Wednesday 29 May 2013

Lesser black-backed gulls piggybacking (i.e. mating)

Walking round Linlithgow Loch the other evening, Jennifer and I stopped to watch two lesser black-backs acting oddly. They were gently chatting, stroking necks, raising and lowering heads, giving crooning calls. Obviously some sort of courtship ritual.

After several minutes the male walked behind the female and clambered clumsily up onto her back.

He had his wings partially unfolded and she took small circular steps, both in an effort to maintain their piggyback position.  It reminded me of the bareback rider in my childhood pop-up circus. 

After a minute or so of balance the male fell off without successfully having mated. Having fallen he immediately plucked up a bundle of dried grass cuttings and presented them to her. It seemed to work because soon the head and neck movements restarted, and soon after that he was back on top. 

Again he stood, again he fell, again the whole process repeated. 

On his third time piggybacking (since we'd started watching) the actual act of mating took place - he lowered his tail and rear end, she raised hers... a brief shaking... and off he stepped to stand again beside her.

Monday 20 May 2013

Ayr: nesting black guillemots; diving gannets; a boat crash

Ayr hadn't been on my list of places needing visited, but I made the trip last week and I'm really glad that I did. I was due in the town to deliver two paintings -handover scheduled for Ayr Station car park- and decided to take my paints and make a railway day of it.

The main centre of Ayr is busy and full with shops and shoppers. It feels a bit tattered around the edges but there are really good charity shops and lots of caf├ęs. Once beyond the central shopping streets you find nice individual old houses and pleasant terraced rows.

I walked north to the River Ayr and followed it for a kilometre to the shore. A wide barge was being loaded and black guillemots sat on its edges. The birds were nesting in cavities in the stone river wall: I heard a constant cheeping that could have been chicks or could have been adults; I saw their bright red legs and webbed feet that hang behind as they take off and land. When a black guillemot opens its mouth you see the same brightness in there, as if it's just swallowed a burst tube of cadmium red.

black guillemots, black tyres, red legs, red boat

At the mouth of the river a pier curves out a hundred metres. I stopped to watch a rock pipit that was gathering grubs. A rock pipit is much darker and blue-greyer in plumage and beak and legs than the similar meadow pipit. A beautiful slick razorbill was diving nearby.

I sat myself in the lee of a rust-streaked beacon tower at the tip of the pier and watched bird activity all around me; gannets were flying and diving, two or three always in sight. Far off they sparkled against a darkened sky; close up I could barely believe the span of their wings. In attempts at a fish they suddenly swivel to point head downwards, tuck wings two-thirds in, and plummet. Sometimes the dive happens from high, high up, sometimes from just ten or twenty feet. In the split second before impact wings fully tuck-in and head and neck seems to stretch forwards and downwards as if in eagerness to reach their prey. Like javelins they pierce the waves with a dull splashing thump.

gannet at Ayr, pen & watercolour, 19x28.5cm

gannet take-off

I used elastic bands and a bulldog clip to prevent sketchbook from blowing forever open in the gusting wind. Spits of rain were coming and going as I painted. I stopped one watercolour to prevent the detail being destroyed.

As I was sitting painting a second rusty beacon that sits on the north breakwater, a large red cargo ship approached from the river-mouth docks, followed by a pilot. I thought my sense of perspective must be faulty as the large boat got closer and closer to the little island at the end of the north breakwater, then, 'thump', and the prow swung a few degrees towards me. The ship passed but left its mark in a now crumpled patch of concrete and stonework, scraped with red paint. On the BBC Radio Scotland 11pm news I heard that a ship had been "holed above the waterline but not sunk, today in Ayr"!

Breakwater and black guillemot, watercolour, 15x21cm

I was counting birds of course:

On or from the shore I saw:

black guillemot
sandwich tern
herring gull
lesser black-backed gull
feral pigeon
red-breasted merganser
rock pipit
house sparrow
pied wagtail
mute swan
an unknown small wader that flew in from the sea. Grey and speckled/streaked but I'm not good at waders and didn’t manage to catch any more details.

Elsewhere between station and shore were:
blue tit

How to get there:
Ayr is easy and quick to get to - it's only an hour by train from Glasgow Central. I explored just a small part of what there is to see and do: there are also lots of historic buildings; the Maclaurin Art Gallery; a walk south along sandy shore that in a couple of miles takes you to Alloway, birthplace of Robert Burns and location of Tam o' Shanter's famous Brig o' Doon.

the offending boat

after the crash

Thursday 16 May 2013

2013 - May BTO waterbird count, Linlithgow - Philpstoun

My monthly BTO WeBS count along the Union Canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun.

Wednesday 15th May 2013.

Start time 8.45am
Turnaround time 11am
End time 12 noon

An overcast day, but bright. A breeze was blowing but never particularly strong.

Things are very busy so I wont write in much detail.

Only fifteen minutes into my walk I saw a fox, pretty close. It had seen me first and stood stock-still, intently staring, neither of us moving for three or four minutes. If we were playing chicken, the fox lost; it moved first, slinking unconcernedly down the railway embankment and out of side.

The flood field is now better described as the large-puddle field and as a result, and perhaps also due to time of year, not many waterbirds were there.

Time to nest and to sing:

This time last month the migrants from Africa had just begun to return. Now swifts, whitethroats, and sedge warblers have joined the earlier incomers.

Sedge warblers rattled and churred frantically. I heard them at quite regular intervals in the long stretch between Park Farm and Philpstoun, probably six or seven territories along that mile of water.

Swifts screamed overhead.

Twice I heard a call I didn't know well; it was familiar, but I couldn't remember what until I saw two beautiful whitethroats with their sharp grey heads and, um, beautiful white throats.

It's very worthwhile getting to know bird songs - often it's how a bird will be seen, by first having heard it sing. Start with just a few, perhaps those you have in your garden. People say the best technique for learning is to watch the bird as it sings; it helps ingrain the song in your head. Xeno Canto website is amazing for listening to recordings of pretty much any bird, worldwide. Here's the sedge warbler I mentioned -

All along my route was evidence of courting, nesting, raising young. In at least three fields lapwings were busily and aerobatically chasing off crows: in each field I saw a parent sitting; in the large-puddle field I saw two separate parents with at least five chicks between them.

Water birds using flood-field:

Lapwing - 7, plus at least 5 young chicks                                 
Mallard - 2                                   
Shelduck - 2                

All other water birds eligible for WeBS count:

Lapwing - 2                                  
Mallard - 10                                  
Moorhen - 2

All birds seen:

Blue Tit                 
Carrion Crow                 
Collared Dove                 
Feral Pigeon                 
Great Tit                
Herring Gull                 
House Sparrow                 
Lesser Black-backed Gull                 
Meadow Pipit                 
Reed Bunting                 
Sand Martin                 
Sedge Warbler                 
Song Thrush                 
Tree Sparrow                 
Willow Warbler                 

Total Bird Species: 39 (one less than last month)

hawthorn hedgerow, excellent for wildlife

fox watching me and blackbird. blackbird watching fox and me. me watching fox and blackbird

lapwing during a brief respite from aerial battling with crows. the other lapwing sitting on nest slightly to right of photo.

lapwing and three chicks (you wont be able to see them). herd of cows sharing their field!

my count notes. biro ran out so I pressed very hard and rubbed it with brown chalk pencil once home

I seem to have written quite a bit after all. I find writing addictive.