Armchair naturalists should also be nature detectives

Armchair naturalists should also be nature detectives

We two armchair naturalists are fortunate insofar as birdlife is concerned. From the windows of our tiny cottage we can see much activity.

We enjoy watching male and female blackbirds (Turdus merula) taking turns to visit their nest somewhere in the thick holly and yew hedge between us and a track outside.

We supplement their food by putting out dried mealworms. These are soon located by the male (cock) bird as he forages on the gravel patch just outside our back window.

At a time when once-familiar house sparrows (Passer domesticus) have declined in numbers, we are also fortunate to see and hear many such sparrows as they too tend nests under our and our neighbours’ eaves. We hesitate to say that we are “blessed” to have sparrows, as their nests often block our gutters and have to be removed to prevent flooding. John, forever the zealous “nature detective” (and, as Haith’s advisor, keen to examine interesting samples) takes every opportunity to investigate these used nests and see what he can learn from them.

Professor John E CooperCollection of a (used, old) house sparrow’s nest for examination

Sparrow-COOPER-BIRDS-NESTA digital radiograph (x-ray picture) of the nest reveals objects that were used in its construction, including pieces of stone, plastic and metallic material – a way of monitoring environmental pollution

Last week we saw our first house martin (Delichon urbicum) from the cottage (details of date and time are, as always, recorded in John’s diary). On our daily short walk down a nearby lane we regularly hear the familiar call of a chiff-chaff (Phylloscopus collybita) – another summer migrant, although a few overwinter in England and perhaps more will do so if the climate continue to change.

On our Government-sanctioned walk we keep our eyes open for signs of birds. Sometimes it is just an indicator of their presence, such as footprints. When these are in the dust, they quickly become distorted when the wind blows; the nature detective has to be prompt if s/he is to examine and identify them.

Foot-prints-in-dry-soilFootprints in dry soil by the road. There are several from a bird, probably (from their size and shape) a blackbird. What else can be seen?

A little further along the lane we find a feather. “Oh, only a pigeon”, one is tempted to say. But the nature detective wants to know from which species of pigeon it came, from wing or tail, if it was naturally dropped (perhaps moulted) and whether, especially if s/he is a veterinary surgeon, there are any clues on the feather as to the health of the bird (damage, parasites, fault bars). What do Haith’s armchair naturalists make of this feather? Any comments?

A-feather-by-the-roadA feather by the road. What do Haith’s armchair naturalists make of it?

A particularly spectacular sighting last week was a carrion crow (Corvus corone) mobbing a kestrel, flying round and round high in the blue sky. After about a minute, the kestrel appeared to tire of the encounter and flew off strongly. Back home sipping our coffee, we enjoyed watching four pigeons/doves balancing precariously on a telephone wire outside. Two were wood pigeons (Columba palumbus), the others were (in comparison) diminutive collared doves (Streptopelia decaocto). They were clearly two pairs and obviously engaged in indiscreet courtship. Spring is very definitely in the air!

John and Margaret Cooper 26/04/2020

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Written by The Coopers

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