Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Whiskered Tern on patch! Confession of a mis-ID...

As some readers may be aware, I had the fortune of finding this smart little beauty on my local patch of Argal Reservoir after returning to Falmouth a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I managed to stuff up the immediate identification of the bird in the field, so thought I would write a post detailing the find and also the developing attention that it stimulated...

juvenile Whiskered Tern

My local stomping grounds whilst I am in Falmouth are the two nearby lakes of Argal and College - both sizeable bodies of water with a great mix of scrub, woodland, muddy edge and marsh surrounding the perimeter. I have been taking part in this year's Patchwork challenge here, but have been away all summer so my totals are pretty stunted! You can check out a full write-up of my patch here: My Patch write-up

So onto the find: we all make mistakes, and as the superb pioneer of Birding identifications Martin Garner always enjoyed reminding people, we shouldn't shy away from being wrong, and learn much from our errors! 

After a twelve hour train journey from Pwllheli to Falmouth the previous day, I had spent most of the 13th sorting out my accommodation, getting some supplies and generally settling in. The weather was overcast, with thunderous storms overnight and drizzly rain for most of the day. In the evening I decided to cycle down to Argal and take a look at patch...

On arrival, the first bird I saw was a small tern that was ranging around the edge of the reservoir with flicky, buoyant flight. My immediate thought in the excitement of the moment (which I later pinched myself for...) was something like: 'I wonder if it's a Whiskered Tern!?'

I then spent half an hour observing the bird as it flew around in the dying light, trying to suss out the ID. With a dark, mottled mantle, prominent black cap and what looked like fairly dusky upper wings (in the evening light) pointed towards a 'marsh' tern at any rate, and what looked like a rather large black shoulder splodge convinced me that it was a juvenile Black Tern - a good patch tick nonetheless.

It grew dark, and I returned home and took a look at the images on my laptop - they were pretty shoddy, grainy and very dark, and in most shots the shoulder marking seemed too big for anything other than a Black. White-winged would be very pale on the upperwings and have bright sides to the head/cheek. I published a couple of shots up on twitter after concluding on Childonias nigra

Over the next couple of hours, a couple of birders commented on my image and suggestions started circulating of Whiskered Tern - then I took another look at the bird, and after sending further images to some friends, realised I'd made a schoolboy error: it was a damn Whiskered Tern after all!!!

So what made it one? Well, after returning at 0630 the following morning and getting some superb views of the bird in good light conditions, it was so much more obvious: browny marbling marking on the scapulars, mantle and back, contrasting to very pale, silvery wings; very small shoulder mark, with a round head and distinctive black cap with very little white on the forehead; the head shape and bill structure was much very distinctive, and even the flight pattern was subtly different to that of a Black. So I have to say I was pretty annoyed at screwing up the ID! But there we are...

Over the following week, the bird remained faithful to the two lakes, fishing in frequent circuits around Argal, before heading down to College reservoir for a time and resting up on the floating oxygenation devices. I was really happy to see groups of birders enjoying the bird on a daily basis, and the smart little tern performed brilliantly from the 13th until the 17th. A very nice addition to my patch list, and a good learning curve for marsh tern ID - an area that I have very little experience with living on Bardsey!

College Reservoir is looking brilliant for wildfowl at the moment, with the habitats generally far more rich than this time last year due to lower water levels. I look forward to seeing what arrives and what I can find here in the coming months.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Back in Falmouth!

It's been a busy old week, but I'm safely back in Cornwall! It's great to be back in Falmouth, where I'll be venturing into my second year of a degree in Conservation Biology with the University of Exeter.

I  arrived in Falmouth somewhat dazed after the typical 12-hour train journey from North Wales, which is nevertheless a very scenic ride for the first five hours! I spent the following days settling down and running various trips and events with 'ecosoc' (the ecological society on campus) for freshers week: birding trips around the county, moth trapping, bird ringing etc. It has been great to see all the new and enthusiastic students arriving for their various degrees, and also to get out an about around this stunning area of the country!

Maenporth at sunrise, which is around 15 minutes away from where I'm currently staying. A home from home!

At the end of my first day, I decided to pay my local patch a visit - namely that of Argal and College Reservoirs just a few minutes from my caravan. It was getting a little dark at 7pm, but as soon as I arrived at the reservoir I saw this lively chap fluttering around and plunge-diving for fish. I will be writing a full blog post about the find, but I basically screwed up (thinking it was a juv black tern) before being corrected that it was in fact a WHISKERED TERN! Thankfully it was present the next day, and showed brilliantly up until the 15th (no sign for the last few days).
More to come of this beauty...

Whiskered Tern

The water level in College and Argal Reservoir is incredibly low, which means that a lot of vegetation has sprung up around the perimeter and a muddy bank has been exposed. I have to say that the habitat is looking better than ever for waders and ducks, so I look forward to seeing what it will produce this autumn and winter.

I have paid a visit to a variety of sites with a couple of birding & photography friends this week. One particularly enjoyable afternoon was spent looking for a lovely variety of different insects at the nearby Bisso Valley with photographer Max Thompson and birder Liam Langley. We saw some great species...

female Common Hawker ovipositing

Emerald Damselfly

A rather small Common Toad

Sun Fly (Helophilus pendulus)

Froghopper sp. - not sure what species?

Bissoe has some perfect grounds to play host to some huge gatherings of Ivy Mining Bees (Colletes hederae). They construct their nests in tunnels in the sandy ground, and can number in the tens of thousands in some places in the UK!

Small Copper

As mentioned before, I have been taking a couple of groups out on birding trips for freshers events, visiting sites like Hayle Estuary and the Lizard Peninsula. Hayle produced an unexpectedly high number of wildfowl and waders considering the time of year, with a rising tide forcing them close to the causeway and thus giving us some great views...hundreds of TealsWigeons, plenty of CurlewsBar-tailed and Black-tailed GodwitsGrey and Golden PloversRuffGreenshanksLittle EgretsCommon Sandpipers and much more were recorded... 

Yesterday (17th), I paid a visit to Land's End with birders and Phd students George Swan and Liam Langley to cash in on some of the eastern jewels that have been turning up all across the country. We began by scrutinising the hedgerows and heath around Land's End, before heading to Porthgwarra to catch up with a smart juvenile Red-backed Shrike. The bushes and heathland around Land's End was covered in Stonechats (upwards of 40 easily), along with 15 Whinchats, plenty of Wheatears, a good stream of Swallows and House Martins overhead, and a couple of these smart lookers (which took us most of the morning to find!)



The highlight of the day for me was seeing this Common Buzzard fly over with an Adder gripped firmly in its talons! An amazing sight, especially when another Buzzard was in pursuit giving whistling calls in attempt to pinch a little of this rather sizeable snack. Only my second UK adder, and in the talons of a Buzzard!

My course begins in earnest this week, but I hope to get out and about as much as possible - I will endeavour to keep my blog updated in the coming weeks, but we'll see how the workload pans out!

Monday, 12 September 2016

Migfest 2016 - a visit to Spurn Head

After a superb August on Bardsey, I left the island on Wednesday ahead of a period of stormy weather, and made my way to the east coast of England via a series of buses and trains. The purpose? The primary reason for my short-distance migration was in fact to take part in an event focussing on migrations of a much larger scale: I was making my first visit to the superb Spurn head in East Yorkshire to attend this year's Migfest.

In September every year, Spurn Bird Observatory plays host to a gathering of birders from all over the country - and even further afield - to come and witness the spectacle of migration at one of the UK's best hotspots for this exciting movement. The 'Migfest' weekend event includes guided walks, ringing demonstrations, moth trapping and a series of interesting talks from a range of different speakers (this year, including David La Puma from Cape May Bird Observatory and Björn Malmhagen from Falsterbo Bird Observatory). But aside this, the main focus of migfest is the birds: getting out there and witnessing hundreds of migrants passing by out to sea, whizzing south overhead in flocks or gathering in their thousands along the foreshore as the tide forces waders from their feeding spots.

the brand new bird observatory building

I arrived at Spurn after a day's travelling on Thursday evening, and it was great to meet up with young spurn-based birders Tim Jones, Jonnie Fisk and Daniel Branch, who were helping out with the running of the event. On Friday morning I awoke bright and early - the weather was clear and breezy. Not ideal for ringing (too windy for using mist nets), but the south-westerly head wind encouraged a steady passage of migrants overhead, and gave me a great introduction to 'vis-migging' (watching visible migration) on the Warren and the New Narrows (where the mainland tapers off to a fine point before the spit juts out to sea). We recorded some great numbers over the course of a few hours, the final tallies including 800+ Swallows, 1000+ Meadow Pipits, 50 Linnets, 160 Tree Sparrows, 20 Grey Wagtails, 60 House Martins, 30 Sand Martins, 20 Yellow Wagtails and 2 Greenfinches.

Tim Jones vis migin' at the warren

a steady overhead passage of Meadow Pipits resulted in 1000+ counts on Friday morning, accompanied by tight undulating flocks of Tree Sparrows.
Plenty of Sandwich Terns powering by too

There is something very special about witnessing 'raw' migration: actually seeing these tiny birds, often weighing no more than 20 grams, as they embark on a journey that can take them hundreds of miles across the globe. It's pretty remarkable really, not just the physiological demands these birds are under, but the navigational challenges they face too

It's not just passerine migrants that make for exciting visible migration: watching flocks of ducks and waders fly by is a brilliant sight in itself

Besides the overhead passage, the nearby seawatching hide was a great place to be too: seabirds and waders were flying south and north throughout the morning, and as the wind became increasingly storng during the day, some smart species were recoded. In the morning, highlights included 15 Sandwich Terns, 3 Manx Shearwaters, 11 Red-throated Divers, 15 Cormorants, plus plenty of Wigeons and Common Scoters.

Wigeons migrating with the new wind farm looming offshore

As the morning progressed, the skies remained bright blue and sunny, and the wind picked up to a fresh breeze. These conditions aren't ideal for trying to find migrants like warblers and flycatchers hiding in the vegetation, so species Willow Warblers, Whinchats, Wheatears, Spotted Flycatchers and Whitethroats were present in quite small numbers. But the conditions were great for watching another of Spurn's star attractions: the waders

Dunlin & Ringed Plovers

The twice-daily exposing of Humber's rich estuarine shores results in huge numbers of wintering and passage waders, which make use of the mudflat's feeding potential. During my stay at Spurn, there were several thousand Knots and many hundred Golden Plovers commuting between inland scrapes and the mudflats every day. Amongst the throng of pulsating calidrid flocks were Curlew Sandpipers, Curlews, Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, Redshanks, Sanderlings, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits and Ruffs. In winter, the numbers can surpass six-figure counts - now that must be an epic sight!

Bar-tailed Godwit


Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover & Dunlins

Kilnsea wetlands

One of the coolest moments on my first day had to be the sight of a juvenile Peregrine bombing out of nowhere and slicing past the shoreline where thousands of mixed waders were gathered; the Knots arose in confused and pulsating flocks, Redshanks scarpered with Dunlin in tow, Curlews spread their clumsier wings in surprise and sent water splashing. The Peregrine didn't actually manage to catch anything: juvenile birds often head to estuaries during the autumn and winter to practice and hone their hunting abilities, although flocks can often be trickier targets than individuals. It was certainly amazing to watch the reaction of hundreds of waders as it powered through and attempted to pounce on one...

I spent most of the first day wandering around and exploring the various habitats and sites that Spurn has to offer: The Point (right on the end of a 3-mile spit), The Warren (the sort of funnel before the spit, where migrants are squeezed to a point before crossing the north sea), Kilnsea wetlands and Beacon Ponds (a series of inland scrapes and tidal lagoons), and countless patches of reed beds, scrubland and stubble fields. It was great to meet up with fellow young birders who had likewise made the trip to join the event: Matt Bruce and Beth Aucott, Espen Quinto-Assman and Oli Simms. We spent the afternoon searching the coast for migrants and scanning the sea for passing terns and gulls, which included over 200 Common Terns blasting south accompanied by two Black Terns and three Little Terns, along with three Arctic Skuas, 10 Mediterranean Gulls, a Red-throated Diver and, perhaps most surprisingly, a distant Marsh Harrier! A late Common Swift shearing southward along the dunes of the point was great to see - surely no trip to Spurn is complete without seeing its most famed species? There were a few migrants to be seen in the mixed scrub in sheltered areas, including a lone Spotted Flycatcher, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and Whinchats.

Willow Warbler

Spotted Flycatcher

Common Swift

there were over 30 Migrant Hawkers scattered around the point, and good numbers of Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies also passed through

looking back to Spurn and the warren from the point

After a full day in the field, Friday evening saw the official launch of migfest 2016, with a speech by Andy Clements of the BTO and then an interesting talk on the concept of 'Reverse Migration' by John Beaumont from Flamborough Bird Observatory. My first day at spurn was rounded off nicely by catching up with some old friends and new faces over some hot cheese & onion pies, followed by a drink in the Crown and Anchor.

Migfest Day 2 - Saturday 10th September

Saturday dawned calm and drizzly - not the sort of conditions that immediately spur one to jump out of bed at 6am, but myself and Will Langdon headed out nonetheless, with the hope that the conditions may have brought a few birds to ground. We walked along the edge of the 'triangle', where a handful of new arrivals presented themselves in the form of five Reed Warblers, nine Whinchats, five Sedge Warblers, a couple of Willow Warblers and some Swallows passing overhead. We made our way to the Warren, where a fair gathering of folk had been seawatching (or at least trying to in the persistent rain) for the last half-hour. We joined the group, becoming increasingly drenched as the precipitation continued unabated.

soggy seawatchers

There was just enough clarity to lock onto passing seabirds, and we collectively recorded 12 Red-throated Divers, two Manx Shearwaters, an Eider, 60+ Common Terns, a couple of Arctic Terns, 25 Sandwich Terns, 5 Mediterranean Gulls, 50+ Common Scoters, a handful of Teals and a few Gannets. At around 8am, news came over the radio of a Kentish Plover showing on the sand bank near sammy's point - a rapid exodus of the hide and seawatching party saw cars and people bomb off to see this scarce visitor - the first at Spurn since 2000. Unfortunately the bird had scarpered, and wasn't picked up again for a couple of hours, when it turned up in Kilnsea wetlands. I managed to catch up with the bird here, where it showed well on the scrape alongside the superb Wood Sandpiper, Little Egrets, Mediterranean Gulls and a handful of calidrid waders. A superb surprise was when a 3rd winter Caspian Gull dropped in - my first ever sighting of this subtly smart species, and one which I've been hoping to find back in Wales for a while (although they are a scarce bird in wales, with fewer than 3 records!).

Caspian Gull! 

This stunning Wood Sandpiper showed brilliantly throughout the event

Little Egrets

The rest of the morning was spent looking for new arrivals amongst the sodden hawthorn bushes - this produced a couple of Lesser Whitethroats, two Common Whitethroats, a couple of blackcaps and a handful of Willow Warblers - and also popping in to the main migfest hub to catch up with more birders and friends who had arrived and were taking a look at the various stalls - featuring organisations like Waderquest and the BTO, through to artwork from the likes of Darren Woodhead and Richard Thewlis. It was good to get away from the rain and warm up at intervals, but there was also plenty to be seen out in the field, and it was definitely a very enjoyable morning.

I had to head off at lunch-time on the Saturday, with a train to catch to Falmouth on Monday, so said goodbye to the brilliant team at Spurn Bird Observatory, and adios to a brilliant migration hotspot which I'll surely return to before too long. A big thanks to everyone for a great event and some good birds.

mixed waders on the beach besides Warren

- Spurn head NNR (Yorkshire Wildlife Trust)

Monday, 5 September 2016

Kittiwakes from France

This summer has seen an incredible influx of Kittiwakes to the coast around Bardsey, with flocks numbering into triple figure counts frequently alighting into the air like snowflakes! Here on the island, we often have flocks of mixed adult and juvenile Kittiwakes lounging around the coast in July and August, often settling on particular stretches of the shore. However, this year has seen consistent high numbers from around 20th July through to the end of August. Some of our highest counts have included 3266 on 21st August, 2100 on 31st August and 2000 on both 25th and 27th. Although these mega counts have been amazing, it is more the consistent daily gatherings of 600+ that have made for an impressive sight throughout August -  significantly higher numbers than previous years.

On the occasions when myself or staff from Bardsey Bird Observatory have been close enough to a settled flock to see, it has been really cool to pick out plenty of colour-ringed birds amongst them. Looking out for colour-ringed birds is a great way of contributing meaningful data to some interesting projects, and is particularly productive in estuaries with bird families like waders and gulls. On Bardsey, we don't tend to get a huge number of colour-ringed birds coming through, so it has been great to obtain combinations of around 10 Kittiwakes from the big flocks that have been loitering around the coast. A quick search on the excellent 'cr-birding' website lead me to the scheme responsible for ringing the colour-ringed birds. You can work out who to email via a number of different details, such as which leg the metal ring is on, how many colour rings there are, whether any of the rings are coded (as in Darvic rings, which often have 3 or 4 letter codes), and also which colours are used.

One of the colour-ringed Kittiwakes
Spot the colour-ringed bird!

It turned out that all the colour-ringed Kittiwakes were from the same project, based in western France. I emailed the person carrying out the project, and was pleased to get a rapid response detailing all the facts relating to 'our' birds. I have included the shortened 'fact files' below for a few of the Kittiwakes, but basically all of the birds had come from France's largest black-legged Kittiwake breeding colony in Pointe du Raz (see map for details). As the ringing scheme has been operational for over 10 years now, with hundreds of birds ringed, one could assume that a fair proportion of the birds in our monster flock have originated from this colony. This is pretty interesting, as you would otherwise be tempted to think that the flock was simply formed of birds gathered from our own breeding colony, or perhaps colonies further up the Welsh coast. 

Bird 1 - Orange/Red/Metal-Orange/Orange/Orange (Paris FX21068) - seen on Bardsey on 13/08/16
Born in pointe du Raz (Plogoff, Brittany, France) in 2009. 
First resighted in the study area in 2011. 
First breeding attempt: 2013 in it's natal colony
Sexed as female. Bred 2014
Skipped breeding 2015, but bred in 2016 in it's natal colony (on another cliff) - failed at chick stage
Last seen in Brittany on 26/07/2016

Bird 2 - Red/White/Metal-Red/Black/Black (Paris FX23518) - seen on Bardsey on 13/08/16
Born in pointe du Raz in 2013
First resighted in the study area in 2015
Established in another colony in 2016 (pointe du Van, Cléden-Cap-Sizun, Brittany, France) but did not actually breed 
Probably a male
Last seen in pointe du Van on 09/07/2016

Bird 3 - Yellow/Blue/Metal - Lime/Black/Red (Paris FX17424) - seen on Bardsey on 15/08/16

Born in pointe du Raz in 2005
Resighted every year from 2008-2016 
Breeding attempts from 2010-2013 (in its natal cliff) and 2014-2016 (in pointe du Van colony)
Sexed as a male
Failed breeding in 2016 at chick stage (colony under heavy predation by peregrines)
Last observed 11/07/2016

Bird 4 - Red/White/Metal - Red/Green/White (Paris FX17424) - seen on Bardsey on 15/08/16
Born in pointe du Raz, 2013
Resighted in 2015 & 2016 in its natal colony only
Hasn't started breeding yet, probably female
2016 : observed on 10 occasions/days from mid-April, last observed on 27/07/2016 

Bird 5 -  Yellow/Red/Metal - Blue/Blue/White (Paris FX17424) - seen on Bardsey on 15/08/16
Born in Karreg Korn (Goulien, Brittany, France) in 2002
Resighted in every year from 2005 - 2016 
Breeding in its natal cliff from 2007-2009, but failed every year
Bred in pointe du Van colony from 2010-2016 and was successfull every year
Sexed as Male
Last observed on 29/07/2016

Bird 6 - Red/White/Metal - Blue/Black/White (Paris FX23601) - seen on Bardsey on 15/08/16
Born in pointe du Raz in 2013
Resighted in 2015 & 2016

2016: established in it's natal cliff, a few meters from it's natal nest, with a 13 year old female, but did not build a nest
Last observed on 04/07/2016

Looking at the details here, it is really interesting to see the time frame within which the birds have left their colonies and travelled up to Bardsey - many within a month, some within a couple of weeks (maximum). It would be interesting to find out whether the whole flock was comprised of birds from these french colonies, or whether there is a mix from several different populations. 

One of the flocks alighted on the island's southern tip

Kittiwake in active wing moult - another interesting feature of many of the birds in the flock. A lot of the birds have been carrying out their annual moult, renewing their worn primaries with fresh feathers. Growing new feathers takes a lot of energy demand, so perhaps these birds have been finding rich feeding around the island, which is facilitating their annual moult?
There are plenty of questions to ask!

Kittiwakes are such a charismatic coastal seabird, whose wailing calls epitomises the sea for me. Unfortunately, this species is experiencing worrying declines across much of its range, particularly in large northern colonies. Kittiwake numbers in Britain and Ireland have declined by 63% between 1986 and 2014, but in some northern colonies like Orkney and Shetland, declines have been as high as 87% since 2000. In the Irish Sea, this decrease has been somewhat less marked, with small increases in some colonies even. Here on Bardsey, the population has shown slight decreases in breeding numbers in the last few decades, but recent years have seen slight recoveries to our breeding population. Last year, for instance, saw a total of 125 nests on the East Side, which was a 20% increase on 2014, but a worrying 34.5% down on the 2006-2015 figure.

Reasons for these declines could be multi-fold and complex: fisheries have impacts on the availability of their main prey - sandeels -  and new evidence is suggesting that climate change and associated changes to sea surface temperature represents a real driver to the Kittiwake declines too: the changes to sea temperatures is causing declines and changes to plankton populations, which is the main food source for sandeels. Riding the change up the foodchain, and you have a domino effect. 

It's really sad to read the figures and hear about these declines - but monitoring populations, and contributing to studies such as colour-ringing projects like this one can help to understand more about the feeding behaviour and distributions of this species' populations both during and outside of breeding seasons. This can then inform governements and fisheries on where the most important areas are for this species, perhaps resulting Marine Protected Areas in some places to at least give the Kittiwake a hand whilst we tackle the bigger issue of our changing climate.