Monday, 28 January 2013

A Special Winter Visitor

Despite a fresh layer overnight, the snow of Saturday morning was soft and slushy. Great slabs of it slid off the greenhouses and polytunnels of the farm. The steady drip of snow melt came from roofs, leaves and branches, beneath which the snow was pockmarked with tiny holes where drops of water had fallen Golden light from the morning sun filtered through the surrounding trees, catching the droplets and sending millions of miniature rainbows dancing over the remaining snow cover. Still the snow continued to crunch underfoot, still the poles froze your fingers and still the ice still clung to the edges of the pond.

The woodland surrounding the farm glittering in the snow and morning sun

Birds still flocked to the farm’s garden, twittering from the tops of the trees before dropping down, not so much to the small gap of free flowing water in the pond but to the feeders full of sunflower and Niger seed. The thaw was unlocking water in the wider countryside but food remained hidden, and so the birds came. Flocks of brambling gathered to feed on the seed scattered below the feeders, a charm of goldfinch flew in to nibble at the Niger seed dangling above. The usual accompaniment of great, blue and coal tits grappled with sunflower seeds or pecked at peanuts, often hanging upside down from the feeders. The odd lesser redpoll and siskin joined in the foray, while a group of long-tailed tits buzzed from bush to tree to feeder, their excited trilling calls giving their location away.

Blue tit feeding on peanuts

Briefly intercepting the bird’s busy comings and goings was the gardens usual compliment of mist nets and traps. For the ringers the morning was equally as busy, and one species in particular stole this snowy morning’s show - the brambling.

Each winter we ring a fair number of these stunning finches, before they head back north to breed in Scandinavia. We've even had a recovery of a bird ringed at the farm and then caught again in Norway. But as yet the bramblings we have recaptured at the farm have been ringed in the local Thetford area. That is until today when a brambling turned up in the walk in trap with a ring on that looked a little different. It looked different because it was a Norwegian ring!

The Norwegian ringed brambling ã  Claire Thacker 

This young male, hatched last year, had left the icy grip of the Norwegian winter and made it across the North Sea to the UK. Here bramblings make the most of our milder winters, feeding in particular on beech mast. When freezing conditions like those in the last couple of weeks grip the UK many head into gardens in search of water and food. In a couple of months this and most of other thousands of brambling wintering in the UK will return to Scandinavia to breed. Exactly where this bird will head to for its first breeding attempt is unknown, most brambling lack any strong fidelity to particular sites moving between breeding locations…so far as we know. With a ring on we have a better chance of building up an accurate picture of this brambling’s habitat and nesting choices and its movements; we just have to hope it gets caught again…

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Trap Happy

Winter’s icy embrace grips the country. Snow falls from leaden skies, softening the harsh lines of the landscape and turning it into a glittering wonderland (as long as you don’t have to travel anywhere). With plummeting temperatures the world freezes and any standing water becomes locked away and treacherous underfoot. For birds such frozen conditions present a serious challenge. With food covered in deep snow and fresh water frozen solid, many flock to gardens where both may be in more plentiful supply. Feeders full of energy rich seeds, fat balls, apples, fresh unfrozen water, all draw in regular garden birds but also more unusual species struggling to find food in the wider countryside. Brambling, redpolls, redwings, fieldfare and even waxwings are just a few of the more unusual species of birds encountered in gardens at this time of year.

Bramblings flock to food provided in feeders

The close proximity of such birds relying on garden provisions is just too good an opportunity for a ringer to miss. However mist nets are not always the best way to go. Against the brilliant white of the snow, the black netting becomes more visible. In these situations walk in and drop traps provide an excellent additional method of capturing those birds that are willing feed on the ground, including some finches, and thrushes. Taking pride of place amongst the flower and vegetables beds of the Barber garden is one such trap.

Sunday morning and one of those unusual species of birds entered our garden. A fieldfare! From the top of the tree it warily eyed the scattering of seed and apples, weighing up the desire for food against the rather odd looking trap. Eventually seeing no imminent danger, the bird dropped to the ground and carefully wandered in. Within seconds the trap had been released and the bird was caught!

The stunning fieldfare

Its not every day you get to ring a fieldfare. Occurring in Britain during the winter, fieldfares are predominantly found in open woodland, arable farmland and in hedgerows. Habitats that are difficult to catch birds in at the best of times.

With a brand new shiny ring on its leg this particular fieldfare was soon back to old ways, nibbling on the apples next to the trap in the garden. Come the spring it will be heading back to Scandinavia to breed, and hopefully at some point may be caught again whether it be on its breeding territory or perhaps back in the UK next winter, nibbling on the Barber’s apples.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Dipper Dipping

There are many levels to the world of bird watching, from casual bird watchers who just enjoy watching birds on a stroll or the occasional trip to a nature reserve, to the more serious birders, those who spend most of their free time watching birds, searching areas and keeping records of what they see. Thrown into this mix is twitching. A British term, twitching means the pursuit of a previously-located rare bird. Of course its not black and white, you are not necessarily just a birder or a twitcher, but in many cases when you start twitching you tend to get caught up in it, travelling hundreds of miles to see one rare bird and add it to your list.

As with many hobbies, twitching tends to have its own vocabulary; terms that mean one thing to the general Joe Bloggs may mean something entirely different to the twitching fraternity. One such term is to dip. This means you miss seeing a bird that you went looking for.

Personally I have done the odd bit of twitching over the last few years, although I have always gone for birds within my local area. The lure of seeing a rare bird on your home turf is often just too good an opportunity to miss.

Out birdwatching - in these kind of conditions its easy to dip a bird!

Just prior to Christmas a bird turned up in Thetford that I was intrigued to see, and would twitch given that it was spotted less than five minutes from my house! The bird was a Black-bellied Dipper. Now we get Dippers in the UK, predominantly in the west and north of the country. Head to many fast flowing rivers in Scotland and Wales, or upland areas of northern England or even south west England, and you may just encounter this fantastic little bird that will hold itself under water in order to feed. These birds are however a subspecies with the scientific name Cinclus cinclus gularis. The nominate subspecies, i.e. the originally described population is known as Cinclus cinclus cinclus, or the Black-bellied Dipper. This subspecies breeds throughout northern Europe, migrating to milder regions during the winter, including occasionally to Britain. Physically the differences may seem quite subtle, Black-bellied Dippers have no chestnut on the lower breast unlike our resident Dippers. When a Dipper turns up in eastern Britain in winter its worth taking a closer look as more often then not it is a visitor from the continent.

One of our British breeding Dipper - note the chestnut band on the breast

Although technically the same species as those Dippers I had seen in the past, I was still interested in seeing this bird, and so on a number of occasions I headed down to the river, with Barley in search of the bird which by now had generated quite a bit of attention on twitching and birding websites. And each time we dipped. While the reports kept coming in of the bird being seen, each time we went it was no where in sight.

The first weekend into the new year and whilst on a general walk with friends along the river we spied a huddle of people, all wearing binoculars, some carrying telescopes and more than a few pointing very long lensed cameras at the same bit of river; the unmistakable sign that an unusual bird was about. It had to be the Dipper. Approaching carefully and quietly along the muddy bank, there perched up on top of a log for all the world to see was the Black-bellied Dipper. So many times I’d dipped it and now there it was, on full view, characteristically bobbing up and down and seemingly oblivious to the clicking cameras and quiet murmurs of the spectators.  

The Thetford Black-bellied Dipper ã Lee Barber