Friday 25 March 2022

The Return of the Viking Army

At this time of year, our avian Norse visitors start gathering together in flocks, feeding frenetically, laying down fat to enable them to return to Scandinavia. This Viking army consists of Fieldfares, Redwings, Starlings, Blackbirds and even Linnets, as some of our Linnets that winter in northwest England, breed in Orkney, a Viking kingdom of old. These Vikings are very much a part of spring migration as they are of autumn migration, but I suppose in the autumn we look forward to, and herald their arrival, but tend not to in spring. It's the same with our summer migrants, it's their arrival, and not their departure that we celebrate. 
Of course, the Vikings didn't just come from Scandinavia, they settled in Iceland and Greenland too, and earlier in the month when I was completing a late wintering bird survey on the west Lancashire mosses, a flock of five Whooper Swans flew over me heading north. Their ultimate destination will be Iceland, but these birds won't be heading that far just yet. 

Woodpigeons are still flocking, and feeding in numbers on the mossland, and I had a flock of 409 perched up in some tall willows surrounding a group of ponds and alongside drainage ditches, out on the moss.  

Towards the middle of March, I was back in northwest Lancs at two of my wintering bird survey sites. Site number one, closest to the Ribble, was very quiet indeed, and the highlights here were probably some of the encounters I had with the six Brown Hares that I recorded. There are a few shots below of some of these gorgeous animals.


I recorded nearly thirty bird species during the survey, but I'm struggling to pick out any highlights. Raptors were thin on the ground with just two Buzzards, and the Viking army certainly wasn't gathering here, with just a single Fieldfare and Redwing. 

The following day I was at site number two, which is probably mid-way between the Ribble and the Wyre, and it was here that I encountered the returning Viking army. 

It's nice to see this area of arable land starting to come to life with at least four pairs of displaying Lapwings, and six singing Skylarks. A flock of 23 Common Gulls is worth mentioning, as is the three Buzzards that I recorded. In fact, the Buzzards were the only raptors that I had. 

It was a cold morning with clear skies, and the 15 - 20 mph south-easterly wind was biting, so much so that I had to move my VP slightly. By the nature of what they are, VPs are often exposed, but I managed to move towards the lee of a hedge close by, without it having any impact on the results. 

In front of this VP is a stubble field, and it was here that the Viking hordes were gathered. The most numerous being the 1,453 Starlings that foraged in the stubbles, with a supporting cast of seven Redwings, 215 Fieldfares and 81 Linnets. Below are a few shots of some of the Fieldfares.

This Viking warrior was watching me very closely!

It won't be long before these birds are winging their way back to Scandinavia.

Monday 21 March 2022

First Spring Vis and the Last Feeding Station Ringing Session of the Winter

Meteorologically speaking, the first day of spring is 1st March, and astronomically speaking it is 20th March this year, and from a birding perspective, the first day of spring to me, is when the first migrants start going over on visible migration. This can be in late February, but it is usually in March, and funnily enough this year it was 1st March, corresponding with the meteorological first day of spring! 

On 1st March, I started my survey under 2 oktas cloud cover, a light north-easterly breeze, and with a ground frost at first. The relatively clear conditions, and light north-easterly breeze will have encouraged some early visible migrants to move. Flying in to a light head-wind increases the airflow over the bird's wing, this creates more lift, and all with less effort. The ground speed can be compromised if the wind is too strong, but when it is light, it is perfect. Also, cooler air is denser, and this creates more lift. 

So, what of the visible migrants on this morning? There weren't many of them, but what few there were, were very noticeable. First up, was a flock of 21 Woodpigeons heading northwest. These birds were high, and flying with a real sense of purpose. Hard to describe, but they just looked like, and were behaving like, birds on the move. 

Two Carrion Crows were doing similar, and just by their flight action and 'feel', I knew they were migrants. A single Grey Wagtail and single Siskin heading north in the 'stratosphere', were also very obviously visible migrants. Like I said, not many, but visible migrants they certainly were.

Interestingly, all the Pink-footed Geese that I had, 219, were all birds heading south from roosting areas on the Wyre Estuary, to inland feeding areas. However, it won't be long before I see the first high flying, northward bound skeins of Pinkies. 

Even though most of my wintering bird surveys are VP based, I do like to have a look at any interesting bits of habitat, and I noticed that there was a pond that I hadn't had a look at. So, I had a walk over, and the pond was actually larger than it looked on the map, and it held a pair of Tufted Ducks. Worth the look. 

Continuing with the spring theme, the displaying Lapwings that I had in one of the large arable fields added to the spring-like feel, but then a flock of 198 in the distance that were obviously flushed by something, gave it a winter feel again! I suppose at this time of year, it is a tug of war between winter and spring. 
Only two species of raptor this morning. Possibly five Buzzards and three Kestrels. I say 'possibly', because you can't always be certain how many individuals are involved. 

I've mentioned before that there is a Rookery forming part of the southern boundary of this site, and it was very active. I did a few counts through my scope, and the maximum number of Rooks that I recorded active within, over or around the colony, was 91. 

Numbers of Skylarks have certainly dropped, as birds have dispersed to nesting areas, and I had five singing individuals this morning, plus a further 13 still feeding in the stubbles. Also feeding in the stubbles were 948 (very precise count) Starlings, three Redwings, 113 Fieldfares and 176 Linnets.
Fieldfare (above & below)


A few days later, Gail and I had a very quiet ringing session at our feeding station near Garstang. We had planned that this would be the last one of the winter. We had clear skies with a north-westerly wind that very quickly picked up, and within an hour it was really too breezy to continue. 
We ringed 6 birds as follows (recaptures in brackets):
Great Tit - 2 (2)
Tree Sparrow - 2 (1)
Goldfinch - 1
Chaffinch - 1 
Blue Tit - (1)

Robert and Diana, our friends that have the farm, also have some feeders outside their kitchen window, and during the morning Tree Sparrows were flying to and from our feeders to theirs, and it involved at least 15 - 20 birds. 

We had a look on the wetland after we had packed up, and there were 20 Black-tailed Godwits, 150 Teal, 9 Coots, 8 Shovelers and 55 Wigeon. It was then time to retire to the farmhouse kitchen for a warming coffee. 

I read an alarming snippet in a recent British Wildlife that stated that research had revealed that the carbon emissions released by bottom-trawling of the seabed amounts to one billion tonnes per year; 47.7 million tonnes of this comes from trawling in UK waters. To put that in perspective, this is more than double the emissions associated with UK livestock, and the UK ranks fifth among the world's worst offenders, with trawling accounting for an estimated 13% of terrestrial emissions. Quite shocking really!

Friday 18 March 2022

Nest Box Maintenance

In late winter we always carry out our annual nest box maintenance work at our Pied Flycatcher and Tree Sparrow sites. Over the past few weeks Gail, Alice, John, Robert and I have been busy repairing, replacing and re-numbering our boxes.

First up, was our Pied Flycatcher scheme in the Hodder Valley in Bowland. Presently, there are 41 boxes there, and this number was maintained by replacing eight dilapidated boxes. All the boxes are now in tip-top condition awaiting the arrival of the Pied Flycatchers from Africa. There were no surprises in any of the boxes, as there sometimes can be, other than a hibernating queen Wasp sp., who was left in peace to continue with her slumber. 
Walking through the woodland here we came across lots of Scarlet Elfcup and Yellow Brain fungus on some of the fallen deadwood. The only birds that I entered in my notebook from here was a Woodcock and two singing Goldcrests.
Scarlet Elfcup
Yellow Brain

Our Tree Sparrow site is on a friend's farm near Garstang. Earlier in the year Robert and I put three Tawny Owl boxes up, but it was the Tree Sparrows turn this time. We put some additional boxes up on some of the buildings in the yard, as there is a healthy Tree Sparrow colony centred on the old buildings in the yard, and others on hedgerow trees and in the woodland. I enjoy providing nest boxes, as it is a really positive bit of conservation work that has huge benefits for the populations of some of our cavity nesting bird species. 
Coming soon to a box near you (Pied Flycatchers above & Tree Sparrows 

The beautifully 'feathered' Tree Sparrow nest

We just need to wait now.

Pre-roost Gathering

There are two large Starling roosts relatively close to me; one at Leighton Moss RSPB, and the other under north pier at Blackpool. As the Starling flies, the closest is the one at Blackpool, and it was at one of my wintering bird survey sites that Starlings were gathering on pylons, and then heading west towards this roost. 
These Starlings feeding in some stubbles at one of my wintering bird survey
sites, will almost certainly be roosting under the pier!
I was doing an afternoon survey up until dusk, rather than the more usual from dawn, and as the day lengthened, and the sun lowered in the sky, Starlings started arriving from the east, and heading to the west. Some stopped off on electricity pylons and wires, while others just poured overhead. I counted 11,132, but this was certainly an under-estimate. It was definitely a spectacle though!
The survey had been quiet, although three singing Song Thrushes was noteworthy, and perhaps I should make mention of the Kestrel that was knocking about.
My next survey a week later in southwest Lancs, was another afternoon to dusk survey, and as these afternoon surveys often are, it was quiet. Another thrush species featured, with two singing Mistle Thrushes and a further four feeding in some stubbles. Also in the same stubbles were 25 Skylarks, 28 Linnets and 67 Redwings
A flock of seven Yellowhammers was a good record for the site, and 197 Jackdaws heading to roost at dusk was perhaps more expected. 
The following day I was back out at first light on a farm near Wrea Green, that's doing lots of great conservation work, and I've mentioned this before, but they've employed me to do a suite of wintering bird surveys, followed by breeding bird surveys, so they know what they've got, and perhaps what they can do to improve the farm for farmland bird populations. 
It was thrushes again that were the feature and I had a good count of 241 Redwings, plus two Song Thrushes and eight Blackbirds. I'd had the odd sighting of Yellowhammer over the winter, so it was good to hear a male singing away from a hedgerow on the farm. It would seem that they are just about hanging on as a breeding species in this area. 
A few days later I had another trip over to the northeast, and on a cold frosty morning I had a few more birds than I did last time at this wintering bird survey site near Middlesbrough. I won't beat about the bush, or try and drag it out, I just had a Stock Dove, six Curlews, 13 Carrion Crows, 22 Herring Gulls over, four Skylarks, nine Long-tailed Tits, 58 Fieldfares and three Siskins. Nothing amazing, but an improvement on last time. 
An update on nest boxes next.

Wednesday 9 March 2022

Northwest To Northeast

You've probably guessed that I am busy playing catch up with the Blog. The weather in February was particularly poor, and in terms of my Blog it was feast or famine. When the weather was poor, I was stuck inside with nothing to report, and when it was good, I was busy outside doing survey, after survey, with no time to write about it! Such is life!
We've also got to that time of year again, when wintering birds are slowly heading back to breeding grounds, pairing up, starting to sing etc., in short, preparing for spring, and it's too early for any migrants. A similar thing happens in late summer, when there is that gap between the ending of the frenzied breeding season, and the arrival of autumn migrants. It's almost like a pre-equinox flatline! 
As I mentioned at the start of my blog, I am playing catch-up, so here I am returning to early-mid February, and starting off with two sites in northwest Lancs; one closer to the Wyre estuary, and the other closer to the Ribble estuary. Starting with the former site, I noticed an increase in Buzzards in comparison with the rest of the winter, when I had four birds that were very active and interacting with each other, obviously a bit of spring behaviour. Other raptors consisted of a single female Sparrowhawk, and a single Kestrel.
Forming part of the southern boundary of this site is an area of woodland, that is host to a fairly larger Rookery, and the Rookery is starting to get quite active. I suppose Rookeries remain active for most of the year, as during the winter Rooks and Jackdaws will roost at Rookeries, and some quite impressive pre and post roost flights can be observed. However, the activity was all down to the Rooks today, as 103 of them were noisily busy around their nest sites, and I don't doubt there would have been a few repairs being done to old nests in readiness for the forthcoming breeding season. As you know, Rooks nest early, and young can be in the nest from late March onwards, so with a 15-day incubation period, and 3 - 4 eggs laid, by early March the nests need to be in good shape.  
I also recorded the Rooks larger cousin, when I had two Ravens messing around in a field not too far from the Rookery. I have had a few Ravens at this site on and off all winter, and as I have said many times before, I never tire of seeing Ravens. A flock of 32 Redwings was notable, and a flock of 76 Linnets were still feeding in the stubbles. 
As I touched on before, most of my birding of late, in fact nearly all of it, has been done when I have been out completing bird surveys for my day job. Just thinking about this for a moment, there aren't that many bird surveyors/Ecologists that are also keen amateur naturalists, which I think is quite sad really. Ecology is often seen nowadays by many young people purely as a career. Nothing wrong in that you might say, and to a certain extent I agree, but by a lot of people it is viewed as a career alongside banking, the civil service, accountancy etc., or any other career you can think of. This doesn't mean that you can't be a good Ecologist if you're not an amateur naturalist as well, but I sometimes think that if you're not, then some of the passion is missing. However, I must point out that I do know several young people who are both cracking Ecologists and passionate amateur Naturalists!

Where am I going with this? What I am trying to say is, that because most of my excursions into the field of late have been all work related, then there is more pressure, and not enough time to 'stop and stare'. And even less time to put pen to paper. 

I'll give you an example. A Skylark singing above a field of winter wheat this morning was reduced to an S., with a circle round it, to denote 'singing Skylark'. What I wanted to do was stop and stare, and above all else as it's a Skylark, listen! Marvel at that 38-gram beauty climbing into the sky, so high that you can hardly see it, and pouring its heart out, as the notes fall to the ground as if in some liquid form, and I half-expected to feel the notes on my face.  


There's a guy that I have got to know at this site, and on most mornings that I am there, he is walking his two gun dogs. We always stop for a chat, and talk about what we have both seen lately. I was stood at my first VP on this particular morning, and a Skylark was singing away, and as he walked up to me, he said "listen to that, absolutely beautiful", and he's right. He then went on to tell me that he had made a request that at his funeral, hopefully long in the future, he is going to have Skylark song playing as mourners enter the chapel, and I thought that was lovely. 

The following day I was at the latter of my sites, the one closest to the Ribble estuary. I saw fourteen Brown Hares that morning and 49 Shelducks. This particular site is good for Brown Hares, and as they have been pre-occupied with romance, they have come very close to me when the males have been chasing the females. Watching the female 'boxing' away the male's attention at close quarters has been magical. In fact, they have been within ten metres of me, so close that I haven't been able to reach for my camera. But I can reach for my pen after the moment, and capture the image in writing!
Never mind the legs, look at those ears!

I love the way Brown Hares move, especially when they move slowly, when they have that loping gait, almost as if their legs and feet are too big for them, or that they will carry them off at great speed at any moment. Irish birder Anthony McGeehan in his excellent book Birds Through Irish Eyes, described Red Kites as "...big, lanky basketball players. Gangly at rest, with long limbs and a loping gait...", a description that fits equally well with Brown Hares. 
At this time of year, Shelducks are moving from the coast to inland breeding sites, and on floods they often gather in numbers before dispersing. And my count of 49 of these large black, white and reddish-brown birds was notable for the site. Their markings are simple; dark green (looks black at a distance) and white, with a reddish-brown strip at the breast, contrasting with a dark red bill and legs. Stupendous! I still think less is more when it comes to plumage details on some of our most beautiful birds. Think Avocet, Magpie, Pied Wagtail or Gannet even. Just a few contrasting colours that look fantastic. 
The northeast reference in my title refers to a site that I have been asked to complete wintering bird surveys at near Middlesbrough. I'll complete two in February and March, and the rest of the surveys will be completed in October to January next winter. The site is an area of rough grassland with Birch Scrub, in the middle of an industrial complex. 
It was a clear frosty morning when I completed the first survey, and it was a pleasure just to be wearing boots, rather than wellies, as the ground was frozen hard, and also because it is a dry, sandy site. I didn't really have anything noteworthy during this first visit, just lots of fly-over Gulls, and at species level twelve Stock Doves and a female Sparrowhawk
There's more to come in the next few days.
Over on the right you will have noticed that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of February. Two new species were ringed during the month for the year, and these were Reed Bunting and Brambling. Only 17 birds were ringed during February, so I haven't produced a top ten ringed during the month. However, you will find the month's 'movers and shakers' for the year below.

Top 2 Movers and Shakers

1. Chaffinch - 17 (up from 2nd)
2. Great Tit - 14 (down from 1stt)