Blakehill Farm: Monday, 31st August 2020

After yesterday’s enjoyable effort at Lower Moor Farm, I was up at 4:30 this morning and headed to the industrial estate side of Blakehill Farm. Having managed to mislay my reserve keys, Ellie Jones, the northern reserves manager for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and, along with Jonny Cooper, one of my longest serving C-permit holding trainees, provided me with a spare. This worked exactly the same as it did yesterday: let me into the site main gate but wouldn’t open the secondary gate, which meant hopping over aforesaid gate, with all of the nets and poles, for the plateau edge bushes. The padlock on the inner gate at Lower Moor gave up after a couple of hours and a liberal dosing of WD-40 (other penetrating oils are available (but not as good)), which meant only a dozen times clambering over the gate. Unfortunately, Blakehill never gave up and so this ancient, arthritic blimp that passes for my body have to lever itself over and back on every round. Fortunately, I was joined by Steph and Lillie, considerably younger and more nimble, so I could delegate from time to time.

I had the plateau nets open before sunrise and the perimeter track hedgerow nets open by 6:30. Today I had a cunning plan, and it was about as successful as Baldrick’s always were. There is a certain point where in previous years we have caught the majority of our Swallows on the site. During my last visit I noted that they were flying along the track and then up and over the nets. My lightbulb moment: make a cul-de-sac across the path, so we set the usual 2 x 18m nets, with a 6m across the path and a further 18m running back parallel on the opposite side. We had so many Swallows flying around and along the track we were really hopeful of a decent catch. We caught the phenomenal total of absolutely none of them! In fact, that whole net setup caught one bird all morning: a Blue Tit! I will try it again. It is also the place where we catch most of our wintering Redwing, so I might try it for them as well. If at first you don’t succeed! (Who said “Give up”?).

It was a quiet morning and we only caught 22 birds, the aforementioned Blue Tit, a Dunnock and two retrapped Great Tits were to be expected, but the rest of the catch was interesting. Steph’s first foray onto the plateau produced a couple of Reed Buntings, our first Whinchat of the autumn, and only the second ever Sedge Warbler ringed there:

Over the course of the morning the catching was very sketchy, with a small burst of 8 birds at 9:30. By 10:30 it had really died a death, so we started taking down at 11:00. We had the peri track nets down and went out to the plateau to take down, finding our second Whinchat of the morning and a stonkingly good male Stonechat. I love a bird where I can do moult scores on primaries, secondaries and tail.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 1; Great Tit (2); Dunnock 1; Stonechat 1; Whinchat 2; Sedge Warbler 1; Blackcap 6; Whitethroat 2; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 1; Willow Warbler 1; Goldfinch 1; Reed Bunting 2. 20 birds ringed from 12 species, 2 birds retrapped from 1 species, making 22 birds processed from 13 species. The only adults in the catch were 2 of the Blackcaps and the male Stonechat.

Whilst whingeing about the lack of birds over coffee, I thought I would have a quick look at DemOn to check on previous records for this site for the end of August (for those not in the know, DemOn stands for Demography Online and is the BTO’s new online system for data entry beloved by forward thinking, progressive ringers and hated by the Luddites). I was astonished to find that this was the first time I had actually ringed this site at this time of year. In fact, prior to my earlier visit on the 12th August this year, the only other August visit was on the 3rd August 2019. This is one of the changes wrought by Covid-19: the restrictions of this disease having prevented me from carrying out my long-term projects at Lower Moor Farm and Ravensroost Woods this year which, in turn, restricted my activities at other sites.

Records show that the big catches here will start (hopefully) in two weeks time, when the Meadow Pipits start rolling in. The signs are good: crane flies are starting to emerge in reasonable numbers and I am pretty sure that this has prompted the bumper numbers of Meadow Pipits we have caught over the last couple of years. This is a brilliant result of the way the Wildlife Trust farming team are managing this part of the reserve: lightly grazed by small numbers of cattle outside of the Curlew breeding season.

As we were taking down the nets, we both noticed that there were a good number of crab spiders using our poles as vantage points:

I am not 100% certain but I think this is Xysticus cristatus. That just happens to be the commonest species in Europe.