Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Pectoral Sandpiper on patch

For the last week and a half, my local patch of College Reservoir has plaid host to a smart little visitor from America...namely that of a Pectoral Sandpiper. Although perhaps the commonest of the rare North American waders to reach the UK (there have been well over 100 records since August), it is nonetheless a really attractive little bird, and a welcome lifer for myself.

I have spent a bit of time photographing this amazingly tame bird, although it was particularly comical to initially see it running around the legs of feral Canada Geese (they really are pretty small!). The light has been lovely in the evening over the last couple of days, and so I have managed to get some pleasing images.

On their breeding grounds in the northern reaches of America, Alaska and north-eastern Russia, displaying males produce an amazing 'booming' sound which it produces by expanding and contracting an inflatable throat patch. It is a very peculiar sound for a wader which spends the rest of the year uttering short flight calls more typical of Calidrid species. Check out some recordings here
The typical wintering grounds of the species comprise a broad band of lowland habitats in South America, stretching from northern Brazil to Tierra del Fuego

A selection of images...

All images taken with Canon 7Dmkii and Canon 300mm f2.8

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Birding on Campus: the distractions of studying at Penryn

I thought I would write a post extolling the virtues of the superb campus that I am lucky enough to be studying at: I mean how many university students can start the day trapping Firecrests on campus, plucking a Merveille du Jour moth out of a moth trap, before watching hundreds of Redwings flooding over, and then amble back home (after lectures, that is [yes, we do work!]) and take a look at a Pectoral Sandpiper wandering around on my local birding patch?

Okay, so it's not like every day is like that, but this week really has been a superb one for seeing a brilliant diversity of species right on the doorstep of campus. This has certainly been helped immensely by the weather: after a week of light south-easterly winds and nippy temperatures, the floodgates have opened for the arrival of classic autumn migrants from the continent: thrushes! The nature of Penryn campus, situated atop a hill on the edge of a gentle valley, seems to lend itself to funneling passage migrants right over the top of uni - and this has manifested itself with some superb movements of passerines overhead in the hours just after dawn this last week. 

the sunrises have been superb this week - one of the many benefits of getting up early!

A couple of scrub-dominated fields on the southern edge of campus grounds provide a brilliant vantage point for 'vis Migging': birding lingo describing the act of standing in a spot and watching birds actively migrating overhead (visible migration). I have headed over to campus on many a morning this week to join a handful of fellow enthusiasts to record these exciting passages, and the results have been great! 

One of the best mornings was on the 10th October, with flocks of Redwings whizzing overhead at regular intervals, flying from the south-east to the north-west in tight groups of between 5 and 120 individuals. The totals for that particular morning amounted to 1, 111 Redwings, 43 Song Thrushes, two Fieldfares (the first of the year!), 34 Meadow Pipits, 5 Chaffinches, 5 Cormorants, 5 Skylarks, 3 Starlings and 47 Woodpigeons. All of the bird sightings we note down from campus get entered into the BTO's great recording website 'Birdtrack' - as well as contributing to the nation-wide recording scheme, it will be great to try and get a longer-term database for bird records on campus.
We would often follow up 'vis-migging' by checking a moth trap that we'd set out the previous night, and that has been turning up some great species recently (see further down). 

'Vis Migging' on campus


Although a lot of the birds have just been flying straight over without stopping off, many flocks drop down into the extensive shrubbery and tree cover provided by Penryn's diverse campus grounds. A great clump of Yew trees are buzzing with Redwings, Song and Mistle Thrushes, and Blackbirds at the moment - all feasting upon the bounty of juicy red berries adorning the branches...
Redwings in the Yew trees

A couple more shots of migrating Redwing flocks...

As I eluded to in my into - there is great potential for bird ringing on campus, and a small group of students and lecturers (including myself) often carry out a morning of mist netting in the campus orchard. After putting out bird feeders to attract in finches and tits, a morning's ringing session can result in as many as 30 birds being trapped and ringed, including some superb species such as Firecrests, Nuthatches, Jays, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Long-tailed Tits. I am looking forward to carrying out more ringing this winter, and seeing what we can catch!

Firecrests are always a lovely surprise to catch in the nets whilst ringing on campus

Moth trapping has been a pronounced activity that a few of us have been carrying out all year here at Tremough. Although a large chunk of the year is lacking from our efforts (the summer months - probably the best time of year for moth trapping!), we've recorded some brilliant species from a spring and autumn of setting out Robinson and Heath traps at various locations around campus. Recently, the usual autumn suspects such as Feathered Ranunculus and Square-spot Rustics have been spruced up by the appearance of scarcer moths like Merveille du Jour, the Delicate, Gem, Grey Shoulder-knot and Pinion-streaked Snout. We are taking part in the University Moth Challenge, where different universities compete to see how many species they can record within their campus grounds in a year. It will be interesting to see where we rank when the results are revealed!

Merveille du Jour: 'wonder of the day'

Feathered Ranunculus

In addition to all the wildlife that can be encountered on campus, some local habitats within throwing distance make it even more difficult to crack down on work when the weather is nice! My local birding patch, Argal and College reservoirs, lie just a few minutes from campus, and provide superb habitat for overwintering wildfowl, grebes, herons and also tit feeding flocks in the surrounding woodland. The last week has seen Wigeons and Teals start making a return to the lake, but the star of the show has been a superb Pectoral Sandpiper which appeared on the 9th. We got some cracking views of this scarce North American visitor, and flushed two Jack Snipe as we approached through the rank vegetation at the lake's edge.

Argal Reservoir at sunrise

The lovely Pectoral Sandpiper currently feeding on a small area of gravel on College Reservoir

Wigeons are returning to the reeservoirs, where they will spend much of the winter feeding with Tufted Ducks, Teals and Coots

In addition to the birds, there are some pretty funky invertebrates abounding in the trees, leaf litter, bushes and water bodies at the moment. I was delighted to see my first Pseudoscorpion last week, which was found by a first year zoology student Calum Urquhart (check out his brilliant blog here). These fascinating wee creatures are actually arachnids, represented by around 27 species in the UK. They use their elongated pedipalps (or pincers) to paralyse prey by injecting victims with venom; this act if followed by digesting the meal with the applications of an enzyme-rich liquid, prior to consuming the resulting meal! Prey items range from tiny little springtails and mites through to ants, barklouse, moth and beetle larvae, and small flies. Amazing little things!

So there is just a brief overview of the brilliant array of wildlife that can be encountered on our campus, although bear in mind this is just a snapshot from a week's birding and insect hunting. Spring provides endless distractions that can make studying all the more difficult!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

A summer of Transylvanian bird ringing surveys

This summer I was fortunate enough to be part of Operation Wallacea's survey team on their annual expedition to the Transylvania region of Romania. For the last four years, the organisation has spent eight weeks each summer in this amazing corner of Europe, where they have been surveying all manner of flora and fauna around a number of rural villages.

Opwall's expeditions across the world (it operates in 14 countries) are fuelled by participating students and researchers. Groups of students from A levels through to Under-graduate and Post-grad levels join on the expedition for differing time periods. Those joining from A level and Undergraduate levels are able to take part in the plethora of different biodiversity surveys being carried out, so as to learn the different techniques used, intricacies of identification and generally the scientific methods used in studying the wildlife of the region. Post-grad and Master students also take part by pursuing their own specific projects - this in turn helps contribute to Operation Wallacea's global publication of a number of papers in peer-reviewed journals across the World.

You can find out more about Opwall and their work here:

the view of Daia's impressive spire from the meadows nearby

The primary goal of Opwall's expedition to Romania is to conduct standardised long-term monitoring of the wildlife in each of the villages visited - this will hopefully provide data to illustrate how important it is that traditional farming practices continue; will keep a pulse on any changes in the biodiversity of these areas over the years; and also will add a wealth of information and data to the distribution of important threatened species in the area.

Data and information collected by the surveys is shared with an in-country organisation called Fundatia ADEPT are doing some fantastic work to conserve the biodiversity of this incredibly rich landscape - helping to introduce subsidies and incentives for farmers to essentially not wreck the landscape like we've done here in the UK!

Take a look at Fundatia Adept's website to find out more about the area and their work:

Betony (Stachys officinalis) amongst the grassland at sunrise in Richis (the first village we visited)

I will go into a bit more detail about the awesome landscape and habitats of the Târnava Mare region in another blog post, but here are a few facts to give you a broad picture:
- the Târnava Mare region of Transylvania is essentially 85, 000 hactares of rich flower meadows and woodland
- it is home to around 5,000 families, who are spread out into 30-odd idyllic Saxon villages
- the low-intensity agriculture has fostered an abundant floral community which receives recognition at national and international levels
- It is hailed as harbouring the most extensive area of flower-rich grasslands remaining in lowland Europe
- the area has remained largely unchanged since the arrival of the Saxon communities in the 12th and 13th centuries
- however, a mass exodus of much of the Saxon community in the early 1990s has left the area threatened by intensification, land abandonment and changes to land-use
- 1100 plant species can be found here, which is roughly 30% of the Romanian flora; 87 of these are protected species
- the area is a patchwork mosaic of habitats: roughly 50% hay meadows, 25% pastureland, 10% arable land and between 20-40% forest

The village of Malancrav, nestled in the bottom of a valley bordered by woodland on one side, and a mix of orchards and meadows on the other

So what was my role in the expedition's survey team? 
I was acting as the bird ringing surveyor, the details of which I will expand upon a little later on in the post. Essentially, the ringing surveys have been an on-going part of the survey effort since mid-Wales ringer Paul Leafe helped set them up three years ago. As the team moves from village to village, the ringing survey involves setting up mist nets at a site nearby, which is run for six days to get a taste of the birds present. I was taking over from Paul for this year's trip...

yours truly with a handsome beast: a juvenile Hawfinch

A personal highlight: Bee-eater! 

Where were we based for the seven weeks? I have highlighted the superb Transylvania region of Romania in the map below, and included markers for the six different villages that we visited. These were Richis, Nou Sasesc, Mesendorf, Viscri, Malancrav and Apold. You can check out the locations below...

Each village had its own unique character - and yet they all shared similarities: the pretty saxon-style outlay, the brick-red roofs, colourful line-up of houses along a 'main street', each house having a barn for its personal milking cow and horses for carting around goods. Each village did, however, vary subtly in the surrounding habitats, topography, management and diversity of species. 

The basic rhythm of the expedition ran on a weekly basis beginning on Wednesday: move day. Since all 50-70 of us were staying in tents throughout most of the trip, we would pack up every single one each Wednesday morning, load all our kit and belongings onto a truck and trailer, and then move on to the next village. On arrival, we would repeat the process in reverse, setting up all the tents and kit ready for another week of surveys. 

Since the expedition has been running for several years now, all the sites for monitoring the various different animals and plants are all set out on GPS, with marked points and transects in each village allowing repeatability for the surveys. Ringing sites were slightly less 'fixed', as the habitat can change on a year-to-year basis (e.g. a previously brilliant scrub site might have been razed to the ground...)

camp for the first week, in the village of Richis

a rather romantic setting: the village's herd of communal cattle are herded out for a day's grazing in the surrounding pastures


Anyway, enough waffle. You can just skip to all the pretty pictures of the birds I trapped and ringed during the surveys, but I will also try to describe something of the process involved on a day-to-day basis... 

My basic daily routine:

4.00am - alarm goes off...
I would drag another unfortunate sole (usually an accompanying lecturer and biologist from the states called Jonny Wilson) with me to the ringing site, which was often sited some 30 minutes out of the village. Once on site, we would set about erecting five or six mist nets in strategic positions within the scrub, ready for the morning's activities
5.40am - having set off at a more respectable time of half five from camp, my group of students for the morning would arrive with a Romanian translator ready for the first net round. I would set up a rudimentary 'camp' with the use of a plastic sheet where we'd base ourselves for the morning. Heavy dew most nights (or thunderous rain storms) often rendered the grass and meadows drenched with dampness
6.00am-10.30am - Students would accompany me to check the mist nets regularly throughout the morning, and I would explain the whole process of bird ringing: why we do it, how it should be carried out safely, and what techniques are best to use to age, sex, and take measurements on the birds. Releasing the birds was often a favourite part with most students, as I would show them how to correctly hold a bird for release - and it is always great to see the reaction of the students when they release their first bird!
10.40am - after the last net round, by which time bird activity would have died down due to the mounting heat, I would take down all the nets with the help of the students. We would store the poles and string in a well-hidden spot beside our ringing site to save on lugging the equipment to and from the site every morning.
11.30am - we would typically arrive back at camp sometime before midday, depending on how busy a session it had been, and also on the distance to the ringing site. After stowing away the kit and perhaps treating myself to a shower, I'd usually find out how the other morning surveys had gone: small mammal trapping, surveys for bats and bird point counts were all carried out from dawn to late morning, so it was exciting to hear about any interesting sightings.
1.00pm - lunchtime was always a welcome point during the day, with local hosts being employed in each village to cook the expedition's food requirements (rather extensive when you have over 50 hungry biologists!)
2.00-6.00pm - my afternoons would vary on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes I would go through the previous night's moth trap with students, although we usually only set the Robinson trap out two or three times a week due to the sheer volume of lepidoptera attracted to a bright light in area with such little light pollution.
Aside moth trapping, I'd often carry out some afternoon ringing to target specific species or flocks, such as Tree Sparrows dust-bathing on a track, or a Swallow roost in a nearby reed bed. 
Or I might collapse and spend the heat of the day cocooned in a comfy hammock...
7.00pm - dinnertime: a great time to catch up with how the day's surveys had gone, and catch up with the team and students alike, answer questions or just plan for the next day's survey.
8.00-22.00 - there would usually be evening surveys taking place that I would sometimes join onto, such as bat roost surveys, carrying out transects to monitor the corncrake populations, or setting small mammal traps for the night.

A summary of the typical ringing procedure in pictures...

The students were shown the whole process behind the ringing of birds, from capture to release...

Mist net set and ready to catch. This site was in an orchard in the fourth village, Malancrav

A Maltese group of A-level students being shown the ways to safely extract birds from a mist net; often one of the trickier parts of the ringing process

Our usual 'ringing station' was a tarpaulin laid out on the grass, with a nearby tree used to support the bags of birds awaiting ringing. 

Ringing an adult female Red-backed Shrike

a surprise one morning was coming across a net full of a flock of Hawfinches, most of which were bright juveniles (on the left in this image), with a couple of adult female birds (on the right), and one adult male

one of the great things of ringing with the students and showing them the process was allowing them to release some of the birds. Seeing their reaction when releasing a bird for the first is always pretty special! A compilation of videos of these releases...

The Results
All-in-all I managed to ring just over 1000 birds in the seven weeks, which included some cracking species. The most numerous species were Tree Sparrows (just under 180 ringed), followed closely by the finger-snipping Red-backed Shrikes (139) and Common Whitethroat (127). I have included a selection of the tallies in a table below, although this isn't the complete list.

In addition to new birds, it was brilliant to retrap birds in each village which had been ringed in either of the previous years. Particular highlights included a Lesser Whitethroat which I retrapped on the exact date it had been trapped on the previous year, having initially been ringed in 2014; a female Great Reed Warbler with a brood patch which had been ringed in 2015 as an adult; several Tree Sparrows which had been ringed in either 2014 or 2015.

a selection of species from the ringing totals

Here is a visual representative of some of the above!
Points for guessing them all correct!

Some more images from the ringing activities
Juvenile Red-backed Shrike - no less feisty than their elder counterparts...

Although the bills of adult Red-backed Shrikes (such as this male) tend to be far sharper and much more painfully targeted at the nail bed. James O'neill, a fellow Next Generation Birder, was initially acting as the butterfly survey leader on the expedition

a fresh juvenile Marsh Warbler on the left compared to a more worn-looking adult bird on the right

Golden Oriole! a superb bird to catch, and one whose melodious warbling tune would be resounding around many of the villages towards the beginning of the summer 

Hawfinches: juvenile (left) and adult female (right)

River Warbler (apologies to the birders out there for not picturing the undertail'll have to use your imaginations)


So overall it was a superb experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed carrying out the surveys and showing the students all that is involved with the ringing process

And it wasn't just about the birds! I'll be following up on this post with further blogs on the insects and other wildlife we saw whilst out there...

Mullein standing tall amongst the wild carrot above the village of Malancrav

overhanging Beech trees at Richis

The fortified citadel of Apold's church

Marbled White (watch this space for my next post...on the inverts from the trip)

Tree Sparrow release

Some of the four-week students, survey team, translators and hosts at the village of Malancrav