Monday, 25 April 2016

My time on the Young Birders’ Scotland Training Course, by Samuel Hood

At the start of July last year, myself and five other young birders (aged between 16 and 24), set off from the small Fife harbour town of Anstruther, heading for a rock barely visible on the horizon. The ‘rock’ in question was the Isle of May and we were off to take part in the Young Birders’ Training Course!

The 2015 Young Birders’ Training Course participants and SOC / IoMBO leaders
The 2015 Young Birders’ Training Course
participants and SOC / IoMBO leaders
It was around this time last year when I found myself filling out the application form for the opportunity, hoping that I might secure a place on the week-long funded training course which is run by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) and the Isle of May Bird Observatory (IoMBO) on the May. I was delighted to receive an email back not long after, letting me know I’d been successful in my application! I’d never visited the May, but had read about the island and its remarkable record of producing very good birds, as well as its fascinating history. Combined with the thought of a seabird colony during the height of summer, and the experience proved a very exciting prospect!

The first chance all the course participants got to meet each other was at the harbour on the morning of departure. None of us knew each other at that point; however with talk soon turning to birding and wildlife, it was clear we’d all get on well! Ourselves and our leaders from IoMBO and SOC, set off for the island soon after, filled with anticipation about the week ahead.

On approaching the May, the cacophony of sound, as with any seabird colony, was the first real taste of things to come. Passing beneath the westerly cliffs of the island, we had fantastic views of Razorbill, Guillemot and Kittiwake, the birds leaving and returning to the sheer face of the white, guano-covered cliffs. 
The Low Light by Samuel Hood
The Low Light by Samuel Hood
As the RIB pulled up to the island’s jetty and we disembarked, we were greeted by staff from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), before heading straight to the island’s bird observatory, which was to be our ‘home’ for the week.

The Observatory is housed in the ‘Low Light’ (one of three lighthouses on the island), and is the oldest continuously operating bird observatory, having maintained its official title since its inception (apart from during the war years, between 1939-45, when the Low Light was used as a billet for troops based on the island).
Our setting for the training course was therefore, pretty spectacular!

Over the next seven days we had the opportunity to get involved in a number of the day-to-day duties that managing a nature reserve, such as the Isle of May, entails and a chance to develop our bird survey skills and techniques. We assisted CEH with some of their ongoing project work, which involved for example, Puffin netting and studying specific Puffin burrows, as well as doing a stint observing Kittiwake colonies as part of CEH and SNH’s 24-hour nest watch study of nesting pairs.
Kittiwake with SOC leader Eilidh and course participant, Ptolemy
Kittiwake with SOC leader Eilidh and 
course participant, Ptolemy

Over the course of the week we got the chance to ring a range of different species, including Kittiwake, Artic Tern, Puffin, Great Black-backed Gull and Starling. Others tasks carried out during the course included constructing Tern nest boxes and chick shelters, with the hope of encouraging Roseate Tern back to breed on the island in the future. The team also spent a night trying to catch Storm Petrel, without success unfortunately.

There were many highlights from my time spent on the island: getting the chance to chat to Mike Harris (co-author of the Poyser monograph, The Puffin) about Puffin and hearing about his more recent work with other auk species; driving Heligoland traps and mist netting for Puffin, but the group’s last full day on the May was to result in arguably the birding highlight of the week.

Lesser Black-backed Gull by Samuel Hood
Lesser Black-backed Gull by Samuel Hood
Poor weather conditions in the morning had led to some of us seawatching from the terrace in front of the Low Light. With visibility deteriorating and incoming rain, it was the best seawatching conditions we experienced whilst on the island. Other than a movement of Kittiwake offshore, it was generally ‘quiet’, but a raucous from the Lesser Black-backed Gull colony below alerted us to the presence of something overhead. Lifting from our scopes we found ourselves looking at a single Great Skua, a mere 60 feet from us. We got a fantastic view of the bird and its conspicuous white wing flashes as it cruised over the now very agitated gull colony below. Later that day after returning from a walk around the island, we found ourselves watching a stunning summer plumage Black Guillemot, the bird floating amongst a raft of Guillemot and Razorbill. This was a very welcome addition to the week’s bird list and one that proved to be a ‘lifer’ for several people amongst the group. It was a lovely way to round off our week spent on the May.

SOC and IoMBO’s Young Birders’ Training Course was a fantastic experience for me and one that I would highly recommend. It helped to further cement the direction I want to follow for a career in conservation and as well as providing a range of excellent experiences, spending a week on the May and staying in the Observatory with reminders of its esteemed previous visitors all around, was unsurpassable. Since the course I’ve taken steps towards getting involved in ringing as well signing up to volunteer on Fair Isle this summer and I’ve continued studying Countryside Management at college. I’d encourage anyone who is keen to further their bird skills and knowledge to apply for a place on the course.
To find out more about this funded-training course and to view and download the application form, visit the SOC website at The closing date for completed applications is 5pm on Monday 2 May 2016. You can find out more about the Isle of May Bird Observatory, here

Samuel Hood

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Mad about nests, by Ellis Lucas

I’ve been interested in nesting now for about 3 years (this is my fourth year of looking for nests and my third of sending records to the BTO) and it just gets more exciting the more I learn.
Common Gull nest by Ellis Lucas
Common Gull nest by Ellis Lucas

I really enjoy seeing new birds and will travel a reasonable distance to see something unusual or a rarity. With nesting it is completely different, the excitement I feel whenever I find a new nest is just as exciting, whatever the bird. To have a peek into its world is great. Watching the dedication of a bird sitting through terrible weather to keep the eggs/chicks warm makes me feel so sorry for them and realise what a comfortable life I have.

Common Sandpiper nest by Ellis Lucas
Common Sandpiper nest by Ellis Lucas
There are a number of places I go nesting; from my back garden (not many results unfortunately yet), to local farmland, to the Highlands of Scotland (where I go at Spring Half Term). I always carry the BTO’s Field Guide to Monitoring Nests which gives great info on what to look for and what birds are likely to nest in any given habitat. My favourite record so far and one I found completely by myself was that of a Common Sandpiper. I had noticed a few birds around when walking around a Loch in Scotland and looking through the book provided all the info necessary to understand the bird’s behaviour and know that it was probably on eggs or young somewhere in the area. The book mentioned that they would nest on slopes towards water and sure enough with a little bit of patience, I noticed a Common Sandpiper leave the side of a bank and begin to feign injury – text book nesting behaviour. After a few minutes of searching the area where I had seen the bird, I found my first Common Sandpiper nest! I was delighted.

Oystercatcher nest by Ellis Lucas
Oystercatcher nest by Ellis Lucas
I have now submitted more than a dozen records and hope to add to that later this year. The book also gives tips on how to find the nests and the best methods of locating them (sometimes tapping vegetation and sometimes just sitting and watching). I have found nests using both methods and other times I have just been very lucky and walked past a bird which has flown off while I'm near, allowing me to find the nest. Using the car as a ‘hide’ is a brilliant way of watching birds like Lapwings and Oystercatchers which readily fly off their nests, making them almost impossible to find. Being quiet, still and patient are all necessary when watching birds back to their nests.

One of the best things about nest recording is that it is a hobby which provides good info for the BTO and can be done whenever there is daylight. Even weeks before the nesting season starts, you can check out birds in a particular area and this gives a good indication of a nest attempt. Earlier this year when out for a walk with my dog, I noticed a Moorhen hanging around a really small pond. The pond had some vegetation near the edge and rushes a little deeper. Good spot to nest I thought. This pond was then dredged by the farmer and a lot of the vegetation was removed. This did not look promising but I noticed the Moorhens (2 this time) about a week later still in the area. Earlier this week (Tuesday 13th April), I found my first Moorhen nest of the year with 6 eggs!

Dipper nest by Ellis Lucas
Dipper nest by Ellis Lucas
The nest record cards are easy to fill in and provide the BTO with info on things like, species, how many eggs/young, success or failure, when in the year the nest was found, how long the eggs took to hatch/the chicks to fledge, habitat and where in the UK. The records I complete are then sent to the BTO in Thetford where the info is taken from many nest recorders around the country and this gives a clear picture of where certain birds are nesting and the variety of birds in a certain area.

One thing that I am hoping to do this year with the help of a couple of experienced ringers, is to ring the young from the nests I find. I can’t think of anything more exciting than finding a nest very close to home, recording as much as I can about the species (I always make my own notes as well as what the ringer will submit) and learn of its movements. Imagine a Blackbird nesting in your own garden, ringing the chicks and possibly finding out about their presence in another part of the country or even another country if it is recaught. Just incredible!

So apart from it being an exciting hobby and making sure I get plenty of exercise and fresh air, it is playing a valuable part in gathering information on the nesting birds (migrants and resident) of the UK.

To see how you can get involved in nest recording, check out the BTO Nest Record Scheme webpages where you can also find the NRS Code of Conduct for nest recorders.

Ellis Lucas, @ellisethanfox

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

School trip birding by Luke Nash

For five days in mid-March, I went on a cultural/language-learning trip with my school to Spain, specifically Castilla y Leon in the north of the country. We stayed on a farm roughly half an hour’s drive N of Valladolid, the capital of Castilla y Leon; most days were spent there doing activities. Being allergic to the animals, I managed to do a bit of birding on the side whilst the others were with them. Most birding was done around the farm; fortunately enough, the farm’s estate had extensive patches of Bosque; patches of Mediterranean Oak forest with the odd pine clump too. We also made excursions out to Medina de Rioseco, a town a few kilometres NW of the farm, the canal stretching from there to a town a few kilometres away and to Valladolid itself. 

Bird life in these areas was very diverse. Try as I might, however, I failed to see any bustards which are supposed to frequent the area; frustratingly enough, we drove straight past a known bustard site without any to be seen! Still, I managed to record at least 48 species here & when driving to and from the airport in Madrid. Below are a few highlight species from my trip:

White Stork by Jill Pakenham
White Stork by Jill Pakenham
White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) - As well as 3 on the journey from Madrid to the farm, I saw 4 over an industrial area in Medina de Rioseco; I’d assume there will be a breeding colony there as more of the birds arrive this month. 1 was also seen near the Iglesia de San Pablo in Valladolid

Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) - I was surprised not to have seen more of these raptors but eventually I saw one about 50km N of Madrid when we were driving back from the farm to the airport. This bird was being mobbed by two Buzzards Buteo buteo. 

Crested Lark by John Harding
Crested Lark by John Harding
Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) - Actually fairly common around the farm; at least three were seen, located by their flight & call which is distinctly different from Skylark Alauda arvensis (although this species was found as well)

Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala) - At least 2 were in thick shrubbery roughly 6.5km along the canal from Medina de Rioseco. Unfortunately, I did not have my binoculars with me but, upon consulting a field guide later, I concluded that the bird was probably this species owing to matching body shape, flight pattern, colour & size.

Iberian Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus irbii) - 3 birds of the Iberian subspecies were seen to fly into some trees in Valladolid; views obtained were poor but, owing to geographic location, the birds were probably of this subspecies.

Raven (Corvus corax) - 1 was seen on some wires over the farm

Iberian Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) - This split from Great Grey Shrike L. senator was a much unexpected addition to the trip list when one was encountered on the farm. Possibly the best bird of the trip.

Cirl Bunting by Tom Wallis
Cirl Bunting by Tom Wallis
Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor) - Very common; the Iberian equivalent of our Starling.

Serin (Serinus serinus) - 3 were heard calling & flashing their yellow rump in pine trees in the Bosque near the farm.

Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) - 1 was heard singing from wires over the farm along with a Corn Bunting E. calandra, offering a good comparison between the two species.

This list just goes to show that good birding can still be had on school trips even if you don’t visit any ‘birding’ sites. 

I’d be interested to hear of birds you’ve seen on your school trips.

Luke Nash 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Josie Hewitt's North West Australia wader and tern banding expedition

February is not normally the most exciting month to be a birder or ringer - the calls of Siskin are starting to get on your nerves and you're yearning for Spring to hurry up and bring with it all the typical migrants, plus a few bonus species. However, my February this year was rather different and instead of trudging round my local patch, listening to the seeping of Redwings and chakking of Fieldfare, I was dripping with sweat and getting familiar with the shorebirds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway in one of the wader capitals of the worlds: Roebuck Bay, WA.

Roebuck Bay by Josie Hewitt
Yep, WA as in Western Australia! And the reason for me being 13,800km (8,500miles) away from home? Why, the North West Australia Wader & Tern Banding (that's ringing to us Brits) Expedition of course...3 weeks of cannon netting shorebirds, having a laugh with 30 other birdos (birders) and trying not to get sunburnt/heatstroke...sounds awesome right? Well that's because it was!

The 80 Mile Team

For the first part of the expedition we were based at Anna Plains Station, a cattle station located about 250km south of Broome. Here we were making catches on 80 Mile Beach, a Ramsar Site designated because of the high numbers of migratory shorebirds that it supports. On a typical catching day at 80 Mile Beach we were up early (around 4.30am) for breakfast and ready to go for 5.30/6am. The team would then head to the catching site on the beach, about a 30 minute drive from the station, where we would set 2 cannon nets, a hide and some shade to protect the birds and people from the sun during processing. Once everything was set we'd split into two teams of 3 vehicles, one to head North and one to head South.

The two teams would then drive about 2km or so away from the nets in their respective directions, wait for a while until the birds had come off the plains onto the beach and the tide was up to a suitable height (about maybe 30m from the catching areas of the nets) and then the two teams would begin 'twinkling'. This is where the vehicles move along the beach very slowly in order to push the birds up towards the nets to concentrate them and increase the chances of making a successful catch.

Whilst 'twinkling' the vehicles can communicate with each other via radios and can stop if the birds are looking nervous or flighty. There is, however, nothing you can do about birds of prey! The numerous raptors did flush a lot of birds but this didn't bother us too much, and we got some super views of the raptors themselves, as well as the thousands of shorebirds that they flushed! It wasn't just the raptors that made the shorebirds uneasy though, large birds such as the Lesser Frigatebirds and Australian Pelicans had a similar effect!

White-bellied Sea Eagle by Josie Hewitt

Lesser Frigatebird by Josie Hewitt

For the whole expedition we managed to have a 100% success rate, catching birds every time we fired the nets, which is pretty impressive considering all the variables involved! At 80 Mile Beach we were catching in areas with higher densities of birds rather than targeting specific species (like at Roebuck Bay, but I will get onto that in a minute). One of our biggest catches was actually on our very first catching day with 535 birds of 7 species processed. This included 27 re-traps with 3 from China and 1 from Japan which just shows how important ringing and ring re-sighting data is!

Terek Sandpiper by Josie Hewitt

We spent 11 days at Anna Plains with 9 catching days. My favourite species that I saw at 80 Mile Beach were Terek Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Little Curlew because they all undertake long migrations between their breeding and wintering sites and, as with lots of migratory birds, face numerous threats along the way. Seeing an estimated 300,000 Oriental Pratincoles on the beach at once was certainly an experience I'll never forget. Take a look for yourself (every black spec is a Pratincole...yeah, really!):

Oriental Pratincoles by Josie Hewitt

More Oriental Pratincoles by Josie Hewitt

Broad-billed Sandpiper by Josie Hewitt

On the 18th February we said our farewells to the folks at the station and made the journey back north to Broome. Our base for the remainder of the expedition was the lovely Broome Bird Observatory (BBO). We were made to feel very welcome by the Wardens and Assistant Wardens and after sorting all the gear out after our journey from Anna Plains, we had that afternoon and the next day off to go birding, shopping or whatever. The 20th February was the first of 8 catching days at Broome and for this we were setting our nets on the shores of the stunning Roebuck Bay.

At Roebuck Bay the catching was much more a case of quality over quantity compared with 80 Mile Beach and so we targeted some pretty special species, such as Grey Plover, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Far Eastern Curlew! Despite the more targeted catching, we still managed to keep up our 100% catching rate which was brilliant.

Eastern Curlew by Josie Hewitt

Catching at Roebuck Bay was slightly different to 80 Mile Beach because of the tides and the different geography of the area. We were still up early most mornings to get the net and shade set up, but unlike 80 Mile we didn't usually build a hide, nor did we all stay at the site between setting & catching. Instead we'd finish setting by about 8am and would head back to the Observatory for a second breakfast and early lunch. People often went for a quick bit of birding in this time, or just helped out around the place with the cooking & data entry or they just chilled for a bit before heading back out around 10am (though this depended on the tides).

Arriving back at the catching site, we'd sit in the brush waiting for the birds and tide to come in. After about 2 hours it would be near firing time and everyone would start to get ready (have some water, sweets for a sugar rush, etc) and the adrenaline would start to kick in! The countdown would come over the radio from the guys in the hide and once we'd heard the net fire, everyone would sprint down to the net as fast as they could. One or two people were designated box carriers so there was something to put the birds in once they'd been extracted from the net.

The majority of the team then helped to make sure the net and birds were out of danger from the incoming tide, before extraction began. Once the carrying boxes were full ('full' meaning different numbers depending upon which species were in each box) they were carried to the shade and then put into keeping cages which were nice and cool to prevent the birds from getting heat stressed. Once all the birds were extracted from the net and safely in the keeping cages, the cannon net gear was sorted out and moved to a safe spot on the beach.

The team was then split into smaller processing teams and assigned a species to work on. Different measurements were taken for different species. Once all the birds were processed, we packed all the gear back into the vehicles and trailers ready for the next day. Usually, the rest of the day was spent birding at the Broome Sewage Works (we birders go to all the best places eh!), out on the Plains or around the Observatory itself.

Yellow Chat by Josie Hewitt

Crested Pigeon by Josie Hewitt

While we were at BBO we were also able to put up some mist nets around the water baths where the birds come down to drink and bathe. These proved very successful and we caught quite a variety of species, including Brown Honeyeater, Rufous-throated Honeyeater, Double-barred Finch, Rainbow Bee-eater, Peaceful Dove and Little Friarbird. It was great to be able to get experience of banding some of the bush birds in addition to all the waders we were cannon netting!

Rainbow Bee-eater by Josie Hewitt

Bar-shouldered Dove by Josie Hewitt

Greater Sand Plover by Josie Hewitt

All in all it was a super expedition and one that I would highly recommend. If finances and time allow, I fully intend to return next year for more sun, sea and shorebirds!!

Josie Hewitt, @josiethebirder