Blakehill Farm: Saturday, 21st May 2022

Rosie had a volunteer group turning up at Blakehill Farm, to work at nearby Purton Stoke Common this morning. They were scheduled to arrive at 10:00, so I changed today’s venue from Red Lodge to Blakehill, so she could get a good few hours of ringing in before having to go to work. David also joined us for the session. We met at 5:30 and set our main nets in the field in front the Whitworth building.

Over the winter a lot of work has been done replacing the fencing behind the bramble at the western edge of the field. This has left an alleyway between the tree line and the brambles that is just right for a good long net ride: which is where we set the 3 x 18m nets. I also thought that it might make a great hunting ride for a Sparrowhawk – not today though!

The only net retained from our last session was the 9m net set at the gate from the farm, with a 12m dog-legged to the left of it. If we are going to catch House Sparrows, that 9m net is the most likely place. In fact, the first bird in that net was our second juvenile Dunnock of the year.

The first round got us a bit over-excited: with an eleven bird catch. It included the aforementioned juvenile Dunnock, plus two Lesser Whitethroat and a Whitethroat. After that, it fell away, as usual, with just two or three birds per round, except for a wee spike at 9:45 when we caught six. I know for some that would not be enough but, as we are entering the first breeding season that many of my trainees have been involved with, it gives me the time needed to go through the intricacies of brood patch stages, and spend time on some of the more difficult species to sex. Taking yesterday as an example: we caught a total of five Lesser Whitethroat: three males and two females. All three males had a brood patch, as well as a pronounced cloacal protuberance. Sexing them is just not that easy, even for someone like me, who has been doing it for thirteen years. If they are difficult, so are Garden Warblers, and we had another of those as well. The fact is, though, that we had the time to be able to make considered judgements.

When Rosie’s volunteer group turned up it was at the same time as we had our little spike in the catch, so I was able give those volunteers a short ringing demonstration before they went off to start their work. They were very appreciative. One of the birds that I was able to show them was our first juvenile Robin of the year:

You can see why they are nicknamed “Bobbles”.

Our list for the day was: Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 2(1); Dunnock 3; Robin 2; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird (1); Blackcap 1; Garden Warbler 1; Whitethroat 3; Lesser Whitethroat 5; Chiffchaff 2; Willow Warbler 2; House Sparrow 1. Totals: 25 adult birds ringed from 12 species; 2 juveniles ringed from 2 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 29 birds processed from 13 species.

We started to close the nets at 11:15, as the breeze had started to get up and, particularly, the long ride could have been a disaster. As it was, we had a short length of extraction from bramble and tree debris, but it wasn’t too bad. Trevor came along and helped us pack up again, meaning that we were able to get everything down and packed away just before 13:00. We spent the entire morning listening to a male Cuckoo calling for a mate. At one point a second joined in the calling. What we didn’t hear or see at all this morning was any sign of the Curlew.

One interesting creature that we came across as I was packing away was this beautiful green spider:

Arianella opisthographa

Apparently it is a very common species. This is a female just over 6mm long. I was surprised that my phone camera enabled me to get a decent shot, that I could actually enlarge.

Ravensroost Meadows: Wednesday, 18th May 2022

Funny how, after a session that went so well, life can bring you back down to earth with a massive bump! Meeting at 5:00, Rosie, Miranda and I set up our nets, had them open by 6:00 and started catching straight away.

All of the nets are 5-shelf Ecotones with the exception of the 18m 3-shelf. That started out as an Ecotone 5-shelf until it was remodelled by a couple of Roe Deer, whilst erected within Ravensroost Wood, and I had to revise it to make it useable. It was either that or throw away a net that cost over £100!

We started out with a female Reed Bunting coming in as we were opening the nets. The next round started out with my teams first Lesser Whitethroat and Whitethroat of the year. These were followed by another two of each as the morning progressed.

Rosie, as ever, had to leave at 8:30 to start work at Lower Moor Farm. At least with the early morning starts, she is getting the opportunity to ring some birds before leaving the site. Miranda and I had a quiet morning, with a couple of birds during each round and we ended up with a total of 28. What was totally enjoyable about the catch was the summer migrant variety: as well as Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat we had Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. Not caught was a Cuckoo that was calling from the edge of the woodland and several Swallow that appeared once the weather warmed and the insects started moving around.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 3; Wren 1(1); Robin (1); Blackbird 3(1); Blackcap 3; Garden Warbler 2(1); Whitethroat 3; Lesser Whitethroat 1(2); Chiffchaff 2; Willow Warbler 1(1); Reed Bunting 1. Totals: 20 birds ringed from 10 species and 8 birds retrapped from 7 species, making 28 birds processed from 12 species.

The most interesting of our recaptures was a Garden Warbler, caught and ringed as an adult in Ravensroost Wood in July 2017. Given that these birds overwinter in the Congo, this bird has made the trip at least 5 times: 21,730+ miles. It is no wonder that the usual lifespan is a mere 2 years, astonishing that the oldest known is over 10 years from date of ringing.

The wind started to get up at 11:00, so Miranda and I started a slowish close down, extracting the few birds that flew in as we were closing the nets. Everything was packed away and ready to leave by 12:30 only, having waved “cheerio” to Miranda, the clutch pedal on my car decided to repeat its trick of a week ago, and fall flat to the floor. I called out my friendly mobile mechanic who, fortunately, was just finishing a job in Cricklade, and came straight over. I met him at the main gate to Ravens Retreat, as he had never been there before. Whilst waiting I noticed this caterpillar on the latch of the field gate:

Lackey Moth, Malacosma neustria, caterpillar

When Alan, the mechanic, arrived, and we went back to the car, I noticed this sitting on the driver side front wheel:

Eyed Hawkmoth, Smerinthus ocellata

After Alan bled the clutch, so I could actually change gear, I eventually got away from site at just before 14:00 and the car got me home. It looks like I am going to have to check the clutch fluid levels every time I need to use the car: either that or get the gear box checked out.

An update: I have had feedback from the Ravensroost Reserve warden, who regularly monitors moths in the complex, and this is the first record of an Eyed Hawkmoth at the site. That’s nice to know.

CES 2: Lower Moor Farm, Saturday, 14th May 2022

It is not often I have a 12 day break between sessions but, due to a number of circumstances beyond my control, that is what has happened, with two sessions missed since the first CES on the 2nd May.

I was on site just after 5:00 and joined bright and early (5:30) by David, and a little later in the session by Anna. We set all of our usual CES nets. Last time, although we caught fewer birds, every net set caught. Today one of our most reliable nets failed to catch a single bird. That is not to say that it wasn’t full of birdsong: Cetti’s Warbler, Blackcap, Garden Warbler and Chiffchaff kept up a constant chorus all morning, they just avoided the nets.

With the nets open by 6:30 we started catching soon after. Our first catch was a small flock of four Long-tailed Tits:

All four were juveniles, close together in the same net and one would suspect that they were brood mates. In the next round we caught another six. They were in the same net ride but at the farthest end from where the others were caught. Again, all juveniles, all closely grouped together in the same net, again, possibly brood mates. Importantly, these are the earliest juvenile Long-tailed Tits the group as a whole has caught by 6 whole days.

We kept catching the odd Blackcap, Great Tit and Chiffchaff but, unusually, they were all recaptures: not a single new bird for those species on the site. Amongst today’s highlights were:

Our first Cetti’s Warbler of the year
First juvenile Dunnock of the year

This is the fourth earliest juvenile Dunnock the group has ever caught.

The list for the day ended up as: Treecreeper (1); Great Tit (3); Long-tailed Tit 10: Wren (1); Dunnock 1(5); Blackbird 1(1); Cetti’s Warbler 1; Blackcap (8); Garden Warbler 1(1); Chiffchaff (3). Totals: 14 birds ringed from 5 species and 23 birds retrapped from 8 species, making 37 birds processed from 10 species. Interestingly, CES 2 last year also delivered 37 birds processed from 12 species, with 11 ringed from 6 species and 26 retrapped from 11 species. Interestingly, two of the species missing this year were two of our commoner ones: Robin and Song Thrush.

The CES sessions rather fell away last year, after the bout of extremely wet and windy weather in the last couple of weeks of May. Hopefully there won’t be a repeat of that this year.

During the course of the session we were joined by quite a few people interested to see what was happening. There were a couple of farmers from the Avebury area who had come to photograph dragonflies and anything else they had around. We had a decent chat about the improvements to the bird life on their farm since the funding of the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area and the conservation work done to help expand the Tree Sparrow and Corn Bunting populations in their area.

Rob Werran and his fiancée arrived at about 8:30. This was Rob’s farewell to the team. He has been a delight to have around, but increased pressures at his work have made it impossible for him to be able to commit the time. If that changes he knows he is welcome back.

One thing we did note was there was a significant emergence of what I am pretty certain is the Downy Emerald, C0rdulia aenea:

We closed the nets at 11:55 and had everything packed away and ready to leave site by 12:45. I must pay a big “thank you” to David’s dad, Trevor. As David doesn’t drive, his dad gets up early to get him to site, and always arrives in time to help us pack away at the end of the session.

West Wilts Ringing Group Results: April 2022

Another decent month for the group when compared with previous Aprils.  However, compared with April 2021, we have failed to get a similarly good spread of species: a total of just 31 species compared to 39 processed last year.

So what is missing this year? Curlew: not really surprising given the previous history.  That said,  we have had a good number of resightings of the leg tagged Curlew ringed last year.  After its winter sojourn at Portscatho in Cornwall, where it was last sighted on the 23rd January, it was next reported at CWP 200 on the 5th March and has been seen regularly around the the Thames and on Blakehill Farm since.  

Some of our usual woodland species: Great Spotted Woodpecker and Jay, Lesser Redpoll (a Biss Wood example so is it resident or a winter visitor?).  The Kingfisher apart, the other species missed this year were those caught out on the Imber Ranges area, particularly the missing Stonechats and Yellowhammers.  It just shows how influential certain sites can be in skewing the group results.

Added this April was another 3 Dipper, ringed as part of Jonny’s Bybrook Dipper project.  It has certainly started well.  Alongside that, Andy added a Grey Wagtail at one of his sites and we had a couple of Garden Warblers arrive at Langford Lakes towards the end of the month.

CES 1: Lower Moor Farm, Monday, 2nd May 2022

I had planned to start my CES on Saturday but, unfortunately, I had to postpone it. For the last couple of months I have been afflicted by severe pains, muscle cramps and spasms in my legs, which has restricted my mobility and, on some mornings, I just cannot move, leading to cancellation of several sessions. So, at 5:50 on Saturday morning, I had to call the team and tell them that I wasn’t going to be able cancel. Doubly unfortunately, Annie was going to join me for the session, the first time for several months and I really hated having to put her off..

I managed to rearrange for Bank Holiday Monday. Fortunately, this time the painkillers actually kicked in quickly and I was able to move a bit. I was also joined by my original two trainees: both Jonny (now an independent A-permit holder) and Ellie (a C-permit holder) gave up their Monday morning to help out their old trainer. We set up the CES nets in their usual places:

The weather was cold, and it wasn’t the largest catch. There was a lot of bird song from all over the site but they just weren’t really moving. We heard plenty of Cetti’s Warbler, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff plus our first chance of the year to get to grips with the difference between Blackcap and Garden Warbler.

The first couple of rounds produced our first Garden Warblers of the year:

At just after 10:00 the noise level went up considerably when we were, unexpectedly, joined by the Mansfield clan: Steph , Stuart, Isobel and Bea. The only one missing was Lillie, away on a sleepover with friends. Steph got to ring a few birds and Bea got to practice her handling and releasing skills which, for a three-year-old, are extremely good. The weather did turn quite a lot colder, seeing off the family, and prompted us to take down the nets. The catch wasn’t as good as I was hoping for: the birds were there, they just weren’t moving around.

The list for the day was: Long-tailed Tit (3); Wren (1); Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1(1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 5(3); Garden Warbler 3; Chiffchaff 1(2). Totals: 11 birds ringed from 5 species and 13 birds retrapped from 7 species, making 24 birds processed from 8 species.

We were away from site just after midday.

Webb’s Wood: Wednesday, 27th April 2022

This time of year is pretty quiet in the woodlands. I have removed the winter feeding stations and the winter visitors have left, so no Lesser Redpoll or Siskin groups. Our resident tit flocks have split up, pairing up for breeding, as have our other residents. Summer visitors are arriving: mainly males setting up territories, and proclaiming their ownership at ever opportunity.

What is good about this time of year is that the pressure is off. As mentioned in my last post, as a trainer you have more time to introduce your trainees to the delights of sexing sexually monomorphic species: Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins etc. It also enables them to become comfortable with the differing stages of brood patches. In today’s catch we had females that were just starting to develop the brood patch, others with a fully cleared brood patch and a female Blackcap and Robin, both of which were definitely ready for brooding eggs.

I was joined for the morning by Miranda and Rosie, Rosie leaving for work just before 9:00, and the Steph arrived to spend a couple of hours with us as well, before leaving to pick up Bea.

As implied, it wasn’t our biggest catch but the boundaries have definitely changed: Blue Tit (1); Wren (1); Robin 2; Blackbird (2); Blackcap 4; Chiffchaff 7(1); Goldcrest 1(1). Totals: 14 birds ringed from 4 species and 6 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 20 birds processed from 7 species.

What was really rather odd about the session was that we had Willow Warblers singing all over the area, but did not catch a single one.

The weather itself was not great: no rain, no wind, but at one point the temperature suddenly dipped and it became very cold, so we packed up and tried to leave: only to find our exit blocked by a rather large lorry picking up the last of the timber stacks, that were supposed to have been removed by the end of March. It was a minor hold up.

Wind Stopped Play: Ravensroost Wood, Saturday, 23rd April 2022

Today we had a ringing demonstration arranged within Ravensroost Wood for the Swindon Wildlife Group, affiliated with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. We knew that there would be a good turnout, as it was sold out twice over. I was joined by Jonny, David and Anna for the morning: just as well as I am unable to walk much at the moment and they could do all the hard work whilst I sat, drank coffee and did the presentations. We set up 7 x 18m and 2 x 12m nets split between rides R28 and R38:

Coupe V was coppiced this winter, with coupe X at the 6 year growth stage, making a decent backdrop to the open land. Coupes U1 and T2 are at that stage where they are above head height but still seem a bit sparse. The other main change is that the rides were opened last year, to make them wider and drier, approximately 2m wide.

We had people arriving for 9:00, so didn’t start horribly early, meeting at 6:30 and getting the nets up and open by 7:45, when we caught the first bird. As the visitors started to arrive we were lucky enough to get a reasonable catch of birds. I always forget, because we handle so many birds and see so many close up, just how exciting it is for general members of the public to see birds up close.

When they are getting excellent views of Blue Tit, Wren, Blackcap and Chiffchaff, learning identification and ageing techniques, and how to safely hold and release birds, it becomes an exciting event for them. As, at this time of year, we can also show them how to identify the sexes of sexually monomorphic species. With Blue Tit, Robin and Blackcap showing well-developed brood patches and male Blue Tits, Blackcaps and Wrens with the well developed engorgement of their cloaca, their cloacal protuberances, to use the appropriate language, their “willies” for the children amongst the adults, the audience was extremely satisfied with what they saw,

That is just as well as, unfortunately, at 10:30 the wind really started to get up and I had to decide that the conditions were too dangerous and we shut the nets and called an early halt to the demonstration.

It was a shame, as there was so much bird song around: particularly excellent numbers of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and, with better weather conditions, we could well have had an excellent catch. In the event we caught: Blue Tit 2(1); Wren (2); Robin (1); Blackbird 1; Blackcap 6; Chiffchaff (1). Totals: 9 birds ringed from 3 species and 5 birds retrapped from 4 species, making 14 birds processed from 6 species.

So, despite the low numbers, everybody thanked us for giving them such an enjoyable, educational and exciting session. The team then spent the next hour extracting nets from foliage (thank goodness for the absence of Blackthorn, and the abundance of Hazel) and packing away. We left site at about 11:30, disappointed that we couldn’t do more, delighted that the paying public felt they had their money’s worth (the money goes to the Swindon Wildlife Group, who disburse it according to whatever their current priorities are – sometimes that is us, not today however, but I am certainly not complaining, I like working with them and they have been very generous to me and the team in the recent past.)

Just a quick update: since this session we have had more emails than ever before thanking us for giving them the experience, the detailed explanations on ageing and sexing but, particularly, for enabling the children to get hands on experience of holding and releasing those few birds where we allowed it. Chiffchaffs are off limits because they are so delicate.

Blakehill Farm West: Wednesday, 20th April 2022

A bittersweet morning this morning: we had a quiet but interesting session. Bittersweet because it is the last session that Tanya will be joining me, as she is moving to Shropshire to start a new job, having finished her traineeship with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Along with Rosie, she has turned up for nearly every session, to help me get set up before heading off to work, with barely a chance to process any birds. I shall always be grateful. If any ringing trainer in Shropshire is reading this and is looking for a capable, willing helper with a lovely personality to go with it, drop me a line. It will be shame to lose her from the ringing community.

We were joined by Miranda for the morning, which helped make setting up very straightforward:

The ringing station was next door to the Whitworth Building which, for the first time in ages, had the added bonus of being open for most of the morning, offering facilities not often enjoyed by the female members of the team.

Just after eight we were joined by Claire and her children. Zara is quite remarkable: birds of many species will happily sit on her hand far longer than I have seen with any other individual. We are all used to some birds sitting there until they realise they have been released, particularly Bullfinch, but with Zara it seems that virtually every bird is comfortable sitting there until they are prompted to fly off. Perhaps it is the size and shape of her hand that reminds them of being in the nest.

We were serenaded by the Curlew flying around the plateau and calling with their bubbling song. I am pretty certain that at one point we had a Cuckoo fly across the site. Someone passing by swore blind it was a raptor, because of its swept back wings, but Cuckoos can look that way as well. Unfortunately it had disappeared by the time I got my binoculars out of the case. We didn’t hear it calling but hopefully next time!

We had a quiet session, just a few birds each round, but it was enjoyable. The list was: Great Tit 1; Wren (1); Dunnock (1); Robin 1(1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 2; Chiffchaff 4(1); Willow Warbler 1; House Sparrow 2(1). Totals; 11 birds ringed from 6 species and 6 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 17 birds processed from 9 species.

We were pleasantly surprised with the number of butterflies around: Peacock, Small White, Orange Tip, Brimstone and Speckled Wood were all in evidence in the field.

Claire and crew disappeared at just after 11:00. Miranda and I took a couple more birds out of the net as we closed them up at 12:00, took down and left site by 13:00.

Red Lodge: Saturday, 16th April 2022

A very pleasant session at Red Lodge this morning. I had David, Rob, Rosie and Tanya turn up to help us set up. We all met at 6:30 and set a decent number of nets, as shown below:

As you can see, we have moved from the winter feeding station area and set the ringing station up just to the west of the main net rides. Once we finished setting up, Rosie, Tanya and Rob all had to disappear off to work just before 9:00. David stayed for the whole morning: a morning during which he extracted his 500th bird from mist nets.

We were joined for the morning again by Claire and her two children, Samuel and Zara, plus local resident Darren and his daughter, Esmae. Esmae soon sent her dad packing, and we had the children with us until just after 11:00. This morning we started teaching them how to take wing length measurements. I was impressed at how quickly they picked it up, regularly matching our measurements, or being within 1mm of it. I have a young person’s training endorsement on my ringing permit, and have been DBS checked, so I am fully authorised to work with children and vulnerable adults. The children (and parents) left at 11:00.

One of the nice things about this time of year, if you are a trainer, is that we are between winter migrants, who have moved off, and the summer migrants who have just started arriving, so the numbers are low. This gives time to work with trainees and expand their skills without the pressure of numbers to be processed. With birds coming into breeding condition, it gives time to go through the difficulties of assessing brood patch development and whether or not a bird is showing a cloacal protuberance (the engorgement of the male’s cloaca, prior to its use as the sexual organ).

We spent the morning being serenaded primarily by Chiffchaffs and the odd Blackcap. Funnily enough, that’s a reasonable description of our catch this morning. We caught: Blue Tit 8; Great Tit 1; Coal Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit 3; Wren 3(2); Robin 2(2); Song Thrush 1(1); Blackbird 1; Blackcap 4; Chiffchaff 3(2). Totals: 27 birds ringed from 10 species and 7 birds retrapped from 4 species, making 34 birds processed from 10 species.

Although this is only 34 birds, it is actually the largest April catch that we have ever had in Red Lodge:

No guesses why there are no April records for 2020, but I don’t know what I was doing in 2018.

David’s dad, Trevor, as usual, arrived in time to help us get packed away. We, as usual, were running 30 minutes late, as birds kept coming into the nets even as we were shutting them down. Between the three of us we had the nets cleared away and left site by 13:00.

Rain & Lack of Habitat Stopped Play: Wednesday, 13th April 2022

Regular readers will know that the area around my winter feeding station was scalped at the beginning of the winter. I got around this by moving the feeding station closer to the standing vegetation and we had reasonable catches over the winter.

Today I planned to carry out my ringing activities in my usual summer net locations. The net ride just up from the ringing station area is used year round and was set up first, as usual. Two of my key net ride areas are highlighted in white on the following photo and this is what I was expecting to find. The main area cannot be seen from the ringing station, as there is a steep hill and some encroaching foliage that hides the view.

When we got into view of the additional ringing areas, this is what we found. Area 1 now looks like this:

Area 2 now looks like this:

It was highly disappointing, and I will now have to find an alternative area for this year’s ringing efforts.

To cap it all: the dry day we were promised disappeared at about 9:00. It wasn’t heavy rain: it was light but persistent. We had hoped that it was a passing shower, and it varied in intensity and at one point it seemed as though it would clear. It seemed that every time we did a round it would start again. The last two birds out of the nest were a retrapped Blue Tit and Great Tit, which we extracted as part of our take down. As luck would have it, once everything was down and we were packing the stuff into my car, the sun came out!

The fact is, though, that we were not catching many birds. The majority were caught in the one net ride retained from our winter set. In that ride we caught our first two Willow Warblers of the year:

Male Willow Warbler

The small catch was Blue Tit (1); Great Tit (1); Robin 1; Chiffchaff 4; Willow Warbler 2. Totals: 7 birds ringed from 3 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 9 birds processed from 5 species.

I always feel somewhat guilty when sessions go wrong. getting people out of bed early, driving to join you and help you get set up, and then not being able to deliver the birds. Today I was joined by Rosie, briefly, Miranda and Tanya and, a little later on, Claire and her children came along to see how it was going. At least Tanya and Miranda got to process their first ever Willow Warblers.

We were away from site by 10:30, rather disappointed. I had a quick reconnaissance and think that I have found an alternative area to replace the devastation. Over the weekend I will have a more detailed look and establish the net rides.