Friday, 31 July 2020

North Cornwall Barn Owl Ringing 2020

As a licenced bird ringer it is imperative that I take a scientific approach and ensure that my activities are done with some validity and structure to ensure that the data that I obtain is of significant substance, either locally or nationally and in the ideal situation, both. I feel that in most instances I tick all the boxes; carrying out constant effort ringing in the summer months to monitor some of Cornwall’s breeding birds and also by helping out at the monumental site that is Nanjizal, where a large volume of migrating birds pass through each autumn. However, there is a particular species that I cannot help but get all doughy eyed over and feel immense privilege and joy when surveying.

The Barn Owl has to be one of the most iconic and loved birds of the British Isles and indeed further afield. Its ethereal presence has captivated the hearts and souls of so many Britons for centuries. Yet for such a captivating species it has undergone some worrying strife. In 1932 the British population of Barn Owls was estimated to be around 12,000 and even this was a substantial drop in numbers from what was once Britain's commonest owl. A further survey was undertaken between 1982-1985 and concluded that there were approximately 4500 pairs breeding in Britain. Seeing a further decline of 67%! This prompted it to be amber rated in the list of Birds of Conservation Concern having had a moderate (25-49%) decline in the UK breeding population or range over the previous 25 years. In addition, it was assigned a Schedule 1 status and special protection. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as amended by the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it is an offence, liable to special penalty, to intentionally disturb any wild bird included in the Schedule while it is building a nest or is in, on, or near a nest containing eggs or young or to disturb dependent young of such a bird. As with so many British birds, the main reason for decline seemed to be the decimation of natural nesting locations and the ever-changing countryside and suitable hunting habitat. Traditional sites in old farm buildings have also been lost as barns have been converted to other use including residential occupation or have simply been allowed to deteriorate until they collapsed or were demolished. 

It is important to monitor this species in order that the current population levels can be assessed to determine whether any further declines have occurred. West Cornwall Ringing Group participate in a national project that is coordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology to provide ongoing assessments of the UK Barn Owl population. Monitoring consists of a visit to the nest site by specially trained and licensed bird ringers in the breeding season, where details of occupancy rates, breeding performance and survival are recorded, and any young are ringed with uniquely numbered leg rings. To find out more about ringing in general please visit: BTO Ringing Scheme

2020 Monitoring Results 

Monitoring a north Cornwall Barn Owl Box.

Over 100 nest boxes are currently surveyed across Cornwall and I have slowly started to assist in growing the number of sites monitored in the north of the county. In 2020 a further 7 boxes were added to the North Cornwall monitoring list. Sadly due to the Covid-19 lock down I was unable to do any early monitoring, so egg clutch sizes were not recorded during this period. However, early brood sizes were obtained so I was still able to produce some important nest record data nonetheless. I was interested to compare this years data with last seasons and noted that the average brood size was very similar to that of 2019.     

Adults Ringed


A distinct lack of adults were processed during 2020 by me! This was partially down to the late initial checking dates but also some alteration was needed in the catching technique. However, I was pleased to add 2 adult females and an adult male to the scheme. I am hopeful that I might encounter these again in the future. 

Chicks Ringed



I had heard from other Owl ringers across the UK that it was going to be a pretty dire year for the productivity of the species as they were finding many nests unoccupied. However, Cornwall seemed to have bucked the trend and it appears we had a bumper crop of juvenile Barn Owls! Of the 10 boxes occupied 32 chicks were ringed. The largest clutch being 5, but the majority having clutches of 3 and 4 birds and all looking very health and likely to fledge. Interestingly, birds that chose to lay eggs later did not appear to be as successful; only producing 1 or 2 fledglings. This was most likely due to the atrocious weather we had here in Cornwall that was almost consistent through the whole of June!

I am looking forward to seeing how the Barn Owls fared across the rest of the county and indeed the rest of the UK during 2020. I know there are a couple of boxes with some breeding activity still occurring within Cornwall, but will be checking the ringing groups web page with regularity for the final outcome. If you wish to do the same then please keep an eye on here: West Cornwall Ringing Group

Over the past couple of seasons I have also had the upmost pleasure of attending many boxes with legendary photographer and naturalist Adrian Langdon. His photographic works speak volumes on his commitment and passion. Your eyes will be in for a real treat if you visit his blog spot found here: Images Naturally   

Lastly, it is always a real pleasure to witness the enthusiasm of those persons that grant permission for us to monitor boxes. There is none more so than those with cameras fitted to their boxes who get a real intimate showing of the trials and tribulations that the owls face. One of the nests that I monitor has such a device and it makes for some pretty addictive viewing. To watch how this family group has fared this year then please grab a hot beverage, put your feet up and take a look here: Mike and Molly the North Cornwall Barn Owls    

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Sylvia's: Warbler Sound Quiz Answers

The answers to our Sylvia Warbler Quiz are now finally ready! Each species has a brief account on what makes it's song unique and there are also some handy tips if you would like to see and hear one of these stunning Sylvia Warblers for yourself. The rarer species in this quiz are all very possible finds for the intrepid birder in spring. Listening out for unfamiliar Sylvia song once your knowledge of the common species builds up will hopefully pay off one day with the birding find we all hope for. If you do ever find a rare Sylvia recording it's song and or calls is now an important part of the process of ID. Many portable recorders are now available from companies such as Tascam but it's surprising how good smart phones can be for this job. 

1) Eurasian Blackcap. The full song of Blackcap can be confusingly similar to Garden Warbler and it's varied subsong typically heard in short bursts early in the breeding season or on migration can include mimicry of other species. However there are always clues to it's identity. The main song is rather loud and has a rich fluty quality to the tune. It is delivered at a fast pace and the most distinctive part of the song is the ending which speeds up into a trilled whistle. Pretty much every Blackcap I've heard singing repeats this phrase eventually, even as part of it's sub-song. Blackcap is a common (seemingly increasing) summer migrant to the UK and can be heard singing from woodland, parkland and even large gardens. Winter visitors from the continent can also be heard singing on sunny late winter days in urban areas and from sheltered spots around the coast near to Ivy or Blackthorn. Try Goss Moor Nature reserve to test yourself with Blackcap and Garden Warbler in the summer months as they sing alongside each other. During winter Padstow, Pentewan and Gannel Estuary hold good numbers of birds that will sing their sub-song on milder sunny days.

2) Garden Warbler. The song of the Garden Warbler is one of my favourites of all bird song. At first it is difficult to separate from Blackcap in particular but once you familiarise yourself with it there are distinctive differences. The song has an even tempo and a richness which is very different to the more erratic song of Blackcap. The ending doesn't speed up and it doesn't have the fluty ending . For me it has the qualities of a Blackbird and a Skylark mixed together! Garden Warbler has a rather patchy distribution in Cornwall and is much scarcer than Blackcap, found close to moorland and in some sheltered valleys. It seems to prefer more open areas with scattered tree's than Blackcap. In conifer plantations it is usually found in young conifers alongside Tree Pipit and Willow Warbler whilst Blackcap tends to sing from the mature conifers alongside Chiffchaff. The top site in Cornwall is Goss Moor National Nature Reserve whilst it is also patchily distributed throughout Bodmin Moor.

3) Common Whitethroat. The typical song of Common Whitethroat is a series of four or five scratchy notes which is often repeated note for note whilst it sits on a prominent perch. It is a familiar summer sound in our countryside. However it's subsong can be confusing as it often sounds richer ,  more warbling in quality and noticeably varied with some mimicry. If you are patient and continue to listen a bird in sub song will eventually utter the more well known song phrase, usually at the end of the subsong. A male Common Whitethroat on territory will also burst into song flight which sounds like a fast paced, ramped up version of it's typical song, although lasting considerably longer before intervals as the bird hovers in the sky in a Pipit like fashion. It can be found throughout Cornwall in coastal locations and inland in mature hedgerows and road verges. My number one spot in Cornwall for this species would be Lands End were if you walk along the cycle track in early May there will be 20-30 birds singing from almost every thicket!

4) Lesser Whitethroat. The rattle of Lesser Whitethroat is one of my favourite summer sounds and it is surprising how far the noise can carry, several hundred yards from my experience. It sounds a bit like the beginning of a Chaffinch's song but is dryer and harsher in tone. If you get close enough to a singing male you will also be able to hear the much quieter start to the song which is a short, sweet and rather melodic warble. Males often set up territory in coastal valleys amongst Blackthorn scrub , moorland edges and mature hedgerows but it is a relatively scarce summer migrant and is always a nice find. Top sites in Cornwall include Porth Joke valley in mid to late May and Windmill Farm Nature Reserve on the Lizard Peninsular.

5) Spectacled Warbler. The song of Spectacled Warbler is perhaps a little softer in tone to my ear than it's Mediterranean counterparts (such as the Subalpine Warbler complex and Dartford Warbler). A rather whistley and sweet warble with a mournful quality (sounding a bit like Crested Lark) that is sang in short bursts at staggered intervals every 2-3 seconds. Spectacled Warbler is a rare vagrant to Britain with just nine accepted records by BBRC. However seven of these have been in spring and at least six of these have been singing males (including one on Dartmoor 3rd-6th June 1999). The likelihood of one eventually turning up in Cornwall is quite high in my opinion. They seem to like low gorse and saltmarsh habitat so one could turn up in any number of places in Spring but if I had to predict one site in Cornwall it would be along the Kynance road on the Lizard Peninsular or perhaps the cycle track at Lands End.

6) Dartford Warbler. This spritely Sylvia 's song is a rather monotonous dry sounding warble lasting around two seconds and usually repeated at regular intervals when it is delivering full song. The song isn't particularly complex and the rather low toned, harsh sounding notes lack the tuneful and melodic qualities of Spectacled and Subalpine and are closer to Sardinian Warbler in many ways. The male will often sing under cover but will briefly pop up onto the tops of Gorse in response to threats whilst a bird on territory will often sing from a prominent perch during the breeding season (typically March to June). It is a specialist of heathland and is our only sedentary Sylvia Warbler in the UK (meaning it doesn't tend to migrate and can be found throughout the year). In Cornwall it is rarer now than it was five years ago mainly due to the "beast from the east" of February 2018 and a succession of wet winters. It could possibly be found on coastal heath or inland on many of our moorland areas so long as there is an adequate amount of Gorse, it is a schedule 1 breeding bird so specific sites around the county cannot be disclosed but a trip to RSPB Arne in Dorset at almost any time of year would be productive.

7) Sardinian Warbler.  This rare vagrant is a particularly vocal Sylvia that utters distinctive dry (machine gun like!) calls seemingly whenever it moves and if you travel to the Mediterranean coast of Spain you will hear them almost constantly. The song however surprised me when I first heard it as it was much more musical than I was expecting. The harsh rattle like call notes are interspersed with a fairly basic loud yet sweet and melodic warble which lasts for around 3-5 seconds (typically longer in duration than other small Sylvia's) before being repeated. In a habit that reminds me a little of Common Whitethroat the warble gets even more melodic and tuneful when it alights into a song flight. When in song the male tends to sing from a conspicuous perch but it will also sing from deep cover and can be fairly skulky on migration. Cornwall has a good track record for this species with the last two records involving singing males from

The last three bird songs are from the recently split Subalpine Warbler complex. I have some field experience of all three species but it has been interesting for me to research and refresh my knowledge on how Eastern Subalpine, Western Subalpine and Moltonis Warbler can be identified and seperated by sound. Whilst my conclusions might be a bit amateurish compared to some of the birding sound guru's out there but I do believe that songs and particularly calls can help to identify a vagrant in the UK. Around 80% of Subalpine Warbler records relate to males so knowledge of songs and calls plus having a device to record them for later analysis is important.

8) Western Subalpine Warbler. 

Western Subalpine Warbler occurs within a large area encompassing North Africa (Tunisia to Morocco) and Western Europe (Iberia, southern France, and north-west Italy). It is a rare but annual vagrant to Britain in the Spring. This is potentially the most likely Subalpine Warbler to be found in Cornwall and they are generally annual in their occurrence. Any coastal site could turn up a Western Subalpine with Porthgwarra and Lands End in West Penwith and the Kynance area of the Lizard peninsular being good areas to search in April/May in Blackthorn. In comparison to Eastern and Moltoni's the song sounds slightly richer in quality and tends to have more variance and more complex warbling. The call is also a distinctive hard 'tack tack' which sounds rather dry (a bit like Lesser Whitethroat). 

9) Eastern Subalpine Warbler.

As the name suggests Eastern Subalpine breeds in Eastern Europe (north-east Italy, the Balkans & Greece) plus part of western Turkey. A further subspecies (Sylvia cantillans cantillans) breeds in parts of southern Italy and Sicily. It is rare vagrant to Britain typically in April and May. It is a rarer occurence in Cornwall than Western Subalpine but shares the same habitat niche and pattern of arrival so there will be more records to come in the future hopefully. The song of Eastern Subalpine reminds me a little of a Sardinian Warbler, the rapid song sounds harsher and dryer in tone and there is less variance and more repetition of notes. The call is very similar to Western but is slightly softer in quality: 'Trrrett' 'Trrett'.

10) Moltoni's Warbler.

The range of Moltoni's Warbler is much more restricted compared to it's two sister species; occuring in parts of central Italy, Corsica, Sandinia and the Balearic Islands. This is the rarest form of Subalpine Warbler to occur in Britain with eight accepted records, all have been in spring and seven have been males. Cornwall has yet to record an accepted record by BBRC but I believe a male which turned up at Porthgwarra in October 2014 was this species on plumage but sadly no sound recordings were obtained. However a male in spring 2016 on nearby Isles of Scilly was accepted so there is a good chance another will occur perhaps in west Cornwall. The song has a Common Whitethroat quality but has the speedy delivery of a Subalpine. It has a buzzy tone to the song, lacking perhaps the rich notes of a Western Subalpine but not sounding as harsh or dry as an Eastern, The call (which can be heard in the recording) however is the clincher for this species and is diagnostic; a buzzy Wren like trill which is completely different to the calls of Eastern and Western Subalpine.

A big thankyou to Gary Thoburn for allowing me to use his excellent photographs for this post

Warbler Sound Quiz Part 2: Sylvia Warblers

Eastern Subalpine Warbler - Gary Thoburn
For the second instalment of our sound quizzes we will be looking at the Sylvia Warbler family. In a UK context this familiar group of warblers are a mixture of long distance migrants, rare vagrants and a single resident. As we all know they can be skulky and difficult to view in their favoured habitat of dense vegetation and having the knowledge of their songs is a great time saver when counting breeding pairs on a local patch. Being aware of some of the rarer species songs will also one day hopefully pay off as rare Sylvia Warblers that turn up in spring have a tendency to be singing males.

Spectacled Warbler by Gary Thoburn

Some of the Sylvia's in this sound quiz have only recently been given full species status and it's been a learning curve for me producing this! As always I will post the answers shortly which will include a write up on each species song and explain what for me makes them distinctive and unique. I will also be including some sonograms in the answers for the more difficult species as recording bird song and analysing them on a computer has become a key part of sound recognition in birding and on a scientific level and has been something I'm getting to grips with myself since lockdown and I am not an expert but I feel it's part of the future of birding so hopefully you can learn with me along the way!

Common Whitethroat Paul Ash

We hope you enjoy the quiz! Click below on the ten questions to have a go.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Week 6 End Of Lockdown as we know it!

As things are now changing and from tomorrow we are allowed to exercise multiple times a day and drive to a destination I think it's a good time to finish the lockdown series. As I look back on events that unfolded I will always remember these last few weeks and the benefits wildlife gave me whilst feeling low and isolated it has always given me a lift! I hope you enjoyed the posts and we will be blogging as usual throughout the year about our birding and (hopefully) ringing experiences...

Seeing the first Swift of spring is always a magic moment! They are the true acrobats of the sky and an amazing long distance migrant that may not land for over 2 years!

The last week or so has been action packed for birds and birding with settled weather and favourable winds yielding plenty of surprises even for landlocked birders such as myself at the moment. A walk up to our favourite fields above the house presented me with the find of the Spring for me personally! A Blue-headed Wagtail which was sadly all too brief for a photograph as it came out of the same field that I found a Lapland Bunting on January 1st! The habitat in this one particular field is so unspoilt with rare wild flowers and grasses and a healthy population of Skylark and Yellowhammer it is an oasis for birds and a time warp to how things would've looked in the entire area 50 years ago (before intensive farming and early silage cutting). 
More Common Whitethroat have arrived in my local area this year having successfully completed their migration in the fine and settled weather, This showy male wasn't best pleased with our presence on his patch!
The high ground above my house is an important area for Skylark which breed in a large uncultivated field, sadly such habitat is very rare to find these days which is a major factor in their alarming decline (over 75% since 1970's)

As we were sat having dinner in the garden on Friday evening I happened to look up in the sky and noticed a group of Red Kite's soaring overhead! This was surely the start of the annual Red Kite influx to Cornwall and the next day huge numbers poured through the county with a record count of over 300 birds recorded from a garden in Marazion! I'm sure many of you reading this may have seen some of these graceful and eye-catching raptors from your own garden or on your local walk and if you haven't yet seen one do keep looking as they are still being reported throughout Cornwall (for a write up on the Red Kite influx it's worth reading this article by CBWPS:
Cornwall enjoyed a spectacular arrival of Red Kite with several hundred birds logged across the county! Note the primary moult in this bird ageing it as a  2nd calendar year. All birds I scrutinized were the same age and indicate that as usual they are probably all non breeding birds originating from the successful reintroduced population around the UK.
In a bright sky against the sun or high up in dull light Red Kite can look very dark meaning potential confusion with the much rarer Black Kite. Shape & structure are the best clues to it's identity with Red Kite showing a longer tail with a noticeably deeper notched fork. They have longer/thinner wings and the overall shape is less stocky than a Black Kite.

Even the Noc Mig recording was superb this week with several big groups of Whimbrel over the house plus some Dunlin and most bizarre and amazing of all a substantial flock of Common Tern recorded migrating over the house in the early hours! Noc Mig is changing my understanding of migration and I would never have guessed that Common Tern would migrate well inland through Cornwall at night!

ImageOur resident birds seem to be having a successful breeding season so far thanks to the settled weather I suspect. We have been delighted to see fledged Song Thrush, Blackbird & Mistle Thrush in the garden and we have also glimpsed the odd juvenile Robin. The delightful Dippers which grace the river below our house have also raised their young and we were lucky enough to see two juveniles on VE day busily chasing their parents for food along the riverbank. After a while they began to search for their own food and were already pretty adept at catching prey underwater which is amazing considering they were so young out of the nest. It's worth searching for Dippers and watching their antics as they bob up and down the river. They are the only passerine that has adapted to feed underwater and they achieve this by having specially adapted eye lids which have evolved into a pair of water tight bird goggles!
Adult Dipper

Juvenile Dipper

In the future I have learnt to enjoy the nature that is around me and I will be continuing my photography and walking from home even after lockdown as I feel more familiar with where I live than ever before. I'll never stop going to the coast though as a birder the coast and migration is unmissable for me... 

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Week 5 of Lockdown in Cornwall - The Nature Around Us

There are a healthy population of Roe Deer around my house but you need to get up very early to see them

It isn't just birds which have caught our interest over the lockdown and it has been amazing to see the variety of nature that visit our garden and the surrounding farmland around the house..... 

Brown Trout rely on camouflage to avoid capture from Heron's and other predators and their cryptic colours and spots certainly help achieve this, can you spot it in the picture?

Earlier on in lockdown I bought a trail camera for only £50 and each night me and Libbie take it turns to place it somewhere around the garden or the farm next door and it's been amazing to record the different animals which pass it at night! Basically the camera works on movement so if anything goes past it's sight it will trigger 20 seconds of video and with the night vision it has it really is amazing value and great fun to look through the next day. Seeing these Roe Deer behaving naturally in the wild and also these two Wood Mice without them being disturbed is really captivating as it offers a glimpse into their lives.

Our 'pet' rabbit (known in the family as Reggie!)

I've also recorded foxes and hedgehog's overnight on my sound recorder and both noctule and pipistrelle bat. Plenty of rabbit's have also found the garden to their liking and have so far managed to avoid the dog! 

Common Toad is best looked for at night as they roam about searching for insects

Our garden pond at night is full of Newts, Frogs and Toads and we've even seen a Grass Snake briefly sunbathing but sadly no photo! 

I've never seen the point in mothing before now but I've been ignorant to these fascinating creatures. (Species photographed are: top Angle Shades, left Small Phoenix and right Muslin Moth)

We have also taken an interest in Moth's and set the trap each night and wait in anticipation to see what gets attracted to the light. The only thing is that our trap consists of an outdoor porch light and a fishing net! But it works well enough for us to learn them slowly and we have so far seen seventeen species including Fox Glove Pug, Least Black Arches and Ruddy Streak. All of the moths have really intricate and often stunning patterns and some of them have fascinating origins such as the Ruddy Streak which is an escapee originally from Australia! 

Never an easy Butterfly to photograph, it has been a very good spring for Holly Blue with numerous sightings 

Butterflies have been out in force especially over the weekend and we spotted the first Wall Brown of the year taking the overall tally to … species since lockdown. Sunday's warm weather also brought out the first Dragonfly of the year with this stunning Beautiful Demoiselle.

Beautiful Demoiselle

This was supposed to be a blog post without birds but I can't help it they will always be top of the tree for me and they have been the highlight of the week for me as usual! An early morning walk brought me the gift of a singing Cuckoo ,the first one I've heard near to home for many years! Swallow's, House Martins and even a Sand Martin have flown through the garden during the day whilst at night I recorded an Oystercatcher (first for the garden!) and more groups of Whimbrel, Little Grebe, Coot and Moorhen. Probably the most unexpected bird though was a Woodcock that flew over on 28th April calling as the sun set. Probably just a late migrant as I don't think they breed in Cornwall I only recognised the call after hearing them frequently in Lithuania last Spring. So the surprises that nature can give are still just on the doorstep and learning about the Mammals, Moths , Reptiles and Amphibians has been a great distraction and certainly something that wouldn't happen in normal life and yet I'm glad that it has. 

Juvenile Blackbird

Friday, 1 May 2020

Is twitching of any benefit to a proper birdwatcher?

It is nearly May and I am sure with some certainty that if I wasn’t confined to my property and local daily exercise schedule that something rare somewhere in the southern half of Britain would be luring me in its general direction and the “Twitch” would be on.

In my early days as a birder it was impressed on me that twitching a rarity should be shunned and there was no fun in it apart from the growth of a pointless list! Sadly, I lived that life for more years than I should have, and the consequence has been that I have missed some truly great birds due to stubbornness! Thankfully now I am not so easily led, or pig headed and in recent years I have travelled about to see some of the natural worlds most elegant and beautiful avian wonders. But what is the point in twitching? Is my sole purpose to build an endless list in the vain hope that one day I can use it as some metaphorical truncheon to beat any young up and coming bird nerd into submission? Or is there deeper value and meaning to seeing a new and rare bird? Well I think so! As somebody who is reasonably proficient at general birding, I tend to do OK for odd and rare records each year helped by the fact that I live in the surprisingly under watched Cornwall. So why leave the picturesque oasis of home to see birds when the chances are you will find something half decent nearby? Well, simply put for the novelty and learning opportunities.

Let’s face it there are not many people who don’t like seeing and experiencing something new! I find twitching can bring out a huge range of emotions reminiscent of a Christmas or Birthday morning! Anticipation, trepidation, jubilation and defeat are all regular feelings when heading for or departing a twitch. How many legal or safe alternatives are out there that allow for such a range of feelings? But perhaps more importantly the learning value and opportunity of seeing something in the field offers so much more than reading about a species and viewing pictures. We have all heard the term “jizz” and the fact that sometimes you just know you have stumbled across something with "Wow" factor before evaluating the finer details of the bird. This gut reaction does not come from knowing everything about possible rarities that could turn up on your patch but from a more extensive experience of the local birds that inhabit an area and just knowing it was unlikely to be one of them. So, seeing a rare bird and having the opportunity to familiarise yourself with its general traits and appearance will only add to this bank of subconscious information in my opinion! 

Looking back over the last six months I have had some real twitching luck and the lock down period has given me the opportunity to revisit some of these jubilant experiences. So, without further ado here are some of the recent highlights.

Black-throated Thrush – Whipsnade Zoo – 22nd of December 2019.

I am sure that for the die-hard rare bird enthusiast out there this bird may be best left in the archives due to its immense popularity at the time and the number of pictures that did the rounds. No doubt some people got sick of seeing it! However, I can’t help myself. It was a long drive to Whipsnade Zoo and back home in the same day in fact 540 miles. So, a little more appreciation and admiration for this show stopping stunner is warrant and just I think.

There were a couple of reasons to make such a long drive for one bird, which is not normally mine and Bob’s style. We tend to wait for two or three targets in order to justify the expense and effort. Firstly, the Thrush was an unmistakable male with a grey back, white belly, and a pitch-black throat and chest, exactly how we wanted to see the species. Secondly, it had been around awhile and seemed settled so the risk of it departing was perhaps better than normal odds? Long story short we were one of the first cars on site that morning and waited patiently in the entrance cue for around 30 minutes. Thankfully, once inside the zoo we didn't have to wait quite as long for fantastic views of this handsome bird! Well worth the effort and trip.

The following day I did some reading and found out that in the past 120 years only around 90 individuals had been seen in the UK and few of them had offered such great views and the cooperation that this individual had presented us! To put it into perspective of how far off course this bird was, it is normally found breeding from the extreme east of Europe to Western Siberia and north-west Mongolia. Add to that the wintering range extends from the Middle East to eastern Burma. So, at the end of December it was around 5000 miles north-west of where it should be! Now surely that deserves some sort of accolade?  

Ross’s Gull – Plymouth – 14th of March 2020

Now I must confess I first went up to Plymouth after work on the 13th of March and did briefly see it for all of 5 seconds before it sailed off upriver and was sadly not relocated again that evening. The view was almost to poor to count it and I left a little narked and frustrated! The hour drive home gave me plenty of time to mull it over and concoct a plan for the following morning.

Shortly after dawn at around 8 am I was stood in the same spot hoping and praying the little beauty hadn’t departed over night and that I was going to get a better view of it that morning. I waited patiently with no sign but was happy admiring the local Great Northern Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers from my vantage point. After an hour I was starting to get that sinking feeling in my stomach that I wasn’t in luck. I thought it best to check the internet and see if any local news had come out. Sure enough about 15 minutes earlier a tweet had gone out and it was showing well about 1.5 miles further up river! Now Plymouth is just like any other city between 8 and 9 am and there was traffic everywhere. It took me the best part of 20 minutes to navigate and battle through the local bustle. I am thankful though that it waited for me and on arrival to the recommended car park I could see it from the far river bank through the scope. What a relief!

As luck would have it local birding stalwart Darrell Clegg arrived on site and talked me through some of the mouth-watering avian history of the site and more importantly showed me how to get a bit closer to the bird in question so that I could try and get some sort of record shot or video. So what did I learn from it? Well just as my field guides suggested it was similar in size and plumage characteristics to that of a Little Gull albeit had a delightful “dove” shaped and rather large head. It was also slightly larger, which was quite notable when comparing it to the nearby Black-headed Gulls. It certainly didn’t appear so diminutive as I have recalled Little Gulls in the past. I also noted that it appeared to have an extensive primary projection and I could also quite easily see the diagnostic wedge or diamond-shaped tail. This particular bird was an adult and it was starting to show a faint pink flush to the breast but was lacking the neat black neck ring that it will get a little closer to the breeding season.

The following day I also did a little research on its normal distribution to refresh my knowledge on such a wonderful creature.  Interestingly Ross's Gull breeds in the high Arctic of northernmost North America, and northeast Siberia. It has a short autumnal migration and most of the population are found wintering at the edge of the pack ice in the northern Bering Sea and in the Sea of Okhotsk. So another species around 5000 miles away from its normal wintering grounds! With around 104 UK records in the last 120 years this species is another rather rare bird that was a delight to see.

Laughing Gull - Cheddar Reservoir - 14th of March 2020

Feeling incredibly lucky having just had superb views of the Ross's Gull I felt it best to maximise my profitability whilst luck was on my side! So I decided to drive two hours north and head for Cheddar Reservoir and try for the Laughing Gull that had been coming into roost every evening for the past week.

I arrived a number of hours before prime time so made the most of the afternoon by enjoying the picturesque spot and take a look at the local bird life. It was a wonderful place and I can see why it has such a good core of local birders. After an all to brief siesta and as the day started to wane it was time to put my serious cap on and get into place. I was one of the first to the area and in all honesty I wasn't expecting many more twitchers as it had been around awhile, but as the minutes ticked by and the local gull population started flying in so more and more people arrived. Before long over 100 people were in place and scopes to the ready! It was pleasant talking with some others that had travelled to the Reservoir with the same goal in mind as myself and I was chuffed that I picked up on the drake Ring-necked Duck that was also present. A bird that a nearby group had hoped to catch up with all afternoon but alas it had eluded them!  It was also pleasing to meet some of the Falmouth Uni students on site and had a good yarn and catch up with Toby Flood, Liam Langley, Matt Doyle and Matthew Broadbent. They are a smashing group of lads and my bet is that they will become prominent figures in the birding and ornithological world in the not to distant future! They were also hoping for a double victory day having been for a nearby Kentish Plover earlier that day.

After some heavy scanning of the gulls that were coming and going eventually several of us noticed a sooty looking gull bobbing in and out of view. That had to be it surely? A moment or two later it slipped out from behind a Common Gull and Liam exclaimed "there it is"! Hooray, now that was well worth the effort and drive.

So what useful observations and subconscious impressions did I take away with me? Well firstly it was very distinctive and much darker than I was expecting it to be! My first thought was that it looked superficially like a long-winged mellanistic Common Gull. However, on closer inspection several key differences could be observed. The general wing plumage appeared uniform and dark chocolate brown in colouration. This contrasted nicely with the head, neck and flanks which were extensively smudged with an ashy grey. The bill was very dark/black and the diagnostic slightly dropping shape could easily been seen even at range. As the bird flew I also noted that the belly appeared pale and clean which contrasted starkly with the flanks and upperparts of the bird. It also had a clean white rump which contrasted with the mostly dark tail shown on a first winter bird.

My research following the twitch councluded that in the past 120 years there have been around 260 records of this gull in the UK. However, this figure is slightly skewed due to Hurricane Wilma which led to a dramatic invasion of Laughing Gulls in early November 2005, possibly as many as 70 individuals arrived! So, whilst a little more frequent than the previous species I had recently seen, it is still bordering the "mega" end of the rarity scale! I also brushed up on the Laughing Gull's home range and found out that they normally spend their winters from North Carolina and along the west coast of Baja California; along the Pacific Coast from Colima, Mexico, south to northern Peru! Making the Cheddar bird some 3500 miles west of its intended winter haunt. 

I do keep lists of bird species I have seen but only two are important to me and they might surprise you! The all important one to me is my Cornish list. I don't think there is is anything quite like seeing a new bird in your home county. Although I know that I am extremely lucky living where I do, as its avian history and rarity potential is some of the most desirable in the UK! I also love my Western Palearctic listing which is in its infancy but Ross's Gull was my 500th species. So I feel it is off to a good start and I have some superb trips planned for the next few years so lets hope it continues to grow. Is there a point to all of this? Well, for me at least I love the novelty value and thrill I get from "going" for new birds. But the learning opportunity and experience I gain is by far the most important aspect for me! Lets hope for some more educational conquests really soon. I hope I get to see and meet some of you there.   

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Acro's & Locustella's: Warbler Sound Quiz Answers

The answers for last weeks sound quiz , if you missed the quiz just scroll further down the blog. Also a big thankyou to John Miller, Paul Ash and Gary Thoburn for supplying the stunning photographs. 

  1. Sedge Warbler: A very excitable songster that sings erratically with lots of ‘fast mimicry’ – it can impersonate many species but these calls are always delivered quickly and in amongst their usual buzzy repertoire. Easily found in the right habitats in Cornwall; particularly reed beds, lake margins and wet meadows and it can even nest in mature hedgerows. Sedge Warbler is also a regular spring migrant and can be found singing along the coast, especially in sheltered valleys.
  2. Reed Warbler: Delivers a fast-monotonous song that sounds superficially similar to Sedge Warbler but it has more rhythm and tends to repeat notes before moving onto a new noise without a break in the song.  Not as widespread in Cornwall as Sedge Warbler owing to the fact it tends to be restricted to Phragmites Reed when breeding. However, if you visit the right habitat anytime from now onwards you will stand a good chance of hearing one singing. As a migrant Reed Warbler will sing from less typical habitat particularly in coastal areas up until early June when the last returning birds arrive.
  3. Blyth’s Reed Warbler: This Acro has an interesting song quite unlike that of Reed Warbler being more similar to Marsh Warbler to my ear. The song is given at a steady pace but it has a ‘stop, start’ feel to It with several notes uttered in succession followed by brief pauses. They can mimic species well and produce a whole variety of rattles and tunes but to my ear at least the song seems to have a rather mournful quality at times with down slurring whistles repeated throughout the song in most instances. Blyth’s Reed Warbler is expanding its range into Western Europe and I expect more singing males to be found in spring across the UK in the next decade. In Cornwall the only records come from the ringing mecca of Nanjizal Valley (where they have been annual during Autumn in the last few years with one late spring record) so I believe they pass through other parts of West Cornwall undetected due to their skulking nature. Birders should be mindful of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in late spring (they are a late migrant which tend to arrive on their breeding grounds from mid to late May onwards) in meadows and coastal valleys with good cover. They are not really a reed bed species and tend to favour lakesides and swampy habitat in which to breed. 
  4. Marsh Warbler: Marsh Warbler is of course well known for being an outstanding mimic of other species. In fact I don’t think any other warbler can imitate as many different species. I’ve read many times that ‘if you hear several different birds singing from one bush then it is probably a Marsh Warbler’. I do think that’s a little bit misleading as so many warbler species mimic other species well. But the sheer variety of different calls within the song, as well as the fast pace and ‘squeeky toy’ sounds make it a distinctive song. In the UK Marsh Warbler is a rare breeding bird with a declining population and it is also a very scarce migrant. In Cornwall it is a rare migrant but does turn up in late spring from time to time. A passage bird is just as likely to sing from a mature hedgerow or the edge of a wetland than from a reedbed margin. It’s worth knowing too that Marsh Warbler is a late spring migrant with early June being a particularly productive time for one to occur.
  5. Song Thrush: A trick question! But an important species to learn and be confident with in regards to its song when ruling out other species. A loud singer which pretty much always repeats the same note three or four times, followed by a brief pause (almost as if it’s taking a breath) before singing another three notes. Song Thrush will mimic most species remarkably well as well as mechanical noises which it may have heard in the past. They will occur in most habitats and I have heard them singing from reedbeds and scrubland alongside Acro warblers. They will also sing very early in the morning before sunrise and commonly sing after sunset in spring. 
  6. Nightingale: Another trick question! The Nightingale has perhaps the most famous song bird of them all. Its magical song is full of scratches, whistles, trills and mimicry. It could well be found in similar habitat to all of the species in this quiz (although in Cornwall it is a county rarity and far from annual in appearance) and a singing bird on migration could cause confusion. Listen out for it’s typical notes as the male starts the song it builds up in speed and then often finishes with a very fast rich rattle (listen here). Similar in style to a Song Thrush it then often pauses for a split second (which can feel longer) only to begin again. Nightingale can’t really be looked for in Cornwall but it certainly can be hoped for over the years for any diligent patch birder or during spring migration. I have found three singing males and they have always been a complete surprise.
  7. Great Reed Warbler: This species sounds ‘big and clumsy’ a bit like how it looks! The song is rather loud and lower pitched than other Acro’s helping it to stand out in the reed-bed. It starts at a slow pace and often stops again after a couple of seconds; the repertoire of notes never sounds so extensive to my ear with the main phrases sounding rather croaky in tone.  A rare vagrant from the Continent however a singing male in Spring is the most likely way of getting this rarity on your self-found list. Best hoped for in reed-bed habitats such as Marazion Marsh perhaps, however they do occur on migration (abroad at least) in very small ditches and scrub patches so perhaps it should be on birders radars elsewhere.
  8. Grasshopper Warbler: This may well be the only Locustella you ever hear singing in Britain as the other two examples in the quiz consist of a rare migrant and a rare vagrant. However, Grasshopper Warbler will often sing from a reed-beds (like Savi’s) and can favour swampy ground similar to the habitat a singing River Warbler could turn up in (if only!) so knowing it intimately is important. The main things I notice is that it is slightly less ‘clear’ sounding compared to Savi’s Warbler and the diagnostic part for me is that the song changes in pitch regularly, Savi’s and River Warbler sound more monotonous from my experience. This species is sadly declining but it can be found in Cornwall on un-spoilt moorland, meadows and crop fields. It sings more frequently early in the morning and again late into the evening.
  9. River Warbler: The song of the River Warbler is typical for a Locustella warbler; a continuous buzzing drone which is shared by all species of this family group. However, its song has a very subtle disyllabic quality (I liken it to a water pump or a cricket) and the tone of the song is constant and never changes its pitch (such as Grasshopper Warbler will.) River Warbler is a rare vagrant to the UK in spring with very few records but it could well turn up in Cornwall. It favours swamp like habitat and acidic bogs in its home range so perhaps one day it’ll be a dream find for somebody in the Lizard area, Goss Moor or Bodmin Moor.  
  10. Savi’s Warbler: The whirring song of the Savi’s Warbler has a rather mechanical quality to its song, which is monotonous and ‘dry’ sounding. The pitch doesn’t change throughout and it always sounds rather clear in quality. Savi’s Warbler is a rare spring migrant to the UK with small numbers arriving from April on wards in most years. In Cornwall it is a county rarity and I believe the last record was ten years ago at Marazion Marsh.