Sunday, 28 February 2016

Weekend highlights including more yellow delights

It has been just over a month since I last did any ringing at Crawford so I was pleased to be able to get out there yesterday morning. I had tailed off the supply of feed towards the end of January due to the wet and windy weather and a lack of birds but I decided to give it another go as it can be a good site for finches in spring. The weather was near perfect and provided the first opportunity for a ringing session since the resumption of feeding so I was there at dawn and set the usual 3 nets (a total of 36m) near the feeders.

The were more Blackbirds and Song Thrushes around than expected although that was probably due to the large crop of berries on the ivy that almost covers large parts of the hedges. The Goldcrest was interesting in that it looked like a continental bird and it may already be starting to edge its way back towards the breeding grounds. Otherwise the catch was pretty much as expected given I've only been putting out food for a little over a week.

Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) were: Blackbird 6 (4); Song Thrush 2 (1); Dunnock 1; Greenfinch 1; Goldfinch 10; Chaffinch 3; Tree Sparrow 2; Great Tit 1 (1); Blue Tit 1 (1); Coal Tit 1; Goldcrest 1. A total of 29 new birds and 7 retraps.

Adult female Blackbird
Song Thrush, also an adult.
On getting home I was greeted by a soundscape of Siskins. There were at least a dozen in the garden and many more chattering in the trees across the road. After making some lunch (or dinner as us northerners call the midday meal) I spent much of the afternoon watching the birds in the garden with the camera at the ready. The garden was buzzing with Siskins and it doesn't seem to matter how many feeders you provide there will still be some scrapping over one particular feeder, even when others are available.

Scrapping Siskins.
The female on the left was the bird that flew in and sparked the interaction with the two males.

Such a large and noisy gathering was bound to attract the interest of a predator sooner or later and a sudden silence with birds darting off in all directions or diving into the privet hedge was a sure sign that a Sparrowhawk had just made an attack. I couldn't see it at first but then is flew across the garden and landed on the privet hedge although my view was obscured by branches from the rowan tree. It had obviously failed to catch anything with the first attack and had gone to the privet hedge to see if any of the hiding birds would break cover.

This adult male Sparrowhawk has probably learned that there is little chance of getting a bird to break cover from such a dense hedge but it probably couldn't help having a little look on the off chance. I have seen young male Sparrowhawks waste time and energy running up and down the hedge and flipping from one side to the other in an attempt to flush hiding birds.

It knows there is something in there and it could have been the Belgian-ringed Blackcap as it often comes out to feed from that part of the hedge.
The Belgian-ringed Blackcap photographed earlier in the afternoon. It has been recorded nearly every day since the first sighting on 17th January.
Seeing so many Siskins in the garden yesterday tempted me to try another short ringing session this morning although I thought there may be a fair proportion of retraps judging by the number of ringed birds I had seen. I set the usual 6m net at first light and waited for the first birds to arrive. At least 30 Siskins gathered in the trees across the road before any came down to the feeders. The first net round produced 8 Siskins and a Robin and there wasn't a retrap amongst them. The final totals (retraps in brackets) for a session that lasted a little more than an hour were: Robin 2; Great Tit (1); Siskin 14 (3). The low proportion of retrap Siskins was a bit of a surprise and the total number of Siskins ringed in the garden since late January now stands at 72 with 37 of them having been ringed in the past 5 days. Not bad for a small front garden and on a par with previous good Siskin years.

A cracking adult male Siskin but then is there any other kind.
Interestingly the number of Goldfinches has decreased even though there is no shortage of food or feeders in the garden. It may indicate that some have started to disperse or migrate and or they could have shifted their diet and be spending more time feeding on alder seeds and the developing flower buds of trees and bushes.
All in all not a bad weekend.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Fair weather birding

Today has been a thoroughly nice day. It started with a very brief ringing session in the garden that produced 8 new and 4 retrap Siskins but only 1 new Goldfinch. I then went for a walk around Orrell Water Park to make the most of the glorious weather and got a few nice photos in the process.

It was interesting to see the German-ringed Black-headed Gull now that it is close to having a full brown hood.

Hood development of the German ringed Black-headed Gull IA141745.
It is a shame I didn't photograph it in early February

I nearly missed the drake Mandarin asleep on the bank.

Although the Water Rail showed well it was often partially obscured by vegetation or was in the shade as in this photo.
Eventually I got some photos in better light.
That long bill is being put to good use again but they will also push the whole of the head under water if they need to. The eye isn't clear in this photo because it is covered by the nictitating membrane which is used to protect the eye whilst maintaining some vision at the same time. It mainly seemed to be finding and eating caddisfly larvae.

Birds are accustomed to people putting seed on the top of the fence and quickly respond to any fresh handouts. I managed to get part of this male Reed Bunting's ring number and it is from a sequence that was used between 4 and 6 years ago. It wasn't ringed in the park but it could have been ringed at the nearby Longshaw site.

Female Yellowhammer.
Yellowhammers only take advantage of this food source in late winter and early spring and sometimes allow fairly close approach.

Male Yellowhammer

Male Yellowhammer
I hadn't seen Moorhens feeding on the fence top before today.

The fine weather stimulated many birds to sing and this Robins was in fine voice.

The Mandarin was out on the water when I was making my way back home.

I am not sure how long this Great Crested Grebe has been sitting but I think it has been at least a couple of weeks. 

When I got home I checked through the Siskins that were feeding in the garden and most were unringed. I never see more than about a dozen in the garden at any one time but there could be as many as 30 or 40 that come to the feeders over the course of a day.

Unringed male Siskin

To cap off a good day the Belgian-ringed Blackcap showed well in the late afternoon. 
It spent more time feeding on the ground than it usually does and was eating the scraps that fall from the sunflower heart feeders and fat cakes.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

A bit of garden ringing

I haven't been up to much in the last week as I've succumbed to a throat and chest infection that has proved to be far worse and harder to shift than the 3 or 4 day snot-fest that typifies my usual version man flu. A tight chest and the urge to cough up my lungs ensured I was up at first light yesterday morning so I decided to put up the usual 6m net in the garden as there was only a very light breeze. Moving around in the cold air actually did me a power of good and helped ease some of my symptoms, if only for a short time.

I didn't have the net up for long but I managed to catch a respectable 25 new birds and 2 retraps. Totals (retraps in brackets) were: Siskin 12; Goldfinch 7 (1); House Sparrow 3; Robin 1 (1); Song Thrush 1. Siskins were the main target and the lack of retraps shows that turnover is increasing as is to be expected with this species at this time of year. The 3 House Sparrows were the biggest surprise and are the first to be ringed in the garden this year! House Sparrows continue to decline in this area and have become irregular visitors to the garden despite the variety of food on offer.

Two of the 7 feeders that are dotted around the garden.
Messy eaters.
Sunflower hearts are often advertised as a no mess seed but both Siskins and Goldfinches leave a lot of waste when feeding on them in a garden setting. Most of the wastage is at the feeders rather than the bird table as they frequently drop seeds when removing the outer skin so simply take another. Around half of the sunflower hearts put in the feeders can end up on the ground and there aren't enough ground feeding species to clear it all up.
Male Siskin . 
Female Siskin.

House Sparrows are garden scarcity now and seem destined to become a garden rarity. They just don't seem to be able to rear enough young to sustain their population.
Goldfinches on the other hand still seem to be on the increase and are clearly benefiting from garden feeding.
Who is watching who.
The Belgian-ringed Blackcap appeared after the net had been taken down but I got enough photos to confirm the ring number again. I have heard it uttering some reasonably loud sub-song recently and on one occasion it did this in dull drizzly conditions and not sunny weather as you might expect.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

An unexpected recovery

As a general rule the more birds you ring of a particular species the greater the chance there is of one or more being recovered (found elsewhere) and larger species tend to have higher recovery rates than the smaller ones. While that is the way things average out over time at the national level it doesn't always work out that way in practice for individual ringers or ringing groups.

Last year I ringed 746 warblers at Billinge with the majority being Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers with totals of 269 and 256 respectively and Blackcap came in third place with a respectable 173 ringed. Statistically there was a reasonable chance that one or more birds from those top 3 ringed species of warbler would have been recovered by now but, disappointingly, not a single one has been reported so far.

At the other end of the numbers scale I ring very few Sedge Warblers at Billinge as it is a dry habitat on the side of a hill with no Sedge Warbler breeding sites close by. They only occur as a very scarce passage migrant as a result and only 6 were ringed in 2015. All were caught in the autumn between 22nd July and 11th August with 5 being first year birds and 1 an adult. So when I received a recovery report for one of these Sedge Warblers from the BTO the other day it was more than a little unexpected, to say the least.

Sedge Warbler Z680292 was a first year bird ringed at Billinge on 07/08/2015 and was controlled 679 km SSE in Noyant, Soulaire-et-Bourg, Maine-et-Loire France on 15/08/2015. This is a fairly quick movement averaging at just under 85 km per day although it is likely that the bird covered the 679 km in a couple of overnight flights with a refuelling stop in between.

Not the bird in question but one of the other first year Sedge Warblers ringed at Billinge last autumn.
The vagaries of recoveries and recovery rates can be a frustration for ringers especially when you don't get any recoveries from ringing large numbers of a particular species but just occasionally things work out the other way, as in this case.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Short and sweet

Much improved and calm weather allowed me to get a net up in the garden early this morning, although I did have to wait for a shower to pass through just after dawn. There was quite a chorus of chattering Siskins and Goldfinches waiting to come down to the feeders as I put up the 6m net and I only had to wait a few minutes before the first 8 birds were caught. These were duly extracted and ringed by which time the next batch were ready to be extracted. A busy hour produced 21 new birds and 3 retraps as follows: Siskin 12 (1); Goldfinch 8 (1), Blackbird 1 (1). I took the net down after an hour as the sun was breaking through and starting to shine on the net plus shorter ringing sessions can be more productive in the long run when it comes to regular garden ringing.

Male Siskin
Female Siskin
Siskin numbers are starting to increase and this should continue into March.
The Goldfinches showed some interesting variation in the extent of the red mask with a female having more extensive red behind the eye than one of the adult males. Having said that the male did have a more extensive red bib below the bill as can be seen in the photos below. There are other differences in terms of the intensity of the red, colour of rear crown and the size of the bill that make the birds look very different but just in terms of that easily misinterpreted and misunderstood 'red behind the eye' the female wins by some margin.

Male Goldfinch with very little of the red mask extending behind the eye compared to the female below.
Female Goldfinch with the red of the mask extending well behind the eye and far more than the male above.
After the net came down the Belgian-ringed Blackcap appeared and happily fed on the fat cakes at the same time as a Starling. Hopefully it won't be too long before I get the details of when and where it was ringed from the BTO.

A not very good photo taken through a window against the light but it does show that the Blackcap is quite bold and happy to feed fairly close to a Starling.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Blogger's block

There is not much to report so this post could equally have been titled 'Same old same old', 'Shite weather', 'Roll on Spring' and so on. Yes there was some sunshine this morning but it didn't last long and the gloom soon returned in all of its forms. At least the next named storm (Imogen) is having the decency to deliver the worse of the forecast wind and rain much further south and is due to impact southwest England and south Wales tomorrow. It is not that I would wish such weather on those regions but the north of the country has had more than its fair share recently so it is a relief of sorts.

So if you haven't guessed already the birding, like the weather, is largely stuck in a rut and remains rather samey. If I did a school type register for birds visiting the garden there would be around 96% attendance from the usual suspects. Numbers of Goldfinches, Siskins and Redpolls haven't really changed, the Grey Wagtail attends everyday but misses lots of lessons, House Sparrows wag it (are absent, play hooky) nearly all of the time and the Belgian-ringed Blackcap remains the 'more often than not' foreign exchange student. Things have got so predictable that a one legged Great Tit stood out (well sort of wobbled out) as an obvious newcomer to the feeders today.

Away from the garden the birding isn't much better at any of my usual haunts, not that I have ventured out all that much. The best I can offer in the way of sightings and photographs are of a drake Mandarin that often frequents Orrell Water Park and was there again today. Even for a Mandarin this is a particularly 'plastic' duck as 'plastic ducks' go as it comes to bread and frequently displays to female Mallards. There are naturalised Mandarins that breed in the area but they keep to type and generally frequent rivers, canals and ponds in mature woodland and don't usually hang around with bread loving Mallards in parks.

Drake Mandarin, Orrell Water Park 07/02/2016.
Fine feathers, flesh and blood but 'plastic' nevertheless.
For readers of this blog that may not be familiar with the term 'plastic' being applied to a bird it is a term that is generally used for a none native species (mainly wildfowl) of dubious origin. In the case of a Mandarin in the UK this means a bird of recent captive origin rather than being from the naturalised (wild breeding) population. In other species of duck the term plastic means being from captive origin rather than being a genuine wild vagrant where such vagrancy is a possibility. For smaller species (mainly passerines) the term 'cage hopper' is often used instead of  'plastic' where escape is the likely source of the occurrence.

Drake Mandarin, Orrell Water Park 07/02/2016.

Drake Mandarin, Orrell Water Park 07/02/2016.
Not the rear of the year in my eyes but those sails (modified tertial feathers) are worth a look at from all angles.

Drake Mandarin, Orrell Water Park 07/02/2016
A drake Mandarin may be a stunning looking bird in its spring finery but the fact that it features in this blog shows how stagnant the birding is at the moment. Hopefully I will have something better to blog about next time although it is unlikely to look as good.

Monday, 1 February 2016

It's grim up north

To say the weather has been grim is a bit of an understatement and we now have storm Henry to contend with. It wouldn't be so bad if there was the odd calm day in between the storms but unfortunately it has generally stayed quite windy and I have done very little ringing as a result.

On the plus side I have spent more time watching the birds in the garden and noted an increase in the number of Siskins visiting the feeders. There have been up to nine which is a really good number for the time of year as I don't usually get Siskins in the garden before the second week of February in a good Siskin winter. In many respects getting Siskins in the garden is a sign of spring as they can be quite early breeders and they need to fatten up before migrating back to breeding areas in Scotland and and northern Europe. Some birds start heading back to their breeding grounds before the end of February and there can be a big turnover of birds in late February and throughout March. In 2013 I ringed 102 Siskins in the garden between 9th February and 30th March and in 2014 the total was even higher with 179 ringed between 18th February and 4th April.

Male Siskin
It was quite frustrating having the Siskins in the garden and not being able to put a net up for even an hour, so on Wednesday night I rigged up a trap using an old budgie cage and hung it in a tree with one of the feeders inside. Next morning I was up early and was pleased to see that the birds were not put off by this new garden feature and 3 Siskins went inside to feed shortly after arriving in the garden and were caught. As soon as they were ringed and released another 2 Siskins went in the trap and were duly ringed. Pleased at having caught 5 in the space of 10 minutes I took the trap down as it had proved its effectiveness but it did just look like an old budgie cage stuck up a tree. I need to make something that is more refined and less obtrusive if it is going to become a semi-permanent fixture in the garden.

Not being able to put a net out for the Siskins was not the only frustration as there have also been 3 Lesser Redpolls coming to the feeders over the last week and one of them is ringed. I have never ringed a Lesser Redpoll in the garden so this bird is a guaranteed to have been ringed elsewhere. In fact I have never had more than the occasional singleton in the garden before and then they have usually been one day wonders so having 3 visiting on a regular basis could be the start of them becoming regular winter visitors. Redpolls have become more frequent visitors to gardens across the country in recent years so getting them in my garden is somewhat overdue.

A very poor photograph of one of the  Lesser Redpolls but it is the best I have been able to get so far.
I hadn't seen the Belgian ringed Blackcap in the garden for a four days (27th to 30th) and I was beginning to think it had moved on or had been predated but it suddenly reappeared yesterday. I don't think I had just not noticed it as it had been visiting the feeders regularly throughout the day so was hard to miss; I would usually see it while I was having my first cup coffee in the morning. I have no idea where it has been but I can only presume it has been favouring neighbours gardens.

A soggy Blackcap photographed yesterday through a rain lashed window. I got enough photos of the ring to see the number and be sure it was the same bird.
Hopefully we will see an end to this miserable weather but any respite seems to be a long way off at the moment.