Sunday, 4 August 2013

WWRG mini week

Last weekend marked the start of the Wash Wader Ringing Group’s summer trips. The ‘mini week’ started on Wednesday, but I was unable to get there before Thursday evening. Luckily for me, I didn’t miss much as the teams hadn’t managed to make a catch on Thursday morning.

During the summer trips, the team is split between the Norfolk side of the Wash and the Lincolnshire side. I was due to be part of the Norfolk team for this trip but on Thursday, I received a call from Jacquie telling me to meet them on the Lincolnshire side that evening. The Lincolnshire side had the better catch options for Thursday evening and Friday morning so everyone had de-camped over there from Norfolk for the evening.

When I arrived in Friskney I was informed that everyone was out and about. Nets had been set in three different fields and the team was split between the three. I joined base camp for Jacquie and Steve’s team and was delighted to find Sally, who is one of the American volunteers from the Delaware Shorebird Project, had come over to join us. I later found that another American, Sheila, who had met us whilst we were ringing on Slaughter Beach, had also come over for this trip. It was lovely to see them both.

Sadly, none of the teams generated a catch on Thursday night so on Friday morning, we re-grouped and headed out to man the nets again, this time with a little more success. As we sat waiting for some of the tens of thousands of birds that were in the air above our cabbage field to settle in the catching area, we heard that Nigel’s team had made a big catch of knot and bar-tailed godwit. Richard’s team was heading over to help them so we decided to stay put. A few minutes later we were driving like the clappers (well, after I had managed to stall Dave’s car a couple of times that is) towards our nets that had been fired on a sizeable catch of (mostly) dunlin. This is the first time I have ever run to a catch with the words ‘mind the cabbages’ being shouted at everyone! As we were nearly finished extracting, Nigel called requesting additional help to extract their birds so Steve, Rachel and Francis swiftly departed in Dave’s car, taking half our bags and personal kit with them.

Left with a relatively small team, a ticking clock (all birds should be released within four hours of the time the net is fired) and a lot of dunlin, Jacquie and I decided to ‘ring and fling’ one hundred birds before setting up the processing team (for non-ringers, ‘ringing and flinging’ is when you ring and age the birds and let them go straight away without collecting any additional biometric data such as wing length and weight). With the first hundred birds gone we started processing. I was the scribe and it was at this point I realised that my glasses had been on the dashboard of Dave’s car and were therefore at Nigel’s catch! Such is life. We ended up processing one hundred birds, plus all the re-traps, with the rest being ringed and released. We finished on over 500 birds, mostly dunlin and a couple of knot. Nigel’s team caught approximately 850 birds. All in all, a great morning’s work; the cabbages all survived intact and I was safely reunited with my glasses back at the base! 

That afternoon we headed out and re-set the nets on two different fields (Richard’s nets still being in place) for a catch attempt on Saturday morning before having the evening off. The one night stay in Lincs had turned into two, which was fine for me as I had all my stuff with me but slightly more difficult for those that had only brought an overnight bag from the base in Norfolk. Clean clothes were not the order of the day!

On Saturday morning we were back at base camp and I was sitting in the driver’s seat of Richard’s 4x4. As things started to get interesting we were sent to try to twinkle a group of curlew from a field a couple down from ours. I was slightly nervous driving the car as I had never before driven a 4x4, but soon warmed up to it when we fired the nets and had to race to the catch. This time, both Richard’s team and Nigel’s team caught a small number of curlew, godwits and knot (approximately 30 birds each). The processing was slightly less frenetic than the previous day!

After much discussion (and a fruitless recce at Terrington), it was decided that the team would again stay in Lincs and try for a catch on Wainfleet Island the following morning. As this meant not needing to set nets that afternoon, a few of the Norfolk team took the opportunity to nip over to Norfolk to collect their cars and belongings and grab showers. The rest of us spent a pleasant afternoon relaxing and walking the dogs before tucking into a lovely selection of curries made by Daphne and Mike (and helpers).

So, Sunday was the first early (ish) morning that we had on the trip and by 05:30 we were all piled into cars and on our way to Wainfleet. After a 20 minute walk with all the kit and an efficient net set we were soon settling down under the tarpaulins to wait for the tide to push the oystercatchers off their roost site in Friskney and round to our catching area. As the snoring started, we waited… and waited… and waited for the tide that never came. Sadly, the weather had caused it to cut and after a failed attempt to twinkle some sanderling into the catching area, we gave up, picked up the nets and headed back to base for a quick breakfast, clean-up of the hall and home.

I always thoroughly enjoy my trips to ring with WWRG and this time was no different. As always, the company is what makes the trips so enjoyable and it was fun to be one big team for this trip. It was also good to experience a ‘Lincolnshire side’ trip, even though I did miss the showers and comfortable beds that the Norfolk base has to offer! I am already looking forward to the main week in a couple of weeks’ time… and who knows, I might even remember to take some photos on that trip!

Owl ringing (and more)

I recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days checking nest boxes in the south of Nottingham with Jim. The target species were barn owl, kestrel and little owl. Some readers may be aware that tawny owls have had a pretty bad year this year and now it appears that barn owls are also having a bad time of it. Only two of the boxes I helped Jim to check had barn owls in residence. One box that had held four chicks and a chipping egg last time Jim checked it, only had two painfully thin chicks left. The second box was more encouraging, containing four healthy chicks.

One of the two thin owl chicks

It really isn't the beak you have to worry about.
Barn owls are so chilled in the hand

Barn owl with spots - probaly a female
Still got a bit of fluff to lose yet!
Chilling out on the bonnet of the landy
Four beautiful fluffballs

I chickened out of climbing that ladder!

The one little owl nest we checked had failed, despite the adult previously having been on eggs but it seems that at least kestrels are doing well. On one day, we had five boxes with either four or five chicks. The chicks in one brood were too big to ring (risk of them jumping out of the nest) but the others were all ringed.
One of the younger kestrel chicks ringed

Older kestrel chick

The second day of ringing was dominated by stock doves, with by the far the majority of the boxes containing this species. Most of the boxes had birds sitting on eggs but a couple had ringable chicks in. They aren’t the prettiest of chicks are they?

Check that out for an egg tooth!
It will be interesting to see the tallies at the end of the year, but if this trend continues, it doesn’t bode well for the barn owls this year!

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Shiants 2013

Those of you who follow my blog (is there anyone?) will know that during my recent ringing trip to America, I posted updates as I was going along. I extend my sincere apologies to anyone who was expecting the same thing from my recent trip ringing seabirds on the Shiants Isles.

The Shiants Isles have to be one of the most beautiful, atmospheric, mesmerising and unforgettable places I have ever been to. They are incredibly peaceful, yet can be deafeningly noisy. They are small and compact, yet full of mysteries. They are uninhabited, yet full to bursting with life. Most of all, they are a challenge and they certainly live up to their name; the ‘enchanted isles’.  

The Shiants comprise three main islands; House Island (where the bothy is), Rough Island and Mary Island. Rough Islands hosts the main puffin colony, the auk bolder colony, the bonxies, many of the gulls and shags and, if you are very lucky (I wasn’t), you might even see a white-tailed eagle on there! House Island is home to more shags and gulls, a few bonxies, a kittiwake colony, fulmars, smaller auk colonies and black rats! Mary Island has another puffin colony and lots of gulls; I have yet to visit this island.

House Island in the distance with the boulder
colony at Carnach Mhor in the foreground

Rough Island - we climbed this in 40+ mph winds on two
consecutive days (and came down in driving rain on one of them)

Mary Island from Rough Island
Very few people have ever heard of the Shiants Isles. This is because they are remote, located in the Hebrides in north-west Scotland about twelve miles north of Skye and four miles from Lewis. On a clear day you can see Skye, Lewis, Harris and mainland Scotland from the islands. On a bad day, you can see none of the above! The islands are uninhabited and have no running water, no electricity until dark when the generator we take with us is switched on (and dark that far north in the summer is late!), no ‘facilities’ and certainly no internet (except for patchy signal on smart phones). Few people have heard of them because few people are ever lucky enough to go there.

This year’s visit was my third adventure to this magical place. Each year at the end of June and the beginning of July, the Shiants Auk Ringing Group (SARG) spends two weeks ringing seabirds on the islands. The journey starts with a boat trip on the wonderful Sea Harris ( which we meet at Uig on Skye; the trip takes about an hour and a half (if you head straight there). This year the sea was a little choppy and I was beginning to regret not having popped a travel pill when the islands loomed out of the mist and both the sight of them and the promise of solid ground under my feet soon had me smiling again.  It wasn’t long before we were anchoring offshore and relaying everyone and everything we needed for the duration of the trip to the beach in a RIB and lugging it all to the campsite and bothy. After a much needed cuppa, it was all hands on tents as we battled the strong winds to get our tents up before the rain arrived.

Lovely dry tent ready to take on the worst the Minch has to offer
So, what do we go there to ring? Well, the islands are home to many thousands of birds but the primary focus for SARG is the auks. We undertake two RAS (Re-trapping Adults for Survival) projects, one on puffins and one on razorbills. We also try to ring as many razorbill chicks as possible. We ring guillemots (adults and chicks) and we colour ring the shags, bonxies (great skuas) and gulls (common, lesser and great black-backed). We ring any waders we find (and can catch) and we ring any storm petrels that we can persuade to come and visit us (by sound lure). We also try to ring the arctic tern chicks in the colony on Fladaigh Chuain, another small, uninhabited island that we visit en route to or from the Shaints. That is the theory anyway! 
Puffin RAS slope with Lewis in the
background (it is a bit steep up there!)

Puffin in mist net
This year’s trip was slightly different. Those of us on the second week of the trip were watching the weather forecast with interest from the moment we heard that the first week’s team were sailing on the Saturday rather than Sunday morning in order to dodge the wind. Hmmm, not an auspicious start! News then trickled through that not all of the birds had read the manual on when to breed. Things were late and there weren’t many auk chicks about. Then we heard that we might also be sailing on the Saturday instead of Sunday; then it was back to Sunday; then it was definitely get to Uig on Saturday just in case; then it was we are definitely going on the Saturday evening! Things were a little changeable – good old British weather!!! But, we made it over to the islands on Saturday evening and we were all set up and raring to go a day before we expected to be so we were a happy bunch of campers.

Then the rain came… and kept on coming. And then the winds came to join the party. The Minch had decided to test out our camping gear! Unfortunately, some were left wanting but I was one of the lucky ones who had a strong, waterproof and cosy home for the week. I love my tent! So, Sunday was a complete washout, which I was actually not too sorry about as I had arrived on the islands somewhat shattered so a day of doing nothing was just what I needed. After all, we had the rest of the week to blitz the ringing… didn’t we?

Well, actually no, not quite. This year the Hebrides decided to throw everything at us; gale force winds, driving rain, cold…you get the picture. But did we let it stop us? Of course not, we are ringers after all! When the RIB wouldn’t work, we just walked into the bolder colony. When it was too windy to drive the RIB, we walked over the top of Rough Island to get to where we needed to be. When the storms threatened, we hunkered down and waited them out. When the winds were too strong to keep mist nets up… well, then we took them down, sulked a little and admitted defeat!

Juvenile (last year's young) razorbill above and comparison of
wings with an adult bird below
Despite the weather, we successfully managed to undertake both RAS projects, ringed as many of the gull chicks as we could find, spent a fair amount of time in the boulder colony and so on. However, the provisional ringing totals for 2013 suggest that we ringed significantly fewer birds this year than during the previous two trips that I have been on, which was for the most part due to the lack of ringable chicks. Whereas we would normally ring c. 500 razorbill, guillemot and shag chicks, this year we managed approximately 30! For some reason, these birds (and the bonxies) were late breeding this year (or seemingly hadn’t attempted to breed in the case of the shags). Those that had bred, were mostly still on eggs and the young that were around were mostly too small to ring. Strangely, the puffins, gulls, waders and terns all seemed to be on time with their breeding. Sadly, the storm petrels were also conspicuous by their absence. Despite three attempts over the two weeks, only four birds were caught. We put up a net on our last night (the only night calm enough to try) but sadly, to no avail.

Common gull chick

On Wednesday, a team from the BBC Coast programme joined us to film the puffin RAS and talk to Ian and David (two of the original members of the SARG) about old puffins. We managed to find them a 30 year old, which they seemed quite pleased about!

Coast crew filming Ian on puffin RAS slope
The team with the BBC Coast crew on the last day (thanks to
Charlie E for the photo)
As is typical, our last evening on the islands was glorious which gave us chance to visit the lesser black-backed colony (only three chicks found) and gave me the chance to try to snap some photos of the elusive black rat. The trip home on Sunday was flat calm (surreally so) which meant we could land on Fladaigh Chuain to ring the arctic tern chicks, a few shag chicks and, much to Ian’s delight, a single black guillemot (tystie) chick. Hearing the tysties calling / singing so close was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry!

Black rats. If you look closely, you might just be able to see
the peanut butter lure
Arctic tern chicks
Black guillemot (tystie) chick and egg

Beautiful tysties on Fladaigh Chuain
Shag on Fladaigh Chuain
The Sea Harris with the Shiants Isles behind
The Shiants Isles from Fladaigh Chuain

So, all in all, this year’s trip was dominated by the weather and the late breeding season. Despite the challenging conditions it was (as always) a fantastic week which was thoroughly enjoyed by all of us. Roll on next year!

The obligatory Sea Room tribute photo at the top of Rough Island,
with Mary Island behind (thanks to Bob for the photo)
The obligatory last morning team photo (thanks to Charlie M for photo)
The obligatory 'on the boat heading home' photo (thanks to
Bob for the photo)
The slow ringing also allowed me the opportunity to play with my camera a little. Below is a selection of my favourite shots. I particularly had fun taking pictures of birds in flight this year.

Arctic terns

Bonxie (great skua)

Herring gull




Possible intermediate phase fulmar?


The Galtas (with Lewis behind)
Ringed guillemot taking off
Bridled guillemot being whacked by a razorbill
Southern end of House Island

A stupid number of puffin shots (believe me this is the edited
selection). I would apologise but they are just too cute!