Skulker

As many of you will know, I am a trainee bird ringer and have been since 2014. Involved in the complicated process is putting a small, lightweight ring on the leg of a bird, on which is inscribed a unique number. This enables individual birds to be recognised if they are later recaught or found dead, allowing ornithologists to learn more about their migration and biology.

In my four years of being a ringer, I’ve had the chance to ring a wide variety of bird species, ranging from over 100 Blue Tits to some scarcities including Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Wheatear and Wood Warbler and larger birds such as Stock Dove and Woodpigeon. However, last Sunday’s ringing experience will probably go down as one of my favourites so far.

Fellow Sussex young birder Mya Bambrick and I arrived at Knepp Estate, south-west of Horsham, at 6am. There we met my trainer Tony Davis who had already set up four mist-nets around a field consisting of mainly bramble and willow scrub. This is a fantastic habitat for migrating birds as well as several scarce breeders due to the amount of cover the scrub produces and the blackberries which ripen at exactly the right time to fuel many migratory passerines on their southward journeys. The mist-nests are ideal for catching birds as they are fine enough to be invisible to birds flying between bushes, which fly into the net and fall into a pocket from which they are extracted by licensed ringers.

It was on the first net-round when I noticed that there was something slightly different in the bottom pocket of one of the mist-nets. It didn’t take long for me to realise that it was a Grasshopper Warbler. Grasshopper Warblers, so-called due to their bizarre song which resembles that of a stridulating grasshopper, is a localised breeding species found mainly in fens and coarse grassland and is not often found in high density. However, while researching for this blog post, it was good to learn that they are showing a positive population trend with the UK population experiencing a 23% increase in numbers in the 14 years between 1995 and 2009. This is thought to be as a result of improved survival rates in the wintering grounds of west Africa. Particular preference is shown by British Grasshopper Warblers towards Senegal and The Gambia, which we have learnt from recoveries of ringed birds in those countries. However despite this recent increase, this is in comparison to a proportionally larger decrease which took place in the years prior to that period. Only a few decades ago, this species used to be found in a greater range of habitats than to which it is currently restricted.

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The Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warblers (often shortened to just Gropper) are renowned for the difficulty involved to see them. They have skulking habits, only really coming out into the open when the males sing their distinctive song. Most of the time they remain hidden in thick vegetation. In fact I’ve only seen this species twice before, and both times the birds were located by the loud song. The first time was a bird claiming its territory in May 2014 in a sand dune in Budle Bay, Northumberland and the second had probably only just arrived in the UK in April last year, when I found one singing in a garden at Selsey Bill in West Sussex from a small clump of ornamental pampas grass. In fact in the past 20 years Tony had only caught two or three, highlighting how lucky we were to catch this reclusive skulker.

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This was my only photo of a Grasshopper Warbler before Sunday, from Northumberland. This photo illustrates how hard-to-see Grasshopper Warblers are usually. And this one was, in relation to most other sightings, ‘showing well’!

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Yaffle

This morning I found myself at the wonderful Knepp Estate once again, for another session of bird ringing. I ringed less birds than last week although it was really interesting as there was a more diverse range of species.

The highlight of the morning bird-wise was catching a Green Woodpecker. This is the largest bird the group has caught when I’ve been there and really fascinating to see up close. When it’s in the hand there is so much that you miss when you watch it from much further away through binoculars.

For instance, one thing that we noticed was the tail, it was very strange. The tail feathers are adapted in woodpeckers as they are very stiff. This helps them when they are holding on to the trunk of a tree and they use it as a prop.

The main diet of the Green Woodpecker is made up of ants. They spend much more time on the ground compared to the other woodpeckers in the UK, the Lesser Spotted and the Greater Spotted Woodpeckers. They can often be seen on the ground on lawns, in parks and in other open spaces, hammering into ant nests and using their incredibly long tongue to hoover up the ants.

The open area amongst the scrub at Knepp is perfect for Green Woodpeckers as there are loads of ants nests. We often came across the poo of Green Woodpeckers, which is really distinctive. It is medium sized for a bird poo and easily identifiable by its appearance of cigarette ash. What’s really fascinating is that you can see the remains of ants when you break them open.

Despite having a large bill, it’s relatively weak compared to the two other woodpeckers. This is because as they spend more time on the ground, they don’t knock on wood as often. To construct their nests they chisel at soft wood and they rarely drum. Instead of drumming they have a very loud and distinctive call, which has earned them the English folk name of ‘Yaffle’.

They have very interesting breeding behaviour. Green Woodpeckers often pair for life, although they don’t socialise outside of the breeding season. They re-establish their bond in the breeding season using their loud calls and often a period of courtship. Both parents share the breeding responsibilities. What I find interesting is that often, once the young have fledged, one parent takes half of the brood out to teach them how to feed and the other parent takes the other half!

Green Woodpeckers are one of my favourite birds to watch. The genders can be easily told apart by the colour of the stripe that runs down at a diagonal from the base of the bill, called the malar stripe. Males have a clear red malar stripe bordered with black whereas females just have a black malar stripe. So, if you live in England, Wales or most of Scotland, why don’t you go out and watch Green Woodpeckers for yourself? If you live in Ireland, unfortunately they are only extremely rare vagrants there!

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The juvenile male Green Woodpecker

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He’s looking at you!

 

More Redpoll News!

The Redpoll numbers in our garden have been stable during the past month, if not increasing. On the 12th, Tony Davis came back to our garden to do some more bird ringing and I was really excited to catch the Redpolls that have been visiting the nyger feeder.

Tony set up the Redpoll tape on the speakers, in order to attract them to the net. The session was slow to begin with, but soon enough we had five Redpolls in the net in one go! It was really great ringing what I think is now my favourite bird and we even ringed another orange-capped individual, sadly definitely a Lesser Redpoll this time rather than a Mealy!

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The next Redpoll was just a bit more exciting! It was caught on its own in the net and when Tony said that it already had a ring on, I wasn’t that happy. However, I had rushed to conclusions! All of the Redpoll-sized rings I have used with Tony start with a ‘T’ followed by the numbers, but this one started with a ‘Y’, which meant it hadn’t been ringed by us!

A number of exciting possibilities went through my head. Maybe it was ringed in Russia? Or Estonia? Unfortunately it had the details of the London Natural History Museum on it which means that it was ringed in the UK.

To get the details of where the bird was ringed originally, Tony had to submit the data to the BTO, who would send back the details. It took just over a week to receive the results, which were very interesting!

The bird was originally ringed at Allerthorpe Common, East Riding of Yorkshire, 312 km away from here in Domewood, on the Sussex-Surrey border! Also, it was ringed with the age code ‘3’ on the 24th November 2011! This means that it hatched in the 2011 breeding season as the code ‘3’ means that it hatched during the calendar year it was ringed in.

To sum up, the Lesser Redpoll ‘Y562211’ was ringed 312km away from Domewood, 1580 days before we caught it and it is coming up to its fifth birthday! Lesser Redpolls usually only live to about 2 years old and the maximum recorded age is 6 years, so hopefully we catch this bird again next year!

What my grandkids might not be able to see (II) – Common Quail

Quail Fields in Summer

by James McCulloch

As the mist clears

And the church bells ring,

God’s angels are brought to my land.

‘Wet my lips, wet my lips’

Is what I hear them sing.

 

Balls of life,

Dusted with down,

They bring wealth to church and parish.

A nobleman’s dish to many,

A bird of such renown.

 

As the gale blows,

And the rain sets in,

My heart fills with loss and sorrow,

For such ethereal creatures,

Of ephemeral nature.

The Quail is such an enigmatic game bird – with a size closer to that of a Robin’s than a Great Spotted Woodpecker’s! As inferred by the poem, what the Quail loses in size it makes up for in fluffiness. This adds to its appeal, who doesn’t like a tiny, cute, fluffy chicken?

With all its great features, one would think that everybody would be striving to save it and the population would be high and stable. However, sadly that is not the case. As with other migratory birds, Quail are being shot, captured and killed for their meat. Some of the main culprits of this mass murder are in Malta – a seemingly innocent holiday destination which happens to be right in the path of migrating birds each spring and autumn. Many Quail choose to migrate across the Mediterranean through Italy, then Malta and ending up in Tunisia or Libya (if they’re lucky).

Thank goodness there is another main flyway: Spain, to Gibraltar and then into Morocco. The inhabitants of Gibraltar do catch birds, however. Fortunately, they are captured for ringing and other monitoring and conservation programmes. For those who don’t know, ringing is where people put a very light metal ring on a bird’s leg. Each ring has a specific code on it, for example EX12345 and a place or organisation. Most birds ringed in Britain have the Natural History Museum ring on them, for example. Ringed birds can then be recovered at another site or spotted by a member of the public and then the record can be sent into organisations like EURING in Europe or SAFRING in South Africa. This helps track the birds’ movements and development, crucially helping us to better understand the behaviour of our ‘feathered friends’.

A Quail being extracted from a net in Malta (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

A Quail being extracted from a net in Malta
(AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Maltese hunters recently celebrated victory in a referendum on whether it should be illegal to kill birds before they have a chance to breed. This was to the dismay of various organisations and people fighting against the slaughter of these birds, such as BirdLife. However, those fighting the slaying mustn’t give up, it was only a very narrow win for the opposition. 2,200 more votes to ban the hunting would mean the killing could be ended completely!

The hunters are given a quota on how many birds can be killed. This is currently 5,ooo Quail and 11,000 Turtle Doves. I think most people reading this will agree that this is 16,000 too many. Even worse is that hunters are accused of ignoring these quotas and even illegally hunting protected birds like Storks, Swifts and Gulls.

How you can help: If you happen to live in Malta, you can report illegal hunting here, on BirdLife Malta’s website. Details on which hunting is illegal is included. If you live elsewhere, you can still help. You can donate to BirdLife Malta here.

Good Mourning, Dove

You’ve probably already read that I was lucky enough to go to South Africa for Christmas and I was able to go to both Kruger Park and Welgevonden Game Reserve.
At our third camp in the Kruger Park, Letaba, we discovered that some of the commoner birds were actually quite tame and used to humans. They were so tame in fact that I managed to hand feed two Natal Francolins and a Mourning Dove! It wasn’t long before I spotted that the Mourning dove had a ring on its right leg! It was very hard to read the ring because of the tiny lettering but after close scrutiny of photos and with my own eyes, I managed to read it.
I think the ring number was ‘PA19814’ and it told us to ‘Inform SAFRING University of Cape Town’.
Once we got back to Pretoria I looked up bird ringing South Africa and came to a site where you can record the ring you saw. We filled it in, sent it off and are now currently waiting for a reply, when I might get the details of the bird!
Here are some photos of the Mourning Dove:

Mourning Dove in the foreground; and the background

Mourning Dove in the foreground; and the background

Tempting...

Tempting…

Keep reading Jiainmac for a possible Part 2 if we get the details of the ringed bird…