Sunday, 28 June 2015

Red-spotted Bluethroats

An adult male red-spotted Bluethroat Luscinia svecica 

One of the more abundant passerines in northern Norway is the red-spotted Bluethroat, a robin-like bird that lives in birch and willow scrub, foraging for insects on the ground, while flicking from bush to bush. It is usually their tinkling song, or clicking contact call that gives away their presence, or thiier distinctive short flight low through the scrub.

An adult female red-spotted Bluethroat 

Most illustrations are of the brightly coloured males as they do have splendid throat colouring.  So I have added an image here of a female in breeding plumage. She has the basic colouring of the males, but duller and she has a darker, streaked breast than the males. This is because she needs to be less conspicuous while caring for her eggs and young.

Although conspicuous when singing from the top of a bush with their breast puffed up, most of the time, even male Bluethroats are secretive, passing quietly through the lower branches, dipping between shadows.

The intensity of the throat colouring varies between males and females, not all are bright, and the pattern varies in the amount of red in the spot, blue on the throat, or black, white and red on the lower bands. And I wonder how the birds see these colours, for the blue feathers have a shine to them, do the birds see an even brighter image via ultra-violet light sensitive visual perception?

The blue feathers on their throat, glisten in the sunshine, adding a marvellous metallic tint to the birds' plumage

Thursday, 25 June 2015

North Norway

A fresh burst of green opens over the northern Norway landscape as the birch leaves open

I'm in northern Norway for the second part of June, over mid-summer with twenty-four hour light. The main reason to be here is as part of a long-term study of breeding arctic waders, but there is so much wildlife activity, I thought I might add a general picture first.

There are high numbers of voles this year, especially grey-sided voles, and as such many predatory species are breeding. I saw a red fox the other day carrying a mouthful of voles back to its cubs. And other predators breeding include; rough-legged buzzard, hawk owl, short-eared owl, long-tailed skua and great grey shrike. Many people have heard of lemming population peaks, but they are not the only rodent in the arctic whose numbers fluctuate so dramatically, several vole species do also, and their numbers can influence the numbers of breeding animals too.

A Grey-sided Vole  Myodes rufocanus - an important food source for so many predators in Scandinavia

During the last peak in vole and lemming numbers a few years ago, I saw most of the usual predators breeding, but no great grey shrikes Lanius excubitor, that was because the rodents were in such high numbers over most of Scandinavia that the shrikes, which probably did not need to fly so far north to breed, stopped farther south where there were just as many if not even higher densities of rodents. However, this year there are shrikes breeding in the north and the nest illustrated held six chicks, of various sizes. They are all likely to fledge as the adults were bringing in plenty of food.

Six young shrikes lie quietly in their nest, some smaller than others,
 but all will likely fledge as there are so many voles about

As with great grey shrikes in winter, in summer they also spend most of their time perched high watching for prey, but the irony of these shots is that I photographed the vole directly below the nest tree while the birds were about twenty metres away. That was one very lucky vole, so far....

The adult shrikes sit on high perches in nearby trees

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Hilltop waders

A Dunlin Calidris alpina watches quietly - easily overlooked as it is little taller than the grasses

Last weekend I was surveying waders in the eastern Highlands, up on the top of the hills. It is on plateaux like these where Arctic-alpine waders such as Dunlin and Golden Plover breed, and they are beautiful birds in their breeding plumage. But they can be tricky to find.

The Dunlin can be obvious when they are displaying, chasing one another around the hilltops, singing their trilling song, but once they have eggs or chicks they hide. They are small, and even when they run away, they look not much larger than a small rodent, sneaking through the grass rather than flying away. Mostly, they will stand still and watch people walk by, oblivious of their presence.

A Dunlin runs through the grass

A Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria stands alert, calling in alarm - difficult to not notice when watching over their chicks

Golden Plover are often as secretive when with eggs. Although some will walk or fly away and call in their peeping alarm call, many sit tight and watch people go by. But once their chicks have hatched the plovers are on constant alert, calling in loud repetitive peeps whenever a human or other potential predator approaches. Meanwhile, their chicks lie low in the grass or heather, their wonderfully golden down mimicking the yellow moss that underlies the taller plants.

Four golden plover chicks - a day old and soon ready to leave the nest 

Golden Plover chicks are some of the most beautifully coloured wader chicks, but the birds don't live on such anthropomorphic terms, don't yet perfectly matched to their hiding places up on the high mossy plateaux.

Golden balls of fluff - these plover chicks are marvelously coloured

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Long flight for food

A rock pipit collecting insects from the lawn

While staying with friends in Durness recently there was a steady trip of birds coming to the lawn to forage for insects, especially immediately after it was cut. The list included black-headed and common gulls, pied wagtails and meadow pipits. Special visitors were dunlin - it was great to watch these moorland/shore birds from the lounge window. But I was attracted by the rock pipits, for they seemed to be flying quite a distance down to the shore with food for their chicks. So, I followed their flightline to see just how far they were travelling.

The lawn where the pipits were catching prey, seen from inside the house,
with the Ferryman's Cottage in the background

I was impressed with what I found. The first step, as far as I could follow the birds from the window, brought me to the shore at the bottom of the garden where I found a pair of rock pipits feeding young in a nest in a grassy bank above the tide-line. But those birds were catching insects locally, less than fifty metres from their nest, they weren't the ones from the lawn. So I watched and waited for the lawn birds to fly past. And they did. They came down over the bank then flew low over the water and set out across the estuary with their catch.

The kyle between the mainland and the Cape-side,
the rock pipits were carrying food back to their nest below the cottage

The estuary is the Kyle of Durness which separates the Cape Wrath peninsula from the mainland. I watched the birds fly right over the low tide sands and water channel, several hundred metres wide, and for a total journey of over a kilometre, to feed their young in a bank below the old Ferryman's Cottage. Why the birds were flying so far to collect food is intriguing, but I am never amazed by what I learn about wildlife, simply ever-more respectful of their capabilities.

A brood of four rock pipit chicks lie quiet in their nest - waiting for their parents to deliver more food

Saturday, 13 June 2015

At the end of a rainbow

A rainbow ends in a grass tussock

Sunshine and showers are a good mix for watching birds as they take cover while the rain is on, then pop out and get busy as soon as it stops. And rainbows appear.

The grass at the end of the rainbow - nothing there

When a shower passed by last week, I noticed a skylark collecting food and watched it fly twice into the same tussock of grass. So I was certain that there was something there and began to walk over to investigate. Then another sharp shower flashed over and a rainbow curved down into the spot where the skylark had been.

Yes there is - three skylark chicks in their nest

At first glance there was nothing to see at the bottom of the rainbow, but the treasure lay hidden. I parted the grass and there it was, a brood of three skylark chicks, all warm and cosy, and keeping still and quiet to hide from me, a potential predator.

A brood of three, well feathered with still some wisps of down

I closed the grass up over them and left them to it. They would fledge in a day or so, scattering through the grass to separate hiding places for safety, and their parents would fly to each in turn to feed them until they became independent - a further strategy for protection from predators. Ground-nesting birds need to be cautious.

It's the eye that breaks the camouflage

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Sad timing

A ptarmigan nest site on a high hillside - but look closely

It's a busy busy time of year for fieldwork in the Highlands at the moment and although the weather has improved, there have been some casualties from the previous week's storm. One such, which I have found, was this clutch-brood of ptarmigan.

The nest after the chicks had hatched and the hen had led away her surviving chick
I was up in the hills surveying and checking on the progress of a population of ptarmigan that I have been studying for many years now. Their numbers were low and as the birds were sparse, they were a bit difficult to find, but I did confirm that there were three pairs in the area. The males were all in one flock as they tend to leave their hens about the time when the chicks are due to hatch. And I found a nest where the hen had hatched her chicks.

Two unhatched eggs and a dead chick, which had never dried after hatching, were left in the nest.

I immediately saw that all was not well. There were two unhatched eggs in the nest along with a dead chick and another dead chick lay outside the nest. This was on the Wednesday and there had been a wild storm on the Monday - the day the chicks had hatched. The embryos in the two unhatched eggs had probably died during the cold wet weather that the hen had to sit through while incubating. I have seen eggs fail to hatch in similar circumstances before. Even ptarmigan, which can endure snow storms while incubating, cannot keep all their eggs warm throughout prolonged cold weather.

One chick which had dried after hatching was found dead about a metre downhill from the nest.
Left behind as it was too weak?

Such bad timing. If the chicks had only hatched the following day, the hen could have perhaps saved the two chicks which likely died from hypothermia during the storm. However, there were remains of three hatched eggs, so the hen seemed to have led one chick away safely, so all were not lost. And the good news is that two other hens were still sitting on eggs so their chicks should have a better start now that the weather is warmer. Although, it needs to warm up quickly as the vegetation, including the chicks' main food plants, blaeberry and small herbaceous species, have only now began to open their leaves, and there are still very few insects in the area to supplement their diet.

This ptarmigan was still incubating her eggs, hopefully they will hatch while the weather is warmer and drier.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Wild Pansies - a blue fest

Blue, white and yellow are a perfect mix for flower colour - to the human eye at least.
Have a look at Van Gogh's irises 

Yesterday was wild and windy, again, so not a day for the hills. Instead, I went out to Rattray Head in north-east Scotland, just to get out somewhere and have a look see, and as luck brings to those who do, the sun was shining on the headland. Sand dunes rise high at the head, hiding the lighthouse from view until seen through a gap or from the tops of the marram grass-covered dunes. And it was as I walked through the dunes that I noticed the ground change colour from pale yellow and green to bright blue. Wild pansies Viola tricolor had taken over a hollow.

The delicate flowers were bobbing at all angles in the wind

Wild pansies are also known by the popular name of heartsease, which gives a clue to their use in herbal remedies and their history in folklore. However, I have no knowledge of that so will stick to the their beauty and form. It is a grassland species and this stand was of about half an acre in the landward side of the sand dune system. There were numerous rabbits in the area, some even grazing in the open at mid-day, and they had cropped the grassland short. A soft sward had developed, allowing the pansies to form a mat, so it seems that the rabbits don't eat the plant's leaves. Herbal properties can be species specific.

Ranks and ranks of fresh faces with blue top petals 

I have never seen such an abundant spread of these flowers. Despite all the cool northerly winds, and the resultant retarded growth of so many plants this spring, it is good to see something thriving in these conditions. No matter the weather, it will be good for something, and this year, in the the north-east it has certainly been good for the pansies.

The short rabbit-clipped green grass made an excellent habitat for the flowers to show,
 in woodland grassland they are often crowded out by the grasses

Other animals in the area, which were benefiting from the rabbits' cropping, were meadow pipits, skylarks and a pair of stonechats, all catching insects on the short sward. And linnets were picking at seeds that were too small for me to see. The pipits were feeding large young in their nests and the female stonechat was incubating six eggs in her nest tucked into the dense base of a clump of marram.

A meadow pipit's view of the blue 

From a distance, the blue petals cast a gentle wash over the grassland, their intensity only became evident from within the hollow.

The pansies covered the floor of the hollow

And from a distance, the lighthouse shone white on blue.

The flowers even crept up to the top edge of the dunes,
 looking out over the lighthouse