Lower Moor Farm: Saturday, 23rd March 2019

After a couple of weeks of inclement weather and last week spent in north Devon (nice views of Wheatear being the highlight, the almost complete absence of Buzzards being a real nadir) it was good to get out for a ringing session at Lower Moor Farm.

I was joined by Ellie Jones for the session: always handy having the reserve manager as one of your C-permit holders and for dealing with the members of the public.  In the event it was a quiet, but very enjoyable, session.  We managed to establish our favourite movies of all time, discussed in depth the acting qualities, or lack thereof, of Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves, and process a few birds over the course of 5 hours.

Any session during which an Otter swims sedately past, diving to release the tell-tale stream of bubbles as it approached the pipe between Mallard Lake and Swallow Pool, is a good session, no matter how few birds you catch.

The birding highlights were: a good number of Chiffchaff already on site, one a retrapped bird from last summer.  Unfortunately, you never know with early Chiffchaffs whether they are actually early migrants or if they over-wintered here.  There are always some to be found in the Cotswold Water Park over the winter: one ringed at Lower Moor on the 7th January 2017 was clearly an over-wintering bird.  We recaptured a Blackcap that was ringed as an adult at Lower Moor three summers ago. This bird is almost certainly a returning summer visitor: and the earliest recorded at the site.  Over-wintering Blackcaps have been shown, from ringing records, to be primarily from central Europe, but I suppose there is always the chance that some of our summer visitors do remain behind, given how mild our winters have become.

The final birding highlight was a singing male Cetti’s Warbler.  After a stunning first set of catches in 2015 the numbers ever since have been disappointing.  Last year, although we did catch and ring one specimen, there was no singing male on site.  Like the Blackcap, this is the earliest that we have caught one on site by two months.

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The list for the day was: Blue Tit 1; Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit (2); Wren (1); Dunnock (1); Robin 1; Cetti’s Warbler 1; Blackcap (1); Chiffchaff 6(1).  Totals: 9 birds ringed from 4 species; 7 birds retrapped from 6 species, making 16 birds processed from 9 species.

Blakehill Farm: Friday, 8th March 2019

A somewhat odd day today.  Because of the reports of early returning Spring migrants three of us (Andrew Bray, Ellie Jones and me) went to my migration spot at Blakehill Farm just to see if any of these early migrants had reached north Wiltshire yet.  The forecast was for very low winds from the west / west south west direction, getting stronger by the afternoon. I did a recce yesterday mid-morning and there were lots of birds around, so I was hopeful of a reasonable catch.

We got there nice and early and had the plateau nets open just after daybreak. It was a nice treat to have the Short-Eared Owl flying around the central plateau area, giving excellent views. Also, at least one Curlew has returned to the site already: fingers crossed for a successful breeding season.

The catch just wasn’t there: we caught a dozen birds between 7:00 and 9:30 but then an unforecast north-westerly wind got up and there were no more birds caught.  We decided to close the nets, as they were just blowing out completely. There is no cover on this site, We did catch a Meadow Pipit that was ringed but not by our team. One of the nice things about the new on-line data entry system at the BTO (known as Demon, being short for “Demography Online”) is that when you enter a bird, even if it is not one that you have ringed, if the data has been entered by the ring owner, you get immediate confirmation that the bird is what is should be (or not, which is why we photographed the bird and the ring for proof).

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As we were packing up the session took a definitely weird turn. I have learned to be a very careful about counting bird bags, guy ropes, spikes and matching up pairs of poles, so when Andrew Bray found the bottom two sections of a BTO pole buried in the vegetation, I was at a loss to explain it.  I have 30 sets of poles: I still have 30 sets of poles and, to my knowledge, nobody else has ever had permission to ring this site: so where did it come from? (Cue “Outer Limits” music.) If it is one of mine (I am sure it isn’t) it means a top set is also missing and I should have 31 sets – but I know I have only purchased 30. Spooky!

**I had an immediate report back on our recaptured Meadow Pipit.  This bird was ringed as a recently fledged juvenile on the 20th October 2018 on the Isle of Wight. It has flown 110 km north-north-west in 139 days.

Red Lodge: Saturday, 2nd March 2019

With the weather looking really dire for the rest of this week, I moved Wednesday’s projected session at Red Lodge to Saturday.  I was joined by my most experienced trainee, Jonny Cooper, for the session.  It was dull and overcast to start, with a couple of short showers of extremely fine, mist-like rain.  Not long enough or heavy enough to warrant shutting the nets but irritating nonetheless.  As the morning wore on the cloud broke and the sun came out but, unfortunately, the wind also got up – no doubt the forerunner to storm Freya – and we had to close the nets at 11:30 to avoid potential injury to the birds.

The primroses were out in full bloom: entirely appropriate for the second day of the meteorological Spring.  We didn’t have one of our larger catches: I think that this unusual weather has got the birds less interested in food and more interested in setting up breeding territories.  It was still an interesting morning though.  The catch was: Nuthatch (1); Blue Tit 7(2); Great Tit 4(7); Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit (1); Robin 1(1); Blackbird (1); Goldcrest 3(1); Chaffinch 3.  Totals: 19 birds ringed from 6 species; 15 birds recaptured from 8 species, making a total of 34 birds processed from 10 species.

Of interest: both the Blackbird and the Long-tailed Tit were males, showing a well-developed cloacal protuberance, i.e. ready to mate already.  Blackbirds are multi-brooded and, weather-permitting, will sometimes start breeding as early as March.   Long-tailed Tits are single-brooded, and frequently start breeding in March.

Farmland nr Chippenham: Friday, 1st March 2019

This is a post by Jonny Cooper:

Friday (1st March) saw me undertake a session at my farmland site just outside Chippenham.  This site is very open, meaning that it can be difficult to get sessions in if there is any wind. The forecast for the morning was low wind and overcast with some sunshine, perfect ringing weather for this site.

I aimed to have all the nets open as the sun was rising which meant that I arrived on site quite early to set the nets. All the nets were open by around 6:45. The first round proper delivered 12 birds; this round often catches 40-50% of the total catch at this site so I was expecting a catch of 20-30 birds. However, as the morning progressed the rounds continued to produce 10 or so birds each time leading to a total of 71 birds being processed across the morning.

The total catch was: Blackbird (3); Blue Tit 4(3); Chaffinch 9(1); Dunnock 4(1); Goldfinch 3; Great Tit 3(2); Greenfinch 11; House Sparrow 6; Linnet 1; Reed Bunting 6(1); Robin 4(1); Yellowhammer 7(1). Totals: 58 new from 11 species and 13 recaptured from 8 species, making 71 birds processed from 12 species.

There were many highlights to the catch, the single Linnet was a new bird for the site, I have often seen them around but not been lucky enough to catch them before:

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6 House Sparrow was also unexpected, with only a single bird being caught before the session. There were also reasonable numbers of Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer; the last two being key farmland bird species that are on the UK Red List.

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Overall a very pleasing session that continues to show the excellent farm management for wildlife undertaken on site.

Health & Well-being at The Firs: Wednesday, 27th February 2019

A large part of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s work is through their Education and Well-Being programme.  Christine Crookall-Fallon, the Trust’s Education and Well-being Officer, asked me if she could bring along a group of 13 and 14 year-old youths from Devizes School to our session at the Firs today.  We know the value of our ringing work to conservation but, increasingly, are made aware of the contribution it can make to the education and well-being of young people.  Given how much we get out of it,  I suppose it should be obvious.

Jonny and I arrived at 6:30 and had the nets set up by 7:30.  As we were walking down the central glade to our ringing area I looked up and was surprised, and rather delighted, to see a Brown Hare run through the clearing at the bottom of the glade. The weather was glorious, if a fair bit colder than it has been recently, but bright and, eventually, warm. Whilst processing our first round we heard a shrill triple call.  At first we persuaded ourselves it was a Song Thrush mimicking another species: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.  After processing our second round we heard the unmistakable drumming of the real McCoy.  Cue a quick scramble for our binoculars and some good views of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.  It flew around the tree-tops adjacent to our ringing station before disappearing.  Unfortunately, it was immune to the lure we played for the rest of the morning.

A bit later, and before the Devizes crew arrived, a Sparrowhawk paid a brief visit to the wood, flying through at tree-top height. It landed briefly in one tree before disappearing into the distance.

Christine had a put a full programme together for her charges, so that they were on hand for any birds we caught, but were active on other things in between rounds and after we packed up for the day.  They arrived on site at 9:30, just as we were returning from a round with a good number of birds.  We processed the birds, pointing out ageing characteristics and how to sex those species (where possible).  Those that wanted to were given instruction on how to hold a bird in the ringer’s grip and then to release it safely.  By the end of the session all bar one youngster had held and released at least one bird.  One of the girls was extremely reluctant to get involved but was eventually persuaded.  After her first experience there was no further reluctance, and she coped excellently with being pecked by Blue and Great Tits thereafter and handled a good number of birds.  The highlight of the first round the students saw was a recaptured female Great Spotted Woodpecker.

The list for the morning was: Great Spotted Woodpecker (1); Nuthatch 1(2); Treecreeper 1(1): Blue Tit 10(7); Great Tit 10(10); Coal Tit (2); Wren (2); Robin 1(1); Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 2.  Totals: 26 birds ringed from 7 species; 26 birds recaptured from 8 species, making a total of 52 birds processed from 10 species.

The last round yielded the new Treecreeper, the Goldcrest and one of the Wrens: much to the delight of the students.  People’s first experience of Goldcrest is always framed by how small they are.  When you tell them that birds of this species, weighing all of 5 grams, fly across the North Sea from Scandinavia to winter in the UK, and return across the sea in the spring to breed they find it hard to believe.

We closed the nets and took down at 11:30.

Tedworth House: Friday, 22nd February 2019

This is the sixth year that I have been carrying out my Help4Heroes sessions at Tedworth House.  As the hard work of Dave Turner and his various helpers (residents, visitors and external and corporate volunteers) has opened up the woodland and improved the habitat, so the catches have increased in both variety and number.  As usual in a woodland at this time of year, Blue Tits are far and away the largest proportion of the catch but, as ever, the site continues to offer up the odd surprise.  Today’s was a late arriving Redwing.  Nobody has seen them around the site for a couple of months and I certainly wasn’t expecting to find one in the net directly opposite my lure for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Why a lure for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker? The site is perfect for them although, unfortunately, their numbers have dwindled nationally.  My Braydon Forest sites are a known haunt for them, with them being seen annually and confirmed breeding quite regularly. One of the staff had reported a sparrow-sized woodpecker in one of the trees close to the House.  He was shown some pictures of woodpecker type birds: Nuthatch; Green Wood pecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker and, finally, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and he was definite that was what he saw.  Fortunately, Jack Daw who, besides being a first class bird ringer, is the maintenance man at Tedworth House, has also seen the bird since.  Unfortunately, it didn’t show this morning.

Jack was a star this morning, standing in for Dave Turner, who was not on site today. He helped me get the nets up and open and, more importantly, provided the essential bacon sandwich.  For someone who has ringed as many thousands of birds from as many species as Jack has, he had never ringed a Nuthatch. So, when we caught a female Nuthatch in the first round, I insisted he break his duck and ring a Nuthatch, by way of a thank you.

The catch was certainly interesting: Nuthatch 2; Blue Tit 16(13); Great Tit 1(3); Coal Tit 2; Dunnock (2); Robin 2(1); Redwing 1; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 1; Chaffinch 5; Goldfinch 1.  Totals: 32 birds ringed from 10 species; 19 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 51 birds processed from 11 species.  This is our largest catch at this site. The previous best was 49 birds processed from 10 species in September 2017. Most of those birds were juveniles from that year’s breeding effort, before they have had time to succumb to predation, illness and starvation, so having such a good catch at the back end of the winter is highly encouraging.

One slightly odd feature: all 5 Chaffinch caught were female.  Fortunately, no sign of any FPV or mite infections.

I was joined for about 15 minutes by a small family group (mum, daughter and son) and all three got a lesson in how to safely hold and release Blue Tits and what it is like to be bitten by them (“not as bad as chickens” was the consensus opinion).

Somerford Common: Wednesday, 20th February 2019

On the basis that, having not had Brambling in our local woods before, I wanted as many of our team to get the chance to see them as possible, I scheduled today’s session back at Somerford Common, so that Steph and Lillie would get the opportunity.  Lillie is on half-term holiday this week, and Steph took the morning off work, so they could come along.  While topping up the feeders on Monday there was a good flock of 30+ Brambling in the area, so I knew there would be a chance of catching another one or two.

Jonny and I met at 6:15 and had the nets open by 7:00, by which time it was already daylight, so it looks like we are going to be starting much earlier for the next few weeks, until the brief respite of the clocks going forward.

Since Monday, the seed feeders had been emptied, the peanut feeders were half empty and the nyjer seed feeder was one third empty, so I was reasonably confident of getting a decent catch.  In the event it was not as big as I hoped, but it was a nice, varied collection of birds.

Steph ringed her first Brambling and Siskin; Lillie ringed her first Brambling and Lesser Redpoll.  One thing we have noticed is the increase in our catch of Chaffinch this year.  We have already caught and ringed 35 in the first 6 weeks of 2019.  If it keeps up at this rate we will eclipse any previous catches for this species.  On the down side, we are catching several more, at least one per session, that we cannot ring, due to growths on their legs.  None have looked as though they are mite infestations: they do look like Fringilla Papilloma Virus infections.

The catch for the session was: Nuthatch (1); Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 7(2); Great Tit 6(3); Coal Tit (1); Marsh Tit (2); Robin (2); Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 6; Brambling 2; Goldfinch 5(1); Lesser Redpoll 3(1); Siskin 1.  Totals: 32 birds ringed from 9 species and 13 birds retrapped from 8 species, making 45 birds processed from 13 species.