Friday 29 April 2022

Yet Another Trickly Spring

I'm not sure whether 'trickly' is an actual word or not, but it does describe the migration during this, and recent springs. Every year of late, the spring starts cold and dry, before turning wet and warm, just as sub-Saharan migrants, like Pied Flycatchers, are hatching. And by trickly, I am referring to the pace and volume of the spring migration. Birds are just trickling through in small numbers, rather than surges that we used to have. When we have a spring like this, migrants tend to filter through and straight on to their breeding grounds, and large coastal movements that excite birders are bypassed. 
I have been exceedingly busy of late, with wintering/migrating and breeding bird surveys, in fact too busy to update the Blog. So, apologies for that. I'll try and bring you up to date, but I apologise in advance that it might get a bit lengthy.
Even though all my survey sites are away from coastal hotspots, I have nevertheless been able to observe the trickly spring. A couple of the farms that I have been surveying all winter, and into spring, are arable farms and there has been a lot of activity from displaying Lapwings. At one farm in northwest Lancs, I had six pairs displaying over one of the large arable fields, and it is a joy to hear and see these amazing waders. Skylarks have been similarly busy, and on the same farm in mid-April up to eleven Skylarks were singing their hearts out from the skies above. 
Hirundines have been just trickling through, with low numbers of Sand Martins and Swallows heading north. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have been the main warbler migrant at this time, and on this particular farm I had four each singing away. Willow Warblers have been thinner on the ground, with just one exception that I'll come to later, and on this morning, I only had two males singing. 
Changing the subject slightly, one or two Hedgehogs are regular in our garden every night, visiting the feeding station for a helping of dried cat food. When I get up in the morning, if it is starting to get light when I leave, I have to block the entrance to the feeding station as a local pair of Herring Gulls pull the newspaper out, in attempt to get to any left-over food, and shred it before it then blows around the garden!

Talking of the garden, on the 14th April I had two good birds in the form of a Raven that headed southeast and a Great Spotted Woodpecker that headed west. I can't think how many Ravens I have had from the house, but it's probably in single figures, but the Great Spot was only my second record! 

As this trickly spring has moved on, I have been adding various new summer migrants for the year, and on 15th April I was surveying a farm near Wrea Green in the Fylde, and I had my first Garden Warbler for the spring. It might have been two, because I had one singing bird, and then another, but equally it could easily have been just one bird moving around. Other warbler species during the morning were just seven Chiffchaffs and two Blackcaps. 

I had my first Whimbrels of the year, when a group of five headed north, and my first House Martin of the year, when it too headed north. Thirteen Tree Sparrows was a good count, and it was pleasing to note a singing Yellowhammer that seems to be holding territory on the farm. Besides all the singing that was going on, other evidence of breeding included a Coot sitting on the nest on one of the ponds, and a female Great Tit carrying nest material. 
The following day, Alice and I had a ringing session at the Nature Park, and despite the full cloud cover and light SSE breeze, all we managed to catch was a retrap Blackcap. Interestingly, this male Blackcap was ringed at this site in August last year by Alice as a juvenile, so we know that this bird is exactly one year old. When we ringed it last year, it had probably hatched fairly locally, and now it was returning to the site to nest itself. 
At least five Cetti's Warblers could be heard with their explosive song as we put the nets up, and a Grasshopper Warbler was 'reeling' away, which was another first for the spring for me. A singing Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat were new in, and my first records for the spring, and 40 Pink-footed Geese headed north. Over on the main pool we had a pair of Coots with two young, my first chicks of any species for the year. 
I ran my garden light trap overnight on 16th/17th April and all I caught were singles of Herald, Hebrew Character and Common Plume Moth. I love the white feet of the Herald, that you can see in the picture below.
Herald (above & below showing it's white feet)


Gail and I had a very early start one morning in late April (3:00 a.m. alarm call - ouch) to survey a small area of farmland near Newcastle. It was a glorious morning with clear skies and a light north-westerly breeze, but it was very quiet bird-wise. Singing Skylarks and a fly-by Yellowhammer were the few highlights.  

I mentioned earlier that I thought Willow Warblers had been thin on the ground so far during this trickly spring, and I still think that, but one site that I surveyed bucked the trend, and this was probably due to the habitat. I picked up some breeding bird surveys on a site close to the River Ribble, and it includes about 8 ha (20 acres) of Willow scrub. I recorded at least 14 singing Willow Warblers at this site. Other warbler species were present too, and I had 7 singing Chiffchaffs, 9 singing Blackcaps, 11 singing Whitethroats, and singles of singing Sedge Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. So, a bit of a warbler fest. I'm looking forward to going back in a couple of weeks' time to see if anything has changed. 

I had my first Holly Blue butterflies in the garden on the 21st, when at least two were flitting about. I mentioned an arable farm where I had at least six displaying Lapwings, and by the 22nd at least two females were on the nest. I've got to survey this block of farmland until early July, so it will be interesting to see what the productivity is like. Funnily enough, it was during this visit that I had my first Wheatear for the spring, a single female in a field down to potatoes, at least a month later than I normally expect my first. To be fair, I haven't birded the coast this spring, otherwise this wouldn't have been my first. 

One of my regular wintering bird survey sites over this winter and into spring has been a great place to see Brown Hares, and a few days ago I was completing the last survey at this site and I encountered 21 of these magical creatures. It's not often that I record three species of Heron on my surveys, but on this morning, I had a Great White Egret fly in with a Grey Heron and drop into the dyke, and I had six Little Egrets keeping them company. 
Grey Heron

It's been very hit and miss this site, although there have been some highlights such as Lapland Bunting, Snow Goose, Cattle Egret and Ring Ouzel, but there have been more misses than hits. So, it doesn't take much to lift the spirits and a Grasshopper Warbler 'reeling' from a hedge and ditch just outside the village where I park my car was welcome. 

From my first VP, as the early morning sun was low, it looked as if there were coloured jewels scattered across the field of wheat. I could see white, yellow, orange, red, blue, violet and green, which was in short, the light refracting through the droplets of water on the end of the wheat leaves. I took a closer look at these droplets of water, that looked like a glass globe fastened to the end of the leaf. I photographed a few, and they look like glass baubles with a garden in miniature contained within. Have a click on the pics below and you'll see what I mean. 
Click on the pic to the see the garden within the glass bauble (above & below)

It's great when spring works its magic, and it certainly did in a very simple way a few days ago. It was another early start, at another long-term wintering bird survey site in northwest Lancs, an area of pastoral farmland with associated hedges, ditches and an area of scattered scrub and reeds. I was walking across the area of reed and scrub, when suddenly behind me a Tree Pipit started singing. The site isn't in Tree Pipit territory, but in the lowlands of northwest Lancs as I said, and as I turned round, I could see it perched on top of a Willow singing away. I enjoyed the moment for a short while before thinking about taking a picture, but before I could raise my camera it was off. And as it flew away, it was joined by a second bird. Not a rare species, and I record them on vis every spring and autumn in reasonable numbers, but just great to hear and see it out of context. These two birds had probably just stopped off during migration, in what superficially looked like Tree Pipit habitat.
Another reeling Grasshopper Warbler at this site, but this time on the edge of some woodland, and a supporting cast of five Willow Warblers, four Blackcaps, four Chiffchaffs, four Whitethroats and two Lesser Whitethroats. 
I added two more new species for the spring when I was back at my arable farmland survey site. When I set off to walk my transect I had nearly full cloud cover with a light easterly wind. Adjoining the south-east boundary of the site is a small lake, with a couple of smaller reed-fringed pools, and here there were two singing Reed Warblers, my first for the spring, accompanied by three Sedge Warblers. 
Walking away from this area, I could see a passerine perched up on the fence that looked very chat like even through the naked eye, and as soon as I got my bins on it, I could see that it was a female Whinchat. Nice. In addition to the Whinchat, I recorded a couple of House Martins, three Chiffchaffs, just one Willow Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat, eight Whitethroats, three male Wheatears and a pair of White Wagtails. Nothing mega, but a pleasure to be out as always. 
I came across an interesting piece in the Scottish Ornithologists Club (SOC) e-newsletter, The Hoot, about the colour of migratory birds, and I have detailed the salient points below. 
The recent discovery that migrating Great Reed Warblers and Great Snipes increase their flight altitude after dawn, sometimes by thousands of metres, adds a potential new challenge: overheating. Flying high, where air temperatures are low, could allow migratory birds to dissipate the heat absorbed from the sun during diurnal flights, when there is no way to avoid the sun. If this is the case, migratory birds should also be lighter coloured, because lighter coloured animals absorb less solar radiation, and stay cool even when there is no shade. A recent study encompassing all species of birds found general support for this hypothesis, since migratory birds are on average lighter coloured than residents and long-distance migrants are lighter than short-distance migrants. Interesting stuff! 

Friday 15 April 2022

A Few Decent Birds At Last

As spring progresses, more and more migrants arrive, both in terms of the range of species and numbers of birds, so it was good to catch up with a few decent migrants over the past week. 

I'm going to rewind to this time last week, when I visited my clients farm in Bowland, with some friends and colleagues from the RSPB, to have a look at the breeding wader habitat, and to assess how successful the winter grazing has been. That bit was easy, the fields all looked spot on in terms of sward height and wet features to support breeding Curlews, Lapwings and Redshanks. It just needs the birds now. 

Driving along the track to my client's house, with thick hedgerows on each side of the track, and several feeding stations interspersed along the track, it was great to see numbers of finches flying from the feeders as I drove past. There were Lesser Redpolls, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Siskins and at least 20 Bramblings, maybe more. All good stuff.
Lesser Redpoll
It felt as though spring hadn't quite made it up here yet, as it was still quite cold, and it was obvious that not all of the waders were in. There were several pairs of displaying Curlews and Lapwings, and two pairs of Redshanks was the really good news. We had one pair nest last year, so to get two pairs present this year is good news indeed, and it shows that the habitat management that we put in place last year and over winter is perhaps paying dividends. 
Oystercatchers were still in winter mode, as 20 - 30 were flocking alongside one of the larger pools. A pair of Stonechats were in suitable breeding habitat, and two Ravens, a Buzzard and Kestrel are part of the regular avifauna. I'm looking forward to my next visit in late April when I will carry out a full breeding wader survey. 
One of my wintering bird survey sites is going to be extended into mid-May to cover the migration period, and I will also be carrying out a breeding bird survey at the site following the new BBS guidelines of six survey visits. I was there last Saturday, and this was a combined BBS and migration survey. 
I park my car in a layby and enter the arable farmland by way of a track. The land is very undulating, and from where I enter the farmland, I can see down on to a wet flood that escapes cultivation each year because of how wet is. As I crested the hill and headed down towards the wet flush, I heard a wildfowl call that I knew was different. Lifting my bins, I could see a pair of Garganey flying round. They had obviously been flushed by my outline against the sky. They flew round in a wide circle and dropped back onto the wet flush when I was out of the way. At last, a decent bird, or pair of birds, for the site.
Most of the stubbles have now been ploughed, and there were several Lapwings displaying with that fantastic tumbling display and crazy call. I even saw one Lapwing creating a nest scrape in one of the fields that had been tilled. 
When I was at my second VP, I had my second decent bird of the morning, and it was whilst I was making a quick call to Gail to ask what was for lunch! Gail is used to some of our conversations on the phone stopping when I say "hang on a minute, what was that", or "hang on a minute, just let me count these Pinkies flying over"! This time it was "hang on a minute, that looks interesting", and it was, it was an Osprey heading north. Surprisingly, it was being escorted by a load of Gull wing-men, but it was high, and I suspect that it was managing to sneak through without being seen by any Gulls!
I've mentioned before that a Rookery lies along the southern boundary of my survey site, and it's a very busy place at the moment. I had a count, and there looks to be about 63 occupied nests. It's certainly noisy! 
Even though I had a couple of half decent migrants, generally migrants were thin on the ground or in the air. I had singles of singing Blackcap and Chiffchaff, and the vis just consisted of (all between north and northeast) three Collared Doves, a Skylark, a Tree Sparrow, 31 Meadow Pipits, a Chaffinch, eleven Linnets, a Goldfinch and two Siskins. 
On the Monday, I was at one of my other wintering bird survey sites close to the Ribble estuary that was receiving a survey in April at the request of Natural England. I had full cloud cover, with a light south-easterly wind, and I was hopeful for a migrant or two. 
Amazingly, I had my first Sand Martins of the year when three headed northeast. I say amazingly, as it was 11th April and these were my first 'Smarties'! I have been so busy doing surveys, that I haven't had time to bird my local coastal sites, and hence the very late date for my first Sand Martins. In addition to the Smarties, I had four singing Chiffchaffs, and I thought that was going to be it migrant wise, until I had one of those telephone moments again.
Gail had phoned me to ask me what time I was likely to finish my survey, and I said to her "hang on a minute, there's a thrush sp. perched on top of an Alder". I lifted my bins, and there perched up was a cracking male Ring Ouzel. Superb! Whilst still on the phone to Gail, I ran round the other side of the pond where my VP is located to pick up my scope and tripod up, and ran back round. It was still there, and I had great views through my scope, but sadly it was a little too distant to photograph. 
A heavily cropped, phone-scoped pic of a male Ring Ouzel, that I took in 2010
As I watched it through my scope, I could see it looking round. I love moments like this. It would tilt its head to one side and look skyward, presumably keeping an eye out for predators. After a couple of minutes, it flew over the field of winter wheat to another hedge, where it perched up, and displayed that migratory restlessness, giving that glorious 'chakk' call. The Collins Bird Guide describes the call as a stony clicking' tuck', but I think 'chakk' describes it better. It wasn't there for long, and that migratory restlessness took it into the air, and it was gone. 
The rest of my survey was quiet, but it would be hard to beat a male Mountain Blackbird. There are about twenty local names for Ring Ouzel, and some of my favourites include Ring Blackbird, Heath Throstle, Hill Chack (I'm with that one. At least the good folks on Orkney think the call is a chack), Mountain Blackbird, Tor Ouzel, Ditch Blackie and again from Orkney, Flitterchack. 
I was out surveying most days this week, but more of that in another post. The forecast is looking quite good over this holiday weekend, so hopefully I'll get some ringing and coastal birding in. 

Tuesday 5 April 2022

Back In The Reedbed and Scrub

In the middle of March, Gail and I checked our net rides in the reedbed and scrub at the Nature Park to see if we could actually get in. During the winter months our ringing area floods, and in recent years it has been as late as June sometimes before we have been able to start ringing again after the winter. We guessed that there might be a half-chance, as the area where we park our car wasn't flooded. We ventured in wearing wellies, and surprise, surprise, managed to get to our net rides. There was some water at the lower end of the rides, but there was enough of the rides not flooded to enable us to do some ringing. We took some tools into the Willow scrub with us, just in case we could to do some management work, and we coppiced some of the Willows along the net rides. All we needed now was some decent weather and a few birds. 
There's something magical about being in a reedbed!


The decent weather sort of materialised, in as much as it was calm, but it was cold, and this had an impact on the number of birds that we ringed. We have had three ringing sessions so far, and all we have managed to ring are three birds; a Greenfinch, Chiffchaff and Long-tailed Tit. In fact, the third session that we had, we drew a complete blank!
On the morning of 18th March when all I ringed was a Greenfinch, a flock of 60 Pink-footed Geese and 27 Whooper Swans headed northeast, and other than three Meadow Pipits heading east, and a singing Chiffchaff, this was the only evidence of migration.

Four Cetti's Warblers are regularly singing from the area that our nets are in, and three Reed Buntings were singing also. A pair of Goldfinches were nest building, so some real evidence of birds starting to prepare for the breeding season. 
Reed Bunting
Out on the pools were five Snipe, four Shovelers, 81 Herring Gulls, two Mallards, seven Little Grebes, six Tufted Ducks and 27 Coot

I was back the following weekend, and doubled my catch of the previous weekend by ringing two birds, the aforementioned Chiffchaff and a Long-tailed Tit. The Long-tailed Tit was probably a local breeder, and a male, with evidence of a developed cloaca.
It was another cold morning, but there was evidence of a little more migration. There were seven grounded Redwings in the Willow scrub, and a flock of 37 headed east. Other visible migrants, all heading northeast, included two Carrion Crows, nine Meadow Pipits, three Lesser Redpolls and a Brambling

I was back again on 2nd April with Alice and John, and that was when we drew a blank. A couple of highlights of the morning were my personal earliest ever Yellow Wagtail. We sadly didn't see it, just heard it, and by the calls it sounded like it had been flushed from the ground by some dog walkers. The other highlight was a pair of Ravens that flew over the pools croaking loudly, and being mobbed by a pair of Carrion Crows. 

There's half a chance that we will get out to the reedbed and scrub again this coming weekend, but whether it will produce any birds, who knows, but I'll let you know. 
Looking back to this date in 2017, it was a completely different day for migration. I was at the coastal farm fields with virtually clear skies, with a light north-westerly wind, and there was a good bit of visible migration. I recorded 165 Linnets, 161 Goldfinches, seven Carrion Crows, three Alba Wags, five Siskins, a Lesser Redpoll, four Swallows, a Sand Martin, two White Wagtails and 835 Meadow Pipits all heading north! That's what makes migration so interesting! 

Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of March. Seven new species for the year were ringed during the month, and these were Linnet, Goldfinch, Sparrowhawk, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Lesser Redpoll and Long-tailed Tit.
I haven't done a top 10 ringed during the month, but ten Reed Buntings was noteworthy. Below you will find the 'top 3 movers and shakers' for the year so far.

Top 3 Movers and Shakers

1. Chaffinch - 18 (same position)
2. Great Tit - 17 (same position)
3. Reed Bunting - 14 (straight in)