15 Jul 2019

Puffin Island. Data loggers and Auks

Visiting Puffin Island during the seabird research season is something I eagerly anticipate every year although the physicality of it is getting harder as I get older!

This year it seems as if the birds have had a good breeding year with large numbers of Shags, Cormorants, Razorbills and Guillemots being ringed and, yes, Steve caught the obligatory Puffin.

Razorbill chick ready to fledge. It'll hiopefully return as a breeding adult in 2-3 years time


 Bridled Guillemot. Rare this far south but commoner further north.

 Herring Gull eggs hatching

Seabird tracking and monitoring is important in our understanding of population dynamics and the environmental impacts affecting them. Research is carried out on Puffin Island using the latest techniques - including data loggers as shown below fitted to a Guillemot. These will be used to track the birds throughout the winter to see where they move to. For information on the importance of this research see the RSPB's site here

After an exceedingly hot and long day in the field it was a relief to get aboard Matthews boat and get a bit of a breeze! An hour and a half later I was home and enjoying a well deserved beer!

8 Jul 2019

Colour flagging Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn.

I recently got invited to help in a project colour flagging Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn lagoon on Anglesey as part of a new long term project to find out where these birds disperse to when they return as breeding adults. Last year the colony was devastated by an otter and the adult birds deserted. Where did they go? Did they attempt to breed at another colony? Would they come back this year? The answer to the 2nd question was yes they returned but no one knows where they ended up last year. With the installation of a predator proof fence the colony is doing well this year and in conjunction with the wardens plans were made to spend a minimum amount of time on the breeding island to mark as many youngsters as we could.

Although the water wasn't particularly deep in the lagoon we were towed across to the island in a metal punt by one of the wardens to minimise the disturbance of the bottom. This was quite a surreal experience!

Setting ourselves up in two teams we started ringing and colour flagging the young tern chicks gathered up by the wardens. We were limited to 45 minutes so with me ringing and Rachel colour flagging we worked methodically and as swiftly as possible. Sandwich Terns are quite docile compared to the machine gun approach of adult Arctic terns and we didn't get attacked by the adults at all. Below: Rachel applying the quick setting glue to a colour flag from her new highly prized metal syringe - so much easier than applying directly from the tube.

Sandwich Tern AEE. Hopefully we'll pick up some of these later off Hilbre as we get a late summer build up of Sandwich Terns.

With our allotted time up we'd manage to ring and flag 128 young Sandwich Terns and left the colony to return back to the wardens cottage for a debrief and tea and biscuits.
We look forward to receiving sightings on these young terns.

4 Jul 2019

Savi's Warbler and Gull-billed Tern.

The planets definitely aligned yesterday despite the day starting looking as if it was going to be a bit of a disaster. Rough seas aborted our planned trip to the Skerries to ring Arctic Tern chicks and I was already on my way to Bangor when Steve rang me to say the trip had been delayed until later in the morning. No problem - I'd been meaning to call into Cors Dydga RSPB reserve, when in the area, to try and see the long staying Savi's Warbler. The last one I saw in the UK was over 15 years ago and although they're pretty regular in the SE and SW they're not so common this far north. Once mooted as  a potential colonist they first started breeding in the UK at Stodmarsh in Kent which is where I saw my first one in the 70's whilst living in Suffolk with my parents. The breeding population has never really taken off if you'll excuse the pun........

Arriving at the small reserve carpark  I checked the song on Xeno Canto to refresh my memory of what this largish locustella sounded like in comparison with Grasshopper Warbler.

A few minute later on a beautiful sunny morning and already slathered in sunscreen for the Skerries trip I found myself standing looking over a pristine piece of wetland habitat! Reed Buntings, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers andf Blackcaps were singing already me but within a few minutes I heard the distinctive reeling song of the Savi's Warbler. A brief view in some scrub and it was gone. Unfortunately I didn't have a scope or camera with me as the bird then started singing more distantly. This was the pattern for the next couple of hours until a couple more people arrived, one of who had a telescope! I picked up the Savi's showing fairly distantly at the top of a dead reed stem and managed to get everyone on it and borrowed the ladies scope to take a record shot.

This was the pattern for the next few hours with people coming and going and me 'borrowing' scopes to get people on to the bird. Another call from Steve and another boat delay meant I got to enjoy the reserve for longer. Painted Lady, Ringlet, Meadow Brown all were seen from my viewpoint whilst Kingfishers called in the dyke behind me. With the boat trip being put back until 3.30 I stayed until hunger drove me back to the Landrover and enjoyed warm sandwiches and an even warmer cold drink before heading the short distance to Steves office where I'd no sooner pulled up when he rang to say the trip was off until Friday!

Meanwhile Steve Hinde had found a Gull-billed Tern off Thurstaston and as I set off for home I had this feeling of deja-vue as my last Gull-billed Ternin the UK was also a Wirral one and also found whilst I was on Anglesey - see here. This time it was Puffin Island and the tern was at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB. With news it was still present after the tide had receded I made the decision to go and try for it with a very quick detour off the main route to collect the camera from home.

Joining some familiar Wirral faces at Thurstaston I was soon onto the tern thanks to Al H letting me see it through his scope. Definitely a theme for the day as mine was still at home set up in the study and overlooking the pond opposite the house. It was sat distantly on the mud / sand but performed a fly past and came a bit closer allowing some distant photos.

As I said, the planets were aligned for me. No sooner had I got home then the alarm calls of our local House Martins caused me to look skywards in time to see a Hobby making a vain attempt to catch one before heading off across the fields. In the last two years we've had them earlier in the year displaying and calling behind the house but this year we were in Australia for the two week period they've usually been more active so this was my first local sighting this year!

25 Jun 2019

S Wales & Gloucestershire trip for orchids

I admit that I've not very good on my UK wildflower identification but have an ongoing intertest in orchids so when Sean Cole suggested a trip south to see some species that were new to me I jumped at the chance. First stop was Seans place for a welcome cuppa  before the trip down the M5 and along the M4 to Kenfig NNR. What a place! Stacked with wild orchids and other rarities. Targets here were Fen Orchid, Marsh Helleborine & Narrow-lipped &Green Helleborine.

Even as we pulled up into the car park it became obvious this was a very special place. Bee orchids and Pyramidal Orchids could be seen even before we'd stopped moving!

Sean knows his stuff and as we made our way down towards the dune slacks he pointed out numerous hybrids, which I struggled to get my head round, as gems such as the salmon pink Early Marsh Orchid and its stunningly beautiful sub-species coccinea, presumably named after the coccineal red food dye.

Whilst inspecting these specimens I noticed a bee on on  Southern Marsh Orchid with an old orchid pollinia stuck ti it. Proof, if it was needed that, successful sexual reproduction of this species takes place on this site.

Both Southern & Northern Marsh Orchids can be found on this site and Sean was using a colour chart to try and determine if the colour can be used to separate these and some of the hybrids.

By now the sun was breaking through and the drizzle that greeted our arrival had abated. Butterflies distracted us from the orchids with Common Blue and Dark Green Fritillary both on the wing. The fritillary settling on brilliant blue Vipers Bugloss made for a fantastic photo oppurtunity whilst the Common Blue on its Birdsfoot Trefoil food plant gave an opportunity to try the macro lens out.

Distractions over we concentrated on the task in hand and started searching the dune slacks for the diminutive and rare Fen Orchid. Once we got our eye in and were in the right area they were everywhere and what a delight they were.

As well as the Fens the dune slacks held good numbers of Dune Helleborine and Common Twayblade. The Dune Helleborines were just about coming into flower and in another week they'll be out in all their glory.

Marsh Helleborines above and Common Twayblade below:

Common Spotted orchids weren't the commonest species of Orchid here but were present and showed a variety of colours ranging from the normal pink to almost pure white.

Working our way to the coast we looked out for the nationally rare Sea Astor and discovered a group of the parasitic Broomrape - what species we didn't determine.

On the way back to the car we stopped to look for Green-flowered & Narrow -lipped Helleborine. We found both but unfortunately they weren't yet in flower.

Narrow-lipped Helleborine above and Green-flowered Helleborine below, yeah I know.....

After a very late lunch we headed back up to Gloucestershire and a real treat. The parasitic Birdsnest Orchid in its classic heavily shaded Beech woodland habitat at Birdlip. Completely lacking chlorophyll they rely on digesting living fungi for nutrition which grow within the plant! the fungi in turn gets its nutrition from a symbiotic ectomycorrhizal relationship with its Beech  host. The tree photosynthesises and produces carbohydrates that the fungi rely on - the orchid taps into this relationship and obtains its nutrition from the fungi! Not only is it a beautiful plant but its lifestyle is fascinating.

For me this was the orchid of the trip but we still had time for one more stop - Barrow Wake watchpoint for the tiny Musk Orchid. I'd been to this site once before as a biology undergraduate at Manchester University on a field trip to nearby Woodchester valley. Unfortunately we only found one tiny Musk Orchid that wasn't yet in flower.
Arriving at Sean's place I picked up my cart and headed home after a superb day orchid hunting. In total we saw 15 different species. A great trip and many thanks to Sean for arranging it.

20 Jun 2019

Little Owls.

The Little owls behind the house have gone quiet and I don't know if they're breeding or not. There's been a lot of farm disturbance recently but they can be quite tolerant so hopefully they'll do okay. One pair, that are using a box I put up in 2014, have used it again this year and we recently ringed three healthy young.

Again, the birds hadn't been seen for awhile but Barry saw one bird near the box in early may so went to check it before I went to Australia. I was surprised to find the female sitting on four eggs!

Checking them again on the 28th may after we returned there were three young but they were to small to ring.

The signs were hopeful they'd all survive as there were plenty of festering rodent prey items littering the box. What was really interesting though was that the adult female was ringed.  We ringed an adult female here three years ago but on checking the ring number I found it was actually one of a brood of five I'd ringed in the same box in 2015! What happened to the original female? The box wasn't used last year and we assumed that the 'beast from the east' meant the birds weren't able to attain breeding condition and just didn't bother. A grey squirrel also took over the box last winter until it was evicted and that may have deterred them but it seems that the more likely answer is that the older female died - either predated or of starvation during last years cold weather. The adult female of our garden pair was predated by a Sparrowhawk last year.

Going back a few weeks later we ringed the youngsters who sat among a heap of prey remains including a Blackbird - identifiable by a leg and some feathers.

 Above: note the Blackbirds leg in left foreground and feather by chicks leg
Below: Adult female looking worse for wear after brooding her young surrounded by rotting corpses!
Whilst on the farm we took the opportunity to ring a brood of 5 Jackdaw chicks using a Barn Owl box installed in a large open fronted barn. I love the eye colour of these chicks! Interestingly Barry reported one of the adult birds had a metal ring on the left leg so is probably one of the birds I ringed in the same box last year.