Friday, 27 June 2014

Listen to the Sedgies

For a long time I've wanted to post about this, and now with a little time, I hope I can enthuse you all to really listen to songs and decipher what's really going on...


Sedge Warbler - Acrocephalus schoenobaenus

Sedge warbler are a pretty common bird in Northern Europe, often heard and seldom seen well these beautiful sub-Saharan migrants certainly have a song which packs a punch, but what makes their songs so interesting?

Whilst working at Kvismaren bird observatory in Sweden, I paid great attention to the sounds of all birds around me, I'm a firm believer that time in the field and first hand experience of sights and songs is the only real way to learn something, tapes and books can only get you so far, field craft and patience fill the gaps. Back to it then, often hearing more sounds than I could identify I put a great deal of time into splitting songs up, listening to different intros, tones, flow of songs the speed etc. I found this satisfying and was able to learn a great deal. One particular part of our work in the Spring was to paddle down the Kvismare canal recording all singing Acrocephalus and Locustella warblers, typically on the reserve you can record Reed, Great Reed, Sedge, Marsh, Grasshopper, Savi's and River Warbler. Paddling along the canal on these surveys I came to notice something that I have read about with Sedge warblers; they are very good at imitation. Not only this, but I realised that as we passed through differing habitats alongside the canal, the repertoires changed. As we passed through dense reed-bed, the sedgies sang their disjointed cacophony of reed dwelling species, bearded tit, reed warbler, chiffchaff, even coot were imitated by the sedgies, all mixed in to make an almost flowing song. As we approached the marshes the sedgies would imitate greenshank, spotted redshank, spotted crake and wagtails. As we passed the bridge where swallows nested this theme continued, and the sedge warblers often incorporated swallow calls and even song into their own song. It became apparent that these birds were listening to those around them and gaining knowledge of their songs.

A term often used by sound recordists is platification of song, this refers to the learning period in a birds life when the bird is still perfecting it's song, often practice singing half heartedly to master the difficult notes or clean up the song. This plastification period is normally undertaken up until the first breeding season. The males hoping to sing a great song and show their prowess in a competitive environment when males sing full, loud songs to show their strength and condition, often the best delivered song winning the females and gaining the chance to breed.

With sedgies then, the plastification period may be longer than your average bird, learning to imitate birds wherever they come into contact with them and learning the calls well. This in theory increases repertoires and becomes a fuller (more impressive song). I have come to write this blog after listening to a sedgie on my local patch. Marton mere in Blackpool is your average reed bed nature reserve, certainly nothing super special, no breeding bitterns or locked gates, no wardens overseeing a strict management plan, no buffer zones or properly restricted access, just your regular slightly out of town reserve. Whilst listening to this sedgie half-heartedly I began to hear some strange calls. Whimbrel and Spotted crake were heard as clear as day. Those seven whistles had me scanning the skies and the dripping tap had me thinking the early morning had got to me, then I realised, sedgie!

Although disappointed at the lack of scarcity for the patch, this provided more questions than answers, where had this sedgie learnt these calls and why was it bringing them up into song now if those species imitated are nowhere to be seen (or heard). It makes me wonder two things, firstly has this sedgie heard these birds elsewhere on migration and remembered them (to add them into a song later in life) - Increased repertoire = increased breeding success? or has this sedgie heard these birds hear, on the mere and decided to imitate them off the top of his head? either way it seems beneficial for him to sing others songs, otherwise, why would he bother?

Does this mean then that if you hear sedgies singing other species' songs that they have been in direct contact with that species, the answer is probably. I've not heard of any studies on heritability of song within sedge warblers and I can only imagine that due to their prolonged plastification period (if in fact it ever ends) they only inherit their typical chundering  song as an innate trait and then build their own song through experience and learning off their neighbours.

I wanted to include a whole host of sedge warbler songs that I had recorded myself into this post, but unfortunately I only have one http://www.xeno-canto.org/178218 (you'll need headphones for it I suspect). In this recording you should be able to decipher at least 3 distinct imitations; Yellow wag, Whitethroat and Swallow - interestingly all these species were present in the immediate area of where this recording was taken in Nottinghamshire.

So, my advice, rather than spend hours inside this summer moaning about how little can be seen at this time of year (unless you're cleaning up on passage waders or raptors), go out and listen to your local sedgies, try to pick apart their songs and see if there is anything interesting within the repertoires.

Personally I've heard sedgies imitate over 20 species. From Grey Heron, through Greenshanks and Bearded Tit to Spotted crake and Thrush Nightingale. They truly are immense at imitation and the more recordings gained from them, the more we will learn. Just leave your mobile voice recording and wander off, you may be surprised at the results.

Thanks for sticking with this, if you got this far. As always, apologies for the lack of postings.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Langford Spoonbill

On Sunday 4th May, me and Rob decided we'd have a proper look around RSPB's newest reserve - Langford Lowfields; Rob has been volunteering at the site through the autumn and spring and I must say I do envy him, it's quite a site.

Lying just north of Newark-on-Trent and a little outside the village of Langford, the new rspb site is made up of a mosaic of habitats. Woodland, farmland, mature hedgerows, wet ditches, reed bed, open water, wet and dry grassland, scrub-land all this dissected by the picturesque Trent running alongside the reserve. Originally working gravel pits, major restoration work has gone on over the past 25 years and finally the end is in sight. The official opening for Langford is coming up, but public access is already available and I urge people to take a look at it. In just a few hours on Sunday morning we recorded 70 Species of bird. We also enjoyed fantastic views of Foxes and Hares.

Highlights of the morning were Common Tern, Cuckoo, Whimbrel, Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Kingfisher, Grasshopper Warbler, Garden Warbler and a surprise in the form of a Spoonbill that dropped in briefly onto phase one pit in front of the beach hut. The bird was in view for less than 5 minutes 06:35-06:40 before being flushed by a resident Coot. The bird flew onto another nearby pool before the resident mutes scared it once more. The Spoonbill was lost to view at around 06:45, though seemed to remain on site within a heavily reeded area.

With relatively poor light and the a flighty Spoonbill to deal with myself and Rob reeled off some record shots, Rob using a handheld camera and me phone-scoping without any adapters. The results surprisingly good and we are therefore able to age the bird properly.

Below are a couple of shots from myself and Rob of the Langford bird, followed by a brief look at aging second and third calendar year birds against adults. 

2nd Calendar year Spoonbill - Platalea leucorodia. Photo: Rob Werran.
 
2nd Calendar year Spoonbill - Platalea leucorodia. Photo: Craig Brookes.

The below pictures were nabbed off the interweb and used here after I annotated them.

A look at second calendar years then. The pictures below show defining factors in which the age of these birds can be clinched. The first shot shows clearly the dark edging on the outer webs of all primary feathers with particularly noticeable dark wedges to P7, extending more on P8 and further to an almost entirely dark P9. Notice here that the birds outer primary coverts are also fringed dark, these markings are juvenile and will be lost in the birds second summer, therefore absent on third calendar years. Dark markings can also be seen tipping all of the secondary flight feathers here. In second cal's, head plumes are absent in most instances, though early brooded birds may show some signs of growth, a little tuft reminiscent of adults in winter may appear; though combining the head plumes with wing patterns, aging should be doable.
2nd calendar year bird in Spring.
 The yellow breast band of adults is absent in second calendar years'. This is moulted through in the second summer and continues developing during the third calendar year moult also; where the birds begin to develop their full breeding plumage. The tri-coloured throat patch is also absent in second years', becoming more conspicuous in the third calendar year as birds reach sexual maturity. Second year birds show little or no breast band and normally have a mucky appearance to the neck, the lores and head are clean white. The picture below shows the extent of dark on the under-wing, this can clearly be picked out in flight given good views.
2nd Calendar year bird in Spring.
Spoonbill second summer moult is rather variable, though some factors seem more or less consistent. This is the moult where all remaining juvenile features should be lost and the elaborate breeding plumage begins to appear. The most noticeable change here is the loss of conspicuous dark wedges on the outer wing (through P7-P9). Dark tips do remain though they can be very hard to detect. The breast band begins to appear in the autumn (after moult) for a second calendar year and so is a good indicator of age. The tri-coloured throat patch may also be evident here, though this varies betweens individuals. Secondaries at this stage (on the majority of birds) have lost their dark tips, giving an almost adult appearance. Head plumes should be evident, though not extensive as in breeding adults.

3rd Calendar year Spoonbill in Spring.
 The transition is completed in the third calendar year during the autumn moult, dark tips to all flight feathers are lost, elaborate head plumes are acquired, a stunning creamy-yellow breast band appear and the throat patch gains magnificent colour. The bill's bi-colour appearance is finalised as clear yellow running straight into black. The eye at this stage is also blood red. See below.

Adult Spoonbill in spring.

Adult Spoonbill in spring.

 To briefly conclude, the Spoonbill which flew through Langford on Sunday was a second calendar year bird. An extensive search of the site throughout the morning showed no sign of the Spoonbill and with a bird flying through Long Eaton at 8am or just after, it seems likely that this was our bird. It would be great to hear from the Long Eaton finders as to whether the age of their bird was noted. There was one further sighting of the Spoonbill at Langford on Sunday, in the afternoon, by one observer, I believe. A little odd given the amount of coverage at the site throughout the day. I must also give thanks to the unwitting photographers whose pictures have been grabbed off google and a source couldn't be found. Also, thanks to Rob Werran for his flight shot of the Langford bird, without this pic none of this would be possible.


Friday, 2 May 2014

Hotting up.

First year at Uni is quickly coming to an end. It's been quite a few months. Meeting some lifelong friends along the way, this academic year has been an amazing journey. Learning so much and gathering invaluable skill sets throughout.

Coming to Uni was a big thing for me, I've seen Shaun (my older brother) through a degree and also a lot of friends back home and abroad have also studied. Coming out of the other end, everybody just seems that little bit more worldly. Things don't surprise then, they've seen it or they understand it. They may not have all enjoyed Uni, but it certainly molded them into different people. Me on the other hand, I'm here to enjoy it and take everything that I can from it. Jumping at opportunities and putting time and effort in around these parts seems to be paying off.

Me, Rob Werran and Nick Shimwell have been attempting to find as many species of flora and fauna on our campus as possible. We're motivated by the 1000 species in 1km challenge. We know we won't get anywhere near this, not only due to lack of time spent on campus, but also lack of knowledge when it comes to the creepy crawlies and plants. We're trying though, using various methods.

We've joined hedgehog trackers, torched and seen bottle trapping of newts, sweep netted for inverts, traced foxes, we're operating a moth trap when possible and we're always looking and listening for birds. The latest count of species is around 225 for the year, many of which are lifers for all of us. We've recorded 83 Species of bird. Highlights including Goosander, Red Kite, Raven, Golden Plover, Glossy Ibis and Kingfisher.

Below are some of the moth highlights thus far.

Purple Thorn 1st generation, Brackenhurst campus 2014. Craig Brookes

Chocolate Tip, Brackenhurst Campus 2014. Craig Brookes

Muslin moth, Brackenhurst campus 2014. Craig Brookes

Pale Tussock, Brackenhurst campus 2014. Craig Brookes

Swallow Prominent, Brackenhurst campus 2014. Craig Brookes


Aside from the Brackenhurst 1000 in a 1km, birding has been decent elsewhere too. A visit home in early April produced Osprey on the Mere along with the Arctic Skuas past Rossall, Sherwood forest has been nice with Crossbills and Siskins everywhere. Grizedale was nice too with Raven, Crossbills, Marsh Tit and Willow warbs en masse.

This last weekend things were pretty good. With a blocking pressure to the south lifting migration seemed to flow a little better. Little gulls and waders were picked up elsewhere in Notts in the morning and after a brief shower around midday my mind was made up, it was time to go birding.

Hoveringham railway pits was the first port of call. Me and Rob left Nick revising and arrived at the pit, leaving the car I could hear Whitethroats everywhere, maybe a small fall was happening. We ambled along the pit scanning and counting the ducks as always. Yellow Wags called from the nearby fields (which reminded me more of Sweden than England, up North they're not that common). Scanning through the Black-head colony hoping for a Med gull or a little gull when I saw a Black tern bobbing in the background. Stunning birds as always and a scarce inland passage bird, it felt like justice after hours of lifeless birding and whacking of bushes. News was put out to local birders and all the patch guys got it, which was nice. We exchanged niceties with the patchers, discussed the sailing pits (where they had been all morning) and decided we'd have a quick look there before beating a hasty retreat to get some reading done, serious students us you know.

Arriving at the sailing pit common terns where displaying and I had a very brief scan to try and pick out an Arctic which had been there moments before, as is often the case with migration, the tern had left. Probably following the Trent, as many birds do. A tiny white tern was fighting the wind out there though, just as Pete (a patcher) was about to leave, I got it in the bins. LITTLE TERN. Not a mega by any stretch of the imagination, go to any breeding colony on a beach and you'll surely have great views, but for a patcher, and I consider Hoveringham my patch down in Notts, they really are a special bird. Below are a few record shots of the Little tern and a Google maps image of Hoveringham pits in relation to the coast (43 miles at it's closest point). 

I can't wait to see what May has in store, other than end of year exams.

Little tern (sterna albifrons), Hovering sailing pit 26th April 2014. Craig Brookes
Little tern (sterna albifrons), Hovering sailing pit 26th April 2014. Craig Brookes


Sunday, 2 March 2014

The future

Growing up and birding a coastal town, Blackpool, meant that my bird watching was able to be very varied as a youngster. I found my feet birding around the Fylde, in local bird groups and often traveled on organised trips out to various locations. Networking naturally came as part of these events and I came to meet some fascinating people in my local area.

I was taken under the wing of my local ringing group in 2007. Seumus and Phil were my newly adopted family, enthralled by bird ringing and migration, my interest manifested. Birding became a really worthwhile part of my life, I began to take notes and I started to feel really confident with my personal reliable records. I started to bird a patch, Marton mere LNR and kept religious notes. My findings were interesting, thought provoking, fluctuations in numbers and species were always noted, even no data collected is good data. I was introduced to Birdtrack and thoroughly enjoyed recording the daily comings and goings in my garden, patch or wherever.

By 2010 I was a fully licensed C permit holder for the BTO allowing me to live capture, mark and release birds in the UK, by 2011 I had landed myself a job in Sweden heading up survey work and leading an international team of bird ringers at a site called Kvismaren F├ągelstation. I also travelled and worked in Falsterbo during the autumn of 2011 and finally ran ringing studies down in Southeast Denmark at Gedser Fuglestation. In 2012 I repeated the process and in 2013 I worked only at Gedser and only for 6 weeks (early autumn). My time out in Scandinavia was incredible, I was lucky enough to meet and work with some great people. I learnt so much about migration, behaviour, pressures on birds etc. My passion for birds has grown into an insatiable thirst for knowledge, everything we see can pose questions, results from bird ringing recoveries for example, answer one question, leave many others unanswered.

My passion for data collection is astonishing, clean data sets encourage me to gather more and more info, 'citizen science' seems the buzz word nowadays and I not only love to contribute to my own notes but data can also be important on a national or international scale, so join in, submit your sightings, enthrall and enjoy yourselves.

The reason for this post is not only to promote the ease of citizen science websites such as Birdtrack, but to inform that my blog will be changing slightly as I look to answer more questions or ask more questions regarding bird behaviour, migration, breeding stategies. I will also look into the fact that migration never stops, it only slows.

I would like to thank all the people that have played a huge role in making me into the birder and data cruncher that I am now, particularly the following few.

Seumus Eaves, Phil Slade, Ian Gardner, Kane Brides, Steve Christmas, Bo Nielsen, Magnus Persson, Martin Carlsson, Jan Sondell and last but not least Louis Hansen.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

A summary of 2013

Last year saw some big changes in my life, new projects, ambitions, friends, birds, jobs etc. After working away for 2 whole summers in 2011/12, I decided this year I would work the majority of the summer in Blackpool, start a trial CES at my local nature Marton Mere and just enjoy the British summer. The CES went quite well with nothing unexpected other than a Cannabis farm to show for the long hours of bush whacking. Fewer birds than expected were caught due to poor weather presumably not aiding the breeding season whatsoever.

Below is a table of what the CES sessions yielded.
 
Species
April
May
June
July
Total
Great Spotted Woodpecker
0
0
1
1
2
Wren
0
4
1
2
7
Dunnock
0
4
2
1
7
Robin
0
0
1
1
2
Blackbird
1
4
3
0
8
Cetti's Warbler
1
1
0
0
2
Sedge Warbler
0
12
5
3
20
Reed Warbler
0
11
10
6
27
Lesser Whitethroat
0
2
0
0
2
Whitethroat
0
1
1
0
2
Blackcap
0
5
3
0
8
Chiffchaff
3
3
1
1
8
Long-tailed Tit
0
5
0
3
8
Blue Tit
0
1
0
1
2
Great Tit
0
1
0
0
1
Chaffinch
0
0
0
1
1
Greenfinch
0
6
0
0
6
Reed Bunting
3
1
0
0
4


 Worryingly small numbers of common birds were caught during the season and maybe that can be placed down to the net placings or a bad breeding season? Or is the site struggling under lack of management and over disturbance? At this stage we can only guess, but future observations will certainly help in pulling together a better picture of the sites diversity and I am looking forwards to carry on working the site.

Fylde Ringing group efforts for the year were great considering the amount of hindrance from the weather and wind. The group ringed 3245 individuals of 62 Species. Noteworthy amongst them were Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) (Ian chasing one into a wetland I believe.) 761 Swallow (Hirundo rustica) (Mainly taken at roost, though with increased man power we believe this number could have improved.) 100 Sedgies (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), 108 Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), 132 Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) *. 56 Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) due to a huge effort by Phil Slade at the farm during a bumper Autumn/winter for the Northern finches. 79 Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) and 33 Siskin (Carduelis spinus)were also captured during the year but the undoubted species of the year comes in the form of a Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla). The Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) project was carried on and colour-rings began to be re-sighted, thus far they seem to be all from the Fylde coast during the winter, but I expect some Inuit post box somewhere is full of sightings waiting to be delivered.

The autumn after Gedser was a no go for me as I started Nottingham Trent University in October (Studying Wildlife Conservation Bsc) and my thoughts mainly involved beer and accruing debt. 5 Months on and I am loving it, the course is increasing in pace and beginning to flow really nicely. With the spring and exam period just around the corner it's time to bird really hard and revise just enough, my parents might argue the toss, but hey-ho.

2013 was good to me on a whole. 2014 is shaping up to be a decent year too, all that needs to happen now is for a Summer job to fall into place. In the mean time, I'll keep me fingers crossed and me bins on.

 * 132 Willow warblers is a fantastic total given the lack of breeding evident in the Northwest. Fleetwood Bird Obs recorded a great spring passage during April.

My bird of the year, caught at Gedser fuglestation in September 2013, during a mega migration week which I was able to share with great friends and birders. Louis and Gert. The below, Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva).
Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva) - Adult Female. Photo: Craig Brookes
 Thanks for reading, I'll hope to update my blog fortnightly if not more often, please check back.