White toadstools popping up near you this autumn

I’m not very good at recognising different types of mushrooms and toadstools.  I’ve been on an organised fungi foray over at Gamlingay Woods, I’ve taken pictures and put them on iSpot, but I can rarely remember what they are called or remember having seen them before.  In fact I can count on two fingers the ones I can recognise and name immediately on sight.  This, is one of them.

Shaggy Ink Cap

This is a shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus)  – comatus means hairy and refers to the scales that are clear once the cap has pushed out of the ground.  They pop up all over the place and are widespread across Europe and North America.  In fact, if you are an urban naturalist then you are in luck because they are often found in the green spaces in towns.

They first form as little egg-shaped white caps peeping out of the soil, and, as they grow the gills turn from white to pink to black as they liquefy themselves to death from the edges forming  an inky like substance as they spread their spores.  In the end there is just a white stem with some inky remains at the top.

They are supposedly edible, although not that tasty and not poisonous, but have to be eaten pretty quickly as they will have liquified themselves within a couple of hours of picking.  However, as with all mushrooms you need to really know your stuff to prevent accidentally picking something poisonous.

On the wing

So I set off last weekend to see how my tern chick was getting along – although secretly I was a little worried that it might still have been small enough to make a tasty meal for the herring gulls that periodically flew over the rafts.

But, worry not.  I think the chick was still alive and well, but it was difficult to tell.  In fact, I counted 5 juvenile terns – chicks seems an inappropriate term now as they were not at all fluffy and looked very similar to the adults.  There were some differences in appearance and behaviour though to help me out.  Although they were mainly grey and white, there were some noticeable brown feathers on the wings, the tails seemed a bit short and the beaks had a bit of a yellow-orange look compared to the bright red of their parents.  They spent most of their time perched on the edge of the tern rafts – with the occasional foray into flight.  However, the landings looked a bit on the clumsy side and I was convinced that one of them was sooner or later going to miss.

When I watch an adult tern they seem almost effortless, with languid wing strokes; in comparison the youngsters seem almost panicky: flap, flap, flap in case they crash into the water.  They were also still reliant on their parents for food, with loud shouts every time one came near with fish.

Two days later and it was all change again.  Lots of terns were out above the water, resting in the rafts or just perching on the fence posts at the edge of the water.  The youngsters were out and about as well.  We watched one following or being followed by an adult.  It seemed that it was learning how to fish.  It wasn’t very successful, but was definitely persistent.  At first it was patient, trying the occasional dive and then flying off a little further.  After a while though I think it was getting a little more desperate – it would hover above, dive, then come back up and quickly dive back down again.  Eventually the parent shadowing it showed how it was done and gave the youngster a fishy reward for its efforts.

Whilst I am really pleased to see that at least 5 chicks have been successfully reared by the terns, watching them made me a little sad as I realised that before long they will be on their way again.

The black-headed gulls are now drifting back to the country park to fill in the gap the terns will leave.  Does that mean summer is nearly over?

Big news in the tern report

As seems to be usual for this time of year it was quiet out on the water at the Country Park.  The gulls were sitting quietly (for the most part) at the far end, the coots seem to have invaded a couple of the tern rafts and the others were occupied by snoozing or preening terns.

The swans and their six cygnets cruised serenely past at one point, and a youngish great crested grebe chick decked out in his stripy best was, as grebe chicks usually are, loudly demanding lunch from its parent.

However, closer inspection, and a lot of waiting, revealed a lot more happening in the elegant world of the terns (imagine a note of sarcasm when reading the word elegant please).  Out on the newer tern raft there seemed to be an almost permanent group of up to five terns sat around the edge.  I saw some bringing of fish and worked out that there are at least three different pairs nesting there.  Most of the time there was just a bit general screeching when a fish carrying tern arrived.  But for some reason, one poor tern carrying what looked like a small perch (well, it had a red tail) was attacked by one of the by-standing terns.  Not only did it stop it from landing, it chased it high into the air, followed it round and round the raft and at one point had it in the water and seemed intent on drowning the poor bird.   I’m not sure if it was the tern that caused such a reaction or a desire to possess a red-tailed fish, but I didn’t see any other tern suffering from such attention.  I also lost the chase and so don’t know what became of the tern or fish.

Another strange piece of behaviour was from a tern that had caught a fine silver fish but which seemed intent on shouting about it.  He flew across the water, calling as he went, then I think he went halfway into Daventry and back, calling all the time, and then did another partial circuit of the reservoir.  I didn’t see him try to land anywhere or offer the fish.  He just seemed to be particularly proud of his catch.

However, I’ve saved the big news until the end of my Tern Report.  There has been a hatching out on one of the rafts.  I thought the adult was just resting, but every now and then I saw a little brown and black head pop up and wander about.  I was beginning to get a little concerned when there had been no attempt to bring in fish by any of the patrolling terns for at least an hour.  Then, suddenly both adult and chick started calling bright orange-red beaks open wide, and, sure enough in came an adult to give a fish to the chick before heading off again.  We saw him make three deliveries in fairly rapid succession before it disappeared for a longer hunt.

We therefore wondered, do the adults feed themselves first before doing some dedicated chick feeding – the adult didn’t seem to have too much trouble finding fish, so there has to be some explanation for the earlier absence?  Answers on a postcard please.

The Tern Report

Forgive me reader for it has been two weeks since I visited my terns.  Fortunately not much has changed and the tern rafts are still afloat.  At first I was worried as it was very quiet out on the water, but I soon saw a tern patrolling the edge along the dam.  When I got the telescope out I discovered that there were a few birds out hunting, but the majority were quietly sat on the tern rafts.  I think there must have been around a dozen birds scattered across the rafts.

The only noise seemed to occurred when another tern came near.  The rest of the time they were either snoozing, preening or wandering about on the raft, I assumed checking out their territory or displaying to their mate.  I did see one exchange of fish, but this was away from the tern raft.  I also  witnessed tern sex so I am hopeful that some egg laying might be on the cards.

It then occurred to me that I know nothing about terns and have no idea how long eggs would take to hatch so some research was in order.  Terns lay up to four eggs in the space of about four days, but continue to mate during this time.  Although both sexes will incubate the egg this is apparently sometimes a bit sporadic – this could explain why there was a fair amount of standing about – the terns often stand next to the egg.  After the third or fourth egg is laid they then settle down to some more sustained incubation.

I’ll have to wait for somewhere between about 23 and 28 days for the eggs to hatch – so hopefully I will see some changes in behaviour around the middle of July.  Then there will be a lot more hunting for fish by the parents for the next month until the young fledge.  I’m hopeful that as the terns seem to come back each year (terns can live up to about 25 years) then they must have successfully bred at some point.  This time I’ll hopefully be watching.

Nothing to add to the Tern report

I swapped a Sunday morning run for an earlier trip to the country park – the warm sunshine and the remains of a bad cold were the only excuses I needed.

However, it was very quiet; even though I got there about 4 hours after the alleged sunrise (not something I am interested in seeing at this time of year) the birds seemed quite sleepy and subdued.  The usual flock of mixed larger gulls were absent, a few turned up about 30 minutes after I got there, and the terns had much of the water to themselves.

There was the usual jostling on some of the rafts (I think one had been abandoned as it was full of coots and not terns) when a tern arrived, some fish changed beaks and some of the terns seemed to be settled in and hunkered down quite low – sitting on eggs?  I hope so.  I did see one unsuccessful attempt to bring in a fish – after much noise and flapping and trying to hand over the fish to a member of the opposite sex he gave up and ate the fish himself!

As well as the terns, the grebe chick and cygnets were still in evidence and I noted that there were now about 8 greylag geese on the water – I wonder if these will become permanent?

The Tern Report

So, feeling bad about not checking on my terns, I’ve paid two visits this week.  First, an evening trip after work on Monday.   The majority of the noise and activity was from the tern rafts – other birds such as the swifts were not present in great numbers and the big gulls were still down at the far end of the water.

The birds seemed to be busy setting up territories with quite a bit of squabbling going on when an interloper tried to land – they could land on certain parts of the raft, but not others.  Most parts of the raft had only one bird in place – mainly sitting, have a preen or shouting at the other terns.  Sitting around the edge of the raft in general seemed to be tolerated, particularly on the larger, higher new raft.  Landing, within the confines less so.  I did see some digging around by a couple of birds – not sure what they were digging into or if it was some sort of bonding ritual, and I also saw the presentation of a newly caught fish from one tern to another – that seemed much clearer.  I left feeling that all was well with my terns and looking forward to watching them next weekend.

However, the weather in between then and now has been terrible  -strong winds, thunder, lightning and lots of rain.  The results were fairly predictable.  Returning today (Sunday) it was noticeable that a number of the older, shallower rafts were under water to some extent again.  Whilst they were occupied I think it was just somewhere for the terns to sit and have a rest.  I hope that none had laid their eggs in the last week – if they did, will they lay again?  I have no idea.  The other, more robust rafts, were still occupied although I’m not sure how many birds were there – I saw the tips of some wing feathers peeking over the top but couldn’t be certain that there were more than a couple of birds in residence.

I did get a good view of the terns fishing – they looked beautiful backlit by the sun, at times almost hovering, wings and tail spread, at other times they zoomed past so fast on the gusts of wind they appeared as just a white flash through my telescope.  More wet weather is forecast for the coming week – I just hope that the birds sit tight and keep away from those old rafts.

The water is quite quiet apart from the terns at the moment, but I did notice a fairly sizeable chick with one of the great crested grebes – I guess they nested quite early this year.  Note to self – find out when great crested grebes usually nest.

No time for terns this week

I didn’t make it to see the terns with my spotting scope this weekend – too busy Saturday, too sunny Sunday.  However, I did go past them early on Sunday morning, unfortunately without any additional viewing aids.  They were pretty quiet, not many flying about and I think one of the tern rafts had been abandoned as it had mallards sitting around the edge – will check later this week with a bit of luck.

However, I did hear the skylark singing again, despite all the housebuilding that is going on adjacent to the country park and I noticed that the swans had four cygnets – little fluffy grey balls of cute.  All else remained quiet on the water, even the swifts and house martins appeared to have gone somewhere else.

Spoilt for choice

So continuing my developing desire to learn more about the wildlife, more particularly at the moment, the birds on my local patch I made an effort to go out with my ‘scope again this weekend – despite the dire weather forecast.  I had to go on the Saturday as we had agreed to help out with the countryside day on the Sunday, so off we set with telescope and tripod with the sun in the sky, and dark grey clouds massing in the distance.

Sure enough, by the time we had made it to the spot where I set up my tripod to watch the terns the distance to the aforementioned black clouds didn’t seem that big anymore (stopping for an ice cream was probably an error).  I had just enough time to notice that the terns were still there in numbers when we had to hunker down and wait out the pouring rain and fierce gusts of wind.  However, throughout it all the terns were still flying, but they have now been joined by dozens of swifts (as well as house martins, but swallows, not so sure).

Once the wind and rain had disappeared it was time to check out my terns and gulls.  Gulls were pretty much the same as last time – herring and lesser blackbacks at the far end and one or two black headed around.  I didn’t notice the common gulls, but then I was fairly distracted.  I checked the tern rafts – lots of birds around, but unfortunately most of the rafts were under water – I do hope that they hadn’t laid any eggs yet.  Unsurprisingly the big new tern raft (at least I assume that’s what it is) that rides high in the water was suddenly much more popular.  In the past there were only one or two terns sitting on it, this time though I counted eight around the top and there were at least two sitting in the raft – these are the ones I saw when a neighbour tried to land too close to them!

I watched the graceful terns patrolling around, tried to follow them in my ‘scope (there’s a reason they are also known as sea swallows) but wherever I looked I would see a dark shape zoom past.  The swifts are back!  I love sitting on the dam whilst they zoom up and over then zoom back down to fly just above the surface of the water.  Where terns appear graceful and serene (until they open their beaks at least) the swifts are manic, always in a hurry, careening this way and that across the water, or screaming high above, their unmistakable scythe shaped wings so dark against a blue sky.

From now until August I’m going to be spoilt for choice – terns or swifts – which to watch?

Two weeks with a telescope.

Following my Easter Monday success I started visiting the country park more regularly with my spotting scope – aided by having a week off work.  I started looking at the gulls and trying to see if there was much to be seen as it where.  I didn’t expect to see much, after all, the black terns had disappeared and the little gull was nowhere to be seen, but then watching on your local patch is about appreciating what’s there all the time.

In the following two weeks I made another four trips to watch the birds.  First of all I noticed that the different gulls tend to stick with birds of their own kind (not that different to people maybe).  Closest to the shore and therefore people, were the black headed gulls.  These are usually the largest in number and are the ones that come to the wooden pier by the visitor centre to feed on the bread thrown to the ducks.

Across the other side of the water there were a couple of flocks of larger gulls – lesser black backed and herring gulls.  These were mixed but contained more of the lesser black backed – I’m not sure of the reason for this, maybe it is a sign of the decline of the herring gull which is being reported across the UK.

Then, somewhere in between there were the common gulls, although most of these appeared to be younger gulls, lacking the clean, ‘pretty’ look of the adults (they have been described as having a gentle appearance – which is true if you get a good look at them).

I noted that there were still a lot of younger looking gulls of all four species and wondered when they moult into full adult plumage – even though it was spring, do these still count as first winter adults?  I noticed that the young birds all seemed to have a dark band across the edge of their tail, whereas the adults were pure white.  I thought at first that this was just for the common gulls, but noticed it for the others too.

The black-headed gulls spent a lot of time sitting on the tern rafts and seemed to be tolerated by the terns there, as was the occasional common gull that ventured there.  However, there was a communal effort to evict a lesser black backed gull that tried to land – when do common terns start to sit on eggs I wondered?   For that matter, where do these gulls nest and breed.  I have seen large flocks around various industrial estates, but wasn’t aware of any nesting sites particularly.

I had a partial answer to that by my visit on 2nd May – there were hardly any black headed gulls about at all – they had all gone.  I assume they had flown off to their breeding sites wherever they are.  The situation was still the same on the 4th May, but the common gulls were all but gone as well.  I was left with the large gulls and about two dozen common terns.  The latter look as though they are settling down on the tern rafts and it suddenly occurred to me that although I have seen them here for years, I have no idea if they have successfully bred or not.  I need to know the answer to this and so now have a perfect excuse to spend two or three months with my telescope, not just a couple of weeks.

PS – my latest check of Brandon Marsh shows only a few common terns there – therefore I maintain my earlier assertion that the grass is not greener in other nature reserves.