Heron in the Dark

With the shorter hours of daylight at this time of year, I don't get to see that many birds on my way to and from work.  However, on Monday morning at 6am, as I was walking walking through central Reading on my way to the railway station, there was a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) standing in the river Kennet, just opposite the abbey ruins.  It was perfectly still in the darkness, with its neck extended as if it was watching.  Maybe the light from the street lights is bright enough for it to actually catch fish there at night, I don't know. 

Herons are usually fairly wary of people and I half expected it to fly off as I walked by along the tow path, but it didn't, maybe because I was I was over on the opposite bank.  It also ignored a car moving along the bank near to it, but when the driver got out of the car the heron rose up and flew off slowly upstream.

That part of the river, the shallows on the inside of a bend, must be a fairly popular place for water birds to spend the night: I often see swans, Canada geese, coots, mallard ducks, and occasionally the heron there in the early morning, waiting for daylight to come. 


Niko's Nature by Hans Kruuk

This is an academic biography of Niko Tinbergen, the pioneeer of ethology, the study of animal behaviour.

Tinbergen made his name by devising and carrying out some beautifully simple experiments on nest-finding in wasps and birds, on pecking behaviour in gull chicks, and on aggression between male sticklebacks.  He also seemed to have a real knack for attracting first class students and inspiring them to do first class work.  The names of just a few of his students will show what I mean: Desmond Morris, Richard Dawkins, Aubrey Manning, John Krebs, Marian Stamp Dawkins.  Tinbergen also wrote many popular books and articles on animal behaviour, and even made a few films.

However, Tinbergen was somewhat flawed both a scientist and as a person.  He didn't back up his work with the quantitative and statistical arguments that are now thought to be necessary, and he suffered increasingly from clinical depression in the latter half of his career, to the extent that some of his later students hardly ever saw him.  In spite of these flaws, his research group still managed to flourish, apparently largely thanks to his assistant Mike Cullen who looked after his students for him and provided the quantitative expertise that he lacked.  Tinbergen also showed good sense in his reaction to the potentially devastating criticisms of his experiments by the American Danny Lehrman: he invited Lehrman across to Oxford to help sort out what could be salvaged.

In 1973, the value of Tinbergen's work was recognized when he was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, jointly with his old friend Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch.  Ten years later, Tinbergen suffered a couple of strokes but these had the fortunate side-effect of curing his depression and so he was able to enjoy himself during his last few years.  He died in 1988.

The relationship between Tinbergen and Lorenz was an interesting one, particularly in how it was affected by their experiences during the war.  In that respect it bears comparison with that between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

A good read if you are interested in biology.  It should inspire you to search out copies of Tinbergen's papers and books.


The Return of the Egyptian Geese

This morning at 09:00am I went for another walk around the Reading University lakes with Zoe.  There is much more bird activity on the lakes in mornings than later in the day, especially now that the evenings are getting darker. 

The 'resident pair' of egyptian geese (the rufous phase male with its lame grey phase female) were standing on the weir at the west end of the largest lake when they suddenly took off and flew off towards the centre of the lake.  Then we saw five rufous egyptian geese fly in overhead, circle the lake and splash down on the water.  These could well have been the resident pair's first and second generation offspring coming back to the lake on which they were reared.  We hadn't seen them for several weeks.  Maybe they have been staying on some of the other lakes in the Reading area.  Anyhow, a few minutes later there was a commotion when a rufous form one chased off several  of the others.  Maybe this was one of the parents telling its offspring to go and find their own lake - I understand that birds can be quite ruthless when it comes to encouraging their young to fend for themselves.

We also saw a lone cormorant, as we did back in August, standing on the same submerged rock.  Over the past couple of weeks I have seen a lone cormorant on three occasions, twice on the lakes between Frimley and Farnborough, and once over the Kennet in Reading.  I suppose it is possible that these sightings are all of the same bird moving around from one body of water to another.


Golden Pheasant

On Friday afternoon my wife Liz, her sisters, and my daughter Zoe saw a male golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) in the grounds of Reading University.  It was being slowly shooed down the drive from Foxhill House by the driver of a van.  Apparently it had escaped from a nearby garden where it was being kept as a pet.  These spectacular birds are native to central China but were introduced to Britain as an ornamental bird for aviaries and parkland.  I was still on my way home from work and so missed all the fun. 


Kingfishers Again

Last week I saw at least one of the kingfishers more or less each day as I was walking to and from the station, alongside the Blackwater.  On one occasion I came across one one of them perched still on a branch over the river.  It stayed for about ten seconds, allowing me to get a good view of its plumage, then it flew off.  It was tiny: little bigger than a robin.

On Sunday I took Zoe to see them but there was no sign of them.  Maybe that was because there were too many people around, it being the middle of the day.  Next time I will take her in the early morning. 

Today, I saw one of them again, in the morning and in the afternoon.