Garden Warblers Arrive: Lower Moor Farm, Wednesday, 24th April 2019

Yesterday’s session at Blakehill Farm was hastily scheduled because the forecast for today and the rest of the week was quite a lot of rain.  However, as I got home to an email from Rachel at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust asking if she could bring her group along to my planned ringing session, I thought I had better think again. This also reminded me that another group had also asked if they could drop in on our activity.  I checked the forecast, found it had improved, and contacted Ellie to see if she was available to help. Fortunately, she was. I cannot do two very early mornings in a row, so we started at 6:30.  However, we were very aware that the rain was scheduled to arrive at 11:00.

Lower Moor Farm is a very public site, but it does have a wildlife refuge area to which the general public do not have access.  It was in this area that we set up our nets: far from the madding crowd.

The catch was not busy, but a significant improvement on yesterday. Our highlight of the morning was our first catch of Garden Warbler this year. One was a recapture of an adult ringed at Lower Moor Farm in May of last year, plus two new individuals. These are the earliest Garden Warblers caught here, or at any of my sites, by a couple of weeks.

The catch for the day was: Long-tailed Tit 1; Robin 1; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird (1); Blackcap 5(1); Garden Warbler 2(1); Chiffchaff 3(1); Willow Warbler 1; Reed Bunting 1. Totals: 15 birds ringed from 8 species; 3 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 18 birds processed from 9 species.

At 9:00 we were joined by Ian, one of the Trust’s army of volunteers, and then at 9:15 we Rachel and her group from the Royal Wootton Bassett Academy arrived.  About 20 minutes after they left, we were joined by Christine and her group from the Devizes School.  Each group stayed with us for about half-an-hour, during which time I explained the ringing scheme to them.  They were shown how we ring the birds, the biometrics that we take, and ageing and sexing of species.  As ever, you can guarantee that explaining about “cloacal protuberances” will guarantee sniggers from a group of young teenagers. One point, I might have made it before, the children involved all have either challenging behaviour issues or learning difficulties. It would be really nice if, just occasionally, the “run-of-the-mill” pupils could get the opportunity to become involved.  I will always be happy to explain what we do to these groups, it would just be good to expand the audience.

At about 10:15, after the second group had left, we decided to take down.  The birds had stopped moving, and we were mindful of the weather forecast.  For once, the forecast was spot on and our timing was perfect: we had finished packing away, and I had just driven away from the ringing site, when the heavens opened.



Not Everything Goes Right All The Time: Blakehill Farm, Tuesday, 23rd April 2019

Jonny and I thought we would have a go at catching some migrants at Blakehill Farm this morning.  We went armed with maggots, spring and Potter traps, plus the usual assortment of nets.  It was our first early start of the year, meeting at 5:00, to get the nets up and open before sunrise.  With the central plateau out of bounds, to protect any ground nesting birds from potential disruption, we went to the western fields at the site:

Blakehill aerial

The red lines indicate where we set the nets: the red cross is where we set the walk-in traps (if you can make them out).  Our main, netting, area was shared with the cattle, who are now out to grass. We never have a problem with them: they tend to stay away from us.  Both Jonny and I have farming in our background (Jonny was born into it, I chose to work in it for five years) so neither of us is bothered about working around livestock.  Having set the walk-in traps they proved irresistible to a small group of steers who wandered over, and proceeded to set off all of the spring traps and turn over three of the four Potter traps – so that went well then.  Fortunately no damage done – but £1.85 worth of maggots freed from captivity.

To say we were not busy is a bit of an understatement: in 3 hours we caught 8 birds. We aren’t greedy but we did decide that the dead horse had not just been flogged but flayed, and so we packed up at 10:00.  That said, we were pleased to catch our first Whitethroats of the year, plus two more Willow Warblers.  The list for the session was: Blue Tit 1; Dunnock 2; Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 2; Willow Warbler 2. Total: 8 birds ringed from 5 species.

The first Whitethroat we had was sporting a massive pollen horn on the top of the beak, as you can see from the photograph:


The meadow we were set up in was quite damp, and there was a sprinkling of Cuckoo Flower throughout:


We don’t often have such a quiet session but it did give as plenty of time for bird watching and there were plenty of birds flying around.  The entire morning was accompanied by bird song: from 2 Curlew who spent the entire time displaying and calling almost continuously, through Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat singing from the bramble hedges, along which we set our nets for most of them to ignore, to the ubiquitous Chiffchaffs singing from every relatively high vantage point.






Ravensroost Woods: Saturday, 20th April 2019

Jonny and I had planned a session at one of our farmland sites this morning, hoping that we might catch a few of the more esoteric migrants as they pass through. Unfortunately, the forecast was for it to be breezy and that means nets getting tangled in hedges, so we changed tack and headed for Ravensroost Woods.  The weather was stunning: cool to start with but gradually warming as the sun came up.   By the time we packed up at 11:30 it was getting very hot for a Spring day.

We set the nets to the north of the bridle path. and the ringing station on the bridle path away from the nets.  You can see the map of the reserve at:

It was a fairly standard catch for this time of year: Blue Tit 6(1); Great Tit 1; Coal Tit 2; Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Song Thrush 1; Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 6(1); Willow Warbler 1.  23 birds ringed from 8 species; 4 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 27 birds processed from 9 species.

There were a couple of non-birding wildlife highlights. At about 9:00 a Hare came wandering up the track towards our ringing station. This is the second time in two visits that I have seen a Hare in the wood.  This is quite interesting, as I am also seeing Hares on the woodland rides at Somerford Common.  I don’t know if this is common behaviour but I have always thought of Hares as being beasts of the fields, not the woods.

However, the absolute highlight was as we were leaving site. As I drove back to the main gate a Grass Snake moved rapidly from west to east across the main path.  We had a superb view and then it disappeared into some brash on the other side of the path, far too quick to get any photographs, unfortunately.  I have been visiting Ravensroost Woods for some 20 years and this is the first time I have seen Grass Snake there.

When I decided on Ravensroost I was unaware that there was a guided Spring walk organised for the same day.  I had checked the “What’s On” guide but it wasn’t advertised there – probably because it was in the previous one.  All it meant was that I had the opportunity to explain what ringing is all about to a group of 20 nature enthusiasts. Unfortunately, one of them was hostile, and he made his feelings known to me after the group had moved on.  It happens. We didn’t actually have any birds with us when the group arrived and, as they left, we went off with them to check the nets.  There was a female Blackcap in one net and so I had a large audience watching me extract it.  She came out easily and I was able to explain the sexing of a Blackcap and the development of the brood patch, as this female had just started defeathering.  Naturally, Mr Hostile questioned how long the bird had been in the net. They always seem to focus on that: ignoring the fact that the bird was perfectly healthy and unharmed. I explained that we had just done a round before the group arrived, and so no more than 15 minutes had passed since we last checked, well within BTO guidelines.  Anyway, all bar one went away happy to have seen a female Blackcap close up and, hopefully, a lot more knowledgeable about bird ringing and why we do it.

Throughout the morning we had chats with horse riders and dog walkers using the bridle path and the nature reserve.  All very pleasant and very interested in what we were doing. As a result, it seems that I am likely to be doing a ringing demonstration for one of the local Girl Guide troops in the near future.  Their troop leader was out on a walk and stopped for a chat and, when she found out that I am happy to show what we do to people who are interested, she took my details.




No Ravens: Never Mind. Tedworth House: Wednesday, 17th April 2019

If anybody gets that reference, I shall be impressed at your musical knowledge.  Anyway, this Wednesday we had hoped to ring the Raven chicks at Tedworth House.  We gave them a miss last year as the “Beast from the East” had affected them at the start of their breeding season and we didn’t want to add any avoidable pressures.  This year, we decided to schedule it for close to the same time we ringed the chicks in 2017.  Dave Turner had lined up an expert climber, Dougie, to do the donkey work and get to the nest.  He climbed up to within 20 metres of the nest, whereupon the youngsters made their way to the opposite side, and started to flap their wings, so he withdrew quickly and they settled back down again.  Why were they so much more advanced?  What was the difference? Back in 2017 there were 4 chicks in the nest, this year just 2.  Perhaps they are that much more advanced because the adults have been able to feed them much better with fewer bellies to fill.  Next year we will schedule the attempt for 2 weeks earlier.

I was joined for the ringing session by Dr Ian Grier.  Ian was my trainer.  He took me to my C-permit and then through to my full A-permit and I always look forward to working with him.  Most of his ringing these days is focused on the specific projects on Stone Curlew and Lapwing on Salisbury Plain.

The catch was not massive: Blue Tit (3); Coal Tit (1); Wren 1(1); Dunnock 1(1); Redwing 1; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 3; Goldfinch 4. Totals: 12 birds ringed from 7 species; 7 birds recaptured from 5 species, making 19 birds processed from 9 species.

Dave Turner, my principle contact at the House, was running a greenwood woodworking course for some users of the Tedworth House facilities.  When they took a tea break they came across to have a close up encounter with some of our birds.  This is the key reason for doing what we do at Tedworth: to introduce the users to our birdlife and, hopefully, spark an interest.  It always does.

This was an interesting catch. To start with, no Great Tits or Robins caught: most unusual for this site.  Then, to catch a Redwing this late on is very unusual.  This bird was actually in poor condition and I doubt its chances of making it across the North Sea to Scandinavia.  Its breast bone was very prominent, and the pectoral muscle coverage was very low.  Clearly that has implications for flight.  The tail was regrowing and was full of fault bars:

redwing tail


This is a sure sign of poor nutrition and no doubt why it isn’t as robust as one would expect for a migrating bird.  Thanks to Gemma-Louise for the photograph.  Gemma-Louise and her partner Paul had come along hoping to see the Ravens but stayed to have a look at the other birds we were catching. Gemma-Louise was once a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust trainee working at Tedworth House and is now an animal handling trainer at Sparsholt Agricultural College.  She will be bringing a group from the college with her to our June session

The highlight of the session was ringing our first newly fledged Song Thrush and Blackbird of the year.  Jack Daw, who monitors the nesting attempts at Tedworth House, took me on a little detour to look at the Mistle Thrush nest that he has kept an eye on.  We were lucky enough to see, from the ground, that the youngsters are fully feathered and ready to fledge, as they poked their heads over the edge of the nest.  Mistle Thrush are a red listed species in the UK and the fact that they are doing well at Tedworth House is excellent news.  I have ringed adult and juvenile individuals there, and recaught them on later occasions, and it is good to know they are still about and breeding successfully.


The Firs: Saturday, 13th April 2019

We had hoped to get to Brown’s Farm on Saturday but the weather forecast was breezy, which makes the exposed fields at Brown’s impossible to work with, so we changed venue to the Firs.  The weather was clear – and very cold, with a temperature of minus 2 degrees Celsius at the start.  Although the sun came out, the breeze was from the north east and very cold and the ringing area just did not warm up until late morning.  This rather depressed the bird movements (and didn’t do a lot for Jonny and me either).

We set our nets down the main ride as usual, plus a couple of additional net sets: one into the bottom of the wood and another off into the newly thinned ride to the east.

The Firs

What you cannot see from this diagram is that the Firs has a taxing slope downwards from the gateway to the start of our net rides.  At the start of the session it is fine but it does become a bit of a slog by the fourth or fifth round.  The catch was light throughout the morning, with just one or two birds per round.  We did a lot of net rounds.

The catch started with a few Chiffchaffs and Blue Tits, with a Blackcap and Robin.  This was pretty much the way of things until the last round: when we caught 3 Goldcrests and 2 Marsh Tits.  The list for the day was: Blue Tit 2(7); Great Tit (2); Marsh Tit 1(1); Wren 3(1); Robin 2(1); Blackcap 1(1); Chiffchaff 3; Goldcrest 1(2).  Totals: 13 birds ringed from 7 species; 15 birds recaptured from 7 species, making 28 birds processed from 8 species.

We could identify at least 3 Marsh Tit territories from singing males.  This is an encouraging development: the Firs has been the least likely of our woodland sites to produce Marsh Tits, but they are becoming more evident there with every passing year.


As the area around the ringing station warmed up the movement of birds increased (I was tempted to set an opportunistic net, but decided against) and the level of bird song increased.  We had been treated to a Song Thrush and several Nuthatches singing for most of the morning, but the absolute highlight for me was when a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker sparked up in song in the trees immediately behind where I was sat.  This seems to be such a regular occurrence in the Firs I am really hopeful that we might get proof of breeding in the near future.

Red Lodge: Wednesday, 10th April 2019

A cold session at Red Lodge this morning where I was helped by Jonny and David (back from University at Aberystwyth for the Easter).  Unfortunately, with no-one in the vicinity of the University willing to help out, the only ringing David currently gets is in the holidays.  We have reached out to people but to no avail. Fortunately, he has a fantastic memory and picks the thread up again very quickly.

There is a significant issue with getting enough people to give training to potential ringers. Having said that, there is also an issue of people saying they would like to train to ring and then never turning up for even a taster session. I must have had 20 applications in the last three years, only 2 of whom have turned up at all. Neither of those has continued (I reckon it is the early mornings, it can’t be my charming personality).  In fact, all of my team have come through ringing demonstrations, or just meeting us when we have been out ringing and becoming fascinated by what we do.  This morning we were joined by a young lad of 12, along with his father, for a taster session. He came through contact with the Wiltshire Bird Recorder, Nick Adams.  We started by showing him how to safely handle and release the birds and then let him progress to ringing and measuring a few of them.  He did extremely well for a first session.  Hopefully he will have enjoyed it sufficiently to want to come again.

This morning highlighted that we are on the cusp of the seasons for our bird life. Most of the birds we processed were showing signs of developing breeding activity: males with cloacal protuberances and females developing brood patches.  One female Blue Tit had a fully developed brood patch and weighed in at 12g with no fat. She must be already laying eggs, or is close to doing so, and is ready to brood them.  There was a lot of song and calling, as males were proclaiming their ownership of territories. However, at about 8:30, a flock of some 40 Fieldfare flew across the wood, heading in a north-westerly direction.  One would have expected them to have already left for their breeding grounds.

The catch was a mix of resident and summer migrant species: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 1(1); Coal Tit 2; Wren 4(1); Dunnock 1; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 6; Chiffchaff 5; Goldcrest 1(1).  Totals: 22 birds ringed from 9 species; 3 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 25 birds processed from 9 species.

The highlights of the day were: my first Orange Tip butterfly of the year and a lovely Oxlip plant in amongst the Primroses:


Also, there were plenty of Dog Violet flowers out in the undergrowth:


All in all, it was a cold but interesting session. It is always good to see the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps returning. Hopefully we will have better numbers of each species this year than we did in the last couple.  The initial portents are encouraging.

First Willow Warbler of the Year: Somerford Common, Saturday, 6th April 2019

With the forecast for the morning to be dry but a bit breezy, with the breeze coming from the east, Jonny and I had a session at Somerford Common.  The area of the site where we do the majority of our ringing has undergone some major transformation in the last year.  If you look at the plan below you will see the area bordered on the north by one ride and on the east by another. That block of land is a fenced off paddock and over the last two winters it has been extensively cropped to leave some hazel coppice stools plus a number of stands of conifers and silver birch.  It is a very open area and the way that the undergrowth is establishing itself is making us quite excited about what might turn up there later in the year.  Certainly Nightjar would not look out of place there.  When I surveyed the area for the BTO’s 2007 – 2011 Atlas that area was alive with Garden Warbler.  It is not there yet, but I would think that within two years it will be perfect for them.  I am hoping that we might find some Grasshopper Warblers on passage through there as well.  It looks as if it has just the right mix of scrub and perches for them.

We put up our nets along the main north-south ride as usual, plus one set adjacent to our ringing station in the car park:


When we arrived the place was alive with birdsong. Particularly, there was a plethora of Willow Warblers singing in the wood plus quite a few Chiffchaffs calling as well.  Our first round produced a crop of 8 birds, including our first Willow Warbler of the year:


Whilst the trees were alive with the song of summer visitors, we were also aware of several flocks of Lesser Redpoll flying around the site.  We caught a female but she wasn’t really in breeding condition yet. Having caught a male in breeding condition in Webb’s Wood last Wednesday, we are hoping that we might catch some more later this month and into May, confirming a potential breeding population.

Unfortunately, soon after the first round the temperature dropped significantly and the bird activity dropped with it.  We ended up with a catch of 18 birds: Blue Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 2; Wren (1); Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 4; Chiffchaff 3(1); Willow Warbler 1(1); Lesser Redpoll 1; Bullfinch 1.  Totals: 13 birds ringed from 7 species; 5 birds recaptured from 5 species, making 18 birds processed from 9 species.

The retrapped Willow Warbler was ringed as an adult in July 2017.  So that means that it has done the trip to and from sub-Saharan Africa on at least four occasions: that’s a lot of miles for a 10g bird.

It didn’t warm up again until we closed the nets at 11:30.  Although recent catches have been small, I have compared them with recent years and they are very much in line with the previous 5 years.  Expansion of the catch is imminent – and I can’t wait!