Life is looking rosy for birders

UPDATE: Rose-coloured Starlings have apparently turned up at The Genome Campus, Hinxton, near Cambridge. It’s private land, so don’t go looking on the site as you’re liable to be arrested. The birds are flocking to and from the village itself and there is a neighbouring paddock they seem to be favouring.

According to “2018 is poised to produce a huge invasion of Rosy Starlings to the UK”

Many have been seen in record-breaking numbers in recent days across continental Europe with flocks appearing as close as France, says the site. 500 were recorded in Marseille and some in Spain. Fewer than 20 have been reported in the UK so far but that’s more than normal numbers in a seven-day period. The site suggests they could be “harbingers of a much larger arrival”. Sightings have been made in Dorset, Cornwall, Kent, Anglesey, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, East Yorkshire, and the Isle of Skye.

Although it is nominally a starling, the rosy starling (Pastor roseus) or rose-coloured pastor is now classed in its own monotype genus as “Pastor” rather than bunched with the starling family, Sturnidae. The split is based on genetics and it is not yet known whether there are other members of the genus yet to be revealed.

The genus name Pastor and its old English name come from the Latin word pastor, meaning “shepherd” (as in pastoral, but also as in a priest). Roseus is Latin for “rose-coloured”, as you probably guessed. You can see from Veronesi’s below why they’re called pastors, it’s nothing to do with looking like a priest, it’s that they look like they’re wearing a sheep’s fleece as a shepherd would.

Not my photo, but if I see one, I will endeavour to snap it:

Rosy Starling - Almaty - Kazakstan S4E1244 (22382991808)

Extra-marital birds

Older male birds father more illegitimate offspring than younger birds, it seems. When female birds have chicks as the result of an “extra-marital” fling, the fathers are almost always older males. Now, scientists at Imperial College London think they know why.

Tree Sparrows at RSPB Saltmarsh
Tree Sparrows at RSPB Saltmarsh

Many birds form social pair bonds, some of which last a lifetime, but they may also have “illegitimate” offspring. Extra-marital copulation in sparrows seems to favour paternity of older males and there were two possible explanations: older males are better at coercing females into extra-pair affairs, this is the male manipulation hypothesis or that females solicit more sex from older males than from younger males, the female choice hypothesis.

Sparrows are socially monogamous but sexually promiscuous, staying with one partner for the security of raising chicks, but with the males not necessarily raising their own chicks. The team led by the IC scientists observed more than 450 mating attempts by males, and found that older males did not try to make females cheat any more often than younger males, which throws the male manipulation hypothesis into doubt. Instead, they observed that successful affairs were more often solicited by females. However, the females did not choose older males more often than younger males, suggesting the female choice hypothesis may also be wrong.

Mating peregrines, Cambridge
Mating peregrines, Cambridge

Team member Antje Girndt explains, “There is a difference between what we observe and what the outcome is: we didn’t observe older males cheating more often than younger males, but they do father more offspring. This suggests there is another factor at work, such as older males having more competitive sperm.” Females can store sperm for weeks before allowing it to fertilise their eggs.

Mating swallows, Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire
Mating swallows, Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire

“We found that there is likely to be a biological effect, rather than a behavioural one, for why older males are more successful at siring illegitimate children,” explains research leader Julia Schroeder. “It has been thought that females might choose older males as they are more ‘genetically fit’, but our research casts some doubt on this.”

What’s a warbler, anyway?

It seems I have landed myself the entirely voluntary role of writing the bimonthly Bird Report for our local newsletter – Cottenham News. The column has been expertly and diligently handled until now by local birder Jasper Kay, but times move on and he has handed over the reins to this very amateur birder. Anyway, I’m not going to try and follow in Jasper’s footsteps but will attempt to put together a regular bird column with a sidebar that cites local sightings in, over, and around our patch.

Bird Report 1 – What’s a warbler, anyway?

Seasons come and go and so do many of the birds we see at different times of the year. Those that spend the summer, we call summer visitors. Many of them travel thousands of miles from Southern Africa or elsewhere to be with us during the summer: the cuckoos, swallows, swifts, and house martins. Perhaps less familiar is a group of birds we call the “warblers”. Warbler refers to a very disparate group of small perching birds that are really only united in that you might refer to the songs and call as warbling, although some of them are less melodic than others and more scratchy avant-garde improvisers, that’s probably too unwieldy a name for a type of bird.

Walk along the Cottenham Lode and you might catch a fleeting glimpse of a cackling bird with a white throat, which goes by the rather obvious name the whitethroat (Sylvia communis), you might also see its more furtive cousin the lesser whitethroat (Sylvia curruca). Among the more avant-garde of the warblers, is the reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), which again rather obviously, as its name suggests, is a warbler that lives among the reeds.

Head into the Rampton Spinney and you might hear the summery and rather more melodic song of its cousin, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla). A grey bird with, yes, a black cap. Unless it’s the female or a youngster in which case the cap is a chestnut brown. You may well have had blackcaps over-wintering in your garden during the last few years. Tracking of specimens from Eastern Europe would suggest that many get lost when heading back to North Africa and Iberia for the winter and find our bird feeders enticing and that our generally reasonably warm winter climate suits them fine.

During the summer months, you might also hear the regular chiff-chaff call of the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). This species looks almost identical to the willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), which, bucking the obvious naming trends, does not only favour willow trees. Both birds are small and variously hued in browns and yellows. The chiffchaff has dark legs whereas those of the willow warbler are pink and the latter has longer wings. However, the most notable difference is in their song, the willow warbler preferring a descending fluting melody over the chiff chaff’s rhythmic cadence. That said, leg colour can vary and some specimens will on rare occasions mimic the other species in their song, so there is rarely 100% certainty in their identification.

It is on local nature reserves rather than farmland that you are more likely to see some of the other warblers including the noisy and melodic Cettis’ warbler, the flighty sedge warbler, and the grasshopper warbler with its talent for mimicking the sound of, you guessed it, grasshoppers. You might have to head to Dunwich Heath if you want to see the troubled Dartford warbler and perhaps even further afield to see a marsh warbler, moustached warbler, Bonelli’s warbler, or the fan-tailed warbler.

Recent sightings in and around Cottenham Marsh harrier, red kite, buzzard, kestrel, little egret, heron, corn bunting, meadow pipit, skylark, yellowhammer, over and around local farmland and waterways Whitethroat, lesser whitethroat along Cottenham Lode Blackcap, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, willow warbler, chiffchaff, bullfinch in Rampton Spinney Unconfirmed bluethroat (on Brenda Gautrey Way), Turtle Dove along the Lode.

The title of this post paraphrases Francis Healy in the Travis song “Writing to reach you” where he is presumably having a sly dig at elderstatesmen of BritPop, Oasis and their song “Wonderwall”, presumably with at least a nod of recognition to the 1968 psychedelic film of that name with soundtrack by George Harrison.

Classic Chords #24 revisited – Good Times by Chic

Number 24 in my Classic Chords series was Good Times by Chic; I decided to revisit that lesson with a video version.

Nile Rodgers uses four fairly straightforward chords as the building blocks of the classic dance tune “Good Times” by CHIC and made famous over the last forty years by endless sampling and recycling of the track.

The chords are Em7, E7sus4, Em11, and A13.

Straightforward as they seem, the first three played at the seventh fret and the last one at the fifth fret.

The Nile Style is to pick out clusters of three strings to funk across in his trademark percussive style, he rarely strums all the strings at once, so at any one time, three of the strings are sounding, usually staccato, and three are muted. Much of the sound is down to his right-hand rhythm but also the muting with the left hand lifting off the strings. Nile also throws in a few grace notes and additional tones to those chords, so see them as the basic four and build on them to jazz up the funk. That’s the choruses, he simplifies and drops back for the verses: Em7 and Asus4 roughly speaking.

I’ve recorded myself playing just the four building blocks without embellishment. And, on a Fender Telecaster rather than his signature Strat, sorry about that…

If you enjoyed this Classic Chord, check out the series, which includes the proper chords for Tom Sawyer by Rush, The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, Times Like These from Foo Fighters and many more.

Cambridge Peregrine Chicks

Towards the end of February I was lucky enough to catch sight of the Cambridge Peregrines in town and snapped a few shots of the female before the male arrived and mated her. Today, we saw the female preening on the shady side of one of their habitual towers. I got a few low-light shots of her and then spotted feathers cascading down from the sunny side of the tower. It was the male plucking a pigeon high up, basking in the sun as he did so, and once the job was done, he flew off to the nest site and began feeding pickings from the carcass to his two chicks.

It’s astonishing how few people even look up as they walk past these ancient Cambridge buildings. Perhaps they are not interested in the possibility that a pair of large falcons is just above their heads. Nobody even asked what I was zooming in on. Maybe they thought I was simply recording details of the sandstone architecture.

There is another pair just outside town, which I also photographed recently.


Marsh Harrier and more at RSPB Ouse Fen

Recently, there have been several Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) over the reedbed trail at RSPB Ouse Fen, reached from Needingworth in Cambridgeshire. It’s a little over 4 km from the Needingworth reserve car park to the far reaches of this trail but you do get to walk through the main RSPB reserve, which I’ve mentioned before and cross the Great River Ouse at a sluice bridge. I was lucky enough to see some of them, male and female, on a visit to the reserve in early May 2018. Also showing well were several warblers (Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat), Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), Hobby (Falco subbuteo) hunting dragonflies and other airborne insects, a distant courting pair of Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), a couple of Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Pictured above is a male Marsh Harrier hunting over cow parsley at the far end of the reedbed trail. The water tower in the background of the shot is near the village of Over, I believe, although I cannot quite pinpoint it on the map.

Below is a Hobby one of several over the reserve, hunting dragonflies, the bird having migrated from its wintering in warmer climes. It’s relatively easy to photograph them as they reel around the vast fenland skies but as soon as they stoop on their prey they accelerate quickly, so feel quite privileged to have caught this one just as it’s about to grab its lunch.

Common tern, one of a pair, although there were a few more around, hovering over one of the reed-lined waterways.

A pair of cuckoos cavorting in the distance. I estimate I was about 500 metres away from them, but could clearly hear their call and got several more shots with a 600mm zoom. If you look closely, you can just see a male Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) perched to the left of the pair. As far as I know, Cuckoos prefer warbler nests and presumably, the Reed Bunt’s eggs are safe from these brood parasites.

There have been several sightings of Cranes over the last few months, we’ve seen them at WWT Welney, RSPB Lakenheath, and RSPB Nene Washes, and now one, overhead, at Ouse Fen.

Pictured below is a female Marsh Harrier with identification tags on its wings. I contacted David at RSPB Lakenheath (he runs the Twitter account RSPBFens to find out more about the specimen.

“The RSPB have been wing tagging harriers but other organisations have also been tagging them,” he told me. “According to Simon, our local bird ringer, this bird was ringed west of Norwich as a female chick in June 2017. It was seen locally throughout August to October and then last seen on 7th January 2018 in Spain at Salcidos Marshes.”

There were also some waterfowl but not many in this part of the reserve (Coot (2-3), Mallard ( a couple of pairs), Tufted Duck (small flock, 7-8), Great Crested Grebe (one pair), Mute Swan (2 or 3), Pochard (1), Greylag Geese (two flocks of a dozen or so), Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull).

Also, heard but not seen Yaffle (Green Woodpecker), Reed Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, booming Bitterns.

Royal Wedding Dress Scandal

This week’s most important #FakeNews is about a wedding.

The truth is that Meghan Markle’s wedding dress didn’t cost 300 grand, it was a third of that and apparently she’s paying for it “herself”, anyway.

The disingenuous reference to the Grenfell tragedy in the fake news stories is scurrilous. Fact was the people who built that tower didn’t spend the requisite amount of money to use fire-retardant cladding!

It’s also worth pointing out that Princess Diana’s dress cost more nominally, but that was almost 40 years ago, inflation since then means that Ms Merkle’s dress should have cost 350 grand, if she’d wanted the equivalent of Harry’s mother.

To be frank, I’m not interested in royal weddings, but fake news and shameful “journalism” of this kind persists and is exactly the sort of lie that piles up and persuades people to vote for the likes of Trunt and Brexit…

Life Advice

In no particular order:

  1. Unplug and leave your phone and headphones at home
  2. Scamper, stroll or scramble up and down hills
  3. Dive into and swim in the sea, lake, river, swimming pool (pref outdoor)
  4. Take brisk (or leisurely) walks on beaches and get your feet wet
  5. Walk through the countryside
  6. Visit towns and cities
  7. Talk to people face to face
  8. Laugh a lot, cry occasionally
  9. Wash your hands properly
  10. Don’t blend fruit and veg and avoid smoothies (obesity-in-a-bottle)
  11. Seek help if you cannot avoid using your drug of choice in true moderation
  12. Don’t breathe the products of incineration nor mineral dusts
  13. Learn a musical instrument and/or join a choir/band
  14. Use the stairs (going up and down)
  15. Remember, but don’t dwell on the past
  16. Don’t worry (too much) about the future
  17. Live for the day, Carpe diem (Seize the fish)
  18. Take an interest
  19. Don’t get hung up on lists and data
  20. Don’t vote for fascists, they will nullify this advice
  21. Don’t give advice unless asked for it and even then don’t expect anyone to heed it

Reach Fair 2018

There are older traditions but Reach Fair stretches back a long way. It was in the year 1201 AD that the annual Reach Fair was inaugurated. The Burgesses of Cambridge were granted a Royal Charter by King John that year to hold such a fair. It begins at midday with a proclamation that bars inappropriate activity and heralds the activities and festivities that will take place. The proclamation is then followed by the throwing of coins for the children. Anyway, it still happens, they only cancelled it twice in the whole of its history and that was in the 17th Century when there was something of a skirmish taking place in this part of the world, the English Civil War.

It was a gloriously sunny and warm English countryside Bank Holiday Monday afternoon (a first this century?), so what better place to be without too much travelling? Amazing the number of friends who agreed with our plan!

More photos and the fun of the fair in the Sciencebase Flickr album.

The picturesque village of Reach (Reche) is on the edge of the Fens East of the university city of Cambridge at the North end of Devil’s Dyke (6th Century) and about 2.4 km West of Burwell. Reach was important in early Anglo-Saxon and Viking times with goods such as the chalky stone known as Clunch being loaded at its hythe (wharf) for transport into the fen waterway system from as early as 1100 AD. Reach Lode is a Roman canal, still visible and still navigable.

The village name has also been spelt Reche, derived from the Old English word raec and means “place on the raised strip of land”.