Kingfishers in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

It was probably a “once in a lifetime” experience when we looked out of the window at 8 a.m. one July morning in 2004 to see a Kingfisher sitting on the washing-line! Perhaps it was digesting a fish from a neighbour’s pond? Those who have lived in the neighbourhood for fifty or more years do tell of Kingfishers being seen along the nearby beck in the past, but this is the first time we have seen one in the Ulverston area. Given the time of the year, it would be nice to think that this was a juvenile being encouraged to disperse by its parents.

In early June 2005 an adult bird was seen carrying a fish upstream on the beck; it returned empty after a minute, so hopefully a nest was in the vicinity. The birds had returned by 21st April in 2006 and in most years since. It is likely that these birds spend the winter on the coast between Canal Foot and Bardsea, with occasional forays perhaps to Urswick and Mere Tarns where they are also sighted in winter.

Late Victorian writers do record that Kingfishers frequented the creeks of the local saltmarshes, but one suspects this is possibly an autumn occurrence as many move to the coast at that time. Indeed, Leighton Moss in autumn is one of the most likely places where Kingfishers may be seen, often resting on the posts outside the hides. I have been lucky enough to see one dive and retrieve a fish here. More usually one catches a fleeting glimpse or hears its piping call; occasionally one sits long enough for a photo (see right), when it is then possible to see the lower mandible – if it is orange, as here, the bird is a female.

Other strongholds in the county are on the rivers Crake and Leven near Haverthwaite, the river Eden, especially around Appleby, and the rivers of the Solway Basin. Records from the west coast of the county are surprisingly rare.

The Cumbrian population of Kingfishers is estimated at up to 200 birds (The Breeding Birds of Cumbria). After lean times, it seems that numbers are on the increase, especially after a series of mild winters and the improvement in the quality of many watercourses. They become less abundant towards the north in Britain, but they are certainly increasing their range in Scotland at the present time. Kingfishers are amber listed because of their unfavourable conservation status in Britain and Europe.

Kingfishers suffer severe mortality during harsh winters but they may have up to three broods in a season, and up to six chicks in a brood, so numbers can recover rapidly.

Ignoring the beak, Kingfishers are just a little bigger than a House Sparrow and smaller than a Starling and are most likely to be seen as a moving flash of turquoise following the line of a river or stream. Anyone lucky enough to see a fishing Kingfisher in late autumn as the low sun reflects from its plumage is in for a breath-taking sight. Despite their relatively small size, they fiercely defend their stretch of river at breeding times and can catch prey heavier than themselves.
Nesting takes place in a tunnel half a metre or more into the river bank. For the first two weeks the nestlings sit in a circle, with the one nearest the entrance receiving food before shuffling round to let the next one in – this behaviour is innate and is known as a Kingfisher carousel. Any bird trying to cheat gets rough treatment from the others! Later the arrangement changes to a “team photo” pattern with nestlings squatting at the front with a row of standing birds behind, each having to beg in the traditional manner when the adult brings in food.

Curiously, most of the world’s kingfisher species don’t catch fish, but eat grubs, insects and small lizards.

Chats in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

One of my favourite places in Cumbria has to be Burney and Subberthwaite Common. On a clear day the views here are spectacular – from the Duddon Estuary and Black Combe round by the Stickle Pikes and Caw to the Coniston Fells, with the Scafells in the distance (see photo). The Common is rich in wildlife with over 11 species of dragonfly recorded here, all the British amphibians and numerous butterflies. It’s a place which teams with birdlife in the spring; the calls of cuckoos, ravens and buzzards echo across the wide open spaces, but it is the return of the songbirds that I await with interest each year. Migrant Wheatears and Whinchats return from Africa and Stonechats and Yellowhammers start to occupy territory. Redpoll occasionally turn up in the area of Burney Tarn.

Male Wheatears usually arrive towards the end of March, followed some days later by females. By mid-April they are joined by many pairs of Stonechat which have wintered elsewhere in Britain; in mild winters this species may breed here very early. Whinchats are later arrivals in early to mid-May. Each announces its presence with a flick of the tail and the characteristic hard chak or chat call.

The three species have experienced widely diifferent fortunes in recent years. Numbers of Stonechat have increased markedly as the species has survived more successfully in milder British winters. This has encoraged it to breed away from the coast in places like Subberthwaite. On Burney and Subberthwaite there are now literally dozens of breeding pairs. Wheatear numbers have held up well and the species is very common and widely distributed throughout the county. However, Whinchat numbers have fallen markedly – an observation supported by reports from throughout Cumbria. The Coniston Fells used to be a stronghold of the species but now they take some finding each spring. Observers are now asked to report all sightings of Whinchat.

The advantage of the open country chosen by these species for breeding is that it is easier to watch the behaviour of juvenile birds and compare their plumage with that of the adult than it is for many other species. By mid-May family parties of Stonechat and by mid-June Wheatear can be watched, the former as they move about in the gorse, but the latter more usually on the ground. Whinchat youngsters typically appear from late June and early July.

Juvenile Wheatears are much browner and less grey than the adults. Stonechat young have a brown slightly speckled appearance rather like that of a newly fledged robin, a close relative. They are often seen being watched over by Dad. Juvenile Whinchat show the most divergence in this group from the appearance of the adult. They have a much weaker white eyestripe but the plumage is an overall buff-yellow colour meaning that they do not obviously strike you as Whinchat on first seeing them.

As autumn approaches birds can be seen in juvenile plumage as migration gets under way. Walney Island is a good place to see them right through the autumn. Immature Stonechats are particularly attractive – the males don’t yet have that jet black head which masks the black eye.

Whinchat and Wheatear prepare to leave the country altogether, but the Stonechat is a partial migrant – some stay, some move south. This stategy seems to have served it well in recent years. Migration is risky, staying put is better if food is available and the weather mild. But staying put in Cumbria is to risk cold weather! However, in recent years there have been plenty about during the winter, throughout the Furness peninsula for example, although given the high rate of successful breeding many, especially young birds, must have left for warmer climes.

Bullfinch in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

  • The Bullfinch is not particularly common in Cumbria, although it is fairly widely distributed throughout the lowland areas. Nationally, it has suffered a serious decline in recent years and Bullfinches are now a cause of conservation concern; the main reasons are probably hedgerow loss and increasing numbers of Sparrowhawks.
  • For many years it was the enemy of fruit-growers in March as they turned to buds of fruit trees. In autumn, the seeds of Ash and Elm are important in their diet, but in spring, if the Ash and Elm crop had run out (Ash has good years and bad), Bullfinches would feed naturally on the buds of shrubs like Hawthorn and Sallow, but cultivated fruit trees make an excellent alternative when available.
  • In the sixteenth century, there was a bounty of a penny per bird and more recently in parts of Britain with orchards it was permitted to cull them under licence. This is no longer allowed; in any event the damage is rarely serious as recent research shows that particular varieties only are affected and more than half the buds would have to be taken to reduce the crop of fruit.
  • Bullfinches are rather shy birds and their presence is first given away by the contact call of a whistled note at steady intervals. Avoiding contact with people, they were once elusive in gardens. Hedgerow loss means that they have grown more accustomed in recent years to the availability of seeds at feeding stations, being especially fond of sunflower seed.
  • The strong muscular head and beak is ideal for feeding on hard seeds, but the rounded shape of the beak makes it difficult for them to pick seeds up from the floor. In late June 2005, a pair brought the juvenile, photographed below, to our bird feeders. The adults were a bit bemused, but the youngster happily tucked in. Having the dish on the feeder seems to help this species. In the succeeding days the adults quickly followed their off-spring’s example and made regular visits to feed, the male often keeping watch on top of the feeders.
  • A male Bullfinch in breeding condition is a sight to behold – vivid pink-vermilion underside contrasting with black and grey. The female is more subtly attractive (see photo above). With either sex, the use of binoculars should enable an easily missed feature of their plumage to be seen – the vivid deep pink feather where the black wing tertials meet the grey body (see arrow on photo).
  • Juveniles are well worth seeking out – late June/early July seems to be a good time. The juvenile doesn’t have the black cap and the wingbars are a delightful salmon pink rather than grey/white; the tertial pink is also just about visible on the juvenile photographed in my garden in 2005 (see below).

Birds in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

Typically 210-230 species of bird are recorded in Cumbria in any one year. Excluding occasional sightings of elusive species and scarce visitors, one might reasonably expect to see around 140 species without too much difficulty – the list below (arranged alphabetically) provides some guidance to less widespread species for those not familiar with birding in the county.Birds in Cumbria

HOT SPOTS – PEAK TIMES – GOOD BIRDING

  • Arctic Tern – breeding colony on Foulney Island, Apr. – July
  • Avocets – a few breeding pairs just over the county border at Silverdale, May – July.
  • Barnacle Goose – the Solway Marshes may hold 10000 – 20000, Oct. – March.
  • Bar-tailed Godwit – South Solway and Duddon Estuaries, July – March.
  • Black Grouse – North Pennines around Alston and Geltsdale/Hartside have lekking areas;
  • Black Guillemot – a few birds may breed at St. Bees Head, May – July
  • Brent Goose – around 50 overwinter in the Rampside/Foulney area of Furness, Oct. – March.
  • Common Gull – large roosts on Haweswater and Ullswater, Sept. – March.
  • Common Scoter – a flock of 200+ often found off Silecroft, Nov. – Feb.
  • Common Tern – breeding colonies at Hodbarrow and Rockcliffe, Apr. – July
  • Corn Bunting – may appear along the Solway coast, but sadly lost from around Carlisle and disappearing rapidly from the county; thrives in Lancashire! May?
  • Crossbill – occurs and breeds in conifers, mainly Border Uplands but also Grizedale Forest and north-west Lakes.
  • Dotterel – central Lakes fells on passage, late April – May; breeding now largely ceased.
  • Eider – resident and breeding in the Foulney/Walney area, all year.
  • Fulmar – breeding colony at St. Bees Head, April – July.
  • Gadwall – small numbers turn up in autumn on passage, particularly down the west of the county.
  • Gannet – quite large counts off Walney and Hodbarrow, June – September.
  • Goldeneye – Windermere holds significant numbers but also at Derwentwater, Bassenthwaite and coastal estuaries, Nov. – Mar.
  • Golden Eagle – one pair at Haweswater in summer.
  • Golden Plover – breeds in small numbers on northern Pennines (e.g. Geltsdale); large winter flocks move around fields on the Solway and in the Duddon/Walney area, but moving to the coast in hard weather, Sept. – March.
  • Goshawk – resident and breeding in the Border Forest; also foothills of south Lakes.
  • Grasshopper Warbler – summer visitor mostly to coast, but also Bassenthwaite/Derwentwater; rarely seen and best heard in early morning/late evening.
  • Great Black-backed Gull – breeding colony of 50 – 60 on South Walney, May – June.
  • Greenshank – passage birds at South Walney, Aug. – Oct.
  • Green Sandpiper – rare, but most likely from Solway and West Coast on autumn migration, July – August.
  • Grey Partridge – scattered distribution, mainly in north and west coast; parties sometimes seen at North & South Walney and Sandscale.
  • Grey Plover – winter on the Solway and in the Duddon, Walney, Rampside areas, Sept. – March.
  • Greylag Goose – many feral populations but upto 2000 wintering wild birds in the Eden Valley (e.g. Salkeld/Watersmeet), Oct. – March.
  • Guillemot – breeding colony at St. Bees Head, May – June.
  • Hawfinch – elusive but resident in the Rusland – Windermere – Sizergh triangle; also Woodwell, Silverdale.
  • Hen Harrier – much persecuted, breeds North Pennines, coastal in winter.
  • Honey Buzzard – recent addition to county breeding list; several pairs now likely in Lakeland in summer.
  • Kittiwake – breeds at St. Bees Head and gas platforms in Irish Sea!
  • Kingfisher – Eden Valley, Bassenthwaite and Ulverston hold breeding birds, April to July. Movement to coast in winter e.g. head of Morecambe Bay around Arnside and Silverdale.
  • Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – elusive, try Grizedale Forest.
  • Lesser Whitethroat – increasing summer visitor; prefers hedgerows and scrub of coastal lowlands e.g. Eskmeals, Hodbarrow and Furness Peninsula.
  • Little Egret – several birds have been wintering in the Walney area in recent years, often feeding in the pools at low water in the channel between the island and the mainland.
  • Little Grebe – good wintering numbers at Cavendish Dock and Hodbarrow, Nov.- Feb.; breeds mainly in South Lakes and Furness on lowland waters and a few sites in the north .
  • Little Tern – breeding colony at Hodbarrow, Apr. – July.
  • Mandarin – sightings of feral birds possible between Esthwaite Water and Windermere.
  • Manx Shearwater – good numbers off-shore from Walney to St. Bees Head, especially May – July.
  • Merlin – breeds on moorland in North Pennines and sparsely in north Lakes, winters on coastal marshes. Best chance of seeing them is Sept. – Oct. at Foulney/Walney and Solway marshes.
  • Mute Swan – large moulting flocks on Cavendish Dock and Longtown Pond worth seeing, July/August.
  • Nightjar – now a very rare summer visitor to county; mosses in south Cumbria.
  • Osprey – sightings possible central Lakes, breeding at Bassenthwaite, April – July.
  • Pink-footed Goose – 1000+ around the Duddon and more on the Solway around Campfield/Rockcliffe Marshes peaking in March as northwards migration occurs – Oct. – March.
  • Pintail – large numbers on the Kent Estuary, smaller numbers on the Leven and Duddon Estuaries, Oct. – Feb.
  • Puffin – a few birds breed at St. Bees Head, May – July
  • Purple Sandpiper – Workington Harbour, Parton beach and Biggar Bank, Walney, Nov. – March.
  • Quail – a few breeding pairs possible in summer on northern Coastal Plain, but numbers fluctuate.
  • Razorbill – breeding colony at St. Bees Head, May – July
  • Redstart – woodland between Kendal and Keswick and other wooded valleys are likely spots in summer; avoids lowlands and prefers wooded upland adjacent to farmland.
  • Red-throated Diver – frequently seen feeding off-shore from Walney/Foulney and in the Solway, Oct.- Feb.
  • Red-breasted Merganser – breeds inland but significant numbers all year at Cavendish Dock and Hodbarrow.
  • Reed Warbler – late arriving migrant and scarce breeder on suitable reedbeds e.g. Siddick Pond, Bassenthwaite, Rydal Water, Cavendish Dock and Urswick Tarn; April – Sept.
  • Rock Pipit – has bred on slag banks at Workington; feed on shore south to St. Bees, May – June. Numbers in winter increase as birds come in from Scandinavia and other areas like Walney,Foulney, and the Roa Island causeway become hotspots.
  • Ring Ouzel – although Cumbria (North Pennines and Lakes Fells) is a key breeding stronghold in Britain, numbers seem to be declining; April – August.
  • Ruff – mostly from Solway (sometimes overwintering) and, to a lesser extent Walney, on autumn migration, August – September.
  • Sanderling – wintering birds on Solway, Walney and Duddon Estuary shores; Oct. – Apr., peak in spring.
  • Sand Martin – breeding colonies at Walney and Bassenthwaite, May – July
  • Sandwich Tern – breeding colony at Hodbarrow, Apr. – July.
  • Scaup – the Solway is Britain’s premier wintering site for this species, Oct. – March.
  • Siskin – small numbers at garden bird feeders, especially March – April.
  • Snow Bunting – small flocks on Lake District peaks, Nov. – March.
  • Stonechat – numbers have built up after mild winters. Now abundant around the coast at St. Bees, North Walney and on lowland heaths in the south of the county.
  • Tree Pipit – summer visitor to scrub and new fell areas, but numbers seem to be declining – lovely call and gliding parachute flight, May to July.
  • Tree Sparrow – uncommon and now limited to farmland of coastal plains in Solway and Furness and Eden Valley. The Leece/Dendron/Gleaston area in the Furness Peninsula is a stronghold.
  • Turnstone – main wintering area South Walney, Roa Island and Biggar Bank, Aug. – April with peaks in autumn and spring.
  • Twite – breeds on Pennines; erratic but flocks of upto 200 regularly recorded on Walney and around Askam, Nov. – March
  • Water Rail – now very elusive in county; possible at North Walney, Bassenthwaite and Sunbiggin Tarn (but Leighton Moss estimated to have around 100 territorial males).
  • Whimbrel – passage migrant, especially in spring, Solway, Duddon and Morecambe Bay; late April – early May.
  • Whooper Swan – small flocks around Rockcliffe and Kirkbride on the Solway and the Langwathby area in the Eden valley, Nov. – March.
  • Wigeon – large numbers in Morecambe Bay, Sept. – March.
  • Willow Tit – much scarcer than Marsh Tit and confined to northern half of county, especially Solway marshes and Bassenthwaite/Derwentwater.
  • Woodcock – easily over-looked; strongholds in South Cumbria( roding birds possible in April Rusland, Grizedale, Brigsteer, and Angerton Moss), Bassenthwaite/Derwentwater and Geltsdale.
  • Wood Warbler – increasingly scarce summer visitor to woods of higher Eden valley, but strongest to west of a line from Cockermouth to Kendal e.g. usually breeds in Torver Common woodland and edges of Grizedale Forest, May – July.
  • Yellow Wagtail – now few breeding birds in county; Eden valley around Appleby and Kent valley in south now most likely spots in summer or Heversham Moss in the south.