Monday 21 February 2011

Crane migration!

Two flights of cranes just came overhead along the Aigronne valley, heading east and gruuuing like champions. About 300 altogether. Sorry no pix! Weather mild (10C), overcast with showers, very light winds S/SW/W less than 3kph.

4:15 Second flight just passed over this time heading ENE, about the same number. Got some pix this time....
but light very poor [it was about to pour!] so silhouettes only...

Just 177 of them... using long lens...wrong lens [couldn't get them all in!!]
The lead group almost overhead.

Continuing to hear more cranes, not within sight.

This is the earliest sighting yet for La Forge. Our previous records are:
Clear sunny day, warm wind w/sw moderate. Large flock gathering over Etableau and flew off NE in 3 large skeins upward of 200 birds. Followed by second group. Noise incredible!
Cranes flying ENE 5:45 pm approx 60 common cranes after rainy day quite mild, wind almost due west, quite strong.
2 flights of cranes flying ENE - one over Grandmont 4pmish of around 100-150 and one over Bezuard at 18:06 of 150 - 200. The ones over Grandmont circled gaining height for about 4 minutes.
(04/03/2010 Alex Crawford reported a huge flight low over Les Limornières at 9 that morning)

Four...directly overhead!

Friday 18 February 2011

Sparrowhawk among the bluetits

This morning a commotion among the small birds using our feeders alerted us to the presence of a raptor. It was a juvenile Sparrowhawk [accipiter nisus] épervier d'europe, all baggy streaked feathers with white patches on his back, wings and head. He swept across the meadow, missing his target completely, then perched for a few minutes on a post near the young willows, to stare imperiously around him for a more likely prey item. He posed nicely for photographs taken through the eyepiece of Tim's telescope. After a short interlude the small birds gradually returned to the feeders, the acrobatic siskins probing urgently for chips of peanut. Then there was mass panic all over again and the sparrowhawk swept into the cherry tree right outside the window. Missed again! He retreated to the post for a thorough preen, continuing to stare around him from time to time.

Juvenile Sparrowhawk [it was misty!]

What is noticeable is that BWPi [Birds of the Western Palearctic interactive] and Collins latest guide both show NO white patches in their illustrations of juveniles.... however, the videos on BWPi do show clearly visible white patches. Is this a case of drawing from preserved skins, all nicely groomed, or the same mistakes carried on blithley because "if it was drawn so originally, it must be right!"
Ted Ellis [a famous Norfolk naturalist] used to despair of tidying by artists.... his usual example was the holes round the edges of the older leaves of Butterbur [Petasites hybridus]. Never shown, but always there, caused by the Strawberry Snail [Trichia striolata].... and always edited out in the drawings.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Finches all over

Last weekend, the field opposite on the other side of the river from us was ploughed. Since then, the number of finches using our feeders has increased dramatically, probably because the sunflower seeds they were gleaning from the field have now gone. Until now, the main customers were the blue tits and great tits, with occasional visits from single or pairs of finches, picking up fallen seed from the top of the concrete cistern below the feeders. Now we are seeing
- up to 10 goldfinches (carduelis carduelis), chardonnerets élégants
- a pair of greenfinches (carduelis chloris), verdiers d'europe
- four or more siskins (carduelis spinus) tarins des aulnes and
- at least two more female chaffinches ( fringilla coelebs) pinsons des arbres.

A group of ground feeders... from left: Goldfinch, Blue-tit, Siskin, Goldfinch, Siskin, Goldfinch.
Four of each...Siskin & Goldfinch. Siskin on left is a female.

The goldfinches are nowhere near as agile as the tits, but can crush a sunflower seed and extract the kernel in an instant, whereas a tit has to carry the seed away in its beak, fly up to a branch, wedge the seed with its foot and hammer like billy-ho until it pierces or splits the husk. One of the flock seems to be the boss, and perches on the feeder puffing out his feathers and fluttering his wings if another bird approaches. We have dubbed him "Mr Creosote" after the Monty Python character who explodes from over-eating. The markings on the chest of a goldfinch are reminiscent of a soiled waistcoat, and this bird is distinctly portly.

The one called Mr. Creosote!

Their smaller cousins the siskins are almost as skillful as the tits at all the feeders. I watched one this morning break up a peanut and extract it in mouthfuls, having previously investigated the fat block thoroughly while upside down.
Their name in French reminds us that they feed principally on the seeds and pollen of alders, and there are plenty of those around. They are only with us in winter, and will soon be back on their way north-east.

Siskin [male] using the fat-block... normal way up!

A flock of long-tailed tits (aegithalos caudatus) mesanges à longue queue also passed through today, for the first time in a while.

The only Long-tailed tit willing to pose... fleetingly... for a picture... next frame was blank! Just the branch...

Having remarked on the shortage of sparrows ( passer domesticus) moineaux domestiques we are now seeing them in the hedge and out in the meadow under the feeder there. In that area, we are now down to five female pheasants and a sad scattering of feathers (possibly a fox got one). The male is now referred to as Jeremy, because of the red face, bushy eyebrows and large personality.

Friday 4 February 2011

Of "Ratty" and Rats and Ragondin

We are both currently in the grip of a bad cold... that has meant that we aren't doing much.... except watching out of the window and keeping ourselves warm.
I was observing the meadow and bief [millstream] this morning keeping an eye out for the pheasants, the water rail and the dabchicks. The latter haven't passed our way since the heavy rain of the end of January... the bief changed into weak, milky tea and we presume that the dabchicks have moved elsewhere to cleaner water, where they can see the fish they are after! The rail is still with us... water quality doesn't affect his probing and leaf-flipping feeding methods... just before the weekend I saw him get quite a large larva [possibly dragonfly or water-beetle], wash it in the murky water and bash it on a stone, then swallowing it whole... that was caught by the probing method!
And yesterday, in the current gloom, I managed to get some pictures of "the ladies" cleaning up under the feeder.... but, until they're worked up [and I need a clear head to do that], none good enough to post!
But, what has this to do with "Ratty", Rats and Ragondin.... I search for the water rail by looking for ripples coming out from the bank... they are small and vanish quickly and easily told from the moorhens' frantic splashings.
And I spotted some, just opposite the window, where I'd seen the rail appear before.... binos to that point and.... fur and short legs... and out from cover came "Ratty" our water-vole [arvicola amphibius] Campagnol amphibie and cruised stately across towards our bank of the bief [this was at 11AM].... I'd seen him yesterday, earlier, and had presumed that he'd been partying at at Toad Hall... all the books put them as nocturnal....
Water-vole. Taken by Nick Ford at Castle Acre, Norfolk at 8:35 am.

but as this picture [again one of my brother's and taken later than the above at ten to ten.... very useful is my bruvver!] shows.... they are out in the daytime too! So for "nocturnal"... please read "mainly".... I've seen them at midday, in high summer, full sun on a Norfolk stream. Actually the French guide (2) says they are both.... ie: out when you see them out!!

Water-vole. This is my shot of our vole.... not in the same class [picture that is!]

The three aquatic rodents we've got here are this little fellow [maximum head and body length 220mm], the Muskrat [Ondatra zibethicus] Rat Musqué [Head and body length from 240 to 370mm] and the Coypu [Myocastor coypus] Ragondin with a minimum head and body length of around 340mm]... so there is some overlap in size.... you cannot mistake the Coypu out of water... the long thick tail and the humped appearance.... along with the droopy, white moustache. But in water? Well, from observations here, they don't seem to like getting the moustache wet... they hold all of their head upward, out of the water, that makes their back sink more than the Muskrat with a gap 'twixt head and hump... also, contrary to illustrations in Collins(1) and the Delachaux et Niestlé (2) guides, they've got a distinctly buff-cream appearance around the ears.

Coypu. The cream round the ears can be seen here... but the white nose and moustache are very clear.

The Muskrat swims higher in the water and the long, wedge shaped head, almost vertical from the nose to the upper lip give it the appearance of a small tugboat chugging through the water. It leaves quite a narrow, clean wake too. There is a rich cream colour to the cheeks of the 'Musky'... again, in real life, much brighter than illustrated... and it is a BIG panel of colour running from the nose to the ears... and fully as deep as it is long. And, if you see it swimming away from you, the vertically flattened tail is a clear indicator!

Muskrat picture[it's on the system somewhere... please call back!]

Finally 'Ratty'... very obviously a vole.... same shape nearly, front and back, and the tail can only be seen in clear water. It seems to bob along on the water surface!

Water-vole. From directly above by our bridge.

Water-vole. And swimming away... beautifully hidden by the iris leaf!

But there are also European Beavers [Castor fiber] Castor d'Eurasie nearby... in the centre of Grand-Pressigny to be precise [they felled a riverside tree last year, and a couple of months ago did the same to a neighbouring tree!] As where this occured is right by where the Aigronne joins the Claise.... will they venture up the Aigronne.......?

Beaver evidence. This is last year's tree.... this years has fallen across this [right to left]
This years felled tree shows some bark removal and there is a possible entry/exit point on the bank nearby.

(1) Collins Field Guide Mammals Britain and Europe [1993]
(2) Les Guides du Naturaliste - Guide des mammifères d'Europe, d'Afrique du Nord et du Moyen-Orient [2008/2010]

Tuesday 1 February 2011

He's a pheasant plucker's son

When Tim was just a lad, his uncle John, who was a vicar in Swaffham, Norfolk, used pass on a brace of pheasants every Christmas. Tim's mother used to sit in the bath (fully dressed) to pluck the pheasants, and her sons used to help. He mentioned this while we were observing two groups of three handsome pheasants (fasianus colchicus) faisan de colchide  patrolling our meadow. Three males, one with whitish patches on his wings, and three females were highly visible, looking as exotic as their origin in south-east asia would imply. Pheasants were introduced to Europe by the Roman period and are prized as gamebirds. At the time we were watching, it was early evening in the school disco, with the girls dancing round their handbags and the boys at the side nearest the bar eyeing them up.

One morning last week Tim spotted a huddled form in the orchard, just after Bagger's first morning patrol. He went out to find the white-winged male pheasant, recently deceased, with wounds to the throat. Circumstancial evidence points to the aggressor! However that was dinner sorted out. The pheasant spent a night hanging in the cave, ready for plucking. None of our pheasants have rings, so we can't tell whether they belong to someone, unlike the partridges.

When Tim plucked the bird, he tried to pull too many feathers at once and tore the skin, so he skinned it completely and found a shotgun pellet in a recent small wound on its lower neck. From its location in the verger and the trail of feathers indicating that it had been dragged, he thinks that it must have been shot and wounded, and flew into the verger to meet its nemesis in the form of our black tom cat.

Now there is only one male pheasant in the meadow, and six females. He is going crazy with frustration, having no rivals, and he is chasing the girls all over the place, but they are still not interested in him yet. He is large and handsome in a florid sort of way (captain of the first 15) with bushy eyebrows and a wide white neck ring. The girls come in shades of grey-brown or rusty-brown, with pointy tails and without the eyebrows. At the moment they run away from him, but not so fast that he will give up entirely.

We haven't got any recent photos of pheasants.... especially the current ones... but here is a picture from Tim's brother's flickr site. His website can be found here.... - Photography by Nick Ford
Pheasants fighting... these have the white wing coverts. [This picture appeared on BBC's Autumnwatch]