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.