Bird Ringing CAN course

Back to Norton Priory, this time for the CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) bird ringing course with bird-ringing legend David Norman.

Norton Priory in Runcorn is becoming quite familiar to me now. I was there not long ago for the CAN Diptera course which if you’ve read my blog on you’ll know I loved. And I’ve been there one other time too…

Fleur and I were out checking small-mammal traps with Tony of the mammal group, accompanied by Paul who works at Norton Priory. On that day along with a successful haul of field mice, I met an enigmatic character emerging from some trees in the Priory grounds as Paul was giving us a tour. This chap produced a long-tailed tit from the bag he was carrying. I was captivated. I’d never seen a wild bird that close up before. I then had my mind blown when he reached into the bag and gently produced several more long-tailed tits which flew off as he opened his hand. Quite the spectacle to someone like me who has very little birding experience.

As you’ve probably guessed that was David. I didn’t know it at the time but he’s a very well know member of the birding community in various forms from author to ringer. On Friday I was getting a coffee in the staff room and mentioned to Chloe what I was doing on the weekend. That’ll probably be David Norman, she said. And it was.

When Tom and I arrived on Sunday, slightly late, we joined the group of twenty or so other attendees plus Andy, CAN Chairman, in more or less the same spot that I had met David coming out of the trees that time.

 CANbirdringing1

The course wasn’t teaching us to bird ring as that’s a very long process of apprenticeship. It was a demonstration of the process and a chance to hold and release a bird which had been ringed and an introduction by David to the process, history and conservation benefits of studying wild birds in this country. David has ringed over 100,000 birds.

We were treated to close up views of an array of birds. Goldcrests, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, redwings and jays all made an appearance. As someone who hasn’t done any work to do with birds and has limited, garden bird knowledge the thing that struck and enthused me was the nature of a bird in the hand. When you’re used to seeing birds sat in trees or flying you see only a limited aspect of their personalities and that can lead you to view them as rather simple characters.

CANbirdringing2

(Goldcrest)

With the sight of a small bird held safely in the ringer’s grip, boldly pecking and biting at a finger before apparently deciding to wait and see what happens next, you realise that these are robust creatures that experience trials and adventures every day of their lives. They are primed to face adversity and they fly off in a flurry of what seems more like victory than panic. I’m  anthropomorphising I know. I’ll stop now.

I was first to hold a bird. There’s that moment when the question is asked, would someone like to release this one? You all want to. You wait and see if anyone else volunteers. They don’t. You pluck up to courage and say out loud “me” but everyone else has been running through the same process in their heads and three of you say it within a second of one another. 

I was carefully handed a male redwing. Instinct tells you to place a hand underneath to support the bird but David instructed not to do that so as to avoid crushing the bird’s tail. Its head goes between your index and middle finger with your remaining fingers wrapping around the body. It feels secure this way and it’s reassuringly easy to judge the pressure you need to apply. When handling mammals I’m forever applying too little pressure through over caution, resulting in wriggle-based control problems. Thankfully not so with the redwing in my hand. I held it for a just moment before opening my hand enjoying the split second of action before it was off and away.

CANbirdringing3

(Redwing in David’s hand)

It was an excellent course and we were also treated to tour of the grounds with Paul and a visit to the bone collection from the sites archaeological dig.

Something that really struck me from the day was David’s answer to a question about how long birds like these were likely to live. He pointed out that the longer they live, the longer they are likely to live with the first year being perilous as young, inexperienced birds face life’s trails for the first time. So some birds may live years but with so many dying in the first few months, an average life expectancy could be described in weeks rather than years.

If I were to anthropomorphise once more I’d say it looks exciting to be a bird. They’re ready and equipped to face whatever weird thing happens to them next, and when Tom dropped me off later I viewed the sparrows in the tree of a neighbour’s garden with an enhanced curiosity.

[Thanks to CAN for the use of their photos for this blog]

Advertisements

Buzzin.

Another day course with CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists). This weekend was the Diptera Workshop held at Norton Priory Museum.

As the year has gone on, the time since I booked onto my CAN courses has increased. It’s a little different anticipating a diptera workshop a few days away than it is booking onto one along with a load of other ecology courses. People ask you what you’re doing on the weekend and you say: “On  Saturday I’m going to a course to learn to identify flies”. They look at you like you are a fly.

I suppose you can’t blame them. Flies are kinda gross. Someone suggested to me once that we’re predisposed to dislike flies because they spread disease so we find them naturally repellent. I’ve no idea if that’s true.

None the less I found myself rather looking forward to this course. I got really into harvestmen after that CAN course. But like flowers to a botanist now all the harvestmen have died off and I have nothing to play with. But you can generally rely on there being a fly somewhere. Not only that but unlike everything else you can get into in the natural world, flies come to you. Sit there long enough and a fly will find you and land on you. Or whatever you’re eating.

I picked Tom (who I’ll refer to as Tom S for reasons which will become clear) up and drove us from Manchester to Runcorn on Saturday morning. He was hungover and relieved to hear that the whole course was to be indoors (though would later come to regret the excessive layers he had worn in anticipation of a day outside). Either Tom S or Fleur have driven on the other CAN courses I’ve been on so it was good to be able to return the favor. We arrived on time into a full classroom of around 15 people sat around a ring of desks packed with microscopes, lights and tools. I recognized several of the people there. There’s obviously a bit of an invert gang as I’d seen them on the invert trapping course and none others. They’re magnificently geeky and I mean that as a compliment. These guys really know their invertebrates.

upload

upload

upload

Rachel and Andy, the founders of CAN, were both there and the course was lead by Tom Mawdsley (who I’ll just call Tom) who has clearly spent many years refining his fly-D skills and is very good at it. Thing is, it’s not really enough just being good at something like flies. As it turns out fly ID is really hard and you could be easily put off it as soon as you start it, but Tom has a way of appearing not to take the subject too seriously. A kind of shrugging “may as way learn to ID flies” manor that puts you at ease as you take your first uncertain steps down the microscope lens, and means you don’t notice how horrifically hard it is until you’re already hooked.

upload

I LOVE flies now. Not ‘love’ love obviously. More a kind of ‘I want to kill you and pin you to a piece of plastazote and keep you forever’ kind of love. I heard Erica McAlister on Radio 4 once talking about how beautiful flies are. I thought it was cool that she thought that but I couldn’t imagine what she meant. I made a mental note to find out one day though and on Saturday looking at flies under a microscope I saw it. You expect the eyes to look impressive and they do but the colours were what really got me. Golden hairs on grotesquely beautiful faces like alien re-imaginings of Egyptian myths. I’ve spend some time looking at aquatic inverts but to me they have none of the charisma of true flies. You can’t see it in any of my pictures. You have to have a good look down a microscope.

Fun with flies

When we first arrived we got a coffee and sat down and as Tom was introducing himself a fly landed on his finger. This gave him the appearance to me of some kind of fly whisperer. Turns out it was just a very dopey fly. It later committed suicide in  Tom S’ coffee.

upload

Tom S and I spent the 5ish hours of the course working our way through the key provided on the course, identifying samples of what must have been hundreds of specimens Tom has collected over the years. I only noticed afterwards that the date of one of the specimens I had photographed was 1988. We asked a lot of questions. We ID maybe 5 flies to at least family, some species. As with any fiddly IDing, having someone to show you when something is what you think it is and when it is in fact the opposite of that even though it very much looks like it is, is vital to get you off to a good start. A transverse sutre may not look like is isn’t viable in the middle, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘not visible’.

upload

upload

upload(Lidya suggested the inclusion of the coin as she has small hands so the scale might not be obvious!)

This was in such contrast to the harvestmen course which I had also enjoyed so much. Twenty-nine UK species of harvestmen, most of which are quite distinctive with a hand lens. There are nearly 7000 fly species in the UK and many are distinctive only by the positioning of a hair! One of the things I like most about natural history is that it seems to create these wonderfully obsessive characters who have taken the time to figure all this stuff out. I worry that they are a dying breed.

upload

upload

Tom very kindly gave me one of his pooters (a fly catching device). I’m sure he didn’t think too much about it but I was well chuffed and left full of enthusiasm to pursue this. In the 24 hours that followed Tom S bought a microscope having been equally enthused by the day. I could do with a microscope. One of the pieces of advice on the day was to visit the Dipterists Forum for help with all things fly. I popped on and picked their brains about microscopes. I think I’m going to have to save up. I have access to microscopes at both my works, uni and now Tom S’ house to no point in buying something cheap and useless now.

upload

I have used my pooter though. As you wander round your house in December, pooter in hand, hunting out any unlucky flies that might still be about you can’t help wonder when exactly you turned into such a weirdo?

My first #pooter