Sunday, 11 December 2016

Standing pretty

In the low winter sun, this magpie was tree-topping, displaying her contrasting black and white plumage, a typical territory-owner behaviour. They will 'tree-top' on aerials and buildings alike in towns. This one also regularly 'tail-flirted': a quick bow and tail flick, which is very noticeable and draws attention. Magpie's apparently black plumage has structural iridescent colours, blue sheen in the wings and green and purple in the tail tip - as shown in this tail feather - which are shown during displays and aggressive encounters. Breeding, territory-owner magpies have the brighter and greener iridescent hues than non-breeders. Plumage brightness in birds especially in body parts that are displayed during territory defence or during fights, reflects the owner's health and attractiveness, so their display advertises not only territory ownership, but its good body condition, so that potential challengers can assess it, and potentially avoid fights that they might be likely to lose.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

On Magpie marriages

As in other corvids, like Ravens and Carrion Crows, non-breeding magpies flock together. The non-breeders tend to be young birds, while territory holders, which breed, are more likely to be older. There is a hierarchy in the flock, and the dominant birds are more likely to be the next in line in obtaining a territory. Magpies form pairs in the non-breeding flock.
This morning, I witnessed my second ever 'great Magpie marriage', one or the most puzzling Magpie behaviours. A group of seven magpies (top shot) were high on a tree, calling, a short call, 'chak!' and bowing with wings half spread, displaying, pecking the branches, or chasing around the tree, but mostly watching each other.
This is a short clip of the gathering.

This behaviour, which usually takes place in the winter, in sunny mornings (although it was quite dark and cloudy today) was traditionally interpreted as the way Magpies form pairs before nest building starts. Tim Birkhead, in an article for British Birds, quotes this passage from Darwin's book 'The Descent of Man':

The common magpie (Corvus pica, Linn,), as I have been informed by the Rev. W. Darwin Fox, used to assemble from all parts of Delamere Forest, in order to celebrate the "great magpie marriage." [...] They then had the habit of assembling very early in the spring at particular spots, where they could be seen in flocks, chattering, sometimes fighting, bustling and flying about the trees. The whole affair was evidently considered by the birds as one of the highest importance. Shortly after the meeting they all separated, and were then observed by Mr. Fox and others to be paired for the season.

Birkhead's research with the Magpie population of Rivelin's Valley in Sheffield showed that instead of a pair formation congregation, this behaviour, is instead a territorial challenge by the dominant non-breeding pair. The rest of the flock attend to witness the event and, although the territory owners often keep their territory, in some cases they are ousted by the dominant non-breeders.

My first Magpie marriage, on a sunny morning a few years back (9/11/09). Individuals fluffed their white feathers in their displays.

More information
Birkhead, T. R. Studies of West Palearctic birds: Magpie 189. British Birds (1989). 82:583-600. Here.

Birkhead, T.R. 1991. The Magpies. The ecology and behaviour of Black-billed and Yellow-billed Magpies. T&AD Poyser, 270 pp.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Playing herring gulls

This morning at a local park, I noticed a young Herring Gull picking an object, flying off and being chased by another. Then the gull landed on the water and dropped the object and pretended to dive to pick it up repeatedly, as in a lazy drop-catch game. When I saw the object at a better angle I realised it was an empty freshwater mussel shell, which happened to float. Funnily enough, a couple of hours later when I walked past either another or the same young Herring Gull was still playing with it.

The young gull flies off with the freshwater mussel shell.

Later on, with cloudy weather, two gulls handling the shell.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The bristle head crows

Carrion Crows have a complex social structure. Territory-owning Carrion Crows remain paired year round, often flying and feeding together or not far from one another. They remain near their nest during the breeding season, although they may range wider outside this period. Birds that don't hold a territory form part of a loose flock that roosts communally, usually in large trees. Both male and female of a pair participate in territory defence, keeping other crows (or potential predators) away from the nest. Males have a more prominent role: if a male loses his mate he is able to defend the territory until he remates, but a female losing his mate will also lose her territory, as she would rapidly be evicted by other pair.
In one of my local parks there is a very high density of Crows. There are several territories, but the park is also the main ranging area of the non-breeding flock (where there is also a winter roost). There are a lot of interactions going on, but without ringed birds, it is hard to make sense of what is actually happening. Yesterday, I observed several interesting interactions. First, a Black-headed gull appeared most annoyed with a Carrion Crow and mobbed it repeatedly, dive-bombing on it when the crow tried to stop on an aerial. The crow did not vocalise and deftly avoided the gull attacks. Later, I heard the rattling call of a crow and watched a chase between two crows, one of them calling with the call I usually associate to mobbing a raptor. Crows, it appears, can use this vocalisation to fend off conspecifics.
 Finally, I watched a Crow it an amazing display: its head feathers raised, bill pointing down, looking really at its best. After taking a few photos, I realised it's partner was walking nearby using the same posture. Today I learned about this display in 'The Crows' by Franklin Coombs. It is called the 'Bristle head' display. It is a territory-owner display, used in territory boundaries to signal their occupancy, and also aimed at intruders within the territory. Both members of the pair display while they walk about. There is no vocalisation. Territory intrusions mostly occur during the spring, but there is also a peak in October-November.
 I can only presume that this pair of crows are a pair ot territory owning breeders. They do look in great shape!
This is a still from a video, which shows both members of the pair with their 'bristle heads'.
A side view of the displaying crow. 
This photo is a bit overexposed, but it shows the details and metallic iridescence of the crow really well.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Chok, chock, chock!

I've been wanting to take a photo of a Blackbird in this posture for a long time. Blackbirds do often cock their tails. When they alight they do that tail-cocking so as to keep their balance - in a similar way to Woodpigeons - they often do a jerky tail-cocking action when they do one of their various alarm calls 'chok, chok, chok' at the same time than they flap their wings. On Sunday, a windy day, this Blackbird perched on the side of a drinking trough, the wind made it lose its balance a bit and it stayed, tail cocked, for that second longer for me to press the shutter. Got you!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Great tits feeding on horse-chestnut leaf miner

In a walk around the local park, a pair of Great Tits called my attention. They were calling and foraging in a horse chestnut. I watched how dexterously they grabbed the large leaves with their bills, pulled them towards them, and held them with one foot while feeding (top shot). They were looking for larvae or pupae of the horse chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella, a micromoth that has expanded its range throughout Europe from its native Balkans. The moth's larvae feed inside the leaves of the horse chestnut, leaving them speckled. Blue tits also feed on this leaf-miner (as do Marsh Tits), and I've seen them feeding on them before, but as they are lighter than Great Tits, they are able to just hang from the leaves themselves.
This is a short clip documenting this behaviour.



More information
Grabenweger, G., Kehrli, P., Schlick‐Steiner, B., Steiner, F., Stolz, M., & Bacher, S. (2005). Predator complex of the horse chestnut leafminer Cameraria ohridella: identification and impact assessment. Journal of Applied Entomology, 129(7), 353-362.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Beach pigeons

In my recent holidays, it wasn't only the local Carrion Crows that visited the beach at low tide, Woodpigeons and Collared Doves regularly popped in. The first day I noticed a Collared dove on the sea defences pecking on something, when I looked closer I realised it was eating seaweed (Fucus spiralis, I believe), something I hadn't seen a bird do before.
Collared Dove enjoying some seaweed on the sea defences, as they do.
I took a video the following day.


In subsequent days I watched the visiting woodpigeons, which were keen beachcombers...

...but when a female landed on the beach, a male keenly followed her courting.

As the collared doves, they also ate seaweed, drank seawater (!) and waded in the waves. Don't take my word for it and watch the following clip.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Woodpigeon mating

Although the Woodpigeon must be one of the most abundant and familiar British birds, a few days ago I was lucky to watch their courtship and mating at very close quarters, when a pair landed on the garden fence. I should have taken a video, but instead I ended taking a series of photos, which don't cover the full sequence. I saw, but did not photograph, the initial courtship feeding.
1. The male (on the right) had just fed the female, both move the bills, like swallowing. They are right next to each other and excited, note the contracted pupil in the male. The female sits down, crouching, inviting copulation.
2. The male mounts the female, balancing with wings open.
3. The male stabilises on top of the female, which remains motionless, with  wings spread (to make male balancing easier?).
4. Copulation, male flaps for balance, female leans forward lifting tail.
5. The male jumps onto the left of the photo, both partners (which are extremely alike in colour and size) fluff their neck patch and bow their heads in what looks like an aggressive display. These are woodpigeons in all their splendour, what amazingly beautiful birds they are!
6. The female actually turns away from the male, not a brilliant shot but shows how the neck patch feathers are raised. The pupil is very contracted.
7. The male remains in the post-copulation display.
8. Both pair members come together again and preen (I think the female is now on the right, and shows the initiative in caressing the male neck and head area).
9. The caressing carried on for a while.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The beachcombing crows

Crows are opportunistic and generalist feeders and live in a wide diversity of habitats, from woods and cities to the sea shore. They have to go through a period of learning from their parents how to forage, in particular about the best way to obtain resources for each habitat. I've been staying by the sea on the south coast on the UK for a few days, and I've spent a fair amount of time watching a family of Carrion Crows with three young. They often feed on the beach, visiting especially at low tide. The young appear capable of finding their own food, but they still regularly beg for food from their parents. The beach crows probably get live invertebrates beachcombing from the tideline, but they will also scavenge wash out crabs or fish, in competition with the local gulls.
  The adults, although tolerating the young nearby and allowing them to follow and watch what they eat, lunge to them aggressively if they are harassed too much.
Two of the young flanking one of the adults, note the size difference.

The adults are moulting and are, to put it mildly, not looking at their best. One of them is almost bald: many instances of sticking their face into the open bill of their nestlings (if, as I presume, it's the male, he will have also fed the incubating female) for a few weeks during the breeding season have taken its toll on its head feathers.
The bald adult, possibly the male.
Young are smaller than the adults, with legs that look long for their bodies and wing feathers that are not fully grown. They have a brown sheen to their head feathers and have pink mouths, obvious when they beg. This one has also some wing feather discolouration probably due to some nutritional deficiency.

The young, on the right, begs for food from both adults.

 The young crows spend some time away from their parents, walking on the beach, picking seaweed or turning a little stone to peck underneath.
Young crow watching a young Herring gull, from the family they share the beach with.

One of the young crows picked on the empty shell of a spider crab demonstrating its deft foot use (above). Another got a small crab this morning, and a Herring gull chased him. The crow persevered and ate his crab. But as soon as one of the adult crows gets something, the young crowd around.

One adult (the one not bald, which I will regard as the female) crow stole an egg from a pigeon's nest. As she landed on the beach, carrying the egg deftly in her bill, and still dragging some nest material, the three young immediately surrounded her, begging. The adult did not want sharing though, she wanted the egg all to herself. She walked up and down the beach trying to find a suitable spot for dinner, but the young followed her closely. Eventually she placed the egg on a rock, opened it and started lapping the contents. The young harassed her no end, even pulling at his tail feathers, and they only managed to taste the egg after a kerfuffle when one of the young managed to grab the egg and the adult chased him and put him down with her foot. You can watch a short video of this here:


Thursday, 4 August 2016

Visiting the swift tower

Yesterday we did a stop in Oxford on our way south of the UK. After lunch, we quickly popped by the Natural History Museum. This magnificent building holds the swift breeding population that have been studied for several decades. The nests are in adapted nest boxes, which have access from the inside of the building for ringing in the main tower.

A detail of the tower showing the entrances to the nest boxes.

It is quite late in the short Swift breeding season and many fledglings and adults have already left for their African wintering quarters. Every time I see a swift I think it could be the last of the year, so I was not too hopeful of seeing any around the tower.

Birdtrack reporting rate of Swift, showing the main breeding season from May to August.
Then the website revealed that the last Swift nestling in the tower was born a couple of weeks ago (18th July) and hadn't yet fledged. The Museum has set up a live webcam in which you can follow one of the nests. The webcam is now set up onto the latest born nestling. I watched the nestling for a while today and got a couple of screen grabs.
An adult likely after feeding the chick, on the foreground, and the well grown nestling. Young have pale-rimmed feathers on their face, unlike adults.
The youngster resting. It spent some time flapping its wings and grooming. Although is quite feathered, its wing feathers are still quite short. The wing feathers will need to reach beyond the end of its tail before it can leave the nest. You can also see a rejected egg just outside the nest.

As we walked onto the square in front of the Museum and just after taking a few photos, a lone Swift flew overhead. Not the mad noisy chases of dozens of Swifts that usually surround the tower at the peak of the breeding season, but a great end of a lovely visit. 

Monday, 18 July 2016

Blackbird anting

This morning, on my way to work, I noticed a Blackbird behaving strangely by a kerb. When I looked closer I realised that it was 'anting', a behaviour involving the use use of ants by birds. The Blackbird had its tail and wings spread, squatting - probably on top of an ants nest - and the ants were climbing on the birds feathers.  The blackbird was rubbing its wings, coming back to the same spot. An ant run by the back of its head and the blackbird wiped it off. You can watch a short clip of the behaviour.


Anting is thought to aid in cleaning or disinfecting the bird's plumage. The bird would be using the ants as tools, as ant's secretions, including formic acid have known bactericidal, insecticidal and fungicidal properties. The ants would behave agressively and defensively if they are picked up or rubbed by the bird or if the bird is disturbing their nest.

Blackbirds, other thrushes, starlings and corvids use anting. Some of the species sit on wood ants nests, or even apply individual ants on their plumage. Some bird species use a similar behaviour with millipedes, which also produce strong chemical secretions.

I think it is unlikely anting is a learned behaviour, as it is quite rare. I wonder if the ant's frenzied activity around nests today - it was flying ant day in Hull - stimulated the Blackbird to engage in anting behaviour.

More information
See this post at my other blog on birds and flying ant day

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Collared Dove exhibition flight

Collared Doves have a extraordinary behaviour, their display flight. As males incubate during the day - between 10 am and 4 pm -, and females by night, males are most vocal and active advertising their territory in the early morning and in the evening. Males call their repeated three-note phrase from a prominent perch an aerial or a tree top in the vicinity of their nest. At the end of their call they pause and then launch themselves into a display of pure flight power: climbing almost vertically up to 10 m into the sky, and then gliding down in a broad, long spiral, with wings kept spread pointing downwards, and tail fanned, to finish in the same or nearby spot, sometimes calling a mute trumpet-like landing call. The wing flaps make a soft whistling noise. This sequence can be repeated several times in the early morning and evening. This morning I watched this male sitting on a church top calling, and managed to get the initial jump of the perch into his display flight.
You can watch a slow motion clip of the display flight by redjered here

Monday, 2 May 2016

Greylag nursery

 Many Greylag geese pairs in our large local park have now young goslings. Although geese can be quite intolerant of each other at the start of the breeding season, now the families join together in an area of grass by the lake forming a large nursery. These behaviour might allow them to better detect and defend young from predators. Goslings are precocial and once dry after hatching they can feed by themselves straight away. In the few hours that the goslings spend on their own with their parents they imprint on them and will follow them everywhere. Both parents tend their young by fiercely protecting them from potential predators, hissing or chasing them away, while the goslings feed or rest quite oblivious to their parent's nervousness.
Goslings seek warmth under their mother's wing. Only females are in charge of brooding the goslings in their first few weeks, when they are still unable to regulate their body temperature.
 Despite geese being quite accustomed to people in the park, they still fiercely hiss even as they are being fed. We noticed that pairs differed on how nervous they were. In one of the pairs, the female, instead of hissing, uttered contented calls while she fed and the male didn't hiss at all, despite their goslings being very close to us.
Two families with females brooding young (on the left) and males stand guard.
A group of five goslings follows parents.
Two very nervous parents defending their only young.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The summer Blackcaps

At the end of April, the arrival of migrant Blackcaps is marked by their beautiful fluty song. Males arrive a few days earlier than females and settle in their breeding territories. I heard the first one in the park on the 19th of April. Blackcaps usually sing from cover in trees and bushes, and the rapidly sprouting leaves will make it more difficult to spot them singing as the spring avances. Today I found a female in the territory where the male had been singing. She was very busy in a tall Sycamore tree, Acer pseudoplatanus, picking aphids from under the leaves, stretching and balancing on the fine branches. The male wasn't far, singing and feeding on aphids like her.
The female feeding.
Note the two aphids on the main veins of the leaf near the male's bill and...
...a few seconds later they are gone.
A short clip of the male feeding.