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Wheatears on the move

April 8, 2011

While wheatears have been arriving in the UK for the last month, they are only just starting to return to Fair Isle. The great thing about colour ringing birds is that you get more information about where they go than standard metal ringing alone. This is because any keen-eyed bird watcher can record the colours – which will be unique to the individual – without the need for recapture. Telescopes are usually needed though, and a camera with a long telephoto or digiscope helps even more.

Two colour ringed wheatears (both older males) have been seen back – the first arrival was recorded by Tommy Hyndman on 1st April.

Another male was seen at Barns Ness, East Lothian, Scotland on 3rd April and another was spotted and photographed on North Ronaldsay on 4th April.

Colour ringed birds can be reported to the BTO, and usually the reporter hears back about where it was first caught.


Musk ox

September 28, 2010

Back home now in Cardiff with a bottle of Becks and CSI Miami on the TV. I’ve got to admit I’m missing Greenland already!

Our last few days were spent in Kangerlussuaq, a town that was only founded in the 2nd World War when the US set up a military base there. The Americans have left, but town now hosts the country’s largest airport. And the surrounding hills are the best place in Greenland to see land mammals – our reason for wanting to spend several days there before coming home.

We managed to find about 20 huge musk oxen over the weekend. They’re impressive beasts, stocky doesn’t seem quite an adequate enough description. Some were warming up for the rutting season, which is just beginning. Shame we won’t see them in full combat.

We also saw arctic hares close to our hostel, and two different ptarmigan up at the radar from where we started our musk ox – watching trips.

So now there’s a PhD to write up – and a lot of photos to process! A few pics from the weekend:



Arctic hare

Arctic hare

Musk ox

Musk ox

Musk oxen

Musk oxen

Leaving Disko

September 19, 2010

So, this is our last day on Disko. Our last hour in fact – I’m writing this entry less than an hour before we head off to the ferry for Ilulissat.

The final wheatear ringing count is 131. We would have got a few more but the mealworms gave up on us before the end. Not to worry, I’m very pleased with how many we got, and never thought we’d exceed 100. Getting all the geolocators on was excellent too, leaving this story open-ended as there is still exciting data to retrieve from their memories next year. I hope.

I’ve been getting lots of snow bunting photos recently. I thought I might as well take advantage of them eating all the dried mealworms, and they’ve been easy to get close to near a couple of the feeders. One of these shots is below.

Greenland is still very much a hunting-oriented society. We haven’t seen a single living seal in our entire stay. The numbers killed are officially reckoned to be within sustainable limits, and given that the density of people in Greenland is the lowest of any country in the world, may be that’s true. The country’s population is estimated at 56,500 (Wikipedia!). You do have to wonder though when you don’t see any at all. It would be interesting to look at the population biology of the seals here, especially source-sink dynamics (perhaps someone already has? Any feedback on this appreciated – thanks). The second photo is a seal skin, complete with head, that we found on a tiny beach by some houses on the outskirts of town yesterday. Quite a grizzly sight.

The final photo is a gratuitous cute husky shot, to make up for the seal.

Now on to Ilulissat, and then Kangerlussuaq, where we are hoping to catch the musk oxen rutting season, and may be see some Arctic foxes. Apparently around the airstrip is a good place – no shooting allowed there!

Snow bunting

Snow bunting

Seal skin

Seal skin

Cute husky puppy

Cute husky puppy

In the news

September 9, 2010

Thanks to the Cardiff University and BES press offices, some very nice articles about my BES photographic competition successes have been published both online and in print.


Wales Online


Cardiff University

Permafrost, sled dogs and winter

September 8, 2010

Brrrrrrr! The weather forecast was spot-on yesterday, predicting that last night would be the first dipping below 0°C since before the summer. Autumn doesn’t seem to last very long here, at least not in the eyes of a soft European!

We still have a few wheatears around the place, but only a handful. Getting the remaining few onto one of the feeders is proving rather difficult. Meanwhile, a raven has discovered Feeder 1, daintily picking up dried mealworms with its enormous beak (see below).

Yesterday we had a change of scenery, accompanying Outi and two of her sled dogs to a permafrost monitoring plot. Measuring the depth of the permafrost entails sticking a long and thin metal ruler into the ground and writing the number down on a sheet – trusty low-tech kind of science. The dogs had a great time and must have covered at least five times the amount of ground we did, running backwards and forwards all the way there and all the way back. The puppy, Lumi (a Finnish word for snow), was one tired little dog by the time we got back! Our whale sightings are not completely over afterall, as four fin whales were out feeding in the bay.

Raven eating from feeder

Raven at feeder

Measuring permafrost

Measuring permafrost

Measuring permafrost

Reading the measurement, with some canine help (pic by Ruth Lovell)


Susi (Finnish for wolf)

Competition wins!

September 4, 2010

I’ve been keeping some good news fairly quiet for a while now, but as the official results have been announced,  I can now say that I’ve won two out of the five categories in this year’s British Ecological Society photographic competition! One shot is of a puffin being released after being colour ringed on Fair Isle, the other is of course wheatears!

Puffin in bag

Puffin being released


Wheatears in snow shower

All loggers deployed!

September 3, 2010

This has been a very successful trip to Disko. We came here hoping to catch perhaps 50 wheatears, deploying geolocators on 28 of them (all the loggers we have). Well, today we attached the 28th logger, but also caught our 124th wheatear! Far beyond my expectations, and necessitated a request for new rings from Copenhagen (which arrived in double-quick time).

I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of the loggers – fingers crossed that we’re able to get some data. This depends on (a) the birds surviving until next year (about 30% of juvenile wheatears tend to survive to 1 year old), (b) the birds returning to within a couple of km of the Arctic Station so that we can find them, (c) our ability to retrap the birds, (d) the loggers are still attached, and finally (e) the loggers worked. So getting the loggers on is only the beginning. At least there is cause to think that it might work out, see e.g. work by Stutchbury et al in the US.

Two nights ago the light at sunset was fantastic. I took a break from watching videos of wheatears eating mealworms (great evening entertainment) to go out and get a few shots from the beach. One of these is below:

Iceberg in Disko Bay

Iceberg at sunset in Disko Bay