Friday, 18 July 2014

June/July 2014 shots

A few random shots from the last month or so.

Common Guillemot, Puffin and Black Guillemots, High Island. There are no breeding records of Puffin for county Galway.

Puffin, High Island.
Mother and calf Harbour Porpoise, Inishbofin.

Second adult Harbour Porpoise that was associating with the mother and calf above.

Some of the 1,200 Manx Shearwaters gathered off Inishbofin on the evening of 1st July. Many were calling. They breed on the sea stack called Dún na hIníne off the NE corner of the island. I think the numbers of breeding birds here have been severely under-estimated.

Bilberry, also called fraochán in Ireland and very similar to Blueberries. Only now found in areas with no grazing e.g. islands as they seem to be very sensitive to grazing pressure. They are quite rare now in Connemara unfortunately.

Close-up of a Bilberry, nice little snack while out looking for Merlin in late June.
Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Merlin 2014 Part 2

A few poor flight shots of some adult female and male Merlin. The female has six new inner primaries, p7 is growing and the outer three have yet to be replaced.



Saturday, 12 July 2014

Merlin 2014 Part One

Best of the lot saved for the end - Merlins! These are the smallest Irish bird of prey. Connemara is one of the strongholds for this species in Ireland. The only national population estimate I can find for the species comes from Birdlife International which stands at 110 - 130 pairs for the Republic. I'd imagine this is a fairly vague estimate as there has never been a countrywide survey of this Annex 1 species. Each EU country has a legal responsibility to regularly monitor Annex 1 species under the EU Bird Directive. Ireland Inc. appears to have missed that particular memo which is standard fare for this country when it comes to anything related to our natural heritage.

A pilot Merlin Survey was carried out in 2010 by Darío Fernandez, Damian Carroll and John Lusby. While a huge amount of time was invested in the pilot survey by the three lads and many other volunteers, it was never meant to be a comprehensive survey and its main objective was to evaluate survey methods used to survey Merlin and determine which of these would be best used in an Irish context.

A detailed survey was undertaken by Paul Haworth and Pádraic Reaney in the mid 1980's over two seasons. A total of twelve pairs were recorded in Connemara. Only two of these were ground nesters, the rest were found in old Hooded Crow nests in trees. Most of the nesting locations were on small islands in the many lakes/loughs scattered throughout the extensive blanket bogs of South Connemara.

As Merlin (like all falcons) don't make their own nest, they mainly use Hooded Crow nests here. Usually after using a nest for one year they need to find another nest the following year as the parents have no nest maintaining skills. This means they have to move to another island or even a new lough which makes it very difficult to find them from year to year. Combined with their secretive behaviour when nesting and the difficult terrain in which they breed, it makes for challenging survey work to say the least. With the likes of Ravens, Peregrines and a lot of Kestrels all it takes to find a breeding pair is to check obvious ledges on cliffs, quarries for an obvious nest and ledges or holes in a cliff. They also regularly use the same sites year in year out unlike most Merlin.

There are several ways of checking for Merlin. The first is looking for plucking posts. These are usually the tops of peat hummocks, small hillocks, large rocks and fence posts. Zig-zagging between infinite possible plucking posts can be exhausting and frustrating when more often than not you can go for days out on the bog within even seeing much signs of Merlin. Moth wings are a frequent feature on these posts and usually feature large day-flying moth species found on open bog usually Northern Eggar, Fox and Emperor moths. Bird feathers are the main objects found however. Meadow Pipit is by far and away the commonest species encountered. They will often raid nests if they come across them as partially pinned feathers are regularly seen. Skylarks, Wheatears, finches, Swallows and Snipe are the commonest other bird prey items.
Another method of checking for breeding Merlin are vantage point watches. This isn't so easy when you consider you have up to 50,000 hectares to check so this isn't really viable.

Once a breeding pair have been pinned down to one particular island it's necessary to find the actual nest that they are using that season. The nests can be well hidden in Holly trees or Ivy covered trees. This involves swimming out to the island. Using small boats to access islands isn't very practical as most of the breeding sites involve a hike of a few kilometres across the bog, a bit of a hassle hauling a boat over that sort of terrain. Walking out to these islands in wet/dry-suits at the height of summer can be an interesting experience!

I've only been looking for Merlin in West Galway for the past three seasons. In 2012 I came across three pairs and we ringed one of these with John Lusby. In 2013 I had four successful pairs and two of these broods were ringed. This year I only managed three pairs, two of which were ringed. All of these were ringed under license of course. I suspect that there has been a significant decline in recent times and again this year some pairs may have failed at the egg stage, in a similar manner like many of the Kestrels and Peregrines.

All photos taken under license from NPWS (forgot to mention the same goes for my shots of the Ravens, Kestrels and Peregrines in previous posts also).
3 - 5 day old chicks, 10th June 2014, note the white egg tooth on the upper mandible.

Chicks in an old Hooded Crow nest, 10th June 2014.

Same chicks 20th June, beginning to fill out the nest a little now, ten days latter.

Wing and tail feathers emerging from their pins.

John Lusby and Irene O'Brien after ringing a clutch of three chicks.

Male Merlin half mobbing a passing Cormorant.

Brood of three chicks. This nest was at least three years old and had little inner lining.

Plucking Post
Second plucking post.

Northern Eggar moth wing.

Merlin pellet
Nesting island.

Record shot of a female on the nest.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Golden Plover Survey 2014

The Connemara Bog Complex Special Protection Area was designated in recent years primarily for European Golden Plover and Merlin which are listed in Annex 1 of the EU Birds Directive. Breeding Common Gull and Cormorant are also listed as "features of interest". To monitor the priority species such as Golden Plover we have undertaken a survey to estimate the population found in the 19,209.7 hectare sized SPA. The SPA consist of three separate areas. The plan is survey each area over one summer. We are just about finishing up on the second area at the moment. This area was surveyed in 2004 as part of the Upland Bird Survey during which 27 pairs of Golden Plover were recorded. I think we will be significantly improve on this figure when we have the survey completed next summer. As part of the survey, 12 separate random one kilometre squares are picked for each of the three areas. In each of these one km squares there are five parallel transect lines. All of these squares also require two visits - an early and a late visit. When we are finished next summer the total length of transects that we will have walked will be 360km in length!
We have found that breeding plover tend to be very quiet during the early visits usually when they are on eggs but on the later visits when the chicks have hatched, the parents are much more obvious, standing up on hummocks and constantly alarm calling.

Breeding Golden Plover (Connemara birds at least) are far less well marked than more Northernly/Arctic breeding birds. Even full males can be sometimes difficult to separate from adult females.

Note the grey old lesser, median and greater coverts.
Golden Plover chick, seconds later this chick ran off at full pelt.

Golden Plover chick.

Two Golden Plover feathers.

Plover habitat

Plover habitat

Irene and Aonghus out on the bog.
Pristine blanket bog, this is typical Golden Plover habitat and contained one pair. This sort of terrain isn't for the fainthearted, you can get very wet very quickly if you step in the wrong spot!

Not so pristine blanket bog! Overgrazed and poached by sheep, not surprisingly there were no Golden Plovers recorded in this particular square.

Quads seems to be an increasing problem on lowland and upland blanket bogs. Their use is not out of necessity but sheer laziness on the part of a handful of landowners.

An example of one of the 1km squares we did. With this amount of loughs, deep connecting streams and quaking bogs you get an idea of difficult terrain and how difficult it can be to complete a full transect (the red lines).