Thursday, 4 August 2016

Cuckoos and Wrens by Sebastian Seely

An amazing series of photos taken by Peter Allman at the National Trust's Calke Abbey in Derbyshire caused quite a stir on social media last week. They show a juvenile Cuckoo being fed by a Wren (below). Lots of people got in touch to ask about this behaviour and about the behaviour of Cuckoos generally. Young birder Sebastian Seely has been here on work experience this week and spent a few hours in the BTO library researching answers to these questions...
Photo by Peter Allman
Photo by Peter Allman

It has been known for birds to feed juveniles of another species even if they did not raise them themselves, as they are attracted to the sound of a hungry chick and have a strong instinct to feed them. However, in this particular case, the cuckoo has been observed being fed by the wren numerous times, so it is far more likely that it was raised by the wren in its nest. This is a relatively common occurrence in other European countries, however this is a relatively rare occurrence in Britain, there are only three or four records of it. This is probably most likely due to the fact that a wren nest isn’t really an ideal place to nest in as it is very small, and close to the ground. It could also be because wren nests are generally well hidden and hard to find, as well as being dark inside as a result of its dome-shape, making it more difficult to see and record cuckoo chicks.

How the cuckoo lays the egg in the wren’s nest is very much the same as they do for most bird species’ nests; the cuckoo simply clings to the nest, places her cloaca against the nest hole and squirts the egg in. The egg will then slide down inside the dome-shaped nest so it is quite unlikely that the egg will break. Sometimes the female cuckoo will take one of the wren eggs out with her beak, to make room for her own or just to eat as a snack.

The wren will probably not realise the cuckoo egg is not one of its own, and if it does, a wren will probably not try to reject it, because with rejection comes cost. For example, because the wren has such a small beak, it will find it very difficult to remove the egg so it may fall on its own eggs, smashing them, leaving it with no achievement at all. 
Cuckoo chick in a Reed Warbler nest. Photo by Kevin Carlson
Cuckoo chick in a Reed Warbler nest. Photo by Kevin Carlson

As the cuckoo egg hatches, the chick will push the wren eggs, one at a time onto a curvature in its spine and push them out of the nest hole. The specially constructed wren nest makes it quite difficult for the cuckoo chick to eject the eggs so if it does not succeed in removing them all, it will outcompete the other wren chicks when they hatch as the cuckoo will grow into a much bigger bird very quickly.

Cuckoo chick being fed by a Dunnock. Photo by Derek Belsey
Cuckoo chick being fed by a Dunnock. Photo by Derek Belsey
These photos also prompted many questions regarding why the cuckoo does not imprint on the wren as it is the first thing it sees, the same way a duckling can imprint on a human. The cuckoo may well spend the rest of its life thinking it’s mother is a wren, but it does not matter because after a few weeks it will become independent and most likely instinct will tell it to migrate to Africa, to eat caterpillars and to recognise and mate with other cuckoos. Some female cuckoos are known to lay their eggs in the same species’ nest as they were brought up in, suggesting that they do “remember”, their host parent or maybe just the habitat it was found in. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Sebastian Seely

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Nocturnal Birding by Thomas Broom

When the sun is up, and the birds are singing, the world is a familiar place. We understand what goes on during the daylight hours. It’s well documented. After all, we are adapted to life during the day. So when the sun sets, the world becomes a different place; an alien place. An exciting place.

I myself haven’t done much nocturnal birding in the past. I’ve been out at dawn and dusk, but have only truly looked for birds in the dark a few times. But after a few recent experiences, it is certainly something I am going to make an effort to do more, because it’s definitely worth the late night. Let me tell you why…

The birds that hunt and operate after the sun has set are almost entirely different to the cast we’re all familiar with when the sun’s up. And, being harder to see and harder to spot, we don’t see them as frequently as our daytime birds, which makes finding them at night a whole lot more special. The common practice of bird ‘watching’ becomes interesting once it gets too dark to actually ‘watch’. Your other senses kick in to action, and you find yourself watching with your ears – listening for sound becomes a whole lot more important when there is minimal light.

So what are these nocturnal birds, and what makes them so special?

Tawny Owl by John Harding
Tawny Owl by John Harding
Possibly the most famous night-time predators are owls. Of our owl species here in Britain, only 2 of the 5 are truly nocturnal: the Tawny and Long-eared Owl. Both these species, unlike birds like the Barn or Little Owls, are very hard to see during the day – spotting them roosting in trees is about the only way to see them. But after dark, they come alive. Tawny Owls and their haunting calls have inspired legends over the centuries, and when you’re stood in the forest in the dark, it certainly sends a chill down your spine. There are few things more exciting than actually watching a Tawny Owl hunt in the dark.

I was in Suffolk a short while ago when, as we were driving down a small country track late at night,
we heard a strange screech coming from the dense woods to the right of us. We stopped the car, turned off the engine and all the lights and just sat there in the dark. And sure enough, after a short, exciting wait as the sound got closer, the dark figure of a Tawny Owl came up and sat on a branch in front of us, before flying off into the forest. It continued its flybys through the trees for a while, before disappearing off back into the darkness like a phantom. You may not be able to clearly see the birds in great detail, but an experience birding at night is an experience to remember.

Nightjar by Chris Knights
Nightjar by Chris Knights
For the majority of our other nocturnal birds, spring and summer are the best times to get out and have a go at spotting them. Possibly my favourite nocturnal birds, Nightjars, are migratory, so can only be seen in the UK between April and September. Nightjars are magical, mysterious birds, which can only truly be seen once it is almost too dark for binoculars. During the day, they hunker down, relying on their exquisite camouflage to hide them from predators. But once it gets dark enough, they become a magnificent nocturnal bird. There is nothing quite like watching nightjar flying silently over heathland, with their long wings almost folding over the rest of their body, which is relatively small in comparison. The peculiar, but strangely enchanting ‘churring’ sound produced by the males, and the clapping of their wings as they fly make them an incredible bird to be around at night, and makes any nocturnal birding trip worth it.

Another expertly camouflaged nocturnal bird is the Woodcock – a bird that is even harder to see. I
Woodcock by Hugh Insley
Woodcock by Hugh Insley
was very lucky to see two the last time I went out looking for Nightjar, as they flew across the area in front of me and into the cover of the forest. They are strange birds in flight – large, almost fat, with a very long bill and relatively short wings. Unfortunately, these birds are currently on the UK Red List, as their populations have declined as suitable habitat for them becomes rarer and rarer. But, if you’re in luck, you may just catch a glimpse of these rarely seen birds.

Above, I have highlighted only three nocturnal birds that are out there in the British countryside, waiting to be found. The mystery of the night and the amazing animals it holds is exciting, and I urge you to get out after dark and see what you can see. You won’t regret it.

Of course, nocturnal birding doesn’t come without a risk. Us humans aren’t made for working in the dark, so it is sensible to plan your nocturnal birding trip before you go out. First of all, go with an adult at all times – it’s safer, and they wouldn’t want to miss out on the experience anyway! You should also make sure you know the area you’re visiting well – you don’t want to get lost and it’s helpful to have an idea of what lives there before you go. And of course there are things you need to take, like any bird watching trip. A torch is a necessity and binoculars are still definitely useful; they’ll be usable until it is almost pitch black, and are still suitable for spotting birds in flight or in trees.

Nocturnal birding is an experience that I urge you all to have a go at and see what you can find. The experience of looking for animals in the dark is exciting and keeps you coming back for more. So if you can, at some point this summer, get out and give it a go! I know I certainly will.

Thomas Broom,

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

BTO Bird Camp 2016: Trip report by Max Hellicar

Thetford Forest, situated in the heart of East Anglia, contains a diverse variety of wildlife and is an area containing the only breeding populations of certain species in the whole of the UK. Thetford Forest has always been an area which I enjoy visiting and the afternoon of Friday 27 May saw me making my way to the area.

Thetford is an area which I am familiar with from going birding nearby many times previously, but I had never entered the BTO headquarters building before. This was the start of the Young Birder's weekend 2016, hosted by the British Trust for Ornithology, an event which I had been eagerly looking forward to since I first heard about it earlier in the year. A few of us arrived earlier than others so took ourselves on a walk around Nunnery Lakes which produced Kingfisher and Garden Warbler and chatted to the very friendly and helpful BTO staff. Soon everyone had arrived and it was time for introductions and dinner, then off to our nearby campsite at Two Mile Bottom, which was the first time some participants had experienced camping.

The next morning we were up bright and early at 04:30 and ready for some birding action!
We headed back to the Nunnery Lakes reserve and the 20 or so similarly aged birders were divided in to groups, working on different activities, each working on one activity for an hour throughout the morning. The activities consisted of bird surveying/mapping, nest finding, bird ringing, and general birding.

Reed Warbler nest by Max Hellicar
Reed Warbler nest by Max Hellicar
With thanks to Lee Barber and Justin Walker for 
Kingfisher by Toby Carter
Kingfisher by Toby Carter
leading the bird ringing demonstration, Mike Toms for leading the nest recording activities, Su Gough for leading the bird mapping activities and Paul Stancliffe for leading the general
birding activities. One group working on ringing were fortunate enough to see a Kingfisher in the hand, whilst the nest finders found a Yellowhammer nest and the general birding group found a hepatic female cuckoo! By around half past ten all groups had completed the four activities, so headed back to the BTO headquarters to have some well earned breakfast (and lunch)!
It was soon time to get back out birding though, with a trip to Lakenheath Fen arranged for the afternoon! Off we set and after a jolly journey, we were once again eager for some birding. A nice circuit walk around the fen produced some particularly nice highlights including views of Crane, calling Cuckoo, a flyby Bittern and Bearded Tits! At Lakenheath we once again encountered Kingfisher - a blue bullet darting between the reed beds.
En route back to the BTO headquarters, we stopped off in some suitable Stone-curlew habitat where we were delighted to come across a pair of our target birds! Nice scope views of these were afforded, with Stone-curlew being a life tick for some of the young birders. Once we arrived back at the BTO building it was time for a barbecue dinner and some time to socialise with other trip participants - a good opportunity for young birders to make friends with others who have similar interests. This particular event was superb for social aspects because many of the young ornithologists who attended the event only previously knew each other from social media, or didn't know each other at all, so all appreciated the chance to have face-to-face bird related discussions!

Roughly an hour before dusk, we headed back out into the deepest darkest forest to meet Greg Conway. Greg explained some of his work and research over the past few years with a very mysterious and extraordinary bird - the crepuscular Nightjar. Greg's fascinating research included GPS tracking of individuals and was a topic many of us were intrigued to learn more about. As dusk began to set in, the mist nets had been set and it was now a waiting game. 
A handful of nets had been carefully positioned in the area with ringers carefully keeping each net in their sights. After around an hour of anticipation and waiting, a Nightjar was caught! This was a new bird which was previously unringed and once it had been processed and ringed, all of the young ornithologists had superb views of the bird 'in the hand' to admire it's cryptic camouflage plumage which blends in perfectly with the heathland they nest on. We were finished with the Nightjars at around 11PM after the success of seeing one up close, and managed to get a good few hours of sleep back at the campsite.
Nightjar by Elliot Montieth
Nightjar by Elliot Montieth

Sunday morning began with another early start at around 5AM, when we were all eager to set off south east to Landguard Bird Observatory, on the tip of the Felixstowe peninsular. Arriving at around 06:30, we were greeted by the warden of LBO, Nigel Odin, who showed us around the observatory grounds. Nigel inspected the precious night's moth trap catch with us, which produced some nice moths including a Small Elephant Hawkmoth and a migrant Pearly Underwing was an early surprise.
We received an explanation of how Heligoland traps work for bird ringing and a walk along the beach provided views of nesting Ringed Plovers.

It was soon time to wave goodbye to Landguard, and a visit to some mixed heathland and woodland habitat near the Suffolk coast produced nice views of Dartford Warbler and Redstart - both superb birds. After this we visited Boyton Marshes where we had yet more success, with some of the trip participants managing to get decent views of two Garganey!

A well needed pub lunch in Woodbridge arranged by Ieuan was much appreciated by everyone.
On the journey back to Thetford, I am confident at least 90% of us youngsters fell asleep on the minibus. We were awakened by a stop off at some suitable habitat in the Thetford Forest and guided by the birding excellence that is Paul Stancliffe, we were afforded views of Tree Pipit and Woodlark - both fairly scarce Breckland species! After our success here, we headed back to the BTO headquarters to celebrate what a truly brilliant and memorable weekend it had been and say our farewells to each other. 

Personally I feel that this was a fantastic action-packed weekend and the BTO couldn't have done anything better to improve it. The opinions of fellow young birders echoed the fact that this event was a resounding success and I hope that this event has also encouraged other youngsters to continue with their passion of birding and recording and submit their valuable records to help improve the current scientific understanding of certain bird species. After the success of this weekend, I look forward to any future events held by the BTO as I'm sure many others do.

I would like to say a massive thank you to the BTO for hosting such an amazing event, especially Ieuan Evans, Viola Ross-Smith, Paul Stancliffe, and Lee Barber for their extraordinary efforts in organising this event and for being so supportive throughout the weekend, and thank you to anyone else involved with making this event so brilliant. Many thanks to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding the event and making it possible, and thanks to Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature - organisations involved in arranging the event.
It was great to see such a good turnout of keen young nature enthusiasts, so thank you all for attending and I hope this event has inspired you to keep up the good work for the future.

A great summary of tweets from the weekend by Ieuan Evans is available here. You can find more information about the BTO's incredible work on their website.

Max Hellicar. June 2016.
All photos by Max Hellicar unless otherwise stated (Twitter: MaxHellicar1).

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A Caspian Stonechat drops in, by Amy Robjohns

I alluded to my love of patch birding in my first post on here, and how great it can be. Spending hours on one site and getting to know the ins and outs can be very rewarding indeed, especially when the unexpected happens…

As with most days of late, I set off down to Hill Head (part of my wonderful patch) early on 10th May, without checking the weather, and arrived at around 6am. My plan had been to check the beach and seawatch in the hope of the easterlies bringing Skuas in. I soon realised the weather had thwarted my plans, with visibility very poor and little of note on the beach. What to do next? The idea of heading up the canal path was cut short by the impressive number of snails (mostly white-lipped) and moths (E. argentella) along the vegetation and fence line by the road, so I set about counting them, as you do… At number 300, a rather striking Stonechat hopped up on the fence; a perfect photo opportunity!

Caspian Stonechat by Amy Robjohns
Caspian Stonechat by Amy Robjohns
My first thought was that I hadn’t seen a Stonechat around the scrub by the road for some time. It was also a very striking male – dark, black-ish upperparts with a thick white neck patch. The orangey colouration on the underparts seemed paler side on, and didn’t extend nearly as far as I expected. The rest of the underparts were white. I briefly pondered for a second, aware that it wasn’t an ordinary Stonechat but it then flew off back into the scrub and I lost it. In that brief flight, I caught a glimpse of the rump – wow. Large white rump!

I never did see it again, though admittedly I didn’t look as I was soon distracted by something else. It was then time to leave and finish some coursework, remarking to Ken Martin how nice it would be if a mega would turn up in Hampshire. Little did we know… Pictures were uploaded to Twitter and Facebook, along with emailing them to Dave Wallace and Dan Houghton – two locals whose email addresses I happened to have – and the news of a “possible” Siberian Stonechat was put out on Hampshire’s Going Birding site to alert people to its presence and ask for advice. I knew Dave was likely be about, so might have been able to investigate further, and was hoping he and Dan could offer their views.

It soon became apparent that, as I suspected, it wasn’t a standard Stonechat, but views of the underwing were needed, along with the rump and tail. I returned at lunch determined to confirm the ID but failed to locate it. Luckily, Dave Stevenson was on duty, so I asked if he could keep an eye out for the bird and try to get the much needed underwing views/footage. He soon got back to me confirming it did indeed have black underwings – excellent! By this point, I was feeling rather satisfied (and shocked) that it was a Siberian Stonechat, so put the news out and got back to work. I hadn’t forgotten that Brett Spencer had mentioned on Twitter the need to check the tail to rule out Caspian Stonechat, but work sadly had to take priority.

That evening more locals visited, and it was only when checking Facebook that I noticed Mark J Palmer’s photos of its tail. Wow - mega!! Himself, Dan, Simon Ingram and Dave Ryves had managed to see the tail (and being far wiser immediately cottoned onto what the significance of the tail meant), and get the necessary photos to confirm it wasn’t just “any old” Siberian Stonechat, but a Caspian Stonechat!

A day that began as seeming like a slow birding day, turned into a day I’ll never forget. So what have I learnt? You never stop learning in birding, and it’s always good to ask for help and advice from the wiser birders; the obsession with patch birding and checking the stonechats (I’d convinced myself there would be a Siberian some time by the road!) paid off; and always count the snails – they might lead to something better!!

Thanks must go to all on Twitter and Facebook who commented on the bird, and the locals - Dave S, Dave R and Mark for getting the necessary video footage and photos to get it’s true identify, and also Simon and Dan for suspecting it was more than just a Siberian Stonechat. It’s been a fantastic year on patch, long may it continue!

Amy Robjohns, @Amythebirder 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Spurn Young Birder of the Year Competition, by Findlay Wilde

Throughout the UK, there are lots of places that are good for birding, there are also many places that are brilliant for birding; however there aren’t many places that just go above and beyond and leave you in wonder, thinking “can you get much better than this”? Not surprisingly that’s exactly how I felt when I made my first ever visit to Spurn on the remarkable Yorkshire Coastline. On one side is the North Sea, on the other you have the Humber Estuary. You are standing on a thin piece of land between the two, making Spurn a magnet for migratory birds and a haven for birders such as myself.

Every year Spurn has a large scale event called ‘MigFest’, short for migration festival. MigFest takes place over a weekend in September and never disappoints. There is a great social network of people to talk to and of course it is a perfect chance to see migration in full swing with the odd rarity mixed in as well.  Last year, a new feature was added, the “Spurn Young Birder of the Year Competition”, which I was delighted to take part in.

Arctic Skua by Moss Taylor
Arctic Skua by Moss Taylor
We only went for the day of the competition, but we still managed to see lots of amazing birds and have an incredible time. I woke up early in the morning eager with anticipation, knowing that just a 3 hour drive stood between me and a day I would probably never forget. I was sort of nervous arriving at Spurn, not because it’s the first time I had been, but because it was the first time I was taking part in an actual birding competition. I arrived for about 7:30am with the actual competition starting at around 9:30am; this gave me a couple of hours or so to catch up with the other young birders taking part; Ellis Lucas and Evie Miller.  Whilst waiting for Ellis to arrive, Evie and I did a bit of sea watching. I instantly saw 2 lifers. The first was a group of 4 Sooty Shearwater that flew north quite close in. The highlight however, was a Long Tailed Skua that also flew past north, with 7 Arctic Skuas. What an amazing start to the day!

Time flies when you’re having a great time birding, and the point soon came for the competition. All 3 of us travelled from the sea watching hut to the old Bird Obs, The Warren,  where we met up with Nick Whitehouse who had organised the whole event, and of course our other judges. The competition consisted of 4 stages; the ‘Lab Test’ (certainly the hardest in my opinion), the ‘Field Test’, the ‘Estuarine Test’ and a ‘Sea Watching Test’. The latter was what I started with. My expert trained his scope on a set of wind turbines out at sea, my scope obviously focused on the same place, then anything that flew through the vision I had to identify and I was scored on how many I got correct out of the total number of species. It was challenging, but great fun as I got to see Red Throated Diver, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater and Grey Plover.
Spotted Flycatcher by Findlay Wilde
Spotted Flycatcher by Findlay Wilde

Every time we finished a stage, we would swap challenge and expert, so next up for me was the Lab Test. This started with me going into a room where the bird ringing at Spurn was done. For this challenge I had to identify specific feather groups on a bird, such as the lores and greater coverts, and also identify 2 bird calls. Once the science parts were completed, I was taken outside again to do some VisMig work, during which I saw Tree Sparrow and Meadow Pipit.

I haven’t yet mentioned the weather, but at points it really was awful and that unfortunately was the case for my next challenge, Estuarine. I was taken out to view the Humber Estuary watching the waders being pushed forward on the incoming tide, being tested on Dunlin, Redshank and Grey Plover. I was also asked some general knowledge questions about waders.

My final challenge was the Field Test where I was taken out around the Spurn area to identify any passerine birds in the scrubland and small copses. I managed to get great views of Pied Flycatcher and Tree Sparrow, whilst hirundines such as Swallow and House Martins whirled above my head. And then that was it, all the challenges were done.

Red-backed Shrike by Findlay Wilde
Red-backed Shrike by Findlay Wilde
We then had about an hour to wander round whilst the judges swapped notes. I chatted with Ellis and Evie about the answers we had given and what we all saw, it was great to be able to talk to the others and compare notes.  During that spare hour, we went to look for the Red Backed Shrike that had been showing well in and around corner field; this particular bird was a lifer for me and certainly didn’t disappoint. The bird showed up about 10 meters from us allowing us a spectacular look at this rare migratory bird.

It was then time to head back to The Warren to see how we had all done. Nick Whitehouse went through all the answers and explained in a lot of detail the birds we had seen and some we missed. All the experts gave advice on IDing birds in the field and we all learnt so much from them.  It was made very clear that although it was a competition, the important thing was the learning experience. And this kept getting said during the day.  I can honestly say, it never once felt like I was being tested against the other young birders, it felt more like I was getting an invaluable learning experience, with experienced birders giving up their time to help and support us.  It just felt like I was looking at my own skills and seeing where I might need to improve.

The rest of the day was then free to go birding. During this time we met loads of great birders and kept bumping into the experts, who were interested to know what we had seen.  Ellis and I went off to do some more sea watching (which I don’t get much chance to do in Cheshire). Within 2 minutes of arriving at the sea watching hide, we were already witnessing 2 Sabine’s Gull flying north!!! Closely followed by a CORYS SHEARWATER!!!! A very rare bird for Spurn and even better that it was close in, giving spectacular views. Next up on our birding agenda was to go and get another good look at that Red Backed Shrike.

Time flew by and it soon came to the point where we had to head to Westmere Farm for the evening event. It was a pleasure to meet Martin Garner, an absolutely phenomenal guy; Ellis and I did a few identification challenges with him while we were waiting for dinner. Whilst everyone was finishing dinner I went to see if I could relocate the Barred Warbler that had been seen earlier, however I had no luck.

For the evening event we all hurried into the presentation room to grab a seat, as the talks are very popular. Martin opened the evening talks by saying a few words about MigFest and how it was great to see so many people there.

Next up was the Young Birders section of the evening event. Everyone was so supportive of the young birders and we were all made to feel really welcome.  The competition was explained to the audience and then the 3 of us were invited up on to the stage where we all received prizes for taking part.

The team at Spurn were amazing. The competition was fun, stress free and I learnt so much from those few hours spent one to one with some very experienced birders.  So if you want to have a go and enter the 2016 competition then just go for it. Don’t worry about winning or losing, it’s about learning and meeting a great group of people (young and old) that you can always turn to in the future for help and advice.

For details on entering the competition visit:

Findlay Wilde, @WildeAboutBirds

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