Spring is definitely in the air here in south Wales. Wildflowers are wakening and blossom is bursting, migrating creatures are on the move and those that don’t migrate are thinking about procreation. For birds, that means nest building, and this Magpie obviously had some rather grandiose ideas about the size of nest it was going to construct. But had it bitten off more than it could chew?
Leucistic: Adjective; (of an animal) [or other creature] having whitish fur, plumage, or skin due to a lack of pigment (Oxford Dictionary).
It’s not easy being different as this leucistic black-and-white Blackbird seems to be discovering. I’ve spotted it several times in and around a neighbour’s backyard in recent days, usually sitting alone, looking a little bereft. Once it tried to approach first a male and then a female Blackbird, adopting the submissive posture a young bird would adopt to beg food from its parents, but the other birds totally rejected it and flew off.
I went to visit Mono, my tree, an Acer pictum, twice during February, both times on grey wintery rainy days so it’s not looking at its most attractive in my photos. But that did mean I wasn’t distracted by its foliage and instead had a good look at the tree’s structure.
As you can see, Mono has its roots firmly planted in the ground. It stands right next to a tarmac roadway but, luckily, that is only used by park vehicles and employees, and their driving and parking nearby doesn’t appear to have affected the tree. At the moment the grass around its base is somewhat sparse but that may change as the weather warms.
Mono’s trunk is thick and solid. It’s difficult to see the trunk’s texture as most of the surface is covered in lichens, mosses, ferns and liverworts – I’ll look at those in more detail in a future monthly post. The trunk is straight to about four feet, perhaps more, then, rather than maintain a single main trunk, it branches out into a multitude of thick and thin trunks, branches, and twigs.
I’m not sure what the smallest twiglets are that you can in these photos – perhaps the remnants of last year’s flowers / fruit. We shall have to wait and see. There are no leaves yet, though the buds are thick, with a slightly purplish hue, and look near to bursting.
Mono is, I think, a favourite of the local birds, of which there are many. While I was surveying the tree and taking my photos, a Robin serenaded me loudly – though, in truth, it was more likely to be advertising itself to any potential lady friends and announcing to all and sundry that this was its territory / tree. A Goldcrest was also dotting about, foraging for the tiniest of insects – these little birds are never still, hence my lousy photo of it.
After a recent blast of extreme cold and snow, the weather now seems to be warming towards spring so it will be interesting to see what changes March will bring to my beautiful tree.
The south Wales town of Barry is not exactly what you’d call a prime birding destination but, due to its coastal location, it does turn up regular wader sightings and the occasional rarity. On this visit, I dipped on my target species, the Great northern diver that’s been overwintering in Barry Docks – I saw the bird last year but want to add it to this year’s list – but I still had an enjoyable day’s birding, with a few nice surprises.
First up at Barry Docks was the local Mediterranean gull. For those unfamiliar with this bird, you can see some of the differences between it and Black-headed gulls in this photo – in breeding season, the hood on the head of the Med gull covers its entire head and is a true black (not a chocolate brown hood on just the front half of the head), its beak and legs are different, and it has white wing tips.
Four Great crested grebes were braving the choppy waves being whipped up by the strong sou’westerly wind.
In Barry Old Harbour, two Shelducks were hoovering the mud for small shellfish and aquatic snails.
At least eight Redshanks were prospecting amongst the salt marsh and along the silty rivulets.
Sitting down, five Oystercatchers were so well camouflaged as to be almost invisible, until they got up and one set them all off singing out their characteristic call.
The day’s pièce de résistance was the sight of two Curlews prospecting for a late lunch amongst reeds and under rocks. At first, I thought I had the two Black-tailed godwits reported earlier in the week but no, those bills were definitely curved. A nice sighting just the same!
This week’s Wildflower Hour challenge was to check out your local pavement for #PavementPlants. As the challenge says: ‘It is amazing how many plants are able to eke out a living where they were never invited. Growing in seemingly inhospitable cracks and crevices, thriving where there is little soil, these tough little plants are often overlooked.’ So, it was eyes down this week as I wandered around Penarth and, though I decided to look just for plants that were flowering and ignore the ubiquitous grasses and mosses, I did manage to find a few little treasures in my local pavements, steps and paths.
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
I’m sure most people recognise Groundsel when they see it, as it’s very common in areas of disturbed ground. I just learned today that Senecio comes from the Latin for ‘old man’, a reference to the bare ‘scalp’ that remains once the plant’s fluffy white seeds have blown away.
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
I was initially confused about which bittercress this was, Hairy or Wavy but my trusty wildflower guide tells me that Hairy has four stamens and Wavy usually has six, so that clinched it. Apparently, this plant is edible, though bitter – hence its name: I think I’ll pass.
Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)
Once known as Pilewort, as it was believed to be a remedy for haemorrhoids, Lesser celandine contains high levels of vitamin C and was also used to prevent scurvy.
Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
This very common wild plant’s common name comes from the purse-like shape of its seed pods.
For my latest birding adventure, I joined 21 other members of the Glamorgan Bird Club and ventured across the border to England, to explore birding sites in the beautiful Forest of Dean, where the glorious tree-clad countryside was made even more lovely by the covering of snow that still lingered from the previous weekend’s weather bomb.
The snow also meant two of the car parks we tried were closed and necessitated a long stomp along the forest trails to the viewpoint where we could search the skies for Goshawk – unfortunately, the birds weren’t seen, but what a wonderful walk it was! There’s just something about that snow-white coating that makes a landscape look magical.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We started off at Cannop Ponds, where I got my first sight of Mandarin ducks in the wild. These stunning birds are native to Asia – and I had first seen them in a bird park in Kuala Lumpur – but escapees from parklands and zoos have established breeding populations in Britain and, in 1971, the bird was added to the official British bird list, under category C1 (although introduced, the birds now derive from the resulting self-sustaining populations).
At the ponds we also enjoyed good views of a resident Marsh tit before heading off along the forest trails. In a large clearing, one of our eagle-eyed younger members spotted another of our target birds for this trip, the Great grey shrike. Using bins and ’scopes we were able to watch the bird catch a tiny lizard and, its trademark action, impale its prey on a sharp twig.
After our Goshawk-less stomp to New Fancy viewpoint, we returned to the cars and drove on to Parkend, where the local Hawfinches proved more cooperative, obliging with distant but dark views under the conifers by the cricket ground. They were the icing on the cake of another thoroughly enjoyable outing with my bird club buddies.
My list of species sighted is as follows: Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Mandarin Duck, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Cormorant, Buzzard, Moorhen, Coot, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Woodpigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Grey Shrike, Magpie, Jay, Carrion Crow, Raven, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Marsh Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Goldcrest, Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Siskin, and Hawfinch. And I was obviously not paying attention when others in the group saw (or heard) the Grey Heron, Stock Dove, Jackdaw, Mistle Thrush, Grey Wagtail, Greenfinch, and Bullfinch.
Monday’s walk took me around Grangemoor Park, looking to see what effects last week’s snow storm had had. Luckily, the park and its wildlife appear to have come through fairly well – no trees down, no signs of dead creatures (though they could have been hidden), and plenty of bird sounds all around. And then, the best thing, in a location where I had seen many last year, almost hidden under twigs, my very first Colt’s-foot flower of 2018. Spring really is on its way!
Nature’s cold weather events may be lovely to look at – and I freely admit that, as a Kiwi unused to snow, I absolutely loved the heavy snow we had last week as a result of ‘The Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma – but such events come at a high cost, particularly to wildlife. The extreme cold and gale-force easterlies blew across from Europe thousands of Fieldfares and Redwings, and displaced a myriad of other birds: Golden plovers and Lapwing, Woodcocks and Snipe were all reported in parklands and farmers’ fields, all desperately looking for food.
I’d not seen many Fieldfares before this storm hit but a walk around local parks and Cardiff Bay on Sunday and Monday gave me the opportunity to see large numbers of them and Redwings.
In Penarth Marina Park, I spotted five of Britain’s six thrush species grazing (Song thrush, Mistle thrush, Blackbird, Redwing and Fieldfare) (accompanied by a Green woodpecker), and in trees alongside the River Taff, I got my closest views yet of Fieldfare – such beautiful markings.
Let’s hope they now have the strength to head back to where they came from and that the cold blast won’t have any long-term effects on their populations.
Preen: verb; (of birds) to maintain (feathers) in a healthy condition by arrangement, cleaning and other contact with the bill (Collins Concise Dictionary).
Interestingly, one dictionary said it also related to animals tidying and cleaning their fur with their tongue, but I’ve never heard the word used that way. Information as to the word’s origins varies according to which dictionary you consult – the Collins says it first appeared around the 14th century and probably comes from prunen, thence preinen, meaning to stab, pierce or prick, referring to the action of the bird’s bill when preening.
Preening is an extremely important action for birds, to keep their feathers in the correct position for flight and for the preservation of body heat; to clear away dirt and parasites; to assist with the process of moulting; and, in those birds that have a uropygial gland, to maintain their waterproofing by spreading oil from the gland over and through their feathers.