Thursday, 9 May 2013

Finally, April warmed to the occasion...and brought with it spring.

  The first time I ever saw a goldcrest was at the Sanctuary. Before then, just a year or so ago, I never even knew that such a thing existed. It was positioned some thirty feet away, purposefully darting between the fringe branches of the local woodland. At such a distance it was difficult to accurately establish its true size and detail. It was just another little brown bird, scurrying for survival amongst its peers. Yet there was something about its behaviour, the sense of method behind the strange haphazard way it manoeuvred from perch to perch, that stoked my curiosity and held my attention.

(Goldcrest 12/02/2012)
  The trees at that time were dominated by chaffinches, tits, blackbirds and robins, all congregating near the same food supply that had attracted this goldcrest. Clearly too small to out-muscle the larger birds, its strengths seemed to lie in its judgement and courage. Its pursuit of the prize seemed unrelenting; and why wouldn't it be? It was February. Food was in short supply, and a pattern of failure would lead to almost certain death.
  It was only later, when examining the day's photographs at home, that I noticed the true extent of this bird's wonder. A small brown bird it might have seemed, but this was no dour looking animal, for its crown was decorated by a bright yellow mohican. I think sometimes we too easily forget that beauty need not live in tropical locations, or accessed through the latest flat screen television, and that some of the most remarkable species are on our very doorstep.
  I was recently reminded of my introduction to the goldcrest, as I again photographed one without realising what I'd seen. The bird was so small that it was only when I reviewed the images on the computer did I recognise the vibrant shock of yellow. Once again, it was moving through the trees with a manic insistence, only this time there was a pair, busily preparing for the next generation.

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

  The colour of the goldcrest's body is actually more grey-green than brown, and its yellow mohican is framed with a dense black border. There is a healthy population of goldcrests around the UK (RSPB) but it is likely their size that can make them tricky to spot, particularly without binoculars. They are more prevalent around pine forests, where they feed on the trees' insects and larvae. The current trend of longer winters and late springs can make life difficult for birds, with insufficient food for them to eat.

  The steadily warming weather seems to have injected an urgency into the natural world, with the birds being particularly active. Another bird I had not consciously seen before is the willow warbler. It was flying from tree to tree, seeming to voice its displeasure at my presence, before being all too easily distracted by the insects the trees had to offer.

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

  If confirmation were needed that the temperatures are on the rise, the swallows have returned for the summer. They have arrived in significant numbers and can be seen making wild erratic patterns in the air. The arrow-like appearance gives a sense of purpose to their flight, and their ability to twist and turn at pace shows-off their impressive agility, as they pluck out unsuspecting insects from the air.

Swallows (Hirundo rustica)

  This swallow was zooming in to make food of this crane fly (Tipulidae).
  The search for food is the priority of the moment, along with finding those necessary materials needed to build, strengthen, or make comfortable their nests, as demonstrated by this pied wagtail.

Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

  Alerted by my presence, this long-tailed tit pondered its next move. Being vigilant is what keeps the birds and their pending hatchlings alive. 

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

  This nuthatch was scouring the branches for invertebrate to eat, while this song thrush did not seem at all put out by my presence. It busily pulled at the grass, possibly collecting its nest lining material, or maybe looking for any tasty worms that slithered beneath.

Song thrush (Turdus philomenos)

  There are always plenty of chaffinches around, so it is nice when another finch is spotted. The Goldfinch is similar in build to the chaffinch, but has very distinctive features, most notably the red face and yellow wing bars. Though striking, they tend to be more elusive than the chaffinches.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

  While the starling remains a relatively common bird, it is certainly not the prevalent species I remember as a child. Beautiful to look at, particularly when the sun lights up the iridescent green and purple shine of their feathers, glowing like neon lights.

Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

  It is always nice to spot a jay, the shiest member of the corvid family. This was one of a pair, and was reluctant to remain in my company for long. The same could not be said for this carrion crow, who did not seem overly threatened by my presence at all.  It was collecting nesting material with a determined sense of purpose, filling its bill with as many twigs as possible.

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

  Not wanting to anthropomorphise this crow, I like the contrast in the photographs (above and below), which seem to show the crow frowning. Maybe it tired of my presence, as it seems to be clearly communicating its irritation.

Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)

  As this pigeon demonstrates, there should always be time for a quick preen, or a even a game of "Pick a feather: any feather".

  The wild flowers play a pivotal role in the ecology of the area, providing a food source for invertebrates. While the snowdrops and lesser celandine are some of the first to emerge, none are quite as iconic as the bluebells, which are beginning to carpet the woodland floor.

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis)

  Encouraged by the emergence of food and warming weather, the peacock and comma butterflies have also taken to the air. The peacock butterfly is instantly recognisable, with its bright orange colouring, and eyespots on the wing that can protect it from predators who believe them to be the eyes of a much larger animal.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

  This peacock butterfly (above) can be seen with its probiscis in the flower, drinking the nectar within. 

Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

  The bumble bees are also making use of the early blooming flowers. The below bumble bee typifies how difficult it can be to get an accurate identification down to species level. I am guessing it is one of the worker bees of either Bombus lucorum or Bombus terrestris, but distinguishing some of the bumbles can be tricky.

Bumble bee (Bombus sp.)

  The tawny mining bee is a lot more distinctive, with its red colouring and dark stripes across the abdomen. This one was getting stuck into a daisy. A good place for information on insects, particularly bumble bees, is

Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva)

  It has been claimed that you are never more than 6 feet from a rat (BBC news). While the truth of that is beyond me, they are reliably close to any discarded food. This brown rat was photographed on the canal footpath, a few miles from the Sanctuary, having been enticed by a trail of bread that was left for the birds. Some people love rats and will even keep them as pets. Others find them repugnant. It is true that they carry potentially dangerous diseases that can be passed on to humans, as well as other animals, but you can't help but admire their ability to surpass mere survival, and thrive in this human dominated planet.

Brown rat (Rattus norvegicus)

  Before condemning rats for the spread of certain diseases, it should be noted that not all are carriers. It is also important to remember that millions of rats face shortened lives in torturous laboratories, at the human hands of the so-called educated.

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