Monday, 13 July 2015

Sodden Season

It feels like summer still hasn't arrived. A brief few days of sunshine where I managed to burn my legs (their first exposure to sun since Argentina in December) and then it was gone and the rains returned. This is just a minor inconvenience for us but for the seabirds around the islands it can mean life or death. We are in the middle of compiling and analysing breeding numbers for the year, and while the majority of species were on the islands in good numbers to breed, productivity has been a different story. It is still just too early to tell how bad it has been, but the signs on the ground aren't good. It's not all doom and gloom however, as we have been seeing chicks of certain species in good numbers, like this adorable Guillemot for example. And despite the flooding, Puffins are bringing Sandeels in in good numbers for those chicks that have survived.

Puffin with a good haul

The chicks that have survived are all nearing their first milestone in their lives, leaving the nest. Whether that be Kittiwakes taking their first flight, Guillemots jumping from the cliffs or Pufflings sneaking off out to sea in the middle of the night. And before all this happens, we attempt to get round and ring as many of them as we can to carry on the research that the Farnes is so important for. Ringing recoveries can provide fascinating and important information into the migration, longevity and nest site fidelity of all our birds.

We started the day with Sandwich Terns. This particular species is well known for its infidelity to nesting sites, and to try and learn more about these movements we are darvic ringing chicks that hatch on the island to make it easier to track them, not only to their eventual nest sites but also on their migration.

UDA, ready to go (in a few weeks)

Next onto the Puffins. They are easy to catch; it's simply a case of plunging your hand into a burrow to see what is in there. If you get a Puffling then all is well, if there is an adult as well then it can be a different story. Quite understandably they aren't pleased when you pull them from their burrows, and boy do they let you know. Not only are their beaks sharp, they also have incredibly sharp claws for digging their burrows which are equally adept at getting through skin. In the hand they are remarkably hardy birds, all muscle and dense feathers and of course adorable, particularly the Pufflings.

A Puffling, beat that for cuteness.

Check out those claws

Involuntary cuddle for an adult Puffin

Also on our hit list were any juvenile Kittiwakes within reach and any Shags we could get close to as well. We Darvic ring our shags as well, and for similar reasons to the Sandwich Terns. Just as with the Puffins, the Shags possess a sharp beak and a nasty bite, and particular care has to be taken as they tend to go for your eyes if they can get close enough. Of course, this young one was far more placid. It really is a privilege to live on these islands and share them with these birds.

Both looking a bit fluffy......

The skies are still grey today but luckily it's mild. A lot of the chicks we have now are hopefully large enough to survive whatever the rest of July has to throw at them, but only time will tell.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Season in Full Swing

A lot happens in a month on the Farnes, especially at this time of year. The only thing that hasn't changed appears to be the weather, as the sun refuses to shine for long and westerly winds persist; enough to drive any rarity-hunter to distraction at this time of year. Luckily this week the Black-winged Pratincole at Bothal brought some very welcome relief from this spell without rares. I managed a few poor "record shots" but to be honest I was more interested in enjoying this majestic bird as it put on a real show for the gathered crowd, flying within 20 metres of us at times. My first Pratincole...

Black-winged Pratincole at Bothal; a fabulous fabulous bird.

A BWP arriving on the Farnes at this time of year would have some competition for attention though, as all our resident species are present in maximum number and we have plenty of chicks around as well. Cute vs Rare. Our Shag chicks are by far and away the most developed, exactly as we would expect. Some are already looking too big for the nest, and it will be a busy period ahead for the parents of all these hungry mouths.

We now also have Kittiwake, Razorbill and Guillemot chicks emerging, and fresh batches of Eider ducklings appear every day. While eggs are still dominant, it won't be long before that trend reverses, and all our birds will be busy feeding up their chicks, readying them for their first trip out to sea. One sign we eagerly await at this time of year is Puffins bringing in Sand Eels, which can only mean one thing... PUFFLINGS a serious contender for the Farnes most adorable chick. Then again, the competition is very stiff.

If that isn't cute, I don't know what is. Puffling.

Staying low for now, it won't be long before these little guys are off to sea! 

Without doubt the species with the most "presence" on the islands are the Arctic Terns. For the the next few months our home becomes theirs and life very much evolves to fit in around these magnificent birds. A majority of them are now down on eggs and in a few weeks we will begin to find the newest generation of this truly remarkable species. It never ceases to amaze me when I walk around the islands that by the end of this year, some of these birds (currently tiny eggs) will be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, most likely off the coast of Australia or the Antarctic pack ice. This species experiences more daylight hours than any other animal on the planet. It's not all about the Arctic Terns though. We have our colony of Common and Sandwich Terns all now on eggs as well, and we expect to see chicks from them soon too.

A typical Arctic Tern nest

And a typical view of an Arctic Tern on Inner Farne

On Inner Farne recently have also been the usual pair of Roseate Tern that grace the islands at this time of year. They display, even copulate, threaten to breed and then disappear. Every year we keep our fingers crossed that they will stick around to breed again.

Two Roseate with an Arctic Tern getting involved too.

It's not all about the seabirds on the islands either. Hopefully it's third time lucky for a pair of Ringed Plover on Inner Farne, and this time they've chosen the beach near to the Arctic Terns. This time we've got in early and put a cage over the eggs to keep them safe from predators, but still allow access for the Ringed Plover. We have also ringed the first Pied Wagtail chicks of the year, and it won't be long until they'll be out and about and exploring the islands.

Ringed Plover amongst the beautiful lichen that covers the rocks around the islands

Wonderfully camouflaged Ringed Plover eggs (although sometimes not enough)

Looks nice and cosy in there

And finally, believe it or not it's no always about the birds. As we were getting a lift back out to the islands after our day off, a sharp-eyed visitor spotted a fin. It turned out to be around 15 split between two pods of Bottlenose Dolphins. They we simply wonderful to watch, jumping clean out of the water and swimming right along side the boat. As we edge into summer sightings will become more and more frequent.

Lana kindly pointing the Bottlenose Dolphin out!

This week marks the start of what is perhaps the busiest two weeks of the year for us. Cliff counts  were due to begin on 1st June, however yet more strong winds have meant that so far we have been unable to get out. The birds here seemed to have faired okay in the storm-like conditions of the last few days, but we won't truly know until we are out and counting. Somewhere in between the 10 counts we do, nest count day. This is as it sounds; we meticulously walk the islands that contain breeding birds and count every single nest. Once the counts are all in we will have a much better idea of how numbers are doing this year. I hope to be back writing on Sunday about the lovely fall of migrants that we may or may not receive on Friday with easterlies forecast. However every time I check the forecast they seem to decrease in strength and duration. This is surely our last chance to get a nice scattering of Spring scarcities, and if it doesn't happen then all attention will be focused on late June, when hopefully our special guest will return for the third year in a row.....

Saturday, 25 April 2015

It's That Time of Year!

The sun is still shining today, and spring has very much arrived on the islands. And with this, signs of breeding are popping up all over the place. Everything is at different stages at the moment, so here is a run-down of what's what on the islands at the moment! Starting at the top, the cliff nesting species.

Shags are often the first species we see laying eggs here, and this year has been no exception. The first eggs were discovered on the 2nd of April, and more and more are appearing every day. Shags are particularly nest-proud, and will pinch anything to make their nests more impressive. Last year we lost gloves, rope and a broom to a shags nests!

Shag chicks imminent! 

Elsewhere on the cliffs, we have had our first Guillemot eggs of the year and it certainly won't be long until we find our first Kittiwake and Razorbill ones too. Guillemot's are the densest nesting species of bird on the planet, and as such they can often be seen having scraps with others as they pass through the colony to get to their own small patch. They are also wonderfully affectionate, not only to their partner but also their close neighbours, and allopreening can regularly be seen mainly serving to keep the number of ticks in the colony at bay. It won't be long now until the cliffs of the Farnes are permanently crammed with some 25,000 of them on eggs.

That is one handsome bird! Razorbill

The closer you get, the better they look!

Equally as lovely; Guillemot.

Elsewhere on the islands, Fulmars are now almost consistently on their nest sites, and Puffins are on the islands daily in their thousands, cleaning out their burrows ready for another season. Fulmars are the bird I most enjoy watching in the air, their effortless soaring along the cliffs never ceases to amaze me. On land they are far less graceful though. It's strange to think that the chicks we saw these birds rear last year won't return to land for at least another 5 years, if not longer! As for the Puffins, they certainly win the prize as the most popular bird for visitors to the islands and I can understand why; they are endearing. However, I can also tell you from first hand experience that they can be vicious when they want to be! Looks can be deceiving....

Master of the air (not here though). Fulmar

Wonderful, just blooming wonderful. Puffins

In amongst the rapidly growing vegetation of the islands Eiders are now coming up and starting to settle. We have at least 12 nests on the Inner Farne at present, with this female sitting on a "jumbo clutch" of no less than 8 eggs! Eiders are a delight to monitor; in order to count their eggs we simply lift them gently up off the nest, have a quick count and pop them down again, and generally they don't seem to mind! As for the males, having fulfilled their duties, they are now starting to gather in groups just off the islands ready for a summer of bobbing around on the sea.

Can you spot her?

Close up of the female Eider sitting on 8 eggs!

Less camouflage, more outrageously attractive   

Elsewhere and making lots of noise, the Sandwich Terns are well and truly back in force, with a roost count last night of some 750 birds. In amongst them and always slightly later to return are a handful of Arctic Terns. The peace of the islands is soon to be shattered.... In the mean time, the Rock Pipits parachuting and Pied Wagtails singing can still be just about heard over the Terns, as they undertake their courtship rituals. And last but not least, our Mallards. We generally get plenty of nests but not many chicks survive unfortunately. This particularly savvy female has utilised our gas cage as the ultimate defence for her nest!

Male Pied Wagtail. This individual has been busy collecting nest material over the last few days

Nothing will get to this female Mallard in there.

And that completes the round up for this entry. The coming week involves more upheaval as myself and 4 others move ourselves to Brownsman for the breading season, and before we know it there will be chicks everywhere. I for one can't wait!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

It's Been a While

A busy start to the new season on the Farnes has meant little time for blogging, but now we are settled in and well into the swing of things. It's been a funny old start, with a mixture of very late arrivals and very early ones. The season started with a bang, as our first day on the islands produced a Stonechat. After a severe winter in 2010, this species suffered a population crash; something they are known to be susceptible to. This resulted in a once annual bird becoming a scarcity, our record in March being the first since October 2013. All we can hope is that this is a sign of a population recovery for these lovely little birds.

Stonechat on Inner Farne

The following day we were treated to great views of a Red-necked Grebe, another bird that is often tricky to come by on the Farnes. It spent a good 15 minutes in the Kettle around the jetty before drifting south. After this, things rather slowed down. We had to wait until the 10th April, a full 12 days later than last year, for our first Wheatear of the year. This was swiftly followed by our first Chiffchaff (21 days later than last year), Willow Warbler, Swallow, Blackcap and Brambling as the islands were graced with some wonderful weather. An unexpected arrival during this spell was a single Little Tern seen to go to roost on Knoxes Reef. This represents the earliest ever record for the Farnes, beating the previous one by a full 8 days!

During the quiet spell, our attention was held by this pair of Mediterranean Gulls which were displaying and settling on Central Meadow in the Black-headed Gull colony. This would represent a first breeding record for the islands should they decide to stick around.

Courting Mediterranean Gulls. Possibly a Farnes first.

Inner Farne lighthouse in glorious sun

Wheatear on the beach!

This about covers the migrant side of goings on on the islands, apart from a bit of excitement on the gull front. A 1st winter Glaucous Gull was discovered off the North Rocks of Inner Farne on the 15th. This was a good record after a blank year last year, and things got even better when the following evening a 3cy bird was discovered in the roost on Knoxes Reef. Then to our amazement, the 2cy bird returned on the 17th and showed beautifully on Ladies Path from the living room window. Marvellous stuff!

Guillemot... "What a lovely Gull!" Glaucous Gull.... "What a lovely pair of Guillemot!"

That wraps up the latest migrant news from the islands as I sit in the living room window with glorious sun beaming through. On a final note, we were treated to spectacular aurora display on Thursday night, and I snapped this photo of the Pele tower nicely backlit.

Aurora on the Farnes

Next up (in a few days hopefully), the breeders!!

Cuthbert's Gut is filling up.....

Sunday, 22 March 2015

La Palma - March 2015

This is a little late, but earlier in the month we were lucky enough to spend a week exploring the stunning island of La Palma, the most North Westerly of the Canary Islands. It's a wonderful mixture of temperate cloud (laurel) forest, dry scrubby slopes and volcanic rock. It is a paradise for walkers and during our week exploring we encountered few people.
We stayed near San Pedro, however wherever you choose to stay you will be sure to encounter Canary; we had 2 males singing in the garden and flocks of 20-30 birds were not uncommon.

Singing Canary

Also on the garden list were Blackcap, Blackbird, African Blue Tit subspecies palmensis;  and overhead Kestrel, the insularum subspecies of Common Buzzard and Chough were seen. All these species were also common around the island.

African Blue Tit, Cyanistes teneriffae palmensis

We spent two days walking in the Laurel forest looking for the two target Pigeon species, Bolle's and Laurel Pigeon. We spent our first day at Cuba de la Galga, a thoroughly beautiful valley and well worth a visit. On our way up the valley we heard both species but the dense canopy makes catching a decent view rather tricky. We had some half decent views of Bolle's Pigeon but had to wait for flight views of a single Laurel Pigeon until we reached Somada Alta. The view from there is also particularly impressive. Our second day was spent at Los Tilos, where we heard and saw Bolle's but not Laurel Pigeon. Here the walk was just as beautiful, and along the way we encountered some incredibly tame La Palma Chaffinch.

Best we could manage.... but that tail is a give-away. Bolle's Pigeon

Cracker. La Palma Chaffinch

Our next day was spent exploring the south of the island, where the recent (1971) volcanic eruption has left the landscape looking rather different to the rest of the island. I'd read that this was a good area for Berthelot's Pipit, and we weren't disappointed. We encountered our first pair around the visitor centre for Las Salinas at Punta de Fuencaliente. There were also 3 Turnstone present on the saline lagoons and a few distant Cory's Shearwater passing offshore. We then moved up to Volcan de San Antonio where we had at least another 4 Berthelot's Pipit along with Chough and Canary.

Berthelot's Pipit at Volcan de San Antonio

Our last day exploring was spent with a trip up to the Observatorio Astrofisico, an impressive array of 14 telescopes across the highest points of the island, around 2400 metres above sea level. Here we again saw good numbers of Chough, but the highlight was finding a splendid male Spectacled Warbler in the scrub around the MAGIC telescope. On the road up, we were also treated to a magical experience with a pair of very tame Ravens at the parking place for the Pico de la Nieve. They had clearly learnt that stopping cars often meant food. It was a real privilege being so close to such an impressive bird.

What a bill! Raven

Raven and I

Smart male Spectacled Warbler

Our final evening was spent around the El Pilar refuge. On the way we stopped for coffee on the seafront at Puerto Naos, where in 45 minutes we recorded well over 100 Cory's Shearwater passing and a pod of Short-fined Pilot Whale! We then walked from El Pilar and headed up onto the rim of the volcano where we were treated to more Chough, some brilliant views of Western Canary Island Goldcrest and a screaming flock of over 60 Plain Swift. On top of all this, we were able to witness a stunning sunset and make the most of a brief spell of dark sky before the full moon rose.

Western Canary Island Goldcrest


Venus rising over the Atlantic

Friday, 20 February 2015

Birding All Around

It's been a strange few weeks, applying for jobs and not knowing quite what the future holds. It is all resolved now, and we are back to The Farnes for another season. Along the way, we have managed some top quality birds.
A while back now, we took our annual pilgrimage to Dungeness to catch up with the winter wonders that inhabit the wilderness of the peninsula. All the usual suspects were present, with Great Egret, Smew, Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier and Tree Sparrow showing off nicely. Undoubtedly the highlight was sitting in the Scott Hide and watching a Kingfisher and sublime Male Smew fishing within metres of us. It was great to be able to catch up with the two Cattle Egret that have been resident all winter and the local Tundra Bean Geese at Scotney and Lesser Yellowlegs at Rye Harbour.

It's always a treat to observe these birds properly! Splendid Kingfisher

The most handsome duck of all? Smew

Cattle Egret, without cattle this time.

Having been able to also catch the Greater Yellowlegs at Titchfield a few weeks before, I believe I am now in real contention for the two worst record shots of Yellowlegs in the country this year. A prestigious title that I have long wanted to add to my collection.... Luckily the scope views of these smart American waders were much much better than the photographs suggest.

Greater Yellowlegs....

And Lesser Yellowlegs... Honest Guv
And now to fast forward a tad, and a trip to Northumberland for the Farnes interview via Devon to visit friends. What a beautiful part of the world, and we had a wonderful guided tour of the coastline, adding some more top quality birds along the way. Our first stop was Darts Farm RSPB, where you could be forgiven for thinking that the three Penduline Tit there were escapees and not bothered by human presence. Certainly the most enjoyable life tick I have had in a long while. These smart little birds are becoming increasingly regular, and they are certainly a contender for the next species to establish themselves as British breeders.

Cracking little Penduline Tit
Another target species for us both was Cirl Bunting, a bird I had never seen before due in part to the fact I had never visited that part of the Devon coastline before. This is a species that represents both the tragedy of our relentless drive to destroy as much of our countryside as possible for profit (mainly animal products), and also what can happen if conservationists and local landowners take action. Watching two males happily singing away was a strange experience, appreciating the beauty of these now rare (in British terms) Buntings and also wondering which species will be next to suffer in this way. When will people listen.....

Cirl Bunting, unaware of its own plight?
Along the way, we were also treated to spectacular views of this rugged coastline. This photo was taken in very windy conditions from Prawle Point, the most southerly point of Devon. Despite the wind, a cracking male Stonechat was clinging on to a piece of Gorse. We also stopped by the very obliging Snow Bunting that has been present for some time now on the sea wall at Turf in the Exe Estuary.

Delightful. Snow Bunting

Not a bad place to live!

And last but not least, two winter stunners that are much easier to catch up with on the East Coast than down in Sussex where I reside at this time of year. As we were in Newcastle, it would have been very rude not to make the most of seeing both Waxwing and Shore Lark, two birds that attract me for their beauty more than anything else (as I'm sure is the case for most people). Both were showy, the Waxwing at The Lea's in South Shields and the Shore Lark on Hartlepool Headland. The Shore Lark was in a particularly grotty area; obviously the food was good and the constant stream of dog walkers and the view were not enough to put if off!

Yet another gorgeous bird! Waxwing

And another... Shore Lark
So after a whirlwind few weeks its off to explore La Palma and its endemic subspecies for us next week! And then its back to the mayhem of the Farnes for another season. Could be worse.....