25 Aug 2019


When I first started ringing in the 70's rings were free(!) and you had to pay to ring House Sparrows and Starlings. How things have changed! Starlings have declined by a staggering 51% in the UK between 1995 and 2016 - see Birdguides article here.

The strange thing is that we don't see Starlings regularly in our garden but small numbers breed locally and a friend, a few hundred metres away reports, he gets large numbers on his garden feeders. We do get wintering birds and when the local farmers spreads slurry on his fields flocks of up to 500 are regular. Since I retrained to ring a few years ago I'd only ever ringed Starlings on Fair Isle!

They're still common on the north Wirral coast though and Jane was reporting daily flocks of 100+ visiting her heavily fed garden. We decided to start a project catching and ringing some of these birds using a whoosh net (a net powered by elastic - once the tension on the elastic is released the contraction pulls the net up and over two poles and over the birds feeding on the ground. They're then covered with old sheets to keep the calm whilst we extract them for ringing (A special endorsement is required to use a whoosh net which I have). My whoosh net has been modified to incorporate an automatic release so rather than using a long piece of cord to fire it it is now done using a car door solenoid and remote fob powered by a 12 v battery. Video below.

We've now caught a good number of Starlings and they've all been juveniles with the majority undertaking their full post juvenile moult. Most passerine species only undergo a partial post juvenile moult but Starlings (along with a few other species such as House Sparrow and Long-tailed Tit) undertake a full moult including wings & tail.

Male and females can be identified from an early age as females have an interocular eye-ring (see photo below) whereas the males have an all dark eye. Some birds were left unsexed due to uncertainty over a very faint interocular ring.

If the birds have started moulting their body feathers theres another sexing method that can be used - the shape of the white spots on the breast feathers. This can be useful in confirming the sex of those birds where the presence of an interocular eye-ring is less clear cut.

Females tend to have round spots whereas males are more arrow shaped and pointed. The photo below illustrates this well with the female on the left and the male on the right. You can just about see the interocular ring in the eye of the female as well.

Most of the birds are also well on the way to completing their wing moult with very few classed as 3JJ (fully juvenile plumage). Moult was recorded for every bird along with sex, weight and wing length. Photo below - wing being examined and moult score for each primary being recorded.

It was also noted that some of the birds had very bleached juvenile plumage whereas some were much darker and it was assumed the darker birds were second broods (or late broods).
To date we've ringed 283 Starlings, in Janes garden, of which only 1 has been an adult. To put that into perspective in the whole of Cheshire in 2018 0nly 425 Starlings, of which 238 were juveniles. We've exceeded the total of juveniles ringed in the county for the whole of last year in less than 1 month!

We intend carrying on over the winter with this project and it'll be interesting to see how many re-traps we get and if we get any continental controls. Ultimately it would be nice to register a colour ringing project to see how many of these birds are actually local breeders and how many have arrived following post juvenile dispersion from their natal sites.

Many thanks to Jane for supplying tea, cakes and starlings and Helen and John for the invaluable help.

15 Aug 2019

Bog Orchids

Sean had kindly agreed to meet us at a site he knows in mid-Wales to look for the diminutive and rare Bog Orchid. This species rarely grows more than a10 cm high and generally much less. It usually requires pristine acidic bog habitat with slow moving water and it's essential the runnels and flushes it prefers doesn't dry out in the summer. Its disappeared from over 60% of its historical range in the UK which is a measure of its rarity and the diminishing habitat it prefers.

Meeting in the allotted spot after a scenic journey punctuated by calls of 'Red Kite' from Mark we met up with Richard & David who I'd met on a previous orchid expedition with Sean to Kenfig - see here for trip details.

Unfortunately the flush where the Bog Orchids were seen in previous years had dried out quite a bit during last summers hot weather and was invaded by coarse grasses. Not ideal for Bog Orchids. Sean knew another site a few minutes drive away but we encountered the same problem there and after a fruitless search despondently called it a day.

However, Richard had seen a likley looking flush firther along the hillside from our first location and whilst we had to head back home he conducted a through search and ultimately found the prize we were looking for.

A few days later I found myself heading south again and armed with Richards directions soon found my first Bog Orchid. David then appeared and we soon found another 5 of these tiny plants.

This kind of habitat has an amazing variety of flora and fauna associated with it and insectivorous Sundews were everywhere.

Other bog loving plants were Bog Asphodel (photos below), Milkwort and Marsh St Johns Wort.

Insects were represented by Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Black Skimmer whilst a Giant Dark Horsefly was dozy enough in the cool weather to sit on my hand and have its photo taken.

A tatty Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary also put in an appearance and as well as the ubiquitous Red Kites the area held breeding Whinchat and Common Sandpiper.

A fabulous place.

9 Aug 2019

Last Puffin Island trip of 2019

The last Puffin Island trip of the year is always one tinged with a bit of sadness. Sadness that the seabird seasons over and the cliffs & ledges will be soon be empty until next year. However, its also eagerly anticipated as its the trip we get to ring Kittiwake chicks and the initial trips to the island looked promising as the Kittiwakes appeared to be having a good breeding season.

Sadly it appeared that many nests failed, possibly due to an unseasonal storm the week before we arrived, with dead chicks lying on rocks below empty nests. A few, in more sheltered spots, had survived and we ringed them along with a number of adults caught and colour ringed as part of a long term RAS (re-trapping adults for survival) project.

Most of the nests held single chicks but there were a few with two.

The beauty of colour ringing these birds with individually lettered darvic rings can be seen from this post a couple of years ago from the West Cornwall ringing group who found one of our Welsh Kittiwakes in their colony. Without the darvic the bird may never have been recognised and valuable movement data lost.  See here

The disappointment with the Kittiwakes was tempered by the fact Puffins are doing really well and we managed to catch a number of adults and pufflings!

Adult Puffins can be aged by the number of grooves on the bill sheath and catching a good number gave Rachel the opportunity to give us a lesson in ageing. Puffins only have a maximum of 3 grooves on the bill sheath and don't obtain their 1st until their 2nd calendar year.

We caught birds of various ages:

 Puffin Euring age 10 - three grooves. This makes this bird at least 4 years old but it could be much older.
Puffin Euring age 7 - two full grooves.

Puffins are always nice to see and ring but star bird for me was one I'd been waiting to ring for along time. Not many are caught on Puffin Island but Steve managed it this trip and I got to ring my first ever Fulmar. A gorgeous bird with beautifully soft plumage. I was really surprised how big and chunky they are.

5 Aug 2019

Creeping Ladies Tresses

On my recent trip to Kenfig with Sean to see a number of orchid species (see HERE) the conversation
turned to Creeping Ladies Tresses. This species is confined to Caledonian forest apart from a few sites in northern England and other colonies, bizarrely, in Norfolk.

One of the sites is Whinfell Forest, Cumbria, in the Centre Parcs holiday resort. My ears pricked up at this as we were actually going there for a long weekend with my son, daughter in-law and youngest granddaughter........

This is a big site and my first port of call was the rangers office to see if I could glean any  information. Unfortunately they couldn't help as apparently none had been found flowering yet. Thus was a bit odd as it should have been peak flowering season for them. Undeterred I planned an early morning walk around suitable habitat but actually almost tripped over a colony whilst walking back to our lodge.

The flowers grow spirally around the stem but then twist so they mostly face the same direction. Another new species of UK orchid for my fledgling list.