Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Suffolk survey

Last weekend, I went to a National Nature Reserve woodland in Suffolk:


This wood is notable for being one of the few woods left in Britain that is still managed as an active coppice, which was the regime for around a quarter of woods in the pre-war era, and probably the majority of woods in the 18th or 19th centuries.

Rides separate the compartments, and provide convenient paths...

...and the compartments themselves are dominated by hazel and ash, which is cropped on something like a 15-20 year rotation, leading to very dense stands in some compartments near the end of the cycle (with a scattering of larger 'standards', such as oak, left to mature)...

...and open compartments where the poles were recently cut:

The reason for coming was to do a playback survey of the Marsh Tits, which slots into my existing stuff in Cambs and Oxon, and also the long-running studies of others going on at this wood. And the weather was absolutely perfect - sunny and calm:

Note the sparse tree canopy, with trees emerging above the dense shrub layer, typical of active coppice-with-standards.

The survey was extremely successful, and I think that I probably found every pair in the wood during the course of the morning. Judicious playback would often bring both birds of the pair to within a couple of metres, so that I could check the legs for rings (some have been ringed to help work out the pairs).

No rings on these:

But what's this in the sallow?

There's a BTO ring, and on the other leg will be the colour rings...

That's Green/White, a male who is paired with an unringed female. Many of the Marsh Tits were feeding among the sallow catkins, getting a dusting of yellow pollen on their faces:

And there was a lot of singing too...

All in all, I found 10 or 11 pairs - can't be exactly sure due to some awkward unringed pairs (or just a pair) that might have given me the run-around. That was exactly what I was expecting, being a couple less than one of my mature Cambs woods that's the same size (70 ha), as I'd factored in some unoccupied areas in the recently-cut parts of the coppice wood.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Keeled over Kittiwake

Another dead bird, this time found next to the bike sheds at the office, in Wallingford:

It's an adult Kittiwake, which should have been out in the Atlantic, thinking of heading to the breeding cliffs in a few weeks:

But instead it was blown inland by the Atlantic storms and ended up sheltering next to our bike shed for a few hours before dying overnight (there were droppings under the body, showing it had been there a while when alive).

The grey ear covert and nape indicated that it was still in winter plumage:

But it still had the vivid orange gape and tongue:

Also interesting to have a look at the feet, with their short tarsus and vestigial (almost absent) hind toe that gives them their scientific name of Rissa tridactyla (tridactyla = 'three-toed'):

It was extremely emaciated, with a muscle score of 1 at best. There have been lots of dead and dying seabirds washed up on the south/west coast recently, which have been starving due to the stormy weather preventing them from feeding. So they get weak, and then pushed towards the shore and 'wrecked' when they're dead or dying. It seems clear that this Kittiwake was part of the same event, having been unable to feed at sea and so becoming weak, and then blown about 100 km inland before becoming moribund next to the Thames. Shame.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Bye-bye Barn Owl

The local Barn Owl came a cropper this week, and got hit by a vehicle on the hill just outside the village:

It had quite a whack, as it had a broken wing, broken leg, and fractured skull, and was found at the side of the road, so cause of death was pretty obvious.

Based on the pure white underparts, wear on the primaries, and pattern of the tail, I think it's a first-winter male, hatched in 2013:

He'll now go to the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme to test for contaminants and add to the national monitoring.

Also had a nice ringing recovery through from BTO, an adult Garden Warbler ringed at Monks Wood in Aug 2010 and retrapped at Lackford Lakes reserve in Suffolk on 7th May 2013, just two days short of 1000 days later. I suspect it might have have been making its way back to Monks Wood to breed, or perhaps it had relocated. But inbetween it had been to central/west Africa and back three times, spending the winters in somewhere like Gambia, Sierra Leone or DR Congo.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Bagley beginnings

The second trapping session at Bagley Wood, and the Marsh Tit colour-ringing study has finally gotten off the mark, with three birds ringed out of 2 pairs present.

This is the first Marsh Tit colour-ringed in Bagley Wood since the first British study on the species 72 years ago, by Mick Southern and Averil Morley, in this exact plot:

Having read every word of Southern & (especially) Morley's extensive work on Marsh Tits at Bagley in the 1930s and 40s, it's nice to be working on their study plot after all these years, using methods that they pioneered. Who knows, with the sedentary nature of Marsh Tits, maybe this bird is even directly related to the ones they caught and ringed and knew so well.

Morley's study population consisted of 4-5 pairs in this same area, and today I am finding only two pairs remaining, reflecting the serious national decline of the Marsh Tit.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Coprophagous fox

I've had the camera trap back out at the bottom of the garden for the last few nights. It's picked up at least one, and possibly two or more, Red Foxes.

This one decided to have a big poo in centre stage, and then turned around and ate it:


I haven't heard of coprophagy in foxes before (but then I'm no fox expert), especially not a hot meal that they've just produced! But I suppose it makes sense - carnivore digestive tracts are quite inefficient, and so putting something through the system a second time can maximise the energy intake.

The next night was much wetter, and the doings much more brief:


Friday, 15 November 2013

Morley's echo

This afternoon I paid a visit to the study site of Averil Morley, who, under the initial tutelage of Mick Southern, carried out the first detailed study of Marsh Tits, at Bagley Wood in the 1930s and 40s. Morley was the first to try winter baiting and cage-trapping of Marsh Tits, in order to colour-ring her study population, and this is the standard technique still used today. Before that, people only caught them at the nest-hole in spring, using hair nets!

This is how Morley described her study area in a corner of Bagley Wood in 1950:

The area is mainly mature oak wood with an undergrowth of bluebells, 
bracken and brambles. It lies about 3 miles to the south of Oxford upon
Kimmeridge clay with patches of Plateau Gravel, and measures about
50 acres. The conformation of the ground is dictated by a stream which 

runs parallel to the northwestern boundary about 150 yards from it and 
then turns southward. From this stream the ground slopes up gently to 
the south and slightly more abruptly to the north-west. Along the small
valley thus formed an abundance of bushy elder spreads up the lower 

slopes, giving plenty of nest-sites for all species of titmice, while towards 
the eastern end the ground near the stream becomes swampy and such 
trees as willow and alder appear.

But what I first found on walking from the sawmill was a little different!

Much of Bagley is a commercial timber wood, and encroaching onto Morley's plot were serried stands of non-native conifers - larch, cedar and pine.

But then the softwoods opened out onto a mature oakwood:

This looked much more like Morley's description, with large mature English Oaks that were easily old enough to have been mature even in her time, 70 years ago:

But some things had changed quite a lot. The stream that ran through Morley's plot is now just a dry shallow valley, and almost all of the "abundance of bushy elder" had gone, along with the bramble:

But some patches of understorey remained, along with climbers and fallen trees:

Some of the oaks were also well drilled with woodpecker nest-holes:

Morley monitored 4-5 Marsh Tit territories in this area between 1937 and 1942, but died in 1957 at the young age of 43. Her papers are classics in the study of this species, and of early Oxford ornithology. She also published a volume of poetry in 1946 that was heavily inspired by her years of long days alone in this wood. One poem is entitled The Marsh-Tit in Bagley Wood, and begins:

Still deep and deeper still
I walk into the wood, am gone from the world of men
To the world of birds, among the grey-bodied oaks and the
Above me, in the pause of the wind,
The marsh-tit sings to his neighbour,
From the treetop in the hollow hand of the sky
Among the ancient brown oak-buds he sings,
And the age of the world is lifted.