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5 Mar 2021

Redpolls

 We don't often get Redpolls in our garden. Usually they're a spring passage bird heard buzzing overhead. However, this year I found a small party in the village feeding in a silver birch on January 5th approximately 1 km away as the bird flies.

I was surprised to look out the window recently one morning to see a superb male Lesser Redpoll feeding with Gold & Greenfinches on one of our sunflower heart feeders. later that day it was joined by two more and the following day, following a break in the wet and windy weather we'd had, I put a mist net up to try and catch and ring a few finches.

What great little birds. In total I caught and ringed six new birds with two recaptures on subsequent days. The last time I'd ringed a Redpoll in our garden was 2018! 

All the birds caught had a good fat score suggesting they hadn't moved far so could have possibly been the birds I saw nearby in January. All of them were 2nd calendar year birds (Euring 5) identifiable by a combination of tail feather shape and wear and the presence of a moult contrast in the greater or median  coverts (although this was hard to photograph).

 Redpoll Euring 5 tail feathers showing how pointed the retained juvenile tail feathers are.



In total there were 6 males (above) with varying amounts of red on their breasts and 3 females (below)
Beautiful little finches and a privilege to see them in the hand.

I also ringed a few Goldfinches and Greenfinches including this brightly coloured second calendar year male (Euring 5) that had 2 retained juvenile greater coverts. This is quite unusual and made ageing easy. Most juvenile Greenfinches moult the majority of their greater coverts in their post juvenile moult with only a smaller percentage retaining the two outer ones.




Hopefully I'll cathc a few more Redpoll and possibly Siskin as they start to move north again

9 Feb 2021

Little Owls and me

I  can’t remember the first time I saw a Little Owl. It was probably when we moved to rural Suffolk when I was just 11. I remember finding & seeing my first Barn Owl here when I disturbed one in an old deserted Suffolk Barn. It was nesting and hissed before swooping down and dive bombing my old Labrador who, at that time, was my constant companion. Looking back in my diaries going back to 1976 I mention Little Owl but I don’t recall when I ever saw my first one. Introduced in the in the 1800’s from mainland Europe and spread across the UK but are now in decline in many areas. They’re not native to the UK but, unlike Canada Geese, I don’t know anyone who feels they shouldn’t be allowed to existing this country - after all what damage do they do and the fact they’re found throughout Europe as does much of our native bird life. In any case, they’re characterful & feisty & I don’t know any birder who doesn’t enjoy seeing a Little Owl.

Although I can’t remember seeing my first Little Owl but I can remember ringing my first one! Surprisingly it wasn’t in Suffolk but in Gloucestershire on a zoology field trip to Woodchester park in 1981. Part of the course included bird ringing demonstrations & population studies with the late Dr Mike Hounsome. As a C permit ringer I was in the strange position of being both student and demonstrator. Attached to the field centre was an old orchard and we had mist nets set and one morning, whilst taking a group of students round the nets, I came across a wriggling entangled bundle of indignant fury that proceeded to draw blood as I tried to extract it in front of my fellow students - much to their amusement. 

Fast forward almost 35 years and a good friend, Barry Barnacal, invited me to ring some Little Owl chicks in a natural nest hole on a farm local to him. A memorable occasion when, as we attempted to reach into the hole to ring the owlets my hand touched something warm & I pulled it out to find myself holding a decapitated rat! 






We ringed one adult & a single chick on that date. With the landowners permission we put up a nest box but for a couple of years the Owls studiously ignored it. Until the day Barry sent me a photo of the box with a Little Owl pokings it’s head out! 


That year we ringed five young along with the adult female & the next year three. 















Since then we’ve put up several more boxes on the farm in the hope that dispersing young from the original territory. Notice I used the term territory & not pair as our ringing has shown that there has been a turnover of birds since the first adult was ringed in 2014 culminating in the discovery a couple of years ago that the breeding female was one of five pullus ringed in the box in 2014! Where had she been in the intervening years? 

I found a pair of Little Owls local to where we lived at the time and got permission off another farmer to out a box up although it was never used and the Little Owl field has now been built on. Surprisingly the ecological survey report didn’t mention Little Owls breeding on the site...... I did find the feathers of one within a few hundred metres of the box that looked like it had been predated by a Sparrowhawk or Buzzard. More on that later. 

Fast forward again to December 2016 when we moved into our current house with a large garden & a rural outlook. We’d often walked the lanes around the house and that how we found it for sale. It’s only 3 km from our previous house in a straight line but I’d never seen Little Owls locally.

Cue a comment from another friend, Mark P, who commented, when he first visited, ‘looks ideal for Little Owl mate’. 

Sure enough within days we were amazed when one started calling on our roof! We heard them regularly but I couldn’t pin them down. Until one sunny day I made a determined effort to find them by standing in the garden with binoculars and scanning all the large oaks in the surrounding pasture. Success! Unbelievably only about 200 m from the rear garden and visible from inside the house.

They bred that year (2017) and we spent sunny evenings outside sitting with a G & T as the young called from trees in our garden & a neighbours. In May I actually caught the adult male in our garden as I had a mist net set up after a rain shower that had resulted in a mini fall of warblers. I subsequently photographed him sat on an old black poplar in our boundary hedge.



Little Owl in our garden 2017. Note the ring on left leg.


Unfortunately I returned from work one day to find a number of adult Little Owl feathers in a little pile on the lawn & suspected one of the birds had been predated by a Sparrowhawk. Sure enough I found the remains of the carcass in our ditch a few weeks later - un-ringed so the assumption was it was the adult female.

In 2018 the single bird abandoned its preferred nesting hole as the farmer (who was unaware of where the nest hole was) cut off some low hanging branches whilst hedge trimming & spooked it. We could still hear it occasionally and the following spring we heard the male ‘singing’. Eventually I found out where it was hiding in an old oak with the hole only visible from walking the nearby footpath along the top of a railway embankment. The old oak is slowly collapsing and each year has fewer & fewer leafing branches. Seeking the farmers permission I explained my interest and got permission to put a box up on the condition it was high enough not to interfere with his hedge cutting and that I didn’t take the Landrover across his field. Luckily it was only a few hundred metres from our garden so it was easy enough to get across with the box and ladders in a couple of trips. I put the box on an oak within 50 m of the decrepit one in a position we could see from the house and waited...... that was 2019......

Since then I came across another Little Owl about 1 km away and we could hear the two birds calling to each other some evenings but there was no evidence of a pair. In the winter of 2019 and early spring of 2020 a bird was regularly heard (but rarely seen) roosting in an old ivy covered oak in our neighbours garden. One morning I noticed a Little Owl back outside the original nesting hole and had hopes that they’d returned. Unfortunately that hope was dashed a few days later when a white blob outside the hole revealed itself, with the aid of binoculars, to be a Barn Owl! A bird that subsequently spent a few weeks roosting in a Tawny Owl box in our garden.


A single Little Owl was occasionally seen throughout 2020 either in the original tree or in the neighbours garden but by now Grey Squirrels had taken over the original hole. Just before Christmas 2020 a pair of Little Owls were heard calling in our neighbours garden but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I actually saw a pair sat outside the original hole. Hopefully they’ll breed successfully this year & we’ll enjoy the presence of Little Owls on territory again so close to the house.















 













29 Jan 2021

Local birding and local wildlife

There really hasn't been much to blog about recently. Life seems to be whizzing by without us actually seemingly achieving anything.  Because of the current lockdown we've been restricted to exploring the lanes around the house. In reality its the border of my local patch so I'm recording sightings every day.

One advantage has been I now know where our local Yellowhammers seem to be roosting and can almost guarantee a sighting if I walk past a particular field as its getting dusk. At least 4 birds have been present n occasions suggesting the local breeding population is just about hanging on.

Torrential rain during storm Christoph resulted in floods in the village and lost of soggy fields. The pond opposite attracted a pair of Mute Swans and they seem to like it at the moment as they've stayed a week. A few days ago I heard a Coot flying over at night and the next day there were three back on the pond. They arrive to breed and then disappear again when the pond begins drying out after they've finished breeding.



The floods have also attracted a lot of gulls and searching through them I managed to find both an adult and 1st winter Med Gull. Always nice to see but unfortunately nothing rarer! 


There have been hundreds of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls along with a few Herrings and a single Lesser black-backed Gull. The photo quality is poor as the photos are generally taken with the phone held up against the 'scope through a very rain soaked window! 

With the daylight hours increasing and signs of spring, in the emerging Snow Drops and Winter Acanites, birds are beginning to sing and our local Mistle Thrush, Robins and Song Thrushes seem to be singing almost non stop. Other birds are beginning to explore potential nest sites and this Great Tit was spotted checking out one of our garden nest boxes. 


The local Little Owl is proving elusive and keeps changing roost sites. I'm not sure if they're getting pushed out of their preferred tree by Grey Squirrels or Stock Doves (both have been seen entering the hole) but they've been seen roosting in our neighbours garden and at their old nest site. I woke one morning to the sound of the Little Owl calling very close and realised it was in next doors garden but it still took me an hour or so searching before I found it partially hidden in an old oak. The next day it was back outside its favoured haunt but hasn't been seen for a couple of days. We did see a pair of birds together so its good to now we may once again have a breeding pair.



Its been a good start to patch year listing and the arrival of a male Blackcap on the feeders has put the total up to 67. Not bad for an inland site. 






12 Jan 2021

Local birding 2021 - lockdown No. 3

So here we are in another lockdown. To be honest I'm not surprised. It was always going to happen. It doesn't matter how many lockdowns we have we can't completely eradicate the virus and it only takes a small number of people in the community to be carrying the virus for the whole cycle to start again.  The year has started with a major milestone birthday for me - spent at home with a bit bit of garden ringing and a brisk walk in the frosty weather around the local lanes. We've also welcomed a new granddaughter into the World  - a pretty traumatic experience for our daughter-in-law who was kept in hospital for three days after the birth so we looked after their 2 year old and dog whilst our son spent the time in the hospital with his wife and new baby. An eventful two weeks! 

The frosty weather made a welcome change from the wet and wind. Good numbers of winter thrushes seem to have relocated from snowbound areas further north and east in the UK sand the local fields are full of foraging Fieldfares, Redwings and Blackbirds. Good numbers of Blackbirds have been visiting the garden and at one point I counted 13 together. I've ringed a few and have also added a new species ringed for the garden - Mistle Thrush. Although they're fairly regular visitors and there are at least two pairs in the village, I've never ringed one in the garden before. A beautiful bird and this one was aged as a 2nd calendar year bird.



As well as the Mistle Thrush I've caught and ringed a Fieldfare - again, fairly regular in winter but last year was the first time I'd ringed any in the garden. This one was aged as and adult female based on the amount of black in the crown feathers. See here for more information on sexing Fieldfares.


Its not all thrushes though and I recently caught a Collared Dove.


Again, a common enough garden bird but very wary and not easy to catch & ring. 

I'm using a whoosh net for which I have an endorsement, rather than a mist net at the moment as the thrushes generally manage to get out and the collared doves invariably do. A lot of the Blackbirds have long wings and are quite heavy suggesting they may be continental birds and hopefully I'll get a ringing recovery or control to prove this.

 

1 Jan 2021

Goodbye & good riddance 2020

What a crap year for everyone. 2020 started off well for us with a trip to Australia to see the grandchildren but even in early January there were rumours of a new Covid virus in China. I think, along with the whole World, we thought it would get contained over there. How wrong we were. Our first major pandemic since Spanish flu just after the 1st World War hit Europe hard. With the first lock down 'of a couple of weeks' in March morphing into a major shut down of the whole UK and subsequent periods of relative freedom followed by more lockdowns normal life has taken a major backseat. The cycle of lockdown and then periods of relative sanity was always going to happen until either we got a vaccine or the whole country had herd immunity. 

I consider myself lucky that we've escaped relatively unscathed with our immediate family still working and healthy. The fact we live in a rural area has meant that we've been able to get our prescribed daily exercise walking the lanes round the village which, coincidentally, is also my local birding patch. 

Spending more time local birding had meant that I've added 6 new species to the patch list. Grasshopper Warbler, Red-legged Partridge, Whimbrel, Ring-necked Parakeet, Golden Plover and Stonechat.  The partridges were seen twice approximately a mile apart unless there are two pairs. The Stonechat and Golden Plover were long overdue given our proximity to the Dee Estuary. The Whimbrel, Golden Plover & R N Parakeet also made it onto the garden list! In addition Tree Sparrow was also a garden tick. They used to be fairly common in this area with a breeding colony around 0.5 km away in a straight line but I haven't seen one in the area since we moved in 4 years ago.

An undoubted highlight of local birding was having a Barn Owl take up temporary residence in a tawny owl box in the garden whilst the long hot spring meant we could enjoy the garden and our garden nesting birds had a good head start - all except the Blackbirdds and Song Thrushes who's early nesting attempts failed as they couldn't find enough worms to successfully raise their young.

The lockdowns and travel restrictions put a major obstacle in the way of twitching nationally but during a break in various lockdowns we did manage to get to Shetland for a week in September and then a few days in October where I finally got to see Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler in the UK. (Photo copyright Jase Atkinson).



Another trip was managed to Stiffkey to see the UK's first record of Rufous Bushchat for 40 years and see one of those annoying splits, Stejgeners Stonechat.(Photo copyright Chris Griffin).

 
Covid restrictions meant the usual SCAN canon netting trips and trips to Puffin Island were cancelled and to cap it all a bird flu outbreak in Frodsham meant I had to stop ringing for a few weeks as we were within the 10 km surveillance zone - just as good numbers of winter thrushes descended on the garden to gobble up the berries I'd been nurturing all year! The Covid pandemic meant Hilbre was closed for a period of time so we missed the bulk of the spring migration until Wirral Borough Council relented and allowed a skeleton Obs team to operate under strict protocols.

To everyone out there - here's to a better 2021. Stay well and hopefully I'llsee a lot of you sometime soon.


21 Dec 2020

Sparrowhawk!

We regularly get Sparrowhawks coming through the garden and I've ringed several since we moved here. I recently found evidence that one had been using one of our old moss covered apple trees as a plucking post. Whilst on the phone one day I noticed this gorgeous male Sparrowhawk sitting in our oak tree. A quick goodbye and an end to the conversation and he sat long enough for me to quietly open the window and get a few photos. 






This bird isn't ringed so isn't one of the ones I'd already ringed in the garden

We recently had some sad news about a Sparrowhawk we'd re-trapped in Janes garden - see here.
This venerable old bird was recently found in a Hoylake garden with a broken wing and leg and unfortunately had to be euthanised by a vet. A sad end for a fabulous bird.





 

8 Dec 2020

Fungi

I've been neglectful of fungi over the years. Sometimes  I make the effort to try and identify them and other times I pass them by without a second thought. This year seems to be a good one and I've found several locally to us and in the garden which I've taken the time to try and identify. There are so many it's really quite difficult to remember any but the commoner ones.

Candle Snuff  - so called because as it gets older it has black bases and looks like a candle wick that has been snuffed out. See below: 


King Alfreds Cakes o na dead ash stump - said to resemble King Alfreds burnt offerings. 
Shaggy Inkcap.
Sulphur Tuft.

Fungi come in all kinds of guises and some are parasitic on insects. I found this dead pollenia fly (thanks Gavin) in the garden that I didn't recognise. It was striking with black and white zebra bands. Googling black and white striped flies and found out it was a kind of fungus, probably Entomophthora muscae, that infects the fly and then kills it as the fruiting bodies burst through the thorax resulting in the dramatic black and white banding.
It just shows - you're never too old to stop learning!