15 May 2015

Old friends welcome in the new CES season

We recently received the following fascinating account of the first CES visit of the year at Foxglove Covert, Catterick, Yorkshire. The first CES visit period of 2015 is now over and we are already hearing stories of how long-term ringing projects can help us learn more about the productivity, abundance and survival of birds in Britain & Ireland.

Tony Crease writes:

The weather plays a major part in any CES day and the start of the season this year was looking as ominous as ever, so much so that juggling the days of the Bank Holiday became an inevitability. With a CES of ten and a half hours, a day of virtual calm is essential.

Monday provided the window of opportunity and 12 ringers from the Swaledale Group turned out for visit 1 of our 23rd CES season. With trees still without leaves after the recent very cold weather, the usually lush habitat was less than ideal for hiding the nets. Nevertheless, we had an interesting day catching 204 birds of 25 species. The first Blackcap and Garden Warbler of the year were processed as well as 29 Bullfinches, 23 Willow Warblers and many of our routinely resident species. What was entirely unexpected was the age structure of the birds, some of which we find are surprisingly long lived.

An incredible 29 Bullfinches were ringed during the session! Photo: John Harding

Among the more common species we processed was a four year old Chiffchaff, Chaffinches that were four and six years old respectively and six Blue Tits from four to eight years old. Even more fascinating was a pair of Willow Tits; the female, who had a large brood patch, had been ringed on the reserve as a juvenile on 9 August 2007 and had been caught every year since – a total of 37 times in all!

As if that wasn't compensation enough for our very early start, to our complete amazement there then followed R084872, a Marsh Tit which had been ringed as a juvenile in the reserve on 10 July 2004. This bird, we believe, must now hold the British & Irish longevity record for that species*; it has been re-trapped 42 times and has been recorded at Foxglove Covert every year since except 2010 and 2013.

The red-listed Marsh Tit is a regular visitor to Foxglove Covert CE site.
Photo by Tom Wallis

Increasingly, we are finding more results like these with several passerines, including Blackbirds, quite often living five years or more. It is a compelling aspect of our ringing activities and one that has improved so much with the introduction of IPMR. We load the birds as we ring them so information on original ringing data is readily available.

While visiting our Tawny Owl boxes recently we found one bird that had been breeding in the same next box for 16 years. It is an intriguing subject and one that continually delivers surprises. Life is full of the unexpected and our feathered friends in and around Catterick provide many thought-provoking examples.

* Note from the editors - the online longevity records will be updated in June / July to include data from 2014. Until then, we are unable to confirm whether this is a new record for this species. Watch this space...

11 May 2015

Exemplary patch working

Local birder Lee Collins writes:

Dawlish Warren is a 1½ mile long sand spit at the mouth of the River Exe in south Devon and is an important roost site for thousands of wintering and passage waterbirds of the Exe Estuary SPA. It has an impressive list of rare vagrants that include- Long-billed Murrelet, Elegant Tern, Short-toed Eagle and Semi-palmated Plover.

However, the patch-workers on site aren't confined to purely finding rare birds; with the benefit of a well positioned hide a dedicated band of regular recorders at Dawlish Warren submit to the BTO and county recorders in excess of 7,000 counts per annum and have developed a growing interest in finding and recording ringed birds in the field. 

With no current ringing on site, all recoveries from recent years have been achieved only by using our optics and a keen eye. In 2014 alone the recording group amassed an incredible 398 reads of 192 individuals, something few sites in the whole of the UK can match.

Recent observations have yielded some important and interesting recoveries with birds ringed from 24 different countries, including Ghana, Mauritania, Greenland, Iceland and Russia, whilst others have had a well-travelled history taking in Namibia and South Africa. 

Common Tern, Dawlish Warren, 29th Aug 2014, darvic ringed at Saltholme, Lee Collins

Notable finds include the first Devon recovery of Little Tern (from Dublin) and the first live Roseate Tern (from Coquet Island, off Northumberland). Common Tern (Saltholme in Teeside & Dublin) and Grey Plover (from Spain & Norway), although common species, hadn't had a Devon recovery in 25 and 50 years respectively. Both the Grey Plovers are notable as being the first Spanish & Norwegian controls of this species in Britain or Ireland, a feat the Recording Group also achieved for a Spanish Spoonbill.

Colour-ringed ‘Sanderblings’ as they've now become known are also a definite highlight and we've recorded 18 in just a few short years. Most have been from ringing schemes from their breeding grounds in Greenland and wintering grounds in West Africa (Ghana & Mauritania), with one of our recoveries also observed in Namibia. This species certainly has a breath-taking migratory pattern.

Sanderling, Dawlish Warren, 20th Jul 2009, Ghanian ringed, Lee Collins

The results of reading rings in the field has also established useful site fidelity and longevity data, in wintering species such as Brent Geese, Shelduck and more specifically Oystercatchers, with five of our Oystercatcher reads being individuals 24 years old or older. One faithful Great Black-backed Gull, from south Cornwall, has to date been read 49 times over a 31 month period on site and another Great Black-backed Gull was seven months from beating the oldest one on record (our Great Black-backed Gull was ringed on the Channel Islands in 1990. Another great gull sighting was the first Lituanian ringed Herring Gull in the UK as well (below).

Herring Gull (Argentatus), Dawlish Warren, 31st Dec 2014, Lithuanian ringed, Lee Collins

Since May 2004, the Dawlish Warren website has been updated daily with latest bird and wildlife news and regularly carries news on the latest recoveries. Annual reports (2013 & 2014) on Warren ring recoveries are available for 2013 and 2014 in pdf format.

Ringed Plover, Dawlish Warren, 4th Oct 2014, Norwegian ringed, Lee Collins

It’s very much hoped that our hard work and dedication in finding and documenting such records can rub off on others, as such endeavours serve a useful cause and can be extremely rewarding.

We’d also like to thank the BTO and various ringers for their invaluable help over the last few years.

27 April 2015

RAS double century

The Retrapping Adults for Survival (RAS) scheme was established in 1998 and uses bird ringing to monitor survival rates of a range of bird species. Coverage is particularly aimed at species which, due to their behaviour or the habitats they occupy, are not often caught by standard mist netting activities in woodland, wetland or scrub, such as Swallows, Dippers, Pied Flycatchers and many seabirds and raptors.

With the RAS season already underway for many species, registrations for new projects have been arriving thick and fast here at BTO HQ. At the time of writing, a fantastic 19 new projects, covering 16 species, have registered to start in 2015. A milestone was reached a few days ago with the registration of a new Tree Sparrow project in Cleveland which became the 200th active RAS project.

Tree Sparrows are a species of high conservation concern due to a spectacular crash in numbers of breeding birds between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Whilst BBS data suggest a significant increase in numbers since 1994, maps from the latest Bird Atlas show breeding Tree Sparrows as being absent from much of the south and west of the country and also declining in abundance south of the Midlands.

Maps reproduced from Bird Atlas 2007–11, which is a joint project between, BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. Map reproduced with permission from the British Trust for Ornithology.

Tree Sparrow is one of the RAS target species identified in the demographic targeting strategy. Currently, only one project, a study in Durham, has been running for long enough to contribute to the RAS survival trend, and the results suggest that, on average, about half of all adult Tree Sparrows breeding in 2015 will still be alive in 2016. But is this the case at other sites across Britain & Ireland? With two new RAS projects starting in 2015, the total number of active studies will increase to six, giving a much better idea of the national picture.

One project currently contributes to the national survival rate trend for Tree Sparrow (solid line), which shows that around half of the birds alive in one year currently survive to the next; the quality of the trend is considered to be 'uncertain' as the errors (dotted lines around the solid line) are relatively large – addition of more projects will help to reduce the size of these errors. 

There have been recent increases in the number of projects for Mute Swan (now three active projects), Starling (now 10 active and five historical projects), Swift (now three active and two historical projects) and House Sparrow (now 21 active and 12 historical projects) which is fantastic. It would also be beneficial to have a few more projects on species such as Tawny Owl, Barn Owl and House Martin to allow us to produce more accurate trends for these species.

It is rare for all active projects to run in a given year and there are always a few projects that have to end for one reason or another. That said, with more projects still registering for 2015, it would represent an incredible effort if the number that submit data this year hits the 200 mark for the first time.

A massive thank you to all current, past and soon-to-be RAS ringers for their tremendous efforts. Keep an eye on the website for the 2014 results which will be published soon.

24 April 2015

Chiff-ful start to the nesting season

Over in Cambridgeshire there’s been wonderful sunshine, but accompanied by overnight frosts. Thankfully this hasn’t put off the resident birds at the National Trust’s Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, where members of the ringing and nest recording group are getting ready to ring the first broods of Blackbirds. Also, our first Coot brood has just hatched, Long-tailed Tit clutches are about to hatch, Blue Tits and Great Tits are laying, and we’ve started monitoring our first finch nests: an almost fully-built Chaffinch nest was found a week ago and a pair of Goldfinches were spotted building last Thursday.

Water birds such as Coot (pictured) and Moorhen commonly hatch their first broods in mid-April

As for summer migrants, arrivals have been stalled by strong north-westerly winds, according to the BTO migration blog, and indeed Blackcaps at Wicken have been singing on territory for only a week and Willow Warblers still seem thin on the ground. One short-distance migrant, though, has been getting off to a flying start this season and keeping our nest finders very busy: Chiffchaff!

During Easter weekend we saw plenty of male Chiffchaffs singing from tree tops but no birds skulking lower down (a tell-tale sign of a female getting ready to build). Last Monday, things had got busier: males were singing back-to-back and chasing each other off territories and ‘hueet’ contact calls could be heard everywhere. Then, on Tuesday 14, we caught our first glimpse of a bird with a beakful of long grass—a building female! Early next morning we spotted another bird building and then on Thursday 16, Anne, our main nest finder, found five more nests, some almost fully formed (a characteristic domed construction). By Monday 20, we had found 11 nests, two lined with feathers, and that morning we found nest number 12 at an early stage, the female pinging back-and-forth with large bits of material.

Chiffchaff nest at Wicken Fen in 2014. Built just above the ground, the nest is dome shaped, made from reeds and some finer grasses, and lined with feathers. c.200 Chiffchaff nests are monitored across the country for NRS each year.

So what to expect this weekend? Those lined nests will probably have eggs, though females may still be building on other territories. Nest recorders elsewhere have begun reporting Blackcaps on eggs, Whitethroats and Willow Warblers building, and Chaffinches on full clutches.

How far along are nesting birds on your patch? Help the BTO collect vital data on nest productivity and timing of breeding by taking part in the Nest Record Scheme.

21 April 2015

Elusive Hawfinch 'shows a bit of leg'

Chris McGuigan writes:

I recently received an email from Barry Farquharson, a local birdwatcher who has become rather good at reading - and photographing - colour-ringed birds (usually gulls).

This one was different though, it read: "Going through some fairly poor photos from Scone Palace, Perth, I've managed to find a ringed Hawfinch in one, although unfortunately only one leg is visible. I assume it will be a local bird, but just in case.... Looks like red over orange on the right leg."

In actual fact, in the photograph (see below) you could just see the other leg too which looked like 'black over metal'.

Colour ringed Hawfinch. Photo by Barry Farquharson

Armed with this information and suspecting it had been ringed locally (but some time ago) I contacted Neil Morrison as well as the BTO 'Hawfinch colour-ring data coordinators'. Neil confirmed that he hadn't ringed any in recent years but that his records were all in storage. Eventually he was able to confirm that this female bird had been ringed at Scone Palace on 17th February 2007, as a probable first-year bird. Thus 2 days short of 8 years had elapsed from capture to re-sighting, becoming one of the oldest Hawfinch recorded in the BTO Ringing Scheme.

Well done to Barry who I'm sure will be pointing his camera at birds' legs even more in future!

Ed. note - the Online Ringing Report (ORR) shows that only 58 Hawfinches were ringed in 2007 so this is a great record. The ORR, including the longevity records, will be updated in July to include 2014's data. It remains to be seen whether this bird will become the longevity record holder at that point!