Friday, 30 March 2012

A Merlin in mid Hampshire

This week I have spent two days walking the footpaths near Woodmancott, mid Hampshire, and I have to say the weather has been amazing. On the two days I was there the temperature was nearing 20 Celsius, so I was able to get a good start on my 'T' shirt tan for the year. Song birds were enjoying the spring weather to the max and singing well, but it was the raptors that were making the most of the warm thermals.

Red Kite

Common Buzzards were as usual the most abundant species, with a maximum of seven recorded at one time in the air, with Red Kites being the next most abundant, some passing very close. Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Kestrel were present in small numbers, but the two surprises were a ringtail Hen Harrier and a first year Merlin.

First Year Merlin

I watched the Merlin from a distance as it approached me, and it eventually got to the point whereby I had to put my binoculars down for fear of being hit by it, but instead the the bird suddenly drifted up and landed in the tree behind my head giving cracking views, shame my pictures weren't as good!

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Room with a View and Botley Wood

Well you will have probably realised from my lack of posting over the last week that I have not had much to write about, which in part was due to me being stuck up in the Docklands part of  London manning a stand at the Excel Exhibition Centre, and also because I have been very busy with other things recently. The exhibition was Ecobuild, which was very interesting, as I got to meet some very interesting people and at the same time got to see some of the latest attempts to make development greener. I was based on the biodiversity pavilion and got to meet representatives from the Bat Conservation Trust, Swift Conservation and The Wildlife Trusts as well as numerous general visitors. As you may well have guessed, there were not many birds to see around the centre, other than hundreds of Feral Pigeons. Breaks were few and far between, but I was able to do a little bit of birding in the morning from the window of my accommodation. My room was on the eighth floor which gave me great views over the soon to be Olympic Village, from my window I managed to see a Pied Wagtail, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull and a Carrion Crow....oh yes nearly forgot, and more Feral Pigeons!!

The Olympic Village

As you can imagine, on returning home I was pretty keen to get out, and so returned to Botley Wood for a bit of ringing. The weather this past week was amazing and the warmer temperatures have certainly brought things on. Butterflies were evident, with Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell recorded, along with my first Slender Groundhopper and Green Tiger Beetle of the year.

Slender Groundhopper

There also appeared to have been a mass arrival of Chiffchaffs as they were singing everywhere, so it was hardly surprising that I caught one. Interestingly though, this bird was a retrap that was originally captured in July 2011, whilst undergoing its post breeding moult.

Adult Male Chiffchaff

Knowing that this bird was an adult gave me the ideal opportunity to look at its features and make sure I know how to age them. So, the first thing to remember is that both adult and juvenile birds undergo a partial moult in the winter, which may involve the replacement of tertials, but will never involve the replacement of the primaries and secondaries in sequence. According to Svensson (1992), due to the durable quality of adult feathers, both primary and tail feathers should be well kept, dark grey and glossy, and the tips of the primary converts broad and neatly edged greenish.

Adult Chiffchaff Wing
Well, the primary tips were chipped and bleached but were not excessively worn, and the primary coverts were broad, rounded and neatly edged green. In addition the tertials were very fresh, thereby indicating that they had been replaced on the wintering grounds.

Adult Chiffchaff Tail

The tail feathers were also broad, rounded, dark and generally in good condition, although the outer tail feathers were more abraded. So an interested exercise, hopefully I will catch a first year bird next week for comparison.

Another species which was very obvious was the Bullfinch. I must have seen at least six different birds, all of course in pairs, before eventually catching a stunning adult male. This bird was immaculate and a real treat to handle, seeming to be completely unperturbed by the ringing experience.

Adult Male Bullfinch

Just as I was leaving I noticed a Long-tailed Tit nest in a bush by the gate. Contractors working at the site have been clearing back vegetation, which seems a ridiculous thing to be doing in the bird breeding season. They had obviously noticed this nest, and highlighted its location, then cleared all the vegetation from around it leaving it completely exposed in a narrow strip of vegetation. I popped my finger into the entrance and could feel at least five eggs, I suspect that if the birds are still using this nest, the resident magpies will feast on the chicks as they get bigger!

Long-tailed Tit Nest

It would have been nice to think that whoever had cleared back the vegetation would have had the commonsense to leave a bit of cover for these birds.....but sadly that was not the case!!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dippers, Chiffchaffs and Blue Tits in a Spring like Valency Valley

This morning had a decidedly spring feel about it as I ventured out for an early morning walk; the sun was slowly rising on a partly clouded sky, there was a crisp spring feel to the air and a Common Chiffchaff was singing from a nearby copse. I had decided to start with a cliff walk, before heading down to Valency Valley in search of Dippers. A brisk northerly wind was blowing, which was being used to its full by the resident Fulmars, as they searched the cliffs for nesting places. Many of the best ledges had already been taken, and paired up birds were settled and delicately preening each other, or uttering their raucous call whilst others passed close by. 

Northern Fulmar

Driven on by the cold wind, I headed down into the village of Boscastle and onto Valency Valley, and some shelter. I saw my first Dipper in the village centre, unfortunately though, it saw me first and flew down stream and out of view. I continued upstream keeping an eye out for any movement, but initially, other than a Robin and a Wren, both pretending to be Dippers, I was out of luck. The valley was starting to show signs of spring, with the first Bluebells, Wood Sorrel, Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage and Red Campion in bloom.

Valency River

The river was flowing well, which was making it difficult for me to hear anything else, but one species that was evident was the Common Chiffchaff. Given the number I was hearing in the valley, at least 10, I am assuming these were migrant birds, and not wintering individuals that have started to sing. I continued up the valley, and in the distance noticed the familiar white breast of a Dipper. The bird was on a rock in the location where I found a nest last year, so I quietly sneaked up to a closer view point.


As I crept into position the bird saw me and flew downstream, so I found some suitable cover behind a gorse bush and settled down for the wait. My patience paid off, as within 30 minutes a second bird dropped out of the presumed nest site, sat on a rock in front of me, and began to preen. The way this bird was behaving, constantly preening and stretching, I am assuming it was currently incubating eggs...but I didn't check the nest to confirm that.


For around 15 minutes this bird sat preening before being joined by the second bird, presumably the male. He kept his distance, whilst the female preened, although at one point the two birds briefly came together, before the male was chased off.

Pair of Dippers

The female then flew to the bank and rummaged along the waters edge for a while, before collecting a small piece of nesting material and heading back to the nest. Both birds were seemingly totally oblivious or unperturbed by my presence, and the male continued to feed along the waters edge, before eventually flying back downstream.

Dipper with Nest Material

Whenever I see Dippers, and other birds with pure white feathers for that matter, I am amazed at how they manage to keep them so clean. Dippers live in a wet and muddy environment and yet they always look so immaculate, they must spend so much time cleaning.

Blue Tit by Nest Hole

I continued on up the valley, crossing the river and heading up to Minster Church, before noticing a split in a tree that looked good for bats. Whilst scanning for droppings, a female Blue Tit flew into the hole carrying nesting material, whilst the male waited outside calling. When I first started bird ringing, all of the Blue Tits in my nest boxes used to fledge around the third week of May, these days however chicks fledge anytime between late April and early June! All down to climate change, and the odd weather we have these days apparently.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Stormy Day with a Hint of Spring in Cornwall...

I am back down in Cornwall this weekend and so there will be no bird ringing for me, instead I will have the chance to do some birding at my usual haunts, and maybe see some spring migrants. I had the option to go shopping in Bude, but without hesitation chose to be dropped off at Crowdy Reservoir, and be picked up three hours later. As we were just leaving the house a heavy downpour made me briefly reconsider....but only briefly.

Typical Wind Blown Cornish Tree

As I was dropped off the weather seemed to be clearing, but as my lift disappeared over the hill the weather closed in again and a heavy downpour ensued. It was cold and bleak for a while, but I was at least able to bird from the shelter of a conifer plantation...not that there was much to see. A handful of Herring Gulls, with a couple of Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed Gulls, were bathing and a flock of 15 Canada Geese were at the waters edge, loudly honkng a me! A couple of Eurasian Teal and a Great Crested Grebe made up the list of species present.

Stormy Cornish Scene at Crowdy Reservoir

As the rain cleared and the sun re-emerged, bird life became more obvious, with a Song Thrush immediately bursting into song, followed quickly by a male Goldcrest. My aim was to get to Davidstow Airport, where I was to be picked up, and as I walked along the road singing Goldcrests and Siskin were the most numerous species. 

Common Raven

Just as I got to Davidstow a Common Raven flew over croaking and four Common Buzzards  circled overhead uttering their typical mewing call, but there wasn't really much else going on. The main aim for me going to Davidstow was to look for spring migrants and in particular Northern Wheatears, and as I scanned the airfield it wasn't long before I picked one up.

Male Northern Wheatear

Unfortunately this bird wasn't very confiding so I was unable to get any decent shots, and even resorted to digiscoping; these two images being the best I can offer.

Male Northern Wheater

I was still able to age and sex the bird though, and you can see in the picture above the grey mantle of a male, and the pale fringing on the primaries (just about visible on the blurred image above) ages this bird as a first year. So, my efforts were rewarded with my first Northern Wheatear of the year but not much else to speak of, off down Valency Valley in search of Dippers tomorrow.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Two More Pips and a Greedy Robin...

The last two days have been spent out of the office working on buildings covered by European Protected Species bat licences. Yesterday I was right on the coast in West Sussex, on a glorious spring day in full sunshine, whereas today I was working near Andover, on a dull and dreary day, shrouded in fog. With the amazing spring weather yesterday I was expecting to see some new migrants whilst working, but all I got was an occasional passing Mediterranean Gull and my first sunburn of the year....and no bats!!

Today, with the murky conditions, there was no chance of any sunburn as it was nowhere to be seen, but I was confident of some bats. I was working next to a patch of mature woodland, with an active rookery, and so my morning was spent listening to the bizarre array of calls these birds make whilst nesting. My job today was to strip an area of hanging tiles from part of a roof in search of bats, before the builders arrived to do their bit.

Common Pipistrelle

I began stripping the tiles, slowly and carefully, and before long found my first bat. This little critter was nestled in a corner hoping not to be noticed as I removed tiles, but seemed decidedly unperturbed by the experience.

Common Pipistrelle

I gathered this little bat up and popped it into one of the bat boxes I had previously erected, and left it to continue sleeping. Continuing on with my work it was not long before I had found a second bat, again another Common Pipistrelle, which I again placed in a bat box to continue sleeping.

Common Pipistrelle

I always enjoy working on buildings and seeing how bats use them, but this particular site had a few other species present as well. At the apex of the roof an old House Martin nest was present, and as I striped tiles I noticed loads of small black beads dropping to the floor. I have seen these beads before in Common Swift nests.....they were the pupae of Hippoboscid Flat Flies!! There must have been more than 100 pupae beneath the tiles, so I hope that by removing the tiles, and the parasite, I have made life a bit easier for the House Martins when they return later on the year.


Other species that were abundant were the invasive Harlequin Ladybird, which in recent years seems to have taken over the UK, and loads of Cluster Flies and Green Lacewing. The latter two species proved to be an irresistible attraction for one of the resident Robins. This individual was so tame that it was removing flies from the tiles before I had put them on the floor.  

With my work complete for the day I headed back home, but not before a quick stop at Longwater Bridge for some patch listing. And I was not to be disappointed with a lone Shelduck on the lake to the south, a new addition to my patch list.

Monday, 12 March 2012

A Double Surprise in the Garden on a Sunday Afternoon

My final ringing session of last weekend was a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon. It was a glorious sunny day, which wasn't ideal, since it made my nets stand out like a sore thumb! Despite this obvious disadvantage there were still a few birds who thought that flying at the net at full speed would see them through, thankfully they were wrong!

The session included the usual Blue and Great Tits, Dunnocks, Long-tailed Tits and a couple of Goldfinch's, both females, but the surprise was a pair of Reed Buntings. In ten years of ringing in my garden I have only caught two previously, but this year I have been putting out millet in the hope of attracting more....these were the first two to have found it.

Male Reed Bunting

Now, I have not ringed many Reed Buntings in the last few years, and those that I have, have been autumn juveniles, and so there is every chance I will age these wrong, but here goes anyway. My trusty Svensson warns that the abrasion of tail feathers should not be used past February, unless you have a thorough experience of the species. However, since adults undergo a complete post breeding moult and juveniles a partial post juvenile moult, I hoped that there would be some visible features to assist me. Firstly I examined the greater coverts for a moult limit, but there was nothing visible on either bird.

Primaries of Male Reed Bunting

The primaries on the male bird (above) were fairly broad, dark and showed very little wear, whereas the primaries of the female (below) were more pointed, fairly pale in colouration and abraded and chipped at the tip.

Wing of Female Reed Bunting

The tail feathers of the male were interesting, with what appeared to be two generations of feathers present. The majority of the tail feathers were mainly pointed, and dark brown in colouration and heavily abraded, with the exception of the third feather from the birds right (upper half of tail in image below) which was an adult type feather. In addition, the brown pattern on the outer tail feathers is pale brown in colour. 

Tail of Male Reed Bunting

Whereas the tail feathers of the female bird were darker, broader and more rounded, with the pattern on the outer tail feathers blackish in colouration, appearing to be adult type, yet they were more abraded than the juvenile feathers in the male bird above.

Tail of Female Reed Bunting

In the autumn eye colour is a useful feature, with adult birds having a brownish iris, whereas as juveniles a dark grey iris. Whilst this feature is typically an autumn feature, a dull iris in the spring is still indicative of a juvenile bird.

Male Reed Bunting

Both the male and female bird had a brownish iris, so this feature was not really usable.

Female reed Bunting

So having gone through all the features I concluded that the male bird was a first year, since the majority of its tail feathers are juvenile type, with the exception of a single adult type feather, where it must have lost one. However, the female bird was a bit more tricky. Its tail feathers appeared to be all adult type, whereas the primaries seem to be juvenile since they are pointed and  heavily abraded......and therefore I also think this bird is a first winter bird but I was unsure so left it unaged.

A Nice Pair

All in all a challenging and very rewarding end to a great weekends bird ringing.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Manor Farm Country Park Again....

This morning started with a pre-dawn start at Manor Farm Country Park. Overnight a thick fog had formed which made for a very damp and somewhat eerie feel, which was enhanced by the very vocal Barn Owls. I opted to put the usual nets up in the hope of catching some more Redwing, or maybe even a Fieldfare, and was rewarded with a couple of new Redwing, both first winters. There were very few thrushes around, so I was very pleased to have caught any, and especially as these will probably be the last ones I get to ring until they return in the autumn.

First year Redwing

Other species captured included Blackbirds, Wrens and a few Dunnocks, two of which were retraps. Both of the the retraps were over a year old, but the individual pictured below was originally captured on 8th July 2007, 4 years 247 days previously.

Adult Dunnock

In a previous post I discussed the difficulties associated with ageing Dunnocks and this individual, had it not already been ringed, would have probably been left unaged. However, the brightly coloured eye and the all black bill would have aged this bird as an adult, had it been caught in the autumn.

Adult male Goldcrest

Another bird that I was reacquainted with this morning was this male Goldcrest, who was originally captured on 6th April 2010, 1 year 126 days previously. He was in full song for much of the morning and raising his crest up in display to the accompanying female

Gold crest of the male Goldcrest

During the session there was a flock of five Bullfinch's feeding tantalisingly close to my net ride, but alas they were too engrossed in their meal to move along the hedge to my net.

Three Male Greenfinch's and a Broody Robin....

It is that time of year at my ringing sites, where the summer migrants have yet to arrive and the winter visitors have all but gone, but despite that it has been a steady weekends ringing which included a nice couple of surprises. With some interesting bits to write about I have decided to spread things out over several posts, rather than cram it all into one, so here goes with the first.

This weekends ringing started with a couple of hours in the garden on Saturday afternoon, a couple of Great and Blue Tits got things going, and then I caught a retrap Eurasian Robin, nothing unusual about that, but this bird had a fully formed brood patch. I have been watching a pair of Robins, and Blackbirds, in the garden for a few weeks now, but wasn't sure whether they had started nesting yet....but I guess this confirms it. After release this bird flew straight down to the end of the garden and jumped into the open fronted box on the rear fence, so I now know where she is nesting too!

After a couple more Great Tits the next bird captured was a male Greenfinch, which was quickly followed by two more, giving me the ideal opportunity to compare the features of the different ages.

Male Greenfinch

Adult Greenfinch's undergo a complete moult post breeding, whereas juveniles undergo a partial post juvenile moult...usually, sometimes they also have a complete post juvenile moult. Therefore, it should be possible to age birds due to the presence of a moult limit in the greater coverts, and also due to the shape and colouration of the primary coverts, and other feathers.

First year male Greenfinch. Note retained outer two greater coverts
and colouration and pointed shape of primary coverts.

The first bird captured was an obvious juvenile since it had two retained greater coverts, very pointed and brownish primary coverts and abraded primary tips. In addition the tail feathers were very pointed and abraded. So no doubt with this one.

First year male Greenfinch. Note pointed and abraded tips
to tail feathers.

In stark contrast the next bird was a full adult. Its primary coverts were broad, rounded and tipped grey.

Adult male Greenfinch. Note steely grey colouration and
rounded tips to primary coverts

In addition, the primaries themselves were broad very dark with a grey tip and showed very little wear.

Adult male Greenfinch. Note broad and rounded primary feathers
and lack of abrasion to tips.

The tail feathers were also very dark centred, broad, rounded and tipped grey, and as with the primaries they showed very little no doubting this one either.

Adult male Greenfinch. Note broad, rounded and dark centred
tail feathers, also lack of abrasion and grey tips..

The third bird was a little more interesting. Looking at the primary coverts this bird was a first year, since the outer three and the alula were narrow and pointed, whereas the inner primary coverts were more rounded with a slight grey tip.

First year male Greenfinch. Note colouration and
shape of primary tips.

The primaries themselves were also indicative of a first year bird, since the were more pointed and abraded than those of the adult, yet not as worn and darker that those of the first bird.

First year male Greenfinch. Note shape, colouration and
abrasion to the tips of the primaries.

The tail though was more indicative of an adult bird; broad and rounded although there was a more pointed and worn feather on one side (tail feather five on the birds left side).

First year male Greenfnch tail. Interesting one this, the  feathers
are generally broad, rounded and dark centred, except that is for
tail feather five on the birds left (lower) side.

The presence of juvenile primary coverts, and the shape of the primaries, clearly ages this third bird as a first year, but it was interesting to see the variation between the three birds.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Garden Mothing and Stroll around Botley Wood

Put the moth trap out last night and so started today with an early morning rummage through the egg boxes to see what had been lured in. The forecast was predicting a mild night so I was quietly optimistic of a good and varied catch, and ended with a haul of 45 moths of nine species, one of which I still have to identify. 

Twin-spotted Quaker

The most numerous species were Common and Small Quaker, with 12 and 23, respectively and singles of Small Brindled Beauty, Chestnut and Emmelina monodactyla adding to the numbers. A slightly tatty Twin-spotted Quaker was the third of the year, as was the single Clouded Drab.

Clouded Drab

Three Hebrew Characters were also in the trap, including the individual below. As with most moth species, this species is quite variable, but it always shows the dark saddle mark, which on this individual looks more like a square edged C.

Slightly odd Hebrew Character

After I had been through the trapped I popped down to Botley Wood for a walk around and check on last years net rides. I was intending to put some nets up too, but as there weren't many birds around I decided not to bother. I am glad I went though as I got some nice views of a dozen or so Lesser Redpoll, some Eurasian Siskin and a roosting Woodcock...before it took flight....they really are teasing me!!! Best of all though was a male Peregrine Falcon, which was another new addition to my patch list.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Pipstrelle Bats and a Colour-ringed Oystercatcher

After the extremely mild and spring like conditions of the last week, it was back to winter with a changeable weekend weather wise, rain then wind on Saturday and then more rain and wind on Sunday! So with no chance of doing any bird ringing I headed down to a small barn to check on the local bats. I have been keeping an eye on this barn (well its bats) since 2007, and have recorded five species, Brown long-eared, Common and Soprano Pipistrelle, Serotine and Natterer's, during that time. The bats use the barn in different ways, with the Pipistrelle's tending to use it for hibernation and the Long-eared's using it mainly for breeding, with a few staying on to hibernate.

The last time I looked in the barn was January 2012, when I located single Brown long-eared and Serotine bats and seven Pipistrelle species. This time I located 13 Pipistrelle bats, which is the most of this species I have ever recorded in the barn. I have previously left a remote bat detector in this barn and have found that of the two Pipistrelle species, the Common Pipistrelle is the most regular and therefore I suspect that these bats are all that species.

Pipistrelle Bat (most likely Common Pipistrelle)

All of the bats were located in small crevices in the lower part of the barn, and were very awake, which is probably a result of the recent mild weather, although they will be in for a shock if they venture out tonight!!

Two Pipistrelle bats in a small Crevice

The bats were mainly clustered together in small groups with the largest group numbering four bats, but the most visible were a group of two just inside the entrance door. The Common Pipistrelle is one of the UK's commonest bats which on average can weigh between 4 - 8 grams and has been recorded living to the grand old age of 12 years.

Colour-ringed Oystercatcher, Bunny Meadows

By the time I had finished in the barn the weather had cleared and the sun was shining, so I popped down to Bunny Meadows. It was bitterly cold so didn't stay out too long, but did find a colour-ringed Oystercatcher on the inter-tidal. Two of the rings were discoloured but I think I eventually managed to get the correct combination. All of the previous colour-ringed Oycs I have seen here were originally trapped at Hamble Point on the other side of the water, so I am guessing that is where this bird was ringed.....but I will keep you posted.
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