Sunday, 31 August 2014

'trivialis' pursuits

The weather has continued to put a spanner in the works over the last week with showers and blustery conditions restricting opportunities for ringing to just 3 early morning sessions including one this morning. This has really hampered the monitoring of Tree Pipit movements over Billinge for a second week and crucially when autumn passage normally peaks. On the plus side the showers have grounded some nocturnal migrants as can be seen from the ringing totals below.   

A rain curtailed session on the 27th produced 32 new birds and 1 retrap. There was a noticeable arrival of Robins with many heard ticking before first light and 6 were subsequently ringed. Tree Pipits also featured with 4 ringed from the 13 recorded going south. Goldcrests were more vocal than they have been and may have included birds on the move. Ringing totals were (retraps in brackets) - Robin 6, Chaffinch 7, Willow Warbler 5 (1), Chiffchaff 3, Goldcrest 3, Blackcap 1, Tree Pipit 4, Goldfinch 1, Reed Bunting 1, Yellowhammer 1.

The 28th was a quieter day with only 19 birds ringed. The previous day's Robins had moved on and warblers were few and far between. The only Robin caught was of interest because it was still in full juvenile plumage with no sign of post-juvenile moult so must have come from a very late brood. Tree Pipits continued to move in small numbers with another 6 ringed from a total of 9 recorded going south. Other birds going south were 2 Grey Wagtails and a trickle of Meadow Pipits. Ringing totals were - Tree Pipit 6, Chaffinch 4, Bullfinch 1, Chiffchaff 4, Willow Warbler 2, Blackcap 1, Robin 1.

A very late spotty juvenile Robin (Erithacus rubecula).
This morning (31st) was affected by a few brief light showers but saw a marked increase in Willow Warblers with 13 ringed; the only other grounded migrants of note were 2 Redstarts and a few more Robins. Visible migration was fairly limited but included 7 Grey Wagtails, 3 Tree Pipits, at least 35 Meadow Pipits and a trickle of Swallows. The weather brightened up as the morning progressed but so did the breeze and I finally packed up at 12:30 having ringed 50 birds - Grey Wagtail 2, Tree Pipit 1, Meadow Pipit 10, Willow Warbler 13, Chiffchaff 4, Goldcrest 1, Blackcap 1, Whitethroat 1, Redstart 2, Robin 4, Chaffinch 8, Goldfinch 1, Jay 2.

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea).

Adult Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus). A rather pale bird with very little yellow and probably of northern origin.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula). Arrivals of migrant Robins are easily noticed at this site due to the nature of the habitat and limited number of resident birds.

Adult female Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).
The first of the autumn and the first I have caught locally.

Juvenile Male Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).
Caught in the same net round as the female above.

Juvenile Male Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).

Adult Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis). The only bird caught today but it brought the total ringed during the month to 51. This total would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

Adult Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis).
The weather is set to improve next week and it will be interesting to see what impact this has on Tree Pipit movements. If a significant number of birds have delayed their migration due to the unsettled conditions it should become apparent over the next few days. Upsurge in numbers or not I will be sure to let you know in due course.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The lure of Tree Pipits.

I have been really frustrated by the weather over the past week or so to put it mildly. Just as we were getting into the peak migration period for Tree Pipits the weather pattern changed and low pressure dominated bringing wetter and windier conditions. Unfortunately this part of the country has been dogged by frequent showers coming in off Liverpool Bay on a stiff north westerly wind with the showers being most frequent in the mornings. When the showers have cleared it has generally been far too windy and too late in the day to contemplate any ringing. However, I have done what I can and even gone ringing for very short periods between the showers on some of the calmer mornings. On the plus side some of these outings have resulted in good catches of Willow Warblers that were grounded by the showers.

Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) and number of Tree Pipits recorded:

15th - Linnet 14, Willow Warbler 10 (1), Chiffchaff 3, Blackcap 1, Bullfinch 2, Chaffinch 2, Reed Bunting 1, Tree Pipit 3. At least 11 Tree Pipits were recorded heading south.

16th - Willow Warbler 13, Whitethroat 3, Linnet 2, Goldfinch 3, Robin 1, WillowTit 1. No Tree Pipits ringed but 3 went south.

20th - Willow Warbler 13, Goldcrest 1, Tree Pipit 2. A total of 4 Tree Pipits seen in this very brief ringing session.

21st - Willow Warbler 4, Chiffchaff 3, Goldfinch 1, Robin 1. At least 7 Tree Pipits went south but none were caught.

22nd - Willow Warbler 4, Chiffchaff 2 (1), Goldcrest 2, Garden Warbler 1, Sedge Warbler 1, Jay 1, Chaffinch 2, Tree Pipit 3, A total of 7 Tree Pipits recorded.

With 8 Tree Pipits ringed from a minimum of 32 recorded it is clear that many have pushed through despite the unpromising wind direction and very showery conditions. Had the weather been more favourable it is likely that the number of Tree Pipits seen and ringed would have been higher. Having said that another 8 Tree Pipits ringed from a total of 32 recorded is still a significant number for the county, never mind one site. It will certainly change the status of Tree Pipits as a migrant in this area, especially when the previous catches and sightings are taken into consideration.

The only glimmer of hope in the weather forecasts for drier and calmer conditions was with a ridge of high pressure that was due to sit over the country today (24th). Fortunately the forecast came good and I was out well before first light to make the most of it. Today was either going to be a day of delight or a day of disappointment but as it turned out it was somewhere in between. The Tree Pipit floodgates didn't open as I had hoped they would and there was little in the way of visible migration despite the seemingly good conditions. Two Grey Wagtails went south but other than that it was just the occasional Tree Pipit and I mean occasional. A total of 8 Tree Pipits were logged up to 11am, when I packed up, and 5 of those were caught and ringed which is good but just not as good as I had hoped given the conditions.

A stunning adult Tree Pipit.

The only juvenile Tree Pipit caught today. The median coverts on this individual are old juvenile feathers having paler fringes with no olive tones.
It has only taken me a little under 3 weeks to go from being delighted with 1 Tree Pipit to expecting to catch them in double figures but that is how things have gone. I have now ringed 40 Tree Pipits since 4th August which is a phenomenal number all things considered and there could still be some good catches to come. Surprisingly 4 of the 5 Tree Pipits caught today were adults and it will be interesting to see what the proportion of adults to juvs looks like at the end of the autumn.

Most of the adult Tree Pipits were only just finishing their moult and had some remnants of feather sheath at the base of the 2nd primary.
And another stunning adult Tree Pipit.
The morning ended with 24 birds ringed as follows: Tree Pipit 5, Meadow Pipit 1, Willow Warbler 5, Chiffchaff 5, Whitethroat 1, Blackcap 1, Chaffinch 3, Coal Tit 1, Reed Bunting 1 and Nuthatch 1.

Juvenile Meadow Pipit

Willow Warbler


Female Nuthatch and the first I have ringed at this site although they are common in mature woods nearby.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Seeing red: yet another post on sexing Goldfinches.

I have caught a few more adult Goldfinches in recent weeks and this has allowed me to add to my collection of photographs of known sex birds. I now have a much better understanding of the variation in the plumage features that are normally used to sex Goldfinches. Although the sample size isn't very big, only 14 birds made up of 9 males and 5 females, it should be reasonably representative of the population as a whole. All of these birds had their sex confirmed by the presence of a good incubation patch  for females and the shape/size of the cloaca for males.

These birds clearly show that there is much more overlap in the extent of the red face mask than is usually described in sexing guides and more than I had shown in my previous posts on this subject. The 14 birds caught this summer have taught me more than the 400+ caught during the autumn and first half of last winter. Four of the five females in my sample had red that extended well beyond the eye and equalled or exceeded that of some of the confirmed males. With that in mind lets have a look at some of the most recent photos. What sex do you think these birds are? - the answers are further down this post.

The colour of the mask varies quite a bit from an orange red through red to a rich crimson but both sexes display the same variation in colour so there is no help there. The colour of the nasal hairs can help but some females have dark grey or blackish nasal hairs like males. Just to confuse matters both males and females frequently have a fringe of white feathers or white tipped feathers at the front of the crown and these shouldn't be mistaken for nasal hairs although it is easy to be distracted by them.

Before I tell you the sexes of the birds shown in the pictures above lets have a look at a photo of a female that fits the description in most guides. In my experience females that look like this seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

If all female Goldfinches looked like this sexing them would be fairly straightforward but unfortunately they are not.

1. male
2. male
3. female
4. male
5. male
6. male
7. female
8. female

I hope you find these photos as useful as I have. The stand out birds for me are the female in photo 3 and the males in photos 4 and 5. The photos show that there is more overlap in the extent of the red mask than is often appreciated and described in ageing and sexing guides. In fact there is probably less overlap in the appearance of the lesser coverts compared to all the other features with most females displaying a brown shoulder patch.

Outside the breeding season quite a large proportion of birds will always be difficult to sex with any degree of certainty, even when using every criteria, and I hope my posts and numerous photos have gone some way to show that. Just don't focus on red mask and let that influence you too much as it could just point you in the wrong direction.  And finally the female in photo 3 also had 3 sub-terminal white tail spots dispelling the myth that only males have 3.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Tree-mendous morning

The wet and windy weather of the past few days has really put the brakes on migration and also on any ringing. I have been itching to get out to see if any Tree Pipits would be on the move when the conditions improved and that opportunity finally came this morning. I was up at 4:30 and had 3 nets up by sunrise. It seemed fairly quiet at first and there didn't seem to be many warblers in the bushes, only the odd Willow Warbler flitting about and a few Whitethroats in their favourite area of bramble.

The first round of the nets produced a few birds including a Tree Pipit even though I hadn't heard any go over. Willow Warblers started to appear here, there and everywhere and a good number must have dropped in shortly after sunrise and over the next hour or so. Shower clouds and the odd light sprinkle of rain presumably causing this small fall of at least 50 warblers. Although conditions were reasonable there didn't seem to be any visible migration to speak of but Tree Pipits kept dropping in having been attracted by the playback lure. A steady stream of birds were caught and kept me busy until about 11am when I packed up, just as a band of heavy showers moved in.

The ringing totals for the morning set new records for the site for both Tree Pipit and Willow Warbler with 13 and 30 respectively. The 13 Tree Pipits is another remarkable catch and shows how many must go over unnoticed. I certainly didn't catch all the Tree Pipits that were attracted to the nets and a minimum of 15 to 20 birds were involved. Had I not been ringing I think I would have only recorded 3 or 4 of the Tree Pipits at most as they only seem to call very intermittently and many probably pass over the site without calling in earshot. The Willow Warbler catch was interesting as one third of the birds were adults and there wasn't a single retrap from any of the previous sessions which also indicated it was a fresh arrival of birds from elsewhere. In direct contrast 3 of the 7 Chiffchaffs caught were retraps from previous visits.

All in all it was a great morning and it revealed more new information on the timing and volume of Tree Pipit migration through the area. The weather is looking favourable for tomorrow, although the wind is moving round to a more northerly direction, so it will be interesting to see if Tree Pipits continue to move in similar numbers.

I didn't have any time to take photographs for most of this morning but I couldn't resist grabbing a picture of the last Tree Pipit caught.
Ringing Totals for 14/08/14 with retraps in brackets:
Tree Pipit 13
Willow Warbler 30
Chiffchaff 4 (3)
Blackcap 5
Whitethroat 1
Goldcrest (1)
Chaffinch 7
Goldfinch 3
Linnet 2
Robin 1
Blackbird 1
Total 67 (4)

Friday, 8 August 2014

One, two, Tree,............ eleven Pipits

I was back at Billinge just after sunrise this morning and the forecast was bob on, a light east to south easterly breeze and full high cloud cover forming a milky sky. I tried a new net configuration and set out to try and catch more Tree Pipits if any were passing over. I had checked various reports last night to see when peak passage of Tree Pipits occurs in autumn and the likes of Bardsey Island Bird Observatory usually records a peak in the second half of August. As the breeding season has been a little earlier this year I suspected the peak movement may be a little earlier too so I thought today may be a good time to start testing this out.

The first couple of net rounds were really disappointing as no birds were caught, zero, nothing, a complete blank. It seemed the clear skies in the early part of last night had resulted in quite a clear out of warblers as few were calling from the bushes. At 07:00 I heard the first Tree Pipit going over but on the next net round only a Willow Warbler and a Yellowhammer were caught so it looked like I wouldn't be catching very much at all. However the following net round produced 2 Tree Pipits, a Willow Warbler and a feisty juvenile male Sparrowhawk. After that it got even better with 4 Tree Pipits caught in one net and another 3 walking around underneath. The flurry of Tree Pipits continued and by 09:15 a total of 11 had been ringed from an estimated 15 to 20 seen, a very good day total in anybody's book and in many county reports too.

Tree Pipit. Only a few hundred full grown Tree Pipits are ringed in the UK each year.
See online ringing reports here.
Tree Pipit (Anthus trivalis).
You could get really bored of seeing pictures of these birds if the rest of the month is as productive as I hope it is.
Juvenile male Sparrowhawk.
Juvenile Whitethroat, one of only a few warblers that were around.
If you had not already guessed I have become really hooked on Tree Pipits after today's success and following the 2 ringed earlier this week. Will today's total be repeated or even bettered over the remainder of the month? Have numbers peaked already? There is only one way to find out.....................

Ringing totals for 08/08/14 with retraps in brackets:
Tree Pipit 11
Whitethroat 3
Willow Warbler 2
Chiffchaff 1
Long-tailed Tit 3 (2)
Chaffinch 1
Yellowhammer 1
Sparrowhawk 1
Goldfinch (1)
Total 23 (3)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Forecast failure

The forecast for this morning was perfect - calm at dawn followed by a very light west to northwesterly breeze, decreasing cloud cover and no rain. When I got it up it was certainly calm but the leaden skies suggested some rain was possible. I decided to get ready anyway and just hoped the cloud would thin and break up. I headed off to Billinge and soon had a couple of nets up but I hadn't been there long before I felt the first few drops of rain. It didn't amount to much and soon stopped but the sky remained threatening. I carried on ringing, keeping a wary eye on the sky, knowing I could close the nets and pack up quickly should I need to.

The catching rate was slow in the dreary conditions but a trickle of Willow Warblers found their way into the nets and it was clear there were a few more around than there had been on my last visit but very little else. Odd spots of rain and brief light showers continued on and off  but a Tree Pipit arrived and was caught despite the unpromising conditions for such diurnal migrants. I decided to pack up early when more prolonged showers threatened but not before a Lesser Whitethroat was caught, my first of the autumn, and a stunner to boot. The forecast may have let me down but the birds didn't.

A freshly moulted adult Willow Warbler.
The second Tree Pipit for the site and hot on the heels of the first. I didn't notice with the first but Tree Pipits have really big eyes relative to the size of their head.
Lesser Whitethroat.
A scarce breeder and passage migrant in this area. This is the first I have ringed this year and is potentially a new species for the site.
Lesser Whitethroat, so good looking I had to show it twice.
Ringing Totals for 07/08/14 with retraps in brackets
Willow Warbler 10 (1)
Chiffchaff 1
Blackcap 1
Lesser Whitethroat 1
Linnet 3
Great Tit 2
Coal Tit 1
Long-tailed Tit 1
Robin 1
Tree Pipit 1
Total 22 (1)

Monday, 4 August 2014


I was keen to get back to Billinge this morning to see if the unsettled weather of the past few days had left any grounded migrants and to see if the return to clearer conditions would prompt a bit of passage.  A few Willow Warblers were calling on my arrival along with the odd Blackcap and Whitethroat but other than that it seemed fairly quiet in terms of warblers and somewhat similar to my last visit in that regard. I set up two 18m nets, one in the usual ride and another in a new net ride and initially set an MP3 lure playing Linnet.

Linnets and Goldfinches were blogging about as usual and a few were soon caught. There wasn't any indication of birds moving south until a couple of Meadow Pipits went through so I decided to play Meadow Pipit song on the MP3 player on the off chance that a few others may fly over. The next two birds heard and seen going south were actually Tree Pipits; always good birds to see around here and my first of this autumn. No more Meadow Pipits passed overhead but a few of the locally bred juveniles appeared from the adjacent grassland and 4 were caught. This bodes well for when Meadow Pipit passage does get into full swing next month.

Even though the Tree Pipits had long gone I decided to play the song anyway and on the next net round a Tree Pipit was found in the net. I assume this was a different bird but there is also a possibility that one of the birds seen flying over had U-turned and come down to feed. Whatever the circumstances it is the first Tree Pipit I have caught locally in a great many years and another good bird to add to the site's ringing list.

Pink legs and a short hind claw.

Tree Pipit, a fairly uncommon passage migrant in this area.
Ringing Totals (retraps and controls in brackets):
Linnet 7
Greenfinch 7
Goldfinch 5
Willow Warbler 4 (3)
Blackcap 4 (1 control)
Whitethroat 2
Chiffchaff 1
Long-tailed Tit 1
Reed Bunting 1
Meadow Pipit 4
Tree Pipit 1
Total 37 (3 retraps and 1 control)

If the wind drops this evening I may go back to see if any Swallows come into roost so there could be a late evening update.

Evening update
The wind dropped as forecast so I went back at 7pm and set up 2 nets. I played Linnet song on the lure initially which proved to be worthwhile as another 14 new Linnets were caught bringing the day's total to 21. I switched the MP3 player to Swallow as sunset approached but none came in to roost. A few Swallows did pass over and and 2 came down to investigate the lure and were caught but that was it. I didn't catch a single warbler which was unusual and suggested some had cleared out since I was there this morning. Still it was a worthwhile outing as I learned a bit more about the site and another 16 birds were ringed. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

July ends in fine style.

I finished off the month the way I started it with an evening ringing session at Billinge. I set up the usual 2 nets in what were near perfect conditions - pleasantly warm, overcast and just a light breeze. The first check of the nets didn't produce a single bird and it soon became apparent that most of the warblers that were around previously had moved on and they hadn't been replaced by others moving in. There were a few warblers around but nothing like the numbers there had been. I wasn't sure if any Swallows would come in to roost either or if they had moved on too but I decided to stick it out anyway. I am certainly glad that I did as around 150 Swallow gathered along with a few House Martins and 35 of the former were caught.

Juvenile Swallow.
Swallows topped the ringing totals for the day and the month.

As I was extracting the last few Swallows a large bird hit the net just above my head and when I looked up a Tawny Owl was looking back at me. My reflexes kicked in and I quickly got hold of it and extracted it from the net before it had the chance to escape. Large birds can get out of small mesh nets quite easily so I was lucky that it went into the net so close to me. The evening ended with 50 new birds ringed and 5 retraps.

Juvenile Tawny Owl.

Juvenile Tawny Owl.
This is the first full grown Tawny Owl I have caught and ringed in a long time.
Ringing Totals for 31/07/14 with retraps in brackets.
Swallow 35
Linnet 7
Willow Warbler 4 (5)
Chiffchaff 1
Blackbird 1
Robin 1
Tawny Owl 1
Total 50 (5)

This July has been one of the best I have known and has a ringing total to match. I don't usually post monthly ringing totals but 826 birds ringed of 30 species is worth a mention. Top 5 in terms of number ringed were:
Swallow 426
Willow Warbler 93
Chiffchaff 54
Linnet 50
Goldfinch 46

The weather is forecast to be unsettled for the next few days so it could be early next week before I get August's ringing totals started.