Monday 30 March 2015

Slow going

I am getting bored with this weather as we seem to be stuck between seasons with winter not quite releasing its grip and spring not having the oomph of some southerly airflow to really get going. If we are unlucky it could drag on like this for some time with migration continuing at a slow pace but if we get some decent conditions there is likely to be a sudden rush of summer visitors. Unfortunately the forecast doesn't look too promising although we should have a brief respite this Thursday and hopefully a few migrants on the back of it.

I have only ringed one Chiffchaff since my last post and they are still fairly thin on the ground or absent from my sites. A wintering male Blackcap is still visiting the feeders in the garden each day and I am almost certain it is the bird that was ringed there on 10th January. A second male also makes an occasional appearance and I suspect this is the other male I ringed in January rather than a newly arrived spring migrant.

Chiffchaff ringed 25/03/15
Blackcap in the garden 28/03/15 and the same bird was still present today. I have partially read the ring number from photographs and I am fairly confident it is the bird I ringed in the garden on 10th January and first appeared in the garden on 1st January.
On the plus side I did find my first nest of the spring today. I was watching the ringed Blackcap on a feeder when I noticed a female Blackbird leave the privet hedge below. I had seen one carrying nesting material in that area the other week so went out to have a look. I soon spotted the nest containing at least 3 eggs but I rushed back in the house to get the camera rather than counting them there and then. I was only inside for less than a minute but when I got back to the nest the Blackbird had returned and was sat tight. I didn't want to disturb her so I will have to count the clutch another day.

The privet hedge has a lot of ivy growing through it and the bird has picked a location where a lot of debris from cuttings builds up in the hedge.
..........and a closer view from the same angle.
Unfortunately the chances of this nest being successful are very low. The nest is only a couple of feet off the ground and cats are not infrequent visitors to the garden. Blackbirds usually hatch their eggs but their problems really start when the young are well grown and start to get noisy. Cats generally find the nest at this stage and cause the young to leave prematurely. They either kill them all then or they pick them off over the next day or so. If they are really lucky the odd youngster survives. I do my best to protect nests and have used wire mesh to try and keep the cats at bay in the past but it doesn't always work. If the Blackbirds nested at a higher level it would improve their chances but they rarely do so despite the availability of suitable sites.

Beauty before age

A couple of recoveries came through recently that are worth mentioning:

A Goldfinch ringed in the garden on 09/12/2013 was controlled by ringers in West Tofts, Norfolk almost a year later on 24/11/2014. These attractive finches are variable migrants and move more in some years than others. The increasing provision of nyger seed and sunflower hearts is probably also playing a part in influencing when and how far birds move these days.

The other recovery was of a Canada Goose that I ringed at Pennington Flash, Leigh and was recovered 19 km to the east on the river Irwell in Salford. The interesting aspect of this recovery was the bird's age rather than the movement. I had ringed it as an adult on 07/08/1995 and it was controlled on 01/12/2014 some 19 years, 3 months and 25 days later and was still going strong. As it was an adult when it was ringed it was at least a year old then and could possibly have been much older so we can safely say it is over 20 years old. Although that may seem a good age it falls well short of the longevity record for Canada Goose which stands at 31 years 10 months and 29 days and was set in 2007 (BTO Online Ringing Reports).

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Dribs and Drabs

It has been fairly slow going on the migration front around here with the likes of Chiffchaff still being fairly thin on the ground. The northerly component of the airflow over recent days seems to be holding birds up to some degree and it has certainly taken the edge off my enthusiasm to be out and about looking for migrants. The garden has also been quiet but two wintering Blackcaps continue to visit to feed on apples and fat cakes and don't seem to be in too much of a hurry to move on at the moment. 

While I have not been out birding as much I have been running a moth trap in the garden each night since the beginning of the month. I haven't mentioned this in previous posts as there has not been much to report so far this spring. Catches have been fairly small which is to be expected with temperatures often dropping to around freezing and variety has been largely limited to the 3 usual suspects for this time of year - Common Quaker, Hebrew Character and Clouded Drab.

Left to right - Common Quaker, Hebrew Character and Clouded Drab.
After another cold night I didn't expect the moth trap to produce anything different this morning so I was pleasantly surprised to find a Twin-spotted Quaker and an Oak Beauty in addition to the usuals mentioned above.

Twin-spotted Quaker

Oak Beauty and beauty it is.
For a moment I also thought I had caught a Lead-coloured Drab which would have been a new species for the garden but I quickly realised it was just one of the many colour forms of Clouded Drab.

Clouded Drab. This species is very variable and darker forms like the example in the first image are more common in my garden.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Up with the lark

I had to scrape frost off the car this morning before heading up to Billinge for a dawn start. I was hoping a few migrants had dropped in overnight and that there would be some visible migration but I soon realised there was very little of either. I didn't hear or see a single Chiffchaff and the gin clear skies were largely devoid of passage migrants. I took the nets down that that I had put up in the scrub and turned my attention to the many Skylarks that were chasing each other around in the adjacent grassland.

The Skylarks haven't started nesting yet but are in the process of pairing up and sorting out territories. There is quite a dense population at this site and there is clearly a lot of competition for the prime areas. I watched them for a while and decided to try a single panel net where several had been repeatedly chasing each other low over the ground. Skylarks are not easy to catch in mist-nets but a scattering of low willow saplings in this area helped give some background to the net.

I sat back at a discrete distance to watch and while I was waiting I noticed a male Wheatear, my first of the year, perched in the top of a willow beyond the net. It didn't hang around though and quickly moved on. There wasn't much moving overhead apart from large gulls (mainly Lesser Black-backs) with some moving north towards breeding sites and others moving in the opposite direction towards the nearest landfill sites. I did have 76 Starlings go south-east, 5 Redwings north and a single stratospheric Siskin was heard but that was about it otherwise. My attention quickly turned back to the net when one of the Skylarks headed straight for it and went in, much to my delight. 

Only 147 full grown Skylarks were ringed in the UK in 2013 and in some other years it has been less than that so ringing one counts as a success for me. To give it some context I would have to catch about 485 Blue Tits to ring an equivalent proportion of the national total of that species.

There was so much Skylark activity I thought I would try another spot and I quickly caught a second bird. Third time I was not so lucky and I decided to call it a day at that but I think there is scope to improve my technique and try again before they finally settle down to nest. It is a shame they are not easier to catch as they are a species that would benefit from further study.

It is not often that ringing two birds counts as a good morning's effort but this was one of those occasions. 

Sunday 15 March 2015

Orrell Water Park 15/03/15

Went for a walk with the dog late this morning and I had only just got into the park when a site tick swam by me on the top lake. It wasn't anything you would call rare but it still stopped me in my tracks as I knew I had not seen one there in 30 years of watching the site. It was a very out of place looking female Shoveler. The two small lakes in Orrell Water Park are home to a motley selection of Mallard and domesticated hybrids and not a great deal else in terms of duck species so this Shoveler was more than a bit of a surprise.

I am not into keeping lists but it is always good to see a new species on a local patch.
A little further on I thought I glimpsed my first Chiffchaff of the year but it disappeared before I could get my bins on it and even though I watched for a while it didn't reappear. I continued my walk but didn't get far as someone was pigeon shooting on the fields nearby and my dog just flips when he hears any loud bangs. He is a rescue dog, twice over, and has a few issues to say the least so I decided to head back. A Chiffchaff was now showing where I thought I had glimpsed one earlier and it was obviously a recent arrival from warmer climes as the feathers around the bill were matted into 'pollen horns'. It was busily and quietly feeding and didn't call once or break into song.

Welcome to the UK the land of discarded drinks cans, crisp packets and all manner of discarded objects. Littering is getting worse in the UK and has apparently gone up by a staggering 500% since 1960 and now costs more than £1bn to clear up and we don't do that very well. Just think what else you could do with £1bn+.
There should be plenty more to follow this one in the next few days.
While I was trying to get a half decent photo of the Chiffchaff a Water Rail taunted me with fleeting views. It is one of those birds that can show annoyingly well if you don't have a camera with you. It probably won't be around much longer as it is only a winter visitor to a small patch of reeds at this site. 

This was the best view I got and I suppose it isn't bad given how secretive they can be. 
Not a bad little selection of birds for a curtailed dog walk on my local patch.

Friday 13 March 2015


It has been fairly quiet since my last post and the much anticipated arrival of early summer migrants has yet to happen in my neck of the woods. Having said that there have been a few Stonechats moving through the area in common with many coastal sites. A friend saw a party of 4 not far from my site at Billinge on the 8th and I came across a nice male there this afternoon.

I had my ringing gear with me including a couple of spring traps and a fresh supply of Waxworms. I set up one of the traps and baited it with a Waxworm and the Stonechat came to it almost immediately. Unfortunately the Stonechat managed to remove and eat the Waxworm without triggering the trap. The bird stayed feeding nearby so I decided to give it another go and I baited the trap again.

While I was waiting for the Stonechat to make its way down the fence line towards the trap I could see there were 3 Robins feeding on the ground in the same area. This looked a bit unusual as most Robins are in pairs now and not very tolerant of others in their territory so it made me wonder if these 3 could be migrants. They certainly weren't behaving like local breeding birds and were clearly intent on feeding up like the Stonechat. I thought one of the Robins may trigger the trap first but the Stonechat beat them to it and this time it was safely caught.

The 2 outermost greater coverts were slightly paler and browner than the remainder making it a first year bird.
Stonechats are fairly regular passage migrants in very small numbers at Billinge especially when the population is high. They had a really good breeding season in common with many birds last year and it looks like overwinter survival has been pretty good too.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Waxwing lyrical part 45 - Unexpected departure.

The Waxwing was not seen at all yesterday or so far today and it appears the bird has moved on. There is also the possibility that she has been predated or met some other fate but I prefer to think that it has started the long return migration to the breeding grounds in north eastern Fenno-Scandinavia or Siberia. This departure was a little sooner than I had expected but then her arrival was not expected at all so what do I know. There was a clear sky yesterday evening so the conditions were potentially suitable for a nocturnal departure if that is what Waxwings do.

This was one of the last photos taken on 01/03/15. Gone but never to be forgotten.
Despite extensive searching I have not been able to find any references to Waxwings being described as nocturnal migrants but I assume they are or perhaps I should say have that ability. The reality is probably quite complicated with Waxwings having the flexibility to migrate by day or by night but I suspect that long distance movements are mainly undertaken at night. If anyone can point me to any published information on nocturnal v diurnal movements of Waxwings in spring or autumn then please let me know.

It is back to normal birding in the garden but I will continue to put out a few apples for a while as I still have a wintering Blackcap and other species take advantage of them occasionally. The Grey Wagtail still visits the garden and looks particularly scruffy at the moment as it is undertaking its partial winter moult. Up to 20 Goldfinches continue to visit the feeders each day but Siskins are conspicuous by their absence. This appears to be due to a bumper crop of Sitka Spruce seeds which may mean an absence of Siskins from our gardens but should result in an early and bumper breeding season for them.

Despite the regular supply of apples this was the first time I recorded a Song Thrush feeding on them this winter. My garden Song Thrushes prefer to feed on the meal worm laced fat cakes.

This Grey Wagtail is undergoing an extensive partial moult. Some tertials were in the process of being replaced, some feathers are in pin on the head and new yellow feathers can be seen coming through on the breast. This photo also reminds me that I need to start cutting the lawn.

Just a few of the Goldfinches in the garden 01/03/15.
So Waxwing lyrical posts will go back on hold again, but just for how long this time is anybody's guess. We are probably due a Waxwing winter and autumn 2015 may well see the next big irruption.