15 April 2020

The joy of garden nesting

BTO Scotland’s Steve Willis and BTO Northern Ireland’s Stephen Hewitt share their passion for monitoring garden nests and pass on some tips for how to get involved in this rewarding activity.

NOTE: If you are new to nest monitoring and want to record the progress of a few garden nests and nest boxes then Nesting Neighbours is the ideal interface - it’s simple to use and provides some really nice feedback on how other people’s nests are doing too. If you already use Demography Online (as a ringer or Nest Record Scheme participant) then please continue to do so, signing up to NRS if necessary. The data from both systems go into the same underlying database and contribute to the statistics. These schemes collect information on breeding success which helps us to understand the impacts of factors such as climate change and food availability on the number of young produced, and the influence this then has on population trends. Participation is therefore very valuable as well as rewarding. Scientific studies have shown that, as long as observers are careful and follow the BTO's Code of Conduct, making several visits to a nest to record the contents does not increase the probability of it failing. It is completely legal to look inside a nest in England, Scotland and Wales as long as you do not touch the contents and the species is not included on the list of scarce protected birds. If, like Stephen, you are in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, you must apply for a licence prior to monitoring a nest of any species. A separate licence is needed for photographing nests.

Steve: Since the Covid-19 lockdown, like many people I’ve been working from home. My home office has a view out over the garden, and I started noticing a female blackbird regularly visiting a particular evergreen shrub in the shade of a big holly tree. It looked like she was building a nest! I was aware of the Nesting Neighbours project and I wondered if I should give it a go, though I must admit I hadn’t done any nest monitoring before. A chat with Stephen (who is an old hand and infectiously enthusiastic) had me sold! I had a read of the guidance pages and then went out to take a look…

The Blackbird nest is in the coniferous shrub in the centre of the picture (Steve Willis).

The nest was about one metre off the ground in a dense coniferous shrub so to look down into it I needed to very carefully move a few small branches apart. Peering inside, I could see four beautiful speckled blue eggs! It felt like such a wonderful privilege to be getting such a close view. The female was off the nest at the time but I could hear the male singing somewhere nearby. I beat a hasty retreat and watched from the kitchen window. Reassuringly it wasn’t long before the female returned. I visited the nest again a few days ago - five days after my first visit - and this time the female was sitting tight, obviously incubating. I think I’m getting the hang of it!

I’m under strict orders from Stephen to follow the breeding attempt through, whatever happens. Nests fail naturally for a number of reasons, including predation, and this is a regular occurrence with early thrush nests. Information from all breeding attempts is important, not only the ones that succeed.

These Blackbird eggs are a beautiful speckled blue, but the colours can vary a bit (Steve Willis).

When I’m not doing various bird-related things, I enjoy a bit of woodwork, and although I already had one nest box up in the garden, I was inspired to make another out of some odds and ends. Here’s a short video of the build process. I might have put it up too late for anything to use it this year, but fingers crossed! If you want to have a go at building your own, the plans are here!

Stephen: Steve’s right, I am an old hand (though not that old, Steve!). I first got into nest recording about eight years ago when encouraged by the then BTO Northern Ireland Officer Shane Wolsey and Carl Barimore from BTO HQ. In a normal year I make regular visits to local patches in County Armagh. I absolutely love the process of searching for nests, tuning in to the subtleties of bird behaviour, song and call, and getting to know the types of places that different species favour. Every nest I find gives me a wee buzz and following a breeding attempt through to fledging is very satisfying! Of course it doesn’t have to be tricky at all - if you have tits nesting in your bird box then ‘nest finding’ is very straightforward!

Here’s a Song Thrush nest that I found. Note the hard, dry inner lining (like chipboard). The holly berries round the rim are a bit unusual, but apparently thrushes do occasionally decorate their nests (Stephen Hewitt).

I’d really encourage anyone who is considering garden nesting to give it a go. It is hugely enjoyable - absolutely - but remember you’ll also be collecting priceless information. By recording the number of eggs, fledglings and the outcome of nesting attempts, volunteers are helping to reveal how our wild birds are doing every year.

Many people start with a box, and monitoring these is straightforward if you have a nest box camera installed or if the lid can be removed. Just check the box every five days or so - easy! Before opening the box, give it a gentle tap to let anything inside know that you are coming, and then lift the lid just enough to see inside. Make a note of what you can see but take care never to touch eggs or chicks - if there is a bird incubating then simply replace the lid and come back later to count the contents. There are guidance notes here which give more detail.

If you enjoy nest monitoring (and I’m sure you will!) I’d really encourage you to ‘graduate’ to open nests, too. They are easier to find than you might imagine. You can sit quietly and watch the adults like Steve did, or carefully search trees, bushes and ivy. There are few things that compare with the thrill of pinpointing an open nest. Peering into a Dunnock’s nest at five recently-laid bright blue eggs takes some beating and provides vital information to help us understand how well this amber-listed species is breeding!

A Dunnock nest found by Stephen, near Lurgan, Co. Armagh in 2018.

Nest monitoring is a fantastic way to learn about bird behaviour, too. You’ll get to know the characteristics of each species, and you might notice differences between pairs. A particular male might have a characteristic song, with repeated phrases or mimicry. Some males sing throughout the breeding attempt, even whilst carrying food (male Blackcaps sometimes sing quietly while incubating!), whereas other males go very quiet once paired. Female behaviour can be interesting, too. They sometimes seem agitated when their eggs are about to hatch, giving repeated alarm-calls, even when seemingly undisturbed.

Nesting also throws up interesting questions; for instance why do female Song and Mistle Thrushes sometimes decorate the rims of their nests with berries and petals (see photo above)? And why would a female Whitethroat choose one of the decorated nests built by her mate, only to remove the decoration before laying?

Typically I monitor around 100 nests each year (my record is 117!) and for that reason I submit my data via the Demography Online interface. If you’re monitoring more than about twenty nests per year then this is probably the way to go, but for a smaller number of nests the Nesting Neighbours platform is ideal.

So there you have it - garden nest monitoring is really rewarding, hugely valuable, and you’ll learn a lot about ‘familiar’ birds through doing it. Go on - give it a go!

20 February 2020

It's National Nest Box Week!

It is National Nest Box Week (NNBW) this week and our wild birds are starting to think about the coming breeding season. This year is the 20th year of NNBW, which aims to encourage everyone to put up nest boxes for birds and to raise awareness of their needs ahead of the breeding season. While our migratory birds are preparing for their journeys back to Britain and Ireland for the summer, lots of our resident species are already singing to affirm their territory, finding a mate and choosing a nest site.

Tiny Blue Tit chicks thinking food has just arrived. Photo by Lee Barber

Around half of all households feed birds, so while food can often be plentiful, the lack of suitable nesting sites can be a problem. Putting up a nest box can therefore provide a welcome boost for some species. Blue and Great Tit are the most-frequent users of nest boxes but there is an amazing variety of species that use boxes, and by providing a suitable box, you could encourage them to set up home in your garden. House Sparrow, Nuthatch, Starling, Swift, Stock Dove, Tawny Owl and Kestrel are among the species that need suitable nesting sites and providing a box could really help them and some of our other declining red or amber listed species. For more information on what boxes are suitable for which species, click here.

Tawny Owl chicks waiting for the next delivery of food. Photo by Lee Barber

When buying a nest box, one of the most important features that I look for is a removable lid. This aids cleaning the box at the end of the breeding season (cleaning can be done between 1st September - 31st January) but most importantly it means that the contents of the nest can be recorded. BTO volunteer Nest Recorders around Britain and Ireland record the number of eggs, fledglings and the outcome of nesting attempts, providing a wealth of information on how our wild birds are doing every year. Nest recorders are provided with a code of conduct to make sure that the nest is checked in the safest possible way, so valuable information is gathered without affecting the birds.

BTO nest recorder checking on a Blackbird nest. Photo by Lee Barber

Nest cameras are a very popular choice and this also means that you can record the contents without even leaving your living room. They are particularly useful for boxes which are usually placed quite high or are difficult to get to, like Tawny Owl and Swift.

So far this year we've only seen a few birds inspecting our boxes at BTO HQ in Norfolk. Nest recording isn't just about those species that use boxes though; there are already a few Collared Doves sitting on eggs and we've also seen a brood of Egyptian Goose goslings paddling up the river. It's only a matter of time before we find our first Blackbird nest of the year and then the tit species will start building. It's a very exciting time!

Egyptian Geese are one of the earliest breeders. Photo by Lee Barber

For more information on becoming a nest recorder, check out our Nest Record Scheme website.

19 December 2019

A beach discovery provides more than just a ringing recovery

Owen Williams writes:

I can clearly remember the day I made my first ever retrap: it was 1 March 2008 and I was nearing the end of my training for a Woodcock-specific C permit with my trainer and award-winning ringing guru, Tony Cross. Over the following 11 years I have ringed over 1,800 Woodcock and fitted 60 geolocators on this same site in West Wales - the geolocators were part of the research project by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) into Woodcock migration. Recoveries of geolocators are always a massive bonus and my first was on 7 January 2013 when I retrapped a bird that had been tagged during the previous winter whilst the BBC’s One Show was filming a piece about Woodcock on my site.


A tagged Woodcock. Photo by Owen Williams.

Since that exciting night, a further 15 geolocators have been recovered, this represents a 23% recovery rate showing the remarkable site fidelity of the species. However the latest recovery must rank as one of the most unusual ever.

On 20 October, I received an email from Tony Cross informing me that Mark Carter, the former assistant warden on Bardsey Island, and ringer, had found a tag washed up on Aberystwyth beach and asking if I recognised the serial number shown in the photograph attached to his email. If the incredible luck of the tag being found on a shingle beach is not enough, to be found by a person who actually knew what it was and then knew who to ask about it, is truly amazing.


The tiny tag found on the beach. Photo by Mark Carter
I instantly recognised the serial number, confirming it was one I fitted on 6 March 2013. So it was promptly sent to Dr Andrew Hoodless who heads up Woodcock research at GWCT. He then sent it to James Fox at Migrate Technology Ltd the company who made the tag.

There then followed a nervous few weeks whilst we waited to find out if the tag still contained viable data despite being immersed in water for what appears to be a considerable time. The good news arrived on 10 December, when we learned that the geolocator had recorded 18 months of data before the batteries eventually ran flat. The data showed that this Woodcock had made three migration flights between West Wales and Yaroslavl in Russia, each journey being around 2,800 km. The tag ran out of power prior to this Woodcock’s autumn migration bringing it back to Wales, which means that it made a minimum of four migration flights since being tagged.

All the birds I tagged in 2013 were retraps of birds ringed in previous winters; this was because we knew that these were site faithful thus increasing the chances of encountering them back on the site in a subsequent winter and recovering the tags. This particular bird had been ringed as a juvenile by me in the previous winter, so had already made three migrations before tagging, with a minimum of four additional journeys before it died; this Woodcock must have flown at least 19,601 km since hatching. It is possible that this individual could have migrated for several years between the tag batteries running flat and the bird perishing, so it could have traveled even further than this.  

Woodcock migration tracked
We can only speculate how this Woodcock perished, however my ringing site is close to a tributary of the Ystwyth River that enters Cardigan Bay 9 km away and very close to the beach in Aberystwyth where the tag was found. There is no knowing when it perished, but it does appear that this tag has spent a considerable time immersed in water. The fact that the data was still accessible after all this time speaks volumes about the quality of design and engineering that goes into these tags.

03 December 2019

Moroccan farewell to a long-distance Peregrine

Ed Drewitt and Luke Sutton write:

For the past 21 years, Ed Drewitt has been studying urban-dwelling Peregrines around the Bristol area, in particular what they eat. His prey studies have revealed that not only do urban Peregrines eat a huge range of species in Britain (over 100) they also hunt at night catching nocturnally migrating birds such as Woodcock, Snipe, Teal, Moorhen and even Corncrake and Spotted Crake. During this period Peregrines have extended their range across southern England and can now be found nesting in most cities and large towns in this region.

Juvenile Peregrines blue RX and RY, RZ. Photo taken by Robin Morrison.

Since 2007, Ed alongside Luke Sutton, Hamish Smith, Seb Loram and Jason Fathers have been fitting blue colour rings to Peregrines across the west of the country from Bristol to Devon, ringing over 200 Peregrine chicks. They have received information on 55 of these birds, some of which were dead, others alive and well. Over this time the team have also submitted over 160 nest records for Peregrines, tracking both the highs and lows of their breeding attempts.

Peregrine blue RY being ringed. Photo taken by Robin Morrison.

One bird AA, the first the team ringed, is still the breeding male in Bath where he hatched and is now over 12 years old. Most recoveries (47 in total) are what we would expect, with females travelling further than males, and only 7% travelling further than 200 kilometres. It was therefore to the team’s surprise that blue RY, ringed on the 30 May 2019 in Taunton, Somerset, was found dead in early November in Tiznit, Morocco (2,435km over 155 days). He was hit by a vehicle. This is the first British-ringed Peregrine to make it to mainland Africa, beaten only by one that made it slightly further south to the Canary Island of Lanzorote.

Peregrine blue RY taking to the skies. Photo taken by Robin Morrison.

While Peregrines from northern Europe, such as Finnish Lapland, sometimes make it to northern Africa, this remarkable recovery illustrates the species' ability to travel long distances, which is does regularly from North America to Central and South America, and northern Russia to the Middle East. However, British-hatched Peregrines generally stay within the Britain or hop modest distances over to Belgium, France or the Netherlands.

04 April 2019

Thermal tech lightens the darkest nights

Ben Dolan writes:

In Spring 2017, we were privileged enough to be invited by the BTO to write an article for Issue 5, Spring 2017, LifeCycle magazine on the use of thermal imaging to monitor and ring birds ‘Thermal Birding’. This followed a successful trial, using it to find and ring lapwing pulli, and then using it whilst dazzling, which was a game changer in this area of ringing for us.

Woodcock found by the use of the thermal imagining device. Photo by Ben Dolan

At the time we were using the Pulsar XQ50S; we now use the Pulsar Helion XQ38F with streaming and recording facility.

Since the article was published we have been contacted by many BTO ringers, ringers from Europe and a couple further afield and have had some great feedback that using the device has reduced disturbance, made time more productive, made it easier to carry out bird counts, that surveying wildlife has never been easier and that people have had some first records for their sites using this method.



The view through the thermal imager, catching a Woodcock. Photo by Ben Dolan

Many ringers now own these thermal units and we have had the pleasure of hosting a number of ringers at our sites, as well as visiting theirs, and sharing knowledge which has been a great experience and has helped build new friendships and useful contacts.

The thermal imager is a fantastic tool for bird ringing, finding nests and monitoring nest boxes but it is also great for general wildlife surveys, whether it is hares, badgers, bats, moths and more.

Hedgehog. Photo by Ben Dolan

We look forward to continuing to share our experiences with others and hope they have as much success with the equipment as we have had, with some equally surprising records.

To keep up to date with what we do please follow us on twitter @ringerswm or for our thermal technique guide, visit our website www.westmidlandsringinggroup.co.uk