21 Aug 2018

Bonepartes Gull, Hilbre.

Whilst I was away on Nan Ron Tim Kinch found an adult Bonepartes Gull at Hoylake. The last one  I saw in Cheshire was at Inner marsh Farm RSPB in 2004.  Present for only one evening it was a Cheshire and Wirral first for many people. I wasn't to worried about missing the Hoylake bird but as the return date from Nan Ron got closer  I began to hope it would stay - they're always a good bird to see. Even better was the news  Chris Williams (Hilbre Chairman) had found it in the gutter off the east side of Hilbre - a first for Hilbre!

Luckily the bird was still present on Saturday morning and any plans I'd made about sorting out all my camping gear and unpacking the car went further down the priority list as plans were made for a quick visit to try and see this fantastic addition to the Hilbre rare bird list. Even better, Andrea was staying over at the Obs and had put the news out early and she put me straight on the bird when I arrived. It was always a bit distant to get more than record shots but it showed continuously.

All we need now is a Franklins  on the Wirral and we'll have the set of small N American vagrant gulls.

19 Aug 2018

Storm Petrel ringing Eilean Nan Ron, 2018

This year was the first year I've been able to make the annual Nan Ron ringing trip to catch and ring Storm Petrels. Over the years the team has ringed 11,093 Stormies (including our total for this year of 710 new birds. See Bob Harris's blog here for the history behind ringing on Nan Ron.

Nan Ron is off the northern most tip of Scotland and is completely deserted apart form a few wild Soay sheep left over from when the last inhabitants left in 1938. At one time it was a thriving little community comprised of solid stone built houses and include a school house. The buildings are slowly decaying and each year a bit more damage is done by the wind and rain.

To get there involves taking a boat from the small harbour of Skerray and then a 20 minute trip across to the island where everything then has to be manhandled up a steep slope to the campsite. There were steps all the way down to the small quay but half of these got washed away in a storm a few years ago.

All your food and water has to be taken across as there is no suitable freshwater on the island. Consequently boot of the car was packed tight before  I set off last Saturday for the 8.5 hour drive to Kyle of Tongue where we were staying overnight and all meeting up before setting off for Skerray the next morning.

 The good ship 'Goldcrest' heading back to Skerray after dropping us off.
We had to wait until the tide dropped sufficiently so we could manhandle the luggage up the missing staircase.

After pitching the tents and generally making ourselves at home we had an explore of the island and its buildings. Bonxies breed on the island and we noted a few chicks so made a plan to come back the next day and ring them. Unfortunately the first nights Storm Petrel ringing was cancelled due to bad weather so everyone had an early night.

 Breakfast Nan Ron style - porridge ready pots!
 Campsite viewed as the sun was setting.

The view from my tent on a rainy first evening.

The next day we found and ringed three Bonxie chicks and were treated to distant flypast by a sub-adult White-tailed Eagle. Kenny Mac had brought his large spring trap and this was baited wit ha whole herring and duly caught an adult Bonxie which I was able to ring and get 'bonxied' by way of a reward. It got me through three layers of clothing and left a big bruise on by tricep. From the size of the gape on the almost fully fledged bird below you can see why they can swallow a Puffin whole!

Below: adult Bonxie keeping an eye on proceedings.

The first evenings Storm Petrel ringing started at 11 pm and finished at around 4 am the following morning. In that time we caught and ringed a total of 459 new birds. Working in the dark to extract the birds they were then taken to the nearby ringing station where they were ringed, aged and sexed (if possible) before releasing. Fantastic little birds and the first time I've had the privilege of getting up close to them.

They may look fragile but they're as hard as nails spending most of their lives out at sea and only coming ashore to breed.

The next night we caught another 200 birds but the following night we only managed 32 before the wind menat we had t obring an ealry halt t oproceedings. The relatively early finsih meant we had time to stand around the tents having a chat and a drink and admire the milky way and shooting stars overhead. A faint glow to our north turned out to be the northern lights -a first for some of the team.

Breeding birds are scarce on the island and over the week I recorded 35 species - mostly those you'd expect such as Meadow Pipit, Snipe and Wheatear but with the unexpected surprise of a Barn Owl roosting in one of the old buildings and apparently hunting Storm Petrels at night although we did find a long dead Short-tailed field vole proving there are other sources of food on the island. Most of the auks had deserted the nesting ledges but there were still Fulmar chicks and a lot of juvenile Shags around.

The island flora is typical of an acid upland peat bog with plenty of heather, including some patches of Bell heather and Cotton grass. One surprise find was avery late flowering Heath Spotted Orchid which might be the first record for Nan Ron.

 Cotton grass
Bell Heather

Heath Spotted Orchid

We did find some shrivelled carnivorous Sundews but the recent dry weather meant the boggier areas of the island had virtually dried up along with the plants.

The White-tailed Sea eagle was seen again on several occasions and was discovered to be roosting on the nearby island of Neeve. Although distant it gave prolonged views on several days and even though the Bonxies got up to investigate they were wary enough to give it a wide berth. 


The photos don't do it justice but these were taken with a 400 mm lens from about 1 km away and then cropped in! They really do fit the description of a flying barn door.

When not ringing, sleeping or eating we had time to explore the island and its buildings and enjoyed a boat trip round the island and into some of the sea caves with Andy (who'd taken us across and came back to give us the opportunity to see the island form the sea).

 The old school house.

A fabulous place and experience and I hope I'm able to go back again another year. We had a small team of 5 experienced ringers which made for a good team. After packing the tents up on Friday morning Andy picked us up just after 11.30 and I eventually left Skerray around 12.30 and made it home after a 9.5 hour drive only stopping at Inverness to top up with fuel! I'd been dreaming of a hot shower all the way home and that was the first thing  I did. The second was to open a cold beer - unpacking the car had to wait until Saturday! 

Many thanks to  Kenny Mac, Bob Harris, Alan Heath and Kevin Henderson for making it such a great trip.