Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Wild Barley Has Moved

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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Catching the flycatchers

They sit rather upright, like they are sitting to attention, alert and ready. Their eyes are large, and their short but broad bill has whiskers around the base to help catch the flying insects they feed on. These agile little birds take their prey on the wing, dashing out from a branch, snatching prey mid-air before returning to their perch. They are known as Flycatchers. In Britain we have two regular species, both of which are migrants, appearing in the spring, nesting through our summer and then heading south to Africa for winter. 

The Spotted Flycatcher, could be called the striated flycatcher, or the boring, dullish browney-grey flycatcher. At first sight they may appear just that, a little brownish grey bird with a few streaks. But look closer, and you see the large, dark eye, the pale white underparts with the subtle soft brown streaks. Its back and wings darker with delicate striations on the head. Then just sit and watch. They are wonderful to watch. Sitting patiently on a branch, telegraph wire, or edge of building… then darting out into the sky, almost hovering mid-air sometimes, or dashing around in pursuit of prey. Then back to sitting and watching, the picture of calm following the frenzy of activity. 

The subtly beautiful Spotted Flycatcher

It was one Sunday afternoon in June that saw us sipping tea and eating kindly offered biscuits while watching a pair of Spotted Flycatchers busily feeding and coming to and fro from their nest on a ledge under the eaves of a barn. We had been invited to see if we could catch and ring the birds as part of the BTOs wider ringing scheme. Although just up the road from us, we do not get too many opportunities to ring adult Spotted Flycatchers and were only too happy to take up the offer. With the birds busy feeding chicks it was not too long before the one, and then the other were caught in our strategically placed net. The process was quick, we are old hands now, and it is not long before the birds are back catching insects and feeding their chicks. Just a little time though to admire the subtle beauty of these little birds. 

The other species is the Pied Flycatcher. Much more of a western UK bird, we do not see them much at home in the East of England. But travel west and we have often been found helping out with nest box monitoring projects for these charming little, black and white birds in the sloping woods of Wales. It is not however a bird one expects to catch when mist netting in your parents-in-laws garden. Namely because we are mostly catching birds that come into the seed and nut feeders to eat, and Pied Flycatchers like the Spotted ones prefer their food a little more wriggly, flying, and alive. So when Lee picked a rather dull brown bird out of the net it took us a moment to realise what it was! Females and young Pied Flycatchers tend to be browner than the striking black and white males. But there are still the Flycatcher features of short but broad bill, large eyes, and in this case the white patches on the wing and tail telling us it is a Pied. In fact it was a bird of the year, hatched probably only a few months before in one of the surrounding woodlands. But to see it, let alone catch it in the garden is quite something else! 

The unexpected Pied Flycatcher caught in the garden!

Friday, 22 July 2016

Misty Dolphins

The country sweltered as bright hot sunshine blazed in the azure blue sky, steaming away the rain that had dominated the summer so far. Across the country people headed to the seaside, rivers, pools and lakes. And where there were none they dug out their paddling pools, filling them with cool, clear water, the sighs audible across the country as the refreshing water bathed hot skin. People flocked to water like parched travellers searching the desert. OK all sounds rather dramatic for just one or two hot days in the year... but we are British and this is what we do!

The Wild Barley family did the same; introducing the newest member to the delights of the ocean lapping your toes, although in her case it was more like washing her from head to toe. The tiny little intake of breath as the cool water rushes over almost instantly followed with giggles of delight. When in West Wales there is one place I am always drawn to, the lure of those magnificent mammals never far away. While there is always a chance from most headlands along this coast, New Quay has to be one of the best places to try and see the bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay. The dolphins and New Quay have both featured numerous times in Wild Barley over the years. This time while the sun beat down on the green Welsh countryside and even over head for a while, that mysterious, shrouding fret or haar, also known as sea fog lay thick over the water close to shore. As the morning progressed the coastline, harbour wall, houses, shops and yachts standing on their keels as the tide went out, all disappeared behind its pea soup like shroud. There would be no dolphins seen from shore this time....

Nothing for it but to head out onto a boat, all of us, the dog included. The sea itself was calm, just a slight roll and tiny dark waves breaking its surface. The fog surrounded the boat, cloaking the coast, with headlands occasional appearing from the greyness. No horizon, sea and sky merged into one. But it was not dreary, gloomy grey. The bright sunshine that was hidden above gave lightness to the grey, while the sea remained a beautiful green colour. The fog made the scene more mysterious; one could almost imagine hearing a fierce Welsh dragon breathing behind the mist...

Occasionally the sun would break through, turning the sea bright green, and revealing a rocky coastline with small pebbly bays, huge rocks and towering cliffs. Here the last few breeding seabirds wheeled from the rock, disappearing into the fog. Kittiwakes and fulmars sit high up the cliff, shags and cormorants stretch their wings while sat atop huge boulders. Bobbing on the water below small groups of razorbills and guillemots, the contrast of their black and while plumage gleaming against the green of the sea.


We continue on, the mist closing in once more, the boat guided only by GPS. The guide continues with her spiel, providing interesting information not only on the dolphins, but the bay, its history and geology (one just had to imagine the rock formations she was describing!) With no reference point as to where we were, we simply motor on through the pale grey, until suddenly up ahead something large and dark breaks the surface with a splash. The word 'dolphin' erupts from my lips interrupting (in the nicest possible way!) the guide. Four animals break the surface once again, heading for the boat which slows. A dark shape glides beneath the surface right alongside us, before they surface again in the wake of the boat. Eyes scan the water to the edge of the mist, searching. Then boom, two dolphins leap clear of the water in pure synchronicity. They are right on the edge of the mist. Two more breach, their forms more hazy as they disappear into the fog; a brief but none the less breathless encounter. We sit, quiet once more, searching for any sign of the group. The guide calls out; just by the headland she assure us is there, she has sighted a female and her new calf surfacing close by her side. Eyes strain into the mist. Sure enough the faint outline of rocks and coastline appears, a small fishing boat bobs nearby and there breaking the greeney grey water a dolphin followed closely by a small calf. We watch her for a while, before turning for home and heading back into the fog.

Calf bottlenose dolphins peaks above the waves next to mum

We pass closer to shore, watching the waves lap the rocks and swirl into crevices. The heads of grey seals pop up occasionally from the waves, watching us back. Further along and a heavily pregnant female lies high above the water line, soaking in the warmth filtering through the fog.

It is only a sense that we are almost back to harbour, based on time rather than position. Gazing back into the fog and suddenly four more bottlenose dolphins leap clear on the water, drawing further excited yelps from my lips. There is no time to stop. It is a last goodbye. The harbour comes into focus, appearing from the mist with its ghostly figures on top. We are soon back on dry land, the sun now starting to fight back against the blanket of fog, pushing it away from the houses and harbour. Yet it still lingers close offshore, not quite willing to give up its blanket hold on this part of the coast.
What a fabulous trip for our Wild Barley family. Robyn’s first boat trip and first dolphins (hopefully of many!) and Barley’s first trip on a boat... she is an old hand at dolphin watching from shore :)

Our trip was with New Quay Dolphin Spotting Trips who work in connection with Sea Watch Foundation.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The House Martins

Finally a dry, sunny, warm Sunday morning. Through a bright blue sky with only a few white fluffy clouds soar numerous, small, dark pointy winged birds with forked tails. As they twist and turn against the sky a brilliant white belly and rump flash against the dark back and wings. Their calls fill the air. To me it sounds like someone blowing short raspberries, Robyn in particular does a very good impression. It is in fact a short chirrup, but I like the analogy of my daughter blowing raspberries better! There are twenty or so of these small birds dashing through the warm morning. In groups they dip low and then shoot up under the eaves of the small brick cottage sitting near to farm buildings and open ground. Looking up under the eaves there are a dozen or so small, round, muddy brown blobs attached to the underside with a small dark hole. The birds are House Martins, and with the reed beds at Cranwich completely flooded with limited access we decided to try our luck at trying to catch some of these gorgeous little birds. 

The distinctive House Martin

In the same way we caught Swifts, we now hoist up a net in front of the eaves and the House Martin nests. As the birds drop out of the nest they invariably fall into the pockets of mist net and we are able to extract them safely. 

Up close they are not merely a black and white bird. The feathers on the back are glossy dark bluish purple, the contrast with the white rump and belly is striking. But the very best feature of House Martins are their feathered legs, right the way down to the claws on their toes. 

Up close to the House Martin

As with the Swifts one might ask the question, why go to this much trouble to try and catch House Martins? Well sadly, like the Swifts, House Martins are Amber listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern and has undergone a moderate decline in numbers. 

House Martins are a summer breeder, spending the winter south of the Sahara in Africa. They arrive from April, and although many do not start breeding immediately very soon they begin to build their little mud nests, often repairing old nests.  It is a delight to see small groups of chattering House Martins at muddy pools of water during the early summer, collecting their beakfuls of mud before swooping up to careful place them to form a the muddy shell which is then lined with soft feathers. One of problems is the lack of nesting spaces with modern buildings and the removal of nests from houses. It is illegal to remove House Martin nests during the breeding season, although many are still unfortunately destroyed because of the issue of the bird’s droppings. 

House Martin chicks peeking from the nest

Such is the concern with the decline in House Martins nesting in the UK, especially in England, the British Trust for Ornithology is running a National Survey of House Martins to try and establish reliable population estimates, investigate how the population is distributed and look at the position of nests, timing and number of broods. If you would like to find out more about the survey, and maybe even make a donation to help fund the research then please check out the BTO website

For us we now have the exciting opportunity of a breeding colony of House Martins that we can monitor on a regular basis. 

Photo Gallery by QuickGallery.com

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

You never know what you gonna get

Cranwich was sitting under grey clouds. What had happened to summer? A week of greyness and rain meant the water in the pools was up, and the puddles full so that those in wellies had to be careful when crossing through to avoid water spilling over their tops. The conditions though were actually pretty good for mist netting, not bright sunshine and only a slight gusty breeze occasionally billowing the fine mesh nets. We were well into the Constant Effort sessions, setting nets in the same place for the same time, once every 10 days. The reed warblers were well and truly into their breeding around the sites and the wader or wetsuit clad team were busy monitoring them, along with the other nests on site. As the morning progressed a steady stream of birds were returned to the ringing station. Numerous reed warblers were brought back and ringed with not only the metal ring but as part of the ongoing project onsite, fitted with a colour ring also. Some already had metal rings on; birds ringed as chicks in the nest now returning to Cranwich as breeding adults. For the first time we also caught a sedge warbler, originally ringed in 2012 as a chick in a nest, one of only eight ringed that year. Now, four years later it is back as a breeding adult!  

The warblers kept coming; next up a Cetti’s warbler. This individual we have seen and caught a number of times since it arrived last autumn. He is all the more obvious for wearing a yellow colour ring! Originally ringed at nearby Lakenheath as part of a project there, this bird has decided Cranwich suits is breeding habitat needs much better. 

Cetti's Warbler

The other warbler making a significant appearance this year at Cranwich is the garden warbler. Seemingly a plain and boring bird being small and brownish grey, with most guides saying no distinguishing features being the main ID feature! Get up close and they are one of the prettiest birds in such a subtle way. Soft brown, grey and white feathers, a dark eye and an almost friendly expression. We have caught quite a few over the last few weeks. Today though one turned up with a ring on already, but the ring did not say British Museum (all British rings have a unique number and the British Museum address) it said ICONA MADRID! This bird was originally ringed in Spain! Garden warblers spend the winter south of the Sahara, passing through countries like Spain on their migration. 

Spanish ringed Garden Warbler!

It was turning into a very eventful ringing session! There were of course the usual great and blue tits, as well as a willow tit. Then there was a Jay, only the third ringed at Cranwich. Topping of the morning was a family party of long-tailed tits. The young with their chocolatey brown feathers and bright red eye ring, looking a bit weathered and worn after raising so many chicks. 

Beautiful Jay

By now the sun had broken through the clouds and it went from a slightly chilly morning to boiling heat in an instant. The morning’s session was over and it was time to retreat to some shade and well-earned rest, ready to do it all again in during the next session.

Juvenile Long-tailed Tit

Saturday, 21 May 2016

If you go down to the woods today...

Nope we didn’t have to go in disguise and there were not all the teddy bears having a picnic, but this time we were definitely in for a big surprise. 

Sunlight from a golden evening streams through the trees, the dried crunchy leaves and needles scattered on the forest floor glow in the dappled sunlight. The trees are bushing out with bright green leaves, mixing with dark evergreens of the pine trees. A rustle in the fallen leaves and two men appear from the open grassy track, carrying a ladder, and head into the shade of the trees. They move as quietly as possible, carrying their load. Manoeuvring the ladder against one of the tall trees, one begins to climb to the large nesting box attached to its trunk. With care he opens the side hatch and peers in. The box is a Tawny Owl nest box, one of 20 put up around the Forest in a new monitoring project. 

Sunlight streams through as the guys check the box

At the bottom of the box on top of the fresh sawdust placed on its wooden floor, is a deep cosy nest of greyish, soft down and hidden beneath a small layer of feathers are 10 creamy eggs.  

Here is the surprise. The eggs do not belong to Tawny Owl, or even Stock Dove perhaps the other species expected to inhabit the boxes. They do not even belong to Jackdaw, although that would be unusual given the location within the Forest. No, the nest belongs to a Mandarin. A beautifully exotic duck whose usual range is in East Asia but that was introduced in the early 20th Century and is now a naturalised resident. 

It seems odd, a duck nesting in a tree cavity. But there are many that do, including our native Goldeneye. 

Mandarin nest. Photo: Mike Toms

But there it is all nestled within the squared walls of our box. This time the female is not present and has carefully covered the eggs to keep them warm in her absence. Carefully the ladder is removed and the team retreats, we will return again to check the nest again with the hope of catching the female as she leaves, but also to check that the ducklings have climbed out OK. For that is how it must be, the ducklings will claw up the inner wall of the cavity and launch themselves out of the hole! Good job they are so soft and ‘fluffy’!

A few days later and the glorious sunshine had vanished to be replaced by a rather dull, grey morning. But once again, moving softly and quietly between the trees and over the rustling leaves the team with the ladder returns to the tree and the box. This time we are in luck, the female is in the box and we are able to catch her. What a beautiful bird. While the male may have all the flashy colours, the subtle beauty of the soft greyish brown feathers, mottled chest and big dark eye of the female is captivating. 

The beautiful female Mandarin

We let the female go with an extra bit of bling in the form of a uniquely identifiable ring. She will return to her nest and very soon those little ducklings will be making that leap of faith. It’s then a long walk through the forest leaf litter and grassy tracks to the nearest water of the river. 

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Whale Watching in the Azores

After taking people ‘virtual whale watching’ in the Azores for the last three WhaleFest events, I felt it was finally time to set foot on the archipelago myself. But when to go? The virtual whale watching experience at WhaleFest had focused on the sperm whale. For the people of the Azores this is The whale; when they talk about whales on the island it is about the sperm whale. This is the whale they hunted until the mid-1980s, still using traditional methods. They are the whales that are intricately intertwined with the culture and history of the islands. They are the whales that are present year round. So I could go any time, weather permitting. But speak with any of those affectionately known as ‘whale geeks’ (and I count myself honoured to be included in this) and they talk of spring. Of baleen whales. At this time of year ocean giants such as blue, fin and sei whale migrate past the Azores on their way north. At the same time there is a bloom of phytoplankton leading to large numbers of zooplankton (tiny animals like krill) aka whale food! My mind was set, spring it would be with the hope of encountering these magnificent giants. 

And so we arrived on the island of Faial, first week of May, smack bang in the middle of the spring migration. The charm of the island captured me from the start; dominated by the caldeira, the huge crater of an extinct volcano, brilliant green and lush vegetation slopes down to meet dark volcanic rocks, black sandy beaches and the glistening azure blue sea. In the charming town of Horta the traditional buildings are white, with coloured borders to the windows and doors, dark shutters and topped off with red tile roofs. Those that break the trend of white tend to be painted a pale, pastel colour, maybe yellow or blue. The streets are cobbled with dark stone, and along the sidewalks patterned with white stone into writing or pictures; a windmill, boat or whale. Madeiran wall lizards scamper over walls made of volcanic rock, its surface characteristically peppered with small holes. The tree lined seafront promenade overlooks the marina where numerous yachts line up, busy but not nearly as busy as it will become. The town is a traditional stopover for transatlantic sailors, many of which have left their mark with paintings on the marina steps. Looking east over the channel the impressive sight of the eponymous Pico which for the majority of our stay has at least some cloud cover, on occasion completely obscured while even on our clearest day a band lies just beneath its peak. 

Horta (Photo: Lee Barber)

But as captured as I am by the island, it is the sea and the whales I am here for. 

My first two trips are onboard the RIB Risso with Horta Cetaceos. Trip one and our skipper Pedro expertly guides the boat over the swell and out to the south of Faial. He is guided by the lookouts, a throwback to the old whaling days, now these sharp eyed watchers call out all species for whale watchers. Pedro uses the speed of the boat to take us quickly to the locations, then slows and carefully manoeuvres us around not one but three different species of baleen whale. First a humpback whale, with tail fluke lifted in greeting it seems. Then not one but two majestic fin whales, of which I am so used to seeing at a distance, high up from ferries or cruise ships, now, low to the water I am struck by their beauty, gracefully slipping through the waves. Then from the grey blue waves surfaces a magnificent blue whale. If you thought fin whale looked big from a small boat, the blue blows them away. The blow is huge, followed by a massive head and long, long, long body. Finally a tiny dorsal fin breaks the surface followed by a short tail stock and then whale disappears beneath the vast ocean. In a word it is awesome!

The awesome blue whale!

Trip two and Pedro heads north of Faial. Conditions are not great for the spotters, with high cloud the ocean is a calm, silvery grey that makes it harder for them to spot the blows. But they are seeing something, a back of a whale, a fluke print. And so we go. We are distracted though. In the calm conditions and with Cory’s shearwaters everywhere we are distracted by a group of bottlenose dolphins and then of common dolphins. Once again being so low to the water gives me a new perspective on both of these species, a perspective I must say I loved! Finally we arrive in the area where the spotter has seen this whale. Still it is down to us on the boat to find it. Ahead I glimpse something breaking the surface. No blow, just a dark back and small dorsal fin. It is a whale but a small one. We approach carefully and are treated to views of a minke whale. A whale that is very familiar to me, but of which sightings in the Azores are more unusual. With reports of larger whales we head back. It is those majestic fin whales again. We watch as a whale surfaces four or five time’s then dives for around 6 minutes. With Pedro’s skill and experience we are able to manoeuvre close enough to give the whale space, but to allow us to see the characteristic white lower jaw on the right side. With the sun beginning to break through the cloud the sea turns an oily blue colour and on our way back to the marina we encounter the bottlenose dolphins again. The group is chilled, spread out and relaxed. They approach and through the deep blue you can see their full length as they ride alongside the boat. It is magic to be so close to such beautiful animals in the wild. 

The white right lower jaw of a fin whale

My final trip is a full day with Whale Watch Azores and whale biologist Lisa Steiner. After a night of wind and rain the day dawns with a clear sky, just the odd white fluffy cloud obscures the vast blue sky and skirts the midriff of Pico. Despite the pickup in the wind and the odd white cap the sea conditions are not bad and at times the wind drops away leaving a stunning blue ocean. This time we head right along the coast of Pico on the trail of reports of a blue whale. Once again we encounter welcome distractions. The first a totally chilled out humpback whale that simply cruised along just under the water’s surface. From the slight elevation of the catamaran’s bow we can see the almost white glow of the whale’s pectoral fins. Then we encounter common dolphins, racing through the blue waves and sweeping this way and that under the bow of the catamaran. It is one of those moments where the water has calmed and it is almost glassy in places. Further on and the distinctive movement of striped dolphins catches our eye. They speed through the water, cutting the surface with a spray of water or leaping tremendously high out of the water. Then finally we meet up with a couple of other boats and from the surface a blast of water shoots high into the air. It is the blue. What follows is an awesome encounter. Again the slight elevation allows us to see the vast blue shadow of the whale beneath the water before it breaks it to breath. The routine is the same again, surface four or five times then down for around 8 minutes. But this time, this whale raised its fluke out of the water every time it dived for its deeper dive! Not all blue whales lift their tail flukes, and not all every time they dive! With each lift of the tail a whoop would escape my lips, as unstoppable as the blue whale itself. The trip is topped off with ‘whale’ riding dolphins. As they approach vessels to ride the pressure wave the bow creates, dolphins will often ride the wave a whale creates as it moves through the water. I have heard of it, but this was the first time I had seen it. Common dolphins would surface and then just behind a fin whale would surface! 

Awesome tail fluke of a magnificent blue whale

It was a long trip back to Horta, but I felt at peace sitting on the bow of a boat, watching waves, Cory’s shearwaters and even a couple of loggerhead turtles, remembering each detail of all of the encounters I had had during my superb trip to the Azores. I can see why this group of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic is a mecca for whale watchers and is being considered for Whale Heritage Site status by the World Cetacean Alliance. 

I will be back. Summer dolphins and the sperm whales that have eluded me this trip are calling….

Photo Gallery by QuickGallery.com

Wednesday, 27 April 2016


On 31st May 2014, on a very misty, very early morning, I caught my first adult cuckoo. He was a stunning bird, and as well as having a metal ring with a unique number this cuckoo was also fitted with a satellite transmitter as part of a BTO project. I wrote a story about that morning called To Catch a Cuckoo, and at the end of that post I asked where would this cuckoo go, how would he fair during his migration south and hopeful return? The bird was named Stanley by generous sponsors Derek and Maggie Washington. 

The magnificent Stanley

Well, by June 2014 Stanley was off! He was over the English Channel and heading south. It is one of the interesting results the tagging project is showing, male cuckoos in particular do no hang around, and very quickly start heading south. By August he was across the Sahara and recovering from the crossing in the dry regions of Nigeria and Cameroon. By September 2014 he had moved further south over the Equator into the rainforest block of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here he stayed until starting his northerly migration in January 2015. Heading northwards through West Africa, Stanley arrived in southern Spain in April 2015 and returned to the UK by the end of the month. He was the third of the tagged cuckoos to arrive back, but perhaps a little oddly arrived in Cornwall before heading back to his breeding grounds in Norfolk. Once again Stanley did not stay long, and by mid-June he was in southern France heading south. He arrived in Africa by the middle of July, and by September he was back in the Congo rainforest in the same area where he had spent the previous winter. By March 2016 he was well on his way north and west, and the race with the other tagged cuckoos was on! Who would be first back this time? Early April and Stanley raced over the Sahara and then the Mediterranean, hot on the heels of Vigilamus who was leading the race of the tagged cuckoos. April 21st 2016 and Stanley had won the race! He was the first of the tagged cuckoos to return to the UK in 2016! Whoop! Even more interesting is that once again he first touched down on English soil in the south west! This time Devon. By the 22nd he was back in Norfolk and near to Cranwich!

Such wonderful data is coming back from the satellite tagging, more that we could get from just metal ringing alone. The map on the BTO’s website shows that Stanley tends to head straight down through Italy and across the Sahara on his way south. While on his return he heads northwest into West Africa before heading across the Sahara and back through southern Spain. So far he always seems to make landfall in southwest England before heading northeast to Norfolk.

In the time since I caught Stanley and fitted his metal ring things have changed for me. My life has turned upside down, in a very good way, with the arrival of my little Robyn. But I have continued to catch and ring birds. I have not however held an adult cuckoo in that time.  Stanley, of course is not the only cuckoo to be back in the UK and Norfolk. My first cuckoo of the year was at our ringing site, near to Stanley’s breeding ground, on the 17th April. Then just yesterday, at the next ringing session again a cuckoo could be heard. This time, with the Robyn alarm waking us extra early we took the opportunity to set a net in the hope we might catch another cuckoo. It was not looking great, with the net remaining empty all morning and with a cuckoo tantalising us in the trees nearby. In typical fashion though the last check revealed a rather large looking grey bird in the bottom shelf. For the first time since Stanley almost two years before I had an adult male cuckoo in the hand! While this cuckoo does not have a satellite tag to tell us all the fine details of his movements, he does have a metal ring which if recovered will certainly contribute to the knowledge we are building of these incredible birds. 

The equally stunning cuckoo caught today...

What a bird!
Information on Stanley's journey so far was used with the kind permission of the BTO. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Lynford Water

It had been a pretty dismal day, raining on and off, not really inspiring a desire to go outside. By the afternoon things seemed to be improving, the rain had stopped and while clouds still hung in the sky it was brightening. The clouds no longer looked ominous blue grey but were brightening to a more silvery grey with a hint of sun beyond. Now we ventured out, heading into the Forest and to Lynford Water. Right next to the arboretum, Lynford Water for many years was used for gravel extraction, during which numerous flint artefacts including handaxes were discovered. Not only that but in 2002 the remains of at least nine woolly mammoths, a woolly rhino, a bear and reindeer along with Neanderthal flint tools were discovered!  What they had discovered was a site where Neanderthal people had butchered mammoths some 60,000 years ago! It is one of the most important Neanderthal sites ever found in Britain. When extraction ceased completely a few years ago the site was restored with the creation of a variety of habitats including dry acid grassland, floodplain grazing marsh, reedswamp mosaic and reedbeds. Not only that the site was opened to the public. To be totally honest it is not the prehistoric history of Lynford Water that now brings me to the site, although it is exciting to think of woolly mammoths and Neanderthal humans living here. These days with the habitat restored it is the bird life which brings me, and many others to Lynford Water.

Barley enjoying Lynford Water. Photo Lee Barber

Wandering down the path from the car park, the pine trees of the Forest open out to reveal a grassland bounded by patches of dark green pine, some recently felled areas which are a tangle of branches, scrub and gorse, and the lakes themselves with small sandy beaches running into the smooth, dark water. From a stand of birch comes the song of a recently returned willow warbler; our first Norfolk swallows dip low over the water; the sound of siskins comes from the tall dark pines surrounding the open grass. The distinctive song of a chiffchaff reveals a bird carrying nesting material, pieces of reddish brown dried leaves stick out from its tiny beak. A little time spent watching reveals the start of a nest being woven amongst the grass at the base of a small tree amongst low gorse bushes.


We walk around the open grassland, its soil a little churned in places, small prickly plants of gorse and bramble, poking through the open soil and yellowy green grass. Yet more bird song, robins in trees, dunnock in the bracken and debris of the clearfell, and in the open grassy meadow… the call of woodlark. On a small thorny bush sits one of these beautiful, cryptically coloured birds. Once again a little time spent watching this bird and listening reveals a nest. The only reason we search for and approach the nest is because we have a Schedule 1 licence to do so. No one should approach a nest of this species without such a licence. Larks, as with many ground nesting species are notorious for leaving the nest at an early age, even before they can fly. An adaptation to help escape predators. These three were already starting to wander just outside of the nest cup itself, even though they had another week or so until they could fly.  A quick call brings a colleague with some kit and the chicks are not only ringed, but also colour ringed, adding to the project being carried out on this species in the Forest. The colour rings means that the birds will be uniquely identifiable in the field without having to recapture them. It is the first woodlark nest we have ever found on our own and not only that, based on the age of the chicks it is the earliest woodlark nest of the year in Breckland!

Three woodlark chicks. Photo Lee Barber

Tuesday, 29 March 2016


The wide promenade in Aberystwyth stretches along its coast, the sandstone paving of the prom drops down to the grey pebbly beach below. At one end the tall cliff of Constitution Hill with its old electric railway heading straight up to the view point and café at the top, awaits those who do not wish to tackle the zig zagging path up through the grass and gorse. A row of traditional Victorian sea front houses follow the contour of the bay as it curves away from Consti (as we always call it). Their clean fascia’s gleam in the brilliant sunshine. A pale blue sea rolls gently onto the pebble beach. The tide is retreating revealing almost black, exposed rocks with small shimmering pools and shiny, wet sea weed. Half way and the pier juts out into the bay, its structure dappled with the evidence of the thousands of starlings that roost there during the winter months and put on a spectacular display at dusk. Here the Victorian houses give way to the old college, the warm brown façade ornately carved. Next there is the old castle, its crumbling turrets and few archways sit on bright green grass, are all that remain on the hill. At its tip a statue honouring those who gave their lives in the war. From here looking right you can look back along the curve of the bay, towards Consti. To the left the promenade, pebbly beach and houses continue to the harbour, its stone wall guiding fishing vessels, yachts and other pleasure vessels into safety. The Welsh coast continues as far as the eye can see, cliffs rising and dipping to hidden coves and beaches.  It is a glorious day. The warm sun only tempered by a cool, stiff breeze that creates little white caps on the waves beyond the shelter of the bay. 

The promenade in Aberystwyth

It is an old haunt for me. Walking along the promenade I reminisce about the three years I spent at University here. The memories flood back. Eating fish and chips on the bench with Lee watching the starlings or just the sea. Laughing with friends as we walk between pubs during a football club social or the famous lab coat pub crawl of the Biology Society. Standing at the window of the student halls watching waves crash up the beach, and over it, leaving pebble dash over the road. Eating ice cream from the little ‘Don Gelato’ at the pier. Sitting up at the castle of hours, gazing out at the sea, hoping and wishing for bottlenose dolphins. It is an odd feeling walking up this promenade again, thinking of all these memories while pushing my daughter in a pushchair ahead of me. 

The town remains glorious. I had a brilliant three years during University, and every time I return there are always new memories made. This time it is the bird life of the sea front that I will remember. As we get out of the car near Consti a Red Kite drifts overhead. On the exposed rock around the pier flocks of Turnstone and Ringed Plover wait for the rest of the rock to become exposed so they can start feeding. On the turrets and carved façade of the Old College there is a male Black Redstart in stunning breeding plumage.  A flock of Purple Sandpipers sweep in from along the coast and perch on a ledge in the wall. Out on the water flocks of Herring Gull sit, bobbing up and down on the waves, cleaning and preening themselves having followed a fishing vessel in. Rock Pipits call from lampposts and strut over the grass of the Castle, as oblivious to the tourists taking pictures as they are to it.   

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The final stop on this trip is up Consti. This time, with baby in tow, we take the train. Slowly the whole of Aberystwyth and the surrounding countryside is revealed before us. At the top we can see further down the coast, and now can see up the coast to Clarach Bay and Aberdyfi. On a really clear day you can see Bardsey Island. Today the horizon is hazy but the view no less stunning. Up here Skylarks are singing, Jackdaws chase each other, and on the steeply sloping cliff a Stonechat perches upright on a branch of gorse. 

With lunch beckoning it is time to head back down in the train and head for the caravan with more memories made in Aberystwyth. 

The view from Consti

Monday, 21 March 2016

A Snipe's Tale 2: The Return of Jack

There have been two tales of snipe for Wild Barley. The first the story of a Common Snipe ringed at our site in Cranwich and recovered in northern Spain and the second the story of both Common and Jack Snipe caught and ringed in North Wiltshire. They may also may a cameo appearance in the stories from The Gambia, but as you can tell we do not usually catch Snipe in Norfolk. And we are not alone. In 2014 only one Snipe was ringed in the whole of Norfolk, and no Jack Snipe! You have to go right back to 2009 to find the last Jack Snipe ringed in Norfolk. So when scouting out a new site at a local farm and the distinct call of not only Snipe but Jack Snipe comes from tufts of grass and reed surrounding pools it immediately piques the interest of whether we could catch them. The experience of ringing with others know becomes invaluable. Those opportunities to learn and watch from other ringers to have caught Snipe before, both in The Gambia and North Wiltshire, provide invaluable knowledge and ideas. 

Just before dusk, with the sun heading for the horizon following a cool, very early spring day, nets were set around one of the farms pools. The idea was to catch any birds coming into the edges of the pools to roost. Dusk meant the nets would not be so visible to birds that have such good eyesight. 

Sunset over the site

There was no guarantee it would work. There never is. But luck, or knowledge, was on our side and the return to the nets revealed not one, but three Jack Snipe! 

These three, along with the rest of the wintering Jack Snipe population in the UK will soon be hearing off to Scandinavia and Russia to breed. But at least now a very small (OK a teeny tiny) proportion of the Norfolk wintering population have rings on and so there is always a chance they will be recovered and that might reveal where exactly there are going to breed. Just to have them in the hand provides a unique opportunity to study aspects of their moult and biology and ultimately to contribute to the knowledge of this species. 

It is a privilege to hold any bird in the hand, but to hold those that are rarely caught is extra special. So it is a huge congratulations to Lee for catching three of these wonderful birds. 

The beautiful Jack Snipe

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Ringers to the Rescue

It happens more often that you might think. Birds getting into buildings. It could occur for a number of reasons, perhaps they find their way in for a warm, dark place to roost for the night. In extremely cold conditions, a warm dark building has a particular allure. It might be they are chasing food, a small bird, a small mammal. While in some buildings and for some birds this is no problem. Think of barn owls nesting and roosting in farm outbuildings; swallows nesting in stables; robins nesting in sheds. But sometimes it is not in the grand plan. A chase into a building or a warm place to sleep results in a bird becoming trapped amongst human activity. These are no outbuildings, stables or sheds with permanent open access, these are warehouses, factories, offices that are locked each night and a hive of activity during the day. Once in, there is often no obvious escape, either because the doors are shut or the activity puts birds off. In many cases they simply cannot find the way out. 

So what to do? It can be distressing not only for the bird, but for the people too. Many spend hours trying to shoo a bird out, only to get stressed as it swoops high up in a warehouse, perching on rafters and lights. The bird seems to just continually avoid the wide open door where the wind whistles through. Then they try ringing for help. But who you gonna call? Well not ghost busters that’s for sure. 

The beauty that is a female sparrowhawk

As licenced bird ringers we are in a unique position, in that we are legally able to use mist nets and other methods to capture wild birds. More than that we have the experience of how to go about it.
So when Lee received a call mid-week to say there was a sparrowhawk trapped in a workshop in Thetford it was time for us to step into action. Amongst cars in various stages of repair, perched high up amongst the dust, the rafters and the strip lighting a female sparrowhawk sat gazing down. She kicked up dust every time she flew, changing perch as she watched the activity below with a bright yellow eye.

With a strategically placed net, utilising an elevated section of the workshop above the offices, it was not long before we had the bird safely in a bird bag and ready for releasing. We took the opportunity to ring the bird, it is not that often that we catch female sparrowhawks as they tend to be bigger than males and do not readily stick in our small mesh nets. With some biometrics taken and a brand new shiny ring, the last thing we did was show the bird to the workers, who for the morning had simply seen the tail end of a brown streaky bird sprinkling dust on them. Many had never have seen such a beautiful bird so close…

Here you get a real sense of the size of the bird

And so to the great relief of bird and workers alike this trapped sparrowhawk spread her wings and took off into the bright Thetford sunshine, no worse for wear from the experience of the last few hours. 

Monday, 15 February 2016

WhaleFest's Incredible Oceans at the Outdoor Show

The London ExCel centre was brimming, bustling with people, packed with stands covering everything one would need for triathlons, climbing, diving and the great outdoors. It was the Telegraph Outdoor Show. There amongst the stands offering all kinds of kit or exotic locations, amongst the charities clamouring for attention and donations, sat atop of a black out structure was a life sized sperm whale and blue whale. It could mean only one thing. WhaleFest had once again brought it’s passion for the ocean, and army of volunteers, to the Show.  Entering the darkened space it took only a moment for the eyes to adjust and to then widen in awe as from all around life sized whales and dolphins abound. Hanging from the ceiling baby sperm whales, Risso’s dolphin, harbour porpoise, common, striped and white-beaked dolphin to name a few. Along one side a minke whale sits up with a calf beneath, in front sits a beluga. On the opposite side are a narwhal and two bottlenose dolphins. At one end a baby blue whale, and the other a mother and calf orca. The blue and patterned lighting gives the effect of being under the waves, the sounds of whales and dolphins from orca calls to humpback’s singing, gives the feeling of truly being immersed in the underwater world. 

On a table in the middle strange and wonderous artefacts light up the imagination, some of which seem stranger than fiction. A sperm whale tooth, the inner ear bone of a whale, the tusk of a walrus, the skull of a dolphin and of a sea lion are just some of them that awe kids and adults alike. 

Amongst the hustle and bustle of the Show, WhaleFest’s Incredible Ocean stand brings a corner of peace and inspiration. Inside our volunteers show all the amazing artefacts, challenging them to identify them, wowing them with the answers. Others meander looking around at the inflatables that seem as real as us, the light catching them in ways that mean out of the corner of the eye they might appear to move and be alive. All cannot resist taking pictures. All cannot resist regaling tails of incredible encounters they have had in the wild. There is no selling, advertising, endorsing. Just simple inspiration of our incredible oceans and the animals within. 

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Blinking and returning to the bustle outside of the cocoon that has become the Incredible Ocean stand, but our presence does not stop there. As if in a dream passers-by encounter mermaids, with fabulous tails and wondrous hair. The message about our ocean continues, but with a bit more of a fact finding mission. Would people like to see the teaching about ocean become part of our national curriculum for our children…. There seems to be a resounding yes in response. 

At one end of the stand we now encounter section of green netting lying seemingly innocent on the floor. Willing passers-by are dressed either as turtle, or a dolphin, or simply in diving flippers and then attempt to climb through the netting in the fastest time. It quickly becomes apparent how easy it is to become entangled and how hard it is to escape…. Now imagine being under water and being unable to reach the surface to breathe…. 

The volunteers end up inside an almost dome of netting within which sit the amazing pieces of artwork artists have created using ghost gear – discarded fishing gear- for the World Cetacean Alliance’s Untangled project. The pieces show how ghost gear can be recycled or recreated into something of value and are being auctioned off to help raise funds for the Net Effect campaign. So from the sadness and reality of entanglement, we see the positives of what the WCA and all its passionate partners and volunteers are doing to tackle the issue of ghost gear and entanglement. A light at the end of the green netting tunnel…..

WCAs Untangled display

As the end of the day draws near, I find myself retreating for one last time into the blueish darkness of the Incredible Ocean display and its inflatable whales and dolphins. Soaking up the calm, and the passion, fuelling me for the train journey home and recharging me until I can once again see, hear, and breathe in these incredible animals in the wild…. Roll on May.

To find out more about the WCAs Untangled Project please click here. And to see all the pieces up for auction go to our ebay site!

Also find out more about the Incredible Oceans outreach programme at the WhaleFest website!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Colours of the Rainbow

‘Red, and yellow, and pink and green, purple and orange and blue. I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow too’.

Well following this weekend I can sing a ringing rainbow, sing a ringing rainbow too!

First we returned to the farmland where last week it was white, crisp and cold. Today it was milder, a little soggy underfoot but a keen breeze meant I was glad for the four jumpers, leggings and bobble hat that had created a personal sauna in the car! Although there were not as many birds around as the previous week, there were still large flocks of finches and various buntings humming in the hedgerow and thorny bushes. 

And so the first birds of this weekend’s ringing rainbow were lesser redpolls. With that red splodge on the head, and with the males sporting bright red across the chest, cheek and rump. 

Stunning male lesser redpoll

The yellowhammer, one of the quintessential farmland birds in my mind. Their distinctive song, calling out for bread but no cheese, rings out from hedgerows and trees across farms during the summer. But here in Thetford Forest they also make the most of the various aged stands of pine trees, nesting in the stump rows and in the grass at the bottom of small trees. In winter they are concentrated together on the surrounding farmland, searching out seed from all important stubble fields, and at this site making the most of the millet scattered along the base of the hedgerow and in the feeders that hang from it. 

And what a bird. Yellow, yellow, yellow! Brilliant and bright. 

Equally stunning yellowhammer

OK, so over this weekend pink birds were few and far between :) but fear not as we return to those lovely redpolls! While the head most of the time is bright even in young birds red (but not always as we’ll find out later!), the colour on the breast in males takes its time to come through, to the extent that young birds that hatched last year and have no red on the body should not be sexed, as they could be females. Some young males do however start to show some red on the cheek, chest or rump. This red though is often faint, just one or two feathers and in some cases looks almost pink……

Here I could go down the greenfinch route, and yes we did catch a couple at the farmland site. But it was the visit to a friend’s garden near Diss on the Sunday that produced the real green star of this weekend. Their garden lies surrounded by horse paddocks, with some tall trees creating dark woodlands patched amongst the rolling pasture. Setting up and it was the call of this bird immediately in the tall trees behind the house that caught our attention. A harsh, loud, laughing and distinctive ‘yabba yabba yabba’. So many times through the year do I hear this call, see a bird flying away in an undulating motion, or hopping amongst the grass searching for ants. The bird is the green woodpecker. Only once have I seen one in the hand and only once has Lee caught one before. A large, stocky bird, more accustomed to wider open spaces where nets are so visible, they are not the easiest of our native woodpeckers to catch. This grey, dreary morning however was brightened by a beautiful, adult female caught in one of our nets.

Soft green feathers cover the back and wings. The belly, chest and neck are paler green, while the rump is almost luminescent greeny yellow, beyond which the short tail becomes dark at the end. A brilliant red cap sits over a black mask and moustache, a brilliant white eye and a long sturdy bill. The lack of red in the moustache tells us this bird is a female, the quality of the feathers and their patterning tells us she is an adult. 

What a beaut! Female green woodpecker

So I have to admit we did not catch a purple bird this weekend… there are not too many purple herons, or sandpipers, or glossy starlings at these sites….

Once again we return to our redpolls. While most show the characteristic red, and in many it’s really red, there is, like with anything in life, so much variation! And this Saturday morning we caught a variety, from yellow-polls to one whose head looked, yup you guessed it orange!

An orange-poll!

If there is one bird we catch a lot of at all of our ringing sites, not so many at this farmland site but certainly at the house, it is the blue tit. A common bird in our gardens and often much maligned by ringers simply because we catch so many and due to the fact that they bite and are pretty aggressive! But look closely at a blue tit for a moment and they are a pretty cool bird, what with the stunning combination of blue, yellow and white but also with the black streak through the eyes that looks like a superheroes mask! They don’t tend to move too far, but have proved very useful over the years in training new ringers and understanding moult. Here, on this ringing rainbow weekend there is only one bird to stand for blue. But amongst the fifty or so we caught at the house on Sunday there was one that caught the eye. Already ringed with a sequence we did not recognise, it turns out this little blue tit had been ringed at High Lodge the other side of Thetford from the house near Diss! OK so it is only a distance of 9 miles, but for blue tits that ain’t half bad! 

The blue tit

And what do you find at the end of a ringing rainbow?

A pot of goldfinch!


Monday, 18 January 2016

Winters Arrival

Finally after months of soggy and windy weather, winter it seems had finally made an appearance. The remains of the snow fall from the two evenings ago was still frozen solid, leaving patches of white that almost glowed blue in the predawn light. Our breath steamed in front of us and the grasses and soil crunched beneath our feet. Dawn breaks with a splash of pink and yellow tinging the streaks of whispy clouds that crossed the ever lighter blue sky. It reveals the farmland we have traversed. Stubble fields adjacent to ploughed fields with tall trees, deep brown bark topped with dark green heads, standing in a row between. At this far end of the stubble field, more traditional hedgerows and tall thorny bushes are absolutely brimming with birds. Flocks of lesser redpolls pile in and out of the cover as we approach and set nets traversing through the spikey trees. Reed buntings and yellowhammers sit atop of the hedgerow.

A cold sunrise

Nets set up and with the bright sun breaking over the trees and spilling across the stubble we retreat a distance to let the birds settle and return to the seed we have provided. 

As the morning progresses wave after wave of lesser redpolls come into the cover, and into the nets. The team works well, taking birds from the net and processing them quickly. It is a good feeling to be ringing large numbers of redpolls rather than the hundreds of blue and great tits that have dominated recent sessions. They are tricky, often only very subtle differences give clues to their age. The variation in colour is wide, some are dark, soft brown, while others are much paler with more white amongst the streaky brown. All have a splodge of red of the head, but it ranges from deep red to almost orange. Flecks of red on the breast alludes to a young bird being male. The adult males have extensive red on the breast and rump. All except the oldest of females have no red on the breast, and even then it is only a few small red feathers. 

Beautiful adult male lesser redpoll

Mixed in are good numbers of reed bunting, always providing a challenge when it comes to ageing, a handful of yellowhammers – stunningly yellow – and best of all some tree sparrows. What a delightful bird, with its chocolatey brown cap which looks like a delicious chocolate truffle! And the little black beauty spot in its white cheek. 

The fabulous tree sparrow

Out over the stubble other birds are busy feeding, such as skylarks who soar vertically upwards with rapidly fluttering wings, into the bright blue, before dropping back to the ground. Their distinctive call catches the ear throughout the morning. Then halfway through one call takes on a completely different tone. An alarm. Heads turn, and just a short distance away a skylark skips up and over the tall trees nearby. It twists one way and then another, sharp turn’s mid-air, and it is being followed just as acrobatically. By a merlin! For what seems like an age, but in reality was a few seconds, the tiny bird dashes one way and then another, desperately trying to shake the merlin off. Finally it dives for cover in the bushes. The merlin flicks up and over the trees one last time before heading high and away. This time the skylarks luck is in… it is not just seed on which birds feed in this landscape and it is all part of the heartbeat of the wild. 

Lunchtime and a cold breeze picks up, billowing the nets and along with the bright sunlight making them more obvious. It is time to pack up and go home to warm up.