Sunday 31 May 2020

4 Out Of 10

Yesterday Gail and I continued are monitoring of our Pied Flycatcher boxes in the Hodder Valley in Bowland, and rather pleasingly we managed to record 4 out of the 10 males. We use a trap that holds the bird in the nest box when it comes in to feed the young. We then lift the adult out of the box, fit a ring, or record the details if it is already ringed, as is often the case, take various biometric data, and safely release the bird to get on with rearing those gorgeous Pied Flycatcher chicks.

 Pied Flycatcher

Out of the four males that we trapped yesterday, only one was new, the other three were already ringed. One was ringed as a chick from a box at our site in 2019, one was ringed as a chick at this site in 2016 and the third ringed bird was ringed elsewhere. Data like this is hugely important for the conservation of this red-listed species, as it is essential that long-term monitoring is undertaken to base sound conservation policies on, such as climate change adaptation as the range and nesting strategies change for Pied Flycatchers. But there is of course just the sheer amazement of what these birds achieve on an annual basis.

Take the male ringed in one of our boxes in 2016. We know exactly where he hatched, and therefore we know exactly how old he is. On 30th May 2016 Gail and I checked box number seven at our site, and it contained 6 naked and blind Pied Flycatcher chicks (including our male), so I know that he will have hatched on or around 25th May 2016, making him more or less 4 years old to the day! By the way, he was nesting in box number 37 this year.

Pied Flycatchers weigh an average of 13 g, and winter in West Africa south of the Sahara, so that male has crossed the Sahara an incredible eight times! We ringed 44 Pied Flycatcher chicks, and we have twenty chicks to ring next weekend.

 Pied Flycatcher chick(s) (above & below)

In addition to the Pied Flycatchers we ringed seven Blue Tit chicks and eleven Great Tits. Other species that we recorded as we wandered round the woodland included Raven, Buzzard, Blackcap and Chiffchaff.

As I have been busy recently with bird surveys for work, I haven't run my moth trap as often as I would like. However, on Friday morning I trapped two Garden Carpets, five Heart and Darts, two Brimstone Moths and a White Ermine. This morning in the trap was a stunning Elephant Hawkmoth, five Heart and Darts, two Common Pugs, a Green Pug and a White Ermine. Still quiet, but I like it like that.

 Brimstone Moth

Elephant Hawkmoth (above & below)

I don't know whether I have mentioned it before, but I have a pair of Blackbirds that visit my garden regularly, and at the moment I have been watching them collecting food, so they have a nest with young somewhere. Anyway, the reason I mention this is that I took a couple of pictures of the female recently at the bird bath, and you can see them below.

I am hoping to get out ringing in the Obs reedbed over the next couple of days, and I'll let you know how I get on if I do.

Thursday 28 May 2020

10 Out Of 10

I've had a busy this week, with plenty of site visits looking at upland breeding wader habitat and carrying out a few breeding bird surveys, so it is only now that I have had time to report back on our recent check of our Pied Flycatcher boxes.

On Monday, Gail and I checked our boxes in the Hodder Valley, and we still needed to lift two female Pied Flycatchers from the nest to make it 10 out of 10. And we did it! That's all ten females that are nesting in our boxes lifted off the nest and recorded. This combined with the number of eggs laid, date of laying, date of clutch completed, number of chicks hatched, number of chicks fledged and all chicks ringed, provides some very powerful biological data that is essential to the on-going conservation monitoring of this red-listed species! Oh, and if we can catch a few of the males in the boxes, that makes it all the more powerful.

We did manage to ring one brood of six Pied Flycatchers, and also eleven Great Tits (two broods), nine Blue Tits (one brood) and seven Nuthatches (one brood).


Talking of Nuthatches, take a look at the two pictures below. The first shows the chicks in the box on 16th May and the second how they looked on th 27th. How they've grown, they look like Nuthatches now!


As I mentioned before it's been all work and no play, so I am looking forward to running my moth trap tonight for the first time in a week, and checking our boxes at weekend. I'll keep you posted as to how we get on. 

Thursday 21 May 2020

Better Late Than Never

I had a typical late May ringing session in the reedbed at the Obs yesterday, which was paradoxically the first of the Spring! Ah well, better late than never. Obviously, and completely understandably, the lockdown had prevented us from doing any ringing, but at the reedbed and pools at the Obs it's often how much water there is that dictates when the ringing for the year commences. And even without the lockdown, I doubt I would have been able to get in any sooner. As it was, some of the paths to my net rides were under about 20 cm of water, but the net rides were dry.

It was a cracking morning with clear skies, and no wind; almost perfect conditions for ringing. At this time of year bird activity, especially amongst wetland warbler species, is reduced, as the breeding season is in full swing, and females are generally sitting tight on the nest. I only ringed four birds this morning, and all of them were males:

Blackcap - 1
Reed Warbler - 1
Sedge Warbler - 2


I'll try and keep the ringing going throughout June, until it picks up again in late June. I only have three net rides in the wetland complex, and I gave them a little 'haircut', and with use they'll be fine right through to the Autumn.

Birding was fairly quiet too, but a good selection of warbler species were singing including Cetti's Warbler, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler.

 Sedge Warbler

A few House Martins and Swifts fed over the scrape, and I noticed a Little Grebe with a chick. This is the first time that Little Grebes have nested on the scrape for a number of years, so the clearance of New Zealand pygmyweed Crassula helmsii and the re-profiling of the pool has done the trick! A couple of Grey Herons also dropped in to feed on the scrape as well.

 Grey Heron

Back home the moth trap has still been quiet, and today I caught four Heart and Darts, a Flame Shoulder and two Light Brown Apple Moths.

 Flame Shoulder

It will probably be weekend before I post again, when Gail and I will be back at out at our Pied Flycatcher boxes in Bowland. I'll be sure to let you know how we get on.

Sunday 17 May 2020

A Field Sheet At Last

I managed to ring my first birds for the year yesterday, and what a joy it was to complete a field sheet at last! More of that later, but now I need to rewind four days to when I was working on the Cumbrian side of the North Pennines. 

It was a beautiful morning between Orton and Appleby when I set off, with virtually clear skies and a light north-westerly wind. It was cold at first, but after I had slogged up-hill for about twenty minutes I had warmed up nicely. I was surveying two blocks of upland rough grassland to see what was breeding on both areas.

North Pennines

As I set off there were plenty of summer songsters in the hedgerows and woodland, including four Willow Warblers, two Redstarts, a Garden Warbler, four Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff. Raptors were thin on the ground, and all I had were a couple of Buzzards.

The areas of rough grassland held good numbers of breeding Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, 17 and 12 of each respectively, and I also counted five Lapwings and a single Curlew. What was interesting was how dry these areas were, and I wondered how any wader chicks would get on trying to find invertebrates.

The following day I was back in the lowlands close to home carrying out the second repitition of a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) on some intensively managed farmland. As you might expect, birds were thin on the ground other than two Blackcaps, a Song Thrush, two Stock Doves, a couple of Swifts, two Whitethroats, a Linnet and a singing Goldcrest. I did have four Rooks high heading north, and I wondered where they were going at this time of year?

 Along the roadside verges there was plenty of Red Campion

On my way home I called in at the pools at the Obs to see what the net rides were like in the reedbed, as with the government's easing of lockdown the BTO was allowing some ringing to take place in England again. The net rides had some water in, but were just about workable, and as the days go on it should be an improving a picture, so I might try and have a ringing session later in the week and hopefully catch up with some late migrant warblers.

It was heartening to see thirty Swifts, with a similar number of House Martins, hawking for insects over the pools. I had my first Little Grebe chick, and there was a number of singing Whitethroats, and Sedge, Cetti's and Reed Warblers distributed across the site.

My moth trap has been quiet, mainly because I missed a few nights when I have had a survey the following day, but a couple of morning's ago I had a single Flame Shoulder which was a new species for the garden, for the year.

It was yesterday that I managed to complete a field sheet at last, as Gail and I carried out a check of our next box scheme on the River Hodder in Bowland. Out of 41 boxes ten are occupied by Pied Flycatchers, which is good because our long-term average is seven. We managed to lift eight females off the nest, of which seven were already ringed; two of our birds and five ringed elsewhere.

 Pied Flycatcher nest

Pied Flycatcher

 A view of the woodland where our boxes are located

Some common wildflowers encountered include Bugle
(above) and Herb Robert (below)

We ringed two broods of Blue Tits (7 & 7) and a brood of seven Great Tits. In addition to those ringed we have a further six boxes occupied by Great Tits, two by Blue Tits and one by Nuthatches of which you can see a short video clip below.


 Blue Tits

After we had completed the monitoring of the boxes, we were socially distantly chatting with the site owner, Simon, when Gail picked up a Red Kite. Well done Gail! We watched the Kite for three or four minutes before it disappeared behind some woodland. Interestingly Simon had seen a Red Kite here a few weeks ago as well.

I'll look forward to inputting our ringing efforts on to DemOn (Demography Online; the BTO's ringing and nest record online recording system) and seeing where the ringed Pied Flycatchers are from. I'll be sure to let you know!

 Field Sheet

Monday 11 May 2020

Yellow Ophion

As I sit in my office writing this Blog, I'm waiting for a new pair of bins to arrive, as I've ordered a pair of Zeiss Victory SF 10x42s. And I can't wait for them to arrive later today. The reason I'm telling you this is by way of an explanation as to why I haven't posted anything for a few days. I won't go in to all the 'why's and wherefore's', but it's sufficed to say that I have spent two days needlessly waiting in, when I could have been out communing with the natural world!

The lockdown garden birding competition over at North Downs & Beyond finished on 6th May, and I ended up recording 48 species over the 49 days of lockdown, giving me a percentage score of 71% based on the percentage of birds I recorded during lockdown, against my all-time garden list. I'm quite pleased with that!

I have been running my moth trap, but it has been very quiet (what's new there I hear you say) and all I have recorded over the past few days is Hebrew Character, Light Brown Apple Moth and Bright-line Brown-eye.

However, on 9th May I caught a species of Ichneumonid Wasp, that I think is Yellow Ophion, and you can see a picture of it below. I apologise for the 'egg carton' shot, but it flew off before I could attempt to manoeuvre it on to some vegetation. I say that I think it is a Yellow Ophion, but if any of my expert invert friends know differently, please let me know.

 (click the picture for a closer look)

I must admit I don't know a great deal about Ichneumonid wasp species, and I have to admit that I had to look them up and found a really useful Beginner's guide to identifying British ichneumonids by Nicola Prehn and Chris Raper, well worth looking up if you're interested.

I found out that all ichneumonids are parasitoids of other invertebrates, and in the UK we have approximately 2,500 species of them. Yes, that's right 2,500 species of ichneumonids! Who knew?! In fact, they make up 10% of all British insects.

Using this very useful guide I managed to narrow the ichneumonid that I caught to one of the nocturnal, orange-bodied species, and namely Yellow Ophion Ophion leutus. The hosts for this wasp are Hart and Dart moth caterpillars. They are mainly active at night, and as such are often attracted to light, hence it being in my garden light trap. What a cracking wee beastie!

Back in 1992 on 9th May, I had a very unusual ringing experience. During the 1990s we used to ring at British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.'s (BNFL) Springfield site at Salwick near Preston in Lancashire. Within the site was a Rookery, and every year we used to count the number of nests. However, on this particular day the site employee, Jim, who we worked with, said do you want to go up into the Rookery and ring some of the Rook chicks?

I was with Dave on this particular occasion and we weren't sure what he meant. We then heard a 'beeping', and a trundling of wheels from some form of heavy plant, and Jim came round the corner driving a telescopic boom lift, or something similar. It was a monster bit of kit, think of a Cherry Picker on steroids, and from memory I think it could reach somewhere in the region of 150 feet.

Anyway, David and I climbed on board with Jim and he extended the telescopic boom, with us on the platform (or whatever it is called) up in to the trees that contained the Rookery. He managed to manoeuvre us close to a Rook's nest on the outer edge of the colony, and we easily leaned over and lifted the Rook chicks out of the nest! Three chicks were duly ringed and returned to the nest!

As I said before, it was a very unusual ringing experience, and one I'm not sure I would want to repeat, even though I do have a head for heights!

As I finished writing this my new bins arrived, and I can't wait to use them in anger!

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Ne'er Cast a Clout 'til May Be Out...

...and never a more truer expression has there been!

It was cold this morning as I left the house at 5:30 a.m. to complete one of my bird surveys of a client's hedgerows in the Wennington valley. The thermometer on my car read 2 Celsius, and in shady places there was most definitely a ground frost.

I have always grown up with this expression, spoken by my Lancashire/Yorkshire father, but never by my Irish mother. I must admit that I always thought that the May referred to the month of May, but a bit of research via Google states that some people think that 'May' refers to the May-flower or Hawthorn blossom, that flowers in late April or early May. So, in other words don't take your warm clothes off until the May blossom is out, because cold weather can return during the Spring months!

And I most certainly didn't take my warm clothes off until I had been surveying for a couple of hours. I had an enjoyable couple of hours surveying six hedgerows. I didn't have anything very exciting, but there was a smattering of summer migrants around including four singing Blackcaps, four singing Willow Warblers, two singing Garden Warblers that were duelling in a lovely thick hedge that snakes down a hill-side, a singing Redstart and a singing Chiffchaff.

There is a healthy population of Brown Hares on this farm, and I recorded ten on my walk round including a leveret. In one of the fields the Farm Manager has done a re-seed, and the fine tilth has attracted at least three pairs of nesting Lapwings

 Brown Hare

I had two singing Song Thrushes during my survey, and these two songsters were joined by their larger cousin the Mistle Thrush. A calling Tawny Owl was a bit of a surprise as it was a couple of hours after sunrise that I heard it.

The only raptor that I saw was a single Kestrel perched on one of their favourite perches...overhead wires. Down by the river two female Goosanders flew out and round before dropping back on the river.

Nothing rare, but a pleasure to be out as always, especially under the current circumstances!

 Some of the wildflowers in the hedges included Ramsons (above) and Red
Campion (below)

I've added another species to my garden lockdown list, in the form of a couple of House Martins, and I have just come in from watching five Swifts over the garden. There was lots of displaying going on, and they looked magnificent in the evening sunshine, as the reddish-rays caught and lit up their underparts, making them look almost golden. Without doubt one of my favourite birds.

Every year when the Swifts return, I am reminded of Ted Hughes' fantastic poem about them. I know I have posted it before, but I have copied it below again. Wonderful words!

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone

On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades

Sparkle out into blue —
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,

Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.

Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails

Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling

On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage

Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting. Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
Finally burial
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —

The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.

I think I'll leave it at that. 

Sunday 3 May 2020

More Than A Feeling

I was out early this morning on my daily exercise for two reasons; one I am always out early when birding (first light for me), and two, I wanted to avoid as many people as possible, for obvious reasons, not just because I am a miserable old birder! Well, I am a bit! The plan was to call at the coastal farm fields close to home, and then drop in at the cemetery and the pools on my way home before most people were up. And the plan worked beautifully, as I was back home just as Gail was getting up, so I could enjoy a second breakfast!

My Blog title doesn't refer to the epic track of the same name from Boston's debut album, but to the 'feeling' that we as birders have for a particular morning. It can feel quiet, feel like there will be some grounded stuff around, or even feel 'rare', when perfect weather conditions have played out and you expect the unexpected. A lot of the time, in fact possibly most of the time, the feeling doesn't come to fruition. This morning was one of those mornings when it was more than a feeling, the blocking north-westerly conditions of yesterday had changed to the birder's friend, a light south-easterly breeze. Surely there would be some birds about in the form of some good seabird passage maybe, the odd decent grounded migrant or two, or perhaps some classic May vis. Well, it sort of delivered and didn't, in a quiet kind of way!

It was 5:00 am when I got out of my car, and headed along the sea wall. Not a soul around, just as I like it. Following on from yesterday's blog post, showcasing some sunrises and sunsets that I have snapped, I snapped another this morning with my phone, and I have posted it below.

I walked the full length of the grass embankment behind the sea wall to the public footpath, and paused a while to have a look on the sea, and also from this position I can count any vis that whizzes through behind me over the farm fields.

It was quiet on the sea but there were a couple of highlights. Firstly, there was a Black-throated Diver that headed south, and secondly a Little Egret a long way out to sea, that too headed south. They normally stick close inshore, but this bird had different ideas.  

The best of the rest on or over the sea included 273 Common Scoters, 39 Sandwich Terns, 563 Knots, eleven Eiders, 24 Gannets, 176 Pink-footed Geese, seven Arctic Terns, a Guillemot, five Cormorants, eight Red-throated Divers, nine Shelducks, five Manx Shearwaters, a Common Sandpiper, three Whimbrels and eight Auk sp.

It became obvious later, that there had been an arrival of Garden Warblers, Sedge Warblers and Whitethroats. Around the farm fields I had five Sedge Warblers, four Whitethroats, a Lesser Whitethroat and a Garden Warbler.

There wasn't much vis other than a Tree Pipit, 14 Swallows, an Alba Wag and a Sand Martin.

I called in at the cemetery briefly as planned, and noticed a passerine towards the top of a tree that looked interesting. I had just got on it and saw that it was a Spotted Flycatcher, when it took off, circled a couple of times and headed northeast climbing all the time. A Spot Fly on vis...sort of!

Another singing Garden Warbler in the northwest corner, with a second singing bird in the southwest corner, made me realise that there had been an arrival of Garden Warblers. After a singing Willow Warbler and another Tree Pipit over, it was time to leave.

I paid a flying visit at the pools, and just literally scanned the two pools before heading home for breakfast number two. Another singing Garden Warbler was nice, and just looking over the pools I had three singing Sedge Warblers...definitely an arrival. The usual suspects were on the pools like three pairs of Tufted Ducks, twelve Coots (one with a chick), a number of loafing Herring, Lesser Black-backed & Great Black-backed Gulls (they come in to bathe on the new scrape) and a pair of Great Crested Grebes.

 The main pool

Great Crested Grebe

So, it was a funny old morning that was quiet and not quiet at the same time. Back home and back in lockdown, there was nothing in my garden moth trap, but I added another species for the garden lockdown bird list in the form of two Swifts heading north. That and the Sand Martins that I had yesterday, brings my total to 45 species for the lockdown period.

I'll run the moth trap again tonight, and fingers crossed catch this time!

Saturday 2 May 2020

Sunrise and Sunset

I am not a photographer by any shape of the imagination, I am more of a 'point and shoot' merchant, and as such I carry a bridge camera when out in the great outdoors, as an addition only to my notebook to record what I observe. I tend to be out early rather than late, so have taken a few snaps of the sunrise. I very rarely bird for pleasure towards sunset, but on some occasions my work as an Ecologist has meant that I am doing some form of dusk surveys for birds, and again I have taken a few snaps of the sunset.

I suppose that is a long-winded way of introducing some pictures below of sunrises and sunsets that I have taken over the years!

Sunset near Formby (above & below)

 A misty sunrise

 Sunrise over Spittal near Berwick-upon-Tweed

 A Cheshire sunrise

 Sunrise over the Wyre esturay

 Sunset over the pools at the Obs

I have nothing to report from my moth trap these last few days as it has been wet overnight, and because of the type of trap that I operate I can't run it in wet weather.

I have added another species to my lockdown period garden bird list and that was a singing Chiffchaff early one morning.

As you know, occasionally I like to pull an old notebook off my book shelf and have a look at what I was doing this time, who knows how many years ago!

In 1989 I had the pleasure of visiting Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada with my good friend Phil. On the 2nd May 1989 we spent the last day of what was 16 days operating the Breakwater field station that was located about five miles down the vegetated spit of Long Point, that sticks out in to Lake Erie for about 15 miles. Think of Spurn Point on steroids! Long Point is often over-shadowed by it's a distant Lake Erie neighbour Point Pelee, mainly I think because the whole of Point Pelee is accessible by birders. At Long Point it is only the base station, Old Cut, that visiting birders can access, and the two other stations Breakwater and The Tip, are only accessible to observatory staff and volunteers.

As I said before the 2nd May 1989 was our last day at Breakwater and the day dawned with full cloud cover, with a stiff northerly wind (F5). Sadly, at the time I didn't carry a camera, and then it was the days of 35 mm film, so I have no pictures that I can show you of the site or of the birds. We monitored the migration through this field station by carrying out a daily census, and through a programme of bird ringing. At Breakwater we operated a Heligoland Trap and numerous mist nets.

Anyway back to the 2nd May, and the following is a list of the birds that made it into my notebook; two female Northern Harriers, a Greater Yellowlegs, a Lesser Yellowlegs, 60 Chipping Sparrows, six Blue Jays, three Blue-winged Teals, two Chimney Swifts, 23 American Goldfinches, two Hermit Thrushes, three Forster's Terns, a Belted Kingfisher, six Double-crested Cormorants, two Purple Martins, a Downy Woodpecker, two Wood Ducks, two White-crowned Sparrows, three Buffleheads, a male American Kestrel, two male Myrtle Warblers, a Palm Warbler, a pair of Rufous-sided Towhees and two Savannah Sparrows.

 Palm Warbler (courtesy of my good mate Nigel)

The forecast is looking reasonable for tomorrow as we are losing the northerly element of the wind that we have had for the past couple of days, so I might just take my daily exercise on the local coastal farm fields and see what I can see. The moth trap should be on as well tonight, so you never know.