Category Archives: Birds

LGBTSTEMDAY

Today is LGBTQ+ Stem Day. I’m not sure if I am actually someone who works in STEM, because I don’t study and I don’t have anything academic other than a BSc and a Lantra PA1/PA6 (that’s a little joke there for the fellow conservation workers) I saw “STEM supporting” and thought that might be more appropriate for my job?

I might not actually science science, but I do a fair bit of bits of science and I read a lot of sciencey science. I collect data, and write reports, read journal articles, and I assist actual scientists who are working on my reserve.

I also identify as lesbian, although I’m not massively open about it where I live, I don’t think anyone would mind too much. As a LGBTQ+ person, I thought I would write about what I did today, on LGBTSTEM Day.

Last night, myself, two colleagues, a scientist and a friend went to sit in a bog in the middle of the night to listen for nightjars.


We didn’t hear any, but it was still a very pleasant evening. This morning, I drove my colleague, who had stayed at mine after the nightjar expedition, back to her island.

But first we filled up some water butts, because her island doesn’t have any running water, and put them in the truck to drive to the island. Wait! How can you drive to an island? Well, we can because we have a truck, and it’s low tide, and also I have the key to the gate. My colleague protects a breeding colony of Little terns, an incredibly rare seabird in Ireland and the UK. So on the drive we talked a lot about how her colony are doing, issues she’s been having with the public, general chat.

Sea lavender flowering in the salt marsh along the track to the island

On the way back, I stopped off at the Cash & Carry to pick up some household supplies for the reserve, cleaning stuff, bog roll etc.

I had twenty minutes for lunch, then phone and email discussions about whether or not I was going to join some researchers on Saturday, studying a gull colony in the hills about 2 hours drive from here. They wanted to start at 7, so I’d have to leave the house at 5am, mainly so they wouldn’t disturb the birds in the heat of the day, but really so they could get home in time to watch the football. I ended up declining because Saturday is my one day off this week. I’m not going to get up at 430am on my day off, gulls or no gulls.

I then had about 45 minutes to catch up with emails. This includes queries from the public, general work admin, and updating various people about the current state of the bird colony on my reserve. We are coming to the end of the breeding season, and everything should either be fledged or failed, and in my case (as last year) the gull colony is a complete failure.

A really sad image – many hundreds of dead chicks in a large gull colony

Yesterday we had collected about a dozen dead chicks, and our resident scientist, researching the health and fitness of urban vs rural gulls, and myself drove 2 hours to the government labs to get these autopsied. We had a really good and detailed chat with the Government Veterinary Investigation Officer about what might be causing these die-offs, about other colonies that are also failing, and he brought out stomach contents from a dozen dead chicks we dropped off last week to look at. Is this die-off widespread? Are colonies across the country experiencing the same problems? Is it a Northern Europe issue?

Equipment round the back of the vet lab

The drive back was even longer due to an accident ahead of us. Once back at the reserve, we went into the colony to check on his study chicks (sadly, all are now deceased or MIA) and change the battery in a gull relay – this is for a separate study, it receives the data from gull GPS tags.

Finally, I had planned on spending a couple of hours rolling bracken, but I was too tired. So I spent half an hour preparing a presentation for a careers talk at the local high school I had been invited to, then myself and our scientist put out a moth trap for the evening. Because moths are cool.

What is happening to the gulls?

It’s World Seabird Day today, so let’s see what is happening at our gull colony.

Back in the late 60s, the colony of Lesser black-backed and herring gulls at South Walney was the biggest in Europe, with about 45,000 pairs of these gorgeous characterful birds nesting. When my colleague and I completed this year’s transect back at the end of May, there were just over 3,500 pairs. This is a huge decline, but actually a slight improvement on last year, however that could just be stats as we count quadrats and multiply up, and I had readjusted some of the quadrat locations.

Still, we would like to not get any smaller, and I hope through predator deterrence we could increase and be stable at about 5,000 pairs, possibly recruiting urban gulls driven out from nearby towns.

Ideally, gulls lay 3 eggs, and most can usually get at least one fledged, if all goes well; sometimes if all goes very well they get two away, I don’t think they ever manage to raise all three. When the colony was at its height, it was estimated to have a productivity rate of 0.7 chicks fledged for each pair. When predation became a problem (I am told foxes only arrived on Walney in the 1990s) this fell to about 0.2 or 0.3 chicks fledged per pair.

We have electric fences, which now are mains powered and can be maintained at over 7,000 volts – a nasty shock to deter even hungry foxes. The colony was also incredibly dense, with nests at the centre only a foot away from each other, and this density of gulls in a colony can easily drive away aerial predators, such as magpies or kestrels.

So we were confident that we might have an exceptionally good year – except by mid June, it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong. Instead of thousands of fluffy gull chicks, there just didn’t seem to be any at all. As the end of June was reached, the BTO and Natural England arrived hoping to ring several hundred chicks; they found only 9 big enough to ring. It was devastating but seemed that the colony had failed.

We found 9 fresh dead chicks and one dead adult, and took them to the Animal & Plant Health Agency’s lab for a post-mortem. I had seen a colony collapse like this before, working a few years ago at a gull colony in the north of Cumbria, also managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, which has failed for nearly ten years running. Post-mortem there revealed that the chicks were being pecked to death by adults, who were presumably stressed, although it’s difficult to say why. The gulls nesting on a nearby industrial estate had no problem fledging young.

At that site, it was difficult getting any further. Here at South Walney, however, we are very lucky that we have hosted gull research for decades, and despite the dwindling numbers, it’s still a nationally important site for these birds.

The post-mortem of the gull chicks showed that all 9 had starved; their stomachs were empty. Conversely, the adult bird was in good condition and had actually eaten itself to death gorging on earthworms. I emailed these results to the BTO researchers working at South Walney this year, and also to our regional Natural England contact, expecting just commiseration. Instead, a proper investigation into what has happened is being driven forward – why have none of the gulls gotten enough food? Has a food source collapsed somewhere?

This really highlights how our noisy neighbours can act as an “early warning” for a marine ecosystem that’s so often out of sight. Has a mussel bank disappeared? Has a fish population crashed? This morning myself and two colleagues went back to the colony, to count chicks and collect food pellets.

After a walk through of the whole colony, we counted just 53 chicks, all about the same age – 3ish weeks – and no fresh corpses, which suggests that all the other chicks died at roughly the same time, but that the chicks alive now should hopefully make it as the parent birds were clearly finding food somewhere.

Like owls and other birds of prey, gulls eat food whole and then regurgitate anything they can’t digest in a tightly packed pellet. We collected 38 pellets this morning, and dissected them to see what the gulls had been eating.

This isn’t a robust method, because the gulls will eat lots of soft things that won’t be represented in a pellet. But it gives us some idea. By far, the majority of pellets contained a fair bit of vegetable matter, and plastic, sadly typical. There was a low percentage of mussels, but that’s because mussel shells don’t form into pellets (they just sort of scatter everywhere) so I hadn’t collected many. We found the remains of a small rodent, and beetles, but what we didn’t find were very many fish bones or scales.

Next, I want to go back and collect more pellets, and make more note of how many piles of mussel shells there are. Because the BTO have been tagging birds at South Walney with GPS trackers, we know where they are going to feed – the next step would be physically going there ourselves and see what is going on.

Next Holiday Sorted

A piece about owls in the Guardian mentions Kikinda in northern Serbia:

“.. up to 750 long-eared owls – part of this species’ largest concentration on the planet – roost every night in the town’s main streets …

“At dawn the entire town is caught in sunlit hoar frost, and as the residents stroll to work or their lessons, they thread through the parallel world of these night birds. The owls are utterly indifferent, their eyelids squeezed tight like closed shutters, holding aloof from the human community and stopping up in the darkness of their dreams all that gloriously unknowable magic of their lives.”

Booking holiday now.

Gannets

Incredible pictures in the Daily Mail of gannets on Grassholm (off South West Wales) tangled in the fishing and plastic discard that’s become a carpet as birds use it to build their nests. The photos are by Sam Hobson.

Gannets are stunning, large sea birds, perfectly streamlined, they fish by diving at 60mph into the sea. They nest in just a handful of packed colonies (gannetries), most of which are around the British Isles, the largest being on Saint Kilda (59,622 birds), Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth (49,098) and Grassholm, off the coast of Wales (32,094). (These are the most recent survey numbers, which I got from the JNCC’s website. Very interesting to see that there are some birds known to nest on Rockall.)

The RSPB, who manage Grassholm, send a team out every year at the end of the breeding season to free birds that have become entangled. The sight of the plastic really brings home the scale of plastic pollution in the oceans.

I visited Grassholm in 2006, the first time I’d visited a gannetry. The spectacle of thousands of these stunning birds was unforgettable, as was the sight of so much brightly-coloured plastic in amongst the nests that covered the rock.

Grassholm in 2006

The next Gannetry I visited was that on Saint Kilda, this summer. And we had another run in with gannets and plastics – while we were conducting an offshore count of cliff-nesting birds, our expert crew, Angus and young David, spotted something in the water.

They began calling to each other in Gaelic as Angus carefully maneuvered the boat and young David got a grappling hook. After a few attempts, he managed to pull in two gannets who were tangled up together, their bills completely wrapped up in nylon filament from fishing discard.

Beautiful gannet

My colleagues carefully cut the birds free, and after a pose for photos, they went on their way.


“that’ll be the only bird you pick up this weekend, David”

Undoubtedly, without quick eye and action of our boatmen, they would have drowned or starved miserably.

White Curlew

I’ve started wardening a Nature Reserve on the Cumbrian Coast, which is very exciting. Until moth season starts up again I’ll just have to bore you with pictures of scenery and birds and stuff.

There’s plenty of wintering birds here, oystercatcher, redshank, curlew, dunlin, sanderling, turnstone and grey plover, mostly. I had heard rumour of a leucistic curlew that had been seen for a few years now. Leucistic is when the bird doesn’t have a dark pigmentation, not albino as there might still be some colour, but pale. I found an actual photograph of one in a drawer (along with thousands of other, undated, unlabeled photographs), so set out on a mission to find what I decided was now called Luke. Moby Luke, because it was white, I kept searching for it and wasn’t sure it even existed.

I spotted it a few times, way out on the flats, hanging with some little egrets. After a few weeks, this was the best picture I’d managed of it:


Amazing.

On Friday evening, I set off to work’s Christmas Lunch as the tide was coming in and – wow! there was Moby Luke right by the track. I did a 5-point turn and sped back to get my camera, resulting in these great pictures:

 

Next week I’ll compare it to the old photo and see if it’s the same bird.

Also: how great are Curlew bills?

Georgia Bird List

Here’s an exciting list of all the birds I saw in the Republic of Georgia between 1 September and 8 October 2015:

Levant sparrowhawkAccipiter brevipes
GoshawkAccipiter gentilis
SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus
KingfisherAlcedo atthis
Red-throated pipitAnthus cervinus
SwiftApus apus
Great egretArdea alba
Grey heronArdea cinerea
Steppe buzzardButeo buteo vulpinus
SanderlingCalidris alba
DunlinCalidris alpina
Kentish ploverCharadrius alexandrinus
Ringed ploverCharadrius hiaticula
Slender-billed gullChroicocephalus genei
Black-headed gullChroicocephalus ridibundus
White storkCiconia ciconia
Black storkCiconia nigra
Marsh harrierCircus aeruginosus
Pallid harrierCircus macrourus
Montagu's harrierCircus pygargus
Lesser spotted eagleClanga pomarina
Stock doveColumba oenas
RollerCoracias garrulus
RavenCorvus corax
Hooded crowCorvus cornix
quailCoturnix coturnix
Blue titCyanistes caeruleus
Little egretEgretta garzetta
RobinErithacus rubecula
Peregrine falconFalco peregrinus
HobbyFalco subbuteo
ChaffinchFringilla coelebs
MoorhenGallinula chloropus
JayGarrulus glandarius
OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus
Booted eagleHieraaetus pennatus
SwallowHirundo rustica
Little gullHydrocoloeus minutus
Caspian ternHydroprogne caspia
Red-backed shrikeLanius collurio
Yellow-legged gullLarus michahellis
Broad-billed sandpiperLimicola falcinellus
Bee-eaterMerops apiaster
White/pied wagtailMotacilla alba
Yellow wagtailMotacilla flava
Black-crowned night heronNycticorax nycticorax
Black-eared wheatearOenanthe hispanica
WheatearOenanthe oenanthe
Golden orioleOriolus oriolus
Great titParus major
House sparrowPasser domesticus
Honey buzzardPernis apivorus
Crested honey buzzardPernis ptilorhynchus
CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo
Green warblerPhylloscopus nitidus
Willow warblerPhylloscopus trochilus
Krüper's nuthatchSitta krueperi
Common ternSterna hirundo
Sandwich ternSterna sandvicensis
BlackcapSylvia atricapilla
Ruddy shelduckTadorna ferruginea
WrenTroglodytes troglodytes
BlackbirdTurdus merula
63 species!

Bazieri

Here in Georgia, I’m working to monitor the illegal hunting of raptors during the Autumn migration. Alongside the men shooting these raptors, are those practicing the much older tradition of Falconry; called the Buzzeri in the local language. They preferentially take Sparrowhawks, and say that they can have one tame in a matter of days – it’s very interesting when compared to the method for taming hawks in the UK; here, for example, they never hood the bird. My Russian/Georgian isn’t good enough to understand the exact details unfortunately, but it is an extremely well respected tradition out here.

(yes yes that’s a peregrine, not a sparrowhawk)

They use a captive shrike, usually (but not always) hooded by sticking leather or shell over the eyes, tied to the end of a stick and waved about behind an upright net.

When the sparrowhawk stoops to take the prey, it’s caught up in the net, carefully removed, wrapped in a handkerchief and placed in the shade for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, the Buzzeri will select the best bird from the day and release the rest.

The sparrowhawks are used to hunt quail in the Spring, and at the end of the season are released, with new birds caught the following Autumn.

So when we are out monitoring hunting rates, there’s often a local Buzzeri nearby, and, Georgian hospitality being a matter of great pride, they’re always keen to share their lunch and a glass of the local firewater, Chacha, with us!

Birds in hand

A group of Dutch researchers visit our survey station at the weekends to do some ringing. This weekend we got a few really nice birds, starting with this tasty looking quail:

A Noisy Nightingale Thrush:

and this very special Green Warbler:

The Green warbler was, until recently, considered a sub-species of the Greenish Warbler, but is now a full species and endemic to the Caucasus Mountains.

It’s great to get to see these birds up close!

Feathers

Yesterday I had an incredible day with Dietrich, a German expert on feather morphology. We hiked for 8 hours through the humid subtropical forest, looking for remains of birds left by hunters, who pluck and remove head, wings and feet when they find something.

Dietrich was amazing to listen to and learn from, and I learned a heck of a lot about feather morphology! We spotted quite a few interesting things, such as the difference in barring on the undersides of these wings, from two different male honey buzzards. Is it an age thing? Or just individual variation?

And here you can see that the central tail feathers have been bleached by the sun

It’s not just big raptors that are shot, they will also take rollers, bee-eaters and golden oriole

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and we found feathers from blackbirds and cuckoos.

The most poignant and incredible moment was when I spotted an injured bird flapping through neck-deep bracken down a steep slope. Dietrich ran after it, and managed to bring it up, a female honey buzzard with a shot wing.

Her gunshot wound:

It was spectacular to see such a magnificent creature up close, but sadly as the local area lacks suitable vets or wildlife rehabilitation facilities, at the end of the day she was carefully and humanely dispatched by Dietrich.

St Kilda Bird List

Tables are terrible in WordPress. Here is my thrilling list of birds from 3 weeks on St Kilda, because some people are interested in that sort of thing; and yes it is alphabetical and not taxonomic because I have yet to earn my millions devising a way to get Excel to sort a list of birds correctly.

Black guillemot Cepphus grylle 
Black-headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 
Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia


yes yes, Excel can do “custom sort lists” but there’s a 255 character limit on them.

Brent Goose Branta bernicla
Canada Goose Branta canadensis 
Carrion crow Corvus corone 
Collared dove Streptopelia decaocto 
Common chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita 
Common Guillemot Uria aalge 
Common gull Larus canus 
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 
Dunlin Calidris alpina 
Eurasian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 
European Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria 
European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 
Great black-backed gull Larus marinus 
Great northern diver Gavia immer 
Herring gull Larus argentatus 
Hooded crow Corvus cornix 
House martin Delichon urbicum 
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 
Leach’s Storm-petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa 
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 
Lesser redpoll Acanthis cabaret 
Long-tailed duck Clangula hyemalis 


there’s 9,059 characters in the BOU bird list

Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus
Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus 
Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis 
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 


I bet you could do it with a visual basic thing

Northern Pintail Anas acuta 
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe 
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba 
Pigeon Columba livia domestica
Pink-footed goose Anser brachyrhynchus 
Puffin Fratercula arctica 
Razorbill Alca torda 
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator 
Redwing Turdus iliacus 
Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula 
Rock pipit Anthus petrosus 
Sedge warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus 
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 
Snipe Gallinago gallinago

or a macro

Spotted flycatcher Muscicapa striata 
Swallow Hirundo rustica 
Tree pipit Anthus trivialis 
Tufted duck Aythya fuligula 
Turnstone Arenaria interpres 
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla 
Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus 
Willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus 
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus 
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis
Yellow wagtail Motacilla flava