Saturday, 28 December 2013

Return of the bramblings

Another Christmas was over, full of delicious food, fabulous presents and wonderful family. Of course the first thing we do once the family has returned to the mother-land (in this case Wales) is to get up before dawn (not too much of an issue at this time of year) and head out ringing. Sunshine and breezey, not the best combination for ringing but good enough to see what the Farm has to offer. 

Turns out that finally the bramblings have returned to the feeders. With the mild winter thus far many of the finches that make this such a special site have stayed away, feeding in the wider landscape of the forest. With food finally starting to dwindle large numbers had returned to the feeders in the garden of the Farm, with the walk in trap in particular working effectively to catch these beautiful birds. 

We know bramblings breed in Scandinavia and Northern Russia, and then migrate south to the UK and southern Europe for winter. We have even caught a bird in the past with a Norwegian ring on it... But when they migrate which routes do they take? Do birds coming to the UK, and our Farm in particular, cross over to Scotland and then south? Or do they fly down through Europe before heading over the North Sea? And once again, ringing is helping to solve the puzzle. 

Male brambling originally ringed in Helgoland, Germany

Today among the 15 or so bramblings we caught, one, just one had a ring on that read Helgoland. Helgoland, a small group of islands located off the coast of Germany with their own ringing scheme. At some point in the recent past (OK I sound like a Doctor Who episode now!) someone on that group of islands caught a male brambling, either on its way south for the winter or returning north to breed. Now, on a mild, breezey, sunny winters day that very bird was caught in our trap in a Suffolk garden!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Night Visitor

Night had fallen on the fields and woodland, the deepest and darkest black of the trees silhouetted against the inky black of the night sky where stars twinkled only briefly from behind the breaks in cloud cover. The only sound was the soft snorting of a horse from the nearby paddock, the gentle swish of sheep moving through the grass of the next field and the soft low murmurs of two people standing by the hedge waiting. Out of the darkness comes a loud, almost harsh ‘hoouh…ho ho ho hoouhhh’ the song of a tawny owl. The harshness comes from the tape, it is a little unnatural, but it has the desired effect.

In the near distance, from unseen trees beyond the fields comes the slightly softer, more natural song of a real tawny owl. Responding to the tape as a threat to establishing its breeding territory the vocal battle rages. But the owl comes no closer, content to keep its distance and keep hooting in response, waiting to see whether this intruder will enter its territory. In the trees nearby there is a single hoot and then….nothing. The distant owl continues to hoot and keep its distance.

The ringers decide to try their luck elsewhere, not wanting to upset this one owl too much. Silently they walk back to the top of the field and out of the darkness the outline of the poles, guy strings and very faintly the net, comes into focus. But there is something else there too. Hanging, quite still, is a roundish shape that was not there before. It is not until the ringers are right up to the net that the shape takes form, it is an owl! Careful to avoid strong talons and beak, the owl is removed to some choice words to the effect of ‘oh we seem to have caught one!’

Oh what a bird. Beautiful streaked and mottled feathers of innumerable shades of brown to grey, so soft to the touch. Tiny white feathers cover the legs all the way to the gripping talons. A wide round face split by a narrow dark wedge that reaches the curved bill; with mysterious black eyes like two deep unending pools. It is sturdy yet light; it does not fight but holds itself proud and upright. Its eyes close at the inevitable light needed for processing but it is magnificent. Such grace and silent stealth encompassed in one beautiful bird. Closer examination reveals a comb-like leading edge to the flight feathers which breaks down the turbulence created as the wing moves through the air, muffling the sound and creating silent flight.

Oh the magnificent tawny owl
With the ringing process complete we turn off all lights allowing the bird to regain its night vision. On releasing it, the owl seems to pause for a second before leaning forward, opening its beautiful rounded wings and disappearing into the black of the night.

Coming so close to such wild natural beauty, glimpsing its secrets even for only an instant, sends a shiver down my back….