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October – November 2014
Fifteen of the sixteen juvenile great bustards released at site 3. Photo © David Kjaer.
As a result of the end of the LIFE project in November 2014, this will be the final update to this page. For more up to date news keep an eye on the main Great Bustard Group website or follow the Great Bustard Group on Twitter.
The progress of most birds released in 2014 continues to be positive, with three and a half months now spent in the wild since release. There has been more movement, both locally and over much greater distances, and signs that small groups of birds are settling in certain areas for the winter.
At release site 2, the group had already split in September, and that process continued. In late October, eight of the juveniles here moved to release site 1 with the adult group, forming an impressive flock of 15 birds of a range of ages. The adults returned with some of the juveniles to release site 2 in mid November, but the process is particularly fluid and it is not currently clear where all of those eight juveniles are. Three more have been seen regularly on a farm within a few miles of the release site and look very settled. Another, a female, has made a rather longer journey, being seen flying over Weymouth and then a few days later West Bexington, in Dorset. This means that at least 12 birds out of the 17 released here have been seen within the last three weeks.
At release site 3, the flock of released birds remained together for much longer. The last sighting of all 16 together came on 8th November, and they have been particularly elusive since then, so it may be that the group remains together, albeit away from the release site, or they may have split up.
In the last few days two sightings have come in which could relate to some of these birds or to some of the missing birds from site 2. First, on 18th and 19th November, a female great bustard was reported from Alderney in the Channel Islands, representing the eighth bird from the project to cross the channel but the first from the Spanish donor population. Alderney is around 165km from the project release sites. Then on 20th November two great bustards were seen flying east along the Dorset coast at Langton Matravers in Purbeck. This was the peak time of year for movement of Russian great bustards, and these are the first signs that some of the Spanish great bustards may make similar movements. We still do not know if the majority of released individuals will remain in Wiltshire or if we will receive many more reports from the south coast and France.
Orange 15 and Yellow 22, the two oldest females, are becoming very reliable in their wintering habits. They have been seen regularly in the same area where they spent the previous two winters, in south Wiltshire.
A juvenile great bustard released in early August 2014. Photo © David Kjaer.
This year’s release is looking promising, with good early survival and signs that the released birds are establishing strong connections to their release sites. At the new release site, all sixteen released birds remain and are seen on most days, with very limited exploration away from the site so far.
Things have been a little different at the release site which was previously used in 2011 and 2012, perhaps due to the presence of up to six adult birds at the same site. This should be very positive for the juvenile bustards, but may also make them a little more adventurous, as they can follow the adults when they move around. Several of the young birds have been seen up to a few miles away from the release site, and at the latest count, 13 of the 17 released here were present at the site itself.
As the first movements of released birds can be very unpredictable, we are reliant on reports from landowners and members of the public to help keep track of the birds which leave the release sites – please let us know if you do see any great bustards.
There have been no significant movement of the nine adult birds, which have remained around release sites and in other favoured spots. Five remain at one of the release sites with the juveniles, as they did until early December in 2012.
July – August 2014
We secured a full house of nesting females when we found the last of five nests well after it had failed. Two eggs appeared to have been abandoned midway through the incubation, as tests revealed that one of the two was fertile. This was T5′s nest, and we can’t be sure what the reason for the abandonment was.
There is not a great deal of activity from the adult birds at this time of year, and nor is there much reason for the project to follow their movements on a daily basis. Orange 15 and Yellow 22 have not been seen since June, but this is entirely in character for these older and often solitary adult females. The main flock of seven bustards was last seen together at the first project release site on 20th July. Since then they have split – three remained in the same area until at least early August, and three have gathered together with newly released birds at the second project site. One has been missing since late July.
The release process started in mid July, when the first group of juveniles were moved to pens at their release site. By 11th August, all 33 juveniles had been fully released, although they will continue to be visited by rearing staff for some time longer. They are split into two groups, half at the site which was used in 2011 and 2012, and half at a new release site established this year.
April – June 2014
T5 with Pink 2 in close attendance, from spring 2013. Photo © David Kjaer.
As the displaying season reached its climax in April there was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events: four year old male Pink 2 appeared to be dominant over seven year old male Purple 5. The older bird was seen on several occasions running away from the younger bird. Although mating bustards are rarely observed, this means that Pink 2 may well have had his pick of the females. In contrast, Black 20 stayed well out of the way during April, being seen in several locations on the Hampshire and Berkshire downs.
In terms of nesting, it was a busy year, with attempts confirmed for four out of five mature females and the fifth also thought likely to have nested. Success was once again hard to come by, and information on the progress of attempts equally so – female great bustards are extremely secretive at this time of year.
Two females showed signs of hatching eggs. Yellow 22 was seen on several occasions looking like she was feeding a chick in long vegetation, but no chick was ever seen, and within a couple of weeks of hatching she had definitely failed. L25 was never seen with chicks, but on visiting her nest site tiny fragments of eggshell were found, indicative of hatching. Black 17 also failed around the point of hatching, but in this case a larger fragment of eggshell was found near the nest, suggesting predation before hatching.
The oldest and most elusive female, Orange 15, was found last, nesting in a chalk grassland field. The nesting attempt was only found in mid June, still at egg stage, suggesting the possibility that it might be infertile. It failed a few days later, with the single egg presumably taken by a predator.
T5, whose nesting attempt was watched closely in 2013, proved more difficult to locate in 2014. Although she was seen in the same area between April and June, no nesting attempt was confirmed.
Purple 5 strutting across a fallow plot. Photo © David Kjaer.
In March you can sense the breeding season just around the corner, and the behaviour of the bustards certainly starts to change. Most obviously, all the males are now displaying with gusto. On several mornings we have seen fighting between Purple 5 and Pink 2, ending in the younger (but now sexually mature) bird backing down. That leaves Purple 5 as the dominant male in the lek, but with five females to choose from this year, Pink 2 may still get his chance.
Perhaps wary of the fighting, and with little chance of establishing himself this year, Black 20 embarked on a truncated version of his tour of southern England during 2012 and 2013. He was only absent from release site 1 for eighteen days, but in that period was definitely seen near Stockbridge in Hampshire and near Burbage in Wiltshire. There was also a possible sighting close to Guildford in Surrey.
We have seen interesting behaviour from the females too, which have largely separated from the male flock at release site 1. There are now four females together in one location – Orange 15, Yellow 22, Black 17 and T5. This is particularly out of character for T5, strongly associated with the male flock since returning from France in May 2012. On the other hand it is entirely normal bustard behaviour for males and females to separate into single-sex flocks.
A familiar sight in February – Purple 5 barking at another male, asserting his dominance. Photo © David Kjaer.
Another month with no significant bustard developments. The routine of the flock of seven birds around release site 1 was largely unchanged, although we did start to see some display. At first it involved just the younger males, but by the end of the month even Purple 5, the oldest male, was beginning to get going. At this early stage in the season, the displaying takes place in the early morning in a few favoured spots, before the flock moves to their preferred feeding area for the majority of the day. By April that pattern will be reversed, with displaying taking up almost all the time of the males, interspersed with short breaks to feed.
For the moment the three females, Black 17, T5 and L25 remain with the males, keeping well out of the way when scuffles break out as the males compete for position in the hierarchy. However, towards the end of the month we saw L25 disappear for several days at a time. Although we do not know where or how far she went, these were her first solo movements since her release in July 2013. This is another sign of her positive development, and as a second year female it is not impossible that she will nest for the first time this summer.
Although we only recorded Orange 15 and Yellow 22 once this month, interestingly it was at release site 2 – the first record of bustards there since mid-October. All the bustards have been visiting this site, but apparently never together. Orange 15 has not been seen with any of the male bustards from the group at release site 1 since March 2012.
The adult male bustards are starting to acquire their breeding plumage once again, in advance of the lekking season. Photo © David Kjaer.
No change once again at the first project release site, with a stable adult flock moving around together every day. Purple 5, Pink 2, Black 09, Black 17, Black 20, T5 and L25 spent their days feeding and resting in an oil seed rape field, and most nights roosting within the release enclosure itself. Bustards do not have very complicated needs at this time of year, and this simple routine seems to suit them well.
A similar routine is probably being followed by the only other wild group of bustards, Orange 15 and Yellow 22. They were sighted again, after a gap of over three months, in an oil seed rape field close to their wintering location last year. We are not able to watch them quite as closely as the larger group, so we are not sure if they are roosting in the same place, or in another nearby location.
One of the distinguishing features of bustards is that unlike almost all other bird groups they have no preen gland. This is used to provide oil for waterproofing their plumage. Combined with the fact that the UK probably has the highest average annual rainfall in the range of the great bustard, this creates the possibility that our weather could be challenging for the species. As a result, we have been very encouraged by the lack of any obvious negative effects on the birds from this exceptionally wet month.
A month with no major changes or movements to report. Spells of extremely wet and windy weather will have tested the bustards, but if the sight of one of the younger males starting to display is any guide, they remain in good condition.
L25 continued to progress well. After over a year of semi-captivity within the release enclosure, it has taken her just five months to fully bond with the adult group at the site. The seven birds – Purple 5, Pink 2, Black 09, Black 17, Black 20, T5 and L25 – were not seen apart throughout December. By our normal measure, once a released bustard survives its first six months it is likely to survive much longer, so the future looks bright for L25.
Once again we received no firm news of Orange 15 or Yellow 22. Like the larger flock of bustards around the original release site, they will by now have settled in an area for the winter. Unfortunately this year we don’t know where, and we are looking forward to receiving some news.
Our largest adult flock of six birds appears now to have settled for the winter around the original release site. Purple 5, Pink 2, Black 09, Black 17, Black 20 and T5 have now been together as a group since 9th July. In terms of dramatic movements, Black 17 crossed the Channel in mid-November last year, and Black 20 had moved away from the release site by August, so it looks increasingly likely that the whole group will stay together throughout the winter.
The two younger birds mentioned in October both responded to the continued presence of the adults by spending more time outside the release pen with the adults. This is a natural progression and brings with it inevitable dangers. Unfortunately L09 was found predated on 4th November, just as we thought his flying capability might have improved enough to move beyond that danger. More positively L25 is increasingly well-integrated with the adult flock and more often with them than at the release site itself.
L25 (right) and L26 (left) in the snow last winter. L26 disappeared in July 2013, but L25 is making good progress towards joining the wild population. Photo © David Kjaer.
We have had no confirmed reports of Orange 15 or Yellow 22 during November. Two intriguing reports from the West Country may provide a clue to their location, although 2010 was the last time either was seen outside Wiltshire. Both appeared on local birdwatching websites, and both observers were confident of their identification, first on 10th November near Braunton in north Devon, then on 14th November on the western side of Exmoor in Somerset. The coincidence of two very similar locations suggests that there may really be a bustard in the area – we await further reports.
Purple 5 and Pink 2 in flight. A spectacular sight for anyone lucky enough to see them moving between our two release sites. Photo © David Kjaer.
In early October Orange 15 and Yellow 22 did indeed reappear on an oilseed rape field. We had two reports of them, no more than a few miles from their favoured spot last winter. As our two most experienced birds, they are certainly creatures of habit at this time of year.
Although they are usually even more predictable, the flock of six bustards has now made several significant movements this autumn. They have done no more than move between our two release sites, their most favoured locations, but they have still been far more mobile than last year, making the trip between the two sites on four occasions already.
At the moment they have just returned to the original release site, and we hope they remain there for the benefit of the two younger birds, L09 and L25. We have not noticed any major changes in the behaviour of these two individuals, but the longer the group of older birds stays around them, the more chance they have to integrate and learn from the adults.
Black 09. Photo © David Kjaer.
A few more sightings of Orange 15 and Yellow 22 followed in the first half of the month, using an oilseed rape stubble field until it was ploughed. At that point they disappeared once again, but no doubt they will soon be rediscovered on an oilseed rape field nearby.
The larger group of bustards, consisting of Purple 5, Pink 2, Black 09, Black 17, Black 20 and T5, spent the majority of September at and around our second release site. Although their movement there took place at almost exactly the same time as last year, this year they returned much earlier, on 28th September. It is tempting to speculate that this is because of the absence of any newly released birds to hold them there.
L09 and L25 both remained at the first release site throughout the month. L25 appears to be developing well, and within a few days of the return of the adults was seen with them in a field close to the release site. L09 has not progressed so well, with only a few brief solitary excursions away from the release site.
Purple 5 and Pink 2, both about to take off. Photo © David Kjaer.
Towards the end of this month we observed some very interesting movements from the bustards. First, on 27th, came our first sighting of Orange 15 and Yellow 22 for almost two months. Unsurprisingly they were together, on a stubble field south of Salisbury Plain very close to their wintering area last year. Although it appears for now to have been a one-off sighting, we expect to see them again soon in the same area.
A few days later, what is becoming a regular seasonal movement took place. Only a few days earlier than in 2012, this time it was a group of six adult bustards which moved from the original release site to our new release site. Last year they arrived to find six juveniles awaiting release, and they may be disappointed that is not the case this year. They seem to have settled at the site for now though, and it is another promising sign that both release sites are now central to the bustards’ annual cycle of activities. Purple 5, Pink 2, Black 09 and T5 all made the same trip in September 2012, and this year they have been joined by Black 17 and Black 20, now fully integrated into the flock after his exploration of East Anglia.
Unfortunately the remaining birds released in July did not follow the adults. Only two are still at the release site, L09 and L25. Both have been seen flying strongly, and were starting to integrate with the adults when the adults left, perhaps a little too soon for the younger birds to follow.
A group of male bustards at the release site. Photo © David Kjaer.
For the older females Orange 15 and Yellow 22, with their superb ability to conceal themselves in the open Wiltshire countryside, the breeding season is often a fairly mysterious affair. This year was no different. Orange 15, relatively easy to find during the winter, has been seen on very few occasions since April. We have no proof of a nesting attempt, but it seems very likely that there was one given the age of the bird.
Yellow 22 was seen visiting displaying males on two occasions, and both times for no more than a day. After the first visit she disappeared for several weeks, but no nest was found. However, we were pleased to find her nesting about a week after the second visit, when she was actually observed mating with Purple 5. We monitored the nest extremely closely, and believe that it probably hatched, although a chick was never observed. Yellow 22 remained in the vicinity of the nest site and was last seen there almost three weeks after the expected hatch date. We believe that she has now moved on and was not successful in her breeding attempt.
The highlight of July was the return of Black 20 to his release site on 9th after 11 months away, during which he had travelled as far as Suffolk. He immediately reintregrated with the group of bustards present at the site, and it was immediately as if he had never been away.
We have also been able to re-release a group of four birds held back from the 2012 release. None had good enough feathers to be safely released last year, and so they spent the winter protected from predators in the release pen. As they moulted and their flying ability improved, we decided to move them into a smaller pen until they had a full set of good feathers and would be able to fly well. That was the case towards the end of July, and now we are hopeful that they will be able to join the group of wild birds and learn from them.
T5 with Black 9, a second year female and second year male respectively. Photo © David Kjaer.
Some breeding news on the younger females this month. Both Black 17 and T5 were released in 2011, making both around two years old and entering their first potential breeding season this year. Black 17 returned from France in mid-April and immediately looked interested in the displaying males. We have seen a pattern of relatively late arrival at the lek and a fairly quick start to nesting in other females, but it was not to be in this case. Despite following her movements closely, we never saw any sign that she had nested, and she was not missing for more than a few days at a time. This is not entirely unexpected, as some female bustards do not nest until they are three years old.
T5 had been around the males all winter, but we saw no sign of breeding behaviour from her until she unexpectedly laid an egg at the end of April. The incubation proceeded smoothly, but unfortunately the expected hatch date passed without any chicks appearing. We decided to leave her to decide when to give up, to avoid any link between people and the end of the nesting attempt in her mind. When finally she abandoned the nest, we were able to test the egg, which proved to be infertile. Hopefully the experience will improve her chances of nesting successfully next year.
The return journey of Black 20 has continued, with a sighting from the eastern side of Salisbury Plain confirmed by project staff. Despite being fairly close to his release site now, he has still not rejoined the group of five male bustards there. These birds are living a fairly quiet life, as we start to work on the habitat within the release pen to ensure it is in good condition for the coming winter and indeed the breeding season next year.
Purple 5 at the release site during May 2013, photo © David Kjaer.
As we entered the breeding season, we tried hard to track our four potential breeding females. We will update this page with breeding news when we are able to do so.
The males continued to display at the lek until mid May, becoming especially excited whenever a female was in the area. We were even lucky enough to observe Purple 5, the oldest male, mating with Yellow 22. They have now started their post-breeding moult, and are beginning to lose their whiskers and their brightly-coloured neck feathers. Summer is a time of year when male bustards can recover from the exertions of their displays and regain some weight. This means a lot of time sitting around in the sun!
Towards the end of the month we received a possible update on Black 20, with a report of an untagged male bustard in Berkshire. We would be delighted if he did finally return to Wiltshire, and if this does prove to be him, he is finally heading in the right direction.
The breeding pair of stone-curlew at the release site are doing well, as ever. They are rearing a single chick, which at the end of May will be just over a week old. One of the adult stone-curlews is colour ringed, and we know from its rings that this bird has been breeding at the release site since 2006. It is now at least 11 years old.
T5 at the release site, photo © David Kjaer
On 17th April, we were hugely excited to discover that Black 17 was back on Salisbury Plain after wintering over 500km to the south in western France. She immediately reintegrated with a group of bustards and has been showing interest in the displaying males, raising hopes that she will breed for the first time this spring. She joined T5, another second year female who should be old enough to breed this year, and another bird with experience of wintering in France, in her case during 2011/12. A bustard seen on 13th April on the Somerset coast near Burnham-on-Sea is very likely to have been Black 17 on her way back to Wiltshire, but interestingly was very close to where L06 was found dead in early March.
The older females still seem to be staying away from the main lek site, where the male displays have become more and more vigorous as the month has progressed. We are trying hard to locate them every day as the breeding season moves closer – Orange 15 in particular is known for being very elusive at this time of year.
Until this month, we had no sightings of any bustards from this project further east than Berkshire. The recent movements of a bird presumed to be Black 20 have broken that record. An untagged, unringed, immature male great bustard was seen near Lavenham in Suffolk on 17th April. This fits well with Black 20, which had unfortunately lost both its wingtags by the end of 2012. It proved difficult for local birdwatchers to track down, reappearing in Great Dunmow, Essex on 23rd April and then near Epping Forest on the evening of 26th April. This area is certainly not ideal bustard habitat, so we would expect it to move on quickly, and perhaps to continue back towards Wiltshire.
Purple 5 in full display at the release site
This month has been completely different to March last year thanks to the unusually cold weather. All our bustards appear to remain firmly in wintering mode, with no sign of any movement to breeding sites observed. That hasn’t stopped the males displaying though, and we’ve been treated to quite a spectacle as up to five birds display together at the release site on Salisbury Plain. At the moment they are competing for the attention of just one female, T5, who has been in their company for the last nine months. Most of the competition actually took place before the displays began in earnest, during February. In the skirmishes that took place then, Purple 5 cemented his position as dominant male, and now only has to look at the other younger birds for them to back down!
We are expecting to see other females appear at the lek soon. Orange 15 and Yellow 22, our two oldest females, remain on the edge of Salisbury Plain. They have now been seen daily in the same field for over three months. A younger female, Black 17, has been more unpredictable. We have not had any reports of her during March, which could mean she is heading back towards the UK or she could simply be as elusive as ever in the area of western France in which she has wintered.
We have had some bad news too, of another of last year’s released birds found dead. This time just a leg and a BTO metal ring, which was sufficient to identify it as L06. We are not able to determine the cause or even the date of death, but the leg was found in Somerset, close to the River Parrett north of Bridgwater. We believe that L06 was the bird seen at Portland Bill in December, and he therefore travelled at least 150km around south west England.
Black 9 in the snow, January 2013. Photo © David Kjaer.
Not much change this month as we wait eagerly for spring. The large group of bustards remains at the first release site, where displaying has now started in earnest. We currently have four males of two or more years old displaying to just one young female. She is currently much in demand, but the breeding season is still almost two months away, and there are several other females we expect to return before then.
Orange 15 and Yellow 22 have been seen regularly in the same area on the edge of Salisbury Plain for several months. As our oldest females and regular breeding birds, we expect their behaviour to change shortly as they prepare for the breeding season. The next move of Black 17 is more of an unknown quantity. She will be old
Black 17 with a flock of cranes in France. Photo © Sebastien Mauvieux.
enough to breed for the first time this spring, but currently remains in western France. The most recent report came from near the village of St Denis du Payré on 27th February, very close to where she was first reported on Boxing Day in 2012. She has been seen with a large group of cranes wintering in the area.
Another bustard being reported regularly away from his release site is Black 20, who has been wintering in Hampshire, and may well also return to Salisbury Plain to join the lek. No reports have yet been received of the missing juveniles from the second release site. If they do return, this is most likely to happen in March or April.
Black 17 in flight. Photo © David Kjaer.
Two firsts for the project, neither particularly welcome, have been recorded since the last update. In the November update we mentioned unidentified sightings from the Dorset coast and Normandy on the same day. It now appears that Black 17 was the bird responsible, certainly for the French record. She had departed from her release site on 11th November, and the next confirmed report came on Boxing Day. She was near the village of Champagné-les-Marais, in the Vendée region of western France. This is only around 50km from where L21 was found in November, but over 500km from her release site. Black 17 is the first adult bustard recorded in France. This news is all the more unexpected as she spent the whole of her first winter around her release site. She was seen again nearby a few days later and there is every reason to think she will return to England in the spring.
Five of the six birds which left the second release site in early December remain unaccounted for, and may well also reappear in the spring. Unfortunately the sixth, L04, was found dead near Quimper in Brittany having hit power lines. The bird was healthy and had been feeding well prior to its accident. This is another long journey – the bird was approximately 375km from its release site. L04 is the first male bustard released by the project to reach France.
The situation at the first release site is much more stable, with a flock of eleven bustards seen every day. Five of these are adults and six are juveniles. The two adult females which had been missing for several months reappeared over Christmas on the edge of Salisbury Plain, very close to where they had last been seen. Yellow 22 and Orange 15 are now approaching eight and nine years old respectively, and also spent last winter together.
L21 enduring frosty conditions after returning to the UK
L21 was re-released at the second release site in late November and seemed to reintegrate with the group immediately, briefly restoring it to its original size of ten birds. However, on 2nd December, L21 was the only bustard which could be found at the site. By the following morning it had been rejoined by four other juveniles, but we soon discovered that the adult birds had moved to the original release site, joining the juvenile birds there. Although we knew this kind of movement would take place eventually, it was still a surprise when it finally happened. Although bad news for the juveniles they left behind, it is undoubtedly good news for those they have joined, who will now have their own opportunity to learn from a small flock of adult birds.
Within a week, perhaps because the stabilising influence of the adults was gone, the remaining juveniles at the second release site left it themselves. Their location remains a mystery. We only have one confirmed sighting at the moment, of one of the males flying around at Portland Bill in Dorset. You can see the pictures at http://www.portlandbirdobs.org.uk/latest_dec2012.htm, scrolling down to 10th December. This is the fourth record of a bustard on Portland, and we can only hope that it’s not another bird on the way to France.
As several birds went missing, another reappeared in Hampshire. Black 20 was last seen towards the end of October, so another report was very welcome. After five months of life in the wild (see August for more details), we can be increasingly sure that he is now with us for the long term. Other birds we are hoping to hear about soon include two adult females, Orange 15 and Yellow 22. We have no confirmed reports of either since early October, but both birds tend to be very elusive in the winter.
Bustards coming in to land. Photo © David Kjaer.
This has been another month with no casualties among released birds, further extending the record-breaking autumn for the project. All but one of the bustards released this year have continued to behave in exactly the same way, remaining at or around their release sites, mixing well with adult birds and generally seeming very settled.
However, one female bustard – L21 – has had a very different experience. Her sudden disappearance between the evening of 4th November and the morning of 5th November was a big surprise to us, as she had until then been behaving no differently to the other birds. After searching the surrounding area without finding any sign of her, we feared the worst. It was not until a week later that we learned she had been discovered at Les Sables d’Olonne, on the west coast of France, on 6th November. This means she had travelled around 400 miles in no more than 36 hours.
Purple 5 at the second release site, recently relieved of his satellite transmitter. Photo © David Kjaer.
She was reported to be tired and underweight, and was taken into captivity. Members of the project team travelled to Nantes to collect her and bring her back to the UK. We judged that as she was already in captivity, it would be better for her to be re-released with other bustards than into the French countryside with none of her own species to associate with. After veterinary checks she was returned to the soft release pen from which she was released two months ago, and she will shortly be able to rejoin the other nine bustards at the site.
This episode illustrates graphically the apparent migratory urge felt by some of our released bustards. This individual had not been seen to fly more than about a mile in a circle over the course of about six weeks, then flew 400 miles in one go! We had hoped that our new supplementary feeding regime would be enough to suppress this urge, and in the other cases it seems to have been, but this one bird could not resist. Although four great bustards from the project have previously been recorded in France, none have been brought back. The actions of L21 when re-released will be fascinating.
Some of the birds released this year. Photo © David Kjaer.
November is the traditional month for juvenile bustard movements, but it was still a surprise when an unidentified adult bird was seen flying over the sea off Durlston Country Park in Dorset on the morning of Sunday 18th November. This soon turned into another channel-hopping story, as presumably the same individual was reported flying south near Regnéville-sur-Mer in northern France on the afternoon of the same day. With all juveniles accounted for, this is the first record of an adult bustard from the project reaching France. We hope that in the coming weeks it will be seen again and we will be able to establish which individual it is.
Coincidentally, Regnéville is just a few miles from Montchaton, where T5 spent the winter of 2011/2. She is part of the large group of bustards at our second release site, and at this point it does not seem like she will repeat her trip from last year.
One of the released birds feeding on rape leaves
We have now reached day 37 of this year’s release of young great bustards, and it is fantastic to be able to report that all of the released birds are doing well. At this stage in the process, this makes 2012 the most successful release to date for the project.
At the second release site, the six birds reared in Russia seem to have formed a strong bond with the four adults which turned up at the site immediately prior to their release. The ten bustards are always seen together – when the adults fly, the juveniles fly with them, and where the adults land, the juveniles land too. This relationship has developed much more quickly than in previous years. We think this is because we have continued to feed them pellets and mealworms after release, using our dehumanising rearing suit. This encourages all the birds to come together twice a day, and although there is lots of conflict around the food, the overall effect seems very positive. It is equally important that all six birds fly well, and are physically able to keep up with the adults.
Black 9 displaying to Black 17 in early September. Black 9 moved to the second release site soon after the photo was taken, while Black 17 has recently returned to the first release site. Photo © David Kjaer.
We are well aware that in previous years early November has seen many first year birds move southwestwards. This makes the next few weeks of vital importance. We would much prefer the group to remain in the relative safety of their release site, and are hopeful that continuing to feed them will encourage them not to disperse.
The younger birds at the original release site are also continuing to progress. After a few weeks without any wild birds for company, it was good to see Black 17 return to the release site and immediately start to spend time with the juveniles. She had been seen a few weeks earlier in a group with two older females, O15 and Y22, and we are not sure why she would have separated from them.
Another wanderer from the 2011 release, Black 20, seems to have settled for now on a farm northeast of Salisbury Plain, enjoying the combination of oil seed rape for food and a wild bird seed mix for cover. Like Black 17 he is likely to return to his release site at some point in the winter.
L03 and another of this year’s released birds, being fed mealworms soon after release
This month marked the second release of the LIFE+ project. Six of the bustards reared in Russia were moved to the second project release site, used for the first time in 2011, and their gradual release process started on 10th September. While they were immediately free to fly, and all made short exploratory flights, we continued to feed them to encourage them to stay together at the release site. They can all fly well, but currently seem very settled.
On 9th September the appearance of four adult bustards at this site was a big bonus. Two of these, Black 9 and T5, were released in the same place last year, and they brought two older birds with them. At the time of writing, the four adults and six juveniles are together in the same field, an ideal situation at this time of year. The best chance for the young birds to survive their first winter will be if they integrate with the adult group.
The chicks reared in the UK are younger than those reared in Russia, and at an earlier stage in their development and release. They are now free to move around the main project release pen, but remain attached to the corner in which their original small pen is located.
All this year’s released birds are wearing coloured leg rings rather than wing tags this year. If you see a bustard without a wing tag, it is likely to have been released this year – a light green ring with a black number will confirm this. Reports are particularly interesting to us at this time of year, when the young birds start to explore Wiltshire and the south west for the first time. Visit http://greatbustard.org/about-us/sightings to let us know if you do see a great bustard.
Black 20, photographed by a camera trap in the release pen
August is a quiet period in the lives of wild bustards, and for those watching them too, as we build up to the annual release of juvenile birds in September. The most interesting story this month was the first movement away from Salisbury Plain by Black 20. This bird has an interesting history. He was released in September 2011 at the main project site, but shortly afterwards was observed limping, brought back into captivity and diagnosed with a broken toe. Having spent a few weeks recovering from this injury, he then consigned himself to a further period of captivity, by sustaining a minor wing fracture. By the time he had finally made a full recovery, it was too late in the year for him to be properly released. It was decided to clip his primaries, leave him in the release pen over the winter and allow him to moult naturally and fly in late spring 2012.
This is exactly what happened. After a few weeks of short, hesistant flights, by early July he was indistinguishable from the other birds flying into and out of the release pen. Not surprisingly, this month he decided to exploit his new-found freedom, being seen regularly on the eastern part of Salisbury Plain. We are keeping a close eye on him, as this would be the first time a bustard has spent its first winter in the release pen then survived in the long term.
The other exciting news was the annual import of chicks from Russia, which took place at the beginning of the month. Eight chicks arrived, and by the end of the quarantine period seven were ready to be moved to their release site.
The reappearance of Yellow 22 this month brought an end to the breeding season. As mentioned in June, we did suspect that she was nesting, but were unable to find the nest site. As she began to appear more frequently with the other birds in mid-July, it became clear that whatever may have been happening was over. This brought the flock of bustards around the main project site up to eight birds.
Pink 2 (foreground) and Purple 5 taking off at the release site
The mixed-sex group involving five males and three females has been strongly attracted to the release site, where habitat management work has created the closest thing to bustard heaven available in southern England. They spend the majority of their time here, feeding on freshly sprouting lucerne and mustard leaves and in the areas of longer and shorter grass. The breeding pair of stone-curlews are enjoying the habitat too, currently incubating their second brood.
Independent and nomadic as ever, Orange 15 is the only bustard recently reported away from the main group. She continues to be seen regularly on a number of stone-curlew plots south of Salisbury Plain.
Black 17 in Berkshire, photo © Roger Wyatt
Yellow 22 has been extremely elusive this month, with just a couple of brief sightings. This gives us reason to believe that she may well be nesting, but we have not yet been able to confirm this. The other adult female, Orange 15, has been appearing occasionally at some of her usual haunts south of Salisbury Plain. This wandering tells us that her breeding season is now over.
The most interesting journey undertaken by one of the younger bustards this month was not quite equal to our channel-hopping news from May. Black 17, a female which we had not previously seen away from its release site, was spotted in Berkshire on 7th June. It remained in the same area until at least 12th June, before quickly returning to Salisbury Plain by 25th June. The picture to the left is interesting as it shows that the bird is in the middle of replacing its juvenile wing feathers, grown in captivity. The inner adult feathers appear much darker and broader in comparison to the three outer feathers which have not yet been replaced.
It joined a group of six other bustards around the release site, including T5, our French bustard. This individual has not been seen apart from the group since returning at the end of May – it seems to be enjoying bustard company after over six months alone! This group of birds has been using the habitat provided at the release site most of the time, only occasionally moving into the surrounding fields - lots of visitors have had very good views.
T5 near Auderville, 17th May 2012. Photo © Pascal Bernardin.
As it turned out, the next report of T5 was again in France, but as close as it could get without crossing the Channel. On 17th May it was seen at Auderville near Cherbourg. It must have stayed there a little while before making the crossing, as it was not until 26th May that it was seen near Exmouth in Devon. After that it moved quickly, stopping briefly near Weston Super Mare in Somerset on 28th before reappearing near its original release site on 31st. Despite the journey it seemed in very good shape, and has attached itself firmly to other bustards in the area. Presumably it is glad of the company after so long alone! Although three bustards from the project have been to France before, this is the first to make it back, which is very pleasing.
We believe that two females started nesting around the beginning of the month. One of these was Orange 15, our oldest female, who had never been confirmed to nest before. Unfortunately both failed at egg stage within a few weeks. It is always difficult to be certain of the reason for nest failures, but predation by fox or badger is the most likely cause. Yellow 22 failed very early on, leaving the possibility of a second attempt, and was back showing an interest in the displaying males within a few days. It is possible that she may have relaid.
The males were winding down through the month, displaying less and less often. By the end of the month they also started to moult. Purple 5 especially became tattier as he lost his whiskers and the colourful orange and white feathers around his neck.
Two great bustards at the release site, photo © David Kjaer
By 26th April last year, we had two bustard nests. This year we are still waiting, although given the wet and windy weather that is no great surprise. As the month has progressed two females, Yellow 22 and Black 17, have been following the displaying males ever more closely. It seems only a matter of time before another breeding season begins. The other old female, Orange 15, has been uncharacteristically easy to find this month, albeit away from the main group of birds. We have never been able to confirm whether or not she has made a breeding attempt – hopefully this year will be different.
The five males around the release site have continued to display, with ever-increasing intensity. A definite hierarchy has been established. Purple 5 is undoubtedly top dog this year, but Pink 2 looks like he might be able to challenge in 2013. We have had no news from France of T5, but we are still optimistic that the next report might be on this side of the channel.
Purple 5 displaying, photo © David Kjaer
After the stability of the winter, there have been lots of movements this month. The group of females left the release site on 14th March, leaving Black 9, the young male they had been moving around with, alone. Within a few days he had started to associate with the older males. The females were difficult to pin down, but in the following two weeks they were seen twice at the new project release site, before Yellow 22 and Black 17 returned to the original release site on 30th March. Orange 15, our oldest female, has not returned, and we will be making every effort to find her in the run up to the breeding season.
The bustard from the 2011 release which travelled the furthest, T5, was last seen in Normandy on 25th March. It has been looked for since, and the lack of a radio signal means we can be confident it has left the area. Now we must hope it will be able to find its way back to Wiltshire.
With March came the beginning of the lekking season, and all five males at the release site have been displaying, with varying degrees of success. Purple 5, at five years old, is by far the most impressive. Pink 2 is the only other bird prepared to challenge him, and we have seen a few confrontations between the two. On one occasion they were pushing each other with necks entwined. Male bustards can be very violent at this time of year, but so far things have been fairly peaceful, probably because we have only seen one mature male.
T5 in Normandy, 8th February 2012, photo © John Burnside
Since arriving at the original release site in early January, Orange 15 and Black 9 have formed a stable female-juvenile group with Yellow 22 and Black 17. This is a very encouraging state of affairs, and we hope the young birds are learning from the older females. A report of four bustards at the new release site may have related to this group wandering, or to other birds returning after the winter, but they were not seen again.
While the older females appear to be indulging their maternal instincts, the males have shown little interest in the young birds. Purple 5 and Pink 2 have spent the winter together, although their association seems likely to come to an end during the lekking season – Purple 5 celebrated leap year day by being seen in display for the first time this year. Pink 5 and Black 20, also males, remain in the release pen and move around with the other males when they visit the pen.
Finally, we can report that the bustard in northern France is alive and well. At the time of writing it is in the same field in which it has spent the last two and a half months, feeding on lucerne. With the help of local people, we have established that it is a bird which was released from our new release site in 2011. We are hoping it will make the return crossing in the next few weeks as spring approaches.
Red 28 and chick, 6th June 2011
A picture of one of the best moments of last year to start the new year - Red 28, a three year old female great bustard with her one month old chick, on Salisbury Plain in early June 2011. Unfortunately, this particular story did not have a happy ending, but we are hopeful that 2012 will bring successful breeding once again.
Since the last update, we have had some good news and some bad news. Most encouragingly, we can report the first interchange between the two release sites. On 4th January, Orange 15 (a 2004 female) was seen at the original release site in the company of Black 9, one of the 2011 birds but from the new release site. Since then, Black 9 has become associated with Black 17, from the original release site. This is just the kind of interaction we were expecting when we decided to release birds at two sites rather than one.
Despite appearing to be well set for the winter, the bird on the Dorset coast with a satellite transmitter was found dead in December. Post-mortem results suggest that a fox was responsible, which is disappointing as we would expect young birds to have developed good responses to foxes by this point in the winter. A different young bustard, this time with a radio transmitter, was seen several times in the Weymouth area up to 18th December. One of these records was at Langton Herring, the same place where Pink 1 and Pink 15 spent the winter of 2010/11.
The most interesting record is of another great bustard with a radio transmitter, this time in northern France! This is not an unprecedented record, as three birds from the project were reported in France in the winter of 2005/6. It is however the first since then, and quite a surprise. It was reported from the same area, northeast of St. Malo, for two weeks until 31st December.
Great bustard with necklace radio transmitter, Langton Matravers, Dorset, 22/11/2011. Photo © Simon Breeze
The first snow of the winter has just fallen on Salisbury Plain, but it melted within minutes. Conditions so far this month have been nowhere near as harsh as December 2011. Deep snow and a long period of subzero temperatures forced a group of eight wintering great bustards to leave the release site at that time, but things seem different this year. We have a group of seven birds at our normal release site and another group of three at the new release site. We know of several others scattered around the south west, making the movement we expect at this time of year. Then of course there are those birds we expect to have made similar movements, but from which we are still waiting for reports.
Black 6 remains in south Devon, and was most recently seen in early December near Soar, enjoying an area with both oil seed rape and good sea views. Follow the link to see a video of her, taken on 1st December: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y04wGxqa2XA
A bustard with a radio transmitter and a bustard with a satellite transmitter seem to have chosen the Dorset coast as their wintering sites. The radio transmitter bird was reported near Langton Matravers in Purbeck in late November, but has not been seen since. The satellite transmitter bird, after moving steadily south west for several weeks, now seems to have settled in the Lulworth area, once again moving between oil seed rape fields.
Most of our bustards have probably settled on their wintering site by now – any reports in the next few months would be of great interest as we try to keep track of this year’s released birds.
Black 6, South Huish, Devon, 6th November 2011
A month ago, we expected to find every released great bustard every day, at their release sites or in surrounding fields. The birds have made rapid progress in that time, becoming more and more adventurous, and those daily checks are now a much greater challenge. Two individuals are wearing satellite transmitters, which allow us to download information on their movements every ten days, but most just have wing tags. As they disperse, we become reliant on sightings from members of the public to help follow their movements – please use the link above if you see a great bustard.
Black 6 has had a few mentions already on this page, and it was no surprise to us when she became the first bird to move a substantial distance. A bustard was seen flying south at Portland Bill on 5th November, then Black 6 was spotted in South Devon on the following day. These are individual movements of 150km then 100km, as the crow flies (although undoubtedly the bustard took a less direct route). No more sightings have followed, so we are left wondering where her journey may have taken her next.
One of the two birds with a satellite transmitter is heading steadily in the same direction, and is now between Salisbury and Blandford, 30km from its release site. The remainder of the birds are all thought to be in the general area of their release sites – almost all have been seen in the last week.
We have had lots of young great bustards to keep track of for the last few weeks – thankfully they have stayed in large groups, making our job much easier! At the original release site, the leafy plots of oil seed rape have proved irresistable, with most birds spending all their time feeding or loafing here. As mentioned in September, Black 6 has been the most adventurous of the new group, not seen in the release pen since the first day and spending her time several miles from the site. The majority of other birds have spent short periods in the fields around the pen, before returning. Unfortunately birds have been lost, both to fox predation and to a collision with a fence, but we still have a large group of bustards moving around together, including the two older males which have been at the site for several months.
Black 9 at the new release site, photo © David Kjaer
Soft release seems to have done the trick at the new site too – the young bustards here have been equally settled, with no movements beyond adjacent fields. We have only recorded one casualty here so far – caused by a fence – and the remainder of the birds have moved around the release field and onto adjacent stubbles. Unlike at the original site, where all the birds have been together, they have formed into two distinct groups. Four males are spending most of their time with Orange 15, from the 2004 release, and the remainder of the birds are usually separate from this group.
Survival so far has been very encouraging – we are now expecting the birds to start to spread out, making the challenge of finding them all each day that much harder.
The first release of young great bustards in the LIFE project took place on 15th September. The birds had spent just over a week in soft release pens, getting an opportunity to become accustomed to their new surroundings after a month in quarantine. In total, 29 were in the pens when the doors were opened, giving them the chance to walk out into the release area whenever they chose.
Orange 15 with great bustard decoys, photo © Kate Ashbrook
The birds were split between two release sites for the first time. Sixteen were released at the usual site, and the remaining thirteen were moved to a new site. So far, none have been particularly adventurous, often returning to their soft release pens and showing a reluctance to leave the immediate area of release. The strongest flyer we have seen is Black 6, who has moved around 500m from the original release site. The birds are starting to develop social groupings, and are associating with older birds at both sites. We hope that they will continue to stay at the release sites for the next few weeks, where they are safest and we can keep a close eye on them.
After a long journey by truck and plane from Saratov in Russia, 35 young great bustards arrived at the quarantine site at 11pm on 4th August. All appear to be in good health, and we can now look forward to their release in early September. This year’s birds will carry black wing tags, and once they are released we will be delighted to receive reports on their whereabouts. Some will carry satellite or radio transmitters, making the task of keeping track of them a little easier!
Purple 5 at the release site, photo © David Kjaer
Purple 5 and Pink 2 remain the only great bustards around the release site, and are never seen apart. Today, 8th August, we have received reports of two females from different sites south of Salisbury Plain. Orange 15 is from the first year of releases in 2004, while Yellow 22 is a year younger.
It looks like the pair of stone-curlews breeding at the release site have failed – we did see them with two young chicks soon after hatching, but they have not been seen for almost two weeks now. Having said that, they are secretive birds, so you never know! A few signs of autumn around too – wheatears, yellow wagtails, a tree pipit and a hobby have been seen near the site in the last few days.
Pink 2 at the release site, photo © Dave Kjaer
Two male great bustards, Purple 5 and Pink 2, are spending most of their time at the release site. The two birds seem closely associated now, but they spent a few months apart during the breeding season, when the hormones were flowing and Purple 5 was the dominant male.
The number of chicks being reared in Russia at the moment is very encouraging – we hope that around 35 birds will be imported in August.
There is still a pair of stone-curlews at the site, sitting on their second brood of the summer. The eggs are due to hatch towards the end of the month, after the successful fledging of a chick from their first brood.
Two pieces of bad news came in quick succession in early June. First, we saw Yellow 22 back at the release site, with two other bustards. Her chick at this stage would have been about two weeks old, so we could be sure that she had lost it. For Yellow 22, a failure at chick stage nevertheless represented progress, and a valuable learning experience, as she had never hatched eggs before. She will approach the breeding season next year a more experienced bird.
A couple of days later we had a much bigger setback, as the remains of Red 28 were found, and her chick was missing. The assumption is that a fox was responsible, and that Red 28 was probably killed in defence of her chick. To lose a chick is disappointing, but somewhat expected for a young and inexperienced female. To lose a female of breeding age is undoubtedly a blow.
Looking forward, we have always been aware of the difficulties of fox control on military land and recognise that a small population of great bustards is particularly vulnerable to predation. We hope to release birds at a second site this year, as one of the key actions of the LIFE project. The ability to implement a fox control plan will be an important priority here.
In April we found two females with nests, Red 28 and Yellow 22. These were kept under very close observation, with many hours put in by staff and volunteers, and we were delighted that both nests hatched. This was the first time Yellow 22 had been seen with chicks, and only the second year of breeding for Red 28. We never saw more than one chick in each case, but the height of the vegetation made it impossible to see more than the head of the female except on rare occasions.
The two families wandered widely, and appeared to be feeding well – although the chick was never visible, we were able to watch the females finding and offering food regularly.
The presumed father of the chicks, Purple 5, continued to display until the middle of the month. At this point his hormones subsided and his breeding activities were over for another year.