Monday, 26 November 2012

A wood duck comes visiting

It's been wet for much of the year in the UK and too many people are even now facing the prospect of their homes being flooded.  The river here is very high and flowing fast - pretty much in spate.  Fortunately the Environment Agency and the lock keepers are controlling the volume of water well but it's unsafe for rowers to be out in these conditions and most boat owners only take their boats out on the river if they have to.  Fortunately, there have been a few bright days in London to alleviate the wet and stormy weather.

One of the rare bright mornings last week

We heard sad news this morning for two boat owners downstream from us.  With all the rain and the concerns over flooding, two boats on Ash Island caught fire early this morning.  One sunk and the other is a burnt wreck but fortunately no one was injured.

A male wood duck

This handsome bird and his partner have joined up with a pair of mandarin ducks and fly here twice a day from Bushy Park for breakfast and dinner.  He is quite aggressive with most of the other ducks, including other mandarin ducks, and is very vocal.  Even the thug of a pigeon thinks twice about beating him up!  It's incredibly colourful here when the Busy Park exotic ducks grace our deck and garden.  Usually 3 or 4 pairs of mandarins turn up with a couple of spare males and now the wood ducks have joined the throng.  An old and arthritic mandarin male still visits most days but he is way down in the pecking order and has to wait his turn.  About a week ago he could hardly stand and, when he didn't visit for several days, I thought he must have died but he's back and seems to have recovered a little now.

Four male 'mandies' on their favourite feeding station

Some of the mandarin ducks prefer to feed from the deck and others insist on being fed on the table.  The more dominant males are incredible to watch.  When one of the weaker male mandies is feeding they will either land on its back and humiliate him or fly at an angle and kick it off the table with one of their webbed feet!  Mind you, the pigeon is just as aggressive with all the ducks and sometimes drives them off the table or deck by sideways kicking them or striking them with one of his wings. Unfortunately this picture was taken through the French windows so it's not as sharp as I would have liked it to be.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Swapping the Thames for beautiful British Columbia

We've been on holiday for some time and therefore have no new images of local wildlife to show.  Instead, since photographing wildlife is my passion, I thought I'd showcase a small selection of images taken while in Canada.  It would be difficult to describe, without resorting to superlatives, the stunning scenery, beauty, vast open spaces and impressive wildlife that we enjoyed daily while there.  Alberta was wonderful and British Columbia rightly lives up to its title - Beautiful British Columbia.

With the exception of a couple of days we were blessed with the sunniest and warmest autumn weather since records began.  The night skies were incredible because there was no light pollution and the silence was profound.  Part of the holiday, shared with three good friends, involved an eight day private charter through a small section of the Inside Passage.

My main objective was to see the Kermode (Spirit) Bear, a rare white subspecies of the black bear.  We had also hoped to see a wolf in the wild and whales and sea otters were also on our wish list.  Years ago we drove the Alaska Highway and were fortunate enough to see dozens of grizzly bears at close quarters but we never saw any black bears so they, too, were on our list.  We saw everything and more and had the holiday of a lifetime.  Something tells me that this won't be our last visit to Canada where we met with nothing but courtesy, kindness and exhilarating experiences.

Humpback whales in the distance

We'd been promised whales and we were not disappointed!  These humpbacks were in the process of bubble net feeding and, as we got closer to them, we could see the circle of bubbles rising to the surface of the water just before the whales rose up with gaping mouths to 'catch' the fish they'd herded into their circle of bubbles.

Whale rises up to feed within its circle of bubbles

One of the two humpbacks can be seen above within the bubble circle the pair created.  We watched them hunt like this for about half an hour, spouting, diving, blowing bubbles and then lunging up through the school of fish trapped within the circle to take their fill.

Whale with its jaws wide open to filter the fish

The tails of two humpback whales

Before the whales brought the show to an end they swam under our 54ft boat and then gave us a farewell wave of their tales.  In addition to their magnificent performance they also left us with more than a whiff of whale breath, a pungent smell of stale fish, better remembered rather than bottled!

Just one example of the beauty surrounding us

The scenery really is breathtaking, even during the two days of typical rainforest weather - dark clouds and swirling mists rather than warm sunshine and clear blue skies.  I have never seen so many waterfalls, many of them dramatic, and while we were moored the only sounds were natural ones, the torrent of a waterfall, the sound of water lapping the hull, the high pitched sound made by eagles, the warning calls of ravens or the blowing of nearby humpback whales.

A lazy seal refuses to budge from the comfort of his haul out rocks

We saw plenty of seals, most of which seemed quite curious about us and kept us under observation but didn't get too close to our boat.  This one just took us in his stride, not bothering to take to the water like the majority of them.  We were even fortunate enough to see several sea otters.  They were hunted for their valuable fur and very few remained but now, at last, a few are returning to these waters.

An immature bald eage

We didn't see as many eagles as we'd expected to but we had been spoiled, some years back, when we visited Haines, Alaska, during the fall and saw large numbers of them enjoying a 'salmon fest' following the return of the salmon to their spawning grounds.  Here, an immature bald eagle poses on a log close to an inlet where salmon were waiting for their chance to travel upstream to spawn.  In the background is one of the many waterfalls we saw during our eight day passage.

Kermode bear

More than anything I had hoped to catch a glimpse of a spirit bear and we were thrilled when one suddenly appeared across the river from us on a VERY wet Sunday.  Nothing could dampen our spirits after our first sighting, only twenty minutes after arriving at the river bank, and we waited (in vain) another seven hours in the cold and wet in the hope of seeing other bears, including the much more common black ones.  It was worth the discomfort and we still had fun chatting in whispers among ourselves, but as the river rose with the sheer volume of rainwater, I realised that the water had risen too high for a bear to be able to wade in and catch fish.  We did, however, enjoy watching dippers in the calmer waters at the edge, and a pine marten also put in a brief appearance.

A young male grizzly bear heads our way

Later in the trip we reached grizzly country and were also fortunate enough to see a female black bear with three young cubs.  The young grizzly, above, came almost too close for comfort while we were in our zodiac watching the 'interplay' between a grizzly mum with three cubs, across the water from us, and this young bear.  He showed a great deal of interest in the female and kept looking wistfully in her direction but she saw him only as a threat to her cubs.  When he attempted to swim across to her she 'charged' him and sent him scurrying.

Young grizzly cub enjoys a rest while his mum seeks out more salmon

This was one of two cubs that wandered along the shoreline with their mum and picked up scraps of dead/dying salmon.  I loved the way he just sat on the log having a gentle scratch.  Later on we saw a mother with a much smaller cub.  She tried to get it to swim across to where the salmon were more prolific but it couldn't keep up with her and was struggling against the tide and crying out in distress so, in the end, she swam back to it and they returned to shore.

A tender moment between a mother grizzly and one of her cubs

We saw so much interaction between a number of different grizzly families and lone males.  The mothers were nearly always cautious and would give ground rather than risk confrontation.  I watched one cub having a game with its mum, standing up on its hind legs and batting her with its paws.  She responded by gently nuzzling it and mock biting its shoulder.

To be surrounded by these magnificent creatures and to see so many other truly awesome sights was an immense pleasure and we shall always remember these experiences.  Even the fleeting glimpse of a lone wolf made an impression and we felt privileged to witness nature in such unspoilt surroundings.  We ended our trip with three days of 'rehabilitation to civilisation' in Vancouver, a beautiful, vibrant city.  The Syliva Hotel was the perfect place to end a perfect holiday.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Beautiful . . . but deadly - the mink!

How sad that such a strikingly sleek and handsome creature should be so deadly.  The north American mink is not indigenous to Britain.  It was imported here to be raised for the fur trade and kept in far from ideal conditions which prompted animal rights activists to release many of these creatures from a number of mink farms.  These beautiful beasts thrived in the wild and, as man and otter are their only predators, they bred and spread through our waterways, wiping out water voles from many areas and killing coots, moorhens, mallards, tufted ducks, other waterfowl and fish along the way.  I've even seen one attacking a swan!

The island has had a problem with mink for 16 years and below are some images of the most recent killer.  Looking at it I find it is enough to melt some people's hearts and there was a time when I wouldn't have wanted to eradicate mink in our area until I experienced some of the devastation just one 'cute' little mink can cause.

I have saved several swans and many ducks from the jaws of various mink over the years but have lost count of the number of waterfowl I've been unable to protect.  When you see a duck in its death throes, being drowned by a mink, and you can't get close enough to scare off the mink it's very upsetting.  Worse still has been to find partially eaten ducks, their throats torn out and the rest left to rot, while the mink goes on to take another victim the same day.  I've watched helplessly as entire coot families are 'picked off' and I've also found the dessicated remains of tufted ducks scattered around.  It is heartbreaking . . . and yet I still cannot look at a mink without seeing its beauty.  It isn't the mink's fault that it is in the UK and thriving.  Humans and the fur trade are to blame.

 Young mink sunning itself in a neighbour's garden

 It seemed quite relaxed as it lay on the ground drying its fur after a swim

 It's hard to believe this is the face of a killer
Relaxing in another garden next to the water's edge

A few days ago I watched this young mink swim across the river from the far side.  Its presence spread terror among the ducks which panicked and flew to the centre of the river setting up a series of alarm calls.  After several minutes four of them followed the mink from a safe distance as it swam downstream until they lost sight of it.  About ten minutes later I spotted the mink swimming away towards an upstream neighbour's garden where it hauled out to dry off.  It obviously hadn't succeeded in its hunt for breakfast this time but I thought of all the ducks and their young that had disappeared within days of hatching this year.

Mallard with 10 day old ducklings

We had every hope that this mallard might keep at least some of her ducklings now that the herons, crows and magpies were no longer feeding their young.  However, according to islander Chris W, a heron gradually picked one off after another from nearby Duck Ait.  Finally, she was down to two and she kept these for about four days and then they, too, disappeared. Whether it was heron, pike or mink we'll never know.

 Mallard with the two remaining ducklings

 A tufted duck with two of the four young she hatched

For a while we thought that this tufted duck might just raise the two survivors as she looked after them pretty well but we noticed the crow swooping down on them a number of times.  The inevitable happened and one was left but this one really seemed to be a survivor.  I was foolish enough to say to Dave that I thought it was now big enough to 'make it'!  Famous last words . . . the next day it was gone.  It really is very sad.

Mother tufty with junior who had become a demon diver

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Winners and losers

There have been very few survivors among the ducks, grebes and other waterbirds in our area.  Sadly our devoted tufted duck gave up on her eggs in the end.  When we looked in the box we realised why.  There were 29 eggs in total and some of them were beginning to go bad.  We're still not sure which other tufty was 'sharing' the nest but it was very sad to see such dedication go to waste!

 Too many eggs for one duck to hatch

It hasn't been the greatest year for tufted ducklings and, although we've seen a few around over the past few months, they are only here for a day or two and then they disappear. We've seen no survivors.  The image below shows one (probably day old) duckling, a one-off sighting, and there were also four young tufties diving for food with their mum but they too never reappeared.

 We only saw this baby for five minutes

For a while we started to have hope that, as the weather improved and the river flow lessened more ducklings would survive to adulthood but, so far, there is only one duck that seems to have raised about eight or ten ducklings to their teens!  The mallard pictured below showed up with six, never to be seen again.  The mink family has been pretty active but I think that the heron and the crows have been extra predatoryl this year!

These ducklings only lasted a couple of days

Below is the only successful mallard mum we are aware of. She turned up with twelve youngsters and then took them away for a while but occasionally brought them back to feed here.  I think the waterbirds are faring better further upstream though, perhaps because the current is less around Sunbury Court Island and other quieter areas and also because there seems to be less crow activity there.

The only successful mallard we've seen so far

HB has been sitting for almost a month now so she may succeed in raising her ducklings.  One of us will have to be around on the day as the ducklings won't be able to get out of the hanging basket as it is too deep.  We hope we'll have images of the event and the ducklings next time!

The only young grebe we've seen in this area 

This teenage grebe is the only youngster we've seen around but at least it has now made it to 'almost' adulthood.  The parents have stopped feeding it and it is having to fend for itself.

The four cygnets are also getting very big now and their feathers are beginning to show signs of turning white.  They still come round with their parents and are persistent when it comes to begging for wheat.  I suppose it won't be too long before the parents drive them away to fend for themselves.  It seems strange, after all the nurturing, that so many adult waterbirds turn on their young when they've reached a certain age!

The Royal Barge, Gloriana, passing our house

Monday, 16 July 2012

What are 24 eggs doing in one nest box?

Strange things are going on in the tufted duck world and more than one duck has been using the nest box (pictured below).     Some of the eggs are stacked on top of each other - I counted at least 24 yesterday.

 Twenty four eggs seems rather excessive

 A while back I looked inside one of our riverside nesting boxes and found two eggs.  The next day there were five, the following day seven, and the day after ten! Ducks only lay one egg a day so we were mystified. 

At least two tufted ducks and possibly a third (or a mallard) have been using the same nest.  By early July there were twenty four eggs. Then, one day, I saw a female tufty swimming away from the nest with an egg in her beak.  She ate the contents and returned to the nest. The next day, the same thing happened and we think that, with so many eggs in one box, several may have cracked while being rolled?  Alternatively, if several tufties were sharing the same nest perhaps one was trying to get rid of its rival's eggs.

We wondered how the nest sharing would work and whether the females would take it in turn to sit on the eggs. One female, however, 'laid claim' to all the eggs and 'saw off' her rivals.  The adjacent nest box soon had two eggs but was later abandoned. Then the eggs disappeared but, bizarrely, two damaged eggs turned up inside another nest box on the top deck.  They hadn't been there a couple of days before so we think the crow was the thief!

The resident tufty heading back into her nest box

Several weeks later a tufty laid a fresh egg inside the adjacent riverside box and there are now four but I think these have also been abandoned.  In the meantime another female tufty nested in dense bracken in our bog garden but the fox must have discovered the nest and taken the eggs.   Last week a family of mink were found in the 'hold' of a neighbour's houseboat.  Mink are killers for the sake of it so I'm worried for the safety of the nesting ducks.  I've heard that three mink have been trapped (one a youngster) but islanders think there are more around.  I hope not.

Teenage great crested grebe racing to grab a fish from one of its parents

The attrition rate amongst our smaller water birds has been ninety nine percent this year so far.  The only known survivor is a young great crested grebe which survived in spite of the fast flowing river following months of rain.  Against all odds . . . and a strong current, it has managed to survive and is looking quite strong and healthy. During a brief and very welcome break from persistent rain the sun shone for half an hour and I managed to get out with the camera and photograph the young grebe rushing for a fish from one of its parents.  In spite of the rain it was a warm day and there were plenty of small fry to be had so the youngster was full after a couple of hours.  We just hope that it makes it to adulthood.

 The young grebe keeping a watchful eye out for its parents in the hope of more food

 Storm clouds over Hampton

The sky was so black overhead and when I glanced downstream I noticed this amazing dividing line in the sky.  Not long after I took this picture we endured another dramatic deluge!  Rumour has it that scientists in Antarctica are experimenting with weather patterns in an attempt to control future droughts, floods and heatwaves etc. If it's true, then it's time they stopped interfering with Nature and the environment!

One piece of promising news is that HB is back.  She's been dithering about, trying to decide which hanging basket to nest in, and has led me a merry dance!  First of all it was going to be the basket she used last year on the outside edge, then she opted for the garden side one that she used in the Spring. I duly planted up the other basket but she decided that she fancied the riverside basket after all and kicked out some of the plants.  I then removed all the plants so that she could her use her preferred basket only to find that she'd changed her mind again the next day and has now settled for the one overlooking the garden.  She currently has seven eggs and I've re-planted the riverside hanging basket!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

What's yours is mine as well

It's been an unusual couple of weeks.  The upstream swans with five cygnets 'kidnapped' the lone cygnet from the lagoon swans.  There's an obvious difference in size between the 'acquired' cygnet and their own five. Since then there have been custody battles between the rival parents. We now see only four cygnets with no sign of the larger one and one of the five.  Who knows what has happened to them?

Spot the size difference

Here is a picture of the family of five cygnets, taken last week, with the 'kidnapped' larger cygnet (third from left) happily part of its new family.

The other strange occurrence to do with 'sharing' has been the occupation of one of our duck nesting boxes.  I discovered two eggs one morning and started to keep tabs on which duck was using it.  The next morning there were four eggs when I looked, which meant that two ducks were sharing the same box, which can happen occasionally.  What really surprised us though was when we saw a tufted duck go into the box later in the morning and, when we checked it again there were five eggs!  Has anyone heard of three ducks sharing the same nest?  Yesterday only two eggs were added but, when we checked this morning one was broken.  We think the crow has found the nest and is raiding it.  We removed the broken egg and covered the rest with more straw and shortly afterwards a tufted duck went in and there's a new egg.  If the crow keeps raiding, however, there's no hope.

With all the rain the river is not an ideal haven for newly hatched ducklings, what with the strong current and eddies.  HB's ducklings hatched on Thursday . . . see the rest of the blog to find out what happened.

HB takes a quick break

From her nest HB was generally able to check when it was safe to come off the nest for a quick feed, stretch, wash and brush up!  She was smart enough to avoid the busy times when all the 'spare' males were hanging around like a group of bored youths with loads of attitude and nothing better to do than squabble among themselves and make trouble.

 HB's flying skills are amazing

 HB at the pond stretching a wing and leg

We were worried that the nest would be too confined for HB but she seemed to like it and it was a safe location that didn't get too much midday sun (had there been any this year)!

 HB finally leaves the nest

The ducklings hatch over a period of around 24 hours and as they hatch the female duck shifts around a lot and sits higher in the nest.  We saw the signs and, when HB took a quick break we peered over the top deck into the basket. There was one squashed, dead duckling but the other eggs were beginning to break open and, fortunately, the remaining seven eggs hatched successfully as you can see below.

Six of the ducklings rush over to HB

HB was ready to leave the nest with her ducklings but the 'boys' seemed to know something was afoot and hung around all morning.  When she finally attempted to fly down she was immediately attacked and flew off.  We took advantage of the opportunity to check on the ducklings which all looked lively and contented.  As we suspected, though, the nest was a bit deep for them and, when Mum came back to coax them down they showed no signs of obeying!  She became frantic so we gave her a helping hand and took the basket down and held it over the water.  Still no response and so, in the end, Dave lifted them all gently one by one and placed them in the water.  You can see six of the seven above.  After she'd hung around for a quick wheat treat from us she took them off to our neighbour's plot and they stayed there for several hours.  We haven't seen them since!

The garden birds, meanwhile, have also been having a busy time with their youngsters.

Baby blue tit learns to fly

The baby blue tits are everywhere in the garden, fluttering their wings and begging to be fed by their busy parents.  Their plumage is so pristine and their antics are a joy to watch.  The one above hasn't quite got the hang of flying into the bed table instead of on to its roof.


 At times the bird table had four or five youngsters waiting to be fed

Some babies preferred to wait in the cherry tree

 Female blackbird at our pond

Last week a female blackbird spent the whole day on the ground in our garden.  It didn't have any obvious injuries but also didn't appear to be scared of me so I wondered whether it might be a newly fledged bird that couldn't fly.  I tried to coax it to leave in the evening but it still wouldn't fly though it did go and hide in the undergrowth.  I haven't seen it since so I guess it either took off when I wasn't looking or . . . !

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Is it a tufted duck or a pochard?

 Hybrid flies over for some food

I spotted an unusual hybrid mingling with my regulars recently but thought I might have been seeing things as it was getting dark and the duck flew off almost as soon as I noticed it.  It looked quite unusual, so I did some research on the internet and found that red-crested pochards and tufted ducks have been known to inter-breed.  I also saw on the internet an image of the hybrid I'd spotted, or one just like it, that had been photographed in Busy Park over a year ago.  Earlier this week the hybrid was outside the house again and was more than happy to mingle with the other ducks while I was feeding them.

 Close up of hybrid photographed by John Inglis

John Inglis of  Garrick's Ait sent me the above image of the hybrid and very kindly offered to let me use it in my blog.  He, too, had noticed the unusual bird and, knowing of my interest in local wildlife, had contacted me with a picture of the duck in case I hadn't seen it.

 Red-crested pochard and hybrid tufted duck together

While the birds were feeding I was able to observe the similarities between the two ducks.  The tufted hybrid has a red head similar to that of the pochard but only on the top of the head.  Its face is a dark metallic green and it's body is that of a normal tufted duck.  Its bill has a red line around the tip.

 HB leaves her nest

HB is back and has opted for a hanging basket again as her chosen nest site.  She wasn't happy with the state of her hanging basket earlier in the season and opted to nest in a duck box on the top deck.  For some reason her eggs didn't hatch and she has now decided to try a hanging basket again for her second attempt.  As the original basket wasn't fit for purpose I bought a new one but, when she flew into it we thought it would be too cramped for her and all the eggs.  Dave decided to line her old basket for her and we put the old one back in its original spot and placed the new facing the garden.  What do we know about ducks preferences!  She rejected the renovated basket and opted for the new one and the new location and now has seven eggs.

 Watch the video of HB

HB leaves the nest

She seems very happy in her new location and is able to see when it's safe for her to come down for a quick drink, snack and a wash.  We've decided that it's actually safer for her where she is as her comings and goings are less obvious to many of the rogue males hanging around on the river with nothing better to do than chase any female that is unwary enough to get caught.

HB heads back to the nest after a quick breakfast

Another advantage to HB's new nest site is the fact that it's not right next to our day boat.  Whenever we wanted to go out on deck or use the boat we had to remember that she was just above our heads and do our best not to distress her by making too much noise or by getting too close to her.  Now, she gets more peace and quiet but keeps an eye on us when we're near the kitchen window close to her nest.  It's funny to watch her bob down in the nest if she thinks we're looking at her and then poke her head back up above the basket when she thinks she's not being watched.

Mallard with ducklings finds a few moments of peace

Last Sunday a mallard wandered through the island gardens with five newly hatched ducklings and eventually led them to the river.  She brought them down to see us that day and still had four out of the five the next morning but I've seen none since.  So far this year no ducklings have survived on this stretch of the main river.

Limpy stands on his own foot

Our sad old mandarin duck with the damaged foot has been getting more feeble recently.  He often stands on our outboard engine but is foolish enough to try and stand on his bad leg while scratching with his other foot.  If a boat is going past and the boat rocks then the inevitable happens and limpy topples over into the river.  He doesn't seem to learn from his mistakes!