Week ending 23rd March   Leave a comment

Most of my exploits with the wildlife of Crail this week has involved it, or the weather, or both together, getting the better of me. I have been trying to catch all of the colour-ringed redshanks again this winter to get a measure of their “personality”. Just as with people, animals have personalities, although anyone that has a dog will know this well already. The most obvious manifestation of a wild bird’s personality is its shyness or boldness. If you watch birds coming to a bird table you will soon see what I mean. One blue tit might fly straight up to the feeder and peck away, whereas another might approach cautiously and make a quick grab at some food before retreating to eat it in a bush. Some of this is, of course, dominance and competition. Some birds rule the roost and others must try and fit around the edges, but some of it does not depend on the social context.

The best way to measure personality is to catch a bird and put it in a cage and then give it a chance to explore its new environment or to feed from a new feeder. A shy bird will take a long time to look round and a long time to start feeding. A bold bird might be straight out there within seconds. And if you tried them again in a new cage, they would show the same pattern. Now doing this with a set of wild Crail redshanks is out of the question. But we can have a look at their personalities in the context of their feeding decisions. Do individuals take risks and feed in the harbour close to people whereas other are much shyer and feed elsewhere whenever people are around? And if we catch them, as we do anyway to measure their mass and of course initially to put the colour rings on them, then we can see how they behave in the ten minutes we have them, and then how they respond to being released. After we have caught a redshank and measured them, we put them in a cardboard box on the beach for five minutes and see how active they are. Some individuals shuffle about constantly and try to get out, others stay fairly still the whole time. Then we lift up the side of the box and time how long it takes the redshank to escape. Some, as you can imagine, are straight out in a rush. Others may take a couple of minutes to poke their head cautiously out. They then walk out slowly, and look around before they fly off. The personality appraisal is perhaps a bit rough and ready compared to a laboratory test but it is as far as I am prepared to go in terms of disrupting the redshanks’ lives.

Now that is the theory. The practice relies on catching the redshanks first. And that has not been going well the last couple of weeks. Catching either involves a trap on the beach that they are now pretty much all wise to, or a net at night down at the harbour at low tide. Nets are not great when it is windy and unless it is dark they don’t work at all. So this restricts me to a calm night, usually very late, at low tide. I often put the net up across the harbour mouth but they have learnt to avoid it so this week I tried the net actually down in the harbour. One small problem – it is full of very smelly, very thick mud that will swallow you up very quickly if you walk in the wrong place. Last Monday night was typical of how much fun you can have in such a situation. It was blowing a gale and my net was behaving more like a sail: putting it up had already involved mud down one welly and losing all feeling in my hands. A redshank arrived and I gently disturbed it so it flew up into the net. It bounced out of the inflated net and then flew straight back into the net. I sprinted down the quay, well tried to sprint – it is nightmarishly slippery – just in time to see the net blown taut by a strong gust ejecting the redshank again which promptly flew off. And that was that for the next half an hour. The tide obviously waits for no man, so then the net had to come down. I was frozen, very smelly and with nothing to show for the evening except another redshank now well trained to avoid my nets and probably the harbour itself for the next few weeks.

Redshank - shy or bold?

Redshank – shy or bold?

Perhaps I should mention the why. Why would you do this just to measure a bird’s personality? Imagine a world full of shy redshanks. Crail would be a nightmare, far too disturbed and so unavailable as a habitat for them. So understanding how shyness and boldness allows animals to coexist with us in an increasingly disturbed world is important to predict how populations might be affected. The redshanks we have in Crail are a pretty tolerant bunch I think. They have to be. But was this learnt, or do we have all the brave ones? And further down the coast between us and Anstruther, for example, where it is much less disturbed, are they all shy birds? So I will keep trying – we have caught 14 out of about 25 so far and another 6 would probably be enough. They will all be off to breed in the next 2-4 weeks so time is running out. But next time you see a redshank down in the harbour think about it as an individual – either a sensitive soul, or a risk taker – trying to make ends meet just like any other Crailer.

The blackbirds have started breeding and spring is definitely still on the way, although the temperatures this week have paradoxically been some of the coldest of the winter. I have seen a few more lesser black-backed gulls and many more gannets but still no sign of the first birds back from Africa. I think they will be early this year so predict a chiff-chaff by the end of next week and a swallow not so long after that.

Male blackbird - they have started breeding in Crail already

Male blackbird – they have started breeding in Crail already

Posted March 23, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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