Thursday 31 December 2015

A ton of gold...

Last night, Silvia and I headed out for our last lamping session of 2015. The weather was by no means perfect for catching, but the moon wasn't up until 22:00 so it was pretty dark. Although all of the rain meant that the fields were great for waders to feed on them, it also meant that creeping up on them was very difficult. Unfortunately the Snipe could here me from a long way away, and as a result I didn't catch any. Thankfully there were a few 'dry' patches where being quiet wasn't as tricky. On one of these patches I spotted a single Golden Plover. Somehow I managed to creep up to it and catch it. Amazingly this is the 100th new Golden Plover I've caught this winter! Although it's been a very mild winter, numbers of Golden Plover on our ringing sites have now dropped to single figures. Early on in the season there were 100+ in some fields, this drop in numbers has also been reflected in the number of birds caught - 3 in September, 48 in October, 35 in November and just 14 in December. Hopefully some of the birds will get re-sighted so we can learn more about their winter dispersal.

Two other milestones were also reached last night when I caught mine and Silvia's 100th Fieldfare of the winter. and in doing so also brought up our 500th 'dazzled' bird of the winter. Hopefully January to early April can also bring us some more good catches.

Roll on 2016!!

Monday 28 December 2015

Dippers rising!

Just before Christmas, battling the after-effects of my first dose of man-flu for over two-years,  I plunged into the flooded waters of the Rivers Wye and Irfon in order to check a few more roost-sites of Dippers (not a wise move on your own really as I ended up soaked to the skin and almost got swept away!).

Earlier this year we ringed 535 nestling Dippers, an all time high, and checking all known roost sites in the autumn/winter is a great way of finding out how well these birds have survived and where they have subsequently settled following their post-juvenile dispersal. It also allows us to colour-ring the survivors as we don't colour-ring chicks in the nest due to the naturally low survival rate. 

Spray-covered Dipper roosting on a rock-face near a waterfall. Nearby (and impossible to photograph unfortunately) was a bird roosting behind a raging torrent!

So far this season we have checked 257 roost sites and recorded 342 roosting Dippers of which 301 have been caught or identified from colour-rings. Well over 50% of all birds caught were retraps or controls. Dippers are pretty sedentary but females especially will swop river catchments. The furthest movement recorded so far this year is of a nestling that I ringed on the River Rea near Neen Savage in Shropshire and then re-rapped on the upper reaches of the River Teme, a straight-line distance of over 53 km. 

The Dipper equivalent of a Sandwich Tern in Namibia!

Roost counts at occupied roosts were  as follows:-

1 x 12
2 x 9
2 x 7
4 x 6
5 x 5
15 x 4
22 x 3
34 x 2
55 x 1

The remaining 117 suitable or previously used roost sites had no birds present. We still have about 50 odd known sites to check if/when the waters subside.

It is clear from this monitoring that the Dipper population locally is continuing to recover from a population dip in the  1990's almost certainly caused by the use of new powerful Synthetic Pyrethroid (Cypermethrin) sheep-dips (withdrawn from sale in the UK in 2010) and undoubtedly helped by the provision of well over 100 purpose-built nest-boxes.)

Saturday 26 December 2015

An amazing Christmas Sandwich!

What's the best present you can give a bird-ringer for Christmas? Well you could do a lot worse than a Christmas Sandwich! 

A few years ago we started colour-ringing Sandwich Terns at Ynyslas National Nature Reserve in order to study the annual autumn passage of these amazing birds through the site. In 2013 we caught 83 different Sandwich Terns but were only using BTO metal rings at the time. Few recoveries of these birds have been received so far but as Sandwich Terns are long-lived some may yet arrive. Following our success in 2012 we registered a colour-ringing scheme in 2013. As is often the way, the autumn passage was considerably smaller in 2013 and 2014, with unfavourable weather conditions at crucial times, and we only managed to ring 11 birds in 2013 and just 2 in 2014. In 2015, after another unpromising start, things improved and we colour-ringed 43 birds, including 4 retraps/controls of birds ringed in earlier years/elsewhere. We have already had a number of sightings of these birds in Southern England on their onward journey and some from breeding colonies in the North-East of England. 

Late on Christmas Eve I received an email forwarded by Ewan Weston, who co-ordinates sightings of colour-ringed Sandwich Terns in the UK, from Mark Boorman who had recently read the ring of one of these terns at Walvis Bay Oyster Beds in Namibia!! Certainly brightened a wet winter evening and absolutely amazing to know exactly where one of these birds is spending their winter, amongst the Pelicans and Flamingos on the Skeleton Coast on the edge of the Namib desert - it's certainly no turkey!

Sunday 20 December 2015

Christmas wrapping

At a time of year when people marvel at the beauty of the Barn Owl, because they inevitably will have a Christmas card with one on, I have been busy wrapping my latest Christmas box.

Lee Walker, from the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme contacted me last year asking for any dead Barn Owls to be forwarded on to him, regardless of how they were killed. They send out the freepost boxes, I usually have one at home so that I can send it off quickly before the birds start decomposing. They aim to quantify any levels of contaminants in the liver and eggs of selected species, to determine how and why they vary between species and regions, how they change over time and the effects they have on individual birds and their populations.
This is the 3rd Barn Owl I have had from this general location in as many months, no wonder that is our worst performing area!

Posted on behalf of Chris Griffiths, Montgomeryshire Barn Owl Group

Monday 14 December 2015

A pair of Shorties (or what exactly do Short-eared Owls eat?)

The past couple of nights have seen a bit of very successful lamping, both inland and on the coast. On Friday Jacques and I headed up to the Ceri Ridgeway to try and ring a few more Golden Plover. Halfway across the first field I spot a double eye-shine in the beam (this is unusual as with waders you almost always get just one). Initially I thought it might have been a polecat but as I got closer I could make out the unmistakable shape of a Short-eared Owl. Now walking a bit more carefully,  I edged forward until I was close enough to drop the net on it. Only then could I see that, even whilst under the net, it was still holding on tightly to a decapitated Fieldfare it had partially plucked and eaten. Jacques seemed pretty pleased and got to ring his 101 species as a trainee, which isn't bad going in just over 7 months!!. The rest of the fields yielded 5 Woodcock, 7 Golden Plover, 2 Fieldfares (with heads) and a Snipe. We also watched the same or another Shorty in hot pursuit of a Golden Plover that had just flushed in the beam!

This bird was aged as a first-year female based on tail pattern and the
 buff background colour and barring on the outer secondaries. 

The following evening Jane joined us and we headed down to Ynyslas to see what waders we could catch on the high tide. There were a good number of Redshank present and we quickly caught 23 (and could have easily caught another 10) before realising that I only had 22 'D2' rings on me! Was a bit traumatised to have to release one without a ring!

Having run out of rings for Redshank we decide to have a quick walk around the fields for Woodcock, Snipe and Jack Snipe. Halfway around the usual beat, having failed to get anywhere near any of the 20+ Snipe flushed, I get a double eyeshine in the beam again. As I get closer I can see it is another Short-eared Owl! Only one problem, there's a great big pool of water between me and it. Go round or keep it in the beam and go straight across? I opt for the latter and walk as quietly as I can through the middle of the pool. Thankfully, the owl sits tight and is soon under the net and I can then see why it was reluctant to fly off - it was sitting on the half-eaten remains of a freshly killed Lapwing!

This bird was also aged and sexed as a first-year female although on seeing these photos I'm beginning to doubt the sexing of the first bird? It could just be the different lighting but it appears to be much paler than this one. Advise from anyone with more  experience of the species is very welcome!

Over the past few winters we have caught (or narrowly missed) several Shorties whilst they were on freshly caught prey items - Lapwing (2), Redshank, Knot and Fieldfare. I'm staggered at the size of prey they will tackle - Short-eared Owls weigh around 300g whereas a Lapwing weighs about 250g and a Redshank about 150g so that's a half to well over two-thirds their own body weight! They are clearly fearsome predators of waders and surprisingly nocturnal too!

PS Since this post went live some concern has been expressed to BTO by another ringer that these owls may have been near starvation and that is why they were reluctant to fly off! By way of reassurance I can confirm that both these owls were perfectly fit and healthy and weighed 309g and 335g respectively - well within normal limits. TC.

Friday 27 November 2015


In the 35 years I've been a licensed bird-ringer I've caught birds using a great variety of methods, lures and baits but this was a new one on me!

Caroline's works car was proving extremely interesting to one of our 'garden' birds

I've had birds flying at their reflections in car mirrors before but have never managed to put it to good use and certainly not with such a smart bird!

Not sure the technique has wider application though!

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 and join now.