One thing I firmly believe is that life is a continuous learning experience and today was a superb lesson for me. I have a pullus ringing endorsement for birds that nest in holes and boxes, plus Swallows, but I don’t have an endorsement for ringing open nest birds. I have done some under supervision but few warbler or finch species. The BTO have given me a target to attain for them to give me the open nest endorsement.
My friend Jack Daw is one of the most experienced nest finders and pullus ringers in the world, having focused entirely on them for most of his independent ringing activities. His entire summer is focused on nest surveying. We know each other through my ringing sessions at Tedworth House, where he is on the staff and helps out with my setting up of a morning. He kindly offered to take me with him on some of his survey sessions, to give me the relevant experience. The first of these sessions was this morning.
We met in Tidworth and the first stop was to a small wood at the south east corner of the town, where Jack has been monitoring a Blackcap nest. On checking the nest there were two pulli (a small clutch) ready to be ringed: which I duly did.
Our next stop was on SPTA, where we went to have a look at a number of nests: Blackbird (predated); Bullfinch (too young to ring); Blackcap (too old, couldn’t safely be handled without them deserting the nest); Whitethroat (eggs) and then to a Chaffinch nest where we ringed 5 healthy youngsters. This was followed by another Whitethroat nest, where there was another good crop of 5 youngsters able to be ringed.
After a brief detour to have a look at a superb piece of vetch-covered land, where we were treated to good numbers of Adonis Blue and one lonely Grizzled Skipper, we crossed to the other side of the A338, to an extensive piece of Hawthorn scrub on the side of a chalk bank. This habitat is becoming scarcer on Salisbury Plain, as the Chalk Grasslands Restoration project is implemented without consideration for the many species that need areas of scrub to nest in. There is no point in developing a fantastic foraging habitat for Linnets, Yellowhammers, Corn Buntings, etc. if you don’t leave them anywhere to nest. Some people think that conservation is an apolitical end in itself: it is not, conservation is entirely political and, unless we win the political battle, so much of our wildlife and countryside will continue to decline.
Within the Hawthorn scrub we visited over a dozen nests: many Linnets had already fledged their first broods. One had five eggs in it, but they were cold and the nest had clearly been deserted. Perhaps recent bad weather or predation had removed one or both of the parent birds. Several of the nests had young ready for ringing, and I ringed four broods of Linnet: one brood of 3 and three broods of 4. One of the youngsters in one of the 4-strong broods was too small to ring, so it was put back without.
During this part of our walk, Jack found two Yellowhammer nests, each with eggs, within 5 feet of each other and a Dunnock nest, also with eggs.
So, what did I learn today? What a privilege it is to be a ringer. Practically, I learnt where to look for nests; how to approach a nest safely, without making obvious tracks, and without leading predators to the nest; how to find a nest; how to examine it without damaging the nest or its contents; how to cover your tracks on leaving, so the nest is left safe; and, importantly, what stage it is safe to ring the pulli at, and when they have gone past that point (i.e. so they don’t flee the nest before they are ready). Jack is a great example and, although he won’t admit it, an excellent teacher.