Mandarin Ducks and Egyptian Geese
This month we highlight two striking bird species that are seen from time to time on the river around Eton. Both have been introduced to this country from abroad. These species have become adapted to the local environment, and are described as naturalised species.
The shy and secretive Mandarin Duck, originally from eastern Asia, is an introduced species that has progressively established itself in the eastern half of Berkshire. The colourful drake has two distinctive orange ‘sails’ at the back. The first Mandarin release in the UK was early in the eighteenth century, but most of the birds we see locally are descended from a release of five pairs on to an estate near Cobham in Surrey in 1928. These birds bred successfully and then spread north, east and west. Best suited to mature, open broad-leaved woodland with secluded ponds and streams for shelter, it was therefore no surprise that its first toehold in East Berkshire was in the Great Park as early as 1932. In fact, a major population in the UK is still centred on Virginia Water and the total national population is estimated at 7,000. Its breeding range has expanded in recent years to cover most of the Thames Valley and around Eton we occasionally see it around Cutler’s Ait and Romney Island, just upstream of the College. This perching duck nests in trees, and seems to prefer Oak, Sweet Chestnut and Beech. It is also capable of travelling long distances: a bird ringed in Berkshire was recovered in north-east Russia!
Another local feral population is that of the Egyptian Goose. In our recent floods, residents reported them exploring South Meadow, though in normal river conditions they are more usually seen downstream of Windsor Bridge. The Egyptian Goose is now found throughout the Eastern half of Berkshire. Counts of nearly 200 are not unknown locally (near Cookham) and the Berkshire Bird Atlas describes the Egyptian Goose as ‘one of the most successful birds in Berkshire since the 1980s’. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa, it then spread to the Danube in Hungary and Romania. The first introductions in Britain were in the late 17th century in the collection of Charles II in St James’s Park in London. An estimated national population of 400 in 1988 has now risen to nearly 3,400 according to the RSPB.
The photos have been kindly provided by Brian Clews (Egyptian Goose) and Roger Milligan (Mandarin) of the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group
George Fussey (Curator)
There is some political discussion at the moment about the effect that immigration has on employment in particular and on society in general. In the natural world, there is no doubt that species that have been introduced into Britain from abroad can have damaging consequences for the local fauna. Once such species become adapted to the local environment, they are described as naturalised. The most obvious example in East Berkshire is the Ring-Necked (or Rose-Ringed) Parakeet which has been recorded in the County since 1971. They are now well-established in various locations in England and Wales. Its harsh shriek [kee-ack, kee-ack] is frequently heard overhead these days in Eton and they frequently come to raid my bird table!
Originally from Africa north of the Equator and eastwards to India and Malaysia, this distinctive species has bright green feathers and a crimson bill. Males also have a black throat and a rose-coloured ring around their throats. The photo has been kindly provided by the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group. It nests in holes in trees, and according to the new Berkshire Bird Atlas often occupies the vacated nest cavities of Great-spotted and Green Woodpeckers. The diet of the Parakeet includes fruit (apples, cherries and plums are favourites), buds and berries but increasingly the birds are happy raiding bird feeders in gardens.
Over a thousand have nested in Wraysbury (in 2003) and there is currently a well-established roost near Slough Sewage Treatment works which regularly numbers up to 500. Their success has been attributed to the absence of any natural predators, the fact that they breed earlier than most British species, their ability to withstand the harshest weather and their ability to forage widely.
The national expert on naturalised species happens to be Sir Christopher Lever, an Old Etonian who now lives in Winkfield and whose collection of butterflies has recently been given to Eton’s Natural History Museum. He suggests that the 10,000 or so parakeets in England and Wales may originally have been escapees from pet-shops and bird-farms, while some may have been turned loose by members of ships’ companies when they realized that importation would be delayed by a long and expensive period of quarantine. The British parakeet population appears to have originated from the Indian part of the birds’ natural range. Whatever their origin, the parakeets seem to be here to stay!
What feature of the museum do you think this is a part of?
Did you guess what last weeks object was?
It’s a headdress from our new Robin Hanbury-Tenison ethnographic collection. It was presented to him by Xingu people living in the Xingu National Park.
You can see this object and many other fascinating objects from around the world on display in the museum.
Can you guess what this object from our new Robin Hanbury-Tenison Ethnographic Collection is?
The Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the largest collection of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later! It also explains why, if you look on the outside of the building, you will see that there are carvings of hawks, peacocks, owls and doves all over it.
The Birds of Berkshire
Curiously, the first book on birds ever to include photos was written by a 16-year-old Eton boy in 1868 called Alexander W. M. Clark Kennedy. It was entitled the Birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire and also happened to be the first book specifically on the birds of Berkshire.
Just before Christmas, I was lucky enough to go to Reading Museum for the launch of the most recent book on local birds, The Berkshire Bird Atlas. Eton College kindly sponsored the publication so that a copy of the book could be delivered to each and every school in Berkshire, a great way of encouraging the next generation of bird watchers.
It is a superb book, full colour throughout its five hundred or so pages, with superb photography and original line drawings of each species and highly recommended. There is a wonderful chapter on where to watch birds in Berkshire and it has given me my New Year’s resolution, namely to get out more and appreciate the biodiversity which is all around us, despite the flight path of Heathrow and the never ending M4 traffic. The great thing is that so many of these sites are local to us in East Berkshire, with Bray Gravel Pits and the Jubilee River and the reservoirs around Heathrow being the most immediate.
In a little over a decade, the slow-flowing Jubilee River has become popular with waterfowl and this is especially so when nearby lakes freeze over this time of year. Species such as Goldeneye, Smew and Goosander and even rarer species like Ruddy Ducks and Red-crested Pochards can be seen. The Dorney Wetlands were designed as a wildlife refuge and are easily reached from the car park in Lake End Road, Dorney, not far from the Pineapple Pub.
Bitterns, Bearded Tits and Water Rails have overwintered there since the site was established and in the summer there are numerous Reed and Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings.
A map and brief details of Dorney Wetlands appears on the website www.birds ofberkshire.co.uk where you can also find details of the excellent Atlas!
George Fussey, Curator
Residents may have noticed the distinctive silhouettes of large birds of prey gliding slowly overhead in recent months. Supremely graceful, these fork-tailed raptors are Red Kites, and they are part of our heritage in the UK and a real success story in conservation work.
In the Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane we have a very fine specimen of a green parrot from New Zealand, called a Kakapo. Once, Kakapos were widespread in New Zealand. For years they had no predators, but that all changed when European settlers arrived in the eighteenth century. With the introduction of species from the UK, such as cats, rats, ferrets and stoats, this flightless parrot was soon under threat. Now, critically endangered, there are only 126 left in the wild.
Similarly, Red Kites used to be super-abundant in medieval towns and played a vital role living on human waste and keeping the streets clear of carrion and rotting food. They even featured in Shakespeare: he mentions their annoying habit of stealing linen from the washing line for nesting material! Persecuted over the centuries, Red Kite numbers went into a terminal decline and they were extinct in England and Scotland by the 1880s. By the late twentieth century, only a few breeding pairs remained in Wales and all seemed lost.
However, successful reintroductions of birds, mostly from Sweden and Spain, have led to a rapid rise in numbers, so much so that they were named as ‘Bird of the Century’ by the British Trust for Ornithology. For example, some birds were released in the Chilterns in 1989, and these, and numerous other introductions, have formed breeding populations and spread steadily over the last 15 years. They still feed off carrion and frequently, these days, road-kill. They are a lasting reminder that we can, through conservation, reverse the trends of centuries if we really try!
Can you guess what extinct mammal this tooth once belonged to?
Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?
Well done if you recognised last week’s object was our Acorn Barnacle (Semibalanus balanoides).
Barnacles are Crustaceans that have adapted to a sessile life; once the young barnacle larva has found a place to live, it attaches to a surface and will stay there for the rest of its life. They feed by filtering food particles out of the water with their feathery arms. Unlike most other Crustaceans they do not shed their external shell.
When Darwin undertook his study of Barnacles this was only some years after they had been reclassified from Molluscs (their hard external shell had led anatomists to believe they should be classed with limpets). Darwin had only intended to study one species of barnacle, but after spending over a year studying them he realised the extent of the work there was to be done on the taxonomy of the group.
From January 2014 you can visit The Collection in Lincolnshire to see an exhibiton celebrating the life of Sir Joseph Banks. Benjamin West’s portrait of Sir Joseph Banks will be central part of the three month exhibition.
Darwin spent eight years studying this group of animals. Do you know what this is?
Did you know what last week’s object of the week was?
Manuscript page on loan from College Library
Well done if you recognised the object last week was our original manuscript sheet from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is one of 42 surviving sheets that make up the only handwritten original copy of the manuscript that was Darwin’s most influential work.
Our sheet was given by Darwin to Ann Thankeray Ritchie, the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. We know she visited Darwin in 1882 just seven days before he died.
Don’t worry if you can’t read Darwin’s handwriting because we have a translation next to it. But you’ll have to visit the museum to see it!