Monday 28 February 2022

Upland Scrapes

Before I get on to the subject of upland scrapes, I just wanted to comment on my header picture that you might have noticed of a stylised Blue Tit in Ukrainian colours. This is the work of a brilliant bird artist in Orkney called Tim Wootton, and if you click HERE, it will take you to Tim's Facebook page, where you can view his superb paintings, and if any take your fancy, there's also the opportunity to purchase them if available. Tim came up with this Ukrainian Blue Tit artwork, for anybody to use in any way at all, to show support and solidarity for the people of Ukraine. 

Moving on from my close encounters last time, in addition to sharing a moment with the mighty Peregrine and the not so humble Robin, I did record a few other bits and pieces. Like at another of my recent survey sites, something unknown to me had put the Wigeon up, and I had a flock of 120 flying round, before heading southwest, presumably towards some grazing marsh on the Ribble. Ten Teal and twelve Shelducks were also flying the wildfowl flag.

I have talked about Stock Doves recently, and on this afternoon, I had a flock of 59 drop in and feed on one of the winter wheat fields. In fact, they outnumbered the Woodpigeons by nearly 4:1! 

A few Lapwings were on the move, perhaps spooked by whatever spooked the Wigeon, and I had a flock of 145 go over. Looking over my notebook, there isn't really any else worth mentioning other than a couple of Kestrels, a Jay, 32 Rooks and two Mistle Thrushes perhaps. 

I have talked about one of my clients before, who has an upland farm in Bowland, and some of the great conservation work that he carries out. One of the things that he has done this winter is to put some more scrapes in, and you will see from the picture below what the scale of them are. I can't wait for the birds to return now. I will be using my recently purchased thermal imaging scope to monitor productivity of the breeding waders, by hopefully being able to find all the nests and chicks.
In early Feb I visited the farm to see how the scrapes were looking, and whether they had bedded in a bit more, and they have. I also wanted to have a look at the wader fields to see how the grazing over-winter had faired, and whether it was looking good for the spring, and I am pleased to report that it was looking very good. We just need the birds now.

It was a very blustery day, NW 5, so I didn't see much on my walk round, which was okay, as I had my head to the ground a lot anyway, assessing the sward height in various locations. As usual, I had a croaking Raven fly over, and 30 Fieldfares were feeding away in one of the pastures. I did have a Snipe on the new scrapes, so that was good.
Just looking at a notebook from 2013, I can see that on 1st February 2013 I had a female Smew at the Nature Park, that my good friend Ian found. All my notebook says is "Smew - female - 1530/1550". I wish I had said a bit more about the sighting, as the old grey matter isn't as good at recalling these events as it used to be! It was certainly a good bird, and I'm pretty sure that was the last Smew that I saw. I certainly can't recall seeing any since then anyway. So, another would be good! 

Thursday 24 February 2022

Close Encounters

When I'm doing my surveys, whether it's a breeding bird or wintering bird survey, I like to carry a camera with me just in case. It might be to 'snap' something that presents itself to me as a photographic opportunity, or perhaps to capture the landscape in a certain light. I'm no photographer, just an opportunist 'snapper'. 

Lately though, I do find myself capturing more and more images with pen and paper, if that makes sense. I'm no Jim Crumley, Seton Gordon or Robert Macfarlane, but I think I'm better at painting with my pen, than I am with a camera, or dare I say it with paper and paint! 

When I wrote the above words in my notebook, I was at one of my wintering bird survey sites in northwest Lancs sitting on, or is that in, a field margin with my back against a sheep netting fence, with that dreaded strand of barbed wire across the top, ready to snag some unsuspecting, or less cautious, creature.
About half an hour earlier, I was stood at my first VP over-looking a fairy intensively farmed landscape; bright green 'improved' pasture, or bright green winter wheat, for as far as I could see. This particular VP is next to a small pond, that I put nine Teal up from as I walked towards it. Nine 'high pitched, clear ringing whistles' sprang into the air, and circled round before dropping on to another pond. This pond is fairly grotty looking, it was discoloured, and from a water quality perspective I suspect that it will have been full of nitrogen and phosphate. No lovely tussocky field margin here affording it some protection!

I digress. As I was stood sentinel at my VP, I picked up a large-ish raptor flying from left to right, and getting ever closer to me. I lifted my bins, and it was a Peregrine, and a female at that. As she got closer, I had to strain my neck more and more from the horizontal to the perpendicular, and she flew straight over my head. 

As she flew over me, I could see her turn her head to look at me, and we exchanged glances. Our eyes met, granted I was looking through some optics, but I was fully aware of her, and her of me. For those few seconds we looked at each other, and we shared everything. The same space and time, the weather, the feel of the wind on our faces, but most importantly, we shared a moment where we were both aware of the other's presence. It doesn't get better than that. Encounters like this, though often fleeting, are very special to me. It is an immense pleasure, an honour even, to share a moment like that with such an amazing bird as a Peregrine. You don't forget moments like that. 

Funnily enough, as I sat getting cold after making some notes on my Peregrine encounter, and my muscles started to ache after sitting on the floor, a Robin came to investigate me, as they often do. It's easy to anthropomorphise what the Robin was doing, or what it thought of the large, khaki lump sat on the floor. I suspect it thought that I was some sort of animal rooting amongst the vegetation for food, and that I might turn over the soil to reveal a juicy morsel that it could feed on. Nevertheless, still just as lovely an encounter, whatever the reason for it.

The Robin

Monday 21 February 2022

Wot No Woodpigeons

I did a suite of surveys running up to the end of January, and didn't record any Woodpigeons! Off the top of my head, this must be a first, as I would say that Woodpigeon is one of, if not the, commonest species that I record. I suppose this is the beauty of these surveys, where you are recording every species that you see and hear, and not just cherry picking the interesting stuff for your notebook!

I was stood at one of my VP locations that is close to a small copse, and that 'piebald forester', aka a Great Spotted Woodpecker, was drumming away. I can add 'Great Spot' to the growing list of birds that are singing now as we slowly approach spring. Looking out of my window as I type, it's hard to believe that the first Wheatear will be at the Obs in less than three weeks! 

At one of my other sites, where my first VP overlooks a fishing lake, I added a new species to the list of species that I have recorded at this site during the wintering bird surveys. I have completed twelve surveys so far at this site, and this morning was the first morning that I recorded Gadwall, and two males and females were on the fishing lake. 

Pink-footed Geese have been a constant at this site, in fact the reason for the surveys in the first place, but they have all been fly-overs, just like this morning, when 515 went over. I mentioned in a recent post about the help I received from a Buzzard in counting the Wigeon and Teal on various ponds, and it was the same again, although I don't know what had spooked them, but I counted 81 and 29 flying round respectively. 

I had a record winter count for Lapwing for the site, when I recorded 340 in total, and an adult Med. Gull amongst the 'Black-heads' was a new species for me, for the site. Jackdaws and Rooks numbered 117 and 66 each, and 78 Skylarks still foraged in the stubbles. 
As I mentioned in my previous post, wintering thrushes were foraging for invertebrates here as well, and I encountered 26 Redwings and 77 Fieldfares feeding with Starlings in the wet winter wheat fields. A count of 26 Pied Wagtails was another record count for the site, but I could only find 19 Linnets
A couple of days later I was in southwest Lancs under complete cloud cover, with a light south-westerly wind. One of the first signs of spring for me is the return passage of Common Gulls, and once you get into late January these superb Gulls start appearing in numbers, and on this morning alongside 60 Black-headed Gulls I counted 37 of them. 
Common Gull
No Fieldfares this morning, but a singing Mistle Thrush and 54 Redwings had to do, and Stock Doves only numbered four. Raptors were only represented by a Kestrel and a female Sparrowhawk. Those were the highlights leading up to the end of January, and I must admit that I am looking forward to spring now. 

Saturday 19 February 2022

From Moss To Marsh

I've mentioned before that at this time of the year wintering thrushes spend most of their time foraging for invertebrates. There are two reasons for this; firstly, by late winter there are very few berries left on the hedgerows, and secondly, fruit alone can't provide all the protein and vitamins that the birds require.

I came across some of these invertebrate foraging thrushes, when I was out on one of the mosslands in southwest Lancs a few weeks ago, carrying out a wintering bird survey, in the form of 94 Fieldfares and 115 Redwings. Mistle Thrushes were very active too, and on my transect I recorded three different birds singing. 
Mistle Thrush
One of the most numerous red-listed finches that I encounter during wintering bird surveys is the Linnet, and this might be because of the habitat that I am surveying in. On this survey I had 108, with some of them perched up on some telegraph lines over a stubble field. Another red-listed farmland bird that I recorded on this visit was a new record for me, for the site, and this was a group of three Yellowhammers that flew over me calling. Yellowhammers are one of those species, along with species such as Goldcrest, Corn Bunting, Tree Pipit, Grey Wagtail and Redwing etc, that birders of a certain age can no longer hear. I am a birder of a certain age, but thankfully I can still hear them all clearly! And long may it remain so. 

I mentioned in a previous blog post about how numerous Stock Doves now seemed to be, and I had just eight during this survey, but I did have 92 Woodpigeons, which is more than I have had of late. Raptors were thin on the ground, with just a single Buzzard and a male Sparrowhawk.
A few days after encountering these invertebrate feeding thrushes, Gail and I had a walk along the quay close to home, looking over the mudflats and saltmarsh. The area of mud within the quay is the last to be covered on the estuary when the tide is running in, and is also the first to be uncovered when the tide is running out. So, if you time it right, there can be a number of Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits here. 
Black-tailed Godwits - wot no head!
We did time it right, purely by chance, and spent some time watching 104 Black-tailed Godwits and 59 Redshanks feeding on the mud before the tide covered it. I love watching the Godwits feed, as sometimes they push the entirety of their long bill and head right into the mud, in pursuit of a juicy marine invertebrate!
A female Peregrine was sat in her usual roosting spot during a high tide, and as it was a cold day, we had a chippy lunch in the cafe overlooking the mouth of the estuary. Chips always taste better when you're cold and hungry! 
I read in a recent British Birds (BB), that a team of European researchers has calculated how many breeding birds have been lost from the continent since 1980. Their analysis suggests a net population loss of around 600 million birds, with House Sparrow suffering a loss of at least 50%, the equivalent of 250 million birds. Think about that, 250 million less House Sparrows in just 40 years, that's staggering! Cousin of the House Sparrow, the Tree Sparrow, lost 30 million birds! Another frightening loss. 
There were huge decreases in other formerly abundant species including 97 million fewer Yellow Wagtails, 75 million fewer Starlings and 68 million fewer Skylarks. 
Interestingly, the authors of the report calculated that a staggering 900 million birds have been lost during the period, but this has been offset by an increase of c. 340 million individuals of a few expanding species. 
When populations were compared by habitat, the highest total losses were seen amongst farmland and grassland birds, which isn't surprising. Long-distance migrants such as Willow Warbler and Yellow Wagtail have declined proportionally more than other groups, and in my own county, Yellow Wagtails are now virtually extinct as a breeding species. 
There was some good news however, in that the rate of decline has slowed in the last decade, and the authors think that the EU Birds and Habitat Directives may be having an effect. Also, seven species of raptor have increased in recent decades with greater legal protection and the reductions in organochlorine pesticide use.
The emphasis for everybody, not just the conservation organisations, should be to try and prevent extinctions and recover species abundance.

Friday 18 February 2022

A Quiet Month For Ringing

January was a very quiet month for ringing, and I only managed to complete two sessions at the feeding station. As I've mentioned before, the feeding station is located on a good friend's farm near Garstang, and is situated on the edge of some woodland. In addition to the feeding station, and associated area of ancient semi-natural woodland, there is a wetland that can hold good numbers of waders and wildfowl.
Before I get into what we did, or maybe that should be didn't catch, it's worth mentioning some of the birds that I recorded on the wetland and surrounding area. On the wetland there was a staggering 424 Lapwings, 180 Teal, 34 Mallards, 19 Shovelers, a Little Egret and 21 Wigeon.
I never seem to have time to stand and observe birds coming to the feeders because I'm usually busy extracting birds, so it's the old ears that come into play to record anything slightly out of the ordinary, and I heard both Brambling and Siskin in the vicinity of the feeders. There was probably in the region of a dozen Tree Sparrows coming into feed, but that's probably a gross under-estimate. 
Feeding in some of the sheep grazed pastures were 40 Fieldfares and 25 Redwings, and a couple of Ravens knocking about is worth mentioning. 
Below I've combined the totals for the two ringing sessions to make it easier (recaptures in brackets):
Chaffinch -10
Blue Tit - 5 (10)
Great Tit - 14 (3)
Tree Sparrow - 2
Robin - 2 (1)
Coal Tit - 1
Greenfinch - 1
Dunnock - 1
Blackbird - 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker - (1) 
Blackbird - 1
Coal Tit
I purchased a new bit of kit this past week, a HIK Micro Owl thermal imaging scope, that I intend to use for monitoring productivity of breeding waders, as well as for ringing some target wader species at night. The thermal imaging scope/camera enables you to find birds based on their heat signature. I'm looking forward to using it in 'anger'. I'll let you know how I get on.  
Thermal imaging scope/camera

Sunday 13 February 2022

Breaking Radio Silence With Three In One

I do apologise for my lack of posts of late, but it's because I have been so busy in the field, I haven't had time to sit at my computer and update my Blog. I'm not complaining, as I would rather be out in the field, and not have enough time to catch up indoors, rather than the other way round. In fact, I have been so busy, that I haven't even had time to send the results of all my surveys in. Hopefully, I will remain behind with that, because if I did catch up it would mean that the weather would have been awful, preventing me from getting out. So, I apologise once again, because my next few posts will certainly be playing catch-up!
The 'three in one' that I refer to, are three wintering bird surveys that I completed in mid-January at three of my sites in northwest Lancs. On the 11th January I was stood under 4 oktas cloud cover, with a light NNW wind, and I was counting geese. Three species; one wild/native and two domesticated. These were a single Canada Goose, 30 Greylag Geese heading north, and 1,312 Pink-footed Geese heading anywhere between south and east, but mainly north. 
There are several ponds within the large arable areas of this site, and I always hear both Teal and Wigeon calling from these ponds, but I rarely see them. I am loathe to walk up to them to have a look, because I don't really want to disturb them. However, a Buzzard did that for me on this morning, and 74 Wigeon and 21 Teal wheeled round before settling down again on the ponds. The fishing lake just held a pair of Mute Swans, 61 Mallards and 30 Coots
On the large arable field behind my second VP, there are usually a good number of mainly small Gulls, and I recorded 185 Black-headed Gulls, with three Common and fifteen Herring Gulls amongst them. Corvid numbers weren't as high as usual, with just 50 Jackdaws and 72 Rooks worth mentioning. Even the Skylarks feeding in the stubbles seemed to have reduced in numbers with just 22. 
Wintering thrushes are still around in reasonable numbers, and I came across two Song Thrushes, 21 Redwings and 99 Fieldfares
The following day, I was on a farm near Wrea Green, that I have talked about before carrying out my monthly survey for them. I had six oktas cloud cover, with a moderate westerly wind. I have never seen any Pink-footed Geese feeding on this farm, but as usual being relatively close to the Ribble I had a few Pinkies just after first light dispersing to various foraging areas, and I had 606 head north. 
I enjoyed the reflections in one of the ponds on site
Just two species of raptor, two Buzzards and a female Kestrel, with a noisy Jay calling from the strip of woodland. 
One of the reasons that I enjoy doing these surveys so much, is that you get a real feel for the number of birds present at a site, particularly when you look at the totals at the end of the survey. So, if I was just casually birding this site, a Blue Tit here or there wouldn't make it into my notebook, but the total of 13 that I recorded along the length of my transect did. 
Wintering thrushes were still present in reasonable numbers here as well, but the totals for each species was very different to that of my survey site the day before. I had three Song Thrushes, a Mistle Thrush, 66 Redwings, 15 Blackbirds and only one Fieldfare. The Redwings are now fielding in the arable fields, looking for invertebrates, as they always do at this time of year. 
Referring back to my comments on Blue Tits, there was a similar picture for Robins with 14 birds recorded, including nine singing birds. Eight Tree Sparrows, a Grey Wagtail and 28 Goldfinches are also worth mentioning. 
Two days later, I was at the third of my northwest Lancs wintering bird survey sites, and the one where I record a number of Brown Hares, and this morning was no exception, as I counted twelve of these cracking mammals from my two VP locations. 
Brown Hare
Like my first site that I mentioned above, this site also has a number of ponds within the arable landscape, that I hear Teal calling from, but never see them, other than the handful that I usually put up from the pond that my first VP is located beside. I'm not sure what did me the honour of flushing the Teal this morning, but I had 73 of these beautiful small ducks flying around before settling again. 
I was having a conversation with my mate Ian recently about Stock Doves, and how we both seem to be recording a lot more now, and how scarce they were when we first started birding 46 years ago. A quick look on the BTO website, under the section 'BirdTrends' reveals:
 Following release from the lethal and sublethal effects of the organochlorine seed-dressings used in the 1950s and early 1960s, Stock Dove populations have increased very substantially. Numbers appeared to level off in the early 1980s, but the trend has been generally upward since the 1990s except for a sharp drop in numbers early in the current century. The BBS map of change in relative density between 1994-96 and 2007-09 indicates that increase has been strongest in western and eastern Britain, with decreases in midland regions. An apparent initial increase in nest failure rates at the egg stage, now reversed, was not detectable in farmland habitats alone. Overall, nest failure rates have fallen substantially since the 1980s and there has been a major increase in the number of fledglings raised per breeding attempt. There has been an increase across Europe since 1980. Woodward, I.D., Massimino, D., Hammond, M.J., Barber, L., Barimore, C., Harris, S.J., Leech, D.I., Noble, D.G., Walker, R.H., Baillie, S.R. & Robinson, R.A. (2020) BirdTrends 2020: trends in numbers, breeding success and survival for UK breeding birds. BTO Research Report 732. BTO, Thetford.
Below is the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) Stock Dove graph for the UK that illustrates this increase. 
BBS UK graph 
I recorded twelve Stock Doves along with 100 Woodpigeons, but you will see in later posts that at this site the number of Stock Doves increased. It's nice to have a good news story for a change!
Waders are scarce at this site, mainly because there isn't really any habitat for them, so 46 Lapwings and a Snipe over is pleasing to report. Just one raptor this morning, in the form of a male Kestrel, and it got me thinking, what is it about raptors and electricity pylons?
When doing bird surveys, more often than not, I will find a raptor perched either on top of the pylon, or further down, if there is a 'shoulder' as part of the construction of the pylon. I regularly record three raptor species on top of pylons; Buzzard, Kestrel and Peregrine. Other species use them as well, but Corvids, Woodpigeons, Stock Doves, finches and pipits etc. seem to prefer to perch on the cables, particularly if they are above good foraging habitat. In fact, there is some positive correlation between Corn Buntings, overhead cables, and nesting and foraging sites. Starlings are the most numerous passerine that have a penchant for perching on top of pylons. Perhaps I'll have to start a 'pylon' list! 

There were few Corvids around this morning, but two 'croaking' Ravens heading northeast were as always, a pleasure to see. I don't see many Skylarks at this site, but I did have 15 heading northeast, and twelve Blackbirds were the only thrushes that I recorded. Bullfinches are far from common in this part of Lancashire, so it was good to encounter the regular wintering bird that I have been recording at this site. 

Next, will be an update on our ringing activities at the feeding station during January. 
Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group for January. It was a slow start to the year, but more of that in my next post. The top two species ringed during January were Great Tit and Chaffinch, with totals of 14 and 10 respectively.