More Barn Owl Checking: Thursday, 17th June 2021

Cracking session this morning checking owl boxes with Annie. We started out at 9:30 (my laziness after being up at 3:00 yesterday morning) and we only managed 4 boxes in 2.5 hours. What with travel, loading and unloading the ladder, and some emergency box maintenance, it was actually good going. Our actual time handling the birds was less than 5 minutes per box. They were all (bar one) very sleepy – probably because they have been up all night being extremely well-fed.

The breakdown of what we found was as follows:

Box 1: a roosting adult

Box 2: 4 extremely well-fed juveniles, downy, some tail feather development. So well fed that they could afford to leave a dead short-tailed vole in the larder and 3 of the four could all expel some extremely messy projectile poo in my direction. Only one hit. We had to reaffix the back of the box, as it had come adrift. The landowner was extremely helpful: providing me with some fine wire and a pair of wire cutters to enable me to effect the repair. This was one of the four owlets in his box:

Photo by Annie Hatt

These landowners are so enthusiastic about the Barn Owls on their land. I know when I speak with them that they will be able to tell me chapter and verse on how the parents have been acting.

Strike One – photo by Annie

Box 3: 4 naked, very newly-hatched young and an adult. We didn’t think there would be anything in there, as the back of the box was missing. We looked all around for it and couldn’t see it. When I climbed up to have a look, the back was lying flat at the back of the box, absolutely covered in poo. I gave it as much of a clean as I could and managed to reaffix it so that, hopefully, it will last until we can make a permanent repair when we go back to ring them in a couple of weeks.

Box 4: 3 nicely developed young. Feathers medium, and they should fledge within the next two weeks. One, which I have called Hissing Sid appearing on Britain’s Got Talons, was a remarkably sparky bird. Had we left this another week I would not have been able to ring him, for fear of it fledging prematurely. He was hissing at me all the time until he was in the bag and did so again after I put him back and until I closed the box again. I say “he” because he had enough developed plumage to establish sex.

I suffer for my schedule 1 licence! My left hand has a number of new holes in it. This box too had issues with the back panel. It looked as if someone had taken a hammer to it and smashed it inwards. Again, I did a running repair to keep them safe until fledging. Outside box 4, as well as the pellets in the box, Annie found these masses of bones clumped in the bushes underneath.

Food mass – photo by Annie

This morning’s session just shows how variable Barn Owl nesting / breeding can be: 3 different broods at very different stages of development, never mind the intra-brood variation, all within the vicinity of Webb’s Wood in the Braydon Forest area.

CES 5: Lower Moor Farm, Wednesday, 16th June 2021

When I set up my CES site back in 2015 I initially thought that I would put up lots of net, but then I thought about whether that would be the sensible thing to do: I am not getting any younger and, whilst I have been spoilt by the degree of support I have had from my team, they are all getting jobs or continuing in education towards Masters, PhD’s etc, which takes them away from midweek sessions. Or else some fool (this fool) advances them to C-permit, so they have their own sites and projects that they want to work on. Today was one of those days when I was working the CES solo. Even with just 5 rides of 12 nets in total, that meant a 3:30 start, so I could get the first nets open by 4:30.

It was a fairly quiet morning on the bird front. I am pretty sure that the terrible weather in May has driven a lot of our migrants further east and away from the site. In 2019, the last time I could run the CES (i.e. pre-Covid) in the equivalent session I ringed 74 birds from 16 species and retrapped 21 birds from 10 species: making 95 birds from 17 species. Today was nothing like that.

This is not to say that it wasn’t an enjoyable session: it certainly had its highlights. Key amongst them was my first juvenile Garden Warbler of the year:

It looks very fluffy, very scruffy, just out of the nest, and its tail and wing feathers were still growing. You can see the a couple of the under-tail coverts in pin. All consistent with a bird that has just left the nest, but under those wings and along the flanks there was significant levels of body moult, which suggests it left the nest over a week ago.

The second highlight was a Green Woodpecker:

This is a female. You can sex it on the malar stripe, which is all black. The male has a red flash through the middle of it. Underlining her sex: she had a well-developed brood patch. Given where she was caught (twice), I suspect that her nest is on the island on Mallard Lake, adjacent to the Wildlife Refuge. Lower Moor Farm is the place that I catch this species most often: 4 per year in 2018 and 2019 respectively: 30% of the county total for that species for those years.

At CES 3 on the 26th May we ringed a female Blackcap, AHR8454. In CES 4, on the 5th June, we caught her again and she had just started replacing its tail. All of the new feathers were there, but all fully in pin. I caught her again today and, perhaps this helps explain why there are fewer birds around:

The feathers are about two-thirds grown now but look at the clear fault bars on the feathers. Those highlighted areas are so thin that those feathers will almost certainly break along those lines. Fault lines usually reflect issues with the weather and / or lack of food. Obviously the weather has been getting hotter since it was first retrapped this year, and the place was alive with insects this morning, from midges and mosquitoes, through horse flies (the only thing that didn’t care that I was liberally doused with Jungle Formula and got through my defences (it didn’t get away again though)) to Damselflies and Dragonflies. There does seem to be a lot of potential food around for insectivorous birds. My trickiest extraction of the day was a female Emperor Dragonfly. Fortunately she came out in one piece. In fact, they all kept their heads today: which is quite a feat when I had to extract a dozen or so, mainly Black-tailed Skimmers.

The list for the day was: Green Woodpecker 1; Wren 1(3); Dunnock [1](2); Robin 1[1]; Blackbird 1(2); Blackcap 2(1); Garden Warbler [1](3); Chiffchaff 1(2). Totals: 7 adult birds ringed from 6 species; 3 juvenile birds ringed from 3 species and 13 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 23 birds processed from 8 species.

The key differences between this session and the 2019 equivalent session is in Blackcaps: 2 adults and 13 juveniles ringed and 6 retraps; Chiffchaffs: 19 juveniles ringed and 4 retraps and, significantly given results everywhere else in my sites, Blue Tit: 1 adult and 12 juveniles ringed.

I had a very sociable morning: Colin, out photographing Dragonflies and Damselflies, was extremely chatty and we had a good long talk about a wide range of topics but, particularly, Scottish Wildcats and rare orchids in the UK. Later in the morning, I was able to do a brief ad hoc ringing demonstration to one of the slightly older Well-Being groups (usually it is to school age children, these were college age and a bit more). They were a really pleasant bunch and completely absorbed in what I was doing. Particularly, they were impressed with the story of the migratory habits of the Garden Warbler retrap that I processed whilst they were with me. They then went off to get on with what they had been brought to Lower Moor Farm for, whilst I took down and packed away. As I was leaving site they were all walking up the path ahead of me: all dressed up in their bee-keeping outfits: it looked like something out of Doctor Who!

Taking down was hard graft in the heat, which was where I missed not having any help the most. However, instead of getting away at 12:30, I got away at 13:00, so perhaps I am just making a fuss about nothing.

Owl Box Checking: Monday, 14th June 2021

I renewed my Schedule 1 licence for monitoring and ringing Barn Owls at the nest at the end of last year. So far, though, I have held off checking the Barn Owl boxes in the Braydon Forest this year. After the horribly wet May, I wanted to be sure that the birds have had plenty of time to build up their body condition before we handled them. For one thing, we have to be sure that the rings will stay on the leg: the feet grow pretty fast, but the rings are large (size G, which have an 11mm internal diameter once closed, since you ask). The plan for the week is to check the boxes on the Wildlife Trust land today, to do the boxes in the Wood Lane, Purton to Brinkworth area on Thursday and those in the Cotswold Water Park area on Friday. Thursday looks as though it might be a wash out, unfortunately.

One of the good things about box checking: you can start at a civilised time. Jonny, Ellie and I met at Avis Meadows at 9:00 this morning. A good thing about having Jonny with you is that he is young, nimble and not scared of heights, and does the ladder work. Which means my old, well-larded bones can stay on the ground. I was first on site and, whilst I was taking the ladder off the roof-rack, a pair of Stock Doves flew out of the barn. So I thought that the box in the barn was likely to be hosting a clutch of eggs.

The barn: condemned and scheduled for demolition. The newer A-frame box in there has been removed and the grotty, rotting, falling apart box is still there:

How it hasn’t completely disintegrated is beyond me. Jonny climbed up, fully expecting to find a couple of warm Stock Dove eggs, instead he found four of these:

All a decent size and ready to be ringed. It is just astonishing how they keep choosing that box when there are three other new, good quality boxes in the immediate area. We then checked the other box in the Avis Meadows area and then went over the road to check on the Ravensroost Meadows boxes. These boxes have only been in place since last summer, so it was good to find that they are both active: not with Barn Owls though and also, thankfully, not with Jackdaws. They are a real nuisance if they take a liking to an owl box: they will build their stick nests on top of anything the owls are doing, and the owls will not be able to use it. However, both boxes have Stock Doves nesting in them, both had two warm eggs. We will check them again in two or three weeks to see if the chicks are there and capable of being ringed.

Ellie had to leave us at this juncture for a couple of work meetings, so Jonny and I went on to check further boxes at Lower Moor Farm and Blakehill Farm. The next three boxes we checked were all empty. Actually, that’s not strictly true, the penultimate box we went to at Blakehill Farm was absolutely stuffed full of twigs and grass and muck – with no sign of any attempt at nesting this year. Probably because not even the Jackdaws could get in there, it was so full. Jonny cleared it away. Hopefully, either later this year but, certainly, next year it will be back in use.

The last box checked is in the field adjacent to the farm buildings at Blakehill. When checking a box, before setting the ladder up, we have a large hand net on an extendable pole which is tapped against the box entrance to flush any adults in residence and, hopefully catch them. Most actually fly off when they hear people approaching but occasionally they sit tight. One of the Stock Doves at Ravensroost Meadows managed to escape the net but at this last box we were lucky enough to catch an adult Barn Owl as it left the box. Unfortunately, when we checked the box there was no sign of nesting, the bird was using it as a day roost.

Doubly galling the bird was a female with an extremely well-developed brood patch. She clearly has a brood somewhere but we have checked all of the boxes we know of so perhaps she has found a natural hole to use.

We released her and she flew off in the opposite direction to the box from which we had caught her – possibly going to visit her brood. Whilst flying off she was harassed by a Magpie, but she just ignored it and disappeared off across the plateau.

It was just under 4 hours of hot work, heavy lifting and a lot of walking. Three empty boxes, one day roost, one owl brood and two cutches of Stock Dove eggs might seem like a small return, but we were satisfied with our morning’s work.

Somerford Common: Saturday, 12th June 2021

It has been a long time since I have managed to get onto Somerford Common again. The last session was on the 10th April, so I was pleased that the weather was perfect for this morning. I was joined by David for the session, with a 5:00 start. We set up along the rides that border our winter feeding station. The net setup was slightly different to our usual summer layout:

The green areas are now full of brush and young trees and have changed the structure of the area so, going from the left, the 18m / 12m combo was put in its usual place along the edge of the paddock / coppice area. Usually there would be another 18m / 12m combo leading up the hill to the crossroads along that same border. However, this time we started further down and on the opposite side of the path, so that it ran along the edge of the scrub area and used a 3 x 18m combo. I abandoned the 3 x 18m combo on the north side of the crossroads because it now resembles a shaded avenue, very dark and enclosed, but kept the 3 x 18m combo to the south of the crossroads.

The first round got us very excited about the possibilities for the session, with a good catch. Unfortunately, the initial round of 8 birds (4 in the new net ride) was not replicated, with just ones and twos in each round. However, of the 4 birds taken out of the new net ride we had two of these:

Our first 2 Marsh Tit juveniles of the year! Absolutely delighted, especially given the dearth of young Blue and Great Tits so far this year. In fact, I have caught as many juvenile Marsh Tits and juvenile Blue Tits and one more than I have juvenile Great Tits! The largest number of juvenile Marsh Tits we have caught in June before is a paltry 2 – so we have matched this already.

The catch was reasonably varied for the time of year in this woodland: Marsh Tit [2]; Robin 4[3]; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 3; Garden Warbler 1; Chiffchaff 4; Willow Warbler 4(1). Totals: 18 adult birds ringed from 7 species and 5 juvenile birds ringed from 2 species plus 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 25 birds processed from 8 species.

All of the adult birds caught were in full breeding condition but one of the male Willow Warblers was already in wing moult, which usually signals the end of their interest in breeding i.e. it is usually referred to as post-breeding moult:

The first wildlife we saw this morning was actually a dead insectivore, a Common Shrew:

There didn’t seem to be any signs of predation unless those two dark spots represent talon marks from a Tawny Owl or similar. I am told (I haven’t tried it) that shrews are not particularly good to eat – so perhaps an owl grabbed it and flew off, then recognised what it was and just dropped it – it was in the middle of a path completely out in the open.

The other find of interest was a plant, a Great Butterfly Orchid:

I first found them on the site about 5 years ago, which I think (given the reaction from both the Wildlife Trust and Forestry England) was an unusual record for the site, but I haven’t found any for the last 3, so I was really pleased to find this one this morning.

With the birds hiding in the shade from 11:00, we started taking down at 11:30 and were off site by just gone midday. A good, relaxed session, given the lack of any Blue or Great Tits. At one point we did hear a small flock of Long-tailed Tits flying around, but that was over our heads at the ringing station and didn’t translate into a catch in the nets.

Some good news: the Wildlife Trust has agreed that I can resume ringing within Ravensroost Woods, using two specified rides (R27 and R38 respectively). I cannot wait to get back in there. My agreement is that I will not work in there at weekends, theirs is that I can block off access to the rides when I am working there, to prevent interference from members of the public coming across my equipment and vandalising it and / or (more importantly) damaging birds in the nets.

Ravensroost Meadow Pond: Thursday, 10th June 2021

Having spent all week with pulled muscles in my shoulder, and a very stiff and painful neck, I didn’t expect to get out before the weekend. As it all eased a little yesterday, and I could move my head a bit, I thought I would try to get out this morning. So, despite a really strong urge to switch the alarm off and go back to sleep, 5:00 found me at Ravensroost Meadow Pond for a session. The Belted Galloways had either been moved or have taken themselves off to one of the adjoining fields, so I set up without an audience today. I set the usual nets: 5 x 18m; 2 x 9m and 2 x 12m:

All nets, apart from the isolated 9m net on the spit, caught something. It was a pretty typical session for this site for this time of year. In a month or so it will be busier with juvenile warblers. Currently the juveniles of some of the earlier breeding resident species are turning up in the catch, particularly Robins, with another 5 ringed today. At 9:45 I caught my first juvenile Blue Tit of the year:

Like the Great Tit juvenile caught at Lower Moor Farm on the 5th, catching just one on its own is unusual this soon after fledging and is probably indicative of how badly these birds have fared after the awful weather in May. To underline just how bad it is, at 10:40 I caught a small flock of 6 Blue Tits: 5 adults and 1 additional juvenile. Those proportions are terrible: in a good year they would be reversed.

It was a decent catch: Blue Tit 5[2]; Great Tit 2; Wren (1); Dunnock 1[1]; Robin 2[5](1); Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 2; Whitethroat 1; Lesser Whitethroat 1(2); Chiffchaff 1(1); Willow Warbler 2; Bullfinch 1. Totals: 19 adult birds ringed from 11 species and 8 juvenile birds ringed from 3 species plus 6 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 33 birds processed from 12 species.

It was a pleasant morning with Skylarks singing from the field to the north of the pond. The Belted Galloways did put in an appearance, in the field to the south of the pond. Hopefully they can be kept in that field they are currently in to give the Skylarks a chance to breed without risk of their nests being trampled.

Late morning there was a reasonable throughflow of Swallows. Unfortunately they avoided the causeway net, but it was a better showing than we had at any time last year. Hopefully the young will be fledging soon as they are far more likely to end up in the nets when hawking for insects or coming in for a drink.

Some good news: with people having gone back to work and children back to school, the footfall in Ravensroost Wood has reduced a bit. I have agreed a protocol with the Wildlife Trust for working back there. It is essentially where I worked in the winter, plus another couple of areas that are not used much by the public. I have been given permission to close them with “No Entry” signs, plus additional explanatory signage and poles to restrict access to the ride entrances when I am working there. For my part, the sessions will not be at weekends, to avoid the busiest times.

Langford Lakes: Saturday, 5th June 2021

This is a post by Jonny Cooper.

2021 marks the second year of my ringing at the Langford Lakes reedbed. The ringing kicked of this year in late April and will carry on until September. This session however was special as it marked the start of my new retrap adult survival (RAS) project for Reed Warbler. RAS projects essentially aim to ring all the breeding adults of a given species at a site each year and also to re-trap as many returning adults from previous years. The effort across years is constant and this provides data in the survival of adults for a given species. The reedbed at Langford was an obvious candidate for such a scheme and this adds an extra layer of value and analysis to the data being collected.

The session itself kicked off early with the nest open by 4am and the first birds caught at 4:30. It was no surprise that Reed Warbler dominated the catch with a large number of retrap birds ringed in previous years (just what I wanted for the RAS), this included a returning Spanish ringed bird originally recaptured on site in 2020.

The session ran as expected, with an initial pulse of birds then settling down to regular 5 or so birds per round. The full catch was: Water Rail 1; Great Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit 6; Wren (2); Grey Wagtail 2; Robin 1(1); Blackbird 1; Sedge Warbler 1(6); Reed Warbler 12(36); Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 2(2); Chiffchaff (1). A total of 28 birds ringed from 10 species and 48 birds retrapped from 6 species, giving a total of 76 birds form 12 species.

The absolute highlights where are the two Grey Wagtails and the Water Rail. Grey Wagtails are one of my favourite birds and it is always a pleasure to ring them and see them up close.

The Water Rail was a female in breeding condition. It is only the second record of Water Rail ringed at Langford Lakes and I can’t find any other record of Water Rail at Langford in the breeding season and within Wiltshire they are a very rare breeder (and usually in the water park) so it is a great record.

Overall a fantastic session and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season has in store.

A Lack of Blackcaps: Lower Moor Farm, Saturday, 5th June 2021

I was delighted to be joined by Annie and David at Lower Moor Farm this morning for CES 4. For different reasons, neither has been able to make as many sessions as they would like, so it was good to have the two of them out again. Despite the improvement in the weather it was still pretty cold at 4:30 this morning and the air temperature really did not warm up until 10:00. It was okay in the sun from about 8:00, but it didn’t really get above the treeline until gone 9:00 and it was cold in the shade. Naturally, by the time we were taking down at 11:30 it was stonkingly hot! Martin Eacott was back on site continuing his photographic odyssey.

It was a reasonable session, but very different to any other CES session I have done there: we caught only one Blackcap, a recaptured female, all morning. I have never caught so few Blackcaps here in the CES months since I started ringing at Lower Moor. Even this year in sessions 1 and 2 we caught 7 in each and in our last session we caught 12. I fully expected similar numbers today. It is that which kept the numbers down to below what I had expected.

The first two birds out of the nets were our first juvenile Wrens of the year. We ended up with three of them in total. As well as the Wrens we also ringed more juvenile Robins and Dunnocks. Nearly last out of the nets was our first Great Tit juvenile of the year.

Given the reports of high mortality in Blue and Great Tit youngsters from all over the country prior to fledging , I was pleased to find this one. However, the fact that it is only one is concerning: we would expect to catch small groups of them, before brood mates disperse, as we have done in previous years.

The highlight of the session was my first Reed Warbler at the site this year. Unlike Jonny Cooper’s site at Langford Lakes, there is no established reed bed at Lower Moor Farm. There is some small marginal incursion of reedmace on Mallard Lake and in other small areas but nothing that would really encourage Reed Warblers to attempt to nest there. (Not that I am hinting or anything.)

When I released it he chose to perch on my finger:

The list for today’s session was: Great Tit [1]; Wren [3]; Dunnock 2[3](5); Robin [4]; Song Thrush 2; Reed Warbler 1; Blackcap (1); Garden Warbler 3(4); Whitethroat 1(3); Chiffchaff [1](2); Willow Warbler (1). Totals: 9 adults ringed from 5 species; 12 juveniles ringed from 5 species and 16 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 37 birds processed from 11 species.

Over the course of the morning we had a Blackbird and Great Spotted Woodpecker escape from the nets – which is rather unusual.

Other sightings during the session included a single Otter swimming around in Mallard Lake. It did hang around for a while but in the aforementioned area of the Typha and Yellow Flag Irises. The dragons and damsels were out in force, with a particularly impressive number of Black-tailed Skimmer:

Whilst walking across the bridge over the Swill Brook, after checking the Heronry ride nets, I noticed this fellow shumbling his way across the bridge:

After his photo-session I released him into a damp, sheltered area.

The photos of the perched Reed Warbler and the Black-tailed Skimmer are courtesy (and copyright) of Martin Eacott.

All in all, a very enjoyable session with good variety and interest. I was really pleased at how quickly both David and Annie got their skills back up to the mark with reliable ageing and biometric measuring during the session.

West Wilts Ringing Group Results: May 2021

A very interesting May for the group this year. Last May was our best since the group took on its current structure in January 2013. This May actually bettered it but in a slightly strange way. Given the atrocious weather throughout much of the month, it was quite surprising that we managed only two fewer sessions than last year. We processed 662 birds in those sessions, compared to 659 last May. However, the breakdown was very different. Last May saw us coming out of lockdown after the middle of the month, so all of our ringing before the 16th of the month was focused on personal back gardens and, once we could get to our main sites, we were cramming in as much as we could to make up for lost time. This year we had access to all of our sites from the off, but were hampered by the weather.

So, whilst we processed a few more birds, we actually ringed 108 fewer birds but recaptured 112 more birds than last year. The difference is almost all down to Jonny Cooper’s work at Langford Lakes catching Reed Warblers and, to a lesser degree, the same species at the Western Way Balancing Ponds at Melksham. Retrapping so many of these long-distance migrants in the same place they were ringed, plus a French ringed bird that was recaptured at Langford last year and again this May is encouraging and Jonny is now trying out the site for a potential RAS scheme. RAS is a scheme based on retrapping adult birds at the same place year after year to gain a picture of the survival of individuals within the species. The breakdown this year represents 58 individual birds at Langford Lakes before the breeding season has resulted in any fledglings being produced. In addition to the Reed Warblers, 10 individual Sedge Warblers have also been ringed / recaptured at Langford.

On the subject of retrapped birds, last December had our highest ever total of retraps, at 327, but that figure is helped by the fact that we are catching at feeding stations then. This is the highest total recaptured without the concentrating effect of a feeding station, and the second highest that we have had.

There aren’t too many people who are lucky enough to have Siskin breeding locally and to be regularly catching them in their garden. To be catching juvenile Siskin in your garden at this time of year must be a real treat: something that Andy Palmer has had the luck to do in the last two years. It is such an interesting phenomenon: Warminster is 40 miles south of the Braydon Forest. They have a breeding population of Siskin and Lesser Redpoll whereas those two species are winter visitors from Scotland / Scandinavia to the Braydon Forest, as evidenced by recoveries of birds of these species ringed in the Braydon Forest and retrapped in Argyle and Bute.

Photo copyright Andy Palmer

My primary highlight of the month has been being able to start my CES at Lower Moor Farm again this year, after having to miss out last year because of lockdown. It is looking promising after 3 sessions.  The birding highlights of the month both happened at our first visit to Brown’s Farm since last September. We have caught few Firecrest over the years: just 6: 2 at Tedworth, 2 near Warminster and one each in Ravensroost Wood and Red Lodge. What all of these sites have in common is that they are woodland sites. However, the Firecrest we caught at Brown’s Farm was caught in a net set across the end of a hedgerow, in the middle of open farmland. No doubt it was on its way to Savernake Forest area, where I ringed my first two Firecrest as a trainee. This was Lucy’s first, on a morning where she got to ring 3 new species (Whitethroat and Linnet as well as the Firecrest).

The second highlight of that session was the group’s first Yellow Wagtail since reorganisation. They have been seen at Brown’s Farm before, most memorably back in September 2016 when Jonny and I set nets and a lure for Yellow Wagtail and saw none at all until we switched the lure off and were taking the nets down when a small flock flew past and into the hedgerow where we had just removed the net. I had previously processed them, at Rye Bay Ringing Group site at Icklesham, but I had never caught and extracted one myself before this one.

This bird was aged as a bird that fledged last year, as it had a diagnostic break in its greater coverts (i.e. two generations of feather):

(Not my nails)

The catch details are shown below:

Looking at the figures, apart from Blackcap, most of our improvement is across all summer visitor species and most of the reduction is in garden birds, particularly the House Sparrow.

Given how bad the weather has been, it was great that we did find a significant number of juvenile birds ringed within our catch. As well as the aforementioned Siskin, we had juveniles of Blackbird, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Robin, Song Thrush, Stonechat and Woodpigeon: all, bar Starling, being open cup nesters. With the weather set to improve significantly for June we will hopefully see a continued improvement in numbers and more juveniles in June’s catch. What will be interesting will be the numbers of juvenile titmice. Reports across the country are very mixed but generally pretty dire for them.

Should I Have Stayed In Bed: Sunday, 30th May 2021

I arranged this session for Sunday at Brown’s Farm so that Steph could join me, as she is tied up with work and family commitments, except on Sundays and Fridays. We arrived on site at 5:30 and had the nets open by 6:30, before much was moving about. With the ringing station set up we settled in for what I expected to be a busier catch than our session at the beginning of May. It wasn’t!

We caught our first birds at 7:15: a male Whitethroat and a Red-legged partridge. The partridge escaped before we could get to it – but you cannot ring them anyway as the farm runs a small-scale shoot for pheasant and partridge and you need special permission from the BTO to ring them. That was it until 8:45! The next bird out of the net at 8:45 was the male Whitethroat we had ringed at 7:15. Groan! Fortunately, we took another couple of birds out of other nets: a new Blackcap and a retrapped Whitethroat.

At 9:15 we took another two Whitethroat and a Linnet out of the nets and at 9:45 a new Great Tit. That was it for the morning: Great Tit 1; Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 3(1); Linnet 1.

However, that is only a small part of the story of the morning. From soon after we got there and then throughout the morning, we watched and listened to the abundant number of Skylark that inhabit the site. It is a toss up between Brown’s Farm and Blakehill Farm as to which is the the better site we have for Skylark – but Brown’s is purely a commercial farm and, whilst Blakehill is run in commercial lines, it is managed for nature as part of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve complexes. This year the fields they are occupying at Brown’s are all laid to cereals and will hopefully ensure a healthy crop of youngsters.

During one of the quieter spells (one of!!!) we were treated to the spectacle of House Martins collecting mud for their nest building on the farm. I didn’t have my camera with me, so no photos, but I love the way they land and seem to mould great clumps of mud to their beaks before flying off to deposit it at the nest.

Frustratingly, we had plenty of time to watch the abundant (yes, I mean “abundant”) Yellowhammers flying around and over the nets, singing from song perches and making a display of themselves, Chaffinches, more Linnets and Whitethroats, and the occasional Dunnock, all managed to avoid capture and ensure that we didn’t reach double-figures. A male Cuckoo was also busily advertising for a mate. With the sheer number of Whitethroat and Dunnock at this site I am surprised there aren’t more Cuckoos in attendance.

Brown’s is also one of the best sites in the area for seeing Brown Hares, and this morning was no exception, with several seen running around the fields in amongst the cereal crops.

We were also treated to the regular Buzzard and Red Kite sightings. I am sure the Red Kite, which flew in very low around and over us, was checking to see if we were carrion, as we weren’t moving very much. Almost last of the birds noted this morning was a Raven, croaking its way from Savernake Forest towards some other woodland area.

At 10:30 we decided to close the nets and take down and left site by 11:30.

So, in answer to my question in the title: “No” – ringing can be like that. I rarely have such a quiet session but good company and plenty of wildlife to watch is worth getting out of bed for!

CES 3: Lower Moor Farm, Wednesday, 26th May 2021

With so much torrential rain after my session at the Firs last week, I cancelled Saturday’s ringing session, as I just thought the birds didn’t need any extra pressures in their lives. However, as the weather in the last couple of days has improved, I went ahead with CES 3 at Lower Moor Farm this morning. I was joined for the session by Lucy and Jonny. This was fortuitous, as I had to bail out for an hour to have some blood taken, and the children from Malmesbury School were going to be on site again.

This will be Lucy’s last session for 3 months, as she is off to Spurn as a volunteer warden protecting the Little Tern colony next week. She has promised me some blog posts from Spurn whilst she is there.

We were on site for 4:30 and had the nets open quickly, with the first birds out of the nets at 5:30 being a couple of juvenile Robins. The session just developed from there into a thoroughly satisfying visit – particularly rewarding for Lucy, who added another two species to her ringing profile. More of which later.

I was concerned that there would be a dearth of juvenile birds, with so many reports of weather induced nest failures around the country. However, the first catches of the morning were another couple of juvenile Robins to add to those caught at our last session at Lower Moor. However, very much of note were our first juvenile Blackcaps of the year, extracted at 6:15:

We actually caught two young and a female close together in the same net. It looked to us that the two youngsters had been flushed from the nest prematurely: either avoiding a predator or possibly by hunger. Their wings were a good 20mm shorter than we would expect in a newly-fledged Blackcap. Because of that, we returned them, and what we assumed was their mother, to the bush they were heading for when they ended up in the net. It was good guess: I sat them on the bush in sunlight. Mum disappeared into the bush and immediately started calling to them. They soon followed, and we saw the three of them foraging for insects in the bushes around their rerelease site for the next three hours. Despite their short wings, I was encouraged to see how strongly they could fly. Occasionally one of the youngsters would sun itself out in the open, whilst contact calling:

This photo was taken in a different bush to the release point

At one point one of them got caught in the net again, so we closed that net for a couple of hours, until they had moved on, so they could go about unhindered. With the weather improving and the number of insects flying around at the site today, and despite the young age at which they seem to have left the nest, they have a good chance of survival in the short term, as they are clearly already able to forage for food.

We had the pleasure of Martin Eacott turning up to do some photography and have a look at our bird ringing and to have a chat. Martin mentioned that he had some excellent views of the Otters this morning. Minutes later they came back into Mallard Lake. We spent the next two hours being treated to a group of three of them swimming around Mallard Lake, in full view from our ringing station:

Photo copyright Martin Eacott

It actually corresponded to a time when the bird numbers reduced, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the spectacle. Perhaps the lack of persecution of them in this area has reduced their inhibitions and nocturnal habits. They are seen so frequently in the daytime. We were also visited by a small flock of Common Tern on a fishing expedition. It seems that the Black-headed Gulls, who are also frequenting the reserve, are using the tern raft instead.

The next bird bonus in the catch was our first juvenile Chiffchaffs of the year:

This was followed soon after by our first juvenile Dunnock of the year:

Martin left at about 9:00 and at 9:30 we were joined again by children from Malmesbury School. They stayed with us, on and off, in groups of 3 or 4 for the next hour and a half and had another opportunity to get close to some different species from those that they saw at the Firs last Wednesday. They all had the opportunity for some further instruction in safely handling and releasing wild birds. Soon after I returned from my visit to the GP surgery, they got particularly excited with the Great Spotted Woodpecker that Jonny extracted and processed. Unfortunately, this sparked a lot of boisterous behaviour, and the staff decided it was best to take them away so that they didn’t disturb the birds. It was a shame but it was the right thing to do. That meant that they missed the Jay that Lucy processed (her first), and the stunning end to the session.

At 11:30 we did a final check and shut the nets. I went to check and close the nets along the Heronry Ride and, in the very last net, having closed all of the others, were two Kingfishers: a retrapped male and an unringed female. Definitely a breeding pair. As Jonny has done plenty at his Meadow Farm site, and Lucy had never ringed a Kingfisher, she got to ring her second new species of the session. Not a bad send off for her warden role!

The list for the day was: Kingfisher 1(1); Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Jay 1; Blue Tit 1; Marsh Tit (1); Wren 1(3); Dunnock 1[1](5); Robin [3](1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 4[2](6); Garden Warbler 1(3); Chiffchaff 2[4](4); Willow Warbler (1); Bullfinch 1. Totals: 14 adults ringed from 10 species; 10 juveniles ringed from 4 species and 26 birds retrapped from 10 species, making 50 birds processed from 14 species.

After an excellent session, with good company, and great help, we got packed away very quickly and left site just after midday.