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Archive for December, 2011

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Herring Gull

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Car parks in Inverness may seem strange places to look for birds but there is range of birds to be found  some of which probably spend most of the year there.  The attraction is the comparatively warmer conditions there, plenty of cover and shelter and the availability of free food in various forms.   Some birds seem to have a system whereby if one  finds some food and people still often throw food around, the others will see and join  in.  The past masters to  this approach seems to be the herring gulls.   Some adults even bring in their young as soon as they have fledged and are able  to fly.  These large  gulls  will either walk  around the area, often even sitting on the top of cars, or standing on some elevated point such as  the top of buildings or lights.  Once a bird swoops down for food the others see and follow suit.  Crows are the same and even small birds such as blackbirds will use such methods.

Last week I was sat in  a busy Inverness car park  with cars coming and going and a hooded crow  was mainly simply scavenging for any scraps  left lying around by people.  The bird  also went up to stationary vehicles and took insects off radiators and bumpers as well as wheels.    In one corner of the car park,  outside a large pet shop, the house sparrows had a different technique as a dozen or more were helping themselves to mixed grain.  The bags of the seed were in piles outside  the shop and when the bags were moved occasionally a bag would split and  the house sparrows had a field day.   There used to be several house sparrows actually in this particulalr pet  store but presumable they were moved in some way on health grounds.   In another large store I looked in last year some starlings took a different  approach.  On the section where the garden bird food was sold there were suet balls and mixed seed feeders  hanging up on display and six starlings were helping themselves, actually inside the large store.   The birds completely  ignored shoppers  passing within  a few feet of them.

The crows in car parks look almost arrogant  as they strut around no doubt feeling quite safe and getting very used to such surroundings.    Elsewhere in the Highlands no other bird has been  so relentlessly pursued in attempts to curb its numbers and distribution.  There are  even traps, the now famous Larsen traps, that were designed with these birds in mind. Despite such levels of persecution the crows  still seem quite common.   In Inverness there appears to be two different types of crows, one of which is the  hooded crow with its typical grey and black plumage as shown in the photograph.   At the other extreme is the carrion crow  and this is more  or less black all over.   The two birds used to be classed as different species although   commonly known to interbreed and the offspring were fertile and the result was a mixture  of the two forms.   Then  after further  studies it was decided, in 2002   , that they were in fact two separate species.   Interestingly if you go to Aberdeen you will mainly only see   the all black carrion   crows whilst on the west coast it is mainly  the hooded crows.  In the middle of these two ranges is the hybrid zone where you can see birds  showing variation in their plumage.  This zone happens to run north to south through the eastern Highlands including Inverness which is why we get both species in the  car parks.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Migrant birds

Monday, December 19th, 2011

During the last few weeks there have been  many signs that migrant birds have been coming into the Highlands.  These are either birds passing through or some that have come to stay for the winter months.  Some are  more obvious than others such as geese as  the  last week has seen skeins of geese flying  over, mainly heading south, with some passing directly over Inverness.    Walking through a car park in Inverness for example I heard and then saw  large flocks of pink-footed geese flying over at some height and heading south.  These geese  would have come from  Greenland or Iceland from their breeding grounds.  Whilst some will stay for the winter in the Moray Firth area many will go further south although mainly along the east coast of Scotland.   The birds from Greenland will have achieved their summer moult and then they  move to Iceland for a short period  before continuing their journey to Scotland.   Geese are long lived birds by any standard and the pink-footed goose has been known to live for over 38 years

Other much smaller migrants have not gone un-noticed and these include the very large numbers of fieldfares and redwings, both members of the thrush family, that have invaded our shores.  Normally both these birds will stay in the Highlands  for some weeks gorging themselves mainly on the rowan berries although they will  take many others such as hawthorn and even windfall apples.  However the berry crop has been a disaster in the Highlands this year and most of the birds have moved on.  Interestingly the redwings will have come from breeding grounds in Iceland where most of them nest on the ground.  The fieldfares, in contrast,  will have come from  Scandinavia.    Redwings also breed in Scandinavia but ringing  has shown that for some reason these birds tend to move to southern Britain and farther south in Europe.

There is another member of the thrush family that we tend to take for granted and this is the blackbird.  Blackbirds that breed in the Highlands tend to stay there all the year round although there is movement in the Autumn and Spring to and from the higher ground to lower ground.  Blackbirds that breed on the continent  tend to move to the UK for the winter and many arrive along the Scottish coast from the north and east.  Many of us will have seen this influx in our gardens in the last few weeks.   I recall that one morning  a few weeks ago there was a sudden influx of blackbirds into the garden.  One immature bird I photographed was feeding on an apple I had stuck it a tree They had just appeared overnight and I counted 14 in just one small area of the garden.    What was significant was that the majority of them were males but instead of the usual yellow beak they were all black.   This is typical of the birds from Europe especially from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.   The orange yellow beak  and ring round the eye will not be attained by these birds until they return to their breeding grounds to the east and north east.

Some blackbirds can develop partly white plumage especially as they get older.  One extreme of this is the totally white albino bird and if it is a true albino it will often have pink eyes.  At the other extreme are blackbirds that  have a few white feathers which tend to spread as  they get older.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Waders

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The large family of birds called “waders” are some of the most difficult to identify especially when they are in their winter plumage.  One of the exceptions is the oystercatcher that at all times of the year is easy to identify.  The combination of black and white plumage contrasting with the long orange red beak is unmistakable.   It is also a very common and widespread wader both during the breeding season and during the winter months.   During the winter months they often gather in flocks numbering hundreds and even, occasionally, more.  They are a feature of sites such as Nigg and Udale Bays on the east coast.  At both these sites they are readily observed from the excellent RSPB hides that are open to the public at  all times of the year.   Whilst some of these  birds may well be the ones that have bred inland,  a large number of these move south for the winter.    Their place is taken by huge numbers that migrate in from Scandinavia and Iceland.

Whilst the birds may be more or less confined to the coast in the winter months, during the summer they are widespread inland  and they sometimes breed in the most unlikely places.   A good example is the flat roofs of the Inverness Academy school.  They can nest there because, unlike the young of other waders, the chicks rely on food brought in by the parents.  Successful nests have been known in a flower bed just outside the terminal at Inverness airport and on the edge of the car park at the Dingwall Mart.   They can also be found only inches from the  tarmac on some country roads near  rivers where the strip of shingle must remind them of the upper parts of a beach on the coast.  I took the photograph of a bird with beak tucked under its wing feathers as it sat on top of a bus shelter near Croy.     Whilst some stay on the coast and breed others will move far inland and will nest on open fields sometimes along with lapwings and curlews.   The chicks are well camouflaged as a narrow pale line of feathers behind the head makes the head and body look like two small pebbles.   In that way they can outwit the ever present hooded and carrion crows.

Ringing birds has given us a greater awareness of what oystercatchers do at various times of the year.  Many of the oystercatchers are caught at this time of the year and in the winter when they gather in their large flocks in the firths.  The Highland Ringing  Group rings around 200 to 300 a year  and this is where much of the information on them in the Highlands has been obtained.  Such was the case with one that was brought to me in March 2004 having been found near Farr just south of Inverness.  The bird had hatched in 1976 and was first ringed near Inverness in 1978.  It was re-ringed, because the original ring was worn,  at Alterlie Point east of Inverness in 1991.  When the bird was given to me it was still alive but I had to put it down as it had two shattered legs.  At its death the   bird had lived for 28 years  which is old  for a wild bird although not unknown as the longest oystercatcher known was 31 years old.    It is interesting that this flamboyant bird has not captured the imagination of the Highland poets such as Norman MacCaig.     Scots names include Sea Pilot and Shelder  whilst the commonest Gaelic name is Gille-Brighde meaning Servant of St. Bridget.