Summer’s here and so are the tern chicks

Despite my best intentions, I haven’t been to the country park since the last bank holiday in May even though I know the tern chicks should be hatching any time now.  After a warm, sunny day spent unsuccessfully trying to photograph bees, I went looking for the chicks and I wasn’t disappointed.

I counted four chicks on the two new rafts – a couple looked slightly bigger than the other two – these latter were from one nest and stayed close to their parent.  The older chicks were more mobile and spent some time wandering in and out of the pipe shelter that they’d been provided with.  These were just the ones I can see.  There are another four tern rafts that don’t give good views.  I have a theory that those on the very old rafts might be the lower ranking or younger terns that might have had to make do with what they could get, in which case they might hatch a bit later.  I could be completely wrong though.  The oldest looking chick was just where I expected it to be following the early courtship and mating of the parents.

I also saw another tern removing bits of broken eggshell from the nest area, so hopefully there are some more fluffy little ternlets there.

The swan was at its grumpiest again.  This time the family of greylag geese bore the brunt of his ire.  Fortunately the adults were giving back as good as they got and, once again, they were both attacked by the terns dive-bombing their heads – serves them right.

I don’t know what has happened to the Canada goose family, but it appears to be the place to hang out for Canada geese – I gave up counting when I reached 84.

I was a bit concerned about the heron chick – I couldn’t see him anywhere and thought he’d either fallen into the water or was much older than I initially thought.  I saw one of the adults across the water, and eventually saw the chick in the nest.  I think he’d wandered up the branch a bit and was hidden from view behind a tree trunk.

Over the noise of traffic and terns I managed to use my new found powers of warbler ID and heard a willow warbler calling away as well as blackcap and chiffchaffs.  These seem to be much noisier in the evening – I haven’t heard any in the last two weeks when I’ve been in the park early in the morning!

My new highlight though was a couple of little ringed plovers.  I’ve seen them before at Brandon Marsh, but never at the country park – it seems there’s always something new to see here.  Who needs exotic locations?

High drama at the Country Park

I am eagerly awaiting the first chicks from the common terns at the Country Park so I am going to try and get down there once or twice each week for the next month or so (not a hardship).  There are no signs of chicks yet, I am sure there would have been more bringing of fish if there were, but I think there are at least 6 or 7 nesting pairs.  The new tern rafts give a pretty good view of the terns and there were several looking as though they were quite settled, some were on scraped up shingle, one was redistributing shingle around the ‘nest’ and I saw a change over between a pair – so definitely some eggs incubating going on.  There was quite a bit of bickering and fighting amongst the terns on the raft and even some mating, so I think chicks might be hatching over the space of a few weeks.

However, the terns are not the only nesting birds at the Country Park.  For the first time I have found a grey heron’s nest.  The last time I was there the heron was sitting there, looking pretty comfortable.  This time it looked empty.  Fortunately, when I had another look a bit later on, one of the parents had come back and was feeding a youngster.  It seems that there is only one in there , so perhaps they are new parents, or the cold weather has reduced the brood.  Either way, the chick didn’t look very old – it was definitely grey and tried to flex its stubby little wings.  I shall have to keep an eye on this nest as well as the terns!

Anyway, back to the high drama.  Other than the herring and lesser black backed gulls that the terns often had to chase off (we watched one almost drowned after being forced into the water), they also had a go at some canada geese and a mute swan.  But this isn’t the drama I am referring to.

As well as a mallard with eight ducklings and a pair of greylag geese with four goslings (very different parental approach between the ducks and geese), the aforementioned pair of canada geese also have four goslings.  The reason that they incurred the wrath of the terns was because they had been chased halfway along the reservoir by a male mute swan with a huge attitude problem.  I know that despite appearances swans are not at all serene and peaceful, but this one seems to see everything as a threat.  Suffice it to say there is only the one pair of swans at this end of the water (and they have six cygnets).

At no point did this family (four adults and four goslings) go anywhere near the cygnets, but he chased them across the water and at one point seemed to separate out one of the goslings from the rest (a bit like the sheepdog on One Man and His Dog).  The adults would attack the male swan, diverting his attention so the gosling could get further away.  But, sometimes this wasn’t enough and several times one or more of the goslings dived underwater (they can stay under for quite some time) to avoid being killed.  One poor gosling got completely separated and was chased away from the family group by the swan.  Two of the adults worked together to try and get the gosling to safety, whilst the remaining goslings appeared to be under the care of the other two geese.  This chase / attack lasted for a good fifteen minutes or so, with the gosling going on land, under water and in the reeds.  Eventually it was led to safety by one of the adults and shepherded up to the far end of the water with its siblings whilst the other goose kept the psychotic swan occupied.

The Tern Report – 2015

This year I saw my first common terns back at the country park on 19th April – this is about the same time as last year, give or take a day or two and is one of the many signs of summer.  Even better news is that there are now two shiny (figuratively speaking) new tern rafts with a much better view of the nesting level.  Thank you Daventry Country Park!

I’ve been over a couple of times since they returned and will try and get there more regularly going forward (weather and work permitting).  The first time was about a week after they had arrived.  There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but very little fish catching in evidence.  I only saw them dipping towards the surface, perhaps finding very small crustaceans or just taking insects.

None of the terns seemed particularly settled on any tern raft, so I don’t think they had particularly paired up.  However, I did see what might have been courtship / pairing as described in the Tern book that I recently read.  I saw two birds circling in the air, slowly gliding downwards passing past each other  – called high flight in the book.  I missed the ascent, but the book describes it as ‘a gliding descent in which the birds sway from side to side so that their paths repeatedly cross’.  That’s pretty much what I saw.

Other things I noted that day was a grey heron’s nest above the water, three sandpipers and an absence of Black Headed Gulls – I guess these have gone off to breed, and a sedge warbler singing.

So, fast forward almost a week and I was back at the country park to check on my terns.  This time there seemed to be even more terns making more noise – they are difficult to count, but there must be around a couple of dozen now.  Quite a few were sitting on the tern rafts, both old and new – although the ducks seem to quite like them as well.  I did see some fish being brought in, but not how they were caught.  I think one was trying to impress a female, but had it stolen just as he was about to hand it over – kleptoparasitism is apparently relative common in these terns and some get the majority of their food this way!  The female flew off unimpressed.  However, the majority of the terns still seem to be skimming the surface.

I did see some battles above the old tern rafts but also a lot of posturing with wings lowered and heads in the air which I believe is a sign of non-agression.  Showing the black caps to another tern is an out and out sign of aggression.  I did see a pair that were quite settled on one of the new rafts (the lighter green one for future reference) and I did see them mating so there should hopefully be some chicks in just over three weeks – I will have to put a note in my calendar to go and have a look on or after 26th May!  At least they were on one of the raised platforms so I only have to worry about the gulls, not flooding!


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.

The first week of May.

At the end of April it was easy to be fooled into thinking that Summer was just around the corner.  This week has reminded me just how variable the British weather can be.  Whilst it has not been completely full of grey skies and gloom, I was a bit put out to see the hail come pouring down on several occasions – still ’twas a Bank Holiday Monday.

But, before I get too melancholic (also note, I will be complaining if it is too hot in the Summer, should we get one), I still found plenty of new things this week (new for the year, I am not claiming to have made any exciting discoveries).

On the insect front, the weather has made it pretty dismal, orange tip butterflies still taunt me when I have no camera handy, but otherwise I have not seen many insects about.  There are still some bees foraging, workers as well as queens, and a few wasps to be seen.

As far as flowers go, it appears everything is awash with dandelions and daisies, and, it seems the first dandelions have set seed already.  One flower that is also adding some colour is Herb Robert (Geranium Robertianum), a cransebill that grows in hedgerows.  This plant was used in medieval times for its medicinal properties, being used as a remedy for nosebleeds and toothache as well as dysentry.  The leaves, if rubbed on the skin, apparently repel mosquitoes, which I am not surprised by.  This plant often turns up in the garden, and, if you pull it up and are not wearing gloves, its not very pleasant smell stays with you for some time.  Whilst it is supposed to attract many insects, I must confess that I do not like to leave it in my garden as it does self seed quite prolifically.

Speaking of gardens, my beans are growing quite well now after the threat of moving them indoors.  The lemon balm is providing plenty of leaves for herbal teas and the bluebells are flowering well, showing up particularly in the less than ideal light we have had over the last week.

However, it is the bird news that I find most exciting this week.  On Sunday, a visit to the Country Park showed that the terns were back.  Although there were plenty of swifts, swallows and house martins there did not seem to be any sign of the hobbies that often hunt them at this time of year.  However, a check of Northants Bird Sightings seemed to suggest that the hobbies were back and some of those terns may have been arctic terns, unless they were being frightened off by the peregrine!  I sometimes think my timing may be a little off!  In the garden we have had two young blackbirds around, and I can say with certainty that there are young in the starling’s nest in the gutter outside my window!  I also heard and then saw my first blackcap of the year on the old railway track.  I am trying to improve my recognition of birdsong, the blackcap sounds a little like a robin, but more ‘burbling’.

All in all, considering the weather, it does not appear to have been too bad a week.

Is it too soon to say farewell to Summer?

Early Morning Robin on Fence 


Early Morning Robin on Fence

I have been thinking recently that autumn was well on its way and I might as well say goodbye to Summer.  The rose hips, particularly the rosa rugosa are now very red, the rowans are covered in red berries, during the week the sun gets up after I do (although there have been some days where I am think it may have stayed in bed) and the call of the chiffchaff has been replaced by the steady tic tic noise of the robin as I walk to work.

Rosa Rugosa Hip

However, maybe I have been a bit hasty in this assumption.  Yesterday, the Country Park was teeming with swallows, house martins and terns.  OK, so maybe they are massing and preparing to be off, but they are not gone yet.  Last week I was surprised to hear a chiffchaff calling as I walked to work, again, he may have been heading south, but it was still a reassuring noise.  

Whilst the damp (understatement?) weather has brought some fungi out there are still some flowers at the roadsides and in the hedgerows, primarily achillea and white nettle-like flowers, but they are there nonetheless, providing an additional source of food for the bees which are still about in good-ish numbers whenever there is a letup in the rain.

Elder Berries

Also at the Country Park yesterday, amidst the blackbirds and thrushes feeding on the glistening black elderberries were a pair of blackcaps – more Summer warblers that are still about.  So, maybe the last observation doesn’t count, I have seen an increasing number of blackcaps overwintering around here, but they are still a bird that I primarily associate with Summer, and for now I am sticking with that thought!