13 Sep 2019

Seawatching off Hilbre - 4th September 2019

A classic sea-watch with a strong WNW gale blowing birds into Liverpool Bay. At one point the winds were logged at force 11 and we were stuck in the seawatching hide as waves crashed over the narrow neck of rock behind us. Not that we wanted to leave. The number of birds passing us was incredible.

It was a record day for Arctic Skuas with 101 being recorded with the previous highest recorded number being 72 in 1987!  Of course the main target during these autumn gales is Leach's Petrel and the day didn't disappoint with 29 being logged during the 6 hours we were in the hide.

Although Arctic Skuas were the most numerous recorded we completed the full set of these pirates of the seas with 9 Bonxies, 2 Pomarine and, the undoubted highlight, a sub-adult Long-tailed Skua. This was initially identified as a juvenile but subsequent information suggests its a 2nd calendar year bird due to its long tail projection.

Above: Long-tailed Skau. Below: Pomarine Skua

The Arctic Skuas included both dark and light phase birds and a number of juveniles - see below:

Above: Dark phase Arctic Skua. Below: Light phase Arctic Skua

Bonxie photos below:

As well as Skua's and Petrels large numbers of Gannets and Kittiwakes were recorded and it was good to see a number of juvenile Kittiwakes.

Juvenile Kittiwake below:

Another highlight were 3 Grey Phalaropes - the first I've personally seen off Hilbre for a number of years.

A classic Hilbre sea-watch and probably the best one for a long time.

9 Sep 2019

Autumn Ladies tresses - the last British orchid of the year

Gop Hill, site of an ancient burial mound, in N Wales is also home to the last of the UK's flowering orchids. The aptly named Autumn Ladies Tresses. This year the site has hosted thousands if not tens of thousands of flowering spikes so me and Mark P arranged to meet up after he'd finished work for the short trip into N Wales. It was literally 30 minutes a way from home!

Sure enough, as far as the eye could see, there were the flowering spikes of Autumn Ladies Tresses.

This tiny orchid is a specialist of nutrient poor calcareous soils and it was noticeable the plants were found on areas where the topsoil had eroded and moved further down the slope leaving a very thin layer with little competition from other plants. This is another species that is classed as near threatened and has disappeared from over 50% of its range in the UK.

5 Sep 2019

One Booby prize I was pleased to receive!

When the UK’s 1st Brown Booby, a bird I’d only seen previously seen in the Caribbean, turned up in Cornwall I shrugged my shoulders and dismissed it as we were in Madeira. After a couple of days receding news of it showing well off St Ives there was negative news. It had gone. C’est La Vie.
Sat at the airport in Funchal news came through it had been refound the other side of the county at Kynance Cove! Or had it? Photographs appeared to show a different bird. 
The bird had apparently gone to roost so plans were made for an overnight trip to Cornwall with friends. At the last minute (literally) those plans fell through due to a family illness in the family of our designated driver so at 11pm I suddenly found myself filling the car with fuel and arranging to meet Steve just off the M56 for the overnight trip to Kynance Cove - somewhere I hadn’t been since I went with most of my cousins in 1982 when my grandparents (who lived in Hayle close to where the first sightings of the Booby were!) celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.
After waiting in the dark for the sun to rise, & the first birds to start moving, expectations were high but as the air warmed up doubts started creeping in.
I was cold and had wandered off round the cliff tops to look at the other side of the bay when I heard a shout and people waving. The Booby had flown directly underneath me and was heading towards the assembled crowd! A breathless dash back along the coastal path &, against all expectations, I was watching a Brown Booby in the UK!
A great supporting cast of Chough, Balearic Shearwater, Manxies and (for Steve) Sooty Shearwaters. Many thanks to Steve for taking the wheel for a few hours on the way back and to his youngest daughter, G, for baking home made chocolate Brownies!!!

25 Aug 2019


When I first started ringing in the 70's rings were free(!) and you had to pay to ring House Sparrows and Starlings. How things have changed! Starlings have declined by a staggering 51% in the UK between 1995 and 2016 - see Birdguides article here.

The strange thing is that we don't see Starlings regularly in our garden but small numbers breed locally and a friend, a few hundred metres away reports, he gets large numbers on his garden feeders. We do get wintering birds and when the local farmers spreads slurry on his fields flocks of up to 500 are regular. Since I retrained to ring a few years ago I'd only ever ringed Starlings on Fair Isle!

They're still common on the north Wirral coast though and Jane was reporting daily flocks of 100+ visiting her heavily fed garden. We decided to start a project catching and ringing some of these birds using a whoosh net (a net powered by elastic - once the tension on the elastic is released the contraction pulls the net up and over two poles and over the birds feeding on the ground. They're then covered with old sheets to keep the calm whilst we extract them for ringing (A special endorsement is required to use a whoosh net which I have). My whoosh net has been modified to incorporate an automatic release so rather than using a long piece of cord to fire it it is now done using a car door solenoid and remote fob powered by a 12 v battery. Video below.

We've now caught a good number of Starlings and they've all been juveniles with the majority undertaking their full post juvenile moult. Most passerine species only undergo a partial post juvenile moult but Starlings (along with a few other species such as House Sparrow and Long-tailed Tit) undertake a full moult including wings & tail.

Male and females can be identified from an early age as females have an interocular eye-ring (see photo below) whereas the males have an all dark eye. Some birds were left unsexed due to uncertainty over a very faint interocular ring.

If the birds have started moulting their body feathers theres another sexing method that can be used - the shape of the white spots on the breast feathers. This can be useful in confirming the sex of those birds where the presence of an interocular eye-ring is less clear cut.

Females tend to have round spots whereas males are more arrow shaped and pointed. The photo below illustrates this well with the female on the left and the male on the right. You can just about see the interocular ring in the eye of the female as well.

Most of the birds are also well on the way to completing their wing moult with very few classed as 3JJ (fully juvenile plumage). Moult was recorded for every bird along with sex, weight and wing length. Photo below - wing being examined and moult score for each primary being recorded.

It was also noted that some of the birds had very bleached juvenile plumage whereas some were much darker and it was assumed the darker birds were second broods (or late broods).
To date we've ringed 283 Starlings, in Janes garden, of which only 1 has been an adult. To put that into perspective in the whole of Cheshire in 2018 0nly 425 Starlings, of which 238 were juveniles. We've exceeded the total of juveniles ringed in the county for the whole of last year in less than 1 month!

We intend carrying on over the winter with this project and it'll be interesting to see how many re-traps we get and if we get any continental controls. Ultimately it would be nice to register a colour ringing project to see how many of these birds are actually local breeders and how many have arrived following post juvenile dispersion from their natal sites.

Many thanks to Jane for supplying tea, cakes and starlings and Helen and John for the invaluable help.

15 Aug 2019

Bog Orchids

Sean had kindly agreed to meet us at a site he knows in mid-Wales to look for the diminutive and rare Bog Orchid. This species rarely grows more than a10 cm high and generally much less. It usually requires pristine acidic bog habitat with slow moving water and it's essential the runnels and flushes it prefers doesn't dry out in the summer. Its disappeared from over 60% of its historical range in the UK which is a measure of its rarity and the diminishing habitat it prefers.

Meeting in the allotted spot after a scenic journey punctuated by calls of 'Red Kite' from Mark we met up with Richard & David who I'd met on a previous orchid expedition with Sean to Kenfig - see here for trip details.

Unfortunately the flush where the Bog Orchids were seen in previous years had dried out quite a bit during last summers hot weather and was invaded by coarse grasses. Not ideal for Bog Orchids. Sean knew another site a few minutes drive away but we encountered the same problem there and after a fruitless search despondently called it a day.

However, Richard had seen a likley looking flush firther along the hillside from our first location and whilst we had to head back home he conducted a through search and ultimately found the prize we were looking for.

A few days later I found myself heading south again and armed with Richards directions soon found my first Bog Orchid. David then appeared and we soon found another 5 of these tiny plants.

This kind of habitat has an amazing variety of flora and fauna associated with it and insectivorous Sundews were everywhere.

Other bog loving plants were Bog Asphodel (photos below), Milkwort and Marsh St Johns Wort.

Insects were represented by Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Black Skimmer whilst a Giant Dark Horsefly was dozy enough in the cool weather to sit on my hand and have its photo taken.

A tatty Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary also put in an appearance and as well as the ubiquitous Red Kites the area held breeding Whinchat and Common Sandpiper.

A fabulous place.