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!

Goosanders – See them now at the Country Park

We all have certain triggers in life that remind us of past times, or tell us that something new is happening.  For me, the sign that Winter has arrived is the appearance of goosanders (mergus merganser) at Daventry Country Park.  This Winter I was surprised to see them at the end of November, particularly as, if you remember, it was quite mild and sunny.  However, a few days later the weather turned chilly and there was a bit of frost at night.  Winter had come.

So, why am I so interested in these birds?  It is not just their weather-forecasting abilities that I like about them.  They really are stunning birds, particularly if they catch the Winter sun.   They are quite a large bird, not really looking like a duck.  They swim low in the water, being very pointy with a thin red bill, which gives their group its name – Sawbills.  The serrated inner edge allows them to grip slippery fish, which they search for by swimming with their head under water before diving down with a jump to get them.  (Amazing fact number one – they can dive for up to 45 seconds.)

The duck and drake look quite different.  Whilst the duck is grey with a chestnut coloured head with a shaggy crest, the drake is much sleeker.  He has a bottle green head which looks black unless it catches the sun, some black on his back, but the rest is mainly white (with a hint of pink!).

Whilst these are not the rarest of birds, in fact their numbers are increasing (there are about 2,600 breeding pairs, numbers tripling in Winter to about 16,100 birds) they do face a threat from the owners of fisheries due to their particular love of salmon and trout.  (Amazing fact number two – a young goosander eats 33kg of fish in order to reach adulthood.)

Whilst researching this article, I also discovered amazing fact number three (well, puzzling fact really) – after breeding most of the male goosanders from Europe migrate to the north of Norway to moult – I have no idea why they do that.  The females stay put – I am not sure if this is due to parental requirements.

So, next time you are in the country park in Winter (the goosanders tend to stick around into February) look out for some very white and black, long, sleek pointy birds.  They tend to sit around in groups, close to the dam, particularly from about halfway up.

To quote from Birds Britannica goosanders ‘spend long periods asleep or loafing on the water and, on a cold, bright Winter’s day there are few more lovely  visions than a group resting in a backwater, their smooth contours and patterns mirrored in the river’s surface.’