I was inordinately pleased to be greeted by the sight of a pair of Grey Wagtails as I drove into CAT this morning, down by Bottom station. People have kept telling me they are always to be seen there, but it’s the first time I’ve spotted them here – it is particularly pleasing because although they are reasonably widespread in Wales, numbers countrywide have dropped in recent years and they are now on the Amber list of endangered birds. You can always tell a Grey Wagtail by its bright yellow and grey plumage – not to be confused of course with the Yellow Wagtail with its bright yellow and grey plumage.
I’ve never got round to making a list of all the species of birds that have been seen in and around CAT but it must be pretty lengthy by now. Something else to look out for over the next month is the annual appearance of the spectacularly clumsy Cockchafer (or Maybug as it is also called) – you know those weird and wonderful looking flying beetles with mini TV aerials on their heads which spend most of their time crashing headfirst into windows and walls, ending up lying upside down on the ground, before groggily righting themselves, shaking their heads and setting off again only to repeat the whole process. And of course the swallows are back from their holidays in Africa – the swifts will be here soon – so much to look out for over the summer. Enjoy it all while you can – winter comes round fast enough!
Rennie, CAT’s resident naturalist, enjoys the abundance of birdsong at CAT.
Well, this is the last Monday morning that I’ll be trudging up the garden steps, mentally preparing myself for another day at the coal face and it’s a lovely bright sunny day – for the moment at least. Yet again I am struck by the proliferation of bird life we have here – especially noticeable at this time of year when the dawn chorus is in full swing. In just the short walk from the Cabins to the staff lunch room I saw two Dunnocks engaging in a little bit of intimate courting, a pair of smartly plumaged male Chaffinches squabbling for the attentions of a singularly bored looking female, a beautifully orange billed Blackbird singing his heart out from the branches of a tree and the flash of white as a Treecreeper flew off from one of the trees by the lake.
Over the last few weeks, the Eco Cabin’s feeders have been visited by Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Nuthatches, Green finches, Siskins, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Robins, Grey Squirrels and a mangy looking ginger cat. And then of course up by the smallholding as Grace, CAT’s woodland and natural resources co-ordinator, pointed out, Yellowhammers have been regular visitors. Incidentally don’t believe the bird books which tell you that the Yellowhammer’s song sounds like ‘ a-lttle-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ – whoever came up with that originally must have been under the influence! Admittedly, it has a long drawn out note at the end but it might just as well be described as like ‘ I’m-itching-like mad- and-got- fleeeeas’ or any other such phrase. In fact, post your suggestions for an onomatopoeic phrase which best fits the Yellowhammer’s song below.
Sometimes I think we tend to underestimate the intelligence or acumen of some of the other creatures that share our planet with us; often they can do something that is difficult to explain away as instinctive or unreasoning. Take this little example for instance: on my way home each day, I usually stop off in a little car park at Penmaenpool for a few minutes to see what’s going on around the area. It commands a spectacular view across the estuary to the hills in the distance and the often flooded fields and mud flats near the lovely old wooden toll bridge are a haven for all sorts of bird life – Red-breasted Mergansers, Herons, Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Rooks and of course always the ubiquitous Mallards.
A couple of days ago I had pulled in there, and a dapper looking male Mallard accompanied by his more soberly attired female were waddling around the car park picking over any scraps which had been left behind by the untidy visitors. I had some of my sandwiches left over, so I wound down the window, broke off some bits and threw them out, much to the delight of the two ducks, who rushed over in that comical gait that they have and got stuck into them.
The following day, I drove into the carpark at about the same time and parked up in roughly the same place – now there were several other cars there, some of them with people in them, but the two Mallards were sitting quietly on the grass ignoring them. But as soon as I stopped they jumped up and came waddling over to the car as if they recognised me – again I wound down the window and was starting to rummage in my bag for something to give them, when the female decided I was being much too slow and took a flying leap up onto the window ledge of the car, perching precariously there for a couple of seconds, flapping wildly, before over balancing and tipping forward into my lap. The next few moments were a bit frenetic to say the least as she flapped around furiously and started pecking at the bag on my lap, mainly missing the bag and making quite painful contact with a rather delicate part of my anatomy. Eventually I managed to open the door and get her outside with her husband but she seemed completely fearless and I had to restrain her from getting back in to the car. She wasn’t content until I’d tipped some food onto the ground for her. These weren’t domesticated birds mind you, they were properly free and wild – in the case of the female exceptionally wild!
CAT’s resident naturalist Rennie on nest-building wrens.
This is a great time of year to observe bird behaviour without too much effort, as lots of them a busy courting and nest building, tending to be so preoccupied with these activities that they don’t take too much notice of us and lose some of their wariness. Also, the trees are not yet in leaf so all the hectic avian comings and goings are easier to watch.
A couple of days ago Roger (CAT’s gardener) and myself noticed a wren outside the staff lunch room. He was busily collecting moss from one of the tree stumps and flying off to the back of the solar display building and disappearing under the eaves where it was obviously constructing a nest.
Wrens’ nests are beautiful structures made out of twigs, grass and mosses in a complete ball shape with just a tiny hole at the front for access. They blend into the background so well they can be extremely difficult to spot. The wren (dryw in Welsh) is unusual in that it is the male bird who builds the nest – in fact, he will often build several nests -and then proudly shows them off to his chosen female who selects the best one in which to set up home. She will then sometimes tweak it up a bit with a few blades of grass or some twigs before concentrating on egg laying and rearing her brood.
The male helps with feeding the young but also will do the rounds of his other nests keeping them in good condition, and often installing a second or even third female in them. Wrens often raise a second brood and will usually move to another nest to do this as the nests for some reason seem to get heavily infested with parasites to the extent where it can be a severe health hazard to the young. Obviously, the more nests the male can build the more successful he will be in passing on his genes in the form of lots of healthy offspring.
Those of you who regularly feed birds – especially if you put out peanuts – must have sometimes wondered if the Avian population is in danger of being completely over-run with Blue Tits. As far as bird tables go they definitely seem to far out number most other species. In fact there are probably more of them visiting your feeders than you realise – if you multiply the number you see at any one time on or around the feeders by five that is the likely number in total that are visiting in rotation. So if there are half a dozen or so, then you have about 25 – 30 regularly visiting through the day.
I sometimes wonder how they arrive so quickly as soon as you put out some food – the Cabin’s feeders had been empty for a few days and the birds were notable by their absence – but within seconds of refilling them, the first couple of Tits had appeared as if they had been hiding nearby in waiting.
They actually come around fifth or sixth in the list of Britain’s commonest birds (depending on which survey you look at) first place being taken, I always find rather surprisingly, by the Wren, but then Wrens can be very unobtrusive little birds often heard more than seen. You can hear their jaunty, warbling and trilling song most mornings in the undergrowth down by the recycling bins in the car park at CAT. Incidentally, any nest boxes you may have around the place really should have been emptied of old nesting materials and cleaned out by now, but there is still time to do it before the early breeders start home hunting in earnest.
From a wildlife perspective, I sometimes think that you would be hard pushed to find a much better working environment than we have here at CAT. Over the eleven years I have been here the amazing diversity of bird, amphibian, mammal, reptile and insect life concentrated into such a relatively small, and when you think about it, quite built up area never ceases to fascinate me. If you keep your eyes open there is almost always something to see – and occasionally something just that little bit special that gives a little boost to the day.
A few days ago my attention was attracted by the cawing of some crows coming from the huge trees bordering the south drive and when I looked up, there circling gracefully high above the top most branches were two magnificent Red Kites, which seemed to be totally absorbed in each other and were ignoring the group of unruly crows which were half-heartedly mobbing them. The two Kites gradually soared higher and higher on out spread, slightly angled wings, occasionally giving a leisurely flap and twitch of their forked tails to alter course marginally, until finally the crows (whose hearts didn’t seem to be in it) gave up and flew off noisily. As the Kites disappeared over the hills, I thought not for the first time, how wonderful it is to be able to see these beautiful birds so regularly, when only about thirty or so years ago they were on the verge of extinction in this country – and also how many other work places could you just lift your head and see such a wonderful sight?
Ah! the traditional signs of the approach of Spring and Summer – the first Cuckoo, the first Blackthorn blossom, the first Swallow — and yesterday the first Tick of the year. In this part of Wales we are deep in the heart of Tick country but normally I associate the troublesome Tick with summer and early autumn, so it was with some surprise that I discovered that I had taken on board a little companion after a walk with Boots (my dog) across the salt marshes. I had just got home and felt a slight tickle on the back of my neck and upon investigation I found I was holding a real live twitching Tick! It had probably been picked up by Boots and then obviously been attracted to my mane of slightly greyish hair (no comments please) and transferred its attentions to me. Naturally my indefatigable fascination with all living things meant that I spent some time examining it through a powerful hand lens (much to my wife’s disgust) and I was able to ascertain that it was a second stage 8-legged nymph which means that quite amazingly it had been waiting somewhere in the grass, since probably last summer, for a suitable warm blooded host to come along. The life cycle of a typical hard bodied tick is so incredible that it almost beggars belief – from egg to adult can take three years during which time it will only feed (on blood) three times ,each time on a different host – it can survive for up to a year without taking in any sustenance at all. Because of this complicated and extremely tenuous existence, mortality is probably somewhere in the region of 99.9% so the female has to lay one hell of a lot of eggs to carry on the family line. After studying this particular Tick for a while I’m afraid my Jainism principles went out of the window and the mortality rate was maintained as Arthur, as I had christened him, went to meet his maker via the end of my thumb.
One of my favourite bird songs is that of the seemingly ever present Blackbird (Aderyn Du or Mwyalchen in Welsh) with its lovely rich flute like quality. Although the so called dawn chorus in the spring is a wonderful start to the day, the sound of a Blackbird singing at dusk has a special sort of summery quality to it, so it was really heartening to hear one of our many resident birds giving a defiantly optimistic solo performance from one of the trees on the south drive as I left the quarry last night in the gathering mist. Of course the main sounds you hear from the Blackbirds at this time of year are the agitated alarm calls as they dash frantically around the place warning each other of real and sometimes imaginary dangers. If you have a good musical ear, and with a bit of practice, you can distinguish between these alarm calls which vary according to the percieved threat — the call warning of a ground predator such as a cat or a fox is markedly different from the one which tells other birds that an airborne danger in the shape of a hawk or owl is around. The call when a Blackbird is startled by the unexpected appearance of a person always seems to me more of an annoyed and exasperated scolding than a real alarm call – but then I do have a bit of an unscientific habit of putting a rather anthropomorphic slant on things at times – I will have to try and kerb it. Coming soon- the tale of Arthur the Tick and his adventures in a jungle of grey hair.
The log supply in my woodshed has been dwindling steadily and on a dark, wet morning I found myself having to rummage in the far recesses to find some wood to top up the log basket. As I fumbled in the corner where the last remaining rather sorry looking logs were stacked, my hand closed on something that felt very un-log like – it was cold, with a rather rubbery feel and it twitched a bit. When I drew my hand out into the open I discovered I was holding a very handsome but rather bewildered looking Toad. It sat on my hand blinking myopically at me and then assumed that characteristic resigned attitude as if to say ‘well what happens now?’
I love toads – this one had found what it probably thought was toad paradise to spend the winter in – a dark, secluded, leaky, damp, home under some half rotten logs with plenty of succulent woodlice to snack on if the weather became mild enough for it to wake up from its hibernating state, only for me to quite literally tear the roof off its world. Feeling rather guilty I carefully replaced George (as I instantly christened him) back into the corner, restacked the logs around him and left him in peace. (Of course George might have been a Georgina).
Toads rejoice in the wonderful scientific name of Bufo bufo, which I think suits them much better. Dilapitated sheds and outbuildings are havens to a wide variety of wildlife in the winter and it’s well worth taking a look round yours to see what you might find. Mated, hibernating queen wasps often see out the winter months in cracks and crevasses in wooden walls –some Butterflies like the Peacocks and Tortoiseshells spend the winter in their adult form up in secluded corners with their wings closed hiding their bright colours and merging almost unnoticed into the background and I was once lucky enough to find a group of around twenty or so two-spot ladybirds clustered in a corner of my workshop –a nice decorative little addition until they departed in the spring. Philosophical thought for the day – there are wonders all around us – all we need to do is look – it costs nothing!