29 Jul 2021

Melodious Warbler, Hilbre

After a frenetic day of activity Monday I slept through until relatively late this morning and woke vaguely aware that my phone was ringing downstairs at 7 am. A moments pause to orientate myself & then I thought its obviously important for someone to ring this time of the morning.......

Seeing it was Chris I accurately surmised it was something good on Hilbre as I knew he'd gone over the previous night to get an early start. Ringing him back I was amazed to hear he'd caught a Melodious Warbler! This may not be a rare bird to some people but for Cheshire & Wirral its definitely a 'mega' with only 13 previous records. The last Hilbre one was 1994 and followed a run of Wirral sightings with birds being seen in 1992, 93, 94 (2 records this year with one on Hilbre in May and one at Red Rocks in September) and 1995. Todays bird was the 3rd for Hilbre following the one in 1994 and a previous one in 1977 - its almost a once in every 3rd decade bird! The last one for Cheshire and Wirral was in 2017 and only seen by the finder and identified from photographs.

Seeing as the tide was in there was nothing I could do until we could get across around 9.30 so I had a leisurely breakfast and arranged lifts for anyone who wanted one in the Landrover.

With a full complement of passengers, fully masked up despite the easing of restrictions, we set off across towards Hilbre with a clear blue sky and hardly a breath of wind. There'd been no sighting of the Melodious Warbler since its release nearly three hours previous but luck was on our side as it was re-trapped in a different heligoland trap. After a brief view and a re-check of wing formula & it was released and dived straight back into deep cover. 

A great July record and testimony to the continued coverage by the Obs regular volunteers despite the current dearth of birds. As they say, the biggie travels alone......

My first not only for Hilbre but for Cheshire & Wirral. 

Unfortunately for those arriving later there was no further sign by the end of the day..

23 Jul 2021

Huffin & Puffin

It was our last seabird ringing trip to Puffin island of the year last Saturday and the weather was scorching!  The hottest I've ever experienced on the island and the small team did well to continue in the blistering heat - plenty of water was taken with spare bottles stashed on the beach incase they were required. With Steve & Rachel enjoying a well earned holiday it was up to Ros to ably lead the expedition.

The target species were Cormorant and Kittiwakes as on a previous visit not all the Cormorants could be ringed. We also planned to ring any auk chicks and adults that were still around and also any gulls.

The Cormorant colony was its usual busy primeval place with the youngsters doing their best Pterodactyl impressions. Luckily a lot of the youngsters hadn't got to the running stage yet and most were still in the nest so we managed to ring the required number of birds fairly quickly.

Baby Pterodactyls! 

After a quick water break it was on to the Kittiwakes. We'd been remarking as we crossed the island that we couldn't hear any Kittiwakes and were getting a bit worried. Even so we were surprised to find not one single occupied nest. Whether some had fledged since we'd last been across to the island or whether they'd all failed we don't know but the population is just spiralling into oblivion. There wasn't even an adult around. We did manage to catch an adult Fulmar though and ring a chick on its nest. 
Fulmar chick

Me using the noose pole to catch adult Fulmar.

We then moved to another part of the island to try and ring a few gull chicks and any auks that might still be lingering. The Puffin population is increasing and it was nice to be able to catch a couple of adults for those two of the team that hadn't been to the Island before.
Me with Herring Gull chick

Chris ringing his 1st Lesser black-backed Gull chick

Holding adult Puffin so Claire could ring it under supervision from Ros.

Chris ringing his 1st  Razorbill under supervision from Ros whilst Gary supervises Claire.

Although not a huge number of birds were ringed we managed to do everything we set out to achieve (apart from Kittiwakes) and the fewer birds meant it was a bit more relaxed - essential in the heat! 

Sadly there are rats again present on the island after they were eradicated in 1998 and we saw several. See here for details of the eradication programme. This is bad news for the islands seabird population and efforts are again being made to control them. Historically the island was teeming with rabbits and visitors in the 19th century commented on the short sward of grass and number of Puffins using the rabbit burrows to nest in. Myxomatosis killed the rabbits  (although these have now been introduced again) and the vegetation took over. This coupled with the rats meant the Puffin population declined rapidly. The picture below shows an artists impression of Puffin Island in 1815. Various landmarks are still recognisable today but the vegetation has certainly taken over! 

With time pressing it was time to hit the beach for a quick wash and swim before getting our lift back to Penmon Point and a well deserved ice-cream followed by a cold beer! 

A great day and nice to meet up with a few familiar faces again.

18 Jul 2021

Silver-studded Blues, Prees Heath.

This is a well known site close to the cheshire / Shropshire border that I've passed on numerous occasions when working in Telford on a project a few years ago but never got round to stopping. Once I'd left the Telford site all I wanted to do was get home and get some food and a shower. 

Part of the Heath is managed as a reserve by the Butterfly Conservation Trust primarily for the Silver-studded Blue butterfly and this site is probably the only site it can now be found in the Midlands.

With reports of good numbers being seen this year and a sunny afternoon forecast I decided to make the short drive down the A41to see if I could find any to photograph. 

Amazingly the first one I saw found me first and landed on my camera strap before fluttering on to my finger tip:

There were plenty of Common Blues on site as well but the Silver-studded are smaller with a more distinct black and white margin around the edge of the vivid blue wings. They get their name from the electric slivery blue spots in the centre of the spots at the edge of the lower wing.

After a good search and seeing a lot of scruffy looking individuals I managed to find a pristine looking male with a nice looking female for comparison.

Male Silver-studded Blue

Female Silver-studded Blue

What a great place to wile away a few hours enjoying butterflies in the sunshine. It wasn't only the star attraction as the place was teeming with Common Blue, Small Skipper, Tortoiseshell, Meadow Brown, Small Copper and Small Heath butterflies. 

Avian attractions included Hobby, Yellowhammer and Yellow Wagtail. A great site and one I've been very remiss at not visiting. 

15 Jul 2021

Hilbre Bird observatory 7th July

The recent spell of good weather had left the island looking parched. The dead flower stems off Thrift, blowing lazily in the wind, are in stark contrast to the vivid purple of the newly opened flowers of Rock Sea Lavender. Contrasting patches of yellow are provided by flowering Ladies Bedstraw (so called as it was once used  as a sedative for ladies in labour) whilst the edible leaves of Sea Purslane form small oasis of green among the parched grass. Meanwhile the small blue flower bells of Harebell can be seen poking through the grass in the Obs garden.

Sea Purslane

Dead Thrift

Rock Sea Lavender and a patch of green Sea Purslane

Ladies Bedstraw

Flowering Ragwort has attracted day flying Cinnibar Moths and their tiger striped caterpillars are on almost every plant. The birds leave them alone as they are distasteful as they absorb the toxins from the plant into their bodies. Cinnibar Moths got their name form the red mineral cinnibar that is a toxic mercury ore. Funny how a moth named after a red toxic ore is itself toxic.

Two pairs of Swallows seem to have bred on the island this year with these un-ringed birds being seen on the cliffs in Niffy Bay. One nest of pullus was ringed so these are a different brood.

Meadow Pipits also seem to be doing well and young Linnets were everywhere with four being ringed during the morning.
Adult Meadow Pipit

The only signs of migration was when a Woodpigeon dropped briefly into the Canoe Club garden before heading off towards the mainland.

All in all a very pleasant way to spend a Wednesday morning and I was back home in time for lunch after washing the salt and sand off the Landrover.

10 Jul 2021

One good Tern deserves another........

Elegant tern is one of those birds that have had a chequered history in the UK,. They breed on the western seaboard of the USA so aren't really expected to get here. There have been a number of records over the years - including one I saw in July 2002 that ended up in Black Rock Sands, N Wales. This one did the rounds having also been seen in Norfolk, Devon & Cornwall. Until recently none of the UK records were accepted onto the British list because of the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of hybrids or back-crosses with Sandwich Terns. 

Several pairs have now been proven to breed in the Banc d'Arguin, Gironde, France. See here for a 'Birdguides' article explaining how DNA analysis proved the existence of 'pure' Elegant Terns rather than hybrids or crosses. Since that discovery a number of British records, including the Black Rock Sands bird, have been accepted onto category A off the British list. One of the French ringed birds turned up in Pagham Harbour, Sussex in 2017 before subsequently moving to Dorset. They're still a rare bird in the UK with only 4 accepted records up until 2019.

When Mark Sutton saw a yellow / orange billed tern in the Sandwich Tern colony briefly at Cemlyn first thoughts were either Lesser -crested or even Royal but Mark got better photos and it turned (terrible pun) out he'd potentially found the UK's 5th record of Elegant Tern. 

A planned trip to the Skerries last Thursday afternoon, to ring Arctic Tern chicks, provided me with the opportunity to spend a few hours looking for the Elegant Tern as well as trying to get a few colour ring / flag combinations from the Sandwich Terns and hopefully pick up one of the chicks we flagged a few years ago now returning as an adult. See blog post from 2019 here.

Arriving just after 9 am I found a few people standing on the shingle bank talking as the Elegant Tern had flown out to sea about 30 minutes earlier. Busying myself looking for colour rings whilst I waited for it to return I didn't see it sneak in. Nor did anyone as it suddenly appeared displaying with a fish to a Sandwich Tern! For the next hour or so it played hide and seek in the vegetation, occasionally showing well but often hidden.

I did manage to find one of our orange flagged Sandwich Terns from 2019 - ANP! This bird is, so far, the only one thats been seen back at the colony and has ben previously recorded on 12th & 13th of June. I'm still waiting on the information from two more darvic ringed Sandwich Terns I also found.

With time pressing I walked back along the shingle to the Landrover before grabbing something to eat and heading to Holyhead to meet up with Rachel & Steve before getting our high speed RIB ride to the Skerries where wardens Laura and Anna were waiting to help us.

We couldn't go over to the island last year due to Covid restrictions and there were no wardens on either. It seems a peregrine disrupted the colony and all the terns deserted. This year they're back and the colony is its usual noisy tumultuous self! 

Arctic Terns are really spectacular little birds but highly aggressive and noisy. Wearing a hat is definitely recommended when ringing the chicks as the adults have no hesitation in trying to tattoo your head with their stiletto like bill. Even with a hat you can feel the strikes. A number of adults have again been flagged this year but this trip was all about the youngsters and we had a window where we needed to ring a sample of  500 as part of an ongoing project. Most chicks were well grown but the were a few unhatched eggs and a few chicks only just hatching. Another week and we would probably have missed the majority of the birds as a lot had already started flying short distances.

Newly hatched Arctic Tern chick with egg tooth visible

A pair of well  grown Arctic Tern chicks

An amazing variety of colours in these tern eggs.

With time pressing there was just time to photograph a few adults before heading back on the RIB to Holyhead and the slow drive home for a shower and some dinner. Access to the Skerries is very restricted and I'm lucky to be able to help Steve & Rachel with their ringing project.

These birds will soon be heading south to spend our winter in the antarctic. A truly spectacular migration for a spectacular little bird.

6 Jul 2021

1st Puffin Island Trip of 2021

It was great to get back to some semblance of normality with the first Puffin island trip of the year albeit with a very small team! The target was to ring as many Razorbill chicks as we could find along with any adults we could catch and as many Shag chicks as we could find. Puffin Island has been the focus of long term studies in seabird ecology for a number of years and the ringing and monitoring of adult and chick survival rates, brood sizes and foraging behaviour is all part of this ongoing research.

It was distressing to find a Greater black-backed Gull entangled in fishing line with a hook stuck down its throat and one that had passed through the muscle of its wing. Rachel managed to cut the barb off the hook that had got imbedded in the muscle and pull it right through. We then cut the line as close to the beak as we could and the bird flew off strongly so hopefully it'll be able to feed and the hook will eventually pass through its gullet or be regurgitated out. It appeared to have two well grown chicks nearby and must have been struggling to feed them. The only thing we can think of is that it dived on a fisherman's bait as he cast his line and then swallowed the hook so the line was cut leaving the bird to suffer a painful death if we hadn't managed to free it.

There was at least10 m of line wrapped around vegetation and rocks and you can see it trailing over the rocks to the left of Rachels feet. I brought the line home and cut it into short lengths before putting it in the bin. As with my recent trip around the Gannet colony on Noss (Shetland - see here ) I was dismayed to see the amount of discarded plastic these birds are using on their nests. These Shag chicks, for example, had green nylon rope incorporated into their nest with the vegetation.

A lot of the Razorbill chicks were well grown and would soon be leaving their natal sites to join their parents on the sea before they can fly. This chick was about ready to leave and looked very similar to an adult.

Juvenile Razorbill

Adult Razorbill

Although not the prime focus of the trip we also managed to catch and ring a few Guillemots including this adult 'bridled' bird. 

Bridled Guillemot

Bridled Guillemots are quite rare in southern colonies the percentage of bridled birds gets higher the further north you get with up to 40% some colonies comprising this form.

Puffin Island does have a few Puffins and these do seem to be increasing in number. They're always good to ring and we don't get them every trip but Ros managed to catch this adult.

Many of the gulls had well grown chicks but many eggs were still hatching like this Herring Gulls nest where one of the eggs was just beginning to 'chip' with an already hatched youngster on the edge of the nest.

We rarely catch adult gulls but a pair of squabbling Lesser black-backed gulls provided a perfect opportunity for me to practice my gull wrangling skills and catch one of them! 

Katherine ringing the adult Lesser black-backed Gull

All in all a great day but very tiring with almost 10 hours continuous activity. At the end of the day I was aching all over and bleeding form numerous scratches inflicted by Shags and Razorbills. Tired and hungry I got home about 20.30 after leaving the house at 07.00. As usual my 'seabird' ringing clothes were tied up in a bin bag and went straight in a hot wash before I got in the shower and attempted to get rid of the engrained guano and dust. After that it was dinner and a well deserved cold beer.