End of Summer

There is still over a week until the astronomical beginning of Autumn, but colder weather has already begun to set in, and many migratory birds are already gone. It’s been weeks since the screeching of swifts stopped being part of the background noise on clear days when walking down the high road.

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This garden warbler which we ringed in one of the last days of July will be long-gone now, off to Africa.

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This clueless juvenile blackcap, unaware it was free to go after getting a ring, might have also left for warmer regions by now, although some blackcaps overwinter in England. This little chap stayed perched on my thumb until he began to slide off, rather comically. About to drop, he finally flapped his wings and made his getaway. Some friends asked me why we don’t just throw birds up in the air as you might see in films, where doves or messenger pigeons are released that way. The answer is, because the bird may not be ready to fly. It may be confused by what is happening to it – getting trapped in a net and then being handled by big animals must be terrifying – and late to react, potentially dropping to the ground, or its wings might have been strained when trying to free itself from the net and needs a bit of rest. That’s why the best way is to open your hand and wait for the bird to fly off, or in the case of thrushes, to release it on the ground so it may dash away, darting for cover.

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Starlings are a rare catch for us. But with nets in rides cut among brambles, which were at that time heavily laden with juicy berries, we had a little flock of starlings fly in. Before they could free themselves (being bigger birds, they can get out of our mist-nets designed for smaller species), we ran to the net and managed to bag a few (birds are put in cotton bags and carried to the ringing station).

Moving on to late August/early September and creepy crawlies. Lemon balm is supposed to repel bugs, and it seems to keep mosquitoes at bay, but certain other insects quite enjoy it.

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This green shield bug seems perfectly happy on it. The juveniles are very different from the adults, and at first sight they look like a different species to casual bug enthusiasts like myself.

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Owing to my constant nagging, my poor mum keeps part of the garden wonderfully untidy. Some of the sunflower seeds dropped by birds visiting the feeders have sprouted and grown into medium-size sunflowers in-between herbs and ornamentals. We’ll probably harvest some for seeds, but most will be left for the sparrows that have been eyeing them for some time, like us waiting for the seeds to ripen.

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With blackberries all gone now, another dark fruit catches the eye in the hedges. It’s the sloes, which will provide a feast for thrushes arriving for winter.

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And something besides rosehips is ripening on the dog roses. It’s not in fact a fruit at all, but a gall formed by wasps.

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This one is made by the smooth pea gall wasp. In the shade, the galls stay green, but when exposed to sunshine, they redden, becoming more like berries in appearance. It’s the less spectacular of the galls that can be seen on roses, the others being Robin’s pin cushion and sputnik gall. The pea galls seem to be all over the place at the nature reserve in Bedfont Lakes, while Robin’s pin cushions dominated earlier in the year.

 

 

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Bedfont Lakes Ringing – June/July

It’s time for a ringing update from Bedfont Lakes Country Park. When we visited on the 25th of June, there were still no young reed warblers around, and we were getting a little worried that the birds weren’t doing so well. We did get some tits, long-tailed, blue and great. They hang out in family groups at this time and when one becomes trapped in the net, the others often try to see what’s going on and end up in the net together. We had a little flock of long-tailed tits, blue tits and chiffchaffs in a single reedbed net. Perhaps they were foraging together. Other young birds were robins, dunnocks, and blackbirds.
Here is a juvenile blackbird, not looking black at all. The tail, not visible in the picture, was also brown, so this will be a female.
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This juvenile dunnock was ready to be released after ringing, but didn’t yet realise he was free to go. Notice the dark black tips of primary coverts. On an open wing, the contrast would be even clearer, as the tips look as if dipped in thick black ink. Not all ringing groups use this characteristic in ageing dunnocks, as the most relied on book only mentions eye colour changing from dark muddy to ruby. After the first moult, the adult type primary coverts will have less striking tips – still black, but not as sharp, more like a delicate shadow outlining the feather tips.
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While checking the nets, we also look for butterflies in the park. That’s right, flying animals of any kind attract ringers’ attention! After uploading the butterfly sightings via Butterfly Conservation’s app, I forget what we’ve seen on that particular day…unless I managed to snap some photos. This female holly blue butterfly was sunning herself among the reeds, next to an empty net, so I took the time to sneak up on her.
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And now something furry and colourful, which hangs out with its siblings spending the day happily munching leaves. Sounds adorable? To me they are. But it’s best to resist the urge to pet them. They won’t like it one bit, and you may get a rash from their hairs. Buff-tip moth caterpillars on willow:
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On the 5th of July we caught some juvenile reed warblers, at last. After many weeks of only adult males flying into our nets, the females started turning up as well. There weren’t awfully many of them, but it was a relief that “our” reed warblers have successfully fledged. The one in the picture below shows a fault line across the tips of its tail feathers, caused by lack of food when the feathers were growing. We caught another one with a fault line in exactly the same place, so it must have been its sibling.
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Next is a juvenile song thrush. Adults have heart-shaped spots on their breasts, but juveniles just have speckles like this. It still has that grumpy look of chicks.
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We caught quite a few juvenile blue tits. One was remarkable for a blue spot on its head. A few adult-type feathers, but no signs of moult anywhere else on its body.
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The young blue tits were significantly less feisty than the adults we catch. I will have to pay more attention to how aggressive they are when retrapped as adults, and to new adults, not yet ringed. It would be interesting to see if having experience of being caught makes them more vicious when trapped again, or if they simply get bolder as they mature.

Chiswick Gardens

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Chiswick Gardens are the largest and most wooded park close to Chiswick High Road. According to one of the information plaques, the landscape architect responsible for the current look of the gardens took the “revolutionary approach” of making them look more natural. Hence, although there is, of course, the obligatory lawn area, Chiswick Gardens also feature interesting nooks such as the “wilderness” where brambles and wildflowers are allowed to grow. The shallow lake is home to a gaggle of Canada and some Egyptian geese, a bunch of mallards and tufted ducks, this one heron you can rely on to be there every day, and moorhens, coots and a flock of street pigeons which have cottoned on to the fact that despite “don’t feed bread to ducks” warnings, visitors still readily throw bread at the waterfowl, and that the bread sometimes lands on the ground instead.

Below is a juvenile street pigeon sunning itself by the lake. Its young age can be deduced from the still dark cere and lack of iridiscent feathers around the neck.

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Unfortunately, I do not know what fish can be found in the lake, but as for amphibians, there are likely to be smooth newts there. I found one on the street just outside the park one day in late March and released it into the lake (a good distance away from the ever-watchful heron), hoping that that was where it came from.

A pair of coots constructed a nest in the most prominent location possible – just past the park’s signature bridge. Here is the bridge…

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And here is the nest, with one parent preening, and some of the brood (the rest was swimming nearby, following the other parent who was bringing food).

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There were five or six chicks. Coots are only “loving parents” as long as there is enough food to go around. As soon as things get tough, they get increasingly annoyed by their young begging to be fed, and start pecking them. The weakest give up begging and die of starvation. It’s tough being a coot chick. My bets are on the two that chose to stick with the parent foraging for food rather than stay in the nest and wait for the meal to be delivered.

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But let’s move on to a bramble patch, which, sheltered from the wind and warmed by the sun, was filled with the buzz of hoverflies, bumblebees, and other flying insects, some of them pretending to be something they are not. Here is a common wasp, just soaking up the sun…

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And here is a Myathropa florea hoverfly, whose genus is described in Britain’s Hoverflies as “a wasp mimic, but not very convincing”. Well, it tries its best.

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The distinctive pattern on the thorax is not clear in the picture, but it is commonly likened to a skull, which gave the hoverfly the common name of dead head fly. Britain’s Hoverflies authors however are committed to improving the public image of hoverflies, and call it a “Batman marking”. Perhaps one day these unsuccessful wasp mimics will come to be known as Batman hoverflies? Spread the word and it may just happen!

Several species of butterflies fluttered about by the brambles: holly blue, speckled wood, orange-tip and comma. One very drowsy comma simply couldn’t be bothered to fly away whenever someone stopped to take a close look at it.

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Among all these colourful creatures suddenly something else caught my attention – a small black ball of fuzz with two long trailing strings. Once it settled for a spot of sunbathing, it turned out to be a green longhorn moth. Now these are impressive antennae! He must be able to catch a whiff of a female from quite a distance.

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Down by the path, herb robert was in flower. The small pink flowers are so picture-perfect they look as if they had been painted by someone, or designed in some graphic editor, but for one detail which breaks this unreal symmetry. Instead of each petal being covered by another one side only, there is one which is on top of its neighbours, and next to it, one which is overlapped on both sides.

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The ornamental shrubs and trees in Chiswick Gardens are quite attractive as well, and effortlessly fit into the landscape. For a garden-type park, this one is well-balanced with areas that look more natural, space for wildlife, ornamentals to delights the eye, a grassy area for dogs to play on and people to sunbathe. A reedbed or a mini-meadow would be great as well…but now I’m being too picky! It’s great to have a place like this so close to the high road.

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Leg of Mutton Nature Reserve, Barnes

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When talking of bird-and-other-wildlife-watching spots in Barnes, the main attraction surely is London Wetland Centre, a great place to spend a whole day. But if you’re looking for a smaller, pretty place to drop by while hiking along the Thames, Leg of Mutton fits the bill. It’s tucked away right by Thames Path, halfway between Hammersmith Bridge and Barnes Bridge. What has it got to offer? A lake with reedbeds and nesting rafts, good mix of hedgerow shrubs and trees, a heronry. There are some well-placed benches too, and on sunnier late March days it’s quite lovely with robins, great tits, wrens, chiffchaffs and blackcaps singing all day, and the first butterflies and drowsy queen bumblebees fluttering by.

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Green alkanet was one of the few wildflowers in bloom. Buff-tailed bumblebees as well as some hoverflies congregated around the precious few nectar sources. Green alkanet grows well without any care and its flowers are very attractive, so it’s confusing to me why it’s considered a weed. How exactly does a plant earn its status as a flower suitable for a garden, I wonder. Is there some informal requirement for the size of its flowers, or their density? For difficulty in maintaining it? For appearance different from the common plants one might encounter on a meadow, or, much more likely in England, on a grass verge that escaped mowing for some time?

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Below is another underdog of the flower world – the white dead-nettle. Nettle-like plant which does not sting, has whorls of flowers which look like a clearly marked tunnel entrance with a landing pad and an awning over it, and is popular with bees.

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There are more and more bees and bumblebees around, but wait, some of them look a little strange. In fact, despite their golden fur, they’re not bees at all. But they try their best to blend in. This Large Bee-fly took a short rest from feeding on nectar to warm up a little more in the sun.

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Meanwhile, the still mostly leafless trees allow a clear view of birds. On gloomy days, the reserve may appear somewhat desolate, but nothing brightens up a grey landscape like a robin.

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Long-tailed tits no longer hang out with other tits in flocks. They mostly keep together with their mate, searching for nesting material, foraging for insects and feeding on tree pollen.

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Chiffchaffs are usually a challenge to take a picture of (at least for me!), tiny as they are, sitting high among branches, as if they knew my camera would never be able to focus on them. But as this one kept hopping from one perch to another in between bursts of song, he afforded me a rather good view.

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On the river bank just outside the reserve carrior crows were overturning stones, looking for tasty invertebrates. A yellow-legged gull picked up a stick and was showed it to its mate time and again, but the other gull was not impressed. The stick-carrying gull dropped the item and picked it up again, but after a while gave up, and when the mate started the trumpet call, the stick was forgotten as the second gull joined in.

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Adjacent to the reserve is a tiny park, Small Profit Dock Gardens, a place of the closely-mowed grass plus sparse trees variety. A surprising find there was a cowslip, a gorgeous wildflower, the only one in the park. It escaped the lawnmower, sheltered under a bench, growing in between pavement slabs. A spring-time beauty rising against a grey background, with a cigarette butt behind.

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Winter Wildlife in Istanbul, Turkey

What’s there to see wildlife-wise in the dead of winter in the busy, car-crowded city of Istanbul? The streetwise, urbanised resident species, which benefit from plentiful food left on the streets for feral cats and dogs as well as pigeons and doves. The number of homeless doggies (mostly large breeds) and moggies strolling down the streets was quite remarkable. Once neutered, they are released from shelters back into the city. Packs of dogs playing by a busy road or sleeping on a roundabout, cats curled up on restaurant chairs, dog kibbles under a wall in an alley, rows of shabby cat houses in a corner of a park are all common sights.

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On the one hand, ferals put pressure on the local wildlife, but on the other, the food bonanza does not go unexploited. Hooded crows seem to quite like hanging out near the dogs.

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Based on casual obervation, hooded crows are the most common corvids in the bustling European part of Istanbul, far outnumbering jackdaws, rooks and magpies.

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Surprisingly, in some central areas it wasn’t the urban pigeons that were the most common birds to see. A smaller, daintier pigeon, the laughing dove, took the spotlight.

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These little guys are quite tame, although they don’t get as close to people as the brazen urban pigeons. With their small size, gentle nature and delicate pinkish plumage, no wonder they get so much love (in food form) from the human city residents.

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But there is even more feeding going on, far from the streets, in the middle of the Bosphorus Strait. It seems to be a popular pastime to throw bread to gulls from the ferries plying between the European and Asian side of the city.

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This photo shows the three most common species of gulls in January: black-headed, yellow-legged and common gulls. Gulls hang out by the moored ferries and follow them as they cruise, holding the passengers sitting on the outer deck in their steady gaze, measuring their worth by the presence (or absence) of treats.

 

Istanbul has its share of introduced bird species – escaped pets which managed to get established. There are the parakeets, Alexandrine and ring-necked, and common mynas. The mynas seem to have an extremely small range in the touristy part of the most busy area.

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But enough about birds, what about other animals? Well, the only non-avian vertebrate besides cats, dogs and people that I managed to encounter during my brief stay was a Caucasian squirrel in Yıldız Park, looking slightly aghast at having been spotted.

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Late Autumn Yokohama, JP

As trees started losing foliage and weather took a turn for the gloomy, my urban birding days were brightened up by Japanese white-eyes. The little birds appear in small groups, often following tits, like flashes of fresh green standing out against the naked branches of trees which close shop and go dormant early, such as this cherry. Your camouflage isn’t working, buddy!

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Brown-eared bulbuls, once done raising offspring, spend even more time quarreling with other bulbuls, chasing one another around, or screeching with raised crown feathers in an intimidating posture.

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Although it is merely a personification, the tree sparrow look-out appeared very nonplussed by the constant intrusions from the hot-tempered bulbuls.

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The local pond was being slowly re-populated by the overwintering ducks. Spot-billed ducks hang around all year, but there are usually more of them in winter. They do not confine themselves only to the pond area, but like to venture out further along a stream, or to a nearby river.

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Apart from tufties, which are wary and prefer to stay well away, the winter newcomers were mostly northern pintails, such as this fine-looking male.

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The moth and butterfly season was coming to an end, yet several species were still making the most of it, visiting both wild and planted flowers in the park. Below is a female Indian fritillary to the right of a skipper…

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…and here is a male Indian fritillary, with his fancier wing pattern.

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A box tree pyralid moth also fancied the Tagetes flowers, arriving by sunset, as soon as the butterflies had gone.

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Now, for the more plain-looking species! A grape plume moth clinging to the wall of a house, trying to blend in and not attract the attention of a flock of sparrows in a hedge just by it. It does fit the colour scheme fairly well.

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Below is a very worn-looking butterfly, a poignant sight in mid-October. It is difficult to tell what an understated beauty she used to be now that her blue scales have all rubbed off, the soft edges to her wings have frayed, and all that is left to identify her by are the pale spots on the hindwings, and a subtle hint of little “tails”. She is a short-tailed blue butterfly who has been through a lot.

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Moorhens and Rosemary Beetles at London Wetland Centre

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The captive birds at London Wetland Centre certainly envy the resident moorhens. You’ll find moorhens in the tundra area, the wooded patch, the swampy spot, completely at home next to the non-native collection species from all over the world. Every little enclosure has got its moorhen. They are even taking advantage of the feed provided for the other birds in some surprising ways…

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(Dear reader, I apologise in advance if you are eating while reading this post. The topic in the next paragraph is a little revolting.)

Here are two moorhens, a juvenile with a parent, keenly watching the emperor geese. What are they looking for? Fresh droppings. When no uhm… second-hand food was coming for a while, the moorhens even pecked the slow-digesting geese under the tail. Most geese didn’t seem to mind it, only one got angry and chased the impatient moorhens away. While it may be a good way to get a meal with little effort, it carries a high risk of getting parasites and contracting diseases from the geese. Fortunately, it’s not a very common behaviour when other sources of food are available.

Coots are known for their cantankerousness, but the related moorhens also don’t shy away from a good fight.

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The quarreling pair soon attracted an audience (of other moorhens; the ducks took no notice whatsoever).

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All nearby moorhens rushed to see what the fuss was about. Short fights broke out among the spectating birds, which apparently got too excited watching the main duel. Five minutes later the commotion died down and the moorhens calmly swam away to get back to what they had been doing before.

The South side of the Wetland Centre features some beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Although I’m not sure how much they have changed over the years, one has had a lavender patch for at least a couple years. In early October the lavender was way past its prime, yet it attracted attention with small spots of vivid colour. The rosemary beetles.

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These stunning beetles arrived in the UK about 20 years ago on garden plants imported from Southern Europe. They are considered pests, for their larvae feed on rosemary, lavender and thyme. I wonder how the lavender patch at the Wetlands is doing, and how it will fare next year. Will the resident birds be enough to keep the beetles in check and prevent too much damage to the lavender? Or will the plant suffer so much that the WWT staff will have to take action by removing the beetles manually when spotted? Spraying the garden with chemicals (hopefully) isn’t an option, considering that the residents of the bug hotels located therein would also suffer. The beetle larvae should be hatching now. Let’s see what happens.

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