Autumn waterbirds*

This is the last post for a couple of weeks, because I am heading off to Nepal and Assam. When I return, I will show you what I have seen.

Still in England, this female mallard, Anas platyrhynchos,* was having a very thorough preen. Even very common birds like this are worth watching. First, an ecstatic head scratch:


Then, a good underwing going over, resulting in a rare chance to see the underside of a duck’s wing and indeed a duck’s bill. Not to mention a neck flexibility I can only envy:


And finally a sexy flash of blue as she does the other side:


Preening is not done (entirely) out of vanity. Ducks have a special gland called the uropygial gland at the base of the tail that secretes an oily waxy substance. Here I think she is accessing the gland to collect some oil:


During preening this is distributed through her plumage, and helps keep her waterproof. The spatial micro-structure of her feathers also plays a major role, but without the preen- oil the waterproofing deteriorates significantly over time. (Girardeau et al 2010).

One hundred yards downstream, I was watching a Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, on the wing;


When it landed, I discovered it had come to meet a friend:


I am not sure if this is a pair (they mate for life), but the one on the left has a dark crown, whereas adults are nearly white on top, so I think it is a juvenile, and they may be a teenager and its mother. I have to say they look rather like a long-married elderly couple, hunched and companionable.

*My title was suggested to me by reading Autumn Birds, by John Clare, 1793-1864

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a clod the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

John Clare is for me the greatest English nature poet. He was born a thresher’s son, and spent the last twenty years of his life in a lunatic asylum, yet his poems summon up the natural world of his country childhood. If you haven’t read him, I urge you to do so.

*I Just came back from Robert Icke’s highly original version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which actually includes the words Anas platyrhynchos in the text! But when the (live) duck was produced it was not a mallard at all, but a wigeon!

Secrets of the hedgerow: a postscript

This post is for the nerdier amongst you! I’m posting it in quick succession because it is a follow-up on yesterday’s.

I was intrigued by one detail of the Old Man’s Beard seedheads.

There were two different stages of seedhead on the same vine. One stage is all fluffy, as seen on the left and the right, but another is slender and tentacled, with no fluff, as seen top and bottom:


The fluffy ones had darker seeds, that looked drier and older. So, I asked myself, where does the fluff come from, and I conducted a tiny experiment. I brought them all inside my heated house for the night, and in the morning the top and bottom ones were fluffy too, like this:


I teased out a single seed from one of the newly fluffy seed heads, and you can now see how the fluff emerges:


As it ages and dries, the whole tail corkscrews, and the fluffy feathering untwirls, starting from the seed end, and working its way towards the tail. So the fluffy parts were there all along, tightly furled against the spine of the seed.

To close, two denizens of the hedgerows, gorging on the various seeds: a grey squirrel:


And a great tit, one of a small flock flitting round in the hedgerow.


The secrets of the hedgerow

English country lanes thread their way between old hedgerows, occasionally granting a glimpse of wary wildlife, like these nervous fallow deer, Dama dama, doe and fawn.:


Every hedgerow is composed of a mix of different woody shrubs and vines, and at this time of year each has small jewels that reward our attention.

Purple sloes, fruits of the blackthorn,  Prunus spinosa, and the key ingredient in sloe gin!


In the lower left corner, haws, fruit of the hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna. Both of these woody plants have fierce thorns, which like the African acacia make them perfect for a protective or enclosing hedge.

Black Bryony, Tamus communis,  loops its poisonous garlands amongst the hawthorn twigs:



Old Man’s Beard is the common name of the native clematis, Clematis vitalba, and also rejoices in the name, Traveller’s Joy.


Look closer, and you see a cloud of seed heads:


Against the sun, they glint like tinsel:


And each individual seed head is a small starburst:


The Dog Rose, Rosa canina, has blood-red pendant oval hips:


And there are harbingers of spring in the milky green catkins of the hazels:


The catkins are the male flowers, and will turn yellow with pollen in the spring.

*To learn more about the traditional creation of a hedgerow, you can read about how to “lay” a hedge here: