Friday, May 29, 2020


A scene I passed on my walk a few days ago reminded me of this famous painting called The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet.

Gleaning was the tradition where the poor were allowed onto fields after a harvest to collect anything edible that had been left behind. It survived in one form until my childhood in the 1950s, when my grandmother worked on a farm in a rural part of the country that was in some ways still quite feudal. After the wheat harvest all the farmhands and their families waited around the field while the harvester paused before 'the last cut', which left just a rectangle of corn in the middle of the field, full of rabbits. Then the harvester would start again and the rabbits would be shot as they raced away, and given to families. My grandmother was highly skilled at skinning rabbits with a wicked little knife that she sharpened on the doorstep, giving me their tails afterwards.

By Jean-Fran├žois Millet. Public Domain,

The gleaners I've been watching are birds. Until a few days ago these fields were lush green meadows of cultivated forage grasses, tall enough to hide a hare. Then, in the space of a couple of days of fine, sunny weather the grass was cut, turned and dried and carried away to make silage, leaving the fields shorn and yellow. 

So now the fields are full of birds, come to glean the insects and soil animals that are suddenly so accessible. Easy pickings, to feed their fledglings.
There are jackdaws  ..... and ...

Scores of rooks from the local rookeries, and some crows 

And flocks of starlings that keep themselves apart from the other gleaners.

And even a few curlews, flying in from rough pastures that are not cut for silage....

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wrens in the garden

Wrens nest in our garden almost every year, and usually announce their presence with a loud burst of song that often takes me by surprise. This year they have a nest in an ivy-covered tree stump.

They tend to be quite secretive during the nesting season and spend a lot of time foraging close to the ground, but if I just sit quietly and wait they often become more confiding, allowing me to watch their foraging behaviour.

This year, for the first time, I've noticed their predilection for aphids. The underside of the leaves of our blackcurrant bushes are infested with greenfly and the wrens are constant visitors, picking off the insects with a beak that is akin to a pair of fine forceps. 

The individual food items may be tiny but they must have a high calorific value, because each aphid will be full of plant sap, which is predominantly sucrose.

I imagine that there may be other valuable prey amongst the aphids, including ladybird and hoverfly larvae. 

Being small and agile is an asset for a bird exploiting this food source, though I have also seen house sparrows visiting the blackcurrants for aphid snacks on several occasions.

A young wren from the first successful brood this year

Thursday, May 14, 2020

A mirid bug nymph in my vegetable delivery

I've always hoped that I might find something interesting in fruit or vegetables bought from a greengrocers or supermarket - maybe a tropical spider or a scorpion. No luck yet, but this little mirid bug nymph Calocorus alpestris turned up in a cauliflower that we had delivered from a supermarket during Lockdown.

This is a sap-sucking plant bug - you can see its syringe-like mouthparts in the photo above. Its presence is rather reassuring, an indication that the cauliflower isn't loaded with pesticides. If it's safe for Calocoris to feed on, it's surely safe for a human to eat.

This is a nymph, with stubby, partially developed wings, and it will need to go through a final moult before it can become airborne.

On the British Bugs web site it's described as a local species, often found in damp woodlands, with a mainly upland and northern distribution in Britain, feeding on nettles.

I must thank @BritishBugs , @WildJennySteel and @Tracker_Bob on Twitter for identifying this for me.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Eric Simms' account of the dawn chorus in oak woodland.

The dawn chorus in an oak wood - surely the best reason to get out of bed before sunrise. Illustration by J.A Shepherd, from Songs of the Birds by Walter Garstang 1922.

Eric Simms. Woodland Birds. Collins 1971 p110

I remember one such chorus from a Midland oakwood. The morning was still and cold with white patches of mist clinging to the stream-sides that fringed the great expanse of oaks. In the far darkness a skylark began to rise in song and then at four o’clock a whitethroat sang a rapid little phrase and fell silent once more. A few minutes later a mob of carrion crows in the wood woke up in a frenzy of raucous caws and wild gobbled notes. This set off the rooks which with softer, conversational notes began to stir nearby. A cuckoo called in the distance and a plaintive ‘tic-tic’ from a robin brought a full song phrase from its neighbour. At eight minutes past four two redstarts started singing almost simultaneously and were followed by blackbird song, wood pigeon coos and the ‘ki-wik’ of a still-active tawny owl. As the dawn gradually rose the chorus reached its magnificent peak of song. The songs of song thrush, a garden warbler and a blackcap from a tree above could all be distinguished. By five o’clock wrens, chiffchaffs, chaffinches, tree pipits, nuthatches, marsh, blue and great tits could be heard, and their songs echoed through the wood. Gradually their chorus began to die away, leaving only a treecreeper and a stock dove in song, with the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker. With the dawn the colours of the bluebell glades brightened, and I saw a grizzled dog fox pick his way through the wet bracken and a mud-spattered boar badger trundled back to his sett on a slope in the wood. The sun was beginning to rise and as the birds began to feed and set about the affairs of the day the chorus died away.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Coronavirus lockdown: still more birds

In a normal year, spring would be the time that I would have visited many of the best wildlife locations here in northern England - the Lake District, Teesdale, Weardale, the Tyne valley, the Yorkshire Dales and the Northumberland and Yorkshire coasts. Instead, the coronavirus lockdown has confined me close to home, but it has been a real eye-opener. By following the same route around my local patch every morning, I've been able to watch spring unfold leaf by leaf, and have come to appreciate a the wealth of wildlife within one mile of home, here in the North Pennine foothills.

So, here are some birds seen within the last couple of weeks.

Blue tit, just at the moment when oak buds begin to burst

Singing male chaffinch. With so little traffic on the roads, hearing bird song so clearly every morning has been pure delight.

The calls of curlews in the pastures have been a constant accompaniment to early morning walks

I see magpies feeding on the ground in one of the smallholdings along my route

Cock pheasant

Perhaps the greatest, most uplifting joy has been the song of skylarks. Fine weather on most days has meant that they have been singing, high in a clear blue sky, I must pass at least a dozen pairs every morning.

Song thrush

I always knew there were yellowhammers here, but never realised there were so many.

There is a large pond hidden amongst the trees, which is where this pair of Canada geese will be nesting. Sometimes they graze in the pastures.

Partridges, like yellowhammers, are a red list species but they seem to be doing fairly well here. As the grass in the pastures grows taller they are becoming more difficult to spot. They spend quite a lot of time in an oilseed rape crop, where you can sometimes see them along the tractor wheelings.

A large muck heap, on the edge of one of the pastures, is a favourite place for pied wagtails to hunt flies.

I saw the first swallow in the third week of April but, nearly three weeks later they haven't arrived in large numbers yet.

A tree full of wood pigeons

I hear this blackbird singing every morning, but he rarely shows himself this clearly

Golden plovers in a sheep pasture. Surprise visitors, staying just one day on their way to breeding sites on the fells of Weardale.

Lapwings in the pastures now have eggs, so they become vociferous if anyone comes too close.

Whitethroat, nesting in brambles on the edge of an oilseed rape field.

One morning, I watched jackdaws plucking hairs from the winter coast of a horse, for use as nest lining

I'm seeing goldfinches more frequently, now that colt'sfoot and dandelion seeds are ripening -  favourite food items

One morning, I saw these linnets on the road ahead of me, collecting scraps of sheep wool for nest lining.

By early May many birds had nestlings to feed. This starling was collecting earthworms in a smallholding sheep pasture.

Some that got away:
Great spotted woodpecker - just a flypast, too quick for me
Goldcrest - early morning on a dull day, so no light and constantly moving
Oystercatcher - away in the distance in a field, probably on their way to breeding sites in Weardale
Sparrowhawk - too high, too fast