Thursday, 18 May 2017

Awash with Starlings

I am surprised I have not had complaints from neighbours about the number of Starlings that are coming to the feeders as they have been making a right din and a fair amount of mess too. The begging and contact calls of many dozens of juveniles in and around the garden can be loud enough to wake all but the heaviest of sleepers and starts not long after sunrise, which is just after 5am at the moment. As for the mess it is not that bad unless your a stickler for a clean car and clean windows. On the plus side one of my neighbours certainly got great value for money out of his window cleaners yesterday.


Just a few of the adult and juvenile Starlings that were feeding in the garden yesterday morning.
To give you an update on the number of birds involved 163 different adults have been recorded in the garden since 21st April with that number being made up of 94 birds that were colour-ringed during or prior to the 2016 breeding season and the remaining 69 being ringed over the winter or during this breeding season. On top of that there are still a few unringed adults coming to the feeders so the total number of adults using the garden could be around the 180 mark. Judging by the re-sightings of colour-ringed birds many are visiting the garden on a regular or frequent basis and a total of 78 different colour-ringed adults were recorded in the garden on 15th May alone and I am sure I didn't manage to record them all, but it does give and indication of how busy the garden is.

Most if not all of the adult Starlings have fledged young now and a typical brood size seems to be at least 4, so given there are 80+ pairs using the garden they could be feeding over 320 juveniles and it certainly sounds like they are at times. The first juveniles were seen in the garden on the on the 11th but I didn't ring any until the 14th when 7 were caught. Since then the number of juveniles has rocketed, as is to be expected with a species that has a highly synchronised breeding season, and the number ringed over the last 5 days now stands at 99. As productivity appears to be as good as it was last year I am likely to ring another 200 juveniles over the next few weeks but only time and a lot of effort will tell.


The bird bath gets well used at this time of year and needs filling several times a day.


This adult seemed to want the bird bath to itself.

Young Starlings soon return to feeding in the trap after being ringed and as I colour-ring them all there is no need to trap them again.


This one was in a berberis right in front of a window and was picking midges off the leaves. This and all the photos above were taken through double glazing so aren't as crisp as I would like them to be.
Starlings will continue to take up most of my time until my RAS period ends on 24th May and then I will have a bit more time to get out and about.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Starling RAS update

The first juvenile Starling of the spring was seen in the garden today. This is a week later than last year and 11 days earlier than in 2015. Juveniles have usually been out of the nest a few days before they appear in the garden but the first date they are seen still gives an indication of variation in timing of the breeding season between years. Quite a few juveniles have fledged judging by the begging calls coming from the trees and roof tops round about so an increasing number will be following their parents into the garden in the coming days.


The first juvenile Starling in the garden was probably having its first bath when I noticed it.






I have ringed or recorded an additional 23 adult Starlings in the last 3 days including 10 that were ringed in previous years. This brings the total number of adults recorded since 21st April to 112 with 75 being birds that were ringed in previous years. I am on track for recording more adults this RAS season than in the previous 2 years and this may in part be due to the dry weather having a limiting effect on the availability of soil invertebrates. Adult Starlings are probably turning to garden handouts, like my fat cakes, more than they would if there had been more rain and soil invertebrates were easier to get at.


Not the sharpest of photos as it was taken through double glazing and not the cleanest either, but it does show just how stunningly colourful adult Starlings are.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Starling RAS half time scores

This year's Starling RAS has just passed the half way mark and 89 different adults have been recorded in the garden in the first 18 days. My RAS period is relatively short and runs from 21st April to 24th May but it still requires a plenty of commitment as I usually clock up at least 100 hours of effort over that period. Now if you don't know what a RAS project is you can find out more here and here but in simple terms it allows adult survival rates to be calculated from retrap or resighting data gathered over a number of years from a ringed population of breeding birds.

As I have been running a RAS project for a few years now the majority of Starlings that breed within foraging range of the garden are already ringed with both a BTO ring and a numbered colour ring so most of the effort involves recording colour-ringed birds when they come to feed. My Starlings are pretty well trained and come to a supply of home made fat cakes in a cage on a bird table and hung in a tree near a window. This means I get to do most of the observations from the comfort of an armchair and with a plentiful supply of coffee at hand. Any unringed birds are easily caught for ringing if they enter the cage to feed as the door on the cage is closed via a string that comes in through a window.


Ringed birds like this one (E11) happily feed in the cage as the door is only closed if an unringed bird enters. E11 was originally ringed as a juvenile last year. The fat cakes I make are an irresistible mix of beef dripping, dried mealworms and finely chopped peanuts.
Of the 89 adults recorded so far 65 were ringed in previous breeding seasons with 47 being at least 2 years old and the remaining 18 being ringed as juveniles last year. If those birds are representative of the local population as a whole it means 72.3% are experienced breeders and just 27.7% are breeding for the first time. There is still plenty of time for other colour-ringed birds to be recorded so it will be interesting to see what these figures look like at the end of the RAS period.


D25 has been resighted numerous times this season and was originally ringed as a breeding adult in 2016.
The primary aim of a RAS project is to establish the survival rates of adults but it has to run for at least 5 years before the data gets processed by the BTO and this is only my 3rd year of intensive study. However, the high proportion of colour-ringed birds recorded so far suggests it will produce some useful results in due course.


They really are a smart looking bird. In addition to providing fat cakes I occasionally throw bread, suet pellets and a few dried mealworms on the lawn.


I happened to photograph this Starling having a quick shake.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Cropper and Gropper

Just when I thought I would have more time to post on the blog my 96 year old mother has a fall while stepping up a kerb and comes an almighty cropper, as she would say. Old ladies tend not to bounce very well, and my mother was no exception, but at least she didn't break anything. She was very lucky to get away with a few grazes and some bruising but needs more help and support while she recovers and gets her mobility back. Suffice to say I have not had much time for ringing or posting on the blog and what spare time has been available has been devoted to recording colour-ringed Starlings in the garden for my RAS project.

Anyway I did manage to fit in a short ringing session at Billinge yesterday morning and while it only produced 3 birds it was good to be out. The highlight was a singing Grasshopper Warbler which was my first of the year. It was caught and ringed and resumed singing almost immediately on release. It may have been a passage migrant that was holding a temporary territory but there is just enough suitable habitat for the species to breed should it stay and attract a mate. It is certainly something I will be keeping an eye on when time allows.


Grasshopper Warbler 02/05/2017

Grasshopper Warbler 02/05/2017
The only other birds caught were 2 Willow Warblers, both females. One was a new bird but the other was a retrap that was originally ringed as a first-year bird in August 2015 and was also retrapped as a breeding adult in 2016. Whilst male Willow Warblers have been back on territory for a while now females are still arriving and the new bird was relatively light and showed no signs of being in breeding condition. The retrap was probably a recent arrival too as it was only in the very early stages of developing a brood patch. The only visible migration of note was a single fly-over Tree Pipit which was much less than expected but welcome nevertheless.

As things stand I am unlikely to be able to get out as much as I would like in the near future but a few recoveries have been coming in and there is also the Starling RAS to report on so I will have something to blog about fairly soon or at least when other commitments allow. As the saying goes, if it is not one thing, it's your mother.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Billinge: 9th to 23rd April 2017

Apologies for the lack of updates recently but other things have just got in the way. I put in quite a bit of effort at Billinge in the two weeks following my last post but the results were mixed to say the least. A couple of ringing sessions were reasonably productive while others saw only a handful of birds caught or drew a blank. The cumulative totals for the period were 59 new birds, 15 retraps and 4 controls, although 2 of the controls are likely to have been ringed at sites nearby.

Lesser Redpolls were the most numerous species with 37 new birds and 1 control being caught. The control Lesser Redpoll had been ringed at Clow Bridge in Lancashire last autumn, 41 km to the NE of Billinge. Willow Warbler was next in terms of numbers with 9 new birds and 6 retraps captured. It has been a good spring for Willow Warblers with 23 (15 new birds and 8 retraps from previous years) caught so far this month. Of these 21 were males and only 2 were females with the first male being caught on the 1st and the first female just over 3 weeks later, on the 23rd.

Other captures and sightings of note were as follows:

14th - 2 Siskins were ringed including a female with a wrinkled brood patch which indicates she had already made an early breeding attempt somewhere. I am not aware of any breeding sites near Billinge which makes this record all the more interesting. Is it a failed breeder on the move or could it be breeding nearby?

17th - A short, rain restricted ringing session didn't produce single bird but a late Fieldfare was seen flying east.

19th - A very quiet ringing session produced just 2 Lesser Redpolls but this was offset by a Woodlark seen flying north first thing followed by a couple of Tree Pipits later in the morning. Woodlark is a county rarity and this record, assuming it is accepted, will only be the 3rd record for the county.

23rd - The first Whitethroat of the spring was ringed and a female Blackcap was controlled. I have received the ringing details for the control Blackcap and it had been ringed at Stanford Reservoir in Northamptonshire, 162 km SE of Billinge, on 24th September last year.

The Whitethroat was carrying a passenger in the form of a tick under its left eye.

The control female Blackcap.
Hopefully I will be back to posting on the blog at least once a week from now on.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

One, two, Tree Pipits

Whilst today's forecast of wall to wall sunshine and a light southerly breeze wasn't going to be ideal for mist-netting it did bring the prospect of a fresh wave of early spring migrants. I went up to Billinge at first light and set three nets and was then joined by Mark McD who had asked to see some ringing. Mark has lived in America for many years but was brought up in Billinge and is over visiting family. He only started birding seriously after moving to the States so has quite a few gaps in his British List and he had seen I was reporting some of the species he wanted to connect with on the blog.

As it turned out he wasn't disappointed as 6 Lesser Redpolls, a lifer for Mark, were caught on the first net round and included 2 cracking adult males. There didn't appear to be a great deal moving overhead apart from a few Redpolls but the faint calls of stratospheric Siskins suggested there was more going on than was apparent. That was confirmed when a Tree Pipit turned up in one of the nets, another lifer for Mark. and the first one I have ever caught at the site in spring. I see and catch a good number of Tree Pipits in the autumn, predominately first year birds, but they are much less numerous and frequent in spring, as is to be expected.


Tree Pipit, a lifer for Mark, my first of the spring and the first ringed at the site in spring.
Mark had to go at 09:30 but we came across a Blackcap in full song at the SE corner of the site as he was leaving. This was the first singing Blackcap of the spring for both of us and almost certainly fresh in. Signs of migration didn't end there as another Tree Pipit was caught in the next net round. Just seeing a Tree Pipit this early would have been reward in itself but catching two was tremendous, like the weather. 


Tree Pipit number 2


Those tell tale pink legs and short hind claw.

This bird may have just arrived and still has some way to go but it could be on its way back to Africa in as little as four months time.
I wasn't going to go out again in the morning as I was going to overindulge tonight but I am hitting the Earl Grey instead and will be out again at dawn.

Ringing totals for 08/04/17 were: Great Tit 1; Willow Warbler 2; Tree Pipit 2; Lesser Redpoll 10. 15 new birds and no retraps.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Another Mealy

I made the effort to get up to Billinge at first light this morning and set 3 nets but my optimism didn't look like it was going to be rewarded with only 7 birds being caught in the first couple of hours. I had hoped some Redpolls would be on the move but there was nothing moving overhead and not a great deal moving through the bushes either. Things hadn't improved much by 09:30 so I started to think about packing up but then 3 Redpolls went north and rekindled my optimism. Better still the next check of the nets produced a nice Mealy Redpoll so any thought of packing up was put firmly on hold.


Mealy Redpoll 06/04/17


Mealy Redpoll 06/04/17


Mealy Redpoll 06/04/17
The remainder of the morning saw further improvement with a little trickle of Redpolls heading north and a better catching rate. While I didn't catch any more Mealies a total of 7 Lesser Redpolls were caught including one that had been ringed elsewhere. With a bit of luck I should get confirmation of where this bird was ringed back from the BTO tomorrow, although I do have good reason to believe it was originally ringed in East Sussex.


The control Lesser Redpoll was a cracking male. Details of where it was ringed will be posted in due course.
Chiffchaff numbers had increased since my last visit and all 5 that were caught were retraps from previous years (1 from 2015 and 4 from 2016). One of them had a cracking pollen horn. This bird must have spent a lot of time with its face in flowers, feeding on insects and probably drinking nectar, whilst fattening up for the return journey.


JTA492 Chiffchaff had the best pollen horn I have seen so far this spring


JTA492 Chiffchaff
The final tally of 18 new birds and 19 retraps was well worth the effort and made up for the slow start. Ringing totals (retraps or controls in brackets) were: Woodpigeon 1; Blue Tit 2; Great Tit 1 (3); Coal Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit (3); Chiffchaff (5); Willow Warbler 2 (1); Robin (2); Chaffinch 2 (2); Lesser Redpoll 6 (1); Mealy Redpoll 1; Goldfinch 3; Yellowhammer (1).

07/04/16 update

The recovery report for the control Lesser Redpoll arrived today as predicted and it was originally ringed as a first-year at Icklesham in East Sussex in October 2011. This makes it just under 6 years old which is a good age for a Lesser Redpoll. The current longevity record in the BTO online report for 2015 is not much older at just over 6 years between time of ringing and recovery and that bird would have been around six and a half when recaptured. Full details and a recovery map will be posted in due course.