Archive for the ‘Yelkouan Shearwater’ Tag

March 2020 to May 2021 – what’s been going on during the pandemic?   Leave a comment

My most recent post was about my trip to Suriname in March 2020. I returned home on 13th and the first lockdown was imposed within a week. That was in force until early June when some restrictions were lifted, but not all. For the rest of the year there was (or at least seems to have been) a never ending re-imposing and then lifting of restrictions until just after Christmas when major restrictions were once again in force. Most of these are now eased but we are still not free to travel abroad.

I’m not criticising the restrictions, indeed I feel they should have been imposed earlier, but clearly they have had a major effect on my life, just like everyone else in the country (and the world).

We’ve been very lucky, relatives and friends have caught this awful disease but no-one we know has died from it, although one friend is unable to work due to the affects of ‘long Covid’.

Being retired our income has not been affected and although foreign travel has been out of the question, we have been able to go for walks locally, go birding and see other aspects of the natural world close to home, which is one of the great advantages of having an interest in wildlife – it can be found anywhere.

I’ve now slept in my own bed every night for 15 months, the longest such period in my entire life. I’m itching to go somewhere where I can see some life birds. I’ve had a never-ending series (possibly up to ten) booked foreign trips that have either had to be cancelled or rebooked for a future year. We will be going to Scotland in the near-future but but my real joy, birding in some far-flung part of the world, remains unfulfilled.

Here are a few photos from the last fifteen months. I’ve largely given up carrying a ‘proper’ camera at home, I damaged my shoulder last year and can’t manage both a camera and a scope + tripod and as a result quite a few of these photos have been taken by others.

 

So from mid March to the start of June we were restricted to a daily exercise walk (ie bit of birding) close to home. Fortunately I have three good areas within walking distance of home, Lytchett Bay, Holes Bay/Upton Park and Upton Heath. In addition I watched a lot of birds in the garden such as this male Common Starling.

 

Initially the Ringing Office of the BTO said we could not ring birds away from our own property, they later rescinded this providing we gathered in suitably small numbers, socially distanced and checked that landowners did not object. However we were requested to ring birds in our gardens wherever possible to allow the flow of data about our common birds to continue. Some people consider that ringing is all about studying migration routes and now that data loggers can gather so much information from a very few birds captured, large scale ringing is redundant. However by recording the fat and muscle state, weight, size, moult condition and age much is discovered about the birds by continuing to ring on a large scale. Trackers/data loggers are expensive and can only give data on a tiny percent of the population. Here my mist net is set up in the garden. You can clearly see the pole that holds the net on the left but to all intents and purposes on a still day, the net is invisible if viewed again a dark background. In spring 2020 I ringed over 150 Starlings in the garden and was able to study the progress of the complete post-juvenile moult (a moult strategy which only occurs in a handful of species in the UK). Quite a number have been retrapped this spring whilst others have been recovered elsewhere in Dorset.

 

With the very cold spring and lack of invertebrates, the number of Starlings are far smaller this year. However I did get a major surprise (and a nasty nip) when I found this juvenile Carrion Crow in my net recently. Like many crows it shows evidence of partial albinism which may be caused by a lack of the correct nutrients at a critical stage of development.

 

At the start of June 2020 some restrictions were lifted and we were able to ring outside our property again.

 

My favourite site, Durlston isn’t very good at this time of year so I made quite a few attempts at Lytchett Heath, a part of Lytchett Bay.

 

At this time of year we were able to ring a number of breeding Reed and Cetti’s Warblers, Reed Buntings and Stonechats.

 

We caught a Jay here this spring, quite a stunner but also quite a noisy and aggressive bird in the hand.

 

One aspect of ringing that I particularly enjoy is training new ringers. This is Joe who works for the charity Bird of Poole Harbour holding a Kestrel we trapped at Durlston. During the summer of 2020 he was always up for ringing at Lytchett and although numbers ringed were small (at least early in the summer before return migration started) it aided his training and provide information on local breeding birds. Joe has since obtained his ringing licence and is fitting in as much ringing as he possibly can.

 

One of the best birds we regularly catch at Lytchett Bay are Bearded Reedlings (or Bearded Tits) which breed in the wet and very muddy reedbeds. This is an adult male.

 

The bird we are most interested in ringing at Lytchett Bay is the Aquatic Warbler. I once wrote a blog post just about this species see see here . We have now ringed 99 Aquatic Warblers over the years (not just at Lytchett Bay) and ringing often reveals the presence of this species in areas where birders just can’t reach such as dense reed and sedge beds, In 2020 we were lucky to catch this bird on 12th August. Unlike the vast majority of the Aquatics we’ve ringed, it was an adult and could be sexed as a female due to the remnants of a brood patch. Even more amazingly the same bird was retrapped in Palencia, central Spain 16 days and 983km later. In truth I wasn’t there when it was trapped (I was having a much needed rest from ringing due to multiple early starts) but I received a phone call as soon as it was found and as the site is less than a mile from my house, I was there before they had finished processing it.

 

For much of the autumn I spent as much time as I could at the beautiful Durlston Country Park, just south of Swanage. It takes me less than 30 minutes to drive the 18 miles from home pre-dawn but once the ‘grockles’ are about in the summer it can take an hour to get back.

 

Our ringing site is in a fenced off area at the highest point of the park. Migrants tend to move towards this area during the first few hours but unfortunately being the highest point its not that sheltered and wind can disrupt our ringing. From July to November I was able to visit 50 times and we ringed over 3800 birds of 47 species. I have written up all the data, with multiple charts and graphs and presented it to the park managers and county bird recorder.

 

Of course the main reason to ring birds at Durlston is to study common birds, which at this site during peak migration is Willow Warbler in August and Chiffchaff and Blackcap in September and October. These three species make up the bulk of the birds processed. This Willow Warbler is unusually grey and might be of the Scandinavian race acredula.

 

In August lots of Tree Pipits fly overhead and we manage to ring quite a few but after the first week of September they are replaced by Meadow Pipits (shown above), there is surprisingly little overlap between these two similar species. Surprisingly we have had more recoveries of Tree Pipit (one in Wales and one in Scotland) than we have had the commoner Meadow Pipits.

 

By mid October most warblers have moved through but its a good time to ring finches and Goldcrests and if you’re lucky a few Firecrests (shown above) as well.

 

Scarcer birds, particularly in August include Pied Flycatcher …

 

… and Spotted Flycatcher, both seem to have declined in recent years, particularly Spotted of which are annual totals have varied from one to eight over the last ten years.

 

Sparrowhawks are such magnificent birds in the hand that the occasional capture of one delights the newer ringers. Before you ring one you have to determine the sex and males take a smaller ring size than females. The grey head and mantle indicates a male but wing length is the deciding factor.

 

We were lucky enough to catch a female Sparrowhawk this spring, the brown mantle and larger size made it easy to sex.

 

There is one aspect of ringing that isn’t appreciated by most (who think its all about studying migration) and that is recording moult. This male Stonechat was ringed at the end of May. It can be aged as a 1st year ie hatched in 2020 by the very worn flight feathers. Adults will have undergone a complete moult a month or so after the juveniles grow their feathers and the feathers are usually of a better quality, so are less worn by the following spring. In addition it can be seen that this bird has moulted the greater covers, tertials and some tail feathers as well as the body feathers. The primaries, primary coverts, secondaries and the central and outer pair of tail feathers have not been moulted. Studies of moult not only identifies what the bird is doing at each stage of its lifecycle but also may indicate its level of fitness, the hypothesis being that those juveniles that have a more extensive post-juvenile moult than average are the fittest individuals and are so more likely to survive the winter.

 

This spring we caught a lovely adult male Whinchat, the migratory cousin of the Stonechat. This is only the 4th Whinchat to be ringed at Durlston and the first in spring.

 

I was hoping we might catch a Whinchat this spring, but this bird was not on my radar at all. I had wondered if we would ever catch one of the dull-brown and quite unremarkable 1st year Common Rosefinches in autumn, as they are rare but regular especially in the Northern Isles and on Scilly, but a stonking adult male was beyond my expectations. There was just myself and new trainee present when we found it on the 28th May although two members of park staff were nearby and able to pop in. In the UK I’ve seen twelve Common Rosefinches; nine juveniles on Shetland or Scilly, an adult female on Shetland in the autumn, a male on Portland in spring years ago and this one. I have to say this was the most richly coloured one I’ve even seen (probably including the 150+ I’ve seen all across Eurasia).

 

With a range from Eastern Europe right across Siberia, this isn’t a rare bird within its range but it migrates south-east to India to winter and so the regular migration route avoids western Europe. For a while it expanded its range into western Europe and a few pairs even bred in the UK but they have since retreated. The presence of reddish tips to the greater and median coverts confirms that this is an age code 6 ie hatched in 2019 or before.

 

As well as ringing on Canford Heath in the winter our group also has a major study of Nightjars there and on other heathlands in East Dorset. It is magical being out there a the light fades and Nightjar’s rhythmical churring starts. Due to Covid I didn’t join the Nightjar researchers this year …

 

… but I was able to catch and ring eleven migrants pre-dawn as they passed through Durlston in later summer. This does require a very early start though!

 

A feeding station in a remote area of Canford Heath has proven to attract many birds and in late autumn and through the winter this site has been covered at least once a week. It does however sit in a frost pocket and can be very cold especially on misty mornings like this one.

 

One of the species we have caught there regularly is Greenfinch. The population of this species has dropped recently due to Trichomoniosis, a parasitic disease, however numbers may have started to recover, there are still plenty on Canford Heath.

 

During the spring and summer we also started ringing at a site in Wareham Forest. This is close to admin buildings, so we are only allowed access at weekends when the staff are absent. We caught a good number of Siskins, there and are amassing some interesting retrap data.

 

In 2020 I restarted mothing, something I tried in the ‘naughties’ but had let slip. This is my moth trap outside the conservatory door. I have already written a post about this in 2020 see here for the link.

 

In 2021 I started mothing again in late February. I wasn’t expecting much but thought it would pick up by late March. It didn’t, and April and nearly all of May went by with virtually no moths. Some nights the trap was empty, sometimes there were just one or two. I wasn’t alone, the dreadful weather of April and May has had a huge effect on invertebrate population and this is turn has affected the brood size and success of early nesting birds. A very few tit boxes that I’ve examined have either been empty or contain just three or four chicks. This is a Pale Tussock caught in early June.

 

There are 880 species illustrated in the ‘macro moth’ field guide but this is only one third of the total. The remainder are considered ‘micro moths’ (although there is some overlap in size between members of both groups). I find these far harder to identify, photograph and in some cases even see than the ‘macros’. Adding to the confusion is the fact that almost all micros in the field guide lack an English name. Recently English names have been introduced but as they’re not in the book, no-one uses them. I’m finding it very hard to remember all the names and since the weather and hence catches have improved I’m finding that its taking me all day to identify photograph and record all the species. This is a Epinotia bilunana which has recently acquired the name of ‘Crescent Bell’.

 

Although I wasn’t able to see as many birds as I usually do in 2020, especially in spring when we were advised to stay within walking distance of home, but during the summer and autumn and into 2021 I did get to see a few goodies. Each summer a number of the critically endangered Balearic Shearwaters arrive off Portland Bill from the western Mediterranean. This photo was taken off Mallorca in 2016.

 

In 2020 they were joined by a single Yelkouan (or Levantine) Shearwater from the eastern Mediterranean. Superficially similar, separating it from the commoner Balearics as they ‘sheared’ past the Bill was a bit of a challenge, but I eventually got good views. This was only the second record for the UK. This photo was taken off Tunisia in 2019.

 

We had a few days grace in early January 2021 before lockdown three came into place. During that time I visited the Avon valley on the Dorset/Hants border. One of the many birds I saw that day included a flock of five Ruddy Shelduck. This species is currently officially categorised as an escape from captivity in the UK which is ludicrous. I accept that most probably don’t come all the way from their breeding grounds in Central Asia (but probably did in 1994 when there was a Europewide influx) but there is now a substantial feral population in Europe involving many hundreds of birds which is surely the origin of most of our records. It’s doubtful that any wildfowl collection would allow five of their Ruddy Shelducks to escape simultaneously. Photo © Chris Minvalla taken at Radipole, Weymouth. Although the Weymouth bird could have been an escape (as it was quite tame) I consider the Avon valley flock to be of European origin if not genuinely wild..

 

Great Egrets were once very rare in the UK, now several pairs breed most notably on the Somerset Levels. Near us three or four can be seen at Longham Lakes. This is my photo, but I haven’t recorded where I took it, and as the species is almost cosmopolitan, it could be anywhere.

 

This Whiskered Tern, initially seen at Abbotsbury in west Dorset this spring conveniently moved to Longham Lakes a mere 15 minute drive away. Photo © Chris Minvalla.

 

A big surprise was the occurrence of a Red-billed Chough at Portland Bill in spring 2021. I have seen this species previously in Cornwall, Wales, western Scotland and Eire but only once before once before in Dorset at St Aldheim’s Head in 2003. Photo © Roger Howell.

 

Up to the end of May I had only left Dorset or West Hampshire once since mid March 2020 and that was just before Easter this year. A Northern Mockingbird (3rd record for the UK) had been in Exmouth, Devon for about a month but it wasn’t until  Eastertime that travel restrictions were lifted. Viewing conditions weren’t great, you had to scope across a busy road, over a number of gardens and wait until it flew up into a tree or a telegraph pole. Many birders ignored lockdown restrictions to twitch it but we remained ‘legal’ and waited until they were eased. This is only the third Northern Mockingbird record in the UK and the first twitchable one. The bird left Exmouth just a few days after we saw it but remarkably was then re-found in gardens in Sussex and then after a short gap again in Northumberland. Photo © Chris Minvalla.

 

Vagrants come and vagrants go but hopefully these birds are here to stay, well at least during the summer months. The biggest ornithological event of the year wasn’t any vagrant but the pairing up of two Ospreys in Poole Harbour. They are part of a reintroduction program started in 2017 and organised by the Birds of Poole Harbour and the Roy Dennis Foundation. The female CJ7 returned in 2019 and paired up with a male from the reintroduction program in early summer, but it was too late for them to breed. Hopes were high for 2020, however the male didn’t return but the female stayed around the nest and laid infertile eggs. The same happened this year but eventually another male O22 turned up, but again it looks like he arrived too late to breed. The reintroductions had to be halted last year because of Covid but will resume this summer. This was the first nesting attempt in southern England for 200 years! It will be a few years before we have a viable Osprey population in Poole Harbour but I’m sure it will happen.  Although I saw the female several times last year, I’ve yet to catch up with either of them this year. This nest camera from which this shot was taken can be seen on the Birds of Poole Harbour website by clicking this link

 

Of course the hardest thing about lockdown has being not seeing your friends and family. I haven’t seen my brother and his family since Christmas 2019 but have managed to see some of Margaret’s side of the family. We see her daughter Janis fairly regularly and a few months ago her granddaughter Kara moved from London to Bournemouth because she could do almost of all of her work online. This was taken on the Bournemouth seafront. Kara had shaved off all her hair for charity a few days earlier and had raised £1100 for Action Aid. In addition to the Osprey reintroductions, White-tailed Eagles are being reintroduced to the Isle of Wight and several of them have strayed to Dorset. I was sitting here having lunch with Margaret and Kara when a friend called to say a White-tailed Eagle had just gone over his house and was heading for mine!

 

I’ve been able to meet up with my friends from the ringing group as we are allowed to meet in small numbers for the purpose of volunteer research, but social meetings with other birders has been restricted to the weekly online ‘virtual pub’. Towards the end of May as restrictions eased a group of us were invited to my friend’s lovely old property just outside Wareham, our first face-to-face social event since Christmas 2019.

 

he and his wife are MDs of a major international cosmetic company, well known for its environmental credentials.

 

Within the grounds is this lovely walled garden, where various plants are being trialled for use in their products …

 

… along with methods for sustainable environmentally friendly production.

 

Much of the rest of the site is being managed as a nature reserve and includes a river floodplain, woodland and grassland. It has not been intensively managed in the past and the biodiversity is already high. The future looks bright for nature in this part of Dorset.

 

Our activities from June 2021 onwards will be the subject of our next post.