Friday 26 December 2014

Christmas Day and Boxing Jay.

There have been a few bits and bobs over the last couple of days but Santa didn't deliver anything extra special on the birding front. One consequence of cooking a large turkey is that you have to get up early to allow for cooking and resting time. Having stuck a 6.5 kg turkey in the oven at 07:00 on Christmas Day I had a bit of time on my hands so I nipped to Crawford and put up one net for Redwings. The berries had been largely stripped from the hedges and despite the provision of a few apples a big catch wasn't expected and didn't happen. The net result (no pun intended) was 2 Redwings and a Woodpigeon. I don't catch many Woodpigeon so can't complain.

Yet another Redwing but I am not complaining. The last will be as good as the first.
On getting home and after basting the turkey I nipped to the park across the road to check out the Black-headed Gulls. I was working on the assumption there would be fewer offerings on Christmas Day, compared with the usual glut over the festive period, so I thought picking out ringed birds would be easier. There were about 90 Black-headed Gulls waiting for food including the regular German ringed bird but I didn't pick out any other ringed birds.

Black-headed Gull bread melee.

The regular German ringed bird was up at the front as usual.
Whilst seeing to the turkey and the usual accompaniments I was also keeping an eye on a bird table trap in the garden. This trap is manually controlled (old fashioned pull string like me) and is primarily designed for Starlings. I only added one Starling to my colour ringing scheme but I had caught 5 the previous day.

Starlings are not boring birds and have suffered dramatic declines (circa 80%) in recent years hence my RAS study.

Nearly forgot the turkey and sausages as you can tell. It was cooked breast side down most of the time so was still very moist despite its 'well done' appearance.
So we get to today, Boxing Day and I decided to double check the situation at Crawford, an easy option as it is only a few minutes away. I didn't get there too early but my supply of apples hadn't compensated for the depletion of berries in the area. Initially I only caught 1 Blackbird and 2 Redwings but I had put up an extra net by one of the feeders. This extra net produced a few tits and a Jay. There was a bit of an irruption of Jays in the autumn and there is no telling if this Jay is a local bird or part of that influx.

The ultimate Christmas nutcracker (apart from the real deal) and if you have held one of these birds you know what I mean.

Sunday 21 December 2014

A short post for the shortest day.

Blustery with frequent heavy showers just about sums up the weather for much of the past week and it didn't look like there would be any opportunities to go out ringing. The forecast for this morning didn't look any better with a predicted wind speed of 15 mph and the risk of a light shower but I decided to get up anyway and simply stick my head out of the door to check the conditions. Luckily it was dry and much less windy than forecast, which is sometimes the case first thing, so I decided to go to Crawford and try for a few more winter thrushes.

I only set up one net just in case the weather did take a turn for the worse but the wind remained fairly light and the showers held off long enough for me to catch 21 Redwings and 2 Fieldfares. A very good result considering the unpromising forecast.

Hopefully Father Christmas will bring some calmer conditions and break this run of unsettled weather.

Monday 15 December 2014

Crawford - 9th, 13th and 14th December

The 9th was the calm before the storm or the over hyped 'weather bomb' as it was portrayed in the media. I had to take relatives to Liverpool early that morning and thought my chances of going out ringing would be scuppered as a result. Luckily the traffic wasn't too bad and I was able to get back, get my gear and put one net up at Crawford with about twenty minutes to spare before sunrise.

Looking south east from the ringing site as the sun was about to rise on 9th December. I miss more of these photo opportunities than I capture as the best colours only last a short time and I am often busy setting up or ringing .
Given it was a later start than I would have liked and I was only using one 18m net the morning's catch of thrushes was much better than expected. In fact it turned out to be one of the best in terms of birds caught per metre of net used. Redwings were present in good number and made up the bulk of the catch. A few small flocks of Fieldfares made an appearance from time to time but they always approached quite cautiously and I only managed to catch one. Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) for 9th December were: Redwing 41; Filedfare 1; Blackbird 4 (1); Great Tit 1.

The 13th was the calm after the storm and I should have had the luxury of more time but I hadn't allowed for the frost. The frost had been forecast but it came after rain so it took much longer to de-ice the car than expected. I also had to drive to the site slowly as most of the roads were very icy and hadn't been gritted. I set up 2 nets this time but I needn't have bothered with the extra net as it only caught one Redwing. The catching rate was slower than the previous visit, not helped by the frost and overall sunnier conditions, but I still ended up with a reasonable catch of 18 Redwings. Three of the Redwings were fairly good candidates for the Icelandic race 'coburni' and one of these stood out in particular. Ringing totals for 13th December were: Redwing 18.

Redwing ring number RL86268 was one of 3 birds that showed characters of the Icelandic race 'coburni' and certainly had the blotchiest markings which included the breast and flanks. The undertail coverts were also noticeably more heavily marked and the legs and feet were browner than a typical 'iliacus' which have pinkish legs and feet. I would love to have the race confirmed, or not, from DNA but I will just have to hope one is subsequently recovered in Iceland or that I catch one that has been ringed in Iceland.

Redwing ring number RL86268, not as dark as the two birds caught at Billinge (post here) but darker and blotchier than most. Plus it was fairly long winged.

Redwing ring number RL86268

Redwing ring number RL86268
A fairly typical 'iliacus' caught the same day for comparison.
I hadn't planned on going ringing on the 14th but land owner had his granddaughter visiting and she is really keen on wildlife so I said I would go, weather permitting. The forecast was a bit 'iffy' with the wind due to increase and bringing in heavy showers but when I got up it was dry and much less windy than forecast. The rainfall radar also indicated that the showers would hold off for an hour or two so I decided to give it a go. The showers actually held off for much longer than I expected and the wind remained light so a budding naturalist got to see her first Redwings in the hand.

It is always worth giving ringing demonstrations to encourage the next generation to develop an interest in birds and wildlife.
There seemed to be more thrushes around than the previous day and the catching rate was fairly steady until a male Sparrowhawk turned up and unsettled everything. Birds started to come back after a little while but then a female Sparrowhawk appeared and patrolled up and down the hedgerows near the net so I decided it was time to pack up. I had thought I would get rained off but in the end I was Sparrowhawked off just before the rain arrived. Ringing totals for 14th December were: Redwing 24; Blackbird 1 (1).

With berry crops like this on some of the hawthorns it is hardly surprising there are plenty of thrushes around.
The fields around the ringing site are used for feeding by large numbers of Pink-footed Geese and around 1,200 geese have been present on each of my recent visits. Even though I expect them to be around I can't help but look up every time I hear them flying over. There is something magic about large flights of wild geese and there is no doubt that most if not all of these birds have come from Iceland.

Pink-footed Geese dropping in to feed.

Just a few Pink-footed Geese.

Part of a long line of Pink-footed Geese that had been disturbed from their chosen field.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Grab and go - Sparrowhawk style.

I didn't expect to be posting again so soon but a juvenile male Sparrowhawk gave me a fantastic photo opportunity today and I wanted to share the results. While I see Sparrowhawks on a fairly regular basis it is not often that I get to watch them with prey let alone photograph it. Well fed gardens that attract a good number of birds, like mine, probably present the best opportunity for seeing such life and death struggles but they are often so fleeting they are easily missed. This is only the third time I have managed to photograph a Sparrowhawk with prey and there was the initial mad panic of grabbing the camera and checking the settings whilst hoping the encounter would last long enough to be able to rattle off a few shots.

The lighting was terrible as we had just had a sleety hail shower and initially I only managed to get shutter speeds of around 100th of a second at IS0 3200 with focal lengths of between 200 and 400mm. The lighting improved slightly as the encounter went on but the shutter speeds only went up to a 500th of a second at best. All the photographs were taken with the camera hand held and through double glazing.

The Sparrowhawk had to use its lightening reflexes to hang on to the Starling, which was screaming and struggling for its life, and it had to keep repositioning its grip to maintain control and its balance. The Starling nearly got away a couple of times and the Sparrowhawk was clearly wary of its beak and didn't try to apply a killer bite. Eventually the Starling seemed to tire and the Sparrowhawk flew off with its prey still very much alive. This life and death struggle went on for four minutes and it wasn't really a case of grab and go as the Starling got grabbed time and time again; so more of a multiple grab and go.

Now I can vouch for the strength of grip that a Sparrowhawk has along with the sharpness of their claws and the skin of my hands is much thicker than that of a Starling. People often think it is the beak that you have to watch when you handle and ring birds of prey but it is the feet and talons that can do the damage. I have had the claws of a Sparrowhawk meet under my skin on more than one occasion such is the speed and power of their grasp. The Sparrowhawk will have inflicted quite a few deep puncture wounds in the process of trying to subdue its hapless prey as feathers can only offer limited protection to the relatively thin skin of a bird. Ouch!!!

The 3 photos below convey some of the drama as it unfolded on the garden path.

I took around 100 photos in total and the following short video presentation shows a selection of them in the order they were taken.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Crawford - 6th December 2014

It has been quite a while since I have done any ringing at the farmland site at Crawford, near Upholland but an afternoon visit a few days ago revealed a good number of thrushes feeding in the hedges. The hawthorns at the site still have a good crop of berries but they may not last for much longer if we get a few frosts and the birds are forced to feed on them even more. I also dropped off a few apples that I had brought along with me with a view to attracting the birds to the hawthorns by the net rides. 

I returned early this morning and set up a couple of nets just as it was coming light. I wasn't sure how many birds would turn up but I didn't have to wait long before the first small flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares arrived through the gloom. It turned out to be a very productive session considering I was only using a 12m and 18m net with the majority of birds being caught in the first couple of hours.

The Redwings frequently gathered in a large willow before dropping down to the hawthorns to feed.
Take off
The 21 Redwings ringed today brought the total for this autumn/winter to 741.
One of the three Fieldfare caught this morning.
This cracking adult male Blackbird was almost certainly a continental bird given its wing length of 142mm. Blackbirds from the more sedentary British population typically have a much shorter wing length.
It also had a good sized bill.
While thrushes made up the bulk of the catch some additional interest was provided by a few Greenfinches including 2 controls (birds ringed elsewhere), a Willow Tit, a Tree Sparrow and a Yellowhammer. The Willow Tit was unexpected as the site doesn't really have enough suitable habitat for the species. I have caught one there previously (post here) but that was in June when the juveniles are dispersing and can often be found well away from their usual haunts.

Willow Tit 06/12/14
The Willow Tit had a pale spot along the cutting edge of  the upper mandible below the nostril and this can be seen in both photographs. This is usually a feature of Marsh Tits but a small proportion of Willow Tits (around 4%) can also display a similar pale spot. Interestingly the only other Willow Tit caught at this site also had an almost identical pale spot. Perhaps they are related in some way and they could even be siblings if such features are inherited; pure speculation of course but it seems to be a bit too much of a coincidence given so few Willow Tits display this feature. Richard Broughton's paper on separating Willow and Marsh Tits can be found here.

Ringing totals for 06/12/14 were: Redwing 21; Fieldfare 3; Blackbird 4; Robin 1; Blue Tit 1; Willow Tit 1; Greenfinch 6 (+2 controls); Tree Sparrow 1; Yellowhammer 1. Total 38 new birds and 2 controls.

Tree Sparrow

Saturday 29 November 2014

Ringing session with a twist.

I am not sure where to start with this post as today's ringing session didn't turn out anything like I expected it to. There have been a dwindling number of thrushes moving over Billinge and I didn't catch a single bird on my last outing (27th) so I thought I would be declaring autumn passage over in this part of the world by today. It has been a fantastic autumn for Redwings at the site but the southward movement of Redwings that had arrived further north had to end some time. However this morning bucked the trend with Redwings passing overhead and calling through the darkness while I was putting up the nets.

Redwing 29/11/14
I had been joined by Paul who had expressed an interest in training to ring but I had warned him that I didn't expect to catch much if anything. Well the birds decided to make a fool out of me with a few Redwings dropping in almost straight away. It wasn't just Redwings as there was a continental Song Thrush amongst them in one of the later catches. A flock of at least 40 Fieldfares narrowly missed the nets and a couple of smaller parties also flew over adding to the migratory feel of the morning. It wasn't just a case of birds moving from their roosts to feeding sites either as the movements went on too far into the morning for that.

Continental Song Thrushes, like this bird, are more olive grey from the nape to the upper tail coverts compared to the British race which have warm brown upperparts.

Continental birds are also much whiter underneath with much less buff on the breast.
We didn't just catch thrushes as there were a good number of Yellowhammers, Chaffinches and Goldfinches about, along with a few Reed Buntings. The real twist to this tale came in the form of one of the Yellowhammers that had an overgrown and twisted upper mandible. Buntings have slightly odd looking bills to start with as the upper mandible is smaller than the lower so it doesn't take much of a deformity to make them look really odd and this was no small deformity. It was a first year bird so this overgrowth had only developed in the last 4 or 5 months or thereabouts. It never ceases to amaze me how birds adapt and survive with such deformities and it was clearly doing quite well as it had a healthy weight (25.1g) and its plumage was in excellent condition.

Yellowhammer with a twist.

It must be really difficult for this bird to pick up seeds.

There was a coating of soil on the end of the upper mandible which suggests it scrapes the ground when the bird is feeding.

The plumage was in pristine condition so it must be managing to preen well enough.

Normal Yellowhammer for comparison.

Paul releasing his first Yellowhammer.
The final surprise was finding a Kestrel in one of the nets when I went to take them down. Kestrels are ever present at the site and are more common than Sparrowhawks but this was the first I have caught there.

Kestrel 29/11/14

Kestrel 29/11/14
Ringing totals (with retraps in brackets): Redwing 14; Song Thrush 1; Yellowhammer 10 (1); Chaffinch 3; Goldfinch 2; Reed Bunting 1 (1); Bullfinch 1; Kestrel 1.

Reed Bunting 29/11/14

Friday 21 November 2014

Redwings: coburni v iliacus

I think I was a little too cautious in my post 'More of the same' (link here) with regard to the photograph of a Redwing that showed characters of the Icelandic race 'coburni'. I suggested its appearance possibly fell a little short of the mark but if anything fell short it was my experience of birds from the Icelandic population (nil up to then). I caught another dark and heavily marked bird yesterday and it stood out as much if not a little more than the previous bird did which prompted me to reconsider that earlier note of caution. It also prompted me to do some homework and I have been trawling the internet looking at photos of the races and reading up on the subject. I am now certain that yesterday's bird and the previous bird (caught 16/11/14) are Icelandic Redwings.

Birds of the Icelandic subspecies (T.i.coburni) are marginally larger and darker than nominate birds from northern Europe (T.i.iliacus) but only around 14% of Icelandic birds have longer wing lengths and therefore relatively few can be separated on size. Both birds had wing lengths that fell in the upper part of the overlap in the wing length ranges with yesterday's bird being 127mm (right on the upper limit) and the first bird had a wing length of 124mm. Published wing length ranges vary depending where you look but I have gone with 126/127mm as being the upper limit for nominate birds largely based on a paper that considered occurrences on Heligoland (Germany) which can be found here.

In terms of appearance 'coburni' is described as being slightly darker and are generally more heavily marked and having looked at a lot of images of both races there appears to be less overlap in appearance than there is in size. However I do feel there was a bias towards showing obviously darker birds amongst the examples of migrant 'coburni' photographed outside Iceland which is only to be expected when the separation of the races is not always clear cut. Another feature for separating the races is the colour of the legs and feet which are dark horn brown in 'coburni' and pinkish-flesh in 'iliacus' and this was very obvious and can been seen in many of my photographs.

Redwing of the Icelandic race 'coburni', Billinge 20/11/14
The following series of photos shows the same bird with a fairly typical bird of the nominate northern European race 'iliacus' that was caught the same day and photographed in similar conditions. 

'coburni' above and 'iliacus' below.
'coburni' left and 'iliacus' right.
'coburni' above and 'iliacus' below.

The following images are of the previous Icelandic bird caught on 16/11/14. On looking at these images again I don't know why I was cautious about fully attributing it to the Icelandic race. 

Redwing of the Icelandic race 'coburni', Billinge 16/11/14

Redwing of the Icelandic race 'coburni', Billinge 16/11/14 (same bird but appears to have a slightly paler throat and upper-breast from this angle).

Redwing of the Icelandic race 'coburni', Billinge 16/11/14

...and here is a collage showing how it compared with a lightly marked nominate bird caught the same day.

'coburni' left and 'iliacus' right.
The final image below shows a collage of both Icelandic birds with what I consider to be a heavily marked nominate bird (lower right) and a more typical nominate birds (top right). Although you can't really see much of the upper parts you can see enough to appreciate how much darker both Icelandic birds are. The upperparts of the Icelandic birds are what I would describe as a dark olive earth-brown whereas the nominate birds are more of a mid toned warm brown. The other thing to note in this image are the feet; darker horn brown coloured in the Icelandic birds (left) and pinkish-flesh coloured in the nominate birds (right). The strength, size and colour of the markings on the underparts largely speak for themselves but there is a little more variation in them.

Upper left 'coburni'; lower left 'coburni'; upper right 'iliacus'; lower right 'iliacus'.

If you are interested in comparing other images of migrant 'coburni' photographed in the UK examples can be found  here (Bardsey),  here (North Ronaldsay),  here (Fair isle),  here (Norfolk).

For images of 'coburni' taken in Iceland you can view images taken by Jakob Sigurdsson here and here. Other images by Gudmunder Geir's can be found here.

It is also worth a second look at the 'We Bird North Wales' blog post on this subject here.