Fledglings and Caterpillars

Some “fledglings” are just too big for the word.

Okay, it’s recently out of its nest and yes it’s doing the wing-flappy thing and calling for its parents to feed it, but it’s just too big and dangerous-looking. For me a fledgling is a small vulnerable thing. Not a harbinger of doom with great big talons.

So I’m going to call it a young Raven.

For the time being anyway. Without hearing their call, I find it tricky differentiating with certainty between Crows and Ravens – particularly when they’re at a distance, which they usually are. There were no distinctive “honk-honk” calls from the adult birds I saw up on the plain a couple of days ago.

I managed to get one or two pictures of the them in flight and although they had longish wings – a Raven characteristic – the tail was not particularly wedge-shaped, which is also a main identifier for Ravens. 

I tried to get an idea of the length of the young bird by using the 4 inch fence posts as a scale/guide. By my calculations (treat with caution) the young bird was a bit more than 21 inches long. So if the upper limit for crows is twenty inches, and the lower limit for Ravens is 21½ inches (RSPB guide), that does suggest the young bird was a Raven.

And when you compare the adult bird on the right of the above picture with the young hungry one on the left, the adult is a bit bigger still – more like twenty two inches (using the same method). But then I think the adult was a little closer in this photo so maybe that distorted things. I’m almost a hundred percent but not quite.

Ravens have been spreading across the country from the West in recent years. I know of one or two other nests not far away (their distinctive “honk-honk” was heard) which have produced young so it looks like another good year for the species. Not all birds have done so well. I learned the other day that a lot of Great Tit and Blue Tit nests have failed this year due to a lack of caterpillars following the record-breaking cold May.

Apparently those parents that did raise young successfully often did so with the help of suet pellets from garden feeding stations. Which ties in with what I saw a few times with the fledgling Blue Tits that I photographed a couple of weeks back.

The bright pink blob turned out to be one of the suet pellets that Chantal had put out on the bird feeder. Apparently they’re made with berry juice which gives them the strong pink tinge.

The nesting season continues. With more insect life about now, current nesters will probably have a better chance of success. I’ve noticed a bullfinch standing guard in an Elder bush on the other side of the field.

He occasional drops down and goes into the brambles where I suspect the female is on their nest. I saw the male goldfinch of the pair nesting in the ivy tree doing a similar standing sentry thing for a while a month or so back. I wonder if it’s a finch thing. They seem so vulnerable to me out on display like that – no shortage of Sparrow Hawks here – but then our Goldfinches survived and raised a brood so it can’t be that bad a tactic.

An upside down Goldfinch Fledgeling feeding on aphids on the willow tree.

I’ve now also spotted a female Whitethroat, and a delicate wee thing she is. I’m guessing she’s partnered up with the male that’s been around for a while now.  She’s even more secretive and cautious than him.

Rare appearance of the shy female Whitethroat, keeping her distance

The male did come close enough the other day for me to get a couple of better photos, but he was still flitting about in amongst the undergrowth, making auto-focusing difficult. Photographically challenging, but beautiful little birds.

Other species seen during the Raven walk included a Yellowhammer and a Stonechat, both singing their hearts out. I’m guessing they were proclaiming their territory or maybe trying to attract females. Whatever, they should have a better chance of success now.

Yellowhammer in full flow
Stonechat contributing to the background twitter of all the other downland birds.

So the unusually cold weather in spring this year had a devastating effect on caterpillars and the bird life that depended on them. But not all caterpillars have had a tough time of it. A couple of weeks ago I noticed an infestation of caterpillars on an Aaron’s Rod plant which had appeared in the gravel by our back door.

I initially thought they might be caterpillars of the Large White Butterfly – they had a similar yellowy green colouring – but it seemed strange that they were on an Aaron’s Rod plant, their normal food plants being of the cabbage family. But as the caterpillars grew bigger and I looked closer it became apparent they were something different. A little research revealed them to be caterpillars of the The Mullein Moth (the Aarons Rod is also know as Great Mullein). Their black and yellow colouring suggests they might be toxic which, I’m guessing, is why no hungry birds picked them off.

Apparently once the Mullein caterpillars have had their fill, they wander off and find a suitable spot to bury themselves and pupate, only reappearing as moths two or three – sometimes as much as five – years later.

After the driest and sunniest spring on record in 2020, and the coldest May on record this year, who knows what kind of a spring will await them.

Mixed Feelings

We now know the location of the Goldfinch nest. They’ve chosen an old ivy-clad, and previously pollarded, willow tree that died two or three years ago from Honey Fungus. At the time we cut off all the dead willow branches to use for kindling, and the ivy has since pretty much taken it over. We now call it the ivy tree. The Goldfinches are nesting near the top, on the field side.

The “Ivy Tree” is to the far left.

I’ve seen one of them, I assume the male, spending a lot of time hanging around outside at various vantage points. A securing cable for the near-by pole for the electricity line is a favourite, if uncomfortable-looking, spot.

He’s been singing his heart out which is his way, I think, of proclaiming his territory. I’ve seen him chase off other Goldfinches that have been passing by or pottering about in near-by trees. And then his partner occasionally pops out from the nest and they go off to do a bit of together foraging.

Yesterday one of them arrived back at the nest with what looked like a piece of grass or two, so maybe they’re still applying the finishing touches. Finished or not, the female is spending most of her time on the nest at the moment.

The thick coat of ivy seems to make the old willow tree a popular location. Pigeons have nested there in the past and a pair of Robins are currently nesting further down, about three foot off the ground. There was a pair of them nesting there last summer and the young fledged successfully – we watched them leave the nest one by one on a sunny afternoon – so it may well be the same couple back again.

In the winter I looked over the area where I thought the Robins’ nest was, but couldn’t see anything. The old tree trunk is hollow and there’s a long narrow opening which the ivy has now largely overgrown.

The entrance to the hollow inside extends maybe a couple of feet above from where it’s visible.

I suspect the Robins might be entering through the ivy and that the nest is actually inside the tree. Then again, the ivy growth is pretty thick and the nest might just be nestled against the trunk with the leaves covering it.

One of the residents. They don’t like going in when anyone’s watching.

There’s more than one pair of Robins in the garden and field, and they’ve had a few tussles lately. We’ve also noticed them having a go at a pair Dunnocks, who I think may be the pair now nesting in the largish bramble patch (to the right in the picture at the top) along with the Thrushes and Long Tailed Tits.

Robin with Attitude – is there any other kind

It’s all pretty competitive out there. And dangerous. The old willow tree with the Goldfinches and Robins is next to a couple of conifers in which I suspect there are one or two other nests as there’s been a lot of small bird activity there recently. Every time a member of the crow family flies by a flurry of small birds raise the alarm and chases after them.  They went berserk a few days ago when two jays passed through at the same time. 

A potential nest-raider watching over the garden, looking out for any give-away signs

A lot of birds become more predatory at this time of year it seems. We have a pair of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers regularly visiting the garden. They’ve always been welcome visitors in the past, but they’ve taken Great Tit chicks and Blue Tit chicks from our nest boxes in recent years – once wiping out an entire brood, so my feelings about them have become a little mixed. 

I’ve also had a soft spot for our resident pair of Carrion Crows. I saw one of them, a year or two ago, messing about in the stream and watched as it selected a white stone from the gravel bed and then flew off to his partner in the field who he presented it to. Which was kinda cute and endearing. Then a few days ago I stepped out of the back door and heard a loud commotion by the stream – wild screaching and flapping. I saw a Crow with what I thought initially might be a duckling in its beak – we’ve had mallard broods here in the past – but a male Blackbird’s loud alarm call, and its sudden appearance chasing after the Crow, which was flying away across the field almost immediately, suggested otherwise. Seeing the fluttering, screaming bird in the crows beak was pretty shocking. I thought it was a bit early for fledglings – I haven’t seen any about – but on the other hand I wasn’t aware that Crows took mature adults.

It all happened very quickly and I only managed to get a hurried picture of the Crow with its prey when it reached the other side of the field. The yellow edges of it’s gaping beak as it was being carried away, and its mottled chest, suggest the victim may well have been a fledgeling rather than an adult, but I don’t think there’s enough detail to be sure. Whatever, it’s now also a case of mixed feeling when it comes to crows. 

Another spring casualty

There’s a lot of new life about at the moment, but quite a bit of sudden death too. I guess that’s the nature of Nature. It’s tough out there.