Saturday, 28 April 2012

Finchy Fings

A grey, overcast sky lay heavy over the farm, threatening yet more rain that had deluged the country over the last week or so. The wind had a cold, damp chill to it… it felt like February; it is in fact the end of April.

Just as strange as the weather, was the number and activity level of finches at Lodge Farm, in Thetford Forest. Usually by this time of year, numbers of finches have dropped as birds head off to breed. Some siskins remain in the Forest, but the lesser redpolls and brambling head off North to breed in Scotland and on the continent. This year however large groups of these two have still been coming to the feeders during April, joining families of crossbill and siskins. Eager to get an idea of what is going on we headed off for another ringing session this morning, hoping to beat the rain.

Adult male siskin

Adult female siskin

Juvenile Siskin

As the grey dawn broke, the sound of hundreds of finches called from the tops of trees, waiting to pile into the feeders. Even before the last net was set we had already caught thirty of so birds and as the morning progressed the birds kept coming. The only species missing were the bramblings having perhaps finally had enough of the damp, English winter and spring! Finally the rain came, pattering on the polytunnel and splashing in the pond. Still the birds came, but with the rain not easing we closed the nets.

The final total… 252 birds including 130 new birds, predominantly made up of siskins, greenfinches and lesser redpolls. Both siskin and greenfinch adults showed clear signs of breeding and there were recently fledged siskins darting around as proof. The lesser redpolls on the other hand…just fuelling up for the long trip north…

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Bobbin' and a Rollin'

Large, dark grey waves rolled, white water foaming at their crests, and streaking down their backs. The angry wind howled whipping up spray and low, stormy clouds hung low, adding their deluge that stung like knives in the face. The ferry bobbed and rolled in the storm, pitching as a six to eight meter swell lifted and pushed it along.

Then amongst the waves and foam, the distinct sight of a whale’s blow. Despite the ferocious wind, this ephemeral breath hung briefly above the ocean before dissipating… Never did I see the body; the whale’s remaining surfaces hidden, as the ferry continued its stormy journey.

A fin whale, clearly showing the blow, on a good day in the Bay of Biscay

On a good day the Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in Europe to see a variety of whales and dolphins, including the fin whale, the second largest animal on the planet and the sperm whale, the largest of the toothed whales. Today was not good whale watching weather (or even sailing weather for some!) and this was the only glimpse of a whale that we had for the remainder of the trip. And why, I hear you ask, we were there, braving such weather?

Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) are present onboard ships during offshore seismic, piling and explosives operations. All of these activities introduce high levels of sound into the marine environment, sound which can have serious affects on marine mammals. The role of the observers is to provide advice and implement guidelines produced to protect marine mammals from such noise. So the reason why we were travelling across the Bay in such a storm was to attend a training course to become a trained observer. Despite the weather and lack of sightings, the course was in fact a success, and now I am JNCC accredited MMO. 

Scanning for whales and dolphins...
Rachael Barber JNCC accredited MMO

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Firecrests in the Forest

The firecrest is one of Britain’s smallest birds. Not as widespread as the very similar goldcrest, firecrest breed in small numbers predominantly in southern and eastern England and for this reason is listed on the Amber list of the Birds of Conservation Concern. Areas of mixed coniferous and broadleaved woodland in Thetford Forest provides excellent breeding habitat and here the species is flourishing.

The beautiful firecrest in Thetford Forest

For the past couple of years we have been helping colleagues at the British Trust for Ornithology to colour ring firecrest in Thetford Forest. By colour ringing birds we hope to increase sightings rates of individual in order to understand their movements, their use of different habitats and recruitment to the population.

Male firecrest gets his bling...

Spring is the best time to catch these birds as they have just arrived back in the forest, and spend long periods singing in order to establish and defend breeding territories. So this Sunday we headed in, dodging the April showers/hail storms, and listening intently for the distinct song of this charismatic species.

A few hours later, and our efforts had paid off…we had located four territories and caught and colour ringed four birds, three males and a female. 

Male firecrest on the left, with the orange in the crest,
the female on the right with just yellow.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Rescue

Crumbling, stone walls settled on a carpet of bright green grass, surrounded by the bronze of a beech hedge. Beyond, a dark river slowly meanders through an open park, flanked by deep green ivy covered trees and tangles of brambles. Welcome to the Priory an old monastery worn away by time and nestled in the bustle of Thetford.

It was here that we spent the morning once again battling through branches, spikey bushes and curtains of ivy in search of birds nests. And again we were successful, with a total of 13 new nests of song thrush, blackbird, wren, robin, Canada goose, moorhen, dunnock, collared dove and woodpigeon.

Newly hatched song thrush chicks

But this is not the full story, or the tale I have to tell….

Following the river, we passed a pair of Egyptian geese and their three young goslings. Distinctive and exotic looking, the Egyptian goose was introduced as an ornamental species, but having escaped now successfully breeds in the wider countryside, predominantly in East Anglia.

Further down river on the bank we came across two more goslings, but with no parents in sight, it soon be came apparent that these little guys had been left behind. Lost, calling out, but not to be heard by the adults who had passed a weir and were far up stream, there would be little chance of a reunion….

Egyptian goose gosling

We acted quickly and instinctively, grabbing one of the goslings as they made a break for the river. The second struck out for the opposite bank, but with a bridge nearby we soon caught up and grabbed him too. Returning back up river, we soon found the family again and with a little splash had managed to reunite the two rescued goslings with mum, dad and siblings.

Family reunited!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Dolphins of the Bay

A weekend on the coast of Wales would be nothing without spending a little time in search of those enigmatic marine mammals, dolphins, in this case bottlenose dolphins to be specific.

Cardigan Bay holds one of two resident, coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins in the UK. Recent work by Feingold et al., 2011 indicates the population of dolphins is around 200 and made up of transient, occasional and resident individuals.

Whilst we have seen dolphins from Borth and Aberystwyth, one of the best places to see them from the shore or to take a boat trip, is New Quay and it is here that we headed on Sunday.

With the narrow streets bustling with people, we headed for the quay, eyes scanning the silvery grey sea for any hint of a dorsal fin. It did not take long and soon we were settled, eating chips and watching two dolphins surfacing a short way off the harbour…bliss!

Bottlenose dolphin surfaces off New Quay, West Wales

A lot of the research carried out on dolphins is based on photo-identification, taking photos of the dorsal fin and back of dolphins and identifying individuals based on scars, nicks and scratches. Interestingly one of the dolphins we saw today had a really distinctive dorsal fin, with a white top edge, distinctive shape to the fin and nick in the trailing edge…

Close up of the dorsal fin 

See the recent work by Feigold  et al., here -

Me and Barley, watching dolphins from the quay wall...
although Barley seems to be facing the wrong way!

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Pleasure...and Pain of Ringing

Saturday, Easter weekend and we woke to the faint patter of rain on canvas and the dawn chorus of birds. Quietly, so as not to disturb slumbering parents, we dressed, left the caravan and headed out into the early morning light to meet with local ringer Tony Cross.

Heading north we drove into the rugged landscape of North Wales through sweeping valleys, along twisting roads and past reddish, brown and green mountains with occasional patches of brilliant white snow, a reminder that its not quite summer yet. After an hour we had arrived in a beautiful woodland, with moss covering fallen trees and ancient walls, browned leaves crackling softly under foot. Here, amongst the hornbeam and beech, Tony has a feeding site for a rather special woodland bird… the hawfinch.

A rather large, beautiful finch with a huge bill, capable of cracking opens cherry stones, the hawfinch is another British bird that has undergone a large-scale decline since the 1940s. Tony’s project involves colour ringing adults to try and increase sightings of this species which is usually very difficult to catch.

A beautiful male Hawfinch, complete with colour ring

The weather was perfect, the earlier rain having ceased and the sky cloudy with only occasional bursts of sunshine sparkling through the trees. Birds were dropping down readily to the food covering the ground, and on take off flying directly into our nets.

Our task was then to extract them from the net, ring and measure them, all the while avoiding that powerful beak! Easier said then done!

An equally beautiful female hawfinch...check out that bill though!

In total we caught 21 hawfinches, all of which were given a uniquely numbered metal ring and a colour ring. A huge thanks must go to Tony for such a superb day’s ringing and for giving us the opportunity to get up close, and in some cases a little too personal (well my fingers think so anyway!) with these amazing and beautiful birds. 

And so to the pain.....
and boy does it hurt when these guys get hold of you!

You can follow Tony’s ringing activities at his Blog also!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Easter Chicks

The last couple of week’s effort into searching for nests around Thetford began to pay off this morning, as I got to ring my first blackbird chicks of the year.

Having waited for the rain to pass, we approached the wall of ivy where this nest is hiding with caution and a little trepidation, hoping the chicks had survived the down pour and plummeting temperatures of recent days.

Our luck was in… there hidden amongst the ivy, hidden and protected from most of the rain was the nest, and inside three chicks! With downy feathers giving them a rather scruffy look and wing feathers just starting to peek through, they were the perfect age for ringing.

Ringing my first Blackbird chicks of the year
Carefully adding the uniquely numbered ring to the chicks leg using special ringing pliers

Most unusual about this nest was the fact that I know this is an old nest from previous years, distinctive as the builder used bits of plastic bag, woven in with the grass!. Small birds such as blackbirds usually build a new nest each year to lay their eggs in, although the use of old nests is not unheard of. This particularly nest has been present for at least two years, although as far as we know it was not used last year.

With the chicks safely returned to the nest we left them in peace with a wish of good luck and keep safe!

All safely tucked up back in the nest

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Spring Arrivals

With the warm, sunny days of recent weeks it has really started to feel like summer, let alone spring! Released from the confines of the office at the weekend, Sunday saw us exploring Thetford in search of nests.

Song thrush nest, as seen through the nester's mirror stick, one of eight nests found today

Climbing over trees and picking our way though bramble undergrowth, we searched amongst the ivy and trees of woodlands, before breaking out into the blazing blue sky and warm sun bathing open grass and scubby areas. All around resident birds were singing; robins, dunnocks, blackbirds to name a few; all sang their songs heralding their territories and hidden nests. Intermixed with these resident species were the unmistakable calls and song of migrants...birds that have returned from far afield after epic journeys of thousands of miles to breed once more in the summer climes of the UK.

Today's wanderings saw our first willow warbler of the year, having just returned from tropical and southern Africa and immediately singing his heart out. Mingling with this charismatic song were a number of chiffchaff's, so similar in appearance to the willow warbler but with such a distinctive song that gives them their name.."chiff chaff...chaff chiff..."

Willow warbler singing in the UK sun after a winter under the African sun

Another newly arrived migrant, fresh from a winter further south in Africa, was a rather odd looking bird, the stone-curlew. A rare breeding bird in Britain, the stone-curlew has large, bright yellow eyes and yellow legs with thick knees. Once common across southern and eastern England, stone-curlew's underwent a dramatic decline since the 1940s with numbers reduced by 85%. Concerted conservation efforts at the last two breeding strongholds in East Anglia and Salisbury Plain began in the early 1980s, since when numbers of breeding pairs have doubled and there are now approximately 307 pairs in England.

Later in the day, with the sun setting and pink, evening light splashing the edges of the few whisps of clouds in the sky, we heard a twittering overhead that later in the summer will become second nature, part of the background summer sounds...but today it meant one thing.... the swallows have returned...

Beautiful swallow, one of the classic birds of summer