Wednesday 28 November 2018

Castlerock Golf Club 24/11/2018 & Scottish Chaffinch

On Saturday morning John and I shifted out attentions to the west shore of the Bann Estuary and made our first visit to Castlerock Golf Club of the winter. As you regular readers will know, this is somewhat similar habitat to that of Portstewart Strand but much smaller in area and all the Sea Buckthorn plants are female meaning they produce millions of berries and attract some large numbers of thrushes and finches, but generally in late winter.

As we hadn't been to the site since the 7th of January at the start of the year the net rides needed to be cleared of the brambles, nettles and quite a bit of cutting back of fallen bushes and branches. We tackled the easy ride first and had the first 18 metres net up and catching within 20 minutes and had the second 12m ride up and running in another 20 minutes. The nets started to catch a few birds so our progress in the other rides was slowed and we didn't quite get finished but did get another 24m cleared with another 18m to go. The session was cut short because of a very unfortunate discovery  on the receding tide.

The location of our nets generally follow the bottom of the hollow of the main stand of Sea Buckthorn but this tends not to be the best place to intercept the thrushes which stick to the higher bushes on the slopes - we had up to 600 Fieldfare feeding amongst the scrub last winter and we only caught one! At the same time we probably had a mixed flock of up to 175 Redwing, Blackbirds & Song Thrush and again only caught three, six and seven respectively. We are eyeing up new potential net rides which might rectify this a bit but working with the steep slopes and avoiding flying golf balls isn't easy!

A net full of Chaffinches & a couple of Blue Tits

From the two nets in a couple of hours we caught 18 new birds and controlled a female Chaffinch with a BTO ring. There were only 6 Fieldfare present and again they avoided the nets.

Castlerock Golf Club 24th November 2018

                          New          Control
Blue Tit               2
Bullfinch             4
Chaffinch            8                   1
Dunnock             1
Robin                  1
Song Thrush       2

Total                 18                   1         

The new BTO system means that you receive details of controls within a few days, subject to them being uploaded by the other ringer.
This controlled Chaffinch was ringed at Drummond, Inverness on the 17th of September 2018 and controlled by us 68 days later at a minimum distance of 298km. This is our second control Chaffinch for the Bann Estuary with the last bird also coming from the Highlands of Scotland near Shielfoot (marked below) in a very similar movement. She was quite a large winged lady so possibly a Scandinavian moving through Scotland.

Chaffinch from Inverness to Castlerock

Friday 23 November 2018

Acro Warblers on Lough Neagh 2018

After our exploratory visits to our new site on the west shore of Lough Neagh in 2017 we were full of anticipation to get back in amongst the reeds this summer.

In 2017 we made two visits to the site producing 197 birds with 30 Reed Warblers, 121 Sedge Warblers, 17 Blackcaps, 10 Willow Warbler, 1 Sparrowhawk 2 Chiffchaff, 1 Wren, 2 Blue Tit and 6 Reed Buntings (which seems rather strange after 2018).

To refresh your minds on last years visits, please follow the links below:

Reed Warbler

The total of 30 Reed Warblers was massive in an Irish and Northern Irish context given that the average catch of the species in NI between 2007-2016 was 3 birds per year and that there hadn't been more than 4 Reed Warblers caught in one year in the initial nine years before 17 in 2016. In the south they have averaged around 25 birds per year for the past 10 years. Certainly for the north, much of the change is down to effort and increased ringing around Lough Neagh once again - in 2015 there was no ringing in the area, one site in 2016, two sites in 2017 and two in 2018. In 2019 we should see this number climb further with certainly three, possibly four sites up and running, including two Constant Effort Sites with Portmore Lough being brought back into action after decades of no ringing - this site has produced over 1000 Sedge Warblers in certain years in the past and 1/2 Reed Warblers when they were much rarer back in the 1970's/1980's.

In 2018 we made three visits to the site on the 22nd of July, 11th of August and the final visit on the 25th of August producing 126 new birds (+2 controls), 182 new birds and 165 new birds respectively. Sedge Warbler numbers were pretty consistent across the three visits with 98, 97 & 84 respectively with Reed Warblers increasing across each with 10, 12 and 19. 

On the third visit there were noticeable gatherings of hirudines (and Swifts) feeding over the reedbeds and wet woodland so once the deluge of Acrocephalus (acros) warblers had subsided we had a go at tape luring some, successfully catching 15 Swallows and 3 Sand Martins with many more landing on top of the nets and poles and avoiding capture in the bright sunshine. I've never visited the Lough in the evening or at night but undoubtedly there must be some massive hirudine roosts forming all around the lough in autumn and our site seems better than most for potential habitat.
Through lack of extra hands we still haven't fully explored the potential of the backing wet woodlands but we did catch 26 Blackcap, 19 Willow Warbler and 4 Chiffchaff in short spells but a concerted effort would produce much more and perhaps a secret pair of Garden Warbler - the habitat is perfect (we may have as few as 50 breeding pairs in Ireland, generally around the Lakelands of Fermanagh, Leitrim, Roscommon and Cavan).

The combined totals of the three visits were:
Blackcap                      26
Chiffchaff                      4
Reed Bunting              83 (2)
Reed Warbler              41 [1 NW England control]
Robin                            2
Sand Martin                  3
Sedge Warbler            279 (1) [1 French control]
Swallow                        15
Willow Warbler            19
Wren                             1

Total                            473 (3) [2]

Reed Bunting

The biggest surprise of the year was the numbers of Reed Bunting around and the number caught. On the second visit an incredible 53 were caught (for not being a roost catch this is spectacular), an impressive 21 on visit three and a very decent 9 on visit one. Given that we only caught 6 in both visits combined in 2017 this is a massive change and 2019 might let us know what is normal! 

Having gone through the first autumn migration without a recovery from the 180 ringed warblers we were really quite surprised, particularly for Sedge Warblers which are readily controlled in the habitats they stopover in on migration. We were then even more surprised that we avoided any recoveries on the return journey north. 
The first visit of the season produced the goods with two controls, a very nice French ringed Sedge Warbler and a BTO ringed Reed Warbler which was even better in our minds! The Reed Warbler had been ringed at Middleton nature Reserve at Heysham Bird Observatory in Lancashire. Interestingly one of the ringers there, Pete Marsh, used to ring on our stomping grounds in the Bann Estuary back in the early 1970's and he reported that the Reed Warbler had arrived in a fall, including birds ringed elsewhere with 2 Sedge Warblers ringed in France and another in Belgium - did they all head to Ireland also?
A week after we received the details of our French control Sedge Warbler, we received news that one of our Sedge Warblers from this year had been recovered on the way south in France.

Sedge Warbler Movements (green) and Reed Warbler (light blue)

The Reed Warbler was originally ringed at Middleton Nature Reserve, Heysham on the 04th of May 2018 and controlled by us 79 days later at a distance of c151 miles.

The Sedge Warbler was originally ringed near La Rochelle on the west coast of France on its way south on the 11th of August 2017. It then spent the winter in sub-Saharan Africa before returning to Northern Ireland to breed for the first time, 345 days later, at a minimum distance of 1087 km but in reality this will be much more.

Our recovered Sedge Warbler was a juvenile ringed on the 11th of August this year and was recovered in Dourges in NE France 17 days later at a minimum distance of 790km. Normally we would expect these birds to stick to the west of France on their way to Africa but that's part of the beauty of the study of migratory birds.

Sedge Warbler

Limitations and Restrictions
As a ringing group, all of us are located 70-90 minutes away from the site, so regular visits and very early starts are difficult to enable the full monitoring the site deserves. The walk into the site is also over a mile long striding through reeds and wet grassland and not the easiest with all the equipment but the shear volume and quality of birds makes it very worth while. Getting sufficient pairs of hands in 2018 was our biggest restricting factor in regards to the number of nets we can use and also keeping the limited number open - at times the birds enter the nets faster than they can be extracted, let alone processed so the nets are closed until all birds have safely processed and released before reopening. Early morning seems to be the key time for the movement of birds with birds pouring through before tailing off before 9am, with basically no birds being caught around 10am. Normally on arrival the birds are in full flow and we've caught up to 17 birds in two joined nets in the process of erection which only takes a couple of minutes.
Cost is also a consideration when ringing such volumes of birds, the current price per bird for an A ring is 25.2p, so for the 449 ringed in 2018 equates to £113.50 + a further £5.07 in AA rings. Thankfully I have been able to source some funding sources over the past 4/5 years to pay for some of the rings, most notably to the Centre for Environmental Data & Recording (CEDaR) who covered the cost of 1000 A rings for 2018, but having never charged our T's & C's (and no plans to do so) there is still a financial burden into the £100's each year for myself and John. A CES would help us get a real understanding for the local breeding population of the site and take away the financial burden but unfortunately we couldn't commit to the effort at the moment!

..... but after all that, we do hope to increase our studies at the site next year to increase our understanding of the breeding birds on site, the turn over of birds in 24 hours and potentially investigate the sites potential in the evening (= overnight camping!).
If I get some time over the winter (on top of everything else I take on and pile up) I may take a look at the patterns from previous recoveries of the migration routes taken by be Sedge Warblers with the UK and Ireland to and from Lough Neagh of which I think there are three main routes - via NW England (possibly more so spring?), direct line through Wales out of SE Northern Ireland and NE Ireland and some to SE Ireland before making the leap to SW Wales and SW England.

The fresh wing (lower) of a juvenile Sedge Warbler and worn wing of an adult (upper)

A big thank you to John Clarke, Steve Fyffe, David Stirling, David Galbraith, Ken Perry, James O'Neill and James McDowell who were present at one+ of the visits and to Godfrey who gives us access to the site and is always on hand to assist. 

Wednesday 21 November 2018

2018 Season at Portstewart Strand

As you can see, my slacking in regards to posts has really gone to a new level! I would put this down mostly to the fact that we haven't been as active and for 95% of the time it has just myself and John Clarke. I have also become slightly addicted to Twitter and post most of my stuff on there - you can find me at @causewaybirds -

I'll try and play catch up  on our activities and recoveries through the season so far but I can't promise it won't be another few months before the next post 😛

So another season complete in the dunes of Portstewart Strand along the Bann Estuary on the north coast and the declining picture continues.

It was a disappointing spring with only 74 new birds from 8 visits and just two visits in the summer. As usual, we were more active in the autumn and finished with 401 new birds of 27 species in total. We trapped two new species for the site with a fantastic Cuckoo and Twite.


It was also very quiet on the trainee and visiting ringer front with just one T ringer on one of the 21 visits and no C permit holders. It was myself and John Clarke for 13 visits, Ken present two and eight were solo.


The focus of our activities have been centred on the Sea Buckthorn scrub, but as a none-native species and because of it's negative impact upon the SAC, it is being removed bit by bit each winter (as are the net rides with 190m+ lost already and a continual process of creating new ones), with 5 acres lost last winter. A further 9 acres is to be removed this winter leaving us with just c2 acres and a few other small areas to work with & bird numbers will continue to slide.

Species                           New (retrap/local recovery)
1 Blackbird                      25 (3)
2 Blackcap                       19 (4)
3 Bullfinch                       13 (7)
4 Blue Tit                         10 (3)
5 Chaffinch                      23 (4)
6 Chiffchaff                      3
7 Cuckoo                          1
8 Dunnock                       15 (15)
9 Goldcrest                      10 (7)
10 Goldfinch                    12
11 Great Tit                     10 (1)
12 Lesser Redpoll            10
13 Linnet                          54
14 Meadow Pipit              80
15 Reed Bunting              14 (2)
16 Robin                          22 (8)
17 Sedge Warbler             1
18 Skylark                         6
19 Song Thrush               15 (1)
20 Sparrowhawk               1
21 Starling                        1
22 Stonechat                   11 (2)
23 Twite                           1
24 Whitethroat                  2
25 Willow Warbler           14 (5)
26 Woodpigeon                2
27 Wren                           26 (15)
Total                                 401 (77)

Perhaps not the easiest to read, but see below for the totals from the site since we began ringing at Portstewart Strand in the autumn of 2014. The right-hand box indicates the effort put in each year and as you can see it was our worst yet for a full season

There were no recoveries of any great distance with just a few local movements to/from the Ulster University Campus & Castlerock.

The weather in recent weeks has been very poor so we haven't opened any nets but hoping to shift our attentions over to Castlerock for the remainder of the year.

The next post will cover our return to the Lough Neagh shore and promises lots of acro warblers including three controls/recoveries including two to France and our first Reed Warbler control!