Autumn Migration Underway At Blakehill Farm: Friday, 13th September 2019

For those of a superstitious disposition, deciding to go to the most exposed of our sites on Friday the 13th would not seem like a good idea.

So to Blakehill Farm this morning with Jonny Cooper.  The initial experience was auspicious: great views of a hunting Barn Owl, that then perched on the gate post through which we had entered the plateau, preened and posed.

But then…….   We set our nets by the individual bushes on the edge of the central plateau: sharing with two herds of cattle. The adults were a pleasure, i.e. they stayed well away from us and our nets. The others were steers, and proved more problematic.   Intrigued by us and our nets, they would move off when we chased them away, but as soon as our backs were turned they came back.  We hoped that if we put them up and moved away they would follow us and leave the nets alone. No!  Fortunately there was no damage, but there was some slobber I could have done without!  We had to take them down again to ensure they stayed in one piece!

Then the breeze got up, which meant that we couldn’t set up our hedgerow nets, as the breeze would have blown them straight into the vegetation: been there, done that, had to repurchase the nets. Part way through the morning a Kestrel chased a Meadow Pipit into a net and got itself stuck in the net. Jonny sprinted after it, from about 200m away. He got to within an arm’s length before it extricated itself and flew off. That doesn’t sound too good does it?  The curse of Friday the 13th writ large you would think.

However, we managed to catch 73 birds, the only recapture was a control Reed Bunting: almost certainly it will have been ringed in the Water Park a couple of miles away. The catch for the day was: Blue Tit [19]; Great Tit [2]; Meadow Pipit 1[31]; Dunnock [2]; Stonechat [1]; Whitethroat [3]; Chiffchaff [5]; Reed Bunting [8](1).  Totals: 1 adult ringed; 71 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 1 adult recaptured, making 73 birds processed from 8 species.

We were pleased to catch our first Stonechat of the autumn – a young male bird with real attitude:

20190913 Blakehill East

The 19 Blue Tits were all caught in and around the isolated bushes out in the middle of this huge ex-airfield. We do catch a lot of them out on the plateau: it seems counter-intuitive when there is so much hedgerow for them to travel along.  Had we been able to set our hedgerow nets I am pretty confident we could have doubled the catch. There was so much bird song and movement along the hedge but it just wasn’t possible.

We really enjoyed it: looking forward to Skokholm next week!

Wellbeing at The Firs: Wednesday, 11th September 2019

We do a lot of sessions for the Wildlife Trust’s Wellbeing teams, whose focus is on providing opportunities for vulnerable people suffering from anxiety, depression or stress. As someone who used to be a stressed out, anxious, depressive, I understand the value of getting into the natural environment as a great method of alleviating those conditions.  The issue has always been getting everyone to site at a time when there will be a lot of bird activity for us to show them. The Wildlife Trust’s team pulled out all of the stops, arranged new pick up points, and managed to get 20 or so beneficiaries to the Firs by 9:00 this morning.

Birds in woodlands are most active in the few hours after sunrise, so the later we start the process the fewer birds we catch. My last session with the Wellbeing team resulted in just 6 birds caught in 3 hours.  Also, my last ringing session at the Firs, on the 25th July, was the morning after the fantastic electric storms and torrential downpour the night before and yielded just 15 birds in 5 hours.  I approached today’s session hopeful that we would have enough to show them.  I was joined by Ellie Jones, for the session. As she is the Northern Reserves Field Officer for the Wildlife Trust (as well as being one of my extremely capable C-permit trainees), this really was a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust event!

We set the nets down the central glade at the Firs and had them open by 7:30. We took a Robin out of the net that had managed to blunder in before we had actually opened them, and processed that. The thing about the Firs is that the nets are set in two long lines, so we empty them on the way down and take any others that wander in on the way back up, guaranteeing that the birds spend the minimum time in the nets.  Next round we took 6 birds out and thought “Hopefully there will be a few more than this by the time the Wellbeing groups arrive”. We processed them, had a coffee, and went for the next round: 35 birds, mainly Blue and Great Tits, on the way down. By the time we had extracted them, another 20 had entered the nets for the journey back.  I left Ellie to finish extracting birds, and to shut the nets (we didn’t need any more birds for this session) whilst I went back to the ringing station to start processing the birds and show them to the group who had, by now, assembled.

It was a really good morning’s work. We had a lot of interest from the group: lots of questions, and they had lots of opportunities to get close to a good number of common woodland species.  Part way through the morning the weather turned a bit damp: with some very fine rain. Fortunately the team had brought a portable gazebo with them (I must invest) which they moved over to cover the ringing station.  Although the rain was light and stopped quite quickly, the water had collected on the leaves of the trees in the wood and so, every time the wind blew, we had another shower – so the gazebo was a great help.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch {1}; Treecreeper 1[1]; Blue Tit 1[19](2); Great Tit [18](3); Marsh Tit [1]; Long-tailed Tit {3}; Wren 1[2](1); Robin 1[1](1); Chiffchaff [4]; Willow Warbler [1].  Totals: 4 ringed, unaged, from 2 species; 4 adults ringed from 4 species; 47 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 7 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 62 birds processed from 10 species.

We didn’t reopen the nets: we had a good catch and the weather had turned damp, the time was approaching 11:00, so the Wellbeing crew all disappeared off to Blakehill Farm for bacon sandwiches, tea and coffee, Ellie went to work and I packed up the site.  Thanks to Jo, Chelsie, Keeley and Emma for organising their people, for the coffee and to Keeley especially for the fabulous Dorset apple cake!


Ravensroost Meadows: Saturday, 7th September 2019

After a super week away in Pembrokeshire, I was looking forward to getting out ringing.  However, my last session at Ravensroost Meadows was on the 5th August and delivered the princely catch of 6 birds, so there was a little trepidation as to what we would find there this morning. Jonny Cooper and I arrived on site at 6:00, got our nets set up quite quickly, and started catching at 7:00.  By 7:30 we had more than trebled the previous catch, so all concerns disappeared.

Autumn migration is well underway and, although this is not a prime migration hot-spot, we always get a good passage of migrant birds heading south.  It is our most regular site for catching Swallows. In the middle of the main ringing area is a small pond with a causeway bisecting it, and is just right for a 12 metre net. There is also a short spit of land at the east of the pond that takes a 9 metre net.  These are often our best nets for catching Swallows or House Martins, as they come into the pond to grab a drink.  Today the causeway net delivered our first Swallows of the year.  We did watch a large flock of House Martins fly around the meadow, hawking insects, before disappearing into the distance, never coming close to the pond for a drink. Small numbers of Swallow were flying through all morning, one pair being chased, ever so optimistically, by a female Sparrowhawk.  In the event we caught 3: less than we hoped but absolutely better than nothing.  They were all juveniles:

20190907 Ravensroost Meadow 2

It was a good day for birding, as well as ringing, with a juvenile Sparrowhawk making his presence felt on the edge of the wood: calling for food and flying back and forth quite regularly.  A Kestrel was present, hunting over the meadow, for most of the morning.  There was a Spotted Flycatcher moving along the hedgerow away from us: a shame it didn’t mover the other way and end up in a net.

But the ringing was very worthwhile: Swallow [3]; Blue Tit 1[5]; Great Tit [3]; Wren [6](1); Dunnock 1[2](1); Robin 1[3]; Blackcap [18]; Whitethroat [2]; Chiffchaff [10]; Willow Warbler [1]; Chaffinch [1]. Totals: 3 adults ringed from 3 species, 54 juveniles ringed from 11 species and 2 birds recaptured from 2 species, making 59 birds processed from 11 species.

One of the juvenile Dunnocks had some skin tags around the eyes:

20190907 Ravensroost Meadow 3

I have not seen this before. I know that Dunnocks do get avian pox and wonder if this is an early stage of it.

Jonny had to leave at 11:00, but I stayed around for another couple of hours, extracting a couple of Swallows and a few Blackcaps, Dunnocks and Wrens, enjoying the bird life. However, my most difficult extractions of the day were a Brown Hawker and several Ruddy Darters, including one copulating pair, that got entangled in the nets.  Extracting dragonflies is becoming something of a speciality for me: I do get lots of practice here and at Lower Moor Farm.  It isn’t easy: their heads are attached by a very thin neck and it can easily become detached. I have found that the best thing to do is to start by pushing them through the net from behind and then pull them the rest of the way through once you can get a grip on the thorax.

The Last CES Session of 2019: Lower Moor Farm, Wednesday, 28th August 2019

A Constant Effort Site (CES) comprises 12 sessions between the beginning of May and the end of August / first week of September. Each session is scheduled within a window of 10 days predetermined by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).  Nets are set in the same positions, and are left open for the same length of time (6 hours), for every session year on year.  This the fifth year that we have run a CES at Lower Moor Farm and it has reversed the trend of decline observed over the first four years.  With the exception of last sessions blip, every session has been a significant improvement on last year.  It has become the best year so far, as the following table shows:

CES Summary

Essentially, the site has recovered significantly, even surpassing the opening year of 2015. Today’s was session 12 of 2019.  I had expected to be joined by Andrew Bray and David Williams for the session only over the course of Tuesday afternoon and evening I got messages that Jonny Cooper, Ellie Jones and Henny Lowth wanted to come along.  Last year this session delivered 39 birds so, whilst I didn’t want to put anyone off, I was worried whether we would have enough of a catch to make it a worthwhile venture for them all.  I needn’t have worried. 

The list from today was: Kingfisher (1); Woodpigeon 1; Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Green Woodpecker (1); Nuthatch {1}; Treecreeper [2](2); Blue Tit 2[4](3); Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit {2}[3](4); Wren [1](1); Dunnock (2); Robin [2](1);  Blackbird (1); Blackcap [33](4); Garden Warbler [1]; Whitethroat [1]; Lesser Whitethroat [1]; Chiffchaff [9]; Goldcrest [2]; Bullfinch 1[2]. Totals: 3 birds from 2 species ringed unaged (Nuthatch and Long-tailed Tit); 5 adults ringed from 4 species; 61 juveniles ringed from 12 species and 21 birds recaptured from 11 species, making 90 birds processed from 20 species.  Of the recaptured birds 14 were also juveniles.

Andrew did a great job of getting to the Woodpigeon before it managed to escape the net.  Large birds can be pretty adept at getting out of the nets, particularly the 5 shelf, as opposed to 4 shelf, nets we use.  This gave David the opportunity to ring his first Woodpigeon.  He found out that there are different skills needed to handle a bird of that size and strength, but with a bit of help and direction he handled it well. Henny was also delighted to be able to process her first Kingfisher and Green Woodpecker, although they were already ringed, she carried out the ageing, sexing and biometric measurements.

Given that we have only 12 metres of net within woodland for the CES, the vast majority being within the scrub that lines the lakeside and the trees that line the stream marking the boundary between Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, it has always been a surprise how many Treecreepers we catch at the site. Today we caught our first Nuthatch for this side of the site. Two caught in March 2016 were in the vicinity of the Visitor Centre / Education Area. Couple that with two of our three woodpecker species, it was quite a woodland catch for a non-woodland site!

We were joined for the morning by Tony Marsh. Tony, along with Robin Griffiths, are the two people who regularly send me sightings of my colour ringed Marsh Tits. This is a project I have been running, now in its seventh year, for this species. On the left leg they have a BTO metal ring with its unique number plus either a red, blue or green colour ring. On its right leg it will have a combination of two coloured rings. If you should see one of these birds and send me a sighting through the comments section of the blog, I will send you the details of that bird (when ringed, how many times it has been recaptured / seen) and be eternally grateful.  I know that Tony enjoyed getting some close encounters of an avian kind!






Sherston and Nest Boxes: Monday, 26th August 2019

I went out with Andrew Bray to check a few Barn Owl boxes before it got too hot this morning. Two were new boxes, close to the village of Sherston in west Wiltshire, we had been invited to check by Geoff Carss, a one time ringing trainee and good bloke.  Geoff’s friend, Kevin Noble came along to direct us to the first box. He was responsible for getting it put up there in the first place!

This first box was situated within the grounds adjacent to Pinkney Park.  This is the highest box we have looked at – and it took all three sections of my 9 meter ladder, fully extended, to reach it. It proved to be empty, except for the desiccated carcass of a Tawny Owl.  From what I could gather from the carcass, it was a young bird which would have been close to fledging, as its primary and secondary feathers were at medium length, about two-thirds grown.   Goodness knows how long it has been there: it might have been from this year but it was very, very dried out.  Anyway, we met with the landowner and he is very keen for us to monitor the box in future.

The second box was just outside the village to the west.  It was situated in a tree on a ridge running alongside the river Avon.  This was a longer distance to walk with the equipment but only a two-section climb.  This box, put together by local Scouts,  yielded two Stock Dove pulli, just ready for ringing.


Their crops were hugely distended: Mum and Dad are clearly keeping them very well fed.  Stock Dove numbers have declined significantly in the last 20 to 30 years, and the species is now amber listed in the UK.  They do like nesting in holes, and the prevalence of Barn Owl boxes is certainly helping provide them with nesting places.

On the way back we stopped off at Avis Meadows to check the box that had 2 warm Stock Dove eggs in it three weeks ago. We were concerned that no adult left the nest as we approached, as they are usually very quick to fly off, and on checking the box it was empty, presumably the eggs / young have been predated.

Finally, we stopped of at our Drill Farm site to check the box that had two young and two unhatched eggs three weeks ago.  This time we found three youngsters, two of which were ready for ringing and no sign of the other egg or chick.  So, a bit of a mixed bag, but as Andrew ringed his first ever Stock Dove he felt teh drive up from Potterne was worthwhile.

I don’t know if any Aussies read this blog (actually, I do because WordPress publish those statistics for me – you would be surprised to know how far afield this blog is read: from Canada / USA to New Zealand and many points in between) but we had the BBC’s Ashes podcast playing on repeat all the time we were in the car. Bliss!

Ravensroost Woods: Saturday, 24th August 2019

My last visit to Ravensroost Woods was on the 27th July and was hugely disappointing, with just 14 birds caught from 7 species between 2 of us in over 5 hours in 200 metres of net.  So it was with a little trepidation that I set off to Ravensroost this morning at 5:30.  I was flying solo today – I think my team saw how bad the last session was and decided a lie-in was a better use of their time.  I set 3 net rides, 210 metres of net and crossed my fingers.  I am not obsessed by numbers, but when you have people travelling 30 to 40 miles to join you for a session you want them to feel it was worthwhile.

The catch started immediately with a little influx of Robins – in fact, the first 6 birds I took out were all Robins and then I caught no more.  By 9:00 I had already passed the previous total and by 11:30 it had doubled; so I decided, as it was getting quite hot, that I would take down. As so often happens: one of the small flocks of Blue and Long-tailed Tits that had been flitting around the tree tops all morning decided to come down to net level, and I extracted 6 Blue Tits and 4 Long-tailed Tits whilst trying to pack away.

The Long-tailed Tits were one of the highlights of the session: they are such lovely birds but since their numbers in the Braydon Forest plummeted, alongside those of Blue Tits, in 2016, catching them has become much less regular.  Interestingly, I was able to age all 4 of these Long-tailed Tits as juveniles.  Although they were close to finishing their post-fledging moult (whereupon they become indistinguishable from the adults) they all retained enough juvenile plumage to be able to do so confidently.  I ringed 2 juvenile Song Thrushes, taking this year’s total ringed to 24: which is the total we ringed in the whole of 2018.   There were 25 ringed in 2017 – but we have a way to go before reaching the 41 ringed in 2016.  They are almost certainly having a better year this year than the last two.  I also caught and ringed my ninth Marsh Tit of the year.  Ravensroost is a stronghold for this species, and catching juveniles every year is always welcome.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 1[9]; Great Tit [2]; Coal Tit [1](1); Marsh Tit [1](1); Long-tailed Tit [4]; Wren 1[2]; Dunnock [1]; Robin [6]; Song Thrush [2]; Blackbird (1); Blackcap [5]; Chiffchaff [1].  Totals: 2 adults ringed from 2 species; 34 juveniles ringed from 11 species and 3 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 39 birds processed from 12 species.

All in all, a much better session in the wood than the previous one. It could have been better: I had a couple of birds bounce off the net rather than drop into a pocket and the Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers that were calling around the wood managed to stay in the tree tops and avoid the nets.


CES 11, Lower Moor Farm: Wednesday, 21st August 2019

Our CES sessions so far this year have been much more productive than the equivalent sessions last year: until today.  Last year’s session delivered 64 birds, 56 ringed and 8 recaptured from 15 species; this year’s was 40 birds ringed and 17 recaptured from 16 species.  Fewer birds from more species.  The differences can be summed up in two birds: Garden Warblers and Blue Tits. Last year we caught 9 Garden Warblers: 1 adult and 8 juveniles, this session, none.  Blue Tits were down from 10 processed to 5: 3 juveniles and 2 adults this year compared with 8 juveniles and 2 adults last year.

However, it would be churlish to complain about a catch that included our first Green Woodpecker of the year at Lower Moor Farm (our most regular catching site for the species – 9 of 13 caught since 1st January 2013 have been caught at Lower Moor Farm) and our third Kingfisher of the year at this site:


The three caught so far this year is our second best annual catch (5 in 2016) with 4.5 months to go.  They are lovely birds to work with. I don’t know another species that will actually lie down on the scales when you weigh them.  This is the standard method that I was taught for weighing a Kingfisher. It has the benefit of not trying to fit that long beak into a pot.  The bird can flip over onto its belly and escape before you get a reading sometimes but, on the whole, they lie still until you pick them up and turn them over.


This one sat on Andrew’s hand for a minute before flying off across Mallard Lake (i.e. just long enough for me to get my camera out of the bag, not long enough for me to get a photo), completely unharmed by its experience.  The team today was Andrew Bray, David Williams and, for her first taster, Sunny Jones: Sunny by name and, very definitely, sunny by nature.  She will fit right in with the team if she decides she would like to become a regular.

The list for the day was: Kingfisher [1]; Green Woodpecker [1]; Treecreeper 1[2]; Blue Tit [1](4); Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit {2}; Wren 1[5](2); Dunnock [1]; Robin [3](1); Song Thrush [1](1); Blackbird [2](2); Cetti’s Warbler (1); Reed Warbler [1]; Blackcap [12](2); Chiffchaff 1[5](2); Bullfinch (1).  Totals: 2 unaged birds ringed; 3 adults ringed from 3 species; 35 juveniles ringed from 12 species and 17 birds recaptured 10 species, making 57 birds processed from 16 species. Of the retrapped birds, 10 were juveniles, so 45 of the 57 birds were juveniles from 14 species.