Saturday, 28 December 2013

Return of the bramblings

Another Christmas was over, full of delicious food, fabulous presents and wonderful family. Of course the first thing we do once the family has returned to the mother-land (in this case Wales) is to get up before dawn (not too much of an issue at this time of year) and head out ringing. Sunshine and breezey, not the best combination for ringing but good enough to see what the Farm has to offer. 

Turns out that finally the bramblings have returned to the feeders. With the mild winter thus far many of the finches that make this such a special site have stayed away, feeding in the wider landscape of the forest. With food finally starting to dwindle large numbers had returned to the feeders in the garden of the Farm, with the walk in trap in particular working effectively to catch these beautiful birds. 

We know bramblings breed in Scandinavia and Northern Russia, and then migrate south to the UK and southern Europe for winter. We have even caught a bird in the past with a Norwegian ring on it... But when they migrate which routes do they take? Do birds coming to the UK, and our Farm in particular, cross over to Scotland and then south? Or do they fly down through Europe before heading over the North Sea? And once again, ringing is helping to solve the puzzle. 

Male brambling originally ringed in Helgoland, Germany

Today among the 15 or so bramblings we caught, one, just one had a ring on that read Helgoland. Helgoland, a small group of islands located off the coast of Germany with their own ringing scheme. At some point in the recent past (OK I sound like a Doctor Who episode now!) someone on that group of islands caught a male brambling, either on its way south for the winter or returning north to breed. Now, on a mild, breezey, sunny winters day that very bird was caught in our trap in a Suffolk garden!


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Night Visitor

Night had fallen on the fields and woodland, the deepest and darkest black of the trees silhouetted against the inky black of the night sky where stars twinkled only briefly from behind the breaks in cloud cover. The only sound was the soft snorting of a horse from the nearby paddock, the gentle swish of sheep moving through the grass of the next field and the soft low murmurs of two people standing by the hedge waiting. Out of the darkness comes a loud, almost harsh ‘hoouh…ho ho ho hoouhhh’ the song of a tawny owl. The harshness comes from the tape, it is a little unnatural, but it has the desired effect.

In the near distance, from unseen trees beyond the fields comes the slightly softer, more natural song of a real tawny owl. Responding to the tape as a threat to establishing its breeding territory the vocal battle rages. But the owl comes no closer, content to keep its distance and keep hooting in response, waiting to see whether this intruder will enter its territory. In the trees nearby there is a single hoot and then….nothing. The distant owl continues to hoot and keep its distance.

The ringers decide to try their luck elsewhere, not wanting to upset this one owl too much. Silently they walk back to the top of the field and out of the darkness the outline of the poles, guy strings and very faintly the net, comes into focus. But there is something else there too. Hanging, quite still, is a roundish shape that was not there before. It is not until the ringers are right up to the net that the shape takes form, it is an owl! Careful to avoid strong talons and beak, the owl is removed to some choice words to the effect of ‘oh we seem to have caught one!’

Oh what a bird. Beautiful streaked and mottled feathers of innumerable shades of brown to grey, so soft to the touch. Tiny white feathers cover the legs all the way to the gripping talons. A wide round face split by a narrow dark wedge that reaches the curved bill; with mysterious black eyes like two deep unending pools. It is sturdy yet light; it does not fight but holds itself proud and upright. Its eyes close at the inevitable light needed for processing but it is magnificent. Such grace and silent stealth encompassed in one beautiful bird. Closer examination reveals a comb-like leading edge to the flight feathers which breaks down the turbulence created as the wing moves through the air, muffling the sound and creating silent flight.

Oh the magnificent tawny owl
With the ringing process complete we turn off all lights allowing the bird to regain its night vision. On releasing it, the owl seems to pause for a second before leaning forward, opening its beautiful rounded wings and disappearing into the black of the night.

Coming so close to such wild natural beauty, glimpsing its secrets even for only an instant, sends a shiver down my back….


Monday, 11 November 2013

Catch of the Day

Dawn breaks over the cold beach at Great Yarmouth. The sun’s rays splintering between broken clouds, the lights of the sea front buildings twinkle in the remaining darkness that slowly fills with diffuse morning light. The sand shifts under foot as the group makes its way, laden with gear, to the tide line. Warm breath steaming in the cold air, slowly a large net is stretched out and then furled into a shallow trench in the sand. Canons are buried and the net attached. A long blue cable is wheeled out to a safe distance where a box with switches and buttons reminiscent of a space station sits in the sand. The group disperses to wait. Bait in the form of soaked bread is scattered into the catching area, with dry bits flung into the air in order to attract our quarry. Gulls. But not just any gulls, Mediterranean Gulls.

A beautiful adult Mediterranean Gull

Back in August 2012 a Wild Barley post called The Med in Norfolk discussed the sighting of colour ringed Mediterranean Gulls sighted from this very beach in Great Yarmouth. From such sightings we know that birds ringed in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany regularly cross the North Sea and spend the winter on our shores. But not all birds on the beach are colour ringed. What about the others? Are they all coming from these countries or from other locations throughout Europe? Do all the birds wintering in Great Yarmouth return to the same places? Now a group of ringers, and birders who regularly come to Great Yarmouth to read the rings of gulls on the beach, are embarking on a new project in order to find out.

The morning progresses; the sea front comes to life with dog walkers and workers making their way to offices, shops, cafes and bars throughout the town which at this time of year is sleepy and quiet. The birds sit in groups away down the beach, occasionally one shows a brief interest in our offering. We wait, and wait. Catching birds in this way, using a canon to fire a net over the top of the birds is not undertaken lightly. Ringers undergo rigorous and lengthy training in order to obtain this licence.

Suddenly there is a loud ‘bang’ and without even looking up the team starts sprinting across the sand to the birds now trapped under the net. Legs pumping, straining against the sand, the runners arrive (yes definitely out of breath) at the net, preventing birds from escaping and starting to remove them from beneath the mesh.

The canon net fires over the group of gulls trapping them beneath © David Pelling

Each bird is bagged, and then ringed with a uniquely numbered metal ring as well as a plastic alpha-numeric colour ring. The birds are aged, their wings measured and they are weighed before being released back along the beach.

A success! The catch has 13 new Mediterranean Gulls with a variety of different aged birds; adults with their clean grey backs, brilliant white wings, deep red bill and legs and smudge of black around the head; a second year bird with remnants of black in the wing feathers; and first year birds, those that have been born this year, with brown feathers scattered amongst the grey of the wings and back.

The three ages of Mediterranean Gull;
first year, second year and adult (left to right) 
© David Pelling

In addition to these there are three birds with rings on already, all of which herald from Belgium.

Once all the birds are processed and released, the net is set again, and after a cup of steaming hot chocolate to warm the cockles and the fingers, the wait begins again in the hope of a second catch. Almost at the point of accepting one catch for the day, the net is once again fired and once again the team races across the sand to collect the birds. A smaller catch this time, but still another two Mediterranean Gulls ringed and added to the total for this, the projects inaugural catch. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

A Wild Whale Chase

It’s not every day your colleague comes into work and says he has seen a humpback whale from his sofa! And living in Norfolk this absolutely never happens as this whale has never been recorded here, that is until now! 

Humpback whales are widely distributed throughout the world's oceans, undertaking long distance migrations between winter tropical breeding grounds and high latitude feeding grounds during the summer. Over the last 10 years or so their numbers worldwide have also been increasing. Good news as they recover from commercial hunting.

The unmistakable humpback whale (not the Norfolk whale but a humpy non the less)

In British waters the humpback whale is an unusual sight, although the number of sightings is increasing and it is now regularly recorded along the western coasts of Britain, from Shetland, the north Irish Sea and the western approaches to the Channel. These individuals are likely to be part of the population that migrates from the west coast of Africa, north to off the coast of Iceland and Norway (Sea Watch Foundation, 2012). There are also more and more reports of whales from the northern and central North Sea.

One of the great things about working for a department filled with marine wildlife enthusiasts is that we are all in the same ‘boat’ so to speak...we love watching whales and dolphins and when something like this turns up on your doorstep we have the flexibility to just go! Well I was going at any rate!



Stormy clouds and rain did not deter us as we wound our way along the narrow roads of the Norfolk coast. Reports of the whale were still coming in; it seemed to be feeding a short distance from the shore, slowly moving northwards. By the time we pulled up in the small village of Sea Palling the sun had broken loose, driving the cloud and rain away. Climbing up the sand dunes we were met with people carrying scopes, heading the other way. ‘It’s moved further north’ were the words, with which we did an about turn and headed back to the car. More winding roads and one diversion later we pulled into the windswept car park of Happisburgh and were greeted by a small crowd of people and their scopes. Surely a good sign.

Standing there at the top of a dune, gazing out at a murky North Sea, the sun casting various shades of blue across the choppy surface, and the guy standing next to me, his eye glued to his scope, finally shouts ‘there it is!’. Me with my binoculars scanning however could see nothing but waves, occasional spray and gannets. It was moving offshore, its blow merging with the white caps and without a scope there was not much hope. Maybe, for me, it was not meant to be.

Turns out this whale found the food and water off the Norfolk coast rather appealing. The next morning it was seen again, following the same route and pattern; close to shore moving northwards. We may miss it; it may be far offshore again by the time we get there; but if you never try, you never know; you can guarantee you won't see it sat at your desk. Such words swirl round my head as we drive back along the winding roads, this time to Horsey. Climbing the dunes once more and gazing out at a calm blue sea, we are greeted by the unmistakable blow, back and hump of a humpback whale! Taking no chances this time I have borrowed a telescope, and while at first it is close enough to see with the naked eye, gradually the whale moves further offshore and the scope lets me follow it....


Scoping out a humpback whale from the North Norfolk Coast

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Hunt

The RIB sped out of Victoria Harbour, skimming over the silky smooth water of the San Juan Straight. Mist, through which the sun was valiantly trying to break through, obscured the Olympic Mountains of the USA and gave a silvery quality to the ocean between. On board a small group of passengers are safely ensconced in large red survival suits. abruptly the boat does a u-turn, and speeds back towards the harbour. Ahead one or two larger boats filled with people are almost stationary, a sure sign of something being about. The RIB slows, approaching carefully. Out of the silvery grey water a tall, black fin rises, a grey saddle just behind this dorsal fin and the hint of white around the eye, as the unmistakable sleek, black body of a killer whale slices effortlessly through the water.

A Bigg's transient killer whale cruises the Victoria coastline

The boat slows almost to a stop, watching at a distance as the killer whales move steadily along the shoreline. There are five, including a large male and a small calf. But these are different to those seen from the kayak. They may be subtle differences but these whales may as well be a completely different species. They are Bigg’s transient killer whales, and rather than feeding on fish as the resident whales do, they feed on mammals. Seals, dolphins, porpoises, are all on their menu. Named after Michael Bigg, who first pioneered the photo-identification of killer whales here and led the way in establishing the different types of killer whales that live off the coast of British Columbia and Washington. Bigg’s killer whales do not vocalise or echolocate as much as resident’s and that is because marine mammals can hear very well underwater. Using stealth they follow the coastline in search of prey and that is exactly what this group was doing. At times they are in water so shallow the tip of the males dorsal fin is still clear above the water.

The group’s progress up the coast slows, they seem to be stalling and then the reason why becomes apparent. A harbour seal, sat on top of a bed of kelp, dinner. The group slowly circle, spy hopping, raising their whole head above the water and taking a good look around and at the seal. Tighter and tighter the five killer whales, including the young calf, circle closer. There is thought to this process. They don’t just go barging in, they work it, thinking, almost assessing the situation, working the best way to get the seal from the kelp. The approach needs to be right, move too soon and the seal could get away. 

Searching, establishing where the seal is

Suddenly there is a splash, the seal’s hind flippers flick up into the air and it is pulled down beneath the kelp. The killer whales surface once more altogether, almost turning in on one small point between them and then it is quiet.

Having pulled the seal under, the group surfaces tight together

Five minutes later the group surfaces again, once more in searching mode as they move off along the coast again…

The passengers sit, stunned. While it is sad to know that seal has been munched, it is the most fascinating piece of behaviour I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged to have observed this part of this killer whale family’s lives. This is nature, this is survival, this is the wild beautiful natural world we live in, and what we must protect.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Dash to the coast

Across the country the nation collectively groaned as the weather forecasts came in. Summer it seems was coming to a very abrupt end with gales and heavy rain predicted from midweek and over the weekend. Only one select group of people were eyeing up the predictions with relish. Northerly, and easterly winds, even some rain, birders on the east coast were rubbing their hands together at the thought of masses of migrant, common and rare, crossing from the continent. More than one booked last minute time off work as they themselves migrated to the coast.

Ringers also pricked their ears up at the forecast, constantly monitoring the changing weekend conditions with the hope of some sort of break, or brief pause in the storm that might bring suitable conditions to try and catch some of those birds that had made it to the coast.

Saturday was looking a total wash out with heavy rain and strong wind forecast all day. Sunday though, now Sunday was looking good. It seemed a respite in the wind and rain was coming.

Friday night and the forecast although improving on Saturday afternoon was still suggesting that Sunday would be the day. Of course the British weather being the British weather meant a certain pair of ringers woke up (thankfully reasonably early) on Saturday morning to find calm overcast conditions! Perfect for ringing but we were an hour from the coast! A frantic morning of throwing everything in the car (ringing kit, camping kit, food, blankets, dogs stuff, dog!….) and we made a dash for the coast.

All ready for a weekend ringing at the coast

It was not too bad all things considered… nets were up and birds were being caught by 10:30ish. Before the rain and wind then settled in, over 110 birds were caught and ringed. Most being robins and blackcaps, all recently arrived, but a few brambling and song thrush added to the mix and a special treat of a yellow-browed warbler one of those more rarer migrants….

Large numbers of robins recently arrived on the coast

Along the coast the conditions on Sunday were challenging for birders, with squally showers and strong winds, but the odd interesting birds were turning up, not least a spattering of yellow-browed warblers and for us, a wonderful view of a great grey shrike…


Not a bad blustery weekend after all….

The stunning yellow-browed warbler


Sunday, 6 October 2013

Dolphin Delight

Ahead the water of Johnstone Strait boiled. A long line of turbulent water stretching across the far side. Even from the low kayak you could see the disturbance in an otherwise calm sea. Through binoculars, on the bow of the nearby boats you could make out dark leaping shapes. Dolphins, lots of dolphins. Steaming up and down the Strait is a group of well over 300 Pacific white-sided dolphins. 

Just over two nautical miles away, across the other side of the smooth expanse of water, the small group of kayakers cautiously paddled out of Blackney Passage. They pause a short distance from shore, not willing to go too far into the middle of the Strait where motor boats and cruise ships travel. The dolphins remain distant, a mass of white frothing water, the occasional dark body leaping clear and creating an even bigger splash.

Watching from afar

Turning, the kayakers slowly head up the Strait reluctantly leaving the dolphins away to the left. Then something ahead catches the eye, the glint of sun reflecting against a dark back, a smooth sickle shaped dorsal fin slices through the water, followed by another. Part of the group has turned and in the blink of an eye, or the dip of a paddle, crossed the Strait. The small group crosses ahead of the kayakers and then turns. Hearts beat faster, paddles slow, and swoosh three or four dolphins surface within meters.

Pacific white-sided dolphins! 

Suddenly the whole group appears around us. Dolphins on all sides leaping clear, surfacing four, five or six abreast, in perfect synchrony. Exclamations of delight burst forth, an irrepressible, instinctive reaction to so many dolphins leaping almost jubilantly around us. It is impossible to know where to look, as we crane our necks one way and then another. Then someone yells ‘beneath!’ Looking down into the dark water and beneath the kayak are dolphins! Gracefully they twist and turn, seemingly looking back up at us as we gaze down at them.

Time seems to slow, the encounter feels like it lasts a lifetime, a slow motion play of events….then almost as quickly as they all appeared the dolphins are gone. We look up, time speeds back up to normal, and we see the group once again churning down the Strait.


Another fabulous adventure with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures....

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Kayaking with Giants

There is not a ripple to be seen. The only sound is the plop of a paddle as it dips into the water, the drip of sparkling droplets as it is lifted out and the gentle slap of the kayak as it glides through the smooth water. Spray jackets rustle as our arms slowly work moving the paddle at a steady rate. The deep blue ocean is so smooth it looks oily, swirling patterns created from innumerable shades of blue, black, green and purple. The deep green of the shoreline, an impenetrable wall of trees silently passes by. Wispy lichen hangs like tendrils from the branches, giving them an almost ghostly and eerie presence.

The beauty of Vancouver Island from a kayak

Across the still water a huge ‘whoosh’ breaks the silence, a whale surfacing to breathe. Louder, deeper somehow, longer than the Orca that call the straits and waterways off Vancouver Island home for the summer. This whale is bigger, much bigger. Scanning ahead, and around us, we hear a ‘whoosh’ again and this time see the ephemeral water droplets hanging in the air. We drift, watching, listening, and waiting. ‘Whoosh’ again, closer, this time and we see a dark, large body surface, arch its back and disappear. A humpback whale, one of the oceans giants, the size of a bus, circles our small, 6 foot long kayak. I feel no fear. This giant is searching for food, which for them is small shoaling fish, although I am glad to keep a respectable distance.

The whale surfaces again, and in the opposite direction another two whales surface almost simultaneously. There are now three working the area around us. The whale ahead breathes dips its body and gracefully lifts its wide, wing like tail out of the water, almost waving goodbye.

The majestic tail fluke of a humpback whale

But it is a brief goodbye. Birds circle, a sure sign of food being pushed to the surface of the water. We watch the commotion, listening to the raucous calls of the gulls. Suddenly the water erupts from beneath the birds as the humpback whale lunges upwards and out of the water, white water explodes everywhere. Mouth open wide the whale engulfs the entire ball of fish. For a moment it seems to pause, hanging in mid-motion, mouth open, it’s bristly plates of baleen hanging down from the huge top jaw. Beneath, the throat has ballooned allowing the whole shoal to be scooped up in one go. Slowly, sedately, the whale disappears beneath the waves, here it will push all the water out through those baleen plates where the fish will be trapped, like a filter, allowing the whale to wipe them clean with its huge tongue and swallow the food.

Humpback whale lunge feeding

Not even before the first whale had disappeared another surges up and out of the water, this time sideways, it’s long, white, knobbly pectoral fin (flipper) lifted up out of the water.

Everything briefly goes quiet before the each whale surfaces to breathe once more, lifts its tail and disappears to continue its search for food. We continue to sit, somewhat breathless from the whole encounter, listening and watching as time after time each of these whales continues to surface and feed…

another adventure with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures....

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A hobby

A hobby - an activity or interest pursued for pleasure and relaxation and not as a main occupation.

For me, as many people will know by now, its bird ringing. For those reading the Wild Barley blog on a regular basis (thank you!) it’s pretty much impossible to escape the fact. Most weekends, and occasionally during the week, you will find me getting up ridiculously early in order to go and catch birds, to age them, sex them, take a load of biometrics and to ultimately learn more about them. The ringing I do as part of the BTO ringing scheme is contributing masses to our understanding of bird ecology and populations. Understanding how and where they moult, breed, migrate, over winter, live, grow, behave…


My hobby - bird ringing

A hobby – a fairly small, very swift falcon with long narrow wings, specialist aerial feeders.

Oh what a bird! So awesome that even a popular table football game is named after it…. Ever thought how Subbuteo got its name...? well the scientific name for hobby is Falco subbuteo and the games creator was a big fan of this super bird.

Acrobatic and fast… soaring skywards before diving back to earth; racing over treetops or reed beds; twisting and turning in mid air in pursuit of dragonflies and sometimes small birds. No time to stop, with captured prey often eaten on the wing. The delight of warm summer evenings and a highlight of any days birding; winter sees them head off to Africa in search of more insects…

When attempting to catch swallows and martins at a roost however, the hobby is not necessarily the sight you want to see. The gathering flocks provide a tempting source of food for hungry hobbies especially when migration is nearing. Storming into the group, the hobby races after the sand martins and swallows, dipping, diving, twisting and turning… the martins and swallows flock closer together, with reactions so quick they seem to move as one, confusing the hobby, not letting it single out one individual.

In many cases the flock will move on, deciding the reeds they were attempting to roost in may not be safe enough and leaving the ringers with empty nets… on top of that catching a fast moving hobby in mist nets is tricky to say the least…

Although, there are those occasions where the right factors come into play, the fates align, one little thing leads to another and you come round the corner to find not a hobby bouncing out of the net and making a quick escape, not a hole indicating where a hobby has burst through the net, but a hobby caught in the net!

With dusk falling over the reeds and nets at Icklesham, Sussex, and just a single swallow caught in the roost, it was indeed an absolute delight to catch one of these superb birds. 


A hobby - the bird :)


Friday, 13 September 2013

Orca in the mist...

I am sitting in a kayak, the smooth silky water a finger tip away, behind me a huge grey boulder of the shoreline towers above. Pot marked with yellowish, reddish and orangey brown lichen, with brown bull kelp tickling the rock where it plunges into the water, continuing to the depths covered in urchins and anemones. Above and the deep green trees are shrouded by fog. Ahead the fog crowds in close, sea and sky merge, in the near distance a motor boat chugs. We wait. Patient. Well mostly. The handheld radio crackles, voices break the anticipated silence, cutting across the foggy air. Orca are coming our way. The motor boat gets a little louder, the whale watch boat, they must be close. Then hidden by the mist we hear a ‘kawoof’ followed by another and another. The unmistakable sound of Orca’s breathing! In front the steady stream of breaths passes by, unseen, but distinct… 

Minutes pass and all we hear is breathing Orca and the motor boat slowly passing us by. Then, to our right a tall, black dorsal fin looms and out of the mist a small group passes closer to shore, and closer to us.

The main group disappears, their blows getting fainter and with them the motor boat fades away. We are left alone. Four kayaks, five people and four Orca milling around… heaven! 

Here's looking at you!

Our guide drops down a hydrophone, an underwater microphone, and replacing the sound of the engine and the crackle of the radio, the wonderful calls of Orca’s echo through the air.

The mist begins to lift, bright sunlight beams through the breaks, glistening off the Orca’s backs and creating sparkles in the droplets of their breath. The world of Johnstone Strait, Vancouver Island, Canada, reveals itself, a backdrop of forested mountains, rippling calm waters and Orca surfacing in the deep blue-green sea.

Orca in the mist

video


This wonderful encounter was part of a kayak tour with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures (http://www.kingfisher-adventures.com/), more adventures from this trip to follow.... Watch this space!


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Rainstorm Roller

The gravelly sandy path crunches beneath my feet as I follow behind the others. They are in a hurry, rushing to reach a particular point along the path. I am happy to dawdle, taking in the beauty of the evening. A huge sky stretches above, ahead it hits a wall of dark purplish-grey cloud, menacing on the horizon, threatening storm and rain. Behind it is clear; a bright, warm sun low in the sky spreads a warm, orangey yellow glow across the landscape. It is dramatic light for dramatic scenery. To my left sand dunes rise up, topped with grasses, and occasional deep green bushes nestled at their feet. To the right marshy grassland stretches to distant trees, where the spires of small churches and the tips of a wind mill poke above. The leaves of clusters of small trees and bushes glow warmly, glistening from the recent downpour.

The dramatic Norfolk coast

The group scans every bush, dead branch, tree, fence post for the objective of their desire. I scan, and pause watching a pair of Stonechats clicking and flicking their tails at the top of a bush. Scan and pause, watching a Kestrel swoop low over the grass, before swiftly rising and hovering looking intently below. Scan and pause, carefully taking in each Woodpigeon and crow perched up high just in case it is the bird were are searching for.

The sun continues to drop, clouds bubble up behind us now, darkening the horizon and threatening another deluge. Time appears to be running out, the pace quickens again as expectations falter. It is fast approaching the time many birds go to roost, disappearing to shelter and sleep for the night.

Then with a hint of suppressed excitement (just in case it disappears before anyone else sees it) the eagle-eyed Lee states ‘I’ve got it’. A quick scramble to set scopes on the spot and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, before bursting into excited exclamations of ‘well done!’

Distant, but totally distinctive, in the trees across the marshy fields sits a European Roller. What a bird! The size of a Jackdaw, with a reddish brown back and brilliant blue body and wings. Breeding in central and southern Europe and wintering in Africa, European Roller’s are a rare bird in Britain and well justified of the stir they cause.  

European Roller - what a beaut! © Nick Robinson

Rain drops start splattering, the wall of dark cloud grows ominously bigger and closer. The Roller, drops from the branch, reappearing with food of some sort. Finally it sets off, disappearing behind the bushes heading somewhere drier for the night. It is time for us to leave also as we head towards that rain. In a fitting end the storm skirts us and the sky turns red as the sun drops below the horizon.


Thursday, 25 July 2013

One little tern....deserves another

It is a balmy evening, the heat of the day having dissipated with the lowering sun. The golden sand shifts beneath my feet as I walk down the beach, small pebbles and stones are scattered amongst the golden grains and bunches of pale green marram grass cluster like small islands in an ocean of yellow. The sea gently rolls up and onto the beach, a creamy blue stretching to a hazy horizon. Behind us the tall dunes shield the beach from view. It is like a private world. Above us is a cacophony of sound, of birds chattering. But this is not any cacophony and not one you will hear at every beach in the UK. Looking up, and against the blue backdrop of the sky are small, delicate birds, a white so dazzling any laundry powder would be proud. It's not until one swoops past, low and fast that you see the black cap and fabulous yellow bill tipped black. They are Little Terns. 

The smallest of Britain's terns it is also one of our rarer breeding seabirds. Nesting in the dynamic, changing habitat of our exposed beaches right at the tide line, whole colonies are vulnerable to being inundated by storms and rising sea levels. Other factors include high levels of disturbance and predation. The result; low levels of productivity and a thus a decline in the number of birds since the 1980s.

Two very cute Little Tern chicks

We carry on walking until we reach the end of a fenced off area, here stepping over an electric fence we hope the wardens have remembered to switch off, we climb into a little tern colony. We stretch out in a line and begin slowly walking back the way we came, eyes glued to the ground, carefully scanning the beach in front and gently placing one foot in front of the other. Little Terns nest on the ground, their eggs and chicks are so perfectly camouflaged they are almost invisible. Small pebble dashed eggs or tiny fluffy, pebble dashed chicks, silent and unmoving, they can so easily be missed. 

Around the coast where the largest Little Tern colonies remain, great lengths have been taken by a number of dedicated people to protect them while they nest. RSPB wardens patrol beaches, talking to beach goers, keeping them away from colonies. Electric fences have been erected keeping people and predators out as much as possible. Colonies are closely monitored, and as part of that monitoring and to understand where birds are moving to, where they are returning to breed and to get an idea of growth rates and fledging success, the chicks are ringed.

So we come full circle to me walking in a line of people, straining my eyes in search of invisible chicks, while adult birds wheel and dive above. But let me make it clear, I am here by invitation only. Even as a ringer you can’t just walk into a Little Tern colony and start ringing chicks left, right and centre. You have to have a special licence. As a ringer though you can be invited by someone who has a licence, and under their watchful presence get to ring what have to be the cutest, tiniest, fluffiest chicks in the world. It is a complete and utter privilege.

Ringing a Little Tern chick!

From tiny chicks a mere few days old that huddle in a dip together pretending not to exist, to the larger more mobile chicks that race around, darting between hummocks of grass before finally giving up and crouching down, all took a ring, all were weighed and had their bills measured.

Getting weighed

We soon reach the end of the colony, gather up the last few chicks and once processed leave the beach to the little terns once more. Adults swoop in, laden with fish caught nearby and the chicks resettle. Our impression on them seems fleeting, we leave nothing but foot prints in the sand and an extra little bit of bling on the leg….

Many thanks to the RSPB and Dave Parsons of East Norfolk Ringing Group

Monday, 15 July 2013

A Birthday Chat

The rolling downland of Salisbury Plain stretched to the horizon. Tall stalks of grass, their yellowing heads bending over, ripple in the faintest of breezes. Scattered amongst the yellow greens are dark green hawthorn bushes and the bright reds, blues, purples and yellows of wild flowers. Butterflies skip from one to another. Small skippers, marbled whites, ringlets, meadow browns, small tortoiseshells and even a fritillary pause for seconds at each before flittering away.

The sun blazes, its heat pounds down on the grass and tracks. Away from the public roads, tanks and 4x4s kick up plumes of dust from the grey gravel tracks that meander through the landscape. Perched on the tops of the bushes, a dead branch or marker post sits the bird we are searching for. The whinchat. The size of a robin, with a striking white stripe above the eye, streaky brown back and a beautiful washed out, pale orange breast. The whinchat is a summer visitor, mainly to our heaths and moorland, spending the winter in southern Africa.

A beautiful female whinchat

Between 1995 and 2008 the numbers of whinchats more than halved in Britain, all but disappearing from central and eastern England. It is likely that factors in both their wintering grounds, migration routes and breeding areas are playing a role in this decline. Having escaped the intensification of farming practices following World War II, Salisbury Plain remains a haven for whinchats and provides a perfect opportunity to study their habitat choices and nesting success. By colour ringing individuals the aim is to also establish whether fewer adults are returning from Africa each year.

Nest of colour ringed whinchat chicks

First task today was to colour ring a brood of six chicks. Next was to try and catch a rather elusive adult female who so far had avoided capture. Colour ringing of both adults from a nest site is key to understanding which birds are nesting where, and with whom, as well as establishing whether birds are returning. 

Today we were lucky. Strategic placement of our traps around the nest, focusing on favoured perching posts, ended up with the elusive female caught, ringed and colour ringed… Here is hoping that the small part we played today will help yield results that will disentangle the factors affecting whinchat populations and provide solutions to help them recover.

Not a bad way to spend the last day of your twenties….

Happy Birthday to me!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Red Kites

Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away…. well actually Great Britain in the late 18th Century. At this time you would have been extremely lucky to have seen one of the most beautiful birds of prey in the British countryside. The Red Kite. Persecuted throughout the 17th and 18th Century, only in mid-Wales did this magnificent bird hang on although numbers were down to just a few pairs. Even by the late 1980s the number of breeding pairs in Wales was in the 50s, and still none bred in England and Scotland.

Today, driving round the twisting turning roads of mid-Wales, up and over valleys a million shades of green, and against a deep blue sky it seems every few miles a bird will appear from behind a tree line, from behind the steep sides of a valley, or over a distant ridge. With long slender wings and finger tips spread, a deeply forked tail and reddish brown feathers with striking white patches under the wing and a silvery grey head, there is only one bird it can be. The success of the red kite recovery means that today these special birds are seen not only through mid-Wales, but also in the flat landscape of eastern England, through the mountains of Scotland and from the motorways of southern England.

The magnificent red kite returned to the skies of Great Britain

The recovery is down to a dedicated group of people and organisations; to a re-introduction programme, protection and to monitoring breeding birds. Just one example of how a species can be brought back from the brink by passion and dedication.

Today the programme of monitoring red kite nests continues, with as many chicks ringed and wing tagged as possible. It’s not every bird ringer that gets to sit in the cool shade of oak woodland, looking out across fields and valleys, with a red kite chick sat in their lap. I certainly feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to go ringing with Tony Cross who monitors the nests in mid-Wales.

One very happy ringer

Up close the chick is stunning. Piercing eyes watch your every move, brilliant yellow feet with sharp talons flex beneath your grip, silky chestnut feathers cover the body with just a hint of the white downy feathers beneath.

Superb red kite chick
It won’t be long before the chicks we ringed today will be soaring gracefully through the Welsh skies and hopefully in a couple of years setting up new breeding territories with a mate for life, continuing the success story of this beautiful bird. 

Monday, 24 June 2013

There's a swift in my kitchen

It was one of those days at work, the one where you come home and let it all out in a big ‘rant’ and feel a lot better for it. We all have them. For us the location is usually the kitchen as I rant and raid the cupboards for cheer me ups, and Lee stands listening patiently. This time we had ‘talked’ and I had raided, when I noticed a cardboard box sat on the work top. Lee having made no mention of it to this point, I casually lifted the lid curious to see what was inside. Peeking in, I turn and say ‘what is a swift doing in my kitchen?’

A little weak, our swift when we picked him up

In the box clinging to kitchen paper is a small, dark brown bird with beautiful long wings. A swift. Their sound to me typifies the British summer as they scream through blue skies, dipping and diving, twisting and turning. The ultimate high flier, on leaving the nest the swift spends the rest of its life on the wing. It returns only to ‘land’ in order to breed, everything else, eating, sleeping, mating, drinking, preening is done whilst it soars across the skies.

So what was one of these beautiful birds doing in a box in my kitchen? Occasionally as with any species, swifts get themselves into a bit of a pickle and need our help. In this case, this bird had been found in a kitchen sink having possibly been trapped for a couple days. The finders had taken it to the BTO and Lee had brought it home. Week from lack of food and dehydration, we were not sure it would survive the night let alone have the strength to fly. While we were able to give the bird water finding airborne insects proved a little trickier.

The next morning and there was a lot more movement coming from the box and our friend seemed a little more lively. There was only one way to find out whether it was ready to fly.

Out in the open space of the park, with swifts reeling overhead, careening around the houses, came the moment of truth. With a gentle push the bird was airborne. For a heartbeat it hung there, with the two of us ready below to catch it should it fall back to earth…. One, two flaps of those wings and it seemed to gain strength. Rising up like a feathered angel, wing beats getting stronger and stronger our little swift rose up in circles into the blue sky. Suddenly a flash mob of six or seven swifts joined in, and the group soared away over trees and houses....

Wild and free, a swift soars across the summer skies

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Meeting a Legend - Sir David Attenborough!

I am sitting on a wooden bench over looking the grassy field and pools of Cranwich. The wind roars through the leaves of the trees and the reeds at the edge of the pools, the sound rising and falling in intensity like a crowd at a football match cheering when their favourite player gets the ball. Overhead, against a sky various shades of grey, swifts swoop and dive. Despite the unsettled weather there is an air of excitement about the site as we wait for a very special guest to arrive. 

Ask anyone who they most admire in the world of Natural History and documentaries, and there is just one name on their lips. Sir David Attenborough. For over 60 years he has been the face and voice of British natural history programmes, giving us some of the most memorable television moments. For me the moment a blue whale surfaced right next to Sir David as he sat in a small boat is one of the most inspiring pieces of footage. The look on his face and the excitement in his voice, mirrors what I feel when I get up close to those magnificent creatures (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004t035).

So for him to come to our little patch of reeds in the middle of the Norfolk countryside to do some filming is a dream come true. It was not only the chance to meet him, it was the opportunity to watch him work. 

Having a chat about reed warblers, cuckoos and all sorts (Photo Kate Risely)

The filming for the series Natural Curiosities focused reed warblers and cuckoos, discussing the evoluntionary 'arms race' between the reed warbler host and the cuckoo parasite. From mimicking the egg to mimicking the sound of a whole brood of chicks, the cuckoo aims to trick the reed warbler into raising its offspring for it. The reed warbler responds by guarding the nest mobbing any cuckoo if it gets too close. 

As the morning progressed we watched as David and the team worked, being on hand to offer any advice or help that was required. It was privilege to watch him work, to hear that voice offer explanations for one of natures most curious relationships. 

Sir David at work

and I now have my own most memorable David Attenborough moment, beyond meeting him... 

during one break as we all sat in the long grass keeping out of the reflection in the window of the small hut in front of which they were filming, sitting on the bench where just hours before we had waited in anticipation, David looked at us and said 'you remind me of a pride of lions watching me'

oh to be compared to a pride of lions by the man himself....

Happy Team! (Photo Kate Risely)