Thursday 16 May 2019

Reed Warbler Recovery

News fresh in from the BTO last night that one of our Blackers Rock, Lough Neagh Reed Warblers has been trapped on return migration north.

The bird was originally ringed as a juvenile on the 13th of August 2017 and hadn't been seen since before it turned up in a mist net on Lundy Island in SW England 10 days ago. The time elapsed between ringing and recapture is 631 days. The distance between the two sites is 404km but in reality this bird will have migrated to sub-Saharan Africa, back to NI, back to sub-Saharan Africa before returning to the UK. All being well, the bird will be back in a reedbed around the Lough ready to breed. 

This is just our second Reed Warbler control/recovery and even better, just the seventh for Northern Ireland, the third NI ringed bird to be found outside the country. With more and more birds being ringed every year we are expecting these recoveries to become more regular and paint a better picture of Reed Warbler migration into NI. 

By chance, our friend and ringer Dean Jones from Coleraine is based on Lundy Island as a warden and may well have handled this very bird! 

Sunday 12 May 2019

More Warblers

Last July I tested out a new site that I had been eyeing up for quite a while. The reedbed at Kilcranny is the largest in the estuary and it backs onto a fantastic Ash wood with marginal wet grassland habitats and Willow scrub. Access had previously been the main hold up with a walk of a few kilometres down farm lanes, barbed wire fences to hurdle, an overgrown understory of brambles to traverse and then crossing of the fenced railway line plus the risk of high tides. With a bit of investigatory work, I found a much simpler access route on the nearside of the railway with some fantastic habitat. 

On the tester on the 29th of July utilising some temporary net rides for three nets in existing gaps I caught 12 Sedge Warblers and a single Willow Warbler. The site contains six species of breeding warbler and on my visits in recent weeks I have heard five back on site including 3 reeling Grasshopper Warbler - still waiting for the Whitethroats in the estuary but they aren't particularly common here. 

Grasshopper Warbler
I visited the site on Bank holiday Monday (6th May) & put up a 3 nets once again although I avoided the main reedbed as the water was a little high and rain was forecast to appear mid-morning. The site has loads of breeding birds and warblers although distributed over a wide area, many away from the nets. I managed a nice diverse catch including the five warbler species present with a Grasshopper Warbler the best of the bunch.

                                          New     Retrap
Blackcap                             3
Bullfinch                             2
Chiffchaff                           1
Grasshopper Warbler         1
Sedge Warbler                   5
Willow Warbler                 3

Total                                  15                         

Sedge Warbler
I'm looking forward to trying the site properly in late summer/early autumn once the breeding birds begin to disperse and move around the site. 

John has made a few visits to his ringing site along the river at the Ulster University Coleraine Campus. The range of sites we use in the wider Bann Estuary are actually quite well connected now that we have opened up Kilcranny to plug the formerly large gap up to the university. We have had birds move between Portstewart and the Uni River site and Portstewart to Castlerock but it will be interesting to record any other further movements between all the sites.

The river site has chipped in with a number of warblers and had a particularly good movement of Blackcaps passing through the scrubby woodland with 10 trapped on the 23rd of April.
                                          New     Retrap
Blackbird                             4             2
Blackcap                             15            2
Blue Tit                                1             1                  
Chiffchaff                            1
Coal Tit                                1
Dunnock                              3             1
Goldcrest                                            1
Great Tit                              2             2
Long-tailed Tit                    2
Robin                                   2             1
Sedge Warbler                     1
Song Thrush                        2
Willow Warbler                   8             2   
Wren                                    3             3
Total                                   45           15             

A male Whinchat on territory in Antrim Hills on Sunday. A bird I'd love to see in the Bann Estuary

Friday 10 May 2019

The Warblers are back

With the sounds of our favourite species group - the warblers, back on territory, we have visited some our regular spots to catch up with some old friends and meet the new cohort.
By the end of April we've had our regular six breeding species back which include Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and most pleasingly, Grasshopper Warbler. For regular readers you will know that there was a complete absence of Grasshoppers over most of Northern Ireland last year and I hadn't seen or heard a single bird. Things seem to be back to normal this year with at least five territories back in the Bann Estuary and probably a few more to come.

Some good weather over the five day long Easter weekend gave the perfect opportunity to get out and open the nets. I made three visits to Portstewart Strand in this period with a great morning on Good Friday encouraging another the following day and again out on Easter Tuesday.

Willow Warbler

The first visit seemed to be very well timed with a catch of 14 new Willow Warblers which is a daily record for the site, most were females and caught moving through the gorse bushes. The same nets also produced 13 new Linnets. A female Greenland type Wheatear was the last bird in the nets and keeps up our track record of catching one Wheatear each spring at the site.

Greenland Wheatear

                                     New        Retrap
Blue Tit                                            1
Bullfinch                                          2
Dunnock                        2
Linnet                            13
Meadow Pipit                                   3
Sedge Warbler               1
Wheatear                        1
Willow Warbler              14
Wren                               2               1

Total                              33              7

Sedge Warbler - dirty nails are regular when ringing here

The Sedge Warbler on the 19th of April was my earliest ever beating the previous record held by a bird at Copeland Bird Observatory on the 24th of April in 2016. My earliest Sedge Warbler around the Bann Estuary is the 29th of April in two years & the 30th of April in two others, so certainly an early bird.
One of the Bullfinches retrapped was also an old lady having originally been ringed as a female on the 20th of November 2014 born in that year.

The middle gorse net at first light

Having had such a good catch (in limited nets) I opted to go again the following day in what appeared to be an even better forecast and added an extra net.
The result was disappointing with very little moving and much fewer birds seen out on the estuary.

                                     New        Retrap
Blackbird                                         1
Bullfinch                                          1
Dunnock                        2                 1
Linnet                            3
Stonechat                       1
Willow Warbler            3
Wren                                                1

Total                              9              6    


The third visit was on the 23rd of April and although the conditions weren't overly promising but the nets were sheltered from the northerly wind. It continues to be a strong start of the season for Willow Warblers but many will have to find new territories elsewhere with a lack of habitat to serve them all. We tend to catch more Linnets in the autumn with the use of tape lures but we seem to be doing particularly well this spring. There are certainly 2/3 breeding pairs right beside our nets but there are still small flocks passing through the gorse (tape lures have not been used).

                                     New        Retrap
Blackcap                        1
Bullfinch                                          1
Dunnock                                          1
Linnet                            3                 1
Willow Warbler            4                 1
Wren                                                1

Total                              8              5    

The retrap Willow Warbler was one of our returning adult male birds originally trapped on the 9th of April in 2017.

Thursday 9 May 2019

Early Spring

We kicked off the spring ringing along the Lower Bann on the 6th of April at Portstewart Strand with a focus on the gorse scrub and a couple of short nets in the remaining Sea Buckthorn/Elder scrub.


The catch wasn't a big one with 13 new birds and 7 retraps with the best bird being a retrap Bullfinch from May 2015.

                            New     Retrap
Blackbird               1
Bullfinch                              1
Chaffinch               1            1
Dunnock                              1
Linnet                    5
Meadow Pipit        4
Reed Bunting                       1
Stonechat               1            1
Wren                      1            2

Total                     13            7

Reed Bunting

The following weekend the weather was very windy yet again so I decided to dust off the spring traps and visit Ballintoy Harbour and see if I could retrap some of my Rock Pipits. I had passed by in recent weeks and only noticed 1-2 ringed birds amongst the 50+ present, although this number was declining.

Ballintoy Harbour is a great spot with lots of small rocky islands, bays, basalt cliffs just behind and usually has big piles of seaweed on the shore which are great for shoreline birds. The site is also used as a film location for Game of Thrones as Pyke, on the Iron Islands.


I arrived early doors but didn't have much luck in the first 45 minutes with just four Rock Pipits knocking around the spot I had chosen and a Pied Wagtail that constantly walked back and forth over the traps. A Wheatear then swooped in and was caught within 2 minutes.
It didn't take long then to add a second bird with a Rock Pipit taking a fancy to a meal worm. I left shortly after with my fingers frozen in the biting north wind and the first lot of tourists arriving.

Rock Pipit

We've also been back out on a couple of spots on the local rivers with a trainee from the Belfast & Down Ringing Group, who happens to live locally, to target some of the river species. We had a bit of luck with the capture of a Kingfisher and a couple of retrap Dippers

Kingfisher (JC)

Dipper (JC)

I came across this drake Mallard which had been knocked down on a nearby road during our time on the river. Unfortunate but he was a proper stunner.
Mallard (RD)

With my two heronries in the Bann Estuary now classified as extinct it leaves me with just the one to check for the UK wide BTO survey, which is located near the Donnybrewer Levels close to City of Derry Airport. The colony has moved from a mature Scots Pine plantation (following 95% harvesting) into the adjoining Sitka Spruce plantation which is probably 22-23 years old (I remember the mature forest being just a field which makes me feel old at the age of 30).
Some more trees have blown down beside where the herons nest so a few nests may have been lost as I could only locate 9 nests this year. I also found three dead young chicks which is more than usual - it has been a very windy early breeding season. I would estimate I found at least 29 egg shells under the nests (2,3,3,3,4,4,5,3,2) but I presume that not all shells will be removed from nest or make it to the forest floor.

Dead Grey Heron chick

Grey Heron eggs

The heron colony is in a very dense conifer plantation which is very hard to move through and see up to the tree tops - a good strong stick for whacking branches and spider webs is essential!

The dense conifer plantation is full of Woodpigeons and I noticed a number of hatched eggs under their flimsy stick nests but also came across the unhatched egg.

Woodpigeon egg