17 Nov 2014

Odd moults and poor quality feathers.

Ringing at Barry's always throws up something interesting due to the sheer number of birds we catch in his garden. Our most  recent session was Friday afternoon after a hastily rearranged meeting time due to torrential rain forecast first thing in the morning. It was a good session with 122 birds processed of which 90 were new and the rest re-traps. As usual the majority of birds were Blue & Great Tits but we had a good smattering of other species. Ringers in other parts of the country have been commenting on unusual moult in Blue Tits with birds having poor quality feathers and being infested with feather mites and lice. Whether this is as a result of poor weather during their moult  period or some other factor remains to be seen. I'm seeing this locally and sure enough we caught an adult Blue Tit at Barry's that had failed to moult its 4th & 9th primary even though it had replaced all the rest.

Some birds are moulting pretty late in the year and we caught this gorgeous adult male Bullfinch that was still growing its 6th secondary on each wing.

Bullfinches generally moult all their greater coverts during their post juvenile moult but retain the carpal covert. In juvenile birds this is edged  buff / brown whereas in adults it's white with possibly a hint of pink! This male was aged as an adult from the carpal covert which has a nice white fringe.
From memory I think this is the 8-9th Bullfinch we've trapped at this site in the last year and previously we hadn't caught any!

With autumn comes the annual raking of the leaves and with our lawn smothered I took the opportunity to spend some time tidying up whilst the weather was dry over the weekend. Of course it also gave me the opportunity to put some mist nets up in the garden.............

One of the 'highlights' was this unfortunate Great Tit that was 1st ringed as a juvenile in May this year. The feather quality is appalling and you can see the wear on the primaries already. How this bird will be able to fly if the wear gets worth I don't know. This bird is also very unusual in that it has retained the outermost juvenile greater covert. Great Tits very rarely do this although its quite often seen in Blue Tits.
This suggests the bird was under environmental 'stress' during both its fledging period and its post juvenile moult. Assuming the bird was hatched during April we had some pretty torrential rain that would have made the adults job of feeding the youngsters very hard. It looks as if there were fault bars in all the primaries and the feathers have broken / warn at this week point. The bird was otherwise healthy with a good fat score and weight. It'll be interesting to retrap it again over the winter to see how its fairing.

On a brighter note I retrapped a Goldfinch 1st ringed back in July as a recent fledgling. It has undergone a post juvenile moult and was sexed as a male. It's retained a fairly obvious juvenile greater covert. Its also obvious from this photo how the white bit of the feathers wear faster than the darker bits! This is a feature of white feathers  and can also be seen on the tail of Goldfinches.

Goldcrests have been a feature in my garden this year. Although not huge numbers there has been a significant increase in birds compared to previous years and I ringed another new bird this weekend as well as retrapping two individuals from previous weeks.

2011 - none, 2012 - 1, 20013 - none, 2014 - 4!

The nearest they breed to me is Stanney Woods about 3 km away as the bird flies so whether these are local birds or some of the huge number of Scandinavian migrants filtering across from the east coast remains to be seen.

10 Nov 2014

Poms & Barred Warblers

As is often the case it was two phone calls form Steve that formed the basis of two memorable birding experiences this weekend.

The first came Friday morning when he rang me to say Derek had rescued an injured Pomarine Skua on Hilbre which seemed to have a wing strain and couldn't fly properly. He was driving across in his Landrover to pick it up and Derek was keeping it overnight before handing it to the RSPCA if there was no improvement in its condition. I jumped at the chance of seeing one of these skua's close up - they're a description species in Cheshire and most of the time you just see a shape careening after a hapless gull or tern out at sea in stormy conditions. Breeding in N Russia they're a scarce but mostly annual visitor in small numbers with only a handful of records each year.

The bird appeared bright and feisty so we hope its just wing strain. I took the opportunity to take photo's showing some of the relevant identification features including undertail coverts, underwing pattern and bill colour. A beautiful bird and hopefully it will recover and be released off Hilbre to continue its southerly migration.
 Juvenile Pomarine Skua showing typical bi-coloured bill
 Upper tail coverts and tail with central projections

 Underwing pattern
Undertail coverts

I'd arranged to meet Steve at his house Sunday and drive across to Hilbre to undertake the regular WeBS count which also coincided with a Brent Goose survey. It was a beautiful day and we used the Landrover as a platform from which to count the Brent's as the tide was flooding.

 The eventual number was 95 and we got a very accurate count over the high tide when all the birds were loafing around on the sea. We also counted family groups and it was good to see a few juveniles still associating with their parents.

A seawatch counting numbers for the WeBS survey was very successful with good numbers of Red-throated Divers, Common Scoter and Great-crested Grebes numbering in the hundreds for each!

Passerines were well represented with flyover Skylarks whilst the bird feeders in the Obs garden attracted two Goldfinches.

The amount of red on the face of the bird above and the colour of the nasal hairs strongly suggest its a female.  There were a few unringed Robins around and a Song Thrush suggesting there had been a small movement of these species locally over the last few days.

The tide had fallen enough for us to leave the island by 15.15 and after dropping Steve off I headed home to wash the underside of the Landrover and get some food. Just as I'd finished at the jetwash Steve made his second memorable call.

'You might want to turn round and come back as Tony Bell's found a Barred Warbler in his garden'
Bugger. By now the light was beginning to fade and I had doubts that I'd get back to West Kirby before the bird went to roost. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. After all this was a Cheshire lifer for me. After a quick pit stop at home I was thundering back along the M53 and arrived at Tony's to find Steve, Degs, Steph, Andrea & Colin all watching the bird from Tony's kitchen as it pecked at an apple on the tree in his garden. I didn't take my camera as I didn't think it would be showing quite so well! Photo below by Steve Williams and nicked from his twitter feed.

Another photo below courtesy of Colin Jones:

Tony is a founder member of Hilbre Bird Observatory and many thanks to him for allowing us all into his kitchen to view this bird. Although not rare in a national sense and probably best described as scarce passage migrants they are commoner  on the east coast but pretty scarce on the west.

The significance of this Barred Warbler? It was my 300th species in Cheshire & Wirral. I started birding in the county when a student at Manchester University between 1979 -1982 and this year have added three new species to my County list: Barred Warbler, Night Heron and Little Bunting. Over the years I've also found one new County species myself which was the UK's 10th Iberian Chiffchaff and been present when another was found and caught on Hilbre - Red-flanked Bluetail!

4 Nov 2014

A pleasant weekend spent locally.

Friday afternoon and in warm autumn sunshine saw me sauntering down to Stanney Woods for a wander round to see if I could spot the Lesser-spotted Woodpecker now the leaves are coming off the trees. I didn't find the Lesser Spot but found something even better! Whilst wandering through the centre of the wood I heard a call I was instantly familiar with – as would be anyone who’d spent the autumns birding on Shetland. A YELLOW BROWED WARBLER! A first for Stanney and for the local area although relatively regular on the N Wirral coast. An excellent addition to the Stanney list. 

I watched the bird briefly high up in the canopy before it flew off with the tit flock it was associating with. Anything up in the canopy in Stanney is always difficult to see as the photo's above illustrate.

As well as the birds Stanney is a good place for fungi. There's lots of decaying wood on the ground left purposefully by the rangers to attract invertebrates and fungi. I think these are Sulphur Tuft's.
A measure of how warm it is was apparent when a Southern Hawker dragonfly was seen flying over one of the ponds in the woods – a real case of autumn waif meeting summer straggler.
The rest of the weekend was spent pottering around doing odd jobs but also doing some ringing in the garden and keeping an eye on the skies in case something interesting flew over. There have been a lot of Pinkfeet in the area recently and skeins have been regularly flying over the garden. 

Other visible migrants included Skylarks and Grey Wagtails as well as the expected Redwings. I didn't expect Whooper Swan though but one flew high heading SE on Sunday. Maybe to join the wintering flock on the Dee estuary? More unusual for the garden were three Mistle Thrushes that kept flying around making a racket.

Highlight of the ringing sessions were a Chiffchaff and a Nuthatch along with small numbers of Coal Tits and Goldcrests. Numbers really haven’t built up yet as the weathers been so mild.
Nuthatch under tail coverts.

It was nice to catch this young Blue Tit which was actually ringed in a next box in the garden in may this year and not seen since. It was one of a brood of 10  and the first one ringed!
Chaffinch numbers also seem to be increasing no doubt boosted by continental immigrants and this 1st winter female shows a good example of a juvenile type tail with generally pointed feathers and narrow central tail feathers. Several female birds had wing lengths around 82-83 mm suggesting they might be Scandinavian birds.

Finally my rescue of the two Kingfishers in an industrial unit at Sandycroft has been written up in the Autumn edition of Wirral Wildlife's newsletter. Click on the links: Kingfishers and my blog post here

30 Oct 2014

Coal Tits and Goldcrests.

After the excitement of the Lewis trip and getting home very late I had a bit of a lie in! Until 11.00 am to be exact! I've never slept in that late before - even as a student. With no inclination to walk to far or exert myself in anyway I spent the rest of the afternoon doing some ringing in the garden and catching up on some admin. Surprisingly there were a few Coal Tits and Goldcrests around. One of the Goldcrests caught was this lovely 1st winter male.

All the Coal Tits were juveniles and aged as such by the moult contrast in the greater coverts. Coal Tits are unusual in that the adult type Greater coverts are actually shorter than the juvenile ones as can be seen in the photo below. The newer adult type are the inner darker ones and this bird has retained the outer 4 browner juvenile greater coverts.

I also caught this unfortunate male Chaffinch with scaly mite diseased legs. This is probably the worst case I've seen and birds like this are not ringed. It has been reported through the Garden Wildlife Health pages here.

Another good bird to see again was this smart looking fella 1st ringed as an adult in 2013.

The garden feeders aren't particularity busy as the weathers so mild a lot of birds are still  foraging for natural food. the finches are enjoying the sunflower hearts though & I'm continuing to catch small numbers of Gold finches and Greenfinches. Some of the juvenile Goldfinches have a very limited post juvenile moult and retain quite a few old greater coverts such as this bird below. Note the brown tipped juvenile greater coverts.

Another interesting bird was this Greenfinch that seemed to have undergone an asymmetric moult with primaries 6-8 being new and secondaries 1 & 2  also seemingly replaced.

A good little session culminating in this Bronze Shieldbug  - a new species for the garden!

25 Oct 2014

I'm all about the Swift, about the Swift and no Cuckoo

Hurricane Gonzalo was awaited with bated breath in anticipation of what American land birds it might bring across caught up in its wake. This time of year we all watch the weather forecasts and maps trying to predict what vagrant birds may turn up. Steve & I had been discussing this very fact on Hilbre recently and although late in the autumn there is a good smattering of records including Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift and various catharus thrushes.

The first inkling that, for once, our anticipation was founded was when records of Hermit Thrush & Grey-cheeked Thrush started appearing from the northern Isles. No pressure there as I'd seen both these species in the UK. Things started hotting up when a Yellow -billed Cuckoo was found in Cornwall. This has become a seriously rare bird with the American's announcing its now on the endangered list due to loss of habitat. And relax......................I'd stumbled (literally) across one of these on Orkney whilst going en route to Shetland for the Sandhill Crane that had arrived over in similar conditions. See here for the story. These American Cuckoo's never seem to survive long over here and its rarely one has been seen for more than one day.

The next message had me jumping though. Black-billed Cuckoo - an even rarer bird with only a handful ever being recorded. Unfortunately it was on North Ronaldsay and a check of flight and ferry times quickly showed there was no chance of getting there the next day. When news filtered out that it had been seen landing in a tree pursued by a Merlin and then flew off it seemed reasonable to assume it probably wasn't going to be re-found or survive. Relax.

Hurricane Gonzalo was certainly delivering the goods. The next message had me cursing. Chimney Swift, Lewis, Outer Hebrides. Ouch! I'd been to York a few year ago when one of these had been reported but was then found to be an aberrant strangely moulting Swift when photo's were examined. There have only been 19 UK & Irish records of this species with the last records in 2005 when there seemed to be a bit of an invasion with the majority being short- staying birds or in Ireland. One was also seen over Woolston Eyes in Cheshire the same year but didn't hang around and another contentious bird was over Holy Island, Northumbria for an afternoon. Contentious as we'd been on the island in the morning but left before the tide and the bird was subsequently found later in the afternoon. Some people viewed it from the mainland about 1.5 miles away as it flew around the buildings but we decided that, at that distance, we weren't going to get satisfactory views so left.

Hmm. Looking at the flight options and knowing these Swifts had a reputation for not sticking around I mulled it over whilst making a few phone calls. Nothing materialised until later that evening I was at home and hte news came through it had been seen around 17.30 in the same area. Surely it would be going to roost and there was a chance it would get seen the next morning? Checking flights again I got a text off Dan Pointon. He was just driving from Cornwall back to Bristol and was interested in going for the Chimney Swift but couldn't manage the driving alone. A quick decision & we were off. Arranging to meet on the M6 in Cheshire around midnight we took my car to give Dan a rest & I drove us up to Inverness through the night to get the first flight across to Stornoway, pick up a car and drive the 20 miles up to the area where the swift had been seen. Easy........

We were on a tight schedule so I drove non-stop the full 400 miles to Inverness in 6 hours  arriving an hour before our flight. Making full use of the free food in the executive lounge the plans were falling into place nicely. We hoped to get to site just after first light knowing that quite often swifts & hirundines will only hang around for a short time before departing often never to be seen again.

Dan had texted a car hire company and they'd got the text and met us at the airport with a Fiat Panda. As I'd taken the night shift Dan took the day shift and we were soon hurtling (literally) through the Lewis countryside amid rain showers and rainbows.

Photo taken from a Fiat Panda moving at 60 mph driven by Dan Pointon.

Arriving outside at the Decca B & B (A good omen I thought - the place we stay at on Shetland is called the Decca) we were met by local birder Tony Marr and the birds finder, Nick Davies! Tony organised a welcome cup of tea from the owners of the Decca before we split up to start looking. Nothing. As the hours rolled by we got seriously worried and started looking further afield including at the Butt of Lewis where the bird had first been seen. We found out the bird had been seen in the dark trying to roost on the side of the Decca so knew it hadn't gone anywhere overnight unless it had died after its long journey across the Atlantic. We decided to give ourselves until midday and then try looking at other sites nearby as we headed back to Stornoway. By now we'd not given up all hope but were feeling pretty despondent.

We decided on one more drive around the loch before heading south but no sooner had we completed two sides of the triangle then Tony rang to say Vicky, who works for the RSPB on the Island, had seen it over Port Nis just the other side of a ridge from where we were! We were there in less than a minute and spent the next hour watching this American vagrant hurtling around the skies in the autumn sunshine. Tony and a couple of other  locals soon joined us and there was a grand total of six of us watching the bird!

Fantastic! To cap it all this was my 500th UK species under British Ornithological Union classifications! Its taken me many years to get here unlike Dan who, at 24, will surely reach this milestone in the next couple of years. From my first solo 'twitch' for a Sociable Plover whilst still at school when we lived in Suffolk, through long distance car shares and hitches at university and now having a good bunch of mates who share my passion for birds and share the costs I've mostly enjoyed every minute of it!

Some people get a T shirt when they reach this milestone. Dan took a photo of me with a hand scribbled sign!

To save money we'd arranged to take the ferry back from Stornoway to Ullapool and then get a bus back to Inverness and a  second bus back to the airport to pick my car up. Giving Nick a lift to the boat we were soon tucking into some well earned food before trying (unsuccessfully) to get some desperately needed sleep before the long drive home. Four hours later we were back at Inverness and fueling up at the local Tesco's (me with diesel and Dan with more food!) before heading home to Cheshire.

I've known Dan since 2006 when, as a callow youth, I took him to twitch a Pallid Harrier in Winterton, Norfolk when he was 16! A great lad even though his trainers nearly killed me when he took them off in  the car on the way home last night. We had a good craic on this trip.

Arriving home around 02.30 am exactly 27 hours after I'd left on Thursday night I had some toast, a well needed shower and slept in until 11 am this morning.

20 Oct 2014

Autumn gales.

We've not had any N W gales year this year to blow any Leach's petrels into Liverpool bay. This weekend was no exception but with the wind firmly in the SW blowing force 7-8 I still decided to make the trip across to Hilbre following the tide out Sunday morning in the hope that a Yellow-browed Warbler might have showed up. Unfortunately the idea was right just the place was wrong with Jane having one in her garden just across the sand in West Kirby!

Despite the wind the weather was beautiful and very warm. As the tide was just ebbing the waders were close in and I had great views using the Landrover as a hide.

Several hundred Cormorants were on the tides edge between Little Eye and the Tanskies.

Between Middle and Hilbre this Curlew was busy catching small crabs. It was fascinating to watch it probe its bill into the bladder wrack and come up with a small crab. It then tossed it in the air before catching it the right way round to swallow.

 Oystercatchers were present in their thousands but I couldn't make out any colour ringed birds although  I did pick out two birds with metal rings on their right legs.
 Good numbers of Redshank  were also feeding along the newly exposed shoreline.
 A few Ringed Plover flew in to feed.

Star bird though was this very late Sandwich Tern hunkered down in with the the roosting gulls.

Despite the wind direction not being conducive to migration there were a few land birds around on the island with a female Chaffinch in the Observatory garden and a Reed Bunting appearing in the SK paddock. Later a Wheatear appeared in flight down the sheltered east side and was seen to land on the beach at the south end.

Back at home the highlight of the weekend was a skein of 40-50 Pinkfeets that flew calling over the house late Sunday afternoon.