Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bitten by the bug.

One of the down sides of ringing at this time of year is having to get up earlier and earlier to beat the sunrise and the other is the emergence of biting insects. We were out the other morning in flat calm conditions which were perfect for mist-netting but we must have attracted every biting insect for hundreds of meters around. The ringing was a bit slower than expected so I spent some of the time in between net rounds trying to get some photos of mosquitoes filling up with blood.

Yours truly photographing a mosquito.
This mosquito has only just started feeding.
This one is engorged with blood and about to fly off.
I am lucky in that I rarely get a really bad reaction to insect bites although it should be said that I do try and avoid getting bitten most of the time. The very small black flies usually cause me to be covered in little red circular blotches that make me look like I have been dotted with a red felt tip pen but that is usually as much of a reaction as I get. They are a real nuisance when there are a lot of them and can make your skin crawl but they don't cause much pain or swelling, just the telltale red dots.

Small biting black-fly of sorts.
I did have some insect repellent impregnated wipes with me and I used some those on my face and neck but as the dog was suffering more than me I used most of them to try and give him some relief from the gathered swarm. I wiped his fur and tied all the used wipes to his collar but his legs and belly still became a mosquito filling station.

The latest doggy fashion, a mosquito repellent wipe adorned collar.

A fairly thick fur coat was no protection.
Now I know I said I don't normally get a bad reaction to insect bites but allowing my hand to be used like a pin cushion for photographic purposes did have its consequences. The following day the back of my hand swelled up and became quite itchy but it only lasted 24 hours or so. I think it was one of the larger black-flies that I reacted to and not the mosquitoes, I couldn't brush the black-flies off while waiting for my mosquitoes to fill up.

No I am not showing off my finger nails, just the swelling on the back of my left hand (right as viewed).
While on the subject of insects there has not been much new in the moth trap recently, in fact it has seemed quite slow despite the reasonable weather. A Lunar Marbled Brown on the 24th was a welcome improvement in variety. Yesterday the trap produced the first Lime Hawk Moth of the spring and it was quickly followed by a Poplar Hawk Moth this morning. Variety should steadily pick up from here but the frost forecast for this weekend may temporarily hold things up.

Lunar Marbled Brown (Drymonia ruficornis) from the night of 24/04/14

Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi), fresh from the trap this morning.
The other bug I have been bitten with is all things Grasshopper Warbler. Below is a collage of head shots of birds caught in the past few days. As you can see there is quite a bit of variation in the bill colour in these birds. As for the pale olive grey bird from my last post we are no further forward yet.

Grasshopper Warbler head shots showing the variation in bill colour.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

What a Gropper.

I have to admit to getting caught out yesterday and it was not by the weather. No, it was by an olive grey Grasshopper Warbler that made some very unusual noises to boot. This bird was striking, very very striking and it was clearly a Grasshopper Warbler of sorts but it was not on Fair Isle, North Ronaldsay or the East coast of England, no it was in Wigan.

pale olive-grey looking Grasshopper Warbler ringed 25/04/13
Now if it doesn't seem that pale to you lets have a look at a more typical warm brown Gropper.

Grasshopper Warbler ringed 20/04/14.
The only reference I had with me was Svensson, the ringers bible, and having checked all the specific features I was satisfied that it was a Grasshopper Warbler but given its pale appearance there was clearly a chance it was one of the eastern subspecies. The main contenders are straminea from Eastern Russia, Western Siberia and Central Asia and obscurior from the North Caucasus.

Now where I was caught out is that I now know that it would have been useful to take more measurements than I actually did and especially of the tail. A bit of a cock-up with hindsight but then there is so much overlap between the subspecies they may not have helped anyway. The wing length of 64mm means it wasn't particularly small but it could still be OK for straminea, just. At the time I was more concerned about confirming that it was actually a Grasshopper Warbler as it looked so different. However, I did take a good series of photographs as I thought it may be identifiable as to the subspecies on its appearance alone.

Further enquiries are currently being made to see if it can be attributed to one of the eastern subspecies although we may only be able to say that it showed some characters of an 'Eastern type' Grasshopper Warbler. Unfortunately it didn't drop a feather so taking the DNA route isn't an option. A remarkable bird whichever way you look at it and one that seems likely to spark quite a bit of debate over its appearance and origin although it may well remain a mystery bird. I will keep you posted when I get some feedback from my enquiries.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Surprise 'Sibe'

I was joined by Wayne for a Redpoll ringing session at the baited site near Scotman's Flash this morning or at least that was plan. We erected 2 nets near the feeders and another net further away with an MP3 lure playing redpoll song. The idea of the set-up being that we would either catch birds coming to the feeders and or attract any others passing over to the lure and with a bit of luck both. The feeders had clearly been well used since I had last topped them up so we were optimistic about our chances of catching a few birds although the current fine spell of weather could have caused them to disperse or move on.

We heard the first Redpolls before we had finished erecting the nets but it was only a couple of small groups. There didn't seem to be that many birds about and the initial 2 rounds of the nets only produced 5 new Lesser Redpolls. Similarly, there seemed to be very little in the way of newly arrived migrants and literally nothing on passage overhead; no pipts, finches or wagtails of any description. A few Sand Martins were seen along with the odd Swallow but they didn't appear to be going in any particular direction in a hurry so may have been local breeders.

Quite a few Lesser Redpolls were attracted into the net by the MP3 lure and may just have been intercepted on their way to the feeders but interestingly we only caught unringed birds in this net whereas birds caught in the nets by the feeders were close to a 50:50 split of retraps and new birds. It may be that there were a few Redpolls on passage with some being attracted to the lure but if there were they must have been passing over a considerable height.

On approaching the net with the lure at about 07:30 we could see we had caught a couple of birds. One was obviously a Lesser Redpoll but the other was totally unexpected and a complete surprise.

What have we here then.
OK I have strung this out for long enough, it was a Siberian Chiffchaff as you may have guessed from the post title and a proper one at that. Proper in that it that it was the classic grey-brown and white of a 'tristis' without a hint of yellow and what little olive green there was being confined to the fringes of the primaries and tail feathers. Also it was just finishing its moult as some of the body feathers were still growing and partially 'in pin'. This late moult is also characteristic of Siberian Chiffchaffs from what I have read.

Siberian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita tristis)
Separating Chiffchaff races is not easy and there is a degree of overlap between tristis and abietinus in particular. A quick search on the Internet will find loads of articles on the subject some of which are much more helpful than others but beware some of the photographs and descriptions may leave you even more confused. Anyway in the absence of DNA confirmation I am as happy as anyone can be that this is a 'classic' Siberian Chiffchaff.

Ringing totals for the morning with retraps in brackets:
Lesser Redpoll 15 (6)
Willow Tit 1 (1)
Chiffchaff (tristis) 1
Robin 1
Reed Bunting (1)
Total 18 (8)

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Lesser is more.

My body clock woke me up at 5am this morning so I decided to get up and see if any birds were on the move and Redpolls in particular. I went to my usual watch point near home and put up a single net and set the MP3 going with a view to luring in any Redpolls that may be passing overhead. Although the conditions seemed reasonable there was virtually no sign of any northbound visible migration. The sky was almost empty save for the usual morning southbound commute of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a few Woodpigeons blogging here and there and the like.

Undaunted I decided to stick it out for a while and started to log everything seen or heard on the BirdTrack app on my phone. After about an hour I heard the distinctive flight calls of Redpolls and a couple of birds dropped in, both of which were caught. The birds were duly ringed and were released together so they could continue their migration with minimal interruption. Another 50 minutes passed and I was thinking about packing up when another group of Redpolls arrived from the south and this time 8 were caught. Again they were ringed and then released together. The idea of releasing them as a group in the way they were caught is to see if any of them remain together should they get caught again by ringers further north.

In general there was next to no visible northward migration apart from the groups of Redpolls (all Lessers) that were recorded, most of which were caught and ringed. Only 2 Meadow Pipits were logged along with a single Linnet. The alba wagtail that was heard was probably a local Pied and the few Goldfinches seen were probably commuting between gardens. Despite the lack of movement in general 19 Lesser Redpolls were caught from a minimum of 23 seen. One of these was a control (ringed elsewhere) so it will be interesting to see where that bird came from. Redpolls were certainly on the move today and probably on a fairly unobtrusive broad front so I am glad my body clock got woke me up after all. Anyway I may try again tomorrow, if it is not too windy, to see what if any difference a day makes.

Z019108 6M Lesser Redpoll

Z019110 5(unsexed) Lesser Redpoll

Z019118 5M Lesser Redpoll

Z019119 5(unsexed) Lesser Redpoll

D595550 5M Lesser Redpoll control

Friday, 11 April 2014

Fun with finches.

The baited site at Longshaw is still holding a few Bramblings but it isn't easy to gauge numbers and the birds have been proving quite difficult to catch. On my last visit, a week ago, I managed to catch 5 which isn't bad for April but I had hoped for a few more. The birds are clearly taking full advantage of the sunflower seeds for fattening up for their return migration to the breeding grounds and while most of them weighed in at 23 to 24g one weighed in at a whopping 31.4g.

When I went and topped up the feeders yesterday afternoon there were still around a dozen Bramblings present so I decided it would be worth trying another ringing session there this morning. I was joined by Wayne and Steve and we had a couple of nets up before sunrise. We retreated to a vantage point to watch for any birds coming in and it wasn't long before the first small group arrived and circled overhead.  More birds joined them and soon there were at least 25 Bramblings which is a a really good number given the date. They all dropped down to the feeders and we expected a decent catch but the first check of the nets only produced 1 Brambling and 1 Willow Warbler. We did manage to catch another 5 Bramblings subsequently along with a couple of Chaffinches, a Chiffchaff and the first Blackcap of the spring but not as many Bramblings as expected given the number present.

One of today's fine male Bramblings
One of 3 Blackcaps seen or heard at Longshaw today and the first to be ringed this spring.  
Although there was very little in the way of passage overhead I also tried playing Redpoll on the MP3 lure. This resulted in 3 Lesser Redpolls being caught during the morning. Interestingly the first 2 were already wearing rings and we had ringed both of them at another baited site just over 5km away to the east with one of them having been ringed there only yesterday and the other having been ringed there on 1st April. Although they hadn't moved far such movements are interesting, especially when one is so quick. Perhaps the birds are moving between favored feeding sites over quite a large area or these birds could be moving towards their breeding areas.

On the subject of Redpolls we have caught and ringed 91 in the past few weeks and now have them coming to feeders at 2 sites. The vast majority have been Lesser Redpolls as would be expected but we have caught 5 'Mealies' or Common Redpolls if you prefer. However there have been a few birds that have made us look twice because they almost seem to be intermediate between Lesser and Mealy in appearance. All of these birds look colder and greyer than a typical warm brown Lesser, especially when seen side by side. These greyer looking Lessers are not unusual in spring and presumably get these colder tones as a result of plumage wear although it is interesting that it doesn't happen to them all. This creates significant variation in appearance and I am sure it would be quite easy for some of these to get identified as Mealies.

Variation in Lesser Redpolls with a typical warm brown bird on the left and progressively colder and greyer birds centre and right. The right hand bird was ringed very early in the morning and the light levels did affect the white balance of the picture as can be seen by comparing the colour of the skin tones of my hand and the vegetation in the background but it was still the palest of all 3. Lighting conditions can make a big difference to how they appear to the eye as well as the camera.

This Lesser had quite a pale rump, elements of pale tram lines on the mantle and greyish tones to the feathers around the ear coverts.
And 2 proper Mealy Redpolls to finish with but there is variation even here with the right hand bird being that bit browner and less frosted looking. There was an obvious size difference in all the Mealies we have caught even if they had the same wing length as a Lesser. They always looked longer overall when compared side by side with a Lesser of the same wing length.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Almost dipped on first pulli.

I had a late one last night and when the forecast for heavy rain didn't materialise this morning I was left it in a bit of a quandary as to what to do. Anyway I finally sent a text to Wayne mid-morning and suggested that I show him one of the potential Dipper sites with a view to nest recording if they were present. We got there at around mid-day but there were no obvious signs of Dipper activity. We went downstream and put a net across the river while we surveyed the areas both up and down stream.

We hadn't been there that long when we realised that a Robin was feeding young close by. After a bit of watching back and forth we quickly realised it was feeding young in the bank near one of the net poles. The first search found the nest site and it was in within two feet of the site of a Blackbird's nesting site that I found last spring and in very similar circumstances too. Five pulli Robins were duly ringed and were Wayne's and our first pulli ringed for the year. Only a  thousand pullus to go so no pressure there Wayne as these don't count towards that total (private joke).

Judging by its development this Robin chick will be 5 days old.

First pulli or should I say pullus (no masters of Latin here) of the year ringed were capped off in fine style with a Dipper, and what a powerful bird they are. These Water Ouzels are something else and it was magic to see Wayne's appreciation of a new species when it found its way into the net.

On  woodland flowery note it was also nice to see Wood Anemones in full flower and Bluebells not that far behind. Spring is really here.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

01/04/2014 Superspecies and supercilium.

The new month got off to a fine start in terms of the weather with conditions that were perfect for an early morning mist-netting session. I had arranged to meet Wayne for a ringing session at the baited site near Scotman's Flash subject to the usual confirmation text to see if I had dragged myself out of bed. Texts exchanged we subsequently met up at 06:15 and made our way to the ringing site at first light. As we approached the nyger feeders it was clear they had been heavily used in the two days since I had last refilled them. We topped up the feeders and quickly erected a couple of nets in anticipation of a good catch of Redpolls or at least that is what we were hoping for.

Although we were listening out for Redpolls we couldn't help hearing 2 Blackcaps that were singing close by, another first for this spring, and Chiffchaffs were clearly more plentiful. However, it wasn't long before we heard the distinctive nasal buzzing calls of approaching Redpolls amongst the cacophony of the dawn chorus. Initially the birds settled in the tops of sallows and started to feed on the flowering buds but it wasn't long before they worked their way down to the nyger feeders. The first round of the nets produced 10 Redpolls comprised of 8 Lessers and 2 Mealies which more than met our expectations, especially the Mealies. Redpolls are a group that really interest me and although I don't have a favourite species of bird Mealy would probably be a top contender.

This 'puff ball' of a Mealy was quite fat and weighed in at a fairly hefty 15.5g but it could get close to 20g before it heads back to its northern breeding grounds.

The other Mealy was a slightly frostier looking individual and weighed in at a leaner 12.4g.
Redpolls didn't get all the attention though as we also caught a Chiffchaff with a really prominent supercilium which, unusually, made me look twice. The supercilia were broad and met above the bill giving it a much stronger head pattern than I am used to seeing in this species. It was a fairly short-winged bird, probably a female and there is no doubt it was a Chiffchaff if you are wondering.

The 'double take' Chiffchaff

What a super supercilium this bird has.
Wayne had to go at 8am and I didn't stay much longer but the final totals were a respectable 16 new birds and 11 retraps. Redpoll migration has only just got underway so hopefully there will be a lot more Lessers and Mealies to come before the month is out.

Totals for 01/04/13 with retraps in brackets.

Lesser Redpoll 11 (9)
Mealy (Common) Redpoll 2
Chiffchaff 2
Reed Bunting 1
Blue Tit (1)
Wren (1)