Another visit to RSPB Titchwell Marsh

We don’t lack nature reserves here in East Anglia. Many of the inland ones I’ve mentioned over the last year or so are ex-gravel quarries and the like, managed fens, river flood plains and such. For instance, RSPB Ouse Fen, NT Wicken Fen, WWT Welney, etc. There are also several coastal reserves that we visit from time to time.


Most frequent of those is RSPB Titchwell Marsh. We stopped overnight in the village, so could spend an afternoon and then the next morning on an extended visit. There is almost always at least one species we’ve not had showing well before, or if we had seen it was a BVD, or we hadn’t got a positive ID. (See here for birder terminology).

Avocet Black-tailed Godwit

The list for this most recent visit included the following in no particular order, but with those in bold being first positive IDs for myself and Mrs Sciencebase: courting Marsh Harrier, Grey Plover, Brambling, Cetti’s Warbler (heard but not seen), Chiffchaff, Mediterranean Gull, Hen Harrier (fighting a Marsh), Dunlin, Red-crested Pochard, Linnet, Meadow Pipit, Reed Bunting, Teal, Wigeon, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew, Avocet, Shag, Scoter (the last two far out to see but visible with bins and zoom), Turnstone and Black-tailed Godwit (both of those moulting winter plumage), Bearded Reedling (aka Bearded Tit), Water Rail (seen but not photographed), Brent Goose, Little Ringed Plover, Shoveller Duck, Shelduck, Avocet, Knot, Lapwing.

Bearded Reedline

There were also numbers of more familiar “garden” birds, waterfowl, seabirds, and a non-native: Starling, Robin, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Woodpigeon, Wren, Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull, Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, Greylag Goose, Pheasant.

Grey Plover

Birding glossary

A short and light-hearted glossary of birding terms and twitchers’ slang. Some of the terms are “tongue-in-beak” you might say…bird nicknames can be found here.

Aves – Any of the 10500 or so known species of bird all of which have common evolutionary ancestry in the theropod dinosaurs of which Tyrannosaurus rex is one example.

Barwit – Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica, see also Blackwit.

Beardie – Bearded Reedling (Bearded Tit), Panurus biarmicus. The species is neither bearded nor a tit. Also derog. of celebrity birdwatcher Bill Oddie.

Bins, binoculars – Usually lightweight and less powerful alternative to carrying a scope. However, many birders will carry both as the wider viewing angle of a pair of bins compared to a scope will allow them to scan the horizon more quickly, for instance, before focusing the scope on a distant lifer.

Birder, birding – Someone interested in watching birds, their avian-related hobby (not to be confused with Falco subbuteo).

Blackwit– Black-tailed Godwit, Limosa limosa, see also Barwit.

Bonxie – An apt-sounding nickname for the Great Skua, a term used in Shetland of Norse origin, these birds can kill and eat kittiwakes and even juvenile Great Black-backed Gulls.

BTO – British Trust for Ornithology, pretty much just birds, thank you.

BVD – Better view desired, often the result of spending many an hour in a hide while a given lifer is elsewhere on a reserve and only fleetingly seen from said hide.

Chick – A baby bird. Not to be confused with any request from a Geordie birder to suggest that proxy remuneration has been made, as in “Yer chick’s in the post, man”.

Comic Tern – Refers to a specimen of Sterna where BVD. Distinguishing Common and Arctic at a distance when the specimen is not showing well will often lead to a Comic Tern being logged. See also, elsewhere, Marlow Tit, Willowchiff etc.

Crest – Referring to either UK kinglet: Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or Common Firecrest (R. ignicapilla)

Digiscope, digiscoping – Taking photos with a camera or smartphone aligned with the eyepiece of a scope. Many birders will use a special adapter to clip camera and scope together for this purpose.

Dirtbird – (Offensive) Any common bird an experienced birder has seen many times before. Of course, every bird one sees is initially a lifer. It is not nice to use this term for any of our feathered friends.

Disturbance buffer – Alternative term for the exclusion zone around a bird that is bound by its FID.

Exclusion zone – The area around a bird that when breached will spook or flush it and cause it to take flight, closely related to FID. May also be referred to as a disturbance buffer.

Fall – Sudden arrival of sea-going migrants forced to touch down on land because of inclement weather. Sometimes an opportunity for ticking a lifer.

Field Mark – A characteristic, such as an eye ring, feather patterning, curve to the beak, or other such feature that allows one to make a fairly positive ID of an ambiguous sighting particularly when BVD and not showing well.

Flight Initiation Distance (FID) – Approximately as close as you might get to a given species under “normal” conditions before the bird will take fright and thus flight. Some birders talk of exclusion zones,

Flush – A deliberate or unwitting action that spooks a bird into taking flight, allowing a brief sighting for the flusher to the detriment of twitchers and birders who may arrive later and miss the opportunity to tick the species. A polite way of saying “disturb”, best avoided for the sake of the birds, not good birding practice.

Grilling – Observing a bird closely.

GropperGrasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)

Gulling – To spend time birding at a site attended by lots of gulls, commonly waste tips or adjacent fields and flooded land. Common aim is to spot scarcities or “white wingers” among the more regular gulls.

Hide – A screened area or wooden hut on a reserve, often with narrow viewing windows obscured by raisable flaps to allow birders to remain hidden from the birds they intend to watch. Often the cause of BVD.

In the bag – a keenly sought bird, ticked at long last.

In-off – A description of a migrant returning from abroad, as in the bird was in-off the sea.

Irruption – Extremes of heat, cold, drought, and food shortages can drive out large numbers of birds from their usual haunts and they might then arrive in another area where they are less commonly, if ever, seen. Conversely, flooding and insect and rodent plagues can attract an irruption of water birds and raptors respectively, for instance. Often leads to lifers, ticks, and megaticks.

Jizz/Giss – The overall impression of a bird based on size, shape, colour, (sometimes plumage), posture, flight, movements, song and call, habitat, and location, awareness of jizz provides for a positive ID even in the face of BVD.

Juvenile – A young, immature bird, usually one that is no longer considered a chick and has fledged.

LBJ – Little brown job, a small bird of bland colouration seen so briefly that a positive ID is not possible. See BVD.

Leucistic – A condition in which an individual bird may lack pigment in its plumage so that it has white patches or is mostly, but not wholly, white. If pigment is missing entirely from skin and eyes it would be referred to as an albino.

Lifer – A bird seen for the first time by a birder and added to their life list.

Manky MallardAnas platyrhynchos can cross breed with the domestic duck (they’re the same species), leading to offspring with wayward markings such as white patches.

Mega – A very rare bird, one that will be a lifer for almost everyone who sees it.

Megatick – A really good sighting due to the bird being a mega or otherwise difficult to find because it rarely shows well. Almost always a lifer for most birders that see it.

Migrant – A species that relocates depending on seasonal and lifecycle factors, commonly from one part of the world to another.

Mobile – Refers to the tendency of a putative lifer or indeed any other specimen a birder hopes to see traversing great distances from the site at which you just arrived, to the site you just left or elsewhere.

Moult – The shedding of feathers at different stages of the avian life cycle, from chick to juvenile to sexually mature adult, also at the end of the breeding season when an adult has raised offspring and is worn.

NocMig – Listening out for the sounds of migrants flying overhead at night. Often involves recording the calls and using software to extract an ID from several hours of recordings.

Occam’s razor – A useful tool for novice birders to use when reporting a sighting of a rare species whose jizz is very close to that of another species. Occam’s razor suggests that the simpler explanation is more likely than the exceptional. For instance, that Curlew Sandpiper at RSPB Minsmere was more likely to have been a Dunlin, and so probably was, especially if it was BVD. Similarly, in very early spring a Willow Warbler will probably turn out to be a Chiffchaff. Occam’s razor should be wielded in all walks of life. Honest mistakes are not to be confused with deliberate stringing.

Ornithology – The branch of the zoological sciences that deals with birds, the endothermic vertebrates known as aves.

Passage – The journey(s) made by migrant species.

Passage migrant – A bird seen in a given location only during its migration from one place to another and does not spend any substantial period in that location.

Pec Sand – Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos), a bird of the Americas that migrates in the autumn, heading South over the Atlantic but is often blown towards the British Isles by Westerly winds.

Pish – To make squeaks, tweets or whistles in proximity to a flock of tits or other birds in order to pique the curiosity that they might show well, albeit for only a moment.

Plumage – Feathers, critical to a bird’s positive ID. Plumage can vary from mating to non-mating season, between winter and summer, chick to juvenile to adult.

Porn-starring – A bird showing really, really well, its jizz causing all kinds of ecstasy in the hide.

Positive ID – Definitive identification of a bird based on its jizz and other factors. Rarely BVD, except in the context of photography and almost certainly not LBJ or UFR.

Push – Usually a deliberate act of behaving in such a manner that a bird is flushed into a position where a better view can be had, often leads to flushing. Not good birding practice.

Quartering – Hunting. As in the raptor was quartering over its territory.

Raptor – Bird of prey including Eagles, Hawks, and Owls. See UFR.

RCP – Red-crested Pochard, once a newbie-confusing rarity, now increasingly common.

Reed Bunt – Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus).

Resident – Species that remains in its native territory throughout its lifecycle and does not migrate, although some residents nevertheless do migrate periodically and some migrants may become vagrants or residents depending on circumstances, such as climate change.

Ringing – Trapping and tagging of a bird, usually done by officials from BTO, RSPB or other conservation bodies for the sake of scientific studies of particular species. Also used people who keep and show birds, such as pigeons.

Rouzel – Ring Ouzel, Turdus torquatus. Ouzel is from the Old English for Blackbird, this member of the thrush family has an obvious ring around its neck, hence the name

RSPB – Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, charitable organisation with an obvious mission statement; also likes nature in general.

Scope – Telescope, usually tripod mounted for viewing distant birds. The bigger, the better (usually), although clarity and lack of chromatic aberration are often more important to the view.

Shag – A crested species of seabird (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), not to be confused with the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

Shortie – Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), SEO

Showing well – Applies to the relative visibility and activity of a bird at a given site. As in the Beardies are showing well at RSPB Titchwell Marsh.

SOB – Spouse of a birder, a bird enthusiast’s significant other, commonly less interested in our feathered friends than said enthusiast. Often to be seen on reserves lugging heavy bags, coats, flasks, picnic hamper, and other accoutrements, while the enthusiast strides ahead to the likely spot where their lifer is showing well.

Song, call, alarm call – Vocal birds often make different sounds depending on activity, a song may be a territorial or courtship sound, whereas a call may be a more passive sound made while roosting perhaps, an alarm call does what it says.

Spooked – One explanation for the sudden departure of a putative lifer, just as you arrive to see it. Often due to nearby raptors but more commonly novice birders twittering loudly near a hide or pointing and waving their excited little arms out through the hide’s viewing flaps.

Sprawk – Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Spuggy – Geordie vernacular for Passer domesticus (House Sparrow) or indeed, in ignorance of a bird’s jizz, any LBJ. Spug in Scotland. Northwest England spadger.

Stringing – Deliberately reporting a sighting of an interesting bird in a given location when said bird was most certainly not present, used maliciously by a rare breed of twitcher and birder with the intent of ruffling feathers (see plumage).

Supercilium – Basically, where the eyebrows would be. A distinct colouration, a supercilial stripe in a species could assist with a positive ID.

Tape luring – The highly unethical practice of playing a recording of a bird’s call or song in the vicinity of where one might expect to see it in order to encourage it out into the open for a “tick” or a photo. At one time, this would have required the lurer to have an actual tape recording and a playback device, today there are countless bird apps that include recordings of birdsong.

Tick – Whether BVD or showing well, a newly sighted bird for one’s life list or year list is ticked off in one’s proverbial notebook, on the “app” or simply in one’s head.

Tickable – A bird that is definitely the new species you were hoping to see, showing well, giss confirmed.

Togger – A photographer with a keen and passionate interesting in getting the best shot they can of a beautiful avian species. Often used by twitchers and birders in a derogatory way. Some birders are toggers, some twitchers too. The photos in the bird books and magazines beloved of birders and twitchers will have been taken by a togger, needless to say.

Twitch (derog.) – The act of twitching.

Twitcher, twitching (derog.) – A person who will apply unusual effort or expense to see a rare bird they have not seen before, their hobby.

UFR – Unidentified flying raptor, the equivalent of an LBJ but for the multitude of high-flying hunting birds. See BVD.

Untickable – A bird that is definitely the new species you were hoping to see, but it was not showing well, it was too far away, obscured by foliage or glimpsed only fleetingly and no way of confirming entirely beyond any shadow of a doubt with respect to its giss that it was indeed that species.

Vagrant – Species that is usually thought of as a migrant that is seen in a part of the world where it is not commonly seen.

White winger – Any of the less commonly seen gulls that have completely white wings rather than the black wingtips of the less rare species.

Worn – In need of a moult. The bedraggled, frazzled look of an adult bird at the end of the breeding season, it having been worn out by the process of raising offspring.

Yaffle – East Anglian vernacular for Picus viridis (European Green Woodpecker) on account of its scoffing, laughter-like alarm call in flight.

Yank – (Derog/affectionate) A North American vagrant seen outside that continent, usually Europe.

Year list, life list – Most birders keep records of the different species they see, often noting jizz and other relevant information. A year list would, as the name suggests, be the birds that person has seen in a calendar year, whereas a life list, obviously, is a list of all the birds the person has seen. By definition, every bird on a life list is initially a lifer.

Frog spawn

…and now for something completely different. Mating time in the pond for the common frog (Rana temporaria). Top pictures shows an amphibian clinch, middle photo is the male, and bottom the female wallowing in her fertilised spawn.

Bearded Reedling – Panurus biarmicus

The Bearded Tit is not a member of the tit family Paridae at all. It is not related to the Blue Tit, not the Great Tit, and not even the Long-tailed Tit. There was a time when it was thought to be a member of the Paradoxornithidae, the parrotbills.  (Pictured immediately below, well-camouflaged female).

However, the most recent research suggests that it is in a family all of its own the Panuridae. There are no other members of this family as far as we know unless DNA analysis reveals a relative. So, although birders will always know them affectionately as Beardies, the Tit is perhaps more appropriately now replaced with the term “Reedling”, so Bearded Reedling.

The bird is mostly brown with a long tail and the males are striking in that they have to dark marks down their faces.

Now, one might wonder why are they called Bearded, why is it not known as the Mutton Chop bird, or the Sideburned bird, or even the Moustached bird? If you want a reed-dwelling bird with a proper beard (bib), then the Reed Bunting is your fellow.

There are thought to be a mere 630 breeding pairs in the UK. I’ve seen them a couple of times at RSPB Titchwell Marsh, once at WWT Welney, and a large flock at RSPB Minsmere making their characteristic “ping, ping, ping” (or peww, peww, peww) call. They are known to be at NT Wicken Fen too.

Stephen Hawking’s final interview

In October 2017, Stephen Hawking was interviewed by the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh on the subject of colliding neutron stars. It turns out this was the last interview with the world’s most famous professor of mathematics. Ghosh says the interview was not broadcast at the time, but he has now made it available on SoundCloud.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2018

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has announced the results of its 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch. The survey which asks members of the public to take an hour of their time to count the birds in their garden on a single day of the year has been running since 1979.

This year, 420,489 people from the UK submitted data, in what is one of the biggest citizen science projects.

House sparrows (Passer domesticus) remain the most common of our feathered friends to visit and live in our gardens, although overall numbers are down. Numbers of winter visitors such as Siskins (Carduelis spinus) and Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla), both small, brightly coloured finches are on the rise. The number of Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis), Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus) and Coal Tits (Periparus ater) is also up with recorded sightings of Goldfinches having risen by 11% from last year. All in members of the public counted 6,764,475 birds in their gardens.

Greenfinch numbers are also up by 5% on last year although that does not completely reverse the 60% decline since the Birdwatch began almost 40 years ago. Unfortunately, numbers for two of our most well-known and best-loved species, the Blackbird (Turdus merula) and the Robin (Erithacus rubecula) are down; by 18% and 12%, respectively. The RSPB blames the mild winter and poor breeding success in 2017 on the Blackbird’s year-on-year decline. Great Tits (Parus major) were counted in almost two-thirds of all UK gardens.

Here’s the Top Ten from the RSPB

Eurasian Tree Sparrow – Passer montanus

The Tree Sparrow’s scientific binomial, what people often refer to as a species’ “Latin” name, is Passer montanus, which in literal translation would be something like percher of the mountains (although more obviously passer simply means sparrow. Anyway, they stand apart from the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) having markedly different head plumage, sporting a chestnut-coloured crown as they do, rather than the grey of the House Sparrow. The Tree Sparrow also has white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek spot.

The other thing that sets them apart, unfortunately, is that they’re now quite rare and are listed as being “red” wrt UK conservation status. You’re unlikely to have seen Tree Sparrows in your garden, any sparrows are more likely to be House Sparrow or Hedge Sparrow (Dunnock, Prunella modularis). The latter isn’t a sparrow at all and might better be referred to as the Hedge Warbler, given its melodious song.

In the picture two Tree Sparrows on the left, obvs, and on the right Great Tit (Parus major)

Telephoto landscape compression

Several people have asked about my photo on the cover of the January/February issue of the Cottenham Newsletter. They’re curious as to where I took the photo, how I got the church and the lode in the frame like that. A couple of people have even suggested that it must be a composite and have walked along the bank to see if they can see how I took it.

Well, it’s not a composite, there was no photographic trickery. It was snapped with a 600mm zoom lens on the 30th December 2017, just after 11am. I “developed” the photo in Paintshop Pro and cropped it to frame it nicely for the cover of the newsletter. The lode was almost full, which perhaps messes with one’s perspective. But, more than that zoom lenses notoriously compress the depth of an image, making the most distant object seem not only closer but also making it seem as if they’re the same sort of distance away as closer objects. It’s a useful effect and gives rise to intriguing and puzzling photos like this one.

Anyway, to settle any arguments, the photo was taken from the dog-leg in the Cottenham lode where the little wooden bridge emerges from Rampton Spinney. So, about 1.2 km from the Broad Lane Bridge (seen in the right of the photo) as the crow flies. All Saints Church (pictured in the left) would be about 2 km from that point.

Other technical details: Canon 6D, Sigma 150-600mm zoom, f/10, t 1/500s, ISO 1200.

Marsh Harrier harried by Rooks

I startled a male Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) that was resting on the banks of the Cottenham Lode at the dog-leg near Rampton Spinney. The bird took fright and flight and flew off into an adjacent field and began hunting for small mammals in the crop growing only to subsequently be hounded rooks. It had somehow managed to grab at least one morsel of mammalian prey from the field in between times. In my later photos of the event, it looks as if the rook got a nice plume of feathers from one of the raptor’s wings.