Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The greater-spotted caterpillar muncher

Middle of May is traditionally the time when anything can, and does, turn up by way of waifs and strays. Often these are lbj's or waders, and this year has also brought lammergeier and pelican, but a classic spring bird is the great spotted cuckoo.
A close cousin to our cuckoo, this is normally found around Spain and Portugal in the Summer, so has seriously overshot it's migration. They are also reasonably rare in the UK - 2014 then back to 2009  for recent records then sort of once every couple of years. Often they are not truly switchable though as they don't always hang around.
So, when the reports came out of one on Portland on the 13th of this month my interest was piqued. It seems very happy and was reported most days munching away on brown-tail caterpillars at Reap Lane or occasionally going for a wander down to the Bill. I, however, was struggling to get away to see it. I even passed up on one chance when I could have gone, thinking a day when it had vanished was it's last then it popped up again when I was in Norfolk not seeing much. The final straw though was my brother-in-law Martin going and getting it on Sunday!
So, I took a day off and scuttled down to Dorset to see if it was still there. I started very early and got to the Bill about 8 and the GSC wasn't showing. I had to go back off the island though to make a work phone call (the reception on Portland is awful) which finished about 8.50 just as my phone buzzed with "Great spotted cuckoo still at Reap Lane".
It took me about 10 minutes to park up and I could see about 10 other birders staring intently at a small grove of trees and bushes. I grabbed my bins, 'scope and camera and almost legged it the hundred yards to where they were. "its not showing, was about 10 minutes ago though". Then the worried wait starts. Everyone else had already connected so they were starting to chat about other great birds they'd seen and weren't concentrating on the grove. What if it flew, or had flown? We were only covering one side and it could have popped out over the cliff!

About 20 minutes passed before we saw a movement in the bushes. You could just about make out a shape moving, wings being preened, a tail flicking.

Yes, it is in there somewhere! Finally, after it groomed itself it gave itself up nicely, sitting out on the edge of the bushes munching away on the hairy caterpillars.

The bird itself is a handsome beast. Cream coloured underneath with a grey cap and a brown spotty, striped back. In size it is about our cuckoo sized so when it moved in the bushes you could see it clearly. This was it's favourite place to go, because of the caterpillars. They must have been in their thousands as it's been eating them voraciously for almost a fortnight. Apparently they are quite toxic, and this is on of their few natural predators so it must have been a shock for them!
It may be though that their numbers are starting to decline, as it seemed it had to go to increasingly difficult to reach positions to get them.
 I can see a juicy one up there
 ooh that looks tasty
 if I just reach across from this twig
 got it but this twig is a bit small
 damn, nearly lost it
lets have lunch!

You get a better idea of it moving around from this short video on youtube

I watched it for about two hours, and it clearly had a pattern. Eat for 10 minutes, disappear into the bushes to digest for 20 minutes, repeat.
I left it to go and visit my mother-in-law for a bite of lunch, a very happy boy!
On the way back I stopped at Bolderwood in the New Forest. I was hoping for wood warbler, which I didn't find, but there were some lovely deer wandering through the forest, grey wagtails by a stream and a showy redstart feeding it's young.

With M25 traffic being awful I got back late but very happy. A stunning bird with a good back-up cast, a lifer and a grip back on Martin. What more to want!

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Taking me back

One of my abiding memories as a small boy is my mother putting out food on the back lawn of our house and dozens or even hundreds of starlings descending to eat it. I can still see in my mind the throng when our Xmas turkey carcass went out - it was like a scene from "The birds". Living in Peterborough we were on the edge of the fens where some of the starling roosts numbered in the millions. Once we had a flock over the house that literally darkened the sky in a long sinuous wave.
Move on 40 years though and whilst still not rare starlings are nowhere near as numerous as they used to be. Along with sparrows, turtle doves, bullfinches and corn buntings their numbers have declined. Large roosts do still occur in places like the Somerset levels where the murmurations attract people in the winter to see them. Here in Rickmansworth though we only see small numbers and we very rarely get them in the garden.
On Friday night I was particularly pleased therefore to hear some family groups in the trees at the bottom of our garden. You could hear the young pleading for food and the adults shuttling back and forth to satisfy them. By Saturday the numbers had grown and a walk along the river clearly showed there had to be well over a hundred birds.
A plan started to hatch in my head. Judith had bought a large packet of mealworms so I threw a couple of handfuls on the lawn. Within 30 minutes we had perhaps twenty birds coming down, both adults and juveniles. More mealworms gave us more birds till we had perhaps 30 or 40.
So, on Sunday, I set myself up on our terrace with my camera on a tripod and I heavily baited the lawn with mealworms and settled down to wait. I didn't have to wait long before the flock descended, loud, always moving and a marvellous sight in the May sunshine.

The adults are resplendent in their thing metallic coats, the juveniles are the dull brown birds. The juveniles, although being the same size as their parents, just stood around making a racket and eating to have their beaks stuffed full of mealworms. At it's maximum Judith counted almost 70 on the lawn but there were clearly more in the trees as well, so it had to be a hundred at least and that was just on our bit of the river.


You  can get an idea of the sheer noise and movement from these videos. The youngsters seem insatiable and the mealworms are obviously just the thing for them. Of course, the starlings weren't the only ones attracted by the feast. Our resident crows and magpies also joined in, often scaring the starlings away into the surrounding trees, but they quickly came back.

This could cost me a fortune in mealworms but it is so good to see starlings in good numbers and it really does take me back.