Monday, 16 December 2013

Winter Med Gulls

Since returning from Canada the autumn has been distinctly unfavourable for ringing with a series of lows bringing high winds from the west culminating in a dangerous combination of low pressure, high winds and spring tides that brought extensive flooding to coastal areas in East Anglia with tide heights greater than that experienced in the catastrophic floods of 1953.

Much of the October and November weather was dominated by westerly systems with very little in the way of the easterlies that are needed to power the large winter thrush migration typical of the late autumn. As a result my ringing trainer, Paul who usually rings a good sized sample of Redwing each Autumn has had very few birds of any species visiting his rural Norfolk garden, least of all winter migrants. This has been echoed in Thetford where most garden ringers are reporting much lower numbers than would be typical for this time of year. I suspect that the unseasonably high autumn temperatures may have increased the availability of amount of natural food so perhaps a few cold snaps will see more birds using garden feeders.

After such a disappointing autumn it was good to be involved with a few ringing sessions in the past week. Firstly the BTO hosted a group of students from the University of East Anglia who attended a short ringing demonstration as part of their visit. This was the first time that the Nunnery scrub site had been ringed this year and the feeders managed to attract around forty birds, most of which were tits but a few Lesser Redpolls, Chaffinches and a Greenfinch were also ringed.

                       Male Lesser Redpoll                                                Blue Tit

At the weekend Claire and I went to visit Paul in Burgh Castle and whilst he had warned us that there weren't many birds around it was a nice surprise for Claire to be ringing her first Fieldfare as I was processing a re-trapped Kingfisher, not bad for a garden ringing session although given that a Woodpigeon brought new birds to a total of two this bore witness to the low number of birds visiting his garden this winter.

                       AHY female Fieldfare                                     HY male Kingfisher

On Great Yarmouth beach our luck with the local Mediterranean Gulls fared somewhat better with Paul's generous helpings of bread and KFC chips tempting a small flock down to the waiting spring traps and we were soon running to extract five Med Gulls, four new birds and a re-trap that was already wearing a colour ring fitted on a recent catch. Interestingly this and the four new gulls were all adults or second winter birds.

The Med Gull colour ringing project being carried at Great Yarmouth has already ringed 10% of the UK total for this species and given that resighting efforts from the site have already yielded birds from a number of European countries it will be interesting to see if colour ringed birds from the population wintering at the site will be seen on their breeding grounds.

Adult (3W) Mediterranean Gull

Claire proudly holding her third new species for the day

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Canadian Fall

Banding ...
It's strange how two English speaking countries can have a different word for the same activity and as a British ringer it can take quite a long time to get used to talking about banding and the different codes used to record the species, age and sex of birds in the hand. Last week found me back in Ontario with my Canadian friends banding birds at Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory (PEPtBO), which is a participating member of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. I was really lucky to spend two and a half months as the long term fall assistant at this banding station in 2012 and was looking forward to going back and meeting the new team this autumn.

After a smooth and uneventful flight from Heathrow where I'd heard my first Redwings of the autumn zitting over as I parked up in long stay it was odd to find myself walking out of Pearson International Airport at Toronto into a bright and sunny Canadian afternoon 10C warmer than that being experienced by the UK I'd left behind. Pamela Stagg, one of the volunteers at PEPtBO, a Canadian birder and my kind host for the week was waiting to drive me the two hours north east back to Prince Edward County.

The PEPtBO banding lab taken last fall

My stay was to be split between spending time at the bird observatory helping with the fall banding effort and birding some local hotspots although my first lifer for the trip was seen flying over a county road on the way back from the airport; three Sandhill Cranes were a nice start although augmented only by an elusive American Coot later on in the week near Presqu'ile Provincial Park.

Eastern White-crowned Sparrow (left), Blue-headed Vireo (centre)
and Brown Creeper (right) 

A male Golden-crowned Kinglet!

As it happened the days I chose to visit PEPtBO were the most productive during the week of my stay with high winds and the odd rain shower forcing nets to remain unopened on a few occasions. The bulk of the birds moving through at this time of October are Golden-crowned Kinglets, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers but these were joined by some straggling Hermit Thrushes, some late Blackpoll and Black-throated Blue Warblers and surprisingly a Black-throated Green warbler. Interestingly the Brown Creeper is migratory unlike it's distinctly sedentary Treecreeper counterpart in Britain.

 Female Black-throated Blue Warbler (left), HY Myrtle Warbler (centre)
and HY Blackpoll Warbler (right) 

Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows were just starting to arrive in numbers, joining the greedy Eastern White-crowned Sparrows that take advantage of the cracked corn used as bait for the various walk-in ground traps. Later on in the week four Eastern Phoebes were also caught, typically the last of the flycatchers to come through.

HY Eastern Phoebe (left), Black-capped Chickadee (centre)
and HY White-throated Sparrow (right)

Before making the trip I'd been keeping an eye on the reports from a number of the Ontario hawk watches and given that migration had slowed down dramatically it wasn't surprising to catch just a single Sharp-shinned Hawk, with very few moving over. This changed for my last morning at the obs on Friday with favourable winds funnelling a large kettle of Turkey Vultures down to the point. These were accompanied by a few treats such as a Red-shouldered Hawk, a juvenile Golden Eagle and a stunning adult Bald Eagle; a handful of Red-tailed Hawks were also moving through. 

 The quintessentially north american Blue Jay

... and birding
The week wasn't just about banding however and I was starting to build quite a few eBird lists including a few from Pamela's backyard adding species such as Cedar Waxwing and Merlin along with Pileated Woodpecker which eluded me in Canada last year. Great trips were made to Frontenac and Presqu'ile Provincial Parks each amazing in different ways.

Frontenac is on the southern perimeter of the Precambrian Canadian shield which extends as far north as Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the edge of Greenland. The scenery is shaped by igneous rocks over 570 million years old and the landscape is quite distinct even when viewed from an airliner at 38000 feet. Frontenac shares much of it's beautiful habitats with the more well known Algonquin Park and both are characterised by extensive mixed forest surrounding wide lakes and extensive wetlands that are home to a wealth of wildlife and the woodland looks simply stunning in the reds, oranges, yellows, and browns that make up the familiar fall colours of the northern Untied States and Canada in the fall.

One of the many lakes at Frontenac

Downy Woodpecker amongst fall foliage (left)
and it was still warm enough for a Garter Snake (right)

 Chipmunks were still active in the unseasonably mild fall

Presqu'ile, bordering Prince Edward County to the west is a small provincial park that juts out into Lake Ontario. Part of the park was once an island but as sand was deposited by glacial meltwater a feature known as a tombolo now forms a wide, stable and vegetated connection to the mainland. Presqu'ile is the best place to see shorebirds (waders in English!), near Prince Edward County and a flock numbering upwards of a hundred eventually yielded a couple of late White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers amongst the Dunlins and Sanderling; a few Pectoral Sandpipers were also present and easily spotted amongst the other Calidrid species. Walking back along a woodland trail accompanied by a few Sulphur butterflies, several dragonfly species and Fringed Gentians flowering amongst the autumnal Poison Ivy foliage, it was clear the fall was an uncommonly mild this year - enjoyed by people and wildlife in equal measure.

The lakeshore at Owen Point, Presqu'ile

 Pectoral Sandpiper above Dunlin at Owen Point (left)
and Fringed Gentian one of the few plants in flower (right)

Presqu'ile is also home to the largest protected wetland on the northern shore of Lake Ontario and is a fantastic spot to see wildfowl, herons and raptors such as Northern Harriers and Merlin. Given the timing of my visit I was to early to witness the large rafts of sea ducks that build up in the lake offshore and too late for the main warbler migration but I was happy enough to find a Sedge Wren from the marsh boardwalk and watch Black-capped Chickadees helping themselves to insects from the Cat-tails.

View over the marshes at Presqu'ile

It was a short week but birding and banding was productive, the weather kind enough to wear sandals everyday, new friends were made an old friends laughed with, you know who you are!

I guess there's just one more thing to mention; how cute are Northern Saw-whet Owls? I've spent the last twelve months missing these birds! PEPtBO participates in Project Owlnet and operates a six week owl banding program in the latter half of each fall. The owls are frequently caught by other banders in the flyway and a good amount of data is being collected about their migration and ecology, helping to make positive conservation effort possible.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

October 2013 Wash trip

Hmm, neglecting my blog readership in favour of my Facebook friends has found these pages embarrassingly out of date. Please keep coming back to check for catch ups including an account of my first trip helping out with the Delaware Shorebird Project as well as the trials and tribulations of endeavouring to hold down a full time job while ringing with three CES's this summer - yes, it can be done!

It had been a balmy October evening when three cannon nets were set on Snettisham beach and after arriving under the cover of darkness on a cooler Saturday morning the assembled team waited patiently albeit with eager anticipation for the waders to arrive. Crackling radio commentary between base camp laying in the marram grass and the hide team viewing the catching area from the sea wall giving the only clue to progress. In, out, twinkle please, switch in net two, hearts beat faster and bang! Feet were instantly carrying us down to where the edge of net and water met and after guiding the birds safely above the rising tide the rest of our morning began.

Keeping cages on the right allow birds time to settle down after the catch


     Juvenile Knot                                            Colour ringed Knot

Over 500 birds were caught of four species. The larger part of the catch was Knot and Sanderling with two Grey Plovers and eight Dunlin also processed – rings fitted to new birds, ring numbers recorded for those that had already been ringed and a sample were measured and weighed to give an indication of their health. Quite a few of the birds were actively moulting suggesting that they are likely to use the Wash over the winter. It was nice to see a number of new team members gaining their first close up encounters with some wader species.

        Juv. Sanderling                       Assessing moult                  Colour ringed Sanderling

Unbelievably the October weather was warm enough to work on the beach in shorts barefoot, talk about an Indian summer! Incredulously other folk were trussed up in coats and hats - bizarre.

Beautiful sunset over the Wash.

On Sunday morning the team split up with smaller groups visiting a number of sites to look for birds that have been colour ringed. Noting down the combinations of the different colours or reading the codes on small plastic leg flags means that data about movements of individuals can be recorded without the need to re-capture the bird. It was a glorious autumnal morning and over the weekend ninety colour ring combinations had been noted and flags read.

 Little Stint - 2 were seen amongst the thousands of other waders
 roosting in Snettisham Pits.

The black smudge to the left is 15,000 Oystercatchers!

One Sanderling was ringed in Iceland in 2011 and has spent the last two winters in Spain, 3 Knot were seen that had been ringed in Norway with another from Iceland but the real highlight was a total of 48 Curlew which is more than the group would usually expect to re-trap in an entire year. This really demonstrates the enormous value of colour ringing as a valuable tool that can be employed to increase the amount of really useful encounter data that can be acquired just using a pair of binoculars or a telescope, helping us to increase our understanding of wader ecology and how these fascinating and beautiful birds use the Wash; an understanding that will ultimately assist with the conservation of the birds and their habitat.

I'm off to Canada at the end of the week so
 this maybe my last Comma for the year.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

First Wash of 2013

Obviously this post title is referring to the first trip this year with the Wash Wader Ringing Group and despite the length of my straw thwarting my opportunity to ring a Greylag Goose I was looking forward to meeting up with friends that I'd not seen for nearly a year and of course, ringing some waders. I have ringed a few waders since my last Wash trip but they were predominantly Golden Plover captured whilst working as a research assistant with the RSPB in Sutherland last summer.

Saturday evening was suitable for mist-netting so two teams erected the usual layout of nets on Terrington Marsh while a glorious sunset occurred. After a fantastic dinner the bulk of the team left about half an hour after the tape lures had started playing as it has been recently observed that a large proportion birds are being caught well before high tide. After finding our way out to the nets in the estuarine darkness we started extracting birds immediately. Quite a few Black-tailed Godwits were caught and being prone to stress volunteers were required to take them back for immediate processing; seeing as I knew my way off the marsh I was one. This meant that I would soon be finding myself ringing a couple of Black-tailed Godwits and joining the processing team to take head and bill measurements of the Godwits and the many Dunlin that were caught. Oh, and to the disbelief of the Wash regulars I managed to ring a new species for me - Redshank!

 Putting the nets up around the 'E' pool.

On Sunday morning a single cannon net was set on the beach between Snettsiham and Heacham with the intention making a catch of Oystercatchers which had been seen there during the recce on Saturday morning. It was a quick early morning set and the team was briefed and in position in good time. The only slight issue was the lack of birds with just eleven being caught when the command to fire was issued. This, however, was the perfect opportunity for less experienced and new members of the team to have a go at extracting waders from a larger mesh cannon net in which birds can become quite entangled. The small catch also allowed these folk to take their time processing the birds as well as giving the chance for a few more experienced Wash regulars to have their biometric measurements checked by highly experienced lead processors.

6i Oystercatcher

On Sunday evening there was the option to try mist-netting at a new site that Aron has acquired permission for at Gedney near Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire. The pools weren't far from the seawall but the mud was exceptionally sticky and a number of the small team slipped up, some more than once!

After a fish and chip supper the tape lures were set and we waited for the birds to arrive. The first round was quiet although two Black-tailed Godwits were a pleasant surprise. Then we found ourselves extracting a good catch of Dunlin after which high tide peaked and we took down before heading back to join Lucy and Carole who had already made a start on processing the Dunlin along with another two Black-tailed Godwits.

As the temperature dropped it was with much excitement that Lucy announced that amongst the modest catch of 36 Dunlin was a control from Helgoland. Coincidentally this was the final bird to be processed and everybody in the small team was able to get a look at the foreign ring.

Dunlin being weighed

Friday, 15 March 2013

Thetford Dipper and Wild Goose Chase

After having settled into my rented accommodation in Thetford and completed my first week working for the BTO I was looking forward to the first wader ringing trip of the year with the Wash Wader Ringing Group.

There were no plans to catch on the Saturday morning, instead the team was split, perhaps a little unequally, between carrying out recces at regular cannon netting sites and travelling to Thetford in an attempt to catch some Greylags on the BTO Nunnery Lakes reserve. These would be fitted with darvic neck collars, each engraved with a three letter combination allowing individuals to be identified in the field.

This meant that I managed a lay in and met the rest of the group on the reserve. A single cannon net was quickly set and we retreated to our vehicles and waited for the geese to arrive. All eight of them! After a lot of deliberation and unproductive wild goose chases around the lakes (no more were located), Nigel and Phil decided to fire on this small group. Somehow several escaped leaving just ith two Greylags and a Mallard. One goose was a retrap so just needed a neck collar and straws were drawn to ring the remaining goose and the Mallard. While the birds were processed the net was packed away and we were ready to head back to the Wash - via the Nuns Bridges to look for the Black-bellied Dipper.

After the thrill of seeing a pair of Otters, a bit of pleasant strolling up and down the rivers saw us heading west with a 'circus' of twitchers towards a sluice where the Dipper has been seen before. From the gathered throng it was clear we we were in the right place and the bird - which had, for a Dipper, made an epic journey from Europe - was bathing in the media limelight.

Black-bellied Dipper in Thetford

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Last few garden sessions and new job

Having received the good news that the BTO have offered me the the position of Oracle database developer I spent the last fortnight in Lound sorting and preparing to move as well as attempting to catch at least one of the Siskins visiting the nyger. 

Over a few mist-netting sessions a number of interesting birds were caught including the first Goldfinch seen in the garden for a while, another Lesser Redpoll bringing the total caught to 7 and a stunning male Siskin. On the same Saturday afternoon that the Siskin was caught I received a call from my ringing trainer Paul to ask if I'd like to come over and help ringing a Siskin flock that was taking advantage of his feeders with 39 being ringed in total.

Adult (6) male Siskin (left)  and male Goldfinch (right)

It was interesting to catch a Wren that had been ringed as a first year bird (3), in October 2011. This individual now an adult (6), clearly showed the staggering in the wing bars as discussed in the recent article by Rachel C. Taylor recently published in Ringing and Migration. A large tick was firmly attached just below the eye of this Wren yet when re-trapped again a few days later the tick was gone and the bird seemed none the worse for wear, weighing more than when it was caught carrying it's burden. Another interesting retrap was an adult Blue Tit that was re-captured on the same date and within ten minutes of first capture last year.

Adult (6) Wren showing staggering in the wing bars

Unfortunately in the week before I started in my new role the weather was less favourable so I decided to build and deploy a small ground trap with a view to catching some of the Blackbirds that are so adept at avoiding my mist net. After a bit of tweaking and an escaped Blackbird, a slow but steady stream of birds were caught with species trapped and ringed including Blackbird, Song Thrush, Starling and Robin. A valuable tool when the weather is unsuitable for mist-netting.

After a reasonable start to the year in Lound hopefully there will be plenty of ringing opportunities as I settle into my new role and home in Thetford.

Monday, 11 February 2013

More Garden Redpolls

An early window of opportunity on Sunday morning in a day of otherwise unfavourable weather saw the capture of another five Lesser Redpolls in the Lound back garden. Given that the garden is only marginally large enough to accommodate a 30' mist net and that this is the first winter that Redpolls have visited then to catch five is a real treat but discovering that one was already ringed and that it wasn't mine, was particularly special as it makes this bird my first garden control. It will be interesting to find out where L526502 has come from.

Lesser Redpolls - adult male control (left), 5 male (right)

Male Lesser Redpoll

This morning (Monday), a pair of Siskins - another garden first! - were seen checking out the Nyger feeder and will hopefully be back when the wind has dropped.

On Saturday only four birds were caught but a Great Tit had an interestingly deformed bill.

Great Tit showing curiously deformed bill

Saturday Totals - 3 news, (1) retrap
Robin - 1
Blackbird - (1)
Great Tit - 1
Starling - 1

Sunday Totals - 7 new, (1) control
Dunnock - 1
Blackbird - 1
Blue Tit - 1
Lesser Redpoll - 4, (1 control)

Sunday, 3 February 2013


Well, what can I say? We arrived on time, in the dark, set our mist nets up around the only trees with berries on that we knew they'd been feeding in virtually all week and we stood and waited. Their shrill contact trills gave away their presence and in they came over the top of the nets as expected and away again. A fleeting visit by five or six Waxwings where in the week there had regularly been over fifty.

In the icy cold we waited and again they came and again pausing for the briefest of moments. Then Ron announced that he'd seen a bird hit a net but all that we could see was a feather that on closer inspection was a tiny Goldcrest peering down at us from where the Waxwings should have been by now. It was extracted and ringed, meaning that we wouldn't leave having ringed nothing this morning.

Again more trilling and they sneaked in where our nets weren't but again stopping just long enough to pluck a few berries before departing. Then one seemed to stay longer than the others and Paul crept forward with the hope of flushing it out low into the waiting nets but astonishingly the bird flew below the bottom shelf and away leaving three shivering ringers standing looking at each other with incredulous surprise.

Then was we moved forward to start taking down the shortest of the three nets Paul motioned us back and pointed to a Waxwing that had flown out of nowhere to feed in solitude. We waited until it started making it's way further down through the twigs and branches towards the low hanging fruit and then Paul inched forward for the flush and a streak of pink rocketed straight into a net and hung there, our prize waiting to be extracted. I took that honour already knowing that I would let Rob ring it, Norwich to Gorleston is a long way to travel only to leave 'empty handed' He was pleased, as were we all at seeing a piece of Russia in Norfolk. It's just a shame that there weren't more of her compatriots with her this morning. What had she done to find herself away from the flock?

Adult female Bohemian Waxwing