Tuesday 16 July 2024

Mid Year Round-up '24

This year has been, well let's say challenging, in terms of weather. It's been various combinations of wet, cool and windy for most of the spring and into summer. This has limited opportunities and access, but now- in mid July- it has, to some extent settled down. Over the last 10 days, we have pretty much covered the main ringing areas, from Blower's Bay, to the Railtrack, out to Point, and into the Leicestershire Reed-bed. Here are some pictures from over the last week, to give an idea of the sites and range of activities:

Mick, Pete B and our new trainee Josh in action in the Bay

Line of four nets at Point... birds waiting to be extracted and ringed.
Mick checking the credentials on a French Reed Warbler, breeding here in the Northants reed-bed.
Meanwhile over in the Leics reed-bed, the team of Adam, Dave, Stuart and Josh were busy putting up nets and getting some nice birds too (see above, I didn't think this one needed a caption). And in the same day as the French Reed Warbler, they controlled a Belgian one. Zut alors!
With love, all the way from Belgium

Adam and the nest box team have also been busy, ringing lots of Blue and Great Tits, but some rather more glamorous species too:

Destined for beauty, but possibly not quite there  yet; three Barn Owl chicks.

Finally, here is a summary of the birds ringed thus far. The first number is for birds ringed, the second in brackets for retraps: Barn Owl 7, Blackbird 15 (33), Blackcap 212 (72), Blue Tit 365 (95) Bullfinch 5 (4), Carrion Crow 1, Cetti's Warbler 2 (19), Chaffinch 21 (3), Chiff 150 (98), Common Tern 11, Dunnock 62 (93), Garden Warbler 45 (67), Goldcrest 8 (1), Great Spotted Woodpecker 3 (3), Great Tit 198 (65), Goldfinch 29 (3), Greenfinch (1), Jackdaw 19, Jay 1, Kingfisher 1, Lapwing 4, Lesser Whitethroat 54 (11), Linnet 29 (11), Long Tailed Tit 14 (23), Mute Swan 1, Pied Wagtail 4, Redwing 1, Reed Bunting 60 (66), Reed Warbler 142 (95), Robin 59 (34), Sedge Warbler 47 (64), Song Thrush 7 (27), Spotted Flycatcher 1, Stock Dove 3, Swallow 22, Treecreeper 20 (2), Whitethroat 70 (61), Willow Warbler 40 (58), Wren 56 (35).

So that is 39 species so far. The record for the site is 69 so there is some way to go as yet... watch this space. 

Friday 19 April 2024

‘Purple’ Patch

Chris, our resident sightings officer has logged up another stonker, and here he tells us all about it!

Its been a solid start to the year with well over 115 species recorded so far at Stanford with some quality birds in March and early April including Firecrest (the first since 2020) and Sandwich Tern (first since 2021). This ‘purple patch’ continued (literally) when I found Stanford’s second ever Purple Heron on April 9th.
Whilst checking for Reed Warblers in the Leicestershire reedbed a large heron suddenly got up from the middle of it with my initial reaction being ‘that’s dark’. I panicked as it flew away from me towards Keepers Lodge Bay so I went for the camera but thankfully it circled back around and eventually landed back in the Leicestershire reedbed – a few flight record shots were obtained and the identification confirmed of the second ever Purple Heron at Stanford. 

 It then settled back in to the reedbed and despite several birders patiently waiting that evening it was only seen briefly once for the rest of the day.
Mick Townsend and Pete Bateup had the bird again the following morning so I decided to do a quick lunchtime check around the reedbed. I was lucky enough to relocate the Heron in trees at the Point where it spent much of the afternoon sheltering from a strong wind with occasional rain and I was able to get some further images, albeit distant.

Key ID points

    • Overall appearance of a dark heron, much darker than Grey Heron.
    • Black neck stripes were obvious in flight and when sat in trees, especially when preening and stretching.
    • Crown dark, almost blackish looking at distance.
    • Side of head and neck a reddish-brown colour, back dark grey.
    • Purple / dark patch at the bend of the wing (obvious in images).
    • Darkish underparts seemingly running into the thighs.
    • In flight purple / grey wing-coverts were obvious with a less obvious contrasting appearance than in Grey Heron.
    • Long, dagger like yellowish bill which gave the impression that it was an extension of the head / forehead (i.e., running from the crown into the bill with no deviation).
    • Feet and legs – yellowish in colour protruding in flight, long looking toes which looked disorganised and untidy (also seen in the images).

This bird was an adult and constitutes the 8th record for Leicestershire and Rutland and the 22nd for Northamptonshire. The only other record for Stanford was an adult on the 16th April 2011.

Chris Hubbard

Back on the Road Again

What did we do in our holidays? Wandered through mud, wind, rain more mud and more rain. This is the lot of the Scrub Bashers as we maintain the warbler habitat around Stanford Reservoir. Despite a consistently grim late winter, we did actually get out every weekend, and cleared growth from the Feeders in Blower's Bay through to the Point reed bed:

Heather and Jo in action at Box 20 ride
We pack up from the beginning of April, and actually get out to start ringing, a great relief all round. To date, we have had four sessions, with a total of 93 new birds and 117 retraps (plus one UK control, a Blackcap). Species from distant lands to arrive so far are Sedge Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and Willow Warbler.
Lesser Whitethroat freshly back from Sub-Saharan Africa
It is particularly nice when birds we ringed in previous years come back to us. Returnees thus far are Sedge Warbler (1), Blackcap (6), Willow Warbler (13) and Chiffchaff (13)
Willow Warbler... come to Stanford for the long summer days
Anyway, we are looking forward to the return of various summer visitors, including Reed Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Whitethroat, Cuckoo (it would be nice to ring one this year!),Wagtails and Pipits, and really any number of possibilities. The birds will soon be settling down to breeding, so watch this  space for more ringing related shenanigans. 
We are out most Saturdays, weather permitting, so do come and say hello, if you are interested in our work.

Sunday 11 February 2024

Kumlien's Gull- Second Record for the Site

Chris H, our resident Sightings Officer, continues to spot some unusual and exciting birds. 

Gulls! Not everyone’s cup of tea but they can actually create excitement (honestly) especially when a long-distance visitor arrives. 

As the new year kicked off, gull numbers at the roost were already on the increase. By the time the January 11th arrived I had already recorded the commoner species along with Caspian, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gull. Earlier in the day Ian Bartlett had found a second-winter Iceland Gull at nearby Shawell landfill site – a magnet for ‘white wingers’. I managed to see this bird just after it was found so that put me on high alert in the unlikely event it decided to roost at Stanford (last record here 2020).
When I arrived at the roost, the light was already relatively poor. Just after 15.30 I scanned some incoming gulls (from the direction of Shawell) and to my surprise picked up what looked like an Iceland Gull. I decided to stay on the bird with my binoculars to ensure I saw which part of the roost it came into – losing a bird in thousands of gulls is easy to do and there is no guarantee of re-finding especially in fading light.
I got the scope on it as soon as it settled and to my surprise realised it wasn’t Ian’s bird from earlier. In fact, the overall appearance was of a mucky, darkish looking bird, with an Iceland type jizz but obvious grey in the closed primaries. My mind instantly turned to Kumlien’s Gull, a sub species of Iceland Gull. I grabbed some video of the bird but distance and light were against me and the quality was poor. Also, there were no flight or open wing shots which would have helped with the identification. I then lost it and couldn’t re-find it by dark. Having shared the videos with several other birders (all to which I owe my thanks), no unanimous opinion of the bird’s identity could be reached.
I decided that it was worth trying to pick the bird up before the roost departed early the following day – a good decision as it turned out! I was on site in the dark and checking through the gulls as the light gradually improved. By just after 08.00 there were only a few gulls remaining – I was just about to leave when I re-checked a small group that was left and to my relief picked up the bird. The light was much better and whilst the bird still looked quite mucky the light was much better than the night before. I decided to digiscope it and it then became restless and took off. I was able to video the bird for a short period as it took off and flew east and from this was able to get some stills to confirm the bird’s identity. 

It was indeed a Kumlien’s Gull, and most likely a second-winter identified by:

    • The outer primaries have a grey/brown wash, contrasting with pale inner webs . Noticeable on the water and in flight as can be seen from the images. Flight views were key to clinching the identification.
    • Overall structure and jizz more in line with Iceland than Glaucous with the bill being bi-coloured and at the Iceland end of the spectrum. Based on my experience I would say the bird looked slightly more robust than a typical Iceland, which often look quite dainty. However, there is a lot of variation so this can be subjective.
    • This bird was darker than a typical Iceland Gull of a similar age but again there is variation.
Kumlien's Gull breeds on Baffin Island and Southampton Island in the Canadian Territory of Nunavut (previously part of the Northwest Territories) and in northwest Quebec in the vicinity of Ungava Bay. Outside the breeding season it is found on the North American east coast from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence & Newfoundland south to Virginia and in the Great Lakes region as far west as Minnesota.
This is the second record for Stanford, the fourth record for Northants and the 10th record for Leicestershire and Rutland.

2023 Report Published


The annual report is now available on:  http://www.stanfordrg.org.uk/srgstats/2023-annrep.pdf


Thursday 8 February 2024

A Year in the Life of a Bird Ringer


2023 was a fantastic year for the Stanford Ringing Group and once more we beat previous records individual species ringed as well as the total number of birds ringed overall. The teamwork has been terrific and paid dividends. Personally, 2023 was also a key year for me as a ringer with many highlights.

January through to March saw a large area of blackthorn and willow at Stanford being cleared to allow grasses and scrub to regenerate and suitable habitat for migrants to use for nest building. I always enjoy the hard work and camaraderie that this entails.

I was also delighted to finally have my own site to use as a C-ringer at the Kelham Bridge Reserve owned by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. Ringing as a group builds knowledge but the solo catching and ringing of birds builds confidence and a deeper understanding. I was also fortunate to have the advice of Nigel Judson who had previously ringed at the site and the help of LRWT volunteers to clear some of the net rides.

Ringing at my site alone without support in January was exciting and at first a little nerve racking. Winter ringing is a cold activity with few birds in the nets. However, on my second session in late January I was delighted to catch a Willow tit. It was interesting going through the process of looking for the distinguishing features and taking biometrics to verify that this was indeed a Willow tit and not the almost identical Marsh tit. It is the only verified record of the species at Kelham Bridge for the past two years, although previously it was known to breed at the site.

Willow tit at Kelham Bridge

Kelham was proving a great site in the winter for birds such as Redpoll, Reed bunting, winter thrushes, and the ubiquitous Blue tits, Great tits, Wrens and Robins. Slowly the number of species I was ringing at the site was increasing.

Male Bullfinch, Kelham

The winter season is a good time for ringing waders and, in March, I joined the Wash Wader Research Group for the first time for a weekend. WWRG run regular cannon netting and mist netting weekends. The large team is composed of experienced wader ringers and lesser experienced participants. On Friday evening, after a briefing from the team organisers, everyone set out after dinner to set up the cannon nets at Heacham Beach ready for the high tide early the next morning. It takes skill and experience to align the small cannons so that when they are fired the net traps birds safely.

Before dawn we all assembled once more at the beach and I was assigned the job of ‘long stop’ to to keep walkers away until after the cannons were fired. As the tide slowly came in a large group of Oystercatchers and Bar-tailed godwits were nicely positioned moving in towards the nets. At about 8am all was set and ‘3-2-1’ the nets were fired, at which time everyone leaped up from behind the dunes to gather in the nets and birds. The extraction and processing of the birds was efficient and professional. Less experienced ringers ringed the birds, a second team fitted colour rings and flags and the final team recorded biometrics. By midday the last bird was processed and released.

Oystercatcher ringing with Wash Waders
Bar-tailed godwit

There was no time for relaxing as the conditions were right to set mist nets for an evening catch and by 6pm we were all heading out onto the marsh in the dark to extract the birds. A large catch produced a mix of Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Knot and a single Curlew. Birds were efficiently ringed and processed in a nearby cowshed and I clocked up five new species. Thank you to all the ringers at Wash Waders for sharing their knowledge.

During the spring, we see a steady change of bird species as winter birds depart north and migrants return from their wintering grounds further south. Kelham Bridge feels like a mini version of Stanford Reservoir and I caught a similar range of the more common species such as Blackcap and Whitethroat. Aging returning migrant birds requires a good understanding of the moult strategy of each species. Ringers will be looking for different plumage characteristics and feather condition in the spring than in the autumn. Also, as the spring unfolds, ringers look for signs of breeding which can be used to identify the sex of a bird. There is a lot to learn!

As summer approached, I applied for some overseas ringing experience. In 2022 I had had the opportunity to demonstrate bird survey techniques and ringing to students at the Knepp Estate in Sussex as part of an Operation Wallacea (OpWall) expedition. In 2023 I applied for a volunteer post as Ornithologist for one of OpWall's overseas scientific expeditions. I was delighted to be contacted by the Regional Manager for Honduras who asked if would I be interested in ringing in Honduras? Wow!

Collared trogon (female).
Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Living in Cusuco cloud forest in Honduras for 5 weeks during June and July was an amazing experience. Living conditions were basic but the scientific community was enthusiastic and everyone was happy to share their knowledge. As well as the bird team there were teams investigating mammals, invertebrates herpetofauna (snakes, amphibians and reptiles), habitat, fungi and bats. There were seven researchers in the bird team from the UK and Central America. Morning activities consisted of either walking steep transects through the forest recording all the birds we saw or heard alternating with mornings spent mist netting and ringing. The iconic bird of the region was the Resplendent quetzal which teased us with its fleeting appearances in the upper canopy. Mist netting recorded forest species such as Collared trogon, Black-headed nightingale-thrush, Slate-colored solitaire and a number of hummingbird species.  Although hummingbirds may appear delicate, they are in fact quite robust when handled carefully. We often gave them a drink of sugar water from a pipette to boost their energy before release. I was also excited to extract and ring a Barred forest-falcon, similar in size to a Sparrowhawk. As a ringing experience it was interesting and slightly confusing to be ringing to the American system that records age by moult cycle rather than calendar year. Bird surveys have been carried out in Cusuco for 20 years and it was a privilege to contribute to the research as well as train student scientists.

Blue-throated goldentail.
Only the second to have been recorded in Cusuco

The autumn migration season is always busy and returning home I was soon involved in ringing again at my own site, other sites across Charnwood as well as at Stanford Reservoir. Ringing entails very early morning starts and I was often having to get up at 3am to get to Stanford by 4.30 to erect nets  early to catch roosting birds. However, for ten consecutive days in August we camp out at the reservoir for Stanstock, the highlight of the ringing year. This is a hectic time with hundreds of warblers, mainly blackcaps, being ringed and processed as well as the occasional rarity. And, at last, it was my turn to ring the annual Wryneck. A bird that has been on my wish list for several years and well worth the wait.

Assessing the age of the Wryneck

At Kelham Bridge I was pleased to be catching juveniles of Reed warblers, Reed buntings and Cetti’s warblers which shows the breeding potential of this site. I loved the early mornings and tranquility of Kelham whilst I was ringing. It felt good to be efficiently extracting and processing birds and using my steadily increasing skills and knowledge. As the autumn progressed the mass flocks of migrating birds dwindled. However, the early winter saw the influx of Goldcrest, winter thrushes, Redwing and the first Fieldfare ringed at Kelham. I was delighted to recapture a control Goldcrest ringed at Flamborough Head eleven days earlier.

8 Cetti's warblers were ringed at Kelham during 2023

Since getting my C-permit in 2020, I have had a wide range of ringing experiences and gradually built my skills, knowledge and confidence. Consequently, it was suggested that I try for my A-permit which requires an assessment by an independent assessor.

The final months of the year were taken up in collating my ringing records, completing application forms and getting reports from Adam, as my trainer, and finding an assessor. I had two meetings with Colin McShane. The first comprised of searching for Jack Snipe using thermal imagers and a long discussion about my experience and future plans as a ringer. The second was a practical assessment of mist netting and processing common passerines. Finally, just after New Year, I received notification that I had been awarded my A-permit by BTO License Committee. It has taken hard work, dedication and commitment to the point of obsession to reach this point. There is still more to learn and more projects to work on but the future for bird ringing is exciting. I have new plans for 2024 both at home and overseas.

Jack snipe ringed as part of my A-permit assessment

Thanks to all ringers and birders at Stanford for patience, training and support. In particular Adam Homer, my trainer, and Mick Townsend, lead ringer at Stanford. Many thanks also to Nigel Judson, who has added to my training, and LRWT and other landowners who let us ring on sites in Charnwood.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Just a Quickie...

It's cold, it's grey, it's damp, and so are we. What could be finer then, than to wander out in the dark and stick up a few nets?

So far we have ringed large numbers of warblers over the summer and especially the autumn, but now the warblers have all gone. For full details, readers are advised to wait for the annual report, which will be out in the New Year. We now have migratory thrushes coming down from the north, and so have ringed decent numbers of Redwing, Fieldfare, Song Thrush and Blackbird.  

First Fieldfare of the year, what a stonker!

The last few sessions have been a bit well, thin, with a hit of birds first round and then fairly sparse rounds after. However, we plough on. Recent storms have blown a few interesting birds in, and here is one such:

Definitely a Wagtail!
This is a very unusual bird to be mist netted at Stanford. In the UK, we usually have Pied Wagtails, Motacilla alba, subspecies yarrelli, which as the name suggests are largely black and white birds. However, on the continent the subspecies is called White Wagtail, M. alba alba (the nominate subspecies), which is much paler. Given the pale grey mantle on this juvenile, could it be the latter, which would be quite exciting? Cue much head scratching, looking in guides, and calling Chris H, our resident birder. Anyway, to cut a long story short, no this juvenile looks a bit paler perhaps than most, but fits easily within yarrellii
Still, an interesting discussion, and it supports the idea that birds who turn up at unusual times and in unusual places, are always worth a through examination!