Thursday, 23 January 2014

Amorous Activities in the Pigeon Family

This is sort of a continuation to my last post about early signs of Spring caused by the mild winter, but only sort of, as hopefully I will show! On a walk about a week ago, I found this:

This is a Woodpigeon's egg, which has been predated. If it had hatched naturally it would have broken into two halves due to the way a baby bird pecks around an egg to escape it using its egg-tooth. And according to my trusty Helm Identification Guide 'Tracks & Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe', a predator such as a weasel would smash the whole egg up when it ate it. The hole in this otherwise intact eggshell shows that it was predated by a bird, such as a corvid.

The reason I said that this is only sort of a sign of early Spring is that Woodpigeons (and other pigeon species such as Collared Dove) are known to breed at all times of year. They can do this because, unlike most passerines, they can regurgitate food to feed to their babies in a substance known as pigeon milk, meaning as long as there's food for the adults there's food for the babies. Other species of birds, such as Blue Tits, need soft food such as caterpillars and insects for their babies, so they have to breed at the right time of year for that food.

However, weather still matters and I doubt Woodpigeons would have been breeding last January. It was just too cold. And even with this year's mild winter, if this egg hadn't been predated I wouldn't have expected it to survive. Woodpigeons build very basic nests of just a few twigs in a tree, and it's been SO windy and rainy this winter that the nest would have probably blown down.

Speaking of breeding behaviour in the pigeon family, today I was looking out into my garden and saw a pair of Collared Doves start mating! Then, as if that wasn't enough, only a few minutes later there was a pair of Woodpigeons who also began to mate, but this time I got the chance to see a little bit of their courtship too. What first drew my attention was one pigeon began pecking at the beak of the other, and then stuck its beak right inside the other's; it was being fed on pigeon milk! I'd never seen anything like it before. I guessed the one doing the feeding must have been the male, and sure enough when they began to mate it was this bird that jumped on top. Before mating they sort of snuggled up together, with the male puffing up his breast feathers to look bigger.

I've talked about courtship feeding before, and how I've seen females in both Blue Tits and Carrion Crows use a wing-fluttering display to show they want to be fed by the male. The female pecking the male's beak was different though, and reminded me more of the Herring Gull chicks when they pecked their parent's beak on the red pecking spot to get them to regurgitate. Only in the case of the adult Herring Gulls, they were regurgitating a large lump of food onto the ground for the chicks, while the Woodpigeon behaviour I saw suggests that their young take food straight from the parents' beaks. Well, the name 'pigeon milk' does suggest liquid! The male Woodpigeon was showing the female how well he'd be able to feed babies when it came to the time, as well as how well he would feed the female while she was laying and incubating. It looks like more eggs are coming in the future, so let's hope we don't get any more storms!

Woodpigeons are such fascinating birds to watch, especially as you can often observe their behaviour very closely when they are in gardens and parks. We have a ground feeder in our garden and I've noticed how dominant Woodpigeons have a sort of 'lurch forward and wing-flap' gesture that they do to scare off other birds feeding on it. Or at least, it's supposed to! It works on other Woodpigeons and on Collared Doves; they all back off. But Starlings tend to ignore the gesture completely! Starlings may be a good bit smaller than pigeons but they aren't easily intimidated. And perhaps pigeon body language doesn't translate well outside the family?

I hope I'll have the chance to write more about Woodpigeons in the future, because I've seen all kinds of interesting interactions among them. I've seen them squaring up, bowing to each other, standing up as tall as possible, mimicking each other's behaviour...what do these behaviours mean? To guess at that I'd need to watch them more closely, which I plan to do in the future. Since writing this blog I've started watching bird behaviour more closely than ever before, and I feel like I'm finding out new things all the time! As always, please do submit stories of your own about bird behaviour- have you seen any pigeon courtship this winter? If so, leave me comment and tell me all about it! :)


This is unrelated to pigeons, but on the same walk that I found that eggshell, I saw this:

On the left is a small animal hole (I'd say the photo is about actual size), and in the middle and bottom you can see the shells of seeds. I don't know what species lives here but I'm sure its either a mouse or a vole, as they both eat seeds. Leaving all the seed shells outside reminds me a bit of our hamster, who tends to spit his empty shells outside of his bed! Of course a small animal that lives in a hole doesn't really need to hide its seed shells, as it is safe inside and the hole is so obvious anyway.


And finally, and back on the pigeons, here's a slightly disturbing pop cultural reference to pigeon milk! I'm a big fan of the game series Animal Crossing, in which there's a pigeon character named the Brewster who owns a coffee shop. After you get to know him a bit, he offers you some pigeon milk to put in your coffee. Um........:O

Someone in this game's development had a sense of humour alright!


...But as you can see from the picture, in the game your character seems to really enjoy the pigeon milk-infused coffee. So I guess it's not so bad!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Early Signs of Things to Come!

It's been a milder winter than the past few we've had, and though the nights are starting to get a little frosty it's certainly nothing like last year! This time last year I'd already seen my local patch turn into a snowy wonderland, with unexpected visitors (a huge flock of Lapwings and a smaller one of Golden Plovers!), and my garden was awash with colour as Bramblings and Siskins mingled with the Goldfinches, Chaffinches and Greenfinches! This year the winter finches have yet to arrive, if they will at all (though we have had some small flocks of Redwings visiting, and the odd Fieldfare!). At my patch, the stubble fields are covered with flocks of Redwings, Fieldfares, Skylarks and Chaffinches. I don't remember ever seeing so many birds feeding on them!

The mild weather has meant that I've been hearing and seeing more signs of Spring everywhere, and though I know we may still get a cold snap it is certainly interesting to see how the birds and plants are behaving. Birds are singing, bulbs are sprouting, catkins are on the trees. In December and early January I heard a Great Tit singing, saw two Robins in the same personal space without a fight (a sure sign of a potential pair!), and heard a Skylark in song-flight, though his song was not as advanced and detailed as it will be in a month or so. Meanwhile a Blue Tit has been thoroughly checking out our garden nest box, mostly perching outside and looking in but popping in a couple of times too. I've seen Black-headed Gulls whose heads are almost completely brown again (the name is a misnomer, the head is chocolate brown!), while some are still in their winter plumage. I wonder what causes the difference?

My garden is part of the territory of a male Song Thrush, who has been singing every morning and evening since before Christmas. Sometimes he's outside the garden, though the distinctive, repeating song is far-carrying and can always be heard clearly, but when he's in the garden I've been able to get some sketches. This one is from December.

He sits at the top of the willow tree and sings his little speckled heart out. As you can see from my fanciful notes, an I think female Blackbird was sitting nearby and seemed to be listening! But who knows what was really going on.

This one was from the 6th of January at about 4:30pm.

I watched him hop up the tree, making a few song notes, before choosing a good spot to sing, not quite at the top of the tree this time but near it. He began to sing, turning his body every half minute or so to aim his song in different directions. One thing's for sure; male Song Thrushes in the area will know for sure that this territory is Taken! He moved out of the garden after about 10 minutes, but he continued to sing elsewhere.

As I mentioned in my New Years post, I recently heard a Grey Wagtail sing for the first time-that was this winter too! I was watching a watercress bed in Alresford when a Grey Wagtail landed on it and began to hop about. Soon it began to sing, while still perched on the ground (which makes sense as Grey Wagtails spend most of their time on the ground, but how many birds sing from the ground out in the open? Most sing from a tree, from cover, or from flight, so it was unexpected for me, especially as I hadn't realised Grey Wagtails even had a song!). Then another Grey Wagtail suddenly appeared and shooed the singer away! Both birds had white throats, which adult winter Grey Wagtails all have (while breeding males have black throats) but for most birds (except a few Black-headed Gulls apparently!) it's far too early to be in breeding plumage, so I suspect these birds were both male, and the second bird already owned the territory and was making that clear to the singing bird. Though anyone who knows more about Grey Wagtail behaviour, please do comment and correct me! There may be something I don't know about female behaviour.

Just before the end of last year, I also saw courtship behaviour in Nuthatches for the first time! I spotted two Nuthatches up in a tree, and then noticed that one was pursuing the other, up and down the trunk and from tree to tree. Then one bird began to dip its head exaggeratedly (but considering how big a Nuthatch's head is compared to it's body, most things it does with it seem exaggerated!) while the other bird started to wing-flutter, like a baby bird does when it wants to be fed. I've written about this behaviour before, in both Blue Tits and Carrion Crows, and how it is a commonly seen courtship behaviour in female birds, so it was clear that this was a female and the head-dipping and chasing bird was the male. He then began to sing- Nuthatches have such a strange song, if you ever hear something that sounds like a car alarm going off in a wood, it'll probably be a Nuthatch singing!

These birds are probably not planning on making nests just yet, but they are establishing pair bonds, territories and nest sites, so they can be all ready for when it really is the breeding season! If you have also seen or heard birds or other wildlife doing these behaviours, please write me a comment and tell me all about it! :) Meanwhile, here's a post from Chris R, also based in Hampshire, about noticing birdsong, woodpecker drumming, Buzzard courtship behaviour (which sounds similar to what I described at the end of this post), and honeybee activity this new year: Enjoy!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy 2014 to all!  I hope you are all enjoying the new year. :)

It’s been a while since I last posted (mostly because of my extremely hectic Christmas job) and I’ll hopefully be catching up on my backlog of post ideas soon, but I wanted to look back over the last year for my first post of 2014.

To start off with, here are some of my ‘first and lasts’ for the year!  (I normally only do this with Swallows, House Martins, Swifts and winter thrushes, as other migratory species I don’t see quite as often, but I’ve added any other records I happened to make this year.)
  • 14/4- first Swallow (Barton Farm)
  • 19/4- first Whitethroat (garden)
  • 28/4- first House Martin and Swift (Barton Farm) 

  • 14/9- last Sand Martins (Itchen in Winchester) (note: I don’t see Sand Martins as often as Swallows or House Martins, so they were probably around much later than this!)
  • 21/9- last Reed Warbler (Hook with Warsash)
  • 3/10- last Swallows and House Martins (Barton Farm)
  • 25/8- last Swift (Washington WWT)- This is a particularly interesting record, as it seems unusually late for a Swift, and for it to be so far north (Washington is near Newcastle).  I was watching a flock of House Martins and Swallows when I spotted the unexpected Swift among them!  Very surprising.  My last Swift record of 2012 was in early August in the south! 

  • 6/11- first Redwings of autumn (Barton Farm)
  • 21/11- first Fieldfares of autumn (Barton Farm)

I saw 141 species of bird this year, which is down on last year (148), but that's ok.
This year I added 3 new species to my British list, all being species I have wanted to see for soooo long- Goshawk, which I wrote about here, and Great Grey Shrike and Red-crested Pochard, which I wrote about here, including my reasons for wanting to see a Red-crested Pochard so much (it’s more complicated than Goshawk and Great Grey Shrike, my reasons for them are both ‘this bird is clearly awesome!!)

I saw several interesting new species in my garden, most notably 4 Yellowhammers that came to feed under the feeders in February.  A Nuthatch was another great addition to the garden list, and a female Whitethroat that took cover in the garden for a while.

I saw 9 new species at my local patch, including Red Kite, Peregrine, Hobby, Lapwing and Firecrest! It was an exciting year for my little patch (1km square of arable farmland, which I will write about in a future post).

I also found the feather of a Barn Owl in my patch, which while Barn Owl won’t be on my list unless I see one, proves that a Barn Owl was present!  This was an unexpected and fantastic record.
Completed my first year of patch watching.

A pair of Peregrines nested in my town, as far as I know for the very first time.  To make it even more exciting, one (possibly two) of their fledged young visited my patch! That’s a post to get around to writing next year.

Breeding species observed at my patch (i.e. I saw recently fledged young or suspected a nest site) included Blackbird, Robin, Wren, Whitethroat, Yellowhammer, Magpie and Carrion Crow.

I began a new interest in identifying and recording fungi.  I think it’s been a good autumn for them!

It was a great year for Clouded Yellow butterflies, and I saw many individuals, including two records at my patch.

I was able to return to Kent this year and visit the places I used to go to see wildlife when I lived there while at uni (moved back to Hampshire a year and a half ago).  I went back to Elmley Marshes and saw the nest box of Barn Owls they had this year (this was early November and the young were fully grown and feathered but seemed to be still using the box as a daytime roosting site, though they were awake and looking out when I saw them!), and enjoyed watching the abundant Marsh Harriers again- they are one of my favourite birds but are scarce in Hampshire.  I also visited my old patch Ferry Marshes, a walk along the Swale estuary where you never know what you might see- this time it was a Grey Seal swimming up the Swale!

I went on my very first twitch! (I’ve been meaning to write about this for ages, but for now I’ll just say that I didn’t see the bird, and probably won’t go on any more twitches. XD)

My knowledge of bird songs and calls has got much better this year, and I’ve been able to add to my experience by hearing some birds songs I’d never heard before, such as Redstart, Wood Warbler, Firecrest and Grey Wagtail.  I always find hearing a bird sing and then identifying it by seeing it is the best way to make sure you won’t forget that song, much better than listening to a recording.  (Though recordings are very useful for confirming things, I use them for that all the time!)

I began making records of every mammal I saw, found dead or saw signs of for the National Mammal Atlas, and it was absolutely fascinating.  It made me realise that I don’t actually see mammals all that often (though this of course depends on where you live- staying at my Uncle’s in London over Christmas, I saw squirrels in the garden every day, and a fox, and was also awoken by the incredibly eerie screams of a fox early on Christmas morning!)  With the help of a friend, I added to these records two mammal records for my area which were both unexpected and exciting, because they were species I didn’t know were about.  I hope to write about both of them soon!

I did more sketching of wildlife and wildlife behaviour (and posted some of them: here are my Herring Gull colony sketches and my Sparrowhawk kill sketches) and I hope I will be able to sketch more, and therefore observe and learn more, in the new year.  I studied illustration, and if I can incorporate those skills with the wildlife knowledge I have been building since I was a child, maybe I can one day become a professional wildlife artist, or at the very least develop a fulfilling and worthwhile hobby!

I was able to visit Germany and learn a little about the wildlife there.

My efforts to improve my seawatching continued this year, and while I’ve had limited success so far I hope to improve my knowledge of this tricky subject in the coming year.

I saw a Cetti’s Warbler sing out in the open!  This happened back in January and yet it remains one of the most notable records of the year in my mind.  As a bird that can be inches away from you when it sings while remaining so well hidden in cover you can’t even glimpse it, it was extraordinary to see this one so well.  I was looking at a small, brown bird perched in a leafless tree, and trying to place what it was, when it opened its beak and out burst the forceful and unmistakable song of the Cetti’s Warbler!  It remains the best view of a Cetti’s I’ve ever had.

And...I started keeping this blog!  It’s been very enjoyable, and I want to thank you all for reading and especially to those who commented and who emailed me with information and feedback, it means so much to me.  I hope to be able to start writing on a regular schedule in the New Year, with perhaps a day for posting, or posts coming out every two weeks or even every week!  I do have a lot of upcoming post ideas.

So that's my wildlife recap of 2013! I'd love to hear about your years too: what wildlife did you see for the first time this year? Did you record any species unusually early or late? What did you see a lot of/not much of? What new things did you learn this year? Tell me all about it. :)

I hope you all have a happy new year, and happy wildlife watching!