The Firs: Friday, 21st February 2020

After several cancelled sessions due to this horrendous weather, we finally managed to get out for a ringing session this morning.  Although wind was still forecast, it was scheduled to be lighter than of late, although still gusting to just under 30 mph.  As a result, we could only contemplate setting up in a good woodland area.  With the wind scheduled to come from the west, I chose the Firs. It is the only one of our woodland sites where the net rides run north to south, so the woodland would block the wind.  Somerford Common, Ravensroost Woods and Webb’s Wood all have the main net rides running east to west, which would have had the wind blowing along them.

Everybody who could make it came along, so the team was Jonny, Steph, Lillie (on half-term), Alice and Tony.  My only concern was whether we would catch enough birds to make it worth their while.  In the end we had a decent haul of 46 birds, but we had to shorten the session as the wind got up enough to affect the nets and, as a the birds’ welfare is paramount, we closed the nets an hour-and-a-half earlier than usual.

I had topped up the feeding station on Wednesday afternoon, so there was plenty of bird activity and the catch was: Nuthatch 1; Blue Tit 14(10); Great Tit 5(7); Coal Tit (1); Marsh Tit 1(1); Wren 1; Robin 1(1); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 1; Chaffinch 1.  Totals: 26 birds ringed from 9 species and 20 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 46 birds processed from 10 species.

There was a lot of bird song in the wood, and plenty of Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming – although they seemed to be too busy playing percussion to visit the peanut feeder, so we didn’t catch any.  Nuthatch were calling everywhere, it seemed and there were at least 3 Marsh Tits calling in the wood. For such a small wood to potentially have 3 Marsh Tit territories is a real feather in the cap of the management regime.  The new Marsh Tit was the fourth of 2020 already.   It is our best start to the year for this species since we started ringing at these sites in 2013.

A cautionary tale to all of the squirrels out there: don’t try and steal from my large seed feeder! Last week when I went to top up the feeders at my woodland sites, I left the Firs to last, as it is the muddiest, most slippery site I have – and the furthest to walk to the feeding station.  Approaching the feeder I thought “Heck and damnation, the seed has got wet and stuck in the tube”.  When I got closer I saw that the lid had been prised off and that the clump of seed was, in fact, a dead grey squirrel.  The feeder has 8 ports: 2 opposite each other and each set offset by 180º to the previous.  This squirrel had worked its way in, and bent its body around the various ports and then been unable to extricate itself.  They are clever beasts, but this one was far too clever for its own good. I had the very devil of a job getting the carcass out of the feeder, but it gave it a good clean as it came out: like a furry bottle brush!  I have replaced the lid and wired it shut, so there shouldn’t be a repeat.

 

Between the Storms: Red Lodge, Wednesday, 12th February 2020

After the awful storms of Ciara and before the return of the wind and rain with Dennis (surely the Met Office should have named it “Donald”?) Alice and I managed to get out for a session at Red Lodge.  We were on site for 7:00 and opened just 4 nets (2 x 18m; 1 x 12m and 1 x 9m) adjacent to the feeding station.    After the school run we were joined by Steph and baby Beatrice.

I was quite hopeful that we would have a decent session: I had topped up the feeders Tuesday morning and the seed feeders had been emptied.  Given the lack of destruction to the feeders, I don’t think that squirrels were totally responsible for emptying them.

Although it wasn’t frosty, the air temperature was bitterly cold and didn’t start to warm up until gone 11:00.  As a result, we spent the first couple of hours doing 3 or 4 birds per net round.  However, as soon as it warmed up the birds starting moving around and we ended up with a respectable catch of 61 birds.

However, Blue Tits made up two-thirds of the catch, Great Tits three-twelfths and 4 species made up the remainder, so not the most exciting session.  To be honest, we really didn’t know what to expect in the aftermath of Ciara.  It would seem a lot of the finches have dispersed (away from the storm front?).

The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 37(6); Great Tit 7(5); Coal Tit (3); Marsh Tit (1); Song Thrush 1; Wren (1).  Totals: 45 birds ringed from 3 species; 16 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 61 bird processed from 6 species.

What was quite interesting was the volume of new Blue Tits on the site.  We ring there regularly and always ring a sizeable proportion of Blue Tits.  Over the winter we expect to actually have a split of 60:40 new to retrap, so this is very much out of the ordinary.  It will be interesting to see if things balance out again over the next 6 weeks.

Somerford Common: Thursday, 6th February 2019

After a thoroughly disappointing session at Blakehill Farm on Wednesday: birds everywhere, just not in our nets, Jonny and I set up at Somerford Common on Thursday morning hoping for better luck.

As for Wednesday, I felt for Ellie, Alice and Steph: all turning out for a mere 16 birds!  The whole place was waterlogged and very smelly! Nevertheless, there was a lot of birdsong in the hedgerow alongside where we set the nets, but the birds just never hit the nets. We had the grand total of Blue Tit 5(1); Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren 3; Dunnock 1; Robin 2(1); Blackbird 1; Goldcrest 1. Totals: 14 birds ringed from 7 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 16 birds processed from 7 species.

So to Thursday: cold, clear and frosty. Just 4 x 18m nets set around the feeding station.  Having topped up the feeders on Wednesday lunchtime and the birds having made good inroads by the time we turned up, I was hopeful.  We heard a few Lesser Redpoll flying around and so we set a lure for them.  I would love to say it worked tremendously well, but we only caught the one!  Mind, it clearly didn’t learn the lesson, as we did catch it again later.  Still, it is our first of the year and hopefully we will get a few more in the next 6 weeks.

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It was a super session. Yes, we had the usual preponderance of Blue and Great Tits, but we don’t often get 13 species in our winter woodland sessions.  There were plenty of highlights.  When I was topping up the feeders the local Jays were at their noisiest best: dashing around the woods calling raucously, as they are wont to do.  We don’t catch that many, so to get two in one session was a real bonus.  Jonny suffered for his art: his Jay took a big liking to one of his fingers, whereas mine was delightfully placid.

The tale of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers was rather different: we caught 2 of them, both of which Jonny processed, but we extracted one each. His squawked the house down, as is par for the course with this species.  Mine was much quieter – because it was busy drumming on my hand.  The middle finger of my right hand looks as if it has been attacked by a sewing machine.

Perhaps most surprising was our catch of 5 Nuthatches.  We do manage to get multiples but 5 is definitely above the norm.  Six Chaffinches was also a good haul.  The whole catch was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 2; Nuthatch 4(1); Jay 2; Blue Tit 6(15); Great Tit 11(8); Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 1; Robin 1(1); Goldfinch 1; Chaffinch 5(1); Goldfinch 1; Lesser Redpoll 1. Totals: 36 birds ringed from 12 species and 27 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 63 birds processed from 13 species.

 

Bucking the National Trend

As well as being a fully-qualified ringer and ringing trainer, I have been a member of and contributor to the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch scheme for over 10 years. In fact,  I do talks all over Wiltshire to gardening clubs, Women’s Institute branches and U3A on the wildlife in gardens, in an effort to encourage a much participation in the scheme as possible.  Data is a powerful tool.

There are many benefits to belonging to the scheme: an excellent magazine and a regular e-newsletter, summarising latest data and trends from the scheme are always a good read.  This morning I received the latest e-newsletter and was interested to find this little snippet under the headline: 2019 Breeding season first findings.

“We now have a preliminary report on the 2019 breeding season. Many species laid eggs significantly earlier than average, possibly due to record breaking February temperatures.

Several familiar garden species seemed to do very well. Numbers of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits were higher than average at the beginning of the breeding season. Each pair that bred produced a higher than average number of chicks.

However, it wasn’t all good news. Numbers of Blackbirds and Dunnocks encountered by bird ringers were the lowest since records began nearly 40 years ago.

This made me wonder what the situation was with those two species at our sites, so I did a quick analysis of the data and am delighted to find that, in our parts of Wiltshire at least, there has been no such calamity:

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In fact, 2019 was the second best year for ringing both species since the North Wilts group split off at the end of 2012. It was also the second best year for retrapping Dunnock, and the retrap rate for Blackbird was on a par with other years.

I suspect that one of the key reasons for this is the habitats that we ring in.  Most of our ringing is done in properties owned or managed by the Wildlife Trust or the Forestry Commission, with a couple of sites on Salisbury Plain. In effect, there is little intensive agriculture near any of our sites.  Certainly in the area of the Braydon Forest most of the agriculture is beef and sheep.  Consequently, there is little by way of pesticide and herbicide spraying and some excellent hedgerows.  Really, all we have to worry about is the odd farmer who doesn’t seem to understand that their hedgerows are a protected habitat between 1st April and 31st August inclusive. Clearly that is an issue for Dunnock, more than Blackbird, but it doesn’t help.

Strange Goings On in the Firs: Wednesday, 29th January 2020

As I arrived on site at 6:50 at the Firs this morning I was greeted with the eerie screech of a Barn Owl hunting over one of the adjacent fields. That was closely followed by the vixen’s scream, always a sound to make you stop and think.

I was joined by Jonny, Alice and Tony for the session. Alice was buzzing after a weekend in north Wales with the SCAN wader group during which she ringed Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Knot, Ringed Plover and Turnstone. It is great fun working with waders: from using cannon nets to catch them, to mist netting in the dark on salt marshes. I must do it again soon.

As day broke we noticed some strange adornments to some of the trees:

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Is there a local pagan cult using it for their ceremonies?  If they are, I will lay odds that they aren’t venturing down into the central glade. It was the muddiest I can remember for a very long time. The temperature was a balmy 2°C, so underfoot did not benefit from an overnight freeze, and we all got pretty filthy quite quickly. It was also a hard slog trudging up and down the hill a dozen times over the course of the morning.

We set 7 x 18m nets down the central glade, with a single 12m net behind the feeding station.  All nets caught, but we could probably have done without the two farthest nets which caught just two birds.

Every bit as unusual as the tree decorations was the make up of the catch: Blue Tit 12(18); Great Tit 5(16); Coal Tit 2(2); Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren (1); Robin (1); Blackbird 1(1); Goldcrest (2); Chaffinch 1.  Totals: 21 birds ringed from 5 species; 42 birds retrapped from 8 species, making 63 birds processed from 9 species.

I cannot remember another session where two-thirds of our catch is retrapped birds.  Some ringers would consider that the site is “ringed out”. My thought is that this is the benefit of regularly ringing a particular patch: it enables you to monitor what is happening with the bird life.  As I have now been ringing at the Firs for 8 years I have a significant amount of data. It will soon be time for me to produce my annual reports for the landowners, in which comparative data taken from recaptured birds always plays a significant part in informing them about the health of their sites and to support any management recommendations that I might make.

The catch died off at about 11:00 so we closed the nets at 11:30 and left site by midday.

Ravensroost Woods: Saturday, 25th January 2020

This session was one that I had to be careful about.  There is always the possibility of a 100 bird catch and, as I was starting out solo, I was mindful of not overdoing the amount of net.  My plan was 3 x 18m nets along one ride, plus 3 nets surrounding the feeding station. In the event, I got the ride net set and just one by the feeding station, before the birds started dropping in.

Starting out solo because I was being joined by Steph, Lillie and baby Beatrice later in the morning.  I was also being joined by Lara and Andrew Dawson who were interested to find out about bird ringing. They arrived at just gone 8:00, with Steph and company arriving about half-an-hour later.  Steph at work at the moment is just brilliant to watch. I don’t know how long her arms are but baby Beatrice is strapped to her front in a baby carrier, looking outwards, and yet Steph happily extracts birds from the net keeping Beatrice far enough away not to interfere with the net. To quote the late, great, David Coleman “Quite remarkable!”.

As was expected, the catch was very heavily populated with Blue Tits.  Blue Tits are so common in the catch during the winter that one can become a bit blasé about them.  However, when entering up the data into the on-line system I got notification that one of them was ringed as a nestling last year. It doesn’t tell me where, but I will get a report in the next couple of days.  Another of them was ringed as a juvenile in my Purton garden last summer, about 6km away.  What you cannot get away from is just how irritating the constant pecking can be when you are extracting large numbers of them: they are the most feisty small birds in the woods!

The list for the session was: Nuthatch (2); Jay 1; Blue Tit 21(18); Great Tit 8(4); Coal Tit 2; Marsh Tit 1(1); Wren (1); Robin 1; Blackbird 1; Goldcrest (1); Chaffinch 3; Bullfinch 2.  Totals: 40 birds ringed from 9 species and 27 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 67 birds processed from 12 species.

Our third new Marsh Tit of the month, at the third different site, was a highlight.  Lillie is being gently introduced to extracting and her highlight of the session was extracting, and then processing, her first Nuthatch  We will soon introduce her to the delights of extracting Blue Tits (depending upon how sadistic I feel)!

I extracted my first Jay of the year. It was a delightful bird: well behaved, didn’t try to bite me (Blue Tits are irritating, Jays hurt and draw blood) and was happy to hold on to a pencil whilst I ringed and measured it. Giving it a pencil to hold stops them clawing away at your hands – their secondary weapon!

Lara and Andrew enjoyed the session: Andrew did a great job of tidying up my net rides and Lara made herself very useful holding on to and handing out bird bags for Steph and myself whilst we were extracting.

On the whole it was a very enjoyable session with one blemish: as Steph was walking down to join us, she was ambushed by two dogs: a greyhound and a black lab, that came bounding down the path and jumped up at her and Beatrice!  When are these arrogant dog owners going to learn some manners and responsibility? If they want their dogs off the lead Somerford Common is 2 minutes away from the nature reserve and, if they cannot control them, then they should definitely keep them on a short lead wherever they are. It is never the fault of the dogs, always the fault of the owners.