Monday, 27 February 2012

Gorrión moruno…a Sparrow de España…

Back in January news got out that a male Spanish Sparrow had taken up residence in a small village in Hampshire. Spanish Sparrows are found in Spain (funnily enough!) but also Turkey and North Africa, and like our own House Sparrow doesn’t tend to move very far. So for one to appear in the UK is rather unusual, in fact there has only ever been eight recorded in the British Isles with the last one turning up in 2000.

Although we had no desire to rush off immediately to see the bird in January, (unlike several hundred twitchers) we could not resist taking a look when we were back in Salisbury visiting family.

So Saturday afternoon saw us bundling Barley into the car, with the promise of a walk on the beach after a slight detour to try and see the bird. News from a friend was not promising as the bird had not been seen for a couple of hours. On arrival in Calshot, we headed for the small cluster of birders and waited. It was not long until amongst the many chattering house sparrows, darting amongst the bushes and branches there appeared a slightly different bird. Darker on the back and breast with more black streaks, clean white cheeks and no grey on the head, there was the Spanish sparrow.

Best photo I got in the end of the Spanish Sparrow

Happily chirping away, nestled in the middle of the hedge, the bird never emerged fully for a clear photo, but we knew he was there and that was enough for us…and for Barley who was just happy to get her run on the beach oblivious to the stir that was caused by a little sparrow de España…

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Hoolie in the Highlands

The wind howled, whipping the greenish grey sea into a frenzy of white water,spraying from the tops and streaking down the backs of large waves. It was blowing an absolute hoolie as the MV Finlaggen steamed from Kennacraig to Islay. Five seabird surveyors stood wrapped up against the wind and spray on the back deck, attempting to detect and identify seabirds. Despite the conditions we picked up a number of different species of divers, gulls, ducks and auks. Highlights included an Iceland gull, two slavonian grebes, black guillemot and three species of diver.

Common Gull

With the wind blowing and the front deck still off limits, we decided to have one day on Islay practicing bird identification. The island was alive with geese, white-fronted, barnacle and a ‘proper’ Canada goose… from Canada! A male hen harrier swooped in front of the car, while at a reserve three females glided amongst flocks of lapwing and golden plover. Later during the day a majestic golden eagle soared above us, while a glaucous gull stood out like a sore thumb amongst the herring gulls.

White-fronted Goose on Islay

Finally after two and a half days the sun broke through, clearing the low cloud and revealing the beautiful Scottish landscape. The sea glittered a deep blue, the low sun warming the reds, browns and deep greens of Islay and the mainland, tingeing the sky pink. In the sunlight of the last trip we also picked up four long-tailed duck, topping off a cracking trip.

But it wasn’t all fun and golden eagles, there was a purpose to this trip. It was a European Seabirds at Sea training course, aimed at standardising the collection of data throughout Europe.

Golden Eagle on Islay

And did she pass I hear you ask…? You bet ya!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Winging it in Wales

This weekend we headed to Wales not only to visit the inlaws but of course to do some ringing in their garden. June and Rob’s house sits on the end of the row, with the corner garden overlooking fields, a small wood and the valley below. We usually catch between 20 and 30 birds in a morning, with the usual garden suspects of blue tits, great tits, robins and dunnocks…

The prolonged spell of very cold weather has reduced the availability of food in the wider countryside, bringing birds into those gardens providing food, like June’s and hoovering up bucket loads of seed.

Nets set and catching birds

After setting two nets, it did not take long for the birds to start piling in, not those usual suspects but siskins, lesser redpolls and goldfinches. Other species caught included a great spotted woodpecker, chaffinch, greenfinch and a flock of nine long-tailed tits. In total we caught 162 birds, blowing the previous total of just over 100 birds in one day out of the garden!

Interesting birds from today’s catch include a goldfinch that was originally ringed in the adjacent valley. Plus two lesser redpolls, which rather than having the usual red spot on the head, and in the case of males on the breast, were yellow! 

Yellow Lesser Redpoll
 More typical male Lesser Redpoll

The condition is a form of leucism, where the feather lacks the pigment melanin. In this case the lack of red in the feathers means the yellow colour is more dominant. The British Trust for Ornithology has recently started a survey of birds with such abnormal plumages with some interesting results

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Whoosh, there is snows...

With a thick layer of snow blanketing the Breckland region and much of eastern England and the midlands, we took the opportunity to undertake a whoosh net catch at Lodge Farm, in Thetford Forest. A whoosh net basically uses elastics to fire a net over a group of birds. With snow softening the features of the landscape and covering food sources, birds were flocking to the feeders.

Having cleared a patch of snow from under a large beech tree, and laid a good load of seed down, birds soon started flocking into our catching area, in particular large numbers of chaffinch and brambling. It was mesmerising watching bird after bird flutter to the feeders, drop down onto the snow and feast on the sunflower seeds, only to flush on-mass back into the trees. However being so hungry the birds would soon return, and as they gained in confidence more and more would gather between the poles. It was not long before we pulled and fired the net, catching 50 birds in one go!

Extracting birds from the whoosh net

The majority of these were bramblings, numbers of this beautiful finch have been comparatively low this winter, compared with previous years, but with the cold snap and snow large numbers had finally arrived at the farm. Breeding in Scandinavia and northern Russia, the brambling arrives in Britain during the winter months to feed predominantly on beech seeds.

Beautiful male brambling 

Later in the morning we re-set the whoosh net; this time the birds were a little more flighty, with the slushing noise of cars passing on the road spooking them more often. However with a little patience (easier said then done when you’re sat freezing in a car!) numbers soon built up and we once again fired the net, this time catching approximately 30 birds.

In the end after a morning stomping around in the snow, firing whoosh nets and catching more birds in mist nets covering the feeders we caught and processed 291 birds! 

Processing birds in the snow!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ringing in a winter wonderland

A hazy sun rose through a cold mist covering white, frozen fields surrounding the village of Feltwell, Norfolk as five intrepid ringers headed for one particular corner of the fields. Brown hare’s scarpered, racing away in the pink haze, as we approached this corner where millet has been spread throughout the winter months and where large flocks of finches come to feed on a regular basis.

With nets set, we sat back and waited, rubbing our hands together not only in anticipation as large numbers of yellowhammer, chaffinch and the target of today’s catch, tree sparrows, piled into the feeding site, but also in an attempt to warm them up!

As the sun rose and the frosty morning progressed we collected a steady stream of birds from the nets and by mid morning we had caught 45 birds including 19 yellowhammers. For these, we not only put a metal ring on but also a unique combination of colour rings enabling birds to be identified in the field without recatching them. In this area our aim is to find out where yellowhammers that flock and feed on the farmland during winter go to breed during the summer. With birds heading into the coniferous plantations of Thetford Forest we are interested in finding out how far they move from these winter sites and the type of habitat (e.g. age of plantation trees) that they breed in.

Male yellowhammer complete with added 'bling'

 And the tree sparrows.....?

Well although there seemed to be slightly fewer birds around than in previous days, we did manage to catch five! Yay! A huge increase from the one caught last year! Four were unringed, and the fifth…. the fifth already had a ring on, which you might think was last year’s bird…but no this individual was ringed  last autumn at Spurn Bird Observatory in Yorkshire, approximately 125 km away (the red pin below shows Spurn and the blue Feltwell).

View Tree Sparrow Control in a larger map

Tree Sparrows are a resident species in the UK, breeding predominantly on farmland across the Midlands, eastern and southern England. The UK population has suffered a severe decline since the 1970s, although some information suggests numbers maybe starting to increase again. Studies indicate that populations further north undertake seasonal movements, with birds recorded moving south through east coast bird observatories such as Gibraltar Point and Spurn, many of which head inland on reaching the north Norfolk coast.

Me and my first Tree Sparrow ringed

With snow forecast tonight we’ll wait and see what other birds this winter wonderland will produce…