Tag Archives: Bird Watching

Garden Visitor, The Sparrowhawk

IMG_8942

When I put some nesting boxes in the garden I was hoping for a Robin or a Blue Tit!

The Sparrowhawk as well as being a magnificent bird is a ruthless killer and designed to hunt expertly from the air.  It tracks at great speed, darting out of cover with extreme dexterity combined with deadly accuracy to kill its prey.   It doesn’t hover, like the Kestrel or the Hawk, but relies on pace, momentum and surprise to catch its food and for this it is well designed with long slim legs, large sharp talons and a very efficient hooked beak that it uses for piercing and tearing up its prey.

The male Sparrowhawk was formerly called a musket, and the gun was named after the bird which perhaps gives a clue as to just how deadly they can be.  They are expert hunters and very fast fliers, and often make quick dashes over hedgerows or along the ground when chasing prey, which is often spectacularly captured using a downward plummet from the sky with closed wings.

Each adult Sparrowhawk will kill and consume a couple of small birds a day for themselves and when they are breeding a pair needs to catch another ten or so just to feed the chicks.  According to the RSPB there are forty thousand breeding pairs in the United Kingdom so by my calculation that is twenty thousand nests with an average of three chicks each so to feed themselves and their offspring this means three hundred thousand murders a day.  As Thomas Hobbes said in his philosophical treatise, Leviathan, ‘Life (in the state of nature) is nasty, brutish and short”.

Sparrowhawk kill 05

Scrap Book Project – British Birds, The Sparrow

Not exclusively British of course because they are found all over the World but according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds the population of house sparrows in Britain has fallen by nearly 70% in the past thirty years, it is rarely seen in London anymore and there are fewer in urban back gardens and this decline in numbers is now so serious that the sparrow is on the RSPB red list of conservation importance.

Their web site explains that the UK’s birds can be split in to three categories of conservation importance – red, amber and green.  Red is the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action. Amber is the next most critical group, followed by green.  Also on the red list are the Thrush and the Starling but happily on the green list are the blackbird, the blue tit, the wren and the robin.

While watching the birds I noticed that some of the sparrows looked very different indeed and when I consulted my book of garden birds I realised that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to detail because there were three types of different bird that I had been generally referring to as sparrows and it turns out that one isn’t even a sparrow at all!  It’s a Dunnock!

First of all (picture 1) there is the tree sparrow, which is smaller than the more common house sparrow and quite different in appearance. It has a chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek-spot.

It is on the red list and is only really found down the east of the country and not in Wales or the southwest at all.  I am really pleased to see them here because based on the Common Bird Census, there was a decline of 85% in numbers in Britain between the two breeding periods (1968-72 and 1988-91), which was the largest decline of any common species during this period.  Little is known about the factors affecting numbers of tree sparrows, but their recent decline has occurred at the same time as decreases in the numbers of other farmland birds which share its diet of grass, wild flower and cereal seeds, and also feed their young on insects and it is therefore possible that its decline is due to changing agricultural practices.

Next (picture 2) is the good old house sparrow which is much more numerous and found all over the British Isles.  They are noisy and gregarious and are cheerful and welcome visitors to the bird table and the feeders.  There may seem to a lot of house sparrows and their numbers are estimated at thirteen million, but the worrying fact is that thirty years ago there were twenty five million and the population in London has declined by a whopping 70%.  That’s something to be concerned about!

No one really knows why but some of the suggestions are that new house building methods and materials make it difficult for sparrows to find suitable nesting sites and the current fad for overly tidy gardens also takes away some of their natural habitat.  So I say forget about clinically tidy gardens and leave some wildlife friendly area in the garden and welcome the sparrow back!  I think the RSPB will agree with me.

Finally (picture 3), there is the Dunnock, which I am certain I must have seen before but am embarrassed to say that I have previously failed to identify him correctly.  He looks like a sparrow but he isn’t, even if sometimes he is referred to as the hedge sparrow.  It is a small brown and grey bird and quite quiet and unobtrusive with better manners than the squabbling sparrows, I have often seen it on its own, creeping along the edge of flower beds or amongst the shrubs, moving with a rather nervous, shuffling gait, often flicking its wings as it goes.  They are more edgy and aware than the sparrows and often disappear abruptly when disturbed.

I know a bit more about sparrows now and a lot more than I did in 1961 when I wrote about them in my school Nature Studies exercise book which my dad kept in his scrap book…

Scrap Book Project – Ornithology, Blackbirds and Sweden

An early piece of artwork c1960

I am going to begin with a warning.  It is a word of caution about the sudden acquisition of new and unlikely interests.  I was sure that this could not possibly happen to me but I have been struck down with a chronic interest in wild birds.

I have become a twitcher!  and it happened so quickly and without warning so I was powerless to resist it.  It has become so bad that I now even look out for Bill Oddie programmes on the television (Springwatch, Autumnwatch, How to Watch Wildlife, Wild In Your Garden, Birding with Bill Oddie, Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie and Bill Oddie Goes Wild) and not so long ago I would have preferred to boil my own head rather than watch a Bill Oddie programme.

When I was a boy I used to collect Brooke Bond tea cards and diligently stick them in an album, even then one of my least favourite collections was British Birds because it was just so dull.  I preferred the African Wild Life and the Asian Wild Life collections because they were colourful and exciting, I think I even quite liked the Tropical Birds set but British Birds, for me, were always such a disappointment.

One day in March I was doing a little early shrub pruning in the garden and I was tackling an overgrown and scruffy specimen that is attached to the garden shed.  I was working in a frenzy, slashing away and cutting back indiscriminately, when my efforts revealed an obviously recently constructed bird’s nest.  I was sorry about that because where it had been carefully concealed in the labyrinth of twigs and leaves it was now dangerously exposed to the elements and potential predators.  At this stage no one seemed to be occupying the nest but I kept an eye on it for any sign of activity and began to see a pair of blackbirds flying in and out quite regularly.  Goodness knows what they thought about the rearrangements that I had made to their front door but I was pleased that it hadn’t scared them away.

Then one day it happened.  This was the day that I crossed over and I became hopelessly hooked.  I had been making regular inspections but on this day I was elated to discover three shiny blue speckled eggs in the moss at the bottom of the nest.  Because of my habitat vandalism I decided that this pair of birds was my special responsibility and I started to provide food so that they wouldn’t have to go far away from the nest that I had uncovered to the world.

I carried out some research and was surprised to learn that these eggs could be hatched in about three weeks so I increased my nest inspections to twice a day in anticipation of the happy event and was overjoyed one day to find some baby chicks lying pathetic and vulnerable in the bottom of the nest.  After that I stayed away for fear of frightening away the adults but I needn’t have worried and they stayed around and were happy enough to accept the food that I was regularly putting out for them.

The male quickly became the boss of the back garden becoming increasingly territorial and chasing away other birds that were bold enough to venture in to share the bread and raisins that I was providing and the pair of them kept up a frenetic level of activity going backwards and forwards to the nest to keep the little ones fed.  I was surprised how quickly they grew and very soon there was a serious overcrowding problem in the nest with three fat chicks competing for their share of a very restricted space.

Then in April I was away for a few days and upon return was disappointed to find that they had gone, not even a thank you note left behind and I was sad that I had missed their first flight, I had been looking forward to it as though I was a parent myself waiting for a child to take its first steps.

See, I told you that I was hooked!

An interesting fact about the Blackbird is that it is the national bird of Sweden and although many World countries have national birds this is the only one, apart from the English Robin, that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.  Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots for their national bird, the French have the Cockerel and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

In the Middle Ages and right up to Shakespeare’s time the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ouzel, Ousel or Wosle and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

Also, north of the border, where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian; all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

My dad knew all about birds and when he was young he kept a journal of British species in an exercise book.  This was his blackbird page…

_____________________________________________

Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

_____________________________________________

British Birds – The Sparrow

Not exclusively British of course because they are found all over the World but according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds the population of house sparrows in Britain has fallen by nearly 70% in the past thirty years, it is rarely seen in London anymore and there are fewer in urban back gardens and this decline in numbers is now so serious that the sparrow is on the RSPB red list of conservation importance.

Their web site explains that the UK’s birds can be split in to three categories of conservation importance – red, amber and green.  Red is the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action. Amber is the next most critical group, followed by green.  Also on the red list are the Thrush and the Starling but happily on the green list are the blackbird, the blue tit, the wren and the robin.

While watching the birds I noticed that some of the sparrows looked very different indeed and when I consulted my book of garden birds I realised that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to detail because there were three types of different bird that I had been generally referring to as sparrows and it turns out that one isn’t even a sparrow at all!  It’s a Dunnock!

First of all (picture 1) there is the tree sparrow, which is smaller than the more common house sparrow and quite different in appearance. It has a chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek-spot.  It is on the red list and is only really found down the east of the country and not in Wales or the southwest at all.  I am really pleased to see them here because based on the Common Bird Census, there was a decline of 85% in numbers in Britain between the two breeding periods (1968-72 and 1988-91), which was the largest decline of any common species during this period.  Little is known about the factors affecting numbers of tree sparrows, but their recent decline has occurred at the same time as decreases in the numbers of other farmland birds which share its diet of grass, wildflower and cereal seeds, and also feed their young on insects and it is therefore possible that its decline is due to changing agricultural practices.

Next (picture 2) is the good old house sparrow which is much more numerous and found all over the British Isles.  They are noisy and gregarious and are cheerful and welcome visitors to the bird table and the feeders.  There may seem to a lot of house sparrows and their numbers are estimated at thirteen million, but the worrying fact is that thirty years ago there were twenty five million and the population in London has declined by a whopping 70%.  That’s something to be concerned about!  No one really knows why but some of the suggestions are that new house building methods and materials make it difficult for sparrows to find suitable nesting sites and the current fad for overly tidy gardens also takes away some of their natural habitat.  So I say forget about clinically tidy gardens and leave some wildlife friendly area in the garden and welcome the sparrow back!  I think the RSPB will agree with me.

Finally (picture 3), there is the Dunnock, which I am certain I must have seen before but am embarrassed to say that I have previously failed to identify him correctly.  He looks like a sparrow but he isn’t, even if sometimes he is referred to as the hedge sparrow.  It is a small brown and grey bird and quite quiet and unobtrusive with better manners than the squabbling sparrows, I have often seen it on its own, creeping along the edge of flower beds or amongst the shrubs, moving with a rather nervous, shuffling gait, often flicking its wings as it goes.  They are more edgy and aware than the sparrows and often disappear abruptly when disturbed.

I know a bit more about sparrows now and a lot more than I did in 1961 when I wrote about them in my school Nature Studies exercise book…

The Sparrowhawk – Killer in the Back Garden

Early one morning I opened the curtains and in the branch of a tree in the garden opposite was a collared dove, just sitting, minding its own business and probably making feeding plans for the day ahead.  As I opened the window it spread its wings and set off in that clumsy and not especially aerodynamic way that they have of taking to the air and started to gain height.  It hadn’t got very far however when suddenly from out of nowhere a second bird collided with it like a guided missile and there was an explosion of grey feathers.  I didn’t see it coming and neither did the collared dove but even if it had there was nothing it would have been able to do about it because it was the Sparrowhawk.

The Sparrowhawk as well as being a magnificent bird is a ruthless killer and designed to hunt expertly from the air.  It tracks at great speed, darting out of cover with extreme dexterity combined with deadly accuracy to kill its prey.   It doesn’t hover, like the Kestrel or the Hawk, but relies on pace, momentum and surprise to catch its food and for this it is well designed with long slim legs, large sharp talons and a very efficient hooked beak that it uses for piercing and tearing up its prey.

The male Sparrowhawk was formerly called a musket, and the gun was named after the bird which perhaps gives a clue as to just how deadly they can be.  They are expert hunters and very fast fliers, and often make quick dashes over hedgerows or along the ground when chasing prey, which is often spectacularly captured using a downward plummet from the sky with closed wings.  The pairs work well together as a team and to avoid competition between the two sexes, males concentrate on smaller birds, such as sparrows and tits, and females hunt larger birds including collared doves, thrushes and starlings.

After intercepting the unsuspecting bird in flight the Sparrowhawk dropped to the ground and set about preparing breakfast.  I had seen the hit but it was all so quick that it was only now that I was beginning to understand what was going on.  The killer stood on the doomed bird, who only had a matter of seconds left to wonder what hit it, and opened it wings to form a tent and spread its tail feathers to provide balance.

The wings had wonderful markings, russet brown with dark stripes and she flapped them continuously to prevent any unexpected break for escape but there was no way that this was going to happen and she  removed the wings, plucked the breast and removed the face and beak in a matter of seconds and then with the dead bird in its talons it took off and flew away at great speed probably to take it back to its nest somewhere and to feed the nest full of chicks because there is quite a lot of meat on a collared dove.

Each adult Sparrowhawk will kill and consume a couple of small birds a day for themselves and when they are breeding at about this time of the year a pair needs to catch another ten or so just to feed the chicks.  According to the RSPB there are forty thousand breeding pairs in the United Kingdom so by my calculation that is twenty thousand nests with an average of three chicks each so to feed themselves and their offspring this means three hundred thousand murders a day.  As Thomas Hobbes said in his philosophical treatise, Leviathan, ‘Life (in the state of nature) is nasty, brutish and short”.

I didn’t capture this incident on camera but a few days later the bird was back this time in the back garden and on this occassion picked up a young starling for lunch.

_____________________________________________

Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds                                                                                                                                Collared Doves                                                                                                                            Dunnock                                                                                                                                              Fat Balls                                                                                                                                    Mozart’s Starling                                                                                                                            Robin                                                                                                                                        Starlings                                                                                                                                   Starlings in the USA                                                                                                 Vinkensetting                          ____________________________________________

Ornithology, Blackbirds and Sweden

An early piece of artwork c1960

I am going to begin with a warning.  It is a word of caution about the sudden acquisition of new and unlikely interests.  I was sure that this could not possibly happen to me but I have been struck down with a chronic interest in wild birds.

I have become a twitcher!  and it happened so quickly and without warning so I was powerless to resist it.  It has become so bad that I now even look out for Bill Oddie programmes on the television (Springwatch, Autumnwatch, How to Watch Wildlife, Wild In Your Garden, Birding with Bill Oddie, Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie and Bill Oddie Goes Wild) and not so long ago I would have preferred to boil my own head rather than watch a Bill Oddie programme.

When I was a boy I used to collect Brooke Bond tea cards and diligently stick them in an album, even then one of my least favourite collections was British Birds because it was just so dull.  I preferred the African Wild Life and the Asian Wild Life collections because they were colourful and exciting, I think I even quite liked the Tropical Birds set but British Birds, for me, were always such a disappointment.

One day in March I was doing a little early shrub pruning in the garden and I was tackling an overgrown and scruffy specimen that is attached to the garden shed.  I was working in a frenzy, slashing away and cutting back indiscriminately, when my efforts revealed an obviously recently constructed bird’s nest.  I was sorry about that because where it had been carefully concealed in the labyrinth of twigs and leaves it was now dangerously exposed to the elements and potential predators.  At this stage no one seemed to be occupying the nest but I kept an eye on it for any sign of activity and began to see a pair of blackbirds flying in and out quite regularly.  Goodness knows what they thought about the rearrangements that I had made to their front door but I was pleased that it hadn’t scared them away.

Then one day it happened.  This was the day that I crossed over and I became hopelessly hooked.  I had been making regular inspections but on this day I was elated to discover three shiny blue speckled eggs in the moss at the bottom of the nest.  Because of my habitat vandalism I decided that this pair of birds was my special responsibility and I started to provide food so that they wouldn’t have to go far away from the nest that I had uncovered to the world.

I carried out some research and was surprised to learn that these eggs could be hatched in about three weeks so I increased my nest inspections to twice a day in anticipation of the happy event and was overjoyed one day to find some baby chicks lying pathetic and vulnerable in the bottom of the nest.  After that I stayed away for fear of frightening away the adults but I needn’t have worried and they stayed around and were happy enough to accept the food that I was regularly putting out for them.

The male quickly became the boss of the back garden becoming increasingly territorial and chasing away other birds that were bold enough to venture in to share the bread and raisins that I was providing and the pair of them kept up a frenetic level of activity going backwards and forwards to the nest to keep the little ones fed.  I was surprised how quickly they grew and very soon there was a serious overcrowding problem in the nest with three fat chicks competing for their share of a very restricted space.

Then in April I was away for a few days and upon return was disappointed to find that they had gone, not even a thank you note left behind and I was sad that I had missed their first flight, I had been looking forward to it as though I was a parent myself waiting for a child to take its first steps.

See, I told you that I was hooked!

An interesting fact about the Blackbird is that it is the national bird of Sweden and although many World countries have national birds this is the only one, apart from the English Robin, that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.  Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots for their national bird, the French have the Cockerel and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

In the Middle Ages and right up to Shakespeare’s time the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ouzel, Ousel or Wosle and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

Also, north of the border, where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian; all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

My dad knew all about birds and when he was young he kept a journal of British species in an exercise book.  This is his blackbird page…

_____________________________________________

Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

_____________________________________________

Collared Doves

Collared Doves really are the most stupid of all birds.  Currently there is a pair of them trying to build a nest in the eaves of my house (X marks the spot) and, it has to be said,  failing pretty spectacularly.  After six weeks it still hasn’t occurred to them that the spot that they have chosen is completely unsuitable.  Every day they deliver beak full’s of twigs to the narrow ledge above my bedroom window and everyday it falls down onto the drive and gives me a failed nesting debris sweep-up operation.

Each morning starting at dawn they sit there cooing away to each other, stopping every now and again for an avian wing-trembler, which I have to say doesn’t look very thrilling or satisfying, and then they return to their hopeless nest building task and if, against all odds, they ever get it built I am only going to take it down anyway!

The story of the Collared Dove is an interesting one.

Only a hundred years ago, the species was found primarily on the Indian subcontinent, although its range extended slightly into Europe but certainly no further than Turkey.  In the early 1900s, however, the species began significantly expanding its range and colonised as far as France, the Low Countries and Denmark and then in 1953 reached it the United Kingdom when it was spotted in Norfolk for the first time.

Today, Collared Doves are living above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia.

The spread of Collared Doves across the United Kingdom has been very rapid. From the first breeding report in 1955 the species was subsequently reported breeding in Kent and Lincolnshire in 1957, with birds also seen as far north as Scotland.  Two years later Ireland was colonised and by 1970 there may have been as many as twenty-five thousand pairs in Britain and Ireland and between 1972 and 1976 the population increased five fold.

The Collared Dove, it turns out, is one of the great colonisers of the avian world.  After it was introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s it managed to spread to Florida in the United States by 1982.  Its stronghold in North America is still the Gulf Coast, but it is now found as far south as Veracruz, as far west as California, and as far north as British Columbia and the Great Lakes.

All of this goes to show that although they are hopeless at building nests they regardless of this they are good at breeding and pretty spectacular at colonisation.

Collared Doves are quite big birds and have a buff grey colour that makes them quite conspicuous.   Although on first site they may look uninteresting they are really quite attractive with the half collar marking on the back of the neck, a pinkish flush on the chest and really wonderful black eyes with a red ring.  This is a picture of the visitor to my garden so you can see just how close, without a massive telephoto lens,  he will let me get to him (or perhaps her, because actually I can’t tell the difference).

_____________________________________________

Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

_____________________________________________