23 Jan 2022


 The 1st SCAN canon netting session of the year took place Saturday and the target species were Dunlin. A previous recce, by Tom, had found good numbers roosting over the high tide just outside Beaumaris, Anglesey. Meeting at 08.15 to load the huge amount of gear required for a canon netting session we were soon heading across the Menai Strait  via Robert Stephensons Britannia Bridge to meet up with the rest of the team.

Two small mesh nets were set about 100 metres apart as the sunrise above the surrounding hills. A glorious sight as the suns rays broke through the low cloud and illuminated the hillsides as they drop down to the sea.

Once the nets were set the long wait commenced. Some of the team went off looking for Brent Geese colour rings to read whilst the rest of us hung around the vehicles chatting until it was time to start moving into our designated positions. The spotting & firing team moved to where they could observe the nets and fire when birds were in the right position and it was safe to fire. Backstops were sent to either end of the beach to advise any members of the public what was happening whilst the rest of us (the lifting team) settled down to wait. 

The lifting team usually can’t  see the catching area so we’re kept updated of what was happening via walkie-talkie radio.  It’s always a tense time. Are the nets in the right place? Will the birds turn up? Will something disturb the birds before we can fire the nets? ( usually a Peregrine!).

As the tide rose small numbers of Dunlin started moving onto the beach but not the large numbers seen during the recce. Nerves start setting in properly at this stage but a radio message from Steve saying another 400 Dunlin had arrived filled us with a bit more optimism. Unfortunately the birds weren’t  in the right area so Claire was sent to do a bit of ‘twinkling’ to try and slowly and calmly  get the birds to move slightly so they were in an area where we could catch them and, very importantly where it was safe to make the catch.

With radio instructions from Steve, who was watching from the firing position, she did this to great effect and soon we got the message that Steve was arming the firing box followed by the count down from three and suddenly we were up and running as the nets were fired. 

The lifting team were first to their designated positions and the net was lifted away from the edge of the rising tide before the birds were covered with hessian coverings to keep them calm before being extracted and placed into keeping ready for ringing and processing. The birds would be roosting over high tide and wouldn’t be feeding anyway so keeping them dark, warm & calm in keeping cages isn’t taking up valuable feeding time during these short winter days. 

Keeping cages 

Small mesh net drying on the beach whilst birds are processed

It turned out to be a good catch with 1333 Dunlin (930 new birds and 403 retrap) processed along with 8 Ringed Plover and 2 Turnstone. The Ringed Plover and Turnstone were colour flagged as part of other long term monitoring projects. The Dunlin catch included a few foreign controls as well as at least two colour ringed birds from central Wales. Foreign controls included 4 from Sweden, 1from Poland and one from Norway! 
Polish control

The size of the catch gave a number of trainees plenty of experience in ringing as well as ageing - Dunlin are fairly easy to age as juveniles have buff tipped coverts whilst adults are all white. Occasionally there’s a bird that has retained some juvenile feathers as well as having adult type and these can be more precisely aged. The majority of adults were aged as Euring 6 meaning they were are in at least their third calendar year. The juveniles were all Euring 5 being in their second calendar year and fledged last year. We had one bird that we could age as Euring 7 meaning it definitely was definitely in its third calendar year having fledged in 2020.

Photo below shows a good comparison between adult and juvenile Dunlin wings with the adult being the top bird.

Adult Dunlin above, juvenile below
Dunlin Euring 7
The Ringed Plover and Turnstone were all colour flagged as part of other long term monitoring projects being carried out by SCAN. Colour ringing / flagging is a great study tool as it allows birders to report birds seen in the field whereas as a metal ring on such small birds are virtually impossible to read in the field. This provides even more data for researchers to work with.

Above & below: 2 colour ringed Dunlin from a project in mid-Wales controlled by SCAN

A very long & tiring day but thoroughly enjoyable. I left home in the dark and got home in the dark! 

31 Dec 2021

2021 done and dusted!

I think everyone will be glad to see the back of 2021. Covid 19 lockdowns meant many peoples plans were severely disrupted and many of our plans were put on the back-burner! I managed 4 new species for the year taking my life list up to 531- new birds were Northern Mockingbird, Red-necked Stint and Belted Kingfisher! the 4th was an 'armchair tick' with the long overdue addition of Ross's Goose to the British list. Unfortunately I missed some really good birds by being either to slow off the mark or away! Sulphur-bellied Warbler was one such bird where I dithered about going incase  I couldn't get a boat to Lundy. Hindsights a wonderful thing and in retrospect I should have just gone as there were apparently plenty of seats available on various charter boats. I can't really complain at missing the Varied Thrush on Papa Westray as I was in the Maldives belatedly celebrating my 60th birthday trip that had been rescheduled from the beginning of the year. I ticked two of my most wanted of my all time bucket list on that trip - diving with Manta Rays and best of all Whale Shark!

Most of my birding these days is done within walking distance of our house. Unless I'm twitching something thats where  I prefer to be. An exception to this is our annual trip to Shetland (see write up here). I consider Shetland as my home from home and look forward to our annual sojourn every year. By no means a classic year but good company and we did find a few good birds.

The local patch is mainly improved pasture with some arable and a few ponds - one of which is conveniently opposite my study window and has my telescope trained on it most of the time! It has turned up some good birds and this year I added three new species to the house / patch list (all three were seen from the house!) - Red Kite, Cattle Egret & Goshawk! Looks like I'll have to submit a couple of county rarities forms! Another local highlight was the successful breeding of our local Little Owls. They hadn't bred successfully for three years since the original female was killed by a Sparrowhawk in our garden.

Ringing been a major part of my birding year with regular trips out with SCAN canon netting waders and ringing seabirds on Puffin Island. I didn't get to Hilbre as much as I'd like this year due to various other issues we've had at home but hopefully I'll get across more in 2022. I was on the island when the Melodious Warbler was trapped and ringed and that was a nice addition to my county & Hilbre lists! (see here)

Another highlight was a June trip to Shetland with some good mates. We didn't see the hoped for Orca but didn't do to badly! - see here. Breeding Red-necked Phalaropes and an adult Long-tailed Skua holding territory were pretty good. Coupled with an adult male Snowy Owl on Ronas Hill and some good company it was  memorable trip.

One of the major highlights of my year was undoubtedly my first trip to Bardsey with Chris to help install the Observatories solar system. A steep learning curve for me! Steve and Emma looked after us extremely well and we even got to ring some Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. A write up on that trip can be read here). A fabulous place and I really don't know why I hadn't been across before.

So, what will 2022 bring? Hopefully we'll all be free of Covid19 and its various mutations. As parents of an Australian citizen we've got a special permit to enter the country and hope to go in February. Amy & Jeremy have bought us a hot air ballon flight as a Christmas present. Taking off from one of the local wineries and then landing for a champagne breakfast somewhere! Another one off the bucket list of things to do before I become too decrepit. Another bird on my all time wanted list is the Australian Regents Honeyeater and their new house is in one of the hot spots for this rapidly declining species. It will be looking like the needle in the proverbial haystack though with an estimated 300 birds left in an area the size of the British Isles! 

Again, we're hoping that a delayed trip to Africa will come off later in the year with a week on safari in the Masai Mara and a week in Zanzibar. I've already booked our accommodation on Fetlar in October and it'll be my 15th consecutive autumn on Shetland.

Heres wishing all my friends and family a Covid free and happy  new year. I'll see you all on the other side.

20 Dec 2021

Osystercatchers with SCAN

 I managed to get out canon netting on Saturday with SCAN with the aim of catching a sample of Oystercatchers and Redshank as part of the ongoing studies on Lavan Sands. An early start saw me up at 5.30 am having breakfast and filling flasks of tea before steering the Landrover west along the North Wales coast road to our designated meeting point.

Because of the early tide the nets had been set the previous night so it was just a case of driving along the farm track to the beach and waiting in the vehicles until the rising tide pushed the birds up the beach to roost. 

After a bit of a nail biting wait as the birds seemed unsettled we made a decent catch of 96 Oystercatchers and 6 Redshank. The Oystercatchers included an Icelandic control with a Reykjavic metal ring and colour rings! 

As usual it was interesting to see these birds close up and refresh knowledge on ageing based on eye colour, bill colour and leg colour. Juvenile birds (Euring 3) have muddy brown eyes and dull greyish legs whereas (depending on their exact age) adults have redder eyes and pinker legs. Juvenile bills are darker tipped than adults as well and generally duller.

Juvenile (3) Oystercatcher with brown eyes, dull dark tipped bill and 
grey / pink legs

Adult (Euring 8) Oystercatcher (furthest from camera) with ruby red eye and bright pink legs compared to juvenile (Euring 3) 

Of course theres a whole load of age groups in between and it enabled everyone to become familiar with these. Compared to small passerines waders are long lived birds and some species can be aged on plumage and soft part characteristics / colours way beyond what is normally possible for small passerines who generally attain full adult plumage after their first post breeding moult in their 2nd year. The adult Oystercatcher above (Euring 8), for example, is at least 3 years old and probably older. The bird below is a  second calendar year bird (Euring 5) hatched last yer. The eye isn't as bright as the Euring 8 bird above and the bill still retains a lot of dark pigmentation and the legs are dull.

Oystercatcher Euring 5 (second calendar year) with dull bill and legs but brighter eye than juvenile.

It was a beautiful and frosty December morning and it was nice to be out and see some familiar friendly faces. With all the birds processed the gear was packed up and I set off back home and a hot mug of tea to warm me up. 

13 Dec 2021

Storm Arwen and local birding

Storm Arwen caused a fair bit of damage in our village. Trees and power lines were brought down and several houses and farm buildings sustained serious structural damage. We escaped relatively unscathed suffering just a power outage for three days and a missing roof tile. The garden also escaped relatively unharmed with just a few branches being blown off some of our trees. Others had to be surgically removed with a chainsaw to save further damage to the tree. 

One thing we noticed in the immediate aftermath was an increased number of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls. We only normally see flocks like this during the spring when they're moving to their breeding grounds. Since Arwen we're regularly getting 4-500 gulls feeding on flooded pasture in front of the house. As usual I check them all for either colour rings or something rarer. I was surprised to find an adult winter plumaged Med Gull with them as, again, this is a bird I usually associate with spring movements. 

This one had the bonus of being colour ringed but unfortunately never came close enough for me to read the darvics combination. Very frustrating.

I also picked out at least two separate metal ringed Black-headed Gulls but had no chance of reading those numbers either!

After our recent Cattle Egret (see write up here) and my comments about the scarcity of Little Egrets (even though they breed fairly close) we recently had two Egret days! One day I looked out of one of the the rear facing windows and saw two Little Egrets in with cows and the next day there was one. I'd never have thought 51 years ago when I started birding that I'd see Cattle & Little Egrets in the UK from our rural location. Actually, at nine years old I'd probably never even heard of them!

The gull flock also held this leucistic Black-headed Gull. A very striking looking bird and a useful pointer to the fact that the gulls returning each day were part of the same flock even if the Med Gull hasn't (so far) been seen again.

7 Dec 2021

A bit of garden ringing - winter visitors

 I love winter ringing in the garden. Especially early morning and dusk sessions trying to catch and ring the Redwing that come to fill their crops on our berry laden trees. I don't catch many but its always a thrill to catch one or two each session knowing they've come across from Scandinavia for the winter and will return there to breed in the spring. 

We also get an influx of Blackbirds from Scandinavia and northern Europe in the winter and the majority of these birds are identifiable in the hand by being distinctly bigger with longer wings and a heavier body weight. Young males also tend to have all dark bills such as this bird we caught and ringed at another local site.

Another Scandinavian migrant we've had in the garden recently was this male Brambling. Returning from having my flu jab I went out in the garden to fil the bird feeders and heard a familiar call from the top of a tall beech tree in next doors garden. No sooner had  I filled the feeders and returned to the warmth of the conservatory then this male Brambling flew in with a small flock of Goldfinches and Chaffinches! 

They're less than annual in our garden so it was nice to see one. Unfortunately it didn't hang around for long.

At the moment I'm not able to do any ringing in the garden as the village is in a bird flu 10 km surveillance zone with an outbreak at a poultry farm / processor in Mouldsworth. The second November running theres been an outbreak in the same area!

30 Nov 2021

Cattle Egret. New for the garden & patch list.

Despite being common on the Dee Estuary, and at nearby Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB, Little Egret is remarkable scarce on my local patch with only 4 records in 5 years living here. One of those was of multiple birds (3) seen flying past the study window so as a consequence its on the house and garden list! 

Cattle Egret is very scarce with most of the records coming from Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB (BMW) or Wirral. BMW is about 11 km in a straight-line from us and slightly north west. It was one of the last species I expected to add to the house list anytime soon!

Storm Arwen hit us hard Friday night and we lost power around 11 pm. Saturday morning dawned to devastation all around us. Apart from no power and a missing roof tile we escaped quite lightly but the garden was strewn with fallen branches. A neighbouring barn had lost its roof and many trees were blown over. Once the storm abated the weather became bitterly cold and as we didn't have power the central heating wasn't working. Trying to keep warm working in the garden I took a break, made a brew and took it up to the study to check on the gulls I'd noticed in the field opposite the house. Even without binoculars I could see one bird that stood out glowing white compared to the larids.

Getting the binoculars on it I was stunned to see it was actually a Cattle Egret and it was doing what Cattle Egrets do the World over! Hanging around with cattle and snaffling insects that they disturbed in the grass.

Cue panic as  I tried to get a record photo / video before the bird disappeared as all around us chainsaws were working removing fallen trees blocking the lane and that had fallen across power lines.

The bird stayed for about an hour before disappearing. I didn't see it fly but next time I looked up it, and all the gulls, had disappeared. A great local record and some reward for being without electricity for nearly 3 days. That puts the garden list up to 111 in 4 years of living here.

26 Nov 2021

What a belter of a Kingfisher

In October 1979 I started as an undergraduate studying biology at Manchester University. That same year a Belted Kingfisher turned up at Sladesbridge Cornwall. Although it stayed for awhile it was pretty elusive and getting there would have entailed a long hitch from Manchester to Cornwall. Stupidly I never made the effort. If I'd known then that there wouldn't have been another one in the UK until 2005 I'd have made more of an effort but at the time I was a conscientious student.

For years it had been on my most wanted list of birds to see in the UK. With several birds being seen in Ireland and in Spain the hope was one of these birds would migrate and make it to the UK. April 1st 2005 saw me skiing in Andorra with my wife and two kids. A message about a Belted Kingfisher at Shugbourough was viewed as a April fool hoax. Only it wasn't and most of my Cheshire compatriots made the short journey to Shugborough to see this Jackdaw sized Kingfisher. It's a Mega in so many ways.

April the 2nd dawned with many disappointed faces as the bird had gone. Only to be relocated later that day in Yorkshire. Again it eluded the masses before finally pitching up in Peterculter, Scotland where it showed from the 4-8th April. We arrived home from Andorra on the 9th. Another one missed.

Roll forward to April 18th 2018 when one was found on the Scillies and seemed settled at Porth Hellick. Surely it would be 3rd time lucky? Al Orton and I thought so as we drove through the night to Cornwall and get a flight from Lands End to St Mary's. Or so we thought. Bad weather meant the flight was cancelled and we had to get the ferry from Penzance. Surely the bird wouldn't have moved on in such bad weather? It had and another opportunity was lost. 

Unbelievably a fisherman dangling his maggots on the River Ribble just north of Brockholes NNR in Lancashire videoed one using his phone on 9th November this year. We were there within a couple of hours of the news breaking but despite staying until dark there was no sign until the 14th November when it was reported again from exactly the same spot. Again, birders turned up but failed to find any trace. How could a bird this big and loud disappear? With no more sightings we pored over OS maps to look at areas where there was access to the river bank and where a Belted Kingfisher could possibly hangout. Despite us, & lots of people searching large stretches of the Ribble, there was no further sign.

When a Long-toed Stint was reported in Cumbria it took quite a bit of sleuthing by a few people to determine where it might be. I'd missed the Yorkshire bird in October as we were on Fetlar. We'd arranged to drive straight there after getting off Shetland only for it to disappear the very day we were going. Keen to catch up with this ultra rare stint I arranged with Chris we'd drive to Carlisle in the hope the bird would show and access could be arranged. As we passed Brockholes on the M6 Chris jokingly said he had a good feeling about the day and that he fully expected to get the Long-toed Stint and then the Belted Kingfisher on the way home! Unbelievably the news came through from RBA that the Kingfisher was showing well in exactly the same spot when we were only 20 minutes from Rockcliffe Marsh where the stint had been seen! Deciding to carry on we soon found there was no viewing on site, no access and no sign of the bird.....

With news the Belted Kingfisher was still showing well we decided to cut our losses and head back down the M6 to Brockholes. News kept coming through that it had moved but was still showing, next it had been flushed, by who or what we didn't know, but eventually at 2.20 pm we pulled up in the crematorium carpark and raced down to the river bank down a very steep muddy embankment. Distant it may have been compared to the views people had earlier but finally after 42 years I had my Belted Kingfisher. We watched it move around a bit before at around 2.50 it flew upstream and wasn't seen again.

What an incredible end to a long wait! Hopefully its now getting into a more regular routine & there'll be another chance to catch up with this spectacular bird. Surely it will overwinter in the area now?