Sunday, 31 May 2015

What a Rail!

They are a bird that is actually fairly common in the watery habitats of Britain, but one that very few people tend to see. You may however have heard it on many occasions but not realised, wondering what is that harsh screech coming from the dense vegetation. Most are more familiar with their less secretive cousins, the coot and moorhen. While ringing and nesting in the reed beds at Cranwich we often hear this secretive and elusive bird but today’s trip would end with a rather special encounter as we caught one in one our traps. It is the water rail. 

A busy ringing session had seen us process just over 50 birds, numbers bumped up by young recently fledged robins with their speckled brown plumage and long tailed tits with their chocolatey brown faces and deep red eye ring. With the wind picking up and the nets down most of the team had drifted away, to spend their Saturday afternoon elsewhere either checking other sites for nests or even heading home for a nap (well we had all been up since 4 am!). It was the last check of the trap, one final chance to see if we had been successful. The water rail is not the easiest of species to catch, and only three have been ringed on site since we began monitoring years ago. It appears though that Lee seems to have cracked it, with two of those three birds having been ringed this year. It is likely that we only have two or three pairs on site so it’s not like there are huge numbers to go for. However with some careful monitoring of where calling birds have been heard, and with the discovery of a beautiful nest, we are building a picture of the territories on site. Lee suspected that there was another pair at the end of one of our net rides, and so the trap had been set. 

A beautiful water rail nest

Standing in the slightly muddy ride, surrounded by the tall reeds and willows I listen to the sounds of the reed bed. The now constant chatter of reed warblers, their nesting in full swing, the distinctive song of the male cuckoo joined by the bubbling call of females, the song of reed bunting, and the persistent high pitched twitter of those families of long tailed tit. At the end of the ride Lee emerges from the reeds, at first glance he appears to be empty handed, before revealing from behind his back the very bird I had been hoping for. It is a water rail! 

Back at the car, I process the bird with care. It is wriggly, threatening to give me the slip. It is so much smaller than expected. Compared with the coot and moorhen I have held and seen up close, it is tiny! And so much daintier. The classic flailing of legs, scratching out with clawed feet is typical of handling any rail though. It is the perfect opportunity to take a really good look at this bird, one that if you are lucky enough to see it is usually over in a flash. Its long curved bill is red, as is on close inspection its dark eye. The sides of its head, neck and its underparts are a steely, bluish grey, a deep chestnut brown streak runs from the top of its head right the way onto its back where the feathers have deep black centres. Its flanks are barred with white and black. It is a beautiful bird. 

A beautiful water rail

The assessment reveals that this bird is in fact already ringed. Far from being a disappointment this may be the most interesting fact. The bird was ringed at the other side of the pool where we caught it, only a month or so earlier. It seems the bird’s breeding territory may be larger than originally suspected and that the males (which is what we suspect this to be) move around more than we initially thought. It is a very interesting piece to the Cranwich water rail population puzzle.
We return the bird to the edge of the reed bed where we caught it, where on letting it go it wastes no time in scampering away into the dense growth. Once more becoming just that elusive screech from among the reeds. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

10 years to the day

Where have the last 10 years gone? 

10 years ago today I was sat on a rather lovely boat called Alpha Beta, bobbing around off the coast of the Isle of Mull. Fresh out of university I was spending the summer working as a volunteer for Sea Life Surveys, one of the longest running whale watch companies in the UK. This particular day was my day off, but that had not stopped me hopping on board for a couple of whale watches, off in search mainly of minke whales but with a range of whale and dolphins species, seals, basking sharks and a multitude of seabirds to encounter. I remember this particular trip more than any other. It was a rather cloudy day but the sea was reasonably calm. We’d done one trip and had headed out for a second. Sitting on the top of Alpha Beta, her broad white bow in front of me, dipping and rising a little with the waves I had gazed out at the silvery grey sea and the surrounding landscape that was quickly becoming very familiar to me. The Isle of Mull stretched out to my left, to my right in the distance the low lying island of Coll hovered on the horizon. Ahead the rugged coastline of Ardnamurchan, with its impressive lighthouse towering into the grey clouds. Beyond that I could still see the characteristic outline of the Small Isles, in particular Rum and Eigg (which always reminded me of a humpback whale). We were heading in, having encountered a good number of birds, and a couple of minke whales, one of which had surfaced just in front of the boat so that I could almost see down its blowholes as it surfaced, breathed and dived. It had been a good trip. Eri, who was guiding had kept the passengers engaged, all I had to do was sit back and enjoy.

Ardnamurchan lighthouse with the Isle of Eigg in the background

It was just as we were approaching the entrance to the Sound of Mull that one of the passengers commented that he thought is saw something, way over towards the Small Isles. I looked over, scanned, and something caught my eye. Something that at first did not really register. A tall, black, vertical ‘thing’ had risen out of the grey waves before disappearing. I spoke with the skipper. There was… something there… So we turned and all eyes were trained on the spot. Once again that something surfaced, only this time there was no doubting what it was. Orca! We slowed and let them approach. Thus began my very first encounter with Orca. Not just in the UK but anywhere. Not only that but they were members of the West Coast Community, the only resident group of Orca in the UK, and with only nine members (possibly eight) and no calves in years, also the most endangered.


I watched spell bound as six whales approached, two with really tall dorsal fins. Most likely Aquarius and Comet, two of the males in the group, accompanied by females, likely to be Puffin and Occasus who usually travel with Comet and Aquarius respectively, although I cannot tell from my photos. Behind these came a very distinctive male called Floppy Fin, one of a very small percentage of wild Orca that have a bent over dorsal fin. Again a female travelled close to him, one I could not ID from my pictures but could have been Nicola, a female who is regularly seen with Floppy Fin and suspected to be his mother. In total there were six of them, moving at a steady pace, passing us and heading down the coast. I remember seeing Floppy Fin and the female tail slapping and milling around before also heading away.

Two of the group head down the coast of Mull

It was the best encounter of my first year with Sea Life Surveys, and probably of the second year I spent with them in 2008. I remember the smiles from passengers and crew, the elation that lasted for days and for me has never left. I am so chuffed that the very first Orca I ever saw were in Scottish waters

In the intervening years I have been lucky enough to see Orca again, and they have been very special encounters each of them; every sighting of wild Orca is. Standing on a cold, windy deck of a ferry crossing the Bay of Biscay, with a guy who just came up to have an early morning coffee and was treated to me jumping around the deck in excitement as four Orca passed quickly by. Watching a male and female through a telescope from a beach in New Zealand, not quite believing my partner at first when he said ‘I’ve got Orca!’ Two Orca filled weeks in Canada that began with watching transients hunting seals and culminated in a spectacular encounter in a kayak with Northern Residents appearing out of the mist. Three individuals cruising out of Force 8 waves north of Norway, and then a group of nine calmly surfacing in silky blue, calm waters on the journey south with one huge male breaching clear of the water parallel to the ship, much to the delight of all on deck.

Northern Resident Orca in Canada

All have been memorable and special, but I will always remember that very first sighting, 10 years ago today in a very special place with a crew of very special people. A part of my heart remains in Mull and with the West Coast Community of Orca, who inevitably will one day no longer patrol the waters of the west coast of Scotland and down through Irish waters. Perhaps before that time I will catch up with them again, and maybe even get the chance to meet John Coe, the most recognisable and well known of the community. But if not I am privileged and proud to have encountered them once all those years ago. 

Find out more about the West Coast Community of Orca at the Scottish Orca blog or the HWDT website. And why not go whale watching with Sea Life Surveys, one of the best whale watch companies not only in the UK but in the world!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Don't count your robins before they've hatched

It may be one of the most iconic and recognisable garden birds in Britain. With its long, spindly legs, hopping across lawns, pecking at seed and insects on the ground, perching on wall, fence, branch. That beautiful orangey red breast and olive brown back, big dark eyes. Everyone knows the robin. From bossing your feeders (for such a delicate looking bird it is actually the one that tends to rule the roost at the feeder in winter) to it’s confident, melodious song that is heard often well before sunrise and throughout the year. This cheeky bird adorns our Christmas cards as well as often being so confiding they will learn to take meal worms and sunflower hearts from the very tips of ones fingers. It is hard to believe they are disdained in other European countries (which I was shocked to hear from a friend who sent a Christmas card with a robin on to a friend in Denmark!). On these fair shores the robin remains a firm favourite even if it will defend its territory to the death. 

The beautiful robin

For me I love ringing and handling robins. Catching them and learning how to age them (sometimes not as straight forward as they first appear). I also love finding their nests. For a bird that is so ubiquitous their nests can sometimes be quite hard to find. Hidden in all sorts of places on trees, on banks, in a wall or hedgerow, or even more unusual places like a horses muzzle hanging from the back of a door on a shelf in a workshop. The small, delicate nest is made from moss and dead leaves, lined with hair and wool, sometimes so perfectly blending in with the rest of the tree trunk or hedge row. Here usually four or five small eggs ranging from off white with brown speckling to a reddish brown all over, are carefully laid and incubated. The naked blind chicks, with just a bit of almost fuzzy down hatch after a couple of weeks and barely fill the bottom of the nest, squirming over each other, huddling to keep warm as mum and dad begin the furious job of finding enough food to feed them all. The instinctive reaction to lift their heads, mouths wide open showing a bright yellow mouth (a perfect target for a parent in a rush) means that when one checks a nest this is often the heart melting sight they are greeted with. 

Within a couple more weeks they are huge, pretty much full size and filling the nest to bulging point. A careful peer in will now reveal bright eyes, alert and looking back. Time to be really careful. Very very soon the next visit reveals an empty nest, trodden down with poop around it revealing that the chicks have left. It lucky you may catch a glimpse of the brown speckled young in the surrounding trees still scrounging a couple of meals from mum and dad. Soon they will be fully independent and shortly begin a partial moult that will, for all intents and purposes, make them look like an adult. Only in the hand will an experienced ringer be able to tell if a bird hatched that year or the previous. And so the cycle will begin again, where possible birds will spread out and maintain a territory for the winter before looking to pair up and breed themselves the following year. 

One of the more unusual locations of a robin nest

Each year it is my pleasure and honour to find a couple of robin nests, to monitor them where possible from building to egg laying, hatching to fledging. Always they have been nests with four or five eggs. This year though, in the crook of a small stump of a tree, overhung with ivy, I found a nest that once more had five eggs. However a return visit revealed a surprise. Not five, but nine eggs sitting in the bottom of this perfect little nest! Never in all my years of nesting (which are not that many to be honest) have I seen a robin nest with nine eggs, but more than that neither have many of the more experienced nesters I work with! Whether this is just a particularly fecund female, or whether another female has come along and dumped her eggs into the nest to save making her own, I will never know. But the female was good. 

Nine eggs! (last one tucked out of sight)

A couple of visits revealed her sitting tight, and I would leave her be, others she would not be there but I could hear her scolding me in the surrounding leafy foliage, ticking above the rush of traffic beyond. I was unsure how many would hatch but the next visit revealed another pleasant surprise. Eight tiny, squirming chicks crammed in. But how many would survive? How many would mum and dad be able to feed. Only time would tell, but a few days later and all eight were still alive and growing, ready to be ringed. Each now marked with a unique metal ring. Whoever or however many do fledge and survive, if they are ever found again by another ringer or a member of the public I will be able to tell straight away they came from my little miracle nest. 

Eight chicks in  a bag ready for ringing

It is worth saying here both Lee and I are qualified and experienced nest recorders and ringers. These chicks were safe during the whole process, which was quick and completed efficiently. 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A day in the reed bed

With the changing seasons things have really started to pick up pace at the reed bed site at Cranwich. Reed warblers have returned in force and their song can be heard all over the site. In the past few weeks ringing has resumed with the most recent session catching a range of returning warblers, from those reedies to sedge warblers, garden warblers, blackcaps and chiff chaff. While nesting amongst the reeds has largely been restricted to coot, moorhen and swan it will not be too long before the first reed warbler nests are active once again. 

This morning mother nature seemed to have sent a little reminder that things are still early and that despite the warm sunny days we have experienced of late, winter has not quite completely finished with us. It is not quite swim suit weather just yet...

The morning dawned frosty with opaque white crystals covering the grass and the thermometer reading a rather chilly -1. Mist hung low over the pools and there was barely any wind, with the only movement coming from the small ripples created by ducks, swans and the occasional goose gliding gracefully across the smooth, dark surface and through the swirling mist that quickly began to rise like steam off a hot bath. 

Morning mist at Cranwich

At this cold hour of the morning there is little in the way of food for birds awoken by the dawn. Instead they sing. Proclaiming their newly established territory, competing with each other in the most melodious of ways. Among the reed warblers and reed buntings that dominate the chorus of the reeds comes that wonderful call of cuckoo; it is a relief to have them back on patch. From the surrounding trees comes the song of garden warbler, blackcap, chiff chaff, blue tit and wren. 

As the morning progresses and warms up, the skies become filled with swifts who have only just returned to the party and join the swallows and house martins who have been back for a couple weeks. Low over the tallest trees those sickle shaped swifts are joined by another, larger bird with a similar pointed wing appearance. Skimming the tree tops, before circling back up and around, high above the pools are no less than eight hobbies. They streak through the sky chasing down flying insects with acrobatic ease and superb speed. They zip overhead causing us to pause in our work and watch in awe as occasionally one reaches out and grabs an insect that is invisible from ground level. 

A hobby catches a meal mid air

Our work today is to move through the reed bed setting up short mist nets to catch those singing reed warblers. A part of the ongoing study on site our aim is to catch and colour ring as many adult reed warblers as possible, so that once their breeding season does kick off in earnest we will be able to monitor nests and find out which birds are associated with which nests. 

Another reed warbler colour ringed