Friday, 27 November 2020

Standing Still

Standing still is something that I do a lot of, particularly when out working undertaking bird surveys, especially if vantage point (VP) counts are involved. One of the things that I like about standing still for some time, is that the birds, and other wildlife, will come to you. I have a wintering bird survey site in west Lancashire and this includes two VP watches, so I have a lot of standing still going on there. 

The site is mainly arable farmland, with over-managed hedges, but there is a pond or two, a strip of woodland, and a wet marshy area of about nine hectares. This wet area has obviously been too wet, and expensive, to drain in the past, so it has survived. I'll refer to this area as 'the marsh'. 
You can see the typical habitat from this picture of my second VP location
I would love to have stood in area like this a hundred years ago or more, to see what wildlife approached me. The marsh would have been a lot bigger then, and the arable land surrounding me would have been winter stubbles rather than the winter wheat that it is now. It would have been thriving. Now the landscape is denuded of biodiversity, but nevertheless standing still, does afford some interactions with what is left of the local wildlife.

During this past week I have visited this site three times, and over the winter between now and early April, I will visit it a further nine times, so it will be interesting to note what I see. Below are a few highlights of what I observed over all three visits just by standing still.

Raptors have been present this week, and a couple of the local Buzzards and a male Kestrel have caused havoc with the large-ish flock of Woodpigeons (300+) feeding in a large stubble field behind my second VP. However, my best raptor sighting was that of a female Marsh Harrier, that spent an hour one morning hunting over the marsh. She quartered back and forth, turning on sixpence, and dropping into the vegetation, presumably on prey. 
Talking about the marsh, I don't doubt that it was stuffed full of Snipe. As I walked along the edge of it and an arable field, I put up nine Snipe, and I imagine that if I could have walked across it, I would have recorded ten times that number, with an odd Jack Snipe thrown in for good measure. 

One morning from my first VP closest to the marsh, I had a Green Sandpiper drop in and this was against a backdrop of calling Teal and at least two squealing Water Rails. Not bad for a small inland marsh.  

Green Sandpiper

In a couple of fields some Starlings were feeding, and I had 713 in total. Accompanying them were a few winter Thrushes, in the form of 85 Fieldfares and 28 Redwings. A Song Thrush and a Mistle Thrush added to the Thrush tally. 

I expected to see more Pink-footed Geese flying over, heading to foraging areas from their coastal roosts as my surveys were from first light, but I only had 189, and a single Whooper Swan headed south one morning. 
 Pink-footed Geese

I was joined by another Ecologist one morning, and we watched a Grey Heron fly over. He commented that he liked herons because they are the most 'dinosaur looking' of birds! And he is right. Talking of how birds look, I picked up a wader in the distance flying towards me and it looked odd. When it got closer, I could see that it was an Oystercatcher with an extended down-curved upper mandible. It was obviously not causing too much of a hindrance, as it must have managed to feed and survive thus far. 

Two days running I could hear, and see the odd Long-tailed Tit flitting along one of the hedges and the edge of a strip of woodland, but it wasn't until this morning that I could finally count them. They came along the hedge that I was standing in front of, and I positioned myself between two Ash trees and counted fifteen bounce by. Cracking little birds! 

The best of the rest included a Grey Wagtail, three Stock Doves, 20 Lapwings, two Great Spotted Woodpeckers, two croaking Ravens and a couple of Goldcrests. Not too shabby for standing still in some fairly typical farmland habitat.

Fingers crossed for some ringing at my Bowland feeding station on Sunday, and if the weather plays ball perhaps a look on the sea tomorrow. I say if the weather plays ball, because for both days the dreaded 'black cloud' is forecast, and generally that means rain. But we'll see...

Saturday, 21 November 2020

High Water versus Low Water Counts

Like a lot of wintering bird surveys, where the land being surveyed is potentially functionally linked to a Special Protection Area (SPA), Vantage Point (VP) counts are required both over the high and low water periods for each month surveyed. One of my wintering bird surveys requires such counts, and earlier this week I had the opportunity to compare both.
This particular site isn't overly exciting, but when I was there at the beginning of the week the influence of the Spring tide was obvious, as the 10.0 m tide pushed birds inland. At my second VP at this site, I recorded 312 Lapwings, 31 Redshanks and four Snipe. At the same site, and VP, three days later over a low tide, I recorded just 2 Lapwings. This pattern will be repeated throughout the winter, and it will be interesting to see how the numbers and species' composition change. 
Lapwings (above & below)


Rewinding back to the start of my survey at the beginning of the week, my first VP location was over an area of rank grassland with adjacent scrub. I didn't record anything from/over the rank grassland other than two Grey Wagtails that chased each other past me. 
A few birds were in the scrub, and first up was a male Great Spotted Woodpecker perched high up in some Birch. A male Sparrowhawk shot into the scrub, with one of those disappearing acts where you thought "did I just see a Sparrowhawk"? A party of ten Long-tailed Tits, like monochrome pom-poms, bounced from branch to twig, and bush to tree, and away past me, like a flurry of snow; magic. Two Mistle Thrushes were the only other species that made it into my notebook from this particular section. 

Raptors were thin on the ground throughout the morning, and all I could add to the Sparrowhawk was a Kestrel later in the morning. 
Distant Kestrel
My low water count later in the week kicked off with two male raptors, a Kestrel and Peregrine, but it never really got going. Two Mistle Thrushes and three Redwings were noteworthy, as was a calling Reed Bunting from a small area of reed. Two further Mistle Thrushes, and their Song Thrush cousin, and two more Reed Buntings were recorded from a different section of survey.

Part of my survey includes an area of scrub covering a section of former buildings, now demolished, and associated Bramble covered concrete areas. Every time I climb the gate and walk across this area, I always put up two or three Snipe, and today was no exception. This is the third time that I have walked across this bit and put the Snipe up, so it is obviously a day-time roosting spot for a few individuals.

The weather has been pretty awful of late, and I have struggled to get out, but it is looking a bit more settled later on next week, so hopefully I can do a bit, and maybe also get some ringing in at my Bowland feeding station.

Friday, 13 November 2020


I have a few wintering bird surveys to complete over the coming months, and I completed my first visit to a site in northwest Lancashire yesterday. The weather was a bit 'hit and miss' at first, with a few blustery showers, but as the morning progressed the weather improved. 

At first light I was stood adjacent to a large hedge over-looking some rough grassland and scrub. A few Redwings exited the scrub at first light, heading out to forage for the day, and four Snipe dropped in, with their feeding rhythms at odds to the Redwings. The Snipe will have been dropping into the site to roost, after feeding somewhere suitable overnight. A Chiffchaff called from the hedge behind me; a late migrant or an over-wintering bird? 

I recorded little else of interest other than perhaps a couple of Song Thrushes and singles of Siskin and Mistle Thrush, all utilising the scrub.

The second part of my survey was in some more open landscape, so a Great Spotted Woodpecker 'bouncing' along was a surprise. But the best bird of the morning was the Tweedler. Tweedler is an old Lancashire name for Merlin, but none of the sources that referenced the name could explain why the Merlin was known as Tweedler in Lancashire. I picked up the female Merlin on the ground in a field, an odd place for a Merlin, but I can only assume that she had been on prey. She was busy preening away and was there for a good twenty minutes before being flushed by a Carrion Crow. Later when carrying out some observations from my car, I saw her head south, over some woodland and away out of sight. So, a quiet morning, but all the brighter for the Tweedler.
A young female Tweedler from a nest site in an upland area of Lancashire

Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of October. Only one new species for the year was ringed in October and that was Fieldfare, and to be precise we ringed three of them. Below you will find the top four species ringed during October, and the top ten 'movers and shakers' for the year.

Top 4 Ringed During October

1. Redwing - 80
2. Greenfinch - 53
3. Long-tailed Tit - 14
4. Goldfinch - 11

Top 10 Movers and Shakers

1. Linnet - 128 (same position)
2. Meadow Pipit - 116 (same position)
3. Greenfinch - 107 (up from 9th)
4. Willow Warbler - 93 (down from 3rd)
5. Redwing - 88 (straight in)
6. Blue Tit - 87 (down from 4th)
7. Pied Flycatcher - 73 (down from 5th)
8. Great Tit - 70 (down from 6th)
9. Goldfinch - 65 (up from 10th)
10. Sand Martin - 63 (down from 7th)

Saturday, 7 November 2020

A Splash Of Late Autumn And Avian Colour

Yesterday morning Gail and I fancied a walk for a bit of fresh of air, and some communion with nature, so to kill two birds with one stone, we headed to our newly set up feeding station in the Hodder Valley in Bowland. The feeding station has only been operational for a week or so, so we wanted to see if the birds had found it yet, and at the same time we could have a walk in the wooded valley. 

I suppose autumn is slipping away from us now, but there were still some autumn colours left in the landscape, which I hope the photographs below will attest to. 


Sulphur Tuft (probably)

We started off at the feeding station itself, and there was quite a bit of activity from Nuthatches and Coal Tits on the feeders, and Chaffinches feeding on the seed that we spread on the ground. Walking down the wooded valley a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a few Jays called, and a Raven 'honked' overhead. The calling continued with a single Song Thrush, and then we walked up the valley side and into the arboretum where it was the turn of Goldcrests, Goldfinches, Siskins and surprisingly three Bullfinches to announce their presence through voice. 
I say surprisingly for the Bullfinches, as this was the first time I had recorded them at the site. In previous years I haven't spent as much time in winter here as I have this year, so perhaps they are more frequent than I think, because the habitat in the arboretum certainly looks good for Bullfinch. 

This morning Alice and I returned to the feeding station to have our first ringing session, and when we put the single sixty-foot net up, we had 4 oktas of hazy cloud, with a fresh south-easterly breeze. In fact, the south-easterly breeze was a little too fresh and it was causing the net to billow a tad, and with it blowing leaves in to the pockets as well! This didn't auger well, and our totals reflected this.

We ringed thirteen birds as follows (recaptures in brackets):

Coal Tit - 7 (1)
Chaffinch - 2
Blue Tit - 1
Nuthatch - 3
Great Tit - (1)
From a birding perspective the location of the new feeding station isn't great, or should I say where we sit in relation to the feeding station isn't great, as we sit on the side of the track leading down the wooded valley, so our field of view is restricted by trees. Therefore, we didn't see a great deal, and it was more a case of hearing things, other than the 45 Redwings that flew over. So, on call we had Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrests, a Jay and a Great Spotted Woodpecker; like I said not great.

I'm hoping that we'll get out ringing at the feeding station next weekend, but I'll call and check it in the week. Also, I have a wintering bird survey starting this week, so I might have a few things to report from there. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Data Memories - Part 3 - Waders

I know I probably don't need to tell you, but here in northwest England the weather has been pretty awful for nearly ten days now. We're back in a cold westerly air stream with frequent heavy showers, and periods of heavier more prolonged rain. The result has been that I have struggled to get out, or more to the point, I haven't been bothered about dragging myself around coastal migration spots seeing diddly squat! So, to keep the Blog going, here is part 3 of an occasional series on data memories inspired through ringing birds over many years.
Waders are a family that we haven't ringed a great deal of, but they evoke some of the best memories, mainly because they are such cracking birds. Over 36 years we have ringed 1,183 waders of 12 species as follows:
Oystercatcher - 58
Little Ringed Plover - 6
Ringed Plover - 98
Lapwing - 683
Sanderling - 1
Dunlin - 8
Jack Snipe - 10 
Snipe - 102
Woodcock - 13
Curlew - 98
Common Sandpiper - 6
Redshank - 51
Turnstone - 98

So, I suppose we have ringed on average just over 30 waders per year, except that's not quite true, as a good proportion of our wader ringing was in the earlier years of our group (Fylde Ringing Group).

Most of the waders we have ringed have been pulli, and wader chicks certainly have that aaah factor, because of their cuteness, in fact their cuteness is off the scale! Just take a look at the Ringed Plover chicks below if you don't believe me!
Ringed Plover (above & below)


We used to ring quite a lot of Lapwing chicks, and Lapwings are one of the few waders that we still ring in small numbers most years; just two in 2019 for example. 
One of our best sites for ringing Lapwing chicks used to be behind the then new sea wall at Pilling Marsh, when the saltmarsh was enclosed, and before these fields became improved, and ultimately sheep-wrecked. We used to leave a car at Pilling, and then drive to Cockerham, and Phil and I used to walk along, behind the sea wall from Cockerham to Pilling. 

When the sea wall was constructed, the material used partly to construct the sea wall left a wide shallow channel that ran behind the sea wall for its full length, and breeding Lapwings on the now reclaimed fields, used to take their chicks down to this channel/ditch to feed. At certain intervals along the channel were piped crossing points to gain access to the sea wall and foreshore for grazing on the salt marsh, and these crossings provided excellent places to hide behind and peer over the top and scan the next section of ditch for any Lapwing chicks that might be feeding along the ditch. If birds were there, one of us, receiving directions from the other, would run along and pick the chicks up.
A fledged juvenile Lapwing with just a bit of down left
The chicks would freeze and squat if small, and rely on their camouflage to conceal them, and well-camouflaged they were. In addition to Lapwings we also picked up a few Oystercatchers and Redshanks as well. Sadly, waders no longer nest in these fields, mainly because of how much they have been improved for agriculture and also because of very high stocking densities of sheep; lots of feet causing lots of nest destruction.
As I mentioned before, most of our wader ringing has been through ringing pulli, but we have dabbled a little bit with mist nets at night, and using whoosh nets. The Sanderling, eight Dunlin, ten Jack Snipe, 102 Snipe and some of the Redshank, have been caught with either mist or whoosh nets. 

All of the thirteen Woodcocks that we have ringed, have been caught in either woodland or scrub with mist nets, when we have been targeting passerines, except for one bird that got caught in some chicken netting behind Ian's hen shed in his garden. Ian came home from work, and he could see all of his chickens gathered at the back of the hen shed and looking up. When he looked there was a Woodcock that had somehow got fastened in the chicken wire. The Woodcock was none the worse for wear, and was released shortly afterwards, flying off strongly! 
A recovery of one of those thirteen Woodcocks that we ringed really stands out. This was a bird that we ringed at a finch and thrush roost at Clifton Hall, near Preston, on 9th February 1991. It was shot on 14th April 1992 near Gorky, Moscow, some 3,001 km east! At the time, it was one of the furthest east recoveries of a British ringed Woodcock. See Google Earth image below.

The total of 98 Turnstones ringed reminds me of a project we ran in 2012/13 where we were ringing and fitting leg flags to a population of wintering Turnstones in the Fleetwood area. Sadly, we had to end the project early because of disturbance, mainly from dog walkers, at the ringing site. Whilst it lasted, it was an interesting and enjoyable project, but sadly it never really got going, and we only managed to fit leg flags to about 50 Turnstones over one winter, when we really wanted to fit leg flags to at least five times that number of the proposed five-year life time of the project. I've included a few pictures of Turnstones from the project below.

Earlier this week I set up my winter woodland feeding station in the Hodder Valley in Bowland. This year I am using two five port feeders, produced by a company called Perdix, that hold 20 kg of seed in each feeder. The idea being, to reduce the number of trips necessary to keep the feeders topped up. I've no idea how good they will be, but I have seen these feeders very busy with birds on a farm in south Cheshire, so I am hopeful. I'll keep you posted.
Substantial bracket for the 20 kg feeder
Perdix feeder in situ

This wet westerly weather is set to be the weather pattern into the middle of next week, when it will hopefully pick up. But I am hoping I don't have to wait that long to get out!

Monday, 19 October 2020

Another Back To Back

Alice and I had another back to back ringing session at the pools at the Obs on Saturday and Sunday, and managed to ring another 75 birds over both days.

Saturday dawned with full cloud cover, with a light north-easterly breeze. We got the nets up in the half-light, and once again played the 'Latvian love song' on the MP3 players to attract Redwings. 
Starling numbers seemed to be back up near 10,000 again, so numbers definitely fluctuate on a daily basis. There wasn't as much moving on 'vis' as yesterday, and numbers of birds moving progressively decreased from the peak on Thursday (15th). Of note we had 123 Redwings east and 250 Jackdaws west. 

We ringed 37 birds as follows (recaptures in brackets):

Redwing - 8
Cetti's Warbler - 1
Goldfinch - 5
Blue Tit - 3 (1)
Greenfinch - 11
Wren - 2
Long-tailed Tit - 4 (3)
Fieldfare - 1
Goldcrest - 1
Chiffchaff - 1
Sunday morning was nearly a carbon copy of Saturday, from both the weather, birding and ringing perspective, except that for most of the morning it was virtually calm. 

The first bird that I recorded Sunday morning, as I drove on site was a Barn Owl perched on a fence, that melted away into the dark as I got close. We had a similar lack of birds on vis, with just 38 Redwings, 29 Greenfinches, three Grey Wagtails and four Chaffinches heading east.

There was certainly more Pink-footed Geese around, and birds were lifting from their roost on the river, others were heading north to feeding areas in the wider Morecambe Bay, and some were arriving from the south (Ribble Estuary?), and in total we had 2,020 birds. 
Pink-footed Geese
We ringed 38 birds as follows (recaptures in brackets):

Wren - 1
Long-tailed Tit - 6 (1)
Redwing - 4
Greenfinch - 22
Goldfinch - 2
Blue Tit - 1
Reed Bunting - 1
Long-tailed Tit
Reed Bunting

It's looking unsettled this coming week, with a return to Atlantic weather systems, so getting out, and the quality of the birding could be 'iffy', but I will keep you posted if I do.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Latvian Love Song

I've had two mornings of ringing at the pools yesterday and today, and it all started with a, or I should I say the, 'Latvian love song'! The Latvian love song that I refer to, is a recording of Redwing song and calls that has proved over recent years very effective in attracting migrating Redwings for the purposes of ringing. I thought I had a copy, but I didn't, so my good friends Pete and Peter (father and son ringing team) furnished me with a copy in quick time. Thanks guys!
As I was putting my mist net poles onto the car in the dark yesterday morning, I could hear migrating Redwings calling in the darkness, and I thought "this bodes well". I put a couple of nets up in the dark, and put on the 'Latvian Love Song' and retired to my car for a coffee. As dawn broke, I was greeted with two oktas cloud cover and a light north-easterly wind. 

Before I headed off on my first net round the Starlings came out of their roost, and their numbers had increased to about ten thousand birds. The last time I counted them out, I thought their numbers had been dropping. Perhaps it fluctuates. 

Two Cetti's Warblers serenaded me with their explosive calls, and overhead Thrushes were on the move. I counted 220 Redwings, a Mistle Thrush, 32 Fieldfares, three Blackbirds and two Song Thrushes all heading east. Between net rounds, I managed to count other bits of vis as well, and moving between north and south I had 25 Chaffinches, three Bramblings, 31 Jackdaws, two Carrion Crows and thirteen Whooper Swans
Whooper Swans
Raptors were represented by a single species, Sparrowhawk, and I had at least three, including a lovely adult male that shot past me when I was at the ringing table. I say at least three, because later in the morning I had three thermalling to the west, and this may have included the adult male. Two Goldcrests and a Brambling made up all of what I would say were grounded migrants, but it is difficult to tell.

I ringed 40 birds as follows:

Blackbird - 2
Wren - 1
Goldcrest - 1
Redwing - 15
Song Thrush - 1
Cetti's Warbler - 2
Robin - 1
Greenfinch - 14
Dunnock - 1
Reed Bunting - 1
Great Tit - 1
I was back again this morning with Graham, and this time we put three nets up, and day two for the Latvian love song ensued. It was a different morning weather-wise with full cloud cover at first light, and a 5-10 mph north-easterly wind.
It was obvious that there wasn't as many birds on the move, and even the Starling roost looked to have dropped in numbers to about 5,000 birds. But as I said before, maybe it fluctuates.

On vis we had 56 Redwings, 49 Jackdaws, a couple of Grey Wagtails, four Skylarks, six Chaffinches, two Rooks, just one Fieldfare, thirteen Greenfinches and 30 Pink-footed Geese

We didn't get chance to look on the pools properly, but we did see three Shovelers wheeling round, and a group of 20-30 Snipe. A female Sparrowhawk and two Ravens were also noteworthy. 
We ringed 33 birds as follows (recaptures in brackets):
Robin - 2
Cetti's Warbler - 2
Great Tit - 1
Blue Tit - 1
Goldfinch - 1
Chaffinch - 3
Redwing - 6
Song Thrush - 2
Dunnock - 3 (1)
Greenfinch - 6
Long-tailed Tit - 4
Wren - 2
Reed Bunting - (1) 
Cetti's Warbler
The forecast is looking good over the next couple of days, with the wind remaining in the east, so it looks like a couple more early-ish starts for me!