Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Getting into Surveys

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) asking if I wanted to join a Breeding Bird Survey course in Devon. I have been wanting to get involved in survey work for a while now and this seemed the perfect chance to learn before getting involved for real. I signed up paid my course fee and on May 10th I do the course at Darts Farm.

BTO Logo link to website
The Breeding Bird Survey is, in the BTOs words "The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK’s common breeding birds. It is a national volunteer project aimed at keeping track of changes in the breeding populations of widespread bird species in the UK. Wild bird populations are an important indicator of the health of the countryside, and knowing to what extent bird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to bird conservation."

This, to me at least, seems like a way of combining my regular birding activities and genuine citizen science to allow me to contribute to something that gives me so much pleasure in my spare time. My 5/10 year career & life plans also require me to have survey experience which also gives the whole exercise a personal development edge as well.

As a man who is, lets be honest, has a tendency to be a little obsessive, I didn't stop there! Dawn Balmer of the BTO added to Twitter that they were looking for volunteers to take on 1km transects in order to survey House Martin colonies. I enquired, was given the local representatives details and requested my square! I am ecstatic to announce that this morning I was given my requested square and can now start the planning stage for my visits.

House Martins on the nest - taken from www.bto.org
"Critically, we do not know why this species is in rapid decline in the UK. Currently, it is ‘Amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings, compiled by the UK’s leading conservation agencies." - Taken from the BTO website

I am so excited to get my teeth into some survey work, and help out with some tangible citizen science. Join in if you can, every little helps and the more we know the better we can protect our enigmatic avifauna!


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Back on patch

An evening that I was not working and the wife had friends over coincided last night, so it was with a hop skip and a jump, I took the opportunity to avoid a live episode of loose women convening in my living room to get in a few hours patch birding.

It was around half past 6 I pulled up to the car park at Farlington Marshes. The sun was low but still warm and there was a 15-20kmph NNE wind. The tide was out so I decided to visit the lake last for any waders coming in to roost at dusk, this meant that I started in the scrub area just inside the reserve. There is one thing that bothers me about Farlington, one massive 6 lane thing..... The M27! The incessant roaring of cars, trucks and general traffic is deafening, and hinders ones audible appreciation of all things avian, in English I could here bugger all bird calls. 2 species manage to hold their own over the din.... Cetti's Warbler with their explosive song and good ol' Jenny Wren with the staccato machine gun rattle. The further into the scrub you go and the further from the road, you start to hear more and more. Robins are perched atop on every bush, Blue Tits are chasing each other and busying themselves with food collection (there is a very healthy population of Blue Tits on the Marsh thanks to the nest boxes hidden all round). There are 2 particular species I felt were conspicuous by their absence. Bardsey and Portland Observatories have both been reporting good numbers of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs during ringing sessions, Farlington on Monday evening could boast 1 singing bird of each species with neither actually being seen. This has reflected our ringing numbers on the Marsh as well, with very few migrants coming through as yet. Singles of Sedge Warbler, Blackcap and Chiffchaff have made up the migrant species caught in recent weeks. Only time will explain this lack of birds at Farlington.

After the scrub I came out at the stream, where there were a good head of Black Headed Gull, I scanned the flock for other Larus species and picked out 2 cracking summer plumaged Med Gulls. Langstone Harbour has been very successful for breeding of Med Gulls over the years, with numbers increasing year on year. Haylings Oyster Beds being well worth a visit around Mid May/June time. Other birds on the stream included Coot (2 on nests), Snipe, Moorhen, Lapwing, Grey Heron, and the usual duck species. Quite dramatically all the BHGulls took off together and it soon became apparent that a Great Black Backed Gull had come in over the reed bed. The BHG's mobbed the GBB showing that size has no bearing on the mob mentality and soon saw it off. No doubt these raids will increase in frequency as the chicks start to hatch and fledge. Down by the hut the Bearded Tits showed well as did Reed Bunting. Although a few Observatories have reported Reed Warblers in their ringing nets, there were no obvious singing birds at the Marshes last night.

The Stream
The fields around Farlington are filled with wheeling Lapwing, and their frankly eerie display call. Many birds are already on nests and have been for some time so it will not be long before we are seeing chicks and fledglings there either. In the harbour were a few Red Breasted Mergansers and Black Necked Grebes looking resplendent in their breeding plumage. I scanned the cattle herds for any migrant Yellow Wags but to no avail. The deeps held the usual Shelduck, Shoveler, Mallards, Gadwall etc... and the point field had Meadow Pipits, Sky Larks, Dunnock, Cettis Warbler, Robin, Green Finches, Linnet and a single singing Sedge Warbler.

I made my way around the sea wall, picking up Little Egret, Oystercatcher and Curlew as I did, when I reached the lake there was a nice flock of Redshank all piping away.

The Lake

Godwit in summer plumage
Some very splendid looking Black Tailed Godwits, just coming into breeding plumage. Up the back skirting the reeds was a Snipe and a Grey Heron. A Peregrine shot in from the South across the fields sending all the birds on the lake up, the Redshanks pipes became so loud they hurt my ears. On this occasion the Peregrine pull up unsuccessful.

The sun had dropped right down as I left the lake and wandered back to the car.


As I was leaving I noticed the tell tale tents made by black tailed moth caterpillars. These are not in the numbers they were a couple of years ago, but only recently was I talking about these with Jason and Duncan and it was commented on regarding their absence so far this year.

All in all it was very pleasant to be out birding again, something that I have truly missed with such a hectic lifestyle at present. I will be taking every opportunity possible over the coming months to get out and bird.       

Monday, 13 April 2015

Farlington Marshes 12/04/15

This weekend looked to be a complete wash out with Saturday looking like a miserable start and Sunday being very bright and windy.

Saturday delivered on its promise of rain but Sundays forecast seemed to change. With the wind looking like it would be favorable in the morning we arranged to meet at the Marshes gates at 05:45. Migrants at the Marshes are still few and far between, with the occasional Blackcap and Chiff singing and a few Mipits flitting about and certainly far too early to start trying for Reed Warblers in the outstanding reed bed at Farlington, therefore we decided to try the Point field again.

Map of Farlington and key areas

 It was crystal clear and very bright but flat calm when we arrived. Gorse is all in flower and the marsh is coming alive.
View from our ringing station

Gorse Flower

View across the marshes towards the Deeps
We set 4 nets in total, 2 in our normal rides and 2 in rides created by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trusts management of the scrub in the field. As we were setting our final net we heard our first Sedge Warbler of 2015 in the adjacent scrub. We retreated to our Ringing station and waited a while before doing a net round. The first round produced a single female Blackcap, again a first for 2015 and certainly a sign that spring is starting to come although a bit later than last year. After processing she was released back to continue her journey, assuming as we did that this bird was indeed a migrant.

Female Blackcap
The next round brought the Sedge Warbler to our nets. First one on Farlington this year so far and more than likely the Male we heard singing as we put the nets up. The bird was quite light and had a very low fat/muscle score, so had probably dropped in very recently. The tail feathers were clearly abraded but a cracking little bird and one of my personal favourites. We never get quite the numbers through the Marshes as we do in Titchfield, but in Spring/Summer they are a staple of ringing. A male Linnet was also in the Sedge Warbler net, Linnets are very much an under appreciated bird. Fantastic russet brown backs pale fronts and lovely red breast and head feathers on males. There are good numbers of Linnet down on the Marsh and they appear to be pairing up and scouting for nest sites. Some are even carrying nest material around so it shouldn't be too long until we can expect to see Juv birds in the hand as well.
Male Linnet
Sedge Warbler

 Unfortunately at this point the wind started to pick up, this coupled with the fine weather meant that the billowing nets were very easily seen by the birds. Just one more was added before the nets were closed and packed away and that was a cracking Male Greenfinch. Easily identified as a male by checking the primaries. If the yellow/green streak reaches the shaft of the feather then the bird is a male, if it does not then it is female. With the colouration of the bird and the diagnostic primaries the bird was confidently ID'd, ringed processed and then released again, not before posing for a quick snap.

Male Greenfinch

4 birds....... my least amount ringed in a session ever, however 4 cracking birds and the signs of spring, fingers crossed the migrants are coming in now. 24 hours later I walked through Victoria park in central Portsmouth and for the first time this year there are Blackcaps everywhere. feasting on the berries and singing away.

Better Luck this week!


Friday, 10 April 2015

Troglodytes Troglodytes

I was always told of the abundance of Wrens as a young birder. However only seeing the odd one or two, owing to their skulking and secretive nature never convinced me. As a naïve young lad I assumed that Blackbirds, Starlings or House Sparrows were far more abundant than ol' Jenny.

Over the past two years I have begun to take my birding a little more (I hate the phrase) seriously. I have been using the ever present Geoff Sample to learn bird song as well as taking up ringing. This has helped me get my ears and eyes in and my repertoire is increasing constantly. One of the first songs I learned was that of the Wren. Its percussive Sten gun like rattle halfway through the song giving it away. Since learning the Wrens song I have been amazed at how many birds are about. My back garden, which to me was devoid of birdlife other than a Collared Dove and some very noisy Starlings has suddenly come alive, Blue Tits, Goldfinches, Med Gulls flying over with their distinctive cry, and of course the subject of todays ramblings.... a Wren.

I have been extremely tied for any spare time recently. Preparing to welcome my second offspring into the world, new job, looking to move house and an 18 month old all taking their much deserved attention. Birding therefore has suffered as a result. This has led me to use my commute to bird a little.

Each morning takes me through Victoria Park in Portsmouth and apart from the Feral Pigeons and caged exotics there is a surprising amount of Avifauna to be found. I have so far discovered 3 Blackbird territories, a sizeable Wood Pigeon roost, a plethora of Laridae species, many 1cy birds which have been helping me with moult in juv Gulls and their many variances, Chiffchaffs on migration, blackcaps etc. but the main thing that has struck me is the abundance of Wren territories around the park. In the short walk from the bus stop for the park and ride to the Guildhall cenotaph alone there are 5 different singing males at present. As you venture round the park the song bursts from every patch of cover.

Spring is very much in the air around the park and I am sure it will not be long before we are seeing downy young birds with the tell tale yellow gape, and pin feathers. I have never before looked forward to a spring so much nor enjoyed the bird song as this year. I genuinely believe that schools should be teaching basic bird song to kids, maybe this could begin to arrest the reliance on modern convenience and put people back in touch or even foster a real appreciation for what nature is all about.  

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

First migrants

Sunday I ventured out to Farlington marshes for the first ringing I have done since November. Duncan (my trainer) and I had arranged a meet time of 05:55 at the gates, and we were joined by Amy and Jason.

Duncan is looking at doing an RAS(Re-trapping for Adult Survival) project on the Reed Warblers at Farlington, however it is a bit early to start trying for them just yet so we headed for the point field. Traditionally our efforts in the Point Field have been focused on Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis) however with the storms during the winter 2013/2014 the point field remained flooded for much of the spring/early summer last year making the habitat unsuitable for the birds nests. It was therefore very pleasant to see at least 4 territories established already with males singing atop the scrub. As well as a plethora of Linnet, territorial Blackbirds and a very vocal Chiffchaff.

We erected 5 nets in total and then waited for the magic to happen. the first net round brought a re-trap Dunnock and a Linnet followed by a couple of Reed Bunting and some more Linnets in the next round. We then had the first Meadow Pipit of 2015, the hind claw was measured to ensure it was indeed a Meadow and not a confusion species such as Tree Pipits which are typically also moving at this time of year.
Meadow Pipit being processed
Meadow Pipit before release.

A little later in the session we bagged the singing Chiffchaff, it was fitted with its shiny new 'AA' ring had all its vitals taken, including a check on the Primary emarginations to rule out Willow Warbler, and then was released. Jason suggested it was a very newly arrived bird owing to the fact he was out in the point field the night before and heard no Chiffchaff song. The bird could have come in towards last light and found the Marsh a suitable place to rest and feed before perhaps moving on.


Next round as well as a pair of Reed Buntings which were ringed and then released at the same time, were two further Mippits. Interestingly one of them was a retrap from last year, this meant we could reliably age this as an age code 6 due to it being aged as a 4 the year before. However this is something the BTO's IMPR system will not allow.

During the session a good number of Med Gulls passed overhead. The real surprise was the lack of Blackcaps on the reserve with just a single bird heard singing close to the car park. We would usually expect birds to have hit the nets by now, however it is still early in the season so we should see them soon.

Meadow Pipits being compared for accurate ageing.