8 Apr 2021

A long overdue trip to Hilbre

 With the easing of lockdown restrictions I'd hoped to get to Hilbre last week but a leaking radiator pipe beneath the floorboards upstairs at home and the need to wait in for a plumber put paid to that. However, I managed to get across yesterday for the tide. An early tide meant an early start and it was still dark at 05.45 when I drove off the ramp and onto the beach art West Kirby. The weather wasn't conducive to passerine migration with a strong NNW blowing and -2C  temperatures and the forecast of snow and hail flurries! 

It was still dark when I arrived at the Observatory and I had a brew before waiting for the dawn to start breaking before doing a tour of the island and the heligoland traps. Reaching the north end there were quite a few gulls feeding on the edge of the rising tide including a couple of Kittiwakes and three Little Gulls. I'd left my camera back at the Obs as it was still to dark to be able to photograph anything but I hurried back to get it to try and photograph the Little Gulls. By the time I returned they'd moved further out.

First glimmer of sunrise looking east towards West Kirby

View looking south from the air raid shelter 

The old Lifeboat station reflecting the rising sun at the north end

An adult Kittiwake seemed to be doing circuits of the island and was seen flying down the west side and then between Middle & Hilbre before flying back up the east side.
Unfortunately it was seen on the rocks below the east side cliffs as the tide receded and looked moribund.

It appeared that the strong northely winds had displaced quite a few seabirds and as the tide rose they started leaving the Dee estuary up the west side of Hilbre. Six Red-throated Divers (including three together), a number of Common Scoter, several Razorbill, a Guillemot and an adult Gannet were all watched heading out and into the wind.
Common Scoter

Red-throated Divers

As the tide fell a large party of Turnstones flew into the rocks at the north end and were joined by six Purple Sandpipers. One of the Turnstones was ringed on the right leg with what appears to be a BTO ring. As we haven't ringed any Turnstone for a number of years and we ring on the left leg, this is probably a bird ringed elsewhere in the UK.

Turnstone - lower picture shows metal ringed bird.

As usual the Purple Sandpipers were very photogenic and it won't be long before these, and the Turnstones, start departing for their Arctic breeding grounds.

Most of the resident passerines are beginning to think about the breeding season and a pair of Rock Pipits were displaying at the north end whilst a solitary Meadow Pipit was bravely doing its display flight and running the risk of getting blown off the island! 

Rock Pipit

Meanwhile the resident pair of Carrion Crows were seen breaking of branches from the few trees on the island to repair their nest.

A male Eider has been hanging around the island for awhile. With the first recorded breeding of this species confirmed last year there are hopes they'd do the same this year. I didn't see it around Hilbre but as the tide dropped it appeared on the rocks to the east of Middle Eye. 
Fantastic birds and at one time quite a rarity on the N Wirral coast.  Interestingly it appears to be in wing moult.

Despite the atrocious weather it was good to get out and although there weren't any spring migrants theres always something to see around Hilbre. 

13 Mar 2021

Horse leech

A few weeks ago, after heavy rain and flooding in the front garden, I found what I first thought was a New Zealand Flatworm in the front lawn. Further investigation and some advice from several friends suggested it was actually a Horse Leech (haemopis sanguisuga). A new species for me and a new one for the garden.They don't feed on horses although there is anecdotal evidence of them getting up the nostrils of animals drinking from the water courses they live in.

They'll move onto land to search for earthworms they they ingest but will also feed on midge larvae and other small aquatic invertebrates. 

They're widespread throughout the UK but under recorded. They're hermaphroditic and each leech becomes impregnated at the same time when they mate.

Incredible creatures and a real surprise to find in our garden! 

5 Mar 2021


 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.