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9 May 2022

Leucorhoa, leucorhoa!

 One of the features of late spring migration on Hilbre is the passage of Greenland Wheatears (Oeananthe oenanthe leucorhoa) These aren't a separate species but a race of our commoner Northern Wheatears (Oeananthe oenanthe). They're bigger and bulkier and tend to migrate later than Northern Wheatears. They use Hilbre as a stop off point and replenish their fat reserves before continuing their migration across the Atlantic to either Iceland, Arctic Canada or Greenland to breed. 

Because of covid  I'd not been able to get to Hilbre for almost two years but finally with the removal of restrictions I've been managing to get across a bit this year. I was lucky enough to retrap a female Greenland Wheatear on several occasions over the last week since she was ringed.

She was ringed on 27th April and weighed 31.7 g, on 29th she weighed 32.8 g and on the 4th may she weighed 35.7 g! Fat deposits are the birds equivalent of rocket fuel! 


By contrast this beautiful male was ringed yesterday and weighed a whoppping 40.2 g! He'll be on his way very soon.
This bird was aged as a second calendar year male (Euring 5) becuase of the contrast between the browner coverts and dark loral mask. In a full adult these would be the same colour. 

Whinchat are another migratory species that sometimes end up on Hilbre in spring with the occasional one caught and ringed. There was a single male on the morning I arrived and this promptly disappeared but then a pair appeared after the hight tide. 


As well as reacquainting my self with the Wheatears I also got to ring whats probably my first Sedge Warbler since 2019! Great little birds and one I used t o be very familiar with when I first started ringing at Wicken Fen.

Most of the waders are now migrating north to breed but there are still a few hanging around the island including a fine summer plumaged Purple Sandpipier. Not a plumage we get to see very often as most of the Purple Sandpipers don't linger into May.

Likewise with the Dunlin. A flock roosted art the north end and there were a variety of plumages on show - ranging from almost full summer to still in their drabber winter colours.



Maintenance is an ongoing past time on Hilbre. The winter storm take their toll on the infrastructure and our heligoland traps. The SK heligoland had suffered some damage to the cliff top east side entrance baffle so work started to replace this as it'll help funnel birds flying down the bushes on the east side into the entrance of the trap.


All in all it was a fairly good day. A few nice birds ringed to keep the annual totals ticking over and some essential maintenance started!




1 May 2022

Linnets

A feature of springs on Hilbre are the Linnets. They breed in good numbers on both Hilbre and Middle Eye and last year appears to have been an exceptional breeding season for them. They're a bird associated with music hall songs and a bygone era of trapping wild birds for their singing capabilities. Linnets used to be caught and blinded by sticking needles in their eyes as that somehow encouraged them to sing. They've been immortalised in the music hall song 'My Old Man'

'My old man said follow the van and don't dilly dally on the way' 

'Off went the cart with the home packed in it walked behind with me old cock linnet'

A song about doing a flit from rented accommodation as they couldn't afford the rent and quite common in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Linnets are on the UK red list of species of concern and numbers have dropped dramatically due to changing farming practices and habitat destruction. When I was training to ring at Wicken Fen in the 70's they were still quite common and I got to ring a few. It wasn't until  I started ringing again at Hilbre that I became reacquainted with these beautiful little finches in the hand. I'm lucky to have a few pairs breeding close to where we live and a couple of years ago I caught and ringed several in the garden. See here

Ageing and sexing Linnets is quite straight forward in adult plumage but juveniles can be a bit trickier. This time of year you have to be careful of male Linnets looking very similar to females though. In the hand it can be easier as male Linnets tend to have more white on the outer web of the primaries and this reaches the shaft. On females there is a distinct gap between the shaft and the white.  A male Linnet with a nice red breast is easy to sex! 

Female Linnet wing showing white on outer web of primaries doesn't reach feather shaft


Male linnet open wing. Note extent of white on outer web of primaries compared to female above.

Male Linnet - they're easy in this plumage! 

As with many passerines ageing is on a combination of features and depends on an understanding of moult. During their post juvenile moult Linnets replsce almost all their greater coverts and sometimes all of them . The outer ones are genreally not replaced until the following year after fledging when the bird undertakes its first full post breeding moult. Juvenile type greater coverts have buffish tips and are shorter than the adult type. Checking the alula feathers for a moult limit is also a useful indicator. Tail feathers can also provide a clue with juvenile type tail feathers being more pointed and worn than adult type.



14 Apr 2022

Hilbre - a few more migrants trickling in at last

My last two trips across to Hilbre have started in the dark to get to the island at first light. A few migrants are beginning to pass through with Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap being ringed over the last couple of weeks. Wheatears are also on the move and birds of the Greenland race 'leucora' are starting to arrive.

Chiffchaffs

Willow Warbler

Male Blackcap

Male Wheatear
Although spring is definitely here signs of winter aren't far away. A couple of Purple Sandpipers are still to leave the islands for their arctic breeding grounds and there are still a few Brent Geese hanging on. Snow on the Carnedd hills looking west towards north Wales was a distinct reminder that, at this time of the year, the weather can still be fickle.

One of the features of springs on Hilbre is a small passage of Wrens. Most of the resident birds are ringed during the year but every spring we get a number of 'new' birds passing through. Ringing recoveries as far away as north Lancashire shows these are passage birds. 

Eider were a scarce bird on the Wirral and the first pair bred last year. The long staying female seems to have moved on but theres a smart male hanging around and provided a good photo opportunity as it swam past the north end framed by spray from breaking waves.


The local Meadow Pipits and Rock Pipits are displaying and providing good practice in ageing. As well as photographing birds in the hand they've also provided a few opportunities for photographing in the field. 
Rock Pipit

Meadow Pipit

Rock Pipit

Star bird for me, on my most recent visit, was this female Kestrel.  She's been hanging around the island for awhile and had been ringed previously. From photos I managed to read the ring number but it was caught in a mist net allowing us to confirm the number and the age. Its a 2nd calendar year bird ringed as a nestling on the Wirral in 2021. A very feisty bird that attacked me with both its talons and bill - hence the fish filleting glove! Kestrels are renowned for beign feisty. Sparrowhawks will use their talons on you but Kestrels use all the weapons at their disposal. I know how a vole feels now! 


After the last tow years of lockdowns and the islands being closed to the public by Wirral Borough Council its nice to start getting back to some sense of normality.







12 Apr 2022

Slime moulds

Whilst looking around the garden the other day we spotted this strange looking thing growing on a dead damson tree. Further examination suggested it was a slime mould. Slime moulds were once considered to be a fungus but are now regarded as a protozoa.They have a bizarre lifecycle as they start off with a single cell amoeboid organism that feed on bacteria and fungi. In suitable conditions these individuals coalesce into a plasmodial stage breeding partnership linked by interconnecting strands.

This stage doesn't last long and as the food substrate runs out they start producing spores - usually within a couple of days.

The one in the garden appears to be Reticularia lycoperdon - a first for me! Its also known as False Puffball or Cauliflower slime mould.

The photos below were taken on three consecutive days and by the third day you can see the brown spores developing. Amazing.

Day 1
Day 2

Day 3





4 Apr 2022

Hilbre - in praise of pipits

Meadow Pipits are a very underrated bird. They're little brown jobs that seem to be preyed upon by many of our raptor species. Merlins, Sparrowhawks, Hen harriers and even Peregrines are partial to a Meadow Pipit. They're also fascinating. Breeding on some of our most inhospitable terrain in the hills they'll move down to lower elevations in winter and a large proportion of the population are migratory. 

They're also interesting to ringers as they undergo a partial pre-breeding moult involving the median and lesser coverts an occasionally the inner greater coverts, tertials and central tail feathers. This makes ageing interesting and reliant on a whole suite of characters including an assessment of feather wear.

Hilbre has a small breeding population of Meadow Pipits and we get to ring quite a few each year. Even so it still takes time to get your 'eye in' when catching them in the spring.


In recent years Hilbre has also hosted a small population of Rock Pipits. Again, many dismiss these as 'little brown jobs' but close up the intricacies of the plumage are stunning. They're a much bigger bird than the Meadow Pipit and undergo the same pre-breeding moult (in addition to their post juvenile and post breeding moults). I was lucky ewnoufgh to be able to process two retrap Rock Pipits on my recent trip to Hilbre so was able to examine them closely knowing that they'd already been ringed and aged previously.


As well as the pipits we had a small smattering of migrants on the island with Goldcrest, Robin and male Blackcap being ringed.


Nine Purple Sandpipers were still feeding around the island and roosted over the high tide on the sheltered west side of the island away from the biting easterly wind. Other spring migrants included a male Ring Ouzel that flew up from the south end of the island over our heads and landed on the track before promptly disappearing beneath one of the fences. Despite an intensive search it was only seen once again, in flight, being pursued by the resident male Blackbird. I also got to see my first Wheatear of the spring! 






23 Mar 2022

What Katy Did next

It bit me thats what! As well as an abundant birdlife Australia hosts a huge number of other fascinating animals. Like this Mimicking Snout-nosed Katydid I found in our daughters garden. It gave me quite a nip as it uses its mandibles to crack open grass seeds to eat the contents.

The number of crickets stridulating in the early mornings and evenings was incredible and we rescued dozens out the pool every morning. The creek at the bottom of the garden wasn't only a haven for aquatic birds it was also used by numerous dragonflies and damselflies. Species I identified whilst there included Blue Skimmer, Wandering Percher, Blue-spotted Hawker &Wandering Ringtail.
Blue-spotted Hawker

Wandering Ringtail

Having a swimming poll in such a hot climate is a luxury we enjoyed on a daily basis with the grandkids. Putting up a large canopy over one end of the pool to keep at least part of it shaded we came across a small roost of a species of Forest Bat. I'm not sure which species as they're hard to separate but it looks as if they could be Short-tailed Forest Bat. Most flew off but those that didn't were moved somewhere dark and safer to roost.


The local town hosted a street food and music festival in the park one evening and we watched as literally tens of thousands of Fruit Bats flew out of their riverside roost to feed in the early evening.

Yabbys are native Australian freshwater crayfish that inhabit a variety of habitats  - including muddy dams and creeks. We found some in the creek at the bottom of our daughters garden whilst clearing out debris carried in by a recent flash flood. Cue much fun whiling away time with our young grandson catching Yabbys with a piece of meat tied to a length of string.


Yabbys live in burrows in the banks of creeks and dams and the evidence was everywhere when you looked for it. The creek remained full of water this summer but usually drys out. Yabbys survive the dry season by hunkering down in their burrows until it's wet enough to venture out again. This year there have been lots of flash floods so the creeks and dams are full and the Yabbys are thriving.

A trip up into the hills near the house not only resulted in quite a few bird species but also a number of animals  - including this Black Wallaby. One of several seen.


Lizards were everywhere including this juvenile Eastern Bearded Dragon that stayed just long enough for a photo. Most scuttled off before we'd even had a chance to identify them.

Australia is famous or maybe infamous for its spiders and quite rightly so. I just missed walking into the web of this Golden Orb Spider complete with newly hatched young! 


Were already planning our next visit to see the family and I've invested in a guide to Australian Dragonflies to help identify a few more species! 






14 Mar 2022

In a land down under

 It's been two years since we've been able to visit our daughter and her family in Australia. Since then they've moved house to a property with a large garden, a creek running through the bottom and lots of mature trees nearby. It has the added bonus that its right on the edge of the Mount Pilot National Park which is a hotspot for numerous species including the critically endangered Regents Honeyeater as they've been captive bred and released in the area. A whole new area for me to explore! 

Things didn't quite go to plan! Firstly severe weather in the UK meant our flight from Manchester was delayed by over five hours meaning we missed our connecting flight in Doha and consequently spent twenty nine hours stuck in the airport. Covid restrictions in Qatar meant we couldn't leave the airport and flights to Australia are still not back to normal so theres only one per day. 

Things got worse as even though I'd phoned Hertz to explain the situation they put us down as a no show so when we finally arrived, absolutely shattered, a day late there was no car for us! Cue a massive  argument before they eventually found us a suitable car! 

A two and a half hour drive later we finally arrived in Chiltern and collapsed into bed to the sound of crickets and frogs calling from the garden. 

It soon became apparent that the water filled creek at the bottom of the garden was a magnet for birds with both White-necked Heron and White-faced Heron being soon whilst the dam on the farmland next door had Little Pied Cormorant, Pacific Black Duck and Maned Duck most mornings.

White-faced Heron

White-necked Heron

The garden was home to a family of Superb Fairy Wrens and I spent ages trying to get some decent photos of the male. They're very quick and spend a lot of the time in thick cover and occasionally showed perching up and singing - generally when I didn't have the camera with me! 

Female Superb Fairy Wren

Sub-adult male Superb Fairy Wren



Other daily garden visitors were Red-browed Finches. These spent most of the time in the long grass around the creek or in the chicken run along with Silvereyes and a family of White-plumed Honeyeaters.
Silvereye

Red-browed Finch

Adult White-plumed Honeyeater feeding newly fledged young

Most days a Red Wattlebird and a couple of Black-faced Cuckoo Shrikes spent some time in the garden - usually at first light before the grandchildren and dogs were out and about. A strange looking rosella threw me before I realised it was actually one of the colour morphs of Crimson Rosella! 





Unfortunately any plans I had to visit local birding hotspots were curtailed when our ten year old granddaughter tested positive for covid on the Sunday evening before she was due back at school on a Monday. A PCR test on Monday confirmed it so the whole family had to isolate for 7 days. Luckily she didn't get very ill and lateral flow tests proved she was negative by Wednesday but we still had to isolate until we'd taken a lateral flow test on the sixth day. If that was negative we could resume normal life on the seventh day. Two days before we flew home.....

We ended up taking a lateral flow test everyday as we had to know the exact day we tested positive (if we did) as it would affect our flights home. Unbelievably no one else in the household caught it! 

I got into a routine of getting up early and birding' the garden before breakfast and again just before it got dusk. One evening, sitting on the wooden bridge over the creek and listening to the frogs, a rustling in the vegetation caught my attention and after a short while a Buff-breasted Rail dashed across an open space and disappeared. After that I staked the creek out ever ynight with the camera but there was absolutely no sign......

Until......

One afternoon we had a terrific thunderstorm and torrential rain. I'd already had a flock of six White-throated Needletails flying over the garden as the storm rolled in. When the rain eased I glanced out the window into the field alongside the house and saw two Buff-banded Rails feeding on worms right out in the open. I managed to sneak up to the boundary fence and spent twenty minutes watching them before a circling Collared Sparrowhawk caused them to scurry back into the creek. My best views ever of this native rail.








Both birds were juveniles proving breeding in the area and the record has been submitted via the local birders facebook group. Despite the setbacks I ended the week on 38 species for Amy & Jeremys new garden with other notable species including Rufous Whistler, Welcome Swallow, Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Sacred Kingfisher, Brown Falcon, Willie Wagtail and Grey Shrike-thrush and Yellow-rumped Thornbill being seen along with the ubiquitous Australian Magpie and Magpie Larks. 

Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to check out the birding sites in Mount Pilot National park that I'd earmarked in my quest to see a Regents Honeyeater and the closet I got was this mural on the end of the public toilets in the town!

There is hope though as a couple of years ago a pair were seen in a nearby town. 
See detail here

If we hadn't have been in lockdown I was ready to jump on a plane with the pretext of going to see the grandchildren. Hopefully we'll be visiting Australia regularly again in the future so I'm still hopeful I'll see one! As I write this I keep looking at the fabulous drawing I've got of one by Australian Artist Rachel Hollis (see here).




Its one of those birds I really want to see in.