Bird ringing in winter can be very hit or miss. Most of our “catch” are birds that come to feeders, which is mostly tits. But now even tits are hanging out with their mates in pairs rather than in mixed foraging flocks. Many resident birds have already paired up in anticipation of the breeding season. In London at least robins have been singing for a while, goldfinches would burst into song every now and then throughout winter, wrens, dunnocks, great and blue tits also began to advertise themselves to mates within the last couple weeks. The singing season seems to have started for blackbirds on the 17th of February, and I heard the first greenfinch song on the 18th.
Among the winter regulars in our mist nets at Bedfont are ring-necked parakeets, attracted by the feeders. As I think I have mentioned in an earlier post, not all ringing groups would put rings on them, as they are an invasive species. Our policy is that it does no harm to collect information on them as on any other bird species. They are still relatively new in this country, and while they certainly do cause some problems by displacing other hole-nesting birds, scaring off other birds from feeding sites, etc. the local predators are catching on to this new, brightly-coloured and conspicuously loud prey, and personally I’m hopeful that eventually some sort of balance will be achieved. I do have faith in the peregrines, hobbies and tawny owls!
In the picture above we have an adult male (aged as 3 years old or older), with the fine blue and pink ring on his neck, and a female (2 years old or older). The male was fairly small, his bill so much finer than the female’s. They were likely birds of different races – the population of parakeets in Greater London is not homogeneous, as escaped or intentionally released pets joined the original flock.
We catch greater spotted woodpeckers more often in winter than in summer, again thanks to the feeders. Below is a picture of a male hatched last year – retained brown juvenile feathers contrast with black adult-type feathers. If you don’t see birds in the hand very often, the difference in colour may not seem very striking, but after years of looking for the most subtle difference in feather colouration on less easy to age birds, beginning to doubt whether your eyesight really is good enough for you to be a ringer, this looks extremely clear – and what a relief that is!
A pleasant surprise was a magpie which was confused by the net long enough for us to extract it before it freed itself. These big birds don’t get entangled and are able to wiggle their way out of the nets, if they don’t bounce right out when they fly into them.
Having good memory, this magpie will remember us and probably hold a grudge for the rest of its life. It was a young bird, hatched last year. Magpies can easily be aged based on the extent of white on the first and second primary feathers – more white on the adult birds.
A great tit we recently retrapped was an unusual-looking bird. His body feathers were heavily worn, and broken, so much that there was no yellow on his belly at all! As such, we couldn’t sex him based on the extent of the “black belt” on the belly, but with wing length of 80 we can be quite sure it was a male (and we can check the records for this bird to confirm). He must have had a very rough year indeed, and suffer from cold due to insufficient insulation. Luckily for him this winter has been quite mild so far! He was ringed on our site six years ago, so he’s three years above the average lifespan for his species. He just needs to hold out a few more months with his shoddy feathers before he can moult them and, if his diet is good at the time, enjoy a fine new coat!
I have started going out with another ringing group (part of the larger group to which Bedfont ringers belong as well), whose winter site is Woolley Firs. The woodland site by bird feeders there is also a hit with mostly tits. But there is a species of tit we do not get at Bedfont due to the lack of conifers – the coal tit. The coal tit is smaller than a great tit, and decidedly less feisty. It’s not a rule that smaller birds are less aggressive – case in point the blue tit, which is the same size but will do all it can to inflict pain to you, even though you’re a giant scary thing to it!
We also got a sparrowhawk at Woolley Firs. It was a male hatched last year, based on the overall brown colour of the bird, with chestnut-edged body feathers. He was very calm throughout his ringing experience, and didn’t screech when held at all. My experience with sparrowhawks is limited as they’re not caught often, but so far it was only the bigger females which would fiercely screech and struggle, while males just seemed to wait until it was over.