Saturday, 5 April 2014

The three chicks hatched today
I love being a bird ringer, someone who safely catches birds and puts identification rings on their legs so we can follow them later in life. It gives you the chance to really see birds up close and have an intimate insight into their lives. 

As part of becoming a ringer I have also had the privilege of ringing babies birds in their nests. And in recent years I have got more into this, especially as the British Trust for Ornithology has been promoting us to look out for nests and record the number of eggs and chicks. This is providing a better picture of how well our common (and less common) birds are doing in terms of having eggs and babies. 

The four beautiful eggs a week ago
Over the past week I have been following a nest of dunnock eggs in my garden. I suspected they were nesting and a little searching revealed a nest with four beautiful bright blue eggs. This morning I checked on the nest to find three tiny babies and a single egg. Incredible! I think they have only just hatched and over the next week I will follow their development. 

It is wonderful to see baby birds up so close in the wild. They grow so quickly and I hope to be able to ring them in a week's time. If they get found alive (or dead) we will know how old they are and where they came from. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Seadragon bones found while fossil hunting with school

The two seadragon or Ichthyosaur
bones are top  right in the photo.
I took a Bristol school fossil hunting yesterday. In ten years of doing these trips, I have seen the backbones of seadragons or Ichthyosaurs ( found only twice before (once by a teacher).

Yesterday, I found one while talking to one of the teachers (it was just there by my foot!), and then one of the girls suddenly showed me a fossil - it was another backbone of an Ichthyosaur! These sea-faring reptiles lived around Bristol 200 million years ago and lived in the warm, tropical seas that existed back then.

The backbone found by the pupil
They are rare to find here so something to shout about. Along with these the children found lots of different shelly fossils (oysters, spiky cockle-like shells, curly whirly shells), fossilised poo (coprolites), and tiny teeth from ancient fishes. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Great Northern Diver

When an unusual bird turns up in Bristol, it may have overshot its destination, or been blown over by strong winds. Sometimes, the bird is simply ill, or unable to find suitable food, especially if it turns up in the muddy Severn Estuary!

Recently, a very tame Great Northern Diver was found feeding close to people on a marine lake at Weston Super Mare - aside from providing some amazing opportunities for photos, the bird was also seen feeding on crabs. 

Sadly, after a week or so of being here, it was found dead today by ecologist Phil Quinn - I happened to bump into him outside the Bristol City Museum as I was on my way back to my office. He had the diver with him, and was about to take it into the museum. 

Removing the bird from a black, plastic bag on the path outside Browns restaurant (as you do!), I marvelled at this large, duck-sized bird which had flown down from Iceland or Canada. It was clearly a juvenile, with immaculate plumage, and silvery, shimmery edges to its back, and shoulder feathers. As with all divers, the legs were flattened; ideal for moving through the water with the least resistance. As we looked closer at its huge, thick bill, we noticed the nostril was divided in to two parts, perhaps an adaptation to help with diving. 

While it is sad the bird died, at least it can now contribute further to science - over time it will be mounted and used as part of the local, museum collection at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

For photos of the bird alive, see the avonbirding blog

Monday, 16 April 2012

A thrilling wildlife moment - redstart

I had one of those truly thrilling wildlife moments yesterday - it's very personal and relates to redstarts, a relative of the robin which have just arrived in the UK from West Africa. They are stunning birds and at Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve I had the chance to hold and ring a beautiful male. Some people may opt for a bird of prey or a colourful parrot as their ultimate bird to see up close, but for me, seeing this beauty in the hand was just so exciting!

After missing out on a deluge of migrants dropping in to the reserve on Saturday morning I was determined to be at the ringing site on Sunday morning after leading a dawn chorus cycle ride in Bristol's Avon Gorge. There were less migrants around but from our ringing site we were watching a female and the odd male redstart fly-catching in the nearby scrub. 

Towards the end of the ringing session, around lunchtime, I went to check some nets for the last time and suddenly spotted a male redstart on the grass. It flew away from me and flew straight into the pocket of one of our mist nets! Eureka! I ran over to the net, safely removed the bird and brought it back for ringing. 

And here it is!

I've been wanting to see one up close for years - I used to spot redstarts at Thursley Common in Surrey when I was a teenager and have since seen them in the Forest of Dean and different parts of Wales. 
However, their black mask, white forehead and rusty-red tail have fascinated me - a truly flashy bird. 

What's even more remarkable is that these birds have been wintering in the scrubby woodland in parts of West Africa - countries such as Guinea, Ghana and Ivory Coast. In recent weeks they have been flying across Africa, into Spain, France and in recent days have arrived en masse in the UK. And they've been everywhere, heading to mature oak woodlands, heathland and pasture, particularly in the west of Britain. 

Let's hope he makes it to his woodland territory and gets spotted by another ringer or birder!

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Young Peregrine travels from Avon Gorge to the West Midlands

I've been colour-ringing peregrine chicks since 2007 with the help of fellow BTO ringer Ade George, and volunteer climbers from the British Mountaineering Council. In each year I have been building up the number of nest sites we visit to maximise how many chicks we ring. With bird ringing (or banding) it is a numbers game - the more birds you ring, the more likely someone will spot one of 'your' birds and report it. With colour-ringed birds this likelihood increases hugely - while only perhaps 2% of birds with just metal ID rings may be resighted, up to 98% of birds colour-ringed may be recovered.

BX - one of five chicks ringed in the Avon Gorge in 2010. Photo by Ed Drewitt.
With my peregrine work the results can be a little delayed. In the first first few years a peregrine's life is very nomadic as it travels around getting to know the region and no doubt look for a mate. So it's not until a peregrine begins to settle at a nest site at two or three years old that it may be seen and identified by birders.

Of my peregrines that have been re-sighted so far, most have been quite close to Bath and Bristol, near where we ringed them. For example, one was seen with a female partner 15km south of Bristol from where it was ringed two years later; another is now the breeding male at a nest in Bath where it hatched; and a third individual was re-seen later in the autumn at the site where it was ringed and had fledged earlier that year.

Our furthest travelled bird however goes to the following individual. One of the young peregrines we ringed in the Avon Gorge in 2010 was also filmed for the BBC's Springwatch.
He was given a blue colour-ring with black letters, BT (his sibling BX is in the photo above)

He was spotted and photographed by Michael Colquhoun in the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire back in April 2011. This was exciting news and it was great to know one of the chicks had ventured so far. 

BT in April, 2011 - now is partial adult plumage in the Malvern Hills. Photo by Michael Colquhoun
BT's colour ring clearly visible. Photo by Michael Colquhoun.
However, I then had sad news in October 2011 that a peregrine with one of my colour-rings had been found dead by a dog walker not far from KIdderminster in the West Midlands. After exchanging e-mails with local birder Jason Kernohan who met the dog walker and recovered the dead bird, I discovered it was the same colour-ringed individual, BT. 

He had been dead for four days before being found (as indicated by the development of moaggots). He was taken to a vet by the police for an x-ray to confirm he hadn't been shot. He had been found below power lines and seems likely he had died from some interaction with these. 

BT's colour ring. Photo by Jason Kernohan
BT's metal BTO ring. Photo by Jason Kernohan.

Despite this young bird's death I'm pleased we know his final outcome and where he travelled. It helps build up a bigger picture of what peregrines do when they fledge. It's interesting that we've not heard from the other four chicks that were in that same family. Yet we have heard from this individual twice! Hopefully as the other four (assuming they are all alive) begin breeding they will be spotted and identified by myself or someone else watching them.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A murmuration of Starlings close to home

Here's the sounds of thousands of starlings at roost!

And here's my own running commentary of the same experience close to my home:

There's been a lot of publicity recently on the incredible starling experiences across the UK where millions of these gregarious birds form swirling shapes movements, moving through the sky as a single entity like a squidgy, amoeba changing form and size every second! It leaves those watching it for real or viewers online or watching tv with mouths wide-open, in awe at the sheer complexity, beauty and form. 

Here in Bristol, one of the most well known starling experiences is about an hour away down on the Somerset Levels. Millions on starlings roost in the reedbeds, feeding by day on the farmland across Somerset. Even more mind-boggling is that huge numbers of these birds originate from Russia and eastern Europe which is currently very much colder and frozen compared to the west of England (where it's just wet and mild!).

In the past few weeks thousands of starlings have been performing this incredible display close the second Severn Crossing on the Severn Estuary near Bristol. It's only ten minutes drive from my home and an awesome opportunity to watch such a spectacle so close by. They were swirling round above my head and so close I could even smell their compost-like scent! And once the mass drop down in the bushes, they break their silence and burst out into a cacophony of squeals, whistles and gurgles as they squabble over their roosting space!at

I captured (above) this murmuration of starlings on the Somerset Levels in February 2010.

Colour-ringingd Robins - alas, halted by the British weather again!

The British weather - a phenomenon we always seem to be talking about and something where there is genuinely (arguably!) always something to be chatting about! And this morning is of no exception. Helping a Masters student at the University of Bristol with a project on robins we were all set for catching and ringing a few more this morning - but then at 4.30 this morning the rain was beating against my bedroom window and the wind speed had turned from calm (and clear starry skies) to gale force! Time to cancel and re-arrange - again!

The project itself involves carefully catching the robins in  a mist net, putting special colour rings that denote each individual on their legs plus a metal ring issued by the British Trust for Ornithology. Our red-breasted friends are then measured, aged and weighed before being released.

Dan, whose Masters project this is, is looking at the alarm calls of the robins and how the individuals
interact with each other - hopefully over the next few weeks before Christmas we'll be able to ring a few more to help Dan know who is who.

Below is a photo of one of the colour-ringed robins - I'm especially interested to see whether any of the robins disappear (perhaps as migrants) and who stays around or the spring to breed.