This time the exciting news is not about birds: those of a nervous disposition may wish to skip this section.
Gilly King kindly allowed me to photograph the Cave Spiders breeding in our Ice House. We have discovered that they are of the rarer species (officially ‘Nationally Scarce Notable B’) Meta bourneti. They’re unlikely to trouble you as they live in total darkness and the Ice House is securely locked (to keep people out, not spiders in). They may not be as rare as we suppose – who knows what’s hanging around above your head when you’re in a totally dark cave or basement! Curiously when they first emerge from the egg sac as tiny spiderlings ,they move towards the light, thus emerging from their homes to be be blown on threads for many miles in search of new homes – read more here.
Thanks also to Amanda Morgan for originally getting these identified and to Peter Shaw for finding the record.
It’s getting to that time of year when many of us are going away on our travels. Some of our winter birds are currently far away enjoying summer at their breeding grounds in the far North.
In winter there were hundreds of Redwings around the University. In summer they are mostly in the Arctic, with a few pairs breeding in Northern Scotland.
They come here in the winter mainly for food. The cold doesn’t trouble them, as feathers are excellent insulation.
If you spend a little time looking up at the sky between mid-May and mid-August you will probably see some of my favourite birds.
In many ways Swifts are the most extreme of birds: they neverset foot on the ground or perch anywhere. In fact they can neither perch nor walk and if they were ever to land would be incapable of taking off again.
Leaving the nest for the first time a newly fledged Swift will immediately fly non-stop for 2 or sometimes 3 years. Eating, sleeping and mating in the air, each spring they only touch down on a vertical surface to build a nest and feed their young.
After spending the winter in Africa, the first Swifts arrive back in Britain in late April, and by the end of August only a few stragglers are left. If weather conditions are poor, they will sometimes disappear for days, flying sometimes hundreds of miles in search of food. The young Swifts are not in danger of starvation – if the parents are away from home, they can become torpid, in effect hibernating for a few days at a time.
They are fast too, measured at 111.6 km/h (69.3 mph) in level flight. Only the related White-throated Needletail is faster, with a few birds of prey reaching higher speeds in a dive.
If a Swift was scaled up to the size of a Phantom jet, it would be an astonishing six times as fast! They are far more maneuverable than any aeroplane too, constantly changing speed and direction as they feed on minute airborne invertebrates.
All of this makes them a nightmare to photograph, so no apologies for this pretty rubbish shot.
Not all migrant birds are such dramatic globetrotters. If you’ve been wondering where our gulls have gone, many will have headed to breeding colonies on the coast, though quite a few are still around at Richmond Park and the Wetland Centre.
These birds are at Cliffe in Kent, and if you look closely, a few are paler with jet black hoods and no black in their wings. They’re Mediterranean Gulls, but I haven’t seen one at Roehampton yet.
Black-headed Gulls & Mediterranean Gulls at Cliffe
This bird is the second gull I’ve seen on campus since March.
Common Gulls will mostly have headed to North and West Britain.
Apart from the Swifts, we have had few summer visitors this year. A handful of Swallows and warblers (Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler) have passed through, though none seem to have stayed long.
Quite a few of our resident birds have been breeding though, with the Canada Geese almost ready to fly at 2 months old.
The Egyptian Geese have almost grown up too, they’re now about six weeks old.
Both Goose families have been exceptionally good parents and all eight Egyptians and six of the seven Canadas are still looking healthy, and by September they will have probably dispersed.
The Swans have not done quite so well. Only two of five eggs hatched, and sadly we’ve just lost one of the cygnets who were so dramatically rescued from the fountain pond a few weeks ago.
Ducks have been less successful too:
Mallards at Froebel had an early brood of three. Only two survived but just yesterday (2nd July) a second brood of nine were on the pond. Unfortunately I’ve seen no sign of them today, but hopefully they’re hiding out somewhere.
A pair of Tufted Ducks at Digby had four ducklings, three of which are still around, but the 2018 wildfowl breeding champions are likely to be the other Tufted Duck family who have just produced fourteen ducklings! No wonder Mum looks a little bit dazed.
The Coots and Moorhens are still producing more young in their erratic way.
Baby Crows, Magpies, Starlings and Robins have made appearances, but all of these land nesting birds don’t make public appearances until they have a reasonable covering of feathers (the technical term is altricial). Numerous other birds have actually bred, but have not obliged to posing. For my part I’m about to go on holiday. I’ll be back in the autumn, I hope everybody has a brilliant summer.