Common Tern

An elegant summer visitor to breaches, marshes, gravel pits and reservoirs that are often called sea swallows because of their long, forked tails and graceful flight. 

The Common Tern has a pale silver-grey back, wings, and underparts. A flat looking head with a black cap, an orange-red bill with a dark tip, and short red legs. The wings are long, pointed, and angular while the tail is forked with long streamers. There is a dark edge on the outermost wing feathers. They look ‘buoyant’ when flying, like a cork bobbing on water and so graceful. The male and female look identical. Their call is a loud “keee-yaah!”

They eat insects and fish like herring, sprat, roach, perch, minnows, with sand eels being their favourite. They catch fish by hovering and then diving headfirst into the water.

The Common Terns arrive in April and the male selects a nesting territory a few days after his arrival. They usually re-use the same site year after year within a nesting colony. He is soon joined by his previous partner unless she is over five days late, in which case he may go and find another girl who is a bit more punctual. The courtship involves presenting his sweetheart with a fish, as who can turn down a lovely fish supper? The happy couple may delay starting their family if there is not enough fish available, though breeding generally starts in May. The Tern’s nest is a scrape made in the sand or shingle close to water or on a man made floating raft. The 1-3 well camouflaged eggs hatch after 21 days. The youngsters leave the nest scrape after 3-4 days and hide in nearby vegetation or hollows in the sand where they are fed by their parents for 2-3 months despite being able to fly after 25 days. The young Terns will not breed themselves until they are 3 years old.

Common Terns are only summer visitors, leaving here in October to go back to overwinter on the west coast of Africa. There are 13,000 breeding pairs in Britain and the numbers are increasing as the construction of rafts and islands on nature reserves has helped them. Their Latin name is ’sterna hirundo’ where ’stearn’ is an old English name for a Tern and ’hirundo is Latin for a swallow. We do call them sea swallows after all!

Cormorant

Cormorants look like they should be on a heroic knight's shield, standing like a black heraldic bird with their wings outstretched. Ornithologists are not sure if having their wings out is to dry them or to aid the digestion of all the fish they have eaten. Cormorants are a regular sight on sea cliffs, reservoirs, gravel pits and large rivers.

Cormorants are mainly black, with broad wings, a long rounded tail, a long thin neck and a long bill. They have a white chin and white thigh patches which are easiest to see when they are flying. Males are typically larger and heavier than females. Young Cormorants are dark brown with pale, almost white, underparts. When flying they look a bit like a black goose with their long necks, often flying barely above the water's surface. They are mainly silent with any calls being made at their nest sites (rookeries). They make a gurgling, barking "agock-agock-agock" sound.

Cormorants swim low down in the water with their bill up-tilted. They are usually seen singly, but numbers will gather at roosts and at feeding sites. They dive with a little leap forwards and will disappear for nearly a minute while they hunt for fish to depths of up to 6 metres. They can hold their breath for an amazingly long time. Their principal food is fish, big fish, especially flat fish like plaice but also cod and trout. Studies show that their hearing has been especially evolved for underwater usage, possibly to aid the detection of fish in murky water. They are a fish eating machine which does not make them popular with fishermen. In China, people are clever enough to use Cormorants to fish for them by tying a string round their necks so they can't swallow what they catch. Why mess about with a rod and line when you can use a fish catching expert?

Cormorants nest on lake islands or in trees, in colonies which can number a 100 nests or more. They will use the same nest site to breed year after year. Unfortunately, eating all that fish produces some pretty deadly poo. It can kill trees! I am not sure if it is very clever killing the tree your nest is in? The male Cormorant mainly builds the nest, using whatever is available like twigs, reeds, or even seaweed. Both parents then incubate the 3-4 eggs, which hatch after 30 days. Mum and dad then feed the youngsters who can fly after 50 days. The youngsters remain dependent on mum and dad for a further 40-50 days, returning to the nest to be fed, before finally, sulkily leaving home. Young Cormorants do not breed themselves until they are 4 or 5 years old.

The Cormorant is a widespread resident with 9,000 breeding pairs in Britain, which swells to a winter population of over 40,000 individuals when the pesky Europeans come over here to nick all our fish! Cormorants were originally a coastal bird though have now moved more inland. This has brought them into conflict with commercial fishing, like trout lakes, as they love an easy to catch supper. While they do take some fish, long-term damage is not proved and Cormorants, thankfully, remain protected.

Their Latin name is 'phalacrocorax carbo'. Trying saying that with a fish in your mouth. The 'phalacrocorax' comes from the Greek 'phalakros' for 'bald' and 'korax' for 'raven'. While 'carbo' is Latin for 'charcoal'. Charcoal raven I can understand, but bald?

Little Egret

Little Egrets, like herons, are very good at standing still and not doing much. Not so long ago, we considered them a rarity, but now they are a familiar sight on estuaries and wetlands despite having only arrived back here in 1966, the swinging sixties. These are birds with style.

The Little Egret is an elegant white heron with a long slender neck. It has two long feather plumes on its neck, which go wispy in the spring, a black bill, black legs and yellow feet. Like the heron, the feet stick out at the back when it is flying. The wings are broad and look bowed when flying. The Little Egret flies with long leisurely wing beats and its head is drawn back into its body like a heron's. They are generally silent except when in a breeding colony or when annoyed. They croak a deep "arrrrgh!" irritation call when disturbed or pushed from an excellent fishing spot by a rival. The bird equivalent of something unprintable.

The Little Egret feeds on fish, especially sticklebacks, tench, and small carp. They will also eat frogs and aquatic insects. They waggle their feet to stir up the water and disturb prey or else dash through the water, wings flapping for balance, to grab something. Then they will stand still again for hours. They could earn a fortune as a 'bird' statue.

They nest in tree colonies like herons, building a rather rickety nest from twigs. They lay 3-5 eggs which both parents incubate until hatching 21 days later. Both mum and dad feed the young by regurgitating (sicking up) food. The young carefully edge out onto the tree branches at 30 days, after wising up to the shaky state of their nest, and can fly about 10 days later. After nesting, many Little Egrets will migrate south to wintering areas in the Mediterranean and Central Africa, though a few stay here, now our winters are getting warmer.

The Victorians decimated the Little Egret for their white wispy feathers to put in their hats. The bird's feathers had been used in the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century the Victorians took it to a whole new level when it became a major craze and the number of Little Egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. In the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins. The Victorians should all be shot! Sadly if they were, you and I wouldn't exist so it is a bit of a conundrum. You can't pick your ancestors.

There are now 2,000 pairs of Little Egrets in Britain and the number is increasing as the weather gets milder. Their Latin name is 'egretta garzetta', which sounds like a magazine reading egret, but comes from the Provençal French 'aigrette' meaning 'egret' and 'garzetta' from the Italian name for an egret. An uninspiring name 'egret egret' for something so beautiful.

Kingfisher

The problem with Kingfishers is they are always shown big in books when in fact they are tiny and very hard to spot! You often just catch a glimpse of the gorgeous electric blue flash as they race past like a speeding bullet. Blink and you have missed them. When perched, a lot of the blue is hidden and they blend in as a small reddish brown bird against a brown background. A bit like a dead leaf. They are best found along the edge of fresh water like slow-moving rivers, ponds and lakes especially where there are deep banks to make nest tunnels. Yes, they tunnel!

The Kingfisher is the size of a sparrow (which is not very big) with a large head and long dagger like bill. They have a turquoise crown, back, and wings, brown-orange underparts, and an electric blue rump (the vivid blueness is because of the feathers not pigmentation). There are white patches behind the ears and on the neck and their legs are orange. The male and female are identical except that the male has an all black bill while the female has a bit of lipstick orange on the lower edge so the youngsters can tell them apart. Their flight is low and bullet-straight over water. The two best ways to spot a Kingfisher are either from the sudden 'plop' as they dive into the water, or from their call. During flight and take-off they give a short whistled "svee" with short "svit" notes a bit like short blasts on a referee's whistle.

Kingfishers hunt by plunge diving from branches or reeds overhanging a river or pool, capturing small fish like sticklebacks, bullheads, loaches, and minnows. They will also eat aquatic insects. They often beat the fish against a branch before swallowing it head first. A few times each day, they sick up a small greyish pellet containing fish bones and other indigestible remains. Kingfishers have to eat about 60% of their bodyweight each day, which makes them highly territorial - controlling up to a mile of riverbank. If another kingfisher enters the territory, both birds display from perches, and fights may occur. Each bird will try to grab the other's beak and hold it underwater until it gives in. Kingfishers moult gradually over the summer so can always fly and hunt for food.

During February and March, the Kingfisher looks for a mate. The courtship display involves high-speed chases up and down the river and lots of mutual feeding. The happy couple then build a nest chamber at the end of a tunnel in a suitable riverbank, usually not far above the waterline. They don't lay the first eggs until April as it can take a while to dig a tunnel. The 6-7 eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch after 19 days. Both parents then feed the chicks and work to control the large breeding territory they need to find enough food. With fish remains, chick poo, and being underground, the nest becomes very smelly! The youngsters can fly after 27 days and are quickly independent as they want to get as far away from the stinky nest as possible. The young Kingfishers will disperse to their own territories, but these are generally not too far away. Mum and dad will often have a second brood.

The Kingfisher is a resident, short distance migrant with some moving down stream to coastal estuaries in winter where there is less chance of the water freezing. Their numbers can crash in harsh winters when they can't get through the frozen water to feed. The Kingfisher, depending on small fish, is very susceptible to water pollution, in fact they are good indicators of the health of a river. The highest densities of breeding birds are found in habitats where there is clear, clean water. The nasty Victorians killed lots of Kingfishers as they liked them stuffed in display cases and to put the blue feathers in their hats.

Their Latin name is 'alcedo atthis' where 'alcedo' means 'kingfisher' derived from the Greek 'halcyon'. 'Atthis' was a beautiful young woman from Lesbos a long, long time ago. I wonder if she had blue hair?

Moorhen

Moorhen is a corruption of 'mere hen' and where there is fresh water you will find a Moorhen. They like reed beds, farm ponds, ditches, lakes, and reservoirs. The only areas they avoid are fast-flowing rivers or pools with little vegetation as skulking is their thing.

The Moorhen's back is black brown while their head and underparts are blue grey. They have a red frontal shield with a red and yellow bill (think red hen to distinguish it from a Coot). There is a ragged white line along the sides of the body and white under the tail. Their feet and legs are yellowy green. When swimming, they jerk their heads backwards and forwards, like it is a big effort (which it is as they don't have webbed feet), while constantly flicking their tails. They tend to run across the water when scared and use this technique to take off, though generally flying is not their thing. Their long legs stick out the back once airborne, which is not a good look. For a brief period, somewhere between June and August, they are flightless while they moult. Moorhens have a wide range of calls. The most familiar is a sharp "BRROOK!"

A lot of a Moorhen's time is spent among waterside plants and on the bank looking for food. They will eat berries, pond weed, snails, insects, small fish, and even the eggs of other birds.

Early spring, around March, the male Moorhen builds several display platforms on the water where he can show off to the girls. Once he has attracted a female, the happy couple will turn one of these platforms into a nest. The nest is made of dead reeds and other plant matter. Both proud parents incubate the 5-9 eggs which hatch after 21 days. Soon after hatching, the youngsters are moved to a brood nest to confuse any would be predators. At 25 days, the young Moorhens can look after themselves but continue to be pampered by mum and dad until they can fly at around 45 days. Even after this, youngsters from the early broods hang around to help out with later broods and can stay with the family for up to 3 months. Moorhens will usually have two or three broods in a season.

The Moorhen is resident with 240,000 pairs in Britain, which rises to 320,000 pairs in winter as birds from Northern Europe pop over to try out our weed. Moorhens need lots of bankside vegetation for food and cover, so making waterways tidy is not a great help to them. Their Latin name is 'gallinula chloropus' where 'gallinula' is Latin for 'small hen' and 'chloropus' is from the Greek 'khloros' meaning green or yellow and  'pous' for 'foot'. So we have 'small hen with yellow feet'. Other English local names include waterhen and swamp chicken. Not very nice names for the poor Moorhen.


Moorhen video courtesy of Avibirds.com

Coot

The Coot is the quarrelsome kickboxing champ of the water. They can be found on gravel pits, ponds, lakes, and reservoirs in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and parts of North Africa.

Coots are slate black with a white frontal shield on their head and white bill. They have grey legs with partly webbed toes for swimming and diving. They swim with a nodding head motion. In flight, there is a pale bar along the trailing edge of the wing, though it is hard to see. More obvious is their feet sticking a long way out at the back. The Coot is reluctant to fly and runs across the water surface, with much splashing, when taking off. They are flightless for a brief period from June to September when they moult. The Coot's call is the origin of the bird's name. It is a brief note, a little like a trumpet, that can sound "kroot!"

They often dive for food and feed on water snails, dragonflies, moths, beetles, aquatic vegetation and grass. They are a bit of an aquatic scavenger, picking up food disturbed by other birds.

Coots engage in territorial fights during the breeding season (which starts at the end of April), kickboxing and wing flapping against their opponents, often issuing a very percussive "poot!" They generally nest close to other Coots, which is one reason why all the fighting kicks off. Their nest is built among reeds or aquatic vegetation and is made of plant leaves and stems. The 6-10 eggs are looked after by both parents and hatch after 21 days. Mum looks after the newly hatched young for the first week while dad gets the food. The parents then divide the brood between them and feed the young for a further 30 days. The chicks are covered with a black down with orange-red bits on their head, looking like mini punk goths. The youngsters can fly after 55 days. Coot parents are generally pretty tough and can be a bit nasty to their chicks, even killing them, if food is short.

They are a sedentary resident in Britain with 30,000 breeding pairs spread mainly across lowland areas. Northern European birds boost numbers to 200,000 in the winter when they often gather in large flocks on lakes or reservoirs. They have benefitted from reservoir creation. The oldest ringed Coot lived to 18 years. Not bad for a feisty fighter. Their Latin name is 'fulica atra' where 'fulica' means 'coot' and 'atra' means 'black'. It sounds a bit like 'fully attack ya' - and kick your head in.

Little Grebe

The small and secretive Little Grebe is often called a 'Dabchick', an old term that means diving chick, which is just what they do - the minute you see them! They are like little corks, diving down and bobbing up in the reeds where they are safely hidden and then giggling about it. They are at home anywhere there are plenty of reeds like moorland tarns, lakes, quiet rivers and park ponds.

Smaller than a Moorhen, the Little Grebe looks dumpy and blunt tailed like a cute floating powder puff. They have a dark brown body, paler underparts, and a chestnut neck, throat and cheeks. They have a pale spot at the base of their bill. Their main call is a cheeky giggling, a sound of the summer.

Little Grebes eat insects, small fish, and shellfish. They are excellent swimmers and can pursue fish and aquatic insect prey underwater, often diving to depths of 2 metres.

They build a floating nest of water weed amongst the reed beds and lay 1-8 eggs (usually 4) which hatch after 20 days. The parents will cover the eggs with weed to hide them whenever they leave the nest. The youngsters are soon mobile after hatching and leave the nest, only returning when they need a rest. The young are cared for by both adults and often ride on their backs for safety. They become fully independent after 35 days and can fly 10 days later. Little Grebes will usually have 2 broods.

Little Grebes are mainly resident, but in winter they will often leave smaller ponds and congregate on larger, safer waters. Northern birds also move south to where it is a bit warmer. There are about 7,000 pairs in Britain, though they are a bit hard to count as they keep bobbing out of sight!

Their Latin name is 'tachybaptus ruficollis' where 'tachybaptus' comes from the Greek 'takhus' for 'fast' and 'bapto' for 'to sink under'. The 'ruficollis' is from Latin 'rufus' for 'red' and 'collis' for 'necked'. And that is just what they are; a red-necked fast sinking-under bird (that giggles).

Great Crested Grebe

The Great Crested Grebe is the largest member of the grebe family in Europe and a bit of a prima donna. This ballerina of the waterfowl can be found mainly on inland waters, though can be seen occasionally on the sea in winter.

The Great Crested Grebe is smaller than a Mallard, though with their long, gracious necks and dagger like bill they don't look it. They have a brown back, white neck and underparts, an orange brown crest and ear tufts, and a black crown. They often bob about with the head and neck lazily resting on their backs, showing off their white breast and making them look like something completely different. When flying, their long neck is extended, while their feet stick out at the back and large white patches are visible on the wings. When disturbed, they prefer to dive than fly as they are excellent underwater swimmers. You will rarely see them on land as, like the Tufted Duck, their legs are set back for diving and they can't walk very well. The Great Crested Grebe's call is a growling, "gorr, gorr" almost dog like.

They are diving experts and can stay submerged for over half a minute or more when catching fish to eat. If you see a bird on the water that keeps disappearing, the chances are it is a grebe. They feast on roach, rudd, minnows, eels and frogs. Unfortunately, their love of fish does not make them best friends with fishermen.

Their pièce de résistance is their elaborate courtship display with the shaking of heads and the presenting of weed. Once paired up, both adults help build a floating nest of aquatic vegetation attached to water plants like reeds. It often looks a bit rubbish and flimsy, but the grebes will work hard to keep it from falling apart. They lay 2-6 eggs over a period so not all the eggs hatch at once. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after 28 days. The young can swim soon after hatching and they ride on mum and dad's back, in their black and white stripy pyjamas, to keep them safe from pike and other predators. Mum and dad split the youngsters between themselves and the two groups are largely independent. The young grebes can finally fly after 71 days. They may have two broods in a season.

There are 10,000 Great Crested Grebes in Britain. This number swells to 20,000 in winter when northern grebes migrate south. Many local birds move to larger lakes or reservoirs in autumn. There are few Great Crested Grebes in the Scottish Highlands. Instead, they are spoilt with the Slavonian Grebes on Loch Ruthven. In Victorian times, the Great Crested Grebe was nearly hunted to extinction as their feathers were used in muffs for Victorian ladies. Fortunately these are no longer in fashion. More recently, the grebe population has benefitted from the construction of reservoirs and gravel pits.

Their Latin name is 'podiceps cristatus' which comes from the Latin 'podicis' for 'vent' and 'pes' for 'foot' which is a reference to the placement of a grebe's legs towards the rear of its body. The 'cristatus' bit means 'crested'.