Skokholm Island: 16th to 19th September 2019

In 2014 I was fortunate enough to go to Skokholm with my trainer Ian Grier, plus Richard Pike and Geoff Carrs.  I was lucky enough to ring my first Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and, star bird, Icterine Warbler.  It has taken a while, whilst I achieved my own C- then A-permits and trainer’s endorsement, but this year I managed to get a team together to go back.  My most experienced pair, Ellie Jones and Jonny Cooper, came along and we were joined by trainees Julia Hayes and Tom Uridge from the West Oxfordshire Farmland group.

We made our way to the south western tip of Pembrokeshire on the Sunday, ready for the ferry to Skokholm at 9:00 on Monday morning.  The crossing is about 3.5 miles: 3.0 to the island and another 0.5 around the island to the landing area.  Everything went according to plan and we were on the island by 10:30.  Skokholm has the distinction of being the first and the most recent bird observatory in the UK.  It was originally established by Ronald Lockley, a great early to mid-20th Century naturalist, in 1933.  It lost Observatory status in 1976, because the then owner turned against bird ringing, which is one of the key requirements for that status.  In 2014 it regained its Observatory status, after hard work by the new wardens, Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle, and numerous volunteers from the local Wildlife Trust and community to bring the buildings and facilities back into full commission.  Our original group must have been one of the first ringing teams to visit.  It was great to meet up with them again: Giselle’s response to my “Remember me” question was “Icterine Warbler” – nice to be known for such a stunning bird!

There were three groups on the island: us, Chris Payne and his team, who have been monitoring the Storm Petrel nests on the island during the breeding season plus a team from Oxford University monitoring the House Mouse population on Skokholm.  I thought rabbits were the speciality Skokholm mammal (Lockley’s book “The Private Life of the Rabbit”), but it turns out that the House Mice are far more interesting – having become less House Mouse and more Wood Mouse in their habits.  We all got on well, which for a bunch of strangers on a small isolated island, is always a good thing. No Agatha Christie moments to speak of!

After the meet and greet with the warden and volunteers, Richard took us on a tour around the island.  Since I was last there they have developed several complexes of Storm Petrel nest holes. Many are still occupied by young birds. Richard told us that these were probably the young of first-time breeders:

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Whatever, they are the most gorgeous bundles of fluff!  Unfortunately, our nighttime forays to try and catch some adults failed.

We started our ringing activities after lunch.  The set up is a combination of mist-nets and Heligoland traps. These traps are named after the first place they were used: Heligoland Island, in the Heligoland Bight to the north of Germany.  For non-ringers, the latter are large mesh-walled tunnels, filled with vegetation, that give migrant birds a safe place to roost, and ringers a way of catching birds without using nets.  The birds are shushed along the trap to a large collecting area, which can be closed off. A ringer then encourages them into the smaller catching box, which is closed by a remotely operated drawbridge.  They are then safely removed by hand from the box.  Last time on the island we caught most of our birds in the Heligolands, this time it was the mist-nets that caught most birds.  However, it was a Heligoland trap that caught my star birds of the stay. More later.

After dark we went on a Manx Shearwater catch.  As anyone who has seen a Manx Shearwater on dry land, their legs are far back and they are not the greatest walkers / runners in the world. To be blunt: they are an easy target for any predatory species.  On Skokholm these are Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls.  It is why the adults fly in at night to feed their young and why their young fledge at night.  Fledging youngsters were our targets.  This was done by using a thermal imaging camera to identify where the birds were, a dazzling torch to illuminate them and a hand net to control them.  There are so many burrows for Manx Shearwater on the island that all catching is restricted to the main paths and within what you can reach without leaving the path, so as not to potentially collapse any of the nesting tunnels.   Unfortunately, a virus based disease has hit the island. It is called Puffinosis (it does not affect Puffins, binomial Fratercula arctica, but Manx Shearwaters, Puffinus puffinus) and can be fatal. So we had to be careful to ensure that we were only ringing healthy birds. This involved looking at the overall condition of the bird, checking that there was no nervous shaking of the head, or twitching of the legs, that the legs were not warm and that the feet were not blistered.  Fortunately, it seems that the level of infection is very low in the main colony. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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Everybody got the opportunity to ring them and everybody, except Ellie, got the opportunity to ring some species that they haven’t ringed before. Jonny was the first to strike lucky with a Greenland race Northern Wheatear.  We were very pleased with this catch. Having bothered to take some live mealworms with us, to use with the island’s spring and Potter traps, they were not as successful as our last visit, with only two successful captures. However, as one of those was the Wheatear, it was worth it.

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Julia was the next to add to her fledgling list of birds ringed with the first Spotted Flycatcher caught on the island this autumn:

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Then both Tom and Julia got to ring their first Stonechats:


Finally, the Cottage Heligoland delivered the catch of the session for me, and it was the most unexpected of catches. I always know that there is something special going on when Jonny starts running.  I had said at the outset that any top birds that nobody had ringed before we would draw lots for: only the whole of the team ganged up on me and insisted that I ring it:

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My first Water Rail.

All in all, the catch for the stay was: Manx Shearwater 53(2); Water Rail 1; Swallow 3; Wren 6(2); Meadow Pipit 95(5); Spotted Flycatcher 1; Wheatear 1; Stonechat 4; Robin 11(7); Blackbird (1); Sedge Warbler (2); Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 41(2); Willow Warbler 11(4); Goldcrest 11(4).  Totals: 243 birds ringed from 13 species, 29 birds recaptured from 9 species, making 272 birds processed from 15 species.  All birds were juveniles except for 4 of the Goldcrests, 2 Wrens, 1 Meadow Pipit and 3 Blackcaps.

A mention for the Meadow Pipits: one was retrapped in a spring trap, but the vast bulk were caught in a net set of 21 metres on the edge of the accommodation.

Unfortunately, our stay was curtailed by a day, due to high winds and rough seas forecast for the Friday, as the tail-end of Hurricane Dorian was due to hit.  It was either leave this Thursday or wait until the next time the ferry could make it across (someone suggested it could be the following Thursday).  However, knowing this was likely to be the case, we packed an awful lot into the three days we were active and were happy with what we achieved.

Thanks to Tom for the photos of the Storm Petrel, Manx Shearwater and Stonechats.

Autumn Migration Underway At Blakehill Farm: Friday, 13th September 2019

For those of a superstitious disposition, deciding to go to the most exposed of our sites on Friday the 13th would not seem like a good idea.

So to Blakehill Farm this morning with Jonny Cooper.  The initial experience was auspicious: great views of a hunting Barn Owl, that then perched on the gate post through which we had entered the plateau, preened and posed.

But then…….   We set our nets by the individual bushes on the edge of the central plateau: sharing with two herds of cattle. The adults were a pleasure, i.e. they stayed well away from us and our nets. The others were steers, and proved more problematic.   Intrigued by us and our nets, they would move off when we chased them away, but as soon as our backs were turned they came back.  We hoped that if we put them up and moved away they would follow us and leave the nets alone. No!  Fortunately there was no damage, but there was some slobber I could have done without!  We had to take them down again to ensure they stayed in one piece!

Then the breeze got up, which meant that we couldn’t set up our hedgerow nets, as the breeze would have blown them straight into the vegetation: been there, done that, had to repurchase the nets. Part way through the morning a Kestrel chased a Meadow Pipit into a net and got itself stuck in the net. Jonny sprinted after it, from about 200m away. He got to within an arm’s length before it extricated itself and flew off. That doesn’t sound too good does it?  The curse of Friday the 13th writ large you would think.

However, we managed to catch 73 birds, the only recapture was a control Reed Bunting: almost certainly it will have been ringed in the Water Park a couple of miles away. The catch for the day was: Blue Tit [19]; Great Tit [2]; Meadow Pipit 1[31]; Dunnock [2]; Stonechat [1]; Whitethroat [3]; Chiffchaff [5]; Reed Bunting [8](1).  Totals: 1 adult ringed; 71 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 1 adult recaptured, making 73 birds processed from 8 species.

We were pleased to catch our first Stonechat of the autumn – a young male bird with real attitude:

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The 19 Blue Tits were all caught in and around the isolated bushes out in the middle of this huge ex-airfield. We do catch a lot of them out on the plateau: it seems counter-intuitive when there is so much hedgerow for them to travel along.  Had we been able to set our hedgerow nets I am pretty confident we could have doubled the catch. There was so much bird song and movement along the hedge but it just wasn’t possible.

We really enjoyed it: looking forward to Skokholm next week!

Wellbeing at The Firs: Wednesday, 11th September 2019

We do a lot of sessions for the Wildlife Trust’s Wellbeing teams, whose focus is on providing opportunities for vulnerable people suffering from anxiety, depression or stress. As someone who used to be a stressed out, anxious, depressive, I understand the value of getting into the natural environment as a great method of alleviating those conditions.  The issue has always been getting everyone to site at a time when there will be a lot of bird activity for us to show them. The Wildlife Trust’s team pulled out all of the stops, arranged new pick up points, and managed to get 20 or so beneficiaries to the Firs by 9:00 this morning.

Birds in woodlands are most active in the few hours after sunrise, so the later we start the process the fewer birds we catch. My last session with the Wellbeing team resulted in just 6 birds caught in 3 hours.  Also, my last ringing session at the Firs, on the 25th July, was the morning after the fantastic electric storms and torrential downpour the night before and yielded just 15 birds in 5 hours.  I approached today’s session hopeful that we would have enough to show them.  I was joined by Ellie Jones, for the session. As she is the Northern Reserves Field Officer for the Wildlife Trust (as well as being one of my extremely capable C-permit trainees), this really was a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust event!

We set the nets down the central glade at the Firs and had them open by 7:30. We took a Robin out of the net that had managed to blunder in before we had actually opened them, and processed that. The thing about the Firs is that the nets are set in two long lines, so we empty them on the way down and take any others that wander in on the way back up, guaranteeing that the birds spend the minimum time in the nets.  Next round we took 6 birds out and thought “Hopefully there will be a few more than this by the time the Wellbeing groups arrive”. We processed them, had a coffee, and went for the next round: 35 birds, mainly Blue and Great Tits, on the way down. By the time we had extracted them, another 20 had entered the nets for the journey back.  I left Ellie to finish extracting birds, and to shut the nets (we didn’t need any more birds for this session) whilst I went back to the ringing station to start processing the birds and show them to the group who had, by now, assembled.

It was a really good morning’s work. We had a lot of interest from the group: lots of questions, and they had lots of opportunities to get close to a good number of common woodland species.  Part way through the morning the weather turned a bit damp: with some very fine rain. Fortunately the team had brought a portable gazebo with them (I must invest) which they moved over to cover the ringing station.  Although the rain was light and stopped quite quickly, the water had collected on the leaves of the trees in the wood and so, every time the wind blew, we had another shower – so the gazebo was a great help.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch {1}; Treecreeper 1[1]; Blue Tit 1[19](2); Great Tit [18](3); Marsh Tit [1]; Long-tailed Tit {3}; Wren 1[2](1); Robin 1[1](1); Chiffchaff [4]; Willow Warbler [1].  Totals: 4 ringed, unaged, from 2 species; 4 adults ringed from 4 species; 47 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 7 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 62 birds processed from 10 species.

We didn’t reopen the nets: we had a good catch and the weather had turned damp, the time was approaching 11:00, so the Wellbeing crew all disappeared off to Blakehill Farm for bacon sandwiches, tea and coffee, Ellie went to work and I packed up the site.  Thanks to Jo, Chelsie, Keeley and Emma for organising their people, for the coffee and to Keeley especially for the fabulous Dorset apple cake!


Ravensroost Meadows: Saturday, 7th September 2019

After a super week away in Pembrokeshire, I was looking forward to getting out ringing.  However, my last session at Ravensroost Meadows was on the 5th August and delivered the princely catch of 6 birds, so there was a little trepidation as to what we would find there this morning. Jonny Cooper and I arrived on site at 6:00, got our nets set up quite quickly, and started catching at 7:00.  By 7:30 we had more than trebled the previous catch, so all concerns disappeared.

Autumn migration is well underway and, although this is not a prime migration hot-spot, we always get a good passage of migrant birds heading south.  It is our most regular site for catching Swallows. In the middle of the main ringing area is a small pond with a causeway bisecting it, and is just right for a 12 metre net. There is also a short spit of land at the east of the pond that takes a 9 metre net.  These are often our best nets for catching Swallows or House Martins, as they come into the pond to grab a drink.  Today the causeway net delivered our first Swallows of the year.  We did watch a large flock of House Martins fly around the meadow, hawking insects, before disappearing into the distance, never coming close to the pond for a drink. Small numbers of Swallow were flying through all morning, one pair being chased, ever so optimistically, by a female Sparrowhawk.  In the event we caught 3: less than we hoped but absolutely better than nothing.  They were all juveniles:

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It was a good day for birding, as well as ringing, with a juvenile Sparrowhawk making his presence felt on the edge of the wood: calling for food and flying back and forth quite regularly.  A Kestrel was present, hunting over the meadow, for most of the morning.  There was a Spotted Flycatcher moving along the hedgerow away from us: a shame it didn’t mover the other way and end up in a net.

But the ringing was very worthwhile: Swallow [3]; Blue Tit 1[5]; Great Tit [3]; Wren [6](1); Dunnock 1[2](1); Robin 1[3]; Blackcap [18]; Whitethroat [2]; Chiffchaff [10]; Willow Warbler [1]; Chaffinch [1]. Totals: 3 adults ringed from 3 species, 54 juveniles ringed from 11 species and 2 birds recaptured from 2 species, making 59 birds processed from 11 species.

One of the juvenile Dunnocks had some skin tags around the eyes:

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I have not seen this before. I know that Dunnocks do get avian pox and wonder if this is an early stage of it.

Jonny had to leave at 11:00, but I stayed around for another couple of hours, extracting a couple of Swallows and a few Blackcaps, Dunnocks and Wrens, enjoying the bird life. However, my most difficult extractions of the day were a Brown Hawker and several Ruddy Darters, including one copulating pair, that got entangled in the nets.  Extracting dragonflies is becoming something of a speciality for me: I do get lots of practice here and at Lower Moor Farm.  It isn’t easy: their heads are attached by a very thin neck and it can easily become detached. I have found that the best thing to do is to start by pushing them through the net from behind and then pull them the rest of the way through once you can get a grip on the thorax.

The Last CES Session of 2019: Lower Moor Farm, Wednesday, 28th August 2019

A Constant Effort Site (CES) comprises 12 sessions between the beginning of May and the end of August / first week of September. Each session is scheduled within a window of 10 days predetermined by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).  Nets are set in the same positions, and are left open for the same length of time (6 hours), for every session year on year.  This the fifth year that we have run a CES at Lower Moor Farm and it has reversed the trend of decline observed over the first four years.  With the exception of last sessions blip, every session has been a significant improvement on last year.  It has become the best year so far, as the following table shows:

CES Summary

Essentially, the site has recovered significantly, even surpassing the opening year of 2015. Today’s was session 12 of 2019.  I had expected to be joined by Andrew Bray and David Williams for the session only over the course of Tuesday afternoon and evening I got messages that Jonny Cooper, Ellie Jones and Henny Lowth wanted to come along.  Last year this session delivered 39 birds so, whilst I didn’t want to put anyone off, I was worried whether we would have enough of a catch to make it a worthwhile venture for them all.  I needn’t have worried. 

The list from today was: Kingfisher (1); Woodpigeon 1; Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Green Woodpecker (1); Nuthatch {1}; Treecreeper [2](2); Blue Tit 2[4](3); Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit {2}[3](4); Wren [1](1); Dunnock (2); Robin [2](1);  Blackbird (1); Blackcap [33](4); Garden Warbler [1]; Whitethroat [1]; Lesser Whitethroat [1]; Chiffchaff [9]; Goldcrest [2]; Bullfinch 1[2]. Totals: 3 birds from 2 species ringed unaged (Nuthatch and Long-tailed Tit); 5 adults ringed from 4 species; 61 juveniles ringed from 12 species and 21 birds recaptured from 11 species, making 90 birds processed from 20 species.  Of the recaptured birds 14 were also juveniles.

Andrew did a great job of getting to the Woodpigeon before it managed to escape the net.  Large birds can be pretty adept at getting out of the nets, particularly the 5 shelf, as opposed to 4 shelf, nets we use.  This gave David the opportunity to ring his first Woodpigeon.  He found out that there are different skills needed to handle a bird of that size and strength, but with a bit of help and direction he handled it well. Henny was also delighted to be able to process her first Kingfisher and Green Woodpecker, although they were already ringed, she carried out the ageing, sexing and biometric measurements.

Given that we have only 12 metres of net within woodland for the CES, the vast majority being within the scrub that lines the lakeside and the trees that line the stream marking the boundary between Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, it has always been a surprise how many Treecreepers we catch at the site. Today we caught our first Nuthatch for this side of the site. Two caught in March 2016 were in the vicinity of the Visitor Centre / Education Area. Couple that with two of our three woodpecker species, it was quite a woodland catch for a non-woodland site!

We were joined for the morning by Tony Marsh. Tony, along with Robin Griffiths, are the two people who regularly send me sightings of my colour ringed Marsh Tits. This is a project I have been running, now in its seventh year, for this species. On the left leg they have a BTO metal ring with its unique number plus either a red, blue or green colour ring. On its right leg it will have a combination of two coloured rings. If you should see one of these birds and send me a sighting through the comments section of the blog, I will send you the details of that bird (when ringed, how many times it has been recaptured / seen) and be eternally grateful.  I know that Tony enjoyed getting some close encounters of an avian kind!






Sherston and Nest Boxes: Monday, 26th August 2019

I went out with Andrew Bray to check a few Barn Owl boxes before it got too hot this morning. Two were new boxes, close to the village of Sherston in west Wiltshire, we had been invited to check by Geoff Carss, a one time ringing trainee and good bloke.  Geoff’s friend, Kevin Noble came along to direct us to the first box. He was responsible for getting it put up there in the first place!

This first box was situated within the grounds adjacent to Pinkney Park.  This is the highest box we have looked at – and it took all three sections of my 9 meter ladder, fully extended, to reach it. It proved to be empty, except for the desiccated carcass of a Tawny Owl.  From what I could gather from the carcass, it was a young bird which would have been close to fledging, as its primary and secondary feathers were at medium length, about two-thirds grown.   Goodness knows how long it has been there: it might have been from this year but it was very, very dried out.  Anyway, we met with the landowner and he is very keen for us to monitor the box in future.

The second box was just outside the village to the west.  It was situated in a tree on a ridge running alongside the river Avon.  This was a longer distance to walk with the equipment but only a two-section climb.  This box, put together by local Scouts,  yielded two Stock Dove pulli, just ready for ringing.


Their crops were hugely distended: Mum and Dad are clearly keeping them very well fed.  Stock Dove numbers have declined significantly in the last 20 to 30 years, and the species is now amber listed in the UK.  They do like nesting in holes, and the prevalence of Barn Owl boxes is certainly helping provide them with nesting places.

On the way back we stopped off at Avis Meadows to check the box that had 2 warm Stock Dove eggs in it three weeks ago. We were concerned that no adult left the nest as we approached, as they are usually very quick to fly off, and on checking the box it was empty, presumably the eggs / young have been predated.

Finally, we stopped of at our Drill Farm site to check the box that had two young and two unhatched eggs three weeks ago.  This time we found three youngsters, two of which were ready for ringing and no sign of the other egg or chick.  So, a bit of a mixed bag, but as Andrew ringed his first ever Stock Dove he felt teh drive up from Potterne was worthwhile.

I don’t know if any Aussies read this blog (actually, I do because WordPress publish those statistics for me – you would be surprised to know how far afield this blog is read: from Canada / USA to New Zealand and many points in between) but we had the BBC’s Ashes podcast playing on repeat all the time we were in the car. Bliss!

Ravensroost Woods: Saturday, 24th August 2019

My last visit to Ravensroost Woods was on the 27th July and was hugely disappointing, with just 14 birds caught from 7 species between 2 of us in over 5 hours in 200 metres of net.  So it was with a little trepidation that I set off to Ravensroost this morning at 5:30.  I was flying solo today – I think my team saw how bad the last session was and decided a lie-in was a better use of their time.  I set 3 net rides, 210 metres of net and crossed my fingers.  I am not obsessed by numbers, but when you have people travelling 30 to 40 miles to join you for a session you want them to feel it was worthwhile.

The catch started immediately with a little influx of Robins – in fact, the first 6 birds I took out were all Robins and then I caught no more.  By 9:00 I had already passed the previous total and by 11:30 it had doubled; so I decided, as it was getting quite hot, that I would take down. As so often happens: one of the small flocks of Blue and Long-tailed Tits that had been flitting around the tree tops all morning decided to come down to net level, and I extracted 6 Blue Tits and 4 Long-tailed Tits whilst trying to pack away.

The Long-tailed Tits were one of the highlights of the session: they are such lovely birds but since their numbers in the Braydon Forest plummeted, alongside those of Blue Tits, in 2016, catching them has become much less regular.  Interestingly, I was able to age all 4 of these Long-tailed Tits as juveniles.  Although they were close to finishing their post-fledging moult (whereupon they become indistinguishable from the adults) they all retained enough juvenile plumage to be able to do so confidently.  I ringed 2 juvenile Song Thrushes, taking this year’s total ringed to 24: which is the total we ringed in the whole of 2018.   There were 25 ringed in 2017 – but we have a way to go before reaching the 41 ringed in 2016.  They are almost certainly having a better year this year than the last two.  I also caught and ringed my ninth Marsh Tit of the year.  Ravensroost is a stronghold for this species, and catching juveniles every year is always welcome.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 1[9]; Great Tit [2]; Coal Tit [1](1); Marsh Tit [1](1); Long-tailed Tit [4]; Wren 1[2]; Dunnock [1]; Robin [6]; Song Thrush [2]; Blackbird (1); Blackcap [5]; Chiffchaff [1].  Totals: 2 adults ringed from 2 species; 34 juveniles ringed from 11 species and 3 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 39 birds processed from 12 species.

All in all, a much better session in the wood than the previous one. It could have been better: I had a couple of birds bounce off the net rather than drop into a pocket and the Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers that were calling around the wood managed to stay in the tree tops and avoid the nets.