The Braydon Bog: Saturday, 19th October 2019

The Firs Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve is locally known as the Braydon Bog.  It was so dry last year that even this area dried out but, with the regular downpours of the last month, it is growing back into its local reputation.  This has been made more noticeable because, since our last visit on the 11th September, the Trust have had a digger in to reestablish and extend the two ponds down the central glade.  Very happy about the work on the ponds – but it has left the area rather looking like the Somme in 1916.

The dampness means that it is the only part of the Braydon Forest that sustains a reasonable population of ferns.

I was joined for the session by Jonny Cooper.  We set a large mesh net with a lure for Redwing, as there are a few around now. Unfortunately, it didn’t attract any, but it did catch a Chaffinch and a Great Tit, which was not the intention.  It is not the right sort of net for them either: they can get very badly tangled, as the Chaffinch did. Fortunately, it was extracted without mishap, ringed and flew off strongly.

It was a typical Firs morning. There was not a lot of bird song, which did not bode well and we processed 12 birds in the first two hours. At our 9:45 round we extracted 40 birds: mainly Blue Tits but quite a few Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit and Great Tit.  In our 11:00 round we extracted 15 birds, and closed the nets as we emptied them, as there was some rugby that needed watching.

The list for the session was: Blue Tit [28](5); Great Tit [10](5); Coal Tit [1]; Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit {6}(1); Wren [2](2); Blackbird 1; Goldcrest [8](1); Chaffinch 1.  Totals: 6 birds ringed unaged from 1 species; 49 juveniles ringed from 5 species and 15 birds recaptured from 6 species, making 72 birds processed from 9 species.

The biggest surprise of the session was the lack of Robins in the catch.  They have been the most regular part of our woodland catches all year so to catch none this session was very unusual.

The highlight of the session was a recaptured Goldcrest which, although ringed in the UK, was not on one of our rings. It will be interesting to find out where it was ringed and I will update the blog when I get the feedback.

Tedworth House: Tuesday, 15th October 2019

The weather at the moment is making ringing very difficult.  We could not get a suitable day for last month’s session and this month’s session, scheduled for Wednesday, had to be brought forward by a day to ensure it could go ahead.  I find that I am often having to make decisions on the fly about if, where and when we can fit in a session.  I was joined by Andrew Bray for the day. The omens did not look good: each of us, coming from north and south respectively to converge on the House, drove through rain on our journeys. Then we had to sit and drink tea and coffee for half-an-hour until the unforecast rain stopped.  We set the nets at 7:30 and, although the weather was never any better than miserable, it didn’t rain again and we had a reasonable catch of birds.

The catch was: Jay 1; Blue Tit [2](1); Great Tit [3]; Coal Tit [1](1); Wren [3]; Dunnock 1[3](1); Robin [2](1); Blackcap [1]; Chaffinch 2[1].  Totals: 4 adults ringed from 3 species; 16 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 4 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 24 birds processed from 9 species.

Not the biggest catch but nice to be able to ring all of the Chaffinches we caught, with no sign of any Fringilla papillomavirus.  Also, the juvenile Blackcap we caught weighed just 16g.  If this bird was on outward migration it is far too light, so we rather thought that this might be an inward migration from central Europe, to overwinter in the UK.  This is a known phenomenon with Blackcaps, where their migratory habits have changed in the last 50 years to establish a winter population in the UK.

The Jay provided me with some amusement, at Andrew’s expense.  He was diligently clearing the netting from the birds feet. As soon as he had cleared one foot and went to the next, it grabbed hold of the net again with the cleared foot.  I wandered over and just picked the bird out of the net in the ringer’s grip and it just let go of the net and came away.

We had the opportunity to show the birds to a number of the site’s beneficiaries, who were pleased to see their first Dunnock, Blackcap and Chaffinch close up. It was also nice to have some interested and interesting questions on the birds.  How the Dunnock got its name was of particular interest to some of the people there.

We closed the nets at 11:30 and headed home.

Redwing Return: Somerford Common, Thursday, 10th October 2019

With the weather being dreadful yesterday and looking bad for the weekend, I took the opportunity of a break in the weather today to get in a visit to Somerford Common.  After our juvenile Marsh Tit captures in Webb’s Wood, and then three in Red Lodge, I was hoping we might have a clean sweep of them in the Forestry Commission properties. As they have made the Marsh Tit their priority bird species in their new 10 year plan for the Braydon Forest I am hoping to show that their efforts are being rewarded.

I was initially going to be joined for the session by Tony Marsh.  Tony, along with Robin Griffiths, is a regular supplier of sightings of my colour-ringed Marsh Tits. He came along for a taster session, to see whether he would like to become involved in the ringing programme.  As I was preparing to leave for site I got a text from Jonny Cooper.  He had planned to ring at one of his farmland sites, only arriving there he found the place flooded and the wind was too strong for the open area, so he diverted to come and help out with me.  It was just as well: the catch was every bit as large as the one at Red Lodge last Saturday.  We got another pair of helping hands at 9:00 when Steph arrived, with 7 month-old Beatrice, and helped with the extracting and processing (Steph that is, not Beatrice (yet)).

I put on a lure for Redwing, in hope rather than expectation.  They have been coming in along the east coast and making their way inland but I tried at Red Lodge on Saturday without success so wasn’t hopeful.  I left Jonny and Tony putting up nets along the top line to check on the first net set and get my warning signs for the net rides. That first net had 20 birds in it already: including this beauty:

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Our first Redwing of the year! Delighted.

The morning just improved from there and we ended up with an excellent catch of 76 birds.  The highlights, apart from the Redwing, were: a Blackcap, from its weight and amount of fat, a migrant bird on the way south; three new Treecreepers and a recapture but, best of all, four new juvenile Marsh Tits.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch {1}; Treecreeper [3](1); Blue Tit 2[18](3); Great Tit [12](1); Coal Tit [2]; Marsh Tit [4]; Long-tailed Tit {2}(2); Wren 1[4](1); Robin 2[3]; Redwing 1; Blackbird 1; Blackcap [1]; Goldcrest [9](1); Bullfinch 1. Totals: 3 ringed unaged from 2 species; 8 adults ringed from 6 species; 56 juveniles ringed from 9 species and 9 birds recaptured from 6 species, making 76 birds processed from 14 species.

Catching at this level in the woods at this time of year is unusual for my sites: it makes me wonder just how large our catches are going to be when I set up the feeding stations at the end of this month!

We packed away at noon, just as the wind finally got up and the first spots of rain arrived. We managed to get everything packed away and leave site without getting wet. Result!

Flocking Titmice: Saturday, 5th October 2019

With none of the team making themselves available to help today (just like last Saturday: hmmm!) I decided to be a bit conservative with my net setting. I restricted myself to just two net rides: one comprising 3 x 18m nets and the other comprising 2 x 18m and 1 x 12m net set at right-angles to the 18m nets.  It is a bit of a funny time of year for ringing: there is the tail end of the autumn outward migration and the beginning of the winter inward migration.  You never know what you are going to catch.  In the event, I caught one Chiffchaff and no winter visitors.

Most of my catch was made up of a number of small flocks of titmice, the sort of catch that I would expect to get at my feeding stations during the winter.  However, I have just checked my records and, on the equivalent session at Red Lodge last year, the catch was incredibly similar: I just didn’t catch as many Goldcrest as last year (because I didn’t lure for them).

The catch today was: Treecreeper [2]; Blue Tit 2[30]; Great Tit 2[13](1): Coal Tit [6](1); Marsh Tit [3]; Long-tailed Tit {8}; Wren [2](1); Robin [1]; Blackbird [2]; Chiffchaff [1]; Goldcrest [3].  Totals: 8 birds ringed unaged from 1 species; 4 adults ringed from 2 species; 63 juveniles ringed from 10 species and 3 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 78 birds processed from 11 species.

The session started well: with 2 juvenile Marsh Tits in the first round. Numbers had been a bit down this year but they are now on a par with the catches in previous years, excepting the freakish result in 2017. A third caught in the third round took the total to 4 for the week.  As my next two sessions are in woodlands that have been notable strongholds for the species (Somerford Common and Ravensroost Woods) I am hoping that we will gain a few more to the total.

Alongside the catch, there was a lot of other bird calling going on. Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpecker were very much in evidence.  A constant refrain throughout the morning was a juvenile Sparrowhawk calling to be fed.  It does seem late for it to be still expecting to be fed by a parent.

Webb’s Wood: Wednesday, 2nd October 2019

The summer is over, autumn migration is winding down and winter is just around the corner.  Actually, with a temperature of 6°C first thing this morning, it felt wintry already.  Jonny and I met at the entrance to Webb’s Wood at the civilised time of 7:00. We set our usual nets, along the main path and side paths at the eastern end of the wood.

At this time of year catches in the woodlands can be a bit hit or miss: there are tit flocks around, but they are not concentrated in any particular area: you either catch a flock or you don’t! It can make a huge difference to the size of the catch.  Naturally, the most frequent time to catch a large tit flock is usually just after you have decided to finish for the day!  Equally, there might be a few Redwing around, some finch flocks maybe, but there is no definite pattern at this time of year.  As luck would have it, we had no flocks of any description in the nets today.

Being out of the breeding season we are allowed to use sound lures, which we did this morning.  However, they were singularly unsuccessful in luring in any of the targeted species until, at 10:00, I put on a lure for Goldcrest.  I am always careful about luring such a small bird, hence the late start time for it. They weigh between 4.5g and 6.0g and I want them to have had plenty of time for breakfast before trying to catch them.  Exactly as expected, they responded very quickly to the lure and we extracted 13 of them: the biggest catch of the morning.  All processed safely and released without harm.

In the event we had a very reasonable catch for this wood at this time of year: 39 birds from 10 species. The list was: Blue Tit [1](1); Great Tit 1[1](1); Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit [1]; Long-tailed Tit {2}; Wren [4](1); Robin [7](2); Blackcap [1]; Chiffchaff [2]; Goldcrest [10](3). Totals: 2 ringed unaged from 1 species; 2 adults ringed from 2 species; 27 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 8 birds recaptured from 5 species.

The highlight of the session was the juvenile Marsh Tit: they have been a bit light in the catch this year, and this was a welcome addition: the first for the site this year.

Blakehill Farm: Saturday, 30th September 2019

Since we got back from Skokholm  on the 19th September every effort we have made to get out ringing has been thwarted by the weather. Despite favourable weather forecasts for last Monday and Saturday, the reality was high winds (Monday) and pouring rain (Saturday).  The forecast for this morning was that it would rain overnight, dry up early morning and be dry by 6:00, with low winds until 11:00 and rain from 13:00.  Astonishingly, it was 100% accurate and I watched the rain roll in from the comfort of my car on the way home.

So to Blakehill Farm at 5:30 this morning. As I was going to be working solo, I decided to only set nets by the plateau bushes, and a Mipit triangle, as per the diagram below:

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A Mipit triangle is the standard way of catching Meadow Pipits: 3 x 12m nets set as an open triangle.  They are set with the bottom shelf low to the ground, with a lure playing in the middle of the nets. Meadow Pipits fly slowly and, as a result, are very adept at flying over and around nets.  With the triangle, they are tempted in by the lure, and when ringers approach the nets, they tend to forget to fly over or around but fly into the nets.  It worked superbly today: 47 caught in 5 net rounds.  Blakehill has become our regular site for numbers of Meadow Pipits, and it seems to have coincided with massive irruptions of crane-flies.  The beauty of the site is that the only fertiliser it ever gets is from cattle and sheep. No pesticide: lots of insects, good numbers of birds!

The list from today was: Swallow [1]; Blue Tit [9]; Wren [1]; Dunnock [1](2); Meadow Pipit 5[42]; Stonechat [3]; Lesser Whitethroat [1]; Chiffchaff [1]; Goldfinch [1]; Reed Bunting 4[3](1). Totals: 9 adults ringed from 2 species; 63 juveniles ringed from 10 species and 3 birds recaptured from 2 species, making 75 birds processed from 10 species.

The highlights of the catch were the 3 Stonechat and a totally unexpected Lesser Whitethroat.  This bird is the latest ever capture of a Lesser Whitethroat by the West Wilts Ringing Group, checking all records as far back as the BTO database goes.

The only downsides at Blakehill this year have been the complete lack of Whinchat in the catch and the dearth of Swallows.  Unfortunately, still no Whinchat this session, at our most regular site for them. Also, despite having a huge fly through of Swallows for the first time this autumn, I was not set up for catching them, although one juvenile did fly into a net.  Usually we catch them flying along the perimeter track hedgerow but I had more than enough to manage without any additions.

I kept an eye out for the change in the weather but needn’t have worried: the wind got up at 11:30, so I closed the nets and took down.

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:

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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.