On Tuesday I met Andy at 0600 at Oakenclough for our first ringing session since early spring, an unproductive period for ringing when the weather was predominately cool and wet. We don’t normally head up to the hills until real autumn migration begins rather than post-breeding dispersal time. The local post-breeding species list can be rather short here at 800 metres above sea-level but increases substantially once finches and thrushes from further north begin to appear.
But with recent good weather and signs of a productive breeding season we decided to give it a go. This proved a good decision as the morning became very interesting with a catch of 40 new birds. We had zero recaptures from previous visits.
When we arrived all seemed quiet with little no bird song or calling but as both the sun rose and the temperature gauge climbed we began to catch with a morning that was dominated by warblers.
We finished soon after 1100 with a catch of 40 birds of 12 species: 11 Blackcap, 9 Willow Warbler, 2 Garden Warbler, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Goldcrest, 5 Chaffinch, 2 Robin, 2 Blue Tit, 2 Great Tit, 1 Treecreeper, 3 Wren and 1 Tawny Owl.
The biggest surprise of the morning came with a Tawny Owl languishing in the bottom panel of the mist net at 10 0’clock, a time when all Tawny Owls should be tucked away and fast asleep. Upon examination and measuring we ascertained that the owl was a juvenile born this year. A wing length of 265mm and a weight of 335 grams determined it was a male; a female is bigger than the corresponding male.
We no longer catch many Garden Warblers so it was good to catch two. There was one adult male Garden Warbler and a juvenile, which is far from proof of breeding on site, but possibly so.
Garden Warblers bred here at Okenclough on an annual basis until the late 1990s when invasive rhododendron overran the landscape of bramble, bracken, bilberry and hawthorn. Slowly but relentlessly the site became unsuitable for a number of species like Bullfinch, Yellowhammer, Tree Pipit and Garden Warbler, and they were pushed out by the all-conquering intruder. The rhododendron beat us too and we were forced to abandon the site in 1997.
Then in 2012/13 the land owners North West Water began a programme of rhododendron clearance and replanting of native species whereby, and after an absence of many years, we returned to the site in 2014.
Since then we have captured almost 3900 birds including two Garden Warblers in 2018 and now two more in 2019. It would be nice to think that Garden Warblers have returned for good as the site is now suitable for them. Time will tell.
The regular Barn Owl wasn't too obliging this morning. It spent the whole time dashing across and around several fields, hunting on the wing without taking a breather whereby I might picture it at rest. Barn Owls seem to do that at times - whizz around in an almost random and unpredictable fashion rather than a logical steady and measured search of the available ground. And then on the very next occasion you go the same bird will spend ages just sat around, moving occasionally from pillar to post and using the “watch, wait and pounce” method.
I've never quite worked out why the techniques are so different and how they relate to prevailing weather conditions, prey availability, the degree of urgency to find food, or the layout and the irregularity of the habitat which owls hunt.
I had a few hours in which to check Conder Green. A surprise awaited in the form of a pair of Avocets with four brand new chicks. This was something of a shock because the family were on the marsh, running through the tidal creek, and not on the pool where everyone expects to see this year’s brood.
So the Avocets have shown the resident Redshanks and Oystercatchers how to beat the system in what apart from a few pairs of terns and gulls has been a poor year for productivity. With mostly casual records rather than detailed study it’s hard to explain the poor year. The very low water levels with increased disturbance and interference from gulls, crows, ground predators and grazing sheep could be factors.
Otherwise, counts of waders and wildfowl included another pair of Avocet at the far end of the pool, 45 Redshank, 22 Oystercatcher, 5 Common Sandpiper, 1 Greenshank, 5 Little Egret, 1 Grey Heron, 1 Little Grebe and 2 Shelduck. At least two Shelduck have been present most of the season without any visible breeding success. Today gave a zero count of Tufted Duck, another species which so far, and now so late, failed to breed this year.
The season saw successful but limited breeding courtesy of both Black-headed Gull and Common Terns on the floating pontoon with both species now feeding good sized young. The fact that these successes came via a relatively safe construction that is surrounded by water was perhaps a deciding factor. The pontoon is now only partially floating due to the drop in water level and may soon become a muddy island.
Small birds arrived in the form of 20 Sand Martin, 4 Reed Bunting 2 Whitethroat, 1 Reed Warbler and 1 Chiffchaff.
Just the other day came news of a Tawny Owl we ringed in 2011. It was caught at 0710 hours during an early morning autumn ringing session of 28 October 2011 at Rawcliffe Moss.
Tawny Owl GR26760 from 28/10/2011
Will and I aged it as an adult and fitted ring number GR26760. The morning was quite quite productive with 29 birds caught - 10 Chaffinch, 5 Reed Bunting, 4 Redwing, 4 Lesser Redpoll, 3 Goldfinch and one each Dunnock, Great Tit and the Tawny Owl.
On 29th June 2019, over seven and a half years later the owl was found “Sick, Wounded, Unhealthy” in the same location and taken into care by a raptor rescue team.
The typical lifespan of a Tawny Owl is five years, but an age of over 18 years has been recorded for a wild Tawny Owl, and of over 27 years for a captive bird.
I hope our Tawny survived its mishap and old age but so far I have not been able to check out the latest news. Stay tuned for an update.
Andy and I went back to ring the runt Barn Owl of 11 days ago - Boxing News.
It was good to see the four Kestrels we ringed then had now fledged, flying free but still partly dependent upon the adults. The young Barn Owl was now big enough to take a “G” ring with all three siblings now looking likely to survive to adulthood.
We took the opportunity to do a little woodland-edge mist netting as early July should mean catching plenty of juveniles. Juveniles are newly fledged birds that are still partly dependent upon their parents but stick around the area they were born until they are ready to explore their wider surroundings. We hoped to catch both warblers and finches so we gave it a couple of hours.
Including the Barn Owl, we finished with 22 birds for the morning, all fresh-faced adolescents apart from an adult Blackcap - 6 Great Tit, 4 Blackcap, 3 Robin, 3 Long-tailed Tit, 3 Blue Tit, 1 Whitethroat, 1 Chaffinch, 1 Barn Owl
There are lots of Woodpigeons in this locality, and even without really trying we counted 150-200. A recent report from the BTO mentions that this formerly rare garden bird is now booming and that it is seen in around 90 per cent of gardens which put out bird food. Our own garden is one of the 90% and where the Woodpigeon is an all-day resident.
Thanks to garden feeding the Goldfinch is mentioned in the same report, another thriving species that was formerly rare in gardens. We saw a good sized flock of 25+ Goldfinch and other small groups with a total of 50+ in a couple of hours.
Also - 4 Tree Sparrow, 2 Whitethroat, 2 Greenfinch, 2 Willow Warbler, 1 Grey Heron 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Great-spotted Woodpecker, 30+ Swift and 20+ House Martins.
Even though our catches this year have been very poor, we don’t give up that easily. So I met Andy today for another go at the Sand Martins that live on the high cliffs of Cockerham Quarry. We thought there to be less martins today - c250 compared with our last visit of 23 June when we counted about 400 birds and caught five.
It could be that some have left already as Sand Martins are known to use different colonies in the same season. This happens often due to the transient, almost temporary nature of many colony sites which may deteriorate through erosion and other weather factors, or even via ground predators like Badgers destroying the tunnels.
Also, previous studies have shown that both adults and juveniles regularly visit colonies other than their own, especially during post-breeding and post-fledging. Adults may breed at different colonies in the same season.
Our two birds today were both juveniles, so we ringed one each but we couldn't tempt any more to the nets.
Sand Martin - juvenile
On the way home I stopped to photograph young Swallows.
There’s more ringing and more birds news on Friday.
Local birders are currently animated by the arrival in our area of a number of Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, late migrants from Southern Europe and Africa.
With streaked and barred brown feathers and a prominent white eye-stripe, a Common Quail is distinctive in appearance, but their small and stocky build gives little hint to the impressive flying feats and migrations the species is capable of. These birds habitually avoid flying. If disturbed, they prefer to either run away or ‘freeze’, hoping to go unnoticed.
Common Quail - via Wiki Creative Commons
However, this changes in spectacular fashion when, using their disproportionately long and powerful wings, they take to the skies to migrate between their breeding grounds in Northern Europe and wintering grounds in the Sahel belt of sub-Saharan Africa.
During early May we glimpsed a number of Quail in Menorca where the species is quite common, very vocal and occasionally seen quite well. More often than not it was the celebrated and highly distinctive call that drew our attention to a bird in a nearby crop. At Tirant one day we were so close to a loudly singing bird, a foot or two away only, that we heard first the lesser known “growl” that precedes the actual "wet my lips" song. This part of the quail’s repertoire sounds rather similar to a small dog; we likened it to the sound of a Jack Russell or Border Terrier.
The small, shy Common Quail prefers to stay hidden amongst the grasses and tall crops of farmland as it forages with its long, sharp claws for insects and seeds. Unless birdwatchers rise early when quail are much more active in the hour after dawn, they have little or no chance of actually seeing a quail but will almost certainly find themselves continually frustrated by the species’ habit of creeping unseen through the dense crop.
Common Quail / Coturnix coturnix. - YouTube
Rarely if ever does a quail show itself to a human being; stand by for a familiar tale. When Common Quails do encounter humans it is often at their peril.
It seems that not all Common Quails migrate - the tendency to do so is determined genetically. Within a population, some individuals perform long migrations, some may only migrate to the southern Mediterranean, and others, referred to as sedentary birds, will not migrate at all. The proportion of quails that migrate is actually declining and there are two suggestions as to why.
Firstly, conditions in wintering grounds have become poor because of recurring droughts since the 1970s, making individuals that migrate only a short distance or not at all, more likely to survive. The second theory is that by introducing non-migratory Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica into populations to replenish game stock for shooting, the gene pool is flooded with sedentary genes.
Yet, for those that do migrate, the characteristic which makes them so impressive is also their downfall. While making the trip, their attempt to live a life free from human interaction is compromised as they are highly vulnerable to trapping and shooting. The efforts of those that take the Eastern route are all too often wasted after completing their epic flight across the Mediterranean. Having journeyed across the sea they fly low, heading for a place to rest but instead find themselves shot in huge numbers in France, Spain or Malta, or caught up in vast nets, particularly in Egypt and Libya.
Common Quail in Egypt/Libya
Common Quail - Malta
The illegal killing of Common Quail will provoke debate. With very large population numbers and an IUCN Red List rating of Least Concern, Common Quail are not considered to be at risk of being hunted to extinction. Historically, they have been an important food source to Egyptians and the consumption of their meat, though limited by quotas, is legal. (In the UK the Common Quail is not a quarry species and is additionally protected as a Schedule One species).
However, with advances in hunting methods over the last century, the odds have become increasingly stacked against quail. The placement of electronic devices under nets which play recordings of quail song lures greater numbers towards the traps. Additionally, lack of policing means that regulations on net size, spacing and time of year are ignored – including hunting during spring, which is illegal. This, along with the poor enforcement of catch restrictions, means quail trapping is now taking place on an unsustainable, commercial scale.
It’s not just the quails that get caught in the nets. The nets are indiscriminate meaning the demand for quails is putting other birds (including protected or Endangered species) in at risk. The trapped quails often entice predatory birds such as Merlin, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Kestrels towards what looks like an easy meal. They then become ensnared and meet the same fate as their prey.
Yes, it’s good to hear, and even better to see a Common Quail, but the bigger picture deserves attention too.
We’re already planning the autumn Linnet ringing so with that in mind I set out to check Richard the farmer’s bird seed plot at Cockerham. Although we like to complain about the weather the year has been a good one for plant growth with a good mix of showery rain and now a spell of hot weather that should ripen the seeds.
Bird Seed Plot- Cockerham
There was a Linnet singing from the stretch of bramble that lines the adjacent ditch. Hopefully it has found a mate. As a breeding species the Linnet is now pretty scarce around here so let’s hope this is an omen but I suspect not – more like a relic of times gone by. It’s not so many years ago that close to here were two loose breeding colonies of Linnets - one in gorse at Lane Ends 750 yards away and the other in a larger clump gorse at Braides farm half-a-mile away. Now we have none.
As we have discovered through ringing here, the autumn and winter Linnets are not our own but originate much further away, some from the Northern Isles of Scotland. They come here to bask in the relative winter warmth of the Lancashire coast.
At the monoculture of Braides Farm I saw very little over or in the expanse of green except for a couple of distant Skylarks and a single Red-legged Partidge walking the farmer's track.
I motored towards Conder Green and to compare notes now that early autumn is here. Already we have passed the longest day, the summer solstice.
There was evidence of early returning waders by way of 2 Greenshank, 4 Common Sandpiper, 24 Lapwing, 70+ Redshanks, and a handful of Curlews. Resident waders had changed little with 2 Avocet, 15 Oystercatcher and a single adult Little-ringed Plover. There have been a number of sighting of Little-ringed Plovers this year, sometimes one, often two, but it appears that no breeding occurred with zero young reported.
Little Ringed Plover
Little-ringed Plover Charadrius dubius is named via Charadrius a Latin word for a yellowish bird and dubius, Latin for “doubtful”, via Sonnerat a French naturalist, writer and explorer who in 1776 thought this bird might be a variant of the common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula. We now know of course that the two birds are related but totally different species.
Wildfowl and herons have changed little in recent weeks and continue as 6 Tufted Duck, 4 Shelduck, 1 Teal, 3 Little Egret and 1 Grey Heron. There’s little change on the crowded nesting platform with what looks like two chicks each for both Common Tern and Black-headed Gull.
It appears that any breeding success of both Oystercatcher and Redshank here has been poor; my own sightings consisted of a single young Oystercatcher some weeks ago. Small birds and “others” were limited to 12 Pied Wagtail, 3 Reed Bunting, 3 Whitethroat, 2 Sedge Warbler, 1 Blackcap and 2 Stock Dove.
Swallows continue to be scarce other than an unexpected posse of 35 or more at Gardner’s Farm along Moss House Lane. First broods are on the wing now so let’s hope the fine weather continues and allows the Swallows another go. A feeding party of 30 Swifts over the hedgerows was rather fine to witness.
On the way home I chanced upon a single Corn Bunting, another rarity relic of times gone by.
Back soon. Don't go away and have a super weekend.
A few weeks ago I mentioned how Andy’s contacts had invited him along to see progress in two nest boxes installed at their home. At that time a pair of Kestrels occupied a box located on a building and a pair of Barn Owls occupied a box not too far away in an open fronted barn. By using a nest box camera it was possible to see that the Kestrels had laid 5 eggs and the owls had 8 eggs.
Armed with our Barn Owl Schedule One Licence and ringing gear we went along on Monday in the hope of catching the youngsters at an appropriate age to fit their rings. Our general ringing licence covers the ringing of Kestrels but extra protection afforded to Barn Owls requires stricter rules.
Andy went up to the Barn Owl box and brought down 3 chicks. One small one proved too tiny for a “G” ring while the other two were about right, each with well-developed legs and feet.
Barn Owl Box
Barn Owl - too small for a ring
Barn Owls begin incubation as soon as the first egg is laid and lay additional eggs over a period of around 8-21 days. After 31-32 days' incubation the eggs hatch every 2-3 days, usually in the order they were laid. This is termed “asynchronous” hatching. The age difference between the oldest and youngest nestling can be as much as three weeks. This age variation reduces the peak in food demand and spreads it over a longer period. The female does all the incubation and the male provides all the food until the young are around 3 weeks old.
Research shows that Barn Owls regularly let their nest mates know whether they plan to compete for an incoming meal or not. The delivery of usually a rodent of some sort is fed only to a single offspring at a time, chicks queue up based on their hunger level. This approach prevents arguments (in the form of beak stabbing and stealing) from breaking out when the food arrives, thus ensuring the maximum survival of the brood.
It will be several more weeks before our two young owls are old enough to leave the box and fend for themselves. Meanwhile the camera should let us know how they all develop, including the runt.
Meanwhile, four juvenile Kestrels were of an ideal size and age to take an “E” ring. From their size we estimated they should fledge in about a week or ten days.
We also took advantage of a brood of five Barn Swallows that were at the ideal age for ringing.
All in all, a successful and productive few hours.
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There was 30 minutes to spare before the meet with Andy at the Sand Martin colony so I stopped off at a place I know.
Regular readers will be familiar with our Sand Martin dilemma. “How do we catch martins when the tightly packed colony of 400+ birds is some 40ft up a sheer face of slippery sand and gravel?” Well the answer is - “we don’t”.
In the morning shade we set a couple of mist nets on the floor of the quarry but the martins had little difficulty in outsmarting our tactics. The paltry five we caught consisted of four adults and one juvenile, so for the time of year, not a truly a representative age sample of the 400+ present when lots of youngsters should be around.
Sand Martins have superior eyesight, supreme manoeuvrability and great flying skills; how else would they catch insects on the wing and as a side skill, be able to avoid a mist net? So it’s back to the drawing board and Plan B for our next visit.
Sand Martin colony
Sand Martin colony
A local Kestrel hung around at the top of the quarry most of the morning, waiting on a fence post or hiding against the grass tussocks. It is more than likely a regular visitor looking for an opportunity to snatch an inexperienced youngster or pounce upon fledglings that leave the nest tunnels prematurely. It’s an easy meal that takes little effort. We watched a Carrion Crow stick its head into a nest tunnel until a gang of martins chased it away.
But when a small raptor dashed through the quarry and dropped into our net, it wasn't the anticipated Kestrel but a young male Sparrowhawk, also on the lookout for a quick snack. A colony of several hundred Sand Martins will always attract predators, mammalian or airborne.
In Sparrowhawks the iris colour changes with age. Brownish-black at hatching, the iris becomes pale lemon yellow within a couple of months. As the birds age, the iris goes from yellow to orange and, in some adult males, wine red.
With a slightly better forecast I returned to the hills of Bowland this morning in the hope of more pictures.
Curlews are quite difficult to nail down for a picture. They are very skittish and prone to fly off at the slightest hint of danger. No wonder the species is wary of homo sapiens since it was recently as the late 1970s that wildfowlers were allowed to shoot the Curlew. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 stopped that but the Curlew does itself no favours by continuing to live close to birds (geese and wildfowl) that remain legal “quarry”.
I recently read a book called Curlew Moon in which the author Mary Colwell takes us on a 500-mile journey on foot from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast of England, to learn more about the Curlew and why it has declined so much.
The author sets off in early spring when the birds are arriving on their breeding grounds, watches them nesting in the hills of Wales and walks through England when the young are hatching. She finishes her walk on the coast of Lincolnshire when the fledglings are trying out their wings. It’s a beautifully written if slightly sad book.
For anyone interested in the fate of this beautiful bird I heartily recommend buying a copy.
All the data shows a similar downward trend.
Curlew - via BTO
Curlew - via BTO
A few more pictures from this morning. While taking photographs of two Oystercatchers I noticed that one of them bore a ring. I blew up the picture at home and could see two of the expected five numbers (2828) but none of the two letter suffix.
Oystercatcher - unringed
Oystercatcher - ringed
It may be possible to trace this if I ask nicely at the BTO. Stay tuned.
At this time of year I enjoy a visit or two in the Bowland hills to see how things are and also to grab a few photos. The weather has been so poor with rain and cloud on most days that until now there was no point in that forty minute drive. Things were slightly better this morning but far from ideal with periods of cloud that blotted out the sun, but I managed a few pictures in the couple of hours without rain.
Bowland, Lancashire - Wiki Commons
On the wader front I saw the expected numbers of Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Snipe and Common Sandpiper but rather worryingly, not a single Redshank. Normally the species is very noticeable up here in the boggy uplands. The weather made me a week or so later than other years but I would still expect to see and hear Redshanks watching over their growing youngsters.
Because of the scale of its decline and range contraction in many areas of the UK in the period 1988-1991 and beyond, the Redshank now qualifies for amber listing. The decline is not just in upland areas, it is also because of increased grazing pressure on saltmarshes where the Redshank also breeds. The picture below was taken in Bowland almost to the day on 16 June 2017 on a traditional and unchanging stretch of habitat where all was silence today.
There was a young Lapwing by the side of the road and it didn't look too healthy. There seemed to be something wrong as it walked with a limp and also held one leg up. I decided to catch it and perhaps examine what the problem might be. There was sheep wool around both legs with the wool joined one leg to the other like manacles.
Possibly the Lapwing had not been feeding too well as the wool had restricted its normal leg movements. It proved impossible to unravel the wool as it was so tough and also wrapped very tightly around the bird’s legs.
Luckily I had my ringing box in the car for just such situations and where I keep a pair of scissors. Upon release the Lapwing flew off strongly and an hour or two later on the way back I saw it again, still limping but with an adult watching over its progress.
Up here in Bowland where waders breed amongst the sheep it’s not uncommon to see chicks or indeed adults with wool wrapped around a leg, sometimes both. Occasionally it leads to a bird losing part or all of a foot or lower leg when the tight wool may restrict the blood flow and cause the limb to rot and fall off.
The Oystercatcher below is also adorned with sheep wool; thankfully the bird appears unharmed.
A look at Marshaw found the usual flycatchers, Spotted and Pied, plus Grey and Pied Wagtail, Lesser Redpoll, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Mistle Thrushes and two male Cuckoos; the latter seen in flight only.
I lost count of Meadow Pipits at 100 with now just the occasional songster and good numbers of youngsters lining the walls and fences.
I chanced upon a party of Red Grouse, two adults and ten+ young. They all scurried off into the marsh before I could get decent pictures.
Red Grouse chick
The Red Grouse, a subspecies of the Willow Grouse, is a bird of heather moorland with a range restricted to areas of blanket bog and upland shrub heath. The Red Grouse differs by not developing white plumage during winter and having a diet almost exclusively of heather.
Since the mid-1800s many areas of upland heather have been managed to produce grouse for shooting. Grouse shooting is one of the major land uses of upland ground and a source of income for many estates. That income, how it is derived, and the impact of shooting upon raptor species is the subject of considerable debate in the UK, but not all of it informed or dispassionate. Let’s not go there for now. Suffice to say that I saw no raptors today.
If the weather improves, as it is promised to do yet again, there may be another visit to Bowland in the offing. Stay tuned.