Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A Debate for Dancers - Hen Harriers

As I'm sure most of you hen harrier enthusiasts know, these raptors spend their summers up on the moors for breeding and usually winter in more low lying areas such as estuaries, favouring the salt marshes for feeding. 

Every year Parkgate Marsh along the Dee Estuary gets at least 2 or 3 wintering hen harriers and many other wintering raptors, however it is unusual for the area to get a male (usually it is just ringtails). Nevertheless for the last couple of weeks a male has been seen almost every day from the promenade wall at Parkgate.

Driven grouse shooting is due to be debated in parliament on Monday 31st October, in less than a weeks time, so I thought what better way to spend a morning than searching for this stunning bird and considering what the future might hold for them.

So on Sunday I arrived relatively early in the morning at Parkgate. I set up the scope and started scanning the seemingly endless marshland, searching for this Skydancer. After the first couple of sweeps I didn't pick anything of interest up, so I reverted to scanning a flock of waders that were roosting on one of the many secluded pools. About half way through the flock, a graceful pale bird flew into vision, I hadn't registered this until the bird had flown out of my field of view. Desperately I trained the scope on the bird's position and my jaw literally dropped when I confirmed the identification....

a male HEN HARRIER!!!!

The bird gave great views for more than a minute; quartering the marsh and flaring all the nervy ducks and waders up into the air, creating a magnificent spectacle; the harrier standing out clearly now as it soared effortlessly through the mayhem it had created.

I got three other great views of this hen harrier during the course of the visit and I couldn't help but worry yet again about the continued and unforgivable persecution of such an iconic bird.  Was the sighting of this harrier a good omen for next Monday?

There is still time to make a difference.  I urge all of you to write to your local MP and ask them to attend the debate. Provide them with why you think there should be a ban on driven grouse shooting and the problems with grouse shooting. The debate is less than a week away, but there is still time to get your MP involved, as we need all the support we can get.

Remember the unquestionable facts:

There should be over 300 nesting pairs of hen harrier in England, however this year there were just 3 pairs, none of which were on driven grouse moors.  Satellite tagged hen harriers have gone missing. The tags have been found on ones that died of natural causes as the satellite tags have continued to transmit. Other tagged birds that have gone missing have never been found, but the tags were known to stop transmitting on or close to driven grouse moors.

The people have spoken and they want to see this debated in parliament.  It is now for the government to decide if grouse shooting should continue. The government have the power to do something about the sustained raptor persecution taking place on grouse moors, even though hen harriers are protected by law.

So please, if you haven't done so already, make sure with just days to go before the debate, that you write to your MP, brief them and make it clear that wildlife crime is not acceptable.

No-one has the right to reduce a native species to the point of extinction. No-one has the right to deprive others of the grace, beauty and spectacle of our stunning hen harriers.


Sadly since writing this post another of this years hen harriers is gone forever. Rowan's body was found though, and the autopsy must have revealed something as the results have been handed to the police to investigate. You can read the press release here.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Yellow, Red and Gold!

During the last couple of weeks, Britain has been hit by relatively strong easterly winds blowing in from the continent. Prior to this we had solid westerlies which seemed to put a bit of a hold on some of our migrant birds moving in and out.

I'm relieved to say that these winds have pressed play on migration again, and many species have been steadily moving through the country and making landfall. As many of you know, the east coast could be described as a different country at the moment with the quality and quantity of some of the bird species and numbers that have been grounded over there.

However, it's not just all about the east coast; whilst I was ringing over the weekend of 8th & 9th October, the variety of species, and amount in some cases, certainly suggested birds were on the move and gave a very autumnal feel to the air.


On the Saturday we headed up to one of our most used Autumn/Winter sites for the second time this Autumn (you can read the first encounter here).

Conditions were looking good; overcast and relatively cool. Whilst setting the nets up I heard at least half a dozen Redwing go over which was a promising start, as this was the first time I had heard them on the west coast this Autumn.

As soon as dawn was upon us and the sun rising, it was clear to see thrushes were on the move and in decent numbers; primarily Redwing heading over in various sized flocks, sometimes just 5 or 6, other times a couple of hundred. Sometimes I think small numbers of Redwing can look like Starlings but the evidence was clear in our first net round as we caught 8 Redwing.

There was a noticeable lack of warblers present, with only 2 Blackcaps caught throughout the whole session (1 male, 1 female, both juveniles), and 2 Chiffchaff.

For the time of year you'd certainly expect there to be decent sized numbers of Goldcrest present; however only 3 were caught during the entire session.

Moving into mid morning, a constant trickle of Redwings continued to be caught and we ended on 22. Quite a few of the Redwings had passengers in the name of ticks close to their bills or eyes which required removal before release. The other point of interest was the 25% weight difference between the heaviest and the lightest bird.

A vocal Yellow Browed Warbler was very mobile and active which was a delight to see; however it didn't find it's way in to our nets. Certainly other Yellow Browed Warblers have been around the area with Peter Alker (you can read about it on Peter's blog Two In A Bush here) catching one on the 22nd September and another one the very same weekend as we were out.

The last time we caught a YBW was on the 25th October 2014, you can read all about that here.  Another 'invasion' year it would seem for the species'.  It was surely only a matter of time before we had another encounter.

 Other factors of note were the first Fieldfares to go over and numerous finch species passing, including a decent tally of 22 Lesser Redpoll.


A new day but different site today.  It had a really good feel to be out again, especially when compared with last Autumn when the wind and rain really put a stop to our efforts. So far, after the summer break, it's been business as usual every weekend.

There was plenty of birdsong early on, including that of a Yellow Browed Warbler. Would today be our next encounter? Another 18 Redwing moved our weekend total up to 40 and a good variety of tits, Goldcrests, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs kept us busy most of the morning.

It was mid morning by the time we found a Yellow Browed Warbler in the net, but unexpectedly there were actually two of this tiny bird (about the same size as a Goldcrest).

Goldcrest and Yellow Browed Warbler

I was very fortunate to have ringed this species literally a week earlier at Spurn Bird Observatory (which you can read about here) so to ring another one and see the bird in detail in the hand again was a privilege.

Then just as you are thinking your day couldn’t get any better, and to everyone's' amazement, about an hour later, we caught another 2. Unbelievable!!

So the weekend was really dominated by the Thrushes but perhaps the Warblers stole the show right at the very end.

Linking to Wild Bird Wednesday

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Irresistible Spurn!

I've just started back at school, now in year 10, and already the pressure is on with the work that I have to complete to achieve my end GCSE grades at the end of year 11. Every moment counts, which sadly, to my disappointment, means there won't be as much time for birding, wildlife conservation and the things I really want to do; however education comes first. And it will of course help me to keep making a difference in the future.

Therefore before all of this heavy school work commences and is in full swing, I was able to have my last big birding weekend for a while, and what better place to spend it at than at Spurn with the team and members of Spurn Bird Observatory. So that is where I spent last weekend.

During the first week in October you are almost guaranteed to get something interesting dropping in and witness the true spectacles of migration, and this was proven almost immediately.  When I arrived, I was able to observe good sized flocks of 20 - 30 Tree Sparrows passing over regularly, calling as they did so.

I've skipped ahead a bit here, Spurn gets to you like that, so lets revert right back to the start point of setting off, which I did so at 5:30am on the Saturday morning, due to us (me and mum) wanting to get there for a good time, knowing there was a 3 hour journey ahead.


We arrived at the Obs for about 8:15am. It was getting light with a wind direction of north easterlies, which seemed rather promising for the day ahead migration wise. There were already plenty of birders about, so I couldn't wait to get involved. I did this firstly by visiting the sea watching hut. We walked there via The Triangle, instantly being greeted by a juvenile Marsh Harrier! The sun was behind us, therefore shining straight onto the bird giving outstanding views as it cruised slowly past and out over the Humber, scattering all the roosting waders (mainly Knot), giving us a just an amazing spectacle.

It was evident migrants were already around with Goldcrests and phyllosc warblers calling from every other bush; however they were reasonably elusive due to the relatively strong wind. Whinchats were showing better though, with birds lined up along the majority of fence posts separating the fields; (which were also absolutely teeming with Reed Bunting and Meadow Pipits).

I arrived at the sea watching hut, setting up outside so I had the joys of the migrating avian species going over as well. Several Arctic and Great Skuas flew south along with several Red Throated Diver; however to be honest the sea watching wasn't the best thing in the morning, as eyes were more focused on the passerine movement.

For the remainder of the morning I was lucky enough to take part in some ringing that takes place every day when the weather is suitable. I must say a massive thank you to Paul Collins for allowing me to join in. I arrived to help out at just gone 10am, so the catch rate had decreased from what it would have been earlier; nevertheless we still caught a fair few Tree Sparrow and Meadow Pipit. It was great to see Tree Sparrow in the hand after so long and even more amazing to see the amount going over.

Whilst sea watching later that afternoon, news broke through of a Wryneck showing well at Easington Gas Terminal. This would be a UK lifer for me and was therefore irresistible to go and see (a bird like that always is, even if you've seen one before!!). I got a lift from Iggy (thanks Iggy), who was also sea watching with me at the time, to the terminal where we were greeted by a couple of birders who had seen it briefly.

After a good walk around the site, we eventually came across a group of birders trained on the bird. It showed amazingly well for 5 minutes or so, feeding on a verge of a grass bank consuming ants. However, it also seemed happy hanging out on the rip-rap defending the beach. I managed to get some decent pictures before it flew off into the terminal itself where it wasn't seen again that evening.

You'd think that would be the end of the first day, however it just got better and better, even though it was getting late in the day. After the successful Wryneck watch, I returned to the sea watching hut as the winds had picked up quite a lot, so this type of birding seemed promising. As expected, the sea watching hut was full on arrival, however a few birders had set up shop outside, therefore I decided to join them. As soon as I started scanning the vast North Sea, I instantly came across 15 Little Gull, closely followed by 8 Arctic Skua, already a fantastic start and I hadn't had the scope up for more than 5 minutes! For the next 20 minutes or so, passage was steady and we were entertained by close flybys of Sooty Shearwater, Great and Arctic Skuas.

In one 10 minute period everything you could ever ask for sea watching wise flew past. It started pretty much like this: Kittiwake, Kittiwake, Kittiwake, Kittiwake, SABINE'S GULL. A stunning adult flew past close in giving us lucky viewers tremendous views. Attention was turned away from this spectacular species when Pomarine Skua was called out (a lifer); a stunning adult cruised past, again close in, with the full "spoon" like tail. What a bird. This particular sea watch was sealed when 2 Long Tailed Skuas flew past! This time however quite distant.

A great first day!!!


I must say the day started off quite slowly, with strong SW winds. Due to this, all focus was on the sea watching, which produced no where near as many birds as the Saturday, however a close flyby of  a Balearic Shearwater was well worth the hour or so sea watch.

News came through later on of 2 Yellow Browed Warbler at Sammy's Point, a short walk from the Spurn stronghold. I arrived and was immediately greeted by my first Redwing and Brambling of the year that must have just come in with the NE winds. The winds had swung around late morning making the afternoon passerine migration much better. I spent about 2 hours in the paddock searching for warblers; however they were proving highly elusive in the relatively strong wind. Apart from the huge count of Goldcrest which seemed to occupy every bush, a late fly through of a Sand Martin was the only highlight from that particular area along with a few Wheatear.

I arrived back via the Crown and Anchor where I instantly noticed a large group of birders surrounding the Cliff Farm garden. I didn't even need to ask the observers what was present, as before I even had chance to, I heard the charismatic call of at least 5 different Yellow Browed Warblers. They were literally calling from every direction. Absolutely "fresh in" as some people would say.

Most of these birds were moving around with the Goldcrest flocks, which to our relief were all showing well, active, and happily feeding on the outer branches of trees and bushes; which of course encouraged the Yellow Browed Warblers to do so.

I spent the rest of my time watching the passerine movement from this location There had to be over 20 Yellow Browed Warbler that filtered past over the course of the afternoon, therefore to no-one's surprise, news came through that one had just been caught by the Obs ringing team in Kew Villa.

Due to me being close to the area I decided to head over there and take a look, after all, it's not often you see a bird like a Yellow Browed Warbler really close up. I arrived with good time, as the bird hadn't been processed. I felt so privileged when I was offered the bird to ring and study close up (again thank you to Paul Collins).

These are particularly small warblers and weigh ever so slightly more than a Goldcrest, our smallest resident bird, so it's amazing to think that these birds have flown all the way across the North Sea.

I must say that ringing the Yellow Browed Warbler and seeing it in the hand had to be the best end to yet another magical weekend at Spurn. I can't wait until next time, hopefully not too long. Before that though, I have to work hard. I've got one chance to get these good grades, and all the time in the world for birding after that........maybe just a bit of birding though!!!!

Linking to Wild Bird Wednesday