Category Archives: Nature

January in Aberdovey

Wednesday last week was one of those rare but gorgeous January days that provides a welcome reminder that spring lies ahead.  Almost too good to be true. The tide was on its way out, always a beautiful sight as dips in the sand fill with still water reflecting the blue sky, and the millions of deeply scored fractal patterns in the sand are revealed, with the contrast of the dark shadows and bright surfaces always a sensational feature of the low winter sun.  Apart from a few dog walkers the beach was almost empty, sensible people remaining in the warm.

My garden continues to be a source of wildlife activity, all the local species filling up on solid carbohydrates to see them through the bitterly cold nights.

The goldfinches, which turned up in my absence over Christmas, are now a daily presence, between two or seven of them at a time, four on the nyjer feeder with the others bouncing up and down in frustration in the tree. When they first arrived I was very taken by their beautifully minimalist movements and intricate eating habits, but when there are more than four trying to get onto the feeder at a time there can be real jockeying for position in a great thrashing of brightly coloured feathers, with some of the angelic looking little things chasing off others quite ruthlessly.  A gaggle of goldfinches is called a “charm.”

Since I moved here in August, all the feeders have been popular, but in the last month the mixed seed feeder has been completely rejected, no matter where I hang it.  Instead, most activity is concentrated on the fat ball, mealworm and peanut feeders.  Do note that I put a soundtrack on the following video, just to get used to the software that I am using, but it is a really lovely piece of Bach, so hopefully not too intrusive.

 

 

The RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch 2019 – Coming this month to a garden near you

Thrush, November 2018

My RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch pack turned up today.  Lots of helpful material, including a handy bird counting sheet, and some useful suggestions for attracting birds to your garden and encouraging them to stay.

BirdWatch itself is such a great idea. You choose an hour, at any time of the day on one day between 26th and 28th January and write the highest number of each bird species that you see at any one time.  The example given is “if you see a group of eight starlings together, and towards the end of the hour you see six together, please write down eight as your final count.”  This is because the second bunch may be the same individuals as the first bunch, back for another visit.  The purpose is to count individual birds, not individual visits.  Even if someone participating in the survey sees nothing in the hour, it’s still useful information for the RSPB.

Blue tits at the water bath, November 2018

As BirdWatch has been going for 40 years (this is their anniversary year) some interesting statistics have emerged.  Examples are that sightings of song thrushes have dropped by 75% since the first BirdWatch, starlings by 79% and house sparrows by 57%.  There were some rises too, such as a 52% increase in long-tailed tits.  One of the interesting findings is siskin and brambling numbers were up in 2018.  I hadn’t heard of either, but both are winter visitors, and the RSPB site says that their numbers are higher in years when conditions here are more favourable in the UK than on the Continent.  I suppose that global warming will result in even more visitors of this sort.  Blackbirds were in 93% of gardens and robins in 83%.  Figures like this allow ornithologists to get a much better idea of what is happening to bird communities across the country.  As the survey is postcode sensitive, regional patterns can be determined.

Slow worm, May 2010

The survey is not confined to birds, although this is the primary purpose.  There is also a section on the form that looks at how often garden owners are visited by other wildlife – daily, weekly, monthly, less than monthly, never or don’t know.  It’s a fascinating selection, everything from what I think of as fairly common species like grey squirrels, badgers, foxes and frogs to animals that I have rarely seen like red squirrels and muntjacs.  Mind, I thought that pheasants were exotic until I moved here, and now I’m literally falling over them every time I leave the house.

Robin, August 2018

All the photos on this post were taken in my garden at Aberdovey, and are just a sample of the avian life that regularly visits, one of the real joys of living here.

The survey can be returned by post or completed online, and must be submitted no later than 12th February by post or 17th February online.  The survey results are published in April, and it will be fascinating to see what the results are.  The results of the 2018 survey, consisting of  420,489 collated responses, are posted here on the RSPB website.  The main findings are shown below, but you can also see the findings by country, and see an Excel spreadsheet of the detailed survey results.

RSPB results 2018

The 2018 general wildlife findings were also interesting.  The survey results indicated that although frogs were seen in more than three-quarters of UK gardens, that’s 17% fewer regular sightings than in 2014, whilst toads have been seen in just 20% of gardens at least once a month, which is 30% down on four years ago.  At the same time, sightings of hedgehogs have increased and were seen in 65% of gardens during 2018, with foxes reaching 72%.  I saw foxes all the time when I lived on the edge of a park in Rotherhithe (London), but I cannot recall ever seeing one here, although there must be plenty around.

Avian visitors to my garden

The minor miracle of a mermaid’s purse – and The Shark Trust

When I first moved to Aberdovey I bought myself two books about what sort of things I could expect to find on the strandline of the beach.  My previous strandline discoveries have been posted here and here.  My books almost promised me that I would find mermaid’s purse of some description on the strandline, but until yesterday I hadn’t seen one.  Yesterday, attached to a bit of bladder wrack seaweed, not far from a nice example of an Echinocardium cordatum (see the end of the post) I found a battered but fairly in tact example of a mermaid’s purse or, more mundanely but more accurately, an eggcase, which turns out to be one of nature’s minor miracles:

An eggcase is the product of fish of the elasmobranch species – shark, ray and skate, which instead of having bony frames have skeletons made of flexible cartilage, and many lay eggs in pouches or eggcases.  The eggcases are made of collagen, a resilient protein found in vertebrate animal tissues. Some have curly tendrils at one end to attach them to the seabed and seaweeds.  Within the eggcase is a yolk that provides nutrition for the embryo.  As it grows, the embryo wriggles and this pushes stale water out of the hollow horns of the eggcase and pumps in fresh oxygenated water.  When the embryo has reached full size, it swims out of the eggcase, abandoning the empty pouch, a perfectly formed miniature version of its adult parent.

Skate Lifecycle.  Source:  The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

In the example that I found, the seaweed to which it was attached had worked its way free and washed up on the strandline, with the eggcase firmly attached.  It took me a few moments to unravel it.   When they are washed up on the shore, they lose their flexibility, shrivel and become hard, but not brittle, and they can survive for many years.

I brought the eggcase home and dried it out on a piece of kitchen roll on the radiator before looking it up. This was the wrong thing to do.  According to one of my books (the absolutely excellent The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher), what I should have done is soak it in water to rehydrate it so that I could compare it with photographs on the eggcase identification page on fabulous The Shark Trust website, where you can also record your finding.  The Shark Trust has an ongoing Great Eggcase Hunt, which began in 2003, and has now logged over 100,000 eggcases on British shores.  It has identified ten species of skate and three species of shark, and is beginning to get an idea of where favoured egg laying places are located.

Eggshell morphology. Source:  The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

So it was back to the drawing board, by which I mean a saucepan of water.   After the eggcase had soaked overnight I had another poke at, prior to any attempt at identification, and it was just as solid as it had been when it went into the saucepan.  I assume that baking it on the radiator had rendered it immutable.  Checking the solid item against various photographs in books and on The Shark Trust website it was immediately clear that eggcases are either black or a translucent pale gold, information that appeared to narrow things down significantly. Although mine is light in colour, big patches of black suggest that it was originally black all over.  The shape is clearly either Nursehound (or Bull Huss) or Smallspotted catshark, but the smallspotted catshark eggshells are translucent and golden and only reach a maximum of 7cm in length, and mine is 12cm, not counting the tendrils, and 4.5cm wide at its widest.  So even though the colour is debatable, I concluded that mine was probably a Nursehound/huss, which is a common specie in this area (and I bought quite a lot of huss from Dai’s Shed during the summer) but I’ve submitted my guess with photographs so that The Shark Trust people can make their own judgement.

Nursehound eggcase. Source: The Great Eggcase Hunt, The Shark Trust (https://www.sharktrust.org/shared/downloads/projects/great_eggcase_hunt_report_2017.pdf)

Another nice find was an Echinocardium cordatum.  They are not uncommon on the Aberdovey beach, which astounds me as they are so fragile that you are in danger of them shattering as soon as you pick one up.  Also known as sea potato and heart urchin, they are covered with spines that, unlike the more familiar sea urchins, lie flat against their shells (“tests”) and look a bit like an animal pelt.  Also unlike sea urchins, they live burrowed under the sand of the seabed.

Goldfinches for the New Year

Goldfinches on the nyjer bird feeder

Aberdovey’s Housebird Central has been a busy place in the New Year. I returned from Christmas in Chester to an absolute hive of avian activity. As well as the usual array of blue tits, coal tits, sparrows, the noisy pheasants, and a new small LBJ (Little Brown Job) that needed identification (a very pretty dunnock), a new community of birds had found the nyjer/niger (Guizotia abyssinica) seeds. I had been about to take the bird feeder down, because it really is the ugliest bird feeder of all time and was always ignored by every bird that visited the garden in favour of the mixed seed, mealworm and peanut feeders.  The chaffinches and bullfinches that it was supposed to attract duly arrived but have been feeding happily on the mixed seed feeder.   It has, however, been transformed by a small army of goldfinches from an eyesore into a thing of wonder.  It’s difficult to count how many goldfinches there are, because there are so many, but there are never more than four on the feeder at a time, and that means that there is the occasional mad and multicoloured flurry of feathers as new arrivals displace incumbents. Unlike the blue tits, which are endlessly shifting gymnasts, the goldfinches fix themselves in one position and eat with small, minimalist movements, staying in one place for as long as they remain undisturbed. With beautiful red, yellow, black and white plumage they are remarkably exotic on a chilly grey January morning. Many goldfinch communities migrate as far south as Spain in the winter, so I am lucky that members of this particular colony have remained to face a Welsh winter.

The blue tits and coal tits are as enchanting as usual, and are having a major peanut fest at the moment:

Don’t forget that the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch is taking place between 26th and 28th January this year (2019), now in its 40th year. You can find out more on the RSPB website here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/everything-you-need-to-know-about-big-garden-birdwatch/

Pheasant at the bird bath

Mid afternoon over the Dyfi estuary towards Ceredigion in early winter

I took these yesterday afternoon (12th November), but have only just got around to taking them off the camera.  Nothing special, just snapshots of remarkable light as the sun begins to go down – slowly, over a two hour period, and so early at this time of year.

 

 

Cyanistes caeruleus chaos at the bird feeders

That’s blue tits to most of us.  After a visit to the dentist in Machynlleth today for two fillings (with thanks to Tim Moody and nurse Sarah at Llys Einion Dental Surgery for overcoming the worst of my terrors), what I really needed to lift my spirits was the crazy antics of the blue tits on the bird feeders.  In the tree any attempt to track their constant comings and goings on the seed feeder, swapping of positions and astounding acrobatics is absolutely eye-watering.  It’s like a fractal in motion, pure chaos theory.  My dentist was talking about the failure of physics to align General Relativity with the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics.  Perhaps the answer lies in the insanely complex interactions and dizzying gymnastics  of the blue tits in my garden.

The blue tits have recently become very confident on the fat ball and mealworm bird feeders on the decking by my kitchen door.  They were put there for the robin and a couple of sparrows, but the blue tits in particular have become addicts in recent weeks, and watching their antics so closely is remarkable, a sort of pared-down version of their performance in the cherry tree, as the following short video demonstrates:

When the blue tits are on the decking, the sparrows that are there much of the time are undeterred, but the robin takes off as soon as the lively gymnasts arrive.  Everything, however,  vanishes when the doves or pheasants arrive.  In the bird world, size matters.

In his book How to be a bad birdwatcher Simon Barnes talks about the hierarchy of tits on bird feeders:  “as you watch, you will notice that the big chaps can chase off the little chaps whenever they want to.  If a blue tit wants a peanut, it has to wait for a great-tit-free minute, and then fly in and be quick and skilful.  And by good fortune, or good evolution, quick and skilful is exactly what blue tits are.”  That interplay between the tits is observable every day.  The great tits take precedence over the blue tits and the blue tits take precedence over the coal tits.  But the blue tits seem to win by sheer force of numbers.  There are so many of them!   Barnes points out that this highly competitive behaviour is restricted to the bird feeder – such competition does not take place elsewhere in their lives because in nature each has its own preferred niche, away from these challengers.  I particularly love the symbiosis between those in the tree and those on the ground.  As the tits chuck half of their food on the floor in amongst the roses, the pheasants and doves form a collection posse, scooping up all the rejects.  Everyone wins.

The bird seed in the tree was empty and had to be refilled on my return.  I will be in serious trouble with Housebird Central if I let my standards slip in this shocking way!

Two new visitors to the garden

Last week I noticed a splash of colour in motion out of the corner of my eye, a dash of dusky red on the bird feeder in the cherry tree.  It turned out to be a male chaffinch.  In spite of trying to attract them with a special feeder stuffed with nyger seeds, it is the blue tits who have used that feeder, and the chaffinch was on the all-purpose feeder.  He have visited a couple of times since, but unlike the blue tits, which form a semi-permanent cloud of activity, he’s only an occasional visitor to the tree, although he may well be hoovering up fallen seeds on the floor, which the pheasants and the doves also eat.  The tits, particularly the great tits and coal tits, are really messy eaters, and throw seeds everywhere, so there is always plenty on the ground.

 

Another new visitor is a female blackbird.  She hops around the decking, and when the tits are on the decking at the same time, as shown in this video below, she looks absolutely huge!   She is a very occasional visitor, but when she arrives she is like a cat amongst pigeons. The blue tits are completely put out by her presence and don’t quite know what to do about her.  The robin puts in a brief appearance, but takes off as usual when the blue tits arrive in force.  The video was taken through the glass of the window, so it’s a tad murky, but still fun.