Monday, 11 January 2021

Ythan Twite a twittering

 Hi Aye, Happy New Lockdown 2021 to yiz all. Here's a wee bittie aboot oor Twite.

Following low numbers for several years now the wintering twite flock around the Ythan Estuary seems to have taken a turn for the better. It is difficult to establish exact numbers as there is usually a varying number of linnets in the flock but we think there could be over 200 present. Three catches so far have resulted in 175 different twite being handled.

The graph shows the number of different twite caught here each winter from 2018/19. What a whopping increase this winter! It also shows there are a lot more juveniles in the flock than in the previous two.

With twite not being artificially fed/ringed at Montrose Basin this winter (75km down the coast) we wondered if the increase might be partially down to some of these birds shifting north but the only Montrose bird we have caught so far has been a bird which was ringed there in October 2018 and retrapped at the Ythan the same winter on 6 January 2019 and was retrapped again here last winter.

The wee corn yellow beak, peachy chin and buffy wing bar (and wheezy call) help distinguish the twite from linnet (Photo MS)


Unfortunately a good breeding season appears to have also come with the loss of some of our older regular returning birds. This includes AYA3689 which we were hoping to retrap for a fourth winter, having been caught on the west coast at Clachtoll by Tony Mainwood in each of the intervening springs but so far no sign.

A (particularly) pink rump on this bird helps distinguish this as a male twite. The female usually has a brown rump (Photo MS)

We have decided to colour-ring them again this winter to compare results with similar research done between winters 2008/09 - 2010/11 when, to our surprise this revealed the origins of our wintering twite flock to be from the west coast of Scotland. Sightings came from nine different islands from Lewis in the north to Oronsay in the south as well as many reports up and down the west coast mainland.


The colour rings identify this bird as a twite ringed around the Ythan Estuary in winter 2020/21

In the past these winter twite catches have been well attended by many of the groups ringers but alas with this worldwide pandemic putting us back into almost full lockdown again we have unfortunately had to continue to keep it within local ringers this winter.

Please look out for any wintering flocks near you and who knows, we might be allowed summer holidays as far as the west coast this year so keep your eyes peeled for birds over there and be sure to check them for colour rings.

Raymond, Moray and Skitts

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Redpoll exodus

Lesser orangepoll

Last year GRG achieved our highest ever ringing total for redpoll, with 3837 lesser and 19 common redpoll ringed. Most were caught in spruce plantations in October and early November. There were exceptionally large flocks present in the region, demonstrated by over 1500 being ringed at the same site over the course of four days.  

We were hoping for a repeat of that this autumn, and at first it looked promising. 106 redpoll were ringed on 3rd August, which was a great total for that time of year, and we continued to have reasonable numbers into September. But by mid-October, the time we normally start to have our largest catches, there was barely any to be found! Sites where last year flocks numbered in the thousands were completely devoid of redpolls.

Lesser goldpoll
The mystery of where they’d gone was quickly answered, with ringers in southern England reporting they were experiencing record catches of the species. This was further confirmed by a slew of controls, 19 of which were recaptures by English ringers, and one which impressively had its ring read in the field on Helgoland, Germany.

The map below shows the location of the birds we’ve had controlled over the past couple of months. We've not had any reported this week, but that may be due to the persistent winds we’ve been having making conditions for ringing unsuitable! Based on the concentration on the south east coast it looks like many of the redpolls may not spend the winter in the UK, and we are expecting recaptures to be reported from the continent soon.


What caused the redpolls to clear out of NE Scotland is unclear. The spruce crop was poor compared to last autumn, yet there was plenty of birch for them to feed on as they’ve done in the previous years. Hopefully when the winds die down ringers down south can get out in field again, and we can understand more about their movements this winter. 

Euan Ferguson

Friday, 13 March 2020

Waxwings - a slow movement south


Lengthening days (and improving weather?) has recently seen a wee flurry of colour-ringed Waxwing sightings. With a small invasion and a decent crop of ornamental white and yellow rowan berries to feed on it has been a slow movement of birds south this winter, as can be seen on the map. Some have also remained locally. Looks like the rowans have run out though as recent photographs of colour ringed birds have shown them to now be feeding on tree cotoneaster, hawthorn and guilder rose.
 
Resightings of colour-ringed waxwings away from Aberdeen

Waxwings MY-LGG (metal ring over yellow ring right leg, light green over dark green over dark green rings left leg) and MY-WNR (white over black over red rings left leg) were together in a flock of 18 birds in Hessle, Hull, Yorkshire on 8/3/20. This was very interesting as they had both been ringed in the same flock on the same morning in a garden in Aberdeen on 7/12/19. In between however, MY-LGG was resighted in Thirske, N. Yorkshire (130km NW of Hessle) from 30/12/19 to 3/1/20 whilst MY-WNR was still in Aberdeen on 5/1/20. So they had caught up with each other again. Makes you wonder if they know?

LGG in Hessle, 10/3/20 Africa Gomez

WNR in Hessle 8/3/20 Steve Clipperton

Elsewhere, 2 were together in a flock on the Isle of Man on 22/2/20 and another in Shropshire on 6/3/20 while down the east side of the country 2 different birds were seen in Suffolk 20kms apart  and 3 days apart on 9/3 and 11/3.

RYW on the Isle of Man 22/2/20 Peter Christian

RBW in Wangford, Suffolk 11/3/20 Andrew Moon

Others remained a bit more locally. MY-YWG was in Arbroath on 8/3/20 with no previous sightings since being ringed over 2 months previously 82 kms to the north in Inverurie on 19/12/19.

YWG in Arbroath 8/3/20 David Mitchell

Finally, in a first for the project we have received news of a colour-ringed Waxwing which presumably remained in Norway during the same winter as an invasion into the UK. MY-YBR was photographed in Kapp, 100km north of Oslo on 21/2/20. It had been ringed last winter in Aberdeen on 24/11/18.

YBR in Kapp, Norway 21/2/20 Lasse Stang

There’s still time before the Waxwings start heading back to Scandinavia so if you get the chance please get out there and check for and report any colour-ringed birds you see. We have received sightings of 28 different birds away from Aberdeen out of 101 colour-ringed which is a tremendous return for a passerine. Like fishing we had a few blank days and lots of hard luck stories about the ones that got away but it makes it all worthwhile when we receive resightings of birds moving on. We are very grateful to so many observers and photographers, too numerous to list here, for reporting their sightings, many thanks to you all.

Please report any colour-ringed Waxwings to grampianringing@gmail.com and/or rduncan393@outlook.com.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Returning waxwings


There has been a small invasion of Waxwings into the country this winter. With a bit of effort and good luck we managed to colour ring 100 in Aberdeen and Inverurie before Xmas.

Some have stayed and some have gone.

It was great to hear about our first movement away from Aberdeen on 2 December 2019 when group member Euan Ferguson received news of right leg metal over yellow, left leg dark green over white over red, photographed in Blyth Civic Centre, Northumberland by Tom Tams (see photo). It had been ringed as a rather handsome adult male in Kincorth, Aberdeen on 23 November, noted as even having faint waxy tips to his tail!

GWR in Blyth, Photo by Tom Tams
Other birds have been reported moving down through Scotland and into England (see map of colour-ring sightings).


An email from Harry Scott on 3 February said he’d had a lady phone him from Alford (40km NW of Aberdeen) to say she had picked up a dead colour-ringed Waxwing beneath her window. She said the colours were green, white and red but, unsure of the order, we thought it was probably a bird ringed at Strachan (30km SE of Alford) just a few days previously.

Alas on delivery and inspection it turned out to be the handsome male photographed down in Blyth in early December. The photo of the dead bird shows close up just how handsome he was, with the faint waxy tips to his tail also visible. Such a sorry end for such a beautiful bird. Windows are the death of many a Waxwing.

Dead GWR, Photo by Harry Scott

It was actually quite a surprise to see him back up here around Aberdeen (and so quickly). Waxwings returning north are fairly unusual, at least amongst the several thousand we have colour-ringed over the years. Some wander over to the continent but most in the UK seem to depart from where they end up during the winter.

This invasion however, with a very high proportion of adults, does appear to be a little different in that this is our third bird returning north. Others were sighted in Dundee and at Flamborough Head before recently being resighted back up here.

Returning Waxwing BNR Strachan 30/01/20 Alan Mankin, ringed in Aboyne 28/1/17

Waxwing RRR Aberfeldy 19/01/20 Keith Harvey

Waxwing RYW Falkirk 28/01/20 Jim Duncan

We have also had two returning birds from previous invasions, a bird ringed in spring 2013 which we didn’t quite get the full combination of (name your drink if you get it on your camera!) and another ringed three years to the day in 2017 in Aboyne, resighted 15kms away in Strachan on 28/1/20.

There’s still a couple of months before they depart back to Scandinavia so if you hear of a Waxwing flock near you we would be very grateful if you can check for and report any colour-ringed birds you see. We are out most weekends checking our flocks for colour-ringed birds of which there are a few but it is clear that many have moved on. Please report them to grampianringing@gmail.com and/or rduncan393@outlook.com


Friday, 27 December 2019

Waxwings 2019

Before you read this, and in case you don’t get further, please go and look at your local waxwings for colour rings, and photograph them in particular. I know- a real hardship, but we really do want to get as many resightings as possible, so even if it’s just a brief look, we would really appreciate it! Each bird has a metal over yellow plastic colour ring on the right leg and more importantly, three individual colour rings on the left leg identifying the individual. It’s worth noting that individual birds can splinter off from a group from day to day, so, (for example) just because thirty were sighted both today and the day before in your local area doesn’t mean that these are the same birds!

If you resight a waxwing with a colour ring – please send the location, date, ring colour combination (and photograph if you have it and are happy to share it with us!) to: grampianringing@gmail.com and/or rduncan393@outlook.com. 



There are many ways to mark the coming of winter. The final leaves dropping from the trees, the first frost that doesn’t lift all day, or the September rush on Christmas chocolates in the shops. But here at Grampian Ringing Group it really isn’t winter until the first group of waxwings arrive in Aberdeen.

The soft chirruping of these birds marks the start of a new season of deep Scottish winter, when you have six hours of daylight to scramble and try to find the birds – let alone ring them. In our own Raymond Duncan’s words, waxwings are ‘spooky’ and by that we don’t mean that they’re terrifying. Rather that they will scattily move from tree to tree across the city, sometimes without warning, disappearing into the cool air - much to the sighs of despair of those of us out in negative temperatures trying to set nets.

In order to successfully ring waxwings, you first need plenty of birds. That might sound obvious, but the number of waxwings in the city makes a real difference between how likely we will be to catch and how many cold mornings are going to be spent waiting by empty nets. A hundred, two hundred birds are pretty slim pickings across the whole of Aberdeen, especially in years with high berry crops. This seems to be because the birds split into smaller groups to feed across the city; as and when they feel like rather than staying together as a single entity. The bigger the flock, the better chance you have of both the birds coming back to strip a tree, and of catching. Higher berry crops mean that not only do they split off more readily, but that there are that many more places to check as well. Many a morning has been spent driving across the city searching for birds that were sighted less than an hour ago, but have since disappeared into thin air.

This year has been a particularly good berry crop across all of the rowan trees in the city, and we’ve had a reasonable number of waxwings arrive. At its maximum point, we’ve had around four to six hundred in the city (sadly never in one flock) – certainly a number we’ve been able to work with. For those of you reading who aren’t familiar with the project, GRG has been colour ringing waxwings for over thirty years, and have had thousands of resightings over that period to map their transit as an eruptive migrant.

The first weekend of November is usually the best indicator of how many birds we’re going to get in a season, with a good number being sighted in that first week indicating a good start, or a lack of birds a possible no-show or poor year. This year there were as few as fifty birds being seen in the first ten days of November, followed by a decent influx of birds in the fourth week of November and early December, which was when our best days so far this season have been.

Not including the several days of attempted catches without success, we had our first catch on 23 November, once the numbers of birds had sufficiently increased to a level that made it possible. At the time of writing we have precisely one hundred waxwings colour ringed and out into the world, and have had eight resightings as far south as Northumberland.

The delicate art of ringing waxwings
Waxwings tend to eat off of rowan trees with the small, red/orange rowan berries first, before moving on to the ornamental yellow/white and lastly the pink berries. They’ll also have a picking at other large red berried rowan, hawthorn and whitebeam trees. This seems to be the general order of preference if you are a waxwing. This year has been no exception, with the birds following this order nicely, apart from there being so many berries that they haven’t been able to finish one group before either seemingly without reason swapping to the next variety or the berries of one group have started rotting on the tree. The ornamental rowans tend to rot later than the more natural types, so it makes sense that they at least would use that in determining preference. Our most success this year has been on yellow berries, with one low lying tree in particular next to a busy intersection in an industrial estate allowing us to catch over thirty birds over several days – despite the traffic putting the birds off at less than opportune moments!

When we are out catching and ringing waxwings we often get people coming and asking us what we're doing, which can be a great opportunity to both show local people what we are doing and get them interested in the birds and project. Many local photographers who had come out to snap the birds are really engaged with what we are doing, and seem delighted to see the birds up close as well as lern more about what we are doing. We have a network of waxwing spotters across Aberdeen whome we know from years of studying waxwings and are now kind enough to let us know when birds start to use their sites; it feels great to engage the local community in this way.

Aging and sexing waxwings – just add binoculars



Waxwings are one of the most straight forward passerine species to age at this time of year, with first year and adult birds being very straightforward to tell apart. As seen below, it all comes down to the ‘hook’ on the primaries. Juvenile birds lack this, and only have the downwards bar on the leading edge. This can easily be seen in the field, and it can be really satisfying and useful to see whether a flock is mainly adults or juveniles. There is a very high proportion of adults this winter.

Sexing can be a little more difficult, but is still possible in the field. Waxwings get their name from the ‘waxy tips’ on their secondaries, small red extrusions from the rachis (central spine) of a feather out of the end of the feather. Males tend to have a higher number of these (up to all eight secondaries) and will tend to be both wider and longer than those on females. There are also particularly obvious females lacking any waxy tips, known sometimes as ‘waxless’ wings or just ‘wings’, to much amusement whilst ringing. Some particularly flashy males will also have waxy tips in the tail, and is a mark that is really impressive in the hand! There is an overlap in both the length of and number of waxy tips in a birds wing to determine whether it’s male or female, and the length of yellow in the tail should also be used to determine this with males having broader bands. The bib can also be looked at if there is still doubt after these two criteria, with males having a more distinct line separating the body plumage, with females’ bibs diffusing more subtly. And just to round off their ridiculously beautiful plumage, check out the under tail coverts!




As part of the study we measure: the number of waxy tips, length of longest waxy tip, and length of yellow band on both the first and fifth tail feathers on all birds ringed. Interestingly we have caught mainly adults so far this year, and two juveniles have had particularly short wing length (~10mm shorter than they should be) and no, we haven’t just had trainees measure them. It’s impossible to know but because of this we wonder if the waxies had a poor breeding season this year, and therefore there are less young on migration, or if it’s just random chance. Nonetheless, it’s been interesting to note.

How you can help!
Now that we’ve unleashed a flock of one hundred colour ringed birds into the country, we need your help to resight them. We've started to get resightings across the northern UK already, showing our birds are already splintering off south. What we need is for a continuous look at the waxwings in your local area to look for rings. With the advent of modern photography, we get some fantastic records of our birds back and if birds hang around in your area we would appreciate you checking them again for rings as they might have been joined by new birds from the north and it helps us build a picture of their movements this invasion.

As it is, we think that with such a high number of berries many birds might stay with us up north all winter, and we’ll be out checking, but as there have been a good number going south already, it will be interesting to see if that rings true!

Thanks for reading, and happy waxwing hunting!

If you resight a waxwing with a colour ring – please send the location, ring colour combination (and photograph with rings visible if you have it and are happy to share) to: grampianringing@gmail.com and/or rduncan393@outlook.com. 


Thursday, 5 December 2019

Redpoll madness!


Lesser redpoll

In 2016 we achieved the highest ever redpoll total for Grampian Ringing Group, with 2280 lesser redpolls and 45 common redpolls ringed. Most of these birds was caught at two birch woodland sites at Drumoak and Banchory, almost entirely during October and November.

Foreign travels stopped us ringing redpolls the past couple of years, but this autumn we were back in the country and keen to have another go. We started catching in mid-September and through October, averaging 70 redpolls a session. It was the end of October and beginning of November that saw our peak numbers in 2016, so we took a couple of weeks off work and hoped that time of year would deliver again.


Common and lesser redpoll

The first catches at Drumoak and Banchory were quieter than expected, with 83 and 66 redpolls caught. Perhaps there wasn’t the big numbers around this autumn like in 2016? However, some intel from Al Young in Moray suggested the redpolls were feeding on spruce this year instead of birch. On 29th October we tried a new site with plenty of spruce at Pitfichie Forest, which resulted in a record catch of 343 redpolls. Interestingly this was exactly the same date we’d had our previous highest catch in 2016 (324 redpolls).

We then tried another new spruce site at Durris which saw the record catch keep being surpassed! Over 4 days we ringed 1580 redpolls at the site, with the peak being 510 birds ringed on 05th November. There was clearly enormous numbers of redpolls in the area as amazingly we didn’t have a single same site retrap during these sessions.

Lesser and common redpoll

And then just like that it was all over! 9th November saw only 42 redpolls ringed, and the following weekend only a measly 7 were caught. Multiple sites have been checked but it appears that the large flocks of redpolls have cleared out of the region. Interestingly English ringers have noted a lack of any significant redpoll numbers down south this autumn, so perhaps they will have a deluge of redpolls hitting them soon. 

We ringed 2850 lesser redpolls over the autumn, and with Al and Skitts getting some good catches too, the group total for the year sits on over 3800. Common redpoll numbers were down on 2016, with only 16 caught compared to 45. This may be do with the prevalent easterly winds we had in 2016 which we’ve lacked this autumn.

The map below shows movements from birds ringed in 2016 (including one to the south of France, right at the edge of the lesser redpoll's range). We look forward to seeing where the birds ringed this year end up. 
  

As well as to understand their movements, the main reason we're ringing so many redpolls is a study we're conducting on their poll colours. As anyone who's ringed a fair few redpolls will know, they don't all have red polls! In fact perhaps only half of them are red, with a range of shades of yellow, gold, orange, brown, pink and purple. We have detected around 40 distinct colours of poll, and hope to publish our findings soon. 


Euan and Carmen Ferguson

Monday, 13 May 2019

Bennachie Ringing Demonstration 13 April 2019


On Saturday 13 April we were invited to host a ringing demonstration at the Bennachie Visitor Centre.

It was a very chilly day but the sun was shining and we had a great turn out with the event fully booked with lots of young people plus a few passers-by getting involved too.
Photo by Alison Sutherland

 The centre’s well stocked feeding station, complete with blind and automated feeders, made the perfect place to set some mist nets. Although the nets were visible in the strong sun we had a constant stream of birds to show the visitors and ended up with a nice variety of species with highlights including a treecreeper, a goldcrest and a pair of great spotted woodpeckers.


A 5F goldcrest. Photo by Alison Sutherland

The team at the traditional post ringing demo pit stop (a bus on the A96!)
Caitlin Tarvet