Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Lathkill Dale

What unseasonal warmth! Did we sleep away the winter so quickly?

Well, I can tell you, it remains chilly of a morning down in the Derbyshire Dales. With my free weekends rapidly running out, the girlfriend and I chose a walk new to us, up and back down Lathkill Dale in the heart of the Peak. For a Sunday it was hardly busy, so the scarcity of birds was somewhere toward surprising. Two pairs of Dipper were skittish dazzlers, and the odd languid Buzzard sailed over late morning, beyond that Great Tits, Robins, Goldcrest and Song Thrush added birdsong to the atmospheric mists. Something about the acoustics up there, the slightest twitter is so rich!
Grey Wagtail were a notable absence, I suppose still huddling for warmth down on the broader reaches of the river where the sunshine can find them.

And now for something completely different... walking my niece to the park yesterday I observed behaviour from a pair of Carrion Crows quite new to me. One of the birds was eagerly pecking under the guttering of a house along the street, making me half-wonder whether it was searching for the eggs of early nesting sparrows. No, that wasn't it. Peck, peck, the crow grabbed and pulled out an enormous cob sandwich! Almost immediately thereafter in came the second bird, chasing away what was evidently an intruder raiding the food stash of the resident pair. It must have been watching them store the items there.
Of course I never have my camera when I really need it.

Back up Lathkill Dale, along the ridge above the valley, my first butterfly of the year, a stately Peacock for the Peaks.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Fudge Duck

I forgot to mention the Ferruginous Duck from last week (Fudge Duck for those unwilling to risk the pronunciation). The bird was found on the lake at the old American Adventure Theme Park, near Ilkeston. The site is fenced off these days and patrolled by heavies from a security firm which I'm told erected signs reading "NO BIRDWATCHING". To say the least it wouldn't be on my hit parade of birding destinations, but this duck is special, and a smashing find.

Closely related to Pochard and Tufted Duck (species they closely associate with), Ferruginous Ducks breed chiefly in wetlands north of the Black Sea and winter in north Africa or areas south and west of the Sahara, with smaller populations in France and Spain. Their numbers are crashing as their breeding habitats are drained for farming, so they are set to become an even rarer sight for UK birders. Up to 10 birds a winter reach Britain now, but in the future, who knows?

There is one other thing I should mention; Ferruginous Ducks are popular among wildfowl collections and birds from zoos, bird sanctuaries, etc, do go a-wandering wild in the UK. This means birdwatchers are always likely to discuss the natural origins when an individual turns up. Now this Derbyshire bird arrived in winter, is notably shy, exhibiting all the behaviours of a wild duck, so a 'true' vagrant it is.

They are best identified by their white bottoms as no other wild duck in the UK has anything to confuse it by. Beyond that Ferruginous Duck males like this one have a wonderfully rich colour, a chestnut brown that shines purple in the sun. Even at 200 yards, it was gorgeous. A picture can be seen here.

I bet that duck is still drawing in many a birder, relocated as it has to the smaller waters of Loscoe Dam.

In other news, the home patch I've been neglecting still harbours results. At King's Mill Reservoir a Water Rail was showing well, always smaller than you think, and the electric blue flash Kingfisher shot by me. The only sad news I have to report is the probable loss of a Barn Owl, the lifeless white lump seen lying on the surface of the dual carriageway under which a pair had successfully nested last year. The truth is, this tragedy always seemed likely.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Somewhere Up There

Spot it yet?

Another ABB day as Carsington has gone by, with moderate numbers of visitors through for a windy day in February. I'm pleased that our team continues to grow, and that I can also report we are exceeding our membership target. Pure joy for all of us involved.
So you tell me you're a birdwatcher? You say you aren't yet volunteering with the RSPB or local wildlife groups? Oh heavens, you are missing out!

The birdlife is beginning to alter with the early change of seasons. The Oystercatchers have returned from their winter break on the coast. They look for all the world like painted clockwork toys, so are always a winner with visitors. Redshank, Snipe, and a couple of elusive Dunlin hint that good times for wader enthusiasts are just around the corner.

Our Peregrines failed to show, though one was noted mantling a Coot at the weekend. These raptors will now be returning to their breeding territories, indeed the Derby Cathedral female is already prospecting her nest ledge, so Carsington may lose this bird's regular presence quite soon, unless a pair take to one of the nearby quarries. We can only hope!

Our Great Northern Diver remains on site, yesterday being the occasion I've seen this most enigmatic and elusive individual for several weeks. Since the girlfriend described its shark-like features I haven't been able to shake the comparison from my head. It must be worse for the fish.

My treat for the day was taking time to pick out a Tawny Owl from the foliage of their traditional roosting tree. You can be sure they are creatures of the night because only a nocturnal species could have such a groggy appearance in the daylight, it's nothing short of comical.
The tip to finding them on a suitable a tree is to consider the time of day and the weather. In winer these birds will follow the sunlight around the tree trunk, or otherwise choose the side sheltering them from the wind. My other piece of advice; never stop searching.

So tired.

Monday, 4 February 2008

The Great Survivor

Ever hear the one about the timid Blackbird? So scared of cats he went completely...


Okay, not really. He's what the experts call an 'albinistic' Blackbird, a partial albino to the rest of us (complete albinos have bizarre pink eyes - like this fledgling sparrow). Some family of mine noticed him last week during a non-birding visit to Rufford Country Park. I knew there had been infrequent reports of a 'Whitebird' at the site since it was discovered in Feb '06 - that makes him at least 3 years old - so quite the survivor. Conventional birdwatching wisdom suggests these eye-catching birds are a more conspicuous target for predators such as Sparrowhawk, a theory which makes his continued presence all the more remarkable.

Here's a brief explanation on how albinism occurs in birds...

Pure albino birds lack pigmentation and because feathers are made from keratin, which is naturally whitish in colour, their plumage is white. The absence of pigmentation also affects eye, leg and bill colour - the eye and legs appear pink owing to the blood vessels showing through, and the bill will be whitish. As well as pure albinos there are partial albinos which simply have a few white patches on their plumage or have white plumage but retain their proper eye or leg colour.

Albinism is usually a genetic condition that causes the absence of pigment, but may also be caused through malnutrition, parasites or injuries. A common belief was that too much white bread was the cause of albinism, but this is not the case. Albinism of varying degrees is quite common in Blackbirds.

from garden-bird.co.uk

In addition, I wonder if these birds are perceived as an unattractive partner by other Blackbirds. Perhaps he therefore avoids the stress, dangers and energy expense of raising a brood each year. Pure speculation on my part, I really have yet to read any research on the matter.

The bird itself is a real show off, posing almost as if aware of his glamour...

The girlfriend takes a picture.

A little donation to his upkeep.

The video: An everyday bird made glorious by the great lottery of life - genetics.

Rufford is itself a pleasant birding destination. True enough that genuine rarities are unlikely to turn up, but Hawfinches can be a notable presence in the car park during winter mornings, and during our visit all the regular woodland species showed, Nuthatch, Chaffinch, a small number of Siskin, many affording very close views. On the lake Great Crested Grebe and Tufted Duck, while Buzzard have also spread to this part of the county and can be seen overhead.

A couple of thumbnails from the day...

Rufty Tufty

Happy birding everybody!