A 21st century ‘oologist’ and the Devon Woodlark…

Oology. Now theres a dirty word. If you listen to some self-appointed police men of birding it relates to criminals. You can though with an open mind google the word and you will find this –

Oology (or oölogy) is a branch of ornithology studying birdeggs, nests and breeding behaviour. The word is derived from the Greek “oion”, meaning egg. Oology can also refer to the hobby of collecting wild birds’ eggs, sometimes called egg collecting, birdnesting or egging, which is now illegal in many jurisdictions.

Of course their is reference to egg collecting but back in the day those involved did it and there was a need for it. Just like in the past their was a need to shoot a bird to identify it, it was the only way. However science moves on and decent optics and cameras moved to replace the gun and the drill. Most egg collectors are now deceased or the few that are left are part of the dying breed which do not threaten significantly any population of birds here in the UK (caveat on that would perhaps be one off breeders).

We are still illegally shooting birds of prey here and in many European countries they are still doing the very same to many species of birds.

My stance on egg collecting was quite clearly laid out within the ‘about me’ page of this blog so I won’t cover it again here. You can read it here – CLICK HERE

Being a ’21st century oologist’ is fraught with problems in the general birding world with the ignorance of persons not able to see the positives in it. The more modern term for it now would be nest finding, indeed the BTO promote this study to the full and have published a book that assists in the finding of all but the schedule 1 species. Here is a previous blog on nest recording you can read it here – CLICK HERE

That being said I believe a lot can be learned from studying the eggs of birds and the process of bringing the nest to account can also reveal many important aspects of breeding bird biology. More is learnt by following the nest through to the outcome and if ringers are involved again more data can be collected from ringing.

A challenge awaits, but read on…

The below photograph is from 2 different 1st clutch Woodlark nests in Devon. Woodlark in Devon breed in crop fields. The top 2 pictures being from a nest in 2016 the bottom 2 from last year, 2017.

Both nests were found within 30 metres of each other. Now Woodlark in these fields over the last 4 years have shown preferences to certain areas of the field however they do move around. Although not as variable as some species Woodlark do show variations in the eggs and it is possible to assign certain females but not as easy as it is to see in species like Tree Pipit and Chaffinch.

The close proximity to last years nest is another factor that weighs in favour of a returning female with these 2 nests. The other clue is in nest construction. Both these nests use considerable amounts of moss. Moss within Woodlark is not unusual but in Devon it appears to be very unique, certainly to the degree it is in use within these nests.

I believe here we can reliably say this is a returning female. The facts I believe show this are that the eggs of this female are ‘capped’ and quite heavily so. The nest construction is very similar with both nests containing considerable amounts of moss and finally the nest locations are very close together .

Note we haven’t used colour rings to ascertain this info!

Woodlark collage

So below is the challenge. Armed with the above knowledge see if you can work it out –

Again in the picture below 2 Woodlark nests from 2016 and 2017 are pictured below as well as the locations of the nests

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 21.18.23
43 relates to 2017 nest and 15 relates to 2016 nest
close up 1
Top – 2017  Bottom – 2016

These nests below were found very close together, c20 metres away from each other. Both egg types again appear to be very similar. But note the nest construction this time. The nest from 2016 has plenty of moss. The nest from 2017 though is almost completely absent of moss though and it is tiny in comparison.

So what do you think? Same female? Looks good for it. But if it is the same bird why has it not used moss like the year before? Moss was present in the fields that year as it was used in our earlier example from the same year and that nest was within the same field complex, although a considerable distance away.  If it is a returning female from 2016 why has she chosen to admit moss from the 2017 nest? Could it be a different female though? Why no moss? Is it because this female was perhaps raised within a nest without moss? So many questions… A close up of the eggs is at the bottom.

What do you think the answer is? Please leave a comment on the twitter account or comment below. I would be very interested to hear your view on it…  My view is further down the page but have a go, mine may well not be right!

There we go a sample of ‘oology’ – more than just stealing eggs and hanging out with criminals at Jourdain Society dinners… *sarcasm*

Just a note on the above paragraph. Those that did attend (not me I was too young) would know that this society held some of the greatest nest finders and students of breeding bird biology but not all were collectors! That is the propaganda peddled… The bulletin of this society for any modern day nest finder is an immense informative collection of works and one that any person with an open mind and interested in breeding bird biology would benefit from reading. I have read many volumes so far and find them fascinating.

So here are my thoughts on the above  –

The bird is a different female in my opinion. My logic behind this? Firstly for me the nest is too different in construction. The eggs are very similar but, if you study them close enough I think you can see that one set is zoned i.e a ring around the broad end whist the other are more capped i.e minus the ring but the markings are heaviest at the bottom. See this side by side comparison. Very subtle and could be within the limits of same females markings, but the nest construction along with the differences in eggs makes me feel its a different female. A closer look at the eggs

close up
Top – 2017 Bottom – 2016

I could well be wrong. What would prove this beyond doubt I think would be a colour ringing project. This is a small isolated population in very different habitat to the majority of breeding Woodlark. Surely worth a go by a ringer. I would love to know for sure… The whole picture.

Whats clear is that this study alone is not enough and without having the specimens to study and inspect at close range we cannot be sure but you may agree that oology has a place in ornithology – its not just about eggs, its the whole thing and its certainly not about taking eggs (these days)… Hopefully by reading this blog, the posts and the twitter account you can see this. Tired of fighting the anti brigade over the last year. Thank you all for the support and interest you all have shown over the last couple of years. We will continue.

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9 Comments

  1. A fascinating comparison, the eggs are very similar, could the hens be related (sorry another question) a ringer could possibly answer this, over time. The differing use of moss in the construction could be down to different size of holes the structure is placed in, as the moss is used as external nest material, certainly the older nest is a far neater build. By comparison some Ravenages built on ledges can be huge rounded structures but in tight overhangs the egg cup lining can be at the rear wall and the nest all frontage.
    The much maligned Jourdain Society ran for almost a hundred years, how many societies have that history in the face of such negativity and how very British to hold annual dinners. Lovegrove et al in their book Birds in Wales acknowledge several prominent members of this society and Birds Nests 1972 was practically written by its membership.
    Keep up the fine work, egg collecting with a camera, a modern day appreciation of Oology

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    1. Thank you and great to hear from you – I did think about the ‘holes’ but having found these birds building from scrape stage I know that they make them. Great point about related birds and egg types – could well be. Please keep in touch

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  2. Agree not the same bird.Nest construction main critera. Thinking back over my long career of unusual nests and then seeing the repeats of the same constuction. Does a leopard change its spot. Can you educate pork. Most liklenot.

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  3. Different materials of construction in the nests shown, though not as varied as your tree pipits lining, different eggs but very similar, in my opinion, enjoyed the read.

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  4. Interesting Blog, not least because these nests require significant levels of patience and skill to find. Two quick points: a) You state … ‘If it is a returning female from 2016 why has she chosen to admit moss from the 2017 nest? Looking at the images, I think you may mean ‘omit’ rather than ‘admit’. Right? And, b) Colour ringing can be a useful tool but only if you’re pretty sure that you’re going to be able to read the combinations in the field. This might be possible when a bird is stationary on a prominent song-perch but probably rather challenging when on rough ground or walking around in short vegetation. Good ‘finding’ for the 2018 season!

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    1. Hi Nick – thanks for taking the time to comment, appreciated. Yes you are right I meant ‘omit’ thanks for pointing that out!

      I understand the difficulties in sighting colour-ringed birds, particularly so in the environment I am looking for them in. I do not understand too much about ringing as I am not a ringer. I know however this has been done very successfully in the Thames Basin by John Eyre with Woodlark (he wrote a very good article in BB recently around Woodlark disturbance) he is sighting birds that he colour-ringed birds. Last year he re-found a Woodlark now 7 years now nesting at the same site it first nested at. I know some ringers that retrap adults (Whinchats) at the nest, not sure if this would be viable to do with Woodlark?

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