Saturday, 26 April 2014

A four day Easter weekend…what to do? Ringing, ringing, ringing, what else?

It all started on Friday when I spent the day checking tawny owl boxes with Jim in the south of Nottingham. I arrived at Jim’s in the morning full of high hopes that this season would prove to be a better season than last for this charismatic species. With ladders loaded, we set off in the Landrover to the first of the 24 boxes we were planning on visiting.

As the day progressed, we found box after box occupied. Unfortunately, they weren’t occupied by tawny owls! The last box before lunch contained an adult female tawny on small chicks and this turned out to be the only owl we handled all day (the chicks were too young to ring), but she was a pretty special bird all the same. She was first ringed by Jim in front of Central TV cameras in 2007 and was aged as an adult back then (aged as an 8 for the ringers reading this). She has only been caught once since then, in 2011. So, this lovely bird is at least ten years old and still going strong.

Beautiful tawny owl - if you look really closely, you might
be able to make out Jim reflected in her eye!
We found one other owl sitting tight (presumably on eggs) so we left her alone, and one other cold, abandoned egg (egg dump?). The remaining boxes were filled with stock doves, jackdaws or squirrels. Only four boxes were empty so, although not housing the target species, at least they are being put to good use. There are plenty of other boxes still to be checked so it is a little early to say that it isn’t a good year, but two out of 24 boxes wasn’t a great start. Here’s hoping the birds to the north of the Trent are doing a little better!

After lunch on Saturday with my family, I got back behind the wheel and trundled over to Norfolk to join a small group of WWRG members for an evening mist netting waders. Due to being a crock (bad back / hip) I helped to cook tea whilst the other members of the team set nets on both of the pools that we normally catch on at Terrington Marsh. It is not often that the tide times offer mist netting opportunities in April so we awaited dusk with keen anticipation.

It was chillier than expected once the sun bade us farewell for the evening (we had been spoiled by the recent mild weather) so it was back to the usual multiple layers usually associated with a Wash trip. The clear skies meant we had to wait longer than expected for it to be dark enough to head out onto the marsh to set the sound lures. Aron took his team out to the ‘E’ pool first and Nigel’s team (of which I was a part) twiddled their thumbs for a while before deciding it was just about dark enough to head out to the white barn nets. In truth, it was still light enough to easily see where we were going (which was a treat) so we tucked ourselves up against the inner sea wall for a few more minutes.

When Nigel returned from setting the sound lures, he was holding bird bags – it wasn’t going to be a blank evening at least! It didn’t turn out to be heaving with birds, but then we didn’t expect it to be. Instead, the birds trickled slowly into the nets which gave the new and inexperienced members of the Group chance to have a go at extracting in the dark – especially good fun when the nets are billowing in the stiff breeze. Sadly, despite the clear skies, the leonid meteor shower was not very evident but I did spot a good few satellites going over and the skyscape was mesmerising anyway.

At just past high tide we took the nets down and took the birds back to base to process. I joined the processing team where I took bill length and total head and bill length measurements for all of the birds. The catch comprised 35 dunlin and two of last year’s redshank. Interestingly, nine of the dunlin were of the schinzii race which is unusual to see at this time of year. 

As the plan was to have a lazy Sunday morning (rain was forecast) I took the opportunity to set a moth trap up in the garden. I was pleasantly surprised to find three Hebrew characters, one muslin moth and one early grey in the trap when I checked it on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the early grey flew away before I could capture a photograph of it but the other two species were more obliging. Despite the blustery conditions, I was able to get a couple of shots that I was quite pleased with.

Male muslin moth in all its glory
The very cute face of the male muslin moth 
Hebrew character moth - check out that eye!
As the weather was forecast to be wet and very windy on Sunday evening, we decided not to mist net at Gedney on Sunday night. So, by just before 11am, we were all on our way back to our respective homes (most unlike a Wash trip). So, it may have been short and sweet but it was a nice, relaxing weekend (by Wash trip standards).

The unsettled weather cleared up on Monday in time for the second visit to the heronry at Besthorpe Nature Reserve near Newark. The previously planned visit had been cancelled due to the weather so it was a relief that this weekend we were able to return to check the nests that had been occupied during the first visit.

On this occasion, the row over to the island was a much easier affair thanks to having two oars in the boat! The team was a smaller one than last time, so when all the people and equipment had been safely ferried across to the island, we set off as one group to the first tree. Now, some of you may know that I don’t have a particularly good head for heights so I am always extremely grateful that there are people out there that seem to enjoy climbing dead looking trees for us. This week, we had Andy and Richard to do the climbing and thanks to their valiant efforts, 26 chicks were collected, ringed and safely returned to their nests.

Andy in a tree - rather him than me!
Heron chick
Heron chick being ringed
Ringing in progress
By mid-afternoon the weather started to turn and the climbers started to tire so we called it a day. There were still more chicks to ring but the welfare of the birds takes priority and we had to let the adult birds return to their nests to feed their chicks and to prevent the remaining eggs from getting cold. The chicks that are still small enough to ring without risk of them jumping from their nests will be ringed on the next visit in May.

Surprisingly, there is also a tawny owl nest on the island so whilst we were there, we took the opportunity to check this too. In contrast to what Jim and I found on Friday, this box contained four healthy chicks that were duly ringed. When we had finished and packed up all the heron ringing equipment Jim and I nipped down to Girton to check yet another tawny owl box. We were delighted to find that this one was also occupied by a tawny owl on small chicks. A return visit in a week or so should see the chicks adorned with some uniquely marked metal work!

So, all in all, it was a fantastic weekend of ringing spent in great company. I was a little bit tired at the end of it though!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Decoy making

Bird decoys are used during cannon netting to encourage passing birds to settle in the area in front of the nets. If made well, they will last many years but eventually, some will reach the end of their usefulness and new ones will be needed. Over the years, whenever a recently deceased bird that looks to be in good condition is found, it is put into the freezer until it is turned into a decoy. And so it was that last weekend nine members of the Wash Wader Ringing Group met at Nigel and Jacquie’s house to turn the frozen birds into a new batch of decoys.

The first task of the day was to process the (now defrosted) birds and record the details of where they were found, ring details (if ringed), age, wing length etc. After this, the day got a little gorier. I will spare you the details (or the photos) of how decoys are made, save to say it is a long, detailed and intricate process. The aim is to end up with a decoy that looks as realistic, and in as good a condition, as possible despite being stuffed full of cotton wool, wire, latex and formalin and having beads for eyes (oh and standing on a block of wood of course!). I came away from the weekend with a new found respect for taxidermists!

A little more work still has to be carried out once they are completely dry in a few weeks’ time (told you it was a long process) but by Sunday evening, 24 waders (curlew, black-tailed godwit, bar-tailed godwit, redshank, greenshank and knot) and one common gull had been re-born as decoys. Let’s hope they have long and fruitful afterlives helping us to catch lots more of their living relatives, and in so doing, help us to further our knowledge of their respective species.

Ready to be preserved (from the top: curlew, common gull,
bar-tailed godwit, redshank and knot)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

WWRG weekend

Last weekend I joined my friends at the Wash Wader Ringing Group for a weekend of ringing and colour ring re-sighting. Arriving on Friday evening I was told that we would be having a leisurely evening and going out colour ring resighting the next morning. That was fine with me!

Saturday morning saw me teaming up with Ron to visit Heacham North and Heacham North North beaches. There are usually plenty of turnstone and sanderling on this beach and a high proportion of them are ringed, so the site is normally quite productive. The number of birds present this morning was quite low but the proportion of turnstone carrying colour rings was high which provided us with some great data.

Colour rings allow individual birds to be tracked throughout their lifetime without needing to catch them more than once. This allows information about longevity and movements to be collected very easily and without putting any undue stress on the birds. A morning spent recording fifteen or so individual colour ring combinations is therefore incredibly valuable. If you are out and about and see a colour ringed or flagged bird, please note the details and report it at

Colour ringed turnstone
By 9am, we were back at base and before long we were tucking in to a hearty breakfast which would have to see us through until tea that evening. By mid-morning we were heading down to Heacham South Beach where we set two large mesh nets with the hope of catching some oystercatchers. Catching in the afternoon in lovely warm sunshine is a luxury that we are unaccustomed to, particularly in March, but a warm, sunny beach also has its downside when it comes to trying to catch waders… people! The team members positioned at each end of the beach to chat to members of the public were kept pretty busy and we even had to send someone out to chat to a photographer who had snuck up unnoticed over the sea wall and was quite close to standing on the nets by the time we reached him! That doesn’t happen  at 5:30am!

After the visitor had kindly moved back behind the sea wall, the catching effort resumed but we were not especially hopeful as the birds seemed to be favouring an area further down the beach from our nets. Luckily, things came together just in the nick of time and we were able to make a fantastic catch of 66 oystercatchers and a single turnstone. We processed the catch on the beach so were able to chat to lots of interested passers-by and tell them about the work we were doing and the conservation benefits of ringing. 

As we had a decent sized team and not too many birds, I was able to do some ‘double winging’, which is where two people measure the wing of the same birds to enable a comparison of their measurements to be made (some people measure shorter or longer than others). This data helps to ensure consistency between different ringers. I was very happy that I was pretty consistent with the person I was being compared to on every bird!

When we got back to base, Richard had a quick look at the ringing information for the birds that we had caught that already had rings on. We were astonished to find that one of the birds had been ringed back in 1980! We are waiting to hear how old it was when it was first ringed but whatever the answer, this bird was older than a few of the ringers.

Ringed oystercatcher (not the 34 year old one)
Being at the Wash on weekends when the clocks change can be a little confusing as we stay on GMT for the duration of the trip. Unfortunately, no-one ever tells that to our clever mobile phones. This year I remembered to switch off the alarm on my phone and relied instead on the old fashioned alarm clock that my room-mate had brought with her. Thankfully, this meant that I didn’t get up an hour earlier than necessary as I (and quite a few others) did last year. Getting up at 5am GMT (6am BST) was bad enough!

We spent the morning out colour ring resighting again and this time Ron and I visited Ken Hill looking for flagged curlew. There weren’t too many birds around on the fields that morning and we therefore only managed to find and read one flag, but that is still useful data. The most surprisingly element of the morning was the huge number of brown hares about – in one field alone, we counted fifteen! We were hoping for a bit of boxing action, but had to settle for a minor spat.

Flagged curlew
After another hearty breakfast we held the Group’s AGM before packing up and heading back to our respective parts of the country.