Sunday, 23 December 2012

Birding in the West of Hampshire

Over the last few weeks bird ringing activity has been non-existent, mainly due to the waves of torrential rain and high winds that have been sweeping the country. Even just getting out to do a spot of birding has been difficult, unless, that is, you are covered from head to toe with waterproofs. However, over the weekend of 8/9th December I did manage to get in a spot of birding in the west of County.

Wetland Area with Lapwing, Wigeon, Black-tailed Godwit and Glossy Ibis (the small black dot in the middle)

I had not recently been birding in this area and with the arrival of a few unusual birds it seemed like a good place to go on the one day it wasn't raining, although it looked like it was going to at any minute. My first port of call was Bickerley Common, a flooded meadow to the south of Ringwood. Most of the river valleys in Hampshire are swollen at the moment, and the River Avon is no exception. Water has spilled from the main river channel into the adjacent floodplain creating some interesting wetland habitat for birds. On the plus side this has created sanctuary areas that have become inaccessible to humans thereby limiting disturbance, but on the negative side, there are so many of these flooded areas that birds are widely spread and often difficult to find. But this is not the case at Bickerley Common, where the flooded meadow has become a haven for wetland birds, with the two most noteworthy species being glossy ibis and great white egret.

Great White Egret

Arriving at the site the closest bird was the great white egret, this species has become semi-resident in the area over the last few years, with a colour-ringed bird, originally of French origin, spending most winters at the nearby Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), Blashford Lakes reserve. Unfortunately this bird spent all of its time feeding in thigh deep water and so it was not possible to see if it was the colour-ringed individual.

Great White Egret

In contrast the glossy ibis was happily feeding right at the back and was virtually the furthest bird, giving acceptable scope views but useless for photography (as can be seen in the first picture). There was also a good mix of other wetland species including black-tailed godwit, snipe, green sandpiper, lapwing, kingfisher, Canada and greylag goose, teal, wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and tufted duck. So a good variety of species to start the day. I next headed up to the Avon causeway and Harbridge in search of a Bewick's swan, a species which used to winter in large numbers in the Avon Valley, but those days are long gone. With no sign of the Bewick's and not much else to see in the area I headed back to the HIWWT's Blashford Lakes reserve.

Little Grebe

I started at Ibsley Water and more wetland birds. The middle of the day is not the best time to visit since all of the goosanders will have dispersed across the valley, but nonetheless there were still birds to see, pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye, pintail and good numbers of shoveler. Another noteworthy species for its scarcity these days was ruddy duck, an introduced species  from North America into the UK, that has recently undergone a massive decline due to a licenced cull. The species' fate was sealed due to its interbreeding with the closely related and much rarer white-headed duck in Spain. Ruddy ducks are the more dominant species, as with many North America species, and have been identified as one of the causes of the decline of the now endangered white-headed duck. The licenced cull has been very effective and now only very small numbers of this species exist in the UK.

Wigeon, Gadwall, Coot and Red-crested Pochard

My next stop was Ivy Lake, and the usual location for a very obliging bittern, but not this day. A drake red-crested pochard was causing some interest among the local birders but otherwise the species present were much the same as seen on Ibsley Water. One of the highlights of visiting Blashford Lakes is the excellent views of lesser redpolls and other finches and woodland birds drawn in by the abundance of food provided by the Trust. Identification of the different redpoll types can be very tricky when they are feeding at the top of an alder tree, but here the birds are drawn down low to the feeders.

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

The redpoll sub-species cabaret, which is the common race in the UK, is generally smaller and darker than the flammea race, which occurs in Fenno-Scandia. Occasional birds of the race rostrata have been recorded at Blashford lakes in recent years, these birds generally larger, darker and more heavily streaked than the race cabaret.

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

The variation in colour and size of individual birds can make identification of the different races very subjective, and things are not helped by variations in lighting conditions. I did not see any birds that even vaguely resembled a common (mealy) redpoll, maybe one will turn up later in the winter.

Brambling Fringilla montifringilla

Of course redpolls are not the only species visiting the feeders bramblings, chaffinch's, siskins and nuthatch's are all attracted in and give excellent views.

Female Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea caesia

So if you are visiting Hampshire and want to get to grips with identifying lesser redpolls, there are not many better places to visit than Blashford Lakes in the winter.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Waxwing Fest in Hampshire!

After watching the National bird news and seeing that waxwings were being seen everywhere, it was somewhat frustrating that none were present in Hampshire. However, this week a few scattered records began to appear and today there were even more. I had a bit of spare time later in the afternoon and so decided to go out and look for some. My first stop, in Stubbington missed them by a few minutes and so I headed to a group of 16 in Hedge End. Initially the birds were perched in the top of a sycamore tree, before dropping down to feast on berries on the only small rowan tree in the area.  

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

As is typical for this species, they are incredibly confiding, and so it is possible to get some fantastic views, and great photos.

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

I have never had the pleasure of ringing a waxwing, and for obvious reasons would love to. Ageing birds is apparently relatively straightforward with first year birds lacking white on the inner web of the primaries, this is clearly illustrated on the image below.

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

If you are thinking of going to see any, don't leave it too late since they go to roost very early; these birds started preparing roost at around 15:30 before heading off at around 3:40pm.

Waxwings ©T. D. Codlin

Friday, 7 December 2012

Biscay 4th - 6th December 2012

This week I had the offer of a trip down through the Bay of Biscay on the Brittany Ferries ship Cap Finistere, and despite it being mid December, and the weather looking quite grim at times, I decided to go. The trip was to follow that of the old P&O ferry, Pride of Bilbao, travelling from Portsmouth, in the UK to Bilbao, on the north coast of Spain, and then back again. The trip was slightly delayed due to bad weather in Biscay on the previous trip, but undeterred we eventually boarded and were soon underway. Not really surprisingly, given the time of year, our group of seven and two other people, were the only foot passengers to board, along with only 74 vehicles, so the upper decks were fairly empty.

Over night the weather was rough and the ship was given a bit of a hammering by the angry sea, but by morning, the rain had stopped, but there was still a mighty swell and a high sea state. Given the poor sea state, it was undoubtedly going to be difficult to see cetaceans, but within the first hour 10 common dolphins had come into the bow to ride the bow wave. 

First Winter Kittiwake

Bird wise there wasn't much going on other than a few black-legged kittiwakes that made for the back of the ship, in search of any scraps in the wake. There was a good mix of both adult and first winter birds, a colleague suggested that first winter birds, with their strong black 'W' on the upper wing were a much better looking bird than the adult birds, but I wasn't convinced. I really like the neat black wing tip, pale grey upperwing and mantle, and grey nape of the adult birds.

Adult Winter Kittiwake

Other birds included the occasional great black-backed and herring gulls, and a few northern gannets. The weather was actually quite pleasant and surprisingly mild for the time of year, but in the distance a few storm clouds were gathering.

Great Black-backed Gull

The first storm passed by the back of the ship, and other than a slight increase in the sea state and a light shower we escaped. A good feature of this ship is an under cover section at the stern, which means that even in bad weather you could stay out and sea watch.

First Storm Passing the back of the Ship

The next storm was heading straight for us, forcing several northern gannets and fulmars ahead of it as it came, but no other sea birds, which was a shame.

Northern Gannet

This second storm was fierce, and the driving rain and strong winds made viewing very difficult. We persevered for a while but with very little visible we decided to have a short break.

Second Storm in full Swing

As we continued south the sea state calmed and the sun came out, just for a while before it set, but as we approached Spain, in the dark, it began to pour with rain, and did it rain. Unlike the Pride of Bilbao, it only takes two hours to turn this ship around, and therefore we were not allowed to disembark. When we asked why, we were told that there was no where to go, and when we looked out we could see that the ship had docked in the new part of the port, and there really wasn't anywhere to go in two hours and it was pouring with rain anyway.

Approaching Sunset of the Southward Journey

The ship set sail in the dark, and after another stormy night we awoke to a blue sky and calm seas, not what we were expecting so we quickly got up and headed out. The ship was taking a different route to previous trips and was just off the French coast, where we had excellent views of the westernmost tip of the Brittany peninsular, Point du Raz and its stunning little light house 'La Vielle'

La Vielle, Point du Raz, Brittany

There was much fishing activity in this area also, and subsequently many more birds, including more kittiwakes, some guillemots and puffins and then some Balearic shearwaters. Initially just a few but as we moved moved north we had soon seen over 40 birds, some of which gave some excellent views.

Balearic Shearwater

This is the first time I had seen so many of this species on a trip across the bay, and presume they had been pushed in close to coast by the bad weather. Other bird species included more than a dozen Mediterranean gulls, a mixture of adult and second winter birds, which was nice, although this is a species I now see every time I go out birding at home.

Balearic Shearwater
Continuing north we were soon passing the lighthouses of St Mathieu and enjoying some spectacular scenery....

Lighthouses at St Mathieu

                          ....................before passing the marker of Grande Vinotiere, which provided the ideal place for great cormorants and shags to rest up.

Grande Vinotiere

Once away from the coast and the Channel Islands, and back in open water, we were soon seeing more cetatceans; a lone bottle-nosed dolphin rode the bow wave for a while and several more common dolphins joined in the fun. Several bonxie's (great skuas) provided some bird variety, and then it was dark again and time to retire back the cabin and pack.

So despite the variable weather, we had had an enjoyable trip, with the star bird for me being balearic shearwater. The limited number of cetaceans seen was disappointing, but I suspect that in part was due to the weather, but it may be due to cooler waters at this time of year and therefore less food, I will just have to go again to find out!

Friday, 30 November 2012

More Little Owls at Manor Farm - 29th November 2012

With the weather set fair, the sky clear and no wind it was off to Manor Farm for a spot of nocturnal bird ringing. In previous years this time of year has proved to be an ideal time to catch little owls, so we set our nets and waited. A barn owl was screeching as we put the nets up, and a tawny owl called in the distance, but otherwise it was quiet. A stroll around the fields produced a couple of calling lapwing, and then it was back to the nets and.......a little owl.

Juvenile Little Owl

During previous nocturnal ringing sessions at Manor Farm we have had mixed success, and have so far ringed five new birds and retrapped one; in 2011 three new birds were ringed, this year one of last years birds has been retrapped, until last night that is. 

Little Owl wing showing Juvenile Primary Coverts

According to Baker (1993) Identification Guide to European Non-passerines, juvenile little owls undergo a partial moult, that starts soon after fledging and is confined to the head, body lesser and median coverts. However, adult birds undergo a complete post breeding moult that usually starts as early as June or July and continues through to September or October, occasionally November.

Juvenile Primary Coverts

This bird was evidently a juvenile since it had moulted the majority of its wing coverts with the exception of the primary coverts and some feathers in the crown and nape. The difference in the shape of the primary coverts and their colouration can be seen in the two images above.

Pointed Tips to Primary Coverts

Another feature of juvenile birds is the shape and patterning of the outer-most primary, in juvenile birds this feather is pointed with a white tip to the inner and outer webs. In adult birds the outer-most feather is rounded at the tip with the outer web only, showing a white tip. Interestingly, this bird did not show a white tip to the inner web of the outer-most primary, but the tip of the feather was still pointed, therefore it is worth being cautious with this feature.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Purple Sandpipers, Southsea Castle - November 2012

It was pretty breezy today and so in the absence of any bird ringing I had to find something else to occupy me. I had heard via the grapevine that a few purple sandpipers were back at Southsea Castle and so decided that this was the place to go. The wind was strong on the sea front and the swell was bringing waves crashing in, but the tide was out and so the rocks and sea defences were exposed.

It didn't take me long to find a few purple sands, initially three, then five and then after a thunderous wave 12. The birds were spending much of their time feeding on the rocks which form the start of the sea defence, and as the waves crashed in, some would fly up to evade the water whilst others just sat still as water splashed down around them. 

Purple Sandpiper being drenched by the Crashing Waves, SouthseaCastle

Purple Sandpipers annually winter along the sea defences at Southsea Castle but it has been many years since I last saw double figures of birds there.  

Juvenile Purple Sandpiper, Southsea Castle

Juvenile birds can be easily identified by the presence of white fringing to the scapulars and wing coverts, as illustrated on the pictures above and below. Adult birds are more boldly streaked on the breast and flanks, and lack the pale fringing to the wing coverts.

Juvenile Purple Sandpiper, Southsea Castle

At least five of the birds I saw were juveniles, which was nice to see given that most of the wader species I encounter these days seem to have had very poor breeding success. Unfortunately the light was very poor, and the on-set of some very heavy, blustery showers curtailed my visit but hopefully there will be some better days during the winter when I will be able to pop back for some better photos.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Titchfield Haven Bird Ringing - Year End Summary 2012

As I mentioned in a previous post, the autumn migration is pretty much over and so with very few birds passing through the ringing area at Titchfield Haven, it was time to call it a day, well season. Overall it was an interesting year that was made all the more frustrating by some very variable weather conditions, but whilst there were some very low totals for some species, others had a record year.

Selected Annual Ringing Totals Titchfield Haven 2012

The season finished with a total of 2579 birds ringed between early July and the end of October 2012, with the most numerous species ringed being sedge warbler (635), followed by blackcap (371),  grasshopper warbler (360), reed warbler (304) and chiffchaff (291). I have previously discussed what a fantastic year 2011 was totals wise, and the following graph and table illustrate this.

Five Year Totals for Selected Species

During 2011, 1436 sedge warblers were ringed in the autumn period, during 2012 only 635 were ringed, 44% of the 2011 total. Grasshopper warbler followed a similar pattern, with the 2012 total being only 38% of the 2011 total. The totals for whitethroat, garden warbler and chiffchaff were equally low with the 2012 totals being 22%, 27% and 34% of 2011 totals, respectively.

Five Year Totals for Selected Species (the figures in red represent the
highest annual total for that species)

But whilst the totals for many species were much lower, common redstart and firecrest had their highest ever totals this year with five and seven, respectively ringed. Blackbird and song thrush totals were the highest for over 10 years, although the numbers of birds ringed were still fairly low. Overall the 2012 total was the lowest autumn total at Titchfield Haven since 2006.

Annual Titchfield Haven Ringing Totals 2008 - 2012 

Given the above results it would appear that several bird species suffered poor breeding success during the summer of 2012. It is considered that the poor weather conditions throughout the breeding season may have been a contributing factor, but poor weather over the Mediterranean during the spring migration may have meant that less adult birds returned to breed. The recently published State of UK's Birds 2012 report details that the number of breeding birds in the UK has declined by 44 million since 1966. Changes in land use and management, and loss and fragmentation of habitat have been cited as some of the reasons for the decline, along with cold and wet weather. Given the apparent effect the weather this summer has had on breeding birds, the declines of some species could be much faster if the trend of colder and wetter summers continues. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

The First Winter Blackcap in the Garden...or is it a Late Migrant?

I spent the day at home today and so had the chance to put a net up in the garden. The usual suspects were present, blue tit, great tit, coal tit and great spotted woodpecker, but also a couple of marsh tits. Marsh tits are regular visitors to my garden in the winter and over the last 12 years I have ringed nine new birds in my garden. I did not have my binoculars handy and therefore could not see whether these birds had been ringed before, but I will keep an eye out. 

A steady trickle of blue tits were passing through the garden, when a juvenile male blackcap turned up in the net. I had glimpsed a male blackcap earlier in the day in another part of the estate and suspect that this is the same bird.

Juvenile Male Blackcap

This bird was in immaculate condition, the wing and tail feathers were very fresh and it was in good condition, having a fat score of 1 and a muscle score of 2.

Juvenile Male Blackcap

My immediate impression was that this bird was a winter visitor that had just arrived, but given that there is still a scattering of migrants present in the UK, such as subalpine warbler in Cornwall, a few dusky warblers and chiffchaffs, it could just be a late summer migrant. The next few months will determine that..

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Winter Bird Ringing - 18th November 2012

With the autumn migration pretty much over, bird ringing at the usual ringing area at Titchfield Haven has now finished. Typically that would be the end of ringing at the Haven for me and I would move to other sites, but this year there is a back up plan in place. Over the last couple of years a nearby field has been sow with Quinoa, the crop failed last year due to the dry weather, but this year the crop did very well, and subsequently a decent crop of bird food is present.

Field of Quinoa

Over the last few weeks the numbers of reed buntings present have steadily increased to the point where over 100 were present, so we thought we would try and catch them. The weather was amazing this morning, a crisp, clear, still and frosty morning, so we met up early to set the nets before first light. The weather conditions were ideal for bird ringing and as the sun got up the birds began to arrive, reed buntings were first, followed by brambling, lesser redpoll, chaffinch and bullfinch.

Female Reed Bunting

The session began well, with a handful of reed buntings, a dunnock and chaffinch. Sexing reed buntings is generally straight forward since male birds have white visible in the collar, a largely olive or greyish rump, a black band on throat feathers and around two-thirds of each crown feather is black. But despite handling quite a few reed buntings some of them can be quite tricky to age.

Juvenile Type Tail Feathers

Adult birds usually moult completely post breeding and replace both wing and tail feathers from the end of July to September. Adults therefore tend to have fresh primary tips and tail feathers, whereas juveniles are worn, in addition the feathers in juvenile birds are narrow and pointed. However, the variability in the pointedness of tail features and extent of abrasion on individual birds is great. The image above shows juvenile type features, they are pointed and worn, whereas the tail below has broad and rounded tail feathers that show little wear and therefore are indicative of an adult bird.

Adult Type Tail Feathers

The session was going well and it was not long before we had ringed over 20 reed buntings, four chaffinch's, two dunnock a robin and a superb adult male common kestrel. This bird was in fantastic condition, and looked stunning with his grey head, and tail with its black sub-terminal band.

Adult Male Common Kestrel

An interesting footnote for this blog is the re-capture of a reed bunting that I ringed in my garden on 11th March 2012. This bird was re-trapped at Titchfield Haven on 30th October at Titchfield Haven, not a massive movement but still its always nice to have one of your birds controlled.
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