Thursday, 25 July 2013

One little tern....deserves another

It is a balmy evening, the heat of the day having dissipated with the lowering sun. The golden sand shifts beneath my feet as I walk down the beach, small pebbles and stones are scattered amongst the golden grains and bunches of pale green marram grass cluster like small islands in an ocean of yellow. The sea gently rolls up and onto the beach, a creamy blue stretching to a hazy horizon. Behind us the tall dunes shield the beach from view. It is like a private world. Above us is a cacophony of sound, of birds chattering. But this is not any cacophony and not one you will hear at every beach in the UK. Looking up, and against the blue backdrop of the sky are small, delicate birds, a white so dazzling any laundry powder would be proud. It's not until one swoops past, low and fast that you see the black cap and fabulous yellow bill tipped black. They are Little Terns. 

The smallest of Britain's terns it is also one of our rarer breeding seabirds. Nesting in the dynamic, changing habitat of our exposed beaches right at the tide line, whole colonies are vulnerable to being inundated by storms and rising sea levels. Other factors include high levels of disturbance and predation. The result; low levels of productivity and a thus a decline in the number of birds since the 1980s.

Two very cute Little Tern chicks

We carry on walking until we reach the end of a fenced off area, here stepping over an electric fence we hope the wardens have remembered to switch off, we climb into a little tern colony. We stretch out in a line and begin slowly walking back the way we came, eyes glued to the ground, carefully scanning the beach in front and gently placing one foot in front of the other. Little Terns nest on the ground, their eggs and chicks are so perfectly camouflaged they are almost invisible. Small pebble dashed eggs or tiny fluffy, pebble dashed chicks, silent and unmoving, they can so easily be missed. 

Around the coast where the largest Little Tern colonies remain, great lengths have been taken by a number of dedicated people to protect them while they nest. RSPB wardens patrol beaches, talking to beach goers, keeping them away from colonies. Electric fences have been erected keeping people and predators out as much as possible. Colonies are closely monitored, and as part of that monitoring and to understand where birds are moving to, where they are returning to breed and to get an idea of growth rates and fledging success, the chicks are ringed.

So we come full circle to me walking in a line of people, straining my eyes in search of invisible chicks, while adult birds wheel and dive above. But let me make it clear, I am here by invitation only. Even as a ringer you can’t just walk into a Little Tern colony and start ringing chicks left, right and centre. You have to have a special licence. As a ringer though you can be invited by someone who has a licence, and under their watchful presence get to ring what have to be the cutest, tiniest, fluffiest chicks in the world. It is a complete and utter privilege.

Ringing a Little Tern chick!

From tiny chicks a mere few days old that huddle in a dip together pretending not to exist, to the larger more mobile chicks that race around, darting between hummocks of grass before finally giving up and crouching down, all took a ring, all were weighed and had their bills measured.

Getting weighed

We soon reach the end of the colony, gather up the last few chicks and once processed leave the beach to the little terns once more. Adults swoop in, laden with fish caught nearby and the chicks resettle. Our impression on them seems fleeting, we leave nothing but foot prints in the sand and an extra little bit of bling on the leg….

Many thanks to the RSPB and Dave Parsons of East Norfolk Ringing Group

Monday, 15 July 2013

A Birthday Chat

The rolling downland of Salisbury Plain stretched to the horizon. Tall stalks of grass, their yellowing heads bending over, ripple in the faintest of breezes. Scattered amongst the yellow greens are dark green hawthorn bushes and the bright reds, blues, purples and yellows of wild flowers. Butterflies skip from one to another. Small skippers, marbled whites, ringlets, meadow browns, small tortoiseshells and even a fritillary pause for seconds at each before flittering away.

The sun blazes, its heat pounds down on the grass and tracks. Away from the public roads, tanks and 4x4s kick up plumes of dust from the grey gravel tracks that meander through the landscape. Perched on the tops of the bushes, a dead branch or marker post sits the bird we are searching for. The whinchat. The size of a robin, with a striking white stripe above the eye, streaky brown back and a beautiful washed out, pale orange breast. The whinchat is a summer visitor, mainly to our heaths and moorland, spending the winter in southern Africa.

A beautiful female whinchat

Between 1995 and 2008 the numbers of whinchats more than halved in Britain, all but disappearing from central and eastern England. It is likely that factors in both their wintering grounds, migration routes and breeding areas are playing a role in this decline. Having escaped the intensification of farming practices following World War II, Salisbury Plain remains a haven for whinchats and provides a perfect opportunity to study their habitat choices and nesting success. By colour ringing individuals the aim is to also establish whether fewer adults are returning from Africa each year.

Nest of colour ringed whinchat chicks

First task today was to colour ring a brood of six chicks. Next was to try and catch a rather elusive adult female who so far had avoided capture. Colour ringing of both adults from a nest site is key to understanding which birds are nesting where, and with whom, as well as establishing whether birds are returning. 

Today we were lucky. Strategic placement of our traps around the nest, focusing on favoured perching posts, ended up with the elusive female caught, ringed and colour ringed… Here is hoping that the small part we played today will help yield results that will disentangle the factors affecting whinchat populations and provide solutions to help them recover.

Not a bad way to spend the last day of your twenties….

Happy Birthday to me!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Red Kites

Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away…. well actually Great Britain in the late 18th Century. At this time you would have been extremely lucky to have seen one of the most beautiful birds of prey in the British countryside. The Red Kite. Persecuted throughout the 17th and 18th Century, only in mid-Wales did this magnificent bird hang on although numbers were down to just a few pairs. Even by the late 1980s the number of breeding pairs in Wales was in the 50s, and still none bred in England and Scotland.

Today, driving round the twisting turning roads of mid-Wales, up and over valleys a million shades of green, and against a deep blue sky it seems every few miles a bird will appear from behind a tree line, from behind the steep sides of a valley, or over a distant ridge. With long slender wings and finger tips spread, a deeply forked tail and reddish brown feathers with striking white patches under the wing and a silvery grey head, there is only one bird it can be. The success of the red kite recovery means that today these special birds are seen not only through mid-Wales, but also in the flat landscape of eastern England, through the mountains of Scotland and from the motorways of southern England.

The magnificent red kite returned to the skies of Great Britain

The recovery is down to a dedicated group of people and organisations; to a re-introduction programme, protection and to monitoring breeding birds. Just one example of how a species can be brought back from the brink by passion and dedication.

Today the programme of monitoring red kite nests continues, with as many chicks ringed and wing tagged as possible. It’s not every bird ringer that gets to sit in the cool shade of oak woodland, looking out across fields and valleys, with a red kite chick sat in their lap. I certainly feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to go ringing with Tony Cross who monitors the nests in mid-Wales.

One very happy ringer

Up close the chick is stunning. Piercing eyes watch your every move, brilliant yellow feet with sharp talons flex beneath your grip, silky chestnut feathers cover the body with just a hint of the white downy feathers beneath.

Superb red kite chick
It won’t be long before the chicks we ringed today will be soaring gracefully through the Welsh skies and hopefully in a couple of years setting up new breeding territories with a mate for life, continuing the success story of this beautiful bird.