October, 2007

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Sun, sea, sand and... gulls

    Mediterranean gull. Image by Katie FullerIt might be true that some of the UK's seaside towns have seen better days, but there are still plenty of reasons to keep visiting.

    Take Great Yarmouth, on the Norfolk coast, for example. It has sun (sometimes), golden sands, piers, theatres, donkey rides on the beach and... gulls.

    Gulls get a bad press, especially in coastal resorts. The birds that drew me to Yarmouth at the weekend were not just 'seagulls', they were Mediterranean gulls.

    These are sleek, attractive gulls which can be seen on the beach from autumn to early spring. They don't attack small children, steal bags of crisps or soil washing hung out to dry, they just sit on the beach and look pretty.

    In winter, adult 'Med' gulls have snow-white wingtips, the palest grey mantle, a black-ringed, blood-red beak and what looks like smudgy black eyeliner. Younger birds have more brown and black in their plumage.

    We approached cautiously. Closer inspection showed that two wore plastic rings on their legs, inscribed with numbers. I knew that meant an expert ringer had caught the birds and fitted the rings, but where and when?

    I noted down the details. When I got home, I entered the information (what the birds were, when and where I saw them, what the rings said) into the www.ring.ac website, and waited. The next afternoon, I got my reply.

    The gulls had been caught at their breeding sites in Belgium (in 2001 and 2003) and a list of subsequent sightings showed that they come to Great Yarmouth every winter, without fail! It was fascinating to read their life histories and to know that I'd made a small contribution to science.

    There must be something about Yarmouth that keeps them coming back for more. Perhaps it's chips and mayo?
  • Christmas thoughts

    It's nearly 'that time of year' again, and my gosh, hasn't it flown by as always! The festive season is upon us and I'm starting to think about when to do the Christmas shopping, which dodgy relatives not to invite round this year and sending out cards to friends and family (am I too early or too organised?).

    Whilst thinking about all this seasonal madness, another burning thought crossed my mind: why are robins associated with Christmas even though they appear all year round?Robin illustration by Mike Langman

    I see robins in the spring and the summer when they hold their territories for breeding, I hear them singing in the autumn defending their territories so why does the winter get all the credit?

    I did some research and found that it all comes down to...that's right...the postman! Apparently, in Victorian times, when sending Christmas cards was getting popular, postmen would wear bright red coats and were nick named 'robins' or 'redbreast'. People would draw pictures of robins with letters in their bills and even dressed up as postmen delivering the Christmas post!

    The robin's song also starts to get very strong and passionate around Christmas time, maybe because Santa doesn't bring them enough presents but this might also be a reason why we see robins on the front of Christmas cards.

    So the next time you pick up a Christmas card with a beautiful scene of children playing in the glistening snow, mistletoe blowing in the background and the sparkling Christmas tree with a cheeky robin in it's branches, remember, a robin is for life, not just for Christmas!

  • Who needs shrikes?

    Tree sparrow. Image by Steve RoundI don't mind admitting that I was a bit cheesed off when I received a text message from my colleague Mark on Friday lunchtime: 'There's a great grey shrike on the new clearfell!' It wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear, as I was somewhere between Beverley and Bridlington - nearly 150 miles away - at the time...

    However, I think I got my own back. While my workmates were still tucked up in bed, early Saturday morning saw me exploring clifftop fields on the East Yorkshire coast (just up the road from our Bempton Cliffs reserve). It was another gloriously sunny, chilled start to the day, and the area was heaving with birds.

    We walked up the narrow lane, hemmed in by thick hedgerows backlit by the low sun. Every few steps, blackbirds clattered out of the hawthorns - probably newly-arrived migrants from across the North Sea. More Scandinavian thrushes were overhead - fieldfares chuckled and redwings 'seeeped' as they made landfall. There were wheezy calls from a handful of bramblings and a merlin zapped across in front of us, in search of prey.

    I find migration endlessly fascinating, but on this occasion it was the area's resident birds that really grabbed me. Farmland birds - species that are in so much trouble across most of the UK - were everywhere!

    To my right was a clump of brambles harbouring a gaggle of linnets and reed buntings. On my left, a scruffy strip of wild bird cover was groaning under the weight of tree sparrows clambering up plant stems, busily devouring every seed they could find. Down the track, the hedge was studded with canary-bright yellowhammers, and we heard the rasping 'krrrrrrr!' of a grey partridge. Over the stubble fields, the air was rich with skylarks and their song.

    All this got me thinking... what must the countryside have been like 100 or even 50 years ago, when these birds were still common and widespread everywhere? Will I be able to experience it in my lifetime?