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.