Monday, 25 November 2013

Confusing Fungi, and Some Fungi Resources!

Hi everyone! I know I said in my New Forest and Blashford Lakes adventure post that I'd write about fungi I saw on that trip the next day, but my new job turned out to be more exhausting than I thought so it's had to wait till now. Sorry about that!

First I have a bit of a confession to make: you know that other fungi post where I said I'd always bring a camera in future? Well, the other week I went on a wildlife detective-y expedition where I photographed some fungi, and for some reason it didn't really help with IDing them, or maybe it was that photographing them made me put off IDing them for longer. So it seems there is no perfect way, unless maybe I can get hold of a smaller guide to fungi that I can take out on trips! Anyway, I didn't take any photos of the fungi I saw, partly because I thought it might not help, and partly because all the birds going on were so interesting I was absorbed in watching them most of the time. And I'm now regretting not taking photos, as you'll see later.

The first fungus I found was a really quite pretty one that presented no ID difficulties when I looked it up later. I found it on the heathland where I saw the shrike, and it was a single round, flat one growing straight out of the ground, with concentric circles in different shades of golden brown. I identified this as Tiger's Eye, which I'm confident about not just because the picture in my book looked like it but also because the habitat description was so spot on: 'on heaths, usually on sandy soil'. This one was definitely on a heath, and the ground in that particular part was elevated above the boggy area, with sand visible on the paths. Well that was easy! What's next?

My next find was a piece of horse manure with tiny, white mushrooms growing out of it. Going through my book, the closest I could find was the Nail Fungus which fitted the description, in that it was very small (and I mean very, very small, each fungus no bigger than a few millimeters across and no more than a centremetre tall), pale coloured, and round-ish or oval shaped. And most importantly of all, it was described as growing out of horse manure. The only problem was the book described it as on the Red Data List for conservation, meaning it's rare, and as a novice I usually go for the commoner option, on the grounds that it's more likely to be that, unless there's a very good reason.

I did some googling to try and find out about fungi that grows on horse manure, and found this post which says that only 8 types of fungi grow on horse manure, and lists them all. I've looked them all up, and none of them are even close to being what I saw, except the Nail Fungus. (note: I think that post is American, but all the ones they list except 2 and 7 are in my UK fungi book, and I doubt the UK has more fungi diversity than in the US, so that suggests there are only 6 species in the UK, though I'm happy to be corrected.) And then I found this very useful resource (Hampshire only, I'm really sorry everyone else! Maybe there's a similar thing for your area?) where you type in the Latin name of the species and it shows you where it's been recorded- my book is for the whole of the UK, so it's really handy to know if a species could plausibly be found in the area I thought I might have seen it, though these things rely on people making reports so it's possible some common species are not represented very well. Anyway, I typed in the Latin name for Nail Fungus, and it showed a very large number of locations its been found, mostly clustered around the New Forest area. I suddenly realised that a fungus that grows on horse manure probably became rare because there's not a lot of horse manure about any more, but the New Forest would be the perfect place for them because of the New Forest ponies, which are owned by people but roam freely throughout the Forest, and pay a key part in the Forest ecosystem by grazing it. There's also strongholds of Nail Fungus in places like Dartmoor and Exmoor, home of the Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies, which makes perfect sense.

The only problem was that when I did a search for more images of Nail Fungus (by the way, don't do a search google image for just 'nail fungus' if you don't want to see a lot of gross pictures of toenails! Search for the Latin name Poronia Punctata or add something else to the search) they looked a little bit different from what I remembered seeing. I've done some sketches to try and show this.






This is what I remember seeing- tiny flat white-ish fungi with a little dip inwards in the middle. This is probably about actual size, and the dark bit is supposed to be the manure!

Now here's what most of the image search results I got looked like:





Those little dots on the surface of the fungi are diagnostic, apparently. Though in the pictures some of the smallest ones had no dots and a dip in the middle. This is where a photograph would have come in really really handy! From now on I will definitely photograph any fungi I find when I'm out looking at wildlife. It's possible the dots were there and I didn't notice them because I didn't know I was looking for them. Or maybe they weren't there at all and I'd actually found a different species. If anyone who reads this knows about fungi that like to grow in horse manure, please please get in touch and let me know what you think this could be Nail Fungus based on my descriptions and terrible diagram! ^^

My general thoughts are that it probably was Nail Fungus that I found, because there just aren't many different kinds of fungi that grow on horse manure, but without a photo I can't report my sighting because I can't be 100% sure. Oh well, next time I'll make sure I use that camera!

While at Blashford Lakes I found a couple of other interesting types of fungi. The first were puffballs, only they had burst open so that they looked like birds eggs on the ground that had been pecked open! I've talked about puffballs before and how they want to be stepped on to spread their spores, but if they aren't they will eventually harden and burst open on their own. My book has a picture of a Meadow Puffball that had burst open like the ones I saw, so right now I'm thinking it was that that I saw, but I can't be sure because there's loads of types of puffball and they look a lot alike.

The second was some very large bracket fungi, maybe a foot across each. They were about the same colour as the tree bark and a similar texture too, but underneath they were a very contrasting smooth, clean white. The most distinctive thing about them, though, was that the top of each fungus and the area around it were all covered in spores. Back in this post I mention a big bracket fungus that had covered the wood around it with white spores, but this fungi I looked at the other day was different- its spores were brown, something I'd never seen before. I've tried to draw what I remember it looking like.


(that's supposed to be the tree around the outside, I could probably have added some lines to show bark texture. ^^) I tried to get a similar shade of brown as the spores were.

I thought this one would be quite easy to identify because of its distinguishing features-large; contrasting white underneath; brown spores- but it wasn't because the pictures in my fungi book don't as a rule show the fungus in its habitat, which means the photos don't include things like spores released in the general area. In the end I googling something like 'bracket fungus with brown spores', and eventually found this from the Kew Arboretum blog, which shows the fungus I found in the 5th picture down. Only the caption of the photo only gives half of its Latin name, so I had to use my book too, but it narrowed down the search because I knew which family of fungus it's in- and soon I found out that this fungus is Ganoderma Pfeifferi (Boo! No English name!). I'm really chuffed that I saw this fungus because apparently it's not very common. Of course it makes sense that such an interesting ecosystem as the New Forest, and such a great nature reserve as Blashford Lakes, would have more unusual fungi to see!

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I had to do quite a bit of research to find out what the fungi I saw were, so I decided to include some of the resources I found in this post to help other people. Some of the links are in the post above, but I'm including them all in a list as well to make it easier to find them.

A photo gallery of British fungi species, from the Wild About Britain website: http://www.wildaboutbritain.co.uk/pictures/showgallery.php/cat/8 (it's a really, really big photo gallery, just to warn you!)

If you're from my neck of the woods, here's the tool for finding where fungi is distributed in Hampshire, from the Hampshire Fungus Recording Group: http://www.hampshirefungi.org.uk/fungi.php?name= (if you don't know the Latin name of your fungus, Wikipedia will have it!)

Here's the post from the Kew Arboretum blog that I found useful: maybe you will too? http://www.kew.org/news/kew-blogs/arboretum-team/Fruiting-bodies.htm

And the book I use is Mushrooms by Roger Phillips, published in 2006 by Macmillan.

As I research fungi further and hopefully find more useful resources, I'll post them at the end of further blog posts and tag it 'resource post' so you can find them easily. At some point I'll probably make a resources sidebar, but for now this will be a good start. :) If you like, let me know about your fungi finds and any confusing ID situations you have had!

Friday, 22 November 2013

Wow, what a day!

Today was a bit of a landmark for me when it comes to wildlife watching- I got some good luck! I would even say excellent luck. It involved a very special bird that I had never seen before, and set off today to the New Forest to look for. I had seen several reports of this bird in the past few days on the Hampshire bird news website in a specific part of the Forest, so I went there, and it turned out to be a very boggy part so I had to pick my way across very carefully, which was fun, especially as the soles of my walking boots were starting to flap. And as well as being a bog this was also heathland, which means I went from being surrounded by birds on the neighbouring farmland (House Sparrows, Starlings, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Pied Wagtails, a Grey Wagtail, Bullfinches...heaven!) to being surrounded by...no birds, because heathland is like that. And the 2 Meadow Pipits that flew by weren't what I was looking for. And I tend to consider my luck when it comes to birds to be in the region of fair to poor, so I wasn't all that hopeful about finding the bird. I'm setting the scene with this stuff just to show you what a surprise it was that....

...Suddenly, what I thought for half a moment was a Magpie flapped across the path, with rounded wings and a long-ish tail, to land at the top of a tree. It was the bird I was hoping to see: a Great Grey Shrike! Its black bandit mask and big beak and bold grey and white body were just as perfect as I had hoped! It was absolutely beautiful. And what a chance that it just so happened to be in front of me at that precise moment as I picked my way across the bog! It could have been anywhere, but it was there, in front of my eyes. I watched it as it flew from tree to tree, always easy to spot when it landed because it perched openly, and its white front was easy to see from a distance. Its tail was longer than I'd expected, and I certainly wasn't expecting to see it hover for a moment, but apparently Great Grey Shrikes do that! Shrikes are carnivores so maybe it helps them see their prey. I was able to watch it for a full 5 minutes before losing sight of it. Magical.

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After that excitement I still had the whole afternoon left, so I decided to try out a nature reserve that was in the area, Blashford Lakes. I'd never been before, but upon arriving and looking out onto the large, wildfowl covered pool, practically the first thing I saw was a gorgeous drake Goldeneye! This was not something I expected to be able to find in Hampshire. And then, among a roost of Teal, I noticed a larger duck with its dark green head under its wing, with a completely white body apart from a black stripe on its side- a male Goosander! Both of these are ducks that I have seen very few times in full drake plumage, and ducks I rarely see in the county ever (actually the Goldeneye was a first for my Hampshire list, and the Goosander the first since I was about 12 or something). But it seemed that Blashford Lakes was a bit of a hotspot for Goosanders, later there was a group of about 10 with a good mixture of drakes and ducks, and there is a hide on the reserve named after them!

Walking to the other side of the reserve and entering another hide which was packed out with people, I was immediately urged to look into a spot of reeds just in front of the hide where these was a little clearing. And there, almost larger than life, was a Bittern! I say that because it was bigger than I expected. I've seen a Bittern once before, a couple of winters ago at RSPB Dungeness, Kent, and it was flying along in the distance and looked like a Grey Heron, only with a shorter neck and brown wings. But now I was looking at this wonderfully charismatic bird about 5 metres away! It had such beautiful feathers and lovely long black streaks under its huge eyes that I had never noticed in pictures before. Its funny how you can see a bird in pictures a million times and its only when you see it in real life that you notice these things about it, like when I noticed the shrike's long tail that I never noticed in pictures.

The Bittern moved very slowly like Grey Herons do when they hunt, only it was slooooowly stalking through reeds instead of on water. It could pull in its neck so it barely seemed to have one, and then extend it out in a weird bend almost like a snake. I didn't see it actively hunting, just going about in its slow, incredibly camouflaged Bitternish way. It took a very small drink from a puddle of water and then slowly, slowly drew its way out of sight, becoming so camouflaged behind the reeds that you couldn't notice the moment when it was truly gone. I watched the lake for a while (and it was very well stocked with waterfowl: there were Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Shoveler, Wigeon Great Crested Grebe, Coot and Moorhen though oddly no Mallards), and then looked back at the reeds and the Bittern was there again! It had sneaked back into view without anyone noticing, and it delighted viewers for a little longer before sloooowly moving out of sight again. Bitterns are so, so elusive that I knew these close views were extremely lucky, and I may never see a Bittern this well again. What a time to not have my sketchbook on me, honestly! I suspect it helped that, unlike most hides, the windows in this one did not open. I think if they had, the sounds of even quiet talking and banging of the windows being opened might have made the Bittern too wary of ever being close to the hide. As it was, someone banged the door a little too loud at one point and I saw its head jerk in reaction. I got the impression of a bird that is 100% aware of its surroundings at all times.

My day of new things was not quite over- later I went to try out a different hide on the same large lagoon I was looking at when I first arrived, and while marveling at how much there was to see (an even greater array of waterfowl than before, plus a single Green Sandpiper and a Kingfisher whizzing about), I became aware from talk at the other end of the hide that there was a Red-crested Pochard somewhere in that huge array of ducks. This is a duck that's a vagrant to Britain from the Continent, with a few turning up each year, and the drake is very pretty with a fantastic, orange head that seems to glow extra bright in the sun. (and it was very sunny. Did I mention that the weather was perfect too?) This duck also has a special significance for me, which I will explain in a moment.

Now, this is a bit taboo as birdwatching is a sharing hobby and people like to help out, but I like to find birds by myself if possible (I show them to others though! But when it comes to finding birds I'm shy and also proud, and want to learn by myself. ^^) So I started scanning the ducks without asking the guys who had found the Red-crested Pochard whereabouts it was. I was looking out for that bright orange head, but in the late afternoon sunshine, the chestnut heads of all the drake Wigeon looked bright orange, so I kept thinking I'd found it when I hadn't and getting excited too soon. I also tried to look for the far plainer duck pochard, because I didn't even know if it was a duck or a drake I was looking for! And most of the ducks were too far away to see well enough with just binoculars.

I really, really wanted to see the Red-breasted Pochard because back when I was a really young wildlife watcher, about 8 or so, I was walking in a little village quite near my town when I came across a little pond that had ducks in it. But they weren't your bog-standard Mallards of farmyard ducks- they were a lovely pair of Tufted Duck (one of my favourite ducks back then) and a pair of Red-crested Pochard, a duck that wasn't even in my parents' bird book! (it only covered Britain.) I was convinced I had found my first rarity. It wasn't until many years later that I realised that I had, in fact, found someone's very small ornamental wildfowl collection. The fact that the ducks could be approached as easily as duckpond ducks, and the fact that they were arranged very neatly into pairs, were signs  that would never have fooled a more experienced birdwatcher even for a moment, but I was overjoyed at the time, and to this day old 'tick-lists' of mine from ages ago include the Red-crested Pochard when they shouldn't. The difference between truly wild vagrants, feral birds, escapes and just plain ornamental collections, when it comes to wildfowl is something every beginner needs to learn at their own pace, and I wouldn't be surprised if other birdwatchers have similar stories from when they first started out.

So, I wanted to see the Red-crested Pochard because seeing it would finally 'finish the job', as it were, and make those old tick-lists finally true. But I wasn't having any luck at all on my own. So finally, I bit the bullet and asked the guys who had found the pochard for help. A few minutes later they had re-found the bird, got their telescopes on it for me and let me take a look. And there it was: a fine drake with that bright, orange head glowing in the sun. The job was finished, and my day had included 2 'firsts' (the shrike and the pochard), 5 firsts for the year (the shrike, the pochard, the Bittern, the Goldeneye and the Goosander), and 4 firsts for the county (the shrike, the pochard, the Bittern and the Goldeneye). I was exhausted, but elated! I can tell you I never expected any of that when I set off this morning!

Quick note: I saw some really interesting fungi today which I was going to write about in this post, but its getting late and I'm starting a new job tomorrow so I need to get to bed. I will write about them tomorrow!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

GA part 4: Simularities and Differences



Birdwatching in Germany, and in all the countries we traveled through to get there, is not so different from in the UK- after all, they are not that far apart. But I did see some similarities and differences, which I will now describe.


The same:

Buzzards and Red Kites- Just like at home, Buzzards were a common sight, soaring over the roadsides and perched on fences and trees, and Red Kites were a slightly less common but occasional sight.

Carrion Crows- Most of Europe has Hooded Crows (including northern Scotland and Ireland), but Lemgo had Carrion Crows like the rest of the UK, including the part where I live, does. I’d thought that Germany had Hooded Crows because I visited Berlin one winter several years ago and saw my first ever Hooded Crows, which seemed to be all over the city. But looking at distribution maps, Carrion Crows are found all year round in Germany and Hooded Crows are winter visitors. I never really thought of crows migrating, but there you go! So that was interesting.


There were less...

Large gulls- In the UK you always seem to see large gulls, like Herring and Lesser Black-backed, flying over roads or feeding on fields. Once we got away from Calais there just weren’t any more! It’s easy to forget sometimes that the UK both (a) is not very large, and (b) has a large amount of coastline compared with other countries. Black-headed Gulls were the only gulls seen on fields or following ploughs, but there didn’t seem to be quite as many. 

Collared Doves- I didn’t see a single one around Lemgo, not even in the suburban area where my sister lives, and the suburban areas are where you’ll normally see Collared Doves. Maybe the large amount of woodland nearby affected this?


There were more...

Kestrels- I really feel like it’s now hit home to me that Kestrels are declining in Britain, because my family quite often drives from the south to Newcastle and you see maybe one Kestrel in that entire 6 hour drive. The equivalent drive across the Continent had several Kestrels ever hour, it was really great and wonderful to see the ‘motorway falcon’ in numbers again, hovering by the roads.

Starlings- Flocks of Starlings were often seen flying over the road, more than you’ll see from a car in the UK, where it would probably be Woodpigeons you’ll see. That may just mean there are more Starlings near the roads though.


..And, as I’ve already written

Red Squirrels- None of these in my garden at home! *sobs* You don’t see ‘park’ squirrels in Germany, by which I mean those cheeky Grey Squirrels in urban parks that are very tame because people feed them from the hand, so you have to really catch your views of the Red Squirrels before they disappear, but it’s well worth it, especially for us sad Brits who miss our reds.

Goshawks- It was so weird to be in a place where these hawks that are so sought after in Britain are so common! I read an article ages ago that said you can even find them in the centre of Berlin, eating the Feral Pigeons. If I’d known about that on my trip you’d probably have had trouble getting me to stop sitting in parks looking at flocks of pigeons and hoping a Goshawk would come, and missing all the history and art and things. ^^


This last one isn’t a wildlife thing, but...

Small Ponies!- In the Netherlands, they really seem to go in for tiny ponies, and we saw several whole herds of them in fields and even in woods that we passed. I hesitate to call the, Shetland Ponies because they may well be a totally different Dutch breed, but that’s the sort of size and build they were. And they were soooo cute!

So that’s the last of my German Adventure tales, thanks for sticking by me if you read them all, and tell me about your travels! I’d love to know what wildlife you've seen, whether it’s at the other side of the world or a couple of counties over. :)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

GA part 3: Seawatching from Ferries




 Disclaimer: I'm no experienced seawatcher! But I make up for that in boundless enthusiasm. ^^

The crossing between Dover and Calais is in good conditions a journey of only an hour or so, and we had very good conditions both ways, with barely any swell at all there and back. I was grateful our journeys were all over with before the weather turned the weekend after we got back with the St Jude’s Day storm! That wouldn’t have been any fun.

When I’m on ferries I make sure I stay on the deck as much as I possibly can to try and spot seabirds. I’ve done this before on the much longer journey between Portsmouth and Le Havre a couple of years ago, and it yielded some fantastic firsts for me: my first Manx Shearwaters, gliding over the sea in a small flock; my first Great Skuas, a bird I’ve wanted to see since I first saw a bird book; and my first petrel, a tiny, tiny bird flying away from the ship, skimming the sea with its little feet. (It was too far away to tell the exact species, but it would have been Storm or Leach’s.) I’ve written in my Gannet post about how in that experience I found that I stopped seeing gulls and terns once we got out into the open ocean, but there were Gannets throughout the crossing because they are more oceangoing, and sure enough there were Gannets a-plenty on the Dover to Calais crossing, and again there were some sub-adult birds among them. (There were more adult Gannets than on the Portsmouth to Le Havre crossing because that was late August when Gannets are still breeding, and this was late October.) But I have to amend my words about the gulls, because I was seeing gulls throughout both ferry trips! Several Great Black-backed Gulls (and one sub-adult Herring Gull) attached themselves to the ferry and were gliding with it for the whole crossing, usually above or in front, as if they were hitching a lift! Maybe the ferry makes it less effort for them to fly over the ocean? They’re still not quite in the league of skuas or shearwaters or petrels, but it’s clear they can be seen out at sea, and not just near the coast.

It wasn’t just the ‘hitch-hiking’ large gulls either, there were small gulls out at sea too. A large gathering of them were feeding just out from France on the return journey, though the species was hard to tell. On the way there, and again near France, a small flock of gulls with completely white wings, dark underwings and small dark spots behind the eyes flew by, which we tentatively identified as Little Gulls, though there is always the chance they were Black-headed Gulls and the black on the tips of their wings was hard to see, as it is sometimes. Size is very hard to judge at a distance, especially with nothing to compare the birds to. Leaving from Kent, Kittiwakes played in the wake of the ship until we were well away from the shore, before leaving us about half an hour out, only to be seen again on the return journey. On our return into British waters, there were also a couple of Mediterranean Gulls winging their way past, their wings so white they almost seemed translucent. I’ve never seen Kittiwakes off the Hampshire coast, but did manage to spot a Little Tern as we were leaving Portsmouth last time! We have a small breeding population. Of course, it was tern season then.

Other birds seen on the crossings include an unidentified pipit that flew above the ferry briefly on the return journey, an unidentified auk (I’m guessing Guillemot or Razorbill) that flew by, and a v-formation of about 15 Brent Geese, that interestingly included a single Shelduck at the very end of the v! The birds are similar sizes, after all, and a lone Shelduck would get along much quicker with the v of geese than on its own, as flying like that helps them propel each other forward.

I’ve only watched birds out at sea a very few times, and every time I learn more and more. I’m really interested in seabirds and I hope my seawatching (both from boats and from the land) will improve, and my knowledge will grow!

Tomorrow: the final part of my German Adventures, in which I talk about what was similar and what was different to Britain in this not-very-far-away land.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

GA part 2: Fabulous Fungi




Yesterday, I wrote about some of the birds I saw in Stadtwald Lemgo. There was also some amazing fungi in the wood, particularly in the coniferous parts, and unlike last time I was looking at fungi I had my camera on me, so let’s take a look!

  

These are all Fly Agaric, the classic ‘toadstool’ fungi, which I’ve seen in the UK before but never so many at once- in some parts of the wood they were very numerous. There were lots of different sizes and levels of spottiness.



This is another one I’ve seen before, the Shaggy Inkcap, in two levels of size and inkiness! These were found outside the wood, on the grassy verge of the road leading to it.


Now this is a new one for me: it’s another agaric, this time Verdigris Agaric. Its striking green colour caught my eye almost as strongly as the bright red Fly Agaric, and like them it has white spots. I think this one looks a little like those colourful macaroons you can get! Only poisonous. ^^




This one also caught my eye because of its unusual colour;
I think it’s Russula fragilis which unfortunately doesn’t seem to have a common name Actually it does! It's Fragile Russula, which I found out from scrolling down on this factsheet about the Charcoal Burner fungus. So its common name is just a translation of the Latin name but that's fine by me! (Though according to the factsheet, both the Charcoal Burner and the Fragile Russula have variable colours so it could be hard to tell the difference by colour, and my photo could be on either. As the Charcoal Burner is also called Parrot Russula so I'll tag this post Russula for now.)


This fantastic thing was the brightest of all! It reminded me of a piece of coral rather than something you’d find in a wood. It’s actually caused a bit of an ID conundrum though, I now think it’s Yellow Stagshorn but initially thought it was Meadow Coral. Meadow Coral can be found in woods, but Yellow Stagshorn attaches itself to conifer roots, and it was found in a conifer forest. Was it attached to a root? I couldn’t say and there’s no way I can go and check now, I wish I’d taken more photos of more of the different specimens of this fungi that were around! I’d never seen anything like it and had the sort of idea that it would be an easy ID, but actually there are many coral-looking fungi, and both the Meadow Coral and the Yellow Stagshorn are common! Must keep an eye out for coral fungi in the UK. Anyway, if you can solve this ID mystery please do drop me a comment and let me know! I would be so grateful! :)

Update (22/11/13): Was doing some research on fungi today and found this photo of the Meadow Coral, which doesn't look anything like my photo, so I think I have Yellow Stagshorn here.


And finally, I almost missed these tiny little things that were next to the path leading out of the wood. I’m pretty sure they are Field Bird’s Nest, which is such a brilliant name- they even look like they have little eggs inside them!

That was all the fungi I photographed, but there was something else just as brightly coloured: take a look at this little guy!

 

I say little, but as slugs go he’s enormous. And WHAT a colour! I’ve never seen one like this before. I’ve done a little research and I think he might be a Red Slug, though I’m happy to be corrected. I wish I had a book on slug species! I saw one in the UK recently with some gorgeous patterning which I would have loved to identify.

Tomorrow: the birds I saw on the ferry crossing!

Monday, 11 November 2013

German Adventures part 1: What's in a name?





My sister is doing French and German at university and she's currently living in Lemgo, Germany, for her year abroad. Last month my parents and I went out there to visit her. Lemgo is in north-west Germany, and my dad doesn't fly so to get there we took the ferry from Dover to Calais, then drove through Belgium and the Netherlands to get into Germany. Five countries in two days! It was exhausting.

Of course, when my sister was settled in at Lemgo (she lives in a granny flat-type thing under a house), I had one question- 'what's the wildlife like there!' She couldn't tell me much, but from the minute I arrived I had my binoculars out, and practically never put them away. I was determined to find out everything I could about the wildlife of Lemgo, because I don't go to other countries very often and I wanted to make the absolute most of the chance to see wildlife outside the UK. On the day we arrived my sister had some exciting news: she had seen a Red Squirrel from her garden window that morning! On the second day of our stay we all saw one: a dark red, beautiful, tufty creature with a lovely thick tail, perched in the garden apple tree and then running off over the bushes with a piece of apple in its mouth. Germany never allowed Grey Squirrels to become introduced (I hear the closest ones on the Continent are in Italy), and it was wonderful to find out that the Grey Squirrel problem is not all over Europe. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t be. Though Germany does have Racoons- descendants of escaped pets, apparently!

The weather confusingly went from being what my sister called ‘coat and gloves weather’ before we came, to a humid, sweaty mildness, though the leaves were turning autumn shades beautifully all over Lemgo. I couldn’t resist starting a small garden list for the view out of my sister’s window, after 15 minutes of watching produced Blue Tits, Blackbirds eating elder berries, a gorgeous male Bullfinch, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a House Sparrow in quick succession. (The House Sparrow, a male with only a tiny black bib, appeared to be picking up nesting material- perhaps one of this year’s birds confused by the warm weather?)

The view over Lemgo from the park. Look at those autumn shades!

But things got even better! 5 minutes away from my sister’s place is a large, mixed deciduous and coniferous wood, and with the leaves on the deciduous trees changing bright colours, there couldn’t have been a better time of year to visit. Before we’d even visited the wood I got a taste of the wildlife there. While we were waiting for a bus near my sister’s home, I looked over towards the forest and saw a Buzzard circling over the trees, along with another soaring bird of similar size but which wasn’t holding its wings in the typical Buzzard shallow ‘v’. Looking through my binoculars I saw it was all white underneath, which most Buzzards aren’t, and had a longer tail which it did not spread in flight. It was, in fact, my second Goshawk ever! Unlike in the UK Goshawks are not rare in Germany at all; it has the highest number of breeding pairs in Europe apart from Russia, which is of course a lot bigger. Then later when I got the chance to visit the wood properly I happened to glance upwards, and there gliding above the treetops was another Goshawk, this time being mobbed by another bird, a Sparrowhawk that looked absolutely tiny in comparison. I love seeing mobbing situations that involve birds of prey mobbing other birds of prey, and this also gave me a great chance to see the size difference between Goshawks and Sparrowhawks, two species that are often confused in the UK but that there is no confusing when they are seen together!


I had heard that Goshawks were much commoner in Germany but seeing these two birds without any effort at all took a little getting used to, especially after all the multiple journeys and searching it took to see my first one in the UK. During the visit I was able to meet and chat to a German birdwatcher (my sister’s professor’s wife) who showed me all her bird books and we got talking about our favourite visitors to our gardens. She had seen Hawfinches in her garden! I told her about the Yellowhammers that visited our garden last winter, and the Sparrowhawk that had started to visit regularly (the male involved in last post’s clash of the titans, though he seems to have moved on at the time of writing), which I described as a hawk that is commonly seen in gardens. Using the book I was able to show her which one (the German for Sparrowhawk, awesomely, is Sperber), and she said ‘oh, I thought you meant Habicht’, which is Goshawk. Apparently Goshawks are seen in gardens, in Lemgo anyway! I think Habicht might translate as just ‘hawk’. I love finding out about different country’s names for birds. My favourite example of a different bird name was one of our hostess’s favourite garden visitors, the Wintergoldh√§nchen or Goldcrest, whose name translates as ‘winter gold chicken’. Firecrest, incidentally, is Sommergoldh√§nchen (summer gold chicken). The summer and winter parts make sense as in a lot of Germany Firecrests are summer visitors only, and while Goldcrests are found all year round, if it’s anything like Britain they are much more secretive in their breeding season, and a lot more visible in winter when the leaves are off the trees and they tag along with winter tit flocks. The part that really doesn’t make sense to me is the ‘chicken’ part. How can such a teeny bird be compared to a lumping great bird like a chicken? Very strange!


Stadtwald  Lemgo, or Lemgo town forest, with the evening light shining through the trees.

 It’s a good thing my sister isn’t that into wildlife as if she had been she wouldn’t have done any work due to spending too much time in those woods! I could have spent every daylight hour there, seeking out its feathered inhabitants. It was hard to find the birds in the deciduous parts as they were almost silent, but the coniferous parts were filled with little ‘see-see-see’ sounds. Being with family I often wasn’t able to take the time to wait for the birds to show themselves, but at one point I could hear flock calls above me and sat down to wait for a while. After a moment a small bird came into view, and I got an impression of a big, fluffy head, finely barred in white and black, before it disappeared again. I can’t be certain because I didn’t see it very well, but I think it was my first ever Crested Tit! Like the Goshawk, the Crested Tit in Germany has a much wider range than in the UK, where it is restricted to the Caledonian forests in Scotland. Speaking of different ranges, I later saw a Treecreeper...or it could have been a Short-toed Treecreeper, because their ranges overlap over that part of Germany, and they are practically impossible to tell apart by sight in the field. In some parts of Europe you can only find Short-toed’s, so it would be as easy there as it is in Britain, (where you can only find Treecreepers except for very rare vagrant Short-toed’s). So, my notebook just says Treecreeper for now! Maybe one day I will be able to distinguish them by call, if I somehow become well-versed in Continental birdwatching...


Tomorrow: some of the fungi I found in Stadtwald Lemgo!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Sparrowhawk Sketches


Yesterday I looked out into the garden and saw a female Sparrowhawk plucking a large kill on the patio, less than 5 metres away!  At first I thought the kill was a Collared Dove but then identified it as a Woodpigeon.  All the drama and movement of the kill had happened completely without me noticing.  Worried about putting her off her kill, I very quietly crept away and went upstairs to my room, from where I could watch her, and sketch.  All my sketches are from a slightly above angle because of being upstairs.






I wanted to look in detail at the Sparrowhawk's feathers.  In this sketch you can see that the tail has a thick band of darker grey at the end (with a very thin stripe of white right at the end, but my sketch isn’t that detailed!) and 3 bars across the middle of the tail.  The white ‘eyebrows’ over her big yellow eyes curve round to meet at the back.


The female plucked her kill busily for a while, though she never stopped flicking her head this way and that to check for danger in between beakfuls of feathers.  Then suddenly a male Sparrowhawk seemed to appear out of nowhere, about a metre and a half away from me on the roof of our garage.  This bird has been a regular visitor to our garden for the past week (the female was a newcomer), and he’s a particularly colourful bird with deep orange eyes, red cheeks and red barring on his breast, and even his tail feathers seemed to have an orange glow in the sun.  As soon as the female saw him, she opened her wings and spread her tail to mantle her kill so as to hide it from him, and glared at him with a terrible, yellow stare.



While fixing him with her gaze she was very still so I was able to get a sketch, which you can see in the top left of this page.  It was quite something to see.  The male was absolutely not going to get any closer.  A little male hawk about the size of a Collared Dove was not going to approach the big broad female, bigger than the Woodpigeon she was eating.  He didn’t stay long, flying away in the direction he came, and she kept mantling for a little while before digging her talons into the kill and flutter-jumping onto the lawn, moving the kill a few metres away from where she plucked it.  Perhaps she worried the male would come back and attempt to steal some of the kill.
 




On the left you can see her mantling using her spread tail.  Then after moving the kill she sat for a while on it before starting to eat it.  She appeared to be bracing her tail on the ground while standing on the kill, which was interesting to see, not sure why but maybe it helps her keep her balance while she eats?

On the right of this page I was trying to get the beak right.  The head of the bird is flat and there’s a tiny ‘forehead’ before it dips down to the beak.  There’s a yellow patch of skin around the beak which extends up the forehead in a thin line, and the main body of the beak is grey with the nostrils at the base.  The beak was easily the hardest thing to get right on these sketches, it’s so small and the shape was hard to see without my binoculars which meant every time I drew it I had to do it one handed.  Consequently I missed it out of a few sketches!





She stayed still for so long that I was able to draw the formation of feathers on her wings.  Natural History illustrators who draw and paint birds show every feather on the plumage, and I want to be able to do that too, so I resolved to look more carefully at birds whenever I have the chance to draw one that’s so close, particularly a larger bird where it’s easier to see the feathers.



As she began to eat the pigeon, shifting her talons around to get a better grip, I was able to draw them.  Compared to the size of the bird, the yellow talons are quite slim, but you can see the strength in them when the hawk has a grip on something, and the black claws are long compared with the length of the toes.  One of my favourite things about Sparrowhawks are their extremely fluffy, barred ‘trousers’ that extend halfway down the legs, so I’ve paid particularly attention to them on the right of the above page.

After eating a bit of the kill, the hawk showed signs of wanting to move it again, but this time to take off with it properly.  I’ve seen Sparrowhawks eating their kill in trees before, so maybe that was what she wanted to do.  When she was plucking and eating she never stopped warily looking out for danger, and it goes to show that just because an animal is a predator that doesn’t mean it has nothing to worry about.  A ground predator like a cat or fox could attack her while she was on the ground for so long, or steal her kill, and even if the male Sparrowhawk was too small to try this, a bigger bird of prey might have been the next to try for all she knew!  In the wild, no animal is ever completely safe from attack.

She hooked her talons securely into it and tried to take off but it didn’t work, instead she fell over, wings and tail flailing everywhere.  It was clear the kill was still too heavy for her to carry, so she gave up and kept eating on the lawn.
 

On the left is a sketch of her pulling the meat off the carcass in long strips.  On the right you can see how wide apart her legs had to be to let her head bend low enough to tear the carcass, and though I didn’t capture it well in the sketch, she was bending her head at what looked like awkward angles to get the meat.  I tried to show the head markings in the sketch in the bottom right, there's a grey patch of feathers behind the eye of a female Sparrowhawk, and the thin yellow plate above the beak going up the forehead and bordered by grey feathers on each side.  The white eyebrow is quite visible but it’s not clearly defined at the edges, with grey streaking going into it. 


After eating for a while she tried to move the kill again, but despite having eaten some more of it she could still only flail about, so she gave up and after a couple of seconds flew away without it.  I went out and had a look, there wasn't all that much left and the head of the kill was completely gone.  I watched her for about 45 minutes overall.  It was fascinating, and the best view of a Sparrowhawk I’ve ever had.