Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mavis, Susie and Billy Wise

The names by which we know birds in English have not always been set in stone, having changed and evolved with many regional variations. This is still happening with the official names of species in field guides trying to reach international consistency to avoid confusion. Sometimes this replaces a taxonomically inaccurate but descriptive name with something altogether less poetic. A good example of this is the renaming of the Fan-tailed Warbler as the Zitting Cisticola, a name that doesn’t exactly fire the imagination. Other names have been changed because they reflect the appearance of the species at the time of the year it is most often seen in Britain. The Grey Phalarope (a good descriptive name for the winter plumaged birds we see here) is now known as the Red Phalarope which is a more accurate description of the species in its northern breeding grounds.

One of the British Birds oils by Charles Collins (1736)
Before the standardising of scientific nomenclature and greater understanding of the genetic groupings of species classification was largely based on physical appearance, behaviour and habitat. As an example, reed buntings and sedge warblers, both small, brown and streaked passerines were referred to as reed sparrows. These, and a selection of some other obsolete but intriguing names were found on the backs of a series of oil paintings hanging in the Panelled Lobby at the National Trust's Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. Painted by Charles Collins (1680 – 1744) in 1736 these oils are a valuable early source of English names, some of which are found in other sources and some that may have been regional to Collins's native Ireland or even falling out of use at the time.
Below is a selection of some interesting examples of old, local and obscure avian nomenclature including the most unusual from the Collins oils (denoted with CC 1736).
Weasel Coot
Of unknown origin, this is a rather bizarre East Anglian name for redhead Smew.
(female Mallard) This is a term used mostly by wildfowlers.
East Anglian for Heron. This is a regional variant of a name that was probably fairly widespread across England. It features in one odd form in Shakespeare's Hamlet in the line “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” I still come across some old Norfolk boys and gels who use this name.
Wind Hover
(Kestrel) This is a fine example of a behavioural name.
Lapwing at Cley (Phil Farndon)
Hornpie, Green Plover, Peewit
The Lapwing is a bird has an impressive collection of names, and it is easy to understand why this distinctive and beautiful plover has caught the imagination of people over the centuries. Hornpie is the Norfolk dialect name.
(Oystercatcher) Derived from the same root as the Hornpie, with the 'pie' referring to the black and white appearance of the bird.
Drain Swallow, Whistling Snipe, Tree Sandpiper
(Green Sandpiper) All three of these now obscure names are far more descriptive of the bird than the now standard name.
Barn Owl at Wiveton (Phil Farndon)
Billy Wise
(Barn Owl) A rather charming example of proper Norfolk.
Bank Martin (CC 1736)
(Sand martin)

Ox-eyed Titmouse (CC 1736)
(Great Tit) The family of birds we now know as tits were until relatively recently called titmice.

Colemouse (CC 1736)

Bum Barrel
(Long-tailed Tit) Another Norfolk name.
Mavis (CC 1736)
(Song Thrush) Another once common name.
Storm Cock
(Mistle Thrush) Anyone who has heard a mistle thrush in full song at the very top of a tall tree in rough winds before a storm will understand just how apt this name is.
Titlark (CC 1736)
(Meadow pipit) A fine example of describing a bird in terms of two more familiar species.
Stonechat at Cley (Phil Farndon)
Stone Cutter (CC 1736)
Beam Bird (CC 1736)
(Spotted Flycatcher) There is no obvious derivation for this. My own theory is that this species may have been in the habit of using the beams of animal shed and barns as a perch when catching insects.
Small Reed Sparrow (CC 1736)
(Sedge Warbler)
Grasshopper Lark (CC 1736)
(Grasshopper Warbler)
Golden Crowned Wren (CC 1736)
Butcher Bird (CC 1736)
(Great Grey Shrike) This name is derived from the habit shrikes have of impaling there prey on thorns, as a butcher would hang meat.
Aberdevine (CC 1736)
(Siskin) Of unknown origin, but used for this species mostly when kept as a cage bird.
Pink or Spink
(Chaffinch) Variations on this onomatopoeic name are found across the country. Spink is the East Anglian variant and Pink is used in the Midlands.
Bramble Finch (CC 1736)
Reed Sparrow (CC 1736)
(Reed Bunting)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Winter Birdwatching in Norfolk

Brent Geese at Cley Beach in Winter (Phil Farndon)

This is one of the legendary birdwatching locations in Britain, with a diversity of habitats and being uniquely placed projecting east into the North Sea, Norfolk catches some of the most exciting and inspiring birds the UK has to offer. From the sweeping mud flats and sand dunes of the west via the salt and fresh marshes and fragile cliffs, to the grazing marshes and shallow lakes of the broads in the east. This is one of the best locations in the country to see the most spectacular winter wildlife sights, all within easy reach.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese (Mick Green)
The arrival of tens of thousands of these vocal Arctic geese is the most awe-inspiring spectacle. Spending their days feeding on farmland around the county, in the evening long, straggling skeins of a few hundred at a time will make their way back to the coast and the safety of mud flats and marshes to roost. The best time and place to see the impressive scale of this migration is at dawn after a dark, moonless night at Snettisham on the west-facing end of the coast.

Knot in flight (Mick Green)
These are another specialist of the mud. Thousands of these dumpy waders will gather to feed on the foreshore, continually rearranging themselves as the tide retreats and returns. Their name is said to derive from the story of Cnut, the 11th Century king of Denmark, England and later Norway showing to his subjects that even he could not hold back the tide. Again the sheer numbers make these birds a breathtaking sight as they wheel and turn in unison.

Snow Buntings and Shore Larks

Snow Bunting (Mick Green)

Shore Lark (Mick Green)
Moving east to the sand dunes of Thornham, Holkham and Wells and the shingle ridge from Blakeney Point, Cley and Salthouse more Arctic breeders can be found. In spite of their bright Naples yellow heads and throats, Shore Larks are masters of camouflage and so are difficult to find, especially on shingle, but are well worth the effort. Snow Buntings are more gregarious and tightly bunched flocks of sixty or more can be seen in their bouncing flight along the shingle ridge at Salthouse most years. When on the ground they can be as hard to find as the Shore Larks, apparently vanishing as they land on the stones. It often happens that you will notice one and then realise that a dozen or so more are also there feeding invisibly in full view around it.

The fresh marshes of Cley and Salthouse are a haven for wintering Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Pintail and Brent Geese. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Cley Marshes is one of the best places to get up close to these species and also get large flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing coming in to roost in the evening.

Barn Owls, Short-eared Owls and Harriers
Barn Owl (Mick Green)
When travelling around the coast and countryside always keep and eye open for birds of prey hunting over fields, verges and reed beds. East Anglia and Norfolk especially holds one of the densest populations of Barn owls in the country. These elegant and silent hunters are crepuscular (most active in the twilight of dawn and dusk) but will frequently fly during the day and are captivating to watch quartering a meadow in search of voles in low winter sunlight.

Short-eared Owl (Mick Green)
Short-eared Owls are winter migrants that can in some years arrive in large numbers. It is often worth scanning across heaths, reed beds and marshes for these large, fierce-eyed birds. In the same habitats and over farmland in the coastal hinterland look out for Hen and Marsh Harriers spending the winter in Norfolk.


Bean Geese
One for the connoisseur, these geese are winter visitors in low numbers from northern Europe and Asia. There are two races of these grey geese, the Tundra and the Taiga, their names indicating their favoured breeding grounds. Superficially similar to Pink-footed Geese but with orange on the legs and bill they can be challenging to pick out and often are very mobile making an element of luck important in finding them. They are best observed on open fields and grazing marshes all along the coast and inland at sights around the Broads and East Norfolk rivers like Buckenham and Cantly.
Winter gems
Lapland Bunting (Mick Green)
As well as the regular delights mentioned above there is always the possibility of happening across a rarity or one of the scarcer visitors to this county. In some years Lapland Buntings can be found in coastal fields or mixed in with Snow Buntings, in the Broads small parties of Cranes feed on the grazing land, and in harsh northerly winds high Arctic gulls come down the North Sea.  Large numbers of Waxwings sometimes are driven south by hard winters in Scandiavia and come to feed on fruit and berries, often in gardens and carparks at the edge of towns. Norfolk is also one of the best areas to see Rough-legged Buzzards around the coastal marshes and Broads.

The great joy of birdwatching is the unexpected, and anywhere along the coast you stand a good chance of turning up something out of the ordinary. The best way to increase your chances is to tap into the local knowledge and reports and ask the perennial question of birders everywhere, “Much about?”.

Some of the best sources of Norfolk wildlife information on the internet are listed below.

Cley Spy.
The largest dedicated optics shop in the UK with 200 models of binoculars and over 50 models of telescope in stock plus a good range of second hand optics.  We also stock tripods, bird food, straps, Tilley hats and Paramo and Jack Pyke outdoor clothing.

Local Birder who regularly blogs on the birding scene in Norfolk with highlights of the days bird news from RBA. This blog is valuable sources of up-to-date information and photos.

A subscription bird news service with online and pager news sent out 24/7.

Online bird news service with free to access overview of UK bird sighting or subscribe for full details.

Lots of information and photos from the Cley area.

Norfolk wildlife photographer and member of the Cley Spy team.

A group of young, mainly Norfolk based birders with a unconventional outlook on the birding scene.