Friday, December 30, 2011

We've spent the last couple of days with top Norfolk birders Tonk and Aimes. The main reason for the visit was to indulge in their fantastic company and was in no way connected to the continued presence of the Western Sandpiper at Cley. We did go to see the troublesome little peep but arrived to news that it had possibly been nobbled by a Sparrowhawk. Happily this wasn't the case and we eventually caught up with it at Arnold's Marsh. It was great to check out the features that have been the focus of so much discussion. It's a shame we had to do it in the presence of so many piss boilers who were happy to rock up, see a Dunlin, and bugger off. Other highlights of the trip were the Great White Egret at Kirkby on Bain on our way over to Norfolk, the Lesser White-fronted Goose at Buckenham, stacks of geese including plenty of Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese and a couple of Corn Bunting which were the final addition to our 2011 year list.

So perhaps these photos aren't going to contribute to the amazing amount of study that this bird has had. But it was still fantastic to scope the bird for a while and see for ourselves the subtleties of its bill shape and occasionally the rufousy fringed rear scapulars. It was a wide-necked, plump little fella with its legs seemingly way back on its body. Great to see. (c) Richard Brown

Following the suggestion that the Western Sand had been nabbed by a Sprawk, this male Kestrel almost immediately proved how dangerous the marshes can be for unwary waders by nailing a Snipe. It had already fed for 20 minutes when it decided to bring over what remained of its kill to show everyone in the hide what the insides of a Snipe look like. (c) Richard Brown

The Great White Egret was extremely distant but put on a good show as it actively hunted at the far side of the gravel pit. (c) Richard Brown

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It was pretty convenient when a Lesser Scaup and a Great Grey Shrike decided to spend Christmas within 15 minutes of where we were. So we walked off our Christmas Eve excesses around Prestwick Carr and got our Boxing Day fresh air with the Lesser Scaup at Marden Quarry. 

The status of Lesser Scaup is summed up pretty well by the two editions of the Collins Guide. In the first edition it appears in the vagrants section at the back as by the end of 1998 there had only been 30 British records, all since the first in 1987. There have now been well over 200 records and the species account was elevated to the main section of the second edition. A combination of head shape, small size and bill pattern make identification pretty straight forward but it would have been nice to see it flap its wings in the hour or so we watched it. (c) Richard Brown

It's always great to see species such as Goosander which we miss out on whilst we're on Bardsey for ten months of the year. It's surprising that there was a time when this stunning sawbill was not a British breeder, but they only bred for the first time in 1871 and didn't really spread across much of Britain until the 1970s. (c) Richard Brown

The Prestwick Carr Great Grey Shrike proved very popular on Christmas Eve with loads of birders and photographers lining the lane, a total contrast to the Scaup where we were the only birders around. The Shrike kept its distance however, spending most of its time out across the fields in front of Newcastle Airport. It did hover quite close to us for about 20 seconds, during which time we could check out the wing and tail pattern. (c) Richard Brown

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Today we had a quick look at Nosterfield but the Bean Geese were nowhere to be found, by us anyway. We did see fifty-odd albifrons White-fronted Geese in with hundreds of feral Greylags and a Barnacle Goose which was almost certainly feral as well. The most interesting thing we've read today is at: It's an article about the mass suicide of 1500 Black-necked Grebes in Utah. Although suicide is probably not too likely, rather they thought they were touching down on a convenient water body when bad weather hit the nocturnal migrants. Unfortunately the lake was actually a Wal-Mart car park. An additional 3500 were taken into care. That's roughly 5000 Black-necked grebes! The factors that came into play were probably not dissimilar to the Lighthouse attractions we get on Bardsey. So why didn't the birds that survived the landing just go somewhere else when they realised their mistake?

This photo of the Hartlepool Slavonian Grebe goes someway to explaining it. Much like Bardsey's Manx Shearwaters, grebes have evolved to have their legs right at the back of their bodies. It means they are great underwater, perfectly designed to catch their subaquatic invertebrate food. But the price is that they're rubbish on land, only being able to take flight from water. So when they find themselves in a Wal-Mart car park there's not much they can do. (c) Richard Brown
After all the report writing and Christmas shopping we needed a break. We also wanted to celebrate getting selected as part of the team who, next spring, will be eradicating Black Rats from Dog Island, Anguilla. Dog Island is home to roughly 120,000 seabirds of nine species! So we headed to Hartlepool, primarily to see the Slavonian Grebe which had been there for a couple of days. We birded the headland first and immediately bumped into a close in Velvet Scoter, the closest views we've had at this site. Several Red-throated Divers and a raft of Common Scoter and Eider were also in the area. We headed around the bay and an adult Mediterranean Gull was rafting close in. Rich then insisted that we stopped to photograph a leucistic Knot whilst, unbeknownst to us, the Slavonian Grebe was swimming up and down about six foot off the beach. When we arrived to the Slav it had headed further into the bay and views were only from above. But it was still a belting bird nonetheless.

The Americans call them Horned Grebes whereas we go for Slavonian. But they're not really from Slavonia, an area of Eastern Croatia, although they do occur in Croatia. So what's going on? An Archibald Thorburn watercolour at Christie's auctioneers went for £7250. The title was 'Lesser Crested, Horned or Sclavonian Grebe'. Sclavonia is in Russia and indeed there is a large Russian population, however the majority of these are not thought to over-winter in European waters (Ilicev, 1985). But perhaps this explains the name? Linnaeus officially described the species in 1758, but we can't ask him. What we do know is that they eat their own feathers, and feed them to their young, to form a stomach plug which keeps fish bones there for long enough for them to be digested! (c) Richard Brown

Hartlepool Headland is a fantastic site for catching up with Velvet Scoters. (c) Richard Brown

The reason Rich didn't get stunning Slav photos. But this Leucistic Knot is still pretty smart. A defect in the development of pigment cells means that this bird is unable to produce pigment in certain areas. The feathers will be weaker and the bird will probably stand out to predators. But it seems fine at the moment. (c) Richard Brown

Monday, December 19, 2011

I (Giselle) have been cracking on with the Ringing Recoveries and Controls section of the report.  Every year the island receives reports from the BTO of birds we've ringed that have been recovered elsewhere in the world. Finding conditions of these birds vary. Many are reported dead and a good number are also re-trapped by other ringers elsewhere. Ring numbers are also read in the field on live birds. This is trickier because the bird has to hang around long enough to get photographs or to be able to see all angles of the ring. However it is a surprisingly popular past time to hang around tips reading gulls rings. Gulls like tips, and are likely to stick around long enough for a reliable ring number to be read.

A Lesser Black-backed Gull that was ringed as a chick on Bardsey in 1991 was observed at a landfill site in Deux-Sevres, France in November 2010. This was possibly the first resighting of this bird for 7089 days. (c) Richard Brown

Perhaps the most exciting ringing recoveries come from species that travel large distances. For instance, a Manx Shearwater ringed as an adult in April 2009 was found dead in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil in November the following year.  That's a one-way trip of 7663 km, although as the bird was found fresh-dead we can assume it travelled to Brazil in the winter of 2009, returning to Bardsey again in April 2010 to breed before heading back to Brazil where it died. So that's 30,652 km that we know about, but as it was ringed as an adult, it's impossible to know how many hundreds of thousands of kilometres this bird travelled in its lifetime.

 Redwings are winter visitors to Bardsey and a slack handful are ringed on the island every year. A juvenile Redwing was ringed on Bardsey on the 27th October 2009 on it's first winter migration. It will have then made it back to Scandinavia for the subsequent breeding season but was shot in Norway on the 9th of October 2010 as it headed south again for its second winter. It is legal to hunt Redwings in Norway between the 10th of August and the 23rd of December, this being the peak migration period for this species. As awful as it seems, many recoveries of birds are those that have been hunted. Indeed much of the information we have on wintering areas and migration routes of British breeding warblers come from hunted birds in Southern Europe. (c) Richard Brown

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rich also has a ringing report to write so he's been busy looking at this year's totals. We ringed 3903 birds on the Island this year, 3229 of which were adults, 1136 of which were ringed by Giselle and only 751 by Rich. This was the best year total since 2008 when over 1000 Goldcrests boosted the total (only 133 were ringed in 2011). Highlights included the 2nd ever Sabine's Gull (and 3rd for the UK), the 3rd Hoopoe for Bardsey, the 5th Hawfinch, the 7th Western Bonelli's Warbler, the 8th and 9th Lapland Buntings, the 11th Woodchat Shrike, 14th Corncrake, 14th and 15th Pallas's Warbler, the 17th Barred Warbler, the 18th Subalpine Warbler, Sanderling and Great Spotted Woodpecker, 18th and 19th Common Redpoll, 21st Golden Oriole, the 34th Leach's Petrel, 36th Icterine Warbler and 45th Red-breasted Flycatcher. Not bad considering that people have been ringing on Bardsey since 1953.

We managed to get to all the Chough nests this year as Steve Hinde is extremely handy with ropes. Despite the extremely poor productivity, the ten young colour ringed took the Observatory total over the 500 mark. All the young birds are measured and weighed to see how well they are doing (c) Giselle Eagle

Other 2011 landmarks included the best ever Swallow total with 114 ringed (the yearly average on Bardsey is 25.89). The 45 Pied Wagtails ringed also set an annual record (the yearly average is 11.13). It was a good year for the common phylloscs with 405 Chiffchaff being the highest total since 1996 and the 996 Willow Warblers the best since 2002. The three young Peregrines ringed equals the best achieved on Bardsey. A total of 87 species were trapped, but with no new additions the number of species ringed on Bardsey remains at 193. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We're both busy cracking on with report writing today. Gis is looking at ringing recoveries and I'm concentrating on lighthouse attractions. I've just finished transferring all our hand-written notes to a spreadsheet so we can look at numbers. We recorded 61 attractions to the light between 20 March and 22 November. To put this into perspective there were only 43 recorded in 2010, 34 in 2009, 48 in 2008 and 63 in 2007. 2011 was the first year that we had spent the full season beneath the tower and 2007 was the last time that anybody was based there; so it's really important to have someone there over night if we're to pick up on all the attractions that occur. In terms of the number of birds attracted, 2011 was a great year for the birds with only 710 individuals of 30 species attracted. Of these 86 of 15 species were fatally attracted and 205 of 18 species were trapped to stop them flying again at the tower. The largest attraction of the year was of only 98 birds on 22/23 April (bearing in mind that the largest attraction ever was of 31,573 birds). This year there were 273 Manx Shearwater, 3 Storm Petrel, 1 Leach's Petrel, 1 Water Rail, 1 Golden Plover, 2 Knot, 2 Sanderling, 11 Dunlin, 8 Snipe, 2 Woodcock, 5 Bar-tailed Godwit, 1 Whimbrel, 3 Redshank, 6 Kittiwake, 2 Woodpigeon, 2 Short-eared Owl, 1 Swift, 1 Meadow Pipit, 25 Wheatear, 2 Robin, 8 Blackbird, 5 Song Thrush, 77 Redwing, 4 Grasshopper Warbler, 12 Sedge Warbler, 29 Blackcap, 8 Whitethroat, 51 Willow Warbler, 8 Chiffchaff, 126 Phylloscopus warblers and 30 Starling attracted. A full account will be available in the 2011 Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory Annual Report.

For more about Lighthouse attractions see the column to the left. These Manx Shearwaters were picked up during a large attraction back in 2009. If they are left below the tower they soon recover their energy and take flight to again throw themselves at the lantern, so we take them in for the night and release them to sea as the sun rises. (c) Richard Brown

Sadly a few deaths are inevitable. The corpses don't go to waste however. We freeze them and send them to the National Museum of Wales for study. (c) Richard Brown

Monday, December 12, 2011

With today's forecast looking like the best for a while we decided to head up to see the Newbiggin Desert Wheatear and the Chevington Greater Yellowlegs. We started at Newbiggin and couldn't find the way across the golf course. If you're heading here we found the best way to find the coast path was to use the track that runs to the right of the clubhouse. We arrived at Beacon Point but there weren't any birders about so we headed North. Rich picked the Wheatear up as it popped up to take a fly and landed on the top of a gully nearly half way to the power station. A few other birders soon turned up and great views were had by all. We then headed on for the Greater Legs but already the light was going and the scrap of news we had suggested that it had departed Bell's Farm where it had been yesterday and headed back to East Chevington. We don't know the area well and made the walk from Druridge Links. Great views of Short-eared Owls and five White-fronted Geese but it took a while to reach the site and then we didn't know where the first hide was mentioned on Birdguides. With not a birder in site we sacked it off for a pint, happy with great views of the Wheatear.

This smart first-winter male showed fantastically. This is a bird of dry, sandy heath and semi-desert but, although it seems very adaptable to different habitats over its wide range, they don't really frequent full blown deserts. They summer right along North Africa, eastwards through Asia to Central China. They overwinter in Africa from the Sahara to the Horn and in South-west Asia, with the more northerly populations generally moving further for the winter. They typically arrive to South and East Britain as a late autumn migrant with 120 records by the end of 2008 and 22 so far this year. Although very confiding, it was feeding well. The fly in front of it in the third photo was soon nailed. But the alula drooping on the left wing isn't right. (c) Richard Brown

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Now we are no longer constrained by the Island's limited satellite download limits, we will also be able to blog about things that have caught our attention elsewhere in the world. Starting with a question. What links the following two? The diminutive Turnstone, one of the commonest waders on Bardsey, and a Hermit Crab (although not the species pictured which was on Christmas Island)?

See for an amazing account of a Hermit Crab in the Seychelles attaching itself to the bill of a Turnstone! (c) Richard Brown
Following a few days of grim weather, and no birds, an opportunity arose to make a dash for it and depart Bardsey for the winter. A mad packing session and a surprisingly smooth crossing and we were greeted by a rather ill car. Thanks to Colin the Boatman, Gareth the farmer, some jump leads, oil and air we got her going and headed back up to North Yorkshire. We're now luxuriating surrounded by fresh food, central heating and a TV! But with a Greater Yellowlegs and a couple of Desert Wheatears close by we wont relax for long. Over the next few days we thought we'd look back over what has been a pretty decent season on Bardsey (any distraction from report writing will be most welcome). Only one BBRC bird but plenty of very photogenic scarcities have made for good birding. We also have a backlog of several thousand photos to work through...

The Western Bonelli's Warbler on the first of September was the rarest bird of the year. By the end of 2008 there had still been fewer than 100 birds assigned to this species, six of which had occurred on Bardsey. Indeed four of the first nine recorded in the UK were trapped on Bardsey during the period 1959-1962. (c) Richard Brown

A small collection of scarcities from earlier in the year. If you head back through this blog there'll be plenty of information about them. (c) Richard Brown

And the best bird we've seen this year, by a mile? Well done Chris...

And you said our Sab's was a mega-tick! Congratulations again. (c) Richard Brown

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The start of advent has brought more than a few chocolates (thanks Mrs E. for the calendars). We've also had the latest ever Pallas's Warbler, Sabine's Gull, Balearic Shearwater and Pomarine Skua. Giselle caught the Pallas's Warbler at the Obs and found it to be a female (short wing and tail), with reasonable fat reserves. It was the first AA ring used since the Pallas's Warbler we trapped exactly one month previously (it's not very often that consecutive rings are used in the UK on these stunning little Sibes).

This is the only Pallas's Warbler to be seen in the UK this December. The last to be seen elsewhere was one at Dungeness on the 23rd November. (c) Richard Brown

With such confiding scarcities around it's taken a while to sort through a bit of a photo backlog. These three headed past the Narrows back on the 28th November. The two young bernicla Brent Geese were last seen the previous day (they breed in Siberia). These three hrota birds have come from a different direction as they breed in Svalbard and Greenland. Both races overwinter in the UK, but these birds continued South without stopping. (c) Richard Brown