Saturday, 28 June 2014

Ringing Common Swifts - June 2014

This week I received an email from BTO HQ asking if I was able to go and ring a brood of Common Swifts Apus apus near me in Lee on Solent. Fortunately I knew the lucky home owner and so made contact, and arranged a suitable time to visit. Mark had been trying to get swifts to use his boxes for around 10 years, but with little success. Initially he had put his boxes on the southern side of his house, but four or five years ago he put them on the north side. It was this change of elevation, combined with playing the call of common swift that has proved to be the irresistible combination for swifts, or was it? 

Common Swift on nest with two eggs (Mark Wagstaff)

Mark originally bought expensive boxes made by the German company Schwegler, but when he changed elevations he erected cheaper wooden boxes made by John Stimpson as well, and is was one of these that got used first. These simple wooden boxes come with a nest cup, and are fitted to the wall by two screws. Mark made one adaptation, to one of his boxes, he fitted a camera.

Two adult Swifts on nest cup (Mark Wagstaff)

Whilst Mark was aware that Swifts occasionally roosted in his boxes, it was the presence of the camera that confirmed that they were breeding, and that the pair had two chicks.

One adult and two juvenile Swifts (Mark Wagstaff)

Swift boxes as well as being attractive to Swifts are also attractive to House Sparrows and Starlings. Since these species are resident, if given the opportunity they would quickly take up residence before the swifts arrive each year, and prevent them from doing so. To counter this Mark puts a bit of adhesive tape over the hole; this is removed once he hears a report of the first common swift of the year in the UK. By this time the resident House Sparrows and Starlings are already nesting and so are not interested in the boxes.

Line of Swift Boxes under the Eaves of his House

We agreed that a suitable day for me to visit was Friday (27th June). The boxes were situated directly under the eaves on the northern elevation, and one on the front of the house (facing east). There were four wooden boxes, and two Schwegler woodcrete boxes. The swifts were nesting in the end, westernmost wooden box. As we stood talking prior to me climbing the ladder one of the adults exited the box and flew off high.

Two Common Swift chicks (Pulli)

The chicks were huddled at the back of the box, and were a good healthy weight, one being 48.8 grams and the other 46.1. Their wings were over half their adult length, with the heavier birds being 94mm and the lighter one 88mm. At this age it was possible to see the distinctive white fringing to their feathers, and the white forehead and throat. Swift chicks will fledge at between 37 - 56 days, so these birds have a few weeks in the nest yet.

Adult Common Swift

Whilst I was up the ladder an adult swift exited the easternmost box, one of the Schweglers. Mark was aware that occasion birds had been roosting in some of the other boxes, but he was unaware of this one being used. I quickly climbed up the ladder to have a look and there was an adult bird sat in it, and a nest with two eggs. I have ringed a quite a few swifts in my time and have not recorded nests with eggs this late before, which could suggest that the eggs maybe infertile. I will go back in a few weeks to check.

Adult Common Swift

The adult bird had a maximum wing chord of 171mm and weighed only 47.6 grams, so lighter than one of the chicks. It is possible to age swifts to first and second summer by the shape and extent of wear on the wing and tail feathers. The wing feathers on this bird were broader and showed very little abrasion, although one of the feathers appeared quite worn, so I aged this bird as a four.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

White Stork - Hedge End, Hampshire - June 2014

Just as I was settling down to watch the the England v Costa Rica match news came through of a White Stork just up the road in Hedge End, Hampshire. Initially it was an unconfirmed report but by half time the news had been confirmed. The match was pretty dull, which wasn't really a surprise given that England had already been knocked out, so I grabbed my bins and camera and headed up there.

White Stork - Hedge End, Hampshire

When I arrived there was a handful of familiar Hampshire Birders present and after the usual banter I grabbed my camera for a few shots. The bird was feeding in a recently mown hay meadow at the northern edge of Hedge End. It was keeping towards the back of the field and seemed quite settled.

White Stork - Hedge End, Hampshire

This is not a particularly rare species in Hampshire, in fact according to the 2012 Hampshire Bird Report, it has been recorded every year this century except 2007, 2009 and 2011. Bizarrely I have never seen White Stork in Hampshire, nor in fact in the UK but that is more down to my apathy rather than any other reason.

White Stork - Hedge End, Hampshire

Funnily enough when I was twitching the Ross's Gull the other day, we were discussing species that are relatively common but that we had not seen, and I had to admit this one.. but not anymore.

White Stork - Hedge End, Hampshire

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Gullfest at Bowling Green Marsh - June 2014

Whilst I was away in Canada new broke of a Ross's Gull at Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, Devon. This is a species that I had not seen before in the UK, in fact it was a species that I had never seen before. I have often thought about making a trip to Churchill on one of my trips to Canada, but have not got around to it yet. With the Ross's Gull at Bowling Green Marsh apparently showing daily, and the news of other good birds, Bonaparte's Gull and Eurasian Spoonbill, also being seen it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

I had a day booked off on Friday 20th June and teamed up with Simon Colenutt (the desk bound birder) for the trip. I arrived at Simon's at 6am, and we set off on the two hour drive to the site. Neither of us have been to Bowling Green Marsh before and I have to say that when we arrived we were met with what can only be described as a truly uninspiring site. As we looked out across the scrape we were greeted by a few mallards and Coots, two Black-tailed Godwits and single sleeping Little Egret and Spoonbill.

Bowling Green Marsh with Sleeping Little Egret and Spoonbill

As we sat looking out across the water a local volunteer warden arrived. He informed us that the Ross's Gull usually came in a couple of hours before high tide so we had a long time to wait. But at least we had a sleeping and occasionally waking and stretching Spoonbill to keep us occupied.

Stretching Eurasian Spoonbill

By now it was 8:30 and there was not much going on, but then suddenly we heard a Spotted Redshank call. A summer plumaged bird dropped in and landed next to the Black-tailed Godwits, only to be immediately joined by another. We waited for another half an hour, but with not much going on we decided to walk down the road and look over the Exe Estuary. The tide was a long way out and there were good numbers of gulls on the intertidal, unfortunately none were the gulls we wanted. Black-headed Gulls were the most numerous, with Herring, Great black-backed Gull and Mediterranean Gull also present. There were also family flocks of Shelduck, Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel present.

Two Summer plumaged Spotted Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits

On returning to the hide the numbers of birds in front of the hide had increased significantly, as had the numbers of birders in it. There were now around 100 Black-headed Gulls, and handful of Common Gulls, and the Black-tailed Godwit flock had increased to 79 birds. The spoonbill had also woken up and was now feeding in the channel outside the hide.

Adult Eurasian Spoonbill
Eurasian Spoonbill showing its typical spoon shaped Bill

The numbers of gulls present continued to increase and there was now around 300 birds, if not more. They were again mainly Black-headed Gulls but also Common, and Lesser Black-backed and about eight Mediterranean Gulls of various ages. Simon picked up a first-winter Little Gull, but just as I got onto it, it took off and did not come back. 

First Summer Mediterranean Gull

By now the numbers of gulls had really increased, and it was difficult to keep up with what was coming and going, fortunately there were plenty of pairs of eyes present. Another Little Gull was picked up, quickly followed by another, more Mediterranean and Common Gulls. Suddenly the shout went up that the Ross's Gull had arrived, and after a brief panic trying to figure out where it was, I got on to it. It was the closest bird to us but was giving tantalisingly brief glimpses as it fed beneath a bank. Eventually though it appeared and flew around giving some great views. The bird was in first winter plumage, and fairly tatty and so not the summer plumaged adult I had dreamed of, but it was a Ross's Gull, and my first.

Gulls at Bowling Green Marsh

The reported Bonaparte's Gull had not been seen regularly so we were not expecting to see that. But when some asked what the gull was in front of us were were pleantly surprised to see it was the Bonaparte's Gull. I have seen several of these in the UK, including Hampshire, and hundreds on my trips to America and Canada, but it was still nice to see another.

First winter Bonaparte's Gull (front) and Black-headed Gull

The bird was a first winter and despite my poor quality photo it is possible to make out the distinctive features; small size, small black bill and grey nape.

Bonaparte's Gull

By the time we left we had seen nine species of gull (Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Herring, Mediterranean, Common, Ross's, Black-headed, Bonaparte's and Little) all from the same seat in a small hide overlooking a pool in Devon. Our initial thought of an uninspiring site now well and truly pushed to the back of our minds, and all we could think of was what a great days birding we had had. 

If the Ross's Gull hangs around and you are consider going to see it be sure to check on the tides and make sure you arrive about three hours before high tide.

RAS Ringing at Manor Farm - June 2014

For the second time this weekend I was up at 5 am, this morning though it was for bird ringing rather than twitching. The plan was to visit Manor Farm Country Park in the hope of catching some House Sparrows for my BTO RAS project. I have blogged about the project on previous occasions so won't go through it in detail again. But for those who don't know, the aim is to catch or see as many previously ringed birds between the breeding season (March to September).

Adult Male House Sparrow
To make this easier, all of the birds I catch are ringed with a BTO metal ring on the right tarsus, and a yellow coloured darvic ring, with a single letter and two numbers, on the left tarsus. I started the project in 2000 and have to date ringed over 700 birds,

The Colour Rings used for my RAS Project

It is the peak breeding season for House Sparrows at present, and I had timed this visit in the hope that the first broods had fledged. We set six nets, around the farm buildings in locations that have previously proven to be good capture sites. Our first bird was a Carrion Crow, a species that I had not trapped at the site until last year, and now have ringed four. I think this reflects the number of birds present around the farm, which has increased dramatically in recent years. The next birds were a couple of Dunnocks and then we started catching sparrows. It was now 6:30 and the farm opened to the public at 10, so we had three hours to ring. 

It was a productive session that resulted in a total of 36 birds, of which 27 were House Sparrows. The total was made up of eight re-traps and 19 new birds, of which 15 were juveniles. Both adult and juvenile sparrows have a complete moult post breeding/fledging, therefore usually all wing and tail feathers will be replaced. Typically this will commence later in the season for adult birds, since they can have two or three broods. However, juvenile birds commence moulting in mid June, these will be the first broods.

Juvenile Male House Sparrow - note the white patch behind the eye and
rufous feathers coming through, more rufous feathers were present in the wing.

Of the birds we caught, five were in primary moult. This was generally not very advanced in that only the innermost primary had been replaced and the next was growing; all of the other feathers were old. One individual was in a curious state in that it had replaced all of its primaries, primary coverts and greater coverts, and only some of its tertials and secondaries (see below). It will be interesting to see how this bird progresses its moult, so hopefully I will catch it again over the next couple of weeks.

Wing of Juvenile House Sparrow

During the session we also caught a few other species that are breeders at the site; Wren, Blackbird and a couple of Greenfinches. The female was very tatty, but the adult male was still relatively fresh which was quite surprising for this time of year.

Adult Male Greenfinch

The only other species ringed was a juvenile Robin. I always say to my trainees that when you have a bird of a known age it is worth looking at features, such as tail feather shape and size, shape and colour of tips of greater coverts, so that they are familiar with the features when they catch a contentious bird. There was certainly no doubting this Robins age.

Juvenile Robin

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Quantity and Quality whilst Bird Ringing

I managed two ringing sessions this weekend, the first was yesterday (14th June) afternoon in my garden and the second was this morning at Botley Wood. The sessions were entirely different with one being made up of a large quantity of a Blue and Great Tits whereas the other was made up of predominantly quality birds, such as Whitethroats, Blackcaps and Garden Warblers.

Garden Ringing - 14th June
Over the last couple of weeks I have seen increasing numbers of birds returning to the garden feeders, but I just hadn’t had the time to put a net up. The most numerous species are Blue and Great Tits, and so not everyones cup of tea, but I don’t mind ringing them. If I want to put a net up in the garden to try for other species, then the tits are just a by-product. But its not all bad as it is possible to build up some good longevity data through retrapping the same birds. In fact only this week I heard back from BTO HQ, that a Blue Tit that I had ringed on 31st December 2008 was killed by a neighbours cat on 9th May 2014, 5 years and 129 days since ringing. This is not a record by any means, that stands at 9 years, 9 months and 2 days, but it is a good age for a species that on average survives for just 3 years (according to BTO facts). Interestingly this bird had not been re-trapped since its original ringing date, but was evidently still in the area.

This session was made up of 39 birds of which 18 were Blue Tits and 14 were Great Tits, all of the tits were new birds, and all except one were juveniles. The remainder of the birds were made up of two Dunnocks, two Greenfinch’s and single House Sparrow and Nuthatch. The only re-trap was one of the Dunnocks, which was originally ringed on 28th October 2011. My first juvenile Greenfinch of the year was trapped, and whilst this bird was clearly a juvenile, its tail was broader and not as pointed as other juvenile feathers I have seen in the past.

Juvenile Greenfinch - note streaking on breast
Juvenile Greenfinch Wing - note the brown fringed greater coverts and
pointed primary converts
Juvenile Greenfinch Tail - this tail is broader and not as pointed as many
juvenile greenfinch tails that I have seen. It will obviously wear over time
but it is always worth looking at a combination of features when ageing birds.

Botley Wood Ringing - 15th June
This session required a 5am start which was not idea since I had stayed up late to watch the England vs Italy match. Given the result I wished I hadn’t but we make these mistakes in life, when it comes to watching England playing football I never seem to learn! It was a steady morning that resulted in 30 birds from only four nets. Unlike my garden, only two tits were caught, one blue and one great. The most numerous species was Common Whitethroat, with nine birds ringed, followed by Chiffchaff, with eight birds ringed.

Juvenile Chiffchaff - the plumage is very fresh and fluffy; a yellow gape
is still obvious

Two of the whitethroats were retraps, one from 2nd June 2012 and one from 1st May 2013, four were adults and five were juveniles. This was great training for Chris who was able to compare the differences between adult and juvenile whitethroats in prep for the autumn at Titchfield Haven. 

Adult Whitethroat - note pale iris
Juvenile Whitethroat - note dark iris - when ringing whitethroats in the
autumn always check the eye as the colour of the iris will give you a clear
clue to the birds age

Similarly the Chiffchaff numbers were made up of adults and juveniles, and so it was possible to compare the different ages. The other species ringed were four each of Blackcap and Garden Warbler and three robins. Surprisingly, we did not catch any juvenile Garden Warblers or Blackcaps, I would have certainly expected some to be on the wing: the robins were all juveniles. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Orchids, Butterflies and Dragonflies in Botley Wood

My planned early morning ringing session had to be cancelled due to heavy rain on the south coast, which didn’t really seem fair as the rest of Britain seemed to be basking in glorious sun. That said the lie in was very welcome. After the rain had cleared I hung around the house for a while before heading over the Botley Wood for a stroll.

Bee Orchid

Several weeks ago I had seen the leaves of a bee orchid that had flowered two years ago, but last year it was devoured by rabbits. I had been covering parts of the plant up in the hope of hiding it from the little critters, but had forgotten about it since my return from Canada. I was pleased to see that it had escape the attention of the rabbits, since it was now in full bloom. Quite how it had escaped I do not know since it was surrounded by rabbit droppings, and the leaves and one of the flowers had been nibbled. Hopefully it will survive for a few more years yet.

Bee Orchid - Note the leaves and part of the lower
flower have been eaten by rabbits

The verges on either side of the substation road were in full bloom too, and Common Spotted Orchids were abundant in places. I noticed that my net rides will be in need of some trimming, which I will do before erecting the nets next time I go there.

Common Spotted Orchids

Bird wise it was fairly quiet, but that was hardly surprising as it was the middle of a hot sunny day. Several species were singing occasionally, but two species, Wren and Chiffchaff were singing almost continuously. I did hear a burst of Garden Warbler and also occasional Willow Warbler too, but not a sniff of any Common Nightingales. Butterflies and particularly dragonflies on the other hand were very active. During the course of my walk I recorded Large Skipper, Meadow Brown, Red Admiral, Brimstone and my first Marbled White of the year. Brimstone was the commonest species with seven recorded, the majority of which were females.

Brimstone on Marsh Thistle

At Toby’s Pond dragonfly activity was immense. There were at least 20 chasers hunting over the pond, and from what I could make out they were Broad-bodied Chasers and Black-tailed Skimmers. Damselflies were also abundant with Large Red, Blue-tailed and Common Blue the main species present.

Female Black-tailed Skimmer

There are several woodland streams running through the Botley Wood/Whiteley Pastures area and where sunny woodland glades are present so were Beautiful Demoiselles. The males were sparring over the stream and settling back onto a favoured perch, which was a fallen tree of an overhanging leaf. Beautiful Demoiselle is a locally common species that occurs on flowing waters in the south and west of Britain. 

Male Beautiful Demoiselle

They are apparently an indicator of unpolluted waters which is a good sign since I recorded them in three locations in Botley Wood.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Barn Owls 8 - Kestrels 0 - June 2014

I arrived back from Canada on Monday (2nd June) and was straight back to work on Tuesday. There had been no time for birding or ringing all week, and the weather had been pretty poor anyway, so I wasn't too bothered as I was still savouring the highlights from my trip. 

Before I had gone away I had seen a brood of Barn Owls that looked quite a good size and was aware that two of my boxes were likely to be being used, so I was keen to check them as I didn't want to miss the chicks. I thought I would get the wheels in motion for checking my Barn Owl and Kestrel boxes and arranged to visit the boxes on Friday evening and Saturday morning. The first box visited had three fluffy white chicks that were probably between 14 and 28 days old. Their weights ranged from 300 to 390 grams and their feathers were just starting to protrude from the sheath.

Barn Owl chick - the smallest of the three
Barn Owl chick - the mid-sized one. You have to admit they aren't
very pretty at this age

Saturday morning required an early start as I had commitments later in the day and there were several boxes to check. The first box was the one I suspected had Barn Owls, and sure enough a brood of four, and the adult female.

Healthy brood of four Barn Owls

These chicks were older than the other brood and had very similar weights that ranged from 400 to 430 grams. The oldest bird was more advanced than the others and was probably around 40 days old, with the brood probably between 25 and 40 days old.

Barn Owl chick - probably around 40 days old

The female was in very good condition plumage wise and weighed in at 345 grams, around 60 grams lighter than the chicks. Whilst ringing the Barn Owls a newly fledged Carrion Crow flew from one tree to the tree I was sat under. This was obviously its maiden flight because as it got further from its take off point it got lower and lower until it crash landed into the grass right next to me. It would have been rude to leave it there so I ringed it and put it up in the tree. It was gaining confidence all the time and by the time I left was doing circuits around the tree.

Unfortunately it would appear that Kestrels have bred early this year, as two of the boxes had chicks, but they were very advanced and sitting on the shelf outside the box and on top of it, that'll teach me to go away! Another box had a single Stock Dove egg, so hopefully one for another day.
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