Cows at Burton Mere

Distant cows, some pink-feet, a young male Hen Harrier, an oversized adult male Hen Harrier, and a very nice Christmas dinner in the Boat House in Parkgate. That pretty much sums up a pleasant afternoon on the Wirral.


Swan Lake

It's been a weekend of swans, with


Swan Lake

on stage at the Liverpool Empire last night...

Alina Cojocaru as Odette/Odile and Alejandro Virelles as Prince Siegfried in English National Ballet's production of Swan Lake. Photo: © Photography by ASH
Alina Cojocaru as Odette/Odile and Alejandro Virelles as Prince Siegfried in English National Ballet's production of Swan Lake. Photo: © Photography by ASH

...and Whooper Swans at Martin Mere WWT today.

There weren't that many swans around, actually, nor too many Pink-footed Geese. Most of my time was spend having a look at some of the birds that were in front of the Swan Link hide: Pintail, Wigeon, Ruff etc. This first-year Ruff, aged by the mix of moulted adult-type (square and grey) and juvenile feathers (dark centred with buff/orangey fringes), gave very close views. I was quite surprised at how limited the post-juvenile moult was.

It's always entertaining to have a wander around the captive collection. This friendly White-headed Duck was pick of today's favourites.

I took a wander around the Birdwatching Fair that was taking place in the visitor centre. I arrived at the ringing demo just in time to see a Long-tailed Tit. Being away from the UK for so long, it's always striking how different some British birds are compared to birds in Scandinavia. This


bird was a nice contrast to the


birds I've been handling over the past month – not just for the obvious reasons but also the fact it was tiny in comparison to nominate birds!

With many thanks to the ringers whose demo I gatecrashed...

And, since Christmas is coming, here's a collection of Snow or almost-Snow Ducks. The last one is my favourite.


We had the perfect weekend away planned: a trip north to Varberg, Halland, with a pelagic trip on the Sunday. We were kindly given a lift to and from Varberg by Simon Fors, which meant that on the way up there we could stop off and take a look at a Hoopoe that was near Halmstad. The bird was extremely confiding and, as it fed up and down along a strip of grass behind a building, it wandered within about 15 cm of people's feet. Perhaps not surprisingly, on its right side it has lost a large all of its tertials, most of its coverts and a good chunk of its scapulars to something; cause or consequence of it spending November in Sweden, I'm not sure. The bird was a first-year and looked to have moulted very little with e.g. all crown feathers and apparently all scapulars and all or most mantle feathers still juvenile.

While we were at the Hoopoe, we received a text message from the pelagic organisers to say the trip had been cancelled due to high waves. We had a room booked in Varberg – in the old prison – so we decided to carry on up there and make the most of things. Perhaps there would be some auks or divers in the harbour, or some seabirds passing by.

The prison was surprisingly warm and comfortable, and the whole walled village it was in was worth exploring in the morning.

We checked Varberg harbour but, other than a Weasel along the breakwater, there was very little else of note.

We wandered along to Getterön nature reserve, were we enjoyed a sit down in the Naturum from where we could see White-tailed Eagles, Whooper Swans, and a couple of Smew.

News broke of a Black Duck near Torekov in northern Skåne, so we headed south with a few hours of light left. When we arrived, we found a reasonably large crowd on the beach.

Unable to locate the duck (or any duck) based on where they were looking and where people were pointing, we asked what was happening. They were watching a Water Pipit. The "crowd" watching the Black Duck was 50 m further on...

All four of them. Mind you, it wasn't surprisingly that no one cared too much about the duck. It was distant, viewed into the sun, and thoroughly unsatisfying. Here's a heavily cropped photo taken through the scope at 60x zoom.

Spot the Black Duck.

It wasn't what we'd been expecting when we left Falsterbo on Saturday afternoon: a Hoopoe, a Black Duck, and not a single Little Auk, skua or diver. At least it was nice to have a break from the peninsula for 24 hours and to see a little bit more of Sweden.


It's remarkable to think that I've now been at Falsterbo for the two biggest autumn seasons ever. This autumn was far from the dizzying heights of 2012 (32,600 birds) but with 24,995 birds ringed in the standardised ringing so far this autumn – the second highest total ever – we've done pretty well.

It's been a record autumn for most of small, “eat-insets-from-in-crevices”, short-distance migrant species. We've recorded the highest autumn totals (in 34 years of standardised ringing), for the following species:

Goldcrest 11,230 (previous record: 10,403 in 2000, followed by 6,214 in 2008)
Robin 4,138 (previous record: 4,052 in 2000)
Chiffchaff 972 (previous highest: 556 in 2010)
Long-tailed Tit 345 (previous record: 330 in 2012)
Eurasian Treecreeper 201 (previous record: 151 in 2005)
Firecrest 18 (previous record: 8 in 2000)

And we managed the second highest autumn total for Wren (1,621), second only to 1,739 in 2000.

There are only a few days left of the seasons so, although the totals are all likely to increase slightly, we're probably not going to add anything significantly more to any of the totals now. Besides which, I'm going to be off the peninsula for most of the weekend. Hope I don't get a nose bleed.

Bird counts are fun

It's Thursday. Time to count some Wigeon and some Mute Swans. Weekly bird counts...

Sometimes, though, they come up trumps. The past two bird counts have given us Gyr Falcon, Red-breasted Goose, White-tailed Eagles, Bewick's Swans, Rough-legged Buzzard, Great Grey Shrike, a flock of Scaup, a Black Redstart, and some Mute Swans and Wigeon.

Most exciting find, from our point of view at least, was when we stopped the car at a random field to [half] jokingly “find a Daurian Jackdaw”. We didn't, but we did find this striking soemmerringii-type Jackdaw. I haven't got much more to say about that bird that Marcel hasn't already said over on his blog.

It's been windy for the last two days, so no ringing; and it looks like it will rain tomorrow. However, ringing at the lighthouse garden has been varied and productive over the past week or two. We've only ringed one Great Grey Shrike so far this year, a first-winter bird.

As the footnote in Svensson's Identification Guide to European Passerines points out, “it is tempting to believe that those birds of ssp. excubitor, homeyeri and others, with completely unbarred pale grey-white underparts and with jet-black lores and WF are ad. males...” Indeed, this bird, being a first-winter but still having jet-black lores, clean white underparts, and an extensively black bill, gives the impression of being what we might consider a male; but as the footnote in Svensson goes on to say, “...if we assume that males have on average longer wings than females, and if the sexing by taxidermists of skinned birds in collections of this species is not erroneous at an exceptionally high level, then barred or unbarred underparts, black or grey lores, etc. vary individually (or to extent by age?), not according to sex.” The same footnotes also points to a reference, Dohmann (1980), which found that males on average have slightly more white in the tail than females but the difference is very slight with extensive overlap. As it happened, this bird had rather limited white in the tail (and in the secondaries). It was, in the end, left unsexed.

The bird had moulted one greater covert, GC9, but on the right wing had also lost and regrown GC4 & 5. They're glossier black than the retained juvenile greater coverts, which are browner with a pale fringe at the tip. The moulted median coverts (all of them) are the same glossy black colour as the moult GCs.

While we're vaguely on the subject of variation in Great Grey Shrike, it's worth pointing out this paper. It's a shame it smells like complete bull, because I quite like the idea of them all just being colour variants. It would make like a whole lot easier. Or a lot more boring.

A Whitethroat on 31st October is always worth taking a close look at... though this one seemed to be disappointingly communis-like.

We've caught a few Redwings. Nice to take a look at variation in wing length and plumage of what are, presumably, all nominate birds.

Finally, as much for aesthetics as for education, the primary coverts of a first-year Jay. It's the only Jay I've handled this year but it didn't hesitate in adding its calling mark to my hand, along with various scabs and wounds from a Magpie, the shrike, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a particularly nasty Flommen reed stem.

The dark bars in the feathers develop much as growth bars do. I don't actually know what that means, I'm just repeating what I've read; although I presume the melanin deposits are turned "on" and "off" as the feather grows. So, when a set of feathers are grown at the same time – as they are in the juvenile bird in the nest – the on/off results in the same pattern forming at the same point along the feathers. I've heard this misquoted numerous times as “the bars line up across the closed wing”. They don't; but you can trace the same pattern up the length of each feather. In this case, starting at the tip, there's a medium black bar, a narrow black bar, a (very) thick one, thin, medium-thick, medium thick, etc, hideously demonstrated using coloured arrows below. The same pattern occurs on all the feathers. In adults, at least some of the PCs generally show irregularities in the barring not shown in the other feathers.


I'll admit, I'm a spoilt little brat. For anyone living in the real world this autumn at Falsterbo would be been pretty amazing by all accounts; but I'm a bit bored...

It's been a funny season: plenty (plenty) of Robins and Goldcrests but with interesting things few and far between. We finished our time in the reedbed with a Bluethroat and good numbers of Penduline Tits (nice to take a look at the variation in moult of the first-year birds).

Two Yellow-browed Warblers were an unexpected bonus in the reeds but for me the relative highlight was a first-year male Reed Bunting with eccentrically moulted primaries.

There's been a spattering of Sibes at the lighthouse, with a Radde's Warbler and two Pallas's Warblers ringed. Other than that, a couple of Ring Ouzels, some Firecrests, and a few Red-breasted Flycatchers have been the only notables. Perhaps part of my apathy stems from the fact that most days I've been sitting in the corner putting rings on Robins, so these interesting birds have largely passed me by or been whisked off to be shown at the front of the lighthouse before we've really had any time to take a proper look at them.

The last few stragglers of each species often end up being the unhealthy individuals. Fault bars form across feathers when there's a period of poor feeding during feather growth. This is often apparent in young birds, since they're dependant on feeding from the parent birds while they're in the nest; and feathers grown simultaneously – as feathers in the nest are – will show a fault bar in the same place. If a fault bar is sufficiently strong, it causes a weak point in the feathers and the feathers can break. That's what had happened to this first-year female Blackcap, where a fault bar across the primaries and secondaries has caused the flight feathers to break half way along their length. The bird was probably fairly healthy before the feathers broke: it had undergone a relatively extensive post-juvenile moult, with all the greater coverts, A1, and two (left wing) or three (right wing) tertials moulted. You can see that the post-juvenile feathers are unaffected by the fault bar, being grown at a different time (post-fledging) to the flight feathers. Amazingly, the bird could still fly, and we haven't recaught it since it's release, suggesting it may already have left the lighthouse garden.

Compared with previous years, we don't seem to have had too many recoveries from elsewhere, although we did trap one Norwegian and one Russian-ringed Goldcrest. The most interesting recovery report we've received the other way around was of a Shoveler (the one and only Shoveler) that we ringed this time last year. It was shot 13 days later near Bordeaux (France). An interesting recovery, if not the nicest way to have the bird "resighted" – and slightly worrying the only Shoveler ringed in the last 30 years at FBO didn't last more than two weeks after leaving Sweden!


Things are starting to happen

Last weekend the International Bird Observatory Conference (IBOC) was held at Falsterbo; and, with a massive storm and torrential rain over the region, it provided a good distraction from no ringing and a flooded reedbed. Great to meet lots of people from all over the globe and some really exciting talks were given.

Water levels in the reedbed were so high that we could only get in far enough to put up two (of twenty) nets, so we gave up and did some ringing with the lighthouse team instead. Yesterday morning was the best day of the season so far with 355 birds ringed, including two Wood Warblers, a few Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, and 234 Robins.

It looks like water levels will have dropped enough for us to get into Flommen by tomorrow. Let's hope the good weather and high numbers of birds at the lighthouse bode well for some busy ringing.

Over wildlife has included, in no particular order, a Hedgehog:

 Some Common Toads:

A Convolvulus Hawk-moth:

And thousands of jellyfish:

Probably not flavissima

Yesterday's ringing in the reedbed was dismal due to high winds and an apparent general lack of birds, although we did manage to catch another Wood Sandpiper in the walk-in cage trap. Today was much better with close to 120 birds ringed, mostly "lighthouse garden species" such as Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, and Common Redstart, including this lovely adult male:

We've been catching a few Yellow Wagtails most mornings. We should be catching flava and thunbergi (probably more of the former, from what I've seen) but variation is striking. In the past couple of days, we've caught two birds with strongly saturated yellow supercillia/malar and rather contrastingly dark ear coverts. I've seen a few birds like this claimed as vagrant flavissima before and indeed they're rather eye-catching; but I'm not convinced that's what they are since a) they're roosting in the reedbed in Falsterbo in autumn (should we really expect 2/25 of the birds we catch to be vagrant flavissima?) and b) they don't really look like flavissima... That said, I have no idea what they actually are. Variation in flava/thunbergi seems the obvious if not terribly satisfying answer.

Bird 1 (adult):

Bird 2 (first-year):

Double fun

I have to admit that after only a couple of days I'm struggling to keep up with blogging about what we've been catching in the mornings; at least, struggling to find the time on top of everything else to write anything meaningful about the interesting things we're seeing (retained median coverts in adult Yellow Wagtails, post-juvenile moult in Whinchats, etc). I fear, until the morning start gets a bit later and the amount of other work I have to do subsides, I may just be posting pretty photos of pretty birds. Fear not, though, since today we caught several pretty birds.

Birds of the day were these Nutcrackers (two of three ringed at the lighthouse, all of the thick-billed nominate race):

With the highlight up at Flommen being two Wood Sandpipers trapped at the same time.

The birding has been good too with a decent passage of Honey Buzzard and Osprey along with other nice Swedish things like White-tailed Eagle, Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike, and a handful of migrating Two-barred Crossbills.

Back at Falsterbo

I've been quite busy recently, hence the extended silence, but yesterday I arrived back at Falsterbo, southern Sweden, where I'll spend the autumn. It was a nice day to arrive with about 170 birds ringed in the reedbed and a strong passage of Tree Pipits overhead, of which we caught a few. This first-year was particularly nice having undergone a post-juvenil moult that included one GC: in typical pipit fashion, GC9.

The only other bird of note was this 1cy Water Rail, almost done with its post-juvenile moult and looking rather adult-like already.

A Caspian Tern flew over the car on our way back from the lighthouse but other than that I've not really had any time for birding yet.

There are other things of interest around the station, too, such as these moths that were attracted to the outside lights: a Sallow and an Archer's Dart, respectively.

Congratulations... my little sister Kate who got married yesterday. Wishing her and her husband Anthony all the best!

Falsterbo (Lesser Whitethroats)

I've done a few things over the last few weeks but they all fit into one of two categories: not interesting enough to blog about or vaguely interesting but lacking enough time to follow them up with a thought-out post. Other than the couple of birds I handled at Portland back in March, I haven't done any ringing since I was in Sweden last year. I took advantage of the bank holiday weekend and reasonably cheap flights from Heathrow and decided to head back out to Falsterbo for a couple of days rest and relaxation (if you can call a 03:30 start resting!).

Species of the day at the lighthouse was Lesser Whitethroat, with 11 ringed (along with 11 Willow Warblers, a Blackcap, a Dunnock, a Chaffinch, a Linnet, and three Greenfinches). Ten of the Lesser Whitethroats proved to be second-years plus one adult (3+cy).

The first bird we caught, a second-year, looked at first glance to have undergone an extremely extensive pre-breeding moult with four of the secondaries on the right wing new and the entire tail fresh.

On closer inspections, it seems like the bird had lost and regrown the tail and some of the secondaries on the right wing. Just one secondary had been moulted on the left wing, and the rest of the moult in e.g. the coverts was quite normal.

The second bird was easier to age as a second-year; it had retained three juvenile greater coverts:

This bird had retained most of the tail. Actually in a damn good condition for a second-year Lesser Whitethroat!

It was nice to catch an adult (3+cy) to compare with the second-years. The wing if overall much fresher and darker, while the primary coverts have a subtle grey fringe (vs brown on second-year birds).

This second-year nicely demonstrates the rather narrow juvenile flight feathers, compared to the adults broader primaries and squarer secondaries:

The first bird in the blog post shows a fault bar across the tail, indicating simultaneous growth of the feather tract. As I've said before(!), it's often taken that this means the tail must be juvenile (since juveniles grow the entire feather tract simultaneously when they're in the nest). In the case of the first bird in this post, that's not the case since the tail has been entirely lost and regrown — it's equally as likely that that could happen to an adult as to a young bird, so it gives no worth for ageing. This second-year, however, does show a fault bar in the tail that is a result of the juvenile feathers being grown simultaneously:

More useful, and something that can be used as an ageing criteria, is the 'same' continuous fault bar across the wings. We can safely assume that this must have happened in the nest; an adult bird losing all of it's flight feathers at the same time surly can't stand much chance of survival! Beyond the fault bars, this bird shows the typical suite of plumage features associated with a second-year.

Finally, this second-year bird had its face encrusted with pollen; not from a local food source!


If yesterday was relaxed, today was flat out on its back. Ringing totals again reached the dizzying heights of two, though today's species variety was half that of yesterday with both of this morning's birds being Common Chiffchaff.

Sightings of note included a Sand Martin whizzing north overhead and... well... pretty much as yesterday, less the Red Kite and any Wheatears. I took some time to have a look at some of the Bill's common residents include, of course, Dunnocks (of which there are plenty). I was particularly pleased with this individual: it's a 2cy male that was singing in the lighthouse garden.

I got really excited when I set the 'scope on it. You can see why, right?

Last night finished with a post-blog post Little Owl calling outside; this evening is finishing with a Red-legged Partridge calling from the obs crop field and a roast dinner.

Back to London tomorrow. Acton can offer phone signal and reliable internet, but it can't offer views like this...


I've run away from London for the weekend and I'm spending a bit of time at Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset.

We started the morning with a few hours of ringing. We ringed just two birds, though they were interesting and unexpected, respectively. First bird in the net was a 2cy Song Thrush that had undergone a really extensive post-juvenile moult last year.

It had moulted all median coverts, the inner nine greater coverts, the carpal covert and A1 on both wings, plus T1 on the left and T1–2 on the right. Although I'm used to seeing birds in Scandinavia with quite limited post-juvenile moult (usually just a few greater coverts and often not even all of the median coverts moulted), this bird's moult was extensive even by British standards; it's by far the most extensive post-juvenile Song thrush moult I've seen.

Usually, I assume any replaced tail feathers in thrushes to regrowth following accidental loss. However, the new R1 on the left hand side on this bird I suspect might be part of the post-juvenile moult. It certainly fits the pattern for “normal” moult, and with the rest of the moult being so extensive it wouldn't be too surprising if it had also moulted a tail feather.

Jenni & Winkler in Moult and Ageing of European Passerines give a range of greater covert moult 0–9, with mean 3.9 and mode 3 for 1,103 Song Thrushes studied; they note that two tertials were moulted in 0.2% of 764 birds, and that no birds of 755 were found to have renewed any tail feathers. However, they do then reference several sources stating that “In England, 1[c]y with all GC and some R moulted were found exceptionally”.

The second bird was not so interesting — they undergo a complete post-juvenile moult, so what is there to look at?! — but was quite unexpected: a Skylark. Not something that's caught often down here, and even less so in the lighthouse garden. The iris was a rich brown; the two non-adult birds (and indeed the two juveniles) I've handled previously had grey-green irides. That might be age related, but without further study with known age birds there's not really a lot else we can say.

Birding was quiet but still pleasant, with a 2cy Red Kite, two Peregrines, and several Ravens passing over the obs. Joe and I took a wander late in the morning, with highlights being a couple of smart Wheatears and, nice for me after so long not having seeing any, species like Rock Pipit, Stonechat, and Fulmar.

The harbour held three dark-bellied Brent Geese and some Red-breasted Mergansers.


Did you think I'd forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don't waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes. — Frank Underwood, House of Cards
So, yes, I've been gone for a while: I've been otherwise engaged with things that you really don't want to have to hear about; and yes, I'm slightly addicted to House of Cards. Or was, I should say — I finished season two a week after it was was released. I'm looking to get a wrist band, W.W.F.U.D? He's my new role model in life.

Spring arrived in London today and the world and his dog were out to enjoy the sunshine. Against my better judgement, I jumped on a bus to WWT Barnes. The place was crawling with small children. Thankfully, their little legs can't carry them as far as the wader scrape hide, and I found relative solace in there. I notched up forty species over a couple of hours on side — not bad for London, though there wasn't particularly anything of great note.

I spent most of my time taking a look at some of the dabbling ducks that were on the scrape, particularly the Shoveler. Having caught a bird last autumn and learnt a little bit about ageing the species, I was keen to see how things were now, some four months later. One question I always wonder about is when — or if — young birds moult the tail and/or tertials. It was nice to see that the 2cy birds today had retained all of their juvenile tertials. The difference between the retained juvenile tertials and the adult birds' tertials was noticeable, even at range. No birds came close enough to check the tail, although it was apparent even at distance that the belly feathers — even on some of the 2cy birds that were more advanced in other aspects of body plumage — were either retained or “immature”, being brown and scaly compared to the red-chestnut flanks.

Adult (below) and 2cy Shoveler — this 2cy was one of the more scaly immature-looking birds; on others, the body feathers were more adult-like but the tertials were nonetheless still retained.

I also had a play about with the slo-mo video function on my iPhone. I was pretty pleased with the results!