When not looking for signs of beavers along the river Otter, I spent a large portion of my week in Devon looking for kingfishers. We saw kingfishers on every stroll we took along the river. Last year I didn’t manage any decent photos. This year, with the help of a tripod and some patience, I did a little better.
The stretch of river Otter we stayed near is good kingfisher territory. There are lots of branches overhanging the river, providing handy perches for hunting from. And the bank is good for nesting – lots of suitable holes in the sheer rock. I would love to come back in spring, when the birds are busy feeding chicks.
They’re still not brilliant images – I didn’t manage to get close enough for the shots I wanted. And the low winter light meant I had to crank the ISOs up, which means the images are quite noisy (or soft, where I’ve used Photoshop to take out the noise). But I’m pleased to have made some progress.
My quest for the perfect kingfisher photo continues. That gives me another excuse for a holiday in Devon in spring!
As you cross the Tamar Bridge, you know you’re entering Cornwall by the large crest displayed proudly. The Cornish crest features, among other things, a chough. Yet for years the crest was the only place in Cornwall where you could see a chough.
Choughs are members of the crow family, with distinctive curved red beaks. They eat insects, and hunt for food in the short grass of grazed coastal areas, where insects are easy to come by. They’re known in other parts of the UK as Crows of Cornwall, and are part of some of the legends about King Arthur (whom some claim lived in Cornwall).
The population of choughs in Cornwall declined from the nineteenth century until 1973, when the last, lonely, survivor died. The Cornish national bird was no longer Cornish. The decline is thought to be partly due to changes in farming practice, with livestock being moved further inland, allowing scrub to develop on the ungrazed cliff edges.
Then, in 2001, 3 choughs from Ireland found their way to Cornwall, settling on the tip of the Lizard peninsula. The next year two of them paired-up and bred, bringing up Cornish-born choughs for the first time in decades. The small colony of birds has been gradually expanding each year, through breeding and the addition of a few more immigrants.
A committed band of volunteers have been keeping a close eye on the birds to protect and monitor the nests. You can read more about their work, and this heartening story, on the excellent Cornish Choughs website.
I now have four years worth of data about the birds that visit my garden, so I thought now would be a good time to look at the latest stats, and how they compare to previous years.
In the year from June 2013 to May 2014 I was able to keep records on 38 days. On average I saw 15 individual birds of 7 species per day, although that varied a lot by month. November was the best month for bird watching, with an average of 29 individuals from 8 species per day, while July was the quietest month, with only 10 birds of 4 species per day. The highest number of species seen per day was only 10, which is down from 13 last year.
The most regular visitors were house sparrows and woodpigeons, with at least one of each seen on every observation day. The most numerous visitors were house sparrows, with an average of 4.6 seen per day. They were followed by starlings, with an average of 2.8, woodpigeons (2.3) and blackbirds (1.4).
How does this compare to previous years?
Well, the overall average number of birds and number of species is pretty similar. But there have been some winners and losers in the last few years, as the bar graph shows.
House sparrows (from an average of 1.7 to 4.6 per day)
- Dunnocks – the average number seen per day in the last year is roughly double that of 2010-11
- Woodpigeon numbers have also doubled since 2010-11
- Blackbirds – increased from 0.9 last year to 1.4
- Magpies – slight increase
Bluetits – these used to be some of the most regular visitors to the garden, but are now seen much less frequently
- Robins – the average number of robins seen has halved in the last year.
If you’re interested in how these figures compare to national observations, read this post on the Big Garden Birdwatch results.
My walk on Box Hill the other day was lovely. The sun was shining and the slope alive with butterflies. But I felt that something was missing. There was no skylark song.
I recommend you listen to this YouTube video while reading the rest of this post. You’ll thank me for it!
Skylarks are plain-looking brown birds, smaller and duller to the eye than starlings. But to hear them sing is to have your ear filled with molten silver, and your thoughts lifted to the heavens.Patrik Åberg, XC27004. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/27004.
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Skylarks are ground nesting birds, found mostly in farmland. A few years ago we visited Lundy, which seemed to be bursting with skylarks. Elsewhere in Britain skylarks are a rarer sight. Their numbers halved in the 1990s, and continue to decline.
The main reasons behind the plummet in skylark numbers seems to be changes in farming practices. The move from spring to winter sowing of crops, overgrazing and a shift from hay making to silage have dramatically reduced the habitat available for skylarks to breed in.
I missed skylarks on Box Hill because it felt like the right sort of habitat for them. But I think there was also a sub-conscious expectation that there would be skylarks there, because of its links to skylarks in poetry and literature.
The 19th century writer George Meredith lived on Box Hill, and wrote the poem The Lark Ascending that inspired one of my favourite pieces of English music, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams lived in Dorking, the town Box Hill protects and shelters. His The Lark Ascending is said to describe the English landscape in musical form, as well as capturing something of the soaring beauty of the lark’s song. While I love this piece, I hope it isn’t the closest our next generation gets to hearing skylarks.
A couple of weeks ago I reported that another brood of house sparrow chicks had hatched in our camera nest box. But we didn’t know how many as nesting material was blocking the camera’s view into the nest. Since then we’ve been listening carefully to try and work out how they were getting on.
We knew at least two chicks had hatched, but as the days went by we got concerned. One chick was cheeping noisily, but there was only occasionally another, fainter cheep at the same time. We feared the worst.
A couple of days ago the nest was finally trampled down enough to get a partial view inside. To our surprise, we saw one, then two, then three, then, finally, four chicks.
After a couple of days of wing stretching and looking rather crowded, .
The parents haven’t been so quick to start sprucing up the nest for the next brood as they were last time, but we’ll keep an eye on it just in case.
The second brood of chicks in our camera box hatched yesterday (I think). Brilliant – we get to watch some more chicks grow, and hopefully fledge eventually! But the footage so far has been a bit dull.
I’m not complaining that the newly fledged chicks and their hard working parents aren’t doing enough – we can hear that plenty is going on. But the nest blocks the camera’s view, so while we can hear the cheeping, our picture is just a canopy of nesting material. Springwatch don’t seem to have these problems!
We had this problem (although not to the same extent) with the first brood. Hopefully over time the nest will get a bit trampled on by the growing chicks, and we’ll be able to get a glimpse of them. With the last brood our view got better as the chicks got bigger.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to try and interpret the sounds. There are at least two chicks, but that’s all I know.
The last brood of chicks fledged on 12th and 13th May, so the parents haven’t lost too much time in getting on with the next brood. Let’s hope the weather is kind to them, and there’s plenty of food around.
More good news – both house sparrow chicks have now fledged. The last couple of days they’ve looked like proper sparrows, rather than merely cavernous beaks. There’s been lots of wing stretching and peering out of the hole.
The first chick fledged on Monday morning. The other chick seemed a bit reluctant to leave the nest. She waited until Tuesday morning, spending quite a bit of time peering out the hole, then hiding at the back of the nest before finally summoning up the courage… The parents didn’t waste much time after the chicks had left, before coming in to get it ready for the next brood.
This video shows the two chicks together in the nest, just before they fledged. It then goes to show the second chick fledging on Tuesday. Finally there’s a bit of the daddy doing some housework once the chicks had left.
It’s been very satisfying to watch the chicks’ progress each day. These are the first chicks that have been successfully raised in our camera box. In previous years we’ve had blue tits build partial nests then give up. The closest we got was when a large brood of blue tit chicks hatched, but sadly each day another one died, until there were none left. (It was a very wet spring that year.)
House sparrows can have several broods each year, so hopefully we may get to see some more.
Very exciting news – we have some new arrivals! While Dr C and I were away last week the house sparrow chicks hatched.
I’m not entirely sure how many chicks there are. The nest has an overhanging bit which means the camera can’t see all the way in. We’ve seen two chicks.
I’m also not sure how old the chicks are. I had set the laptop up to monitor the nest in our absence, but despite my best efforts it seems to have shut itself down within hours of my departure.
The mother sparrow seems to be spending quite a lot of time keeping the chicks warm. According to the RSPB, sparrows brood their chicks for 6-8 days. The chicks fledge after 14-16 days, so that could be anytime next week. It will be interesting to follow their progress.