Sunday 29 October 2017

Billinge 29/10/17 and a bit on ageing Redwings too.

A cool northerly breeze and relatively clear conditions contributed to a fairly low-key session at Billinge this morning. A few thrushes were moving early on and most of those that were ringed were caught in the first hour. Otherwise it was fairly quiet which, combined with single figure temperatures, gave the morning an end of season feeling.

Only 1 Lesser Redpoll was caught today but, interestingly, it was another that had a yellowish-orange poll rather than the usual red colour and is the 3rd to be caught with this pigmentation variation this month.  It has been a relatively poor autumn for Redpolls so far with only 37 caught to date. The ages of these birds suggest they have had a poor breeding season as 20 (including today's bird) have been adults, only 15 were first-year birds and 2 were left unaged.

Adult Lesser Redpoll

The 3rd to be caught with an 'Amber' poll this month.
Far fewer Redwings and Fieldfares have been recorded this autumn due to the lack of easterly winds but the same can't be said for migrant Song Thrushes. Their numbers have held up surprisingly well and are only a little down on the number recorded last autumn. Another 3 Song Thrush were ringed today and all 3 were obvious 'continental' birds.

Continental Song Thrushes don't get much more obvious than this one. Cold grey toned above, more extensive white below and smaller than our warmer brown British subspecies 'clarkei'. 
Ringing totals for 29/10/17 were: Goldcrest 8; Blue Tit 2; Blackbird 1; Song Thrush 3; Redwing 14; Greenfinch 1; Lesser Redpoll 1.

I have been meaning to post some photos on ageing Redwings as I have encountered a few interesting individuals recently but here is one from the 27th and another from today to ponder on.

The very plain wing (lack of well defined pales spots on any of the greater coverts and lack of tertial markings) suggest it is an adult but see the image of the tail below. 

Two old tail feathers in an otherwise adult tail show this bird to be a first-year. This bird appears to have undergone a very extensive pj moult and had it replaced all the tail feathers this bird would have been indistinguishable from an adult. According to the literature juvenile Redwings rarely replace any tail feathers as part of their pj moult and if they do it is only supposed to be one or two. This bird obviously didn't read the literature and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised as many species are having more extensive pj moults these days which is probably linked to climate change. There is also the possibility that it replaced most of its tail feathers following accidental loss but the fact that it appears to have replaced all its greater coverts and tertials suggest a more extensive pj moult is the more likely cause of the tail feather replacement.
A very well marked wing with well defined pale tips to the greater coverts, especially the outers, and large, fairly angular pale tips to two of the tertials but what does the tail tell us.

The tail feathers are fresh, broad and quite rounded with some almost being square ended so it is clearly an adult. 

Here is the whole bird just in case you didn't think the wing and tail could be from the same bird. It is just a very well marked adult.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Starling Down

A thud against the window drew my attention to a commotion in the garden late this afternoon and when I looked out a young male Sparrowhawk was trying to pin down a Starling on the garden path. I think the Sparrowhawk had caused the Starling to veer into the window and had grabbed it on the rebound before taking it down on to the path. The Starling did its best to try and get away and it took the Sparrowhawk a good 2 or 3 minutes to get it fully under control.

I grabbed the camera and took a few photos through the window but it was very overcast and the light levels were really poor. Even at ISO 1600 I could only get a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second so most of the images were a blur from the birds' movements and an element of camera shake. I only shoot JPEGs so that doesn't leave much scope for fancy editing but most couldn't have been salvaged even if they had been taken in RAW format as they were far too blurred and or out of focus. However, there were four images that didn't turn out too bad with a bit of basic tweaking and as long as you don't look at them too closely.

The Starling was one of my colour-ringed birds but I didn't manage to get the ring number before the Sparrowhawk carried it away which is a really unfortunate. I am fairly sure it will have been a first-year bird as most of the Starlings that have been visiting the feeders recently are birds that were ringed as juveniles in the spring and early summer.

Monday 23 October 2017

More Red and Gold

The forecast for this morning had stay in bed written all over it as a band of rain was due to cross the region during the first half of the morning, but I decided to get up early anyway and check the weather then. When I got up the rainfall app showed the band of rain was much more fragmented than the forecast had shown and that any showers in this area would only be light, short-lived and should clear by dawn. I gave it another half an hour and checked again by which time the shower risk had all but disappeared so I got my gear together and headed up to Billinge.

It turned out to be a really good morning with a total of 82 birds ringed so I was really glad I didn't stay in bed. Redwings were moving in decent numbers with at least 1,500 heading south and another 45 were ringed. There were more Goldcrests around than there have been recently as shown by the 33 that were caught and ringed. It is quite unusual to catch that many Goldcrests this late in October, especially as there haven't been any big influxes of continental birds to boost numbers this autumn.

There wasn't much in the way of a supporting cast but a juv female Sparrowhawk was an uncommon capture and only the second female I have ringed this year. A female Blackcap was interesting because we are at that crossover point between late departing summer visitors and those that come here to winter. The weight and fat load of today's Blackcap suggested it was more likely to be a departing summer visitor rather than a newly arrived winterer.

Ringing totals for 23/10/17 were: Sparrowhawk 1; Goldcrest 33; Blackcap 1; Song Thrush 1; Redwing 45; Robin 1.

Redwing 23/10/17

Goldcrest 23/10/17

Saturday 21 October 2017

Life before Brian.

Well not all of life just the last couple of ringing sessions on the run up to the arrival of the latest named storm - Brian. The forecast for yesterday (20th) had looked quite good and promised a dry morning with a relatively light breeze but the reality was somewhat different. When I got up at 5am the rainfall radar showed a band of rain approaching from the west and the possibility of some light showers following on behind. It started raining not long after and to say I was not happy is an understatement as I was convinced that Redwings would be moving south in large numbers given the recent arrivals further north.

Now I like to start the day with 3 mugs of coffee so I used that time to keep an eye on the progress of the band of rain on the rainfall app and it looked like it would clear Billinge around sunrise so I decided to head out. When I arrived on site it was still raining but I set up anyway, keeping the nets closed of course, so I would be ready for a quick start when the rain cleared. The rain stopped shortly after sunrise and pretty much as the rainfall app indicated so I quickly opened the nets. It was still only half light because of the cloud cover but a few small flocks of Redwings had already started moving with all of them heading south.

The breeze was quite fresh but the net rides were sheltered by the tree cover and more importantly by higher ground which provided a significant wind shadow. The catching rate was quite good but then the number of Redwings moving wasn't bad either and both increased as the morning went on. Visibility was really quite poor at times with low cloud and occasional mizzle but it didn't stop the birds moving and around 2,000 Redwings went south over the course of the morning but that is only a rough estimate.

There were other bits and bobs moving south, not that I had time to take much notice, and there were a few Goldcrests moving through the bushes. I started packing up shortly after 11am and the next to last bird extracted from the nets was a control Goldcrest. This control Goldcrest turned out to be the most interesting bird of the morning but because of its age and tail shape rather than the fact it had been ringed elsewhere. All ringers would say that they age and sex every bird they catch with an equal amount of diligence but controls often get a little more scrutiny because another ringer may have aged and sexed it when it was first caught and the passage of time between ringing and recapture can add to the information on age if enough time has elapsed.

Goldcrests are mainly aged on the shape of the tail feathers with the adult tail being described and illustrated as being quite rounded while the tail of first-year birds are sharply pointed. Svensson's ageing and sexing guide warns against the ageing of intermediates and while it is clear on that point there is inevitably a degree of subjective interpretation. Most ringers don't get to handle many known age Goldcrests and that is where the problem lies as it is too easy to assume that adults should have quite rounded tail feathers even though that is not what Svennson and some of the other literature actually say.

So I had a control Goldcrest in my hand and on first glance the tail looked quite pointed but the tail feathers were on the broad side and quite glossy which is more indicative of adult. Had it been a new bird I may not have given it the same level of scrutiny but then that is impossible to know after the fact.  It certainly wasn't a stand out first-year, nor was it a stand out adult and with hindsight I would like to think I would have left it unaged had it been a new bird but, at the risk of being honest, I may have lent towards it being a first-year. 

When I am out ringing I frequently exchange texts with David Norman of Merseyside Ringing Group, who rings at a site 16km south of Billinge, and he recognised the ring number as being a MRG bird. It transpired that it had been ringed on the Wirral as a first-year male in October 2016 which confirmed it was over a year old. This made it more interesting as it was an adult (2y+) and its tail shape certainly reinforces the advice in Svennson that intermediates should be left unaged. It wouldn't surprise me if this tail shape is quite common in adults and it is the lack of recaptures of known age birds that limits our understanding of tail shape and ageing of this species.

Adult Goldcrest tail 20/10/17

It is not unusual for me to leave a few Goldcrests unaged but I may just start leaving a few more unaged now I have seen the tail shape of this adult.
So what should have been a good morning actually lived up to my expectations despite some very unhelpful weather. Totals for 20/10/17 were: Goldcrest 9 (1); Song Thrush 2; Blackbird 1; Redwing 50; Bullfinch 1 (1). Total: 63 new birds, 1 retrap and 1 control.

That was the 20th and the prospects for the arrival of Brian today were considerably worse but I decided to put my faith in technology (rainfall radar) and checking conditions on the ground. Yes it was forecast to be even windier but topography protected the net rides and the wind is generally that bit lighter around dawn. I only set a couple of  nets as there was a higher risk of showers in the forecast but the rainfall radar showed they fizzled out before they reached the site during the time I there (occasionally technology is wonderful).

It was amazing to see a total of around 800 Redwings and a few other birds moving into such a strong headwind, especially as a strong southerly component in the wind often kills any movement at Billinge stone dead. The Redwings generally stayed low and appeared to make good headway but a lone, higher flying, Swallow made more laboured progress and clearly struggled against the strong headwind as it battled south. 

I packed up after a couple of hours as the wind was starting to get stronger but I still managed to catch 15 birds before Brian really kicked in. Totals for 21/10/17 were Goldcrest 1; Song Thrush 1; Redwing 13.

Most of the Song Thrushes I catch at Billinge in autumn are of the the greyer continental race, philomelos and today's was no exception. The greyer rump and lower mantle contrast with the much browner tail feathers.

Thursday 19 October 2017

That's more like it.

Things have been relatively quiet at Billinge since my last post but that changed this morning with the biggest movement of Redwings of the autumn so far. I was kept busy ringing and didn't have time to look up very often so the 1500+ I managed to record was probably less than half the number that actually went through. There weren't many other thrushes with them and only half a dozen Song Thrush were noted along with a couple of small groups of Fieldfares; Blackbirds were surprisingly scarce and no migrants were seen or heard.

There were a good number of Goldcrests around with 22 being caught but they were eclipsed by a Firecrest, which is even rarer than Yellow-browed Warbler at the site. I have ringed over 2,200 Goldcrests in the past 4 years but Firecrests have remained stubbornly scarce and today's is only the 3rd record. When I first realised the site was so good for migrating Goldcrests I thought there was a chance that one or two Firecrests would occasionally tag along with them but that hasn't proven to be the case.

1cy male Firecrest 19/10/17
Other birds around included: a Hawfinch seen flying south by CAD; 2 or possibly just 1 rapidly moving Yellow-browed Warbler that was heard briefly by myself and shortly after by CAD on the other side of the site but didn't hang around long enough for either of us to get any views; 4 Bramblings seen by CAD were the first of the autumn; 2 Swallows, also seen by CAD, are obviously quite late for that species.

Ringing totals for 19/10/17 were: Goldcrest 22; Firecrest 1; Great Tit 1; Blackcap 1; Song Thrush 2; Redwing 53; Chaffinch 1; Lesser Redpoll 5; Goldfinch 1. A total of 87 new birds.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

9th October: thrushed with success.

I had high hopes for this morning as large numbers of thrushes (especially Redwings) arrived along parts of the east coast yesterday and decent movements were also recorded at some of the Pennine vis mig sites. Good numbers are often recorded at Billinge the day after such arrivals and movements so the prospects for this morning looked good. I was so eager to find out I got up when the first alarm went off, was out of the house at 05:30 and had set 4 nets at Billinge by 06:30.

A few Redwings and Song Thrushes were heard calling as dawn approached but not as many as expected and a Song Thrush was the only bird caught prior to sunrise. However, a few small flocks of Redwings and one or two Song Thrushes started to arrive shortly after sunrise and the flocks of Redwings generally got larger as the morning went on. Birds were coming and going in various directions but the majority seemed to appear from the east or south east and while some flocks continued west or northwest others turned and headed south. Around 650 Redwings must have moved through over the course of the morning but it's always hard to keep track of numbers when you are busy ringing. The number of Song Thrush on the move was even harder to gauge and the 12 that were recorded is likely to be well short of the true figure, especially as that number includes 7 that were ringed. As for other thrushes there were a few more Blackbirds around and 4 Fieldfare seen heading northwest late in the morning was a bit of a surprise as it is relatively early date for that species.

Song Thrush

When there are plenty of thrushes around they usually attract a few predators and today was no exception. A juv male Sparrowhawk was seen several times before it eventually found its way into one of the nets. A little while later a juv female Sparrowhawk was caught which is a bit more unusual as females often manage to climb out of nets due to their much larger size.

1cy male Sparrowhawk

1cy female Sparrowhawk. If looks could kill this one's would.
There weren't many finches moving and only 1 Lesser Redpoll was caught. Surprisingly, it was another that didn't have a red coloured poll, the amber poll on this individual being a bit brighter than the one shown in my last post.

Lesser Redpoll
The morning may have started slowly but Redwings eventually came through in good numbers and accounted for 38 of the 65 birds ringed. Ringing totals for 09/10/17 were: Sparrowhawk 2; Goldcrest 9; Great Tit 2; Coal Tit 1; Chiffchaff 1; Blackbird 3; Song Thrush 7; Redwing 38; Chaffinch 1; Lesser Redpoll 1.

Other sightings of note included: 320 Pink-footed Geese heading east; 4 Ravens (2 pairs) heading south; 2 Swallows (1 south and the other hanging around feeding); 3 Crossbills heading NNE.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Fat crests and a pink lady.

The 3rd and 4th may have been a bit windy but I managed to find enough shelter in some of the net rides on the east side of the site at Billinge. These net rides were sheltered from the worst of the stiff westerlies by higher ground, including the hill summit, and tree/shrub cover provided the additional shelter required. Unsettled conditions can produce interesting birding with some birds being held up or forced down by the weather and others battling through and the only way to find out is to get out there. 

The first bird caught on both days was a Song Thrush and the greyer tones and slightly smaller size of both suggested they were of continental origin. There were a decent number of Goldcrests present and 19 were ringed over the two sessions. Many of the Goldcrests were carrying quite a bit of fat with 8 weighing 5.8g or more and the two heaviest birds weighed in at 6.3g. Birds in this weight range are carrying more than enough fat to fly to southern England in a single non stop night flight and some may even go on to winter in France. Interestingly, a recovery report showing a movement of one of this autumn's Goldcrests came through just the other day, it was ringed on 2nd September and found dead 18 days later in Hampshire, 267km SSE of Billinge. Full details of this and some other recoveries will be posted in due course.

A Stonechat that suddenly appeared on a fence line on the 3rd was the first of the autumn but it didn't linger and quickly moved on. There was a bit of movement overhead despite the strength of the wind and showed how strong the urge to migrate can be. Meadow Pipits and Chaffinches were the most numerous species on the move but a few Lesser Redpolls were also heading south and 4 were caught. One of the Lesser Redpolls had a bit of a pink flush to some of the breast feathers and it almost had me thinking it was a male for a second, but on further examination it was obviously an adult and didn't have any pink in the cheeks or on the rump, concealed or otherwise, which ruled out the possibility of it being a male.

It isn't always appreciated that adult female Lesser Redpolls can have pink feathers on the breast and or rump in addition to those that are more commonly present on the cheeks. However, the pink, when present, is never quite as strong or as extensive as it is in adult males and is usually only noticeable at very close range (generally arms length or less). It is all too easy to rely on the sexing criteria that are given in Svennson and forget some of the other literature that has been produced and younger ringers may not even be aware of some of it. A very useful paper on the subject was published back in 1981, link here: M. Boddy (1981) Ageing and sexing British lesser redpolls, Ringing &Migration, 3:4, 193-202, DOI: 10.1080/03078698.1981.9673780 

Adult female Lesser Redpoll. The pink centres to some of the breast feathers aren't as obvious in the photograph as they appeared in the hand but you can still see they are there.

A side view of the same adult female Lesser Redpoll. 
One of the other Redpolls that was caught was interesting for not having a red poll. There was a slight amber cast to some of the feathers of the fore-crown but it was only very slight. This pigment variation is fairly uncommon but individuals like this do crop up from time to time although the poll is usually a bit more yellow or amber than it was in this case. While this is a first year bird it is trait that I have seen in adults too and I suspect it is more common in females, although it obviously makes sexing birds very difficult outside the breeding season.

Lessser Redpoll without a red poll 03/10/17

The amber coloured cast to the poll is there but it was very slight and barely noticeable in this individual.
One thing that has been a feature of late September and now early October has been a general lack of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. There seems to have been a slightly earlier and more complete departure of these two species, and Blackcaps in particular, with fewer late birds coming through or lingering compared to the last couple of autumns. The more unsettled weather and lack of easterly winds have almost certainly played a part so it will be interesting to see if this trend continues through the remainder of the autumn.

So an interesting couple of mornings and well worth the effort even though the combined total was a relatively modest 46 birds. Species totals (retraps in brackets) for 3rd & 4th October were: Goldcrest 19; Blue Tit 3; Great Tit 2 (1); Coal Tit 3; Chiffchaff (1); Song Thrush 2; Robin 1; Dunnock 2 (1); Chaffinch 6; Lesser Redpoll 4; Reed Bunting 1.

Monday 2 October 2017

German ringed Black-headed Gulls

I walked across the road to Orrell Water Park this afternoon to see if the regular German ringed Black-headed Gull had returned for a 6th winter. There were about 50 Black-headed Gulls waiting on the edge of the lake by the car park so I threw them some bread to bring them closer and I soon spotted one with a ring. I managed to get some photographs of it in the melee of feeding gulls and on checking them on the back of the camera I could see it was regular wintering bird that has been recorded more than 60 times over the last 5 winters.

IA141745    Black-headed Gull (ringed as an adult male)
Ringed              29/04/2012  Bohmke und Werder, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.
Photographed   02/10/2017 Orrell Water Park, Orrell, Greater Manchester. 1102 km W.
I soon noticed there was another ringed Black-headed Gull but it kept weaving between the other gulls and was a bit more difficult to photograph. I must have taken around 100 photographs before I thought I had secured the full ring number and address on the ring. On returning home I reviewed the photos on the laptop and was able to work out the full ring number and it was a German ring from the Heligoland ringing scheme (ring address Helgoland, Germania).

I have submitted the details of the ring number to BTO and hopefully I will get the ringing information back fairly quickly but it can take several months when a foreign ringing scheme is involved. When I do get the details back I will post them on the blog.

September Ringing Totals

I have been quite active over the last couple of weeks but not had time to blog about any of the ringing sessions for one reason or another. There were no major surprises and Goldcrests dominated most of the Billinge catches as usual, although a Spotted Flycatcher caught on the 23rd was both unexpected and a late(ish) record.

Looking at the month as a whole the total of 777 new birds ringed at Billinge is only 1 short of the total achieved last year and was much better than expected given the weather. Goldcrest took top slot with 269 being 32 up on last September's total while 2nd placed Chiffchaff was 32 down with a total of 143. Blackcap numbers were well down with 40 ringed compared to 88 last year but on the other hand 2 Spotted Flycatchers and 4 Redstarts continued the autumns's exceptional run of records for those species. It was a disappointing month for controls with a single Goldcrest being the only bird caught that had been ringed elsewhere (ringing details have yet to be received).


Great Spotted Woodpecker


Blue Tit
Great Tit
Coal Tit

Willow Tit

Long-tailed Tit
Willow Warbler




Song Thrush
Spotted Flycatcher



Grey Wagtail

Tree Pipit

Meadow Pipit



Lesser Redpoll



Reed Bunting


I also ringed 138 birds in my garden during the month with 91 Goldfinches claiming top slot there.