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27 Sept 2021

Wilsons Phalarope, Cheshire

We'd got back from Scotland the previous evening, after a long drive and epic journey round the NC500 taking on Orkney on the way, and  I was unpacking the car after breakfast when the news came through that Graham Jones had found a Wilsons Phalarope at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB just a few minutes away from the house. Abandoning the unpacking I grab binoculars, scope and camera and set off. Luckily the bird was on view, albeit distantly, when I arrived and  I was soon watching my 2nd Wilsons Phalarope for Cheshire - almost 40 years to the day as I saw my first ever and first Cheshire one at Frodsham as a student at Manchester University! 

There have been 11 previous records in Cheshire and this makes it 12. The last one was in 1991 so this was a very popular bird for a younger generation of Cheshire birders! I've seen 6 in the UK with the last one being at Seaforth Docks in 2009. In recent years they've become much scarcer in the UK. They're beautiful little birds and like our more familiar Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes will feed by spinning on the surface of the water to disturb invertebrates up from the mud on the bottom. They also feed on and and have a very distinctive feeding action - almost like a small egret chasing prey!






After almost 3 weeks away it was also good to catch up with a few friends I hadn't seen for awhile. Another good wader for the CAWOS recording area after recent Long-billed Dowithcers and American Golden Plovers.


17 Sept 2021

A Curlews call

 Our Curlews are in trouble. The UK's breeding population us halved in the last 25 years. Once common in some areas of lowland Britain such as the Brecklands of East Anglia and in moorland areas such as the peak District and areas of  North Wales their haunting bubbling display call is becoming a less familiar sound. They are amber listed in the UK and classified as globally threatened across their range. A number of factors are thought to be playing their part in the species decline including agricultural intensification and predation. 

Their onomatopoeic 'curlew, curlew' call is still a familiar sound on our estuaries as UK numbers are boosted by winter migrants from northern Europe but our resident breeding population is in a downward spiralling decline.

As such theres a lot of research going on as to what is causing this decline and eggs that would otherwise been destroyed on military bases in the Brecks are now being hatched in incubators and the youngsters being returned to the wild. See here for more information on the head starting project. When humans have to intervene in this way you know a species is in serious trouble.

The ECHOES  project is another project looking at Curlew populations  - ECHOES studies the effect of climate change on bird habitats around the Irish Sea. See here for more information. This includes the North Wales coast where the SCAN ringing group have been monitoring wading bird populations for many years. I was lucky enough to join them on a recent Curlew catch where a good sample were canon netted and as well as new birds ringed we caught a number of retraps giving valuable data on longevity and survival.

To no longer hear Curlew calling when walking in our moorland national parks would be a sad reflection on our society. Hopefully the research thats being carried out can help reverse the fortunes of this charismatic species. As a kid I used to visit my grandparents, who lived on the edge of Dartmoor, and listened to the Curlews calling in the meadows behind their house through the open windows. Now they're probably extinct as a breeding species on Dartmoor. It's sad to think this has happened in my lifetime.





30 Aug 2021

American Golden Plover on the Wirral.

The day Chris & I returned from Bardsey expert rarity finder, Tim Kinch, found a juvenile Golden Plover at Hoylake. By all accounts it was showing pretty well! I've seen quite a few before on Orkney and Shetland, where they turn up almost annually,  but my only Cheshire / Wirral bird was a fly-over calling found by me & Al Conlin on 11th October 2009. There's only been 5 previous records in the county and only one (1987) stayed for more than one day. Luckily for Chris it was very close to where he lives so after dropping me off he managed to see it. I left it hoping it would stay until the next day. Luckily it did and  I caught up with it Sunday morning on the beach where it showed well with a flock of Dunlin & Ringed Plover in very blowy conditions!





A great find by Tim and another great bird for the Wirral this year following on from Melodious Warbler, Hoopoe, Long-billed Dowitcher & Pectoral Sandpiper.

24 Aug 2021

Long-billed Dowitcher, Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB

Long-billed Dowitchers aren't particularly rare and are perhaps one of the commoner North American vagrant waders to make it to our shores. They're always nice to see though - especially one thats only 15 minutes from home! I've seen several over the years in Cheshire but this was an adult in its resplendent breeding plumage so well worth the trip. 

Long-billed Dowitcher was probably the 2nd North American wading bird I saw in the UK following a self-found Pectoral Sandpiper at Bury St Edmunds sugar beet factory settling ponds, Suffolk, when I was about 15. I could probably claim my first Dowitcher as self found as well. My maternal Grandparents lived in Hayle, Cornwall and we used to spend many holidays at this birding mecca. No sooner had I arrived then I'd be off birding for the day, invariably with a piece of grandmas fruit cake tucked in a pocket to fortify me & my old Alladin thermos in my rucksack along with my trusty 'A field guide to the birds of Britain & Europe' by Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort & P A D Hollom - a definite upgrade from the  Observers book of Birds! 

The lane virtually opposite their house led down to the estuary and my usual route took me down here, along the estuary to Carsnew Pool and then onto Copperhouse Creek. We'd arrived for Easter in March 1978 and as usual I spent most of my time either birding on the estuary or fishing off the quay! I was checking out the waders on Carsnew Pool when I came across a bird I didn't immediately recognise. By a process of elimination I came to the surprising conclusion it was my first Long-billed Dowitcher! After watching it for about an hour I carried on to Copperhouse Creek where I found a group of birders with scopes obviously searching for something. That something turned out to be a Long-billed Dowitcher............cue a sudden exodus as I announced I'd been watching it on Carsnew Pool! 

Anyway, I digress. The latest Dowitcher was probably the 5th or 6th for the reserve with the first being in 1993 when it was still Inner Marsh Farm. I've seen at least four in Cheshire with two together at Inner Marsh Farm in 2009. This latest one was hanging around with Black-tailed Godwits and although quite distant and in bright sunshine it looked stunning in its summer plumage.






 
A great bird and I even managed some shaky video.




19 Aug 2021

Bardsey!

When Chris told me a few weeks ago that he was going to Bardsey for a week to install their new solar energy system I casually mentioned that if he needed a hand I'd go with him for the week. He took me up on the offer and so on a Sunday afternoon we found ourselves on the boat from Porth Meudwy for the short trip across the sound to Bardsey. I knew Steve Stansfield and his wife, Emma, from Bird Observatory Council (BOC) meetings but I'd never been to Bardsey before! Steve had promised us a night ringing Storm Petrels and Manx Shearwaters if we had time and if the weather was good. Sold! 

We were met from the boat by Connor who helped us load all the tools Chris had brought with him for the installation work and out rucksacks. Walking back to the Obs with Steve and Emma we chatted and caught up on news as Covid had prevented us attending the annual BOC meeting in February this year.

What a fabulous setting for a bird Observatory! After being shown to our rooms and being introduced to Louis, Megan and Stewart went with Steve to take a look at the equipment we'd come to install and the installation site. Gulp! 

Solar field after installation of one of the 24 panels! 

Completed solar field - now for the wiring! 

True to his word Steve organised a couple of nights Storm Petrel ringing at the north end of the island with the bonus of Manx Shearwaters thrown in. I'd ringed Storm Petrels before but never Manx Shearwaters so I was pretty keen, even after 12 hours working on the solar installation each day. 

Storm Petrel are amazing little birds. They spend most of their time at sea and are highly pelagic. They only come ashore to breed and nest in loose colonies - see here for my experience ringing them on Nan Ron. Non breeders wander around our coastlines exploring breeding sites and readily come to a sound recording of their calls so the standard practice is to set up a mist net on a suitable headland or cliff top, at night, and set up a sound system broadcasting their calls. Consequently we didn't get to bed until 2-3 am ! 

Just the experience of being out at night on an island with no street lights or light pollution and experiencing the majesty of the milkyway way was fabulous. Throw in shooting stars and Storm petrels and it was truly magical. 

We caught a few Storm Petrels which were duly ringed and processed in front of an appreciative audience of families staying at the Observatory and the visiting grandchildren of island residents. A big part of a bird observatory's work is education and Steve & Emma do this in spades. A few years ago they instigated a 'young birders week' and I know quite a few youngsters who attended these and have now gone on to work in the field of conservation or research






After a couple of hours ringing Storm petrel we turned our attention to catching Manx Shearwaters. Basically this involves walking up to them and picking them up off the ground! 


Manx Shearwaters are another pelagic species with an amazing lifestyle and life span. The oldest recorded Manx Shearwater was ringed on Bardsey in 1957 and re-trapped in 2008 with almost 51 years between the two dates. Given that Manx Shearwaters don't breed until they're 4 years old this makes this particular one around 54 years old! Given that they migrate to the southern hemisphere, after breeding, and don't come ashore, the amount of airmiles they must rack up in a lifetime will rival even the most battle hardened American Airlines flight attendant (thats another story!).

Manx Shearwaters tarsi are very flat and require the re-shaping and fitting of a standard Fc ring to an elliptical shape. Steve is an expert on this having ringed thousands of Manx Shearwaters during his long career on Bardsey. I found it difficult, being left handed, as the rings need to be closed with the right hand to ensure they're closed in such away that the numbers are the right way up and that they're not partially obscured. Over the years Steve has developed a technique using a special pair of pliers and not the usual ringing pliers. In his words, 'you're engineering a ring to fit the bird'.
Me learning from the master

Fitting my 1st Manx Shearwater ring





It was gone 2 am before we started our return walk back to the Obs but there was one more surprise in store for us when Steve pointed out a Manx Shearwater that had made its nest in a drain and was calling as we walked past. An amazing sound and one we got used to hearing every evening as the shearwaters came ashore after spending the day foraging for food for their youngsters.

Despite the late nights we were up early cracking on with the installation week and despite set backs with missing parts we completed the installation by the end of the week. Island life is difficult and any missing parts had to be ordered by Steve and sent on the boat the next day. Sometimes the wrong parts arrived or they didn't arrive at all! We'd originally hoped we'd finish by Friday but we ended up staying an extra day. Unfortunately the commissioning engineer couldn't come on the designated day so the system couldn't be started although Chris was confident it would work as we were getting voltage back at the inverters that were taking their feed from the solar field.
Solar battery installation

A well earned beer whilst helping Chris cook a dinner fit for kings. 

By Friday afternoon we were 99% finished but still waiting for some parts to arrive Saturday morning. With the weather closing in we were unsure if we'd be able to get off Saturday and having run out of clean clothes we put a wash on expecting to have to stay until Monday or Tuesday. 

Steve had another treat in store for us and suggested we spend a couple of hours ringing Manx Shearwater chicks. These are impossibly cute and fluffy and in keeping with their parents amazing lifestyle they have a pretty unconventional upbringing before fledging.

Once they've reached a certain age the parents desert them and they remain in their burrows until they've lost sufficient weight to be able to fly. They then fly off to the southern oceans and return to breed at 4 years old. Catching them involves sticking your arm down a burrow until you can feel one and then trying to manoeuvre it out.






These adults were both in the same burrow and were probably non-breeders.

A great experience and as Saturday dawned it became apparent we would get off on the afternoon boat so were frantically finishing off the installation work with parts that had arrived on the morning boat and packing our bags - including bags of wet laundry! 

Plans were made to commission the installation on Tuesday and I'd hoped to go back with Chris and the commissioning engineer but unfortunately there was no room on the boat! The plant is now fully commissioned and Bardsey Bird Observatory is now fully self sufficient in electricity and shouldn't need to resort to using the diesel generator except in emergencies. 

It was a great experience. I learned a lot more about solar installations than I did before we started, visited an island I'd never been to before, got to ring Manxies and Storm Petrels & got fed by Chris who did most of the cooking. It was great to meet up with Emma and Steve again who made us welcome in their home and supplied us with freshly dressed crabs! I'll certainly be back again - even if its just to get more practice closing Manxie rings with my right hand!  






12 Aug 2021

Great-spotted Woodpecker, Hilbre

 Its always good to get a new species for your local patch and a new species on Hilbre is surprisingly rare as over the years theres been excellent coverage and a good number of species recorded. To get two in two days (Melodious Warbler and Hoopoe) was a real surprise and as I picked up Chris and drove across to the Obs we both wondered what the  day would bring.

The 2nd trap round of the morning produced one of those moments when your heart rat picks up - a biggish bird with black and white wings got up off the ground in front of us  in the Newton trap. Surely not yesterdays Hoopoe? Unfortunately not but yet another new Hilbre bird for me and arguably, in the greater context of the Obs recording work, a more interesting bird. A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker,. Only the 3rd to be ringed by the Obs and all have been since 2015. Amazingly my third new bird for Hilbre in consecutive days.


Another new species was found later when I noticed a 'small' skipper flying around in one of the paddocks. Aware that Essex Skipper had spread rapidly north and had colonised Cheshire I got a few photos with the phone to aid identification and sure enough it was confirmed as the first Essex Skipper record for Hilbre.


Returning wader passage is continuing with parties of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwits being seen around the island. Best of all were two summer plumaged Sanderling that spent the tide at the south end of the island with a small flock of Dunlin & Ringed Plover. A sure sign that summer is waning and autumn is on its way.

It was baking hot and by midday I was glad to get out the sun and sit in some shade whilst waiting for the tide to drop far enough to drive off.








8 Aug 2021

Bellissimo mollissima

Last year I got invited to take part in a colour ringing project on Common Eider (Somateria mollissima - hence the corny title) in Cumbria. Unfortunately I couldn't go but jumped at the chance this year when the opportunity arose again.

The site was Foulney Island close to Barrow-in- Furness and is a site managed by the Cumbrian Wildlife Trust who instigated the project as they have up to 3,000 moulting Eiders on site during the summer. They breed around the area but little is known about their movements so birds were caught and colour ringed to aid identification in the field. The site is very sensitive as it also has breeding Little, Arctic and Common Terns.

Picking Chris up at 06.00 we drove through Liverpool and got the M58 to the M6 and arrived in good time at the designated meeting point to meet up with the rest of the ringing team & get a briefing off Gary.

The idea was to set two canon nets on the shingle beach and catch as many Eider and ring them wit ha BTO metal ring and an individually identifiable red darvic ring. It was expected to be a dry catch so waders weren't deemed necessary.......

Because of the nesting terns all the equipment had to be carried across the mudflats and a small creek rather than the shingle bank to avoid disturbance. With the nets set and tested set we settled for a long wait  out of site and waited...........


Chris catching up on some sleep.

As the tide came in around us we could hear Eider calling to each other and were kept entertained by the antics of the terns fishing and parties of Dunlin & Ringed-plover seemingly unconcerned by our presence. 

News from the spotters was coming through by radio and it wasn't good. The tide rose higher and the Eider weren't coming ashore where the nets were set so there ensued and anxious wait as the birds shuffled around.  And still the tide came higher.....

By now we'd virtually all resigned ourselves to not making a catch but fortune favoured us and suddenly a few eider started coming ashore. We were warned that it would now be a wet catch and we were all wondering how wet as the beach sloped away quite sharply. 

I soon found out it was waist deep as the canons were fired and we ran from our hiding place to extract and process the 15 birds we'd caught. At least it was a relatively warm day! 

It was the first time I'd ringed an Eider and I was really surprised at how big and muscular they are. All were in full wing moult and all the ones we caught were adult males apart fro mone 2nd calendar year bird. 

Me ringing my 1st Eider

Every bird was aged and sexed with moult score noted along with total head / bill length and weighed. Again I was surprised how hefty they were. The heaviest was nearly 3 kg and the average was around 2.5 kg. Beautiful birds and a great deal of variation in the body plumage despite them all being the same age and at the same stage in wing moult. Some had more white coming through on the head and others looked almost female - like.

This bird had very little on the head and almost looked female

This bird was quite advanced in its wing moult but the head has far less white than the bird below.



AIF - red darvic on left leg and BTO metal ring on right

The size of those feet - no wonder they're powerful divers and swimmers

Scribing 

Once the birds had been processed and released we packed all the gear up but had another two hour wait until the tide had dropped sufficiently for us to safely cross back to the mainland.

A great day and fantastic to meet up with some good friends once again.