Charming Goldfinches

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed a complete lack of greenfinches in their garden this winter.  I know the Big Garden Birdwatch has seen a big drop, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one anywhere, even in the country park.

What I do get a lot of are goldfinches – one of my favourite birds (although they are not as high up as bullfinches and long-tailed tits).  We tend to get at least four or five a day in the winter, but we’ve had up to two dozen – quite a lot with only one bird feeder – but I have plans for next year…  In the summer we tend to get some adults and fledglings in the garden, the chicks staying with us for some time.  You can usually tell they’ve arrived by the cacophony of begging noises coming from outside.

However, whilst watching the birds I started to wonder if it would be possible to tell how many individuals come into the garden.  I think the short answer is going to be not a chance, but it did lead me to wonder if there is an easy way to tell males and females apart.

According to many websites, yes you can.  The males have more extensive red masks and black feathers around their beaks – the females also have shorter wings and white or grey feathers around their beaks.  There is also a difference in the extent of the brown on their wings.  Not simple, but doable with some effort.  It was then that I came across and excellent blog by a bird ringer who dispelled all of these myths with examples of birds he’d caught and sexed with certainty (and there were plenty even he couldn’t be sure about).

However, there are some differences I have spotted, such as the size of the white spots on the wing tips and, how white they are.  I am not sure if this will change with time, along with the black tip to some of the beaks – so it will be worth checking again in the summer when the only birds about will be adults.  See the photos below – goldfinch 1 has mainly white spots with a hint of beige, but goldfinch 2 has spots that are much closer to beige than brown.

goldfinch 1

goldfinch 2

More work required methinks, ho hum, I will just have to stand at the window watching birds for hours.

However, as these charming birds are not very long lived in the wild it is probably just as well that I can’t differentiate them.

BTW if you wondered, apparently the name charm for a flock of goldfinches comes from the noise they make rather than their appearance.

The National Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting

Every year Butterfly Conservation hold a Recorders’ meeting in Birmingham, this year I was asked to talk to the Recorders (more on this in a later post), so I went along for just the second time.  It is a day with a wide and varied schedule of talks and one that is open to anyone with an interest in butterflies.  These are the highlights of just some of the talks, but there were others scattered in between (although I admit to losing the plot with the talk about butterflies and nitrogen – too statistical for me) so plenty for everyone.

The day opened with a talk by the always interesting Richard Fox who gave highlights of 2014 in terms of butterflies – prior to the full results that were saved until the end of the day.  The year was dominated by tortoiseshells.  The familiar small tortoiseshell continued its recovery from its precipitous decline earlier in the decade (something that I think has been reflected in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire) but the real star was the influx of the Scarce Tortoiseshell from the continent.  Prior to 2014 there were only 2 records – last year there were 19 (and some have been seen this year already).

Zoe Randle spoke about the importance and use of Citizen Science for conservation.  It was so useful to know that the data that volunteers submit through the various schemes run by Butterfly Conservation is put to use with 170 peer reviewed papers making use of the data – papers that have been cited 7,000 times.

A local highlight was the work done in Northamptonshire to try and reverse the decline of the Wood White.  This is a three year project that has just come to an end having been funded mainly through the SITA landfill grants but also receiving money from the local Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire Butterfly Conservation group.  Through working with the Forestry Commission to clear the rides through the woods and uncover the ditches running alongside these rides they have increased the number of wood whites seen for less than a dozen in 2009 to over 150 in 2013 and over 250 in 2o14.  The challenge is now on to keep this going now the official project is over and to replicate it elsewhere.

It it always a pleasure to hear Matthew Oates talking, this time about how the National Trust is prioritising the work it is doing on its land to improve the environment- particularly its farmland.

One of the more scientific talks of the day was from Bristol University researcher – Jon Bridle, who has been investigating whether the Brown Argus, a butterfly that has increased its distribution, possibly due to changing climate, has done so because of any evolutionary changes.  The work focused on the chosen food plant of the butterfly as in two areas of the UK where it had an established presence it had two different food plants – geranium molle and rock rose.  It appears that in the new areas they use exclusively the geranium on which to lay their eggs – those moved to areas with just rock rose didn’t lay at all.  However, when butterflies in areas of rock rose were moved to the new areas they were just as happy, if not happier using the geranium.  Interesting don’t you think.

The final talk gave details of the results of the various butterfly recording schemes for the last year – with the winners and losers described.  However, they will be doing a press release later in the week, so if I told you the results now I’d have to kill you.  Best keep them to myself.

My first bumblebee walk

This year I signed up to do my first proper wildlife survey (one step up from the annual Big Garden Birdwatch or Big Butterfly Count, both of which I do most years).  I have developed an interest in Bumblebees, I’m not sure why, I think it is through a combination of watching them through my macro lens and also because of all the information that is now out there due to the worry over the disappearance of pollinators.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust launched it’s BeeWalk last year.  It is asking volunteers to choose a 1-2km walk (as compared to a lot of surveys where the walks are in randomly allocated squares) and to walk it once a month between March and October, preferably in warm, dry and still conditions, and recording any bees spotted along the way.

I chose my route in an area where I knew I would have no trouble getting to once a month (in fact I tend to visit most parts of it every week) and then refined it to take in as many different habitats as I could.  It starts in an industrial estate, heads past some fields, some new houses with some scrubby bits, more fields and more grasslands and houses.  Not overly inspirational, but I am hopeful for some bumbles this summer.

What I wasn’t too hopeful about was my chances of seeing some bumbles this weekend.  The weather has not been exactly warm, but with the forecast for today looking better than the rest of the week, and March rapidly vanishing into the realms of memory, I thought I’d better get my bum in gear and get out there looking for bees.  This is actually a good time of year to start learning about bees because there are only the queens of true bumblebees generally about.  There are no males, very few workers and none of those pesky cuckoo bees to confuse an amateur.

However, I was pleasantly surprised as there were actually some bees out.  Due to a lack of flowers to be seen on the ground, I had to look up into the trees to find them, and it took a while to get my eye in.  However, during the 1 hour walk I managed to spot 8 bees of three different species (and two butterflies, one hoverfly and a lacewing).

Most of the bees, with the exception of two queens which were quartering the ground under some hedgerows, were feeding on willow catkins (I have no idea if these were from goat willow, crack willow or grey willow as I didn’t even realise that there were as many different types until I looked online).  When most people think of bees, they think of flowers, and if they think of trees at all they think of cherry blossom.  However, at this time of year, the catkins of willow trees are an important source of nectar and pollen for bees and other insects.  This became evident when we stood under one of the willows watching the honeybees in the tree.  It sounded as though we were stood near to a hive.  We spotted more than a dozen and they were so covered in willow pollen that they were glinting in the sunlight, looking as golden as the catkins themselves.

bumble bee

The next time I’m out and about I’ll definitely make a bee-line for the willows and see what’s buzzing.

Is this normal behaviour?

On my way back from my hunt for bees and butterflies I was struck by a loud ruckus coming from a tree. There were about 7 or 8 magpies making their loud clacking noise along with an angry sounding crow.

crow's nest-4

There was a nest in the tree, although I am not sure who’s and it certainly didn’t look like a magpie’s nest

crow's nest

It took me a while to work out what the fuss was, but as usual it was someone’s precious pet that had set the birds off:

crow's nest-3However, this isn’t a rant about too many cats in too small an area, but I wondered if this was normal behaviour for the corvids?  The crow was on it’s own and I would have thought that if it was defending a nest it would have been in a pair, as the rooks in a nearby rookery already seem to be showing signs of getting ready to nest.  I also can’t remember the last time I saw more than 3 or 4 magpies together, certainly not at this time of year, and, would they really help out a crow?

Maybe they were just not happy about a cat being in their territory.  After a while the magpies flew off to a nearby tree, leaving the crow to remain angry alone for a little bit longer before he (or she) gave up and flew away as the cat seemed distinctly unperturbed.

I did note some group mobbing by some crows a few days later, this time against another crow – thus overturning my notions that crows, unlike rooks and jackdaws, tend to be less gregarious and more solitary.


Spring? Where?

Signs of spring have a been a bit few and far between so far this year, although I have managed to find some in the last week.

There has been a dearth of insects about – so far, apart from a probably very short lived peacock butterfly on 2nd January, I’ve seen a solitary brimstone, and five bees – all apart from one were Bombus terrestris (the buff-tailed bee).   This is a good time of year (well, if it gets a bit warmer it will be) for learning to ID our bumblebees as for the next month or so there will only be queens of true bumblebees about.  None of those pesky cuckoo bees or males to confuse matters.  For more info on bumblebee ID, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has loads of help.  Even the views I did get of the bees were from a distance:


I found one lurking on some broom and a couple of others sunning themselves on trees.

However, it is probably a good thing that there aren’t many invertebrates braving the cold at the moment (although I was told today that 2015 temperatures have been normal for this time of year) as I’m not sure if it is just that I’m looking in the wrong place, but I’ve not seen many flowers in bloom yet.  I have some snowdrops and hellebores in the garden, but by the roadsides I’m not even seeing many dandelions which flower for most of the year.

willowThe willows are only just breaking out and it took me until the beginning of this week to find any celandines in flower – a bloom I usually associate with February.  However, find them I did, and, what’s more I also heard my first chiffchaff of the year (about a week earlier than I expected) – trying to drown out the sound of traffic on the Bedford Road.  So maybe spring is on its way after all.


Terns – a book review

Terns by David Cabot and Ian Nesbit is another in the usually excellent Collins New Naturalist series of books.  (I say usually excellent only because they are sought after books of which I have only read one other.)

ternsI bought this book specifically to fill a gap that I discovered in my knowledge following my summer of watching the common terns at the country park last year.  I became intrigued by the terns, including the black terns that I saw, and wanted to learn more.

The book starts with some general chapters, before moving on to individual chapters about each of the five tern species that breed in Britain and Ireland (I didn’t even know there were five).  The first chapters cover the tern family generally, followed by their breeding behaviour and biology, food and foraging techniques, migration and also a history of terns within the British Isles (not good reading – we nearly wiped them out so we could put them on hats).  The book finishes with some further information about the terns that are occasionally seen in Britain and Ireland and some notes about conservation projects.

As well as lots of really interesting information presented in a clear and informative way, the book is packed with stunning pictures.  My one small criticism is that there is quite a bit of repetition from one chapter to the next, and perhaps the occasional visitors to the UK could be included in the chapter of the tern they are most closely related to.  But these are minor criticisms of what was a fantastic book.

So, armed with new knowledge I aim to answer the following questions this summer:

When do the terns first arrive, are they paired before they get here, can I tell the males and females apart by their behaviour in the air, do they defend their territory from when they arrive.  Then, hopefully there will be eggs laid, possibly a couple per nest – how long to hatching, if the bad weather comes will they try again, how many of the birds are non-breeding (apparently they often come to scope out a successful feeding ground the year before they are ready to breed), can I tell the different calls apart, how often are the chicks fed, when are they left alone and how long to fledging.  Then, there is the question of feeding – what do they feed on and how do they catch it.  Finally, how long until they leave and do they all go (adults and chicks) at the same time.

So many questions to be answered – I think I might have a busy summer and perhaps it is as well that it is only the common terns that breed inland in the UK!