A record of my adventures of birds and bird ringing

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

WWRG yet again!

Last friday I finally baited up my feeders and then set off for another cannon netting weekend on the wash, happy to get away from the piles of work which characterise term, to see 'real' people, birds, dogs, sea, sand.. all the things I miss.

We arrived just as a large team left to set some mist nets - for, very unusually, the tides were such that we couldnt cannon net on the saturday morning (high tide was before dawn), but good enough to try mist netting. But there was a slight problem with the wind - it was beyond the level of what we could catch in, but due to die down overnight.

After not very much sleep, we woke to find the wind had died down, so we set off to catch - and were rewarded for our efforts by 49 bird, mainly Redshank (we seem to be catching a disproportionate number of Redshank recently, apparently due to a fantastic breeding season in Iceland).

For the evening set we went to snettisham, to try and catch oystercatchers. Things were going well until (probably) a sparrowhawk spooked them, and they lifted and did not return.

Given the success of the previous morning's catch, and the lack of any good cannon netting option, it was decided to try mist netting again on the Sunday morning! This was even more successful, with 101 birds (again mainly redshank), but was kind of strange for me because my body decided to let freshers flu catch up with it at that point. Sitting in the middle of a saltmarsh for an hour or so probably didnt help it much!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Icklesham and back to Cambridge...

On the recommendation of a friend, who had told me stories of the thousands of birds (And the cool birds) that they catch, 2 weeks of my summer were spent at Icklesham. Sure enough, there were lots of birds, and there were lots of amazing birds - in particular, there was a Quail (which I never thought I'd see outside of a farm building), a beautiful but strange little bird, which I still cant imagine migrating! (see the Demog blog for an interesting story of a Quail recovery - you may have to scroll down a bit).

There were also some beautiful birds. I fell in love with Cettis warblers in particular, but also Stonechats, Robins (again), Sedge Warblers.. and really anything that I ringed/processed.

Highlights include
- catching 111 Yellow Wagtails
- the duck trap
- seeing some fantastic birds in the hand - quail, kestrels, bearded tit..
- the amazingly deep and comfortable mattresses in Luxford house, which made going to bed so much more attractive but getting up before dawn less so.

The 'lowlight' was getting stung by a weaver fish!

I'm now back in Cambridge, and went ringing to Wicken Fen yesterday, a decent catch of 91 and a good chance to catch up with some fellow ringers! My site needs a little bit of TLC before I can put my nets up (feeders need washing and filling, vegetation needs to be chopped back a bit), but watch this space!

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Wash Weeks (cannon netting on the Wash)

One of the highlights of my summer last year were the two 'wash weeks', two weeks cannon netting with WWRG on (funnily enough) the Wash. So the obvious decision for me when organising this summers ringing was going again.

The first week, mini week, we started with a small catch on Snettisham (an RSPB nature reserve) to get everyone into the mood. This was swiftly followed by a decision to go and set on Wainfleet island. There are several Wainfleet islands, divided roughly into North and South, and all of them require a hefty walk over saltmarsh, carrying heavy cannon netting equipment whilst trying to avoid falling into the numerous creeks. One way is invariably in the dark, which adds a new dimension of fun, feeling the way with your feet whilst watching the person in front of you in the line to see where they do/dont fall in. There are some amazing phosphorescent creatures (plankton? Insects? I dont know) that sparkle as you walk through them at night, which is something really special to see.

Anyway, we set on the large north island for an evening catch, and I was asked to act as a potential twinkler on the other island (a twinkler is someone who tries to move the birds into the catching area by walking/crawling/making themselves shown to the birds so that they walk, or fly). Which was great – I enjoyed my time lying under a sand-coloured blanket on the other island, listening to the Sandwich Terns fly overhead and watching the other waders out to sea.. As we got closer to the catch I did a bit of twinkling as askedduskythorn, crawling around the island, until I heard a 'bang' noise (meaning that a net had been fired). I got up and ran back towards the other island but was quite quickly stopped in my tracks. The volume of water that was running through the (once crossable) creek was large, and crossing it suddenly seemed more interesting than it had a few hours ago! The first fork of the creek proved deeper than I expected, up to my waist, and I quickly stripped off some of the dry clothes I had remaining and threw them onto the other side, before wading (swimming) through the second creek! This amused the other ringers somewhat.

Mini week had 2 very good catches – one (on a cabbage field) of 951 Dunlin and one of over 300 Barwit. It was very nice to see some waders in the hand again, I think I might be becoming addicted to them! Seabirds just have something about them, some amazing quality that I love.

Main week, on the other hand, was something of a flop. On the first tide, we fired 3 nets, each at a different time (which only happens very rarely). Each took a catch of around 20, but the second net unfortunately didnt go out properly, with one of the cannons not firing. We then spent several tides with no catches, either through the birds not landing in the right places, or because we had net problems (wind blowing it up etc.). In particular, there was one catch on the Horseshoe (a patch of saltmarsh) which went a bit haywire. The net was set well, and we were all in place in time before the birds started to come off the mud flats to begin roosting. A cow then got its back legs tangled in the cables, which meant that Steve had to get out of the hide to disentangle it, and then reconnect and recheck the net to see if it was safe and able to fire. At this point (unsurprisingly) we lost all the birds on the pool, which is never a good thing, as birds act as attractants to other birds and an existing nucleus will draw in other individuals. We then gained a small number of birds, and Steve decided to fire on them as the tide was about to become too high to stay on the marsh. We all ran out upon hearing the bang, and got to the nets quickly only to discover that there were no birds.. not only that but the net hadnt even covered the decoys (which were well within the catching area. The water had weighed the net down so much that the projectiles couldnt drag it out!

After that, we didnt have any successful cannon net catches on the Lincolnshire side, although 2 moderate mist netting sessions (more night saltmarshing!), and the other team took a very nice catch of mixed waders on a pool at Terrington.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Shiants

Though I'd better update this before I head off to the Wash for some cannon netting, so here we go!

I signed up for this trip not knowing a thing about what I'd be doing, but very excited because it contained a lot of words I didn't know the meaning of (grotting, fleyging..). What we actually ended up doing more than met my expectations, with the results that I am totally in love with certain species of seabirds!

The main ringing was split into roughly 3 categories. Puffin slope ringing, rock ringing and top-o-the-island ringing.

As Puffins were the main aim of the trip, I'll deal with them first. We set up lines of nets at different set heights throughout the main colony, catching in total around 600 birds. Puffins are funny little creatures. They have extremely strong beaks - just a little nip from them is enough to draw blood (my hands are testament to this) - and very little wings. To give a sense of proportion, they have wings the size of a blackbirds but are around 3 times heavier! So when they fly, they not only have to beat exceptionally hard, they also have to spread their feet out besides their tail to give them extra lift! They also make this bizarre groaning noise, both in their burrows (which you can hear if you listen carefully enough) and in the hand.

Also see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/8156866.stm for news of one of the birds we caught!

The other sort of ringing we did a lot of was rock ringing - my term for scrambling over and under boulders in order to try and find Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags (either adults or chicks). Unfortunately the Guillemots were still on eggs for most of the time we were there, and so we couldn't ring many of them (if you approach a Guillemot ledge they get flustered and whilst moving to the back of the ledge to 'escape', may accidentally knock off an egg, which obviously we tried to avoid at all costs!). This provided quite a challenge, as one area of the rock slope had this huge line of Guilly colonies, just about where we wanted to go down to the beach to have lunch, so we had to go all the way around to avoid disturbing them.

Instead we caught many Razorbills, and many Razorbill chicks. Razorbills are, I can tell you, aptly named. They have exceedingly sharp bills and an attitude to match. Their chicks are the complete opposite - small fluffy grey things that sit and cry in crevices. Their crying noise is all pervasive in the colony, it invades your ears. Even when you know there is not a razorbill chick around you, you can still hear them, and once I could have sworn I was hallucinating razorbill chick cries in my tent (it then turned out that I wasn't, thankfully, and that there was some sort of mass exodus/fledging event in the colony). They then go through an ugly down moult phase, and start to gain the adult plumage. This is when they are the best; lovely and fluffy, beautifully smart yet cannot bite too hard, no matter how much they try! The funniest thing about razorbill chicks is they think if they cant see you, you cant see them. So a razorbill chick that is out on a ledge might move further back into a crevice, but one with its head in a crevice and its fluffy bum stuck out thinks it is perfectly safe! Many razorbill chicks have one of their parents nearby though, so reaching out to pick one up may still result in hand injuries...

The third common species encountered whilst rock ringing is the Shag. Shags are absolutely amazing! Beautiful iridescent green plumage, with many of the coverts outlined in black. Adults have one of two noises - females 'hiss' and males 'gronk'. The gronk is a particularly incredible sound, and they have an amazing head shaking that goes with it, that makes shags look almost prehistoric. Shag chicks, though, are some of the funniest creatures alive. They are grey and floppy, and really very messy (their nests smell and their feet are often covered in all sorts of muck), but once they reach a certain size/age, they start to try and imitate the adults - they produce little, high pitched gronks, complete with the head shaking!!

The last main type of ringing we did was top-o-the-island ringing. This was basically an exercise in nest finding, which I am rubbish at! We found Bonxies (Great Skuas), gulls of 3 flavours (Greater and Lesser Black Backed and Herring), someone (not me, despite my efforts) also found several mippit nests. Whilst we're on about cute chicks, Bonxies are pretty amazing. They are fairly large, very fluffy, gingery, but with blue legs!

Other birds caught during the expedition include Eider(!), and Fulmar.

Thanks to Jim Lennon for organising the trip, and all the team members (you know who you are). Also to the Panton Trust for providing me with a grant to go!

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Swallows, Swans, Sand Martins and Seabirds!

Exam term is over, with no more catches, despite my efforts with a potter trap and a tub of mealworms (which only emptied when I didn't have it set/wasn't watching it).

Almost as soon as I got back I was off ringing though, with Kane etc. around Windermere. The target for this trip was Swallow pulli, and to that end we visited a handful of farms down very twisty, very potholed, and occasionally very steep roads. We caught about 30 in total, including some adults we mist netted, before heading back to Bowness for a check on the Swans. Of about 80 there, only 5 didnt have rings on! Nevertheless, we recaught some whose darvics (plastic rings) needed adjusting/regluing, fixed those, and also caught one whose metal ring had this mysterious white substance on. We couldnt quite figure out what it was, but it looked suspicously like paint! I wonder what it had been up to.

On Thursday I signed myself up for a sand martin catching session with North Lancs Ringing Group. We set a single net on the edge of a river, just outside the sand martin holes, and before we were even done setting it, there were birds in the net! Overall we caught 99 birds, which was particularly impressive considering we only had the net up for 2 half hour sessions.

And lastly, the most exciting bit! On Monday I am headed off for a seabird ringing expedition in the Shiant Isles in Scotland! I dont really know what to expect but I'm certainly looking forward to it. More on this later...

Thursday, 21 May 2009

More Tawnys...

The plot thickens, last night I heard a(nother?) Tawny owl calling from the trees behind my house!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


A bit of news on the tawny - I havent heard it for about 2 weeks, and was browsing through the weekly rag a few days ago when I came across an article. Apparently a Tawny owl was found dangling from a tree in a nearby park with its wing wrapped up in kite string. Poor thing! I strongly suspect this is 'my' tawny, it's certainly within the territory range and would explain why I havent heard mine in a while. In any case, the tawny has gone to a nearby birds of prey centre to recover and should hopefully be released soon.

I cant help but wonder about the ring-ability of such an owl - the ringers manual says not to ring a bird held captive for 24 hours or more, unless you get special permission, but even if I knew that this owl was definitely my tawny, it's still a wild bird and if I caught it should I treat it as such and ring it?

I got a phone call from my sister today, apparently there was an excitingly large package addressed to me sitting at home, and my mother was itching to open it! It turned out to be my newly ordered potter traps, which I expected to turn up here - never mind. They're now being sent down to me from home and hopefully I will be able to catch some of the bigger birds with them - watch out you magpies!!

Saturday, 16 May 2009

An unsucessful morning. ish.

Last night I was in two minds about trying to ring this morning. The weather forecast was 'showers' but I knew if I didnt try, the weather would have been perfect for it. On the other hand, it was a fairly massive cloud passing over Britain, and I didnt want to disrupt my sleeping pattern (exams in 5 days!).

So I got up at 5, which was my compromise - to be up at dawn rather than to have the nets set for dawn, and by 6.20 I had 2 nets set and 2 blue tits in them. The weather was just about perfect - still, overcast, birds everywhere. And then it started to rain. And it carried on raining. At first I though I'd wait 5 minutes, to see if it would ease off at all, but no hope, so I took a net down (the one surrounded by high grass and has more potential for soaking my feet/legs). I then went to take the other net down, and it had caught another blue tit, which I think doubles the number of blue tits I've caught here!

Although the total catching time cant have been more than half an hour, I caught 3 blue tits, which is a very nice rate. It's just a bit disappointing in terms of time and species diversity. Where are all my blackbirds? And why has the rain now stopped????

Friday, 8 May 2009

Squirrels 5 - Limey 1

I've just been round to do a check/refill of my feeders, and guess what, they got another one. This was, admittedly a £3 feeder from the market, so not a huge loss, but it's the principle of the thing. This feeder I had repaired, duct-taped to within an inch of its life and have spent the last week and a half watching half satisfactorily as the levels in the feeder weren't dropping by much (no squirrel predation but equally few birds feeding). This afternoon the bird-standing-on thingy was hanging by a thread of duct-tape, which had been thoroughly chewed through. The transparent plastic has been chewed as well so it's no longer in a usable condition.

I'm still not quite sure whether or not the squirrel proof feeder is working - the levels are going down, and there is certainly no sign of squirrel chewing, however it's quite a light, small feeder and I find myself thinking that they could be rocking it to make the seed fall to the ground or something. Devious beasts! If only I had enough time to watch my feeders, but alas, exam term looms in the forefront of my mind and work must take some form of priority.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Wicken Fen Standard Sites Session

Last week I'd decided too much time had past since I last ringed at Wicken Fen. I hadnt seen a warbler in the hand for about 8 months! So, hoping desperately I could still remember everything about warblers, I emailed Chris to ask if I could join them and get a lift.

The standard sites sessions at Wicken run from 12 noon one day to 12 noon the next, and seeing a chance to get a spot of revision in (half an hour breaks between net rounds really are effective for that), I decided to go for the whole weekend. A nice break from the monotony of Cambridge

All was going well until, in the middle of a page about deer eating shearwater chicks (!) to obtain calcium from their bones, Chris walked in with a bird. It was brown. It was not a sparrow, or a dunnock, or a wren, or anything that you expect to be brown. It didnt look like I remembered a garden warbler to look, but seeing as I didnt have much more of a clue, that was my first guess. Chris shook his head. I look more closely at the bird. I cant think what on earth it could be - it had a faint eye stripe, but it wasnt that strong, and its belly was slightly lighter than the upper half of its body. 'Ummm'. At this point I look at the beak. It's a very fine, elegant beak, with whiskers at the edges. Which indicated 'warbler' to me.

'Reed warbler??' I asked hopefully, even though I knew it wasnt!

'Nope'. I dragged the bird book from the bookcase. I turned it to the warblers bit and started leafing through. Nothing looks quite right.

'Try counting the tail feathers.' So I did. 10. I know there are very few birds with 10 tail feathers in Britain.

'It isn't a Cetti's warbler, but I cant remember which other species have 10 tail feathers,' I say. 'I know there's at least 2 more species.'

'What makes you so sure it isnt a Cetti's warbler?'

I thought about this for a while. I turned back to the page containing Cetti's warbler. Sure enough, there it was, slightly more distinct than the bird I was holding, but a Cetti's warbler nonetheless. For some reason, I've never imagined a Cetti's warbler to look like that. I'd never seen one before, and I guess I had this image formed in my head from half remembered images in books. It was definitely not all brown.

So the Cetti's warbler was processed (it was a retrap) and released, and I wont forget what they look like in a hurry!! This type of thing is exactly why I carry a bird book with pictures as well as Svensson and Baker. We then proceeded to catch 3 more, prompting comments about it 'raining Cetti's warblers'. There was also a big effort to discover the other species with 10 tail feathers. From memory, they are:

Occasional Barn Owls

White's Thrush (I think) has 14 tail feathers!

Please add to the list if you can think of any others - I know I've forgotten some!

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, there were quite a few birds, including a collared dove, and I watched a crack in my welly as it got steadily bigger. Thankfully the ground was dry. That evening, after we'd furled the nets, we watched the woodcock flying overhead. Someone made some vague reference to moth traps, at which my ears sharpened (my other wildlife-esque hobby is moth trapping). Sure enough, there was a moth trap in the distance. So I walked over to the guy who was beating the vegetation with a net (to loosen insects) and started talking to him. He moth traps at Wicken 4-5 times a year (not very much!) but said that a lot of people each do a small amount of time. He also mentioned that you needed a license from the national trust to do so there! Then he talked about the history of the Fen a bit (of which I didnt know much), and how it was initially set up as an entomologists reserve, and about the sort of moths you generally find. It was quite interesting to hear, because you dont generally meet fellow moth trappers!

After that I retired to my tent for a very cold nights sleep. At 4am I was up and by 4.30 all packed and on my way to the reedbed.

The reedbed was dry, compared to my previous experiences with other reedbeds, which is to say, there wasnt much standing water. The mud more than compensated for this! By the first net round my cracked-wellied foot had got soaked, and it didnt get better the whole morning. The ringing tick I got, however, made up for it. We caught a male cuckoo!

The totals for the morning weren't great, we caught 16 birds overall, and all before 0730. But overall it was a good and fun weekend and I learnt (or at least remembered) a lot!

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Nest Boxes

I've been vaguely aware of a nest box or two around college during the past year, but suddenly all my ringing friends are busy ringing pulli (chicks) and I remember that I, too, have a pullus endorsement. Albeit very restricted. So last Thursday I wandered all over the grounds in a desperate attempt to find as many as possible, and see if any of them have birds in them.

One interesting thing I've noted is that people interested in birds often do not put bird things where I (as a ringer) would. The nest boxes were all (with the possible exception of one or two) out of the range of even the longest ladder. Speaking to the gardeners I learn that one of them (Phil) put them up a few years back, with his climbing harness and has since regretted it a bit because they havent been able to clean them from year to year. Not put off (much) by the lack of possibilities, I focus my attention on the 2 in reach. One has nesting GRETI, the other appears to be empty.

Another thing I've noticed is the complete lack of sense in people, or rather, the complete presence of health and safety legislation. I wasnt allowed to borrow a ladder from the maintenence department due to this. Fair enough, I suppose, from their point of view, but hugely frustrating for me!!!

So I went back to talk to the gardeners, who then said there might be one or two reachable boxes on the sides of various buildings. I tried them, two were empty and the rest I couldnt open (fixed slate roofs or similar). Which is another example of non-ringer thinking! One of my friends knows the location of a wrens nest in the next door college but even if I could get permission it isnt on my license, so I think I'm going to have to leave the pulli for this year.

In other news: I have a theoretically squirrel proof feeder! It works on a weight principle (squirrels will cause a cover to go over the open bird-standy-on bits). We'll see how squirrel proof it is - I dont trust those beasties one bit!

Sunday, 19 April 2009


I've got the nets up today, first time in ages. Metcheck has been really bad lately, I've woken up (either intentionally or not) with the vague idea of going ringing but it's been raining. When it's promised me clear weather! (well, nicely overcast in any case). So I gave myself a lie-in today and put the nets up after I eventually got up. The problem today is sun, so I haven't caught anything so far, and I don't really expect to. There's also one of those annoying breezes that ruffles the net up at one end, making it eminently more visible.

So I've set myself the task of maintaining the feeders. This really shouldn't be much of a task, as I only have 4 out, one of which is an amazing metal contraption that needs hardly any attention. But of the other 3, I had to spend hours first getting them down from the trees as they're higher than I can reach (I can only just reach them standing on a chair), then finding the bird-standing-on-things. Don't know what they're called, but the squirrels not only insist on chewing the edges and occasionally knocking them to the ground (which I solved with the aid of a moderate amount of copper wire), but also to remove these bits and scatter them in the undergrowth. Especially now that it's spring and there's a large amount of growing things, they are hard to find. Why do people make them green?????? A nice red would stand out and also let the birds know where the feeders are!

After only managing to find 2 of the 4 missing things-which-the-bird-stands-on, I took them all inside and taped up the feeders with a large amount of duct tape. There. That'll show those damn squirrels. Now to see if I've caught anything yet.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Back in Cambridge!

Back in Cambridge, after a small stop off near the Ashdown forest. Beautiful woods there, and lots of birdwatchers (which is one indicator I use for good birds!!). Hopefully I'll be ringing back in my little patch tomorrow morning.

I got another amazingly cool ringing tick the other day. I was out with my trainer (Jim), and we were each manning separate sites when I got a call over the walky-talky. They were just about out of range so I heard a 'crackle crackle ringed crackle jay?'


'Well you better come over here then!!' (me having walked into range by this point). So I ran back to Jim's station and there in the bag was a fantastically beautiful Jay, a lot more chestnut than I'd expected with the brightest blue imaginable. Has to be one of my top 5 ringing ticks!!! Pictures at maalie.blogspot.com (Jim's website).

In other news, one of my nets has a big hole in! Not sure how it happened but I suspect it was a blackbird, because there was a blackbird in that section of the net that tried (and succeeded) in escaping. Although I didnt really think they were that capable of causing holes. Another trip to the BTO headquarters is in order to get some mending material, and also I'd like another net set so that I can leave one at home and not have to worry about transporting them.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Picture of a wren-beast I caught yesterday, which today I caught again. This is the 3rd re-trap out of 6 birds ringed in total in the veg-plot area of the garden.

The one really interesting thing about the veg-plot area is that the birds around there seem to have routines. One morning I caught a house sparrow, and in the afternoon a blackbird. The next day the same thing happened, same birds, same locations in the net, similar timings.

Aside from that, catching is slow. I might move the net tomorrow and see if I can catch more down by the stream. At least the net wont be silhouetted against buildings there!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

After 9 painful weeks of waiting daily by the pigeon holes for the post to be delivered, I finally got my C-permit! Since then I've done far less ringing than I'd planned, thanks partly to the weather and partly due to my reluctance to get up early if I havent set a time to be somewhere (at 5.30 in the morning, bed is REALLY attractive).

But I've caught a lot of interesting birds at my home site in the college orchard, including 2 ringing ticks (Green woodpecker and Mistle thrush) and loads of blackbirds. There is also a Tawny owl flying round every night who I've tried to catch but have, so far, failed. He will sound so much better with a ring on.

So where am I now? Term has just ended, at a very inconvenient time for me (I have just started ringing at another site and wanted to see what more it could offer before vanishing 'home' home for easter), so I'm looking into sites here. I've had a net up in the garden all day today, catching a wonderful total of 2: 1 Blackbird and 1 House sparrow. To be fair, the sun was on the net most of the day and the wind was rustling it too, so I wasnt expecting much.

Yesterday I was out swan catching with Kane - I really do love swans, they're beautiful and they make the most amazing soft grunting noise to one another. Catching them is really rewarding too, because it's more effort both physically (as my muscles are feeling today) and mentally (trying to disguise your body language so that it say 'innocent bystander feeding the swans' rather than 'I'm a ringer trying to catch you' to them). We also caught a few other birds by hand - black headed gulls, mallard and a Jackdaw! This was particularly exciting to me, as it is another ringing tick and also my first corvid.