Wednesday, November 28, 2007

New Breeding Bird Survey Organiser

Kate Risely, formerly of the Ringing Unit, has won out to become the new National BBS organiser - following on from the departure of Mike Raven to pastures new. Due to pressures in the Ringing Unit Kate will not be taking up her new position until 1st Feb 2008 so, in the meantime, Rachel Coombes will continue to be the immediate point of contact. For those of you going to Swanwick in a few days time! both Kate and Rachel will be present for a meet and greet (and the sharing of a bevvy or two no doubt).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Phenology Lecture

Today I managed to slip away and attend a lecture by Tim Sparks, probably the countries' (maybe Europes') leading expert on Phenology. His lecture was aimed at the concept 'is it a useful pastime or a scientific pursuit?' - possibly much in line with the volunteer relationship within the BTO.
On the one hand it can be a harmless, if nutty hobby, like the man who records the first and last time he cuts his lawn every year; to the scientific collection of data on a regular basis each and every year. To work in this field it was said you have to be one third mathematician and two thirds lunatic (or so the public perceive of many).
He presented examples right across taxa to illustrate his point, hinting at, but not really expanding on, the important facet of phenology - that of synchronisity. It's really not about whether this plant is flowering earlier and longer (although that is important), but whether the biodiversity that relies on this plant can adapt quickly enough to this change in order to survive.
He also introduced the phenology website at: On this I managed to find sighting dates for swift and managed to compare them with the same time period from 2002. Interestingly in 2002 peak sightings were on 15th August, while in 2007 it was 7th Aug - interesting? What was apparent, from his talk not this graph, was that most bird sightings appear to be on a Saturday or Sunday. So, question, when do birds know its the weekend so that they can arrive to be counted by all those birdwatchers out for the weekend?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Things on my mind

With a National Atlas Working Group meeting looming up for next week, I thought I’d review the situation from ‘home turf’ so to speak. Although I am helping to co-ordinate ‘the’ local Atlas from Merseyside to Cumbria my primary responsibility is for my home BTO region. Locally we are trying to cover every tetrad in each 10km square but, nationally, the BTO only requires coverage of 8 tetrads per 10km square.

I have sole, or partial, BTO responsibility for 10x10km squares. To date, all but one of these (SJ49) has the minimum 8 tetrad BTO coverage allocated. Three of them SD20, 21 and 41 have 100% coverage and the rest have partial coverage but most, fortunately, approaching or at half coverage – which is good going I think for the first of four years.

If you want to monitor Atlas progress visit the BTO website at:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The latest bird in the hand...

A three (hatched this year) male Lesser Redpoll. Weighing in at a steady 10.1 grams, with no noticeable body fat. Wing length 69mm.
Also caught another five Goldfinches in the back garden plus a juvenile Robin.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bluer eggs mean fitter young

Spanish researchers, reported in New Scientist, have found that the intensity of the colour of Spotless Starling eggs is related to the body condition and strength of the female. The weaker and more stressed the female, the paler the egg. So what you may think - seems obvious. However, this case of apparent sexual ornamentation in females affects the male insofar that he then tends to feed offspring from darker eggs 1.5 fold more often than young from paler eggs.

The study, performed on a clutch by clutch basis, seems to indicate that males alter their parental investment according to an indirect signal from their offspring – i.e. the colour of their egg.

How does the colour represent female fitness? Well more healthy females are thought to forage more, consume more insects that contain high levels of biliverdin, a bluish antioxidant that helps to protect cells against damage from reactive compounds, and so produce bluer eggs. The young from these bluer eggs are then found to have a more active immune system giving then a survival advantage over young from pale eggs.

The complete study will be published in the American Naturalist in Feb 2008:

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I like Starlings

These images were posted by the Daily Mail (not a paper I come across very often) of Starlings coming to roost somewhere just outside Gretna Green in Scotland. Fantastic - if only Runcorn Bridge had half of this number!
The paper then tried to 'add' to the spectacle by drawing comparisons with other birds - the first photo a penguin, the second Donald Duck.


Came across this interesting website for those of your interested in Swallows. Click on the 'research' link and it'll take you onto their further webpages listing all of their findings:
Clip from the site:

We are a group of scientists who have studied barn swallows in parts of Europe, Africa and North America during the last 20 years. We have used barn swallows to investigate numerous ideas in ecology and evolution, with a particular emphasis on sexual selection

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What a load of c***

I've just received the latest edition of British Wildlife, the sister publication to British Birds. As is usual I tend to read this from cover to cover starting with the smaller articles first. I must relate to you the contents of one article as it has all to do with censorship of RSPB web-pages. Apparently the great and good have decided that the word 'cock' is no longer a suitable word to be seen on pages that may be viewed by younger surfers. So, no more cock Robin - or Woodcock! Male and female is preferable terminology and, where substitution is not possible, cock must be replaced by ****. What a load of bull!
It appears that the use of the word cock by our American masters is far more derogatory over there - so the word has to go. Never mind the fact that cock has a whole different set of meanings over here - not least in cocky slang, me old cock-sparra!
This is just another nail in the coffin of common-sense and another pamper to the nanny state we are being forced to live in. Here endeth the political diatribe - wonder what will be next - no more Blue TIT, Great TIT, BLACKbird, GODwit etc.
NB. Before any one says - no, that isn't the cover of the most recent edition, well spotted.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Breeding Season 2007

Initial analysis of "Constant Effort Site" ringing has indicated some terrible breeding seasons for some species. Seven had their worse breeding season ever - the greatest sufferer being Blue Tit (48% below the long-term average). Other species affected were Great Tit (33% below normal (bn)), Reed Warbler (27% bn), Whitethroat (25% bn) and Willow Warbler (19% bn). Treecreeper and Willow Tit also fared badly but figures produced may be unrepresentative due to the small sample size.
On the other hand though Long-tailed tits, being early nesters (before the bad weather of May, June and July), showed an increase of 48% on the long-term average.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A sad day

The Madeiran large white has been declared the first butterfly in Europe to be driven into extinction as a result of the impact of mankind.
Conservationists have spent 15 years combing its home territory but have been unable to find it and the butterfly was declared extinct this week at a conference in Laufen, Germany, where experts said that several other species could follow it into oblivion. The Madeiran large white had suffered a terminal decline because of loss of habitat to the construction of new businesses and homes, including holiday homes. Pollution from agricultural fertilisers was also likely to have played a part in killing off the species.
Article: TimesOnline. Photo:Lewis Scott

Atlas update at T+4

So, how's it going? Nationally 16722 tetrads have been allocated - about 40% of the total. As of today 25604 records have been submitted with 313706 birds counted; with some being breeding records (one of Feral Pigeons with unfledged young).
Within Merseyside the map shows the tetrad number allocated to date per 10km square. A green square means that the minimum number of eight tetrads have been allocated (for both summer and winter). Where it is not green the first number indicates tetrads allocated and the second number the maximum tetrads available (within the BTO Merseyside Region). We're getting there - it's only been four days and we have four years.
The BTO requires a minimum of eight tetrads per 10km square. However, the local Atlas we are undertaking at the same time, needs 100% coverage of all tetrads. So we have set ourselves a higher target - I'm sure we'll get there in the end.

Special blue light.

We all know what migration is but, how it happens, is only being progressed in small steps. The latest addition to knowledge has appeared this week in the on-line Public Library of Science. Today’s theory is based on the cryptochrome. A cryptochrome is a blue-light sensitive molecule (birds migrate better in blue light apparently) that, when hit by a blue-photon, changes form, with part of it being passed, in one direction, to an adjoining flavin protein. This creates an instability which can be reversed by an electrical shift in the opposing direction. The rate at which this reverse shift occurs can be modulated by a surrounding magnetic field so, if it happens slowly enough a bird can calibrate the signal received against the Earth’s magnetic field and, hey presto, work out where it is. German researchers have discovered that the signal generated lasts a 1000 times longer than is necessary for the bird to interpret the signal received so, they argue, it has more than enough time to calculate where it is in respect of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The image shown is from an unrelated article but is a composite image of the magnetic ‘fields’ of the Earth.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Well, it officially started today. The BTO/SOC/BWi four year breeding and winter atlas, recording everything under feather, started today. So, having just (nearly) completed doing the whole thing for Cheshire and Wirral over the last three years, I'm into it again for the BTO and also for the Lancashire and Cheshire Fauna Society who are undertaking the same objective but at a much greater resolution. As Steve Redgrave said about boats and shooting I'll say the same about myself and Atlases (no more after this one, or was that two?).
So to all of you birdy types out there now is your chance to contribute to a local and national dataset that will be used for all-time - your chance at immortality. If you want to help - either by submitting the odd record or two, or you want to undertake something a bit more scientific, visit the Bird Atlas website at: to register and get on board (back to boats again). Or, if you prefer a less formal approach get back to me direct.

My first birds of the Atlas were Goldfinch's, closely followed by Magpie and Pied Wagtail. Interestingly, someone, somewhere has already submitted results to the BTO including full breeding codes - beat that!!