Life as a survey volunteer on Dersingham Bog…

As the survey work on Dersingham Bog National Nature Reserve goes from strength to strength and the Stonechat project continues to be such a success, it’s an appropriate time to pay tribute to our hard working volunteers and say thanks to Roger, Irene, Tony, Molly, Jason and Allan for all their efforts this year.

SAM_3753We are still very actively recruiting volunteers for our survey work on the reserve and would very much like to hear from anyone interested in joining us as we plan next year’s survey work. The main focus of our survey work is to survey, monitor, nest-find, and ring where appropriate, our iconic Dersingham Bog species of Stonechat, Nightjar, Woodlark and Tree Pipit.

But rather than us extolling the virtues of volunteering on the Bog and how rewarding it can be, it’s easier to let one of our volunteers, Tony, sell it for us…NJ 2 chicks-Kestrel box site 183

Having recently retired into the area, and being an enthusiastic birder, I was keen to explore local opportunities to volunteer.

One interesting piece of work that caught my eye as I searched the internet was that of the NW Norfolk Stonechats group on the Natural England Reserve National Nature Reserve of Dersingham Bog. Their website provided fascinating information about Stonechat activity on the Reserve, together with an invitation to get involved if you could spare some time.

I made contact with the group and with impressive speed, I was receiving a comprehensive briefing from Natural England in their office in Wolferton on their work on the Reserve, together with the necessary Health and Safety stuff.  No mention at all of midges, I recall!

Juv Stonechat1A week later I was on the Reserve to meet Roger and Irene, two current and experienced volunteers, and begin my initiation into the fascinating world of Stonechats. The project aims to survey, nest find and colour-ring breeding Stonechats on the NNR and record adults and juveniles outside the breeding season. The project also gives insights on whether individual birds are site faithful, as well as generating data on productivity and fledgling survival.

Over the next few weeks, my initial concern about knowing very little about the target species, and being worried about doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, was replaced by growing confidence and a genuine interest in these characterful birds. This personal development of mine was solely down to my two ‘mentors’ who between them had many years of knowledge and experience to share. And share they did! In such a positive way that I was soon hooked and really enjoying the hours spent observing Stonechat.

Triangle - SC 2nd nest 20181I was taught the art of observing and interpreting Stonechat behaviour, and encouraged to offer opinions and have a go at finding a nest or two. It’s a great feeling when it all comes together and a nest is located, young observed in the nest, the young are ringed and then successfully fledge!

And then things got even better when I was invited to take part in a Nightjar Survey on the Reserve. What an enthralling experience that was!

NJ + 2 chicks 15 days-RLine 201813Again, I was fortunate enough to team up with Irene, who is both passionate about Nightjars and very happy to share her comprehensive knowledge on the subject with a complete beginner (who would have thought Nightjar equalled churring?!). What an amazing bird!

Species nest finding and monitoring sessions on the Bog have continued and every visit brings something new – with learning different or unusual behaviours for both Stonechat and Nightjar. With plenty of encouragement and guidance, I have been fortunate enough to have helped find both Stonechat and Nightjar nests. What a thrill!

Although the season is coming to an end, I look forward to helping out with the monitoring of existing and prospective Stonechat territories over the winter on Dersingham Bog NNR, and hope that this year our winter is kinder to the birds than it was last year.

TP 1st brood Phils Heath 2018_001And I haven’t even mentioned how delightful it was to wander around the Reserve accompanied by the song of both Woodlark and Tree Pipit. Nests for both species were found this season, and survey work on the reserve next year will include both these species and I look forward to learning more about these two fascinating birds. All the nest monitoring and colour-ringing on Dersingham Bog aims to inform the management work on the reserve and enable reserve staff to plan future work for the benefit of all these iconic heathland species.

If you have even a small interest in nature, with a bias towards birds, I recommend without hesitation getting involved with a group like NW Norfolk Stonechats. They are a very welcoming and knowledgeable bunch, and the work is fascinating too. And it’s good for you and the birds!

RS + IB Triangle May 20183_001If anyone would be interested in finding out more about the volunteering opportunities for survey work on Dersingham Bog, please get in touch. northwestnorfolkstonechats@gmail.com We’d love to hear from you.

Survey experience is not essential as training can be given. Although if, like Tony, you have already participated in survey work in the past, that would be welcome. Experience with the 4 species involved is also not essential as training on Stonechat, Nightjar, Woodlark and Tree Pipits is all part of the support given to our volunteers. Contributions from ringers would also be welcome, to back up and assist Roger.

So please contact us for more details or help spread the word that we’re recruiting!

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Round three… fizzling out.

With the number of Stonechat pairs on Dersingham Bog NNR down to 5 from our original 6, we had hoped that a few of them might attempt a third brood but the season ended not with a bang but with a whimper.

Only 2 of our remaining pairs attempted a third brood, and only one of those was a ‘genuine’ third brood, at our Piezos territory. That female proved to be as prolific a breeder as her mother and produced a brood of 5 chicks for her first brood, then 6 for her second and finally 4 from her third nest.

Happy Valley SC 3rd brood 20181_001She was also the female who proved to have a preference for tunnel nests in bracken for her first two nests, again following in the footsteps of her mother and we had no reason to suspect she’d do anything different this time round. But as we were just about to have a whip round for a miner’s helmet for Roger to help him find the nest this time, she surprised us all by choosing a nest in low heather which was almost out in the open, and luckily it proved to be one of the easiest nests to find this season.

Molly - Happy Valley July 20181_001The only other third brood pair at our Happy Valley territory had a first brood failure, with the chicks predated at a week old. But that female built a second nest very quickly and brought off 6 chicks in her second brood. It was followed by another quick build of a third nest where she produced 5 young. So technically it was her third attempt but really only 2 broods were successful.

SC male Tranquil valley unringed1There was also quite a large gap of a month between the ringing of the first of our third broods and the last brood of the season which is unusual. In between, our volunteers spent considerable time trying to work out if the other pairs were going to try for a third brood or not. With one pair, the female vanished and the male went into moult quite quickly. With another pair at a different territory known, the male vanished soon after the second brood fledged and the female was left to feed the fledged youngsters from that brood herself.

The other 2 pairs were a mystery for quite some time and after much volunteer head scratching, it eventually became clear that both pairs had finished for their season. With one pair, the second brood fledged young stayed on their territory and associated with their parents for much longer than usual, even though they were well able to feed themselves by this stage, nearly two months after fledging.

The other pair had an original territory on Phil’s Heath but had fooled us all by bringing off a second brood from a nest we missed entirely in another part of their territory. As it was unclear whether there had been a failure before this latest brood appeared, we could have been looking at technically their third brood. Either way, they didn’t make another attempt.

BogThe weather remained warm and settled throughout with only intermittent rain, so the food supply should have remained good for our birds. So it’s been puzzling why more Stonechat pairs didn’t attempt third broods.

With reduced numbers of Stonechats breeding overall this year, we also didn’t get the usual gathering of fledged juveniles in large creches as we have done in the past two years. And recently the Bog has seemed devoid of juvenile Stonechats entirely so there has already been a dispersal into the surrounding countryside.

So we’d welcome any reports of our birds from both Dersinghan Bog and elsewhere. If the right leg sports a colour ring combination of either metal over dark green or metal over dark blue, it’s one of ours! We’d love to hear where and when they were seen, what the colour ring combinations are and any photos would be very welcome.

So to sum up our season as a whole, we colour-ringed 48 chicks and with a minimum of 3 chicks to add from the nest we missed, that makes a grand total of 51 chicks for this year. A few years ago we’d have been very happy with that total and we can only hope that a mild winter this year allows a good survival rate for our juveniles and we see the return of both existing territory holders next spring and hopefully the occupation of new territories by new birds.

Long Ponds from Foxhole_001With the help of our dedicated volunteers, we’ll be monitoring the winter occupation of the Stonechat territories on Dersingham Bog and searching for them in surrounding areas such as Snettisham and Roydon. A pattern was beginning to develop over the past few years of some territory holders staying on the reserve all year round, with others leaving and their place being taken during the winter by new pairs. These new pairs were then being ousted by the returning territory holders and we were seeing the establishment of completely new pairs on either existing or new territories.

So this winter holds plenty of interest and fingers crossed for a mild winter in preparation for an exciting 2019 breeding season.

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Our matriach’s legacy…

We mentioned in our last blog about a nest that was unusual even by Stonechat standards… a nest on the floor in dead bracken but so well hidden it was literally in a tunnel. This Dersingham Bog territory (known as the Piezos) has always been renowned for tunnel nests. The current resident female’s first nest was also in a tunnel but a more standard one, partway up a clump of dead bracken which was at least visible when standing right over it.

Piezos SC 1st brood 2018-JasonThe past occupant of this territory was also notorious for preferring to build nests in tunnels. She was our oldest ringed female, born in 2013 and last seen in early 2017. Over the 3 years she nested on the reserve, she had many of our volunteers scratching their heads trying to find her nests and used up many hours of volunteer time. She had a habit of choosing either vertical tunnels, ‘trap door’ tunnels, horizontal ones, ones at right angles, tunnels in bracken or in grass tussocks and even in dead vegetation out on the mire, and it wasn’t long before she became affectionately and fairly obviously christened ‘the tunneller’, (although unfortunately we don’t have a photograph of her).

And it’s no wonder that the current female Stonechat on this territory also has tunnelling tendencies as she’s the tunneller’s daughter, born in 2016 in a second brood in that season. So it’s in the genes! She nested last year on Dersingham Bog NNR in a neighbouring territory but this year moved to her natal territory and has produced 2 broods so far this season and is currently incubating a third.

Piezos 3rd brood SC 2017Other progeny of the original female have also exhibited a preference for tunnel nests and it’s an interesting trait and something which we wouldn’t be aware of but for the CR project.

Not only was our original ‘tunneller’ our oldest ringed female but she has proved to be our most prolific. She would regularly be the first to start breeding each season and would bring off 3 successful broods in a season, each with high brood sizes and with different partners in the three seasons she bred between 2014 and 2016.

Either directly through her direct progeny or through her progeny’s progeny, she was responsible for 116 juvenile Stonechats, which is an amazing number and accounts for a third of our total number of juveniles produced on Dersingham Bog since the project began in 2012. Many of the new pairs occupying the reserve in the last few years have been her progeny, which in turn have produced juveniles of their own which have then dispersed into the Stonechat population.

SC juv Henry PageAnd those juveniles are just the ones we know about. At least 2 of her juveniles have been reported from a range of other locations, such as Snettisham Coastal Park and Winterton, and those in turn may also have bred successfully. So the final total of chicks which carry her genes may be even higher. We also missed a couple of her broods during the time she bred on the reserve. So this one female surely must have played an important role in Dersingham Bog becoming almost like a nursery for our locally recovering Stonechat population… or at least it was until the Beasts from the East devastated our numbers.

To flesh out the figures a little, our matriarch produced 24 young while breeding on Dersingham Bog NNR in just three seasons. And of those 24 juveniles, 9 Stonechats of her direct progeny returned to breed and set up their own territories in 2015, with 2 reported breeding elsewhere in Norfolk, and those 9 now have a large number of descendants from the last two seasons.

Piezos-SC 2nd brood nest 20180_001It’s a remarkable legacy for one small passerine and one that was only breeding for 3 years but it goes to show quite effectively how much of an impact a bird like this can have. She has formed the core of our Stonechat breeding population and the breeding picture on Dersingham Bog NNR over the past few years may have been very different without her.

 

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Round two

Round two of the Stonechat breeding season on Natural England’s Dersingham Bog NNR for 2018 can probably be summed up as having a sting in the tail…

In the end, only 5 pairs out of 6 produced a second brood and one of those pairs was technically already on a 3rd brood after a 1st brood failure. The timing of this female’s incubation suggested that she had got herself back into breeding condition while still helping to feed her newly fledged young, had built a 3rd nest and laid eggs within 10 days of her 2nd brood fledging… which is very fast, even by Stonechat standards.Triangle - SC 2nd nest 20181

We’ve ringed a total of 44 chicks from our first and second broods. In the early years of the project, we’d have been more than happy with such a total but having had two years of very high numbers (95 and 113, respectively), we haven’t quite got out of that expectation and so this is tinged with a slight disappointment.  

SC Triangle chick - dark blue cr combo2Our first 2nd brood chicks were ringed in early June and the last 2nd brood young were ringed at the end of June. But at least the brood sizes have been healthy on round two, with 4, 6 and 5 respectively, and with 5 chicks from our early 3rd brood pair. We’ve also switched to our new base colour, metal over dark blue, having used up all our dark green combinations.  

The nests of two of the Stonechat pairs were only found at the point where the chicks were being fed, so we ended up finding the nest and ringing them at the same time. This is never ideal as we like to find the nests when they’re at the egg stage, partly as it’s often easier to see bright blue eggs shining up at you from inside a thick heather bush but also that it allows us to better plan volunteer time. If we don’t find a nest area until food is going in, it becomes fairly urgent to find the nest as we’ve no idea how old the chicks will be and they may be at the ringing stage already, as it proved with these two pairs.

Snettisham Coastal Park 9-7-184The weather during the past couple of months has perhaps at least helped all our breeding birds feed both themselves and their broods more easily, even while the rest of us despaired at the lack of rain and worried over the fire risk to both the reserve and the surrounding countryside. A fire at the nearby Snettisham coastal park which destroyed both valuable habitat for both breeding birds and passage migrants did nothing to calm nerves. 

Piezos SC 2nd nest 20180Our Stonechat nests have continued to be in a mix of habitats and in a range of situations – 1 was in low heather right by a busy path, 1 placed right on the ground in low heather but well off the path, 1 high on a slope in very sparse heather with bare ground nearby, and 1 about 20ft off the main path but in the most amazing tunnel in dead bracken we’ve ever seen in well over 100 nests. That one took a great deal of effort to find and it was eventually found with the efforts of 4 volunteers and only then by Roger lying flat on the floor with his long arms buried to shoulder depth in a clump of dead bracken before he found the nest cup – the chicks could not have seen daylight the entire time they were in the nest!

SC male Tranquil valley unringed1Sadly, the empty territories we started the season with continue to be empty and it also appears that one of our Stonechat females is now missing in action. That pair, which arrived last of all at the start of the season, successfully fledged their first brood of 4 and there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t try for a second brood. However, after seeing the young gradually drift away from the territory, we had intermittent sightings of the female but saw nothing as decisive and helpful as a feeding circuit which would indicate she was on eggs. And now she appears to have vanished entirely and the male is on his own and just loafing about. He’s exhibiting none of the territory defence or activity you’d expect to see if he had a female incubating somewhere and now appears to be in moult, which means it’s game over for this breeding season for him.

Juv Stonechat1Another Stonechat pair which we thought were missing have now reappeared in another part of their territory… and with a fledged brood of unringed juveniles in tow, so we’ve missed a nest entirely! This pair were our first to nest up on the plateau and their first brood fledged in early May. Since then, we’ve failed to find any evidence of a second nest and it’s entirely possible we may have missed a second brood failure. We had some desultory nest building taking place a few weeks ago but nothing came of it and we’d almost decided that pair had also vanished until their reappearance this week. As annoying as it is to have missed a brood (which may technically be their third attempt), it is heartening that we can add at least 3 more juveniles to our overall total for the season.

As we began with very depleted numbers of only 6 pairs on the reserve at the start of the season, we can ill afford to lose any more pairs now. And as timings are very late in general with our nesting attempts, it remains to be seen if any of our remaining Stonechat pairs go on to attempt a 3rd brood.

TP Phils Heath 1st nest fledged 0_001Dersingham Bog’s other iconic breeding birds have experienced mixed fortunes. Several of our usually occupied Tree Pipit territories remained empty and we had only four pairs of Tree Pipits which managed first broods – two of those we found the nests and monitored success. But we failed to find the nests of the other two Tree Pipit pairs, although we were able to at least confirm breeding when we saw food carrying and fledged young.

WL Sheperds 1st brood 2018_001One Woodlark pair had two successful broods and although the other usual Woodlark territories have been occupied, proving breeding has been more difficult than usual this year. All the singing Woodlark males, which we hoped indicated that second broods were imminent in June, didn’t really materialise into anything and those pairs appeared to melt away. So the overall picture there remained unclear.

NJ Bryants East 2nd brood 20181The big success of the summer has been our Nightjars and it’s no exaggeration to say it’s been the year of the Nightjar on Dersingham Bog NNR. Somewhat to our surprise, territory occupation and the numbers of nests for 1st and 2nd broods has been very high. Given we thought Nightjars might have been affected on their migration as much as other species appear to have been and therefore we’d be down on numbers this year, it’s been very heartening that the exact opposite has proved to be the case. We’ve had amazing numbers… the highest number of churring males we’ve had for more than a decade (currently at 25) and the number of nests found so far stands at an amazing 22.

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Knock-on effects…

TP 1st brood Phils Heath 2018_001During the course of ringing some of the first brood Stonechat chicks, we noticed that several broods were slow in development. Some chicks which were technically a week old hadn’t developed as much as expected given their age. So it seems that some pairs have had difficulty finding enough food for their young, even though these were only fairly small broods, some with only 2 or 3 chicks. We also had more than our usual share of unhatched eggs this time round – several broods have had between 1 to 3 unhatched eggs.

March 2018In theory, the adults should have had an easier time finding food to feed their young on Dersingham Bog so far. We have fewer pairs this year and some territories which were divided into as many as three new territories last year are now occupied by only one pair. So there should have been less pressure on the overall food supply, so we’ve assumed that the winter weather has also impacted our insect survival rates.

Without empirical data, we’re left with speculation,  but possible causes could be:

  • As the adults presumably approached the breeding season in poor condition after the late winter weather, this, in turn, may have affected their ability to provision their young. But this could also be more complex than the cold snap directly affecting the parents’ ability to put on weight. Poor body condition of any species tends to lead to other complications, such as a higher predisposition to pathogens or parasites.
  • Galloway cattleTaking a very different example, the Galloway cattle on the reserve suffered a higher incidence of mites this year than they have before (probably due to cold conditions forcing down body weight and confinement in close proximity – they didn’t wander too far from their food). This meant they started the season in poor body condition and have taken quite a while to regain it.
  • View from Phils HeathReduced prey abundance due to winter / spring conditions – there are always winners and losers as a result of adverse weather. This partly relates to phenology of the species in relation to prevailing weather at a particular point of their lifecycle. The cold snap occurring when it did may have impacted on the early season invertebrate prey of the Stonechats. Whilst species that emerged later may not have been affected, those coming out around the time of the cold snap may well be showing depressed numbers. It needs more time to confirm this but it appears that the cold weather has reduced the numbers of heather beetle and it’s conceivable that this may provide a significant part of the Stonechat’s diet in spring.
  • Or, there could be a myriad other causes. Recent vegetation quadrat surveys at Scolt, compared to photos of the plots from the previous year, showed a change in structure (almost certainly related to the weather). This could have massive implications for nest site selection and predation risk, thus increasing the need for more adult vigilance at the possible expense of time spent feeding.

SC-Happy Valley - Les BunyanAnother indication of the impact of the winter weather on our Stonechat population has been a comparison of the number of ringed birds from last year to this. So far we have only 4 ringed birds, with the remaining 8 Stonechats on territory being unringed. This compares with last year when we had 25 ringed adults holding territory during the breeding season. And of those 4 ringed Stonechats this season, only 2 are territory holders from last year. Both these ringed birds spent the winter off the reserve, so wherever they ended up, fortunately they somehow survived the bad weather to return to the same territories for SC juv Henry Pagethis season.

It’s only been a couple of years of monitoring winter occupation and site fidelity  so it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions but a rough pattern was emerging of considerable site faithfulness. So we can only assume that the rest of those 23 ringed birds from last year may not have survived the winter. Certainly, of the Stonechats which occupied the reserve during the winter, none remained through the bad weather and into the spring so the losses may have been considerable.

On a practical note, we’re experiencing the same survey difficulties we’ve had in the past when the majority of our birds were unringed. With some core territories being close together, it makes it trickier for our volunteers to be sure which Stonechats they’re seeing. We’ve certainly been spoiled in the past with so many ringed birds on the reserve making it easier to ID birds.

So far our core territories are the only ones which are occupied and large territories, which had divided into 3 territories last year with the arrival of new pairs, are now back to being one extensive territory. So, hopefully, that will help with food supply for the pairs and chicks. How and if the situation changes for second and third broods remains to be seen… but we’ll keep you posted!

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Off the starting blocks…

SC male Tranquil valley unringed2Round one of the Stonechat breeding season on Dersingham Bog for 2018 can probably be summed up as… less than we hoped but more than we feared.

After the late blast of winter weather, we headed into spring with just 5 pairs of Stonechats on territory but we’ve managed to boost that to 6, with one pair arriving nearly a month later than usual. This was way below last year’s total of 13 pairs but given that some areas of Norfolk have reported a complete wipeout of their Stonechat numbers, we’ve been very lucky.

Happy Valley SC 1st brood nest 2018_001

Stonechat 1st brood nest

All our pairs have been staggered in their breeding timings as well, with some still on eggs while others were already feeding chicks. This at least meant it was easier to plan our volunteer effort and any bad weather striking the reserve didn’t hit all the pairs at a vulnerable time and cause big losses, which happened last season with our first broods when May’s bad weather wiped out 50% of our first broods.

 

Piezos SC 1st brood nest 2018_001Our total number of chicks from first broods this year was just 18. Our first chicks were ringed at the beginning of May and our 6th pair’s first brood ringed at the end of that month, with the chicks from the other pairs ringed at roughly weekly intervals in between.

Our first pair to nest produced only 2 chicks but laid 5 eggs, which seems to be a common occurrence on this particular territory. Given that this is the third pair to nest on this heath, it’s curious that each time the different females have laid 5 eggs but only 2 have hatched and subsequently fledged. Our next brood on another territory produced 3 chicks but only 2 fledged, with the runt dying in the nest.

SC Triangle 1st brood 20180 (2)

Stonechat brood near fledging

Fortunately, this was followed by a healthy brood of 5 chicks from a regularly occupied territory, and then 4 chicks from another core territory. Our first brood failure was of 4 chicks which were predated from the nest before they were ringed but the final pair which arrived late managed to produce 4 chicks.

 

Even with these reduced numbers, we’ve managed to use up almost all our dark green colour-ringed combinations and we’ve switched now to dark blue for the rest of this season.

Bryants TP 1st brood nest 20182_001We’ve also been quite lucky with the weather so far this spring. Whilst we’ve had spells of cold northerly winds and sometimes foggy conditions, we haven’t had prolonged or heavy spells of rain, and this has also been balanced with very warm settled spells of sunshine and light winds. Sometimes we seem to have experienced both winter and summer within the same week.

Piezos SC 1st brood 2018-Jason

Stonechat 1st brood nest deep in bracken

The nests have been in a mixture of habitats – 4 in heather, 1 in bracken and 1 in a mixture of sparse heather in a grass tussock, and the range of nest sites chosen has been equally varied. 4 have been right on the floor, 1 high and deep in a tunnel in dead bracken, and 1 well hidden in the middle of a substantial heather bush.

 

As our successful pairs start their second nests, the pair which experienced a first brood failure have already nested again, the female building another nest within a week. She laid 6 eggs and 5 healthy chicks were ringed this week.

 

 

Roger - Bryant's_001So over the next couple of weeks, we can hopefully see the remaining 5 pairs beginning to incubate their second broods and our volunteers will be busy nest finding, as well as keeping an eye on the currently empty territories to see if any new pairs sneak in.

Other areas of Norfolk seem equally affected by low Stonechat numbers. While there are 2 pairs in Snettisham Coastal Park and 1 pair on Scolt Head Island, our volunteers haven’t found Stonechat pairs in areas where they’ve bred regularly over the past few years, such as Brancaster, Thornham, the Drift, Dersingham, and Hunstanton Golf Course and we hear reports of other areas of the Norfolk coast being similarly affected.

TP - Phils Heath 1st brood 2018 0 (2)

Tree Pipit 1st brood nest

For our other Bog specialties the breeding picture is mixed. Our Tree Pipits only have 4 territories occupied this year, with 2 nests found so far. More worryingly, 4 other Tree Pipit territories which are nearly always occupied remain empty. Our Tree Pipits were also late arriving back and it seems to have been a similar picture with other summer migrants, both on the reserve and elsewhere either late arriving or not arriving at all. Other reserves and birders are reporting late arrivals or low numbers of summer migrants like Whinchat, Garden Warbler and Reed Warbler. Presumably the storms in Europe during migration have impacted how many have been able to return?

Nightjar survey work has only just begun so we should gain a clearer picture of their numbers soon but so far we have 4 nests with 3 other females found.

WL Sheperds 1st brood 2018_001

Woodlark 1st brood near fledging

With our Woodlarks, 1 pair produced 4 young and 2 other territories seemed occupied in early spring but although no first nests were found, those males are now singing again so we can assume second brood attempts are imminent. Interestingly, 2 territories which we thought were empty early in the season are now occupied. So whether this is a late occupation or they’ve managed to get first broods off under our noses isn’t clear.

The timing for our Stonechat breeding attempts has also been affected, with most of the first broods being several weeks later than usual compared to previous years. We can confidently expect each pair to attempt a second brood but how many go on to make a third breeding attempt remains to be seen.

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Double Blow

Throughout much of the 2017/2018 winter, events in the Stonechat world on Dersingham Bog (National Nature Reserve) continued in pretty much the same vein as in previous winters, with a combination of occupied and unoccupied territories. As before, we had a mix of new ringed birds taking over from the previous season’s breeding pairs and on some territories, the same breeding pair remained on their territory throughout the winter.

C-Ringed-Stonechat-femaleOf the new ringed birds on site, it was heartening to see 8 of the 2017 fledged youngsters pairing up with new partners and occupying existing territories. Two pairs also remained on the Bog from the 2017 breeding season. One pair near the Landfill end had originally bred in 2016 and remained on the same territory throughout that winter and then successfully bred there last year; so it was a continued occupation of one territory spanning more than 18 months. The male of the second pair was our oldest breeding male. Born in 2013, he would enter his fifth year in 2018 (affectionately known to volunteers as ‘white/orange’ for his colour ring combination). So, of the 15 existing territories, we had an encouraging 50% winter occupation.

As we entered our third winter of monitoring site fidelity by our Stonechats, it was following the same pattern as before, with some continued occupation by breeding territories holders but also typically, a new set of youngsters pairing up and taking over territories. And we fully expected it to be Groundhog Day again – that spring would see some of those winter pairs remaining, while others would be ousted by either the returning breeding pairs from the previous year, or by completely new pairings. We weren’t exactly blasé about it, but we were quietly confident we had a handle on what the pattern might be for the third winter on the trot.

DSCN0349However, the weather had other ideas. Since the Stonechat project began in 2012, we’ve been lucky. We’ve not experienced a really bad winter and any poor weather has been limited to short spells. We’ve certainly not had anything like the kind of weather that the two Beasts from the East delivered to not only Dersingham Bog but most of Norfolk and the rest of the UK. Unsurprisingly, it has had a significant effect on the numbers of Stonechat on the Bog and the occurrence of our ringed birds.

DSCF1031Fearing a complete wipeout, our volunteers have been monitoring the site and it has been disheartening to find very few or no Stonechats on the Bog on a number of visits. For a species relying on insects, any prolonged snow cover or ground frost can have a devastating impact on survival. We can only hope that some had found more sheltered habitat elsewhere, but given the extensive nature of the snow coverage and the length of time it lasted, there can’t have been many areas in East Anglia that Stonechats could have fled to in order to survive the harsh weather. In other parts of Norfolk, reserves were reporting similar reductions in numbers of other species such as Cetti’s Warblers and Little Egrets.

As we move from winter into early spring, fortunately the current picture is not as dire as we once feared it might be. We currently have 4 to 5 pairs of Stonechats on site occupying existing territories. Interestingly though, it has been all change in the composition of who remains. We have 4 ringed birds at the moment and none of them are the same as the ringed birds who wintered on site. We also currently have more unringed birds than ringed, so the recent ratio has been reversed. But given how precarious it could have been, we’ll take whatever Stonechats we can get at the moment!

male-stonechat-from-keithSadly, our oldest male, White/Orange, may have been a casualty of either his age (4 years and 7 months which is a fair age or a Stonechat) or the weather as he has not been seen since mid-February, just before the bad weather hit. Currently, an unringed male and a new female seem to be occupying his old territory – something he’d never have tolerated if he’d still been on site.

We can but hope that a few more migrant Stonechats will arrive to boost our numbers. Hopefully, we have ‘thrown out’ enough juvenile Stonechats into the surrounding countryside in the past few years (over 250 since the project began), that they will have boosted the Anglian population sufficiently that there is a good supply of replacement Stonechats out there to reinforce the birds on the Bog and plug a few gaps. Only time will tell.

So we now look forward to the approaching breeding season with cautious optimism. By this time last year, we had already confirmed 11 nests but at the moment, we have seen nest building by only 3 pairs. So whatever happens next with our weather, our first broods will already be much later than usual and our numbers much lower. We can but hope for some settled warmer weather into the spring to enable some initial success. We’ll keep you posted!

We’d like to thank one of our new volunteers, Allan Coleby for all his efforts. He helped keep track of territory occupation during the winter and, in particular, the depressing picture post-Beasts from the East. Hopefully, survey work will be more positive for all our volunteers as we move into the breeding season. We’d also like to welcome another new volunteer to the project, Jason Moss (https://twitter.com/mossjason85) of Oriole Birding(https://twitter.com/OrioleBirding) who joins us in time for the breeding season. We look forward to working with both of them and to the Stonechats recovering in numbers again and the project going from strength to strength.

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A Hat-trick & a Century

After the high failure rate of our first broods, a successful round two of nests, we were hopeful but unsure what any third breeding attempts would bring for our Stonechats. In previous years, we’ve had only a couple of pairs try for a third brood. This time, with so many failures on the first broods, we were more hopeful that more pairs would attempt another nest.

Once again the weather was kind to us for our third nesting attempts and with the timings of the pairs again spread out, any bad weather didn’t have a significant impact. So round three proved to be a mixture of pairs who attempted three nests and succeeded, while some pairs managed technically their second broods. In total, 9 pairs went for a third nesting attempt and we managed to ring 36 chicks. Once again, we missed one nest which fledged a minimum of 4 young, so we had a minimum of 40 young fledged from those 9 pairs.

Little Nose 100th chick 2017

Our 100th Stonechat chick for 2017!

So the big news for the project is that we crossed the century mark for the first time which was an amazing achievement, both for the birds and the volunteers. Ringing the 100th chick felt like quite a landmark and a cause for celebration. We didn’t quite wet the baby’s head but it was a close run thing…

 

In total over the whole season, we had found 33 nests, missed 2 more nests and ringed 113 chicks, with a further 8 chicks to add to the total from nests we missed. Considering that it was as recently as 2013 that we only had 2 pairs of Stonechats on Dersingham Bog, producing 10 chicks over a whole season, the increase in the population has been nothing short of remarkable.

In trying to sum up the various territories, this is where it gets complicated… Overall, 8 of our Stonechat pairs made three nesting attempts, with 6 of those pairs being successful. One of those pairs was remarkably prolific in terms of numbers, with 5 chicks from the first nest, 6 from the second and 4 from the third.

4 of our pairs nested twice, with 3 of those pairs successfully raising two broods and one pair failed on both of their nesting attempts. 3 territories held 5 pairs of Stonechats in total, 2 of those territories changing occupants partway through the season. Those 5 pairs made a single nesting attempt each and 3 out of the 5 pairs were successful.

Roger 2The territories where the occupants changed was a result of territories being abandoned by their original pairs after the first breeding attempt and later being replaced by new pairs. Curiously, one of those abandoned territories had been successful with a first nesting attempt so it was puzzling why the successful pair left. Those supposedly empty territories took everyone by surprise when they were reoccupied, with one of our volunteers literally making a chance discovery of a pair carrying food, but it shows the value of checking all the territories regularly. It perhaps also reflects the increasing numbers of Stonechats in the area now that suitable territories don’t remain empty for long during a breeding season. It’s a comforting thought that Dersingham Bog may now be a Stonechat nursery for the repopulation of West Norfolk.

It’s been a fascinating season and our Stonechats continue to be an absorbing, yet at times frustrating, species to study and our volunteers have put in a huge amount of time and effort to ensure we found as many nests as possible. It remains to be seen if next season will be just as busy and even if any more territories can be squeezed onto the reserve or whether we’ve reached our carrying capacity. We’re conscious a lot could depend on whether we experience a bad weather winter, for the first time in several years, which could have a significant impact on the numbers which return to breed. Our luck can’t hold forever.

IMG_20170712_143152546_HDRWe’ll attempt to monitor what Stonechats remain on the reserve through the winter as we did last year, to continue to build up a clearer picture of winter territory occupation. We’d very much welcome any reports of our dispersing Stonechats, both adults and juveniles, through the winter around Norfolk and perhaps beyond, as well as those which continue to occupy territories on Dersingham Bog. Meanwhile our volunteers, Roger and Irene, can probably be found recovering in a home for the bewildered through the winter… (aka the pub).

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Round two…

After our mixed Stonechat fortunes for our first nests, with more than a 50% failure rate, we were hoping that our second broods would fare better… and so it proved.

SC chicks almost ready to fledge

We still have 13 occupied territories and found 12 nests, with 11 successful broods ringed. We missed 1 nest entirely and 1 nest failed at the egg stage. 45 young were ringed, with an additional 4 or 5 extra unringed juveniles to add to the total from the brood we missed.

We had a mixture of brood sizes, with some very small broods of only 2 or 3 but we also had 3 broods of 6 young, which is the first time we’ve had pairs produce 6 eggs, let along fledge 6 young. One of those pairs had failed on their first brood but the second pair with 6 chicks had already produced a successful first brood of 5 young, so it’ll be interesting to see if they try again. Our third pair with 6 youngsters is a new pair occupying one of the previously abandoned territories. We also had several females lay 6 eggs but only between 2-4 hatched.

Our first nest with 6 eggs

The weather was a lot more settled for round two and simply because it was later in the breeding season, the temperatures were a lot warmer anyway even on rainy days. The only spells of bad weather didn’t last for long this time and a spell of very hot weather will have helped the availability of food.

The first brood failures resulted in the timings for the second nesting attempts being more spread out and the pairs were not as synced this time, so any bad weather did not affect all our pairs at once, as it did so disastrously before. The second nesting attempts have been so spread out that we’ve been ringing second broods on the same day as early third broods.

This staggered nesting has also allowed us to spread out our volunteer efforts. With limited time available for our two volunteers, it meant we could target our efforts more effectively as we had a good idea of the status of each of the territories and weren’t wasting time on ones which weren’t ‘ready’ yet. All of that, of course, was made possible by finding every first brood nest and monitoring its progress, which then unlocked the timings for the rest of the season.

The one failure was from a pair which failed first time round, also on eggs. This time it could have been to do with the location chosen for the nest – in low sparse heather with lots of bare ground around it. This pair may also have had an unfound failure as there was a very long gap between the first nest and the finding of their latest attempt, so it remains to be seen if they will try again. It’s a shame in a way as the male for this pair is our oldest  and previously most prolific male (white/orange), so maybe he’s chosen unwisely in his partner this year or maybe he’s firing blanks…

Our new pair’s chosen nest area

Two of the territories we thought were empty after first nest failures… weren’t! The original pair in one territory managed to raise a brood unnoticed right under our noses. The other empty territory has been re-occupied by a new pair; the male is one ousted from a neighbouring territory but the female is a completely new bird, not reported since she fledged last year. She was born in a second brood to our most prolific female so hopefully she has good genes!

We have no way of knowing where she’s been or whether she’s attempted to breed before, so this could be her first breeding attempt. Or perhaps she attempted elsewhere and failed? It’s perhaps unlikely she would have left a territory elsewhere if she’d been successful unless it was the loss of partner which triggered her move. Either way, she could try again.

As we gear up to monitor which of our territories will attempt third broods, our totals of fledged Stonechat young are looking a lot healthier, with 94 young ringed. So the question is, will we reach 100 chicks ringed for the first time in the project’s history? We missed it by a whisker last year, ending the year on 95 ringed young so we’re tantalisingly close already.

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ABANDON SHIP…

After the poor weather which had such an impact on our pairs during their first nesting attempts, it’s looking increasingly likely a handful of our Stonechats are missing. Four of our occupied territories on Dersingham Bog are now a Stonechat free zone.

After the mixed fortunes of the first broods, with 8 failures and 7 successes, we’ve been monitoring all 15 occupied territories to try and establish when each pair might attempt a second brood, or a relay in the case of the failures. So far, three of the territories which failed may have been abandoned entirely by the pairs and another territory, which successfully fledged five juveniles, is also now empty.

It’s too soon to be absolutely sure as it can take quite a while to confirm a territory is definitely empty and it’s not just that the female is being typically elusive while she’s sitting, but in three of the territories, the males appear to have gone AWOL too. And if they are now empty territories, we’ll never know what happened… whether the pair just abandoned the territory after their failure and moved elsewhere to try again, or if they’ve ceased breeding altogether for this season, or whether one or both of the adults has been lost, either through the bad weather or predation or illness.

But we can be fairly sure that one male has lost his female. One of the Bryant’s Heath males has been singing and displaying to the two females on neighbouring territories, much to the annoyance of their current partners. This is also having a knock-on effect on one of the neighbouring territories where second brood young have just hatched. The distraction means that the territory male is not pulling his weight by taking in the usual share of the food to the chicks as he’s spending too much time chasing off the intruding male.

It’s a shame to see these empty territories after such a consistent occupation over several years and it’s particularly poignant that our longest occupied territory at the Piezos now appears empty. We can only hope that some of them may be reoccupied again at some point, perhaps during the autumn and winter with the dispersal of this year’s young. Or perhaps we have now reached carrying capacity for the reserve and what’s happened shows that 15 occupied territories may be too many for the available food on the Bog, particularly when bad weather strikes early in the season?

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The other pairs, both the initial failures and our successful first broods, have been getting on with their second nests as expected. So we now have a satisfying mixture of incubating females and newly hatched young, including some where the fledged first brood juveniles are still hanging around while the female sits on a new clutch.

In fact, several females which failed first time round during the appalling weather were incubating barely 2-3 weeks after the initial failure, which just goes to show how quickly Stonechats can go down on eggs again. Even knowing how quick this species can be with second broods, it’s still remarkable when you consider the weather conditions at the time and the strain on the females. In one territory, a pair had been feeding young for a week before they were predated and yet the female then got back into condition, built another nest and laid six eggs, all within 2 weeks of the first failure.

So, as we move into the time for starting to ring the second broods and the weather has become more settled (until today!), it’s looking good for a more productive round two. Although as the rain lashes against the window, let’s hope that’s not tempting fate again…

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