3 Oct 2022

Yellow-browed Warbler, Hilbre

There have been few seawatching opportunities off Hilbre for me over the last few years. A combination of Covid and the wrong weather conditions, or the right conditions at the wrong time, meant its probably three years since I've see na Leach's Petrel from the island! 

Weather conditions were good a week or so ago with several Leach's being seen but again, the timings were wrong with physio and hospital appointments being booked the same days. Conditions looked like they'd be good for Saturday and Sunday and I agreed to meet up with Alan around 11 am to spend the afternoon tide on the island. However, weather conditions changed and by Sunday there was only a force 3-4 wind forecast. Barely enough to dry the laundry! 

We decided to go anyway as it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. Steve decided he'd go slightly earlier as he had to come off before the tide so we arranged to meet him there. 

Arriving on Hilbre the first bird we saw was a Stonechat that Alan spotted before we'd even got out of the car! Steve had got the kettle on and had waited for us to arrive before doing a round of the island and the heligoland traps.

Fuelled by a mug of tea we headed off for the first round of the day. There seemed to be a few more Robins and Blackbirds around than of late but no warblers. The sea was very quiet with only the regular gulls and cormorants visible on the water. Definitely not a day for seawatching! It was nice to see a few freshly moulted Shelducks flying over as they headed further down the Dee to feed on the exposed mud. 

As we walked towards the heli a small bird flitted up in the sycamores and moved into the trap. From a distance I thought it was a Goldcrest but as we slowly walked the trap it called! A Yellow-browed Warbler. How on earth had this got here on a NW wind?

Over the years Hilbre has caught and ringed 20 Yellow-browed Warblers and 17 have been since 2000. I've never been fortunate enough to ring one on Hilbre but my luck changed on this day. This enigmatic little Siberian sprite was once a rarity in the UK and I actually twitched my first one in 1979 whilst at Manchester University. In recent years they've altered their migration patterns and more and more are arriving to our shores in the autumn. They're a Shetland speciality and some days can be the commonest warblers up on the Northern isle. I have ringed one before on whilst staying at Fair Isle Bird Observatory in 2017. They're still fairly scare in Cheshire away from the north Wirral coast but theres always one or two records each year from the coastal areas with Leasowe or Red Rocks being a favoured spot.

The bird was aged as Euring 3 (bird born this year) based on criteria from Spurn Bird Obs, that Tim Jones had shared, based on the shape of the outer primaries and shape of tertial tips along with the shape of the tail feathers.

It had a fat score of 10 suggesting it hadn't moved far which makes sense as birds either arrive in the east coast and filter west or arrive in the northern isles and filter south. It could have easily been on the island for a couple of days as it was quiet and we only heard it call three times during the time we were on the island. The wing length fell between the range for male and female so it was left unsexed although form the brightness of the plumage it could have been a male. 

One thing that was very obvious in the hand but can't often be seen as well in the field, was the weak central crown stripe. A beautiful little bird and one I'd been long waiting to ring on Hilbre. 

The distances these small birds travel to get here are incredible. The map below, courtesy of the Andalucian Bird Society (see here ) shows their 'normal' breeding and wintering range.

It was once thought that birds that arrived in the UK were waifs blown off course but as the numbers arriving over the last couple of decades has continued increasing the latest thoughts are that there is a part of the population that has changed its migration route to head west and then down into Europe. Recent ringing recoveries of birds being ringed in Spain and then recaptured in subsequent years tends to support this. 

A great day and fuelled by tea and ginger nut biscuits. The late tide meant we couldn't get off until 6 pm and enjoyed the start of a spectacular sunset behind us as we headed across to West Kirby.


24 Sept 2022

Hilbre for the equinox

A busy few weeks meant I hadn't been able to get across to Hilbre but, after catching up on everything around the home and garden that needed doing since we came back off holiday, I finally made the trip yesterday and stayed over the high tide. Part of me was hoping for a Yellow-browed Warbler but in the main I was just looking forward to getting out, doing some birding and trying out the new camera.

Equinox day turned out to be a beautiful September day with a cool NNW breeze and sunshine. The sea was very quiet with just a few Common Scoter and a couple of Gannets being seen.

The dry summer has meant the resident Linnets have had a good breeding season. At least 100 birds were commuting between the islands feeding on the seed heads of Thrift and Rock Sea Lavender and taking advantage of the freshwater puddles on the main track to have a spruce up.

With no one else on the island there was no disturbance and a flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plover took the opportunity to roost over the high tide at the north end.

Robins are a spring and autumn migrant on Hilbre and the small run of birds continued with another new bird being caught and ringed. The only other passage migrants were small numbers of Rock Pipits - possibly including some Scandinavian birds  - and two photogenic Wheatear.

Gull numbers are also building up after their breeding season and there were a number of photogenic juvenile Herring Gulls around the island along with several Greater Black-backs.

Signs of autumn are everywhere. The brambles are laden with blackberries just waiting for a Barred Warbler! Hops are flowering in one of the heligoland traps and I like to think they were planted at a a time when there was a pub on the island so they could brew their own beer! 
A lovely quiet day but it was just nice to be out and about. I got home in time for a late lunch and spent an hour cleaning the sand and salt off the underside of the Landrover.

12 Sept 2022

MigFest 2022

Since 2013 Spurn Bird Observatory having been running their autumn migration festival - see here for information. Its a slick well run event with lots of things to see in the main marquee and interesting lectures to go to. There is art work, 2nd hand books, birding holidays, the oriental bird club, RSPB, British Birds magazine, Rare Bird Alert (RBA) & optics (Swarovski sponsor the event but Opticron also have a stand and both had lots of visitors trying out the rangers of binoculars and telescopes on dispaly)  - as well as huge quantities of food prepared by the incomparable Spurn ladies. Who can resist a bacon and fried egg bap or a hot sausage roll with a mug of tea for elevenses! Theres also guided walks for adults and youngsters and information about all the birds being seen around the Spurn recording area.

I'd never been before but this year the Bird Observatory Council (BOC) were having a stand in the marquee for the first time and I agreed to go and help Chris Williams, in his capacity as BOC Secretary to help man the stand. See here for more information on the work of the BOC.

We'd left it too late to get accommodation but luckily one of Chris's mates had a VW camper van we could use. Unfortunately my return dates from FLorida were changed so rahter than 2-3 days to recover I literally got home on the Thursday late morning and headed for Spurn with Chris on Friday morning.

On arrival we called in at the Obs to find out where we were setting up our mobile home only to be told there was a Citirne Wagtail showing just up the road so we forgot about seeting up camp and walked back the couple of hundred meters to where the 1st winter Citrine Wagtail was loosely associating with Pied Wagtails. A good start to the weekend.

After setting up camp and the exhibition stand, we headed for the nearby pub for a pint and some lunch where we met up with old friends and caught up on everyones news whilst watching the sun go down over the Humber.

After being subjected to some bad influences we decided to stay in the pub but moved inside as we'd booked dinner for 7 pm!  Even more bad influences kept us out until the pub closed so it was a weary couple of BOC representatives who crashed out in a surprisingly comfortable van for the night. 

Up early the next morning we decided to make a brew. Chris had brought along his trusty 25 year old camping stove ran on meths or ethanol. Sitting listening to Meadow Pipits migrating overhead and the occasional Robin ticking or fly over Yellow Wagtail I was looking forward to my first brew with anticipation..........

It was gross. The worst thing I'd ever tasted. Thinking Chris had used one of his unusual tasting herbal teabags I gave it for him to taste - he promptly spat it out and was retching in the hedge much to my amusement as he thought I was being fussy about my tea!. What he didn't know is the ethanol had leaked and leached into the aluminium kettle. This caused much hilarity as the story was recounted over the weekend but luckily Dan Rouse (Tadorna tours) came up with a solution. Boil the kettle with salt water as this reacts with the ethanol. Three boils later we were back in business with yours truly being the guinea pig! 

Making our way to the main marquee in our official BOC polo shirts we had time for a walk round and a second breakfast before people started arriving. It was lovely to meet up with old friends and meet new ones. What was especially pleasing was to meet the number of young birders ranging from 9-15 who were keen to talk to us and ask questions. A barbecue at the end of the day was followed by another trip to the pub where we were entertained by Sharon Garner singing and playing her guitar. What a beautiful voice. Many people will know her sadly departed husband, Martin Garner, who was instrumental in starting MigFest along with Andy Bunting. 

Sunday morning arrived along with an eagerly awaited non toxic brew and a slight overnight mist before we set off to the stand. What a day! Not only did I end up buying two of Ray Scally's fabulous paintings, joining the Oriental Bird Club, buying a copy of Mark Thomas's Birds of Buckton and a new telescope(!) but we saw some excellent birds. First up was a Pallid Harrier picked up by Tim Jones from the 'big sit' on the tower that literally flew over our heads. There was a bit of discussion for awhile as to whether or not it was a Pallid or a Montagu's Harrier and what age it was but one of Ray's photos clinched the I.D and we were asked by Rob Adams to load it onto my laptop and show it on the screen we were using to show the BOC presentation. This caused so much interest we were then asked to annotate it showing the key identification features which generated even more interest! 

Next up was radio message about a Honey Buzzard which Chris & I got onto straight away as it powered through low. There was more confusion here as there was a kettle of seven Common Buzzards thermalling and many people didn't see the Honey Buzzard. Luckily a second one was seen later in the day although distantly. Wit hGrey and Yellow Wagtails flying over continuously and the occasional Tree Pipit in with the hordes of Meadow Pipits it was certainly a migration festival!

It wasn't only about the birds though. One of our old Cheshire birding mates who has recently moved to Easington brought in a Hummingbird Hawkmoth he'd caught in his moth trap for people to see.

A great weekend and well worth the effort in going. Hopefully I'll be invited to represent the BOC again next year but after everyone hears about how good this years event was I'm sure there'll be a long list of volunteers.

Thanks again to Spurn Bird Observatory for hosting the event and the countless volunteers who made the whole event so enjoyable. Hasta la vista Spurn.

19 Aug 2022

Dungeness Ringing Pliers

My first set of ringing pliers were made by Lambourne in the 1970's - I still have them today and occasionally use them. I remember my trainers buying them for me at the annual BTO meeting as some pairs were better than others and they picked me out a good pair!   Their jaws are narrower than newer pliers and I find them easier to use on birds with short tarsi such as Swallows. I recently had the chance to examine an even older pair of bird ringing pliers. A pair of Dungeness ring ing pliers developed by the legendary Bert Axel who later moved from Dungeness to manage the RSPB reserve at Minsmere. I met hime there in 1974 just before he retired.

He became warden of Dungeness RSPB in 1952 and developed these pliers to assist with the fitting of bird rings. In those days the rings were stamped on flat sheets and had to be shaped using the specially designed tip of the pliers.  Dungeness Bird observatory still have the original pair he developed in 1954 along with Harry Cawkell. 

It was nice to see a piece of bird ringing history that I hadn't seen since the 1970's! Thanks to Kieran for letting me photograph them.

12 Aug 2022

Reedbed CES

Constant Effort Sites (CES) have been around for awhile. I don't run one myself as most of my passerine ringing is done on Hilbre or in my garden. The BTO have recently introduced garden CES's so its something I'm considering in the future. The idea is you ring at the same site for a number of consecutive weeks using the same nets and ringing for the same length of time. The data collected allows for a year on year comparison of breeding success, populations and survival. I've helped out at several CES sits including the one at Catterick army garrison - see herehere and here for blog posts on some of my previous trips.

I'd recently been asked to help with a CES site on Anglesey whilst Steve & Rachel were away. Its a reed bed site with good numbers of breeding Sedge & Reed Warblers. Between four of us we got an agreed date when we could all attend so with my alarm set for stupid o'clock I headed off in the dark for the 70 mile drive to our meeting point where I met up with fellow insomniacs Rosie, Tom & Sam. We had a map showing net locations and Rosie had collected all the ringing gear the previous evening. After a bit of fumbling around in the dark on uneven ground we managed to get the ten mist nets set and started catching birds almost immediately. 

Tom extracting from a reedbed mistnet

I haven't ringed many Reed or Sedge Warblers since I started out as a trainee in the 70's at Wicken Fen so it took a bit of time to get my eye and brain working. Sedge Warblers undergo their post juvenile moult after migrating so any young bird we caught would be designated a 3J denoting a bird of the year  that still hadn't grown its belly feathers or a 3 if it had! Sedge Warblers tend to grow all their feathers fairly quickly. At 05.00 in the morning, after being up since 01.00 there's already a certain amount of brain fatigue to contend with whilst trying to remember the intricacies of Sedge Warbler moult! 

We had a great morning though with 98 birds of 7 species being caught and processed. Highlights were a French controlled (already ringed by a French ringer either in France or somewhere in Africa!) Sedge Warbler, the first Kingfisher I'd seen in the hand since catching two in an industrial unit in 2014 - see here for that story - several Cetti's Warblers and several Grasshopper Warblers. 

French controlled Sedge Warbler.

Kingfishers are one of my favourite birds. I wrote an article about a nest I'd found and watched whilst a 12 year old kid in Suffolk for the RSPB's YOC (young ornithologists club) magazine. This one was aged as a juvenile female by the slight orange tinge to the lower mandible. It was a ringing tick for Tom   and a lovely one at that. The old English name for Kingfisher is Halcyon and it was certainly a halcyon day as the weather started warming up considerably! Running around in Wellington boots with waterproof trousers over the top certainly got a sweat on.

Cettis Warblers are unique among British passerines as they only have 10 tail feathers compared to the usual12. Something this Cetti's showed brilliantly in the hand.

By 10 am we'd finished the CES and with the sun now getting hotter we packed everything away and headed home. 

2 Aug 2022

Lunar Hornet Moth

This is a truly special moth. One of the clearwing moths and one that s rarely seen unless you use a pheromone lure. These have only recently been developed so much is still being learned about the distribution of this species. The larvae feed below the bark of crack willows, sallows and poplars - all three species of which we have in in our garden!

I'd only seen the species once before when our late great friend Barry Barnacal phoned me to come and see one he'd attracted to a lure in his garden last year. Despite trying for several years to find one myself and seeing photos of ones attracted to lures further north on the Wirral I decided to persevere and ordered some more pheromone lures to use this year! 

Success at last. Hanging the trap containing the lure in our garden I checked it awhile later to find this truly stunning hornet mimic had been attracted in.

It even sat on my hand for awhile and allowed me to take this video:

What a treat! 

25 Jul 2022

Shotton Steelworks - Common Terns and Black-headed Gulls.

 A friend of mine recently arranged for me to get invited to the Tata steelworks at Shotton to help ring Common Tern and Black-headed Gull chicks with the Merseyside ringing Group. I've helped out at this site once before but many years ago. See here.

The colonies are on two big rafts divided into separate compartments and the idea was to ring and add individual darvic rings to as many Black-headed Gull chicks as we could and also ring any Common Tern chicks we found that hadn't been ringed  on a previous visit.

Tern rafts
Chicks were collected in each compartment and kept safe in palstic boxes allowing the ringers to ring all the birds together and minimising disturbance to the colony as we didn't then have to keep catching birds only to find they'd already been ringed! 

Black-headed Gull chicks

Only the largest chicks were fitted with individually numbered darvic rings as they'd have dropped off the tarsi of the smaller chocks. All the smaller chicks were ringed with a BTO metal ring only. 

Fitting darvic rings like this enables the birds to be identified in the field more easily and hopefully these youngsters will be seen again once they've left the natal site. 

Some birds were still on eggs and a number of them had just started hatching.
Black-headed Gull hatching

Black-headed Gull clutch
The terns were at a similar stage with many birds having already fledged and some birds still on eggs whilst others were just hatching - including this one that hatched as we watched! 

The one below was to small to ring and still has its egg tooth at the tip of the bill

A busy day with fantastic weather  - a total of 248 Black-headed Gulls were ringed, with 175 being fitted with darvics, and a further 75 Common Tern chicks ringed.

18 Jul 2022


I've been monitoring breeding Swallows on a local farm for a few years now but due to Covid restrictions I hadn't been able to check on them for two years. With the lifting of restrictions I was invited back by the owners to continue checking nests and ringing young. 

This year has been a fairly mixed one. I found 4 active nests of which one was seen to be predated by a feral cat. So far I've ringed two very healthy broods and have another to ring.

John has been monitoring Swallows at a site on the Wirral for many years nd I've often been with him t oring both the young and try to catch a few adults in the loose boxes in which they breed. This involves putting a 3 m mist net inside the loose box and we've had birds returning to breed i nthe same places in subsequent years. Again, Covid restrictions had prevented any monitoring so we werent optimistic of catching any returning adults as these would have bee nat least 4-5 years old by now and the average Swallow doesnt survive that long! We managed to catch two adult males and I got to appreciate again hwo beautiful these long distance migrants are close up.