Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Woodcock Breeding

Following Tony's recent post on Woodcock this winter, I have more information on the 2014 breeding season. I have been in touch with Francois Gossmann who is the French Woodcock expert and his view is that although juvenile numbers are down this winter this does not represent a significant breeding failure and is part of the yearly fluctuation that happens due to the variation in weather conditions in Russia over the breeding season. This summer conditions in much of the area in Russia where Woodcock breed was dry, this impacted on the avialability of worms that are so vital for feeding broods.
I have also been in touch with Vadim Vitovsky a Russian biologist who studies Woodcock in the St Petersburg area. Each autumn they catch and ring Woodcock and have found that body mass this year was about 10% lower than normal reflecting poor feeding conditions, however Vadim also said that this was not an unusual occurrence.

Looking at the data on adult/ juvenile ratios from a selection of our ringers working in areas where there are few breeding Woodcock we can get a reasonable picture of what is happening with migrant woodcock for the past 4 years.

2011/12    65% juvenile  (sample 249)
2012/13    73% juvenile  (sample 178)
2013/14    70% juvenile  (sample 195)
2014/15    62% juvenile  (sample 144)  up to 12/12/14

Now that the Woodcock Network has a way of monitoring yearly breeding success we can keep shooter informed and urge them to use restraint on years when there has been lower breeding success. I have written a piece on this which will be published in 'Shooting Times' this week.

This is all possible due to the dedication of our Woodcock ringers who venture out on cold wet and windy winter nights to ring and gather this valuable information. People often question the need for ringing, but ringing Woodcock demonstrates the value of gathering biometric data across the country which can be used to the benefit of the species.

Since the Woodcock Network started ringing in 2008 we have learned that Woodcock are much more abundant than previously thought with our ringers seeing high numbers on sites throughout the country. What has also emerged is that migrant Woodcock are highly loyal to their wintering haunts. Since starting to ring Woodcock on my site in West Wales I have seen my re-trap level of birds ringed over previous winters grow each year.

2008/9     5.4%       of all adults caught
2009/10  11.3%       "         "            "
2010/11  29.4%       "         "            "
2011/12  30.5%       "         "            "
2012/13  47.0 %      "         "            "
2013/14  43.0%       "         "            "
2014/15  75.0%       "         "            "  up to 12/12/14

We are keen to get more ringers working on Woodcock so that we can improve our understanding of this secretive species. If you need advice on catching techniques please give me a call on 01974 272654.

Monday, 15 December 2014

What a load of old Scolopax!

After a slow start it looks as if the Woodcock have finally arrived in Wales en masse. I caught my first one of the winter on the 28th October, a pretty usual date for seeing the first few returning birds, but although there have been reasonable numbers present since there hasn't been anything spectacular. The last two nights though have been very different! In the early hours of Sunday morning, after catching a few Snipe and Jack Snipe at Ynyslas with Matt Potter, I ventured out to one of our regular sites just inland of Aberystwyth and had a catch of 16 new Woodcock. Then last night I made the first visit of the winter to a regular site in Carmarthenshire and caught an amazing 27 Woodcock (25 new birds, 1 retrap from Feb 2011 and another from Jan 2012). That's 41 new Woodcock ringed in less than 24 hours!

Francios Gossman from the French equivalent of the Game Conservancy had recently contacted Owen to request information of the ratio of adult to young birds we were getting as there is some early suggestion that it may have been a poor breeding season for Woodcock in Russia this year as it has been so dry. The 43 birds I've just caught comprised 18 adults and 25 juveniles or 42% adults which is actually higher than the mean of around 30% observed over the past few years so perhaps there is something in it. Hopefully Owen will be able to post a more comprehensive assessment later when he has gathered comparable counts from other Woodcock ringers.

In the spotlight - if, through adult:juvenile ratios at trapping, Woodcock can be shown to have had a poor breeding season then the shooting community can be asked to exercise restraint so that numbers are allowed to recover.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

4 significant milestones!

With the moon high in the sky and bright until 4 am the only chance to get a bit of dazzling in at the moment is to get up early - very early! Yesterday I met Sarah in Aberystwyth at 2:45 having set off an hour earlier. The sky was cloudless and the moon still very bright so we killed a bit of time catching a few Dippers at one of the local roost bridges. Four birds were present and we managed to catch 3 of them (2 new and 1 2013 retrap). Afterwards we headed down to a regular dazzling site on the coast. Despite the perfectly still conditions and heavy frost we eventually managed to catch 2 Golden Plover, 2 Lapwing, 2 Woodcock and a Skylark but it was hard going as the birds were clearly using other locations for feeding now that the small puddles had frozen. In particular we didn't see a single Jack Snipe despite the fact that Brendan and I caught 3 (and flushed almost double figures) in the same fields just 24 hours earlier.

At 8am Sarah headed off to work and I met up with Brendan and we went looking for daytime ringing opportunities on the coast. Mid Wales can be pretty lifeless for small birds in the winter but we eventually found a turnip field absolutely heaving with Meadow and, bizarrely, Rock Pipits. There must have been well over 50 of each species present along with a similar number of Skylarks. Tracking down the farmer took a while but he was more than happy for us to try catching a few so we set two nets in a V shape and left a mixed pipit tape running. The pipits could clearly see the net (the Rock Pipits more so than the Meadow Pipits unfortunately) but we did eventually catch 22 Meadow Pipits and 3 Rock Pipits. As the frost melted so the birds moved out of the turnip field and headed out to the pasture fields nearby. A quick look at the thrush roost in the late afternoon showed that the large number of birds present just a few weeks ago had already moved off or found somewhere better.

Despite the relatively small number of birds caught, during the course of the day we ringed our 500th Dipper, 400th Meadow Pipit, 300th Woodcock and 200th Golden Plover of the year. Scientifically I suppose these figures are barely separable from 499, 399, 299 and 199 respectively but hey, that's just one of the small joys of being human!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Everything must go!

This morning Andre and I headed down to Aberystwyth to try netting at a new site we had received permission for just the night before - in fact there was a big welcome waiting for us when we turned up!

A quick reccy revealed a couple of interesting net locations and the potential to catch the odd bird.

We quickly erected a net in the best looking spot but despite trying a bit of tactical 'driving' it was a while before we managed to catch our first bird, nearly 2 hours in fact, but it was worth it in the end - a nice immature male Sparrowhawk.

Having seen nothing else flying around whilst we were there we decided to call it a day and pack up. One bird seen, one bird caught, 100% success!!

Don't look back in anger!

P.S. This Sparrowhawk had chased a small bird in through the loading bay doors the previous afternoon and despite leaving the doors open it wouldn't drop low enough to fly out again. Unable to set the alarms because the bird was triggering them, would-be robbers missed an excellent opportunity to stock up on early Christmas presents when the store was left all night with all the alarms off (it was locked though and the alarms are back on again now!!). The store is pretty big and a single 40ft net looked completely lost but by carefully driving the bird towards the net with long poles we did manage to catch it eventually (although it managed to get out of the net three times!!) and safely release it outside. 

The curse has lifted...

Usually when I offer to take Marc Hughs out dazzling we end up seeing and catching very little (or get stuck in a field). This evening had the same feel about it, because as we drove up the last hill the mist set in! A trip around the first field resulted in just 1 Woodcock being caught, and very little else seen! The second field looked as if it would follow suit, as the first 2 Woodcock we saw were spooked by a Jack Snipe and a Fieldfare managed to escape as I was dropping the net! Then strangely, the mist started to clear. I said to Marc there's a (slim) chance we might see an owl now. Only minutes later a Short-eared Owl dropped out of the sky, and took an interest in the Woodcock I was trying to creep up on. It soon lost interest and sat on a post. Having had a bit of practice catching owls of posts with barbed wire recently, I was fairly confident that I could catch it if I could get close enough, BINGO! No sooner had I caught the owl, another one turned up about 20 meters away! This one unfortunately took off when I was within about 4 meters of it, but you can't have everything I suppose. Needless to say, myself and Marc were extremely pleased with the catch.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The long wait is over...

Around 3 and a half years ago (3 years, 4 months, 3 weeks and 5 days to be exact but who's counting) I saw and very nearly caught my first ever Long-eared Owl. It was sat on a fence post, and I managed to get the net over the bird only for it to get snagged on some barbed wire. Needless to say, the owl got away and never came close again!! I was faced with the same challenge this evening and the same story nearly happened. Thankfully tho I was aware that the net would get snagged, so as soon as I had dropped the net on the owl I quickly grabbed it! I had local trainee ringer Elinor Parry with me at the time who couldn't quite believe what had just happened (neither could I!). Seeing a species for the first time is always a nice moment, but getting to ring it and have a real good look at it is even better.

Elinor getting to grips with the Long-eared Owl

Aged as a juvenile, so hopefully a 'local' bred bird

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Gold dust - well hardly!

This autumn  has  been an  exceptional  one for Goldcrest  ringing  in  our  area. I know that perhaps we haven't tried as hard or as regularly in the past but even so there do seem to be a hell of a lot around at the moment

First net round yesterday produced 25 in this net alone but they are 
pretty small so hard to see!

So far this autumn we have ringed over 400 and yesterday, at a new site south of Aberystwyth, Andre and I managed a catch of 60 Goldcrest in 3 nets along with 18 Long-tailed Tit, 7 Bullfinch, 5 Coal Tit, 4 Blue Tit, 2 Willow Tit,  1 Great Tit, 1 Wren and a Woodcock! 

One of the 60 Goldcrests caught yesterday. As is usually the case the vast majority were birds of the year. Not the best photo as the defining feature isn't visible!! 

One of the two Willow Tits we also caught.  These smart little birds have declined massively nationally but there still seem to be reasonable numbers in our local conifer plantations where there are lots of rotten tree stumps to nest in.

Although we obviously catch a lot of Woodcock each winter it is a long time since I saw one in a mist-net. As Andre has just qualified for his 'C' specific for winter wader dazzling he got to start his ringing notebook off with this as his first bird!

Andre kicks-off his 'dazzling' C permit in broad daylight!

This bird was aged as a juvenile based on the broad brown tips to the primary coverts and the rounded, rather than flattened, ends of the inner primaries.

And it posed briefly for a photo on release too!

As dusk was falling we noticed several hundred Redwing and Fieldfare heading into a dense bit of re-growth and quickly put up a couple of 40ft nets and played Redwing song on the tape-lures. Wasn't a massive hit but did catch 7 Redwing, a Fieldfare and a Blackbird to add to the day's catch. Six more Woodcock were seen flighting out of the cover too so seems good numbers have arrived back now.

Hoping to go back for a more dedicated effort at the thrush roost soon as there were a lot of birds present and they were definitely in a catchable site given a bit more time to set nets.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Taking stock...

While out dazzling waders at night time, you occasionally stumble across other species roosting in the fields. Species such as Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Fieldfare etc are regularly seen and trapped and expected to be encountered, but Stock Doves on the other hand are always a bit of a shock to see roosting in a field at night time especially when there are so many trees around! Maybe this is 'normal' behavior and we're only just realising? Needless to say I trapped another Stock Dove last night, along with 2 Fieldfares and 3 more Woodcock.

'3rd Stock Dove to be dazzled this winter'

'Fieldfares have finally started to arrive, but only in small numbers'

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Owls that........

After Tony's success we decided to head out to some of our 'dazzling' sites in north Radnorshire to see what new birds had arrived on the recent full moon. After the first 3 sites we had managed to catch 3 Snipe, 4 Woodcock, 3 Golden Plovers and 2 Fieldfares which was what we would normally expect to catch, give or take a few birds. Despite it being very late we still had some battery power left, so I suggested we tried one more site! It was definitely worth the effort as this site seemed to be alive with Owls! On the section I was checking, I soon noticed an 'eared owl' in the distance perched on the ground. It was in the middle of a boggy area so I wasn't expecting to get anywhere near it. But with some very delicate foot work I managed to get close enough to catch the bird, it was indeed a Shortie!! Not long after I notice another 'eared owl' hunting in the distance, this one wasn't having any of it and kept its distance, I think it was a Long-eared. On the way back to the car a female Barn Owl dropped to the ground about 3 meters in front of me only to be put up by a Snipe!! Tony also saw a different Long-eared Owl on his patch, but this one also kept his distance. While driving back Tony spotted a different Barn Owl sat on a fence post, so we stopped and I had a go at catching one on a post, bingo!! As if this wasn't enough, we then saw Tony's Long-eared Owl again, and then nearer to home we managed to catch a Tawny Owl that was perched on the roadside!!

'juvenile female Short-eared Owl'

'juvenile male Barn Owl'

'adult female Tawny Owl'

In all of the 'owl excitement' we managed to catch another 3 new (+ 2 re-trap) Woodcock and 1 more Fieldfare! A night that's going to be very hard to beat!!

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Long and the Short of it!

With the weatherman giving warnings of high winds and heavy rain it was time to set off ringing again! These are just the conditions in which you can get a very good catch. Last night produced a couple of unexpected surprises though.

Firstly this Short-billed Woodcock. We have shown pictures of "shorties" on this blog before but this is the first one I've encountered and had a bill just over half the normal length. Like Paddy's recent "Snowcock   " this bird was also an adult so has managed to cope with its impediment for some time.

Secondly, whilst walking one rushy field I noticed what I initially thought was another "Shortie" hunting in the beam of the torch. I tried "squeaking" it in but it took no notice and eventually flew off. Later, on my way back, it was hunting the same patch of ground but this time it eventually perched on a fence post and I was able to walk up quietly and net it off the top! With the weather so mild on the continent at the moment it is likely this bird is probably one of our small local breeding population but there is also the chance that it has come in from Scandinavia to winter in our milder winter climate.

Long-eared Owl - absolutely stunning! A juv I think but the diagrams in Baker are a bit confusing to say the least!!

As our Barn and Little Owl man, Chris Griffiths, lives just a few miles down the road I gave him a call to see if he wanted to broaden his ringing experience, don't think he could have made it any faster if he had flown! 

4 more Woodcock, 2 Golden Plover and a Fieldfare made it well worth going out for and the weather wasn't half as bad as it was forecast anyway!