Sawbills and goosanders

A family of Common Mergansers, Mergus merganser, swam past my dock yesterday.


They nest in holes in mature trees near large lakes, and the chicks leap to the ground from the hole. They are in the water and eating fish by about 12 days.

They hunt by sight, so the mother sticks her head in the water looking for fish.


The chicks quickly learn to copy her:


The word “merganser” comes from the Latin  mergo (to dip, immerse) + anser (goose), and indeed in English they are also known as goosanders, because they are a large waterbird that dives. These ones had already started diving, in a very disorganized splashy sort of way!


Their common name of sawbill derives from the fact that their beaks are serrated, with a wicked hook on the end, for catching and holding onto slippery fish.

Red-necked grebes

This chick is clearly hungry!


Off they went, cruising along the shoreline in the sun.

Red-necked grebes

PS Common Mergansers are widespread in Europe and North America. They migrate northwards to breed, but in Maine they are year-round residents.

PPS Thanks to Leigh and Peter for the ID! I stupidly fixated on grebes!

Ebony jewels

That glittering fairy fluttering in the dappled shade near the brook at this time of year is probably an Ebony Jewelwing,  Calopteryx maculata, a type of Broad-winged Damselfly. The body is 40-50mm long, and this one is  a male, with an iridescent turquoise body and ebony black wings and eyes. Look closely, and you can even see how the wings attach to the thorax.


This one is a female: browner, and with a white spot on the wing tips.


They eat small insects: this guy has just caught one:


And a few minutes later the banquet is well under way, with the spiky bits discarded:


The nymph stage lives in slow-moving streams, so the adults are typically found close to water, in sunny openings on low shrubs. As you might expect given their habitats, they in their turn are eaten by both land and water predators, such as birds, bats, turtles, larger fish.

The scientific name Calopteryx comes from the Greek “kalos” (beautiful) + “pteron” (wing or feather), and maculata comes from the Latin “macula” (a spot) – a reference to the white spot near the tip of the female’s wing. They are found throughout eastern North America.

The rodent hotel

My geographical focus is now quite different.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m now where I live in the summer, in Maine in New England, top-right-hand corner of the USA, where I provide food and shelter for a variety of rodents.

My main battle is fighting the marauding groundhogs, who have eaten my garden down to naked stubs. This is what remains of a large clump of hollyhocks that I  have been nurturing for years:


And this is one of the culprits. Luckily roses seem to be one of the few things he doesn’t eat.:


While I was deadheading the roses in the foreground, a white-tailed fawn (still spattered with white spots, just like Bambi) almost ran me over: very sweet. but quite voracious. Its mother has taught it that my garden offers a top-notch buffet.

The most obvious inhabitants of my garden are the aggressively territorial red squirrels. They are unrelated to our wimpy UK reds, and chatter loudly at each other and me if we overstep the mark.


But I like watching them groom:


And forage for good dried grass for their nest inside my shed:


where they store and eat their stash of hickory nuts in the winter:


And when the day is done, a drink out of the birdbath, and a brief hangout on the rim:


Do two swallows make a summer?

On a final casual walk through the fields, Sherborne’s rich birdlife could be heard in the hedgerows and seen on the wires. All these were photographed in one field in around five minutes, thanks to the convenient power lines passing overhead. These are a yellowhammer, a linnet, and a chaffinch.

And a European Goldfinch:


American readers may be confused by this, since the American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, is quite different. This one was photographed in Maine.

Male goldfinch

The Sherborne one is the same one immortalized in paint by Fabritius in 1654, Carduelis carduelis: 


I have said goodbye to the swallows in the cloisters:


They’re busily feeding three chicks, sometimes landing on top of each other in their rush to complete their food deliveries:


The chicks are still almost naked with a fuzzy halo of incipient feathers:



And always hungry:

DSC00727No more from England till the autumn… I’m off to Maine on my annual migration.

In the pink

This is Lake Elementeita in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. Much of this lake lies within the 48,000 acre Soysambu Conservancy, of which more another day.


It is a soda lake, only about 1 meter deep. These alkaline lakes arise when there is little outflow from the lake, and the water becomes saline and has very high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide.  As a result, these hostile-seeming environments are in fact very rich ecosystems, full of algae and bacteria such as cyanobacteria, a favorite food of the flamingo.


These lakes also often host brine shrimp, which the flamingoes love and which turn their feathers pink.




These are Greater Flamingoes, Phoenicopterus rose; their bill is mainly pink, not black, unlike the rarer Lesser Flamingo:


The largest males can be up to six feet tall. They stir up the mud with their feet, and then filter out the shrimp, algae, and small crustaceans with their head famously upside down.*  Their upper jaw is movable, which helps!

Greater Flamingoes

The same lake hosts other waterfowl, like this yellow-billed stork:

Yellow-billed stork

And this Cape Teal duck:

Cape teal

* Even with their heads down, flamingoes are not well-suited to croquet, as Alice discovered:


The return of the kestrels

In spring 2017,  the BBC Springwatch team filmed kestrels (Falco tinnunculus tinnunculus) in a nest inside our church tower. The nest was in the single window at the base of the steeple, so my photos are taken from the ground far below.


When the chicks were tiny, they were invisible from the ground, but here you can see the father leaving after feeding them.


As they got bigger, they would come closer to the edge: (This photo was taken on June 17th 2017):


And occasionally you could see several at once:


Until one day you could see that their plumage was almost adult-like:


I’m happy to say that all four chicks successfully fledged.

This summer, I could see kestrels hunting in the fields by the brook. living up to their poetic ancient name of ‘windhover’:*


and doing aerial acrobatics when they sighted their prey:


But there was no sign of nesting activity until June 10, and then, blessedly, they were back. The BBC cameraman climbed up inside the tower and saw four eggs, and got his camera working in time to show the female on the eggs. This photo is one I took of the screen on his hard drive, with his permission!  (By this time last year the chicks were already hatched and growing fast: look at the fairly mature chick on June 17th 2017 above.)

Kestrel on nest inside Sherborne church tower, from BBC moinitor

The BBC thought there were two males and one female taking turns on the nest, and that the second male might be one of last year’s young helping the parents. So, fingers crossed for another successful brood.

*From ‘The Windhover‘, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918.

“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

PS: The American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, is quite distinct, and much smaller. The Old World Kestrel can weigh up to 9oz, but the American Kestrel rarely exceeds 5oz.

PPS: From the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website, here is a great video of a kestrel in flight, landing and then taking off again:

The charm of Christo

Under cover of wildlife, I am sneaking in photos of London’s latest public work of art. So, here is a wildlife photo to justify the posting:


The bird of course is a heron, and the water is the Serpentine in Hyde Park, but why is it purple? The answer is that Christo has just created this enormous mastaba made of oil drums in a red/pink/purple palette, which will be there for the next three months.


The wildlife are inimpressed:


But also undisturbed by their new view:


I first saw it on a grey day, and it felt like an intrusion, but on a sunny morning like today, it is rather joyful, so why not embrace it, as many others seemed to do.


An early summer afternoon

Sometimes there is nothing dramatic to see on an English country walk, but even the tiny things give pleasure.


Sometimes creatures are not down by the brook where you would expect them to be, but up in the trees:


Or hiding in the long grass:


Or up in the eaves of the courtyard in the middle of an old country house:

Swallow sirring on nest in the cloisters in Sherborne

Or abseiling down from nowhere onto my wineglass as I sit in the middle of the lawn:


I think this is a Cucumber Spider, Araneus cucurbitina, and it is barely 5mm long. But it should have eight eyes, and I only see six.


PS: The swallows arrived late this spring, and on April 22nd I photographed this one still lounging around in Kenya, having not yet started its migration back north to Europe:


PPS: Since I posted this, I have come across a wonderful explanation of how this spider must have ended up on my wineglass: here is a short video and explanation:


A quartet of kingfishers

In Zambia, four different kingfishers accompanied us down the Luangwa River. (Photographing from a small moving boat, when the bird is tiny, and perches only briefly, is a challenge, so some of these shots are not up to much,)

The tiniest was the Malachite Kingfisher, Corythornis cristatus, at about 13cm long:

Malachite Kingfisher

The middle-sized ones were the Brownhooded Kingfisher, Halcyon albiventris, at 22cm, on the left below, and the Pied Kingfisher, Ceryle audis, at about 25cm, on the right:

Brownhooded Kingfisher and Pied kingfisher

(The guide was quite excited by this shot, he said it is very rare to get two different ones in the same shot! Sheer luck.).

And the biggest was the Giant Kingfisher, Megaceryle maximus, at about 45cm long. (I just love the scientific name, making it abundantly clear first in Greek and then in Latin that this is a BIG kingfisher!). This one is a male:

Giant Kingfisher

It was a mystery to me how they hunted in this river. The water is completely opaque with brown mud, but the guides told me that the birds see tiny disturbances of the surface, and go for that. It obviously works, there are lots of them.

Presumably the size range of the different species means they favor slightly different prey fish, and thus can all share the same waters successfully.

PS: For comparative purposes, the UK’s only kingfisher, Albedo atthis, is about 16cm long, intermediate between the Malachite and the Pied. The Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle halcyon, of the Northeast USA is 28-25cm long, intermediate between the Pied and the Giant.

Purplish Pink parasite

June in England is wildflower time. Even very ordinary flowers are exquisite in closeup, like this clover:

DSC00295And this vetch:


There is one particular field in Sherborne where every year I find this rather interesting orchid-like flower, the Common Broomrape, Orobanche minor. These were about 20cm tall, and the flowers are about 15mm long.


Common Broomrape

It is not an orchid, and it has no chlorophyll, so it can’t photosynthesize. Instead, it is a parasite on other plants, including both clover and vetch. The fine roots of the broomrape penetrate the larger roots of the host, reaching the vascular tissue. They usually severely hurt the host plant, and can be a major problem for farmers. In the USA, it is federally listed as a noxious weed, and banned.

The whole broomrape plant is covered in globular hairs,

Common Broomrape

The hairs are thought to serve the purpose of discouraging ants and other non-flying (and thus non-pollinating) insects from stealing the nectar. In these two photos you can see insects that have become entangled in the hairs: here’s one


and this one:


The burgundy stigma has two bulbous ends, and curves downwards, so an entering insect (usually a bee)  can’t avoid brushing its back up against it, and transferring pollen.

Common Broomrape

Once pollinated, they produce huge numbers of tiny seeds, which are disseminated by the wind, and washed down into the soil when it rains. If they make contact with the root of a potential host plant they germinate, insert their tiny root into the host, and the whole cycle restarts.

PS: The name ‘broomrape’ comes from the broom plant, a common host for broomrape, and the Latin word ‘rapum’, which means root or tuber.