April, 2008

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!
  • Just passing through, or here to stay?

    I stepped out of the front door to begin my journey to work. It was a beautiful morning, with the vibrant, green young leaves of the horse chestnuts illuminated perfectly. And there they were, bickering for space to perch on the telegraph wire. Our next-door neighbours, the swallows, were back!

    Lots of migrant birds have been held up by bad weather on the continent this spring, so it lifted my spirits to know that some of 'our' swallows had made it back. I saw my first swallow from the garden last week, but today's were the first to stay around. They swooped low over the garden and went to inspect last year's nest site, chattering constantly.

    I've checked my notes and last year they turned up on 21 April. Considering how far they've been - all the way to South Africa and back again - they didn't make bad time. Now they're here, they can get on with the important business of pairing up, nest-building, mating and raising chicks.

    Some other migrants I saw last week aren't quite ready to do that. On Wednesday, a band of clouds passed across the southern part of the UK. As well as quite a lot of rain, it dropped a large number of Arctic terns on some inland waters, including gravel pits not far from Sandy.

    Arctic terns are champion migrants, travelling further than any other bird species. These birds spent our winter months in the southern hemisphere's summer, feeding around the Antarctic pack ice, and I felt privileged to have witnessed their brief visit to Bedfordshire.

    They not only have an amazing life cycle, but they're amazingly graceful, too: long, pale grey wings, a delicate, forked tail, smart black cap and blood-red beak. They almost danced across the water, picking tiny morsels of food from the surface.

    Arctic terns also breed in Ireland, Anglesey and Scotland, as well as further north as their name suggests. Who knows where these terns were heading?

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  • It is spring, isn't it?

    Chiffchaff in brambles. Photo by Steve RoundI’m sure that it’s supposed to be spring by now, the county cricket season has begun, the trees are beginning to green up, but still winter is hanging on, refusing to give up. I walked in this morning with a very cold breeze cutting right through me. It is springtime, isn’t it?!

    Here at The Lodge there was a still a couple of female bramblings feeding underneath the feeders outside our Gatehouse shop this week. These should be disappearing like all their friends who have spent the winter here. Wandering through the woods another sign of winter was evident, a mini-flock of around five siskins flitted between the trees. Whilst watching these though, a familiar sound of a woodland summer rang out: a chiffchaff alerted us to it’s presence by calling out its name with its, rather monotonous, chiff-chaff call.

    Winter won't give up its hold that easily though, it's still cold! It does make an interesting lunchtime walk, with a few summer birds, partially green trees and the last of the winter visitors refusing to head back for the breeding season.

    Spring is beginning to take over though, honestly! As the few sand martins fly overhead, joined by even fewer house martins, the sound of a cuckoo rings out from woodland across the fields. Personally, I wonder why they stay? I mean if I’d flown all the way here from Africa and found the weather this cold, I’d turn tail and head straight back!

    The birds are (mostly) here, the leaves are sprouting and the sun is occasionally shining, is it spring or isn’t it?! Maybe it's just here, is it spring in your neck of the woods?

  • The birds and the bees

    She perched on the edge of her stick nest and called repeatedly. Suddenly, the male appeared in view, flew in and landed directly on her back. They mated - it lasted a few seconds - and then he flew off again without even pausing. Talk about wham, bam, thankyou Ma'am!

    Yes, it's that time of year and the ospreys are back at Loch Garten. The team onsite watched 'EJ' (the female) and 'Orange VS' (a male) mate seven times in 15 minutes after he first arrived on the scene.

    By anyone's reckoning, that's quite some going.

    EJ and VS have a history. In the past, while EJ waited for her usual mate, 'Henry', to arrive, VS saw his chance. He didn't treat her well - to show he can provide for a brood of chicks, VS ought to supply EJ with fish. However, he didn't, because he already had another female a few miles down the road...

    Conversely, once he turns up, Henry is an attentive mate, a great nest-builder and ace fish-catcher. He sends VS packing. His problem is that he comes back to Scotland a bit too late, by which time EJ has been mating with another male.

    To the casual onlooker, the way that birds mate seems to be rather inefficient, requiring much flapping of wings. How does it work, exactly? Well, it's just a kiss. Without going into too much detail, the act itself involves a very brief encounter between the two birds' bottoms (birds have only one orifice there, called the 'cloaca' - Latin for 'sewer'). The wing-flapping is needed so that the male bird can defy gravity and achieve the angle needed.

    Why doesn't EJ wait for reliable Henry to get back, you may wonder? EJ simply can't afford to hang about. Henry might not be coming back - migration is fraught with hazards, even for a big bird like an osprey.

    EJ's urge to pass on her genes is strong, in the same way that VS is compelled to sow his wild oats. She really does have all her eggs in one basket, as it's very rare for an osprey to lay more than one clutch per year.

    Does EJ remember VS and what happened last year (when she laid one clutch of eggs by VS which Henry kicked out, then another clutch by Henry from which no chicks survived)? She does remember how to find her way back from Africa to precisely the same tree, after all, but we'll never know for sure. Maybe things will be different this year, as Orange VS has lost his old mate and nest site.

    It's just another reason why birds are so fascinating and unpredictable.

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