Wildlife Wednesday – our resident woodpeckers!

We have continued to fill up the bird feeders over the past couple of months, and the changing weather has brought with it a greater variety of garden visitors including coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

However, the real star of the show has captured everyone’s attention: it seems to be fond of peanuts and is usually seen in the mornings and early evenings, although it is around all day and we can hear it calling from the ash trees over on the other side of the garden. ‘It’ is the great spotted woodpecker.

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Since its arrival a few weeks ago, I have been trying to capture the woodpecker on camera. To begin with I had no success at all, despite leaving the GoPro out for an hour at a time in the mornings. I managed to take some video from inside the house, but it was quite far away and these birds are too shy to come and feed while people are sitting nearby outside.

Eventually last week I managed to get a short piece of footage of a male woodpecker sat on top of the bird feeding station… however then I really got a surprise, because he had brought with him a juvenile bird!

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Although this species isn’t at risk, it is still great news that they are breeding in our area: I am hoping that we might be able to encourage its less common counterparts – the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker – into our garden.

Size 23cm
Diet Insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, tree sap vegetable material – will also take eggs and young birds during the breeding season
Population (UK) 140, 000 pairs
Breeding Between 5-7 eggs which hatch after 12 days, young fledge at 20 days old and remain with parents for 7 days

 

Identifying these birds is pretty easy – if you are lucky enough to have a full view of one then it is a pretty distinctive species. It can be confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker (this was my initial thought upon seeing one in our garden for the first time) however having since gone away and read up on them I have realised that there are actually numerous differences between the two, including the fact that the lesser spotted woodpecker has a red poll and has much less contrast between the white and black feathers on its wings.

However, the juvenile great spotted woodpecker does have a red poll and is overall much duller in colour than the adult birds, so this may lead to some confusion unless an adult bird is nearby to the youngster.

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Distinguishing between the male and female great spotted woodpeckers is made very simple by the fact that the male has a red stripe on the back of the neck whereas the female does not.

When there is not a clear view of the bird or you do not have binoculars to hand, it can be a little more difficult to identify the exact species. The fact that it is some kind of woodpecker should be fairly obvious from the way it hops up the trunk of a tree (these birds have particularly stiff tail feathers to aid them in this – if you look closely you will see that the tail is actually pressed onto the tree as the bird moves) and from its characteristic undulating flight.

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The call of this bird is also easy to pick out once you know what you are listening for (I am struggling to learn different bird songs, but the call of the woodpeckers has really stuck with me). It is a loud, singular ‘tick’… that description doesn’t do it much justice, but you can easily find recordings of it on the internet if you are curious!

This species does have more to it than simply brightening up the bird feeders each day: it actually has some very interesting adaptations which I thought I would mention (information courtesy of the books listed at the end of this blog post).

Woodpeckers are probably best known for how they create their nests (by chiselling a hole in a tree trunk). The force required from their beaks to be able to achieve this could potentially be damaging, so the bones and muscles in their heads have evolved specifically to protect them from this – for example layers of spongy tissue ensure that the brain is well guarded.

In winter when food supplies are scarce, great spotted woodpeckers will feed on tree sap, using their long tongues that can reach up to 4cm away from their beaks. In addition to this they will wedge pine cones into small gaps so that they can remove the kernels, and will use branches to crack open nuts and seeds.

I think that in the process of writing this blog post I have discovered another of my favourite bird species… although maybe I would find all of them as fascinating if I discovered more about them!

 

Sources used in this blog post:

The RSPB Book of British Birds

Collins Wild Guide: Birds

Collins Nature Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds

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Wildlife Wednesday – observing wild birds

Last Saturday I went to another one of the work experience days with the National Trust at Quarry Bank Mill. This one was focused on the observation and recording of bird species on the estate – the data we collected from this is important as it allows the populations to be monitored so that any changes in numbers can be seen and conservation strategies can be put into place if necessary.

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We set off from the university at five o’clock in the morning and then spent a couple of hours walking and listening out for birds. We were accompanied by an ornithologist who volunteers at Quarry Bank – his knowledge on birds was incredible… what sounded to me like a jumble of many different bird songs coming from all directions worked almost like a map to him: he could point at a tree and tell us what species was perched in it without evening catching a glimpse of the bird! This was an important lesson for me. The majority of my bird watching (with the exceptions being species that I know well, for example the buzzard) has revolved around me walking along with binoculars, scanning the trees trying to spot something. Now I see how backwards this is – if I could learn bird songs then I could identify the species using my ears, and seeing them would just be an added bonus. It does also help if you know exactly what you are looking for.

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There are other important factors to be considered when heading out to watch birds: the time of day is clearly a very important one. Early morning is probably the best time to observe the usual garden birds, although I have noticed that the woods appear to come alive with noise again at dusk so this can also prove to be a suitable time (the fading light can make it difficult to see though).

I often see buzzards in the daytime – particularly in summer when the sun is shining I watch them swooping over the tops of the trees. Other birds of prey such as kestrels and marsh harriers do also seem to be around at dusk; I don’t know if it is just chance that I have seen them more frequently at this time though. Nocturnal species such as owls are definitely more likely to be around in the evenings.

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One thing is for definite: you are more likely to be able to observe birds at a time when few people are around. During the day when dog walkers and gamekeepers are passing by, birds are disturbed and will retreat into the trees away from the main paths, whereas in the early hours they are not likely to be bothered by a lone walker with a pair of binoculars.

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Walking quietly is essential – birds have remarkably sensitive feet and can pick up vibrations from heavy footfalls. At home I tend to walk in wellies; these are actually very noisy and I feel that walking boots are probably more suited to the role as they don’t rattle around so much.

When we were on the work experience we did make a fair bit of noise as there were fifteen of us walking in a group, and our guides kept stopping to explain things to us – some birds are not at all bothered by this disruption, but more elusive species would have steered well clear of us.

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Another factor to take into account is the weather. During poor weather it is less likely that you will see smaller birds as these will take cover in the vegetation, and the conditions can interfere with the hunting patterns of birds of prey. However, some weathers can later bring life to a habitat: for example after rainfall, worms come to the surface of the soil and garden birds such as blackbirds take full advantage.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog post, I am hoping to do some more focused write-ups about specific bird species I have been observing at home so stay tuned for those!

Invasive animal species no.2 – Canada Geese

Canada geese were initially introduced to the UK as an ornamental species in the 17th century and since then they have flourished: the past forty years in particular have seen a significant increase in the population size.

They are attractive birds and the majority of people probably wouldn’t think twice about whether they are supposed to be in our parks and lakes – I wasn’t even aware that they were a foreign species until I began reading up on the topic a few weeks ago. Whilst much less emphasis is placed on them than other invasive species (grey squirrels, for example – see my previous blog post for more information), they do still have detrimental effects in British ecosystems.

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Canada geese can cause damage to plant life – by eating aquatic plants they can disrupt oxygen levels in lakes, which has an impact on organisms in the water. On the sides of lakes, terrestrial plants such as grass are trampled and eaten. 

Their droppings can appear unsightly and contain substances which in large quantities could affect aquatic life – these include nitrate and phosphate. Continual entries and exits from the lakes can also cause erosion of the banks.

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Certain people are eligible for a license which grants them permission to kill Canada geese and to destroy their nests and eggs. 

Some other less extreme methods can be used to manage populations: many are fed by humans, so discouraging this activity is an option and strategic fencing can prevent geese from settling in an area in the first place. 

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Whilst this may be considered as necessary action to protect British lakes and parks, perhaps we should also recognise that Canada geese are not the only waterfowl to inhabit these areas and so are not the only species contributing to the problem. That said, they are on the rise and could begin to dominate over other native species that exploit the same niche. 

The idea of having to remove Canada geese due to us wrongly introducing them in the first place is a controversial one, but we have to understand that as an invasive species they could have a long term negative impact on British ecosystems.

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Sources used in this blog post: 

The RSPB: https://www.rspb.org.uk/ 

English Heritage: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/ 

Gov.uk: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/wild-birds-licence-to-take-or-kill-for-health-or-safety-purposes 

Wildlife in Tanzania and Kenya – birds

Birds have always held a certain fascination for me, and on my journey around Tanzania and Kenya I saw an incredibly diverse range of them all coexisting in the same habitat.

(Below: ostriches grazing – male is black and female is brown)

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This blog post will introduce just a few of the feathered creatures that I came across – and I might just add in here that they are significantly harder to photograph than the mammals in my previous post!

These yellow-collared lovebirds (otherwise known as black-masked lovebirds) were perched at the top of this dead tree. Often with parrots and parakeets there is a notable difference between the males and females however with this particular species that is not the case, so I was unable to identify the genders of these birds.

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My first encounter with glossy starlings was when I was sat very quietly and one landed in a tree close by. It was minute, with iridescent green feathers – I was so annoyed that I didn’t have my camera with me! On safari we saw a different type of glossy starling – the superb starling. This species was much larger but still had that amazing metallic gleam to its feathers.

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The ‘barbet’ was not a bird I had ever heard of before I went to Tanzania – it bears some resemblance to a woodpecker and does chisel holes in trees to make its nest, but is in fact an entirely different species. The striking red and yellow barbets shown below were feeding from a termite mound.

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I had been hoping to see some larger birds on my adventure as well, and I was not disappointed. Marshall eagles swooped over us from time to time while we were on safari, and we were even lucky enough to see one perched in the top of a tree. The wing span of these birds was enormous: they even made the trees seem small!

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However, one of my favourite moments was seeing marabou storks. When I was younger I saw one of these birds in a conservation area at a nature reserve near to where I lived in Norfolk. I was in awe of the huge beak and the size of the bird itself – it was so unlike anything I had seen before, so of course I was absolutely thrilled when we stopped below a group of marabou storks that were circling, looking for a recent kill.

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Keep an eye out for my final blog post about Tanzania and Kenya – it should be posted within the next week.

Thanks for reading!

Parrot behaviour 2/3: common behaviours

In part two of this mini series we will explore some common behaviours exhibited by parrots, using my cockatiel and rosella as examples.

Sleeping – this is an essential part of a parrot’s life – in the wild, cockatiels and rosellas will sleep through the afternoon due to this being the hottest part of the day in their natural habitat. When asleep the bird will tuck his head into his wing and puff out his feathers – he may also stand on one foot.

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Preening – this forms a large part of a parrot’s day – in between eating and socialising with other flock members, the feathers are meticulously cleaned. The bird uses his beak and tongue to move along the length of the feather, ensuring that dirt and parasites are removed and that the feather is in the right position in relation to the others.

Stretching – a very common behaviour – birds will stretch throughout the day at regular intervals.

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Chewing – cockatiels and rosellas are highly inquisitive and use their beaks and tongues to explore new objects – chewing forms a large part of their day as it keeps their beaks in good condition and burns a lot of energy.

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Beak wiping – parrots will often rub their beaks on their perch to clean it after eating, although this can also be a territorial behaviour used to warn other birds in the area.

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Head shaking – there is some debate as to what this means: some suggestions include that this happens when the bird hears a sound that he doesn’t like, or that he likes the taste of something. From my own experience I would be more tempted to believe the second theory, as Captain Beaky often shakes his head when I feed him apple or dandelion leaves.

Playing – this behaviour is seen in captive birds who have a lot of spare energy, however birds play in the wild too due to it reinforcing bonds with other flock members and also simply being a fun way to pass the time.

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Hanging upside down is one of Rocky’s favourite games at the moment – he seems to be enjoying viewing everything from a different angle!

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Flying in place – this is where the bird grips his perch tightly and flaps his wings. This is another way in which to burn excess energy, but it can be put down to attention seeking – before Beaky started living outside, I used to have him in my bedroom in the evenings. He quickly learnt that flapping about would gain my attention and began to use it to his advantage!

Vocalisation – most parrots vocalise in the mornings and evenings (at sunrise and sunset), and for a variety of reasons. Rocky and Beaky call out to each other, and will reply to me if I whistle to them. Beaky is generally quieter but Rocky often chatters and sings throughout the day.

The video below shows some clips from the past few weeks – several of the discussed behaviours are shown in these clips.

Stay tuned for the final part of the series!

 

Parrot behaviour 1/3: body language

For the next three weeks I will be writing about the exciting world of parrot behaviour. After I received Captain Beaky at the age of twelve, I became really interested in learning how to understand him better and this has helped me considerably when I am spending time with him and also with my young rosella, Rockhopper.

The first post of my mini series will focus on the body language of the birds that I keep and what it means.

Body feathers

How the bird holds his body feathers can tell us a lot about what he is feeling. When calm, the feathers will be held close to the body but will be relaxed. Tightly held feathers and a tall, upright posture (making the bird appear to be quite thin) are signs of fear, whereas puffed out feathers accompanied with slight trembling show that he may be feeling cold (this behaviour warms the bird up by trapping air between the feathers as an insulating layer, and the tremors generate heat energy).

Body feathers

Tail feathers

Normally a parrot will hold his tail feathers bunched together, however tail fanning is a sign of aggression – this is exhibited when the bird feels threatened as it can give the bird the appearance of being bigger than he actually is, which may deter the predator. There are some other behaviours associated with the tail; these will be covered in a later blog post.

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Facial feathers

The facial feathers follow a similar pattern to the body feathers – with tightly held feathers being a sign of fear and ‘looser’ feathers showing that the bird is relaxed. Puffed out cheek feathers are seen during preening and when the bird is sleepy.

Facial feathers

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Crest feathers

The crest feathers (on top of the head) are also used by parrots when they are communicating: these are much easier to spot in birds with a large crest (for example the cockatiel).

Crest feathers laid back flat against the skull indicate aggression – these may be accompanied with the bird leaning forward and hissing. Slightly raised feathers show a relaxed, interested parrot, whereas upright crest feathers show alarm or excitement. In extreme fear the crest can be raised to the point of almost tipping forward.

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Wings

When the bird is preparing to fly, he will lift his wings slightly away from his body in preparation – from behind this forms a heart shape across his back. However the wings have more purpose than just simply being for flight. Spread wings are another sign of fear or aggression (again with the intended effect of making the bird appear bigger), and I often observe my parrots using their wings for balance when they are climbing.

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Join me next week when we will be discussing common behaviours in parrots!

A friend for Captain Beaky

Due to the fact that I will be leaving home in just under a years time, I decided that it would be a good idea for Beaky to have a friend (as my mum will be looking after him when I leave and she won’t have the time to spend giving him companionship).

As he has been living alone for five and a half years, introducing a new bird would be a risky process and initially I was unsure of what species I could get – however I eventually made up my mind and a week ago I bought a rosella.

His name is Rockhopper (Rocky) and he is an Eastern rosella (Platycercus eximius). This particular colouring of his feathers is referred to as ‘rubino’.

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Rocky is only six months old and is currently moulting, so does look a little scruffy at the moment: in the spring time he will become a lot neater! He has not really been handled and is a little wary of humans, often heading to the far corner of the aviary, although he is showing interest in us when we are nearby which is a promising sign.

My main aim at the moment is to gain his trust and also to introduce him to Captain Beaky, who is temporarily living indoors. The following photographs show our progress so far.

For the first couple of days when I entered the aviary Rocky would panic and flap about, falling off his perch and then crawling into the corner to hide.

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Whenever this happened I offered him the perch which I sometimes use to pick up Beaky, tapping him lightly on the tummy with it until he stepped up. Then I could move him to a higher position where he would feel safer. Gradually he has learnt to step up every time that the perch is offered to him, and now does so quite willingly.

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I have also tried feeding him from my hands a few times; mostly this has been unsuccessful but he did take some dandelion leaves from me! This is an area that I will work on once he is more used to me being around him.

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Captain Beaky has been paying a visit to the aviary each day in his travelling cage so that the two of them can take a look at each and meet with a barrier between them. For the most part this has been absolutely fine, there was just a tiny bit of hissing from Beaky during their first encounter when Rocky got too close.

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Today I made the decision to be brave and as they were both so relaxed I let Beaky out into the aviary with Rocky. They kept a bit of distance between them but otherwise they were both quite relaxed – Captain Beaky became bored within the first few minutes and began tucking in to Rocky’s food!

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Hopefully it won’t be long before they’re living together permanently 🙂