Blakehill Farm: Wednesday, 27th May 2020

This is the second site that the Wildlife Trust have allowed me to recommence ringing on. It is restricted to the field behind the Whitworth Building:

Normally I would only set nets 4,5 and 6, with other nets set elsewhere outside of this field. For today, I tried three new net rides to see what they might develop. In fact, nets 1, 2, 5 and 6 all caught and nets 3 and 4 stayed resolutely empty.

It was a reasonable session with a decent variety of birds: Woodpigeon 1; Magpie 2; Great Tit (1); Dunnock 2(1); Robin 6; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 2; Goldfinch 1; House Sparrow 2. Totals: 18 birds ringed from 9 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 20 birds processed from 10 species.

The Magpies were both caught in net 1: and a third managed to get out before I could get to it. I don’t know why it is, but this year Woodpigeons seem to be diving into mist nets quite regularly. This is the sixth caught this year and only one of them has wandered into a Potter trap. It was caught in net 4, but not flying in from the field, but somehow dropping in from the tree behind the net.

The most surprising catch of the day was a newly fledged Goldfinch. Its beak was covered by some sort of solid resin. I tried to gently remove it, but it was absolutely solid. The bird in the photograph looks a bit odd as a result:

This is a very early record for a Goldfinch. The BTO’s Nest Record Scheme states that the mean laying date for first clutches for Goldfinch is the 25th May, with a spread from the 26th April to 19th July. As the incubation period is 13 to 15 days, and the subsequent period to fledging 14 to 17 days, this bird must be pushing that earliest first clutch date very close.

As well as my standard ringing activity, I checked the two Jackdaw nests adjacent to the field I was working in. I am not a big nest finder: I generally restrict my nest checking to my garden and to box / hole-based species, particularly Barn Owls, which I have a schedule 1 licence for. Whilst I do know how to approach a nest without leaving clues to its location, I am still a bit reticent about doing so. Jackdaws often take over Barn or Tawny Owl boxes. In this case they have taken over a Bug Hotel. Last year they had 3 naked pulli when I first checked on them. I gave it two weeks before returning to ring them, only to find that the nest was completely empty. They had almost certainly been predated: either Carrion Crow or, possibly, Stoat, as I have seen one of those wee beasties running around in the area where the nests are situated. This year there are two broods: both had 2 live nestlings, one of them also had a dead youngster. The parents had moved it out of the nest onto the edge of the box, so I completed the housekeeping for them. It was considerably smaller and less well-developed than its nest mates.

As the morning got hotter, so the activity declined, and I decided to take down the nets, packed up and was away by 12:15.

Melksham Balancing Ponds: Thursday, 21st May 2020

This is a post by Jonny Cooper:

Western Way Balancing Ponds at Melksham consist of two bodies of water fringed by a good sized reedbed and scrub. The site is owned by Wiltshire Council and its primary use is to manage water run-off from the adjacent A350/A365. However, over time the site has developed into an interesting, isolated wetland habitat.

I have been asked by Wiltshire Council to run a project to monitor the bird species using the site and record changes in populations and species over time. This will be done through the standard surveying practice of bird ringing.  The data will then be used by ecologists at Wiltshire Council as an example to show the importance of balancing ponds for birds.

Starting a new ringing project is always exciting, you never know exactly what to expect. This is only the second session at the site, following an initial, preliminary, session last September.  The forecast for the morning was for some cloud and very low wind, which generally bodes well for ringing. The session started off well with several Reed Warbler and two Reed Bunting and carried on at a steady constant pace all morning. 

The totals for the day were: Blue Tit 8; Great Tit 2; Dunnock 4; Robin 7; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 3; Reed Warbler 15; Blackcap 2; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 1; Goldfinch 2; House Sparrow 8; Reed Bunting 2. A total of 56 birds (all new) from 13 species. Two of the Robins were newly-fledged youngsters.

The numbers of Reed Warbler and House Sparrow processed are encouraging, giving an early indication of good populations of both species in and around the site. However, the award for top bird goes to the Lesser Whitethroat (pictured below). This is the first Lesser Whitethroat that I have caught one of my sites and it is good to see that they are present here.

Overall, a pleasing session and a good start to the project. It will certainly be interesting going forward to document the bird life using the site.

Lower Moor Farm: Thursday, 21st May 2020

Lower Moor Farm is my Constant Effort Site (CES) that I have run for the last five years. We have never missed a session. Unfortunately, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, this year’s CES is not going to be comparable with previous years: we have already missed session 1 and, due to the need to isolate from the general public, my activities are restricted to the nets in the Wildlife Refuge area, which is not open to the general public. This has reduced the number of nets I use to less than half (5 as opposed to 12). They were set up in 2 rides: one of 2 x 18 metre nets running along the boundary brook side and the other of 3 x 18 metre nets running along the edge of Mallard Lake.

I had forgotten what it was like to get up quite so early (3:45, since you ask) and how much work is involved in setting up nets when working solo (social distancing has made group ringing a thing of the past for now). When you add in that my key and the padlock on the gate decided not to talk to each other, so I had to heave my equipment over the 5-bar gate and, even worse, heave my ancient, overweight carcass and arthritic right ankle over that same gate half-a-dozen times, it wasn’t the most auspicious start. To cap it all: the entire front bumper assembly of my car decided to deposit itself on the grass. It turns out that when, after an accident a couple of years ago, the front end was replaced the repairers omitted to put in the retaining screws. Two full services by a Ford main dealer also failed to pick that up so I am very lucky it dropped off when it did and not when I was speeding down the M4 to Bristol or similar! Words will be exchanged!

Despite all of that, I had a pretty decent session. Both nets caught well and I had a good variety of birds. I did a walk around the outside of the ringing area on Tuesday, just to see what was going on, and mapped four Cetti’s Warbler territories, so I was hoping to find a couple more within the refuge area. My first round delivered a male in net 4, my second round a female in net 5, my fourth round a recaptured bird, ringed as an adult last year. So three Cetti’s was a good start. From the results today and the walk on Tuesday, I am pretty confident that there are seven Cetti’s territories in that part of the reserve. That is significantly higher than in previous years.

There was a steady trickle of birds throughout the morning but by 8:30 it had quietened down a lot so I decided, rashly, to set up three more nets (one each of 9 metres, 12 metres and 18 metres) further along the boundary brook side. It always looks as if it should catch really well, it rarely does. In fact, all I got for me efforts were the exercise in putting them up, walking over to check them half-a-dozen times or so, and then taking them down again! It is amazing I manage to remain so cheerful. Fortunately, there was a late surge of catches in the other nets, with a pair of Garden Warblers (I say “pair” knowing that the connotation is not proven, but two birds of different sexes of the same species in the same net, less than 12″ apart, is pretty good circumstantial evidence) and a male Reed Bunting as my last catch of the morning.

The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit (1); Great Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit (1); Dunnock 2(2); Robin 3(1); Blackbird (1); Cetti’s Warbler 2(1); Blackcap 6(1); Garden Warbler 2(1); Lesser Whitethroat (1); Chiffchaff 1(2); Bullfinch 1; Reed Bunting 1. Totals: 21 birds ringed from 10 species; 12 birds retrapped from 10 species, making 33 birds processed from 14 species.

There was no sign of young warblers yet but one of the Dunnocks and two of the Robins ringed were fresh out of the nest. Next session there should be a generous sprinkling of young Titmice as well as, potentially, some early Blackcap and Chiffchaff young.

Both the Bullfinch and the Reed Bunting were handsome, striking males and were almost the highlight of the session. The real highlight was something I didn’t manage to catch. At about 7:30 I started to hear this call that I couldn’t place. It sounded a bit like an animal being predated and calling out in pain. After a couple of text messages with Jonny Cooper, who was out doing his own catching, it came to me: Water Rail. This is exciting. We know that they over-winter but in the 15 years since I first visited, and the 7 years since I started ringing at, Lower Moor Farm I have never had any evidence of them being around in the summer and potentially breeding on site.

It got very hot about 10:30 so I started to pack away and cleared the site by 11:30. One of the benefits of setting only a few nets: packing up is pretty quick. So, an eventful and interesting session.

Meadow Farm: Saturday, 16th May 2020

The following blog piece is by Jonny Cooper.

Following changes to the UK’s lockdown restrictions, and a subsequent efficient review of these changes by the BTO with Natural England and the JNCC, ringing in England has been permitted since Wednesday. Of course, social distancing rules must be adhered to at all times, and the landowners must be happy for ringing to be undertaken at this time. This change offered me my first opportunity in nearly 2 months to undertake some ringing away from the garden, so I headed to my ever-reliable site at Meadow Farm.

Since my last session at the site in March the summer migrants have arrived across the country in force, and many resident birds are well into the breeding season, so I was optimistic about what I might find. The weather forecast was for a calm and overcast morning with temperatures reaching the mid-teens by lunchtime. The board was set, it was time to start moving the pieces.

The first round at 5:45 produced 13 birds including several summer migrants. From then on each round consistently produced 5 – 10 birds across the morning. The list for the session is as follows:

Kingfisher 1(1), Great Spotted Woodpecker (3), Treecreeper (1), Blue Tit (3), Great Tit 2(3), Long-tailed Tit 1(1), Wren 2(2), Dunnock 3(3), Robin 2(2), Song Thrush 1, Blackbird (2), Sedge Warbler 1, Reed Warbler 3(3), Blackcap 5(1), Garden Warbler 2, Whitethroat 1, Chiffchaff 2(1), Chaffinch (1), Greenfinch 3(3) and Goldfinch 1(3).  30 birds ringed from 15 species, 33 re-traps from 16 species, making a total of 63 birds processed from 20 species.

The Kingfishers are the nineteenth ringed and the eighth re-trapped birds at the site since the first was caught in August 2018. A phenomenal number given the small size of the site. However, they were trumped today by the Garden Warblers: the two birds processed represent the first records for the site. An additional highlight was the re-trapping of three Reed Warblers, one Blackcap and one Chiffchaff that were ringed on-site last year. A nice example of site fidelity amongst these migrant birds.

Aside from ringing, I was treated all morning to a Cuckoo calling in the trees around me.  At one point a second male joined him and they began to chase each other. The reason for this soon became clear when a female Cuckoo appeared and stared making the distinctive ‘bubbling call’.  Also, I heard a Cetti’s Warbler singing for the first time on the site. Two birds were ringed last year in September, so hopefully the species is starting to colonise.

I finished packing up about 1pm, I was about to leave when I was treated to a Grass Snake sliding across the path in front of me. Another first for the site. Overall, it was as good a mornings ringing as I could have hoped for, made even better by the wider cast of wildlife found on site. Well worth the wait.

Ringing in Lockdown: Adventures in a Chippenham garden (23rd March – 13th May)

The regular readers of the blog will know that between 23rd March and 13th May all ringing away from a ringer’s place of residence was suspended, as part of the effort to control the spread of Covid-19.   I have done a few reports on the activities in my Purton garden.  The following account is by Jonny Cooper whose garden is a suburban Chippenham garden and makes a nice contrast between my village location and his.  This is his account:

I, like almost all ringers, had to turn my focus onto the birds found in my garden.

Garden ringing is a rather different kettle of fish to the standard ringing session. Typically, nets are opened on a more ad hoc basis, with smaller numbers of birds being caught, over a longer period of time. Nevertheless, ringing in the garden can turn up some interesting birds. The full list of birds processed during the period can be found below:

Woodpigeon 5(1), Blue Tit 3(6), Great Tit 5(5), Coal Tit 1(2), Long-tailed Tit 4(3), Wren 1, Dunnock 5(4), Robin 1(6), Blackbird 8(15), Blackcap 2, House Sparrow 4(1), and Goldfinch 4.  A total of 43 new from 12 species,  43 re-trap birds from 9 species, making 86 birds processed from 12 species.

The Blackcaps were a particularly interesting catch: both birds were carrying substantial reserves of fat, meaning they are likely to have been on passage heading further north. The number of Woodpigeon can be explained by the deployment of walk-in Potter traps in which I placed tasty sunflower hearts; the pigeons couldn’t get enough of them.

Now this is perhaps not the most exciting list ever produced. However, it does show the numbers and diversity of birds that will use what is a very average suburban garden and, actually, these last few weeks have made me realise that going forward, maybe I should spend more time ringing in my garden.

Booted / Sykes’s Warbler update

As previously posted, on the 19th October 2019 Dr Ian Grier and Andy Palmer caught an unusual warbler on the Salisbury Plain Training Area.  They couldn’t immediately identify it, so they took photographs and extended measurements of the bird before releasing it.

I posted photographs of the bird, which sparked a lot of conversation with the consensus that it was “probably Booted”.  Unfortunately, due to a complaint to the BTO that the bird was “fluffed up and looked unwell” I had to remove the key photograph, leaving just the photo of the wing. (The BTO are extremely sensitive to the potential for harm from misused and misrepresented photographs on social media.  I fully understand why, and support them in their stance, but boy is it frustrating that a few malcontents can spoil things for the majority!)

The record was circulated around the acknowledged experts on the species and a submission made to the BBRC (several of whom were amongst the experts consulted prior to submission) based on the following table and all of the available photographs:


The details were circulated and a decision made and notified on Twitter on the 30th April 2020:image

Essentially, the experts are unable to agree with absolute clarity and unanimity on the species involved and have accepted the bird as Booted / Sykes’s Warbler.  It just goes to show that, even with a bird in the hand, with plenty of photographs and a wide range of measurements, it is not a given that an absolute identification can be made.  Goodness knows how you identify with certainty either species through a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

Ringing Recoveries

We have added three pages to our site: Warbler Ringing Recoveries; Other Migrant Recoveries and Resident Recoveries.

Each page contains a species identifier, a map of the movements of birds recovered and a table of the recovery information.  Recoveries are numbered and correspond to the appropriate entry in the table.  Birds ringed by the group and recovered elsewhere are shown in blue, birds recovered by the group are coloured red.

Movements are, generally, of birds travelling over 50km from place of ringing to place of recovery.  Some exceptions are made for interesting recoveries, regardless of distance.

All of the hard work has been done by Jonny Cooper.