Ringing in the Reedbeds

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An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes nature reserve. The aim is to concentrate on the bearded tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is faring. 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 Farlington’s 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, Cetti’s 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

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Sightings for week ending 12/03/2017

Its been a busy week down Farlington this week. Lots of Bearded Tits, a Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, Barn Owl, tons of Curlew, Brent Geese and Shelduck and still a Short Eared Owl or two. There was a leucistic duck by the building Tuesday which I think was a Gadwall, despite being positioned next to a Pintail.

Today was particularly gloomy but there were 500+ Dunlin feeding on the mudflats west of the marsh with a few Black Tailed Godwits and Redshank mixed in. There was also one solitary Avocet roosting on the lake. I haven’t seen any Avocet around for a little while, despite the high numbers earlier in the year.

Spring really descended on Thursday. We were working in tshirts at Swanwick Lakes, basking in the warmth on the edge of the lakes. Whilst we were sat at lunch we had a Brimstone, Peacock, Comma and a Red Admiral pass by! These are the first butterflies that I have seen this year.

I think Saturday will be the better day this weekend and so will be a good opportunity to see the last of the waders and wildfowl. The numbers have certainly dropped significantly in the last couple of weeks and it will be sensible to keep an eye out for the first of the summer migrants. Reports of Wheatears and House/Sand Martins have been arriving across the country for a week or so now!

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, Cetti’s 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.

Sightings for week ending 05/03/2017

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It’s been a mixed week weather wise and I think that this will carry on into the weekend with Saturday looking good but Sunday turning grim. So if you are getting out, Saturday would be the best bet.

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I have managed to spend a lot of time down at Farlington this week which has been lovely. Thursday was a fantastic day where we worked in the reedbed and I am glad to say that we were absolutely surrounded by Bearded Tits. I waded into the reed to look for a ditch and four were sat in a tall stand. They were pinging around us all day. Unfortunately this does not help you if you wish to see them as my best views have been whilst standing deep within the reed. I have seen them regularly near the feeder by the building and I have tried to keep it stocked with grit. I have also put millet in and the Reed Buntings are often present.They have started singing as well, I had a lovely view of a pair today.

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With some reasonable spring tides the marsh has been alive with birds. Well over a thousand Brent Geese were in the deeps on Tuesday and today they moved onto the top of the north marsh. Wigeon, Lapwing, Teal, Shelduck and Pintail are still in high numbers and today there were a good number of Grey Plover and Dunlin on the deeps.

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I sat at the lake after checking the sluice today and I was graced with a fly past from the Short Eared Owl and then the Peregrine put everything up. Later in the afternoon a Barn Owl floated up and down the eastern sea wall before heading into the bushes. This combined with a Buzzard and a feeding Kestrel made for a good day for predatory birds.

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There was a Kingfisher reported by the deeps today and I saw one at Southmoor this morning, hovering above the inter-tidal area.

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All in all there are still plenty of waders and wildfowl in Farlington but they’ll soon be going so it’s worth getting down for a last look.

Sightings for week ending 29/01/2017

dsc_0509Nearly the end of the month! January has flown by in a flurry of Brent geese and waders! This week has been a good one too. I have spent some time down at Farlington and you may see our hedge laying work down by the building. I’m quite pleased with it, the volunteers have done an excellent job, especially as for many of them it was their first time laying.I also remembered to take my camera out with me for once as did our student from Sparsholt (thanks Gwyneth) hence the overload of images on this post.

The star of the show, in my opinion, this week has been the Marsh Harrrier which has been cruising over the reed bed for a few days now. It is quite obliging and regularly pirouettes mid air whist quartering.  No less impressive have been the Bearded Tits which have been seen a lot up by the building and the feeder, even in the thick fog at the start of the week. I filled the feeder on Thursday so hopefully this may draw them in this weekend.

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Marsh Harrier

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Black Tailed Godwit and Teal – Gwyneth Mitchell

The usual high numbers of Black Tailed Godwits, Redshank, Avocet and Dunlin have been in the lake at high tide and Widgeon, Teal, Pintail and Lapwing have been in good numbers across the site. Three Short Eared Owls are still around, using the Point Field and the Main Marsh.

I am please to say that the Brent Goose numbers have rocketed in the last week and where we were only getting a few hundred, well over a thousand are now using the fields, especially the hay meadow. This is much more in line with what we would expect. I was surveying this morning, looking out to Farlington from Broadmarsh. Hundreds of geese were along the foreshore and between the islands and they steadily moved into the marsh at high tide.

The Robins are, to be completely honest, getting to ridiculous numbers in the bushes at the moment. Whilst cutting scrub on Thursday there must have been 20 over the four patches we were clearing. There were also a few Stonechats coming over to see what we were unearthing. One of our wardens thought that they saw a Black Redstart so worth keeping your eyes peeled, it’s a great little bird.

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Stonechat inspecting our handiwork

Southmoor was also very good today. 40 Red-Breasted Merganser were off the point, mingling with Gadwall and Widgeon. There was also a Greenshank sitting on the end of the stream.

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Greenshank

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Marsh Harrier

The Swanwick feeders have been as busy as usual with Nuthatch, Bullfinches and Marsh Tit.

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A beautiful pair of Bullfinches – Gwyneth Mitchell

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A handsome Marsh Tit – Gwyneth Mitchell

Sighting for week ending 22/01/2017

A very chilly week! Lots of ice around and most of the stream and lake at Farlington and all the lakes at Swanwick remained frozen, especially at the latter end of the week.

Farlington was busy as usual. There was the usual Avocet, Short Eared Owls and Pintail around and the Spotted Redshank has been posing nicely by the building. Raven and Peregrine have been cruising over very frequently and I had a report of a Marsh Harrier earlier today.

I saw three Common seals off the point today, lolling around on a sand bar and somebody reported two Eider off the east side on Thursday. The bearded tits seemed to have split with some down by the sluice and the others up by the building. They seem quite active at the moment and like it by the bush next to the feeder. The lower ones often bob over the top of the reed, flitting between the reed either side of the sluice.

There seemed to be more brents today on the marsh. I estimated around 800-1000 which is higher than I’ve seen recently, which is good. The numbers of Wigeon are still high, feeding mainly around the deeps and there seems to be an awful lot of Canada Geese this year.

I checked the cows at Biddenfield today, hoping to see some flocks of finches due to the cold weather. There wasn’t much around but a Red Kite did soar over with a Buzzard close on its heels. First one I’ve seen in that area. The Ravens bomb through there regularly.

 

Sightings for the week ending 15/01/2017

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Spotted Redshank (courtesy of Alan Dunk)

A wet end to the week, none of the snow that we were promised though. I suppose that is good, though I do really enjoy the snow. I spent the week at Swanwick mostly where the feeders were overflowing with feeding Blue Tits, Bull Finches, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Marsh Tits, Nuthatch, Great spotted Woodpeckers and Long Tailed Tits. So, if you want some nice photos of some nice woodland bird species, this is an excellent spot.

A quick walk through Hookheath on Friday didn’t turn up a lot, a few Marsh Tit and Bullfinch but not a lot else.

Nothing has changed much at Farlington this week. Maybe this cold weather will push some more birds down but so far Brent Geese numbers remain low but wader numbers are consistently high. The Spotted Redshank is being very obliging and feeding by the building. I was down there last weekend and the Bearded Tits were at the southern end of the reed bed, flitting around near the outlet. Usually they are up by the building this time of year.