Sunday, 22 April 2018

Billinge: 21st April 2018

There was a general lack of birds and in many respects it was very disappointing morning but there were a few bits of interest that were topped off in fine style by an Osprey that flew directly over me towards the end of the session. Only 9 birds were caught over the best part of 5 hours but they did include a Tree Pipit and a couple of interesting retraps. Once again visible migration was virtually none existent with 3 Tree Pipits, 5 Lesser Redpolls and the aforementioned Osprey being the only birds seen moving north.

You can't complain about only catching 9 birds when one of them is a Tree Pipit. 
The first of the interesting retraps was a female Blackcap which was originally ringed as a first-year bird in August 2014 and hadn't been recaptured during the intervening period.

At nearly 4 years old this Blackcap has reached quite a good age.
The other interesting retrap was a Willow Warbler that, at first glance, looked more like a Chiffchaff than your typical spring Willow Warbler. 

You can make your own mind up from the photos but the supercillium is quite dull and indistinct, especially behind the eye.

There was no doubt about it being a Willow Warbler albeit a rather drab looking one. It had been ringed as an adult in August 2015 and retrapped in May & August 2016 and again in May 2017 and was sexed as a male. The wing formula was as it should be for Willow Warbler and the wing length was 69mm. 

Interestingly, the legs were quite dark too.

There has been a distinct lack of Lesser Redpolls moving through so far this month and the 5 seen on this visit is the largest count. They have been absent on most days and on the few occasions any have been recorded it has only been ones and twos.

Only 3 Lesser Redpolls have been ringed so far this month compared with 66 from a similar amount of effort in the same period last year. Numbers and timing do vary from year to year but this April looks like being an exceptionally poor one for this species.
Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) for 21st April 2018 were: Willow Warbler 1 (2); Blackcap 1 (2); Dunnock 1; Tree Pipit 1; Lesser Redpoll 1.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Tit knocker

Tit and knocker, and more commonly their plural forms, are often used synonymously in slang and certain types of humour but in this case the tit and knocker is a Great Tit that acts like and old fashioned knocker-up by tapping on the bedroom window every morning. If you are not familiar with the term 'knocker-up' it was a profession in Britain and Ireland that developed during the industrial revolution when alarm clocks were relatively expensive and not very reliable. The knocker-upper would go around and wake clients up, often by tapping on their bedroom window with a long stick, so they wouldn't be late for work and it was common job in the industrial towns of northern England (link here).

Our knocker-upper has been coming to the bedroom window for about a week now and the tapping usually starts about 6:30am and continues periodically throughout the morning and possibly longer. It is probably attacking its reflection but it is not a male as might be expected, no, our knocker-upper is a female Great Tit and can be sexed by the narrow and broken black stripe on the underparts.

This bird isn't coming across it reflection and then attacking it on each occasion as it usually appears from a direction that wouldn't allow it to see its reflection first. I suspect it has developed this behaviour from an initial chance direct encounter with its reflection and all of the return visits are to check for an intruder but when it gets level with the window it obviously sees its reflection again and responds as if an intruder has returned. This behaviour is very similar to the Dunnock that displayed to its reflection in the car wing mirrors last year. It returned to the mirrors in anticipation of seeing another Dunnock and not because its reflection suddenly came into view (link here) and I confirmed that when I covered the mirrors in bags and it still came back looking for its reflection. I think the female Great Tit is doing something very similar and is flying up to the window in anticipation of seeing what it thinks is another Great Tit rather than responding to something it has just seen.

Now you may be wondering why I am posting about this Great Tit rather than any ringing I have been doing at Billinge. Well, the simple answer is that it has been extremely slow going at Billinge over the last ten days with only a very slow increase in the number of summer visitors present and virtually nothing in the way of visible migration. Hopefully that will change now that some warmer weather with a more favourable wind direction has finally arrived and with a bit of luck I could have a visit worth posting about in the next few days.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Tales of the unexpected.

I had an unexpected visitor in the garden on the 6th in the form of a Blackcap. I had been keeping an eye on the feeders when I suddenly noticed there was a male Blackcap feeding on the fat blocks. There hadn't been any Blackcaps in the garden during the winter nor had I encountered any of the summer visiting variety this spring so it was my first sighting for the year, anywhere. As it seemed quite at home feeding on the fat blocks I suspected it could be a bird that had wintered in the UK rather than one that had just returned to breed as I wouldn't have thought the latter would recognise the fat blocks as food. Obviously it is only a suspicion but I think it is a reasonable one.

Not the sort of feeding behaviour you would expect to see if this were a returning summer visitor or at least that is my thinking. 

It looked to be an experienced garden hand-out junkie and chose the fat block over the apples that were available.
I put a net up in the garden the next morning (7th) with the primary aim of catching Siskins as a few were still visiting the feeders. The first bird caught was a Blackcap and it was almost certainly the bird I had seen on the fat blocks the previous day. It was a 2nd calendar year bird, so hatched last year, and it was carrying a moderate amount of fat with a score of 3 on the ESF scale. More importantly it now has a ring on it so there as a chance of finding out which type of Blackcap it is, winter visitor or summer visitor.

I only caught one other bird before rain curtailed proceedings and that was a Siskin, the target species, and it was the fattest Siskin I have caught this spring. It weighed 17.0g which means at least one third of its weight was fat. Siskins that attain such weights are likely to be of Scandinavian origin or from further east as it is far more fuel than would be required if it was just returning to Scotland to breed.

Yesterday (the 8th) I went up to the site at Billinge in the hope there would be a marked increase in warblers and some Redpolls moving through. Unfortunately the session was marred by fog which was very slow to clear and when it finally did some banks of fog or murk lingered in the surrounding areas. There were one or two more Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers singing but that was about it and there were no Redpolls or anything else on the move overhead. However, it wasn't a complete waste of time as I did catch a bird that I would never have predicted, and that was a Fieldfare. They are pretty scarce on this side of the country once you get into April and they are never easy to catch so ringing one today was totally unexpected. It wasn't the only Fieldfare present as another was heard and seen through the gloom along with a Redwing.

Fieldfare 08/04/2018
Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) for 8th April 2018 were: Goldcrest 3; Blue Tit (1); Willow Warbler 1; Blackbird 1; Fieldfare 1.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

A few morsels of interest.

Lots of sunshine but not many birds just about sums up the visit to Billinge this morning. I had thought the clear conditions would prompt some vis mig and that there could be a few warblers working their way through the bushes but the birds clearly had other plans. There was virtually nothing moving overhead save for the merest trickle of Meadow Pipits and that soon petered out. There wasn't much happening in the bushes either, apart from a couple of singing Chiffchaffs that were sorting out their territories, and the nets only produced 1 Blackbird in the first couple of hours.

It did look like it was going to be a complete write-off of a morning but then a fine male Brambling was caught and lifted my spirits. Shortly after a Willow Warbler uttered a few subdued snippets of song and while I was trying to locate it a Tree Pipit called as it flew over; both were firsts for the year and helped give the morning a whole new feel. I didn't manage to get any views of the Willow Warbler where it had been singing but that didn't matter as it turned up in one of the nets a little while later.

Male Brambling. There are still a few around in the area and I even had one on the feeders in the garden yesterday.

Willow Warbler.
Things slowed down after that little flurry of activity but another morsel of interest came when a ringed Chiffchaff was caught in the last net round. It was a retrap from last year and had been ringed as a juvenile on 5th August. It is always good to retrap returning migrants and hopefully there will be many more in the coming weeks.

Returning Chiffchaff  KJX121 was ringed as a juvenile on 5th August last year.
It may have been a very slow morning for the most part but it was an interesting one nevertheless.

Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) for 5th April 2018 were: Blue Tit (1); Great Tit 1; Chiffchaff (1); Willow Warbler 1, Blackbird 1; Brambling 1.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Siskin Summary

It has been a reasonable winter and early spring for Siskins in the garden and it isn't over yet. The first Siskins were seen on the feeders back in late November which is relatively early for my garden and, interestingly, both were adult males and both were already wearing rings. Counts stayed in single figures through December, January and the early part of February, although ringing showed there was a little bit of  turnover. Numbers increased in the second half of February and peaked in early March when up to 20 were counted but there was some turnover over the course of each day so the actual peak was probably closer to 30. Counts fluctuated markedly through the middle of March and continued fluctuating as numbers dropped off through the latter part of the month. That brings us right up to today when 5 were present.

Adult male Siskin ringed 28/03/2018
A total of 77 have been ringed and there has been 1 control and that had been ringed 4 days earlier at a site 6km away. Regular readers of the blog will know I have photographed several birds that were ringed prior to this winter and although I wasn't able read the full ring numbers I could read enough to be reasonably confident that they had been ringed in the garden. Frustratingly, they all managed to avoid being recaptured but a different returning bird was retrapped recently; S144917 had been ringed on 19/04/2016 and was retrapped a couple of days ago, on 28/03/2018.

Adult female Siskin S144917 was originally ringed in the garden on 19/04/2016 and retrapped there on 28/03/2018
I have had similar retraps in subsequent years before and they are interesting because Siskins are irruptive migrants. The proportion of the population that migrates and the distance they move varies from one year to the next in response to the availability of food. In some years, like autumn/winter 2014/15, they don't migrate and are able to stay on or very near their breeding areas because of an abundance of natural food. I didn't get any Siskins in my garden that winter or in the following spring, as was the experience of most ringers. The recapture of birds from one winter or spring to the next or after intervals of more than a year shows that some birds use traditional routes and traditional feeding sites, including well stocked gardens like mine, but only when they need to move that far.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Billinge: 26/03/2018

It was the first visit without a chill in the air and it even got warm enough to tempt a few bumble bees out but summer visitors were in short supply. I had expected a few Chiffchaffs to be back on territory and singing their hearts out but only one silent bird was present and that one may not have been noticed had it not been caught. Meadow Pipits were the most conspicuous migrant with at least 200 heading north over the course of the morning and another 30 or so were grounded. Some Woodpigeons were also moving north but that movement was partially masked by local birds moving between feeding areas. There was little else moving overhead with just a few Linnets, 2 Lesser Redpolls, a Siskin and a couple of alba Wagtails being noted.

While this was the first Chiffchaff to be ringed this spring the first one was seen at the site on the 24th.
Winter visitors provided some compensation for the lack of summer migrants with totals of 7 Redwing and 9 Brambling recorded. They also provided the ringing highlights as 4 of the Redwings and 2 of the Bramblings found their way into the nets. As I have mentioned before I don't usually catch any Redwings at this site in late winter or spring but the 4 caught brought the total for this year to 10, all of which have been caught in the last couple of weeks. The 2 Bramblings were even more unusual in that they were the first to be ringed at the site in spring.

Ringing another 4 Redwings certainly made up for the lack of Chiffchaffs.

Catching 2 Bramblings was an unexpected bonus, both were females and neither was carrying any fat so they may be around for a little while yet.

All in all it turned out to be good morning for late March with some really nice spring weather and a decent variety of birds too.

Ringing totals (retraps in brackets) for 26/03/2018 were: Goldcrest 2; Blue Tit 2 (1); Great Tit 2 (4) Chiffchaff 1; Long-tailed Tit (1); Blackbird 1; Redwing 4; Robin 1; Brambling 2; Chaffinch (1); Bullfinch 1 (1);  Lesser Redpoll 1. A total of 17 new birds and 8 retraps.

Friday, 23 March 2018


The British obsession with the weather has certainly been reinforced by the recent cold snaps and the meteorological tug of war that has been going on between winter and spring is not over yet. We certainly haven't seen much in the way of springlike weather so far this month and it has made for a stuttering start to the season for breeding birds and migrants alike. Undaunted by the weather I have been up to Billinge on each of the last 3 mornings (20th to 22nd) and while it felt far more like winter than spring there was just enough of interest to make each of the early starts worthwhile.

The 20th produced my first Wheatear and Stonechat of the spring with a second Stonechat joining the first later on in the morning. The nets only produced a handful of birds but a new Goldcrest will have been a migrant as they don't breed at the site and nearby breeders are already holding territory and singing with increasing frequency. An adult male Chaffinch with a long wing length of 93mm will also have been a migrant and should be heading back to Scandinavia fairly soon.

There were a few more species around on the 21st but it was one of those mornings where you have to work really hard to convince yourself that it was actually worth getting up before 5am. A solitary Brambling was an unconvincing highlight of the 42 species recorded, none of which were new for the year. Again the nets didn't produce much but another adult male Chaffinch of continental origin was caught, this one had a wing length of 94mm and was carrying quite a lot of fat, weighing in at 29.3g. That may not sound very heavy but it is when you compare it to a lean local male Chaffinch that was caught the same morning and only weighed 21.4g. It may have been an uninspiring morning in many respects but better that than staying in bed and wondering what could have been missed.

This Chaffinch was as fat as it looks.
The 22nd saw an improvement with a Jack Snipe being the standout highlight as it was a new species for the site. It was also another sign of migration albeit not the arriving Chiffchaff I had been expecting and hoping for. A Woodcock was seen and was likely to have been a passage migrant as I haven't seen any of the wintering birds recently. There was a bit more movement overhead with a few Meadow Pipits and Linnets heading north and a total of 17 Redwings heading south or south-east. Two Grey-lag Geese also made their way north in their typically noisy fashion but the pick of the visible migration was a female Merlin which sped north over the adjacent farmland and I considered myself lucky not to have missed it such was its rate of progress.

The nets weren't much busier than they had been on the previous two mornings but a Redwing was caught at first light and, interestingly, it only weighed 53.2g which is quite light and almost certainly a consequence of the recent severe weather. Two male Goldcrests were caught as they worked their way north through the bushes and it will be interesting to see how the Goldcrest population is judged to have have fared given the recent hard weather. If it turns out that they haven't done too badly it is probably because the cold snaps came at the end of the winter, when the days are much longer, which will have given them more time to find food. Yet another continental Chaffinch was caught, although at 90mm not quite as long-winged as the previous two, but judging by its weight and the fat deposits that could be seen under its skin it was obviously getting ready for a long journey.

Redwings had a really tough time during the recent cold spells and those that survived will have lost a lot of condition.

I don't catch many Goldcrests in spring but the fact that I have already caught a few suggests they may not have been hit as hard as they could have been had the cold snaps come earlier in the winter.
It may be the wrong type of spring at the moment, and it certainly doesn't look like it is going to get much better anytime soon, but I will keep plugging away to see what is moving despite the generally unfavourable weather patterns.