Sunday, 21 January 2018

Garden Ringing: 20th January 2018

The weather hasn't been suitable for mist-netting over the last week or so but yesterday morning presented a brief opportunity ahead of a belt of rain that was due to move in. I set up the usual 6 metre net in the garden shortly after first light and caught 22 birds in just over an hour before the forecast rain put a halt to proceedings. The catch was much as expected with Goldfinches accounting for the majority of birds caught and another 2 new Siskins continued the early presence of that species in the garden.

The light was shocking yesterday (that is why it was so good for mist-netting) so this and the following photos of finches were from a few days ago.

Female Siskin being photobombed by a Goldfinch (also a female).

........and again.
That could have been that but the rain stopped towards mid-afternoon when I caught 2 Starlings in the manually operated bird table trap with one being a new bird and the other a retrap. I try to avoid recapturing colour-ringed birds but now and again the opportunity to catch a new bird takes precedence. The new bird had a full yellow bill which was well ahead of a lot of the other Starlings seen or caught recently. This bill colour change often goes unnoticed but the predominantly yellow colour of the adult bill changes to black towards the end of the breeding season, generally starting in late June or July, and juveniles start life with an all dark bill. The change back to the yellow bill of the breeding season can begin as early as November in the British population and generally a bit later in migrants from the continent and there are also differences between age classes with older birds generally changing first.

Male Starling ringed 29/11/17. Note the bill is starting to change from black to yellow and the base is becoming blue, showing it is a male. The uniform eye colour also indicates this bird is a male.

Female Starling ringed 20/01/18. The bill is all yellow and the base is turning pink showing this bird is a female. The pale eye ring also confirms the sex as female.
The ringing didn't end with a couple of Starlings as I decided to put the net up again because the weather conditions were perfect (very overcast and no wind) and the forecast for the next week was looking pretty dire. The net hadn't been up for more than ten minutes before another 10 Goldfinches had been caught and another half hour saw the afternoon total rise to 17, all Goldfinches (16 new and only 1 retrap). I could have carried on but I decided to call it a day as I was more that satisfied with a day total of  35 new birds and 6 retraps plus I had other things to do. Final ringing totals for the day (retraps in brackets) were: Goldfinch 29 (4); Chaffinch 2; Siskin 2; Greenfinch 1; Starling 1 (1); Coal tit (1).

Now you may have noticed that the ringing totals aren't listed in any sort of species order but my thoughts on that and recent changes to the British List can wait until another day, but the one thing that should really stand out is the lack of tits. There are very few Blue, Great and Coal Tits visiting my feeders and it has been pretty much the same all winter, but more so since the turn of the year. I don't know if it is because their populations are particularly low or if there is plenty of natural food that has allowed them to stay closer to their woodland breeding sites but there is no doubt that my garden is generally devoid of tits, apart from periodic visits by the Long-tailed variety. I am not complaining as I am not what you would call a tit man (can you say that anymore in these overly PC days) but Blues and Greats seem to have been unusually scarce in the garden this winter.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Long-tailed Tit feeding behaviour.

Way back in December 2013, the 24th to be precise, I was watching birds visiting the feeders in the garden when I noticed a Long-tailed Tit hanging from a twig by one leg whilst holding a sunflower heart in the foot of the free leg and feeding on it. I had never seen a Long-tailed Tit feeding on a sunflower heart in this manner before and I couldn't find any descriptions or reports of this behaviour in the literature I had to hand or from internet searches. I posted a brief account of what I had seen on the blog at the time and a link to that post can be found here.

It didn't appear to be common behaviour amongst the many Long-tailed Tits visiting the garden back then and although I observed this feeding behaviour on more than one occasion later that winter it may have been limited to just one individual. This was one of those situations when it would have been really informative if the Long-tailed Tits were colour-ringed as I would have been able to establish how many individuals were involved but what I can say is I didn't see more than one bird feeding in this manner at the same time.

I have seen and photographed Long-tailed Tits using this feeding method each winter since that first encounter and it has gradually become more common amongst the birds that visit the garden. I haven't started colour-ringing my Long-tailed Tits (yet) so it is still not possible to be certain of the number of individuals involved but last weekend (13th & 14th Jan) at least 4 were using the 'hanging and holding' feeding method simultaneously out of a total of ten or so that were in the garden at that time. Establishing numbers is further complicated by the fact that more than one Long-tailed Tit flock may visit the garden over the course of a day and birds from the same flock may switch between feeding on sunflower hearts and fat cakes but there is no doubt it has become more prevalent amongst the the birds that visit my garden. This also begs the question as to what extent it is an innate skill as opposed to having to be learned. Again colour-ring could help answer that as it could show if there are any differences between age groups (potentially a nice line of research for someone).

There is a bit more to it than just hanging upside down and eating - a Long-tailed Tit will take a sunflower heart from the feeder and carry it in its bill to a suitable twig and then hang upside down before transferring the seed to one of its feet. Now I don't know if individuals have a preference over which foot they hang from and which foot they hold the seed in or if they can be ambipedal but I have seen individuals hang from either foot and photos in this post show that (now there is another research project for someone). The twig that an individual chooses to hang from may be near the feeder but is often one or two metres away, presumably to avoid disturbance from larger species that may come to use the feeder. The twig selected obviously has to be a suitable diameter to enable the bird to get a good grip and the way the tendons work in the birds leg and foot probably allows it to hang with little or no effort.

There are a couple of aspects of this feeding behaviour that I find really interesting, one is that they seem to be increasingly taking advantage of a relatively new food source in the form of sunflower hearts and the other is the question of how common and widespread it has become. With that in mind I contacted Kate Risely, who runs the BTO Garden Birdwatch project, to see if it was something she was aware of and if had been reported before. Kate wasn't aware of any reports of this behaviour and thought it was interesting enough to try and find out how common and widespread it is by putting a request out on Twitter (link here). 

Kate also did a little digging and kindly pointed me to some references in the literature on Long-tailed Tits feeding whilst holding food items in one foot and hanging from the other. Two of them were notes in British Birds, one from 1959 and the other from 1989, and related to food items that had been provided. Ornithologist Derek Goodwin commented on the latter report saying: 'this is normal and usual behaviour if a Long-tailed Tit finds an insect too big to be swallowed immediately'. This shows the feeding method itself is not that unusual, although I would say I think it is one that is easily missed or overlooked in anything other than a garden or feeding station setting as Long-tailed Tit flocks are usually always on the move. However, the use of this feeding method to exploit sunflower hearts taken from feeders does appear to be relatively new.  It remains to be seen how common and widespread it is or if it is an increasing trend as has been the experience in my garden. Early replies to the BTO tweet show it has been noted elsewhere but none make comment on how long it has been happening or if it is increasing at the locations concerned.

Hall-Craggs, J (1959) British Birds 52, 21-2.
Shackleton, K (1989) British Birds 82, 373-4.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Still here, and ageing.

Apologies for the lack of posts in recent weeks but there has been a lot going on on the domestic and family front to say the least. Added to that the birding has been fairly quiet around here so there hasn't been a huge amount of interest to blog about anyway. For what it is worth here is a summary of what I have been doing on the avian front over the last few weeks.

A total of 121 birds were ringed during December and another 68 were retrapped or resighted with much of that total coming from birds ringed in the garden. Goldfinches topped the totals with 36 ringed and Starling topped the retraps / resightings with 39 records, mainly resightings of colour-ringed birds. The only unusual ringing activity involved Siskins with a total of 7 ringed (6 in the garden and 1 at Billinge) which is an exceptional number for December.

Interestingly, the first Siskin was seen on the feeders in garden on 20th November and it was already ringed. A few days later 2 were coming to the feeders, both of which were wearing rings and both were adults so there is a chance they were returnees rather than birds that had been ringed elsewhere. I expected to catch one or both of theses birds as they continued to visit fairly regularly so it was a bit of a surprise when I caught 3 new birds in early December. A few Siskins continued to visit the feeders on a daily basis throughout December and at least 8 individuals were involved. In previous winters it has been mid to late January before they start coming to the garden on a regular basis so to have them start two months early is really unusual for here. This change doesn't seem to have been caused by any sort of food shortage as there are still plenty seeds in the alder cones. In fact Goldfinches were more hit and miss in the garden during December and this has continued on into January as they are spending quite a lot of time feeding in alders. This shows there is still an abundance of alder seeds to be had in the local area and it is probably also true of the wider countryside.

I have almost finished submitting my 2017 ringing data to the BTO and just need to do some final checks. Provisional totals for 2017 ended up at 4183 new birds and there were another 958 recaptures or resightings. The top 5 species ringed accounted for more than half the total as detailed below (again provisional totals for now):

Species        New Birds         Retraps/resightings
Goldcrest         669                            30
Starling            621                          567
Redwing          425                              0
Goldfinch         366                            41
Chiffchaff         295                            30

I have also been checking through the gulls and waterfowl that come to bread at Orrell Water Park (as usual) and have photographed the ring numbers of 3 Black-headed Gulls (2 from Germany and 1 from Scotland), a ringed Coot (from south Wales) and a Canada Goose (from Cheshire). All could be considered regulars to a greater or lesser degree as they were all recorded more than once during December and one of the German gulls, the Coot and Canada Goose have been recorded in previous winters.

EZ33149 was ringed as a chick at Elvanfoot, South Lanarkshire on 20/06/2017 which is 222 km NNW of Orrell Water Park.

Sometimes I only need to take a few photos to get the full ring number but in many cases I have to take dozens to be sure. While these are crops most of my photos of ringed birds are just of their legs rather that the whole bird.

Best foot forward. This is the German ringed bird from the Helgoland scheme. It has been recorded 11 times so far this winter but I still haven't received the ringing details so don't know when or where in Germany it was ringed.

I am spoiled for choice when it comes to photos of this bird, or at least its legs. IA141745 has been recorded 15 times so far this winter and over 70 times since the first sighting in October 2012. It was originally ringed as an adult in Bohmke und Werder, Mecklenburg - Vorpommern, Germany on 29/04/2012 and is pretty much a fixture at the park between October and February.

GR03863 is what you could call an old(ish) Coot as it was originally ringed as a first-year on 23/12/10 so is a little over 7 years old. It is well short of the UK longevity record for the species which currently stands at just over 15 years but it is probably older than your average Coot. It was ringed 236 km south at Comeston Lakes, near Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan during a spell of very cold weather but has been recorded up here 17 times since, most recently on 27/12/2017, so was probably a cold weather refugee when ringed.

The New Year hasn't seen much in the way of change as yet. Both German ringed Black-headed Gulls were photographed on the 1st and both have been recorded since. A few Siskins continue to visit the feeders in the garden on a daily basis and another 2 have been ringed. I have also resighted 25 different colour-ringed Starlings at the feeders and caught and colour-ringed another 2.

7 of the 8 Siskins ringed this winter have been adults. This adult male was caught on 10/01/2018. All the wing feathers including the coverts were relatively fresh, the colours were intense so there was no sign of any moult limits

The tail was equally unworn and again the colours were intense but the shape of the tail feathers was at the more pointed end of the range for adults. Adults with a relatively pointed tail like this can catch out the inexperienced and unwary but close examination reveals a neat pale fringe to the edges of all tail feathers and no signs of wear. In this shot you can just see that the primary tips are similarly fresh looking so no doubt it is an adult.

N34 is a female and was originally ringed as a juvenile on 18th May last year.
One notable absentee from the garden this winter has been Blackcap. I usually get one or two over the course of a winter and the first sighting usually comes before the end of December so to not have seen one by now is bucking the trend of the last few years. While Blackcaps have been absent I have got 2 Goldcrests feeding on the fat balls and fat cakes. This is relatively new behaviour for Goldcrests in my garden and although I have seen it before it is unlikely to become common and widespread, as happened with Long-tailed Tits some years back, as they are not very social in winter or long lived so the opportunities for such behaviour to spread in the population are not there.

Not the best photo but it is what you might call a decent record shot. The tail shape is in the intermediate range but it could be an adult and is possibly an individual that came to the feeders last winter. In addition to feeding on the fat balls and fat cakes direct it also picks up tiny fragments that have fallen on to the wire mesh and branches below or on fragments that have been wiped on the wire mesh and branches by other birds when cleaning their bills.
Another even more notable absentee from the garden, and one that is getting increasingly easy to forget, has been the humble House Sparrow. I haven't seen one at the feeders this year and only saw one during the whole of December, which is a really sorry state of affairs. If records from my garden and the local area are anything to go by they are still in marked decline around here.

So that brings things up to date, more or less, and with a bit of luck it won't be the best part of 4 weeks before my next post.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Goldcrest movements 2017

This is the latest instalment of recoveries that haven't been shown in full before, although partial details may have been mentioned for one or two of them. The absence of any large influxes from the continent this autumn means the recoveries are only likely to involve birds from the British population.

Goldcrest                 JBX614 
Adult female 07-Sep-2015 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Caught by ringer 24-Mar-2017 Copeland Bird Observatory, Down, UK 
Duration: 564 days Distance: 226 km Direction: 306deg (NW) 

Goldcrest         HDB637 
First-year female 01-Sep-2017 South Walney, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, UK 
Caught by ringer 10-Sep-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Duration: 9 days Distance: 68 km Direction: 152deg (SSE)

Goldcrest         KJX423 
First-year male 02-Sep-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Found freshly dead 20-Sep-2017 Hannington, Hampshire, UK 
Duration: 18 days Distance: 267 km Direction: 158deg (SSE)

Goldcrest         KAD230 
First-year male 23-Nov-2016 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Caught by ringer 28-Sep-2017 Oxmoor Wood, near Runcorn, Halton, UK 
Duration: 309 days Distance: 17 km Direction: 173deg (S) 

Goldcrest         EJY447 
First-year male 10-Oct-2016 Bidston, Wirral, Merseyside, UK 
Caught by ringer 20-Oct-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Duration: 375 days Distance: 27 km Direction: 66deg (ENE)

Goldcrest         KNC292 
First-year male 19-Sep-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Taken by cat 25-Nov-2017 Fromes Hill, Ledbury, Herefordshire, UK 
Freshly dead - within about a Week Taken By Cat 
Duration: 67 days Distance: 155 km Direction: 175deg (S)

The ringing site at Billinge is the black circle with white cross and is largely hidden behind the purple marker unless viewed full screen and by zooming in.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Minus 6 centigrade to plus 11 thrushes

I ventured up to Billinge this morning to see if the cold weather was causing any thrushes to move. I wasn't expecting a large scale cold weather movement as the cold weather hasn't been with us long enough for that but I thought the sub zero temperatures (about -6 this morning) and lingering snow cover would cause some local movement with both Fieldfares and Redwings moving in search of any remaining berries or, in the case of some Redwings, moving into mature woodland to search for invertebrates in the leaf litter.

It was one of those mornings where things didn't go exactly to plan and while I thought I had got up early enough the light covering of snow and crystal clear skies mean't it started to get light a little faster than it otherwise would. To make matters worse a shelf string came undone on one of the nets as I was putting it up which delayed set-up by forcing an impromptu repair. Despite these hiccups I still managed to get 3 nets up about half an hour before sunrise although it was getting quite light by then.

The first round of the nets produced an excellent catch of 10 Redwings and a Fieldfare but just after sunrise fog started to form and froze onto the nets, turning them white with ice crystals. This effectively ended the session and any movement but the 11 birds caught was still a good result and along with another 20 Redwing and 5 Fieldfare seen showed that some thrushes were moving before the fog rolled in.

Fieldfare 12/12/2017

Redwing 12/12/2017

Redwing 12/12/2017
All of the birds were a healthy weight and carrying some fat.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Recoveries catch up

I haven't posted full details of recoveries and controls for quite a while but now that ringing has slowed down there is the opportunity to start catching up. This post covers recoveries of finches that were ringed in my garden and others that were ringed or controlled at Billinge.

Siskin S144871 
First-year female   12-Apr-2016 near Orrell, Greater Manchester, UK 
Caught by ringer 26-Jun-2017 near Kildary, Highland, UK 
Duration: 440 days Distance: 478 km Direction: 350deg (N)
This Siskin recovery is the furthest north of all the reports received so far this year.

Goldfinch  S552424 
First-year female 27-Dec-2016 near Orrell, Greater Manchester, UK 
Caught by ringer    18-Mar-2017 Calf of Man, Isle of Man, UK 
Duration: 81 days Distance: 151 km Direction: 294deg (WNW)
There have been previous exchanges of Goldfinches with the Isle of Man from sites in my area but this is the first one from my garden.

Goldfinch  S881290 
Juvenile 06-Aug-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Caught by ringer  27-Oct-2017 Dunsby, Bourne, Lincolnshire, UK 
Duration: 82 days Distance: 174 km Direction: 116deg (ESE) 
Sexed as female when recaptured.

Lesser Redpoll AXA2748 
First-year male 18-Sep-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Caught by ringer 07-Oct-2017 Whixall & Fenn's Mosses, Wrexham, UK 
Duration: 19 days Distance: 65 km Direction: 182deg (S)

Lesser Redpoll S800301 
First-year 25-Aug-2017 Barnacre Reservoir, Lancashire, UK 
Caught by ringer 26-Oct-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Duration: 62 days Distance: 47 km Direction: 181deg (S)

Lesser Redpoll D717537 
Full grown 03-Apr-2014 Llanfyllin, Powys, UK 
Caught by ringer 01-Nov-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK 
Duration: 1308 days Distance: 88 km Direction: 25deg (NNE)
This Lesser Redpoll has also been caught at Crawford (2km from Billinge) on 5 occasions in spring and early summer 2015 and once in spring 2016. It was visiting feeders when caught at Crawford and was thought to be breeding nearby. It was sexed as a male when recaptured.

Lesser Redpoll S275550
First-year 21-Apr-2017 Torwood Lodge, Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway, UK
Caught by ringer  05-Dec-2017 Billinge Hill, near Billinge, Merseyside, UK
Duration: 228 days Distance: 185 km Direction: 167deg (SSE)
Sexed male when recaptured.

S275550 adult male Lesser Redpoll, controlled at Billinge 05/12/2017
On the ringing front when there has been the opportunity to get out recently I have caught small numbers of Redwings, a few Blackbirds, a couple of Fieldfare and the odd Redpoll at Billinge and Crawford. The garden has also been reasonably productive with Goldfinches topping the totals there and a few Siskins are also starting to visit the feeders.

The cold weather and snow that has been forecast for this weekend could prove interesting and may bring some thrushes down from further north and see the feeders in the garden get even busier. I haven't had a Blackcap in the garden yet this winter but a good covering of snow and some frost may just help one come my way. So I think it is going to be a case of eyes on the garden this weekend and I may just start the next blog post on recoveries while doing so.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Goldcrests: interesting from head to tail

Seeing is believing sometimes and certainly is when it comes to a Goldcrest I caught earlier this month and another one I caught today. The first of the two was carrying an old injury, the likes of which I have never seen before, and the second is yet another known age adult with quite pointed tail feathers.

The first bird was caught at Billinge on 15/11/17 and appeared to be fit and healthy apart from having no skin and feathers on the rear of the skull. It was obviously an old injury as the edges of the skin than surrounded the expose portion of skull were dry and showed no signs of redness or infection. I have no idea what caused the injury but it shows how resilient such a small bird can be. It weighed 5.5g and was heavier than 6 of the 7 other Goldcrests caught that morning, 2 of which were larger males, so it was clearly doing OK. The biggest problem that this type of injury will cause is increased heat loss so while it appears to be thriving now its survival chances may be reduced as the weather gets colder, but then all Goldcrests have a tough time surviving when it comes to a cold winter.

Just looks a little ruffled from the front.

Wow! Now that is what you call a bald patch. Would you have believed a bird could survive that if you hadn't seen it.

The condition and shape of the tail feathers suggested it was an adult.

A real survivor

The second Goldcrest was a retrap that I caught in the garden this afternoon. It was a male and when I looked at the tail it certainly didn't shout adult but the bird's ring number was from a sequence I was using at the beginning of the year so it had to be one. When I looked up the original ringing details it had been ringed in the garden on 22nd January so there is no question the tail you see in the images below is that of an adult.

Tail of adult male Goldcrest caught 24/11/17

Tail of adult male Goldcrest caught 24/11/17
The outer tail feathers were a bit paler and a bit more pointed than the others but they didn't appear to be as worn or as bleached as I would expect them to be if they were feathers that hadn't been replaced in the last moult. Having said that I have never caught a Goldcrest just prior to undergoing a complete moult or seen one with two generations of feathers so I don't know how worn or bleached old tail feathers get by the time they are normally moulted, let alone a couple of months on. However, I would expect them to look very bleached and extremely worn by now, especially the outers, and be much more obvious than appears to be the case with this bird. Forgetting the outer feathers the rest are quite pointed anyway and nearer the shape many associate with juveniles rather than adults. All 3 of the known age adults I have caught recently have had quite pointed tail feathers and it wouldn't surprise me if most adults have tail feathers with a shape that falls in the intermediate range of adults and juveniles and a good number probably get incorrectly aged as juveniles rather than being left unaged.

Images of the tails of the other known age adults can be found here and here.