Something Needs To Be Done: Red Lodge, 5th October 2021

I planned a ringing session at Red Lodge for tomorrow morning, so I went to site this morning to do some net ride maintenance. This is what greeted me:

The support pillar for the log barrier has been cut through with a chainsaw.

The barrier moved out of the way and

this pile of rubble and other rubbish has been dumped blocking the main path.

This is happening all around our local area, costing local farmers and landowners, the Wildlife Trust and Forestry England, £000’s to clean up. Obviously, the people doing this are criminals, but the people that commission these people to remove their rubbish, without checking their credentials and track record, are nearly as much to blame.

Unfortunately, without getting too political, with the huge cuts in personnel to the police services, this sort of crime is not a police priority. I have offered to help Forestry England with the removal when they are in a position to do so. Whilst it is left like this it is just an invitation for more criminals to do the same. We need a CCTV camera setup ASAP.

Somerford Common: Sunday, 3rd October 2021

After Saturday’s complete washout, I moved the session at Somerford Common to Sunday, knowing that it would be dry first thing, but also that the session would be curtailed by strong winds later in the morning. I decided that, as we weren’t setting lots of net, that a 7:00 start would suffice, much to everyone’s delight.

I say everyone because I was joined by Ellie, David, Rosie and Anna. Unfortunately, once again Rosie came along and helped get setup and then had to go off to work: apple picking at one of the Wildlife Trust’s orchards that had to be postponed from Saturday because of the torrential rain. One day she will get to benefit from her labours with the ringing team!

I will be setting up feeding stations in the next couple of weeks, as well as seeing the first of our winter visitors arrive. This site is good for Redwing and our most regular site for Lesser Redpoll and Siskin. We did set one net in a stand of birch trees, where the latter two species are usually encountered, but the MP3 player that the lure was on decided to throw a wobbler and not work. Plenty of charge, but the play button needed continuous holding down for it to work properly. Nobody was interested in sitting there just holding it down.

The early signs were all too typical of recent times in my woodland sites: few early birds around. The session was rescued by a decent tit-flock catch at 10:00, comprising eight Long-Tailed Tits and five Blue Tits. Over the course of the morning we caught: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 4(1); Great Tit (1); Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 8; Wren (1); Robin 3; Blackcap 1; Goldcrest 1(1).  Totals: 20 birds ringed from 7 species and 4 birds retrapped from 4 species, making 24 birds processed from 9 species.

The BTO are looking to set up a new winter monitoring project, along the lines of the Constant Effort Site programme they run in the breeding season.  This involves carrying out eight sessions, approximately every two weeks, between the beginning of November and the end of February, with nets set in the same positions, and left open for the same length of time, on each occasion.  Over the years this will show fluctuations in the birds using the site knowing that the numbers are not affected by putting the nets in different places and varying the length of the session. Unlike CES, however, this will allow supplementary feeding during the period of study. I have contacted Forestry England to make sure that they have no objection to the planned use of the site in this study. They are generally very supportive of my efforts, so I am hoping for a positive outcome.

West Wilts Ringing Group: September 2021 Results

Last year’s September catch was excellent, this year’s is actually better:

This is the largest monthly catch we have had in any month since the departure of the North Wilts Group personnel and their sites.  Given that, some of Jonny’s sites aside, we are not particularly blessed / cursed with extremely busy sites and large catches, and I am pretty sure that is how we like it, this is an excellent result.  It’s certainly how I like it but, then, I spend most of my time training others, and that needs time.

There is quite a lot to review here.  Starting with the seemingly mundane: Blue Tits and Great Tits.  Up and down the country it has been reported as a bad breeding season for these birds, as has been documented in my last couple of reports, with numbers well down. So, explain this month, which more than matches 2020, a “normal” breeding season for these species.  With Blue Tits, last year we caught 83 juveniles and 24 adults in September: this year it was 119 juveniles and only 8 adults. Then Great Tits: in 2020, 39 juveniles and 5 adults, in 2020, 39 juveniles and 11 adults.  Any thoughts on why there is such a strong showing of juvenile birds at this time would be very welcome. It is certainly surprising.

A couple of species missing this year: House Martin and Siskin.  Siskin is not that surprising, outside of those resident in the Warminster area that end up in Andy’s garden, the only catch we have had on autumn migration were those 4 last year at Ravensroost Meadows.  Given that New Zealand Farm has been worked throughout the autumn migration period, that no House Martins were caught this September is surprising.  Mind, none had been caught there before 2020 either. It would be surprising if that were a one-off, but perhaps it was.  Equally, none were caught in the sessions at Blakehill or in Ravensroost Meadows, the only other sites they are occasionally caught at.  The nearest I got to catching any were my two Ravensroost Meadow sessions in September: on the first occasion there had been no sign of any hirundines during the entire session, it was only as I was closing the gate behind me to leave site that a flock of a hundred or so Swallows and House Martins decided to fly around the pond and the adjacent meadow.  On the second occasion, whilst a flock did fly over and respond to the lure, they didn’t get close enough for the net to catch any. I think the issue might be the way the pond has developed. Whereas the pond to the west of the causeway was clear of rushes / reeds, so the birds could fly in from the east, dip down to drink and then away, now there is a mass of vegetation, making that approach no longer available. In fact, the only hirundine I caught this autumn was in a net between the edge of the meadow and the pond, away from the lure.

Once again we had an extremely good haul of Meadow Pipits.  Unlike last year, when nearly two-thirds of the total were caught at Blakehill Farm, and nearly one-third at Jonny’s Sutton Benger farmland site and just 3 at his East Tytherton site, the reverse was the case.  Jonny had 3 catches of approximately 70 birds each at the East Tytherton farmland site and one catch of 38 at the Sutton Benger site and 38 at Blakehill. Back in 2014 I set up a Mipit triangle at Lower Moor Farm in September and caught 22 of them.  For some reason I had never done it there again. With a ringing demo scheduled for the 25th, and having seen and caught the 38 Mipits at my second visit to Blakehill, plus 7 at my second visit to Ravensroost Meadows, and just seeing there were lots around from Jonny’s data, I thought I would try it again at Lower Moor – something different for the attendees.  Although they didn’t make an appearance until after 10:00, we did end up with 9 there as well.  Unfortunately, winds gusting way beyond what is feasible for such an open site put paid to a planned third visit to Blakehill, scheduled for the 28th September.  On the equivalent session last year we caught 109 of them. Definitely a significant migration this September.  I will see what I can get in early October.

Warbler numbers were generally good, with Blackcap, Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler equivalent to last year, Sedge and Reed Warblers were up on last year and Lesser Whitethroat down.  The numbers of Blackcap and Chiffchaff, despite the dearth of them in my catches at my sites during the breeding season, but then we caught our fair share on migration, rather underlines my thought that the rain in May just meant they kept heading north until they escaped the rain. It will be interesting to see what next year brings.

So to my highlights.  I had three personal milestones this month.  Firstly, I have been lucky enough to catch both Snipe and Jack Snipe at Blakehill Farm’s ponds in January 2019 and January 2020.  They are the only specimens caught since the split.  As I understand that a scrape is being developed at Langford Lakes, hopefully in future years we might see more regular wader catches. Now, if I can persuade the Trust to do the same at Lower Moor Farm that would be a real result.  However, on my first visit to the Meadows this month I startled a Snipe, who had clearly flown in after I had set my nets, but who rapidly disappeared from view and I thought had escaped, until I saw one of the nets over the back bouncing, whereupon I recovered this beauty:

I don’t run often but in this case I made an exception!  Robin, the reserve warden, told me that the odd one has been seen there, but not at this time of year. 

Although I was lucky enough to ring two on Skokholm back in 2014, and despite there being loads of them moving through Blakehill Farm on both spring and autumn migration, Wheatear have eluded not just my nets, but there hasn’t been one caught by the team in over 8 years at any of our sites!  So I was absolutely delighted to catch this beauty on my second visit to Blakehill:

On top of these, we had our best ever catch of Whinchat at Blakehill Farm: 10 of them on the 1st September.  This is the best ever catch at Blakehill (9 on the 8th September 2018).  In fact, it is the best ever catch by the West Wilts Ringing Group, beating the 9 at Haxton Hill, near Everleigh, on the 27th August 2011 (and I ringed 3 of them – I remember it well because I also extracted most of them from a single 18m 2-shelf net).

I am quite astonished at the depth of interest from people looking to join or work with our merry band.  After Anna joined in last month, this month I have also been joined by Miranda, Rosie and Adam on several occasions, along with most of the rest of the team for the odd session (particularly helpful at the ringing demo were Rosie, Adam and Steph – just as David was a hero at August’s demo).  Adam is a C-ringer and has worked with others in the area before, Miranda and Anna are testing the water to see if they are going to take it on.  Rosie works with the Estates Management team at the Wildlife Trust and has, so far, been really helpful with the setting up before having to leave early, after only processing a couple of birds, to get to work.

So, an excellent month, let’s hope October follows suit.

Ringing Demonstration 2: Lower Moor Farm, Saturday, 25th September 2021

Back on the 14th August, CES 11, we hosted a ringing demonstration on behalf of the Swindon Wildlife Group. The Trust limit the number of people who can attend to 20 adults, but the SWG had twice that many wanting to attend. Because we aim to please, I agreed to host another ringing demonstration for the Group today. This time we had 18 adults and a number of children attend.

To ensure that we would have a few birds to show them, I set up a couple of peanut and a couple of seed feeders in the Wildlife Refuge area 10 days before. I checked them again on Thursday and noted that the seed feeders had hardly been touched, but the peanut feeders had definitely attracted the attention of the local birds, almost certainly Blue and Great Tits. At least that meant we would have some birds to show the attendees. I removed them at the end of the session: the Trust have been having problems at the site, near the hides, where photographers have been baiting the area to attract wildlife in so they can get better photographs. This has led to increased numbers of rats and we don’t want to attract rats into the Wildlife Refuge.

This morning I was joined by Rosie, Steph and Adam at 6:30, and we set up most of the CES nets plus, having confirmed with Jonathan, the farm manager, that he had moved his Belted Galloway bull out of the field, we set a Mipit triangle in the field behind where we usually set our nets:

Lures were set for Blackcap along the three usual rides and Meadow Pipit in the middle of the 3 x 12m open triangle. It was misty, and a little damp, early on and the mist didn’t actually start to rise until about 8:30.

Our first round, at 7:30, was quite productive and, in fact, all of our early rounds had reasonable returns. My only concern was that we would exhaust the birds coming in before the paying public arrived. In the event, I need not have worried. The birds came through in a steady, if not heavy, stream throughout the morning.

The public arrived at 9:00, just as we returned with a good haul of Blackcaps and Blue Tits (the benefits of the lures and the peanut feeders) and we started our presentation. I always give an overview of the genesis of the ringing scheme, and its contribution to the science of ornithology, as my preamble. One of the attendees asked the inevitable “aren’t the birds stressed / terrified by being captured”: to which my answer was to demonstrate a Blue Tit attacking my finger whilst I processed it. We discussed mortality statistics and how peer-reviewed studies in both the US and the UK have shown how negligible they are (both studies showed just 1 in 1,000 as a result of ringing, and the vast majority of them were to predation by other wildlife). I did my usual thing of getting the children, first, followed by the adults, once all of the children had their fill, to safely hold and release the birds. Engagement and understanding is the whole point of these sessions. That the person who asked “the inevitable question” joined the cohort who actually wanted to hold and release the birds, I suspect that I handled her question satisfactorily.

We had a few Chiffchaff and Wren enter the mix but the Meadow Pipit triangle was sadly empty from when I put the lure on at 7:30 until 10:00. Then we saw a few Meadow Pipits flying around, and the next round produced three caught in the nets. Thereafter, we had one or two in nearly every round.

Everybody had an enjoyable time but, as things were meandering to a close, one of the families and several of the individuals were taking their leave when I was asked to go and give Steph a hand with a Sparrowhawk. I was delighted to go and help: they can be a swine to extract, and drawing blood is a regular result. This also resulted in an about turn by all of those who had started to leave. Only it wasn’t a Sparrowhawk:

Juvenile Female Kestrel – photo by Steph

She was an absolutely gorgeous bird and posed beautifully for the attendees. This is the first Kestrel that I have caught at Lower Moor Farm, and only the fifth that has been caught at any of my sites in 9.5 years, and of those I had only processed one of them myself, having given the others to members of my team, so I decided to do this one myself.

Having processed this final catch of birds, it was approaching midday and I decided to bring the session to a halt. The attendees left and we did a final sweep of the nets, closing them as we went. Only, as Steph and I were closing out the last net ride, she noticed a bird in the furthest net away and it turned out to be this:

Juvenile Male Kingfisher – photo by Steph

Unfortunately, by this time all of the attendees, apart from the dad and his daughter, who is a friend of Lillie, Steph’s daughter, had left so they did not get the chance to see it. However, we were able to delight an elderly passing couple who, by coincidence, turned out to be the grandparents of another friend of Lillie and her attending friend.

The list for the day was: Kestrel [1]; Kingfisher [1]; Blue Tit 2[25](3); Great Tit [3](3); Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren [1](2); Meadow Pipit [9]; Robin (1); Blackcap 5[17](2); Chiffchaff [4]. Totals: 7 adults ringed from 2 species; 1 full-grown but unaged bird ringed; 61 juveniles ringed from 8 species and 11 birds retrapped from 5 species, making 80 birds processed from 10 species. This just happens to be my biggest catch of the year so far.

Many hands make light work, and we were off site a little after 13:00. It was, without doubt, the best ringing demonstration I have carried out – and big thanks are due to my team for their help, support and their skills.

Meadows Migration: Wednesday, 22nd September 2021

As noted in my previous post, Saturday’s excursion to Ravensroost Meadows had to be postponed due to my car’s clutch failing. Thanks to my good lady wife, I was able to get out today. Given that her vehicle is a Ford Ka, I had to flatten the seats, including the passenger side front seat, and organise the poles diagonally, to get them in. So I chose to just take the bare minimum that would fit into the car. Fortunately, that meant that I could set all of my usual nets. Unfortunately, today Meadow Pipits decided to arrive en masse at the site, and I didn’t have the equipment to set up a Mipit triangle. I have caught Meadow Pipit there before, but two singles (2014 and 2015) and one double (2017), all in September. As you can see, it is not a prolific catch for this site. Today’s was the largest flock I have seen there, on a par with some of those seen at Blakehill. Hopefully they will still be around for the next week or two and I can have a proper go for them. (The car will, hopefully, be fixed tomorrow!)

Rosie, from the Wildlife Trust’s estates management team, joined me at 6:00 to help set up the nets. It was misty and a bit chilly at first, so very little bird movement. We did have a couple of Swallows flitting around in the gloom, but nothing caught until just after 8:00, by which time Rosie had to leave to get to work! She is going to join me again on Saturday to help set up for the ringing demonstration. That should enable her to actually process a few birds although, again, she will have to leave early to go to work, but not quite so early as today. Hard taskmasters!

Once the birds started moving I was getting rounds of 3 to 5 birds each time, with one round at 11:15 delivering 10 of them. As is usual at this time of the autumn, the majority of the catch were Blackcap. About 9:30 a mixed flock of 50 or so Swallow and House Martin flew over and around the site. I was playing a lure for Swallow but they were just flying down and away, rather than getting caught in the net. The difference this year, from previous where we have caught Swallows and Martins in the nets, is that the pond this year has a substantial growth of rush and reed either side of the causeway. We would catch them coming in to drink from the pond, as it was a natural flyway, in and away, that now no longer exists. Time for a rethink perhaps.

As luck would have it, one juvenile Swallow did blunder into one of the nets – the one along the bank nearest the meadow itself. My first of the year:

Swallow juvenile – being held gently before release, not being throttled (their legs are too short for a normal photo grip)

After the Swallows and Martins passed over, they didn’t hang around, I did see the previously mentioned flock of Meadow Pipits. I changed the Swallow / House Martin lure to Meadow Pipit, and watched them fly in and sit on the top line of the nets, as is par for the course. As I walked towards those particular nets they flew back out into the meadow, but two of them hadn’t been quite so clever. After I had processed them, I had a look out into the field and about 20 of the Meadow Pipits were sitting on the boundary fence between the meadow and the pond area. So I walked out into the field and then along behind them, to encourage them to fly back into the pond area, which they very obligingly did. On my next round there was another six of them in the nets. Four were in the 9m net on the spit: a net that had caught absolutely nothing all year, and I was debating with myself whether to continue to use it. Unfortunately, I had to extract a spinning, double-pocketed Wren before getting to the Pipits, and one of them had managed to extract themselves from the net by the time I got to the spit. Still, a total of seven Meadow Pipits (six juveniles and one adult) is the best catch of them that I have had at this site.

The list for the day was: Swallow [1]; Blue Tit 1[3]; Great Tit [1]; Wren [2](1); Meadow Pipit 1[6]; Song Thrush [1]; Blackcap 1[17]; Chiffchaff [2]; Goldcrest [1]. Totals: 3 adults ringed from 3 species, 34 juveniles ringed from 9 species and 1 retrap, making 38 birds processed from 9 species. The recaptured Wren was also a juvenile bird.

Sat at the ringing station before the first round, Rosie noticed a yellow moth flying around. It very obligingly sat on my knee. I slowly reached for my phone to get the camera app – only it wouldn’t accept my fingerprint (moisture) and, just after I finished entering my 4-digit security code, the moth flew off! There were several more seen throughout the morning: Sallow – a September / October flyer. Still plenty of Common Darter flying around, many in copulating pairs, but the love story of the morning was this:

Mating Slugs – tentatively Deroceras laeve – the Marsh Slug

It is clearly not a rapid process for these hermaphrodites. They remained engaged for over an hour before separating. The brown morph stayed put for another 20 minutes or so, whilst the black morph headed off into the vegetation. Eventually the brown morph headed off in the opposite direction: clearly a one-morning stand. To be clear, apart from the photo, I was not voyeuristically stood there watching them, I just took note as I passed their love nest whilst doing my net rounds.

The other very noticeable thing this morning were the number of Dog Rose plants with these stunning Bedeguar / Robin’s Pincushion galls:

Robin’s Pincushion Gall caused by Diplolepsis rosae

At about midday the breeze got up and some of the nets started billowing, so I packed up and went home. A very satisfying morning that was just a couple of steps away from a brilliant session.

In The Garden: Saturday, 18th September 2021

I was not planning to ring in the garden this morning: I was hoping for a session at Ravensroost Meadows luring for Swallows and House Martins, but my car had other ideas and burned the clutch out as I returned from setting up a couple of feeders at Lower Moor Farm for next week’s ringing demonstration last Thursday. Quite astonishingly, although the instantly recognisable stink of a failing clutch kicked in as I left the site, I managed to get the car home and parked up in its usual position before the clutch failed completely. Now the pedal goes to the floor and won’t return, so the gears can’t engage. My friendly local mechanic will, hopefully, have it fixed before next weekend.

As a result, I decided to set up in the garden. Just 2 x 6m nets, one either side of the feeder set up: an arch feeder support with 2 x Sunflower Hearts; 1 x Fat Balls feeders (X1 on the diagram) and 1 x Peanuts (X2 in the apple tree). This is my setup:

The nets are red 1 and 2. Interestingly, only net 1 caught any of the birds. I did notice flocks of Goldfinch flying in and out but their ascent and descent has been virtually vertical, so I have caught a few, but only a fraction of what is actually coming in to the garden.

This was my favourite catch of the morning:

Collared Dove juvenile

Since the ringing group came into its current structure, at the beginning of 2013, we have ringed only 6 Collared Doves: 2 in Andy Palmer’s garden in Warminster and 4 in my Purton garden. It isn’t that they aren’t common, they are, but they are very good at getting out of mist nets. This is a juvenile: the iris is a dark brown colour, which is a diagnostic feature.

Apart from that, a number of Woodpigeons managed to blunder into the nets. One key feature of the Merlin nets I use in my garden: they are strong enough to hold these heavy birds without ripping: they all weighed in at just under half a kilogram. All three were juveniles: but one was very young. As you can see from the photograph, it doesn’t yet have its white collar:

Woodpigeon juvenile

The rest of the catch was as expected: Blue and Great Tits and Goldfinch, as follows: Woodpigeon [3]; Collared Dove [1]; Blue Tit 2[12](4); Great Tit [2]; Goldfinch 3[8]. Totals: 5 adults ringed from 2 species, 26 juveniles ringed from 5 species and 4 birds retrapped from 1 species, making 35 birds processed from 5 species.

There were actually 27 juveniles processed. One of the Blue Tit retraps was a juvenile ringed just 6 days ago in my session at Blakehill Farm. Some post-fledging dispersal going on. It is of interest to me because of some recent discussion after the release of a paper looking at the possible impact of feeding robust resident birds on those that do not participate and are less aggressive (everything is less aggressive than Blue Tits), e.g. Blue Tits vs Marsh Tits. I intend to blog about this when I have reread the paper and done a bit more analysis from our group records.

Ravensroost Wood: Wednesday, 15th September 2021

Working in Ravensroost Wood has become a somewhat fraught business since July 2020. I had a number of reasonable sessions in there, with the over-winter feeding station set up, during the period October to December 2020 inclusive. After that I was told by the Wildlife Trust that the footfall in the wood was just too great to be sure that there would not be a repeat of the problems previously encountered. They did not want me potentially being exposed in that way again. The plan was to agree and / or create a series of rides which could be shut off from the general public. This never did happen: we discussed it, and then we were into the breeding season, which put an end to the potential for removing vegetation and creating new rides, still with a lot of discussion and feasibility studies to do. In the end, it was agreed that I could shut off some of the less travelled public rides with “No Entry” and cautioning signs to see if that worked.

On the 8th July I tried out one of the rides using the agreed signs. In four hours I caught two birds: a Blackbird and a Song Thrush! It was the breeding season, so I wasn’t using any sort of lure. Today I tried again, this time with lures for the commoner autumn migrant species: Blackcap and Chiffchaff. None of my woodland sites have been delivering large catches this breeding season, but that was a new low.

I was joined for the session by Rosie from the Wildlife Trust’s estates team and Miranda, both of whom have expressed an interest in ringing. It was an improvement on the July session – just. We had one or two birds per round, but a total of just 14 birds in 6 hours was a poor return for the effort. However, with two potential trainees who hadn’t handled birds before, it did give plenty of time for training them in some of the basics without them feeling pressured. Rosie had to leave at 8:30 to get to work, but Miranda could stay for the whole session.

The list for the session was: Great Tit 2(1); Marsh Tit [1](1); Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Wren 1; Robin 1; Blackcap [3]; Chiffchaff [1]; Bullfinch 1. Totals: 1 bird ringed unaged, 5 adult birds ringed from 4 species, 5 juvenile birds ringed from 3 species and 3 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 14 birds processed from 8 species.

My highlight was a new, juvenile, Marsh Tit: hopefully I will find quite a few more in the next few months, particularly after I set up the feeding station in November or when the weather turns, whichever is the earlier.

I don’t normally ring at Ravensroost Wood on a Wednesday but I had forgotten that it is the day that the Ravensroost volunteers carry out their maintenance works. Sure enough, the volunteer team turned up at about 9:00. They are always interested in the ringing activities and, helpfully, some of them help ensure the winter feeding station is topped up if I cannot make it there for any reason. They are currently scything down the trackside vegetation, as a preparation for winter and next spring, to allow the spring flowers to come through.

Miranda and I packed up at 12:30 and were off site by 13:00.

A Wiltshire First For Me! Blakehill Farm: Sunday, 12th September 2021

With a 5:00 start, to get the nets open on the plateau before it was light, I was joined for the first time by Adam Cross, a C-permit holder recently moved to Chippenham. The team also included David and Anna, Anna’s first visit to Blakehill Farm. We set the same nets as last time plus 5 x 18m nets on the perimeter track. The catching was the reverse of last time: the Mipit triangle delivered the majority of the birds and the other plateau nets very few..

I had noticed, when I went to do a bit of ride maintenance yesterday, that the electric fence had been reinstalled and there was a fresh cowpat near one of the bushes. Sure enough, whilst putting the nets up over a dozen large, beefy lumps wandered out of the mist. Fortunately, they soon realised that we weren’t very interesting and wandered off from the rank, tussocky grass, and the prickly bushes where we were setting our nets to find some sweeter grass elsewhere. It is great that the cattle that the Trust farm (I think these were either Dexter or Aberdeen Angus) are generally placid and disinterested in our activities.

So, what is the title about? The last net to be set up was the Mipit triangle. Whilst working on it I had left the car with the tailgate up. Adam pointed out that there was a bird on the car, he took a quick photo from distance, in the mist:

Photo by Adam Cross, edited by me

The mist prevented getting a really good sight of the bird but, as it flew off, we agreed it was almost certainly a Wheatear. Whilst Wheatear are common enough on passage at Blakehill Farm, they tend to be along the perimeter track on the opposite side of the site, where I am reluctant to set nets: too open and easily seen, not by the birds, but by walkers and birders, and I have experienced complaint from that quarter when ringing on the plateau in the past.

Our first round was very quiet: probably because of the mist. It was nice to get my team’s first Sedge Warbler of the autumn migration, the first bird out of the nets, followed by an early morning Wren.

Sedge Warbler

For the second round, I checked the perimeter track hedgerow nets (empty), whilst the others checked the plateau nets. They came back with a good haul of birds, and I thought that this could be a really good session. When Adam handed me a bag with a Wheatear in it, I knew that, for me, it was a red-letter day. I have ringed Wheatear before: having been lucky enough to process two on Skokholm back in September 2014, but that is it and I have never done one on my home patch. Checking the group records that are available online, the group has only ringed 13 of them in Wiltshire. The online records show data since 1989 – but it is probably only complete from 2000 onwards, as not all paper records have been digitised. The previous most recent Wheatear was processed back in September 2012 on Salisbury Plain. All of the sites that had previously caught Wheatear were transferred to the North Wilts Ringing Group when it split from the West Wilts Ringing Group at the beginning of 2013.

Wheatear

I am not sure why it looks quite so fat: it was a decent weight but not huge. It probably had fluffed itself up but it wasn’t cold. Suffice to say, it flew off strongly when released.

The bulk of the catch brought back was Meadow Pipit. They have definitely arrived now, certainly earlier than last year. In the equivalent session last year (11th September 2020) we caught just the one. The catch was good and regular throughout the morning. As the sun broke through the mist, and the air warmed up, the Crane-flies became more apparent and started settling on the nets. Perhaps that is what draws in the insectivorous birds to this part of the plateau? That said, the blackberry bushes are absolutely laden this year and will, hopefully, be bringing in plenty of birds themselves over the next month or so.

We were joined for an hour or so by Neil Pullen from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. He took a few photos of us processing birds and we had a bit of discussion about the plateau management at Blakehill and the potential for ringing in the other parts of the site that we don’t currently cover.

Adam had to leave at 11:00 and the rest of us decided that we would start packing up at just gone 11:30, and started shutting the nets after we had emptied them. I did the perimeter track nets and David and Anna did the plateau. The perimeter track nets never did anything that warranted having erected them (one Robin and one Great Tit being the sum total), which is unusual. However, the plateau nets delivered an excellent coup de grace: a couple of Whinchat. That gave both David and Anna a first each for their records.

Whinchat – photo by Anna Cooper

The list for the day was a very satisfying: Blue Tit [3]; Great Tit [1](1); Wren [1]; Meadow Pipit 1[38]; Dunnock (1); Wheatear [1]; Whinchat [2]; Robin 1; Sedge Warbler [1]; Blackcap [1]; Chiffchaff [3]; Willow Warbler [1]; Reed Bunting 1[1]. Totals: 1 bird ringed unaged; 2 adults ringed from 2 species; 53 juveniles ringed from 11 species, making 58 birds processed from 13 species.

The one that got away: in last year’s session we caught a Kestrel. This year we had a Kestrel chase a Meadow Pipit into the nets. Unfortunately, it managed to extricate itself before we could get to it! Mind, in trying to correct the fumbling of a now departed trainee, last year’s Kestrel lacerated my thumb, so perhaps that was a good thing!

We were all packed up and ready to go by 13:00.

The Firs: Wednesday, 8th September 2021

It has been a fair time since I was last in the Firs: the 19th June to be exact. At that time, in keeping with my other woodland sites, the catch was low, just 17 birds, mainly because of the lack of Blue and Great Tits. Clearly, I was hoping for a better return this time, possibly a catch augmented by some passing migrants. The work done in the Firs over the last few years has yielded some excellent blackberry bushes: always a draw to migrating Blackcaps and Garden Warblers.

I was joined by Ellie for this morning’s session. We arranged a start time of 6:30 (luxury) as I noticed, both at Red Lodge on Saturday and Ravensroost Meadows yesterday, the birds did not start moving until gone 7:00. We were joined for the morning by a Robin. It hopped around our ringing station whilst we were sat processing birds. At one point it started to warble a quiet song, almost as though it was singing to itself, rather than proclaiming a territory. It was, basically, singing with its mouth shut. I have not seen that before but, then I haven’t had a Robin quite so willing to come that close before without the inducement of food.

We set the usual nets down the central glade and set a few lures, for Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher, none of which produced spectacularly or, to put it another way, two Blackcaps and no Spotted Flycatchers! The first bird out of the nets was a Song Thrush: the first I have caught in the Braydon Forest woodlands in exactly two months (a spectacularly bad session in Ravensroost Wood on the 8th July, where I caught precisely two birds in three hours before giving up and going home). The catching was slow and steady, giving us plenty of walks down and up the Firs hill (it doesn’t look much but it gives plenty of cardiothoracic exercise).

There is a well-known superstition about ringing in the Firs: no matter how slowly the morning has gone, never say or think “if there are no birds this round we will make it the last” because when you do, that last round will produce a lot of birds! Just before we embarked on our 11:00 round, that thought came into my mind. The first net we came to was populated with a good number of Blue and Great Tits and there were several other birds in the other nets. Okay, it didn’t match the sixty-plus we have had in the past, but it more than doubled our catch for the day!

The list for the session was: Nuthatch 1; Blue Tit 1[16](3); Great Tit 1[5](2); Marsh Tit (1); Wren 1[1]; Robin [2]; Song Thrush 1[1]; Blackcap [2]. Totals: 5 adults / full grown birds from 5 species, 27 juveniles ringed from 6 species and 6 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 38 birds processed from 8 species.

Nuthatch, like Long-tailed Tit and House Sparrow, are increasingly difficult to age as the year develops. This is because both adults and young undergo an extensive moult post-breeding / fledging and moult into full adult plumage – hence the description of the Nuthatch as “full grown”, as there was no clue as to whether it was a bird of this year, last year or five years ago.

There are some encouraging signs in this catch and the last at Red Lodge: principally that, despite an awful breeding season there are still a number of Blue and Great Tits around. This catch actually compares favourably with previous years, being larger than all other visits in September, except for 2019, which had a catch of 62 birds. It looks as though the titmice are already forming their foraging / feeding flocks for the winter.

So, as the session started nicely with a Song Thrush in the nets, it ended similarly, but this time with the Nuthatch in the nets. We had heard, both singing and hammering, and watched them in the trees all morning, so it was fitting to finish the day with one in the nets. After an enjoyable session we packed up and were off site just after 12:30.

What a surprise! Ravensroost Meadows: Tuesday, 7th September 2021

You will have to wait a wee while before we get to that particular surprise.

I arrived on site at 5:30 and set my usual nets along the back hedges, and across the narrow causeway (picking my footsteps around the huge pile of dog faeces some “responsible” owner hadn’t bothered to clear away). I also set an 18m net along the field side edge of the pond, and another along the field side raised bank behind the pond. The hope was for a catch of Swallows and / or House Martins.

It was a misty start to the morning and the birds didn’t start moving until just after 7:00. First out of the nets were a Chiffchaff, Bullfinch, Robin and Reed Warbler. This Reed Warbler is the first caught at the site in September. Last year we caught 2 in July (probable breeders) but in 8 years we have only caught 8 in total – with none between August 2015 and those last year.

The Bullfinch, clearly a juvenile, with no sign of its black cap developing, was able to be sexed. In the photo below you can see a number of feathers in pin on the breast. The colour in the photo isn’t great but the tips poking out were pink: it’s a boy!

Juvenile Bullfinch

That was a good start, but what happened next was a real surprise. At the start of the third round, as I walked away from the ringing station, a bird flew off from the edge of the pond. I didn’t see what it was and thought, knowing my luck, that it would just fly out into the meadow. Then I saw the single 12m net start bouncing and ran over to extract what turned out to be a Snipe:

Juvenile Snipe

Some who know me would say that the significant thing about that catch is the fact that I ran for it! True – but if you have no trainees with you, sometimes you just have to do the work yourself.

We have caught Snipe – on the ponds at Blakehill Farm, using specific wader nets and lures in January 2019 and 2020. This is the first time that I have even seen Snipe at this site. It was a cracking catch. Looking back over the Group’s historical records (those that are on-line, anyway), way back to 1986, there are only 3 other instances of Snipe being caught in September – 2001 and 2009 at Swindon Sewage Treatment Works and 2006 in Nightingale Wood. Mind, one of the 2009 catches is special to me: that’s when I ringed my first 2 Snipe. It was mid-week at 20:00. Matt Prior had done one of his ad hoc evening catching sessions and called me at home to get my backside down to the works, as he had something special for me to ring. He wasn’t wrong. On that occasion he caught 5 of them: the biggest catch for the Group to date.

The session was a nice even pace, which was great as things warmed up. It was a regular 3 or 4 birds per round for most of the morning, ending up on a total of 30. The list for the session was: Snipe [1]; Blue Tit [3]; Wren [3]; Dunnock 1; Robin [2](1); Reed Warbler [1]; Blackcap 1[10]; Chiffchaff [4]; Chaffinch [1]; Bullfinch [1](1). Totals: 2 adults ringed from 2 species, 26 juveniles ringed from 9 species and 2 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 30 birds processed from 10 species.

You will have noticed there has been no mention of Swallows or House Martins since the introductory paragraph. That is because I didn’t see any whilst I was ringing. I started packing up at 11:30, taking it slow, firstly because a few more birds ended up in the nets whilst I was trying to get them shut and, having processed them, I got back to find that two more had got caught in the two nets I hadn’t got around to closing. I closed those nets and then went to process them before taking the whole lot down. The other reason: it was very hot by 11:30 and, although the nets and the ringing station were in shade, to avoid heat stress for both ringer and birds, it was hard work. In the end it was after 13:00 when I left site. As I stopped to shut the gate to the pond area a couple of dozen Hirundines decided to start buzzing around the meadow and the pond area! Such is life! Next time!