Ringing in the Reedbeds

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An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes. The aim is to concentrate on the Bearded Tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is fairing. It turned out to be a reasonable start and we caught a good number of birds. The females all had brood patches which signifies breeding so things are looking good.

Bearded Tits, actually called Bearded Parrotbills now (formally Bearded Reedlings) are one of Farlingtons iconic species. They draw in a lot of people as the site has a very good population, especially for its size. The only issue is that they are very difficult to see. Normally all you get is a fleeting view of them as they bounce over the top of the reed before quickly dropping down. This makes monitoring very difficult and really the only way that we have a chance of getting a population estimate is through ringing. This also helps us look at longevity of individuals and location within the reed bed itself. All very useful stuff which can help influence how we manage the site.

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A very handsome male Reed Bunting

It was a good session catching Bearded Tits, Reed Bunting, Cetties Warbler and Sedge Warbler. The whole reed bed was alive with the chatter of segdes and there were even some Reed Warbler there. These will build up steadily as they migrate in and then disperse leaving the breeding population.

The Lapwing have begun to settle down and there seems to be a good number of Redshank on the marsh and in the hay field. Hopefully we will see a higher than average year for these this year but its still early days. The Lapwing are in low numbers but this is the same across many sites at the moment so hopefully they are just late arriving.

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The very noisy Sedge Warbler

Helping out the beardies

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We have spent a couple of days working in the reed bed at Farlington. I love reed beds, they’re one of my favourite habitats. Once your in a few metres, you have a huge sense of isolation with all the reed towering above you. The best part of the Farlington reed beds is that as soon as you step in, you are surrounded by Bearded Tits making their classic ‘ping’ call.

Reed beds are an unusual habitat with lots of interesting traits. They are essentially effemeral, only existing naturally for a reasonable short length of time (in the grand scheme of landscapes). They doom themselves as they grow each year, die and steadily raise the level of the soil, eventually drying out the area within which they are growing and then getting out competed buy more vigorous plants. I suppose that you can say this about many habitats as succession eventually changes them into the climax community, normally a woodland.

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Cutting reed, great fun!

So, if you want reed beds to stay as reed bed in the long term you have to manage them and the key to reed bed longevity is to cut them and remove the cuttings so that they don’t build up. Some places even graze them, short stocky ponies that don’t sink are often the beast of choice. The simple rule is if you cut the reed in winter, you promote the reed. If you cut in summer, you suppress the reed and allow other species to grow. Like most things it isn’t all together that simple but that is the basic premise.

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Raking reed, great fun!

Water levels throughout the year play a vitally important role.You don’t want to flood freshly cut reed in the summer as it will drown. You also need to flood the reed bed, preferably in sections to allow invertebrate species to thrive and support the species higher up the trophic levels, species such as Bittern, Bearded Tits, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Cettis Warblers. These are all reed bed specialists, many of which are in decline due to the lack of large reed beds in the UK.

Bearded Tits are one of the most iconic species at Farlington. I meet a lot of people who have come to the site just to see them. They are however very tricky to see. A warm still day is best and you can see the floating over the top of the reed or between the patches of reed by the sluice. During winter they feed on reed seed and therefore need grit to help digest this. During the breeding season they switch to high energy invertebrates to feed their nestlings.

They nest quite close to the ground , preferring older dense stands of reed. There is evidence to suggest that newer reed stands, (reed that was cut that winter or the one before) have a higher seed density and support higher invertebrate numbers, suggesting that a mix of older and newer stands will yield the highest number of birds.

With this all in mind we have cut some small patches of reed bed this year. This also creates edge habitat which species such as reed warbler prefer, nesting very close to the edge of the reed. Cutting sections maximises this usable area. It also allowed us to collect the cut reed to turn in to nest boxes for bearded tits.

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Great work from the team, lots of bearded tit nests

Last year there was big issues with the water levels in the reed bed and we think that the bearded tits may have really suffered as their nests may have been flooded out. They are also restricted to the dryer sections of the reed bed in which they can nest. An RSPB reserve up north called Leighton Moss have used nest ‘wigwams’ to great success, opening up more reed bed to the bearded tits and maximising the area that they can use. We though that we’d give it a go. they may not get used and they are certainly doing quite well but I was keen to have somewhere safe that they can nest in as a back up in case of severe flooding again. It’s also quite cool.

Making the nests was surprisingly difficult. You bundle a load of reeds together. You then tie off both ends. The secret is to tie them off super tight. I mean SUPER tight. This stops the reed slipping but also makes the next stage really hard. You have to tease the reed out into a wigwam shape with a nice little cavity in the middle in which they can nest.

An old goose

429a3052We have been undertaking a large survey project this winter, looking at movements of Brent Geese and waders around the Solent. This will hopefully help towards guiding development in the future as we hope to highlight which areas are most important for the birds. This may be a large reserve like Farlington or a playing field such the Polo Field in Gosport or the college playing fields in Portsmouth.

What is key is to work out what fields are important and how they move around these, not only throughout the day as part of their natural cycle but also when they are flushed by some sort of disturbance event, such as a dog walker, jogger etc. Do they just move a small distance and return or do they move site completely, potentially highlighting a suit of sites in one area that are important if they are moved on by human activity.

With that in mind, we have been looking at a lot of geese! Several thousand throughout the Solent area but one in particular has been noticed a couple of times. This is G4 a colour ringed brent goose that was spotted on the 13th of Feburary in Portsmouth. This was ringed in 1999 in Farlington as a Juvenile. It was then recorded around the harbour, mainly off Portsea Island all winter. It then disappeared until September 2000 when it showed up at Farlington again. It followed the same pattern as the year before and then on 30th March it was recorded at Leyhoern Nature Reserve on the North Coast of Germany.

It was then recorded almost every year in the Netherlands in late April or early May and then it was then picked up in Portsmouth again in 2011 and 2012 during early winter and then Germany in 2014 and 2015 in early April.

This shows the clear staging areas that this goose was using along the coast of the Netherlands and the north coast of Saxony. It spent many of its winters (probably all of them) in the Langstone harbour area and then around April it popped over the sea and spent a month or so in Netherlands and Germany before carrying on up north.

The early data is much more complete, with more recorders around then. This allowed a good idea of what was happening around the harbour for this goose and this is reflective of at least its family group if not a wider sub population as the geese are creatures of habit and tend to do the same thing each day, each year.

We have started to see patterns through the survey work that we have undertaken this year. For instance the Gosport geese follow a circuit around the amenity pitches throughout the day before flying out to Portsmouth harbour to roost. The geese off of the west side of Hayling move out to the RSPB islands at high tide before moving onto Farlington and then on to the playing field behind and then reverse to roost in the lakes on the reserve or on the islands.429a2881

It’s really important that we know what these birds are doing and the colour ringing scheme has provided some excellent data. Not only do we know that that goose is 18 years old (oldest record is 28) but we know roughly where it goes whilst its in our area and then where its staging grounds are on the way back north. There are a number of different colour ringing schemes across the area on a wide species of birds such as Black Tailed Godwits. The bird pictured above was recorded moving around the Solent area one year,showing a range of sites used. It was then recorded in late Spring in Iceland. The next winter it was back in the Solent area before heading to the west country. Really interesting stuff.

 

Seals

csc_0011I’m often talking to the public about the on-goings of wildlife in the harbour and almost always it’s dominated by birds because, as i’m sure many of you are aware, we have a fair few birds around.

What surprises me though is the lack of knowledge that we have on, in my opinion, one of the most charismatic and graceful creatures living within our waters. The Common Seal. Also known as Harbour Seals, they are found around the coast of the UK. They are fairly infrequent along the south coast, especially in  a busy strip such as the Solent but they have, against all the odds, set up home in Langstone and Chichester. I don’t know if they have always been there in low numbers or have recolonized at some point in the recent past.

They are in low numbers, I believe 43 was the last count over the two harbours. That doesn’t sound low but then when compared to high density areas such as Scotland and Cornwall, this is pretty a small number. In fact the vast majority of the seals in the UK, which make up a large proportion of the global population, live in Scotland. This, you assume, is due to the lack of people in Scotland  and the endless uninhabited beaches and islands. The waters up there are also very rich in fish. Compare them to the Solent and you are justified in your surprise that they persist here.

Langstone and Chichester Harbour however are very different to Scotland with more activity such as boats, ships, canoes, water skiers and a very high population and development rate. It does, at low tide, offer numerous safe haul outs for the seals. Unlike Grey Seals which favour rocky secluded shoreline, Harbour Seals prefer sandy/muddy flat areas where they can beach themselves at low tide and float off when it rises. This the harbour has in abundance.

The Wildlife Trust initiated a joint project a few years ago to look at the population in the harbour.  Some very interesting stuff was discovered, especially with the radio tracked individuals. These showed just how mobile they are, ranging long distances to feed but returning to the same haul outs.

Farlington is a reliable spot to see them. On a nice day you can sit at the point with a scope and at low tide, if you scan the mudflats and sand bars you’re likely to come across one or two. I also regularly see them swimming around the islands off to the east.

All in all, we’re very lucky to have them. Common seals are decreasing, despite their name and it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for them.

 

A code of conduct can be seen here

http://www.langstoneharbour.org.uk/images/upload/files/about-publications-files_pdf_2098.pdf

 

A Grand Old Age for a Godwit

Regular readers of this blog and visitors to the coast will be very aware of the various colour-ringing schemes carried out on the wildfowl and waders of the Solent. These schemes have generally been undertaken by Farlington Ringing Group and over the years many hundreds of birds have been captured and ringed on Farlington Marshes in Langstone Harbour, as well as several other sites. Periodically we publish posts of interesting sightings, the last one being the Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos that was found breeding in Norway after initially being ringed at Farlington Marshes.

The Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa is a familiar and perhaps iconic species of the Solent and along with the dark-bellied brent goose Branta bernicla bernicla, is one of the primary reasons for the Solent’s designation as a Special Protection Area. The black-tailed godwits frequenting the British Isles in the winter are of the Icelandic race L. l. islandica. The species only began regularly wintering in Hampshire in the 1940’s: numbers increased initially but levelled off in the 1970’s. Despite this population undergoing a sustained growth for many years, with the national wintering population showing a similar growth, the Hampshire population has not shown a corresponding increase.

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Black-tailed Godwits – Farlington Marshes

Colour-ringing studies on Black-tailed Godwits began in the late 1990’s, driven by Pete Potts of Farlington Ringing Group and his dedicated team of volunteers. The aim of the studies was to increase the number of sightings, in order to build up a picture of how birds move around during the winter months, and establish where birds wintering in Hampshire were breeding in Iceland. The sightings generated and subsequent data gathered has been tremendous and the movement of birds is now well understood.

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Black-tailed Godwits with colour rings

One of the earliest birds colour-ringed in Hampshire was ES74718 (or B+BL according to her colour rings). She was caught at Farlington Marshes on 16th November 1998 and was aged as an adult female. She has been recorded almost every year since her original ringing date and has been sighted 117 times. Unlike many other colour-ringed godwits, she has never been recorded outside of the UK, but has been recorded at some point most winters in Hampshire. On the rare occasions she has been recorded outside of the county, she has been recorded in West Sussex, Thorney Island July to August 2000, August 2001, August 2002 and September 2012, Pagham Harbour July 2001 and February 2014, Fishbourne Channel, October 2003 and September 2008, Chichester Harbour September 2011, Emsworth Harbour October 2015 and Pulborough Brooks, January 2016, Isle of Wight, Newtown Harbour December 2002, Motney Hill, Kent, July & August 2011.

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Black-tailed Godwit (ES74718) – Originally ringed in November 1998 and one to look out for over the coming winters

I first encountered her on 19th December 2007 from Port Solent in Southampton and re-sighted her only this week (10th January 2017) in Portsmouth Harbour at Porchester. This latest sighting must make her nearly 20 years old, and if she is recorded over the next four winters she will claim the national longevity record for Black-tailed Godwit, so one to look out for over the next few years.

Marsh Tits

dsc_0210I managed to spend five minutes today watching one of my favorite birds at Swanick Lakes. Marsh Tits have massively declined in the UK – unfortunately a common trend for too many bird species. This is partly due to a number of reasons, food availability, climate change, habitat loss, displacement by more robust bird species such as Blue Tit. We’re therefore very lucky to have a healthy population in Swanick and on Hookheath.

Despite it’s name, Marsh Tits don’t prefer wet woodland, they are a an inhabitant of older, developed woodland which, importantly, has a good mid-level shrub layer. It nests in tree cavities much like Great Tit and Blue Tit and is less aggressive and therefore often out-competed by these two species. The work that I have recently blogged about has Marsh Tit in the forefront of our minds, as coppice work develops this shrub layer if managed carefully.

It’s easy to identify when you see it on site, a black head with a  little black bib under the chin, with an olive/buff colouration on the body. The species that it is confused with is a Willow Tit, something that, unfortunately, we do not get down here any more, with one small population occurring in the north of the county. Willow Tit has seen the same decline in population but is a much more northerly based bird, with its stronghold in the Cheshire and Manchester areas. The call separates these two species most effectively, with the Marsh Tit giving a sneeze like, ‘pcheeew’ call.

The feeders at Swanick are an excellent place to view them, though they are not frequent visitors, and mainly in the winter months. They do pop down briefly but do not linger, snatching a seed and returning to the safety of a tree to eat it. This is in stark contrast to some of the other species on the feeders today, such as this greedy Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch.

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To Norway, Farlington Marshes and Norway again….

Members and regular readers of the summer 2016 edition of our Wildlife magazine will have hopefully read my short news article about the Common Sandpiper that was ringed as part of a long term study at Farlington Marshes. As mentioned in that article, Duncan Bell from Farlington Ringing Group ringed an adult Common Sandpiper on 10th August 2013, and fitted it with a unique combination of coloured leg rings. These were used to increase the chances of the bird being recovered would enable the bird to be specifically identified in the field.

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Common Sandpiper – Farlington Marshes. August 2013 (Duncan Bell)

On 6th March 2016 Duncan received an email from the International Wader Study Group requesting information on this bird. Rune Nilsson, a Norwegian birder had recorded it breeding on 1st July 2015 on the River Vismunda near Lake Mjøsa, in Norway, and submitted an image of the bird to confirm his sighting.

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Common Sandpiper – Norway. July 2015 (Rune Nilsson)

On 21st July 2015, Rob Skinner (our Reserves Officer at the time) saw the same bird back at Farlington Marshes, feeding along the stream, which we were pretty excited about. Whilst this was not the first Common Sandpiper movement between Hampshire and Norway, to our knowledge this was the first time that a Hampshire ringed bird has been recorded on its breeding ground and back at the place of ringing. But the story doesn’t end there….

In July 2016 Rune contacted Duncan again to inform him that the same bird was indeed back at its breeding ground. He included a series of photos and maps of its location, the site  where the bird breeds and the bird itself.

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Common Sandpiper – Norway. July 2016 (Rune Nilsson)

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Breeding location in Norway (Rune Nilsson)

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The 2016 nest site is approximately 100m downstream and in the bushes on the left bank, in the distance is the busy E^ highway which connects Norway south-north. (Rune Nilsson)

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View of river from the same location as above but looking towards Lake Mjøsa (Rune Nilsson)

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Common Sandpiper on 15th July 2016 in Norway (Rune Nilsson)

We suspect that this bird is a male since it has now returned to the same breeding site for two consecutive years, and hope that it will do so for many years yet. The Common Sandpiper is a moderately common passage migrant in Hampshire; with a few birds regularly wintering. The national longevity record is 15y, 1m, 5d set in 2007, with the oldest recorded bird in Hampshire being 8y 0m 0d (18/08/1977 – 18/08/1985), a bird ringed and retrapped at Farlington Marshes. We are very grateful to Rune for keeping Duncan informed with sightings of this bird and hope to be able to give further updates in the future.