Wednesday 21 September 2016

Copeland Bird Observatory 17-18th of September & PSS

After our 13 hour delay getting to Copeland Bird Observatory due to the tide, we set sail from Bangor at 7am, all a little weary eyed.  As well as Dean, Steve and myself, we were joined by Laurence from the Belfast and Down Ringing Group for the weekend.  The trip out was a new route for us leaving from Bangor and it was a real treat with perhaps 500+ Razorbills all around the mouth of Belfast Lough with a scattering of Black Guillemots, Guillemots and Eiders along the way. 
We arrived on the island around 8am and immediately set about opening the traps and getting some mist nets up.  We used the usual lot of the favoured net rides and opened the 4 helgoland traps, crow trap and a few potters baited with sardines.

Water Rail

The weather was decent with moderate westerlies for Saturday morning switching to southerlies in the afternoon for the rest of the weekend.  Saturday was a hot sunny day, where as Sunday was a little greyer with light drizzle as we were getting ready to depart mid-afternoon.

The range of migrants on show was lower than expected but a couple of species passed in large numbers.  Swallows and Meadow Pipits were the main feature with probably 800+ of the former and 500+ Mipits passing over the two days.  As usual in September, Robins begin to arrive back on the island after heading elsewhere for the breeding season.  A number of adult birds were reencountered that hadn't been seen since the spring plus a number of new juveniles.  Finches arrived on Sunday with 80+ Goldfinch, 40+ Linnets, a couple of Chaffinch and a single Lesser Redpoll.  Lesser Redpoll will soon become the dominate passage species as the autumn progresses with over 800 ringed last year!  There was a light scattering of Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests, House Martins and singles of Skylark, Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, Willow Warbler and a migrant Blackcap. 


The ringing was pretty decent in terms of numbers which were bolstered by the three main movers with 22 Swallows, 14 Meadow Pipits and 13 Robin.  The first couple of rounds on Sunday morning produced the majority of the new Chiffchaffs (5) and Golcrests (3).  The Chaffinch caught is more than likely a controlled bird although it could have been ringed on the island 6+ years ago. 

Willow Warbler (left) and Chiffchaff
On Saturday night, as we were heading out shearwatering, we got a nice a surprise when we captured a Water Rail in one of the baited potter traps.  The bird was already bearing a ring and was originally trapped on the island back in 2012.  Despite the very bright full moon we managed to ring 29 Manx Shearwaters which were all pulli or recently fledged birds.  We also set the moth trap to run through the night but the catch of 5 moths of three species was pretty low and they were outnumbered by Sexton Beetles who do a great job clearing up the bird and rabbit carcasses across the island. 

Song Thrush

Copeland Bird Observatory Ringing Totals 17-18th Sep 2016

                                 New      Retrap    Control
Blackbird                                  1
Blackcap                    1            1
Chaffinch                                                  1
Chiffchaff                   6             1
Goldcrest                   6             1
Goldfinch                   4
Manx Shearwater      29  
Meadow Pipit            14
Reed Bunting             1
Robin                         13           9
Song Thrush               1
Swallow                     22
Water Rail                                1
Willow Warbler          1
Wren                          4            3            

Total                        102           17               1           

All in all it was a very enjoyable weekend and we are looking forward to the next visit in mid October is the weather allows it. 

On Tuesday morning John and I squeezed in a quick visit to Portstewart Strand to make the best of the conditions before a delayed start to work.  There had been a report of a possible male Common Yellowthroat a couple of hundred metres further along the shoreline a few days before and although the bird had been searched for by others unsuccessfully, a number of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs had been sighted. 


We were on site bright an early and had the nets up by 7am.  The wind was a little brisker than forecast but that is usually the case with southerlies where they blow straight off the river.  It was evident that there had been an arrival of Robins with a number ticking throughout the scrub before first light.  Other new birds included Blackbirds and a few extra Bullfinches than of late.  Once the sun had risen and things heated up a few Chiffchaff began to call amongst a roving flock of Goldcrests and a few Blackcaps appeared. 


The main entertainment for the morning was the local juvenile Peregrine who has been terrorising just about every bird in the estuary.  Today it was testing out 4 Ravens, 11 Grey Herons in the roost and every duck and wader in sight.  It seems to have the most luck lifting the Black-tailed Godwits of which there were 140+ this morning.  It eventually made a kill before the tables were turned and the Hooded Crows tried to muscle in.  A second juvenile Peregrine appeared before we left around 10. 

The ringing was slow in the shortened sunny, breezy session but it is nice to see the arrival of some migrant Blackcaps and Goldcrests and hopefully a sign of the start of proper autumn migration.


PSS Ringing Totals 20/09/2016
                                 New      Retrap  
Blackcap                    3           
Blue Tit                                     2
Chaffinch                   1             1                 
Dunnock                    1            
Goldcrest                   3            
Goldfinch                   5
Meadow Pipit            1
Robin                         3             1

Total                        17           4              

The weather forecast is looking grim but there is a chance of short session on Sunday morning.  Dean and David S are heading off to the south coast of Ireland tomorrow to the fabled Cape Clear Bird Observatory (I'm just a bit jealous) for a weekend ringing course.  Cape Clear is easily the best birding spot in Ireland for autumn passerines, particularly from North America and if they hit the winds and weather right, they could be in for an amazing weekend.  Dean and David will be back next week with an update and pictures of their trip. 


Friday 16 September 2016

Bits and Pieces

Waders were again on the menu on Wednesday night with another Swallow roost attempted before.  We weren't overly optimistic going into it with a full high tide only beginning to drop around 9pm, clear skies, no wind and very large bright moon - i.e. bad conditions.  It was also a hot one and the midges were out on mass and somehow after all the rain and it being high tide, our pools were nearly dry!
We set as usual for the Swallows and managed to attract only 30 birds this time around.  We watched them for a while and they appeared to drop into the reedbed but not near the nets.  We ended up with 2 Reed Buntings, 1 Stonechat and 1 Wren.   


For the waders it was a bit of a tester to see if they are still attracted to the pools and tape during high tide or falling tide.  The answer I guess is NO but we didn't leave empty handed.  We caught 8 Dunlin and 3 Redshank with a couple more birds bouncing when it was still bright including a Curlew.  I think we will stick to rising tides in future!

Dean with a Redshank and Dunlin

We were out again at Portstewart Strand on Saturday morning in what was a mostly sunny morning with a stiff North westerly breeze.  Dean, John, Rick and I were on site shortly after 6am and set the usual nets, although none around the feeders.
The site was really quiet with the only obvious migrants being a single Willow Warbler, 6+ Wheatear, 70+ Meadow Pipits and a few Sand Martins and Swallows.  The feeders did get a bit of action through the morning with 6+ species visiting them and we probably should have put a net in front of them.

Meadow Pipit

We did spot an interesting duck, which when first glimpsed looked like a male Pochard with a bright reddish head.  I've only ever seen one Pochard in the estuary so I grabbed the scope for a proper look.  The bird had turned in the sun to show a clean white patch between the bill and eyes and Scaup-esque flanks like an adult female Greater Scaup.  It then showed an obvious white 'bum' with its white under tail coverts, similar to a Ferruginous Duck.  Overall a very confusing bird and surely a hybrid unless someone knows of some exotic duck that 'fits the bill'?  I would suggest it was a Ferruginous x Greater Scaup.  Not sure how hybridisation works exactly (i.e. can a bird show male traits of one species and female of another) but it certainly showed suitable features for a female of both species.

The lack of birds had a direct impact on the ringing and it was really quiet with five nets catching nothing.  Our usual staples of Blackbird, Blackcap, Bullfinch, Song Thrush etc. are still missing and surely indicative of a poor breeding season.

On Tuesday I paid a short visit to PSS once again between 16.00-19.00 to see if there was anything new in.  It was a sunny evening with a stiff breeze from the north.  There was very little about other than a flock of Goldfinches at the feeders and a single Chiffchaff calling from the bushes.


PSS Ringing Totals
                                 New      Retrap
Blue Tit                                    2
Chaffinch                   2
Dunnock                                  1
Goldcrest                   1
Goldfinch                 14           5
Meadow Pipit           10
Wren                          1            

Total                        28           8           

The ringing information for the controlled Portuguese Sand Martin came in during the week and it was a really nice catch.  The bird was originally ringed in the Algarve region of Portugal just behind the glitzy marina of Vilamoura in what looks like a marshy reedbed with a couple of ponds/lakes.  It was originally ringed on the 4th of October 2015 as a juvenile and retrapped by us 286 days later at a straight line distance of 2012 kilometres.   

Portuguese Sand Martin Control

Ken and Tyrone were set for a good morning ringing in Kens garden last Friday but unfortunately the rain appeared and cut it short.  The garden is attracting quite a few birds at the moment with the majority tempted in by 12 sunflower heart feeders. Considering they were only up and running for around an hour they got a decent catch of 30 birds including 14 Coal Tits. 

Blue Tit      8
Chaffinch   5
Coal Tit     14
Great Tit     3

There have been some new Tern arrivals this week in the estuary including a Black Tern.  I grabbed an hour on Sunday morning to try and pick up the Black Tern for the patch list.  I located the Terns in their usual roosting spot and had a good sift through. Amongst the birds I found 2 Black Terns, 1 colour ringed Sandwich Tern and a further 14 metal ringed Sante and comic terns.  I tried to clinch the colour ring digits but the bird kept flushing.  The bird was either ringed in the Netherlands or much more likely, in the Ethan Estuary in Scotland. 

Dean, Steve and I are off to Copeland Bird Observatory this weekend so we are hoping for something good.  Tonight's boat was cancelled unfortunately but we hope to get out early on Saturday morning and make the most of it.  Fingers crossed we will have something to update on!

Friday 9 September 2016

Waders and Swallows - Take 2

After the success of last Wednesdays wader and Swallow roost catches we went for a repeat performance on Monday evening (  The prospects were a little better with high tide peaking roughly an hour after full darkness and we were a little closer to peak Swallow time in the estuary.  We had a team of five this time around with John, Ken, Siobhan, Steve and myself and the nets opened for around 7.30pm.  The evening was a scorcher with full sunshine and temperatures hitting 25°C at 7pm and although it clouded over a little, it was still a muggy 20°C on departure after 11pm.   


The Swallow tapes worked immediately and attracted in c25 birds within a few minutes and over the next half an hour birds continued to trickle in and swarm overhead totalling around 1000 birds.  The commotion stirred up the resident Water Rails with 4/5 calling all around the reedbeds.  With the lower tide we were able to set two separate 18m nets slightly further in amongst the reeds. 
As with the last attempt, a number of waders and Teal etc. were flushed out of the pools when setting up the nets with the majority not returning.  We opted for the same set up but with an extra 18m three shelf net in the other pool without a tape.  The drier weather of late had dried out the pools a little, but as I write, it is raining cats and dogs, so I don't think it will be an issue on our next visit. 
There were a few other bits and pieces around the estuary with a Grey Seal, Otter and a couple of pipistrelle bats.

Sunset over the estuary

Given the number of Swallows that we had attracted in and the number that had dropped into the nets early we had to switch off the tapes.  The big flock circled overhead while we processed the other birds and eventually settled into the reebed just before dark.  Half had dropped in a bit earlier but a bird of prey (which we didn't get a proper look at) had flushed them back up. 
We caught a total of 73 Swallows, 4 Sand Martins and a single Sedge Warbler.

Last couple of Swallows being processed

For the waders, we again had to wait for complete darkness before the birds appeared and hit the nets.  We had an initial good catch but only a few birds in subsequent rounds.  The catch was quite different from the previous with some larger species in Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew and only a single Dunlin

Black-tailed Godwit (left) & Bar-tailed Godwit

Grangemore Ringing Totals 05/09/2016

Bar-tailed Godwit              2
Black-tailed Godwit           3
Curlew                               1
Dunlin                                1
Redshank                         18
Snipe                                 1

Sand Martin                       4
Sedge Warbler                   1
Swallow                             73
Total                                 104             


We are planning on heading to Portstewart Strand on Saturday morning with another attempt at Waders/Swallows at the start of next week if we can match up the weather and tides!  The stormy blast from the south this evening is probably good news for the guys on the south coast and the islands of the east and west but it might just produce a little bit for us - fingers crossed!
There are a few nice birds around the north coast at the minute including a couple of Little Stint and two Little Gulls at Magilligan Point pictured below. 
Little Stint

Little Gulls

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Portstewart Strand 04/09/2016

John, Rick and I and I were out at Portstewart Steamd on Sunday morning in the hopes that the change in wind direction and rain overnight would have delivered some birds.  We were on site from 06.30 in dull, warm conditions with light winds from the north west.  We went for the usual net set and were up and running for around 07.15.

Grasshopper Warbler

The initial impression was of a quiet morning but things got going after 8am as things warmed up and the first few birds began to move.  There were 4/5 Chiffchaff calling in the bushes, flocks of Meadow Pipits, Goldfinch and Linnets flying around the saltmarsh with a few Reed Buntings, Stonechats and a Wheatear mixed in for good measure.  We did get at a little excited when we noticed a small brown warbler flit between a couple of gorse bushes.  Initial impressions were of a fan tail and a quick glimpse in the bush showed a longer orange bill.  The bird disappeared for 10/15 minutes but then gave itself up in a mist net as a Grasshopper Warbler - the latest record I've had in this neck of the woods.  A Whitethroat showed up late morning and is the second this autumn. 
It was pretty much high tide for the duration of our visit so the estuary was quiet but a Black Tern, juvenile Yellow-legged Gull and Little Stint were picked up others in the afternoon.


There was a marked improvement in the ringing after a quiet few sessions and we produced some decent catches.  The first Grasshopper Warbler, second Chiffchaff and third Whitethroat of the year for the site were ringed, plus the capture of three of five unringed Stonechats.  The lack of Blackcaps continues with only one sighted this autumn!   

Portstewart Strand Ringing Totals 04/09/2016
                                        New    Retrap              
Chiffchaff                           1       
Dunnock                                        2
Goldfinch                           5
Grasshopper Warbler        1
Linnet                                 3
Meadow Pipit                    15
Reed Bunting                     1
Robin                                 5
Stonechat                           3
Whitethroat                        1
Wren                                  1
Total                                  36          2        


The Storm Petrel season has now ended with the last attempt back on the 18th of August.  It is the poorest year we have had since we started in 2011 with 67 new birds and no large catches.  The largest catch was of 23 birds and 2 retraps on the 19th of July.  Effort was down this year with only six attempts made.  We only managed a single control, which we are still awaiting details, retrapped 4 birds and we received news of two of our birds being recovered elsewhere.
We continued the trend of ringing at least one wader species per year while catching Storm Petrels.  This years species was a new one in the form of a Redshank.  The total number of Storm Petrels ringed by the group at Rinnagree Point, Portstewart now tops 750. 

Friday 2 September 2016

Wader Bonaza and roosting Hirundines

On Wednesday evening (31st of August) Ken, Steve and I attempted a double roost catch, targeting hirundines and waders.  We had earmarked our Grangemore site as having great potential for both species groups, so thought there was no time like the present to test it out!

The conditions were ideal with 10-15mph westerlies blowing over the open saltmarsh while remaining cloudy and dry.  The reedbed, where we were targeting the hirundines, was much more sheltered by the deeply eroded river banks.  The timing of high tide wasn't perfect, coming at 19.45ish, roughly an hour and a half before darkness.

Curlew Sandpiper (Left) and Dunlin

We haven't quite worked out where all the estuaries waders, gulls, terns etc. go to roost.  There are 1000's of birds at low tide but the vast majority head out the mouth of the river at high tide.  The most likely location are the Skerries Islands off Portrush, which are 8-9km away and it is almost certainly where the gulls head; including the hundreds from further up river.  The nearest shores of Lough Foyle are 13km away and are a possibility for waders, although it would be the turf fields of Myroe which would be most suitable for roosting, but the 20km seems unlikely (why bother return the Bann Estuary twice a day?).  We have no idea about the Terns but the beaches of Magilligan Point (11-12km) or perhaps the Skerries would fit the bill.
What we do know is that perhaps up to 500-750 waders remain to roost in the estuary at this time of year, mainly Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits, a few Redshank and perhaps a couple of hundred Calidrids (a number seem to roost on the piers at the mouth of the river).  The oxbow lake (very shallow, partially exposed mud) holds the main concentrations (when not disturbed) and seems to appeal to a wider range of species, perhaps due to the water being less saline and the more consistent levels.  The oxbow lake is cut off from both rivers, sitting a few feet above high tide and surrounded by salt marsh and wet meadows.

Wader nets

We opted for two 18 metre wader nets in a 'V' shape over the open water of the oxbow lake, which is no deeper than 25cm.  On arrival there were 200/300 birds on the pools already with all but a few Dunlin, Teal and Snipe flushing.  We placed a tape lure in the middle playing the infamous Redshank tape from the Wash. 

Trying for roosting hirundines was a first for the site but the habitat (reedbeds) is much better than our usual site plus it is in close proximity to our Grangemore Sand Martin colony.  I had created a net ride through the reedbed earlier in the year for Sedge Warblers, which was around 50 metres long but the high tide meant we could only use the last 12m.  We added another 18m net running at the edge of the reeds to create another 'V' shape'.  A Swallow and Sand Martin tape lure were placed in the centre.

Net locations

A few Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit showed a little interest early on when it was still bright but the nets were a bit obvious.  Four/five Dunlin did fly into the nets but only one stuck with the rest bouncing out and a few others going under.  We altered the nets a little making the pockets a bit deeper and slightly lower, but still high enough to keep a big bird out of the water. 
The hirundines built around sunset and we managed a catch of 15 Swallow, 6 Sand Martin and 2 Sedge Warbler.  There didn't appear to be many more birds about, so a decent catch.  While keeping an eye on the other nets, we ringed and released the birds straight from the nets (still light) and closed up. 


Just after dark, perhaps 300 waders appeared and descended on the pools giving us an initial big hit.  We turned the tape off straight away as we were not equipped for too large a catch.  The result was really pleasing with 20 birds in the nets of five species.  The majority of birds were Dunlin (14) plus 2 Redshank and 1 Black-headed Gull but the real big surprise was 2 Ruff and a Curlew Sandpiper.
These two species were new ones to us and very unexpected.  The Curlew Sandpiper is the first to ringed in Northern Ireland since at least 1977, possibly ever.  In the same period there were only 4 Ruff ringed in Northern Ireland with the last one coming in 1983.


Grangemore Ringing Totals 31/08/2016
Black-headed Gull            1
Curlew Sandpiper             1
Dunlin                              14
Redshank                          2
Ruff                                   2 
Sand Martin                      6
Sedge Warbler                  2
Swallow                           15                                  

Total                                43                     

We plan to get out to Portstewart Strand at the weekend and are hoping for an arrival of some new birds.  The next attempt at wader and hirundine roost catches will probably be next week if we can muster the manpower and work the weather and tides!


Black-headed Gull

Curlew Sandpiper (right, top, bottom) and Dunlin