Sunday, 27 April 2014

Birds seen in the hand

I was clearing out a drawer at home this afternoon and came across another one of my lists - that of species of bird seen in the hand. Most of these came about through my time as a bird ringer (1976 - 1983) but also as a hanger-on at bird observatories where injured or sick birds are regularly deposited, sometimes some rather surprising ones. My total currently stands at 125 - not too shabby, but a season on Fair Isle would most probably take it close to 200!

Looking through the list can conjure up some vivid memories: Little Grebe (rescued from a sludge lagoon at Beddington); a waterlogged Grey Heron in a dyke; both Gannet and Shag at Dungeness Bird Observatory that had become caught in fishing line; a female Common Scoter that had become caught in weed along a coastal dyke; a Hobby that had been picked up by a roadside but flew away high on release; a surprise mist-netted Grey Partridge; waders from various sites (Dungeness and The Wash) including Grey Plover, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Woodcock and Bar-tailed Godwit; a nestling Mediterranean Gull, ringed at the same time as Sandwich and Common Tern chicks; a Little Auk at Spurn that flew in with a flock of Starlings and crash landed in a field; Long-eared and Short-eared Owls; Bearded Tits from a reed bed and an immaculate Hawfinch one early April morning at Portland Bill.

There were of course scarce birds - Wrynecks, Tawny Pipit (all three of a flock at Dungeness in 1981), Bluethroat (at Beddington in October 1976), several Icterine and Melodious Warblers, Dartford Warbler, Barred Warbler, Pallas's Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Hume's Warbler (Spurn 1985), Short-toed Treecreeper (Dungeness 1984), Ortolan Bunting and Rustic Bunting.

I always felt it a privilege to be able to handle birds and be able to observe them at such close quarters. They are smaller than you think and lighter. And they surprise you - the first Sparrowhawk I handled was a handful of feathers and not as muscled as I had expected. Swifts had razor-sharp claws and were far worse to handle than you would ever think. If a large gull got hold of you it could make you cry in pain. I watched a ringer turn white and almost faint because of a Lesser Black-backed Gulls attentions.

What haven't I seen that I might have expected to? I've not been to a seabird colony, and apart from Guillemot and Razorbill all others would be new. Canada Goose. Most ducks. Stock Dove. Turtle Dove. Cetti's Warbler. Jackdaw. Rook. Still plenty of scope then, although my 'A' permit days are over...


  1. Yes its different to see them in the hand...I've had Greenish, Barred, Pallas's and Blyths Reed, Grey Partridge, Dipper, Mallard, Rook and Jackdaw ( both mist netted!) and lots of seabirds. Puffins have those claws like a Swift. If that beak doesnt get you on the soft skin between the fingers, the feet lacerate your arms. For danger, a Tawny Owl with four talons in your hand ruins a weekend.

    I once mist netted a Lunar Hornet Clearwing too!

  2. I've only handled young Tawny Owls from a nest box, Stewart. They were very docile and just blinked at us...

  3. An adult is an altogether different prospect. One I had, in my nievety to keep it from grabbing my hand, I lay it down on my knee / lap. It just locked on through my jeans into my thighs!, As I and a friend removed talons one by one, it grabbed my hand. All four talons ( theyre NOT claws either) went in up to the hilt. One in the ball of my hand ( thumb muscle) one through the skin that puffins bite between my fingers, one behind my thumb nail and one in my index finger nail.

    What a task to get it off with blood everywhere. That night I laty in bed with my whole hand throbbing like it had been hit with a sledgehammer...

    Stick to warblers I say...

  4. Seabirds are some of the best fun ever - catching Manxies on Bardsey was just so brilliant, wear full waterproofs and dive into a gorse bush, come out with one in each hand. Stormies can be troublesome, -advice- keep your mouth closed when taking them out of the top shelf!!! A boat trip out in the Atlantic led to seeing Cory's and Madeiran Petrel in the hand, I think I saw Bulwer's in the hand too, old age, struggling to remember...

    1. Can't remember a Bulwer's in the hand Alastair? Must have been one too many Pils in the Britannia 'back in the day'