Campus Lake Part Three – Other Water Birds and Edge Species

The third and final part to my blogs on the bird species that can be found on the Whiteknights campus lake. Today, I am including the rest of the water birds which were sighted during the survey period, and some ‘edge’ species; in this context, I am referring to the birds sighted at the edge of the lake where there are woodland areas.

Water Birds:

Black-Headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)


Blackheaded Gull in Winter Plumage on Whiteknights Campus

Black-headed Gull in Winter Plumage on Whiteknights Campus by M. Sandilands

These are currently sporting their winter plumage, with only a black spot on the sides of their heads, but as we enter the warmer months they will develop the dark hood which gives them their name.
However, these gulls do not actually have black plumage upon their heads, but instead are deep brown in colour.  Black-headed gulls are very sociable birds, and can become very noisy when in large groups. These are also very long-lived, with the eldest verified wild black-headed gull reaching over 32 years of age (van Dijk et al. 2012)!

Black-headed gull showing Summer plumage. “A Head” by freebird4 – CC BY-NC 2.0


Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring gull by Gordon McKinlay – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Much larger than the black-headed gull, the herring gull is probably the most well-known gull due to its success at seaside areas. However, populations have declined in the last 25 years and there are now limited breeding sites within the UK (RSPB 2012). They are also classed as a UK BAP Priority Species as the UK is home to approximately 40% of the European population (JNCC 2010). These are large, omnivorous and opportunistic birds which are commonly seen scavenging at landfill sites.

Sometimes confused with the lesser black-backed gull, the herring gull can be distinguished by their paler grey colouration and pink legs, rather than the yellow legs of the lesser black-backed gull.

Lesser Black-Backed Gull by James Tait – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

“Coot // Galeirão” by Isidro Vila Verde – CC BY-NC 2.0

Fairly small and sleek black bird with a distinctive white beak and facial shield. It is this shield which gave rise to the saying “as bald as a coot” as early as the 1400s. This species is much larger than its relative, the moorhen.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

Moorhen on Whiteknights Campus by M. Sandilands

Moorhen on Whiteknights Campus by M. Sandilands

Similar to, and often confused with the Coot, yet there are many clear differences; smaller in size, the bright red and yellow colouring on the beak, and the white markings amongst their otherwise black plumage. Particularly distinctive are the white feathers on the underside of their tail. The tail of the Moorhen is usually held low and the patch appears inconspicuous  but in the presence of a possible predator they will flick their tail upwards to flash a warning signal to other nearby birds (Stang and McRae 2009).

I always find the chicks of these particular amusing as they seem to develop adult-sized feet at a very young age, and could possibly be described as the definition of ‘ugly, but cute’!

“Big Feet!!” by Andy Morffew (CC BY-ND 2.0)

‘Edge’ Species:

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) by Brian Clift (CC BY 2.0)

The wood pigeon is easily recognisable by its soft grey plumage, pink-tinted chest, and neat green and white throat patches (although the juvenile lacks these). The wood pigeon also has a very characteristic call, which can be heard by clicking on the following link: Woodpigeon call recording by Richard Dunn, XC101939. Accessible at

Their wings are also known to make a particular clattering sound as they take flight, which is a useful way of telling these pigeons apart from other species. Like other pigeons, the wood pigeon feeds its young using ‘pigeon milk’; a high-energy liquid formed within the crop.

To find out more on the wood pigeon, visit the following blogs: Wood pigeon and wood pigeon and recent research. 

Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Rock dove/Feral Pigeon showing wild colouration                                                            by Nick Turland (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At first, the rock dove looks very similar to the wood pigeon, but it smaller in size, lacks the white throat patches, and has clear black bars across the wings. Determining the differences between the rock dove and its feral counterpart, however, is often rather tricky; although some feral pigeons show piebald colouration which is an easy give-away, many look near-identical to their ancestor.

Rock dove/feral pigeon showing piebald colouration by Vicki & Chuck Rogers (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It is believed that the only wild rock doves within the UK now live in the coastal areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as other offshore islands, and that all others can be described as ‘feral’ (RSPB 2012).

These birds are commonly seen in urban areas, and are so successful that many people consider the feral pigeon to be a pest, with fines often placed  in urban areas for the feeding of such birds.



Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Male Blackbird by Steve Garvie (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Everyone recognises a blackbird! These are really beautiful and iconic birds, which I think are often overlooked due to their abundance. It is actually just the males which are truly black in colour, with females and juveniles often a rich brown, leading to confusion with other thrush species.

Blackbirds have very intricate songs which always make me think of Summer evenings, listen here: Blackbird song
recording by Richard Dunn, XC94958. Accessible at

For more information, please visit: Blackbird and recent research

European Magpie (Pica pica)

Magpie (Pica pica) by anemoneprojectors (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At first, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that magpies are black and white birds. However, if you take a closer look you can see shades of blue and green within the dark plumage. This colouration is due to the structure of the barbules which make up each feather, allowing them to reflect light in this iridescent manner (Vigneron et al. 2006).

Structure of an iridescent feather by Barry Dean (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

These birds are often seen hopping along the ground in the typical ungainly Corvid fashion. Both scavengers and predatory, the magpie will eat a range of foods including fruit, insects, eggs, and the chicks of other birds (RSPB 2012).

The magpie is a highly intelligent bird, and is the only non-mammal known to recognize itself in a mirror (Prior et al. 2008).

More info here: Magpie and magpie and recent research. 

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Jay by Sergey Yeliseev (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

These are usually rather shy birds, but are much more visible in Autumn when they fly off in search of food items which are then buried for the Winter months. Throughout the entire survey period, and beyond, I saw a multitude of jays flying to and from the wooded areas on campus in search of acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts (RSPB 2012). If you can get close enough, or have a handy pair of binoculars with you, these are truly beautiful birds.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Wren by Vitaliy Khustochka (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This is tiny bird which is usually heard and not seen, despite being the most common breeding bird in Britain (RSPB 2012). The angle at which these birds often hold their tails is usually a clear indication that you are looking at a Wren.

Listen to the wren’s song: Wren song recording by Ashley Fisher, XC118579. Accessible at

More info at: Wren and recent research.


European Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

European Robin by Anne Cotton (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A familiar British sight, yet I still have people ask me “where do go they in Summer?”.  Well, a few migrate to Spain, but generally they are still around! They do become rather shy during their moulting period (July-August) as this is energy draining and they may be vulnerable at this time (RSPB 2012). Another factor may be that perhaps they are just not as noticeable as in Winter; at which time they are one of the few birds that sing throughout the colder months and are often joined by immigrant robins from other countries (Gains 2011).

For the song of the robin, click here: Robin song recording by Tony Whitehead, XC98839. Accessible at

For more info: Robin and recent research.

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Blue tit by Marko Kivela (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Blue tits are common visitors to bird feeders in urban gardens, and also frequent parkland areas, so I was definitely expecting to see some during my surveys on campus. These birds are easily recognisable due to their bright yellow chests and blue caps.

Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit by Simon Barnes (CC BY-NC 2.0)

These are beautiful birds which are always animated and great to watch. Huge numbers of these can be seen on campus and appear to be doing very well for themselves. However, the avian pox is causing great difficulties for this species, and other Paridae species, around the country (Lawson et al. 2012).

More information on the great tit: Great tit and great tit and recent research. 

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit by Rene Jakobson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Although less colourful than some of its relatives, the coal tit is nonetheless an attractive bird. These are often seen in coniferous woodland as their small and slender beak makes feeding on conifers much easier (RSPB 2012). In Winter, these birds will join with flocks of other tit species to forage.

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long Tailed Tit by Lisa Lawley (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I love long-tailed tits! Ultimately, they are extremely cute, with a rounded appearance and lovely, characteristically long tails. I used to think that these were an uncommon sight, but since doing this survey I have started to spot them everywhere!

For more information: The long-tailed tit and the long-tailed tit and recent research.

I hope you have enjoyed my short descriptions of these  24 bird species, and that those of you who have access to Whiteknights Campus will keep an eye out for the great range of species that can be found on and around our lake. This is not a definitive list of all birds that can be found here at different times of the year – in fact, just before Christmas I saw a pair of Shoveler ducks – but provides a snapshot of some of the species which frequent the Campus lake.
My next blogs will cover the species that I found whilst surveying the grassland areas of Whiteknights Campus, followed by those found in the woodlands/wilderness and Harris Gardens.


Gains, D. (2011) Robin URL:

JNCC (2012) UK BAP priority bird species URL:

Lawson, B., Lachish, S., Colvile, K.M., Durrant, C., Peck, K.M., Toms, M.P, Sheldon, B.C. & Cunningham, A.A. (2012) Emergence of a novel avian pox disease in British tit species. PLoS One, 7 , e40176.

Prior, H., Schwarz, A., and Güntürkün, O. (2008). Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. PLoS Biology,  6 (8), e202.

RSPB (2012) Herring Gull URL:

RSPB (2012) Rock Dove URL:

RSPB (2012) Magpie URL:

RSPB (2012) Jay URL:

RSPB (2012) Wren URL:

RSPB (2012) New feathers please URL:

RSPB (2012) Coal tit URL:

Stang, A.T. and McRae, S.B. (2009) Why some rails have white tails: the evolution of white under-tail plumage and anti-predator signaling. Evolutionary Ecology, 23(6), 943-961.

van Dijk, K., Oosterhuis, R., Middendorp, D., and Majoor, F. (2012) New longevity records of Black-headed Gull, with comments on wear and loss of aluminium rings. Dutch Birding, 34, 20-31.

Vigeron, J. P., Colomer, J.F., Rassart, M., Ingram, A.L., and Lousse, V. (2006) Structural origin of the colored reflections from the black-billed magpie feathers. Physical Review E: Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics, 73: 021914.

About Madeleine Sandilands

I am currently studying Zoology at the University of Reading, and undertaking my final year project which is based around this blog and the avian biodiversity of Whiteknights Campus. I have a wide range of interests, including biodiversity, conservation, animal behaviour and welfare, and in my spare time I enjoy long walks with my dog, and wildlife photography.
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