Sunday, 30 December 2012

Happy New Year...

I travelled over to Nottingham this morning to join Jim, Pete and Duncan at the Granby Fridge Experience. It was a beautiful sunny morning, but very cold and slightly breezy. The windy conditions seemed to be keeping most of the birds at bay so the catch was a small one consisting of mostly tits (nearly all adults), chaffinches, dunnocks and robins.

By mid-morning, the wind had increased in velocity (and bitterness) so we decided to take the nets down. As we headed to the nets, Pete suddenly launched into a sprint with the words ‘big bird’ trailing in his wake. At first I thought he had been spending too much time with the little ones and was having visions from Sesame Street, but when I couldn’t see a giant yellow bird anywhere, I realised he must have seen something bouncing in the nets! When he emerged from the nets a minute later he was holding a fabulous 5M (male bird, born last year) sparrowhawk which I was lucky enough to ring.

Me, my new friend and a silly hat!
For more photos and a full list of what we ringed, head over to the South Notts Ringing Group blog.

So, time to set a few New Year resolutions:

·        New Year’s Resolution #1: get the garden nets up more often.

·        New Year’s Resolution #2: get some traps set in the garden for when it is too windy for nets (which it invariably is).

·        New Year’s Resolution #3: get out with SNRG more often and ring more passerines.

·        New Year’s Resolution #4: make more bird bags when the weather is too rubbish for ringing full stop.

·        New Year’s Resolution #5: keep resolutions 1 – 4!!!

I hope 2013 is a birdtastic year for everyone.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

North Sea boat trip

In September, Dave and I took a boat trip out onto the North Sea with Northern Experience Wildlife Tours. We left Cumbria nice and early and headed to the marina at North Shields where we were sailing from. Arriving in plenty of time, we had a look around, chatted to the guys in the neighbouring vehicle and started to pull on the sixteen layers that we were going to need to keep us warm! Glancing behind me, I was surprised and delighted to see a friend from university and his family in the car park, donning as many layers as me. Trotting over to say hello, it turned out that we were on the same trip! There were all of ten passengers on this trip, so you would think that the chances of knowing someone else would be pretty slim!

It wasn’t long before the boat arrived and we filed on. Now, this trip had seemed a really good idea when I booked it. Half an hour into it though, as the swell had us bouncing up and down and clinging on for dear life, I was beginning to wonder. I don’t travel too well in boats and despite having taken a travel pill or two, I was beginning to wonder how on earth I was going to cope with eight hours of this. Thankfully, after a couple of hours, the sea calmed down and the tummy settled and I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip and take a few pictures.

There weren’t huge numbers of birds around but I did get a lifer when we had fantastically close views of two grey phalaropes. I also had far better views than ever before of a sooty shearwater, which was lovely. So, here are a few of my best shots. Not the best photos I have ever taken, but it’s not that easy to take photos one handed whilst using the other hand to try to make sure you don’t fall overboard!
Kittiwake keeping us company alongside the boat

Gannet flying past

Gannet again

Sooty shearwater with gulls

Sooty shearwater taking off

Sooty shearwater flying

Fulmar taking off

Fulmar running on water

Lift off

Grey phalaropes

Another gannet

Guillemot in winter plumage
Brent geese heading north

I wonder if anyone out there can answer a question. In winter plumage, do bridled guillemots retain any of their distinct white plumage or are they indistinguishable from non-bridled guillemots? No one I have asked this question to has been able to answer, so if you know, please leave me a comment below.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

Shiants 2012

At the end of June, I ventured northwards to undertake my second visit to the Shiants Isles in north-western Scotland to ring seabirds. After a very long and boring drive, I arrived at the B&B at Uig on the Isle of Skye where I met the rest of the team. The following morning, after a hearty breakfast and after making the most of the last shower that we were going to be having for a week (or two in Jim, David and Alistair’s case), we made our way down to the pier to await the arrival of Seamus, John and the Sea Harris. As we arrived, we spotted a problem... there was a big old tug boat parked in front of the steps where we normally load the boat. Enter Jim to schmooze the man with the power (harbour master) and pretty soon we were loading up from the ramp normally reserved for the CalMac ferries. Nice one Jim!
The Sea Harris, our chariot for the trip to the Shiants
As we departed Uig we looked to be heading in the right direction as we left dark, rain-laden clouds behind us. Ten excited ringers tried desperately hard to stay upright amongst the swell as we slowly cruised past the plethora of small islands that are inhabited only by birds and small mammals. We took a leisurely pass by Fladaigh Chuain (arctic tern colony) to see how it was looking (in anticipation of a visit later in the trip) before alighting on Trodday, an island never before explored by the Shiants Auk Ringing Group, that Jim had worked very hard to secure permission to land and ring on.
The island was interesting from the perspective that it had passerines breeding on it – at least three wheatear territories were spotted along with recently fledged young. All indications pointed towards breeding rock pipit too which led us to the conclusion that, unlike the Shiants, this island is not home to rats! As well as the little birds, oystercatcher, gulls and bonxies (great skuas) were also vociferous in their protestations towards us. Try as we might, we were unable to locate the oystercatcher or bonxie nests in the short time we were there, but we did manage to locate and ring both herring and lesser black-backed gull chicks (those that were old enough to give away their origins anyway!).
So, on to the Shiants. Now, actually getting on to the Shiants is always a fun thing to do (!) and this time was no different. As the tide was rapidly retreating we had no option but to lug all of our bags, tents, food, ringing equipment, table and chair (yes, indeed – we are classy up there!) over the toilet (okay, so maybe we’re not!). For those of you who haven’t experienced the Shiants, the toilet is a gigantic black rock, located opposite the bothy, which comes complete with twice daily automated flushing system and even has its own engaged sign! Luckily, as we were newly arrived on the island, we didn’t have to ‘watch our step’! After an hour or so of playing pass the parcel along the human chain (where was the music?) we had everything up onto dry land. We even managed to get our tents up before any more wet stuff fell out of the sky – result!
The bothy with the 'facilities' behind
For those not lucky enough to have been, the Shiants are a set of Hebridean islands located between Skye and Lewis. There are three main islands; Eilean an Taighe (House Island), Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) and Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island). The bothy, our base for the trip is, unsurprisingly, located on House Island which is connected to Rough Island by a storm beach. Mary Island is a completely separate island. The islands have a lot of history to them and the remains of old buildings can be found quite easily. For more info on the islands, see the website or have a read of Adam Nicholson’s book Sea Room. Today the inhabitants are mostly birds, black rats and the few sheep that are grazed on there.
House Island (from the top of Rough Island)
Mary Island (looking from Rough Island)

Rough Island (from House Island)
After an evening of introductions and settling in, the hard work started on the Monday with a razorbill RAS (Retrapping Adults for Survival) on North Beach. The main seabird colony is Carnach Mhor, on Rough Island. Now, it is possible to walk into the colony, but this takes a while and can be a tad hairy in wet conditions (think unstable rocks covered in seaweed, algae and guano) so, the quickest way in is via boat. Once we were all on the beach, two mist nets were set to try to catch birds as they came and went from their nests in the boulders above us. Although technically a razorbill RAS, the nets also catch puffins and guillemots and it didn’t take long for the birds to start flying in. Razorbills are aptly named and they are more than capable of causing some serious bruising if you don’t have them properly under control (as I found out regularly last year!) whilst puffins, despite being incredibly cute, have very sharp bills and claws that are more than capable of drawing blood! In contrast, guillemots are far more gentle and rarely cause too much pain.
Carnach Mhor, the boulder colony. The beach in the middle is
where the razorbill RAS is undertaken and this is the colony we
ring pulli in.
The gentle and elegant guillemot and the
feisty razorbill
After a couple of hours of catching, the nets were moved further along the beach to target different birds and Jim took a team into the boulders to find and ring pulli (and any adults caught). By late afternoon, with a good tally of birds caught, the nets were taken down and the team went back to base for a well-earned curry (and no, I don’t mean a take-away!).
On Tuesday the focus turned to puffins and we undertook the puffin RAS. The puffin colony breeds in burrows on the steep slopes on the north side of Rough Island. The team split into two groups with one team setting nets at the top of the slope, the other starting at the bottom (take a wild guess which team I was in given my fear of heights?!). A row of two mist nets is set by each team and birds are ringed for two hours before the nets are moved up or down the slope. Each team rings at four locations on the slope. The day started out with beautiful weather and by the second of my team’s net rounds, the birds were flying in so quickly that we were essentially ringing and flinging (i.e. ringing, but not taking any biometrics). When the nets quietened down a little, I took the opportunity to snap a few photos of these most photogenic of birds. By the end of the day, it was throwing it down (which makes ringing on a steep grass slope a little bit interesting!) and, therefore, we finished 30 minutes early and headed back to the bothy.
Puffin posing on a rock
Ringed puffin looking at us with curiosity
Puffins are incredibly strong, muscular birds and a smack from
their wings can come very keen! 
Thankfully, the weather cleared up by the evening and we were able to put the mist nets up on the storm beach to try to catch storm petrels. As soon as it was dark enough (about midnight), the tape lures were put on and we took a steady catch until it started to get light again (about 3am). Now, at this point, I feel as though I must apologise to anyone living on Lewis and to the poor people who had chosen to moor their yacht in the lee of the island. The storm petrel tape lure is quite possibly the loudest and weirdest noise you can imagine. I dread to think what the people on the boat thought!
Storm petrel that has just been ringed. They smell amazing!
My favourite part of ringing storm petrels is releasing them. You take them outside to a dark area and put them on your hand. They will then sit there and get their eyes accustomed to the dark again before flying off. Occasionally, they will flutter up your arm and onto your shoulder before flying. One bird that I released this trip climbed up my arm, up my hair and onto my head, where he sat for about thirty seconds before heading out into the night. It was a magical moment!
After such a late night, we had a lazy morning on Wednesday. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and rain was restricting what we could safely do. The boulder colony becomes very tricky when the rocks are wet, as do the grassy slopes of Rough Island, so neither was accessible. Alister and I decided to try doing a survey looking for breeding storm petrels. We spent a few hours playing a (much quieter) tape lure outside potential breeding spots on House Island (dry stone walls, boulder scree, cavities in boulders) and listening for birds responding. Unfortunately, as expected, none did. The Shiants are home, not just to breeding seabirds, but also to black rats which are the likely reason why storm petrels appear not to be breeding on the islands.
On Thursday, we headed back to North Beach and put mist nets up again for auks. We also took a fleyg net into the colony and attempted to catch birds this way. This proved quite successful and I have to admit, I had great fun wielding it! Friday saw us have to abort an attempt to get back into the boulder colony. A nasty storm whilst we were out on the boat meant that the swell was too high to land on North Beach and we had to return to House Island, rather wetter than when we had left! When the weather cheered up, we headed to the lesser black-backed gull breeding colony on the east side of the island. Unfortunately, the chicks were too young to speciate and therefore couldn’t be ringed. The walk back to the bothy over the top of the island in gorgeous weather more than made up for it though. As did the incredible views of bonxies that we were treated to.
Catching a razorbill with the fleyg net (thanks
to Dave for the photo)
Puffins and a razorbill on a ledge on the
east side of House Island
Close encounter with a bonxie
On Saturday, we finally made it into the boulder colony to ring some razorbill and guillemot pulli and some shags! After a great few hours in the colony, rain again stopped play and it was a very wet and slippery walk back out (the swell was still too high to use the boat). That evening, Seamus and John joined us on the island with a couple of film makers who were on the island filming for a series about Scottish islands (I think). That meant that they were on hand nice and early in the morning for us to get away and head back to Uig. We took a quick detour via Fladaigh Chuain to ring arctic tern chicks, but unfortunately, the colony appeared to have moved location and we only found a few.
View from inside the boulder colony - an incredible place to be!

Shag - you really don't want to mess with
that beak (as Jim found out to his cost this year)
Arctic tern flying by the boat as we landed at
Fladaigh Chuain
So, the tired team waved goodbye to Jim, David and Alister, who were staying for a second week, and headed back to Uig. The second week’s team looked so clean and fresh in comparison to how we felt! We wished them well, said our goodbyes and headed for home … until next year!
The team on the way home - front row (left to right): Alister, Dave, Chris
Back row (left to right): David, Kathryn, Charlie, Kate, Jim, me, Karen 
Many thanks to Jim for organising the trip, to Jim, David and Alister for doing the leading and training during the week, to the whole team for making it such a great trip, to the Nicholsons for allowing us the privilege of visiting their island and to Dave for sharing the long drive home with me (sorry I nearly made you miss your train home!). And finally, thanks to the lady in the M6 service station who provided me and Dave with such merriment with her blue outburst when she realised she had forgotten, and subsequently burnt, the sausages!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Missing in action...

I thought it was about time I posted something on here, just in case anyone was wondering where I am and what I have been getting up to recently.
Puffins (on the Shiants Isles) - you looking for me?
My lack of posts doesn't mean that I haven't ringed anything for months, just that I have been super busy (work doesn't half get in the way of having fun!) and a little lazy when it comes to updating this blog!
If I am being completely honest, for a number of reasons I haven't ringed a single bird in my garden since my last post about garden ringing! I have, however, spent a week ringing auks on a beautiful set of Scottish islands called the Shiants Isles, ringed lots of lovely waders with the Wash Wader Ringing Group, ringed the odd owl with Jim and been out a couple of times with the South Notts Ringing Group (not as often as I would like mind you!).
Add to that a boat trip on the North Sea and a trip to Mull that I haven't blogged about and I am hanging my head in shame! So, I intend to rectify this and catch up with a couple of retrospective posts, starting with the Shiants. I am also hoping to find my garden ringing mojo (i.e. re-find the confidence to ring by myself again - I seem to have misplaced it somewhere!) and try to catch some of the dozens of house sparrows that are eating me out of house and home and see what other feathery friends are hiding in the shrubs and on the farmland at the bottom of the garden.
I promise to try my best to update this a little more frequently too!

Monday, 11 June 2012

How to beat jetlag...

In an attempt to avoid succumbing to jetlag, I joined Jim on Monday morning, the day after I got back from the US, to visit the remaining unchecked owl and raptor boxes in the Newark and Vale of Belvoir areas. The first box we checked in Syerston contained three large, healthy jackdaw chicks, a new species for me. Next, we headed to Scriveton to check a kestrel box. On route, Jim spied a little owl hurtling away from an oak tree. A quick hole inspection later and Jim emerged holding two tiny little owl chicks. Two new species for me! On to the kestrel box and we found five downy chicks, only two of which were big enough to ring.

The two kestrel chicks that were big enough to ring

Jackdaw chick - beautiful eye!
The next two owl boxes we visited in Caunton each contained two large jackdaw chicks. A short hop to Norwell Woodhouse saw us visiting a little owl box, accompanied by the excited home owners whose land the box was on. Just as we reached the box the heavens opened and Jim and I found ourselves ringing three small little owl chicks with our backs to the rain. The owners were delighted to see the chicks and were even more ecstatic when Jim returned the chicks to the box only to pull out a fourth chick that must have been hiding when he had collected the first three. Despite the downpour, it was a great way to end the morning and maintained Jim’s 100% success rate – six boxes checked, six boxes occupied. The box also contained a long dead, ringed barn owl that, according to Jim’s records, had been one of the 2010 brood.

Three of the four little owl chicks
After a quick lunch at Jim’s (thank you Elaine) Matt joined us for the afternoon session and we headed off to Shelford to check four boxes on a farm there. As I held the blocker up to the hole of the pole mounted barn owl box, I could feel something trying its best to push its way out and was hopeful of an adult bird. I wasn’t disappointed as Jim came down the ladder with both adult birds. One bird was un-ringed and was judged to be a young male bird whilst the other was a re-trap female thought to be about five years old and recorded as an age 8. The wing feathers clearly showed at least three generations of flight feathers. The remaining boxes were less productive. The kestrel box contained kestrel pellets but no birds, the little owl box contained only one cold egg and the owl box in the barn contained pigeon eggs.

Top - first year bird - none of the primary feathers have moulted yet
Below - age 8 bird. At least three different ages of primary feather
Jim has since confirmed that the older bird was born in 2007. She was trapped in the same pole mounted box in 2008, 2009, 2010 and now again in 2012. The adults were not in the box last year when Jim went to ring them as the chicks were already large (which is why she wasn't caught last year).

Onwards we went towards Cotham and to a kestrel box. As we approached, the female flew out of the box and on inspection, five chipping eggs were found. We made a hasty retreat and moved on to ring a brood of eight blue tits in a box in woodland. Despite our best efforts, the second box we knew to be on a tree someone nearby, eluded us and as time was of the essence for Jim, we gave up searching and instead made our way to Barkestone-Le-Vale to check a barn owl box. To our surprise, the box contained three beautiful, large barn owl chicks that weren’t too far off fledging. Almost fully grown barn owls but without the attitude – what a privilege!

Chilled out barn owl chicks
As the heavens opened once more, we checked out a couple of trees near Redmile rumoured to be home to a kestrel and a little owl. As we approached, a kestrel flushed from one tree and a clutch of warm eggs was found. Unfortunately, no little owl nest was located, but given the state of the tree, it is entirely possible that there was one hiding in one of the many nooks and crannies.

Overall, a very productive and successful day’s ringing in good company.

Ringing with the Delaware Shorebird Project, May 2012

Just over four years ago, I ringed my first bird. Back then, I never dreamt that ringing would take me to so many wonderful places around the UK, let alone that it would lead me to America. I would probably have laughed if anyone had suggested that in four years’ time I would be sitting here writing a blog post about having had the privilege of spending two weeks ringing waders (banding shorebirds) with the Delaware Shorebird Project (DSP) in Delaware Bay.

On May 19th, I travelled down to Heathrow to take my first trans-Atlantic (and first ever long-haul) flight out to Philadelphia. At this point, I feel I must pay tribute to Lucy, Rob and Sarah for putting up with my ‘kid on Christmas morning’ excitement and sheer naivety about all things airport / flight related…sorry guys!!! Anyway, we made it safely onto the plane only to sit in a queue on the tarmac for quite some time. We never did find out what the hold-up was, but at least it made a pleasant change from sitting in a queue on a motorway! And, as we waited for our turn to take off, we had the opportunity to ogle the bright yellow BA plane that the Olympic flame had travelled to England in the day before. There really was no missing its yellowness – or should that be goldness!

The flight over to America was pretty uneventful, except for the turbulence, Rob dancing in his seat to the Muppets movie (complete with hand signals and sound effects) and the hysterically rude air stewardess (or whatever PC term we are supposed to use these days) who advised me that ‘of course you can’t be vegetarian AND gluten intolerant, that’s just impossible’! I am not afraid to admit that she reduced me to tears … of laughter!

As we were coming into land, Sarah instigated a game of ‘try and spot your first American bird before we land’. I failed miserably (my excuse is that I didn’t have a window seat and leaning over someone is just rude). As we were taxiing I did manage to start my US list, however, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting … European starling! This was swiftly followed by red-winged blackbird and common grackle (yey, American birds) then feral pigeon and house sparrow (hmmm!).

Red-winged blackbird (male)

We were met at the airport by Greg, one of the Americans working on the DSP, in his people carrier and we were soon speeding our way to Slaughter Beach, our home for the next two weeks (the name is derived from the original Dutch name, not anything more sinister). My bird list started to grow on route with fabulous views of turkey vulture (the American equivalent of our buzzard) and osprey (which are ridiculously common over there).

Turkey vulture

Osprey taking food back to the female on the nest

On arrival at Slaughter Beach, we took a quick detour to the Dupont Nature Centre, to allow the newbies (Lucy and me) our first view of Misspilion Harbour. No sooner had we stepped out of the car than we were greeted by Kevin Kalasz (Wildlife Biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Division and Delaware Shorebird Project leader) and other members of the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) who were there helping out with a public event. Our arrival took the total number of WWRG members working with the project to ten (six members had already been out there for a week when we arrived). The evening was spent settling in and meeting the rest of the team before the fun, I mean hard work, started the next day.

Delaware Bay is positioned on the Atlantic Flyway and is the final staging area for thousands of shorebirds on their migration from their South American / South-eastern US wintering grounds to their Arctic breeding grounds. In spring, the Bay is also home to horseshoe crabs. These prehistoric looking creatures spawn on the beaches in their millions and their tiny green eggs are full of protein – just what the hungry shorebirds need to replenish their body fat and to provide them with enough energy to complete their journey north. In the short time that the knot spend in Delaware Bay (1-2 weeks) they can double their body weight by foraging on crab eggs!

Horseshoe crabs - the smaller one is the male which is hanging
on to the larger female using adapted front claws
Unfortunately, for a number of complex reasons, the shorebird populations have diminished in recent years. In 1997, the Delaware Shorebird Project was established to research and monitor the health of the shorebird populations in order to better understand the connection between the birds, Delaware Bay and the horseshoe crabs. The data gathered is helping to identify and protect the resources that are so critical to the success of the shorebird migration. The DSP works in partnership with the BTO and the Wash Wader Ringing Group and it is through the latter that I was able to join the project this year. A sister project, the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project (led by Clive Minton), runs concurrently on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. The birds use both sides of the Bay to feed, often swapping shores to avoid inclement weather. Having data from both sides is crucial for researchers to gain a full picture of the state of the shorebird populations using Delaware Bay.

Project work involves catching and flagging birds, counting the numbers of birds using each of the beaches each day and re-sighting the colour flagged birds. The aim of the project is for the two teams to each catch 350 individuals of each target species each year; target species are red knot, ruddy turnstone, sanderling (all of which are colour flagged) and semipalmated sandpiper (not flagged on the Delaware side). Approximately every three days, attempts are made to catch ‘samples’ of 50 birds of each species. Samples of dunlin and short-billed dowitcher are also taken if caught and occasionally, other birds including semipalmated plover and least sandpiper will also find their way into a catch and are ringed.

It wasn't always easy to count the birds!
When not catching, time is spent counting the birds in the Bay and attempting to find and read leg flags using telescopes. Team members visit the key beaches along the Bay shore, including Back Beach in Misspilion Harbour, where the largest numbers of birds congregate. Re-sighting colour flagged birds gives information on arrival and leaving dates of individual birds, movements of individual birds within the Bay and information on survival of individual birds.

Approximately 10% of the red knot population passing through the Bay is estimated to be flagged, along with smaller percentages of turnstone, sanderling and semipalmated sandpipers. Flagging projects are undertaken in a number of different countries; the flag colour indicates which country the bird was flagged in. In the US, lime coloured flags are used, Canada uses white, Argentina orange, Brazil blue and Chile red. Percentage counts are also taken of knot and turnstone to ascertain how many birds in the group are flagged e.g. 50 clearly visible birds of one species will be counted and the number of flags noted. Researches can then use this data to extrapolate the percentage of the population that is flagged.

Red knot sporting Flag Orange EPX indicating it was ringed
in Argentina
The above, in a snapshot, is what I spent my two weeks in America doing. It all started on the Sunday morning with an early morning boat trip out to Back Beach. When the other team members suggested that the four new Brits should do the early boat trip as our body clocks would be out of sync with US time and we would therefore be awake at silly o’clock, I was a little sceptical. But, right on cue at 4am, I found myself wide awake and raring to go! The birds had arrived on mass a few days previously and the numbers in Misspilion Harbour that morning were truly astounding. I had been told that colour ring re-sighting would be a little different and a little easier than in the UK but I was not prepared for just how close the birds were prepared to tolerate us. Once in position, the birds were happy to come within just a few feet of us which would have made re-sighting very easy if it weren’t for the ‘peep’ pollution getting in the way (the thousands of semipalmated sandpipers running around and obscuring the flags on the legs of the knot, turnstone and sanderling)!

The morning took an unexpected twist when I spotted a gull that I couldn’t identify loitering on the beach amongst the laughing gulls. Assuming it to be a common American species that I was unfamiliar with, I asked Kevin what it was. Also unable to identify it, he asked a similarly confused Sarah and then phoned a friend – who identified it from the description as a Sabine’s gull and instructed us to keep an eye on it as he was on his way and would be there in an hour! It turned out to be only the third record for the state of Delaware and only the second mainland record as one of the previous two had been pelagic.  The bird proceeded to hang around the harbour for a week and proved quite popular with the ensuing twitchers!

Sabine's gull
That afternoon, I had my first chance to ring (band) birds the American way. Nigel and co. had been playing with the walk-in traps on Slaughter Beach and had managed to catch 64 semipalmated sandpipers, 3 short-billed dowitchers and 1 semipalmated plover. I have no idea why I assumed that ringing in the US would be the same as here but I was wrong, however, it didn’t take too long to get to grips with the slightly different ring sizes, ring materials and processing codes. I was lucky enough to be able to ring half the semis and one of the dowitchers, whilst Richard ringed the plover. Two new species ringed on my first full day there was a nice start to the trip.

Short-billed dowitcher being released
Overnight, the weather turned a bit tasty and the planned early morning cannon net catch was postponed so instead, Monday saw me team up with Lucy and Jacquie for a recce and re-sighting trip up to Port Mahon followed by a sneaky birding trip up to Bombay Hook national wildlife refuge (nature reserve) to enable me to buy an American bird guide. It was at this point that I concluded that American birds all seemed to be bright and colourful and remarkably easy to see. My bird list was growing rapidly! Later that day saw the first cannon net attempt of my trip, with turnstone the target at Port Mahon. A successful catch saw us processing 53 turnstone, 2 sanderling, 1 knot and 2 short-billed dowitcher.  All but the dowitchers went home sporting shiny new flags.

On Tuesday, we decided to go for a cannon net catch on Osprey Beach (named after the ospreys breeding on the platform – told you they were everywhere!). The setting team headed out in the boat, whilst the rest of us walked along the beach to base camp, flipping the horseshoe crabs that were stranded on their backs as we went. The beach was full of birds but they weren’t quite where they needed to be so I was asked to gently twinkle them into the catching area. I have to admit to feeling slightly guilty as I crawled past the osprey platform and disturbed the female off her (presumed) eggs!!! Note next difference to twinkling in the UK – warm dry sand is far nicer to crawl on hands and knees along than freezing wet sand! The birds soon found their way into the catching area and we took a catch of 90 knot, 20 turnstone, 3 sanderling, 83 semis, 86 short-billed dowitcher and 40 dunlin.

The catch took an interesting twist whilst processing the dunlin. I was ringing the birds and passing them directly to Jacquie as the lead processor on the team and all was well until Jacquie turned a bird over to do a plumage score on it and exclaimed “what the hell is this?” An initial look determined that this was no ordinary dunlin! On closer inspection (and having called the resident dunlin expert, Nigel, back to the beach) it was concluded that the bird was a hybrid dunlin x white-rumped sandpiper! Lots of photos were taken and a couple of feathers were bagged for DNA analysis to confirm its ID – it will be very interesting to hear the results.

Hybrid dunlin x white-rumped sandpiper

Hybrid dunlin on left, 'normal' dunlin on right

Hybrid dunlin above, 'normal' dunlin below
That afternoon, whilst re-sighting turnstone at Port Mahon, I had my first sight of a bald eagle – a full grown adult being mobbed by an osprey! Not a bad first sighting. On the way home, Rob and I snuck in a short birding trip to the Little Creek reserve were I was lucky enough to see a red-tailed hawk and a pair of cedar waxwings.

Wednesday saw us spending the day re-sighting in very foggy and humid conditions whilst on Thursday I was introduced to the concept of the aerial survey. Ground counts are taken of the birds on key beaches every 15 minutes for an hour before the survey plane arrives. The plane then flies low over the area and deliberately flushes the birds to enable the counters on board to estimate numbers from the air. All very spectacular!

Survey plane flushing birds from Ted Harvey Beach

On Friday, we attempted a cannon net catch on Back Beach. The high winds earlier in the week had caused a lot of the knot to head over to the more sheltered New Jersey side of the Bay and many of the remaining birds had moved to the more northerly beaches. When the Sabine’s gull had decided to stop sitting on top of the net, we took a catch of knot, sanderling, dunlin, semis and dowitchers and boated them back to the shade of the nature centre to process. Another catch of 18 turnstone, taken later that afternoon on Slaughter Beach, helped to make the numbers up for that species for the day.

Semipalmated sandpiper ready to go
Sanderling ready to go
Semi heading home

Before I knew it, I had been there for a week and it was nearly time for four of the other Brits to head home. Not wanting to let them have too easy a time of it on their last morning, we went up to Ted Harvey Beach for a cannon net catch. After a lot of twinkling and gentle persuasion, the birds cooperated and we took a nice catch of 50 turnstone, 64 knot, 2 semis and 1 dowitcher. Our findings from earlier in the week were confirmed here, namely that the knot were really, really fat! The target weight for a knot to reach before it leaves Delaware Bay is 180g. Out of the 64 caught, 35 were above this weight, with the heaviest being 208g! The turnstone were similarly rotund, with the heaviest being somewhere around the 175g mark! An evening boat trip to Back Beach found few knot left; most of the re-sightings we were getting were now of turnstone and sanderling.

Members of the Wash Wader Ringing Team after the morning's
catch and before Nigel, Jacquie, Dave and Liz headed home

Sunday was another aerial survey day but the counts were slightly complicated by the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend and the beaches were very busy with people! That evening and Monday morning involved re-sighting trips to Back Beach, with the number of birds present diminishing with every visit. On Tuesday, Slaughter Beach was full of semis so we attempted to catch them using walk-in traps. When it became clear that this wasn’t working, the whoosh net came out and after only two firing attempts, we had just over 200 birds in keeping cages. This gave me a great opportunity to practice measuring heads and bills on a small species.

The semis did not want to play with the walk-in traps... we resorted to the whoosh net!
That afternoon we attended the official launch event for the Delaware Bayshore Initiative (if anyone is interested, details can be found here: which was attended by the great and good of local politicians as well as the US Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. As an equivalent of a British Cabinet Minister, he was accompanied by an extremely unsubtle security detail, which amused some of the Brits greatly!

By now, most of the knot had headed off for colder climes and the remaining species were beginning to follow them. As the birds cleared out, the project started to slow down and the remainder of the time was spent on obtaining as many flag re-sightings as possible. This also meant that there was some free time for birding, which included taking a couple of short trips down to the beautiful Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

On Friday, Kevin took those of us who wanted to go out for a fantastic day’s birding down to Redden State Forest and to Cape Henelope. Before setting out he asked me (as the only person never to have visited the States before) what I would like to see. I proceeded to give him a ridiculously ambitious list knowing I would be happy to see only half of what was on there. Well, I wish I had asked him for the lottery numbers because he delivered every single bird on the list including blue jay (ridiculously common over there but I hadn’t seen one), red-headed woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, scarlet tanager, brown-headed nuthatch and the pièce-de-résistance, piping plover! It was a fabulous day out to end a wonderful two weeks (and it took my bird list total to 112 species).

The piping plover is a threatened species in the US due to habitat
loss, disturbance and predation 
Provisional figures put the total number of birds ringed in 2012 at 1139. Nearly 16 000 colour ring re-sightings were recorded from 3561 individual birds. Not bad for three weeks!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Kevin and Nigel for giving me the opportunity to join the project team and to thank everyone involved in the trip for making it a fabulous and rewarding experience. It was a real privilege to be involved in the project and to work with such a dedicated and knowledgeable team.

The team, as of the middle Saturday of the trip