Saturday, 21 June 2014

Swallows in the barn

Warm, golden evening light bathed the paddocks and stables nestled amongst the tall, deep green trees of the forest. The smell of straw, mingled with the warm, musty smell of horses brings back memories of childhood and a horse called Guiness. Dipping and twisting, swooping in low through the open stable doors,a distinctive pointed wing bird appears, turns on a penny and disappears out the same way. With a dark black and blue back, brilliant white belly, deep red chin, streaming tail feathers and constant twittering there is only one bird this could be... Swallows. Back from southern Africa where they will have spent the winter and returned to the same nest sites as the years before. In the rafters of the stable, under the overhang of the door, and on top of the strip lighting perch a number of small nests. They look like they are made of little mud bricks laid one on top of the other and curving into a half cup. 

Swallow nest

Climbing up on a sturdy ladder each nest is checked to assess what stage it is at, or whether there are any eggs or chicks. At the same time a short net is set up covering the opening to the barn. What better additional information to add to a nest record than the identity of the parent birds? 

This year things seem a little quiet. Where we might expect most nests to have eggs or chicks by this time the first few nests are yet to be finished. What the reasons are we can only speculate, but many of these are likely to be second attempts with the first nest having failed. 

Finally in the last stable an active nest is found with five warm, beautiful eggs nestled amongst the soft white feathers and coarse dark horse hair lining the depression behind the mud wall.

Swallow chicks

And in the storage barns in the top field more good news. Climbing up on the old stable door and peering into the dark corner, eight small, dark black eyes stare back. With great care they are removed from the nest and ringed before being settled back into their quiet corner. This time the net that is stretched across the entrance catches both parents, and the set is complete, from egg to chick to adult. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Peregrine Falcon

Sitting as near to the precipice as I dare, which believe me is not very near at all with every one of my companions closer to it than me, I am surrounded by the new green fronds of bracken and stinging my bum on nettles. The bank of green bracken intermingled with the golden reddish brown of last years growth slopes away and then disappears, if I stand and peer I can see the drop. To the left and right I can see the steel grey sheer walls of the quarry, meeting deep green grass below before the land drops again to the valley floor where road, river and trees meander through a patchwork of verdant green fields dotted with the white specks of sheep. Behind us rise giant buttresses of hard grey rock, merging with the green and reddish browns of mountain moorland and slipping into loose screes of tumbling rock. The calls of wheatear, willow warbler and pied wagtail fill the blue sky across which white clouds scud. Mingled with this is the near constant bleating of sheep; the higher pitch of young lambs mixed with the deeper call of their mothers.

The beautiful welsh valley

Around me is climbing gear; hat, rope, harness, stakes and caving ladder, but it will not be me heading over that cliff, climbing down that ladder. That feet belongs to Mike, who at 71 is a braver person than me! The gentle breeze rustles tree, bush and bracken as slowly Mike disappears over the edge as John, another inspirational 70 plus, belaying him. Another rope to which is attached a large bird bag is passed down. From the blue skies above comes the cry of the bird whose nest he is approaching. A scalding ‘rehk rehk rehk’ rings out around the quarry and over head. The bird swoops down, pointed wings, slate grey back, pale barred chest, distinctive black hood and moustache. The unmistakable signs of the fastest animal on this planet. The Peregrine Falcon. In free fall flight these birds can reach over 200 mph.

Belaying our climber over the edge

A tug on the rope indicates the bag is ready to be pulled up. Slowly, carefully the load is brought up over the precipice and delivered to the waiting ringer. With great care a single, white fluffy chick, with bright yellow legs and well formed black claws is removed from the bag. It may have a while to go before it will be roaming the skies in search of prey but its legs, talons and sharp bill are already well developed.

Peregrine Falcon chick

As part of John’s ongoing monitoring of the peregrine falcons throughout this welsh valley, this chick is ringed, weighed and measured. As with most nests this year while three eggs were laid, just one chick remains, the focus now of the parents undivided attention.

With great care the chick is replaced back in the bag, lowered back over the cliff and returned to the safety of its nest on a ledge. Mike hauls himself back up the ladder and returns to the safety of solid, level ground

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

To catch a cuckoo

It was a chilly start to the morning. For the first time in a while the temperature reading was 3° and next to the time of 4 am once again it was a bit of an urgggh moment getting up. This time dense mist hung low, the tops of the trees poking out and reaching into a clear sky above, fading from black through midnight blue to pale blue pink as dawn slowly broke.

Arriving at the grassland heath, bounded by forest and farmland, the dawn chorus was in full swing. Skylarks, garden warblers, yellowhammers, even a turtle dove calling from somewhere in the mist beyond. The occasional tall tree and low grassy humps of what were once, many many years ago, stump rows appear out of the mist like ghost ships. Movement ahead reveals the equally ghostly forms of small sheep, the maintenance team of this grassy heath.

The grass is wet, its tops drooping under the weight of water, as we make our way over to where a tree stands alone. Here a large mesh net is set up surrounding the tree and within the centre a speaker placed. The aim? To catch a cuckoo.

With the speaker on the unmistakable call of a cuckoo booms out through the mist, followed by a bubbling sound that many may not recognise but is the call of a female. We have barely retreated, when the responses start and one then two males start calling in response. A little further away and a real female bubbles also. Out of the mist and over our heads a male makes for the tree and the speaker; perching ceremoniously on the top of our pole! The slim grey body, long tail, white chest with barring and pointed wings resembles a small bird of prey. This is of course on purpose. For cuckoo’s do not worry themselves with rearing their chicks, leaving this for other birds like reed warblers and meadow pipits who in return develop ways of recognising the cuckoo and its eggs. What has developed is an evolutionary arms race. While host birds need to keep a watchful eye for cuckoos, they also need to worry about predators like sparrowhawks that rather than parasitizing their nests are looking for a meal. The cuckoo takes advantage. By looking like a sparrowhawk it causes birds to leave the nest area for that little bit longer, giving the female time (all 10 seconds of it) to lay her egg without being mobbed.

Misty morning... spot the cuckoo

As our percher disappears from the top of the pole, a second bird comes swooping overhead and low in towards the tree, finding its path ultimately stopped by our net which with its large mesh holds onto the bird safely.

Cuckoo in the net

And that my friends is how you catch a cuckoo! (Of course you have to have a ringing licence with a mist net and tape lure endorsement). Up close he is stunning, grey-blue, and perfect barring across a pale chest, bright yellow bill and eye.  And for this guy not only is a unique metal ring added to his leg, a satellite tag is strapped on with a specially designed harness. For cuckoos (and this seems to be a recurring theme for our wildlife) are in decline and we have lost over half of our breeding birds in the last 25 years. But the picture is more complicated than that. In some areas cuckoos are doing better than in other areas, in England for example the decline is greater.

What a beautiful bird!

This is where this satellite tagging project run by the BTO, and championed of course by the BBCs Spring Watch, comes into play. Already the data is showing interesting results with the suggestion of different migration routes and the indication that weather conditions across their range have a significant impact on survival.

Where will this cuckoo go? Which route will it take? How will it fair over the next few weeks, during its migration south, overwinter and hopefully on its return? With its satellite tag will have the answers to all of these questions... soon….