Saturday, 27 April 2013

In Search of the Barley Bird....

After a couple of days wandering around Botley Wood looking for common nightingales, the aim today was to try and catch some. The plan was to start at 6 AM, but after what can only be described as a slightly tardy start by Izzy, we eventually started at 6:45. It had been cold overnight and with the exception of blackcaps, chiffchaffs and willow warblers there was not much in song. 

We started at the first territory, and were soon listening to, and watching a male nightingale singing. That was expected, but the surprise was that this bird appeared to be paired, because a second bird was working its way to and fro along the hedgerow 'wheeting' and 'croaking'. Unfortunately neither bird ventured into the net.

Adult Male Nightingale

Our next stop was the territory where I had managed good views of a singing male last week. This bird was again silent, but we could hear more 'wheeting' and 'croaking', perhaps indicating that this bird was also paired. I knew that this bird was unringed and soon we had captured and ringed it. The bird was an adult male with a wing of 85mm and a weight of 21.8 grams. I have been studying the species since 1998 and as part of the study I colour ring birds so that I can observe individuals in the field. 

Adult Male Nightingale - looking very dapper with his new colour rings

We waited in the hope that we might catch a female but unfortunately we failed. We packed away our nets and headed off in search of the next territory past one of the on-site ponds. Great crested newts breed at this site so we stopped to check for any evidence and soon found loads of leaves folded over in the distinctive newt way. Unfolding, one of the leaves we were able to confirm that inside were the eggs of great crested newt. At this point I should point out that you need to be licenced by Natural England to disturb great crested newts, and both Izzy and I are, and so we were not committing any offences.

We pressed on and went to check out an area of land which is not part of the reserve, but we have permission to enter. As were approached the area we immediately heard a drumming woodpecker, which sounded more prolonged and rapid for great spotted. We hurried to the area and soon found a male lesser spotted woodpecker drumming on a dead tree.

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

This is a very difficult species to see these days, but one that I have seen at Botley Wood before, but only once. This bird was a great performer and gave us some prolonged views before flying off in a northerly direction.

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

We spent a while searching the area looking for suitable nesting trees and a female but unfortunately we had no joy. Nonetheless we were so pleased to have found this bird, in fact I was planning an early start to look for them at Manor Farm Country Park tomorrow...maybe I will have a lie in!

Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Whilst waiting for the bird to return Izzy started looking beneath some wooden cladding on a small shed, and before long she had found some bat droppings and a roosting pipistrelle bat....what a day!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

More Birding on the Patch and Beyond...

With the weather set fair this weekend I was hoping to get in some spring ringing, but unfortunately that didn't happen. Instead I spent the time birding at various locations within my patch and on Sunday (April 21st) I ventured further afield to Hampshire County Councils Hook with Warsash Local Nature Reserve. Saturday began with another stroll around Botley Wood, every visit this week has yielded new species, but not today. Willow warblers, whitethroats, chiffchaffs and blackcaps, all seem settled on territories, and a fly over raven was a good record, but the best news was the return of my second nightingale of the year.

Male Nightingale - Botley Wood

I have been colour-ringing nightingales at this site since 1998 and so always spend a bit of time trying to track down a bird when I hear one. After a bit of of stalking I was able to track down a male in full song. Initially it didn't show its legs, but after a bit of maneuvering I got a good view. Unfortunately this bird was not colour-ringed, but its good to see new birds still returning to the site.

Male Nightingale - Unfortunately not a colour-ringed bird

My next stop was Manor Farm Country Park. I had been asked to do a dawn chorus walk on Sunday 21st and so thought I would go and have a look around to plan my route. But no visit to Manor farm would be complete without checking the resident house sparrows for colour-rings. After a couple of hours, and some very patient observing I had manged just two birds...not what you would call a raging success.

Male House Sparrow - Manor Farm Country Park

My patience was rewarded in a way though, as whilst watching a couple of sparrows I noted a couple of robins carrying food. Pretending not to watch, I was soon able to track down the nest to a metal jug hanging in a garden shed.

This Robin is clearly not an arachnophobic since it had a pretty big
Tegenaria sp. spider in its beak

The brood was snuggled down in the bottom of the jug, out of sight of predators and in the dry and warm.

Happy family Snuggled in their Nest

Fortunately, I had brought my ringing kit with me and quickly put a ring on each of the brood of four before moving on. 

Robins certainly do look better with Feathers

Ringing birds in the nest (pulli) is a valuable resource since it provides the precise age of a bird and its place of origin, and therefore in the case of longevity and dispersal studies it can be extremely useful. I will be watching this brood over the next week to see how they get on.

A handful of Robins

After a couple of hours at Manor Farm my next stop was Curbridge. I had timed my arrival with the falling tide, and by the time I got there it was pretty low. Several wader species were present, including two common sandpipers, 10 common redshank, two oystercatchers and nine greenshanks. Greenshank numbers tend to be at their highest in the spring at this site, with two or three birds usually spending the whole winter.

Three Greenshanks and and Oystercatcher

Whilst scanning the waders I noticed another medium sized wader on the mud and was pleased to see my first whimbrel of the year. The number of whimbrels present at Curbridge in the spring has previously reached over 100, but in recent years those numbers have dropped off, and now they rarely number more than 20 or 30 individuals, at any one time. 

Sunrise over the River Hamble

Sunday began with, what can only be described as, a ridiculously early start. I was up at 03:45 and at Manor Farm by 04:30, but I was not alone. The enthusiastic attendees for my dawn chorus walk arrived not long after me, and before long skylarks began to sing, along with little and tawny owls. Before long blackbirds, song thrushes and robins had joined in and the dawn chorus was in full song. We took a route around the park, and more by luck than judgement, were perfectly placed to watch the sun come up over the River Hamble. Great, blue and coal tits soon joined in the chorus, as did nuthatches, green and great spotted woodpeckers. A lone whimbrel fed on the inter-tidal and three oystercatchers flew overhead, kleeping as they went. Every year this dawn chorus walk seems to coincide with great weather and this year was just amazing, however hard it is to get up in the morning...on a day like this it is always worth it just to watch the sun come up.

Sunrise over the River Hamble

After a well deserved afternoon nap, a nipped out for a bit of of patch birding. There have been a couple of little gulls at Hook with Warsash over the last couple of days, so that seemed like a good place to start. I arrived in time to see both birds feeding over the lake along with an Arctic tern, which was an unexpected surprise. Both of the little gulls were 1st winter birds, one had a complete tail band and one just two dark tips on the outer tail feathers, so the two birds were easily separable. They fed over the lake for about 30 minutes before heading off north and up The Solent.

First Winter Little Gull

Other species present included lapwings, gadwalls, swallows, little egrets, redshanks, black-headed, common and herring  gulls, three oystercatchers a curlew and a very obliging whitethroat.
Common Whitethroat

Friday, 19 April 2013

Spring appears to have Sprung on the Patch!

After what has been a very long and drawn out winter, it appears that spring has finally sprung on the patch. Blackcaps and chiffchaffs are seemingly now settled on their respective territories and a steady arrival of migrants saw my first willow warblers of the year on 14th April at Botley Wood.

Willow Warbler - Botley Wood April 2013

Near daily visits to the patch produced a white wagtail, also on 14th April, a male redstart on 15th, a nightingale on 16th and two whitethroats on 19th April. Other resident species have established their territories and are singing from the tree tops, some being more prominent than others. A green woodpecker was happy to call its distinctive yaffle, but was not too keen being watched do it and spent most of the time hiding behind the trunk.

Green Woodpecker - Botley Wood 

Butterflies were also evident, although still in small numbers, comma, peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell were all recorded on the patch. Hedgehog evidence (droppings) was once again present in the garden, it has been a while since I saw that.....

Comma - April 2013
                   ...and common and soprano pipistrelle bats were out foraging around Manor Farm.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Yellow-fronted and Cross-billed Blue Tits - April 2013

It was almost back to normality this week in that I dusted off my ringing kit and was able to have three ringing sessions. For the first I headed back down to Manor Farm Country Park, whereas the two latter sessions were in my back garden. 

Sunday 7th April was the first session and having not got up very early for a while, it was tough extracting myself from the warmth of my bed at 05:15, and when I ventured outside, the heavy frost covering my car didn't help to fill me with enthusiasm. But it wasn't long before I was at Manor Farm the nets were up and and the sun was breaking through.

As with the last session I was going to be assisted by a handful of trainees only and so limited the number of nets I put up to four. The first net round yielded an adult redwing as the highlight, a couple of blue tits and a re-trap blackbird. The next round was slightly better with more blue tits and blackbirds, a few robins, on re-trap from two and a half years ago, and a couple of new house sparrows. The latter is still one of the target birds at this site, since it is where I run my BTO RAS project, alas we did not catch or see a re-trap. It is difficult to understand what is going on at this site, since the sparrow population seems to be declining, yet superficially the site looks the same. Hopefully I will have more time available this year to investigate.

The session was steady with 25 birds captured of 11 species, 16 new and nine re-traps, so a nice mix for the trainees. The highlight for all was a Eurasian treecreeper, not a species I catch many of each year, but always a delight.

The second session was on Monday 8th April, an evening session in the garden after work, oh how I love these light evenings!! Recent windy conditions have made ringing difficult, so I have to take every opportunity that I can. There have still been quite a few siskins in the garden, and this was the main motivation for opening the nets. I did catch one new one, and a new Eurasian goldfinch, but the bulk of the bird caught were blue tits. In fact it was the blue tits that proved to be the most interesting, because one had a yellow forehead and the other had a crossed over bill (hence the title to this blog post).

Yellow-fronted Blue Tit

Sometimes at this time you year birds will have yellow foreheads where they have been feeding either on pollen or the insects that are on it. Typically I have seen this in migrant birds, such as chiffchaffs just after arrival from their wintering grounds. But this blue tit has probably been feeding on willow catkins, since these are the only trees with pollen on in the field behind my house at present. I have seen several blue tits with deformed bills in the past, one of which had a ridiculously long lower mandible, which I have to admit I did trim back for it. The bird below though had a badly deformed and crossed bill, which overlapped in a similar style to a crossbill. The bird was obviously feeding OK though since it was an adult bird, and when on the feeder was happily feeding on sunflower hearts. Hopefully I will catch it again a be able to see how it's doing. This session ended with 13 birds ringed, which was a fair result for one and a quarter hours ringing.

Cross-billed Blue Tit

The third session of the week was today, Saturday 13th April, and another garden session. This session was carried out to the back drop of chiffchaff song and the threat of imminent rain, fortunately the latter held off long enough to allow a couple of hours ringing. The day began with a male blackcap on the peanut feeder, right next to the net, but not going in, but there were enough other birds to keep me occupied. Several siskins were still present in the garden, the most I counted was five, with only one having been already ringed. Blue tits were again the commonest birds, but it was worth opening the net since I also caught two  new goldfinches, two new greenfinches, two new siskins and one re-trap and a female blackcap. 

Female Blackcap (one of two in the garden)

Finally, the spring bird migration seems to have arrived, as yesterday I saw my first swallows and house martins and today caught my first balckcaps. I ended the session having caught 18 birds of six species, but have now caught 39 siskin in the garden since February.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Back in Boscastle for Easter - March 2013

With a four day break for Easter, it was off down to Boscastle for a spot of west country birding. With the continually cold easterlies along the south coast, migrants have been few and far between on my local patch, so I was hoping to add a few to my year list this weekend. We drove down late on the Thursday night, and on Friday morning I took the chance to check out Valency Valley. It was bitterly cold and the hazy sun did little to add any heat, nonetheless there were some signs of spring breaking through.

Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage - Valley Valley

The flora in the valley is typical of a damp wooded valley and is carpeted with bluebells, although only one or two were in flower. Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage covers the dry stone walls and wild daffodils are abundant in Minster churchyard. The flora this year was way behind last year, in part due to the cold weather, but mainly because it was a very early Easter this year. Greater stitchwort, red campion, primrose and ramsons were all in flower, but only a few of each.

Bird wise there were no migrants present, I would have at least expected the odd chiffchaff or blackcap, but alas no. The usual woodland species, blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits, treecreeper and goldcrests were all very visible though. Even the river itself was fairly bird less although I did eventually find one dipper and a grey wagtail. It was good to compare the British race of dipper Cinclus cinclus gularis with the nominate black-bellied C. c. cinclus that I saw in Norfolk earlier this year. Although difficult to make out, the red brown on the lower breast are just visible in the image below, the underparts are uniform dark on black-bellied.

Dipper - Valency Valley

On Saturday 30th March I had to visit Bude and took the opportunity to walk along the cliffs. It was a gloriously sunny day and by the time I arrived there were people and dogs everywhere. Fortunately the pitch and putt course was cordoned off so not too many dogs were straying onto it, and so an ideal refuge for newly arriving northern wheatears. The most I saw at any one time was five, but birds seemed to be continually moving through, so I am sure there were many more. Some of the male birds were just stunning, as the individual below...such quality birds wheatears!

Northern Wheatear - Bude

As I settled down to photo the wheatears, my attention was distracted by a moth that settled between my legs to get out of the wind. Due to the cold weather moths have been a bit of a rarity this year, and this March moth, as it turned out to be, was my first of the year. Quite what it was doing in the middle of a pitch and putt course with no cover was a bit of a mystery. I guess it had been disturbed from its place of shelter and got blown there in the brisk wind.

March Moth - Bude

Another migrant that is typical of this time of year is white wagtail Motacilla alba alba, the nominate subspecies of the British pied wagtail M. a. yarrellii. White wags have a plain grey mantle and rump, a black hood with a clear border between the hood and mantle.

Pied Wagtail - Bude

Unfortunately, none of the birds I saw were white wags, but I did manage to get some great views of a couple of pied wags that were more intent on feeding than bothering about me.

Pied Wagtail - Bude

On the way back from Bude I stopped briefly at Davidstow Airfield, another good place for migrants and waders. There were at least 20 wheatears scattered around the area, a couple of ravens croaking loudly as they attacked a grey heron and that was about it. Crowdy Reservoir wasn't much better so I headed home. As I did a flock of around 50 golden plover put in a brief appearance, wheeling around before settling back down on a recently ploughed field.

Northern Wheatear - Davidstow

Sunday 31st March began with an early morning stroll around the cliffs at Boscastle, before being confined to the house for domestic duties. I started with a stroll through the scrub on The Stitches before settling down in a sheltered spot for a bit of sea watching on Willapark. The Stitches were predictably quiet with chaffinch, robin and dunnock being the most numerous species. The cliffs too were extraordinarily quiet with no fulmars or herring gulls settled on their usual nesting places, although the offshore islands were covered with birds. The sea was a bit more lively with fulmar, guillemot, razorbill and shags all present, a flyby male peregrine added to the excitement and a steady trickle of meadow pipits moved west. A sudden flurry of activity by the auks attracted a couple of sandwich terns, who made quick work of catching and swallowing their prey before the herring gulls got to them. As I was leaving I had the feeling I was being watched and suddenly noticed a peregrine sat watching me. It seemed more intrigued than perturbed by my presence, probably because it knew I no chance in getting too it on the unstable cliff face.

Peregrine Falcon - Boscastle

Monday 1st April began as Sunday with an early morning stroll around the cliffs at Boscastle, before packing up and heading home. This morning I did  the route in reverse, looking at the sea first before heading up to the scrub on the stitches. The sea was much as the day before, even with two sandwich terns feeding just offshore, but then a couple of close gannets and an adult kittiwake came into view. Two male peregrines were sat on the cliff face, one was calling constantly, presumably trying to scare off the intruder from its territory. This went on for about 10 minutes before the intruder took to the wing and flew north, watched all the way to the horizon by the other bird. It was nice to see that two fulmars had taken up residence on a suitable nesting site since yesterday morning, just maybe spring is on the way. The Stitches were as quiet as the previous day, with the only new species added being a jay and a couple of fly over linnets.

Northern Fulmars - Boscastle

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