A few months back, I asked the more ID-aware among you to have a go at identifying a pickled bird’s head, freshly photographed on the desk of my esteemed colleague Nigel Redman.
Maybe this was a bit tricky.
The answer is its a Rhinoceros Auklet. What do we know about this rather mysterious seabird? Well, it breeds in colonies around the coastal North Pacific – a hotspot of auk diversity – from Sakhalin and Hokkaido via the Kuriles to western Canada and California. The horn that gives it its name appears during the breeding season, when it digs burrows in the earth for nesting. The parent birds visit the colony at night, bringing tasty treats of fish for the chicks. After fledging the auklets head out to sea, far from land, for the winter.
Nigel’s gruesome find stems from a trip to Verkhovski Island in Peter the Great Bay, near Vladivostock. The unfortunate bird had been caught and neatly decapitated by a Peregrine. Like any good birder Nigel salvaged his prize, popped it into pickling vodka (the only spirit to hand) and brought it back to dear old Blighty, for the dual purpose of impressing people like me while driving non-ornithological members of staff away in disgust.
There’s rather an interesting piece by David Callahan in this month’s Birdwatch magazine, discussing which species might soon become ‘Firsts’ for Britain – in other words, extreme vagrants that might be recorded here for the first time. There have been some astonishing finds over the last few years, from a Long-billed Murrelet off the coast of Devon (and, ludicrously, one on landlocked Lake Zurich in 1997 – how on earth did that get there?) to the famous Ancient Murrelet of Lundy, and the undoubted crowning glory, last year’s now-legendary Tufted Puffin off the north coast of Kent.
While Rhinoceros Auklet wasn’t mentioned by David as a possible First for Britain in the near future, maybe it should have been. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled, though I doubt I’ll manage to whistle one up the next time I go to Rainham Marshes. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to have to go to Siberia one day to see one of these funky little beasts – hopefully this time with the head still in the vicinity of the shoulders.
The full story of Britain’s Firsts can be found in these two Poyser monographs:
The tale of the pickled waxwing
Earlier this year, a lot of London year-listers will have traipsed round the North Circular to Finchley, and to the Total Garage on Regent’s Park Road. Why? To see a lonely, solitary Waxwing, which hung about in these suburban surroundings for a month or so before starting the long flight north. It hasn’t been a vintage Waxwing year …
Unlike 2005, when Britain experienced a true waxwing invasion, with thousands of these striking pink birds sweeping south across the frozen country. In mid-January, we got wind of a flock of waxwings not far from our office, which is slap-bang in the middle of London. Its not often you get to see flocks of anything round here, let alone a scarce winter
visitor, so Nigel and I downed tools and set off in hot pursuit.
We were greeted just outside Warren Street tube station by a remarkable site – a flock of 110 waxwings, alternating between some tall plane trees in a nearby square and a very small tree with berries on the pavement, with an attending flock of around 110 birders. You couldn’t have got better views of either.
One of the birds had flown into an office-block window, had kicked the bucket, and was lying forlornly on the pavement. Obviously I couldn’t just leave it there – the curse of the wandering zoologist – so I was soon on my way back to the office with a pocketfull of dead waxwing. This proved useful for scaring the more squeamish among my fellow editors, but I must admit after taking the bird home I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. A brief period in the freezer was clearly unsatisactory, so this poor bird’s long journey from the Arctic north ended with it being pickled in a large onion jar in my shed, where it resides to this day.
Team Helm does actually have previous when it comes to pickling interesting things that turn up on our travels. For example, one of the many reasons for which Nigel is renowned in the company is the permanent presence on his desk of this admittedly gruesome item.
Now, here’s a question for the more ID-aware among you. The head of which species is pickled in this jar?
Send your answers to us by the 26th June … a Helm field guide of the winner’s choice awaits, with the winner picked at random from correct entries (UK entrants only; editor’s decision is final!).
Learn more about the land of the waxwing here:
Elephant in the room …
Since the beginning of May, you may have noticed that a number of brightly coloured elephants have appeared around the streets of London. As well as being an interesting attraction for tourists and commuters, the elephants are there to raise an important issue – the future of the endangered Asian elephants.
As one of the world’s largest mammals, Asian elephants understandably need lots of room to roam. There are over 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and their habitats are getting smaller and sparser. With the worlds’ population increasing rapidly, the elephants’ habitat is slowly disappearing and this is causing hostility between elephants and local communities.
This is the fourth, annual elephant parade and also the largest. The first parade in Rotterdam in 2007 showcased 50 elephants, seventy appeared in Antwerp the year after, over 100 elephants graced the streets of Amsterdam in 2009 and this year, running simultaneously with the London parade, is one in Dierenpark Emmen in the Netherlands.
The London Elephant Parade has been organised by the charity, Elephant Family to raise both awareness and money for the cause. Organisers hope to raise around £2million from the 260 elephants, which have been designed by artists and celebrities, and will be sold individually at auction.
For those of us who are unable to house an elephant ourselves, we are able to purchase mini elephants from the Elephant Parade Online Shop.
You can get involved in lots of other ways too, by signing the petition, donating money on the website, buying mini (or life size…) elephants, texting ‘elephant’ to 83118 and more!
The money raised goes towards securing ‘corridors’, ancient migratory routes that the elephants and other herds use to find new forests and fresh supplies of food and also moving entire villages out of the elephants’ way.
On May 22nd, the artists behind the eye-catching elephants will be standing proudly beside their elephants between 10am and 1pm to answer your questions and discuss their inspiration for the designs.
The elephants are in London until July 4th so get up to London, download the map from the website and get elephant spotting! It is such a worthwhile cause and even the smallest donation can help to make a big difference.
Written by Laura Skerritt
If you’d like to find out more about Indian elephants, check out our fantastic Field Guide to Indian Mammals
I recently spent a weekend walking in Scotland on the island of Skye and discovered that the Scottish highlands is home to some of Britain’s most interesting wildlife…
My personal favourite were the highland cattle
The landscape was breathtaking and it was a great place for walking and enjoying the outdoors. Dolphins, porpoises, seals, otters and puffins can be seen in the water.
However, one of the most exciting things is the range of birds of prey that you can see- if you’re lucky. Golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, kestrels and buzzards can be spotted and there are several places that offer wildlife-spotting boat trips. I went out on one of these boats and they took us to see a white-tailed eagles nest which had two chicks inside and then threw fish off the boat so that the eagle swooped down to the water to catch the fish and we got a fantastic close-up view. It was really breathtaking to see as they are huge and magnificent birds with an enormous wing span.
Written by Ellen Parnevelas.
To find out more about Scottish wildlife check out RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds:
The Peregrine Falcon
Much admired by city dwellers, I swiftly scan their pavements for my next victim, my catch of the day. High above the sprawl, overpowered by my speed and dexterity the city lies beneath. Scattering creatures await my next landing…
Who am I? I hear you ask…
I am, of course, the great Peregrine Falcon.
Continuing on the theme of my last blog, urban wildlife, I have decided to delve deeper into the subject and address, more specifically, our urban birdlife.
A newer addition to the urban landscape is the Peregrine Falcon.
This large and powerful falcon is swift and agile in flight reaching speeds of up to 180kph. It is recognisable from its long, broad, pointed wings and short tail. It is blue-grey above, with a blackish top of the head and white face.
Chasing prey requires vast, open terrain for hunting. Peregrines are most often found along rocky seacliffs and the uplands of the UK, as well as east coast marshes in the winter. Recently peregrines have started to inhabit urban environments, using man-made constructions, especially tall buildings, as nesting sites.
The peregrine feeds primarily on birds, such as medium-sized birds, such as wading birds, pigeons, doves, waterfowl, songbirds, waders and small ducks. They can exist in most environments as long as there is enough prey available for hunting.
To read more about Peregrine Falcons, check out our book RSPB British Birds of Prey
For my first attempt at the art of blogging, I have decided to stick to familiar territory and address the topic of urban wildlife. At first sight, our towns and cities may not seem to be havens for wildlife but after researching the subject, I discovered that there is a lot more life amongst the concrete than is immediately obvious.
Urban areas are often built up and covered by paving and tarmac, but also include rivers, canals and suburban areas with gardens and parks. The fact that urban environments are so densely populated means that there is often food readily available for scavenging and many places for creatures to find shelter and nesting places. In Britain, the urban landscape is heavily populated with a variety of wildlife. Red foxes, rodents, a variety of birds, squirrels, insects, amphibians, bats and sometimes even badgers can be found scavenging on scraps of food left by humans and nesting in buildings.
A couple of years ago I realised just how much urban wildlife there was when I found a mouse nesting inside one of my trainers which I promptly put outside in my garden, only to find that a fox had run off with it and it was then never to be seen again. In fact, I later discovered in my garden in south east London, that there was a whole family of foxes living there which seemed to be multiplying rapidly much to the horror of my next-door neighbour who was keeping chickens. Suddenly I realised that my own garden was full of wildlife- not only foxes, but visiting cats, birds, insects and many other creatures appeared on a daily basis.
Red foxes are widespread in urban areas throughout the world. They populate many Australian, European, Japanese and North American cities and thrive in the urban environment. Fox populations are generally higher in urban areas than rural areas.
Colonies of foxes were first established in Britain in cities such as Bristol and London during the 1940s. They survive well in cities because they are not limited by food in urban areas. Most eat a wide range of food items and food is often deliberately provided by householders. Foxes also eat a large variety of wild food stuffs including fruit, invertebrates, and small mammals and birds.
Tips for spotting urban wildlife
• You can attract garden birds and animals by providing food, water and nestboxes
• Lakes, ponds and canals are great places to spot waterbirds, as well as plantlife, insects and amphibians
• The best time of day to spot wildlife in city parks is early in the morning, before people appear and disturb the wild creatures
• Night time and evening are the best times to see foxes and badgers can sometimes be seen in some suburban areas
Written by Ellen Parnevelas