Friday, 24 June 2022

Hoopoe in Herts!

 Living in Hertfordshire you get used to having to travel some distance for your "mega" birds. There have been some exceptions, notably the little bittern and pallid harrier a few years ago. We do get a good number of rare birds dropping in though and this week has created a bit of a stir. On Tuesday a hoopoe was spotted in the north of the county and by late in the day it had been located to a series of horse paddocks in a small village called Hinxworth. For a series of reasons, including twitching the bee-eaters in Norfolk, I couldn't go till today. ?Fortunately the bird has decided it quite likes it there and has been showing well. Hoopoes are rare but regular in this country, popping across the channel from southern Europe. Together with the bee-eaters they add a splash of exotic colour.

Anyway, it was a shorter drive than normal for a twitch and I parked up near the church about 7.45 and took the short walk to the horse-paddocks behind the church. I was the only birder on site.  Initially there was no sign of the bird, just a few horses wandering around aimlessly. Within 5 minutes though I spotted an orange and black shape in the grass of the middle paddock. The hoopoe was having a dust-bath quite near the fence!

It stayed there for a minute or so then flew to the back of the paddock, quite some way away. 

Hoopoes are surprisingly small birds. They are about the size of a blackbird but somehow you think they should be bigger. By now two other people had arrived and as we watched it feeding by the far hedge we all agreed on the size point!
As well as the other birders, two or three people together with some dogs had arrived to feed and exercise the horses. This caused the hoopoe to spook and for 15 minutes it disappeared. We spread out and eventually I ended up back at the third horse paddock, well away from the disturbance. The hoopoe had ovbviously realised this as well and was tucking into its breakfast in the field.

There were even some chickens trying to photobomb it!
The crowd had now swelled to 5 people, slightly surprisingly low, but it had been around for a few days I suppose. We watched it for an hour as it gradually moved across the paddock, eating as it went, and getting closer and closer.

After its breakfast it then decided to have a bit of a preen and put 5 minutes or so getting its plumage into order.

With its ablutions completed it then flew off to the back of the paddock where we first had it. I took this a sign to leave and I headed leaving it to the few more birders starting to arrive. Hoopoes can be long-staying birds sometimes and as it has lots of food I suspect it could well be there for a few days or even weeks more. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

A splash of colour

There has been a lot of talk recently about climate change and how it may or will affect us. Some of this is with regard to species on our shores declining or growing. Ptarmigan are suffering with warmer weather forcing them higher up mountains till the tops have no snow left and they have nowhere left to go. Other species are winners, moving onto our shores from continental Europe - cattle egrets, glossy ibis even little bitterns. A classic bird of southern Europe which has become a more frequent visitor is the bee-eater. Normally in Spain or France they visit us every year but numbers are a lot higher and in the past few years they have attempted to breed, notably in Nottinghamshire and the Isle of Wight.

So, it created quite a stir when Springwatch announced last week that a group were nesting in Norfolk. In what was clearly a timed announcement the bird-lines immediately announced that the RSPB were organising viewing with the car park open the following morning! I avoided the weekend rush but the photos appearing on social media showed that a number of birds were present in a quarry and were at leat attempting to nest. So, with good weather forecast I set off early to pay homage on the Norfolk coast. The site they had chosen was a small village called Trimingham, near Cromer in a disused quarry. With light traffic I pulled into a farmers field about 7.30 and was greeted by a very cheery RSPB volunteer who informed me the birds were present and showing well. I paid my £5 parking fee, parked up, got my gear and headed off.

It made nice change to some twitches to have a 1 minute walk to the viewing area where the RSPB had set up a gazebo. About 20 people were already on site scanning the quarry.

On one side was a grassy bank overtopped with telegraph lines and on the other a sandy bank beneath a track. I immediately saw a few small birds on the wires flicking off and back in the early morning sun.

They were a long way away but the whole jizz said bee-eater and a quick view with my bins showed the gorgeous colours. Apparently they roosted away from the site so it seemed like 4 birds were having their breakfast. 

This one was bringing a gift of a bee or other small insect to its partner.
Interestingly, one of the birds has a clear problem with a wing as it has a  number of feathers missing.

It didn't seem to be affecting its ability to fly so hopefully it will recover. The birds were also going down into the scrub underneath the wires to bask and catch more insects. Despite their vibrant colours they were hard to pick out amongst the foliage. 
After watching the birds on the wires for a bit I moved over to the sandy bank which is where the nest hole was. It was really hard to spot it as you were a couple of hundred yards away.
The nest hole and in fact a bee-eater is in there photo above! 
If you crop in the bee-eater is sitting in the entrance .You can see how hard it is to pick out! For an hour or so I watched the birds as they hawked around the nest hole, coming in and out, perching nearby and even a pair excavating another potential nest hole.

With the crowd now up to 60 or more and the heat-haze setting I decided to call it a day. Hopefully the birds will successfully nest and go on to raise chicks. They are being well looked after by the RSPB on site. With good weather and what looks a productive site they stand a chance. I suspect if they do then I will pay a repeat visit to them.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Puffin along

I used to have a day-trip over to Wales with two of my friends from work. It was regarded with a lot of humour as it wasn't a typical lads-trip: we were going to Skomer to photograph puffins! This small island off the Pembrokeshire coast is a magnet for both these comical birds and those who want to photograph them. We stopped going a few years ago though, mainly due to the issues with getting a place on the boat across. Recently they have changed the system and you can guarantee a place by booking online. So, Judith and I crossed our fingers on the weather being kind to us and booked to go this year. 

The boat trip is a short one, only about 10 minutes from Martins Haven to the island. It was a five hour drive to get there though, so we stayed overnight nearby at a lovely pub called the Cambrian Arms in Solva. It even had rooks right outside our bedroom window.

A full Welsh breakfast fuelled us up for the day and we were on the 11am crossing to the island. The photos below were taken by the two of us, and I've not tried to separate them out so joint credit for them all!

As soon as you get off the boat you are greeted by puffins. There are over 35000 on the island this year, apparently a record number. This is rare to hear nowadays its the daily stories of declines in bird populations and the appalling news of the deaths caused by the bird-flu epidemic. Partty this is down to the excellent work of the volunteers and staff on the island in keeping rats away from the island.

Skomer is only a mile or so long and about half that wide, so easily walkable in the 4 1/2 hours you are there. The puffins are on the edges, nesting in burrows overlooking the coast.They arrive in early Spring, occupy their nests, mate, lay their eggs, raise the young and are gone again by late July. During that time the island is buzzing with activity. When we were there the young were still in the burrows keeping out of sight of the predatory gulls but you occasionally caught sight of an adult poking its head out or greeting its mate.

Mainly though you saw the adults standing around either on the cliff edge or surrounded by the lovely flowers within which a lot of their burrows were hidden.

These flowers and grasses also gave them good and plentiful bedding for their nests underground.

It is very east to anthropomorphise with puffins, as they all seem to have characters. Certainly you got groups standing around that seemed to be having conversations. Unlike other communal nesters like gannets, who are continually bickering, the puffins seemed to get on rather well together - well mainly!

From a photography point of view there are two "money shots" you try to get whilst you are there  -carrying sand-eels and with their beak open. The sand-eels are the food they bring back for their young in the burrows. Its an amazing sight as you can't work out how they get so many in their beaks at once. As they have to carry the fish back to there burrow from some distance it is much more efficient to do this with a beak-full, often 12 or more fish.

The trick to it comes when you see inside of the beaks when they "yawn".

They use their long tongue to push the fish inside their beaks. They then hold them in place with the backward-facing spines on their upper-palate whilst they catch some more!!! The other trick is to avoid predation as they come in with the fish. The gulls hang around waiting for them to fly in and then mug them, trying to get them to drop the fish and give the gull a free meal. Consequently, the puffins fly-in at great speed and often dive straight into their burrows without hanging around.

Sometimes though they either came up short or their burrows were not easily reached and they had to run the gauntlet of hungry gulls and photographers legs to get to their hungry chicks. This was exceptionally comical though I suspect they had worked out that as long as they kept near to us then the gulls were less of a problem!
The highlight of the trip though is just to spend so much time with these lovely little birds. They are exceptionally tame, or at least unwary or people, and you can get a real insight into their lives. It is a trip of a lifetime and one I am sure we will be making again next year!