24 December 2014

Merry Christmas from the Demography Team

As we move closer to Christmas, many bird ringers will still be out collecting valuable data on our bird populations across a range of habitats, from gardens, woods and farms to salt marshes and estuaries. Winter ringing tells us a lot about the survival and movements of birds in response to weather and can also be used to assess the breeding success of birds that nest outside the UK, such as wildfowl and waders. We've received information about just over 763,000 ringed in Britain & Ireland during 2014, which is 55,000 more than this time last year, and expect many more records to arrive over the next few weeks.

Coal Tit - Lee Barber

This period of the year is a little quieter for nest recorders, although those out monitoring Barn Owl second broods will have only just laid their ladders down after an incredibly prolific season. With temperatures above average for the time of year, however, it's always a good idea to keep an eye out for signs of opportunistic nesting behaviour, particularly in gardens and around towns where the climate tends to be warmer and many homeowners are providing extra food. Data from this summer are still flooding into the Nest Record Scheme thanks to the amazing efforts of our volunteers, and we've received over 36,000 nest histories so far, over 2,000 more than at this stage last year. As with the results generated by ringers, this information will be used to improve our understanding of the role that survival and breeding success play in driving population trends.

BTO Blue Tits - Sue Lawrence

On behalf of the birds and the BTO, we would like to thank all our ringers and nest recorders for their support and hard work during the year, and all readers of this blog for your interest in, and support of, these vital surveys. If you're not yet involved and fancy making bird surveying one of your resolutions for 2015, why not have a look on our survey pages to find an option that suits you?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at BTO HQ!

18 December 2014

Yellow legs and Black heads in Switzerland

We recently received a partial ring-read of a Black-headed Gull in Switzerland which did look to be a BTO-ringed bird, so definitely one worth chasing up! A few emails later and a week after first seeing the bird at Morges, Franck Lehmans was able to read the ring again and get the full number (EX70855); a bird ringed as an adult at Pitsea Landfill Site in October 2012.

This is only the second report of a British-ringed Black-headed Gull in Switzerland, following a bird ringed as a chick in Essex in 1999 and seen in December that year. The map below shows all movements of Black-headed Gulls to/from Britain & Ireland, from the Online Ringing Report.

Franck has a bit of a track record finding North Thames Gull Group birds: in April/May 2014 he reported a Yellow-legged Gull (Orange YY5T) originally ringed at Rainham Tip in February 2014. This bird also has an interesting history, being seen just five days after ringing in France, before moving on to Switzerland.

Wanderings of Orange YY5T
To top the story, in the same week that Franck was watching the Pitsea Black-headed Gull in Switzerland, the Yellow-legged Gull he'd seen in the spring was back at Pitsea, photographed by Richard Bonser (check out his excellent blog here)!

Orange YY5T at Pitsea Landfill on 29th November (c) Richard Bonser
Many thanks to North Thames Gull Group for sending on the details of these birds and for letting us use the map from their excellent website.

15 December 2014

Migration Mapping Tool

There has been a lot of discussion recently around the value of bird ringing. Ringing collects data on survival, productivity and abundance and this information helps scientists understand species declines, allowing them to prioritise conservation efforts. While the scientific benefits of ringing are relatively easy to see, the more practical applications of ringing are sometimes less obvious.

In November 2014, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N8 was confirmed on a farm in Yorkshire. Guidance was updated on the BTO website and includes information about how to report any unusual mortality in wild bird populations.

Common Teal, one of the species analysed by the Migration Mapping Tool.
Photograph by Edmund Fellowes
During the previous outbreak in 2007, movement data collected over the last 100 years from birds ringed across Europe were collated by EURING to produce the Migration Mapping Tool. This maps migration routes in time and space for 21 species of water-bird. The tool was developed to assess the potential risk of AI being moved by wild birds; of course, other possible mechanisms of movement also have to be considered. It provides a summary of bird movements between different areas in Europe and at different times and demonstrates how useful data from bird ringing can be in a wider context. As well as being a valuable tool in the assessment of possible risk from the movement of AI, the Migration Mapping Tool is a fascinating resource for learning more about migration in general.

08 December 2014

2014 proves a good vintage for breeding birds

Throughout the year, ringers and nest recorders have been sending us their impressions of the breeding season. A post in June discussed how the weather in spring made for good nesting whilst one in July considered whether it was nearly time for nesters to hang up their mirrors for the year. On to September and we were reporting on the huge numbers of Blackcaps moving through the country and suggesting that this might be indicative of a good breeding season. Finally, in October, we pulled together stories suggesting that it might be one of the best years yet for Barn Owls. So, do these stories match what the results from the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Constant Effort Sites (CES) scheme tell us? The 2014 preliminary results have just been published and can be found on both the NRS and CES pages of the website.

Barn Owl (photo by Jill Pakenham)
We are very happy to report that the NRS and CES results show that 2014 was indeed a bumper breeding season for both Barn Owl (best ever) and Blackcap, as well as many other species, with the large number of young fledged and high levels of repeat nesting keeping volunteers busy throughout the summer. Reed Warbler, Blackbird and Bullfinch all exhibited the highest levels of productivity since CES began in 1983; interestingly, the two previous best years for Bullfinch were 2011 and 2013.

Less positive were the abundance results which showed that many of our migrants, particularly long-distance visitors, were notable by their absence this year. Only Chiffchaff broke the mould and exhibited a significant increase in abundance. News wasn't great for our resident birds either with only Robin and Wren managing to take advantage of the mild winter and exhibit a significant increase in numbers.

Chiffchaff abundance trend
Those who went to the annual BTO Conference at Swanwick this weekend would have seen the poster showing the regional CES results. While breeding success was generally high across Britain & Ireland, some species displayed regional variation - Sedge Warblers produced more young in the north than in the east or west for example. We would love to hear how your own experiences compared to the results presented so please feel free to leave a comment below. 

CES results poster showing national and regional results (click to enlarge)
We would like to thank all the ringers and nesters who contributed to the CES and NRS schemes this year and to those who provided blog stories in 2014. We hope you enjoyed the season and we look forward to reporting on your 2015 exploits.

28 November 2014

This week in ringing blogs...

It's been very quiet for exciting news here at The Nunnery (we're all waiting for the preliminary CES and NRS results next week!), so we thought this week we'd take a quick tour of some of the ringing group blogs out there. Links to many of the most popular blogs are listed in the right-hand column here, so why not browse and follow a few.

Bardsey Bird Observatory
This week Bardsey Bird Obs resurrected their buried portable walk-in trap and had some success catching Starlings. They can be tricky to age accurately so catching several together allows for a good comparison. There have been several long-distance movements of Starlings ringed on Bardsey including to Latvia, Belarus and Lithuania. However, it's not only movements of Starlings that are interesting. One individual that was ringed on Bardsey was found killed by a bird of prey in the same location nine years later!

Teifi Ringing Group
Also catching Starlings in Wales were Teifi Ringing Group, but more exciting news on their blog was just the sixth Firecrest caught at the site since 2009. This bird came with a further surprise in the form of a ring with a Belgian address on. This is the 11th record of a Belgian-ringed Firecrest in the UK, with other foreign-ringed Firecrest coming from The Netherlands (three), Channel Islands (two) and Germany (one).

Gower Ringing Group
One last Welsh blog focuses on a few wader captures at a new netting site, with a pre-dawn catch managing to produce both Snipe and Jack Snipe at the same time. It's not every day you get the chance to compare these species side-by-side in such detail, so the pics are well worth a look.

Snipe - Tommy Holden

Jack Snipe - Tommy Holden

West Cornwall Ringing Group
Staying in the west, further colour ring records from the West Cornwall Ringing Group included this young male Peregrine in France. Whilst there are several other movements to the near Continent, these unexpected sightings in your email inbox are certainly a treat.

Lower Derwent Valley
With wildfowl starting to come back to the valley in good numbers, the ringing group have just started to catch again (including this smart male Teal), but they've also taken the opportunity to look at a few of the more interesting group recoveries, including a Mallard that was later found in The Netherlands.

Gibraltar Point Bird Observatory
In the east, many sites were still benefiting from an earlier arrival of winter migrants, including small numbers of warblers. Scarce species such as Yellow-browed Warbler are getting scarcer now, but various sites were catching Chiffchaffs, some of the collybita race and others the eastern migrant tristis race (Siberian Chiffchaff), such as this one ringed at Gib Point on 22nd November.

Portland Bird Observatory
A rather more unexpected warbler catch was a Willow Warbler at Portland on 24th November, the latest ringing record at the site.

The BirdTrack results for Willow Warbler show how unusual this record is, with very few Willow Warblers seen beyond late October.

22 November 2014

Portuguese-ringed Lesser Scaup in Wales

Here Mark Waldron relates a quite exceptional resighting at Llangorse Lake in south Wales:

"On 17th October, scanning through a flock of 100 or so Tufted Duck that were feeding just off Llangasty car park, I came across a duck which had a bright orange or red nasal saddle. At first I was so concerned with reading the saddle that I hadn't taken much notice of what the duck actually was. It suddenly dawned on me that I was not watching a Tufted Duck but a Scaup. This made it even more exciting as I desperately struggled with the code. I digi-scoped a number of photo's hoping that I may be able to read the code from the photos later if needs be. The Scaup came much closer to the reed bed, perhaps only 2-3 meters away from its edge and with a brief break in the cloud giving better light I clearly saw the code read 'YH'.

However, the better light also clearly showed light grey vermiculations along its flanks. Alarm bells started ringing in my head; could this actually be a Lesser Scaup? It was similar in size to the surrounding Tufted Ducks and I checked the head carefully and there was the bump at the back. I now started taking photo's trying to get a decent profile shot. It continued to feed and occasionally preen so I made a film of the bird during which it gave a brief wing flap. I knew I needed the wing pattern and I hadn't managed to clearly see it. I now set my camera up on a repeat shot mode to try and capture the wing pattern. Another wing flap eventually came and I got some shots, but the wing bar looked too pale in the primary feathers. I had to leave the lake as I had to attend an open afternoon at my daughter's school, but all afternoon my mind was going over the ID features and I was still leaning toward Lesser Scaup.

A search of the colour-ring website did not turn up any clues as to the source of the ringing project: this actually increased my hopes. Following further feedback the next day and comments from Andrew King, the county recorder, following his own observations of the bird I was convinced we had identified a Lesser Scaup. The real clincher came on Sunday when Andrew found a blog post that showed what looked like a first-winter Lesser Scaup that had been ringed in Portugal at São Jacinto Dunes Nature Reserve (over 1500km from Llangorse Lake). More than that, the photo's appeared to actually show 'our bird'. Later that night, confirmation was received from David Rodrigues that our Lesser Scaup had been marked at São Jacinto as a juvenile male juvenile Lesser Scaup on 20th December 2013. It was also confirmed that the nasal saddle code actually read 'VH' and not 'YH' as previously reported. The bird then remained at São Jacinto until 3rd February 2014."

This is, unsurprisingly, our first recovery of a Lesser Scaup, and as far as we can tell the first ever European recovery. Such records of transatlantic vagrants aren't exceptional, and there is even a record of a bird 'going back': a Ring-necked Duck ringed in Gloucestershire in March 1977, shot in Greenland in May later that same year. Rather coincidentally, the only other Ring-necked Duck recovery involving the UK also involved Llangorse Lake, with a bird ringed in Canada in September 1967 shot there in December that year.

Thanks to Mark and David Rodrigues for the photos of this bird either end of its journey.

13 November 2014

Winter of the Wisp

During the winter, our population of Snipe increases with an influx of birds from the continent and in some years this could be as many as a million birds. The reports of Snipe into our Ringing Scheme mainly come from hunters reporting them shot (90%+).

Summer Snipe in Iceland - Nigel Clark

We recently heard of one of these birds being 'found' this way in County Monaghan, Republic of Ireland. This bird was ringed on 1 August 2013 as a juvenile bird at Turov, Zhitkovichi district, Belarus and made the 2,302 km movement to Ireland. This is the fourth Belarusian-ringed Snipe to be found in the UK or Ireland; the majority of foreign birds come from Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Iceland and Denmark.

Ring recoveries show Snipe that breed in the north of the UK move to Ireland for the winter and Snipe that breed in the south of the UK move to France or Spain, with a few moving to the near continent. This draws on some parallels with Blackcap that we have reported previously, where birds come to the UK and Ireland for the winter while some or all of our UK and Ireland population go south.

So far this year the winter has been unseasonably warm, so we haven't experienced large movements of Snipe yet but in the next few weeks it is forecast that as the temperature will drop in Russia and central Europe, and so water bodies freeze over, more Snipe should reach these shores. If the temperature doesn't drop, the reporting rate via BirdTrack might continue to decrease.

Keep informed on Snipe predicted movements on the BTO Migration Blog.

04 November 2014

Ringer migration confirmed by a Blackcap

Back in September, we posted about the large numbers of Blackcaps that were moving through the central and western parts of the country. We were contacted recently with a fantastic story of a chance re-encounter between a member of the Brewood Ringing Group and one of these migrants.

Colin McShane writes:

Over the last 8 years I have been leading an Autumn ringing trip to the Parque Ambientale, in Vilamoura, Portugal with support from Vitor Encarnacao who heads up the Portuguese Ringing Scheme. Our trips have been successful on several levels and many British ringers have joined us over the years to expand their experience.

We have also controlled a number of birds from northern Europe, including Reed Warblers from Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, and Bluethroats from France. On 06 October 2014 during this year’s trip, I extracted a male Blackcap from one of our standard mist nets and was very pleased, although not too surprised, to find that it was carrying a BTO ring. Back at the processing station, Dave Clifton (who has been an ever-present fixture on these trips) was doing his stint as the scribe. Having announced to the group what I had extracted, I began to process the bird - first reading out the ring number several times for accuracy.

Dave went quiet. He quickly got onto the phone to his wife, who checked in his ringing book back home. Hey Presto!! The bird was indeed one (of only two Blackcaps ringed at the site) he had ringed at Duckley Plantation, on the north shore of Blithfield Reservoir, Staffordshire on 11th September 2014 - only a few weeks before we had left for Portugal!!

Unfortunately Dave wasn’t able to buy a Lottery ticket on that day, but it must be a given that he was pretty certain of a big win with that kind of luck. We are looking forward to next year’s trip where we are certain that we will catch one of the many Red Spotted Bluethroats that we have been ringing in the Varanger region of northernmost Norway - no problem.....?

Thanks to Scott Petrek for letting us know - Eds

28 October 2014

Bumper Barn Owl breeding season

Barn Owls are one of our most iconic and recognisable birds. Over the past couple of years this species has struggled due to severe weather events, with last year being particularly difficult as reported here and here. It is estimated by Colin Shawyer of the Barn Owl Conservation Network (BOCN) that only one third of the British Barn Owl population attempted to breed in 2013.

Successful Barn Owl breeding seasons are dependent both on favourable weather conditions and food availability. The primary food item for Barn Owls is the Field Vole which demonstrates cyclical population trends. Reports coming in to us here at the BTO suggest that 2014 is a good vole year and as a result, may turn out to be the best Barn Owl breeding season since 2007. Early estimates from the BOCN suggest that an average of 33% of pairs have had second broods this year, although in some areas, this figure could be as high as 65%. Average brood size (first and second broods) is also high although the recent spell of wet and colder weather may have impacted on fledging success for some broods.

Whilst we have not yet had all of the ringing data for 2014, the totals are already up on last year. For example, in 2013, only 20 Barn Owls were ringed in May and 183 were ringed in June. This year to date, we have received the details of 428 Barn Owls ringed in May and 1,814 ringed in June!

Adult Barn Owl (photograph by Ruth Walker)

The following stories have been sent to us by some of our Barn Owl ringers and nest recorders:

Chris Griffiths of the Montgomeryshire Barn Owl Groups writes:

Our record year was in 2005 when we had 73 pairs producing 249 pulli. Following the two hard winters of 2010 and 2011, then deep snow in March 2013, we slumped last year to 14 breeding pairs producing 49 pulli. This year Montgomeryshire had 37 pairs producing 149 pulli. Interestingly a third of this year’s birds have been recorded at “new sites”, either newly erected boxes, or boxes that have been up a while but have never been used. Many of the “traditional” sites remain empty. For the first time since I have been involved with MBOG, thanks to ringing, I can confirm that we have also had a few second broods this year.

One unusual instance this season was that I found a ringed female bird in a box with four young on 12/6/14. This female was ringed by me in 2013 and counting back she must have started breeding at eight months of age.  On 21/7/14 I found her again 4.4 km away on a second brood of six eggs and one freshly hatched chick. A quick chat with Colin Shawyer revealed she must have left her first brood nine days after I had ringed that clutch. Apparently, this is not unusual but the distance of 4.4 km is! She almost certainly took up with another male, probably on the edge of his “territory” and left the first male to bring up the kids alone (this is something BOCN were beginning to suspect at a number of sites in years where double brooding occurs).  The good news is that the first brood of four and the second brood (which had dwindled to five when I ringed them) all fledged successfully. On returning to the first site at the end of August, we found “superdad” (who was caught and ringed in a nearby box earlier in the season) in the box with another male that I had ringed as a pulli last year 11 km away.

Barn Owl chick (photograph by Ruth Walker)

Alan Ball writes:

Barn Owls have done exceptionally well in Lincolnshire this year. Bob Sheppard and I have monitored nearly 400 nesting attempts from at least 340 pairs and have ringed over 1,200 chicks. We have not rechecked every site, so will have missed many second broods as probably around a third will have attempted to breed again. Now, in mid-October, some of the late second broods are struggling as weather and food availability has an effect, but we are still finding a few healthy broods. Of particular note this year was one fen just south of Bourne, which had six pairs, raising four broods of seven and two of five. It's amazing that one fen of approximately eight square kilometres could furnish enough food for 12 adults and 38 young. Prey encountered in nest-boxes suggests that there has been an abundance of field mice as well as voles this year.

As well as Barn Owls, other species have taken advantage of the abundance of prey and Bob and I have also ringed 449 Kestrel chicks out of 150 pairs monitored, 188 Little Owl chicks from 80 pairs and 120 Tawny Owl chicks. I am now part-way through the daunting task of completing all the Nest Record Cards to record the 2,500 birds of prey handled this year.

Peter Wilkinson sent us this wonderful photograph (taken by Chris Chatfield) of five Barn Owl chicks sitting on their box. 

Geoff & Jean Sheppard, who carry out a RAS project on Barn Owls, write:

Our study area is in the SW corner of Scotland where we monitor about 80 sites, the majority of which have a nest box. Although there was not a large increase in occupied sites, few had single birds and most were successful with notably larger brood sizes. The number of pulli ringed almost doubled but the number is still well below the usual 150+ achieved in the previous decade. For the first time in many years, a pair at one site had two broods, a six and a four. Interestingly, in certain areas, many sites remained unoccupied suggesting that vole numbers had not increased uniformly and this may be due to the fragmented habitat in the study area. This year, in three occupied sites the pulli failed to survive due to death of one or both adults. In one case, this was due to Jackdaws completely blocking the nest box entrance and trapping the female with her chicks at the back. On a lighter note, a pair in a derelict cottage forsook their usual loft space and raised their brood on the corner of an old bunk bed!

Colin Shawyer writes:

Perhaps my most well studied Species Recovery Areas is that in the Peterborough District. This work was initiated in the early 1990s and, as a result of concerted conservation effort, has seen an increase in the breeding population from six breeding pairs in 1992 to 60 pairs today. The 80 artificial nest sites which have been installed here, largely on a 1.5 km grid matrix, have been monitored annually during the last 20 years and the study area now represents the highest density of breeding barn owls in the UK. This year has seen 75 of the potential sites available in the study area, occupied by 60 breeding pairs with about 70% of these double brooding. The average first brood size (close to fledging) this year is slightly greater than four with ringed broods of six, seven and occasionally eight at about 50% of sites. Second broods are still being ringed but as is normally the case, although clutch sizes are generally higher than in firsts, brood depletion is almost always greater with some having gone from seven chicks to fledge one, two and three. The average second brood size at ringing is, nevertheless likely to remain above three. At a few sites, fledging success over both broods has exceeded ten!

16 October 2014

Tay Bearded Tits on the move: can you help?

In the UK, the largest single population of Bearded Tits, also sometimes known as Bearded Reedlings, occupy the Tay reedbeds, in eastern Scotland. Over the 2014 breeding season, Tay Ringing Group have been working hard to monitor this important population, ringing an incredible 635 birds - and now these birds are on the move...

The Tay reedbed runs for 15km along the estuary, the largest continuous reedbed in the UK

Around this time last year, Iain Malzer conducted a radio-tracking study of these elusive birds, following them around the reedbed. He was intrigued when he found that none of them moved out of the Tay area during what is assumed to be a traditionally dispersive period. However, this year the picture is quite different. When the population reaches the huge numbers we’ve seen on the Tay this year, ‘Beardies’ sometimes undergo irruptive movements, flying in small flocks in all directions. By understanding the extent and drivers of these movements, we can observe how connected these birds are at a population level, how they remain stable genetically and how they colonise and occupy new areas of reedbed.

Photo (c) Amy Lewis
Typically though, this year Iain didn’t have any trackers on the birds, and so is now asking for help in finding these dispersing birds. As previous Demog Blog posts have suggested, the birds can turn up in the smallest patches of reed, so we are checking everywhere for sightings of colour-ringed birds. Already we’ve had reports from the Isle of May, Aberdeenshire and Loch Leven, but birds can move much further: the longest recovery within the UK was a 390km movement between Suffolk and Devon, and other records have even shown birds moving abroad. This is our chance to record the first long-distance movements from the Tay population.

Many of the birds ringed on the Tay have unique colour-ring combinations, allowing us to identify exactly who they are. Birds may have three colour-rings in any combination of red, orange, green, yellow, light blue, dark blue, white, grey and black. Reports of any sightings, colour-ringed or not, at your local reedbed will be an essential contribution to the understanding of the movement systems of these peculiar birds and their wider conservation.

One of the colour-ringed birds (a female) from the Tay reedbed
To report a sighting drop Iain an email or get in touch with us here at Demog Blog.

So if you're out over the autumn and winter, listen out for the unique ‘pinging’ of Beardies (have a listen on xeno-canto here) and let’s leave no reedbed unchecked.

14 October 2014

Technical wizardry helps monitor Merlins

For many of us who can’t enjoy this species on its breeding grounds in the moorlands and uplands, the Merlin (Falco columbarius) is a bird of autumn and winter when they can be spotted in the lower lands chasing Skylarks or other passerines. The BirdTrack graph below illustrates that pattern, with an obvious peak in October. An increase in sightings in October is potentially also due to the presence of passage migrants and the incoming winter population.

Merlin chart from BirdTrack
Recently, Roy Filleul, a birdwatcher and photographer from Jersey, captured images of a juvenile Merlin on the side of a pond. The following day we received a phone call from a member of the public reporting a Merlin that had been taken into care in the JSPCA (Jersey Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Unfortunately this was the same bird that had been photographed by Roy and, sadly, it didn’t survive due to injuries.

Merlin, by Roy Filleul
The bird in question was ringed in the nest last June in Lancashire, one of their strongholds (click here for top five counties for species in 2013). Although this Merlin didn’t travel a long distance or move in an unexpected direction, this is the first time one ringed in the UK has been found in the Channel Islands.

As you can see from the photograph, as well as being ringed, this bird was also PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tagged. These tags work in a similar way to Microchips for a dog or cat except that they are mounted externally (on a ring) rather than being inserted under the skin and are read by a receiver placed by the nest (by a licence holder). Metal ringing allows us to gather information on movements as well as survival; for example, it is possible to infer that when you stop catching a bird, that is normally caught year on year at a particular site, it has not survived (the principle behind the Retrapping Adults for Survival Scheme). As it is often very difficult to re-catch adult raptors, using a PIT tag allows us to follow a bird throughout its life to obtain data that categorically tells us the bird is still alive. If nests are monitored by a licensed nest recorder, levels of productivity over its lifetime can also be obtained from PIT tags. Unfortunately, as this bird died before returning to its breeding grounds, we will never know what information we might have gathered from this individual.

Currently in the online ringing database we have 54 recoveries of UK-ringed Merlins that have been found abroad, 35 of them in France. Also notable are the 31 Icelandic Merlins found in the British Isles, mostly recovered in Ireland. This reflects the fact that many British breeders winter on the continent and our remaining winter population is joined by winter visitors, predominantly from the Icelandic breeding population. See map of recoveries below.

Merlin recoveries map, from the online reports

07 October 2014

Looking out for Twite

As a breeding bird, Twite Linaria flavirostris has undergone a 19% range contraction in Britain since the 1968-72 Breeding Atlas (Balmer et al 2013). The stronghold for breeding Twite in England is the southern Pennines where the population has undergone declines possibly due to reduced availability of seed later in the breeding season (restricting second broods), reduced availability of suitable nesting habitat and moorland fires (RSPB England Twite Recovery Project). 

Steve Christmas and Jamie Dunning started a new project to monitor this population in 2014 and are seeking help looking for colour ring re-sightings. Birds will be on their breeding grounds between April and September but previous monitoring projects and information from ring recoveries suggest that the birds from the Pennines population winter (October to March) on the North Sea coasts between the Wash and the Thames (Wernham et al 2002). In total, there have been six UK based Twite colour ringing projects registered with the European colour-ring birding website although not all of these are still operating. Details of the colour ring combinations used for this project are described by Jamie below.

Jamie Dunning writes:

The South Pennines are the last bastion for resident breeding Twite (Linaria flavirostris) in England and are therefore home to a very important population of these birds (which belong to the endemic ssp. pipilans). Following on from historic research done by Andy Brown, David Sowter, André Raine, Sean Gray et al, Steve Christmas and I have started a colour ringing project on this species this year. As with the previous research, we will monitor movements as well as population dynamics and productivity over the coming years.

Female Twite. Photograph by Edmund Fellowes.
As with all colour ringing projects, publicity is key to getting data back in the form of re-sightings! The Twite we are ringing in the Pennines are being fitted with plain colour rings. We are fitting a single colour ring on the left leg over the standard BTO metal ring and two colour rings on the right leg. The colours used in our project are as follows:

Black (N)
White (W)
Pale Blue (P)
Blue (B)
Green (G)
Orange (O)
Yellow (Y)
Red (R)
Metal (M)

We have ringed approximately 100 birds in 2014 so far. Any birds seen with a combination of the above should be reported to Steve Christmas at: se.christmas@ntlworld.com or myself at: jamiedunning8@googlemail.com. Either of us would be more than happy to give any further information or answer any questions you may have. We would be very grateful if any sightings of birds that are not part of our project could be reported to the appropriate research group (www.cr-birding.org). [As well as replying to you they will inform their ringing scheme of the sighting, adding to the knowledge of this species' movements.] - Eds

For further information on Twite in the South Pennines see the RSPB’s project pages on what they are doing in the way of conserving upland habitat for birds.

Thanks for reading!

Balmer, D.E., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B.J., Swann, R.L., Downie, I.S. & Fuller, R.J. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain & Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford.
Wernham, C.V., Toms, M.P., Marchant, J.H., Clark, J.A., Siriwardena, G.M. & Baillie, S.R. (eds) (2002) The Migration Atlas: Movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland. T. & A.D. Poyser, London.

19 September 2014

Capping off a busy breeding season

Over the last couple of weeks we have been hearing of large numbers of Blackcaps being ringed (www.bto.org/ringing), predominantly at sites in western and central parts of the country. Ringing migrants on passage provides a reliable indicator of the number of birds moving through an area and helps to improve our knowledge of migration routes and the rates at which birds move. British & Irish breeders are known to migrate south through the country between July and September whilst continental birds wintering here show north-westerly movements across Britain & Ireland during September and October (Wernham et al 2002). The stories below appear to show a southerly movement of Blackcap suggesting that the majority of these birds are UK breeders (migrant birds tend to travel down the eastern and southern coasts (Wernham et al 2002)). The large numbers of birds encountered may be an indicator of a successful breeding season, a welcome event for a species that experienced its worst breeding season on record in 2012. but may also result from a more synchronous movement, with a higher than average proportion of the population travelling simultaneously. The ratio of juvenile to adult birds caught could help us to determine which explanation is more likely.

Despite the poor breeding season in 2012, nationally, Blackcap numbers are increasing and their range is expanding northwards. Breeding Bird Survey data show that Blackcap has increased in abundance by 137% over the past 20 years (download the latest BBS report from www.bto.org/bbs). Data from another BTO survey, Garden BirdWatch (www.bto.org/gbw) show that our migrant Blackcaps are currently moving out of gardens. The data suggest they won’t return in any numbers until the wintering populations move into gardens in November. 

Female Blackcap. Photograph by Liz Cutting.

Peter Fearon rings in North Liverpool and writes:

We ring at a relatively urban site in North Liverpool - Rimrose Valley Country Park - the site is a long, thin country park separating different housing estates. This former rubbish dump has grown to be a diverse habitat for breeding and migrant birds, especially Blackcap. This summer, it wasn't until Sunday 31 August that I was able to get out with my reliable band of trainees to ring at one of our sites on Rimrose. We were rewarded with our biggest catch at the site of over 130 birds ringed, with 52 of these being Blackcap. We were able to set up another session the following Thursday and managed to catch a further 35 Blackcap, only one being retrapped from the previous session indicating a significant turnover. The following weekend (6 & 7 September) however, it was a different matter with two sessions completed but only 25 Blackcap ringed. It would seem that there was a significant movement of Blackcap in this week and it was a shame that the weather prevented us from surveying their movement through some of our other sites. I think that it is interesting to note that we had ripened blackberries in mid-July and most of our sites are now devoid of any soft fruit other than the elderberries.
Mick Townsend rings at Stanford Reservoir on the Leicestershire-Northamptonshire border and writes:

We are just about as far from the coast as you can get, yet we have just experienced the most extraordinary event in the 39 years of ringing at the site. On Monday 1 September the weather forecast was not promising at all with rain due about 10am so I decided to go for a 5am start. I erected six nets in the hope of a few warblers, Blackcaps and Chiffchaff being my target. The rain came early and by 8:30am I was taking the nets down with only 46 birds caught, not a great morning but I at least caught nine Blackcaps. Tuesday dawned and I was full of hope for a much better day and I was at the reservoir for 3:45am. As the time arrived for the first net round I could hear Blackcaps ticking away in the bushes so off we set. The first round total was 163 birds caught, 96 being Blackcaps. The rest of the day continued in the same vain with lots of Blackcaps caught in each round of the nets. We finished on 331 birds caught and of these 298 were new, 214 being Blackcaps. The following day saw another 198 birds caught, 118 of which were Blackcaps. This time we had a control and the BTO tell me the ring was issued to a ringer in Doncaster. The fourth day was a quieter day all round with only 96 birds caught, 47 of which were Blackcaps. The Blackcap rush didn’t stop there though and on the 6 September, we caught 119, on the 8 September we caught 150, on the 9 Sept we caught 101, on the 11 September we caught 111 and on the 16 September we caught 94. At this time of year we usually catch fewer than 30 a session! Blackcap numbers for the month so far are a staggering 994, we have only managed just over 700 for the year in the past.

Site locations - pink: Rimrose Valley Country Park, turquoise: Stanford
Reservoir, green: Swindon STW, orange: Salisbury Plain
Map tile courtesy of National Park Service.

Matt Prior rings on Salisbury Plain and writes:
The North Wilts RG has two teams led by Matt Prior and Graham Deacon. The Salisbury Plain is an area of grassland the size of the Isle of Wight but it has dotted patches of scrub that are very important for migrating warblers on their way back to their wintering grounds in southern Europe and Africa. We have ringed much higher numbers of Blackcaps than ever before suggesting that they have had a very good breeding season. Over the years the Blackcaps that we ring tend to get recovered along the south coast between Sussex and Devon. Blackcap totals are as follows: 24 August – 147, 31 August – 245, 6 September – 160, 7 September – 192, 8 September – 194, 10 September – 161, 13 September – 99 making a grand total of 1198! A further 309 Blackcaps have been ringed in just two ringing sessions at Swindon STW, a 9 hectare nature reserve owned by Thames Water. This compares with two sessions in the same period at the same site in 2013 when 104 Blackcaps were ringed. This year, we recorded Blackcaps breeding in a wide variety of locations where we wouldn’t normally find them such as in tiny areas of scrub on farmland.

To date, we have not heard any similar stories from the east of the country; feel free to leave a comment if you have anything further to add to the story!

Wernham, C.V., Toms, M.P., Marchant, J.H., Clark, J.A., Siriwardena, G.M. & Baillie, S.R. (eds) (2002) The Migration Atlas: Movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland. T. & A.D. Poyser, London.

12 September 2014

Swallows fledge young at a natural site

Ian Kerr writes:

A thriving Swallow population has long been a feature of my regular patch on Holy Island, Northumberland and 2014 has proved to be by far the best year since I started nest recording and ringing the species a decade ago.

This year around 75 nests, most of them around the village, harbour and at St Coombs Farm, fledged at least 260 young. Many pairs produced two broods with a small number of nests producing a third brood, although it was impossible to say if the same pairs were involved. Whatever the circumstance, the 2014 breeding season far surpassed the previous record year of 2009 when 56 pairs fledged around 150 young.

Juvenile Swallow - Jill Pakenham

Excitingly, for the first time a pair used a natural site, the first record of its kind for Northumberland. This nest was in a crevice under an overhanging turf at the top of an eroding low boulder clay bank near Emmanuel Head, the eastern most point of our tidal island. At high tides the waves would have been just eight feet below the nest. The nest was discovered by a friend, George Moody, summer warden for Lindisfarne’s Little Tern colony. When I visited the site a few days later these birds had disappeared but there were large amounts of droppings indicating the chicks had fledged. When I climbed up I found a fully-feathered dead chick in the cup which must have perished at about the time its siblings fledged.

The white droppings making this nest more obvious - Ian Kerr

Swallows using natural nesting sites are very rare in Britain although obviously at one time in the remote past they must have been the norm. Keith Bowey knows of a nest in County Durham in the early 1970s which was situated on the side of a horizontal branch on a Beech tree in Sunderland and Martin Davison reported Swallows nesting near the entrance to a sea cave near Oban on the west coast of Scotland. I will certainly be checking the bank site next spring in case these birds return.

Editor's comment - we also heard that Mark Lawrence found two Swallow nests on cliffs in Devon this year. Luckily, he found them in time to ring them!

02 September 2014

Minsmere mega demo

Steve Piotrowski writes:

Waveney Bird Club operate regular ringing demonstrations to the public at Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk. This is the BTO’s second biggest annual ringing demonstration event of the year, with the Bird Fair at Rutland Water perhaps commanding a greater audience. The purpose of our demo is to explain bird migration and to allow Minsmere's visitors (especially children) to see birds in the hand. The Minsmere demonstrations have proven to be extremely popular with hundreds of people attending each session, some staying for the whole day. 

Collecting valuable data while educating the next generation - Jez Blackburn
The demos are managed by Waveney Bird Club (WBC), which has been responsible for ringing studies on the reserve’s birds for over ten years. The trapping areas are set in different habitats; woodland, reedbed and scrub, to produce a great diversity of species. Carl Powell is WBC’s principal demonstrator and he explains to his audience the migration habits of each bird species, how and why birds are ringed and the benefits of ringing as a conservation tool. The audience is both invited and encouraged to ask questions.

Steve Piotrowski - Jez Blackburn

This year has been exceptional, with record numbers of birds being processed at the ringing table.  With this summer’s final demonstration and training session event on the 4th September still to come, we have already processed over 1,400 birds. This summer’s highlight was a reasonable passage of migrants at the end of August. Many warbler species passed through Minsmere and a proportion were trapped and ringed to determine their destination, stopping off points, longevity and causes of mortality.

Young male Sparrowhawk and a young male Thomas Barthorpe - photo by Ian Barthorpe
The list of warbler species encountered was most impressive and included: Chiffchaffs, Willow, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Common Whitethroats, Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps.  The icing on the cake were two Wrynecks (a small migrant woodpecker that formerly bred in Suffolk) that were trapped (two of the four on site). However, it was the bigger birds, such as the three Sparrowhawks, a Kingfisher and seven Green and three Great Spotted Woodpeckers, that caused the most excitement at the ringing table. We also became reacquainted with some old friends, such as a Marsh Tit and a Blue Tit, that were first trapped at Minsmere in 2009 and are still going strong today. Small birds rarely live more than three years so these “old-timers” are doing well.

Wryneck - Chris McIntyre

Last Thursday, we were delighted to welcome Ellie Zantboer from Ipswich to the ringing demonstrations. Ellie is 11-years old and has been ringing under close supervision since she was eight. As children form most of the audience, Ellie was invited to give a ringing demonstration, which she did with confidence and a great deal of skill. Ellie said "I ringed twelve birds including two Long-Tailed Tits and a Chiffchaff and I loved showing the other children how it was all done!". What was really amazing was how the children immediately communicated with her, asking her questions that they may have been reluctant to ask an adult.

Ellie Zantboer (right) demonstrating ringing to visitors - Paula Zantboer
If you would like to see a ringing demo, the next ringing session will be at Minsmere on 04 September.

22 August 2014

Real birds at the Birdfair

Things are now getting back to normal here at the BTO, after the long weekend at the Birdfair (posted previously). There was a nice buzz around the BTO stand in Marquee 3, with lots of people coming to find out more about the work of the BTO and in particular the Nest Record Scheme.

The mystery nest competition went down well. The nests were from Song Thrush, Goldfinch, Willow Warbler, Wren, Blackcap, Long-tailed Tit, Dunnock and Robin. Of all the correct answers Mick Sherwin from Sheffield was first out of the hat. Your Field Guide to Monitoring Nests is on it's way.

Mystery nest competition

The ringing demonstration attracted a lot of visitors again this year. A total of 232 birds of 20 species were processed. Some of the notable species being Bullfinch, Reed Bunting, Song Thrush and Whitethroat. There were several Reed Warblers caught that had been ringed in previous years, and now have clocked up quite a few miles during their life by going to Africa and back. Once we had processed all the birds, our attention was then switched to ringing people. If you were 'ringed' with one of our wrist bands, check our website to see what happened to you.

Chris Hughes showing the process of ringing a bird

The theme of the Birdfair this year was protecting the world's seas and oceans, so we also had some of our new technologies like geolocators and satellite tags which can be used to study seabirds whilst out at sea.

Thanks to all the volunteer ringers who helped on the ringing demonstration and to everyone who came to say 'Hi' at the demo or the main BTO stand. Looking forward to seeing you next year.