Winter Bird Ringing – Bedfont Lakes and Woolley Firs

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Bird ringing in winter can be very hit or miss. Most of our “catch” are birds that come to feeders, which is mostly tits. But now even tits are hanging out with their mates in pairs rather than in mixed foraging flocks. Many resident birds have already paired up in anticipation of the breeding season. In London at least robins have been singing for a while, goldfinches would burst into song every now and then throughout winter, wrens, dunnocks, great and blue tits also began to advertise themselves to mates within the last couple weeks. The singing season seems to have started for blackbirds on the 17th of February, and I heard the first greenfinch song on the 18th.

Among the winter regulars in our mist nets at Bedfont are ring-necked parakeets, attracted by the feeders. As I think I have mentioned in an earlier post, not all ringing groups would put rings on them, as they are an invasive species. Our policy is that it does no harm to collect information on them as on any other bird species. They are still relatively new in this country, and while they certainly do cause some problems by displacing other hole-nesting birds, scaring off other birds from feeding sites, etc. the local predators are catching on to this new, brightly-coloured and conspicuously loud prey, and personally I’m hopeful that eventually some sort of balance will be achieved. I do have faith in the peregrines, hobbies and tawny owls!

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In the picture above we have an adult male (aged as 3 years old or older), with the fine blue and pink ring on his neck, and a female (2 years old or older). The male was fairly small, his bill so much finer than the female’s. They were likely birds of different races – the population of parakeets in Greater London is not homogeneous, as escaped or intentionally released pets joined the original flock.

We catch greater spotted woodpeckers more often in winter than in summer, again thanks to the feeders. Below is a picture of a male hatched last year – retained brown juvenile feathers contrast with black adult-type feathers. If you don’t see birds in the hand very often, the difference in colour may not seem very striking, but after years of looking for the most subtle difference in feather colouration on less easy to age birds, beginning to doubt whether your eyesight really is good enough for you to be a ringer, this looks extremely clear – and what a relief that is!

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A pleasant surprise was a magpie which was confused by the net long enough for us to extract it before it freed itself. These big birds don’t get entangled and are able to wiggle their way out of the nets, if they don’t bounce right out when they fly into them.

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Having good memory, this magpie will remember us and probably hold a grudge for the rest of its life. It was a young bird, hatched last year. Magpies can easily be aged based on the extent of white on the first and second primary feathers – more white on the adult birds.

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A great tit we recently retrapped was an unusual-looking bird. His body feathers were heavily worn, and broken, so much that there was no yellow on his belly at all! As such, we couldn’t sex him based on the extent of the “black belt” on the belly, but with wing length of 80 we can be quite sure it was a male (and we can check the records for this bird to confirm). He must have had a very rough year indeed, and suffer from cold due to insufficient insulation. Luckily for him this winter has been quite mild so far! He was ringed on our site six years ago, so he’s three years above the average lifespan for his species. He just needs to hold out a few more months with his shoddy feathers before he can moult them and, if his diet is good at the time, enjoy a fine new coat!

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I have started going out with another ringing group (part of the larger group to which Bedfont ringers belong as well), whose winter site is Woolley Firs. The woodland site by bird feeders there is also a hit with mostly tits. But there is a species of tit we do not get at Bedfont due to the lack of conifers – the coal tit. The coal tit is smaller than a great tit, and decidedly less feisty. It’s not a rule that smaller birds are less aggressive – case in point the blue tit, which is the same size but will do all it can to inflict pain to you, even though you’re a giant scary thing to it!

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We also got a sparrowhawk at Woolley Firs. It was a male hatched last year, based on the overall brown colour of the bird, with chestnut-edged body feathers. He was very calm throughout his ringing experience, and didn’t screech when held at all. My experience with sparrowhawks is limited as they’re not caught often, but so far it was only the bigger females which would fiercely screech and struggle, while males just seemed to wait until it was over.

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A Trip to Seattle

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The photo above is from Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, a not too long drive from Seattle. While I usually stay in urban areas and focus on wildlife found therein, or within easy reach by public transport, I made an exception on this occasion. In this region of the States at least travel by rail is not viable, everyone seems to own a car, and dramatic landscapes abound not too far away from the cities. Living in London, I’m used to tiny wildlife reserves—little pockets of wetlands or groves, oftentimes surrounded by industrial or urban landscape, where birdsong vies with the noise of aeroplanes in the background, and you have to take extra care when taking photos of the “natural habitat” so as not to include power lines, pylons, or other such non-appealing features. Every now and then a major newspaper features (online) photos of deer in London, which at first glance seem to have been taken in some magnificent forest, but then you look at the description and are surprised to read it’s good old Richmond Park, criss-crossed by roads, largely deforested, often full of people. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it makes me sad that the majestic location suggested by the picture does not really exist, that it’s only a pretty fragment of a less impressive place, which is not an accurate representation of the whole. But on the other, it reminds me that even an under-appreciated park smack in the middle of a busy city may be wild and magical if we are willing to look at it from a different angle. But I digress. The point is, the national parks and reserves around Seattle are vast and breathtaking, and even the smaller ones retain more of a wild feel. Such as Point Defiance Park in Tacoma…

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The trees are snugly wrapped in lush coats of mosses. There are dozens upon dozens of fascinating fungi everywhere you look, ferns growing with exuberance add a darker shade to the vibrant green of the forest—green even in the midst of winter! It is a place from the pages of a fairy-tale, tucked away in a corner of a city. On the sides of roads going through this park one can see raccoons who come out in hopes of getting some food from joggers or even from people in passing cars.

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If a car stops, the bold critters come up close, but don’t stick around once they realise you don’t have treats for them.

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And now on to another mammal: black-tailed deer grazing in their natural habitat…

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…by a petrol station.

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As concerns birds, there are plenty of sea birds in the scores of bays around Seattle, waders in a nearby wetland reserve, lots of fascinating species in the mountains and forests. The birds which most appeal to me, though, are the ones which let you observe them at a short distance. I deeply regret not having taken any pictures of the skulking, unassuming song sparrows, which in their behaviour remind me of the European dunnocks. However, here are some common “customers” of feeders.

Dark-eyed juncos queue up for feeders, although often lose their patience and try to displace the birds currently feeding.

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Chestnut-backed chickadees have a short temper and chase off other chickadees from suet feeders. On sunflower seed feeders, they quickly grab a seed and fly off to consume it on a branch.

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Red-breasted nuthatches don’t faff around. They fly fast like a bullet to the seed feeders, grab a seed in one quick motion and off they go to stash it or eat elsewhere, so it’s not easy to get a good shot of them.

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Red-shafted flickers on the other hand, like woodpeckers in other parts of the world, have a real sense of royal presence at the feeders, and unless startled by humans, will generally stick around until they’ve had their fill. Even other similar-sized cantankerous birds such as Steller’s jays don’t faze them very much.

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Other feeder visitors included spotted towhees, downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees and Douglas squirrels.

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The pudgy appearance of these small squirrels belies their agility. They make charming chirping noises that sound very bird-like. Eastern grey squirrels would occasionally come too, but being non-native they are not so welcome at the feeders.

On this short trip I focused on birds and mammals, and managed to see almost seventy species of the former around Seattle and Tacoma. But winters are mild here, so there were still many interesting insects around, and the waters abound in fish, crustaceans, echinoderms and molluscs. The water quality appears to be very good, and there are piers for recreational fishing every here and there. There is however, in my opinion, a paucity of pigeons! There were some feral pigeons, naturally, but that was it. Band-tailed pigeons are rarely seen at this time of year, as they migrate south in winter. It was the wrong season for me to visit…

 

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.

 

 

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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