Thursday, 28 June 2012

More Pulli

Last night, me and Moxey were joined by Tony and Charlie to go and check a few more Barn Owl boxes, a Buzzards nest and any other opportunities that presented themselves. The first stop was to check a Buzzard nest that we had first checked almost a month ago when the nest contained at least one egg. Unfortunately, the nest was completely empty and there were no adults to be found. I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Heading out around some of our other Barn Owl boxes, we were pointed towards a stables that had four active nests of Swallows. After a little bit of wriggling around at the top of a ladder, we ringed two broods of five but one brood of five were too small to ring.

Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

There was a slight upturn in the outlook for the Barn Owls, the emphasis on 'slight'. Only one Barn Owl was ringed during our visits, a single bird in one box and this seems to be the norm for those Barn Owls that laid at that time. This was confirmed at the next farm that we visited where there was again, a single bird in the box, about ten days (under normal conditions) away from ringing size.

Barn Owl (Tito alba)

The final box that we visited held a total of four eggs and one day-old chick as well as a cache of one vole and one recently fledged Chaffinch. During times of challenging weather, it is common for nocturnal predators like Barn Owls to modify their foraging habits in terms of prey and the time of day at which they hunt. It isn't surprising therefore, to find small passerines in prey items in Barn Owl boxes under these conditions. In fact, both adults flew out of the box when we arrived and as we were leaving, were already returning with avian prey. Given the poor productivity rates that we have experienced this far in the season, this is one of the boxes with a more positive outlook.

This evening I headed out with the dog to see what was around on Rimrose. I checked on a Sedge Warbler nest first of all, the birds had hatched in the last day or two so it will be a little while longer before these birds are ready to ring. Heading further on towards 'The Wabbs' (as the kids call it), there were a good number of Skylark in the air and a female Sparrowhawk hunting low over the common.

 Sedge Warbler nest

 Returning to Fulwood, I came across this moth. A quick post on to Facebook and Luke Phillips of the A Welsh Birder blog informed me that it was an Agapeta hamana or a Hook-marked Straw Moth. The rest of the walk was relatively uneventful, although there were a decent number of Reed Bunting on the margins of the reed bed.

Hook-marked Straw Moth (Agapeta hamana)

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Out the other side...

It hasn't been the most productive weekend here on Merseyside. Amber weather warnings from the Met Office, localised flooding and gusting winds are hardly the ingredients for a fruitful weekend of monitoring birds. Nevertheless, I have managed to get out and about and check on a few things.

I prioritised a trip to Rimrose to check on a few nests and have a look for some butterflies and dragonflies. Given the weather that we've had, I was encouraged to find that all the nests were still intact and active. The sun briefly made an appearance, bringing out some butterflies, nothing out of the ordinary but nothing that was easily photographable. All I got was a quick snap of a Small Tortoiseshell as the only dragonfly, a Broad-bodied Chaser whizzed past, carried along by the 20mph winds.

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Walking all around the Fulwood Marsh area, there were plenty of Reed Buntings about, including some youngsters, and the first fledged Reed Warbler that I've seen this year. Along the canal, there were a good number young Coot with adults in family parties. Given the level of antisocial behaviour that is sometimes seen in the area, Coot, Moorhen and Mallard often fall victim to kids (and adults) taking pot-shots with catapults and air rifles. It's a problem that is difficult to control, just like the vandalism and arson that we saw at both Brook Vale and Fulwood last year.

This afternoon, I managed to get out and about, checking a Barn Owl box and ringing an adult and a single juvenile. The box had previously held two chicks, the other most likely suffered at the hands of the older bird, but the remaining chick was in good health. These birds took us to over 3000 birds ringed so far this year, not bad considering the weather!

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Heading up to Kings Moss, I went for a walk with the dog and the wildflower meadow is really starting to spring up nicely - this should bring a good autumn/winter crop of seeds for the finches. Heading up onto the plantation, I checked out the overgrown net rides - a job for this week - in preparation for a couple of sessions before the summer break. The most vocal species was Whitethroat, at least seven pairs breed in the margins of the plantation, and there were also a decent number of Blackcap singing too.


Down at the pond, there were plenty of Chiffchaff, at least three singing males, and two fledged Moorhen. The water lillies are spreading out nicely over the pond unlike last year when the water level was at least half a metre lower than it is this year. With a little bit of luck, the pond should hold water throughout the summer, providing habitat for dragonflies to lay their eggs. By the end of the walk, the Sun had come out...three days too late!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Mixed Fortunes and a Bumper Clutch

It's been a week of bits and bobs here and the most noteable news is that we have seen no improvement in the fortunes of our Barn Owls. Before we get to the Barn Owls however, on Sunday morning, me and Moxey made a visit to Ince Blundell, not a site that we usually ring at this time of year. As expected for the time of year, the ringing session was reasonably slow but we did manage to reach a total of seventeen birds ringed.

During the session, we managed to catch a few juveniles which was quite promising given the rough weather that we have had over the past couple of months. Given the shelter afforded by the mature woodland, its not surprising that the fortunes of the birds in the woods seem to be slightly brighter than those in more exposed locations, like we have seen on Rimrose.

Blue Tit (Cyanastes caeruleus)

One interesting observation that we made, was the variation in the plumage of the juvenile Blackcaps, clearly demonstrated here in this picture. I have noted in the past that later in the season, the Blackcap with darker caps have tended to be male when recaptured, but this is not an accepted ageing criteria and just an observation I have made.

 Juvenile Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Walking between nets, I disturbed a Robin that almost flew into me. Upon closer inspection, the bird had just left a nest where it had been incubating three eggs. I'll return in the next couple of weeks to check on the chicks and if they survive the next round of wet weather, ring the young.

Robin nest

On Monday, Charlie and Tony joined me and Moxey on our latest round of Barn Owl and Kestrel nest box checking. The first stop revealed another empty box and after speaking with the farmer, he reported that about two weeks ago he found a dead chick, a couple of weeks short of fledging, on the ground. Hopefully the bird will re-lay. 

The second stop of the evening was to check on a brood of five Kestrels that were all of a healthy size and well fed. These were the first Kestrels that Charlie had ringed - giving trainees experience with a wider range of species is an important aspect of training new ringers. Charlies experience was further widened as we checked a couple of the Swallow nests in the adjacent barn and ringed a total of nine chicks from two nests with a few more to go back to. This brood of Swallows were too large to ring, something we could only check by climbing up to the nest, so we left these as they were and they will have fledged by now.

Swallows (Hirundo rustica)

Moving on, we revisited a couple of additional boxes for Barn Owl to find that one pair has now laid at least three eggs, the previous visit three weeks ago yielded two adults in the box and no eggs. The next box was a bit a of surprise. A month ago, the pair had four eggs and so we were at least expecting to find young however, upon closer inspection the bird appears to have re-layed on top of the original clutch. My prediction as to why this has happened is that the birds might have abandoned incubation during a period of bad weather due to a lack of available prey. The bird has then re-layed an additional clutch in addition to the originals - if you look closely, you can see that some of the eggs are slightly discoloured. This is the first time that I have seen this, but as this year has shown, its not an ordinary year!

Mega-clutch!

After the disappointment of Mondays endeavours, we were hoping for improved fortunes and, joined by Tony, we headed out once again. The first box was empty, a regular and consistant pair. The next farm had previously had three small chicks and so we were expecting to ring young here. Unfortunately, as I reached the box there was only one chick remaining, with the other two likely to be victims of cannabalism, where the smaller chicks become the prey of the larger ones. Hopefully this one will make it.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Further visits at a couple more farms revealed failed Stock Dove and another failed Barn Owl nest box that had previously had at least three small chicks. On a brighter note, a clutch of Kestrels have hatched and a brood of four should be ready in a week or so. It looks we will be checking boxes well into September and all we can hope for is a change in the weather that favours hunting opportunities.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Bits and Bobs

The weekends blustery weather meant that there was no possibility of mist-netting out on Rimrose, as a result, me and Charlie headed to Fulwood on Saturday morning to spend some time doing some nest recording. Due to the nature of the reedbed, we had to write-off looking for Reed Warbler nests as to do so could jeopardise the success of the nests and, as with all ringing activity, the welfare of the birds is of primary importance.

Sedge Warbler nest

During the course of the morning, we saw fledged Sedge Warblers and I've had friends tell me that they already have fledged Reed Warblers. To date, I haven't had fledged Whitethroat and only one Blackcap and whilst finding birds on eggs at this stagein the breeding season isn't unusual, it does highlight how important it is to continue to monitor nests through the spring/summer season. The Nest Record Scheme is run by the BTO and using records collected from non-ringers and ringers, allows the calculation of breeding performance. Anyone can be a nest recorder and the BTO runs a number of excellent training courses in different parts of the country in April/May - Charlie attended one last month and testifies to the value of these courses.

In the afternoon, me and Moxey headed out to do a bit of bird watching and, as ever, with a few mist nets and poles in the car, we opportunistically caught the first juvenile Swallow of the year. This is the earliest in recent years that we have caught a juvenile Swallow and in this next week I will spend some time visiting farms to ring Swallow, Barn Owl and Kestrel pulli.

 Juvenile Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

I've also recently added a new panel on the right hand side of the blog with the ring numbers of any controls that we have caught so far this year. Keep an eye out and, as we approach ringing our 3000th bird of the year, see if we have caught one of yours.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Tough Times for Barn Owls

This evening me and Moxey headed out to check some of our Barn Owl nest boxes and revisit a Kestrel and Tawny Owl box and to put things bluntly, the outcome was not positive. Starting with the Barn Owls, we checked a total of six boxes, of the six boxes, five were occupied by adult birds - initially, this was encouraging and to be expected in a 'normal' year. However, on close inspection, of the five nests, only one had any evidence of breeding, with three chicks in the nest. These chicks were too small to ring and we will return in a few weeks, but what was worrying was that the other four nests contained no eggs or young. It is uncommon during nest visits at this time of year to find boxes that are occupied but without any evidence of breeding, so to find four out of six in one evening is worrying and doesn't bode well for a productive breeding season.

Barn Owls came in for a particularly hard time in the post-war years through the use of pesticides and changing farming practices that caused significant damage to the UK population. Long-term nest monitoring data also highlights the importance of the predator-prey relationship that exists between Barn Owls and voles. Vole populations have been shown to be cyclical, peaking every few years with the Barn Owl population showing a similar, delayed pattern.

SWLRG started a nest box monitoring scheme in the 1960's and since then, members of the ringing group have annually monitored the nests and ringed the young. The early signs are that this year is looking like one of the worst years that we have had in recent history and given events like the ritualistic killing of six adult Barn Owls that I reported on a few months ago, this looks like being a tough year for the Barn Owls of SW Lancs. It remains to be seen whether the cause for such a disasterous start to the season can be blamed on the weather, prey populations or disturbance and it could just be a case of a largely delayed breeding season as we are experiencing in some cases with Kestrels this year.

Surviving Kestrel chick

As mentioned earlier, we also checked a Kestrel and a Tawny Owl box. Unfortunately the Tawny Owl had deserted the nest, leaving two cold eggs and this suggests that the eggs were infertile and therefore would never hatch. We did manage to ring one Kestrel at the same location however it was only one chick out of a clutch of five eggs, there was one egg left unhatched meaning that three chicks obviously hadn't made it. With the recent spell of cold, wet and windy weather, it will have been quite difficult for birds to feed and it is likely that the remaining chicks ended up as prey for the largest chick.

Monday, 11 June 2012

...after the rains have cleared...

Me and Moxey headed out yesterday for the first session at Fulwood for a while and given the recent inclement weather, I wasn't expecting great numbers of juveniles. Sticking with the usual nets and a line in the reeds, we got all the nets up and waited to see how successful we would be.

For the time of year, and the number of nets that we had up, our catch rate was much decreased from last year and a lot of this can be put down to the fact that many species are yet to fledge young. The weather at this time of year plays a crucial part in the breeding success of many of our migratory species, especially the warblers. With species such as Willow, Grasshopper and Sedge Warblers, Whitethroat and Chiffchaff nesting at, or close to, ground level, they are prone to 'flooding out' of the nests. In harsh weather conditions such as the wind and rain that we have experienced here in the North West of late, it can make it difficult for the adults to source food and make sure that the young are fed as well as ensuring that the young aren't critically exposed to the elements.

The Constant Effort Scheme (CES) coordinated by the BTO and operated by ringers throughout the country, including a SW Lancs RG CES at RAF Woodvale, provide an insight into the breeding success of many species of bird. CES requires ten visits to be made to the study site over the course of the breeding season and the ringing and recapture data that these visits produce allows the BTO to analyse the population dynamics of these species. You can read about some of the 2011 results here.

The results of the CES scheme highlight some of the trends that our, non-standardised, ringing had also picked up on, such as declines in species such as the Willow Warbler and increases in species like Blackcap and Reed Warbler. With the Reed Warbler in particular, we have a high rate of returning birds - of 29 different Reed Warblers caught so far in 2012, 11 have previously been ringed, two by ringers other than ourselves.

Back to yesterdays session and we managed to catch our first juvenile Blackcap, although this was only one individual, and our first juvenile Chiffchaff. It remains to be seen how productive this breeding season will be, but it highlights the importance of the continued monitoring provided by the ringing scheme.

Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)

Wren -   1
Chiffchaff -   1   (2)
Whitethroat -   1   (3)
Dunnock -   5   (3)
Blue Tit -   2   (3)
Blackcap -   6   (4)
Linnet -   1   (1)
Reed Warbler -   4   (1)
Sedge Warbler -   1
Robin -   3
Chaffinch -   (1)
Grasshopper Warbler -   1
House Sparrow -   2
Song Thrush -   1
Blackbird -   2   (2)

TOTAL:   31   (20)

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Wing-tagging Buzzards

On Thursday night me and Moxey headed out to meet one of our farmers on his land to ring a brood of Buzzards. We first ringed Buzzards at this site last year and this time around, we were joined by Steve Binney of the Merseyside Ringing Group so that the youngsters could be wing-tagged as part of a study that he is doing in Wirral, Merseyside and now, SW Lancs.

Buzzard chick being fitted with the BTO ring

Last year we managed to ring two chicks, but this year, the adults have managed to raise three and by the cache of rats in the nest, they aren't struggling for food. Once the chicks were down on the ground, they were fitted with a BTO ring on its right leg and then passed to Steve for wing tagging. Each wing tag carries a number and the specific combination is determined through the coordination of a national programme of wing tagging. 

Wing tag being fitted

Chick complete with wing tags

The combinations of tags used are:
Left: Purple '0', Right: Green '0'
Left: Purple '1', Right: Green '1'
Left: Purple '2', Right: Green '2'

It will be interesting to see over the coming months and years where 'our' Buzzards get to. We have a further two Buzzard nests that we have found and that are accessible, so we hope Steve will be able to join us and get those chicks wing-tagged too! A big thanks to Steve for coming over!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Rimrose Catch-up

A last-minute change in personel meant that I had to do Fulwood on my own on Monday morning, so I headed to a small section of the reed bed and adjacent willow carr. The reed bed was relatively quiet on arrival so using the existing net rides, I put a few nets up with one in the willows. It took a little while for things to 'wake up' but it was worth persevering - the first two birds out of the nets being control (birds ringed, but not by myself or members of our ringing group) Reed Warblers - T278872 & Y045044. One of the retrap Reed Warblers was ringed the previous week at Brook Vale, indicating that many of these birds are arriving late to the breeding grounds. Over the next couple of weeks I will try and spend a bit more time in the reeds hoping to catch adult Reed Warblers and the odd Sedge or two to take a range of biometric measurements to make up a UK contribution to Miguel's PhD project, looking at Acrocephalus and Savi's Warblers. Obviously, we don't catch Savi's Warblers here in the UK, but I can definately help with the scirpaceus and schoenobaenus!

Measuring tail length of a Reed Warbler

The net in the willow car ended up being the most productive, producing a pair of Whitethroat, a Blackcap and our first Spotted Flycatcher of the year. There was no direct evidence of whether this was a breeding bird, with no evidence of a brood patch or cloacal protruberance, or a transient visitor....here is to hoping!

Spotted Flycatcher (Musciapa striata)

I packed up by 9:30 due to the level of human traffic starting to wake from their post-Jubilee slumbers and wanting to keep a low profile, the nets came down and off I went.

Whitethroat -   2
Reed Warbler -   1   (5)
Blackcap -   1
Dunnock -   1
Robin -   1
Spotted Flycatcher -   1

TOTAL:   7   (5)

 Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) - female.

On Wednesday, I headed to Brook Vale and with a lack of trainees, I was on my own once more. Setting up the usual nets, with a couple extra in the reed bed, I got cracking. As with Fulwood a few days previously, the session got off to a slow start, however given that I was on my own, this was no bad thing.

Early on, there was the usual dawn chorus of Song Thrush, Blackbird, Robin and Blackcap, punctuated by the scratchy retort of the Whitethroat and this got me thinking. It is widely acknowledged that most migratory warblers are late in terms of their arrival and their breeding so far this year. At this point last year, we were already catching juveniles of Blackcap and Whitethroat, but so far this year, we are yet to catch any of either species. As I was completing a net round, I did, however find my first juvenile Blackcap of the year, however it was freshly dead, about two or three days off fledging. In the last week, we have experienced some heavy and consistent rainfall and it is set to continue for the foreseeable future, showing just how critical the weather conditions on the day of fledging are, to the survival of these broods.

Despite a brief rain shower around 6:30am, the sun came out and the temperature quickly rose. The first juvenile Great Tit, Wren and Linnet were caught of the year amongst a couple of retrap Reed Warblers, one from 2010 and one from 2011. By the time I was packing up, the insect life had awoken with a plethora of bees and butterflies dancing in the margins, Comma, Peacock and Speckled Wood easily identified.

Great Tit (Parus major)

Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

Wren -   1   (1)
Chiffchaff -   1   (2)
Great Tit -   3   (1)
Blackcap -   2   (1)
Reed Warbler -   3   (2)
Robin -   3   (2)
Dunnock -   3   (3)
Blue Tit -   1
Sedge Warbler -   1
Reed Bunting -   1   (1)
Whitethroat -   (2)
Linnet -   1
Chaffinch -   1
Greenfinch -   9
Song Thrush -   (1)
Blackbird -   3   (1)

TOTAL:   33    (18)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Une surprise française!

Last night me and Moxey headed out to check a few nest boxes, picking Chris up along the way via a brief stop at Gorse Hill NR. First stop was to check on a Kestrel nest, as I put my hand into the box I felt something sharp digging into my hand...ending up with the female Kestrel being ringed and a brood of five to come back to. A good start. We headed on to check a Buzzards nest, this involved me heading up to the full extent of the ladder and then wriggling a little higher, poking my head through the canopy to reveal eggs - another to come back to. A couple of quick stops on the way home for a brood of Blue Tit and three Blackbird pulli.



Kestrel -   1
Blackbird -   3
Blue Tit -   8

TOTAL: 12

With only three and a half hours sleep, I headed off to Hightown this morning to have a session in the willow carr by the railway. Arriving just before 4am, it didn't take me too long to get everything set up and I didn't really stop after that. The first net round brought a handful of Blackcap, a pair of Whitethroat and a couple of 3J Robins as well as a 3J Blackbird - pretty standard stuff. The first Blackcap was a retrap of mine from Brook Vale, ringed by Charlie on 2nd September 2011 and indicating the importance of Rimrose Valley for these birds before they start to head south.

The second net round produced the bird of the day, in the form of a French-ringed Sedge Warbler. I've caught quite a lot of foreign ringed birds before now, plenty of French, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and BTO birds, but they've all been in Portugal during the return migration. This French-ringed Sedge Warbler is the first foreign control that I have caught in the UK - pretty exciting. It's not the first time that a foreign-ringed schoenobaenus has been caught in this dune system however, Ian has had some in the past.

 MUSEUM PARIS - 6485365

Following the excitement of the Sedge, it was upto three Grasshopper Warblers, a bird we don't catch many of, to raise the standard of the day once more, in time for Moxey's arrival. This image of the undertail of the Grasshopper Warbler shows one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Locustella warblers - the length of the undertail coverts exceed the length of the shortest tail feather.

The undertail of Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)

Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia

By 9:30 am, the wind had started to get up and we decided to call it a morning. Overall, it was a really positive session with a good return of warblers, all of which were adult birds. It would seem that we are yet to have any broods fledge but this should change within the next week or so.

Wren -   (1)
Willow Warbler -   4   (1)
Chiffchaff -   (2)
Robin -   3
Blackcap -   7   (1)
Whitethroat -   6
Sedge Warbler -   3   (1)
Blue Tit -   2
Great Tit -   2
Grasshopper Warbler -   3
Chaffinch -  1
Dunnock -   2
Blackbird -   1

TOTAL:   34   (4)