Six Severn Goosanders – and no males!

Last Friday, I took the Severn Valley Railway from Bewdley to Bridgnorth, and walked the 15 miles along the river back. I wondered why I had not done this before, because the river Severn is stunningly beautiful along this stretch.

Steam train leaving Bridgnorth

Steam train leaving Bridgnorth

The one problem was that the weather was iffy – there were several significant showers of rain, which was not ideal photographically. However, some of the views were impressive despite the grey skies!

The River Severn being joined by the... at ...

The River Severn being joined by the Borle Brook just south of Highley

While walking towards Hampton Loade, I happened to see six red-head goosanders (that is, a mixed group of females and juveniles): these are one of my favourite birds, enough to be the highlight of any walk.  I soon lost sight of them though as the path took me behind a long line of hedges and trees. A couple of hours later, I happened to be looking at the river when they flew past – a fortunate coincidence, and I thought that would be it. Some while later still, I was puzzled by some features on the other side of the river which, on examination, turned out to be low wooden posts – but beside them were the six goosanders! As I was able to lurk behind a shrub, I took a series of photographs without disturbing them – two of which are below and another the banner image above.

The absence of the black-and-white males is curious but highly significant. Each year in mid-summer, thirty-thousand male goosanders from northern Europe migrate to the coast of northern Norway in order to moult. It is a safe haven while they are flightless, and can only return when their new flight feathers have grown sufficiently. The females have their moult migration later in the year, and are in smaller, more scattered groups, closer to home. That’s why I only saw the red-headed females and juveniles.

Four of the goosanders

Four of the goosanders. (Click to enlarge)

The six goosanders: the five swimming had been preening while the sixth, which was about to join them, rested up. Click to enlarge.

The six goosanders: the five swimming had been preening while the sixth, which was about to join them, rested up. Click to enlarge.

Wryneck near Severn Beach

Wryneck near Severn Beach

A couple of days’ later, I saw a report that there was a wryneck near Severn Beach, west of Bristol.

I’ve had previous with wrynecks, dipping on several, so as I’d had a busy weekend (including my first wedding – of a great couple, Rob & Natalie Chatley), and having a free afternoon, I decided to go down.

I’ve heard wrynecks described as a kind of ‘aberrant woodpecker’, which is a nice description. Although they bred in the UK in the 19th century, they are now only seen on passage in the migration seasons.

As I arrived, the birders who were there were trying to re-locate it in some bushes, and there was a feeling that it could hide out of sight for hours. Ten minutes later, a birding couple spotted it again, hopping around a lawn – nowhere near as obscure as they are reputed to be! The owners of the house were moderately tolerant, before gently ushering the bird off the premises…

Wryneck helpfully posing with a robin: they're much smaller than I thought, and with their plumage are quite easy to lose sight of.

Wryneck helpfully posing with a robin: they’re much smaller than I thought, and with their plumage are quite easy to lose sight of.

A red admiral in January

I was doing some work in my bedroom when I glanced out of the window and noticed a butterfly fluttering outside. Nothing unusual in that, you might think – but it’s still January and butterflies don’t do winter, do they? So I emailed the charity Butterfly Conservation  and had an unusually interesting response. It’s all down to global warming, apparently, and this insect is a clear indicator:

Many thanks for your message and your sighting. We’ve received quite a few Red Admiral sightings during January from across southern Britain. It is normal to see Red Admirals in the winter nowadays, but your surprise is justified because 10 or 20 years ago it would have been extraordinarily astonishing to see one.

Red Admiral butterly by Jim Asher of Butterfly Conservation

The status of the Red Admiral butterfly in the UK has changed over that time from being just a summer visitor and breeding species, which arrived from southern Europe in the spring and departed in the autumn, to being a year-round resident. Some still migrate of course, but there is now a substantial permanent population that stays here during the winter. It is now our most commonly seen winter butterfly, by far. What’s more, Red Admirals continue to breed here during the winter, so there are also Red Admiral caterpillars around right now.

Unlike our other butterflies, which are tucked away in hibernation during the winter, Red Admirals do not go into a proper hibernation. They simply roost on days of bad weather and then wake and fly around when the conditions are better.

Best wishes

Richard Fox

Butterfly Conservation

The other astonishing thing about this is the realisation that these flimsy wings could migrate hundreds of miles…

Goosanders remain amongst my favourite birds, so when I read that there were half a dozen at Woorgreens Lake in the Forest of Dean a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to see them. Goosanders are like mallards in being ducks in the way that Beethoven is like Kylie in being musicians: none of this tame quacking on the lake shore, goosanders are majestic birds that generally don’t like humans and for food prefer to dive for fish. I arrived at Woorgreens and to my surprise saw a whole flock of them on the far side of the lake – 23 in all, and 19 in the picture below.

Goosanders at Woorgreens Lake in the Forest of Dean (click to enlarge)

It’ll be demanding image rights next…

Now I admit my limitations as a wildlife photographer, but just once in a while some creature poses to have its picture taken. What better place than Slimbridge, you might think, with lots of unusual bird species. A pity that the animal in question is a mammal which lacks any rarity value at all…

I don’t often get too excited by video clips on the Internet, but the Russian crow tobogganing down a roof on a jamjar lid is a major exception. Crows are known for clever examples of tool use… but this is a crow using a tool just to have fun. This blows away any notion that birds are concerned only about the grim realities of survival. It’s possible that, when a bird sings, it’s not just trying to attract a mate, or just defending a territory – but actually enjoying itself at the same time…

Decent bird pics!

I thought I’d share with you some better-than-usual bird pics I took at the weekend. I’d like you to think I got them by an unusual combination of persistence, skill and ingenuity – but this would not be true.

Take for example the goosander and mallard in the first photo.

Goosander and Mallard at Chester-le-Street

It’s quite easy to take mallard pictures: they’re common, used to humans, and enjoy gobbling up any seed or bread anyone cares to throw at them. Goosanders, however, are majestic and aloof birds, nervous of humans, diving for fish for their food.

Except at Chester-le-Street. Throw bread and seed in the river – as locals were doing – and the goosanders go piling into the mass of mallards to grab their own mouthfuls. They seem to be less successful, and hiss at any other duck that gets in the way; mallards don’t seem to waste their energies on such visible aggression, understanding that it’s “first bird in gets the grub”.

But at least it made for good photo opportunities, as the goosanders were much less nervous than usual.

Using some local knowledge (aka taking Jaybee’s advice) I stopped off at unprepossessing layby on the way out of Chester – “there’s a woman who puts out seed for the birds there, and you can get good pictures of bramblings”. However, my favourite picture from the stop was of a chaffinch perched on a nearby tree.

Chaffinch, just outside Chester-le-Street

Afterwards, I went down to Greatham Creek, just before sunset, to look at the avocets, which have returned unusually early from their winter break in warmer climes. I’ve been wanting to snap them with the industry of Teesmouth in the background: this one has the iconic Middlesbrough transporter bridge.

Avocets at Greatham Creek – with the Middlesbrough transporter bridge behind. (Click to enlarge)

To twitch or not to twitch…

Goosander on the River Wear from Prebend’s Bridge

There are a range of addictions that wannabe vicars would do well to avoid: I’ve begun to realise that the Temptation To Twitch might well be one of them.

I need to explain, for the uninitiated, that birdwatching and twitching are not the same thing. This point was forcibly made to me at the Durham Bird Club by Geoff Mitchell, who had just won a distinguished service medal for 30 years monitoring his local patch. He takes great delight both in the resident birds and the unexpected ones that fly through – and has no inclination to chase around the countryside, twitching after rarities, and polluting the atmosphere with more car fumes.

Group of 3 goosanders, off Prebend’s Bridge

There is, however, a much more mundane reason why I’ve pursued neither the Black-throated thrush near Whitby nor the Long-billed Dowitchers in Cheshire: I simply don’t have the time. The temptation is there – and I’ve had to argue myself round on this one!

Last Friday I did a walk that made me appreciate how much good wildlife is close at hand. Crossing the river at Prebend’s Bridge, I glimpsed a bird disappear from view. It re-appeared a bit later – and I realised it was a goosander. Occasionally I am asked about my favourite bird: and at the moment, this is definitely it. Seeing one is always a thrill: there’s something very majestic about these large ducks – and something deadly serious about their hooked beaks!

Dipper on the River Browney

I then made my way to the River Browney and along its banks for an hour or two. Crossing a bridge, I spotted a brown bird fly low over the water: when it landed, its large white breast showed it to be a dipper.  I’d not seen one before – or at least, not in the 30-odd years since Dad showed me one. For some minutes I watched it flit around, bobbing on rocks, with a beakful of moss, seemingly unable to decide what to do with it. Despite not looking adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, they feed by dipping into the water or running under it to catch insects and other invertebrates. For me, the dipper is definitely another ‘wow’ bird!

I’m currently struggling with a cold, which is not good timing given the intense nature of the next ten days. The surprising thing is just how intense and pressured life is here. A couple of days ago I went to a talk on ‘science and faith’: this felt like real self-indulgence! We’re all struggling with it to a greater or lesser extent; while I’m doing ok, there are some really good people here who aren’t. Something is not right.

Wildlife crime

Whooper cygnet, in prime of life. Image by Dave Johnson.

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I went in search of some owls. While we were waiting for the owls to appear, some of us wandered down to the nearby pond; one of the guys pointed out a pair of Bewick’s swan cygnets. As it happens, telling swan species apart can be quite tricky, and on the local bird forum over the next few days there was an entertaining debate as to whether these were Bewick’s, Whoopers, or as someone put it, Bloopers. I was relieved to find I was not the only one to struggle to tell swan species apart; either way, they were majestic.

The same cygnet, shot by hooligans. Photo by Dave Johnson.

On Wednesday, one of these cygnets was found shot dead. It had been shot five times.  [Images from here]

Needless to say this has shocked local birders. Ironically I had produced a report on wildlife crime while working at Naturewatch (here), so it was sobering to be confronted with it again – but now as a reality, not from a desk.

Wildlife crime is known to be a problem in the area; it doesn’t help that it’s so low on the priority list of police forces. Having said that, two guys who shot nine kittiwakes (a protected species) were given a five week jail sentence on Thursday (here). This sends the right signals.

Not a great image… but a record shot of goosanders on the River Wear.

This also sparked a debate about the wisdom of making information about interesting birds publicly available. Suffice it to say that because local birders have done so, I (and presumably loads of others) have gained huge enjoyment. Thus on Thursday I had a pleasant morning ambling along the bank of the River Wear upstream from Durham, because of a note on the forum last week. To my surprise and delight, three goosanders swam into view: magnificent birds! A little later I saw them again and just managed to get a small photo of them – as here. Not great, but it proves they’re goosanders!

[Update 1/1/2010: sadly the second of the two Whooper swans has been killed in a similar way. It makes it unlikely that they were the victims of chancers, but have instead been sought out and killed by crooks who knew what they were doing.]

I’m now back in Cheltenham for Christmas and the New Year. I stayed an extra few days after the end of term to get some assignments done – which was very necessary with the pile of work that had accumulated!

This has been an awesome term. Really brilliant to be able to start training in Durham and to do it with such a great group of people. Have there been stresses? Absolutely, particularly towards the end of term with assignment deadlines looming. But after the long saga that there was in my getting onto this training course, this is a set of stresses I’m quite glad to have!