Saturday, March 28, 2020

Home Birding

An extract from an email all ringers received this week.


“Following the Government statement on 23 March, our Senior Leadership Team has reviewed the BTO advice and is asking all volunteers to follow the guidelines presented by the Prime Minister. While the monitoring work undertaken by volunteers is extremely important, it must not compromise public health. 

To avoid this potential risk, we are requesting that all BTO surveyors, including ringers and nest recorders, refrain from undertaking survey work at sites to which they would need to travel by any means until this guidance is reviewed.” 

“All the best and stay safe”. 

Dave Leech, Head of Ringing & Nest Recording 
James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science” 


Here's my contribution to "Home Birding", the newest buzz phrase for locked down birders with a post first published on Another Bird Blog on 31/12/2011 - New Year’s Eve 2011. Click the pictures for a close-up.

It’s time for recalling the past year’s highlights of birding, ringing and photography. Now is the moment when we choose to forget the low points, the empty pages in a sodden notebook, netting a handful of birds on a seemingly perfect spring morning, or discovering that you set the aperture wrong.

Here we go in rough chronological order with a selection of photos and personal highlights of 2011.

In the early part of the year we holidayed in Egypt at a time when the country was undergoing a revolution, but the confiding birds hadn’t joined in the turmoil and just behaved naturally for a visiting Brit.

Egypt proved to be a wonderful place for bird photography and so difficult to select just a few pictures, apart from the Kingfisher which is just about my favourite photo of the year, taken with a decent choice of aperture for once.

Kingfisher - Egypt

Cattle Egret - Egypt

I’d left Will counting Siskins building up by the hundreds in his garden, together with a dozen or two Brambling and Lesser Redpoll. Within days of returning from Egypt I joined him for some memorable ringing sessions and notable breakfasts.


Lesser Redpoll 


Bacon Butty 

Spring and autumn were great for catching and photographing Northern Wheatears at Pilling. With the help of sacrificial meal worms I caught fourteen “Wheats” and clicked the shutter button a couple of hundred times on the beautiful chat, passing Meadow Pipits or the occasional Linnet.


Meadow Pipit


The annual ritual came along, May in Menorca, the island where birds are hard to find but fortunately more numerous than birders. This year a ringed Audouin’s Gull at the hotel pool gave me an excuse to search for that extreme rarity, a Menorcan ringer.

A Ringed Audouin’s Gull -

A Ringed Audouin's Gull

Summer was warm and wonderful, ringing Swallow chicks, finding Skylark nests and stumbling upon young Lapwings or breeding Redshank.


Barn Swallow 



Then at the end of summer came a chance to take photographs of a species rapidly becoming a rarity, the unfortunately named “Common” Cuckoo.


Autumn and early winter was given over to ringing pipits, buntings, finches and thrushes “on the moss”, the satisfaction of working a regular patch with a job well done.

Reed Bunting 

Tree Pipit


Don't forget to Spring forward tonight by changing all those clocks. Or not.

Back soon with Another Bird Blog.  Linking this post to Anni's Birding in Texas.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Goldfinch Gone

Three days of sunshine and all the Goldfinches suddenly vanished from my garden. There's been 15-20 most of the winter so bang goes my plan to do a little garden ringing while in lockdown.


So here's a post first published at the end of 2013 to celebrate the year's pictures in a month by month sequence. It’s mostly the birds which stirred the senses with odd shots of the places where memories are made. 

January is time to escape from the grey, cold skies of a UK winter and grab some welcome sunshine, if only for a few weeks. We were stunned by the long, wide, sandy expanse of the beaches of Fuerteventura, some several miles long and just begging to be walked. When tired of the walking I sat on some quiet rocks near the shore and took pictures of a Whimbrel, a shy wader species I had longed to photograph. 



February continued where I left off in the early part of the year in ringing birds out on the frozen mossland. Brambling winters don’t happen too often, 2012 and 2013 being the first for several years and a winter when I caught 66 of the striking finches. One bore a Norwegian ring, another one later captured in Norway. 


March, and as the ice lingered on there were still Bramblings to be seen along with a good number of common Reed Buntings. Bird ringing is not about catching rare or scarce birds. Catching and ringing birds is about monitoring the populations of common birds, an important and vital job in these worrying days of wholesale declines.

Many a trainee ringer has fallen by the wayside when realising that rare birds appear in mist nets on equally rare days and that the humdrum of catching common birds is mostly unexciting hard graft. Imagine my surprise on 15th March to find a Little Bunting in the net, an agreeable but unimportant addition to the winter catch of 72 Reed Buntings. That Little Bunting was still around into April when I guess it felt the urge to migrate.

Little Bunting

April is Wheatear Time. The migrant chats appear along the coast on their way to the uplands of the UK or Scandinavia. A few are destined for Iceland or even distant Greenland. The birds are hungry following their journey from further south and can rarely resist a mealworm, so I send them on their way north bearing a ring which tells others that they arrived there via the UK. 


May usually involves Menorca. The island draws us back with its rugged and gentle landscape, quiet roads, friendly locals and spring sunshine. Birds are hard to find but rewarding when you do, unimpeded by crowds of target birders running here, there and everywhere. The Hoopoes use the same nest site and feeding locations every year. Creatures of habit also use the same café for a spot of lunch. 


Menorcan lunch

June and it’s time to find and ring some wader chicks. The task is to find them in the literal sense but also find them before they disappear as a species from our diminishing wetlands and intensified farms. Redshanks aren’t the easiest to come across, in fact they are damned difficult to locate, sprint like Usain Bolt and have protective parents that shame many a human. The first I ringed for a good few years. 

Redshank chick

July is a time when birds and birders go quiet. There nothing much to do except feed the kids and stay around the house, least of all travel very far to discover new things when migration time is far away. Skylarks aren’t the easiest of nests to find but I daren’t go near this one as the size of those grubs says the chicks are big and possibly out of the nest. Skylark chicks often leave the nest long before they can fly, an evolutionary adaptation which increases their chance of survival. 


August often sits on the fence between summer and autumn not knowing which way to jump. The cold, late spring of 2013 made late broods last into August and wader chicks about to fly. My personal favourite picture of 2013 just happens to be my favourite species the Lapwing. With luck the spikiy young Lapwing below will live 15/20 years. Let’s hope there are places for it to live 20 years from now. 


September produced an unexpected holiday in Greece when our daughter Joanne married on the island of Skiathos. Two weeks of unbroken sunshine with a few birds thrown in. A battered old Suzuki Jimny served as a passable hide to photograph the normally unapproachable Woodchat Shrike and a superb vehicle to reach Kastro where we enjoyed numerous Eleanor’s Falcons. So many reasons to return in 2014 to the tranquil haven of Hotel Ostria owned by the delightful Mathinou family.

Skiathos, Greece

Makis and aubergines at Hotel Ostria

Woodchat Shrike

October was quiet with subdued migration on our west facing coast. Red-breasted Mergansers eluded me for years, shy birds unwilling to have a portrait taken until after a couple of days of rough weather I came across a young bird at Pilling. I got my picture on a grey, cloudy day but wonder what happened to the bird and if there will be another chance to photograph a merganser so close. 

Red-breasted Merganser

November turned up a few Snow Buntings, scarce in recent years. So infrequent have they become in recent years that any discovered immediately become target birds for those less inclined to actually find any birds for themselves. I had a Snow Bunting to myself for a while at Pilling and spent time lying spread-eagled on the tideline to take a few portraits as the bird fed unconcerned at my presence. 

Snow Bunting

December 2013 is ending as it began in a raging storm and more to come. In between the birding was hard slog with not much to show for time spent in the field. I searched my archives for December to find the best picture of a month’s efforts, a mediocre shot of an above average bird. Things can only get better in 2014. 


As a footnote to the above. we won't get to Skiathos in May 2020 and maybe not in September.  The people of Skiathos suffered a financial blow in 2019 at the time of the Thomas Cook debacle - car hires, holiday lets, hotels, cafes, shops and restaurants, many of them small family businesses. Now those lovely people will be hit again as the island is already in lock-down. 

Linking today to Eileen's Saturday.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Down But Not Out

Well that's it then. We are in lock down for a month or two with no birding or ringing. Life must go on and luckily I have an archive of pictures and experiences to draw upon. In the garden there are Goldfinches without rings so I can do some ringing in the days ahead when the wind drops. 

For now here’s a post with pictures from way back in 2009. 

It was in November 2009 that Sue and I spent two weeks in Cyprus. Black Redstarts were absolutely everywhere and it proved impossible not to take lots of photographs of these welcome migrants from Europe.  

Black Redstart 

For anyone who isn’t aware, the Black Redstart is a surprisingly scarce UK species and where the breeding population may be about 100 pairs only. Since about 1900 the UK population grew to include urban habitats that resembled their ancestral habitat of mountainous stony ground. Both during and after World War Two this included bombed areas, and then in subsequent years the species also colonised large industrial complexes that have the bare areas and cliff-like buildings it favours; in the UK, most of the small breeding population nowadays nests in industrialised areas. 

Black Redstart 

Black Redstarts appeared very numerous in Cyprus, not entirely surprising as the species is a common winter visitor from October through to February. These birds are mainly of the European race Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis which breeds in the bulk of Europe and east to Ukraine and Crimea. The area of the Mediterranean Sea is the main wintering area with a small number of birds as far south and east as Egypt and the Middle East. 

Black Redstart

During the latter part of November of the dozens of Black Redstarts I saw, all were of similar appearance: upperparts of grey-brown with brown, smoky/dusky washed underparts from the throat that merged gradually into a paler washed belly and a whitish vent area. It was often surprisingly difficult to see the orange-buff of the undertail, but easy to pick the actual birds out from way off due to their characteristic jizz, shimmering tail and sometimes surprisingly loud alarm calls. 

Black Redstart 

Black Redstart

Of course by November juveniles greatly outnumbered adults, and I thought that on most occasions I was watching a bird of the year. Additionally, from about August first year males have an almost identical appearance to the duller female, and the whitish wing panel of this western subspecies does not develop until the second year. In one or two photos there are the visible remains of a nestling’s yellow gape, and in the extended summers of parts of Europe this feature is perhaps to be expected in November. 

Black Redstart 

Black Redstart 

Unfortunately, with one exception, a confiding hotel garden bird seen above, the redstarts weren’t too easy to approach, like almost every other bird species on this over-hunted, infamous island. 

Back home in sunny Stalmine, this morning I went out to the shops for essentials, our local small shopkeepers, not the rip-off Co-op supermarket. Ten minutes from here at Knott End village is a wonderful array of shops; butcher, fishmonger, baker, cheese & delicatessen, fruit & veg. 

As we all cope with the current disruption to everyday life there is one thing that all of us can do that will help - shop local, shop UK, with YouK

Our society depends on farms, manufacturers, fishing boats, and UK businesses big and small. Without them there are no jobs, no income, no money for schools and hospitals. 

Home deliveries of household essentials from small companies will help support them, take pressure off supermarkets, and support delivery workers. Breakfast cereal, soap, tea, shampoo, jam, wine, hand cream, meat, cleaning products, face moisturisers, there are UK companies covering all of these everywhere. 

Pubs are closed - so let’s keep the brewing industry going so that things can start up quickly again with home delivery of UK craft beers - over 700 brewing companies across the UK. Most people will have many local options including ourselves with a local brewery, Farm Yard Ales along Gulf Lane, Cockerham - Farm Yard Ales.   

We are powerful together – help UK business, keep our jobs, and let’s get through this.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Red Sky At Morning

I peeked through the curtains and noted the pink red glow to the south east. “Red sky at morning, shepherds take warning” is a rhyme used as an aid to weather forecasting for the last two thousand years. 

Red Sky 

I grabbed a quick breakfast then hit the road birding before any rain arrived. It was windier than I’d hoped but the air smelt fresh and clean with the roads devoid of early traffic. 

Every morning started with a Barn Owl or two in recent days and weeks. Today was just the same - a fast flying hunter that didn’t stop for breath or a portrait and then did a rapid disappearing act.  I made do with a flock of 18/20 Fieldfares that flew from a dark peaty field and into a line of conifer trees where they could barely be seen. 

A still flooded field held a tiny flock of Lapwings, several Stock Doves and a good number of Meadow Pipits, the pipits barely visible in the long grass until they flitted to and fro. I saw a pair of Corn Buntings along the wires in the exact spot I’d seen one singing earlier in the week.  It’s looking good for a rare breeding record but still early days. Maybe my sighting will reach the WhatsApp messages where rare birds are all the rage?  

Corn Bunting 

There was a kerfuffle when a Buzzard dropped from nowhere and attacked a female Sparrowhawk, something I’d not seen before.  It happened so quickly and distant through the car windscreen that it wasn’t clear if the Buzzard intended to grab the Sparrowhawk itself or the prey the hawk carried. Whatever the reason, the Sparrowhawk then spent a couple of minutes on a nearby fence rearranging its plumage and gathering composure before it continued on its way. 


There was a Kestrel around too. Here are a couple of over-cropped and distant pictures for the day. 



A stop at Project Linnet saw about 15 Linnets and a single Stock Dove hanging around for the last of the seed.  I’m writing up a summary of the winter effort August to March 2019/20 for Farmers Richard and Helen to assist their continuation of the agri-environment scheme. The write-up includes the total of birds caught. 

Let’s hope Scottish ringers like Tom D catch just a few of those Linnets we ringed: 
  • 155 new Linnets 
  • 4 Linnet recaptures 
  • 1 Skylark 
  • 1 Dunnock 
  • 1 Chaffinch 
  • 1 Goldfinch 
  • 2 Reed Bunting 
  • 1 Wren 
The water level at Conder Green pool is very high, a depth that leaves very few muddy margins but lots of water for wading birds to truly wade. A pair of Oystercatchers may decide to nest by the roadside waste bin where they did a few years ago. 



It was hard to resist taking a few snaps of a forlorn Pheasant, one that survived the winter shotguns. “Oy” it seemed to shout, as it looked me squarely in the eyes. “Where are those feed bins? You used to top them up every day.” 


Around the pool and creeks - 100 Black-headed Gull, 18 Mute Swan, 22 Oystercatcher, 58 Teal, 11 Tufted Duck, 12 Wigeon, 2 Little Egret, 1 Pied Wagtail and 1 singing Chiffchaff. 

Pied Wagtail

A skirt around Jeremy Lane produced little in the way of birds except for a 3 singing Skylark and an inaccessible, very secure, farm track protected by nasty spikes and CCTV where birders and even doggy walkers fear to tread. 

Keep Out

Not sure what type of farm this is unless they grow something quite exotic out here in the wilds of Cockerham?

Back soon with more news and pictures.

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