Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Purple patch...

My good run of catching continued last night. Despite a near full moon, light drizzle tempted me out to see if anything new had come in during the last few bright nights. Birds seemed to be everywhere, and although I wasn't really expecting to catch much I still managed to catch a 'dazzler's hat trick' (Woodcock, Snipe and Jack Snipe) so a good choice to venture out.

While checking the fields I did notice a very small wader tucked away. I could see it wasn't one of the local species and when I got a little closer I could see that it was a Purple Sandpiper!! There was some very nervous steps that followed, but amazingly it stayed put and I managed to drop the net on it.

Although the number of these birds getting ringed in the UK is increasing, I would be very surprised if one has been dazzled in a sheep field before, especially in Mid Wales!!

Just goes to show, anything can be out there!!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Shropshire Curlew Curtain Call?

During spring and summer 2015 I had the great pleasure of working on a research project organised by the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill Landscape Partnership Scheme to try to establish why the local Curlew population, in common with those in many other areas, is in steady decline.

The aim of the project was to locate a minimum of 12 Curlew nests, install remote cameras to try to discover the causes of nest failure, monitor hatching success and hopefully radio-tag any resulting chicks to assess chick survival to fledging.

Curlew nest with 4 eggs in a silage field

Adult Curlew on a nest on common land


Click here to see a Curlew returning to its nest.

A couple of nights ago we held the second of two farmer and land-manager feedback evenings in one of the local village halls so I can now share the results with you too.

In total 13 nests were located but one of these was never seen to contain eggs. Of the 12 nest that had eggs only 3 managed to produce chicks, 1 x 4, 1 x 3 and 1 x 2. 

Hatching Curlew egg - one of the few to survive long enough to do so

The causes of failure of the nine nests that failed at the egg stage are shown in the pie-chart below. The main predator was, unsurprisingly perhaps, the fox. 

Caught in the act - a fox takes a selfie just before tucking into the 3 Curlew eggs

The cause of desertion at the one nest was not established but it was NOT the camera as the birds had been reacting normally for a number of days after it was installed. 

The nine hatched chicks were all fitted with miniature radio-tags whilst still in the nest. Two complete broods (totalling 7 chicks) failed to last longer than 4 days before they were all predated! 

Radio-tagged Curlew chick, about a week after tagging.
 Nearly 75% had already been predated by this stage.

The remaining two chicks lasted about 10 days and 28 days respectively before they too were both predated by mammalian predators. Not a single Curlew chick survived to fledging!

Tagged Curlew chick at nearly 1 month old. Unfortunately this last surviving youngster was predated by a fox a few days later

Several other pairs, where no nest could be located, were also kept under observation and these too appeared to have failed completely. Despite a plea for records from volunteers in the three local Community Wildlife Groups there was not a single instance or report of any of the local Curlews alarm calling late on in the season. 

Curlews are long-lived birds with the BTO longevity record standing at over 31 years and 10 months. Evenso they clearly need to get some young off to sustain the population. The project is aiming to run for another two breeding seasons, increasing the sample size of nests monitored and thereby more accurately determining the causes of nest failure on a local level. There are plans, working alongside the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, to instigate increased levels of predator control locally and maybe trial electric fencing around some nests but all this will depend on the project sourcing sufficient funding. If something is not done soon I fear that the iconic bubbling of the Curlew may be lost from the hills and valleys of South Shropshire in our lifetime and that would be an absolute tragedy.

Whilst carrying out this work I managed to locate and identify two nesting birds out of the 20 Curlews we had colour-ringed at the communal roost on the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust's Dolydd Hafren reserve on the Severn between Welshpool and Newtown. Another of these birds has since been recorded wintering at Devoran in Cornwall. I am hoping to colour-ring more adults there this winter, if the river levels allow.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Wet, windy and lots of birds...

With strong winds and lots of rain forecast for this week, most ringers would think twice about trying to catch birds. But for us the conditions were ideal for catching. With lots of rain falling the fields where we dazzle waders are a lot wetter resulting in the birds being much more spread out and therefore less 'jumpy', and the strong wind usually means that the birds will stay more 'hunkered' down to the ground and are less likely to want to fly. So with all this in mind Silvia and I have been out catching every night this week at various sites with great success. A total of 70 new birds and 10 re traps! Although Woodcock number still seem very low, all other species of birds that we expect to encounter whilst out dazzling seem to be at their usual numbers.

Total captures for the past 5 nights are: Woodcock 5(+1), Golden Plover 15 (+2), Lapwing 1, Snipe 23 (+1), Jack Snipe 6 (+5), Tawny Owl 1, Meadow Pipit 1, Fieldfare 18 (+1).

With much of Silvia's and my focus being on Jack Snipe again this winter, it's encouraging to have already trapped 27 new birds and re trapped 8 from last winter. Some of these re traps were trapped in the same square metre of field that they were trapped in last winter!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Irish AA in red!

Two year's ago I headed out to Co. Wicklow to help my mate Damian Clarke set up a Dipper ringing study. During the 4 nights I was there we caught and BTO ringed a total of 56 Dippers. I returned in 2014 with the hope of helping him start a colour-ringing project but the delivery of the colour-rings was delayed and they arrived the day after I left! Last Friday we finally got to officially launch Damian's Wicklow Dipper colour-ringing project with the capture of the first bird this autumn which, as it happens, was a retrap of a bird originally ringed in 2013. Over the course of three nights we caught and colour-ringed 40 Dippers of which nine were retraps from autumn 2013.  Given that we didn't visit all the sites we did in 2013, and that other birds wearing BTO rings were missed that is a very encouraging survival rate, which, at first glance, seems a bit better than we get over here in Wales. Hopefully the colour-ringing will progress apace now and we can make some direct comparisons between Wales and Wicklow. It could be interesting as there are obviously no Tawny Owls in Ireland and they are known to be a predator of roosting Dippers over here.

A Wicklow colour-ring Dipper, the first of many hopefully

On the subject of owls, whilst over there we also had a go at netting a small wetland area owned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I wasn't expecting to be doing wader netting so I only had one 60ft net with me. None the less we managed to catch 12 Redshanks on a small pool in a flooded field. Whilst ringing the birds we heard a loud commotion from near the net and rushed over to see a Short-eared Owl sitting on a Redshank it had caught and didn't want to let go of - so much so in fact that I walked over and picked it off the bird by hand! The Redshank was a little the worse for wear but still alive and managed to fly off. No wonder the owl looks p****ed off in the photo!

Hand-caught Short-eared Owl. Sexed as a female on background colour
 and strength of markings and as a juvenile on tail pattern.

There can't have been that many Short-eared Owls ringed in Wicklow before?

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ever seen a live vulture? Use your internet skills to ensure the next generation get the same opportunity!

It has been a life-long wish of mine to get up-close and personal with a Lammergeier. My house is named after the place I first saw one. Vultures may not be the most beautiful birds in the world but they are certainly one of the most impressive and perform a vital ecological role into the bargain. Drug companies are getting rich marketing a veterinary drug, Diclofenac, that is proven to kill Gyps vultures such as Griffon Vulture and eagles too. There are safe and effective alternatives. This petition has been running for a while but has only just come to my attention. If you haven't already signed please take a minute or two to sign and stop this absolute nonsense. Iran has just banned it so why the hell can't Spain and Italy?


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Larger than expected catch!

My nights during the last two weeks have been devoted to our annual round of Dipper roost ringing. Each of over 250 bridges is visited to count the number of birds present and also to catch as many as possible. So far we are about half-way through with 170 birds caught out of exactly 200 found. About 1/3rd have been new birds with the rest retraps and including a good number ringed earlier this year as pulli. I will post a more complete analysis when the visits are complete. A few night back though, Jacques, Beth and I had a much bigger catch than expected!

Best to lean well back out of reach of that beak!

This young Grey Heron made the mistake of roosting within landing-net reach in an alder tree by one of the bridges. This is the first Grey Heron we have ever lamped although Paul and I caught one in a mist-net whilst Dippering a year or two back.

Stalking off, slightly crest-fallen but non the worse for its brief encounter

A few nights later I had my highest ever single bridge count of 12 Dippers (I've previously had 11 birds under the same bridge on a couple of occasions) - what's more I caught 11 of them and managed to read the colour-ring on the other.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

One small step for science, one giant leap for the Cross and Stratford Welsh Chough Project...!


By  A. V. Cross & A. Stratford

Wahoooo..... we've written a paper!! It might not be in the most lofty of Journals and it might be more Jimmy Carr than Rachel Riley in its statistical handling but its in print, its out there and it is already being used to further the conservation of its subject species which is why all of us "Citizen Scientists" (God, I hate that tag!) should ultimately strive to publish our results where possible. I've always held the view, and felt perfectly comfortable with the fact that, as trained and  licenced bird-ringers every single bird we ring is contributing in a small way to a pooled national database that is there for more learned, and able, scientists to mine, to transform, to regress, to interrogate, extrapolate and bootstrap but ultimately to produce meaningful and useful science. It matters little what our individual motivations are, collectively we are providing data, and these more learned folk can do nothing without data. I do have a slightly different view now however! Everything I previously thought still holds true but it is too good a feeling to give to someone else! It feels great to have produced something ourselves so maybe this is just the start!!

In the same way that every bird ringed adds to the national database, so every helper that provided re-sightings, carried a ladder, sat on a pin, slimed into a sea-cave or simply sat there and scribed has helped us collect the data we needed for this paper - your contributions may have seemed insignificant but collectively they were vital, thank you one and all!!

N. B. Birds in Wales is the twice-yearly Journal of the Welsh Ornithological Society, if you have the slightest interest in birds in the principality and are not already a member you are missing out. Please go to  www.birdsinwales.org.uk and join now.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The search for gold begins...

Last night Silvia and I headed up to one of our dazzling sites in Montgomeryshire. With it being one of our furthest sites from home it's always a worry that you might come back empty handed, so going up early in the season was a bit of a gamble. After scan around the first field, there wasn't a lot to be seen. This was no doubt because of the time of year and the fact that the grass was quite long. Despite this we were happy to catch a Snipe and 2 Skylarks, which now made the journey up there worth while. Before heading back we checked another field which looked a lot better straight away. It had recently been topped, which the plovers seem to favour. After lots of Snipe and a couple of Lapwing getting up from long distance I was beginning to think that catching anything else was off the cards. Thankfully that changed when a Lapwing decided to drop back to the ground. Soon after catching it another Snipe was caught. Happy with that I headed back to the car, when a familiar shape appeared in the beam. A very quiet tiptoe walk which seemed to take forever was rewarded with our first Golden Plover of the season. 6 birds dazzled any night is good, let alone mid September! Lets hope it continues.

Colour-ringed Golden Plover


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Terned up, eventually!

The last 3 nights have seen some good tides for ringing waders and terns and thankfully the weather was kind too, with the wind finally easing to allow mist-netting at Ynyslas on two of the three night-time high tides. The numbers of birds present were not as high as a fortnight ago with many of the terns and waders having already moved through but with the improved weather, Paul, Silvia, Jane and I did manage to colour-ring 13 more Sandwich Terns bringing the total colour-ringed this year to 41 (39 new birds, 1 re-trap and 1 control).

Juvenile Sandwich Tern. Amazingly past ringing returns have shown that some of these birds have come to Ynyslas from the Farne Islands, crossing overland in doing so and whilst still being fed by the adults!

The handful of Sandwich Terns we have managed to colour-ring in the past two years have already provided a good number of resightings (in Devon, North Wales and Northumberland) so this should be a real boost to the project. Last night we caught our only Common Tern of the year too. This is far from a “common” species for us but this year has been a particularly poor one for “smaller “ terns hanging about in the estuary.

Juvenile Common Tern

The outstanding feature of these recent catches though were the 21 Knot ringed. The Dyfi is not a particularly important estuary for Knot and most that turn up are brief stayers enroute to elsewhere. All of the 31 Knot ringed so far this autumn have been juveniles and represent the largest number of Knot caught in a single year since I started ringing on the Dyfi back in 1982!

A juvenile Knot, clearly identifiable by the subterminal black bands on the wing coverts 

To put things into context, excluding this year, only 94 Knot have been ringed here previously. In contrast nearly 3,000 Dunlin have been ringed in the same time period so the 85 caught this set of tides is a fairly normal showing. 

A nice addition to last nights catch was a Liitle Stint, our first since 2012 and only our 20th ever. Last year, surprisingly, there we no Little Stints ringed anywhere in Britain!

Juvenile Little Stint

Other birds ringed in the past few nights included 7 Ringed Plover, 5 Turnstone, 2 Redshank, 1 Curlew and 10 Oystercatchers, one of which was a partial albino!

Thanks to Paul for the photos (well apart from the ones of the albino Oystercatcher,  I take full credit for them !!)

Monday, 14 September 2015

It's good to be back...

After spending 11 weeks in Romania seeing and ringing some great species of bird, I can happily say that I'm pleased to be back home. The winds have been quite calm, which has allowed Silvia and myself to get out and do some mist netting at a couple of our regular sites. The first site we tried was a pine forest where we've had good catches of small passerines during late summer/early autumn in previous years. The forest was very quite and we only managed 30  or so birds. The next few days we tried some mixed willow scrub/conifer re-growth. This was definitely where all of the birds were hanging out. Over the space of 3 days and only about 10 hours netting we managed to trap and ring over 220 birds. Highlights over the 4 days netting were easily Firecrest and Redstart.

Firecrest (hopefully not the only one for this year!)


Total number of birds netted in the 4 days!

As well as netting we've also headed out on to the hills dazzling, to see what birds are 'in'. Despite (understandably) very few birds, we've still managed to catch 7 Common Snipe, 6(+1) Skylark, 1 Meadow Pipit and 2 Tawny Owl. Not bad for mid September, roll on the autumn!

Tawny Owl