Eurasian Siskin – April

©Nick Sidle – Full Screen Image

Eurasian Siskin driving off a larger European Greenfinch which had pushed it aside on an approach perch to a feeding site. Siskins don’t like queue jumpers. Yesterday was significantly colder than the normal for late April with snow lying on the ground overnight. As a result smaller birds in particular were desperate for food, that does not excuse abandoning all manners though. There is of course always pressure for resources between small birds and competition is often fierce but some recognition of who got there first can still apply. On a purely anecdotal basis from my own time spent watching them there does actually appear to be some difference in this between species. Greenfinches seem particularly ready to push any other bird aside and, although far from guaranteed, Siskins do seem to be the most ready to wait a turn especially with other Siskins. They also genuinely seem the most put out if they are queue jumped and react most strongly to it, even if the usurper is much bigger than they are. Perhaps there is a study waiting to be done; ‘Manners in foraging birds, a differentiation of etiquette between species’.

Nick

Glen Convinth,
Inverness-shire,
Highland Scotland

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Glen Convinth

Eurasian Siskin – Carduelis spinus

European Greenfinch – Carduelis carduelis

Capercaillie – April

©Nick Sidle – Full Screen Image

The Capercaillie is a very large Grouse like bird long associated with the native woodlands of Scotland. Over hunting and habitat loss meant it ceased to be found in the country by the late 1700’s but later reintroductions from Sweden have meant that it is once again part of the wild backdrop to the Scottish landscape.

The name Capercaillie appears with various spellings but all seem to stem from the Gaelic, although there is more than one possible root there as well. The most widely quoted is Capall coille meaning Horse of the Woods, believed to refer to the sheer size of the bird and the calls of the male in spring which, with a little imagination, could be said to sound like a horse, and a phrase in its more routine song, which can be described as ‘tik-up’, resembling the sound of a horse’s hooves. An alternative Gaelic base is Gabhar-coille, The Goat of the Wood, possibly coming from the male’s goat-like beard and, especially this time of the year, belligerence. Males display and compete ferociously with each other for females but have been known to show aggression to people and even vehicles that stray into what they see as their part of the forest in spring.

Capercaillie are declining in numbers again and great efforts are being made to keep them as part of the Scottish wild forest. This one is in part of the Cairngorms National Park, which put it in the traditional lands of the Macpherson clan but all the great Scottish families would have been familiar with this majestic bird in their ancestral homelands in past centuries.

Gallery – Scotland’s Clans and Families

Gallery – Clan Macpherson

Gallery – Cairngorms National Park

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Nick

Western Capercaillie – Tetrao urogallus

A Rare Visitor

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Full Screen Image – Hawfinch, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The Hawfinch is the largest of the finches found in Scotland and the rest of Britain. Size though does not mean that it is seen very often, a combination of being rare, unfortunately in significant decline and having a rather shy temperament which has even been described as ‘self-effacing’, all mean that glimpses of them are few and far between and I was very lucky to see this one in an area of Highland Scotland where they are almost never recorded, the last sighting was in 2010 and that was tens of miles South on the other side of Loch Ness. There are local small breeding populations known much further South in Scotland at Scone Palace near Perth.

This individual is almost certainly a migrant on the move and there have been several sightings of these last week in Scotland, including on the islands, but none on the mainland in this region till now. The Gaelic name for the Hawfinch is the Gobach which translates as ‘Beaky’ which, although not exactly romantic or poetic, is highly appropriate not just because the Hawfinch beak is as large as it is but also because studies have shown it can exert huge pressures in excess of 95 lbs (48 kg) in order to crack things like cherry stones which it feeds on. In Yorkshire, the bird is actually known as the Cherry Finch because of its fondness for the fruit but further South in Europe it is also known for its selection of Olives, the stones of which require over 160 lbs pressure to break them as fast as the Hawfinch is on record as doing with apparent ease. Yes, the muscles for the beak are very well developed. Put simply, the Hawfinch can deliver a crushing pressure with its beak well over 1000 times its own weight. If human beings could do that, we would be looking at forces measured in tens of tons. The noise of the stones breaking can sometimes be the way of finding Hawfinches when they are feeding but it was not the case for my encounter. Cherries are a bit thin on the ground here and olives – don’t even ask. I was just lucky enough to see a bird that was not one of the usual I see and then, after a moment’s doubt, realise what I had found.

Thanks to Susan Haysom at Scottish Natural Heritage and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) for their information on the status of the Hawfinch and recorded sightings.

If anyone else is fortunate enough to spot a Hawfinch in North Scotland the BTO would be very interested to have the records and these can be reported through their website

British Trust for Ornithology

Nick

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Glen Convinth

 

Hawfinch – Coccothraustes coccothraustes

Wishing you a very merry and fade free Christmas

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Full Screen Image – European Robin, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

The question where do birds’ feathers get their colours is not an entirely simple one but we are now one step closer to understanding some of the mechanisms involved. A study based in Sheffield and published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’ shows that for some birds, including the Robin, their colours are not the results of pigments that could fade but are the product of the actual structure of the feathers. We are though looking at very small structures, they needed the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble to do the research and that just happens to be one of the most powerful microscopes ever built, a very large step up from your basic table top model.

Spatially modulated structural colour in bird feathers

A significant part of the work was based on looking at the Eurasian Jay, known for its varied plumage including a brilliant blue, and found that variations in the feathers at a nano structural level determined the reflection of light and so the colours that we see.

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Jay ©Nick Sidle

Science is using technologies like the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility to look at a number of questions that have evaded a complete answer till now, including the issue of how Geckos can manage to run up vertical surfaces and across ceilings and then how these biological marvels can be adapted to use in human engineering. The whole field is has been called biomimetics and could, in the future, lead to some incredible breakthroughs and not just fade free colours. Till more is known though, please don’t try this at home or anywhere else for that matter. Geckos can do it, people can’t, now and at least for the foreseeable future.

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Full Screen Image – Yellow-bellied House Gecko, Thanjavur, South India ©Nick Sidle (Later to become the inspiration for the ‘Hotel Room Lizard’ in the second book of ‘The Heartstone Odyssey’ trilogy)

Nick

Gallery – Scotland’s Birds

Gallery – Tamil Nadu, South India

 

European Robin – Erithacus rubecula

Eurasian Jay – Garrulus glandarius

Yellow-bellied House Gecko – Hemidactylus flaviviridis

Losing friends is easy……

We’ve all done it and by far the most common reason is by what we do not do. Yes, friendships can end in a dramatic falling out but quite often real friends find a way of making up even after one of those. Most friendships that end are because of drifting apart when leaving somewhere or moving on in life, most end through not doing enough, not by doing something easily recognised as terribly wrong.

So a puzzle, spot the odd two out in the gallery below.

Long-tailed Duck

Full Screen Image – Long-tailed Duck, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Atlantic Puffin, Fowlsheugh, Kincardineshire, Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – African Lions, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania ©Nick Sidle

Common Pochard

Full Screen Image – Pochard, Moray Firth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Common Pochard

Full Screen Image – Pochard, Richmond, London, England ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – African Elephants, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Slavonian Grebe, Loch Ruthven, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Yes, you could be right by saying the Lion and the Elephant, both were in the Serengeti and neither can be found wild in Scotland whereas the Puffin, Slavonian Grebe, Pochard and Long-tailed Duck certainly are but, as you have probably guessed, that would be too easy. In fact, I’m now going to apologise for a trick question but it is a very sad trick question, the answer I was thinking of is none of them. All now share the unfortunate distinction of being on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species under the heading ‘Vulnerable to Extinction” which means that whilst they are still in the wild in significant numbers, their populations are falling at a worrying rate and all it would take would be for that to continue and you can predict that they will and even when they might become extinct. The Atlantic Puffin, Slavonian Grebe and Pochard have only just been added to the list, things are not going in the right direction.

BBC News – Four UK bird species including puffins ‘face extinction’

Like most things, their stories are complicated. Changes in climate feature prominently, for example rising sea temperatures are attributed with having greatly reduced the number of Sandeels, a staple food of Puffins and other seabirds, with serious negative effects on breeding success in their colonies.

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Full Screen Image – Sandeels, Porthminster Reef, St Ives Bay, Cornwall, England ©Nick Sidle

Pressures on habitat and disturbance from people are also recurring themes. If we want to keep seeing these animals and birds, we all need to contribute to doing something, we all need to care a bit more. They are all important but Puffins and Elephants frequently feature very high up on lists of favourite species, the majority of us think of them in some way as friends and so that is why what we all need to take very seriously is that taking things for granted, neglect and not doing enough really are the most common ways that friends are lost.

I would like to end on an upbeat note but perhaps there is something more important that still has to be shared. Work your way though the photographs of birds that follow. With a bit of patience and effort, you can see all of them in Scotland, just get out into the wild in the right habitats and they are all there. Why have I included them? Well take a good hard look. All these species, some of which are not thought of in any way as rare, appear on the next category down from ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’, which is ‘Near Threatened’. All of these birds, which it is so easy to take for granted, are waiting in the wings to take their place with the Puffin, Slavonian Grebe, Pochard and Long-tailed Duck. All we have to do is look the other way, forget and change nothing.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Full Screen Image – Bar-tailed Godwit, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Oystercatcher, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Northern Lapwing

Full Screen Image – Northern Lapwings, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Razorbill

Full Screen Image – Razorbills, Fowlsheugh, Kincardineshire, Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Meadow Pipit, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Red Knot

Full Screen Image – Red Knot, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Black-tailed Godwit, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Red Kite, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Eurasian Curlew, Lochinver, Sutherland, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Eider, Newhall Point, Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

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Full Screen Image – Redwing, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

There never are easy answers in conservation and those responsible always have to weigh competing priorities and claims but it is up to all of us who care to make our voices heard so that those in power and who determine and lead policy and opinion always remember what is at stake and that there are some of us, enough of us, who really would like to make the effort to keep all the friends we can.

Nick

Scotland’s Birds Gallery

British Isles Marine gallery

Tanzania Land and Wildlife gallery

 

Long-tailed Duck – Clangula hyemalis

Atlantic Puffin – Fratercula arctica

African Lion – Panthera leo

Pochard – Aythya ferina

African Elephant – Loxodonta africana

Slavonian Grebe – Podiceps auritus

Sandeel – Ammodytes tobianus

Bar-tailed Godwit – Limosa lapponica

Eurasian Oystercatcher – Haemotopus ostralegus

Northern Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus

Razorbill – Alca torda

Meadow Pipit – Anthus pratensis

Red Knot – Calidris canutus

Black-tailed Godwit – Limosa limosa

Red Kite – Milvus milvus

Eurasian Curlew – Numenius arquata

Eider – Somateria mollissima

Redwing – Turdus iliacus

Romance lives!

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Full Screen Image – Great Tit, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Great Tits are birds that form strong pair bonds that may last for far more than just one breeding season. Starting from this, a team from Oxford University set out to look at competing priorities in the birds’ behaviour, specifically if a male has to choose between staying with his mate or getting to a food source, which comes first? Their results have been published in the journal Current Biology

Experimental Evidence that Social Relationships Determine Individual Foraging Behaviour

and show that it is the relationship that comes first or, as it is put more eloquently on the Oxford University web site, that “birds choose love over food”

Oxford University – Wild birds choose love over food

So the age of romance is not entirely gone and, however valid an explanation of which strategy offers the best survival and evolutionary advantages may be, ultimately all that is saying is that love is worth it.

Nick

Scotland’s Birds gallery

Glen Convinth

Great Tit – Parus major

Goldfinch Survey

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Full Screen Image – European Goldfinch, Glen Convinth, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Following existing results showing a 70% increase in reports of Goldfinches in UK gardens in recent years, the British Trust for Ornithology is conducting a survey into the feeding preferences of the birds to try and understand what might be driving the phenomenon and possible impacts on their behaviour of bird feeders and the provision of seed. The survey runs from November 2015 to February 2016 and anyone can help by taking part and any results would be welcome, all it needs is two minutes of observation in your own garden and the ability to recognise a Goldfinch, which is not too difficult since they are one of the most colourful and distinctive of British birds and there are plenty of photographs on the internet and in books to help you get it right. Full instructions on what to do and how to send in results can be found on the BTO website:

British Trust for Ornithology Goldfinch Survey

The instructions for the survey include that it is not necessary to be putting seed out for Goldfinches to take part, observations on what else they are eating are just as valuable. I suspect the Goldfinches would like to point out that this can be read in two ways. The first is that it is not a mandatory requirement to put out seed for them to join in with the survey, but the other way of looking at it is that you are not being told to avoid feeding them to be in on the initiative. The choice is entirely up to you and they might just like to suggest that the second interpretation has a lot to be said for it and that niger seed is rather special.

Nick

Scotalnd’s Birds gallery

Glen Convinth

European Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis

Game of Thrones

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Full Screen Image – Northern Raven Nest, Crask of Aigas, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Ravens stand out in many ways. They are the world’s largest perching bird, they are known for their intelligence and, it is said, if they leave the Tower of London the kingdom will fall, a belief which appears to date from the reign of Charles II, who would of course have a personal interest in the security of the throne and a rather heightened concern for how things could work out given what happened to his father. Presumably this only applies if they all leave at once, since various members of the Raven contingent have absented themselves, including the case of the rather appropriately named Raven Grog who was last seen outside a London East End pub, or have even been asked to leave like Raven George was dismissed for eating television aerials.

This might of course be a rather strange dietary preference, a strong commentary on the artistic quality of modern television or could it even have been an attempt to gain power and influence in society by controlling the media, something which every aspiring totalitarian ruler dreams of? Unlikely of course, there is no evidence that Ravens have the slightest interest in influencing human affairs of state, apart from anything else it now seems they are quite busy enough making power plays in their own political world. A study at the University of Vienna has shown that Raven society is strongly founded on making alliances and bonds between individuals and that the most effective social climbers in that world not only put a lot of effort into forming new positive relationships for themselves, but they also work quite hard to undermine, damage or prevent the formation of the partnerships of their rivals and work hardest to do this the more successful and powerful a potential rival becomes.

Current Biology – Ravens Intervene in Others’ Bonding Attempts

The team in Vienna speculate that having definitely shown this behaviour in Ravens, it should also be considered as linked to observed or possible similar strategies in other highly social species including other corvids, dolphins, hyaenas and primates. Primates? That is worrying, if true it might even mean people do it as well……

Nick

Scotland’s Birds gallery

Northern Raven – Corvus corax

Territory and Robins

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Full screen image – European Robin, Merkinch Local Nature Reserve, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

In the autumn all Robins, male and female, lay claim to territories and announce their occupancy and deter intruders by singing from perches like this one on an Elder bush. However attractive the song to another Robin, the message is meant to be clear – stay away, don’t even think about it.

Nick

Scotland’s Birds gallery

 

European Robin – Erithacus rubecula

Is there a reason why swans have long necks?

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Full screen image – Whooper Swans, Udale Bay, Black Isle, Highland Scotland ©Nick Sidle

Swans are incredible birds, very graceful in flight and you can’t help noticing the long neck as it is extended when they are in the air. It may really help them, on the water the extra height from which they see must be an advantage to keep a look out but in the air you might think it is an encumbrance and they hold it out straight just to cope, not so.

The Royal Society – The role of passive avian head stabilization

Research has shown that the whole neck structure, and it is very complicated – swans have 200 muscles on each side of the neck – acts as a stabiliser so they can still see well despite beating their wings at five times a second.

Nick

Scotland’s Birds gallery

Whooper Swan – Cygnus cygnus