Posted by: mynaturaldiary | June 1, 2017

Cuddy Ducks

This blog is now 9 years old (Happy Birthday, Pageant!) and to celebrate, it took another trip to the Farne Islands.

Seahouses harbour was still, and male Eider ducks were floating in the waters.

Eider (Somateria mollissima)

(see videos here and here).

They are very striking birds, and are known locally as Cuddy ducks.  They are named after St Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northern England whose hermitage was on Inner Farne, and his bones now lie in Durham Cathedral.

With ideal weather conditions – flat calm, little wind

and bright sunshine accompany the boat out to the islands below.

Grey seals were in the sea

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus)

and on the rocks of the islands

(see video here).

Nearby were Cormorants.

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

This bird isn’t a pure marine species, unlike the closely related Shag, which we’ll see shortly. These birds look happy enough where they are for now.

On Staple Island were fabulous views of colonies of Guillemots, mixed with Kittiwakes and Shags, interspersed with other gulls, notably Herring and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, and Fulmars. Finally, a few Puffins nest there too.

First the main attraction – the Guillemots and Razorbills. Razorbills are powerful looking birds from the Auk family, with thickset bills.

Razorbill (Alca torda)

(see videos here and here). They are pretty silent compared to their sleeker neighbours, Guillemots, who are extremely noisy.

The colony of Guillemots is called a loomery, and is densely populated. They are very sociable birds.

Guillemot (Uria aalge)

(see video here,  here  and here)

These birds have evolved to make their way through two fluids; the high density one (sea – to catch fish) and the low density one (air – via flight). This makes them very streamlined, but with very a short stubby tail.

The trailing feet act as the tail feathers, stabilising flight.

From the top of the island looking down, you can see the birds coming in to land. The camera manages to capture the motion mid air.

(notice the sand eel in the bird’s beak).

With the absence of a large tail, their feet hang low when landing, acting as wing flaps & stabilisers.

This gif captures the frenetic action well. The sound is here.

(see videos here, here, here,

There is a faint look of Charlie Chaplin in how they walk (see video here and here).

There were also Bridled Guillemots on the rocks.

Bridled Guillemot (Uria aalge)

About 1/100 are Bridled Guillemots, with a white eye ring and a thin white line extending behind the eye, which marks them from the more common (99/100!) type.

Life can be brutal there for youngsters. In this short clip, predation of a Guillemot chick by a passing Herring Gull happens in a blink of an eye.

(see video of this smash and grab raid here).

The gull made off with the chick before the rest of the colony had a chance to react.

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear.

Tho’ Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed.

Herring Gulls have a mean hungry look about them.

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

They are on the prowl for young chicks all the time, eliciting a wall of dagger like bills from the loomery, much like a square of infantry being charged by cavalry in the eighteenth century.

See some video here – the Herring Gull decides the reward is less than the risk, so it flies away to try its luck elsewhere. The relationship is parasitic – predatory, but the Herring Gull can’t attack a mature adult. That’s not the case for the dominant UK seabird predator, the Greater Black backed Gull, a bully of a bird which can kill a mature Guillemot in the water.

I saw just one of these birds, and they are impressive – very large.

Greater Black Backed Gull (Larus marinus)

All the other birds gave it a wide berth.

Lesser Black Backed Gulls are also powerful birds, in between herring gulls and ‘GBBG’ in size.

They have bright yellow legs as a distinguishing mark.

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus)

They also act as parasites on the feeding Guillemots and Puffins, as do the Black headed Gulls, which you can see mobbing a Puffin to release its load of sand eels.

Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)

They also nest, like the other birds

They coexist when there is no food at stake. (see video here). It’s almost as though the Puffins are resigned to paying a tax to the gulls.

The Puffin escaped down into its burrow. They are the most beautiful birds on the islands.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

As mentioned they nest in rabbit burrows, and have the habit of popping up out of the ground.

(see video here)

They waddle on the ground across the grasslands when they walk towards their burrows.

(see videos here, here, here, here, here and here).

They are also constantly scanning the horizon, probably for Greater Black Backed Gulls.

(see videos here, here and here).

At the cliff edges, they are less restless.

(see videos here, here, here, and here).

As you can see from the gif above, their wings are small compared to their body (probably to help with swimming underwater). Consequently they fly with a rapid wing motion as you can see in these videos (here and here) when they come from the sea, more often than not laden with sand eels for their young.

 

Being true seabirds, they also rest on the sea.

And resting on the cliff edges.

Shags also nest on the rocks.

They have beautiful iridescent feathers, that shine green/black, depending upon sunlight.

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)

(see video herehere, here and here)

They continue to build their nests by adding seaweed to the pile.

They tend to their young, mere fluffballs now.

They look great when swimming out at sea.

Thence up he flew, and on the tree of life,
The middle tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived; nor on the virtue thought
Of that life-giving plant, but only used
For prospect, what well used had been the pledge
Of immortality.

Milton was too hard on the Phalacrocoracidae, when he used them for Satan in Paradise Lost.

Amongst the calmer birds on the islands are Kittiwakes and Fulmars.

Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

(see video here)

Fulmars are true gliders in the air, stiff winged, they rarely flap. They make a great contrast the the Puffins and Guillemots seen above, with short stubby wings and frenetic flying just to keep airborne.

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

They are tubenosed, which can be seen when they are nesting.

(see video here).

One bird that is most certainly not calm are Arctic Terns – one of the great navigators in the avian world. They nest on Inner Farne, and form dreads; a mob of birds that attack likely predators. And birdwatchers that get too close.

(see videos here and here).

They hover inches from your face,

then peck you!

(see video here).

On this visit the chicks hadn’t hatched yet.

There are also Sandwich Terns on the island.

Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

They have black bills with yellow tips (see video here).  Also notice the Common Tern in the gif above.

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

This tern is a poser… white headed, so immature. Black billed, smaller than a Sandwich Tern. Maybe a Roseate Tern?

Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii)

We started with Cuddy Ducks and we’ll end with them too. The females nest on the island, with wonderful camouflage.

(see video here and here).

The bird count for the islands, courtesy of the National Trust is here.

 

See you again next year!


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