Saturday, December 14, 2019

From The Archive

There’s no local news today. I’m not getting out birding and unlikely to do so whilst this foul weather hangs around. Instead I robbed the archives from a winter holiday that Sue and I took to sunny Lanzarote, the Canary Islands almost five years ago. 

Lanzarote is well known as a fairly windy island. Part of the reason the climate is so good is because of the Atlantic wind which blows there on most days; without it temperatures would be much higher and the island would effectively become a desert, like the nearby Sahara, 125 kms away. Maybe it was the Sahara dust, the fluctuations in the daily temperatures caused by the winds or some other factor, we don’t know. But we always came home with the Lanzarote Sniffles or a full blown cold.

In 1993, the island of Lanzarote was declared a Biosphere Reserve as it conserves one of the most exceptional ecosystems and volcanic landscapes in the archipelago. Lanzarote was born through fiery eruptions; the solidified lava streams and extravagant rock formations bear witness to that.

The island along with others in the Canary Islands emerged about 15 million years ago after the breakup of the African and the American continental plates. The greatest recorded eruptions occurred between 1730 and 1736 in the area now designated Timanfaya National Park. This is an area where most tourists head to in order to see the spectacular displays of cold water poured onto the ground turning immediately to a spout of steam. As we drive along stopping here and there to explore it is impossible to pause without taking pictures of the dramatic and often deserted landscapes.


Camel Ride at Timanfaya



The number of bird species is quite low in Lanzarote, even more so during the winter, so anyone arriving here expecting to add a few dozen new species to their list might be sorely disappointed.

The tiny Berthelot’s Pipit is endemic to the Canary Islands and is very common on Lanzarote, almost impossible to miss until its grey-toned plumage melts into the rocky backdrops.

Berthelot's Pipit

The common gull around here is the magnificent Yellow-legged Gull, looking all the more stunning against the volcanic shorelines.

Yellow-legged Gull

The vineyards of La Gería with their traditional methods of cultivation, are a protected area. Single vines are planted in pits 4–5 m wide and 2–3 m deep, with small stone walls around each pit. This agricultural technique is designed to harvest rainfall and overnight dew and to protect the plants from the winds. The vineyards are part of the World Heritage Site as well as other sites on the island.

 La Geria, Lanzarote
We always planned at least a couple of visits to the salt pans and tidal lagoons at Janubio in the south west of the island where we hoped for a good variety of very common waders. Almost guaranteed here are scarce UK birds like Black-winged Stilt and Kentish Plover mixed in with the everyday Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank and Grey Plover of home.

Saltpans - Janubio, Lanzarote

Kentish Plover

Black-winged Stilt

We always stayed at Hotel Costa Calero where along the nearby beach and rocky shore were found Common Sandpiper, Turnstone, Sanderling, Whimbrel, and a steady stream of Sandwich Terns fishing the clear waters. 

Hotel Costa Calero

Common Sandpiper


Near Calero

Near the hotel were residential streets with large gardens and decent amounts of shrubbery with common birds like Collared Dove, Chiffchaff, House Sparrow and Desert Grey Shrike. The shrike, part of the "Grey" shrike complex and formerly known as Southern Grey Shrike, is now considered to one of the several sub-species of  Lanius elegans, the North African Desert Grey Shrike.

Desert Grey Shrike

Desert Grey Shrike

Where avenues petered out into the typical dusty, dry Lanzarote landscape Linnets and Berthelot’s Pipits appeared, and with luck, a few Trumpeter Finches or Lesser Short-toed Larks. The related Short-toed Lark (the one with the unstreaked breast) is but a rare visitor to Lanzarote.

Lesser Short-toed Lark

Trumpeter Finch

Sunny wind free days were spent looking on the plains in the area of El Jable and Teguise for Houbara Bustard and Cream-coloured Courser, never easy to find but two of the real speciality birds of Lanzarote.

Cream-coloured Courser

Houbara Bustard

Near El Jable

The Alfa didn't drive nearly as good as it looked. A sluggish, noisy and polluting diesel engine.

Alfa Romeo

It's looking like Tuesday before the weather here improves enough for birding or ringing.

Meanwhile, over at Gulf Lane a Linnet flock has numbered anywhere between 120-200 birds. Andy and I cut a square of vegetation down to soil in readiness for a session with a whoosh net. All we need now is for a half decent morning to have a crack.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Mister Goldfinch

I’ve not been out much this last week, mainly because of the dreadful weather. A couple of trips out proved fruitless in the way of birding, ringing or photographs. Andy and Sandra have just returned from sunny Morocco. I'm hoping they brought back sunny weather and she'll let him out to play soon.  

I did manage a few sessions of garden ringing where I hoped to catch Goldfinches and perhaps the tiny male Sparrowhawk that appears intermittently and chases off the Goldfinches. Having said that, a recent kill was a Collared Dove where a large circle of feathers on the grass in the far corner of the garden proved testament to a Sparrowhawk’s deadly skill. 


Goldfinches get lots of mentions on Another Bird Blog. The reason is that our UK Goldfinch is now a very, very common bird in the countryside and in both towns and cities. It has quickly become the most common bird in gardens large & small and easily overtaken the once abundant House Sparrow. My own garden is a good example of where a glance outside on a typical day will see anything between two and twenty Goldfinches flitting between the tree tops and the eight bird feeders. 

Some days the Goldfinches go missing altogether. I suspect that there is now a fairly settled winter local population which splits up each morning as birds head off in various directions on well-known and trusted routes to sources of food. I know when they are around. Their contacts calls and tinkling winter song fills the air as one by one, two by two, they fly into the tree tops and descend to the branches and feeders below. 

Some individuals know my garden well. They are the ones that have a feed and then fly under or over the single mist net placed strategically east to west. And then there are the equally clever ones that fly alongside the net north or south without a right or left turn that would result in their being caught. The ones that blunder into the net may not have been here before. It’s a logical theory when taking into account how innocent fledglings of summer and autumn are more easily caught. By mid-winter even, many are yet to become familiar with the often illegitimate ways of man.      




Results from the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey show that Goldfinch numbers continue to boom in gardens. Garden bird foods and feeders have spread markedly over recent decades, enabling our UK Goldfinches to quickly exploit a niche that other birds failed to spot. 

An adult Goldfinch is unmistakable with its red, white and black head, gold wing-bars and black and white wings. Although males and females look similar, the red mask of the male extends back behind the eye, whereas that of the female doesn’t. Recently fledged birds do not acquire the red face until late in the summer or during early autumn. While the features to separate male and female is accepted as the norm it is thought not quite 100% reliable. 

Goldfinch - Svensson




Bird ringers who catch and then later recapture some individuals in the breeding season will confirm that the now revealed breeding characteristics may contradict the earlier sexing of the bird according to the literature in Svensson or elsewhere. 

This problem is not easily solvable since the recapture rate of Goldfinches seems quite low under normal circumstances, even less so when looking to capture adult Goldfinches during the breeding season. Many of these individuals may wander far and wide and also migrate outside of the summer months. 

Goldfinches favour small, oil-rich seeds, such as nyjer and sunflower hearts that householders buy in large quantities for garden feeding stations. Agricultural intensification has resulted in reduced availability of natural weed seeds as garden feeding stations become increasingly important for birds like the Goldfinch, so much so that the Goldfinch’s success has been a major factor in the species’ population explosion. Such seeds now appear more popular with buyers than the once ubiquitous peanut, probably because once outside the oily seeds remain attractive and do not deteriorate as quickly a peanut.  Many is the time I have put out peanuts to find that after a few days of our British weather the nuts turned to a rather unpleasant mush that had to be removed for safety reasons. 

With agricultural intensification resulting in reduced availability of weed seeds, garden feeding stations are increasingly important for birds like the Goldfinch. 

Feeding Station 

After this morning’s rain truncated effort of 7 Goldfinches ringed (and 15 or more adopting avoidance tactics), I checked my figures on the BTO's DeMon - 385 Goldfinches caught and of those, 379 new and just 6 subsequent recaptures. 

Goldfinch has overtaken Linnet as my “the most encountered bird”.  We really must get back to those Linnets soon. 

Most Encountered Bird 


Well at least I’m not Mr Blue Tit.

Linking this post to Anni's Birding Blog.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Thrush Time

There was a heavy frost this morning with the temperature at minus 4C when I cleared the car windows but then struggled to open the frozen solid doors. 

At those temperatures I decided to give ringing a miss but stopped at Gulf Lane on the corner of the A588 to empty a bucket of seed and to count the Linnets ready for milder days. There seemed to be about 70 Linnets, a few Chaffinches and the usual Little Egret in the adjacent ditch. 


Goodness knows why but I followed the lane around the edge of Cockerham Moss, farmland where crops once grew and where winter stubble and unpicked potatoes provided boundless food for birds like Tree Sparrow, Skylark, Chaffinch, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting. Nowadays “Moss Edge” is one of the worst examples of farming monoculture I know; a bird free desert where the only crop is silage grass that serves to fatten animals until they’re ready for slaughter. 

Cockerham Moss 

Cockerham Moss 

I re-joined the A588 half a mile from Gulf Lane having seen absolutely zero of note around Moss Edge and then turned right towards Conder and Glasson. 

Conder Green seems not to have recovered from its expert makeover of last year and although it is winter there are few birds to be seen. While 90 Teal, 40 Wigeon, 4 Little Grebe and 2 Snipe provided the numbers other waders proved scarce. A Kingfisher provided a literal splash of colour as it dived into the icy water from the sluice wall. 


The dry summer of 2019 gave way to a bumper crop of hawthorn and other berries. In some years berries, mainly hawthorn, get stripped quite quickly by incoming migrant thrushes. This year the countrywide crop is so big that it is lasting longer and may be responsible for the huge flock of Redwings roosting recently at Longridge Fell, 8 miles north of Preston. The latest estimations were of 25,000 Redwings flying to the plantations at dusk. 

I found Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds galore along nearby lanes. The overnight frost which blanketed Northern England on Friday night had obviously sent thrushes far and near in search of food. Huge numbers scattered ahead of approaching cars along busy Moss Lane. 

Some of the Blackbirds were definitely “continental” types, immigrants from Northern Europe, distinguished by their mottled appearance, streaked throats, dark bills and general behaviour in sticking with their cousins the Fieldfares and the Redwings. I settled in one spot and waited for the birds to come to me. 




Hedgerows provide food and shelter for many species. Because they often link small woods, they are essential corridors along which wildlife can travel. It is said that hedges may support up to 80 per cent of UK woodland birds, 50 per cent of mammals and 30 per cent of butterflies. 



The ditches and banks associated with hedgerows provide habitat for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles. It is at this time of year that our protected-by-law hedgerows provide essential food for migrant and wintering species like Fieldfares, Redwings and Blackbirds. 





That was an enjoyable morning.  In most years our Redwings and Fieldfares don't stay throughout the winter and have mostly departed for France and Iberia before the year is out.  It would be nice if they stayed just a little longer.

Linking this post to Eileen's Saturday.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Watching And Waiting With Nothing To Eat

The last week has been another waiting game. Watching the weather forecast and waiting for the one day to come along that might allow a spot of ringing. Today was that day and although not ideal, a predicted 8mph meant a visit to Gulf Lane for Project Linnet might be in order. 

My last trip to Gulf Lane for ringing purposes was back on 2 September when the flock of Linnets numbered around 160. After that date, quite unexpectedly and for no apparent reason, the Linnet flock disappeared when we would expect numbers to grow as autumn turned to winter. 


September and October saw mild, wet and windy weather on an almost daily basis, conditions which may have led to some if not all of the Linnets moving elsewhere. Mid-October saw a count of 80 but the weather remained unsuitable for mist netting. Weekly counts in November realised just 8, 12, and 4 birds. It was about this time when a post on Orkney Ringers Facebook spoke of a “huge flock” of Linnets at a set-aside plot adjacent to Kirkwall Golf Course. 

We know that a number of our wintering Linnets originate from the Northern Isles so could it be that abundant food and mild weather had conspired to keep our winter Linnets some 500 miles north of here? Back at Gulf Lane on 21 November, soon after two days of the first frosty days and nights, saw a count of 80+, hopefully a sign of building numbers. I pencilled a day in the weather diary at 27 November. 

Today the vegetation looked remarkably flat, to all intents and purposes a seemingly barren plot, but one which holds good amounts of natural seed plus rape and millet I had dropped over several weeks. 

Gulf Lane, Cockerham  

By 1030 several counts had realised an average of 140 Linnets with an unhelpful rain shower limiting the catch to just 7 Linnets - 6 first winter males and 1 first winter female. 

Linnet - male


Seems like we are in for a few days frost which should mean another visit is on the cards. Hope so, after missing the whole of October and most of November there’s a lot of catching up to do. 

Other birds noted on site this morning – 15 Stock Dove, 1 Chaffinch, 1 Skylark, 1 Little Egret, 1 Kestrel, 1 Reed Bunting and several thousand Pink-footed Geese overhead. 


A local farmer type stopped his Landy at our parking spot that is usually occupied by shooters’ cars also. “How many have you had?” he asked, leaning across to the car window. “Five”, I replied, my catch at that moment. “Wow” he replied, at which point I realised he thought I’d shot five Pinkies. 

There followed a conversation about Linnets, bird ringing and farming, finishing by him offering me one of the two Pinkies he’d shot on Cockerham Moss. “Thanks for the offer” I replied, “But I really wouldn’t know what to do with them”.

I poured another coffee, searched for a biscuit in the glove box but found none. Such is the life of a bird ringer.

Linking today to Eileen's Saturday and Anni's Birding.

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