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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! 





Hilbre

 With the current lockdown ended I made the trip up the Wirral and across to Hilbre recently and stayed the tide. The weather started off being pretty miserable but brightened up and allowed some good photographic opportunities with the regular wintering waders and the ever present female Kestrel

Purple Sandpipers are one of my favourite birds and certainly my favourite wader. I remember seeing my first ones on the sea defences at Lowestoft as a teenager whilst twitching a Franklins Gull. As well as the Franklins I also ticked Glaucous Gull & Little Auk the same day! 

This years seems to be a good one for Purple Sandpipers with better than usual numbers being reported in some regular wintering sites. Hilbre appears to be following this trend as we have currently got 15 around the island compared to single figure numbers for the past few years. They're remarkably confiding and sittign quietly as the tide dropped enabled me to get some really close photos as they worked their way towards where I was sitting.








With the high tide and disturbance from kite surfers on the mainland roosting spots for Oystercatchers were at a premium and as well as the 6,000 + roosting on Middle Eye there were nearly 2,000 roosting on Hilbre.

Bar-tailed Godwits are generally a bit distant but this one was feeding in the gutter just below the obs.
The stiff breeze meant the Kestrel spent a lot of time hunting voles and just hanging in the wind without having to mover her wings much to hover. At one point she was almost at eye level with me and completely unperurbed as she hunted the west side cliffs.

The changing weather And light conditions provided the opportunity for some artistic landscape shots as rain showers swept in from N Wales to the west and the waves crashed against the rocks.
Above: view of over the rocks to the west of the access track 
Below: My landrover parked at Hilbre Bird Observatory
Below: a rain storm approaching  from the west

All in all it was a good day on the island even though the days are getting shorter and truncated at each end. Getting home at 4 pm meant I was jet washing the salt and sand off the underside of the landrover virtually in the dark! 


14 Nov 2020

A rare chat and a rare bunting

 When news broke of a Rufous Bush Chat at Stiffkey, Norfolk my immediate thought was 'that won't stick around'. However it did and a number of people managed to see it the same day. Thinking it would disappear and I could forget about it I was surprised that it was seen again the next day. Turning down several lifts I eventually cracked and went down with Jase knowing there was also a Stejgeners Stonechat just down the road at Holkham Freshmarsh and a number of Red-flanked Bluetails nearby. With wintering geese already around in good numbers it made for a good day out whatever happened. 

When we arrived at Stiffkey it was obvious the bird wasn't on show. People were standing in the car park looking vainly out towards patch of sea- surrounded suaeda where it had been re-located the day it was found or standing in the stubble field right up against the game crop where it had been seen well the previous day. 

As the tide dropped we decided to go and check the suaeda out as there were lots of people standing checking out the game crop. After an hour or so it was obvious it wasn't there so we headed off to Holkham to look at the Stejgeners Stonechat. That was easy enough and as we were returning tho the car we got the news that the chat had just been seen in the game crop! Needless to say we rushed back to find the crowds had started returning and were again standing right up against the game crop. Asking them to move back and give the bird some room had the desired result and the majority of people did move. Unfortunately the bird still didn't show again and we reluctantly decided it was time to leave. Just as we were saying our good byes to friends I noticed a bird fly up from the field edge and dive into a tree. It looked good for the Rufous Bushchat but there was no further sign of it so I didn't mention itas the views were so brief. It preyed on my mind all the way home. Later that evening it transpired that someone else had seen it in the same area as me but he didn't put the news out as he didn't get his binoculars on it fast enough. 

The next morning the news came out early that it was still there and in the same area - the observer sent me a map with a dropped pin at exactly the same bush! Forgetting to even eat my porridge that I'd left in the microwave (my wife sent me a photo!) I quickly contacted Jase who was unfortunately at work and set off for Norfolk again......

The weather was appalling and when I arrived there were only about 10 people looking with as many again sat in their cars. Again people were right up against the birds favoured game crop so I asked them to move back. As the weather worsened people drifted away and I decided to walk the footpath between the game crop and saltmarsh as the bird had been seen here as well. walking slowly and softly so as not to disturb anything I walked along peering under brambles and overhanging bushes reasoning that any self respecting Bush Chat would want to stay dry! Boom! Suddenly there it was - it hopped up off the floor onto an overhanging bramble! Unfortunately, as the weather was so bad, I'd left the camera back in the car so I just took in the details before it disappeared back into the thickest part of the bush. During this brief encounter I'd  forgotten to breath so grabbing a quick lung full of air I ran back to the stubble field, squelching and sliding on the muddy path, to let others know. Despite waiting another two hours the bird didn't show again.

Above: the hollow where the Rufous Bushchat appeared and then hopped up onto the bramble stems at the back of the bush between the two dead cow parsley stalks.

As it started getting dark I decided to leave. Squelching back to the car I peeled off my sodden coat and fover trousers promptly getting a dollop of cold water down my neck where it had collected in the hood of my coat. With the heating on max, heated seats turned right up and wipers going full speed I sat off back to Cheshire a happy birder. Although I didn't get any photos my mate Chris Griffin got some superb ones earlier in the week which he's kindly allowed me to use. Cheers Chris! 


The bird was never seen again. When I saw it it was pretty bedraggled and my feeling is it probably died overnight.

Thinking there'd be no more twitches this autumn I was proved wrong when an Indigo Bunting turned up on St Agnes in the Scilly's.  Family commitments prevented me from going the next day but it was only seen up until midday so friends that had left Cheshire and got the Scillonian across were to late to see it. Taking a gamble that it might still be around Fred & I set off for the drive down to Lands End airport for the 08.30 flight to St Mary's from where we'd get a boat across to St Agnes. A gamble that didn't pay off......... there was no sign of the Indigo Bunting but I had some consolation in the form of my 2nd Red-eyed Vireo. Crazy as it seems, as this is one of the commonest vagrant American passerines with 146 accepted records up until the end of 2018, I'd only previously seen one - see here. This is mainly because I prefer to spend my birding holidays on Shetland where Red-eyed Vireo has only been recorded twice. They really are a Scilly's speciality. I've actually seen more Siberian Rubythroats than Red-eyed Vireos. Madness.

Hopefully autumn is now over and with another lockdown in place I can't see me going on another long distance twitch this year.




8 Nov 2020

Redwing season

 Each year I look forward to the arrival of Redwings and Fieldfares arriving from Scandinavia and Iceland. At night you can hear their calls as they pass overhead. Normally my first ones of the year are seen on my annual autumn trip to Shetland and this year was no exception. It was almost a month later that birds began filtering down to our NW corner of Cheshire and only more recently they began descending on the berry laden hawthorns in our garden.

Although I don't catch many I manage to ring a few every year at dawn & dusk and this year has been quite good for them. Interestingly the majority of the birds I initially caught were adults with a second wave of mainly juveniles. The ones I've been catching are the Scandinavian race 'iliacus'. Redwing arrivals sometimes coincide with big arrivals of Song Thrushes and I caught two recently  - the only two I've caught in the four years we've lived here! 


Redwings can be aged by the white tips to the greater coverts and tertials. Adults have plain greater coverts and tertials whereas young birds have the white tips. The shape of the tail feathers is also a help in ageing as it is with most passerines. Younger birds have more pointed tail feathers whereas adults are rounder.

Above: Redwing Euring age 3 (1st calendar year) showing white tipped juvenile greater coverts.
Below: Redwing Euring age 3 showing white tips to tertials.




Above and below: upper and lower tail photos of juvenile Redwing tail showing how narrow and pointed the tail feathers are. Comparew this to the adult lower down.

Below: adult Redwing tail showing broad blunt tail feathers.


From the photos above you can also see the variation in the dark centres to the undertail coverts. Bothmthese birds are the same Scandinavian race and the Icelandic race, coburni. See here for details of a trip to Fair Isle where we caught both races side by side.

Both Song Thrushes were young birds identifiable by the 'rose thorn' patterned tips to the greater coverts and median coverts.



It's great to see Song Thrushes in the hand again. Although we've several pairs breeding locally that feed in the garden they're very secretive and don't come in when theres activity outside! 

Below: mist nets set in the garden for Redwing.