Black-headed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls: Birdwatching in the Scottish Hebrides, Part 4

Black-headed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls: Birdwatching in the Scottish Hebrides, Part 4

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. 

(Habakkuk 2:14)
Black-headed Gull (BirdGuides.com photo credit)
Great Black-backed Gull (National Audubon Society photo credit)

The islands of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides are a familiar territory for various seagulls, including two in particular: (1) the largest seagull, the low-sounding “laughing” Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus); and (2) a much smaller yet loud-“laughing” Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus, a/k/a Chroicocephalus ridibundus).

Great Black-backed Gulls are large (more than 2’ long, with wingspan about 5’ wide; often males weigh up to 4 or 5 pounds, while females weigh slightly less), deserving their nickname “King of Gulls”. Thanks to God-given toughness these gulls can survive and thrive in coastlands of the North, breeding in parts of Russia, Scandinavia, along Baltic coasts, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, plus the Atlantic seacoasts of Canada and America’s New England shorelines.  In winter many of these gulls migrate south.

In Nornian, the ancient Old Norse-derived language of the Shetland Islands, the Great Black-backed Gull was once called swaabie, from swartbak, meaning “black back”whereas in AD1758 Karl (“Linnaeus”) von Linné taxonomically designated theseseagulls as Larus marinus, denoting a marine seagull/seabird (from Greekλάῥος). In a previous study (titled “Birdwatching at Staffa, near Iona: Puffins, Shags, and Herring Gulls”), the Great Black-backed Gull was noted as a prominent predator of Atlantic puffins, yet this gull avoids puffins who nest near humans. 

BLACK-HEADED GULL perching (Nat’l Audubon Society photo credit)

However, it is not just the Atlantic puffins that must beware the apex-predatory pursuits of Black-backed Gulls, because these gulls also prey on terns and many other birds, as well as almost any other organic food smaller than themselves, living or nonliving, if they can swallow it.  Accordingly, these scavenging gulls are attracted to garbage dumps filled with human wastes, as well as to egg-filled nests of smaller birds, plus available rodents (e.g., rats) and lagomorphs (e.g., rabbits).  Likewise, these bullies practice “klepto-parasitism”, i.e., aerial bullying-based robberies of food from other birds—when accosted by Great Black-backed Gull, the smaller birds drop their food—as the Great Black-backed Gull chases the dropping food, to capture it in the air, the robbery victim flies away to safety. 

During the winter months these gulls spend less time over land, because the sea itself then offers better opportunities for food—especially lots of fish!  Any fish who are close to the ocean’s surface are at risk when these gulls scout for catchable food. In fact, quantitative studies of their stomachs show that marine fish (such as herring) are the primary diet of Great Black-backed Gulls, although they also eat other birds (like herring gulls, murres, puffins, terns, Manx shearwaters, grebes, ducks, and migrant songbirds), plus small mollusks (like young squid), crustaceans (like crabs), marine worms, coastline insects and rodents, as well as inland berries, and lots of garbage and carrion (found in places as diverse as saltmarshes, landfills, parking lots, airport runways, piers, fishing docks, surface ocean-waters, etc.). 

[See William Threlfall, “The Food of Three Species of Gull in Newfoundland”, Canadian Field-Naturalist, 82:176-180 (1968). See also, accord, Kirk Zufelt, “Seven Species of Gulls Simultaneously at the Landfill”, Larusology (http://Larusology.blogspot.com/2009/11/7-species-of-gulls-simultaneously-at.html ), posted Nov. 15, 2009.]

BLACK-HEADED GULL with “ankle bracelet” (Oslo Birder photo credit)

Like the above-described Great Black-backed Gull, the gregarious (i.e., colony-dwelling) Black-headed Gull is notorious for its omnivorous scavenging and often-predatory habits, opportunistically frequenting oceans, intertidal beaches and estuarial coastlands, marshlands and other inland wetlands, lakes, rivers, and even agricultural fields. These gulls, as breeding adults, sport dark-chocolate (almost black) heads.

Black-headed Gulls can soar high in the air, swim in the ocean, and walk along a sandy beach—they are equally comfortable moving to wherever they want to go to.  These noisy seagulls sometimes appear to “laugh” when they call.  Like other seagulls, they enjoy eating fish—sometimes they dip their heads under the tidewater surface, while swimming.  When scouting along a coastal beach, these gulls probe for coastline critters (which they probe for and snatch).  Also, they are fast enough to capture flying insects, which they catch “on the wing”. 

BLACK-HEADED GULL
(Shells of Florida’s Gulf Coast photo credit)

Gulls come in many varieties, plus some of these varieties are known to hybridize. For example, Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus) hybridize with Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus). Black-headed Gulls (Larus ridibundus) often hybridize with Mediterranean Gulls (Larus melanocephalus), and also with Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) and Common Gull (Larus canus).  Other hybrids exist, too, and many of these gull hybrids have been verified by genetics (i.e., DNA parentage verification).

><> JJSJ   profjjsj@aol.com

[ As a boy this author watched seagulls, both inland and at seacoasts, with wonder. God made them all! A half-century later, I still watch seagulls (and many other birds) with wonder.  “He (God) does great things beyond searching out … and wonders without number.”  (Job 9:10) — God shows how wonderful He is! ]

Black-headed gull - Norfolk Wildlife Trust
BLACK-HEADED GULLS with breeding plumage (Kevin Woolner/Norfolk Wildlife Trust photo credit)

White-tailed Eagle and Corncrake: Birdwatching in the Scottish Hebrides, Part 1

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare his praise in the islands. 

Isaiah 42:12
White-tailed Eagle aloft in the Outer Hebrides   (LHH Scotland photo credit)

Watching coastal birds is a favorite pastime in the Outer Hebrides, according to Outer Hebrides Tourism.  Having visited some of the Inner Hebrides, with marvelous birdwatching opportunities (including puffins!), I am not surprised.

The Outer Hebrides archipelago is a unique island chain perched on the North Western edge of Europe. Here the landscape ranges from white sand beaches and flower covered machair grasslands to barren hilltops, fjord like sea lochs and vast peatlands. Wildlife is abundant and birds of prey are a particularly visible feature of the open landscapes . . . Spring and autumn are the best times to spot migrating birds in the Outer Hebrides with large numbers of seabirds passing up and down the coasts of our islands on their way to and from northern breeding grounds and wintering grounds to the south.  These are both exciting birding seasons in the Outer Hebrides when almost anything can turn-up but the highlights of spring and autumn birding in the Western Isles include the passage of Skuas offshore and the flocks of geese and whooper swans passing overhead. Visit in the spring and summer to see the Outer Hebrides seabird breeding colonies of terns and gulls, which be found scattered along the coastline on headlands, beaches, islands and sand dunes.  Although most breeding colonies are found offshore they will travel long distances to feed and birdwatchers can often see seabirds in the Western Isles from the shore.  Spot Gannets in the Outer Hebrides as they make their spectacular dives after fish and keep eyes open for Black Guillemot, Guillemot, [Atlantic] Puffin, Razorbill and Fulmars, as all are common island birds.

Quoting from “Bird of Prey Trail Locations” and “Wildlife: Coastal Birds”, VisitOuterHebrides.co.UK  —  emphasis added by JJSJ
Northern Gannet, aloft in the Outer Hebrides  (Islandeering photo credit)

Some of the coastal birds that frequent the Outer Hebrides include shorebirds (such as Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Dotterel, Dunlin, Jack Snipe, Little Stint, Oystercatcher, Pectoral Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Redshank, Ringed Plover, Ruff, Sanderling, Turnstone, Heron), seagulls (such as Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull), as well as various ducks (such as Eider, Goldeneye, Black-throated Diver, Great-northern Diver, Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Shelduck, Shoveler, Long-tailed Duck), plus Shag and Cormorant, Atlantic puffin, Northern Gannet, geese (Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Greylag Goose), Mute Swan, plus a mix of passerine songbirds (such as Barred Warbler, Blackcap, Bluethroat, Brambling, Chiffchaff, Common Crossbill, Common Whitethroat Warbler, Corn Bunting, Dunnock, Hawfinch, House Martin, House Sparrow, Meadow Pipit, Pechora Pipit, Pied Flycatcher, Redwing, Rose-colored Starling, Stonechat, Yellow-browed Warbler), the Ring Ouzel, the ever-versatile Woodpigeon, and more!

Atlantic Puffin, ashore in the Outer Hebrides  (Sykes Cottages photo credit)

The Hebrides, formerly known as the “Western Isles”, are wildlife-watching venues.

With the islands enjoying one of the last untouched natural landscapes in Europe, wildlife in the Western Isles is some of the finest in the world, with Outer Hebrides animals and plants all at home in their surrounding without fear of poaching, pollution or disturbance.  Wildlife watching in the Outer Hebrides offers a glimpse into a time almost forgotten by the rest of the world, where the white -tailed eagle soars over the rugged coastline as red deer roam proudly over the peaty moorlands and [river] otters swim in many sea lochs.  Much of the wildlife in the Western Isles is unique and protected, meaning that visitors enjoying Scottish island nature breaks here can enjoy pursuits as diverse as spotting minke whale in the sea around the Outer Hebrides and eagle watching in the sky. 

[The Outer Hebrides] are a popular destination for birdwatching in Scotland, as birding in the Western Isles offers opportunities to see everything from birds of prey to seabirds and waders. Look out for the Bird of Prey Trail which spans the Outer Hebrides with location markers for the best places to see birds of prey. As well as this, the Western Isles are the summer home to two thirds of the elusive British corncrake population from April to September. 

[Quoting VisitOuterHebrides.co.UK, “Closer to Wildlife” — emphasis added by JJSJ
White-tailed Eagle   [ photo credit: Animalia.bio ]

In the above quotation the White-tailed Eagle (a/k/a “Sea Eagle”) is mentioned; this raptor is Great Britain’s (and thus also Scotland’s) largest bird of prey.  It habituates almost all of Scotland, including the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

The White-tailed eagle is one of the largest living birds of prey. It is sometimes considered the fourth largest eagle in the world and is on average the fourth heaviest eagle in the world. White-tailed eagles usually live most of the year near large bodies of open water and require an abundant food supply and old-growth trees or ample sea cliffs for nesting. They are considered a close cousin of the Bald eagle, which occupies a similar niche in North America. The adult White-tailed eagle is a greyish mid-brown color overall. Contrasting with the rest of the plumage in the adult are a clearly paler looking head, neck and upper breast which is most often a buffy hue. The brownish hue of the adult overall makes the somewhat wedge-shaped white tail stand out in contrast. All the bare parts of their body on adults are yellow in color, including the bill, cere [nose-like part of upper bill], feet, and eyes.

[Quoting “White-tailed Eagle”, Animalia, https://animalia.bio/white-tailed-eagle .]
White-tailed Eagle with caught fish   ( Wikipedia photo credit )

Watching these sea eagles catch fish in their talons, as they wing to, near, and then away from the seawater surface, is much like watching Bald Eagles catch fish in the coastal seawaters of Southeastern Alaska.  [See video clip of a Sea Eagle catching fish, at rspb.org.UK – website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.]

White-tailed eagles are powerful predators and hunt mostly from perches, in a “sit-and-wait” style, usually from a prominent tree perch. Fish is usually grabbed in a shallow dive after a short distance flight from a perch, usually with the eagles only getting their feet wet. At times they will also fish by wading into shallows, often from shores or gravel islands. When it comes to non-fish prey, White-tailed eagles often hunt by flying low over sea coast or lake shore and attempt to surprise victims. [emphasis added]

[Quoting “White-tailed Eagle”, Animalia, https://animalia.bio/white-tailed-eagle .] 

These coastal raptors mostly eat fish.  However, they also eat waterfowl and small mammals (such as rodents).  During winter they eat lots of carrion.

In previous centuries the White-tailed eagle populated the coasts of Scotland, but it was hunted to extirpation in the A.D.1920s.  However, it was conservationally re-established on Rhum in A.D.1975, and (thankfully) it has since re-colonized (beyond 25 breeding pairs, apparently) many of the indented inlets of the coastal strands of Outer Hebrides islands, including Harris, Lewis, and South Uist. 

White-tailed Eagles are large birds (2-to-3 feet, from bill-tip to tail-tip; 6-to-8 feet wingspan; 9-to-16 pounds), famous for eating fish (such as salmon, trout), yet they also prey on rabbits and hares, geese, available seabirds (such as fulmars and petrels), and lamb carrion.  Like their Golden Eagle cousins—which reside in the Hebrides—these eagles establish and defend territories for their families.

Other birds of prey, habituating the Outer Hebrides, include two types of owls, the Short-eared Owl and the Long-eared Owl.  Other birds of prey include hawks (such as harriers, sparrow hawks, and ospreys) and falcons (such as kestrels, peregrines, and hobbies), which routinely find and consume rodents (such as voles).  Other birds of prey, sometimes observed, include Buzzards, Snowy Owl, and Gyrfalcon. 

However, in contrast to such carnivorous raptors, consider the common Corncrake.

Corncrake in grass      (Wikipedia photo credit)

The chicken-like Corncrake is a migratory rail that frequents grassy parts of Hebridean islands, as well as Scotland’s semi-marshy floodplain grasslands (dominated by grasses or sedges) and coastal wetlands (such as nettle beds, iris beds, and reed beds), yet the Corncrake prefers the tall plant-cover of farmed crop-fields (such as hayfields, fields of wheat and other cereals, and clover meadows).  This rail arrives from mid-April and stays for breeding and beyond, till August or September.  After that the Corncrake migrates to North Africa, for over-wintering.

Corncrake in camouflage       (IBTimes UK photo credit)

The Corncrake’s appearance somewhat resembles a young Grey Partridge (or somewhat like a moorhen or coot), yet it is almost as small as a blackbird.

Plumage softly but richly coloured, with pale grey face, fore-neck and breast, yellowish-buff upper parts, lined with cream and spotted or streaked blackish-brown, chestnut wings ‘catch fire’ in flight, barred white flanks.  Bill and legs dull pink.  Flight typical of [rail] family, loose-winged and clumsy; usually escapes by running into dense cover. 

[Quoting Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort, et al., A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), page 93.]
“Singing” male Corncrake, Hebrides (Steven Fryer/BirdGuides.com photo credit)

Because Corncrakes (a/k/a Land Rails) routinely reside in grassy fields, where photosynthetic biomass productivity is high, they have a smörgåsbord of seeds – as well as other foods, available just for the taking. 

Corncrake, hunting food, Hebrides (Alan Lewis/Surfbirds.com photo credit)

Besides seeds these rails eat bugs (especially cockroaches and beetles, including dung beetles), fly larvae, termites, ticks, spiders, dragonflies, earthworms, grasshoppers, slugs, snails, weevils, and even small frogs. [Regarding the diet of Corncrakes, see further Suzanne Arbeiter, Heiner Flinks, et al., “Diet of Corncrakes Crex crex and Prey Availability in Relation to Meadow Management”, ARDEA, 108(1):55-64 (April 24, 2020), posted at https://doi.org/10.5253/arde.v108i1,a7 . ]

Corncrake, on the island of Iona, Inner Hebrides (Flickr photo credit)

Corncrakes themselves must be careful—they serve as prey to other animals, including mustelids (mink, ferrets, and river otters), foxes, larger birds (such as white stork, harrier hawks, seagulls, and corvids, especially hooded crows).

Wonderful birds are there to be seen, in the Outer Hebrides (Scotland’s “Western Isles”).  If you get the opportunity, go see them! 

Meanwhile, appreciate that they are there, living their daily lives—filling their part of the earth—glorifying their Creator (Isaiah 42:12).

><> JJSJ     profjjsj@aol.com  

———————————–

Ian’s Bird of the Moment – White-tailed (Sea) Eagles

It’s been a long time since the last bird of the moment, so here is a special one to make amends. Furthermore, at a time of increasingly depressing stories about the state of the planet, it comes with a great conservation story.
I’ve recently returned from a short visit to Europe. The purpose of the trip was to catch up with family in France and Ireland. The temptation to do a bit of bird photography as well was too great to resist so I went from Paris to Dublin via the Isle of Mull in Scotland (above) in search of White-tailed (Sea) Eagles. My nephew Ian joined me from Dublin so the detour naturally still qualified as family business.
We chose the Isle of Mull because of its reputation of being one of the best places in Europe to see White-tailed Eagles following their successful reintroduction to Scotland over the last 45 years. On our third and last day, having had little success finding any eagles on our own, we went out with Mull Charters on their Sea Eagle Adventure trip, during which I took all of these photos. The red arrow in the map above shows the approximate location in a beautiful bay with high mountains forming a spectacular backdrop.
The sea eagles in this region on the west of the island have become accustomed to being fed on frozen mackerel, providing spectacular views of these huge birds in action and providing wonderful photo opportunities. The above photo shows an eagle banking to get into position to come in for a fish and the next four photos shows the results of this foray.
The eagles come in very fast. Three seconds elapsed between the banking photo 201182 and the next one 201188 showing the bird just about to grab the fish, visible floating on the surface in front of the eagle. This photo and the next three, 201189, 201190 and 201191 were all taken in the space of one second so there is little margin for error on the part of either the eagle or the photographer.
In 201189, you can see that the bird has caught the fish with only one talon. As a result, 201190 and 201191, the fish falls off and drops back into the water. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it seems to me that the look of intense concentration in 201188 changes to frustration or disappointment in 201190.
A little over 20 seconds after the abortive attempt, another bird, photo 201208, has swept in and successfully scooped up a fish. As soon as a bird had captured a fish, it left the vicinity.
These eagles were very vocal, often making a repeated klee, klee, klee call which sounded gull-like to me and rather undignified for such a large raptor. The captain on the boat said that the most vocal bird was a female objecting to the presence of other eagles in her territory.
Until the eighteenth century, White-tailed Eagles were widespread throughout Eurasia from Ireland to Siberia. In the nineteenth century, increasing persecution by farmers, gamekeepers, shepherds and fishermen and the spread of firearms led to population declines in Europe and ultimately to extinction in Ireland (last known nesting attempt in 1898) and Britain (last breeding attempt in 1916).
Like its close relative the Bald Eagle of North America, the remaining populations of White-tailed Eagles suffered badly from the use of persistent organochloride insecticides such as DDT after the second world war. The banning or phasing out of such insecticides and more enlightened attitudes to conservation led to increases in eagle populations in Europe and North America in the final quarter of the twentieth century, making possible their reintroduction to places where they had become extinct.
Reintroductions of White-tailed Eagles are done using young birds taken from nest at the age of about six weeks. White-tailed Eagles rear one or two chicks per year, so the birds chosen for reintroduction are taken from nest with two chicks. The birds take five or six years to mature so, for a reintroduction to succeed, the population needs to reach a critical mass to become self-sustaining.
The Scottish reintroduction started in earnest in 1975 with Norwegian birds being introduced to the Isle of Rum, shown by the green arrow on the map (the Isle of Mull is indicated by the red arrow). Later introductions were done to the mainland near the Isle of Rum (Wester Ross) in the 1990s. There are now about 130 breeding pairs in Scotland, mainly in the west and there are 22 pairs on the Isle of Mull.
Reintroductions to eastern Scotland were done between 2007 and 2012. In August 2019, six Scottish-bred young eagles were released on the Isle of Wight as the first stage of reintroducing them to southern England. Meanwhile, in Ireland a parallel reintroduction of Norwegian birds started in 2007 with the first successful nesting in 2012. Now there are about eight breeding pairs (and a few more holding territories) but the population is not yet large enough to be self-sustaining.
So, there you have it. A good news story and, for nephew Ian and I, a memorable day with these magnificent birds of prey in Scotland.
Greetings, Ian

“… as the eagle swoops down… (Deuteronomy 28:49b NASB)

“… Like an eagle that swoops on its prey.” (Job 9:26b NASB)

“… The way of an eagle in the sky,…” (Proverbs 30:19a NASB)

“… Behold, He will mount up and swoop like an eagle and spread out His wings against Bozrah…” (Jeremiah 49:22a NASB)

Thanks, Ian. Was beginning to wonder if you had given up on birdwatching. Our adventures may become less regular, but there is always another birding adventure to inspire us. Thanks for sharing.

What a beautiful Eagle! Reminds me of our Bald Eagle with that white tail, but also of the Steller’s Sea Eagle we saw in a zoo. Fantastic avian wonders from the Creator.

Birdwatching at Staffa: Puffins, Shags, & more

Birdwatching at Staffa, near Iona: Puffins, Shags, and Herring Gulls

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare his praise in the islands.  (Isaiah 42:12)

The three birds that I recall most, from visiting the island of Staffa (Inner Hebrides, just north of Iona) were Herring Gulls (a very common seagull),  Shags (a yellow-mouthed but otherwise all-black cormorant), and those cute and colorful (and comically clown-like) Atlantic Puffins, a couple of which settled (after some aerial arcing) not much more than a yard (i.e., meter) form where I was standing, upon the grassy cliff-side of the pasture-topped island.

Shag-Staffa.PublicInsta-[hoto

SHAG  at  STAFFA   (Public Insta photo credit)

Below is a limerick I wrote to recall my observations at the Isle of Staffa (same island that has Fingal’s Cave, made famous by Felix Mendelssohn’s overture written in AD1829), a small uninhabited island north of Iona (where I ate some of the best sea scallops, after soaking my feet in the cold Sound of Iona tidewaters!), in the Inner Hebrides archipelago on the western side of Scotland (July 19th AD2019).  Norse Vikings were reminded of staves (plural of “staff”) when they saw the upright timber/log-like columns (contiguous pillars) of basalt there  —  hence the name “Staffa“.

BIRDWATCHING  FROM  CLIFF-EDGE  ATOP  STAFFA  ISLAND,  NORTH  OF  IONA  (INNER  HEBRIDES)

Herring gulls, puffins, and shags,

Launch from cliff-edge grass and crags;

Flying low — then a splish!

Success!  Caught a fish!

Herring gulls, puffins, and shags.

Herring gulls, of course, I first observed during my boyhood days (in elementary school).  But shags and puffins are not seen in the parts of America where I have lived, so seeing them at Staffa was quite a privilege!

Puffins-Staffa.Mull-n-IonaRangerService

PUFFINS at STAFFA   (Mull & Iona Ranger Service)


POST-SCRIPT:   Puffins, gulls, and shags  —  as noted (in the limerick, above)  —   enjoy eating fish, from the sea-waters that wash ashore coastal rocks and beaches of the Hebrides.   Meanwhile, to consider what humans enjoy eating, when visiting Scotland’s Highlands and Hebrides,  check out “When in Scotland, Eat Well!”  —  posted at https://rockdoveblog.wordpress.com/2019/07/29/when-in-scotland-eat-well/  .

 

Moorfowl is Fair, in Highland Heather

Red Grouse:  Moorfowl is Fair, in Highland Heather

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

“For the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains.” (1st Samuel 26:20b)

As noted in a previous blogpost, in “Fowl are Fair on Day 5”, the Holy Bible’s  “partridge” (which is mentioned in 1st Samuel 26:20) is a type of galliform (i.e., chicken/partridge/quail/pheasant/turkey/peafowl-like ground-dwelling bird.

Other examples of galliforms include the partridge-like birds we call “grouse”. (See also “Rock Partridges:  Lessons about Hunting and Hatching”.

RedGrouse-Scotland.SimplyBirds-and-Moths

RED GROUSE in Scotland   (Simply Birds and Moths photograph)

The RED GROUSE is a variety of fast-flying WILLOW PTARMIGAN, often camouflaged within Scotland’s heather scrublands, sporting reddish-brown plumage (with white feathered legs underneath, that somewhat resemble rabbit feet!), yet accented by scarlet “eyebrows”.   It is often hunted in Scotland, by humans as part of a regulated sport, as well as by birds of prey, to the extent that they are present in Scotland heather moors.

The Red Grouse has been described as follows:

“The Red Grouse … of the British Isles [is] a race of the Willow Ptarmigan … coloured entirely chestnut-brown, winter as well as summer. [It] presses itself low to the ground when danger threatens. … [Its habitat is] open taiga, bushy tundra, marshes and moors with willow, birch and dwarf scrub; generally at lower altitudes than [other varieties of] Ptarmigan.  … [For food, it eat] leaves, buds and berries of dwarf shrubs, especially billberries, cranberries and crowberries; in winter buds and leaves of dwarf birch; in order to get at their food plants, the birds dig long tunnels in the snow.  Red Grouse eats mainly heather shoots.”

[Quoting Jürgen Nicolai, Detlef Singer, & Konrad Wothe, BIRDS OF BRITAIN & EUROPE (Harper Collins/Collin  Nature Guides, 2000; translated from German & adapted by Ian Dawson), page 144.]

Red Grouse, as well as other varieties of Willow Ptarmigan, are ground-fowl found in cool scrublands of Earth’s northern habitats, in lands as widespread as Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Canada, and Alaska. [See Wikipedia-posted range map of the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), with indigo blue showing year-round residency ranges.]

WillowPtarmigan.RangeMap-wikipedia


   Range Map for Willow Ptarmigans  (Wikipedia)

In fact, the Willow Ptarmigan is Alaska’s official state bird, specifically the winter-white-dominated Lagopus lagopus alascensis variety.

WillowPtarmigan-Alaska-variety.Wikipedia

Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska variety) in winter white   [Wikipedia/public domain]

The reddish-brown plumage of the RED GROUSE is well-suited for residing in the heather fields of Scotland. Of course, despite its helpful camouflage, the Red Grouse is a resident well known to Scottish Highland hunters!

“As the rail network opened up the Highlands in the late 19th century, so it because possible for many more people to come from the south to join shooting parties on moors specifically managed for red grouse.  . . . The long-term decline in grouse numbers  [especially Scotland’s RED GROUSE (Lagopus lagopus scotica), a Scottish variety of Willow Ptarmigan, a/k/a “Moorfowl”,  a ground-fowl accustomed to heather-moor habitat] began in the 1930s – way before birds of prey began to recover [in Scotland, from] egg collectors and keepers [i.e., wildlife-regulating game wardens].  This, in part, is related to the loss of high-quality moorland to [agricultural] grass as sheep densities have increased.”

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

RedGrouse-heather-moorland.ScottishNaturalHeritage

RED GROUSE in Scottish heather moorland   (Scottish Nature Heritage)

Of course, the Red Grouse is wild, so it is fair game – pardon the pun – to be photographed by nature photographers, such as Niall Benvie, Scottish author of THE ART OF NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY (and other similar books). Once Mr. Benvie was preparing to photograph a strolling Red Grouse, as he recalls:

 “I once met such a bird [i.e., a Red Grouse] in a quiet glen near [my] home.  As I edged my car closer [preparing my camera to take a photograph of the grouse], I was grateful that, for once, my subject [i.e., the Red Grouse who was approaching] wasn’t camera-shy.  I glanced in the rearview mirror only to see, to my dismay, a woman walking up the narrow road behind me.  As she passed the car I withdrew my camera and prepared to leave [ — assuming that her approach would frighten off the grouse, thus spoiling my opportunity to photograph the avian pedestrian].”

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

RedGrouse-on-Scottish-roadway.ScottishGamekeepersAssocn

RED GROUSE on Scottish roadway   (Scottish Gamekeepers Association photograph)

Of course, as a wildlife photographer, Niall Benvie is bothered by human intrusions into the “wild” world of this tranquil ground-fowl. If the Red Grouse doesn’t bother humans, why should humans interfere with the Red Grouse’s habitat in the Highlands?  Yet this perspective has its flaws, as the following anecdotal report (from Niall Benvie) illustrates.

“But the grouse, rather than [squawking] loudly and whirring off over the moor, began walking up the road to meet her. He [i.e., the Red Grouse] pecked furiously at her [shoe]-laces, and she bent down, picked him up and held him in her arms!  She was the local keeper’s wife [i.e., game warden’s wife], and [she] knew this first year bird well [and obviously the bird knew well that he could trust her to pick him up caringly].

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

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RED GROUSE in Northumberland field   (Hawsen Burn photograph)

Although that one-year-old Red Grouse was “wild”, it obviously remembered some kind of kindness from the game warden’s wife.

So much for condemning the meddling “interference” of kind-hearted humans!


Woodcocks: Devouring Worms, Dwelling in Wet Woods

EURASIAN WOODCOCK: Forest Fowl that Look Like Wading Shorebirds

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

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Thou makest darkness, and it is night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.   (Psalm 104:20)

Earthworms, known in some places as “night crawlers”, are a favorite meal for woodland Woodcocks, such as the Eurasian Woodcock.

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Woodcock eating Earthworm (Wikipedia)

The Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola, like the American Woodcock (its American cousin, Scolopax minor), is not a flashy or flamboyant bird, like a Peacock, Turquoise-browed Motmot, or Lilac-breasted Roller.  Rather, the Eurasian Woodcock prudently prefers to keep a low “behind-the-scenes” profile.

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Called “Waldschnepfe” (“wood snipe”) in German, this bird loves “wet woods” and other moist areas dominated by trees, unlike similar-looking wading shorebirds (like sandpipers and phalaropes).  With its woodland-blending cryptic camouflage plumage, it is easily by-passed by busy woodland hikers in mixed hardwood-evergreen forests — and, more importantly, by potential predators.  Its hidden-in-plain-view plumage mixes a mottled mosaic of greys and brown, with wavy bars and patches of reddish-brown russet, buff-beige, and dark-chocolate browns, woven in here and there.

A reedy whistle and a grunt as a dark shape hastens through the gloaming is all that most of us normally see of a woodcock. Males [perform courtship display flights] around dawn and dusk throughout the breeding season … [and females sometimes join males, in open areas near woodland edges, after responsive flights.]

The rest of their lives, however, are conducted in the obscurity of night, usually in deep cover where they can feast undisturbed on earthworms and other invertebrates.  Even if you were to chance upon an incubating female during the day, the bird’s camouflage amongst leaf litter is so effective that you would most likely walk past by unawares.

[Quoting Niall Benvie, SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland: Aurum Press, 2004), page 56, with emphasis added.]

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Guided by its far-back-and-high-set eyes (which have 360O monocular vision), its long thin bill, like that of sandpipers and snipes and phalaropes(its water-wading cousins), is used for probing and picking edible material from or under wet surfaces, such as wet sands, muddy meadows, and moist thicket soil.  And the Woodcock’s bill is routinely successful at frequently finding food, mostly earthworms but also bugs (and their grub-formed larvae), snails, and seeds.

The Woodcock is a hidden yet hungry hunter!

Woodcock also love damp forests where they can use their sensitive, almost rubber-like bill to probe the soft ground for earthworms, for which they have a voracious appetite —  research with captive birds has shown that they can eat their own body weight (about 300 grams) in earthworms each day[!].  It is therefore likely that very dry summers, such as that of 2003, have a negative impact on the [Woodcock] population.

[Quoting Niall Benvie, SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland: Aurum Press, 2004), page 56.]

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Eurasian Woodcocks are migratory birds, with about 9/10 of them breeding in the cool wet woodlands of Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia, later migrating to overwinter in milder regions all over Europe (as far as the Mediterranean Sea, and sometimes even farther southward) and the Indian Subcontinent.

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However, some Woodcocks are year-round residents of some of Europe’s mild-climate countries, such as the British Isles, and in southern (and western) Europe, as well as in some of the mild-climate islands of the Atlantic Ocean, including Britain’s Channel Islands and Spain’s Canary Islands, as well as Portugal’s Azores and Madeira.

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Because the Eurasian Woodcock’s migratory range — and, to a smaller extent, its year-round residential range, — is so far-reaching, it is no surprise that many countries have honored the worm-devouring, woods-dwelling Woodcock with postage stamps.

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Atlantic Puffins on the Isle of Mull, Scotland

Atlantic Puffins by Bill Boothe, MD in the Isle of Mull Scotland

These Atlantic Puffin’s photo was taken by Bill Boothe, MD, in the Isle of Mull, Scotland. Dr. Boothe is a long time friend of Dr. James Johnson. It would have been nice to have been there also.

This puffin (Atlantic Puffin) has a black crown and back, pale grey cheek patches and white underparts. Its broad, boldly marked red and black beak and orange legs contrast with its plumage. It moults while at sea in the winter and some of the bright-colored facial characteristics are lost, with color returning again during the spring. The external appearance of the adult male and female are identical though the male is usually slightly larger. The juvenile has similar plumage but its cheek patches are dark grey. The juvenile does not have brightly colored head ornamentation, its bill is narrower and is dark-grey with a yellowish-brown tip, and its legs and feet are also dark. Puffins from northern populations are typically larger than in the south and it is generally considered that these populations are different subspecies.

Puffin Beaks – Breeding L and non-breeding R – 1905 PubDom Drawing

Spending the autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, the Atlantic puffin returns to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. It nests in clifftop colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. The chick mostly feeds on whole fish and grows rapidly. After about six weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It swims away from the shore and does not return to land for several years. [Wikipedia with editing]

This photo was take in Mull, Scotland. “Mull (Scottish Gaelic: Muile, pronounced [ˈmulʲə]) is the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides (after Skye), off the west coast of Scotland in the council area of Argyll and Bute.

Argyll and Bute UK relief location map

With an area of 875.35 square kilometres (337.97 sq mi) Mull is the fourth largest Scottish island and the fourth largest island surrounding Great Britain (excluding Ireland). In the 2011 census the usual resident population of Mull was 2,800; a slight increase on the 2001 figure of 2,667; in the summer this is supplemented by many tourists. Much of the population lives in Tobermory, the only burgh on the island until 1973, and its capital.”

Lighter side verses: [yet very true]

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;” (1 Corinthians 13:4 NKJV)

“We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NKJV)