10 May 2017

Reading the small print

Within the ringing team, it never ceases to amaze us just how many people spend their time reading bird rings. Only a small percentage of ringed birds are colour ringed as well, so most birds can only be identified by reading the metal ring number, which can be difficult with wild birds. Rings on large birds such as swans and geese can be quite easy to read, due to the ring size and the proximity of the birds in parks and lakes.

Mute Swan account for 44% of all the metal ring reads (sample from 1 Jan 2017 to today), followed by Black-headed Gull with 19% and Shelduck with 5%. The remaining reports are between 57 different species ranging from sea birds like Puffin and Cormorant to passerines like Nuthatch, Goldcrest, Lesser Redpoll and Grasshopper Warbler.


Last week we had a report of a Green-winged Teal (below) at Storavan, Stöcke, Västerbotten, Sweden wearing a BTO ring! Luckily for Johan Forssell and Mikael Wikstrom, very few Green-winged Teal are ringed by our ringing scheme (see ringing totals by species), so finding a match with the given numbers was relatively easy. This bird was ringed as an adult male on 6 Oct 2015 at Caelaverock, Dumfries and Galloway (1,651 km). For more information on the recoveries of Green-winged Teal see our Online ringing reports (don't expect to be overwhelmed by numbers).

BTO ringed Green-winged Teal (foreground). Photo by Johan Forssell




Bardsey Bird Observatory was lucky enough to ring a Pallas's Warbler on 18 April 2017, making this the first spring record for Wales. In fact, this is probably only the third spring record of Pallas's Warbler in the history of our ringing scheme. This bird soon moved away, however a ringed Pallas's Warbler was seen on the island on 7 May.

Pallas's Warbler. Photo by Steve Stansfield in May

Being a very popular bird, this bird was photographed in enough clarity that five of the six digits could be read. This size of ring also fits on Goldcrest and Wren, so is very small indeed. There was only one issue... the ring number didn't match the one that was put on the Pallas's Warbler in April. This was a different bird!

Pallas's Warbler. Photo by Steve Stansfield in May


With the help of the BTO's national ringing scheme database, the origin of this bird was traced. It was originally ringed at Spurn Bird Observatory on 11 Oct 2016! Re-catching a ringed Pallas's Warbler at a different site is incredibly rare, so the details of where this species goes after it reaches our shores is now a little clearer, but there is still a long way to go to fully understand their migration.

Learning to become a ringer takes quite a lot of commitment and time. As these and other previous examples highlight, you don't need to be a ringer to make a real difference to our knowledge of bird demography.

28 April 2017

Bus pass boys at the beach

Allan Hale writes:

The “Bus Pass Boys” are a group of birding pensioners, two of whom are ringers. We make regular visits to Great Yarmouth beach in Norfolk to read colour rings on Mediterranean Gulls, some of us since 1999 (when we didn’t possess bus passes!). Our first birds are on site from about mid-July and most are gone by mid-March.

Mediterranean Gull at Great Yarmouth. Photo taken by Allan Hale.

We have identified nearly 100 different Mediterranean Gulls that were ringed in 10 different countries. They have originated from Belgium, Germany, France, Poland, Britain & Ireland (only two), The Netherlands, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary and Serbia. There have been multiple sightings of many of these gulls (click here for a complete ringing scheme overview of recoveries for Med Gull). Many valuable life histories have been identified, with some of the birds mentioned above having also visited Spain, Portugal and The Azores.



Some of our Mediterranean Gulls have been shown to reach a ripe old age. Two of the birds we have seen this winter were originally ringed in 2001, one of them already three years old when ringed.

The BTO were impressed with our efforts and they suggested in 2013 that we should have a “joint venture” to try and cannon net some of these birds and fit them with British colour-rings. Very few Mediterranean Gulls are ringed in Britain so we took this as a challenge! Our aim was to add to the pool of ringed birds at Yarmouth and to further understand where these wintering birds originated. Maybe British breeding birds are there – we just didn’t know.

Stunning summer plumage Mediterranean Gulls. Photo taken by Irina Samusenko.

It wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. It is well known that Mediterranean Gulls are more intelligent than the people trying to catch them (most are also better looking!) At time of writing we have caught and ringed 46 Meds and had 'our' birds seen in The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Poland. We have also establish that some British-breeding Mediterranean Gulls winter at Great Yarmouth.

Last week we received notification of a sighting of one of our birds that was truly spectacular. The bird had been ringed at Great Yarmouth on 22 November 2015. It was seen on the beach until the end of February 2016 then disappeared for the summer. It had returned to the beach by the end of November 2016 and remained until at least 18 February 2017. Remarkably it was next seen 15 April 2017 at Trostenetskij Rubbish Dump, near Minsk, in Belarus. ‘Our bird’ was apparently paired with a colour ringed bird ‘red PKU6’ which was ringed in Poland.

'Our bird' (right), enjoying some delights in Belarus. Photo taken by Irina Samusenko

This represents the first British or Irish Mediterranean Gull that has been reported from Belarus and it is the most easterly sighting of any of our Mediterranean Gulls.

To report any ringed or colour ringed birds please go to www.ring.ac.

21 April 2017

Little Owls in Lincolnshire

Anecdotal reports suggest that some species have started breeding early this year. In this post, Bob Sheppard provides an update on the Little Owls he monitors in Lincolnshire:

Little Owls readily take to nest boxes, particularly in old farm buildings. The box design I use is important as it mimics a hole in a tree. My father designed the box back in 1998.

A very big clutch of Little Owl eggs. Taken by Bob Sheppard/Alan Ball.

In the past nineteen years our Little Owls have increased as more boxes have been installed and we now have 80 pairs breeding. We monitor the adults for the Retrapping Adults for Survival scheme as well as submitting records to the Nest Record Scheme. In late April/early May, my colleague Alan Ball (who works with me to monitor all the boxes every year) and I catch all the adult females at the boxes (males are rarely caught in the boxes). The females are very site faithful and so we often retrap the same birds for several consecutive years. We then make a follow up visit to ring the chicks.

Little Owl struggling to sit on all those eggs. Taken by Bob Sheppard/Alan Ball.

This year we have found eggs during the first week of April which is very early indeed for Lincolnshire. Clutches of four are the average but we do find quite a few fives, including three already this season. Six egg clutches are not unknown and we once had a seven! The egg-laying season is unusually staggered this year; in several boxes we have heavy females yet to lay. Recoveries are rare (see online reports) but we meet lots of old friends as we open the boxes.

Ed - For more information on the details of Little Owl biology, see our BirdFacts page. Lincolnshire holds the record for the highest number of nest records of Little Owl (77) in 2016, with Norfolk following quite a way behind (14). For the 2015 results of any species click here.

28 March 2017

Feeling a bit broody

With winter loosening its grip on the British countryside our bird life is starting to look forward to spring! Here at BTO HQ, we are winding up to a busy nesting season and are searching the hedgerows and bushes for nests.

Egyptian Geese - photo by Rachael Barber

So far this year we have found nests of Coot, Egyptian Geese, Mallard, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Long-tailed Tit, Wren, Collared Dove and Dunnock, with more species being added every day. Each nest will be fully recorded for the BTO Nest Record Scheme (NRS) with nest finders following the NRS code of conduct.


Mallard nest with nine eggs - photo by Lee Barber


Robin nest - photo by Rachael Barber

Several BTO staff and volunteers record nests around Thetford, Norfolk, but how do we avoid recording the same nest? The answer is that we share a Google Map between us, with colours and shapes used to denote the progress of each nest and a note included of who found the nest. After a day of 'nesting' we update the map with our exciting discoveries and this informs everyone of where the nest is, the species, when it was found and at what stage the nest is at (nest only, nest with eggs, chicks, not active). Each recorder will then follow 'their' nests and submit them to the BTO (usually via the ringing group) at the end of the season/nest completion.


Last years nest locations on a shared Google map

Across the country there are some species that have been nesting for some time already including Grey Heron, Raven, Dipper, Stock Dove, Cormorant and Crossbill. The BTO NRS Forum has come alive with reports of nests, includes a Peregrine laying in Woking, Surrey (webcam link), a Woodpigeon squab about two weeks old in North Cornwall and Moorhen, Mistle Thrush and Ring-necked Parakeet with eggs in London. Dippers have full clutches in the Scottish Borders and some chicks have already been ringed in Wales. A Stock Dove in North Norfolk must have fledged by now as well.

 
Blackbird nest - photo by Lee Barber

Nest recording is vital to our understanding of productivity and every nest counts! It is amazing how much difference one nest record can make. By looking at the NRS submission totals, you can see what nests have been recorded previously (2016 records are still being analysed). In 2015, just 24 Goldcrest, 15 Snipe and nine Grasshopper Warbler were recorded in the whole country. Take that down to the county level and you could make a big difference to the totals, especially if you focus on one particular species. Open nesting birds are particularly under recorded because they are generally harder to find, but with a little practice and patience it can be done. Click here to find out how to take part and develop your nesting skills.

16 March 2017

Ringing, recording and recoveries at Sandwich Bay

Steffan Walton, Assistant Warden at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory writes:

Life at a south-eastern Bird Observatory is full of surprises throughout the year. Late winter cold snaps on the continent can start the year off with a bang as wildfowl and thrushes burst into the recording area, whilst counts of almost 150 Woodcock in a morning have occurred in recent times. The spring sees thousands of northbound finches flying over, thermalling raptors, and Whimbrels passing through en masse, whilst typically scarce overshoots such as Kentish Plover, Temminck’s Stint, and Serin are reasonably regular. In 2016 an epic Lithuanian Blue Tit recovery set new records in the spring (see Demog Blog story), whilst both Long-billed Dowitcher and Common Crane treated the visiting young Next Generation Birders.


This is what a Lithuanian Blue Tit looks like - photo by Becky Johnson

Summers are typified by the (now increasingly rare in the UK) sound of the Turtle Dove, breeding waders, and of course, the Nest Record Scheme. Co-ordinated efforts to monitor, ring, and assess our breeding populations take priority whilst our recently started Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) projects on House Sparrow and Collared Dove are already bearing their first fruits. Bee-eater, Quail, and Honey Buzzard are all possible this time of year but highlights are just as likely to be non-avian being a truly fantastic site for Lepidoptera and Odonata records.

As the summer draws to an end things start to heat up. Autumn is traditionally our busiest time of the year avian-wise. Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory has a long history of ringing unusually large numbers of House Martin, Common Sandpiper, and Lesser Whitethroat during this time, as well as being one of the premier sites in the UK for Pallas’s Warbler. Just under 10,000 birds were eventually ringed in 2016, most of which were caught in autumn. In a typical year 7-8,000 birds may be ringed though a recent high of 11,000 occurred in 2015. Looking back at the most recent autumn, numbers such as 1,350 Blackcaps, 1,200 Chiffchaffs, 585 Robins, and 640 Blackbirds make impressive reading.

Tallies can vary from year to year as weather dictates what arrives and what carries on towards France. Meadow Pipits are usually ringed in excellent numbers, species such as Firecrest, Nightingale, Ring Ouzels, and Redstart frequently show well, as well as being one of the best sites to get to grips with continental Coal Tits. In recent year’s rarities such as Red-flanked Bluetail, Great Grey Shrike, Icterine Warbler, Wryneck, and of course, double-figures of Yellow-browed Warblers have found their way into our mist-nets.


Icterine Warbler - photo by SBBOT

The real highlights though come in the form of some very note-worthy foreign controls including a series of Robin recoveries all arriving in a fantastic three week period in October. One bird from Usquert, Netherlands moved 427 km in 16 days, another 545 km from Helgoland, Germany also in 16 days, but one record stood out from the others, the cream of the crop was an individual that was ringed at Kovda, Kandalakshskiy District, Murmansk Oblast, in RUSSIA! A movement of 2,460 km and believed to be the longest distance and furthest east Robin recovery in BTO history. Further interesting records included a good run of Common Redpolls (one being a Danish ringed bird, a movement of 814 km) as well as another Eastern Lesser Whitethroat (S.c.blythi) confirmed by DNA analysis (below).


Lesser Whitethroat - photo by SBBOT

If you would like to visit or ring, then stop by the Field Centre for more details. The home of Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory offers modern, comfortable, self-catering accommodation, allowing you to be on hand for early morning bird ringing, late night moth trapping, club events or just more time to explore the local area. We offer a self-contained flat, twin, family, and single rooms. All guests have use of shared shower facilities, kitchen, dining room and lounge. What’s more, you just might get a snapshot of all the additional behind the scenes crucial work ongoing at Bird Observatories across the UK. Be it the full digitisation of historic data for Birdtrack, Butterfly Monitoring Scheme Transects, the Kent Moth Group, RSPB Wildlife Explorers and Phoenix clubs, and more.

For more information see our website.