Thursday, 31 December 2015

We are going on an adventure....

'We are going on an adventure' 
'the clothes over pajamas type of adventure'

In the dark we climb into the car and start up the mountain. The narrow road winds along the ridge and then up through the valleys. Tall, solid, black mountains rear up on either side of us, pitch black and not a feature to be seen they are a solid mass. Above the sky is starting to turn blue rather than black. Dawn will soon be breaking, but for now the sky slowly changes through shades of deepest blue. 

Finally we stop and, bundled in warm clothes and hats, pajamas still buried beneath the layers, we continue on foot up onto the mountainside. The sky continues to lighten, the features of the valley and mountainside begin to appear. Trees, winding river and road below; bracken, heather and gorse covering the mountain. We climb up the muddy path. 

Ahead the sun finally breaks over the ridge, bright and blinding, spilling light over the deep russet reddish browns of the bracken and deep greens of the gorse. The mountainside becomes bathed in glorious morning light. The wind is keen, tearing at leaves and the bobble on hats. A curtain of rain sweeps down the valley below, slate grey in stark contrast to the bright blue above our heads. In this early light birds begin to call, the sound carrying on the wind. 

In search of Grouse

From the low bracken a bird suddenly erupts, wings whirring rapidly attached to a plump body and a short rounded tail, it is accompanied by a call that sounds like rapid 'go back go back go back'. If skims the tops of the heather before crash landing a short distance away. It is close to what we have specifically ventured out this early to see. Red Grouse.  

We are also hoping to find Black Grouse and so we continue on, splodging through muddy puddles and slipping along the winding path. The harsh call of a Raven catches our attention, lifting our gaze skywards. Over the ridge another bird appears, long winged and gracefully skimming through the morning air. A female Hen Harrier. 

The wind picks up, watering the eyes, and the rain that had skirted through the valley below now looks to be heading our way. It is time to turn back and return along the muddy paths to the warmth and shelter of the car. The adventure is over for today, time for a cup of team and a mince pie. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Spectacle on the Estuary

The sun was descending through a crisp blue sky, heading for the horizon along which a few remaining clouds drifted with curtains of rain. The sky above was still clear and blue, fading to pale blue and gold at the horizon. From behind the dark greyish blue clouds come streaks of sunlight. A blustery wind rips across the land, tugging at scraggly bushes and tall grass and creating ripples in the incoming tide of water. Silvery channels of water meander across the mud flats, occasionally blazing gold as it catches the rays of the setting sun. Across this darkening mudscape is a living carpet of birds. Ripples of movement spread through the throng, even in the fading light you can see the golden tinge to the birds feathers. They are Golden Plover. Further along and there is a black and white mass of Oystercatchers. Suddenly the birds lift in waves into the blustery air creating a whirling mass of tiny dark specks against the pale blue and gold of the sky. Pale flashes catch the light as the birds twist and turn as one. They swirl restlessly until resettling on the mud flats - the spectacle of thousands of waders being pushed up the estuary and beach by the incoming tide. 

A whirling flock of waders

Away from the estuary and the waders, two birds suddenly appear from behind a bank. Long winged, graceful and elegant, they swoop along the bank, wing tips barely touching the tops of the grass before looping up and away. One perches on a fence post. It is a Pallid Harrier. A young bird which looks remarkably like the young and female of our own breeders, although becoming increasing rare themselves especially in England, the Hen Harrier. But a pale collar and pale feathers on the wing tells us it is a juvenile Pallid Harrier. The bird takes off again and almost from nowhere a different bird takes chase. Rounded wing and golden brown, a Short-eared Owl chases the harrier, swerving to and fro, sometimes dipping low and then diverting up and over the top of the bank the pair disappear from sight. The Pallid Harrier is not a usual bird for the UK, breeding on the steppes of Russia and central Asia before migrating south to winter in India and south-east Asia. Occasionally a wandering bird turns up in the UK causing some level of excitement amongst birders. 

Birders gather to get a glimpse of the Pallid Harrier

By now the sun has disappeared leaving a final trail of golden light and tinging the very tips of the clouds with pink. Above the sky is darkening. The water and mud of the estuary darkens to an almost purplely blue colour, and the waders are getting harder to see. In the sky above, against the deep dark blue, long ribbons of birds appear trailing across the sky, honking. Pink-footed Geese, hundreds and hundreds of them returning to the estuary to roost. On and on the skeins keep appearing, silhouetted against the final golden rays of sunlight on the horizon. 

Pink-footed Geese coming into roost



Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Ghostly Gulls

It seemed the spirit of Halloween was lingering, as a spooky, thick fog obscured all but the closest trees and the river. There was no wind and the dangling leaves of the willows trailed in the smooth flowing water like fingertips creating miniature ripples and whirlpools. Out of the white gloom came a brilliant flash of blue as a kingfisher shot down river and up into the lower branches of the willow, watching and waiting. The other birds of the river continue with their morning rituals, although it is already comparatively late in the day for them with the sun having been up for a few hours already. Ducks meander just past the old road bridge on whose worn stone you can still see the scars from tanks. Canada Geese preen themselves or feed on the grassy banks oblivious to the occasional car that appears briefly from the gloom. Overhead the harsh call of Carrion Crows and the cackle of Jackdaws echoes through the fog. Moorhens emerge from the reeds and sedge along the river’s edge with their characteristic bobbing head, circle a few times then disappear again. A family of Mute Swans, the two young still greyish brown, slowly patrol this small stretch of river. From the shrouded trees comes the twittering calls of various tits, Robins and Blackbirds, all heard but not seen.

Black-headed Gull (winter plumage)

Across the dark water stretches a footbridge, the clattering of puppy paws and footsteps its usual fare. But today it has a mist net covering its length, rising high above its barrier. The lure of food brings the ducks, swans and even the Moorhens closer to this bridge, and with them come the Black-headed Gulls. Brilliant white underneath, with silvery grey backs and bright orangey red legs and bill, they bounce effortlessly through the air like ghosts. Their heads are essentially white, with just a smudge of black behind a bright, black eye. Twisting and turning they spy the provisions, dropping down to pick at it from the water’s surface, watching as what is not gobbled by duck, goose or swan floats down river and under the bridge. The gulls flick up and over the bridge and one falls into the trap. The large mesh net is adept at holding the larger, longer winged gull until it is removed by experienced hands. 

And so there it is, in the hand, a small elegant Black-headed Gull. All ready for a metal ring, and in this case a colour ring to add to the project looking at gull movement from the region. We know birds are often moving between the UK and the continent especially Denmark and The Netherlands. But individuals have been found further afield including Senegal and Mauritania. So where will this bird go? Who knows but it will be easier for someone to report it since it has a colour ring which means it can be identified without being re-caught.

Ringed and colour ringed

It does not take long to process the bird. Unlike some of the larger gulls that take a number of years to replace all their juvenile feathers and look adult, Black-headed Gulls are will attain adult plumage when they are just over one year old. So at this time of year, there will either be first-winter birds (so birds hatched this summer) or adult winter birds. And so with that, and its colour ring, the bird is weighed and measured and then released quickly disappearing into the smokey fog. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Red Letter Day

For the last couple days the winds has been coming in from the East, sending birders scurrying to the coast in search of rare and vagrant birds brought over from the continent. Red-flanked blue tail, yellow-browed warblers, Isabelline shrike and Pallas’ warbler all turning up at coastal sites around Norfolk and Suffolk. To me, yes these are exciting birds, some of which I would love to see. But my priorities have changed. And it is not all down to the little Robyn bird that has become the centre of my world over the last 12 weeks. Even before she arrived, once I had become a bird ringer my priorities and focus shifted from birding to bird ringing. The easterly winds may have brought some unusual birds but it also heralded the return of our common winter migrants. Across the dark velvety sky in the early hours of Wednesday morning, with stars still twinkling and only the smallest hint of lightening of the sky signally the coming dawn, came the distinct but thin, almost wistful ‘seep’ call of one of our commonest winter migrants, but also one of the most beautiful. 

In the gathering light, with the reeds and trees at Cranwich rustling quietly in the breeze, we set a series of mist nets. Through the dark comes the deep rumbling roar of Red Deer, hidden by darkness and trees but sending tremors through the early dawn. As the morning draws on the sky is soon filled with hundreds of small, dark thrushes, with that distinct ‘seep’ call. They are Redwing. Circling through the sky now filled with hurrying clouds, moving in flocks from one tree to another and soon dropping down to where our nets stretched through open corridors between the pools, reeds and trees. 

The beautiful Redwing

Up close they are beautiful birds. A bold, creamy stripe above the eye, cuts through the olivey brown feathers of the head. A slightly less pronounced stripe runs underneath the eye. The glossy brown continues down the back and tail, while underneath the pale chest is streaked with dark brown spots. Under the wing is a deep, chestnut-red splash of colour that spills onto the flank and from which the bird gets its name. 

For each bird we look to age it by assessing the quality of the feathers, looking for any changes in colour, any pale fringing and the amount of wear. From this we can tell whether the bird hatched this year, or either the year before or at some point before. Due to the way adult passerines moult after each breeding cycle we have no way of knowing exactly how old the bird is from feathers alone. Only ringing details can do that. Once aged, we measure its wing, record how much fat it has, the condition of its breast muscle, and weigh it. It is then released to join the rest of the flock still hanging round the willows and alders of Cranwich. 


It is a tremendous day, with so many Redwings moving through we inevitably managed to catch a few…. Well 66 to be exact! But that was not all for the day, Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Robin, Chaffinch, Chiff chaff, Wren, Greenfinch, Reed Bunting Long-tailed Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Kingfisher, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Song Thrush, Marsh Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit and even a Willow Tit (a species that until this year we have not caught on the site since 2009!) added to a the grand total of 195 birds caught and processed on this Red Letter Day for ringing at Cranwich. 

Willow tit 
Cetti's Warbler




Friday, 9 October 2015

Bearded Beauties

Head to many of the larger reed bed sites in Norfolk and Suffolk and you have a good chance of encountering these little birds. In many cases you may not even see them. From the tall, waving reeds their nasal ‘ping’ bounces around like a pinball machine. If you do see one, it is often a small, seemingly brown ball of feathers, trailing a long tail zipping across the tops of the reeds. If you are lucky enough to catch site of one stationary you are confronted with a small, beautifully marked and delightful little reedling that is at home gripping on to a vertical reed stem. The brown is revealed as a tawny, orangey brown and there are stripes of creamy white and black on the wings, a long rufous brown tail trailing behind the stocky little body. The males have a silvery blue grey head, small bright yellow bill, brilliant orange eye and stunning black moustaches... so I guess Moustached Tit did not have quite the same ring as Bearded Tit. The females, while lacking the silvery grey head and moustache, are still just as delightful but in a more subtle way. 

So yes, while throughout the year you may be lucky enough to hear or even see these little, restless birds in the larger reed beds of the region. But at our comparatively little reed bed at Cranwich? Well as a matter of fact yes! In the past few years the characteristic pinging of a pair of Bearded Tit has been heard in the reeds fringing the margins of our pools. Clearly while many Bearded Tits remain in their large reed beds year round, some disperse during the winter. The calls at Cranwich have only been heard in the autumn and spring, there is no sign of them breeding… yet.

So with the final session of the season underway it is with some excitement that through the still, cool autumnal early morning we hear that pinball ping. With the sun beginning to warm the cool air it was with delighted surprise that from the bird bag I took out a stunning, male Bearded Tit. The first time I had held this gorgeous bird in my hand. The next net round brought the added pleasure of catching a female. 

A stunning male Bearded Tit

No less beautiful, the female Bearded Tit

So here we are, on our little reed bed site with a pristine pair of Bearded Tits. Both adult and young of the year replace all their feathers at the end of summer, so there is no way of telling whether these were young dispersing or adults moving away from the breeding sites. Where did they come from? In all likelihood to answer is nearby Lakenheath but may be somewhere further afield? But where do they go to? Remain at Cranwich for the winter or carry on to some other destination? And where will they return to breed? One day could the answer to that be Cranwich? Ringing this pair will hopefully help to start providing some answers…

Monday, 5 October 2015

Snakes in the grass

Along the grassy margins of the pools, nestled amongst the tall grass, reeds, alders and willows at the waters edge, and near to the open spaces of short grass and sandy soil at Cranwich there are a number of dark, corrugated sheets. The warm sunshine of a sunny September beats down on the black material, warming the soil beneath. It had been a cool night and the surrounding grass, reeds and leaves were damp, water droplets glistening in the bright sunlight. It was with great care that we approached these corrugated sheets, gently lifting them to discover the secrets hidden in the warm, darkness. As the light flushes the area, a quick movement catches the eye, and it requires even quicker reactions to catch it’s source. Lifting the beautiful animal into the light the sun glistens off dark, brownish grey scales that when catching the light look almost bronze. Its belly is pale yellow. Down its side and especially underneath there are jet black scales forming a pattern that is distinctive to each individual. The head has a bright yellow and black collar, and a gleaming eye with round pupil. From the mouth a dark, forked tongue darts in and out tasting the air. It is a beautiful Grass Snake. It coils around the hand holding it, supple and sleek, there is nothing slimy about it, it is all muscle. The tongue continually tasting the surrounding air. 

A beautiful Grass Snake

Checking more refugia reveals more snakes, each a Grass Snake but each distinctively different. A different arrangement to the pattern of black scales, a different variation to the colour of the brown scales. One is much darker, another an almost olive brown colour. The largest is just over a metre in length, the smallest reaches from tip of finger to elbow, and is as thin as a pencil.

Checking more refugia

The habitat here is perfect for them, plenty of long grass close to water, providing a ready supply of amphibians, the snakes preferred prey. 

The series of refugia have been purposely placed around the site since the spring when the snakes would have come out of hibernation and sought out food and a mate. Throughout the summer a student has been monitoring the snakes catching, measuring and photographing them. Like with the bird population we want to know how many snakes are using the site, and like with birds we use the technique of ‘mark recapture’ to do this. However unlike with birds where we add a small metal ring with a unique number inscribed, with snakes it is simply a case of taking its picture. The unique pattern to the black markings on the belly of each snake will be more than enough to identify individuals, much like a human finger print.

Stunning markings on a Grass Snake

As the summer has waned into autumn, even with its final warm flourish, the number of snakes being found has begun to drop, as many start seeking out places to hibernate, a safe haven for the cold winter months ahead. For now with the warm autumnal sun beating down, it is time to release the snakes back into the long grass or the nearby water, ready to continue hunting before they too head for hibernation. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Isle of Wight Ringing Course

Haseley Manor, in Arreton on the Isle of Wight was built on the site of a Saxon Manor house which existed at the time of the Domesday Book. In its long history it has been owned by four kings, used as a Monastic Grange, accommodation for farm workers and even as a museum. Now it is a privately owned home, filled with many original features from its varied past. Today the land surrounding the house has also been transformed, from agricultural fields into a haven of pools, trees and shrubs. Walking through the reserve, watching birds flit from tree to tree, swallows swoop overhead and hawker dragonflies zip past, transparent wings glinting in the sunlight, or treading the wooden floor boards of the manor house, drinking in the history the walls, beams, fireplaces and ornaments have to offer, I wonder what the previous owners of Haseley Manor would make of the group of 20 people stringing up fine mesh nets to catch birds, only to attach a small ring and let them go!

What would King Harold make of it, or William the Conqueror? Or Henry the Eighth? What would the community living in the abbey think? How times have changed. How the use of the manor has changed with the times. Today not only is the Manor a home and a wedding venue, it is also a place for the scientific study of birds. 

Along the maze of grassy paths throughout the grounds, mist nets have been strategically placed in order to catch the birds that breed amongst the trees, bushes and along the waters edges, but also to catch the birds moving through heading south for the winter.

The setup at the Manor also lends itself to teaching. Over the years the Isle of Wight Ringing Group has grown, and since 2007 so has the Ringing Course, run by the group and providing ringers from all over the UK and beyond to gain more experience and to go for assessments for permits. 

Back in 2007 I gained some of my very first ringing experience on the course, getting a taste that would inspire me to continue and start my training process. In 2010 I returned the island and the course and was recommended for my C permit. Now in 2015 I have returned once more as an A permit holder and a mum!

Over the four days ringing on the course the team processed over a thousand birds, but the set up allowed plenty of time and opportunity for training, exchange of knowledge and assessment. The variety of birds provided opportunity to take a look at resident and migrant birds. While birds like Redstart, Tree Pipit, Spotted Flycatcher, Lesser Whitethroat and Firecrest may have been the highlights, the opportunity to look at plenty of Chiff Chaff, Blackcap and Robins gave the chance to get your eye in to seeing subtle old greater covets and to practice assessing fat scores. 


A stunning male Redstart

The Saturday evening found the entire team basking in a glowing sunset, warm orange light from a dipping sun filtering through the trees. Overhead in a sky fading from deep blue to pale orange thousands of small, pointed wing and tailed hirundines swoop overhead. As dusk approached and the temperature cooled, fleeces replaced sunglasses, and the number of swallows in particular built up so that it seemed a swarm of them swirled over the trees and pools. One, two, three then many more began dipping down to the water’s surface, with an occasional splash a bird would touch the surface either taking a drink or attempting to knock parasites from their feathers. Each splash sent up a tiny fountain of water droplets, twinkling like little gems in the sunlight. Then with the last rays of sunlight and the shadows deepening, they began to plough into the trees and bushes to roost. And there a small proportion of them headed into the mist nets. Once darkness had fully taken hold, in the light of ringing hut 280 odd Swallows and a handful of Sand Martins were ringed, processed and returned to the quiet of roosting bags where they safely spent the night.


Sunset over the Manor
The following morning, and through a deep mist obscuring the landscape of the Manor, the birds were released from their bags, ready to return to their epic journey south. An excellent ending to an excellent course.  

One of the many young Swallows
Thank you to the Anthony and Vivian Roberts for their hospitality and to the Isle of Wight Ringing Group for an excellent course. 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

A Delightful Demo

The last bank holiday of the summer and it seems in keeping with the summer in general it was grey and overcast. The rain however seemed to be holding off and while it was grey it was warm enough for t-shirts and there was little wind. Perfect conditions in fact for ringing. As part of the local RSPB and NWT Wild about Brecks event the BTO was running a ringing demo in the grounds of the Nunnery. Nets hidden amongst the tall trees of the woodland surrounding the grounds we brought birds back to a little gazebo stationed outside the main building that had been converted into the BTO HQ. Around us through the grounds are gazebos and stalls of other conservation charities and partnerships promoting wildlife and sustainability in the Breckland area. In the long grass of the meadow kids ran swishing little nets in front of them gathering bugs and insects to be identified and in a secret corner pond dipping was revealing aquatic wildlife. 

The ringing demo all ready to go

Throughout the day a steady stream of birds were brought to our ringing station, where the usual process of ringing, aging, sexing and measuring was completed for each. The main difference between this and a normal ringing session being that there was generally a small crowd of people, especially kids, gathered around us watching, listening and asking questions. It was a perfect opportunity to show them birds up close, many of whom had never seen a bird this close before. It was also a chance to explain the process and benefits of ringing. From young blue tits to young goldfinch, with a few robins, blackcaps, treecreepers and wrens, and added interest of blackbird, marsh, coal tit and cliff chaff, there were plenty of birds to keep us busy and the crowds entertained. 

Treecreeper
One of the many blue tits

In total 162 birds were processed with the rain only arriving once the last bird had been taken for the nets. One particular little Robyn took it all in her rather sleepy stride. 

Me and my little Robyn


Monday, 24 August 2015

A trip to Titchwell

The sun blazed in a wide open sky, the blue stretching above the open landscape of marshes, pools and reeds of Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast. A stiff breeze ruffled the sea creating white caps and powering the wind turbines just offshore in endless cycles. The long stretch of sandy beach, exposed by the low tide had rivulets of water running through the little sand waves created by the receding water. The shells of razorfish littered the strand line, crunching under foot. Working back inland the marshes stretch as far as the eye can see beyond the sandy dunes. To the left of a gravel path large lagoons with shimmering wavelets host a multitude of birds. From the beach the lagoons become more freshwater, so that the first, nearest the beach, is almost empty in the low tide with just the odd pools of water and tufty, hardy plants. The third pool is totally freshwater and full of water, so that at this point most of the birds are concentrated here. Beyond it are large beds of reeds.

The freshwater lagoon

Owned by the RSPB the reserve has some fabulous, well maintained hides that present perfect opportunities to watch the goings on in the pools without disturbing the birds. The newer Parrinder Hide is a modern building with wide, open windows overlooking both the freshwater and brackish lagoons. For me I prefer the more traditional wooden hide, although this is still very open and light compared to many I have been in. Still, I love the smell of wood, the slight mustiness, the scratch of wooden benches on wooden floor, lifting the catches and hoisting open the windows to reveal the landscape beyond.

The freshwater lagoon has a maze of little islands and peninsulas of land covered in grass, its edges has thick lush green grasses and tall dense reeds. Everywhere there are birds. Common and sandwich terns roost on the islands; standing in the shallow water, heads tucked under wings are black-tailed godwits, around the edges even more godwits, avocets, dunlin and ruff are feeding, each with a different characteristic action, each as busy as the next fuelling up. 

A ruff feeding in the margins of the lagoon

Numerous teal also feed in the shallow water, their bills submerged as they filter food from the water. It is a cracking time of year to be watching ducks and waders. For the ducks, most are still in eclipse plumage. All appear brown and drab, the males having lost their bright plumage while they moult their flight feathers and are therefore more vulnerable to predation. For the waders there is a total mix, with many individuals still in their fabulous breeding plumage; the deep russet red, with almost tiger stripe barring on the flanks of black-tailed godwit; the deep black on the face, neck and breast contrasting with the golden yellow on the back of the golden plover; the black belly of little dunlin. Others are already into the greyer, more muted plumage of winter, and many more are in various stages between the two. Amongst these returning migrant waders is a species that has been one of the UK’s conservation success stories: the avocet. After the return of breeding pairs following an absence of 100 years in the 1940s, the creation of suitable habitat and protection has led to a substantial recovery. Now the sight of these distinctive black and white, long legged, birds sweeping their curved bill back and forth is thankfully much more common in many areas of our eastern coast. 

And to top off the day… a superb wood sandpiper spotted emerging from the vegetation in a secretive corner of the pool.

The distinctive avocet

Friday, 7 August 2015

A baby goldfinch and a baby Robyn

Into my 38th week of pregnancy and I was off work, resting, reading, cleaning; all those things you do in the last few weeks before all hell breaks loose. Each evening I would waddle the dog (I would waddle she would walk/run/swim) to meet Lee at work. On Monday I was heading that way following a rather cryptic text message, something about a baby goldfinch….

Arriving at BTO headquarters and I was greeted by Lee and a small plastic tub in which was said baby goldfinch. No more than 7 or 8 days old, feathers not fully grown and certainly not old enough to be out of the nest. The little chap and a sibling had been brought to the BTO by a concerned member of the public having found them on the ground. While a bird conservation charity the BTO is not a rescue charity. That said Lee is not the type to turn any animal away. While one of the little chicks was too ill, and died very shortly after, the other was healthier although hungry. Lee had contacted the local animal sanctuary who said they could if needed come and collect the little one either that evening or tomorrow. It would be a week or so before it would be ready to fledge, and in that moment, in my head I was thinking I still have a couple weeks before my own baby bird was due, I said ‘why don’t we take care of it!’ 

So we took him home (I say he but there is no way of knowing at this stage whether it is male or female) . We rang the animal sanctuary back and told them we would take care of the bird and for the next week we kept him in a small cage usually used to capture birds for ringing, and we fed him mushed up seeds, and some may say against better judgement we named him Carrot (as in 24 carat gold but it evolved into Carrot). By the end of the week he was hopping around the cage, twittering like crazy between periods of rest where he would bundle up and tuck his head under a wing. He would soon be ready, but we needed to make sure he could feed himself. 

Carrot the goldfinch

It turns out my own little bird was rather impatient, and not willing to wait till her due date, or at one point to even wait to get to the hospital! That weekend Robyn Evelyn came into our world bottom first. 

Even with the craziness that follows the birth of a baby, we kept an eye on Carrot. He was starting to feed by himself and would soon be ready to leave our nest. One evening and Carrot just like Robyn was impatient to get going; slipping between the small gap at the entrance to the cage and heading off into the big wide world without a backwards glance or stopping to say goodbye to his surrogate family. As they say that’s life, but that was not the end of the story. The next day and a little goldfinch appeared on our bird table. Carrot was back. He looked OK, a little hungry by the seems and ready for bed. He did not fly off when we approached and so we decided to bring him indoors for the night, just in case. A day later and he was again eagerly eating seed and once again ready for the off. Once again he beat us to it; nipping out of the cage and through an open window. This time when he did return to the garden he looked brighter and flew off when approached. Carrot had fledged and over the next couple of days we no longer saw him in the garden. As our own little Robyn bird starts out we can now only hope that Carrot has joined up with more of his kind and stays safe. 

Robyn Evelyn the newest addition to the Wild Barley family


Friday, 24 July 2015

A night in the forest

I may be 38 weeks pregnant but that is not going to stop me following my interest and passions, within reason of course. 

So 8pm on a Thursday night finds me standing in chest high bright green bracken in a patch of forest. On all four sides the tall dark green of dense pine trees surrounds this opening. Above the darkening sky is overcast with just a hint of pale gold touching the underside of some clouds as the sun sets. It is very still, not a breath of wind troubles the pine needles or the curling fronds of bracken. Beneath the canopy brown needles have collected along with dead branches that crunch underfoot. Out in the patch beneath the bracken the dusty soil kicks up with each footstep as we head through the bracken in search of a suitable place to position our net. 

In the forest setting up nets

The last few strains of bird song drift through the air, a robin, song thrush and the odd woodpigeon settling down for the night. With the net set we settle on the carpet of pine needles just within the shelter of the trees and wait. The colour drains from the surrounding landscape, the bright green of the bracken turning grey. Against the darkening sky the silhouette of a tiny bat darts across our view, twisting and turning with fluttering wings. A larger bat dashes by, a bold black dot with distinctive shaped wings. Amongst it all a new call begins to echo across the forest and its open spaces. A continuous churr followed by a soft coohick. Then there is the sound of clapping before the source of the unusual sounds is revealed. From the trees and swooping overhead in almost silent flight, comes a dark shape with pointed wings and a long tail. The flight can be direct, but also bouncy, with the bird swooping low to skim the bracken before lifting back up and away over the trees. Still although out of sight the distinctive churr picks up again. This is the nightjar. 

Unfortunately and it seems like many of our distinctive migrant birds the nightjar has experienced major population declines. Fortunately like many of species there are individuals and organisations out there working to understand these declines and the movements and requirements of such species. Nightjars in Britain have actually increased in breeding numbers in recent years (whoop!) thanks to a number of conservation measures. However they are still Red Listed and we still know very little about their movements outside of the breeding season. For a number of years the British Trust for Ornithology has been conducting a tracking study of the nightjars looking at not only the habitat they are using for nesting and feeding during the summer on our shores, but also where they are going during the winter. We know that the species winters in Africa and that they pass through places like France and Spain enroute, the tracking allows us to work out the detail.   

And so with a couple of birds drifting around us it was time to try and catch one. With the help of a system playing the churring call of the male it was not long before one came into investigate and was caught in our mist net. 

The type of tags the team from BTO have been using are known as geolocators, these record light levels allowing position to be calculated by day length and the time of solar noon. More recently novel GPS tags have been used. Both require the birds to be re-caught in order to down load the data. Hence the intensive effort each breeding season to catch the birds. 

Tonight our bird did not have a tag and was also not ringed. But this gave the team the opportunity to attach one to it in order to track its migration south. 

A beautiful nightjar

Up close the nightjar is so cryptic it is stunning. The grey-brown mottled plumage with fine streaks on the breast provides the perfect camouflage against the scrub, heath and dead branches of the forest floor during daylight hours. We know it is a male from the brilliant white patches on the wing and tail. The fresh, consistent plumage indicates it is an adult (born at least 2 years ago). Large dark eyes sit on a relatively large head that appears all feather and has a tiny beak with sturdy bristles along its closed mouth, used for detecting its prey at close quarters. But that mouth holds a secret, give it time and the tiny beak will open revealing a huge wide open gape capable to engulfing moths. 

With a new metal ring and a tag securely attached the bird is ready to return to the dark forest. It sits unhindered for a moment on my hand, its eyes getting re-accustomed to the dark after the torch light. It feels like no weight at all. Then with one dip of the wings it is off becoming once again the churring, wing clapping shadow against the night sky, only this time it will also be collecting valuable data to help its entire species.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Birding Mull

Being back on the Isle of Mull was not just about going whale watching, although given even half a chance I would have spent my whole time out on the water! But there were times believe or not during my two seasons working there where I was not out on the boats; likewise on my return this summer. So I did what I would usually do back then, head off in the car and search for the other amazing wildlife Mull has to offer, from otters to eagles. 

The stunning scenery of Mull

With a warm sun blazing in blue skies that stretched over the hills, mountains and lochs, we headed out along the single track roads, winding our way around the island. From the black rock, strewn with a patchwork of yellow and white lichen, and deep browns of seaweed along the shorelines of the lochs to the green glens between mountains we scanned shoreline, hillside and the skies for all manner of wildlife. Picking a spot alongside the rippling dark waters of a loch we would sit and watch. All around us came the song of tree pipit, willow warbler, skylark and swallow. Wheatears bombed from rock to rock, a flash of white against the greenish yellow grass and dark rock, before perching upright, its striking dark mask against steel blue feathers. On the shore, pairs of oystercatchers called to each other, then would head off pursuing a gull that ventured too close, giving it hell before settling back on the rock. Amongst patches of bright green grass, dotted with sea pink, that stood out in contrast to the black rock, came the call of common sandpiper. They seemed to be everywhere!

Common sandpuper

Out on the waters of the lochs red breasted merganser would sit bobbing the tiny waves. 

High above the dark greens and browns of the hillsides, from behind a ridge of dark rock mingled among the grass and heather, something large soared into the blue sky. Wings outstretched, ‘fingers’ splayed, wide and square like a barn door floating, there was no doubt what this bird is; a white-tailed eagle. The largest bird of prey in the UK, once extinct and now bouncing back thanks to conservation efforts and a reintroduction programme that started not far from Mull on the Isle of Rum. For an age we would sit and watch as it soared higher and higher becoming a mere speck in the endless blue. 

But it was not the only bird we see patrolling the thermals,  golden eagles too would appear from nowhere to soar across our vista. 

This time though it is different bird watching on Mull. I am different. I have more years of birding behind me, and I have developed skills in bird ringing and nest finding. More so we find ourselves watching an individual bird, or pair more intently than before; watching for those clues that ultimately give away the location of a nest. 

Amongst the black rocks, with their coating of white and yellow lichen, and the bright green grass with tufts of sea pink, we find oystercatcher, common sandpiper and common gull nests. We watch a wheatear head into a hole in the bank, knowing in its dark cool depths lies either a clutch of neat eggs or a bunch of hungry mouths.

An oystercatcher nest nestled along the shoreline of Mull

Once again it was fabulous to be back amongst the wildlife and wild landscape of one of my favourite places on Earth. The Isle of Mull. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Whale Watching Off Mull

I was back on the island where I had spent two summers working as a wildlife guide. Two extraordinary summers filled with fabulous people and wonderful wildlife, from whales and dolphins to eagles, seabirds and basking sharks. I had made firm friends that to be honest feel more like family. Now I was back, not permanently but for more than the fly by afternoon visit of my previous return. 

So after so many years I was once more sat on top of Sea Life Survey’s M.V. Sula Beag, the boat I had worked on in my second season, watching as we meandered out of Tobermory heading for the Sound of Mull and the waters beyond. I gazed at the familiar sights, the multi coloured shop fronts that any kiddie of a certain age would recognise as Balamory, the houses extending up behind them, intermingled with deep green trees, the yachts and sailing vessels moored up, the lifeboat station and the small Kilchoan ferry. We pass Calve Island that sits in front of Tobermory Bay and head out into the Sound of Mull, passing the small Rubha nan Gall lighthouse. More memories come flooding back as the Sound stretches in front of us, bordered by the island herself and the mainland of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The guide’s give their talk, pointing out what species of wildlife we might encounter and where we are heading. It is all so familiar, and yet so different, for one thing I am listening rather than giving the talk.

Tobermory © Lee Barber

As we come down the Sound past Bloody Bay and to Ardmore Point everyone it seems are looking at the white-tailed eagles nesting in the pine trees, their pale heads and brown bodies striking against the deep green needles. It is then that I turn to scan the water and cry out with pounding heart ‘whale!’ A minke whale circles, working a small area of the Sound, searching for food as we sit and watch. The sound of its breath as it surfaces makes me shiver every time. Harbour porpoise join the foray, rolling at the surface like a small, black wheel. After a while we move on, heading out of the Sound into the patch of water between the Small Isles, Ardnamurchan lighthouse and the island of Coll. The water is smooth, silky and blue as the sun breaks through the patchy cloud. Hundreds of seabirds sit or skim the waters surface, Manx shearwaters, guillemots, puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes, gannets to name a few. Tiny storm-petrels dance over the extra smooth patches, their feet dappling the surface. An Arctic skua comes racing through chasing a kittiwake, trying to make it drop its catch of fish.

Minke Whale

On reaching the Cairns of Coll, a small cluster of rocky islands off the main island of Coll, we search the mixing waters where recent sightings of whale have been good. We are rewarded with sightings of another three minke whales, their dark backs gracefully breaking the now deep blue water, rolling and slipping beneath the gentle waves.  Once more we sit and watch as the whales again work in a circle, searching for food, occasionally coming in close to the boat before reappearing further away. After a while we turn and leave the whales to the foraging, heading back towards Mull accompanied by those multitudes of seabirds. 

I can’t keep away from the sea and the next day sees me back on the boat for another trip. It is another gorgeous day, with calm seas and sunshine greeting us once more as we steam out of Tobermory and up the Sound of Mull. This time it is the sharp eyes of Andy Tait, a long term volunteer with Sea Life Surveys who spots a whale, a little further out of the Sound. But the photos reveal it is highly likely to be the same individual we had encountered the day before with the distinctive nicks in the trailing edge of its dorsal fin giving it away. Again we simply sit and enjoy, listening and watching as the whale works its way in a circle around us, before once more heading across to the waters just off the Cairns of Coll.  In almost an exact repeat of the previous trip we spot more minke whales as we approach the mixing waters off the Cairns. But it some splashing a little further off that catches our eye and as we slowly make our way over it is soon revealed as the fast, deliberate movement of a group of common dolphins.

Common dolphin

We slowly move in their direction, and part of the group breaks away, speeding over, leaping synchronously together out of the blue water, sunshine glinting off the yellow patch on their sides. They approach us, bow riding and seeming to check us out as much as the other way round. But they are busy. The rest of the group remains aloof, intent on feeding and soon those that had come to investigate us return to that all important business too. But even to share a couple minutes of their time is magic, and as we head into the Cairns of Coll for lunch we watch them at a distance storming around, moving one way and then another, leaping high out of the waves and landing with huge splashes of white water. 


Lunch at the Cairns is another highlight that brings back a rush of memories. We anchor amongst the dark rocks, dappled with white and yellow lichen and covered with tufts of grass and the delicate flowers of seapink. The turquoise blue water gently rolls up onto white beaches made up of crushed shells. It is a truly beautiful and idyllic spot. Common and grey seals lounge on the black rocks, the braver ones approaching to bob at a respectable distance watching us, before almost spooking themselves and disappearing with a snort and a splash. All around Arctic and common terns patrol the water, passing back and forth, occasionally dropping down to catch a silvery fish. 

Although we wish we could, we cannot stay and soon it is time to leave. Slowly we make our way out from between the rocky islets to open water and then back across to Mull. We see more harbour porpoise as we return and even one more distant whale. 

It has been magic to return to these waters, and once again the marine wildlife of the Inner Hebrides has not disappointed. Thank you to all at Sea Life Surveys for giving me such a warm welcome back.

I promise myself I will not leave it so long next time… 

Find out more about whale watching from Mull with Sea Life Surveys on their website (www.sealifesurveys.com)

Sunday, 31 May 2015

What a Rail!

They are a bird that is actually fairly common in the watery habitats of Britain, but one that very few people tend to see. You may however have heard it on many occasions but not realised, wondering what is that harsh screech coming from the dense vegetation. Most are more familiar with their less secretive cousins, the coot and moorhen. While ringing and nesting in the reed beds at Cranwich we often hear this secretive and elusive bird but today’s trip would end with a rather special encounter as we caught one in one our traps. It is the water rail. 

A busy ringing session had seen us process just over 50 birds, numbers bumped up by young recently fledged robins with their speckled brown plumage and long tailed tits with their chocolatey brown faces and deep red eye ring. With the wind picking up and the nets down most of the team had drifted away, to spend their Saturday afternoon elsewhere either checking other sites for nests or even heading home for a nap (well we had all been up since 4 am!). It was the last check of the trap, one final chance to see if we had been successful. The water rail is not the easiest of species to catch, and only three have been ringed on site since we began monitoring years ago. It appears though that Lee seems to have cracked it, with two of those three birds having been ringed this year. It is likely that we only have two or three pairs on site so it’s not like there are huge numbers to go for. However with some careful monitoring of where calling birds have been heard, and with the discovery of a beautiful nest, we are building a picture of the territories on site. Lee suspected that there was another pair at the end of one of our net rides, and so the trap had been set. 

A beautiful water rail nest

Standing in the slightly muddy ride, surrounded by the tall reeds and willows I listen to the sounds of the reed bed. The now constant chatter of reed warblers, their nesting in full swing, the distinctive song of the male cuckoo joined by the bubbling call of females, the song of reed bunting, and the persistent high pitched twitter of those families of long tailed tit. At the end of the ride Lee emerges from the reeds, at first glance he appears to be empty handed, before revealing from behind his back the very bird I had been hoping for. It is a water rail! 

Back at the car, I process the bird with care. It is wriggly, threatening to give me the slip. It is so much smaller than expected. Compared with the coot and moorhen I have held and seen up close, it is tiny! And so much daintier. The classic flailing of legs, scratching out with clawed feet is typical of handling any rail though. It is the perfect opportunity to take a really good look at this bird, one that if you are lucky enough to see it is usually over in a flash. Its long curved bill is red, as is on close inspection its dark eye. The sides of its head, neck and its underparts are a steely, bluish grey, a deep chestnut brown streak runs from the top of its head right the way onto its back where the feathers have deep black centres. Its flanks are barred with white and black. It is a beautiful bird. 

A beautiful water rail

The assessment reveals that this bird is in fact already ringed. Far from being a disappointment this may be the most interesting fact. The bird was ringed at the other side of the pool where we caught it, only a month or so earlier. It seems the bird’s breeding territory may be larger than originally suspected and that the males (which is what we suspect this to be) move around more than we initially thought. It is a very interesting piece to the Cranwich water rail population puzzle.
We return the bird to the edge of the reed bed where we caught it, where on letting it go it wastes no time in scampering away into the dense growth. Once more becoming just that elusive screech from among the reeds. 


Friday, 15 May 2015

10 years to the day

Where have the last 10 years gone? 

10 years ago today I was sat on a rather lovely boat called Alpha Beta, bobbing around off the coast of the Isle of Mull. Fresh out of university I was spending the summer working as a volunteer for Sea Life Surveys, one of the longest running whale watch companies in the UK. This particular day was my day off, but that had not stopped me hopping on board for a couple of whale watches, off in search mainly of minke whales but with a range of whale and dolphins species, seals, basking sharks and a multitude of seabirds to encounter. I remember this particular trip more than any other. It was a rather cloudy day but the sea was reasonably calm. We’d done one trip and had headed out for a second. Sitting on the top of Alpha Beta, her broad white bow in front of me, dipping and rising a little with the waves I had gazed out at the silvery grey sea and the surrounding landscape that was quickly becoming very familiar to me. The Isle of Mull stretched out to my left, to my right in the distance the low lying island of Coll hovered on the horizon. Ahead the rugged coastline of Ardnamurchan, with its impressive lighthouse towering into the grey clouds. Beyond that I could still see the characteristic outline of the Small Isles, in particular Rum and Eigg (which always reminded me of a humpback whale). We were heading in, having encountered a good number of birds, and a couple of minke whales, one of which had surfaced just in front of the boat so that I could almost see down its blowholes as it surfaced, breathed and dived. It had been a good trip. Eri, who was guiding had kept the passengers engaged, all I had to do was sit back and enjoy.

Ardnamurchan lighthouse with the Isle of Eigg in the background

It was just as we were approaching the entrance to the Sound of Mull that one of the passengers commented that he thought is saw something, way over towards the Small Isles. I looked over, scanned, and something caught my eye. Something that at first did not really register. A tall, black, vertical ‘thing’ had risen out of the grey waves before disappearing. I spoke with the skipper. There was… something there… So we turned and all eyes were trained on the spot. Once again that something surfaced, only this time there was no doubting what it was. Orca! We slowed and let them approach. Thus began my very first encounter with Orca. Not just in the UK but anywhere. Not only that but they were members of the West Coast Community, the only resident group of Orca in the UK, and with only nine members (possibly eight) and no calves in years, also the most endangered.

Aquarius

I watched spell bound as six whales approached, two with really tall dorsal fins. Most likely Aquarius and Comet, two of the males in the group, accompanied by females, likely to be Puffin and Occasus who usually travel with Comet and Aquarius respectively, although I cannot tell from my photos. Behind these came a very distinctive male called Floppy Fin, one of a very small percentage of wild Orca that have a bent over dorsal fin. Again a female travelled close to him, one I could not ID from my pictures but could have been Nicola, a female who is regularly seen with Floppy Fin and suspected to be his mother. In total there were six of them, moving at a steady pace, passing us and heading down the coast. I remember seeing Floppy Fin and the female tail slapping and milling around before also heading away.

Two of the group head down the coast of Mull

It was the best encounter of my first year with Sea Life Surveys, and probably of the second year I spent with them in 2008. I remember the smiles from passengers and crew, the elation that lasted for days and for me has never left. I am so chuffed that the very first Orca I ever saw were in Scottish waters

In the intervening years I have been lucky enough to see Orca again, and they have been very special encounters each of them; every sighting of wild Orca is. Standing on a cold, windy deck of a ferry crossing the Bay of Biscay, with a guy who just came up to have an early morning coffee and was treated to me jumping around the deck in excitement as four Orca passed quickly by. Watching a male and female through a telescope from a beach in New Zealand, not quite believing my partner at first when he said ‘I’ve got Orca!’ Two Orca filled weeks in Canada that began with watching transients hunting seals and culminated in a spectacular encounter in a kayak with Northern Residents appearing out of the mist. Three individuals cruising out of Force 8 waves north of Norway, and then a group of nine calmly surfacing in silky blue, calm waters on the journey south with one huge male breaching clear of the water parallel to the ship, much to the delight of all on deck.

Northern Resident Orca in Canada

All have been memorable and special, but I will always remember that very first sighting, 10 years ago today in a very special place with a crew of very special people. A part of my heart remains in Mull and with the West Coast Community of Orca, who inevitably will one day no longer patrol the waters of the west coast of Scotland and down through Irish waters. Perhaps before that time I will catch up with them again, and maybe even get the chance to meet John Coe, the most recognisable and well known of the community. But if not I am privileged and proud to have encountered them once all those years ago. 

Find out more about the West Coast Community of Orca at the Scottish Orca blog or the HWDT website. And why not go whale watching with Sea Life Surveys, one of the best whale watch companies not only in the UK but in the world!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Don't count your robins before they've hatched

It may be one of the most iconic and recognisable garden birds in Britain. With its long, spindly legs, hopping across lawns, pecking at seed and insects on the ground, perching on wall, fence, branch. That beautiful orangey red breast and olive brown back, big dark eyes. Everyone knows the robin. From bossing your feeders (for such a delicate looking bird it is actually the one that tends to rule the roost at the feeder in winter) to it’s confident, melodious song that is heard often well before sunrise and throughout the year. This cheeky bird adorns our Christmas cards as well as often being so confiding they will learn to take meal worms and sunflower hearts from the very tips of ones fingers. It is hard to believe they are disdained in other European countries (which I was shocked to hear from a friend who sent a Christmas card with a robin on to a friend in Denmark!). On these fair shores the robin remains a firm favourite even if it will defend its territory to the death. 

The beautiful robin

For me I love ringing and handling robins. Catching them and learning how to age them (sometimes not as straight forward as they first appear). I also love finding their nests. For a bird that is so ubiquitous their nests can sometimes be quite hard to find. Hidden in all sorts of places on trees, on banks, in a wall or hedgerow, or even more unusual places like a horses muzzle hanging from the back of a door on a shelf in a workshop. The small, delicate nest is made from moss and dead leaves, lined with hair and wool, sometimes so perfectly blending in with the rest of the tree trunk or hedge row. Here usually four or five small eggs ranging from off white with brown speckling to a reddish brown all over, are carefully laid and incubated. The naked blind chicks, with just a bit of almost fuzzy down hatch after a couple of weeks and barely fill the bottom of the nest, squirming over each other, huddling to keep warm as mum and dad begin the furious job of finding enough food to feed them all. The instinctive reaction to lift their heads, mouths wide open showing a bright yellow mouth (a perfect target for a parent in a rush) means that when one checks a nest this is often the heart melting sight they are greeted with. 

Within a couple more weeks they are huge, pretty much full size and filling the nest to bulging point. A careful peer in will now reveal bright eyes, alert and looking back. Time to be really careful. Very very soon the next visit reveals an empty nest, trodden down with poop around it revealing that the chicks have left. It lucky you may catch a glimpse of the brown speckled young in the surrounding trees still scrounging a couple of meals from mum and dad. Soon they will be fully independent and shortly begin a partial moult that will, for all intents and purposes, make them look like an adult. Only in the hand will an experienced ringer be able to tell if a bird hatched that year or the previous. And so the cycle will begin again, where possible birds will spread out and maintain a territory for the winter before looking to pair up and breed themselves the following year. 

One of the more unusual locations of a robin nest

Each year it is my pleasure and honour to find a couple of robin nests, to monitor them where possible from building to egg laying, hatching to fledging. Always they have been nests with four or five eggs. This year though, in the crook of a small stump of a tree, overhung with ivy, I found a nest that once more had five eggs. However a return visit revealed a surprise. Not five, but nine eggs sitting in the bottom of this perfect little nest! Never in all my years of nesting (which are not that many to be honest) have I seen a robin nest with nine eggs, but more than that neither have many of the more experienced nesters I work with! Whether this is just a particularly fecund female, or whether another female has come along and dumped her eggs into the nest to save making her own, I will never know. But the female was good. 

Nine eggs! (last one tucked out of sight)

A couple of visits revealed her sitting tight, and I would leave her be, others she would not be there but I could hear her scolding me in the surrounding leafy foliage, ticking above the rush of traffic beyond. I was unsure how many would hatch but the next visit revealed another pleasant surprise. Eight tiny, squirming chicks crammed in. But how many would survive? How many would mum and dad be able to feed. Only time would tell, but a few days later and all eight were still alive and growing, ready to be ringed. Each now marked with a unique metal ring. Whoever or however many do fledge and survive, if they are ever found again by another ringer or a member of the public I will be able to tell straight away they came from my little miracle nest. 

Eight chicks in  a bag ready for ringing

It is worth saying here both Lee and I are qualified and experienced nest recorders and ringers. These chicks were safe during the whole process, which was quick and completed efficiently. 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A day in the reed bed

With the changing seasons things have really started to pick up pace at the reed bed site at Cranwich. Reed warblers have returned in force and their song can be heard all over the site. In the past few weeks ringing has resumed with the most recent session catching a range of returning warblers, from those reedies to sedge warblers, garden warblers, blackcaps and chiff chaff. While nesting amongst the reeds has largely been restricted to coot, moorhen and swan it will not be too long before the first reed warbler nests are active once again. 

This morning mother nature seemed to have sent a little reminder that things are still early and that despite the warm sunny days we have experienced of late, winter has not quite completely finished with us. It is not quite swim suit weather just yet...

The morning dawned frosty with opaque white crystals covering the grass and the thermometer reading a rather chilly -1. Mist hung low over the pools and there was barely any wind, with the only movement coming from the small ripples created by ducks, swans and the occasional goose gliding gracefully across the smooth, dark surface and through the swirling mist that quickly began to rise like steam off a hot bath. 

Morning mist at Cranwich

At this cold hour of the morning there is little in the way of food for birds awoken by the dawn. Instead they sing. Proclaiming their newly established territory, competing with each other in the most melodious of ways. Among the reed warblers and reed buntings that dominate the chorus of the reeds comes that wonderful call of cuckoo; it is a relief to have them back on patch. From the surrounding trees comes the song of garden warbler, blackcap, chiff chaff, blue tit and wren. 

As the morning progresses and warms up, the skies become filled with swifts who have only just returned to the party and join the swallows and house martins who have been back for a couple weeks. Low over the tallest trees those sickle shaped swifts are joined by another, larger bird with a similar pointed wing appearance. Skimming the tree tops, before circling back up and around, high above the pools are no less than eight hobbies. They streak through the sky chasing down flying insects with acrobatic ease and superb speed. They zip overhead causing us to pause in our work and watch in awe as occasionally one reaches out and grabs an insect that is invisible from ground level. 

A hobby catches a meal mid air

Our work today is to move through the reed bed setting up short mist nets to catch those singing reed warblers. A part of the ongoing study on site our aim is to catch and colour ring as many adult reed warblers as possible, so that once their breeding season does kick off in earnest we will be able to monitor nests and find out which birds are associated with which nests. 

Another reed warbler colour ringed