Saturday, 16 July 2016

Disappearing Nightingales

Taking photos of Common Nightingales can be tricky but flight shots are pretty rare and I was really pleased to capture a sequence of photos set on 1/2500th of a second of such a bird in 'hovermode', something that to me at least is a pretty rare sight. 

(All of the hover sequences were taken at the 223 Hectare Waghäusel Nature Reserve (Wagbachniederung) in Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany.)

During the breeding season and with young to feed Nightingales feed through the treeline, on the ground and in this case pick off white and blackfly from bushes. In this sequence you can see how agile the bird is and you can get a close look at the acrobatics and enjoy the form of body tail and wings of this lovely and ever declinning species. More on this subject later.

The Common Nightingale evokes such pleasure from it's varied call and of course they tell the tale that 'A
nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”, but there is no doubt that in English culture the (Common) Nightingale is a creature as much misunderstood as it is cherished. It is unlikely that Vera Lynn ever heard a  nightingale singing in Berkeley Square. It was much more likely to have been a (European) Robin! Let me explain.

All birds, whether diurnal or nocturnal, are governed by the daily rhythm of light and dark. Onset of song in the morning, the dawn chorus, is triggered by a combination of the birds internal clock and the very first rays of light. 

The dawn chorus is normally started by the European Robin (A garden and urban bird in the UK but not so much in Continental Europe), Common Blackbird and the Common Redstart, with sparrows and many finches being the last to join in. A very similar order, but in reverse, follows the sunset. It is thought that dawn chorus happens because birds wake up before there is enough light for them to feed and so they focus on singing instead.

Because even low light intensities can trigger song in some birds, and because they continue singing until the last rays of light have faded in the evening, it is easy to see how the singing period could easily be extended into the night. This is indeed what often happens with song thrushes and Dunnocks, and doubtless many other species, but the unrivalled kings as daytime birds turned night-time songsters are robins.
This has resulted in dozens of reports of Common Nightingales singing in the middle of the winters night and other equally unlikely times and places, which have all turned out to be Robins. In fact, the Robin is the most common night-time songster in Britain's towns and gardens

It's now late in the season to hear Nightigales in full-flow but they do calm down and utter repeated frog-like croaking sounds which seem to be more like contact calls between young and parents.

Interestingly the world’s first-ever outside broadcast took place on the new BBC radio service at midnight on 18 May, 1924, with the celebrated cellist Beatrice Harrison playing her instrument in her garden at Oxted in Surrey, as a nightingale sang along with her.
A million people are thought to have tuned in; 50,000 wrote in to the BBC to express their delight, and the broadcast became an annual event until 1942. That year, BBC engineers pulled the plug on it when they realised that the drone of RAF bombers leaving to attack Germany could be heard in the background, and they thought this might alert German spies.

The time has now come to revive it, as the bird’s numbers are falling so fast that it is dropping out of people’s consciousness. Many have written to the BBC Director General, asking him to start the outside broadcast once again this 18 May – a week on Sunday, 90 years after it first took place – and to make it an annual event. So many of our songbirds such as this one are in decline and we need to keep a place for the Nightingale in our lives.

--> A recent petition on the 38 Degrees website managed to succeed with 3,087 signatures. More on this on a special Facebook page and at 'Nightingale Nights'. 

Looking and listening, another bird taken in Germany
Morning sunlight on a bird photographed in Spain
Singing bird, again in Spain

In hovermode

Finally diving down and off back to the nest

Sunday, 10 July 2016

European Bee-eaters in Spain

Seemingly effortless flight
--> European Bee-eaters have a broad distribution covering much of Europe and Africa These migratory birds can be found as far north as Finland and as far south as South Africa, extending east into some Asiatic countries too. Most commonly, European Bee-eaters will breed and nest in southern Europe, then migrate south during autumn and winter.
I was leading a tour group back in my old stomping ground in southern Spain in April and thought I'd share some photos of European Bee-eaters. These beautiful birds return each March to breed throughout Europe. This site is probably one of the southernmost European breeding sites that I know of.
All of the photos were taken from a car window. On arriving at the site the birds take off but fly around looking to see if you are a threat but they do settle back around the colony if you are patient, silent and move very slowly. Paitence is rewarded and you can get some quite close photo shots of this very colourful and very vocal bird.

Taking off
Puffing up its feathers and shaking vigorously to rid itself of feather lice and other parasites

European Bee-eaters inhabit a variety of habitat types such as forest, savanna, scrubland, grassland, and agricultural areas. The habitat for nesting can be specific involving only river systems or gravel pits with steep exposed banks. European Bee-eaters have also been found to dig burrows directly into sandy ground as I've witnessed in Corsica and Greece in flat fields.

Food availability can determine the habitat occupied by European Bee-eaters. In many agricultural areas bee-hives are placed each spring for pollination and naturally Bee-eaters will frequent those areas. This has a downside as well as bee-keepers see Bee-eaters as a pest and have killed them in their thousands even although the take over 300 different types of flying insects!

Despite not being currently considered threatened with extinction, the European Bee-eater still faces some threats. Among these, habitat damage, including agricultural intensification, which can lead to a decrease in the abundance of large flying insects and the loss of nesting sites. For example, some of the European Bee-eater’s migration ‘stop-over sites’, a place where the birds stop to refuel, ready for the next stage of the journey have had change of land use and the absence of water at a lot of places particularly in the Middle East has resulted in a decrease in food for the European Bee-eater. Consequently, it must spend longer looking for food to refuel before continuing its journey, delaying arrival at the breeding grounds and possibly resulting in an unsuccessful breeding year.

Tongue detail
As to the physiology of the European Bee-eater I have noticed that their tongues had considerable fraying at the tip. I suspect that this is a design feature rather than damage, considering the vocal range and the very loud calls they can make.
There have bee some research done on birds toungues and there's an interesting read here about this below - (Thanks goes to Liz Snell for finding this paper)

On arriving at the site the birds will take off but fly around looking down to see if you are a threat to them but they do settle back around the colony if you are patient, silent and move very slowly. Paitence is rewarded and you can get some quite close photo shots of this very colourful and very vocal bird.

The European Bee-eater is protected by the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, a convention which aims to conserve wild fauna and flora and their natural habitats, and also by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) which aims to conserve migratory species by encouraging international co-operation and the development of cross-country agreements.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Brittany - Birding around St Malo and Dinan

Northern Brittany
Brittany, France - May, 2016

The northen coast of Brittany in France is a great place to spend some time. The dramatic rugged coastline, sandy beaches, wildlife, food and Breton culture are well worth exploring!
We were based around Cancale on the east side of the bay of Mont St Michel. Here the oysters grow in profussion in the shallow tidal bay and are harvested throughout the year. The town itself isn't too touristy although it is a place where people travel to eat in the various restaurants that line the long coastal main street. We certainly enjoyed the delicious food, fine white wines and ambience.

Pointe de Gruins near Coutance
We ere lucky with the early summer weather at the end of May and there were plenty of birds around.
Early mornings were quite productive and although I hadn't been to this particular part of Brittany beofre there was quite a lot of bird activity out at sea with distant Gannets, Shags and gulls. On two occasions I watched a Peregrine Falcon high above a group of little islands off Cancale which are a designated nature reserve. Lnding there isn't allowed without permission.

Green Lizard

Meadow Pipit amongst the Sea Thrift
Lizards, Pipits, Nightingales, Stonechats, Wrens, Linnets, Cirl Buntings and Common Kestrels were always not too far off. Inland I found Yellow and White Wagtails, Common Buzzards, Skylarks and Woodlarks, Greenfinces, Yellowhammers, Common Whitethroats, Melodious Warblers, Green and Great spotted Woodpeckers and did see a few but heard many Common Cuckoos.

Rock Lizard
Common Stonechat

Californian Poppies with other summer flowers
(Eurasian) Reed Warbler in flight
(Eurasian) Reed Warblers were quite obliging around Mont St Michel where we spent a morning. The tide was quite far out although Whimbrel, Oystercatcher and a few Northern Lapwing and a single Hobby were seen.

and peeking out...
The 'Sloop John B'
Breton Fisihng boat

Lighthouse off Coutance
There were some opportunities to take a ferry to islands off the coast north of St Malo. I did want to spend a day doing this but the service was a bit scat out of season, so to speak and on the day I wanted to go (having skillfully worked up my points to get a day away) the weather wasn't so kind out at sea. Next time perhaps and I'd certainly reccommend this part of France for such an easy holiday break.

There are lots of quiet, sheltered sandy bays

Le Mont St Michel from Cancale

Male Reed Bunting
Reed Buntings were present at the appropriate habitat and Grasshopper Warbler, Cetti's Warbler were heard as was Sedge Warbler. A pair of Red-backed Shrikes were also seen as well as a dashing Sparrowhawk.

Melodious Warbler
A male Blackcap with a rather jaunty pose
Street scene in Dinan

Beach to the fort off the city of St Malo

St Malo Hotel
 Chiffchaffs were singing in the woodland as were Wood and Willow Warblers
Yellow Wagtail
Common Swift preening in flight

Common Swift, Brittany
Cirl Buntings, male and female
Looking south to Cancale

There are lots of walking trails all along the coast
Family picnic time...
A Fench Air Force Alphajet scared away a Wren that I was trying to phograph...
...and off he went!