Monday, 24 December 2012

Colourful Coot

The coot, a small black water bird with a white bill and shield on their forehead. A numerous bird, occupying seemingly every pond, lake, puddle or river in Britain. You only have to go to one of these bodies of water during the winter and the place can be teeming with them. Bobbing their heads back and forth, quarrelling with one another, and readily coming to areas where families feed the ducks. But return to the same place during the summer and there maybe only one or two present. Nesting for sure, pairing off onto territories and raising one or two broods. But where do all those birds that frequent large bodies of water during the winter go to breed? For a bird that is so common, we know little about their movements not only between summer and winter, but also their winter movements. Do they stay in the same place all, or do they move around?

Once again ringing is helping to answer some of these questions. In the hopes of increasing the reporting rate of the coots they ring, an intrepid group of ringers in the Lancashire area started adding colour rings.

Colour ringed coot

Catching coot is not as simple as putting a mist net up and hoping one bundle’s in. In most cases ringers use a variety of traps where the birds walk in, lured by a source of food a trigger a door mechanism. This group of ringers however have come up with a much more novel way, taking advantage of large groups of coot coming to public areas where ducks and geese are fed, especially during winter when food in the wider environment is not as readily available. Making the most of these feeding frenzies and the distracted birds, these guys simply reach down a grab a coot from the water!

In 2010 one of those colour ringed coots turned up on The Mere at Ellesmere, Shropshire, a large body of water, encircled by woodland, where all manner of birds gather. From sand martins in the summer to rafts of gulls and flocks of ducks during the winter. With this coot an idea began to take shape. Large numbers of ducks and geese are fed here throughout the year, and in winter the inevitable coverts of coot join in the fray. If the guys in Lancashire could catch coot by hand, why couldn’t we?

View Coot in a larger map - Blue Pin is Redesmere, Cheshire where the coot 
was ringed, with the Red Pin representing Ellesmere

Although not as prolific as the Lancashire ringers, and certainly not as regular, we have still managed to catch and colour ring 11 coot since starting in 2010. Today’s haul, a total of six birds, was pretty good considering the mild weather.

One of todays newly colour ringed coots AIA

So the next time you are out feeding the ducks, or maybe just taking a walk by the river, and you see those funny black and white water birds paddling in the water or strolling along the grassy verges pecking at your duck food, take a closer look those legs, you never know it may well have a ring and a colour ring to boot…

Monday, 10 December 2012

Frenzy in the surf

Sand dunes tower over us, the green tussocks of grass buffeted by a strong wind. Through a gap that provides a moment’s rest bite from the roar of the wind, the beach spreads out in either direction, an endless expanse of yellow sand, driven by the wind and bathed in a golden light from the late afternoon sun. Beyond the beach the sea, a steely grey blue flushed with white caps, meets the cold, pale blue sky.

Set against this wild windswept landscape of the North Norfolk coast, is a frenzy of bird activity. In the surf zone, where foaming white waves crash, washing up onto the sand, hundreds, maybe thousands of waders gather; turnstones, dunlin, knot, oystercatchers and sanderling all feeding along the waters edge. Above a hundred more gulls wheel above the waves, buffeted by the wind, wings bent back to keep them hovering in one place, before dipping down to grab a small morsel of food amongst the rolling surf.

The feeding frenzy in and above the surf zone

By far the most numerous wader is the sanderling; small, grey, white and black with the fastest legs in the wader world. Squadrons of these tiny energetic birds rush down the beach as the waves retreat, probing the exposed sand for crustaceans, marine worms and molluscs before hurrying back up as the next wave rolls in. Their continuous chatter reaching a crescendo as they all rush back up the beach in one synchronised movement, chased by the swirling waves.

Sanderlings heading up the beach (ã Lee Barber)

All too soon the sun drops behind the dunes, setting the sky alight with a golden glow and sapping the warm colour from the beach, turning the scene to an almost black and white canvas. The frenzy in the surf continues, tied more to the tides than to daylight. But the cold, wind swept observers are forced from the beach in search of shelter and the warmth of a cup of tea. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Ringing on Frosty Farmland

It was cold. Our breath steamed, curling up into the velvet black sky where stars twinkled. On the horizon a pale hint of dawn. Gradually the sky turned a pale orangey pink as the morning broke, revealing a cold glittering world. Leaves, grass, bracken and trees were all etched with crisp white frost. Small opaque patches of frozen puddles nestled in the tracks and furrows of the ploughed fields. In the corner of a field of stubble, cropped short and spikey, the hedgerow was alive with birds.   

The frozen fields of our ringing site

Large groups of finches, buntings and sparrows race along the hedgerow, chattering from the tops of the taller trees, before dropping down into the stubble in search of seeds. Seemingly as one, the flock flushes back up into the cover of the hedge, keeping up the constant twittering before moving a little further down the field as the group of well wrapped up ringers set a series of strategically placed nets. The lure of a rich source of food on such a cold morning however was too much, and it was not long before the flocks had returned, with more than a few falling into the nets.

One of 15 yellowhammers caught today

By mid morning the sun was fully on the nets, which billowed ever so slightly in the breeze that had picked up. The birds were also becoming net wise, now feeding just a little further up the field, tantalising the ringers who watched the empty nets. Up until then however, it had been pretty hooching as a certain Mr Barber would say. It was not so much quantity, although 67 birds in a little over two and half hours is nothing to be sniffed at. It was the quality. Yellowhammer, chaffinch, lesser redpoll, brambling and not forgetting the star of the show for me, the tree sparrow.

What a beaut!

With its chocolate brown cap, black spot on a brilliant white cheek and stubby beak, I never tire of the beauty of this little farmland bird. Once again ringing at this site has provided valuable information on tree sparrow movements. Last year we caught a bird from Spurn Point in Lincolnshire, this year something a little more closer to home, a young bird originally ringed this summer near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. With more ringing planned at the site over the coming winter months, we may well catch more ringed tree sparrows that should provide further pieces to the ongoing puzzle. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Where do all the birds go?

Since it started in 1909 ringing has answered some of the many questions regarding bird ecology and movement. We know, for example that swallows do not hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds but in fact migrate thousands of miles to southern Africa. We know that many species that breed on the continent move east to spend the winter in the relatively milder climes of Britain.

More recently ringing has highlighted interesting changes in migration linked to climate change. Over recent decades the numbers of blackcaps wintering in Britain has increased, with ringing recoveries indicating that these birds are not simply individuals from our summer breeding population. Instead they are birds that breed in central Europe, which rather than moving south for the winter are heading east to Britain. With milder winters those that do head our way are finding conditions more favourable and more of these visitors are able to survive. Research shows that blackcaps wintering in Britain arrive back on their breeding grounds some two weeks before those wintering around the Mediterranean; this may well give them a competitive advantage when it comes to raising more chicks and could explain why the tendency to winter in Britain has spread so rapidly through this population (BTO Bird Table, 2005).

Male blackcap

While such findings on this grand scale are extremely interesting, and as a ringer I am proud to be contributing to such discoveries that will provide valuable information for conserving our bird populations, sometimes it is the stories of individual birds, which I have personally ringed that are the most gripping.

Lodge Farm, a small pocket of garden and open paddocks nestled in the middle of Thetford Forest. Surrounded by pine plantation and deciduous wood, the garden provides a regular supply of food and also a source of water in the form of a beautiful koi carp pond. During the winter the site attracts hundreds of finches, from siskins and redpolls to bramblings and chaffinches. Over the last three years we have regularly ringed this site, mainly during the winter months, and over the years a number of the birds we've ringed have been found elsewhere, usually caught by another ringer. In addition we've caught birds at the farm which were originally ringed elsewhere in the country. Most of these birds come from or have been recaptured at sites in and around Thetford, with a couple caught in the wider East Anglia region. Occasionally though some individuals are from a little further afield. 

View Complete recoveries by Lee or Rachael in a full screen map

In March 2012 I ringed a lesser redpoll at the farm, one of hundreds perhaps ringed last winter. In October 2012, that little, streaky brown and white bird, with a red spot on its head, was caught 473 km away in the Lothian region of Scotland.

In 2008 a certain Lee Barber, in his first winter of ringing in Suffolk at the farm, ringed an adult male brambling. In May 2011 that brambling was caught by a ringer on its breeding grounds 2078 km away in Norway. During that time that bird would have crossed the North Sea at least six times, covering a distance of at least 12500 km!

Stunning male brambling -
heading back and forth between Lodge Farm and Scandinavia

Then there are the three siskins, all originally ringed in parts of Scotland and all subsequently caught at the farm. In February 2012 a female siskin was ringed in Devon, 35 days later she was caught at the farm

While there is nothing exceptional about these recoveries - we know that brambling’s breed in Scandinavia and migrate to our shores in large numbers during winter and we know that lesser redpolls in Thetford Forest are there to winter, breeding predominantly in Scottish forests – they form the pieces of the jigsaw that is understanding bird movement and habitat use. Knowing that I personally handled that bird, carefully looked at its feathers to understand its moult and age, took those biometrics, makes such pieces extra special. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Flying Solo

After a day of grey, drizzly rain while it seemed the rest of the UK basked in wonderful November sunshine, I woke on Sunday morning to a cold, crisp, clear night sky that was just starting to lighten with dawn. The grass was like frozen green beans, crunching under foot, while mist clung to the parks and open areas of the forest. When the sun rose the trees framing the paddocks at the farm blazed fiery red and orange, glowing against the brilliant blue sky. Surrounded by the trees and bushes of the farm’s garden, the mist nets remained in the shade, perfect for catching birds.

Goldfinch with a more unusual orange face

Today at the farm it was just me and two nets. Being a ‘C’ permit holder means I can ring on my own. However most of the time I ring with Lee, and a group of others since the farm is not one person’s site. Today however I was making the most of the fact that Lee, and most of the others were in Scotland.

After the beauty of the morning, the birds did not disappoint. Although there was no sign of the siskins and redpolls that often dominate the catches in this garden during winter, there were plenty of tits around including blue, great, coal and marsh tit. Even before I had finished unfurling my nets I had caught two coal tits, which unlike many of the other tits have had a reasonably successful breeding season. There were also plenty of goldfinches, tinkling away in the tops of the trees, before piling down to the feeders and into the nets.

As the sun shifted position it started to catch the nets, making them more visible and in return the number of birds caught started to slow. Still, enough time to catch a male great spotted woodpecker, screeching blue murder as I tried to get him out of the net with my fingers still in tact. It only half worked, yes I got him out fine and yes I still have all my fingers, its just now they know how a tree feels when a woodpecker starts hammering at it!

Male great spotted woodpecker

Bird of the morning had to be a beautiful adult male brambling, with his striking orange, white and black plumage, with flashes of yellow under the wing this bird is one of the stars of winter ringing.

Stunning male brambling

With the final net round came on last surprise for my mornings solo ringing - its certainly    a little more unusual to catch a woodpigeon in our mists nets!

One final surprise in the nets

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Save The Whales Reloaded

The sky was varying shades of grey, with lighter and darker clouds layered on top of one another, and undecided whether to release its rain or not. A crowd, undeterred by the cold, indecisive weather, gathered on the promenade in front of the impressive red brick façade of the towering hotel. The bright white railings of the balconies stood out starkly against the brick, despite the dull conditions. Behind the crowd, the sea rippled in a lighter silvery grey, calmly and gently rolling onto the orangey brown pebbles of the beach. Amongst the crowd now, banners appeared and with a wave of excitement chanting and shouting began. Louder and louder the shouts of ‘Save the Whales’ rang out, as the banners declaring the same statement were buffeted in the cold breeze and passing cars beeped their horns.

Save the Whales Reloaded!

There we stood on the same spot where 30 years ago campaigners stood calling for the hunting of whales to stop, in front of the Hilton Brighton Metropole where all those years ago the moratorium on whaling was signed. There, together, we launched the Save the Whales Reloaded Campaign. For despite that victory there is still work to be done and we still need to Save the Whales…

Bycatch, overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, captivity…we must all make a stand, and say No, it must end, we must save these intelligent, sentient, wonderful creatures.

So proud to be there campaigning to save the whales
As the crowd dispersed in search of a warm cup of tea, buzzing from the encounter, we headed into the hotel and flung ourselves into celebrating the world of whales and dolphins. WhaleFest 2012 had begun!

From an undersea world of inflatable life sized whales and dolphins, to the inside of a sperm whales tummy and with talks from experts on subjects ranging from filming whales under water to the fight to free Morgan the Orca, WhaleFest 2012 had something for everyone. Not least the chance to go whale watching within the comfort of the Hiltons walls!

The magic underwater world of whales and dolphins

The Virtual Whale Watch took you on a real (well almost) boat, with real water and real footage of whales and dolphins. This year we were off to the Azores, where sperm whales lift their majestic tails into the air in a dive that would take them to untold depths to hunt giant squid, where groups of hundreds of common dolphins came to bow ride alongside our boat and where some very real looking birds swooped over head. For 20 minutes you were there, donning your life jacket and experiencing it for real, watching these magnificent animals, getting sprayed from their splashes and blows, listening to them on an underwater microphone, and getting involved with collecting plastic bags and bottles out of the ‘water’. It was one for everyone to get involved with, from little kids to ‘big’ kids.

Virtual Whale Watching WhaleFest style!

Having experienced whale watching, there was then the chance to meander through the stands of whale watch operators and marine charities, a chance to learn more about specific regions species, research and campaigns and to perhaps choose your next destination to get up close to these amazing creatures…

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Have you heard about Morgan...?

Since I first started the Wild Barley blog I have been writing about my adventures and experiences with the natural world. But today I want to post something different. Have you heard the story of Morgan the orca?

In June 2010 a lone, young female orca was captured from the Wadden Sea, off the northwest coast of the Netherlands under a rehabilitation and release permit. She was emaciated and dehydrated. The dolphinarium which took in the whale in order to administer this medical care named her Morgan. They weren’t allowed to display her to the public and she was to be prepared for reintroduction into the wild. This never happened.

Morgan © Free Morgan Foundation 

Within two months she was on public display, and naturally she was popular. She brought in the big bucks. She was also valuable to other dolphinariums in terms of her genetics.

Based on DNA and her distinct vocalisations researchers are confident that Morgan belongs to a Norwegian population of orcas. She would certainly provide a new blood line to the captive orca population.

Despite a viable release plan a judge in the Netherlands ruled that Morgan should go to Loro Parque in Teneriefe. It is here that she now languishes, in a small, blue, featureless tank, harassed and bullied by the other orcas at the park, and being trained to perform for public display.

How can this have happened? How did we get from helping a young whale in distress, taking her in with the intention of help and then condemning her to a life of captivity? They were supposed to be helping. The answer is of course, money. Hearing Morgan’s story has made me so angry, not only for what has happened but also at myself for not knowing it was happening.

I feel like I have been slumbering for the last two years and all of a sudden I am wide awake, jolted by a bucket of ice-cold realisation of what has happened here. The story of Morgan has been in the back of my sub consciousness. A name I have heard in the past almost banded around with the names of other captive orca. For some reason today I wanted to find out more and what I found distresses and infuriates me. We were supposed to be helping this whale, now she is a prisoner.

Is this how Morgan is destined to spend the rest of her life?
A life that will be cut short by being kept in captivity
© Free Morgan Foundation 

Releasing an orca back into the wild can be done. Although Keiko was never fully integrated into a wild population, for five years he was free, he swam where he wanted and interacted with wild orca. Then there is Springer, like Morgan she was found alone in an emaciated condition, miles from where her family live. After being kept in a sea pen and nursed back to health, Springer was ultimately released where she successfully reintegrated with a resident pod off British Columbia, Canada. Just this field season Springer has been seen, alive and thriving, 10 years after her release.

Of course there are differences, Keiko was a captive for more than 20 years and scientists did not know where his family were when he was reintroduced. The individuals and family ties of Springer’s population were and are very well known to researchers. In Morgan’s case researchers have now identified the population Morgan is likely to have come from and have even identified members of her close or extended family.

© Free Morgan Foundation 

In May 2012 Loro Parque announced that there was a good chance that Morgan is, at least partially deaf. How ironic when the next court hearing for Morgan’s case is looming on 1st November. However despite having more than a year Loro Parque have not conducted any of the scientific tests that would prove or disprove whether Morgan is deaf. Leaving the question unanswered simply puts the seed of doubt into people’s minds as to whether Morgan should be freed. The answer is she should.

There are so many issues with keeping such wide ranging, highly intelligent, social animals in captivity, and with purposely targeting wild animals for capture. What disturb and angers me the most about Morgans story is the fact that she was captured to rehabilitate, to nurse with the intention of returning her to the wild. What gives these people the right to break that promise?

Morgan deserves her chance to be wild.

What do we do? Stand quietly back and watch another wild whale slowly decline in a stone cold tank? No. We have to stand up and say No. This is not right. Greed like this cannot win. Morgan must be freed.

The Free Morgan Foundation is a not-for-profit charity raising awareness and the funds needed to pay the lawyer fees, court fees and other costs associated with the fight to free Morgan.

Morgan’s next court case is on 1st November 2012. Sign the petitions, write letters and add your voice to others who are taking a stand for her.

Finally tell the world. Twitter, Facebook, word of mouth. Tell everyone and anyone about Morgan and get them too to make a stand. 

To find out more go to the Free Morgan Foundation website

© Free Morgan Foundation 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Bardsey Island

The small, rugged, wind swept island of Bardsey lies off the Llyn Peninsula in north west Wales. To the north east the island rises steeply from the waves that crash onto the blackened rocks to a scraggy peak 167 m high. The mountain is covered in browns, dark greens and grey of rock, bracken and gorse. Small patches of pink heather and the last remnants of thrift cling on, buffeted by the ever present breeze. Nestled along the western side of the mountain are the 19th century cottages and farmhouse, their grey stone or white walls overlooking lush grassy fields of the lowlands, where black cows and brilliant white sheep graze. To the south the coast narrows, like a belt tightened around a small waist, so that the rocky beaches either side almost meet, before blooming again into a rounded peninsula where the red and white striped lighthouse stands proud.

Bardsey Island

The island is renowned for its wildlife, and is a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest. During the summer days the skies are filled with the cries of nesting seabirds, crammed on the east side of the mountain. Whilst during the summer nights, eerie, spooky calls of nesting manx sheatwaters take over the show. During autumn and spring the island is ideally located on one of the main migration routes, producing not only hundreds of the more common migrant species but also the odd rarity. The sea around the island, with its racing tides provides an important habitat for whales and dolphins, particularly the Risso’s dolphin. Such is the regularity with which this species is seen, especially during August and September that the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has been conducting research on the habitat use of the dolphins around the island since 1999.

Our week on this beautiful wild haven started with brilliant blue skies, warm September sunshine and flat calm seas. Wandering around the island we soaked up the laid back pace of island life, meadow pipits and flocks of linnet tumbled over head, turnstone noisily chattered amongst the rocks of the shoreline and the sky filled with the cheeky calls of sleek, black, bright legged choughs. Along the shoreline mother grey seals prowl the surf, or bask in the sun keeping a sharp eye on their newborns tucked away among the rocks. The younger ones are white and fluffy, while the older pups have shed their baby fur and are now a silvery grey. Out to sea, in the distance a shadow breaks the surface. A pod of common dolphins, shimmering as they chase fish, leaping clear of the glittering blue.

Grey seal pup

Sunday and the wind had returned, bringing cloudy skies and creating white caps out to sea. The afternoon was spent down on the shelly beach where dark brown seaweeds mark the edge of the tide. Here a small walk in trap catches rock and meadow pipits, along with the odd white wagtail. Affectionately known as rockits the rock pipits are colour ringed on the island with the aim of establishing where they go in the winter months.

That evening it started to rain, and did not stop for 48 hours. Undeterred we trooped out, sploshing through the puddles to settle into ancient looking stone hides and staring out to sea. Through the rain, the sea looked a pale aquamarine. Gannets, kittiwakes and hundreds of razorbills skim over the waves, and there through the narrowed circle of a telescope eye piece, a small pod of Risso’s dolphin. Their tall dorsal fins rise slowly from the gentle waves, followed briefly by a heavily scarred back.

Wednesday dawned with the clouds being pushed and pulled through a pale blue sky. Rain still threatened but never really returned with any gusto. Although still slightly breezy, mist nets were opened in more sheltered areas of the island. Amongst the blackcaps, goldcrest and chaffinch, a treat – the subtle beauty of a spotted flycatcher, one of five on the island at the time.

Spotted flycatcher

By afternoon the sun was finally winning its battle with the clouds, spreading warm golden light on a beautiful little bunting that briefly perched at the top of a pine tree. This special bird is a scarce visitor to the British Isles with on average 29 records reported each year.

A stunning little bunting

The sunny, windy conditions continued over the last few days of our stay. Goldcrest continued to fill our nets, whilst during our wanderings around the island we witnessed first hand the tussle and tumble of the natural world. The peace of a feeding flock of rock pipits erupts as a merlin comes crashing through. The flock bursts into the air, the merlin in hot pursuit, twisting and turning in tight circles before disappearing over a ridge. A few minutes later and the rock pipit is hiding under the wheels of a tractor, the merlin perched on top perhaps cursing the one that got away.

The chase is on between a merlin and a rock pipit...

Time on the island seems more dictated by seasons than by clocks or calendars; the days merge into one continual flow of changing light and weather. As our week draws to an end, it is time to return to the hustle and bustle of mainland life, while the island and its inhabitants remain in their natural cocoon of this wild landscape.   

Monday, 1 October 2012

Back in the Bay

Once again the sea in the Bay of Biscay was tumultuous and restless, although not as fearsome as April when 8 meter swells and a Force 8 bounced the ferry like a child's bath tub toy. Nevertheless the wind whipped across the waves, topping them with white horses that rolled over each other, sending spray up into an endless blue sky where white cotton wool clouds only occasionally obscured the warm sun. 

This time despite the wind and white caps, the wildlife was out to be seen. Flocks of cory's and great shearwaters skimmed the tops of the waves, almost touching the water before banking up into the wind. Gannets fly with stiffer wings low to the water or circling high up keeping a sharp eye out for fish below the swirling waves. The brilliant white of the adult birds stands out a mile, and at this time of year there are many completely brown juveniles and sub-adults with varying degrees of white and black. A small sabines gull bounces by, creating a ripple of delight through the birders on board. 

Cory's shearwater 

For those who like their marine wildlife a little on the larger, warm blooded side, there were plenty of sightings of whales and dolphins to boot. 

In the morning wave after wave of common dolphins flashed past, leaping clear of the waves before dashing under the vessel. A little later on and striped dolphins appear, the first a rather quiet subdued group hardly breaking the surface, followed by a second more exuberant group doing back flips and leaping clear of the waves.

Common dolphins leaping clear of the waves

Two exuberant striped dolphins

Then there were the whales, tall effervescent blows shooting up before being carried away by the wind. They were mostly fin whales, with a tall upright blow but with the more distant ones it is impossible to say for sure...

As the ferry approached the southern part of the bay, renowned for its under water canyons which provides important habitat for a group of whales known as the beaked whales, the sea was even more choppy and those beaked whales remained elusive and out of sight.

We were however treated to two fin whales creating quite a splash amongst the waves. As they surfaced the pair would thrust their heads out of the water, a little more unusual to see in fin whales but giving a clear view of their white right jaw, a diagnostic feature for this species. 

Two fin whales in the southern part of the bay

As we entered the shelter of Santander, surrounded by the majestic mountains whose tops were shrouded in low misty cloud, all that was left to do was disembark and head into town for a tasty icecream, reflecting on a rather good days whale watching in the Bay of Biscay. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Sun, sand and seals

A few white whispy clouds made vague shapes in a brilliant blue sky that stretched endlessly above the deeper blue of the ocean. The orangey brown pebbley beach stretched for miles in either direction. As we walked along the only sound was the scrunch of pebbles under foot and the roar of the waves as they clattered ashore in a wash of white water, throwing up spray that shimmered in rainbows. Beyond the breakwater sandwich terns, glistening white in the sunlight, twist and turn before diving head first into the water.

Sandwich tern fishing along the coastline

As the miles past the shingle gradually got smaller until at the very end of this spit of land, golden sand dunes capped with bright green grasses rose up over looking a tidal inlet and the wild coastline beyond. Blakeney Point, north Norfolk, a pristine, natural and dynamic landscape and a haven for wildlife.

As we approached the end, where the sandy beach is reminiscent of a tropical island, a moaning, wale reaches us on the gently breeze. The source of these eerie sounds lies sunbathing on the opposite bank of the creek… common and grey seals.

Common and grey seals relaxing in the afternoon sun

In the creek young seals splash and swim in the shallows, playing and curiously popping their heads up to take a look at us, strange two legged beings with a four legged friend, drinking tea and eating biscuits on the sand.

After such an idyllic picnic, there was just one thing left to do... start the long walk back to the car!

A young grey seal mooching around in the shallows

Watching the seals 

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Here's to the Little Guys

When it comes to ringing birds, there are 23 different types of rings that we use, varying in size, shape and the type of metal used. These range from the largest, size M fitted on a mute swan or an eagle, right the way down to AA, the smallest ring for the smallest birds. Essentially the higher up the alphabet you go the larger the ring size. Rings for small species are usually made out of a soft-metal alloy, with incoloy (a nickel-chromium alloy that is resistant to electrolyte corrosion) also used in the same sized rings but for long-lived species or those that live in environments where excessive abrasion or exposure to saline or alkaline water would shorten the rings life. Larger rings tend to be made of stainless steel. The shape of the ring is also important, with most either a C or a V shape, enabling the ringer, using specially designed pliers to fit the ring around the birds legs so that it is close enough so as to not slip over the ‘ankle’, and move freely up and down the leg, but not so tight as to constrict the leg. There are some more unusual shaped rings, namely those specifically designed for guillemots and razorbills. These seabirds site with the back edge of the leg resting on the rocks, so specially designed rings with flattened edges are fitted.

Most of the time, during the course of our general ringing we use sizes AA to C, with most of the small passerines that we ring taking an A. We do often catch things like greenfinch or house sparrow, who’s slightly thicker legs take a B ring despite appearing the same size as something like a chaffinch or robin. Sometimes we catch a blackbird or woodpecker which will take a C ring, and sometimes we catch some of the smallest birds in Britain which will need a AA.

A very small selection of rings including the smallest AA (red arrow)
and the largest M (yellow arrow).
Also shows the pliers we use to fit small rings.

With the breeding season essentially over, many of our migrant birds are starting to move, feeding up, preparing for their journeys south. Many of the young of our resident birds are also starting to disperse, moving into new habitats to feed, fuelling up for winter. Both were in evidence at the reed bed this morning, and it was the ‘little guys’ who stole the show.

Of the 41 birds caught today, 15 took a AA ring, with the most numerous being the chiffchaff, a small warbler, with an average wing of 59 mm and weight of approximately 8 g (BTO Birdfacts) - that’s equivalent to the weight of a 50 pence piece! Most of today’s chiffchaffs were youngsters, with just one adult bird caught. All were either completing their moult or fattening up ready for the trip south for the winter.

Chiffchaff - One of the best 'little guys'

Other small species caught today included the charismatic wren and the beautiful treecreeper. More often seen scurrying up the truck of a tree, like a little mouse, the treecreepers patterned brown back blends in perfectly with the bark whilst its stiff, pointed tail helps it to creep up the tallest of trees. Not surprising it was caught in the net nearest the wood!

A beautiful treecreeper

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Quality Not Quantity

Between its gentle slopes, the valley floor was covered in a thick bed of reeds, their green leaves rustling and swaying in the breeze. Beyond the tops of reeds the valley gave way to green, marshy meadows and steely blue pools of water, before finally reaching the shingles of a pebble beach and the greeny blue ocean beyond. Amongst the scrub, brambles and bushes of the valley slopes and the densely packed reeds was a myriad of paths, elevated above the water level so as to never flood, and a network of speakers playing the songs of birds, from reed, willow and sedge warbler to quail, meadow pipit and blackcap. Welcome to Icklesham, not only managed for birds and wildlife but purposely designed for ringing. 

Tree pipit

Nestled on the slopes, a small green building blends in with this natural landscape. To call this building a ringing hut is an understatement. It is purposely designed for the safe and efficient processing of hundreds of birds in one go. Inside individual ringing stations are set up for each species, with a small opening in the wall in front to speedily release the birds once processed.  

This weekend the elements were against us, a wet spring and summer resulting in a poor breeding season for many species, coupled with the heavy rains and strong winds of a typical British bank holiday. 

When the wind did ease, the lines upon lines of nets did their job, and while we did not catch the sheer volume of birds one might expect at this site, we never the less caught over 200 birds in the first morning and near on 600 birds on the second. As usual the site did catch some quality species, with wood sandpiper, whinchat, spotted flycatcher, green sandpiper, a handful of tree pipits and redstart being among the highlights. It is not every day that you get to ring 10 grasshopper warblers in a row!

At the grasshopper warbler ringing station

As dusk began to settle over the reeds, the tapes switched to swallows and martins. Overhead a flock of 1500 sand martins and 30ish swallows began to gather. A hobby shoots by, scattering the flock, but before long it has regrouped, swirling in one big mass against the sky. Moving as one, the flock dips down to skim across the tops of the reeds, before quickly rising up into the darkening blue. Eventually, with twilight upon us, the flock drops into the reeds and we move in to remove the birds from the nets. Again not a huge catch, with the majority of the flock heading into the reeds behind. But by 11 o'clock 160 sand martins and 11 swallows line up along the back wall of the ringing hut, twittering away in roosting bags before settling down for the night, to be released in the cool light of dawn the next morning. 

Sand martins settled in for the night in their roost bags - 5 birds to a bag

After two long days we not have had the quantity of birds but we certainly experienced the quality of ringing at Icklesham. 


Green sandpiper

Monday, 20 August 2012

Magic Moths

The black of night had settled like a velvet blanket over the gardens and houses, an occasional car or shout from a late night reveller occasionally breaking the silence. Against this blackness one garden glows, illuminated by a powerful bulb with a slightly pinkish purple hue, the leaves, flowers and fence line brilliantly defined in light. Overhead small creatures flit, mere shadows against the brilliance, some so tiny they are barely visible, the larger ones creating a buzzing noise with the flap of their wings. Moths. Circling, homing in on the light, a natural orientation reaction. Round and round they fly, until they drop into a box beneath. Here, as dawn approaches the moths head for the dark places amongst the egg boxes placed there for such a purpose.

With daylight it is time to sift through our catch, gently lifting the egg boxes out and removing our treasure into small pots, to be examined, identified and the released back into the garden.

A little worn, but still a beauty. A Buff Ermine

So often maligned as small, brown and boring, moths show a huge variety of shapes, size and colour, with even those that appear just brown having subtle patterns and beauty… if you have the patience to see it.

Occasionally amongst these subtle moths there is a beauty…like a buff ermine, or a swallow prominent, and occasionally there is a beast…like a privet hawkmoth.

May be a beast, but also a beauty. A Privet Hawkmoth

Today’s catch consisted of 68 moths of 21 different species. The most common being large yellow underwing, but interesting species included a brimstone moth, two nutmegs and a rather cool spectacle. 

A rather cool Spectacle

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A Mini Roost

Dusk was falling over the reed bed at Cranwich, the sky a washed out pale blue, the hazy clouds highlighted by brilliant gold lending definition to the swirling edges. As the evening progressed the sky turned dusky pink. Once again the site is flooded, the dark water rising over the banks and creating rivers along the paths that shimmer in the evening light. 

The sun setting over Cranwich

As dusk settled around two nets cutting through the reeds a boom box played the calls of swallows. At this time of year this summer migrant starts to flock together, roosting in reed beds  getting ready for their long journey south. It is the perfect time to catch them in large numbers. 

With the nets set and the sound of swallows floating out across the reeds we retreated to wait. Around us the reed bed settled into the night shift, small birds darted between the trees looking for a safe place to slumber, jackdaws called noisily, a hobby zipped past, a mere shadow in the evening light. The bugs came out to play, buzzing around our heads, tickling arms, ears and noses. While some birds were heading for bed, others were waking up... the kewik of a male tawny owl answered by the hoouh....ho, ho ho hoooouh of the female. Silently the silhouette of an owl swoops overhead, black on dark blue...

With just enough light left to see we returned to the net, and there seemingly waiting patiently were four birds, one juvenile reed warbler and three swallows. Not a large roost catch, but a catch non the less. 

A young swallow by torch light

By the light of torches, surrounded by the blackness and stillness of the night we took a look at our catch, and we were pleased to see two young swallows along with a glorious adult female. It has been a such a poor breeding season for so many birds, with swallows one of the hardest hit as the rain deluged the country and the insect population faltered. With these two young birds comes the knowledge that at least some have managed to fledge, the prayer that they will make it back next year and the hope that next summer will be drier....