Monday 30 May 2022

Nest Boxes - Rounds Three and Four

Our two nest box schemes are keeping Alice, John, Gail and I busy at the moment, hence this update covering the last two weekends; rounds three and four in terms of our visits. 
On 21st May we visited our Bowland site for Pied Flycatchers first, and ringed 14 birds. These were seven Great Tit pulli, six Blue Tit pulli and an adult female Pied Flycatcher. We've trapped all the females now, and last weekend we concentrated on the males. More of that later.
Blue Tit in Gail's hands
As usual in this cracking piece of semi-natural ancient woodland we had singing Garden Warbler, several singing Pied Flycatchers of course, three singing Blackcaps, two singing Chiffchaffs and a singing Goldcrest. Interestingly, and worryingly, no Willow Warblers though! 
Male Pied Flycatcher
At our Tree Sparrow site, we ringed 35 birds, and all were pulli: 15 Blue Tits, a Tree Sparrow (the remainder of the brood were too big!) and 19 Great Tits.
The following Monday, Gail and I were in the northeast near Newcastle carrying out the final breeding bird survey (BBS) at this particular site. 
Gail and I watched a pair of Swifts mating on the wing, and neither of us could remember whether we had observed this before. If we have, it can only be a handful of times or less, based on the fact that we couldn't remember! During the act of mating and flying, the two birds together looked a little like a bi-plane, as the male was on top of the female, giving the impression of a single bird with two pairs of wings. Fabulous! 
The best of the rest of the survey, as I am fond of saying, included two singing Skylarks, a singing Whitethroat and a singing Yellowhammer
On Saturday (28th) we were back at our nest box sites. At our Pied Flycatcher site in the Hodder Valley, we ringed 39 birds and all were pulli; 5 Nuthatches, 26 Great Tits and 8 Blue Tits. We also trapped two male Pied Flycatchers in their respective nest boxes. One of these males was ringed at this site on 25th May 2019 in box 18, one of a brood of eight. In 2020, we trapped him in box 4, where he was the father of a brood of seven. In 2021 we didn't trap him at all, probably as a result of the heavy nest predation that was prevalent in the boxes that year.
The biological data that this provides is of immense conservation value, mainly because the data is so robust and complete. If we take this male for example, we know the exact location where he was hatched (box & site etc), the date he was ringed, which boxes he has reared chicks in, we have trapped the female, and we will ring the pulli next week. So, we will have marked and recorded the details of every individual of that family, and we know exactly where that box is, exactly where and when the chicks hatched, and we know exactly how old they are. Powerful stuff! And even more powerful, when you use this date to measure and monitor the effects of climate change on changing bird populations. 
General mist netting to trap and ring birds for example, particularly outside a project, although still providing sound conservation data, doesn't provide as robust a data set as that of a project ringing the pulli and associated adults. I would extend this work if I could to include the Blue and Great Tits, if it was possible to trap the adults without causing too much disturbance, but sadly the Tits aren't as tolerant of what is minimal disturbance. And the bird's welfare always come first before the science.
The voluntary work that I, and other ringers, carry out through catching and ringing birds is of course very enjoyable, but the main reason that I do it, is to 'put something back', to help in the conservation of the birds that I am ringing. I suppose if you were to push me on this, I would say that my 'birding' is what I do for a giggle, in that it is less scientific, and carried out more for pleasure and enjoyment. Although having said that, it is possible to make your birding 'count' from a conservation perspective, and I try to do that as well. 
I nearly forgot, the second male wasn't one of ours, so the details have been submitted to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), via their Demography Online (DemOn) program, and we should find out next week where he is from. More powerful data! 
Over at our Tree Sparrow site near Garstang, we just ringed ten pulli; 4 Great Tits and 6 Blue Tits. We check all the occupied boxes until the chicks have fledged, and it was pleasing to note that all the Tree Sparrows that we ringed have now fledged successfully, and the adults will now be thinking about getting on with a second brood.  
We'll be back at the boxes next weekend, for what might be the final check of 2022.
I received some sad news yesterday, that a lovely man, Bryan Yorke, who also happened to be a fantastic birder, botanist and all-round naturalist, had sadly passed away. This came as a real shock, as I had been reading some of Bryan's blog posts recently. Bryan lived just over the border from Lancashire, though he was a Lancashire lad, in south Cumbria, in fact in the same village that my brother-in-law and family live in, Burton-in-Kendal. 
His blog, I love Arnside and Silverdale, was always an interesting read, whether he was blogging about visible migration over his beloved Hutton Roof, or his home in Burton, or perhaps about ferns and other flora, it was always educational, as well as being royally entertaining. Besides being a great naturalist, Bryan was also a great writer and poet, and sometimes his blog posts included a poem that he had written about the subject he was blogging about, often accompanied by one of his quirky cartoons. 
Below I have posted one of his poems and cartoons from a blog post from April 2020 about a 'confusion' of Willow Warblers.
A 'confusion of Willow Warblers' by Bryan Yorke (above & below)
Flying in the dark through a moonlit sky,
Falling from high like little angels, 
Floating down on a wavering leaf,
The confusion has now begun.
Our dear little Willow Warbler
Daytime closed you were not seen,
Whilst morning waked you plenty,
So tred so soft our leaf explorer,
A 'bouquet' of special prize to us,
Our dear little Willow Warbler
Your music is a descending tale,
Which finish the year 'hou whit',
A choir with pairs sings thy will,
A 'fall' would be a lot of thee,
Our dear little Willow Warbler
Sylvia's hand of lucid intricacy,
You thread that weave so delicately, 
To house and raise a splendid cast,
It's a start to a 'wrench' fulfilled
Our dear little Willow Warbler
I didn't know Bryan very well, but occasionally we would message each other regarding notable bird movements over our respective vis-mig watch points, or about Swifts in his village. Back in May 2018, I was reading one of Bryan's blog posts via Facebook, as I often do if I'm using my phone, rather than my pc, to look at such things, and I 'liked' his post. It was very early, in fact I was eating my breakfast, and at 4:03 am my phone 'pinged' with a message from Bryan that said:
"Seumus, I am not the only mad bugger up at this time!! I normally wake up and have a brew, and catch up a bit with my writings, then try and get back to sleep for an hour or two. Have a great day, Bryan".
I replied:
"You're not! I'm just heading up to Cockermouth to do a bird survey, you too enjoy your day".
A priceless little exchange between two people mad about the natural world, and an exchange that I will now treasure. I send my condolences to Bryan's family at this sad time.
The natural world has lost a great friend, champion and orator, and Hutton Roof will never quite be the same without Bryan's presence in that exceptional landscape.  

Friday 20 May 2022

More BBS and Boxes

A week ago today I had a breeding bird survey (BBS) at a site that I have blogged about all autumn, winter and spring, and my surveys there will be shortly coming to an end, just three more to do. I had full cloud cover during the survey, and the wind was just getting to the top end of where you can complete a survey successfully, with a WSW 4 - 5. 

It wasn't an amazing survey, as surveys go, but a surprise was the flock of 32 Tufted Ducks on the fishing lake. I suspect that Tufted Ducks breed on this lake, as there are some quieter corners, and a few smaller pools associated with the main body of water, but a flock of 32 of these stunning monochrome diving ducks in mid-May, is noteworthy.
Tufted Ducks

What about the breeders? Warblers topped the table in terms of singing males, and I recorded a Willow Warbler, a Chiffchaff, six Sedge Warblers, a Reed Warbler and ten Whitethroats. Six singing Skylarks would hold a good position in the table if it was opened up to all passerines, as would seven Wrens and two Reed Buntings
Male Reed Bunting
I don't think any of the Lapwings have got chicks yet, as I had two displaying birds and a further six loafers. No agitated, alarm calling adults. They had started to nest on the stubble fields, and then these were ploughed, tilled and sowed with either oats or potatoes, so I any early nesting attempts would have been wiped out, and they would have started again. So, a week or two yet before any chicks at this site. 

At the weekend Alice, Gail and I were back at our two nest box sites in the Hodder Valley in Bowland and on Robert and Diana's farm on the fringe of the Fylde, near Garstang. 
The River Hodder
We did a full check of the boxes at each site, and it is looking rather worrying for our Pied Flycatchers, with just five occupied boxes. However, there is a chance that another pair or two could have started during the intervening time, and this would then be about average occupation rate for this site. 
Pied Flycatcher nest
Amazingly, we found a further two boxes with Pipistrelle sp. bats in! Nearly as many Pips as Pied Flys! 
Male Pied Flycatcher
We then went to Robert and Diana's farm to check our boxes there. When we arrived, Robert informed us that he had found two broods of Blackbirds in some of his out-buildings, and two broods of three were duly ringed. One brood was ahead of the other brood by a few days. 
In the boxes we ringed three broods of Tree Sparrows; 4, 6 and 5 respectively. The remaining two broods of Tree Sparrows should be ready to ring next weekend, as should some of the Blue and Great Tits. I'm looking forward to that. 

I've had more BBS to do this past week, including a site in Greater Manchester. This site looks to be on former open cast coal workings, and is now a lovely area of semi-mature woodland, with some more open scrubby areas. It's certainly a good area for Song Thrushes and I had six singing during my survey. Warblers were in fine voice too, with four Willow Warblers, four Blackcaps, three Whitethroats and four Chiffchaffs. 

In fact, I did three breeding bird surveys this week, and the second was on a farm in the Fylde, near Wrea Green. There were two Lesser Whitethroats singing on site, and from a distance you can hear their distinctive 'rattle' of a song, that sounds like nothing else. Before the 'rattle', it is preceded by a scratchy warble, which you can only hear when you are close. It is not often that I hear this bit of the song, but this morning I was close enough to one of the birds to hear it. 

Tree Sparrows were very obvious this morning, and I had at least four juveniles, and a further 13 birds that I either heard just calling, or they flew over calling. Not a bad total. A singing Yellowhammer was noteworthy, and it's a sign of the times when a single singing yellowhammer is noteworthy! 
As always, I encountered some Brown Hares, and this site isn't the best of the sites for Brown Hares that I am surveying at the moment, but it's always a pleasure to encounter any Brown Hares, and on this morning, it was five. One was fairly close on an arable field margin, and I managed a half decent snap or two. Well, at least I think so. 
Brown Hare (above & below)


My third and final BBS of the week was yesterday, another arable farm, and I recorded thirteen Brown Hares here. The wind was a bit gusty from the southwest, and I think this had a bit of a dampening effect on bird song. 
I don't often hear Tufted Ducks calling, but on this site, I have heard them calling several times around the fishing lake. This morning there was a female flying round, pursued by either just one, or two males, and the female was calling constantly. I assume that it is part of courtship etc., but I must look it up.
Sedge Warblers are great mimics, and I have heard them including lots of snippets of other species song/calls within their own song. This morning a Sedge Warblers singing along the dyke was throwing Reed Bunting call into his song, and of course there are a few pairs of Reed Bunts along the dyke!
A Great Spotted Woodpecker flying across a large arable field looked a bit odd, and I can only assume that it was on a foraging trip to provision young in the nest.  

It's boxes again at weekend, and another week of breeding bird surveys. As always, I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

BBS, Boxes and Breeding Waders

Just under a week ago, I had a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to complete at one of the arable farms that I have been surveying all winter and spring. I set off under complete cloud cover, with a light WNW wind; perfect. 

I always record any mammals that I encounter during a BBS, and pretty much anything else if I can identify it, and this morning I had fifteen Brown Hares and a single Roe Deer buck. 

Gadwalls have been a feature of this site all winter, and I have seen them on the lake and along the large dyke that forms the northern boundary of the site. I was walking along the dyke, and I had a female whizz past me, with four males in hot pursuit! I can only see part of the lake from my BBS transect, and therefore could only add a single male Gadwall from there, and I know there would have been more. Also on the lake were 22 Tufted Ducks, 19 Canada Geese, six Greylag Geese and a pair of Mute Swans

Just two species of wader; a Whimbrel calling and heading north, and eleven Lapwings, including two displaying birds. Raptor species were even thinner on the ground, with just Buzzard, but at least there were three of them. 

The Rookery was busy, and with the leaf burst it is hard to see the occupied nests, so 30 was a gross under-estimate. The Rooks obviously have young now, as I could see several birds flying towards the colony carrying food. The local Blackbirds have young as well, as I had a male carrying food. I also had a female Blackbird at a different part of the site carrying nest material, and this pair might well be on to brood number two. 

Skylarks are perhaps the widest spread farmland bird on the site, and I recorded eleven singing birds as I walked round. Warblers were busy singing too, and I had a Willow Warbler, a Chiffchaff, eight Sedge Warblers, a Reed Warbler, a Grasshopper Warbler, four Blackcaps, a Lesser Whitethroat and ten Whitethroats.
There was a trickle of vis, mainly Hirundines, and 21 Sand Martins, 24 Swallows, a Tree Sparrow, two late Meadow Pipits, a Tree Pipit and a Lesser Redpoll all headed north. Male Reed Buntings were very obvious, but I didn't see a single female, indicating that they are probably busy incubating eggs. So, nothing exciting, but then that's not what BBS is about, it's about collecting data, and that's what it said on the tin this morning!
Reed Bunting
On Sunday morning, Alice, Gail, John and I completed our first check of the boxes at our Pied Flycatcher nest box scheme in the Hodder Valley in Bowland. We checked 42 boxes, with the following outcomes, in terms of occupation:

Empty - 19
Nuthatch - 1
Pied Flycatcher - 5
Great Tit - 2
Blue Tit - 4
Pipistrelle bat - 2
Wasp sp. - 2 
Tit sp. - 7
Nuthatch nest
As you can see, we had quite a few boxes that were empty. This is quite normal, as not all the boxes will be as suitable for the birds' requirements as we think they will, as there will be something that the birds don't like. Also, territories come in to play, and every box couldn't be occupied because of the territory size of the various hole nesting species.

Some of these empty boxes will get taken up by Pied Flycatchers I'm fairly certain, as out of the five boxes currently occupied, two were at the cold egg stage (not finished laying the complete clutch), two were incubating, and the fifth was just at N1 stage of nest construction (quarter completed).
We managed to lift both the females from the two nests. One female Pied Flycatcher was a new un-ringed bird, so Alice ringed her (see picture below), and the second had a ring on that wasn't one of ours, so it will be interesting to see where she is from. I'll let you know, when I know.  
Female Pied Flycatcher being ringed
Male Pied Flycatcher

There were at least nine male Pied Flycatchers singing in the piece of ancient semi-natural woodland that we monitor. The males always arrive before the females to setup the territories, and sometimes the females can get held up by bad weather on their migration in Europe, and I suspect that this might be the case here.
Bluebells and Lesser Stitchworts. I love the contrast of the colours
Pied Flycatcher habitat

The boxes occupied by Blue and Great Tits all had sitting females in them, and the Nuthatch had cold, covered eggs, so she hadn't finished laying. 

Occasionally during the winter, when we carry out our maintenance checks of the boxes, we will find a Pipistrelle sp. roosting in one of the boxes, but it is quite unusual to find one in our boxes during the breeding season, so to find two individuals roosting is very unusual. I am fairly sure that these will be males, as during the breeding season they often roost singly or in small groups. I am no expert on bats, and they look like Pipistrelle sp. to me, so if anybody thinks they are something else, please let me know. 
Pipistrelle sp.
All of the boxes will get a second check next weekend, except the two with wasps in of course! We will also be back at our Tree Sparrow nest box scheme as well.

In addition to the box contents, we had a Great Spotted Woodpecker, two Siskins, two singing Garden Warblers, a Chiffchaff, at least four singing Blackcaps and a distant singing Lesser Whitethroat.

On Monday, I was surveying a client's farm in Bowland for breeding waders. The plan was to also find any waders chicks using my thermal imager, and as it turned out the thermal imager was very good for locating Brown Hares, and I found at least 39! I only found one wader chick, a Lapwing, and as the day warmed, it was difficult to distinguish between muck (spread), bare ground and birds based on the image in the thermal imager.
Lapwing chick
There was somewhere in the region of eight pairs of Curlews, seven pairs of Oystercatchers, a pair of Redshanks, nine pairs of Lapwings and a pair of Common Sandpipers. However, it did feel very quiet on the breeding wader front, so I'll go back in a couple of weeks and have another look. 
This site is one of the most regular sites that I see Cuckoos at, but on this visit, I didn't see or hear a single Cuckoo. I had at least six singing Willow Warblers, a singing Sedge Warbler (fairly scarce in Bowland) and my first Swift of the year. 

I've got another BBS later in the week, and as I said earlier, it's back to the boxes at weekend. I can't wait. 

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Quality Not Quantity

I've used the above Blog title before, and probably more than once, but it certainly sums up the Bank Holiday weekend for me. It wasn't just the birds and wildlife that was the quality, but the sites that I visited, and just as importantly, the company that I kept. 
My weekend started on the Friday with a ringing session at the Nature Park. It was another cold spring morning, calm but cold, with a ground frost. In fact, putting the nets up I had to stop frequently and try and get some heat back into my fingers! 
As I was putting the nets up a number of warblers were singing, and I had three Sedge Warblers, a Willow Warbler, three Cetti's Warblers, a Blackcap, two Whitethroats, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Reed Warbler and a Chiffchaff. A male Wheatear was probably the only grounded migrant that I had, and the vis was equally as quiet, with a single Lesser Redpoll and five Swallows heading north.  

Out on the pools, the 21 Coots had seven young with them, and the best of the rest on the pools were eleven Canada Geese, five Great Black-backed Gulls, two Shelducks, 17 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 106 Herring Gulls, two Mute Swans, a Great Crested Grebe, two Little Grebes (two that I could see!), a Grey Heron and a pair of Tufted Ducks. The only raptor I had was a female Sparrowhawk that drifted east. A migrant maybe?
Canada Geese
The ringing was equally as quiet as the birding, probably quieter, and I ringed just four birds (recaptures in brackets):
Song Thrush - 1
Blackcap - 2
Blackbird - 1
Reed Warbler - (1)
Dunnock - (1)
Male Blackcap
The Blackcap that I recaptured was ringed at the Nature Park on 14th July 2019, and we aged it as a '4' male, which means that it wasn't hatched in the calendar year of ringing, but could have been hatched in any year previously. This means that this bird hatched in 2018 at the latest, so he, as it's a male, is at least four years old! 
We encountered him three times at the Nature Park in 2021, between 1st May and 11th July, but we never encountered him in 2020. It might well be that he was nesting in an area of the site away from our nets. 
Saturday morning saw Gail and I checking boxes with Alice and John at the farm of our lovely friends, Robert and Diana, near Garstang. We had 38 boxes to check; 30 Tit/Tree Sparrow type boxes, two Swift boxes (occupied by Tree Sparrows), a Sparrow hotel, three Tawny Owl boxes, a Kestrel box and a Little Owl box. Of course, not all the boxes end up being occupied by the species that you are aiming at!
We found ten boxes occupied by Tree Sparrows, five by Blue Tits, four by Great Tits, five by Tit sp. (Blue or Great), one by a Kestrel, one by a Tawny Owl, one by a Jackdaw, one by a Grey Squirrel and ten empty. 
Jackdaw nest
Kestrel nest

Tawny Owl nest
Eagle-eyed Alice then spotted a couple of nests in what I consider to be fairly unusual locations, although both were in natural sites. First up was a Great Tit nest in a tree cavity. Nothing unusual about that I hear you say, but the tree cavity was only about half a metre above the ground! Very susceptible to predation from mustelids in particular. See picture below. In fact all of the nest pictures included in this post are courtesy of Alice. Anyway, we'll keep an eye on it and I'll keep you posted as to whether it is successful or not. 
Great Tit nest in low tree cavity
The second unusual nest that Alice found was in the Bluebell wood. John had never been in the Bluebell wood before, so we decided to have a walk down and show him what a beautiful area of woodland it was. We'd just crossed the bridge, when Alice stopped, as she'd seen a bird fly from the ground. She didn't get enough on the bird to identify it, but she did find the nest on the ground amongst some Bluebells for concealment. The nest was full of very small chicks, still with their eyes open and whisps of fluffy down on their heads. We retreated and waited for the adults to return, and within a few minutes a Robin returned to the nest. Now, a Robin nesting on the ground was a first for me, but when I looked in the literature it is actually fairly common!

Robin nest

 If Alice hadn't spotted the adult Robin flying from the ground just in front of her, it is possible that we might have stood on the nest! Again, we'll keep an eye on it and I'll let you know the outcome. You can see a picture of the nest below. 
On Bank Holiday Monday I returned to the Nature Park for a second ringing session over the long weekend. It's been such a cold, trickly spring, that I was pretty certain that I wouldn't catch much. However, it was 2nd May, and you just never know!
As three days before, there were a few warblers singing as I put the nets up and they included five Sedge Warblers, six Cetti's warblers, three Whitethroats, a Blackcap, three Chiffchaffs, a Willow Warbler, a Grasshopper Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat and three Reed Warblers. Certainly a few more than the Friday.
On the scrape, I noticed five Mute Swans, which I thought was unusual because there is a breeding pair on one of the other pools next to the scrape, and I wondered why a nesting pair were being so tolerant of five interloping Mute Swans. When I looked at them through my bins I got the answer, as they were all sub-adults with some brown colouration still in their plumage. Mute Swans take four years to reach maturity, so I guess these were probably third calendar year birds. They only stayed for about an hour before taking off and heading west. 
Once again there was very little vis, in fact just nine Swallows and a single Sand Martin. The ringing wasn't much better, but I did catch a bird that made it worthwhile. Nothing mega, but a cracking adult Spotted Flycatcher! Our group has ringed 88 Spotted Flycatchers, and we ringed ten last year, but they were all pulli. This was only the eighth adult that we have ringed, and I think most of the others have been in late summer/early autumn. You can have a look at this beauty below. 
Spotted Flycatcher
Including the Spot Fly, I ringed just four birds as follows:
Whitethroat - 1
Spotted Flycatcher - 1
Chiffchaff - 1
Blackbird - 1  
I read with interest in a recent BirdGuides newsletter that a number of Swallows survived the winter in Britain, which meant that they skipped the usual 9,600 km autumn migration. A risky strategy, that paid off, as undoubtedly some of the over-winterers, if not all, would not have survived the return migration to and from south Africa. 

Professor Juliet Vickery, Chief Executive of the BTO, said that the change in behaviour of these Swallows is one of the most remarkable signs yet of the warming world being caused by climate change. 

The BTO's BirdTrack recording system received almost a hundred sightings of up to 12 individual Swallows by 1st February, with most being seen in the warmer south and south-west of Britain, and also in Ireland. 

Swallows aren't the only species being affected by global warming. The BTO's recent report on British birds and climate change indicated that a quarter of British breeding species might be negatively affected, with the Puffin at severe risk. Worrying news indeed!
Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of April. Six new species for the year were ringed during April, and these were Wren, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat and Song Thrush.
We didn't really ring any individual species in any numbers during the month, other than ten Willow Warblers perhaps. Below you will find the top seven 'movers and shakers' for the year'.
Top 7 Movers and Shakers for the Year
1. Great Tit - 35 (up from 2nd)
2. Blue Tit - 26 (straight in)
3. Chaffinch - 20 (down from 1st)
4. Goldfinch - 17 (straight in)
5. Reed Bunting - 15 (down from 3rd)
6. Blackbird - 10 (straight in)
    Willow Warbler - 10 (straight in)