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:



A change of place

I’m back in England for a few weeks, so you will notice a change of place.

It is autumn here, and although the colours are not as dramatic as in Maine, they have a subtle beauty:



Did you notice the egret flying across the photo above? Here it is in closeup, with its bright yellow feet:


The jackdaws are everywhere.


Their scientific name, Corvus monedula, tells you they are small corvids, and they are famed (like magpies) for stealing shiny objects and hiding them. They mate for life, and they are communal birds, often seen in large flocks, sometimes nesting in old buildings, like these sheep barns:


They are a Eurasian species, not native to the Americas. For some reason, while other corvids (especially crows and magpies) now frequent large cities, including London, I see them mainly in the countryside.  But they do like people:

Golfer With His Pet Jackdaw, 1933

A Golfer’s Unusual Companion: ‘Jack” the 16 months old Jackdaw pet of Mr AW Aitken of Ventnor, Isle of Wight, accompanies its owner everywhere he goes and is here seen perched on Mr Aitken’s shoulder whilst he has a round of putting.  ©1933  Hulton-Deutsch Collection via Getty Images


PS Jackdaws were studied by the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz, and he noted that in captivity they often make same-sex bonds. Bruce Bagemihl wrote extensively about same-sex liaisons in jackdaws and more generally in the animal world, and Bruce was once a linguist like me, so my two worlds collide again!

The genuinely last post

Well, famous last words. Today has been a red letter day, and so I just had to do one more post.

Sunrise. Words are inadequate.


A walk in the field by the barn, and a large Garter Snake, Thamnopis sirtalis, about 18 inches long, slides through the grass.


I come back later, and quietly wait for a closer look:*

Common Garter Snake

Garter snakes are not poisonous, and they tolerate the cold well, giving birth to up to 85 (!) live young as late as early October.

Then, the epiphany. All summer long, all my beaver ponds have been beaver-free zones, I have been mourning their absence. Now, on my very last day, they return. This tree is freshly cut:


And as I get ready to post this I have just discovered that he has finished the job.:


Down on the brook are branches from which the beaver has stripped the bark to eat the cambium. So I am thrilled, but also sad, because they have selected two of my apple trees as their victims, which is not good.

When I go back to the house, lo and behold underneath my tree is the first raccoon I have ever seen in daylight.


With that highwayman’s mask:


When I got too close, he fled up the tree. He went right up to the top fork. If you look closely there is small blob in the fork, and that’s him (or her).:


He hunkered down:


He settled in for a while, so I went inside to do some packing, and on my return, he was back at ground level, foraging.



And then he headed off:


As do I.

* I was once taught that poisonous snakes had keeled scales, and nonpoisonous ones didn’t, but this garter snake is non-poisonous, yet has keeled scales.

PS Autumnwatch in both the UK, and the US, have been using footage from my house. first of fighting red squirrels, and then nocturnal footage of flying squirrels and raccoons, all photographed by Mark Yates.. If you are interested, you can see it on BBC2 in the UK (and on iPlayer), and PBS in the USA.


Leading the cranes home*

[Winter is on its way: I woke this morning to a dusting of snow. So I will migrate back to the UK this weekend, and this is my last post from Maine for the season.]

After failing to find the sandhill cranes, Antigone canadensis, on foot,  generous friends took me out on the water for another try.


The cranes fly across every evening to their preferred nighttime roosts, and on schedule they appeared. The light was fading, and they are skittish so we couldn’t get too close, so all these photos will give you is an impression of their magic:


Across the treetops:

Sandhill cranes

To land in a reedy meadow, from where they alternately fed and watched us warily.

Sandhill cranes

They have only been breeding here for a few years, so they are still a novelty. At four feet tall they are stately birds who mainly breed further north in Canada, so we are lucky to have them. They will soon migrate south for the winter.

En route, we watched these yellow-rumped warblers walking on the lilypads catching tiny insects of some kind:

Yellow-rumped Warblers

And then the setting sun and the fall leaves turned the water into molten copper

Yellow-rumped Warblers

* My title is from a poem by the Chinese Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi, 白居易, AD 830, translated by Arthur Waley.
The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

And a portrait of the poet:


A prospect wild and wide*

At its southern end, our lake seeps out into a fen. Yesterday I went walking, or rather bushwhacking, into this very secluded world, in search of Sandhill Cranes.


In the thickets, on a fallen tree, I found a Bear’s Tooth Fungus. It has other names, including Lion’s Mane, and Pompom, and is of the genus Hericium. 


Then a large flock of perhaps thirty birds surrounded me in the treetops: American robins, Turdus migratorius. 

American robins

They are mainly solitary in the summer,  but they gather into flocks in the winter, usually a prelude to migration south, though some winter over. They are a type of thrush, and quite unlike the English robin.

American robins

When I reached the edge of one of the small shallow ponds, I found these three juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers, Calidris melanotos. 

Spotted Sandpipers

I misidentified them on eBird, and was helpfully corrected by a monitor from Cornell, to whom I am very grateful!

Spotted Sandpipers

And on my way out, a flock of smaller birds, White-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis. 

White throated sparrow

No cranes yet, but a cornucopia of other beauties.

Frost last night.

* My title is from The Fens, by George Crabbe. He was writing about the fens of eastern England, which are huge flat areas of fields divided by drainage ditches, but the line applies just as well to our local fen.