Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Soggy in the Name of Education

A sharp wind gusted, tugging at the edges of a gazebo, rustling through the leaves on the splendid oak tree above. The grassy heath rippled, shades of greens, yellows and browns shimmering like waves that rolled across the open field. The sky above darkened, a rumble in the distance and the heavens opened. The torrent began; huge, fat rain drops that soaked you to the skin even under the shelter of the trees, splashing onto leaves and bending the heads of nettles, flowers and grasses.

The downpour was brief, patches of blue sky soon appeared and the sun burst through the clouds, sending rainbows through the droplets dripping onto the gazebo and the soaked ringers now sheltering beneath. Hoping that the wonderful summer weather had not put off too many people, or birds for that matter, from venturing out the mist nets were opened and the event celebrating the nature of the Breckland region began.

The soggy ringing demo team with the first bird of the day
(a dry blackbird!)

The ‘Wild About the Brecks’ event on Barnham Cross Common in Thetford had storytellers, mini beast hunting, art and craft activities and a bird ringing demonstration. Although all rather soggy the volunteers persevered and some members of the public braved the weather to build nest boxes, bug homes and bird feeders, and if they were lucky get up close to a bird…

If the weather was not always on our side, the birds certainly were! Although 19 birds may not sound like a lot, given the weather and the fact the site is not usually ringed, it was certainly enough to keep us busy and the public enthralled. Once again the corvids stole the show, with the highlights being a feisty but beautiful jay and a young magpie.

Showing beautiful wing of a feisty jay

Iridescent greens, purples and blues shimmer in the black feathers and contrast starkly with patches of brilliant white, making the magpie a subtly beautiful bird, which few people expect. Their highly intelligent nature means we rarely catch them in mist nets as they figure out those tricks quickly. A jack of all trades, with a cheeky nature for thieving bright objects, magpies have been much maligned and often incorrectly blamed for the decline of garden birds.

For me, this beautiful, intelligent bird must also surely have its place in the grand scheme of things….

Very happy with my first ringed magpie!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

From Brussels With Love

The goldfinch is one of Britain’s prettiest birds. Their striking bright red, black and white faces, plus a flash of brilliant yellow on black wings gives this bird a tropical appearance… its seem they would be right at home in a tropical jungle or an exotic island somewhere. But no this beautiful finch breeds across Europe, and in the UK there are something like 313,000 breeding territories (BTO Bird Trends).

The beautiful goldfinch

Goldfinches are partial migrants, which means that  part of the population will migrate while the rest over winter in the UK. Those that do migrate tend to head south to south-west to the continent, not to any specific wintering areas but stopping when they find suitable feeding locations.

Ringing provides invaluable information on the movements of birds, both within the country and between countries, and it is every ringers dream to catch a bird with a foreign ring on. After ringing in the garden in Garth, Wales for the past four years and catching over 160 goldfinch, we finally caught one with a ring we had not put on ourselves! More than that it wasn’t even put on in this country! Ring number 11300397 had a Brussels address on. This goldfinch, at some point in its life, had been caught and ringed in Belgium and then flew east across the southern North Sea and England to our garden in Wales.

You can just about make out Brussels on the ring!

In over one hundred years of ringing, 92 goldfinch ringed in Great Britain and Ireland have been found in Belgium, not that many when you consider 426, 657 goldfinch have been ringed between 1909 and 2011. Even more impressive is that until 2011 only 15 goldfinch have been ringed in Belgium and then caught in Great Britain… ours makes number 16!

Where in Belgium or when we will not know until the recovery has been submitted to the Belgium ringing scheme…. but it is still exciting to think just where this bird has been. Watch this space for an update in the coming weeks.

A very happy Lee with the Belgium ringed goldfinch

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Wanderings in a Welsh Woodland

High above the River Dee, snaking its way through the steep sided valleys of the North Wales landscape, small pockets of oak woodland nestle amongst green open pastures, dotted with white sheep. Higher still and the green pastures and woodlands turn to the browns and reds of the moors. In this part of the valley grey sheer, rock faces stand sentry overlooking and the skeletal remains of a castle crown the top of a hill which stands away from the slopes in the middle of the valley.

During the summer months these woodlands provide a breeding space for a number of migrant birds. Arriving to make the most of our summer and the abundance of insect food it provides. Two characteristic species of summer, mature oak woodlands are the redstart and pied flycatcher. Their preference for such woodlands means they are more often found in western parts of the UK where such habitat remains.

Beautiful female pied flycatcher

Like many UK birds these species have suffered a decline in numbers over the last few years, in part due to the loss of breeding and overwintering habitat but also due to climate change. Recent research with pied flycatchers indicates there is an increasing mismatch between the timing of peak caterpillar abundance and the period when chicks require the most food.

Such research has relied on projects looking at the breeding success of these birds, aided by the fact they readily take to nest boxes. The pied flycatcher is one of the best studied migrants, with many long term projects having been run since the 1970s. One such study has been undertaken in the woodlands above the town of Llangollen, and it was here we headed to help check the boxes.

Loaded with a ladder, a note book and some ringing kit, we picked our way through the trees, climbing the slopes carpeted with crinkly brown leaves, sleek, shiny green bluebell leaves and dead, crumbling branches. Each box was checked, the contents recorded and if possible the adult bird and chicks ringed.

Pied flycatcher nest - lovely blue eggs with a neat nest with oak leaves

Redstart nest - slightly darker blue eggs and also note the number of feathers
woven into the nest also

 In total we checked over 70 nest boxes, although there were many empty boxes and most of the occupied ones had blue tits in, we did come across a number of pied flycatcher and redstart broods. Of these we managed to ring nine broods of blue tit, two broods of pied flycatcher and three broods of redstart. We also caught five adult female pied flycatchers. A rewarding days wandering around a beautiful woodland in Wales

Pied flycatcher brood freshly ringed and returned to their nest

Rather scruffy though still beautiful redstart chick