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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Barn Owl Research

Barn Owls have suffered serious declines in the United Kingdom to the point that it has become a specially protected species. They are open grassland hunters and prey mainly on small mammals such as voles, mice and shrews that thrive in rough tussocky grass that is not heavily grazed, mown or sprayed. This habitat is becoming increasingly uncommon.
Barn Owl (Photo linked to RSPB)

In Cumbria, the World Owl Trust, located at Muncaster, is collaborating with DEFRA to study Barn Owls and to promote conservation management such as creating habitat and erecting suitable nest boxes in farms around the countryside. The Trust also provides advice to landowners about how to protect this attractive bird.

In addition to conducting annual monitoring and censuses, the young owlets are ringed using rings issued by the British Trust for Ornithology bearing unique serial numbers and the address of the British Museum. This gives information about the dispersal movements and survival of the fledgeling owls. This week I assisted Sue, the World owl Trust Conservation Officer, in ringing broods of Barn Owl chicks at sites around South Cumbria.

World Owl Trust Conser- vation Officer Sue rings a Barn Owl chick.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Last of the Summer Wine

I find the last few days of August to be wistful, even melancholy. With many summer migrant birds already flown south, grasslands brazen brown, rowan and brambles laden with berries, and the days perceptibly shorter, evidence of approaching cooler times is unescapable.

My last weekend of August commenced with a bird-ringing session in the garden of birdy/ballet/soccer friend Pam near Huntingdon (Thursday 24 August). A catch of 21 birds included a pleasing variety of species including green and gold-finches, robin and wren. Then navigation of the infamous M25 London Orbital saw me to the cottage of son Alun and partner Trudy in the village of Hambledon, Hampshire (the cradle of cricket), in good time for a fish and chip supper.

Friday dawned warm and sunny and with Alun and Trudy both at work I explored the nature reserves of Farlington Marsh and Titchfield Haven where large numbers of migrant birds (including waders such Grey Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Green Sandpiper, as well as Wheatears and Whinchats) were feeding up before their dash to sub-Saharan climes. The evening passed with an excellent meal at the local Vine pub, followed by a nightcap of a dram of whisky at home on the patio.

A Black-headed Gull with the eponymous 'black' head of the breeding season now reduced to a mere smudge behind the eye - the tell-tale sign that summer is almost over

The climax of the weekend occured on Saturday, at the Hambledon village Horticultural Show. This was of local interest because Alun had entered a bottle of elderberry wine in the competition and he and Trudy competed in the photography competition. An anxious couple of hours passed while the judging took place in the marquee followed by delight as Alun's wine was declared the winner in its class and the photographs won second and third prizes. Alun proudly displays his championship elderberry wine
Even I had success, in winning a coconut in the coconut shy when my throw went straight and true. The collective success was celebrated with tea and cakes in the village hall. Dinner was cottage pie on the patio, washed down of course with championship red wine!
Afternoon tea in the village hall

Sunday was also warm and sunny, and called for an 8.5 mile walk from Titchfield to Bursledon, following the course of the Solent Way and the Meon Valley Strawberry Trail. Passing through a variety of habitats, a group of over 25 Little Egrets and other waterbirds was remarkable. The river taxi accross the River Hamble from Warsash to Hamble Village earned us an ice cream to give sustainence for the last leg of the walk to the Jolly Sailor pub at Bursledon where pints were enjoyed on the floating poontoon over the Hamble.
On Bank Holiday Monday we set off for a 6.5 mile walk into the South Downs where fine views out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight were had. The wildlife highlights of the walk were close views of a couple of Clouded Yellow butterflies, scarce migrants at this time if year. Also a close encounter with a hare before it hared off accross the field.

Clouded Yellow, an uncommon summer migrant to Britain

A hare caught napping!

The final event of the weekend on Tuesday evening was a barbecue at sister Jill's house in Cheshire in a clear but cool and breezy evening where jumpers were called for. As the Plough, Pleiades, Cassiopeia and Perseus emerged from the deepening twilight, a toast was drunk to "The Last of the Summer Wine".

Last of the Summer Wine

Farewell to summer. Hail Autumn! Welcome Orion!

I shall catch up with spring in Australia next month!

Friday, August 11, 2006

High Summer

On Monday 7th August friend and colleague Richard joined me for a few days in Maalie Court. The afternoon was spent digging lugworms in the Duddon Sands in preparation for fishing on the 11.00pm tide at Silecroft. With son Alun calling in to stay the night, the three of us set off and arrived at the beach just before dusk.

Richard, Jim and Alun fishing at dusk, Silecroft, Cumbria
With a rod each, two hooks on each end rig and fishing for nearly three hours (that adds up to 18 hook hours) we had not a single bite between us. Nonetheless, seeing the sun set over the Isle of Man was in itself a pleasure.

Alun continued on his way early on Tuesday and Richard and I called on colleague Peter at his home near Windermere for a day's walking in the fells. Parking at Amblside, we set off through the churchyard towards Loughrigg Fell, Loughrigg Tarn, Red Bank and Hunting Stile before descending into Grassmere for a welcome afternoon tea and scone at a mere side café. A short walk into Grassmere found the open-topped bus to take us back to Ambleside.

Jim, Richard and Peter spot a Buzzard circling near Loughrigg Tarn

On Wednesday Richard and I were up at 5.00 am to join ringing trainee Sue for a ringing session on the Duddon Mosses. A productive little session resulted in about 20 birds caught. Then Richard and Jim headed up the coast to have a cooked breakfast in a café at Egremont before joining Sue for morning coffee at the World Owl Trust at Muncaster Castle. Then down to the RSPB Reserve at Hodbarrow for a walk around the lagoon, where Sandwich Terns, Redshank and Sand Martins were gathering in preparation for the southward migration. There was a single Swift, most have already left, I wonder if this will be the last one we'll see this summer? Homeward bound, we stopped for a pub lunch and pint of Real Ale in the Manor Arms pub in Broughton-in-Furness.

Thursday morning was spent on a local spin to Cavendish Dock in Barrow and Rampside looking out to Walney and Piel Island before a final pub lunch in the Red Lion at Dalton, before Richard headed off south for home.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chew Valley Ringing Course

Last weekend (28-30 July 2006) I went to the Chew Valley Lake in Somerset to participate in a bird-ringing course organised and hosted by the Chew Valley Ringing Station (Chairman Robin Prytherch). As a qualified visiting 'trainer' I immediately felt welcome and was assimilated into the local training team. After a hearty lunch in the 'local', the Friday afternoon commenced with introductions on procedures and safety followed by unfurling some mist nets in reedbed/willow scrub habitat. We soon captured a variety of species including Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Blackcap. Birds were carried back to the ringing station in linen bags for processing (ringing, weighing, measuring and assessment of moult).

A busy moment at Chew Valley Ringing Station

As dusk fell nets were set in the reed bed in preparation for a swallow roost. Migrating swallows (and other species) will often use a reedbed for overnight roosting safe from predators. This presents an ideal opportunity to catch them for ringing. With a tape recorder of the swallow calls playing to focus the roost around the net, a good total of 104 swallows were caught, keeping us all up into the small hours while the were processed.

Saturday commenced with an early start where another part of the ringing habitat was utilised, resulting in a variety of species including Garden Warbler, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Treecreeper. This activity continued until after lunch when a band of rain curtailed fieldwork (birds must not be captured in wet nets). Instead we had a slide show and I gave a short tutorial on the processing of ringing data.

Mike processes a female chaffinch

When the rain stopped, ringing recommenced and it was in this session I caughed and ringed a species I had not handled before - a Cetti's Warbler. Unfortunatly rain set in during the evening so an attempt to catch swallows was aborted, but instead an enjoyable evening was spent discussing slides of birds in various stages of moult in conjunction with a few tins of beer.

Sunday dawned bright and breezy and nets were again set in the reed beds. The rain front had evidently encouraged migrating Reed Warblers to rest there overnight as over 50 were caught during the morning, a considerable influx.

After lunch and debriefing, members of the course dispersed having spent a most enjoyable and productive weekend. Thanks to all involved at the Chew Valley Ringing Station. A total of 553 birds of 24 species were ringed, including 104 Swallows, 91 Reed Warblers, 39 Sedge Warblers, 31 Greenfinch and 27 Blackcaps. Additional species of interest included House Martin, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper, Garden Warbler, Bullfinch, Cetti's Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. And additional 120 birds of various species that had been ringed on previous occasions were recaptured.