Monday, 30 December 2013

End of Year Review, December 2013

So here we are at the end of my third full year writing this blog, I hope you have enjoyed its content and would like to thank all those who follow it and those who have visited over the years. This year (2013) has been an interesting one for me as back in February I started a new job, which I had hoped would give me more spare time to enjoy bird ringing and other natural history activities. In reality, more spare time meant more out of work social commitments, which did limit the amount of free time I had, and three stints in hospital were certainly not welcome. Despite the set backs I still had a great year which resulted in several new birds in for me in Hampshire, over 20 new moth species in the garden, a couple of new birds in the hand and ended with a British tick (Brunnich's guillemot). In typical fashion for a year end post I thought I would do a quick summary of my personal highlights of the year, and please feel free to share yours with me.

The start of the year for me was all about trying to see as many bird species as possible on the patch. There were no real highlights to speak of with this, that came in the form of a recovery notification from the BTO of one of the common nightingales that I had ringed at Botley Wood. Unfortunately the bird was found dead in France 488 days since being ringed, which was not good news for the bird, but was my first foreign control of this species since starting the project.

Adult Common Nightingale - Sadly found dead in France

The long staying and very confiding black-bellied dipper at the BTO HQ Thetford in Norfolk was the first that I had seen in the UK, and got my annual Norfolk pilgrimage off to a good start.

Black-bellied Dipper - Norfolk

Eurasian siskins came into my garden in good numbers this year and I ended with a record number of 40 new birds ringed, beating the previous best of 12 back in 2003. Individuals were trapped throughout January, February, March, April, May and one bird was re-trapped in August. The peak month though was March when 22 new birds were ringed.

Male Eurasian Siskin

The return of the common nightingale is always a highlight for me and this year was no exception. At least eight singing males were back on territories, and I managed to catch four of those, one being a bird from May 2009. This month was also memorable for the presence of a singing male common redstart and a lesser spotted woodpecker, both found whilst surveying for nightingales.

Retrap Adult Nightingale - Botley Wood

Being my 25th wedding anniversary this year my wife and I took short break to the Greek Island of Rhodes. There were no new birds for me but we did have a great trip with a variety of wildlife being seen. The highlight for me had to be snake-eyed lizard which was stunning beast, the resultant blog post has become the most read post on this site. 

Snake-eyed Lizard, Rhodes

The undoubted highlight for me this year was being invited out to ring northern goshawk pulli. I had ringed common buzzards before but the size of these birds, in particular the females and their talons was amazing. The low point was being savaged by a cat and spending four days in hospital with an infected arm.

Juvenile Goshawk

Mothing really took off this month and checking the trap before work became near on impossible due to the numbers present. 
On one date I recorded 250 moths of 90 species in the garden and by the end of the year I had recorded 310 species. The second high point was surviving being knocked off my bike by a car and only needing seven stitches in a gash on my chin and having mild concussion for 48 hours.

White Satin Moth - a new species for me

Ringing was starting to get into full swing at Titchfield Haven and on 17th we ringing 223 new birds, with 24 of those being garden warblers, the most we have ever caught in one day by a long way.

Garden Warbler - Titchfield Haven

This month was memorable for two amazing highs, catching my first, and second, Clifden nonpareil moths whilst staying at Castlehaven on the Isle of Wight; and seeing the first brown shrike to ever be recorded in Hampshire. An excellent find by Bob Marchant.

Clifden Nonpareil at Castlehaven, Isle of Wight

There were many highlights during October, but these were sadly all overshadowed by the untimely death of Tim Lawman, a popular and active member of the Hampshire birding scene. The highlights were finding a yellow-browed warbler at The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trusts (HIWWT) Testwood Lakes Nature Reserve, and then another at Anton Lakes whilst waiting for Hampshire's second ever Radde's warbler to show. The semi-palmated plover at Sandy Point on Hayling Island, a truly amazing find by Andy Johnson. And if all that wasn't enough, it ended with us catching our first, and Hampshire's third Radde's warbler at Titchfield Haven. What an autumn this turned out to be!

Radde's Warbler at Titchfield Haven

Ringing bearded reedlings (or parrotbills) at the HIWWTs Farlington Marshes reserve was a real treat, but the undoubted highlight had to be the phenomenal starling roost of 10,000 to 100,000 birds at their Blashford Lakes nature reserve. As natural history spectacles go this is one of the best I have seen and is still continuing as I write this post. If you get the chance it is definitely worth a visit and if you are lucky you may even get the see one of the two bitterns wintering there.

A Murmuration of Starlings at Blashford Lakes

There is only one contender this month and that was the Brunnich's guillemot in Portland Harbour. We were heading home after spending Christmas in Cornwall and made the short detour. A cracking bird and a British tick for me to end the year on.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Great Tit Bill Deformity

This morning I had things to do around the house and so opened a net in the garden. The session was ticking along steadily with mainly blue and great tits, a couple of nuthatches and a goldfinch, and then I caught this...

Adult Male Great Tit with Extra Long Upper Mandible

I have caught birds with deformed bills before, and in fact have posted on this blog images of a blue tit with a deformed and crossed over bill, but this bird was amazing. The upper mandible measured an amazing 28.5mm, greatly overlapping the lower mandible, which also appeared longer than the norm. 

Long Billed Adult Male Great Tit

Given the extent of the overlap, it was difficult to image how this bird could successfully feed, and unfortunately it turned up in the net before I saw it trying. However, it had clearly adapted to its deformity, since the bird was an adult, had a fat score of 1, a muscle score of 2 and a very healthy weight of 20.4 grams. Out of interest this weight was the heaviest of the four great tits I have trapped by 2.3 grams.

Under side of Long Billed Adult Great Tit
The British Trust for Ornithology are currently carrying out a Garden Beak Watch Survey the link to which is here. There are several suggestions as to why beak deformities occur in birds, on their website the BTO state that they "could be influenced by disease or may be inherited genetically and while research continues to investigate these possibilities, current evidence is not comprehensive". Whatever the cause the result, as in this bird, can be quite spectacular and you can only admire how the individual has adapted to survive with its deformity.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

RAS Ringing at Manor Farm Museum, Botley

In the year 2000 I began ringing House Sparrows at Manor Farm Country Park near Botley, Hampshire. Initially the numbers of birds ringed was fairly modest but as more birds were ringed I decided to set up a BTO RAS project. I have previously written about the project on this blog, and it is one of the driving factors why I continue to ring birds at the site. Over the years, the numbers of birds I have ringed has fluctuated quite significantly, this has been due to a number of reasons. The main issue has been work commitments, which has limited the amount of time I could put into the project. But management practices at the site, and accessibility (the site is open to the public) have also played their part. 

House Sparrow with Inscribed Darvic Ring

Many years ago I began colour ringing sparrows as I thought that this would increase the recapture rate of the project. Sparrows are very clever and will remember a net site thereby making them difficult to recapture. I began using small plastic colour rings, but it soon became evident that the sparrows were removing them. I then started using overlapped rings, before ultimately settling on overlapped darvic rings with a letter and two numbers inscribed on them. 

Graph Illustrating Total Numbers of House Sparrows Ringed per Year (blue)
and Retrapped per Year (Red)

Since the year 2000 I have ringed 656 new birds and have retrapped 453. The longest lived individual recorded to date is 4 years 276 days, and the second longest is 4 years 267 days; there have only been three retraps of birds over 4 years during my study. According to BTO data the maximum recorded age is 12 years and 12 days, which was set in 1978, so an individual from this population has someway to go to get to that ripe old age. There have been several theory's about the decline of the House Sparrow including changes in farming practices (increased use of pesticides, cleaner farming, and changes in cropping regimes), loss of nesting sites and increases in predator species such as sparrowhawk. At Manor Farm these changes have not really occurred but nonetheless the population seems to be declining. I have witnessed sparrowhawks taking birds from a recently flailed hedge, so maybe that is the cause here.  

Ageing House Sparrows after their post juvenile/post breeding moult is not possible since the extent of the moult is complete for both adults and juveniles. I have not previously looked in detail at ageing birds, but there have been several suggestions by various authors in the past describing how to separate first year from second year birds. These include a less pure grey crown and broader chestnut edges in first year birds, a difference in the pattern on the upper middle secondary covert, and the colouration of the bill, specifically the yellow bill colour and fleshy lateral lobes at the base of the bill.

Two male house sparrows, note the all dark bill and paler check of
the left hand bird, but the yellow base and grey check to the right
hand bird

Over the last few weeks have started looking at the bill on some of the birds I have captured, although at this stage I cannot make any assessments as I am catching mainly new birds. However, in male birds I have noticed considerable variation in the colouration of the bill. This is illustrated above where the bird on he left has an all dark bill, and also a more defined head pattern and a whiter cheek. However the bird on the right has a paler bill with yellow at the base, a less well defined head pattern and greyer cheek. Unfortunately both birds were new birds so I could not confirm my suspicions that the bird on the left is an adult.

Adult male House Sparrow which was originally ringed on 2nd
January 2010 and retrapped on 30th November 2013 (3 years 332
days later)
One male bird that I retrapped this weekend was originally ringed on 2nd January 2010 (image above). Like the left hand bird in the previous image this bird had a mainly black bill, although not as dark as that bird, and a clearly defined head pattern. Interestingly this bird also exhibited a very well marked black face mask and dark lores. The cheeks are pale grey in colouration.

This male again had an ill-defined head pattern, pale horn
coloured bill with a yellow base

The image above illustrates another male bird, this time with an ill-defined head pattern and black mask, paler horn coloured bill with a yellow base. The cheeks on this individual are quite pale, but appeared slightly buff coloured as opposed to the dark billed birds which were greyer. I have yet to look in detail at female birds, but of the ones that I did the bill colour seemed to be fairly consistent, being dull pink in colouration with a yellow base. Over the next couple of years I will look more closely at this and maybe by the end I will be able to confidently separate adult and juvenile birds.

Female House Sparrow with dull pink bill and a yellow base.

In two sessions this weekend I caught 50 new birds and retrapped 12, of 10 species. The new species included 28 house sparrows, eight goldfinches, five blackbirds, three robins, two blue tits and single wren, great tit, nuthatch and carrion crow. Of the retraps the most notable were a long-tailed tit, that was originally trapped 2 years and 270 days previously, a blue tit that was originally ringed 2 years 269 days previously and three House Sparrows that were ringed 4 years 276 days, 3 years 332 days and 3 years 156 days previously.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Our First Ringing Control in Portugal

Ringing activities during November for me have been restricted to a couple of sessions at Titchfield Haven and a bit in the garden. The sessions at the Haven were the latest we have ever done and did not really amount to much despite having all of our nets open. In fact on both dates half of the birds were resident retraps. However we did manage to add a few more chiffs to our annual total and caught more goldcrests in those two sessions than we had all year.

Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita

We also caught another new kingfisher which takes our total to the year to four. This bird was an adult, this can be seen by the all black colouration at the base of the lower mandible.

Adult Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

One session was also memorable due to the capture of two green woodpeckers. Both birds were retraps and adults, but one was a male and the other a female.

Male Green Woodpecker Picus viridis

Male birds (above) exhibit a red centre to the black moustache, whereas female birds (below) have no red in the black moustache. 

Female Green Woodpecker

One thing I do like about winter is the fantastic light and lack of heat haze, on a still clear day this lends itself to taking crisp photos with lots of contrast.

The River Meon at Titchfield Haven from our ringing area

The downside of ringing in the winter, is that on clear nights you can start your session with a heavy frost. This is not ideal when trying to open furled nets as it quickly saps any heat from your hands and makes your nets stand out until the sun melts the frost.

Frost on Phragmities Reed Head

Within the last couple of weeks we have also had a few recoveries back from BTO HQ, a summary is provided below. It is sometimes quite frustrating how long some of these take to come back, this is very evident with the blackcap T619991. This bird was controlled in Portugal in February 2010, but we have only just received the information. In these days of instant news and computerised data it is a shame it takes so long. On a very positive note though this is the first bird that was ringed at the Haven to be controlled in Portugal, so a great recovery for us.

Other interesting foreign controls were two French ringed sedge warblers. One bird was ringed as a juvenile in France in 2011 and retrapped at the Haven this autumn two years and a day since its original capture. The second bird was first ringed as an adult in France last August and and retrapped at the Haven this August. Both were presumably British birds migrating south when they were trapped in France, which is why they have been retrapped at the Haven. A reed warbler ringed on the Isle of Wight was retrapped at the Haven, having travelled north by 17km in five days. It is possible that weather conditions were preventing this bird from migrating south and therefore it was coasting waiting for suitable conditions.

Species Ring No. Capture Type Age Date Details
T619991 N 3 27/09/2009 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire
C 06/02/2010 Fontes, Faro, Portugal (132 days, 1623km  SSW)
Y759573 N 3J 22/07/2013 Bessacarr, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire
C 3F 07/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (47 days, 297km, S)
Reed Warbler
Y718412 N 3 17/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire
C 3 05/09/2013 Litlington, East Sussex (19 days, 99km, E)
C 3 12/09/2013 Litlington, East Sussex (26 days, 99km, E)
Y813442 N 3 01/09/2013 Great Meadow Pond, Windsor, Windsor and Maidenhead
C 3 24/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (23 days, 80km, SW)
D562011 N 3 29/08/2013 Haseley Manor, Arreton, Isle of Wight
C 3 03/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (5 days, 17km, N)
Y544426 N 3 01/09/2013 Thatcham Marsh, Thatcham, West Berkshire
C 08/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (7 days, 65km, S)
Y813442 N 3 01/09/2013 Great Meadow Pond, Windsor, Windsor and Maidenhead
C 21/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (20 days, 80km, SW)
Sedge Warbler
Y719541 N 3 07/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire
C 3 20/09/2013 Nanjizal, Land's End, Cornwall (13 days, 327km, WSW)
6693908 N 3 19/08/2011  Marais de Cap, Montmartin-en-Graignes, Manche, France
C 4 20/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (732 days, 173km, N)
6706223 N 4 24/08/2012 Urdains, Bayonne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France
C 4 02/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (343 days, 819km, N)
D218893 N 3 26/07/2013 Kirkton of Logie Buchan, Aberdeenshire
C 3 10/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (15 days, 728km, S)
D610553 N 3 21/08/2013 Dunkirk, Little Downham, near Ely, Cambridgeshire
C 3 19/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (29 days, 209km, SSW)
D639756 N 3 21/08/2013 Much Marcle, Herefordshire
C 07/09/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (17 days, 159km, SSE)
L931682 N 3J 04/08/2013 Bellflask, West Tanfield, North Yorkshire
C 3 10/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (6 days, 375km, S)
Y661622 N 3J 22/07/2013 Rye Meads, Hertfordshire
C 06/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (15 days, 137km, SW)
C 08/08/2013 Titchfield Haven, Hill Head, Fareham, Hampshire (17 days, 137km, SW)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Donna Nook Grey Seals - November 2013

This last week I have spent some time visiting friends in Northern England, but as is typical in my life, no trip would be complete without a visit to a wildlife site. Donna Nook is a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust reserve which comprises a complex of dunes, slacks and inter-tidal areas. The whole area is used by grey and common seals to haul out, but the site is most notably know for its colony of breeding grey seals. During November and December the seals come ashore to give birth and mate, before returning to the sea. I had been to Donna Nook before but was left without any images after my portable hard-drive failed, this time I was prepared.

The grey seal Halichoerus grypus is a large seal mammal that weighs between 105 to 310 kilogrammes. They are found throughout the year in British waters and could potentially turn up at any coastal site, but most likely along the northern Atlantic coast. The colouration of their fur varies from reddish brown to dark greyish black, but newborn pups have a yellowish-white pelage for the first two to four weeks of their life.

Grey Seal Pup - Donna Nook

Grey Seal Pup - Donna Nook

Grey seal mothers are extremely protective of their young and will remain in close attendance for the first couple of weeks. However after a couple of weeks the mother returns to the sea and leaves the pup to fend for itself. The pup will remain on shore for three to four weeks whilst its juvenile pelt moults out.

New born Grey Seal pup

This new born pup was only around one hour old

When a few days old, grey seal pups look extremely cute, but just after birth they can be covered in blood, and discarded placenta is lying everwhere...not the best thing if you are the slightest bit squeamish!

Mother with New Born Twins - the smaller pup in the foreground had been
born within the hour.

Mother and Calf Grey Seal

Females are extremely attentive of their young and will groom and scratch them, for some this appears quite irritating as the try to move away, whereas others snuggle up and enjoy the close attention.

Pregnant Grey Seal ready to give birth

Female grey seals come ashore only one or two days before giving birth, and become increasingly more restless just prior to birth. Whilst male grey seals take the opportunity to relax and soak up the sun. Grey seals are polygynous and males will compete actively with each other for the chance to mate with several females.

Male Srey Seal

Males are much larger and bulkier than females and exhibit a distinctive long, convex muzzle that gives a 'Roman Nose' impression.

Female Grey Seal having a good scratch

Females are smaller and slimmer (when not pregnant) but still exhibit the same distinctive head and nose shape, this can be seen above. 

Female Grey Seal relaxing

Giving birth and raising their young is a stressful thing for female grey seals, and when not suckling they take the time to catch up on some well earned rest, but always with a watchful eye on their young.

Young Pup Suckling its Mother

As the pups get older and their parents return to the sea, they moult into their adult type pelage. The colouration is still white but patches of dark grey form around the head and over the body.

Juvenile Grey Seal without its new born pelage

Juvenile Grey Seal without its new born pelage

For anyone wishing to see grey seals up close Donna Nook is an excellent location. Access to the seals is limited by the presence of a wooden fence which enables visitors to get within a metre without disturbing them, and allows for excellent photo opportunities. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Another American Wader In Hampshire!

Whilst many hardcore British twitchers were heading north to Pembrokeshire in search of the probable Western Orphean Warbler, I headed west along the south coast of Hampshire to Lepe Country Park in search of yet another American Wader. This bird, a lesser yellowlegs, had been found on a brackish pool last Sunday, 10th November, but Friday 15th was the first chance I had to go.

I arrived at the site around 09:30 and headed off towards the scrape located to the east of the car park. I had been confused by the directions, since despite having lived in Hampshire all my life, I hadn't know of this scrapes existence, or if I had I'd forgotten about it, which is a distinct possibility. I was part way to the scrape when I met a couple of birders that I knew, they were off to look at another patch of water to the west of the car park and know as 'Dark Water' since the bird was not on the scrape.

I tagged along, since I figured three pairs of eyes searching would be better than one. Apparently the Dark Water river and marsh drains Beaulieu Heath, and reaches the sea via a tunnel and sluice gate. The river is flanked on either side by a large expanse of reed bed and wetland habitat, a large body of water and other scattered pools. Viewing is difficult as there are loads of areas where birds can loiter out of sight, but there are three main areas to try. The first is from the road, where birds are distant but identifiable, from the west from a footpath which crosses an adjacent field, and from the east, from a boardwalk that passes through a small area of woodland.

We started from the road and recorded common redshanks, black-tailed godwit, common snipe, wigeon, common teal, lapwings, black-headed and Mediterranean gulls...but no lesser legs! After a good hour and half of scanning from the road and the footpath to the west, I decided to head back east to check out the other pool. The tide was high and as I wandered back a noticed a small, mixed flock of waders on the beach. They were trying to roost right in front of the car park, but were being continually disturbed by dog walkers.

Roosting Dunlin Calidris alpina and lone Turnstone Arenaria interpres

There were about 100 birds in the flock, pretty much equally split between dunlin, turnstone and ringed plover. While the others headed back to the eastern scrape I spent a few minutes scanning through the flock.

Roosting Turnstone and lone Dunlin
Despite my best efforts there was nothing unusual in the flock, but it was nice to see a few juvenile birds in the flock. When I eventually got to the scrape there was still no sign of the lesser legs, but six Med gulls, a grey plover, a couple each of black-tailed godwit and redshank kept me entertained for a while. After about another half an hour I decided to wander again. There is a small patch of woodland that runs along the western bank of Dark Water. It consists of mainly broad-leaved species including oak, a small area of beech,  willow, yew and holm oak. The wood was fairly quiet, with a few goldcrests, coal tit, treecreeper and blue and great tit, but just as I was coming to the end of the trail, a couple of firecrests jumped out.

Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavips

Just as I got to the end of the woodland trail, new broke that the lesser legs had just flown back onto the scrape. I quickly headed back over and there it was, the closest bird to the shore. It was feeding along the south-western edge of the scrape, and with the sun behind me the bright yellow legs really stood out. 

Lesser Yellowlegs

In comparison with the nearby common redshank, the yellow legs had greyer upperparts, a shorter and finer bill, which was mainly dark, but slightly paler at the base. The bird also gave the impression of being daintier, more elongated and elegant than the redshanks.

Lesser Yellowlegs

The upperparts seem fairly plain, with faint spotting along the feather edges and therefore this bird looks like an adult to me, as juveniles are usually more distinctly marked. There have been several previous records of lesser yellowlegs in Hampshire, but the last one I saw was at Farlington Marshes in 1986. I have of course seen the species regularly on my many visits to America and Canada, but it's always nice to catch up with one on home turf.
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