Sunday, 15 September 2013

Meadow pipits

Yesterday I had the pleasure of getting up at 04:15 to join David at a site near Leek (on the edge of the Peak Park) to try to mist net some meadow pipits. The site was ‘untested’ so neither of us was getting our hopes up too much before we arrived. However, as we set a couple of mist net triangles around hawthorn bushes, we could see and hear lots of birds. Nets set and sound lures on, we retreated to prepare a base and ringing station. Pretty soon, the birds started to show an interest and we took a walk to the nets. As we walked across the field, the birds on the ground flushed and a few flew in to join those already in the nets.

The first round returned a relatively small number of birds (all meadow pipits) which was good as it gave us time to study each bird closely and try to get to grips with ageing them. Having never handled a meadow pipit before (except for one straight out of the nest that was still growing its feathers) I found ageing them to be a little confusing! Their plumage seemed to be incredibly variable. Many were obviously young birds with clear moult limits but some, which looked uniform throughout the wing and which on first inspection looked as though they must be adults, turned out to be juveniles too.

The more we handled, the more variation we noted in size, plumage and fat scores. Interestingly, many of the birds had moulted the second greater covert in from the body, but no others. Many of the birds that had done that had also moulted the lower two tertials (secondary feathers seven and eight) but not the top one (secondary feather nine). Colour was extremely variable with some being quite bright whilst others were a far duller, more olive colour. The colour of the feet also varied between bright orange and dull pink.

Meadow pipit (with quite dull feet)

Note single greater covert has been moulted (second in from body).
In this bird, all of the tertials have also been moulted.

Moulting around the eye

One of the brighter birds we handled
The catching rate increased throughout the morning as the number of birds grew steadily (presumably as more migratory parties moved through). Part way through the morning, we took down one triangle and instead put up a couple of single 30’ nets between bushes. These started to catch with us still standing beside them! I was supposed to be leaving at 11:30 but at 11:15, having just extracted 30+ birds, I realised that this was not going to happen. At this point, we furled the remaining triangle, leaving just the two single nets for David to work with after I had gone.

When I eventually left (at nearer 12:30), we had handled 83 birds (82 meadow pipits and one reed bunting) which was far more than either of us expected. David stayed on until late afternoon and finished on 151 birds! Seeing 80+ individuals of one species in the hand in one morning is a fantastic way to learn about a species and I am very grateful to David for giving me this opportunity.

Mist netting with WWRG

Two days ringing barn owls didn’t seem like quite enough excitement for one weekend, so Sunday afternoon saw me heading over to Norfolk for an evening’s mist netting on Terrington Marsh. A small team assembled at base and pretty soon we were all trundling along to the sea wall with the mist nets and poles. We set three sets of nets, one on ‘E’ pool, one on the cannon netting pool and one between these two. These last two pools hadn’t been used before as mist netting pools (to my knowledge anyway) but often held large numbers of waders (judging by the noise heard coming from them during previous mist netting sessions on the marsh) so hopes were quite high for a good catch.

After a quick tea, we returned to the marsh to set the sound lures and wait for the birds to arrive. We didn’t have to wait for long. Catching on all three sets was steady throughout the evening and we were kept busy until a little after high tide when we took the nets down. The team I was in was last off the marsh and by the time we were back, the processing team was up and running and birds were already being ringed. This meant that there was nothing for me to do but to pick up a pair of pliers and put some rings on birds J

We ended up with another good sample of redshank to add to the samples made earlier in the summer. In addition, we caught about eight ringed plover (very good number for mist netting), a few dunlin, a knot and the star bird of the evening… a little stint! Most people in the group had never seen one of these in the hand so I was feeling very lucky to have been there that night. It was a stunning little bird and, whilst every trip to Norfolk is worthwhile, this made it all the more special! I am looking forward to seeing what the October trip brings.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Barn owls…at last!

So far, this year seems to have been a shocking year for barn owls.  The long cold winter saw many adult birds die, particularly in late March (see This, coupled with a poor breeding season last year due to the bad weather in late summer meant that there were seemingly fewer birds around to breed. Across the country it seems that barn owls are having a pretty tough year (see

So, I was not overly optimistic about finding many chicks to ring when I went out with Jim this weekend. On Saturday, Jim, Emma and I returned to check a few boxes around the Southwell and Flintham areas that had had eggs or very young chicks on the first visit. The first two occupied boxes contained three chicks and an adult each (the first adult being six years old). This was followed by a box of four chicks and an adult and a box with a couple of stock dove chicks in.

When we arrived at the last occupied box, the owner mentioned that there were some campers in the field near the box who would like to watch if we found anything to ring. Well, it was certainly their lucky day. Jim went up the ladder (this one was a little too high for me) and confirmed that the box was occupied. As I stood at the bottom with the campers, Jim carefully took the first chick out of the box, then the second, third, fourth, fifth, six and seventh!!! And then came mum! It was stunning to see so many healthy looking chicks in a single brood. It will need a mild few weeks and a lot of luck for all seven to fledge though – fingers crossed!

Jim braving the tall ladder
These are quite possibly the most photographed barn owl chicks
in Nottingham
On Sunday, Jim and I checked a few boxes in the Vale of Belvoir. We didn’t have quite such a productive morning with only a single barn owl chick ringed. One other box had an adult on eggs and one had an adult on six very young chicks that were too small to ring. We also found a single stock dove chick. Bizarrely, when arriving at one box, which was in a dilapidated barn located next to some hard standing with a manure heap and a puddle of highly contaminated (by the manure) water, we flushed four snipe! Not what we were expecting to see.

What was really interesting for me this weekend was the opportunity to process six adult female barn owls. All the birds were ringed birds, so were of known age. It was fascinating to see birds with similarly aged chicks in different stages of moult and to be able to spend a little time looking closely at the different ages of their feathers. Unfortunately, the photos I took don’t show the subtle differences in colour very well but in this image you can just see the different shades of white on the feathers and see that this bird was still in active moult. This bird was ringed as a chick in 2007 so is six years old.

So, by the end of the weekend, we had ringed eighteen barn owl chicks, which doubled the number ringed by the South Notts Ringing Group (SNRG) this year. It appears that the warm summer has encouraged birds to try to raise late broods (whether these are second broods or late first broods would be interesting to know). I hope that the weather in the next few weeks is kind to these birds and that the majority of them manage to fledge.

For more information and for the possible reasons for the poor year, see Jim’s post on the SNRG blog (

Monday, 2 September 2013

WWRG Main Week

It hardly seemed a minute after returning from the Wash mini week when it was time for the Wash main week. Work commitments meant that I couldn’t make it until Tuesday afternoon but luckily for me, I didn’t miss any catches on the Tuesday morning. As I arrived at the base, Kirsty was just running out of the house with the team’s tea. After a very quick comfort break I followed her down to the marsh to join the small team that had set a single net hoping for a greenshank catch. I soon learned that the rest of the team were over on the Lincolnshire side helping the other team on that side of the Wash.
After a lovely tea we settled in to wait for the birds. With Nigel keeping us informed of what was in the area, we waited expectantly and we weren’t disappointed. It wasn’t long before we were running to the net and extracting four beautiful juvenile greenshank. This was a new species in the hand for three of us so it was fascinating to be able to study them, particularly as it was still daylight. All of the birds were colour ringed as part of an on-going project being carried out elsewhere in the UK.
Ringing a greenshank
The birds were all individually colour marked

Later that evening we headed down to Snettisham Beach to set three nets for the following morning. Given the small team present, it was a remarkably efficient set and we were soon heading back to base for a good night’s sleep. The next morning we were up bright and early and back at the beach for a lovely sample of sanderling with a few dunlin, a single knot and a fantastic grey plover still in full breeding plumage. One of the sanderling was a rather special bird that has become the star of its own post on the BTO’s ‘Demog blog‘ -
On Wednesday afternoon we set nets in a field Lucy had seen large numbers of curlew, godwits and golden plover landing in that morning. We decided to man the nets on Wednesday evening on the off chance that the birds may come in but without high expectations. With a few golden plover around, it looked as though there may be an option for a catch, but despite our best efforts, it wasn’t to be. So, we left the nets in place and headed home, with a few stops along the way to gaze at and take photos of the stunning sunset. The following morning we were back in position at the field but sadly, despite there being hundreds of curlew and godwits around, they just didn’t want to settle in our field.
Cathy and Justin demonstrating how to
put up a hide on a sloping drain bank
The start of the sunset over Terrington Marsh. Later the entire
sky turned a vivid red!
On Thursday evening a few of us decided to check out the greenshank pool again but unfortunately, it had too much water in it for us to set any nets so we headed back to base for a relaxing evening and an early night. Friday morning saw us over at Ken Hill manning a series of nets that we had set in a field the previous day. We were again looking to get a sample of curlew. After a coordinated twinkle, we had the opportunity to make a catch and we were soon busy with 50+ curlew. It was a nice sample which made all the hard work of setting in the grass field the previous day worthwhile.
On Friday night, as there were no viable catching opportunities, we had planned on meeting up with the Lincolnshire team for a meal out but given that it was the start of the bank holiday weekend and the traffic was horrendous, we thought better of it. Instead we made the most of the lovely evening and had a delicious BBQ at the Norfolk base. It was a treat to be able to just relax and chat with friends for the evening.
Team BBQ - and no, I have no idea why Guy has that look on his face!
Saturday morning saw us once again trying our luck with the nets set for curlew. Alas, this time we were thwarted by rain and a peregrine. We did however get to watch a stunning encounter between the peregrine and a golden plover. There was mixed feelings between those watching as to whether we wanted the goldie to get away or whether we wanted the peregrine to get some breakfast so as to stop bothering the birds in our field. In the end, after an incredible and prolonged chase, the goldie escaped the peregrine’s talons (I was in the goldie to win camp so was pleased with this outcome)!
Saturday and Sunday evenings were earmarked for mist netting on the marsh. I love mist netting at night, particularly at this time of year as you never know what you are going to catch. On my first trip to the Wash, three years ago this September, we caught at least thirteen different species in the mist nets. The visitors to the nets this weekend weren’t quite so varied but we did catch a really nice sample of redshank over the two nights. Other species caught included knot, ringed plover, black-tailed godwit, bar-tailed godwit, dunlin, turnstone and a solitary juvenile black-headed gull, which I was lucky enough to ring. I have never before held an adult gull and was pleasantly surprised by how soft its plumage was.
Juvenile black-headed gull
A late finish on Saturday night blended into an early start on Sunday morning as we went and set nets on the marsh in an attempt to increase our redshank sample for the week. Nets set, we all settled down under the tarpaulin to wait for the birds to come into the pool. A message soon came over the radio from Nigel in the hide informing us that the firing box wasn’t working and asking whether anyone had any batteries. A set of AAs was duly produced and Nigel set about trying to fix the box. A minute later there was a popping sound (okay, more like a quiet bang) and the words ‘and that was me blowing up the firing box’ were heard from the hide! Hmmm, this wasn’t going well. But Nigel had a plan to fire the box via the batteries themselves. We just had to wait for the tide and the birds…neither of which materialised. A sparrowhawk came to visit and a marsh harrier was spotted in the distance but the pool we were set on remained resolutely void of birds. We eventually gave up and went back to base where Nigel decided to test out the makeshift firing equipment. As it turned out, the batteries wouldn’t have fired the nets anyway so it was probably a good thing that we didn’t have a decent catch option after all! In the arable field, where a small team were again manning the curlew nets, no birds showed up either.
The week ended on Monday morning with a lie in and a morning spent sorting kit, cleaning up the house, dismantling tent city and disentangling dogs from nets that had been left out to dry! A surprising amount of sleep had been achieved this week but most people were still pretty tired by the time they all departed on Monday afternoon. So, that’s another summer season on the Wash over and done with. Roll on the October weekend!
I would love to know whether Meg
was standing there out of concern for
Semi under the net or whether she was
just laughing at her!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Corncrake Reintroduction Programme

A few weekends ago I was lucky enough to be able to join a few other members of the Wash Wader Ringing Group in assisting with monitoring work as part of the Corncrake Reintroduction Programme in Cambridgeshire. The project, which started in 2001, is a joint venture between the RSPB, Natural England, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust. Corncrakes used to be a widespread across the UK but in recent years, breeding has been heavily concentrated in the Western Isles of Scotland. The scheme has been releasing captive bred corncrakes on an RSPB reserve in Cambridgeshire to try to encourage the species to breed in the wild in England again.  

Travelling over early on the Saturday morning, I was hopeful of seeing my first corncrake, having previously only ever heard them once. On arrival, we were introduced to Dr Rhys Green (RSPB / Cambridge University) and Hannah Ward (RSPB), along with the rest of the team, and we were then treated to the most hilarious briefing I have ever heard. At this time of year, the adults are all in full wing moult so are flightless, the very young birds are not fully developed enough to fly and only the fully grown juveniles are capable of flight. So, the mission was to gently encourage the birds to walk through the grassland they were (hopefully) hiding in until they reached a fence that was blocking their way. In the apex of the fence is an enclosure which we wanted them to enter. Once inside, we would then be able to retrieve the birds safely. The method of ‘encouraging’ the birds into the enclosures is interesting and not for the self-conscious and the description given in the briefing had us all in stitches!  

Briefing over, we split into two teams and headed to our respective areas of grassland. The next two hours were spent slowly walking the area and was surprisingly tiring! As we neared the fence, our hopes were not overly high as not a single bird had been seen or heard. Hannah was more optimistic however, having spent many days going through this process in other areas of the site. Apparently, they had never had a day without at least one bird being found so we remained positive. As we got closer, a call came from Jacquie on the other side of the bank – ‘we have one’! That was when the grin started to appear on my face. When the shout came of a second and a third bird, the grin widened considerably! When we reached the fence on our side and found five little balls of fluff running about in the enclosure, well, let’s just say the Cheshire cat had nothing on me that day!!! 

In total, on the Saturday, we found eleven individuals between the two teams. The next hour or so was spent ringing the un-ringed birds (seven in total), ageing, sexing (where possible) and taking biometrics (wing length, head and bill length, weight etc.). DNA swabs were also taken from the birds. Once the monitoring was finished, the birds were all safely released back into the wild. 

Ringing a corncrake

Measuring wing length

Close up

Corncrake being released - they are like lightening!

The afternoon was spent moving the fences to a new section of the site in readiness for the following day. A very happy but tired team then headed home for the evening. Sunday saw us repeating the whole process but with a slightly different team. This time only one bird was located, but it was also un-ringed so was another new individual for the project. Each of the birds adds valuable information to the monitoring programme and each young un-ringed bird found reflects a wild bred bird (all juveniles released as part of the reintroduction project are ringed prior to release) which is fantastic news for the project.

It was a real privilege to be involved in the project and I hope to be able to take part again in the future.