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Starlings – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

starlingsRoosts of starlings may involve many thousands  of birds and their flight just before they go to roost  can be spectacular especially if a bird of prey, such as a sparrowhawk  is harassing them.  Such large numbers of starlings even have their own name of “murmurations”. In contrast starling roosts can be very small and such is the case with the roost in our garden as it is in a doocot.   Interestingly although there is a wide variety of food put out daily from suet balls to peanuts and mixed seed to niger the starlings ignore these  and it is unusual to see a starling in the garden during the day.  The only exception is when they take a liking to suet balls, as in the photograph.   They come into the doocot at dusk and fly straight onto the ledge of the doocot before going into the holes to roost.     Around fifteen starlings are involved so some holes have more than one bird as there are only eight holes.    In the morning the birds behaviour is different as for along time they will sit on an old television aerial at the end of the house  and are often calling.

They will also mimic other birds and sounds which can be confusing.  I recall running into the house one morning as I heard the telephone ringing.  It turned out to be a starling mimicking the call.  The same happened with a bird that exactly  mimicked a lorry reversing.  Perhaps  my favourite one was earlier this year in early March when I went out early  only to hear a curlew calling,  I thought for a few moments the curlews had come back into the strath to their breeding  grounds but no it was far too early in the year and it was, of course, a starling imitating the curlew.  The interesting point is when the starling must have heard the call as it must have  been from the previous year.   The latest case of  the starlings imitating another bird was yesterday  when I went out and started looking  up in the sky as I thought geese were going over.  No, it was not geese but a lone starling sat on the TV aerial and exactly mimicking the geese that have been so much of a feature  of the last two weeks as they head south, calling as a contact call to each other.

At this time of the year many of the starlings  we see may be residents that have bred in Scotland earlier this year.  There are around 200,000 breeding pairs but in the winter the numbers are swelled to around  3 million birds as migrants come in from northern and central Europe.    However  despite  these large  numbers there has been an overall decline in the UK in recent years and this common species is now on the  red list of conservation concern.  This is because the numbers of starlings have fallen so rapidly.   What has been interesting this year has been the numbers of starlings, adults and juveniles, that have plundered the very large bumper crop of rowan berries.  They had the advantage of getting to this food before the large numbers of thrushes, redwings and fieldfares, arrived from Scandinavia.  Fortunately for these migrant thrushes  the rowan berries were so numerous that the packs of invading starlings seemed to make no difference.   However it did mean that the thrushes  have now had to move on because nearly all the rowan berries have now gone.   Meanwhile readers should listen for the mimicking calls of the starlings  when the bird often ruffles its throat feathers and its wings  waved energetically.

Birdwatching around Inverness – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

eider ducksNow is a good time to go birdwatching along the coasts and we are spoilt for choice on the east coast around Inverness. Some of the hot spots are at Udale Bay near Cromarty where  there is  superb RSPB hide on the south side of the firth, whilst on the north side is the RSPB hide at Nigg. Chanonry Point near Fortrose on the Black Isle is now famous for its dolphins but with so many people visiting there the bird life has been shown to be outstanding as well.

There are other hotspots such as in and around Findhorn  Bay and Burghead whilst, to the north, Loch Fleet is well worth a visit at this time  of the year and throughout the winter. Seals are also a feature of Loch Fleet and close views can be obtained by the old ferry crossing.   In many of these areas waders are a feature from curlew to redshank and oystercatchers to turnstones.  Geese are also likely to be flighting and the rarer divers and grebes can be found.  Gannets are often in large numbers often depending on how rough the seas are way out and  the last few weeks storms have driven many gannets towards the shore much to the delight of birdwatchers.  Look out for the very dark birds as these are  birds that have hatched this year from the northern gannetries  and they do not breed until they are about four years old.

One group of birds that can often be seen and they often  dominate the numbers of other species  are the seaducks so called because  they spend most of their lives at sea.   If you are lucky you may see three of the scoters the common, velvet and the comparatively rare surf scoter.  All three are very dark ducks, smaller than a mallard and , particularly  the common scoter, often in groups feeding on shellfish such as mussels.    The velvet and surf scoters do not breed in Scotland and are only winter visitors but around 80 pairs of common scoters nest here although the numbers are declining  each year.   In contrast the winter population is around 30,000 individuals and they mainly overwinter in the  firths of the east coast. One of the seaducks  that, at least the adult males, contrast  with the scoters  is the long-tailed duck.   They are much smaller  than  mallard but the magnificent tail of the male adds another 13 cm.  to the length.  The wintering numbers in Scotland are a round 15,000 but, unfortunately,  none linger to breed here during the  spring.  The birds move to the northern coast of Scandinavia and await the thaw on their inland  breeding areas   on the tundra.

There is another common seaduck that, as a breeding bird, far outnumbers many others   in having  around 20,000 breeding pairs in Scotland and, in winter, numbers of  around  65,000 individuals and it is the eider.    This is many peoples favourite duck, particularly the outstanding males. It is larger than a mallard and the males have conspicuous  black and white plumage offset by the lime green feathers on the nape.   They often gather in large numbers such as at Burghead and Loch Fleet and in most winters a single king eider joins them.    The females are famous for their eiderdown, the feathers they line the nest with  and many artificial materials have been used to try  to copy the qualities of eiderdown but none have succeeded.  Eiders are still farmed in such countries as Iceland  for this down but, needless to say, the end result is very expensive.  Why not go out this weekend and look for eiders along the coast – they are always so thrilling to watch.

Garden Birds – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

tree sparrowIn most gardens, at this time  of the year, the commonest bird is the chaffinch.  At the three feeding stations in my  garden the total is well over fifty depending on the time of day.  The reason for such numbers is partly because in the Highlands they are generally a very common bird.  In Scotland there are estimated to be 1 – 1.5 million pairs and this is reflected in the numbers in the Highlands.    Another reason they are common in gardens is their adaptability to the wide range of feeders and feed we put out.  The birds will go for feeders filled with niger, sunflower seeds, suet balls  and peanuts as well as any food scattered on the ground or on bird tables.  Chaffinches, despite the weather earlier this year, had a good breeding season and many managed to bring off two broods of young.

With chaffinches dominating the scene in gardens it is easy to overlook other birds especially if only single  birds are around.  A good example  is the brambling that  is closely related  to the chaffinch and superficially resembles them.   At this time of the year other single birds that can go un-noticed are the  blackcap,  lesser redpoll or even the rare hawfinch.   Another bird that is easily missed, especially  if you have  numbers of house sparrows at the feeders or on the tables, is the tree sparrow.  Compared with the house sparrow that has around 800,00 pairs in Scotland the tree sparrow has a mere 7,000 pairs.  It is also quite uncommon in the Highlands being confined to areas around the Moray Firth.

However, each year I have two or three single tree sparrows  turning up in my garden but only staying for a few days.  When I do notice them it is the rich chocolate crown  feathers, as can be seen in the photograph  I took,  that gives them away.  They are very dominant birds and at feeders will see off any other small birds such as chaffinches and house sparrows.   I well remember when I lived down south and had a series of 25 small nestboxes in  woodland.  For a few years there were a variety of birds nesting in them from great tits to blue tits until the tree sparrows arrived on the scene.  Within two years all the nestboxes had been taken over by the tree sparrows.  In many  cases they pushed out the existing birds and built their own nest and laid eggs on top of the existing birds nest and eggs.  The fact that they breed in such loose colonies is interesting as why do single birds turn up in gardens occasionally?   A mystery indeed.

So if you want tree sparrows then put up a small number of nestboxes together and you might be lucky.  The entrance hole needs to be 28 mm diameter and once they have colonised them do not disturb them as, for some unknown reason, they readily desert.  Outwith nestboxes they will nest in holes or crevices in trees, buildings, cliff faces and in banks.  They will also, unusually, take over old sand martin holes and after my experience with them taking over other birds’ nests I wonder if they would do this with the sand martins?   Despite their apparent success tree sparrows are on  the red list which means they are amongst the most threatened birds in the UK because the numbers are rapidly falling and their range contracting.   So anything we can do to help the tree sparrow is well worthwhile.