Brown’s Farm: Wednesday, 8th November 2017

Brown’s Farm is our only downland site, just south of Marlborough on the Salisbury Road.  It is bordered on the east by Savernake Forest.  The farm has magnificent hedgerows, plenty of game cover and a typical farmland avifauna: Dunnock, Chaffinch, Linnet, Yellowhammer and Skylark have always been plentiful here.  Until this time last year, the then tenants ran it as a beef and arable farm.  The new tenant has continued with the same profile, plus he has expanded the site to include two stable yards, with the horses also being put out to graze.
Normally we don’t have access to the site during the shooting season, as both the former and current tenants run pheasant and red-legged partridge shoots.  Having been frustrated by unsuitable weather on every planned session since the one in April, with the forecast being for light winds and no rain, I contacted the farmer on the off-chance that he might give me permission to run a ringing session, which he granted.  There was one small glitch: with the new enterprises on site he has reinstituted security – and forgot to give me the appropriate access codes.  This meant that we set up within easy walking distance of the farm entrance, rather than our usual place one kilometre up the track.  I was joined by Jonny and Ellie for the session.
As a result of the nets being positioned close to the farmyard, the catch was quite different from normal.  Usually we would have had a more representative catch of farmland birds.  Whilst we were setting up there were big groups of House Sparrow and Chaffinch all around the area where we set the nets.  They disappeared almost immediately we had finished setting up and did not reappear, unfortunately.
We caught 30 birds in the session: Blue Tit 13; Wren 5; Dunnock 5; Robin 2(1); Blackbird 1; Bullfinch 1; House Sparrow 2.  29 birds ringed from seven species and a solitary retrapped Robin.  This bird was ringed as a juvenile on the farm in September 2015.
Not our most spectacular catch but, hopefully, now that the farmer has seen that our activities have no adverse effects on his game birds, we will be able to carry out a few more sessions during the winter season when the flocks of birds are at their highest and we can get back to ringing Linnet and Yellowhammer there.  I now have the codes to the gates.
Simon Tucker

Lower Moor Farm: Wednesday, 1st November 2017

On Wednesday, Ellie Jones, Jonny Cooper and I did a session at Lower Moor Farm. We were joined for the session by Dr Ian Grier.  Ian was my trainer and helped me to achieve my C- and then my A-permits.   He came along to assess Ellie for her advancement to a C-permit.
Once the autumn migration is over Lower Moor Farm tends to become quite quiet: we have had fewer than 50 birds per session in previous October / November sessions.  It was a pleasant surprise to end up with a catch of 71 birds.
The list for the day was: Treecreeper (1); Blue Tit 5(5); Great Tit 2(1); Long-tailed Tit 6(6); Wren 8(1); Dunnock (2); Robin 4(3); Redwing 3; Blackbird 2; Goldcrest 1; Goldfinch 3; Lesser Redpoll 6; Bullfinch 5(3); Reed Bunting 4.  Totals: 49 birds ringed from 12 species; 22 birds retrapped from eight species, making 71 birds processed from 14 species.  It was a good catch of Lesser Redpoll and a few Redwing, but the catch of Wrens was quite unusual for the site: three adults and six juveniles.
At about 10:30 we were joined by a couple of staff and one of the attendees from Lakeside House.  Lakeside House works in association with the adjacent Care Farm and sensory garden to offer young people with special needs the opportunity for education and work experience in nature conservation, farming and horticulture. The students and users of the Care Farm take a lead in developing the farm and have opportunities to grow confidence and develop their independence. This lad was delighted to get close to a few birds and was good at identifying them.  He was shown how to safely hold and release birds.  Particularly, he was delighted when a Bullfinch sat on his hand for a few seconds, after he had released it, and before it flew off.  Birds sometimes do this when they don’t realise that you have actually let them go.
I am delighted to say that Ian agreed with my assessment, that Ellie is at a stage where she is skilled enough to work with a greater degree of independence, and to advance her to her C-permit.  There are four levels of working within ringing: helper; T-permit holder; C-permit holder and A-permit holder.  Helpers are allowed to work with permit holders with a suitable endorsement, usually those who hold an A-permit with a trainer endorsement. T-permit holders are official trainees, who are registered with and licensed by the BTO.   They are registered to a named trainer and can only work with their trainer, or other ringer with a training endorsement (I had a helpers and trainees endorsement as a C-permit holder).  C-permit holders are able to work independently, within limits set by their trainer, and their trainer remains responsible for their actions. Finally, A-permit holders are fully independent ringers, limited by a range of specific endorsements to their licence decided by the BTO.  There is no set time for advancement from one stage to another: it is all about how much time people can devote to learning the skills required and how quickly they can master them.
Simon Tucker

Ravensroost Woods: Friday, 27th October 2017

Steph, Lillie and I were joined by Andrew Bray for a session at Ravensroost Woods this morning.  With no feeding station in place, and only three rides set up (2 x 54m, 1 x 72m), I wasn’t looking for a large catch.  In the event, we did better than expected.

Initially I put on lures for Redwing, Lesser Redpoll and Marsh Tit and, at 10:30, Goldcrest.  The Redwing and Lesser Redpoll, to see if they have arrived for the winter (Redwing yes, Lesser Redpoll no).  I don’t lure for Goldcrest first thing in the morning and not at all when the weather turns cold.  They weigh only 5 to 6g and I am always mindful of the bird’s well-being and need to feed.  As they can turn up to a lure in very large numbers, I will only do it on a warm day.  One other interesting point about Goldcrests: very often their wing length in millimetres is the same as 10 times their weight in grams. We caught seven today, three of those conformed to this little peculiarity: 50mm wing x 5.0g weight; 52 x 5.2 and 54 x 5.4.

We caught our first Blackcap of the winter:

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The list for the day was: Treecreeper (1); Blue Tit 9(1); Great Tit 3(3); Coal Tit 4(1); Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 12(2); Wren 2; Dunnock (1); Robin 1(1); Redwing 3; Blackbird 2; Blackcap 1; Goldcrest 6(1); Chaffinch 1; Bullfinch 2.  Totals: 46 birds ringed from 12 species, 12 birds retrapped from nine species, making 58 birds processed from 15 species.

Once we had packed up and were leaving site, I found that another “responsible” dog owner has, most likely, been responsible for stealing my notices asking them to keep their dogs on a short lead.  What do these people not understand about Ravensroost Woods?  It is a nature reserve not a park, there are no public footpaths but permissive paths, which the landowner, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, requires that people using them should keep dogs on a short lead.  Their self-righteous, misplaced, anger has turned them into common thieves.

Simon Tucker

Blakehill Farm: Thursday, 26th October 2017

After what seems like an age (twelve whole days), I finally got out to do a session this morning. The weather forecast was for it to be overcast but dry and virtually windless.  Unfortunately, the overcast was at ground level and the nets and everything were pretty damp very quickly.  I spent a lot of time shaking nets to remove drops of moisture.  There are two problems with mist like that: the nets accumulate droplets of water, which makes them more visible, and damp nets are more clinging to the birds, making extractions more difficult.

I had Steph and her daughter Lillie to help this morning, but the birds were very few and far between.  Not all bad though: we caught our first Lesser Redpoll for the site, a hedgerow lining a perimeter track around a disused airfield.

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At just after 10:00 Steph took Lillie off to an arranged play date, so I suggested that she stay out of the damp and cold and not bother returning, as I was happy to take down on my own.

The next round after they left there were no birds in the nets.  In the following round I extracted and processed two birds, so I decided to take down next round.  However, I decided to have a coffee first, to give one last chance for some birds to get in the nets.  Subsequently, viewing the nets through my binoculars I noticed there were a few birds in them: 25 extractions later, including our sixth Stonechat for the autumn on the site, I finally got to take down. As I processed the last bird, the Stonechat, another, much larger, flock of titmice came through but I had closed the nets so they flew on through and I managed to get everything packed away.

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The list for the day was: Blue Tit 5(1); Great Tit (3); Long-tailed Tit (11); Wren 2; Stonechat 1; Robin 2(1); Song Thrush 1; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1; Goldfinch 6; Lesser Redpoll 1. Totals: 21 birds ringed from 10 species; 16 birds retrapped from four species, making 37 birds processed from 12 species.

As I left the site a flock of twenty or so Linnets and a few Reed Buntings, Chaffinches and Bullfinches flew up from the path in front of me. One of those days when you think “if only”. What started poorly (damp and miserable) ended with a decent catch but could have been so much bigger and better. Next time!!!

Simon Tucker

Webb’s Wood: Saturday, 14th October 2017

Saturday was a perfect day for ringing: dull, overcast and virtually windless.  Jonny Cooper and I had a very good catch at Webb’s Wood.  This included our second earliest ever capture of a Lesser Redpoll:

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The earliest was at Somerford Common on the 13th October 2015.

However, the highlight of the session was a catch of three Marsh Tits.  Webb’s has always been a bit behind the other sites when it comes to these birds but three in a session is a real red letter day: it was one adult and two juvenile birds.  They have been colour ringed and, hopefully, a number of other birders will see them and give us reports back on where and when.

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This brings to five the number of Marsh Tits ringed in Webb’s this year, compared to one in each of the previous three years and two in 2013 when I started ringing there.

The list for the day was: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 8(1); Great Tit 5(2); Coal Tit 8(1); Marsh Tit 3; Long-tailed Tit 2; Wren 4; Dunnock 1; Robin 4(1); Goldcrest 16(2); Lesser Redpoll 1. Totals: 53 birds ringed from 11 species; seven birds retrapped from five species, making 60 birds processed from 11 species.

Amongst the birds retrapped was a Goldcrest, EXR483, that was ringed in July 2014.  What is remarkable about this bird is that juvenile mortality, whilst currently unknown, is likely to be similar to that of other small birds (70 – 80%) and adult survival is less than 15% (Blue Tit adults, for example, have a 40 – 50% survival rate).  Average lifespan is estimated at 2 years and the oldest known specimen is only 4 years 2 months and 24 days.  This bird, at 3 years 2 months and 26 days since ringing, is certainly a venerable example.

Simon Tucker

Somerford Common: Wednesday, 11th October 2017

Wednesday was a bit hit and miss as the forecast was for it to be very windy.  I was grateful that both Andrew Bray and Jonny Cooper turned out to help.  We had hoped that the projected wind direction would enable the wood to provide enough cover for us to set our nets in the usual places.  Unfortunately, the forecast direction turned out to be incorrect and we had to set most of the nets in less than optimal places.
However, we did manage to catch some birds:
Blue Tit 6; Great Tit 2(3); Coal Tit 3; Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Wren 1; Robin 2; Redwing 1; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 1; Bullfinch (2).  Totals: 18 birds ringed from nine species; six birds retrapped from three species, making 24 birds processed from 10 species.
The birding highlight was our first Redwing of the winter.  It is our earliest capture of a Redwing to date, by two days.  However, my highlight of the session was a beetle:
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I haven’t seen a Devil’s Coach Horse for years, and this beastie stayed around for quite a while and posed beautifully.
Simon Tucker

Blakehill Farm: Sunday, 8th October 2017

With yesterday’s scheduled session being rained off, Jonny and I met up at Blakehill Farm this morning for a shortish session. I think Jonny was pleased to have an extra day to recover from his trip to the Shetlands, from which he returned on Friday.  All he managed to see there were a few common birds: Red-throated Pipit, Little Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Red-Breasted Flycatcher and Buff-bellied Pipit, his second Parrot Crossbill didn’t merit a mention. (Yes – I am joking; Yes – I am jealous).

As the central plateau is currently being grazed and there was cattle everywhere else on the site, we kept our session to the area in front of the Whitworth Centre and along the footpath to the pond area.  The session started well, with a nice flock of Long-tailed Tits in the net directly opposite the Centre. We processed them, and then set a couple of two shelf nets on the opposite side of the hedge lining the perimeter track and put on a lure for Linnet.  For the rest of the morning we watched Linnets flying up and down the hedgerow looking for this noisy con-specific. Unfortunately, only two of them managed to blunder into our nets.  Given how few have been seen at Blakehill this year, we were pleased to see quite so many this session.  This one was a little camera shy.

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Soon after we had set the Linnet net, I heard the pounding of footsteps and watched Jonny haring across the field to the net on the far side of the field.  He came back with this beauty:

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This is a juvenile female Kestrel.  She was extremely feisty and we both have a few wounds as a memento of the occasion.  Jonny won’t mind: it was the first Kestrel that he has processed.

As we both wanted to be away before 13:00 we did our last round at 11:15 and I was delighted to take two of these lovely birds out of the same net that previously caught the Kestrel:

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Following on from the five that I took out of the plateau nets on my last session, it has been a real privilege to handle some of my absolute favourite birds.  These birds were juveniles, in the last stages of moulting out their juvenile plumage, with just a few buffy feathers on the head and neck area.

The list for the session was: Kestrel 1; Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 6; Wren 4(1); Robin 5; Goldcrest 3; Starling 2; Goldfinch 1; Linnet 2.  Totals: 27 ringed from 10 species and one retrapped bird.  Unusual for Blakehill Farm, we caught no Dunnocks or Reed Buntings.  These are generally the most regularly caught birds on the site.

Whilst I was looking at the figures for this blog, I had a particular look at retrapped birds, as catching just one at a regular site is unusual.  Since I started ringing independently, me and my team have ringed 13,283 birds and retrapped 3,899. So our retrap rate is running at a pretty good 22.7%.  Resident species are, obviously, the most likely to be retrapped and that proves to be the case:

retrap ringed total % retrap
Marsh Tit 125 91 216 137.4%
Coal Tit 239 336 575 71.1%
Long-tailed Tit 338 650 988 52.0%
Dunnock 171 349 520 49.0%
Great Tit 589 1261 1850 46.7%
Robin 346 849 1195 40.8%
Wren 190 506 696 37.5%
Blue Tit 850 2372 3222 35.8%
Blackbird 151 467 618 32.3%
Bullfinch 59 230 289 25.7%
Song Thrush 37 153 190 24.2%
Reed Bunting 22 118 140 18.6%
Chiffchaff 165 933 1098 17.7%
Blackcap 166 965 1131 17.2%
Willow Warbler 35 253 288 13.8%

Obviously a bird is ringed only once, but a ringed bird can be retrapped on multiple occasions.  The Marsh Tits are so sedentary, and as we tend to set our nets in the same places in our sites, there is a much higher incidence of repeat captures of the same individuals in the same place on different occasions, hence the slightly odd statistic. What surprised me most was that Blue Tits are only eighth in the list.  Being the most commonly caught bird, and we always seem to be picking up retrapped Blue Tits, I assumed that they would have the highest proportion of recaptures.  Evidently not.

Migrant warblers, quite naturally, are the least frequently retrapped but two out of every eleven is not a bad return.

Simon  Tucker

Lower Moor Farm: Wednesday, 27th September 2017

Lower Moor Farm is our BTO Constant Effort Site.  Over the course of the breeding season, from May to September, we set the nets in the same places for twelve separate sessions, roughly ten days apart.  This enables us to monitor changes in the bird population knowing that it is independent of net position.  Once that is over I like to try nets in different parts of the site, to see what else we might find.  I was joined by Ellie Jones (the Reserve manager) and Jonny Cooper for the session.  We put up three different sets of nets, as indicated on the photograph below:

Lower Moor

The two new net sets were those in white and yellow, the brown set is one of our CES rides, which we set to ensure that we had some birds to process.  In the event, that was a wise decision.  Having put most of our effort into setting up the white set, it was a complete flop until five hours later, when we were doing the the last round, when it delivered a Goldfinch and a Blackcap.  Scant return for the effort.

The yellow net set was positioned through a large group of teasel plants and, as hoped for, it delivered a catch of seven Goldfinch and a Robin.  Our usual net ride helped make us feel as though we hadn’t completely wasted our morning with a catch of  Blue Tit 2(1); Great Tit 1(2); Wren 1(1); Robin (1); Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 4; Bullfinch 1(1).  In total we caught and ringed 24 birds from eight species; retrapped six birds from five species, making 30 birds processed from eight species.

On the Tuesday afternoon I went for a walk around a part of the reserve not open to the public, to assess whether or not it would be suitable for setting some nets.  Unfortunately, it isn’t, primarily because the access is not great.  Whilst I was on my walk I came across two rather interesting sights.  The first was clear signs of Beaver activity:

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The second was this enigmatic lump of orange bubbles:

trout roe

I was pretty certain I knew what it was, but confirmed it with one of the local anglers: it is the egg roe from a female trout.  Evidence that the local Otters are enjoying the stock in Mallard Lake.

Simon Tucker

Blakehill Farm: Friday, 22nd September 2017

We have had a couple of cracking sessions at Blakehill recently but noticed that there was quite a lot of activity outside of our usual netting area; so Friday morning I decided to try out some other net positions to see if those movements would translate into catches.

Unfortunately, none of my team or the wider ringing group was available to help. It was, therefore, quite a slog getting all the nets set and I didn’t get them open until 8:00. Fortunately, the mist didn’t start burning off until just before then. The good thing is that all of the new net positions caught. The first new net delivered 3 x Whinchat and a Stonechat in the first round and nothing else – but that will do nicely. 

Over the course of the next three hours I extracted 64 birds from 13 species: Swallow 2; Blue Tit 8; Great Tit 6; Coal Tit 1; Dunnock 4; Meadow Pipit 17; Stonechat 3; Whinchat 5; Blackbird 1; Chiffchaff 10; Starling 5; Reed Bunting 1 and one solitary retrapped Wren.

It was hard work but great fun and I think I fulfilled enough of the government’s new 10 minutes brisk walking target to last a month.  The catch was interesting for all sorts of reasons. For example, six of the Blue Tits were caught in the small bushes on the plateau and not in the hedgerows lining the perimeter track.  I caught the first Coal Tit for the site.  Catching another five Whinchat brings the annual total to six: better than last year but still need another to match 2015.

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The catch of three Stonechat seems to be the norm for these birds at Blakehill but, outside of the first of the species caught here, a singleton in September 2015, this is the earliest multiple catch of this species so far.  Hopefully we will get similar numbers in October and November as we did in 2016.  All of the Whinchat and Stonechat caught were females.  The Stonechats were all juveniles whereas only one of the Whinchat was.

The remarkable run of Meadow Pipits caught continued, with another 17 finding the allure of the call on the MP3 player irresistible.  That takes us to 47 for the year: quite an astonishing number given the previous annual totals.  There seems to be so many more on site this year than previously.

The key thing is that we now have the possibility of using a number of alternative net positions that we can be confident will deliver a catch.

Simon Tucker

Tedworth House: Wednesday, 20th September 2017

Before the start of this year, only twice had we caught more than 20 birds in a session at Tedworth House.  We have caught spectacular birds there: particularly Firecrest and Black Redstart; and a host of birds not often caught in mist nets: Mistle Thrush, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw, Woodpigeon and Mallard.  Since the start of 2017, however, we have seen a much higher catch level than in previous years.  This culminated in this month’s session, which produced a total of 49 birds.  The biggest catch to date.  We didn’t change the setup much from normal: I actually set fewer nets than I usually do and tried one new net position that yielded no birds, so I won’t use that again.

As I have mentioned before, the brief at Tedworth House is twofold: to inform the staff, residents, visitors and volunteers at the House and help bring them closer to nature and secondly, to monitor the impact of the management of the woodland under the auspices of Dave Turner of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.  The really encouraging thing about the increase in the catch this year is that it has been achieved largely without artificial feeding. In previous years the only way to attract numbers of birds to the catching area has been to provide feed for several days in advance of the session. This year there has been very little feeding and yet the catch has improved significantly.  Hopefully this means that the woodland management is producing increased natural food availability.

One plan for this winter is to dig a large wildlife pond.  This should produce an immediate benefit for all of the local wildlife, and can only be good news for the bird population.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 11; Great Tit 5; Coal Tit 2; Dunnock 5(1); Robin 2(2); Blackbird 3(1); Blackcap 3; Chiffchaff 5; Goldfinch 1; Greenfinch 8.  Totals: 45 birds ringed from 10 species, four birds retrapped from three species, making 49 birds processed from 10 species.

The Greenfinches make a good story.  The maintenance man at Tedworth House is the wonderfully named Jack Daw.  As befits someone with that name, he is a keen birder and ringer.  His speciality, par excellence, is nest finding and pullus ringing.  He monitors the nests found on site and this year Jack found Greenfinches nesting. When he found the nest the birds were already too advanced to ring.  That is his great skill, apart from finding nests in the first place, recognising when it is inappropriate to ring the occupants of a nest, so they don’t prematurely abandon their place of (relative) safety.  So we knew they were there, but that doesn’t mean we will catch them.

Since I started ringing at Tedworth, until the beginning of this year, I had caught just one Greenfinch on site: a juvenile bird in May 2015.  We caught two in August and, now, with another eight, ten for the year. Of those ten, three were adult birds (one male and two females).  Hopefully this could be the start of a new population establishing in the area.

The woodlands and grounds of Tedworth House are, perhaps, the most enigmatic of my sites: you just never know what will turn up.

Simon Tucker