Thursday, 26 February 2015

Sutton Reservoir

With a couple of hours to spare on Monday I headed over to another local spot good for watching wildlife - Sutton Reservoir. It was cool and breezy (still!) and the sunshine was fleeting, but as always it was wonderful to just get out for a walk and some fresh air as well as to see what was out and about. 

Sutton at sunset (taken at a previous visit)

Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed gulls

The regular Mallards and Coots were present, as well as some larger Mallard hybrids which reside there. Black-headed Gulls on the water were joined by Lesser Black-backed gulls, the latter looking a little like bodyguards to the former as they snoozed. 

A flock of Long-tailed tits flitted through the hawthorn hedges separating the reservoir from the neighbouring fields. Meanwhile Robins sang and Blackbirds scolded.
Great Crested Grebe pair

I watched as a Great Crested Grebe swam back towards the centre of the reservoir and dived. I kept the camera ready in case the bird surfaced closer to where I was stood rather than (as usually happens) farther away, where they might surface always being an unpredictable guessing game. The grebe I had been watching I heard calling - that wonderful deep gutteral call, and this was reciprocated by a similar call from another. The pair swam towards each other and then started their courtship display, or at least a part of it. My camera can take videos however I rarely use it for this (and I haven't quite got the hang of it yet!) however on this occasion I thought to at least give it a try. You can hear that it was windy (probably better to mute it!) and admittedly the video isn't great but it's always such a delight to see this display and I was really pleased to capture some of it on video.


Cormorant overhead
A large black bird flying overhead was a Cormorant and [presumably] the same bird I also watched fishing in the deeper areas of the reservoir.  

In the summertime this has been a lovely place to spot migrant birds such as Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, and to hear (if not always see) Blackcaps - the males often singing their scratchy song from the cover of the undergrowth. I'm looking forward to our summer migrants returning, starting with the Chiffchaffs that should be arriving with us in the next few weeks....

Chiffchaff (taken last spring)

Monday, 23 February 2015

Spring tides and hailstorms

This weekend offered another opportunity to see the spring tides at RSPB Parkgate near Neston. My grasp of the astronomy governing tidal cycles is painfully basic however these so-called spring tides are particularly high tides, considerably higher than the norm, and this can result in the resident wildlife being pushed in closer towards the promenade here, potentially giving much better and closer views as a result. These high tides aren't good news for the small mammals that make their homes in this tussocky marshland however, and being flushed from their homes by the incoming tide attracts the attention of many a predator - on a previous visit I had seen Short-eared owls, a Peregrine and Hen Harrier amongst others, though all at a considerable distance away.

I had already been informed (and knew from my previous experience) that these spring tides could be something of an all or nothing affair, with the height of the tide not the only predictor of how far the tide would actually come in (air pressure and wind speed and direction also playing significant roles). Having checked details beforehand on the RSPB Parkgate website for the predicted height and of course time of the high tide, I'd also reviewed the forecast including the wind speed and direction (20mph westerlies) and all looked set for a promising (if cold and bracing!!!) day. It would have also been a good day to take a tripod... but that remained at home. (The benefits of hindsight...)

Little Egret

Teal (and kayak - at 4/5C, rather him than me!)
With the tide making its way towards us slowly at first, we scanned the marsh. Hundreds of Redshanks could be seen - more than I've ever seen in any one place before. Amongst them, and overhead, gulls, mostly Black-headed were numerous, some of them with their breeding plumage of dark brown head feathers nearly complete. An occasional much larger gull, the Greater Black-backed, could be seen amongst them - the size difference making the former look quite tiny. Little Egrets are regulars on the marsh, and during a welcome splash of sunlight, one flew low across the marsh ahead of us. Grey herons struck their stately pose, patiently watching and waiting.    

Beautifully camouflaged in the marshland, Curlews called, and in an unusual moment of bravery, the distinctive shape of a Snipe could be seen in the open, albeit at a safe distance from the watching crowd. Good numbers of Teal flocked together, then took off as one, with two kayakers behind them looking the likely culprits. Talk of a Short-eared Owl in the distance traveled through the attendant birdwatchers like Chinese whispers and almost as one, scopes angled to the right, and in the far distance a 'SEO' could be seen amongst the hundreds of other birds in flight. (I'd love to be able to share a photo of this owl but sadly no-one including me would be able to tell now which of the darkened pixels in my photo represents it, the magnification power of my lens and  binoculars lagging sorely behind that of the scopes by which we were surrounded!) A Merlin which had been seen hunting earlier didn't appear while we were there as far as we could tell, though a nearby Kestrel was wonderful to watch instead. The tide which for a long time seemed to remain so far away seemed to suddenly quicken its pace until it reached the low sea wall in front of our feet where it could go no further, at least not this time.     

Distant, but definitely a Water Rail
With the tide slowly receding we walked further along on a pathway, with a golf course on one side, and the flooded Dee Estuary on the other. I was delighted to finally see a Water Rail - it's not that they're particularly uncommon, but they do have a tendency to be secretive and skulking and consequently can be hard to spot. 

Smaller birdlife abounded in the sodden tussocky grass in front of us. At first glance this appeared to be mostly Skylarks, perfectly camouflaged and almost invisible against their background. Amongst them were also Reed Buntings, and a wonderful flash of orange that was a male Stonechat which briefly stopped a few metres away. (It was at this point that I'd really wished I'd brought a tripod - being buffeted by the wind, and with the cold now really taking a grip, almost every photo I took of this lovely little bird was entirely out of focus, the one below being the least bad of them!)    

Male Stonechat

The approaching clouds looked increasingly ominous, and it seemed as good a time as any to start making our way back. What started as sleet soon turned to hail and my pace quickened to a camera-cuddling power walk until finally we reached the shelter of our car. The big plates of hot chips that followed shortly afterwards being wonderfully warming and after the [not in the forecast] hailstones, feeling entirely justified!

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Unknown find in the garden...

I found these egg cases in the garden on a Wisteria stem. I'd be really interested to know what type of insect created and hatched from them if anyone can tell me?

The whole structure is about 10mm long and 3/4mm deep. (I love the little 'lids' made by the larvae chewing their way out, whatever they were!)

Update (25/2)...

Through a contact I know from using Flickr, I have managed to get some additional information as to what this is... These are not actually egg cases as I'd thought, they are most likely the pupae of a parasitic wasp. I'm told that from the numbers present, the wasp larvae have probably emerged from some unfortunate creature and then pupated together, with the remains of the host insect having been washed or blown away over time.

Monday, 16 February 2015

National Nest Box Week and the Nest Record Scheme

A reminder that in the UK this week, from 14 to 21 February is National Nest Box Week - a great time to put up any additional nest boxes just in time for our birds' breeding season. We've been busy at the weekend putting up a couple of new nest boxes in suitable spots in the garden, the insect 'hotel' bought at Christmas is now in place too. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has loads of great information on their website regarding nestbox making and siting, as does the RSPB.  Anyone interested can also register their nest boxes with the BTO's Nest Box Challenge, which asks people to help in gathering information on the breeding success of birds by monitoring the nest boxes, giving plenty of detailed information on how to safely do so, keeping disturbance of the birds to a minimum.

The BTO also runs the national Nest Record Scheme (NRS) which collects and collates nest records for all types of wild birds (with the proviso that it must be possible to see into a nest to record its contents). Volunteers first register as nest recorders with the scheme which provides a lot of information and support regarding nest recording, and then go in search of nests, recording information such as location and date, nest contents and outcome, as well as details about the habitat and nest site, all of which is reported back to the BTO. Nest recorders follow the NRS code of conduct, so that there is consistency across observers in how data is collected, but most importantly so that disturbance to birds in kept to a minimum and so that the monitoring does not have any negative effect on the outcome of the nests checked.

Nesting Coot (I encountered her in reeds close to a footpath, quickly took a photo and moved on)

Some legal bits...

Wild birds and their nests are protected by law, when monitoring nests only licensed bird ringers are legally permitted to pick up and handle eggs and chicks and this is only for the purposes of taking measurements/weights and ringing. All photos below were taken during ringing of the birds, with the appropriate licences in place. Certain species including Barn Owls, are listed as Schedule 1 birds and are afforded additional legal protection during the breeding season, as are their nests and young, meaning that it is against the law to disturb them or their nests during the breeding season for monitoring without having the appropriate additional licencing to do so. Again, the BTO website has lots more information for anyone interested in becoming involved with the monitoring of these species and also about the ringing scheme in the UK.

Little Owl chicks (some of my personal favourites!)

Stock dove chicks
Kestrel chick (photo taken by my husband)

 Barn Owl chick (a Schedule 1 species)

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Winter at Martin Mere

Not quite my local patch at about an hour's drive away, Martin Mere is a wonderful reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust near Ormskirk in Lancashire. I have been there several times over the years and particularly enjoy visiting during the winter months when the reserve is filled with wildfowl that have migrated from cooler Eastern and Northern climates to spend their winters there. 

With sun forecast for the whole day, myself and my husband headed over last weekend. The reserve is home to around 100 different species of captive wildfowl from around the world in large wetland enclosures designed to recreate their natural environments, we spent a couple of hours wandering through these enclosures - it was a pleasure to see beautiful birds that we would be unlikely to see otherwise. The real highlight for me however was visiting the various hides (from where all of the photos of birds in this post were taken), and seeing the thousands of wild birds, many of them migrants that call Martin Mere home over the winter.
Whooper Swans

Amongst the more usual winter visitors to the mere such as the Whooper Swans (visitors from Iceland similar in size to Mute Swans, numbering 1720 at their highest count so far this year), the Greylag and Pinkfoot geese, and ducks such as Pintails, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard, were two unusual individuals - a Ross's goose, and also a Bar-headed goose. These latter two are probably escapes from other waterfowl collections or feral birds, as opposed to being genuine 'vagrants'. 

Bar-Headed Goose
The Bar-Headed goose is naturally resident in Central Asia. These geese make migrations over the Himalayas making them widely considered the world's highest flying birds with a specially adapted physiology to allow them to fly at altitudes where the levels of Oxygen are so low.
This individual is currently mixing with the wild Greylag Geese at Martin Mere - I was lucky to get a good view of him/her just in front of the Swan Link hide - a beautiful and unusual bird to see here

Wigeon (male)

Of the ducks, a lovely bird we saw dozens of on this visit were Wigeon - medium sized ducks that winter in the UK, quite noisy birds with a loud whistling call. There were also plenty of beautiful Pintails with their softer call, similar in sound to a Teal in my opinion, but lower in pitch. Shelducks were ubiquitous, enjoying the spoils in all of the captive birds' enclosures, as well as amongst the other wild birds seen from the hides. 

Pintail (male)
We timed our visit to the Swan Link hide in order to see the 'Swan Spectacular', where grain and sometimes waste potatoes from local farms are put out for these birds by the wheelbarrow load, topping up their food intake and encouraging them to stay at the WWT site rather than feeding too extensively in local fields. Clearly the birds knew exactly when to expect this and could be seen flying in from all directions in time for this 3pm treat. After the noise and jostling of the larger birds had calmed down, smaller waders such as Redshank and Ruff could be seen scuttling along on the sand and mud, Lapwings were also plentiful, but kept their distance from the hides. 
Ruff (according to the RSPB website only about 820 individuals winter in the UK)

Rudely interrupted - a stoat makes a Barn Owl take flight
After this, we went along to the Harrier Hide, and whereas we didn't see any of the Marsh Harriers which are known to hunt over this area of wetland, we were delighted to instead watch a Barn Owl hunting, beautifully backlit by the setting sun (this was from about 40 minutes before sunset). 

Also out hunting, along a grass pathway visible from the hide was a mustelid, the black tip of its tail identifying it as a stoat. We saw the stoat running back towards us carrying something in its mouth but it was too far away to make out exactly what. At one point the Barn Owl spent several minutes sat in the middle of this clearing, the same area where the stoat was patrolling and it ran towards the Barn Owl making the bird take to the air. Stoats can predate the eggs and young of Barn Owls though I'm not sure whether they would attempt to take on an adult - whether the stoat was considering this, or was perhaps uncomfortable with the owl's presence I cannot say. (I've included a photo of this (with apologies for the poor quality), where you can just about see the stoat's head visible, and the owl looking directly down at it.)

Hunting Barn Owl

The visit ended on a rather more sombre note. We went in to the on-site optics store as we were gradually making our way towards the exit, and as well as admiring the various binoculars and scopes for sale we also admired the view over the wetlands with the setting sun. My initial pleasure at seeing a rabbit coming close to the large windows of the shop was soon tempered by the salesman stating that it looked "a bit myxy". And indeed as soon as a lens was trained on the rabbit, we could see that s/he looked very unwell indeed. 

Rabbit with suspected Myxomatosis
Myxomatosis is a viral disease, devastating to rabbit populations, generally spread by biting insects carrying the myxoma virus, and to a lesser extent between rabbits by close contact with infected individuals. It can cause blindness as well as lumps on the head and body, is untreatable and usually fatal. It's a disease which until relatively recently I incorrectly thought was a largely historical issue - the virus was deliberately introduced into rabbit populations in the 1950s, initially in Australia, and then in France from where it spread throughout Europe, including to the UK where the disease's spread was encouraged (for example by putting infected animals into otherwise healthy warrens). In all cases in an unpleasant attempt to control rabbit numbers. Whereas rabbits undoubtedly affect their environments, it was of course humans who introduced rabbits to many countries including the UK, and myxomatosis persists in our wild rabbit populations to this day.


Friday, 6 February 2015

A wasp nest update

Last night, two days after the tiny nest (in my last post) was discovered, I found a huge, and not very impressed Common Wasp queen buzzing around in the conservatory. I'm assuming that she is the likely rightful owner of the nest, and that it mustn't have been as old or abandoned as I'd originally thought after all. From what I can gather from doing a little bit of research on the internet, this was the very start of a wasps' nest, built by the young queen for the winter, complete with a few cells in readiness for slightly warmer weather and laying her first batch of eggs. She would then tend to the larvae until they are fully fledged workers, after which she would then stay in the nest laying further eggs whilst the workers took over nest building and tending to the larvae.

Common Wasp deadheading thistle to obtain the sap
I do feel bad that her home was ruined (at least there were no eggs or larvae yet), but obviously relieved that it wasn't a more established and active nest that was accidentally pulled apart. (After she'd cooled down a little (literally as well as metaphorically!) we put her outside in a quiet part of the garden where there is a log pile and also a summer house so plenty of places to shelter and wood to chew up to start a new home.)

As much as I would have liked to get my macro lens warmed up with a few photos of this large wasp queen, I figured she was probably [and understandably] annoyed enough so I've just dug out an old photo of a Common Wasp worker instead for this post. In late summer they seem to love the sap of thistles, chewing through the stems underneath flowers that are past their best (deadheading apparently) and I have been able to take plenty of close up photos of these beautiful (but I appreciate not everyone's favourite) insects without them hardly seeming to notice or mind.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

An unexpected find under the floorboards...

It all started with a leak in the conservatory a few days ago... Trying to work out the source of the problem, a floorboard had to come up yesterday to investigate what was either a leaky radiator pipe or water getting in from outside. (Luckily, it turned out to be the former, and was easily fixed by a plumber friend of ours!)

Stuck to some polystyrene insulation under the floorboards was this beautiful (and apparently unoccupied) nest - most likely the work of a queen wasp. It is the size of a ping pong ball, weighs 0.4 grams and there are a dozen or so hexagonal cells inside. There is a gap of nearly a foot between the underside of the flooring/insulation and the cement and damp-proof course - she will have presumably come in through the vents in the brickwork to make a home in this space.

I'm just struck by how beautifully crafted it is!

Side view of nest

A look inside - showing some of the cells

Monday, 2 February 2015

A morning's bird ringing

I'm sure that anyone reading this will probably be quite familiar with bird ringing, but a little bit of background for anyone interested.....

Bird ringing as we know it now has been around for over 100 years, in the UK the scheme is overseen and managed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). It was originally developed out of our desire to understand bird migration. Old theories of Swallows hibernating at the bottom of ponds over winter and of Barnacle Geese developing from barnacles sound ridiculous to us now, but for a long time it wasn't understood where birds went at particular times of year, or why. Ringing birds, which involves putting a small uniquely numbered metal ring on a bird's leg, enables the bird to be identified if recaught or found again in the future. The information obtained gives us a much better understanding not only of migration patterns, but also of longevity and survival rates, as well as monitoring of population increases and decreases over time. 

A selection of my ringing paraphernalia - rings of different sizes, wing rules, scales, ringing pliers, and identification and ringing guides.

A still cool day on Sunday provided the ideal conditions for bird ringing, this was at a site close to Knutsford which has produced a large amount of data for the BTO over several years. Using a mist net a steady 44 birds of various species were caught and ringed and their details collected. As well as information such as species, date and location, the birds were also sexed and aged as far as possible (sometimes easier said than done!) and also wing measurements as well as weights taken, and also noting particular feather details (as an example looking for old (unmoulted) greater coverts which can indicate age). Wing measurements can sometimes help to differentiate between the sexes depending on the species, as well give an indication between 'locals' and 'visitors' (as an example Blackbirds visiting us from colder eastern climates for the winter will often have longer wings than those who reside in the UK all year). Weight can give a good indication as to the general condition of a bird and also whether it is building up its weight for example in preparation for migration. Looking at particular feather shapes and colours can indicate (to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the species) a bird's age and sex.

Mistle Thrush (first year bird)
The session last Sunday involved a nice mix of birds - Coal, Blue and Great Tits, a Robin, and also finches such as Greenfinch, Bullfinch and Goldfinch. A Mistle Thrush and Lesser Redpoll were also amongst the birds ringed, and for anyone interested I've included some of the details of what was looked at when noting the details of these birds.  

The plumage of male and female Mistle Thrushes are the same, and the wing length is also very similar so we cannot be sure whether this bird is a male or female (in the breeding season birds are checked for brood patches which generally only develop in females). From looking at the tail feathers, the ends of which are quite pointed and chipped, what we can tell is that this is a bird that hatched last year and has not yet moulted and replaced his/her tail. An older bird (hatched before last year) would have broader, more rounded ends to the their tail feathers.  

Lesser Redpoll (first year bird)

With Lesser Redpolls, adult males will develop a reddish feathers extending down their neck and chest in addition to the red patch on their head. The bird pictured did not have this additional red in the plumage and again from looking at the tail we could tell that the bird which hatched last year. From knowing this was a first year bird, it was too soon to be certain of the sex of the bird - it could be that the additional red just hadn't developed yet so again the age was recorded and biometric details taken. Fortunately for most of the other birds ringed that morning telling males from females was far more straightforward!


Reporting a ringed bird

Vital information is obtained from 'recoveries'  which are reports of dead or alive ringed birds. Some of these reports will come from licenced bird ringers themselves but many reports come in from sightings and findings by members of the public. These can be reported through the Euring website, noting details such as the bird species, location seen/found, circumstances (e.g. alive or dead and if the latter, the cause if known) and also details of the metal and/or coloured leg ring(s) (or other markers such as wing tags).

Black-headed Gull '2F69'
The gull pictured, as well as the typical metal BTO ring also has a 'darvic' - a numbered plastic ring which enables the bird to be identified from sightings alone (these additional identifiers are used for specific recognised and approved research projects, and sightings can be reported through the same Euring website). When reported this information allows researchers to start piecing together a picture of the birds' lives, on an individual as well as population level with information on the locations they are visiting, their longevity and survival outcomes. The Black-headed gull above I saw at Redesmere and reported - in return I was given information about when and where the gull had been ringed - also at Redesmere, almost two years previously, and also the details (dates and locations) of other sightings of the same gull in the interim. In this case the sightings had all been at Redesmere in autumn and winter months. Other Black-headed Gulls I have previously reported at Redesmere have also been sighted in spring and summer months in Norway (2F95), Sweden (2F88) and the Netherlands (2F91), another was originally ringed in Lithuania (2C49). I find it fascinating to think that when I visit Redesmere in the summer and it seems strangely quiet of gulls, that these birds which feature so prominently during wintertime could be busy raising their chicks in any of a number of places on the continent, and will hopefully return to us again for our milder winter.