Major hatching

We wandered over to the park for a late evening walk this weekend.  The further along the dam that we got the more insects there seemed to be.  We turned and looked towards the sunset – there were so many insects it almost looked like a snow drift.  They were rising up out of the grass – no wonder the swifts were so numerous.

Away from the water we didn’t expect to see so many, but as we looked across the fields it was as if they were smoking – the trees across from us looked hazy.  I’ve seen film of starling murmurations where the birds move in waves and group and separate in response to signals from each neighbour.  This looked like the insect equivalent – they moved in waves, obviously travelling along with the movement of air over the cereal crops.  The swifts were having a great time.  No swiftlets would be going hungry that night.

Up in the tress the greatest concentrations seemed to be round the oak trees.  Was this because they are broadleaved and so more sheltered, was it because they were pushed by the wind to congregate or was it because oak trees are home to more insects than other trees.  Or was I wrong, did it just look that way because of the light or because the oak trees were generally bigger than the willows?  I have no idea.

Not only were the swifts out in force in the park that evening, but jackdaws were heading back in number, obviously it is a favourite roost of theirs.  The same seems to be true of the local teenagers.

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?

A good afternoon’s birding or, how I was proved wrong yet again (twice)!

OK, not an afternoon of birding, but a couple of hours at Daventry Country Park on a grey, chilly and blustery Saturday afternoon.  It was the one afternoon when rain wasn’t forecast though, so I thought I would go and check on my terns (more on those in another blog post).  I also hoped to hear the sedge warbler that I heard last weekend (the first time I have heard one at the Country Park).

After the excitement of Brandon Marsh, I was prepared for a quiet couple of hours watching the terns go by.  And, by and large that’s what I got.  Most of the black-headed gulls have gone (taking the Little Gulls that I missed last week with them) but there is a flotilla of Lesser Black Backed and Herring gulls at the far end of the water.  Most of the ducks have gone too (although I did see some teal last week) and the cormorants are much reduced in number (down to just five or six from ten times that number in the winter).

I spent most of  my time watching the terns, but having house martins and swallows zooming by, and twittering up high.  I got some really good views again through my scope.  Following my last blog when I mentioned that Brandon Marsh was the only place that I saw sand martins, I now have to make a retraction, because I saw at least one in the groups dashing about above the water.  It definitely didn’t have the white rump, was smaller than the swallows and was a lovely warm brown when it turned to flash the upper side of its wings into the sunlight – noticeable different to the smart midnight blue of the house martins and swallows.  A new for me on my local patch.

It was whilst I was watching these that I happened to notice a very yellow looking bird flapping about along the dam.  It looked like a wagtail, but it moved to fast for me to find it in my bins.  Then I saw three yellow birds on the path – they were so yellow that I thought at first they were yellowhammers – but they were scared away by some children pedalling towards them before I could get a good look.  They looked and sounded like wagtails though – probably grey wagtails as I’d seen these on quite a few occasions at the Country Park.

I also fancied I heard a skylark in the distance so I thought I would have a look around the fields on the south side of the water (and also see if I could see the wagtails along the dam).  No joy on the wagtails, but I did hear something singing in the distance that could be a skylark – I hope so.  I heard another call coming from the fields that was unfamiliar – then I saw a yellow bird fly upwards and back down into the crops – yellowhammer?  I stood watching for a while, then the yellow bird flew up out of the field.  I was in luck – it landed at the top of a tree near the path and didn’t fly off when I came close.  I got a good look, definitely a wagtail – long tail, but very yellow underneath, long black legs, olive-green on top and with an olive eye stripe.  I was hopeful that this might be a yellow wagtail.  I checked the RSPB website when I got home, which also has a recording of its call which I listened to for quite a while when stood under the tree.  It was definitely a yellow wagtail – a lifetime first for me and in my local patch as well!  How cool is that.

On my way back home I bumped into a lady who asked me if I had seen anything interesting.   We chatted about the tern rafts and I mentioned that the swifts would be back soon – I usually see the first ones about the 5th or 6th May.  WRONG!  I was wandering out of the Country Park and looked up to see 22 swifts coming over the trees (yes, I did count them).  I am hopeful this means that warm weather is on its way!

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?