Monday, 21 December 2015

Goldfinch Chorus

This morning, while I walked around the park I heard a distant loud cheerful chatter. As I approached I realised there was a flock of Goldfinches up a large horse chestnut and many of them were singing. It is the second time this week that I witness this behaviour, the first time it also happened in the morning, the flock of Goldfinches singing together from a bare sycamore. Some seemed to amuse themselves pecking the branches, but in general they were just calling and singing. Goldfinches are very social birds, they often nest in loose colonies, and, although individuals might squabble for a particular food source, they often feed together in flocks. Whereas in the summer they like the seeds of teasels, thistles and other herbaceous plants (even lavender seeds!), in the winter, they can often be seen feeding on trees, like Alder, Plane, Ash and Birch. I haven't managed to find much information about chorus singing in Goldfinches, but the behaviour has been described in the closely related American Goldfinch and Siskin, where the males in the flock joining in chorus song in winter and spring.
Goldfinch flock singing (two bulkier Greenfinches are amongst them)

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Pair of Moorhens

There are now two Moorhen pairs in the park. They own each one end of the pond, a pair owns the island and the other the 'rock' with a couple of clumps of marginal plants. Today the island pair was very cosy, both individuals together, the one on the left preening around the neck of its partner. Moorhen males are slightly larger and heavier than females, so the larger individual on the left is likely to be the male. The Coot pair abandoned the park after their two failed breeding attempts on the stolen Moorhen nest.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

December songsters

It is not unusual to hear bird song in December. Robins and Goldfinches sing year round, Wrens will burst into song at any time. Do Starlings ever stop singing? I don't think they do.  Collared Doves and Stock Doves, after a short rest at the end of their breeding season, can now be heard calling again.
 In sunny winter days, Song Thrushes will start singing, maybe more towards January.
Wren in full song in October
Collared dove singing a couple of days ago.
Starling singing yesterday
 Today I heard two bird species singing, however, which I've never heard singing at this time of year. This morning I heard distant fluting phrases that sounded like a Mistle Thrush. I went to investigate and there it was, a Mistle Thrust atop a tree, singing contentedly.

 Blackbirds, normally will sub-sing in the winter. This is an eery, very quiet song, that usually subadult individuals carry out, as if 'practising' singing, well hidden in bushes. But as I was leaving work today, as it happened last week, I heard the surreal full song of a blackbird, its beautiful notes raising over the cacophony of the Carrion Crow roost at campus, and transporting me into spring. I had to check this out. There it was a full adult male Blackbird was singing from a wall. Given that it was quite dark at 16:15, the photo on top was the best I could manage without using the flash, but I recorded a short video of it. A very very unusual thing to happen in early December. I wonder if the unseasonally mild weather we are having is confusing this normally spring songster.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Fledgling crow

As I took the kids to school this morning, I noticed a couple of crows on the grass on the school grounds. One of them was hunched up and I thought it looked like a young one. As I was leaving I went to check. Still looking like it would be more comfortable sitting in its cosy nest, it looked curious as I approached, and it didn't flee. It's first encounter with a camera, taking things in. As human babies, Carrion Crows young ones have dark blue eyes, which will darken to rich brown as adults. The blue eyes, pink mouth and brownish feathers help tell young from adults, but the general attitude is different too, as young crows tend to be much tamer than the adults.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The starlings jump

Today there was a clamour of 'charr!' calls from adults and fledgling starlings in my street. Several families of starlings accompanied from their noisy offspring fed on the verges. The young ones watched their parents and appear to move in slow motion compared to their frantic parents foraging on the grass and then feeding their young. Occasionally passers by would idadvertently scare the birds and the families would become separated. The young called from trees and roofs until they got together with their parents again. A fledgling spent some time on a tree, probing - in that unique starling style - with its bill open, on leaves and branches around it.
busy parent with head down and watchful young.
Probing, tasting, leaves 
Young starlings have a heron-like look to them
more calling!
its a big bad world out there

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Mallard male-male forced copulation

Mallards are notorious for their unorthodox sexual practices, which include same sex mating and necrophilia (of Ignobel Prize fame, see reference below). This morning, in the apparent absence of a female, four drakes mallards took it on an unfortunate one. I have previously watched apparently consensual male-male copulation in mallard, preceded by courtship, but in this case they behaved exactly like when a gang of males carry out a forced copulation on a female. The series is not very clear, but these are the best I got.

...and the harassed drake eventually flew off! 
I do wonder if the many non reproductive pairs and trios that are now found away from water around the verges of the avenues and even on campus, where there is no pond, are actually seeking some peace and quiet from all this pond sexual excitement.

More information
Moeliker, C. W. The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae). Deinsea 8 (2001): 243-247. here.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Carrion Crow cawing display

I haven't blogged on Carrion Crows this year at The Rattling Crow, and that needs to be amended. So today, I bring you a sequence from this morning, when I documented a Cawing Display. This is a series of movements carried on when cawing from a prominent perch, often by territory holders. The whole body arches and bows as the same time that they call loudly, giving the impression that they put all their might into it. This pair were sitting initially close together and I thought they were getting ready to preen each other, but then they must have spotted an intruder in their territory, as they started performing the cawing display in amazing synchrony. Each display involved cawing and bowing three times, while fanning their tails, and keeping their belly feathers raised. I noticed that in many of the photographs (see the top one, in the middle of a caw) the nictitating membrane - which makes their eyes look cloudy - was drawn at the same time that they called, something that is only possible to notice with photographs.
The pair watching intently. Their tails are touching and slightly fanned and their belly feathers are also a bit ruffled.
The start of a caw.
The end of a caw.
The intruded came closer and both birds called noisily and gave it chase.
Carrion Crows pair for life, which is often not that long (average 4 years, with a maximum recorded age of 9) and the pair remains together all year round. Only territory holders breed, with one year old birds and non-territory holders often moving in a flock and intruding in territories in search of food, leading to squirmishes with the territory holders, in which both members of the pair participate.

More information
Coombs, Franklin (1978) The Crows. B.T. Batsford Ltd, London. 255 pp.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Canada geese head tossing

The Canada geese with a broken wing is now in the company of his partner in the park, who didn't leave with the flock in early March to their breeding grounds. He managed to retain two other individuals for a while - maybe offspring from previous years, as Canada Geese have long term family ties - but they ended up leaving. This morning, somebody started feeding the birds on an end of the pond, and I saw the pair of Canada swimming towards the feeding point. Broken Wing was leading his partner. He kept tossing his head every few seconds, and after a few tries I managed to capture the behaviour (above). It felt like a 'hurry up, follow me!' beckoning to female. Indeed, Canada Geese often communicate using head movements. I have covered the pre-flight head tossing, which is accompanied by much calling. When on land, and during the flightless phase of chick rearing during the moulting period, head-tossing by itself indicates readiness to walk or swim and is used especially when they are very motivated to move. Head tossing is very conspicuous due to the white cheek patch, and this is often directed to family members. Individuals head-toss when stationary, appearing to signal to other family members to follow them, including females to young goslings, and the signal is continued during movement. The direction at which the head is tossed is also informative, indicating the direction of movement. Even young goslings - who don't have the white patch - start head tossing in the first day after hatching, signalling their intention to move to other foraging patch. In a situation of threat, e.g. when a predator is located, this visual signalling allows parents to quietly direct their goslings to cover, avoiding attracting unwanted attention by acoustic signals.

More information

Jeffrey M. Black and James H. Barrow, Jr. (1985) Visual signalling in Canada geese for the coordination of family units. Wildfowl, 36, 35-41. Available here.

Song thrush portrait

The thrushes are now feeding chicks, and there is a sense of urgency when they look for food. They would be shy when not breeding, but now they feed just by you, oblivious to their surroundings. This Song Thrush stood and run, alternatively, on the grass near me, when feeding.
Standing proud
And catching what it looks like a ground beetle larvae.

The moorhen family

Since I first saw the moorhen chicks for the first time, I have only seen one adult with them. The adult apparently decided to build another nest by the island, as the chicks couldn't return to the tree nest. It left the chicks on their own for periods of frantic nest building. The nest is now pretty much done and attracting much attention from the new pair of coots in the park (previous post). I've never seen the chicks on the nest. The number of chicks went from three to two on the 1st of May, but the two left are growing.
One of the chicks had a good look at me.
The young rush to meet their parent for some food.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

A coot pair settles

Two of the coots have stayed in the park and today my suspicions that they were a pair were confirmed. They have shown a lot of interest on the nest that the moorhen who nested in the tree has built at the base of the tree on the water, on the free time allowed by the care of its now two chicks. But that will be something for a different post. On the top shot, one of the coots examines the moorhen nest closely.
Shortly after, the Coot was chased away by the Moorhen, the nest owner.
One of the coots calls the other with a trumpet-like call.
This morning, both coots were near each other. One of them picked a piece of stem and carried it to a clump of vehetation on the shore and rearranged it using her feet and bill. Then, the other coot approached and gave it chase closely, with the first coot swimming to the shore, standing and adopting the curious position of a receptive female, head curled down under her chest. The male then clumsily climbed on top, although he fell down before completing the copulation. I get the impression these are first time breeders, and the breeding instinct is just kicking in. The following are a couple of shots of coot mating pairs taken in another local park where coots are plentiful, illustrating the female position. They often mate on or near the nest. When they are on the water, the female actually submerges her head.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Magpie sitting tight

A pair of Magpies built a nest in a maple near our house, as they did last year (that time in the tree opposite). In the the last few days, the tail of the incubating female can be seen sticking out from the side of their large domed nest. Soon, we won't be able to see much as the leaves are growing quickly. Earlier in the year, the magpies were very vocal, now they are surprisingly quiet, if they fledged young, I do not know. The female will take care of incubating while the male feeds her.
This is a photo from 13/03/2015, when nest building was in its early stages.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The female Sparrowhawk and the 'missile' thrushes

There is a breeding pair of Mistle Thrushes in the park. Last week, one was busy finding earthworms on the lawn and carrying them neatly folded in its bill. This means they must be feeding young.  Today I heard the rattling call of annoyed Mistle thrushes. They use this call when they guard their berry trees in the winter, against Blackbirds and even much smaller birds like Chaffinches. The pair of them called and called from a tree. I tried to spot them and saw that a female Sparrowhawk was sitting on a branch. The Mistle Thrushes rattled and swooped over the hawk, the hawk ducked every time they dive-bombed her, although they didn't actually touch her.
 The female Sparrowhawk is an impressive raptor compared to the almost cute, much smaller, male. She is as large as a Woodpigeon, with broad chest and piercing yellow eyes. She can actually bring down Woodpigeons. Although the thrushes appeared fearless, they always stayed over the hawk, not underneath. The hawk moved onto an ash tree nearby, and although higher up, there were fewer leaves in the way, and after some trying I found a clear line of view and managed to take some photos and a video of the 'missile' thrushes dive bombing her. This behaviour, known as 'mobbing' involves potential prey individuals harassing or sometimes actually attacking predators when they are encountered. Mobbing is at its most intense during the breeding season. It is a behaviour that is not completely understood. One explanation, the 'move-along' hypothesis, is that mobbing diverts the predator attention from places where there are nests or young. When the Sparrowhawk's young hatches, they will be fed almost exclusively on fledglings, so harassing the predators might encourage them to move on, and hunt somewhere else.
Mistle thrush with worms in bill (14/4/2015)

The 'missile thrush' was my photo management software autocorrection, but I think it is actually quite fitting! This is an initially very shaky clip (no tree nearby to hold on). Watch out at 11 seconds.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

New moorhen chicks

This morning, a moorhen was on the island with three very young chicks. They were tiny and a bit clumsy, and had some trouble following the adult about. There was only one adult with them, so I wonder if its partner is still incubating, or brooding other chicks on their tree nest. These tiny chicks either jumped from their nest, or climbed down the tree unharmed. They peeped and flapped their tiny wings comically, stretching out to their parent, who will occasionally give them tiny morsels of food, one at a time.
 After a while the parent brooded them on the ground, a bit restless trying to get itself comfortable. The following time I saw them, the adult was trying to arrange some nesting material on a branch by the water, maybe not happy with brooding the chicks on the ground? There were a number of large gulls about, and with just one parent around, I wonder what the future of these chicks holds.
Parent finding food.
Chick begging
Brooding time

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Coots settling in the park

I wrote about the visiting coot a few posts ago, but there has been new developments in the local park, a few days ago two coots were present and today I counted three coots. They were quite dispersed in and around the pond, but from a particular location all were visible. If they are just coming in or they have been here all along since I saw the first one, I do not know. They are relatively vocal, appearing to keep in touch with each other. This afternoon, two of them seemed quite content, preening close to each other, while surrounded by playing children and lots of people in the park, they most likely dispersed from another park, where they have grown accustomed to people. Male and female Coots have similar appearance, although males are larger and heavier, so possibly the individual in the foreground on the shot above, much larger, is a male. Male and female, however, have very distinct calls. I hope that at least a pair stays in the park as they will provide opportunities to get to watch them closely and learn more about their behaviour.
One of the coots being chased away by the resident Moorhen (with its nest in the island tree).
Coot about to dive
This is the third coot, note its very large frontal shield, protruding from the top of the head and stained pink. The two individuals at the top of the post have much smaller shields.