28 Aug 2023

Another good day on Hilbre.

 A bit late posting this one as it was a couple of weeks ago  but another good day on Hilbre with two more Rock Pipits being added to the colour ringing project. We've already had sightings from members of the public who've photographed darvic ringed birds that enable us t identify them without the need to recapture them or get close enough to read the metal BTO ring number.

Rock Pipit CAF was ringed as a young bird on the 4th August and was seen on the island on the 12th. On the 13th it was photographed on the mainland at the lifeboat station and we thought that was it - post juvenile dispersion and its away to find its own territory. Imagine my surprise when I recaught it on Hilbre on the 14th August. It had finished with its travel though and was photographed at Meols on the 25th August. Quite some movements for a young bird.

I digress, the 15th August was a lovely if breezy day on the island and the sheltered paddocks held good numbers of butterflies including another Small Heath and several Common Blues.

There have been good numbers of grasshoppers in the paddocks and the local Meadow Pipits are making good use of this food supply and are still feeding second broods of young.

The Swallows have successfully raised a second brood and there are young birds from the first broods all around the buildings.

Adult Swallow

Juvenile Swallow

The juveniles can be recognised by their shorter tails and their yellow gape line. Its hard to comprehend that these small birds will soon be making their first trans-saharan migration to spend our winter in Africa.

Linnets seem to be fairly scarce at the moment after seemingly having had a good breeding season. Perhaps they've already departed to the saltmarsh on the mainland for the winter? There are still birds hanging around and feeding on the seed heads of thrift. They make use of the freshwater puddles after rain to bathe and drink from.

A recent feature of the avian fauna has been a regular female Kestrel hunting along the cliffs of the west side. She's been taking Meadow Pipit fledglings and also making a snack of the occasional grasshopper.

Autumn wader passage is well underway and some very smart Turnstone are currently feeding and roosting around the island. They really are smart looking birds in summer plumage.

22 Aug 2023

Red-footed Booby.

The sole British record of Red-footed Booby was of one found on a Sussex beach and taken into care on the 4th September 2016. It was flown back to Grand Cayman but died in mid December whilst in Quarantine . Fast forward a few years and this species was firmly on the radar of seawatchers in the UK following a spate of Brown Booby records. See my blog post here about my trip for one of those birds.

Earlier this year an immature Red-footed Booby was seen on one of the pelagic trips organised by Scillie's Pelagics aboard Penders Sapphire sailing out of Hugh Town, St Mary's. Red-footed Boobies are found in sub-tropical regions of the Pacific, Atlantic & Indian Oceans. They occur in several different 'morphs' and the Scilly's bird is a pale phase juvenile.

A great record but unless you were on that trip the chances of catching up with it again in British waters were remote. Or so we thought. A pelagic trip found the bird roosting up on the Bishops Rock Lighthouse about 8 miles south west of St Marys. Cue a flurry of activity from UK birders. For several days news was coming out that the bird was getting seen regularly roosting on the lighthouse. Several issues meant I couldn't go and in the aftermath of the severe storms that hit the south west it was thought the bird would have disappeared. The severe swell in the aftermath of the storm meant the inter island boats couldn't get out ot check the lighthouse.

There have been good numbers of large shearwaters being seen both off the Cornish coast and the Scillies recently and I'd been mulling over a trip to the south west to see this spectacle. I messaged Fred to see if he was interested in a speculative trip for the booby and he came back and said he was going and I was welcome to jump in his car with Malc, Paul & Phil with the intention of driving overnight to Cornwall and day tripping the Scilly's on the Scillonian III and taking a speculative trip out to Bishops Rock on one of the inter-island boats which, we'd been assured, would now be able to get out to the lighthouse.

A lot of procrastinating later - 'shall we, shan't we, its bound to have gone' -  and we were committed to go! Partly because the spectacle of so many large shearwaters is not something that happens every year and we'd no chance of seeing such a spectacle here in Cheshire! 

I left my house at 10 pm to meet up with Fred, Malc & Paul. A detour to Stoke saw us fully loaded when Phil L joined us and an uneventful journey saw us arrive in Cornwall around 4.30 am! The time passed fairly quickly as it always does when mates get together on a long car journey. Sports, birds and past twitches are always up for discussion. No chance of any sleep and, after waiting until the nearby Tesco's Express to open at 6.00 to buy some essentials,  we stood chatting to other birders who'd made the same decision to go even though there'd been no news on the Booby for three days! 

Dawn, with the Scillonian moored in Penzance harbour and St Michaels Mount in the distance

Safely on board we chose a spot near the rails at the stern of the boat as we had every intention (along with every other birder on board) of seawatching the whole crossing.  We knew one of the Scilly's Pelagics birders specials was leaving St Mary's at 08.00 and would check out the Bishops Rock Lighthouse first for the Booby and Higgo had promised to ring Jason Oliver to let him know. With the Scillonian due to depart at 09.15 Jase suddenly got the phonecall we were all hoping for - Higgo had rung him to say the Booby, despite the pronouncements in some quarters that had moved on, was back on the lighthouse. At the same time I received a message off Paul Wren saying the same thing. He & Vicky missed out on Friday and had to wait until the swell subsided before they could get out on the Sapphire. Jasons announcement that it was still there elicited a cheer from those assembled on board. We still had at least 5 hours befire we could get to the 'Bishop' though but knowing the bird was still there got everyone buzzing. Its believed that Red-footed Booby's may feed at night so we were hopeful it would stay put. Certainly part of their diet is squid and these come to the surface at night. Reports from the Scilly's were that they'd seen quite a few squid on shark tagging trips.

There was still quite a swell running as the Scillonian ploughed past Lands End and headed for the Scilly's. As was hoped there were plenty of birds to see and we logged both Great and Cory's Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, loads of Manx Shearwaters, Storm Petrels and best of all (from my point of view) a flock of six adult Sabines Gulls! All birds I haven't seen for a few years.

Arriving at Hugh town we disembarked and were met by the inter-island boats Kingfisher and Seahorse. We were on the first boat - Seahorse, which had a small upper deck and Fred & I managed to get on that reasoning the higher up we were the the better view we'd have of any birds milling around the boat. The downside is the higher up you are then the more movement you experience. I'm not usually seasick so part of my reasoning was the limited number of people on the small upper deck were obviously seasoned sailers and I was also less likely to get puked on. Indeed there was quite a substantial outbreak of seas sickness below us with some unfortunate people being recipients of others churning stomach contents. We were blissfully unaware of much of this as we watched in anticipation as the lighthouse got closer. The swell was still pretty sizeable but our boat resolutely ploughed on.

As we got closer we started taking photos and blowing them up on the back of the camera to see if we could spot the Booby and to everyones intense relief we were able to confirm it was still there! 

Our boat skipper did a good job of getting us as close as he could to the lighthouse and moving position to enable us t get the best possible views. Photography was extremely hard due to the swells and most of the time it wa da case of point the camera and hope! 

Freds photo of my happy face

With our time on the islands fast diminishing we had to start heading back to Hugh Town to get the Scillonian back to Penzance. Our skipper took the scenic route - whenever we saw a group of shearwaters we diverted. Every Cory's was photographed and scrutinised in case it showed the subtle differences in wing tip pattern that would make it the rarer Scopoli's Shearwater of which there has been an unprecedented influx into UK waters around the Scilly's. No luck but seeing these fantastic birds up close was a great experience. Rafts of  Cory's Shearwaters were sat on the sea or milling around the boat with the occasional great Shearwater with them. 

Great Shearwater

The Lizard peninsular from the Scillonian

The trip back on the Scillonian provided more opportunity for sea watching and we took the opportunity whilst we could. 

Sharing the driving and stopping for the occasional break I eventually got home at 02.15 exactly 26 hrs and 15 minutes after I'd left the previous evening. Completely bonkers but a fantastic trip with lots of fantastic seabirds seen and the special booby prize to cap it all.

14 Aug 2023

Hilbre - Rock Pipits, butterflies and waders!

The Hilbre Rock Pipit colour ringing project is slowly making progress with 6 birds now being individually marked. The benfits of this project can already be seen with several sightings of colour ringed birds being made 'in the field' around the island.

Five of these are adults and so far we've marked one juvenile. Hopefully we'll get a few more before they start dispersing. The adult Rock Pipit in the photo below is ringed wit ha BTO ring on its left leg and the ring is barely visible. Colour ringing gives us much more chance of seeing these birds and recording them in the field rather than only being able to read the metal ring number in the hand

Adult Rock Pipit

Juvenile Rock Pipit

We've had some nice butterfly sightings recently. Both Wall and Small heath are scarce vagrants to the islands and both were recorded on the same day recently. Common Blues are also on the wing.


Small Heath

Common Blue

5 Aug 2023

Curlew and a surprise Whimbrel.

No sooner had I got back off a short holiday, with our son and his family then,  I was making sandwiches for the next days SCAN canon netting day where the target species was Curlew. Breeding Curlew in the UK are a rapidly declining species and a lot of conservation effort is going into trying to halt the decline. Most of the decline stems from agricultural practices and habitat destruction. I've just finished reading Mary Colwell's book 'Curlew Moon' and it makes for hard and, at times, harrowing reading. I remember visiting my grandparents on the edge of Dartmoor, as a kid in the late 60's and 70's, and wandering across the moors followed by the bubbling calls of Curlews on their breeding territories. They're now virtually extinct on Dartmoor. My grandparents had a cottage in Hayle, Cornwall, and eventually retired down there. I didn't realise at the time that the flocks I'd see on the Hayle Estuary, in winter, were probably Scandinavian birds. Many people still see our wintering flocks of Curlew and don't realise that our British breeders are in such serious trouble.

Meeting at the designated point we drove to where we would set the nets on an island in a tidal creek. This meant wading through the creek and then spending several hours lying beneath a tarpaulin and camouflage net on the island so we were close to the net to extract the birds when it was fired. A most uncomfortable experience at my age! We couldn't see anything but could hear the birds moving around us as the tide flooded - Curlew, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwits, Common Sandpiper & Lapwing were all coming into roost.

Once the canons were fired and we struggled out from beneath our tarpaulin trying to shake off muscle cramps and stiffness. When we'd ensured all the birds were safe from the still encroaching tide they were covered with hessian sacking to keep them calm and quietly and methodically removed from the net into catching cages before ringing and processing.

We caught a single Whimbrel in with the Curlew and as I'd never handled one before I was given the privilege of ringing it. I was really surprised at how tiny it was compared to the Curlew. Once ringed it was processed and a uniquely numbered darvic ring fitted as part of study into Welsh Whimbrel movements - see here for ore information.

We made an excellent catch of 86 Curlew  - some were obviously quite old as the original rings had worn badly and they had to be re-ringed. All birds were ringed, aged, moult scores taken (where appropriate), wing length & bill length measured & weighed before release. 

Highlight was a Finnish ringed Curlew, illustrating nicely where many of our wintering Curlew come from. The ring was unusual as they are apparently hand stamped. 

It will be interesting to get the ringing details back and see when and where in Finland it was ringed. My guess is somewhere north of Rovaneimi on the Arctic circle.

Another great day and hopefully the data we collect will help in the future conservation of these beautiful birds.