East Tytherton: Sunday, 19th October 2020

This is a blog post by Jonny Cooper:

The site at East Tytherton was my first proper solo ringing site after achieving my C-permit. Since I first started ringing there it has proven itself to be a good site for wintering flocks of finches and other farmland birds. With the weather feeling more autumnal I decided to undertake a session to see how things are progressing this year.

Recently I have become slightly obsessed with catching Meadow Pipits so, in addition to my normal nets, I set a Mipit triangle in one of the fields. The first round delivered around 20 birds, including 11 Meadow Pipits. For the next couple of hours things continued at this sort of pace. However, I noticed some large flocks of Gold and Greenfinch flying around.

Typically, if I see finch flocks on site I tend to catch good numbers of them late morning so, when I went to check the nets just after 10am, I was bracing myself. I was right, over the next two hours I caught almost 80 birds: mostly finches.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 17(3), Great Tit 9(4), Long-tailed Tit (1), Dunnock 1(1), Meadow Pipit 41, Redwing 6, Goldcrest 2, House Sparrow 1, Chaffinch 5(1), Greenfinch 20, Goldfinch 28 & Yellowhammer 1. 131 birds ringed from 11 species and 10 re-traps from 5 species, giving a total of 141 birds processed from 12 species.

41 Meadow Pipits is a great catch, as well as good numbers of Greenfinch and Goldfinch. Half a dozen Redwing also gave the morning the distinct feel of Autumn and, of course, Yellowhammers are always a joy to see up close.

I have mentioned this before, but this farmland is brilliant for birds. The land is managed in a very sympathetic way for wildlife and it is really paying dividends.

A fantastic session and it has left my very excited to see what the rest of autumn and this coming winter has in store.

Blakehill Farm: Sunday, 18th October 2020

With the weather forecast showing it would be a virtually windless day I decided to head for Blakehill Farm. I was joined for the day by Ellie, who just happens to be the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s manager for the site, as well as being one of my C-permit holders.

We were on-site for 6:30 and as dawn began to break it revealed that we were sharing the plateau with 30+ cows with their calves. It is often the case that they are on the plateau when we are, but they have never shown any sort of interest in the past. I spent the next hour and a half trying to divert them away from where we were setting the nets. There was a group of nine of them that just kept coming back, no matter how far I moved them away. After an hour, out of the gloom, another cow came wandering down the path from the centre. It seems that these nine were looking to join up with their friend and, once they had done so, they wandered off and left us in peace. Unfortunately, this meant that we were very much behind in setting up, and so we decided to forget about setting nets along the perimeter track and just focus on the plateau nets. We also set up a bit differently to recent times, moving the Mipit Triangle alongside the other nets on the plateau bushes. We also set a dog-leg around a very square, solid bush on the other side of the path from our normal layout:

We didn’t get to do our first round until 9:00 and in all only had 3 productive rounds, between 9:00 and 10:30. Thereafter the catch died right away and we started to pack up at 11:30.

It was a frustrating start but we had a very pleasant morning with a decent haul of birds: not many species and mainly Meadow Pipits, but a good looking juvenile male Stonechat and a lovely haul of Reed Bunting:

The list for the day was: Wren 1(1); Meadow Pipit 36; Stonechat 1; Reed Bunting 14(1). Totals: 52 birds ringed from 4 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species.

In amongst the Meadow Pipits there were a couple showing abnormal swellings around where the claw joins the foot. They didn’t look like pox pustules but it would be interesting to find out what causes it. One of them had an outer primary feather that looked in poor condition and it, too, had a growth where the feather erupts from the limb:

This was my fourth outing of the week: Friday was spent cleaning out Barn Owl boxes with Lucy & Steph. It is astonishing just how deep the layers of pellets and muck can get very quickly. Clearly, from the number of skulls we found, the last couple of years have been good vole years in our area. We collected a good number of pellets for the children of the Wildlife Trust’s Watch group to dissect.

First Winter Visitors: Somerford Common, Saturday, 17th October 2020

This week there has been lots of sightings of Redwing around the area. On Thursday at Ravensroost we tried luring for them but with no sign of them. Today we were at Somerford Common looking to try again. I was joined by Alice and David for the morning and I decided to keep it simple. We set just 6 nets:

We set the track ride up first and put on a lure for Redwing whilst we set up the other nets. Part way through I went back to check on the nets and took out 2 Wrens and our first Redwing of this autumn / winter.

10 minutes later I sent David back to check again: another Redwing plus a Long-tailed Tit, some Blue Tits and Goldcrests plus a new Marsh Tit.

The woodland nets had another lure for Redwing, Lesser Redpoll and Marsh Tit (which usually brings in lots of other titmice as well). The woodland nets were very quiet: first round producing a solitary Goldcrest. That was it in there for the next couple of rounds and then I opted to go and check them whilst Alice and David took a few birds out of the other nets. I was delighted to find a couple of Lesser Redpoll in the net immediately adjacent to the lure:

That was pretty much it for those nets. We did catch another Lesser Redpoll, a Great Tit and a Wren but nothing else. No doubt that will change significantly once I set up the feeding station there next month!

Until about 10:30 we had quite a few Redwing flying around the site, sitting in the big old oak tree adjacent to our net ride but, in the main, avoiding the net. That said, we were happy with what we caught. At 10:30 I changed the lure from Redwing to Goldcrest. I am always mindful of not luring Goldcrest until later in the morning, and only if the weather is warm enough. I am pleased to say that all bar one of the Goldcrest caught this morning weighed in at more than 5g, with one actually scaling at 6g. These are good weights for Goldcrest in the Braydon Forest.

The list for the morning was: Blue Tit 3(1); Great Tit (1); Marsh Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren 3(2); Redwing 5; Goldcrest 8(4); Lesser Redpoll 3; Bullfinch 1. Totals: 25 birds ringed from 8 species; 8 birds retrapped from 4 species, making 33 birds processed from 9 species.

It was a quiet and very relaxed morning and, despite not being inundated with birds, I have to admit, very enjoyable. We were accompanied all morning by a Robin (unringed) who spent the entire time hopping or flitting around our ringing station. When we arrived we saw that someone had spread some bird food on the granite blocks that Forestry England have used to replace the vandalised gateways, that they got fed up with replacing, and are pretty well convinced it had been done to benefit this Robin.

One of the beauties of not setting up masses of net is that taking down is a quick and easy task. The birds stopped moving by 11:00, we gave it another 30 minutes and started to take down. As the odd Goldcrest was still coming to the lure we left the ride on the path to last. I did have an ulterior motive: I only had 4 AA size rings left on that particular ring string and I wanted to catch enough to finish it off. By the time we had the woodland nets down, three Goldcrest had obligingly dropped into the remaining net ride. We processed them, resigned to having one left on the string. At midday David’s dad turned up to take him home. Almost immediately after he left, a very helpful Goldcrest flew into the net so we could tidy up that particular ring string. We closed those nets and took them down and were away from site by 12:30.

Ravensroost Wood: Thursday, 15th October 2020

Anyone who read my blog post about the session on the 21st July will know that this is my first time back since then, in what in previous years has been one of my two main ringing sites. After the trouble on that occasion, I agreed with the Trust that it would be safest to stay away from public areas when working solo. Fortunately, as lockdown has eased, I am able to bring my trainees out with me and, with the Trust agreeing that I can close off specific areas from the public, using signage that they suggested (bigger, brighter than the BTO signs, much less easy to pretend you haven’t seen them) Lucy and I ventured out to Ravensroost Woods this morning. For those that know the Woods, we set just 6 nets: 4 x 18m along ride R28 and 2 x 189m along ride R38. For those who don’t know the wood, these are the first cross rides running west to east off the main path and tend to be the most productive rides. You can see where on the map of the site on the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s website.

https://www.wiltshirewildlife.org/ravensroost-wood-including-avis-distillery-and-warbler-meadows-malmesbury

As we weren’t setting much net, we had a late start, at 7:00, and started catching straight away. At 9:00 we had a large catch based around a mixed flock of titmice and Goldcrests. Thereafter the catch was slow: just 2 to 3 birds per round. Although it was a bright sunny day, the east wind dropped the temperature down and it never felt warm at all during the session. I suspect that this was a key reason why the movement was so slow. We did end up with a total of 45 birds, Lucy got to process her first Nuthatch, and we caught and processed a juvenile Marsh Tit, so it was a decent session. Once again, the largest portion of the catch was Goldcrests.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch 2; Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 3(3); Great Tit 6(1); Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit 4(1); Wren 2; Robin 4(1); Blackbird 1; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 12; Chaffinch 1. Totals: 39 birds ringed from 13 species and 6 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 45 birds processed from 13 species.

Although I did lure for them, there was no sign of any Redwing, Siskin or Lesser Redpoll this morning. Early days yet. though.

As to the previous incident, I can say more now. Not content with damaging a net that will cost me over £100 to replace, the vandals then made a malicious and vexatious complaint about me to the BTO. That is why I got the police involved: I was prepared to swallow the cost as an occupational hazard until they tried to attack my licence to practice. I am pleased to say that the police have taken the criminal damage seriously, have identified one of them, and are pursuing that person for restitution for the damage they caused. I did have independent witnesses to their activities (which they admitted to the BTO in their complaint, I have a copy of their email with their details redacted – but they lied, saying I had no signs up (how did they know to complain to the BTO if they hadn’t read it on my signs?)) and I bumped into the witnesses again this morning. I am delighted to say that they immediately agreed to make statements to the police supporting the facts of what happened. With their permission, I have passed their details on to the case officer.

I am not vindictive, and would have dropped it if they had not complained to the BTO, I would drop it now if they would pay to replace the net they damaged, which they told the BTO they would do, until they found out how expensive the equipment was that they damaged. The ramifications of their ignorant actions are significant. I have been running a project in Ravensroost Woods for over 8 years, providing data about the birdlife in the wood and charting how it has changed over time for the Trust and as part of a wider project covering the whole of the Braydon Forest for both the Trust and Forestry England. This year I have missed almost the entire breeding season’s data from Ravensroost Woods, thanks to Covid-19 and then their interference. Embedded within that is an important part of the monitoring project I am running across the whole of the Braydon Forest, studying the population of the red-listed and declining Marsh Tit, Poecile palustris. The Trust has been very supportive and helpful throughout, the police have been excellent and I am extremely grateful to both: unfortunately, I cannot say the same for all involved.

Webb’s Wood: Saturday, 10th October 2020

Things are beginning to return to some sort of normality (at last). Today I had my second session with Lucy and my first with Alice since the lockdown, as she has returned to the area to start her PhD.

Webb’s Wood was the next on the list for a session and, with wind being forecast, a woodland site made sense. We arrived on site at 6:30 and had the nets open by 7:30. The first birds arrived soon after, but it was very slow throughout the morning. Unfortunately, although the sun did keep putting in an appearance, the place just never really warmed up and the activity levels were very low. It seemed that each round delivered just two birds: one each for Alice and Lucy to process.

I put on lures for Chiffchaff and Blackcap, to see if there were any still around (they weren’t), and also for Redwing, to see if any had arrived yet (they haven’t). It wasn’t just wishful thinking: one has been caught on this date in the last two years, both at Somerford Common, and we can expect them to arrive in numbers during the course of this month.

The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 1; Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Wren 2; Robin (1); Blackbird 1; Goldcrest 11(2). Totals: 19 birds ringed from 7 species and 4 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 23 birds processed from 8 species.

We had a good haul of Goldcrests again. I don’t lure for them until after 10:00, to give them time to forage and feed up after the night time. All bar one of them that we caught today weighed over 5g, so it looks as if most are on track to get to the weight they will need for the winter period.

The wind started to really get up at about 10:30, so we closed and took down the exposed nets first, finally leaving site just before midday. It is fairly typical of a session at this time of year: in between migrants, and no feeding stations set up yet. Still, an enjoyable session and very pleased with the skills and application of my two recent recruits.

Red Lodge: Wednesday, 7th October 2020

This was my first taster session with my potential new trainee, Lucy Mortlock. Lucy has spent the last good few months in Northern Ireland, ringing mainly waders. It has been such a civilised experience that she had forgotten all of the joys of ringing titmice! Time for a reminder.

We set just a few nets at the main crossroads in the northern woodland:

This area can be a bit variable, usually producing 30 to 40 birds but just occasionally producing close to 100. Things did not start too auspiciously. We had the nets open by 7:30 and first round delivered a Robin and a Goldcrest. The second round a new Marsh Tit and a Blue Tit. Next round another new Marsh Tit, Blue Tit and a Song Thrush. We then had the odd bird turn up: a few Goldcrests being the highlight. It really did look like it was going to be very slow session.

Steph arrived (with 18 month old Beatrice) at 9:15 after the school run, and we processed another few birds in the next few rounds. Just when I was ready to throw in the towel, at 10:45, a significant tit flock arrived, together with another bunch of Goldcrests. Lucy has certainly been well and truly initiated into the “delights” of extracting and ringing Blue Tits! Not only that but Beatrice was saying “Blue Tit” quite clearly by the time she and Steph had to leave at 11:30. Her first bird name!

The morning’s catch was: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 19(1); Great Tit 3(2); Coal Tit 6; Marsh Tit 2; Wren (1); Robin 1; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird (1); Goldcrest 10(1). Totals: 43 birds ringed from 8 species; 6 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 49 birds processed from 10 species.

As on Monday, lots of Nuthatch calling but not getting into the nets. Very enjoyable, and I am sure that Lucy will make a great addition to the team.

The Firs: Monday, 5th October 2020

After nearly 3 days of often torrential rain, there was a weather window predicted for Monday morning, with the rain closing in again at lunchtime. It was forecast to be breezy from the west, so I chose a site in which the rides run north to south, with a good thick tree barrier to protect the nets from billowing. As I had already arranged to go to Red Lodge on Wednesday, it had to be the Firs, also known as the Braydon Bog!

I was rather interested to see what impact the rain had had on the underfoot conditions. All I can say is that the summer has clearly been exceptionally dry: the central glade just wasn’t muddy. I am told that the bottom of the site is reverting to type, so I am sure it won’t be long before we are sliding our way along the net rides.

As it was a spur of the moment decision, I worked solo. Just 7 nets: 6 x 18m and 1 x 12m set in two groups of 3 x 18m in one and the rest in the other, covers the whole of the lower part of the central glade.

It was very much typical of this time of year: a straggling summer migrant that might be staying over, a Chiffchaff, and no sign of any winter migrants yet. I played lures for Redwing, Siskin and Lesser Redpoll all to no avail!

Whilst I was setting up there were at least three Tawny Owls calling around the wood. The rest of the morning was punctuated by Nuthatches calling: an absolute, wonderful cacophony, only this time none made it into the nets!

It was good, reasonably busy, session absolutely dominated by Blue and Great Tits. I have spent a lot of time looking at moult in the last couple of years and Monday morning provided the first case of aberrant moult I have seen in a Blue Tit:

For those who aren’t ringers or know about moult, after breeding adults of most species undergo a moult. Some moult everything, others just do partial moult, but the one thing that virtually all of them do, is moult their flight feathers. They have been in place since the previous year and are pretty worn out by the time their young have fledged. Passerines generally have 10 primaries, the outer flight feathers, and they moult from the innermost outwards, as a general rule. This Blue Tit has moulted and renewed it outer 7 primary feathers before moulting the inner 3 primaries. One is actually missing, one is two-thirds grown and the other is three-quarters grown. Quite unusual.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 15(3); Great Tit 13(1); Marsh Tit (2); Long-tailed Tit 2; Wren 1(1); Blackbird 4; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 6; Chaffinch 1. Totals: 43 birds ringed from 8 species and 7 birds retrapped from 4 species, making 50 birds processed from 9 species.

In order to avoid the threatened rain, I started packing up at 11:30, even though the sky was clear and blue with just a few clouds. As I was just about finished a couple of the staff members from the Wildlife Trust’s Well-being group turned up, along with a minibus full of children from one of the local schools. A shame I had nothing left to show them, as it always gets a good response.

I left the site at 12:15 and, doubly unlucky for the schoolchildren, as I got home the promised rain arrived!

West Wilts Ringing Group September 2020 Results

An excellent month for birds this September.  It was our second highest catch for any month since the group gained its current structure in January 2013.  The highest was October last year: there’s a challenge. I think that the key to it is how the C-permit holders, since lockdown prevented us working together, have got into working independently so more sessions are being carried out. I also found myself doing more sessions because of the weather.  So often in the last couple of months my regular Saturday / Wednesday routine has become Saturday / Monday or Tuesday / Thursday or Friday. As a result we did 28 full sessions between us last month.  Compare that with last year when, admittedly, the weather was rubbish, Jonny, Ellie and I were on Skokholm Island for the first week, and between us the group only managed 10 full sessions.  Funnily enough, they were pretty strong sessions, averaging out at 60+ birds per session whereas this year it averages out at just 44+ birds per session.

The results were:

The variety in the catch is very clear: 41 species as opposed to 32 last year.  There were huge increases in the numbers of Blackcap and Chiffchaff in the catch. This seems to have been the story across the most of the country this year as the summer visitors are leaving our shores. Pretty striking also is the increase in the Dunnocks caught: 2.5 times that of last year but, of course, that is in line with the increased number of sessions.  Indisputable in their increase is the arrival of Meadow Pipits at Blakehill Farm.  109 of them caught in a single session on the 21st of the month.  This was our single largest catch of the month, with a total of 137 birds caught between myself and Jonny.  Meadow Pipit numbers at the coastal observatories have been absolutely huge so far this year. We estimated that there had to be at least 300 flying around Blakehill that day.  They do seem to be mainly focused on the plateau which, like last year, is absolutely heaving with crane flies.

Kestrels are elusive so catching one at Blakehill Farm was a real bonus.  Despite the fact that since January 2013 we have only caught 5: 3 at Blakehill, 1 at Tedworth and 1 at Battlesbury,  I am just so generous, despite have only ever ringed two of them in my 11 year career to date, I let Andrew ring the bird.  That didn’t stop me becoming the victim of its remarkably efficient tearing beak.  The wound has finally healed!

Our most exciting catch of the month came at New Zealand Farm on the 14th.  Andrew had started to utilise the site in May. It had lain dormant for 18 months, and had only been ringed 7 times since 1st January 2015, so it is an ideal site for someone with a C-permit to manage and use.  As we know that the catches on the site can be pretty big, Jonny, Ellie and I tagged along to help out.  It was a super morning, 103 birds caught; but what was particularly good was that I was given a lure for House Martin. Whilst Jonny and I have ringed a few at Ravensroost Meadow, neither Ellie nor Andrew had them on their list and none had previously been caught at NZF.  The lure worked beautifully: we had hundreds of both Swallow and House Martin circulating over the scrub, and managed to attract down 30 of the latter and several of the former. 

October of last year was our biggest ever month. Whether we will match it is debatable. Ellie and I are still working out a safe way for us to start using Ravensroost Woods again, and it probably also depends upon how many sessions we manage, and how many Meadow Pipits we catch, at Blakehill Farm.  It is turning into an even better year for the group than the last, and that was stellar for us.

Blakehill Farm West: Tuesday, 29th September 2020

After the excellent sessions we have had on the eastern side of Blakehill Farm, particularly with the Meadow Pipit catch last time out, I decided to have a go on the farm side of the site today. It is never going to deliver the volume of birds that we get on the plateau, being more traditional farm pasture, but we usually guarantee a House Sparrow or two. I also wanted to see whether the Meadow Pipits were as abundant over this side as they are on the plateau. I was working solo, so kept to the one field and a manageable number of nets.

The catch started really well: with 10 birds in the T-junction ride in the second round, and then it died a death. With the exception of one additional Chiffchaff, they didn’t catch another bird. Most unusual. The following rounds produced just one or two birds each time.

However, the Mipit triangle started catching, two at a time. Funnily enough, the first four out of the net came from the outside, birds caught as they were flying in. Usually the birds fly in to the lure and are caught when you run at the nets and the birds panic and fly into the net when trying to escape. Otherwise, because they fly slowly and have good eyesight, they will fly up and over your nets. As I am now slow and cumbersome, with a dodgy ankle to boot, I watched several Meadow Pipits do exactly that!

As a bit of a different “treat”, five of the first ten birds were Blue Tits! That is my biggest catch of them since the 7th September.

The list for the session was: Blue Tit 4(1); Wren 1; Dunnock 2; Meadow Pipit 6; Robin 2(2); Blackbird 1; Great Tit (1); Blackcap 2; Chiffchaff 2; House Sparrow 1. Totals: 21 birds ringed from 9 species and 4 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 25 birds processed from 10 species.

I packed up at midday. As I was leaving site I was treated to sightings of a couple of Stonechat in the peri track hedgerows and a solitary Wheatear that displayed nicely in front of the car. One day I will catch one at Blakehill Farm!

Beavering Away To No Great Effect: Saturday, 26th September 2020

My last three sessions at Lower Moor Farm have delivered 40 to 50 birds per session, so I was looking forward to a decent haul this morning. Arriving on site at 6:30 I set up my two usual net sets: 2 x 18m along the stream side and 3 x 18m along the lakeside. There is plenty of evidence of their activity around the site but this is only the second time I have seen one here.

As I was setting up the lakeside net ride I heard some very obvious and very loud tail slapping. Just down from me, close in to the side of Mallard Lake, was a Beaver, which had clearly decided I was a predator. It swam off and disappeared behind the Cormorant roost island.

With our current mini-obsession with Meadow Pipits, I set a Pipit triangle at the end of the lakeside net ride and put the lure on. The only previous time I had caught Meadow Pipits at Lower Moor Farm was at this time in 2014 when I caught 29. Unfortunately, the field where I caught them is currently playing host to a number of Belted Galloways and also has a public footpath across it and, as I have made clear, I am avoiding setting nets in public areas for the foreseeable future and will certainly not do so when working solo. It was not particularly productive. Over the course of the morning I saw just 3 Meadow Pipits and caught 1. You could call it a 33.33% success rate, which I would be very happy with if there were 300 Meadow Pipits flying around.

It was symptomatic of the whole session and, instead of the hoped for 40+ birds, I caught the princely total of 8 birds from 7 species. These were: Treecreeper (1); Blue Tit (1); Great Tit 1; Meadow Pipit 1; Robin (1); Blackbird 1; Blackcap 2.

I am sure that the issue was the cold! The north wind shall blow and we didn’t have snow because that would have warmed it up! It finally started to warm up at 10:00 but one of the rides stayed in shade and cold all morning. There were no insects flying around until about 10:30.

Not to say it wasn’t a very pleasant morning. Lots of people stopped by to see what was going on and came by for a chat. This included one of the lecturers in ecology and environmental studies from Oxford-Brookes University. He has spent some time with Matt Prior on his Tree Sparrow project and we will be arranging some sessions for him to bring students along to once life returns to normal.