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Gull chicks

After transects early in June suggested we had about 3,000 gull nest with eggs hatching or newly hatched, it was very disappointing to return to ring the chicks last weekend only to find that, for the 6th year in a row, the chicks were almost all gone or dead.

But why? Previous years have assumed starvation, as adults have been seen eating dead chicks. However, adult gulls will eat a dead chick regardless of what it died of; might there be a disease in the colony? Poison? A predator we’ve not spotted?

So I took a couple of gulls to the government vet lab, where they were a lot more interested than I was expecting, as a mass wild bird mortality is important enough to be investigated by the lab free of charge.

The scientist carried out an autopsy, and asked me to bring a lot more dead birds for analysis. This morning, he called and reported that the two birds I’d brought had died from predation; one had been bitten and the other badly pecked. But not eaten or damaged further which is strange. And neither chick was starved, they’d both been well fed in the preceding day.

It is really odd. The government scientist wants to come out with me as soon as possible and see the site for himself. I am very keen to find out what is going on!

Ringing Sand Martins

We went out last night to ring sand martins, using a mist net, a fine net strung across the sand martin sandbanks. They fly into it, we carefully remove them and ring them.

It was a bit nerve-racking trying to remove the first ones without hurting them, but soon got the hang of it with expert guidance from Mike, and it was a real delight and privilege to see these lovely little birds up close.

Elsewhere, today in the hot sunshine I found a few tern nests, including this one with chicks! Tern nests are hard to find, and in recent years we only have a few pairs (compared to a peak of 240 pairs in the mid-70s), so its wonderful to see these. However, even when numbers were higher, earlier reports estimate very low numbers of chicks fledging.

Oh and have a moth, a Beautiful Golden Y and a White Ermine:

Gelt Quarry

It was a pleasant sunny evening last week, so I went for a little walk in Gelt Woods, where there was a Roman Quarry for stone to repair nearby Hadrian’s Wall in about 200ad.

The woods themselves were very peaceful, a nice dene with the River Gelt running through it.

The quarry too was impressive, with pick marks clearly visible

and the sandstone glowing a lovely colour in the evening sun:

As for the alleged Roman Inscription.. I climbed some slimey old steps up the river bank and scrambled along a partially collapsed path. There was a rock face that must contain the inscription, as it had a fair bit of Victorian Grafitti too, but I couldn’t make anything out. Reading online, I think I was looking too low – it’s apparently “7 or 8 feet above the path”, but this article from the Cumberland News ends suggesting they weren’t visible in 1962 which is a shame. I’ve had a look online and can’t find a single photograph of the inscriptions, although plenty of pictures of the quarry itself; if they were visible I’d have thought there’d be a picture of them online somewhere.

In moth news – I put the trap out back home in Fife on Thursday night and got my first Hawkmoth! A poplar hawkmoth, lovely.


I had the moth trap out last night on the edge of the salt marsh – well in the back garden, which is right next to the marsh – and got a lot of lovely moths.

We have a simple heath trap, which is a UV lamp over a box, with a funnel entrance (to trap any moths that fall in) and lots of bits of egg box so the moths have somewhere to snuggle in safely overnight.

So here are some of the moths I found in the trap this morning. First up, a lovely brimstone:

Two White ermine (the fluffy dotty ones), a Silver ground carpet (the striped one) and an older, worn moth I couldn’t quite identify:

A Buff ermine:

To contrast – a very handsome White ermine:

A Heart And Dart, the dart being the two black, pointed shapes on the wing:

And this, with the stripe, is a lovely July belle:

Mothing is brilliant! Tomorrow hopefully I can put the trap out 2 miles from here, right on the edge of the saltmarsh, and see if we get anything very different.

I’m just getting into it, but I really recommend it as a hobby! Find out more at the Butterfly Conservation’s Moth Count.

The Tower

This year on the reserve we want to observe how well the gulls are feeding their young. They’ve started hatching, as you can see:

Aww. A bit soggy there, as the parent birds will take flight and attack you if you go too near. To watch them closely without disturbing them we need a hide, but as this is a large, flat, open marsh, we wouldn’t see much from just a hide. We need a tower!

I didn’t include “having planks of wood hoyed at me” in the risk assessment

Luckily one of our volunteers is a scaffolder

I might name it “Castle Black” because I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones

Or “The Deathtrap”

Gull eggs

I checked over the main gullery the other day, as most of our smaller gullery has mysteriously lost their eggs. Plenty in the main gullery, thankfully, plus a few odd eggs.

Blue eggs

And a tiny third egg, that won’t be viable.

This egg has been damaged, possibly by one of a crowd of rooks that were foraging about in the gullery. The young inside is far too young and won’t survive, but it was still alive when I found it.

This egg has been predated – a bird has poked its bill straight through. Rooks, Heron and other gulls will predate gull eggs

Also, it was my day off today so I went to the Farne Islands in Northumberland to look at seabirds, because I clearly don’t do enough of that.

It was really wonderful, I miss cliff-nesting seabirds!

Sand martins

Closely related to the more familiar house martins and barn swallows, rather than building a hanging nest from spitballs of mud like they do, sand martins nest by digging burrows into sand banks along watercourses.

However, our colony of about 100 sand martins nest above a tidal river, which is cutting away at the bank so they’re unlikely to be successful, even though they seem to be digging new burrows as soon as the old ones collapse.

Annoyingly we’ve built a lovely sand martin nest site above an entirely stable pond not too far away, but they’re not showing any interest in it. Typical.

The Marsh

The marsh I’m working on is a large, flat, grassy salt marsh cut with creeks and ditches, which flood at high tide; on a very high spring tide, lower parts of the marsh flood, and during a storm in winter the entire marsh might be inundated.

(A spring tide isn’t seasonal, it’s “spring” as in rise up, like a spring is where water rises up from the ground).

Tides are complicated and despite having studied them at uni in my marine biology degree, I can’t remember much about them. Here, as we’re in an estuary, high tide occurs half an hour after low tide, which is incredibly fast! This means its easy to get stranded as creeks that were dry 10 minutes ago become 6 foot deep. Or, worse still, on the wrong part of the marsh there’s a real danger of getting caught in the tide itself.

Hence my “ah shit” moment when, for some reason, I thought high tide was an hour later than it was, and saw water rushing up this creek

3 minutes later, it looked like this

I wasn’t swept away but did have to make a long detour.

Also – the odd egg in a clutch from the other day; my boss tells me:

What you have described I have seen before. Laying eggs is pretty demanding for a bird. It seems in some cases the female just “runs out of steam” in laying the last egg.

I’ve now seen it again twice, and find it interesting that on other reserves I’ve worked, where I’d counted several thousand nests, I’d never seen this yet here we have very few nests with eggs yet I’ve seen it three times. Are the gulls here having difficulties?