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West Wilts Ringing Group

Introducing the West Wilts Ringing Group and the scope of its activities.

This is a blog outlining the activities of members of the West Wiltshire Ringing Group. We are a small band of people, involved in a number of bird focused conservation projects throughout north and central Wiltshire: from the Cotswold Water Park in the north of the county south to Tidworth and Salisbury Plain.

Variously, we work with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, the Forestry Commission, the RSPB and Help4Heroes to provide assistance in particular projects, as well as carrying out general bird ringing projects under licence from the British Trust for Ornithology.

Wiltshire is a fabulous county for birdlife, with a wealth of bird species that are endangered in the rest of the country.  There are good populations of Tree Sparrows and farmland buntings, like the Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting.

2010_02_07 Stanton 2Then there are those iconic birds of the chalk grasslands being helped to re-establish and thrive: Stone Curlew and the magnificent Great Bustard.

The aim of this blog is to entertain, inform, educate and, occasionally, provoke a response.  Each post is the work of the identified author(s) and any opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect any consensus opinion of the West Wilts Ringing Group as a whole or any other associated organisation.  At all times it is intended to conform to the social media guide published by the British Trust for Ornithology.

Hopefully, you will enjoy what we have to write.

Blakehill Farm: Friday, 22nd September 2017

We have had a couple of cracking sessions at Blakehill recently but noticed that there was quite a lot of activity outside of our usual netting area; so Friday morning I decided to try out some other net positions to see if those movements would translate into catches.

Unfortunately, none of my team or the wider ringing group was available to help. It was, therefore, quite a slog getting all the nets set and I didn’t get them open until 8:00. Fortunately, the mist didn’t start burning off until just before then. The good thing is that all of the new net positions caught. The first new net delivered 3 x Whinchat and a Stonechat in the first round and nothing else – but that will do nicely. 

Over the course of the next three hours I extracted 64 birds from 13 species: Swallow 2; Blue Tit 8; Great Tit 6; Coal Tit 1; Dunnock 4; Meadow Pipit 17; Stonechat 3; Whinchat 5; Blackbird 1; Chiffchaff 10; Starling 5; Reed Bunting 1 and one solitary retrapped Wren.

It was hard work but great fun and I think I fulfilled enough of the government’s new 10 minutes brisk walking target to last a month.  The catch was interesting for all sorts of reasons. For example, six of the Blue Tits were caught in the small bushes on the plateau and not in the hedgerows lining the perimeter track.  I caught the first Coal Tit for the site.  Catching another five Whinchat brings the annual total to six: better than last year but still need another to match 2015.

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The catch of three Stonechat seems to be the norm for these birds at Blakehill but, outside of the first of the species caught here, a singleton in September 2015, this is the earliest multiple catch of this species so far.  Hopefully we will get similar numbers in October and November as we did in 2016.  All of the Whinchat and Stonechat caught were females.  The Stonechats were all juveniles whereas only one of the Whinchat was.

The remarkable run of Meadow Pipits caught continued, with another 17 finding the allure of the call on the MP3 player irresistible.  That takes us to 47 for the year: quite an astonishing number given the previous annual totals.  There seems to be so many more on site this year than previously.

The key thing is that we now have the possibility of using a number of alternative net positions that we can be confident will deliver a catch.

Simon Tucker

Tedworth House: Wednesday, 20th September 2017

Before the start of this year, only twice had we caught more than 20 birds in a session at Tedworth House.  We have caught spectacular birds there: particularly Firecrest and Black Redstart; and a host of birds not often caught in mist nets: Mistle Thrush, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw, Woodpigeon and Mallard.  Since the start of 2017, however, we have seen a much higher catch level than in previous years.  This culminated in this month’s session, which produced a total of 49 birds.  The biggest catch to date.  We didn’t change the setup much from normal: I actually set fewer nets than I usually do and tried one new net position that yielded no birds, so I won’t use that again.

As I have mentioned before, the brief at Tedworth House is twofold: to inform the staff, residents, visitors and volunteers at the House and help bring them closer to nature and secondly, to monitor the impact of the management of the woodland under the auspices of Dave Turner of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.  The really encouraging thing about the increase in the catch this year is that it has been achieved largely without artificial feeding. In previous years the only way to attract numbers of birds to the catching area has been to provide feed for several days in advance of the session. This year there has been very little feeding and yet the catch has improved significantly.  Hopefully this means that the woodland management is producing increased natural food availability.

One plan for this winter is to dig a large wildlife pond.  This should produce an immediate benefit for all of the local wildlife, and can only be good news for the bird population.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 11; Great Tit 5; Coal Tit 2; Dunnock 5(1); Robin 2(2); Blackbird 3(1); Blackcap 3; Chiffchaff 5; Goldfinch 1; Greenfinch 8.  Totals: 45 birds ringed from 10 species, four birds retrapped from three species, making 49 birds processed from 10 species.

The Greenfinches make a good story.  The maintenance man at Tedworth House is the wonderfully named Jack Daw.  As befits someone with that name, he is a keen birder and ringer.  His speciality, par excellence, is nest finding and pullus ringing.  He monitors the nests found on site and this year Jack found Greenfinches nesting. When he found the nest the birds were already too advanced to ring.  That is his great skill, apart from finding nests in the first place, recognising when it is inappropriate to ring the occupants of a nest, so they don’t prematurely abandon their place of (relative) safety.  So we knew they were there, but that doesn’t mean we will catch them.

Since I started ringing at Tedworth, until the beginning of this year, I had caught just one Greenfinch on site: a juvenile bird in May 2015.  We caught two in August and, now, with another eight, ten for the year. Of those ten, three were adult birds (one male and two females).  Hopefully this could be the start of a new population establishing in the area.

The woodlands and grounds of Tedworth House are, perhaps, the most enigmatic of my sites: you just never know what will turn up.

Simon Tucker

Blakehill Farm: Sunday, 17th September 2017

We don’t usually do sessions on both days of the weekend but, with another calm day forecast, Jonny, Steph and I decided to have another go at Blakehill Farm.  The hope was to catch some migrants moving southwards on the northerly winds that featured at the end of the week.  In the event, it became an excellent catch of one particular resident species: Meadow Pipit.  In the last two years we have caught 14 of them at the site in the month of September: today we caught twice that.

We hadn’t planned for this: the plan had been to target any Wheatear that might be about and we had set a lure to attract them in to a number of Potter traps baited with some nice, juicy maggots.  There was no sign of any Wheatear, but all of a sudden a flock of Meadow Pipits appeared.  I changed the call to Meadow Pipit, and they found it irresistible.  The Potter traps failed miserably, not catching a single bird, but we strung a net behind the traps and it caught 26 of the 28 Meadow Pipits processed.  One of the things about Meadow Pipits and nets is their habit of sitting on the top strand of the net or on the supporting poles.  Today, a couple of them actually perched on one of the lower strings, the ones that create the pockets with which we catch the birds. Usually birds are caught by hitting the taught net at speed and dropping into the pockets made by the horizontal shelf strings.  What we didn’t expect was these two who sat there and simply toppled forward into the pockets.

The morning started brilliantly for me.  As I arrived on site and parked up, my headlights picked up a Little Owl sitting on a fence post at the entrance to the central plateau.  It flew off when I opened the car door, but circled round to land on another fence post 50m away and stayed long enough for the others to see it.  This is the first I have seen at the site: it is certainly not a regular at Blakehill Farm.

The list for the morning was: Swallow 11; Blue Tit 3; Great Tit 4; Wren 1; Dunnock 1; Meadow Pipit 28; Stonechat 1; Robin 1; Blackcap 4; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 9; Reed Bunting 3.  Total: 67 birds ringed from 12 species.  As is par for the course, the bulk of the birds were juveniles: the Dunnock, two of the Reed Buntings and six of the Meadow Pipits were the adults.

It was a pretty good session for Steph as well: she got to ring her first Meadow Pipits and  this lovely juvenile, female Stonechat:

2017_09_17stoch
Photo courtesy of Steph.

We were happy to catch another 11 Swallows, but it was a tiny fraction of them on the site. At one point there were several hundred sitting on the fences lining the fields to the east of the central plateau.  They flew around and over the nets but just a few managed to misjudge the distances and drop into the nets.

The wind started to get up about 11:00, somewhat later than forecast, and to avoid the problems of extracting nets from hedges, we started to take down soon after.  All in all, it was an excellent session.  There was so much activity on the central plateau that I cannot wait to arrange another session on the site: the next calm day will see me back there.

Simon Tucker

 

Ravensroost Meadows: Saturday, 16th September 2017

After our excellent session in the meadows two weeks ago, at Jonny’s suggestion we shelved the planned trip to one of the woodland sites and headed back to the pond.  The team was Jonny Cooper, David Williams, Neil Stockley, Steph Buggins and Lillie Woodley.  As we all (except David) had unavoidable engagements in the afternoon, the plan was to set fewer nets and pack up at 11:00.  As expected, we didn’t catch as many birds, but a major surprise was the complete lack of Swallows and House Martins in the catch.  There were plenty around, but they seemed to be approaching the ponds in a south / north direction rather than their usual east / west direction.  This rendered the causeway net virtually redundant.

It was still a good catch: Blue Tit 16(3); Great Tit 6(1); Marsh Tit 1; Wren 2(2); Dunnock 2; Robin 2(1); Blackbird 1; Blackcap 8; Whitethroat 1; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 16(2); Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 3; Goldfinch 4; Bullfinch 1.  Totals: 65 birds ringed from 15 species, 9 birds retrapped from five species, making 74 birds processed from 15 species.

The entire catch, apart from the Lesser Whitethroat and the two Wrens we ringed this session, were birds that fledged this summer.  For the second session running we caught a Marsh Tit at the site.  This, too, was a juvenile.  As the species is known to be highly sedentary, could this be an indication that all of the available territories in the nearby woodland are occupied and they are being forced out to find their own?

This will be David’s last session for a while, as he is off to start university in Aberystwyth next week.

Simon Tucker

Blakehill Farm: Wednesday, 6th September 2017

The weather forecast for Wednesday was for it to be a dry day with light westerly winds initially, strengthening throughout the morning, and changing direction from WSW to WNW by 11:00.  We decided that the session at Blakehill could go ahead, on the basis that the nets on the edge of the plateau could work until 10:00 and the hedgerow nets on the perimeter track would be okay until much later.  In the end, we had to take down the perimeter track nets at 11:00 and were packed up and gone by 11:40.  By 11:00 the birds had stopped moving around and the catch had died away to virtually zero.  However, up until then we had an excellent session.  The team for the day was Ellie Jones, Jonny Cooper, Andrew Bray, David Williams and myself.

Jonathan, the farms manager, and his team have done a great job of trimming the edge bushes of the central plateau.  They are compact and far less straggly, laden with blackberries – and just the right size for 9m and 12m nets: now, if the wind will stop blowing for a day or so!

Our first two rounds were quiet: a Wren and a Dunnock at 7:30, followed by two Goldfinch, a Blackcap and a Robin at 7:45. Then the Goldfinches arrived and we were very busy for the next two-and-a-half hours.  The highlights of the day were: our first Whinchat of the autumn and, at last, a reasonable catch of Long-tailed Tits: five ringed and five retrapped is our best return on this species in the Braydon Forest this year.​

The list for the day was: Swallow 4; Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 7; Long-tailed Tit 5(5); Wren 1; Dunnock 2; Whinchat 1; Robin 1; Blackcap 3; Whitethroat 3; Chiffchaff 4; Willow Warbler 1; Chaffinch 1; Goldfinch 35; Reed Bunting 2.  Totals: 74 birds ringed from 15 species, five birds processed from one species, making 79 birds processed from 15 species.  Only seven of those birds could be reliably aged as adults. Long-tailed Tit adults and juveniles have both generally finished moulting and their plumages as indistinguishable. We know the five retrapped birds are adults but, whilst we suspect the five we ringed were juveniles, it cannot be proven beyond doubt.  The mantra is to be “accurately imprecise, rather than imprecisely accurate” (credit to Richard du Feu for coining the phrase) so we code them as “age unknown”.

In amongst our Goldfinch catch was one with a single aberrant primary feather:

2017_09_06Goldf

It was just that one feather, and the aberration was not present on the other wing.

All in all, another very satisfying session: handled really well by the team.  With five competent extractors working together, we cleared the nets quickly and efficiently in every round. Had the wind not got up and changed direction we would probably have had another 100+ bird session.

Simon Tucker

Ravensroost Meadows: Saturday, 2nd September 2017

This summer has been a bit of a nightmare for getting out to our more open sites: with three visits to Brown’s Farm and two to Blakehill being scuppered by the weather.  It seems that we have managed to get hit by rain or high winds whenever such a visit is scheduled.  Today we were scheduled for a session at Ravensroost Meadows, specifically the meadow pond and its surroundings.  It is an excellent place at this time of year, as you never know what will drop in.  The nets were set around the edge of the pond area.  The red lines are the hedgerow nets, the blue lines are the nets over the causeway and along the spit on the eastern end of the pond.

ravens meadow

Fortunately, the weather forecast was completely accurate, with a completely dry day and the wind speed never getting above 2mph.  I had a team of four (Jonny Cooper, David Williams, Steph Buggins and Lillie Woodley) with me.  At the equivalent session last year Jonny and I had a good catch of 92 birds, and we were hoping for something similar this time.  The first round delivered a respectable 30 birds, including four Swallows caught in the causeway net.  This was followed by a second round of 37 birds. It then settled down to a pretty regular 10 birds or so per round, which gave everybody a chance to ring some new species, and have the time to discover about ageing them at this difficult time of year.

Difficult because in many species, like Chiffchaff, adult and juvenile plumage is very similar.  Immediately post-fledging, the youngsters have very fresh plumage, they then undergo their post-fledging moult, replacing poor quality body feathers adequate in the nest with better quality feathers for life on the wing.  Whilst this is going on, their wing and tail feathers wear from foraging and their daily activities.  At the same time, many of the adults have completed their post-breeding moult and now have fresh wing and tail feathers, like the youngsters but with slightly less wear.  To compound the issue, we are still catching newly-fledged youngsters in full juvenile plumage, and some that are only part way through their post-fledging moult.

The highlight was our first Sedge Warbler at the complex. We have caught Reed Warblers there on occasion, but this was a good first.  There is a larger pond at the complex which, once upon a time, supported both Sedge and Reed Warblers.  Unfortunately, it is now horribly overgrown and full of Typha and is not suitable habitat for breeding warblers. It will need a lot of work to clear it out and make it suitable again. Any volunteers for a work party?  Waders essential.

The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Swallow 25; House Martin 3; Blue Tit 21(1); Great Tit 4; Marsh Tit (1); Wren 6; Dunnock 2(1); Meadow Pipit 2; Robin 4; Sedge Warbler 1; Blackcap 7; Garden Warbler 1; Whitethroat 4; Lesser Whitethroat 4; Chiffchaff 21(1); Willow Warbler 8; Chaffinch 1; Goldfinch 18; Bullfinch 2; Reed Bunting. Totals: 136 birds ringed from 20 species, four birds retrapped from four species, making 140 birds processed from 21 species.  All of the birds were juveniles except for one adult each of Swallow, Great Tit, Robin, Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Bullfinch and the Great Spotted Woodpecker.

In addition to the Sedge Warbler, we caught our third and fourth Meadow Pipits at the site. Previously we have caught singletons in September 2014 and 2015.  The retrapped Marsh Tit was ringed inside the wood at the end of July this year.  It is a juvenile, possibly on dispersal looking for a territory away from the natal area.

The causeway net did its usual job of delivering Swallows and House Martins to the catch.  This time the spit net, usually a very quiet net, gave an excellent return of most of the Goldfinches caught in the session.

Simon Tucker