With their emerald-green plumage, bright red bills and raucous calls, Ring-necked Parakeets seem to be everywhere these days. Admittedly rather pretty, these tropical parrots have been ‘naturalised’ as UK birds since the early 1970s. Theories abound on how they got here in the first place; some say they escaped from a studio during the filming of the African Queen; others claim that Jimi Hendrix liberated a few to jolly up London a bit. All enjoyable bunkum, but either way, their population has boomed over the last decade; they are now common throughout the London area, and are spreading fast.
I love Paris in the springtime; I was there a couple of months back. Like many other European cities, Paris, too, now has its very own recently established parakeet flock. I was pleased to watch a group screetching away merrily in some trees outside the Panthéon, before taking off in a swooping green flash across the city.
Later that day, I ambled into the Musée de Cluny, and popped inside to see, among many wonders, one of mediaeval Europe’s most famous tapestries – La Dame à la Licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six imposing, largely red panels, five of which are loosely based on the ‘senses’. Made around 1490, they truly are a wonderful sight. Among the richly detailed needlework, and nestled among the intricate leopards, monkeys and giant white rabbits on the panel known as ‘taste’, I was truly gobsmacked to see this:
Its a parakeet! But on a tapestry made in 15th-century France. It has to be a Psittacula parakeet, but which one? The absence of a red on the wing strongly suggests that this is Ring-necked (as opposed to Alexandrine, the only other contender). How on earth did this exotic wonder crop up in a tapestry in mediaevel France? The bicoloured bill is suggestive of the north Indian subspecies of this bird (as opposed to the geographically closer African one).
A little research suggests that the species has a long history in aviculture, so it may be that the bird our Lady is feeding was actually bred in captivity. Or it might have been traded across from eastern Europe or, who knows, even further afield. Either way, birds of the same introduced exotic species that was swooping above my head some half an hour before were presumably kept in the very same city, more than 500 years before.
So although it seems like they’ve only just bustled into our lives, these noisy green parakeets have been with us in Europe for a long time – I had no idea just how long.
Learn more – lots more – about parrots in this Helm guide:
Small, drab, dull-brown birds that like to skulk deep in the undergrowth are of disproportionate interest to large swathes of the birding community, and I must admit I’m as susceptible as the next man to their allure. So I’m particularly pleased to be working at the moment on our forthcoming Helm Identification Guide Reed and Bush Warblers, which is jam-packed with hard-to-see (and often extremely-hard-to-identify) species such as these.
I was double-pleased, when researching the images, to find that there were a few species that have simply never been photographed (or if they have I can’t find any!), and one of these was the Cook Islands Reed Warbler. And I was about to go to the Cook Islands. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and fill this gap myself.
The bird occurs on two islands – Mitiaro, which is virtually impossible to get to, and Mangaia, which is only very, very difficult to get to. I plumped for the latter.
To say Mangaia is remote is something of an understatement – I was met off the tiny plane from Rarotonga by the Minister of Tourism, who told me that not only was I the only tourist on the island, I was the only one they’d had for three weeks. Its an amazing place, once you get past the initial shock – the people are warm, friendly and rugby-obsessed, and there’s good birding to be done – watching two species of tropicbirds soaring high above the coral cliffs was a sight I’ll never forget. However, the undoubted star of the show is the island’s endemic kingfisher, found nowhere else in the world.
And then there’s the reed warbler. Very much a bird for the connoisseur, this little brownish-yellow bird is common throughout the island, even in the ghastly, useless introduced pine plantation on the coral plateau that girdles the island. It doesn’t seem too bothered by the lack of habitat, or the infestation of rats and cats the island seems to suffer. Its jangling song, a bit like a Blackcap after a few too many rums, became a welcome soundtrack for my time on the island.
The world will see the fruits of my subtropical labour of love when the book comes out in November … if by chance you’re heading to Henderson Island in the Pacific before then and you fancy tracking down and photographing a small, brown, endemic warbler, do let me know …
Learn more about Cook Island, Henderson, and many other warblers here:
A few years back I had a memorable journey through Sri Lanka, and I’ve had a soft spot for the birds of this magical island ever since. I’m currently busy compiling photos for our book Cuckoos of the World, and was drawn to a series of snaps of one of my favourite Sri Lankan endemics, the scarce and rather beautiful Red-faced Malkoha, taken in the famous Sinharaja rain forest by tour guide and photographer Amila Salgado.
A nice portrait, but what really blew my mind was this. Take a look.
A bird carrying nest material? Wrong.
This cuckoo is actually feeding on a gigantic, branch-sized stick insect!
I had to know more, so I had a look at Amila’s blog (his profile claims that he ‘holds the record as the first birder from Colombo to visit the Sinharaja rain forest in a tuktuk’ – very much our kind of chap). Amila took the photo during a trip to Sinharaja in 2004, just days after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami had hit the island. After seeing the bird in one of the mixed-species flocks (or ‘bird-waves’) that are a speciality of the forest, he took photos as the bird gave the insect a good bash, removing the limbs and the possibly defensive chemical-containing thorax, before tucking in.
Far from being any old stick insect, this is actually one of the world’s biggest insects. After an initial misidentification, an expert in the phasmid world told Amila that his malkoha was munching an adult female Phobaeticus hypharpax, one of the largest of the so-called ‘mega-sticks’, with a body length of up to 236mm. What a whopper.
This wasn’t just a great photo of a great bird doing something remarkable. It turns out that prior to the publication of these photos, the range of this insect was mysterious (with the handful of ancient specimens in collections all labelled simply ‘Ceylon’). So entomologists now know a little more about the beast, although its biology remains almost completely unknown.
Mighty though P. hyparphax is, it is some way behind the world record holder – P. chani, Chan’s Mega-stick, which lives on the island of Borneo. Formally described in 2008, Chan’s Mega-stick has a body length of up to 357 mm; its overall length with the limbs stretched out is an astonishing 567mm! Just imagine that.
Read about Amila Salgado and his tours – and see more of his great photos – here.
Amila is a contributor to Cuckoos of the World by Johannes Erritzøe, Clive Mann, Frederik Brammer and Richard Fuller – coming soon.
Not many people know this, but the newly appointed Deputy Chief Whip in the coalition government is a birder. He is John Randall, known to his closest friends as Alex. He’s an old chum of mine and was even best man at my first wedding, many years ago now. In those days, he used to lead a few birdwatching tours to places such as Hungary and Poland, and at that time I too was a Birdquest tour leader, in my pre-publishing days. We all had fewer commitments then before marriage and families intervened and we were free to travel to exotic destinations to watch birds.
Alex was elected as MP for Uxbridge in 1997, in a move that surprised even his closest friends. Since then he has diligently worked in the whips office in opposition, with rather little time for birding, though he does manage to get away on a few family holidays (for example a trip to Borneo last year with one of his sons).
I won’t bore you all with tales of lunches in the House of Commons, but Alex did send me the photo below recently. He’s on his way to the State Opening of Parliament (no, he doesn’t travel to work like that every day!). Apparently one of the perks of his new job is to ride in this fancy coach behind Her Majesty. How the other half lives!
To find out more details about John Randall, check out his entry in the latest edition of Who’s Who.
Spring is a busy time for birders. This year, it got off to a slow start after the severe winter, but suddenly it was all happening! The trees burst into life and there was much to do in my kitchen garden. There were also the Timed Tetrad Visits to complete for the new BTO Atlas (this country-wide project is now more than half way through its four-year cycle). Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I had to go off on a Birdquest tour to Georgia and Armenia (I know that sounds tough, but someone has to do it – more about this later, if I get time). When I returned in late May, I was busier than ever. But there is only so much gardening and survey work that you can do, and a fix of local patch birding is what was needed to remedy this.
My local birding is largely confined to Rye Harbour and Dungeness, both of which are within easy reach of my home in East Sussex. I was spurred on by the welcome news that a pair of Purple Herons was nesting there. This southern European species is a regular spring overshoot to Britain, but it has never nested here before. I set off with the usual enthusiasm and confidence, but Purple Herons are well known for their secretive habits when breeding in dense reedbeds. I should have known better! I arrived at the site near Dungeness where the only other vehicle was a Winnebago containing three middle-aged men drinking tea. A camera on a tripod with a huge lens pointing at the reedbed indicated they must be birders, so I asked them if they’d seen the Purple Herons. Their response took me by surprise. They claimed not to know about any Purple Herons, so I assumed they were not serious birders who just happened to be at the precise locality for the herons. I scanned the reedbed and pools diligently until an old friend turned up. Ray Turley is a well-known figure at Dungeness. He lives just down the road and birdwatches there most days. We chatted for a bit, before he wandered over to the Winnebago. He seemed to know its occupants well, and then the penny dropped. These guys were serious birders after all, and they were pretending not to know about the herons in case I was a dodgy character! Maybe they thought I was there to disturb the birds or, worse, to try to steal the eggs. As it turned out, they were indeed part of the official round-the-clock rota that was put in place to protect the birds while the eggs were being incubated. Having cleared up this little misunderstanding, I stayed another hour, but the herons were not playing ball.
It took three more visits before I finally caught up with these elusive birds. Presumably they will become a little more obvious when they are feeding young, but during incubation they tend to keep well hidden. My visit last weekend was enhanced with another scarce European visitor. A first-summer male Red-footed Falcon spent a week in the area. I hadn’t seen one in Britain for more than 20 years, and it was a real pleasure to see this charming little falcon hunting insects over the marsh, though it actually spent most of its time perched on telegraph poles and wires. Although most of its plumage was blue-grey, it showed the dull red vent and bright red legs so characteristic of the adult male, but a broad buff collar indicated that this bird was only a year old. An interesting plumage.
Find out more about Nigel’s local patch in the brand new edition of Where to Watch Birds in Britain, due to be published at the end of June.