Skylarking About: Monday, 18th February 2019

One of the most difficult birds to catch when using standard ringing techniques is the Skylark, Alauda arvensis.  There are a lot of reasons for this: they inhabit the centre of fields; they fly up vertically to sing; they drop more or less straight down and then run along through the vegetation to their nest, there really is little opportunity to catch them.

The group has only caught a total of 22 since it came into existence, and none since the end of 2012.

Jonny decided to try out a technique that we have been discussing for a while: drag netting.  He co-opted a couple of helpers to handle the net and he followed behind to control the operation and to handle anything that they managed to catch in the net.

It worked:

2019_02_18 Baileys Farm

Not just once, but twice!  It is turning into a very interesting February.

Ravensroost Woods: Saturday, 16th February 2019

Jonny, Annie and I went to Ravensroost Woods this morning for a session. First thing we found was that someone has stolen one of my peanut feeders. What sort of person steals a cheap peanut feeder from a nature reserve? With the squirrels doing their best to destroy the seed feeders and thieves stealing other feeders, keeping the feeding station going is a bit like hard work at times.  It is there to help with the birds’ survival over the winter.  February and March is the empty time of the year when birds are at their most vulnerable.  I feed weekly between November and the end of March in a number of Braydon Forest sites.  Yes, it makes the ringing easier, but that is secondary.

We set the nets along the ride with the remaining feeders and, as an afterthought, we set another couple of nets along the edge of the main path, opposite a newly coppiced coupe. We have frequently seen birds flying across the path but have never got around to putting up any nets along there. Jonny suggested we put on a lure for Brambling just in case. I have been birding there since 1998, ringing there since 2009, and I have never seen or heard Brambling there but, if you don’t try! 


Anyway, I extracted and ringed only my second ever Brambling: two in the same week.  We have only caught 8 Siskin in Ravensroost since 2009 and none since March 2014 – so the 2 females caught were a surprise and very welcome.


It just goes to show, some days can start out bad but end up being pretty good. In all we caught 95 birds in just 7 nets: Nuthatch (2); Blue Tit 29(13); Great Tit 15(12); Coal Tit (5); Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit (1); Robin 1(1); Chaffinch 9(1); Brambling 1; Lesser Redpoll 2; Siskin 2.  Totals: 59 birds ringed from 6 species; 36 birds recaptured from 8 species, making 95 birds processed from 12 species.

Busy, busy: 12th – 15th February 2019

After Monday’s excellent session at Somerford Common, there was a lot of mid-week activity from the group members.

Jonny spent Tuesday morning ringing one of his farmland sites close to Chippenham.  His list for the day was: Blue Tit 2(3); Great Tit 4(3); Wren (1); Dunnock 2(1); Robin (1); Blackbird 3; Chaffinch 7; Greenfinch 1; House Sparrow 1; Reed Bunting 2; Yellowhammer 3.  Totals: 25 birds ringed from 9 species; 9 birds recaptured from 5 species, making 34 birds processed from 11 species.

On Wednesday Jonny, Ellie, Emmeline and myself carried out a session adjacent to the education centre at Lower Moor Farm.  Unfortunately, it was a very small catch for such a big team.  I am not sure why it was so quiet, we usually have excellent catches in this area but a mere 13 birds was really not what we were looking for: Blue Tit 2(4); Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren 1; Dunnock (1); Robin 2; Bullfinch 1.  Totals: 6 birds ringed from 4 species; 7 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 13 birds processed from 7 species.  The Bullfinch was a stunning male.  We did catch a female but she had bad legs (Fringilla Papilloma Virus) and had to be released without being ringed.

Andrew had a similarly frustrating session at Lacock Allotments on Friday.  Having been away in Iceland for a week doing his wildlife tour guide activity, he arrived at the allotments to find empty bird feeders. He topped them up and set the one net adjacent to the feeding station but the birds did not respond in any number.  His list for the session was: Blue Tit 1(3); Great Tit 3(2); Coal Tit (1); Robin 1;  Blackbird 2. Totals: 7 birds ringed from 4 species; 6 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 13 birds processed from 5 species.

Jonny, clearly being the biggest glutton for punishment, went to his other farmland site near Langley Burrell, Chippenham on Thursday.  There is a stream that runs through the site, with a narrow foot bridge across it.  Putting nets on bridges across streams is a good way of catching Kingfisher, as they bomb up and down the waterway, as Jonny found out by doing just that.

This is clearly a good site: Kingfisher (1); Blue Tit (8); Great Tit 6(3); Long-tailed Tit (1); Dunnock (1); Robin 1(1); Chaffinch 1(1); Goldfinch 5; Greenfinch 1.  Totals: 14 birds ringed from 5 species; 16 birds recaptured from 7 species, making 40 birds processed from 9 species.

Having missed out on Webb’s Wood on Sunday, as the rain kindly waited until I had finished setting my nets before falling, leaving Steph and Lillie with a wasted journey from Cirencester, and me with a car full of wet nets,  I decided to go back and run the session on Friday.  The list from the session was: Nuthatch (1); Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 6(7); Great Tit 6(8); Coal Tit 2(3); Marsh Tit (1); Robin (1); Goldcrest 1(2); Chaffinch 2.  Totals: 18 birds ringed from 6 species; 23 birds recaptured from 7 species, making 41 birds processed from 9 species.

The highlight of this catch was the recaptured Marsh Tit.  It was ringed as an adult on the 13th February 2013: making this bird at least 7 years old against a typical lifespan of 2 years. Mind, the record is over 11 years for this species.

In summary, we carried out 5 ringing sessions in 4 days, processing 131 birds from 20 species.


Brambling ambling in at Somerford Common: Monday, 11th February 2019

On Sunday I planned a session at Webb’s Wood. The forecast was for the rain to stop at 7:00 and for it to stay dry until midday.  I thought I would have a bit of lie-in and go for a 7:30 start.  I had the nets up and open by 8:15. At approximately 8:16 it started to rain: not heavy but persistent drizzle, so I took down again.  Very annoying: a solitary Blackbird, who blundered into a closed net, got a nice new ring.  That was disappointing. However, I had arranged with Jonny Cooper that we would be having another session at Somerford Common on Monday.

Having set up a feeding station at this part of the site two weeks ago, and carrying out the previously blogged about test session last week, Jonny suggested some slight changes to the net rides, and they paid dividends.

The southern end of Somerford Common always used to be my go to place for Lesser Redpoll, not that we ever caught that many but it was regular, with 10 being the largest catch. For a number of perfectly valid reasons (improving the habitat for Marsh Fritillary being a key one), the Forestry Commission carried out some significant clearing work which reduced its attractiveness to birds, so catching 3 Lesser Redpoll and a Siskin last week was encouraging. Catching 14 Lesser Redpoll and another 2 Siskin this morning is evidence that this site has recovered significantly.

However, the real highlight was unexpected, if not tried for. We had heard a few Brambling around the area but these birds have never been caught and ringed in any part of the Braydon Forest. There is no reason why not: most of the Forest is beech wood and they are regularly caught in the woods to the east of Swindon and in Savernake Forest and the surrounding woodlands but they just never seemed to get to the woods west of Swindon. I had spread some seed on the floor for Chaffinch and put on a lure for Brambling just in case. It worked: a male and a female dropped in and were caught and ringed.


In addition, we caught another Great Spotted Woodpecker, 3 new Nuthatch, and another new Marsh Tit at the site and recaptured the Marsh Tit ringed last week.  Amongst all of the other birds caught, we did recapture a Blue Tit that was ringed as a juvenile in October 2017, and has been recaptured on several occasions, most recently in April of last year. On each of those occasions we noticed nothing out of the ordinary. This time it was sporting a huge avian pox pustule. Its weight was fine and it was feisty enough. We gave the weighing pot a thorough clean out with alcohol rub after weighing it: We don’t want to be culpable in spreading the infection.

2019_02_11Bluti Pox

The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Nuthatch 3; Blue Tit 16(7); Great Tit 4(8); Coal Tit 3(1); Marsh Tit 1(1); Robin 1; Chaffinch 6(1); Brambling 2; Goldfinch 4(1); Lesser Redpoll 14; Siskin 2. Totals: 57 birds ringed from 12 species; 19 birds recaptured from 6 species, making a total of 76 birds processed from 12 species.

On returning home, looking out the kitchen window, I couldn’t understand why there were no birds on the feeders and then I saw this fellow sat on the garden fence:


I couldn’t get close enough to get a better photo but you can see what it is.


Somerford Common: Wednesday, 6th February 2019

After Thursday’s and Friday’s snowfall, I decided not to go ringing last weekend, as I felt the birds had enough to deal with, finding food and staying warm.  I set up a new feeding station in the old paddock area at Somerford Common before the snows fell last Thursday.  This large area is now going to be run on a coppicing regime by the Forestry Commission.  Most of the bushes have been cleared, plus a huge number of trees.  What is left is a sparse landscape with odd min-copses of either conifers or silver birch.  This area was always our best spot for Lesser Redpoll, so I selected the nearest mini-copse of silver birch to where we used to set our nets and put up a few feeders and cleared the regrowth around the edge for nets.

I went out on Tuesday to fill the feeders on my sites and was pleased to see a couple of Siskin at the Somerford Common feeding station.  This morning I was joined by Jonny and Andrew and we surrounded the copse with nets, hoping to catch the birds coming into or leaving the feeders.  There were small groups of Lesser Redpoll and Siskin and, we are pretty confident, Brambling in the area.  It was an experiment. It worked to a degree, but we did find that the Siskin and Redpoll were coming in through the treetops, dropping down and then leaving near to vertically from the feeders.  Not having canopy nets we are going to have to find a better solution.  At Webb’s Wood, which is my usual Siskin catching haunt, we have the nyjer seed feeder set in a narrow ride, with a net immediately adjacent to it.  We will cut something similar at Somerford and, hopefully, have two Siskin catching stations.  The degree to which our experiment worked was 3 Lesser Redpoll and 1 Siskin.  We caught no Siskin at all last year and only 2 Lesser Redpoll, so this was a thoroughly pleasing catch. This male Redpoll was the first one caught: an absolutely stunning bird.


The Siskin was a juvenile female:


The list for the session was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 5(4); Great Tit 7(3);  Coal Tit 2; Marsh Tit 1; Robin 1; Chaffinch 5; Goldfinch 1; Lesser Redpoll 3; Siskin 1.  Totals: 27 birds ringed from 10 species; 7 birds recaptured from 2 species, making 34 birds processed from 10 species.

Catching our second new Marsh Tit of the year was also a bit of a bonus: especially given that the habitat was completely wrong for this species.   The catch died off at 10:30, so we packed up at 11:00, leaving the birds to feed in peace.

The Firs: Saturday, 26th January 2019

Andrew Bray and I met up at the Firs this morning. The weather forecast was for it to be dry until mid-afternoon.  Unfortunately, the weather was dank and fairly miserable: not raining but very grey.  We set just six nets in three rides adjacent to the feeding station.  At several points during the morning the weather deteriorated into very light rain but it never lasted for more than about 10 minutes and, by checking the nets every 15 minutes and shaking the moisture off after each net was emptied, we managed to keep going. Unfortunately, at about 9:45 the rain became a bit heavier and more persistent so we closed the nets and packed away. I now have 6 wet nets hanging up in the garage to dry off but no birds were discomfited by getting wet as a result of our activities.

The catch was typical of these woods in winter: lots of titmice and not a lot else. We did catch one Chaffinch but, unfortunately, it had a growth on its right foot which had already resulted in the loss of two claws. It might have been FPV, it certainly wasn’t mites, but we decided not to put a ring on it.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch (1); Blue Tit 9(5); Great Tit 3(5); Coal Tit (1); Marsh Tit (2); Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Robin 1(1); Blackbird 1(1).  Totals: 15 birds ringed from 5 species; 17 birds recaptured from 8 species, making 32 birds processed from 8 species.  Another session where the number of recaptured birds is greater than the number ringed, which underlines the conservation value of ringing sites regularly.

We are recapturing a good number of Marsh Tits, which we expected after a stellar year for the species in the year to 31st March 2018, but are disappointed in the number we have managed to ring so far this year.  Hopefully we will get a glut in the next two months.

Tedworth House: Tuesday, 22nd January 2019 & Ravensroost Woods: Wednesday, 23rd January 2019

Last week’s session at Tedworth House had to be postponed due to various work parties carrying out thinning exercises in the woodland, lots of chainsaws, noise and activity, so I rescheduled for this Tuesday.  It also rained a lot. Unfortunately, the feeding station which acts as the magnet for most of my catch has had to be closed, due to a problem with rats.  However, the other parts of the site did better than usual. It wasn’t a huge catch, but there was an encouraging haul of 6 Chaffinches, all healthy with no sign of FPV or mite infestations.

It is not often that the commonest species ringed is Chaffinch.  The list for the session was: Blue Tit 5(2); Great Tit 3(2); Coal Tit 1; Dunnock 1(1); Robin 1; Blackbird (1); Chaffinch 6.  Totals: 17 birds ringed from 6 species; 6 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 23 birds processed from 7 species.

There was plenty of other activity: it seems a lot of birds are reacting to the relatively mild winter by getting territorial.  There was plenty of song from Nuthatch and Great Tit, and the Ravens were in fine voice throughout the morning.

For Wednesday’s session I gave Jonny choice of venue. We were scheduled for Blakehill Farm but the forecast was for it to have low base wind speed but gusting to 20mph, which makes Blakehill impossible.   He suggested Ravensroost Woods.  Although I hadn’t topped the feeders up since last Thursday I know that it doesn’t take long for the birds to check them out, so I filled them first thing. We set just four nets, to cover the area through which the feeders are set.

The catch was as expected: mainly Blue Tits, supported by Great, Coal and Marsh Tits plus a couple of retrapped Nuthatches.  The list for the session was: Nuthatch (2); Blue Tit 11(9); Great Tit 3(3); Coal Tit 1(4); Marsh Tit (3); Wren (1); Robin (1).  Totals: 15 birds ringed from 3 species; 23 birds recaptured from 7 species, making 38 birds processed from 7 species.

Okay, not the most exciting catch in the world. However, ringing studies are often accused of not being worthwhile because of the lack of recapture information.  This might be true at migration hotspots, but in a regularly studied wood, like Ravensroost, we often get sessions were the numbers of recaptured birds is greater than the numbers ringed.  The height of the breeding season and its immediate aftermath are the sessions where we ring the highest proportion of birds, as newly fledged birds emerge.  It is always nice to recapture Marsh Tits: knowing that the individuals inhabiting this part of the wood remain in situ.

We forgot that Wednesday is the day that the Ravensroost volunteer group do their winter work.  This winter they are coppicing the south west corner of the wood.   They were, as ever, very interested to see what we were doing and to get a close up look at the birds.  As ringers, doing hundreds of birds from common species every year, we tend to switch off a bit about the beauty of birds like Blue Tits.  These encounters are a helpful way of reminding us that they really are quite special.