Waders and warblers

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At this time of the year it is all about waders and warblers. Many adult waders are now at the end of their breeding season and are making their way south – for some it might only be as far as a UK estuary, whilst for others this is only the first leg of a very long journey that could take them to a beach in West Africa, or even further in the case of Ruff; a 10,000km (6,000 miles) journey to South Africa.

Ruff BTO (John Harding)

Ruff – John Harding/BTO

The Ouse Washes is ideally placed to see some of these waders as they pass through the area, and that has been the case this month. Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers have been reported at several sites, along with the first Greenshank of the season. Rarer waders often get caught-up in the movement of the regular waders that pass through and winter in the UK, and mid-summer is probably the best time to keep an eye out for any of these.

During the last few weeks the Ouse Washes has been graced with the odd rarer wader. Having arrived in the north-east in mid-June, the Black-winged Pratincole that slowly made its way down the east coast, was found on the Ouse Washes RSPB on 19 July. The same location also hosted a Temminck’s Stint. The former breeds no closer to the Ouse Washes than the Black Sea, whilst the latter breeds in Arctic Scandinavia, and very rarely in northern Scotland – the last confirmed breeding here was in 1993. The Ouse Washes also played host to a Glossy Ibis – a freshwater wading bird from the Mediterranean.

Glossy Ibis BTO (Kevin Carlson)

Glossy Ibis – Kevin Carlson/BTO

Warblers are also beginning to make their way out of the country, their final destination will be south of the Sahara Desert, largely in West Africa. Currently it is mostly Sedge Warblers that are on the move, and the reed-fringed ditches in and around the Ouse Washes seem to be full of them right now. Willow Warblers are also being seen and numbers of these are beginning to be recorded at south coast watchpoints and observatories. Swift migration is also well underway and the drop in numbers around breeding colonies will be very noticeable in the next few weeks. So, whilst we are still in mid-summer mode, for quite a few of our birds Autumn is definitely underway.

sedge warbler BTO (Anne Cotton)

Sedge Warbler – Anne Cotton/BTO

All of the BTO satellite tagged Cuckoos have now left the UK and seven of them are already in Africa. Six of these have successfully crossed the Sahara Desert and are resting and feeding before making their final push to the winter quarters in Congo. There are still another twelve tagged birds spread across southern Europe – follow them as they too make their way south.

We are currently unsure of the whereabouts of another four; they haven’t transmitted for over ten days and are no longer on the map but this doesn’t mean that we have lost them for good, they could pop-up again. The next month should see waders passing through the area peak, as young birds join the adult birds, the almost complete disappearance of Swifts, and a few ducks turning up on the washes. One thing’s for sure – there is always something to look out for.
Paul Stancliffe – British Trust for Ornithology

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Where are all the Cuckoos?

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The Cuckoo can still be heard across the Ouse Washes, however, all is not well with this iconic summer visitor. During the last twenty-five years we have lost almost three-quarters of the breeding population nationally.

cucko 008 e (Edmund Fellowes) (A)

Photo by Edmund Fellowes/ BTO of a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

The decline has been greatest in England, with the Cuckoos in Scotland holding their own, or even increasing slightly in some areas, whilst those that breed in Wales are losing ground but not to the same extent as those in England.

We know quite a lot about Cuckoos whilst they are here in the UK once they leave the UK much of what they do is a mystery. Or, at least that was the case until scientists at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) fitted tags to five birds in Norfolk in the spring of 2011.

The five birds were given names; two of them, Chris and Martin, after the BBC Springwatch presenters, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games. They both set off, Chris in mid-June, and Martin at the end of June, which at the time surprised BTO scientists as it was thought that they might head off towards the end of August.  Both headed south through Italy, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert spend the winter in the Congo Rainforest – prior to this the winter location was a complete mystery.

In February 2012, both birds started to head north but instead of taking a straight line 5,000 mile journey back to Norfolk, they headed into West Africa before crossing the Sahara once again –  effectively adding another 2,000 miles to their journey. From here they made their way back to the UK but Martin only made it as far as south east Spain, where he ran into an unseasonal hail storm and didn’t make it any further. Chris, however, made it all the way back to Norfolk.  Chris is currently still on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, where he has spent the last four summers but could leave for the Congo Rainforest any day now. He is the only bird remaining from the first five that were tagged in 2011. He has been joined this year by birds from Sherwood Forest, the New Forest, Sussex and Dartmoor, and the BTO are currently following 23 Cuckoos as they make their way south.

Cuckoo with tag

Photo by Phil Atkinson/ BTO of a tagged Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

As I write this, Thursday 3 July, only four birds remain in the UK, including Chris. The others are spread across Europe, with birds in France, Spain, Italy and Bosnia-Herzogovina. Not all of them will make it safely to the winter quarters in Africa, the crossing of the Sahara desert is particularly tough, but everyone can follow them online as their journeys unfold by visiting www.bto.org/cuckoos

* This is the first of a series of guest blogposts by Paul Stancliffe of the

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)