Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Mid Summer Update

Storm Petrel season is continuing on the trend of last season and we are failing to get any large catches, although we haven't stayed out later than 1am.  We have been out two times since the previous post and have been able to introduce three more people to Storm Petrel ringing.  The two catches were of 15 and 14 new birds plus one new British control and a retrap.  On the first visit we also continued our luck with waders whilst out stormie ringing with another two Redshank.  If we are lucky we might get one or two more chances before the end of August and may get rewarded for our efforts.


On the weekend of 29-30th of July I hosted/organised a large BioBlitz across the Magilligan SAC with the help from partners from Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, Ulster Wildlife, Butterfly Conservation NI, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, NI Bat Group, NIEA and other partners.  The event was a great success with over 200 recorders and members of the public taking part and hundreds of biological records collected. 
As part of the event we had some members of the group and a few guys up from Copeland Bird Observatory to do a ringing demonstration.  I had prepared a bit of ringing site along an ideally maintained footpath with scrub on either side allowing for 90 metres of net. 


The catch was a small one but it did include species that we don't ring all to often with limited garden ringing these days including Long-tailed Tit and Magpie.  It was a touch breezy and rain was forecast for after 10am so the nets were taken down in advance and the guys enjoyed a free breakfast at the Boardwalk CafĂ©!  The area is loaded with Blackberries and Sloes which when ripe would have attracted thrushes and Sylvia warblers in large numbers. 

Blue Tit                1
Bullfinch              1
Chiffchaff            1
Dunnock              1
Goldcrest             2
Long-tailed Tit    2
Magpie                 1
Whitethroat         1
Willow Warbler   3
Wren                     1

Disappointingly we have only had two visits to the Bann Estuary since the last post - one each to Grangemore and Portstewart Strand.  The trip to Grangemore included the third and final visit for the season to the Sand Martin colony.  Other than the Sand Martins, Sedge Warbler and Linnet were the two most common species caught across the two sessions and we caught the first and probably only Grasshopper Warbler of the year.

 Portstewart Strand/Grangemore                            
                                       New       Retrap    

Blue Tit                                            1 
Bullfinch                                          1           
Dunnock                         3          

Grasshopper Warbler    1
Lesser Redpoll               1                                      
Linnet                             10           

Meadow Pipit                  4    
Reed Bunting                  4    
Robin                               2

Sand Martin                   25            34
Sedge Warbler               11              3
Willow Warbler               8               1                         
Wren                                1               1

Totals                              70            41       

 Distinctive tail of the Grasshopper Warbler
 Garden Tiger Moth

Juvenile Lesser Redpoll

Ken's project studying Sandwich Terns in County Donegal continued into it's 32nd year with a couple of visits to the islet at Inch Wildfowl Reserve.  Ken and the National Parks and Wildlife Service had visited the site in early spring to improve the habitat of the islet because of the rank vegetation that has taken root and repair some of the stone gabions.  It had looked as though this hard work was worth the effort and we were in for a good year.  Unfortunately the often cold and wet weather in mid summer resulted in only around a third of the eggs laid producing chicks which fledged.  This was reflected in the ringing totals with 139 chicks ringed, down from 357 in 2016 and the lowest total since 1997 with the exception of 2011.  No Common Terns were ringed this year and no effort was made on the breeding Black-headed Gulls.    

Coming ashore on the islet
Freshly hatched Sandwich Tern
Ringing a Sandwich Tern chick
Black-headed Gull chicks

We had another fantastic catch at Lough Neagh and Sunday which I will update on it soon and will include the results of our Stormie session tonight!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Acros Galore

John and I headed off to the western shore of Lough Neagh on Sunday 16th July following a kind invite from the local gun club who had recorded a number of singing male Reed Warblers, which, as I had mentioned in the previous post, have a restricted distribution in N Ireland.  The site is a former island which has reconnected to the shore after the draining of Lough Neagh decades ago and has since become a huge reedbed with surrounding ASSI Wet Woodland.  Access isn't the easiest and requires a mile+ plus walk to get to the 'island' but fantastic habitat the whole way down.

We didn't arrive at the ringing site until after 8am but we soon set about erecting two 18m nets in a likely spot close to lough shore.  It was clear that it was a going to be a good session as we had managed to capture 14 birds before we had actually opened the nets fully!  After 3 hours we packed up and headed for home but had caught a massive 83 Sedge Warbler, 13 Reed Warbler, 6 Reed Bunting and 2 Willow Warbler.  The catch 13 Reed Warblers is probably a record for a single day catch in NI and 83 Sedge Warblers is by far our biggest.  The vast majority were birds of the year including 79 of the Sedge Warblers.  A 6am start would have easily produced double the numbers.  We were surprised not to get a control amongst the big catch but there is a good chance of one or two being recovered on the way south.

Reed Warbler

The gun club have recorded up to 6 singing male Reed Warblers in the direct vicinity so there is probably a sizeable population across the greater area.  An estimate of 1000+ Sedge Warblers wouldn't be far off the mark for the same area. It was also a great spot for wildfowl watching with plenty of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Gadwall, Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebe, Moorhen, Little Grebe, Mallard on the water and a Black-headed Gull breeding colony on the offshore island.

Reed Warbler

On Monday the 17th John, Ken, Nick and I had the second go at catching Storm Petrels this summer in good conditions.  We had the net open between 23.30 and 01.30 and managed a catch of 9 birds.  There didn't seem to be too many more Stormies about but we will hopefully hit better passage in the coming weeks.  An extra bit of interest was the capture of a Common Pipistrelle bat early on which is a fairly regular occurrence - potentially the same bats/family each time!

Storm Petrel
Myself, Ken and Nick

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Early July

Since the last update we have been ticking along with the various projects and had particular success with the Sand Martin ringing at Grangemore.  As mentioned in the previous post the Irish Open Golf Tournament was being held at our main ringing site so we had to steer clear for a few weeks as they turned it into a mini city and hosted over 92,000 people.

Two weekends ago we did visit 2 to Grangemore in perfect conditions and caught another 145 new Sand Martins, retrapping 19 from visit 1 and the previous year.  The productivity of the colony looks to be fantastic this year and we ringed 91 juveniles amongst the catch.

The following evening I did a quick visit to Macfin for the first time this year.  My main interest here was to catch a number of retrap Sand Martins from previous years, so I was pleased to get 12 out of a catch of 33 birds.  Two of these were adults from 2014, one of which was recovered in Anglesey, Wales in the autumn of 2014 and now has been retrapped by us again in 2016 and 2017. 

Elsewhere around the estuary in the past week I did net restricted visits at Portstewart Strand and Grangemore.  The PSS catch was very disappointing and no warblers were caught when two days previous there had been Willow Warblers everywhere.  I heard only two through the morning so perhaps the first wave have moved south - I know the first trickle have started to pass through the coastal bird observatories of the UK. 

Juvenile Lesser Redpoll

The Grangemore visit was targeting Sedge Warblers so I had placed 3 nets across the main ditch that splits the marsh.  The catch of 13 Sedge Warblers were very good considering the minimal amount of habitat covered and it was good to see lots of fresh juveniles (adult pictured below).  That takes us to 20 for the year at the site so far with probably more to come over the next six weeks. 

Sedge Warbler

Portstewart Strand/Grangemore                            
                                New       Retrap    

Blackbird                 1            
Dunnock                  1               1            

Great Tit                  1
Lesser Redpoll        2                                      
Linnet                      2           

Meadow Pipit          2    
Reed Bunting          1      

Sedge Warbler       16                         

Totals                      26               1                    

Back on the 5th we had out first attempt at Storm Petrel ringing for the year.  The conditions weren't quite what we has expected and we got rained off after an hour but we did catch the first Stormie of the year plus a BTO control. 

Storm Petrel
The control ring sequence looked familiar to birds we have trapped before so a quick message to the Calf of Man Bird Observatory confirmed that it was one of their birds ringed on the 13th of August last year.  This is the seventh bird we have traded with the CoM, four of theirs to us and three back the other way.

The forecast looks decent for early next week so we hope to get back out and catch a few more.

We have had two short spells back out on the rivers with a couple of C permit holders who were seeking to get some experience ringing over rivers and to handle some new species.  We had a decent total catch of 3 Kingfishers, 2 Dippers (1 a retrap) and a Grey Wagtail.


John and Ken did a bit of ringing around the university last week with a catch of around 30 birds.  The catch was made up mostly of tits but did include some quality with Blackcap, Willow Warbler and a retrap Sedge Warbler from last year.

We would also like to take the opportunity to thank the National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) and specifically the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording (CEDaR) who have kindly given us funding of £756 from the Environmental Recorders Group Fund.  With this money we have been able to purchase some new nets, poles and rings which will greatly help with our various projects!

NMNI Website - https://nmni.com/home.aspx
CEDaR - https://nmni.com/cedar

We are heading down to the west shore of Lough Neagh tomorrow morning to do a bit of reedbed ringing in the hopes of catching a few Acro warblers.  We are probably some 30 miles north of the northern range of breeding Reed Warblers in Ireland so they are a species we never catch but should be on the cards tomorrow.  I'll possibly update on that soon but no doubt it will take me a few weeks to a month on current form! 

Dark-green Fritillary - nice feature of our Bann Estuary ringing sites in July

Monday, 3 July 2017

Recovery Maps Updated

I've taken a bit of time to update the recoveries/controls and maps in two of the tabs above - Controls/Recoveries and Terns and Gulls.  The main additions are the 2 French Sand Martins, the Portuguese Sand Martin and the Belgian Blackcap plus a few of the UK recoveries.  With autumn just around the corner and Storm Petrel season starting this week we will be hoping to add a few more controls to the maps! 

Here's an example of the European passerine/near passerine recoveries map below.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

May/June Ringing Update

Sand Martin season is back upon us and the first visit to Grangemore has kicked things off in style.  Pre-holiday I had noticed a number of new burrows on the main sand bank, a new colony of around 15 pairs on the golf course at Portstewart Strand across the river where they were excavating sand and 3/4 pairs had recolonized the sand banks at the Barmouth, so numbers in the estuary were looking up.
On arrival last Wednesday there were over 70 birds perched along the fences above the bank with many juveniles amongst them and a further 50 flying around the site.  David and I quickly got the nets up in front of the burrows and immediately caught a dozen birds flying out.  The conditions were actually very breezy but the bank was perfectly sheltered on the outer bend of the smaller Articlave River.

Over the next hour or so we caught an impressive total of 135 new birds and 12 retraps.  Given the quantity of birds we were not recording biometrics and simply ringing, ageing, sexing and release.  The totals were 61 males, 48 females, 35 juveniles and three were unsexed adults.  This total is greater than the three visits last year combined so it could be a very big year.  I did count the number of likely active burrows but I don't have a notion what that was now - maybe c85-100!  The retraps were mostly from the colony from the previous year but one was one of the birds that has moved from our other colony 12.6km away which we caught here last July.  Another was the single bird I had caught in the reedbed close by a few weeks ago.  The first visit to Macfin is due very soon and any trainees are welcome to come along (c150 pair colony).

Juvenile Sand Martin

Following the visit to the Sand Martin colony we still had a few hours to spare before lunch so we decided to do some river ringing, which was a first for David.  We opted for one of the better spots where we regularly catch both Dippers and Kingfishers and the odd Grey Wagtail.

With the 6m net up across the river it wasn't long before a female Kingfisher came up river at full speed but unfortunately managed to flip out of the net within 5 seconds.  We had to wait another 10-15 minutes before some Dippers appeared down river and one duly flew in the net but the other thought better of it.  The male Kingfisher was being very vocal just up river for 10 minutes before it to dropped into the net. 
A decent morning and some great experience for David handling 2 new species and 149 birds!


Back on the 19th of May I spent a morning checking the 75 nest boxes in the wood in the Glens of Antrim (after a quick look a few weeks previous) and things have improved after the initial year of the scheme in 2016.  This year there were 17 active nests with 9 Blue Tit, 7 Great Tit and a single Coal Tit nest.  The nests were at very different stages with some of the Blue Tits on eggs and the early Coal Tits had already fledged some young.  I didn't ring all the chicks as some were too large and ready to burst or too small.

Healthy Blue Tit brood ready to fly the nest

When I entered the wood I had picked up the distant utterings of a Wood Warbler so I spent 10 minutes following the trail and tracked down the smart displaying male.  This was a first for me and a very uncommon bird in Northern Ireland with no breeding records for the past few years, only 2-3 sightings in that period and probably the only pair in Northern Ireland (a female was located a few weeks later).

The Great Spotted Woodpecker is continuing its charge across Ireland and reached the Glens of Antrim last year.  The study wood is ideal habitat with large old trees and some dead standing trees and has had a female for over a year.  There were quite a few vocal calls (chiuck chiuck (kind of)) but I didn't have a chance to track them down.  I had given another birder the heads up about the Wood Warblers and he managed to find a GSW nest with two chicks, so brilliant news for the wood!  I did pay a visit on my return from holidays but the chicks appear to have fledged.  I'm not sure how the male has been so evasive as I'm not aware of any sightings.  When there, I also checked half the boxes and all occupied nests fledged their young bar one which still contained a brood of Blue Tits which were suitable for ringing.  

Last year a pair of Tree Sparrows took up residence in a nestbox at Grangemore but unfortunately failed at the egg stage.  This year things had improved and we had two active nests, one with three eggs and another with two.  I had left the follow up visit for a little longer than I hoped and found that the nest with 3 eggs had fledged and the other nest had a well developed chick and a cold egg.  There are around a dozen boxes scattered around the abandoned small farm so hopefully the box uptake will continue to improve.  I have checked to see if they will attempt a second brood but seemingly not.

We have made two visits to Portstewart Strand in the past 6 weeks and although things have been relatively quiet the first wave of juveniles are flitting between the bushes.  I hope to visit again this coming weekend as we will be kept off site for the following two weeks as Portstewart Golf Club are hosting the 2017 Irish Open which is going to be massive with tens of thousands of spectators!  Himalayan Balsam has started to take root at the site so I spent half an hour trying to remove all the plants before they seed.  I pulled 529 plants, some a few inches high and am hoping that I got the lot but the river will continue to deposit more seeds given that it drains almost two thirds of Northern Ireland.

529 Himalayan Balsam plants

Portstewart Strand 26/05-17/06/2017                           
                                New       Retrap    

Blackbird                 1            
Dunnock                  4                2

Chaffinch                 1                                         
Linnet                      11              

Meadow Pipit           1              
Robin                       2

Song Thrush            2
Stonechat                 1                        
Willow Warbler        3              
Wren                        2               1

Totals                      28             3                    

Juvenile Robin

When I was away John paid a visit to the River site at the University and caught around 20 birds which included five adult Blackcaps and half a dozen juvenile Blackbirds.  He has also been hunting out bird of prey nest sites but again the Long-eared Owls have beaten us to it with a few juveniles perched amongst the trees.

Long-eared Owl chicks   (copyright of John Clarke)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Copeland Bird Observatory 19-21st May 2017

I was out at Copeland Bird Observatory for my third weekend of the year with a large party of two from the Observatory, six from the Belfast and Down Ringing Group, a rabbit researcher from Queens University Belfast and myself.  The forecast didn't promise much in the way of movement but as ever I'm always hopeful for something nice turn up in the nets.

As predicted the winds weren't overly compliant and migrants were thin on the ground.  We didn't totally hit a blank and trapped 2 Chiffchaff, a single Sedge Warbler and a late Redwing.  The girls from BDRG got a bit of practice catching and handling large gulls trapping three Herring Gulls and one Lesser-black Backed Gull on Saturday afternoon using nest traps.


On Friday night Rosie and Terry set up the moth trap around the garden pond in ideal conditions.  It was a decent catch with the Poplar Hawk moth looking the most spectacular plus 151 Campion, 1 Clouded Border, 20 White Ermine, 2 Flame Shoulder, 1 Angle Shades, 1 Sandy Carpet, 2 Spectacle, 3 Broom moths, a possible Bullrush Wainscott, possibly 4 Red-headed Chestnut, possibly 1 Twin-spot carpet and 17 unidentified micros, a couple rather dapper looking.  It is great spot for moth trapping although there has been little trapping in the past 10+ years.  Other lepidotera included c20 Green-veined White, 1 Red Admiral and 1 Speckled Wood butterflies.  As Records Secretary at the observatory I've not yet had the chance to look at any records other than birds yet but once I get everything in order I hope to work on the likes of cetaceans and moths etc.   

Poplar Hawk Moth

White Ermine

On Sunday afternoon, after news of our delayed boat, I spent a bit of time doing a full island gull count and searching for nests amongst the scrub.  A full circumference of the island produced c395 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, c360 Herring Gulls, 63 Common Gulls, 2 Great Black-back Gull nests and a few other bits and pieces including 11 pairs of Oystercatcher, at least 3 Fulmar nests with eggs (no doubt more) and a single Eider nest much higher up the shore than normal (there will have been plenty more on the lower shore but I didn't want to disturb the birds - there were 19 new female Eiders and 22 retraps caught midweek on Mew Island).  I had a bit of luck with some of the larger nests and turned up three occupied Woodpigeon nests and a single Magpie nest.  The Magpie nest, with five eggs, was actually within 40cm of a Woodpigeon next with two eggs as pictured below.  The other two WP nests had 2 well developed chicks and a single egg.

Woodpigeon nest to left and Magpie nest slightly up right
Woodpigeon chicks

Another benefit of the delayed boat was the sighting of a Marsh Harrier that drifted across to Mew Island as we sat in the hide late afternoon.  The large gulls didn't take kindly to its presence and it was swiftly escorted away.  Marsh Harriers are very uncommon in NI with only a handful of sightings in a good year and probably only 3-5 sighted at CBO since 1954. 

Copeland Bird Observatory 19-21/05/2017                           
                                                   New       Retrap    

Blackbird                                                      1
Chiffchaff                                    1                1
Goldfinch                                     1               1                                             
Jackdaw                                       1
Herring Gull                                 3
Lesser-black Backed Gull          1      
Pied Wagtail                                1
Redwing                                       1         
Reed Bunting                               2               5
Robin                                            1               2

Rock Pipit                                    1               1
Sedge Warbler                            1
Swallow                                        2
Woodpigeon                                2 (pulli)
Wren                                            2               1          

Totals                                          20              12           

Sundown over the Pub

Davis S went out to CBO the weekend before and despite being restricted by strong winds caught a further five Whitethroats and turned up the first Spotted Flycatchers of the year with two caught. 

Copeland Bird Observatory 12-14/05/2017                           
                                New       Retrap    

Chiffchaff                  3               
Manx Shearwater     1                                                           
Pied Wagtail             1           
Reed Bunting                           5            

Rock Pipit                                1
Sedge Warbler         1
Spotted Flycatcher  2    
Whitethroat              5
Willow Warbler        3
 Wren                                       1                            

Totals                      16              7                   

Spotted Flycatcher

Spot the Puffin decoys

30 minutes with a scythe cleaned up the Puffing breeding bank

The real deal

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Copeland Bird Observatory 9th-11th May

On Tuesday the 9th I headed out to Copeland Bird Observatory for my first mid-week stay accompanied by Laurence from the Belfast and Down Ringing Group.  The trip had been arranged to accommodate a work party of 10 from a local NGO but they unfortunately had to cancel.  The forecast looked rather decent and I like to get out to the island this time of year so we decided to press ahead anyway. 


The said forecast was as predicted for the two night stay with hardly a cloud in the sky and some very warm weather.  The winds weren't fantastic for migration with northerlies on Saturday morning/afternoon and easterlies for the rest but a number of birds still passed through.  The island is dry as I have ever seen it following almost 3 weeks without rain.  I had said something very similar in a post this time last year but it was much drier this time with the pond down to a muddy sludge and cracked earth all over island.  The island still looks fantastic with the millions of flowers of Bluebell, Crab Apple, Marsh Marigold, Red Campion, Sea Campion, Scarlet Pimpernel and Thrift to name but a few.   

The image above shows the remaining mud in the garden pond and the keen eyed will notice a couple of Swallows and a Pied Wagtail in the net which I put up to take advantage of the dozens of Swallows swooping low over the surface. 

Pied Wagtail

Over the weekend hirundines were the most conspicuous migrants with 175+ Swallows passing through (plus a few resident birds) and 15+ House Martins.  14 Swallows were captured and a single House Martin which was the first of the year.  Swifts made an early dash through on Wednesday morning with at least 6. 
I didn't pay much attention to the action offshore but certainly on Sunday there were obviously fish on the move with lots of Razorbills, Guillemots, Gannets and gulls working the shoals (plus a few angling boats).  The first Common Terns of the year arrived on Wednesday, with even more the following day plus the first Arctic Terns while Sandwich Terns were present throughout.  The Puffin numbers reached 28 with a number visiting the burrows and Black Guillemots hit 66.   

House Martin

The breeding birds are very busy with many of the Eider, Herring Gulls and Reed Buntings incubating their first eggs and the likes of Blackbird, Meadow Pipit, Stock Dove and Rock Pipit feeding chicks.  It will be a busy few months with the Black Guillemots, Common Gulls, Fulmars, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Swallows joining the mix and with any luck the Arctic/Common Terns, Black-headed Gulls and Puffins will have a successful year.  A retrap female Blackcap and a skulking singing male Blackcap suggest they may breed once again and hopefully the singing male Sedge Warblers will hang around after a few years absence. 
Another species new to the ringing list and species list for the year was Whitethroat with three caught over the weekend with a further 3 Sedge Warbler and 3 Willow Warbler.  Corvids were on the move with plenty of Hooded Crows, Jackdaws and two Carrion Crow passing over.  Seven Jackdaw stopped by for a quick feed in the crow trap and were duly ringed. 

Water Rail

A few other nice captures included a smart looking retrap Water Rail, the 8th Wheatear of the season (one of three present) and a late Song Thrush.  Non-avian sightings were made up of 40+ Green-veined White butterflies plus the first Red Admiral of the year. 
We got a little work done on Saturday afternoon when we patched up the holes in the crow trap (which provided immediate dividends in the Jackdaws) and started a bit of grass cutting which is a monumental task. 

Copeland Bird Observatory 09-11/05/2017                           
                                New       Retrap    

Blackbird                                 3               
Blackcap                                  1

House Martin           1
Jackdaw                   7
Pied Wagtail            1                
Reed Bunting                           2
Robin                        1              3         

Rock Pipit                                 1
Sedge Warbler         3
Song Thrush            1
Swallow                   14
Water Rail                                 1   
Wheatear                  1    
Whitethroat              3
Willow Warbler        3            
Wren                                          3              

Totals                      35              14                     


My personal CBO patch list for the year is up to 76 species which is around my usual year total of 75-80 with the autumn still to come.  The Observatory as a whole is having a very decent season in terms of variety and has reached 93 species with the addition of Whinchat and Spotted Flycatcher in the weekend past.  To keep up to date with the species list you can check the CBO website at  - http://www.thecbo.org.uk/birds/2017-species-list/

Moon lit sea and sky to the south east

I'm off to the Observatory again this coming weekend with a party of 12 people, 10 of those ringers.  Migrants at this time of year are very thin on the ground with the last trickle of tardy birds passing through but it does produces some of CBOs best spring rarities.  Hopefully with a bit of luck there will be a few birds to share around but the northerlies don't look promising. 
I head off to Italy for a few weeks the following weekend so activity will be limited until mid June, just in time for Sand Martin season.