Bird ringing 2017
12th January, 2018 | Trip reports
It has been more than a year (exactly 383 days) since the first blog post here promising, among others, some ringing reports here at this webpage. So, today it is already 12 days since the end of 2017 and I am finally posting my first ever blog post about ringing in 2017. Originally, I have planned to post much more often than just once a year. From the initial big plans of having at least monthly reports, I very soon realized that quarterly updates will be much more manageable but… Yearly reports are also fine, right?
Here you find a summary of what me and my girlfriend trapped and ringed in the past year. My girlfriend is also a bird ringer and therefore we often go to the field together.
Two interesting birds we trapped at our bird feeders. Upper picture shows a Dunnock ringed at the end of autumn in 2016 in Finland and controlled by us in the middle of the winter (two times). Lower picture is a male Great Tit which 24 days after had been feeding at our Prague feeder was unfortunately found dead (hit glass) some 580 km north-east in Poland.
It is not quite surprising that most of the ringing in the winter was done around bird feeders which we set up this year at two different places in our country. One was at the suburbs of Prague in an abandoned and overgrowing ruderal vegetation. The other one in south-east central part of Czech Republic in Vysočina located close to a lake, among fields and conifer forests. Both feeders were primarily visited by incredible numbers of tits, dominating were Great Tits (Parus major) and Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus). As the winter advanced, proportion of finches increased at both feeders, mainly Greenfinches (Chloris chloris) and in the conifer forest also Eurasian Siskins (Spinus spinus). Quite surprisingly in the middle of the winter we were visited by a Dunnock (Prunella modularis) from Finland. Also, one of the Great Tits sent us greetings from Poland later. This recovery was not that happy though, as the bird hit glass and was found dead.
Unfortunately, the bird feeder at the suburbs of Prague did not last long. From the very beginning wild boars tended to visit the feeding place during the night, cleaning the ground from most of the sunflower seeds left for ground feeding birds. Since wild boars have quite an appetite, maintaining this feeding spot soon began to be economically ridiculous. But the unwelcomed visitors ended bird feeding sooner than me. One night they decided to crack open also the bird feeder itself which hung at least a metre and a half high on a tree. That was quite a pity as this feeder produced quite nice numbers of trapped Green Woodpeckers (Picus viridis) including one three-year-old individual with very interesting moult limits in its wing.
At the very end of the winter, more and more species tended to visit the bird feeder in the conifer forest and get trapped, including Eurasian Nuthatches (Sitta europaea), Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) and occasionally also angry Eurasian Jays (Garrulus glandarius). Large flocks of Eurasian Siskins became accompanied by other finches such as European Serins (Serinus serinus), European Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) and Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) with their massive bills. End of the winter is also the breeding season of owls. From last year, we knew that certain owls can be lured into mist nets with the use of playback recording. We tried our luck and we successful in trapping some of the local Tengmalm’s Owls (Aegolius funereus).
A video capturing some of the birds visiting our bird feeder in late winter.
When the snow melts, trees are still mostly leafless, and the land is still brown and grey, a very extraordinary songbird starts to breed. It is the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus). A bird of rushing streams which hunts underwater and nest above it, under rocks, in crevices in high banks but also under bridges and other man-made structures. The team, I joined last fall to slowly get into my PhD and my girlfriend is also part of, samples regularly one population of Dippers in Žďárské Hills. I never ringed Dippers before so I enjoyed all this new stuff a lot. Ringing Dippers is a bit different business. As Dippers patrol their part of stream, they follow the water course very tightly, rarely flying above the land. Key is to locate the Dipper and then the direction in which it decided to fly when flushed. Then, all you have to do is to find a good spot on the stream, perhaps behind a curve, so the mist net is not very well visible. Then, one has to wait. Others then take the long route around to the far end of the Dipper’s territory and then by walking by, or in, the stream, “push” the brown ball of feathers towards the mist net. With a bit of luck this ends up with a bird hitting the net, so the waiting person can immediately rescue the bird from it. Sometimes other birds living by such streams get caught too. These include Common Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and Grey Wagtails (Motacilla cinerea). Especially the Grey Wagtails with their bright colours and slender body with long tails contrasts nicely with the ball-like Dippers. But both species are equally beautiful when seen up close, with their bright eyes. There is something magical, difficult to describe, about putting waders on and walking through the stream, through the kingdom of this weird swimming and quacking bird.
As the days were getting longer and warmer, the breeding season for my model species, the Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), was quickly approaching. So, I once again started to make regular trips to Brdy hills to finish my Master’s thesis about yellow coloration and sexual selection in this interesting little bird. Even though Yellowhammers are quite common in our country, and especially at this spot, they are surprisingly difficult to catch. If previously caught, you don’t even need to bother to set up the mist nets. The open landscape they inhabit in our (otherwise beautiful) study locality does not make mist netting easy anyway. That meant spending many days in the field without catching any of these yellow darlings. On the other hand, it also meant, that I had the opportunity to trap some other very nice species of birds such as various warblers or one Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) and Grey Woodpecker (Picus canus). The most commonly trapped species, especially in the morning, was perhaps the Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia). It was often caught in the lowest pocket of the mist net, as it was skulking low through the grass like a mouse. Very common in mist nets were also Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus). Their flocks sitting on long dry grass stems always somehow reminded me weavers in African savannah. If one would place mist nets in the surrounding woods, with a bit of luck, other interesting species might be caught such as various leaf-warblers (Phylloscopus sp.), Goldcrests (Regulus regulus) and Firecrests (R. ignicapilla), Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos), Tree Pipits (Anthus trivialis) or Middle Spotted Woodpeckers (Leiopicus medius). But hedgerows are also home to other birds than Yellowhammers and Sparrows – various Sylvia warblers, Eurasian Blackbirds (Turdus merula), European Robins (Erithacus rubecula) and Eurasian Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes).
Apart from breeding Yellowhammers, I was also regularly trapping another species during the spring to help answer some questions regarding its sexual selection, genetics and physiology. This species was the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). I was helping a team (which partly overlaps with the team I joined) that studies Barn Swallows at various farms in southern Bohemia since 2004. The study includes not only mist netting adult birds but also ringing nestlings. There, I could appreciate the fact that choosing a model species well is the key to success. Number of trapped pairs of swallows in a single day was higher than the number of individual Yellowhammers I trapped during the whole season. With its colonial and synanthropic nesting habits it is no surprise that Barn Swallow is so popular model species. For some reason, I find especially beautiful birds with long primaries, so an excellent aerial hunter as Barn Swallow is something which fascinates me a lot. But maybe even more than Barn Swallows, I enjoyed ringing another hirundine, usually caught as a bycatch in much lower numbers, the Common House Martin (Delichon urbicum) with its cute “hairy” legs.
Even though I stopped with feeding and winter trapping at the Prague bird feeder I did not stop trapping birds there altogether. Apart from setting up a bird feeder I also made a long tunnel through one of the patches of shrubs close to the feeder. In winter, I spilled the sunflower seeds in the new corridor having some success with Greenfinches, but I was especially looking forward to setting up mist nets there in the spring. I knew that this place is full of warblers. Eurasian Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) sang their melodious songs from almost every bush. But the scattered shrubberies were echoing also with other songs. Bit less melodious ones belonging to Garden Warblers (S. borin) and even less so to Common Whitethroats (S. communis). These were interrupted time to time by “machinegun” songs of Lesser Whitethroats (S. curruca). As this place is close to a lake and from two sides bordered by streams, typical willow-reed mixture vegetation grows there too. And that is just enough for Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus), Marsh Warblers (Acrocephalus palustris) and even one Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). Even though I was mist netting there far less than I wanted, because of the richness of this place, I was able to trap all the above-mentioned species. But one day I was very surprised. One day a Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) jumped into the mist net in the “feeding corridor”. A species which at first glance doesn’t have much suitable habitat to inhabit there, a species I have not seen nor heard there before. Perhaps a bird still on migration.
Beginning of summer was dedicated to finishing my Master’s thesis. As previously said, working with Yellowhammers is not an easy business. It is a business of waiting and staring into empty mist nets, that are flapping in the wind like sails, watching Yellowhammers not giving a damn about playback and happily singing along with it. Fortunately, there are the “bycatch species” which can prevent death from infinite frustration. During the summer, these are enhanced by surprisingly many Hawfinches, Red-backed Shrikes (Lanius collurio), and some Wrynecks (Jynx torquilla). Especially Red-backed Shrikes and Wrynecks are very common at our locality and having more time, one could easily catch tens of individuals of both species.
In the end however, the Master’s thesis went to a successful end and we could also focus on other birds than Yellowhammers or songbirds in general. Apart from enjoying fun of trying to decipher rings on Mute Swans’ (Cygnus olor) legs – which ended up in finding out that one local pair was (and maybe still is) wintering in northern Slovenia – I especially enjoyed finding and ringing nestlings of Western Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus). Even though finishing my thesis meant that we missed most of the nests (young harriers were mostly already very well flying) we anyway enjoyed roaming in the car, picking promising lakes from the map and scanning the landscape for hunting adult harriers. The view of warm summer, gentle wind and navigating narrow roads and then through dense reedbeds is something I am looking forward to in 2018 very much.
In the late summer, we also visited the ringing station at the Červenohorské mountain pass () where we have spent few nights catching and ringing migrating songbirds with our friend, Jožka Chytil. To catch the migrating birds, playback recordings are also used throughout the night and following morning. But the focus of the station is to trap the migrating birds with the use of high-power light source. Especially during foggy nights, when the birds fly low, this method can yield incredible numbers of trapped birds in a single night. Such nights are unfortunately not very common in the second half of August so the numbers of trapped birds during our stay were no record breakers. Even though weather did not promise extraordinary bird-nights, it enabled us to spend few late-summer warm nights and lazy mornings outside, in mountains, ringing birds.
Červenohorské mountain pass in late summer – view towards Poland. In two months, thousands of Robins and Great Tits will be flying low over the saddle, towards the photographer, to escape the harsh northern winter weather.
The composition of migrating birds was quite typical late-summer – most of the birds were Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) and Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) interspersed with few Garden Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes and Grasshopper Warblers. During our stay it was too early for migrating Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) but not too early for another of the “Červenohorské mountain pass stars”, the Tengmalm’s Owls which were caught on a daily basis.
At the very end of the summer, we performed few night or very early morning ringing sessions at our traditional ringing spot. The aim was to trap some passing nightingales, and later in the morning also Eurasian Blackcaps and both Goldcrests and Firecrests. All three “morning” species were represented in good numbers in our nets and provided us with quite some ageing challenges. In the end, we were also successful with trapping the two of the European greatest singers, Common Nightingale and its darker northern counterpart, Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia).
Autumn and the end of the year
At the beginning of autumn, I successfully defended my Master’s thesis, therefore I could fully focus on my PhD – the comparative study on passerines. And as I finally had a bit of free time, my girlfriend and I could also tap into the ongoing and fascinating autumn migration.
Unfortunately, the tapping was not very frequent. The “free time” was not so free as it looked like in the beginning. Anyway, even though some nice species were trapped, sometimes also in rich numbers. In the beginning of the autumn, mostly Coal Tits (Periparus ater) and Goldcrests were the dominating species. As the October was slowly turning into November, these were replaced by the old friends, Great Tits and Blue Tits. As far as I know, these two are not the favourite species of many ringers. Maybe because at this time of the year, they come in great numbers and one can trap tens of them in just a half an hour. Maybe also because of their bold character. They do not hesitate to peck one’s fingers, picking the most painful spots around fingernails, especially if there is an already injured spot. While the nickname of Blue Tits, the blue devils, is very well deserved and I have nothing against it, there is something about Great Tits which makes them always a well welcomed species in the mist nets. Maybe it is also something about their song. It belongs to one of those which are symbols of spring to me, a song which I always like to hear. Even when some Great Tit sings occasionally its song few times in the middle of a grey and cold winter morning, I get the impression of spring. Anyway, among these species represented in high numbers, also some other and very welcomed birds appeared, such as Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros), European Robins (Erithacus rubecula) and my favourite Dunnocks.
Especially one of the redstarts made me quite happy. It was a young male of the paradoxus morph. Black Redstarts exhibit a phenomenon called “delayed plumage maturity”, i.e. when males attempt to breed for the first time, they look pretty much like females. They develop the nice charcoal plumage when they are two years old. But about 10 % of males acquire plumage, very similar to the adult one, in their first breeding season. That is the paradoxus morph. And while 10 % is not such a rarity, I was very pleased to see it as I do not trap many redstarts throughout the year and I have not seen this morph yet.
But not only redstarts made us happy at the end of the year. Because 2017 was apparently a good year for Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) and because we have here shallow pools filled by rain water, which birds frequently visit to take a bath or to drink, we were lucky enough to ring also this, otherwise very hard-to-trap, species.
During the last autumn, we finally also started to focus more on the birds of prey. Not just those who patiently (sometimes) wait for you in dense reedbed, but also those flying boldly around. We were quite unlucky in this respect, though. Lack of time, or bad weather, were our greatest enemies. But we successfully overcome these difficulties and in the end, we could appreciate the beauty of quite a few Common Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) from up close. Again, those wings! During autumn, we also wanted to know how the nocturnal predators are doing around here so we spent few nights up, trying to lure in some of the Tengmalm’s Owls. None of them appeared though. But one night, a Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) was in one of the mist nets, quite close to the playback of its smaller “friend”. I am not sure which one of us, the owl or me, were more surprised.
As my PhD is a comparative study of temperate and tropical passerines, the inevitable thing happened last autumn. A field trip to tropics. It is said, that no biologist is a biologist until he or she sees tropics. Even though that might sound a bit hard, there is a bit of truth in it. Tropics are rich and variable, not only in the sheer number of species, but also in all the possible ecological interactions and life histories. And it is good to remember it, if not actually see it, when doing research (and not only ornithological) as one might be, unintentionally, too fixated on temperate zone. Anyway, my trip to Cameroon probably did not make me a better biologist, but certainly it was an experience to see some of the phenomena which I have read about in books. It is true though, that reading about some of these phenomena would be more than enough. Namely marching armies of ants which can climb one’s trousers in seconds or growing a garden of fungi on anything not kept well away from the humid air (my poor hat).
A collection of some of the Cameroonian species. Upper row left to right: Eastern Yellow-billed Barbet (Trachylaemus purpuratus), Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher, Orange-breasted Forest-robin (Stiphrornis erythrothorax); bottom row left to right: African Pygmy-kingfisher (Ispidina picta), Western Bluebill (Spermophaga haematina), Rufous-bellied Wattle-eye (Dyaphorophyia concreta).
Even though the rainforests of the Afrotropic are the least rich of all tropical rainforests, apart maybe from the Australian one, the tropical rainforest itself is something hardly comparable to anything in temperate regions I have seen so far. Fortunately, not many snakes or bigger spiders were seen. But the insects were everywhere. And in many different shapes and colours. And sounds. The nocturnal chorus was deafening – cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets but also frogs and tree hyraxes and an occasional owl. Those insects were then preyed on by abundant geckos and skinks. And the birds were terrific. Even though we have not caught many of my favourite seed-eaters (namely Estrlididae, Ploceidae, Fringillidae), there were some and some other great birds like the stunning Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer) or even one bizarre-looking passerine, the Grey-necked Rockfowl (Picathartes oreas) which I accidentally released before ringing it, what a shame. But we were not catching only in the rainforest itself. We spent two catching-days also in a market or around our hotel resort to sample birds living there, too.
The report about trip to Cameroon could be longer than this whole report, especially about other stuff than just ringing. But as this post is mostly about ringing birds I will stop here and maybe in the future I will return and bring you a more detailed report. Anyway, it seems that this was not my last trip to Cameroon so… stay tuned. One thing, to mention, I was also photographing birds in Cameroon in the same fashion I photograph birds in Czech Republic. Hopefully, these species will then appear in the gallery side by side the temperate species.
This report is beginning to be awfully long, and I think it is about time to make it end. Even though I forgot to include many other field trips and ringing sessions, I have taken part in last year. I hope I can bring you some more reports like this also next year as also next year should be very “ringing-rich”. Hopefully I will bring those also more often than once a year…
 Bohemian-Moravian Highlands
 Actually, photographed is not the bird which hit the glass in Poland but bird “one ring” before. From the many Great Tits trapped that day I took pictures of just a subset. But both, the unlucky bird and the one photographed, were males.
 Hopefully the images of these birds will appear in the promised gallery very soon.
 Or Boreal Owl, if you are from North America.
 Then I visited Africa and I have no longer this impression.