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
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
Dunnock 4 2
Meadow Pipit 1
Song Thrush 2
Willow Warbler 3
Wren 2 1
Totals 28 3
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)