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Nature Notes - September 2016

Nature Notes

Greetings from France again where I am currently working.  It has become so hot (up to 350C) that most of the wildlife around here is hiding from the sun and staying cool.  Even the lizards are hiding more than they were.  Having said that, I have just seen a female Hen Harrier from my study hunting over the fields of the French countryside beyond.  This is a large majestic brown bird of prey about the size of a Buzzard with a white rump.  Its flight is characterised by holding its wings in a shallow ‘V’ as it quarters the land about 4 metres above the surface.  The male in contrast is pale grey with striking black tips to its wings.  They mainly hunt small birds which they catch in their talons as they panic are flushed by the appearance of this large predator flying overhead.

The types of birds around here include some familiar species such as Wood Pigeons, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, House Sparrows, Blackbirds and Mistle Thrushes, I also heard a Tawney Owl last night. However, there are also species rarely seen in Britain such as Hoopoe, Golden Oriole and Zitting Cisticola.  There is also a Little Owl and Nightjars living nearby and Black Redstarts breeding in one of the out-buildings.

The Swifts will have left Europe now for Africa, and the Swallows are getting ready to do the same in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, the resident birds should all be moulting, during which time they tend to hide as if in shame of their dowdy appearance.  The Ducks especially will retreat to reed-beds and water margins as many of them lose the ability to fly during moulting.  The usually bright males become brown like the females allowing them to be cryptic among the dense foliage of the ponds and lakes.  This is known as going into eclipse.  In a few weeks they will emerge with a full set of new bright feathers which will keep them warm in the winter and help them to attract a mate for the spring breeding season.  One fascinating feature of the Mallard is that unlike most birds, it is the female who makes most of the noise.  The familiar “Quack Quack Quack” is only done by the female.  The male (drake) in contrast makes a rather subdued snuffling noise.  However, that does not make him any the less amorous.


Dr. Martyn Stenning