Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Great Grey Heron Family

So one particular family that I’m looking forward to following in the next few months are the Great Grey Herons. We are very lucky to have such a large siege at Wollaton, and with about six males spotted so far, waiting at their nest for the right lady to come along, we could have a very exciting few months ahead as we wait and see these birds trying to produce offspring of their own.
The Siege of Herons waiting for their ladies  in the willow tree
Normally herons are solitary animals, but at Wollaton there is a diverse array of prey, with many fish, insects, crustaceans, frogs and even small mammals – all of which they may choose to forage on. As breeding season is nearing, these birds have gathered to nest in the trees on an island in the middle of the lake, close to the water to hunt for food. It is easy to see the huge nests spanning a few feet across on the Willow tree and the taller trees around, with the males guarding and waiting for a potential female.
The female heron watching me intently
At this time of year, the males remain at their selected resting sites in these trees, and will try to attract females to choose for a mate. Grey Herons are socially monogamous throughout the breeding season, and both sexes must consent before this partnership is formed to produce young. The male will make low grating calls to attract potential mates, and the female will express an interest by approaching the nest sites. If at this point the male is not interested in the female however, he will express his opinion by chasing the female away from his nesting site. Only if both individuals deem the other to be a worthwhile partner will they begin a romantic dance during courtship. The female will perform a series of neck stretching, thrusting, and bowing, followed by the male’s lunging and bill clapping used to impress the female. These individuals will then work together to begin preparing the home for a family.

The male and female pair preparing their nest for spring
At the moment it seems that only one pair has formed from the selection of males available at Wollaton. It is great to see this couple newly joined, and I can’t wait to see how they do in producing young. Hopefully we will soon have some more pairs on the lake, and we may catch some courtship displays as new pairs form for the season.

On another note, while photographing and watching the herons, I could not help but notice how beautiful the mallards feathers looked, reflecting the light of the sun. So I have a few duck pictures to share as well...

A Mallard male basking in the sun

A female mallard, with the light catching the dust on the water's surface

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Robins, Blackbirds, a Wren and some Great Tits all in a Student house!

So since I came back to Nottingham for exams this January, I decided to try providing some food for the local birds to help them over winter, and to provide myself with some solace from the mundane exam season. Since first putting some food on the brick barbeque a few weeks ago, we have had a fantastic array of birds coming to see what’s on offer, and I think I may have heightened my reputation amongst house mates as the crazy bird lady as well. Hopefully what I have to tell about these wonderful winged friends will make a few people want to do the same as myself.

The very fat little Rob helping himself to more seed
Before putting out any seed, we had to the odd visit from a Robin and a pair of Blackbirds, who liked to rummage around the Ivy for any berries that may be in the undergrowth. I initially thought it may be nice for them to have some seed to supplement their diet, and surely enough the three birds turned into regulars. The female Blackbird in particular is happy to potter around the edge of the garden, minding her own business and looking for food while I watch on the patio only a few metres away. The male blackbird in contrast is a little shyer, but it is quite evident that his lady has her belly as a much higher priority over any dangers a human may pose on her. The Robin has been one of my favourite characters, who has been looking rather well fed in recent weeks, and with good reason. Each morning now when I come to put the seed out I can hear him tweeting at the top of our tree wishing me a good day. Before I have even stepped a few metres away he will have swooped down onto the bricks and be pecking away at all of the goodies I have provided for him.
The female Blackbird pleased with one of her berries she's managed to forage from the undergrowth

The female Blackbird looking interested in what I'm doing 
The slightly shy male Blackbird sitting higher up the tree
The Wren sitting on a rock behind the barbecue
A few days after putting the food out, these three were joined by yet more birds. A little wren is often seen flitting about the garden like a mouse with an incredibly nervous disposition on a sugar rush. He however is often chased off by another slightly slimmer looking Robin who reckons he is far more worthy of this territory. Of course this Robin is soon put back in his place when the two dim-witted Pigeons come to play. It did make me chuckle watching one pigeon progress its way, and eating all along the wall of seed, before sitting there for a good 15 minutes realising he has eaten far too much. He looked a little like I felt after Christmas dinner, having filled every gap in my stomach, and just needing to sit digest for a while before any other activity is even thinkable.
After a few days I decided to invest in a very basic bird feeder to hang off the branch of a tree, but unfortunately and surprisingly, the birds have not taken too well to it. It did not occur to me before that the birds may refuse to use the feeder, but this one had been out for a week and still nobody had decided to try out the new gadget. I still put the food on the top of the barbeque wall, but on catching sight of a recent less desired visitor, a large rat, I thought best to try other methods of feeding. I have since bought a new mesh feeder and a seed feeder with larger holes in the hope that these may be a little more appealing to the birds. I don’t mind any non-flying wildlife, so long as they remain outside, but I somehow don’t think everyone else would agree on that matter!
One of the Great tits on the seed with the Pigeon and female Blackbird on the
barbecue behind
The winged guests have come to visit our garden every day without fail, and I was delighted with two new visitors that first came to munch on the fat balls on the washing line yesterday. Two Great Tits decided to grace us with their presence for a short while, and unlike the other birds, were quick to use the bird feeders. I am hoping the others may catch on so I can see them well from the window of our kitchen, and so that I may provide a little less of an advert to the rodents around and about. Unlike the other birds, the Great tits are much more timid, and will fill their beaks with as much seed as they can before flying up to a high branch on the tree to continue their feast. I’m hoping in the next few weeks they may too learn that I am no threat to them, so I can see these two going about their daily business moderately undisturbed.

I hope this may inspire some of you with even just a patio outside your house to put out some seed for the birds. To give you an idea, I managed to get a bag of mixed bird seed for £1 from a certain shop selling things for a pound, have lightened up January for myself, and hopefully provided some entertainment for my housemates as well.  

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

An Icy Walk to see the Water Birds

Two Mallard males grooming on a log that was floating in
the water
So today I thought best to leave the deer in peace, and I was warmly welcomed by a family of the Great Grey Herons, the Pochard ducks who had made their way across Europe to winter at Wollaton, and amongst the usuals, an incredibly friendly swan.

I had not quite appreciated how cold the weather had been recently, but it was certainly evident when I looked across the lake to see half of it covered in ice. Most of the water birds thought themselves a little too lardy to dare testing their weight on the ice, but the gulls, being far from tentative, flocked in the dozens on the ice quite happy to have a new place to squabble amongst themselves. The odd moorhen decided to potter around on the ice as well, leaving a little pecking trail behind him. I couldn’t quite see what the little old men would find in the layers of ice, but clearly there was something to be had there.
A few seagulls standing on the ice, accompanied by a strangely arranged Moorhen who came to join them
I was happy to see a couple of Pochard ducks paddling around in the lake. They have come here to winter from the colder eastern European countries, and Russia, and so would really feel quite at home in these icy waters. Being one of the rarer birds to be found in the UK, I felt blessed looking at them with the male’s burnt umber plumage, bobbing around with the mallards and moorhens in the lake. Their mannerisms reminded me somewhat of the tufted ducks I saw before Christmas, and so I found it particularly interesting to find out that the Pochard and the Tufted ducks are quite likely to hybridise. Most species do not interbreed due to vastly different sexually selected characteristics, and due to the huge compromise in the fitness of these hybrids. Perhaps in this case, the two species may not experience these costs to such an extent, allowing this phenomena to occur regularly in nature, creating some sort of Tuftchard I presume.
A male pochard swimming across the lake with a Gull swooping overhead

The male and female heron pair tending to the nest. I guess the female is
carrying out general maintenance here while the male ruffles his feathers
and keeps watch on the lakes goings on
Over on the other side of the lake, on an island with a great willow tree, I was thoroughly excited to catch site of a group of herons making nests for the summer. Five large herons sat in the willow tree, with three nests clearly visible from where I was standing. These birds tend to be solitary, and only nest in groups where the food is plentiful, so I was very thankful of this Heron haven of fish, and amphibia that may sustain the family as they attempt to successfully produce young in the summer. Nearer to me I could see a pair tending to a nest, which was lovely to see, but in other nests I could only see one solitary bird. I presumed the individuals guarding the nests alone were females, as normally Heron females will be left to the housekeeping while the men go out to work for the day, catching food and going about the necessary daily business. Although it is normal for these females to remain at home, they certainly didn’t seem to happy about it. Apart from the pair, the rest of the group didn’t really seem to move or even show the slightest hint expression, but I guess not everyone can be so cheerful to have a tree by an iced-over lake as a home for winter…

It is quite difficult to see here, but here is the willow tree, with the heron nests dotted around amongst the branches

I hope the swan was satisfied with this shot...
While I was distracted by the herons in the distance, I had failed to notice a swan that had taken a particular interest in me, and I was rather surprised to catch him in the corner of my eye when he was only a few metres away. It was almost unnerving when there just a foot between me and this beautiful creature, but given the sense of ease about him, I guess I did not pose any threat. The swan stayed with me for a while, striking various poses in order for me to get the best angle, before hoping I had the million dollar shot, and gliding back back to the middle of the lake. This swan portrayed the traditional sense of a swan’s elegance far better than his friend in the background, who looked a little more like an upturned boat attempting to pick some weeds from the lake’s floor below.
I also hope he agreed I was getting his best angle here...

One of the Canada Geese tending to his feathers
After the close encounter with the swan, I decided to leave the birds for the warmth of my home again, but not before a sit on the side of the lake with a couple of friends I had met – the Canada Geese. These birds are often thought of as cumbersome and rowdy birds, and pests in the countryside. Here however I was quite happy to enjoy their company, and sat and watched them grooming and looking at my activities with as much curiosity as I did while observing them.
Catching my eye as he is arranging his plumage to the best of his ability

One of my favourites of the Goose, looking like he's noticed the attention he is getting and asking me what on
earth I am doing sitting here, if not to rearrange my feathers as well...

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Snowy Start to 2016

So after a lot of Christmas festivities, far too much food and drink, and an even greater unwanted excess of exam revision, I stepped out my door to some long awaited snow. With my camera, coat and gloves, I was thoroughly excited to be out shooting again.

With rather sad looking one foot high snow men in the odd drive as I walked to Wollaton, I was not all that hopeful for much snow in the park either, but luckily I was all to doubtful over what may be in store. The layer of white blanketed the golf course, and families were out making boulders up to their waists. The deer seemed equally as content, with mothers, young bucks, and the young deer born only this year in a large group of around 50 individuals. Many had nuzzled holes in the cold white felt to get the sweet and well-kept grass that lay hidden underneath. Other young bucks still had ladies on their mind, and as much as the Does made it quite clear that they hadn’t the mildest bit of interest, the bucks kept hopelessly chasing them like an overly confident drunk in the club.
The Deer on the golf course seemed as inquisitive and curious as ever as to what on earth I was doing crouching in the snow, looking in their vague direction

The youngster enduring a needed wash from mum
To the left of me was a slightly more innocent scene with a youngster from this year being dotingly attended to by his Mother. The Doe would lick first at his neck, before he demonstrated quite clearly that he did not want to be groomed at all. Much more interested in the strange eye-like object I was pointing in his direction, the youngster tore his head away from her undying attention. The mother accepted that the little beggar simply did not want his neck cleaning at this point in time, and so patiently ignored his lack of cooperation, moving on to the youngster’s belly instead. It was not long before the mother had to give up all attempts at cleaning her offspring entirely, as he trotted off to join the rest of the group.
Mother patiently attempting to keep her son well groomed

One of the more dominant males, enjoying a nice
lunch in peace
After I had sufficiently distracted the young deer from having his daily wash, I ventured to the other side of the hall to find all the big boys with a fodder beet feast fit for a king. The Gamekeepers of Wollaton had kindly put out piles of fodder beet to sustain the deer over winter, and it was brilliant getting a glimpse of the hierarchy between the older males who live on the park. Some piles were occupied by a number of males with smaller antlers, and here there were regular tiffs between consuming members. These tiffs were necessary in the eyes of the males to ensure the strongest males would have the greatest slice of the pie. I did find it quite amusing however that there were piles of fodder beet completely unoccupied by any individual - perhaps these were not worth fighting over if nobody else was interested. It seemed rather black and white to me that you would go for a nice pile of beet where you did not need to fight for a meal but clearly I was missing something. It was interesting to also see other piles of beet that would only have one large stag feeding there, and it was quite obvious why nobody thought it wise to ask even politely to share his meal.

A large male keen to get his fair share of a meal

After another fantastic insight into the social lives of the Red Deer, I took a glance over at the Fallow deer in the protected area of the park. The Fallow are much more timid than their larger red relatives, presumably and understandably due to their relatively dwarfed size. With cold hands, damp feet, and a very red nose, I decided to leave the Fallow to their own business and pester the red deer no more. I wandered back to my nice warm house, happy that I had seen these lovely animals again, and happy that I, unlike them, could say goodbye to the snow and get nice and warm under a roof for the night!

I reckon this male has recently had some sort of tending too, with a clipping perhaps from a recent jab or as a means of marking on his rump.