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Nature Notes December 2018

Nature Notes

I am in France again monitoring the autumn movements of birds in Aquitaine. We have seen chevrons of hundreds of European common cranes flying over and calling to each other as they go with little mechanical ‘purrs’. We have also had a grey heron in our garden, I think it was hunting the moles that punctuate the lawn with their hills of graded soil. This morning we saw a flock of about 40 northern lapwings landing in a ploughed field. These elegant waders often feed together on worms and other invertebrates and seeds, unusually for birds, they like to feed at night by moonlight.

There are currently large flocks of common chaffinches here forming winter foraging flocks, searching out seeds in the arable fields, especially those fields that were used to grow sunflowers. Chaffinches go into eclipse during the winter, which means that their colourful feathers are obscured by brown extensions rendering them cryptic in the brown winter fields. However, these brown feather tips get sloughed off in the spring revealing the pink breast and slate blue head.

We have a resident pair of cirl buntings living in the garden all year round. In France these are called bruant zizi because the male cirl bunting sits at the top of a tree calling zizi – zizi – zizi all day. Bruant simply means bunting. Cirl buntings are rare in Britain.

We have also seen flocks of cattle egrets in the fields nearby. These birds are usually associated with zebras and wildebeest in Africa, but are becoming increasingly common in Europe, including occasionally in Britain. Cattle egrets are similar to the little egrets that we now often see in coastal Britain which started colonising southern England about 30 years ago. Little egrets have black beaks and yellow feet and are usually solitary, but cattle egrets have yellow beaks and black feet and are usually seen in groups. Both are a type of white heron but are smaller than our common grey heron.

We have also seen many very large flocks of woodpigeons flying over as they head south for the winter. These are seen as fair game by the hunters of France who are referred to as Palombiers or pigeon hunters.

Dr.Martyn Stenning