Meeting Reports for 2019

Indoor Meeting: The British Isles – a Birder’s Paradise. Speaker: Jason Moss 17th January 2019

Reporter: Alan Hughes

Us birders might have thought at first that Jason had led a charmed life with regards to his career, but despite his modesty, it became apparent during his talk that his success in his chosen profession was down to dedication to birding since a youngster, hard work, and a winning personality. Thus, since graduating in biology, he has earned jobs in 3 of the best birding locations in the UK, and it was his work on these island sites that was the basis of his fascinating work: –

1. Farne Islands, Northumbria. In 2009 and 2010, Jason was an assistant warden on this archipelago, following in the footsteps of St Cuthbert who some considered to be the first conservationist as, along being a religious hermit, he also considered it his duty to protect seabirds. These islands are home to 36K breeding pairs of Puffins, 2K pairs of Arctic Terns (these nest very close to public footpaths and aggressively defend their nesting sites against all other birds and visiting humans – hence the advice to wear a hat!), 1K pairs of Sandwich Terns, as well as Common Terns, and our rarest breeding seabird – the Roseate Tern – now only an occasional breeder. The cliffs host “Seabird Cities” of Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags and Kittiwakes, although numbers of the latter species are declining rapidly due to food shortages. Eider Ducks (their local name is the Cuddy Duck after St Cuthbert) nest on the grassy plateaux, and Fulmars are also in residence – these have the delightful habit of spitting concentrated fish oil sauce at intruders – up to a range of 2 metres – very smelly! One of his roles on the Farnes was to monitor the population and productivity of the seabirds in a programme that had continuity for many decades. But Jason couldn’t be a hermit – he was also required to engage with the many visitors and, for example, he was able to demonstrate the use of a burrow camera to examine the underground Puffin nests. Being a set of small, relatively remote islands meant the the Farnes were also a magnet for migrant birds, and sea watching stints enabled the wardens to record the huge migrant passages of seabirds including some rarities such as Cory’s Shearwater (4 in one year) and one Fea’s Petrel. Easterly winds in October also meant the migration of land birds, and as well as the first landfall of Winter Thrushes in the UK, there were records of many scarcities in his time there, including Bluethroat, Wryneck, Ortolan Bunting, Rosefinch, Red-backed Shrike and Little Bunting, and rarities including Arctic Redpoll, Olive-backed Pipit, Black-headed Bunting, Black Kite and a Lanceolated Warbler. His most bizarre record was a Stone Curlew on the beach!

2.Fair Isle, Scotland. 2011 and 2012 saw Jason move to the bird observatory on this next birding mecca. Sat between Shetland and Orkney, this is the UK’s most remote inhabited island. Approximately 3 miles x 1 mile, Fair Isle is divided into 2 parts – the South is the lower lying fertile area inhabited by approx. 55 people, many of whom still run traditional crofts, – and the North is moorland and hill. Surrounding the island are cliffs, home to large colonies of Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots. Skuas, including the fearsome Great Skua (aka Bonxie) and the Arctic Skuas (now in serious decline to less than 25 pairs due to poor productivity as the other seabirds they prey on are much reduced in numbers – only a single chick was raised during Jason’s 2 year spell there!) nest on the higher ground. Here Gannets and Fulmars are doing well but Puffin numbers and other Auks are declining due to poorer feeding. Storm Petrels also breed here, usually in inaccessible places and only land at night. Landbirds include the Fair Isle Wren, Twite, Wheatear, Raven, Peregrine, Curlew and Snipe. Jason’s main responsibility was monitoring bird migration through a census that was conducted around the whole island during the 2 seasons of migration (this has been ongoing for several decades resulting in some really important data) and also through the ringing of migrants: A Heligoland trap was used to catch birds allowing ringing and biometric measurements. Scarcities recorded there include Red-backed Shrike, Bluethroat, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch and Wryneck. Rarities include the Autumnal “Fair Isle Specials” – Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Pechora’s Pipit, and Collared Flycatcher. Jason is celebrated for finding a Magnolia Warbler (only the 2nd time this American vagrant has been recorded in the UK) – and he conveyed the excitement of this find, as he waited for a colleague to join him to help identify this bird which only stayed for one day.

3. Skomer Island, Wales. Managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, Jason was here 2013-2016 as an assistant warden, then a field worker for the University of Gloucestershire. The island lies off the coast of Southwest Wales, and in May is covered in Bluebells, and later Red Campion, indicating its woodland past. Breeding birds include 3-4 pairs of Short-eared Owls (which prey on the Skomer Vole), Chough, Peregrine, Little Owl, Wheatear, Teal, Pintail, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat and Linnet. Migrants (including the “Spring Drip”) list Wryneck, Golden Oriole, Woodchat Shrike and Hoopoe as scarcities, and Dark-eyed Junco, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-headed Bunting on the rarities list.

Once again, seabirds featured heavily: Most famously the 300K pairs of Manx Shearwater (half the World’s population) – these amazing birds undergo a 6K mile migratory journey to Brazil and Argentina to overwinter every year, and are also one of the longest-living birds, one being recorded as 50 years old. Jason’s work included monitoring the productivity of their breeding burrow, and also attaching GPS devices to monitor their movements in detail. Puffins are colour-ringed for a 30-year study, and food returned to some labelled burrows was also recorded. Professor Tim Birkhead has been studying Guillemots on Skomer for 40 years. Jason also monitored Storm Petrel number – this was challenging as they only visit their inaccessible nest sites at night; they used a recording of their call to elicit an answering call from the chicks to locate them, establishing current numbers at approx. 300 pairs.

Following a series of excellent photographs to illustrate his talk, Jason concluded with a video film of seabird colonies on Skomer.

This was an excellent talk by a talented and dedicated birder – I am sure that Oriole birding tours are delighted to secure his services as a full-time guide.

 

Indoor Meeting: Holme Sweet Holme Speaker: Gary Hibberd, Warden 21st February 2019

Reporter: Sue Gale

It is always good to hear from a true enthusiast, and Gary Hibberd, who has been warden at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Holme Dunes reserve for 30 years, certainly fits that description. He gave us a lovely talk about the natural history of the reserve on the very tip of North West Norfolk. It was bought by NWT back in 1965, and as warden Gary gets to live on the reserve. What a wonderful address! He took us through the list of species we might expect to see at different times of the year, and this being the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, it did not only include birds. The geography of the place is also fascinating, as the sea ensures that it is constantly changing. Some areas are growing, remarkably rapidly, from the accretion of sand and gravel to form new dunes. Other areas, notably just in front of the pine woods and reserve centre, are suffering from erosion. The ‘Beast from the East’ caused a lot of damage, with pine trees falling off the edge of the eroded dunes. On balance, Gary thinks the accretion is winning and the reserve is growing, but is keeping his fingers crossed that the pines will survive.

The harbinger of Spring is the Wheatear, a favourite bird of many, that loves the dunes. Notably it isn’t here yet, in spite of the very spring-like weather we are currently enjoying. It might be joined by Ring Ouzels and Yellow Wagtails. The latter love to hang out around the cattle on the reserve, apparently much preferring them to the Konig ponies that also graze the area. Flocks of Yellow Wagtails used to number 300 or more, but not these days. So it isn’t only the geography that changes over time. Marsh Harriers used to be scarce summer visitors but are now reliable residents; breeding Snipe are a thing of the past, and Lapwing breeders have halved in number. Barn owls are doing well, with 4 or 5 seen most evenings, and the two small Little Tern colonies are hanging on. The terns and other waders like Ringed Plover breed on the beach in the open and are very
vulnerable to predators, weather and disturbance, so Gary is pleased that the reserve will have a beach warden this year. Disturbance to breeding birds can come in many guises, from microlights and paragliders to unexpected campers (!) and uncontrolled dogs.

Holme is famed for its Natterjack toads, which breed each year in shallow pools that are specially prepared for them. The pools must be shallow as deeper ones suffer from predation by such as dragonfly larvae. Between 1000 and 3000 toadlets emerge from these pools each year, but they are definitely on the menu for a range of predators, both before and after emergence. On the beach you might find the Dune Tiger Beetle, only found on the tip of Norfolk, or the rare and tiny Aphodius lividus, which is so small it doesn’t seem to have a common name. Another small and special inhabitant is a tiny liverwort that Gary has spent hours on hands and knees searching for.

To provide the different habitats needed for these various species the reserve has to be managed. ‘Scraping’ seems to be a major tool – creating bare of sparsely vegetated areas where the little things can thrive. Various grazing regimes have been tried, but the Konig ponies seem to be most successful. (Konig apparently means pony in Polish, so we are actually saying ‘pony ponies’.) All of this leads to some very beautiful plants flowering in spring and summer, including Bee orchids, Man orchids and Marsh Helleborines. Insects include the Bee Wolf, the Tansy Aphid and the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, and a new butterfly for the area, the Dark Green Fritillary. Perhaps the most interesting fungi we might find are the Nail fungi. In particular the Dung Button is a tiny dot of white that can be found on rabbit droppings! I am going to be walking around Holme with new eyes next time I go. Many thanks are due to Gary for an excellent overview. Can’t wait to get back there.

 

Indoor Meeting: Project Godwit  Speaker: Hannah Ward  21st March 2019

Reporter: Sue Gale

In her very clear and concise presentation Hannah told us all about Project Godwit, which she manages on behalf of the RSPB and WWT. We all see large numbers of Black-tailed Godwits during the winter months, but almost all of these birds return to Iceland to breed. They became extinct as breeding birds in England as far back as the 1800s, because of habitat loss caused by drainage of the wetlands. Currently there are fewer than 50 pairs in the country, 90% of which are at the Nene Washes. At nearby Ouse Washes they were down to 3 pairs in 2015, and this area has a problem with the increasing frequency of spring floods. New land has been acquired adjacent to Ouse Washes to provide a safe nesting area.

Project Godwit aims to secure a stable and sustainable breeding population in the 5 years of its funding. To do this they need to stop the downward trend in breeding productivity and maintain it at 0.5 chicks per pair at least. Predation has been identified as a major risk, and studies have identified Red Kites and foxes as significant factors. Electric fences around breeding areas have been successful in reducing this, and alternative food sources have lured Red Kites away. Colour ringing and radio tags have been used to track movement of the Godwits in the winter months, and birds have been reported in West Africa for the last three winters.

A major tool in the armoury is ‘headstarting’, which involves hand rearing of chicks to be released in the new habitat. Eggs are collected from early nests so that the birds have a chance to re-lay, and the hatchlings progress through aviaries until at 30 days they are ready to be released. But how are they doing? Were any still alive? Would they return to the new areas? Would they eventually establish a sustainable breeding population? Hannah left us to ponder the questions over the tea break.

The fledged birds stayed close to ‘home’ at first, but were later seen in North Norfolk and Essex. The following spring they were reported in France, presumably heading for home, and as late as 1 April in Belgium. Hannah wondered if they had inadvertently headstarted a Belgian population. Then to everyone’s delight some returned. Delph arrived at Welney, and in all 9 birds returned in their first summer, including 2 sets of siblings. Two females paired with wild birds and attempted to breed – most unexpectedly in their first summer. Sadly spring floods affected the birds that year, but eggs were collected from unsuitable farmland sites and used for the next round of headstarting. Even so, Earith successfully fledged a chick in her first year! By 2018 the wild population was slightly increased, but most importantly now spread over 3 sites, including Lady Fen. The best protection against flood damage will be a wider spread of nest sites, so Hannah and her colleagues are full of optimism.

To support the project you can become a Godwit Guardian. You will be able to follow the fortunes of a named bird. Sign up online at www.projectgodwit.org.uk. Many thanks to Hannah for a brilliant presentation.

Indoor Meeting Speaker Gary Prescott. Is there a Tapir at the Door 18th April 2019.

Reporter: Sue Gale

Well, this was a very different evening from our usual talks! Gary is the UK’s most famous ‘Biking Birder’, having cycled around all of the RSPB and WWT reserves in a single year. He has raised thousands of pounds for charity. He is very much the ‘Entertainer’ as well as a birder, and at one point he had us all singing! He even provided the words to ‘Bring me Sunshine’. I don’t think it was our strong point though. His talk was illustrated with pictures of the people he met in the UK and those he works with in Peru, as well as the usual birds from both countries.
Before the coffee break, when the sing-song happened, Gary concentrated on his travels in the UK and his efforts to become the Biking Birder record holder (which he is). He cycled around in all weathers, visiting 209 RSPB reserves and 9 WWT ones. At Strumpshaw I recall his visit, as I was on duty in reception at the time, but I didn’t know that he was going to sleep in the church afterwards – in the snow! He also made use of sheds, bus shelters and, of course, hides. In order to get the European record he had to stay some weeks on Fair Isle, and was lucky that many Eastern birds came in on a NE wind. He loves Fair Isle, but things are different there. When he needed just three more rarities to get the record he was made aware of a big twitch on the island: Arriving full of anticipation he found the bird was a Bluetit! (They are really rare on the Northern Isles). Luckily a Siberian Stonechat, Dusky Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush followed to make him a happy man.
Gary spends much of his time in Peru, where he works with disadvantaged children. Ha was able to show us some success stories of smiling young people now at various universities. However, he has also birded extensively there, mostly on a bike but sometimes in an inflatable boat of a most conspicuous colour. In his travels he saw 14 Andean Condors, picked out a rare (there) Laughing Gull from thousands of Franklins Gulls, found flocks of Andean Flickers (a woodpecker), and once was attacked by pigs. Gary pointed out the serious overgrazing of the grasslands that has led to a wildlife desert in some areas, but the Peruvian Government is now trying to reverse this.
A favourite destination was Manu national park, where there are 600 species of birds in its 70 mile reach, and over 3000 butterflies! He saw a Cock of the Rock lek here, and found a Giant Potoo while on an expedition to plant trees. He stayed with the locals by the river when water was too low to travel. Here were 3metre long Caiman which he was assured were not dangerous, and fresh Jaguar tracks. Gary was after another biking record in Peru, the world one, and he got his 619th bird, a Cream-Coloured Woodpecker, to claim that one too.
Gary’s book, ‘The Quest for 300’ by the Biking Birder was published in 2016. All proceeds go to charity. This certainly was an evening with a difference, and many thanks were extended to Gary.

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