Thursday 22 December 2022

Feeding Station Blues

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) continues to wreak havoc amongst our bird populations, and after all the deaths within seabird colonies during the summer, wintering wildfowl are the group of birds that are suffering the most with it at the moment. 

As a bird ringer operating under the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ringing scheme, we have to adhere to a raft of new, more targeted, biosecurity measures, and understandably so. It is very important that ringing continues despite of HPAI, to ensure that there isn't a loss of essential data crucial in informing our understanding of this disease, and monitoring changes in bird populations because of it. It is also essential that ringing activities do not contribute to the spread of HPAI, hence the new biosecurity measures that are now in place.
I also have considerable experience in visiting poultry units and the biosecurity measures that are always in place to mitigate disease risk and spread, and I'll come back to that shortly with some personal thoughts and observations on what I think that all birders should be doing, indeed all users of the countryside that move from site to site, to help reduce the spread of HPAI. The problem is, that some birders, and users of the countryside, can be a belligerent lot, and aren't happy to be asked to follow any guidance. Please note that I did say 'some' birders! 
The BTO have divided their guidance and permissions regarding HPAI by activity e.g. seabird ringing, passerine ringing etc, and country e.g., England, Wales etc. And as I only target passerines at the moment, I have to follow the biosecurity guidelines set out for the ringing of passerines. 
I have summarised below the biosecurity measures that we now have to follow:
  • Wear an outer laying of clothing that can easily be sanitised e.g., waterproofs, and disinfect the outer layer, boots and hands (or nitrile/vinyl gloves) on arrival to and departure from the field site.  
  • Sanitise all catching, handling and ringing equipment that has the potential to come into contact with birds and clothes at the end of each session.
  • Sanitise hands and biometric equipment (pliers, rules, scales weighing pots etc) frequently during a session, and at the end of a session.
  • Once a bird bag has been used to hold a bird, it cannot be used for another individual until it has been washed.
As you might expect, the guidance is far more detailed than what I have outlined above, but I wanted you to get a flavour of the biosecurity measures we are now following. In addition to this, it is very important to disinfect boots on arrival, and prior to departing the site, using a recommended disinfectant for HPAI. There are two products that are primarily used, and these are Virkon S and Safe 4. I personally use Virkon S as I have experience of using it visiting poultry units. In addition to boots, it is also important to disinfect car wheels on and off site. 

Prior to Covid, I used to visit free range egg producers to assess the tree planting that the egg producers had undertaken on the hen's ranges. The idea of the tree planting was for enrichment of the birds, and to also provide additional habitat for biodiversity, as the tree planting tied in with particular National Vegetation Classification (NVC) woodland communities. 

At each site, on arrival I disinfected my car wheels via a spray bottle containing Virkon S, and scrubbed and dipped my boots in the disinfectant bath provided by the egg producer. On leaving the site, the same was done again. In addition to this, I also had to wear a set of paper overalls, that were disposed of at the end of the visit and therefore not used again.
I think that some of the above should most certainly apply to birders, who very often visit multiple sites, and it should apply even if not visiting multiple sites. And as I said before, any users of the countryside should follow some of these guidelines as well. 
The guidelines that I think all birders etc should be following are cleaning and spraying of boots on arrival and departure from a site, and also the spraying of car wheels on arrival and departure from a site. If this was followed, it would at least ensure that birding activities weren't contributing to the spread of HPAI. The reason I say this, is that going back to my poultry unit visiting days, it was feet and wheels that were the main vectors of disease transmission between sites, and this applies to HPAI exactly the same. 
So, when you are next out birding, or walking your dog perhaps, please have a think about this, and make sure that your activities aren't contributing to the spread of HPAI.
Now to some birds! I have mentioned before our good friend's Robert and Diana's farm near Garstang where we have nest boxes primarily aimed at providing a safe place to nest for Tree Sparrows, and where we also run a winter-feeding station. The reason we operate the feeding station is to provide over-winter feeding opportunities for the Tree Sparrows, and if we catch some of these birds at the feeding station, it provides us with some excellent data on survival (percentage recaptures). 

In early December, we had our first session at the feeding station, and managed to ring 23 birds, including eight Tree Sparrows. Other species ringed were four Blue Tits, three Great Tits, three Chaffinches, a Robin, a Coal Tit and three Greenfinches

It was a clear, crisp morning and a few Pink-footed Geese were moving about, including the 1,164 that flew over us. It is hard to estimate how many Tree Sparrows were at the feeding station, but it was probably at least thirty birds. Other sightings that made it onto the pages of my notebook included a Kestrel, two Grey Wagtails, a Buzzard and a single Siskin
Pink-footed Geese

I was down in southwest Lancs again towards the end of the first week in December completing wintering bird surveys, and although the weather was glorious over the two days I was surveying, it was very cold with a hard frost lasting all day. Over the two days I recorded of interest 1,436 Pink-footed Geese, eight Stock Doves, 20 Collared Doves, a Water Rail in a reed-fringed ditch, 180 Lapwings, 14 Golden Plovers, 101 Curlews, 78 Common Gulls, five Buzzards, a female Sparrowhawk, a female Marsh Harrier that headed north, a female & two male Kestrels, a Raven, eight Long-tailed Tits, three Song Thrushes, a Grey Wagtail, a Lesser Redpoll, a Siskin, a pair of Yellowhammers and two Reed Buntings
Common Gulls
Grey Wagtail

Towards the middle of the month, we were back at the feeding station and it was another clear, frosty day. Only eleven birds were ringed this time; a female Mallard, three Great Tits, two Robins, two Blue Tits, a Chaffinch, a Tree Sparrow and a Treecreeper

The wetland was frozen solid, so all the wildfowl had moved on.
To finish off I just wanted to wish you all Season's Greetings, and I hope you enjoy the mid-winter festivities. We are beyond the Solstice now, so we can look forward to the return of the light! 

Over on the right you will see that I have updated the totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of the year. Just one species new for the year was ringed during December, and that was House Sparrow. I haven't detailed a top 5 etc. for the month, as only one species made it into double figures and this was the eleven Long-tailed Tits ringed.

Below you will find the top 10 'movers & shakers' for the year:

Top 10 Movers & Shakers for the Year

1. Linnet - 167 (up from 2nd)
2. Sand Martin - 160 (down from 1st)
3. Blue Tit - 118 (up from 4th)
    Greenfinch - 118 (same position)
5. Great Tit - 87 (same position)
6. Chaffinch - 60 (up from 7th)
7. Willow Warbler - 55 (down from 6th)
8. Goldfinch - 44 (same position)
9. Robin - 40 (same position)
10. Long-tailed Tit - 34 (straight in)

Saturday 17 December 2022

Birding in the Real and Virtual World

Over the past few weeks, I have attended two conferences via Zoom, and both were held over several days. The first was the Scottish Ornithology Club (SOC) annual conference, from 25th - 27th November, and the second was the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) annual conference, from 28th November to 3rd December. Both conferences were excellent, with some brilliant, informative, thought-provoking talks and presentations. Conservation science at its best! 

There was a theme to the SOC conference and that was raptors, and the subjects covered included Golden Eagles, monitoring raptors, Kestrels in Ireland, Merlin declines and urban nesting Goshawks in Hamburg, to name but a few. I've picked out a few highlights below from a few days of virtual birding in Scotland and beyond.

Dr Kez Armstrong gave an entertaining and fascinating talk on The Common Kestrel in Ireland. A sobering fact that she gave us, was that 52% of raptors worldwide are in decline. And another sobering fact was that Ireland is capable of supporting 18 species of raptor, but only supports 9. Sobering indeed!
One family of kestrels that Kez followed, removed over 900 rodents from the landscape, which is better than any rodenticide! So, the way forward in controlling rodent numbers is put up a Kestrel box!  

Cat Barlow gave an update on the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project and she told us that one female who was translocated from the Outer Hebrides had a trip to my home county of Lancashire, and was displaying in Bowland for a couple of days before returning to southern Scotland. Twenty juveniles have been translocated so far and all are doing very well. 

At one of the supplementary feeding stations where they put out a deer carcass, they noticed that a male Golden Eagle, not part of the project, was visiting the feeding station fairly regularly and he was ringed. Several photographs later, they managed to read the ring and he was ringed in the nest in southwest Scotland 32 years ago! If he survives until next summer, he will be the oldest Golden Eagle in the wild in the world! Fantastic! 

Dr Gaby Peniche's presentation had an intriguing title that was If you hit a raptor hard enough will it leave a 'dino' sore? What can raptors tell us about the health of the Scottish environment?
Gaby was looking at chemicals found in raptors, pesticides, poisons etc, and she was doing this by carrying out autopsies on dead raptors that had been found, and there were some rather alarming results. 

When she looked for rodenticides, she detected residues in Barn Owls, Buzzards, Golden Eagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Sparrowhawks and Tawny Owls. The lethal level of rodenticide is 0.2 ppm, and she found this in some Tawny Owls. 

In all of the species that she analysed, she found cadmium and lead. They were in low concentrations, but why were they were there in the first place? Similarly, Gaby analysed Golden Eagle chick blood, and the blood tested positive for mercury and lead. Why was it there? There was a higher concentration of mercury and lead in the west, in the Outer Hebrides particularly, but again, why? 
Rodenticides are lethal at 0.2 ppm, toxic at 0.02 ppm and this study found levels commonly at 0.01 ppm in some species. Even at these levels, individuals are more likely to die of trauma, such as collision with buildings, vehicles etc, and shows what an effect low levels can have. 

This was a fascinating talk, and the findings asked more questions, and it is really important that this work is followed up with more research in to why some of these chemicals are finding their way into the wider environment, and ultimately into our bird species. 

Back in the real world towards the end of November I was out at one of my wintering bird survey (WBS) sites in southwest Lancs, just before the cold weather set in. Since I started these surveys in October, most of the Pink-footed Geese have been flyovers, but I had a group of 580 on the ground this morning. They were breaking all the rules, and obviously hadn't read the handbook about the displacement effect of woodland when foraging! These birds were feeding very close to a large area of woodland, which just goes to show, what do we know?!
Pink-footed Geese
Two of my favourite members from the pigeon family are Stock Dove and Collared Dove, and on this morning, I had 196 and 26 respectively. In fact, it's been a while since I have seen as many Collared Doves as this. 
Lapwings were fairly numerous, and I had a flock of 300 feeding in a short-cropped field, as well 492 that flew over. Seven Little Egrets was a site record for me for the short time I have been surveying it, and just two species of raptor were present during the morning, Buzzard and Kestrel, with two of each. 
Little Egret

The following day we set the feeding station up at our friend's farm near Garstang. After we did that, we had a quick look on the wetland and there were 300 Teal, 30 Wigeon and a male Shoveler
I was then back in the northeast in Teesside for another WBS and it was a misty morning, but just clear enough for me to see the 14 Oystercatchers, three Grey Plovers, four Ringed Plovers, eight Curlews, Bar-tailed Godwit, 16 Dunlins and 66 Redshanks feeding out on the mud on the falling tide. A female Stonechat was present on site, and I also had a Water Pipit, which was my first of the winter.
I was then back in the virtual world for the BTO conference, and the conference week kicked off with a presentation by BTO CEO Professor Juliet Vickery on Harnessing the Power of Citizen Science. Juliet's talk did what it said on the tin, and there were some impressive stats about the number of hours that volunteers for the BTO put in, such as over 2 million hours of volunteer work per year, which equates to 1,247 staff years! 

Spreading the citizen science definition further, it was observed that an increase in ring recoveries reported by the public was an early warning system that something was wrong. Members of the public were reporting more ringed Great Skuas and Gannets, and this was followed by the confirmation of the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). 

There's a big push by government to plant more trees in the UK, to sequester more carbon to help combat climate change. However, there are right places and wring places to plant trees, and John Calladine talked about Waders and Woodland: what you have done towards resolving a conservation conflict. There have been a number of incidents in recent years, where tree planting has been carried out on land that is good for breeding waders. And of course, tree planting and breeding waders don't mix, as at worse, the trees are planted directly on prime nesting habitat so this is no longer available to the waders, or trees are planted adjacent to breeding areas which can then have a displacement effect, as the waders won't nest close to trees as they can't see the approach of avian or mammalian predators when on the nest. 
What John and his colleagues have managed to do by analysing all of the survey data provided by volunteers, or citizen scientists, through schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), is to map the breeding wader density on a landscape scale for the UK, and produce wader zonal maps that show the distribution of breeding waders. This means that trees can be planted in the right places, and avoid disturbing nesting waders. A win, win situation! 

What isn't a win, win situation is the continuation of mass Pheasant releases that is having an adverse impact on our native biodiversity. And this doesn't include the potential spread of HPAI that releasing over 60 million Pheasants and Partridges will undoubtedly be contributing to. 

A Belgian study has demonstrated a link between the mass release of Pheasants and the disappearance of lizards and snakes from the environment. The research also found that stopping the release of Pheasants in an area led to recolonisation by a widespread species of lizard within a few years. 

The researchers made extensive field studies at six sites at which Pheasants were mass released. Regardless of how many visits they made, no reptiles were found at any of the sites. By comparison, an average of more than three species of reptiles were recorded at sites not subjected to gamebird releases in the same area. 

Secondly, at a site where Pheasants were released in 1999, no Common Lizards cold be found within a 2.5 km area. In 2011, a few years after the Pheasant releases had stopped and the birds had died out, Common Lizards were detected in four out of the five sections. To ensure that this wasn't a coincidence related to a general comeback of Common Lizards in the wider area, the researchers compared results to the control areas, free of Pheasants. They found that the population had remained stable, suggesting that the presence of Pheasants was key to the abundance of Lizards. 

In addition, the scientists pointed to the absence of Slow-worms from sites subject to mass Pheasant releases as particularly significant. In the research area it is the commonest reptile, and can be present in densities of up to several hundred individuals per hectare, and is easily detected using artificial shelters (tin sheets). For none to be detected in Pheasant release areas, the impact of the gamebirds on reptiles must be huge. As with Common Lizards, Slow-worms were observed to return to areas one Pheasants disappeared. 

Given the evidence presented, as well as previous studies that have shown that mass releases of Pheasants cause significant impacts on the floral, vegetation and invertebrate communities, the authors say that banning Pheasant releases would be the recommended course of action, and I have to agree. Pheasant releases are responsible for the increase in generalist predators, the non-native Pheasants compete for resources with our native wildlife, and I suspect that they contribute to the spread of HPAI. I'll touch more upon that in my next post. Sadly, with a Conservative government financially propped up by wealthy shooting landowners, there isn't the political will to tackle this very obvious ecological catastrophe. A change in government is the only way to move forward.

Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of November. Just one new species was ringed for the year during November, and this was a Starling.

Below you will find the top 3 ringed during November and the top ten 'movers and shakers' for the year.

Top 3 Ringed in November

1. Chaffinch - 15
2. Goldfinch - 14
3. Reed Bunting - 10

Top 10 Movers and Shakers

1. Sand Martin - 160 (same position)
2. Linnet - 159 (same position)
3. Greenfinch - 112 (same position)
4. Blue Tit - 111 (same position)
5. Great Tit - 81 (same position)
6. Willow Warbler - 55 (same position)
7. Chaffinch - 52 (same position)
8. Goldfinch - 41 (up from 10th)
9. Robin - 37 (down from 8th)
10. Sedge Warbler - 33 (down from 9th)