Category Archives: Birds of Britain

When bee-eaters come to Britain

Even in Spain, where it is a common, well-established breeding bird, the gorgeously colourful bee-eater (Merops apiaster) seems to have strayed out of the tropics.  So imagine the impact when a pair arrived in County Durham in 2002 and proceeded to nest.  Nevertheless, perhaps only in Britain could a couple of bee-eaters draw 15,000 people to see them.  Two of the young successfully fledged.  There have been other successful nesting attempts: in 1955 3 pairs spent the summer in Plumpton, East Sussex, two of which managed to rear 7 young between them. The most recent attempt to breed was on the coast of Dorset in 2006, but this time without any luck.

Photo from Wikipedia

Results of the Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

Fears about the impact of last December’s severe weather, the coldest in 100 years, were unfounded.  The drop in small bird populations witnessed in the RSPB Birdwatch of 2010 during the Big Freeze was rectified by excellent breeding conditions in the following spring.  Small birds in recovery notably include goldcrests, long-tailed tits and coal tits.

Another interesting result of the survey were the numerous sightings of waxwings, reflecting both the large numbers migrating from Scandinavia this winter and the “bird-friendly” berry-producing vegetation people are increasingly planting in their gardens.  A record 600,000 people took part.  The results compared with last year:

  • House sparrow – 4.2 birds per garden in 2011, rise from 3.8 in 2010
  • Starling – 3.9, up from 3.1
  • Blackbird – 3.3, stayed the same
  • Blue tit – 3.2, up from 2.6
  • Chaffinch – 2.4, up from 2.2
  • Wood pigeon – 1.9, stayed the same
  • Great tit – 1.6, up from 1.4
  • Goldfinch – 1.5, up from 1.3
  • Robin – 1.5, stayed the same
  • Collared Dove – 1.3, stayed the same at 1.3

Oldest osprey returns to Scotland

The oldest osprey of the UK – and probably the world – has returned to her eyrie in the Scottish highlands.   When she left for West Africa at the end of last summer, no one expected her to return.  At 26 she’s lived 3 times longer than most female ospreys. In her life she’s laid 58 eggs and hatched 48 chicks, a massive individual contribution to the survival of ospreys in Scotland, where there are still only about 200 breeding pairs.  The questions now are if her mate will return and if she is still fertile. Events can be followed on the webcam of the Loch of the Lowes reserve.

Coleridge and a murmuration of starlings

After escaping to the Lake District to visit his friends the Wordsworths, Samuel T. Coleridge was on the overnight coach to London, preparing to face family responsibilities and the reality of earning a living.  At dawn, he was mesmerised by a sight over the wintry fields:

Starlings on a vast flight drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening and blackening!

In his fascinating biography Coleridge: Early Visions Richard Holmes notes how this vision would haunt the poet long after.  It was

some sort of self image for Coleridge, both stimulating in its sense of freedom, of “vast flight”; and menacing in its sense of threatening chaos or implosion, “Thickening, deepening, blackening”.

This excellent video shot at Otmoor, near Oxford, captures the display before the starlings settle in their roost, building up to an astonishing climax, when the flock becomes almost impossibly dense.

The photograph is taken from a Guardian gallery of starling photographs.

Omens of a hard winter

Just thinking of their Siberian haunts brings a shiver, and when Bewick swans arrive early in Britain it’s considered a sign of a cold winter to come.  This year over 300 landed in the Slimbridge Wetlands Reserve on October 18, two weeks earlier than in 2009.  Rather worrying considering the Cold Snap of January 2100.

A large crop of holly berries is another traditional omen of bitter weather.  Though this autumn’s rich fruit and nut harvest can be explained by the year’s stable and sunny spring, perfect for flowering and pollination.

RSPB letter

I thought this mass letter by the RSPB for the new government was worth signing: Sign the letter: (for UK residents)

I’m writing this now to make sure our children have a chance of growing up in a world worth living in.

Today there’s still time to save nature.

If we act now, our children may yet be able to share their world with sparrows and polar bears, eagles and tigers. There’s still a chance that they’ll inherit a world where the engines of life – the air, seas, rivers and forests – are healthy. Where bluebell woods and rainforests won’t be lost forever.

Yes, I accept that recovery from recession has meant spending billions of pounds – one way or another future generations will have to pay for this. The least we can do is to use this money to create a future they’ll thank us for. I want governments to invest in a healthy economy and a healthy environment. As well as protecting jobs, I want them to tackle climate change and to protect our seas, countryside and wildlife.

I’m signing this letter to show that I care deeply about nature and the world we are creating for our children. In years to come I hope they’ll be able to see that their world is a richer one because of the action we took today.

I’m hoping that many thousands of people will join me in signing it.

Together we can be a powerful voice for nature.

Yours in hope.

Purple herons are nesting in the UK

Purple herons are sporadic visitors to the UK, but they’ve gone one step further this year.  Exciting news from the RSPB reserve in Dungeness, Kent, is that a pair have built a nest and are apparently sitting on eggs.  A 24-hour guard has been established to promote chances of a successful breeding, which would be a historic first for Britain. This southern European heron is expanding its range northward, probably due to climate change, and is expected to become a regular breeder in Britain in the near future, following in the footsteps of its relative, the Little egret.

Hopefully, the presence of this spectacular bird will help the RSPB fight against plans to build an international airport at nearby Lydd.

How to stop your cat from killing birds

Blue tit feeding

The RSPB have released a checklist of top tips of how to stop your loving moggy slaughtering the local birdlife ( 27 million birds are killed every year  by the 7.2 million cats the British keep as pets). Amusingly entitled “Sylvester and Tweetie Pie can live together” it recommends:

  • Put a bell on the cat’s collar – an RSPB study shows that this can reduce predation of birds by 41%. The collar should have a quick release buckle and fitted properly
  • Make sure cats are well fed and cared for. This may encourage them to stay close to home and be less likely to wander
  • Keep your cats indoors around sunset and sunrise and after bad weather – birds are most vulnerable at these times as its when they are most likely to come out to feed.
  • Take your cat indoors if a fledgling is in the garden, until its parents lead it away
  • Avoid putting food on the ground for a few weeks where cats are known to catch birds. Use a bird table or higher ground where cats cannot reach it
  • Place spiny plants such as holly or an uncomfortable surface around the base of the feeding station to prevent cats sitting underneath it
  • Position nest boxes where cats cannot reach them or sit close to them (preventing the parents birds from getting to the box.

The photo is from the Guardian who note on this story “our feline companions are supplementing the £829m we spend on cat food every year with their own avian breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here