Back In Business: Lower Moor Farm; Thursday, 1st August 2019

In my previous blog I wrote about our rather disappointing session at the Firs on Wednesday of last week. I chose not to write about an equally dispiriting session at Ravensroost Woods on the following Saturday. Both woods were remarkably quiet, the only birds to be heard were a few Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker.  In sessions where we would have expected to catch 30 to 50 birds in each, we only caught 15 and 14 birds respectively.  That equates approximately to 1.5 birds per net in a five hour session.

With our Constant Effort Site (CES) sessions running ahead of last year’s sessions I was concerned as to what impact this recent weather has had on the birds at Lower Moor Farm.  It didn’t help that the originally scheduled date of 31st July proved impossible: with winds blowing at 20 mph and gusting to 30 mph.  Fortunately, Thursday was a much better day and, although we could not double last year’s 66 birds the catch was still higher.  I am sure this weather has had an adverse effect and it will be interesting to see what impact it has on the numbers of birds caught on passage, given how much worse the weather has been further north.

I was joined by Andrew, Henny and David for the session.  It started well and we had regular catches throughout the morning.  Because we had moved the session from Wednesday to Thursday it coincided with a Milestones session run by Rachel Bush of the Wildlife Trust.  The Milestones project aims to connect vulnerable and marginalised young people aged 11-24 to their local, natural environment by offering opportunities to participate in practical activities and widen their knowledge and appreciation of local green spaces and nature reserves.  This meant that we had a couple of audiences of young school children during the course of the morning.  I show them the birds, explain about ringing and, if any are interested / brave enough, we will show them how to, and allow them to, hold and release a bird.  The bird is only held briefly and not passed around: one child, one bird.  We did have a Blue Tit for the first group. One young lad was very insistent that he should be the one to hold and release it.  I warned him that they peck, and that they are very feisty, but he insisted – and was then shocked when it pecked him several times.  He was a little upset – but the bird was fine!

The catch for the day was: Jay 1; Treecreeper [1](1); Blue Tit 1[6](4); Great Tit [1](1); Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren [7](3); Dunnock (1); Robin [1](1); Song Thrush [1]; Blackbird 1[5]; Cetti’s Warbler (1); Reed Warbler [1]; Blackcap 1[11](3); Garden Warbler [2](2); Whitethroat [1]; Lesser Whitethroat [1](1); Chiffchaff [7]; Willow Warbler 2; Bullfinch 2[2](1). Totals 8 adults ringed from 6 species; 47 juveniles ringed from 14 species; 20 birds recaptured from 12 species, making 75 birds processed from 19 species. Of the 20 recaptured birds 13 were juveniles ringed in previous CES sessions.

Whilst putting up the nets alongside Mallard Lake we heard Reed Warblers churring away in the lakeside vegetation.  In the event, the only one we caught was in the furthest ride from the lake.  It was a juvenile Reed Warbler and was our first at Lower Moor Farm this year.

Bullfinches are a regular catch at Lower Moor Farm and we caught another couple of juveniles this morning:


Our last catch of the morning was a Jay: always a lovely bird to look at and can be a nightmare to handle.  They have a very sharp beak and a strong, blood-drawing peck plus extremely sharp claws on strong feet.  The trick is to keep the claws busy (I put a pencil between its feet) and stay away from the beak.  This was a female undergoing her post-breeding moult and was surprisingly docile:



The Firs: Wednesday, 24th July 2019

Tuesday night was quite astonishing in this part of north Wiltshire.  The lightning show started before midnight and continued at least until 2:00 a.m., which was when the thunder started rolling in and when I last saw the sky for the night.  When I left the house at 4:45 a.m. I couldn’t believe just how much rain must have fallen in the 2 and a bit hours that had subsequently elapsed.  It had stopped but there was debris, tree branches and leaves, mud and stones, all over the roads between Purton and my destination, the Firs.  I mention this because we had our worst ringing session for some considerable time Wednesday morning, and I am wondering just what impact the previous night’s weather had on the local birds.

We caught a measly 15 birds: 13 ringed from 5 species and 2 recaptures from 2 species.  All of the newly ringed birds were juveniles, and both of the recaptures were adults.  The list was: Great Tit [2]; Marsh Tit [1](1); Wren [4]; Robin [4](1); Blackcap [2].  Naturally, I had a big team out with me: Andrew, Ellie and David.

This is not to say the catch was without interest: a new, juvenile Marsh Tit, our focused project species, is always a highlight.  An adult Marsh Tit of at least 4 years of age is also rewarding.  One of the two juvenile Blackcaps was identifiable as a male: it had virtually completed its post-fledging moult.

Whilst the ringing was not the best we have had recently, it gave us a significant opportunity to have a good look at the insect life in the wood, which was plentiful.  When I first started ringing in the Firs, back in 2012, it was a dark, wet wood with a close canopy and very little light. Since then the Trust and their volunteers have opened up the central glade, dug a couple of ponds and thinned the woodland. The result has been spectacular, not just for birds.  Most striking of the insect life around were the butterflies.  There were dozens of them: excellent numbers of Silver-washed Fritillary, several Small White, Peacock, Comma and Gatekeeper and the obligatory horde of Meadow Brown.  However, my insect highlight, and my most difficult extraction of the day, was a superb (what I think is a) Southern Hawker dragonfly:

Southern Hawker 240719

Having extracted it, instead of just flying off it flew down and landed on my leg, where it sat for a few minutes whilst it revved up its flight muscles, before flying off strongly.

At 7:00 we were joined by a reporter for BBC Radio Wiltshire. She arrived to interview Ellie, as the Wildlife Trust’s Northern Reserves Manager, about Ash die-back.  This is one of the latest diseases to attack our native flora due to the incredibly lax laws we have about importing foreign plants and timber. With the diseases imported that are killing Oak, Larch and Horse Chestnut trees, following in the footsteps of Dutch Elm disease, and now Ash trees (the disease imported in from the continent because garden centres and arboriculturalists couldn’t source just about the commonest and most readily available, and disease-free, tree species in the country) you would think that a government might do something to prevent future occurrences cf New Zealand and Australia.  Anyway, having done three interviews with Ellie, she then asked if she could interview me about bird ringing whilst I processed the juvenile male Blackcap. I have no idea when (or if) it will go out on the radio – apparently there is a wildlife spot on the weekend breakfast show.

We strung it out for as long as possible and packed up at 11:30.

Lower Moor Farm: Sunday, 21st July 2019

After a couple of days of rain we managed to get CES 8 done this morning. It was calm and overcast for most of the session: almost perfect ringing weather. I was joined for the session by Jonny, David and Henny.  The catch in the equivalent session last year was 45 birds and, as we have been doubling last year’s catch in every session to date, I was hoping for 90 birds. Unfortunately, we only had a 50% increase and ended up with a catch of 69 birds

What is really noticeable is just how many juvenile birds we are catching this year.  Comparing with 2018 shows a stark contrast:


There is a significant increase in the commonest resident species at Lower Moor Farm: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Wren and Robin.  This is almost certainly due to the much drier and warmer Spring we had this year, enabling the adults to get in better breeding condition, and then providing enough food for the youngsters in the nest. There have also been significant increases in LMF’s commonest Summer visitors: Blackcap and Chiffchaff, with better showings for all of our other summer migrants.  One other potential helpful factor: 3 years ago the Wildlife Trust started what has become a trend for Wildlife Trusts across the country. It is called scalloping. What has been done is that where there are wooded and hedged rides they cut out flattened semi-ovoid edges at intervals along the edges. This opens the area up to be cultivated by flowering plants, encouraging more insects into the area. It has taken a couple of years, but the scallops are now full of  flowers and the sheer volume of insects was unbelievable. Our ringing station was inundated with thousands of tiny black flies: they didn’t bite but they seemed impervious to deet and were a bit of a nuisance – but great food for insectivorous birds.

Particularly encouraging is the huge improvement in the fortunes of the one resident warbler species at LMF: the Cetti’s Warbler.  Last year we recaptured a couple of adult birds, but there was no sign of successful breeding.  This year we have caught 9 juveniles at different times and plumage development stages at the site. It is pretty convincing evidence of three successful broods for the first time since we started working there.

Our catch for the session was: Blue Tit [1](1); Great Tit 1[5](1); Wren [4](1); Dunnock [1]; Robin [4](2); Blackbird 3; Cetti’s Warbler [2](2); Reed Warbler 1; Blackcap 2[15](3); Garden Warbler [2](1); Whitethroat [1]; Lesser Whitethroat [3](1); Chiffchaff 1[9]; Willow Warbler (2).  Totals: 8 adults ringed from 5 species; 47 juveniles ringed from 11 species; 14 birds recaptured from 9 species, making 69 birds processed from 14 species.  Significantly, most of the recaptured birds were also juveniles ringed in previous sessions, so juveniles made up 55 of the 69 birds in the catch.

The session was full of highlights: the juvenile Cetti’s – evidence of a third brood fledging this year, a clear highlight, given that this is the best ever breeding season for them evidenced at LMF.  However, one of my favourite birds is the Lesser Whitethroat so catching 3 new juveniles and recapturing another juvenile we ringed earlier in the season was very pleasing:


One of the problems with doing a formal project, as this is, we have to keep the nets open for a fixed period of time: even when the birds have all decided to push off elsewhere, as happened here. We stopped catching any number of birds at just gone 10:00 but had to look at empty nets until 11:30 when we could pack up. It’s not all fun.


A Couple of Firsts at Tedworth House: Wednesday, 17th July 2019

I have been carrying out my monthly sessions at Tedworth House since September 2013. Over the years the site has been improved by opening up the beech woodland to allow the floor to develop better under-storey.  They are never my biggest catches but they so often contain an unusual catch.

Today was one of those days. Over the last 10 years I have caught 12 Green Woodpeckers, and today I caught my first at Tedworth House:


This was an adult male.  Fabulous though this was, my morning started with a real high when I got the opportunity to ring my first ever brood of Dunnock nestlings.  Whilst I do the catching and ringing of the adult birds at the site, my friend, the wonderfully named Jack Daw, is a nest finding specialist and he manages the ringing of nestlings at Tedworth.  It helps that he works there and can spend his break times checking on them.  Anyway, a female Sparrowhawk has been making a meal of some of the Crows that frequent the grounds.  Apparently they have been coming to the ornamental pool to drink and the Sparrowhawk has been ambushing them there. My plan was to set a net across the flight-path she has been taking. Jack suggested that I didn’t, because there was a Dunnock nest immediately adjacent to where I was planning to set the net. He then asked if  I would like to ring them as he had planned to do it Thursday but one day either way is neither here nor there.  Actually, it is quite important to me: I have a licence to ring nest box and hole-nesting birds plus Swallows and Crows but not open nest small Passerines.  It is something I hope to add to my existing licence quite soon, with Jack’s on-going help.  So, this morning I ringed the brood.

The rest of the catch was largely juvenile, including 5 Blackbirds all caught in the same net, 4 in one catch, the fifth in the next.  We are pretty convinced that they were brood mates, given the proximity and the remarkable similarity in their plumage.

The list for the day was: Green Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 1[2]; Great Tit [2](1); Dunnock {4}[3](1); Robin [1]; Blackbird 1[5]; Blackcap 1. Totals: 4 adults ringed from 4 species; 4 pulli ringed from 1 species; 13 fledged juveniles ringed from 5 species and 2 birds recaptured from 2 species, making a total of 23 birds processed from 7 species.

My ringing station is set up in the top corner of the visitors’ car park. Immediately adjacent to my station was a huge Horse Chestnut tree.  It was being devastated by the larvae (caterpillars, but you never see them) of a leaf miner moth:


Brown’s Farm: Saturday, 13th July 2019

Brown’s Farm sits at the top of Postern Hill, south of Marlborough.  It is the least sheltered of my sites and can only be ringed when the weather is expected to be more or less flat calm. The forecast was for it to become breezy as the morning wore on but I decided to take a risk on a session, as the results from my two Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) visits have been very encouraging,   The wind was forecast to come from the north, with nothing to block or mitigate its passage over the Marlborough Downs, so net positioning was important.  One of the key things about Brown’s Farm is the fantastic hedgerows they have surrounding the fields.  These hedgerows are primarily hawthorn and blackthorn kept trimmed to just above head height  and threaded throughout with dog rose, bramble and many other species of wild plant. As well as that, there are plenty of weedy, seedy edges to the fields, as you can see from the photograph below.


This enabled us to set some nets which were a little sheltered from the breeze.  I was joined by Jonny Cooper and Henny Lowth (my latest volunteer and, yes, that is spelt as she spells it). The wind did get up earlier than I was expecting and we did have to pack up early, as the wind became untenable at about 9:30.  By then we had already caught over 50 birds from a decent selection of species.

It was a good diverse catch: Blue Tit 1[8]; Dunnock 2[3]; Blackbird [1]; Blackcap [1]; Garden Warbler [1]; Whitethroat [1]; Chiffchaff [3]; Chaffinch 2; Linnet 4; House Sparrow 6[12](1); Yellowhammer 3[3](1).  18 adults ringed from 6 species, 33 juveniles ringed from 9 species and 2 retraps from 2 species, making 53 birds processed from 11 species.  The only disappointments were that we didn’t catch any juvenile Linnet or Chaffinch, and that there was no sign of the Yellow Wagtail seen on my last BBS visit.]

However, it was lovely to get our first juvenile Yellowhammers of the year:


The surprise catch of the morning was a juvenile Garden Warbler.  We catch them regularly at Lower Moor Farm and the Ravensroost complex but this is miles away from what I think of as their normal habitat: scrub and woodland edges.  Instead it was on an arable farm with fields full of wheat, barley, oats, oil-seed rape and maize, a couple of horse paddocks and the aforementioned fabulous treeless blackthorn / hawthorn hedgerows with weedy seedy edges to the fields.  It was a juvenile so I expect that it was dispersing from more suitable habitat: perhaps the water meadows along the river Kennet running through Marlborough.

All in all a very satisfying session. Henny, on only her second outing with us, has already shown that she can extract birds with enough care to bode well for her future as a bird ringer.


Cetti’s Bonanza: Lower Moor Farm; Wednesday, 10th July 2019

This was session 7 of our Constant Effort Site activity for 2019.  We had a good sized team out this morning: Jonny Cooper and Andrew Bray, with David Williams joining us at 8:00. Also, we were joined by Henrietta Lowth (Henny) for the first time.  She has some limited ringing experience, working with Blue Tits and Flycatchers.  The former and their aggressive behaviour in the hand clearly hasn’t put her off.   To date Henny hadn’t done any work with mist nets so, after a couple of hours watching the extraction techniques, she got to extract her first bird.  I was kind, it was a Blackcap: one of the nicest birds to handle, and certainly one of the best to start someone’s training on extracting birds from mist nets.  That she is prepared to drive from near Bath to work with us is very flattering: especially as we are starting at 4:30 in the morning at the moment.

Last year in the equivalent session (7th July 2018) we caught 36 birds from 16 species (26 ringed, 10 recaptures).  After the first two rounds I was convinced that we would be exceeding that total.  The catch was pretty solid between 5:00 and 8:00, and then tailed off, until we had an unexpected highlight at 9:15.  It tailed off again subsequently.  The hotter it gets the less the birds move around.

Since I started the CES at Lower Moor Farm in 2015, and prior to the start of this year’s CES sessions, we had ringed a total of 11 Cetti’s Warblers (including one in March of this year). Before today’s session we had ringed another 3, 2 of which were juveniles fledged this year.  Our first round delivered up another Cetti’s juvenile, which was pleasing. However, our 9:15 round provided another 4 youngsters. They were all in the same net, at the same height, three were evenly dispersed and one was a little further away.  They were so young that we thought that they might have been flushed from the nest by a potential predator.  For the absence of doubt: nothing to do with us.  The net they were caught in was at least 10m from the nearest potential nest site, and we do not flush birds from nests: it is illegal to do so.  We processed them and returned them to the place from which they were extracted and where we could hear, what we presume was, an adult Cetti’s contact calling. They all flew off strongly and safely in that direction.  So this year has definitely been our best ever for Cetti’s at the site: a total of 9 ringed, all bar two are juvenile birds fledged this summer and we have had 3 other birds recaptured several times.

The rest of the catch was also extremely satisfying.  It was: Treecreeper [1]; Blue Tit 1[3](1); Great Tit [2]; Long-tailed Tit (2); Wren [10](4); Robin [3](1); Song Thrush 1(1); Blackbird 1; Cetti’s Warbler [5](2); Blackcap [19](5); Garden Warbler [2]; Whitethroat 1[1]; Lesser Whitethroat [2]; Chiffchaff 1[14](2); Willow Warbler 1. Totals: 6 adults ringed from 6 species; 62 juveniles ringed from 11 species and 18 birds recaptured from 8 species, making 86 birds processed from 15 species.

Wrens are having the most astonishing breeding season: in the last month we have caught 37 newly-fledged juveniles, with 10 in this session being the icing on the cake.

All of the summer visitor warblers are showing signs of a successful breeding season, with a fine catch of juveniles from both Blackcap (78) and Chiffchaff (53), and smaller but significant catches of Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler, all caught in the last month.  As this is just the start of the fledging period, and many of these will already have gone on to have a second brood, and might even stretch to a third, this could be a bumper year for them.

Over the course of the morning we had quite a few visitors: a member of teh Care Farm staff taking one of her young charges for a walk; a grandma taking her grandson out to enjoy the sunshine; a photographer looking out for dragonflies, who was lucky enough to be with us when we made the catch of the Cetti’s family, and a large group of infants and their parents doing forest school with staff from the Trust, who turned up when we didn’t have any birds to show: but I took them around the nets and did manage to show them a superb Brown Hawker dragonfly (Google it) that had become trapped in the net. I successfully extracted it without damage, and was able to show him off to the children before releasing him to hunt for smaller insects for food.

We closed the nets at about 11:20 and took down and were away from site by 12:15. A cracking, good session.

Garden Ringing: Monday, 8th July 2019

I haven’t done a garden session for nearly a year but sitting in on Steph’s first session prompted me to set up the nets and have a go.  I had my moth trap out in the garden last night, and thought it would be good to do a bit of ringing whilst checking what I had managed to attract to the light.  What I didn’t expect was that in a three-hour stint with 4 short nets set up I would trap more birds from more species than I did in Red Lodge on Saturday, from 4 times as much net and over a period of 6 hours.

Red Lodge is usually a very reliable site but, for whatever reason, Saturday was a very disappointing session.  There were lots of birds around but, unfortunately, they were around the tree-tops. I heard plenty of Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Marsh Tit and Long-tailed Tit, but caught none of them.  The list for the session was: Blue Tit 1[4]; Great Tit [3]; Coal Tit [1]; Wren [5]; Robin [3]; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2[1]; Blackcap [1]; Chiffchaff 1[2].  Totals: 5 adults ringed from 4 species and 20 juveniles ringed from 8 species, making 25 birds processed from 9 species.

The only species that the garden catch had in common with Red Lodge were Blue Tit, Coal Tit and Blackbird.  Of course, catching a Coal Tit in my garden is rather more unusual than it is catching them in Red Lodge.  However, the absolute highlight of my catch was a true first for my garden: a Whitethroat.  I have been studying the birds that come into my garden for nearly 11 years now and I have never seen a Whitethroat in the garden, let alone catch and ring one:

2019_07_08 Pavenhill

In addition, a newly fledged Goldcrest was good catch. I have seen and caught Goldcrest in the garden before, but this was the first juvenile.  The list for the session was: Blue Tit 2[8]; Coal Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit [2]; Dunnock 1[3]; Robin 1[2]; Blackbird [1]; Whitethroat [1]; Goldcrest [1]; Goldfinch 1[2]; Greenfinch 1[5].  Totals: 7 adults ringed from 6 species and 25 juveniles from 9 species, making 32 birds processed from 10 species.  It would have been 11 species but a Woodpigeon managed to extricate itself just before I got to it.

Anyway, as a different footnote, here are a few of the moths I caught last night:

Poplar Hawk Moth

Poplar HM

Privet Hawk Moth:

Privet HM

Yes – it is that big. Finally: a Sharp-angled Peacock:

Sharp-angled Peacock