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