Fraught with danger, and extremely hazardous, it is the precarious life of many young animals as they now turn from a dependent youngster to an adult during this time of the year. The countryside is awash with animals, fresh from the protection of the homes built by experienced parents several months earlier. High pitched calls litter the river banks and woodlands, as birds, and mammals beg for food from their hard pressed parents who spend all of their time being attentive to their off spring.
Witnessing these special moments can be some of the most enduring moments within mother nature, as we watch the high level of dependence unfold before our very eyes, youngsters mimicking their parents, learning the key skills that will hopefully keep them alive in the cruel and often unforgiving world they are about to enter.
Over the last couple of months when time has allowed I have been watching a few of my favourite species, one being the Dipper and the other the Puffin. At the several different sites I’ve been visiting this year, some Dippers have nested early, others quite late and most have been doing really well. During the many trips to these sites either alone or with clients on my ever popular Dippers of the Dales workshop and one to one’s, they’ve been very active.
In most cases the Dipper nests really early in the year around mid to late March/April time. If the first brood is successful the same birds try for a second brood later on, one of the major problems then though is the water height of the river. If it drops the Dippers are forced to abandon the second nest as they follow the river downstream. This has happened this year with one pair of Dippers, where the river has dried up, leaving small pockets of water in which to feed in.
Over the last several weeks we’ve had a good amount of rain and at other sites where the Dippers have nested and were on their second brood several chicks have died due to rising water levels. The nests where sighted just under waterfalls and as the level of water rose, the power of the waterfalls have sweeped a large part of the nests away leaving 2 chicks where there had been 4 youngsters to each set of parents.
This left these small, vulnerable birds homeless and alone on the river bank as the parent birds struggled to find and feed them. The life of a Dipper chick is a dangerous one, as the power of the water calms many of them, then there are the many predators also. With a high mortality rate among their number nature has evolved these birds to have large broods and sometimes two throughout the breeding season but still only a few survive the dangerously insecure and perilous journey they take to become adults.
The young don’t have the trademark white bib yet, instead their plumage blends into their habitat amazing making these birds really hard to spot among the riverbank vegetation. The young I have watched that have lost their home have been well looked after, where the parent birds have hidden the youngsters the best they can in darkened areas of the riverbank, so fingers crossed these last few survive.
I have made a short film just to illustrate just how small and vulnerable this Dipper was, turfed from his nest a little too early due to the nest being damaged through rising water levels. Even this young their “Dipping” behaviour can be seen which was so wonderful to witness. The last remaining Dipper chicks on my last visit had moved further down river, following the flow of water and witnessing how attentive their parents were, so it all looks good for their survival fingers crossed, its one of the most precarious starts though within the natural world with a very high mortality rate.
My other firm favourite also shares that most precarious of beginnings into the natural world and that is the clown of the sea; the Puffin.
I have visited the island of Skomer many times this year and never tire of seeing these beautiful, comical and funny seabirds that come to this little island, off the coast of Wales to breed and rise their young for a short time each year, before returning back to the perilous stormy seas of the Atlantic. They come ashore early to late March and reaffirm their bonds after meeting their partners. Those that have lost or don’t have a partner then set out on the journey to find one as thousands of these birds come ashore during this time. Its a frantic time, lots and lots of action, but everything settles down and then they start raising their young in the underground burrows on the island.
My last visit there was this week on a one to one, after a bright start the heavens opened and we both got really soaked as Skomer can be an unforgiving place when the weather changes. I wanted to try and convey the changing weather conditions that were approaching the island with this image below. It shows the incoming storm and a pair of Puffins displaying a resolve to sit the storm out by staying put as the Puffin here in the foreground clearly demonstrated to us.
If you were a script writer that specialized in comedy you’d find it hard to write the script for these birds as they are just so funny to watch, and I am convinced they love non-threatening human company, once you win their trust and keep that distance, you can enjoy unrivaled humour where I’m often seen laughing as I take photos of these birds. Then occasionally they let out a long moan like call, which is their own way of communicating with each other, again it’ll have you in stitches as its unplanned and often unannounced when it happens.
As it rained we scrambled to cover our cameras and were treated to a few and brief sightings of Pufflings, the name given to baby Puffins. Almost Jackdaw like in appearance with no colour to them. These birds slowly made their way to the edge of the burrows in which they had just spent the previous several weeks living in underground. Really nervous at first, with an adult bird there with them, as a show of support for the appearance.
I could see as I watched they were nervous of which they had good reason as large Gulls always patrol the skies over where these birds breed. Alot of the time the Puffins get robbed of their catch, or even worse the Gulls take their chicks ,so extreme caution is always best. When this chick came out above, the adult bird seemed to be fussing over him, being really attentive towards the young Puffling, eventually he settled down and did a few wing exercises then went back underground. Lovely to see the interaction between the parent and youngsters, very enduring to see and watch.
At another entrance to a burrow a Puffin was cleaning as the rain came down and suddenly the young Puffin appeared, standing a little further out from the burrow, watching his parent clean. Their beaks will grow over time and their colourless appearance is in stark contrast to that of the adult birds. In a few weeks all the Puffins along with their young will leave for sea and not return to land for the next 8 months.
The precarious life of an young Puffin is beset with difficulties, fraught with danger in the waters of the Atlantic where they’ll spend most of that time, eating, sleeping out a sea. It has to be one of the toughest existence’s within the natural world I can think of, where only the strongest will survive and return to land after that period at sea.
Fingers crossed these two make it, many thanks to all my clients who have seen these amazing birds with me over the last several weeks, I know many have learned alot more not only about wildlife photography but also the behaviours of these two charismatic birds, many thanks.
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