25 May 2022

Quail on my local patch

I've always kept a local patch list. When I lived at home in Suffolk my local patch was fairly extensive and I'd spend all day walking around the local woods and along the streams and river's surrounding where we lived. As I've got older my patch has shrunk and now I tend to work a loop around of Cheshire home which, according to information put up by the Parish Council on the village notice board during Covid lockdowns, is exactly 6,000 steps! I try to do this loop at least 5 days a week. 

The patch is mainly improved pasture with a lot of old clay pits which now form ponds. Some of the fields get very wet and flood in winter which can be good for the occasional wader and regular small groups of wildfowl. There is also a fair bit of land turned over to arable with potato's, wheat, barley, maize and oilseed rape all being grown. 

It gets a bit dispiriting sometimes counting the same 4 Chiffchaffs or 6 singing Blackcaps but just occasionally an exciting new bird makes it all worth while. Recently I found the patches first ever singing male Reed Bunting.  Normally they've been fly overs or occasional visitors (including last years memorable garden 1st caught and ringed - see here. The hedges around here tend to get flailed every year but the few ones that are allowed to grow still host a few pairs of breeding Yellowhammers.

With large numbers of Spotted Flycatchers being reported on the north Wirral coast recently I thought there may be a chance of one dropping in locally. They used to breed ina garden a few few hundred metres from home but sadly disappeared years before we actually moved into the village.  

Walking the single track lane with nicely overgrown hedges I'd already heard two Yellowhammers and the Reedbunting when I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. Surely that was a Quail? A few minutes silence and there it was a gain. A distant ' wet my lips' It was quite breezy and  I still wasn't sure if my ears were deceiving me. Ringing Mark Payne, who's doing a local "Big Year" I carried on with my walk. Mark rang me back to say he was on the way and as I'd nearly reached home he'd pick me up. Sure enough almost as soon as we'd got out the car the Quail called from its favoured field of barley. For some reason Quail really like barley and I've spent hours over the years walking local routes with adjacent barley fields hoping to find a Quail!

The next day was a bit calmer and I again walked the village loop. This time the Quail was in a neighbouring field and I managed to get a couple of recordings on my phone.

A few other people 'twitched' my Quail but on Monday there was no sign of it early morning. Knowing someone else I knew was going to try for it later for his Cheshire year list I said I'd go out again when the temperature had warmed up a bit. 

I didn't fancy the walk again so decided to go on my bike. Within two minutes of leaving the house I nearly fell off the bike when the Quail called right alongside the lane in a different field.

I realised the bird had probably moved though three different barley fields and the actual straight line distances weren't so big between the records.

A great local record and one that brings up the local patch list to 132 species. 

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


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.