26 Jul 2013

Captain Beaky does a good tern

Its Wednesday evening and I'm sitting down in a fabulous restaurant in N Wales (The Tavern in Altami near Mold - the food is superb!) with the missus, her mum and dad and her brother and sister in law. Its mum-in-laws birthday and we've taken her out for a meal. The sun is shining, the food is up to its usual high standard and, as I'm driving, my single pint of local bitter is tasting good. Coupled with the fact we're off on holiday in a couple of days I'm feeling pretty relaxed.......

Next minute the phone goes. It's Steve....... Reception is crap and we get cut off. It goes again. Its Groucho. Shit. A text comes through. I can't read it without my reading glasses in the restaurant so I disappear outside through the open fire door. It's from Jane Turner. Steve & Gill Barber have only gone and found a Caspian Tern amongst the gull roost at Acre Nook sand quarry. Arse. Arse. Arse. A Cheshire lifer and one Steve and I had been talking about on Hilbre saying another Cheshire bird was long over due. I managed to speak to Steve & Mark before returning to my meal. Marks desperate but can't get there as he's had a couple of beers - its 20 minutes from his house!  A quick look at the watch, an imperceptible shake of the head from her indoors and I resigned myself to not being able to get there in time even if I'd left immediately.

Thursday morning dawned and  I head to work with the Landrover loaded with binoculars and camera in case it gets re-found. Nothing. I'm stuck in the office and can't even go and search likely spots. Speculation is rife as to where it might end up. Work done & I'm home with a beer after packing for our holiday. I texted Groucho:

I'm halfway through the bottle and he rings at 20.02. It's back! Grabbing the keys I'm off and thundering down the M56 at speeds 22 year old Landrovers were never designed for. More updates telling me where to park and calls from me to Steve, Rob & Scott telling them the news. It takes me just under 45 minutes and I'm on site watching this monstrous sterna amongst the great and good of the Cheshire birding scene and a few stragglers from Greater Manchester.

Looking through the literature it looks like a 2nd calendar year bird that has already started its post breeding moult. By 21.55 I'm at home finishing my beer that Jan had kindly capped and put back in the fridge. It doesn't touch the sides so was swiftly followed by a second before retiring to bed a happy man.

22 Jul 2013

Regurgitated squid and a piratical boarding.

The final ringing  trip of the season to Puffin Island took place Saturday with the objective being to mop up any un-ringed Guillemot and Razorbill chicks from the last two visits, ring some Kittiwake chicks, try to catch a few adults and ring some more gull chicks.

Unfortunately the news from the Island wasn't all good as the regular monitoring by Liverpool University  researchers suggested most of the Kittiwake nests had failed! Kittiwakes are on of the key indicator species of the health of our marine environments. Like terns they can't dive very deep so if there are no small fish near the surface they can't feed. These species are the first indicators of trouble - auks can dive  up to 80 m in search of food.  As Rachel said ' they're the canaries of the seabird colonies'.

In the case of the Puffin Island colonies it could be that the recent hot weather has meant the small fish have gone to deeper cooler water and can't be reached by the Kittiwakes. However, in the on going studies even a poor data set is important s owe duly met up at Beaumaris for the boat trip across in beautiful weather.

I was very sad to see so many Kittiwake nests deserted but we did manage to ring a few pulls and caught some adults to be colour ringed. The chicks have a habit of regurgitating their stomach contents all over you as a defence mechanism  and  I soon became immune to the smell of regurgitated squid! It was quite obvious what the parents had been feeding the youngsters on as you could see the tentacles in the vomit.

Lovely! Just what you need on a hot summers day. A covering of guano and Kittiwake vomit to act as a sun block. Reaching some of the nests required use of ladders and carrying these up and down the cliffs from site to site gave us a good workout.
                                                            Jon Green & Ian Lees with the scaling ladders.
A few Guillemot and Razorbill pullus were also ringed along with some adults although most of the youngsters have left the colonies and headed out to sea with their parents.
This little fella is sporting his shiny new auk ring ad hopefully will survive and return as a breeding adult in the future.
By now it was getting seriously hot and whilst moving between accessible parts of the colonies (some cliffs are to dangerous even for us to attempt!) we passed through the gull colonies so took the opportunity to catch a few gull chicks for ringing whilst getting bombarded by the adults from above. Both Herring Gull & Lesser Black-backed Gulls are species that have declined significantly in recent years so ringing is a vital part of the on going monitoring of these species to determine productivity & survival rates. It also gave us the opportunity to gain a few more scars to add to the collection. Herring & Lesser Black-backed Gull chicks can give a nasty peck but Greater Black-backs are real brutes.
                                           LBB Gull (left) and herring Gull (right)

                                           Me ringing a Herring Gull - notice the finely scarred hands.
The thought of an ice cold beer was getting more and more enticing as the day wore on but unfortunately we got a message through from our boatman to say he couldn't pick us up until 19.30! We'd expected to be off well before then.  Hearts & spirits sank for awhile as everyone was looking forward to getting a good shower and a cold drink but who could stay disheartened for long in such a beautiful spot surrounded by seabirds, blue skies and azure seas.

Suddenly things changed as a phone call came through to say a local fisherman had been asked to pick us up in his rib and transport us to one of the Puffin Island cruise boats where we were to be given a lift back amongst unsuspecting tourists......Rather than having 3 hours to kill we now needed to be ready in minutes.
Piling all our gear aboard the rib we were ferried out to the cruise boat and boarded to sit amongst the tourists very aware of the fact we looked and smelt pretty horrific! Parents held children close as we sat giving off malodorous odours of eau de Kittiwake vomit, gull shit and auk guano with  hint of sunscreen and sweaty feet thrown in. With some of the passengers already looking decidedly sea sick as there was a slight swell running we could only apologise for interrupting their paid trip and then making them feel even worse by having to detour to collect us and then put up with the smell. Calamari anyone?
Luckily I've learned to take a spare set of clothes with me and the smelly ones were consigned to a bin bag once back at the car! A quick wash in the public toilets (note to Beaumaris council - no soap and no towels!), a flask of tea to keep me going on the way home and  I felt almost human again. With the aircon set to minimum I was home within an hour and within and hour and a half I was showered, changed,  shite covered cloths in the washing machine and sitting watching the cricket highlights with a cold beer.

17 Jul 2013

Emberiza citrinella

I took a walk up through Delamere Forest recently on a beautiful summers evening looking to photograph a Cuckoo. The area was teeming with bird life with Garden Warblers, Common Whitethroats and Willow Warblers but sadly no Cuckoo. What was surprising though was the number of Redpolls doing their display flight and the number of Yellowhammers!

Like all Buntings they're mainly seed eaters but what many people don't realise is, like most Buntings and Sparrows they change to an insectivorous diet during the feeding season to feed their young.

This female was actively hunting invertebrates along the track edge and I managed to photograph her with a tasty fly.

So much for the healthy vegetarian option..................

11 Jul 2013

Summer ringing

With Hilbre quiet at the moment thoughts turn to other ringing projects and we've just returned from our now virtually annual visit to Foxglove Covert, a reserve on the Catterick Army base, to help with one of their busy CES (constant effort site) weekends. John Elliot, Jase Atkinson, Scot Reid and yours truly set off at teatime Saturday for the journey across the M62 corridor and up the A1/M to Catterick to find some kind person had left bread, butter, biscuits and cakes for us with a note saying 'for our visiting ringers'. Fantastic!

A quick walk round and then an early night with the alarm set for 03.45 stupid o'clock. None of us slept well and the alarm went off all to quickly!

A very tiring day with 226 birds processed and lots of walking! It was great to meet so many interested members of the public who are made welcome in the ringing room and once again we were well looked after with homemade flapjacks and chocolate cake to keep us fortified.

The ringing room at Foxglove Covert LNR - photo by John Elliot. Jase & me.

A good variety of birds were caught with Marsh Tit being especially welcome as we certainly don't get to see many of those these days in Cheshire.

It was a knackered group that left Catterick around 3.30 pm for the drive home. It was a long and busy day.

Last night saw John & me back on the River Lune helping with the N Lancs ringing groups Sand Martin RAS project (re-
trapping adults for survival). A beautiful though humid evening with Kingfishers & Grey Wagtails amongst the throngs of Sand Martins for company.

The catch wasn't as big as on previous occasions but we still manage to catch the now ubiquitous French control...................

Meanwhile, back at home. The Goldfinches nesting in our Laurel hedge have fledged so I've now been able to cut the hedge back to a more reasonable height. The nest was beautifully constructed from coconut matting fibres, bits of blue string, feathers and grass stems!

On a sad note the Robins, I've been protecting from Magpies, that nested in an open fronted box in the ivy on the front of the house fledged but were all taken by a neighbours cat. I know that as I got the corpse back. The impact on our wildlife by domestic cats is huge. From now on its war.

2 Jul 2013

Lightning does strike twice.

The tweet from Ken Croft on Monday 1st July read something like ' on this day in 1988 a Bridled Tern was found at Cemlyn Lagoon, Anglesey'. I missed this bird through a combination of work and family commitments and there's not been a twitchable one since!

That's the beauty of twitter - the news gets out instantaneously! The next thing I knew a tweet had alerted me to the fact a Bridled Tern had been found by Will Scott on Inner Farne - 25 years to the day of the Anglesey bird. Dave Steel, the NT Warden on the Farnes kept everyone updated and  I resolved to go in the morning on news if the bird was still there as the first scheduled boats didn't leave until 10 am.

So, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding, I went out to play golf with my beloved wife who, since I've become a bit more proficient and less of a danger to her and other players, deigned to take me to her club to play a few holes after tea. Leaving my phone in the car, all to painfully aware of the etiquette that must be followed in the most ancient of games, I unleashed the occasional scud and launched the occasional divot and proceeded to earn praise on how much I'd improved - especially as I beat her on the first hole.

With the evening sun fading we had a pint at the bar and watched a bit of the tennis before returning to the car. Checking my phone I had 20 missed calls!! Oh feck. First call was to Frank who'd obviously been trying to reach me with news relevant to the tern. As it happened Rich Bonser had arranged for a group of us to take the early boat from Seahouses at 6 am and Frank, good mate that he is, had put my name on the list!

Checking through the list of missed messages it became clear that whilst I was practicing my swing the Bridled Tern had been showing well throughout the evening and had gone to roost. By now it was 23.30 and I was meeting Frank at 02.30. Hardly worth going to bed but I retired to the spare room and read British Birds from cover to cover before it was time to leave.

Frank soon had us motoring through the interminable road works on the M62 - surely a money making exercise as why else would you have mile after mile of road works with no visible signs of activity -  and things were looking good. A quick check of the Sat Nav and panic set in. ETA 06.20. We weren't going to make it! Luckily Frank had a few more horse power  up his sleeve and we soon cut the deficit.

At 05.00 Dave Steel tweeted the unwelcome news the bird wasn't there and there were very few terns present in the roost. No worries, it'll be out fishing and will soon return. But its a pelagic species........Doubts began creeping in but, as promised, Dave tweeted an update at 05.30 with the news the bird was back and showing well and an elated duo screeched into the car park by the harbour to find the queue at the ticket office in full scrum mode.

An uneventful crossing on a flat calm sea and twenty minutes later we were disembarking as the wardens had decided we could all stand on the quay. Pointing us in  the right direction new slogged the 30 metres up the quay and there it was..............................................Only a fecking Bridled Tern!
My recent run of poor form was over.

I'd seen these recently in Bahrain but to see one in the UK was a terrific thrill. It flew round for an hour or so, occasionally disappearing, but easily located on call, before disappearing for ages. By this time the boat skipper wanted to get going so we reluctantly left and headed for home.

Not before papping a few of the other residents though and sticking a fiver in the collection bucket.

After a sterling bit of driving from Frank we were back home in Cheshire by midday!
The Farnes are an incredible place and as well as seeing so many seabirds and of course the star bird, it was good to catch up with my old University friend Graham Megson.

1 Jul 2013

Puffin Island

This years trips to ring seabirds on Puffin Island as part of a long term study has been delayed until quite late in the season as the birds have bee nesting late due to the poor spring weather. Luckily the weather forecast was good this weekend and an email Friday evening confirmed we were on schedule to leave Beaumaris pier at 07.00 Saturday morning.

A team of 11 convened just before 07.00 and loaded the boat for the short journey to another world. A totally undisturbed island inhabited by thousands of seabirds and visited by humans only a few times a year.

The landing was uneventful in an almost flat calm. Birds were obvious everywhere with Eiders loafing on the beach and auks & gulls filling the air. The first thing that hits you is the noise, then the smell. Guano and lots of it. There's nothing like a strong whiff of ammonia to clear sinuses blocked through flying long haul.

The group split in two with a small team of 4 going with Rachel to ring a sample of 200 Cormorant pullus whilst the bigger team led by Steve made a start on the auk colonies. I was with the team about to be puked and shat on by the cormorant pullus. They really are disgusting smelly creatures even fi the parents try and make the nest smell a bit better with fresh flowers!

Dom ringing a nest of cormorant pullus.
Roz and Gary checking other nests.
Cormorant pullus - not the most beautiful chicks in the world. Note the shite covered trousers already and the days hardly begun.
With the 200 Cormorant chicks duly ringed and the sun now beating down we fought an epic battle with the undergrowth to the ruin of old Telegraph station for a well earned break before heading down the cliffs to ring Razorbill pullus and hopefully re-catch some ringed adults to provide data for the adult survival study being carried out.
Razobill chicks are impossibly cute:

Note the glove - its important to keep at least one hand relatively clean to eat sandwiches with!
Whereas the adults are a bit less amenable to being handled:
Since rats were removed from the Island a few years ago birds such as Eider and Puffin have made a comeback. Puffins are every ones favourite bird and we found a few loafing on the cliffs and one burrow containing an adult and a puffling.

Catching an adult Puffin is not an every day event on trips to Puffin Island. They're like little moles and dig their way several metres into the soil. My day was well and truly made when Steve handed me an adult Puffin he'd managed to catch and told me to ring it! I think he felt sorry for me in my shit covered state.It was interesting to see the feet close up. Unlike the other species of auk on Puffin Island Puffins actually dig their burrows so their claws are like little needles. Compared to Razorbills & Guillemots Puffins are positively tiny.

Two more adults were caught and duly ringed - a memorable day for Louisa who'd only ever seen a dead Puffin before.

With time pressing on we carried on ringing Razorbills and Shags until the boat came to collect us at 18.00.  Dirty outer clothing was removed and put in a bin bag to be washed separately when Jan was out the house...........By now I was feeling well and truly burnt as the sun broke through the cloud. I arrived home filthy, knackered and desperate for a cold beer! An hour in the shower and copious quantities of sweet smelling shower gel got rid of most of the smell! I wouldn't have missed it for anything though and can't wait until the next trip.