24 Apr 2018

Snow Goose - A Cheshire 1st?

Snow Geese have always been a potential pitfall for ardent county (or national) listers. Widely kept in collections theres now several well established feral breeding populations in the UK  from where a lot of our birds seem to originate from. Add to this mix the spectre of escaped farmyard hybrids and the picture becomes very confusing.

With increases in Pink-footed Geese numbers wintering on the Dee Estuary - up from a couple of hundred about a decade ago to now well over 8,000 - rarer geese such as Whitefronts and the occasional Bean Goose have becoming more regular. The thought among regular Cheshire and Wirral birders was that one day we may get a contender for a genuine (wild) Snow Goose.

About 2-3 years a go I had an all white goose fly over me in Chester with Pinkfeet. Not having my binoculars with me I couldn't get enough detail to be confident in the identification so put the news out as possible Snow Goose incase it could be picked up elsewhere.

Roll forward to 2018 and roll up Barry Barnacal who found what seems to be the real deal with a flock of 2-3000 Pinkfeet off Denhall Quay yesterday. A quick post work visit was in order! It appears that this bird must have arrived in over night as the flocks had been checked the previous days and there wasn't a sign of it. Its pretty obvious and stands out like a sore thumb. Its un-ringed, free- flying and has the correct amount of black on the wing tips.

The number of times I've scanned the flocks flying over the house in the mornings and evenings hoping to find a Snow Goose...............hopefully one day.

Snow Goose is considered by some authorities to be two distinct races - Lesser & Greater Snow Goose based on size and geographical separation although the large degree of overlap makes this a bit dubious..  Both have two colour morphs. The so called blue morph and the white morph. This bird is obviously a white morph! Blue-morph birds are rare among the greater snow geese and among eastern populations of the lesser.

Heres a few photos of a bird that visited the Lancashire Mosslands a few years ago, a blue morph bird with Pinkfeet near Nairn, Scotland in 2004 and two white phase birds on N Uist in 2013 seen whilst twitching Harlequin Duck. See here

As I was almost passing the door it seemed rude not to call in at nearby Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB to try for the long staying Wood Warbler. A scarce bird in Cheshire and Wirral and now (probably0 sadly lost as a breeding species. The bird was very elusive giving only a short snatch of its beautiful trilling song and calling infrequently. I managed to pick it up as it flitted around the canopy and returned home well pleased. To cap off a fine day I got home to find an Oystercatcher in the field opposite the house - the first one of the year and the first one on the ground as previous ones have all been flyovers.

23 Apr 2018

Newcomers on patch

Things are hotting up on the patch at the moment with summer visitors at last beginning to come through, albeit in small numbers.

The last few days have seen me record the 1st Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and House Martin from the garden and the pond opposite the house hosted a pair of Mute Swans for all of 10 minutes one morning!

As well as the summer migrants some of the wintering birds a re still hanging on and following on from last weekends small influx of Lesser Redpoll several more birds visited the feeders outside the conservatory window. These weren't ringed so I know they're new birds.

The local Little Owls appear to be on eggs as what I assume is the male is roosting outside the hole most of the time. With the recent good weather its bee no show almost continuously.

16 Apr 2018

Finches on the move

At last some fine(ish) weather conducive to migration! Summer visitors are beginning to arrive in good numbers and some of our winter visitors are beginning to move. There's been a marked increase in finches visiting the garden with predominantly Chaffinches and Goldfinches numbers increasing.

I managed to do some ringing over the weekend and set 3 nets up in the garden. Highlights included the first ever Jay I've ringed, in either this garden or our previous one, and the 7th Great Spotted Woodpecker to be caught in a week. Only one was a re-trap from last year. I know there are occasional influxes into Shetland from Scandinavia in the autumn so are these returning birds? Amazing when you think you've only got a pair of birds visiting the garden and then suddenly find its at least 7 individuals.

Jays are beautiful birds but rather feisty. The eye colour is fantastic but that hook tipped upper mandible can cause some damage  to the unwary ringer!

We'd had a female Brambling visit the garden recently so when I heard a Brambling calling with the Chaffinch flock I assumed it was the same bird. I was wrong  - it was a cracking 2nd calendar year male!

Redpolls have been very scarce this year and I hadn't even seen one locally until this weekend when a small group suddenly turned up. I ringed 4 and there were at least 2 other un-ringed birds seen on Sunday afternoon. All the ringed birds were 2nd calendar year birds and there was only a single male. It was interesting to see the variation in 'poll' colour with 1 bird having a orange / yellow poll rather than red.

Amazingly I caught very few Blue Tits and Great Tits suggesting that they've either moved away now the breeding season is in full swing or they've suffered high mortality during the recent cold spells of weather. It'll be interesting to see how numbers have fared nationally when the ringing statistics are collated.

11 Apr 2018


As a budding ornithologist growing up in East Anglia I was familiar with Buzzards only from frequent holidays in Devon to visit my Grandparents who lived on the edge of Dartmoor. Due to the well documented double whammy  of persecution & DDT poisoning they were scarce elsewhere and a bird I found, near our Suffolk village one winter, caused a minor twitch in our  as local birders came to see what would have then been a county tick for them. Rough-legged Buzzard was then a commoner winter sight than Common Buzzard on the east coast! 

Forty years later much has changed and they're now a common sight throughout the UK.  Unfortunately they're still persecuted, as are many of our birds of prey, with the main culprits being unscrupulous gamekeepers and estate managers. However, away from known raptor persecution hotspots they're thankfully no longer a rare sight.

We have a pair close to the house and they can be seen most days either perched up or hunting - last year  I even watched one swoop down and take one of our local Coots from the pond. I filmed this pair with a 'kill' from a bedroom window on a very wet Saturday last weekend. The local Magpies were taking a great deal of interest in what was going on but the Buzzards seemed quite tolerant of their presence. Buzzards are so common locally now that I had a 'kettle' of 8 birds circling over the garden whilst the weather was sunny on Sunday.

10 Apr 2018

A few migrants, mammals and some ringing!

At last we had a fairly decent days weather over a weekend that enabled me to get out and about in the garden, walk the patch and do some ringing.

The first Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Swallows have appeared locally whilst most of the winter visitors seem to have taken advantage of a break in the weather and flown back to Scandinavia. With one exception......

Several times over the last week or so I thought I'd caught a glimpse of a Brambling feeding on the ground on spilt seed with our local Chaffinch flock.  I'd even convinced myself I'd heard one call but I couldn't see it. Friday morning dawned sunny and bright and a quick stake out over breakfast and there it was - a very elusive and shy female brambling!

I haven't got round to downloading this picture form the camera yet so this is a back of the camera record shot - in fact its the only shot I got! It was very elusive and literally came to feed for a few seconds at a time before flying off again. Still, a nice garden and patch year tick!

A walk round the lanes was rewarded with three male Yellowhammers on territory, including two singing birds. One of the local ponds was home to a pair of Tufted Ducks and a field of winter wheat held a pair of Hares. Fantastic to see them still around this year.

Another crap shot taken with the phone through the binoculars. Two more mammal species were recorded in the garden with the first Hedgehog of the year making an appearance whilst a nest box inspection gave me shock when two Wood Mice jumped out over my shoulder.

Sunday dawned misty but with the threat of sunshine breaking through and no wind so I took the opportunity to do some ringing as, besides the Brambling, there were good numbers of Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Chaffinches in the garden.

Some of the Chaffinches were very big suggesting a Scandinavian origin and were almost as bulky as the Greenfinches. This 2nd calendar year male (Euring 5) was easily aged by the presence of two old (juvenile) greater coverts that are browner than the darker adult inner ones it moulted last autumn. The primaries and tail were also very worn as can be seen from the photo below.

Incredibly I caught 5 different Great Spotted Woodpeckers - three males and two females with another un-ringed female turning up later once I'd taken the nets down. Only one of these birds had been ringed previously - in July last year. As we don't have any large woods within a km of the garden this was quite impressive. Its not often that the 2nd most numerous bird in a ringing session is Great Spotted Woodpecker!

Spending a lot Sunday outside also resulted in me adding (heard only) Green Woodpecker to the patch and garden year list with a bird 'yaffling'  distantly several times. They're pretty scarce locally but this bird was probably one of the pair that are frequently seen a couple of km's away at Chester Zoo.

Lots of birds are now beginning to settle down to breeding and a Robins nest with 5 eggs in a dwarf conifer in the front garden was no surprise as they'd nested nearby last year. Jackdaws have been scouring the blackthorn hedges for clumps of sheep's wool and flying off to line their nests. With the drier weather the Little Owls put in an appearance and the male could be heard singing for the first time this year. He's also been hunting in broad daylight so the female is either on eggs already or he's making up for lost time and feeding up whilst the weathers dry.

Last autumn I put aside part of the lawn to plant wildflowers in. I bought a load of plug plants - Betony, Oxeye Daisies,  Knapweed  and Cowslips and they're all beginning to come up. I also planted quite a few Snakehead Fritillaries but this one is not one of those!  A beautiful flower whatever its origins.

5 Apr 2018

Horribly wet spring

I can't remember a spring like it in recent years. I've only just heard my first local Chiffchaff - 3 weeks later than last year. Migrants are beginning to return in some number snow though so fingers crossed.

The fields opposite the house are flooded and the farmer is losing lamb daily to the wet and the cold. We counted 4 dead lambs yesterday.

Blackbirds had built a nest in our front garden but deserted due to the wet and cold.
A pair of Song Thrushes are being particularly secretive so must be nesting nearby and a Robins carrying nesting material somewhere in the garden!

2 Apr 2018

Return to Altcar - more wader ringing

After last Septembers successful attempt to catch and colour flag Knot at Altcar  (see here) plans were made for an attempt this spring to try and catch and flag a different cohort of birds. The number of re-sightings of these initial birds exceeded all expectations with re-sightings from the Wirral the very next day.

The date set was Good Friday and I met up with some of the regular SCAN team at 6.30 to set the nets before the others arrived later.

The forecast rain gradually stopped and as we arrived at the training camp gatehouse a Tawny Owl called from a nearby copse. Four nets were set and as the rest of the team arrived we all assembled at base camp for a briefing on the days events. A small group (including me) were hidden in the dunes with the firing box waiting instructions from Steve and Richard via radio. We could here birds congregating as the tide rose but couldn't see them. We had to rely on radio communications to let us know what was happening.

Eventaully the message came to arm and fire and we stumbled through the long marram grass to the waters edge where we could see we'd made a good catch. After lifting the nets clear of the still rising tide, to ensure the birds were safe, they were covered in hessian to keep them calm before being extracted, put into storage cages and then ringed and processed.

Last autumns Knot were marked wit ha pale blue colour ring below an orange flag on the left leg. This time we used a green colour ring below the orange flag:

Around 530 Knot were caught and flagged this time and we've already had re-sightings from Hilbre.
We caught a few controls as well with the highlight being this colur ringed Polish bird (photo by Kenny Mac).

Last time we were at Altcar there were good numbers of Grey Plover, another high arctic breeding species, but Knot were our priority so the urge to make a good catch of this species was ignored! This time we were prepared with flags and colour rings for this species as well as bar-taield Godwits.

We were pretty pleased to catch probably the biggest single catch of Grey Plover made in the UK for20 years - 78 birds! These are truly beautiful birds in full summer plumage but very few of the birds caught were starting to attain this. Very few juvneiles were caught and these are identified by the juvenile gold feathers mixed in with the adult grey / black ones.

                                                 Above: Juvenile Grey Plover

 We also caught and flagged 9 Bar-taield Godwits and one of these birds has been sighted roosting on Middle Eye already. It was to far to read the flag code but the fact it was getting its summer plumage narrows it down as we only caught one bird this advanced!

Above: Bar-tailed Godwit VU - probably the one seen roosting on Middle Eye by Steve yesterday.

A great day and hopefully some valuable data collected and more to be collated once these birds are re-sighted. After waking up at 3.30 I was knackered by the time I got home at just after 17.00 and after a quick shower sat in the garden with a cold beer reflecting on how far these birds will be flying in the next few weeks to their breeding grounds. It would be fantastic to get some sightings of these birds from the Arctic.