Sunday 28 November 2021

It's the survey season...

..., or so it would seem, based on the number of wintering bird surveys I have completed of late! Over the past ten days I have completed seven surveys, and had a ringing session at our new feeding station in between. I'm not complaining at all, because it means we have had a spell of decent weather, and long may it remain so. 

In my last post I talked about all the 'Vikings' that were around at the time, and since then there has been more of these Nordic birds arriving, but over the past few days this has slowed down. I am still hearing Redwings and the odd Blackbird moving at night, but the calls/minute that I record as a measure of how heavy the passage is, has reduced. 

I have five wintering bird survey sites this year, and all except one in west Lancashire, near Ormskirk, are close to home. On 16th November, I was at one of my arable sites in northwest Lancs under full cloud cover, with a 10 mph south-westerly wind. At this particular site all the arable land has now been sown with winter wheat, which the Brown Hares seem to be enjoying, and on this morning, I recorded nine of these stonking mammals. 

Watching the Brown Hares reminded me of a poem by Robert Macfarlane about Mountain Hares, but his description of how the Mountain Hare moves is equally applicable to Brown Hares.

Hare, walking, is graceless lollop,
Awkward piston, awkward shunt.
Running, hare smooths sudden into speed,
flows over hill-top, lee-slope - 
Each quick arc a mark of hare, a sign of hope
Absolutely brilliant. Awkward piston, awkward shunt, I love it, such a perfect description! 

Most of my wintering bird surveys are connected to the fact that most of Lancashire falls into what is known as a 'Pink-footed Goose and Whooper Swan wintering area', but the only Pink-footed Geese I recorded were 164 flying over. In addition to the Brown Hares making use of the winter wheat, eight Stock Doves and 176 Woodpigeons were also foraging in these areas. 
Raptors were represented by a female Sparrowhawk, a male Kestrel and two Buzzards, and for the second week running I had a calling Chiffchaff. I mentioned that I had some more Vikings, and this morning was no exception, with six Song Thrushes, 263 Redwings, 13 Blackbirds and 205 Fieldfares present. 
One of my wintering bird survey sites has nothing to do with wintering Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans, it is an enlightened land owner who is interested to know what is on their farm over winter. Again, it is northwest Lancs, and under 7 oktas cloud cover, with a 2 - 3 NW wind, I had a wander along the hedges, round the ponds and through the woodlands, the day after my previous survey. 
I recorded 26 bird species on my wander round, and there were a number of species absent that I'm sure I'll pick up later in the winter. That's the problem with surveying, it is just a snapshot of what you encounter on one particular date, and that's why a number are completed during the winter to try and smooth out the peaks and troughs. 
When I was undertaking this survey, I was recording quite a number of Blackbirds, and I started to think back on other recent surveys, and I realised that I was recording a good number of Blackbirds on all of my surveys. It would seem that there has been quite an arrival of them with Redwings and Fieldfares. Looking through them, I could pick out several continental male type Blackbirds, indicating that a high percentage of the Blackbirds that I was recording, were arrivals from Scandinavia. When I counted up from my survey maps, I could see that I had recorded 23 Blackbirds alongside seven Song Thrushes, a Mistle Thrush, 34 Redwings and ten Fieldfares.
I can't resist photographing Gorse, mainly because it gives you a lift with its 
bright yellow flowers in the dark of winter. And often you smell it first, with 
that delicate coconut scent, before you see it. There was plenty of Gorse in
flower at this site.
My third morning surveying 'on the bounce' found me again in northwest Lancs at my other arable farm under full cloud cover, with a 3 - 4 westerly wind. This was an afternoon survey to cover the dusk period, and throughout the afternoon I was plagued with showers, and some of them were heavy, causing me to scurry to the nearest hedge and take shelter. In fact, I was about to call the survey off as the sun started to set, but thankfully it stopped raining and brightened up. 
Sunset after the rain cleared
I've mentioned before that close to one of my VP locations is a fishing lake that I can see part of, and this morning there were two Gadwalls on it, which was a new species for me for the site. Woodpigeons were feeding amongst the stubble turnips, which is quite a weedy crop, and I had 505 of them, but I could only see two of their Stock Dove cousins. 
I added another new species for me for the site, in the form of 14 Black-tailed Godwits that were heading north. A flock of 42 Skylarks and 53 Linnets in some of the stubbles was noteworthy, and the best of the rest included 138 Black-headed Gulls, a female Sparrowhawk, two Buzzards and Kestrels, 112 Jackdaws, 96 Rooks, a Raven and three Song Thrushes. There's been a few Songies about this autumn on the quiet. 
Last weekend, Alice, John and I had our first ringing session at our good friends Robert and Diana's farm near Garstang. We managed to ring 36 birds as follows:
Great Tit - 12
Blue Tit - 11
Coal Tit - 2
Robin - 1
Chaffinch - 5
Blackbird - 1 (continental female)
Great Spotted Woodpecker - 1
Nuthatch - 2
Treecreeper - 1
The masked bandit, aka a Nuthatch
We were quite busy, so birding records were thin on the ground, but did include 57 Redwings, a Tree Sparrow, a Siskin, a Grey Wagtail, a Lesser Redpoll, a Kestrel and that Fylde scarcity, a Bullfinch. I didn't see the Bullfinch, I could just hear it calling. 
Earlier this week at another of my northwest Lancashire survey sites, this time all permanent pasture with hedgerows, ponds and scrub, I again noticed that there seemed to be quite a few Blackbirds. I counted up, and I had recorded at least 25. Another numerous species was Magpie, and I had 24 feeding in some maize stubbles!  
My second VP is next to a fairly large pond, and for the two hours that I 
was stood there, this Grey Heron kept me company. At one stage I watched it
catch a large frog that was covered in bits of mud and debris from the bottom
of the pond, and the Heron kept dipping the frog in the water to rinse it, before
swallowing it down in one! 
Mid-week I was down in west Lancashire surveying some arable farmland with a mix of stubbles and field vegetables. I was in my position at my VP half an hour before first light, and the first birds that I recorded, were a small group of eight Whooper Swans winging their way north, presumably to some feeding areas out on the moss. Pink-footed Geese were doing exactly the same, and I had 1,221 moving over in various directions. 

I have surveyed this site previously, about 3 - 4 years ago I think, and one of the features then was the number of Mistle Thrushes I recorded, and today was no different, as I had at least five of these beautiful, monster thrushes. The stubbles held a flock of 89 Linnets, and 104 Lapwings and a calling Corn Bunting over were pleasing to note. 

The following day I was back closer to home surveying, and it was Blackbirds and Magpies that featured again, with counts of 19 and 53 respectively! Gail and I should have been out ringing again this morning, but when we got up at 6:30 a.m. a quick check of the forecast before we headed out showed sleet/snow in the forecast where we were going, and very obviously, this isn't conducive to ringing!

And that's about it. I'll be out and about later in the week if the weather plays ball, so fingers crossed for some more decent weather!

Monday 15 November 2021


It's been just over two weeks since my last post, but I have been out and about communing with nature, and that's the reason that I haven't posted for a while, I've been busy with surveys. I just wanted to mention this, as this post might end up being a bit long as I play catch-up. 
At the moment, here in the UK, we have lots of Vikings arriving on our shores in the form of wintering thrushes from Scandinavia, and since the 4th November I have seen over 700 Fieldfares and 1100 Redwings. Most nights of late, if you step outside after dark, you will hear the 'seep seep' calls of migrating Redwings, with a few Blackbirds thrown in for good measure. I've also been hearing Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans as well, more Vikings from Iceland.
I had my first Fieldfares of the autumn on the 4th November when I was undertaking a wintering bird survey at one of my sites in northwest Lancashire. It was a lovely clear morning, with a light northerly wind, and at first light I had a flock of 15 Fieldfares heading north. They were perhaps heading into wind, or reorientating to head towards their favoured wintering area. I also had 302 Redwings during the morning, and they too were heading in a general northerly direction.
Small numbers of Pink-footed Geese moved through during the morning and I had 262 moving in various directions, depending on whether they had roosted on the Ribble or Wyre estuaries. There are a number of ponds on this site, and my notes for Wigeon and Teal say 2+ and 4+ respectively, which basically means I heard Wigeon calling from two ponds and Teal from four! 

The fishing lake held 29 Coots and 35 Mallards, but no singing Cetti's Warbler on this morning. Talking about water, there wasn't half a lot of flood water about after all the rain we have been having of late, and this led to a count of ten Snipe on an area of flooded arable land. The only other wader species that I recorded in any numbers, was a flock of 37 Lapwings heading north. 
Flooded arable land
Raptors were represented by a couple of Buzzards, and the now regular Peregrine keeping watch from an electricity pylon. There were still plenty of Skylarks in what remains of the stubbles, and I counted 40, along with a Tree Sparrow, 17 Chaffinches, twenty Linnets, seven Goldfinches and four Reed Buntings
On 5th November, I had a site visit in north Lancs, where I am working with a friend from the Wildlife Trust, producing a seasonal nature trail for a landowner. The idea is that people staying at the self-catering cottages can walk on self-guided trail around the farm. As we walked the trail after lunch, and updating it for the autumn/early winter version, we encountered at least 120 Fieldfares and 50 Redwings here too. And as has been the case at all of the sites where I have recorded these Viking thrushes recently, there were a few continental Blackbirds, and one or two Song Thrushes with them as well. 
The following day, Alice and I went to our friends Robert and Diana's farm near Garstang to locate where we will operate a winter feeding station from over the next few months. We found a good location between the end of an area of woodland and the adjacent hedgerow, where Robert will put two posts into the ground for us to mount our two 20 kg, six port feeders on.
Afterwards, we had a look on the wetland, and we had a good count of wildfowl. There were 233 Teal, 16 Shovelers, 47 Wigeon and 30 Mallards. A small group of eight Whooper Swans headed south, but they weren't tempted to call in at the wetland. Here too, were some more winter thrushes with 20 Fieldfares and 200 Redwings. The oak tree photographed below, against a brooding sky had a number of Redwings perched in it just prior to me taking the picture.
Brooding sky
A few days later found me on my client's farm in Bowland, where I was checking some of the breeding wader fields, and whether they needed much winter grazing on them between now and the end of the year, and also to have a look at the complex of scrapes that John had put in for the breeding waders. 
The complex of scrapes above (it was a murky mornng), and one of the 
scrapes a bit closer below 


I had a new species for me for the farm, when a Bullfinch flew over calling, heading northeast. A pair of Stonechats were in a rushy pasture, and three Jays were noisily making their presence felt. There were 140 Fieldfares and 30 Redwings here as well, and a couple of Bramblings were additional Viking visitors. 
The 10th saw me at another of my northwest Lancs survey sites, and I had to sit out some fairly hefty showers early on, but they soon cleared, although it remained overcast. On the recently seeded arable fields Brown Hares were fairly numerous, and I had at least ten of these gorgeous mammals. 
Very few Pink-footed Geese moved over, and all I had were 217 heading south. There was still a few Woodpigeons in the hedges and fields, and I counted 98 along with a just a couple of Stock Doves. Five Grey Herons in various locations on my map was notable, but just how many individuals were involved I'm not sure. 
Raptors were represented by a single Buzzard and a male Kestrel. I had been at my second VP for a while, and I had the feeling that something was watching me. I turned round and looked up, and a Buzzard was on top of a pylon with a firm gaze fixed in my direction! 
There might have been a handful of migrants around on this morning, because in addition to the two Song Thrushes, two Mistle Thrushes, four Blackbirds (at least one continental male), 256 Redwings and 392 Fieldfares, I had two Goldcrests and a calling Chiffchaff. Can I stretch this to call it a mid-November fall? Funnily enough, I had another Bullfinch here, again my first for the site, that went over calling, heading southeast. 
Last Saturday I was back at Robert and Diana's farm to put out my 'monster' bird feeders. Robert fitted the brackets to the posts, and the feeders were duly filled and latched on to the brackets. We then headed to the field over-looking the wetland, and as we started looking through and counting the wildfowl, Black-tailed Godwits started to drop in. They were dropping in and feeding in the short-cropped grass along the edge of the wetland, and they fed like mad for a good while, probing the ground with their long sensitive bills, as if they were stitching something invisible to the ground. An impressive 436 of these long-legged Vikings from Iceland graced us with their presence! 
Black-Tailed Godwits (above), and shaky video below!

The feeding station (above), and Peacock butterfly (below) that was on the 
wing during the warm morning conditions

Sunday morning found Alice, John and I at the Nature Park for a last ringing session of the year there, unless there is a Pied Wagtail roost later in the winter. We got there before first light, to get a couple of nets up in the dark in readiness for hopefully some more thrushes. Under four oktas cloud cover, with the slightest of easterly breezes, we switched the MP3 players on, and headed to the ringing station to drink coffee and watch the sun rise, and a fairly spectacular sunrise it was too! 
Sunrise at the Nature Park (above & below)


The MP3 players worked, and we caught a few more Vikings. We ringed 50 birds as follows (recaptures in brackets):

Redwing - 23
Cetti's Warbler - 2 (1)
Reed Bunting - 2
Song Thrush - 2
Fieldfare - 1
Long-tailed Tit - 3 (1)
Greenfinch - 12
Goldfinch - 5
Before it was light, we could hear the magical calls of Pink-footed Geese from their roost site out on the estuary. The sound increased, almost to a cacophony, as these stonking birds greeted the rising sun with excited calls, and headed out to their chosen feeding areas. They must have mainly headed east, as only about three hundred departed to the southwest. In fact, there a are a few fields, that are only a few flaps away from the Pinkies roost site, and it would have been to these fields that these three hundred birds were heading. We had a further 172 over later in the morning, heading east over the river.
As I said before, the MP3 player performing the 'Latvian Love Song' for the Redwings pulled in 247 of these northern birds, along with nineteen Fieldfares, three Song Thrushes and four Blackbirds. At one point earlier in the morning, we had a British race of male Blackbird alongside a continental male, and it was educational to see both alongside each other. 

We didn't really detect any vis other than 28 Woodpigeons west and 31 Jackdaws south, although the twelve Greenfinches that we pulled in for ringing would have been moving beyond the range of our sight and hearing. The best of the rest included a Little Egret and a female Stonechat. 
When we packed up towards lunchtime it had warmed up, and a number
of insects were on the wing like this Common darter
I've got more surveys this coming week, topped off hopefully with a ringing session at our newly set-up feeding station. 

On 14th November 1993 I had a bit of a shock when I was ringing at a finch and thrush roost on my own, at a site near Clifton, Preston. It was a former large country house, with associated woodland and mature Rhododendrons along the drive and formal paths. And it was these 'Rhodies' that provided the perfect structural habitat for wintering finches and thrushes to roost in. The main target species for ringing at this site, was the sometimes large number of Chaffinches that roosted here.

As I said before, I was on my own and I had put up four 60-foot mist nets. In those days I used to make a note of which nets the birds had come from, and on this afternoon 28 years ago I can tell you that 30% of the birds ringed came from the 'south tree drive net', 21% from the 'north tree drive' net, 31% from the 'south gate drive' net and 18% from the 'green gate' net!

It was a bird from the 'south gate drive' net that caused all the excitement, and it was a humble Reed Warbler, a first calendar year bird in fact. Reed Warblers of course aren't rare, but 14th November is a very late date indeed, and it had come from a net that was in front of a line of Rhododendrons, that were in turn on the edge of some broad-leaved woodland. Most unusual!

This was before mobile phones of course, and I wanted somebody else from the group to make sure that I was right, and it was indeed a Reed Warbler and not a rare Acro. I had to furl my nets, drive in to the village to the phone box, and make a few phone calls. The nearest group member to the site was Graham, and he was only ten minutes away, which was perfect, as it only meant keeping the bird for a short period of time. We checked the emargination on P3 relative to the wing, the notch on P2, emargination, primary projection and P2 to wing tip, and all looked spot on for Reed Warbler. Phew! This late migrant was ringed, and released, and sent on its way. I wondered what would happen to it. Would it make it to Africa, or would it winter perhaps somewhere a little bit closer, who knows?

In case you are interested I ringed 32 birds that afternoon/evening, and these were a Goldcrest, a Song Thrush, the aforementioned Reed Warbler, 18 Chaffinches, 4 Blackbirds and a 2CY Sparrowhawk. All good stuff! 
Over on the right you might have noticed that I have updated the totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of October. One new species ringed for the year was added in October, and this was 38 Redwings.
Below you will find the top 5 ringed for the month of October, and the top 10 'movers and shakers' for the year.
Tip 5 Ringed in October
1. Linnet - 72
2. Greenfinch - 56
3. Redwing - 38
4. Goldfinch - 17
5. Blue Tit - 13
Top 10 Movers and Shakers For the Year
1.Linnet - 230 (same position)
2. Lesser Redpoll - 161 (down from 1st)
3. Blue Tit - 144 (same position)
4. Sand Martin - 123 (same position)
5. Goldfinch - 106 (same position)
6. Greenfinch - 82 (straight in)
7. Chaffinch - 81 (same position)
    Great Tit - 81 (up from 8th)
    Meadow Pipit - 81 (down from 6th)
10. Blackcap - 65 (down from 9th)

Monday 1 November 2021

Another Survey Saturday

I was amazed that Gail and I manged to get my last wintering bird survey for October in on Saturday. It's been a week of constant wind and rain, more than a bit dreich, and the forecast was relentless. I had no choice to keep rolling it over to the following day, but by the time we got to Saturday (30th) we were nearly running out of October! 

We had an afternoon survey to do, and we knew we would get wet, but the forecast promised that it would clear as the afternoon wore on. Now, annotating a map with species codes, activity codes and flight direction etc., isn't easy when it is raining! The map very quickly becomes a soggy ball of wet paper! I have a 'weather writer', which is basically an A4 clipboard with a clear pop-up cover, allegedly allowing you to continue to write/annotate maps in the rain. I say allegedly, because in practice they don't work either. There are two issues. One is that it is virtually impossible to write towards the top end of the weather writer because this is where the pop-up cover joins, and it is impossible to hold a pen/pencil upright here! The second issue, is what I call 'wet sleeve' syndrome. If the weather writer is keeping your paperwork dry, as soon as a wet sleeve has ventured under the pop-up cover a time or two, it will no longer be dry. So, we deployed plan B, and that was to have a big umbrella that Gail could hold over us both if it was raining hard, so that I could annotate the maps in relative dryness. And it worked! 
We set off under 7 oktas cloud cover, with a 15 - 20 mph westerly wind, and frequent heavy rain showers at first. The rain eventually stopped, and the skies cleared to at least 2 oktas, and dried us out. Walking across the recently sowed arable fields was a bit treacherous, as the tilled earth had turned almost to a type of slurry with all the recent heavy rain, and every few steps you sank in above your ankles, which was a bit disconcerting! 
With it being a late afternoon survey, I did expect to see a few roost flights of Pink-footed Geese, but with the wild weather we have had of late, I suspect that for the past few days they will have been feeding very close to their roost sites. As a result, we only had 104 go west. 
The most numerous species we recorded was definitely Woodpigeon, and we had at least 94. They were all feeding either in berry laden Hawthorn hedges, or I suspect on the fresh and tender shoots of emerging winter wheat! 
A berry laden Hawthorn hedge along one of the former toll roads that cross
the site. 
Waders were thin on the ground, and all we had were four Lapwings and two Snipe over. A Little Egret heading southwest during late afternoon was probably heading towards a roost site on the river, and as the clouds cleared, and the sun came out, we had three Buzzards on the wing. 

There were a few winter thrushes in the hedgerows, in the form of three Song Thrushes, 22 Redwings and five Blackbirds, and these were joined by a single Goldcrest and nine Long-tailed Tits.

On the arable fields we encountered seven Brown Hares, probably one of, if not my favourite mammal. A Common Frog entertained us at our second VP watch-point, as it made its way from the tilled field, to the grassy margin alongside.
Common Frog
The forecast is looking good, for a change, for the next few days, so it should enable me to catch up on some more surveys.