Why is it that spring flowers look so much prettier next to a stone wall? Chilly spring weather in Wales and Scotland didn’t slow down the spring blooms. Maybe they get a little extra warmth from the re-radiation of heat from the stones in the walls next to them.
We managed to see 146 different bird species during our travels through parts of Wales and Scotland, at least 50 of which we saw again while hiking in the Lake District of England. Some of those bird species were so common, we saw them everyday. Ten species (listed alphabetically) became the equivalents of the cardinals, bluejays, chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and crows I usually see everyday in my Minnesota backyard.
That is the top ten “everyday birds” from across the pond — our new feathered friends from the U.K.
We’ve learned quite a few new words while hiking in the Lake District.
Fell: a high and barren landscape such as a highland moor.
Even though the “mountains” here in the Lake District are under 3000 feet, they are virtually treeless and open landscapes, covered with bracken (ferns) and grass.
Stone walls divide the sheep pastures, all the way to the top of the mountains. It’s amazingly quiet, with just a few birds singing, soft ground that completely muffles your footsteps, even the sheep don’t complain about our being there.
Trails go off in every direction, but it’s pretty easy to find your way from one spot to another, if you just keep walking in the desired direction.
Rain (of which there is a good amount here in the Lake District) runs off the bare, rocky slopes of the mountains, and some drains into the numerous creeks that feed the big lakes for which the area is named.
Beck: a swiftly flowing stream, such as “cross the beck and proceed west through the kissing gate” (directions on one of our maps which we had no idea how to interpret.)
Some becks tumble down steep cliffs and become waterfalls.
Some of the rainfall accumulates in small lakes up in the fells. That’s called a “tarn”.
And finally — the kissing gate.
Kissing gates are U- or V- shaped enclosures that permit only one person through at a time — and no animals. Why a “kissing” gate? There are probably several explanations, but here is one. If a romantic couple were out walking, a gentleman would allow his lady to pass through the gate first, but as she turned to let the gate swing back to admit him, she would have the opportunity to face him, demanding a kiss to permit him to pass through.
What started out as a hike to a crag (hilltop viewpoint) ended up as an excursion through sheep and cow pastures in search of the well-visited Castlerigg stone circle, just over a mile from Keswick.
And finally after turning many corners and walking through many pastures we came to the site.
Castlerigg is one of many (more than 1300) such stone circles in Great Britain, and probably dates to about 3200 BC. Its purpose is not really known, and various suggestions range from a meeting place for trade to a celebratory site for Druid rites to solar calendar. It is interesting to note that each of the large stones lines up with one of the surrounding peaks — as illustrated in the plaque at the site.
We may never know what went on here, but the route to the site was beautiful and well worth taking the detour.
We took advantage of the lovely sunny weather in Keswick to hike around the lake — Derwentwater, which is surrounded by steep rising hills. We even managed to spot (and identify) a few birds we had seen elsewhere in Wales and Scotland.
The map said the hike was about 8 miles, but the hike around the top end of the lake near Keswick took me far inland and away from town. So I ended up walking about 13 miles, and was pretty happy to just sit down for the rest of the day.
On a beautifully sunny, and almost warm day, we hiked into the Cairngorm mountains south of Grantown-on-Spey to look for ptarmigan and found instead a bevy of Red Grouse, calling and flying about us on our walk.
Seen only rarely elsewhere in Wales and parts of northern England, we found quite a few grouse on the slopes as we walked. Even though this is a national park, the area is intensively managed for these grouse — to the exclusion of their predators (for example, raptors like Golden Eagles) which are shot, trapped, or poisoned by gamekeepers to reduce predation.
Red Grouse are a subspecies of Willow Ptarmigan endemic to the U.K. Unlike the ptarmigan however, they do not molt into a white winter plumage, and their summer rusty brown plumage blends into the moorland landscape very well.
Why all this effort for one species?
Red Grouse are the chief game bird of the U.K. and are shot in large numbers by enthusiastic hunters each year, beginning on opening day of the shooting season August 12. With vast tracts of land managed just for Red Grouse by habitat alterations, predator removal, and eradication of disease-carrying rabbits, the grouse population has boomed.
Managed “nature” doesn’t leave much room for other wildlife, but this problem isn’t limited to what is occurring here in Scotland.
Near the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland is the charming town of Grantown-on-Spey, an excellent base for birdwatching at the coast, in the mountains, and in the cool pine forest. But it wasn’t birds that took us to the Rothiemurchus forest last night. It was badgers.
Martens are about the size of a small house cat, quick on their feet whether on the ground or running about in the trees, and eat a wide variety of mostly animal matter, although they too love the peanuts.
We left the blind at 12:30 a.m., happy to have seen as many as five badgers and two martens, as well as a Tawny Owl and Woodcock flying about the blind.
The diversity of habitats within a relatively few miles is what makes travel in northern Wales so interesting. Here are scenes from a day in the uplands of Snowdonia National Park.
Bird beaks take the place of hands and fingers when it comes to handling food. So it makes sense that the beak should be highly and easily adapted to whatever the available food might be. As it turns out, just a few genes that change the size and curvature of the beak can yield a whole suite of bill shapes, making individual birds more or less better adapted to utilize a particular food source. This is the basis for the huge variety of bills in the Galapagos finches — and probably what causes the variation in bill closure and shape in (Red) Crossbills (from yesterday’s post).
Today we saw another finch with an unusual bill — the Bullfinch (so named because it has a pretty massive looking bill for its diminuitive size).
Their bill, however, is surprisingly weak, and wouldn’t cause a bruise if it closed on your finger (unlike that of the Crossbill). Instead, Bullfinches feed by nipping off a berry, seed, capsule, bud, etc., closing the bill against the food so as to shear off the outer coat and use their tongue to glean whatever is inside. They can even use this harvest strategy to de-shell small snails.
Although Bullfinches eat mainly seeds, they turn to consuming buds in late winter and early spring during food shortages. Their extreme success at bud nipping, however, has made them a pest in orchards where they do significant damage to fruit crops by decreasing the number of blossoms. A single Bullfinch can remove 30 buds per minute on an orchard tree, and the birds move systematically along a branch denuding the buds entirely.
The Hawfinch is a bird on the other end of the crushing strength spectrum from Bullfinch.
From short, stubby bill to a large, crushing one — not as difficult genetically speaking as we might think.
A bird that specializes in feeding on the seeds buried in pine cones has to have a nifty trick for extracting them, like a beak that works like a pry bar. In the Common (or Red) Crossbills, the two mandibles that make up the beak do not meet at the tip, but cross over one another. When the bird bites down between the scales of a pine cone, the tips of the mandibles push the scale open and the bird extracts the seed with its tongue.
Strong legs and feet grip the cone as the bird works the scales open with its beak, curling its body around the cone and twisting its head to apply further pressure.
Cone seeds make up most of a Crossbill’s diet, and they feed the seeds to their chicks as well. As a result, Crossbills can breed and raise chicks any time there is a big enough cone crop, even during cold winters. Young Crossbills, however, do not have crossed bills, but only develop them as they begin feeding on the cones themselves, about 45 days after hatching.
Crossbills usually feed on the cones high in the tree, but this bird must have been pretty hungry because it fed at eye-level for several minutes, completely ignoring the group of photographers honing in on the action. (Photos above by Steve Chaplin)