Family Fun: Red Lodge, Saturday, 8th August 2020

This is the ninth year that I have been running ringing sessions in Red Lodge. The people I meet there are always very interested in what we are up to and I frequently have an audience for an impromptu ringing demonstration.

For most of that time I have had a cheery good morning and a chat with a runner who lives in the cottages adjacent to the wood. Being typically British, I only found out that his name is Tim recently. Over the last couple of years I have done several demonstrations to his grandchildren. It turns out that this was set one of his grandchildren and set two had never been around when we were in Red Lodge, so I agreed to arrange a session for the next time he had them to stay: which happened to be this week and so we went to Red Lodge (I’m all heart really, whatever anyone else might say!) so they could see some birds up close and personal.

I was joined for the morning by Ellie Jones. I find ringing is so much more enjoyable when there is a group working. We are still operating under social distancing rules, so it is still not possible to have all of my team out, particularly not the new trainees who need the most help and supervision, but Ellie has been working with me for 6.5 years and has a C-permit that allows her to work independently.

As I had ringed in the pond area within the last two weeks, I decided to set up at the crossroads that leads southwards to the farm. We didn’t set too many nets: just 6 x 18m in sets of 3, 2 and 1:

The first bird out of the net was a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker. This was followed up by a small group of Robins, Great Tits, a Blue Tit and two Marsh Tits. These two Marsh Tits take our total to 11 for the year so far. Given the unavailability of one of our key Marsh Tit sites, Ravensroost Wood, this year is shaping up nicely for the species.

As luck would have it, we had just finished processing these birds, at about 8:15, when we saw the approaching family group: 5 children and 4 adults. Fortunately, we did catch several other birds to show them and get the children involved. Once the birds had been processed, Ellie managed to divert them with some little tasks (who can find the longest piece of grass was a firm favourite throughout the morning) before we let them run off to check the nets. They were extremely well-behaved, knew not to touch the nets, and called us to a couple of birds in the net.

At 8:45 they went off for breakfast, whereupon we were joined by Tim’s neighbour and his daughter. At that point we didn’t have any birds, so they went off to do some pond dipping, leaving a mobile number for when we next caught: which we did. They got to see a couple of birds, and then we were re-joined by the first group as well.

The numbers dropped off and we ended up with a small haul from a reasonable number of species. This particular net setup can be hit and miss: I have caught 80 and 95 birds on this net setup at this time of year in Red Lodge, this was not one of those sessions. The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 4; Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren 2; Robin 4; Blackbird 1; Goldcrest 4. Total: 21 birds ringed from 10 species. There were no retrapped birds and, with the exception of the Long-tailed Tit which, having completed its body moult, juveniles cannot be separated from adult birds, no definitely adult birds in the catch.

Apart from a thoroughly enjoyable time spent with the children (and their parents / grandparent) and the two new juvenile Marsh Tits, my highlight of the morning were at least 2, and possibly 3, Spotted Flycatchers that came and hunted from the oak trees at the corners of the crossroads. They were there for a good 30 minutes. Unfortunately, they stayed up there, despite my putting on a lure to try and tempt them down. We have caught one in Red Lodge, in exactly this net setup, back in 2016. Here’s hoping I manage a repeat at the next session!

The Red Lodge Spotted Flycatcher from 2016

As the heat started to build at 11:30, the families departed and we took down and left site by just gone midday.

A Glut of Robins: Thursday, 6th August 2020

A quite remarkable session at the Firs this morning. The forecast when I went to bed last night was for it to be dry, warm and sunny. By the time I got to site, it was dull, miserable and damp: incredibly humid. Although, apart from two brief showers, it never properly rained, it was like working within a light mist all morning. Everything got damp and by the time I had erected my nets ( 3 x 18m in one run and 4 x 18m in the other) down the central glade I was soaking wet, mainly from the humidity.

My first round was a good catch of 14 birds: 7 of them were Robins. That is how it continued throughout the morning: with Robin appearing in virtually every catch. I finished the day with 20 Robins out of a catch of 52 birds. The previous largest haul of this species at any of my sites was 12 at Somerford Common and also in the Firs, both in July 2018. It has definitely been a good year for them: we caught 10 at Somerford Common on Saturday.

The catch for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1(1); Blue Tit 5(2); Great Tit 6; Wren 4(1); Robin 17(3); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Blackcap 3(3); Chiffchaff 1; Bullfinch 2. Totals: 42 birds ringed from 10 species, 10 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 52 birds processed from 10 species.

43 of the 52 birds were juveniles: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 5; Wren 5; Robin 20; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Blackcap 3; Chiffchaff 1; Bullfinch 1. There was at least 1 juvenile from each of the species in the catch.

The 20 Robins were all juvenile birds, representing the three post-fledging stages: still in full juvenile plumage; undergoing post-fledging moult and completed post-fledging moult. I think this indicates that some Robin pairs might have managed to produce 3 broods this year.

What I thought was an oddity amongst the juveniles happened with a group of 4 Great Tits, one was an adult female undergoing post-breeding moult, as one would expect, but the other three were juveniles undergoing their post-fledging moult and all three were moulting their tail feathers. I cannot say that I have ever noticed this before in juvenile Great Tits. However, according to the two moult Bibles (Jenni & Winckler and Ginn & Melville) a full moult of the retrices is part of the Great Tit’s post-juvenile moult strategy. What can I say? I have processed over 2,000 Great Tits, including 830 juveniles, and this is the first time that I can definitely recall seeing juveniles moulting their tails.

The highlights, apart from the glut of Robins, were my second juvenile Bullfinch and Great Spotted Woodpecker of the year:

With heavy rain forecast from 11:00 I closed and took down the 3 net run at 10:30. Processed the birds that remained and then took down the 4 net run at 11:00. The forecast rain never arrived! Still, a very satisfying woodland session. My only disappointments: despite hearing them around the reserve all morning, I didn’t manage to catch any Nuthatch or Marsh Tit. Never mind, lures will be available soon.

Lower Moor Farm: Tuesday, 4th August 2020

As regular readers will know, I have been bemoaning the complete lack of Whitethroats at Lower Moor Farm so far this year. I am delighted to say that it was rectified a little this morning:

Poseur? Moi?

In fact, this morning’s session was the best I have had at the site so far this year. The first bird out of the net this morning was my first Sedge Warbler of the year:

It was a really good run of warblers throughout the session. The only one that I expected to catch but didn’t was a Cetti’s. So I had Reed, Sedge, Blackcap, Garden, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Willow. Very happy with that. Small numbers of each, but the best single catch of Sedge Warbler at the site.

The list for the day was: Kingfisher (1); Treecreeper 1(1); Blue Tit 4(1); Wren 1; Dunnock 1(1); Robin 4; Blackbird 2(1); Sedge Warbler 4; Reed Warbler 1; Blackcap 6(1); Garden Warbler 2(1); Whitethroat 3; Lesser Whitethroat 1(2); Chiffchaff 5(1); Willow Warbler 3. Totals: 38 birds ringed from 14 species and 10 birds retrapped from 8 species, making 48 birds processed from 15 species.

The majority were juvenile birds from this year’s breeding season: Kingfisher 1; Treecreeper 2; Blue Tit 5; Wren 1; Dunnock 2; Robin 4; Blackbird 1; Sedge Warbler 2; Blackcap 5; Garden Warbler 2; Whitethroat 3; Lesser Whitethroat 3; Chiffchaff 4; Willow Warbler 2: a total of 37 birds from 14 species.

With the weather we have had this year, one would have expected most species to have had a pretty good breeding season and the results I am getting so far would seem to back that up, but it clearly hasn’t been plain sailing for all:

This juvenile Whitethroat was showing a very distinct fault bar on the tail, indicating a disruption to its parent’s ability to provision it with enough food.

The retrapped juvenile Treecreeper is not one of my birds. It will be interesting to find out where it was ringed and how far it has travelled.

A special mention for a photographer who was absolutely fascinated with what was going on. He spent the entire morning with me, chatting and totally absorbed in what I was doing: so absorbed that he didn’t take a single photo! In true British fashion, I didn’t get his name until he was leaving, John.

West Wilts Ringing Group: July 2020 Results

This month has been our best July since the group split at the beginning of 2013.  The previous highest capture was in July 2015, with 688 ringed against 993 this year and 127 retrapped against 190 this year.  As you can see from figure 1, it is a significant increase on last year. 

Fig. 1 Year on Year Comparison: July 2020 vs July 2019

However, as a result of coronavirus and restrictions imposed by some landowners, forcing C-permit holders to carry out individual sessions on their sites and far fewer collaborative efforts, we also carried out a lot more sessions this year (27 versus 18). The result of that is that, on average, it is just 2.6 extra birds per session.

That is not to say that we have not had some excellent catches in July. The number of Whitethroat that has been caught is nearly double what was caught last year, and that is despite the fact that two of my regular Whitethroat sites in the north of the county (Lower Moor and Blakehill Farms) have delivered none so far this year, although the meadow pond at Ravensroost has been better than usual, with 10 Whitethroat this month.  Without doubt, the key site for them is that on the Imber Ranges on Salisbury Plain, with over 90 of them processed.

On the warbler front, there have also been significant increases in the number of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff, but the really startling increases are in the number of both Sedge and Reed Warblers.  This is almost entirely down to Jonny Cooper starting work at two new sites: the Western Way Balancing Ponds in Melksham and the Wessex Water Reed Beds at Langford Lakes.   The Western Way Balancing Ponds are a flood prevention measure, designed to prevent run-off from the A350 causing problems. Who would have thought that they would provide such a productive mini nature reserve?  Langford Lakes is a well-established Wiltshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Permission to start a monitoring project of the reed bed area was granted last year and Jonny has started the project this year.

Of our resident species, Blue Tit numbers are well up on last year.  There has been more than twice as many adults but, more encouragingly, nearly twice as many youngsters.  Long-tailed Tit numbers are also much higher. I have to claim some responsibility for that, with 21 birds processed in my garden, not just on the same day, but at the same time! As I was extracting them from the nets, others were flying into other parts of the nets. Fortunately, none of them had time to get tangled, so the extraction was quick and efficient – but I did close the nets as I went, to ensure I could maintain control. To catch 21 out of a flock of about 25 was astonishing (and quite a fluke).

What can you say, though, about the catch of Kingfisher this year?  Again, this is almost entirely down to Jonny’s efforts.  Of eleven ringed, ten were at Jonny’s sites: 6 at Meadow Farm and 2 each at the Melksham and Langford Lakes sites.  The other one was at my Lower Moor Farm site.

There are plenty of other highlights and interesting changes to be seen in the catch but those are my highlights. One extra piece of analysis I have done is to work out the numbers of adults and juveniles as a proportion of the overall catch.

Fig 2: Adults and juveniles as a proportion of the total catch

(I must be doing something right: all of the numbers actually add up.)

Somerford Common: Saturday, 1st August 2020

Delighted to have Steph and Lillie join me for a session at Somerford Common this morning for the first time since lockdown. This is how we set up today:

It was rather pleasing that the first birds into the nets this morning were in the nets nearest the ringing station and were a couple of Bullfinch: a female and our first juvenile of the year:

This was followed by a bit of a deluge of Robins, providing exactly one-third of our total catch, with 11 (10 ringed and one retrapped). The session was never busy, a few birds in every round, but it built up into a reasonable total in the end.

The catch was: Blue Tit 2(2); Great Tit 1; Wren 3; Dunnock 1; Robin 10(1); Blackbird 3(1); Blackcap 4; Garden Warbler 1; Willow Warbler 1; Goldcrest 1; Bullfinch 2. Totals: 29 birds ringed from 11 species, 4 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 33 birds processed from 11 species.

Again, there was a significant proportion of juvenile birds in the catch: Blue Tit 2; Great Tit 1; Wren 3; Dunnock 1; Robin 11; Blackcap 3; Garden Warbler 1; Goldcrest 1; Willow Warbler 1; Bullfinch 1. 25 of the birds processed from 10 species were juveniles. Surprisingly, given how many of them have been turning up in my catches this year, the only species for which we didn’t catch a juvenile in this session was the Blackbird.

The two juvenile Blue Tits were in the middle of moulting out their greater coverts. All of the covert feathers had been dropped and had the replacement feathers in the early stages of regrowth. Both had wings of 65mm, which probably means that they are males. One thing I have noticed is that the bulk of the juvenile birds that retain any greater coverts into their second summer have wing lengths of 63mm or less, suggesting that retention is a female trait.

As at Red Lodge recently, my most difficult extraction of the day was an Emperor Dragonfly:

There is something very satisfying about successfully extracting these beauties from your nets. They do have a pretty good bite on them.

We had a very pleasant discussion with an elderly lady and her photographer grandson (We are British, we don’t bother with names!). It turned out that the lady and her late husband had both been bird ringers themselves. Small world.

With the BBC, Met Office, Meteo and xcweather all giving different weather forecasts (the first two saying it was going to be raining from 10:00; the last two saying there was unlikely to be rain before midday) we did keep a close eye on the weather. In the event, there was a brief shower as we were completing our take down at 11:30, so we didn’t get too wet, and were away from site by noon.

Langford Lakes, Wessex Water Reed Beds: Thursday, 30th July 2020

With other ringers up and down the country reporting that migration is now well underway, I thought a session at the reed bed at Langford Lakes was in order. (I know, it feels life summer has barely begun and the birds are already leaving). Langford Lakes is well positioned to attract all manner of migrant birds, being a wetland beacon in an otherwise quite dry area of the county. This is most notable in the array of interesting waders that regularly turn up on passage, but many passerines also pass through the site.

As always with Langford an early start was required to get onto site and make sure the nets are ready to go at first light. As it was, it seemed that almost every net was tangled in some way and setting up took longer than anticipated. Thankfully, the morning was rather cool, so the birds took a while to start moving.

The catch for the day was as follows: Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 3; Long-tailed Tit 10; Wren 10(1); Dunnock 4; Robin 1; Blackbird 1; Reed Warbler 28(8); Sedge Warbler 11; Blackcap 4; Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 3; Willow Warbler 8; Reed Bunting 2(1). Totals: 87 birds ringed from 14 species and 10 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 97 birds processed from 14 species.

Of these the following were juvenile birds: Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 2; Wren 9; Dunnock 4; Robin 1; Reed Warbler 26; Sedge Warbler 10; Blackcap 4; Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 2; Willow Warbler 7. 67 juveniles processed from 11 species.

Unsurprisingly Reed Warbler continued to dominate the catch, however there were also good numbers of Sedge and Willow Warblers. As you can see, many of these were juveniles, likely to be moving southwards. Over the coming weeks it will be interesting to see how migration unfolds at this site.

Meadow Farm: Wednesday, 29th July 2020

The following blog is by Jonny Cooper:

With the weather forecast to be calm and clear I decided to undertake a session at Meadow Farm. I try to carry out two sessions a month at the site across the year, to monitor how the bird life changes. Last year the sessions showed that many species that breed on site had a very good year. If today’s session is anything to go by then 2020 is repeating this breeding success.

For clarity the list of birds processed is set out in two lists: the first list is species ringed and retrapped; the second list is the number of juveniles processed per species.

Ringed and Retrapped: Kingfisher 3; Great Spotted Woodpecker (1); Blue Tit 24(18); Great Tit 5(10); Long-tailed Tit 4(4); Wren 1; Dunnock 1(1); Robin 1(2); Song Thrush 1; Reed Warbler 3(1); Blackcap (1); Whitethroat 2(2); Chiffchaff 13; Chaffinch 3; Goldfinch 6; Greenfinch 10; Bullfinch 1. Totals: 78 birds ringed from 15 species and 40 birds retrapped from 9 species, making 118 birds processed from 17 species.

Juveniles Processed: Kingfisher 3; Blue Tit 35; Great Tit 14; Wren 1; Dunnock 2; Robin 2; Song Thrush 1; Reed Warbler 2; Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 12; Chaffinch 2; Goldfinch 5; Greenfinch 10. Total: 90 juvenile birds processed from 13 species.

To catch 3 more Kingfishers is quite exceptional. In the month of July, I have processed 12 individual birds (10 new and 2 retraps) with 7 of them being at Meadow Farm. Hopefully, as 6 of them were juvenile birds, this is a sign that they are doing well this year.

One interesting note is the lack of Blackcap, with only a single re-trapped bird. At this time of year, I would expect them to be coming though in good numbers. However, despite this, it was another very pleasing session for a site that continues to produce good varied catches.

Ravensroost Meadow Pond: Thursday, 30th July 2020

After the problem in the woodland last week I have agreed with the Trust to stay out of there until we can work as a team again. However, the pond area is easy to secure, with a single access gate. The herd of Belted Galloway steers that were occupying the field leading to the pond was additional security.

My last experience of the Belted Galloways left the car covered in cow spit: they just loved licking it. So I dumped all of my kit over the gate, and got the car out of the field again and used it as an additional barrier in front of the gate into the field.

It wasn’t the biggest catch I have ever had, but it was enjoyable. My hope was that there might be a passage of Swallows and House Martins coming through the site and ending up in the pond nets (the white lines):

Unfortunately, only half-a-dozen Swallows came through, and none stopped to drink, so no catch. However, what I was lucky enough to have was a passage of Whitethroats. I have caught just 15 this year: 4 at my first session at the pond, 1 at my recent Brown’s Farm session, and 10 today!

The first bird out of the net was a juvenile Reed Warbler. One day I hope the large pond (the area outlined in red) will be restored, with a decent reedbed, instead of the massive growth of Typha that has taken over the site, and the brush expanding out from the middle of the pond, and we will see both Reed and Sedge Warbler breeding on the site with regularity. When I started birding at Ravensroost in 1998 I regularly heard and saw both species and Moorhens using this pond. Unfortunately, it has degraded over time and now needs significant work to make it productive again.

The second bird out of the nets was a female Jay. If anything shows up the stresses of rearing a brood of hungry young birds it is a Jay in post-breeding moult. This bird’s head was almost completely bald and she looked wretched. Mind, she was just as feisty and dangerous to my hands as any other Jay.

The rest of the morning was slow and steady, with just a couple of birds per round, but it all adds up. The whole catch was: Jay 1; Blue Tit 3; Great Tit (1); Wren 1; Robin (1); Song Thrush 1; Reed Warbler 2; Whitethroat 10; Chiffchaff 1(1); Willow Warbler 3. Totals: 22 birds ringed from 8 species, 3 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 25 birds processed from 10 species.

Of the 25 birds caught only the Jay, Great Tit, Song Thrush and one of the Whitethroats were adults, the remainder were juveniles. Coincidentally, three of those adult birds are resident species. 17 of the birds were summer visitors: possibly bred in the local area, but equally possibly on passage.

With the temperature rising the birds stopped moving and I took down at midday. When I wanted to load the car, fortunately the Belties were elsewhere, lying down out of the sun, so the car escaped unscathed for a second time.

Hail to the Emperor: Red Lodge, Tuesday, 28th July 2020

With the weather forecasting a light, gusting breeze for the morning I decided on a session at Red Lodge. As Forestry England have now allowed volunteers to work in pairs, I opened the session to the first of my team to say “Yes”. Entirely predictably, Andrew and I were on site for 5:30.

Why the headline, because of this beauty:

I am fairly certain that this is a female Emperor Dragonfly. However, the white edging to the last three abdominal segments is not an identification feature for that species. I am hoping to find out soon exactly what it is. When I extracted it from our net it was busily engaged in eating an immature Broad-bodied Chaser. There is something slightly macabre and disconcerting about watching one insect eating another, whilst the insect being eaten is still very obviously alive.

The weather turned out to be both colder and more blustery than had been forecast and that did impact on the catch. It started slowly, then we had a couple of busier rounds between 8:30 and 9:30, but the wind increased and we had to close 4 of our 7 nets, leaving just 2 x 18m nets and 1 x 12m net. Unfortunately, the 12m net caught just one bird – a same day retrap. It is unusual: this is normally one of the busiest nets.

The catch for the day was: Treecreeper 2; Blue Tit 2; Great Tit 3; Marsh Tit 1; Wren 3; Robin 7; Blackbird 5; Blackcap 4(1); Chiffchaff 1. 28 birds ringed from 9 species and one retrap. All of the birds were juveniles, with the exceptions of one of the Treecreepers and the retrapped Blackcap.

The highlight of the catch was the continuing capture of juvenile Wrens, Robins, and Blackbirds. They really do seem to have had a good year. All three species had recently fledged youngsters, i.e. those who had not yet started their post-juvenile moult. It was also good to catch our eleventh Braydon Forest Marsh Tit of the year:

If you are in the vicinity of Red Lodge and you see a Marsh Tit with a black ring above a pale blue ring on its lower right leg it is this bird.

As the wind was getting stronger we finished taking down and left site a bit early, by 11:00.

One personal footnote: the last bird I ringed today was my 15,999th fledged bird, from 103 species, since I started my ringing career in January 2009. The first bird I ringed was a Corn Bunting, at Ogborne St Andrew on the 10th January 2009. I am hopeful that my 16,000th bird ringed will be equally good. As I am at Ravensroost Meadows next, there is always the possibility of Swallow or House Martin. Fingers crossed.

Redstart Blues: Blakehill Farm, Friday, 24th July 2020

It is not often that I get more wasp stings than I do birds in a session. Let me explain:

The red line is where I usually set my nets. Today I thought that I would try out the area that underwent hedge laying a couple of years ago and has grown up nicely since then. You will notice that the yellow line of nets has a gap in it. As I was setting up for the net to go there I suddenly heard this storm of buzzing and then the pain started. It was at least a dozen stings in short order: the worst being a couple in my ear! Not a pleasant start to the morning.

After I finished setting those nets there was a solitary Goldfinch in the short net ride. At the second net round there was another Goldfinch, a Wren and a Dunnock. That was it for that entire net set for the morning.

To pass the time, while the birds avoided the nets, I took a run up to where I usually set my nets. It was fabulous: at least 6 Redstarts were flitting in and out of the hedgerow, popping across the path, chasing Gatekeeper butterflies. I had great views and the huge pang of regret! Never mind, I thought, I will just set a few more nets in that area, so I did. Needless to say the Redstarts moved away to a different area. I did see them again, specifically as I was about to pack up those nets for the morning. There were two of them: one flew into the hedgerow just to the east of the setup and the other into the hedgerow to the west of the setup. Still, I did manage to extract a Blackbird, Great Tit and Chiffchaff from there, so I ended up with 7 birds from 6 species and some lovely views of Redstart.

There was also a significant presence of both Swallows and House Martins flying over the plateau and the fields outside the reserve. Another week and I will be able to start using lures to attract them in.

So, the experiment was a failure, but the question is answered: where I usually set up is the best part of that side of the reserve to use. I was home in time for elevenses!