Monday 24 May 2021

Boxes - Part Three

On Saturday, Alice and I started out at our Pied Flycatcher nest box scheme in Bowland, and it was a relatively quick visit with only ten boxes to check now. We had a bit of more bad news, with another female Pied Flycatcher predated from a box by either a Weasel or a Stoat.
Interestingly, other ringers around the country, but particularly in the north, are reporting predation incidents of sitting females from boxes. One theory put forward, is that there are fewer small mammals around this year because of the cold winter and spring impacting on their survival, but also a lack of grass growth because of the cold spring particularly, resulting in poor habitat quality for them. This could mean that Weasels and Stoats are having to turn to other sources of food, as they are struggling to find their favoured prey of small mammals. I wonder what the situation is with the Rabbit population this year? 
In connection with this, a lot of Barn Owls haven't laid eggs as yet, because they aren't in the right condition to lay eggs, as they have to attain a certain weight to produce and lay eggs. This again, is probably connected with low numbers of small mammals, and hence why they are struggling to get into condition. 
We still have four boxes of Pied Flycatchers with females incubating eggs, four broods of very small Blue Tits (too small to ring) and a brood of small Great Tits, again too small to ring. 
Blue Tits
We then headed to our friend's farm near Nateby, to check the outstanding boxes there. A new experience for Alice, and one that I have only experienced twice before, was checking some high boxes from the 'man basket' of a telehandler! On the end of Robert's barn are a few Swift boxes that have never been used by Swifts sadly, but they are used by Tree Sparrows. In fact, this whole building is like one large nest box as there are Tree Sparrows in lots of nooks and crannies all over the building. 
Swift boxes occupied by Tree Sparrows
One Swift box had six eggs in that were being incubated, and the other box had a Tree Sparrow nest with one cold egg. So, it could well be a start of a second clutch, and the female hasn't finished laying yet. Time will tell. Another nest box on the side of another building in had Tree Sparrows in that were too large to ring. 
We did manage to ring a brood of Blue Tits and a brood of Great Tits, and we've got some Tree Sparrows to look forward to in a few weeks. 
Back in 2005, Gail and I with my dear late Mum, visited our relatives in southern Ontario, Canada, and on this particular day we were walking a section of the Canada Greenway Trail in Essex County. We had accessed the trail from an area called Vereker, and spent a couple of hours walking it. For some reason, and a reason that I can't remember, I only recorded the numbers of certain species that we observed, and for others, they were just listed without a count in my notebook. 
So, in no particular order along the trail we encountered Common Grackle, Barn Swallow, three Baltimore Orioles, Red-winged Blackbird, Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, Winter Wren, American Robin, Brown-headed Cowbird, Mourning Dove, Bank Swallow, two Alder Flycatchers, Willow Flycatcher, a calling Common Nighthawk, Kildeer, Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Red-tailed Hawk, Great Blue Heron, Downy Woodpecker, a male & two female Northern Cardinals, Tree Swallow, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Ring-billed Gull, two American Goldfinches, four Indigo Buntings and two Eastern Towhees.
Sadly, all I had was a little point and shoot digital camera at the time, so I don't have any photographs of the above species, but below is a photograph of an Indigo Bunting in the hand, courtesy of my good friends at Long Point Bird Observatory. 

Indigo Bunting

Thursday 20 May 2021

A Cuckoo For Company

As I sit here in my office on a dreich Thursday afternoon, as the rain auditions at my window (a Marillion reference there), my thoughts are of a breeding bird survey that I carried out a couple of days ago on a lovely day in north Cumbria, not too far from Cockermouth. 
Looking towards the Lakeland Fells
I'd surveyed this particular farm three years ago in 2018, and as I got out of my car a Song Thrush was singing its heart out from a mature Ash tree behind the barn, just as it did three years ago. The typical lifespan of a Song Thrush is three years, with breeding at 1 year. The oldest Song Thrush, or should I say the oldest ringed Song Thrush, is 11 years from ringing. So, it is possible that this is the same bird from 2018, but I think it is equally possible that it isn't! I had another singing Songie elsewhere on the farm, close to the river. 
Song Thrush
As I set off on my survey, I could hear a male Cuckoo singing, and his 'cuckoo-ing' would accompany me for the whole three and a half hours I was surveying. It's interesting how field guides describe bird song, and out of interest I looked up how the Collins Bird Guide describes the song of the Cuckoo, and it is this; "...the familiar disyllabic call with emphasis on first syllable, 'goo-ko', when excited sometimes trisyllabic". Who knew?

Warblers were a feature of the morning, and in the Sylvia corner were three Blackcaps, a Whitethroat and two Garden Warblers, all singing except one Garden Warbler, that was alarm calling, and to be honest it took me a minute or three to work out that it was an alarm calling Garden Warbler. In the Phylloscopus corner, were ten singing Willow Warblers and two singing Chiffchaffs. Acrocephalus warblers were represented by just a single singing Sedge Warbler close to the river. 

There were quite a few Lesser Redpolls around, and at first, I wasn't sure whether some were still moving, but I decided that they were all local birds just whizzing around, as there was plenty of suitable nesting habitat, and in total I recorded fifteen, including a few resplendent males. 

There is a good population of House Sparrows at this farm, and they are quite numerous around the farm buildings, but a pair of Tree Sparrows adjacent to an area where vegetables are grown, was a welcome addition to the farm's avifauna. 

When I first headed off on my survey, I had forgotten that the River Cocker forms the western boundary of my survey area, and was momentary thrown when I heard the deep, hard call of Goosander, as two flew over the veg patch! 

A singing Redstart, croaking Raven and screaming Swift, were duly noted and added to the maps. All in all, a pleasant three and half hours. 
And still, the rain auditions at my window.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Boxes - Part Two

My Blog title could easily have been 'Boxes - Two Parts', as there were two parts, or should I say two sites, to the visits that Alice, Gail and I made, to check our nest boxes at weekend. First up, we visited our Pied Flycatcher nest box scheme in Bowland, and it was another sorry affair. 

We have seven pairs of Pied Flycatchers occupying our boxes, but sadly three have been predated by a Weasel. These three boxes were in the area that we found three predated Tit boxes last week, so I assume that they are right in the Weasel's territory. Boxes away from this area seem safe so far, so we need to keep our fingers crossed! In addition to the predation on the Pied Flycatchers, the Weasel had predated a box occupied by Nuthatches, killing the sitting female and several small chicks. That's eight boxes predated so far by this little mammalian predator! According to the mammal society only 10% of the Weasel population survive to over 2 years old, so it's unlikely to continue next year. It's nature, and there is nothing we can do, and we just have to accept it. 
We managed to lift two female Pied Flycatchers off the nest, and they were both ringed. One was a female that we lifted off the nest and ringed last year. When we ringed her in 2020, we aged her as a second calendar year bird, meaning she was hatched in 2019, so she is now two years old. The other female isn't one of our birds, so we wait to hear from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to find out where she was ringed. 
 Pied Flycatcher
So, in addition to the Pied Flycatchers, we have boxes occupied by four Blue Tits and one Great Tit. Oh, and a Pipistrelle sp. bat. When I lifted the lid to check this particular box, there was a Pipistrelle bat roosting on the side of the inside of the nest box. This box will remain undisturbed now for the rest of the year.
We then headed over to our good friends, Robert and Diana's farm near Nateby, to check a few boxes there. We checked 14 small hole type boxes, and they were occupied by two Tree Sparrows, four Blue Tits, a Great Tit and a nest of Tree Bumblebees! I got down off the ladder very smartly when I discovered those!
We ringed a brood of four Blackbirds that were in a nest on a ledge in a brick building, and a brood of four Blue Tits. The small size of this Blue Tit brood illustrates how cold and tough this spring has been so far, and the Blue Tits are obviously struggling to find enough food, and hence the small brood size. 
Blackbird chick
We had a look on the wetland, but as you would expect at this time of year it was quiet, and then we had a walk to an area of woodland with a nice 'purple haze' of Bluebells. Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff singing in this area, but no nests found.   

Purple Haze
When we go back next week, we will check some Swift boxes that we know have Tree Sparrows in them, so hopefully a few broods to ring next week.

Saturday 15 May 2021

Silent Spring

It certainly has been a silent spring so far, and I know I have 'banged' on about it already, but it is very worrying. It has been so cold, that vegetation growth has been very slow to grow, in fact the vegetation looks more like it does in late winter/early spring, than mid-May. Walking along the cliff tops, with Gail, in northwest Cumbria yesterday, there was very little evidence of much growth, other than some of the flowering plants. Similarly, in the uplands, this lack of growth and low temperatures is playing havoc with the breeding season for upland waders. And it is quiet, very quiet!
Earlier in the week, I was back in Bowland at my client's farm with GT, having a look (again) at some of the breeding wader fields. Stopping off at various spots as we drove round it was very quiet, with a distinct lack of any activity. There had been a spurt of growth brought on by recent rain fall, and dare I say it, by a slight increase in temperature, but not by much. As such, the ground conditions were now starting to look reasonable in terms of sward height, diversity of structure etc, but still very little activity. It might just be that these birds are going to be late this year, rather than not breeding at all, so I suppose we will have to wait a little later to see what happens. 
We are certainly seeing various bits of unusual, or should that be unseasonal behaviour, and as we walked round the farm, we came across a flock of at least 30 Meadow Pipits in some damp pasture for example. This flocking behaviour is more indicative of early spring, as these birds move to northern and upland breeding haunts, so are they just late?!
Whilst watching the Meadow Pipits, GT picked up a male Hen Harrier that gave a magnificent fly past and entertained the three of us for a minute. Earlier, and higher up the farm, we had been treated to a male Cuckoo singing away from some overhead wires. Sadly, I didn't have my camera with me, there's a lesson there somewhere, but it thrilled my client nonetheless. 

Yesterday, Gail and I completed a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) on the coast in northwest Cumbria. We completed the survey under full cloud cover, with a light northerly wind. Further to my comments about the cold, slow spring that we are having, a few finches were still on the move, which is getting late now, and we had four Goldfinches, three Linnets, three Siskins and nine Lesser Redpolls over. Part of the area that we were surveying, is perfect nesting habitat for Linnets, and as a result we counted 31 birds in this area. 
Within the survey area are three small arable fields, and it was pleasing to see a pair of Grey Partridges in the spring cereals, as well as a pair of Skylarks. Whitethroats were singing from patches of bramble and scrub, and we recorded five singing males, plus a further three other birds that remained un-sexed. The only other summer migrants we had were two female Wheatears, three Swallows and a singing Chiffchaff
The site holds at least three pairs of Stonechats and we saw a male carrying a large caterpillar, that he would have undoubtedly been feeding young with. A further two singing Skylarks were encountered, and the only raptor we had was a male Kestrel
I haven't seen any Swifts close to home yet, but on our way home we had around 20 Swifts along a section of road that runs alongside the Rivers Derwent and Marron. The classic poem about Swifts is by Ted Hughes, but I like Robert Macfarlane's words about Swifts from his book 'The Lost Spells' with Jackie Morris:
Spin, world spin!
Swifts are here again,
shredding the sky in
their hooligan gangs;
those handbrake-turners,
those wheelie-pullers,
those firers-up of
the afterburners,
so - 
Whirl, birds, whirl!
You havoc-wreakers,
thrill-seekers, you
gung-ho joy-bringers,
you drifting, gliding
so - 
Imagine, now, imagine!
Just how far and fast
these Swifts have
flown to be here;
the deserts crossed
non-stop, the seas
traversed, the mountain
ranges spanned,
so - 
Fly, heart, fly!
Follow Swifts on their
screaming tours to
flicker far out over ocean,
hunt a storm-cell's
shifting edge or pierce
a cloud's slow-motion,
so - 
Think, now, think!
If one year Swifts
did not appear;
the sky unriven,
rooftops silent, all
the watchers waiting,
hoping for a gift
that stays ungiven,
so - 
Spin, world, spin, and 
send Swifts back
and back and back
to us again!   

I think I'll leave it there.
Primroses (above & below)


Monday 10 May 2021

Boxes - Part One

Yesterday, Alice and I made our first visit to check our Pied Flycatcher boxes in Bowland. The weather was perfect for checking boxes in as much as it wasn't raining, always a bonus, and it was neither too warm or too cool. 

The second box that we checked had smashed Tit sp. (probably Great Tit) eggs in it, and I was a little puzzled as to what had gone on. Surely if it had been predated, the predator would have taken the eggs. Then I got to thinking, not if the sitting female was the target of the nest raid! If you look closely at the picture of the carnage I found in this particular box, you can see some feathers of the adult bird. 

We had another two boxes like this, and on these two boxes there were feathers smeared around the inside of the hole entrance into the box. As Alice pointed out, all three boxes that were predated were fairly close to the river, or certainly at a lower altitude in the valley. This is the first time that I have had this happen in 20 years of monitoring at this site. I have seen it another site that we used to monitor in the Lune valley, and the suspect there was a Weasel or Weasels! It only happened over the course of one breeding season, and was never repeated, and we surmised that it was something that an individual Weasel had learned to do, but once it had presumably died, the predation stopped. And I think it is the case at our site in Bowland. Fingers crossed we won't lose anymore. 

That was the first bit of bad news for the site, as by the end of our check we noted that the occupancy rate of the boxes was very low, and I was prepared to stick my neck out and say perhaps the lowest ever, or certainly in recent years! 

I decided to have a look at the percentage occupancy of our boxes over the last five years. I applied the same methodology to define occupancy for each of the species that nest in our boxes. For Pied Flycatcher I classed a box as being occupied if there was a complete nest as a minimum, and for the Tit species and Nuthatch, I classed a box as being occupied if there were warm eggs as a minimum. I had to apply a different methodology/classification for the Pied Flycatchers v. resident species, because of the difference in timing of breeding. You can see the results below.


Date of first visit

No. of boxes

% occupancy


12th May




13th May




4th May




10th May




9th May



From the above, you can see that the perecentage occupancy of the first visit for this year is substantially lower than any of the previous four years. Of course, this isn't robust statistically, but it does back up my 'gut feeling'. It will be interesting to see how things develop over subsequent visits.
We had seven pairs of Pied Flycatchers occupying boxes, which is probably just about average, or maybe even on the low side, so it will be interesting to see if any more birds arrive, as they can arrive late if it is a cold/late spring. 
Pied Flycatcher nest
It is within the Tit species that the occupancy rate was particularly poor, and we only had four boxes occupied with Great Tits, and this figure includes the three predated boxes as I suspect they were Great Tits, and four boxes with Blue Tits. We had a pair of Nuthatches on eggs, in the box that they have used over the last few years, which is made from recycled plastic silage wrap!
Nuthatch nest
Singing in the woodland, or on the woodland edge, as we checked our boxes were Willow Warbler, several Blackcaps, Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, and Pied Flycatcher of course. On the river were a pair of Common Sandpipers, and a female Mallard trying to keep her brood together, in the fast-flowing water that had been swelled by recent rain. 

More boxes later in the week, and I'll let you know how we get on with our Pied Flycatcher boxes next weekend.

Friday 7 May 2021

Waders Again

Yesterday, Gail and I were back in Bowland doing a second breeding wader survey on my client's farm. It was rather chilly when we set off, with a biting north-westerly, but at least the skies were clear.

Brown Hares are always a feature here, and it was a pleasure to encounter at least fourteen on our walk. As we headed along the track through the wetland complex, seven Tufted Ducks were on the pools, all of them breeders, and a pair of Common Sandpipers were on the main pool. They also nest on some of the stony substrate alongside the pools. 
Tufted Duck(s) above & below

As we headed uphill towards the fell that forms the northern boundary of the farm, we came across a male and female Wheatear, in what looks like suitable breeding habitat. I managed to get a couple of shots of the male Wheatear on a gate post, before a Stoat running along an old ditch-bank flushed him. Or it seemed that way, and it might just have been a coincidence. I got one grainy shot of the Stoat, as you can see below, before it disappeared. 
Wheatear (above & below)


Willow Warblers sang from the hedges lower down, and from some of the scattered copses higher up, and a Raven 'croaked' overhead, as it flew back and forth. No crippling views of Cuckoo today, but a distant male 'Cuckoo-ing' was reassuring that hopefully they will breed once again on the farm. 

Our estimates for breeding wader numbers were similar to last time, and we estimated that there were 10 pairs of Curlews, 11-12 pairs of Lapwings and 5 pairs of Oystercatchers on this section of the farm. The Lapwings were very quiet, and I suspect that they were brooding tiny young because of the cold weather, or were in the final stages of incubation. It's been a funny old, late spring so far, as I have said a few times already!
Some of the wader fields
The forecast is grim for tomorrow, rain from first light all the way to late evening, so it's a night for a few real ales, I think. And looking in my beer fridge, it looks like I'll be travelling from West Yorkshire to the Hebridean island of Colonsay, via glorious Dumfries and Galloway! 
Nest boxes on Sunday...hopefully!

Monday 3 May 2021

Three Different Days

As I sit here at my computer on Bank Holiday Monday, looking out of the window, it is decidedly dreich, so the perfect opportunity to look back on three different days from Friday - Sunday. 

Friday morning, I was back at my wintering bird survey site with some freshwater marsh, but this time it was to complete the first of three breeding bird surveys (BBS). It was a calm, overcast morning, and when I got to the site at 6:00 a.m. there was a ground frost! However, as soon as the sun moved in-between the marsh and the sky, the frost disappeared. 

I thought I might have had a few more warbler species this morning, but in the end my BBS maps just showed two singing Blackcaps and four singing Sedge Warblers. The Sedge Warblers reflecting the area of wetland habitat of course. Reed Buntings were expected, and recorded, with 2-3 pairs on the marsh.

I added another summer migrant to my (invisible) list of new arrivals in the form of a single House Martin, and two Tree Sparrows were along the last hedge that I surveyed. 

I just wanted to mention that I have at least two Hedgehogs coming into my garden nightly, and they are eating all the dried cat food that we leave out for them. In return, they leave several 'deposits' in and around the feeding station as a thank you! We wouldn't have it any other way.

On Saturday morning, Alice and I tried our luck in the Willow scrub at the pools again. The water levels had dropped once more, and instead of just managing to put 60 feet of net up, we managed to get 100 feet up. Did we manage to ring many more birds with this increase in netting? Barely!

At first light we had clear skies, and it was calm, so apart from the clear skies it was perfect for ringing. As I hinted at before, we didn't have a brilliant ringing session and only ringed three birds; one each of Lesser Redpoll, Reed Warbler and Reed Bunting. Just one recapture, and that was a Reed Warbler, so it was a morning of quality, rather than quantity. 
Lesser Redpoll
Reed Warbler

As we were putting the nest up, we did so to a background of calling/singing birds that included, two Cetti's Warblers, two Sedge Warblers, three Whitethroats, a Blackcap and a Whimbrel that called from somewhere on the scrape. 
The only 'vis' that we had was a light passage of Swallows and Sand Martins north, that numbered 14 and 4 respectively. As always, there was probably more than this, but when you are disappearing into the reeds at regular intervals to check the nets, you miss quite a bit of what's going over. 
Between net rounds, a very confiding Song Thrush was feeding round our parked cars. I think what was attracting him/her, was the short sward created in the area we park our cars, so it was easy to forage for invertebrates. On several occasions he/she flew off carrying food towards the marina. 
Song Thrush
Yesterday morning I headed to the coastal farm fields, and when I arrived at 5.45 a.m. the weather wasn't too bad. I had about 7 oktas cloud cover, with a light south-easterly wind. After a couple of hours, the skies blackened, the wind increased to a blustery westerly, and I had both hail and rain!
Black cloud over my vis and sea watch point
As I was pulling on my Muck Boots at the back of my car, I could hear Pink-footed Geese calling fairly loudly, and I looked up to see a skein of 130 heading north. They are starting to get a bit late now. That was the first bit of vis that I had, and there were a few other species on the move including two Linnets, three Rooks (where were they going), 18 Black-headed Gulls, a Lesser Redpoll, a Tree Pipit, 22 Swallows, a White Wagtail and four Goldfinches. Out of the 22 Swallows that I recorded, nine of these I picked up with my telescope heading north out at sea. Migration in action. 

The sea delivered the usual suspects, but in low numbers, and with some species missing (no Skuas for example), and my totals included 9 males & 2 female Eiders, 21 Sandwich Terns, two Cormorants, 72 Common Scoters, two Red-throated Divers, six Gannets, six Red-breasted Mergansers and an Auk sp. I also had an Atlantic Grey Seal that was taking its time to devour a large fish!
At 7:20 a.m. three Whimbrels dropped on to the foreshore, and fed alongside a tidal pool, before calling it a day ten minutes later, and continuing their northwards journey. I had a walk round the farm fields after the sea quietened down, or became even quieter than when I started looking, and all I could add to my notebook was three singing Sedge Warblers, a singing Skylark, a singing, or should that be a 'rattling' Lesser Whitethroat and a 'reeling' Grasshopper Warbler
Two of the three Whimbrel that dropped in (above), and the three leaving 


I called in at the cemetery on my way home, no migrants as such other than the Swallows that nest in the chapel, but a juvenile Mistle Thrush looked funky and punky, with bits of sticking out down here and there. It was time to return home for a coffee.
Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of April. During April four new species for the year were ringed and these were Willow Warbler, Lapwing, Sand Martin and House Sparrow. below you will find the top two species ringed for the month, and the 'movers and shakers' for the year.
 Top 2 Species Ringed in April

1. Lesser Redpoll - 151
2. Sand Martin - 29

Top 10 Movers and Shakers

1.   Lesser Redpoll - 154 (straight in)
2.   Linnet - 60 (down from 1st)
3.   Blue Tit - 50 (down from 2nd)
4.   Chaffinch - 48 (down from 3rd)
5.   Sand Martin - 29 (straight in)
      Great Tit - 29 (down from 4th)
7.   Goldfinch - 27 (down from 6th)
8.   Coal Tit - 26 (down from 5th)
9.   Robin - 18 (straight in)
10. Blackbird - 12 (straight in)
It's still dreich as I look out of the window again, and it's forecast to be dreich tomorrow, but that means that I'll be able to have a few pints of real ale this evening!