Small Copper, Rutland

During the past month or so we have spent time with family, mostly for happy reasons but also because my father suffered an unexpected stroke. Fortunately it was at the mild end of the scale and he is recovering, but these things always cause concern.

Avian and other highlights have included Purple Emperors in north Northants and Rutland (where they are now established and quite easily seen), a series of Yellow-legged Gulls at Eyebrook Reservoir, regular encounters with Osprey and Hobby, and the Little Bustard at Methley which for various reasons was my first in Britain. Two nocturnal recordings made in early August captured just Pied Wagtail, Jackdaw and Magpie (the first nocturnal corvids I’ve recorded, possibly disturbed by human activity).

Now the time has come to look back north to Shetland where we shall be returning soon. What will the autumn bring, and will nocturnal recording prove more productive than it did in spring?

Little Bustard, Yorkshire

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(Lesser) Redpoll, Aberdeenshire

Every year there is a day when birdsong fades away. This year it was 10th July. I had made some recordings in Cambridgeshire in the morning, but the afternoon in Rutland was almost silent and this morning (11th July) the ‘dawn chorus’ was minimal. As I have had time to tackle sound recording regularly over the spring and early summer, it presents an opportunity to review some of what I have learned.

1. Gear
For diurnal recording I mainly use an H4nPro, which is portable without being an encumbrance and delivers good results in suitable conditions. It is prudent to carry spare batteries if recording over long periods. Failing that I sometimes use an iPhone with Rode Rec app, which can deliver satisfactory (if less good) results. For nocturnal recording I use an AudioMoth which is easy to set up and delivers reliable results albeit of variable quality.

2. Conditions
Conditions are critical: wind and rain both ruin recordings, which significantly constrains opportunities in Shetland. For some species, recording is only likely to be successful at certain times of day or night and certain stages of the year, so planning is important. Nocturnal recording is very much a work in progress with much still to learn. This spring I detected more nocturnal migration over Rutland than Shetland; we shall see how autumn compares.

3. Identification
For recordings which are placed in the public domain, it is essential that identifications are correct if they are to be a reliable resource. During diurnal recording it is normally possible to confirm identifications visually (even so I have doubts about some published recordings involving tricky taxa), but this is not possible during nocturnal recording which requires caution: I personally don’t attempt identifications unless there is a clearly audible recording combined with sonogram.

4. Application
It is relatively easy to share results by using xeno-canto or other platforms. For Europe we still lack a reasonably comprehensive published sound guide like the ones for North America by Pieplow – although their format might seem old-fashioned for this type of guide they are immensely useful so I hope that an equivalent for Europe will be published before long.

Making sound recordings of birds is almost like beginning again; we all quickly realise how little we really know. You can listen to a selection of my results here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/contributor/HNYFHZLJOD

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Oslo

During our short stay in late June we visited Bergen and Oslo. Some birds, especially Greenfinches, were refreshingly numerous in comparison with their current low numbers in many parts of Britain, and it was a good opportunity to compare subspecies of some common birds in Norway with those in Britain.

In addition to much of cultural interest, avian highlights included my first Swifts of the year(!), Hawfinches feeding young, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, and Peregrine.

Given the observation by an American visitor that Norway is ‘just like Alaska without the animals’, we were perhaps fortunate to see this Red Squirrel:

Red Squirrel, Bergen

Wall Lizard, Dorset

After visiting family in Devon and Dorset at the weekend we spent a day on and near the Purbeck coast, where highlights included introduced Wall Lizards at Winspit Quarry and a good showing of Early Spider Orchids at Dancing Ledge.

During the day we also saw sparring Peregrines and numerous Stonechats, though migrant birds were few. Two Adders, a variety of butterflies including our first Small Copper of the year, and Black Oil Beetle all kept us on our toes.

Early Spider Orchid, Dorset

Adder, Rutland – I’ve never noticed the blue iridescence on the head before

Since the BTO conference on sound recording, I tried out my nocmig equipment during the night of 28-29 March. Whatever anyone tells you to the contrary, it is now possible to achieve satisfactory results with inexpensive equipment – mine’s an AudioMoth recorder combined with free Audacity software. The same is true for diurnal recording, which will be the subject of a future post.

Don’t expect miracles, however. The only bird I recorded during the session above was a Tawny Owl (though there were plenty of man-made noises). Regular recording in, say, Charnwood, Belvoir and Rutland would almost certainly produce some interesting results and occasional surprises.

The warm spell at the end of March produced my first Rutland records of Orange-tip and Holly Blue for that month, and the first wave of Chiffchaffs was followed by Sand Martins and Swallows. Linnets have returned to some of their breeding areas, and – subjectively – there seem to be a few more singing Yellowhammers than last year.

Yellowhammer, Rutland

Woodlark, near Santon Downham

On Saturday I attended the BTO workshop on sound recording, which was a good opportunity to share ideas and experiences and in particular to pick people’s brains about ‘nocmig’ before I try it in Shetland. Thanks to all involved with the organisation of this event.

Before breakfast this morning I spent some time with Woodlarks – the views were quite pleasing but vocalisations were few. Another highlight of the early morning was provided by large (and vocal) flocks of Bramblings.

After breakfast we moved on to Weeting, where we were rewarded with good views of the Rough-legged Buzzard (close enough to see the pale yellow iris) and Stone-curlews. The rest of our day was spent at Lakenheath Fen, where highlights included Garganey, Bittern, Crane and Kingfisher.

Garganey, Lakenheath – a favoured site for this species

Marsh Tit, Rutland; dresseri is widely recognised but there are differences of opinion about its range

What is an endemic? The taxonomic position of at least the British birds listed below has been under discussion for decades, and is now in urgent need of review given that we are in a situation where one taxon, Scottish Crossbill, can be and is treated as a species by some authorities (e.g. IOC) but as a subspecies by others (e.g. Shirihai & Svensson), whilst several formerly recognised subspecies are no longer recognised by either IOC or Shirihai & Svensson.

In the past new subspecies were sometimes named on tenuous grounds, but it is also fair to say that some recent deletions have been a little arbitrary. An authoritative review would need to look at a wide range of museum material, photographs, sound recordings, and genetic material. It is perhaps surprising that this hasn’t been done already.

The species (in addition to Scottish Crossbill) for which endemic or near-endemic British taxa are currently recognised by IOC are: Red Grouse, Ptarmigan, Black Grouse, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Guillemot, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Rock Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Dipper, Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Stonechat, Song Thrush, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Crested Tit, Coal Tit, Willow Tit, Marsh Tit, Treecreeper, Jay, Starling, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Twite, Bullfinch, and Yellowhammer.

Goldfinch, Rutland; britannica is recognised by IOC but not by Shirihai & Svensson