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.... 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Med in Norfolk

The sky beyond the houses along Great Yarmouth's seafront was dark blue grey, while above the beach the sun was playing hide and seek behind whitish clouds. As it broke out from behind the clouds its brightness and warmth spread over the yellow pebbly sand, turning the sea a deep turquoise blue. Tiny waves rolled down the strand line, white water sparkling. 

I bury my bare feet in the sand, wriggling my toes feeling the grains tickling between them. Shading my eyes from the bright glare, I can see the group of gulls gathering in front of me. Their bright white feathers and bright red legs and bills dazzle in the sunlight. The black on their heads is starting to moult creating a mottled appearance, on some only a smudge of black remains behind the eye. 

A beautiful Mediterranean gull...check out that ring!

But these are not your usual black-headed gulls, that in fact have chocolate brown heads and are so often seen along the coast and inland in parks. These are Mediterranean Gulls. This beautiful, clean looking gull is predominantly a southern European species, breeding in continental Europe and mostly wintering in the Mediterranean. Every year a few hundred breed in Britain but it is mainly a winter visitor to our shores. Absent from the beach in Great Yarmouth  through the summer, the birds have been returning over the last couple of weeks or so and will spend most of the winter here. 

On the legs of some of this group is something that provides an hint of where these birds are coming from. At least four are ringed with metal rings and two have additional colour rings which make it easier to identify individuals in the field. 

Mediterranean gull with green colour ring AJCA

The first bird has a green colour ring with white letters AJCA and the second a white colour ring with black letters 32E2. So where are they from? A simple email to the colour ring coordinator for small gulls provided some answers...

Green AJCA (blue pin) was originally ringed as a chick in 2006 on a small island in the Elbe estuary beyond Hamburg in Germany! While white 32E2 (red pin) was ringed as a chick in 2008 in Belgium! Both birds have regularly been wintering on the east coast of Britain over the last few years. Such sightings information from colour ringed birds is providing invaluable information about the movements and population dynamics of Mediterranean gulls in Europe. It is clear that the east coast of Britain is providing important wintering habitat for this expanding population...my sightings are just one more piece in this giant puzzle.

View Med Gulls in a larger map