Blakehill Farm: Wednesday, 10th June 2020

It is not often that I write up a blog post about such a small catch but this morning was significant for a lot of different reasons. I had planned to be at Blakehill yesterday morning but, unfortunately, the terrain at Somerford Common on Monday played havoc with my arthritic ankle and I decided to delay for a day, rather than hobble up and down the perimeter track.

The weather forecast was for a 10% chance of rain, with a 50% chance between 9:00 and 10:00, back to 10%, with rain setting in at lunch time. It went pretty well to form. I arrived on site at 5:30 and set up nine nets: 8 x 18m and 1 x 12m, all along the hedgerow lining the perimeter track on the eastern edge of the site. It is hard work solo, as the hardcore of the track underlines the verge, and requires a lot of hammering with a 1kg lump hammer and a piece of hardened steel to make holes deep enough to take the net poles. It took an hour to set the nets. As soon as I had them all open, the first rain came. It was very light and didn’t necessitate closing the nets.

I didn’t catch my first birds until nearly 8:00 but, fortunately, I had plenty of birding to keep me occupied. Blakehill Farm is a regular breeding ground for Curlew in north Wiltshire. How successful it is forms part of the Braydon Forest Curlew monitoring project being run by Jonny Cooper. This morning they were very active. At one point there were two flying around calling, whilst another was feeding about 40 metres in front of me, giving great views through my binoculars. Whilst this was going on, a pair of male Cuckoos were doing a call and response routine and, again, I had superb views as one flew around the area, posing in the tops of various trees. A little later in the morning I tried using a female Cuckoo bubble call, in an attempt to bring them in closer. I didn’t succeed in attracting the males but, although I didn’t manage to get it in the nets, I was bowled over by a female Cuckoo replying from the other side of the hedge. It cannot have been any more than 3 metres away, it was so loud, but I didn’t see it or catch it.

Perhaps the most exciting sight of the morning was a Wheatear seen on the paddock fence opposite the hedgerow by Neil Pullen, one of the Wildlife Trust’s Reserve Managers, who lives adjacent to the site. This is either a very late inward migrant or, more excitingly, perhaps a potential breeder for the site. It used to be a regular breeder in Wiltshire, until the agricultural intensification that has impacted so negatively on so many farmland species, ensured that they declined to the point of disappearing as a breeding species in Wiltshire, but Blakehill Farm is managed in such a way that it is perfect for Wheatear, and perhaps this could be the start of a new and exciting breeding population. Something to definitely look out for.

And to the catch: Great Tit 4(1); Robin 1; Blackcap 1; Willow Warbler 5; Reed Bunting (1). Totals: 11 birds ringed from 4 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 13 birds processed from 5 species. Of these birds two each of the Great Tits and the Willow Warblers, plus the Blackcap and the Reed Bunting were adults, the rest were all fledglings.

Once again Willow Warbler was the largest catch. Interestingly, four were taken out of the same net at the same time: a female and three juveniles. They all, including the female, had brown legs. It makes me suspect the young were brood mates and the female was mum.

Juvenile Willow Warbler

To finish off an interesting morning, my car decided to pack up when I was nearly ready to do the same. Fortunately, Nobby, who owns the horse paddocks along the perimeter track on the opposite side from where we set our nets, came along while I was waiting for the breakdown service, and had a set of jump leads handy, which turned out to be the problem. I could cancel the breakdown service, but had to leave the car running whilst I took down my nets. I suspect a lot of cars that have not had a good long run during lockdown might have battery problems.