ears peeled this September. 

     6.Admire autumn moths. The leaves they are-a-changing on the trees and there are plenty of autumn moths now on the wing that mirror those beautiful autumn shades. The canary-shouldered thorn has a brilliant yellow thorax that gives it its name, sallows come in a variety of pinks and yellows and the angle-shades looks like a crinkled autumn leaf! Don't just take my word for it though. Check out this great "Myth-busting moths" feature

    7. Experience a feast from the east. What you REALLY want in September is a nice long spell of east or north-east winds. If this coincides with high pressure over Scandinavia which brings clear skies to encourage birds to set off on migration, they are “drifted” towards the UK. A big band of rain on the east coast forces them to make landfall and hey presto, it’s a fall of migrants when birds such as goldcrests (below), cryptically-coloured wrynecks, redstarts, flycatchers and beetle-munching red-backed shrikes appear.


    The goldcrest weighing about the same as a 10p piece, is on its way from Scandinavia this September (Mark Ward)

    8.Enjoy an Indian summer. Warm days with blue skies and sunshine provide great opportunities to see insects. Look for common darters sunning themselves on fenceposts, washing lines and paths. Migrant hawkers patrol the skies in groups – air traffic control at its best. You should still find plenty of butterflies from perfectly pink painted ladies from Morocco to buttercup-coloured clouded yellows dashing past.

    9.Pick a blackberry – or a basketful. Make sure you leave plenty for the birds and other wildlife though. Have you noticed blackberries appear at different times? And that there are big ones, small ones, juicy ones and some with big “bobbles? And that they all taste different? That’s because there are actually more than 300 different “microspecies” of bramble in the UK! Pick them before the end of September, otherwise the devil will spit on them, so legend has it...


    Everyone loves a blackberry, including harvest mice (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)

    10. Take a break! With more than 200 RSPB nature reserves to choose from, why not get away for a break this September to really improve your chances of encountering something special?  Our friends at uknaturebreaks.co.uk have a huge range of properties for you to choose, from hidden lodges in the woods to beautiful country cottages and many are close to RSPB reserves too. For every booking made they will donate 10% to the RSPB.

    How's your autumn going?
    We'd love to know how you get on this September and what your favourite sights, sounds, smells and things to do are. You can leave a comment below, or email natureshome@rspb.org.uk 

    Good luck and have a great month! Don't forget, there are loads more seasonal ideas for where, when and how to watch birds and other wildlife in Nature's Home magazine - free to every RSPB member four times a year.

  • Jack's top birds

    You’re reading this because, like me, you love a good bird. Even though we all say we appreciate every bird no matter how common, everyone has their favourites. Some people pick favourites based on how they look or their behaviour. Some people pick a favourite because it marks a special occasion or reminds them of a special place. My favourites are carefully selected for a variety of reasons. Here’s five of my favourites and why they've made it onto this important list.

    Chough

    (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Paul Gillard)

    Like an undertaker eating a saveloy, this bird oozes style and confidence. A unique look isn’t enough on it’s own to make this prestigious list though, so it’s lucky that choughs are emblematic of one of my most romanticised places: Cornwall. Choughs floating in a sea breeze above the cliffs as I read a Daphne du Maurier is difficult to top.

    Stone-curlew

    (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Frank Vassen)

    The perfect combination of crossness and worry culminate in arguably the bird I’d most like to turn into a comic strip character for children. But the big one for me is that we have the same legs: giant knees and weirdly thin. Luckily mine are a slightly less jaundice shade of yellow. Cheer up pal, just avoid wearing shorts.

    Eider

    (Photo: Flickr creative commons, themadbirdlady)

    Coor, that profile… Strong, striking and beautiful. She’s the best looking female duck of them all, and the fella, although handsome, is definitely flapping above his weight. To top it off we share the same favourite food: shellfish, and love a bit of cold weather and water. If I were a duck I’d be an eider

    Short-eared owl

    (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Kentish Plumber)

    “Why’s that loaf of bread flying around? Oh wait, it’s the best owl on the planet.” They’re a photographers dream, floating in the golden light of winter dusk. But I like them because they’ve got a nice round face and make do with roosting on the ground in a bush. Low-fi to the core.

    Common loon (great northern diver)

    (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Fyn Kynd)

    Canada has given me so many great memories, but none as great as the twilight morning I spent on a composting toilet. I was camping on the shores of Lake Tatlayoko, and had nipped in for a quick tinkle in the early hours of a September morning. The sound that parted the lake mist was the hauntingly beautiful wail of a common loon, and I’ll never forget it.

    What are your favourite birds and why? Let us know in the comments below.

    Jack

  • Beak or bill?

    It’s an age-old question. Is that bird’s facey-lip bit a beak or a bill? When should you call a bill a beak, and a beak a bill? What even is a “facey-lip bit”? Why should you even care? All these questions and more will be answered here, in this blog, by me and some mates I asked at lunch.

    Firstly, what’s a “facey-lip bit”? Well we’ve established that it’s either a beak or a bill, but what’s it made of? Beaks and bills are made up of two bony protrusions, covered in a layer of the same stuff that’s in our fingernails: keratin. The bony protrusions form an upper and lower mandible, and the keratinised final layer, or epidermis, forms around those mandibles into something known as the rhamphotheca. There are loads of different shapes, sizes and colours, all of which help that particular species of bird carve, scythe, skim and peck out a niche for itself.

    What’s the difference between a beak and a bill, then? I’m going to set out a couple of ways I feel we could work out how to define the difference, and then we’ll hear from some bird-loving chums of mine. First up, I propose that we could define the difference by how those two words sound and how that marries up visually with the bird and its habitat in a kind of onomatopoeic way. Allow me to elaborate on what I’ve termed the Plumb method.

    The word “beak” sounds pointy and stabby. It also sounds a bit pinchy. Birds that eat insects, like a blue tit, pinch and nip insects from leaves and tree bark. Rooks stab into the ground really hard for worms. Birds of prey and scavenging birds pluck and rip their prey. I’d say all these birds have beaks. I’d also extend this to birds that pick up grain or seeds from the floor like a woodpigeon or partridge, or from between the gaps in pinecones like a crossbill. “But Jack, it’s got ‘bill’ in its name!” Yes I can see that. Moving on…

    Good examples - these are my benchmark birds (Photos: Flickr creative commons, Colin Frankland and nick goodrum)

    The word “bill” sounds a bit like something floppy or wet, or as though the bird doesn’t annunciate. It also sounds like it doesn’t end in a sharp bit. Birds that dabble in the water, like a lovely shoveler duck, definitely have a bill. I imagine them gargling away with their big floppy bill. Clearly something like a spoonbill falls into the bill category too, but there are admittedly some trickier facey-lip bits to define using this extremely scientific method.

    There are plenty of birds that are harder to define. Gulls, toucans and herons immediately spring to mind. Gulls live mostly on water and in chip shops. To best grab a chip from a child’s hand you need the dexterity of a beak. To eat what you’re supposed to eat at sea you need a bill. Toucans pinch fruit from trees and off the ground, but fruit is often wet and sloppy. Toucans also tend to live in rainforests, which are wet. Herons have possibly the most stabby facey-lip bit, but spend most of the time using it knee-deep in water. Let’s have a look at some other definitions.

    Somewhere in the middle? (Photos: Flickr creative commons, Kevin Schofield and Phil McIver and Allan Hack)

    The second way to define the difference between a beak and bill is with the Oxford English Living Dictionary. Clearly this method is significantly less interesting, but perhaps has slightly more merit than me just coming up with something.

    The OELD defines a beak as, “A bird's horny projecting jaws; a bill.” And defines a bill as, “The beak of a bird, especially when it is slender, flattened, or weak, or belongs to a web-footed bird or a bird of the pigeon family.”

    According to the Oxford English Living Dictionary, a bill is a beak and a beak is a bill. Thanks Oxford.

    Seeing as we’re not getting any further forward, it’s time to bring in the “experts”. Please welcome, James, Emma and Catie, all superb humans who like birds, and people I regularly have lunch with.

    I sent them each a list of birds that I feel have facey-lip bits that are difficult to categorise into either “beak” or “bill”.  You can find the list a bit later on and have a go yourself, but first let’s hear what they had to say and pick out some birds that they disagreed or agreed on.

    Emma said, “I have no idea what the difference is but I feel like it has something to do with their nostrils.”

    Interesting thought. It’s possibly something worth investigating in a follow-up blog. Perhaps the sound produced from their nostrils would correlate perfectly with the Plumb method, combining into the perfect defining principle? Emma went for “bill” for most of the birds, and disagreed with Catie on almost everything.

    James said, “Personally, I’d say anything sticking out of a bird’s face is a beak, with a subcategory of beaks being ‘bills’. I’d use the word bill for ducks and possibly anything else with a spatulate bill (such as a spoonbill) but I imagine my usage is incredibly personal!

    I’ve heard bill used for waders a lot more since I moved south, but I generally think of waders with long beaks as having ‘nebs’. If I were being overly curious as a child my Mum would tell me to ‘keep my neb out’.

    I imagine, though, that archaically there wasn’t much difference between the two words. A hornbill has bill in the name, but I’d put that firmly in the beak category.”

    That’s some interesting insight and a lovely bit of northern slang. Hornbill is very controversial. Going back to the Plumb method, I would place it in the beak category. Hornbills don’t spend much time in water, it looks like their facey-lip bit is pretty hard, and I reckon they could happily poke your eye out with it. James went for beak for everything, but suggested that bill or ‘neb’ could be used for certain birds as an alternative.

    Catie said, “I realised I tend to think of birds in water as having bills and land birds as having beaks. A mallard comes to mind first when I hear bill, aside from my twin brother Bill.”

    I’d tend to think similarly to Catie, minus the twin brother bit. Water birds and the sound of water fits well with the word “bill”. I’d say a puffin had a beak though, and I reckon those sand eels would agree! Catie and I largely agreed on the list.

    Perhaps there's a scale, with "beak" on one end and "bill" on the other. A blue tit would be a solid "beak" – let's say a 1 – and a shoveler would be a huge "bill" – a 10 on the scale. Gulls and corvids might end up at 5, being super adaptable.

    Finally, it’s over to you. Here’s the list of birds and groups of birds that I sent to my lunchtime pals. I feel these could cause some beaky-billed confusion.

    • Woodpigeon
    • Guinea fowl 
    • Turkey 
    • Capercaillie
    • Black-throated diver 
    • Penguins 
    • Petrels 
    • White stork 
    • Glossy ibis 
    • Grey heron 
    • Spoonbills 
    • Pelicans 
    • Hook-billed kite 
    • Vultures 
    • Coot 
    • Oystercatcher 
    • Lapwing 
    • Ring-billed gull 
    • Cuckoo 
    • Kingfisher
    • Green woodpecker 
    • Great-spotted woodpecker
    • Treecreeper 
    • Red-backed shrike 
    • Raven 
    • Swift 
    • Crossbill 
    • Hawfinch 
    • Rose grosbeak

    Let us know what you think – is it a beak, or a bill? What other bird facey-lip bits are hard to define?

    Jack