Kings Farm Wood: Friday, 16th March 2018

This is the first ever ringing session at Kings Farm Wood.  We usually do our ringing demonstrations for the Swindon Wildlife Group at the Ravensroost complex, but this year we were asked to do something different and the suggestion was the Clout’s Wood complex, of which Kings Farm Wood is a significant part.  The ringing demonstration has been set for the 24th March and, in preparation for that, I went for a test session this morning.  I set up two feeding stations last week, which I topped up this Wednesday afternoon, and are now actively being visited by birds.  As I was on my own, having shifted the session from Saturday to today because of the dire weather forecast for the weekend, I decided to set just two rides of two nets by the feeding stations.
That plan changed almost immediately: I put up the first net at the furthest feeding station and by the time I had erected the second net at that location, there were six birds in the first net.  It remained catching constantly throughout the morning.  As you expect in a wood at this time of year by a feeding station, the catch was mainly titmice, particularly Blue and Great Tits.  However there was a decent variety over the course of the morning.
Interestingly, in the area where the other feeding station is set up there were several additional species not caught today, but hopefully will be so when that ride is netted.  These included Magpie, Goldfinch, Blackbird, Wren and Great Spotted Woodpecker.  There were also several singing Chiffchaffs on site who managed to avoid the nets.
Anyway, todays catch was:  Blue Tit 24; Great Tit 16; Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 4; Dunnock 4; Robin 2; Chaffinch 2; Bullfinch 2.  Total: 56 birds ringed from eight species.  Unsurprisingly, this being the first time the site has ever been ringed, there were no retrapped birds – apart from half-a-dozen same day retraps.  I did catch a third each of Chaffinch and Bullfinch but they both had Fringilla Papilloma Virus, so I released them.  I also used alcohol rub on my hands to ensure I didn’t pass anything onto the other vulnerable species and cleaned their legs with alcohol as well to be doubly sure.
I will top up the feeders again next Thursday, to make sure they are ready for the demonstration on Saturday.  It looks very promising.  I think we will have plenty of birds and should have a decent variety for the demonstration, without going overboard with too many nets set up: I think eight nets will do.

Lower Moor Farm: Wednesday, 14th March 2018

An interesting session at Lower Moor Farm this morning.  Our last trip there was massively disappointing, with just 12 birds processed.  I really didn’t want a similar result this week, as we had children from Devizes Academy coming along to see what happens with bird ringing, as part of their time at the reserve today.  Jonny, Ellie and Andrew joined me for the session.

Because of the previous session, I took the risk of changing the catching site to the pond-dipping / nature education area and set up a couple of feeders in there on Monday.  The schoolchildren arrived at 9:45. These are children deemed to be at risk or too disruptive to be in lessons. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust runs a whole series of events and visits for children from local secondary schools, to get them involved with nature in an active manner. Whenever possible, we try to arrange our ringing sessions at Lower Moor Farm to coincide with their visits. The children were immediately involved and interested. Great questions from them, and they were delighted to get close to the birds. At their request, they stayed with us for over an hour, instead of the thirty minutes allocated.  We enjoyed their curiosity and enthusiasm.

As the children left, we were joined by a large group from the Wildlife Trust’s Well-Being programme. This is another excellent initiative run by the Trust to help connect vulnerable people with nature. As they were all adults, I asked if they were happy to have their photo taken and published, which they were and which is posted below.

LMF 2018_03_14

The catch was wildly unexciting, mainly Blue Tits and Great Tits but, because we were able to entertain two groups of interested and interesting people, it was a very satisfying session.  The list for the session was: Blue Tit 26(10); Great Tit 23(5); Long-tailed Tit 1(5); Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1; Song Thrush 1; Chaffinch 1.  A total of 76 birds from seven species: 54 ringed from seven species and 22 retraps from four species.

Many thanks to Jonny, Ellie and Andrew for their hard work this morning.

Winter Bird Fair: Langford Lakes, Saturday, 24th February 2018

One of the things I am proudest of about the West Wilts Ringing Group is our working relationships with a wide range of scientific and conservation organisations, both national and local.  One of our key partnerships is with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.  They know that they can rely on us to support their events throughout the year and, in return, we are privileged to have access to their nature reserves.  This Saturday was an excellent example of how it works, with their Winter Bird Fair at Langford Lakes.

Rob Turner took on the burden of organising our team effort, recruiting his friend and golfing buddy, Paul, to be our scribe for the day. He made a fine job of it: recording all of the information thrown at him, by up to three ringers processing, and amongst the press of the public watching and asking questions.  The extracting and processing team comprised Rob, me, Andy Palmer, Jonny Cooper and, joining us for the first time, Aurora Goncalo. Aurora is a Bristol based trainee, whose trainer is currently very busy with his job (part of which is supervising Jonny in his Master’s project), so she is looking for other groups to work with.  I know both parties were very pleased with the link up.

With the public arriving at 10:00, we opened the nets at 09:30.  This is a late start for a bird ringing session but we were happy about it, as it gave the temperature time to warm up, and the birds time to feed up after a cold night, before we started catching them.   By the time we had opened the nets we had our first birds: a Goldcrest and a Great Tit.

Things took off with our very first full net round.  Having extracted the usual Blue and Great Tits, we were walking back along the net ride when Jonny took off at a sprint.  He got there in time to extract a male Sparrowhawk.  It had been chasing a Long-tailed Tit, that was in the net below. We decided that the potential prey didn’t need any additional stress, so we released it unharmed and it flew off strongly.   With Amy from the Trust having had the foresight to bring a set of walkie-talkies, the news travelled quickly and most of the 80 attendees congregated at the Visitor Centre to see this cracking male bird.

Bird Fair 16 Langford Lakes Ralph Harvey 24.02.18 WWT (Small)

Bird Fair 19 Langford Lakes Ralph Harvey 24.02.18 WWT (Small)

We were lucky enough to catch a good variety of birds during the day, coming in regular small numbers, which enabled us to show a variety of different birds to a large and appreciative audience throughout the day.  But the session, having started so well, finished with a magnificent flourish: a pair of Kingfishers.  I say “pair” knowing the connotations of the term.  These two birds were caught close together in the same net. They were a male and a female.  Once they had been processed, and the crowd had their opportunity to see these spectacular birds close up, we released them and they flew off together, calling. I am pretty confident that they are a pair.

Bird Fair 46 Langford Lakes Ralph Harvey 24.02.18 WWT (Small)

The list for the day was: Sparrowhawk 1; Kingfisher 2; Treecreeper 2; Blue Tit 14(1); Great Tit 10; Long-tailed Tit 5; Wren 1; Robin 1(1); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1; Goldfinch 2. Totals: 43 birds ringed from 13 species, two birds retrapped from two species, making 45 birds processed from 13 species.

Having had a lovely day, with good weather, a great catch and a large, appreciative audience, we had one unpleasant moment. In an effort (forlorn as it turned out) to possibly catch a Water Rail or a duck, we set a few Potter traps. These are walk-in traps, baited up with food, with a trip that closes a gate, capturing any bird (or other animal) that is attracted in.  These are humane, entirely non-lethal traps.  Somebody clearly took exception to finding one of these traps and stomped on it, severely damaging the trap.  Whilst some of us are lucky enough to get some external funding, most don’t.  Ringing is an expensive business: a net and two poles costs over £100.  Every ring used costs at least 26p (approximately 1 million birds are ringed every year in the UK) and these Potter traps cost in the region of £40 a time.  We all invest significant time and money in carrying out our citizen science.  Unfortunately, on occasion we are abused, insulted, threatened, assaulted and have our equipment damaged by ignorant people – but we carry on regardless, because the work is important and the results are their own reward.

All photos  courtesy of Ralph Harvey, WWT Photographer.

Tedworth House: Wednesday, 21st February 2018

A lovely Spring morning led to a pleasant ringing session at Tedworth House this morning.  I was joined for the morning by Andrew Bray and Dave Turner did his usual stalwart job of helping set up, and providing the bacon sandwiches – absolutely invaluable.

The catch was smallish but had a few highlights: the main one for me being my first catch of an over-wintering Blackcap. A stunning male Greenfinch was my team’s first for the year and a couple of Goldcrest, one of which has lived through at least 3 winters, were a pleasant addition.

We were unlucky in that a local Kestrel has decided to spend some considerable time staking out the most regularly topped up feeding station, just outside the Hero garden.  Their preferred prey might be small mammals but they are very adept at taking small birds.  The small birds are clearly aware of that and there were considerably fewer feeding there than there has been at recent sessions.  A pair of local Jackdaws gave her a hard time for a while, resulting in her making a high-pitched chittering cry as she manouevred away from them.

The catch for the day was: Nuthatch (1); Blue Tit 8(8); Coal Tit (2); Long-tailed Tit 1; Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1(2); Blackcap 1; Goldcrest (2); Greenfinch 1.  Totals: 13 birds ringed from six species and 17 birds retrapped from six species, making 30 birds processed from nine species.

As well as our catch, the Kestrel and the Jackdaws, we heard Green Woodpecker and watched a Buzzard taking advantage of an early thermal but the key sighting was seeing the pair of Raven fly in to their nesting tree.  We suspect that they haven’t laid eggs yet: their breeding was late last year and looks as though it might be again this year, but great that they are back again for another go.

Brown’s Farm: Saturday, 17th February 2018

It has been difficult getting onto Brown’s Farm over the last couple of years: the key problem has been how much windier our part of the country seems to have become. Fortunately, today’s forecast was for calm, bright weather and it played ball – at least it did until we were ready to take down, whereupon the breeze got up and put two of the rides into the blackthorn hedges. Fortunately, having learnt from past experience, we had left a big enough gap between the nets and the hedgerows to make sure it wasn’t damaging.  We were looking forward to a different catch to the woodland fare we have been working with so far this winter.

We had a big team out today: (almost certainly due to the excitement of the different location) Jonny, Ellie, Steph and Suzanne joined me on site.  Today was a big day for Suzanne: having been along for two taster sessions, and been taught how to safely handle the birds, she started her ringing career today. The first bird she ringed was one of the ten Yellowhammers we caught.

2018_02_17 Brown's Farm

(photograph courtesy of Steph)

It was also a good day for Ellie and Steph: both ringing their first Yellowhammers; Steph also extracted and ringed her first Linnet.  Ellie ringed the first Meadow Pipit caught at the site. I have seen them around the farm but great to finally catch one there.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 10(3); Coal Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit 4; Dunnock 4(2); Wren (1); Meadow Pipit 1; Robin 1; Blackbird 1; Chaffinch 3; Linnet 1; Yellowhammer 10.  Totals: 36 birds ringed from 10 species; six birds retrapped from three species, making 42 birds processed from 11 species.

Perhaps the most interesting catch of the day was a female Dunnock, which was already developing a brood patch ready for laying eggs.  Males have been singing for some time now and, in my garden at least, there has been a lot of courtship and territorial behaviour.  So, whilst this seems early for a bird of this species entering breeding condition, perhaps this is indicative of a change in breeding behaviour for this species.  BTO data shows that dates of first laying, from the nest record scheme, are towards the end of April, with the earliest proven to be 1st April.

We were joined briefly by the farmer and his two children.  They were very receptive and the children loved getting close to the birds. I think the farmer was particularly happy that we have had a decent catch and a first for the site. He took over the farm about 16 months ago and has changed some aspects of the farm. The most obvious thing he has done is to cut the hedgerows back. They certainly needed doing. It will be interesting to see what develops over the next few years.  One change that would be a concern if it was extended is the conversion of one of the fields to horse paddocks. He has converted some of the old buildings into stables, which are rented out to local horse owners. Currently, its impact on the land use is minimal, with the main focus being beef and arable. Hopefully it will remain so as, whilst carrying out our ringing activities, we were entertained by Skylarks singing all around us.  There were Buzzards, Red Kite and Kestrel hunting over the fields, plus Ravens regularly flying over and calling.  It is a super site to work at.  Hopefully the weather will allow us a few more visits this year and we will continue to be treated to the variety of farmland birds the site attracts.

Braydon Forest: 4th to 14th February 2018

At this time of year we are grateful if the weather allows us to get out on site.  With the windy conditions so prevalent this winter, we were rather restricted to ringing in more sheltered areas: primarily woodland. This is a brief synposis of three sessions carried out in the Braydon Forest: Ravensroost Woods on the 4th; Webb’s Wood on the 11th and Red Lodge on the 14th.  (Our session at Lower Moor Farm on the 7th, with just 12 birds caught, underlines how hit and miss ringing can be at this time of year, unless you provide a feeding station to attract them in.)  One has to accept that the variety will be relatively low but hopefully there might be the odd winter visitor in the mix.  Unfortunately, no special winter visitors but good numbers of Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Steph joined me at Ravensroost for the session on the 4th. We had a small catch of 33 birds: Nuthatch (3); Blue Tit 5(2); Great Tit 6(6); Coal Tit (7); Marsh Tit (2); Robin (2).  Totals: 11 birds ringed from two species; 22 birds retrapped from six species, making 33 birds processed from six species.

In amongst that catch was a Marsh Tit, Z197228.  This bird was ringed as a juvenile on the 20th September 2014.  It has been caught a further 14 times, weighing in at 10g +/- 0.5g on every occasion.

Webb’s Wood is our go to site for catching Siskin.  We had a good turn out of Jonny, Steph, Lillie and Suzanne Binks, joining us for her first taster session, having approached the BTO for the opportunity to train as a ringer.  Unfortunately, no Siskin put in an appearance. However, we did process 41 birds from seven species.  The catch was: Great Spotted Woodpecker (1); Nuthatch (1); Blue Tit 12(2); Great Tit 8(2); Coal Tit 3(6); Robin 2; Chaffinch 4.  Totals: 29 birds ringed from five species and 12 birds ringed from five species.

So to Valentine’s Day and a trip to Red Lodge.  I went over on the Tuesday lunchtime to top up the feeders, and was encouraged to find the seed feeders nearly empty again when we arrived on site. I was joined by Suzanne and, being the only ringer on site, we only put up two nets rides.  The session was very busy but, unfortunately, the weather changed at 10:30 and we had to shut the nets.  It was a decent catch, titmouse heavy as usual, but continuing our run of Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker captures.

The list for the morning was: Great Spotted Woodpecker (2); Nuthatch 2(1); Blue Tit 20(10); Great Tit 7(9); Coal Tit 4(3); Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren 1; Dunnock (1); Goldcrest (1); Chaffinch 1. Totals: 35 birds ringed from six species; 28 birds retrapped from eight species, making 63 birds processed from 10 species.

We did one of our impromptu ringing sessions. Whenever we ring in Red Lodge we have a chat with one of the residents of the old Forestry Commission houses, who does his morning run through the wood.  He asked if he could bring his grandchildren over to have a look at the birds. Happy to oblige and we were able to show them two Nuthatches, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrest and a Wren, as well as the Blue, Great and Coal Tits.

The best thing about ringing in Red Lodge this winter has been the absence of the vandalism of our feeding station and no repeat of the theft of bird feeders.  Support from the Forestry Commission, using remote camera monitoring, has certainly helped but I think that raising awareness of the problems with the local residents has also done its bit.

The Firs: Friday, 2nd February 2018

The Firs is developing nicely as a bird habitat.  Recently there have been reports of Willow Tit at the entrance to the reserve; Marsh Tit numbers have increased significantly over the last two years; and it is a regular site for seeing and hearing Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and, although I didn’t see it, I heard a Lesser Spot drumming whilst setting up nets this morning.  Tying this in with some excellent sightings over the last couple of years, it is entirely possible that they could breed there.

This morning’s session was nowhere near as exciting as it might have been, but it was a very busy session. With only four nets set (3 x 18m, 1 x 12m), I had expected a catch of 40 or so birds. In the event, there was more than twice that number.  Ellie Jones joined me for the first part of the session but, having a proper job with the Wildlife Trust, had to leave at 11:00.  That left me with another 20 birds to extract and 35 to process.

The list for the session was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Nuthatch 1(2); Blue Tit 37(11); Great Tit 10(10); Coal Tit 4(3); Marsh Tit (3); Robin (2); Blackbird (1); Bullfinch 1.  Totals: 54 birds ringed from six species; 32 birds retrapped from seven species, making 86 birds processed from nine species.

Obviously, the session was very titmouse oriented, only mitigated by a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blackbird, Bullfinch and three Nuthatch.  One thing that was interesting involved the commonest bird of the session. It is always nice when you can find something different about such a regular catch.

Of the 48 Blue Tits caught, 38 were birds fledged last year.  Of these, all bar nine were caught before 11:00.  No adult Blue Tits were caught before the 11:00 round, when one was caught.  The remaining nine were caught after 12:00.  When catching birds in the woods in the autumn, I have always been struck by the absence of adults until December time.  It made me wonder whether they have a different feeding strategy to the youngsters.  Is this another manifestation of the same thing?