Wednesday 27 February 2013

Humble beginnings.

In common with most birders I expect, I am frequently asked how I came to be interested in birds. Unlike most birders I am able to pinpoint an exact moment in my life when this happened.

I was an obnoxious little ankle-biter at the time and was driving my mother up the wall one wet and windy school holiday. In desperation and in the vain hope that I may settle down and do something quietly, she suggested I do some drawing.

Being a stroppy little toerag I asked her what exactly she thought I ought to draw. Next to her on the table was this book.

Front cover of BIRDS and their nests: Longacre Press Ltd. London. (1962)
She thrust it across the table at me and suggested I draw some birds; I began to flick through the pages looking at the bright images trying to decide which one to copy. The first few birds I found in it I knew from the garden where our family had put up feeders, but then I turned to page 42/3, what confronted me was a bird I had most definitely not seen in our garden. In fact I had never seen anything like it, the bird in question was a (Northern) Lapwing!

Illustration opposite p42. The Lapwing: Longacre Press Ltd. London. (1962)

The image of this bird excited me and I asked my elder brother if he had seen one and if so where? He promised to take me on a bike ride the following day to see one, and so the birding began!

Interesting too that it is a wader, the family of birds to which I have become inexplicably attached in later life.

The full and unabridged version of this touching little tale can be found in my forthcoming book Confessions of a Bird Guide which is due out in April 2013. 

In it you will be able to follow my development as a birder from snotty-nosed ankle-biter discovering birds for the first time, through fledgling birder, phased randy teenager, born again birder, twitcher, world birder and then taking on all comers as a guide in Brazil. 

This book tells it all (well, nearly all), from the hip, just the way it was!

Sunday 24 February 2013

Three new birds for the garden.

The other day we had a Feral Pigeon which was not so terribly exciting but took us to 32. The two we had this morning though took our breath away. Taking our garden total to 34 we have two new additions to the list. Lesser Redpoll and Eurasian Siskin.

Goldfinch, Siskin and Redpoll at the same feeder.
We were sitting talking and watching the feeders this morning when a large flock of Goldfinches arrived and with them a Lesser Redpoll and three Siskins, two females and a male.

Fortunately they stayed long enough for Elis to get her camera and shoot these record shots through the double glazing.
Lesser Redpoll

Goldfinch and Siskins

Busy feeders, a sight for sore eyes!

Male Siskin

Male Siskin

Siskin and Robin.

Trying to work out how many individual Blackbirds are coming to the garden is hard, but the maximum count we have had at any given moment 8 males and 5 females making at least 13 individuals. The birds seem to be coming and going all the time so I am willing to bet there are a few more than this in total. No matter how many there are we will enjoy their multitudes while they are still here and are pleased to be able help fatten them up before their push north.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Talking of hummingbirds...

... here's a fine selection for your from Elis' portfolio in no particular order:

Festive Coquette / Topetinho-verde / Lophornis chalybea: This is one of the smallest Brazilian hummingbirds. It is easy to see at feeders in the south-east of the country. The male displays by hovering in front of a perched female dancing from side to side with its magnificent frills splayed out.

Festive Coquette female.

Festive Coquette breeding male showing off his incredible plumage.

Brazilian Ruby / Beija-flor-rubi / Clytolaema rubricauda: As the name suggests this is a Brazilian endemic. It occurs only along the south-east coastal region of Brazil in Atlantic forest habitat. Comes readily to feeders but you have to get the angle just right to see the colourful throat patch of the male. Personally I think the female is a more attractive bird all round.

Brazilian Ruby female

Brazilian Ruby male.
Reddish Hermit / Rabo-branco-rubro / Phaethornis ruber: One of the real forest dwellers that seldom comes to feeders. It is very small and can easily be missed, but its bumble-bee hum is quite disticnctive along the forest paths. It will sit still and sing for long periiods, but its diminuitive size can make it hard to spot in the tangled forest foliage. Once found it can be observed and photographed for lengthy periods. Its song is a squeaky twittering that is quite pleasing to the ear and several of them will sing simultaneously in a loose lek covering a small part of the forest.

Reddish Hermit

Reddish Hermit
Stripe-breasted Starthroat / Bico-reto-de-banda-branca / Heliomaster squamosus: This is a bird that is not common along the coast. Indeed there have only been two records of it in Ubatub and Elis found both of them. The first was a sight record only but the second was the female bird below that she found and photographed at Jonas' house. The male is a stunning bird, this one was captured sitting on the mother-in-law's washing line.

Stripe-breasted Starthroat female.
Stripe-breasted Starthroat male
Frilled Coquette / Topetinho-vermelho / Lophornis magnificus: This species was sometime quite easy to find at Itatiaia where if frequented feeders  but it was by no means always so. Down on the coast it appeared most years in Spring for a few days so was presumably a passage migrant there. This is a male taken on the coast, it is not quite in full breeding plumage.

Frilled Coquette male.
Black-breasted Plovercrest / Beija-flor-de-topete / Stephanoxis lalandi: A bird of the highlands that we saw along the Agulhas Negras road in Itatiaia on a regular basis; however the easiest place by far to see it was at feeders in the garden of the Tres Pinheiros pousada (B+B) in Campos do Jordão. The feeders cannot be seen from the road but it is well worth staying there just to see this bird so well and up close. The female lacks the crest, bluish crown and the black bib.

Black-breasted Plovercrest male.
Saw-billed Hermit / Beija-flor-rajado / Ramphodon naevius: Probably the most observable hummingbird in the Atlantic forest. The squeaks and calls of this bird seem to be audible the whole time one is walking the trails. Occasionally it will flash past you along the track but is always hard to see well. Unless that is you visit the feeders at Folha Seca. Here you can see them almost constantly and get stunning close-up views of them. They will often hover in front of your face just to check you out. Here it is possible to study them well and to be able to see the differing bills of the males and females. The males bill is straight and has a small hook at tip, the female has a slightly down-curved bill and no hook. These noisy. lively and large hummers can give endless amusement as they chase each other around the feeders and gardens, often perching to allow excellent views and photography.

Saw-billed Hermit male
Saw-billed Hermit female
White-throated Hummingbird / Beija-for-de-papo-branco / Leucochloris albicollis: Another highland bird that occasionally found its way down to the coast. This handsome beast was really easy to see anywhere in high ground, its distinctive song was far reaching and often gave away its presence.

White-throated Hummingbird.
White-chinned Sapphire / Beija-flor-roxo / Hylocharis cyanus: Probably the most inappropriately named hummer of the region. There are one or two miniscule white feathers on the chin of this bird, but yu'd be hard pressed to see them. When you do see this bird the most striking thing you'll notice will be the blood-red bill with a black tip. This little bird likes to sit and sing from bare branches at the forest edge and along trails. It can often be very hard to find due to its size and its habit iof remianing high in the canopy. When it comes down to feeders at eye level its true beauty can be seen. The female is much less impressive and can sometime cause confusion with other species.

White-chinned Sapphire male.

Friday 22 February 2013

Poetic words.

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. The hummingbird's delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life's sweetest creation.(Words taken from a card distributed by Papyrus.

Reddish Hermit

Mind you, if you have ever seen them battling like dogs in a pit around a feeder you may have a different view. These little gems can be highly territorial and belligerent even killing each other in extreme cases.

Dusky-throated Hermits fighting.
Photo: Tommy Pedersen.


Friday 15 February 2013

Meeting an old friend.

While Elis and I were still living in Ubatuba we were pretty fed up when the locals had been suppressing sightings of Red-ruffed Fruitcrows that had been appearing in palm stands around the town from us. This unnecessary nastiness was really upsetting us, but we were even more upset one morning to find one of these birds freshly dead at the foot of our apartment building. It had clearly flown into one of the windows.

The fruitcrow found freshly dead you can see the eye is still moist.
At that time we were collecting birds (we did not kill them, we only collected birds we found dead, road-kill for example) for the São Paulo University Zoological Museum (MZUSP) and kept the bird on ice. At the same time we became aware that the Natural History Museum in London was also very keen to source specimens of Cotingids for its research collection. After a brief word with Luís Fábio Silveira, the curator at São Paulo and Mark Adams the curator at London, it was decided that with the correct permits the bird would be sent to England to enhance the British collection instead of staying in São Paulo where they already had a number of examples.

This week we went to visit the bird collection for Wader Quest and Mark showed us the prepared skin of the bird we had collected, it was beautifully done and we hope it will prove useful in the collection.

The prepared skin: Natural History Museum - London
We also spoke to Dr Joanne Cooper who said that she was delighted that the removed body had also been preserved in alcohol, a first for the museum's anatomical collection.

A proud moment: Natural History Museum - London
All in all we felt quite happy with the outcome of this unfortunate bird's demise which has been slightly mitigated by the fact that it has been preserved for posterity and science as part of this great collection.  Here is the label that it was given in São Paulo, it does not have a NHM London label yet.

Does this qualify me as an 'ologist'?


Thursday 14 February 2013

Looking for Woodcock.

Back in January with all the sightings of Woodcock up and down the country due to the snowy conditions, Elis and I decided to set out in search of our own scanning along woodland edges and hedgerows, we were wholly unsuccessful but we did come across this single Lapwing in the middle of a field and in the next field there was another on a similar patch of uncovered grass.

Lone Lapwing in snowy field.
We also came across this Meadow Pipit hanging around the street where my parents live in Newport Pagnell. They are common enough in the surrounding fields but this is the first time we have seen one within the estate.

Meadow Pipit.
Nearly summer plumage in nearly summer weather!
Further afield in Rickmansworth we walked around  Bury Lake. The lake was largely frozen but there were some interesting ducks on the open water area.

Pretending not to be enjoying the snow.

Wigeon pair and Gadwall (left)

Goldeneye pair (and moorhen)

Tufted Duck males, handsome beasts!
These Moorhens were having some difficulty scampering about on the ice.


... and Dean!
We also came across some little birds frantically searching for food to fight off the chill.

One of my favourit birds; Long-tailed Tit.

The hardy Wren

No snow scene is complete without a Robin.

Another potential Christmas Card for next year!
(Once we've removed the twigs!)
There you go!


Song Thrush

The diminuitive Goldcrest.
Larger birds included;


and Great Spotted Woodpecker knocking a tree about!
Raptors featured both at Bury Lake...

Red Kite being seen off by a Carrion Crow.
and on the way home.

Sitting tight.

Taking flight.
Of course with all this fluffy white stuff about Elis couldn't help getting all arty.