Category Archives: Birding

Guest Blog: Owls That for an Idea?

It’s been a while since I had a guest blogger on here, so I’d like to introduce you to David Nixon, who has been working with me on our bat box scheme. He’s an ecologist and the director of Fauna Forest Ecology in Stoke–on-Trent. David is licensed to work with not only bats and great crested newts, but also smooth snakes, sand lizards and barn owls. He runs bat box schemes and is a member of the Derbyshire Bat Group (follow them on twitter – they’re awesome) and also, like me, the super-active Herefordshire Mammal GroupAs you’ll also see from the photos below, he’s also a fantastic wildlife photographer, and he travels the globe photographing wildlife, particularly venomous snakes. I’m not even kidding – get over to his flickr page and feast your eyes….

He also keeps venomous snakes and SPIDERS (Which is why you’ll never catch me round his house, like EVER.) and runs a small education business taking snakes, frogs, inverts and more to visit schools, cubs, beavers and scouts groups. I’m literally exhausted just thinking about it. Somehow David’s also fit in the time to write a blog post for me with some top tips on Tawny Owl spotting, so without further ado… 

Owls That for an Idea?

First of all, I would like to thank Morgan for allowing me to collaborate and write for her blog. I have written a copious amount of blogs before and failed due to time constraints. I hope to write more blogs for the Reremouse – it’s a great blog that I thoroughly enjoy reading.

The dark months: migrating birds have made their way due south to warmer climates, various other cool species such as bats, dormice, reptiles and amphibians are now in hibernation. What is there to do on these dreary, dark evenings, as we wait in anticipation for an influx of waxwings, brambling and other winter visitors? Ask any naturalist, ecologist or wildlife enthusiast what they think of owls – yep, we all love owls!

The tawny owl (Strix aluco) is Britain’s commonest owl – an owl found distributed across much of the UK, with the exception of Ireland. As the summer slips away, young tawny owl chicks face eviction from their parents – usually their father! It is during this time (August/September) when they are most vocal. Jemima Parry-Jones refers to them as “all-night ravers”. Being highly territorial, these somewhat cute, dumpy-looking birds will fight vigorously for territory and become easy to locate.

Now is the time to head out and find your local tawny patch. Trust me, you might not feel like leaving the comfort of your home, but once you locate a territory and become familiar with individual bids, a new passion will be ignited. So when should you leave your cosy, warm abode, in search our rufous woodland friends? Autumn, winter and summer months can be great!

Autumn months see males and females continuously calling in a bid to defend and establish territories, therefore locating them by their call is fairly easy.

Winter is a great time to spot tawny owls – they have settled and are focused on feeding. Courtship sometimes takes place mid-winter although it’s usually a late-winter, early spring activity. By late November, much of the foliage has fallen from the trees, which in turn, makes them easy to spot.

Spring for me, is a difficult time to locate tawny owls. You might get a fleeting glimpse of the male as he tries desperately to find prey for both himself and the nesting female.

Summer is the time to watch young tawny owl chicks. Walk into ALMOST any patch of deciduous woodland during the summer months and you’re likely to hear the desperate screech of young tawny chicks. Sit long enough and you will see the parents feed their young.

Tawny Amongst Red Berries
Tawny Amongst Red Berries

OK, it’s November I’m now inspired to find my first tawny owl – what’s the first thing that I need to do?

Have a think: do you know of a road, ideally a country lane that runs through dense, deciduous woodland… the sort of woodland where the trees join together above the road, forming a canopy? If you do, choose a blustery, rainy evening – the sort of night when you would least fancy venturing out on a quest to discover any form of wildlife. Trust me, these are the best nights!!!! You can leave at anytime after dusk, however, you stand a better chance of success around 21:30-01:00, because the level of traffic is much less and the owls have (hopefully) a full stomach and are less likely to scarper.

Why a blustery/rainy night?

Owls (particularly tawny owls) don’t like to fly with wet feathers. They also don’t like to fly or hunt in windy conditions. By driving slowly (around 15mph) along country lanes with high-beams illuminated, I am almost certain you will locate a tawny owl seeking shelter. Once you have seen one, you will quickly realise how easy they are to spot (an probably how many you have driven past without noticing). Don’t always look up high amongst the canopy – 70% of the owls at the 12 territories that I monitor, sit on branches between 6-12ft off the ground. Keep a look out for their plump outline and pale chest, pushed tight against oak trees covered in ivy. They’re not always easy to spot, but once you have trained your eyes, they become easy. Perched tawny owls make for a superb photo too! Other alternatives to look out for are the steps, fixed to the side of telegraph poles; tawny owls don’t hunt on the wing like many of our other British owl species – they ground-scan for prey and drop like a stone, using their wings as a parachute to break the fall. Fence posts, low branches and telegraph poles make the prefect hunting perch!

Once you spot your owl, draw the car up in front of the bird. If you see the owl and don’t spot it until you have driven past, don’t reverse. Continue driving and turn around (reversing the car  = owl flies off). Under such conditions, they rarely fly off, providing you park facing the bird. I have climbed out of the car and stood 6ft in front them, admired, taken a photo and driven on without them taking off. The headlights and a torch provide sufficient lighting to grab a couple of photos – you don’t need a huge birding lens for this sort of photography either!

In the absence of a car, a similar method works well on foot. Walking around your local patch of woodland with a torch in the rain is perhaps less appealing than driving in a warm car. You will however find one if you search hard enough and again, 9 times out of 10, they will sit and not fly off. Country lanes tend to be slightly more productive because small mammals use the edge of dry-stone walls and hedgerows as a corridor, which in turn works well for our friends with talons!

David wrangling a northern brown snake on the Barkly Tablelands
David wrangling a northern brown snake on the Barkly Tablelands

You can read more about David HERE, see more of David’s photography HERE, and his forthcoming website HERE.

 

Burrowing Owls 2.0

Remember in March I went on a quest to find Burrowing Owls in Florida and majorly dipped out – albeit not miserably? As I was in Florida again for 2 weeks this month, I was determined to try again, so I went with my brother and my sister in law to Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City, where (rumour has it) the birds are visible from the car park! (In March I’d gone to Bluefield Ranch Preserve and found a burrow, but no owls were around – probably as it was insufferably hot!) We drove into Brian Piccolo, paid our entrance fee (There is a $1.50 entry fee per person on weekends and holidays.) and before we even parked the car, we could see several areas where yellow tape had been set up marking off exclusion areas around the birds’ nests.

We’d been out of the car for less than 30 seconds when Gaz saw an owl’s head poking above the grass. The owl sat peacefully letting me take photos for around 20 minutes, entirely unperturbed by our presence!

Burrowing Owls are an enigmatic species, and are doing quite badly in some areas due to habitat loss. Interestingly, lots of aspects of Burrowing Owl lifestyle are different for the resident Florida population: They don’t migrate like their counterparts in the western states; they can have two (albeit smaller) broods of young in a year; they eat amphibians and reptiles, including snakes; they dig their own burrows (unlike other populations which use existing burrows excavated by other animals).

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I can’t even tell you how pleased I was to tick off another bird on my Florida list, and also to get a bit of closure for my inner twitcher! Like last time, I had a few species in my sights for this trip – the second bird was one that I dipped out on – I went to try to find hummingbirds at Leu gardens in Orlando (stay tuned for upcoming blog post on the butterflies I saw while I was there!) but in spite of finding the right flowers/bushes, no hummingbirds! Can’t complain though, as look at the extra bonus birding awesomeness I saw! I took these photos of sandhill cranes from the passenger seat of the car!

Anyway, I’m off to Charlene’s place with Leigh to record our next Darwin’s Dolls podcast, which will have more details on this and other wildlife I saw on my trip!

Pied Pipers

Remember my mate Ben from Brewood Ringers who put out the Owl Baskets we made last year? He asked me the other day if I knew anyone with recording equipment as he wanted to record a pied wagtail roost to use as an audio lure when bird ringing. I immediately suggested using the same kit we use for batlas surveys – the Zoom H2N recorder.  A couple of cocktails later and Ben, Leigh and I had plans to camp out for a couple of hours at a Pied Wagtail roost in Brownhills shortly before sunset.

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We set up the recorder (with directional recording mode to minimise the quite frankly ridiculous amounts of traffic noise) under the roosting tree, hit record and then retired to the opposite side of the road to enjoy the show.

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Within less than half an hour, the birds were starting to congregate on the roof of a nearby building, and incrementally, they made their way over to the tree until an estimated 150+ birds were roosting and calling in the tree!

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The show lasted for about an hour, at the end of which the birds simply quietened down to sleep for the night.  If you’d walked underneath the tree after that point, there would have been no way you would have known that so many birds were roosting right above your head.

Pied Wagtail roosts are one of autumn’s spectacles (up there along with murmurations of starlings) that you can see around the country at the moment.  Okay people might think you’re a wee bit odd if, like us, you set up with camping chairs and hot chocolate outside a depot, but life is weird, and you eventually learn not to care about such things…

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Anyway, I managed to clean up the sound to reduce the background traffic noise, and it now sounds like this:

Hopefully the Brewood Ringers will be using the recordings soon, and I’ll get to go along to photograph the results! I’ll let you know how I get on!

The 100

Just a quick update on how my bird list is going – I’ve managed, over the last few weeks, to break the 100 barrier (phew!) and now have my sights on 120 as my next goal. A bit of a whirlwind trip to Rutland Water firmly put me into the next century, with an amazing life tick – a nightingale! You can hear a bit more about the Rutland Water adventure in the 2nd and 3rd episodes of the Darwin’s Dolls podcast (in the column to the left, or on iTunes and Stitcher).

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98. Pochard
99. Garden Warbler
100. Egyptian Goose
101. Greenshank
102. Ringed Plover
103. Dunlin
104. Sanderling
105. Greater Black Blacked Gull

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106. Cetti’s Warbler
107. Nightingale
108. Osprey

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In the couple of weeks since, my focus has mainly been on bats, with the start of Batlas survey season for BrumBats, and the beginning of mist netting season (blog post coming up!), however I did get three birds whilst working away doing newt surveys and other stuff for work:

109. Whitethroat
110. Red Legged Partridge
111. Barn Owl

So there you go – 111 birds so far, and there are still a few relatively common ones that I haven’t yet seen (kingfisher, some common ducks, etc.) but I can imagine the wheels really grinding to a halt unless I start planning some more excursions! I’d really like to reach 150 this year, and to bring my life list up closer to 200, which would be a great achievement!

Listing (Part 2: Birds 79-97)

So things are starting to get a little harder. Once you hit around 75, it’s like someone’s slammed on your birding brakes and each new bird is that little bit more work. I decided to get in a weekend of serious birding. (Well, serious for ME anyway…) First off was getting up early for Black Grouse lekking in Wales. On the moors was where I saw birds 79-82:

Black Grouse
Black Grouse

79. Cuckoo
80. Black Grouse
81. Hen Harrier
82. Raven

Listening to the Black Grouse calling at 6am in such a remote location (covered in hail and snow as you can see!) was pretty spectacular. I did a video on my phone in which you can hear the sounds and get a feel for the spooky atmosphere:

Then we embarked on a 2-hour drive to Anglesey, where birds 83-90 were all seen at South Stack RSPB (with a cheeky Black Guillemot in Holyhead harbour!)

83. Fulmar
84. Razorbill
85. Guillemot
86. Puffin

Sea bird colony at South Stack
Sea bird colony at South Stack

87. Chough
88. Meadow Pipit
89. Linnet
90. Black Guillemot

Meadow Pipit
Meadow Pipit

Then, on the way back to our campsite at Pistyll Rheadr, we stopped at RSPB Conwy, but only managed to add:

91. Yellow Wagtail
92. Whimbrel

Birds 92 – 94 were all seen in and around Lake Vyrnwy, Wales:

93. Pied Flycatcher
94. Grey Wagtail
95. Dipper

Pied Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher

And I entirely accidentally came across two more birds this week. The first on a bush near a railway station, and the second on a roundabout, both in Milton Keynes:

96. Whitethroat
97. Red-Legged Partridge

So, with 5 to go, Charlene and I have decided that a trip to Rutland Water is in order, and we’re heading off this morning, before heading back to record our next podcast, so hopefully you’ll find out what bird number 100 is when it’s uploaded tomorrow… To be continued…

Listing (Part 1: Birds 1-78)

So for those of you who read my recent blog about listing, I thought I’d post a bit of an update on my 2016 year bird list (which I started a bit belatedly in late March). I also briefly mentioned this in the pilot episode of the Darwin’s Dolls Podcast into which we’re going to go into more detail in Episode 2! (If you haven’t listened to it yet, use the player on the left hand side, or you can find it on Stitcher, PlayerFM, Buzzsprout and shortly on iTunes- and let us know what you think! Show notes are in the tabs above.)

But for the time being, here’s the rundown on my first 78 birds – I’m actually up to 95 but that is in Part 2 – which will be posted this weekend (when I pass 100!) So in no particular order, the first 60 were added through work, commuting or general pottering around:

  1. Blue Tit
  2. Great Tit
  3. Long Tailed Tit
  4. Coal Tit
  5. Chaffinch
  6. Bullfinch
  7. Greenfinch
  8. Goldfinch
  9. Black Swan
  10. Mute Swan
  11. Canada Goose
  12. Greylag Goose
  13. Carrion Crow
  14. Jackdaw
  15. Rook
  16. Jay
  17. Magpie
  18. Pied/White Wagtail
  19. Blackbird
  20. Song Thrush
  21. Swallow
  22. Herring Gull
  23. Lesser Black-Backed Gull
  24. Black Headed Gull
  25. Red Kite
  26. Peregrine Falcon
  27. Kestrel
  28. Sparrowhawk
  29. Buzzard
  30. Collared Dove
  31. Wood Pigeon
  32. Rock Pigeon / Feral Pigeon
  33. Stock Dove
  34. Moorhen
  35. Coot
  36. Pheasant
  37. Chiff Chaff
  38. Willow Warbler
  39. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  40. Green Woodpecker
  41. Shelduck
  42. Mallard
  43. Gadwall
  44. Shoveler
  45. Tufted Duck
  46. Skylark
  47. Starling
  48. Snipe
  49. Dunnock
  50. Robin
  51. Stonechat
  52. Goldcrest
  53. Cormorant
  54. Great Crested Grebe
  55. Grey Heron
  56. House Sparrow
  57. Wren
  58. Nuthatch
  59. Lapwing
  60. Reed Bunting

I thought I could do with something spectacular, and so I went to a spot where I know there is a pair of Little Owls nesting for an easy, yet spectacular bird…

61. Little Owl
62. Yellowhammer

Little Owl
Little Owl – can you see him?

…followed by two trips to Middleton Lakes RSPB

63. Swift
64. Little Egret
65. Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gulls
Mediterranean Gulls

66. Little Ringed Plover
67. Redshank
68. Avocet
69. Sedge Warbler
70. Teal
71. Common Sandpiper
72. Blackcap
73. Mistle Thrush
74. Treecreeper
75. House Martin
76. Goosander
77. Sand Martin
78. Common Tern

After getting to this point, my efforts needed to shift a gear. Find out more this weekend! (With lots more photos.) – or you can check out my recent bird photos on instagram or twitter (@TheReremouse)…

Gorillas in the List

So I’m a lister. A list maker. I have been known to start a ‘to do’ list with the first item as: “Make ‘to do’ List” (check!). I don’t suffer from OCD – at least I don’t think I do; and I’m no more riddled with anxiety than any of my friends (unless I just collect lovably unstable people – which, thinking about it might be the case, and as such might not be the strongest case for my sanity!). List making just makes me feel slightly more in control. I’m fairly unapologetic about it, as it is a harmless coping mechanism for my very busy life. My lists include groceries, books for which I’m waiting to be on sale on amazon kindle (I have a £3 rule!), and wildlife.

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One of our Girl Bird Nerds’ many trip lists!

You’ve probably heard of ‘bird lists’ – especially if there’s a twitcher – or even ‘just’ a birder – in your life. A birder tends to have at least two ‘lists’: the Life List and the Year List. (This type of list making can end up developing into an expensive habit as it can involve a lot of spontaneous travel to see birds (twitching) and buying expensive kit like scopes and binoculars.)

A ‘Life List‘ is a list of all the birds you’ve seen in your life. Some people regard this as your home country only – some include all birds seen anywhere. I am in the former camp – to me a Life List is all birds I’ve seen in the UK in my life, and I have a separate USA Life List).  So my (UK) Life List is only around 175 (there is a ‘400 club’!) – that’s out of a (current) 574 species.

I’ve also been keeping a Year List – a list of all the species of bird that I’ve seen in the UK in 2016. I don’t do this every year, and I only started a month ago, and have now seen all the common ‘garden birds’ plus a few more awesome ones like Goldcrest, Red Kite, Peregrine, Skylark and Stonechat. (I’ll, of course, keep you posted on instagram and twitter!) If you’d like to see a great portrayal of an extreme Year List, check out The Big Year (it’s on Amazon Prime – and is also a book). [p.s. I’m at 59 species so far!]

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black in The Big Year

Honorable mention here should go to the ‘Trip List‘ – when you go on holiday and you make a list of all the birds you see. My friends and I have a birding club called the Girl Bird Nerds, and we have an annual Girl Bird Nerd’s Birding Trip. We’ve so far been to Norfolk (twice), Dungeness, Nefyn, and Dorset. This year we’re off to Cornwall. We have a very serious set of rules:

  1. Birds ‘count’ from the time you leave home until the time you arrive back home;
  2. Birds have to be Alive, Wild and Native or Naturalised
  3. At least two members must see the same bird and agree on it’s identification; hearing the song only counts if it is absolutely diagnostic of that species (cuckoo, etc);  and
  4. The most recent member is ‘The Minion‘ and has to do the washing up…
Some of the Girl Bird Nerds
Some of the Girl Bird Nerds

Anyway, I digress… What I actually want to tell you about is the phenomenon of extreme listing. I’ve had a go at the first and seriously considering the last…

Patch Listing

Patch Listing is the recording of all the species of all the taxonomic groups in a given area in a year – usually your local nature reserve. I’ve been keen to do this within a 1km square – and was thinking about using my NARRS square (the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – where you adopt a 1km square to survey each year). Patch listing is almost always done competitively with other patch listers.

Pan-Species Listing

Okay this is epic. Check out http://www.brc.ac.uk/psl/ for the details, but the long and short is this – EVERY species of EVERY taxonomic group you’re seen IN THE UK (insert your own country here) EVER. Plants, birds, mammals, bees, slugs, springtails, you name it… I’m so tempted to do this, but part of me doesn’t like playing games unless I can win (shocker) and I know I could never get in the field time to do it – there are some people up to 12,000 species!!

Do you think you could do any of these? Do you do them already? I’d love to hear about your experiences, especially if you’ve done Patch or Pan listing!  Let me know!

Basket for Big Ears (Just in time for Easter)

You might remember a post earlier this winter in which I told you about how the Middle Earth Weavers were working on a project with the Brewood Ringers to provide nesting baskets for Long Eared Owls. Based on the dimensions in this study, we created 18 baskets with slewed walls and a simple border out of brown willow.

So a couple of weeks ago I joined members of the Brewood Ringers and the county bird recorder @CountrysideKev to a secret location (one of several in the Black Country & Staffordshire) to install the first of the baskets.  The ringers filled the base of the baskets with upended turf. (Much of the mud will wash away, leaving a matt of dead vegetation – mimicking the nests of magpies or crows – the preferred nesting sites of the Long Eared Owl.)

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Once the baskets were prepared, they were secured into places with cable ties inside trees where the species has been known to roost. Now we just have to watch and wait…

You can follow @Brewoodringers onTwitter for updates, or just keep tuned to this channel as you just KNOW I’ll blog about it the day one of the birds nests in one of our baskets!

Cooters, Anhingas and Hawks (Oh my!)

The sharp-eyed among you will be aware that I’ve not been around for a couple of weeks. That’s because between leaving my job as Senior Countryside Officer and starting my new Ecologist position, I went back to Florida for a family reunion for my Dad’s 75th birthday, with the aim of seeing a few species of bird that I’d not seen before. Well, I should know better. My search for Burrowing Owls, Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Florida Scrub Jay was a bust. To use birding lingo, I ‘Dipped Out’… But take heart, there really is no such thing as Dipping Out in Florida. In spite of the fact that I really didn’t go off-road looking for wildlife, I saw some amazing birds in and around my brother’s apartment in Port Saint Lucie, the stunning Lake Eola in Downtown Orlando, and Jonathan Dickinson State Park.  Here’s a selection of the birds I saw and photographed:

So, as you can see – no Burrowing Owls. I did manage to find a burrow, but by that time it was getting pretty hot and the owls were no doubt tucked away in the shade. It was brilliant walking around Bluefield Ranch Preserve (Not jam made from wildlife – this is just what they call a nature reserve in the States) and seeing the perches that have been erected near the burrows in order to encourage the owls. Slightly disheartened, on the way up to Yeehaw Junction to meet my other brother, I saw the best bird of my life, not 20 feet from the car. I didn’t get a photo, but here’s a pic shamelessly stolen from the internet of a Crested Caracara:

Crested Caracara (c) Creative Commons Wikipedia

Just goes to show, when one door opens, a Crested Caracara could fly in through the window. I did see lots more wildlife (of the non-avian variety): two species of anole lizards, two turtles and a lightning-fast (ergo no photo) non-native African Rainbow Lizard at my nephew’s school in Palm City.

Inverts were surprisingly thin on the ground, but I did bag a few photos of a couple of stunning butterflies, three dragonflies and a honey bee, as well as a nest of fire ants (scourge of my childhood).

Anyway, its lovely to be back in Britain – I’m really excited about spring (Technically it’s spring now – we just have to wait for seasonal lag to catch up – should take about 3-4 weeks).

Bird in a Land of Flowers

I spent a good few hours the other day pouring over books about Florida wildlife. I get to go back about every year or so, and I’m planning a spring trip to see my family, trying to figure out how I can shoe-horn in as much birding and wildlife watching as possible.  As a kid, I had a set of books by Time-Life called ‘The Word’s Wild Places’, which featured a volume on Florida’s Everglades. I still have a copy (not my original, sad to say – but one I picked up in a charity shop).

This series was my first exposure to natural history illustrations such as Audobon’s Birds (pictured above). These days reading it is a nostalgic thing – photos like that of regenerating (post-fire) slash pine scrub brings back memories of walking though an area of regenerating pine forest that we used to call ‘The Burning’, while photos of Wood Stork (or Wood Ibis) remind me of my first ever birding experiences – being taken under a camouflage canvas on a canoe with my dad’s ecologist friend to an island in the Indian River Lagoon called MC2 (aka ‘Bird Island’) to watch and photograph the pelicans, egrets, herons and storks from the water.

So, knowing that my birding time will be limited, I’ve decided to focus on a few key species that can be found in places where I’m headed. We’re planning on a family trip to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which is where we used to go on school trips to meet the rangers, dissect owl pellets and so forth. JDSP has a couple of key species that can be seen there – the Florida Scrub Jay and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.

I’m also fairly desperate to see some burrowing owls, and get in a bit of otter watching and bat watching too! I’m still deciding on whether to take my binoculars, spotting scope, or just my camera! (I can borrow a tripod over there so that’s not an issue.)

So the purpose of the post is this: How do you plan for trips so that you can see the most wildlife possible without taking over completely? I’d love to know what your experiences are like – do you do lots of planning, focus on key species or simply pack your binoculars and hope for the best? My current plan is to insist on a family picnic in a good birding spot, and maybe a couple of pit stops on routes we’re planning on driving already. (Luckily, the family want to do the Kennedy Space Centre which is right in the middle of a massive nature reserve (or ‘wildlife preserve’ as they call them over there – which always sounds to me like bird-flavoured jam!)