Monday, 29 December 2014

A Tale of Two Snipes

Winter had finally arrived. After months of mild, wet weather with the feeling of October rather than December, things had finally turned cold, crisp and frosty. It was still pitch black, the rather dim light of the head torch swept the bramble hedges and grassy banks, the frost glittering briefly in the torches beam. The grass beneath brand new Christmas wellies crunched, the ice breaking at the edges of puddles. The sky above was clear, stars sparkled in the inky black, while a hint of orange glowed on the horizon hinting at the lights of the nearby city. Slowly the inky black began changing through shades of deepest blue, cancelling out the orange glow, as dawn began to break. With enough light now to see, we walk the frozen grassy and muddy tracks between raised banks beyond which the ground dips into pools. The reeds and grass within which have been strimmed, maintained and managed for birds. Stretching across two such pools is a series of strategically placed nets. We climb the bank and look out over the pools, we walk down the slope and step down into the frozen water. It is not deep, the ice cracks as we slowly walk across, skirting piles of reed and grass, purposely left for birds to roost on just above the waters surface. Reaching the first set of nets we find they have done their job well! 

The set of nets and habitat managed for Snipe

As we approach the second set, which skirts a slightly deeper pool, walking through taller, dried grass that rustles as we pass, we flush more birds. They rise up out of the long grass, calling as they dash zig zagging away; only some of them encounter the nets. Our catch increases and is a good one; the birds are small mottled brown above, with pale, buff stripes down the back and on the head, a straight long bill and comparatively big dark eyes. They are Common Snipe. But some are smaller still, with a shorter bill. Those are Jack Snipe! In total there seven Jack Snipe and 12 Common Snipe, a cracking total even when you were aiming to catch them! But it just goes to show what maintaining and creating habitat specifically for such species can do. 

Common Snipe (right) and Jack Snipe (left)

Both are listed as Amber due to declines in numbers. Common Snipe breed and winter in the UK and numbers have dropped especially in lowland wet grassland. Jack Snipe winter in the UK, but are a Species of European Concern. To have even seven Jack Snipe on site means it is Nationally Important. 

Jack Snipe

Beyond the tall trees at the edge of the site the brilliant golden sun breaks the horizon, casting its yellow rays across the glittering greens, browns and dun yellows of the pools. In the beautiful winter sunlight we ring and process, learning about these wonderful, cryptic waders. It is brilliant to be able to compare both species at the same time. When complete we release each one, the Common Snipe zoom off quickly, not hanging around. The Jack Snipe however tends to rely more on its camouflage, crouching down until the last moment, flying low and then dropping down again. So when set down carefully after processing, for a moment that is where they stay. 

Lee releasing the fourth of our seven Jack Snipe

A huge thank you to Matt Prior and Graham Deacon of North Wiltshire Ringing Group for taking us out and letting us join them. Why not check out their blog to see what they are up to ringing wise. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dipping In

It was dark, the steep slopes, rising either side of the road, a denser, deeper black shadow against the night sky. A cloudy sky that hid the stars, with only a few twinkling lights from nearby houses and the flashing amber of a sign on the road warning of ice as it wound higher into the mountains, a black snake through a black landscape.  The water rushing below was a muted roar against the muffled night. In the light of a torch the water tumbled over itself and the submerged rocks, before disappearing from view, swallowed by the night. The torch swept past ledges and holes, searching. It only took a second to see what we are looking for. The torch light sweeps past again, the far side then assessing the rushing water in between.

Slowly he crosses the water, the white water pushing and swirling against the rubber wellies, reaching the top and then plunging down the gap between leg and welly. It is cold, enough to take the breath away, but not cold enough to put him off.

It is a short distance to cross to reach the roosting site of a small bird synonymous with the rushing streams of upland areas. With the bird safely ensconced in a bag it is a short wade back across the river.

Back on the road, and having emptied the wellies of what seems like half the stream, it is safe to ring and process the bird. Removing it from the bag, the torch light reveals the short-tailed, plump, stocky little brown bird, the feathers on its dark brown back fringed with silvery blue, its brilliant white throat and chest contrasting starkly with a deep chestnut band across the midrift that quickly becomes the deep brown again. Its grip is strong. It needs to be. The bird is the Dipper, and that grip will hold it under rushing water as it searches for food.

The Dipper, ready to be released

That night the bird is roosted in our house, safe and quiet until the morning when returning to the same bridge we release it into the grey drizzle of a winter morning. 

Of course all of this was done with a licence to approach and handle wild birds. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Scrub Bashing and Bird Ringing

The day was spent managing the habitat at Cranwich. Our lovely reed bed and gravel pits were slowly being over taken by trees such as willow and alder. While stands of such trees do provide habitat for a range of wildlife, it is not so good for the species were are trying to promote here, namely our reed warblers but also a number of other specific species. The spindly alders and willows simply have to go. And so throughout a rather murky day we chopped and cut and removed. Piling up the branches to be burned, clearing the grassy areas up to the edges of the pools. 

Making a start!

While we cleared the winter wildlife of the reserve proceeded with its daily routine. Flocks of duck and geese collected on the larger pools. Little grebes ducked and dived, creating ripples on the calm, dark surface of the water. Fieldfare and redwing streamed over head, and small passerines like bullfinch and robin called from the surrounding woods. Amongst the vegetation we removed there were the signs of summer use, an abandoned nest of a small mammal (a tiny knot of grass at the base of the brush) and even an old Reed Bunting nest (much to the disgruntlement of the Chief Nest Recorder, Dave who had spent many an hour watching that pair disappear into that thicket over the summer but never successfully located the nest!). We even saw a water shrew legging it for some new cover. And while we may be removing seemingly good habitat each of these creatures will find new places to sleep and nest with plenty of excellent habitat remaining. 

Lee and the old Reed Bunting nest

But what would a trip to Cranwich be without an attempt at ringing. As dusk approached, into the reed bed where already the water levels are rising, a net was set. The aim, to catch Starlings coming into roost. The result? Two Starlings and two Redwings, and one very wet pair of legs (teach me to turn up to a reed bed with no waders). 

Clad in a fresh pair of warm socks and a fortunate pair of coveralls, and now in pitch darkness, there was only one thing left to do…. Put a net up and try to catch the Tawny Owls of course! The result? One beautiful, adult male Tawny Owl, caught ringed and released, oh and one very sore hand from getting the bird out of the net (teach Lee to let an owl grab his hand). 

The Owl

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A charm through the gloom

The fog lay thick through the dawn swirling in the orange glow of the street lamps. As the lights switched off one by one still the fog obscured trees and houses, a thick blanket through which the cool blue of morning now seeped through. Thought murky, damp and cool, the morning was still with not a breath of wind. Beads of water droplets gathered on the branches and last few leaves of the almost bare trees, on the spiky needles of evergreens and on the fine, black mesh of the net. Hanging, glittering in the murky light like tiny strings of fairy lights before they were shaken away.

Stunning adult male Goldfinch

Even before the nets are fully open birds were gathering in the top of the tree. Bold, brazen, perched and looking down on the activity below, and yet cautious, not willing to go any closer for now. Once the ringers are clear of the nets the birds venture down, working their way through the shelter of the tree to the food hanging so conveniently beneath its slender boughs. Inevitably and as planned, as birds leave the feeders some are caught in the pockets of the net.

As the morning progresses the dull and murky fog was never far away, so that the forest surrounding the small open patch of paddocks and garden was never more than hazy shapes of tree and branch. The gloom was only broken by the splash of brilliant colour and character by those little feathered beauties that fell into the net. A whole charm of Goldfinch. Some are adults, with bright bold colours and fresh pristine feathers. Velvet black wings, clean bold white patches, vivid red, stunning yellow and the soft chestnut brown merging into a white belly. Then then were the youngsters, feathers a little more worn, colours a little more muted.  

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

It is not just the Goldfinches that brighten this gloomy morning. The raucous cry of woodpeckers cuts through the gloom. There is a different beauty in the bold black and white pattern and the flash of bright red of these birds. The first two caught are young females, there are brown worn feathers in the wing and their heads are completely black. The third is an adult male, the wing is completely glossy and black, and there is a strip of brilliant red cutting through the black at the back of the head.

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker

With lunch time approaching the number of birds starts to dwindle and it is time to pack up and head for home….

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Birding in the rain

The small wooden hide sits on the edge of the lake overlooking its troubled water. A strong wind creates small waves and white caps on which hundreds of coot and ducks bob up and down, buffeted by the elements. The surrounding trees sway and bend, their leaves ripped from them, swirling up into the grey sky. Inside the hide it is quieter; its dusty interior smells a little musty and there were cobwebs crammed into every corner and under every bench. The sky through the open windows darkens ominously. The ducks, coot, grebes and gulls carry on swimming, milling, diving and resting. Slowly at first large heavy rain drops begin to patter on the top of the hide and on the waters surface. Still the ducks, coot, grebes and gulls carry on. The pace of the rain drops picks up. Soon they are pelting down; a torrent of water from the laden sky deluges the birds. It rains so hard the water of the lake bubbles and boils as rain drops bounce back up. Still the birds carry on. Coot bob their heads back and forth, Tufted Ducks and Little Grebes pop up like a bubble breaking on the surface then dive back beneath the waves with a little jump. 

Coot in the storm

Still the rain pounds the surface of the lake and drums on the roof of the hide. Just in front of the hide a sleek, streamlined bird with dark back and cap, a pale chest and face, and a thin dagger like bill, breaks the surface, appearing seemingly from nowhere. It is a Great Crested Grebe, and as the rain continues to hammer down the bird continues to fish. Time and again it slips beneath the bubbling water, time and again it reappears, shakes its head a little and then continues to look down into the murky shallows, searching. It disappears again, and a moment later reappears with a stocky fish clamped between its bill. The grebe manoeuvres the fish, adjusting its position before lifting its head, stretching its neck and swallowing the fish whole. Another little shake of the head and it is off searching once again. 

Great Crested Grebe feeding in the rain

The rain rolls over the lake and its feathered inhabitants like water off a ducks back. For what seems like an age the lake is pounded, its distant shore obscured, the birds along its back edge mere shadows in the mist. Until finally the rain eases, the mist lifts like a curtain and even a small glimmer of sunlight briefly streams through the clouds onto the now calm waters of the lake. 

Little Grebe in the calm that follows

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Owl, The Puppy Dog and The Meadow Pipit

Dusk was gathering as the little car bumped down the puddle filled lane heading for a small cottage shielded from view by tall blustery trees. Beyond, in the gathering gloom, the roar of the sea washing up onto a sandy beach, can still be heard over the rush of wind in grass and trees. Riding alongside in the passenger foot well, a familiar red fox Labrador sniffs the salty air trickling through the small gap in the window, her nose making smudge marks on the glass.

On pulling up to the cottage the puppy dog and driver are greeted by a small team of ringers who have been working the site all day. With the trees now mere black shadows and the sky deep indigo the last round has been completed, and the nets closed. There is just one bird left to process and arguably it is the bird of the day. In a net that had caught nothing all day, one final surprise had been waiting. A Tawny Owl. Its black liquid eyes, beautiful, dark, deep pools, watch silently. Its soft feathers barely rustle, a mixture of soft browns, white and black, while its legs and feet are covered in fine white feathers that contrast starkly with long black talons.

The Owl

The process is quick, a youngster of this year the bird is ringed, weighed, measured and soon is silently heading away down the lane that is now pitch black.

It was a cold night. The stars twinkle brightly in a deep black sky. The puppy dog finds the warmest spot in the tent… at the bottom of a sleeping bag! All around are the sounds of night; the rustle of trees disturbed by the wind, the distant crash of waves on sand, and the roar of rutting red deer. The middle of the night, and the puppy dog has moved upwards towards the coolness and freshness outside of the sleeping bag. For the rest of the night she stretches out, head poking out of the bag but still stretched out alongside the warm body and using a conveniently places arm as a pillow!

Camping - Puppy Dog style

Light breaks slowly across the now deep blue sky of pre-dawn. Pale pink washes through as the blue lightens with morning. Skeins of pink footed geese honk nosily as they pass over head, heading for fields for breakfast. The puppy dog follows through a maze of blackthorn and bramble that covers the sheltered side of the sand dune where mist nets are opened; sniffing and creating trails in dew laden grass.

It is one particular set up of nets that creates the interest for the ringers on this session. Set in a triangle, with an MP3 player in the middle, the nets are successful at catching meadow pipits throughout the day. Such elegant birds with tones of brown and buff, and bold dark streaks on back and breast, perhaps overlooked by many a birder who become used to its accelerating and the decelerating song as it rises into and then falls like a parachute from the sky, used to its high piping call, and its presence in such a variety of habitats. They seem to be everywhere. And yet even this most familiar of pipits is suffering declines. The birds this day are moving through, heading to southern areas and lowland habitats for winter.

The Meadow Pipit

For the puppy dog it is just another day of running, sniffing and chasing tennis balls...   

Monday, 6 October 2014

Absolutely Quackers

The large fat raindrops fell in torrents from the dark grey sky, bouncing off the green leaves of trees and bushes and creating puddles in the gravel track that was sandwiched between wood and fields. The rain thundered down on the hoods, jackets and wellies of a small group of people standing at the end of the track. To the left the horizon was clearing, a brilliant setting sun breaking through the clouds and illuminating the fields in beautiful golden light. To the right a wonderful rainbow arched over a small pool set in an open field surrounded by the dark still dripping trees. The sky through which the rainbow arched was still dark slate bluish grey. In the gathering dusk and as the rain eased the group set a series of nets covering the dark, muddy pool and then retreated to the cover of the surrounding wood. 

The small pool ready and waiting

With the sun set darkness crept over the pool, nets and people, the light and colour slowly draining away and shadows replacing the greens and browns of water and vegetation. Above, the clouds continues to clear, glinting stars filling the now inky blue black sky. The sounds of night fill the air; the loud raucous alarm of a group of pheasants, the kwick of a tawny owl whose silhouette then crosses the darkening sky, the low rumbling roar of a rutting red deer, echoing from some unseen place. Then in the sky above the low rapid flutter of wing beats as a number of small ducks come swooping over the trees aiming for the pool.

A 'spring' of teal

There is a swish and a splash as the ducks land on the water, with some landing in the awaiting nets. A dark, shadowed figure emerges from the deeper black of the trees, walking quickly to the waters edge and then wading into the shallow pool. ‘Kersplosh, Kersplosh’ the figure wades over to the net and carefully removes the duck, retreating with the bird to the cover of the trees and placing it safely in a bag and then a quiet box. As the evening draws on this process is repeated. With the increasing darkness there is no need to retreat to the woods and the figures simply crouch low at the waters edge, shrouded now by darkness.

For every duck removed from a net, many more simply flap their wings and escape. Still more, even in the darkness, see the nets and divert with an acceleration of wing beats, up and away. Finally the number of birds coming in dwindles to nothing, a bright silvery moon appears from behind the trees and the group calls it a night. The nets are taken down and the group retreats to the warmth and light of a nearby barn in order to process the catch. It may be small, with just five birds out of all those that came swooping into the pool, but these gorgeous little ducks more than make up for that. They are teal. Delicate, small, and at this time of year seemingly brown with none of the glorious chestnut and green in the head of the males, no bright yellow patch on the tail or brilliant white streak across a silvery grey flank. But up close there is a bright green and blue iridescent flash across the wing, and beautiful mottled, soft brownish grey feathers across the body and back. The birds are ringed and processed before being returned to a small pond behind the barn. From the hand the birds barely touch the water’s surface before head straight up and away into the moonlit night. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Dolphin Dreams and Delights

I sit on the grassy bank at the top of a cliff, overlooking a steep drop to rocks and the sea below. Behind me are the whitewash walls of a fish factory. Stretching out ahead is the gently rolling blue green of the ocean, small dark wavelets catching the eye and the occasional ray of warm sunshine that appears and disappears behind banks of clouds. The horizon is hazy, the waves disappearing into the opaque mist while most of the coastline on either side of me is shrouded. Below me fishermen cast their line far into the water, the lures glittering briefly in the air before disappearing beneath the waves. In the clear blue green directly below the rocks you can see the fish swarming. Tiny whitebait swirl in dark shoals are followed by larger and darker shoals of mackerel. A little further beyond and the animals I wanted to see most of all, those that I long to see even once one has disappeared from view, animals I never tire of and which seem entwined with my very soul, surface with a breath that always sends a shiver down my spine and lightens my heart. Dolphins. The irrational disappointment of the boat trip that blanked only moments before is wiped away and replaced with a joy and feeling of elation that no other wildlife can bring. 

Searching for dolphins at New Quay

Brilliantly white seabirds swirl over the balls of fish, dipping down to the waters surface, chasing each other and then settling on the water as the shoals move, only to lift again as they spot the next group of fish. The dolphins have followed the mackerel which have followed the whitebait. For a couple of hours, two dolphins work the water off the headland and small bay just round the corner from the harbour wall of New Quay. At times they move a little further away, circling back in to shore, coming within 50 m of the rocks. As the afternoon progresses more dolphins have joined the feeding party, with over eight individuals within view including young calves surfacing close to their mothers. At one moment the group is spread out, surfacing in pairs, threes or on their own. The next moment the group comes together, surfacing close to, leaping high out of the rippling water, breaching synchronously. My heart leaps as I watch one dolphin breach three times in a row, another swings in close to the rocks, swimming underwater on its side flicking a fish from its mouth before grabbing it again and disappearing. Mum and baby pass close by the rocks too, the youngster hugging its mother’s side, swimming in her slip stream. Tail slapping, breaching, spy hopping, I see it all from my lofty view point. It is one of my best encounters with bottlenose dolphins and I am not even on a boat! 

Four hours pass and evening draws on, the light is fading turning the water silvery grey as clouds and that misty haze creeps closer. The wavelets smooth out as the wind disappears completely. Still the dolphins are there. Out past a fishing buoy the group continues to feed and play. I hang on as long as possible, not wanting the moment to end but it is soon time for me to leave. But the sighting remains in my heart, in my memories and in my dreams.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Assessment

In September 2007 I took my first steps towards becoming a bird ringer. Yes I had had an interest in birds for a few years, more so once I met my husband to be. He got me interested in birds and I got him interested in whales and dolphins. While Lee had been ringing for a couple of years, I had yet to take the plunge. Then came the Isle of Wight ringing course which he was attending and on which a space had become available. Considering Lee had just driven me to Plymouth, and hung around all day while I did a dolphin survey, and with my growing interest in birds, I agreed. So began what has become another passion in my life. The thrill of holding a bird, learning so much about moult, aging, sexing and their life histories that cannot necessarily be gained from observation alone, is a real privilege. In November that year I began ringing with Merseyside Ringing Group near Chester. Developing the basics of handling, ringing and aging passerines and learning to set mist nets and safely extract birds. Despite driving an hour to get to the site, leaving in the dark and despite braving frozen conditions on many occasions, I had been caught by the ringing bug. I remember ringing my first Greenfinch, Yellowhammer, Dunnock and Firecrest, I remember ringing my first and only Willow Tit and being almost rugby tackled out of the way as I went to remove a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from the net.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Within a year I had moved to Scotland to guide on a whale watch boat before settling in Norfolk where I was taken under the tutorship of Greg Conway. Over the next two years I ringed passerines in Thetford Forest and warblers in reed beds at the Nunnery. I ventured onto a seabird island off the top of Scotland, where I caught hundreds of Puffins and the odd Gannet or two, one of which left a mark I still bear today. I ringed hirundines at Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire and even dabbled in a bit of wader ringing with the Wash Wader Ringing Group.

My first adult Gannet

By September 2010 I was back on the Isle of Wight ringing course and was put forward for my C permit. Now I could ring independently, although I was still responsible to my trainer. And so it continued, I set nets in my garden, my parents garden and my parent in laws garden! I went out with ringers targeting specialist birds like Nightjar and Firecrest. I started helping at a reed bed site known as Cranwich, somewhere that has become central to mine and Lee’s ringing activities. I went abroad, ringing in the Gambia where Western Palaearctic migrants and colourful Afro-Tropical birds mix. I went to the famed Icklesham and delved into hundreds of warblers, hirundines and pipits. I became a nest recorder, gaining a pullus endorsement which allowed me to ring the chicks in the nests I’d found. I wandered through woodlands monitoring Pied Flycatcher and Redstart nests. I ventured onto rather smelly landfill tips and ringed Black-headed, Herring, Lesser and Great Black Backed Gulls. I spent early mornings in reed beds, in scrub land, on beaches, on farmland, on remote islands, ringing and learning more.

Ringing a Kingfisher

Finally last year my trainer said to me it’s time, I’m ready. Ready for my A permit. Unlike with the C permit, this time I needed to be assessed by an independent trainer. Someone who I had not ringed with before. Step up Steve Piotrowski. In June 2014 I joined Steve at Minsmere for a ringing small ringing session with his team. After that there was just one stage left, one final session at my site, one final assessment. Roll on Bank Holiday Monday and with grey skies and a still wind we took to the reed bed at Cranwich for that final assessment. With the threatening rain holding off the birds seemed to make a beeline for the nets. Chiffchaff in particular seemed to be moving through the site in large numbers, with 41 caught (the highest number caught in one session at Cranwich and our usual annual total!). Intermingled with the Chiffs was a good variety of birds, with Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Garden Warbler, Marsh Tit and Treecreeper also caught. With the rain closing in and the nets closed the total number of birds captured, processed and released stood at 96 and Steve’s decision was in. I had passed! Steve’s recommendation was that I should be considered for my A permit. The process is not over, it now rests in the hands of my trainer who needs to complete the paperwork and the Ringing Committee who will review the application….   

Just one of the 41 Chiffchaff caught during my assessment

A huge thank you to everyone who has helped me to learn to ring over the years, and who will help me to continue learning over the years to come. Here's hoping my application is accepted...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A Start at the end of the season...the 100th Wild Barley Post!

An industrial yard. A concrete square surrounded on all sides by tall brick warehouses. Scattered through the yard are stacks of wooden pallets, plastic drums and other working debris. Beyond tall gates is a labyrinth of roads that make up the network of industrial units sandwiched between river and sea in Great Yarmouth. A small lab leads through bolted wooden doors onto this yard. Above that is another set of offices accessed by a set of metal stairs. It is not the most obvious place you would go looking for nests, yet we know many species of birds will happily nest alongside human activity in urban areas. Most of the time you might think of pigeons, or blackbirds in your gardens, all associated with some sort of greenery. But there are some birds that will nest in the most seemingly unnatural areas. Think of peregrine falcons nesting on cathedrals and gas works, perhaps not so glamorous but gulls nesting on roof tops. Here in this yard there was also a nest. 

An unlikely place for a nest...

Tucked up under the eaves of the metal stairs, sitting on a small ledge is a rather scruffy collection of dried grass and leaves. It’s not totally inconspicuous with bits of yellowing grass hang down from this ledge. The soft tsip-tsip call of a bird from the yard gives the identity of the nest away. Hopping from roof top to pallets and back again is a small robin-sized bird. Its vent and tail are a beautiful pale red with the rest of its body charcoal grey and black. He holds himself up right, cocky almost, calling to another similar bird who has that beautiful red tail but is more drab greyish brown above. The female. The pair are Black Redstarts, and we are privileged to have them breeding in our yard. There are fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the UK and because of this the nests have extra protection through licencing to prevent disturbance.

As a licenced bird ringer, with an open nesting pullus endorsement and having an appropriate schedule 1 licence I carefully and quietly approach the stairs, hoisting myself up on a bike rail to peer into the nest. Despite the bright sunshine and heat of the yard, the nest is dark and cool. A small neat cup sits amongst the seemingly untidy mess of grass, and within this five pink, blind and pretty much bald little chicks squirm. I leave them be, letting the parents return to tend their brood.

The first glimpse of Black Redstart chicks

When I return the chicks have grown. They have tracks of feathers down their bodies, tufts of fuzzy feathers form patches over the head and body, while tiny little pins are starting to poke through on stubby wings where feathers will grow. Their legs are well developed and are ready to take a ring. The process is quick and in a matter of moments the chicks are nestled back in the cup, waiting for mum and dad to return which is not too long.

Ringed and returned to the nest

A short while later and a careful peek into the nest reveals large, well feathered chicks. I do not hang around long. These guys have grown so much, they are open eyed and alert. I am as quiet as possible, moving slowly so I do not startle them. Their parents still tsip-tsip at me from the roofs as I retreat.

My final visit and the yard is quiet, I climb slowly up to the nest, already knowing the answer. The nest is empty, the dark corner quiet, the cup well flattened. The chicks have gone. Headed off into the big wide world, five extra souls to the UK’s Black Redstart population. 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Swift Thinking

The little cottage sits settled in a small village with a meandering river making its way through pastures, woodland and water meadows, overlooked by rolling hills of fields carpeted in yellow oil seed rape or the more muted dun colour of wheat. In those fields not given over to agriculture sheep roam munching on lush green grass their lambs frolicking by their sides. The chalky white and deep purple blue of the flint walls of the cottage glared in the bright sunlight that blazed in a deep azure blue sky. Soaring purposefully across this sky, silhouetted against the blue, is a small bird with crescent shaped, pointed wings. One, two, three followed by more. The group swoops low, skimming around the cottage with a whoosh of air and a piercing scream, which for me is a quintessential part of the British summer. It is the swift. A bird that spends its entire life on the wing. On leaving the nest it will remain in flight, heading south to Africa and back, eating, sleeping, socialising, all without touching the ground until two years later when it touches down in a nesting hole.

Granny B's - Google Maps

The birds skim over the immaculate flower beds and vegetable plots, the sweet scent of sweet peas lifts into the air. Around a gnarled apple tree that has stood centre stage in the lawn for as long as I remember, up and over the hedge and off down the road. It is not long before they return, once again skimming the garden but this time making a beeline for the house. They dip a little lower before heading vertically up and landing on the wall just under the eaves. A quick scurry up the wall with sharp claws and the bird disappears into the roof. Here in the dark cool roof space, amongst the aging beams the swift has its nest.

With the bird safely ensconced we quickly set up nets. Recent work has shown that swifts can spend hours in the nest hole before heading off to feed. It is generally hard to catch swifts, they are such fast, agile and high flyers. So netting a nesting site is one of the only options to catching them, but there are strict guidelines to doing so.  But why go to the effort of trying to catch them? Well the UK population is in decline, and the bird is now Amber Listed. The reasons as with many population declines are multi-faceted but one big reason for swifts is home improvements. The demolition and renovation of old houses often results in nesting sites disappearing or being blocked. Given that the species is site-faithful, returning to the same nest site year after year, and do not colonise new sites easily, numbers have subsequently dropped. To have swifts nesting in your house, for me, is therefore something very special. Ringing aims to help establish where birds are wintering, to understand migration routes and juvenile dispersal. Repeated visits over a number of years to a nest colony also helps to understand that site-fidelity.

And so we wait, patient, drinking Granny’s juice, sitting in the little kitchen I have sat in since I was a child. A room that has barely changed as the world grows older around it. Forever glancing out the window finally we are rewarded, not once but three times!

A beautiful swift

There it was, in the hand, with beautiful long curved wings, sooty brown with a pale chin, a small forked tail. Bright, dark eyes, and a tiny bill but large gape. Pin sharp claws at the end of short feathered legs. So with a new ring fitted and all the biometrics taken, each is released, soaring off once again into that blue sky, circling high and away. 

Me, Granny B and a swift

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Journey South

We leave the wild mountains and Walrus of Svalbard behind and enter a heavy, ‘following sea’. White crests roll over the top of deep blue waves that the Saga Pearl II almost surfs down. We follow the coast south, over on the distant horizon the mountains still rise hazy blue. The conditions are not conducive to whale watching, and it is a couple hours before we see our first big mammal. A Sei Whale surfacing against the waves, lifting its head high to catch a clear breath. The wind then starts to drop, the number of white caps melting away, the waves dropping in height. Conditions were improving. Then ahead it was as if someone had drawn a line on the horizon. Slowly it approached and it seems as if the team are holding their breath, not quite believing the conditions beyond. Crossing it was like passing into a magical world, a whale watchers paradise. The wind disappears completely and the ocean becomes silky smooth, the slight cloud cover casting a silvery sheen and the sightings increase. Humpback Whales, White-beaked Dolphin and Minke Whales all in quick succession. Ahead three blows catch the eye. One then two are identified as Humpback Whale, the blow bushy, a dark body and humped back beneath. But the third is massive and thin. I catch my breath, scanning, searching, hoping to see this particular whale again. Once again a massive blow reaches into the pale blue silvery sky and beneath, not a dark body, but a pale and huge body. It is a Blue Whale. The largest animal that has ever lived on this planet we call Earth. I cannot contain my excitement, as I whoop and leap around the deck much to the amusement of the passengers. But it is not over, with the Humpback and Blue Whale still in sight another animal surfaces, this time a Fin Whale. Three species of incredible animals within the space of five minutes. Like I said, it was a magical kingdom.

A mighty Blue Whale

Still we cannot linger, and continue our journey south. Once more something catches the eye. Amongst the silvery calm, water boils, like fish at the surface but then something dark pops up. It does not roll like a whale. It is too big with too many repeated bobbings for birds. No dorsal fin like a dolphin, just a snout and rounded body. Closer inspection reveals that they were seals. But which species? Never had I seen seals behave like this, accelerating vertically up out of the water. I never pretend to know everything, that would be arrogant and pretentious. So it was with the help of a passenger that we identify these as Harp Seals. But we are not talking about one or two seals, great swathes of water boil ahead and alongside the ship as hundreds of Harp Seals surface in various groups over a period of half an hour!

Harp Seals

The following day, and no longer can we see the mountains of Svalbard. All around us the ocean extends from either horizon. It is an overcast day, showery, but importantly still calm. Following the unseen continental slope the day brings over 50 sightings. Half way through the morning an adult and juvenile Humpback Whale surface close to the ship. They are here to make the most of rich feeding grounds after an epic journey from the warm tropical waters where her calf would have been born. A frenzy of Fin Whale sightings just after lunch keeps the team on its toes, with many surfacing so close to the ship you can almost see down their blow holes. A huge blow signals what was probably our second Blue Whale of the trip, although it remained more elusive than the first. A Sperm Whale lifts its fluke diving to find the squid roaming the dark depths beneath us. Flashes of silver fish are patrolled by Minke Whales. A Sei Whale surfaces amongst the mist of a heavy shower, a Fin Whale just behind it. White-beaked Dolphin leap amongst shards of light breaking through the clouds. 

The final leg of our journey takes us back along the coast of Norway, from Tromso, through the meandering, steep sided fjords of Geriangerfjord, to the bustle of Bergen. Low lying mist threads its way through scattered islands, shrouding the feet of towering snow capped mountains. The sea once again is silvery and smooth and in such conditions it is not hard to spot the dark, black shapes of Long-finned Pilot Whale, the breach of distant feeding dolphins and the quick roll of Harbour Porpoise. Mid-morning and far ahead something black once again breaks the surface. Zeroing in and several, tall dark fins emerge from the silvery sea and with a growing sense of excitement we realise there is just one thing they can be. Orca. The mingling group of at least eight includes at least three big bulls, one with a dorsal fin immense not only in height but width. As the ship comes alongside the group one male leaps completely clear of the water landing with a huge splash and a roar of delight from the watching passengers. As the ship passes, slipping onwards on its inexorable path south, the group continues to mill with several younger animals also leaping clear of the water. Cue massive, silly grins on everyones faces.


Through the steep sided, meandering water ways of Geraingerfjord and even the more muted, softer, rounded islets and islands of the fjord off Bergen, we watch Harbour Porpoise surface amongst the dark wavelets. Tiny calves surface in close synchronisation with their mothers, causing a ripple of delight amongst those the most perseverant of passengers still on deck.

The final stretch of North Sea proves more productive than the journey north with a group of five Minke Whales causing a stir at the breakfast table. Rain and wind finally close in and the team bids a final farewell to the survey deck. For the first time in a long time the sun sets fully, darkness falls and when it is light again we are greeted by white, not of glinting snow caps, but of white, sheer cliffs of chalk. We were back in Dover and our Arctic adventure is over. For now

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Arctic Explorers

I awake from my slumber to breath taking views of Spitsbergen. Tall, dark, sheer mountains with blankets of snow and smooth white glaciers reach a sea that is calm as a millpond. The only ripples are created by the hundreds of auks. Everywhere I look there are Little Auks, Brünnich’s Guillemot, Black Guillemot and Puffins, either sitting on the water or streaming by in low flying groups. Amongst them are Fin Whales, surfacing against the stunning, mountainous backdrop. It is paradise. Our first stop is the town of Longyearbyen. An industrial place, with mines carving across the mountainside, looming over the houses that to be honest look a little worn against the grey skies. Throughout the town Snow Bunting sing, males in full breeding regalia flit from building to tundra to rock. I brave the Arctic Terns that nest right next to the road, I do not blame them for swooping and attacking me in protection of their precious eggs. Right next to the sign warning me to go no further without armed protection (this be Polar Bear country) I meet familiar birds, Grey Phalarope – known here as Red Phalarope – and Purple Sandpiper in stunning breeding plumage. Eider nest right next to a compound filled with howling Huskies. Later as the ship heads back out of the Fjord, sunshine starts to spill through gaps in the cloud cover, and dazzling in this light are the blows of a group of Fin Whales. Astounded I watch these whales milling, not moving fast or feeding, but resting. Amongst them there are clearly younger, smaller animals, and in amazement I watch as one lifts its tail fluke out of the water, a behaviour I have seen many times in Humpback Whale and Sperm Whale, but that is more unusual in this, the second largest animal on the planet.

Fin Whale off Spitsbergen

Our second stop is probably the most stunning, this was the day that the beauty of this remote, wild landscape was truly revealed in glorious splendour. Brilliant blue skies reflected in blankets of snow which covered the research town of Ny-Ålesund. A sheer, cracked wall of blue and white ice rears up where glacier meets sea. Immense mountains surround the town whose houses are brighter and feel more welcoming. Early in the day a Humpback Whale is sighted feeding in front of the glacier at the end of the bay. All day it works its way to and fro in front of glacier and mountains, feeding amongst the meandering ice bergs. Mid-afternoon and the whale has worked its way right in front of the stationary ship. Bubbles appear, rippling the calm blue water, and with a whoosh of breath the whale appears, throat and mouth distended as it gulps fish and water in one go. It dives with a flick of its tail fluke, and moves a little further on. The Arctic wildlife on land is just as impressive; amongst the snow and houses, the raucous screeching crescendo of Arctic Terns once more signals their intent to protect their nests by any means. Reindeer wander across blankets of snow. Long-tailed Duck, Snow Bunting and Barnacle Geese mingle on the tundra with Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones. Long-tailed, Arctic and Great Skua careen through flocks of Kittiwakes and terns that are feeding just off the shore. It is hard to say goodbye to such a dramatic and beautiful place as the ship headed away once again surrounded by Little Auk and Brünnich’s Guillemots.

Humpback Whale lunge feeding 

The final stop is Magdalena Bay, the most northerly, remote and wild of all the places we visit. Here the mountains are closer, looming perhaps ominously above a small circular bay where once again icebergs swirl. Glaciers sweep down between the sheer cliffs and rocky screes. Closer inspection reveals thousands of Little Auks swarming around the mountainside where they are nesting amongst the rocks. The ship nestles itself at anchor amongst the icebergs and we spend a morning watching the Auks, soaking up the wilderness. Again it is hard to leave such a raw and beautiful place, but as we leave with the smooth rippling waters giving way to waves and white caps, a sudden movement alongside reveals seven or eight Walrus! They surge up through the waves, tusks bared, tumbling over each other as the ship headed out to sea.


And so we head south, our adventures on Spitsbergen itself were over, but its incredible waters still had some surprises in store for us…

Friday, 11 July 2014

To the Arctic

The Saga Pearl II left Dover to the tune of beautiful evening sunshine, calm seas and even a couple of Harbour Porpoise. Its ultimate destination was Svalbard in the Arctic and there were four additional passengers who were highly excited about the prospect of the trip ahead. Since 2007 the marine charity ORCA has been working in association with the cruise company Saga in order to place survey teams onboard trips making their way around the European Atlantic, from the Mediterranean to the high Arctic and Iceland. In this way the charity’s collection of sightings data from various ferry routes from the UK has been complemented in areas where ferries do not regularly venture. In addition the trips are a perfect chance to raise awareness about the charity and the plight of whales and dolphins.

For four days the weather is against us, with windy conditions hampering sightings across the North Sea and when continuing up the Norwegian coast. Then in the morning light from a night where the sun never set, and with the team on deck early for the approach to the Lofoten Islands, that magic shout went up ‘Blow!’ Ahead of the ship a Fin Whale surfaced, its breath catching in a million sparkling droplets before it disappears beneath the waves. A short while later and another whale is sighted on the horizon, its blow hanging in the cold air. But to be totally honest it is the feathered wildlife that steals the show on the approach to the beautiful harbour of Leknes. While we are relieved to have our first large cetacean sightings, we are completely delighted by the reams of Puffins that stream past our bow.

Fin whale surfaces in the morning light near the Lofoten Islands

While the Lofotens are located within the Arctic Circle, the climate here is mild what with the influence of the Gulf Stream. The beaches are almost white, the waters of the harbour a clear blue green and teaming with jellyfish. Around us tall mountain peaks, some still capped with snow, rise and from their tops the majestic White-tailed Eagle soars.

On leaving this little piece of paradise the ship sails in the lea of the Lofoten Islands the ocean is like a mill pond, calm and serene. More Puffins stream by, Arctic and Long-tailed Skua’s chase and harass the Kittiwakes stealing their hard earned food. Balls of fish boil at the surface, disturbing the rippling calm with a silver flash as a Minke Whale surfaces in their midst. Turning the corner of the islands, the ship continues her journey north aiming dead straight for her ultimate destination, Svalbard. With the turn comes the wind, for so long sheltered by the tall mountains the Saga Pearl is now buffeted. She rolls up and down on a moderate swell, white horses dancing in the steely blue waves around her. As with the previous day there will be no sunset tonight but there would come a point where the team would need to go to bed…. It was almost time; the wind was cold in the eyes and the body ached from being continually buffeted. Then amongst the waves, and spray something catches my eye. I look again scanning the deep troughs and peaks with binoculars and something big and dark surfaces in my view. ‘I’ve got Orca!’ the words rip from my dry lips! The sighting is brief but lifts our spirits like only Orca can, and it is with a smile on our faces we retire to bed in anticipation of the next day.

Puffins streaming by

Once again the sun never sets and is still hovering low in the sky the next morning which dawns with much calmer seas and brings a fantastic day of whale watching with nearly 50 encounters. It starts with another four sightings of Orca brushing the horizon, followed by Minke Whales and White-beaked Dolphins. Then mid-morning we cross what seems an invisible line but beneath the gently rolling waves the sea floor had dropped, sloping away to the even darker depths. The way we knew? The whales got bigger! Now we were seeing the tall spouts of Fin Whales, the distinctive sinking surfacing pattern of Sei Whale and the majestic flukes of Sperm Whales the largest of the toothed whales and the inspiration behind Moby Dick. Ahead a magnificent Humpback Whale breaches clear of the water, its body slamming back into the waves with a massive splash; it then lifts its long brilliantly white pectoral fins up and slaps them repeatedly into the ocean. The day draws to an end, still light but none the less sleep beckons, although not before a beautiful Fin Whale surfaces less than 500 m from the ship and just behind it something smaller, a White-beaked Dolphin, an association between two cousins that share the same ancestry but that have taken very different evolutionary path ways. One now huge, with two blow holes and baleen to filter food from gulps of water. One smaller, stockier, one blow hole and teeth for grabbing slippery prey.

Fin Whale and White-beaked Dolphin surface in unison

And so the team retires from deck knowing the next step of the adventure is just a sleep away - The magical island of Spitsbergen.