Friday 27 June 2014

You have got to be in it to Linnet

A couple of evenings ago I decided to see if I could catch some Linnets at the site near Billinge. There are plenty of juvenile Linnets about now and I thought I may be catch a few and test out a new net ride at the same time. The net ride is in a dense patch of self-seeded willows and is fairly close to where there is a good breeding population of Linnets so I thought it was worth a try. I was working on the assumption that the juveniles from the early broods would be roosting in the area and could be attracted to a playback lure as they returned from feeding areas to roost.

While the conditions were good for ringing they were even better for flies and both me and the dog were soon being plagued by them. Most were what I would describe as housefly like sweat flies but while they distracted you in their hundreds the clegs and other biting insects quietly moved in for a blood meal, it was horrible. It was so bad I really wished I had one of those daft looking hats with the mesh that covers your head or a full beekeepers outfit for that matter. I hadn't brought any insect repellent with me either as every fly in the area quickly found out when they homed in on me and the dog.

I put the net up as quickly as the flies would allow and set a lure playing Linnet song. It wasn't long before I caught the first birds- a Linnet, 2 Chiffchaffs and a Reed Bunting; juvenile Chiifchaffs have a really curious nature and seem to be attracted to just about any playback lure as these 2 were. I then heard a Willow Tit call once from some scrub a little distance away so I put another lure out playing Willow Tit calls and within seconds another wandering juvenile Willow Tit was caught. Not a bad start despite all the flies.

Testing out the new net ride.
Juvenile Linnet
A few Swallows started feed above the willows which wasn't surprising given the number of flies so I decided to play a Swallow lure in addition to Linnet and it wasn't long before an adult Swallow found its way into the net. The number of Swallows increased until around 50 or 60 were present and it soon looked like they may actually settle down to roost in the willows. This was a bit of a surprise as I normally associate Swallow roosts with reed beds or fields of maize and much later in the summer and autumn. The Swallows did settle to roost in another patch of willows that were only 1 to 2 metres tall and I was even able to see some of the birds sat in the upper twigs, a most unexpected sight.

Ringing totals for Wednesday evening (25/06/14): Reed Bunting 1, Linnet 2, Willow Tit 1, Bullfinch 1, Chiffchaff 2, Willow Warbler 1, Swallow 4.

I went back again yesterday evening and tried a net in a different place for the Linnets and another for the Swallows but keeping well away from the bushes the Swallows roosted in the previous night. It was a bit breezier and the flies were much less of a problem plus I had come prepared with plenty of insect repellent. I think I had probably set up a little too late for the Linnets but I still caught 3 (2 juvs and an adult male). A similar number of Swallows gathered but this time 11 were caught because I had set a net in a more open area of willows.

Interestingly 4 of the 15 Swallows caught over the two evenings were adult males with the remainder being juveniles. I can only presume this is some form of nursery roost and the adult females are incubating eggs or brooding chicks from second nesting attempts in buildings on the surrounding farms. Obviously this is just speculation and perhaps some adults and the young from the early broods are simply preparing to migrate already?? Whatever the reason it is certainly the earliest summer Swallow roost I have ever seen by some margin and shows there is still so much we don't actually know about many of our common birds.

Juvenile Swallow. All the juveniles had prominent yellow gape flanges like this bird indicating they had fledged fairly recently.
Ringing totals for Thursday evening (26/06/14): Linnet 3, Goldfinch 2, Blackbird 1, Whitethroat 3, Swallow 11.

Although Linnets were the original target I am just as pleased to have found such an early Swallow roost along with the general mix of birds ringed over the two evenings. It is still very early in the season yet so I may catch more Linnets later in the summer and through into the autumn as the number of juveniles in the population increases. I will be back to find out and I may even invest in one of those sensible hats to get some chemical free protection from the flies.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

18th to 24th June summary

It has been a week since my last post and I have to say that my efforts over that period have been far more productive and interesting than those of the England football team. I have put in what you might call a solid performance to use football parlance and have ringed 88 new birds of 18 species over the last seven days.

It hasn't all been ringing though as I have also found a few nests and there have been some interesting observations along the way. Best of the bird sightings were an adult Hobby over Crawford (22nd) and a few Curlews moving back towards the coast over Billinge Hill (one on 23rd and four on 24th). Below are some random photographs from the past few days that make for much better viewing than the football did, well they do for me at least.

The weather has been glorious this last week and this female Common Toad risked being caught out in the sun while crossing a track. I presume she was trying to find damper and cooler ground on what was a very hot afternoon.

I don't catch Goldcrests in juvenile plumage very often and I always think they look a bit odd without the yellow/orange crest. This was one of 4 caught together with an adult at the site near Upholland and indicates that they are breeding nearby.

OK it is only a bramble patch but this one held the Linnets nest shown in the photo below.

This is the second nest of a pair of Linnets that fledged a brood in early June. I will check the nest at weekly intervals to see how this breeding attempt goes.

This is the first Tree Sparrow I have ringed this year and was also caught at the new ringing site near Upholland. I have seen or heard a few Tree Sparrows on every visit to this site so I will hopefully catch a few more.

Treecreepers have an interesting shape to their eyes and this juvenile prompted me to take a closer look. The reason for the elongated shape only becomes apparent when you look at it from the back as if it was climbing up a tree. The shape and position of the eye allows them to see over their backs as you can see in the pictures below.

This bird may have its back to me but it can see me with both eyes without having to turn its head. This has obvious advantages for a bird that spends most of its life shuffling up trees.

Most predators are going to try and attack a Treecreeper from behind and this closeup shows the reason for that eye shape.  If you can see the eyes the eyes can see you and this adaptation clearly gives the bird the extra peripheral vision that it needs to help it try and avoid predators. I have noticed the elongated eye shape on Treecreepers before but this is the first time I have taken a closer look and worked out why.

A few more Willow Tits have found their way into the nets. This juvenile shows that diagnostic wing panel on the secondaries really well.

When I first spotted this nest I didn't think it was occupied. In fact it looked like an old nest that was starting to fall apart. Then I noticed a few white splashes below the nest so I decided to climb up and have a look. You can't tell from the photo but it was only about 20ft up in a willow.

It was well worth the climb as I found myself face to face with 5 Sparrowhawk chicks. From the ground the nest didn't look to be big enough for a Sparrowhawk and these 5 youngsters won't have much room as they grow. 

This Wood Pigeon has certainly gone out on a limb with this nest. There can't be much to hold it on there if anything at all. It just looked so out of place.
That gives you a flavour of my week, a good performance with plenty of interest and far more to marvel at than the sorry results from the England football team.

18th to 24th June Ringing Totals with retraps in brackets.
Blackcap  11
Whitethroat  4
Willow Warbler  6 (1)
Chiffchaff  4
Goldcrest  5
Meadow Pipit  2
Willow Tit  4 (1)
Blue Tit  4
Great Tit  7
Dunnock  4
Robin  3
Chaffinch  6
Greenfinch  5
Goldfinch  1
Tree Sparrow  1
Blackbird  1
Starling  19
Treecreeper  1
Total 88 (2)

Wednesday 18 June 2014

More Willow Tit wanderings and other stuff too

I hadn't planned to do any ringing yesterday so I didn't even try and get up early. I got up at what might be considered a normal time and took my son to college like a dutiful dad. However, on getting home the light wind and the overcast conditions got the better of me so I decided to throw some gear in the car and have a walk around one of my ringing sites near Billinge. Initially I was only going to look for nests but then I decided to put up a 40ft net to test out a net ride that I had prepared on a previous visit.

I didn't expect to catch much as I am usually taking nets down by mid-morning rather than putting them up but with the help of an MP3 lure it proved to be a very productive session. The highlight was, without doubt, a catch of 5 Willow Tits (1 adult and 4 juvs). I had heard one in the distance so I played the 'chey' call on the MP3 player. I thought I may catch it if I was lucky but it was so far away I didn't know if it would even react to the play-back lure. To then catch 5 together was unexpected and certainly unprecedented in terms of number. The nearest potential nesting site is at least 1km away but breeding wasn't confirmed there so these birds could have travelled further.

Juvenile Willow Tit (Poecile montanus)
This site is just in Merseyside and on checking the BTO online Ringing Reports these are potentially the first Willow Tits to have been ringed in that county since 2009 when only 1 was ringed!  In fact only 287 were ringed in the whole of the UK in 2013 such is the scarcity of this species these days!

Willow Tits often rear in the region of 7 to 9 young so the 4 juvs caught probably only represent half of the brood. The remainder of the brood may have been in the area with the other adult as some species split the brood between the parents shortly after fledging. If they were nearby they certainly didn't make themselves known by calling. Alternatively the single adult and 4 juveniles caught could be all that has survived from a breeding attempt with the other adult and young having perished. I may never know but it will be interesting to see how many more Willow Tits I catch at this site over the coming weeks.

The wind dropped almost completely by mid-afternoon and it remained overcast so I relocated to a much more open part of the site to see if I could catch any of the Skylarks or Meadow Pipits that breed there. It seemed a bit of a long shot but I wanted to see if it was possible and to see how the birds reacted to a net. It soon proved to be worthwhile with a Skylark being caught almost immediately followed by 3 Meadow Pipits a little while later. It has been a long time since I have mist-netted adults of these species locally and this site clearly has potential for catching good numbers of both given the right conditions. I will certainly be back to find out, weather permitting of course.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis),
Skylarks are a bit of a handful and this one wasn't keen on being photographed.

Skylarks have an impressive hind claw.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis).

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)
Ringing totals for 17/06/14
Blackcap  2
Chiffchaff  4
Willow Warbler  2
Treecreeper  1
Willow Tit  5
Blue Tit  5
Great Tit  2
Coal Tit  1
Long-tailed Tit 15
Skylark  1
Meadow Pipit  3
Total 41

Sunday 15 June 2014

Willow Tit wanderings

I mentioned signs of juvenile dispersal in my last post having heard Nuthatches well away from their usual breeding haunts. Well it happened again today but this time it was a juvenile Willow Tit, that I first heard and then caught ,at one of my new ringing sites near Upholland. It was at least a couple of kilometres from the nearest suitable breeding habitat if not further. Now that may not seem far but it is still of interest, to me at least.

Note the wing panel formed by the broader warm buff fringes of the secondaries contrasting with the narrower warm buff fringes of the primaries.

This Willow Tit has a white area on the cutting edge of the upper mandible below the nostril. This is often regarded as a feature of Marsh Tit but is clearly present here.

Willow Tits often show a more extensive and untidy bib as can be seen in this bird.
Most juvenile birds don't disperse any distance until they have undergone their post juvenile moult but both Nuthatches and Willow Tits seem to disperse almost as soon as they become independent from their parents and often before post juvenile moult has even started. It must be important for them to move out of the natal area and find potential wintering/breeding habitat as soon as possible and is likely to be a factor in their survival and future breeding prospects. The Willow Tit I caught today certainly wasn't in suitable habitat to survive year round so its wanderings are far from over.

Willow Tits are also interesting because of their similarity to Marsh Tits, so much so that they were not recognised as a separate species until 1897 which is very recent in ornithological terms. In fact separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit remains a current topic for some although the rapid decline of both has removed that concern for many! Now I am not going to give you a complete 'how to' guide here but they do look different even in juvenile plumage and I still think the wing panel is still one of the best and most consistent features for birds in the hand. I have only caught two Marsh Tits compared with what must be hundreds of Willow Tits by now but both Marsh Tits stood out as being that bit different. The second one of my two was in the digital age and is shown below.
Juvenile Marsh Tit, Spurn Bird Observatory. Note the even appearance of the wing and the lack of a distinct wing panel compared to the Willow Tit above. This bird was only the 10th record for the observatory.

Other plumage criteria have recently been put forward to help with the separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in the hand and both look like they may hold true, especially with regard to the colouration of the greater coverts (Broughton,R; BTO Ringing News).

Saturday 14 June 2014


It was a glorious summer's day yesterday and probably the warmest day of the year so far in this part of the country; if we can string enough days like that together it will be a proper summer and possibly one to remember. I had planned to be up early to make the most of the fine weather but despite my best intentions and two alarms I failed miserably. There just isn't the same incentive to get up early now as there is during spring and autumn migration so it was easy to cancel the alarms and enjoy a lie in.

After the late start and with the temperature rising rapidly I grabbed my camera gear and took the dog for a walk. I hadn't gone far when I came across a male Broad-bodied Chaser that tempted me to take more than a few shots. I have loads of good photos of these dragonflies already but I just find them really hard to resist especially when I find one posing. I soon realised there were 3 males on what is a fairly new pond that was built to take surface water from housing estate. They were quite co-operative and kept coming back to perch on favoured rush stems but they were just too fast when it came to trying to get shots in flight.

Male Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa).
Spot the difference; the pictures above are of different individuals
After getting my fill of chasers I turned my attention to the Azure Damselflies that were frequenting the pond margin in some numbers. Many of them were paired up and some were egg laying but there were plenty of unpaired males around and some of these were not averse to trying to interfere with the tandem pairs. I didn't see any of them succeed but as some made repeated attempts it is presumably a strategy that occasionally works or is at least worth trying if you're a single male damselfly.

Single males repeatedly harried this pair.

Three is a crowd. A single male tries to dislodge the hold between this pair.

If you got the right angle there were some good reflections to be had.

Unfortunately this photo isn't in focus but I have included it as it looked like synchronised egg laying. I doubt I will get a photo opportunity like this again.

The balancing pond is only a few years old but it will need managing in the near future to prevent it from getting too overgrown and losing some of its value to wildlife.
I didn't see any other species of damselfly or dragonfly so I continued my walk much to the dog's delight. We didn't get far before I noticed a male Large Skipper that was in pristine condition and had probably only emerged that morning. It was very co-operative as skippers go especially as it was quite hot by that time which also suggested that it was freshly emerged. I have loads of Large Skipper photos too but there was the chance of getting a better background and slightly different angle so the camera shutter was soon clicking away. A little further on I came across a female in similar pristine condition so it was likely a few had emerged that morning, and you've guessed it she got photographed as well.

Male Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)

Male Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)

Female Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)
There wasn't really anything that came into range on the birding front. There were a few Whitethroats singing and Willow Warblers were feeding young but all kept their distance. A Buzzard was being mobbed by a Carrion Crow overhead but too high and into the sun to try and photograph. There was some sign of juvenile dispersal with Nuthatches calling in areas of scrub well away from the nearest breeding haunts. There were plenty of birds about but none that presented a half decent photo opportunity.

I headed back and called in at the pond once more before going home. I had been out for the best part of 4 hours although it hadn't seemed anything like that long. If you are wondering about the post title well it was fairly hot by our standards and the sun was really strong. I always was a bit of a fan of the Fast Show and the weather reminded me of one of their sketches which put scorchio into the urban dictionary. 

Friday 6 June 2014

Incy Wincy and friends.

Recent posts have featured bumblebees and damselflies but it was a different invertebrate that caught my eye today and a very small one at that. I was on one of my regular walks and stopped to scan a field over a stone wall when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed what I took to be plant debris in a spiders web between the top stones. When I looked properly I quickly realised that it wasn't plant debris and that it was ball of young spiders. I hadn't a clue what species they were but I thought I should be able to identify them later given they were bright yellow with dark brown or black markings.

A bundle of fun. Each spider was only about 3mm long if that.

Later in the day I Googled images for 'yellow and black spider UK' and quickly found some similar photographs that revealed them to be the young of the common Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus). This is a very common orb web spider and one I am familiar with in the adult form but I can't say I have ever come across the colourful young spiderlings before. It just goes to show how easy it is to overlook some very common things or how well hidden and unobtrusive they normally are.

Even though ringing hasn't featured recently I have still been busy on that front. I have already ringed 44 Starlings this month to add to the 88 ringed last month which is a good basis for my Starling RAS project and should produce a lot of retraps from the adults next year. I have also ringed a few pulli recently including broods of Skylark, Linnet and Willow Warbler. This morning saw me installing a drinking pool at one of my new sites. This should attract quite a few birds to the site as there are no water courses or ponds nearby but some sustained dry weather would also help.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Bee's Knees

I went out the other afternoon to look for nests but ended up spending most of the time watching bumblebees and trying to photograph them. The area I went to is a former area of derelict land that nature has reclaimed for itself along with a few garden escapes. It has a wonderful display of Lupins (Lupinus polyphyllus) and they were buzzing with a variety of bees. They may not be native plants but they are not invasive like Himalayan Balsam and they look better too. If you want to help bees and attract them into your garden it is well worth planting a few Lupins.

Lupins (Lupinus polyphyllus) growing wild and looking good in a large drift. If I had a very, very large garden this is the sort of herbaceous border I would want.
There were at least 3 or 4 species of bumblebee taking advantage of the Lupins but I only managed to get good photos of 2 species. The most numerous species was the Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius). This is one of the more common species in the UK and is easily recognised by its orange-red tail.

Coming in to land, tongue at the ready.

The orange-red lump on the bee's back leg is pollen that the bee has packed into its pollen basket or corbicula. This is part of the tibia on the hind leg and is used by the bee to transport the pollen it has collected back to the nest.
The other species I manged to get some decent shots of I identified as the Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum). There only appeared to be one or two of these bees and it isn't a species I can say I have really noticed before. Bumblebees are something that we tend to take for granted but they are declining like much of our wildlife so I am going to try and see how many species I can record over the summer. For more information on our bumblebees and bee conservation click here.

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum).