The Firs: Friday, 10th July 2020

The Wildlife Trust have allowed me back into the Firs, as lockdown eases, and so I scheduled a session for this morning. An early start, with the nets just down the central glade of the site, 6 x 18m and 1 x 12m, set in 2 lines to cover the whole area. I had them open by 5:30 and started catching straight away. As is usual for this time of year, it wasn’t a huge catch but quite satisfying.

The list for the session was: Blue Tit 1(2); Marsh Tit 1(1); Wren 4; Robin 7; Song Thrush 2; Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 7; Chiffchaff 2. Totals: 25 birds ringed from 8 species and 4 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 29 birds processed from 8 species.

Although it was a better catch of Blackcap than I have had recently, disappointingly only one of them was a juvenile bird. It begs the question of what has happened to the first brood birds. The other juveniles were one each of Blue Tit, Marsh Tit and Song Thrush, plus the two Chiffchaff, three of the Wrens and all seven of the Robins.

The highlight was our ninth Marsh Tit of the year, and the third juvenile. Given that the Braydon Forest sites have been out of commission for the last three-and-a-half months this is encouraging.

It pretty much died off after 9:00 but I kept the nets open for another hour. Unfortunately, I had the nightmare scenario of a bird flying into a net that I was taking down. It had to be a Blue Tit: it grabbed so much net, twisted it around itself and crawled through multiple pockets, because the net was slack. Still, I like a challenge, and the bird was extracted safely, although it made sure my fingers took a considerable battering from its constant pecking.

Otterly Brilliant! Lower Moor Farm: Tuesday, 7th July 2020

15 years ago today I woke up in a Minneapolis hotel to the news of the bombs going off in London. I was exhibiting at a Microsoft trade show. They laid on large numbers of telephone lines so UK people could phone home to check that all was okay. Their generosity and their concern was astonishing and I have had a soft spot for them ever since. I was lucky, all of my friends and family working in London were safe.

I digress, today was looking like the weather would hold for long enough to get a session in. The wind had dropped from the high speeds of the last few days, although there was a breeze forecast to get up after 9:00. So I started early and was on site for 4:15, nets open by 5:00. I used the same net setup as at my last visit. My new net was less successful this time, returning a single juvenile Dunnock. However, the session as a whole was very rewarding, if patchy. Between 5:00 and 6:30 it was steady; between 6:30 and 8:00 it was very quiet, before picking up again between 8:00 and 9:00, thereafter I caught 3 birds in 45 minutes as the wind picked up.

The reason for the punning title: as I was extracting a particularly difficult Wren: they have a knack of finding unwanted extra holes in the net, going into a pocket, through the hole, spinning, finding another pocket, getting tangled in that and spinning some more for good measure, a pair of Otters appeared on Mallard Lake. Fortunately I had a good view of the lake from where I was stood and, for the entire time I was busy with the Wren, and then extracting the other two birds (Blue Tits) from the net, I could see the two Otters playing out on the lake. They disappeared just as I managed to get down to the lakeside to take a photograph – so you will just have to put up with the ones of birds!

All of the really good stuff occurred in the 8:00 to 9:00 period. First to brighten my day was this:

Juvenile Male Kingfisher

This was closely followed by not just the star bird of the day but my bird of the year so far:

Juvenile Redstart

This is the eleventh Redstart that I have ringed and the first I have caught at Lower Moor Farm since I started ringing there in 2013. It is only the third that I have caught at my sites (the others was at Blakehill back in 2014, on passage). Others have been on Salisbury Plain or Waterhay in the Cotswold Water Park on autumn passage. What is particularly exciting about this bird, which had not yet started its post-juvenile moult, is the possibility that it is a product of the local area.

In that same round I caught a juvenile Lesser Whitethroat:

Juvenile Lesser Whitethroat

Perhaps the most poignant catch of the morning were two very, very young Blackcaps. They were so young that I suspect they have been flushed from the nest by an intruder / possible predator.

Both the wings and the tail were very short and have a lot of growing to do. Because they were so young I just fitted the ring and then returned them to the area in which they were caught and placed them safely in a bush, hopefully out of immediate danger.

One thing we have noticed this year is the continual churring of Reed Warblers from a small clump of Reed Mace and other reedy type plants in the corner of Mallard Lake, so it was nice to catch a couple of them, both males:

The list for the day was: Kingfisher 1; Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 3; Wren 4; Dunnock 3(2); Redstart 1; Robin 3; Song Thrush 1; Reed Warbler 2; Blackcap 4(4); Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 6(1); Bullfinch 1. Totals: 31 birds ringed from 13 species and 7 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 38 birds processed from 13 species. Of these 22 were juveniles, all were ringed and not retrapped and they were the Kingfisher, Treecreeper, Redstart, Song Thrush and the Lesser Whitethroat plus three each of the Wren, Dunnock, Robin and Blackcap.

With the wind getting stronger from 9:00, and the number of birds dropping to one every 20 minutes, I decided to take down and was off site by 10:30 – the beauty of only running 6 nets.

Somerford Common: Friday, 3rd July 2020

After a frustrating week of high winds and / or rain, I finally managed to get out yesterday. My original plan was to go to the Firs. Some wind was predicted but not too bad and to be coming from the south-west. Of the sites currently available to me, the rides at the Firs run north to south, so it seemed like the best bet. Unfortunately, the Wildlife Trust’s Estates team had earmarked it for some major management work, making safe trees felled by the winds and working on a new minimal intervention area (sic) that has been created. So I decided to have a go at Somerford Common. The area I chose I have not worked in for some considerable time and, after yesterday’s results, it will probably be a longish time before I do so again.

The red line represents 12 x 18m nets going up and down a slope over pretty chewed up terrain. It is a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees of varying heights and with a reasonable amount of thinned woodland either side of the path.

The first two rounds were actually quite encouraging but then the wind actually started to blow a bit harder and the nets started to billow and the birds stopped moving. As a round consisted of walking approximately 250 metres there and 250 metres back, each net check was a good half a kilometre, with erecting the nets, checking and taking down, I estimate I walked a good 7 kilometres for 18 birds over 4 hours before I had to shut the nets, because it was just blowing too hard and I didn’t want to endanger anything that might have wandered into them.

The list for the morning was: Blue Tit 2; Great Tit 2; Wren 1; Robin 5; Song Thrush 3; Blackbird 2; Chiffchaff 2; Goldcrest 1. Total: 18 birds ringed from 8 species. Of the 18 birds caught the Great Tits, two of the Robins, one of the Blue Tits and Chiffchaffs were juveniles, the rest were adults.

There were some interesting birds in amongst the adults. One of the Blackbirds was an adult female who had clearly finished breeding for the year in that her brood patch was nearly covered with newly-grown feathers. It was definitely an adult: wings tips were either very ragged and some primaries broken and the tail was broad. Perhaps she lost her mate and has not managed to find another or it could simply be that she was not in fit condition to breed, although her weight was fairly standard for an adult Blackbird at 89g.

One benefit of not having too many birds to process is that I could spend a fair amount of time looking at the moult in those adults that were undergoing their post-breeding replacement of wing and tail feathers. The Goldcrest, an adult male, had dropped the right side of its tail and those feathers were beginning to grow back, whilst those on the left of the tail were complete and all old. Whether it had lost the part of its tail due to mechanical accident or avoiding a predator, who knows, but it looked unusual. Also one of the Robins was having an odd tail moult: the innermost right tail feather was a nearly full-grown replacement, whereas the nest right was a retained old feather and the remaining four were new feathers at the expected stage of development (i.e. going larger to smaller from the inside out to the edge). All curious, all worthwhile seeing how, whilst you can generalise about overall strategies, individuals can always vary.

West Wilts Ringing Group: June Results

Another good, if truncated, month (I had 2 sessions planned and postponed by the weather for the end of the month, no doubt others had sessions planned as well).  It was our best June since the group as currently constituted was formed on 1st January 2013.

The highlight was undoubtedly Jonny getting to start his reed bed project at Langford Lakes, massively boosting the number of Reed Warbler in this month’s haul. His first catch includes a Spanish ringed recapture (for which we haven’t yet received a report) and he caught another at his Melksham site that was ringed as a Juvenile at Marsworth Reservoir, near Tring, last year.

The restrictions we still had in place are reflected in the numbers of House Sparrow and Starling being caught: the glut of House Sparrows is mainly down to Andy Palmer and Jonny catching in their gardens. I think they should share their catching secrets. There are a lot around me but I catch very few. The other notable increase is in the number of Blackbirds in the catch, to which Jonny and I made the largest contributions. 

Two significant falls though: Blackcap and Blue Tit. I am not sure what is behind the reduction.  Although I have been locked out of both Ravensroost Woods and the Firs, due to the Trust’s restrictions as a precaution against Covid-19 (now lifted for the Firs and Ravensroost Meadows, but not yet for Ravensroost Wood), they aren’t big Blue Tit catchment areas in the summer, but they are for Blackcap. Also, I remain restricted to the wildlife refuge area at Lower Moor Farm, and the numbers there have been quite disappointing so far.

The first 6 months of the year have delivered record months in March, May and June. This has meant that we have had our best second quarter and best first half of the year so far. Let’s hope it continues.

New Zealand Farm: Thursday, 25th June 2020

This blog post is by Andrew Bray:

On June 25th I visited the scrub near New Zealand farm on Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) West. The site was originally worked by Ian Grier, but he and the SPTA Authorities have allowed me to ring there once a month.

My first trip was in May and this was my second visit. I was there at 4:00 am and had the nets set up by 5:00 am, as I used some nets that I had not used previously and one caused me problems. I set up two 2 x 18 m  nets as shown on the map: 

There were lots of Whitethroat, plus a a family of young Blue Tit that were all in Juvenile plumage with no pin showing. The Whitethroat were the largest part of the catch and a mix of moult and age.  This is not surprising, as the height of the scrub suited these birds. 

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 1; Wren 1; Dunnock 1; Robin 1; Blackcap 2; Whitethroat 9. 19 birds ringed from 7 species. Of these birds the Blue Tits, Dunnock, Great Tit and 5 of the Whitethroat were newly-fledged juveniles.

It was rather breezy on arrival and by 8:00 am was blowing the nets from a strong easterly, so I reluctantly took them in and was finished by 9am.  A cup of tea later later I drove away until July.  I hope to catch the Grasshopper Warbler that was calling from the scrub by the second set of nets.

Whitethroats, at last: Wednesday, 24th June 2020

I have three Wildlife Trust sites where I regularly catch Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat: Blakehill Farm, Lower Moor Farm and Ravensroost Meadows. The Meadows have been out of bounds to me until this week, whilst the other two sites have produced no sign of Whitethroat (song or sighting) whilst I have run my sessions there and at Lower Moor Farm I retrapped a single Lesser Whitethroat on the 21st May, no others anywhere. So I wanted to do the Meadows to see whether this was an issue across the northern reserves or not. I was joined for the session by Andrew Bray.

We set nets as follows:

Our first round, at 6:00, delivered the first Lesser Whitethroat of the morning. This was followed by another in our third round, at 6:45, followed by our first Whitethroat at 7:15, on our fifth round, followed by another Lesser Whitethroat at 7:45. They then went quiet for a few rounds until at 8:30 we caught another 3 of each. That was it for the morning as far as those two species went.

The total list for the session was: Blue Tit 3; Great Tit 4; Wren 1; Dunnock 1; Robin 2; Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 4; Lesser Whitethroat 6; Chiffchaff 1; Willow Warbler 5; Bullfinch 1. Totals: 30 birds ringed from 12 species and one bird recaptured. 18 of the 31 birds were juveniles: Blue Tit 3; Great Tit 4; Dunnock 1; Robin 2; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 1; Lesser Whitethroat 2; Chiffchaff 1; Willow Warbler 3.

So, delighted not only to catch Lesser Whitethroat, but to include 2 juveniles in that was an absolute, unlooked for, bonus. Equally delighted at the 3 Willow Warbler juveniles: this is the earliest that I have caught them at this site.

There also seems to be a trend of catching groups of juvenile Great Tit. Like my 9 at Red Lodge on Saturday, the 4 caught in the Meadows were all caught on the same net round in the same net ride and it is entirely possible that they were brood mates (not only that but their biometrics were almost identical).

Alongside the bird ringing there was plenty of opportunity for watching the dragonflies and damselflies actively patrolling the ponds. Amongst the dragonfly species there yesterday were Emperor, 4-Spot Chaser, and Black-tailed Skimmer. The damselflies were mainly Common Blue.

There was also an abundance of Meadow Brown, Marbled White and Ringlet butterflies plus a few Skippers I didn’t get close enough to to identify. With the temperature getting high, and predicted to get much higher, we closed the nets at 10:30 and took down. Not a huge session but immensely satisfying to know that our Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats are on site.

Webb’s Wood: Monday, 22nd June 2020

So to the last of the three Forestry England woodland sites I ring at, after lockdown. I set most of my normal nets: 7 x 18m along the main track and 2 x 18m off one of the side tracks. It did have one very positive advantage: I could see all of my nets, bar the last 2 mentioned, from a single point and check for birds through my binoculars. It is, of course, true that the majority of birds were caught at the end of the furthest away nets, so I still got through a lot of walking.

It was cold at 5:00 this morning, and the sun didn’t really warm the day until about 9:00. There was plenty of birdsong, but not a lot of movement. By 11:00 I had only caught 17 birds. However, it was a worthwhile session, with my first Great Spotted Woodpecker juvenile of the year caught and ringed:

I also caught my second juvenile Marsh Tit of the year, hard on the heels from Saturday at Red Lodge. The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Great Tit 1; Marsh Tit 1; Dunnock 1; Robin 4; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2(2); Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 2; Willow Warbler 1. Totals 15 birds ringed from 10 species, 2 birds retrapped from 1 species, making 17 birds processed from 10 species.

There was a lot of insect activity to take my interest in between birds. Emperor Dragonfly is a superb beast and I was lucky enough to see several of them during the course of the morning. There were plenty of butterflies around as well, mainly Meadow Brown, but plenty of Ringlet and a few fabulous White Admiral. The 10 year plan is for the establishment of a pond immediately adjacent to my ringing site: I cannot wait for it to be done! I am sure it will be an excellent addition to the sites biodiversity.

It got very hot at 11:00 and, as the birds just weren’t moving, I packed away and headed off site.

Red Lodge: Saturday, 20th June 2020

Delighted to be able to get back into one of my better woodland sites. It is a funny place: I can catch anywhere between 10 and 100 birds, even without a feeding station present. Normally, i.e. with my team, we would set nets in 3 areas around the central track, over a distance of about 800m. Working solo, I decided to set up around the pond area, and only set a few nets to keep it manageable.

For the first 2 hours it was a game of opening nets between light showers, as it was an unforecast damp start to the morning. After that the weather cleared and I could leave the nets open for the rest of the session.

It was a pretty reasonable catch: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 9(1); Marsh Tit 1; Wren 1; Robin 2; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 5; Blackcap 2; Chiffchaff 7(1). Totals: 34 birds ringed from 11 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 36 birds processed from 11 species. Of the 36 birds captured 22 were juveniles: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 3; Great Tit 9; Marsh Tit 1; Robin 2; Blackbird 4; Chiffchaff 2.

If I was surprised by anything it was the lack of juvenile Blackcap in the catch. The area where the nets were set are usually the main area for catching them and just 2 adults was a poor return. By contrast, on starting out for my final round I was hoping for 3 birds to take the total to 30 for the morning. I was delighted to see a couple of juvenile Great Tit in the pond side nets, just one more needed. As I was extracting these two another two flew in and got caught. By the time I had removed them another five had flown in. They were all birds in full juvenile plumage, all within 3m of each other in the net: I suspect they were brood mates. If I had been a little luckier the catch might have been well over 40 birds. As I was returning to the ringing station to process the Great Tits a sizeable flock of Long-tailed Tits flew over and around the ringing area. Unfortunately, as the results list shows, they didn’t drop in.

My bird highlight was the first juvenile Marsh Tit of the year:

Red Lodge is an interesting place to work: it is largely a thinned beechwood at the western end, with an oak plantation towards the eastern end. Our work has always been within the beechwood, mainly because of difficulties of access to the eastern end of the wood. There will be harvesting work going on in the oak this year. Hopefully this will result in our being able to access that part of the wood and get some comparative studies going.

Its structure does lend itself to a good variety of other wildlife – although the deer stalkers, with whom I had a good, socially distanced, chat struck out on Saturday morning. They got a bead on a couple of Roe Deer but not clean enough to take the shot: it has to be done, good to know that the people doing it are genuine professionals.

My two most fiddly extractions of the morning were of a female Four-spotted Chaser and a female Emperor dragonfly. Getting them out of the net with heads and wings intact is a matter of pushing or pulling them through gently by the thorax – the heads come off very easily. As well as the dragons, there was a good crop of butterflies in the woodland yesterday: Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Small Skipper and a couple of fabulous White Admirals were on the wing.

Wessex Water Reed Beds, Langford Lakes: Tuesday 16th June 2020

This post is by Jonny Cooper:

Langford Lakes is Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s flagship reserve in the south of the county, and justifiably so. The complex of lakes and wetland habitats attracts a wide variety of wildlife. Ringing has taken place on the reserve in one form or another since 1989: long before I was born. (Editor’s note: you can go off people!)

This session marked the first as part of a new project centring on the reed bed area. The reed bed is managed by Wessex Water primarily as a water storage and filtration system; however, it also provides valuable habitat for many bird species. The projects will study the number and diversity of species using the reed bed for breeding or migration. Monthly sessions (at roughly the same time each month) between April and September will allow annual monitoring of the birds and in time provide comparable data across years on changes in species and numbers of bird in the area. Such data can be used to inform the management of the reedbed. So, how did the first session go?

Being a site I had never personally ringed at before, it is fair to say I was a little apprehensive about the session. I had all the nets open by 4:30 and waited for the birds to arrive. It turned out I need not have worried, as can be seen from the totals below: Swallow 1, Blue Tit 1, Dunnock 1, Robin 1, Song Thrush 1, Blackbird 3, Cetti’s Warbler 2, Sedge Warbler 2, Reed Warbler 51(8), Blackcap 1, Whitethroat 2, Chiffchaff 3, Linnet 1, Reed Bunting 1. Totals: 71 birds ringed from 14 species, 8 birds retrapped from 1 species, making 79 birds processed from 14 species.

Only 20 of the birds were juveniles: 12 Reed Warblers; 2 each of Chiffchaff and Whitethroat and one each of Dunnock, Robin, Song Thrush and Blackcap.

The Cetti’s Warblers were almost certainly a pair (a male and female caught next to each other) and it’s good to get evidence of breeding in the area. The Swallow was a nice addition to the catch, being caught in the first net round, presumably after flying low over the reed bed catching insects. But the real standout is the sheer number of Reed Warblers.

59 individual birds being processed in a fairly small area shows just how good quality the habitat is. At one point the reed bed seemed to be overflowing with their calls. To get some re-trapped birds is also promising, given the ad hoc nature of ringing the site in the past. 7 of the 8 were birds processed at the site between 2016 and 2018, showing the site fidelity of this species. However, the standout bird was a Reed Warbler carrying a Spanish ring. This is the first foreign controlled bird I have had at a session I have been running. To say I was excited is an understatement. I look forward to hearing more about the origins of this bird.

Overall an incredibly good session and a great start to the project and I cant wait until next month’s session.

Lower Moor Farm: Monday, 15th June 2020

The forecast for the day was for it to start dry, with rain coming in by 11:00. Fortunately, it was as reliable as ever and I managed to get a full session in, packed away and home before there was even a sniff of rain. The breeze did get up, but only as I was packing away.

Once again, I was restricted to working in the wildlife refuge so I didn’t mix with the general public. I tried a new net position this time, having cut a short ride between the entrance gate and the lakeside: just long enough to take a 9m net. This was a successful move, with that net catching one-fifth of the total.

It was a more productive session than recent ones, with a total of 36 birds from 13 species. The list for the day was: Treecreeper 1; Great Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren 1; Dunnock 1(1); Robin 1; Song Thrush 2(1); Blackbird 1; Cetti’s Warbler (1); Blackcap 13(2); Garden Warbler 3(1); Chiffchaff 3; Bullfinch (1).

So, not a huge catch but, significantly it contained mainly juveniles: 20 of the 36. This included first juveniles for the year of Treecreeper, Song Thrush, Wren, Long-tailed Tit and Garden Warbler:

The session was steady throughout, from nets open at 6:00 until 9:30, whereupon it became much slower. I would have packed up earlier, but I was rather blocked in by the arrival of another delivery of Brown Trout for Mallard Lake. This is totally coincidental, and accidental, as they were scheduled to make the delivery last week, but it is also the second time our visits have over-lapped, when the intention was for them to entirely separate. It seems that they top up the stocks four times every year: April, May and June and again after the season finishes in September. It is nice to know that the Otters are being well fed!