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Monday, March 31, 2008

April flowers

How many species of wild flower are do you think are in bloom on this bank?


Wood anemone

Lesser celandine

Dog violet

Wild strawberry

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


My friends often point out that I am "hard to find" during March. This month, for me, represents the height of the "Rassing Season". So, "what is Rassing", you may ask? "Rassing" is the term I use to describe the undertaking of a 'RAS', and that is a type formal research investigation operated by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and stands for "Retrapping Adults for Survival" (it used to be called "Adult Recapture for Survival Estimation but there were problems with the acronym).

In brief, the idea is to estimate the over-winter survival rate of adults of a chosen bird species. My species is the Marsh Tit, a "red listed" British woodland species that is declining alarmingly. I began the study in 2002 and expect t continue for as long as I am active. The longer the study continues, the greater is the precision of the survival estimate.

Marsh Tit, photo taken by bird-ringing friend Ken Hindmarch

The basis of the research is simple: to estimate the proportion of the adult birds that are alive in the study area during the breeding season (March - August) of one year that are still alive in the following year. This is the "survival rate", the proportion of the population that has survived the winter. In order to track the birds as individuals, they are caught in mist nets or traps and fitted with a metal ring issued by the BTO that carries a unique serial number. In order to recognise birds as individuals without having to recapture them, birds are additionally fitted with a unique combination of colour rings.

With my Marsh Tits, the "season" kicks off before dawn on 1st March when I am on location at my research site at Roudsea Woods and Mosses National Nature Reserve in Cumbria, having camped there overnight.

Dawn of the "Rassing Season" - breakfast under way in the woods

"Big Bertha" - birds may be lured into traps like this by baiting them with black sunflower seed

A Marsh Tit is fitted with a uniquely-numbered metal ring and an individual combination of colour rings

"Long Tom" - Marsh Tits will come to feeders like this to feed on black sunflower seed and their colour rings can be identified through a telescope trained on the feeder

A Marsh Tit visits Long Tom for a feed of black sunflower seed. It carries no rings - it will be targeted for capture! (Photo: Ken Hindmarch)

This Marsh Tit can be seen to carry colour rings "carmine above metal on the right; orange on the left". Without needing to catch this bird again, I know that the serial number on the metal ring is R681743 and it was caught for the first time on 5 November 2006. (Photo: Ken Hindmarch)

At the time of writing (26 March), I have this season accounted for 50 Marsh Tits, of which 31 are recaptures from previous years. This gives a provisional survival rate of about 46%, but this figure will increase as further birds are accounted for as the season advances: the average survival over the last five years is about 60%.

How long do they live?

This is a question I am often asked. So far this year I have recorded six birds that were first ringed in my first active season, in 2003. But since they were adults when ringed (having already survived their first winter) it means they are at least six years old.

However, we can use the survival data to estimate the potential longevity of a Marsh Tit. Imagine we have a population of 100 adults in Year One, we expect 60% (i.e. 60) to survive to Year Two. And then about 36 (60% of 60) to survive to Year Three and likewise 22 to Year Four; 13 to Year Five; 8 to Year Six; 5 to Year Seven, and so on. (But you can add a year to each because they were at least a year old when ringed as an adult).

It is not unreasonable to expect the occasional bird to live for 10 years or more. It is exactly this sort of information about population dynamics that helps us to understand the ecology of the birds. Once we know how to estimate survival rate, we can begin to investigate factors which affect survival, for example, forest management practices. Managing a forest in a way that maximises survival may help to promote the conservation of this attractive species.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Happy Festival of Ostara Everyone!

Image source here
Ostara is the festival of the Vernal Equinox, in the Northern Hemisphere (corresponding to the Autumnal equivalent of Lughnasdh in the South). It is a time for planting and celebrating the first signs of fertility and rebirth.

On this day, wherever you are and whoever you are, we are all united by this celestial phenomenon: we all have equal day and night. During Ostara a prince can command no more sunshine than a pauper; a bishop no more than a heathen; a master no more than a servant.

At this time I shall reflect on what other factors unite, rather than divide, humanity.

Oh, there is also a matter of the flagon of real ale, a turkey, a rice pudding and some chocolate eggs as well...

May you all enjoy a happy and peaceful Equinox, and may the strengthening sun bring fertility to your gardens (and your loins too, if you wish).

Ostara - the Season of Regeneration

Frog's spawn - look, you can see the fertilised ova are already starting to elongate into tadpoles!

Mr Toad has his beady eye set on Mrs Toad...

A newt emerges from hibernation and heads off for a pool to commence his own regeneration

(All amphibian pictures taken at my research site at Roudsea Woods and Mosses National Nature Reserve)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A host of golden daffodils

The woodland floors and beck-sides in Cumbria are now bursting into bloom with carpets of daffodils. Not the big gaudy hybrid daffodils seen in parks and gardens, but the original small wild variety that inspired William Wordsworth to compose his eponymous poem.

These are not any old daffodils. These are wild Cumbrian daffodils blooming at my research site at Roudsea Woods and Mosses National Reserve. They are Wordsworth's daffodils

I wander'd lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:—
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company!
I gazed, and gazed, but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

W. Wordsworth

Monday, March 10, 2008


When I was a small Maalie I was watching on TV some black-and-white World War II archive footage of the D-Day landings in Normandy. My father who, as a merchant seaman, participated in the transport aspects of the landings, was watching with me.

I recall distinctly a shot taken in a landing craft pointing towards the shore, where there were some bomb-damaged buildings. “I saw that!” my father exclaimed! What he saw was a building that had a whole side painted with an advertisement for a French beverage called Byrrh, much like in the photograph below.

Buildings painted with advertisements for Byrrh were common if France after the war

I became fascinated by this beverage and on my very first trip to France (a camping trip with three friends from school) immediately after the A-level exams in July 1962, a high priority was to try it.

So what is Byrrh? It is a French aperitif, not unlike Dubonnet, with an alcoholic strength like port. The base is red wine, but in addition to the range of herbs, it contains quinine (the stuff that gives the taste to tonic water) and has a very characteristic, slightly bitter taste. Because quinine is the active ingredient in malaria prevention, Byrrh was considered to have medicinal properties and was even sold in chemists’ shops. I loved it from the start, and always brought my “duty-free” allowance of it back with me from trips to France. Any girlfriend who went on holiday to France and brought me back a bottle was sure of my undivided attentions for a while, at least.

Back in 1962, there were still many advertisements for Byrrh to be seen in France, including painted walls like the one above. Sadly, in my opinion, it was already declining in popularity. After some 30 years absence from France I was disheartened to find it extremely hard to find, even in Paris, and waiters in restaurants had never heard of it. However, after much detective work, I discovered that the Gourmet section of Les Galeries Lafayette stocked it and I have been back a few times in recent years. I also found a shop in Ghent, Belgium, that stocks it.

You can imagine my delight when walking up to the French/Spanish border high in the Pyrenees during my recent trip to Spain we found a supermarket right up there on the border (no doubt strategically placed for tax purposes) which stocks this rare delicacy. The bottle now takes pride of place in my little bar and is is sampled only on occasions of high ceremony. It is especially good when fortified with a slug of gin.
The prized bottle of Byrrh takes pride of place in my little "bar". Even now a sip of the stuff will transport me back to those heady youthful summer days birdwatching in Provence.